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  • The Fountains of Paradise

  • By: Arthur C. Clarke
  • Narrated by: Marc Vietor
  • Length: 8 hrs and 28 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 1,006
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 852
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 858

Vannemar Morgan's dream is to link Earth to the stars with the greatest engineering feat of all time: a 24,000-mile-high space elevator. But first he must solve a million technical, political, and economic problems while allaying the wrath of God. For the only possible site on the planet for Morgans Orbital Tower is the monastery atop the Sacred Mountain of Sri Kanda.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • A magical poem for geeks

  • By David on 11-16-11

Engineers Monks Aliens & an Elevator to the Stars

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-17-18

"The sort of man who will never be happy unless [he is] shaping the universe," 22nd-century engineer Vannemar Morgan made his name on earth by building a bridge linking Europe and Africa, but his ambitious new project is of another order of magnitude: to make a bridge from the earth to the stars by constructing a 40,000 km tall space elevator, or "Orbital Tower." Morgan believes that the elevator would be a boon to humanity, largely replacing rocket technology by being 100 times more efficient and cheaper and less polluting, reinvigorating the moribund 200-year-old space age, and making the (fictional Ceylon-like) quiet island country of Taprobane the launching center for the solar system and even the universe.

Arthur C. Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise (1979) is a traditional hard sf novel with plenty of scientific and technological details and sublime descriptions of natural and artificial wonders old and new. Clarke imagines a World Government running the future earth, with colonies on the moon and Mars and war an embarrassing thing of humanity's past. Writing in the late 70s, Clarke foresaw things like a global computer network that would enable people to use their Personal Internet Profiles to subscribe to news topics of interest, individual identity numbers, and smart heart monitoring devices. This is an adult novel, for Clarke narrates only from the points of view of middle-aged or older characters and does no nostalgic idealizing of childhood, as for Morgan "The dreams of childhood had been far surpassed by the [engineering] reality of adult life."

Clarke goes to town researching, imagining, and describing the science, technology, and engineering required to accomplish Morgan's project, "an enterprise to fire the imagination and stir the soul." There are, for instance, the crucial hyperfilament cables made of "continuous pseudo-one-dimensional diamond crystals," thinner than spider thread, to be manufactured in zero-gravity factories, up and down which cables the capsules carrying freight and passengers will travel. The other end of the "bridge" will be a satellite about 40,000 km up in synchronized orbit around the earth. The Midway Station over half way up will anchor the tens of thousands of kilometers of hyperfilament cables. Clarke also details the economics of the project, including organizing its funding, and some of the politics behind it, including Morgan trying to hide his project from his conservative and envious boss.

Perhaps the most interesting detail, however, is the religious problem. The earth end of the elevator can only be placed in one spot, the tall Taprobane mountain peak of Sri Kanda, due to its position on the equator, extraordinary height, and freedom from gravitational anomalies. And there atop the sacred peak just happens to be a 2000+ year old Buddhist monastery populated by intractable monks who don't want any noisy, busy, new-fangled projects like Morgan's to interfere with their quiet, contemplative spiritual life. Much of the novel seems to paint humanity's religious inclinations and conflicts (centuries of "pious gibberish") in the galactic context as a childlike step needing to be outgrown. The Star Glider, an AI-driven probe launched by advanced aliens 60,000 years ago to travel throughout the galaxy contacting developed life forms, says things to the human scientists communicating with it things like, "Belief in God is apparently a psychological artifact of mammalian reproduction," and "I am unable to distinguish clearly between your religious ceremonies and apparently identical behaviour at the sporting and cultural functions you have transmitted to me. I refer particularly to the Beatles, 1965, the World Soccer Final, 2046; and the Farewell appearance of the Johann Sebastian Clones, 2056."

And yet Clarke also treats the spiritual leanings of human beings with sympathy, as in the enigmatic face of an old bust of Buddha ("The eyes of the Buddha were completely blank--empty pools in which a man might lose his soul, or discover a universe"), or the ancient legend of butterfly warriors ("There is something very strange about a universe where a few dead butterflies can balance a billion ton tower"). And at one point the eminently practical atheist Morgan says, with only partial irony, "now I know that the gods are on my side, whatever gods may be."

Like other novels by Clarke (e.g., 2001 and Childhood's End), this one is more interested in big ideas about civilization, nature, technology, science, religion, humanity, mortality, immortality, and the like than in well-rounded characters. Morgan is not overly compelling. His reporter friend, Maxine Duvall, muses that his intense drive and ruthless ambition make him "both larger than life and less than human." He has never married, has no children and relatively few friends, has no vices, isn't prey to self-doubt, and is cool in an emergency.

The novel, however, is not just a dry account of a future engineering feat in an almost post-religious context. There is an extended exciting, if somewhat unlikely, scene in which Morgan (sixty-six and heart-compromised) attempts to bring some vital supplies to some astronomers stranded 600 km up the elevator. And Clarke at times exhibits a playful side, whether in cosmic ironies, like the name the space elevator goes by 1500 years after its construction, and in chapter epigraphs quoting works on psychology, religion, and science from real world historical figures like Freud and from fictional ones like a book by R. Gabor published by Miskatonic UP in 2069.

Marc Vietor is a good reader for the auidobook, suitable for Clarke's objective narration and thoughtful approach to his subjects.

People who like traditional, hard sf dealing greatly with the differences (and similarities) between science and religion should like this Hugo and Nebula-winning novel.

  • NOS4A2

  • A Novel
  • By: Joe Hill
  • Narrated by: Kate Mulgrew
  • Length: 19 hrs and 41 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 9,928
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 9,249
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 9,242

Victoria McQueen has an uncanny knack for finding things: a misplaced bracelet, a missing photograph, answers to unanswerable questions. When she rides her bicycle over the rickety old covered bridge in the woods near her house, she always emerges in the places she needs to be. Vic doesn't tell anyone about her unusual ability, because she knows no one will believe her. She has trouble understanding it herself.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Gripping performance by Kate Mulgrew....

  • By Leslie on 05-06-13

The World of Stuff and the World of Thought

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-11-18

In the prologue of Joe Hill's NOS4A2 (2013), Charlie Manx, who looks like a bald, Keith Richards (only older), has apparently been lying comatose for a decade in a prison hospital since being convicted of abducting and killing dozens of kids in his Christmas-themed house of horrors, the Sleigh House, when he briefly wakes up in 2008, grabs the wrist of a nurse, and tells her that he has a place for her son in Christmasland, where all the children are safe in his head, and a place for her in the House of Sleep, courtesy of the Gasmask Man and his gingerbread smoke, and that all he needs is his ride, the Wraith. The novel itself begins in 1986, when eight-year-old Victoria "Vic" McQueen's first rides "between Lost and Found," pedaling her too big and too boyish Raleigh Tuff Burner bicycle through a condemned covered bridge called the Shorter Way into a different place several hours away from her hometown in order to find her mother's lost bracelet. The novel then sets the paths of Vic and Manx on a decades-long collision course in suspenseful, painful, humorous, and moving ways.

The premise of the novel (as a few characters explain it) is that everybody lives in two worlds, the "real" world of stuff, facts, work, etc., and the "inscape" world of thought, emotion, and imagination, which are as powerful as gravity and as real as rocks. Furthermore, a small number of "strong creatives" (like Vic and Manx) are able to use special personal vehicles to move back and forth between their personal inscapes and the real world and or to bring elements from one into the other and or to shape reality like dough. Thus from when she was a girl Vic could ride her Tuff Burner through her personal bridge, coming out anywhere in America where she would find whatever she was looking for. Such "gifts" come with a cost. So using her imaginary but real bridge gives Vic terrible migraines centered in her left eye, messes with her mental equilibrium, and leads her right to Manx.

Joe Hill writes vivid and imaginative descriptions, as when Vic first rides her Tuff Burner, and "It was like witchcraft; she could've been riding a broom, slicing effortlessly through Halloween darkness, a thousand feet off the ground"), and then first rides through the wood-slatted Shorter Way, "through stammering rays of white light. When she crossed through one of those wafer thin sheets of brightness, she felt it in her left eye, a kind of distant throb."

He has a mind for how people hurt each other, as when Vic's father says to her mother during an argument, "Jesus. What an ugly fuckin' person you are inside. And I had a kid with you." He also has an ear for the witty line, as when Manx rhetorically asks, "Who do you think I am? Willy Wonka?"

He writes flawed and human characters that make what happens easy to sympathize with. Vic can be unlikeable, denying the reality of her gift and hurting her parents, but she is also brave, strong, creative, and down to earth: a biker picture book maker mother. The supporting characters are neat: Lou Carmody, a "morbidly obese," gentle and innocent biker-mechanic fan of comic-books and Vic; Maggie, an elfin punk librarian whose gift is to find answers to questions by pulling Scrabble letter tiles out of a bag, the cost of which is a painful stammer (Hill under and poorly uses Maggie); and Bing Partridge, a childlike (in all the worst ways) middle-aged loser who murdered his abusive parents as a boy and becomes Manx' Renfield. And Charlie Manx is a fine villain. At once stupid and cunning, creepy and funny, sadistic and protective, he believes he's rescuing kids from abusive parents ("The fires of hell are not hot enough the man or woman who would hurt their children") and giving them endless fun without pain or sadness.

NOS4A2 reminds me of the work of Hill's father Stephen King in novels like Doctor Sleep (the True Knot villains from that book are referred to here as being strong creatives like Vic and Manx). Like his father, Hill works into his novel many references to American popular culture (here from Sam Spade and Sponge Bob to Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman and Ironman), as well as some to international high literature (here from Chekov to Borges). Like his father, Hill works into his novel relevant themes (here about parent-child relationships, childhood and adulthood, imagination and reality, and love) and writes suspenseful and brutal action scenes and brief moments of grace.

Hill can do some bad writing, as when he cracks an excrescent joke about a young soldier, "Tom was well dead, not to mention well-done." He's also capable of going too far, as with some FBI machine guns. And there are multiple occasions when he contrives something against what we might expect characters to do given their personalities, situations, or gifts. An author shouldn't give his characters supernatural abilities and show them in action and then without a good explanation make them not work (or introduce new supernatural elements like ghosts) to generate suspense or complicate the plot.

About the audiobook, listeners who prefer less dramatic readings might be put off by it being "PERFORMED by Kate Mulgrew." But I enjoyed her relishing the language and enhancing the story and making it more funny, scary, and moving. She revels in reading Charlie Manx, Bing, Lou ("Dude!"), sweet, stammering Maggie, and a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, "Kingfishers Catch Fire" (alas Hill abandons it).

Hill closes the audiobook by reading an afterword in which he talks about the novel's themes (the loss of innocence and childhood magic and how hard it is to be a parent) and premise (everyone lives in the world of consensus reality and a world of personal fantasy), about how he naturally came to be a writer by growing up observing his father and mother, and about why he likes audiobooks.

Fans of Joe Hill, Stephen King, or urban fantasy horror, as well as people who find Christmas creepy, would like this book.

  • The Mabinogion

  • By: Charlotte Guest
  • Narrated by: Richard Mitchley
  • Length: 10 hrs and 12 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 25
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 25
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 25

The Mabinogion, the earliest literary jewel of Wales, is a collection of ancient tales and legends compiled around the 12th and 13th century deriving from storytelling and the songs of bards handed down over the ages. It is a remarkable document in many ways. From an historical perspective, it is the earliest prose literature of Britain. But it is in its drama that many surprises await, not least the central role of King Arthur, his wife, Gwenhwyvar, and his court at Caerlleon upon Usk.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • A Wonder Whose Origin is Unknown

  • By John on 07-28-17

Rich Welsh Fantasy, Story, History, and Language

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-28-18

The first three tales of Charlotte Guest's translation of The Mabinogion, "The Lady of the Fountain," "Peredur the Son of Evrawc," and "Geraint the Son of Erbin," are rather standard Arthurian romances: plenty of superlatives (e.g., "she was the fairest woman he had ever seen"), courtly conversations (e.g., “By my faith, sister . . . thou art a beauteous and lovely maiden; and, were it pleasing to thee, I could love thee above all women"), and knights errant and grasping earls, hoary men and black men, giants and dwarves, maidens and sorceresses, serpents and lions, tournaments and combats, magic chessboards and rings, and more. There is also humor, as when Peredur (more than once) says, "I came not here to woo," or Kai (more than once) insults the wrong person. One thing mostly lacking from the three tales is suspense, because the hero knights of each story, Owain, Peredur, and Geraint are so puissant. I liked Geraint best because he becomes quite human when he loves his wife too much and then suspects her too much and twice even requires a month of healing.

The following older and more purely Welsh stories are stranger and more potent, unpredictable and funny, brutal and beautiful.

In "Kilhwch and Olwen" young Kilhwch asks Arthur's aid in marrying Olwen, the daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden Pencawr. Having done his homework, Kilhwch asks his boon in the names of all of Arthur's many heroes (and their mothers, wives, and daughters) in an exotic, intoxicating, 2,300 word list, a who's who of Welsh legend, spiced by mentions of unique abilities or feats, like ". . . and Morvran the son of Tegid (no one struck him in the battle of Camlan by reason of his ugliness; all thought he was an auxiliary devil. Hair had he upon him like the hair of a stag)." Ysbaddaden Pencawr, who knows that he'll die when his daughter weds, then recites an exotic, stunning 3000-word list of impossible marvels Kilhwch must accomplish to win Olwen. The "hero" calmly remarks after each one, "I'll compass that easily," sits back, and lets Arthur's men get to work.

In "The Dream of Rhonabwy," Rhonabwy, a retainer of Madog, stays the night in a filthy house with flea ridden beds and dreams of King Arthur and his chieftain Olwain playing gwyddbwyll (a chess-like game). Arthur scorns Rhonabwy and the men of his later era as puny, but though Arthur and Olwain may be giants in comparison, they sure don't behave well during the game!

"Pwyll Prince of Dyved" features a year-long identity and role swap between Pwyll (a good-natured simple guy) and Arawn (deep lord of magical Annwn), funny interplay between Pwyll and Rhiannon (who highlights Pwyll's lack of smarts in some snappy lines), appalling ladies in waiting (who frame a mother for cannibalizing her child), and the appearance of a mysterious baby boy.

"Branwen the Daughter of Llyr" relates the history of the Isle of the Mighty (Britain) and their Irish antagonists (who are depicted as duplicitous, pusillanimous, and incestuous), with cool fantastic elements, like a magical cauldron that restores dead warriors to mute life. If Branwen (British princess married to the Irish king) is not as impressive as Rhiannon, her half-brother Evnissyen is a fine anti-hero, thrusting a baby nephew into a fire one moment and sacrificing himself for his family the next.

In "Manawyddan the Son of Llyr" Manawydan marries Rhiannon, the widowed mother of Pryderi, and sets off with them and Pryderi's wife Cigfa to find a town where they may live after their home is cursed empty of all animals and people. Because Manawydan and Pryderi excel too well at whatever trade they take up, wherever they go the local craftsmen (even mild shoemakers!) are soon plotting to kill them. The story climaxes with the attempted hanging of a pregnant mouse thief.

"Math the Son of Mathonwy" is full of magical metamorphoses and illusions, deep loves, betrayals, and revenges, and neat origins. The trickster, storyteller, and mage Gwydion enables his brother to rape King Math's foot holder maiden (the king can only sleep with his feet in the lap of a virgin) by causing a devastating war by cheating Pryderi out of the first pigs in Wales. After three years punished as various animals, Gwydion helps Math get a new foot holder. No virgin, she immediately gives birth to twins she doesn't want. Gwydion spirits one away and later tricks the mother into naming him (Lleu). When she curses Lleu to never wed a human woman, Gwydion and Math fashion Blodeuedd from flowers to marry him, with unexpected results.

"The Dream of Maxen Wledig" interweaves history and fantasy via Macsen the Emperor of Rome's falling in love with Helen, a maiden of Britain, in a dream. The story expresses the beauty and puissance of Britons.

"The Story of Lludd and Llevelys" mixes history and fantasy as the brother of the king of Britain goes to France to marry an available queen, and the British king gets good advice from his brother on how to deal with three plagues in Britain (unstoppable invaders, miscarriage-inducing screeching, and vanishing food).

"Taleisin" begins by recounting how the famous bard was born three times and came by his prodigious foresight and omniscience and climaxes with the confident and wise kid participating in a bard contest for which he causes his rivals to blow raspberries at their king and then sings an impressive list of all he has experienced, from the Biblical to the British.

It's a pity that the Ukemi audiobook version of Guest's translation is missing her introduction and notes, but the reader, Richard Mitchley is excellent. He reads the many exotic Welsh names smoothly, consistently, and accurately (as far as my ignorant ears can tell). He reads "ur" as "ear," as in Arthear (Arthur) and Peredear (Peredur), and "ll" as a slight "th," as in Caertheon (Carelleon) and Theu (Lleu). And he enhances the tales with enthusiasm.

The strange and compelling stories of The Mabinogion are full of interesting historical and fantastic characters, developments, artifacts, and places, and demonstrate the richness of Welsh culture and language and the depths of the human heart. Fans of Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain will find here the sources of many of their names, characters, and artifacts.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • The Man Who Would Be King and Other Stories

  • By: Rudyard Kipling
  • Narrated by: Sean Barrett
  • Length: 9 hrs and 35 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 21
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 21
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 20

In a remote part of 19th-century Afghanistan, two British adventurers pursue their ambition to rule an empire. Using betrayal, threats, and guns, they win the respect of a primitive tribe and become worshipped as gods until one day they draw blood, and the game is up. "The Man Who Would Be King" is an action-packed tale about the pitfalls of colonialism and the temptations and evils of power.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Worth a Second Read

  • By Andre on 05-02-16

Varied Stories about Love, Life & Death in the Raj

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-21-18

The Naxos The Man Who Would Be King collects 12 Kipling short stories originally published between 1885 and 1890. The tales are varied in quality, mood, and genre. A few are classic, a few forgettable, the rest strong. There are two adventure stories (one brutal, one surreal), two ghost stories (one straight, one comedic), three supernatural stories (one straight, two comedic), three romance stories (one comedic, one tragic, one political), and two boy stories (one comedic, one excruciating). They are unified by Kipling's authentic depiction of life in the Raj (British Empire in India); by his criticism of and sympathy for the Anglo rulers and their indigenous subjects; by his ability to write compelling stories, characters, and settings that reveal the human condition; by his first-person narrators and nested narratives; and by his concise, dynamic, and flexible style.

Here follows an annotated list of the stories.

1. The Man Who Would Be King (1888)
Two British con man "loafers" plan to become kings in Kafiristan, a mysterious, mountainous corner of Afghanistan, by smuggling in guns and training the locals in soldiery, agriculture, and infrastructure. How they succeed and fail makes an absorbing and appalling adventure story that satirizes the ignorant attempts of "superior" civs to force enlightenment on "inferior" ones, not unlike the Raj project.

2. The Phantom Rickshaw (1885/1890)
In this morbidly funny and moving psychological study of guilt Jack Pansay comes to see the phantoms of a rickshaw, its coolies, and the woman he wronged as more real than the living people around him. The doctor diagnoses overwork and indigestion, but the narrator figures that "there was a crack in Pansay's head and a little bit of the Dark World came through. . ."

3. My Own True Ghost Story (1888)
The narrator has never experienced any of the many ghosts in India, until he stays the night in a dak-bungalow. Convinced he's heard a spectral billiard game in the next room he's planning to write a ghost story with which to paralyze the British Empire-- until he takes a peek into the room.

4. The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes (1885)
After riding out into the desert to kill a wild dog, feverish engineer Morrowbie Jukes comes to his senses in a sandy crater. He finds himself among dozens of skeletal and smelly Indians dumped there after failing to die from fatal diseases. Rather than give Jukes his due respect as a white Sahib, the living dead laugh at or ignore him, and one ex-Brahmin even tries to master him. There is no escape from the pit. The vivid details and surreal horror--existence pared down to eating roast crow--prefigure Kafka or Kobo Abe.

5. The Mark of the Beast (1890)
"The gods of the heathen are stone and brass, and any attempt to deal with them otherwise is justly condemned." Everything in this story contradicts that sentiment, after a drunken Brit stubs his cigar out on the forehead of a statue of the Hindu god Hanuman and starts behaving bestially. A doctor diagnoses hydrophobia, but the narrator and the policeman Strickland suspect the curse of a leper priest.

6. Without Benefit of Clergy (1890)
John Holden is a British bachelor civil servant in India by day, an unsanctioned husband of a 16-year-old Muslim Indian girl by night. When Ameera bears a son, the couple experiences "absolute happiness," but "The delight of that life was too perfect to endure." There is great beauty, love, and pain in the story: "It was not like this when we counted the stars."

7. The Sending of Dana Da (1888)
Kipling mocks Anglo theosophy and spiritualist religious types via a mysterious (con) man's supernatural "sending" of kittens to an ailurophobic foe of the narrator.

8. Wee Willie Winkie (1888)
The 6-year-old son of the regimental colonel follows the foolish fiancé of Lt. Coppy across a verboten dried riverbed into Afghanistan, the land of the "Bad Men" ("goblins"). His little boy-talk is almost too cute (e.g., "Vis is a bad place, and I've bwoken my awwest"), his awareness that he is the "child of the dominant race" repugnant. And the bandits know that if they harm the captives, the British regiment ("devils") "will fire and rape and plunder for a month till nothing remains."

9. On the City Wall (1889)
A prostitute, her admirer, a political prisoner, a Muslim festival in a Hindu part of Lahore, and the narrator's perceptions of all those. Love, faith, India, changing times, and the difficulty (and hypocrisy) of British Raj rule. This is a great story: funny, ironic, sensual, romantic, political, and moving.

10. The Education of Otis Yeere (1888)
In this comedy of manners, Mrs. Hauksbee feels empty and wants power, so she applies all her formidable strategy and style to make a man. She molds boring Otis Yeere, whose career in the Raj is going nowhere, into a smart Man on the Rise. With its many Wildean lines (e.g., "A man is never so happy as when he is talking about himself"), the story is funny, but Otis' broken heart and Mrs. Hauksbee's ego sting.

11. The Judgment of Dungara (1888)
When a well-meaning but ignorant German missionary husband and wife succeed too well in converting the Buria Kol, a nude and lazy folk who worship a God called Dungara, the sly priest of Dungara takes action.

12. Baa Baa Black Sheep (1888)
This fictional account of the experience of Kipling and his sister uproots 5-year-old Punch and 3-year-old Judy from their idyllic lives with their parents in Bombay and inserts them for five years into the Dickensian hell of Downe Lodge in England.

The reader of the audiobook, Sean Barrett, greatly enhances the stories, handling the many characters--young or old, male or female, British or Indian, sane or mad--all just right.

If you've read Kipling's Plain Tales from the Hills, you know what to expect here, though the stories in this collection are longer and fewer. Both sets of stories provide a vision of British rule in India (and of "civilized" rule of "uncivilized" peoples anywhere) more complex than merely, "Kipling was an imperial apologist." His humane interest in all kinds of people--from prostitutes to priests, from 6-year-old British Colonel's sons to aged Sikh revolutionaries--shines through.

  • The Hydrogen Sonata

  • Culture, Book 10
  • By: Iain M. Banks
  • Narrated by: Peter Kenny
  • Length: 17 hrs and 17 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 132
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 115
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 118

The Scavenger species are circling. It is, truly, the End Days for the Gzilt civilization. An ancient people, organized on military principles and yet almost perversely peaceful, the Gzilt helped set up the Culture 10,000 years earlier and were very nearly one of its founding societies, deciding not to join only at the last moment. Now they've made the collective decision to follow the well-trodden path of millions of other civilizations: They are going to Sublime, elevating themselves to a new and almost infinitely more rich and complex existence. Amid preparations though, the Regimental High Command is destroyed....

  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Hmm... Ok.. But not great

  • By Benbarian on 11-08-12

To Sublime or Not to Sublime—

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-12-18

Iain M. Banks' tenth and last Culture novel Hydrogen Sonata (2012) is all about Subliming. For millennia the Gzilt have felt superior to other galactic civilizations because of their scientifically prescient holy book, and now only 24 days remain till they Sublime. In theory this happens when a civ has nothing more to achieve technologically and culturally and involves nearly everyone abandoning possessions, desires, and ambitions etc. and transcending from the Real to a Childhood's End-like nirvana in multiple unknown dimensions.

But are the Gzilt really ready for Subliming? Why does one of their warships atomize a diplomatic ship sent by the already Sublimed civ who helped them develop by giving them their holy Book of Truth? The destroyed ship was carrying a message, and if it was, say, "The Book of Truth was an experiment on the Gzilt by an advanced civilization," what would the Gzilt do if they found out? Will the two scavenger civs eagerly waiting for the Gzilt to Sublime start fighting over the abandoned technology too soon? What role should the Culture (the preeminent galactic civilization comprised of disparate societies guided by near divine AI ship Minds) play in all this? Their ship Minds don't like to interfere with other civs, but they also like to get to the bottom of mysteries and want to do the Right Thing. If they confirm that the Book of Truth was an experiment, should they tell the Gzilt? And what is the connection between the Gzilt Subliming and the legendary QiRia, a 10,000-year-old Culture man whose memories are encoded in his body, and the nearly unplayable and unlistenable to Hydrogen Sonata, which the Gzilt woman Vyr Cossont has decided to play as her life work (to the extent of adding a second pair of arms onto her body)?

For that matter, what IS Subliming? It is an act of faith, because information is scarce, because (typically) no one returns from the Sublime or communicates from it to the Real. Is it as most Gzilt believe a promotion to "the most brilliant lucid dream forever" in the "Happy land of good and plenty," or is it as many Culture Minds believe a kind of retirement into an old people's home or an act of collective insanity and annihilation? Banks, who died before he could write another Culture novel, isn't telling.

Whatever happens once you say "I Sublime" and vanish from the Real, it has no connection with ethical behavior. The Gzilt are no angels. Their politicians are amoral, their military leaders inhumane, their artists decadent. All that may be Banks' point. As QiRia puts it, "my heart is broken with each new exposure to the idiocies and cruelties of every manner of being that dares to call or think of itself as intelligent." But he also says (sounding like Banks) that one pleasure of benign misanthropes like him is watching the dolts repeat the same "fuckery."

But Banks is no future downer. He exuberantly spins out small s sublime technologies and scales of time and space for his galactic post-scarcity playground, like sculpted planets, a 30,000 km-long city girdling a world, elevenstring instruments so big you have to sit inside and play them with two bows, hyperspace, anti-matter and anti-gravity, body implants, stored consciousnesses, eccentric drones, combat arbites, nano missiles, and smart battle suits. Not to mention the Culture AI ship Minds keeping an eye on things and deciding what to do in conference calls, with their different personalities, agendas, hobbies, capabilities, avatars, and quirky names: the Beats Working, Mistake Not. . . (ellipsis intentional), Smile Tolerantly, You Call This Clean?, A Fine Disregard For Inconvenient Facts, Empiricist, Caconym (which means an incorrect name), and more.

Banks is not just parading awesome techs and sublime scales for the fun of it (although his book is fun), but to explore serious questions, like What is the meaning of life when there is no Meaning? What are the ethical and practical limitations of simulations? Should more advanced civilizations take a hands on or off approach to less advanced ones? Is intelligence connected to decency or to technology? Can we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past? What makes us human? What makes us individuals? Where does identity reside? And so on.

Banks writes space opera about the human condition, as when an android in real danger says, "Happily, I am not human, and this is only a simulation." He writes snappy and humorous dialogue, like "Are you afraid of heights?" "No, just of dying generally." He writes sublime space opera comedy: "Back aboard the Passing By, the mind controlling both the systems vehicle and the avatar was doing the hyper AI equivalent of grimacing and mouthing the word, 'Shit.'" He writes straight space opera sublime, as in a description of the sound made by giant wind pipes, like "from an enormous choir of bases singing a slow sonorous hymn in a language you never understood."

Peter Kenny reads the audiobook with verve and skill. He distinguishes among the many characters by changing the pitch of his voice (Vyr Cossont's familiar Pyan talks like an infant stuffed animal, a combat android like a cheerful machine, an Ronte prince like an insect, a mysterious ship Mind like a senile Merlin, etc.) or his accent (though I wonder why people or AI Minds from the same civ speak American, British, Scottish, or Australian English).

Hydrogen Sonata is not perfect. There may be too many advanced technologies and point of view characters, some of which/whom finally don't seem so vital to the plot (like Tefwe, the Zoologist, and even the Hydrogen Sonata). True, Banks wants to freely exercise his imagination in a universe in which anything is possible, and at one point a "body enhancement artist" tells an interviewer that he recently had 53 serviceable penises on his body and that one should "never feel sorry for excesses, only for failure of nerve." But this novel feels more excessive and less satisfying than earlier Culture novels. The climax is exciting, but the resolution (deciding whether or not the Gzilt will Sublime and what will happen to some bad actors) is somehow disappointing. The last words of the novel nearly blow every prior thing away: "caught in the swirling breeze produced by the flyer's departure, [the elevenstring instrument] hummed emptily. The sound was swept away by the mindless air."

  • Magpie Murders

  • A Novel
  • By: Anthony Horowitz
  • Narrated by: Samantha Bond, Allan Corduner
  • Length: 15 hrs and 47 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 6,353
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 5,852
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 5,826

When editor Susan Ryeland is given the manuscript of Alan Conway's latest novel, she has no reason to think it will be much different from any of his others. After working with the best-selling crime writer for years, she's intimately familiar with his detective, Atticus Pünd, who solves mysteries disturbing sleepy English villages. An homage to queens of classic British crime such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Alan's traditional formula has proved hugely successful.

  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • A British Whodunit

  • By Sara on 07-24-17

A Framed Whodunit Outperforms Its Whodunit Frame?

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-30-18

Editor and fan of whodunits Susan Ryeland has barely finished reading the typescript of one that her company Cloverleaf Books is keen to publish when she finds herself caught up in a real murder mystery. The manuscript is called Magpie Murders, and it's the ninth entry in the best selling Atticus Pund detective series by the popular author Alan Conway. Conway's novel is set in the 1950s in the small fictional village Saxby-on-Avon and features the "accidental" death of the housekeeper at Pye Hall, the bloody murder of Sir Magnus Pye, the host of locals with motives and opportunities kill him, and the famous detective Atticus Pund wanting to solve this last case before a brain tumor can kill him. Just after Susan discovers that the typescript is missing some crucial chapters, she learns that author Conway has apparently committed suicide. Her search for the missing pages leads her to believe that he has been murdered, and despite saying things like "I wasn't a detective. I was an editor," Susan is soon using her keen intelligence, observation, and whodunit chops to play detective. And because Conway was not the world's nicest author or man, Susan is soon dealing with multiple suspects and motives for murder. Has the extraordinary number of murder mysteries in books and TV shows made her imagine a murder where none exists, as a local police chief scolds her? Will butting into an affair best left to the police get her in some danger, as her boyfriend Andreas warns her? Will her investigation risk her job with Cloverleaf, as her boss Charles cautions her? Will she ever get to the bottom of it all or get to read the rest of Magpie Murders?

Alan Horowitz' novel Magpie Murders (2017), then, is a whodunit nested within a whodunit. Susan's "real" framing story takes place in contemporary England (partly London, partly the countryside), Conway's fictional framed story in 1950s England (wholly in the countryside). Conway used Agatha Christie's oeuvre as a reference, so his part of Horowitz' novel reads like an excellent pastiche of Christie. Horowitz is an expert in the genre, so the Conway part of his novel also reads like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, with Pund's brilliant and observant detective Pund evoking Holmes, his obtuse and good-natured assistant Watson, and the well-meaning but misguided police detective Lestrade. Such is the power of Horowitz' writing and his knowledge of the genre, that for the long interpolated passage of Conway's novel about the investigations of Atticus Pund we nearly forget that we are reading a fictional mystery inside a "real" one. The characters are interesting enough and the mystery challenging enough and the sense of time and place vivid enough. The contemporary frame part of his novel in which Susan endeavors to find out what happened to Conway and who did it is also a compelling read, enlivened by many self-referential remarks on the whodunit genre and by many references to other detectives and mystery writers, including Holmes and Poirot and Conan Doyle and Christie.

The audiobook readers Samantha Bond and Allan Corduner do excellent work here, Bond reading the frame narration from Susan's point of view, Corduner reading Conway's framed Magpie Murders from a variety of point of view characters, though I did prefer Corduner's Pund (refined and elegant German accented English) to Bond's (so it's lucky that Bond reads very little of Conway's novel). Anyway, having different readers for the different whodunits works well.

Finally, as often happens when I finish a whodunit, I felt somehow let down and wondered, "It was entertaining and has lots of human nature and drama, but was it worth it?" Part of me sympathizes with Andreas when he tells Susan that the mystery genre is unworthy: "Eighty-thousand words to prove that the butler did it?" Sure Horowitz' book has going for it all its commentary on the whodunit genre (it is very much a whodunit about whodunits), and some interesting things about gender (a fine use of and explanation for the c-word at one point), but…

More criticisms. It's uncool when a writer has a character like Susan say something like, "I dislike coincidences in a whodunit" just before running into a whopping one, and I am not a fan of unnecessary sensational action scenes in the climaxes of mysteries like what happens in Horowitz' frame mystery here. Worse, I think Horowitz indulges in excessive pastiching, as when he has Susan (and us) read an entire chapter by an amateur who can't write well and then an entire chapter by Conway who stole the plot from the amateur so we may compare the two, even though they have nothing to do with Magpie Murders, or an extended passage of the serious "literary" novel by Conway that will never be published because it's "derivative rubbish" aping contemporary novelists like Martin Amis and Will Self. (Actually, I enjoyed that part because it's short and demonstrates that Horowitz can write pretentious, sour, and witty "literary" fiction with the best of them, but…) Finally, Andreas (Susan's middle-aged, understanding, Cretan hunk of a boyfriend) is a bit unbelievable (he was married to Aphrodite!), and the resolution of Horowitz' frame narrative is a bit disappointing.

Complaints aside, fans of mysteries will like this book; it is clever, funny, and compelling. It does have plenty of neat lines on crime and life, etc., as when Pund speculates "on the nature of human wickedness… how it is the small lies and evasions which nobody sees or detects but which can come together and smother you like fumes and a house fire," or as when Susan supposes that people around the world like murder mysteries because they provide certainty in an uncertain world. But that the best lines come from Conway's Magpie Murders makes me think that the framed mystery is better than its frame.

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • The Odyssey

  • The Fitzgerald Translation
  • By: Homer, Robert Fitzgerald - translator
  • Narrated by: Dan Stevens
  • Length: 10 hrs and 15 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 595
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 550
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 550

Robert Fitzgerald's translation of The Odyssey has been the standard translation for more than three generations of students and poets. Macmillan Audio is delighted to publish the first ever audio edition of this classic work, the greatest of all epic poems. Fitzgerald's supple verse is ideally suited for audio, recounting the story of Odysseus' long journey back to his wife and home after the Trojan War. Homer's tale of love, adventure, food and drink, sensual pleasure, and mortal danger reaches the English-language listener in all its glory.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Amazing for classes!

  • By Cindy on 11-04-15

"A god moved him--who knows?"

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-25-18

Like The Iliad, the Odyssey is culturally, psychologically, and aesthetically fascinating, moving, and entertaining. Recently I re-read it by listening to two different audiobook versions: Fitzgerald's 1961 translation read by Dan Stevens and Robert Fagles' 1996 translation read by Ian McKellan. Both translations and readings are superb. I don't know Greek so I can't compare their accuracy, but their English is tight, dynamic, beautiful, and flexible. Here are two versions of a great short scene where Medon tries to explain to Penelope why her son went on a dangerous voyage:

(Fitzgerald)
“A god moved him--who knows?--or his own heart
sent him to learn, at Pylos, if his father
roams the wide world still, or what befell him.”

(Fagles)
“I don’t know if a god inspired your son
or the boy’s own impulse led him down to Pylos,
but he went to learn of his father’s journey home,
or whatever fate he’s met.”

Both versions capture the Homerian ambiguity about why we do what we do, but Fitzgerald does more compellingly in 28 words what Fagles does in 34, and I did find that Fitzgerald is usually more concise. Fagles tends to be more colloquial (catch my drift, cramping my style, etc.), while Fitzgerald uses unusual, "authentic" spellings of names with k for c etc. (Kyklops, Akhaians, Telemakhos, etc.). The above two translation examples are similar in meaning, but there are other places with greater differences, like when Odysseus blesses the royal house of the Phaeacians by saying he hopes they'll pass their riches down to their SONS in Fagles but to their CHILDREN in Fitzgerald, and I wonder which is closer to the original Greek.

As for the audiobook readings, both Dan Stevens and Ian McKellan are excellent, versatile actors with appealing voices and manners and great intelligence and empathy. Neither strains artificially for male or female or young or old characters. Both greatly enhance Homer's poem. I did find that, perhaps because of his greater age and experience, Ian McKellan revealed a wider and deeper range of emotion than Stevens. McKellan does a great Cyclops giving Odysseus a "gift," Circe enticing Odysseus to her bed, Menelaus predicting a blood wedding for the suitors, and so on. The 40-page "Postscript" by Fitzgerald is missing from his audiobook, while Fagles' informative 65-page introduction is missing from his. Anyway, I highly recommend both audiobooks of The Odyssey, which was after all originally meant to be listened to rather than read.

The first four books of the poem begin not with the beginning of Odysseus' epic ten-year effort to return home but in its last year, and concern not Odysseus but his son Telemachus, introducing the situation in Ithaca where for the last three years many reckless suitors have been hanging around the hero's wife Penelope in hopes that Odysseus will stay missing so one of them can marry her. Telemachus has been helplessly watching the greedy suitors devour his patrimony, until Athena decides to spark his maturing into a man by inspiring him to travel to his father's old Trojan War comrades to ask them what happened to his father. The next four books recount Odysseus' long longed for departure from the island (and bed) of the minor goddess Calypso and his arrival at the island of the Phaeacians, where, in the next four books he suspensefully narrates to his hosts his past adventures trying to return home after the Trojan War (encountering lotus eaters, sirens, Cyclops, wind gods, Circe, the House of the Dead, and more). The last half of the poem depicts Odysseus finally back in Ithaca, disguised by Athena as an old beggar, recruiting an ally or two, visiting his palace to assess the suitors and servants (and to suffer their affronts), and plotting some ultra-justice on the people who've been living without proper manners and morals.

The poem features many memorable fantastic and or emotional scenes. When Zeus complains about the tendency of foolish mortals to blame the gods for their troubles, when Athena prays to herself for a smooth journey, when Odysseus meets the shade of his mother ("like a shadow dissolving like a dream" in Fagles), when Odysseus treats Polyphemus to some wine and a sharpened stake (in an exuberantly gruesome scene), when Odysseus meets Nausica, when Odysseus tells Athena another fake autobiography ("You chameleon, bottomless bag of tricks," she calls him in Fitzgerald), when Telemachus sneezes at something Penelope says, when Penelope interviews a beggar, when Odysseus tests his sad old father, when the shade of Agamemnon happily hears the shade of a suitor recount what Odysseus has done to his fellows and him. And many more.

There are many interesting aspects of the poem, like the following:
--divine interference in our affairs may be explained by human nature or chance.
--Odysseus travels around sleeping with goddesses, while Penelope must stay chaste at home.
--Odysseus is willing to raid strangers in their homes but expects the people he visits to be friendly to strangers (and that in a sense his treatment of the suitors resembles what monstrous hosts like Polyphemus and Hercules do to their guests).
--Odysseus metes out disproportionate violent justice, especially to a dozen slave girls and a disloyal goatherd.
--Homer addresses the loyal swineherd Eumaeus as "you."
--Homer really likes poets (especially blind ones).

Finally, such is the richness of the poem's characters and imagination and language (including the epic similes comparing, for example, Odysseus to things like an octopus dragged from its lair, children who feel relief after their father recovers from illness, and a sausage turned back and forth by a cook over a scorching blaze), that even though from the start Homer repeatedly foreshadows what will happen, it all manages to be suspenseful and entertaining every time one reads it.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Freddy and the Popinjay

  • By: Walter Brooks
  • Narrated by: John McDonough
  • Length: 4 hrs and 59 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars 16
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars 13
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars 13

A robin with poor eyesight has mistaken Freddy the pig's tail for a worm. Putting aside the poem he is writing, Freddy decides to help the poor bird solve his problem. But the solution just seems to lead to bigger problems.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Can a Leopard Change Its Spots? Should it?

  • By Jefferson on 07-09-18

Can a Leopard Change Its Spots? Should it?

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-09-18

Just as Freddy the Pig is finishing a poem in which he yearns for a useful tail like a dog or cat's, a robin called JJ Pomeroy mistakes the poet's short curly tail for a worm and gives it a painful tug. The bird apologetically explains that he's near-sighted and constantly taking inedible things home to his children. He also tells Freddy (after the pig recites his poem) that he ought to be proud of having the only purposeless tail on Mr. Bean's farm. Freddy is much impressed, nearly tears up his poem, and offers to help the robin get a pair of tiny glasses from the town optometrist. On the way to Centerboro to fulfill his offer the next day, Freddy is ambushed by Jimmy Witherspoon and his slingshot. Jimmy is the son of a Xenas Witherspoon, a skin flint farmer who refuses to pay for clothes or shoes for the boy so that he's always barefoot and raggedy so that he's ostracized at school, so that his only entertainment is watching animals jump when struck by pebbles from his slingshot. Later that day, Freddy and JJ run into Mrs. Church, the local rich woman who's come to town (driven on a tandem bicycle by her chauffeur because the war has made saving gasoline a patriotic priority) to get wedding invitations printed for her niece. The invitations will display the Church coat of arms (which her husband recently bought) featuring an unknown bird which Freddy is inspired to call a popinjay: because it's an imaginary bird, no one can say it's not a popinjay!

Thus begin the three main plot lines of Walter R. Brooks' Freddy and the Popinjay (1945), which deals comically and complexly with themes relating to identity and change. Should we be content with ourselves as we are? Are we capable of changing ourselves for the better? If we change our outer appearances, does that mean we also change our inner selves? Do we have the right or responsibility to "help" other people change? Should people be given second chances to improve? Etc. The story produces comical or interesting developments like the transformation of a robin into an imaginary bird; a new fashion by which live birds are paid to act like ladies' hats; a war between farm animals and a lonely and indomitable boy; an Arthurian jousting tournament featuring pillows, a duck pond, and bovine chargers; a school run by bears; a wild cat family that wants a new start (the parents promising that their kids won't eat their fellow pupils anymore); a milliner who decides she'd rather walk around in the woods than make a fortune; an overly eager to help wasp; an elephant trap that turns into a thinking hole; and more and more and more.

Like Brooks' other Freddy books, this one is very funny in many different ways. It features whimsical information about animal nature (e.g., "Wasps are no diplomats") as well as satirical takes on human nature (e.g., "Being a banker's wife, she was very difficult to please"). Its humor ranges from the philosophical (Hank the simple horse musing, "It's kind of hard to tell, sometimes, though, whether it's somebody outside that pushed you or somebody inside") to the farcical (Freddy and his friends waking Jimmy up every half hour all night by howling or mooing etc. so as to make him too tired to use his slingshot on them). Much of the humor focuses on Freddy, as when the not overly old pig writes a poem about his lost youth, "When I was a piglet, the grass was much greener," or attends the wedding of Mrs. Church's niece and is mistaken for an ambassador and then partakes in the nuptial fare: "Freddy, like most pigs, was always up in front when the refreshments were handed round."

Like other Freddy books, this one also works in much good-hearted and helpful wisdom (e.g., "Freddy did not think she looked funny any more than most people in Centerboro, because if you like people a lot it doesn't matter what they look like") and vivid description ("Mrs. Church laughed harder than ever, and when she laughed, she shook and all the ten-cent store diamonds sparkled and glittered in the sunshine, until she was quite blinding").

One of the interesting features of the Freddy books is that, after the first three or so, in which the animals can only talk to other animals (humans being too dense to understand animal speech), Freddy and his animal (and insect) friends can speak with people as well as with other animals. It makes for a charming narrative world.

John McDonough is, once again, the perfect reader for a Freddy audiobook, his slightly high and rough voice seriously enjoying Brooks' fantasy fun and never over-doing anything, modifying his voice slightly for rich old ladies, spunky mice, conceited robins, obstreperous boys, mercurial pigs, and so on. All just right.

People who like things like Charlotte's Web (with more humor and less pathos) and Dr. Doolittle (with less traveling around the world) should give Freddy books like this one a try. I am happy to be rediscovering them now after having forgotten them for 45 years.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Gone Girl

  • A Novel
  • By: Gillian Flynn
  • Narrated by: Julia Whelan, Kirby Heyborne
  • Length: 19 hrs and 11 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 47,586
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 42,320
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 42,408

It is Nick and Amy Dunne's fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick's clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn't doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media - as well as Amy's fiercely doting parents - the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he's definitely bitter - but is he really a killer?

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Demented, twisted, sick and I loved it!

  • By Theodore on 01-20-13

“Clean and bleed, bleed and clean”

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-02-18

My favorite part of Gone Girl (2012) was the first part, in which author Gillian Flynn alternates chapters narrated by Nick Dunne with chapters comprised of entries in the diary of Amy Elliott Dunne, because we cannot decide if A) Nick killed his wife Amy on their fifth anniversary, B) someone else like a former “Amy obsessive” kidnapped and or killed her, C) Amy disappeared herself to frame and punish Nick, or D) Nick and or Amy are playing games with us. For about the first third of the novel, Flynn ratchets up the ambiguities, as Nick’s narration and Amy’s diary become increasingly incompatible accounts of reality. Someone must be delusional or scheming or both.

Throughout the novel, Flynn writes impressively in the voices of Nick and Amy, making them feel like interesting real people. She makes us want to find out what happened “on the day of” Amy’s disappearance while entertaining us with the couple’s witty comments and original figures of speech. Through the minds of her co-protagonists (co-antagonists?), Flynn autopsies American culture, through references to TV shows like Eight Is Enough and CSI, movies like The Last of the Mohicans and Godfather II, novels like Something Wicked This Way Comes and Huckleberry Finn, shop names like Costco and Goodwill, differences between Manhattan and the Midwest, and contemporary trends like the economic crash of 2008, the replacing of traditional print media by the Internet, the increase in the number of fertility treatment enabled twins and triplets, and the desolation of abandoned shopping malls. She also incorporates into her novel lots of provocative views on gender (e.g., what is a “good” or “bad” husband, how women try to be “cool girls” to attract men, how abuse may take the form of brutal violence or smothering care, and so on), all while never quite taking sides--though I can understand why some feminist readers may dislike the book, I think Flynn is really exploring ways in which both men and women can be awful to each other.

Perhaps the real target of her realistic satire is the pervasive and unhealthy influence on the public mind of mass media, including children’s books, blogs, SNS, and of course popular TV shows exploring unsolved crimes and celebrity lawyers championing accused criminals, everyone seemingly manipulated by media and or trying to manipulate it, because whoever controls the narrative has the best chance of winning the game. Nick goes on a great riff about how difficult it is to have an authentic individual soul when inundated with modern media:

"I don't know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who are like most of us, who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies, we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script.
It's a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless Automat of characters."

Ultimately, I was disappointed by the book. Without giving spoilers, I’d just like to say that the first part of the novel was more fascinating and exciting than the middle and last parts of the novel, wherein the ambiguities have been resolved and we know what’s been going on and wherein Flynn has some things happen that I couldn’t believe would happen and does not have some things happen that I couldn’t believe wouldn’t happen, all in order to get to the ending she wants to get to. And my failure to enjoy (or buy) the ending made me retroactively notice earlier hard to believe points in the plot.

Flynn does write some great scenes, including a nighttime visit to a vast abandoned shopping mall, a daytime visit to a dilapidated miniature golf course, a televised missing person vigil, a rehearsal for a TV interview, a surprising robbery, and a strange wedding anniversary gift. And she creates memorable and believable characters--Nick and Amy of course, but also Nick’s twin sister Go, Detective Rhonda Boney, Amy’s parents Mary Beth and Rand, and even Amy’s ex-boyfriend Desi Collings and a pair of Ozarks “grifters” named Jeff and Greta.

And she does lots of fine writing in Nick’s voice, as when he sees a homeless man squatting in one of the abandoned super-houses in his neighborhood, “floating in the dark like some sad aquarium fish” or describes Amy as “no longer my wife but a razor-wire daring me to unloop her,” and in Amy’s voice, as when she describes her parents’ relationship, “They have no harsh edges with each other, no spiny conflict, they ride through life like conjoined jellyfish--expanding and contracting instinctively, filling each other's spaces liquidly” or criticizes women’s expected roles implied by TV commercials for tampons and cleaning aids, “as if all women did was bleed and clean.”

Both readers of the audiobook, Kirby Heyborne and Julia Whelan, do spot on Nicks and Amys, whether as “themselves” or as their spouses, and fine other characters, too. Whelan is especially great when voicing an irritating cuckoo clock, a misogynistic man with Alzheimer’s, a resentful Nick, or a smarmy Amazing Amy.

I think anyone interested in thrillers about contemporary American culture and gender and media and bright, flawed, and charismatic characters should like Gone Girl.

  • Freddy the Politician

  • By: Walter Brooks
  • Narrated by: John McDonough
  • Length: 5 hrs and 25 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars 32
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars 28
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars 28

Mr. Bean knows he has the smartest animals in the state of New York. He's just not sure they can care for his farm by themselves while he takes his wife on vacation. So to show how responsible they are, Freddy the pig and his friends start their own bank and their own animal republic. But a hotly contested election between a plain-spoken cow and a wily woodpecker might be more than even Freddy can handle.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • When Animals Decide to Take Responsibility

  • By Jefferson on 06-30-18

When Animals Decide to Take Responsibility

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-30-18

The Bean farm animals, including the cat Jinx, the dog Georgie, the cow Mrs. Wiggins, a spider couple called the Webbs, four mice called Eek, Quick, Eeny, and Cousin Augustus, and the "brilliant but erratic" Freddy the Pig, decide that the best way to prove to Mr. Bean that they are capable of taking responsibility and running the farm so that he and Mrs. Bean may vacation in Europe is to start both a bank and a republic. Because they know nearly nothing about money or politics, complications quickly arise. Luckily, it seems at first, they are assisted in their endeavors by John Quincy, a woodpecker blown in to their upstate New York farm on a strong wind from the nation's capital, and by his father Grover and son X.

John Quincy's family lives in a tree at the White House, and hence name the male children after US presidents (X has to wait for a new one to be elected because all the former presidents' names have been used). Well-versed in DC society and politics, the woodpeckers feel superior to the backwater Bean farm animals of New York State, though they decide to stay for the tender and tasty bugs in the trees there. And soon enough they are scheming to take over the First Animal Bank and the First Animal Republic, or FAR ("Woodpeckers always have a determined look"). Brooks uses the campaign for FAR president to satirize American elections, including rival political parties (the Bean animals' Farmers' Party vs. the woodpeckers' Equality Party), campaign speeches featuring impossible promises (Grover says he'll install revolving doors in the henhouse), voter population manipulation (when woodpeckers invite flocks of birds to stay in the woods around the farm during the election, Freddy and company get field mice and other small animals to stay on the farm), election prediction (on the eve of the vote Freddy calculates a favorable result and writes a newspaper article celebrating his hoped for victory of Mrs. Wiggins), election fraud (the vote counting scene is priceless). It's all entertaining and funny.

Mrs. Wiggins laughs off the notion that "A cow's place is in the home" and runs for president. She fashions the FAR flag from a pair of Mr. Bean's old overalls, nightshirt, and underwear, and its resemblance to the Star-Spangled Banner makes me suspect Brooks of satirizing flags and patriotism. Freddy, who is "not very warlike," says, "Personally, I can't imagine going into battle under any kind of a flag." It's interesting to note that Brooks' book preceded Orwell's Animal Farm (1945), especially when Grover becomes "Imperial Grover," using a clockwork boy, heron and hawk bodyguards, and an obedient army of animals to start annexing neighboring farms so as to build an animal empire nested inside the USA. Published two years before America would enter World War II, Brooks' novel is a pacifist book, espousing ideas like, "Let us give up this dream of empire and cultivate the arts of peace." Mrs. Wiggins would be the best president because, as she tells the animals, "The thing I'd like you to do best is to just go on doing the things you want to do."

Mrs. Wiggins' other virtue is her sense of humor. When she disrupts Grover's demagoguery by laughing, he scolds, "Laughter is a destructive element. It has no place in a government." But of course Brooks means precisely the opposite, because like his other Freddy books, this one celebrates "the power of laughter." The humor takes many forms. In addition to political and cultural satire, Brooks indulges in slapstick (as when Freddy jumps on a bicycle and flies off downhill while forgetting how to use the brakes), plays with language (as when Jinx asks John Quincy, "Are you trying to tell me you don't know where the state of New York is?" and the woodpecker replies, "I'm not trying to tell you. I am telling you"), parodies diaries (as when a nosy neighbor records the strange happenings in the house of the town banker Mr. Wheezer), and writes farcical comedies of manners (as when Freddy disguises himself as an Irish woman and flirts with a snoopy detective called Jason Binks). Brooks writes amusingly authoritative yet whimsical statements on animal behavior, like "Spiders are very talkative, but few people know it, for they have to get almost in your ear to make themselves heard, and they don't like to do it much because they know it tickles." And his dry asides are fun, as when Freddy takes a dislike to Jason Binks: "When a pig has a face like a pig's, it's only natural. But when a man has a face like a pig's, there's something wrong somewhere."

Like Brooks' other Freddy books, this one's comedy has a core of serious life wisdom:
--"Most brave people are like Jinx. They're brave because they're afraid to act scared."
--"But he's afraid of me or he wouldn't call me names. That's what people do when they're scared."
--"Maybe he can't give it to them. . . but he's promised, and that's what counts in elections."

Kurt Wiese's realistic and humorous monochrome illustrations add much to the physical book, but John McDonaugh adds much to the audiobook, too. His voice is husky and moist, and he appealingly reads absurd events with gravitas and serious ones with humor. He does a great Grover (Southern stuffed shirt), Mrs. Wiggins (humorous leader), Freddy (multi-faceted and poetic trickster), Simon (sneery and schemy rat), Jinx (feckless and funny cat), and so on.

Brooks doesn't write down to kids, using plenty of difficult and savory words like balderdash, ribald, and velocipede. Indeed, I bet that kids miss much if not most of his humor. When I was a boy, I read the Freddy the Pig books as interesting adventures, while now I'm an adult, I read them smiling and chuckling. I am glad to have recently rediscovered the Freddy books after 45 years. People who like Charlotte's Web and Animal Farm and enjoy laughing would probably enjoy Freddy the Politician.

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