New York, NY, United States
Let me make sure this is clear before I get into details: This book was entertaining and I'm happy to have listened to it. And I would try another book from Chris Ewan in the Good Thief's Guide series. But let me make this clear too: I would try one more, and if it's as full of holes as this one, that would be the last.
Ewan is a mystery writer writing about a mystery writer who is also a master thief. His protagonist, Charlie Howard, grapples with the details of the mystery book he is writing even as he acts out his part as master thief in Ewan's mystery book. Given this metafictional structure, I this it's totally fair game to have problems with the holes in Ewan's plot that mirror those in Howard's book.
Howard's prize possession is a framed first edition of The Maltese Falcon, which is mentioned on page 44, pretty early on. By then, we know that he has been hired to steal a pair of monkey figurines that everyone keeps telling him are worthless. If I as reader can instantly connect The Maltese Falcon to the worthless monkey figurines, why does it take Howard, a brilliant writer and thief who prizes The Maltese Falcon, so long? Not good.
There are other foreshadows of a similar nature that are instantly evident, but I will not go into detail so as not to spoil anything -- I don't think the figurine issue is a spoiler because it is just so obvious.
Without spoilers, I will again refer to Ewan's novel-within-the-novel. Howard's editor points out a huge hole in his plot that he tries to figure out even while he tries to figure out what is actually happening to him in the plot he is living in. After he fingers who done it and how and why, his editor points out the hole in his real life plot. He spends the last pages of the book explaining it away, to no one's satisfaction (by which I mean his, his editor's, or mine).
In Ewan's metafiction, the hole in his plot is left as unresolved as the hole in his character's plot. His editor even tells him, by way of consolation, that readers won't remember how the briefcase got into the policeman's hands by the time the ending rolls around. Not willing to take that chance, Ewan confronts his big hole and merely wishes it away, unsuccessfully.
In addition, the big ending in which Howard explains what happened and fingers the perp employs the classic technique of bringing everyone into the same room as he tells them all what he figured out. Obviously done on purpose, but equally obvious is that the scene is totally contrived, totally gratuitous, and beyond credulity.
Simon Vance is a staple of audiobooks. I've had the misfortune of only listening to him read books that were inadequately plotted. Still, he has done a masterful job in every case. He has that irresistible English accent and uses it in a classic understated manner.
Since it is a series, and English, and a mystery, it could definitely be a PBS Mystery or Masterpiece Theater, although reports in the press have ABC developing it . With a British cast, Bill Nighy has the right attitude for Charlie Howard, but he may be a bit too old to play the cat burglar. Maybe one of the Fiennes boys, Ralph or Joseph. Timothy Spall would be a good Rutherford/Stuart, although I'm not sure if he's a recurring character. Victoria? I'm gonna say Kristin Scott Thomas, but if you need someone younger, Kate Beckinsale.
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.
Set in the 1930s in the interior of New Guinea, a landscape almost as wild today as it was then, Euphoria tells the tale of a love triangle between three anthropologists as they study native culture. The story is a thinly veiled fictionalization of how Margaret Mead transitioned from her second husband to her third husband while the three of them were working in New Guinea, although the novel ends quite differently than Mead's real-life story.
What I found most fascinating about this absorbing book was the interplay between what can nominally be termed civilized and primitive culture, a doubly Heisenbergian exercise in which the very act of observation changes not only the observed but the observers as well. Throughout, as we are drawn deep into the psyche of the three "Western" scientists (one American, one British, one Australian) and learn about the villagers they study, we come to question which culture is the civilized one and which is primitive.
Adding to the cultural symmetry is Margaret Mead's work in real life. Though not explicitly dealt with in Euphoria, you are now drawn to re-examine her ideas and wonder how much influence these "primitive" cultures had on our own way of life, given Mead's impact on the evolution of sexual mores in "civilized" western culture in the latter half of the 20th century. But what makes Euphoria so good as a work of literary fiction transcends these grand ideas -- it also works on a personal level, as a character study of three individuals caught up in their own lives.
On my own personal level, I am so glad to have listened to Euphoria. I was ready to give up on audio editions of literary novels, my favorite form of literature. They just haven't worked for me in this format. Given their focus on character and mood, they often lack the requisite forward momentum. And if you don't follow along carefully, which can be difficult given the distractions of driving or walking a dog, you can easily lose all sense of a work. It seemed to be the one major genre where my own interior narration was better than even the best audio performances.
Indeed, I was two hours into Euphoria and it was not grabbing me. Then the narration shifts for a short period of time from the point of view of the Englishman Bankson, the first person narrator, to the voice of Mead's alter ego through journal entries, and I was hooked. I went back and re-listened to the first two hours with fresh enthusiasm and then raced through the remainder of the relatively short novel. Certainly helping the proceedings along is the expert narration of Simon Vance and his customary nailing of the various accents.
Who was the first black major league baseball player? Which iconic child hero grew up to be a radical socialist communist feminist? Which president lionized for his prescient foreign policy and progressive domestic initiatives ordered some half dozen foreign invasions, even sending troops into Soviet Russia, and re-institutionalized racism? Which great American hero, one of only two honored by name with a national holiday, launched genocide and slavery in the western hemisphere? Was Lincoln actually racist?
Why don't we know these things? Because, according to author James Loewen, a professor of sociology, our high school history textbooks omit, distort, or outright misstate some facts of our history, striving to tell a nationalistic story based on pride, patriotism, rationalization, and self-congratulation rather than the truth of the matter. Our history was, as the saying goes, written by the winners.
But, warns Loewen, if you elevate that cliche from explanation to excuse, you risk falling into another cliche: those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Twenty years after Loewen wrote his cautionary tale, recent history demonstrate his point -- the fictional rationale for invading Iraq, ongoing debates that sometimes devolve into turmoil over social justice, racial inequality, and environmental disaster, and (on the more specific issue of how these things are taught), the introduction of controversial textbooks in some states that exacerbate the distortions Loewen wrote about two decades earlier to further a particular political agenda.
How you react to this book, to its premise, to its highly detailed decimation of history texts, will depend on how willing you are to re-examine what you were taught in high school, how you feel about the truth behind myths taught as history. It will likely also depend on whether your personal opinion tacks to starboard, because this book decidedly leans to port. Loewen has an unmistakable point of view -- I believe his case would pack more punch if he took an objective approach, even though I align with him almost 100% ideologically.
As a one-time history major back in my long-ago college days, I always prefer truth over mythology. So I ate up Oliver Stone's TV documentary and companion book, The Untold History of the United States, and I devoured this book in audio format. I already knew many of these things, but I was still capable of being surprised by other revelations. I would heartily recommend this to others willing to re-examine the truth behind some of our beliefs. If you're not comfortable with that, I suspect you don't need me to tell you stay away, you'll get that from the title and description.
My only criticism is that the last three chapters are no longer about the distortions in our history texts, but about how these texts are created and adopted, how they affects people's perceptions, and what can be done to rectify the situation. The context of how history is taught in high school is perfect for unmasking the truth of our history, but for me personally, the subject of the textbooks themselves is less interesting. So this ultimately cost the book one star in the story category (I would really like to rate it 4 1/2 stars, so I go with 4 for story and 5 overall to get a 4 1/2 average -- the narration gets only a 4 because it sometimes borders on strident).
The answers to the questions in the opening paragraph: a) not Jackie Robinson, b) Helen Keller, c) Woodrow Wilson, d) Columbus, and e) other than being against slavery, yes, in his early days, as was almost everyone in his era, but he evolved rapidly once he became president.
Bad joke, that headline. Needs explanation. On the spaceship Red Dwarf, three million years in the future and untold light years from home, one may very well be better off dead (and subsequently restored as a hologram with one's personality fully intact), as is the case with the annoying Rimmer, than still alive, as is his roommate and subordinate Lister, the last living human, a slacker supreme.
I start off this review of Red Dwarf with a bad joke of my own creation because that, in sum, is my reaction to the novelization of the popular and successful British TV series -- the jokes in this comic science fiction novel, drawn from a sitcom, are just not funny. Just. Not. Funny. Example: a state of confusion is analogized to being like an Alsatian (i.e. German shepherd) after a head-change operation -- not only unfunny, but not even remotely comprehensible.
Maybe it's just me. Maybe I don't get the English sense of humor. Although I have no issue with Monty Python, the original Ricky Gervais version of The Office, Ali G, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, to name just a handful of English TV comdeies that come immediately to mind. The Hitchhiker's Guide is a particularly apt corollary, as I arrived at it through the novels rather than the original radio series, and it remains the gold standard for comic sci-fi in multimedia formats, and is clearly the role model for Red Dwarf.
But who am I to argue with success? Red Dwarf is widely praised and much loved in its various formats, although the books seem to be the least prolific of those formats, perhaps because it doesn't work as well as a sitcom. The novel benefits from a more complete back story than the TV show, and the audio version benefits from being narrated by the actor who played one of the main characters on TV (Rimmer). Overall, I wouldn't say it was bad. I just didn't get more than an occasional snort from what is supposed to be a comedy.
Two college kids go deep into the Ocala Forest of central Florida to release rare butterflies at the same time an ex-con goes in to dig for Ma Barker's long-buried loot. When the kids turn up dead, the ex-con is the obvious suspect. But former homicide detective Sean O'Brien doesn't think so and, as is often true of him, his sixth sense leads him to uncover a deeper mystery.
Although this is the third of six Sean O'Brien books by Tom Rowe, it is the only one available through Audible. I found it to be a good, concise, straight-ahead mystery thriller in the rich tradition of Florida crime fiction, of which I am a fan (particularly Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey, although Rowe does not share their subversive sense of humor -- and in a minor note, one of the major characters in Dorsey's first book is Sean Breen, who if memory serves is a cop).
This was a solid three and a half star listen from start to finish. Through the first five hours, I was leaning strongly toward giving it four stars, since half-star ratings are not an option. But the final quarter of the book knocked me down to three. One problem is that the ultimate reveal is never analyzed as a moral issue -- why on god's green earth should anyone have to die for this reason in this day and age? (I don't want to give it away.) I wanted Rowe to take a stand on the matter.
But that's just me. More importantly to the readership at large, the mystery is over and done with two-thirds the way in, yet there is still two hours to go. That section has been done too many times before, with Rowe adding nothing new. This story is catalyzed by a series of coincidences, never uses its butterfly metaphor for much effect, and ends with a talking villain -- three strikes = three stars.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of best known physicists working today because of his ability to explain mind-blowingly complex science to civilians. In this short lecture series, he attempts to apply his unique ability to explain things to things he himself calls inexplicable -- atomic and sub-atomic particles, black holes, dark matter and dark energy, the multiverse, genesis, the origin of the universe, et. al.
And he largely succeeds. In such a short course, he does not have the luxury of giving us background on every building block of science, so it certainly helps to come into this already knowing something about the periodic table, for example, or the general theory of relativity -- not at the Ph.D. level, just at the high school level. Even so, there is something here for everyone who has ever been curious about our origins and how we've come to know what we do know about it and how we are attempting to expand our knowledge into areas that remain mysterious and seem unsolvable.
Fledgling novelist Bombo Dawson and insufferable literary critic Alistair Foley are enlisted by the ghosts of famous novelists of the past to save the Legendarium, a library where literary worlds come to life. Great premise, good characters, decent result, but ultimately disappointing.
So what went wrong (for me)? The literary worlds Michael Bunker and Kevin Summers chose as backdrops for Dawson and Foley just did not do it for me. Two are among my least favorite classics, books I consider wildly overrated. The other two I never heard of -- they are likely fictitious, but I'm not sufficiently motivated to look it up. If they were made up, that would actually be better than if they were real books, but I am nevertheless underwhelmed.
This novella is a follow-up to Bunker's wonderful "Hugh Howey Must Die", also a riff on writers, novels, and publishing, with the title character hardly the only real life novelist in the story (that book is not available in audio -- I read it in print). This book starts out with a prologue titled "Hugh Howey must live!" that reprises Bunker's fictional version of Howey (although that is the last we hear about him).
I found myself wondering, as I plodded through the literary landscapes, real and imagined, that are part of this book, what would Hugh Howey do? Which books would he choose? I know which ones Jasper Fforde has used in his Thursday Next series, which has the virtue of quantity, if nothing else, since they are full length novels. And I'm thinking about these things because I'm just not enthused about the ones Bunker and Summers chose. Sigh!
Guy Noir is a popular segment on Garrison Keillor's weekly radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. He even appeared in the movie adaptation, played by Kevin Kline. He is a satirical version of the hard-boiled detective who appears throughout the pulp fiction and film noir canon of the mid-20th century. He makes for a great skit.
He cannot, unfortunately, carry a novel. Certainly not an audiobook in which the entire length of the proceedings is backed by cheesy organ music. Who's idea was this? It is truly awful, unlistenable. It's worth a chuckle or two in a skit measured in minutes, but it's an annoyance of epic proportions when stretched out over a span of hours (even if four hours is short by audiobook standards).
That's too bad, because otherwise, Keillor has written some good riffs and, as is his way, expertly narrated his own writing (though aided here by two actors doing the voices of other characters, which are OK). Some readers have been turned off by the bathroom humor and stomach turning premise. I agree that Keillor could have made some better choices in those areas, even in the vein of satire and parody.
What we're left with: a) distracting soundtrack, b) distasteful plot elements, and worst of all c) Keillor allowing some good rants and observations and narration to be swamped by items a) and b). There are better alternatives available within Keillor's Audible library as well as the well-filled racks of pulp fiction by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and dozens of others, including plenty of satire and self-parody.
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