The Russians are coming…literally, at least!
Starting with a man who delivers: Ken Follett's The Man From St.Petersburg. The book is set just before the outbreak of the First World War. It's got a Russian anarchist, the ubiquitous British landed gentry, and – as always with Follett - a twist at the end. It's plot driven and satisfying. What's it about? Oh well, it is an account of how the lives of the main characters were interwoven with the success or failure of secret naval talks between Britain and Russia. In these, Britain had to win the support of Russia in order to make any headway with its navy. As a result, Czar Nicholas’s nephew Prince Alexei was sent to London for high-level bilateral talks. And we take it from there...
Right next to it, leaning seductively on our welcome desk, is the book The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall.
Set in China in 1928, from where you can see Russia from your doorstep. Lydia Ivanova has a fierce spirit, goshdarnit! Nothing can dim it, not even the foul waters of the Peiho River. Into the river's grime bodies are tossed - those of thieves and Communists alike. So every time Lydia steals from someone to feed herself and her mother, she takes her life into her own hands. Lydia's mother, Valentina, numbered among the Russian elite until the Bolsheviks rounded them up. They took her husband but she managed to buy back her child and bring her to China. But survival is hard. When isn't it?
Even though mother and daughter live in the Whites-only settlement, no walls (or chapters) can keep Lydia in. She escapes to meet Chang An Lo, who saves her life once and is bound to her for ever . But Chang has enemies who are hunting him down - Chiang Kai Shek's troops are headed towards Junchow to kill Reds like him. Their all-consuming love can only mean danger for them both, but they are powerless to end it.
Expect some serious hyperventilating and bodice ripping. Or mink fur ripping at least....
If you wish to read about Catherine the Great and in perhaps slightly more subtle style than the above, then pick up The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak. When Vavara, a young Polish orphan, arrives at the glittering, dangerous court of the Empress Elizabeth in St Petersburg, she is schooled in skills ranging from lock-picking to love-making, learning above all else to stay silent - and listen. Then Sophie, a vulnerable young princess, arrives from Prussia as a prospective bride for the Empress's heir. Set to spy on her, Vavara soon becomes her friend and confidante, and helps her navigate the illicit liaisons and the treacherous shifting allegiances of the court. But Sophie's destiny is to become the notorious Catherine the Great. Are her ambitions more lofty and far-reaching than anyone suspected, and will she stop at nothing to achieve absolute power? Will the bodice rip? Will the vodka run out?
…literally, at least!
On the other hand if you prefer something more intellectual, factual, but also juicy, then I strongly recommend Catherine the Great and Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair by Simon Sebag Montefiore.
It is one of the great love stories of history, and one of its most successful political partnerships.
Catherine the Great was a woman of notorious passion and imperial ambition, perhaps the greatest of the Romanovs. Prince Potemkin - wildly flamboyant and sublimely talented - was the love of her life and her co-ruler. Together they seized Ukraine and Crimea (someone must tell Russia to stop doing that!) and founded cities such as Sebastopol, defining the Russian empire to this day. Their affair was so tumultuous they negotiated an arrangement to share power, leaving Potemkin free to love his beautiful nieces, Catherine her young male favourites. But these 'twin souls' never stopped loving each other.
Drawing on their intimate letters and vast new research from St Petersburg to Odessa, Simon Sebag Montefiore's enthralling, much-acclaimed biography restores these imperial partners to their rightful place as titans of their age.
And last but not least, I've included Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. Who doesn't know the famous first line: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". And yet no one I know has dared to read beyond that page. Will you be the first in the Asso who will finish the book? In any language? Email us to let us know what you think :-)
Don't lose heart with this ghastly weather – Spring is on its way...