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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

1297
HELPFUL VOTES
  • 256 reviews
  • 321 ratings
  • 1 titles in library
  • 33 purchased in 2014
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  • Childhood's End

    • UNABRIDGED (7 hrs and 47 mins)
    • By Arthur C. Clarke
    • Narrated By Eric Michael Summerer, Robert J. Sawyer
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (3021)
    Performance
    (2051)
    Story
    (2082)

    The Overlords appeared suddenly over every city - intellectually, technologically, and militarily superior to humankind. Benevolent, they made few demands: unify earth, eliminate poverty, and end war. With little rebellion, humankind agreed, and a golden age began.

    A User says: "Food for Thought"
    "Still a classic of visionary science fiction"
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    The last time I read this book was when it was assigned to my English class in eighth grade, and it was a pleasure to come back to as an adult and re-experience the same emotions I did back then. This is science fiction about the wonder and awe of discovery, the bittersweetness of letting go of the primitive past, and the ultimate destiny of the human race. It's not a dystopian or cautionary tale, as so much science fiction, but a book about what it means for our species to reach adulthood -- and a sacrifice that that may one day demand of us.

    The story begins, in classic form, with the visitation of beings from the stars. The Overlords arrive on Cold War-era Earth in immense, silver starships, and immediately establish themselves as vastly superior, but benevolent masters. Yet, they refuse to reveal themselves in person (at least not right away) or explain their ultimate purposes. Here, one might guess, as some characters do, at sinister intentions.

    But, nothing so crude comes to pass, and Clarke proceeds to a new generation of characters, as the Overlords usher in a new era of peace and worldwide prosperity for the human race. Not to mention a certain amount of ennui and loss of purpose, as mankind finds that most of its traditional problems are solved. Yet, a few people continue to puzzle over the mysteries about the Overlords and chafe against the restrictions they still impose. What are the reasons? Several intrepid explorers begin to find out.

    The writing is simple and unadorned, and the characters not particularly complex in their construction (not to mention a bit 1950s), but there's a subtle eloquence to the way the story unfolds, each stage in the human race's progress revealing a little more about the fate that must eventually come. And Clarke's writing is still a pleasure to read for its vision, its thoughtful ideas about the forms that different alien races might take, the capabilities of advanced technology, and how human society might continue to function when the primary need is that of avoiding boredom. Though a few assumptions are showing their age (newspapers, radio), much of this 1953 story still speaks to the 21st century. Clarke continues to remind us of how little we know about what's out there in the universe, or how limited our evolution has been compared to what's possible.

    Read it, if you haven't yet. Or read it again. Childhood's End is one of the works that sets the template for great science fiction, and will likely still contain meaning for new readers in fifty years.

    4.5 stars.

    15 of 15 people found this review helpful
  • This Is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death

    • UNABRIDGED (15 hrs and 38 mins)
    • By David Malki (editor), Ryan North (editor)
    • Narrated By Dan Woren, Will Collyer, Robert Morgan Fisher, and others
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (16)
    Performance
    (13)
    Story
    (13)

    The machines started popping up around the world. The offer was tempting: with a simple blood test, anyone could know how they would die. But the machines didn't give dates or specific circumstances - just a single word or phrase. DROWNED, CANCER, OLD AGE, CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN. And though the predictions were always accurate, they were also often frustratingly vague.

    Ryan says: "Fate Inescapable"
    "Fate Inescapable"
    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    This is a fun little anthology. All the pieces here revolve around the same premise: the idea that there's a machine that can predict a person's death from a blood sample, spitting out its answer on a small card. The machine sometimes words its oracular messages in an ambiguous or poetic way, but it's never wrong. If it predicts that you'll die by drowning, moving to the desert won't save you -- you'll just die in the shower or by choking on a drink. Perhaps, like Oedipus, you might even suffer the paradoxical fate of being doomed by your attempt to escape fate.

    Naturally, there are a number of logical, philosophical, and moral implications that can arise from the premise, and the various authors get pretty creative in exploring them. How would you act if you knew your death? What if your friends or family knew? What if your government knew? A few pieces are set in the present day, but the genres of most of the others run the gamut from sci-fi to dystopian to fantasy to zombie horror to time travel to Sherlock Holmes. There's even a choose-your-own-adventure. The most interesting ones, for my money, tend to weave in some other issue.

    The tone of the stories ranges a lot as well. Some are witty, some are serious, some dark, some absurd, some poignant, some melancholy, and some cryptic. Some feature better writing than others, but there was a good deal of talent and imagination on display. Similarly, the various audiobook readers range from competent-but-unremarkable to skilled. I particularly enjoyed the voices done by the guy who narrated the story told from the point of view of an orc.

    In sum, a collection I could recommend to any adult who enjoys creative short fiction (I say "adult" because of some profanity and a few grown-up topics). I would note that this is the followup to any earlier anthology, called Machine of Death. I haven't read that one, but the grapevine (well, the Internet) says that this is the more inventive of the two.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • Lagoon

    • UNABRIDGED (10 hrs and 44 mins)
    • By Nnedi Okorafor
    • Narrated By Adjoa Andoh, Ben Onwukwe
    Overall
    (13)
    Performance
    (13)
    Story
    (10)

    Three strangers, each isolated by his or her own problems: Adaora, the marine biologist. Anthony, the rapper famous throughout Africa. Agu, the troubled soldier. Wandering Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigeria's legendary mega-city, they're more alone than they've ever been before. But when something like a meteorite plunges into the ocean and a tidal wave overcomes them, these three people will find themselves bound together in ways they could never imagine.

    Samuel Montgomery-Blinn says: "Lagos, where nothing works and everything happens"
    "Colorful magic realist science fiction"
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    There aren't a lot of sci-fi/fantasy writers who use Africa as a primary setting, but Nnedi Okorafor is a noteworthy voice in this small subgenre. I enjoyed 2010's post-apocalypse coming-of-age, Who Fears Death, though I found the plot a little disjointed. Lagoon, her most recent work, shows her strengthening her skills as a writer and storyteller.

    Here, when aliens come to set up a new home on Earth, they don't pick New York, London, or Tokyo, but land their ship in the ocean near Lagos, Nigeria, flooding the coast. Immediately, their technology, which is advanced to the point of near-magic, begins to wreak changes on the local marine life. For reasons that don't become clear until later, three people, strangers to each other, a marine biologist named Adaora, a popular Ghanaian rapper named Anthony, and a soldier named Agu, are attracted to the beach. A wave pulls them all into the water, and some time later, they return with a fourth individual, an ambassador from the aliens who has taken human form.

    At this point, had the story been set in the US, the government would have swooped in, set up a tight military cordon and whisked away the visitor. But, this is Nigeria. Instead, Adaora conducts a few tests, footage ends up on the internet, and different parties, from a charlatan witch-hunting preacher to some enterprising kidnappers to a unit of trigger-happy soldiers, converge on the scene. Meanwhile, the strange events unleash religious fervor, rioting, and other chaos throughout Lagos. The aliens, like gods, can be benevolent in their way, but also seem to be judging humanity and are dangerous when provoked.

    This definitely isn't conventional sci-fi. There are some strong mystical elements to the story, which lend it, at times, a magic realist flavor reminiscent of Salman Rushdie. The aliens, it seems, have awakened old spirits and powers lurking just beneath the skin of Lagos (including a man-eating road!). I very much enjoyed the colorful writing and the honesty about Nigeria's conflicted, multifaceted personality that emerged in the book's many short vignettes, each from the perspective of a different denizen of the city. Okorafor's creativity especially shines in the sequences devoted to animals changed by the aliens' energies. Audiobook narrators, Adjoa Andoh and Ben Onwukwe, who do an astonishing range of accents, demonstrate just how much the spoken-word experience can enhance a book.

    It's not that there weren't annoyances, though. The central plot, which concerned the main characters' mission to get through the chaos to meet up with Nigeria's ailing president, gets a little tedious in its one-thing-after-another action overload. Also, the author over-relies on the device of having many of her characters coincidentally know other characters who are important to the story. And, as much as I loved the voice actors, some of their accent were incomprehensible to me. The pidgin English dialect was like listening to an amped-up Jar Jar Binks.

    Still, the overall theme of human worthiness of redemption, in the face of our many abuses of nature and one other, resonated for me. Okorafor is one to keep an eye on. The same (well, ear) goes for Andoh and Onwukwe.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  • Blood Song: Raven's Shadow, Book 1

    • UNABRIDGED (23 hrs and 8 mins)
    • By Anthony Ryan
    • Narrated By Steven Brand
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (1572)
    Performance
    (1488)
    Story
    (1489)

    The Sixth Order wields the sword of justice and smites the enemies of the Faith and the Realm. Vaelin Al Sorna was only a child of 10 when his father left him at the iron gate of the Sixth Order. The Brothers of the Sixth Order are devoted to battle, and Vaelin will be trained and hardened to the austere, celibate, and dangerous life of a Warrior of the Faith. He has no family now save the Order.

    JPaladin says: "Wonderful Epic! Mature and well-written."
    "Familiar but gripping epic fantasy"
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    There’s virtually nothing in Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song that fantasy readers haven’t seen before. Vaguely European medieval world? Check. Protagonist with a special magical gift? Check. Walled-off academy wherein a young protagonist learns many diverse arts? Check. A set of religious/mystical Orders that safeguard the realm and its affairs? Barbarians in the north? Hidden secret Order? Check, check, check.

    Yet, this is a confident, unapologetically traditional novel that will likely please fans of military and warrior epics. Ryan, to his credit, doesn’t go in for a lot of world-building or the potential flab of multiple character perspectives. Other than the framing device of introducing the story from the perspective of a scribe from a southern empire, who interviews the now-legendary captive, Vaelin al Sorna, much of the narrative follows the experiences of the man himself. As we soon learn, Vaelin was left as a boy by his father at the gates of the Sixth Order, which trains warriors to serve the faith, a sort of medieval Army Ranger battalion.

    Roughly the first third of the novel is taken up by Vaelin’s training, an increasingly harsh series of lessons and tests. It’s a little comparable to events in Patrick Rothfuss’s popular The Name of the Wind, but this school is much more martial than university-like. It’s stuff we’ve seen before, but I enjoyed watching Vaelin and his fellows grow in skill and maturity, with glimpses of the outside world and its issues, which occasionally intrude on their training.

    Most good military fiction involves the hero learning, over many bloody battles, that the purity of the warrior’s ethos doesn’t always align with the slimy nature of realpolitik. This is true here. As he graduates from his final test, Vaelin finds himself falling into the favor of a manipulative, ambitious king, who sends him on sham missions against an insurgency of heretics in the north, then into actual set battles against the empire to the south, for reasons that sound worthy on paper but reek of the king’s self-interest.

    While the too-noble-for-this-war-too-dutiful-to-stop-fighting-it themes are familiar, Ryan does a great job with the savage crunch and clamor of battles, and capturing the many small details of a warrior’s life and its hard disciplines. There’s a bit of droll humor, too. There’s even beauty in the writing, in the depiction of a primeval northern forest, or in a pod of orca whales pacing a ship. Fantasy can so easily crumble when modern sensibilities or glibness creep into it, but Ryan seems to recognize the importance of a believably mythic world, of keeping the basic themes simple and clear.

    That said, there are weaknesses. The story suffers from a few cliches, and only a handful of characters are more than a sketch. The Princess, whose calculating nature makes it unclear whose side she’s on, is interesting, but there wasn’t very much to distinguish Vaelin’s brothers-in-arms from one another. I was a little disappointed that the Faith, so central to what the Order does, was never explained in much detail, and that the magic-related side of the plot, while seemingly important to the larger series Ryan has in mind, felt a little shoehorned into the story.

    Still, such issues are to be expected in a debut and I think much of the praise from readers is warranted. If this isn’t quite the next Game of Thrones, it takes many ideas that worked well in that series and channels them into one hero and his reality. Audiobook narrator Steven Brand doesn’t do a wide range of accents, but he has a confident, unpretentious voice that fits the text. While some readers have complained about grammar issues, they weren’t evident to me in this format.

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  • The Affirmation

    • UNABRIDGED (7 hrs and 13 mins)
    • By Christopher Priest
    • Narrated By Michael Maloney
    Overall
    (6)
    Performance
    (6)
    Story
    (6)

    THE AFFIRMATION is at once an original thriller and a haunting study of schizophrenia; it has a compulsive, dream-like quality. Peter Sinclair is tormented by bereavement and failure. In an attempt to conjure some meaning from his life, he embarks on an autobiography, but he finds himself writing the story of another man in another, imagined, world, whose insidious attraction draws him even further in . . .

    Michael G. Kurilla says: "Haunting description of a descent into madness"
    "A quietly intense trip into the meta"
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    I loved The Islanders and its mysterious alternate world, even if I didn't entirely get what the book was about. I'd read that the Dream Archipelago had its origins in Priest's earlier, 1981 novel, The Affirmation, so this seemed like a fitting next step into his catalog.

    The novel is about a young man named Peter Sinclair, whose life has fallen apart after the death of his father, a romantic dissolution, and the loss of his job to a bad economy (there's a palpable sense of Thatcher-era British malaise). Peter sets out to find new inner peace by moving into an old house recently purchased by a family friend out in the country, and fixing it up for the man and his wife. While engaged in this, Peter decides to write a memoir of his life. Then, he decides to rewrite it, first changing a few details to be more to his liking, then going all the way into a fantasy world.

    At this point, it becomes clear that Peter may not be well, and that some of what he's told us so far might not be so reliable. Then, the book switches gears, and we're reading about the life of another Peter Sinclair, who lives in the world of the Dream Archipelago, which is technologically similar to ours, but has entirely different geography and countries, and a few science fiction-y elements. We learn that the alternate Peter has won a lottery that grants him life extension treatment, requiring him to make a trip by sea into the Archipelago (which has politically distanced itself from the main continent because of an ongoing war there). But, there are some costs, such as total amnesia and a subsequent “rebirth”.

    Gradually, the two halves of the story begin to show some parallels, such as the romantic relationships with Gracia/Seri (in each world). Then they begin to reference each other, through the manuscript Peter is working on/carrying with him in each reality, then, ultimately, to merge. Readers have made comparisons to Murakami and other magic realist authors, but I was also reminded of Julian Barnes’s excellent The Sense of an Ending, which was also very “English” in its sensibilities and also turned on the narrator’s memory and understanding of events not being totally dependable.

    This is a novel that invites different interpretations. On one level, it could simply be about a man’s harrowing descent into mental illness, the fantasies in his head becoming as real as reality. On another, it could be about a misguided recovery of memory. But The Affirmation is also a Cloud Atlas-like work of literary experimentation, the creation-within-a-creation structure looping back on itself. If you enjoy having your mind blown, pay close attention to events in the last chapters. This is a book that invites a second read, once the final twist becomes clear.

    While The Affirmation’s “real world” story is a little depressing, with its references to suicide and psychological breakdown, I was pleased to return to the Dream Archipelago and learn more about its workings. Perhaps I should revisit the Islanders and see if this book has shed any new light on happenings in that one. I also look forward to reading Priest’s story collection, The Dream Archipelago.

    I don’t have much to say on the audiobook, except that Michael Maloney reads with a quiet intensity that I thought was a perfect fit for Peter’s voice.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • House of Suns

    • UNABRIDGED (18 hrs and 16 mins)
    • By Alastair Reynolds
    • Narrated By John Lee
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (890)
    Performance
    (574)
    Story
    (577)

    Six million years ago, at the very dawn of the starfaring era, Abigail Gentian fractured herself into a thousand male and female clones: the shatterlings. Sent out into the galaxy, these shatterlings have stood aloof as they document the rise and fall of countless human empires. They meet every 200,000 years to exchange news and memories of their travels with their siblings.

    Ethan M. says: "Science fiction in Deep time"
    "Cerebral, Banksian space opera"
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    3.5 stars. This is hard sci-fi space opera in the same wheelhouse as the works of Iain M. Banks or Peter Hamilton, featuring uber-advanced cultures that operate on a galactic scale in a distant future. While my last Reynolds (Revelation Space) experience left me a bit "meh", I enjoyed this one, which calls to mind the high points of the two aforementioned authors.

    The story takes place millions of years in the future, and concerns two mostly-human "shatterlings", who are part of an extended family engineered from the genetic stock of one single, long-ago ancestor. The shatterlings roam the vastness of space (at less than the speed of light), doing various good deeds and observing the rise and fall of civilizations, their own lives prolonged by their ability to go into stasis for long periods of time. Every 200,000 years or so, though, the members of the line come together for a grand reunion, to party, swap stories, and share what they've learned. Not a bad setup at all.

    The two protagonists, Campion and Purslane, are on their way to just such a reunion when they get sidetracked and acquire a new passenger, a golden robot named Hesperus (whose persona harkens back to Asimov’s classic robots). Their lateness permits them to escape a massacre of the gathered, which leaves few survivors. From there, the novel becomes a sort of cerebral thriller in space, the protagonists working to solve the mystery of who wants to wipe out their line, while playing cat-and-mouse with various enemies and trying to understand certain strange beings. There’s also a thread concerning the line founder, her experiences in a fantasy virtual reality world that begins to take over her mind, and what motivated her to “shatter” herself.

    This brand of science fiction tends to be heavier on science, ideas, and the gears of the plot than it is on storytelling, psychological depth, or thematic richness, and, though there are a few exceptions (Dune, Hyperion, and A Fire Upon the Deep come to mind), House of Suns isn’t one of them. It’s a shame that Reynolds didn’t go deeper with his premise and explore his protagonists’ inner lives with all those millions of years passing around them. Also, some developments seemed a little unbelievable, owing to the common sci-fi problem of “if they’re advanced enough to do X, can’t they do Y?” There’s a lot of hand-waving where technology is concerned. (WTF is a homunculus weapon? Who knows.)

    But if you enjoy geeking out on wormholes, machine sentience, nanotechnology, Matrix-esque virtual realities, relativistic time dilation, and the possibility of godlike higher beings lurking behind the universe, and want to see an author spin a story from these things, House of Suns is smart, well-executed hard sci-fi. I also found the characters more likable than those of Revelation Space. While I prefer my science fiction to be a little more on the literary side, some readers will appreciate a novel that dispenses of any such pretensions and gives us the spaceships and robots straight-up.

    The audiobook production is fairly good, though it left a few things to be desired. On one hand, John Lee has the control to read all the astrobabble in the story without being cheesy; on the other, his protagonists sound pretty similar. It took me a little while to realize that there were two main points of view, though who’s speaking becomes obvious once you grasp the contextual hints.

    I haven’t read enough of Reynolds’s other books to make a comparison, but I think this is a perfectly good starting point if you want to see what the buzz is about.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century

    • UNABRIDGED (25 hrs and 3 mins)
    • By Thomas Piketty, Arthur Goldhammer (translator)
    • Narrated By L. J. Ganser
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (118)
    Performance
    (100)
    Story
    (102)

    What are the grand dynamics that drive the accumulation and distribution of capital? Questions about the long-term evolution of inequality, the concentration of wealth, and the prospects for economic growth lie at the heart of political economy. But satisfactory answers have been hard to find for lack of adequate data and clear guiding theories.

    Darwin8u says: "Hottest Economic Beach Read of the Season"
    "Wall, meet writing"
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    Spoiler alert: the takeaway from Thomas Piketty's dry but much-discussed book is what most citizens of the developed world already know: income and wealth inequality in first world countries, particularly the United States, are at levels not seen since the Gilded Age. As much as I've personally benefitted from globalism and technology, it’s obvious that the lion’s share of the profits from these trends has gone to a small elite, while many Americans are being left behind in an economy that no longer places great value on their skills (or gives a damn about educating their kids).

    No doubt, the timing of the book’s publication has something to do with the big splash it made -- these are clearly issues on a lot of minds -- but Piketty brings some cool analysis to the current reality, helping the reader understand how to see it in terms of historical data. As he argues, all economic evidence suggests that this disparity is likely to continue to grow, driving modern countries towards a form of society not seen since 19th century Europe. There, he shows, there was less economic growth than in the 20th century, which meant that a small upper class that controlled most of the capital received most of the income, consolidating its dominance through inheritance. Piketty brilliantly illustrates this point with references to classic 19th century novels, wherein protagonists aren’t trying to better themselves in careers in which advancement is limited, but are focused on marrying well. Only the shock of two world wars ended this reality, creating a few decades of growth-through-rebuilding and relatively egalitarian prosperity for Western Europe and the US.

    Piketty dives down into the weeds of numerical data, graphs, charts, and comparison tables to make his point, which doesn’t always make for an ideal audiobook listen. Though there’s a PDF supplement, dedicated readers might want to get the book in print. Still, the gist is clear. We can no longer count on the rapid expansion and population growth that drove the wheels of US industry in earlier days. Return on capital is now a better bet than return on growth in most sectors of a 21st century non-emerging economy, with the start-up costs for high-tech industries or rental properties favoring the already wealthy. Even the apparent exceptions, such as software development (my own field), kind of prove the rule, in the sense that they only provide jobs for a small class of highly-skilled workers, sometimes to the detriment of the less-skilled.

    However, Piketty’s proposed solutions, as much as I agree with their goals, seem naive given current politics. He advocates more confiscatory taxes on the global top 1%, more transparency in the financial systems of all countries, and stronger international laws related to seizing the assets of tax dodgers. I don’t know about his fellow French citizens, but to even suggest to a certain segment of the US electorate that their country might not actually be a meritocracy, or that it be more subject to some international body of law, would trigger instant howling outrage. Never mind that most of that group will never be wealthy themselves -- they would still rather live in a decaying shack, imagining their interests to be aligned with those of the billionaire Koch Brothers, than ever agree with some “socialist” French academic.

    Piketty emphasizes his faith in democracy, but there are a few things I wish he’d discussed more, even if they fall outside the purview of economics. The long-term implications of technological advances on the job market. The tendency of big government and big business to end up in bed with each other. How the people can take back ownership of the political system and the machinery of production without going down the failed route of Communism.

    Still, I’m glad this book is being talked about. If the Boomer Generation is still earnestly clinging to the “American Dream” ideals it once knew, it’s pretty clear to younger generations that the system isn’t so meritocratic or upwardly mobile as it once was. I think that Piketty, a Gen-Xer himself, is speaking more to this demographic than the one currently in charge. After all, to quote a certain Gen-X musical, the aging Koch brothers are “just for now”.

    That said, your kids might give some thought to marrying one of their heirs.

    2 of 3 people found this review helpful
  • Range of Ghosts: The Eternal Sky, Book 1

    • UNABRIDGED (12 hrs and 32 mins)
    • By Elizabeth Bear
    • Narrated By Celeste Ciulla
    Overall
    (18)
    Performance
    (15)
    Story
    (15)

    Multiple Hugo Award winner Elizabeth Bear enthralls fans with this compelling first book in the Eternal Sky series. In a world where wizards are unable to procreate, Temur, heir to his empire’s throne, flees to avoid assassination. Once-Princess Samarkar, formerly heir to her own empire’s throne, gives up everything to seek the wizards’ magical power. Drawn together by fate, Temur and the Once-Princess must stand against a cult inciting strife and civil war in all the empires.

    Christa says: "Bite down solid fantasy."
    "Great world, unremarkable plot"
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    I've been trying to read more fantasy with non-traditional settings (i.e. not patterned after medieval Europe), and this one got some positive press on a sci-fi/fantasy blog I follow. Elizabeth Bear really does do a fine job with world building, crafting a mythic, magic-infused reality patterned after Central Asia, with analogs of Mongolia, China, Persia (I think), Arabia (I think), and a few other places. The images she conjures up can be quite lovely and cinematic, and I enjoyed the concept of having different skies in different places, such as the multiple moons that hang over the steppe, or the sun that goes west-to-east in another land.

    Bear also does a good job of developing a world where women wield power in different ways, as rulers, magicians, or soldiers. It's not overdone, with the sort of ridiculous female badasses one sees in some books, but feels authentic to the world. The most compelling character here is the former princess Samarkar, who chose to sacrifice her title and fertility to begin training in magic. The catch of this system, though, is that a lot of people who make the sacrifice don’t receive the gift, but have no way of knowing in advance.

    That said, I was less enamored with the plot, which didn’t offer many surprises. After a picturesque opening in which the young steppe warrior, Temur, regains consciousness on a corpse-littered battlefield, he meets a young woman from another tribe, falls for her, then vows to rescue her after she’s abducted by ghosts summoned by an enemy wizard. He meets up with Samarkar and several other characters, and they travel about, trying to rally the forces of good against a coming war that will no doubt feature in the sequel. Except for a few good scenes, it’s not much more riveting than my summary. It’s hard for me to get excited about action sequences where the main characters are all rather competent, work together well, and never seem in much danger.

    Hardly a *bad* book, though -- I applaud Bear for doing the Guy Gavriel Kay magical-historical fantasy thing pretty well with her setting and her writing is a cut above the rest of the pack -- but the characters, storyline, and themes didn’t excite me as much as I’d hoped they would. And I wasn’t a great fan of Celeste Ciulla’s audiobook reading -- it sounded too “modern” to my ears.

    Call this an on-the-fence review. Not a book I would dissuade others from reading, since Bear is a capable writer and worth investigating, but not one of my strongest recommendations.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Alif the Unseen

    • UNABRIDGED (15 hrs and 20 mins)
    • By G. Willow Wilson
    • Narrated By Sanjiv Jhaveri
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (95)
    Performance
    (85)
    Story
    (84)

    In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients — dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups — from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif — the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind.

    Nick says: "Entertaining and insightul"
    "21st Century Arabian Nights"
    Overall
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    Story

    This snappy, issue-aware urban fantasy adventure is the kind of book that Neil Gaiman might have written had he lived in the Middle East. To me, the setting was a breath of fresh air in a genre that could use a little more diversity, and Wilson engages with the intersection between the modern world and the folkloric, spiritual past in a way that has a little more depth and honesty than a typical fantasy novel.

    The story, after a prologue set centuries in the past, opens in the present day. Alif, a scrappy, somewhat arrogant young hacker, spends his days helping various dissident and black market groups circumvent the Sauron-like cyber-eye of state security in his unspecified country. When his beautiful upper-class first love jilts him (for reasons that seem particular to that culture), he hits his keyboard and takes petty geek revenge on the young woman. But, like a sorcerer's spell, the program, which may indeed have the mark of otherworldly spirits on its bits and bytes, gets out of control and falls into the wrong hands. The really wrong hands.

    However, Alif also manages to acquire an ancient book, that has to do with the lore of the djinn, the supernatural people who still inhabit the world, but are hard to see until one finds true faith. This puts him in touch with some interesting new friends.

    The plot, once it unfolds, is a little predictable in its outlines. Of course Alif will eventually fall for the annoyingly devout girl next door. Of course the cantankerous old imam will prove to be a kindly, wise ally. Of course the lore of the djinn will grant Alif superhuman Hollywood hacking powers. Of course the spoiled young prince will find his courage. Of course the bad guy will eventually get his just desserts. But, I liked that these tropes all felt genuinely Middle Eastern in their detail, and had humor. When an Arab Spring-like movement unfolds in the latter part of the novel, Wilson grasps both its hope and its frightening uncertainty.

    The novel’s most intriguing ideas, however, feel less than fully developed. I was curious about the author’s vision of Islam as a faith deeper and more sublime than the negative stereotypes most Americans have of it. Conversations that discuss why religious observance matters in an increasingly connected world and how both must transform, consider the relationship between djinn and man (I hadn’t realized that the former were part of the Koran), or explore the power of metaphors in revealing the nature of the universe are interesting. The message felt a little muddled, though, as though the author was trying to find a middle ground between asking questions about faith and promoting her own. Also, speaking as a software developer, let’s just say that the technical aspects of the story rely on a lot of magic realism. Coding and hacking aren’t quite this visual.

    Still, I'd rather read a novel that's ambitious and misses a few marks than one that's merely a different coat of paint on familiar ideas. In striving for a synthesis between myth and technology, East and West, tradition and modernity, Wilson manages to both entertain and expand consciousness. That's impressive in a young writer. Audiobook reader Sanjiv Jhaveri provides a wealth of accents and voices, though a few are a little hammy and annoying.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • Twelve Angry Men

    • ORIGINAL (1 hr and 50 mins)
    • By Reginald Rose
    • Narrated By Dan Castellaneta, Hector Elizondo, Armin Shimerman
    Overall
    (462)
    Performance
    (419)
    Story
    (414)

    Over the course of a steamy and tense afternoon, 12 jurors deliberate the fate of a 19-year-old boy alleged to have murdered his own father. A seemingly open and shut case turns complicated, igniting passions and hidden prejudices.

    Emily says: "Excellent court room drama"
    "Your reading material for jury duty"
    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    This short 1950s drama is now pretty dated in its cultural references, but still very, very relevant in its ideas. Twelve jurors sit down to deliberate their verdict in a murder trial for which the evidence seems unambiguous. A beaten-down teenager from a bad neighborhood has allegedly slain his own father, with multiple witnesses and no good alibi. Eleven jurors are ready to send him to the electric chair and get on with their day.

    But, one juror has a few questions. He pokes at the arguments made by the prosecution, as well as the defense's lack of enthusiasm, and some of the other jurors begin to ask their own questions or introduce new angles. As with a good internet flame war, tempers heat up and prejudices and accusations come out. Certainties are challenged and uncertainties are challenged right back. Will logic or emotion prevail? And what are the boundaries between them? While there's no overt mention of race or racism, the references to "those people" leave that issue not too far away, should we choose to consider it.

    The 2007 audiobook rendition is excellent, recorded before a live audience, though, regrettably, the recording loses the visual prompts that make it clear which juror is which. This might bother some listeners. Still, the cast does a pretty good job of distinguishing the two sides of the debate (one yells a lot more), so it wasn't hard to get the gist of the story.

    Ultimately, I don't know that this was an entirely believable drama -- there are a few convenient coincidences and the ending might be a little too Hollywood -- but when it comes to making a point about how strong and yet riddled with fragility the American system is, it's brilliant. Worth your time.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • The Birthday of the World: And Other Stories

    • UNABRIDGED (13 hrs and 32 mins)
    • By Ursula K. Le Guin
    • Narrated By Ursula K. Le Guin, David Birney, Scott Brick
    Overall
    (83)
    Performance
    (37)
    Story
    (35)

    Six of these tales are set in the author's signature world of the Ekumen, a world made familiar in her award-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness. The title story was hailed by Publisher's Weekly as "remarkable...a standout." Paradises Lost is a mesmerizing novella of space exploration and the pursuit of happiness. These stories explore complex social interactions, troublesome issues of gender and sex, and the meaning of transformation, religion, and history.

    Donald A. Giallanza says: "The Birthday of the World"
    "Being human, differently"
    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    Ursula le Guin is an author who demonstrates that good speculative fiction need not be heavy on spaceships, robots, and ray guns. Rather, her stories (at least the ones I've read) explore relatively simple societies with alternative biological or social arrangements. They're thought experiments in how human beings might live if a few things were tweaked.

    This collection focuses strongly, but not exclusively, on gender and sexuality. One story is set on a world where humans have evolved into hermaphrodites, only becoming sexually male or female during brief windows when the mating urge takes hold. Is this form of sexuality better or worse than ours? It's hard to say, but the characters view it with familiar emotions -- anxiety, frustration, consuming passion, dispassion, friendship, scheming, nostalgia. Another set of stories take place in a culture where genders are binary, but marriage is a complex four-partner arrangement. When two partners in such a marriage decide not to entirely follow the rules, can it still work?

    Aside from her interesting thoughts on the nature of social structure and power dynamics, Le Guin is a good storyteller, crafting simple but satisfying tales of characters with believable daily lives. My favorite suite of pieces deal with a planet that has a 16-to-1 female-to-male ratio. It initially sounds like a dream world for (hetero) guys, with men spending their lives competing in athletic games and acting as sexual studs to women who bid for their services. But, as the cycle unfolds through the eyes of different visitors or natives to the planet, that reality and its traditions come to feel more and more oppressive, justified by some of the same sexist assumptions we readers know from ours. "Oh, men's minds aren't suited for serious intellectual work, what with all the hormones."

    My testosterone-induced attention deficit may have kept me from finishing the strange title story, but the novella that closes the book is a real gem. This one imagines people on a generation ship traveling to another star, and a spiritual movement that develops on board over the years, risking the mission for beliefs that are either insane or very truthful, depending on how one sees them.

    If you haven't read much Le Guin, this is a fine place to start, though I also liked Changing Planes. The cast of audiobook narrators is of mixed quality, but I didn't find anyone terrible. It was cool to hear the author's own voice, which is unpretentious and earthy.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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