New York, NY, United States
I have read five books now by Tim Dorsey, some in print, some in audio. As much as I love them, I hesitate to recommend them, because they really are seriously over the top -- they are not for everyone. In Orange Crush, I have found the exception to that rule.
The other books center on Serge Storms, the lovable sociopath with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Florida. What sets Serge apart from all of the other sociopaths who people Dorsey's Florida is his unique moral compass. I knew Serge was not going to be the main character of Orange Crush (he does figure in as a side character), and I knew I would miss not having him be the protagonist.
But I was pleasantly surprised to find that Marlon Conrad was a capable stand-in for Serge in the moral compass department. Marlon is not deranged like Serge, just naive, despite being governor of Florida. But he regains his political sanity in a remarkable sequence set in war-torn Kosovo and proceeds through the rest of the book as if he is a sane version of Serge setting things right (without, however, the Rube Goldberg murders that are Serge's stock in trade, here left for another character to commit).
So overall, I would heartily recommend Orange Crush to both Dorsey fans and newbies. Fans, don't worry about Serge not being all there -- but fans and newbies alike will enjoy this send-up of politics, written a year after Florida botched the presidential election of 2000. Sure, a lot of the satire is easy-pickings, low-hanging fruit. But Dorsey does a nice job of skewering all points on the spectrum, going to the well-worn but tried-and-true territory of looking at the system from the point of view of a jaded politician having come to his senses.
Marlon, especially after he comes back from Kosovo with his senses newly intact. Serge is the obvious favorite in other books, because he's the one who always ends up doing the right thing, even if he often gets there from wrong angle. In this book, it falls upon Marlon to be that character, and while he is no Serge, he is perfectly capable of carrying this satire. Jack Pimento is also good, starting out as an innocuous staffer but sneaking up on you as you go along.
This is the third Dorsey book I've listened to that was narrated by Wilson, and I've heard a couple of other titles of his by other authors. There's a reason why he is such a prolific audiobook narrator -- he is the consummate pro. While I missed his always entertaining voicing of Serge, he does the other voices well.
This is a black comedy, a political satire. So moments that move you are not supposed to be in the offing. But the section in Kosovo is a complete departure for Dorsey, and much of it is in fact moving, as it is meant to be, since it moves Marlon to become a different kind of person, a better one.
Some things fade with time. Not John Scalzi and Wil Wheaton. Not thus far. Lock In is their fifth audiobook collaboration, all of which I've listened to, and it is at least as good as any that have come before, possibly even the best of the bunch (close call with Android's Dream and Redshirts).
The difference this time is that unlike its predecessors, Lock In is not meant to be humorous. True, neither Scalzi nor Wheaton can help themselves, so the main character, Chris Shane, and Shane's co-investigators do get typically smarmy and sarcastic as they discuss matters among themselves and especially when interrogating people. That tone, modulated expertly to suit specific situations, only elevates the overall experience.
But this one is meant to be serious. In the near future, a flu-like virus has killed off hundreds of millions of people, left millions more physically paralyzed (though still mentally cognitive), and spawned huge new industries in giving lock-Ins (as the paralyzed are called) the ability to interface with the world, including an android-like mechanism allowing them to circulate in the world (called a threep due to its resemblance to the Star Wars android C3P0).
Chris Shane is a lock-in with a state of the art threep who has just joined the FBI in a unit that specializes in investigating crimes involving lock-ins. He is immediately thrown into a murder case that has wide-ranging ramifications. He and his partner (who is not a lock-in) and his roommate (who is also a lock-in and a technological genius) slowly peel away the layers and expose everything that is going on, all in classic Scalzi style.
The disease and its consequences -- social, political, economic -- give Scalzi a lot of leeway to comment on contemporary issues, with metaphors aplenty at the ready. But these are no more than glancing blows that just add depth to the novel. They do not, indeed cannot, ever overtake the story, which moves forward at breakneck pace, fueled by the momentum Wil Wheaton never fails to deliver as my favorite all-time narrator.
The thing I like best about Steve Berry are his McGuffins.
Quick recap: McGuffin is a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock to describe the thing the villains want so badly, they will go to any length to get it. He didn't think audiences cared about the McGuffin as long as they could buy into the villain's abiding interest in it. Hence the double chase format where the good guy is being chased by the bad guys and the police because he knows something about the McGuffin.
I believe that after a century of McGuffins, we know how double chases will turn out, taking all of the suspense out of it. So contrary to Hitchcock's theory, what holds our interest is the McGuffin itself. The Da Vinci Code is a classic double chase, its popularity based not at all on the suspense generated by the chase, but on what everyone is seeking, the Holy Grail.
Steve Berry is sometimes dismissed as a Da Vinci Code bandwagoneer, especially since he wrote his own Knights Templar novel shortly after Dan Brown created a sensation with Da Vinci. I disagree -- the first of Berry's Da Vinci-style double chases was written concurrently. Either way, Berry has long ago surpassed Brown in the quality, quantity and consistency of his thrillers.
Berry is so much better because of his McGuffins. Always starting with a historical mystery, he takes known fact, cherry picks scholarly speculation about the unknowns of his subject, and adds a layer of his own fictional creation. He builds what is usually a double (or triple or quadruple) chase around that, most often centering on the character of Cotton Malone. After every novel, Berry meticulously details what is fact, what is speculation, what is fiction.
Four of Berry's last five novels have been preceded by an eBook short story. Devil's Gold acts as prequel to The Jefferson Key, one of Berry's best. It introduces Jonathan Wyatt and his personal mission, which then figures significantly into Jefferson. Clocking in at under two hours rather than the 12-16 hours of a Berry novel, Devil's Gold strips away almost all plot and leaves us with almost all McGuffin, taking us into Hitler's bunker at the end of WWII and speculating on what may have happened there and afterwards.
This historical mystery is so good, and Berry's speculations about what may have ensued are so good, I am left wishing that he crafted a full novel around it. Still good in its existing form. And on a personal note, his most recent novel, The Lincoln Myth, was the first of his books I listened to rather than read, and it was the first that disappointed me. I was worried that the audio format was the difference. After listening to The Devil's Gold in audio, I am convinced that was not the case -- it was just a weak McGuffin that was to blame.
J.D. Salinger was adamant about not allowing his early works to be reprinted in later years, after he became a popular author. He didn't believe them good enough to be preserved for posterity in book form. He only ever authorized the publication of 14 of his short stories (all but one of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, which he believed to be the major league of short story publication), as well as of course his only novel, The Catcher in the Rye.
Nevertheless, all of his previously published short stories were in fact collected in a bootleg edition, one that he tried hard to quash but remains in circulation (a handful of unpublished stories recently surfaced in a separate bootleg edition). Having read all of his stories in their crude print form, and having now listened to these three character sketches in audio format, there is no disputing Salinger's self-evaluation. These are clearly not equal to the master work he published in Nine Stories and the three Glass family volumes (though to be honest, despite being a huge fan, I have a hard time with the overly dense and overlong Seymour and Hapworth).
But it is still highly worthwhile for Salinger fans to read/listen to these stories, warts and all. They may not be perfect, but they show the early developmental stages of a writer who would soon grow into one of the best ever -- like watching old video of Wayne Gretzky as a child showing glimpses of Hall of Fame greatness. The first of these stories in particular, which happens to be Salinger's first published work, presages The Catcher in the Rye, with a guy and a girl home from college trying to connect at a party.
The stories also happen to be somewhat dated in their slang, being from the early 40s, and there is a lot of repetition in Salinger's dialogue as he tries to capture the speech patterns of a variety of characters from that era (as he did to perfection in many of the Nine Stories). On the plus side, Salinger's nearly exclusive reliance on dialogue to convey his story, themes, and characterizations, a hallmark of his short stories, is on full display here.
I'd say, at the end of the day, that this short audiobook is best suited for Salinger completists and not as an introduction for people who have never read him before. Normally, I'd direct the latter group to better known works, but in this case, none of Salinger's books are readily available in audio (except hard to find versions recorded for blind readers, or illegally). One can only hope that that will be soon rectified, along with plans to release much of his never published writing in the wake of his passing.
Michael Smerconish knows talk radio. He has hosted his own political talk show for a decade and a half and now has his own show on CNN after years as a talking head on other political TV shows. And he knows something else that is central to the story contained in his first (and to date only) novel -- what it's like to abandon the lucrative field of right wing talk radio, as well as the Republican Party, to try to find a civil and sustainable independent middle ground.
Talk recounts the role played by a rising star in conservative talk radio, Stan Powers, during a contentious presidential campaign. I don't want to give anything away, but Powers battles a crisis of conscience from start to finish -- what he's willing to do to further his personal ambition vs. what he knows is the ethical alternative. In the process, Smerconish gives us an insider's view of talk radio, demolishing it -- not an expose per se, because all he is really doing is confirming what we already know about talk radio.
The beauty of his story is in the details -- the details of how Powers crafts his career as a talking head, how a talk show (and the talk radio industry) works, and most entertainingly, how his fictional presidential campaign unfolds. James Edward Thomas comes through for us in this first person narration by capturing Smerconish's well-known voice -- not in timbre, Thomas's voice being deeper and rougher, but in tone.
Two minor points of quibble that cost Smersh a star: he is a talking head, not a writer (his five nonfiction titles notwithstanding), so I should not expect him to be Hemingway, but I did long for a bit more show and little less tell -- there is too much exposition that could've been dramatized rather than narrated (great example: instead of telling us what each candidate stands for, let them do that themselves during the debate that Smerconish does in fact dramatize). His last chapter, while containing good stuff, is also too much tell and no show (and too preachy), especially since it comes after Stan has made his ethical decisions.
The other thing, more in terms of Smerconish's stance rather than in his story or writing, is his frequent fallback on false equivalency. He should know better, his story being Exhibit A -- most of the ills he describes, in talk radio and TV news, in political campaigning and policy setting, emanate from one side. False equivalency is the gratuitous assumption that both sides are equally complicit, but if you look at the facts and do the math, the ratio is in fact far from 50-50, skewed more like 70-30 or more.
Well, you can tell from that last paragraph which side I fall on. If you're coming from the other end of the spectrum, you are going to find that this story comes out of a different part of the horse than its mouth. I would still recommend you listen to it. You may end up taking the same road Smerconish took, restoring moderation in place of polarization. For everyone else, especially the silent majority of independent thinkers, this may be a case of preaching to the choir, but it is both entertaining and illuminating.
Vish Puri is a private detective in Delhi juggling several cases -- the missing servant girl of the title, a judge accused of murder, potential political corruption, and the suitability of a prospective groom, as well as an attempt on his own life. Helping him are an array of characters, including (under his perpetual protest) his mother. All set to the sights and sounds, tastes and smells, people and places, morals and mores, and social and religious diversity of modern India.
But what sets this IMFL (Indian-Made Foreign Literature) apart, especially in audio, is author Tarquin Hall's masterful use of Indian English. Though born in London to American and English parents, the former journalist now lives in Delhi with his Indian wife. Clearly reveling in the charming (as he calls it) way Indians have appropriated (malappropriated) the English language, Hall has created a series of novels that allow us to listen in.
"English is a mongrel language and the English themselves have had no qualms about looting tens of thousands of words from other languages (and often changed the meanings) so why shouldn’t others do the same," Hall writes in introducing his Indian-English glossary. We are the beneficiaries of his golden ear for how English has evolved in his adopted land in this first entry in the Vish Puri mystery series.
As much as I have come to appreciate audiobooks set in India or about Indians (far more than in print), as I have previously remarked in reviewing Q&A (Slumdog Millionaire), A Son of the Circus, Life of Pi, and The 100-Foot Journey, there has to be more to it than just their lilting present tense manner of speaking. There has to be a good story. Hall's story is in the mystery format, with a complex plot that has all the hallmarks of ultimately coming together in a manner essential to a good mystery -- at once anticipated and unanticipated.
But... it didn't come together in the way I anticipated, and the unanticipated elements were not satisfying (for me). I don't want to get into details that would be spoilers. Stylistically, the story rushes too hurriedly to its denouement, leaving a lot of plot potential on the table. My understanding is that the Puri series gets better with each entry, so I will definitely be giving it another go. Whether this works for you, however, depends on how interested you think you would be in the landscape and language -- without that, this is just another mystery novel.
Amid a pop-culture landscape awash in superheros, supernatural entities, magical beings, gods, abilities, etc. etc., there is only one way to rise above the mediocrity that eventually envelops such a glut -- create engaging characters. Making them funny helps a lot too. Jim Bernheimer succeeds with Confessions of a D-List Supervillain because his main character, Mechani-Cal, a low-rent bad guy who is not really a bad guy, is exactly that -- engaging, and funny.
Surprisingly, I can't think of many books or movies where the supervillain is the hero. The biggie is Despicable Me. In literature, the one I immediately think of even though it is not well known is Lee Martinez's Emperor Mollusk (a five-star audiobook). I'm sure there are others that are eluding me at the moment. Still, considering how many X-Men and Avengers and Batmen and Supermen and Spidermen there are, the percentage of works that flip the POV to that of the villain seems pretty low.
That's the route Bernheimer takes, even though it becomes instantly evident that Cal is a villain in name only and that the real supervillain is hiding in superhero clothing. But never mind -- it works because Cal is engaging and funny, not because of superpowers or techno gadgetry or anything else. This could have been a reality-based story of an unappreciated geek getting back at his boss and making good with the boss's beautiful girlfriend, and it would have worked just as well.
But not five stars worth, IMO. The first act, where Cal rescues Aphrodite and they save the world from mind-controlling insects, is excellent, the characters developing and interacting, the battle scenes not so totally out of control as to suffocate the life out of the story. But as things progress through Cal trying to play it straight and become a hero in his own right, the action does get too excessive, and the plot starts to slog into obviousness.
It ends up at 3 1/2 stars for me, but since I can't rate it with a 1/2 star, I'm giving it 4 overall, to account for the good characterization and humor, and 3 for story, which is where it bogs down over the latter half. Still, a good choice for audiobook, where humor can be captured by the narrator (good job of that, though only four stars because of the raspy voice, slightly grating and not exactly appropriate for Cal). And if I get the chance, I will listen to the D-List prequel.
Greg Sestero narrates the book he co-wrote about the cult movie The Room and its eccentric creator, Tommy Wiseau. With the help of journalist-novelist Tom Bissell, Sestero goes back and forth between two stories -- detailed descriptions of the shooting of The Room, and his own journey as an aspiring actor and longtime pre-Room friend of Wiseau.
I've been an aficionado of cult films since midnight movie became popular in the early 70s -- Pink Flamingos, El Topo, Eraserhead, and of course Rocky Horror, which still endures. And I remember the Golden Turkey awards and its companion film festival, celebrating movies that are so bad that they're good, Plan 9 and its auteur Ed Wood the perennial winners of worst movie and worst director ever.
So I was all over The Room once I heard about it. The Room stands apart from other cult films because of the, er, unusual personality of Tommy Wiseau, its writer-director-producer-financier-star. One requisite element of hilariously bad movies is their absolute earnestness -- you can't do this on purpose. As told by Sestero in this book, Tommy is as earnest as they come, in his fractured manner, and he is every bit the character in real life as his alter-ego Johnny is in the movie, even in the years before he conceived his misguided vanity film.
It is often the case that these movies are more fun to talk about, read about, hear about, than to actually sit through. That is certainly true of Ed Wood, the Johnny Depp movie about the director, which is a far more fascinating tale than the one he created. The Disaster Artist is likewise as much fun, if not more so, than the actual movie. Sestero totally nails Tommy's accent, his malapropisms, his totally warped world view, and the jaw-drop reactions of those who work with him.
And he is just as earnest in believing himself to be everything that Tommy is not, despite his own acting career being as much of a disaster. His condescending attitude and narration become an exercise in meta-humor, Sestero himself coming off as a hilariously bad actor and writer, as oblivious as Tommy. I usually bristle when I hear a narrator barely masking his laughter at his own subject, but in this case, it is as much of a reflection on Sestero as it is on his subject, his "friend" Tommy Wiseau.
You probably have to be at least somewhat familiar with The Room to appreciate this book. It really helps to have some idea in advance of what Tommy looks and sounds like and just how out there he is. There are some good clips on YouTube that highlight the best (worst) of The Room that you can watch quickly, and then you can savor this gem of an audiobook.
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.
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