I like to read a book that's fun, but I also like it to have literary merit. The combination is not so easy to find. Captain Alatriste is a romp set in 17th Century Spain, the height of Spain's golden age, that is a fun story to read, but is also satisfying from a literary perspective. It is very well researched, but is not what I would call an historical novel. Although mention is made of some well-know personages such as Velazquez and King Philip IV of Spain, they play only a peripheral role in the plot, the main participants of which are purely fictional, as is the story itself. The protagonist, Captain Alatriste, is a swordsman, a hired gun with principles of a sort, that is when he's not killing someone, who is interesting enough that I wanted him not only to survive (not a problem since without him the series ends), but also to resolve the tension between his ideals and chosen line of work. To me, one of the greatest virtues of the book is its sense of time and place; I felt part of the scene. Also, although this might not sound like an endorsement, I liked the fact that the book was only six hours long. It was beautifully read. Since this is the first book in the series, I eagerly look forward to reading the rest, which are already published. Until I do so, I'm going to read a little about Spanish history of the period, which I haven't approached since college. Finally, one suggestion: I found the long Spanish names difficult to assimilate (e.g., Alvaro Luis Gonzaga de la Marca y Alvarez de Sidonia), so I copied a list of characters from Wikipedia and kept it by my side while I listened to the audio.
"The Frozen Deep" is a slight tale by the very excellent 19th century English writer, Wilkie Collins, whose most famous book is "The Moonstone." Collins first wrote this story as a stage play, but when it failed, he rewrote it as a book. It is a quick read, which has the potential to relax, and will most certainly not tax the reader. It's a Victorian romance with a sea adventure thrown in, and one of the characters has some contact with the paranormal. A good book to read quickly while you're looking around for something more substantial.
"Room" is written in the first person, the protagonist being a five-year old boy, Jack. The narrator did as good a job as could be expected, but it was annoying and put-offish to listen to the simulated voice of a young child for 10 hours. I think that "Room" would have been better experienced if I had read it, where my inner voice and imagination could have spoken to me.
Still, "Room" is a literary achievement, although I, for one, would not have placed it on the New York Times' list of the 10 best books of 2010. I admired the author for so cannily taking on the voice of a 5-year old for her protagonist. I doubt many could have pulled this off so successfully. The plot was exciting and suspenseful, but not quite a page-turner. But, at the end, I felt curiously unsatisfied, and I failed to find the meaning in the book that so many others have found. I was left with a good, if not compelling, book, an admirable exercise in creative writing, but one that had little meaning for me that transcended the obvious elements of the plot.
I didn’t read “The Confession,” I lived it. It grabbed me on the first page and never let me go. John Grisham is a superb story teller and in this gripping tale of the death penalty, he exceeds the drama of his previous excellent novels. Although the author has an anti-death penalty perspective, he does not preach to his readers, who are left to form their own judgments. Above all, this is an exciting book to read, peopled with believable and interesting characters, a plot which does not depend on a suspension of belief, and legal intricacies which are all too possible. This audio edition is beautifully done and added a great deal to my enjoyment of the book. The story line and characters are easy to follow aurally
If anyone thinks that history is dull, read “In the Heart of the Sea” by Nathaniel Philbrick. This historian has the gift of relating an historic event as if it were a fictional adventure tale. Of course, the event which is the subject of this book, the last voyage of the whale ship Essex, which left Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 1819 on a planned three-year journey to hunt whales in the Pacific Ocean, is an incredible adventure, replete with an angry whale which rams the Essex and sinks it, the journey of the 20 crew members in three small boats, the amazing rescue of some of them, the cannibalism of the survivors who drew lots to select crew members to execute and then eat. Herman Melville used the true story of the sinking of the Essex by an angry 80’ sperm whale, as his inspiration for Moby Dick. Along the way, Philbrick provides fascinating details of early 19th century whaling and life in Nantucket. This book was both exciting and informative.
Vince Flynn’s new best seller, “American Assassin,” is a very poor book. Its cloying narration, while competent, didn’t help matters. The first 25% of the book is an unbelievable and stupid description of efforts to train CIA agents. It is, frankly, dispiriting that any author would think his or her readers so gullible as to believe that what is described here could actually exist, or be successful. It takes navy seals training to a new level and introduces Stan Hurley, the lead CIA trainer, who behaves so stupidly that he could not exist in any organization for more than a few hours. His relationship to other characters in the CIA is juvenile. After the story moves to the Middle East and Europe, the plot does pick up, but it’s so routine and hackneyed, that it’s only mildly interesting. The main event of the novel, the breaking into of a computer network, probably an impossibility, is never explained; the author just mentions that the CIA was able to do it. Contrast this with the meticulous and exciting detailing of a similar intelligence operation in “The Rembrandt Affair” by Daniel Silva. Details are not important to Flynn as, at one point, he places Beirut on the ocean. His cartoonish characters would probably not know the difference. I don’t know if I was more annoyed at the author for writing this mediocrity, or at my fellow reviewers who raved about the book, or at myself for actually reading the entire book. We’re all losers as far as I’m concerned.
I thought that "The Help" would be "chick lit," but I was encouraged to read it by several friends whom I trust. This book has everything: bathos, pathos, humor, plot tension and forward movement, social history, excitement, charm, warmth, and so on. It is compelling reading. The reading by several voices was simply excellent and I can't think of an audio book experience that I've had that was better than this. I'm tempted to say that, because of the narration, it was better listening than it would hae been reading. This will be a hard one to beat.
One reason that I like historical fiction is that it gives me an opportunity to learn about history in an entertaining way. “The Religion: A Novel” by Tim Willocks satisfies both: it is an entertaining and adventuresome tale, and it centers on a heretofore unknown to me important event, the siege of Malta in 1565 by the Ottomans. Willocks paints an horrific picture of how gruesome 16th century warfare was, and his fictional characters, although scarcely believable, were within the bounds of this type of fiction which requires larger than life heroes and villains. Willock’s history-based characters play the same roles in the story that they played in history, as far as I could tell from the historical reading on Wikipedia I did along with reading the novel. The strong points of his novel are the relentless action and forward movement of the plot, and the historical setting in the siege of Malta. But, there are some weak points. The book, at 688 pages and 25 1/2 hours, is overly long and could use some serious editing. While each battle is well-described, the overall war strategy of the opposing Christian and Muslim sides is never quite explained. In a similar vein, the author fails to place the battle in its important larger European context. The narration is excellent and adds a great deal to the enjoyment of this audio book. All in all, this is much better than average historical fiction, but it’s not great.
The main requirement for reading The Rembrandt Affair, by Daniel Silva, is not to think too much. It is filled with always beautiful women, always smart and tough men, characters who are savagely beaten only to magically arise and walk away in tact, a villain with an operational support system which would be the envy of any government, government bureaucracies which make decisions quickly and act decisively, and electronic devices that work flawlessly the first time. No glitches permitted. Yet, The Rembrandt Affair is about as good as this international intrigue genre gets. It’s exciting, forward moving, engrossing, and thoroughly entertaining. How does Daniel Silva get the reader to suspend belief? First, he involves the reader in the personality of the protagonist, Gabriel Allon, the reluctant Israeli intelligence operative with multiple talents, a complex person with an admirable core set of values, whose personality has been developed over several books in this series. Add to this, a love affair or two, interesting interpersonal relations between members of various intelligence agencies, and the reader is quickly involved in Allon’s world of intrigue, rooting for him all the way. Another Silva attribute is meticulous and fascinating research so that the book sounds historically grounded and familiar to any reader of the daily newspaper. It has the feel of authenticity. Finally, the plot is so fast moving that the reader has no time nor need to ponder any of its details. Nor does Silva stop along the way to explain motivations, internal musings or conflict resolutions. Any need to understand is provided by the action itself. Any existential angst, which is sometimes hinted at, is tossed aside by the relentless pursuit of evil by the good guys. This is the third book in the Gabriel Allon series that I’ve read, and it is the best. Although the plot neatly resolves itself, the main characters are still very much alive at the end. I'll read the sequel.
All of the Pulitzer Prizes in the world (yes, this book won in 1994) can’t save “The Shipping News” from terminal boredom. Proulx belongs to a segment of the modern school which deemphasizes plot, which might work if the characters and their inner thoughts were fascinating. But this essentially plotless novel is populated by some very dull individuals. It’s one thing to write well, which Proulx does, but it’s another thing to have something to write about. If your want to read a book which celebrates ordinariness, this slight tale might be for you, but don’t be surprised if you, too, end up as bored as I was.
After listening to this book for more than an hour, I was confused with the multitude of charcters and their relationships to each other in the military chain of command. Likewise, I was confused about the geography of what was happening in the battle than forms the nexus of the story. In the print edition, there is a list of characters and the chain of command. Also, there are two small maps depicting the battles. In my opinion, both are essential in reading this book. Although at the beginning of the audio book, the reader does read the list of characters, this is insufficient because you need to refer to it as the action progresses. It would be so simple for the publisher to make the list of characters and the two maps available as PDF documents to those who purchase the audio book, but, apparently, this is never done.
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