Cover Image: The Half Life of Valery K

The Half Life of Valery K

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I was gripped from the very first page. I’m not a super “science-y” person but this story made what was happening easy to grasp. I was super invested in all the characters and would 100% recommend this book!

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Natasha Pulley is one of those authors whose works just resonate with me. The historical setting, the pinning and longing, and the raw emotion are just masterful.

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<i>I received a copy of this story from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.</i>

I love Natasha's storytelling! There's something so effortlessly compelling about it. I knew before I even started the book that I would like it -- it was simply a question of how much.

This is a beautiful bit of historical fiction. It's fairly well grounded in actual events, though all the characters are fictional. Natasha noted additional fictional elements at the end and I have to say I agree with their likelihood (despite no concrete evidence). It was fascinating to read historical accounts of the event and see how she played with it in this fictional narrative.

Valery K is a lovely little fox of a character! I think he was the perfect choice for a primary PoV, adding in ones from Shenkov as needed. I do wish we got to see more of Anna. I found her deeply delightful -- she's such a boss.

The emotional tone is spot on for me. It's realistic and appropriately Soviet-era depressing / horrifying while still maintaining a ribbon of hope. I loved the ending and think it was well-earned.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to everyone!

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Thank you to the publishers, author and NetGalley for the free copy of this book.

This hooked me right from the start! Definitely a heavy read at times but so, so good. I want more Albert though!

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Better late than never, I guess! We read this for one of my book clubs and everyone really enjoyed it. None of us had ever heard of the incident in the Soviet Union on which this book is based, and we were interested to learn more. The characters were excellent and the writing was very good. We all especially enjoyed how the author believeably injected a small amount of humor (or maybe some light-heartedness on the characters' part? hard to explain) into a really frightening and terrible situation, and somehow it felt totally appropriate.

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Really enjoyable read although I wish this author would give more thought to ways to dispose of her female characters getting in the way of her m/m couple besides killing them off.

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DNF at 50%.I think I am done with this author.

This could have been a wonderful book about the price of human experimentation, damaged people, suffering and atonement... it chose to be a weak romance between two unlikable characters instead.

I mean this was a subject matter ripe for the taking. We are talking about a period in the history of USSR when the government was responsible for the imprisonment and deaths of literally millions of its own people. And the author insists that this book was based on a real "closed" city with real events that happened as well. This could have been an exploration of the horrors of human experimentation, of how political doctrine could distort people's perception of right and wrong, of how even normal people could commit atrocities for a perceived "greater good" of their country. 

And Valery was the ideal vessel for that exploration. He was a victim as well as a torturer himself. Yes, he spent six years in a GULAG, so he knows first hand the abuse and total dehumanization that happens there. Yet he also worked with Mengele before WWII and experimented on prisoners. If the author would have made this book about his journey of realization that what he had done before was monstrous and his attempts to atone for this by preventing the horrible experiment happening how in City 40, I would have been happily along for the ride.

But it wasn't. In fact, Valery doesn't feel guilt about any of his actions before his imprisonment. He justifies it all by saying that "science had to be done." And you are asking me to care for a character like that? Sorry, no can do.

Unfortunately, we didn't even get that in this book. We got a lackluster romance for which this city and the horrors committed within are just a backdrop. And it was probably my fault for not reading the tags and realizing it was a romance, but this was definitely not what I had wanted in this book. Especially since this romance feels so forced. The author had to fridge both Valery's first love interest and the KGB guy's wife just to make that happen. Plus, as I said, they are both despicable human beings, so watching them grow to care for each other did nothing for me.

Also, does the author hate women? This is the second book I have read from her where all the women are either absolutely awful, unfeeling and domineering towards men, or sweet non-entities who are immediately fridged to provide angst for the male protagonists. Either way, they all end badly. Even the main big bad of this story is a woman, and even though she is so over the top bad, she is the most interesting character in this story, which is sad.

PS: I received an advanced copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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The Half Life of Valery K is very different to the other books I have read from Natasha Pulley. A historical fiction with a particularly troubling setting, the story follows Dr. Valery Kolkhanov, a nuclear scientist in 1960s Russia. I was initially drawn to this book after watching the Chernobyl miniseries and thought that it would be interesting to read a novel that had elements of this world. This was a disturbing but equally compelling read, the writing completely hooked me in and even though I can't say this was an 'enjoyable' story to read, it definitely had some fascinating characters.

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Loved this book. The characters stayed with me for a long while after I read it, and I learned a heck of a lot about the nuclear history.

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I loved the title of this book, it says so much in a few words. This intriguing story of Valery K., nuclear specialist in the Soviet Union who goes from a prison in Siberia to a mysterious city affected by radiation. A fascinating page-turner.

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This was an enjoyable suspensful novel about a topic you don't ready much about: life in Russia. The story follows Valery Kolkhanov, a nuclear specialist pulled from a prison in the 60s and placed in City 40. There are some strange things happening and Valery fights to discover the truth and risk the security he's gained in this city. The fact the book is based on a true story made it even more enjoyable. The characters were interesting and complex and it was a fun mystery to try to solve.

thanks to @Netgalley for the ARC. #TheHalfLifeofValeryK #NetGalley

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Valery Kolkhanov has spent years in a Russian gulag just for being a scientist who studied outside of Russia years before. He’s mastered the art of survival in the camp and is surprised one day in 1963 to be uprooted from his life and delivered to City 40, an irradiated site to study the effects of radiation on the local ecosystem. It’s quickly apparent that the residents and scientists are being lied to about the levels of contamination and the deeper he digs, the more invested he becomes in the lives of those around him. He’ll risk everything to save as many people as he can from the damaging effects of the poisoning.

Not that it’s difficult to make a story about a Russian Nuclear Reactor site interesting, but it seems more the subject of a podcast than a literary novel, but Pulley pulled me in with her characters. I was fully invested in them, and they have so many layers. People are sometimes forced to do terrible things to survive and continue to fight, to make it better for the ones left.

One of my favorite quotes from the book was, “Throwing your hands up at an organization like the KGB was no way to solve anything. You had to join, then you did as many good things as you could, until the evil was a little bit less.” Then the character goes on to acknowledge that to those affected and victimized by what he did, even though it was less terrible than if someone else had, you’re still the villain.

It’s not light reading for sure, but it was completely enthralling. Highly recommend. It’s my last read of 2022 and I feel like I’m finishing on a high note.

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Quiet, sad, yet intriguing. I found this to be a moving interpretation of a real life figure. Natasha Pulley's writing is fast, yet says so much. This was a character driven novel, that made you feel for all involved. I am definitely going to read more by Pulley.

I am not a huge fan of a books turning into escape thrillers, but I know this is a personal preference, which has me moving my rating from 3.5 to 4 stars. I can see myself recommending this title to patrons.

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The Half Life of Valery K is exactly the type of glorious all consuming historical fiction I expect from one of my favorite living authors. I read this back in May, but had trouble articulating my thoughts as to why this book worked so well for me. It is a book that has lingered in my mind for months and will almost certainly make my top books of the year, so it's time I tried to do it justice.

The Half Life of Valery K is historical fiction that reads almost as a dystopian novel. The events and circumstances in this book are so harrowing and disturbing that they seem like something out of science fiction, and yet the entire book is simultaneously grounded in reality. The book is set in 1960s Russia and centers on Dr. Valery Kolkhanov, a nuclear scientist, who has been surviving in the gulag. Recommended by his old mentor, Valery is removed from the gulag and given the opportunity to be a scientist once again. He is expected to serve out his prison term in the mysterious City 40, studying radiation on local animals. But his research raises more questions than it answers. Why and how is this area so irradiated? And what crucial safety information is being hidden from the townspeople? It's questions like these that could get Valery killed before finishing his prison term, but the scientist in him can't help but satisfy his curiosity.

Only Natasha Pulley has the ability to write something that explores such terrifying, dark, raw themes in such a wry and light manner. She strikes the perfect tonal balance to keep me engaged, but not overwhelmed by the dark subject matter. She also has a unique talent for writing nuanced, complicated characters who are pushed to their moral limits by the course of history. Valery and KGB Officer Shenkov are both fascinating looks at how humanity tries to do its best within limited circumstances. These characters may commit horrific actions, crimes even, but the measures they take do not necessarily make them corrupt or evil beings. The themes of morality, justice, and individualism are handled exquisitely in this novel, and Valery and Shenkov add to the conversation around morality that Pulley has previously started with characters like as Missouri Kite from The Kingdoms.

The Half Life of Valery K is a bit of a departure for Natasha Pulley in both time period and in the lack of supernatural or magical element. Pulley proves, however, that she can bring her quintessential lightness and humor to serious subjects and make even the darkest aspects of the human experience seem magical. I've recommended this book to everyone who will listen, and can't wait to see where Natasha Pulley's writing takes her next.

Please stay tuned for my inevitable discussion of this book in my top books of 2022 coming in January on my Youtube channel.

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*Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for granting me access to an early copy of this book*
Why I Requested It: After enjoying The Bedlam Stacks by Pulley, I wanted to read more standalone works by her (as much as I liked Bedlam Stacks, I am not yet sold on continuing the series). Also this book is set during a time I don't usually see in historical fiction, most of it being the (late) Victorian Era, the 1920s, or WWII, and I was eager for a little variety.

What It's About: In the middle of the Cold War in a remote part of Russia, former nuclear scientist Valery Kolkhanov is transferred to City 40, a town housing nuclear reactors. Serving out the rest of his prison sentence there, Valery begins to question everything his data is suggesting and investigates the town's recent history and the disappearances of the local population with a KGB officer.

Cons: To my disappointment, there was a lot about this book that I disliked, with the characters and there relationships being the worst offense. The protagonist, Valery, is initially presented as savvy, able to survive hard conditions, and skeptical of the material produced the Russian government. Once he's taken to the research facility, however, he turns into a wilting coward and idiot who believes everything he's told and blurts out whatever is on his mind with little regard for the consequences (to himself and others) and I'm given no plausible reason to believe this drastic of a transformation would happen to him. So Valery was a frustrating character, but it somehow gets worse. The love interest is a KGB agent who has committed murder that is watered down and softened to make the audience root for the romance. Also said KGB agent (whose name I could not bother to remember) is married to the one decent character in the whole novel and does something in the end I wholly don't approve of. While there was no flagrant abuse in the romance, on principle, I could not get behind it. But wait, there's more! The only female character of prominence, a previous mentor of Valery's, is an amoral villain who delights in destroying any attempt to stop her work on radiations human subjects whom she has kidnapped. Oh, and also she was a scientist that worked under the Nazis. So none of the characters come off looking good in almost any light. This book was very character focused but there was a plot about the radiation and government coverups, yet what little plot there was was so boring. There were moments of intrigue and suspense, but mostly it was a drag to get through.

Pros: The writing was decent enough to carry the novel at least to the half way point for me. Natasha Pulley does have a way with words but beyond that there was nothing that redeemed this book. I did like the KGB agents wife, but she only appeared in two scenes.

Finishing Thoughts: This book, unfortunately, was bad, very bad. It was quite a struggle to get through it. On top of being insufferable, it also comes off as problematic because of the handwaving of ethical dilemmas and the generally poor treatment/ portrayal of women. Despite this terrible book, I haven't given up on Pulley, yet. I am willing to give her one more try, which will hopefully be experience closer to The Bedlam Stacks rather than The Half Life of Valery K.

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Natasha Pulley's The Half Life of Valery k was fantastic. Pulley has a way with words that keeps you engaged from the very beginning and this was a story that I didn't want to end.

It's very different from her other works and it was just as good as everything else she has done. It's engaging, entertaining and endearing. She takes such care with her characters and you really do feel for them.

I cannot recommend this book enough.

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Book received for free through NetGalley

Read 4% of the way into this book but kept starting and stopping and ultimately forgot about it. Figured it was better to review as is. It was written well just not my cup of tea.

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Like everything Natasha Pulley writes, The Half Life of Valery K is immersive, atmospheric, and deeply sad. Every word that Pulley puts into the world is a gem, and Half Life is no exception. In spite of my sky high expectations, this book somehow managed to meet them, drawing me in and keeping me hooked until the very end. With none of Pulley's usual light fantasy/science fiction, I thought this one might be missing something, but it does not miss the touch of speculative fiction that her previous novels have employed. While Pulley's tendency to short change her female characters remains (and remains a bit frustrating and puzzling), that did not stop this from being an easy five stars from me. Natasha Pulley fans can rest easy -- she has done it again.

Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

**Content Warnings**
Miscarriage and pregnancy-related trauma, child illness, torture, implied rape, institutional homophobia, mass murder, murder, human experimentation, animal death.

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To get it out of the way the copy I had was a little oddly formatted. I only bring it up to say once I stepped into the book I couldn't have cared less about that fact because this story was so compelling. I loved the settings, how backstory was layered in and how each central character had enough development to make them feel solid and real. The idea of experimentation occuring at this scale is a spooky thought but it is also an extremely interesting one. I think this book brings forth compelling questions and gives the reader enough room to step back and consider. Do the ends justify the means? Does knowledge that will push forward medical science and ultimately save many people mean that any way that information can be gathered is morally correct? I highly recommend this book and greatly enjoyed reading it.

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There is nothing one Earth more appalling to me than the attitude "My ignorance is better than your education, training, and expertise." It's not just wrong-headed. It is dangerous. It leads to very, very deleterious results for the people who have no say in...often no awareness of...the risks they are being subjected to by the wilfully ignorant. The Yucca Flats, Nevada, nuclear-bomb testing disaster that People magazine broke the story of in 1980...the 1956 filming of The Conqueror ring any bells, fellow oldsters?...wasn't the only such official-denial event in the world. In the USSR, there was the Ozyorsk disaster, outed to the world in the New Scientist magazine in 1976 by a brave scientist called Medvedev. (I have to say that Siberia has a very unlucky past. This disaster occurred in 1957; the Tunguska event in 1908 was a holocaust; and sixty miles away from Ozyorsk is Chelyabinsk, of 2013 meteorite explosion fame!)

The story of the many "closed cities" in the USSR, and in today's Russia, is similarly grim, similarly marked by denial and obfuscation and outright lying. The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 was going to be treated that way, only it was far too big to tamp down and deny. So, Author Pulley has me by the nose-hairs again. Again! I am putty in this wicked writer's hands. She tells stories that make my ears perk up, the hair on the back of my neck do its wolfman imitation, and my breathing to become labored in eagerness.

Valery K. the nuclear scientist, exiled to a colder and less hospitable part of Siberia than City 40/Ozyorsk is in, is suddenly ripped from his wretched routine without explanation or preparation. He's in the gulag...this is terrifying. But his worst fears...interrogation? execution?...aren't realized. He's sent to this comparative demi-Paradise of a place to study field mice. To assess them for effects of radiation exposure.

So, all is explained. He's a criminal, but also a thorough scientist trained in matters nuclear. Trained, talented, expendable.

What follows is a litany of nuclear-waste exposure nightmares. The effects on people, on the environment, are grisly. In the one plot strand I am absolutely sure is fiction (it says here) the authorities conduct radiation-exposure experiments on the people of City 40. The other plot strands, the environmental disaster, the carelessness and mismanagement that led to and characterized the ongoing handling of the disaster, are real. (Follow the links!) And gosh golly gee, wowee zowie, those sorts of things don't *ever* happen now. Especially the official lying and misleading! That could never happen in any authoritarian state in the twenty-first century, we have satellites and technology to sniff out problems, and scientists who would *never* lie to us here in the West.

So, the timing of the title's publication is now explained.

As one expects from Author Pulley, there are two men falling in love with each other amid the chaos and carnage that they are powerless to stop. Also as one would expect, there are events that occur that cause them trouble personally and interpersonally. I've said it before, the curse of adulthood is one never, ever has an unmixed emotion. Valery tries, in his what-got-him-gulaged way, to force officialdom to face up to the scale of the disaster. He wants to help people, to save them. Shenkov, his belovèd, is a married father, is in the game because it's the way to get ahead. And stay out of the gulag. The story, in other words, of generations of gay and bisexual men. Hide! They won't kill you if they don't have to notice your deviance.

But like calls to like. Valery knows that Shenkov loves him; he knows he loves Shenkov; things won't go well for City 40, but can things go well for them as men, as people, as...a couple? Fortune, as always, favors the brave. There must always be blood sacrificed before one gets one's rewards.

Morally grey characters, men past pretty on life's curve, the necessity of moving the world's blockages to make room for your authentic life: boxes all checked. The life you want, well...what do you know about how much it will cost, about what it will extract from you. You'll find out, if you're lucky. Or maybe unlucky. Most likely both. Consider, after reading the book, the title and its layers of meaning.

The right kind of read for me, right now, and it went down like the oldest, smoothest, most deceptively sweet tequila there is.

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