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Ethan M.

On Audible since the late 1990s, mostly science fiction, fantasy, history & science. I rarely review 1-2 star books that I can't get through

Cambridge, MA | Member Since 2000

  • 86 reviews
  • 136 ratings
  • 708 titles in library
  • 15 purchased in 2014

  • The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack: Burton & Swinburne, Book 1

    • UNABRIDGED (14 hrs and 4 mins)
    • By Mark Hodder
    • Narrated By Gerard Doyle

    Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne are sucked into the perilous depths of a moral and ethical vacuum when Lord Palmerston commissions Burton to investigate assaults on young women committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack - and to find out why werewolves are terrorizing London's East End.

    Robert says: "Fun Steampunk but on the outlandish side"
    "Entirely middle-of-the-road steampunk fantasy"

    I like steampunk, I like science fiction, and I like Victorian history, so I should have loved this, but I didn't. There is nothing horribly wrong with book, but there is little particularly wonderful either. Rather than big issues, I found that lots of little choices ultimately undermined the book.

    A sense of place is key in these sorts of historical fantasy novels, and while Hodder gets a lot of obvious references in - London smog, classism, formality, and so on - it feels repeatedly undermined by little things. His characters frequently use anachronistic language (I assume "Great Scott!" feels Victorian, but it is of more modern American use, not a big deal in itself, but typical of the sloppiness), characters are drawn with very broad brushes, and London feels like a set of stereotypical Dickensian elements, rather than a coherent whole.

    The sense of adventure is similarly undermined by plot choices. The reader is often led to understand certain things hours before the hero does, for no clear purpose. People have a tendency to suddenly declare important clues as characters seem to randomly stumble into key plot points. New technological elements are introduced as needed, without a real consistent sense of what the limits of the "technologists" are. And the main character is constantly referred to by the third person narrator as "The Great Explorer" or "The King's Agent" as in "The Great Explorer said X." None of these are fatal flaws, but, by the end, they weighed the book down too much.

    Again, if you really like steampunk fantasy, you could do worse, but otherwise this book is adequate at best.

    32 of 35 people found this review helpful
  • The Rhesus Chart

    • UNABRIDGED (13 hrs and 19 mins)
    • By Charles Stross
    • Narrated By Gideon Emery

    As a newly appointed junior manager within the Laundry - the clandestine organization responsible for protecting Britain against supernatural threats - Bob Howard is expected to show some initiative to help the agency battle the forces of darkness. But shining a light on things best left in the shadows is the last thing Bob wants to do - especially when those shadows hide an occult parasite spreading a deadly virus. Traders employed by a merchant bank in London are showing signs of infection.

    Ethan M. says: "The Laundry series returns to excellent form"
    "The Laundry series returns to excellent form"

    The last Laundry novel was a bit disappointing - eschewing much of the office politics and humor and instead telling a straight-forward story where Bob Howard, IT guy/secret occult agent, has to defeat a church of (surprise!) evil evangelicals, an obvious target. At first, The Rhesus Chart looks like it is going to be the same, as we are quickly introduced to a nest of vampire high frequency traders with an scene-chewing bad guy at the helm.

    However, just as a resign myself to the cliche, the plot twists, and thickens, in interesting and unexpected ways. Plot elements that seemed clumsy and obvious turn out to be cleverly re-purposed, and the whole book, while retaining the macabre, becomes a lot more fun. Helping this is a return to the sharp humor and office politics of earlier books, with a mix of LOTS of amusing geek references along with some fairly clever lines.

    And, of course, the reader is amazing.

    There are only a couple downsides, one of which is that the coming of Case Nightmare Green is again not deferred (clearly many more novels are ahead!), and that the story is a little flabby in the middle, slowing down a bit more than needed before speeding towards its conclusion.

    So, if you are reading the Laundry novels, this is a must-buy. If you haven't, you really should (though you could skip the last one). I am really happy the magic is back in this excellent series!

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  • Cibola Burn: The Expanse, Book 4

    • UNABRIDGED (21 hrs and 23 mins)
    • By James S. A. Corey
    • Narrated By Erik Davies
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready

    An empty apartment, a missing family, that's creepy. But this is like finding a military base with no one on it. Fighters and tanks idling on the runway with no drivers. This is bad juju. Something wrong happened here. What you should do is tell everyone to leave. The gates have opened the way to a thousand new worlds and the rush to colonize has begun. Settlers looking for a new life stream out from humanity's home planets. Ilus, the first human colony on this vast new frontier, is being born in blood and fire.

    averageconsumer says: "Bookwreck: How to Sink a Stellar Story"
    "Odd mix of very original & increasingly formulaic"

    I really enjoy the Expanse series, and this book is, while not brilliant, still fun. The short version is that it has more of what I liked: more of the same winning characters, hard(ish) science fiction, and sudden twists and turns in a propulsive plot. At the same time, the seams are starting to show a bit.

    A clear theme through the series has been that people are worse to each other than any aliens can be, and while that bleakness was interesting over a couple of books, it is starting to feel a little forced. In Cibola Burn yet another Earth company aided by yet more sociopaths (seriously, these Earth companies need better HR practices!) makes everything terrible until the inevitable plot twists make things REALLY terrible. The plot is thrilling, but the motivations explaining why the bad characters are so bad is so thin that it seems almost insulting when they try, especially when contrasted with the unalterable moral compass of the main characters: the Only Good Guys in the Universe.

    The authors described their previous two books as writing a science fiction version of a ghost story and a political thriller. This seems like their attempt at a novel about colonialism, and they aren't afraid to hit you over the head with this, many, many times (characters compare themselves to Cortez, etc). The problem is that the authors have little to say about the topic, so it all rings a bit hollow.

    Also, as EVERY other reviewer writes, the narrator changed in this book. After 50+ hours with the original narrator, this was glaring, but it seemed more normal with time. The new narrator is not fantastic, but far from bad. Any problem fell away as the book continued.

    So, if you have listened to the series so far, I think this is worth it (if you can deal with the change in narration). I just hope future books will recapture the magic that made the series so great.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  • Skin Game: A Novel of the Dresden Files, Book 15

    • UNABRIDGED (15 hrs and 49 mins)
    • By Jim Butcher
    • Narrated By James Marsters
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready

    Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard, is about to have a very bad day.… Because as Winter Knight to the Queen of Air and Darkness, Harry never knows what the scheming Mab might want him to do. Usually, it’s something awful. He doesn’t know the half of it… Mab has just traded Harry’s skills to pay off one of her debts. And now he must help a group of supernatural villains - led by one of Harry’s most dreaded and despised enemies, Nicodemus Archleone - to break into the highest-security vault in town, so that they can then access the highest-security vault in the Nevernever.

    D says: "Hold onto your staff; Harry’s back."
    "Oceans Eleven meets Harry Dresden"

    So this is a very good Harry Dresden novel, and a very good Harry Dresden novel is something to celebrate. Butcher continues to be able to increase the stakes and keep a sprawling plot moving after 15 books, while still giving us characters to care about and even a few scenes that caused my eyes to well up (must have been allergies). Still, this is a very good Dresden novel, following a few that I might consider to be great, hence the four stars, rather than five.

    Why? Well, while the main plot of the novel (Dresden in the supernatural version of a classic heist movie) is exciting and propulsive as ever, a few things drag down the book a bit. First, the novel takes a bit longer to get going than usual, and much of that time is spent rehashing philosophic questions that have been more urgently and better addressed in previous books: Harry's friends worrying about him turning bad, Harry worries about turning bad, and so on. Don't get me wrong, these are Big Themes in Butcher's books and Butcher still handles them well, but they are less earned in this novel, and especially the first half, and it weighs the book down a little.

    Additionally, the plotting here, while still very good, is missing some of the sharpness of previous books. On the plus side, Harry's personal life advances in satisfying ways. The main story, however, requires even more deus ex machina than usual to resolve itself, which makes some of the cliffhangers a bit cheap (though a couple of the reveals are terrific, and very much in the heist movie theme). Add this to the fact that there are some strange absences from the novel of key characters who you would expect to be in it, and the fact that the meta-plot barely advances in the novel, and you get a Dresden Files entry that, while still fun, may not be quite as vital to the series as the 2-3 before it.

    The reading is spectacular, and nothing actually goes off the rails, so I was very satisfied with the book. This may not be the best in the series, but it is still very good, and, obviously, a must for any fan.

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  • Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942

    • UNABRIDGED (22 hrs and 10 mins)
    • By Ian W. Toll
    • Narrated By Grover Gardner

    On the first Sunday in December 1941, an armada of Japanese warplanes appeared suddenly over Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and devastated the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Six months later, in a sea fight north of the tiny atoll of Midway, four Japanese aircraft carriers were sent into the abyss. Pacific Crucible tells the epic tale of these first searing months of the Pacific war, when the U.S. Navy shook off the worst defeat in American military history and seized the strategic initiative.

    BB says: "Superb narrative history"
    "Exciting as a thriller, even knowing what happens"

    This book focuses, with some historical digressions, on the naval war in the Pacific from Pearl Harbor to Midway. If you are a WWII history buff, you have heard the story before, many times, but this still manages to be a fresh and exciting take, with lots of new insights.

    Many of these insights are generated because of the way that the author deftly shifts among the perspectives of the Japanese and American sides. Toll manages to bring in many historical figures, never focusing on one for too long: Churchill and Roosevelt, Nimitz and Halsey, Yamamoto and Hirohito; as well as lesser known characters, from code breakers to airmen. Very little of the writing is speculative, instead he draws on the words and records of these people to weave a seamless account of the war.

    As a result, he manages to produce the best account I have read about the chaotic way in which Japan came to enter the war, not because of the charismatic Fascism that motivated Italy and Germany, but rather through many small acts of nationalist rebellion. The same approach allows Toll to give the listener a better perspective on how and why strategy evolved the way it did on both sides, both in a grand sense, but also in the individual battles. It is terrifically illuminating.

    It is also remarkably engaging. Toll manages, using the words of people who were there, to explain what it was like on a diver bomber plunging at 80 degrees towards a carrier, or to be inside a burning ship, or to be a frustrated commander trying to get an air wing to take off on time. Even though I had read a lot about this phase of the conflict, I was both riveted and managed to learn a lot.

    Gardner reads it all in a friendly manner, and I stayed up late listening on more than one occasion. Highly recommended if you like military history, or even just any narrative history done right.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  • Raising Steam: The Discworld Series, Book 40

    • UNABRIDGED (12 hrs and 24 mins)
    • By Terry Pratchett
    • Narrated By Stephen Briggs
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready

    The new Discworld novel, the 40th in the series, sees the Disc's first train come steaming into town. Change is afoot in Ankh-Morpork. Discworld's first steam engine has arrived, and once again Moist von Lipwig finds himself with a new and challenging job.

    David says: "So much more than funny"
    "A fitting swan song for Discworld"

    This is obviously not the book to start with if you are new to Discworld, instead, given Sir Pratchetts's condition, it is more of a coda: there could still be more books in the series, but there won't be many. It is hard not to think about that fact constantly throughout the audiobook.

    It is hard not to think about it because the book, while very good, is not as great as the absolute highpoints of the series: Thud, Night Watch, Going Postal, I Shall Wear Midnight, etc. That said, some of the criticism is unwarranted, since, while not the best Discworld novel, it is better than either the early novels, or the last couple of books. The writing is still generally very sharp, the characters still familiar, and the plot is fun. A little of the magic fades, however, for obvious reasons.

    It is also hard not to think about because of the themes of this book. As the series has progressed, Pratchett's Discworld has changed from fantasy parody to sharp-eyed social commentary. This book, even more than Thud, develops the themes of tolerance and progress in ways that are sometimes a bit hokey, but even more often left me a bit misty-eyed. While the real world connections here are perhaps a bit too sharp (I am looking at you, Dwarven terrorists), it does advance the optimistic vision of the future that permeates Pratchett's.

    Finally, it is hard not to think about because the series itself seems to be drawing to a natural close. The book features many of the key characters from the earlier novels, offering the chance to say goodbye to them. The technology and development of the world has advanced to be close to our own, and magic is clearly disappearing from the picture. And, of course Ankh-Morpork is simply becoming London (or New York), just with more trolls and goblins.
    I was reluctant to read the book after some negative reviews, but I am very glad I did. It was touching, sweet, and a fun read. It may not be as tight or sharp as some of the best books, but these are not lapses that detract from an otherwise terrific experience, with, as usual, amazing reading. If you are a Discworld fan, this is essential reading. If you aren't do a search for "discworld reading order" and get started!

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  • The Emperor's Blades: Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, Book 1

    • UNABRIDGED (18 hrs and 46 mins)
    • By Brian Staveley
    • Narrated By Simon Vance

    In The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley, the emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods.

    Ethan M. says: "Of the various new fantasy series, this is... fine"
    "Of the various new fantasy series, this is... fine"

    I like the Emperor's Blades, but, given the many new epic fantasy series of the past few years, this isn't at the top of the list. It is clearly in the grimdark (Ambercrombie, not Rothfuss) camp - horrible events, moral ambiguity, lots of death and fighting. While not bad, it doesn't seem to add much interesting to the genre, and has some questionable choices.

    Some of the questionable choices are worldbuilding. While there are lots of nice touches (sky ninjas on giant birds!) a lot of the rest falls somewhere between cliche and nonsensical. On the cliche side, this book mostly consists of the training of two different heirs to the throne. One is being trained in a monastery with (surprise!) taciturn, koan-spouting monks and has to find the meaning of their zen-like lessons. The other is being given hardcore military training with (surprise!) taciturn, tough-as-nails officers and has to overcome bullies and physical challenges. On the nonsensical side, apparently neither of the heirs to the throne are trained in anything having to do with ruling the empire that they are inheriting. Instead, they are subject to conditions that, for no really good reason, seem designed to have a very good chance of killing them.

    The other questionable choices have to do with tone. There is a third member of the royal family, a daughter. She, like many of the women in the novel, gets a lot less time on the page. And most of the women we encounter get abused, tortured, or worse. It adds to a sense of discomfort throughout the novel.

    Nothing here is awful, and the reading is great, but the book seemed rather forced, with motivations seeming muddled and the world not really cohering into a whole. The action was often well-done, but I think there are better new fantasy series to read.

    19 of 22 people found this review helpful
  • Words of Radiance: The Stormlight Archive, Book 2

    • UNABRIDGED (48 hrs and 15 mins)
    • By Brandon Sanderson
    • Narrated By Michael Kramer, Kate Reading
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready

    In that first volume, we were introduced to the remarkable world of Roshar, a world both alien and magical, where gigantic hurricane-like storms scour the surface every few days and life has adapted accordingly. Roshar is shared by humans and the enigmatic, humanoid Parshendi, with whom they are at war.

    D says: "Book !!; no let down- "Words of Radieance" shines"
    "Epic fantasy, with huge emphasis on the epic part"

    This is what motivates my review: I have just spent over a month listening to over 80(!!) hours of The Stormlight Archive, and I find myself wishing for the next book. Usually, I need a break between audiobooks in a series, not so here, despite the length. So, as far as compelling listen-ability is concerned, this is a clear winner, well-read and fun as well!

    You can stop reading here, if you want, since I feel completely justified in the five stars, but, still, there are a few issues, issues that mostly come from it being such an obviously EPIC epic. First, Sanderson is up to his usual trick of making an elaborate magic system with complex internal symmetries as a key driver of the plot. To an experienced Sanderson reader, some of the story is just waiting for the twists and turns to play out. How they do so is always interesting, and this is Sanderson's best yet, but, still, there are many echoes of Mistborn/Steelheart/Elantris, etc. The result makes elements of the plot a little obvious at times, though some occasional twists help keep things fresh.

    Second, since this novel covers so much ground and is full of (occasionally exhausting) detail, Sanderson's squeamishness about issues like sex or desire stand out in a particularly glaring fashion. Fight scenes and horrific murders are portrayed in great (and well-written) detail, but the novel goes full young adult when discussing other forms of human interaction. I am not talking about a lack of anything graphic, but the complete modesty of the characters, especially the non-married characters, gets in the way of character-building, makes Kaladin and Shallan feel less well-rounded than they should be.

    Still, Sanderson doesn't do grimdark (like Martin or Abercrombie), and it is nice to have a good old fashioned fantasy series, full of mysteries and destinies and action, to explore. I will be waiting for the next!

    7 of 9 people found this review helpful
  • Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

    • UNABRIDGED (20 hrs and 39 mins)
    • By Eric Schlosser
    • Narrated By Scott Brick
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready

    Famed investigative journalist Eric Schlosser digs deep to uncover secrets about the management of America's nuclear arsenal. A groundbreaking account of accidents, near misses, extraordinary heroism, and technological breakthroughs, Command and Control explores the dilemma that has existed since the dawn of the nuclear age: How do you deploy weapons of mass destruction without being destroyed by them? That question has never been resolved - and Schlosser reveals how the combination of human fallibility and technological complexity still poses a grave risk to mankind.

    Ethan M. says: "A miracle that we escaped the Cold War alive...."
    "A miracle that we escaped the Cold War alive...."

    Command and Control was excellent, if occasionally chilling, listening. The book takes the form of a thriller - flashing back between an accident at a missile silo in Arkansas in 1980, and the history of the control of American nuclear weapons. The thriller becomes a bit of a horror show as Schlosser shows how often disaster was narrowly averted, and the potential consequences of a catastrophic accident. There are many mind-boggling facts along the way: the Davy Crockett nuclear anti-tank rocket had a blast radius as large as its range, the military occasionally classified things so highly the president couldn't see them, and there were many occasions where a nuclear war nearly happened.

    The evolution of the Damascus Accident is especially well-written, as is the story of the evolution of nuclear strategy and command. As one reviewer in the LA Times pointed out, Schlosser is decidedly liberal, but the heroes of the book (such as they are) are McNamara and Reagan, who actually tame the nuclear beast, at least for a while. Similarly, there are great explanations of the development of the atomic bomb, and the technical details involved.

    There are only a few weaknesses. First, the emphasis on bomb safety and the final parts of the Damascus Accident drag a bit, making the last third of the book somewhat less pointed and novel than the terrific first part. Second, the book seems to lose steam after Reagan, barely giving any time to the post-Cold War situation, or to other countries. While this isn't necessarily bad, it means that we spend most of the book in increasingly high levels of concern, and are left without either a lot of discussion over how to reach a safer world, or a clear sense of what the nuclear system looks like today.

    In any case, this is a great read for fans of nonfiction and history, as it covers a huge amount of ground. And the final sentence is absolutely chilling and revelatory.

    7 of 7 people found this review helpful
  • The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England

    • UNABRIDGED (20 hrs and 49 mins)
    • By Dan Jones
    • Narrated By Clive Chafer
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready

    The first Plantagenet king inherited a blood-soaked kingdom from the Normans and transformed it into an empire that stretched at its peak from Scotland to Jerusalem. In this epic history, Dan Jones vividly resurrects this fierce and seductive royal dynasty and its mythic world. We meet the captivating Eleanor of Aquitaine, twice queen and the most famous woman in Christendom; her son, Richard the Lionheart, who fought Saladin in the Third Crusade; and King John, a tyrant who was forced to sign Magna Carta, which formed the basis of our own Bill of Rights.

    Troy says: "Excellent Narrative History"
    "Generally fascinating history, with some quirks"

    This was a period in English history where I had some glancing familiarity with key moments (mostly via Shakespeare, A Lion in Winter, Robin Hood, etc.) but no appreciation of the details or how it links together. As a result, I found the book fascinating, as it managed to give a very detailed, but still fairly fast-moving, overview of the Plantagenet era. Even more than the great biographic details, I appreciated the way that Jones managed to communicate how different the ideas of government were in the Middle Ages, and the ways in which rule and misrule led to the evolution of modern ideas.

    There are a few quirks to the book that keep in from being a five-star listen. First, this is a narrative, and not a historical discussion, so while not necessarily ignoring debates over particular events, Jones tends to present an authoritative view, ignoring alternatives (like discussions over the relationship between Edward II and Piers Gaveston). This feeds into the second issue, which is that the author clearly has some strong ideas of what good kingship is like, and the result is a slight tendency to justify the less savory actions of some rulers that he likes, while being less forgiving of other monarchs. Finally, the narrative itself is a bit odd, since the author slides between occasional first-person segments ("Richard approached the gates of the city...") and the majority of the book, which is written as a historian. None of these are fatal flaws, but they, combined with the length of the book, did make it drag a little at points.

    Overall, though, a great, well-read history of a period I did not know a lot about. I found it illuminating, and would recommend it strongly to anyone interested in the history of government, England, or the Middle Ages.

    5 of 5 people found this review helpful
  • Blood Song: Raven's Shadow, Book 1

    • UNABRIDGED (23 hrs and 8 mins)
    • By Anthony Ryan
    • Narrated By Steven Brand
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready

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

    JPaladin says: "Wonderful Epic! Mature and well-written."
    "Wonderful in the details, loses the big picture..."

    First off, this is a wonderful first fantasy novel by a first-time author. Ryan writes with confidence, and does an excellent job in building a novel (relatively low-magic) fantasy world. At the same time, he takes a trope of these sorts of novels - the childhood training and maturing of a character touched by Destiny (think Harry Potter, Name of the Wind, Wheel of Time, etc.) - and manages to make it work by both the quality of his writing and his ability to produce compelling characters. There were many spots where I couldn't stop listening, and I am eager to buy the next novel as soon as it comes out.

    Why the 4 stars? In some ways, I feel like Ryan juggles too many balls, and some of them are noticeably dropped in the novel, making the set-up for the Raven's Shadow series less interesting than the events of this particular book. This is most obvious inhow the overarching enemy of the novel is established (I won't spoil anything there, but I will say that given the detail of all of the other worldbuilding, that piece feels tacked-on and contrary to other parts of the book), but it appears in other ways - important characters disappear from the narrative for long periods only to suddenly reappear for some key role; issues like religion seem critical and some points and unimportant in others; foreshadowing is obvious but of unclear value; and the story skips some interesting moments, choosing instead to concentrate on ones of less clear value.

    These are minor sins for a new novel that is of such high quality, and I strongly suggest epic fantasy fans read it. Though it is not high fantasy, and includes lots of bloody carnage, it isn't as grimdark as Abercrombe or Martin, and thus serves as a bit of fresh air in a genre that has tended towards the extremes of either light-and-fun or death-and-horribleness. The reading is great as well.

    13 of 13 people found this review helpful

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