Audio Book Junkie

Audio Book Junkie

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

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

Off Topic Post: I was him but he is not me

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I turned sixty this year. It's not just a number. It's a sign that I've already spent way more time than I have left to spend. I can no longer muddle through with "I'll do that some day, but first I have to..." ways of thinking. I need to make some decisions.

 

At least I think I do.

 

Probably.

 

The temptation is to focus on answering the question, "what do I want to do with the next ten to twenty years?" I've never been good with answering that question. Even if I answered it, I doubt I'd be convinced by my own conclusions and I'm certain that if something I hadn't thought of came along that looked interesting, then I'd do that instead.

 

Besides, I hate the idea of spending my time ticking off things in a bucket list. It seems like a displacement activity designed to distract me from the realities of the life I'm currently living.

 

If I do need to answer a question, it should probably be "who do I want to be over the next ten to twenty years?" That may seem an odd, perhaps even inauthentic question to ask. Surely you are who you are?

 

Well, yes, but you're not who you were so there must have been the opportunity for choice along the way.

 

Take a look at the young man in the picture. It's 1983. He's twenty-six years old and he and the woman he will marry five years later have come to Luzern in Switzerland as part of a coach tour around Europe. It's a good trip. They're seeing new things, feeling pretty good about themselves and filing away places they'd like to come back to. Switzerland is high on the list.

 

He's just moved to London and taken up his first management job. He rides a motorbike to work. He doesn't have a driving license. He lives in a small room with a baby belling in the corner and a toilet down the hall. He's enjoying the novelty of London, with its theatres and cinemas, its concerts in the park and its unceasing flow of people.

 

He has no idea what's ahead of him and hasn't really spent much time thinking about it.

 

I know all this because I was him.

 

I'm not him any more.

 

It's not just that I'm twice as old and 50% heavier than him. Nor is it only because, unlike him, I've worked all over the world and spent more than a decade in Switzerland.

 

He'd never had a wife. He'd never had anyone he loved die. He'd never experienced physical pain. He'd never had to wonder if he had what it took to build a life in which he and his wife could be happy and secure.

 

The man I am now, understands the man I was then far better than he ever understood himself. Sometimes I'd like to go back and slap him and say, "Pay attention. These years are important. The people around you are important. Savour them. In a few decades you won't remember the details of the projects that ate your nights and weekends but you'll remember the people you worked with, the meals you had with friends and the new places you went to with your wife."

 

The man in the photograph didn't know what he had. He wasn't present enough. He wasn't grateful enough.

 

He was young. I am not. I should know better. I should be taking accountability for who I am and for shaping who I will become.

 

For the past decade or so, I've been living what Dido would call a "Life For Rent" I've been moving from one "temporary" thing to another, putting down no roots and making no plans, hardly noticing that I'm spending days that I'll never get back. My only tether to reality has been my wife and I've spent far too much time away from her.

 

It's time to stop renting. As the chorus of Dido's song puts it:

"But if my life is for rent and I don't learn to buy
Well I deserve nothing more than I get
'cause nothing I have is truly mine"

I want a life that is connected to people and places that I care about. I want to be involved in the community I live in and earn the right to own its joys and to confront its problems. I want to be present until I no longer have that option.

 

I hope that, if there's an eighty year old version of myself, he'll look back at the choices I take this year and say, "Well, at least you didn't screw that up, Took you long enough though."

Review
5 Stars
“Ms. Bixby’s Last Day” by John David Anderson
Ms. Bixby's Last Day - John David Anderson

I’m tempted to keep this review really short:

“Read this book. It’s wonderfully written, perfectly structured and shares the lives. problems, passions and fears of three young boys in a way that feels real and true without ever getting schmaltzy or maudlin.”

Except that doesn’t do just to the impact this book had on me. It was one of the best reading experiences of the year so far.

 

I bought “Ms. Bixby’s Last Day” in the hope that it might be good but the expectation that it would turn out to be too saccharin for me to make it to the end of. The reviews used words like “heartwarming” and “uplifting”. These terms have been so degraded by Disney and Hallmark that, to me, they scream “phoney”.

 

My wife read the book first. She recommended it but warned me that it was sad and that it had someone in it with cancer. I can’t always cope with sad and we’ve both lost too many people to cancer to approach it casually.

 

I waited for a sunny day when I was feeling relaxed and then tried the first hour. After that, I was committed. I needed to know more about the people and what they were up to. I found myself unwilling to stop for necessary but inconvenient things like work, food and sleep. I wanted to get back to the boys and their journey.

 

The book is told as three first person accounts, with each boy getting a chapter in turn. The pace of both plot and character development are perfect. There is a quest structure that is amusing and exciting and sad in turns but never leaves the real world behind.

At the centre of the book are: three very different boys who each have a particular take on friendship, a teacher they all love but who is neither a saint nor a super hero and their mission to provide her with a perfect last day.

 

What I liked most about the book was the way the character of each boy was slowly built up through a series of interlocking events and insights that deepened my experience as the book progressed.

 

I was glad to see that, while the book did deliver a big finale that actually meant something, it didn’t pull any punches and the main focus remained on the boys themselves.

 

I strongly recommend the audiobook version of “Ms. Bixby’s Last Day”. Each of the boys has their own narrator, which emphasises their individuality. The performances are pretty close to perfect.

 

One last thing. My wife was right. It is sad. It will make you cry. Life is like that.

Review
2.5 Stars
"Carrots - Shelby Nichols #1" by Colleen Helme - clever enough to keep me reading but not funny enough to make me laugh
Carrots - Colleen Helme

Carrots" is an escapist adventure that seems to be aiming for Stephanie Plumb zaniness but never quite gets there.

 

The premise is intriguing: 30 something stay at home mom stops to buy carrots, witnesses a bank robbery, gets a grazing head wound from a bullet and wakes with the ability to read minds.

 

Soon she finds herself being hunted by the robber, ensnared by a mob boss, consulting with the police and hiding things from her lawyer husband.

 

The plot is original and delivers several surprises of the "how is she going to get out of THAT?" kind but I kept being distracted by the fact that our heroine seemed implausible to the point of being insulting.

 

She was obsessively insecure with her looks, her weight and her age. She would flip from resourceful to ditzy in a paragraph. She constantly made stupid impulsive decisions that put her and her family in danger, had no will power and the moral compass of seven year old

 

I can see that she's meant to be a kind of everywoman overcoming the odds but it's a fairly insulting take on everywoman.

 

This is first of a series of adventures but it will be the last one I spend time on.

Off Topic Post: If I fill my life with fungible things, what does that make me?

fungible duck

 

Every now and again my mind stutters as it processes a word and I find myself taking a left turn in my thinking and arriving somewhere unexpected.

 

It happened today while I was researching the relationship between cryptocurrencies, blockchain and machine learning (No wonder my mind wandered, huh. What can I tell you? This is what they pay me for). I meandered into a discussion on fungible goods as an alternate to currency. I had to go and look up fungible. I read the definition and found myself letting go of the research and wondering if I'd found one of the sources of dissatisfaction in my life.

 

www.etymonline.com, my favourite online etymological dictionary, defined fungible as:

fungible (adj.) Look up fungible at Dictionary.com
"capable of being used in place of another; capable of being replaced," 1818, a word in law originally, from Medieval Latin fungibilis, from Latin fungi "perform" (see function (n.)) via phrases such as fungi vice "to take the place." Earlier as a noun (1765).

In the topic I was originally researching, fungible goods are things like crude oil or grade A corn that can be traded and combined from multiple sources.

 

I found myself not caring about that (it's only exciting if you're a commodities trader).

Instead I began to think about how the word applied to me and I realised that I spend much of my working life in a fungible world.

 

I travel on the same airlines and wait in almost indistinguishable Business Lounges as I travel to offices that all look pretty much the same regardless of which country I'm in. I spend upwards of 100 nights a year in chain hotels that are so similar that when I wake, I know which chain I'm in but not which city. Increasingly I find that the coffee shops and restaurants we go to are part of international chains that pride themselves on the consistency of their "consumer experience".

 

My life is bland. My days are fungible

.

Which makes me wonder, "How fungible am I?"

 

In many ways, I'm just another product of a Big Five consulting culture that shapes how I frame and solve problems, how I work with colleagues and how I relate to clients.  We're so similar, we recognise one another in the bars of chain hotels all over the world.

 

We tend to be global, or at least international. We either peddle globalisation or we help deal with its consequences. If we have a passport, a mobile phone and a credit card, we're ready to go. We tell ourselves we're agile, adaptable, digital nomads. Sometimes that even seems to be true.

 

Then the word FUNGIBLE smashes into the glass bubble I travel in like a raven hitting a window and I find myself fascinated by the cracks its impact leaves behind and the scents from the outside world that waft into my air-conditioned, sanitised life.

 

So I devised a test for fungibility: what in my life is memorable because nothing else could take its place?

 

Only one word passed the test: HOME.

 

If I want to have a life less fungible, if I want to BE less fungible, I need to spend more time there.

 

When I can't spend time there, I need to leave my chain hotel and go and eat somewhere that is unique to the city I'm in. I need to listen harder to my colleagues and learn to see what makes them more than the job we do. I need to learn to find and treasure the things that will makes my days memorable.

My Best Reads, Best New Finds, Best New Series and Biggest Disappointment in April, May and June 2017

q22017

 

Audio books carried me through this quarter. I've been having some problems with my vision that makes it difficult to read at the beginning and end of the day. Without audio books, I'd have been deprived of one of my main sources of piece of mind.

 

I read twenty eight books in the quarter. As with last quarter, all but four of them were genre reads (urban fantasy, science fiction, thrillers and crime). I seem to be in need of comfort reads at the moment.

 

So here are the best and most disappointing of the twenty eight.

 

Best Read of the Quarter

 

the girl who loved Tom GordonI selected Stephen King's "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon"  as my best read because it was the most pleasant surprise of the quarter.

 

I'd expected Stephen King to apply his story-telling skills to give me a a tense story about the bad things that happen to little girls who get lost in the woods, invoking all the things that lurk in the deep dark and reminding me what it feels like to be prey. Instead, I got something quite different and wonderful, Stephen King narrowed his focus down to the internal dialogue that drives Trish, nine years old, almost ten and big for age, to persist in struggling not to die in vast Maine woods that she is alone and lost in.

 

In some ways, this is a book in which nothing much happens. Trish gets separated from her mother and brother and finds herself lost in the woods and does her best to find a way to walk out again. Yet, from the beginning, I kept wanting to know what happened next and by the end I cared passionately about whether Trish would survive.

 

Trish is brave and resourceful and unyielding. She’s also, as she tells us from time to time, just a kid. She’s afraid. She’s furious at the unfairness of her situation. She cries. She throws tantrums. Then she persists.

 

The writing is wonderful, simple on the surface but with flowing rhythms beneath the surface that entrance the ear and build meanings on simple phrases until a verbal Fibonacci Sequence unfolds. Stephen King can take a radio jingle, “Who do you call when your windscreen ‘s busted” and turn it into a leitmotiv for the desire for rescue. The pace is perfectly controlled and cleverly structured around the innings of a baseball game.

 

I recommend the audiobook version of “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon”.  It’s performed by Anne Hech, who does a superb job of making Trisha real and made this an even better read.

 

Best New Finds of the Quarter

 

isabels bed book cover

“Isabel’s Bed” is a gentle, amusing, charter-driven read, filled with kindness and comedy that lifted my spirits.

 

It deals honestly but sympathetically with story of Harriet Mahoney, a wannabe writer running for cover from a recently failed twelve year relationship with a man she now sees has always been a jerk.

 

Although the story is told from Harriet’s point of view, she is one of the most ordinary and most passive characters in a novel which is dominated by colourful, larger than life people. Yet Harriet does not fade into the background or become just a cypher for observing more interesting people. In a way, the whole book is about her building a more solid understanding of herself and acting upon it.

 

Harriet takes refuge with Isabel, a woman who’s notoriety Harriet is unaware of when she agrees to ghost write her autobiography in exchange for living in Isabel’s house for a year.

Isabel is funny and smart and totally overwhelming. The dialogue in the scenes she’s in sparkles. I found her extraordinary and yet completely convincing. She is a woman who takes charge of her life and lives by her own rules. She is Harriet’s opposite and so finds Harriet novel and intriguing. The friendship that builds between the two woman is drawn with a light touch that gives it credibility and emotional value.

 

The way the two women approach writing Isabel's autobiography gives some interesting sideways views into why people write and helps Harriet finally to find her way.

 

The ending of the novel made me smile. It was unexpected yet realistic. One of those things that makes everything click into place so that you say, “That’s so true and obvious. How did I not see that coming?”

 

corner of the universeAlthough the structure of "A Corner Of The Universe" creaks a little and some of the phrases verge on Hallmark niceness I still found that it raised my spirits and introduced me to memorable characters.

What I liked most about it was the curiosity, honesty and instinctive kindness of Hatty Owen, the character from who’s point of view the story is told.

 

The action of the book is set in the summer of 1960 in the American small town of Millerton. Hattie is eleven, almost twelve, and is deeply content at the prospect of spending her summer vacation at home, amongst the people and places that she has known her whole life.

 

Hattie’s life is changed by the unexpected arrival of her twenty-one year old, mentally uncle, Adam, who Hattie had not known existed.

 

Adam’s illness and it’s impact on him and those around him, is depicted in a deeply empathic way but is all the more disturbing for that. As Hattie becomes aware of Adam’s strange speech patterns, his manic energy, his unpredictable mood changes and the anxiety they create in those around him, she understands how isolated he is and the sense that he has of being the only alien in a world that has no home for him.

 

Adam’s behaviour and people^s reaction to it becomes a lever which lifts the corners of Hattie’s universe and compels her to reconsider what she knows about herself and her parents and grandparents.

 

I recommend this short novel to anyone who wants to spend a quiet afternoon absorbed in the life of a young girl who is exploring the nature of difference.

 

 

Best New Series of the Quarter

This quarter I completed two long-running series: Kitty Norville, werewolf and talk-show host, reached the end of her journey in "Kitty Saves The World" and Cassandra Kresnov, probably the most original killer android in the genre, reached a kind of peace with herself and her adopted home in "Originator".

 

I will miss both series, but there's always something new out there and this quarter I found two new series that seem to have real promise

 

nice dragons finish firstI picked up “Nice Dragons Finish Last” because I was looking for some lighthearted escapism that would make me smile. Rachel Aaron’s book delivered that and a good deal more; surprisingly strong and original world-building, intriguing characters, gentle humour and some great actions scenes.

 

This is a book about being nice, decent, honest, trustworthy and reasonable, It is not one of those knowing, self-mocking books. It occasionally goes right up to the cliff-edge of cute but never drops into the abyss of sugary wholesomeness. Instead it works through the idea that being nice doesn’t have to make you weak, that being fair doesn’t have to make you vulnerable and that being who you are is better than hiding from who everyone else wants you to be.

 

What spices all that up is that the person addicted to niceness is a dragon. Dragons don’t hold with niceness. Dragon’s are about cunning and power and strength and above all, about winning. Our hero is simply too nice to be a successful dragon, yet, if he fails to display a sufficiently draconian approach to the mission he has been given a couple of days to achieve, his mother will eat him. He teams up with a young mage, who, although she’s human, behaves much more like a dragon than he does: she’s fierce, territorial, always looking to find an angle and never backs down from anyone. Together they make the perfect odd couple.

 

There is a quest of a kind, labyrinthine intrigues, warring seers, hungry monsters determined to feed and lots of men with guns,

 

I found myself slipping more deeply into this world than I’d expected and liking the characters of dragons, even the scary or annoying ones.

 

the sweetness at the bottom of the pieI came across “The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie” when I was looking for new Canadian authors to read.  Alan Bradley gets great press, so I bought this book even though I was concerned that I might be getting an extended one line joke in which an aristocratic, 1950’s  stiff-upper-lip Brit attitude was made amusing by being exhibited by an eleven your old girl.

 

What I got was something much more complex and engaging than that. I got Flavia de Luce, a young girl with a remarkable mind and dauntless heart, who is determined to solve a murder her father has been arrested for committing.

 

The book is set in England in 1950. shortly after the end of the war. Eleven year old Flavia lives in a large and once grand Stately Home with her two older sisters who are close to each other but exclude her, her emotionally withdrawn father and no memory of Harriet, her adventurer mother who is missing, presumed dead.

 

The book is told entirely in the first person from Flavia’s point of view, so its success depends upon enjoying seeing through her eyes. Alan Bradley pulls this off perfectly- Flavia speaks and thinks in the over elaborate language of an intelligent, self-educated unsocialised child, intoxicated by the complexity of the world and unblinkingly confident in her ability to master it.

 

Flavia has a fascination with poisons that she recognises might be considered pathological but she also knows that it is a true part of herself. When she comes across dying man in her garden and holds his head as he breathes his last, she is honest about her reaction:

I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”

“The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie” is a splendid detective story. Its characters and plot put Agatha Christie to shame. It evokes upper-class England in the first half of the last century deftly and simply. It unfolds the plot at just the right pace. Yet, by far the biggest achievement of the book is the gentle disclosure of the mystery of Flavia de Luce herself.

 

Flavia lives in an emotional desert that could crush a lesser girl. She feels that she is not loved. Her solution is to decide that she must love herself. At one point, riding her mother’s bike, that Flavia restored and rechristened as Gladys, at great speed, she gives way to joy, thinking:

I was me. I was Flavia. And I loved myself, even if no one else did. “All hail Flavia! Flavia forever!” I shouted, as Gladys and I sped through the Mulford Gates, at top speed, into the avenue of chestnuts that lined the drive at Buckshaw.”

Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter

 

camino islandAlthough I had two DNF books this quarter, neither of them disappointed me as much as John Grisham's "Camino Island". I usually enjoy Grisham's writing and his characters, especially when he's not writing a lawyer novel, but this one didn't do it for me.

 

“Camino Island” starts as a fast moving, (very) stripped down, matter of fact, look how ingenious we are, heist. The plot moves along rapidly, if somewhat mechanically, executing what should have been the perfect robbery. The thieves are straight from central casting. The items being stolen, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s manuscripts, are the only original things in the opening chapters.

 

If this had been a movie, the robbery would have taken place as a background to the credits rolling by and no one would have missed anything.

 

Then the flow of the book suddenly slows and we’re gently meandering through the life of our heroine, a woman with one successful novel behind her, weighed down by her student loan debt, about to lose her teaching job, involuntarily single and three years behind on writing her next novel.

 

It turns out she is the last best hope for retrieving the missing manuscripts. She accepts payment to go back the island she grew up on and spend the summer infiltrating the life of a bookseller suspected of holding the manuscripts.

 

Much of the book is spent describing the booksseller’s life, the lives of the other writers on the island (they are legion), the changing nature of the publishing world, the delights of good food, fine wine and antique Provençal furniture and the freedoms of an open marriage.

 

The dialogue is well done and the characters are clearly drawn but I felt that I had walked into a different novel (possibly written by a different author) than the one I’d started. I was less engaged that I could have been as I found the bookseller unattractive and our heroine passive and voyeuristic.

 

I kept reading partly because I wanted to see how this dive into Floridian book culture would connect back to the heist and partly because the writing made up for the plot.

In the end, the clever twist emerges and is well executed but it had all the emotional impact of a magician pulling a rabbit from a top hat.

 

The epilogue that brings the main characters together for a final resolution simply confirmed that I didn’t like or care about either of them.

 

This is not a bad book but it left me feeling a little cheated because the heist never got past the cardboard cut-out stage and most of the book was as thrilling as watching strangers drink too much and talk too much at a cocktail party

 

Review
2.5 Stars
"The Guise Of Another" by Allen Eskens
The Guise of Another - Allen Eskens

“The Guise Of Another” was a very disappointing read. It was a book I persevered with rather than savoured.

It started as a fairly conventional police procedural novel, albeit with the original premise of finding that the victim of a fatal car accident had been living “in the guise of another”. The police procedural part lasted for a (very slow) first hour or so and then the book took a left turn into thriller land.

The idea was interesting but the characters were so clichéd I’m sure you’ll have met them before. Imagine a gone-to-seed, corrupt, American arms dealer, running a decades long scam on the Department of Defense. Then add the stone-cold killer from Serbia who acts as his muscle. Got a clear picture of both of them? Not hard is it? Not that interesting either, sadly.

The book livened up a little when our policeman hero goes to New York and meets a woman detective who at least feels real on the page.

After that, the plot moves along with the heroes slowly pulling together the pieces of the puzzle while the Serbian killing machine follows behind them like the Terminator, wiping out various people I’m supposed to care about.

Part of what kept me at arms length from this book is that the main policeman is a difficult man to sypathise with.  He's under investigation for corruption. His marriage is falling apart. He is easily distracted by women and has a moral compass that switches off for long periods of time. He is only interesting because his brother, who he describes as: "a better version of me", is an effective cop, unsullied by corruption.

The plot devices are clever. The action scenes are engaging. The pacing is often a little off. The characters read like a first draft rather than real people. The language and the imagery are functional and pedestrian.

Apart from the satisfaction of solving the puzzle and seeing if any of the good guys manage to survive, I really didn’t care about the events in this book or the people they were happening to.

What made this so disappointing is that I bought "The Guise Of Another" because I fell in love with Eskens' first novel, "The Life We Bury", which was a beautifully written thriller with well-rounded characters.

“The Guise Of Another” is listed (I think, wrongly) as the next book in the series. In reality it shares one character with the previous book and nothing much else.

If “The Guise Of Another” had been the first Eskens book I’d read, I wouldn’t be rushing to buy the next. Now I’m undecided as to whether or not to buy the third book in the “series”, “The Heavens May Fall”. If it’s as good as “The Life We Bury”, then it’s a must read. If it’s like “The Guise Of Another”, then I have a whole TBR pile that I will read first.

Review
4 Stars
“A Peace Divided – Peacekeeper #2” by Tanya Huff
A Peace Divided - Tanya Huff

“A Peace Divided” follows on directly from “An Ancient Peace”, making it the seventh Torin Kerr book. If you haven’t read the others, don’t start here. Give yourself a treat and read “Valor’s Choice” and come back here when you’ve caught up

 

Torin Kerr isn’t a Gunnery Sergeant in the Confederation Marines, fighting a war against the Primacy any more. The war is over. Primacy are no longer the enemy, if they ever really were.

 

Now Torin’s life is much more complicated. She leads a Peace Keeper Strike Force, dealing with violent people churning through civilian space in the wake of an unexpected peace. Torin’s not a soldier anymore. Winning  now involved more than getting in, killing the enemy and getting her people home. Now she has to uphold the law and make sure as few people as possible, on either side, die while she’s doing it.

 

“A Peace Divided”  is full of action. Itopens with a firefight between Torrin’s Peace Keeper Strike Team and a heavily-armed gun-runners and swiftly moves on to a mission to rescue Federation scientists being held hostage by mercenaries. Both situations illustrate the shift in the context of Torin’s violence from fighting a war to keeping the peace.

 

The book moves beyond the action to reflect on its causes as Torrin asks herself why the Strike Force is necessary and what should really be done about the veteran soldiers, damaged in the war and displaced in the peace, who spread violence and whether she and her people are being manipulated.

 

Torin is still the heart of this book and it was good to spend more time in her company but I liked the fact that we saw large parts of the story from the point of view of other, usually alien, characters. We shared the experience of a young human mercenary, caught up in violence he doesn’t approve of but can’t walk away from, an elder race scientist who struggles even to imagine violence, until her colleagues fall victim to it and she has to decide whether to fight or die and a pair of Cray coming to terms with marriage and the vulnerability it brings.

 

I admired Tanya Huff’s skill in presenting the large number of alien species in this book, without confusing me or diluting the identities of the species. I liked her ability to show the species as very different from one another and yet showing that they are still more likely to be bound together by their occupational roles (scientist, soldier) than by their genetics.

 

The “Humans First” organization (who have now lost the annoying apostrophe) are used  not just to demonstrate the power of bigotry and hate but to show that the issues that feed that hatred are real and tosuggest that the people who fund the hate have a darker, more personal agenda.

 

What made “A Peace Divided” compelling was that it kept fusing simple explanations..  The complexity isn’t added just to enrich the puzzle, it’s there because life is like that.

 

The appeal of Torin’s mantra of getting her people home safe  is that it gives her the certainty needed to act decisiviely but she is aware that it filters out the bigger picture. Now she’s having to confront that there is no officer to frame the bigger picture for her and recognises that she will have to form that picture for herself and her people.

Review
3.5 Stars
“The Dry – Aaron Falk #1” by Jane Harper
The Dry - Jane Harper

“The Dry” seeps into your imagination like a stain. It clings to you like a smell of something foul that you can’t wash out of your hair. It opens with a description of the aftermath of violent death that is steeped in a harsh indifference that sets the tone for the book.

“It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse.”

“The Dry” is set in a small, drought-ridden community in south east Australia. The place is so remote that new arrivals are…

“… always taken aback by the crushing vastness of the open land. The space was the thing that hit them first. There was so much of it. There was enough to drown in. To look out and see not another soul between you and the horizon could be a strange and disturbing sight.”

This is an unforgiving place. A place so harsh you have to get along with one another to survive, even when that means turning a blind eye to things that should be confronted and stopped. Like the land it sits on, this community is a dry husk of its former self and needs only a spark to be engulfed in flame.

 

Aaron Falk grew up there. He left. He’s never been back. He’s built a life for himself in Melbourne, working as a Federal Agent investigating  fraud. Shortly after seeing on the news that Luke, Aaron’s besrt friend growing up, has taken a shotgun to his wife, his young son and then himself, Aaronreceives a note from Luke’s father. It says:

“Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral”.

Aaron is not welcomed back to his home town. He is reviled and threatened. He wants to leave but he can’t let himself do that until he has looked into the shootings and their possible links to the death that caused him to leave this community decades earlier.

 

The plot is this book is both complicated and realistic. It kept me guessing but solving the puzzle was a secondary part of the experience. The main focus was on the Aaron Falk coming to terms with his past and his present by understanding with an adult’s eyes what living in this harsh place did to him and the people he grew up with.

 

The story is laced with threat and guilt and without becoming too overtly violent. The threat sits on you with the oppressive weight of an over-hot, windless day. It’s always there.

 

The dialogue is bang on, summoning up a world that is distinctively Australian both in its pace and its content.

 

Stephen Shanahan narrates the book at slow, deliberate pace that matches the mood perfectly. His performance is first rate.

 

I was surprised to find that “The Dry” is Jane Harper’s debut novel. Her writing is accomplished. She has created an interesting and original character in Aaron Falk and has given me a taste of rural Australia that felt as real as it was disturbing.

Review
5 Stars
"The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" by Stephen King
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon - Stephen King

Stephen King is always a great storyteller. He has a talent for the linking the things that make us most human to the things we most dread and making us care as much as we fear. During the course of his (usually long) books, he slowly lures us into the places where the supernatural is so close, we can smell the rotting flesh of its last meal on its breath.

 

I'd expected him to do that again with “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon”. I’d thought I’d get a tense story about the bad things that happen to little girls who get lost in the woods, invoking all the things that lurk in the deep dark and reminding us what it feels like to be prey.

 

Instead, Stephen King did something quite different and wonderful: he narrowed his focus down to the internal dialogue that drives Trish, nine years old, almost ten and big for age, to persist in struggling not to die in vast Maine woods that she is alone and lost in.

 

In some ways, this is a book in which nothing much happens. Trish gets separated from her mother and brother and finds herself lost in the woods and does her best to find a way to walk out again. Yet, from the beginning, I kept wanting to know what happened next and by the end I cared passionately about whether Trish would survive.

 

Trish is brave and resourceful and unyielding. She’s also, as she tells us from time to time, just a kid. She’s afraid. She’s furious at the unfairness of her situation. She cries. She throws tantrums. Then she persists.

 

Following along with Trisha, we learn about her (recently divorced) parents, her brother, her best friend and her favourite boy bands. We share her triumphs, her setbacks, her hallucinations and her growing awareness, as the days pass, that death is stalking her.

 

Trisha has two prized possessions with her, her Red Sox baseball cap, signed by Tom Gordon, her favourite player, and a Sony Walkman that allows her to listen to distance Sox games when the forest night surrounds her. The games become her anchor, a symbol of her hope, a tether to the world she is trying to get back to. Tom Gordon, who is the Sox closer, brought in at the end of the game to close down the other team, becomes the emblem of her courage and the means by which she explains to herself her relationship with growing probability of her own death. From him she learns that you may be beaten by the other team but you should never be beaten by yourself.

 

The writing is wonderful, simple on the surface but with flowing rhythms beneath the surface that entrance the ear and build meanings on simple phrases until a verbal Fibonacci Sequence unfolds. Stephen King can take a radio jingle, “Who do you call when your windscreen ‘s busted” and turn it into a leitmotiv for the desire for rescue. The pace is perfectly controlled and cleverly structured around the innings of a baseball game.

 

I recommend the audiobook version of “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon”.  It’s performed by Anne Hech, who does a superb job of making Trisha real and made this an even better read.

Review
2.5 Stars
"Camino Island" by John Grisham
Camino Island: A Novel - John Grisham

“Camino Island” starts as a fast moving, (very) stripped down, matter of fact, look how ingenious we are, heist. The plot moves along rapidly, if somewhat mechanically, executing what should have been the perfect robbery. The thieves are straight from central casting. The items being stolen, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s manuscripts, are the only original things in the opening chapters. If this had been a movie, the robbery would have taken place as a background to the credits rolling by and no one would have missed anything.

Then the flow of the book suddenly slows and we’re gently meandering through the life of our heroine, a woman with one successful novel behind her, weighed down by her student loan debt, about to lose her teaching job, involuntarily single and three years behind on writing her next novel.


It turns out she is the last best hope for retrieving the missing manuscripts. She accepts payment to go back the island she grew up on and spend the summer infiltrating the life of a bookseller, suspected of holding the manuscripts.


Much of the book is spent describing the books seller’s life, the lives of the other writers on the island (they are legion) the changing nature of the publishing world, the delights of good food, fine wine and antique Provençal furniture and the freedoms of an open marriage.


The dialogue is well done and the characters are clearly drawn but I felt that I had walked into a different novel (possibly written by a different author) than the one I’d started. I was less engaged that I could have been as I found the bookseller unattractive and our heroine passive and voyeuristic.

I kept reading partly because I wanted to see how this dive into Floridian book culture would connect back to the heist and partly because the writing made up for the plot.
In the end, the clever twist emerges and is well executed but it had all the emotional impact of a magician pulling a rabbit from a top hat.

The epilogue that brings the main characters together for a final resolution simply confirmed that I didn’t like or care about either of them.

This is not a bad book but it left me feeling a little cheated because the heist never got passed the cardboard cut-out stage and most of the book was as thrilling as watching strangers drink too much and talk too much at a cocktail party

Review
3 Stars
"Clean Sweep - Inn Keeper Chronicles #1" by Ilona Andrews
Clean Sweep - Ilona Andrews

"Clean Sweep" made me smile. Despite dealing with werewolves, vampires and predatory aliens locked in mortal hand to hand combat (which is describedin great detail) it manages to be completely charming and often quite amusing.

 

Set in modern-day Texas, it tells the story of a young Inn Keeper who's bed and breakfast is actually part of a network of magical Inns that offer a neutral place for travelers from different worlds and species to stay in in safety.

 

Ilona Andrews has created an original universe that cleverly combines and redefines urban fantasy and science fiction tropes into something new and intriguing. She's then used it as a setting for taking a tongue-in-cheek tilt at the romance themes that typically wrap themselves like vines around vampire. werewolf, magic maiden threesomes in Urban Fantasy. While the book never tips over into either slapstick or satire and has many scenes of graphic violence, humour rather than tension is the dominant scent in this book.

 

The Inn Keeper is fascinating. She speaks softly and draws upon formal Southern manners but is unphased by carrying out an autopsy on an alien who has attacked her and will happily slaughter her enemies in droves when necessary. The depth of her character is what makes the book. The male characters, regardless of species, seem to be mainly foils to display our Inn Keeper or generate laughter at the (self-evidently inferior) approach males take to problem solving.

 

The humour sometimes made it hard for me to take the science fiction seriously (the names of the planets could have come directly from Molière's comedies) but the comic scene in which one of the scary predators gets its ass kicked in a Costco aisle, more that made up for that.

 

"Clean Sweep" has been on my TBR pile for a while, partly because I kept selecting Ilona Andrew's Kate Daniels books instead. I don't have the same hunger for another Inn Keeper book that the Kate Daniels books always leave me with but I'll reach for the next in the series when I need a light, unchallenging but original read that will make me smile.

Review
3.5 Stars
"Still Life - Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #1" by Louise Penny
Still Life - Louise Penny

"Still Life" is a like a favourite armchair: a comfortable, familiar, structure that you relax into and become reluctant to leave.

This is a leisurely tale of murder, betrayal, art, archery and excellent croissants.

Set in a rural French Canadian village that seems to be populated by local hunters who were born there and talented but poor artists and poets who relish its bucolic charms, it involves the investigation, by a senior detective and a surprisingly large team of police officers, of the death of a local artist who has been shot through the heart by an arrow.

The tone of the book is set by the polite but unyielding authority of the most senior police officer, Inspector Gamache, a well read, softly spoken man who observes closely, thinks deeply and spends much of his time gathering information either by sitting in the local bistro/café or by sitting on a bench on the village green, watching who does what with whom.

Gamache solves the mystery by pulling at loose threads that others might miss until the deceptions hiding the killer unravel and all is revealed.

The writing is vivid without being garish. There is a strong sense of place and community. The story has the unhurried pace of a dinner party where each course is to be savoured and discussed between friends before things move on. I rather enjoyed the poetry attributed to one of the characters who turns out to be a famous Canadian poet.

The plot is a puzzle, with a satisfying number of twists and turns and a relatively small number of suspects. I worked out the killer just before their name was revealed. I take this to be a kindness on the author's part, allowing me to feel smug but not bored.

Despite being about murder, this is a gentle, reflective, cultured book that is as much about understanding the lives the villagers have constructed for themselves as it is about discovering whodunnit.

I felt that I'd taken a pleasant weekend break in a place different enough to be interesting but not so exotic as to disturb my comfort.

The first book in a series, "Still Life" left me disposed towards reading more but not passionate about getting the next book as soon as possible.

Review
3.5 Stars
"Magic Breaks - Kate Daniels #7" by Ilona Andrews
Magic Breaks - Ilona Andrews

I enjoyed "Magic Breaks" because it moved the series along, had some original magic in it, had great fight scenes and kept me guessing about what was going to happen next but...

 

...well it was a little weird and I ended up with a feeling that this was a book that entertained me and disappointed or frustrated me at the same time.

 

The first piece of weirdness was the authors telling me in the introduction that this wasn't the last book in the series. Huh?

 

Then they told me they were already under contract to write more. OK. So why the warning? Having read the book, I can why (although I'm not going to tell you - no spoilers here), but I think the warning wasn't needed. If this had been the ending of the series then anti-climatic would have been an understatement.

 

Most of the weirdness was around Kate. For the first part of the book, she's left to lead the Pack alone, a thankless task that she is becoming rather disenchanted with. It was good to see Kate in action on her own but it really showed that she's not cut out for politics or building a power base on any other basis than being able to kill anyone who comes against her. You can feel that she's in some kind of transition but it's hard to see from what to what.

 

Then there's the fact that her blood magic and her parentage both seem to be known by just about everybody. They were the deep dark secrets she was desperately trying to keep in earlier books and now she's been outed and the world hasn't ended. Kate's power, the stuff she inherited from her big bad world-eating father is growing, making her less and less human and, in some ways, less and less Kate.

 

The parts of the book that I enjoyed most were in more traditional territory: Kate getting into traps and fighting against impossible odds. Kate and Curran taking on the world, solving puzzles, taking risks and slicing the enemies apart.

 

Then we got to he big climatic ending and everything twisted out of shape.

Kate goes all cold-blooded avenger, not only killing her enemy but punishing her along the way with an efficiency that was chilling. Kate's enemy was not a nice person and you could argue she deserved what she got but that doesn't make me like Kate any better for being able to mete out that kind of punishment. This whole thing was made worse because the punishment was a display put on for her father's benefit.

 

I can't make my mind up if the end of the book was a clever way of re-configuring all of the players so that the struggle changes from an unwinnable final conflict into something more ambiguous and complex or whether the whole thing was just anti-climatic.

 

 

The quality of the writing and the momentum of the series carried me through. Maybe book eight will help me decide if I still care what happens to Kate.

Review
1 Stars
"Enclave" by Ann Aguirre - DNF
Enclave - Ann Aguirre

This one was just too YA for me.

Well written and well conceived but too noisy with teen emotions. This was probably amplified by the "I must emote every sentence at full volume" approach of the audiobook narrator.

 After 90 minute i decided it was a DNF.

OFF TOPIC POST "It Was So Easy" a song I'm only now coming to understand

Carly Simon remember 2

 

I was fifteen coming up to sixteen in November 1972 when Carly Simon released  her "No Secrets" album and I fell in love with with her voice and her lyrics in equal measure.

 

Forty-five years later, that album still gives me pleasure although changes in my  experience and expectation have altered what the songs mean to me.

 

The song that's been calling to me the loudest recently is "It Was So Easy".

 

For those of us who bought the vinyl version back in the last century, this was third track on side two. Now my iPad thinks of it as track eight of ten which makes it sound like the Borg have assimilated my music.

 

"It Was So Easy" was never released as a single. I don't remember hearing it on the radio. It was something that I got to savour, lying in the dark, in a room filled with the soft scent of warm plastic and dust that record players had back then, with Carly Simon singing just for me.

 

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

 

Back then, I enjoyed the clever variations in the rhymes and the bubbling joy in the music that spoke to me of American sunshine that, in my teens, spent in cloudy England, I'd never experienced.

 

I got the "It was so easy" part but I skipped over the subtext that it wasn't easy anymore.

Now, when I listen, the verse that jumps out at me is:

 

I remember a time when our fears could be named
And courage meant not refusing dares 

These days, I have more fears than I used to. The world is becoming a darker place where kindness is replaced with contempt and the desire for peace is being extinguished by a nationalism that is unthinkingly selfish and proudly ignorant.

 

If things were easy, I would stop working soon and use the money I've accumulated to enable me to spend my days with my wife, farting around doing bugger all.

 

Except, I now hear the past tense in:

It was so easy then never takin' any stands
It was so easy then, holdin' hands

and I find myself asking, "what does courage mean" now that I'm sixty, financial secure, well informed, good with words and can clearly see the very wealthy 0.1% undermining democracy and pushing more and more people into grinding poverty?

 

I'm not a crusader. I've never been particularly brave. I'm not even a people person. I've always thought that all I needed was my wife and my books and the time to enjoy both of them.

 

And yet... I keep playing this song.

 

It WAS so easy once.

 

It isn't anymore.

 
Review
3.5 Stars
"Nice Dragons Finish Last - Heartstrikers #1" by Rachel Aaron
Nice Dragons Finish Last - Rachel Aaron

I picked up "Nice Dragons Come Last" because I was looking for some lighhearted escapism that would make me smile. Rachel Aaron's book delivered that and a good deal more; surprisingly strong and original world-building, intriguing characters, gentle humour and some great actions scenes.

This is a book about being nice, decent, honest, trustworthy and reasonable, It is not one of those knowing, self-mocking books. It occasionally goes right up to the cliff-edge of cute but never drops into the abyss of sugary wholesomeness. Instead it works through the idea that being nice doesn't have to make you weak, that being fair doesn't have to make you vulnerable and that being who you are is better than hiding from who everyone else wants you to be.

What spices all that up is that the person addicted to niceness is a dragon. Dragons don't hold with niceness. Dragon's are about cunning and power and strength and above all, about winning. Our hero is simply too nice to be a successful dragon, yet, if he fails to display a sufficiently draconian approach to the mission he has been given a couple of days to achieve, his mother will eat him. He teams up with a young mage, who, although she's human, behaves much more like a dragon than he does: she's fierce, territorial, always looking to find an angle and never backs down from anyone. Together they make the perfect odd couple.

There is a quest of a kind, labyrinthine intrigues, warring seers, hungry monsters determined to feed and lots of men with guns,

Our hero is congenitally incapable of being nasty and much of the humour in the book comes from the incredulity with which our hero's attempt to find win-win, conflict-avoiding, solutions to problems that are traditionally resolved by combat.

I found myself slipping more deeply into this world than I'd expected and liking the characters of dragons, even the scary or annoying ones.

So, I've bought the next book in the series "One Good Dragon Deserves Another" and I'm saving it for the next time I'm craving lighthearted entertainment backed up by clever ideas and likeable characters.

currently reading

Progress: 46%
Progress: 37%
Progress: 9/334pages
Progress: 12/336pages
Idaho: A Novel - Emily Ruskovich
Less Than A Treason -  Dana Stabenow
The Girl Of Ink And Stars - Kiran Millwood Hargrave