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Ryan

Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.

Somerville, MA, United States | Member Since 2005

ratings
331
REVIEWS
266
FOLLOWING
14
FOLLOWERS
393
HELPFUL VOTES
1401

  • Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West

    • UNABRIDGED (20 hrs and 35 mins)
    • By Anthony Pagden
    • Narrated By John Lee
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (415)
    Performance
    (184)
    Story
    (181)

    In the tradition of Jared Diamond and Jacques Barzun, prize-winning historian Anthony Pagden presents a sweeping history of the long struggle between East and West, from the Greeks to the present day.

    The relationship between East and West has always been one of turmoil. In this historical tour de force, a renowned historian leads us from the world of classical antiquity, through the Dark Ages, to the Crusades, Europe's resurgence, and the dominance of the Ottoman Empire, which almost shattered Europe entirely. Pagden travels from Napoleon in Egypt to Europe's carving up of the finally moribund Ottomans - creating the modern Middle East along the way - and on to the present struggles in Iraq.

    Tad Davis says: "Great story, with a lot of unfamiliar names"
    "Absorbing, well-researched, not unbiased history"
    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    I found this book a fascinating exploration of the long history of conflict between East and West, and the way the powers in charge of each sphere (whether Greek, Trojan, Roman, Persian, Christian, Muslim, French, Ottoman, British, or Arabic) have often seen themselves as inheritors of all the earlier struggles. Of course, it should be noted right away that by ???The East???, Pagden generally means the near and middle east, the lands from Asia Minor to the region that's modern Iran -- China, India, and Japan don???t figure into the book at all. In fact, his focus is really more on the development of the West and its experience with the East than the reverse.

    It should also be noted that Pagden has a strong bias towards liberal, secular, democratic values, which he feels are the essence of Western culture (he states as much in the forward). Religion, both Christianity and Islam, are portrayed in a dim light, as institutional obstacles to reason, human rights, and progress. Not that I don???t largely agree with this assessment, but some readers might take offense. Still, he seems to be fair-minded about it, giving Muslim societies credit for brief periods of learning and relative tolerance, and indicting the modern West for its more counterproductive forays into the Middle East, which understandably stoked the fires of Muslim distrust and resentment. Indeed, the final chapter warns, convincingly, of continued bloody conflict between an uncompromising pan-Islamic worldview, whose adherents have enjoyed few of the fruits of the West and see little of their value, and countries like the US, whose leaders naively assume that their own democratic attitudes are universally held, and fail to account for a divide with deep historic roots.

    However, I don???t want to place too much emphasis on modern politics, which take a back seat to the fact that this is a comprehensive, well-researched history, outlining many episodes over 2,500 years that I was only dimly aware of (e.g. Napoleon???s adventures in Egypt), and pulling them into a readable, continuous narrative. Especially interesting was reading of the ways in which the West???s often-skewed perception of the East as an "other" to strive against has nonetheless shaped its own attitudes towards freedom, tolerance, and science.

    12 of 13 people found this review helpful
  • The Magician's Land: The Magicians, Book 3

    • UNABRIDGED (16 hrs and 27 mins)
    • By Lev Grossman
    • Narrated By Mark Bramhall
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (272)
    Performance
    (256)
    Story
    (255)

    Quentin Coldwater has been cast out of Fillory, the secret magical land of his childhood dreams. With nothing left to lose he returns to where his story began, the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic. But he can't hide from his past, and it's not long before it comes looking for him. Along with Plum, a brilliant young undergraduate with a dark secret of her own, Quentin sets out on a crooked path through a magical demimonde of grey magic and desperate characters.

    Jammie says: "I enjoyed every quirky moment."
    "A good conclusion"
    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    Fillory, the magical land in this series, is a flagrant riff on CS Lewis's Narnia. In Lewis's classic children's books, the young protagonists entered the world through a magic portal, had adventures, and got into trouble, but had Aslan the lion (and Christ figure) to set them on the right path again. Here, though, the heroes aren't children, but jaded young adults, and the gods are a lot more fallible. And magic is dangerous.

    In the hands of other writers, such a premise might not have gone beyond parody, but Grossman's marvelous mix of creativity, snark, grimness, and squirmy truth shows that he had more serious things in mind. His story might be a metaphor for the messy process of growing up, for reaching that age where you've outgrown childish things, but haven't fully abandoned them. It’s when you find out that the world doesn't always answer your dreams with wish fulfillment, but with sharp edges. So it happens with the mopey, self-absorbed Quentin Coldwater and his disaffected friends, who, after learning magic at a special university that recruits the smartest misfits, manage to open a gateway to Fillory, which they become rulers of after removing a monster. Though not without death and suffering, and not without quite a bit of angst.

    In this novel, the nearly-thirty Quentin, who was banished from Fillory at the end of the last book, returns to Earth, while his friends continue on as rulers of the magic land or go on other missions (in the case of Julia, the hedge witch now turned demigod). There, he takes up a post as a professor at Brakebills, until something/someone from his past comes back to haunt him. Along with a new character named Plum, who has her own secret, he joins a team of renegade magicians to carry out a mission for a talking bird, who wishes them to recover a lost suitcase. This suitcase, well-guarded and kept closed by powerful magic, once belonged to one of the Chatwin children.

    If this is meant to be the last adventure in the Magicians universe, it finds its way to a somewhat expected, but not unsatisfying conclusion. Yes, Quentin finally matures and embraces being an adult, and his friends have their own growth. The plot is a little more rushed than previous entries, as Grossman works his way towards tying up all the loose ends, sometimes at the expense of spending enough time with his more interesting or likable characters or fully addressing some of the series' outstanding questions (who’s behind the Neitherlands?).

    Still, he has talent as a writer, which stands out in more than a few moments. I especially liked a journal sequence that reveals, with fitting Britishness, more about the relationship between the Chatwins and Fillory. As in the previous books, there's plenty of snarky humor, with irreverent young adults talking back to monsters and one another, but Grossman can also do emotional honesty, existential doubt, and genuine wonder. There's poignancy to a few scenes, such as Quentin's emotional response to his father's death, or a surprisingly beautiful scene in which one world comes to an end and another is born. A creative duel between Quentin and a ghostly being has an otherworldly creepiness to it, as well as an extra layer of emotional tension.

    Overall, I think that readers who enjoyed books one and two will like this one, even if it lacks many surprises in overall plot arc or character development. Grossman has created a world whose biting twists on traditional fantasy are as much of a pleasure to explore as the original thing was when we were kids. These books ain't for kids, and that's okay by me. Audiobook narrator for the series, Mark Bramhall, brings his usual droll style, though I felt he gave a little less personality to some of the characters than before.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Gone Girl: A Novel

    • UNABRIDGED (19 hrs and 11 mins)
    • By Gillian Flynn
    • Narrated By Julia Whelan, Kirby Heyborne
    Overall
    (16960)
    Performance
    (15086)
    Story
    (15129)

    It is Nick and Amy Dunne's fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick's clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn't doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media - as well as Amy's fiercely doting parents - the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he's definitely bitter - but is he really a killer?

    Teddy says: "Demented, twisted, sick and I loved it!"
    "A dark, fun ride"
    Overall
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    Gone Girl is 2012's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, that gritty suspense thriller that everyone and their mother was reading. For the first half, it sucked me in with well-drawn characters, a setup that has its fingers on the pulse of the times, and a delicious sense of Hitchcockian misdirection.

    The two narrators are Nick and Amy, a thirty-something pair of would-be yuppies whose magazine careers and New York City lives were derailed by the Great Recession. They have now downsized their dreams to the Midwest, characterized as the home of corn chip casseroles, bland earnestness, and shopping at Walmart. There, Nick took care of his ailing parents and opened a bar with the last of Amy's trust fund money. And, there, their marriage fell apart.

    Starting from page one, we get Nick's side of things: a perpetually unsatisfied wife and a life that seems to be going nowhere. Then, on their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappears, leaving behind signs of a struggle and a trail of clues in the form of an anniversary scavenger hunt. Nick blinks and stumbles his way through the ensuing police investigation, and there's the sense that he's not telling us everything.

    Interspersed with Nick's narrative are journal entries from Amy, painting a picture of a fairytale marriage that sours after a husband stops trying. And there's just a hint of control freak insecurity, perhaps triggered in part by being the inspiration for the goody-two-shoes protagonist of a series of saccharine children's books written by Amy's own parents over the decades, the source of her small family fortune.

    It doesn't take long before the reader gets the sense that Nick, while somewhat evasive and not exactly the husband of the year, is falling into a trap. Clues in the investigation and public opinion are going against him.

    Then comes a twist, and we learn that a few things about Nick and Amy’s marriage have been misrepresented. Here, the novel began to get unbelievable for me, though the suspense remained enjoyable. Would Nick be arrested? How would his sleazeball lawyer, his media appearances, his oddball sister, Amy's wealthy, creepy ex-boyfriend, a deranged father, and a couple of desperate types in a short-term housing park play into the plot? As Nick's defenses steadily crumble around him, against a far craftier opponent, Flynn keeps us guessing, even rooting for a guy who was initially hard to like.

    When the story reaches its endgame, it escalates into pure absurdity, a sort of screw-turning, Stephen King-like nightmare scenario (think of him in suspense mode, not monster mode). Somewhere, a few psychologists are doing face palms. But, if you're willing to shut off your brain, it's fun, in a deliciously dark way.

    All in all, this novel showed a lot of promise for roughly the first half. Flynn obviously *reads*, and has a sense of craft. I loved the unreliable narrators and the ambiguity. Unfortunately, though, once the game is revealed, the novel morphs steadily into airport bookstore territory. This isn't necessarily bad, but I'd hoped for a bit more psychological complexity. Oh well.

    The two audiobook narrators are good. Kirby Heyborne, who performs Nick's parts, ranges from bemused calm to barely suppressed anger. Julia Whelan, who takes Amy's, has a girlish chipperness that works well.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  • War and Remembrance

    • UNABRIDGED (56 hrs and 8 mins)
    • By Herman Wouk
    • Narrated By Kevin Pariseau
    Overall
    (1885)
    Performance
    (1593)
    Story
    (1580)

    Herman Wouk's sweeping epic of World War II, which begins with The Winds of War and continues here in War and Remembrance, stands as the crowning achievement of one of America's most celebrated storytellers. Like no other books about the war, Wouk's spellbinding narrative captures the tide of global events - and all the drama, romance, heroism, and tragedy of World War II - as it immerses us in the lives of a single American family drawn into the very center of the war's maelstrom.

    aaron says: "What can I say that hasn't already been said??"
    "A fine continuation"
    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    I've already written a review of the Winds of War, the first half of this marathon two-part historical drama. War and Remembrance picks up right where that one left off, shortly after the Pearl Harbor attacks. Now, the US is fully in the Second World War, and Victor, Warren, and Byron all see action in the Pacific. Meanwhile, Byron's Jewish wife, Natalie, is trapped in fascist Italy, where a series of misjudgements and bureaucratic tangles have blocked the escape of her and her uncle. And there are a few other dramas, involving characters we'd met before, such as Leslie Slote and Pamela Tudsbury.

    As in the previous book, Wouk masterfully illustrates how the war unfolded and how it looked to the Allies, with the much-pounded British grasping the full urgency of the situation while America was only beginning to get into gear. His overview of the politics and fighting takes into account the bumbling mistakes made by both sides, and the many opportunities the Axis powers had to achieve some devastating victories, on top of those they'd already had over the dithering Allies. If Wouk's narrative is to be believed, the fate of nations can turn on a single faulty report from a scout plane or a lucky accident of timing.

    Compared to the first book, there are more scenes of battle and combat, which are well-written. There’s a subplot concerning the development of the atomic bomb, involving Rhoda’s lover, Palmer Kirby. We can see the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union on the horizon. There’s more from the fictional German general, Armin von Ruhn, whose cerebral apologism for fascism becomes ever more disquieting, considering that his views don’t seem all that far off from those held by present-day right-wing groups, though his analysis of the war remains compelling. And there’s a subplot that exposes the horrors of the Holocaust, through both the eyes of a Jewish character interned in Auschwitz and the chillingly mechanical viewpoint of the camp’s commandant.

    If the plot turns are a little more soap opera-like, with the main characters getting into drawn-out dramas and crossing paths strangely often, they’re still absorbing. Through the storyline involving Natalie, her uncle, Aaron, and her friend Leslie, it becomes easy to see how Holocaust denial paralyzed much of the civilized world, which wanted to believe that the terrible stories were mostly just propaganda by people with an agenda (I couldn’t help but think of climate change deniers). The two Jews, as they struggle to find an out, get ever more inexorably trapped in the Nazi web, ending up in the sham showcase ghetto of Theresienstadt, and these desperate scenes are gripping.

    Both this novel and the Winds of War should really be thought of as one long work, though not everyone will want to power straight through both of them in sequence, as I did. As before, my compliments to Kevin Pariseau for his spoken performance. When I at last reached the final page, while biking along a lake in Massachusetts, I felt that I’d completed a real journey across eight profoundly world-changing years of history. Through the sheer scale, vision, energy, investment in storytelling, and deeper truth-seeking of his drama, Wouk has left a work for the ages.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • The Winds of War

    • UNABRIDGED (45 hrs and 53 mins)
    • By Herman Wouk
    • Narrated By Kevin Pariseau
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (2704)
    Performance
    (2280)
    Story
    (2284)

    Herman Wouk's sweeping epic of World War II stands as the crowning achievement of one of America's most celebrated storytellers. Like no other books about the war, Wouk's spellbinding narrative captures the tide of global events - and all the drama, romance, heroism, and tragedy of World War II - as it immerses us in the lives of a single American family drawn into the very center of the war's maelstrom.

    Robert says: "A Masterpiece"
    "Epic historical drama"
    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    At over 100 hours, this audiobook and its sequel are a commitment, a 20th century War and Peace. Over 2000 pages, Herman Wouk spins both a family saga and a sort of “bearing witness” document, a detailed history of World War Two that leaves no one excused for humanity’s greatest calamity (so far) and the many acts of blindness on both sides that allowed it to unfold as it did

    The fictional narrative centers around an American naval family headed by one Victor “Pug” Henry, a stolid, unpretentious career officer of classic mold. Yearning for a battleship command, Victor is instead sent to be the US’s naval attache in 1939 Berlin, at a time well before most Americans had any desire to get embroiled in another European mess. Because of his thorough reports, Victor finds himself coming to the attention of FDR, who makes him a high-powered informal go-between. Meanwhile, Victor’s two sons have their own stories -- one training as a Navy pilot, while the other “finds himself” in Italy, where he gets involved with a Jewish author and his lovely, headstrong niece. These two, trapped in Europe, become significant viewpoint characters in their own right. Others enter the narrative, too, including Victor’s wife, who is beginning to chafe at the sacrifices of being a Navy wife, and his daughter, who takes a job at a NYC radio station. While most of the action happens behind the lines, we do get a few tastes of the shooting war.

    Wouk’s style is a bit nostalgic, but the characters are well-written and credible. For all the contrivances in the plot -- such as Victor managing to meet Hitler, FDR, Churchill, *and* Stalin -- Wouk makes us believe that such path-crossings were plausible. Maybe one family wasn’t in so many places, but history did have plenty of small actors who played such roles. In any case, the small details of the characters’ thoughts and actions give events a full, living color. Sometimes Wouk pulls the camera back and explains in a clear, compelling way what was happening on the broader stage, which was a counterpoint that appealed to me, since the protagonists seldom have all the facts themselves. It’s to his credit that almost nothing feels irrelevant -- personalities and family lives seem to dovetail neatly into greater events and vice-versa.

    No, Herman Wouk isn’t Tolstoy, but he’s certainly a writer with a strong grasp of the forces of history, gentle insight into human behavior, the ability to connect small-scale events with large ones, and a storyteller’s gift for putting it all in familiar terms, through the eyes of some memorable characters.

    What pleased me most about this book, though, and a big reason for my enthusiastic recommendation, is its absence of simplistic rah-rah patriotism. Instead, Wouk soberly examines the causes of the war and the dangers of nationalism and ideology. He also notes the hypocrisies of British and American imperialism, and the self-absorbed apathy of both countries in the face of fascism’s self-image of surety. One of the most fascinating features of the novel is the inclusion of the memoirs of a German general, translated decades after the war by Pug himself. There’s a creepy familiarity to his critiques of the “decadent” West, and one begins to remember that evil is often rationalized away, sometime quite convincingly, by those who worship strength and power. This mattered at the time the author was writing, around the height of the Vietnam War, and it matters now.

    Ultimately, this novel and its sequel are a rich mix of intimate and broad-scale human themes, 20th century history, and wistful nostalgia for a time when the American middle class family embodied all that was hopeful. Audiobook narrator Kevin Pariseau rises to the occasion, with some impressive imitations of certain famous figures, a range of accents, and a narration voice that has both friendliness and gravity. Put the sequel on standby, because you’ll want to know what happens next.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • A Short Stay in Hell

    • UNABRIDGED (2 hrs and 42 mins)
    • By Steven L. Peck
    • Narrated By Sergei Burbank
    Overall
    (165)
    Performance
    (152)
    Story
    (154)

    An ordinary family man, geologist, and Mormon, Soren Johansson has always believed he'll be reunited with his loved ones after death in an eternal hereafter. Then, he dies. Soren wakes to find himself cast by a God he has never heard of into a Hell whose dimensions he can barely grasp: a vast library he can only escape from by finding the book that contains the story of his life. In this haunting existential novella, author, philosopher, and ecologist Steven L. Peck explores a subversive vision of eternity.

    Janice says: "I'll be thinking about this one for a while."
    "Beautifully unsettling"
    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    This short, smart existential novella is a gem. After the protagonist, Soren Johansson, a devout Mormon, dies of cancer, he finds himself in a room with four other people. There, an officious demon cheerfully informs everyone that they’ve all failed to follow the one true religion (which I won’t spoil, but suffice to say, it’s not one of the obvious candidates) and consigns them all to a variety of hells.

    For the protagonist, hell is a bigger-than-the-known-universe library containing every possible book (including those whose contents are just random characters, i.e. the vast majority). And the only way out, according to a posted notice, is to find the book containing one’s own life story. Hell does operate according to a few rules, which can’t be broken. There are food dispensers, which give out any meal requested. Non-carried objects return to their place at the end of each day. People who die are returned to life.

    At first, Soren does what most people would do: he explores, forms relationships, tests the rules, and discusses solutions to the shared predicament. But days, then months, then years pass. The denizens of the library form societies. Soren experiences wandering and loneliness. He falls in love. Then violent religious mania hits people, and hell really does become hell. So, he escapes to deeper levels, in search of both his lost lover and answers.

    I won’t give away what happens from there, but Peck does eventually make it clear that there’s no easy way out. The author’s wry sense of humor makes the haunting philosophical questions go down easy, but that won’t stop them from swirling uncomfortably in your mind later. As I see it, this is a book about what faith really means. What happens if God utterly defies all our expectations? Would we still believe? Could we let go of our belief? And I don’t think Peck is letting non-believers off the hook, either -- if we contemplate the hell of a purposeless reality, might it be better to have some ray of hope in a greater meaning, however slender?

    Beautifully unsettling questions. I’m glad I spotted this one in an audible sale.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  • Broken Angels

    • UNABRIDGED (16 hrs and 14 mins)
    • By Richard K. Morgan
    • Narrated By Todd McLaren
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (1700)
    Performance
    (731)
    Story
    (737)

    Cynical, quick-on-the-trigger Takeshi Kovacs, the ex-U.N. envoy turned private eye, has changed careers, and bodies, once more, trading sleuthing for soldiering as a warrior-for-hire and helping a far-flung planet's government put down a bloody revolution.

    crazybatcow says: "Very very good story, very very "adult""
    "Gritty, hard-boiled space action"
    Overall
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    The first in this series, Altered Carbon, was all the rage a few years back. It was a gritty, hard-boiled detective story set in the 25th century, complete with pithy first person narration by sardonic tough guy male protagonist. The universe is a little reminiscent of the one in the movie Blade Runner, with powerful corporations that run everything and crime syndicates and rebel groups in the shadows. The most notable technological feature of this reality is the ability to back human consciousness up on a "cortical stack" implant, allowing people to "resleeve" in a new body if the old one gets excessively damaged. The implications of this made for some interesting twists, both in terms of plot and human themes.

    In this novel, a loose sequel to Altered Carbon, Takeshi Kovacs has put aside the detective work and is back to his former trade of soldiering. He's serving as a mercenary on behalf of a corporate power battling rebel fanatics on a planet whose civilian populace is receiving the brunt of the misery and suffering. He's feeling about ready to jump ship on his contract when a pilot points Kovacs to a xenoarchaeologist in a prison camp, who knows something about a gateway leading to an ancient, derelict alien starship -- the find of the century. Can he put together a team to stake legal claim?

    As with many sequels to hot first novels, the dazzle factor of the author’s style and universe has worn off a little, and this reader notices the formula a little more. For those who liked the grit, hard-boiled cynicism, manga-like universe, over-the-top sex scenes, and action movie machismo of Altered Carbon, Broken Angels brings more of that, but the characters and plot are more familiar and forgettable. While the part surrounding the entering of the long-dead ghost ship, the high point of the book, has a cool eeriness similar to the opening of the movie Alien and its own horror to deliver about the fate of a superior civilization, the story leading up this point isn’t hugely riveting. Yes, the sequences about locating a corporate backer (without being screwed over by the same), recruiting a squad of soldiers from the colorful personalities found in a pile of discarded cortical stacks, battling nanobots, and discovering what became of a previous expedition to the alien ship, were a pleasant audio distraction while I was doing yard work, a lot of other science fiction novels could have done as much. The war going on in the background had potential to be interesting, but wasn’t fleshed out much -- I suspect it will come more into play in the next book.

    All in all, this is a recommendation for those who loved Altered Carbon and want to go further into the Takeshi Kovacs universe, but other readers could probably take it or leave it. Audiobook reader Todd McLaren has a square-jawed voice that suits the hard-boiled nature of Morgan's prose well and keeps it from coming across as too self-serious, but his sultry-voiced women can be a little irritating. Particularly the "sassy black girl" voice.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes

    • UNABRIDGED (17 hrs and 31 mins)
    • By Tamim Ansary
    • Narrated By Tamim Ansary
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (399)
    Performance
    (257)
    Story
    (250)

    Until about 1800, the West and the Islamic realm were like two adjacent, parallel universes, each assuming itself to be the center of the world while ignoring the other. As Europeans colonized the globe, the two world histories intersected and the Western narrative drove the other one under. The West hardly noticed, but the Islamic world found the encounter profoundly disrupting.

    David says: "A history of the world before the West mattered"
    "Puts a lot in perspective"
    Overall
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    I can’t remember the history of the Islamic world rating more than a few pages in my high school AP World History textbook. And those pages were about the things that related directly to the story of Europe and the Americas, kthxbye. Oh, and oil.

    This book is an excellent corrective for the distorted, limited picture most Americans have of the Islamic sphere, revealing it as a complex and fascinating parallel universe that had developed largely apart from Europe. This culture rose to great heights while most Europeans still lived in ignorant medieval squalor, became fragmented by Mongol invasion and the politics of empire in successive centuries, and was finally encroached upon by the modern West in the 19th and 20th centuries, an encounter that it’s still in turmoil from.

    Tamim Ansary, an author and lecturer, turns a millenium plus into an informal, engaging narrative, as a good professor would. There’s even some humor (“pointing his cannons at Parliament and blowing it up was just the shah’s way of showing that he some objections to the new agreement”). Good historical narrative doesn’t judge the past from a modern perspective, but illuminates it as a complex set of relationships that evolved over time. There are many terms here that I’d heard before and had a vague sense of the meaning of -- Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Assassin, caliphate, 12th Imam, vizier, harem, Mamluk, janissary, Safavid, Ottoman, Great Game, Raj -- but Ansary puts them all into their place.

    Thus, it became easier for me to understand how Islam is often (without irony) called a “religion of peace”, while also having a warrior aspect. During and following the prophet Muhammad's life, the faithful saw themselves as creating a new vision for society, founded on peace, justice, self-discipline, religious tolerance, and egalitarian brotherhood (even sisterhood) for the once fractious people of the Arabian peninsula and the Levant. Muslims saw God’s favor as being demonstrated by their success at liberating the oppressed inhabitants of neighboring lands and God’s disfavor as being shown through military loss -- which was to have far-reaching implications.

    Ansary also helped me see how Islam’s source ideas played out in attempts to codify them into a framework for daily life. Elaborate bodies of law developed and scholars saw a unity of reason and divine revelation, bringing about advances in science and mathematics, and re-introducing classical Greek logic to the world. Of course, these noble goals did not prevent the usual conflicts between higher thinking and human nature from taking root -- politics, greed, war, dynastic feuding, cultural chauvinism, overly conservative thinking -- and so Islam fragmented into different visions. Mystics, enlightened progressives, and traditionalists all found footholds in different parts the greater empires. Interesting stuff.

    The latter chapters, which deal with the Muslim world’s encounter with the West, are the most revealing. I’d never fully considered how the Protestant Reformation opened the door for a culture of individualism and mercantilism, but it did, and soon European traders and bankers were making inroads into stratified empires in Asia Minor, Persia, and India, making deals that that decadent rulers couldn’t refuse and securing more and more privilege for themselves. Never underestimate the corrosive power of loans! While Muslim intellectuals and secularists came to see the future as lying in the kind of democratic, constitutional governments that the west had (as Turkey is today), a combination of cynical Western imperialism and rising fundamentalism among large, impoverished lower classes that saw their elites as selling out on God’s instructions (with no pope-like figure to intermediate), poisoned this dream in many places. Obviously, terrorism can’t be justified under any system that claims respect for the innocent, but the resentment and sense of a stolen destiny that boiled over into extremism (enabled by oil money) makes more sense to me now.

    For people who enjoy history and know that there are different ways of telling it, depending on who’s in the “center” of a narrative and who comes crashing in from outside during Act Three, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  • Afterparty

    • UNABRIDGED (10 hrs and 55 mins)
    • By Daryl Gregory
    • Narrated By Tavia Gilbert
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (139)
    Performance
    (129)
    Story
    (130)

    It begins in Toronto, in the years after the smart drug revolution. Any high school student with a chemjet and internet connection can download recipes and print drugs, or invent them. A seventeen-year-old street girl finds God through a new brain-altering drug called Numinous, used as a sacrament by a new Church that preys on the underclass. But she is arrested and put into detention, and without the drug, commits suicide. Lyda Rose, another patient in that detention facility, has a dark secret: She was one of the original scientists who developed the drug.

    Ryan says: "Smart, witty altered-consciousness thriller"
    "Smart, witty altered-consciousness thriller"
    Overall
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    Afterparty was a pleasant discovery for me, comparable to recent Neal Stephenson or William Gibson, but less geeked-out than the former and a little snarkier than the latter.

    The initial setting is a near-future Toronto. A former neuroscientist named Lyda is in a mental hospital, in the wake of a series of breakdowns. It’s about a decade after her biotech startup discovered, while trying to cure schizophrenia, a drug that enables users to experience God. Well, in a manner of speaking. More specifically, Lyda and her colleagues overdosed on the drug and each now experiences a very convincing hallucination of a heavenly spirit companion. In Lyda's case, it's a moralizing winged angel named Doctor Gloria. In more controlled doses, the drug, nicknamed Numinous, makes people feel that they're in the presence of the divine.

    It’s not the only mind-altering custom drug in this future. There's now a whole subculture of print-it-at-home drug manufacture, to say nothing of what more serious organizations do with the tech. Some products have amusingly harmless effects, but some alter consciousness in disturbing ways, such as one that removes one character’s natural empathy and turns him into a temporary sociopath.

    When a peculiarly troubled teenage patient shows up in the clinic, it dawns on Lyda that Numinous, which her and her colleagues swore to keep secret, is now on the street, being distributed by a strange new “church”. So, Lyda must check herself out of the hospital, evade monitoring systems, get across the border, and track down her former colleagues in the US. Her only allies are a sweetly unaware young man who thinks his consciousness resides in the aquarium toy hanging from his neck, and a crafty American ex-intelligence officer whose own mind has been scrambled by too much "focus" drug over her career. And a cat. And, of course, the amusingly huffy Doctor G, who remains invisible to everyone but Lyda.

    This is definitely a smart book, asking meaningful philosophical questions about the nature of being and the implications of messing with our brains/minds. Or of messing with other people's. It's also a witty one, with cleverly written scenes, oddball characters, and a lot of snarky quips from Lyda. For example, when a drug dealer sells a seemingly effective gay-for-a-day "product" to some straight dudebros at a college frat party, she retorts, "product? Don't you mean placebo?" (Well, it made me laugh.)

    The story, once it gets going, is interesting. There's also a backstory that emerges, concerning the tragic events that took place at Little Sprout (the startup) ten years ago, what became of Lyda's wife and fellow scientist, who took too much Numinous, how Lyda ended up in the mental hospital, and what happened to her daughter, who she had to give up for adoption. While Gregory doesn’t posit a drastically altered future, I also enjoyed the creative, incidental little ideas that he drops in here and there, such as a plausible successor to smart phones. Like the plot of a good thriller, all the pieces come together in the end, but with some room for taking the characters and setup further, should he choose to.

    If there are a few believability issues and the ending is a little predictable, it’s a thriller with a brain and an eye on an approaching bend in the road ahead. And the core questions -- if there is a better us inside ourselves, should we try to access it by tampering with ourselves? Or should we not? Is “divine experience” more about the divine, or the experience? -- are ones that Gregory keeps hovering in our peripheral vision throughout the book, but admirably never tries to answer for us.

    5 of 5 people found this review helpful
  • Last Dragon

    • UNABRIDGED (9 hrs and 32 mins)
    • By J. M. McDermott
    • Narrated By Cori Samuel
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (9)
    Performance
    (7)
    Story
    (8)

    Zhan has been sent to find her grandfather, a man accused of killing not only Zhan’s family, but every man, woman, and child in their village. What she finds is a shell of a man, and a web of deceit that will test the very foundations of a world she thought she understood. A tale of revenge that grows into something more, Last Dragon is a literary fantasy novel in the tradition of Gene Wolf and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. J. M. McDermott brings the fantasy genre to new literary heights with his first novel.

    Samuel Montgomery-Blinn says: "Instantly became one of my all-time favorites."
    "Beautiful, melancholic literary fantasy"
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    Last Dragon falls into a space somewhere between straightforward genre fantasy and literary fiction, which is probably why not too many readers have noticed it. The bones of the plot have a lot in common with the former: there’s a teenage girl, destined to become an Empress (which we know because she’s writing an epistolary from her older years), who leaves her nomadic people to seek blood justice against her grandfather, who has murdered her family and most of the rest of her village, then fled. Along with her slightly-older uncle, who is now technically the village shaman, she travels over the mountains and enters the more civilized, darker-skinned country to the south.

    As we might expect, the young Zhan will find companions on the road who have their own histories and purposes, learn about the wider world, discover that the truth is more complex than the one she began with, and get sucked into a war that comes back to her people. Not everyone’s stories, when fully revealed, will be quite as they seem. Several of the main characters have an ambiguous quality to them.

    Unlike a lot of fantasy, which tends to proceed in a linear way, Zhan’s tale is expressed in semi-ordered, dreamlike fragments, concentrating less on genre tropes, and more on how humans reveal themselves in their interactions. There are betrayals and surprises that will emerge, some of which seem to be a product of the older Zhan’s unreliable memory. There’s a definite Gene Wolfe flavor -- if The Book of the New Sun spoke to you, this probably will, too (and if you hated The Shadow of the Torturer, you’re not the audience for this book). The format can be a little confusing, but there were enough contextual hints for me to mostly keep track of the plot.

    But, man, McDermott can write. I loved the sparse, delicate beauty of the prose, and the haunting imagery that fills the book. Camp fires made from an intoxicating weed that grows in the mountains. A language that considers a bird to be any creature that sings. Ancient dragons that onced imparted their preternatural wisdom to a nation, an order of paladin who sacrificed their own lives to maintain the great creatures, and black-skinned soldiers from the south, who brought an end to this order (and many others) with their musketry. Ants that crawl in the masonry of a great city, and come to play their own disquieting role. An old warrior, from a place where different tribes modify their bodies to pay homage to different animals, telling a blend of personal and tall tales from childhood, which include a moment where a storm drops fish from the sky on a column of captives. There’s an ambiguity and bleakness to the main story, which ends unhappily for most in it, but it’s told in such a lovely way, including Cori Samuels’s English-accented audio narration.

    Not everyone will like this book. If you prefer novels to have a clear plot resolution, with all the characters’ motives fully revealed, you should probably look elsewhere. However, if you accept that books can be puzzles, with meanings that are hinted at through allegorical imagery and invocation of themes, Last Dragon is worthy of your time. While the novel sometimes loses itself in its own dreamlike gauziness and structural experimentation, and perhaps a few of the author’s ideas and characters could have been developed a little more, it’s an impressive first novel.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • Ragtime

    • UNABRIDGED (7 hrs and 52 mins)
    • By E. L. Doctorow
    • Narrated By E. L. Doctorow
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (393)
    Performance
    (282)
    Story
    (282)

    The story opens in 1906 in New Rochelle, New York, at the home of an affluent American family. One lazy Sunday afternoon, the famous escape artist Harry Houdini swerves his car into a telephone pole outside their house. And almost magically, the line between fantasy and historical fact, between real and imaginary characters, disappears.

    Catherine says: "Ragtime and Doctorow are compelling"
    "Hot times in the nineteen-o’s"
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    This is one of those books I had to read for class in high school, but which was somewhat wasted on me at the time. I didn’t know enough about history and adult psychology to really appreciate Doctorow’s portrait of the roiling, chaotic, ever unsatisfied nature of turn-of-the-20th century America, with its class struggles, expanding immigrant population, media celebrities and their sordid scandals, racism, squalor, and energetic search for something better.

    This is a novel where the author’s technique shines as much as his story or characters. Assuming an omniscient, godlike point of view that seems to pay homage to John Dos Passo’s America Trilogy, Doctorow swoops above the day, taking in the events of the newspaper headlines, then zooming down into dining rooms, meeting halls, and bedrooms, for a closer look into his characters lives, then diving into their thoughts and emotions, before flying away again. This approach creates a sense of urgency and burgeoning unrest, not surprising in a novel written soon after the late 1960s.

    The story blends history with the lives of a fictional middle-class white family in a New York City suburb, who are named only as Father, Mother, Younger Brother, and The Boy. The bourgeois Father owns a business that sells patriotic supplies, and joins Robert Peary on his expedition to the North Pole, which seems to mark an apex of Father’s life. Younger Brother is a troubled young man who obsesses over an equally troubled young starlet, the real Evelyn Nesbit, and loses himself in designing fireworks, then in radicalism. When Mother takes in a young, unwed black women and her infant, the family becomes involved with a successful, cultured black pianist named Coalhouse Walker, who refuses to back down from his demands for redress after his car is vandalized by a racist fire chief. Things escalate, and the Family finds itself connected to a righteous terrorist, who acts out a fantasy that many blacks at the time probably had.

    This central plot, though absorbing, is only an eye of the storm for the rest of the book. Doctorow spends as much time with other figures, fictional or historical, whose energies intersect and rise into the same sublime madness. An immigrant Jew living in the slums of New Yorks, who struggles after a better life for his daughter and is pulled towards a new industry. Anarchist labor organizer Emma Goldman, who gives a scathing critique of capitalist society and its moral hypocrisies. Plutocrat J.P. Morgan, who searches for higher purpose, now that he’s achieved the pinnacle of success and found it wanting, and fellow capitalist Henry Ford, who gives a folksy comeuppance. Escapist artist Harry Houdini, who pushes back against his own inner emptiness with ever more dangerous and unreal stunts.

    This is a brilliant book, swirling with color and energy, but also wit and insight into the psyche of America at a significant moment. There’s a strong whiff of counterculture and the kind of creative, what-if reimagining of hidden moments of history that I enjoyed in Doctorow’s Civil War novel The March. Readers who dislike the cinematic, somewhat fanciful staging of such scenes, or prefer a more conventional, grounded plot might not enjoy this book, but I’d recommend Ragtime to anyone who wants to better understand the US, or this time period in particular.

    Doctorow, who obviously isn’t a trained voice actor, narrates his own audiobook. The recording isn’t of great quality, being a little muffled in places and making him sound like he has a cold. Still, I appreciated knowing that all the verbal emphasis in the reading was just as the author intended.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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