“Winterland” by Rae Meadows

Genre: Historical Fiction Winterland
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Pub. Date: Nov. 29, 2022

“I Will Send Rain” by Rae Meadows captivated me. Set in 1930s Oklahoma, during the dustbowls. It showcased her knack for historical fiction. Her latest historical novel, “Winterland,” is equally powerful. This time we get a brutal look at 1970s Soviet gymnastics, and culture as the athletes prepare for the Olympics. Meadows succeeds once again in restoring the urgency of a distant time and place.

In 1954, a year after the death of Stalin, a man named Yuri meets his future wife, Katerina, on the streets of Moscow. Young and ambitious, they both hope to leave their mark on modernizing the USSR. Along with their friends, they join the Communist League of Youth. From there they are sent to Norilsk, North Siberia, to mine copper. Their youthful optimism is relatable, even to an American reader. As their friends succumb to frostbite, scurvy, and starvation, they return to Moscow. Yuri and Katerina remain in Siberia, refusing to surrender their ideals. Their daughter, Anya, becomes the focus of the story.

Anya grows up in Norilsk, where we now experience the frigid Siberian landscape through a child’s eyes. Her youth is defined by the mysterious disappearance of her mother when she is six years old. Vera, an older woman who lives next door, becomes her only confidant. It is through Vera’s stories that we glimpse the most heart-wrenching details of life in the forced labor Gulag camps, where enemies of the party were sent throughout Stalin’s reign. These well-written, hard-to-read scenes are eerily reminiscent of the German concentration camps with which readers are likely more familiar.

There is plenty of Russian history in this book but its heart and soul is Anya’s life as an athlete. In 1973, at the age of nine, Anya is selected to train as a gymnast. Her childhood as she knew it was over. We watch her rise to the top of an ultra-competitive sport, always under the thumb of her abusive trainers. The author will make you cringe as Anya’s friends and teammates are worked into states of disfigurement. The trainers have no sympathy for them; it is all about money and Russian glory. When Anya’s career is over, she is forced to teach gymnastics back in Norilsk. Not much of a thank you. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Yuri migrates to the US, like many Russians did at the time. Despite his hardships, he keeps his communist party card; the dreams of one’s youth are powerful things.

Every section of Meadows’ novel is heartbreaking in this way. From the dashed dreams of an idealist’s youth, to the terror of achieving athletic excellence in a deeply corrupt system, everything is infused with its rightful poignancy. The many broader lessons of Russian history and politics conveyed throughout the novel do nothing to lessen its intimacy. “Winterland” is also sprinkled with Russian poetry, a touch that felt earned. I thought of the line from the novel “Dr. Zhivago”: “But if people love poetry, they love poets. And nobody loves poetry like a Russian.” My only criticism is that I was expecting to learn more about the disappearance of Anya’s mother. But then again, many Russians have disappeared without answers. The novel is unflinching in this way. I highly recommend it.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Father Figure” by James J. Cudney

father-figure-main-fileGenre:             Contemporary Fiction
Publisher:      Creativia Publishing House
Pub. Date:      April 2, 2018

Picture a story that cuts between two teenage girls living in very different places and times, without explaining their relationship to the reader.  This is just the puzzle that the author, James J. Cudney, goes for and solves.  One heroine lives in the Deep South, in a shoddy town in Mississippi.  She grows up with an abusive mother, that I promise you will hate.   The other girl lives in hip NYC, the Big Apple.   She grows up with a loving mother who you will like and admire.  She is a wonderful mom even though she struggles with single mom issues such as financial strain, social isolation, exhaustion, and guilt.   You will wonder why this lovely mom keeps secrets from her daughter.  Both girls go off to college in Pennsylvania where their young adult lives begin.  However, first, the author teases us with a few pages of the mystery that the reader is about to be swept up in.

The story goes back and forth in time.  We meet the sweet and completely naïve Southern girl in 1984.  How she remains such a nice person while living with daily abuse is another mystery for this reviewer.  As a retired social worker, I wish her personality traits could be bottled to be shared with real life abuse survivors.  You will fall in love with her.  Then we meet the feisty and rebellious Northern girl in the year 2004.  The city teen does not realize how good her life is because her constant focus is on wondering who her father is.  Her mom refuses to say a word.   Choosing to write this tale from past and present in alternating chapters keeps with the plot’s main mystery: just what is the connection between the young women?

Cudney does a great job of nailing female teenage angst, especially since one of the girls is struggling with her sexual identity.  I am thinking of one particular scene where this girl decides to lose her virginity to help her decide whether she is gay or straight.  The author has a nice little twist here, which I never saw coming.  I will not spoil your pleasure by discussing the other shockers.  But, I will share that I did guess the link regarding one of the mothers, although it took me awhile.   Here is my own teaser: there might be more than one father figure in this book, but whom?  I hope I am leaving you purposely confused.

For me as a woman, this book was particularly interesting because of the insight it gave into the young female psyche who want nothing more than to experience a mutual adoring relationship with their dads.

FF image

Not many male writers can achieve success in writing in a teen female voice.  I enjoy that the city girl does not try to be a “good girl” (though deep down I feel that she really is).  Although the characters can feel a bit too one-sided, being all good or all bad, this is a fine family saga page-turner.   I didn’t get that feeling of “not another YA book posing as an adult work of fiction.”  Expect your emotions to be all over the place.  You will read enough abusive horrors, in more ways than one.   Be prepared to cry.   There are also enough moments of love to put a smile on your face, and enough suspense to keep you turning pages.  When all is said and done, the novel has a real Agatha Christie feel to it.  I recommend “Father Figure” to all who enjoy contemporary fiction filled with twists.

The author has given a copy of his book to me for an honest review.   I have been in friendly contact with him through our book blogs and Goodreads, but in no way does this influence my review.

“Father Figure” is on Amazon at:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BW77CWQ?tag=creati0a5-20

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