Tag Archives: Russian history

Beyond

If you know me or have followed my blog for a while, you know that I am a big space enthusiast and I love reading the latest biographies and histories surrounding it. So when I saw that I could get an early copy of Stephen Walker’s Beyond: The Astonishing Journey of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space (what a title) I naturally snagged it pretty quickly.

I’ve read a lot about the early years of the U.S. space program, from NACA to NASA, but never much about the USSR program, except for bits and pieces. So to have a whole book mainly dedicated to looking at the Russian side was thoroughly interesting.

Russia only publicized their “space spectaculars” after missions had been successful, which covered their program in a shroud of secrecy during the 1960s, and even beyond. But though no one knew what they were doing, they were as active as the U.S. in training their cosmonauts and preparing the way for manned space flight. Yuri Gagarin, who would eventually be the first man in space, was one of six top cosmonaut hopefuls (eventually whittled down to three in the running for the first flight) who went through a training regimen equally as brutal as the one the U.S. put its astronauts through.

Walker’s book touches on some biography details of Gagarin’s life, but mainly focuses on the progress of the Russian program, similar to other books that chronicle the U.S. program. Where possible, Walker spoke with eye witnesses and descendants of key figures. Other information, finally declassified by the Russian government, was drawn from documents and archives.

Though I would have expected more biography on Gagarin, given the subtitle of the book, I was still very interested to read about the development of the Russian program and learn the names behind some of the men who made it happen.

And even though I knew what would happen (it’s history, after all), Walker did an excellent job putting the reader in the thick of the suspense of Gagarin’s first flight, creating a page-turner as readers breathlessly wait to see if Gagarin’s flight went as smoothly as we were always led to believe.

For history buffs and space enthusiasts, Beyond is a different take on the space race and one that is very worth the time to read.

Lost Roses

After the success of Lilac Girls (which I’ve still never read), Martha Hall Kelly has been a name I’m familiar with. So, obviously, when an advanced copy of her new book was available at work, I grabbed it to read (I know it sounds like I grab any and all copies of books, but if you only knew how many books I don’t take from work…).

Lost Roses is a prequel to Lilac Girls, focusing on Eliza Ferriday and her dear friend, Sofya Streshnayva. Set during World War I and the Russian Revolution, Eliza is an American woman who throws herself into helping the displaced Russian nobility forced from their homes during the overthrow of the Tsar and the governing class. Despite the pressures of society, Eliza chooses humanity over perceptions.

Sofya is part of the Russian nobility, cousin to the Tsar’s family. But by choosing to return to Russia during the unrest, Sofya and her family find themselves in mortal danger. The danger only gets worse when Sofya hires a local girl, Varinka, to help out with her son, Max. Suddenly taken captive and separated from Max, Sofya is determined to escape and be reunited with her stolen son. But as time passes, Sofya realizes she’s going to need some help. Hard work doesn’t seem to be enough–she needs Eliza.

Lost Roses is told in from three points of view, Eliza’s, Sofya’s, and Varinka’s. Because of this, it’s a little slow to start, as the author must establish three different characters before diving into the meat of the story. Personally, I think it might have worked better to tell the story from third person, instead of jumping back and forth between varying first person viewpoints.

Otherwise, it was an enjoyable historical fiction story about several strong women overcoming tragedy and trial to build themselves a new life. Varinka’s character is different than Eliza and Sofya, and not just in the obvious ways of age and social position. Her character is very much living in gray areas. Does she purposefully bring danger to Sofya’s family, or is it a naive accident? And what about the choices she makes afterward, keeping Sofya’s son and trying to be his mother? Is that a normal course of events, or was she really trying to steal Sofya’s son? Varinka is young, just 14 when we first meet her in the story, and even then she’s been through a lot, so like Eliza and Sofya, she is also just trying to build a better life for herself, even if she does it by taking advantage of other people’s tragedy. Her character gives readers a lot to think about. As I read her parts of the story, I was torn between wanting the best for her, and disliking her because she was obviously in opposition to our heroes.

It’s clear that Kelley did her research, bringing both the characters and the places to life. Kelly draws from real people and events to create her stories, which makes them that much more compelling.

I’m interested now to read Lilac girls and see if Kelley is one of those historical fiction authors that creates a compelling saga across vast sweeps of time. I’m always in need of another good historical fiction series.