The book I’m reviewing today is truly unique (at least, to this Oklahoma reader). Castle of Concrete is a young adult book set in the Soviet Union during the chaotic 1990s. The author takes relevant local political and social issues and creates a story that also touches on universal notes of adolescence. There are a lot of interesting factors…but also some significant disappointments.
About the Book
Title: Castle of Concrete
Author: Katia Raina
Genre: Young Adult Recent History (1990s), Young Adult Romance
Publication Date: June 2019
Synopsis (from Goodreads): In 1990-1991, when the history of Russia and the entire Soviet Union is being revisited and the rules are changing, a fifteen-year-old Jewish girl, Sonya Solovay, reunites with her dissident mother after twelve years of hiding out in Siberia–her life’s dream realized. Still, she sees herself as a typical Soviet citizen: a shy, quiet, obedient, barely-there girl, dissolving into the past, her country’s and her own. Determined to break into her new existence, Sonya tries out a shining new persona, but most of her efforts backfire. One mysterious boy notices her, wants to hear her stories, makes her feel like she is the shiniest part of his world. Everything else might as well fade away–her distant and hungry-for-gossip classmates, the equally shy Jewish friend who doesn’t always seem to understand her, the growing tension with her fiercely Jewish Mama, the rumors of an impending communist coup. More and more, Sonya spends time with her “rescuer” at a construction site she calls “castle.” So what if he uses an occasional anti-Semitic slur?
All the while, Sonya’s mama is falling in love also: she is falling in love with shiny America, a land where where being different seems to be celebrated, and not everyone is so very Russian and snow-white. The place sounds amazing, but so far away. Will Sonya ever find her way there?
Content to be aware of: underage drinking (although since this is set in Russia, I’m not sure about the legality); rampant poor decision-making by teens who are not provided with any (or enough) moral or practical guidance; racism (this is one of the central themes and I feel it is handled pretty well); violence in the form of multiple fistfights and, oh yeah, there’s a revolution going on.
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Every single thing I try to say about Castle of Concrete seems to come with a “but” clause. For example: it touches on an interesting and important time, but, so much of the story is spent on unnecessary high school drama that it overrides what could be a serious consideration of the subject matter. Sonya attempts to think critically about her environment and complicated political theories, but, she lets herself be pushed around. Sonya’s parents are miserable at parenting, but, they do try and given the situation they live in, perhaps that is all that can be expected?
I’m honestly not really sure what to think about this book. If I enjoyed YA drama more, I probably would have liked it more. In the end I think it tried to do too much: tried to be relate-able for YA readers, tried to convey the importance of things that require deep thinking, tried to show how to properly struggle with inter-personal relationships, and so much more. There are so many things going on, too many themes in the background and foreground that they become tangled and I forgot what I was supposed to be paying the most attention to, eventually. It’s definitely a good try, and I expect that a lot of YA readers will enjoy Castle of Concrete.
Unfortunately, this is one of those books that really leaves me with no strong feelings one way or the other. It isn’t great, but it isn’t actively bad. There are certain parts that I greatly disliked, and parts that I cheered for. If you enjoy YA and would like to read a typical YA drama with the backdrop of 1990s Russia, then you might enjoy Castle of Concrete very much! But, if you aren’t up for another coming of age story with most of the common tropes, then this is not the best choice.
Are there any books which you learned a lot from, but at the same time, really did not like (and I don’t mean textbooks!)?
Until the next chapter,