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I had problems with Jon Green's Fault in our Stars that I distilled, in my review, to his concept of cancer perks. But I said I was willing to give him another try, and so I did, listening to Looking For Alaska. And now I have an even bigger problem with perks -- specifically, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Just type in Looking For Alaska vs. Perks in your Google and before you can even finish your search criteria, you will get a stream of autofilled results about how similar Alaska is to Perks. For the record, Perks came first by about 5-6 years. Why didn't any of the people Green thanks in his afterword stop him and say, "John, uh -- you know, Stephen Chbosky has not only written this book already, he even directed the film. Maybe you should change things up a little."
This is not a problem of similarly themed stories. This is an exact copy. Shy boys with no friends goes to a new school and is instantly taken in affectionately by the cool kids for no reason that makes sense, instantly curing his shyness. He instantly falls in love with the wild child girl who has a boyfriend in college and who sets him up with another girl. They both have teachers who touch something special within them. And it all comes crashing down at the end with a virtually identical climactic event.
Like all John Green characters, these kids always have the perfect bon mot ready on the tip of their tongues, without fail. But compared to the Perks characters, they are that shallow, with little in their past to explain their current behavior, with one exception (there isn't even an attempt to explain why the main character ever had socialization problems, which based on what happens in this book is not something he actually has).
Perks has sexual identity crises of various sorts, traumatic events that are believable rather than contrived, consequences that are far more common in real life than the contrived ones cooked up by Green. John Green is all over the YA best seller lists with his books. I don't get why. Read Perks of Being a Wallflower instead, if you haven't already.
Jasper Fforde has proven his mastery of the alternate universe with his Thursday Next series (and the related Nursey Crime series), imagining a world where literature is intimately intertwined with reality (his alternate version of reality). With The Last Dragonslayer, Fforde creates an alternate universe where magic, dragons, kings and home improvement coexist uneasily in present-day England, hamstrung by government bureaucracy, an omnivorous media, corporate manipulation, and rising real estate prices.
As original as Thursday Next's world is, humorously applying the conventions of detective novels to a setting where the boundaries between literature and reality are blurred, the idea of placing magical beings in modern day society is hardly a new one -- way overdone, in fact. But Fforde pulls it off thanks to his impeccable sense of humor and comic timing. If you like Monty Python, you'll like Fforde -- he even has a short riff on the ethics of turning people into newts, an almost overt nod to MP and the Holy Grail.
If I have one minor bone to pick -- and why I stop short of going to five stars -- it's that once the plot kicks in, supplanting the detailed background on The Last Dragonslayer's alternate universe that occupies the first few hours, the joke quotient shrinks, and that's a shame, because the jokes are so good. The last few chapters wrap up way too quickly, which may only have been a problem because I wanted them to last longer -- but there are additional entries in the series, so that won't be a problem for very long.
I'm reminded when I listen to a book like this why I love listening to humorous fiction in audio -- why bother with any other genre? (Although of course I'll keep going back to the others.) This is certainly the one type of book where, indisputably, the voice in your earbuds has better comic timing and better dialects than the voice in your head. At least, if the narrator is doing a good job -- and Elizabeth Jasicki does an excellent job as the voice of Fforde's teenage heroine, Jennifer Strange.
Heft gets off to a promising start. Arthur Opp, an obese shut-in, begins to explain to us how he got so lonely that his only remaining relationship is with binge eating. That was me about 30 years ago, watching my waist line grow proportionally to my heartbreak after the bad end to an important relationship. So I was very interested in seeing how author Liz Moore would develop Arthur's character relative to my own experience.
Unfortunately, Arthur's narration is soon supplanted by that of a Westchester County high school boy, and Heft turns into a YA novel about dealing with an alcoholic mother, snobby schoolmates, and being an accomplished and popular multi-sport athlete. (Sound of loud record scratch!) Wait -- "dealing" with being a popular high school athlete? Yes. OK, Kel's single mother is a major problem, but everyone else around him loves him and supports him through that struggle, even when he acts out. What's the story here?
The narrative eventually shifts back to Arthur as he takes baby steps to address his situation, thanks in large part to the arrival of a perky pregnant teenage housekeeper, as well as a letter from his past. But his segments grow shorter as Kel's drone on and on. This is major missed opportunity number one, abandoning Arthur. Number two, there is the opportunity for a significant study of fatherhood that is never explored to the same depth as, say, what Arthur is eating or why Kel wants to pursue baseball instead of college.
Which leads to major missed opportunity number three. Moore does give us a couple of detailed listings of Arthur's binge meals, but she never really develops a compelling metaphor. Sure, he eats because he's lonely, but this is literature, please take it a little past the obvious. Or, being a former English teacher who has an enduring crush on one of his students, maybe expand on the brief mentions of literary works that the student got so wrong and how that affected Arthur's affection for her.
Which brings me to this: Writing reviews for Audible, I feel bad about having to recommend not listening to a book. I know, I have to just be honest, but still... So I will close this review by heartily recommending The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, which is also about a lonely man who has given up on life and love only to find it through an unlikely turn of events -- events similar to those in Heft. More than anything else, Zevin sticks with her protagonist, as Moore should have done with Arthur Opp, and makes the most of her central metaphor, the love of books.
I have to add a note about the narration. Both narrators (one doing Arthur, one doing Kel) are perfectly fine. But the book is written with frequent breaks, sometimes after one- or two-sentence paragraphs. There is a pause of a couple or three seconds at every break. This totally disrupts the flow of the narrative, annoyingly. There isn't even the need for these breaks, as the next paragraph often is a direct continuation of the preceding one. Bad choice, very bad choice, by both author and the director of the audio version.
I've been disappointed by a few books that start out well and then start dropping stars as they unfold. The Park Service goes in the other direction. It begins the same formula as other YA dystopian novels -- teenager living in a post-apocalyptic underground bunker (cf Wool, Mockingjay), insecure in his unique abilities (cf. Divergent, Hunger Games), faces a test that will determine his place in society (cf. Divergent, The Giver), places higher than expected because of his unique abilities.
Yawn! Been there, done that. But then Aubrey, as the boy is named, is released into the real world by accident and discovers the true nature of his world. And The Park Service starts to get progressively more interesting from there. Not because it suddenly takes an original turn, still adhering to the formula of this genre in which Aubrey becomes the unlikely hero who exposes and tries to correct the realities of his dystopian society.
No, what makes it work are the moral themes author Ryan Winfield introduces, some in the form of dilemmas that Aubrey faces -- social injustice, environmental injustice, the noble savage vs. hard science, social structures built on the promise of heaven, and humanism. I found myself wavering trying to grasp where Winfield was coming down on these issues, trying to discern if there was a hidden agenda here, but I couldn't find one -- he presents all sides of each issue, and ultimately allows humanism to win the day.
Having bought The Park Service from Audible's Hidden Gems sale, I'd have to agree in the end that this far less well known entry in the popular canon of YA dystopian fiction lives up that billing, despite its pedestrian first half. An interesting listen for old adults like me, a good thematically-based science fiction action adventure for young adults.
Gregg Hurwitz was 1-1 with me. I liked Tell No Lies for its group therapy setting, but I didn't care for The Survivor, just another Liam Neeson script. I said I'd give him another chance to prove which was the exception, which was the rule. Glad I did, because You're Next did not disappoint -- not quite as good as Tell No Lies, but way better than The Survivor in almost every way.
There's always a gimmick with Hurwitz, an opening gambit that kicks off the proceedings in a distinct way, establishing a springboard for plot, characterization, and themes. At least, that is the case given my sample size of three. In Tell No Lies, group therapy. In The Survivor, and man about to commit suicide is forced to save the lives of others, that conceit being the best part of a book that goes down hill from there.
You're Next sets the stage in the same straightforward way: four-year-old Mike is abandoned in a playground by his father, who has just apparently killed his mother, and he is forced to grow up in a sketchy foster home, bedeviled and befriended by ne'er-do-wells. This past continually comes back to haunt him, to the point where he even has to put his own daughter into foster care with the promise to do for her what his father failed to do for him -- come back to get him.
Now a family man himself, his past long suppressed, he suddenly finds himself the target of some seriously evil dudes, evil dudes smart enough to make the police think Mike is the seriously evil dude, hence launching your standard double chase. Problem is, Mike has not a clue what these dudes want from him, what they want him for -- in Hitchcockian terms, what the mcguffin is, which is important only to the point where the reader/viewer/listener believes that the bad guys are fully committed to the mcguffin, whatever it may be.
The main plot driver is the unfolding of that particular mystery. There are no surprise twists, only the one major reveal and some ancillary reveals that stem from it. Rather than a twisty turny road that careers and careens in different directions, this route is pretty much a straight line, but one with unexpected scenery along the way. And as always in a Hurwitz, some good action.
Hurwitz doesn't get sucked too far into his mcguffin or any of his red herring mcguffins, but there is nevertheless some interesting subtext within the foster home setting, his current job building green homes, political corruption, and in the context of the mystery (which I shall not reveal). Nothing overt, which is good. Maybe open to criticism for being to thin, but I felt he drew an appropriate line and stuck to it.
There also happens to be one great character here. Not the protagonist Mike, who is serviceable enough but not a franchise character, but his sidekick, Shep, a bullied foster brother who grows into a criminal savant, an expert safecracker who loves the challenge of thievery, and who lives by a code of loyalty and stamina which he has imparted to Mike.
Unfortunately, narrator Scott Brick gives Shep a comic book voice that detracts from the person he is, which shines through nevertheless on the strength of Hurwitz's characterization. Brick is his usual self, tolerable at 1.25x speed, overworked to a higher degree than that. He needs a break, so that we can get a break.
There's an old joke about a man taking a dog into a bar claiming his dog can talk. To prove it, he asks, "How is life?" Dog says, "Rough!" "What's over our head?" Dog says, 'Roof!" "Who's the greatest ballplayer ever?" Dog says, "Ruth!" The bartender throws them out. On the sidewalk, the dog turns to the man and says, "Should I have said Gehrig?" The joke works not only because we're surprised to learn the dog can really talk, but also because we know dogs respond to humans in other ways -- we buy into the the joke because it's perfectly reasonable for the dog to bark out answers that sound like "Ruff!" right on cue.
Paul Auster's stock in trade in language. He is (rightly) not concerned with scientific rigor. So his main character, a dog named Mr. Bones, has a fluent understanding of English (almost fluent -- for some bizarre reason, he mangles the word English itself -- and he can't speak, only comprehend English). It's not that I'm unwilling to buy into this metaphor (although I do resent being told to do so within the text -- I can get it on my own). But as a longtime dog owner and lover, I would have found it far more interesting for Mr. Bones's understanding of humans to be based on reality -- empathy, emotion, body language, social hierarchy.
Nevertheless, as a longtime dog owner and lover, I was thoroughly enjoying Auster's short novel through its midpoint, willing to suspend my disbelief over Mr. Bones's language skills. That's because the story, despite being told from the point of view of the dog, was about a man, his owner. It even made sense that he could understand what his owner was saying after lifelong companionship with him. Willy is an interesting character. I wanted to know more about how he came to be a lost soul, and I wanted to hear more of his rants, the high point of the book being the two extended rants Auster allows him to give us.
I was also looking forward with anticipation to Willy locating his mentor, an English teacher, whom he hoped would care for Mr. Bones after his imminent death. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the story takes a wrong turn when Willy dies, leaving Mr. Bones to seek new owners on his own. I fully understand what Auster was doing by having Mr. Bones find owners who are the opposite of Willy. I just found it overly facile, and not nearly as interesting as Willy himself or the prospect of Mr. Bones (and me) meeting the English teacher.
In short, like the talking dog who chose Ruth over Gehrig, Auster chose to pursue the wrong owners to take in Mr. Bones, abandoning Willy and his teacher.
I was drawn to this book because I was a fan of the TV show of the same name and premise (apparently the only fan in existence of the short-lived series, at least according to the show's creator, Marc Guggenheim, whom I met on the set of a later show). The book has little in common with the series other than that basic premise, but it has its own rewards nevertheless, not least of which is that Flash Forward the novel is more highly regarded as SF literature than the show is among TV sci-fi.
The basic premise, and I don't think I'm giving anything away here, is that all of humanity blacks out at the same moment, each person having a short vision of a moment or two in the future. The remainder of the book is about understanding the visions, reacting to them, debating them philosophically, scientifically, and spiritually. This works best in the context of individual story lines, the best of them a murder mystery where a man tries to solve his own murder. The concept of "show don't tell" is well exemplified here...
... exemplified as well when the author tells instead of shows, the story bogging down when the debate literally becomes a debate, the characters discussing and arguing the scientific or spiritual causes of the flash forward as well as its ramifications, especially in the second and third sections. Sawyer is known in his overall work for examining the point at which science intersects religion, and that is certainly a major theme in Flash Forward, especially the concept of free will vs. destiny, examined in both scientific and spiritual terms.
Thought provoking and worthwhile, even if it could have been better told.
I didn't look at the chronology of A. Lee Martinez's publications until after I finished Monster. I checked because I felt from the outset that this novel was just another version of two of his other books that I have listened to (Chasing the Moon, Helen and Troy). Turns out I've been reading them backwards in time, starting with the most recent. So Monster actually came first among these three books that follow the same formula:
Gods and monsters and other mythical, magical or supernatural beings and creatures inhabit our contemporary world, many of them living and working like the rest of us muggles (yes, Martinez actually jokingly has two of his characters argue about mortal humans being "muggles" in this book, which is actually pretty funny). The main differences between the books are that the set of magical entities changes, as do the details of the danger they pose to our very existence (which happens in all three).
I have listened to a fourth Martinez novel that is not at all like this, so I know he possesses the capacity to come up with other original concepts. I'm not sure why he has come back to this structure in three of his last five novels. Actually, I just looked it up, and the number is four of the last five (that is the only one I haven't read -- not sure about his earlier novels, but I'm not going to check those right now).
When I listened to Helen and Troy, the first of Martinez's novel that I read (his most recent), I knew right away that it was a familiar form -- Neil Gaiman's American Gods, any number of Christopher Moore novels, The Magicians, Harry Potter of course, and I'm sure you can add to the list pretty easily. But I found the voice fresh, the characters lovable, the jokes funny. So I liked it, a lot, even if was not original in concept. Chasing the Moon, eh, the effect was wearing off. This time, I'm distinctly disappointed.
So if you're considering Monster as your first foray into A. Lee Martinez's brand of quotidian pantheons, my guess is you'll like it at least one star more than I did. If you've already read some of the others, maybe you'll be OK with another entry into the canon. Unfortunately, and against the positive feelings about Martinez that I came in with, I am over it.
Clint Bunsen's midlife crisis arrives a little later than usual, the day he turns 60. His prized position as committee chair of Lake Wobegon's over-the-top Fourth of July celebration is taken away despite being so successful that it's being covered for the second straight year by CNN. His car business is withering on the vine. He has to decide whether to accept an offer to run for Congress. He may have a health issue. He has just discovered via a DNA test that he is of Spanish ancestry rather Norwegian like the other Wobegonians.
But more than anything else, his life is upended by a brief but torrid affair with the young woman who filled in last year as the Statue of Liberty in the Fourth of July parade. So much so that he regrets his long-ago decision to come home after leaving the navy and marry his high school sweetheart rather than staying in California and going to art school, and he is now considering the possibility of leaving his wife and Lake Wobegon to go to California with his new flame (a little too obviously named Angelica Pflame).
Clint Bunsen is a mainstay of Garrison Keillor's weekly NPR radio show segment, The News From Lake Wobegon. In Liberty, he gets his own novel, in which various shades of the concept of "liberty" are at the heart of his various personal crises. As usual, Clint's story is really just a fulcrum for another look at life in Lake Wobegon, filtered through the lens of its renowned multimedia chronicler, Keillor. If you're a fan of the radio show and think you would enjoy a novel-length installment about Wobegon, Liberty will work for you, especially since Keillor narrates his own book in his inimitable style.
Me, I really loved the first half of the book, when the focus was on the political machinations of the Fourth of July committee as they recap the previous Fourth and plan the next. I felt that the story lost steam when it shifted its attention to Clint's affair. I would argue that my flagging interest level was inevitable by definition once the story shifted focus because it became more about Clint than about Lake Wobegon -- fans of Lake Wobegon are fans of Keillor's satire of small-town life more than its individual inhabitants, except insofar as they interact with each other as part of the social fabric.
Nevertheless, Liberty was an enjoyable listen, wry if not laugh out loud funny, cleverly built around the concept of liberty, with the Fourth of July as an apt and grandiose metaphor as well as framing device, and, to reiterate, benefiting in the best possible way by being narrated by its golden-voiced author.
The last time I "read" The Fellowship of the Ring, I read it out loud to my daughter at bed time. Took several months, reading a handful of pages each night. That was about a dozen years ago. Prior to that, I read the entire trilogy about a dozen times, but that was back in my youth in the 60s and 70s, when I re-read it every summer (yeah, yeah, go ahead and mock me, I'd do the same). So no surprise that I jumped at listening to the audiobook when I got the chance.
So who are you and what can I tell you about Tolkien's classic fantasy trilogy? Chances are, you already know all about The Lord of the Rings, in which case there's not much I can add other than critique the narration (see below). If you've never heard of LOTR, you've either been living under a rock for the past half century, or you're too young to read, in which case, all I can say is, READ IT (as soon as you can get out from under your rock, or when you're old enough to read big boy books).
Perhaps you've seen the movie trilogy and are wondering whether it's worth your time to read (listen to) the books, no small consideration given the total length of The Hobbit and LOTR tops 65 hours. I would strongly recommend that you at least read The Fellowship. I always loved it the best because it takes place at more of a, uh, I can't say human level because they're mostly not human, but you get more of a feel for individual characters and specific settings, the remaining books operating on a more epic scale.
And a lot of that character development and scene/mood setting occurs in passages (entire chapters, actually) left out of the movie. The film version of The Hobbit, an as yet unfinished trilogy, contains far more material than the book (including some sections originally in The Fellowship). The movie versions of The Two Towers and The Return of the King may be structured in a different manner than the books, but the events are pretty much all there.
By contrast, there are substantial portions of The Fellowship completely omitted by the movie, including four consecutive chapters in Book 1 along with most of a fifth -- when the hobbits approach Buckland with the Black Riders in pursuit, meet Old Man Willow and Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest, and encounter the barrow-wight on the Barrow Downs. To keep the movie length manageable, it was determined that these adventures did not further the story of the ring. I don't disagree with the decision, despite my disappointment especially with the loss of the magical Tom Bombadil and his companion Goldberry.
Here then is your main reason to read The Fellowship if you've only seen the movie. There are also major scenes omitted from the fellowship's journey through Moria, Lothlorien, and down the Anduin from Book 2, as well as major passages of lore from The Council of Elrond and other similar discussions. And then there are the many Tolkien songs sung a capella by narrator Rob Inglis to tunes he and his producer wrote. Personally, I found the songs tedious and the recording (done a quarter century ago) crude by today's audiobook standards, so I took a star off Inglis's otherwise legendary recitation.
For Tolkien fans looking for a new way to enjoy his best work, or for others willing or desiring to see what the fuss is all about, this audiobook is a perfect way to follow the adventures of Frodo and his hobbit friends as they make their way across the Shire, through the Old Forest to Bree, on to the magical valley of Rivendell, into the mines of Moria and the enchanated woodland of Lothlorien, and down the Great River toward Gondor and Mordor, along the way meeting Tolkien's version of wizards, elves, dwarves, trolls, wraiths, wights, orcs, balrogs, wargs, and all sorts of men, strange, heroic, devious, and jolly.
If you're a classic film buff or WWII history buff, Five Came Back is manna from heaven. If, like me, you're both, forget the manna, this is just pure heaven. Five of the greatest directors of the mid-20th century -- Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, George Stevens, John Huston -- left Hollywood to join the army and navy and contribute their particular talents to the war effort, commissioned to make propaganda, training, newsreel and documentary films for the armed services.
The directors' stories are as varied as their personalities. As much biography as history, according to author Mark Harris, this book is just a fascinating look at how Hollywood films were made before and after the war, and how Hollywood contributed to the war effort via filmmaking. In the telling, key moments of WWII history unfold -- the pivotal Battle of Midway in the Pacific, the invasions of North Africa, Italy and Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, the discovery of the concentration camps, the bombing of Hiroshima.
The book is long, over 20 hours. But the pace of the writing and narration is brisk, holding one's attention throughout -- it was easier to listen to than books half its length that drag in either composition or performance. An interest in either subject is, however, a prerequisite for immersing yourself in this much detail. You probably don't need to have more than the normal level of interest in the war to appreciate this particular angle on D-Day, the war in the Pacific, etc.
But you definitely have to come in with an abiding interest in classic cinema -- there's not much here for you if you're not familar with (and therefore interested in) the making of Capra's Mr. Smith, Mr. Deeds, John Doe, It's a Wonderful Life, or Ford's Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach, How Greed Was My Valley, They Were Expendable, or Wyler's Bette Davis movies, Mrs. Minivier, Memphis Belle, Best Years of Our Lives, or Huston's Maltese Falcon, Sgt. York, High Sierra, or Stevens's Penny Serenade, The More the Merrier, Woman of the Year, et.al.
Then you learn about the movies they made for the armed forces during their service. If nothing else, this book is worth listening to for the chapter on George Stevens filming conditions at concentration camps when Allied forces first came upon them and uncovered the horrific extent of the Holocaust, footage used as evidence during the Nuremburg trials. About the only thing missing from the audiobook (by definition) is the actual footage, but what I did was look it up on YouTube while I was listening and see it for myself.
There is more depth here in addition to the familiar movie titles and WWII battles. There is (what I found to be) an amazing analysis of the politics leading up to the war, not altogether different than what is going on in politics these days. Even better is how Hollywood came to be was wrapped up in it, part of that being the pre-McCarthy rumblings of anti-Communist friction between Washington and Hollywood. There is also an excellent section toward the end about the difficulties returning veterans endured after the war.
One word of warning: If you're a big Capra fan, be careful, because you will come away with an altered opinion of the man and the movie maker. I am a huge Capra fan from way back, always an apologist against charges of Capra-corn, but having just learned the context of his populist movies, eh, now I'm not so sure -- next time I view any of them, I will be seeing them through a different lens. But then, isn't that the point of a great work of historical and biographical non-fiction like this, to learn something new?
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