Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad; by M.T. Anderson, Candlewick Press, 464 pages ($25.99). Ages 14 and up.
Fans of M.T. Anderson’s National Book Award-winning YA novel, “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume 1” and acclaimed dystopian novel “Feed,” will not be surprised at the brilliance of the writing and the meticulous research on display in this marvelous, compulsively readable biography of composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the great city that inspired his Seventh Symphony (a piece of music that played a role in bolstering the Allied effort against Hitler). Anderson brilliantly sets the stage for events that led to the overthrow of the czar (writing that Rasputin “ensorcelled” the czarina, that the city then named St. Petersburg had risen “up out of the swamps of the river Neva … Like many fairy tales dreamed up by the mighty, the magic involved in summoning it into existence was years of slave labor in murky ditches”). Young Dmitri was a quiet, dreamy sort; his father managed a peat farm and the family was comparatively well-off but sympathetic to the revolutionaries. Anderson brilliantly paints the chaos and exhilaration of the initial days after the overthrow of the czar and then the Bolshevik Revolution, even amid shortages of food and fuel (students at the Conservatory wore coats and fingerless gloves and took turns sitting near the stove), the wild experimentation in the arts, then the paranoia and terror of the Stalin years and the devastation of World War II. While the siege of Leningrad and Hitler’s deliberate campaign to starve the city has been documented many times elsewhere, Anderson offers a particularly vivid account (after Shostakovich had left the city, his mother and two sisters were eventually forced to eat the family dog). Anderson’s account of the starving musicians of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, who had survived the terrible winter of 1941-42, summoning the strength to perform the Seventh Symphony in August 1942 is particularly moving.
– Jean Westmoore
As Night Falls by Jenny Milchman; Ballantine, 384 pages ($26)
The domestic thriller gets a different spin in Jenny Milchman’s fourth entertaining stand-alone novel. Instead of a family fending off threats from the outside, the terror comes from within the family in “As Night Falls.”
While Milchman keeps the suspense high and the tension taut throughout, the characters never quite rise to the plot’s standards that she has created. The characters aren’t likable, but the situation they are in is intriguing and that keeps the intense plot of “As Night Falls” on an upward spiral.
Sandy Tremont’s life is upended one dark, winter day when two convicts who have just escaped from a work detail invade her newly built mansion in a remote area of the Adirondacks. Until then, Sandy found fulfillment in her part-time work as a mental health counselor. Her struggles with her angst-filled 15-year-old daughter, Ivy, seemed typical for life with a teenager; and her marriage to Ben, a wilderness guide, was, for the most part, happy.
But the huge, quiet Harlan Parker, who drove getaway cars for bank robbers, and sociopath Nick Burgess, convicted of murder, chose the Tremont house because they knew Ben would have enough survival equipment that they could use to cross the Canadian border on foot. But there also is a darker reason they chose this family – Nick is Sandy’s estranged brother, whose existence she has denied for more than 20 years. Nick is resentful of Sandy’s happiness, and his need to rob her of everyone and everything in her life is greater than his need to escape.
Despite the novel’s flaws, Mary Higgins Clark Award-winner Milchman knows how to build suspense that leads to a satisfying denouement.
– Oline H. Cogdill, Sun Sentinel