The first two volumes of Manchester's biography of Churchill were some of the finest work by one of the best biographers who ever lived. So how can a relatively unknown writer hope to step in and fill Manchester's shoes?
Paul Reid, working from Manchester's research and notes, has done an astonishingly good job. Oh, there are a few missteps, but they're relatively trivial. Reid has not imitated Manchester, but rather has followed his approach to the story and the people involved and made the same kinds of choices Manchester made.
That means the biography is opinionated - and Reid is faithful to the worldview Manchester demonstrated in the first two volumes. This book is not afraid to pass judgment; but such judgments are always fully justified, in the text, by the sources and the outcomes.
Nor are Manchester and Reid so in love with Churchill that they overlook his flaws. He could be annoying and hard to work with, and those who worked with him were often frustrated with his scattershot approach to strategy and, well, everything else! But Manchester and Reid make it clear that much, perhaps most, of such criticism was unjustified or, in the end, trivial compared to Churchill's achievements.
Churchill's life deserved a great biography, and this is it.
The only flaw is that Clive Chafer artificially deepens his voice; but his natural voice isn't really that deep, so the effect is that he's working with only half his range. Sentences never sound quite finished, because he can't drop his pitch lower than it already is. The result is a constantly annoying sense of incompletion and tentativeness that does not suit the text at all. Maybe if the earlier volumes hadn't been so brilliantly read I wouldn't mind so much, but somebody needs to tell Chafer that he's a tenor, and he should read accordingly, so we get the benefit of his full vocal range.
Richard Phillips has led such a life that he absolutely nails the science aspect of this new sci-fi classic - and yet also gets the action and the political aspects exactly right as well. Speaking as an old sci-fi writer myself, I know how hard it is to do what Phillips has done.
But here's the clincher. Reading on my Nano, I began this book without remembering that this was volume two of the Rho Agenda series. Within a few chapters I realized that there must have been an earlier book. But so skillfully does Phillips handle exposition, and so clearly and deeply did he create his characters and their relationships, that I felt no need to stop and go back to listen to the first volume.
I WILL go back and listen to The Second Ship, now that I've read Immune to its brilliant and completely satisfying end - but only because this new writer is so skillful and this storyline is so inventive and moving that I don't want to miss a chapter of it.
I promise you that Richard Phillips is going to be a popular and influential writer, period.
The Rho Agenda has young protagonists, and so the series could be viewed as YA (Young Adult) fiction. While the novel is brutally real, including sexual tension, there is NO explicit sex and nothing to keep you from handing this book to a mature and well-informed twelve-year-old. Yet it is also completely fulfilling for adult readers - as good as any science fiction being written today.
MacLeod Andrews gives a perfect performance. You forget you're listening to a book. All you can think about is what's happening and why. Moving back and forth among characters, he is always clear as to who's talking - without "doing" voices in any obvious way. This is how audiobooks are supposed to be read.
The audiobook doesn't let you skip or skim the songs (or the whole Tom Bombadil section); the result is that you experience the book as Tolkien intended it.
Rob Inglis's reading is superb on general principles - he distinguishes characters well and interprets them beautifully. But the best surprise is the authenticity and quality of his rendering of Tolkien's many songs. Heroic when that's appropriate; funny or moving or spiritual by turns, this is an effect you can't produce for yourself in a silent reading. (And Tolkien heard and authorized some of Inglis's tunes.)
Nowadays it seems that historical novels are a subgroup of bawdy Romance, but once upon a time, writers like Rafael Sabatini (who also penned the immortal Captain Blood) dealt with serious issues and created deft and morally subtle fiction like Scaramouche. This novel of the French Revolution takes the issues seriously - but never leaves you long without action, suspense, and intrigue. Robert Whitfield brings it to such vivid life that you feel as if you've watched a wonderful movie version. It is so much better than most new novels that you owe it to yourself to listen to this, if only to realize how poorly so many contemporary writers do by comparison.
Even though Augustus's life is about as well documented as is possible for figures from ancient times, author Anthony Everitt brings off a tour de force in this reconstruction of Octavian's life. He is always clear about the difference between fact and speculation, but by the end you get a much clearer and more trustworthy picture of Augustus than you get from, say, I, Claudius. John Curless's reading is clear and unobtrusive; the Latin words and names roll smoothly from his tongue, his pacing is perfect, and he has just enough inflection for you to feel that he is also interested in what he's reading. An excellent experience from beginning to end.
Not many authors read their own work very well, but McWhorter is superb - and who else could read snatches from so many languages and get them right (or at least plausible!)? The content of the book is outstanding. McWhorter makes his case for the strong Welsh influence on English despite the low number of Welsh words, and when he gets to the Carthaginian influence on ancient proto-Germanic, I was delighted. Unlike many scientists, McWhorter never overclaims; where the evidence is thin and the ideas are speculations, he says so and never lets you forget it. When you're through listening to this book, you understand the bones of our language better than ever.
Linda Stephens is simply superb in her reading of one of the great novels in American literature. Everything is crystal clear, and the attitudes of the characters and the narrative voice are powerfully suggested. The book is long, but it never FEELS long when read this well.
Alas, while there are some nuggets of good ideas, they are buried in the omphaloskepsis of a writer who finds every thought that occurs to him equally fascinating, a belief in which he is sadly mistaken. The nuggets are thus rare and, in my view, not worth the effort of waiting for them to roll around. If you ran into this guy at a party, you'd quickly find an excuse to go talk to the cat.
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