Cambridge, MA | Member Since 2000
The Swerve is a Pultizer-prize winner, and justifiably so. In a compact way, it manages to tell fascinating, well-researched, stories of both the Epicurean philosophers during the Roman Empire, and the intellectual and religious struggles of the late Middle Ages. These two threads are both really well done, and full of fascinating and illuminating details: monks were not allowed to discuss the books they copied, Epicurus presaged our modern understanding of atoms and evolution, the Papal secretary wrote a joke book, and so on. Greenblatt just does a wonderful job in illuminating these time periods, and how they relate to our own way of thinking. Similarly, the reader is excellent, and the many languages invoked in the book flow naturally from him.
The only downside, and it is a small one, is in the argument itself, that the discovery of the poem "On the Nature of Things" was a critical event in that led to the world becoming modern. I was convinced that the rediscovery of Lucretius was certainly one of the elements that led to the "swerve" and the Renaissance, but there are already other forces at work, many alluded to in the book, that play at least as big a role. However, Greenblatt really wants to make the poem central, though, so we get a somewhat more evasive account of other factors, such as the popularity of humanism, that were also important. As a result, the book becomes a little strained in its main argument, but it doesn't detract from a wonderful historical account. Greenblatt uses all of his considerable ability to make his argument, one that you may or may not buy, but that you are certain to enjoy if you like Medieval, Roman, or intellectual history.
Krakatoa is almost amazing, but ends up merely good. All the elements of an excellent book are there: Simon Winchester is funny and engaging; the science is interesting; the period of history is fascinating; and Krakatoa has important implications for today's world. Further, Winchester covers all of this - the science, the history, and the modern implications. So, the problem isn't the facts, or the underlying material, instead it is in the way that he weaves them together.
The book aims for Bill Bryson, using Krakatoa to discuss various fascinating issues, but, unlike Bryson, Winchester can't seem to bring them all together very well. Many interesting points are raised, but never truly connect, making most of the book feel disjointed. For example, the history of Batavia is a major story early in Krakatoa, but Batavia itself is undamaged by the volcano, and there is little follow-up to help us understand why the author spent so much time on the city. Or take the intellectual history of plate tectonics, which is introduced through some plummy personal anecdotes, but then mostly abandoned later in the story. A stronger narrative might have concentrated on a few people or institutions, and how they were effected by Krakatoa, but instead we are taken on a whirlwind tour where little sticks in the memory.
It certainly isn't bad, and I did learn a lot about a fascinating period, but between the somewhat disjointed story and the occasional over-reach (Krakatoa lead to the rise of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism?), I often found my attention wandering while listening.
I came into this book with high hopes - it had been compared to Ready Player One, which was a really fun young adult style wish-fulfillment romp for grown up geeks. I understand the comparison, since this is also a wish-fulfillment romp for grown up geeks, but, man, is this book bad.
It is badly written, and not just in a first novel kind of way. It is full of awkward phrases and mediocre descriptions, sure, but the problem goes deeper. The novel is set in Medieval England, but there is no attempt to actually engage with the setting which is barely described, and everyone acts (and talks) like 21st century stock characters.
It is badly plotted. Very little happens overall, and much of it makes little sense. This would be okay if the author wasn't trying to justify consistent rules for the universe he creates, but Meyer spends a lot of time setting up the world and magic system, making all of the glaring logic problems hard to ignore. Further, much of the joy of a time travel novel is seeing the interaction between the time traveler and the setting, but the main character is entirely incurious and Meyer uses the excuse of an "alternate timeline" to avoid any consequences of their actions.
That leaves us with the humor, which many people seem to like. I am a fan of geek reference humor (see: Scalzi, Stross, Ready Player One, etc) but this generally fell flat, though there were some cute moments. More troubling is the fan-fiction feel to the whole novel, where all the main characters are all-powerful computer geeks in a world full of dumb brawny people. And, of course, there are no women in the novel for reasons that are, ultimately, both stupid and insulting. At least the reader does a game job, providing excellent, completely over-the-top voices to accompany the story.
The reviews of the book repeatedly mention that it is good value for money, since it is a cheap self-published novel. It may be worth the money per page, but it isn't worth 10 hours of your time. There are many better books out there to scratch your geek wish fulfillment fantasy.
The last Laundry novel was a bit disappointing - eschewing much of the office politics and humor and instead telling a straight-forward story where Bob Howard, IT guy/secret occult agent, has to defeat a church of (surprise!) evil evangelicals, an obvious target. At first, The Rhesus Chart looks like it is going to be the same, as we are quickly introduced to a nest of vampire high frequency traders with an scene-chewing bad guy at the helm.
However, just as a resign myself to the cliche, the plot twists, and thickens, in interesting and unexpected ways. Plot elements that seemed clumsy and obvious turn out to be cleverly re-purposed, and the whole book, while retaining the macabre, becomes a lot more fun. Helping this is a return to the sharp humor and office politics of earlier books, with a mix of LOTS of amusing geek references along with some fairly clever lines.
And, of course, the reader is amazing.
There are only a couple downsides, one of which is that the coming of Case Nightmare Green is again not deferred (clearly many more novels are ahead!), and that the story is a little flabby in the middle, slowing down a bit more than needed before speeding towards its conclusion.
So, if you are reading the Laundry novels, this is a must-buy. If you haven't, you really should (though you could skip the last one). I am really happy the magic is back in this excellent series!
I really enjoy the Expanse series, and this book is, while not brilliant, still fun. The short version is that it has more of what I liked: more of the same winning characters, hard(ish) science fiction, and sudden twists and turns in a propulsive plot. At the same time, the seams are starting to show a bit.
A clear theme through the series has been that people are worse to each other than any aliens can be, and while that bleakness was interesting over a couple of books, it is starting to feel a little forced. In Cibola Burn yet another Earth company aided by yet more sociopaths (seriously, these Earth companies need better HR practices!) makes everything terrible until the inevitable plot twists make things REALLY terrible. The plot is thrilling, but the motivations explaining why the bad characters are so bad is so thin that it seems almost insulting when they try, especially when contrasted with the unalterable moral compass of the main characters: the Only Good Guys in the Universe.
The authors described their previous two books as writing a science fiction version of a ghost story and a political thriller. This seems like their attempt at a novel about colonialism, and they aren't afraid to hit you over the head with this, many, many times (characters compare themselves to Cortez, etc). The problem is that the authors have little to say about the topic, so it all rings a bit hollow.
Also, as EVERY other reviewer writes, the narrator changed in this book. After 50+ hours with the original narrator, this was glaring, but it seemed more normal with time. The new narrator is not fantastic, but far from bad. Any problem fell away as the book continued.
So, if you have listened to the series so far, I think this is worth it (if you can deal with the change in narration). I just hope future books will recapture the magic that made the series so great.
So this is a very good Harry Dresden novel, and a very good Harry Dresden novel is something to celebrate. Butcher continues to be able to increase the stakes and keep a sprawling plot moving after 15 books, while still giving us characters to care about and even a few scenes that caused my eyes to well up (must have been allergies). Still, this is a very good Dresden novel, following a few that I might consider to be great, hence the four stars, rather than five.
Why? Well, while the main plot of the novel (Dresden in the supernatural version of a classic heist movie) is exciting and propulsive as ever, a few things drag down the book a bit. First, the novel takes a bit longer to get going than usual, and much of that time is spent rehashing philosophic questions that have been more urgently and better addressed in previous books: Harry's friends worrying about him turning bad, Harry worries about turning bad, and so on. Don't get me wrong, these are Big Themes in Butcher's books and Butcher still handles them well, but they are less earned in this novel, and especially the first half, and it weighs the book down a little.
Additionally, the plotting here, while still very good, is missing some of the sharpness of previous books. On the plus side, Harry's personal life advances in satisfying ways. The main story, however, requires even more deus ex machina than usual to resolve itself, which makes some of the cliffhangers a bit cheap (though a couple of the reveals are terrific, and very much in the heist movie theme). Add this to the fact that there are some strange absences from the novel of key characters who you would expect to be in it, and the fact that the meta-plot barely advances in the novel, and you get a Dresden Files entry that, while still fun, may not be quite as vital to the series as the 2-3 before it.
The reading is spectacular, and nothing actually goes off the rails, so I was very satisfied with the book. This may not be the best in the series, but it is still very good, and, obviously, a must for any fan.
This book focuses, with some historical digressions, on the naval war in the Pacific from Pearl Harbor to Midway. If you are a WWII history buff, you have heard the story before, many times, but this still manages to be a fresh and exciting take, with lots of new insights.
Many of these insights are generated because of the way that the author deftly shifts among the perspectives of the Japanese and American sides. Toll manages to bring in many historical figures, never focusing on one for too long: Churchill and Roosevelt, Nimitz and Halsey, Yamamoto and Hirohito; as well as lesser known characters, from code breakers to airmen. Very little of the writing is speculative, instead he draws on the words and records of these people to weave a seamless account of the war.
As a result, he manages to produce the best account I have read about the chaotic way in which Japan came to enter the war, not because of the charismatic Fascism that motivated Italy and Germany, but rather through many small acts of nationalist rebellion. The same approach allows Toll to give the listener a better perspective on how and why strategy evolved the way it did on both sides, both in a grand sense, but also in the individual battles. It is terrifically illuminating.
It is also remarkably engaging. Toll manages, using the words of people who were there, to explain what it was like on a diver bomber plunging at 80 degrees towards a carrier, or to be inside a burning ship, or to be a frustrated commander trying to get an air wing to take off on time. Even though I had read a lot about this phase of the conflict, I was both riveted and managed to learn a lot.
Gardner reads it all in a friendly manner, and I stayed up late listening on more than one occasion. Highly recommended if you like military history, or even just any narrative history done right.
This is obviously not the book to start with if you are new to Discworld, instead, given Sir Pratchetts's condition, it is more of a coda: there could still be more books in the series, but there won't be many. It is hard not to think about that fact constantly throughout the audiobook.
It is hard not to think about it because the book, while very good, is not as great as the absolute highpoints of the series: Thud, Night Watch, Going Postal, I Shall Wear Midnight, etc. That said, some of the criticism is unwarranted, since, while not the best Discworld novel, it is better than either the early novels, or the last couple of books. The writing is still generally very sharp, the characters still familiar, and the plot is fun. A little of the magic fades, however, for obvious reasons.
It is also hard not to think about because of the themes of this book. As the series has progressed, Pratchett's Discworld has changed from fantasy parody to sharp-eyed social commentary. This book, even more than Thud, develops the themes of tolerance and progress in ways that are sometimes a bit hokey, but even more often left me a bit misty-eyed. While the real world connections here are perhaps a bit too sharp (I am looking at you, Dwarven terrorists), it does advance the optimistic vision of the future that permeates Pratchett's.
Finally, it is hard not to think about because the series itself seems to be drawing to a natural close. The book features many of the key characters from the earlier novels, offering the chance to say goodbye to them. The technology and development of the world has advanced to be close to our own, and magic is clearly disappearing from the picture. And, of course Ankh-Morpork is simply becoming London (or New York), just with more trolls and goblins.
I was reluctant to read the book after some negative reviews, but I am very glad I did. It was touching, sweet, and a fun read. It may not be as tight or sharp as some of the best books, but these are not lapses that detract from an otherwise terrific experience, with, as usual, amazing reading. If you are a Discworld fan, this is essential reading. If you aren't do a search for "discworld reading order" and get started!
I like the Emperor's Blades, but, given the many new epic fantasy series of the past few years, this isn't at the top of the list. It is clearly in the grimdark (Ambercrombie, not Rothfuss) camp - horrible events, moral ambiguity, lots of death and fighting. While not bad, it doesn't seem to add much interesting to the genre, and has some questionable choices.
Some of the questionable choices are worldbuilding. While there are lots of nice touches (sky ninjas on giant birds!) a lot of the rest falls somewhere between cliche and nonsensical. On the cliche side, this book mostly consists of the training of two different heirs to the throne. One is being trained in a monastery with (surprise!) taciturn, koan-spouting monks and has to find the meaning of their zen-like lessons. The other is being given hardcore military training with (surprise!) taciturn, tough-as-nails officers and has to overcome bullies and physical challenges. On the nonsensical side, apparently neither of the heirs to the throne are trained in anything having to do with ruling the empire that they are inheriting. Instead, they are subject to conditions that, for no really good reason, seem designed to have a very good chance of killing them.
The other questionable choices have to do with tone. There is a third member of the royal family, a daughter. She, like many of the women in the novel, gets a lot less time on the page. And most of the women we encounter get abused, tortured, or worse. It adds to a sense of discomfort throughout the novel.
Nothing here is awful, and the reading is great, but the book seemed rather forced, with motivations seeming muddled and the world not really cohering into a whole. The action was often well-done, but I think there are better new fantasy series to read.
This is what motivates my review: I have just spent over a month listening to over 80(!!) hours of The Stormlight Archive, and I find myself wishing for the next book. Usually, I need a break between audiobooks in a series, not so here, despite the length. So, as far as compelling listen-ability is concerned, this is a clear winner, well-read and fun as well!
You can stop reading here, if you want, since I feel completely justified in the five stars, but, still, there are a few issues, issues that mostly come from it being such an obviously EPIC epic. First, Sanderson is up to his usual trick of making an elaborate magic system with complex internal symmetries as a key driver of the plot. To an experienced Sanderson reader, some of the story is just waiting for the twists and turns to play out. How they do so is always interesting, and this is Sanderson's best yet, but, still, there are many echoes of Mistborn/Steelheart/Elantris, etc. The result makes elements of the plot a little obvious at times, though some occasional twists help keep things fresh.
Second, since this novel covers so much ground and is full of (occasionally exhausting) detail, Sanderson's squeamishness about issues like sex or desire stand out in a particularly glaring fashion. Fight scenes and horrific murders are portrayed in great (and well-written) detail, but the novel goes full young adult when discussing other forms of human interaction. I am not talking about a lack of anything graphic, but the complete modesty of the characters, especially the non-married characters, gets in the way of character-building, makes Kaladin and Shallan feel less well-rounded than they should be.
Still, Sanderson doesn't do grimdark (like Martin or Abercrombie), and it is nice to have a good old fashioned fantasy series, full of mysteries and destinies and action, to explore. I will be waiting for the next!
Command and Control was excellent, if occasionally chilling, listening. The book takes the form of a thriller - flashing back between an accident at a missile silo in Arkansas in 1980, and the history of the control of American nuclear weapons. The thriller becomes a bit of a horror show as Schlosser shows how often disaster was narrowly averted, and the potential consequences of a catastrophic accident. There are many mind-boggling facts along the way: the Davy Crockett nuclear anti-tank rocket had a blast radius as large as its range, the military occasionally classified things so highly the president couldn't see them, and there were many occasions where a nuclear war nearly happened.
The evolution of the Damascus Accident is especially well-written, as is the story of the evolution of nuclear strategy and command. As one reviewer in the LA Times pointed out, Schlosser is decidedly liberal, but the heroes of the book (such as they are) are McNamara and Reagan, who actually tame the nuclear beast, at least for a while. Similarly, there are great explanations of the development of the atomic bomb, and the technical details involved.
There are only a few weaknesses. First, the emphasis on bomb safety and the final parts of the Damascus Accident drag a bit, making the last third of the book somewhat less pointed and novel than the terrific first part. Second, the book seems to lose steam after Reagan, barely giving any time to the post-Cold War situation, or to other countries. While this isn't necessarily bad, it means that we spend most of the book in increasingly high levels of concern, and are left without either a lot of discussion over how to reach a safer world, or a clear sense of what the nuclear system looks like today.
In any case, this is a great read for fans of nonfiction and history, as it covers a huge amount of ground. And the final sentence is absolutely chilling and revelatory.
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