I think the world of Michael Drout, and so I was primed to enjoy yet another terrific and insightful work from him. Unfortunately, this series of lectures seems rushed and poorly planned. (In addition, unlike all other Modern Scholar lectures I've purchased, this one did not come with a PDF document containing outlines and bibliographies for the talks.) If you're not familiar with this work, I recommend reading his scholarship or listening to some of his other lecture series.
Drout sets up two very useful ways to think about Tolkien's Middle-earth writings and their relationship to the classic Western literature that inspired and informed them; one is the metaphor of the tower and the ruins, and the other is the concept of "fighting the long defeat." Both are most helpful, and Drout is at his best when he teases out how Tolkien the philologist and Tolkien the medievalist mined the sources he studied to sub-create a new world of his own. Alas, the lectures soon stray from these organizing themes as he considers The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion in turn. That's not to say there aren't gems of information embedded in the lectures - you might say that Drout proves that not all who wander are lost (!!!) - especially with regard to how Tolkien employed framing narratives and the idea of "the compiler." I'm also particularly sympathetic to Drout's well-aimed critiques of the limits of postmodern literary criticism and the disaster of contemporary intellectual property rights and copyright law.
The lectures seem rushed though, as does Drout himself. (His hasty asides sometimes veer into insupportable generalizations of the "X had never happened before" or "only Tolkien did Y" variety, several of which could be contradicted quite easily, or genuine errors; for example, when he's "on script," he identifies Éowyn as Théoden's niece, but when he makes an offhand comment, he calls her Théoden's daughter.) I wish that, since he makes the effort to discuss "Leaf by Niggle," he'd also addressed the related "On Fairy-Stories," which speaks to many of Drout's larger points. I also wish, given his perspective on Christopher Tolkien's efforts in restoring/presenting his father's unpublished works in The Silmarillion and The Unfinished Tales, Drout had addressed the larger History of Middle-Earth volumes, as well.
The final lecture is by far the most frustrating. Unfortunately, when Drout chooses to address Middle-Earth inspired participatory culture, two of the three examples he uses (Peter Jackson's films and the Lord of the Rings role-playing game) are licensed "products," if you will, not fan creations. Even then, his points are disconnected. He fails, for instance, to link the post-Jackson influx of women into Tolkien fandom (which he mentions without explanation) with the explosion of fan fiction, fan art, and costuming activities. His treatment of the films and the role-playing game also comes across as only partially reasoned; he criticizes the films for removing readers' opportunity to imagine Middle-earth actively for themselves, and yet praises the game designers for bringing Middle-earth to stunning visual life for gaming participants.
When he discusses his personal experience with The Long-Expected Party, he does not put the event into its global context of fan-created and fan-run Tolkien conventions and gatherings, a point well worth noting (and supportive of his larger argument). Most disappointing of all, he completely ignores major ingredients in Tolkien-related participatory culture, such as the immense and decades-long phenomenon of Tolkien-based world music, from U.S. country/western music based on The Hobbit and Argentinian folk music based on The Lord of the Rings to German death metal based on The Silmarillion. This is such a widespread and long-lived phenomenon, it begs for mention in any treatment of readers' desire to enter Middle-earth. In the end, listeners would have been better served if the final lecture had been dedicated to expanding Drout's earlier textual analyses.
I got a great deal out of these lectures, as I knew I would, but I don't recommend this as a starting place for exploring Drout's impressive scholarship and insights.
This was a thoroughly satisfying sequel to The Cuckoo's Calling, and I'm looking forward to more in this series. As with the first novel, J.K. Rowling (as Robert Galbraith) gives readers a new perspective on a world she knows well: in this case, the publishing industry. When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in Cormoran Strike to track him down and send him home. Of course, all is not as it seems, and ultimately Strike must investigate Quine's gruesome, grisly murder -- which Quine himself apparently described in detail in his latest unpublished manuscript, a text which also cruelly attacks almost everyone he knows (and thus offers many motives for murder). The mystery itself is expertly constructed, well paced, and clever.
Cormoran Strike and his assistant Robin both grow as individuals and a team. One mystery from the first novel is solved -- that is, what Strike's ex-fiancee Charlotte did that was truly unforgivable enough to break up their sixteen-year on-and-off-again relationship -- while another is introduced regarding Robin's personal history. Both characters remain compellingly three-dimensional. Strike's defense of Mrs. Quine and both characters' interactions with the Quines' developmentally disabled daughter Orlando remind readers why these flawed individuals are nonetheless the "heroes" of the tale. Cormoran's younger half-brother Al also puts Strike in a new perspective, and I hope we'll see more of him. London is very much a character in its own right, as well, and Rowling paints its portrait in beautiful detail.
This novel has none of the symptoms of second-book symptom. Rowling knows how to draw characters, plot mysteries, and evoke settings, and all three talents are well displayed here.
This is the third audiobook I've listened to narrated by Robert Glenister, and he continues to blow me away with his pitch-perfect readings. He is perfection.
Craig Johnson manages to do something different with every new addition to his Walt Longmire series, and in the case of Hell is Empty, he's created one of his most memorable and meaningful novels yet. The majority of the novel follows Walt's one-man hunt for the convicted and escaped murderer Raynaud Shade in the icy hell of the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area at 13,000-foot elevation during a winter blizzard. This cat-and-mouse pursuit unfolds as an extended reimagining and commentary on Dante's Inferno, complete with its own Virgil -- that is, the return of Virgil White Buffalo from Another Man's Moccasins, who happens to be the grandfather of one of Shade's victims, and who may or may not be dead at the time he helps Walt on his quest.
(Needless to say, this is not the place to start the Longmire series. But if you're already a fan, this is a special treat.)
Suffering from a concussion, hypothermia, exhaustion, and the effects of high elevation, Longmire is hardly a reliable narrator, and Johnson satisfyingly offers both mystical and medical explanations for (most of) what happens in the mountains during Longmire's long night of the soul. This seventh Longmire novel transcends traditional man vs. man and man vs. wilderness conflicts to achieve an introspective, philosophical, spiritual tale worthy of Dante (seasoned with plenty of Homer for extra flavor). I completed this with breathless relish.
George Guidall was made to read these books. His narration is perfection.
This is an elegant, almost dreamlike novel that confirms my high estimation of Meg Rosoff (first inspired by my appreciation of How I Live Now). Rosoff's prose is deceptively simple, and the reader may feel hard pressed to explain what actually happens in the story, and yet the novel is packed with multi-layered ideas and compelling emotion.
The official description begins like this: "Toward the end of his life, H looks back on the relationship that has shaped and obsessed him for nearly a century. It began many years earlier at St. Oswald's, a dismal boarding school on the coast of England, where the young H came face-to-face with an almost unbearably beautiful boy living by himself at the edge of the sea."
The novel unfolds as H recounts how he escaped the suffocating tyranny of mediocrity at his boarding school by stalking the lone Finn and insinuating himself into Finn's life until a kind of understanding, if not traditional friendship, blossomed between them.
I was reminded somewhat of A Separate Peace by John Knowles at the beginning of the tale, but in the end What I Was surprised me, and I found I liked Rosoff's take even better than Knowles's.
Rosoff, like life, refuses to wrap things up tidily with a bow at the end. I would've been disappointed if she had.
I suspect this will be haunting me for some time (as How I Live Now continues to do).
Ralph Cosham, as always, delivers an excellent narration.
Here's an indicative passage:
"I studied Finn the way another boy might have studied history, determined to memorize his vocabulary, his movements, his clothes, what he said, what he did, what he thought. What ideas circulated in his head when he looked distracted? What did he dream about?
"But most of all what I wanted was to see myself through his eyes, to define myself in relation to him, to sift out what was interesting in me (what he must have liked, however insignificant) and distill it into a purer, bolder, more compelling version of myself.
"The truth is, for that brief period of my life I failed to exist if Finn wasn't looking at me. And so I copied him, strove to exist the way he existed: to stretch, languid and graceful when tired, to move swiftly and with determination when not, to speak rarely and with force, to smile in a way that rewarded the world."
The last five words of The Casual Vacancy, "the congregation averted its eyes," serve as an able description of one of the novel's major themes. The seemingly idyllic village of Pagford is filled with characters who have averted their eyes, who have defined themselves and others in suffocatingly narrow ways, who have contributed to a community of overt denial and hidden resentments. The most likeable, sympathetic, and heroic character, Barry Fairbrother, dies on the fifth page, and his death opens "a casual vacancy" on the parish council that brings many of Pagford's quiet conflicts -- parents vs. children, wives vs. husbands, rich vs. poor -- into high relief.
Rowling's intolerance for intolerance shines through here as she unearths pettiness, hypocrisy, and other ugly aspects of human nature. The shifting points of view give the reader insights into, and often unexpected empathy with, a variety of perspectives.
What is most impressive about The Casual Vacancy is how its multitude of characters and their different storylines weave together to lead the reader inexorably to a final devastating -- and wholly avoidable -- tragedy. This is far from an enjoyable, entertaining read. It is an effective political parable, however. While it's easy to compare the climax to the proverbial train wreck, that comparison is inaccurate. A train wreck is merely a terrible accident, at least to the onlooker. The final tragedy in The Casual Vacancy leaves a great many guilty by commission or omission, and it makes the reader question how he/she might unwittingly contribute to a similar calamity.
I cannot say I liked this novel, because I was (as Rowling intended) continually disturbed as I read it. But I appreciate it for its unflinching commitment, elegant organization, and thorough lack of nostalgic sentimentalism. It reminds me of a more robust version of the television show Broadchurch, in a way: that little community that appears to be ideal is, in fact, the world in miniature, a distillation of imperfect human nature, a portrait of what Thoreau called "lives of quiet desperation." Rowling leaves us with the suggestion that some fortunate few may learn from their experiences and make positive changes, but that many others will continue to avert their eyes.
I'll let a favorite passage speak for itself.
"'But,' her voice broke at last, and he heard the mother he knew, 'he loves you, Stuart.'
She added the lie because she could not help herself. Tonight, for the first time, Tessa was convinced that it was a lie, and also that everything she had done in her life, telling herself that it was for the best, had been no more than blind selfishness, generating confusion and mess all around. But who could bear to know which stars were already dead, she thought, blinking up at the night sky, could anybody stand to know that they all were?"
Tom Hollander's narration is well done.
The Cuckoo's Calling possesses all the traits I would expect from a work by J.K. Rowling: mediocre prose eclipsed by expert storytelling; complex characters who are immediately and consistently compelling; an intricate plot with generous background and multiple surprises; and pointed, incisive critiques of the shallowness and hypocrisy of our contemporary culture, balanced by the heroism of characters who have in one way or another fallen through that culture's cracks.
Once again, her protagonist is an underdog. Cormoran Strike has lost a leg and a livelihood in Afghanistan and a fiancée and home in London. He's living in his shabby office, not quite one step ahead of his creditors, when the brother of a now-deceased childhood friend engages his services as a private investigator. The mystery he is to tackle, however, has already been explored by the authorities, press, and public with a fine-toothed comb. Could it be possible that the highly publicized death of Lulu Landry, the celebrated supermodel and sister of Strike's client, wasn't a suicide after all?
Rowling's skill at planting clues and misdirections works in the reader's favor here. The unraveling of the mystery itself is highly entertaining and absorbing. Rowling's experiences with public fame and private family strife inform her insights and descriptions. The greatest achievement of this novel, though, is the creation of the noir-flavored hero Strike and his "temporary" secretary Robin, who are well worth following into their next adventure.
This is the second audiobook I've heard that featured Robert Glenister as narrator. I'll definitely be seeking out more. He has a gift for accents, and he injects the perfect amount of feeling into his reading to captivate the reader without upstaging the prose. Magnificent! Well done indeed.
I thoroughly enjoyed this crossover between Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes universe and Bram Stoker's Dracula. It is told in the same format as Stoker's work, but with Dr. Watson's letters and notes interspersed with the journal and diary entries of the other characters. Mina Murray employs Holmes and Watson to find the missing Jonathan Harker. They travel to Transylvania and have their own nasty encounter, and this puts them on the trail of Count Dracula.
One might expect that Holmes and Watson would join forces with Van Helsing and company, but quite the opposite is true, and here is the great delight of this novel. The reader gets to see both sets of characters from the not always complimentary perspectives of the other. I particularly enjoyed how Watson's fierce brand of personal loyalty and dedication to medicine opposes Van Helsing's -- and saves the day (and ultimately humankind).
I am a great fan of both Conan Doyle and Stoker, and I've reread the Holmes canon and Dracula quite recently. Sherlock Holmes and the Plague of Dracula provides a clever combination of both with a satisfyingly rational conclusion. One word: Science!
Ric Jerrom's handling of the different characters and accents was terrific.
I have a pattern when it comes to adaptations: I go the source material first and read it, and then I watch the adaptation to see how it measures up. Not this time. I fell hard for the A&E television series Longmire thanks to its gorgeous use of setting, consistently excellent acting, and most of all its informed and sensitive portrayal of the interaction and politics between Anglo and Northern Cheyenne communities in Wyoming. In fact, I hesitated about listening to the novels that had inspired the show, in fear that this might somehow compromise my enjoyment of the series. I needn't have worried. Listening to this first of Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire novels has only enhanced my appreciation of the Longmire show and convinced me that I need to read all of the other books in the series.
Johnson fits a compelling mystery into a darkly witty work dedicated to careful characterization, a stunning sense of place, and a thoughtful meditation on the human condition. Johnson deserves tremendous credit for how well he portrays characters of and issues relating to different generations, sexes, and races/ethnicities. Readers who value contemporary Westerns, detective and mystery fiction, noir fiction, and well-written, literate, humane fiction in general should give Johnson a try.
I now understand why everyone praises George Guidall's narration of this series, as well. I've heard other Guidall narrations, and I knew he was an excellent reader, but wow - he was born to bring these books to life! This is the perfect marriage of text and voice.
Michael Kurland's collection of four stories features Professor James Moriarty as the protagonist (and even, one might say, hero). All four fit within Arthur Conan Doyle's canon -- or, at the very least, they don't contradict it -- but offer a very different perspective. From Kurland's Moriarty-centric point of view, Moriarty is a consulting detective in his own right, called "criminal" only because he's more practical in his means and willing to be creative in how he funds his scientific experiments. Despite the fact he operates in a "grey area" with regard to the law sometimes, he is consulted by various officials including Inspector Lestrade and even Mycroft Holmes when necessity requires it.
The portrait listeners get of Sherlock Holmes is of a petulant, adolescent-like personality, at once willing to learn from Moriarty but also terribly jealous and suspicious of him. Throughout the course of the four stories, we see Moriarty offering pearls of wisdom that Holmes would later mimic and claim as his own insights.
"Years Ago and in a Different Place" explores how Moriarty and Holmes first met (when the former was a lecturer and the latter a student) and the tragedy that caused Holmes to develop a lasting antipathy for his nemesis -- and, for that matter, distrust of women.
"Reichenbach" tells the "real" story of why Holmes and Moriarty together staged their deaths at Reichenbach Falls and what they were up to as their respective circles mourned them.
"The Paradol Paradox" and "The Picture of Oscar Wilde" are told from the perspective of Moriarty's very own Dr. Watson -- alas, no Sebastian Moran here! -- an American news reporter turned partner-in-crime. Moriarty's solution to the latter mystery, a case first refused by Holmes, shows how Moriarty is willing to act in ways Holmes is not while tidying up an investigation. (To be fair, this is a question of degree, not kind, as Holmes proves willing in canon to break all manner of laws.)
These stories are very well written and engaging, with entertaining glimpses into the international affairs and personal politics of the era. I personally would have preferred a different Moriarty, not one who is more Holmes than Holmes himself, and a study of his relationship with Moran and perhaps even the other Moriarty brothers. Even so, I enjoyed listening to this solid collection.
Steve Coulter's narration is well done.
As a fan of the other three books in Susan Beth Pfeffer's The Last Survivors post-apocalyptic/dystopian young adult series, I'm sorry to say that this novel provided a most unsatisfying end.
This review could easily run away with me, so I'll limit myself to what I see as the two biggest problems of the novel.
First, the premise. I honestly don't know why this wasn't a standalone novel. It makes no sense in the context of the earlier three books. It's set only four years -- four years -- after the natural disaster that defines the series. (A meteor knocked the moon off its orbit and caused catastrophic climactic changes and a series of natural disasters.) Somehow people in that short a period of time have divided so completely into the privileged few in the enclaves and the oppressed drudges, or "grubs," that the elites view the majority as genuinely less than human. (This happens even though membership in an enclave is based on rather random criteria, so that even Ivy League Ph.D.s are living as grub domestics, and nuclear families may be split between the enclaves and "grub" towns.) This genuinely defies belief, as do the living conditions described in the enclaves. I would think that, with the massive climactic changes and challenges, clean drinking water and viable foodstuffs and disease would still be foremost concerns, not playing soccer and choosing nannies. Considering Pfeffer's emphasis in earlier books about how communities fracture and individuals turn against each other in times of crisis, it requires more than a mere suspension of disbelief to go along with the idea that large numbers of people, many of privileged backgrounds themselves, all agreed in concert to accept the rule of the few and subside into slavery so quickly.
Second, the main character. Jon was the baby of his family, the coddled one for whom others sacrificed. That said, in the previous novels he was portrayed as a good-natured and normal boy. Now at seventeen he's one of the most dislikeable protagonists I've come across. I don't simply mean that he's annoying, erratic, weak-willed, and difficult to empathize with, though he is all of these things. He also does despicable acts, from helping to burn down the school where his mother teaches to trying to justify attempted rape and sexual intimidation, all the while winning the affections of a visionary, courageous young woman. (Her lasting attraction to this easily bullied coward is never explained. It's a baffling mystery.) When his semi-redemption comes, it's unconvincing. It's troubling, too, because he seems to be content in excusing away some of his most disturbing behavior.
Matthew Josdal's narration made an already grating character even more whiny and difficult to endure.
There are hints of interesting commentary here, from an implied critique of gated communities to a more overt critique of the celebration of brute violence and groupthink in sports. The corruption that's rife in the administration of Jon's enclave suggests chilling insights into how bureaucracies behave. Unfortunately, these critiques read more like a series of brief rants strung together between one atrocity and the next (and there are serious atrocities committed in this novel, let me assure you) rather than a nuanced, integrated narrative. For example, I would point to Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower for a more complex and sophisticated dystopian study of the gated community, among other subjects. Ironically, although Butler's heroine is both the daughter of a minister and the founder of a new faith, Parable comes across as far less preachy than does Shade of the Moon.
As a standalone novel I would have found this problematic, but as the final conclusion to a compelling and well-loved series, it's an even greater letdown.
Mitch Cullins has produced a gorgeously-written character study of a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes who is aware of having outlived his contextual moment in time (as well as both his biographer and brother), losing his mental as well as physical abilities, and coming to the end of his days with unanswered questions about the opportunities he missed during his life and the larger meaning of existence itself. It fits very neatly into and extrapolates from the last of Arthur Conan Doyle's canonical Holmes stories, in which readers clearly can see Holmes's loneliness, existential angst, and somewhat repressed humanity asserting itself.
Cullins weaves several stories together, including the present-day (that is, 1947) mentorship relationship between Holmes and his housekeeper's son, Holmes's recent post-war journey to a devastated postwar Japan (itself in search of meaning in a new era), and Holmes's revisitation of a 1903 mystery that explains Holmes's later devotion to the study of bees. Repeated themes of suicide, pointless death, and potential natural keys to extended life (to what purpose?) raise difficult and universal questions to which Holmes -- and, for that matter, Cullins -- holds no definite answers.
I've seen some reviews suggest that this is about Holmes's regret over missing romance, which put me off a bit, but that's not what I took from this novel. It's about intellectual fascination and unlikely personal connections and the paradoxical fragility (enter pointless death) and strength (enter memory and study) of each. All three storylines -- that of Holmes's housekeeper's son, Holmes's Japanese hosts, and Holmes's 1903 subject of investigation -- reinforce and echo these themes in a beautifully crafted and achingly effective manner.
A few minor points of characterization failed to convince me, mostly related to Holmes's "slight trick of the mind," his rather ritualistic means of mourning, but these were surprisingly few and far between. On the whole, this is an absorbing and wrenching portrait, one with which all Holmesians/Sherlockians, I think, should wrestle and challenge their understanding of the Great Detective and what he represents. I'm very glad I listened to it.
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