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Colin C "Colin C" (Glasgow)

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To Steal A Sea
To Steal A Sea
by Simon D. Reagan
Edition: Paperback
Price: 11.29

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing Post-Cold War Thriller, 7 Oct 2013
This review is from: To Steal A Sea (Paperback)
I picked up 'To Steal A Sea' for some holiday reading, after being drawn to it by its background of Russian/Soviet history (a passion of mine) and the promise of (what would hopefully be) a taut thriller. I wasn't disappointed - this novel was a great read, both in terms of plot and pace, and also in its historical detail and setting. It ranges from the Battle of Stalingrad to (nearly) the present day.

The main character is an oligarch named Damyanovitch who had, in a former life, been a Red Army soldier. He was vividly and fascinatingly drawn, his whole life a reaction to terrible experiences in his early years and, without giving too much of the plot away, his 'world domination' scheme is both ingenious and, as these things go, rather original. The story is based around him on the one hand, and three London financiers (who become embroiled with his scheme) on the other, and the action globetrots in an enjoyable way - from London to Moscow to the Middle East to the Caribbean. The plot hinges on financial schemes - which are clearly explained in the context of the story, without slowing it down - and this seemed to me to be rather a fun twist on 'the dangers of the financial markets'.

My only criticism is, I suppose, that the cast of characters are sometimes not fully fleshed out, sacrificed to the plot - but this is an old problem which a reader can also find in, say, the fine spy thrillers of Eric Ambler (or even, going back further, in John Buchan's work). The main characters are rounded enough to care what happens to them, though. The book's denoument is satisfying too, with an excellent showdown (actually, a series of showdowns) and the reader feels like he has been theough the wringer with the London 'good guys'.

I would heartily recommend 'To Steal a Sea' to anyone interested in books with a Russian theme, as well as general thriller readers and those interested in how high finance works (albeit in an exciting and non-tedious way!). It's an excellent page turner and at the moment, it looks like I have to wait for Reagan's next book, as this is the only one listed so far!

Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth Century Russia
Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth Century Russia
by Catherine Merridale
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Russia's Sufferings, 4 Mar 2012
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As someone with a keen amateur interest in Russian history and culture, I was intrigued by this book - and, I admit, daunted; the subject matter is undoubtedly heavy.

As the title suggests, Merridale investigates attitudes to death and memory in Russia - but in practice, these topics inevitably mean that the book is essentially about how people have lived their lives in such a troubled country, both in the twentieth century and also before that (although the book probably does focus most of its energy on the Soviet experience). The text is always wonderfully erudite, clearly written, thoughtful and thought-provoking and works both as a sweeping work of history and as a piece of fresh research.

Merridale carried out numerous personal interviews with individuals and groups in modern Russia, about their memories of what they have lived through (including the Great Patriotic War a.k.a. the Second World War, the siege of Leningrad, the prison camps, and even the terrible famines of the 1930s and 40s), and gains fascinating but painful insights into the ways in which they had dealt with the deaths of their loved ones and the generally traumatic historical century, throughout much of which life had, often, seemed to be so cheap.

This is not an easy subject and to be honest, although the book is brilliantly researched and written, I can't claim that it is in any way uplifting - but it is undoubtedly a very important work and one that should be widely read - as widely, perhaps, as other fine recent works on Russian history which seem to have made it into the mainstream of reading in the UK (e.g. Beevor's Stalingrad).

The experience of reading 'Night of Stone' will stay with me for some time, particularly perhaps the images of the people who, in the last decade or so, have visited mass graves outside the cities and in the far north, and improvised their own memorials to the people who disappeared, and may be buried there. Their sadness and lack of knowledge about what happened to their loved ones - grandparents, parents, spouses, friends, siblings - is still shared by millions of people in Russia, because of the way in which the Soviet authorities systematically lied, from Stalinist times onwards, to its citizens about events in the country and the fate of their relatives. In fact, Merridale writes wonderfully well too about the slow thaw of information from the 1980s onwards which has finally given many people truthful information.

This rambling review probably illustrates that there is almost too much in the book for this reviewer to adequately summarise. I will say, therefore, simply that it is an essential work of cultural history and would be on my recommended short list of essential reading on Russia.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 17, 2012 5:34 PM GMT

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
by Elif Batuman
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining Memoir of Student Years, But Not Much about Russian Books!, 27 Jan 2012
I was excited about reading this book, being a Russian literature enthusiast (or should that be obsessive?) myself. I was slightly disappointed though as the realisation soon dawned that this book is, at best, three parts personal memoir and one part discussion of the wonder and uniqueness of Russian literature. Elif Batuman is a good writer, and her anecdotes about meeting Isaac Babel's eccentric wife and daughter, or going on a bizarre summer stay to Uzbekistan, are never less than engaging, and often very funny.

But, I think the book has been sneakily marketed as something which it is not; by the half way point, I think, there had been a handful of mentions of Tolstoy, and a tale of an academic conference related stay at his home, and some passing references to Pushkin, Babel (not really one of the greatest), and Dostoyevsky. The book does not in fact explore Russian books much at all - it mentions them in the context of the author's adventures, and as such, the emphasis is heavily on the adventures of a young Turkish woman in America and the former USSR, following her own path in life and describing the people she meets (the majority of whom do not seem to read Russian books!), not the books themselves. 'Possessed' is therefore frustrating if you want to gain many insights or fresh perspectives on most of the great Russian writers, and is better approached simply as a memoir which will occasionally mention some works you may know, or plan to read.

Overall, a little bit underwhelming.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 25, 2012 6:30 PM BST

The Old Curiosity Shop (Everyman's Library Classics)
The Old Curiosity Shop (Everyman's Library Classics)
by Charles Dickens
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 9.09

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Early Dickens Tale in a Wonderful Edition, 23 Jan 2012
Slowly working my way through Mr Dickens' work, I came to 'The Old Curiosity Shop', originally published in serial form. Most people will know the plot and perhaps even the fate of the main character(s) before starting; I won't mention these here (and as ever be cautious about the introduction which may give details away). The serial process of writing shows through, I think, as the action is episodic and not particularly cleverly structured. But, the episodes, especially as Nell and her grandfather travel around the country on foot, are varied, dramatic and enjoyable.

The novel wins the reader over most through its array of characters, both major and lesser, who are never dull and are always brilliantly drawn and entertaining. Many past readers have criticised Little Nell and Kit as being too good to be true (and irritating as a result); I didn't find that to be the case, although in fact I found Quilp, the evil dwarf, to be more tiresome in his relentless nastiness. The star of this book, I think, is the memorably named Dick Swiveller, a bon vivant who doesn't often pay his bills - he is a highly amusing creation who entertains the reader, is quite central to the plot, and, I would argue, is the only character who really develops throughout the novel.

One last comment on this particular edition of the book. I must admit, I have always been a fan of Everyman classics in hardback. They don't cost all that much more than the standard Penguin classics/OUP paperbacks - and they look and feel like books of such a high quality, made to last. The cloth binding, the integrated ribbon bookmark and the thick paper of the pages are all luxurious. This one is no exception, and comes with seventy five illustrations by Cattermole and 'Phiz', drawings which do help to picture events and which are often very atmospheric in their period detail. Also included is an Everyman introduction by Peter Washington, which discusses the book in general terms, and a stunning essay by G K Chesterton, added as an appendix.

A highly recommended tale in a highly recommended edition.

A Land of Two Halves: An Accidental Tour of New Zealand
A Land of Two Halves: An Accidental Tour of New Zealand
by Joe Bennett
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Grumpy Travelogue, 6 Dec 2011
This book, by UK-born NZ resident journalist Joe Bennett, is about a hitchhiking tour around both islands of New Zealand. Having recently spent a few months there myself, I looked forward to reading it. My overall impression, having done so, is that it was fun to re-imagine and remember many of the places we visited, sometimes with a wry comment from the author or a new perspective or piece of info which we missed - but overall, I found the book's relentless grumpy tone got me down.

There is an irony in the fact that Kiwis generally really are warm, friendly, open people. Bennett, who has made his home among them for I think nearly 20 years, comes across as a tired, slightly bitter old cynic, ready to laugh at the simpletons he meets along the way - and to rail in barely suppressed fury at, depending on where he is, people with nice cars, people with camper vans, people from the city, foreigners, and, worst of all, tourists (especially Japanese ones). He perhaps fails to reflect fully on the fact that, however pathetic and annoying he finds other people who also touring around NZ, tourism is massive for the local economy and most locals seem rather cheerful about the transitory populations passing through. He also, completely bafflingly, will refer to various wonderful panoramas (e.g. Lake Wanaka, Queenstown from the hills) and experiences (bird watching on the Otago peninsula) as, well, not very good - or, boring, or overrated. Odd.

It's lots of fun to read this book if you have recently been to NZ, or perhaps are planning a trip, as the route is fairly comprehensive, and the author is, at least, well informed. However, buy with caution - it's sometimes like taking a journey with a whining old uncle, angry at the world, and unable to appreciate how lucky he is to be where he is. It's by no means a one star, AVOID at all costs book - but it's not exactly Jan Morris or Paul Theroux either.

The Glass Room
The Glass Room
by Simon Mawer
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.18

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great Concept, Inconsistent Results, 6 Dec 2011
This review is from: The Glass Room (Paperback)
I know I am writing contrary to what seems to be the general swell of opinion here, but I did not find this novel to be worthy of five stars (one amazon reviewer even made a favourable comparison with Thomas Mann's 'Buddenbrooks', which is very high praise indeed). It is a readable piece of literary fiction, framed by a brilliant idea and structure, but which, I felt, sagged a little at various points.

I won't dwell on the plot here - essentially, the book is fictional but based on the building of a modernist villa by a rich Jewish couple near Brno in what was then Czechoslovakia between the wars. The house is given centre stage in the novel as the Landauers, the rich industrialist builders, are forced to flee, the Nazis then use the house as a sort of eugenics research station, and later the Soviets drive them out and the house, for decades, is put to various other uses. The metaphor of the house (which can still be visited to this day) for the European twentieth century is fantastic and cannot be praised highly enough. There are also interesting ideas about the effects architecture itself can have on the way people live their lives.

Where the book faltered, I felt, was in the sometimes clunky characters (the giant Russian female soldier, for example; or the cold, cruel Nazi lover), and, more importantly, in what came across as highly self conscious 'showing off' of knowledge presumably researched for the novel - the best example being a page shoehorned in around the breakout of war where, it is observed, the lines of soldiers look like robots. Robots was a term invented by the Czechs, you know... etc, etc. The announcement of various key historical events by one character to another in order to pin the plot in specific points in history, and their often cliched responses to them, also jarred in its lack of subtlety for this reader, as did a plotted co-incidence near the end. A good comparison might be made with 'Wolf Hall' by Hilary Mantel, a historical drama released the same year, which treats the Tudor age with brilliant ease, and within which not one line of dialogue sounds unlikely or contrived (or written by someone in the twenty first century).

Overall, I do agree that 'The Glass Room' is a competently written, atmospheric book with a very clever structure, treating a fascinating building with great descriptive care and generating emotion in describing the lives which may have passed through it, particularly in its middle third. The writing, however, also tends to lurch into cliche at times and the dialogue verges on the risible on some occasions. I would not consider it a future classic, and given its flaws, am surprised that it has attracted so much high praise.

My Universities (Classics)
My Universities (Classics)
by Maksim Gorky
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Increasingly Overlooked Classic, 6 Dec 2011
"My Universities' is a volume of autobiography by Maxim Gorky, covering his life up to the age of twenty in 1888. The 'universities' of the title are of the schools of hard knocks kind - subsistence living in the city of Kazan, working in a bakery, dark, shabby revolutionary plotting in poverty stricken settings, and drifting along the shore of the Volga. The cast of characters, real, of course, rather than fictional, recall the finest creations of Gogol and Dostoyevsky, despite this book's short length. As the excellent introduction in this old Penguin edition says, "people are thrown about in life like flotsam, disappear, commit suicide, are arrested and sent to Siberia". Throughout, there is definitely a sense of absurdity in the book, which itself never becomes morbidly depressing, despite alluding to Gorky's own suicide attempt in 1887. It is often even unexpectedly funny.

I find it odd, and rather sad, that this work seems to be neglected these days - Penguin have not updated their edition since 1979, and the other parts of the trilogy which it forms - "My Childhood" and "My Apprenticeship" are similarly only in old editions. To me, as an avid reader of the Russians, these works should all have as much attention lavished on them as the other great works of the gold and silver ages of Russian literature. I can only speculate that Gorky's role, later in his life, as a cheerleader for Stalin's Soviet Empire, may make him unfashionable these days - but his writings should be judged on themselves alone, and this memoir is brilliantly written, punchy and memorable.

Archipelago [DVD]
Archipelago [DVD]
Dvd ~ Tom Hiddleston
Offered by A2Z Entertains
Price: 8.02

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not For Everyone, But I Loved It - Like an English Rohmer Film, 3 Dec 2011
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Archipelago [DVD] (DVD)
The extremely mixed reviews here on amazon and elsewhere immediately flag up 'Archipelago' as a film which really divides opinions in the direction of one star out of five - or five. It's certainly quite extreme, in its own way, in style and (some would say lack of) content, and at a surface level it is short on action, being about a fairly uneventful family holiday on the Isles of Scilly, with a mother, her two children, their cook (!) and an artist friend just hanging out, going on walks, etc. The beauty of the film, though, and the reason it completely held my attention throughout, was in the absolutely pared down direction and editing, and the feeling that there was plenty going on in these characters' emotional lives - which, being British, they find hard to express to one another or resolve.

'Archipelago' reminded me very, very strongly of Eric Rohmer's films and in particular, the substantial number of holiday themed films he made - 'La Collectioneuse', 'Claire's Knee', 'Pauline at the Beach', 'The Green Ray' and 'A Summer's Tale'. Rohmer's films are unlike any other filmmaker's because they are seemingly about very little, but the characters (who, as with 'Archipelago' are often pretty unlikeable) chatter, make (and fail to make) decisions, and by the end, if you like a very slow pace of plotting, you're left with a warm sense of humanity and modest but brilliant filmmaking. Joanna Hogg seems to be deeply influenced by Rohmer in her static camera, interesting landscapes, and the idea that people on holiday are often vulnerable, cut loose from their 'normal' lives, forced to think about who they are and where they are going. There is a lot in that, and here, the son in the family, naive and awkward though he is, is a classic Rohmer hero.

Some people have expressed deep hatred of the film because the family in question are so well to do. I agree that taking your own cook on holiday (and a perhaps-salaried artist to keep mummy company) stretches sympathy and belief, but it seemed to me to be a somewhat clumsy way of simply bringing a broader cast into this chamber piece. I don't think it's fair to say that the characters could generate no empathy just because they were posh.

It's simple enough, I think - if still, painterly films which dwell on well-composed landscapes at great length annoy you, or films which lack many events and have only small passages of dialogue to break them up, then pass this by. Plenty of people have, and will, find it pretentious. But if, like me, you enjoy letting quiet, subtle works wash over you, give it a go. I think it's got something to say about the general lack of direction and difficulty in communicating which many people experience in their lives. I found the film moving and beautifully made.

The Artificial Eye DVD is short of extras and the picture quality, I must say, was not as sharp as usual with AE - but this may be due to the source video.

All in all, highly recommended, provided you know what you are letting yourself in for....
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 19, 2012 3:52 PM BST

Inside Job [DVD] [2011]
Inside Job [DVD] [2011]
Dvd ~ Matt Damon
Price: 4.95

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Film, Essential Viewing, 15 Sep 2011
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This review is from: Inside Job [DVD] [2011] (DVD)
'Inside Job' is a remarkable film. The documentary maker Charles Ferguson has gained access to many (although tellingly not all) of the key players involved in the bank crashes and subsequent credit crunch of 2008. The film in essence is a very well put together series of interviews with bankers, politicians and academics (some of whom turn out to be two or all three of these things) intercut with an excellent narration, voiced by Matt Damon (of all people), which, overall, gives a detailed and colourful account of why the banks failed, who was responsible, and, sadly, why little action was taken afterwards to regulate or bring criminals to justice.

The film was eye opening for me because Ferguson skilfully puts various people on the spot about conflicts of interest - academics who have been paid by Iceland to write papers on the strength of Icelandic banks shortly before they collapsed, for example, and political advisors who came straight from the banking sector. Many interviewees seemingly walked into a trap of thinking they were to be chatting to a friendly filmmaker and offering their pearls of wisdom after the fact - and more than once, the look of shock as they realise they are being accused is priceless (OK, well, perhaps worth less than hundreds of billions....). The only criticism I would have is often that the killer question is put to an interviewee, and after showing their stuttering, shocked response, the film cuts elsewhere without actually showing what they eventually said.

This film has been described as Michael Moore without the stunts or jokes, and to an extent that is true. Ferguson is creating a polemic with a very strong line of argument, and no counter arguments (if there are any) against the thesis he gives. The argument is that the bankers, the political advisors and the economists were all the same small group of people, who enriched themselves at the expense of homeowners and the taxpayer. He could for example have asked why so many people bought homes they couldn't afford - was it all the banks' fault and were they *all* misleadingly sold?

Overall though, this is a dynamic, glossy, very well made film with some moments of brilliance in its own interviews and in footage of hearings. Unmissable in that it gives a real context and explanation of 2008 in less than two hours. A worthy Oscar winner.

Extras include a substantial amount of deleted scenes, which are often as interesting as the material in the final cut.

Kalinnikov: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2
Kalinnikov: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2
Price: 6.01

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fantastic Discovery, 24 Aug 2011
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I came to this CD out of mild curiosity having browsed on amazon for some fresh orchestral music to add to my collection. I bought a handful of CDs - this one, and symphonies by Gliere and Schmidt. The other discs were so-so but Kalinnikov, I now realise, is criminally under-rated as a fine late-romantic composer. Listening to his First Symphony in particular, I have no idea why he is not regularly programmed in concerts in the UK; I believe he is still held in high regard in Russia.

Both of the symphonies here are fine examples of late 19th century symphonic writing in the tradition of Dvorak, Tchaikovsky et al. Both are full of memorable melodies, satisfying thematic development, and emotional weight. The composer died young, and (I think) these are the only two symphonies he composed. Their air of romantic sadness and regret is all the more powerful for that. The second movement of the First Symphony is just wonderful - a limpid, fragile, tuneful piece of music of which I doubt I will ever tire.

Very highly recommended for anyone who enjoys Romantic era orchestral music, the sound on this Naxos disc is clear and rich, thankfully, because these works do benefit from a sense of depth.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 6, 2012 1:18 AM GMT

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