The Best Russian Books in English

Forget War and Peace: this blog offers reviews of fun and interesting Russian books in English, links to their Amazon pages, interviews with new and upcoming Russian authors, with the emphasis on Russian genre fiction: LitRPG, science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, romance, mystery and other popular reads.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Old Soviet calendar

Remember that chapter in my book about Russian calendars? Well, here're a couple of  pics to illustrate what I meant, namely about the infamous 5-day and 6-day weeks. Enjoy!

NaNoWriMo Russian Research: Inside a Russian Orthodox Church

Seeing as I've spent some quality time answering people's questions about Russia in NaNoWriMo forums, I decided to copy a few of them here, especially because current forum topics will be deleted before next NaNo starts in November 2010. Here's a post on a subject that seems to interest many writers, and here's the link to the original post:

Inside a Russian Orthodox Church

I'll start with the gate, because normally, there's a fence surrounding the church grounds and possibly the cemetery if it's there. Unless it's in the centre of a big city where there's no space for a fence. There're two gates serving as the main entrance in the fence: a large drive-through one used by cars and (possibly) hearses, and a narrow walk-through one. So people are supposed to go through the narrow gate and not take the wide one. First, because of that saying that we should take the narrow path into the Kingdom of Heaven. Also, because of hearses using the wide gate, there's a superstition that the person who walks through the wide gate will die soon. :-)

There's always an icon or at least a large crucifix over each of the gates. You approach the gate, make three signs of cross bowing low to the icon or to the crucifix and walk through.

There's another icon (usually of Christ) or at least a crucifix over the church entrance. You do the same thing again, making three signs of cross and bowing low each time. You may touch the ground with the fingers of your right hand, but that's optional :-)

The door: normally, it's heavy double doors of oak or other hard wood, or in our days sometimes of steel to keep thieves out. There're all sorts of church-life related announcements pinned to the doors: scheduled services, christenings, choir and Sunday school meetings and such.

Once you're in, yes, there is a lobby (size varies), carpeted or not, where you'll see more announcements, as well as doors and stairs leading to offices, the choir loft and such. If the church is really small, the lobby is small, too, and its main purpose is to serve as an extra bit of insulation from winter frosts.

The double door leading from the lobby into the actual church (its purpose, too, is to keep the cold out) usually has glass panes in it. You walk through it. The first thing you do is make three more signs of cross bowing low each time. Then you start looking around :-)

To your left or right, just by the entrance, you'll see what they call a candle box: a stall or kiosk that sells candles (which are always thin and long), icons, books on religion and such. They also accept people's "notes": written requests to pray or hold a special service for a particular person or people, whether alive or dead. You always have to pay for those requests (unlike some Russian Orthodox churches here in the West that do it for free). You can also make all sorts of donations, buy candles to place them in front of the icons of particular saints of your choice, etc. I tell you, going to a Sunday service in Russia is not cheap!

But before you head for the candle box, you'll see a large icon placed on a lectern in the very middle of the church. The thing is, every single day in the Russian Orthodox calendar is dedicated to a specific saint or a Biblical / historical event, and the icon depicts this particular saint or event. So these icons are changed every day (or week, if the event lasts all week, like Easter) during the evening service. You approach it and do the same thing with three signs of cross and bows, and this time you kiss the icon.

(I wonder if you know but there's some scientific research that shows that even the most popular and therefore most kissed icons in Russian Orthodox churches are normally virtually bacteria-free; also, the ladies who supervise the church during the service clean them several times during each service.)

I do hope you know that nobody sits during a Russian Orthodox service? There're no pews, period. In the West, I've seen Russian Orthodox churches with pews but that's simply the cultural influence of other Christian churches and I personally think it's not a good idea. In Russia, no one would dream of sitting down during the service, but there's always a spare bench or two kept in the back for very old ladies or heavily pregnant women (an Orthodox service may last anything from 2 to 4 and more hours!). It's all right for them to sit down during some very strictly specified parts of the service.

Basically, each church is divided into three major areas: the centre, the right and the left half and often the architecture makes this division very clear by using columns and such. Theoretically, men are supposed to keep to the right and women, to the left, but in reality, nobody does it. People just mix together. But the left side (if you face the altar) is dedicated to the dead so there you'll find a large statue of Christ on the cross and a very special square candle stand with a cricifix over it, the only stand in the whole church to place candles for dead people. In front, there's the altar area that a female can't enter but male churchgoers can on certain occasions.

In the far right corner (if you face the altar) there's a booth where a special person stands who reads Psalms and certain prayers during the service. He or (usually) she has a lectern and usually a book case where she keeps all the books she needs and sometimes also sheet music.The choir loft is usually placed over the entrance, i.e. behind the worshippers' backs. If it's a small service, a group of two or three singers will place themselves in that booth and will sing from there using the sheet music in the book case. All singing is always live -- tapes are never used -- and usually very professional. Microphones are never used even in the biggest (read: gynormous) churches because the acoustics is so good you don't need amplifiers.

There're no special confession booths in the Russian Orthodox church. They did exist before the Second World War, but during the war, churches were so crowded with worshippers wishing to confess that booths were discontinued and instead, a confessor listens to people's confessions in full view: usually, they queue in the far left corner of the church by the altar and the person who confesses just steps a few steps away from the rest so they can't hear him. Confessions only take place just before the lithurgy (which in most bigger churches can be held on most weekdays, not just on Sundays) or the night just before. No one confesses at other times -- but they probably can if they arrange it personally with a priest.

BTW, nobody can turn their backs to the altar in the church! If you have to turn, you still need to remain sort of sideways to it :-)) Some of the more avid church goers and especially those order-keeping baboushkas will comment on it negatively :-((

As for the rest, the architecture varies greatly. There're churches with and without windows, with and without domes, some so tiny only a dozen people can fit in, others good enough for a thousand.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Recovering from NaNoWriMo....

Yes, another dose of literary abandon plus extensive networking with the writers who needed help with their Russian settings and characters. I'm amazed how many people choose Russia and the Soviet Union as their novel settings! 277 posts in total, mainly (but not all) Russia-related, which doesn't sound like much but if you think that most of them demanded a certain amount of extra research, that's nothing to sniff at!

And I've managed to finish the book, as well.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

I'm back!

Yes, I stayed in Russia much longer than expected due to my mum's suspected cancer (thank God it wasn't) so now I'm busy catching up with all sorts of things.

Today's tip:

There was no such thing as comic books in the Soviet Union.

Kids' mags did publish comic strips, but comic books themselves were viewed as something good only for the illiterate, a printed equivalent of graffiti. With the country's literate population counting 98.5% in 1959, comic books were not considered literature or artwork, period. They were never published. In the 1920s and 1930s there were a few attempts to create "a Soviet comic hero" but they failed. The first Soviet comic books per se appeared in the late 1980s, created and printed by the first private entrepreneurs.

Recently, there was information on the Net about the discovery of "first Soviet comic books" from the early 1920s in some remote village library. Sorry to disappoint anyone, but it was an April Fool joke. Some covers were even dated April 1st!

Of course, nobody explicitly banned Western comic books in the USSR so theoretically a kid whose parents had brought some back from an overseas business trip could read ("read"??? :-))))))) them or take them to school for others to marvel at, but those were extremely rare occasions. Before the early 1960s, such a kid could be ostracized by school officials for "spreading Western influence", but later, the official position towards "Western influence" relaxed a lot. As long as you did it cleverly and didn't make any waves, you could get away with almost anything.

Actually, the first time I held a comic book was in France (the French are mad about them) when I was 32. I still find them very weird. Can't you just read a flippin' book???? :-)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Back to Russia!

Yes, that's where I'm heading so I'm afraid I won't be able to update this blog for two or three weeks.

Lots of changes in Russia now including new pronunciation standards which reflect natural erosion processes that happen to every language... whatever was considered "low style" yesterday is norm today! "Звонить" is official! Where oh where is the world going...

See you soon folks! :-)))

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I've got a banner!

The 33 Worst Mistakes Writers Make About

Everything writers need to know about their Russian settings and characters!

Click on the cover to find out more about the book:

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Research, grrrrr!

A friend said to me today, "Well, knowing how meticulous you are with your research I have little doubt all the information in The 33 Worst Mistakes Writers Make About Russia is very accurate."

Girl you can say that again. Meticulous? When working on the book, I lost count of times when I'd write a chapter off the top of my head because I knew all this stuff, didn't I? It was part of me, I'd grown up with it, I'd read countless books about it, and it was all such trivia anyway, so what was there to get wrong?

Then I'd decide to do a bit of research, just in case, only to discover that oh my, I'd gotten quite a few details totally wrong. Was it nostalgia replacing memory? Luckily, being a freelance journalist, I'm so used to fact sheets and source lists that it's become my second nature to research even the most obvious things. So I went over the book with a fine-tooth comb, double- and triple-checking every fact, date and source, so now I can finally breathe a sigh of relief and say,

Yes, luckily, I am meticulous. So The 33Worst Mistakes Writers Make About Russia is an accurate book. Зуб даю! :-)

Monday, September 7, 2009

The book is out!


The 33 Worst Mistakes Writers Make About Russia

is now available for download here:

I'll add a clickable picture as soon as I work out how to do it :-)))

Here, I'll be happy to answer your questions about the book and Russia in general. What is the book about?It's all about telling you what life in Russia really is, and was, like.

"Don't Be The Writer Who
Betrays Your Protagonist and
Leaves Him Helpless
In A Strange Country!"

Sending their fictional secret agents to Russia, espionage writers like Graham Greene and Ian Fleming have committed errors which in real life could cost their undercover heroes’ lives. In his masterpiece The Human Factor, Graham Greene made 16 mistakes on 9 pages when describing Russian characters and settings.

In those days of the Cold War, writers didn’t have Russian experts to advise them. YOU DO!

Irene is a native Russian speaker, born and raised in the USSR. Neil has spent the last twenty years studying Russian history and culture. Between the two of us, we know most of what there is to know about the Russians’ everyday life, their background and values.

More than that, we are writers ourselves. We know what a difference the right details make to a story… and how hard they often are to come by.

We Have The Information You Need
To Bring Your Russian Characters To Life!

Let us show you what Russians really feel, think and say. From drinking habits to Stalinist mentality, from travel tips to accent advice, WE’VE GOT IT COVERED.

If you’ve seen too many Hollywood movies, your idea of Russia is a set of dated, hilarious cliches. Read this book to find out why:

  • A Russian wouldn’t frog-dance unless he was a Red Army Choir member – read Mistakes Twenty-Two and Twenty-Three to discover the biggest myths about Russian popular culture.

  • Do you think Soviet Russians called each other Comrade? Read Mistake One to find out why they wouldn’t… and learn the protocol of using the Comrade word.

  • How about Russian names? Read Mistake Three to find out why your Soviet-era character is highly unlikely to be called Ivan… and see lists of period-related Russian names.

In The 33 Worst Mistakes Writers Make About Russia, you’ll discover:

  • Which calendars Russians used during different periods, and how to calculate them
  • What kind of houses Russian and Soviet people used to live in and how those houses were heated, furnished and equipped
  • Why using Russian swear words in your book is not always a good idea
  • How those NKVD officers really felt about their jobs

The book contains many useful extras. Area phone codes, lists of public holidays by period, top 10 Soviet household must-haves, a period-related list of most popular Russian movies, even a top 10 list of dogs’ and cats’ names...

Lots of details to make your story ring true!

The Internet is packed with information about Russia. SOME OF IT IS WRONG. How can you be sure which facts are correct and which are a lot of old cobblers?

We include links to RELIABLE sources
to help you with your own research.

This book is your guide to Russia and its people throughout history. Pick up your copy today– and get your Russian settings and characters just right!

Be the writer who says,
"I know what I'm talking about!"

The book is available for download here:

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Great Russian Links!

For all of us writers, here're some fabulous links for our USSR-related research. Galleries and galleries of photos of Russian streets, people, equipment, foods, etc. See for yourself what life in Russia and the USSR was about. How people dressed, what Soviet-era rooms and streets looked like, storefronts, tree decorations, all sorts of little details to add authenticity to your story. is the English-speaking community for Russia-related visual research, that's for sure!

Moscow in the 1960s:

1937-1970s New Year tree decorations:

Miscellaneous photos from various periods:

1970s- 1980s storefronts (soooo realistic!):

1970s Russian students:

Late 1950s- early 1960s food posters (all that packaging, milk bottles and serving suggestions to add believable touches to your Russia-set story!):

Moscow in 1927:

USSR in the 1960s:

And many, many more. Each page contains links to a dozen others with similar content. These people are just awesome. They may be eaten by nostalgia, but from a writer's point of view, a resource like this is priceless.

There're other similar resources on the Net (some Russian-speaking LJ communities do a great job collecting period-related pics from the Soviet era), so I'll be adding them, as well.