New York, NY, United States
I can answer this question, because I actually read the print version before listening to the audiobook, something I like to do with books I love, especially if I know they will translate well to audio. This one does indeed translate well, in large part because it is a lot of fun -- at least it ends up being fun after getting off to a depressing start.
For me, both versions are cause for celebration. That's because I have become a big Jonathan Tropper fan, since reading his prior novel, This is Where I Leave You. My wife was reading it and laughing up a storm. What's so funny, I asked. I read it for myself, and in short order caught up on his entire back catalog of four previous novels, of which Book of Joe is my favorite (so I listened to it after reading it as well). I then jumped at One Last Thing when it came out about a year later, reading the book and then listened to it.
Sorry for the long preamble, but it leads to this: Most of these novels are pretty much the same. You have to really like what JT is doing -- variations on a theme from book to book -- to appreciate going from one to the next and so on. I do, big time. If you've never read or listened to his books before, there is no reason to worry -- get it and laugh, a lot. If you've only read one, try another and see which way you react to reading something so similar. Then decide whether to continue on from there, because the others are going to all be in a similar vein.
Although it ends up being very much like the others, JT does start out flipping things around -- Tropper trying to do something different. This is his first novel that is not in the first person, and that makes a difference. And this time, it is about the father with the life threatening condition, not about the son dealing with a father who has died or is about to die. Which means it's not about coping with the death of a parent, but about deciding (literally) if life is worth living or if you'd be better off dead. So a definite shift in perspective, in several senses of the word.
But what I liked best about One Last Thing is not that JT tried to change things up (a wee bit), but the path his main character, Silver, takes in deciding whether he wants to save himself (literally, from his medical condition, and also in retaking hold of his life). The first thing you run into there is the suburban hotel where all the divorced men like him now live, their wives having kicked them out of their houses -- wonderful stuff, great characters, and as I read somewhere else, the Greek Chorus of Silver's life.
Then his father enters the picture, convincing Silver to join him in a series of life-cycle events that he presides over as a rabbi -- a wedding, a funeral, a bar mitzvah, etc. -- where he can see how other people deal with life-altering changes and where he has personal reactions.
But best of all, part of Silver's medical condition causes him to speak his inner thoughts out loud, often at the most inappropriate times. The way Tropper writes this is ingenious. You read Silver's internal monologue as in any novel. Then all of a sudden other characters react as if it was spoken out loud. I never got used to the device, never saw it coming, even after I realized what was happening and how he was doing it. And that works really well in audio format too.
There is a scene where two of these devices come together, where Silver's father takes him to a funeral of someone he never knew. In considering the parallels of the event to his own situation, his inner thoughts manifest themselves out loud without him realizing it -- he starts singing Amazing Grace, a Christian hymn at a Jewish funeral. But it works -- for him and for the mourners. That is when he realizes what his father is doing by taking him to these events. It is a minor epiphany, a mid-act climax, en route to his ultimate life-affirming epiphany and the book's final climax.
... And Another Thing, and Another...
I haven't seen any negative reviews of this book from people who never read Tropper before. The only consistent criticism of any weight is that it again adheres to Tropper's literary formula, tried and true as it is. And it seems that is only because this book is maybe half a star below This Is Where I Leave You, the one that most readers loved the most, the one through which most return readers discovered Tropper.
OK, fair enough, even though I personally still haven't had enough and am looking forward to the already-planned film adaptations One Last Thing and This Is Where I Leave You and JT's next book, whenever that may come out.
On the flip side, there is Banshee. When I first heard that Tropper had created a TV series about dysfunction in rural Pennsylvania, I thought it was going to be a family comedy with a literary bent, like his books. It is anything but. It's an action drama with ultraviolence and near-pornographic sex. Lots of dysfunction, yes, but no laughs whatsoever. I like it well enough for what it is, but it has no traces of Tropper the author that I have come to love.
If the exception proves the rule, then let's not hear any more complaints about JT sticking to his formula, because he hasn't exactly knocked it out of the park by deviating from it so dramatically with Banshee.
Too often, the science in science fiction is just that -- fiction. Of course that must be true by definition since (as some aficionados prefer to cal it) it is meant to be speculative fiction. But when the science in science fiction is actually believable, fact-based, the speculative and fictional aspects become that much more powerful. Such is the case with The Second Ship, the first entry in The Rho Agenda trilogy.
RIchard Phillips (not the same one from Captain Phillips) turned to writing after starting out as an army ranger and then becoming a physicist. So while the writing itself may not be much more than serviceable, the science and technology at the core of this story are spectacular -- as is the character of army ranger Jack Gregory, the author drawing on another of his past lives. Add in a third element -- that Phillips is writing about a famous incident from his original home town of Roswell, New Mexico -- and The Second Ship really clicks.
Without rehashing or relitigating the Roswell conspiracy theories about alien spaceships, Phillips starts his story by accepting the premise that many technological advances of the past 60-70 years may have derived from the recovery of an alien craft that crashed near Roswell. What makes it work for me is that the technology is described in such believable detail, starting with what is scientifically true and extrapolating into scientific speculation.
There is another angle to the scientific rigor of this book is key for me. The main characters are three high school students who derive special powers from the alien technology. My usual reaction to that would be to groan loudly and decry how ovedone that is -- Heroes, X-Men, 4400, Number Four, Mortal Instruments, on and on and on. But the difference here is that the powers are explained right away, the source being alien technology, and much of it manifests itself as mathematical, scientific, or computer proficiency, setting nice role models for YA readers that are attainable in real life.
This may not be for everyone. Some people may not be interested in such exacting scientific detail. Others may be weary of anything arising from the Roswell conspiracy. I found both to be excellent starting points for good YA science fiction set in the present day. I will definitely listen to the next entry in the trilogy, having already procured the audiobook, although after 11+ hours, I'm going to listen to something else as a change of pace before tackling the next 15-hour segment.
There is so much more going on here than the writing and characters crafted by Truman Capote over half a century ago, no matter how good all but one of those words were to Norman Mailer, that it is impossible for me to review Breakfast at Tiffany's in a vacuum, or to give it the rating I really wanted to give it (three stars -- it grows to four stars in my mind after listening to it, taking all of those ancillary issues into account).
There is first and foremost the movie, which I would hazard to guess is universally better known than the original novel. Capote may be an icon in his own right, but when you think about Holly Golightly, you think about Audrey Hepburn. And you think about a naive country girl caught up in the swirl of the big city, ultimately falling in love with her neighbor. None of which, it turns out, was part of Capote's conception.
The book is almost identical to the movie, with two notable exceptions (the wartime setting and the final scene), and yet the book is about a couple of things that are completely and radically different than the movie. I don't think I'd be giving anything away by revealing that Capote's Holly is a call girl and his narrator and alter-ego is gay, since that has been well documented and extensively analyzed. The movie, made during a buttoned-up Hollywood era, sanitized those elements.
Theoretically, that should make the book better than the movie -- the same story, but with more depth and richness, with a more complex sub-text. Especially when you consider that of the real life people who contributed to the character of Holly, the most prominent and important and interesting is Capote's mother, who was absent from his life for most of his childhood, having left the south for New York City.
But it is no accident that the movie beats out the book in pop culture consciousness by a ratio that probably approaches 99-1 percent. This short novel, despite all of the peripheral areas interest that have built up over time, just doesn't evoke the same level of enchantment and romance as the movie, at least not for me. And I'm no shrinking violet when it comes to the issues the book tackles that the movie shies away from.
I've been a big fan of Michael Hall going back to Six Feet Under, and Dexter of course. He does a great job as a celebrity narrator of a classic (his only other audiobook dates back to 2002, before anyone really knew him). Some of his voices didn't work for me, but that may just be me.
Two other side notes: I was floored to hear that Capote's first choice for Holly was Marilyn Monroe. I discovered that only after listening to the audiobook -- the physical description of Holly is so evocative of Audrey Hepburn that you would think he wrote the book with her in mind (actually, that would be after your initial impression that he was describing a boy rather than a girl, even though his real life models were certainly women).
The other note: If you're wondering about the reference to Norman Mailer, he once said that Capote's writing is so good that he wouldn't change two words. Which begs the question -- which one word would he have changed before not wanting to change the second word? Which also begs another question -- as much as I love audiobooks, would this have made more of an impression on me in print? I think not, because my issues are with the depth of the storytelling, not the writing or narration.
If I keep going, my review will be longer than the book, so I'll stop.
Eight hours into The Survivor, I found myself firmly at three and half stars (which is not a ratings option, unfortunately), wondering whether Gregg Hurwitz's action thriller would rise to four or sink to three. I was still open to moving up to four stars despite being disappointed by a number of plot and character points that have clearly been overused over the years:
The hero with PTSD who doubts his courage despite an impressive CV of brave deeds; the ruthless Ukrainian gangsters who let them themselves be talked out of some of their evil intentions by our hero; the dead friend who appears out of survivor guilt (as in Rescue Me); obituaries as metaphor (as in Carl Hiaasen's Basket Case or any of the four recent books titled The Obituary Writer); the daughter's snarky teenage boyfriend who turns out to be a decent guy (as in The Descendants). Oh, I could go on, but I'll stop.
Yet the writing had me hooked despite all that, the plot unfolding in a layered series of twists and reveals that was appealing, and the primary theme of what fathers will do to protect their daughters of great interest to me as a father of two daughters, with that aspect of the story one order of magnitude more complex than some of the other predictable, hackneyed elements.
Unfortunately, the final five hours sent my overall experience down a half-star rather than up. During that overlong period of time, the plot complexities disappear in a wave of action scenes that make this book an obvious choice for Liam Neeson's next movie. Actually, Liam Neeson will probably turn this role down, because he has already played it out several times. The writing and pace of those last five hours are on par with the rest of the book, which is a good thing, but the plotting and characterization all but ceased to move forward.
A disappointment for me, having greatly enjoyed my first Hurwitz title, Tell No Lies, and seeing huge potential in this book's opening hook -- a man about to commit suicide being drawn off the ledge to stop a deadly bank heist. I'm sure I will give Hurwitz another chance because his writing, in this genre, is very good. But as others have said, I would love to take a break from Scott Brick (I'll give him credit for only requiring 1.25x speed this time instead of the usual 1.5x, but his overly dramatic readings are wearing me out).
Fascinating and droll, Connie Willis's short novel Bellwether hooked me from the start with its overarching metaphor about fads. And then it kept me hooked (and chuckling almost incessantly) with its wry observations about working in a corporate office environment and living in a world of self-policed social conformity.
That sounds like quite a mouthful, but it's not all that complicated: this is pretty much the same idea as The Big Bang Theory -- the real (and really funny) lives of scientific researchers -- with the notable difference that the main character is perplexed by fads rather than, like the Big Bang guys, devoted to (certain types of) them.
Two things I take away from this book, other than the straightforward fact of enjoying it immensely for its observations and humor: its setting and its metaphor. So many books, movies, TV shows are about people most of us can never be -- policemen, lawyers, doctors, secret agents, etc. Not really a surprise -- those are the occupations that offer up a broad range of dramatic life or death plot lines, especially for serial versions of their respective media.
But we don't usually relate to them directly. By contrast, a smaller number of works are about real people working everyday jobs in the most common setting -- the office. And yet so many of those become popular because we can relate to the setting, not least of which is The Office. The Big Bang Theory is so good not because of the rare profession of its characters, but because it shows their day to day lives at the office and at home (of course, for the purposes of sit-com).
Bellwether is likewise about Ph.D. scientists, and their research provides a metaphorical background, but there is immense appeal in their office environment and politics and relationships, and in what they have to do just to get a cup of coffee or iced tea, let alone get their projects funded. Great stuff.
The other irresistible aspect of Bellwether is its metaphor -- fads. It is, in my opinion, a rare feat of literary prowess to come up with a metaphor so powerful that we are as much interested in it as in what it symbolizes. Every section of Bellwether features an exploration of at least one fad (hula hoops, Rubik's cubes, coffee houses, hair styles, etc.). The details are simply fascinating in and of themselves, but they also come full circle in their respective sections in symbolizing that part of the proceedings. Again, great stuff.
One other aspect of Bellwether is worth mentioning. It doesn't quite rise to the level of fads as metaphor, but it comes close -- the examples of scientific breakthroughs that came as the result of accident or luck or serendipity or some unexpected sequence of events. This metaphor is not quite as pervasive as fads, even though it starts off the story and plays a large role in its conclusion. Still quite interesting, but not as completely captivating.
I've always enjoyed reading young adult fiction, which I have always done to keep up with what my daughters are reading. In the best YA books, there is more than enough to keep adults interested -- even children's movies like Toy Story and Shrek had plenty of adult in-jokes to keep me hooked over many viewings when my kids were at that age when they watched those movies over and over again.
Cragbridge Hall seems to have all the requisite qualities to work quite well for its target age group, middle schoolers (hard for me to say definitively because I haven't been in that target age group since the Johnson administration). But it does not have that extra oomph adults need in YA. Harry Potter, among many other qualities that adults can appreciate, has all the mythological and literary references adults would recognize while the kids are dazzled by magic. The Hunger Games has the social subtext, Divergent has the psychological subtext.
This story, which takes place 60 years from now, has some cool technology (rather than magic, which is refreshing) -- mainly (but not solely) a time machine that allows students to relive history (although, for some reason I can't fathom, the historical episodes are almost exclusively American or British from the 19th and early 20th centuries). The main characters must solve a series of clues, most of them quite clever, in order to discover the inventor's secret of the title and save him -- and their parents, and themselves, and the world, of course. And the book does grow on you as it goes along (or at least it did for me).
The bottom line: If you're in middle school, you will most likely enjoy this book. If I was in middle school, I'd give it five stars. But my daughter isn't even in middle school anymore, having just started high school, so I can't even recommend it to her. If you're an adult, read it if your middle school kids are reading it. Otherwise, you may happen to like it anyway, but not because it has any special appeal for adults.
There are two ways to review John Scalzi's Fuzzy Nation. Most potential readers will be interested in the straightforward approach: how the book stands on its own. Good news on that front: Wil Wheaton reading John Scalzi is a combination that simply cannot be beat, and that is as true about Fuzzy Nation as any other. This book was my first Sclazi title, my second Wheaton narration (I listened to it about a year ago) -- the latest Scalzi-Wheaton collaboration, Lock In, their fifth, just came out, and I will be listening to it forthwith, having already exhausted (and loved) the previous four.
Another approach to reviewing Fuzzy Nation is more for SF completists: comparing it to H. Beam Piper's 1962 original, Little Fuzzy. It took me a year to review Fuzzy Nation because I wanted to read Little Fuzzy too, and I only just got around to doing that. Scalzi, as he relates in his foreword, got permission from Piper's family to write this "reboot" of Little Fuzzy, modernizing the story and themes and characters.
Given the time frame (1962) and theme -- whether a race of monkey-like beings on another planet are in fact fully sentient and therefore deserving of the full set of rights accorded the human colonists -- I expected Little Fuzzy to be related to the civil rights movement of the era. I was surprised to find that it is not about that at all, more of a commentary on subjects that are still hot-button issues today -- corporate abuse, and environmental threats.
Both books are interesting. I found Scalzi's reboot to be less of a modernization thematically than stylistically -- he adds a healthy pace and a sense of humor that brightens the story. And no disrespect intended toward the reader of the original audiobook, but when it comes to pace and humor, Wil Wheaton is in a class of his own.
You and me, as English speakers, do not really know why we're saying what we're saying, because English really is, as John McWhorter tells us, a magnificently bastardized language. So he's going to explain why you "say" something but he "says" it, why he doesn't believe what "they" say about language and culture (for example, why its says nothing about us if we identify our silverware as masculine, feminine, or gender neutral), and why you should not be "frightened" by the idea of German orphans having originated in ancient Phoenicia.
OK, that all sounds rather obtuse. That's because I'm trying to cram into those two run-on sentences a number of concepts McWhorter covers in his book -- why it's OK to say "you and me" instead of "you and I", why we use the word "do" so much when it doesn't actually mean anything in that context, why we say "we're saying" so often instead of "we say" (and how we would sound like Yoda if we spoke English the way most other Germanic languages are spoken).
And he explains why we say "they" so much when we mean "he" or "she" (and why only "he" or "she" have an "s" at the end of their verbs), why we say "going to" to indicate the future (and that the first written instance of this usage in Shakespeare literally meant the act of "going to" do something), why our nouns don't have genders as in Spanish or German, and how some words with ambiguous etymologies (like "frighten") may have come into our language from as long ago and far away as ancient Phoenicia.
And McWhorter does it all without getting too academic, despite being a professor of linguistics, and in an entertaining tone, which he himself narrates (although I was put off on two or three occasions when there was a little laugh in his narration when he was contradicting other linguists or linguistic theories). I found myself repeating many of his examples to friends and family during the time I was listening to the book and afterwards.
I vastly prefer fiction to non-fiction, but every once in a while, I enjoy a good work of non-fiction, and I've come to believe that such books, when not too weighty in subject matter, make for good audiobooks. If you're interested in a subject like how the English language evolved, with influences as broad as Welsh, Cornish, Old Norse, French, Latin, and maybe even Phoenician, and what it says about culture, then and now, I would highly recommend this book as an easy, entertaining, and illuminating listen.
The Road, in audio, is hypnotic. Horrific, yes. But emotionally powerful, especially for a father like me, with so much of the story focused on the how single-mindedly driven the father is to protect his son in the worst possible post-apocalyptic scenario. But more than just protect him -- to teach him as well, to protect himself of course, and to do so in manner that preserves the best part of humanity despite a landscape in which all humanity seems to have devolved to its worst instincts.
By contrast, I've read some scathing criticisms of the print version from people I can relate to -- turned off by some of the pretensions author Cormac McCarthy appears to have indulged himself in, taking liberties with punctuation and syntax and style. I could easily see myself among the tiny but vocal minority who reacted against that has I read the print edition.
But that is not a factor when listening to the audio version. I did have a problem with some of the repetitious dialogue, but otherwise, this spare but potent novel seems to be a perfect fit for audio rather than print, despite ll of its accolades, Pulitzer Prize and all.
Perhaps because I am a father myself, I was most moved by how intensely driven the father was to keep his son alive. I do things for my kids that I would not do for anyone else, including myself. That has never been life of death as it is in this story, but quotidian life in modern America is not usually life or death, and yet we still do what we can for our kids.
I rarely get choked up reading books or watching movies, but I was definitely growing teary eyed as I was driving home listening to the last half hour of this book.
I would probably feel the same way had anyone else turned in this performance, but since Tom Stechschulte did the job, he gets the credit for elevating this book to an absorbing meditation on fatherhood, morality, survival, and the horror of a world gone so awfully awry.
Before listening to The Road, I had heard it referred to as an allegory. In hindsight, I can see where one can read symbolism into it, especially from the point of view of religion, specifically the Christian view of god. I would have reacted negatively has I looked at the book through that prism while listening to it. But in the moment, it is hard to hear anything beyond the sheer horror of the circumstances, taken at face value. The Road works perfectly as a straightforward story of a father and son trying to survive an apocalyptic event -- there is little need to delve deeper.
A.J. Fikry sees the world through book-covered glasses -- and that despite the litany of books he refuses to sell at his remote independent bookstore because he is morally opposed to them on priniciple alone. He also views his relationships through books -- his family, friends, dates -- and helps shape their lives through literature as he has shaped his own. But he is a tortured soul who is saved by those close to him as much as, if not more than, he saves them.
Well, whether something like that will appeal to you will be directly correlated to how much you yourself are a book lover. If you've read the famous short stories that introduce each chapter, and share some of A.J. literary opinions, or just love to relate to the world around you through literature, you are highly likely to enjoy this book. If not, you may still like it if you're in the mood for a light, breezy character-based novel. Or you may find it too cute. I fall into the first category, known to share a prickly opinion or two of my own, so I liked it.
The book is not perfect -- A.J. subsequently contradicts some of the specifics of his widely quoted opening scene rant about books he doesn't like, for example, in referring positively to The Book Thief, a book I happen to dislike intensely for some of the very reasons A.J. cites in his rant. And I don't think the story had to take the direction it goes in toward the end, especially since it makes it too facile to tie things up.
Nevertheless, it was (mostly) a joy to listen to -- even though A.J. himself would no doubt go apoplectic over the idea of audiobooks, given his bitter distaste for e-books.
The narration was classic Scott Brick. I now go automatically to 1.5x speed when he reads a book -- at that pace, his is great. But I have to deduct a star for the necessity of doing so.
Let me top this off with the bottom line: There are thousands of Audible titles that I will consider listening to before I ever go back to this series. No, not even if I exhaust the rest of the Audible library.
So this is how you go from four stars to one and a half stars: You start out well, with potential for five stars, by casting a misfit from Brooklyn as a college student who goes to a magical school instead of Princeton, learning about magic and the magical world as a young adult (rather you-know-who as a middle schooler).
But then you go down to three stars when you rush through five years of college with nothing much happening -- which, I've since read, is supposed to be the point, except that it's, in a word, pointless. I'm sure you can name me a classic or two of modern literature that is about people being bored, and I'm just as sure that Lev Grossman is hardly comparable to the classic authors who wrote them.
Nearly ten hours in, you go down to two stars when your "hero" realizes that after nothing much happening to that point, the adventure is about to begin. He actually says exactly that to himself, in case you as reader have failed to notice that you've so far wasted nearly ten hours of your life listening to nothing much, hoping that it may eventually lead to something interesting.
Then the adventure becomes completely nonsensical, by which i mean, nothing makes sense, nothing is connected to what has come before and what comes later, and everything is completely inane. This too may have been the point, with Narnia now the target of the author's cynical satire in place of HP. But what good is a joke if no one knows it's a joke? And if it's not in the least bit funny? Or fun? (Not to mention that, as nonsensical as Narnia may be, it actually has meaning on a higher level.)
That knocks the story down to one star, although there is a shred of redeeming quality in the first few hours for the overall rating to remain at two stars, for a net of one and a half. This book is, plain and simple, an overlong exercise in mental you-know-what, a book critic writing a book that is actually a poorly veiled criticism of two of the most beloved fantasy series ever. I for one and not pleased to have this fraud perpetrated against me.
The Magicians has been called Harry Potter for adults, by no less than the author himself, who justifies his carbon copy of the HP formula by claiming some sort of parody. I call bullpucky. Harry Potter is (figuratively) magical and enchanting while tackling many of the same themes. This book is no more and no less an exercise in mental you know what by a critic egotistical enough to believe that he can write a worthwhile book himself, and in the end is less than a pimple on the scar on Harry Potter's forehead.
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