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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

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  • 268 reviews
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  • The Ask and the Answer: Chaos Walking, Book 2

    • UNABRIDGED (12 hrs and 48 mins)
    • By Patrick Ness
    • Narrated By Angela Dawe, Nick Podehl
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (204)
    Performance
    (165)
    Story
    (164)

    Fleeing before a relentless army, Todd has carried a desperately wounded Viola right into the hands of their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss. Immediately separated from Viola and imprisoned, Todd is forced to learn the ways of the Mayor’s terrifying new order. But everything is shrouded in secrets. Where is Viola? Is she even still alive? And who are the mysterious Answer? And then one day, the bombs begin to explode....

    Ryan says: "A wrenching continuation"
    "A wrenching continuation"
    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    While it had some weaknesses, the first book in this series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, won me over by telling an original story with some interesting themes, and keeping the level of tension high. In it, Ness imagined a planet colony of religious settlers that had come to start over with a low-tech life. But, oh, by the way, there was a war with the native aliens, all the women are dead, and everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts, all the time. The main character, Todd Hewitt, begins to realize that he wasn’t told the whole truth, and ends up fleeing the dark designs of his town's leaders, several enemies hot on his trail.

    This book picks up right where the cliffhanger ending of that one left off, and adds Viola's perspective to the story, alternating between it and Todd's (I don't think it's much of a spoiler to reveal that women weren't totally gone, since we learned this fairly early in the first book). However, where the Mayor was simply a sinister bad guy before, he becomes a more complex character -- still ruthless, but with a paternal, reasonable side that keeps us guessing. Meanwhile, an uprising against the Mayor/President begins, with the opposing leader showing a few ruthless streaks of her own. And Todd and Viola end up on opposite sides, split first by circumstance, then by an unforgivable atrocity that both factions blame on the other.

    What I appreciated about this book was Ness’s front-and-center focus on the issue of how decent people get sucked into monstrous things. Todd doesn't trust the Mayor, yet finds himself being maneuvered into positions of greater responsibility, until he becomes too culpable in events to be able to simply walk away. Of course, the Mayor is manipulating him, letting Todd’s desire to feel like he has some level of control over things work into the Mayor’s own plans. Meanwhile, something similar happens to Viola over in the opposing camp, as she gets pulled into a campaign of bombing attacks against civilian targets. Both feel believably conflicted, yearning to be reunited, but also uncertain and angry over the other’s perceived choices.

    I also liked the way the “noise” creates a different power dynamic between men and women, one gender having a hard time hiding its thoughts and emotions, while the the other remains unreadable. Hard to imagine that some men wouldn’t take to this loss of privacy and control with great anger, while the constant bombardment of male thoughts might drive women closer together. Not that Ness digs into this issue too deeply, but it’s an interesting backdrop.

    On the down side, I thought the drama could be heavy-handed and I eventually had issues with the believability of the central villains, who are a little too cartoonish in some moments, a little too smart in others. The final battle featured some elements that seemed lifted from the Star Wars movies, but with more speechifying. Another complaint is Ness’s tendency to contrive sudden events that conveniently interrupt something else that’s happening.

    Still, there are some effective moments in the story, such as scenes involving Todd and a labor detail of Spackle, the native aliens, and the character development of Davy, who starts off as an overbearing bully, but becomes more human and sympathetic later. And the harrowing ending sets up a lot of possibilities for the last book.

    On the audiobook experience, I liked (as before) the personality Podehl gives to Todd’s voice, though moments when he yells “nooooooo!!” remind me, unfortunately, of Adam Sandler’s “they’re all gonna laugh at you!” skit. Angela Dawe does a decent but unremarkable job as Viola.

    3.5 stars.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  • Them: Adventures with Extremists

    • UNABRIDGED (8 hrs and 16 mins)
    • By Jon Ronson
    • Narrated By Jon Ronson
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (462)
    Performance
    (428)
    Story
    (424)

    Them began as a book about different kinds of extremists, but after Jon had got to know some of them - Islamic fundamentalists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen - he found that they had one oddly similar belief: that a tiny, shadowy elite rule the world from a secret room. In Them, Jon sets out, with the help of the extremists, to locate that room. The journey is as creepy as it is comic, and along the way Jon is chased by men in dark glasses, unmasked as a Jew in the middle of a Jihad training camp, and more.

    aaron says: "Dated but VERY Good... and FUNNY!"
    "A little light but interesting"
    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    I enjoyed Jon Ronson’s 2011 foray into the world of psychopaths and special interest groups out to protect or demonize them, and this seemed like a good book of his to read next. Though published in 2001, just before 9/11 and the Bush and Obama presidencies drove conspiracy theory and anti-government groups to new levels of hysteria, it’s an enlightening window into how fringe groups form around certain rallying ideas and code words.

    As advertised, Ronson discovers that Islamic extremists in Britain, anti-government paranoids in the US, racist groups, anti-Catholic groups, and a man who claims that the world is ruled by secret alien lizard people all have something in common: fear that a shadowy cabal of bankers, businessmen, media elites, and politicians is scheming to impose some sort of Orwellian New World Order. In their own minds, these extremists are fighting a resistance against those who would turn them into, to use a well-worn internetism, weak and helpless “sheeple”.

    As in the Psychopath Test, Ronson carefully humors his subjects and lets them express themselves in their own words, which sometimes veer towards the Monty Python-esque. Hard not to find the bumbling Islamic activist, Omar Bakri Muhammad, somewhat ridiculous, as he makes over-the-top pronouncements, then furiously backpedals towards a more genial facade whenever challenged. Same with KKK leader, Thomas Robb, who is trying to rebrand his organization with a more friendly image after being inspired by some leadership books from the self-help section. Ronson’s own self-deprecating wit is also amusing, if a little distracting at times.

    Other people Ronson spends time with, though, seem like they might have a point, such as the survivors of the infamous Ruby Ridge Incident, in which the feds seemingly came down on a misunderstood survivalist family in Idaho with excessive force. His investigations into the claims of anti-Zionist groups raises a question: are Jewish film moguls really just acting out their own insecurities about being Jews in Hollywood... and giving some people the wrong idea? And when Ronson joins Alex Jones (of Infowars fame) and several others in investigating the Bilderberg Group, a publicity-shunning private conference of political, business, and academic elites, it’s somewhat unclear where paranoia ends and dull reality begins. Is a bacchanalian gathering in the woods of Northern California about rich old men celebrating dark, perverse rites of power, or just harmless, fraternity-like fun? Is it scarier to think that these people might indeed have a lot of influence over the world’s affairs... or that they don’t?

    Ultimately, this might be a little too light-hearted of a book on extremism -- Ronson, not surprisingly, doesn’t spend much time in the company of the most hateful or militant types of groups, such as neo-Nazis, so his character studies tend more towards crackpots and self-promoters. And this *is* a pre-9/11 book. Still the character studies are interesting.

    Audiobooks narrated by their own authors are a mixed bag, but Ronson’s pleading voice adds a lot to the funnier parts, like when he talks about trying to “tone down” his Jewishness.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • All Quiet on the Western Front

    • UNABRIDGED (6 hrs and 55 mins)
    • By Erich Maria Remarque
    • Narrated By Frank Muller
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (709)
    Performance
    (615)
    Story
    (620)

    Paul Bäumer is just 19 years old when he and his classmates enlist. They are Germany’s Iron Youth who enter the war with high ideals and leave it disillusioned or dead. As Paul struggles with the realities of the man he has become, and the world to which he must return, he is led like a ghost of his former self into the war’s final hours. All Quiet is one of the greatest war novels of all time, an eloquent expression of the futility, hopelessness and irreparable losses of war.

    Darwin8u says: "Escapes the Boundaries of Time and Place"
    "Still powerful"
    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    Though not a long book, All Quiet on the Western Front is the prototype for nearly every modern novel about going to war. Young men with their heads crammed full of patriotism and dreams of glory volunteer for the army. There is a strenuous boot camp with a martinet drill instructor. Then the horror and carnage of battle, which often amounts to hunkering down and hoping not to be hit by shells fired by a far-off enemy, while nearby comrades are randomly cut down by shrapnel, explosive, bullets, and poison gas, sometimes to die hideous, lingering deaths.

    The story is told through the eyes of Paul Bäumer, an everyman character whom Remarque never defines in much depth -- though part of this is the conceit that Paul, at 19, sees himself as a person who was unformed before war claimed him. The novel, written in the immediate tense, reads more as a series of fragmentary scenes and impressions than an ordered narrative, which might put off some readers, but I think this adds to its effectiveness. Over the course of the novel, Paul and his companions experience all the usual responses to modern war. There's horror, disillusionment, shell shock, and alienation from the civilian world, with its self-satisfied values and artificial lives. To Paul, the ability to care about the things that his student self once cared about is lost, the only meaning now in small, primal acts of life and in his comrades-in-arms.

    The prose is haunted by bleakness and despair, though there are some scenes that are quite beautiful in their melancholy humanity, such as Paul's visit to a camp of Russian POWs, or of his regrets after being trapped in a shell hole for a few hours with a dying enemy soldier, who, now disarmed, is little different from himself. There are a few moments of levity, such a scene where a pompous teacher gets his just desserts, but they're few. For their part, the sequences set in the trenches are rich in images of dull, hellish squalor, such as passing time by killing ever-present corpse-fed rats, or the cries of a wounded man slowly dying somewhere out in No Man's Land. Yes, no surprise that the Nazis banned this one for "defeatism" (and got to relive it all at Stalingrad).

    Though the specific causes of World War One are now buried in the dustbin of history, the reader doesn't need to be familiar with them to grasp the essential themes. All Quiet on the Western Front still maintains its timeless message of youth pointlessly squandered by the impenetrable stupidity of politics. When Paul's companions discuss the reasons they've been sent to fight and die, they can only observe that they never had anything against the French, nor the average French soldier against Germany, but, as always, the few people who make and benefit from policy aren't the ones deemed young and physically fit enough to die for it. While no 21st century generation is likely to experience the kind of wholesale meat-grinder warfare that could wipe out thirty thousand lives in one battle, we shouldn't forget the naivete that led to it, or the callousness it inflicted. These are aspects of modernity that have hardly left the world, even a century later.

    Audiobook narrator Frank Muller gives a restrained but haunted reading that fits the spirit of the text well.

    0 of 0 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
    (279)
    Performance
    (263)
    Story
    (262)

    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
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (16990)
    Performance
    (15115)
    Story
    (15158)

    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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    Story

    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
    (1890)
    Performance
    (1598)
    Story
    (1584)

    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
    (2705)
    Performance
    (2281)
    Story
    (2285)

    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.

    1 of 1 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
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    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"
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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
    (402)
    Performance
    (259)
    Story
    (251)

    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"
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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

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