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Ryan

Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.

Somerville, MA, United States | Member Since 2005

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  • 259 reviews
  • 324 ratings
  • 1 titles in library
  • 35 purchased in 2014
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  • The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel

    • UNABRIDGED (19 hrs and 43 mins)
    • By Helene Wecker
    • Narrated By George Guidall
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (2344)
    Performance
    (2163)
    Story
    (2164)

    Helene Wecker's dazzling debut novel tells the story of two supernatural creatures who appear mysteriously in 1899 New York. Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a strange man who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York Harbor. Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian Desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop.

    Tango says: "Enchanting Debut Novel - Delicious!"
    "Enjoyable character-driven urban fable"
    Overall
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    This book has been getting some buzz lately. While I'm not as gushy about it as the majority seem to be (for reasons I'll get to in a bit), it's a nice work of urban fantasy, with a creative premise and a level of writing that's a cut above the norm. The setting is a lyrical New York City circa 1900, with its patchwork communities of immigrants and workers, its seedy, dangerous neighborhoods, and its idle, wealthy aristocracy walled off in their palatial estates. Into this storied place come two creatures out of myth. One is a golem, a woman made from clay by an unsavory old man with knowledge of the occult arts, then given life-like features. She is brought into existence in Poland to serve as a wife for a sad sack of a man who is about to use the last of his squandered family fortune to emigrate to the US. However, he dies midway through the ocean voyage, leaving the golem to continue on her own, masterless, after the boat docks at Ellis Island.

    The other lead character is the jinni, a being of fire who was captured by a Syrian wizard, fixed in human form, then imprisoned in a flask. Centuries later, a metalsmith living in a Syrian neighborhood of New York accidently releases him.

    Wrecker does a lovely job with her creations' personalities. The golem, based on the robot-like creature of Jewish legend, has a stolid, practical temperament, and struggles to navigate the confusing human world without a master to give her direction. Instead, she finds herself animated by the needs of *everyone* around her -- though they pull in such conflicting directions, the net effect is a sort of free will. For her, being a capable worker, it's a world she can find a place in, but not one where she feels entirely happy or safe.

    The Jinni on the other hand, is a tempestuous, restless being, capable of making a good living as a craftsman, but too independent to take direction well and easily frustrated by the rigid social rules of the human world. He takes to wandering the streets at night, making new acquaintances in both low and high places, and searching for secrets about his forgotten past. Naturally, these two protagonists encounter each other, and develop a friendship that starts in mutual curiosity, then continues through mutual exasperation, then deepens as they begin to expand each other's understanding of the world and their lives intertwine with the humans around them. It's a lovely odd-couple story, helped even more by audiobook narrator George Guidall’s capable reading of the two central personas.

    The novel's strength lies in Wrecker’s unhurried, descriptive passages, which beautifully evoke turn-of-20th-century urban America, the noise of trains, the grit and grime of cobblestone streets, the daily hustles, worries, and woes of her characters, and the general press and jostle of humanity. The two inhuman protagonists both have their own perspectives on this world, on relationships, religion, morality, and two separate immigrant communities that exist streets away, but worlds apart. It’s fun to watch their views play off each other, never quite agreeing, but deepening one another.

    However, I found other aspects of the book underwhelming. The side characters aren’t very interesting. After the midpoint of the story, the fantasy elements begin to dominate the plot and the drama becomes a little forced. The action in the final chapters unfolds in somewhat of a jumbled, rushed way. More attention from an editor would have helped.

    For me, though, the strengths of this one outdo the weaknesses. If you like novels that mix history, magic realism, and escapism, check it out. 3.5 stars.

    7 of 7 people found this review helpful
  • Afterparty

    • UNABRIDGED (10 hrs and 55 mins)
    • By Daryl Gregory
    • Narrated By Tavia Gilbert
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (119)
    Performance
    (110)
    Story
    (111)

    It begins in Toronto, in the years after the smart drug revolution. Any high school student with a chemjet and internet connection can download recipes and print drugs, or invent them. A seventeen-year-old street girl finds God through a new brain-altering drug called Numinous, used as a sacrament by a new Church that preys on the underclass. But she is arrested and put into detention, and without the drug, commits suicide. Lyda Rose, another patient in that detention facility, has a dark secret: She was one of the original scientists who developed the drug.

    AudioBookReviewer says: "You may suffer from psycosis while listening"
    "Smart, witty altered-consciousness thriller"
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    Afterparty was a pleasant discovery for me, comparable to recent Neal Stephenson or William Gibson, but less geeked-out than the former and a little snarkier than the latter.

    The initial setting is a near-future Toronto. A former neuroscientist named Lyda is in a mental hospital, in the wake of a series of breakdowns. It’s about a decade after her biotech startup discovered, while trying to cure schizophrenia, a drug that enables users to experience God. Well, in a manner of speaking. More specifically, Lyda and her colleagues overdosed on the drug and each now experiences a very convincing hallucination of a heavenly spirit companion. In Lyda's case, it's a moralizing winged angel named Doctor Gloria. In more controlled doses, the drug, nicknamed Numinous, makes people feel that they're in the presence of the divine.

    It’s not the only mind-altering custom drug in this future. There's now a whole subculture of print-it-at-home drug manufacture, to say nothing of what more serious organizations do with the tech. Some products have amusingly harmless effects, but some alter consciousness in disturbing ways, such as one that removes one character’s natural empathy and turns him into a temporary sociopath.

    When a peculiarly troubled teenage patient shows up in the clinic, it dawns on Lyda that Numinous, which her and her colleagues swore to keep secret, is now on the street, being distributed by a strange new “church”. So, Lyda must check herself out of the hospital, evade monitoring systems, get across the border, and track down her former colleagues in the US. Her only allies are a sweetly unaware young man who thinks his consciousness resides in the aquarium toy hanging from his neck, and a crafty American ex-intelligence officer whose own mind has been scrambled by too much "focus" drug over her career. And a cat. And, of course, the amusingly huffy Doctor G, who remains invisible to everyone but Lyda.

    This is definitely a smart book, asking meaningful philosophical questions about the nature of being and the implications of messing with our brains/minds. Or of messing with other people's. It's also a witty one, with cleverly written scenes, oddball characters, and a lot of snarky quips from Lyda. For example, when a drug dealer sells a seemingly effective gay-for-a-day "product" to some straight dudebros at a college frat party, she retorts, "product? Don't you mean placebo?" (Well, it made me laugh.)

    The story, once it gets going, is interesting. There's also a backstory that emerges, concerning the tragic events that took place at Little Sprout (the startup) ten years ago, what became of Lyda's wife and fellow scientist, who took too much Numinous, how Lyda ended up in the mental hospital, and what happened to her daughter, who she had to give up for adoption. While Gregory doesn’t posit a drastically altered future, I also enjoyed the creative, incidental little ideas that he drops in here and there, such as a plausible successor to smart phones. Like the plot of a good thriller, all the pieces come together in the end, but with some room for taking the characters and setup further, should he choose to.

    If there are a few believability issues and the ending is a little predictable, it’s a thriller with a brain and an eye on an approaching bend in the road ahead. And the core questions -- if there is a better us inside ourselves, should we try to access it by tampering with ourselves? Or should we not? Is “divine experience” more about the divine, or the experience? -- are ones that Gregory keeps hovering in our peripheral vision throughout the book, but admirably never tries to answer for us.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  • Last Dragon

    • UNABRIDGED (9 hrs and 32 mins)
    • By J. M. McDermott
    • Narrated By Cori Samuel
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (7)
    Performance
    (5)
    Story
    (6)

    Zhan has been sent to find her grandfather, a man accused of killing not only Zhan’s family, but every man, woman, and child in their village. What she finds is a shell of a man, and a web of deceit that will test the very foundations of a world she thought she understood. A tale of revenge that grows into something more, Last Dragon is a literary fantasy novel in the tradition of Gene Wolf and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. J. M. McDermott brings the fantasy genre to new literary heights with his first novel.

    Samuel Montgomery-Blinn says: "Instantly became one of my all-time favorites."
    "Beautiful, melancholic literary fantasy"
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    Last Dragon falls into a space somewhere between straightforward genre fantasy and literary fiction, which is probably why not too many readers have noticed it. The bones of the plot have a lot in common with the former: there’s a teenage girl, destined to become an Empress (which we know because she’s writing an epistolary from her older years), who leaves her nomadic people to seek blood justice against her grandfather, who has murdered her family and most of the rest of her village, then fled. Along with her slightly-older uncle, who is now technically the village shaman, she travels over the mountains and enters the more civilized, darker-skinned country to the south.

    As we might expect, the young Zhan will find companions on the road who have their own histories and purposes, learn about the wider world, discover that the truth is more complex than the one she began with, and get sucked into a war that comes back to her people. Not everyone’s stories, when fully revealed, will be quite as they seem. Several of the main characters have an ambiguous quality to them.

    Unlike a lot of fantasy, which tends to proceed in a linear way, Zhan’s tale is expressed in semi-ordered, dreamlike fragments, concentrating less on genre tropes, and more on how humans reveal themselves in their interactions. There are betrayals and surprises that will emerge, some of which seem to be a product of the older Zhan’s unreliable memory. There’s a definite Gene Wolfe flavor -- if The Book of the New Sun spoke to you, this probably will, too (and if you hated The Shadow of the Torturer, you’re not the audience for this book). The format can be a little confusing, but there were enough contextual hints for me to mostly keep track of the plot.

    But, man, McDermott can write. I loved the sparse, delicate beauty of the prose, and the haunting imagery that fills the book. Camp fires made from an intoxicating weed that grows in the mountains. A language that considers a bird to be any creature that sings. Ancient dragons that onced imparted their preternatural wisdom to a nation, an order of paladin who sacrificed their own lives to maintain the great creatures, and black-skinned soldiers from the south, who brought an end to this order (and many others) with their musketry. Ants that crawl in the masonry of a great city, and come to play their own disquieting role. An old warrior, from a place where different tribes modify their bodies to pay homage to different animals, telling a blend of personal and tall tales from childhood, which include a moment where a storm drops fish from the sky on a column of captives. There’s an ambiguity and bleakness to the main story, which ends unhappily for most in it, but it’s told in such a lovely way, including Cori Samuels’s English-accented audio narration.

    Not everyone will like this book. If you prefer novels to have a clear plot resolution, with all the characters’ motives fully revealed, you should probably look elsewhere. However, if you accept that books can be puzzles, with meanings that are hinted at through allegorical imagery and invocation of themes, Last Dragon is worthy of your time. While the novel sometimes loses itself in its own dreamlike gauziness and structural experimentation, and perhaps a few of the author’s ideas and characters could have been developed a little more, it’s an impressive first novel.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • Ragtime

    • UNABRIDGED (7 hrs and 52 mins)
    • By E. L. Doctorow
    • Narrated By E. L. Doctorow
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (336)
    Performance
    (238)
    Story
    (238)

    The story opens in 1906 in New Rochelle, New York, at the home of an affluent American family. One lazy Sunday afternoon, the famous escape artist Harry Houdini swerves his car into a telephone pole outside their house. And almost magically, the line between fantasy and historical fact, between real and imaginary characters, disappears.

    Catherine says: "Ragtime and Doctorow are compelling"
    "Hot times in the nineteen-o’s"
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    This is one of those books I had to read for class in high school, but which was somewhat wasted on me at the time. I didn’t know enough about history and adult psychology to really appreciate Doctorow’s portrait of the roiling, chaotic, ever unsatisfied nature of turn-of-the-20th century America, with its class struggles, expanding immigrant population, media celebrities and their sordid scandals, racism, squalor, and energetic search for something better.

    This is a novel where the author’s technique shines as much as his story or characters. Assuming an omniscient, godlike point of view that seems to pay homage to John Dos Passo’s America Trilogy, Doctorow swoops above the day, taking in the events of the newspaper headlines, then zooming down into dining rooms, meeting halls, and bedrooms, for a closer look into his characters lives, then diving into their thoughts and emotions, before flying away again. This approach creates a sense of urgency and burgeoning unrest, not surprising in a novel written soon after the late 1960s.

    The story blends history with the lives of a fictional middle-class white family in a New York City suburb, who are named only as Father, Mother, Younger Brother, and The Boy. The bourgeois Father owns a business that sells patriotic supplies, and joins Robert Peary on his expedition to the North Pole, which seems to mark an apex of Father’s life. Younger Brother is a troubled young man who obsesses over an equally troubled young starlet, the real Evelyn Nesbit, and loses himself in designing fireworks, then in radicalism. When Mother takes in a young, unwed black women and her infant, the family becomes involved with a successful, cultured black pianist named Coalhouse Walker, who refuses to back down from his demands for redress after his car is vandalized by a racist fire chief. Things escalate, and the Family finds itself connected to a righteous terrorist, who acts out a fantasy that many blacks at the time probably had.

    This central plot, though absorbing, is only an eye of the storm for the rest of the book. Doctorow spends as much time with other figures, fictional or historical, whose energies intersect and rise into the same sublime madness. An immigrant Jew living in the slums of New Yorks, who struggles after a better life for his daughter and is pulled towards a new industry. Anarchist labor organizer Emma Goldman, who gives a scathing critique of capitalist society and its moral hypocrisies. Plutocrat J.P. Morgan, who searches for higher purpose, now that he’s achieved the pinnacle of success and found it wanting, and fellow capitalist Henry Ford, who gives a folksy comeuppance. Escapist artist Harry Houdini, who pushes back against his own inner emptiness with ever more dangerous and unreal stunts.

    This is a brilliant book, swirling with color and energy, but also wit and insight into the psyche of America at a significant moment. There’s a strong whiff of counterculture and the kind of creative, what-if reimagining of hidden moments of history that I enjoyed in Doctorow’s Civil War novel The March. Readers who dislike the cinematic, somewhat fanciful staging of such scenes, or prefer a more conventional, grounded plot might not enjoy this book, but I’d recommend Ragtime to anyone who wants to better understand the US, or this time period in particular.

    Doctorow, who obviously isn’t a trained voice actor, narrates his own audiobook. The recording isn’t of great quality, being a little muffled in places and making him sound like he has a cold. Still, I appreciated knowing that all the verbal emphasis in the reading was just as the author intended.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • This Is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death

    • UNABRIDGED (15 hrs and 38 mins)
    • By David Malki (editor), Ryan North (editor)
    • Narrated By Dan Woren, Will Collyer, Robert Morgan Fisher, and others
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (16)
    Performance
    (13)
    Story
    (13)

    The machines started popping up around the world. The offer was tempting: with a simple blood test, anyone could know how they would die. But the machines didn't give dates or specific circumstances - just a single word or phrase. DROWNED, CANCER, OLD AGE, CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN. And though the predictions were always accurate, they were also often frustratingly vague.

    Ryan says: "Fate Inescapable"
    "Fate Inescapable"
    Overall
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    This is a fun little anthology. All the pieces here revolve around the same premise: the idea that there's a machine that can predict a person's death from a blood sample, spitting out its answer on a small card. The machine sometimes words its oracular messages in an ambiguous or poetic way, but it's never wrong. If it predicts that you'll die by drowning, moving to the desert won't save you -- you'll just die in the shower or by choking on a drink. Perhaps, like Oedipus, you might even suffer the paradoxical fate of being doomed by your attempt to escape fate.

    Naturally, there are a number of logical, philosophical, and moral implications that can arise from the premise, and the various authors get pretty creative in exploring them. How would you act if you knew your death? What if your friends or family knew? What if your government knew? A few pieces are set in the present day, but the genres of most of the others run the gamut from sci-fi to dystopian to fantasy to zombie horror to time travel to Sherlock Holmes. There's even a choose-your-own-adventure. The most interesting ones, for my money, tend to weave in some other issue.

    The tone of the stories ranges a lot as well. Some are witty, some are serious, some dark, some absurd, some poignant, some melancholy, and some cryptic. Some feature better writing than others, but there was a good deal of talent and imagination on display. Similarly, the various audiobook readers range from competent-but-unremarkable to skilled. I particularly enjoyed the voices done by the guy who narrated the story told from the point of view of an orc.

    In sum, a collection I could recommend to any adult who enjoys creative short fiction (I say "adult" because of some profanity and a few grown-up topics). I would note that this is the followup to any earlier anthology, called Machine of Death. I haven't read that one, but the grapevine (well, the Internet) says that this is the more inventive of the two.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • Lagoon

    • UNABRIDGED (10 hrs and 44 mins)
    • By Nnedi Okorafor
    • Narrated By Adjoa Andoh, Ben Onwukwe
    Overall
    (13)
    Performance
    (13)
    Story
    (10)

    Three strangers, each isolated by his or her own problems: Adaora, the marine biologist. Anthony, the rapper famous throughout Africa. Agu, the troubled soldier. Wandering Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigeria's legendary mega-city, they're more alone than they've ever been before. But when something like a meteorite plunges into the ocean and a tidal wave overcomes them, these three people will find themselves bound together in ways they could never imagine.

    Samuel Montgomery-Blinn says: "Lagos, where nothing works and everything happens"
    "Colorful magic realist science fiction"
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    There aren't a lot of sci-fi/fantasy writers who use Africa as a primary setting, but Nnedi Okorafor is a noteworthy voice in this small subgenre. I enjoyed 2010's post-apocalypse coming-of-age, Who Fears Death, though I found the plot a little disjointed. Lagoon, her most recent work, shows her strengthening her skills as a writer and storyteller.

    Here, when aliens come to set up a new home on Earth, they don't pick New York, London, or Tokyo, but land their ship in the ocean near Lagos, Nigeria, flooding the coast. Immediately, their technology, which is advanced to the point of near-magic, begins to wreak changes on the local marine life. For reasons that don't become clear until later, three people, strangers to each other, a marine biologist named Adaora, a popular Ghanaian rapper named Anthony, and a soldier named Agu, are attracted to the beach. A wave pulls them all into the water, and some time later, they return with a fourth individual, an ambassador from the aliens who has taken human form.

    At this point, had the story been set in the US, the government would have swooped in, set up a tight military cordon and whisked away the visitor. But, this is Nigeria. Instead, Adaora conducts a few tests, footage ends up on the internet, and different parties, from a charlatan witch-hunting preacher to some enterprising kidnappers to a unit of trigger-happy soldiers, converge on the scene. Meanwhile, the strange events unleash religious fervor, rioting, and other chaos throughout Lagos. The aliens, like gods, can be benevolent in their way, but also seem to be judging humanity and are dangerous when provoked.

    This definitely isn't conventional sci-fi. There are some strong mystical elements to the story, which lend it, at times, a magic realist flavor reminiscent of Salman Rushdie. The aliens, it seems, have awakened old spirits and powers lurking just beneath the skin of Lagos (including a man-eating road!). I very much enjoyed the colorful writing and the honesty about Nigeria's conflicted, multifaceted personality that emerged in the book's many short vignettes, each from the perspective of a different denizen of the city. Okorafor's creativity especially shines in the sequences devoted to animals changed by the aliens' energies. Audiobook narrators, Adjoa Andoh and Ben Onwukwe, who do an astonishing range of accents, demonstrate just how much the spoken-word experience can enhance a book.

    It's not that there weren't annoyances, though. The central plot, which concerned the main characters' mission to get through the chaos to meet up with Nigeria's ailing president, gets a little tedious in its one-thing-after-another action overload. Also, the author over-relies on the device of having many of her characters coincidentally know other characters who are important to the story. And, as much as I loved the voice actors, some of their accent were incomprehensible to me. The pidgin English dialect was like listening to an amped-up Jar Jar Binks.

    Still, the overall theme of human worthiness of redemption, in the face of our many abuses of nature and one other, resonated for me. Okorafor is one to keep an eye on. The same (well, ear) goes for Andoh and Onwukwe.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  • Blood Song: Raven's Shadow, Book 1

    • UNABRIDGED (23 hrs and 8 mins)
    • By Anthony Ryan
    • Narrated By Steven Brand
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (1730)
    Performance
    (1638)
    Story
    (1637)

    The Sixth Order wields the sword of justice and smites the enemies of the Faith and the Realm. Vaelin Al Sorna was only a child of 10 when his father left him at the iron gate of the Sixth Order. The Brothers of the Sixth Order are devoted to battle, and Vaelin will be trained and hardened to the austere, celibate, and dangerous life of a Warrior of the Faith. He has no family now save the Order.

    JPaladin says: "Wonderful Epic! Mature and well-written."
    "Familiar but gripping epic fantasy"
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    There’s virtually nothing in Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song that fantasy readers haven’t seen before. Vaguely European medieval world? Check. Protagonist with a special magical gift? Check. Walled-off academy wherein a young protagonist learns many diverse arts? Check. A set of religious/mystical Orders that safeguard the realm and its affairs? Barbarians in the north? Hidden secret Order? Check, check, check.

    Yet, this is a confident, unapologetically traditional novel that will likely please fans of military and warrior epics. Ryan, to his credit, doesn’t go in for a lot of world-building or the potential flab of multiple character perspectives. Other than the framing device of introducing the story from the perspective of a scribe from a southern empire, who interviews the now-legendary captive, Vaelin al Sorna, much of the narrative follows the experiences of the man himself. As we soon learn, Vaelin was left as a boy by his father at the gates of the Sixth Order, which trains warriors to serve the faith, a sort of medieval Army Ranger battalion.

    Roughly the first third of the novel is taken up by Vaelin’s training, an increasingly harsh series of lessons and tests. It’s a little comparable to events in Patrick Rothfuss’s popular The Name of the Wind, but this school is much more martial than university-like. It’s stuff we’ve seen before, but I enjoyed watching Vaelin and his fellows grow in skill and maturity, with glimpses of the outside world and its issues, which occasionally intrude on their training.

    Most good military fiction involves the hero learning, over many bloody battles, that the purity of the warrior’s ethos doesn’t always align with the slimy nature of realpolitik. This is true here. As he graduates from his final test, Vaelin finds himself falling into the favor of a manipulative, ambitious king, who sends him on sham missions against an insurgency of heretics in the north, then into actual set battles against the empire to the south, for reasons that sound worthy on paper but reek of the king’s self-interest.

    While the too-noble-for-this-war-too-dutiful-to-stop-fighting-it themes are familiar, Ryan does a great job with the savage crunch and clamor of battles, and capturing the many small details of a warrior’s life and its hard disciplines. There’s a bit of droll humor, too. There’s even beauty in the writing, in the depiction of a primeval northern forest, or in a pod of orca whales pacing a ship. Fantasy can so easily crumble when modern sensibilities or glibness creep into it, but Ryan seems to recognize the importance of a believably mythic world, of keeping the basic themes simple and clear.

    That said, there are weaknesses. The story suffers from a few cliches, and only a handful of characters are more than a sketch. The Princess, whose calculating nature makes it unclear whose side she’s on, is interesting, but there wasn’t very much to distinguish Vaelin’s brothers-in-arms from one another. I was a little disappointed that the Faith, so central to what the Order does, was never explained in much detail, and that the magic-related side of the plot, while seemingly important to the larger series Ryan has in mind, felt a little shoehorned into the story.

    Still, such issues are to be expected in a debut and I think much of the praise from readers is warranted. If this isn’t quite the next Game of Thrones, it takes many ideas that worked well in that series and channels them into one hero and his reality. Audiobook narrator Steven Brand doesn’t do a wide range of accents, but he has a confident, unpretentious voice that fits the text. While some readers have complained about grammar issues, they weren’t evident to me in this format.

    5 of 5 people found this review helpful
  • The Affirmation

    • UNABRIDGED (7 hrs and 13 mins)
    • By Christopher Priest
    • Narrated By Michael Maloney
    Overall
    (6)
    Performance
    (6)
    Story
    (6)

    THE AFFIRMATION is at once an original thriller and a haunting study of schizophrenia; it has a compulsive, dream-like quality. Peter Sinclair is tormented by bereavement and failure. In an attempt to conjure some meaning from his life, he embarks on an autobiography, but he finds himself writing the story of another man in another, imagined, world, whose insidious attraction draws him even further in . . .

    Michael G. Kurilla says: "Haunting description of a descent into madness"
    "A quietly intense trip into the meta"
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    I loved The Islanders and its mysterious alternate world, even if I didn't entirely get what the book was about. I'd read that the Dream Archipelago had its origins in Priest's earlier, 1981 novel, The Affirmation, so this seemed like a fitting next step into his catalog.

    The novel is about a young man named Peter Sinclair, whose life has fallen apart after the death of his father, a romantic dissolution, and the loss of his job to a bad economy (there's a palpable sense of Thatcher-era British malaise). Peter sets out to find new inner peace by moving into an old house recently purchased by a family friend out in the country, and fixing it up for the man and his wife. While engaged in this, Peter decides to write a memoir of his life. Then, he decides to rewrite it, first changing a few details to be more to his liking, then going all the way into a fantasy world.

    At this point, it becomes clear that Peter may not be well, and that some of what he's told us so far might not be so reliable. Then, the book switches gears, and we're reading about the life of another Peter Sinclair, who lives in the world of the Dream Archipelago, which is technologically similar to ours, but has entirely different geography and countries, and a few science fiction-y elements. We learn that the alternate Peter has won a lottery that grants him life extension treatment, requiring him to make a trip by sea into the Archipelago (which has politically distanced itself from the main continent because of an ongoing war there). But, there are some costs, such as total amnesia and a subsequent “rebirth”.

    Gradually, the two halves of the story begin to show some parallels, such as the romantic relationships with Gracia/Seri (in each world). Then they begin to reference each other, through the manuscript Peter is working on/carrying with him in each reality, then, ultimately, to merge. Readers have made comparisons to Murakami and other magic realist authors, but I was also reminded of Julian Barnes’s excellent The Sense of an Ending, which was also very “English” in its sensibilities and also turned on the narrator’s memory and understanding of events not being totally dependable.

    This is a novel that invites different interpretations. On one level, it could simply be about a man’s harrowing descent into mental illness, the fantasies in his head becoming as real as reality. On another, it could be about a misguided recovery of memory. But The Affirmation is also a Cloud Atlas-like work of literary experimentation, the creation-within-a-creation structure looping back on itself. If you enjoy having your mind blown, pay close attention to events in the last chapters. This is a book that invites a second read, once the final twist becomes clear.

    While The Affirmation’s “real world” story is a little depressing, with its references to suicide and psychological breakdown, I was pleased to return to the Dream Archipelago and learn more about its workings. Perhaps I should revisit the Islanders and see if this book has shed any new light on happenings in that one. I also look forward to reading Priest’s story collection, The Dream Archipelago.

    I don’t have much to say on the audiobook, except that Michael Maloney reads with a quiet intensity that I thought was a perfect fit for Peter’s voice.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • House of Suns

    • UNABRIDGED (18 hrs and 16 mins)
    • By Alastair Reynolds
    • Narrated By John Lee
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (900)
    Performance
    (582)
    Story
    (585)

    Six million years ago, at the very dawn of the starfaring era, Abigail Gentian fractured herself into a thousand male and female clones: the shatterlings. Sent out into the galaxy, these shatterlings have stood aloof as they document the rise and fall of countless human empires. They meet every 200,000 years to exchange news and memories of their travels with their siblings.

    Ethan M. says: "Science fiction in Deep time"
    "Cerebral, Banksian space opera"
    Overall
    Performance
    Story

    3.5 stars. This is hard sci-fi space opera in the same wheelhouse as the works of Iain M. Banks or Peter Hamilton, featuring uber-advanced cultures that operate on a galactic scale in a distant future. While my last Reynolds (Revelation Space) experience left me a bit "meh", I enjoyed this one, which calls to mind the high points of the two aforementioned authors.

    The story takes place millions of years in the future, and concerns two mostly-human "shatterlings", who are part of an extended family engineered from the genetic stock of one single, long-ago ancestor. The shatterlings roam the vastness of space (at less than the speed of light), doing various good deeds and observing the rise and fall of civilizations, their own lives prolonged by their ability to go into stasis for long periods of time. Every 200,000 years or so, though, the members of the line come together for a grand reunion, to party, swap stories, and share what they've learned. Not a bad setup at all.

    The two protagonists, Campion and Purslane, are on their way to just such a reunion when they get sidetracked and acquire a new passenger, a golden robot named Hesperus (whose persona harkens back to Asimov’s classic robots). Their lateness permits them to escape a massacre of the gathered, which leaves few survivors. From there, the novel becomes a sort of cerebral thriller in space, the protagonists working to solve the mystery of who wants to wipe out their line, while playing cat-and-mouse with various enemies and trying to understand certain strange beings. There’s also a thread concerning the line founder, her experiences in a fantasy virtual reality world that begins to take over her mind, and what motivated her to “shatter” herself.

    This brand of science fiction tends to be heavier on science, ideas, and the gears of the plot than it is on storytelling, psychological depth, or thematic richness, and, though there are a few exceptions (Dune, Hyperion, and A Fire Upon the Deep come to mind), House of Suns isn’t one of them. It’s a shame that Reynolds didn’t go deeper with his premise and explore his protagonists’ inner lives with all those millions of years passing around them. Also, some developments seemed a little unbelievable, owing to the common sci-fi problem of “if they’re advanced enough to do X, can’t they do Y?” There’s a lot of hand-waving where technology is concerned. (WTF is a homunculus weapon? Who knows.)

    But if you enjoy geeking out on wormholes, machine sentience, nanotechnology, Matrix-esque virtual realities, relativistic time dilation, and the possibility of godlike higher beings lurking behind the universe, and want to see an author spin a story from these things, House of Suns is smart, well-executed hard sci-fi. I also found the characters more likable than those of Revelation Space. While I prefer my science fiction to be a little more on the literary side, some readers will appreciate a novel that dispenses of any such pretensions and gives us the spaceships and robots straight-up.

    The audiobook production is fairly good, though it left a few things to be desired. On one hand, John Lee has the control to read all the astrobabble in the story without being cheesy; on the other, his protagonists sound pretty similar. It took me a little while to realize that there were two main points of view, though who’s speaking becomes obvious once you grasp the contextual hints.

    I haven’t read enough of Reynolds’s other books to make a comparison, but I think this is a perfectly good starting point if you want to see what the buzz is about.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century

    • UNABRIDGED (25 hrs and 3 mins)
    • By Thomas Piketty, Arthur Goldhammer (translator)
    • Narrated By L. J. Ganser
    • Whispersync for Voice-ready
    Overall
    (169)
    Performance
    (145)
    Story
    (146)

    What are the grand dynamics that drive the accumulation and distribution of capital? Questions about the long-term evolution of inequality, the concentration of wealth, and the prospects for economic growth lie at the heart of political economy. But satisfactory answers have been hard to find for lack of adequate data and clear guiding theories.

    Darwin8u says: "Hottest Economic Beach Read of the Season"
    "Wall, meet writing"
    Overall
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    Story

    Spoiler alert: the takeaway from Thomas Piketty's dry but much-discussed book is what most citizens of the developed world already know: income and wealth inequality in first world countries, particularly the United States, are at levels not seen since the Gilded Age. As much as I've personally benefitted from globalism and technology, it’s obvious that the lion’s share of the profits from these trends has gone to a small elite, while many Americans are being left behind in an economy that no longer places great value on their skills (or gives a damn about educating their kids).

    No doubt, the timing of the book’s publication has something to do with the big splash it made -- these are clearly issues on a lot of minds -- but Piketty brings some cool analysis to the current reality, helping the reader understand how to see it in terms of historical data. As he argues, all economic evidence suggests that this disparity is likely to continue to grow, driving modern countries towards a form of society not seen since 19th century Europe. There, he shows, there was less economic growth than in the 20th century, which meant that a small upper class that controlled most of the capital received most of the income, consolidating its dominance through inheritance. Piketty brilliantly illustrates this point with references to classic 19th century novels, wherein protagonists aren’t trying to better themselves in careers in which advancement is limited, but are focused on marrying well. Only the shock of two world wars ended this reality, creating a few decades of growth-through-rebuilding and relatively egalitarian prosperity for Western Europe and the US.

    Piketty dives down into the weeds of numerical data, graphs, charts, and comparison tables to make his point, which doesn’t always make for an ideal audiobook listen. Though there’s a PDF supplement, dedicated readers might want to get the book in print. Still, the gist is clear. We can no longer count on the rapid expansion and population growth that drove the wheels of US industry in earlier days. Return on capital is now a better bet than return on growth in most sectors of a 21st century non-emerging economy, with the start-up costs for high-tech industries or rental properties favoring the already wealthy. Even the apparent exceptions, such as software development (my own field), kind of prove the rule, in the sense that they only provide jobs for a small class of highly-skilled workers, sometimes to the detriment of the less-skilled.

    However, Piketty’s proposed solutions, as much as I agree with their goals, seem naive given current politics. He advocates more confiscatory taxes on the global top 1%, more transparency in the financial systems of all countries, and stronger international laws related to seizing the assets of tax dodgers. I don’t know about his fellow French citizens, but to even suggest to a certain segment of the US electorate that their country might not actually be a meritocracy, or that it be more subject to some international body of law, would trigger instant howling outrage. Never mind that most of that group will never be wealthy themselves -- they would still rather live in a decaying shack, imagining their interests to be aligned with those of the billionaire Koch Brothers, than ever agree with some “socialist” French academic.

    Piketty emphasizes his faith in democracy, but there are a few things I wish he’d discussed more, even if they fall outside the purview of economics. The long-term implications of technological advances on the job market. The tendency of big government and big business to end up in bed with each other. How the people can take back ownership of the political system and the machinery of production without going down the failed route of Communism.

    Still, I’m glad this book is being talked about. If the Boomer Generation is still earnestly clinging to the “American Dream” ideals it once knew, it’s pretty clear to younger generations that the system isn’t so meritocratic or upwardly mobile as it once was. I think that Piketty, a Gen-Xer himself, is speaking more to this demographic than the one currently in charge. After all, to quote a certain Gen-X musical, the aging Koch brothers are “just for now”.

    That said, your kids might give some thought to marrying one of their heirs.

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  • Range of Ghosts: The Eternal Sky, Book 1

    • UNABRIDGED (12 hrs and 32 mins)
    • By Elizabeth Bear
    • Narrated By Celeste Ciulla
    Overall
    (18)
    Performance
    (15)
    Story
    (15)

    Multiple Hugo Award winner Elizabeth Bear enthralls fans with this compelling first book in the Eternal Sky series. In a world where wizards are unable to procreate, Temur, heir to his empire’s throne, flees to avoid assassination. Once-Princess Samarkar, formerly heir to her own empire’s throne, gives up everything to seek the wizards’ magical power. Drawn together by fate, Temur and the Once-Princess must stand against a cult inciting strife and civil war in all the empires.

    Christa says: "Bite down solid fantasy."
    "Great world, unremarkable plot"
    Overall
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    Story

    I've been trying to read more fantasy with non-traditional settings (i.e. not patterned after medieval Europe), and this one got some positive press on a sci-fi/fantasy blog I follow. Elizabeth Bear really does do a fine job with world building, crafting a mythic, magic-infused reality patterned after Central Asia, with analogs of Mongolia, China, Persia (I think), Arabia (I think), and a few other places. The images she conjures up can be quite lovely and cinematic, and I enjoyed the concept of having different skies in different places, such as the multiple moons that hang over the steppe, or the sun that goes west-to-east in another land.

    Bear also does a good job of developing a world where women wield power in different ways, as rulers, magicians, or soldiers. It's not overdone, with the sort of ridiculous female badasses one sees in some books, but feels authentic to the world. The most compelling character here is the former princess Samarkar, who chose to sacrifice her title and fertility to begin training in magic. The catch of this system, though, is that a lot of people who make the sacrifice don’t receive the gift, but have no way of knowing in advance.

    That said, I was less enamored with the plot, which didn’t offer many surprises. After a picturesque opening in which the young steppe warrior, Temur, regains consciousness on a corpse-littered battlefield, he meets a young woman from another tribe, falls for her, then vows to rescue her after she’s abducted by ghosts summoned by an enemy wizard. He meets up with Samarkar and several other characters, and they travel about, trying to rally the forces of good against a coming war that will no doubt feature in the sequel. Except for a few good scenes, it’s not much more riveting than my summary. It’s hard for me to get excited about action sequences where the main characters are all rather competent, work together well, and never seem in much danger.

    Hardly a *bad* book, though -- I applaud Bear for doing the Guy Gavriel Kay magical-historical fantasy thing pretty well with her setting and her writing is a cut above the rest of the pack -- but the characters, storyline, and themes didn’t excite me as much as I’d hoped they would. And I wasn’t a great fan of Celeste Ciulla’s audiobook reading -- it sounded too “modern” to my ears.

    Call this an on-the-fence review. Not a book I would dissuade others from reading, since Bear is a capable writer and worth investigating, but not one of my strongest recommendations.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful

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