In the Ravine and Other Short Stories

In the Ravine and Other Short StoriesIn the Ravine and Other Short Stories by Anton Chekhov
Published: 1983 – 1900 (In the Ravine was 1900)
Translated by: Constance Garnett (from Russian)
Narrated by: Kenneth Branagh
Length: 3:35

This is a collection of Chekhov’s short stories, spanning from 1983 with The Trousseau to 1900 with the title story, In the Ravine. I hadn’t read anything by Chekhov before, and I’m usually not a huge short story fan, but a small collection narrated by Kenneth Branagh seemed like a great place to start.

This collected the following stories:

  • Oh! The Public
  • The Chorus Girl
  • The Trousseau
  • A Story Without a Title
  • Children
  • Misery
  • Fat and Thin
  • The Beggar
  • Hush!
  • The Orator
  • An Actor’s End
  • I In the Ravine
  • II The elder son Anisim came home very rarely
  • III In the village Shikalovo lived two dressmakers

I was surprised by how modern the writing and plot felt in some of these stories. I suppose I get that feeling with a lot of classics, but I think since these are so short and focused it’s easy to imagine some of them happening in our time. If the details of the setting aren’t relevant to the plot, they aren’t provided (Chekhov’s Gun I suppose), and I think that makes some of them feel timeless in a way.

Some of these are actually quite funny. Oh! The Public deals with a clueless train ticket collector dealing with angry customers. He tries to follow the rules but they just lead to more and more issues. The funniest of the bunch, I thought, was The Orator, in which a man at a funeral gives a eulogy but gets his information wrong. Instead of eulogizing the man in the casket, he accidentally speaks about a man in the audience and causes some offence.

Your speech may be all right for a dead man, but in reference to a living one it is nothing but sarcasm!

Hush! is a great little story of a writer blaming his lack of progress on everything around him. Too much noise, and not enough tea. He blames everything but himself and can’t see what a pompous tyrant he is to those around him while he tries to write. It reminds me a bit of when I try to write anything.

I loved Misery. It’s the story of a horse-drawn sledge driver who just lost his son, and he tries desperately to confide in each passenger he picks up. He wants to tell them what happened, but none of them will pay him much mind. It perfectly captures how surreal and isolating it can be to lose someone close, to have your world change so dramatically and then step back into your regular life to find that no one else is affected. To find that your loss is about as relevant to them as the five-day forecast, and how, as selfish as it seems, sometimes you just want to tell someone everything and try to have them understand a bit of what you felt. This man has no one in his life who will listen.

Just as the young man had been thirsty for water, he thirsts for speech. His son will soon have been dead a week, and he has not really talked to anybody yet… . He wants to talk of it properly, with deliberation…. He wants to tell how his son was taken ill, how he suffered, what he said before he died, how he died…. He wants to describe the funeral, and how he went to the hospital to get his son’s clothes. He still has his daughter Anisya in the country…. And he wants to talk about her too…. Yes, he has plenty to talk about now. His listener ought to sigh and exclaim and lament….

I listened to this on audio, which Branagh narrated perfectly, so I had no idea of Chekhov’s fondness for ellipses until just now. I wonder if that’s common in all of his stories?

Weirdly, In the Ravine was one of my least favourites of the bunch. It seems to be the most popular, so I might have to revisit it at some point and see what I missed. As a whole, though, I really enjoyed this. Maybe I’ll read one of his plays next.

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LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Published: 1955
Narrated by: Jeremy Irons
Length: 11:32

This is regularly touted as one of the most beautifully written books of the 20th century, so it’s always been on my to-read list, but it wasn’t until recently that I actually read the synopsis and knew what I was getting myself into. The novel follows a literature professor in his late 30’s, Humbert Humbert (an alias), as he becomes obsessed with, and pursues, 12-year-old Lolita.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

That is one of my favourite openings of any novel and a good example of why this is still in such high regard despite its difficult subject matter. His language just pulls you in, and you keep reading with the sickened intrigue of a crowd at a car crash. The more I read the more I needed to know how it all panned out. You hope for the best (whatever that may be in this case) but assume the worst.

I’ve seen a few reviews state that Nabakov was so masterful a writer that he could make you feel compassion for a pedophile. I wouldn’t say that’s the case at all. In fact, Nabakov’s genius is how he framed this story to make it actually palatable. In the forward, we’re made aware that Humbert wrote this, from memory and journal writings, while incarcerated and is now dead. We don’t know how he came to be imprisoned at that point, or precisely on what charge, but we do know that life doesn’t turn out well for him. This is also narrated from his point of view, an unreliable point of view, so there’s no objectivity in his opinions. This lets you disassociate yourself from them, as you know they aren’t stated as truth in the world of this novel but just in the head of this ill man. You may be in his head, but at no point is he painted as a sympathetic character.

I had a hard time seeing Lolita as a young girl, actually. The way she talked and acted seemed older than 12 to me. I’m not sure if this was a case of the unreliable narrator remembering deeper, more mature, interactions than what actually happened or if it was just an emotional defense I had with what I was reading.

Humbert is the sort of awful character I typically do love to read about – a misanthropic outsider with the ability to express his deep disdain for the people around him. As his character unravels, he falls into this more and more. In a great scene at the end of the novel, he’s gone so far outside the boundary of human law and decency that while feeling particularly unbound by societal constraints he starts driving down the wrong side of the road. It’s as if he’s no longer part of humanity and its laws.

This is a bit long, but the way he describes his night in a hotel is perfect, as anyone who has trouble falling asleep can attest:

There is nothing louder than an American hotel; and, mind you, this was supposed to be a quiet, cozy, old-fashioned, homey place–“gracious living” and all that stuff. The clatter of the elevator’s gate–some twenty yards northeast of my head but as clearly perceived as if it were inside my left temple–alternated with the banging and booming of the machine’s various evolutions and lasted well beyond midnight. Every now and then, immediately east of my left ear (always assuming I lay on my back, not daring to direct my viler side toward the nebulous haunch of my bed-mate), the corridor would brim with cheerful, resonant and inept exclamations ending in a volley of good-nights. When that stopped, a toilet immediately north of my cerebellum took over. It was a manly, energetic, deep-throated toilet, and it was used many times. Its gurgle and gush and long afterflow shook the wall behind me. Then someone in a southern direction was extravagantly sick, almost coughing out his life with his liquor, and his toilet descended like a veritable Niagara, immediately beyond our bathroom. And when finally all the waterfalls had stopped, and the enchanted hunters were sound asleep, the avenue under the window of my insomnia, to the west of my wake–a staid, eminently residential, dignified alley of huge trees–degenerated into the despicable haunt of gigantic trucks roaring through the wet and windy night.

Sometimes I read novels that have caused an uproar of controversy, and I just can’t understand what the issue is. I’m a liberal-minded person and not someone who is easily offended, and I would personally never try to ban any work of fiction no matter the content, but sometimes I can’t even understand what would motivate people to try with certain books. With this it’s very easy to understand how people could have a knee-jerk reaction – adult men with young girls is bad, therefore book is bad. I feel like the way the story is told makes this an interesting read, but not everyone will have the same opinion, so take that into consideration before picking this up. I have to admit, I listened to part of this audiobook in public and was definitely starting to feel like everyone around was secretly judging me.

I really enjoyed this. I’ve heard great things about Pale Fire, so that will likely be the next book of his I’ll read. I couldn’t bring myself to skip Jeremy Irons’ narration of this, but for Pale Fire I’ll probably go with the dead tree version to get a better feel for his writing and wordplay.

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A Hat Full of Sky (Discworld, #32)

A Hat Full of Sky (Discworld, #32) (Tiffany Aching, #2)A Hat Full of Sky (Discworld, #32) by Terry Pratchett
Published: 2004
Length: 352 pages

When Terry Pratchett passed away, I dropped what I was reading and picked up one of his novels. I still have a lot to get through, but the last I read was The Wee Free Men, so I decided to carry on with the Tiffany Aching books.

In this second novel, Tiffany leaves her hometown for the first time to apprentice under a woman named Miss Level, a witch that has two bodies that share one mind. Her apprenticeship isn’t what she imagined, however, as it seems to mainly entail taking care of others. It’s more errands around town than toil and trouble, but what she doesn’t realize is that she’s been followed by a truly horrific entity, and it’s what she learned from those errands, rather than straightforward magic, that is going to save her.

It’s still magic. Knowing things is magical, if other people don’t know them.

I love this sub-series of Discworld novels. This was even better than The Wee Free Men, and I don’t come to that conclusion purely sentimentally, although I’m sure his death changed my reading of the novel somewhat. My dad bought me these books years ago, and I think I mentally set them aside when I learned they were some of his young adult novels, but I honestly don’t think I would have noticed if I hadn’t known going in. It’s mainly labeled as such because the main character is a teenager, and there’s a lot of great little messages about taking responsibility and being yourself and knowledge having power, which I think a lot of adults in the world could do with some reminding on anyway. Pratchett doesn’t write down to his young audience, and he’s also not afraid to tackle dark topics like death and misery. He stated this in a 2008 interview with The Independent:

My advice is this. For Christ’s sake, don’t write a book that is suitable for a kid of 12 years old, because the kids who read who are 12 years old are reading books for adults.[…] Because you want kids to grow up to be adults, not just bigger kids.

Everything about this was fantastic. The witches, the baddie (which was actually surprisingly creepy), and of course the Nac Mac Feegle – six-inch tall blue-skinned, red-haired fairy folk who speak with a Scottish brogue, wear kilts, and spend their time fighting, drinking, and stealing. He pulls of their accent brilliantly, which is hard to do in a novel without driving the reader insane, and every scene with them is a lot of fun.

Another fantastic Discworld novel. Not much else to say, really. There will be four Aching books in total, once the last Discworld novel is published this year (that’s a sad sentence to write), and I’m looking forward to reading the next two.

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2015 Annual Book Sale Haul

Today was the annual Times Colonist book sale, which I mentioned earlier. It’s a great event that goes to charity, so not only can you buy what you want without guilt, but you can even feel good about it.

I’m always surprised at how large an event this is. The doors open at 9:00am and someone commented on their Facebook page that the first people started showing up around midnight. Another commented that at 5:30am there were already 50 people in line. That’s dedication!

It confuses me a little why people would do this, as there are more books than they can actually display and the stock is constantly being replenished, so much so that if you go six hours after opening it’s like an entirely new sale, but I guess they’re either just excited or they have an inside scoop that I do not. They did post a photo of one of the volunteers holding up a first edition Pudd’nhead Wilson in good condition, so maybe there are some collectibles on display that early.

  • Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • City of Thieves by David Benioff
  • The Human Factor by Graham Greene
  • Thud! by Terry Pratchett
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  • The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  • The Lost World by Michael Crichton
  • The Star’s Tennis Balls by Stephen Fry
  • The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton
  • The Club Of Queer Trades by G.K. Chesterton
  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
  • The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett
  • I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallmann
  • Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
  • Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

There are a few books here I’m not sure about, but I thought this would be a good chance to give them a try. Namely: Water for Elephants, I Dreamed of Africa, City of Thieves, and Boneshaker. The Master and Margarita makes me a little nervous as well. I think I’m most excited to read The Martian Chronicles, The Lost World, The Human Factor and the G.K. Chesterton novels. I’m reading Terry Pratchett’s non-fiction right now, and G.K. Chesterton comes up quite a lot. He seemed to have really influenced Pratchett when he was young, so that will be neat to read.

Three hours of marathon browsing and seventeen books for $38. Not too bad!

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April in Review

Books Acquired:

Books Read:
In the Ravine and Other Short Stories by Anton Chekhov
French Lessons by Peter Mayle
What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

This month started off strong, but during the last couple of weeks I barely read ten pages a night, and I haven’t been listening to my audiobooks as much either. Those lulls in reading happen though, and I can start to feel a change in the last few days already.

No books purchased this month either, but that will all change tomorrow when my favourite used book sale takes place. Previous years have proven quite fruitful, so I’m sure I’ll have a ridiculous list for next month. I’ll likely do a book haul post on it as well, because yay for new books. I’m just glad we got our bookcases sorted out last month.

Movies watched:
Land Ho! (2014) – This was hilariously awful. I started watching it because I thought it was a documentary about two old guys taking a break from life and travelling Iceland, but it turns out it’s a poorly scripted comedy. It was so bad I couldn’t stop watching it, which doesn’t normally happen with me.

The Love Punch (2013) – This was also pretty terrible, but the actors are all very watchable, so it was hard not to enjoy it on some level. I also got romantic comedy brownie points with my girlfriend, so it was worth it I think. The story is so very stupid, though.

TV watched:
Departures: Season 2 (2009) – I love this series, and the second was just as good as the first. There’s a third season out there, but it’s not on Netflix, so I’ll have to search it out.

Parks and Recreation (2009) – I like pretty much everyone in this cast from their other projects, and my girlfriend caught an episode at a friend’s place and love it, so we finally decided to start watching. We’re fashionable a decade late to the party, but we’re loving it so far. The first season is just six twenty-minute episodes, so it’s easy to burn through.

Games played:
Insurgency (2014) (PC) – Yup, still playing this. I might have a problem.

A Bird Story (2014) (PC) – A fun little game from the maker of To The Moon. Not on the same level as that game, but a cute story with some innovative touches. Only about an hour and a half long.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (2013) (PC) – I played a few days of this on the free trial and was actually having a lot of fun with it. It has a really interesting class system that I’d like to play with a bit more, but I can’t see myself picking up the paid game. I was already getting a bit bored with the combat when I stopped.

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Published: 1884
Narrated by: Elijah Wood
Length: 10:12

I read the The Adventures of Tom Sawyer two years ago and really enjoyed it. I listened to it on audiobook and loved the narrator’s accents, so I thought I’d carry on with the audio route for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This is one of those cases where I feel like audio really shines.

This is another book of boyhood fantasies. Huckleberry Finn can’t stand life now that he isn’t poor, after acquiring some cash with Tom Sawyer at the end of the last book. Having to do school work and wear clean clothes and act civilized is driving him mad. He manages to escape for a life of adventure, but it happens in a rather unfortunate way.

On the way back from an outing with Tom and the gang, Huck’s alcoholic and long-lost dad reappears. He heard of Huck’s new fortune and wants in on it, but after some time in the town he isn’t any closer to claiming the money. He ends up kidnapping Huck and forcing him to live in a cabin in the woods. To get away, Huck fakes his own death and makes a run for it. He’s held up for some time on a nearby island where he meets Jim, a black slave he knows from town. Together they find themselves in a string of unlikely adventures – dressing up in disguise as a girl to learn news of town, stumbling across a spat between thieves, getting involved in a brutal blood feud between families, pulling off scams with a couple of con artists, and so on. Like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it’s a child’s daydream come to life.

Throughout the adventure, Huck struggles with whether he should turn Jim in or not. In his mind, the morally correct thing to do is return Jim back to his masters, since he is by law their property. After travelling with Jim for so long, however, he couldn’t help seeing him as a regular person, and if he should be free why shouldn’t Jim? There are parallels in their past now, with Huck being held against his will by his father, and it brings out the absurdity of having to make that choice. It seems very progressive for its time in many ways, by humanizing Jim and showing how ridiculous it is that he shouldn’t be free, but on the other hand Jim is still quite often portrayed in an incredibly stereotypical way.

I loved this. The language is a bit hard to take, particularly in audio I think, but it’s a blast of an adventure. I wish I had read these as a kid, with an adult to read along with and explain why certain words and attitudes are awful, obviously, but this would have sparked my imagination for years.

When I saw that Elijah Wood has done an Audible Signature Performance of this, I admit I was a little skeptical. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to listen to him for a whole book, but he was fantastic. His characters were distinct and he did a convincing job, to an admittedly unfamiliar ear, with the different accents.

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Sex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird Trick

Sex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird TrickSex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird Trick by Matt Fraction
Illustrated by: Chip Zdarsky
Published: 2014
Publisher: Image Comics
Length: 128 pages
Collects: issues #1-5

Suzie is a normal girl, a young librarian trying to save her library from going under, but when she has an orgasm time literally stops. She has, quite rightfully, been trying to learn more about this since it began happening, and one night she comes across a man with the same power. What would someone do with a power like this? Rob a bank, of course!

It seems silly to compare this with Saga, but my brain arbitrarily combines vaguely similar things when they rise to popularity at the same time. Green Day and The Offspring will be forever linked in my mind, and I fear these two comics will be as well. They’re both stories of an adult nature with fantasy elements, but for me the first Saga was an instant love from the first panel to the last. This wasn’t quite as strong for me.

I really enjoyed Suzie’s backstory. The way they had her as an adult in each panel to narrate the childhood flashbacks was great, and some of those scenes were absolutely hilarious. It taught me what The Dutch Microwave and Brimping are, and for that I shall be forever grateful. My interest dipped a little once Suzie met Jon, her accomplice/boyfriend, and I couldn’t tell you why. It just all started to feel a bit tedious.

However, my interest picked up again just at the end of the book when we’re given a peek at some new characters and essentially a whole new sex superhero world. I was really left with the feeling that the story had just begun, and I’m eager to see what happens next now.

Oddly, it was an extra feature included at the end of the book titled Steaming Radio that had me laughing the most. Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky wrote a skit about calling in to a sex line and it is fantastic. They’re clearing both hilarious, so I look forward to seeing more of that come out in the comic.

I’ll definitely be picking up the second volume, just to see how the story progresses. I still don’t know if I’m on board for the whole run of this, but I’m interested to see where it goes from here.

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A Brief History of the Celts

A Brief History of the CeltsA Brief History of the Celts by Peter Berresford Ellis
Published: 2013
Length: 255 pages

I started reading this months ago and it just dragged on and on. I was close to abandoning it quite a few times, but I’d always encounter something interesting just before dropping it. That’s the problem. The book is full of interesting events and facts, but it doesn’t go into enough detail and is just so dry.

I thought, as a Brief History, this would essentially be a high level overview of the timeline of the Celts with a few key periods looked at in-depth, but instead it felt like a full history of the Celts shoehorned into a book the size of a brief history. It was as if he still wanted to mention every major figure in the history but didn’t have enough room to explain anything about them, so it became a meaningless list of references. This book contained sentences in which I didn’t recognize a single noun.

The history itself is really interesting, and I found the chapters that touched on the stories, even superficially, fascinating. The common view of ancient Celts are as uncultured, drunken barbarian hordes scouring the countryside, raping and killing, but that idea originated through the historical writings of the Roman expansions, and it seems to be a case of history being written by the victors. The Celts were forbidden to write their history down until they began practicing Christianity, so a lot of their stories are forgotten or altered.

Maybe this is commonly known and shows my lack of knowledge in history, and why I really should be reading more along these lines, but I had no idea the ancient Celts occupied Rome for seven months. A tribe of Celts known as the Senones settled in peace outside of Clusium, an Etruscan city under Roman rule, as there were no other areas to settle north of the Alps. They asked the city elders to grant them permission to the lands, but the Etruscans felt threatened and called on ambassadors from Rome. Two arrogant brothers were sent to negotiate with the tribe, but instead of acting as liaisons and enabling communication, they led the Etruscans in war against the Senones. One of the brothers killed a chieftain tribe personally. They were meant to act neutrally, and failing to do so was apparently against international law (and just generally uncool).

The Senones were rightfully pissed off by this and sent a delegation to Rome to demand apology and compensation. The Romans didn’t budge, as the ambassador brothers held too much power in their senate, so this single tribe, led by their Chieftain Brennus, ignored the warring Etruscans and marched on to Rome. In the 130 kilometer walk, it’s noted that no Etruscans were harmed and nothing was taken from their fields. As they passed near cities, the tribe shouted out that they had declared war on Rome and that the people in the countryside were still regarded as friends.

They defeated the Roman army, which included their best generals and legions, 18 kilometers north of the city in what is known now as the Battle of the Allia, and walked into Rome the following morning. They held the city for seven months and decided, of their own will, to leave once a ransom of gold was paid and, a detail I love, an apology was extracted. They had no intention of taking the city permanently or forming an empire, it was all just punishment for a breach of trust and law.

While they were weighing the gold, there were complaints that the tribe’s weights were fixed, which prompted Brennus to toss his sword on top of the scale and exclaim “Vae victis,” Latin for “woe to the vanquished,” and the Romans were forced to bring extra gold to counter-balance the additional weight of the sword. I mean, come on, that is badass.

The Celts could certainly be fearsome and savage, but in many ways they were also fairly sophisticated for their time. Their scholars were treated with great reverence, they developed early roads and medicine, and the women had rights that weren’t common in other cultures. They had access to education, were able to participate in battle, could own land, and could even initiate divorce. The Battle of the Allia and the fact that the Celts were quite strong in battle probably led to the perpetuation of the rumours that they were war-hungry, childish animals.

I really wish Ellis had picked a few key moments in history, like the war above (to which only two pages were dedicated), and focused on those. I’ve learned that dry facts and dates just don’t do it for me. I need a narrative if I’m going to remember a historical event, and I should probably seek out books that tell the stories rather than just the facts. I’m glad I read this, even if it often did turn into a chore at times. It’s a good jumping off point, if nothing else.

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The Captain and the Enemy

The Captain and the EnemyThe Captain and the Enemy by Graham Greene
Published: 1988
Pages: 224

This is the last novel Graham Greene wrote before his death in 1991. I’ve only read one of his others before, the audiobook of The End of the Affair narrated by Colin Firth, which was fantastic, and this is an incredibly different book.

The End of the Affair felt real. Flawed characters, and a plot that’s surprising but, on reflection, makes sense. This novel was absurd in comparison, and I spent the first half in a state of confusion. The novel opens with a young boy, Victor, at school being picked up by a man he’s never before met, the title’s Captain, after ‘being won’ in a game of backgammon. After the grim plot of the Affair, I was very worried for this kid’s well-being. In the first few pages, Greene manages to raise half a dozen questions that he spends the rest of the novel answering.

The first part of this story is written from the view of the child a decade later in his life. With the help of old journals he used to keep, he recounts his time with the Captain and his companion Liza, whose house Victor grew up in after being taken from school that day. It was a very strange and confused life as he adjusted to living with a shut-in whom he never really seemed to bond with at all. The Captain would drop in every now and then after mysterious periods away. Liza and Victor never knew his real name or occupation, but he would send them money to live on. In the second half of the book, Victor continues writing in his journal as he travels to Panama to visit the Captain and learn who he really is.

They are always saying God loves us. If that’s love I’d rather have a bit of kindness.

All of the characters in this are unlikable, their personalities are stilted, and their actions are at times incomprehensible, but the whole thing has a slight whimsy that makes it work. The way the characters interact often feels a bit like a Wes Anderson movie – emotionally monotone in a way that allows us to believe the ridiculous world in which they exist. Some of the characters in this seem desperate for affection and can’t bring themselves to acknowledge those feelings and some seem genuinely indifferent. It’s makes it a bit difficult to relate to any of them, but I was driven on out of curiosity. Those unanswered questions that were nagging from the opening of the novel managed to keep my interest right to the end.

I was thinking of this as a classic when I picked it up, and I was surprised to see the publication date as 1988. I think of Graham Greene as a writer from the 40s or 50s, but it looks like he has published works spanning from the late 20s to the early 90s, which is amazing. I guess the idea of what constitutes a classic changes from person to person. If a writer has work that is considered ‘classic’, is everything he or she wrote then considered a classic? I often think so, but then cases like this do confuse things somewhat. I’ll leave it off my Classics Club list for now, I think, even if it does have a Penguin Classics edition, but I might revisit.

I did really enjoy this. The plot is interesting, if a little unsatisfying, but his writing is fantastic. He handles Victor looking back through his journals very well. I think this is considered one of his lesser novels, which makes me excited to read on through his bibliography.

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The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades (Old Man's War, #2)The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
Published: 2006
Length: 347 pages

I loved Old Man’s War, and for some reason I waited a year and a half to read the sequel, which I actually loved even more. In a way it was good to wait. The main character and cast are largely ignored in this next book, and it’s even written in a different narrative perspective, third person rather than first person. That would have made for a jarring transition if I had read them back to back, I think.

The first book starts with John Perry leaving earth as a seventy-five-year-old man and joining the Colonial Defense Forces. Humans are at war with multiple alien races, pretty much every alien race it turns out, and they fight this war by transferring the minds of the elderly to genetically engineered bodies. In this sequel, Jared Dirac is born into the Special Forces, nicknamed the Ghost Brigades. This secretive group has an interesting twist in that they don’t use the minds of the elderly but instead use the minds of the dead. They awake as adults in their bodies with no knowledge on their old life. We get to see the training process from a completely different perspective this way.

I love origin stories, and I’ve gotten two in this series so far!

Jared Dirac, being born directly into the Ghost Brigades, doesn’t have a past life. He isn’t coming into the war with seventy-five years of experience behind him. The first ten years of his life, at least, will be as a soldier. This is ideal for special forces units because they’re tasked with the most unsavoury of missions, something Scalzi really does not hold back on in this, and having a life of experience and emotions would likely cause problems in that. Once awake in his engineered body, his BrainPal kicks in, a neural implant that allows the owner to send and receive data. If he needs to know something, it will download and unpack the related facts into his brain. It also allows him to integrate with the minds of his entire unit. This enables him to adapt and grow much quicker than a regular solider.

John Scalzi does such a great job with showing how Jared is slowly learning and understanding everything around him. The mix of a solder’s professionalism and a child’s wonder was perfect. Jared ‘s also a special case, as the consciousness they used to create him is from a living traitor rather than a dead human from Earth, so he’s also gradually struggling with the mix of his own personality and what he’s learning about his origins. This could have easily gone wrong with bad pacing, but Scalzi nailed it.

This is an action-packed adventure, but it also tackles a lot of really interesting issues, the most prominent of which being the question of what it means to be a human. I loved this and really look forward to reading the third novel. John Scalzi has definitely become one of my favourite writers lately.

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