The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport

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They were the Princess Dianas of their day—perhaps the most photographed and talked about young royals of the early twentieth century. The four captivating Russian Grand Duchesses—Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov—were much admired for their happy dispositions, their looks, the clothes they wore and their privileged lifestyle.

Over the years, the story of the four Romanov sisters and their tragic end in a basement at Ekaterinburg in 1918 has clouded our view of them, leading to a mass of sentimental and idealized hagiography. With this treasure trove of diaries and letters from the grand duchesses to their friends and family, we learn that they were intelligent, sensitive and perceptive witnesses to the dark turmoil within their immediate family and the ominous approach of the Russian Revolution, the nightmare that would sweep their world away, and them along with it.

The Romanov Sisters sets out to capture the joy as well as the insecurities and poignancy of those young lives against the backdrop of the dying days of late Imperial Russia, World War I and the Russian Revolution. Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados

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I listened to this audiobook on the advice of my friend, Ewa, who has been talking about it since Christmas. And I am using it as one of the categories on my 2018 Reading Challenge 🙂

The Romanov Sisters is a clearly written and detailed account of the lives of the four sisters and the little Tsesarevich from the time of their births until their deaths during the Russian Revolution.

Listening to their story changed many of the perceptions that I had – and clued me in to how many of those stemmed from the Disney film Anastasia – but also created duelling portrayals of Tsar Nicholas II in my mind.

Nicholas II and Alexandra lived rather modest lives in terms of possessions. Their daughters shared bedrooms with single size beds, and were not over-run with presents, although what they did have was of very high quality. Alexandra was much more heavily involved in her children’s upbringing than was common among the aristocracy of Europe at the time, even breastfeeding her children which was unheard of. The main theme throughout the entire book is the deep love shared between these seven people, and it is tragic that it eventually led to their deaths.

The Imperial Family was not well suited to governing the country. Nicholas and Alexandra would have been far more content to remain minor royalty and retreat into a quiet, idyllic life with their children than to be on the international stage. Their love for each other and their family led them to make many decisions that sacrificed image, popularity and power in Russia, further destabilizing an already tumultuous autocracy. Their ends certainly indicate the necessity of Royalty to remain visible and (at least somewhat) accessible to the masses, even at the sacrifice of privacy at times.

The last Tsar of Russia was pious, deeply religious and professed a deep and unfaltering love for his wife and children. Many accounts point to his being a moral man who was just unsuited to ruling. And yet, he showed little understanding of, or compassion for, his suffering peasantry and is the man behind mass jailing of political dissidents, pogroms and Bloody Sunday.

Whatever decision Empress Alexandra made, it was the wrong one. She was either too formal and withdrawn from the Russian people; too heavily involved in raising her children; too pious; too unwilling to open herself up to the innate mysticism of Russian orthodoxy and everyday life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Russian culture, yet too willing to accept the mystical and mistrusted Rasputin into her inner circle. During WWI, when she and her eldest daughters became nurses and worked daily in hospital with wounded soldiers, many considered it sacrilegious and a betrayal of Russian Imperialism for the Tsarina and Grand Duchesses to be working so closely with those of lower stations in improper circumstances.

The environment was poisonous and it is hard to imagine whether there could have been any other outcome for Russian Imperialism, even if Nicholas and Alexandra did everything differently.

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xx

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The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls)

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A tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that, despite its profound flaws, gave the author the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.

Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an “excitement addict.” Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town — and the family — Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.

What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.

For two decades, Jeannette Walls hid her roots. Now she tells her own story.

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I found this book very difficult to listen to at times, not just because of the subject matter, but because of the author’s approach to her story. Ms. Walls reflects upon her childhood with frankness and affection, seemingly content with her eccentric parents decisions for the family. She talks about growing up “wild” and how she appreciated the freedom her parents gave the four Walls kids to explore, make mistakes and

Walls comes across as very matter of fact regarding the many abuses she and her siblings faced growing up as a result of her parents decisions, and more often, as a result of their neglect. Her father’s drinking and mother’s distain for housekeeping or mothering made me ache for these children who often missed the barest of essentials, including food and warm clothes.

As the listener, I felt that Jeannette had been brainwashed by her father growing up, a mentality that exists today to some degree. She doesn’t seem to find fault with their poor decisions that put her and her siblings into danger, and at times brought the attention of medical personnel, and children’s aid employees. It was difficult to listen to her seemingly idolize her parents at times, even as an adult reflecting on the past, knowing how selfish, neglectful and at times abusive her parents were.

The mother’s whining that she didn’t want to get up and go to school to teach – knowing this paycheque was the only thing that was feeding her children at the time – was so bizarre and highlights the irresponsible and selfish nature both parents exhibited, as did hiding her chocolate snacks while her children are literally starving because neither parent is working and the family doesn’t receive food stamps.

Despite their actions, I cannot doubt Rex and Rose Mary Walls loved their children, particularly Rex. And as Jeannette muses, I think we make the lives we want in the end.

The Glass Castle is well-written and compelling. I didn’t love this book because I felt the author was overly sympathetic to her parents and her parents’ behaviour made me angry, but I am still giving this book four stars.

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xx

Yours and Mine by Christine Duval

Yours and Mine is the long-awaited sequel to Positively Mine. They are both books in the Freshman Forty Series.

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Picking up from the dramatic ending of Positively Mine, Yours and Mine continues the Freshman Forty series as we meet Danny Santoro, Laurel’s baby’s father, for the first time.

It’s been almost a year since he last saw her, that sultry morning she walked off the beach before dawn had even cracked the August sky. It seemed from her silence, she was out of his life forever.

But Laurel’s timing couldn’t be worse to tell him he’s a father. The last year hasn’t been easy. Danny’s own father was arrested for a DUI, his mother moved out, and Danny started sleeping with his brother’s old high school, drug-abusing girlfriend.

After Laurel shocks him with the news, she attempts to relinquish Danny of any parental responsibility leading to a heated custody battle. In an unorthodox arrangement, an eccentric judge orders Danny and Laurel to spend alternating nights with each other for the upcoming school year.

Told from Danny’s point of view, Yours and Mine explores the second chapter of a romance that never got off the ground, the challenges of young parenting, and the hope of rekindled love.

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I am so excited that Yours and Mine has finally been released! I have been periodically checking back on the author’s goodreads profile for a couple of years with no luck, only to find out this time that it was released at the end of last year! It was also pretty surprising that the entire book is written from Danny’s perspective, a character that we had barely met before.

But as surprising as this was, it worked. I like how the author planned it out.

This is a story of a custody struggle between two young parents. Its a story of growing trust and coming of age and working out relationships. It is the pinnacle of a new adult novel, and a fairly clean one. Yours and Mine starts the same way that Positively Mine ended, with Laurel telling Danny that they have a three month old daughter together.

Something that really stood out to me in this novel is that the characters stay very true to themselves.

Laurel is 3-4 years younger than Danny and has had much less responsibility throughout her adolescence, and certainly more financial privilege. Her experiences of being emotionally estranged from her father and of burying her mother as a pre-teen shaped her to be secretive and withdrawn. She has a difficult time sharing and recognizing other’s feelings. Especially since find out she was going to become a mother herself, Laurel relied only on herself and has a difficult time letting Danny into her and their daughter’s lives.

Danny has been working a fulltime job for years, and is now juggling that job with a Masters program in Homeland Security and adjusting to the news of fatherhood. He also has to worry about his mother and help her to recover from his father’s alcohol and gambling addictions.

Although Laurel is a good person and a good Mother, her relative immaturity is apparent. She often fails to communicate with Danny, and clings to the idea that she can be a normal college girl on the nights that Danny has physical custody of their daughter. When things don’t work out the way she had dreamed, she is initially heartbroken and doesn’t know how to move forward and make it right. Although changed by mommyhood, Laurel clearly has less experience in relationships and less confidence in herself. Her go-to move is to hunker down and completely withdraw.

I loved reading Yours and Mine from Danny’s point of view, but at times I wish we could have also had Laurel’s. It was a little funny to not be in her head at all, after the first book was entirely from her perspective.

At the end of the day I loved this book, but I can’t give it 5 / 5 stars because I felt that it was too short and that their problems were resolved too easily. I was expecting the same format as the first book, which covered the entire academic year, but Yours and Mine resolves by (American) Thanksgiving. The ending was also fairly predictable but I loved the happily ever after fans were left with so I can’t really complain about that.

I hope that the author writes another book, and that this time the wait isn’t so long!

Edit: I also love this cover! It is perfect in its simplicity and represents the story and characters wonderfully.

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xx

Sisters – film review

Sisters is the hilarious new comedy from Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Two sisters struggling to move on in their adult lives come home to Mom and Dad’s to clear out their childhood rooms in preparation for the sale of the house. While reminiscing, they decide to throw one last epic high-school style party with all their old friends. Cue the shenanigans.

Trailer (via youtube)

Ok, I have to admit I didn’t think this movie was going to be all that great. I went to the theatre with my Mother and oldest niece (14) to see something else but tickets were sold out and this was the only other film playing at the right time.

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It. Is. Hilarious. I freaking loved this movie. I almost had to leave the theatre because I was seriously worried I would pee my pants from laughter.

Now, it was also completely INAPPROPRIATE for a  14 year old girl. I was worried about that but the theatre said it was rated 14A. Um, no. After seeing the movie, I definitely feel it was Rated R and now I can see that is what the trailer was rated as well….. So my sister might be a bit mad but thankfully that will fall on “Nana’s” shoulders, not mine. Phew.

But seriously, I highly recommend that you go and watch this movie. Both my Mum and I agreed that it was the most we had laughed in a theatre in a very long time.

The part with the music box, between Maura and her beau …. good lord. You can’t get funnier than that.

There were two things that really stood out to me in this film.

John Cena’s part actually should have been expanded. He does have his tough guy-bouncer moment but it was very comedically done. Not bad since this is a comedy but I think the film could have afforded for him to be a bit more … well more, in that moment.

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I also would have loved to see him and Kate (played by Tina Fey) develop a relationship. I thought he was going to help her rescue Hayley; it would have been cute to see them together in the “post-script”, and would have been in keeping with Kate’s personality. Sure, she learns a little more responsibility, but no one changes overnight. He might not have been the best parental role model, but that wasn’t really the moral of the story.

Secondly, and as I said to my Mother as we walked out of the theatre, “I didn’t take you and Dad selling the house that badly”. If you don’t know, I am highly resistant to change, and didn’t exactly handle it well. In fact, when they sold my childhood home I stopped speaking to them for a bit and it took several years before I was completely over it.

Because I am.

Over it.

Totally.

As I was saying … Sisters is cute. It’s funny. It is even romantic. And it reminded me that I’m all grown up when the sexiest point in the movie was James repairing the ceiling he fell through for Maura, while the party rages on around them.

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xx

 

Shopaholic to the Rescue – a review

I am a huge fan of British women’s lit author Sophie Kinsella. She has written numerous stand-alones but is probably most well known for her lengthy Shopaholic series, featuring shopaholic protagonist Becky. She gets herself into the most outrageous situations, but you always forgive her because she has a genuine heart, great sense of humour and indomitable spirit. I like Becky, silly as she can be. She’s plucky and lives life to the fullest.

Shopaholic to the Rescue is the most recent instalment in the series and I think it is the eighth book. It is written much more differently from the early books in the series, in the best way. Becky has matured, become more self-aware and introspective since her early 20s, and good thing too. You won’t find tallies of shopping hauls or passerbys’ outfits in “to the Rescue”.

Before I get too in-depth, here’s the blurb.

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Becky Bloomwood and a hilarious cast of beloved family and friends (plus one enemy!) set off in a van to find her missing father, last heard from in Las Vegas.

Becky’s father Graham and her best friend’s husband, Tarquin, have disappeared from Los Angeles saying simply they have “something to take care of.”

But Tarquin’s wife Suze who is Becky’s best friend, and Becky’s mother Jane, are convinced the two men are hiding something and are in danger—their imaginations run wild. They must track them down!

Hijinks ensue as husband Luke drives Becky, daughter Minnie, Jane, Suze and other favourite Kinsella characters across country from LA to Las Vegas in search of the missing men.

Becky feels deeply guilty about ignoring her father while he was in LA, in addition Becky feels her enemy Alicia is threatening her friendship with Suze.

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** minor spoilers in this review **

This was my favourite book in the Shopaholic series.  I actually sat on it for about a month before reading because I detested the previous book and was worried it would ruin the series for me if I disliked to the Rescue as well, but once I started, I couldn’t put it down. Cue laughing out loud on page one. Not to mention staying up til 3am to finish. Shhhh, let’s not share that particular point, okay?

I think what set this one apart from the others is that the focus wasn’t on the trouble Becky finds for herself. Although she blames herself for the problems, she isn’t to blame and after seven books fixing her mistakes, it is refreshing to see Becky has grown into a more mature and responsible version of her youthful self, and that sometimes that “perfect” friend can dig herself into a real doozy of a hole.

I also loved two specific things about “Rescue”.

Luke and Becky are in the best place they have ever been, as a couple. After seeing so many people try to tear them apart in the past, and the two of them struggling to make it work through the bad, it was a relief to see that they are in such a good place, since I just know they are meant for one another.

Secondly, all your favourite characters are liberally included across the plot and it’s awesome. This almost feels like a “reunion” book. Sometimes Becky and Luke exist in a bubble and people only briefly pass through, but everyone is there throughout this time (even Alicia Bitch Long Legs).

I definitely recommend picking this book up. The whole series is great but you could probably read this without reading the others if you wanted. It almost felt as if Kinsella was closing the series on this one, but I feel like there is one story left to tell. Hopefully we’ll get to read it.

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xx