<B>Intrigue in today's Russia</B> Set against the fall of communism, Boris Starling's <B>Vodka</B> reveals the infighting and intrigues that accompany the privatization of Russia's most prestigious distillery, Red October. American banker Alice Liddell is brought in to manage the operation; she has presided over similar procedures in Hungary and the Czech Republic, and is uniquely qualified for the job. What neither she nor her employers have counted on, however, is her increasing addiction both to premium vodka and to the charismatic overseer of the distillery, a tattooed scofflaw well placed in the Moscow mafia. With Chechen thugs on one side and deposed bureaucrats on the other, it becomes difficult (both for the characters and the reader) to determine who the good guys are, if indeed there are any to be found. Vodka is the resounding metaphor throughout, serving as bellwether (and vehicle) for the highest highs and lowest lows, as focal point of the struggle between battered socialism and raw capitalism, and as perhaps the only stable currency in an economy gone hopelessly awry. Graphic violence abounds: <B>Vodka</B> is not a novel for the squeamish. That said, it is likely the best mystery of modern-day Russia since Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park.

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