New York, NY, United States
There are three types of audiobooks that I find appealing: 1. Books I've read in print that I loved and wanted to revisit in audio format; 2. Books of movies I loved and wanted to hear in their original literary versions; 3. Books that are fun. Stingray Shuffle falls into the latter category, a virtually can't miss category because the main criterion is that they are fun. And it is.A sub-genre of fun books are the Florida books of a notable number of authors. The one that I've read a lot of of is Carl Hiaasen. Tim Dorsey is Carl Hiaasen on steroids. Or drugs, more generically. The Stingray Shuggle completes a series of three books (the others are Dorsey's first two, Florida Roadkill and Hammerhead Ranch Hotel) in which his omnipresent protagonist, Serge Storms, pursues a cache of $5 million cash. In Stingray Shuffle, we find out why he wants the money.Among the three categories of audiobooks that I like to listen to, Stingray Shuffle ranks as a solid entry in the fun group. I've listened to some that I like more (Ready Player One, Book of Joe, Agent to the Stars, Hiaasen's Strip Tease), but I liked it just fine. The books that end up disappointing me are almost invariably books that don't fall into these three categories -- police procedurals, non-fiction, non-comic sci-fi.
Serge Storms, of course. What a creation! A chemically unbalanced sociopath with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Floridian and a fairly righteous moral compass, and a knack for creative killings. But the beauty of Dorsey's books (like Hiaasen's) is the diverse spectrum of characters, and Stingray Shuffle doesn't disappoint with its hypnotist, book club ladies, bad author, bumbling cartel thugs, and the return of Johnny Vegas, reluctant virgin.
Serge Storms, of course. Serge gets to go on a number of rants in Stingray Shuffle, whether in court defending himself or in the car telling stories or recounting Florida history. Wilson captures his manic voice perfectly. He does a great job with all the characters. He is a prolific audiobook reader, including many of Dorsey's books as well as Hiaasen's, so he has a lot of practice.
Yes and no. Too manic to take in one big dose, but with so many characters, it was hard trying to keep them all straight over the course of a bunch of smaller doses.
If you're new to this genre, start with Hiaasen or any one of the other notable authors (John D. MacDonald, Dave Barry, et.al.) and move on to Dorsey when you want to take it to the limit. He is definitely farther out there than the Dry Tortugas (which figure into the climax of his first novel, Florida Roadkill).
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.
A pessimist might say, well that's 26 and a half hours of my life I'll never get back. An optimist might respond, well at least it saves us from having to listen to the other 63 and a half hours of this series. Seriously: you've been warned.
Neil Young once introduced his song, Don't Let It Bring You Down, by saying, here's a song guaranteed to bring you right down -- it starts off slowly and then peters out altogether. If only that were true of Doomsday Book, which starts of slowly, 18 hours worth of slow, and then turns downright awful for the final eight hours. Unless you've been hankering for graphic descriptions of death by plague (eight hours worth!), consider yourself warned.
At the 18 hour mark, there was a moment where I thought this might all be worth it. I could see exactly how Willis could bring together her story of time travel from the mid-21st century to the 14th century, with its bookend epidemics and attempts to bring the time traveller back from the deep dark past. But instead of tying together the scant plot strands, she gives us eight hours of the plague.
I listened to Willis's Bellwether and absolutely loved it. A neat, satisfying six and a half hour bundle of genius. I thought Doomsday Book might be Bellwether times four, the entire Oxford series Bellwether times fourteen. If only Willis had distilled this down to a manageable 8-12 hours, maybe it would have lived up to its hype and awards (by cutting out the endless repetition, for example, or cutting down the graphic description of the plague -- half an hour of plague would have sufficed).
This is beyond disappointment. This was simply awful -- 18 hours of boring followed by eight hours of awful. Thanks to Jenny Sterlin for narration that at least makes the listening easy on the ears. Too bad the writing was not at the same level.
A blind teemager has her vision restored, a monkey learns to paint portraits, the Chinese president does some nefarious megalomaniacal Chinese president stuff, and the internet comes to life in time to send the formerly blind girl birthday wishes in Robert Sawyer's Wake, the first installment in his WWW trilogy.
What Sawyer does best here, as he does in his other books, is to choose a theme (or two), research it pretty well, and present a technically satisfying fictional portrait of that theme (or two). In WWW, the main theme is consciousness -- how it may have developed in humans during earlier stages of evolution, how it could morph within an intelligent modern day human when her primary senses are altered, how it might develop in non-human entities such as lower primates and (artificially) in machines.
Where Sawyer stumbles is in plot and character development. The operative weaknesses are a) it all unfolds too slowly, no doubt a function of originally being published in serialized form, as well as being stretched out into a trilogy, and b) it is all too familiar, too stock, despite taking so much extra time to work it all out. The confluence of those two factors is that there is too much time spent explaining the technicalities behind the plot and themes (although, as I said previously, those technicalities become the saving grace).
I realize that seems contradictory -- what I like best about the book is, so I claim, fluff that detracts from plot and character development. To get five stars and a rave review from me, Sawyer would have had to come up with a better story and more complex characters while retaining the great background material. Perhaps that happens later in the trilogy. I'm not sure yet whether I will take the time to find that out for myself.
Like many readers, I only ever read Philip Pullman's Dark Materials series, starting with The Golden Compass. Clockwork provided an opportunity to sample another of his works, also a children's book, like most of his books. Now, I'm not sure if I want to try that again -- this just did not work for me.
I never think it's a good idea for a writer to explain his central metaphor, even to children who may otherwise not understand it. But to explain how clocks worked in a pre-electronic age, then tell us that stories can work the same way, then having one character write a story within the story called Clockwork, having another character make clockworks, and having a third who has clockwork instead of a heart, well, it's all just too much, and doesn't make all that much sense. I'm not sure how children can be expected to understand this when it is too convoluted for this adult, even with all the preamble about clockwork and metaphor.
The print edition is heavily illustrated, but I don't think the absence of illustration makes any difference. I could see how it might enhance the printed word, but the spoken word should hold water on its own. I don't see how pictures would make this tale any less nonsensical.
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