Mike Finn - Audiobook Addict

Mike Finn - Audiobook Addict

My name is Mike Finn and I'm an Audiobook Addict.

I'm here to share my experience of the books I listen to.

4 Stars
Day Of Penance Book: "In The Bleak Midwinter - The Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries #1" by Julia Spencer-Fleming
In the Bleak Midwinter - Julia Spencer-Fleming

The only thing better than a good book is a good book that is the start of a series. "In The Bleak Midwinter" was a great read that starts a series which currently sits at eight novels.


I took a risk when I bought this book - a mystery about a new woman priest and the Chief of Police of a small town in upstate New York could have been a recipe for saccharine scenes, hallmark sentiments and a story targetted for prime time on a Christian TV channel.


I knew I was safe at the 2% mark when the book made me laugh out loud at the scene where the small town Police Chief unexpectedly meets the new priest and discovers she’s female. The Police Chief asks himself:

What was he supposed to call her? “Mother?”

“I go by Reverend, Chief. Ms. is fine, too.”

“Oh. Sorry. I never met a woman priest before.”

“We’re just like the men priests, except we’re willing to pull over and ask directions.”

I was still surprised at just how good the book is. There's more to it than smart dialogue, Julia Spencer-Fleming has come up with two strong, likeable characters, with military backgrounds, who have their own, non-clichéd, approaches on how to exercise their authority. The rapport and the conflict between them is credible and engaging.


The Reverend manages to be caring and tough. The Police Chief manages to be authoritative without creating conflict.


The two are brought together when a newborn is abandoned on the steps of the Reverend's church with instructions that he be given to a member of her congregation and an as yet unidentified young woman who has recently given birth is found murdered.


What follows is a solid mystery that is a pleasing mix of detection, exploration of moral dilemmas/social issues and tense action. 


The Reverend's continuing close involvement in work that should be done by the police requires a little suspension of disbelief but is well managed. I found her ignorance of the clothes and vehicles needed to cope with mountain winters a little harder to accept but perhaps that's because I've spent so much time in those conditions.


This isn't a "cosy mystery" nor is it a voyeuristic rid into violence. It's something much rarer: a character-driven crime story that manages to acknowledge the bleakness of reality without being overwhelmed by it.


I've already bought the next book in the series, which has the rather off-putting title of "A Fountain Filled With Blood".


I read this book for the Day Of Penance Door in 24 Festive Tasks.

Reading progress update: I've read 16%.
Somewhere inside of happy  - Anna McPartlin

I'm reading this for the Russian Mother's Day Door on 24 Festive Tasks.


I picked it up despite the fact that I knew it covered some very raw and painful emotions because Anna McPartlin was recommended to me as one of Ireland's rising stars.


What I've read so far justifies that assessment. The prose is personal, powerful, accessible and has a distinct voice. 


The story is filled with tragedy but it's also filled with honest human emotions love, anger, guilt and a little more love that make it compelling and real.

Door 11 Russian Mother's Day Task 3: Why I wear boots and "Carpe DMs"

I'm a boots guy. I like footwear that has a good grip, keeps me warm and protects my ankles.  My boots of choice are Doc Marten's (DMs), specifically the Airware boot - the ones with a bounce in their soles. They're rugged, comfortable and the air-filled sole keeps them light.


In the decades I've spent in the global corporate world, where dress codes enforce hierarchies and where status often comes from made to measure shirts and expensive shoes, my small act of rebellion has been to wear DMs with my suit. They literally kept me grounded, reminding me that this was a world I was visiting and would never be my natural habitat.


DMs aren't just boots. They are part of a specific cultural heritage which I think is expressed with playful enthusiasm and great accuracy by this poem by Brian Bilston

Carpe DMs.001



Door 15 Task 1: My first ever letter to Santa

dear santa.001



Dear Santa,


I bet you're wondering why, after sixty years of silence, I'm asking you for something for the first time.


Well, time is the point here really. I feel like I've got only a decade or two of it left and I'm looking for a little help in getting as much out of those years as possible.


I'm looking to you to grant me some special requests for books…


Yes, I do have a lot of unread books already. Yes, I do get books every Christmas and I'm glad about that. The thing is, now I've reached an age where I have many fewer Christmases ahead of me than behind me, I have to prioritise the books that I read and that's made me realise that the books I most want to read haven't been written yet. I'd like you to fix that for me.


I know it's a big ask but you're a big guy with a genius for logistics and a lot of pull with publishers who know what you do for their sales at this time of year.


I expect that there's probably going to be a lead time with these kinds of special requests so please treat them as ready for fulfilment in 2019 (although if you can manage earlier that would be... well magic probably).


Thanks in advance Santa,


May your sack always be full and your chimneys always be wide.


Your first-time correspondent.


Mike Finn




FANTASY: Peter Grimes / Rivers Of London books

Please arrange to have at least two of these published a year for the foreseeable future, without any loss of quality of course. It would be great if I could also get spin-off novellas with a solo adventure for Molly and an "origin special" covering Nightingale's World War II service.


SCIENCE FICTION:  The Murderbot Trilogy

Please arrange for TOR to commission Martha Wells to write a trilogy of Murderbot novels to be published over the next two years, with simultaneous release as audiobooks.


MYSTERY AND THRILLER:  a change in approach

Let 2019 be the year when the top-selling thriller:


Doesn't: have the word "girl" in the title, include detailed descriptions of the stalking/torture/murder of women, involve the female lead losing her memory or discovering a dark secret about her past.


Does:  have strong women working together to expose the crimes of powerful old white men and make them pay.


HISTORICAL FICTION: The Indian Wars - an alternative history

I'm in the mood for something fresh and challenging but with a happy ending. Please persuade Cheri Dimaline or Tommy Orange or Louise Erdrich to write an alternative history of the "Indian Wars". Maybe they could do a novella each? I'd like to see the same conflicts and betrayals but this time with a couple of changes: the Canadians keeping their treaties, the establishment of a First Nation Federation (FNF), a joint FNF Canadian push to claim all land west of the Appalachians.


NON-FICTION "How We Stopped Brexit"

This should be a series of short first-person pieces on by Gina Miller, Carole Cadwalladr and Lord Adonis on how they got Article 50 rescinded, with each chapter separated by a summary of the criminal charges brought against the prime movers in the Leave Campaigns, an analysis of the role of Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and Russian bot-factories and finally a piece from Jeremy Corbyn on what Labour would have done about implementing Brexit if he'd ever been elected.


4 Stars
"Crimson Lake" by Candice Fox
Crimson Lake - Candice Fox

Set in Cairns, the grim but gripping "Crimson Lake" tells the story of an investigation by two unusual private detectives, one a convicted murderer and the other an ex-policeman charged but not tried for the abduction and rape of a thirteen-year-old girl, into the disappearance and possible murder of an author of fantasy novels that have a cult following.


There aren't that many books set in "The Top End" of Australia and even fewer with such apparently unsympathetic main characters but Candice Fox manages to make the location and the people work to produce a compelling read.


Ted Conkaffey, the accused cop is interesting because he looks (very) guilty. He's been worn down by the process of being imprisoned and released without trial. He's lost everything from his former life, wife, daughter, reputation, friends. He has nothing left, not even a reason to see tomorrow. Yet you still can't be sure whether or not he did the things he's accused of.


Ted would be an easy person to dislike but he wins our sympathy, slowly, through his kindness to animals (a wounded goose and her goslings) his openmindedness about his convicted-murderer business partner, Amanda Pharrell and the courage with which he stands up to the two local cops who are determined to make his life a misery.


Tatto-wearing, bicycle-riding. afraid-of-no-one Amanda Pharrell is a wonderful creation. She manages to be full of life, sometimes, even joy, and yet is different in a way that reads as damaged.  Except for some paragraphs in the epilogue, we don't get inside her head yet her presence, her directness, her courage, even her compulsive rhyming dominates the book.


Together, Ted and Amanda make more sense than either of them do alone and that gives their story power.


The tropical environment becomes almost a character in the book: the constant humidity, the lurking crocs, the snakes, miles of emptiness, the forests and the beaches give a wild, other-things-are-possible-here feel to the book.


The intensity of Crimson Lake's main characters and its setting is amplified by having three plots tightly plaited together: Ted's case, Amanda's case, the disappeared author's case and spicing them with two unpleasant cops, an untrustworthy reporter, local vigilantes, freaky fans and an author with a secret life. 


All this made "Crimson Lake" a high impact thriller that was very satisfying to read. 

Sequel "Redemption Point" or "Redemption"  in the audiobook version is already out and a third book is planned.


I read "Crimson Lake" as my "Melbourne Cup Day" Book.


I listened to the audiobook version of "Crimson Lake", performed with muscular skill by Euan Morton. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample of his work.


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2.5 Stars
"Third Girl -Hercule Poirot #38" by Agatha Christie - starts well but disappoints
Third Girl - Agatha Christie

"Third Girl" was a strange and dispiriting journey for me.


At the start of the book, I was pleasantly surprised at the contemporary (1960's) feel of the novel. There was much more humour in it than I'd expected but there was also more violence and a deeper sense of threat than in other Poirot novels I've read.


I loved the opening where Norma, (a young woman who is constantly referred to as a girl) interrupts Poirot's breakfast, insisting that she needs to talk to him about a murder and then leaves without giving him any details, telling him that, having met him face to face, she can see he's too old to be able to help her.  This was a splendid inversion of the Philip Marlowe type of opening scene where the femme fatale uses her allure to get the hard-bitten gumshoe's help. It was also perfectly calculated to ensure Poirot's enthusiastic engagement.


I also greatly enjoyed seeing the inimitable and indomitable Adriadne Oliver playing detective. She was a complete hoot, a wonderful example of misplaced confidence arising from a broad imagination married to narrow experience.


All the best scenes in the book had Adriadne in them. Her presence brought the dialogue alive. She's so much easier to like than Poirot  and her pen sketches of the young people in the allegedly swinging London of 1966 were refreshing: the young man with the pretty hair and the gaudy clothes that she calls "The Peacock", the artist working in oils that she refers to simply as "The Dirty One" and the young model who she describes as throwing herself into Burne-Jones poses with admirable flexibility. There's no malice here, just a naive observation by someone who has no qualms about not being in tune with the times.


I had no idea what was going on or how the plot strands would come together but I was enjoying the journey.


By the time I was midway through the book, my disappointment had begun. I continued to enjoy Poirot's dry wit, Ariadne's blustering slapstick and the carefully nuanced descriptions of people's characters but those things began to be outweighed by the large chunks of clumsy plot exposition that even Hugh Fraser's narration couldn't make interesting. I was also starting to be irritated by the deeply conservative attitudes towards gender and mental health. I felt as though I was dipping blindly into a box of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans: I might get something that made me smile or something that made me want to wash the taste away.


The last third of the book was a chore. There were repeated attempts at sharing Poirot's thought processes, which was irritating as they were mostly plot recaps, lacked any analysis and reached no conclusions. The psychiatrist who is instrumental in resolving the plot managed, despite having all the credibility of a cardboard cutout, to be deeply offensive both as a person and as a mental health practitioner.


The plot, when it finally emerged from the detritus-ridden undergrowth we had all wriggled through, was moderately clever but was spoiled for me by one of the early Mission Impossible TV Series moments when a mask is pulled off a main character and he or she is instantly revealed to be someone else. This was limp at best. 


What disappointed me even more than the cheat in the big reveal was the way in which Norma was treated. The outcome stretched my willingness to suspend disbelief and angered me because it so demeaned the woman who, as the novel progressed moved from main character to semi-plausible plot-device, to the punchline of a French farce.


If this has been my first Agatha Christie, it might well have been my last. As it is, I'm going to read "The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd" in the hope of demonstrating to myself that Poirot stories once had substance.


24 Festive Tasks Update #4



I'm having fun with the books but being selective about which tasks I do (translation: I live and breathe reading but many of these tasks are either beyond me or so far outside my experience I have nothing to offer). 




bath guildhall marketSince the last update, the only task I've completed is book-related: Mawlid An-Nabi - Task 2 Setting books free






I've been more successful with the books where I've completed three very good books:


Crimson Lake audiobook coverisbn978140917105832681108 


I'm running a little behind on reviews but that's mostly because the books were good and I need to think about what to say.


I'm enjoying searching out books to fit the Doors as they open. My Festive Bookshelf makes me itchy to spend more time reading.


feative update 4.shelf


I'm part way through three very different types of books at the moment:



"On Turpentine Lane" which I picked because the cover was green so I could use it for Mawlid An-Nabi and which I've only just understood is a light romance.










In the Bleak TP"In The Bleak Midwinter" which is the beginning of a crime series featuring a newly appointed woman priest and a local police chief. The snow makes it seasonally appropriate (although the murder and the lies aren't at all festive) and the fact that the lead character is a cleric qualifies it for International Day of Penance








The-Devil_s-Apprentice_l"The Devil's Apprentice" is the start of a Danish YA series, only recently translated into English, that Olga put me on to. It's about a good boy who is mistakenly sent to Hell and the trouble that causes for the Devil. So far I've learnt that you should never trust cats, especially talking cats. As the first book in a series, it qualifies for Saint Andrew's Day.

Reading progress update: I've read 31%.- slapping hand to forehead - NOW I notice it's a romance novel?
On Turpentine Lane - Elinor Lipman

I was almost a third of the way through this slightly droll but deeply puzzling book, struggling to work out where it was going, when the lights went on - flashing LED lights - spelling out IT'S A ROMANCE, DUMMY.


That explains why the heroine is intelligent, well-educated, slightly bland and completely hapless - so she can come into her own by getting together with the right guy.


Now it's all clear. 


The contract with the reader is that the woman should be nice, maybe too nice for her own good when it comes to dealing with her self-absorbed, hippy-boy-man-at-41 boyfriend, so that the reader can root for her and hope she'll smell the coffee and find someone worthy of her.


I got distracted by the bullying sexism or her employer, the apparently dark history of the house she's recently bought and my underlying lack of empathy for a woman so used to be being loved and protected by her family that she lacks basic survival skills.


I feel like someone reading the start of a werewolf novel and wondering why the characters, who seem prone to physical aggression when resolving status-related conflicts, are stressing about how close the next full moon is.


OK, now I can settle back and let the romance roll with the appropriate level of readerly collusion. with what the author is doing.


Mawlid An-Nabi - Task 2 Setting books free

1d08fae651de386b132b8739765a2f23Task 2: The Five Pillars of Islam include almsgiving and the pilgrimage to Mekka. Tell us: Have you ever donated books or rescued them from (horror of horrors) being trashed? Alternatively: Is there a book-related place that is a place of pilgrimage to you?




When I left the UK, more than a decade ago, I took my favourite books with me and put hundreds more into storage. Now I'm back and faced with the task of going through box after box of books and deciding which ones to keep.


I want to make sure that the books go somewhere where people who really want to read them will find them.


I'm using three migration routes for my I'm-sorry-but-I-don't-have-room-for-you books:


bath guildhall market


The most popular books, mostly thrillers and science fiction, are sold to Skoobs second-hand bookstall in Bath's Guildhall Market. I've been buying and selling books here since the Eighties. The pile of books never seems to get any smaller yet the business continues to trade. Books are bought at a fifth of the price printed on the back of the book and sold on at a small profit. This way, I know the books will probably be bought and read and I get to go to one a beautiful, domed eighteenth-century building built on a site that has been a market for eight hundred years.






Popular books that Skoobs doesn't trade in - hardback books, non-fiction or mainstream fiction are donated to the Julian House Charity Shop and Bookshop on Walcot Street. Julian House are the main charity helping Bath's homeless population. Their vision is "A just society where socially excluded people are supported and empowered to build sustainable, independent lives." and they've done a lot to put that vision into action.


bb1.jpgThe rest of the books - and they are legion - are donated to the Bookbarn International store, out in the wilds of Somerset (well, it's thirty minutes away by car but it seems further). This is a recent find for my wife and me. The bookstore is a supplement to the online business. Every book is sold for £1 and there are thousands of them. The place has a friendly, we're-all-book-lovers-here atmosphere. There's a place for kids to play, the Full Stop Café to meet and eat at and aisle after aisle of books to browse.



It turns out that setting books free can be almost as much fun as buying new ones.

Reading progress update: I've read 58%. - curate's egg anyone?
Third Girl - Agatha Christie

Parts of this are very good. I enjoy Poirot's dry wit and Ariadne's blustering slapstick and the carefully nuanced descriptions of people's characters.


Unfortunately, about a third of it is clumsy plot exposition that even Hugh Fraser's narration can't save.


Add to that the deeply conservative attitudes towards gender and mental health and I feel as though I'm dipping blindly into a box of Bertie Bott's Evey Flavour Beans: I might get something that makes me smile or something that makes me want to wash the taste away.



"Her Body & Other Parties - third story - Mothers" by Carmen Maria Machado
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories - Carmen Maria Machado

"Mothers" is a story the reader has to work at. I fell in love with the imagery and the language of this story as I was swept along in a tide of allegory that I didn't understand.

I could see the shadows of huge, intense emotions swimming beneath and watched truisms flash in the light as, like me, they skimmed the surface but I wasn't able to turn what I read into a narrative.


So I read it a second time, putting aside my expectation that this was a story with a beginning, a middle and an end and let myself take it in as a sort of kaleidoscope of memories, lit by longing.


It seems to me that this story is partly a lament for what might have been and partly an attempt to come to terms with grief.


The narrator tells, in a non-linear way, of her experience falling in love with, living with and then losing a woman she calls "Bad". Bad is exciting, unconventional, attentive, demanding, dominant and verbally, and eventually physically, abusive. In her grief at losing Bad, the narrator imagines/hallucinates/fantasizes that Bad has given birth to their baby and then left it with the narrator to raise. I believe the baby represents the relationship she and Bad might have had if they had been able to stay together. 


Beneath this narrative, there seems to be a reflection on what it means to be a mother, what mothering means and the conflicting emotions of love, anger, fear, despair and guilt that being a mother provokes.


Near the start of the story, these themes of abusive relationship and the nature of motherhood twist around one another in a scene where Bad presents the unexpected and apparently miraculously conceived baby.  After handing the baby to the narrator, Bad says:

“I was pregnant. Now there’s a baby. She’s yours.” My brain doubles back on the sentence. For months, my head has been so fuzzy. Mail is stacked unread on my kitchen table, and my clothes are a giant mound on my once-immaculate floor. My uterus contracts in protest, confused.

The narrator's confusion makes wonder if Bad or the baby is there or if they are the product of the narrator's grief after the ending of their relationship.

The next exchange is a hint at Bad's narcissistic dominance of the narrator:

 “Look,” Bad says. “There’s only so much that I can do. I can’t do any more than that. Right?” I agree, but something feels wrong about following her down this line of reasoning. Dangerous. “You can only do as much as you can do,” I repeat anyway.

Immediately before Bad abandons the narrator and the baby, she gives a wonderful summary of the challenges of raising a baby.

“Good,” Bad says. “When the baby cries, she could be hungry or thirsty or angry or cranky or sick or sleepy or paranoid or jealous or she had planned something but it went horribly awry. So you’ll need to take care of that, when it happens.”

I found only one declaration from the narrator:

I believe in a world where impossible things happen. Where love can outstrip brutality, can neutralize it, as though it never was, or transform it into something new and more beautiful. Where love can outdo nature.

This leads me to the idea that the baby, or the idea of the baby, is a product of the narrator's desire to believe in the impossible and to "outdo nature".


This tendency to superimpose the desired world over the real surfaces immediately after the physical abuse that ends the relationship. The injured narrator has locked herself in the bathroom and stood under the shower, imagining a life with Bad and their child but imagination is not enough:

"Then the not-memory washed away like a wet painting in a storm, and I was in the shower, shaking, and she was outside, losing me, and there was no way for me to tell her not to. There was no way for me to tell her that we are so close, we are so close, please don’t do this now, we are so fucking close."

The ending of the story still escapes me. We move on from one baby to two children Mara and her brother and all the anxieties they bring. We seem to have a slide into guilt and remorse but it could also be self-pity as the narrator hears a voice inside her saying:

"There was nothing tying you to her and you made it anyway, you made them anyway, fuck you, you made them anyway. To Mara and her brother, I say: Stop running, you’ll fall, stop running, you’ll break something, stop running, your mother will see, she will see and she will be so angry and she will yell and we cannot, we cannot, I cannot. I say: Don’t leave the faucet on. You’ll flood the house, don’t do it, you promised it would never happen again. Don’t flood the house, the bills, don’t flood the house, the rugs, don’t flood the house, my loves, or we could lose you both. We’ve been bad mothers and have not taught you how to swim."

I'm not sure what the swimming means. 


So I have a beautifully written story with bright fragments of pain and hope and joy that keep shifting as I look at them. This seems to be an invitation to collaborate with the writer to discover or perhaps create meaning. 

Off Topic Post: "If this be error..." what love really means

if this be error.001I've never liked sonnets. They seem to me to be the topiary of poetry, living things twisted into an unnatural shape to display the cleverness and power of the person wielding the shears.


Given this prejudice of mine, I take the view that Shakespeare's sonnets are more in the nature of a puzzle than a party piece. I find myself looking for the coded message he's embedded in the poetry icing.


Sonnet 116 (even the naming convention turns this from "a poem Shakespeare wrote but didn't title" to the literary equivalent of scripture) is probably one of the most quoted of Shakespeare's sonnets. People read it out at weddings and confidently assert that it declares the immutability of "True Love". Each time I hear it in that context, I want to say: "That's not the message of this poem. Don't take upon yourselves the burden of immutability. Embrace change." but you're not supposed to mutter Cassandra-like words at weddings. Getting into drunken fights with relatives at the reception is expected but sharing your experience of love is seen as poor form.


I am not the man my wife married thirty years ago. I'm very far from the eighteen-year-old boy that she first went out with. So if her love for me or my love for her hasn't changed, despite the decades we've spent together, what link does that love have to our daily lives?


When I asked myself why Shakespeare, who wrote plays so rich in ambiguity, would pump out such straightforward Hallmark sentiments about love, it occurred to me that I needed to look more closely at the text. When I did, my reading of the sonnet offered a view of love is that is closer to my own experience. Which may just mean that I found what I was looking for in the poem, regardless of what Shakespeare intended but that is often the nature of the reader's relationship with poetry. 


The poem starts not with the union of two hearts that beat as one but with "the marriage of true minds".What are "true minds" if not minds that think and see clearly? What does a marriage of true minds mean but a commitment to share the clarity and truth of your vision and thought?


In which case, to borrow from a different poet, "what's love got to do with it?"


It seems to me that Shakespeare presents love as a constancy of intent. It is a pole star to navigate by. It does not change its intent because circumstances change. It does not flinch when marital storms cause conflict. It is not surprised or subverted by the unavoidable assaults of age and it is not extinguished by death.


This is a love I can relate to. One that guides my choices and defines my options. One that gives my life shape and purpose. It is a standard I can aspire to even when my actions fall short of my aspirations. It is a way in which"true minds", who recognise the changes in themselves and each other, can navigate around or push through the impediments that change and chaos place in the way of a "marriage" of intent, a union of will.


If this be error, then so be it. It's an error I'm willing to base my life on.




Reading progress update: I've read 19%.
On Turpentine Lane - Elinor Lipman

1d08fae651de386b132b8739765a2f23"On Turpentine Lane" has been on my TBR pile for eighteen months. I bought it in a fit of enthusiasm after reading "Isabel's Bed".  I've looked at it a few times since then and gone, "I want to read that but not today."


I'm reading it now because it has a (mostly) green cover and so qualifies as my book for Mawlid An-Nabi.


So far it's been a light, mildly amusing comedy of manners kind of book but I'm struggling with it because it's exposing a prejudice I'm a little loathe to admit to. I find it hard to empathise with a privileged white middle-class, university educated woman in her thirties who is so hapless.


Her haplessness is fundamental to the humour of the book so letting it irritate me is self-defeating but what bothers me is my own reasons for being so quick to judge this woman. Her haplessness is quite plausible. She's conflict-averse, trusting, committed to her job and looking for a quiet life. I'd probably like her if I met her. Yet I find myself irritated by her inability to use the advantage she has. 


All of which says more about me than about Elinor Lipman's writing.


So, I'll try to suspend my disapprobation and enjoy the story.



4 Stars
"The Mermaid's Madness - Princess #2" by Jim C. Hines - the series gets a little darker
The Mermaid's Madness - Jim C. Hines

"The Mermaid's Madness" is the second book in this series about three princesses who aren't quite the ones you know from the fairytales and the Disney movies. The first book, "The Stepsister Scheme" brought together Snow White and Sleeping Beauty as agents of Cinderella's new mother-in-law, the Queen Beatrice of Lorindar. Snow is a sorceress with a slightly ribald sense of humour, Beauty (never call her that to her face) is a trained assassin and the Cinders, who now has a young son, has a magic sword and an ability to lead.


"The Mermaid's Madness" gives us a different look at what the story of The Little Mermaid looks like if you drop the soft-focus and treat the mermaid at the centre of the story as a real person. The story starts with the Undine/merfolk, who are lead by the most senior female undine, breaking a long-standing truce with Lorindar and attacking and wounding Queen Beatrice.


As the Undine will only treat with women, the three princesses set out to try and end the war with the Undine and save Queen Beatrice's life.


The Undine, as Jim Hines imagines them, are not just humans who can swim underwater, they are an aquatic species with their own culture, gifted with significant magical abilities, especially via their voices, who are able to communicate with humans. When an undine princess falls in love with a human prince who betrays her, she goes mad with grief and everything else follows.


Like it's predecessor, this is, at least on the surface, a boisterous, trope-twisting, witty romp of a book but beneath that shiny surface is something much darker. There is a vein of sadness that runs through the book whenever we get to how the young women in the story have been treated by the powerful, especially powerful men. The book is filled with strong women but almost all of them have been damaged or at least wounded by their encounters with people who fail to see them as fully human.


I admire Jim C. Hines' ability to write a rollicking tale with mermaids and selkies and sea battles that has a fast pace and is lubricated with humour and yet still bring the reader back time and again to real sources of pain.

"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk - Ben Fountain

"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" tells the story of a young soldier spending Thanksgiving in the early years of the Iraq war with the rest of "Bravo Company" as honoured guests of the Dallas Cowboys as part of a "victory tour" to build support for the war. Billy and the Bravos have been propelled into the spotlight by a Fox News video of a firefight of the Bravos going to the rescue of their comrades that went viral because it gave Americans back home something to cheer for.


As the day goes on we learn about Billy through a mix of memories, reflections and slightly stunned reactions to the often overwhelming here and now. Billy Lynn is literally the heart of the book. He's nineteen going on twenty, unassuming, just coming to terms with life and what it holds for him,  matured by the war in ways he's only beginning to understand and puzzled and disturbed by the ferocity with which his fellow Americans talk about the war as they thank him for his service.


This is a beautiful book. The language is rich and diverse without being pompous or self-conscious. The themes of war, loss, fear and purpose are handled with a deft, light touch that nevertheless refuses to look away or to pretend.


Billy is real and likeable. He's not a message or a symbol. He's just a guy in a shitty place trying not to screw up and hoping not to get killed today. We share Billy's memory of spending the day before Thanksgiving with his family. Being with them again after experiencing the war finally helps him understand how much he has to lose and how desperately he wants to prevent that loss. Despite this, Billy feels compelled to do what the Army requires of him and return to Iraq to complete the last eleven months of his tour.


The novel is structured so that we get to America and Americans in the context of some of their greatest institutions: Privileged Wealth, American Football, and Hollywood.


In the Dallas Cowboy's VIP suite, Billy and his fellow Bravos are brought face to face with wealthy, powerful people they would never otherwise meet. As these millionaires repeat, with apparent sincerity and sometimes zeal, the same phrases "Honour...Sacrifice...Freedom...911...So proud...These Fine Young Men...911...Finest Fighting Force in the world...Real American Hero... 911...keeping us safe." Billy experiences increasing dissonance. He would follow his sergeant through hell and would die to protect the men he serves with but he finds the behaviour of the civilians he is fighting the war for almost incomprehensible. In a chapter called "We Are All Americans Here" the reader has cause to wonder if this statement is really true and if it is, what it says about America.


American Football is used to give another way of looking at America that contrasts the joy and physicality of an informal knock-around game between the Bravos on the sacred turf and the bloated immensity of the professional game. The Bravos are shown the huge excesses of the equipment used, the pampering of the players, the crappiness of the stadium, the boredom of the game with its frequent stops for referee referrals and commercial breaks, We see the expensive fan paraphernalia that none of the bravos can afford and the elite rooms full of millionaires spending Thanksgiving schmoozing with other millionaires in clichéd VIP suits. We meet the oversized players fascinated by the firepower of automatic weapons. Finally, we meet that most American of inventions, the Cheerleaders as the Bravos take part in the absurd extravagance of the Halftime show with it not-quite-neutered sexuality and its decorative militarism.


Hollywood is pulled into the book because a producer is trying to sell a movie deal for the Bravos, based on their well-known battle in Iraq. Hollywood is used as an example of the disproportionate power of belief, the worshipping of the fake, the unwillingness to see the real because it looks too fake and the power of the millionaire asshole. Hollywood is presented as the self-serving distorting mirror America holds up to itself.


The momentum of the book is sustained by force of Billy's personality. By his questions about what everything he's seeing means. By his desperate desire to live long enough to get together with his hot, Christian cheerleader so that he won't die a virgin. By his hunger to know more, to do more to be more. By his fantasy of having wife and children and leading a quiet life one day. By his unbreakable commitment to the men he serves with.  


Hanging over everything that Billy hopes for is the knowledge that, in a few hours he'll be back on base and in a couple of days, back in Iraq for the remaining eleven months of his tour.


Ben Fountain skillfully presents the world through Billy's eyes and lets the reader draw their own conclusions.  The message you take from this book may well depend on the opinions you had before you started reading it. It feels real and real life is never simple and never has a single clear didactic message.


I was moved by the way he brought the soldiers to life and made me care about them. They weren't saints. They weren't even unequivocally the good guys. Yet they were doing their job as well as they could and looking after each other like family  As Fountain displayed, not unkindly but with unforgiving accuracy,  the civilians the Bravos met, I felt the huge gap between the lives of the people at home and the people fighting on their behalf in Iraq.


This is Ben Fountain's  first novel. I hope it won't be his last.


"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" is well suited to being an audiobook. Oliver Wyman narrates the book with great skill. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample of his work.


[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/81772242" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]


In a development that seems surreal given all that is said about Hollywood in this book, the novel has been made into a movie by Ang Lee that is due for release in November 2018.


You can see the movie poster and the trailer below. I think turning this book into a good movie while retaining the essence of the book is a challenge but if anyone can do it, Ang Lee can.

Billy Lynn


[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUULFJ_I048&w=560&h=315]

Reading progress update: I've read 2%. Not many books make laugh out loud at the 2% mark but this did
In the Bleak Midwinter - Julia Spencer-Fleming

Heres what happens when the small town Police Chief unexpectedly meets the new priest and discovers she’s female. The Police Chief asks himself:


What was he supposed to call her? “Mother?”

“I go by Reverend, Chief. Ms. is fine, too.”

“Oh. Sorry. I never met a woman priest before.”

“We’re just like the men priests, except we’re willing to pull over and ask directions.”

currently reading

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