WeWriWa—Meet Princess Arkadiya

Happy Shavuot!

Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. Since I haven’t done much work on Part II of this WIP, I’m skipping ahead to Part III, “A Most Unusual Sovereign,” which opens in August 1929. With the unexpected death of Grand Duke Mikhail from rheumatic fever which weakened his heart, 25-year-old Aleksey has finally officially come to power.

Before a coronation can be held, there needs to be a Tsaritsa to be coronated with. All these years, Aleksey has resisted romantic attachments and taking a bride, for fear of passing on his disease and leaving a young widow and orphans. Now there’s no more choice, as his brothers-in-law and head servants have drawn up lists of potential brides of appropriate lineage. He’s adamant he not marry anyone descended from Queen Victoria through the maternal line, the origin of hemophilia in Europe’s royal houses, and also wants to look at non-ruling princesses first.

Marrying a Russian-blooded woman instead of some foreign princess will help to endear him further to the people, but the first delegation of princesses have no interest. They’re not fond of his liberal reforms, such as granting a constitution and pardoning certain of the reformed Bolsheviks. After the princesses have left and he’s retired to his study, someone knocks on the door.

Coat of arms of the House of Gagarin, Copyright Janvhei


“My name is Arkadiya Mikháylovna Gagarina, and I’ve come to see the Emperor.”

The bodyguard swung the door open. “I didn’t realize we had a princess from the House of Gagarin coming as well.  You’re too late, since you just missed the other princesses.”

The woman at the door had long chestnut-brown hair, with matching deep brown eyes.  In comparison to the other princesses, who’d come dressed in all sorts of finery and with their faces and nails painted, Princess Gagarina was dressed in a simple cotton aubergine gown ending several inches below her knees, ordinary brown leather button-up boots, and a basic black straw hat without any embellishments.  Her natural beauty, unenhanced by any cosmetics, was somewhat of a rarity amid the current trends.  As she walked in, Alekséy noticed her limping rather heavily in her right leg.


The unlikely Tsaritsa was named Varvara (Varya) in the discontinued original version of this story, but I honestly just don’t like that name anymore. It’s so heavy and dated. Now Varvara is only her baptismal name, since there’s no Saint Arkadiya. Her parents named her after the Arcadian utopia. Arkadiya is a rare name, but it’s definitely a real name.

Feature and Follow Friday—How I write reviews


Feature and Follow Friday is hosted by Alison of Alison Can Read and Parajunkee of Parajunkee’s View. Every week a new question is posed, with the intent that everyone will gain new mutual followers. The hosts also interview a featured book blogger each week. It’s been a really long time since I’ve taken part in this hop.

Question of the Week: How do you write your reviews?

When I wrote reviews for my old Angelfire site, I frequently stuffed in everything but the kitchen sink. Sadly, I was unable to recover many of those old reviews during my frantic searches of caches and archives in the immediate wake of having my site taken away from me (long story). When I’ve reposted one of my salvaged book reviews on this blog, I’ve had to do a lot of editing. Many of my older book reviews on Amazon also read more like point-by-point synopses than sufficiently succinct reviews.

A good book review relates the major points and characters, but doesn’t give away the entire story short of the end. We don’t need to know about every single subplot and secondary character to understand what the book is all about and be enticed to read it. It should be kind of like a good query letter, only narrating the meat of the story, how everything starts, the pivotal midway point, and what’s at stake.

In all my book, film, and music reviews, I like to mention if this is ideal for a new fan, or more for established fans. It’s pretty obnoxious and unthinking to write a review as though only longtime, established, hardcore fans are reading it to confirm their own bias. This was a really important lesson I learnt from reading the album reviews on thewho.net (back when the site still had album reviews). I wanted to help new fans who’d been in my position not so long ago, and didn’t write like many other reviewers, as though only longtime, serious fans were reading them. A book, film, or album may very well be awesome, but a new fan can’t see it that way without some grounding in the basics and a serious interest/love of more than a few months.

Sometimes it’s necessary to include some pertinent background on the writer and the book’s creation, to place it in context and perhaps judge it more favorably. In the case of a historical, it’s also a nice idea to include some information about the era or events depicted.

If I really hated a book, I may include a point-by-point rundown of why I hated it.

I won’t deduct points for one minor error or awkward section, or a few scattered around, but a lot little errors and bad writing can really add up. Sometimes one seeming little thing is so distracting or odd it deserves a mention, and isn’t nitpicking. An example of this was the stunning lack of actual Polish names in Leon Uris’s Mila 18. Polish-born characters would not have had names like Simon, Susan, Paul, Rachael, Andrei, and Sylvia, and a woman wouldn’t have had the male-ending surname Bronski. I have the same issue with how the main character of Felice Holman’s The Wild Children is called Alex instead of Sasha, Sanya, or Shura (along with other un-Russian names).

WIPpet Wednesday—Lectured by another sister

Welcome back to WIPpet Wednesday, hosted by K.L. Schwengel, a weekly blog hop wherein participants share excerpts from their WIPs related in some way to the date. Twenty plus five is twenty-five, so I’m sharing twenty-five sentences.

My alternative history, And Aleksey Lived, is told in four acts (1918–19, 1922–?, 1929–31, and 1939–45), plus an Epilogue. It starts where the real-life story sadly ended, and depicts a much happier 20th century for Russia, with perhaps the unlikeliest ruler in history. So many books, both novels and non-fiction, focus on the four Grand Duchesses, but I always felt most drawn to Aleksey, for so many reasons. I don’t believe he would’ve automatically died young anyway or been too sick to rule in his own right.

The morning after he and his sisters were miraculously rescued just in the nick of time, he doesn’t have much of an appetite for the feast the soldiers prepared, amid the famine going on in Yekaterinburg. First 21-year-old Tatyana urges him to regain his health and think about his newfound responsibilities, and then 22-year-old Olga picks up where she left off. He’s not very happy at being told he has to scale back his active nature and live what he feels isn’t a normal life.


“Maybe some other boys like that, but I don’t.  And I don’t want people to think I’m not a real boy.  I’m too old now to be happy with that.  The last thing I want is for people to think I’m not a real man when I’m older.”

“People will judge you as a real man by your deeper actions,” Ólga said. “A real man has quality of character, a noble heart, a generous spirit, and a kind nature.  You can participate in all the hunting, fishing, roughhousing, indoor sledding, and wood-chopping you want, and it won’t make you more of a real man if you don’t have a good character underneath.  Anyone who makes fun of you for spending your time with quieter pursuits isn’t anyone you need to be keeping company with, and their attitude says far more about them than it does about you.”

“But I want to do those things.  It’s boring to sit still all day, and it’s not fun to have to watch everyone else having fun and being normal.  I don’t always hurt myself when I act normally.”

“But you’ve hurt yourself enough times to have learnt your lesson by now.  Now that Mama and Papa are gone, you have to be the man of household and learn to properly take care of yourself.  We can’t take care of you forever and protect you from yourself.  Do you or don’t you want to live as long as you can?”

His eyes grew misty. “I want to live a long time, and not always have to wonder when my last sight of the clouds, the sky, and the birds will be.”

“And do you want a long life more than you want a typical boy experience?”

“I want to live more.  Even when I’m in pain and wish I could die to end my misery, I’m still scared of the thought of never seeing the beauty of nature again.  I don’t want to be dead and never know the beautiful world of the living ever again.”

“Then you’ll do whatever it takes to stay healthy and live as long as you can.  But don’t use that as an excuse to only sit about drawing, reading, and watching nature.  You should exercise your joints too, so they build up greater strength and become more resistant to slips and falls.  Mama and Papa would want you to survive and be strong for them.”


In real life, Aleksey said something very similar to Olga when she found him lying on his back looking at the clouds, “I enjoy the sun and the beauty of summer as long as I can. Who knows whether one of these days I shall not be prevented from doing it?”

Top Ten Tuesday—Books I’d save from a fire

Happy 70th birthday to Pete Townshend!

Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week is a freebie, and I’m choosing books I’d save if, chas v’shalom (heaven forbid), my home were on fire. I’ve had pyrophobia my entire life, so this isn’t something I take lightly!

1. The Rand McNally atlas my late uncle gave me. That year, all the girls in first grade wanted the talking doll Cricket for Christmas and Chanukah, but my parents didn’t have that kind of money. Two years prior, my father had spent over $2,000 on our first computer, the 152K Mac, but some doll wasn’t nearly that kind of worthwhile, long-lasting investment. One of the presents I did get was that atlas from my uncle. I still use it all the time, as outdated as it is. Names and borders may change, but it’s the same Planet Earth at heart. The inscription makes it particularly precious to me.

2. The Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation of The Tao Te Ching. I discovered this among my parents’ shelves in January ’96 and fell in love. This book means so much to me, particularly after it was the only book I had with me during the ten months we were back in Pennsylvania my junior year of high school. Almost all of our belongings were in boxes in my maternal grandparents’ house while they were away in Florida.

3. Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, compiled by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman. This book of daily meditations and thoughts is so precious to me because it was a graduation present from one of my university rabbis. I’d only begun going to Chabad a few months prior, and already he was as warm and welcoming to me as the people who’d been going there much longer. I can always get a new copy of the book, but I can’t replace Rabbi Adelman’s inscription. (I never learnt Hebrew cursive, but I know that’s my Hebrew name, Chana Esther Dafna.)


4. The 1910 French dictionary I got from my father. I’m at least the fourth owner of this falling-apart thing, and it doubtless isn’t worth anything anymore, but it’s really special to me. I love how the intro says it’s been updated to include words related to motoring, aviation, and bicycling. It also has some really nice appendices, like French versions of names from history and mythology.


5. Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor. My copy of the famous historical romance is particularly special because it’s a 1944 printing, with the text on two columns on thin pages. I assume this was done because of wartime paper shortages, and it’s a super-long book.

6 and 7. World War II Chronicle and The Holocaust ChronicleThese are my most-consulted books of the five day-by-day volumes I constantly use when researching my books set during this era. Really heavy, but packed full of information. I found both on the discount racks at the local indie bookstore.


8. Webster’s Pocket Pal Dictionary. This was a gift from my sixth grade teacher for the winter holidays. She inscribed the front. Not the most exhaustive dictionary in the world, but a nice reminder of one of my teachers.

9. Kenneth Katzner’s Russian–English dictionary. I’ve used this so much since I bought it in 2000. It’s not my first Russian dictionary, which is now out of print, but this is a very good runner-up. I’d be nowhere without this book!

10. Sydney Omarr’s Sagittarius volume for 1994. Mock me if you want, but this was bought for me by my grandparents in summer ’93, and the book which really introduced me to astrology. Some sections are long out of date, but there are still lots of chapters which haven’t aged, like the charts to find the ruler of each planet, and the descriptions of those placements. My belief in astrology hurts absolutely no one, unlike alt-med quackery such as taking an infant to a chiroquacktor or trying to cure cancer with baking soda and iodine. I wish more skeptics weren’t so quick to dismiss and mock astrology, particularly considering it’s a lot more complex than those stupid newspaper horoscopes.

Blood, Boobs, and Carnage Blogfest

Blood Boobs Carnage Blogfest

Ninja Captain Alex and Heather Gardner are hosting the Blood, Boobs, and Carnage Blogfest, wherein participants discuss books, films, and TV shows fitting one or more of the abovementioned categories. I naturally thought of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Blood and Sand, written by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, Spain’s great national novelist. Both were adapted to the silver screen, in 1921 and 1922, respectively, and later remade.

Juan Gallardo (Rudy Valentino) is a poor boy who dreams of becoming a great bullfighter. Of course, he realises his dream, and rises to become one of Spain’s greatest matadors. Along the way, he marries Carmen (Lila Lee), a sweet, pious girl he knew growing up. Sadly, their marriage doesn’t yield any children. When Juan is at the top of his game, he’s seduced by Doña Sol (Nita Naldi), a notorious man-eater and Vamp. There’s a subplot about an outlaw named Plumitas (Walter Long), whose life path is a sobering parallel to Juan’s life.

There’s plenty of blood and carnage in the arena, though the actual shots of bullfighting are pasted in from real arenas, not done for the film. Nita Naldi was one of the best Vamps of the silent era, after the great Theda Bara. She and Rudy co-starred in several films, and had incredible chemistry. She was also built like a real woman, with voluptuous curves, instead of being a size 6. Nita wasn’t afraid to show off her assets with sexy clothing.

In the silent era, a Vampyre, shortened to Vamp, did not refer to a paranormal creature, but rather to a sexually aggressive, man-eating, rule-breaking, assertive woman.


The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is one the most powerful anti-war novels ever. It became a U.S. bestseller in 1919, and the 1921 film adaptation was one of the greatest blockbusters in film history (even though most of those constant “best ever” lists ignore or barely mention the silent era). This film was what gave Rudy Valentino his big break and made him a star. This is one of those book-to-screen adaptations which was done marvellously right, instead of taking a great novel and throwing it into the toilet (à la Exodus).

Marcelo Desnoyers moves to Argentina from France in 1870. His family moves back to France before the outbreak of the First World War. During this idyllic, wealthy existence, Marcelo’s son Julio lives the life of Riley, living only for the moment and never developing any serious, mature interests. There’s a notoriously famous, sexy tango scene during Julio’s playboy days, as well as a scene where he sketches a nude model. Meanwhile, Marcelo’s sister-in-law has married a German, Karl Hartrott, and that branch of the family moves back to Germany.

Julio is finally compelled into growing up, and enlists in the French Army. Not only do we see/read the accounts of his wartime service, but we also see/read the horrific account of the carnage and pillage at Marcelo’s mansion. The book is even more graphic, haunting, and bloody than the film. I could picture the scenes in the book even more strongly because I’d already seen the film so many times, and when I next saw the film after reading the book, it was an even more intense experience.


Ignore the 1962 “remake.” It has almost nothing in common with either the novel or 1921 film, and makes a complete mockery of both.