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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.

Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram, Iain Banks

I used to enjoy whisky. I also enjoy Iain Banks’s novels. So it made sense to read a book about whisky by Iain Banks. Ironically, I picked this book up from the boxes of books stored in the church hall where we have our Wednesday AA meetings. I put 50p in the honesty box.

The book is very readable. Iain travels around Scotland visiting distilleries and buying up hunners of bottles. One might say that it’s a self-indulgent book by a writer with too much money and who likes nothing more than to talk about his cars and motorcycles and throws money away on expensive wine and restaurants. And that isn’t entirely wrong either, but for all that it is still strangely compelling and enjoyable. He shares a lot of anecdotes about his life, many of which are rather amusing, such as his enjoyment of urban climbing. And although he talks a lot about his expensive cars, it’s clearly more than just self-indulgent prattle; this is a man who knows and loves the automobile and his enthusiasm is infectious. He also knows Scotland very well and it’s fun to read his descriptions of the various roads across the country.

Overall this is a great book. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. I’d give it a four.

Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely

I literally just finished this yesterday. It came recommended by a good friend of mine. It’s all about how we are all not only irrational, but predictably so. A good example is seen in his example of the advert for a subscription to the Economist. The web-only subscription is $59, the print-only subscription is $125 and the print AND web subscription is $125. Most of his students picked the print and web subscription. But when the print-only subscription was removed, most students went for the web only. Nobody in either case picked the print-only subscription.

He explains that none of this has anything to do with rationality, but that the print-only subscription is placed deliberately as a decoy.

He looks at why we behave irrationally when offered anything free, why a cheap aspirin doesn’t cure a headache quite so well as an expensive one, and so on. It was an enjoyable read, however I did find it to be a little repetitive and over long.

The Stand, Stephen King

I used to enjoy reading Stephen King a lot. I find his tales to be gripping and well written. I chose this book for my review of personal reading that formed part of my higher English exam. The theme was conflict. That was in 1991.

I just listened to it again and enjoyed it once more. It’s quite an appropriate tale for the current swine flu climate actually! It follows a bunch of survivors of a superflu virus, devised by the US Government, that wipes out the large majority of the US population (no other part of the world ever gets mentioned, a shortcoming of the book in my opinion; it could at least have been glossed over). The survivors split into two groups, the first gathering around Mother Abigail, the goody, and the Dark Man, the baddy. So you see the margin for conflict?

Of course the goodies win, but it’s SK’s style and skill at character building and dialogue that makes the book worth reading. He’s an astute observer of the human psyche and the characters are easy to relate to, even if they are all from a completely different culture to my own.

Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin

I read this a while back but never got around to posting about it. Matter of fact I don’t recall that much about it. It follows the tale of a kid who becomes a wizard and goes to wizard school and unleashes an evil spirit and then has to beat said evil spirit.

To be honest, I didn’t enjoy it that much at all. I probably would have enjoyed it when I was in my teens, but it was just a bit too formulaic and shallow for me. Perhaps it gets better as the series progresses. I don’t really care though; book one didn’t grab me enough to want to carry on.

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

I read this as it was the September choice for the Sword & Laser book club. Sci-fi is a genre that I’ve not read much of, not because of I don’t think I would enjoy it, but because I never really got around to it. I read Stephen Donaldson’s Gap series twice and they are included in my top 5 list. I also read Dune and enjoyed it too.

So, The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. This is supposed to be a classic of the genre and, to be honest, I’m not sure why. I did enjoy it but it’s quite forgettable in my opinion.

The main themes are war and time dilation. The main protagonist, William Mandella, is conscripted along with a number of individuals with a high IQ. They endure a tough training regime, during which many trainees lose their lives. This happens in a fairly come-what-may sort of way and we don’t learn enough about the characters really to care. And this is one of the book’s shortcomings: it’s too short. Not enough time is spent developing the characters, or the plot. This makes it a short book. Another 100 or so pages would have allowed the author to give it some flesh.

Due to the physics of travelling above light speed, Mandella encounters time dilation. So while a few months pass for him, years pass on earth. When he gets back, things have changed so much that he no longer feels comfortable on earth. So he goes back to the army and gets back into the war again.

I found the idea of homosexuality off putting at first. This is something that happens on earth to prevent population increase. It’s an interesting concept.

To be honest, I didn’t really enjoy the book enough to write more about it than I already have. As this is not a recommendation list but simply a list of what I’ve read (because I do forget), I’ll leave it at that.

Books: The Complaints, Ian Rankin

I’ve always enjoyed Ian Rankin’s detective novels starring the dour Inspector Rebus. Rebus has just retired and Ian Rankin has developed a new character, Inspector Fox.

Foxy works for the complaints, which is to say he investigates other police officers. Like Rebus before him, he is a flawed character. This makes him seem very life-like and I think he will grow to be as well loved as the character of Rebus.

The plot is as good as any that’s gone before, with clever twists and great secondary characters. The interplay between the police officers of different stations and different departments is very well done. Never having been a police officer I can’t really say how true to life it is, but for the reader it’s most enjoyable.

It’s also bang up to date, referring to the credit crunch and the demise of Woolworths. I suppose one might be able to study Scottish social history through Ian Rankin’s books!

This was an enjoyable throw-away detective novel and I’ll be watching out for the next Inspector Fox book!

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

I bought this on the strength of a recommendation by freelance journalist and regular MacBreak Weekly panelist, Andy Ihnatko. His recommendation was based on the fact that the audible version is 32 hours long and yet is still only one credit! Thus, one can ‘stick it to the man’ with this audiobook. Well, there was a little more to it than that. My interest was piqued and the review I read convinced me that I would enjoy it.

I found it to be rather a clever book in that it seems to rise above the geekish realm of fantasy and sci-fi and enter the mainstream. Yes, it is in essence a fantasy book, but not like any other I’ve read. There are no elves and goblins, no magic talismans, no underdogs coming into their powers and having to save the world from evil against the odds. Rather this is a tale of 19th century England and features such historical characters as Napoleon and Wellington.

The style is a literary one, reminding one of Jane Austen and the Brontes and the characters would not seem out of place in a Dickens novel.

We begin in the north of England, where practical magicians no longer, well, practice magic and the theoretical magicians read books on magic and discuss it in their clubs and societies. That is until Mr Norrell comes along, a practical magician intent on being the only one of his kind. He agrees to prove to the theoreticians that he can do magic, but makes them agree that, if he is sucessful, the theoretical magicians should give up magic all together.

Then Jonathan Strange comes along as another real magician and we follow the relationship between him and Mr Norrell throughout the tale.

The audiobook is read by Simon Prebble and he does a good job. I enjoyed the book a lot but do feel that it could have been shortened without losing too much. The constant footnotes became a little grating but I had got used to them by the end. I don’t think that I would read this again and I would be hesitant to recommend it to my fantasy-loving friends, but to those of you who do enjoy the 19th century novel, I’d have no hesitation in recommending it.

The Best a Man Can Get, John o’Farrell

Lorraine bought me this book and told me she’d bought me it before I told her that I didn’t have time to ‘read’ books any more. And fair enough, I hardly consume paper books any more these days but the fact is that if a book holds my attention for long enough, I’ll find the time. More often that not it’s whilst waiting for software to install, updates, that sort of thing. Yesterday it was uninstalling CS3 and installing CS4, an unbelievably long task.

And so to the book. This book was written just for me. I’m sure of it. John o’ Farrell must have heard how I was feeling and decided to write me a novel. Honestly, that’s how it feels. But I guess that a lot of fathers of my generation would be able to relate to this book. The main character wants what I would imagine most fathers want: the ability to do all the great things that make fatherhood such a joy, and go back to being a single man to avoid all the tough bits of being a dad and enjoy all the fun things that a single man gets to enjoy. Trouble is, as any dad worth his salt will tell you, that is an impossible thing to achieve. It’s all about compromise and learning how to do the best one can for the family, and it has to be all or nothing. The rewards then far outweigh the investment.

I learned a lot from reading this book, especially its conclusion, which is that the most important thing is to be there for the family, to be there with the family, and to be part of the family.

And the title is very clever too. The man interprets it one way and his wife interprets in quite another. Being a man, I hadn’t even considered that there was another way.

So in this book you will follow a 30-something dad who leads a double life, all the while thinking that he’s doing a good thing, until it all blows up in his face and he realises that he was actually being quite deceptive. And the thing is that I totally understood his arguments for thinking it was a good thing and then, of course, his discovery that it wasn’t was also a discovery for me.

I’d like Lorraine to read this book and see what she thinks about it. It would be interesting to get a woman’s perspective on it .

The book had my attention from that first ‘I’ll just read the first page to see what it’s like’ moment and I must have got through it in a couple of weeks. Well, it is only 300 pages, but still, for someone with no time to read, it wasn’t bad going!

Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman

His novels and he are mentioned a lot on a few of the podcasts that I listen to and I decided to give Anansi Boys a try. I got the audiobook from Audible and this one is narrated by Lenny Henry. I enjoyed it immensely and will definitely be consuming some more of Neil Gaiman’s novels before long.

This one is about the descendent of Anansi, the Spider God. His descendent, Fat Charlie, does not know that he’s descended from a God to begin with. He’s just a regular schmo working for a firm in London and dating his fiancée. After he hears about his father’s death, he attends the funeral and that’s when strange things start to happen.

Lenny Henry was the perfect choice as narrator for this novel. A lot of the characters are Caribbean in style and he does the accents perfectly.

The novel is funny, clever and engaging. Four stars.