Space. The Final Frontier. The elephant in the room in any novel that attempts to anchor space travel in reality. How to surmount the unimaginable distances between one solar system and another, or the even greater vastnesses of intergalactic space? Nothing on the horizon today (at least that a mere civilian like me is aware of) comes close to bridging the obstacle of time/distance/relativity inherent in interstellar travel.
Warp drive, wormholes, neurologically or chemically modified pilots, suspended animation, corporate space guilds--these are just some of the means authors have used to open up the final frontier to their characters and readers. "This Alien Shore" uses all of the above and then some. "The Up and Out" is a character in its own right here. The Gueran Outspace Guild trains (breeds?) outpilots who guide spaceships full of sedated passengers through a mysterious deep-space anomoly called the Ainniq (prounounced i' nik) that allows ships to traverse light years in a matter of hours. The passengers must be sedated, says the Guild, so that their mental activity cannot attract the dangerous forces lurking in the Ainniq.
But the Guild’s monopoly on space travel is threatened by Lucifer, a computer virus that has begun to render outpilots insane and/or dead. Then there is Jamisia, a teenage girl forced to flee her home space station without any notice, without knowing why, and all alone. The Outspace Guild and a whole posse of corporate nasties are fighting to be the first to get their hands on Jamisia and what’s in her brain (and just what is that?). Her only hope of salvation is a master hacker who has become obsessed with the Lucifer virus.
“This Alien Shore” is above all a rip-roaring, adventurous chase through space. Will Jamisia outwit and evade her pursuers and will she eventually find out why everyone's after her? Who unleashed Lucifer, and why, and will the Guild be able to contain it in time to save space travel? Along with these adventures, we get to contemplate attitudes on race and mental illness, and, perhaps most strikingly, we get a scenario (nightmare or not, depending on your point of view) of the effects of constant streams of information and communication available to all people all the time through “brainware” implanted at birth (a few steps more advanced than the “smart phones” people seem unwilling to let out of their hands).
I’ve recommended this book to a number of friends and co-workers over the years, not all of them sci fi aficionados, and I think most of them enjoyed it. My personal opinion is that it ranks with classics like "Dune" and "Ender’s Game." The writing gets a little heavy-handed sometimes, but the adventure part of the story never lets up and keeps you guessing to the end, even as you stop and think about the important issues it brings up.
I do suggest you listen to the narration sample before ordering this book. Kathleen McInerney was probably chosen because her pleasant voice is a good fit for the teenage Jamisia. However, she narrates all the other characters as well, and at times I could have wished for a more sophisticated reading. But I found her easy to listen to, and she got better as the book went along.
Mary Renault wrote eight historical novels set in ancient Greece. All eight are both brilliantly literary and deeply rooted in historical scholarship, and despite that are also just plain great reads. Of the eight, at least two are generally considered to be masterpieces: "The King Must Die," a realistic portrayal of archaic Greece and the legends of Theseus; and "The Persian Boy," the second book of her trilogy centering on the personality and achievements of Alexander the Great.
The complete Alexander trilogy is now available on Audible. "Fire from Heaven," covering Alexander's life from early childhood to the death of his father Philip of Macedon, is a third-person narrative, sometimes dense but completely alive. The final book, "Funeral Games," deals with the aftermath of Alexander's death and the partitioning of his empire. It is also a third-person narrative, and is weakened by a lack of focus--there are many players in these funeral games--and by being of necessity set in a time of great confusion.
Between these two lies "The Persian Boy," a first-person narrative by Bagoas, a young Persian of noble birth whose family is massacred in the wake of a palace coup. Bagoas, a child of transcendent beauty, is spared death but becomes a spoil of war, sold to a slave dealer who has him gelded. As a eunuch, the enslaved youth's beauty and nobility eventually bring him to the attention of the rich and powerful, and he is taken into the royal household as a body servant and "pleasure boy" to the Great King Darius, soon to go down in history for his defeat at the hands of the young Alexander of Macedon.
A Persian eunuch named Bagoas is in fact briefly mentioned in contemporary biographies of Alexander. From this minor mention Renault creates an enthralling narrator. Presented as a gift to the conqueror, Bagoas becomes Alexander's squire, interpreter, companion, lover, and advisor as the army traverses the Persian empire. There are battles throughout the book, but the emphasis is on Alexander the man, not the general. Bagoas loves and idolizes Alexander, blind to the hubris in the conqueror's character, a flaw that becomes more evident as the narrative progresses to its bitter conclusion (it is no spoiler, I think, to say that Alexander died young).
"The Persian Boy" is a remarkable vision of two cultures, each of which considers the other to be barbaric, and of an Alexander who transcends these prejudices. He wishes not so much to conquer as to meld, taking as his example Cyrus the Great, who merged the Persians and the Medes into the most powerful empire of its day.
I first read this book as a teenager, and have re-read it a number of times since. As I learned more ancient history, I appreciated "The Persian Boy" more and more. There are of course other and far less flattering interpretations of Alexander's character, but I confess Bagoas's viewpoint is the one that has stuck with me.
One final note, or perhaps warning. Although there is no explicit description of sexual acts in "The Persian Boy," Bagoas's gelded state and training in the arts of "the inner room" are intrinsic to the book. This is a culture (in fact two cultures) in which male bisexuality is regarded as normal, and that Bagoas and Hephaistion were Alexander's lovers is presented as simple and straightforward fact (Alexander also marries the daughter of Darius and the Bactrian princess Roxanne and fathers children on both of them). If this aspect of Hellenic culture makes you uncomfortable, I'd reluctantly recommend skipping this book. You might try "The King Must Die" instead, which I hope will come to Audible in the not-to-distant future (and is it too much to hope that Dan Stevens or Nicholas Boulton might agree to narrate it?)
For a number of years only two of Georgette Heyer's dozen or so murder mysteries were available on Audible, and those were reissues of weak audiocassette recordings. So I was pleased when the first of these Bolinda productions appeared. But I wasn't keen on the samples of Ulli Birve's narration I listened to, so held off getting any of them.
Enter "Envious Casca," my vote for the best of Heyer's mysteries. "Envious Casca" is an exceptionally clever and well conceived mystery with an unexpected twist, interesting if not particularly lovable characters, and great dialogue full of wry British wit and plenty of humor. And it's set in the midst of a country house "Christmas jollification," so I decided in the spirit of the season to give Ulli a try.
Unfortunately my reservations about the narration turned out to be justified. Although Ms. Birve handles dialogue and character differentiation passably well, she reads narrative prose in a jerky, irritating style--pausing after what seems like every third word and breaking phrases into chunks that decimate the flow of the prose. Worse, she either doesn't recognize the humor in what she's reading or she's simply incapable of anything resembling comic timing or nuance. It's a disservice to what should have been a delightful "old school" mystery.
This short novella, picked up "for cheap" during the member appreciation sale, got me hooked. Never heard of this author or character (Lady Emily) before, but really enjoyed this brief taste, and am now set to try one of the full-length books in the series. Not a particularly compelling mystery (it involves a theft, there's no murder), but the strained interplay among family members gathered perforce for Christmas in the country is all too resonant.
I think it's reminiscent of the early entries in Elizabeth Peters's Amelia Peabody series, which I intend as high praise. Bianca Amato is one of the top-drawer female readers, not quite matching Barbara Rosenblat's narration of the Peabody books (which is fantastic), but coming awfully close.
Hope Audible is able to offer the first few books in this series soon!
This is not Bond in the white dinner jacket, flicking his gunmetal Ronson lighter onto his Turkish cigarette as he beats the bad guys and beautiful femmes at chemin de fer and anything else they care to play. Instead of Monte Carlo and the rugged capitals of Europe, or the sun-drenched Caribbean islands that are Bond's usual haunts, this book has Our Spy tracking down diamond smugglers in the U.S. -- which is fine while he's in New York City, but James Bond in Saratoga Springs (shudder), Las Vegas (double shudder), and a Nevada ghost town (giggle) as he brings down Jack and Seraffimo Spang and their "Spangled Mob"--well, sorry, Ian Fleming this one just didn't work for me.
There are no fun toys or gadgets in this one. And Bond, with supercilious disdain for (ethnic slur) criminals, does some really stupid things. The only things that save him are (1) the Spang brothers do even stupider things and (2) Bond girl Tiffany Case, having gone over to the Good Guys almost instantaneously after meeting James once, frees him when he's held prisoner by the mob bosses she's served for years. What a surprise!
The early Bond books are well written, atmospheric period pieces. This one, the fourth in the series, was published in 1956; one of the most interesting descriptions was of Bond's London to New York flight, a 12-hour journey complete with meals, booze, and sleeper seats in the days before jet engines hit the commercial airways. Once in New York, Bond's idea of an elegant dinner date starts with pate and three martinis, followed by steak with Bernaise sauce accompanied by a bottle or two of wine, and topped off with dessert and champagne. Women--even a strong women like Tiffany, who's by far the best character in this episode--are arm candy in black velvet cocktail dresses.
It's a different world, and of course a world highly romanticized by Fleming, but I enjoyed the novels in my younger days, am a huge fan of both the early (Sean Connery) and recent (Daniel Craig) cinematic incarnations, and have enjoyed several of the audio renditions by Simon Vance. This new release of all the novels in audio form, each read by a different well-known British actor, is an intriguing concept. Damian Lewis, with his uncanny gift for flawless American accents (as anyone who's seen him as "Homeland's" Sergeant Brodie knows), was a perfect choice for narrator. He moves between British, American, and American ethnic accents so fluidly you're unaware of it, you just know immediately which character is speaking. I just wish the material had been more worthy of Lewis's art.
Maggie's review on Audible UK summed it up perfectly:
"Gold stars all round for finally recording Arabella, unabridged, and by Phyllida Nash. Points off for whoever wrote the bland 'publisher's summary' that manages to make the book sound like the diary of a gold-digger."
The synopsis of this book (as of 10/14) has every aspect of this charming story wrong. Anyone who reads the first chapter will know that Arabella is certainly *not* a gold-digger. And the amusing misunderstanding-leading-to-deception that drives the plot is far more the work of Beaumaris than of Arabella.
I would say it is with the 1949 publication of "Arabella" that Georgette Heyer completely took possession of the Regency romance in a way that defines the genre to this day. "The Grand Sophy," perhaps her most famous work, followed in 1950, with another 15 years of wonderful books before the stories (in my opinion) began to slide in the late '60s.
There is some similarity between the plot and characters of "Arabella" and those of the later "Sylvester," but Arabella is unique. The scenes where Arabella quite innocently foists a mongrel dog (to say nothing of the chimney sweep's "climbing boy") into the care of the suave and "dandy" Beaumaris are priceless. Her father and mother, though relatively minor characters, are wonderful.
For fans of Heyer, this one is not to be missed. These Naxos editions continue to eat my credits for lunch, but I'm not complaining.
"Murder 101" is much better than "The Beast," the book that preceded it in the Decker/Lazarus saga--but then, almost anything would be. That said, as a longtime fan of the series I enjoyed this one, including the new setting, new characters, and the new narrator.
New setting: Peter Decker has left the LAPD and taken a "semiretirement" job as detective for the Greenbury, NY police department, a quiet town whose claim to fame is being the host of five small but prestigious colleges (hence the academic reference in the title). The move means Peter and Rina now live within easy driving distance of their myriad (and multicultural) kids and grandkids. Rina is still hosting Shabbos dinners, teaching Hebrew, and baking cookies. Peter has not acclimated quite so well, but perks up when a local art theft leads to murder and he's suddenly pulling all-nighters, living on coffee and bagels, and getting shot at again.
New character: Decker is also back in his Wise Old Dad role. His new partner, Tyler McAdams, is a Park Avenue trust funder, a recent Harvard grad who is resisting the law school road his loudmouthed, overbearing, 1-percent-entitlee father insists on. Like Chris Donati and Gabe Whitman before him, Tyler is a young man with a chip on his shoulder and daddy issues. And, like Chris and Gabe, he soon comes to respect and admire Saint Peter and to venerate Saint Rina (if I may be excused the mixed religious metaphor in referring to the Orthodox Jewish Deckers).
New Narrator: I really like Richard Ferrone's narration. Upbeat and energizing, yet easy to listen to. The one (minor) flaw is that he does not even try to do feminine voices, and I was often taken aback to realize that Rina had been the one speaking. Peter and Tyler sound a little too much alike, but interestingly all the minor characters--college frat boys, New York art dealers, Park Avenue matrons, Boston police, and Harvard profs--are subtly and neatly distinguishable.
I think if you’ve enjoyed other books in the series you’ll probably like this one. It’s not the place to start the Decker’s long story, over which they’ve aged in real time (among the very few series regulars to do so), although Rina at 50-something is apparently still quite astonishingly beautiful.
There was one aspect of the book that I found distracting at first and eventually just found amusing. The fictional town of Greenbury and its fictional 5 colleges is at different points in the book described as being in upstate New York; closer to Boston than to Manhattan; about 1.5 hours by car from Boston; *and* closer to the Hamptons than to Manhattan. Now, I’m not geographically challenged, but I couldn’t triangulate any location in the northeast that met all those criteria. But I enjoyed my visit anyway.
Naxos releases another Heyer classic. This one is a short, fast, fun read. Our hero and heroine, both being pressured by family to enter marriages they find abhorrent, "meet cute": Penelope has shorn her hair, donned men's clothes, and is climbing out the window at 3 a.m. when she is rescued by a "bosky" Sir Richard, who is walking home after drowning his sorrows at White's Club.
Stirred by the idea of disappearing--and thus not having to propose to "the iceberg" his mother is pushing on him--Sir Richard (in his elegantly inebrieted state) agrees to pose as the gender-disguised "Penn's" tutor so that he can escort her to her childhood sweetheart's family estate.
By the time our hero sobers up, he and "Penn" are travelling on a public stagecoach, where they meet with an interesting assortment of the common folk (no fancy dress balls or evenings at Almack's in this story), and an especially interesting assortment of highway robbers. Mystery and danger ensue, but we know what will happen in the end--which is part of the joy of these books, at least for some of us.
Georgina Sutton's narration is top-notch; all the Naxos narrators are competent, but she's exceptionally good.
The first five novels in Stephen Saylor’s “Roma Sub Rosa” saga span almost 30 years, from when Gordianus the Finder met Cicero the Advocate (“Roman Blood,” set in 80 BC) to the murder of Clodius (“Murder on the Appian Way,” 52 BC). Gordianus rubbed shoulders with historical bigshots while he solved crimes, got married, acquired children, and watched as the Roman republic crumbled. In "Rubicon," the sixth book of the series, he (and we) reach the era of outright civil war--early 49 BC, as Julius Caesar and his legions “cross the Rubicon” in defiance of the Roman senate and its leader, Pompey Magnus (“the great,” a title Pompey apparently bestowed on himself).
“Rubicon” opens with Pompey’s nephew found murdered in the atrium of Gordianus’ own home. “Pompey is going to be mightily pissed,” moans Gordianus, now 60 and retired. He has tried to avoid taking sides in the civil war, despite the fact that his son Meto is Caesar’s close adviser and literary amanuensis. Gordianus the Finder has given way to Gordianus the Father (and grandfather), paterfamilias of a unique family that he loves deeply and is desperate to protect. But of course the startling murder drags him into the thick of things. Pompey, about to lead his own army against Caesar, takes Gordianus’ son-in-law hostage and will return him only when Gordianus finds the killer.
Especially considering that it’s one of the shorter entries in the series, the plot of “’Rubicon” is complex. There are secret love affairs and coded messages and disguises and blackmail and a climactic battle. The ending reveals the killer but opens up a whole new mystery that will play out over the next few books.
The Roman Republic-into-Empire era epitomizes the curse “may you live in interesting times.” Saylor’s books portray the uncertainty, violence, and chaos and its effects on ordinary citizens with verve and scholarship. The parallel but somewhat less earnest SPQR books by John Maddox Roberts feature the same timeframe and events, starring a young aristocrat who is prone to stumble across murders. Both series are treats for the classical history lover.
In terms of audiobooks, it’s unfortunate that the early Gordianus novels were *extremely* poorly narrated. Ralph Cosham takes over the narration for Rubicon and later books, and I enjoy him (once I get over wondering how Inspector Armand Gamache--a trademark Cosham character--got from modern Quebec to ancient Rome). The SPQR books are narrated by Simon Vance and John Lee, both great old hands at this type of material. We who are about to listen salute you!
The title novella in this anthology by Man Booker Prize recipient Ismail Kadare is a reference to the Greek king Agamemnon, who lured his daughter Iphigenia to the altar with promises of marriage to the hero Achilles, only to seize her and sacrifice her to the gods so that his army would be allowed to sail away and attack Troy. The narrator of Kadare’s novella, a broadcast journalist in totalitarian socialist Albania during the early 80s, finds the ancient story of Iphigenia strangely resonant. He is hurting because the woman he loves has recently left him, allegedly because her father did not find their relationship politically expedient. He has also received a last-minute ticket to a grandstand seat at the May Day Parade--a high honor he cannot refuse--and his romantic musings as he walks to claim his unsought “exalted” position are interspersed with paranoid reflections as to the meaning behind the anonymous invitation. Is it really a reward (and if so, for what?), or is it a trap?
“Agamemnon’s Daughter” is Kadare’s no doubt autobiographical mirror of the conditions prevailing in Albania from 1944-1985, under the rule of dictator Enver Hoxa (referred to in the story as the “Supreme Guide”). During that time Albania achieved unprecedented economic and agricultural success; the people were said to be “tax-free”; education (within rigidly prescribed socialist contexts) was available to all and literacy skyrocketed. By the May Day described, it is also a society where personal privacy, independence, family loyalty, and love itself have been sacrificed to absolute political authority. It is all the more chilling for having been drawn from reality.
The second story, “The Blinding Order,” explores the paranoid psychology that grips people when a “witch hunt” is on; in this case, the hunt involves seeking out those who possess the “evil eye.” It was an original approach to a topic that’s been covered many times.
I found the last and shortest story, “The Great Wall,” to be the most interesting. Set in the 14th century, it documents the internal musings of two men, one an engineer called to work on shoring up China’s Great Wall against an attack by Tamarlane’s army; the second man is a scout for that army. It’s not exactly action-packed, but it’s an interesting take on fear, conquest, and psyching out the enemy.
This collection was an unusually literary choice for me; I tend to listen mostly to genre fiction, which these stories definitely are not. If this had been a novel I probably would have found it, well, boring, but the length of these pieces made each of them an intriguing change of pace. I was a little put off by the coarse, even misogynisitic, language Kadare uses when describing women sexually, but aside from those brief instances I found the writing admirable. All in all, a worthy selection, especially for anyone interested in political history.
It has been five years since "An Echo in the Bone" was published, and the long awaited Volume 8 is finally imminent (June 2014). Although readers are now five years older, the forthcoming "Written in My Own Heart's Blood" will apparently pick up the story on the same day (well at least one of the same days) "Echo" ended.
I started listening to this series four years ago and listened to them all in sequence (along with the Lord John Grey books--and a lot other books in between). I just recently finished "Echo," so I guess I timed it right. I can't imagine how frustrating it's been for fans of the series who read "Echo" when it came out to have had all those cliffhangers hanging all this time. You've probably re-read the book in anticipation of the new one; it's certainly a good idea to do so.
After three books set claustrophobically in frontier North Carolina and stories centered almost exclusively on Jamie, Claire, Roger, and Brianna, in "Echo" we *finally* get off of Fraser's Ridge--with a vengeance! If almost nothing happened in "Fiery Cross" and the action was slow (and mostly depressing) in "Snow and Ashes," then "An Echo in the Bone" seems determined to make up for it. Not only do characters from previous books (notably Ian, Lord John, and William) now take center stage right along with J,C,R&B, we are suddenly world and time travelers again. The action covers much of the American east coast, has great scenes in Scotland (in TWO story lines, 200 years apart!), and for kicks throws in several scenes in London and France. We meet historical characters, including Benedict Arnold and a naked Ben Franklin. Even Rollo the Wolfhound gets featured actor status.
The mind reels and the plot jumps can be hard to follow, but I enjoyed "An Echo in the Bone." I'm especially grateful for the action-packed pace after the previous two snoozers. I think you do need to have read "The Brotherhood of the Blade" in the Lord John series to fully appreciate "Echo," but that should not be a hardship; in my opinion, "Brotherhood" is, all things considered, Diana Gabaldon's best novel to date. And I'm glad I won't have to wait five years to find out what happened in Philadelphia that day.
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