Day of the Oprichnik – Vladimir Sorokin (Book Review)


I haven’t read much modern Russian literature and so this is my first!

Moscow, 2028. A scream, a moan, and a death rattle slowly pull Andrei Danilovich Komiaga out of his drunken stupor. But wait—that’s just his ring tone. So begins another day in the life of an oprichnik, one of the czar’s most trusted courtiers—and one of the country’s most feared men.

In this new New Russia, where futuristic technology and the draconian codes of Ivan the Terrible are in perfect synergy, Komiaga will attend extravagant parties, partake in brutal executions, and consume an arsenal of drugs. He will rape and pillage, and he will be moved to tears by the sweetly sung songs of his homeland.

The book follows almost along the lines of the famous A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn but from a different class of people altogether. We follow Andrei throughout an average day in his life, from waking up and going to bed. As a member of the feared oprichnina, his duties include serving the tsar and mostly this means stamping out anyone who wonder slander the regime. His first meeting the day involves the execution of a nobleman, and the rape of his wife – all for the glory of the state, of course.

As we follow his day we get a glimpse of this “New Russia” too, and see the open humiliation of those who hold different ideologies or break certain rules, such as swearing.

Though well-written an interesting in places, perhaps I missed a lot of nuance in this book due to not being overly familiar with certain happenings in modern Russia (this book often been considered as a sort of satire of it). The following along the lines of Ivan Denisovich is interesting though, and seeing a modern take on such a famous Russian classic was definitely worth the time taken.

There are certain scenes in this book which I found a little uncomfortable to read, and it’s likely that if you have read you will know which I am referring too. Perhaps I get that particular remark on Russian culture though…


Shades of Grey – Jasper Fforde (Book Review)


Though never reading any of his books previously, I am aware of Jasper Fforde. This book was recommended by a friend strongly enough to persuade me to buy it:

Hundreds of years in the future, after the Something that Happened, the world is an alarmingly different place. Life is lived according to The Rulebook and social hierarchy is determined by your perception of colour.

Eddie Russett is an above average Red who dreams of moving up the ladder by marriage to Constance Oxblood. Until he is sent to the Outer Fringes where he meets Jane – a lowly Grey with an uncontrollable temper and a desire to see him killed.

For Eddie, it’s love at first sight. But his infatuation will lead him to discover that all is not as it seems in a world where everything that looks black and white is really shades of grey . . .

This book is a dystopian fututre where society has been divided into classes based upon the individual’s colour perception: from Purples at the top, to greys at the bottom considered little more than savages. Relationships are determined almost exclusively by who will benefit your hue, with strong blues and reds looking to marry for the purpose of a purple child, leading them into a higher social standing.

Eddie is sent with his dad to a small town where corruption is evident in what is known as ‘loopholery’; still adherence to the rules, though a questionably one.

As it becomes clear that not everything people are told is true, Eddie strays dangerously close to Rule-breaking to seek the truth.

This book is bizarre to describe but incredible to read – it is a book that is certainly difficult to put down. With so many hidden secrets and unsolved questions, the reader is lured into the solution as much as the characters – hoping for a more emotive society than what is currently there.

I haven’t read many dystopian future books, and this is certainly a great introduction to them – thankfully it is also a series so I look forward to the release of the next volume!

Highly recommended – the humour is spot-on on the plot fascinating.

Death and The Penguin – Andrey Kurkov (Book Review)

This months Book Club book is Death and The Penguin. I have seen this around before, and considered buying it, but didn’t do so until now:

Viktor is an aspiring writer with only Misha, his pet penguin, for company. Although he would prefer to write short stories, he earns a living composing obituaries for a newspaper. He longs to see his work published, yet the subjects of his obituaries continue to cling to life. But when he opens the newspaper to see his work in print for the first time, his pride swiftly turns to terror. He and Misha have been drawn into a trap from which there appears to be no escape.

The book starts very quickly, with little to no build up in terms of the characters introduction: Viktor lives alone with his pet penguin, and gains a job out of nowhere, writing obituaries for a newspaper for stable income.

Sooner or later, Viktor makes friends with various people who all seem to know more about Viktor’s new role than he does.

The book is very well written with amazing prose breaking up the dialogue. Viktor is very reflective throughout, seemingly dragged from his quiet life into a dangerous one, with a child to look after who is indifferent to him, and woman who is forcing herself as an almost ‘wife’ that he didn’t want.

His situation is sad, and yet a lot of the story is humorous. The penguin seems to get more respect than himself, and he soon finds that he is invited to certain events only is the penguin is there too, later the facade being dropped, and only the penguin being invited at all.

It is a short read, and the ending quite abrupt and ambiguous. Perhaps I will need to read the sequel. This was one of those books where, though not a lot seems to happen, you become engrossed regardless.

The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett (Book Review)


I bought this book about 2 years ago but never got around to reading it. I bought it after a talk with a friend of mine who has read everything Pratchett ever wrote. I recently gave it a read before starting a bigger book:

Rincewind, a wizard drop-out, becomes the unlikely guide to the Discworld’s first tourist: Twoflower. Travelling on the a Disc-shaped world, supported by 4 large elephants on the back of a giant turtle travelling through space, the characters get into a variety of situations, pursued by the overly-loyal Luggage.

To appreciate the book, a knowledge of fantasy is already required: over-the-top plots, very convenient timings, etc. as the whole book is written as a fantasy-satire. This is introduced early on when, in the case of an attempt to greet another person failing, it is said that the character realises he ‘fumbled the introduction’ – a reference to D&D.

The book follows to characters as the face a variety of challenges, mostly coming about by the eager Twoflowers want to explore and take pictures of the world.

The book is written in a very simple way but, and this was my misunderstanding, in a way which is appropriate for young children (teens perhaps, though). With references to ‘whoring’ and a fair bit of nudity aside, a lot of the humour would require a bit of explanation for children.

The book itself is light-hearted, however, and I enjoyed reading it. I’m likely to read others in the series in time, but not after a heavier read!

The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov (Book Review)


A few people have claimed this book as their favourite from the 20th century, such as Daniel Radcliffe and Steven Fry, which is quite the claim considering the books I have read from then. I thought it worth a go, being a Russian author and all…

In the 1930’s, Satan, under the guise of a magician, walks the streets of Moscow with his three pals: Azzezelo, Koroviev, and Behemoth – the talking cat. Observing the Russian people, and causing a lot of trouble for the aristocracy, the Devil and his friends settle into Flat 50.

Meanwhile, an author of a book about the life of Pontius Pilate, calling himself the Master, is in a mental asylum, longing for his married mistress, Margarita; who herself longs to leave her husband she regards as boring, for the author of what she considers a masterpiece.

And throughout this is the story of Pontius Pilate on the days surrounding the crucifixion, his dealings with Jesus (Yeshua), Judas, Matthew, and his mysterious head bodyguard. All the while detesting the city of Jerusalem, and seeking the sleep which evades him.

At first I was hesitant to read the book, having heard that a fictitious version of Jesus appeared in it who, for the most part, acts a bit bewildered as to the claims against him – frankly, he’s portrayed as a simpleton – albeit still the Christ. This, with me being a Christian and the book being potentially offensive to the faith, made me cautious. There are few reasons why this may not be so though, which I address first for the sake of others in my position:

Firstly, the stories told are from the point of view of the Master, and Satan himself (who even in the novel is hardly a reliable source of truth), and are therefore fictitious even in the fiction.

Secondly, Jesus is still revealed as telling the Truth, as he is shown eternal throughout.

And thirdly, the book has strong themes of repentance throughout, which I may touch on later.

That aside: the book was fairly good. I wouldn’t go as far as saying one of my favourites, but nonetheless recommendable. The characters are certainly unique (if not bizarre), and there were some genuinely funny moments throughout.

The descriptive prose is well done, and much of it graphic to the point of breaking through even my 21st century sensitised reactions – the descriptions of Pilates torment due to lack of sleep made me incredibly thankful that I could sleep without trouble.

The stories are much more like fairy-tales than ordinary classical fiction, and are therefore somewhat bordering magical realism(?).

Now to be annoying; the drawbacks: firstly I felt that morality was often too simplified in the novel. Though there were some moments that felt real (which I won’t share due to spoilers) often the portrayal of good and evil were far too separated, unlike the usual mix in each man.

Secondly, the portrayal of the devil was quite cartoon-y, and the ‘antics’ him and his friends got up to seemed somewhat childish. Unless this novel is viewed as a somewhat jovial book – which it certainly has elements of – this could seem quite tedious. It was also hinted at that he is somewhat in charge of the souls of the damned, which is a particular misconception that I can’t help but allow to irk me.

Thirdly, the purpose of the book, should it have been a satire of communism in Russian, was somewhat hard to grasp and hold onto, though that may be perhaps due to ignorance on my part: was the devil, who caused so much trouble for the Russian citizens, a characterised Stalin? I’m not sure.

Overall, however, it wasn’t a bad read, and I’m open for someone to point out something I missed. I’m of the school of hermeneutics that assumes that the authors intent is the true meaning, so sources from Bulgakov that I’m unaware of, perhaps…

It does leave me thinking what I would publicly put forward as my favourite book of the 20th century, however. I’d be interested to hear some people’s thoughts.