New York, NY, United States
Connelly yes, Schirner no. Whatever problems I have with The Poet are specific to this book -- overall, I liked Connelly's writing well enough to give him another chance, especially with a more recent title, since this one is highly dated. Schirner's growling recitation and deep voice starts out sounding appropriate for a police story, but it's grating after a while.
What attracted me to the story was the serial killer's references to Edgar Allan Poe's works. As a fan of the TV show The Following, which uses the same device, I was interested in seeing a similar treatment. That part of the story works well, as does the main character's motivation in pursuing the killer after his twin brother's murder.
The main problem arises in the plotting. You always look for misdirection, for red herrings, in this type of story. You can't make them too opaque, to the point where the reader has no chance of figuring things out for his own. But this one is too transparent. First of all, with the narrative shifting to the serial killer's point of view, there is no doubt that he is committing these murders. So where's the mystery there? Finding him? The truth is, for someone who has kept himself so well hidden for so long, he is found out quite easily and quite quickly during the course of this narrative.
So clearly, there is something else going on, someone else committing some of the killings (although clearly not the serial killings). And clearly, there is one candidate, identifiable early on. So once again, where's the mystery? If I was to write this story and correct these flaws, I would have tried to find a way to make the obvious serial killer a total red herring -- i.e., have him not be the killer at all, even though it might seem that he is. Perhaps have him be someone who knows what the real serial killer is doing and gets off on shadowing him and messing with him.
Honestly, I wish someone else would have read the book. His voice is just too deep and too growly for sustained listening.
To thank the lord (or Al Gore) for the internet, along with ubiquitous cell service and smart phones. The Poet was written in 1996, when the internet was in its infancy, cell service was in its adolescence, and people were still faxing things around and going to libraries. Some reviewers criticize The Poet as being dated in this respect, but if you know it in advance, you can treat it as an historical piece -- this is the way they had to investigate crimes way back in the late 20th century. But it makes me thankful that I can look things up at the drop of a hat, like lines of poetry from Edgar Allan Poe -- this book would be one third its length today if the investigators could look up Poe on the internet instantly and could access case info electronically instead of breaking into file rooms and searching for hard copies.
The best crime novels are character driven, not plot driven. As Hitchcock always said, the McGuffin must really only be interesting to the characters, it does not have to be interesting to the readers. From that respect, The Poet works -- why I gave it three stars instead of one. Jack McEvoy is a strong protagonist with strong motivation, and the characters around him, for the most part, play good supporting roles. The serial killer is also fairly good, though perhaps, given the proliferation of serial killers in fiction and on TV and movies, he is as dated now as a fax machine. But in general, whatever redeeming qualities The Poet has lies in its strong characterization.
A blind teemager has her vision restored, a monkey learns to paint portraits, the Chinese president does some nefarious megalomaniacal Chinese president stuff, and the internet comes to life in time to send the formerly blind girl birthday wishes in Robert Sawyer's Wake, the first installment in his WWW trilogy.
What Sawyer does best here, as he does in his other books, is to choose a theme (or two), research it pretty well, and present a technically satisfying fictional portrait of that theme (or two). In WWW, the main theme is consciousness -- how it may have developed in humans during earlier stages of evolution, how it could morph within an intelligent modern day human when her primary senses are altered, how it might develop in non-human entities such as lower primates and (artificially) in machines.
Where Sawyer stumbles is in plot and character development. The operative weaknesses are a) it all unfolds too slowly, no doubt a function of originally being published in serialized form, as well as being stretched out into a trilogy, and b) it is all too familiar, too stock, despite taking so much extra time to work it all out. The confluence of those two factors is that there is too much time spent explaining the technicalities behind the plot and themes (although, as I said previously, those technicalities become the saving grace).
I realize that seems contradictory -- what I like best about the book is, so I claim, fluff that detracts from plot and character development. To get five stars and a rave review from me, Sawyer would have had to come up with a better story and more complex characters while retaining the great background material. Perhaps that happens later in the trilogy. I'm not sure yet whether I will take the time to find that out for myself.
Like many readers, I only ever read Philip Pullman's Dark Materials series, starting with The Golden Compass. Clockwork provided an opportunity to sample another of his works, also a children's book, like most of his books. Now, I'm not sure if I want to try that again -- this just did not work for me.
I never think it's a good idea for a writer to explain his central metaphor, even to children who may otherwise not understand it. But to explain how clocks worked in a pre-electronic age, then tell us that stories can work the same way, then having one character write a story within the story called Clockwork, having another character make clockworks, and having a third who has clockwork instead of a heart, well, it's all just too much, and doesn't make all that much sense. I'm not sure how children can be expected to understand this when it is too convoluted for this adult, even with all the preamble about clockwork and metaphor.
The print edition is heavily illustrated, but I don't think the absence of illustration makes any difference. I could see how it might enhance the printed word, but the spoken word should hold water on its own. I don't see how pictures would make this tale any less nonsensical.
Dave Van Ronk told co-author Elijah Wald that he did not want to write an autobiography. He wanted to capture the spirit of Greenwich Village during the 60s folk revival (the "folk scare" as he fondly dubbed it). He wanted to capture it as he saw it, having been a central figure for its duration, longer than anyone else, from its earliest sparks to his untimely death many decades later in 2002. To his credit, Van Ronk succeeded in his express intention and wrote a compelling musical and personal memoir in the process.
Van Ronk always seemed miss out on everything. He was too late for the trad jazz revival, his first musical love. He was too early to find fame and fortune in the folk revival that took off in the wake of Peter, Paul and Mary (he turned down an offer to complete the trio, which then went to Paul Stookey) and Bob Dylan, who recorded Dave's version of House of the Rising Sun before Dave had a chance to do so himself. And by his own preference, he stayed clear of rock'n'roll and the singer-songwriter wave started by contemporaries like Dylan, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton.
But Van Ronk was not only there when a seminal music scene developed and blossomed, he was a pivotal figure in its development, even if he never became a star himself. These days, Dave's birthplace, Brooklyn, is home to a nascent folk scene (that Dave himself would not categorize as folk but as singer-songwriter), so there is renewed interest in the Village folk revival of the late 50s and 60s. Dave's own memoir of that era covers every aspect of that scene in an entertaining and opinionated first person narrative, the highlights of which are his chapters on Reverend Gary Davis, Dylan, and the complicated taxonomy of Village social, political and musical movements of the era.
I admit that I cannot be an objective reviewer. Not that I was a big Van Ronk fan in the day -- I did see him (and enjoy him) at the Bitter End in the 80s and I did have one or two of his records (though I didn't listen to them often, not at all in the past 25 years). But he is not one of my major influences. We play the same style, share many of the same influences (Rev. Davis, Jelly Roll Morton), and I too was a busker in Washington Square (albeit twenty years later, being that much younger than him). But I too have lived my entire adult life in and around the Village and have always aspired toward the same musical ends, so to me, this book is manna from heaven.
Still, I think anyone with an interest in the music and the era will enjoy it as well. Certainly more so than the recent movie Inside Llewyn Davis, based on this book but taking so many liberties with the character of Van Ronk and the Village music scene that figures from that era, including Van Ronk's first wife, have taken issue with it. But the music is spot on, which is probably the most important thing (although the primary song used in the movie, Hang Me, is never once mentioned in the book.
This is the third book by Max Barry that I've read (the prior two in print), and as a former participant in the corporate work force as both employee and executive, I have enjoyed his biting satires of that world. Jennifer Government imagines a world in which corporations operate with minimal governmental regulation and go so far as killing people as part of their marketing campaigns. Company imagines a corporation in which employees don't actually know what their company produces, and what happens when one of them tries to find out.
Syrup, Barry's first novel, examines marketing techniques and internal corporate politics set inside the Coco-Cola Company. Like its successors, it starts with a smart but naive young man just trying to do his job and get ahead, a strong and sexy woman who has the power to make his personal and professional dreams come true, a cold-blooded nemesis who lies and cheats his way to the top, and a spectrum of corporate drones, mindless media types, inept executives, and hip outsiders.
All three books had the same effect on me: I loved their initial premise, liked the characters, bought into the parody for the most part, but ultimately felt that the satire, following a vicious course of logic, strayed a little too far into surrealism. They are all good in the end, all good overall, but there is something unsettling about a strict devotion to the internal logic of the premise taking the story to illogical conclusions. In Syrup, the primary result is repetition in the final act, which costs Barry one star in my estimation.
I got this audiobook when I saw Barry's name, based on past experience with him, and never even looked at the narrator. I wasn't more than three minutes in when I felt the need to increase the playback speed to 1.25, and as soon as I did so, I thought -- this must be Scott Brick. Sure enough. I didn't recognize him at first because this is not as plodding as his normal pace of narration, but it still needed that little bit of speed to pick things up.
Scott Meyer's Magic 2.0 series builds on an interesting premise: present-day computer geeks, using their programming power to travel through time and create other advantages for themselves, appear to be wizards to the people in the past. In Off to Be the Wizard (OTBTW), the first entry in the series, that location was medieval England. In the follow-up, Spell or High Water (SOHW), the primary locale is Atlantis.
For me, SOHW is one star better than OTBTW in every respect. In my review of the first book, I started by noting that it was as fun and funny as I had hoped, but that it was flawed, and I concluded by noting that I hoped Meyer could improve on those flaws in the sequel that obviously on the way. And indeed he has, addressing exactly the two main problems I had, making this a better book and a better listen (narrator Luke Daniels also improves on my problem with his reading of OTBTW, toning down the voices a little, though not enough).
The main thing on the author's end is that is primarily a time travel story, but one in which nothing anyone does in the past changes the future. While it remains true in SOHW that present day outcomes cannot be altered, SOHW allows for a) a possible explanation somewhere down the road of why that is, and more importantly b) possible changes in the timeline of the past they now inhabit, which influences their actions.
In addition, we are no longer confined to medieval England as our setting. We now also have Atlantis, even though it is a mythical setting rather than an historical one. We also have "wizards" and "sorceresses" in Atlantis for a summit who have come from many times and places in the past and present, and while I still yearned for more of that kind of variety, it was an improvement to have even a little of it.
Now, if Meyer can also work in more variation in the present day places the so-called wizards come from, in addition to more locales in the past (mythical or real), that would be even better. And we don't have to wait to find out -- the third volume in the series, and Unwelcome Quest, just came out.
In Hugh Howey's novella, some people go into the many worlds available via simulators to conduct scientific research, some to have some fun, some, as in the case of the main title character, to find works of literary art, memorize them, and publish them in the real world as their own. The nature of creativity is but one of several themes explored in this very short work, along with happiness in the world of fantasy vs. reality.
I prefer longer audiobooks to short ones. Nevertheless, I've listened to a number of short works recently. To be honest, that's because they are less expensive. I don't understand why the 17-hour, 242 MB Wool Omnibus is four times as costly as the 90-minute, 42MB Plagiarist -- yes, that's more storage, and a costlier audio production, but these are not variable costs. But that's the way audiobooks are priced, based on value no doubt.
I've come to a simple conclusion: A good novella makes you wish it was a full length novel, makes you long for more. A lesser work of lesser length makes you see why it could not have been longer -- there's just not enough there to begin with. The Plagiarist, for me, falls squarely in the former category -- it's a neat little novella, with a nice twist at the end (fairly predictable), but I would have loved to learn more about these worlds, real and simulated, and the characters that inhabit them.
I did have a bit a problem with the narration. Too slow, too ponderous, a bit depressing. I sped up the playback to 1.25, which helped, but made it even shorter. Is it possible that this is the first entry in what will eventually be a full length omnibus, as Howey has created in the past? I hope so -- if so, I hope a new narrator is utilized.
No one understands why President Libby Paulsen hired Pete Brand to pilot Air Force One, circumventing normal chains of seniority. They don't know that she once had a longstanding personal relationship with him. But when a right wing conspiracy launches a military coup to overthrow her administration, assassinating her VP and trying to knock AF1 from the sky, Brand steps in to attempt to save the day, even as things regress from bad to worse to ludicrous.
Robert Gandt, a former air force and airline pilot turned writer, has crafted a decent political thriller around this concept, a straight-ahead, action-packed, made-for-TV page turner. His characters may be straight from central casting and his plot may require a huge suspension of disbelief -- the conventional wisdom against conspiracy theories is that people can't keep secrets, and there are a lot of conspirators here, a LOT, all of them willing to kill at the drop of a hat. Still, it comes together quickly and stays together despite its loose fabric.
But as an audiobook, it suffers from one fatal flaw. President Paulsen may have benefited in the end by hiring her friend as pilot. But Gandt does not benefit from hiring his friend and fellow aviation author Tom Block as narrator. To describe his reading as amateurish would be an insult to amateurs. To describe his voice as growly would be an insult to growlers. To describe his character voicings as ... well, those are just an insult to our ears.
I would have at least wanted to give this book 3 1/2 stars -- four overall and three for story because of how far it stretches credulity -- but I have to round down to three because of this horrific performance. I want to read more of Gandt's fiction, but all of his audio novels are narrated by Block, so I would have to turn to his print editions.
I haven't read Old Man's War, so I'm approaching The Human Division as a new series, a spin-off set in the OMW universe. In fact, the way the book was written -- chapters called episodes published weekly -- this omnibus volume has the feel of a TV series. For me, this is a good thing.
But it's more than just the publication schedule (13 episodes, the standard for a cable drama). The way the episodes and the overall story are plotted are key to the feel of a TV series. The episodes stand up on their own, for the most part, as complete stories, and they also figure into the overall story arc -- attempts by various forces to either divide the human race scattered across the galaxy from Earth or keep them united.
Every other episode centers on the main characters -- Colonial Union officer Harry Wilson, diplomatic aide Hart Schmidt, and ambassador Ode Obumwe (there are several other major recurring characters). In between, the stories follow other characters, some of whom figure more or less as the overall story unfolds. The emphasis on characterization over plotting is highly successful, as it would be on the best TV series.
The book ends with a cliffhanger that leaves the central mystery unresolved, anticipating the next entry in the series, due out this year (2015) -- indeed, in announcing the next entry, John Scalzi said "The Human Division has been renewed for a second season".
Having previously listened to all of Scalzi's novels except any of the OMW series, I was worried about having a narrator other than Wil Wheaton, who is my favorite. But William Dufris, who reads most of the OMW series, is excellent as well. Maybe not as funny as WW, but maybe this series is not supposed to be as funny (though Harry Wilson is a bit of sarcastic Scalzi cut-up, and Dufris does him justice).
Award winning chemistry professor Robert Wolke answers myriad questions on the subject of food and food preparation, all from the point of view of the science of where food comes from, how to best store it, how to cook it, etc. etc. His explanations are so good, they will more than pay back the price of buying this audiobook. For example, you will never again spend more for sea salt or a salt grinder than you will for a box of regular table salt, and you will understand why from a simple scientific point of view.
As you might expect from a non-fiction book that doesn't have a defined narrative flow (each section stands on its own), the best comes first. The opening sections on sugar, salt, and fat -- basic ingredients with significant health factors -- are outstanding. The middle sections on proteins, chemicals, and drinks are still excellent, but a bit scattershot in terms of relevance (do I really care if light cream is technically heavier than heavy cream or whether an egg can really fry on a hot sidewalk?).
The penultimate chapter on microwaves is essential and will change the way you use yours -- understanding how microwaves defrost frozen food vs. the alternatives will, once again, save you lots of money, or at least improve your culinary results. But the closing section seriously starts to sag, which is a shame since it focuses on kitchen tools -- still, it could save you serious bucks when it comes to buying tools since you will be that much more knowledgeable about what they do and what they can't do for you.
The lively narration helps. I look forward to reading the follow-up, although I worry that, like the last chapter of this volume, there will be a natural downtrend in interest level. My only other caveat is that, unlike another science book I recently listened to (Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Great Courses lectures on physics), it does seriously help to have a foundational understanding of some scientific principles in order to understand this book -- nothing more than high school level, though, which is the highest level of science I ever studied.
I rarely give up on a book, neither in print nor in audio. I tried to stick with this one, intending to plow through, resisting the urge to pull the plug at the one-hour mark, at two hours, three, and various other points along the way. Finally, at four, I just couldn't stand it any more. I kept hearing the voice of Michael Bunker in his afterword to Legendarium advising readers to sample as many independently published books as possible, but if one doesn't work, put it down and start another. So that's what I am going to do.
I got Overdraft as an Audible sale book because of its interesting premise and good reviews -- a stock trader of the type we'd encounter today is drawn into a 22nd century space opera, in a galaxy that capitalist humans are pleased to discover "is open for business". It was also supposed to be fun and funny, my favorite description for any type of audiobook, especially science fiction.
But Overdraft does not deliver on its premise nor its promise. It is just a bunch of people constantly yelling at each other while battling predictably bizarre aliens. Especially annoying is the stockbroker, voiced as a nerd. I don't blame Luke Daniels for the over-the-top voices -- he is usually good at performing different characters. The material is the primary problem, and one would also have to hold the director accountable for the misguided performance.
I usually go back and try again when I give up on a book, but I don't foresee doing that this time, not unless I totally run out of audiobooks, and that is not happening any time soon.
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