• Friday, February 22nd, 2019

Amor Towles was born in 1964 and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. He graduated from Yale College and obtained an MA in English from Stanford University. After working for twenty years as an investment banker, he now lives with his wife and teenage son and daughter in Manhattan, New York and dedicates his time entirely to writing. Towles once said: “If I do not write anything valid before my fifties, my life will be a failure”. So he started writing his first novel at the beginning of the millennium.

Amor Towles’ second novel, “A Gentleman In Moscow”, is a historical fiction published in 2016. It has been translated into several languages including Russian and was named one of the best books of 2016 by many American newspapers.

Before writing his novel, Towles stayed at the Metropol hotel in Moscow, where the staff allowed him to explore all the hidden corners of the building as well as the most lavish rooms, which helped his research, enabling him to describe everything in the hotel in detail. The hardback edition of “A Gentleman In Moscow” is exhibited in the lobby bar of the Metropol.

The novel starts in June 1922, shortly after the 1917 Russian revolution and ends in 1954. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who is thirty-two years old in 1922, is escorted through the gates of the Kremlin into Red Square in the centre of Moscow and back to the Grand Hotel Metropol, where he resides and has his daily routine. When questioned by the Bolshevik tribunal he is found to be an irredeemable aristocrat with moral values which, if shared, will be a threat to the public.

The Bolshevik tribunal consequently sentences him to lifetime confinement in the Hotel Metropol, a few meters away from the Kremlin and opposite the famous Bolshoi theatre. The constraint is not back to his former luxury suite but to a small, spartan maid’s room with a tiny single attic window on the sixth floor. He is told that if he ventures out of the hotel, he will be shot.

The Count, who is a prototypical Russian aristocrat, has been spared a death sentence or prison by the court, like others of his class, because he has high ranking friends. The other reason being a poem published under his name in 1913 called: “Where Is It Now”, which was liked by the revolutionaries who considered it to be a call to battle during the pre-revolutionary era.

The story is mostly from Count Rostov’s viewpoint, illustrating how he adapts to all the changes happening around him and contently accepts his fate. He seems able to adjust to his new conditions without harbouring revenge or feeling bitter. He makes friends with the staff of his gilded prison and in spite of the transformation of Russian society under the Soviet regime, Count Rostov maintains all the signs of his upbringing and education and does not depart from his principles. He always stays an honourable integral gentleman. He remains gallant and courteous, even when he becomes a head-waiter at the prestigious Boyarsky restaurant at the Metropol, where in the past he had been a distinguished guest.

Even though most of the events take place over thirty- two years within the four walls of a building with rigid rules and repetitive routines, the reader does not feel claustrophobic. As the narration evolves, the scope broadens with the significant changes occurring inside and outside the hotel as well as the informative footnotes and addenda supplemented by the author throughout the novel.

The narrator also often moves back and forth to the time of the tsar as well as recounting the everyday happenings in the hotel at present under the Bolsheviks who made part of the hotel their headquarters.

Count Rostov’s acquaintances also widen the scope as he comes across the curious and mature nine-year-old girl named Nina Kulikova, who is a guest at the Metropol with her father and who has a skeleton key for all of the hotel’s rooms. She introduces the Count to all the nooks and crannies of the place.

A while later in the story, this friendship with Nina as an adult will change the course of Rostov’s life. There is also the visit of Mishka, Rostov’s poet friend, who informs him about what the Soviet apparatchiks are doing to the country, with their destruction of old monuments, replacing them with new ones as well as their censorship of almost everything.

In this charming, original, atmospheric and elegantly written novel, the colourful cast of characters is fascinating and carefully depicted. There are the chefs, the bartenders, the doormen, the seamstress and there is Nina, Sofia, Mishka, Anna Urbanova and the friendly officer of the communist party.

The author addresses several themes, like the resilience for human survival when faced with hardship. Other topics are courage, love, friendship, the longing for home and parents’ responsibilities and commitments.

The author says: “I generally like to mix glimpses of history with flights of fancy until the reader isn’t exactly sure of what’s real and what isn’t”. He continues: “I was a fan of the 1920s and 1930s, eagerly reading the novels, watching the films and listening to the music of the era”. “I chose to write “A Gentleman in Moscow” because of my long-standing fascination with Russian literature, culture, and history”.

• Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

Ali Land wanted to become a mental health nurse from an early age because, as a thirteen-year-old, she was intrigued by unusual children. She fulfilled her dream by obtaining a university degree in children’s mental health and worked for ten years as a qualified child and adolescent mental health nurse in hospitals and schools in the UK and Australia.

One of Ali Land’s duties was to look after a fifteen-year-old girl, who did not want to continue living, being afraid of turning into a bad person like her mother, who severely injured young children. This experience influenced Ali Land with her novel’s fifteen-year-old main character, Milly, in Good Me Bad Me.

Ali Land said she needed to write this book to release the heavy psychological burden weighing on her. She said in one of her interviews: “I had nowhere else to go. My mind was full to bursting of the things that worried me, of the young people I’d looked after, and this burning desire to provoke discussion around how to care for children who had been damaged by their pasts”.

“My biggest fear when writing Good Me Bad Me was that readers wouldn’t feel compassion for my main character, Milly, that they would write her off as a child that couldn’t be helped. Of course, that risk remains very real, but by making a conscious decision to place her in a foster family that was, in its own way, toxic, I hope that I’ve managed to buffer the thought that there’s no hope for Milly and instead prompt readers to ask questions such as: But what if she’d been placed in a more appropriate setting? Where should children like Milly go? How can we look after them?”

It took Ali Land thirty years to dedicate herself fully to writing. Nevertheless, she worked part-time as a personal assistant nanny during the time she was writing her book. She now lives in west London.

Good Me Bad Me was published in 2017 and has been translated into several languages. It is her first novel to receive high praise as well as being Heat’s Best Book Of The Year, The Telegraph’s Crime Book Of The Year and The Sunday Times Best Seller.

The narrator of the story is the fifteen-year-old protagonist, Annie Thompson, who is given a new identity and becomes Milly after her psychopath mother is jailed. Annie, wanting to stop her mother’s serial killing, denounces her to the police for torturing and murdering nine little boys.

Meanwhile Milly is sheltered by her psychologist, Mike Newmont, awaiting being a witness in her mother’s upcoming trial. Mike Newmont was treating Milly as well as writing a book about her. She lived in his dysfunctional house with his destabilised, drug addict wife, Saskia, and his bullying, jealous, troubled daughter, Phoebe.

Milly’s mother is single, working as a nurse in a home. Outwardly she appears kind and caring so that the mothers in her care trust their children to her to have them adopted in the USA. But instead of sending the little boys for adoption, Annie’s mother tortured and murdered them while making her daughter watch through the keyhole.

The author keeps the emotional strain until the end with an unexpected twist revealing that Milly is no angel either and when given a choice, chooses the violent solution, her mind having been damaged and corrupted by her mother since her childhood. Milly nevertheless convinces all those around her that she is a victim while being very secretive about her dark plans. Presumably, she has been more affected by her mother’s evil deeds than those around her envisaged.

Good Me Bad Me is a compelling, as well as a thought-provoking novel. It is slow going, disturbing, heavy and dark. It is a psychological character-based story of a teenage girl, unable to escape from her past. She is in constant conflict between good and evil and her persistent worries about the unknown area of the unexplored and unapparent effect of genetics on her.

The reader cannot help feeling the girl’s suffering and her unbearably tormented soul. Her wanting to break free from her overpowering serial killer mother, while at the same time still loving and yearning for her company to the extent of having a constant imaginary conversation with her.

Notwithstanding all the horrible things her mother committed, as well as what she did to her and put her through from an early age, including sexually assaulting her and the psychological, distressing damage she caused her by twisting and perverting her, Milly cannot help feeling guilty for betraying her mother who seems to continue holding a firm emotional, influential grasp on her.

Good Me Bad Me is well written with skillfully developed characters. It is compelling as well as a thought-provoking novel exploring the concealed twisted and complicated side of the human psyche. It is slow going, disturbing, heavy and dark with extremely gruesome parts. It is a psychological character-based story of a teenage girl who is not able to escape from her past. She is in constant conflict between good and evil and her persistent worries about the unknown field of the unexplored and unapparent effect of genetics on her.