This exciting Part 2 of the Rho Agenda series ups the ante for the three teenage protagonists and we follow them through a suspenseful web of lies and intrigue. Phillips draws the net more tightly around the three (and the world!) without giving himself leave to reinvent his universe - the suspense he masterfully built in Part 1 continues its hold and we remain on our toes.
As the series progresses and expands outwards from Los Alamos, the plot gets a little more cluttered with characters and scientific loops that are a little superfluous, a few plot points are developed but never picked up again. The timeline also introduces some slack, while we felt pushed through a tightly woven narrative arc in Part 1, Parts 2 and 3 suddenly allow world events to progress for weeks or even months without escalating our sense of urgency.
Nevertheless, Phillips always picks us up again and sweeps us into the whirlwind of the Rho Agenda - despite these moments of respite, this is a thoroughly suspenseful and charming tale, leaving the listeners (and the fate of the world) in the hands of three protagonists who are supremely likable and, in no small part because of their internal dynamics, never too dull or too perfect.
The narrator deserves tremendous praise for keeping the story as sharp, quick and warm as it is. Parts 2 and 3 challenge him to even greater range than Part 1 did (or any common audiobook would) and he excels at keeping us always at the crest of the story as it thunders through its countless different characters, locales and emotional peaks and valleys.
THE TRILOGY AND THE NARRATION
The Rho Agenda is a thoroughly enjoyable sci-fi trilogy - Richard Phillips succeeds in painting a sci-fi universe that is firmly anchored on earth and in its human protagonists and accordingly doesn't require an all-round suspension of disbelief from the reader. He sets the sci-fi parameters for his story early on and diligently sticks to them, resisting the temptation to constantly introduce new sci-fi "miracles" to toss around his characters. The human story and the political thriller may be instigated by input from another world, but they remain exactly that: a huy man story and a political thriller. With some cool sci-fi stuff going on.
The author switches between points of view more than a hundred times per book, but MacLeod Andrews narrates his way through these transitions seamlessly, taking the listener along with ease. We always know exactly where we are and who, out of the large ensemble of characters, we are currently with. The books give him a wonderful opportunity to show off his range, in terms of both voices and accents, and he brings its countless twists and turns to life masterfully, instilling the main characters with his characteristic humor and warmth. His voice grips us as tightly through the densely packed action and political intrigue as it charms us during the spells of the teenage life of our heros.
One additional point: I greatly appreciated that Phillips keeps the story at a very agreeable level of "clean" - he abstains from being gratuitously graphic in his characters' language or actions, but doesn't shy away from strong language, violence and even a little carnage when they are necessary. I enjoyed not feeling myself be dragged through gore and bodily fluids at every turn as is so easily the case in contemporary otherworldly fiction.
Dog Chet tells this story with so much humor and wide-eyed wonder, you can't help but love every minute of it. As he doesn't quite understand everything going on around him and can't communicate his own findings, the human hero and the reader have the perfect amount of information asymmetry to keep things suspenseful. And did I mention how ridiculously charming Chet is?
The narrator is absolutely outstanding. Chet's confidence, his naivete, his ego and his all over adorable dogness sparke throughout the book, I couldn't tell you if I smiled more at the writing or the narration. They are a perfect combination.
My first of the series, absolutely works as a standalone.
THE essential spy novel - no gadgets, no contrived international plots, just a cocky young spy in love with the lifestyle, keener on the gambling than on his license to kill. Until he learns the hard way that he can't have it all, and becomes the James Bond we know and love. His evolution at the very end of the book is honest and incontrovertible. We're right there with him, poised for his next adventures to start.
This book will NOT ruin the movie for you or vice versa. It has actually heightened my appreciation of the film, which I now understand as a coherently updated version of the same coming-of-age-as-a-spy story. The original Bond is very much a 1953 spy, Daniel Craig is very much not.
Just one note of warning, this 1953 spy novel is also unapologetically racist and misogynist. Take it as a charming time capsule, take it as terribly offensive, just know it's there.
(And on the narration - Simon Vance is incredible! You can practically feel the martini and champagne in his soul here. By sheer coincidence I listened to another book of his right before this and can't believe that this man seems equally destined to read James Bond as Winnie the Pooh!)
If you've ever taken a picture without immediately thinking about the caption you'll post it with, if you've ever taken a step back from Facebook and thought "haven't I seen this post before?", if you've ever decided not to tweet something wonderful that has happened to you - read this book. It's scary, but you'll also feel refreshingly understood and empowered.
In literary terms, this is no 1984 or Brave New World. As a story, this is passable - the protagonist a bit annoying, her choices a bit predictable.
BUT as a statement on social media, The Circle is as poignant as it is terrifying. There will be a lot of "OMG!" moments when you realize, this is not the future. This is a slightly exaggerated version of Now. At its core lies the creeping, painfully positive social pressure to give more and more of yourself to a system that, in the end, feeds on itself alone. It is obviously not quite where we are today - but it's close enough for this commentary to hit a nerve.
Plus, it's incredibly well narrated. The story is told from a female narrator's perspective, but the voice of Dion Graham delivers beautifully. He captures the perfect nuances of naive, annoying, outrageous and vulnerable in this 20-something girl - not an easy feat.
An important book to have read (and an excellent conversation starter).
For the first half, I could not put this down. Weatherford dives deeply into Genghis Khan's past, his relationships, his fears and the prejudices of his time to paint a coherent, riveting picture of a young man evolving into one of the biggest terrors of his time and one of the biggest blessings for the future.
Genghis Khan dies at the end of the first half, however. With an entire second half to go, I hoped to now get a more in-depth analysis of his impact, maybe comparisons with other historical leaders. Instead, we get an account of how his heirs continued and eventually destroyed the Mongol empire - historically important, but not nearly as interesting and sometimes hard to follow, especially per audiobook.
The book is still absolutely worth it though - thanks to the excellent first half, I have been able to engage with historians and military scholars about Genghis Khan's impact and discuss the historical comparisons I was missing in the second half myself. Spirited cocktail party conversation to say the least.
A truly enriching read.
Absolutely worth the time! The story is super cute in its man-and-his-best-partner, aspects while also being a very full-fledged police thriller that will keep you listening. Is it the most intricate thriller I've ever read? No. But the dog makes up for it 100%. If you're undecided, definitely go for it.
On the narration: MacLeod Andrews knocks another one out of the park with this narration, he is playful without letting a single sinister moment get away from him, and he had me in tears with his impersonation of the dog during some of the scenes from her perspective.
This book takes a very interesting premise and turns it into evenly paced irrelevance. It is pleasant, but absolutely not worth 17 hours. It could have made a great, much shorter story, but it does not sustain this length.
There is hardly any arc, story or character wise - with the exception of getting older, neither Clare not Henry change very much at all during their relationship. Or if they do, we wouldn't know - there are no choices for them to make, so personal growth wouldn't be discernible. The premise of the story, though fervently denied, is predetermination. There are no difficult decisions to test them.
Yet the book does not deal with the existential questions it poses, the way good science fiction should, but stipulates them away. Clare and Henry rebel once, early on, but pull back at the last minute. We are mysteriously warned of a huge calamity averted, but we never find out what that calamity might be. So why care?
The novel turns out to be a series of vignettes which may be moving, funny, sometimes sad, but you don't look back and see a masterful whole. The time travel doesn't propel the story forward at all, it is random and the episodes hardly even tie into each other. So much time is spent on establishing its marvel, yet, most of the time, it is just a prop, a nuisance they live with. And that's what the book feels like - "living with it". Shrugging along.
Even the characters' unquestioned love for each other, which is at the center of the book, seems to have no basis in their characters or personalities. It was (pre)determined by Henry's travels to Clare's childhood while he is already married to her... and this loop settles it. Their love is beautiful and convincingly written, but in its essence, it remains a random, meaningless coincidence, because there is no alternate path, but no discernable design either.
The narration though is absolutely EXCELLENT and the split between the two voices works extremely well.
(Minor point, the books is completely PG-13, except for a number of entirely unnecessary vulgarities. I have no problem at all with strong language, but here the author uses four letter words suddenly and without any reason, where something more poetic would have been much more appropriate and consistent with what we are to believe of their relationship.)
The story remains enchanting.
This would be a lovely audiobook for young children.
That said, from an adult perspective, Ms. Hathaway overacts and takes away from the overall experience. A lot of her character choices are very extreme or just plain odd, as though she strained to come up with something unique and new. A child will likely find the different characters fun, this audiobook really is incredibly colorful, there are no default characters. But as an adult, I found that a lot of her choices make no sense (the wizard, above all) and was a little annoyed by some of the more grating ones, like the over-affected stage English of the queen mouse, for example, the valley girl stork, or the Marge Simpson scare crow. In essence, the magic she captures in her narration is the magical range of Anne Hathaway, not that of the Wonderful Wizard.
Other reviewers rave about this version though, so I recommend listening to a sample before you buy.
A great start to the series, very entertaining and suspenseful. It's definitely more detective novel than other-worldly tale, though the two are very well entwined, very believably - our world doesn't have to change much to allow for the wizards and vampires of Dresden's world. For me, who would be more likely to pick up a crime thriller than a fantasy novel, this made the book so enjoyable.
Harry Dresden is the ideal modern protagonist - reluctant, cynical and a bit awkward, accepting what life deals him, but also a fundamentally good man who stands by his commitments and will not watch idly as injustice is done to the defenseless. There is still a lot of room for character development that I hope will be further explored in the next books.
The story does not use magic gratuitously, which is crucial. Our hero is fundamentally human, magic is just a tool at his disposal, strictly regulated by the terrifying White Council. Harry is by no means all-powerful, he can't even pay his rent. He is as vulnerable, as emotional and as likely to be wrong as you and I, and he is fully comfortable with his humanity. This is what makes him so charming. Marsters' almost casual first-person narration captures him perfectly.
What keeps the book from five stars are a few insular disappointing twists, where something fortuitous happens that the hero had nothing to do with. The author has access to magic, he shouldn't need that much luck to write his hero out of trouble. He does this excellently other junctures.
At times inspirational, at times cute, at times harrowing, this book will keep you company and make you smile when you are looking for that little bit of escape to somebody else's memories. No part of it is unpleasant.
Nevertheless, a few of the stories feel a bit banal, as though the respective author received a request for a submission from the editors and responded out of politeness, not because she had anything earth-shattering to share. On the same note, many of the authors are a bit too similar, in style, in story but especially in outlook. The vehicle of a letter to one's 16-year-old self also doesn't work in every case, a few stories bend over backwards to stick with it. These capable writers deserve better.
In the end, the book feels a bit like a pet project of two writers for which they recruited their friends, not something for which I need to give up time that could be spent listening to other inspiring stories - including works by the very authors who contributed to this book.
5 stars for narrator MacLeod Andrews, 3 stars for Julia Whelan. There is a distinct difference in the quality of the narration. While the female authors, read by Ms. Whelan, all sound the same (and somewhat patronizing toward their youthful self), Mr. Andrews infuses every male author with a distinctive voice of his own. They thereby break free from being a generic "person who used to be 16 and has some insights", and become a very specific adult with a very personal relationship with the 16-year-old self he is writing to. His narration clearly implies the idiosyncrasy of every bit of insight delivered. It is through his narration that the audiobook fills the space the editors must have envisioned for it - one of diverse views and stories.
The story is very charming, that it was written in 1970 adds a lovely nostalgia to it. It's not a fast paced thriller, but a cute, funny crime story (it gets funnier the farther you get, I agree with other reviewers that it's a bit bland in the beginning). Not a must-read, but definitely an enjoy-to-read.
Surprisingly though, there aren't a lot of reviews about the narration. Woodman has a very pleasant voice, but his narration is a bit catastrophic, he leaves much of the novel's potential untapped. It's all about the characters and their interplay, but only two or three of the main characters enjoy any depth in the narration. Dortmunder himself is not among them - Woodman endows him with his regular narration voice, which is young and light. There are indications in the text that Dortmunder is actually reluctant and tired and rolling his eyes most of the time. We don't hear any of that through Woodman though. Very sad, a better narrator could have made this raucously funny.
In addition, the African characters have Pakistani accents, which is hard to handle.
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