As expected from Stuart Neville, this is a good, solidly crafted story that quickly captures the imagination with a morally complex mystery set in 1963 Ireland. The title "Ratlines" refers to a system of escape routes through Europe utilized by Nazis after the end of WWII. Having never heard the term before, I was surprised when a quick internet search revealed that the novel's villain, Otto Skorzeny, was not only a real historical figure, but the very Nazi who masterminded the "Odessa File" underground railroad for fleeing fascists. As Neville expertly builds a multi-layered foundation for his story, much is explained about Ireland's role in WWII. A large portion of the Irish population seemed to believe the old chestnut, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Unfortunately, Ireland's neutrality and some citizen's quiet support of Hitler's war with Britain brought the country to the slippery slope that is the background of "Ratlines."
Some reviewers have taken exception to Alan Smyth's narration of this book. While I see that Neville's previous titles are in my Audible library, I must not be as passionate about their narrator, the truly excellent Gerard Doyle. I thought Smyth's Irish accent pleasant and understated. A testament to Smyth's versatility is his ability to handle the narrative cocktail of several different European accents (so many old Nazis popping up!) with a South African and American chaser. He disappeared into the story and that's my definition of great narration.
Finally, I feel compelled to tell you that several scenes in this book are quite graphic in their description of torturous interrogation. I mean quite graphic. I mean, I pulled my earphones out for awhile, then listened again for a sec, then pulled them out for another while. To the author's credit, the scenes are so chillingly real, the dread experienced by the characters was easily grasped, giving further understanding of how fear drove their actions - and inactions.
I've heard this book called "Dickensian" and even "a modern day Great Expectations." While I can see where readers might draw parallels to Dickens and his books, I see more Harry Potter than persevering Pip in the novel's protagonist, Theo Decker.
The Goldfinch chronicles the odyssey of recently traumatized (and miraculously spared) Theo as he picks up the pieces of his (literally) blown up life to - not so much rebuild his life but elude the police and other grown ups who want to control his destiny. Theo inexplicably steals a rare painting, The Goldfinch, at the behest of a dying stranger. His motivation to do this is perplexing so it is at this point that I part company with the 'Tartt as Dickens' camp. While Tartt does create an absorbing world full of odd-ball characters, cruel twists of fate, and coincidental happenings that would lend themselves well to Dickensian serialization, the novel seems aimless at times. The circumstances keep coming but do little to alter the bleak landscape Theo inhabits, or do much to change Theo himself. As I recall, Dickens wrote around a moral center; a true north that would shine through the darkest of human depravity and social decay. I'm not referring to Horatio Alger-like simplicity that ensures gift-wrapped happy endings. I'm talking about morally complex stories where rare flashes of kindness or humanity enable characters to conquer (or at least grow through) the struggles in and around themselves. Frequently, Tartt's dilemmas seem to stifle growth and bog down the pace of the story. For instance, there is so much detailed drug use - and to what purpose? We get it. Theo and his sidekick Boris took lots of drugs. Of many kinds. And they drank. Lots of different booze.
On the bright side, learning about the world of art and antique dealing was fascinating. Many characters were quirky and enjoyable.There was a benevolent, if rather distracted, guardian of sorts whose manners and kindness were a welcome respite from all Theo's misfortune. Another thing the author did particularly well was capture adult Theo's disorientation upon returning to the New York of his childhood. For all my criticism, I have to say, Tartt writes well and kept me listening for almost 30 of the 32 hours of the book. I listened to the end, just skipped ahead at times in order to get on with things.
I do agree that choosing a lesser known narrator like David Pittu for such a highly anticipated novel was a risk. But for the most part, Pittu is more than up for the challenge. His Ukranian Boris was especially good.
Finally, it was great to learn that 'The Goldfinch' is a real painting by Carel Fabritius. It's available to see with a quick Google search. After viewing the picture, even via computer screen, I understood how its simplicity and poignancy inspired Tartt to use this particular masterpiece as the touchstone of her story. Painted in a muted, golden palette, Fabritius' bird gazes out with beauty, intelligence, and dignity - despite being constrained to its perch. The real story is here, in the goldfinch picture itself. I'd have liked the author to say more about art and our responsibility as its caretakers. Long after we are gone, this little bird will continue to delight and inspire generations to come. Artistic masterpieces are greater than the sum of their parts of pigment, canvas, and artistic intent. A great work of art elevates our thoughts and ennobles our spirit to embrace what's best in humanity; and anything that does that is worth preserving forever.
You know those books where immediately after you finish it, you think, "I hope this is the beginning of a series!" Yeah, me neither. Except I felt that way about "Slow Horses." Dismissing it for months because of the title (horses = wild west = yawn) After a spate of unwise, underwhelming book choices, I finally read this novel's description and gave it a try. Well, as they say, 'even a blind pig finds a truffle every once in awhile,' and I found a treasure in "Slow Horses." The title is a wordplay and the pejorative term used to describe those British intelligence officers who have somehow messed up just enough to take themselves off the MI5 fast track but not quite enough to get fired. In author Mick Herron's words, (Slough House) "serves as an administrative oubliette where alongside a pre-digital overflow of paperwork, a post-useful crew of misfits may be stored and left to gather dust."
You can see the vein of gold waiting to be mined right there: the back story of each disgraced officer, what they reveal to each other, how they accept their lot, the painful interactions with MI5 high flyers when their duties involve an errand to Regent's Park. Add to that the kidnapping of a British national with foreign roots and we're off and running for an enthralling ride of intrigue. It is tempting to agree with the other excellent reviews describing this book as full of 'twists and turns.' But in an effort to say something new, I'll describe it as a book with ongoing revelations that cause the reader to think, "Oh, so that means...." As the story progresses, details about each character emerge and they are always smart and they always make sense. The head of Slough House, Jackson Lamb, is an acerbic, vulgar "anti-Smiley" who lives less in his head than George Smiley does, but is just as old school in his fierce loyalty to those agents entrusted to him.
Narrator Sean Barrett delivers the story well and without distraction."Slow Horses" contains portions of intense dialog so being able to differentiate the speakers is crucial and Barrett does this well.
Back to the series idea. I'm picky and have probably shot myself in the foot by avoiding some great reads just because I've seen them in airport bookstores. I'm not proud of my literary pretensions, but I believe they have protected me from excessive eye rolling and exasperation over the years. I'll immediately pounce on a Dalgliesh mystery from P.D. James, a Wexford novel from Rendell, and an Inspector Gamache from Penny. Other series? Wary as a cat. However, a book like "Slow Horses" leaves me hungry to read more novels involving this great cast of characters. So, Mr. Herron, it's been decided: a series it shall be. Write on.
As I began listening to "Lexicon," I couldn't help but draw parallels to "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins. In both books, the protagonist is a disadvantaged teenage girl using her smarts to beat the elite who control the masses in a near future dystopian society. I enjoyed "The Hunger Games" a lot. I enjoyed "Lexicon" almost as much.
The difference is, Lexicon kept me hankering after details and information that would explain exactly where these characters came from and how they tick. Author Max Barry knows how to tell a story - and crafting a tight, exciting plot is clearly his strength. I wonder if he's written screen plays because that's the flavor of this book every once in awhile. And yet I have to concede, Max Barry is a talented wordsmith, so why not use some of those words to explain some "whys" in addition to the "whats" and "whens?" Maybe clue us in on how the characters became who they are before they hit the ground running for the thrill ride of "Lexicon." The characters seemed almost incidental to the story, if that makes any sense. The author's amazingly creative idea of a world where words are weapons and transparency is weakness, intrigued me. However, in his excitement to show the reader all the cool stuff that happens in this world, characterization suffers. Barry glosses over details that would give the story more poignancy and heart. The biggest explosion or gun battle ends up sort of "meh" for me if I'm not significantly invested in the person in peril.
All in all, I liked "Lexicon." The ideas and themes of the novel are worth pondering. The warning bell sounded in response to our society's propensity for sharing information way too easily (but wait a sec! I got 10% off at Macy's just for signing up for their emails!) is ample food for thought. It's just that in the real world, providing personal information for your novel's protagonist elevates the book from "good" to "great."
...and came up with this story as a lark one gin-fueled summer night. This novel seems to have all the right ingredients for a transporting beach read: clever characters in moneyed summer community including eccentric neighbors and famousy parents, mysterious happenings to be explained later, references to 1972 current events, etc. Unfortunately, my imagination couldn't find a comfortable place to settle in and enjoy the story. From the beginning, this book made me restless, or like I had a pebble in my shoe.
As I began to listen, I thought, "This novel is like 'The Lovely Bones' meets 'Seating Arrangements!'" After meeting more characters, notably, the plucky 12 year old protagonist named Riddle, I said, "No, it's an east coast 'To Kill A Mockingbird' with a super sinister Boo Radley!" When Riddle witnesses a crime and becomes completely unable to say a peep to these sophisticated, caustic parents with whom she seems to have a fairly good relationship, I became exasperated and called it. I need to be done. From what the author tells us of Riddle, she would have spoken up; even if her parents were self absorbed and preoccupied. That's where R.L. Stine comes in. I haven't read his children's "Goosebumps" series, but I have heard him called "Stephen King for Children" and that's the flavor of this book. Without Stephen King's compulsive readability. Poor Riddle is left to solve her own problems in a world where adults are shadowy presences with influences ranging from benign to malign.
I was four hours in before I gave up so please forgive me if this turns out to be an incredibly amazing story for those willing to invest the full thirteen hours. I have absolutely been wrong about books before but I'm willing to risk losing out and am returning this title. Still in the mood for some windswept summer house drama, I think I'll reread "Fortune's Rocks" or "Sea Glass" by Anita Shreve. Then a little Updike. Summer's too short to waste time on things so underwhelming.
In order to accurately reflect the current state of global affairs, this is the novel Le Carre had to write. We live in a postmodern world where the word 'truth' itself must be deconstructed into 'my truth' or 'according to the Judeo-Christian tradition' in order to be clear as to exactly what's being discussed. Postmodernism is here to stay and with it, the moral confusion that has brought western foreign policy (almost) grinding to a halt. Le Carre doesn't flinch from this reality and he's crafted an enthralling tale that 'shows rather than tells' what happens when moral ambiguity creeps in to mess with everything we thought was right or wrong. It's not a comfortable tale and that's the point. One can't help but wonder if Le Carre misses Smiley's Circus and the simplicity of the Cold War as much as we do.There are no simple answers anymore. And yet, Smiley's legacy is seen in the courage and conscience shown by the novel's protagonists as they fight to expose and redeem evil within the system. The fact that they are fighting at all gives hope that corruption, once exposed, will ignite public passion for transparency and restraint. After finishing "A Delicate Truth" I'm not sure if Le Carre believes redemption is possible. But one thing is obvious, he does exhort those confronted with what their conscience knows is evil, to strengthen their resolve and go down swinging.
With apologies to Shakespeare, "some men are born sad and some men have sadness thrust upon them." Bob Burgess is one of the latter. Years ago, a freak car accident with toddler Bob in the front seat claimed the life of Bob's father. Modern psychology sometimes distinguishes guilt from shame this way: Guilt says, "What I did was bad " and Shame says "Who I am is bad." Bob could be the poster child for what happens when blame hardens into shame which results in a life that never really gets off the ground. Nevertheless, it is Bob who is the heart and soul of "The Burgess Boys." He lives his blighted life with humility, intelligence, and humor while struggling to keep his old personal demons from affecting his current relationships. Big brother Jim is a successful go getter who works hard, plays hard, and when he wants your opinion, he'll give it to you. Jim Burgess has achieved worldly success but is not the guy you trust to have your back. Just when you mentally roll your eyes convinced the author's description of Jim is veering into an obnoxious caricature, the origins of his larger-than-life personality begin to emerge. Jim begins to make sense, and this adds to our understanding of his siblings as well. Layers are peeled away as each character responds to unexpected events, and each other.
I found this book captivating and extremely well written. The story describes what happens to the Burgess family when an impulsive, foolish act becomes a catalyst for life changes and truth telling. The characters are fantastic - very human in the best sense of the word: life bats them about, but they find enough courage and tenacity to rise above worn grooves of resignation. Even if the players in the story aren't the most likable at times, they each are worth getting to know. Strout's plot is compelling and raises complex moral questions that have no easy answers. I'm still pondering some points a day after finishing the book. Finally, narrator Cassandra Campbell is perfection. She narrates "The Burgess Boys" with warmth, intelligence and a wicked Maine accent. Ayuh.
If you've ever seen a self you barely recognize reflected back in the eyes of another, you know the agonizing frustration consuming protagonist Rank as "The Antagonist" begins. Frustration deepens into anger as Rank ruminates on the injustice of how a former friend turned novelist Adam has "stolen" his life for a recent book. Luckily for the reader, when Rank is angry, Rank is very sarcastic, very caustic, and very funny.
The story unfolds in a series of emails to his old college buddy, Adam. After reading Adam's book, Rank is determined to set the record straight. Adam's treatment of Rank's past and person is both intrusive and reductive. How can some events loom so large in Adam's "novel" while the thing that rocked Rank's world is dismissed with one sentence? The answers come but not without raising more questions - and this keeps the reader hooked into the tale until the very last word.
Narrator MacLeod Andrews was great - perfectly pacing Rank's smart, articulate rants while giving poignant moments the respect and emotion they deserved. The story is set in eastern Canada so there are some speech patterns and inflections to contend with and Andrews does this well.
I devoured this book IN ONE DAY. I know. But I just kept finding projects to do that enabled me to keep listening. It was that good. Author Lynn Coady has done a masterful job addressing the many components of identity while telling a deceptively simple but riveting story.
"City of Women" is just fine for what it is: a star crossed love story taking place in WWII Germany. Unfortunately, the story lacks many valuable details that would anchor the tale in this time period. Your satisfaction with the story will probably vary according to your expectations. Rereading the books description now, I see the fault lies in me. I will say that narrator Suzanne Bertish is excellent. Her German accent light and pleasant - her intonation catching the rhythms of German speech perfectly.
I bought "City of Women" out of curiosity about the experience of German wives and mothers caring for their families during WWII. Though brought up in a second generation German immigrant family, the war was never discussed. Nor was there any sort of permission to ask questions. No one told me not to, I just got the message loud and clear that WWII was off limits. And yet I've always wondered: what did the average German know about the government's activities? What did they do with what they did know? Did parents send their children off to safer homes in the countryside as did their London counterparts? How did the disappearance of a huge chunks of the population (German men into the army and Jewish everyone to other countries or concentration camps) affect life and morale? There has been much written about wartime Britain but very little about domestic life in wartime Berlin. Unfortunately, other than a cursory mention of ration books and a few trips to a bomb shelter, this novel could take place in almost any historical period where circumstances (pick one or more: war, family disapproval, ethnic hatred, class difference) amps up the drama between two lovers cheating on their spouses.
It begins fairly promisingly and with an air of mystery. Why is protagonist Sigrid Shroeder, married to a German soldier fighting on the Eastern Front, so restless and lonely? One would expect her to be anxious about her husband's welfare, afraid for her friends and neighbors after nightly bombing raids. We quickly learn much of her alienated sad behavior is actually Sigrid mooning about for her vanished married Jewish lover. See (in case you miss the metaphor) her German soldier husband is not only distant physically, but also emotionally, you guys. Sigrid is what my daughters would call a 'guy's girl' not a 'girl's girl.' She's so beautiful and never really connects with the "city of women" left to tend the home fires during the war. Most readers will quickly recognize this novel's supporting cast of characters: impossibly mean mother-in-law, suspicious landlady, foolishly brave sidekick; you can fill in the rest.
There are some acts of heroism and personal risk in the story. However, in previous reading (like the excellent Bonhoeffer biography I devoured earlier this year) I've learned that most actual acts of heroism during this time period seemed to be fueled by moral courage or a philosophical mandate that left the hero no alternative but to confront evil head on. Sigrid's motives are largely unexplored, therefore unconvincing. Is she helping Jews out of guilt for sleeping with a married Jewish man? Is she trying to get out of the house more? It's all sort of vague. Plus, from what we learn of her lover, there isn't much to inspire such slavish romantic obsession. Although she does describe a certain part of his anatomy as "noble" which could be just as easily "novel" since I'm assuming her previous lovers were uncircumcised.
Enough. Sorry. I will end by saying that my experience echoed the much more concise review of "City of Women" written by Katherine of Ontario. For a compelling look at life under German occupation, I recommend "Anne Frank Remembered" by Miep Gies. Ms. Gies was an employee of Jewish business owner Otto Frank who hid the Franks (and many others) in occupied Holland for over 2 years. She fed them by going to several different shops a day, never carrying more than one shopping bag at a time to avoid suspicion. I doubt she had a Jewish lover, but I found reading about her life so deeply inspiring, I didn't miss it at all.
Sweet Tooth is a compelling, intriguing listen that grabs hold immediately; from first sentence to last satisfying twist. Like McEwan's excellent book "Atonement," the author's pitch perfect prose unveils a multi-layered story that explores universal human themes of secrecy, loyalty, betrayal and identity.
Set in 1970s London, "rather gorgeous" recent Cambridge grad Serena Frome tells her story with some self awareness and a wry sense of humor. She describes her teen-age self as "the first person to truly understand Orwell's 1984." Recovering from an abrupt break-up, Serena throws herself into a low level job with MI-5. Disenchanted with the mundane nature of the work, Serena quickly agrees to participate in a covert cultural program that funds young writers in an effort to win the "war of ideas" taking place in Cold War Europe. Of course the romantically vulnerable Serena falls for her target, author T.C. Healy, but luckily the ensuing story isn't formulaic or predictable.
As a slavish admirer of LeCarre (well, truth be told my passionate secret affair is really with George Smiley) I reveled in the scenes set at MI-5 headquarters. McEwan's MI-5 was so evocative of "The Circus" that I almost expected Connie Sachs to lumber around the corner, god bless her. Some of the darkness in the story reminded me of John Fowles, as did the novel's unconventional structure. Interesting cameos by real life literati added fun and rang true: Martin Amis buys dejected author Healy a whisky, and Ian Hamilton offers words of wisdom to an agitated Serena.
Experienced actress Juliet Stevenson does a stellar job narrating. I especially enjoyed the way she voiced an American ex-CIA agent. Cringe worthy only because I have a feeling we really do sound like that to the world. She was dead on and a treat to hear.
Finally, the idea of "a contract between a book's author and its reader" is explored in various interesting ways. Afraid of being manipulated or feeling tricked, I steeled myself for disappointing ending. Thankfully, this book's author seems to truly like and respect his reader. Apart from an almost (just a teensy bit) Poirot-like explanatory soliloquy, McEwan keeps his end of the bargain and then some. "Sweet Tooth" is wonderfully thought provoking; the kind of novel you just want to mull over for awhile before beginning anything else.
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