The Little Russian by Susan Sherman, The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell, and The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

The Little Russian by Susan Sherman

The Little Russian by Susan Sherman is the story of the self-absorbed and dauntless Berta Alshonsky, a young Ukrainian woman coming of age at the turn of the century in Moscow, Russia, and Ukraine- known as Little Russia. Chosen to live with wealthy relatives as a companion to their daughter, she is unceremoniously returned to her life as grocer’s daughter in Mosny under the guise of time off to to visit her family. Unhappy and unaccustomed to her old way of life, she flouts traditions and holds herself apart, an outsider in the town, until she marries Hershel Alshonsky, and achieves something approximating the life she once led. However, Hershel’s covert activities to arm Jewish citizens against frequent and unpredictable pogroms threatens the life they’ve built and the understanding in their marriage.

Alshonsky is not and easy character to like but I loved her and her story. She has her own ideas about life and she never backs away from what she wants and how she want to live despite the fact that many of her choices aren’t backed by others’ vision or common sense. Berta grows through hardship but she does so in a way that is true to the core of who she is. Sherman is an excellent writer, and though Berta’s point of view is dominant throughout, key chapters with other characters give greater background to the history of the Jews in Ukraine, and their tenuous relationship with Russian peasants over several wars and regime changes. Sherman will suck you into the story, and place you firmly in the romance, and the terror of the time. A gorgeous treat for historical fiction lovers, and not to be missed, but this holds especially true if you are enamored of Russian history.  Highly Recommended. Seriously.

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

Lisa O’Donnell’s novel is a wonderful coming-of-age novel depicting the harrowing lives of female siblings living in the projects of Glasgow, Scotland. As the novels open, Marnie and Nelly have just buried their parents in their back garden. While only they know why they have done what they have, a suspicion harboring neighbor and the neighborhood drug dealer are asking plenty of questions- in addition to truant officers and other government officials who would separate their family of two. As the girls face that their parents are gone for good, they slowly start to form a new life for themselves but to  protect its fragile bond they have to examine their assumptions about the world, and the basis of who they are in order to survive.

The Death of Bees is told from the perspectives of the sisters Marnie and Nelly, and Lennie, their elderly and lonely neighbor. The strength and distinctiveness of their voices is so certain that at any given moment I could have flipped to a page and know immediately who was speaking. O’Donnell writes a compelling novel about the lives of kids who have to raise themselves, but the warmth and humor she injects into her splendid characterizations provide a levity that makes a novel that could be a grim piece of reading, heartfelt and illumining. Highly Recommended.

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

The SheReads Book Club Selection for January is B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger. It’s an excellent choice for a book club being that the main character frequently finds herself pondering which criminality can be justified.

Hindered by an art scandal she was involved in before finishing grad school, Claire Roth is a promising Boston artist struggling to make ends meet. She dreams of discovery, fame, and a coveted showcase at Markel G – Aidan Markel’s renowned gallery (capable of making an artist’s career). Eking out a living selling famed reproductions through an art clearing house, Claire is stunned when Aidan asks for a meeting at her studio and offers her the proverbial deal with the devil- an opportunity to study and forge a Degas stolen in the infamous  Isabella Stewart Gardner Collection in exchange for cash and a gallery showcase. Even with her checkered past, Claire finds the deal irresistible, but complications ensue when she suspects and sets out to prove the famed painting is fake.

If you ever fancied yourself an artist or have hovered with interest on the doings of that world, Shapiro draws a picture that easily give you an idea of the passion and the stakes involved in the creation of works of art. Shapiro’s narrative alternates between Claire’s present day dilemma with the world and letters of a young Isabella Gardner who is fascinated with artists, and constantly traveling and buying pieces for her collection. Claire getting caught up the way that she did in a second scandal was problematic for me, but interesting to ponder. Whether you can make the same crucial error of judgement more than once, and with so high stakes. It was interesting to examine her thought process, but this worked best for me as a mystery – what happened to the art in the heist, is the painting a fake, is she in love with the wrong man? The questions were many, and The Art Forger is a smart mystery that will you on the hook and guessing almost until the end.  Recommended.

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