“Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” - The Ocean at the End of the Lane
There is so much longing in this novel: the longing of a child to be understood and believed and accepted; the longing of an adult to remember those things that would give a life context and meaning; the longing of the individual to know that his/her life is worth all of the sacrifices (both those recalled and those forgotten) others have made in order to make it possible. But, as Ginnie Hempstock says in this story, "You don't pass or fail at being a person, dear." We can't justify our own existences. We can only try to be better today than we were yesterday.
I love Neil Gaiman's writing, and I loved this novel. Although the majority of it takes place when the narrator is a seven-year-old boy, the whole of it is infused with his (the narrator's - and, for that matter, Gaiman's) middle-aged awareness of his own weakness, mortality, and confusion. Growing up doesn't mean growing suddenly omnipotent or omniscient, and as I fortysomething reader, I share that vague sense of outrage and disappointment that the years did not make me more than I am or make the world more explicable to me. Fortunately, Gaiman leavens his bittersweet tale with that true sense of wonder that is his hallmark, and we are left with the consolation that there are wiser and stronger beings about, even if they aren't us grown-ups.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn't my favorite Gaiman work. It never achieved the same bone-chilling connection for me as Coraline or the masterful sense of place of American Gods or the intellectual thrill of the brilliant (brilliant, I say!) A Study in Emerald, but it's a haunting adult fairytale, beautifully drawn. I suspect it will follow me around for a long time.
Gaiman's sensitive narration really makes this book. Highly recommended.
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.
Edgar Allan Poe's great detective, Auguste Dupin, combined with H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos? I had to read this novel. And I'm glad I did.
Stableford's novel, which is a first-person account by Dupin's friend, describes the unfolding mystery of the "Cthulhu Encryption," an inscription in the flesh of a dying mental patient who appears to be a prostitute but believes herself to be the legendary Isolde Leonys (of Tristan and Isolde fame). What follows is a mystery-adventure that doubles as a cultural literacy test, invoking not only knowledge of Poe and Lovecraft, but also the history of the 16th-century English occultist and medium Edward Kelley (also known as Edward Talbot) and his alchemist associate John Dee, the so-called "immortal German alchemist" the Comte de Saint-Germain of the 18th century, and both Arthurian romance and Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream. Did I mention there were pirates, too?
I didn't realize this was part of a series (which includes The Mad Trist, The Quintessence of August, and Valdemar's Daughter) when I first listened to the book, but I think now I may have to read the others.
Derek Perkins's narration occasionally suffers from "accent drift," and his pronunciation of Cthulhu is a bit tortured, but on the whole he offers a solid reading.
What I appreciated most was Stableford's adept handling of Victorian Gothic language and description, as well as the great texture and literacy of his descriptions.
Here is an example:
"I'm surely superfluous to requirements, and far too vulnerable to bad dreams."
"Never superfluous, my friend," he said, "and not as vulnerable as you imagine."
I was flattered by the compliment. "And we have Chapelain too," I added. "All for one and one for all - like the three musketeers, Athos, Porthos and Aramis."
"More like Ethos, Pathos and Logos," he muttered, drawing his cloak around him to protect him from a sudden gust of wind. He had named the three components of classical rhetoric, from which Dumas had presumably derived two of his musketeers' names, but not the third. Chapelain, I presumed, was Ethos or Athos, and I was Pathos or Porthos. I hoped that the adventure confronting us was one in which a Logos would, after all, prove more useful than an Aramis.
I loved Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale, and I was eager to devoir her next work. What Setterfield has produced here is, in my opinion, a work less enjoyable to read and yet similarly well worth reading.
Let me explain.
This is not a mystery in any sense, but rather a classic Gothic novel, working out its dark message with all the unflinching inevitability of works such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of Seven Gables. From the moment 11-year-old William Bellman pointlessly kills a young rook with his slingshot, the reader knows things will go badly for him. As he labors to build his adult life -- with loving wife, healthy children, and thriving business -- the reader realizes he will rise to heights only to fall. Not once was I surprised at what befell Bellman. That is not necessarily a criticism. We don't watch the proverbial train wreck because we think the tracks will mysteriously reroute themselves at the last minute; we watch the proverbial train wreck for the edifying and horrifying majesty of the collision.
For that matter, there is something hauntingly reassuring in the idea -- even as it damns all of us -- that actions, however small and thoughtless, have consequences.
Just as, in the proverbial train wreck, watching the long lead-up to the tragedy has a certain oppressive inevitability that frustrates and wears at the nerves, so too does the bulk of Bellman and Black. This is why, despite Setterfield's gorgeous prose, it is not an enjoyable read. Once the reader completes the work and gains a bit of distance, though, it comes into full focus.
Drawing from folklore and legend about rooks, Setterfield stresses thought and memory as the two most terrible costs of Bellman's childhood act of murder: for the last long portion of his life, Bellman thinks only of death as he painstakingly builds Bellman & Black's to be London's premiere mourning emporium; he loses all memory of the happy home he knew with his family and the satisfying work he accomplished at the mill. His daughter, his sole remaining tie to humanity, grows to adulthood without his attention or awareness.
Setterfield expertly twines the narrative around different aspects of the mysterious, wise, and vengeful rook, using the various collective nouns for the birds -- a parish of rooks, a clamor of rooks, an unkindness of rooks, a parliament of rooks, and ultimately a storytelling of rooks -- as both an underlying theme of and a commentary on various sections of the story. The chilling final note of the book, that we short-lived and fallible humans are an entertainment, puts Bellman and his fall in proper context from a rook's perspective.
I appreciate Setterfield's artistry in the organization and symbolic depth of her tale, as well as her admirable restraint in the supernatural aspects of the story. If you're looking to fall in love with charming characters or be caught up breathlessly in an unfolding mystery, look elsewhere. But for a sobering, bleak, and carefully crafted tale about the human condition written in the great Gothic tradition, you need look no further.
Jack Davenport provided a solid narration for this novel.
This short pastiche offers a perfectly serviceable mystery and a very familiar setting. The descriptions (of the characters, of 221B Baker Street, of Holmes's method) are all taken straight from the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle. I couldn't help but think there was little "value added," however; the work is so brief that the original characters get little development, and we are treated to no deeper insights or glimpses into the Holmes-Watson dynamic, which feels very static.
It's solid enough, but I was left wanting much more. To my mind, the middling-sort of pastiches are mimicry, but the best make contributions to the Holmesian conversation. This never rose above the former.
The narrator did little to evoke the "Victorian British" sound or to distinguish the voices of different characters from one another.
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