New York, NY, United States
Charming Vampire Comedy.
Jodie, an average San Francisco woman, gets turned into a vampire. She meets Tommy, a geek writer wannabe from Indiana, and they fall in love. At the same time, they are trying to locate the ancient vampire who turned Jodie and who is committing a series of murders that he seems to be laying upon the unlikely young lovers. It's humorous, it's charming, and it's about vampires.
I don't like vampires. I just never saw the point of it. Especially the seemingly neverending fixation with them in popular culture. I always associated vampire myths with antisemitism, knowing that the hysteria of the 19th century coincided exactly with the rise of antisemitism and echoed the worst anitsemitic belief, the blood libel. Any lingering doubts I may have had were quelled thirty years ago when I saw the original Nosferatu, made in 1922 in Germany. And still the parade of vampire fiction continues unabated.
Nevertheless, among the ceaseless flow, I took to True Blood, the TV show. I am a huge fan of Alan Ball and I liked the metaphor of vampires as gay culture in the context of its time. Similarly, I knew I would eventually have to read the vampire series written by one of my favorite authors, Chris Moore, although I left it for last after plowing through the rest of this back catalog. When Bloodsucking Fiends, the first in the series, showed up as an Audible Daily Deal, I knew the time had come to take the plunge.
And I liked it, despite it being about vampires, and for the same reason I like the TV version of the books it can be most compared to, the Sookie Stackhouse series that forms the basis for True Blood (even though Fiends predates Sookie by a number of years). Moore doesn't broach the gay metaphor, but he too places his vampires in contemporary society, in San Francisco, stays true to the reality of his setting despite the presence of supernatural beings (as he always does), and presents us with a book of charm and wit, tangentially tackling modern issues, like euthanasia. And he leaves out the gore, diverting from the True Blood comparison.
I have not listened to Susan Bennett before, but I guess I will again, since she narrates Moore's other two vampire books, Bite Me and You Suck (she also has narrated Charlaine Harris's most recent book that includes a vampire, though not in the Sookie series). Bennett does a good job, especially with the two main characters, Jodie and Tommy.
You probably never heard of Noel Langley. He was the South African novelist who wrote the original screenplay as well as the final screenplay for The Wizard of Oz, the beloved 1939 movie. Before Langley, no one ever heard of Miss Gulch, or of the three farmhands working on the Gale farm in black-and-white Kansas. That's because he invented them and added them to Frank Baum's original 1900 children's novel. Langley chucked most of what his co-writers Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf added to the screenplay, but he did keep one of their creations, Professor Marvel, also not in the book, though similar to Oz's alter-ego who appears toward the end of Baum's version as the man behind the curtain.
Baum's book is mostly the same as the movie. The latter has the extended introduction while the former has a more elaborate ending, the one making up for the other. There are other differences, but not enough to throw anyone off. Other than Kansas, Baum has more going on than the movie, and that's good. Of course, there's no music. Instead, the audio edition casts Anne Hathaway as the slightly overboard celebrity narrator -- to mixed results, if you look at the body of reviews. I thought her voices were pretty good, mostly based on the film voices, but some sounding like Valley Girls.
What I paid most attention to in listening to the original book was the allegory. It has been postulated that Baum, a turn of the century populist (or maybe not, depending on whom you read), crafted his story to closely allegorize the political issues and personalities of his day. For example, Oz is the abbreviation of ounce, referring to the silver standard that was hotly debated at the time, as well as the ruby slippers, which in the original are silver. The wicked witch of the east is Wall Street, the munchkins are the little people, the scarecrow represents farmers, the tin man workers, and the emerald city is DC, Oz the president.
Since the movie script did not adhere to this allegory (e.g. ruby instead of silver slippers), I was interested in trying to pick up on these details in the original narrative. I wasn't really able to -- I think it would take a more Talmudic approach to parsing the actual text. will leave it to scholars to do that. Meanwhile, I'll cue up Dark Side of the Moon and watch the opening sequence of the movie again.
Eliezer, the main character of Night who is mostly but (possibly) not completely the alter-ego of Elie Wiesel, has a moment, early during his Holocaust experience, where he believes, hopes, that it is all a nightmare from which he will imminently awake. He soon realizes that it is all too real, worse than a living nightmare, a relentless series of night terrors for him and his father and the people around him.
Wiesel's pared-down memoir of the Holocaust is mostly straightforward description of what he experienced, how he went from one place to the next, how he was treated, how he found food, how he survived illness, what was happening to those around him, most notably his father, with him most of the time. Only on occasion does Wiesel delve into his feelings, but when he does, that's where his account really hits home.
Worst of all are his feelings about his father. As much he strives to keep together and stay alive, he agonizes over the sense that his own chance of survival would improve if his father was not there. He feels terrible guilt about being rendered powerless to intervene when his father is mistreated. Sadly, Wiesel does not attempt to explore how his father felt about having to play the same role for his teenaged son.
There is also Wiesel's famous abandonment of God during the course of his experience, quite understandable but not nearly universal among survivors.
For me, this book was more personal. My father's experience was nearly identical -- dread of impending war overlaid by unfounded optimism among those who chose to stay (one of my father's brother emigrated to Palestine before the war), years in the ghetto (Lodz for my father), deportation by cattle car to the camps (most of my father's family died in those cars), arrival at Auschwitz and the selection process under the evil glare of Mengele, death march in mid-winter to a far-off camp, loss of a family member (sister) just before liberation.
My father rarely spoke about those things. Later in life, when he did, it was mostly about the broader events. Wiesel gets into detail, how the camps were organized, how they were supervised, how the selection process worked, how they were fed, how they dealt with each other. And how people died. I found incredible and indelible power in his spare but detailed account, punctuated by the profound of emotions about his father, his God, his guilt, about humanity and inhumanity, the survival instinct, and having to live with terrors that cannot and should not be forgotten.
A young lawyer investigates a series of murders, uncovering political corruption, gangland rivalries, foreign intrigue, class warfare, femme fatales, and vast conspiracies. Film noir? A contemporary procedural? No -- it all takes place in ancient Rome in the waning days of the Republic, with a young Julius Caesar making a couple of cameo appearances long before his ascendancy to the role of emperor.
In the first half of the first book in his SPQR series, what John Maddox Roberts does best is paint a portrait of life in Rome, using the form of the modern murder mystery as a framework. And maybe if I read SPQR before watching the HBO series Rome, that might have been more interesting than it was -- predating the TV show by 15 years, the Rome of SPQR, even with its murders and swordplay, is quite tame.
But the big problem with SPQR is that the mystery fails. Big time. "Why am I telling you all this?" says the villain to the lawyer during the final hour after explaining the reason behind the murders. The Talking Villain -- one of the most hackneyed, trite, and laziest of mystery conventions. Long ago discredited. And in any credible mystery, you have to give the reader a chance to figure things out along the way -- the reveals in SPQR are totally out of left field in terms of who done it as well as why they done it.
Newsflash, JMR: The game of chess was not invented during Roman times, and was still a millenium away from reaching Europe -- one thousand years! Maybe you thought it was OK for you to include such a blatant anachronism since Shakespeare included a number of them in Julius Caesar. Further newsflash, JMR: You are no Shakespeare.
If you're a Rolling Stones fan, you will identify to some degree with Bill German. As a teen in the 70s, he launched a homemade Stones fanzine and soon transformed his rabid fandom into a dream career of covering his favorite band full time. He got to follow them around the world on tour, and even became close friends with Keith Richard, Ron Wood, and various other members of the Stones entourage.
But be careful what you wish for. Or as Billy's teacher warned him, if you make your work feel like fun, your fun will eventually feel like work. It takes Billy 17 years to figure this out. His fellow Stones fans may envy him for getting in with their idols, getting into their shows and parties, but he eventually comes to envy them their freedom to just be fans and enjoy the music.
Billy makes the Stones -- Keith and Woody, at least -- seem like real people. There are few tales of sex and drugs, since Billy, a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, didn't participate in that side of it (though he doesn't whitewash it either). Instead, they come off as family men and good friends with their hearts in the right place. All except Mick -- if you're a big Jagger fan, you are not going to like this portrayal at all. If it's always Keith vs. Mick, Billy is with Keith, and for good reason.
What really hits home is Billy's constant insecurity, one foot inside the inner sanctum, one foot as the perpetual outsider, always the independent journalist and the opportunistic fan, rarely a trusted and welcome member of the greater Stones family (except in his personal relationships with Keith and Woody). I relate to this, having gone through a similar exercise (at a more advanced age) with my favorite sports team, publishing a magazine and website for my fellow fans, trying to act like a professional sportswriter, but never fully accepted as such by the team (though there were notable exceptions among some of my fellow writers).
In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I knew Billy German. Of course, he was just ten years old, I was just a teenager -- he was friends with my little brother and sister, and remains in touch with them. I haven't seen him since then and was surprised to learn upon the publication of this book that he had spent the better part of his life working so closely with the Rolling Stones. I have to say, recalling that sometimes bratty tow-headed little kid, I am impressed.
So this is Billy's story. As I said, I had my own brief experience as a fan-journalist covering the NY Rangers (I wrote a book about it, but the only way it will ever see the light of day is if I self-publish). And then there is Larry Sloman, an acquaintance via the Rangers, who started his own career as a writer by going on tour with his favorite artist, Bob Dylan, so pricelessly chronicled in his book, On the Road With Bob Dylan. And don't forget Nick Hornby's debut was about being an Arsenal fan (no, I don't know him). It's a great genre for the fan in all of us.
The three high school kids from The Second Ship and Immune are back, and they once again must foil the mad scientist hellbent on global domination (despite having already foiled him in Immune). More than that, they must save the world from a black hole and an alien invasion (though they cannot save the world from its own insanity, including nuclear bombs).
The watchword for Richard Phillips in the first installment of this trilogy was how well he put the science back in science fiction, having studied and worked as a physicist. The next entry was lighter on science and heavier on action, but still retained its credibility, despite banking on Area 51 conspiracies as its basis.
Wormhole remains strong on science and long on action. But its credibility is riddled by plot holes wide enough for space ships to fly through. I can't be too specific in order to avoid spoilers, but let me say that there is a major transference from one character to another that is never brought up again.
I would expect this to reappear in a future Rho Agenda book, except that Phillips says he has no plans for a direct successor to the series. Anyway, this plot twist is as central to this story as one can imagine, so it really needed more attention here. There are other situations which are left unattended, and other revelations that strain credulity, even as the two-hour denouement goes totally over the top and off the charts.
Still, a good science fiction thriller, a decent conclusion to this trilogy. One star deducted from the Story rating for the plot holes. I already have the audio version of the first of two completed entries in a second Rho Agenda trilogy, a prequel featuring Jack "Ripper" Gregory. He's a great character so I have high expectations.
Richard Phillips first caught my attention with his attention to detail (scientific detail) in The Second Ship, the first entry in his Rho Agenda series. I liked it enough to want to listen to the next entry, but I wasn't ready to dive into it right away. After listening to Immune, I'm going right into Book Three without wasting any more time.
Less scientifically rigorous but packed with action, Immune continues the story of three Los Alamos high school students who discover, and are empowered by, the technology on a derelict alien space ship. An indestructible CIA agent (known as the Ripper) and his aide help the trio uncover and foil an insidious plot to perpetrate a lot of evil that I won't go into in order to avoid spoilers. There are some memorable bad guys too, some of whom are sure to be back in the third volume.
Why does one sci-fi series grab me while another leaves me underwhelmed? My reasons may or may not overlap with yours. John Scalzi and Lee Martinez grab me with humor and clever stories. Robert Sawyer chooses controversial subjects and researches them well. Phillips, utilizing his background as a physicist and a military man, has created a credible series of sci-fi thrillers based in contemporary times, building on the Roswell myth.
Amazing that 45 years later, Jerzy Kosinski's political fable remains not only relevant, but magnified by contemporary American politics. In 1970, Kosinski imagined Chance, the newly homeless gardener, as just one slow-witted figure who is given the steering wheel to the political bus by people who should know better. Today, we have the clown car of candidates, filled to overflowing, growing more crowded each day, taken far too seriously by people who should know better.
Being There posits the notion that politics is all about just, well, being there -- years before Woody Allen coined the phrase "80% of life is just showing up" in Annie Hall (although some still debate whether Kosinski actually wrote any of this stuff himself). Thus does Chance, despite his mental handicaps, rise to become a revered political pundit and even presidential candidate within a matter of days, his truisms about gardening and TV watching mistaken for profound metaphors about the political and economic climate (pun intended).
The 1979 movie version is wonderful, one of my all-time favorites, Peter Sellers pitch-perfect as Chance ("I like to watch"), as is the entire supporting cast, and with Basketball Jones making a memorable video cameo. The original novella is not quite as fully realized, the difference being a more complete depiction of the impact of TV upon a simple anonymous character like Chance, via actual TV clips like Basketball Jones (easier for a visual medium like film to pull off).
But it is still a great, quick read. I read it way back when, and welcomed this opportunity to listen to Dustin Hoffman narrate it in audio format. Hoffman's reading is a tad slow and gruff, but it is still a treat.
Art imitates life and life imitates art in Nick Hornby's latest novel -- back and forth until using that old saw is no longer apt. Indeed, Hornby's characters, starting with Lucille Ball wannabe Sophie Straw (nee Barbara), start out crafting their mid-60s BBC sitcom based on their own life experience, and then, when it succeeds, mold the series to the needs of their real life, including the impact of their newfound celebrity.
To take it one step further -- and to state the main reason while I liked this book a lot, despite its decidedly mixed reviews -- the deeper theme is about the creative process, how one's own experience informs that process and how one's own life has to alter in order to maintain creativity over the long haul. Hornby does an excellent job exploring the nuances of creativity while drawing a team of engaging characters and mildly humorous episodes.
Funny Girl will not make fans forget High Fidelity or About a Boy, or even one of my personal favorites, Juliet Naked. But it is solidly in there with the remainder of Hornby's fiction (except for the woebegotten Slam). It is worth the price of admission just for the chapter about the stuffy talk show Pipe Smoke where Sophie's producer Dennis destroys his joyless old school counterpart on the subject of what constitutes appropriate TV material.
If I have one bone to pick, it is the relegation of the 1960s to a bit part, despite its indelible influence as a revolutionary cultural era that set the stage for the show within the book to break new ground. Yes, there is occasional reference to the Beatles, Stones and Yardbirds, and the even more groundbreaking sitcom Till Death Us Do Part (the model for the US hit All in the Family). But it would have been nice to have a better sense of what was going on at the time. In fact, it is often not even clear that the story is set during the heart of the 60s.
Nice job by Emma Fielding reading the book, especially reading Sophie's lines. A little too breathy on occasion, but otherwise spot on.
Cotton Malone and Co. have to solve a puzzle that jillionaire Andrew Mellon left behind for FDR back in the 1930s. And they have to stop the North Koreans and Chinese, and a rogue American conspiracy theorist, from solving it first in order to protect secrets that could bring the U.S. economy crashing down. In other words, classic Steve Berry, nicely rebounding from the disappointment of his previous effort.
Making this audiobook special for longtime Berry fans like me is a version that features post-chapter commentary by the author. Berry always includes a postscript to his books detailing what is historically accurate, what may be speculation by various entities (some scholarly, some not), and what are his own fictional creations. I often refer to his afterword as I read in order to know these distinctions as I go along. Here, we get some of that information at the end of each chapter, plus the full afterword at the end. Great stuff.
My one problem with this book, for which I deduct a star, is some weakness and distortion in the main element of the story. I don't believe the prime secret rises to the level of existential threat to our economy. We have never provided reparations for slavery or genocide, and more recently have not held anyone accountable for the fraud used to launch a war that killed thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands overall, or held anyone accountable for crashing our economy, so I don't think we'd allow some arcane legal argument undo a century of reality.
I also find the author remiss in failing to fully explain the situation with the real-life book that is the main source material for this conspiracy theory. He notes that courts have ruled it to be without sufficient evidence to make a real case. In fact, it has been deemed to be lacking in any proof whatsoever, and indeed has been ruled to be a fraud perpetrated by its author in order to make money. Knowing that, as I did before starting this book, further diminishes the power of the McGuffin that drives The Patriot Threat.
On the other hand, there are other redeeming qualities to the book, including the second secret pointed to by the puzzle, and even more so the look inside North Korea and its prison camps. Hana, one of the main characters, and one of two windows into North Korea, is a brilliantly realized character, more compelling (in this particular volume) than Cotton Malone himself. Overall, despite the weakness of the main secret and the plodding narration of Scott Brick, The Patriot Threat is a treat, especially for Berry's fans.
If, like me, you enjoy non-fiction that attempts to explain science, history, economics, or what have you to readers who are not fully educated in those fields, and particularly enjoy them in audio format, then you really can't go wrong with What If, the longtime New York Times best seller. The premise is immediately captivating, as expressed in the subtitle:serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions. Like, what would happen if you drained the oceans, or if the sun was suddenly extinguished?
That the answers are not as completely serious as the subtitle suggests is actually a good thing, especially with the incomparable Wil Wheaton reading the droll explanations, leading us to their inevitable punch lines. For example, the answer about the sun is all about the positives that might result in the absence of sunlight, until the punchline -- we couldn't realize those benefits because we would all freeze to death.
Still, the good thing about answering absurd questions in this way is arriving at backhanded explanations of serious scientific subjects, such as the ways the sun can be a detriment, despite being so essential to life. Unfortunately, not every topic is as informative as this best of examples. To be honest, some of the answers, scientifically rigorous though they may be, are actually as silly as the original questions, and do not really impart any useful knowledge.
In the final analysis, I find What If to be consistently entertaining, but not consistently edifying -- I certainly like to be entertained by these kinds of books, but not at the expense of learning something new.
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