The Handmaid’s Tale

After a lackluster 1990 film adaptation, this 1985 novel appeared destined for the backroom shelves of the dystopian literary canon. Then a certain someone got himself elected president, and with him came a second-in-command with social and cultural beliefs even more extreme than his boss. Hulu’s television series, already in development at the time of the 2016 election, seemed less an homage to a literary classic than a warning shout to America.

But in addition to its political relevance, The Handmaid’s Tale deserves to be recognized for its literary qualities. Offred is an engaging narrator, and the theocratic dictatorship in which she lives is fascinating in its brutal orderliness. It’s not a world we’d ever want, but could certainly become ours if we don’t fight against the darker impulses of our society.

The audiobook performance by Claire Danes is very good; Danes gives Offred a complex voice, one aware of the outrages performed against her but also proud of her own petty indiscretions. The novel’s epilogue is included, and in a wise decision is performed by actors other than Danes. Also included is an brief and informative commentary by Margaret Atwood, as well as a concluding academic essay which is unfortunately the driest and least interesting part of the entire audiobook.

Between the World and Me

Another personal first — reading a book to prepare for an upcoming comic book series.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, the winner of last year’s National Book Award for Nonfiction, is partly a response to the killings of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and other unarmed black Americans. None of their slayers were convicted of a crime (most were never taken to trial), but Coates doesn’t revisit the details of these killings or lay blame on the exonerated, most of whom he does not name. He takes a broader view instead, arguing their deaths were just the latest development in a long history of violence against black Americans. His focus is on the destructive power of institutional racism, much in the tradition of Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcom X, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and Richard Wright’s Native Son. Like these other authors, Coates highlights distrubing and shameful truths about American society in a thorough, almost scholarly manner, with an understated tone of righteous anger. This narrative, however, is framed in an extended letter from Coates to his son, bringing a tone of genuine affection that doesn’t dismiss the ugliness the author sees in the world, but does provide a reason for continuing to struggle against that ugliness.

The audiobook is read by the author, which from my experience doesn’t work well; I once listened to an elderly William Golding read his wonderful Lord of the Flies, and the experience can only be described as painful (the sniffing — dear Lord, the sniffing). Authors are rarely good readers, and Coates’ performance certainly lacks the polish that a professionally trained vocal performer could have provided. Yet the author’s voice is filled with a passion that comes from addressing his son nearly continually; his delivery may not be pefect, but not even a perfect actor could hope to emulate the power of his conviction, making the author’s decision to read his own work a wise one.  

Shogun

At 53 hours, “Shogun” makes you feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth from your monthly Audible membership. The novel is thoroughly engaging and Ralph Lister’s performance is sharp, yet I felt disappointed at its conclusion, a disappointment caused by the limitations of the medium I chose to use.

Listening to an audiobook on your daily commute has several disadvantages over reading; distractions along the route and anticipation of what awaits at office or home easily break your concentration, and flipping back to earlier passages is inconvenient to the point of impossibility. When you read, you can study and analyze; listening to an audiobook is almost entirely a passive act.

“Shogun” has a fantastic amount of detail, on a wide range of topics — history, religion, warrior culture, navigation, shipbuilding. And Clavell’s narrative is engaging enough to make you want to learn more about these topics. I ended the audiobook feeling I hadn’t fully appreciated this novel, that listening to the performance, despite its obvious quality, was not sufficient. I may indeed return to “Shogun” in the future, but next time I will approach the book as a reader, not a listener.

The Man in the High Castle

A very interesting novel, embellished by an extremely good audiobook performance.

The Amazon miniseries, and my interest in alternative-history fiction, inspired me to download this title for a long holiday road trip. The genre is most effective when the premise is treated as background rather than the primary focus; “what happened?” and “how is this world different?” aren’t as interesting questions as “how are people in this world different?” and “what does this world say about our own?” Fortunately this novel doesn’t provide a detailed explanation of how the Allies lose the Second World War, leaving Germany in possession of the eastern United States, Japan ruling the west, with the Rockies forming a buffer between the two occupying empires (sorry, Britain and Russia, you get scant mention in this very American-centric novel).

What we have instead is a compelling portrait of California under Japanese rule. Asian culture is everywhere, affecting even the speech patterns of the conquered Americans. Yet American art and creativity fascinate the Japanese, a fascination not shared by the Germans to their east; a merger of American and Japanese culture seems to be forming, and helps lead to a conflict between the two remaining world powers. In this world, America’s military has failed, but its culture has come to its rescue; this imaginary world provides an interesting insight into the influence of American culture in our own world.

The Brilliance Audio performance by Jeff Cummings is first-rate. Cummings provides a distinct voice for each of the American, Japanese, German, and Italian characters, and even does well with the female characters. The quality of this reading makes the novel even more engaging.

A Storm of Swords

It is so refreshing to be all geeked up over a fantasy series. “A Song of Ice and Fire” is the most engaging work of pop fiction I’ve ever read.

My reviews of the first and second books in the series focused on the characters and plot, so this time I want to focus on the series’ unique moral character. The struggle is not a simplistic matter of Good vs. Evil. There are certainly protagonists (those being the half-dozen or so point-of-view characters), with most of the others serving as some sort of foil, but each of the main characters can act downright barbarous at times, committing outrageous acts of dishonesty and cruelty.

Two characters in particular display the series’ complexity. Daenerys Targaryen, daughter of the deposed king of Westeros, is ruthless in her quest to regain her family’s throne — if burning a city or two is what it takes to advance her cause, well then, unleash the dragons! Yet she can also be compassionate and display an almost modern sense of decency; her banishing of both slavery and rape within her army is unheard of in this very medieval world, yet also seems perfectly consistent with her character.

And then there’s Tyrion Lannister. Selfish and cruel, the intellectual dwarf always has a self-serving agenda, and can betray a friend as easily as he allies with a foe. However, he is also at times the most noble character in the series; his scene with Sansa Stark, frightened and  wary on the night of their arranged wedding, is memorably touching.

Roy Dotrice’s narration for the audiobook is again uneven. His voice is actually quite pleasant when he’s not embellishing, but his attempts to add flavor to his vocal personas too often sound contrived, at times ridiculous.

The Magician’s Lie

TheMagiciansLieI used to write reviews of books and audiobooks on a routine basis on this blog, and got away from that practice to focus on my own fiction; with my new interest in diversification, I’ve decided to revisit that practice.

“The Magician’s Lie,” the first novel from poet and playwright Greer Macallister, is a murder mystery set in Iowa at the turn of the twentieth century. The action begins quickly, the corpse appearing within the first ten minutes of the audiobook; as it’s been found among the stage props of a famous illusionist, a small-town police officer immediately arrests the illusionist, and restrains her in his tiny station.

The novel then alternates between two voices (recited to good effect by two different readers in the audiobook): an autobiographical narrative from the illusionist, and a third-person account of the officer’s interrogation. Of these, the former is by far the more interesting, as the illusionist provides a vivid description of her career, from her start as a Broadway dancer through her apprenticeship in a travelling show to her establishment as the Amazing Arden, the most famous female illusionist of her day. And in the background of that career is a personal story of abandonment and abuse that makes Arden’s accomplishments seem even more significant.

Arden’s first-person story could stand on its own as a winning period piece; unfortunately, it’s combined with the officer’s interrogation, a far weaker narrative which severely weakens the novel. The dialog between the two characters is at times clichéd, at other times unrealistic; obvious lines of questioning are overlooked by the officer (since the victim is allegedly the illusionist’s husband, why does she show no remorse for his passing while maintaining her innocence?). The officer has his own tragic tale lurking in the background, but unlike Arden’s story the officer’s does little to enhance the overall work.

In the end, “The Magician’s Lie” is both intriguing and frustrating. Arden’s tale is compelling, but the flaws in the murder mystery framing that narrative are like mud splattered over stained glass, nearly obscuring the novel’s finer points. Macallister’s novel definitely has its moments, but I can’t help feeling it could have been much better.

A Clash of Kings

I’ll admit to being a bit of a snob when it comes to fantasy literature. I can read the good stuff over and over — think I’ve read Lord of the Rings four times, and I’m anxious to pick up the first Thomas Covenant trilogy once more — but I find most of it uninteresting (and I promise, this is the last time I’ll slam Eragon).

Fortunately, the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series from George R.R. Martin demonstrates how much potential this genre has for great storytelling. The characters are complex, the protagonists neither fully heroic nor the adversaries wholly evil. The only flaw I see is that the main characters seem almost too intelligent, too honorable, to survive in the often barbaric world of Westeros. But perhaps this is what makes these novels so appealing, the presence of modern-thinking characters struggling to escape from the nightmare of their medieval world.

Another aspect of the series that I enjoy is the way the supernatural elements are presented. There is a foreboding presence in the north of Westeros, magical and undead, and the author constantly keeps it at the outskirts of his narrative, as mysterious to the reader as it is to the novel’s characters.

I still find Roy Dotrice’s performance as narrator uneven, at times even distracting. He occassionally fails to come out of character when shifting between quotation and narration, and some of his character voices just seem wrong (he makes Davos Seaworth sound like an overzealous participant in Talk Like A Pirate Day). But he is good more often than he is not, and his performance is overall good enough to keep me downloading each book in the series.

Eragon

“Eragon” was my family’s audiobook of choice for the trip back from our summer vacation. Guess you can’t win ’em all — I stopped paying attention a few hours into this audiobook. This surprised me, because I remember wattching the movie on DVD with at least some interest. But the book — the cynic in me finds it all too easy to believe it was written by a fifteen-year-old.

The problem is with the title character. Eragon’s an ingenue, and there’s a long tradition of such characters in fantasy/science fiction literature. But instead of Katniss Everdeen’s resolve, Harry Potter’s courage, Frodo Baggins’ compassion — we get a whiny, petulant adolescent, constantly demanding answers he doesn’t deserve to receive. I tried to stay engaged, hoping the character would grow, or at least grow on me. Didn’t happen.

Maybe my reaction (shared by everyone in my family) to Gerard Doyle’s narration is having too much influence on my opinion. Atrocious is the only appropriate adjective, especially when assessing his performance of the dragon Saphira. Imagine someone planning to imitate Christian Bale’s Batman voice, deciding at the last minute to imitate Jim Dale’s Hagrid, and coming up with a voice that sounds like someone gargling sandpaper. Yup, that would be Doyle’s Saphira.

“Eldest?” Think I’ll pass, thanks.

The Hunger Games

Facing a lengthy car ride for our summer vacation, my family chose this for our audiobook on the way out. A good choice, from my perspective — I’m a big fan of dystopian fiction, and this is one of the better works in the genre. Suzanne Collins provides enough history to make her totalitarian future setting seem realistic, ominous even. Katniss is an unforgettable character — smart and strong, yet also vulnerable and empathetic — and while her family, friends, advisors, and competitors are not nearly as compelling, it somehow seems appropriate to write that Katniss is able to carry along on her own.

The audiobook narration by Carolyn McCormick is good, if unremarkable. It neither adds to the enjoyment of the work, nor detracts from it.

The novel’s end left me wanting to learn how Katniss responds to her post-Games life. I saw (and enjoyed) the movie before listening to the book; I’ve got several months between now and November, so perhaps I’ll reverse the experiences for “Catching Fire.”

A Game of Thrones

Finally, an audiobook that makes traffic delays bearable! I’ve heard about the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series for years, and with my re-entry into fencing culture and the highly successful HBO series over the last few years, it was merely a matter of time before I decided to find out what all the fuss was about.

And I’ll admit, it took me a while to get into this first book in the series. Listening to the first half, I couldn’t help thinking this was little more than half-baked Tolkein, with fewer monsters and better family drama. I also found Roy Dotrice’s vocal performance a bit affected, over the top. Half-way through, I’m thinking this will be a one-and-done experience.

Somewhere around the time Ned Stark resigned, my impressions changed. What seemed to be petty grievances and cold resentments finally blossomed into an intriguing tale of grand scheming and hot rivalries. And either Roy Dotrice’s performance got better, or I got used to it.

Martin’s characters are compelling, not like any people I’ve ever met yet seeming more real than many people I used to know. And even though my second-favorite character (after exiled princess Daenerys) gets knocked off in the end (I’ve heard to expect that in this series from the readers at my fencing club), the novel ends with a slew of engaging characters in various stages of peril.

And the cherry lofted on the pile of whipped cream atop this tasty morsel of a tale — thirty-four hours, my friend! A bargain for a mere single Audible credit, and long enough to cover nealy two months of commuting. “A Game of Thrones,” was an enjoyable listen, and upon completion I immediatley downloaded the next book in the series.