Mon dieu! This was 53 hours as an audiobook, guys! I listened to the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo in my car, and my commute isn't that long, so it took about two months.
Don't make fun of Dickens' wordiness until you've read Dumas. He is wordy as heck and makes up a hundred little side-stories and indulges the reader who wants to know the final fate of every single minor character. But if you want to dive into a big thick juicy scheming revenge novel with a moral at the end, The Count of Monte Cristo is full of more adventure and spectacle than Dickens would ever deign to write. (Though Anthony Trollope's "The Way We Live Now" did for greedy scurrilous English bankers and hoity-toits what Dumas does for the French.)
So, you probably know the bones of the story, because Edmund Dantes is the original Batman. No, his parents aren't murdered in front of his eyes, but two "friends" set him up as a traitor by sending an anonymous letter accusing him of being a Bonapartiste. (19th century French politics play a role here, as the first part of the novel is set during the period when Napoleon was confined to the isle of Elba, and then staged a dramatic return during which he briefly tried to regain the throne.) One of his friends wants his job, the other wants his girl, and Dante has the misfortune to go before a public prosecutor named Villefort, who initially wants to let Dantes go, realizing he's just a poor sap who was set up. However, when it turns out that Dantes unknowingly possesses evidence that Villefort's own father is a Bonapartiste, he instead consigns the hapless sailor to imprisonment in the Château d'If, an island prison off the coast of Marseilles. There, Dantes spends the next fourteen years, during which time he meets another prisoner, a "mad" priest who has been unsuccessfully trying to bribe his jailers to let him go with promises of a fantastic fortune he knows the location of.
To make a long story short, Dantes escapes, after having spent fourteen years learning all worldly knowledge from the Abbé Faria. He goes and finds the Abbé's fortune, an ancient Roman treasure, and soon reemerges in Europe as the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo. He's fantastically rich, an expert with all arms, poisons, and finance, he has Muslim servants and a beautiful Greek princess as his slave/ward, and he's buddies with Italian bandits and Mediterranean smugglers. He's a master of disguise and he has an indomitable will. This former sailor now moves as easily among French aristocracy as he does among Italian brigands. Everyone admires and fears him.
Seriously, guys, he's freakin' Batman.
He spends years acting as an angel of mercy and vengeance, rewarding the deserving, while planning his revenge against the three men who sent him to the Château d'If. The plot is intricate and there are dozens of characters, some of whom wind up interacting in fantastically coincidental ways. Since Dantes has returned from prison as the Batman, of course all his former enemies, who were once just poor scrubs themselves, are now fabulously wealthy and powerful as well, the better for Monte Cristo to bring them down.
It's an exceptional story, and a classic adventure. Kids should love it, if you can find a kid with the patience to read almost half a million words of flowery 19th century prose. Adults should also love it. But it's definitely over the top with all its coincidences and larger-than-life characters. Over the top, but a literary masterpiece. You get revenge and adventure and justice and a view of European high and low society in the post-Napoleon era. What elevates it above simple adventure and melodrama, besides the fine storytelling? It's not just Dantes getting even with those who did him wrong (which is how most of the movie versions portray it). In the end, his enemies undo themselves, and the Count of Monte Cristo finally faces the question of whether what he did was right and whether it was all worth it. Like Batman, he's never really going to find peace.
This book is totally worth reading -- and don't wimp out with an abridged version. Read the great big whomping unabridged doorstopper. That said, I have to give it only 4 stars, because while it's a classic that deserves its place, I wanted to start a drinking game for every time Dumas describes an "indescribable" expression or someone expresses an "inexpressible" emotion.
Okay, here's some word counts:
I don't know what French words they were translated from, but Dumas's writing does get quite purple by modern standards. Where Dickens crafted prosey, clever wordiness, Dumas is just wordy. And all those sordid coincidences! And entire chapters on the origins of various bandits and smugglers and where the asexual lesbian niece runs off to. And let's face it, an uneducated sailor spends fourteen years in prison and comes out as Batman? Come on now, guys. But it's still awesome.
This book really made me want to break out one of my World War II wargames. Come to think of it, I don't have a good WWII wargame simulating naval combat in the Pacific...
Tameichi Hara was, as the title indicates, the real deal — a Japanese destroyer captain who saw intense combat in the Pacific theater and was present at some of the biggest battles in World War II. (The subtitle is a bit misleading, though; he was not at Pearl Harbor, and he was only peripherally involved in Midway.) He was bombed, torpedoed, and wounded, lost men, he sunk allied ships and submarines, and his own ship got sunk from beneath him and while bobbing in the waves, he watched the Battleship Yamato go down in one of the last battles of the war.
This war memoir is fascinating and thrilling, as Hara gives an up close and personal account of many of the great battles of the Pacific War. He describes the precise movements of ships and the ranges at which they fired their weapons with the memory of a go player playing back a game, and he really brings to life the fear, tension, uncertainty, and fog of war that plagued both sides, as well as providing a fast education on naval warfare and the different classes of ships. (I will no longer be confused about the differences between a destroyer, a cruiser, a battlecruiser, and a battleship.) This really is a great book for wargamers for whom torpedoes and submarines and air support is usually just an abstraction. Commander Hara describes in great detail how Japan won its share of battles, but lost the war.
For the latter, he places a great deal of blame on the high command. Of course — when do the front-line warfighters not blame the admirals and generals back home for being out of touch? But Hara's open criticism of Japan's leadership, including the revered Admiral Yamamoto, was almost shocking when he first published this memoir. Yamamoto, the architect of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, who feared that the Empire had "awoken a sleeping giant," was, according to Hara, a great leader of men, but a very poor strategic commander of ships.
He also criticizes his country's leadership for not negotiating for peace sooner and, like, I suppose, all defeated military officers, claims to have thought the war was a bad idea from the beginning.
The insight into Hara's state of mind was quite interesting to me, and while he talked candidly at times about how he felt, I could not help suspecting that he was being a bit opaque, if not perhaps glossing over his perspective in hindsight. He describes feeling sorry for American sailors he saw floating in the open ocean, calling for help, and radioed his fleet to send another ship to pick them up as he couldn't stop. (Supposedly, they were later rescued and became POWs.) He also tells his crew to respect the enemy they have killed, he forbids physical discipline on his ship, and he altogether sounds like a great officer, an honorable man, the quintessential good soldier fighting for a bad cause. On the other hand, he dismisses the rape of Nanking as "much exaggerated," and while he seemed to respect the enemy and bear no personal animosity towards them, he never once examines what Japan was actually doing in the territories it conquered, outside his limited domain of naval warfare.
No doubt he had feelings about that which he kept to himself. If he was inclined to defend his country, he wouldn't have looked too good in the post-war years, and if he were more critical, he might have been seen as disloyal. Supposedly Hara did become a pacifist, and he interviewed other former officers (Japanese and American) while writing his book. He was a national hero for a losing cause; a difficult situation for any man to be in.
I highly recommend this memoir for anyone with an interest in World War II history.
The narration by Brian Nishi is top-notch, with flawless intonation on the Japanese names.
The Three-Body Problem is a Chinese SF novel, of which there are not many translated into English. The translation was exceptionally smooth, so that I rarely felt like the prose was either stilted by its non-English origins or lacking something in translation.
The basic plot is nothing new to the genre: humans make contact with an alien civilization, and find out the aliens aren't friendly. What makes it different is that the humans who make contact are not the usual Americans or Europeans. Instead, it is Chinese scientists at a military radio observatory whose secret SETI project discovers the "Trisolaran" civilization. Of course it's not just the Chinese who have discovered the aliens, but all the action in this book takes place in China, and involves mostly Chinese characters. A first contact story told in a Chinese context, beginning during Mao's Cultural Revolution and ending (on a cliffhanger, since this is the first book in a trilogy) in modern-day China is certainly different for most Western readers, and should be pleasing to those who complain about Earth vs aliens stories always being the United States vs. aliens.
The aliens actually don't appear until the end of the book, and then only in a chapter describing their preparations on their own homeworld. Instead, most of this book focuses on the uncovering of a conspiracy on Earth, hosted in the virtual reality of an online game called "Three Body," which is actually a recruiting tool for human factions who are preparing to welcome our alien overlords. How these factions came to exist, how everyone found out about the alien invasion fleet en route, and why the founders of the conspiracy chose to side with the aliens, becomes a long saga with some social and political commentary inserted like a knife into an outwardly straightforward SF conspiracy thriller.
A good read, with lots of theoretical physics for the SF purists, genuinely alien aliens, and no shortage of action, though most of this comes in the final act, and it looks like the real action will have to wait until the next book. I'm definitely looking forward to the continuation.
The Emperor of All Maladies, by research oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee, is a biography of cancer — its appearance throughout history, starting with a mention by the Egyptian physician Imhotep, circa 2600 B.C., and Queen Atossa of Persia, who underwent what was probably the first recorded mastectomy in history, our growing understanding and misunderstanding of the nature of this dreaded mutant cellular monster, which is really an entire family of monsters, all uniquely and spitefully different, and the eternal search for a "cure."
Mukherjee is an engaging writer, mixing history and social commentary, from a fairly detached perspective, with very detailed explanations of the biochemistry and genetics of cancer and its treatments. He does this in an accessible way, but this is definitely a "sciencey" book which will require you to draw on at least your high school-level biology and chemistry. Even if the chapters on researching the origins and cellular makeup of cancer make your eyes glaze over, though, the contemporary history of cancer research, mixed with some of Mukherjee's own cases, will keep you focused on the relevance of the topic.
I suppose the weakness of the book (and the reason why it only got 4 stars) is that denseness - while Mukherjee is a good writer, at times it was like reading abstracts from a medical journal. But for anyone who's had a brush with cancer, first, second, or third-hand, there's plenty to find interesting.
Cancer isn't a single disease, and there will probably be no single "cure for cancer." Oncologists seem to be moving towards a model similar to that of AIDS treatment — many forms of cancer are becoming something that, while not yet, "curable," are no longer inevitably terminal either. Something manageable. Not all of them, but some of them are cancers you "die with" rather than "die of."
Informative, a bit heavy, not a breezy pop-science book but not something only a doctor can understand.
The fourth book in Peter Clines's superhero/zombie apocalypse series at first made me think he'd run out of ideas and so was writing a prequel novel. George Bailey, formerly known as the Mighty Dragon and then Saint George, is now a mundane janitor in a pre-zombie apocalypse L.A.?
Things are not what they seem. It may be a bit spoilery, but we've already seen supervillains in this series who can mess with your head, so just think of movies like the Matrix and Inception. Barry (aka "Zap"), the resident SF geek, is quick to make that comparison explicitly once the heroes get together and start figuring it out. The plot was fairly clever, and so with several red herrings, there are multiple layers to unravel, enough to make the reader as well as the characters begin to doubt what's real.
Captain Freedom, Saint George, Stealth, Corpse Girl, Zap, and Cerberus all feature prominently in this latest book in a series that doesn't look like it's ending any time soon. I've enjoyed all the Ex-Heroes books as the rather silly entertainment they are; Clines's writing is still not spectacular (the battles are getting really repetitive, I'm sick of Stealth always "crossing her arms," and I'm actually just sick of Stealth and her grimdark Batman-with-boobs schtick in general) but so far he has not exhausted the story potential of his world. I do hope, however, that he actually takes the series somewhere with a resolution, rather than just continuing it as long as the well can be pumped.
This is clearly a bit of filler between trilogies, and a contrived excuse for Larry Correia to write a battle between a giant robot and Godzilla into his Grimnoire trilogy, but like the rest of his magical-superhero alternate universe stories, it's fun and action packed pulp adventure that just doesn't bear too much thinking about.
Taking place about twenty years after the end of Warbound, Tokyo Raider stars Joe Sullivan Jr., a chip off the old block. Having joined the Marines, just like that he is whisked off to Japan at the direct request of the President (who is not a historical figure but instead a familiar face from the previous books). Even though the US and the Imperium are clearly headed for war, at the moment the Imperium is at war with their mutual enemy, the USSR. Stalin's sorcerers have summoned a giant monster that's devastating Japan, and Imperium scientists and mages have built a giant robot that, conveniently, none of their own magically-gifted warriors can operate. Somehow our old friend Toru, now in charge of the Imperium, figures his old frenemy Jake's son is the man they need.
This doesn't really make sense, but like I said, it's just an excuse for a battle between a giant robot blazoned with a rising sun pumping the Star Spangled Banner from its speakers, and a Godzilla-sized demon with the Soviet hammer & sickle burned into its chest. Fix that image in your head and have fun. It does make me look forward to the next Grimnoire series.
This was an unexpectedly entertaining page-turner, though towards the end, so many plot twists are woven together in an improbable climax and epilogue that my suspension of disbelief was tested a bit. However, getting there was fun in this combination courtroom drama and suspense thriller.
Paul Copeland survived a summer camp massacre as a teenager. He and his girlfriend snuck off into the woods for a little nookie, only to hear the screams of three other kids — including Paul's sister — being murdered. Years later, they are sure that they know who the killer is, as a creepy teenager who was also at the camp turned out to be a serial killer who was convicted for similar crimes elsewhere. The fact that Paul's sister's body was never found means he has never really had closure, but as an adult, he's now a New Jersey county prosecutor, buddies with the Governor, and he has political ambitions.
Things start unraveling when he begins prosecuting a Law & Order-style "ripped from the headlines" case: Chamique Johnson, a poor black underage stripper/prostitute, has accused a couple of rich white frat boys of raping her in their frat house. Their families start going after everyone involved in the prosecution, including Paul, to pressure him to drop the case. For Paul, this means digging into his past and uncovering some of the questions left unanswered when his sister disappeared into the woods twenty years ago.
There are a lot of characters, a lot of twists, and a lot of revelations. From Paul reconnecting with his old girlfriend, to his ex-KGB uncle, to his interview with his old camp buddy-turned-serial killer, to the super-hottie private detectives sent out to dig up dirt, there's lots of plot and it never slows down.
I had a little trouble believing the ending, and Paul was just little bit too much a combination of Perry Mason and Jack McCoy, but it was refreshing to have an imperfect but not crooked protagonist who prevails largely by not being intimidated, seduced, or corrupted. I liked it enough to try Harlan Coben again.
This is another one of those depressing books that catalogs in grim detail just how badly humans are destroying the environment, on a cataclysmic scale, how greed, desperation, and short-sightedness have destroyed entire ecosystems, devastated nations, and displaced millions, and how even though we have the scientific and technological know-how to do better, we're not going to, because short-term thinking always wins.
Oh, the author ends with an optimistic chapter, as all these books do, detailing bold and forward-thinking news plans from economists and water engineers and politicians and scientists around the world — all the ways in which we could save the water tables, grow crops more efficiently with more "crop per drop," irrigate more cheaply, supply urban populations more sustainably, etc.
But that's after chapter after chapter detailing such disasters as the Aral Sea, which the Soviets basically destroyed and which the current government is continuing to destroy, and the Salton Sea in California, created by a mistake and now allowed to become a festering, drying blister in the Sonora desert, and the Dead Sea, which is receding visibly every year. Worse, though, are the water tables. These are the underground reservoirs of water which, unlike rivers, are non-renewable. Much like oil, once you tap them dry, they're gone (and they also destabilize the surrounding earth, leading to erosion and possibly even earthquakes), and farmers and cities around the world, from the American west to India, are tapping them at an alarming rate. Everyone knows that wells used to hit water at 200 feet and now have to go 1500 feet or more, but this doesn't stop everyone from trying to get the last drop.
It is the Tragedy of the Commons on a regional scale. As many of the farmers Fred Pierce interviews point out: "If everyone stopped using the water, that would be great, but if only we do, it won't make a difference, except that our family will starve."
When the Rivers Run Dry is a bit of travel journalism that covers nearly every continent. India and China and their respective mistreatment of the Ganges, the Indus, the Yellow and the Yangtze rivers are all covered, as is the madness that is Los Angeles and Las Vegas, currently draining the Colorado River dry and casting thirsty eyes thousands of miles north to the Great Lakes.
While America's water woes are certainly serious (at least in the west), the most tragic regions of the world are, predictably, the places where government policy is completely disconnected from local resource management, or where politics and war mix violently with water rights. China and the former Soviet Union have literally killed millions in man-made floods. The author's visit to the region around the Aral Sea was particularly depressing, as he describes a stunted, poisoned land where the people have no jobs, no hope, and no future. Then there is the Middle East, where Palestinians go thirsty in sight of Israeli swimming pools.
While there are some compelling stories in here, and enough facts and history to make you think, When the Rivers Run Dry was... well, a bit dry. Fred Pierce has been to many places and talked to many people, and what he's produced is a global atlas of water mismanagement, wrapped up in the end with a few cheery programs that might solve a few of them, and some suggestions that no one is really going to heed. He questions the wisdom of dam-building, says that cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas need to be more conservation-minded, and that farmers worldwide need to use more water-efficient irrigation methods.
Yup, good luck with that.
Another one of the Corey writing duo's "filler" novellas set in between their Expanse novels, this one takes place on Mars shortly after Caliban's War. David Draper is the nephew of Marine Gunnery Sergeant Bobby Draper, one of the main characters in the aforementioned novel. She plays only a small (but significant) part in this novella.
David is a promising and gifted young chemistry student on Mars, with demanding parents who have high expectations for him. In a scheme that is half rebelliousness and half path-of-least-resistance spinelessness, David has become a "cook" for a local drug dealer. I wouldn't be the first reviewer to call Gods of Risk "Breaking Bad on Mars."
The plot pinch comes when David finds out his "friend" LeeLee is in trouble, and he decides he wants to save her. The annoying part comes when we realize that David is every stereotypical nerdy "Nice Guy" chump ever, fantasizing about how a grateful Leelee will reward him for his white knight heroism with kisses and maybe even letting him touch her ... Since Leelee is in fact a pro in debt to a drug dealer, this is obviously not going to have the happy ending David is hoping for, but for a smart kid, he sure is dumb.
Despite the main character's painful lack of self-awareness or worldliness, this is a good story that really doesn't have much to do with the central events of the Expanse series; although they are mentioned, this is just a bit of filler material.
This prequel to James S.A. Corey's Expanse series, starting with Leviathan Wakes, tells the story of Amos Burton, whom we first met aboard the Rocinante as the cheerful, casually violent engineer. As a novella providing "filler" material for the series, it's only interesting if you already like the series and want to know more about the characters.
Amos, when we are first introduced to him, turns out to be an evil and amoral crime lord in future Baltimore. While the reader might be thrown by this man who seems to bear little resemblance to the character we know, the "twist" ending is soon telegraphed as we're introduced to two characters under Amos's employ, Timmy and Eric, who are both caught up in the "churn" of one of the city's intermittent crack-downs on organized crime.
Since The Churn takes place entirely on the ground, it's really more of a crime thriller than a space opera, with the technology of space exploration rarely intruding into the lives of the people trying to survive the mean streets of Charm City. (I was disappointed that the audiobook narrator did not even attempt a "Bawl-mer" accent.) It's a decent story with action and violence, but only barely science fiction. Recommended for those who like The Wire and the Expanse series.
This is the second book I've read by Daryl Gregory. He seems to like writing speculative fiction set in a near future, rather than settling into a series or a theme. "Raising Stony Mayhall" was one of the best zombie novels I've ever read. Afterparty, his latest, is also set a couple of decades from now, in a world where 3D printers have advanced to manufacturing pharmaceuticals, so anyone can "print" their own custom controlled substances.
Lyda Rose, the protagonist, was a neuroscientist who helped create Numinous. It was supposed to be a treatment for schizophrenia; instead, it helps its users find God. Or gods. Or some god.
The effect is spiritual if not supernatural: Numinous rewires the brain and provides you with your very own guardian angel (in Lyda's case, a judgmental winged psychologist named "Dr. Gloria"). The subjects are absolutely convinced they are receiving messages from the Divine, even if they know intellectually about Numinous. Lyda's conversations with her guardian angel, who she knows is a product of her drug-induced imagination, are believable because deep down, Lyda believes in her.
How Lyda came to be hooked on her own creation, and why she has to escape from a prison-hospital and track down the other former members of her little start-up company that was going to get rich, is a mystery that unfolds in a well-paced thriller with plenty of reveals and twists. There is an Afghan grandmother who is the most powerful drug lord in Seattle, a psychopathic hit man who calls himself "The Vincent" and raises bonsai buffalo herds in his apartment, a millionaire whose adopted daughter is a little prodigy assisted by her "deck" of "IFs" (Imaginary Friends), and of course, Dr. Gloria.
This wasn't quite a grand-slam of a book, but it was interesting and well-paced and original, with believable characters. Definitely recommended.
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