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Jefferson

I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.

Member Since 2010

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  • Heart of Darkness: A Signature Performance by Kenneth Branagh

    • UNABRIDGED (3 hrs and 51 mins)
    • By Joseph Conrad
    • Narrated By Kenneth Branagh
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (1360)
    Performance
    (1111)
    Story
    (1112)

    A Signature Performance: Kenneth Branagh plays this like a campfire ghost story, told by a haunted, slightly insane Marlow.

    Harold says: "From Civilization into Darkness"
    "The (Beautiful and Appalling) Horror!"
    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    Kenneth Branagh gives a mesmerizing reading of Heart of Darkness, bringing out all the darkly beautiful surfaces and bleakly existential undercurrents of Joseph Conrad???s novella, as well as convincingly voicing all the characters, from the sensitive and scarred British Marlow to the slimy Belgian trading company men, creepy Russian disciple, and charismatic and appalling Kurtz and his ever-grieving fianc??e.

    The book has been criticized for portraying Africans as sub-human, and it is true that Conrad (and hence Branagh) gives almost no voice to the native population, but I find in Heart of Darkness less racist condescension towards the Africans and more moral outrage towards their European colonial exploiters.

    The nearly four-hour audiobook, during which Marlow recounts his journey into the Congo to find the ???genius??? trading agent Kurtz, quickly caught me and carried me inexorably towards ???The horror! The horror!??? and its haunting aftermath. It left me stunned and grimly impressed (though somehow not depressed) by its disturbing depiction of the raping of Africa by colonial powers like Belgium (taking countless tons of ivory in exchange for worthless glass beads and shabby fabrics, imposing incomprehensible laws onto the native peoples and brutally punishing them for the slightest infractions, and so on), and by its timely application to the developed world???s current exploitation of the Congo (???conflict minerals???) and of Africa in general (diamonds, oil and other resources). But the greatness of the novella lies in its transcending specific examples like Africa and universalizing the heart of darkness to include England in the time of the Romans and all human beings in any time, exposing the heart of darkness in all of us.

    12 of 13 people found this review helpful
  • Feed: The Newsflesh Trilogy, Book 1

    • UNABRIDGED (15 hrs and 10 mins)
    • By Mira Grant
    • Narrated By Paula Christensen, Jesse Bernstein
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (893)
    Performance
    (694)
    Story
    (684)

    The year was 2014. We had cured cancer. We had beat the common cold. But in doing so we created something new, something terrible that no one could stop. The infection spread, virus blocks taking over bodies and minds with one, unstoppable command: FEED.

    susan says: "I laughed, I cried..."
    "Blogging the Truth in a post-Zombie Rising World"
    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    The first book in Mira Grant's Newsflesh Trilogy, Feed (2010), begins in Northern California in 2039, twenty-five years after the Rising, when a super virus infected all mammals weighing at least 40 pounds, wiping out 35% of the human population in the summer of 2014 and leaving behind pockets of hungry undead. The first chapter seems to be standard zombie fare: a mob of infected surround a pair of astonishingly reckless heroes, the 22-year-old first person narrator Georgia Mason and her thrill-seeking brother Shaun. (Like many other post-2014 kids, Georgia was named for George Romero, who became a national hero after the Rising because people realized that his films were useful survival guides rather than bad horror movies.) I couldn't believe that someone as savvy as Georgia would let her brother and herself get into such a fix, or that they'd be able to escape it the way they do.

    But the second chapter explains the siblings' behavior: they are bloggers who leave the relative safety of their community to enter infected danger zones to make, become, and report the news about all matters zombie so as to spread the "truth" and increase the market share of their blogs. Indeed, in 2039 bloggers are the most entertaining, popular, and accurate news source: "Newsies" like Georgia who report the truth without spin or opinion, "Irwins" like Shaun who record sensational close zombie encounters, and "Fictionals" like their partner Buffy who write gothic stories and poems. Georgia and Shaun are each other's best friends, colleagues, and confidants, because they were born a few weeks apart to different families, orphaned during the Rising, and adopted by parents who love their own blog ratings more than their kids.

    The novel takes an unexpected turn when Georgia, Shaun, and Buffy become the "pet-bloggers" embedded in the presidential campaign of the Republican Senator from Wisconsin, Peter Ryman. Georgia believes that he represents the best hope for improving the difficult economic, political, and social world of the virus, because he would rather improve the lives of the living than wage war on the undead, while his opponents want to exterminate all zombies and to reassert faith and family in America to convince God to stop plaguing us with plagues.

    Feed is neither like Walking Dead, in which pockets of humans try to survive in a post-zombie-apocalypse world, nor like Raising Stony Mayhall, in which the protagonist is a sympathetic zombie. Nor is it a non-stop zombie action story, having few set piece attack scenes. Instead, Feed is a science fiction zombie novel. It features a scientific explanation and behavior for the virus, which derives from a mixture of cold and cancer cures, lies dormant inside everyone in the world, and is at any moment ready to undergo "amplification," destroying its host's consciousness and turning the host into a ravenous meat eater (the virus needs protein) and dangerous virus spreader (the virus needs new hosts). The novel then carefully extrapolates the resulting future world. Feed is also a political zombie novel, condemning hate- and fear-mongers who wield national security and religion to deny others the freedom to learn and tell the truth with which to draw accurate conclusions and make informed decisions. I like the message, but I don't believe that journalists can objectively tell the truth once embedded in an organization, whether a political campaign or a US military unit.

    I'm also unsure about other things in the novel. First, although I enjoy the banter between Shaun and Georgia ("Behold the bitchiness of George when she hasn't had her beauty sleep") and am moved by their close relationship, I also find Shaun irritating when he talks like a 22-year-old surfer Bart Simpson.

    Second, despite interesting virus-driven changes in the world of 2039, some things too closely resemble our world now, as in the important politicians, bodyguards, scientists, and campaign staff all being men. At the same time, some of Grant's 2039 USA feels outdated, as in same-sex marriage still being a controversial issue, whereas in our 2014 USA it's already legal in 26 states.

    Third, despite the scientific approach to zombies, and despite the neat touch that everyone already has the virus, the amplified infected could after all be extras from a George Romero movie.

    Fourth, there are some inconsistent points in the story and characters: in the first chapter, for example, Georgia had to bribe daredevil Shaun into wearing a Kevlar vest in the Santa Cruz danger zone, whereas later she twice notes him in safer situations carefully tightening or checking the links in his chain mail armor.

    Fifth, the novel wants pruning. Georgia twice tells us that Shaun only calls her Georgia when he's upset or concerned and twice that the Apple blood testing kit is the top of the line model, and repeatedly depicts getting blood-tested and using high-tech elevators. And her pursuit of the truth would be more powerful were she to mention it less often.

    To be sure, there are plenty of neat lines like these:
    "He was a journalist after all, and we're all incurably insane."
    "Most girls learn to accessorize for dinner parties and dates; I learned to do it for hazard zones."
    "I am a god among men and a poker into unpokable places."
    “Social norms can bite me.”

    The readers enhance the book. Paula Christensen's Georgia is spot on (intelligent, passionate, ironic), and she's good with southern accents and even a British one. Jesse Bernstein is fine with Shaun and other male characters.

    But although I enjoyed Feed, and admire its unsparing climax, I won't be in a hurry to finish the trilogy.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • The Name of the Rose

    • UNABRIDGED (21 hrs and 9 mins)
    • By Umberto Eco
    • Narrated By Sean Barrett
    Overall
    (17)
    Performance
    (15)
    Story
    (16)

    This hugely engaging story of murder, superstition, religious politics and drama in a medieval monastery was one of the most striking novels to appear in the 1980s. The Name of the Rose is a thrilling story enriched with period detail and laced with tongue-in-cheek allusions to fictional characters, the most striking of which is the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, who displays many characteristics of Sherlock Holmes.

    Mrs says: "The medium is the stupendous message."
    "The World as a Labyrinth of Books and Signs"
    Overall
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    The preface of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980) explains that "as an act of love" and "For sheer narrative pleasure gloriously lacking any relevance to our world today" (because "it is about books"), the "author" is publishing his "Italian version of an obscure neo-gothic French version of a seventeenth-century Latin edition of a work written in Latin by a German monk toward the end of the fourteenth century." (And the Italian version has been translated into English by William Weaver!)

    The German Monk is Adso of Melk, who, as an old man wrote a chronicle about his time in 1327 as the novice disciple of the Franciscan Brother William of Baskerville, when the pair traveled to an Italian Benedictine abbey whose name must remain secret due to the terrible events that happened there. William was on a mission to represent the separation of church and state views of the Holy Roman Emperor Louis to the Papal legates of Pope John, as well as to try to arrange a meeting of the minds between the Franciscan monks who embraced the poverty of Christ and the Papal authorities who denied it (to avoid calling into question their great worldly possessions and powers). No sooner do William and Adso arrive at the abbey than they learn that a talented young illuminator has fallen to his death from a high window, and William, a former inquisitor (a post he resigned because he could no longer distinguish between heretics and holy men or stomach the use of torture to obtain confession), is asked by the Abbot to investigate. Thus begins a murder mystery lasting seven days and involving the abbey library (both the greatest in Christendom and a labyrinth), a dangerous book, the Apocalypse, and a motley set of monkish suspects.

    In addition to being an absorbing mystery, The Name of the Rose is such a vivid and detailed historical novel that it becomes both an encyclopedic window into the past and a distorted mirror of the present. The ethos of the Catholic monks, how they felt about science, love, women, animals, infidels, class, authority, heresy, piety, art, books, the Word, the world, the hereafter, Christ, God, Satan, and the antichrist, is fascinating. They earnestly argued about things like the laughter and poverty or lack thereof of Jesus, and lived in a chaotic era marked by feuding Emperors and Popes, starving peasants, and ravening vagabonds. The abbey feels like a real place, including the Church, Dormitory, Infirmary, Stables, Smithy, and Aedificium (the building with library, scriptorium, kitchen, and crypt). While vividly depicting all of the above, the novel treats themes about epistemology, semiotics, truth, and love, and explores matters like the preservation, pursuit, and sharing of knowledge, the uses and abuses of fantasy, nonsense, and humor, and the difficult attempt to find design, pattern, and meaning in a world that possesses either many or none of such things.

    William is a medieval Sherlock Holmes, hailing from Baskerville and sharing with the great detective a faith in deductive reasoning, intervals of torpor, occasional "drug" use, a tall and thin body, and a desire to find the truth by reading the world like a book. His deductive method is opposed to that of Catholic inquisitors, who use torture to prove the guilt of the accused. The relationship between William and Adso, his naïve and earnest Watson, is entertaining and moving. Adso feels hero-worship for his master, punctuated by moments of incomprehension or disappointment.

    The novel is replete with great lines, from descriptions (as when Adso sees the "glabrous face" and "bony skull, to which the skin clung like that of a mummy preserved in milk," of the revered monk Ubertino and feels that "He resembled a maiden withered by premature death") to statements about books, life, and the world:

    "Books speak of books."
    "A dream is a scripture."
    "Inquisitors create heretics."
    "True love wants the good of the beloved."
    "Formulating hypotheses made me nervous."
    "Madmen and children always speak the truth."
    "The devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith never seized by doubt."

    Adso, who believes that "There is nothing more wonderful than a list," lengthily lists infernal animals (manticores, vultures, octopi, incubi, etc.), rascals (cardsharps, tatterdemalions, false paralytics, pardoners, etc.), relics (lace from the Virgin Mary's wedding dress, a portion of the crown of thorns, a shred of the table cloth from the last supper, a piece of the manna that fell from heaven, etc.), and more. The lists pleasurably express William's belief that "the beauty of the cosmos derives not only from unity in variety, but also from variety in unity."

    The novel is often quite funny, as when a lovesick Adso reads various erudite texts about his condition: "How can a young monk be healed of love?"

    Sean Barrett reads the chronicle, Nicholas Rowe the preface, and Neville Jason the chapter titles and headings. All three are excellent. Barrett has the perfect voice for this kind of book, sensitive, scratchy, and flexible. He's particularly good with senile, holy, or evil old men, scary inquisitors, wise, humble, and humane men (like William), and innocent, easily inspired or crushed young men (like Adso). His Salvatore, the ex-vagabond monk who speaks the language of Babel, is inspired. The only drawbacks of the audiobook are that it lacks the useful map of the abbey provided in the physical book, and if you don't know Latin (like me) you might at times feel left out without the printed text to aid you.

    People who want to read an expeditious history or a tight mystery might mutter, "Adso, get on with the story already!" But patient readers interested in fourteenth-century Europe and the history of the Church and open to the pleasures of words, images, signs, lists, and ideas, must enjoy this book. It made me slow down to savor everything and to delay the end for as long as possible.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Memory and Dream

    • UNABRIDGED (20 hrs and 11 mins)
    • By Charles de Lint
    • Narrated By Kate Reading
    Overall
    (206)
    Performance
    (101)
    Story
    (98)

    As the young student of the cruel, brilliant artist Vincent Rushkin, Isabelle Copley discovered that she could paint images so vividly real they brought her wildest fantasies to life. Now, 20 years later, Isabelle must come to terms with the shattering memories she has long denied and unlock the slumbering power of her brush. And, in a dark reckoning with her old master, she must find the courage to live out her dreams and bring the magic back to life.

    David E. Ballard says: "If this is your first de Lint"
    "Great Concept, Neat Characters, Irritating Action"
    Overall
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    The first chapter of Charles de Lint's Memory and Dream (1994), one of his many urban fantasy works set in the big fictional city of Newford, consists of a magical description of a painting in which a woman is reading a glowing book, while around her hover or perch myriad fairy-like figures. Are they real? "Or perhaps they are shadows only, and the summer's night that lies outside her window belongs not to memory, but to dream?"

    The story itself begins with the great opening line of the second chapter: "Catharine Mulley had been dead five years and two months the morning Isabelle received the letter from her." Isabelle Copley is an artist of abstract paintings inspired by cityscapes, though she is seemingly living alone on wild Wren Island. She has much buried traumatic unfinished past business involving Cathy and their former mutual friend, the small literary local press editor Alan Grant, as well as her former Jekyll and Hyde "troll" of a genius artist teacher, Vincent Rushkin, her enigmatic Native American ex-boyfriend John Sweetgrass, and a fire that ended a lot of things. Cathy's letter, which she sent two days before her death by cancer, has arrived with a key to a locker in the Newford bus station. The letter and key, along with Alan's request for Isabelle to illustrate an omnibus collection of Cathy's urban faerie stories, set in motion a chain of events that thrust the artist into "the untidy tangle of dreams and memories." Into that story in the present of the early 1990s, de Lint suspensefully works the past story of the traumatic events in the 1970s that cut Isabelle off from Alan and Rushkin and John.

    The first two thirds of the novel caught me. The conceit of the book, that a select number of gifted artists are able to paint into our world benign or malignant "numena" (spirits) who cannot bleed or dream but are real nonetheless, is fresh, the relationships between Isabelle and Cathy, Rushkin, and John are compelling, the mystery behind the fire that changed everything is potent, the revelations stun, and the speech and actions of the characters (though often irritating) feel right. Too, the themes about student-mentor and victim-abuser relationships, love, the impossibility of knowing what another person is thinking, the presence or absence of magic in the everyday world, the nature of being real and being human, and the roles of technique, talent, inspiration, passion, and responsibility in artistic creation, are all passionately treated. Throughout, de Lint sprinkles numinous descriptions, as when Alan thinks an underdressed gamine who visits him at night was "a vivid dream, the kind that seems so real it's like a memory," as well as moments of epiphany in which suddenly everything changes and anything becomes possible: "It was as though the carpet underfoot had suddenly dropped a few inches, settling like an elevator at a new floor." There are quietly moving scenes, too, as when Alan tells Isabelle that he thought that she had modeled all her female figures in paintings on Cathy.

    Approaching and enduring the climax in the last third of the novel, however, de Lint tries too hard to generate suspense by writing too many manipulative cliffhanger point of view shifts and scene changes, even to the extent of abusing his neat numena concept, all of which decreases suspense and increases critical awareness. For in the last part of the novel his writing loses authenticity. The worst cases involve supporting characters whose points of view are excrescent, like Detective Davis, who talks like a sheriff or cop on a soon to be canceled TV show: "The only reason I'm going along with you is because I know you folks are straight shooters, but if you're dicking me around we're going to be playing twenty questions down at the precinct. Take that as a serious promise, lady." Necessary supporting characters like Marisa perform abrupt changes from irritating skepticism and weakness ("We're talking real life, not fairy tales") to unbelievable belief and strength ("Alan . . . For god's sake, go to her"). And while de Lint is excellent at getting in the heads of artist types, especially when depicting their theories and processes of creation, not to mention their non-action-hero qualities (as when Alan feebly picks up a rusty tire iron without knowing what to do with it), his main characters lose plausibility when pushed too far (nearly to absurdity), as when Alan feels "a savagery he hadn't known he possessed" or Isabelle dives at a monster. Action scenes yank de Lint out of his comfort zone, reflected by the fact that most of the bad lines and unconvincing things happen in the latter third of the novel, as when some teen gang members, sporting hoodies and spouting "homeys," make a cameo appearance rendered unnecessary by subsequent events.

    Kate Reading reads the novel with her usual flavor, clarity, and sensitivity, doing fine with female and male characters alike--apart from some uncomfortable moments as with Detective Davis and the "gangbangers."

    Be all that as it may, Memory and Dream is often rich and moving, often a heady pleasure. If you are interested in the mental and emotional and physical workings of artists and writers et al, as well as in socio-political matters like child abuse, gender, class, poverty, and charity, all mixed in a modern city in which magic lies just around the corner, this book would probably work for you.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  • The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England

    • UNABRIDGED (18 hrs and 9 mins)
    • By Marc Morris
    • Narrated By Frazer Douglas
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (54)
    Performance
    (51)
    Story
    (51)

    An upstart French duke who sets out to conquer the most powerful and unified kingdom in Christendom. An invasion force on a scale not seen since the days of the Romans. One of the bloodiest and most decisive battles ever fought.

    Jefferson says: "A Balanced, Entertaining, and Informative History"
    "A Balanced, Entertaining, and Informative History"
    Overall
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    Marc Morris' The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England (2012) is an absorbing book, demonstrating how the "new set of [Norman] attitudes and morals, which impinged on everything from warfare to politics to religion to law, . . . altered what it meant to be English." Morris begins with a concise overview of Anglo-Saxon history in England and of Norman history in Normandy up to the time of the conquest, introducing key cultural factors (including English ships, earls, and political murders, Norman castles, counts, and religious reforms, and chaotic succession conflicts in both lands) and figures (including AEthelred the Ill-Advised, King Canute, Emma, wife to both kings, Earl Godwine, Edward the Confessor, Robert Duke of Normandy, and his son William the Bastard). Morris sets up the context of William's conquest (including fraught matters like whether Edward had really named him his heir and whether Harold had really later confirmed it), then depicts the famous battle (including fraught matters like whether the Normans fled in route or in ruse, pulling the English out of their impregnable shield wall to chase them, and whether Harold was killed by a chance arrow to the eye or hacked apart by a death squad). He then covers the aftermath of the battle, when William struggled to solidify and legitimize his reign in the face of numerous rebellions and invasions, and the aftermath of the conquest, balancing the positive actions and effects of Norman rule (the end of the slave trade and political murder system and the dawn of a new age of architecture, etc.) with the negative ones (the removal of the "middle class," the Harrying of the North, and the consolidation of land in the hands of a small and powerful aristocracy, etc.). Finally, although the Anglo-Saxon tree of England fell, its deep roots never died, and the tree survived by becoming a hybrid with rising Anglo-Norman sap, as exemplified by modern English.

    Throughout, Morris is open about the many insoluble questions caused by the limited, compromised, contradictory, and biased sources (one of which is "a horrendous Frankenstein's monster of a text, stitched together from bits and pieces of other chronicles, wrenched from their original texts"). Indeed, his book is nearly as much about the writing as the making of history, for he effectively works into it his historical sources, letting us know where the old quasi-historians were coming from when they wrote their chronicles. He does interesting things with the Bayeux Tapestry, more a long embroidered picture book than a tapestry, positing a likely candidate for its commission, marveling at its miraculous survival through the centuries, demonstrating the ambiguity of its images and words, and using it to supplement information from other sources. In short, he discloses the biases and limitations of each of his sources, sets them up against one another, and explains why one version is more likely than another, or how we may usefully combine two versions to get a composite "truth," and so on, as when he concludes a "debate" with the following sharp comment: "For once, William of Poitiers appears to have given us the unvarnished truth."

    The book is never dull. Everywhere Morris conveys his enthusiasm for his material: "Against such nonsense we also have the magnificent testimony of the Bayeux Tapestry, almost certainly commissioned by Odo himself, which shows the bellicose bishop charging into battle on a black horse, rallying the Normans at the crucial moment. Whatever reservations others may have had about his behaviour, Odo clearly had no problems with the dual nature of his role."

    Morris' chapters on the post-battle era of painful adjustment, as Normans steadily replaced Anglo-Saxons in nearly all positions of power, tried to reshape English culture in their own Norman image, replaced English with Latin as the language for official documents, and officially recognized their radical redistribution of land via the Domesday Book, are fascinating. And throughout Morris sprinkles "juicy bits," information that illuminates and stimulates, like the nickname William gave his eldest son Robert (with whom he literally came to blows in internecine battles for Normandy), translated into English as "Shorty-Pants." And like William's funeral, when his body was so fat and bloated that as it was being jammed into his stone sarcophagus, his bowels burst, and "No amount of frankincense and spices could hide the resultant stench, and the clergy therefore raced through the rest of the funeral rite before rushing back to their houses." Ah, indeed, as William's biographer Orderic Vitalis put it, "death deals with rich and poor alike."

    About the reader, Frazer Douglas, I do sympathize with the reviewer who gave him two stars and said, "He has a pleasing enough voice but he reads the entire book in the same monotone sing-song." Douglas does tend to insert his own brief pauses so as to emphasize certain words, nearly making a rhythm that's not always in Morris' text: "Our [brief pause] first instinct might be to [brief pause] believe [brief pause] Poitiers." But once you get used to his manner, he's quite pleasing to listen to, and I really like his reading of quotations from Morris' old sources, because he enjoys imbuing the old historians with a dusty and biased enthusiasm, as when he reads this line from The Life of King Edward: "He lived in the squalor of the world like an angel."

    Finally, Morris' material is of such great interest and is so tightly and spicily written that I bet that most people interested in the history of England and France would enjoy his book.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • Riders of the Purple Sage: The Restored Edition

    • UNABRIDGED (12 hrs and 33 mins)
    • By Zane Grey
    • Narrated By Mark Bramhall
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (49)
    Performance
    (38)
    Story
    (36)

    In Cottonwoods, Utah, in 1871, a woman stands accused and a man is sentenced to whipping. Into this travesty of small-town justice rides the one man whom the town elders fear. His name is Lassiter, and he is a notorious gunman who's come to avenge his sister's death.

    Kristi says: "Western classic of Mormons as the Bad guys."
    "Religion, Violence, & Love in the Purple Utah Sage"
    Overall
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    Story

    It is 1871, and twenty-eight-year-old Jane Withersteen has been single-handedly managing the extensive ranch lands, massive herds of cattle and horses, and vital water supply, Amber Spring, her father left her when he died by the village he founded, Cottonwoods, the remotest Mormon border settlement in southern Utah. Due to an “invasion of Gentile settlers and forays of rustlers,” the Mormon communities have become more aggressive and “hard” towards the non-Mormons. "Mormon-born" Jane "was a friend to poor and unfortunate Gentiles" and "wished only to go on doing good and being happy" on her beloved ranch, but in the beginning of the novel Elder Tull, lusting after Jane's beautiful person and rich land and wanting to add her to his harem of wives, has his men punish Bern Venters, a young Gentile rider (cowboy) with whom she is rumored to have formed an engagement. To make Jane see Mormon reason, Tull is about to have his men whip Venters to within an inch of his life and dump him in the wastelands, when her prayer for providential intervention is answered by the timely arrival of Lassiter, the infamous, black-clad Mormon killer.

    Can Jane stand strong against the increasingly underhanded efforts of Tull and company to break her and make her obey her church's male leaders ("There'll be a way to teach you what you've never learned")? What will happen to the impossible relationship between Jane and Venters? For what dread purpose has Lassiter come to Cottonwoods? Will Jane be able to seduce his big black guns from him in her quest for peace and love for all men? Can she be true to herself and her heart without being false to her religion and her church? Why does she almost never think or talk about her father? Just what, if any, relationship obtains between the infamous cattle rustling Oldring gang and the Mormon men? And what is the identity of Oldring's lieutenant, the fell Masked Rider?

    The novel is better written than the pulp fare I expected. Grey has a good eye and ear for prose. He writes sublime descriptions of glorious sunrises and sunsets in the sage-clad prairies, an Edenic hidden valley, a terrifying storm, a suspenseful horse chase. His characters move through vivid and majestic landscapes: "The sage about him was breast-high to his horse, oversweet with its warm, fragrant breath, gray where it waved to the light, darker where the wind left it still, and beyond the wonderful haze-purple lent by distance." And he's good at laconic cowboy speech, as when Lassiter explains what happened when a Mormon tried to draw a gun on him: "I told him he'd introduced himself sufficient, and to please move out of my vicinity." Grey vividly expresses the sublimity of time via Venters' speculations in a ruined city of ancient cliff-dwellers and dramatically condemns masculine violence via Jane's realization that "Men were blood-spillers. . . . On sea, on land, everywhere--shooting, stabbing, cursing, clashing, fighting men! Greed, power, oppression, fanaticism, love, hate, revenge, justice, freedom--for these, men killed one another." He even plays interesting narrative tricks, leading right up to exciting scenes (like a stampede or a showdown) and then building suspense by having characters recount the action they witnessed rather than showing it happen real time on screen.

    For its genre and era, the novel's take on gender and race is intriguing. In the hell of the Utah border country, Jane's promotion of peace and desperate faith in her churchmen reveal her feminine "blindness," but she is, finally, a strong woman (a daughter of Vikings!). Although Bess is an unbelievably innocent girl, she is also "a supreme horseman." If Indians are not demonic villains here, it is because they are present only as 1000-year-old powdery bones and ruins and as similes describing the tracking skills of the white heroes. But although Lassiter groups Indians with children and dogs for being more able to "see things as they appear on the face" than adult whites like Jane, he also recognizes that whites "can't be any higher [than Indians] in the things for which life is lived at all…. Relationship, friendship--love."

    Grey's depiction of 19th century Mormonism is less benign. His Mormon men abuse their religious authority to tyrannize their submissive women and do such devious and devilish acts to increase the power and wealth of their church (and of themselves within it) that they make notorious rustlers seem like square-dealing men.

    The novel is not without flaws. At times Grey waxes, ahem, purple ("Slumbering, fading purple fire burned over the undulating sage ridges. Long streaks and bars and shafts and spears fringed the far western slope. Drifting, golden veils mingled with low, purple shadows. Colors and shades changed in slow, wondrous transformation) or overwrought ("Would all his labor and his love be for naught? Would he lose her, after all? What did the dark shadow around her portend? Did calamity lurk on that long upland trail through the sage? Why should his heart swell and throb with nameless fear?"), and the "prattle" of little Fay is atrocious ("Why don't oo marry my new mower an' be my favver?"). Despite being emotionally satisfying, the climactic last few chapters upon reflection contain much that is implausible. And Grey stage-manages things so that his heroes are superior gunslingers who only shoot morally reprehensible people who draw on them first.

    The reader Mark Bramhall has appealing gravel and emotion in his voice, and all his male characters are just right, but sometimes his women (Jane and Bess) sound too tremulous and sobby (though that is also what Zane Grey's text does to them), and his little Fay is appalling (though that is also what Grey's text does to her).

    Finally, Riders of the Purple Sage is absorbing, and people interested in the Western genre should try it, for it is an interesting proto-Shane, with stronger religious and romantic angles.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Last Dragon

    • UNABRIDGED (9 hrs and 32 mins)
    • By J. M. McDermott
    • Narrated By Cori Samuel
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (6)
    Performance
    (4)
    Story
    (5)

    Zhan has been sent to find her grandfather, a man accused of killing not only Zhan’s family, but every man, woman, and child in their village. What she finds is a shell of a man, and a web of deceit that will test the very foundations of a world she thought she understood. A tale of revenge that grows into something more, Last Dragon is a literary fantasy novel in the tradition of Gene Wolf and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. J. M. McDermott brings the fantasy genre to new literary heights with his first novel.

    Samuel Montgomery-Blinn says: "Instantly became one of my all-time favorites."
    "I was the emptiness between the ground & the spear"
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    J. M. McDermott's Last Dragon (2008) is told by the empress Zahn Immur as she writes letters to her absent lover Esumi in which she recounts the story of the quest on which she embarked as a "violent fool" of a girl with her shaman uncle Seth, leaving their northern tundra steppe homeland for the southern island city-state Proliux, following in the footsteps of her murderer grandfather. In some ways, the book is a typical heroic fantasy genre novel: pseudo-medieval world marked by different cultures in conflict for empires; quests featuring a varied set of companions (paladin, shaman, gypsy, mercenary, golem, simpleton, warrior); hardship and trials beyond human endurance; graphic violence; master-apprentice relationships; the maturing of a youthful protagonist; and--in a way--dragons.

    However, Last Dragon feels so much different from usual heroic fantasy fare that it almost belongs in its own genre. For one thing, it tweaks usual genre elements like golems, paladins, dragonslayers, and dragons. It also interestingly depicts real world things like spiders, ants, and language. Epic battles, if any, occur off-screen. Furthermore, the novel is dramatically, psychologically, and philosophically dense and bracingly short and self-contained (no 1000-page first installment in a ten-book series this!). It is also much better written than typical heroic fantasy: lovers of vivid, poetic, and spare prose would appreciate McDermott's style: "I was numb like a sleeping limb. I felt something vague rumbling underneath my skin. It was a harsh tingle like cold and death and bitter sex all at once. It left me in stillness. I held still and felt that emptiness echoing inside my own empty body." And the book is much more bleak, unsettling, and ambiguous than most heroic fantasy: Was the paladin a savior saint or a monstrous manipulator? Was the shaman a selfish murderer or a self-sacrificing leader? Was the mercenary a slave or a free man? Is the warrior destined for her culture's equivalent of heaven or for hell? What kind of victory involves such loss, grief, and guilt? Etc.

    Perhaps the most atypical and challenging thing about Last Dragon is McDermott's strategy of having Zahn tell the story of her painful maturing through her youthful quests in the letters to Esumi she is writing as a white-haired, terminally ill empress. Because of her old age and the tricky nature of memory, she is not always a reliable or easy narrator to follow. As she says in the first paragraph, "My fingers are like spiders drifting over memories in my webbed brain. The husks of the dead gaze up at me, and my teeth sink in and I speak their ghosts. But it's all mixed up in my head. I can't separate lines from lines, or people from people. Everything is in this web, Esumi." Her early memories mix in a non-chronological stream of consciousness Sound and Fury way, making for provocative foreshadowing of future past scenes, as well as for multiple revisitings of key events, each time with a little more detail revealed than in the previous ones. Moreover, Zahn is recounting to Esumi the forging of their empire from before she first met him and eliding shared things he'd know about, like the death of their daughter and their forced separation. In short, to appreciate McDermott's careful crafting of his novel and to understand its plot, it helps to experience the first few chapters and then to start the book again.

    One of the other neat things about Last Dragon is how the interactions between the characters on their quests reveal their different cultures and worldviews. Thus, in Almedan every creature that sings (bird, cricket, or frog) is called "bird" and there is no word for "slave," while the desert language of the mercenaries has a word for "tribe" but none for "family." Proliux people believe that you become whatever you kill, while Almedan people believe you stay the same person you always were no matter how many dead you leave behind you. Alamedans sing lullabies to babies and corpses. And McDermott writes a broken English when people try to talk to each other in foreign languages: "Hand heal, angry heal. Pride--I know not your word, but it never heal. Kill yourself your own pride, and live yourself long."

    A few times the text of Last Dragon made the grammarian in me wince, as when characters who otherwise speak good grammar say, “Lay down” or “You who does not answer.” And I wonder about names in the novel. Alamedan culture has Japanese-esque names (Esumi), real world names (Seth), and fantasy-world names (Kyquil). Proliuxian culture has names from our world like Adel, Bosch, and Tycho. And if McDermott can make up names for cool concepts like the "mardar" (wind demons) of his African-esque desert-oasis people, you would think that he could make up cool names for the Proluxian proconsuls and the Alamedan senseis, skalds, and shamans.

    Cori Samuel is a clear reader with an appealing British accent, but I sometimes found her rhythm and inflection to be a little monotonous.

    Minor kvetching aside, I found Last Dragon to be remarkable: beautiful, terrible, funny, sad, and rich. It compellingly explores themes about memory, love, longing, duty, free will, justice, power, and communication. If you like reading a book in which the narrator says something like, "Grandfather's golem listened to us silently from his place beside the flame," and you have no idea what a golem is, how it belongs to Grandfather, why he has a place by the fire, why he listens to the others, and who they are and what they are doing, and if you enjoy finding out the answers to such questions little by little by continuing to read, you should give Last Dragon a try.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  • Faceless Killers

    • UNABRIDGED (7 hrs and 57 mins)
    • By Henning Mankell
    • Narrated By Sean Barrett
    Overall
    (36)
    Performance
    (29)
    Story
    (31)

    One frozen January morning at 5am, Inspector Wallander responds to what he believes is a routine call out. When he reaches the isolated farmhouse he discovers a bloodbath. An old man has been tortured and beaten to death, his wife lies barely alive beside his shattered body, both victims of a violence beyond reason. Wallander's life is a shambles. His wife has left him, his daughter refuses to speak to him, and even his ageing father barely tolerates him.

    Jefferson says: "“What kind of world are we living in?”"
    "“What kind of world are we living in?”"
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    Faceless Killers (1991), Henning Mankell's first Kurt Wallander detective/police novel, opens with an aged Swedish farmer waking up in the middle of the night on January 7, 1990 trying to dismiss his feeling that something dreadful has just happened: “After all, what could happen here? In the little town of Lenarp, just north of Kade Lake, on the way to beautiful Krageholm Lake, right in the heart of Skane? Nothing ever happens here." He knows that "People like us don't have any enemies." Alas, as he soon learns, his neighbors have just been savagely attacked, the husband bashed and cut to death and the wife beaten and noosed. Who could do something like that? And why? And why did the attackers feed couple's horse before vacating the scene of the crime? And can veteran detective Kurt Wallander apprehend the criminals?

    At forty-two, Wallander is not in great shape. His wife left him three months ago, his once suicidal daughter is now estranged, his demanding and resentful father is going senile, he's visited by a black woman in lonely erotic dreams, he is overweight, and he is not pretty when he drinks. The only thing that gives him pleasure (albeit mixed with melancholy) is listening to opera. For the rest of the novel, Wallander wrestles with (or ignores or exacerbates) his personal problems as he marshals his policeman techniques, colleagues, and instincts to try to solve the brutal mystery.

    Mankell efficiently and compellingly fulfills the mystery-police-procedural genre requirements: brutal murders, red herrings, dead ends, epiphanies, media leaks, social problems, ineffectual government officials, unpredictable action scenes, believable supporting characters, and a flawed but good protagonist. And it feels interesting and fresh enough, perhaps partly because it takes place in Sweden, land of exotic names, bitter winters, and police who don't carry guns. Small touches in the novel hold up an interesting mirror to America, as when a policeman says about a "slaughterhouse" of a crime scene, "It was worse than you could imagine . . . Like an American movie." And through Wallander's point of view Mankell captures the dramatic and unsettling changes going on in Sweden in the 1990s: disorganized multi-ethnic refugee camps, organized nationalist neo-Nazis groups, increased drug and violent gang activity in previously quiet rural areas, and so on. At one point Wallander thinks, “A new world had emerged, and he hadn’t even noticed it. As a policeman, he still lived in another, older world. How was he going to learn to live in the new?” For "We're living in the age of the noose," a new age of senseless violence and fear.

    Despite the barren and silent Swedish autumn and winter, despite moments when Wallander does something “unforgivable and dangerous,” despite moments when he thinks, “Somewhere in the dark a vast meaninglessness was beckoning. A sneering face that laughed scornfully at every attempt he made to manage his life,” the novel is not a downer. There is the appealing grim humor. The human characters. The neat lines sprinkled throughout. (E.g., “Every time he stepped into someone’s home, he felt as though he were looking at the cover of a book he’d just bought.” And “There’s no such thing as a murderer’s face.”) And, after all, Wallander is "a policeman to the core."

    It is not a perfect novel. At one point, for instance, Wallander receives a call from a woman who whispers, “They’re here!” and he with unbelievable obtuseness says, “Who?” If the reader immediately knows "their" identity, surely Wallander, a veteran policeman with great instincts who's been living the case for months, would surely know it at the same time, if not first.

    Sean Barrett gives a professional and appealing reading of Faceless Killers. I've listened to him read Kafka on the Shore, Waiting for Godot, and The Silver Sword, and each time he's been great. I appreciate that his women sound like people, not like a man striving to sound like women. He enhances the book. I am curious, though, why the Swedish original lasts 9+ hours, the Dick Hill read version about 9 hours, and Barrett's only about 8 hours. . .

    Since the realistic contemporary detective-mystery-police-procedural is not my favorite genre, I'm unsure whether or not I'll continue the Wallander series, especially because the remaining books available are not read by Sean Barrett, but fans of that genre (especially examples set in an exotic country) should enjoy Faceless Killers.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

    • UNABRIDGED (14 hrs and 19 mins)
    • By Jack Weatherford
    • Narrated By Jonathan Davis, Jack Weatherford
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (3512)
    Performance
    (2127)
    Story
    (2147)

    The Mongol army led by Genghis Khan subjugated more lands and people in 25 years than the Romans did in 400. In nearly every country the Mongols conquered, they brought an unprecedented rise in cultural communication, expanded trade, and a blossoming of civilization.

    Peter says: "Brilliant, insightful, intriguing."
    "There is no good in anything until it is finished"
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    The cultural anthropologist Jack Weatherford's Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World (2004) is an illuminating, absorbing, and readable account of the life, empire, and legacy of the great Mongolian leader. Basing his book on The Secret History of the Mongols (a recently translated, decoded, and published long-lost account of Genghis Kahn's life, tactics, and empire written in Mongolian poetry by a Mongol close to the Kahn not long after his death), on various Persian and European historical, literary, and scientific works, and on his own expeditions in Mongolia from 1998-2003, Weatherford paints a convincing picture of the ways in which Genghis Kahn and the Mongols shaped the modern world.

    Weatherford highlights Genghis Kahn's innovations in warfare: giving men high-ranking posts according to ability not birth, adopting conquered people into the Mongol "family" as equal members rather than slaves, systematizing looting, and organizing his army by units of ten, regardless of kin, culture, or class. He covers Mongol tactics like terror propaganda ("paper was the most potent weapon in Genghis Kahn's arsenal"); quick, unexpected, attacks on multiple fronts; feigned retreats and subsequent ambushes; gunpowder projectiles and smoke bombs; diverted rivers; and exploitation of enemy divisions of class, ethnicity, or religion. Additionally, the great range and accuracy of the Mongol composite bow, the great mobility, endurance, and cohesion of their all-cavalry armies, their ability to improvise and to learn from experience, all gave them the advantage when invading civilizations that dwarfed them. "Whether measured by the total number of people defeated, the sum of the countries annexed, or by the total area occupied, Genghis Kahn conquered more than twice as much as any other man in history."

    But the most eye-opening part of the book is how Genghis Kahn and his descendents turned their "empire of conquest . . . into an even larger empire of commerce," making "culture portable," their former war routes becoming trade routes connecting cultures that hadn't even known each other existed. The Mongols encouraged the exchange of goods, ideas, knowledge, and technology by breaking down walls around cities and countries. They prevented banditry and piracy, built an extensive system of trade stations, and initiated the use of paper money, standardized currency, and passport-credit cards for merchants. Experts in making hybrids from existing technologies and cultures, the Mongols brought together Taoists, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians and diversified and spread agricultural products like tea, rice, and cotton and promoted new techniques and tools for cultivation, textiles, paper, ink, and medicine. Way before Gutenberg, they were printing with moveable type in many languages agricultural books, law books, almanacs, scriptures, poems, and histories.

    Despite the inevitable literally poisonous squabbling among Genghis Kahn's descendants and the fragmenting of the empire into four regions, each with its own ruler and culture (the Golden Horde in Russia, Moghulistan near India, the Ilkhanate in Persia and Iraq, and the Yuan Dynasty in China), the Mongol empire persisted for over a hundred years, finally falling apart, ironically enough, largely due to the rapid spread of the Black Death over their efficient trade networks. The Mongols' global culture continued growing long after their empire ended, with modern ideals like diplomatic immunity, international law, state over church, religious tolerance, and free trade. Weatherford argues that the Renaissance mostly derived from Mongol fostered innovations in things like printing, gunpowder, art, and the compass. Indeed, in the Renaissance many learned people idealized the Mongol Empire and Genghis Kahn as utopians and wrote of a "Pax Mongolica."

    According to Weatherford, that positive image changed when the Age of Enlightenment intelligentsia rewrote history to degrade the Mongols into savage destroyers of civilization rather than developers and distributers of it. Voltaire wrote about Mongol iniquity, barbarism, slavery, etc. in contrast to supposed European democracy and enlightenment, while de Buffon described them biologically as the lowest human beings. This all led to the idea that the "Mongoloid" features of retarded children resulted from earlier Mongol rapes of European women and to the Yellow Peril concept, providing a rationale for the European colonization of Asia. At the same time, Asian cultures like India and Japan began gaining inspiration from Genghis Kahn in their struggle to maintain or regain their independence and even to build a united Asian culture to balance the power of the west.

    As he relates the above history, Weatherford mentions interesting features of Mongol culture. Because they believed, for example, that the essence of the soul lay in body odor, they smelled friends and relations when greeting them and avoided smelling enemy soldiers by keeping them at a distance with arrows and spears. And they efficiently communicated battle orders in what was at first an oral culture by putting information into lines of poetry and singing them to the tunes of popular songs.

    Jonathan Davis, one of my favorite audiobook readers, is in fine fettle here, his pauses and emphases increasing historical interest and narrative suspense.

    The book closes with a moving half-hour "Epigraph" read by Weatherford in which he recounts traveling with some Mongol scholars, students, and local herders to the sacred mountain Burkhan Khaldun. This is followed by his reading the "Introduction" of the print book, oddly moved to the "Afterword" of the audiobook, in which he summarizes his findings about Genghis Kahn and explains how he found them (by teaming up with Mongol scholars, students, and local herders to retrace Genghis Kahn's formative experiences, armed with the Secret History).

    Weatherford can be given to hyperbole, as when he says that no other leader in history had such loyal generals, or to spin, as when he says that the Mongols "trod lightly on the world they conquered," but he is mostly convincing in his interpretations of history, and I enjoyed gaining a new vision of the subject. Anyone interested in empires, history, and the Mongols would find this book of great interest.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Nine Princes in Amber: The Chronicles of Amber, Book 1

    • UNABRIDGED (5 hrs and 31 mins)
    • By Roger Zelazny
    • Narrated By Alessandro Juliani
    Overall
    (1452)
    Performance
    (1302)
    Story
    (1318)

    Amber is the one real world, of which all others including our own Earth are but Shadows. Amber burns in Corwin's blood. Exiled on Shadow Earth for centuries, the prince is about to return to Amber to make a mad and desperate rush upon the throne.

    Robert says: "Great book, lame deal!"
    "I Loved Amber in High School, But Now. . ."
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    The first person narrator of Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber (1970) wakes up in a hospital without knowing who he is or how he came to be there. He does know that he's been being kept in a drugged sleep, so he feigns unconsciousness, takes out a thuggish orderly, threatens the doctor in charge, and, finally learning from him that his "sister" checked him into the hospital, heads off in a taxi for her home in NY. Thus begins his quest for identity and memory, which occupies the first half of the novel. By concealing his amnesia, acting as if he's considering his next move in some game of power, and examining every clue, he soon learns that his name is Corwin, that he is a prince of a place called Amber ("the key to everything"), and that his Machiavellian kin (eight brothers and at least four sisters) feel little kinship for each other: "I'd get what I needed and take what I wanted, and I'd remember those who helped me and step on the rest. For this, I knew, was the law by which our family lived." But how can he return to Amber, and what is the family game that stranded him memoryless on earth?

    I remembering loving the first Amber cycle when I was in high school, painfully waiting for the fifth book to be published in 1978 so I could find out how Corwin's saga ends. Revisiting Nine Princes of Amber thirty-five years later, I still find good things in it. Zelazny's conception of Amber as the only real place, the one true substance from which all other cities and worlds, including earth, are "but a reflection of a shadow," is intriguing, as is his depiction of traveling through the Shadow worlds by mentally adding and subtracting features till you arrive at Amber. He tells a page-turning story. His strategy of having Corwin reveal early on that he's telling his tale as he is about to die somehow somewhere in the future is neat. There are some nice lines, like "As I sailed into Shadow, a white bird of my desire came and sat upon my right shoulder." And as he exploits the internecine machinations of a dysfunctional super-powered family, Zelazny explores the ways in which hatred shapes the world, partly through the filter of the Vietnam War: "I walked among Shadows, and found a race of furry creatures, dark and clawed and fanged, reasonably man-like, and about as intelligent as a freshman in the high school of your choice--sorry, kids, but what I mean is they were loyal, devoted, honest, and too easily screwed by bastards like me and my brother."

    Alas, today I can also see many warts on the novel. For example, despite loving the soldiers fighting and dying for him, despite invoking the horror of napalm and mushroom clouds, despite having participated in appalling campaigns like Napoleon's march on Moscow, and despite having come to care for other lives during his centuries of exile on earth, Corwin (and Zelazny) really do treat the quarter of a million plus casualties of the Amber game as anonymous, "custom-made cannon fodder," when a truly caring prince might try first to mentally dominate his nemesis so as to avoid war via one of the nifty tarot-like cards that serve the royalty of Amber as combination telephones and teleporters. Corwin's "guilt" feels crocodilian.

    Another: Despite Amber being the only real realm, Corwin's allusions to people, events, and works from our "Shadow earth" (like "I suddenly realized that I had known the mad, sad, bad Vincent Van Gogh") so outnumber those from Amber's history that Zelazny evokes our own world more than he develops Amber. This is especially so when Corwin uses American slang and sexism from 1970. He refers to a nurse as "a hippy broad," says that he can or can't "dig" certain things, decides to "play it cool," invites a friend to "make the scene," and so on. Zelazny is grounding his fantasy with an "authentic" language and manner, but it causes some cringes.

    As for gender, early on Corwin devotes a paragraph each to describe his brothers and himself, but only a single paragraph for his sisters, and he often wonders what happened to his father but not to his mother. Only men are fit to rule Amber, and the royal sisters are basically concubines of the fittest. Corwin even gets to indulge in a Captain Kirk-like interlude with a suitably bare-breasted and green-nippled undersea queen.

    Finally, Zelazny's depiction of Corwin as a macho, sensitive warrior-bard, expert at martial and liberal arts, fluent in hip slang and Shakespearean English, possessed of superhuman strength and regenerative powers (no wonder he can chain smoke without getting cancer!), starts feeling like a nerdy adolescent's ultimate cool guy power fantasy (no wonder I loved these books in high school!). With the possible exception of Random, Corwin's siblings appear flat next to him.

    The reader Allesandro Juliani, excellent with Solaris, is good here, but his light and casual voice make Corwin seem less substantial and charismatic than he could be, and his attempts to vocally distinguish the other eight brothers from each other begin to sound strained. He also tends to make female voices too high and weak.

    Later entries in the Amber cycle may correct my kvetches, but to find out I'll dust off my high school days' Avon paperbacks rather than pay Audible for each of the four remaining five-hour novels (when a single 25-hour omnibus audiobook would have been nice).

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • H.M.S. Surprise: Aubrey-Maturin Series, Book 3

    • UNABRIDGED (15 hrs and 5 mins)
    • By Patrick O'Brian
    • Narrated By Ric Jerrom
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (18)
    Performance
    (16)
    Story
    (16)

    H.M.S. Surprise, the third in O'Brian's acclaimed Aubrey-Maturin series, follows the variable fortunes of Captain Jack Aubrey's career in Nelson's navy, as he attempts to hold his ground against admirals, colleagues, and the enemy, and accepts a commission to convey a British ambassador to the East Indies. The voyage leads him and his friend Stephen Maturin to the strange sights and smells of the Indian subcontinent, and through the archipelago of Spice Islands where the French have superiority.

    Katy says: "A well spoken story."
    "Stephen in Distress"
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    Although Patrick O'Brien's The HMS Surprise (1973) begins with the British Admiralty bureaucracy deciding that the 5 million in gold that Post-Captain Jack Aubrey captured from the Spanish will revert to the crown instead of being divided up among the naval officers and sailors involved, thereby preventing Jack from getting out of debt and marrying Sophia Williams, the third entry in Patrick O'Brien's series of historical novels set in the age of sail during the Napoleonic wars focuses most on the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of Stephen Maturin. Indeed, for much of the novel Jack's odd couple bosom buddy Stephen, the taciturn polyglot ship's surgeon, naturalist, and secret agent, is in physical and or emotional distress. Throughout, he applies his keen intelligence, humane understanding, and philosophical calm to Jack, himself, and the people around them as they cruise for thousands and thousands of miles on various missions aboard the HMS Surprise, stopping at Rio, rounding the Cape of Good Hope, refitting at Calcutta, and so on. Throughout, O'Brien effectively tells his story via multiple narrative modes: third person, Stephen's journal, Jack's letters, etc. Throughout, he manages a perfect mix of naval routine and naval action, on-shore melodrama and local color, historical politics and prejudices. The novel also has plenty of humor, as when Stephen speculates to Jack on "the burden of sex," and how if he were he to castrate all the men on their ship, "they would grow fat, placid and unaggressive; this ship would no longer be a man-of-war. . . . We should circumnavigate the terraqueus world with never a harsh word.”

    O'Brien is a master of vivid and lyrical description, whether of

    --a Hindu festival: “an approaching line of elephants, so covered with housings, paint, howdahs and tinsel that below nothing could be seen but their feet shuffling in the dust and before nothing but their gilt, silver-banded tusks and questing trunks.”

    --a surreal sea: "The whole sea was white, a vast creaming as far as eye could see. . . The whole might have been a white landscape, whose size concealed its terrifying, dreamlike speed."

    --a sunrise at sea: "The blaze of light moved down to the topsails, to the courses, shone upon the snowy deck, and it was day. Suddenly the whole of the east was day: the sun lit the sky to the zenith and for a moment the night could be seen over the starboard bow, fleeting away towards America. Mars, setting a handsbreadth above the western rim, went out abruptly; the entire bowl of the sky grew brilliant and the dark sea returned to its daily blue, deep blue."

    --an evening at sea: "he remained throughout the frigate's evening activities, leaning on the bowsprit and watching the cut water sheer through mile after mile of ocean, parting it with a sound like tearing silk, so that it streamed away in even curves along the Surprise's side, to join her wake, now eight thousand miles in length."

    --a calm sea: “The ship was a world self-contained, swimming between two perpetually-renewed horizons. . . both past and future blur, dwindling almost into insignificance."

    --a ferocious battle: "The Surprise slowed, lost her way, and lay shrouded in her own smoke right athwart the Marengo's bows, hammering her as fast as ever the guns could fire. The third broadside merged into the fourth: the firing was continuous now, and Stourton and the midshipmen ran up and down the line, pointing, heaving, translating their captain's hoarse barks into directed fire--a tempest of chain."

    --an island mathematically observed: "The boat pulled through a gap in the coral reef to a strand with mangroves on the left and a palm-capped headland to the right; a strand upon which Jack had set up his instruments and where he and his officers were gazing at the pale moon, with Venus clear above her, like a band of noon-day necromancers."

    Such passages give an immersive pleasure.

    And the reading by Ric Jerrom increases that feeling ten-fold. I can't imagine listening to an O'Brien novel read by anyone else. Jerrom has become for me Stephen (with his slight Irish accent and philosophical wit) and Jack (with his bluff, hearty, "plenitude of being" voice), and anyone else associated with them like Sophia Williams (no simpering or nasal falsettos from Jerom for O'Brien's women, thank you!).

    I suspect that O'Brien's twenty books about Jack and Stephen form a single giant composite novel. He writes The HMS Surprise so as to bring new readers up to speed on Jack and Stephen's personalities, backgrounds, careers, and relationships without boring veteran readers, and moves the overarching multi-volume story forward via plenty of new developments and locales, including some sudden suspenseful and vivid scenes of naval combat. People interested in literate, philosophical, and authentic age of sail sea stories (with plenty of Jane Austen-esque manners and melodrama) should try O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin books, but should probably begin with the first, Master and Commander (1968) and then proceed forward if caught.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful

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