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This is the book that turned me on to Jonathan Tropper several years ago. I've since read all of his work in print, re-read several on Audible. With the movie version due in September, and with This Is Where I Leave You showing up in a recent BOGO sale, I leaped at the chance to re-read one of my all time favorites in audio. So it is now one my all time favorites in audio.
Judd Foxman recently caught his wife sleeping with his boss, so he is loveless, homeless, jobless, broke, and on the verge of divorce (cuckolded, as he says repeatedly). Then his father dies. He and his family have to sit shiva in his parents' suburban home, receiving visitors while revisiting every aspect of their past and determining the course of their future. Similar structure to all of Tropper's books, but each one somehow remains fresh, and this is one of the funniest of them all.
The cast of the upcoming movie is killer. Jason Bateman as Judd, Tina Fey as his sister, Jane Fonda as his mother, Adam Driver from Girls as his funnier brother, Corey Stoll from House of Cards as his serious brother, Dax Shephard from Parenthood as his donkey-hole boss, Connie Britton from Friday Night Lights, Ben Schwartz from House of Lies and Parks & Rec, Abigail Spencer from Suits, Tim Olyphant from Justified, and the underrated Kathryn Hahn who was hilarious in We're the Millers. Although Ramon de Ocampo doesn't do voices, he nails the passive aggressiveness of the Foxmans with his deadpan reading, and I could hear each of the actors delivering these lines in the movie.
Whether you've read it already or not, read it in advance of the movie, or read it afterwards, you will not be disappointed.
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.
We know from the opening line of Everything I Never Told You that Emily, a high school student in Ohio in 1977, is dead. In the next ten-plus hours, the mystery behind her death unfolds. We learn many things about her immediate family -- her Chinese father, American mother, envious brother, little sister -- as well as her only friend, a potentially dangerous boy who lives next door.
This is not a murder mystery. This is a character study of a family, of each individual in that family. This is an exploration of family ties -- parents projecting the burden of their dreams on their children, children trying to live up to their parents' expectations of them, the sibling rivalries that result, the secrets and lies they try to protect themselves with, albeit futilely.
But it's more than that. Without ever hitting us over the head with the bigger picture, always staying within the lines of this particular family's dysfunction, first-time novelist Celeste Ng also tackles the subjects of gender roles and racial equality, loneliness and alienation. Yet it does so without the turbulence of the outside world intruding (quite the opposite of the similarly set and similarly themed Ice Storm) -- that's how turbulent this family's life has become.
This book's emotional punch is aimed straight at the solar plexus. It is not for the faint of heart. My wife couldn't take it -- it was too depressing for her. I found it to be pitch perfect. Especially since some of these same issues dogged my own family in the exact same ways -- assimilation, expectation, emotional manipulation, sublimation, isolation, favoritism and disapproval, and most of all the necessity of lying to keep your true feelings hidden (though for us there was no tragic ending).
In the preface to Brain Droppings, the first of three short books of humor performed here by the late great master comedian himself, George Carlin identifies three of his main sources of humor -- the English language, aspects of everyday life (like driving and pets), and larger social and political issues plaguing the human condition.
His dissection of the way we use language will make you change the way you speak, will make you think twice before using common words and phrases, even the way you say goodbye or tell someone what time it is. It should be taught in high school and college, especially the redundancies, oxymorons, and incorrect usages. It really takes the cake -- or why the cake, why not pie? That would be as easy as pie. Piece of cake. That kind of stuff.
His riffs on what he calls the "small things" of life will likewise crack you up as it makes you think twice about things you take for granted. Like, did you ever notice that everyone who drives slower than you is an idiot, but everyone who drives faster is a maniac? And do you really want to take a non-stop flight? Wouldn't you rather they make at least one stop?
Priceless stuff, much of it familiar if you've already seen his stand-up routines or heard his recordings. Having it in this form is the best of both worlds -- the original published print books allowed Carlin and his editors to hone the material down to its most perfect verbiage, and then having him perform it in audio format in his inimitable style, reflecting his years of doing this material on stage, is simply hilarious. You'll be quoting him for quite some time (I've been quoting him for decades -- like, did you ever notice when you wear a hat for a while, it starts to feel like it's not there, then you take it off, and it feels like it's still there!).
Now, the bigger stuff, the political and social criticism, that's more hit and miss, depending on your personal views. He takes great pains in his preface to make it clear that he has no agenda other than being an acerbic observer of our larger foibles, but it may definitely rub one the wrong way when his omnicritcal take on our world mercilessly skewers your own opinions. His pre-9/11 jokes about terrorism are especially anachronistic. Just remember, it's all meant to be humorous.
Likewise his vulgarity, Although his most famous routine, Seven Dirty Words, is not part of this collection, he uses a lot more than seven dirty words here. Many of his punch lines are not really punch lines, they're just flat out in your face cussing. You probably knew that before considering whether to listen to him, but better to be prepared for it -- and remember, it's all a joke. (Bonus points for anyone who can pick out the phrases used in this review that Carlin would eviscerate.)
Harry Turtledove is a prolific practitioner of alternate history whose works tend to run to epic lengths across multiple volumes. He has also written some novellas along the way. Down in the Bottomlands is an example of the latter which may well serve, if you haven't previously read Turtledove, to whet your appetite for his more ambitious tomes.
The main historical alternative he considers here: What if the Mediterranean Sea had been cut off from the Atlantic Ocean millions of year ago and dried up into a vast hot desert basin well below sea level (the Bottomlands). The political map of this world has been redrawn, with Neanderthals having survived and evolved with intellect equal to homo sapiens from Africa, England and the Middle East.
The plot, centered around a biologist serving as tour guide in the Bottomlands to a group of various nationalities, unfolds quickly. Along the way, we learn about the fauna and flora of the Bottomlands, as well as the social structure this world's humans have imposed upon themselves. And, as is necessary for any good tale, the characters are well drawn, even in the limited word count of this short novel.
The net effect: I wanted more. I wanted to learn more about this world and its people and its geography and its biology. That is not a criticism -- I liked what I got and I wanted to learn more. I don't believe Turtledove ever revisited this particular creation in subsequent writings, so I will not get what I want. But he has plenty of other novels to delve into.
My only qualm: in audio format, it was hard to follow the strange names of the characters, countries, animals, etc., including words, particularly for measuring of time and space, invented for this book. I found a copy of the novella online that I used to familiarize myself with these words and names. That helped.
The world of plastic surgery is the background for another sampling of Florida anthropology by Carl Hiaasen, one of the foremost practitioners of comic Florida crime fiction. Someone is trying to kill former investigator Mick Stranahan after he starts to revisit a cold case involving a botched nose job by a crooked and incompetent plastic surgeon.
This being Hiaasen, there is a lot more going on here than Stranahan going after the quack. As usual, there is a broad range of characters from various walks of life (most of them low) in the great state of Florida. And the world of plastic surgery is hardly Hiassen's sole target -- tabloid TV journalism, Geraldo Rivera style, is sent up, along with frequent targets like shyster lawyers, corrupt police and politicians, arrogant party boys, vindictive divorcees, and vain celebrities.
There is also a singularly memorable foe for Stranahan to go up against and some truly gruesome deaths, including one that was copied some years later by the makers of the movie Fargo (which one could argue is like Hiaasen in Minnesota). On the sympathetic side, there are friendly conch fishermen, loveable waitresses, and a sharp-toothed barracuda.
So what we have here is off-the-shelf Carl Hiaassen, not necessarily a standout among his oeuvre, but perfectly entertaining entry for established fans of his style of Floridian farce to enjoy. George Wilson narrates it well, familiar enough with this genre from having performed a healthy percentage of books by Hiaasen and another writer in the same vein, Tim Dorsey.
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