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A Russian Journal, John Steinbeck

I was a student of Russian language and literature in the 90s and spent some time in the former Soviet Union. I’m a big fan of John Steinbeck’s novels and am surprised that it took me so long to read this.

Steinbeck and his friend, photographer Robert Capa, went to the Soviet Union to document and photograph the lives of the ordinary Russian people. It’s basically a slice of life of the time and documents very well not only how Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian people live, but also the huge amounts of ridiculous bureaucracy of the Soviet machine.

One scene that stands out is the description of how long it takes from ordering a meal in a restaurant to having that meal arrive at your table.

There is some good comparative writing about the difference between the cult of personality status of the Soviet Union versus the US presidential system. The esteem in which Stalin was held whilst he was in office is quite incredible and almost impossible for a non-native to comprehend.

As Steinbeck states in his monologues, he’s not there to present the information in any particular way, he’s just there to present the information, and this he manages to pull off very successfully.

Magician, by Raymond E. Feist

I just finished this for the second time. I first read it as an adolescent and remember enjoying it and its sequels, but, being blessed with a poor memory, I was able to read it again as if it were the first time. 

I often find that books I read as a teenager are unenjoyable now, but that wasn’t the case with this one. Sure, it’s not as dense as George R. R. Martin or Stephen Donaldson (my two favourite authors of the genre) but it was very entertaining. 

I would like to have spent more time with Pug at the Academy as I felt that chapter was skimmed over, as was much of the tale actually. I think it could have used another 100 pages or so to flesh it out a bit, although it was still almost 700 pages as it was. 

Four stars

Extreme Risk, Chris Hunter

I served with Chris as an apprentice. He was a good soldier then and made the highest apprentice rank in our camp (Apprentice RSM). It was clear then that he’d go far. I’ve just discovered how far.

He was commissioned from Sandhurst at the age of 21 and went on to become a high-threat bomb disposal expert, working in the most dangerous areas of the world.

He’s written two books, documenting his career and personal life. I just finished Extreme Risk, his second book and could not put it down. I was never particularly army barmy and have never really read any army books, but this one had me totally hooked.

This book reminds me a little of the professional musicians I’ve met. They’re just ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I can say that I knew Chris as a teenager, so I think of him first and foremost as someone I know. Then I read about the things he’s done and how he got there and it’s utterly awe-inspiring. He’s achieved some incredible results and lived and incredibly interesting life, but there was always that background of his personal life throwing up mental obstacles, frustration, resentment and a whole package of emotions, both good and bad. And despite all of that, he achieved. And he’s not even 40!

This is an incredible story that I highly recommend.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson

I bought this on the back of the hype, not really expecting to enjoy it that much. I was pleasantly surprised. It has a well executed plot and great pacing. The language is a little stilted at times, but I forgave that as I knew it was a translation. The character development was first class, and just enough time was given to the main character.

I’m going to give this one a four. 

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

I had been listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Ghost of Tom Joad album for years when I started this novel. I had no idea that Tom Joad was a character from this book! Seriously. 

The book has one of the most memorable opening chapters I’ve ever read. I read it at work during a break and then walked to an appointment with headphones on listening to Springsteen. It was a spiritual moment. 

There’s something about Steinbeck’s prose that moves me as nobody else has. It’s not something I can put my finger on or pin down, but it’s there, almost like it’s the closest thing to pure art that I’ve ever encountered. Perhaps it just resonates with my soul. That’s not meant so sound cliched or pretentious, it’s the straight up, God’s honest truth. It’s like these words on the page can help me to feel better. 

Pandaemonium, Christopher Brookmyre

This was recommended to my by a friend. It follows a bunch of school kids from Scotland and much of the dialogue is in the Scots dialect. For me this made it enjoyable and must have been fun for the author. 

The story starts out quite strongly, with some philosophical discussion of parallel universes but, as it progresses, it turns into a gore fest and is ultimately rather disappointing. The character development was handled very well, including the romantic interests and there was some interesting discussion not only of parallel universes but also of religion and relationships. 

I’ll give it a three. 

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It follows the story of Mr Okada, a seemingly ordinary fellow at the outset but his life becomes weirder and weirder as the story progresses. My favourite chunks were the stories of Lt Mamiya. It’s kind of built up of different people’s stories, all of which affect the protagonist and leads to his becoming much more self aware.

It’s a somewhat quirky tale that is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It grabbed a hold of my attention like a thief in the park and kept a hold of it until the end of the story. I normally read fantasy or sci-fi so this is a bit of a step outside the box for me and one that I’m very glad I took. I’m recommending this to pretty much everyone I know and for good reason.

Thanks to Steve Betz for the recommendation!

Under the Dome, Stephen King

Just finished the audio book of Stephen King’s latest novel. It was very enjoyable, but I feel empty afterwards. Good entertainment but does not feed the soul. A throw-away page-turner.

The concept was very clever and the characters were wonderful and deep, as Stephen King’s characters always are. That’s what kept me going I think.

If you’ve enjoyed other Stephen King novels, chances are you’ll enjoy this.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving

I’ve enjoyed John Irving’s books for years now and this one just came out on Audible. It came at a perfect time for me. I kept it until we went our holidays to Tenerife in November and I started listening to it as I lay in the sun by the pool.

The book is the tale of Owen Meany narrated by his best friend, John Wheelwright. Owen is small and has a strange voice. It’s really the tale of why he is small and why he has a strange voice, but it’s so much more than that. The book moved me in a way that no other book ever has. I’m at a point in my life where my faith in God is developing and this book fits right into that. Owen believes in God and has a lot to say on the subject of religion.

One of John Irving’s strong points is his character development. In all the books of his that I have read, I’ve found his characters to be fully 3-dimensional and believable. All are flawed, just as I am, and it makes the characters easy to relate to. I’m not sure whether I’m getting that across very well, but for those who’ve read Garp or a Widow for a Year, you’ll know what I mean.

If only Audible would do more John Irving books. I’d be on them like a shot!

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas

My good friend Arjun recommended this to me.

I listened to the version read by Richard Matthews, a British reader and he read it very well indeed.

Of course the book was originally written in French and I know not who did the translation that I read, but it was as if the book were written in English. One choice they made that, to my mind was the right choice, was to keep names and titles in the French, for example the Procureur du Roi, monsieur de Procureur, and so on, rather than the Royal Prosecutor. Knowing a little French, I had no trouble with this, but I wonder how it would have read to someone with no knowledge of French? It reminds me of my reading A Clockwork Orange and being a Russian speaker; my experience of that novel was not the same as it would be for non Russian speakers.

Anyway, enough of that. Arjun is of the opinion that it is the best book he’s ever read. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it was very, very good. It’s the first and only Dumas novel I’ve read, and may in fact be the first French literary novel I’ve read. The tale is a simple tale of revenge for a wrongful imprisonment. The Count himself becomes almost God-like in stature; he seems to be omnipotent and able to influence people to do his will. In fact, that aspect seems a little unbelievable, sort of like Jason Bourne of 18th century France, but with Jason Bourne you know you’re reading make believe as it’s so far fetched. The Count seems much more credible than Jason, but he loses some of that credibility as his powers and knowledge increase. How, for example, could he possibly learn to speak so many languages like a native in so short a time? Language is something that I know something about and I know how far-fetched that really is. But, once disbelief is suspended, the novel becomes great.

At some 30-odd hours, you would think it would be a little dull in parts, and to be honest it is, but at the same time it is easy to listen to. I was a little worried at the morality of the Count and his taking revenge with such little humility and sympathy, but the ending assuaged that fear of mine and he redeemed himself admirably. I think I can say that without a spoiler alert.

All in all, I’m very glad that I read this book and I would heartily recommend it. I give it four.