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Alex Levine

Florida, USA
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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-27-18

Close to perfect

I am a literary nit-picker. I can't really help it. When I read a historical novel, part of me is always hunting for inaccuracies, and when I read an alternate history novel, that same part is always hunting for premise-breaking implausibilities. For me to really, really enjoy an alternate history, it has to either be entirely free of such defects, or pretty damn amazing, so amazing that my nit-picking module shuts down. This book is pretty damn amazing.

The amazingness has many facets, of which I can only mention a few. The first is its timeliness, appearing as it does just two years after Margot Lee Shetterly's wonderful "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race," along with the movie it inspired. Shetterly's book helped bring overdue attention to the contributions Black woman mathematicians, employed as computers, made to the American space program, when the electronic digital computing revolution was in its infancy. In our timeline, their efforts were supplemented by electronic computers as the technology improved, and a state-of-the-art electronic computer traveled to the moon with Armstrong and Aldrin. It may not have worked very well, but it was ready in time to make the trip.

In the timeline of this book, the American space program gets its start ten years earlier than in ours, and vast investment spurs most of the necessary technologies to advance more over the course of the 1950s than ours did over the 1960s. The one exception is electronic digital computing, which appears to be no further along in the 1955 of this book than it was in our own 1955. Suppose space program managers realize that astronauts may need to solve unforeseen problems in orbital mechanics on the fly. Suppose, further, that the best way to obtain a quick, accurate solution to such problems is to consult a skilled human with paper, pencil, and slide rule. Finally, suppose that the most skilled such humans are women. We have a recipe for a narrative in which, rather than lagging well behind the rest of 20th Century American Society in its lurching, uneven progress toward gender equality, the space program leads the way.

Our heroine and first-personal protagonist is, as we would expect, an extraordinary individual. But she is NOT a "steely-eyed missile man" in drag. She has payed a serious, even crippling price for having succeeded in a string of male-dominated fields, and her struggle to shoulder that baggage is perhaps the most compelling aspect of her more general struggle. She is also a woman of her time and place, one who has developed her strategies for selectively ignoring numerous small injustices, and for coping with those she cannot ignore. This is NOT an idealized crusader for women and minorities anachronistically written back into a society that no time for such people. She is a completely believable person who has learned how to pick her battles. She is surrounded by an equally believable supporting cast.

I won't sully this review by rehearsing any of the small number of nits I have picked. Read the book, or better yet listen to it in the author's expert narration.

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2 of 2 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-09-18

Fun but credulity-straining

I've been enjoying Stirling's Emberverse series for years, and with that apparently drawing to a close, I've been looking forward to his next project. BLACK CHAMBER is a self-contained alternate history tale, but I would not be surprised to learn it was the first of a new series. S.M. Stirling knows how to craft a believable counterfactual setting and appealing characters, and combine them to tell a great story--which this most certainly is. But compelling alternate history requires, first, a plausible point of departure from the recorded sequence of events, and second, a consistent unfolding of events from the point of divergence. This book has the first element. That President Taft, who was notoriously obese, might have died of a heart attack in the Spring of 1912, is perfectly plausible, as is the notion that Teddy Roosevelt would then have won the nomination and the presidency. Subsequent divergences in the timeline of BLACK CHAMBER, however, do not always flow cleanly from this point of departure. In particular, while some of the technological developments on display in the alternate 1916 are reasonable extrapolations, others strain the bounds of credulity.

Stirling is fond of inserting words, phrases, quotations, and even short dialogues in languages other than English. Readers who know those languages must sometimes be prepared to pardon his lapses. This book is replete with German and Spanish, both of which I know. Having listened to the book rather than read it, however, I have trouble assessing the author's due diligence, for the simple reason that narrator Todd McLaren is almost entirely incomprehensible in both languages. Oddly, his German is less incomprehensible than his Spanish, which sounds like nothing so much as a cross between Italian and Martian. This is a shame, because McLaren is a very capable narrator in other respects, and because unmangled, the Spanish and German would have added color and nuance, rather than cringe and confusion.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-04-18

A satisfying specimen of Pseudotolkien americanum

As the title of this review states, this book, and the trilogy it initiates, constitute an entirely satisfying, utterly conventional specimen of the species Pseudotolkien americanum. Predictability is as inseparable from the species morphology as are Orcs, and hardly counts as a defect.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-25-16

Too good a story to be wrecked by narration

After seeing the preview of the forthcoming Tim Burton movie based on this book, I decided to take a listen. For the most part, the story is engaging and fun. There are a number of conventional ways of dealing with the causality-violations and attendant narrative tensions of time-travel paradoxes. This book, unfortunately, employs my least favorite strategy, which is to simply ignore anything remotely paradoxical. If, like me, you're the sort of person who worries away at a paradox until you find a satisfactory solution--or at least a plausible one--this will bother you.

The narrator, Jesse Bernstein, does just fine with the third-person narration and with the character voice of Jacob, our protagonist. Jacob is American. All of the other major characters are Brits of various descriptions. There is no law that says one can't read a British character's dialogue in an American accent, and had Mr. Bernstein elected to do that, sure, some listeners might have been dissatisfied. Now instead of being dissatisfied, I'm frankly appalled. Bernstein's gestures toward Britain sound like nothing I have ever heard, and they are certainly nothing I would like to hear again. Imagine a stroke victim with a broken jaw and you may get close. Fortunately, I am happy to report, in the subsequent books of the series Mr. Bernstein has been replaced with a competent narrator, and so those are much more fun to listen to. You do, however, have to get through this one, first. The story was good enough to carry me along, but there were moments...

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3 of 3 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-18-16

Wistful but worthy

To my ear this is one of Robinson's best books of the past 20 years or so. Listeners familiar with his work know that a powerful strain of melancholy, sometimes verging on the maudlin, permeates much of it. In AURORA that line is never crossed, resulting in plot and tone that are wistful but not whiny. Robinson has consciously violated the genre rules for generation-ship colonization narratives, obliging listeners to consider a bleaker side of the triumphalist fantasy of manifest destiny. Ali Ahn's reading is excellent.

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1 of 2 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-05-16

Almost completely charming!

I have never been to Singapore. I lived in Hong Kong many years ago and may have picked up the disdain for what many there viewed as their much lesser cousin. Nor have I ever really known a Singapore native. My knowledge of the island nation is based on general reading and occasional chats with people who have travelled there for one purpose or another, returning with complaints of high prices, stifling heat, and equally stifling sociopolitical regimentation. I have deliberately avoided looking up Ms. Tsao's biography (I'll do that after I finish this review), because I desperately want to IMAGINE her as a Singapore local, whatever the truth of the matter. Whether it's real or not, the nation she describes is alive, colorful, vibrant, exciting, even when viewed largely from the point of view of a character who does not and can never fit in. Early in the book there is a description--it must run to several pages in print--of the diversity and quality of Singapore's food, and the extent of the population's love for it, whose lavish, evocative detail reminds me of Flaubert in its execution. Think, for instance, of the description of the young Charles Bovary at the beginning of Flaubert's debut novel and you'll get a sense of the best of Tsao's prose. Incidentally, the hapless protagonist, the "oddfit" of the title, himself bears some resemblance to poor Dr. Bovary.

Like many of the best works of fantasy, this novel might with equal justification be ascribed to another genre pigeonhole, in this case magical realism. I will not go into the plot--to my mind, the value of this novel lies primarily in character and setting. It is serviceable, though I think it ends a bit abruptly and arbitrarily. The reading is generally excellent. Mr. Evers-Swindell's third-person narrations suggest to me that he is Australian, but his character voices deploy a wide range of accents to good effect, as one would hope for the audiobook of a novel set in cosmopolitan Singapore. I can't vouch for the authenticity of all of them, but I have a good ear, and most sound plausible to me. In my mind, I can now picture each character quite clearly, mannerisms and all.

As I said, I haven't yet googled Ms. Tsao, but if I'm right that this is her first novel, then I hope I can look forward to many more.

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33 of 37 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 10-27-15

Losing the Forest for the Trees?

This is the eighth book in the monumental Safehold series, a series that shows no signs of winding down in less than another two volumes. For the most part, the story and characters remain engaging. The books are appearing at long enough intervals that I'm unable to retain all the details of the multi-front war in the gap between one and the next, and don't really care enough to reread (re-listen) to every earlier book when a new one comes out. The basic parameters of the struggle are clear enough, even if individual campaigns get muddy.

The engineering details of successive generations of weapons and ships can also get a little tiresome, though I know some readers eat that sort of thing up. The drama of a force-fed industrial revolution remains appealing, however.

If I hear that line from Martin Luther's Wartburg speech ONE MORE TIME....

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1 of 2 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 10-27-15

Two Perfect Sanderson Miniatures

Brandon Sanderson's imagination is prodigal, spitting out richly developed worlds at a rate much too fast for even his breakneck writing to keep pace with. Some of the worlds get long novels, some get very long novels, and some even get whole series of very long novels devoted to them. Some (THE EMPEROR'S NEW SOUL, SHADOWS FOR SILENCE IN THE FOREST OF HELL, and PERFECT STATE) get only novellas. But regardless of the volume of prose, one always has the sense that one is visiting a complete world, with its own history, laws, and tensions. Some visits are brief, some protracted, but all are rewarding.

This program offers the listener two brief visits: two novellas set in different worlds. Both are very interesting and exciting places, with unseen depths we would like to see explored. The experienced Sanderson fan should have no trouble imagining either of them getting its own epic trilogy. A fan who has kept track of his recent output, though, will doubtless realize that he already has too many irons in the fire. We won't get those trilogies, and must be content with miniatures. Both of them are delightful.

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15 of 16 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 10-27-15

Great Gene Wolfe Concept, Distracting Narration

The idea of a borrowed man, and with it the speculative premise that drives this story, are certainly worthy of Wolfe's genius. The protagonist and first-person narrator admits from the outset that, in fact as in law, he is not fully human. The story bears this judgment out in various interesting and poignant ways, but despite the limitations built into him, he's a very appealing character. His story has a good arc, too, though it suffers from a number of the sorts of continuity errors that drive me to distraction.

The narrator's intensity level ranges from breathless fascination to near panic, and listening to him for any length of time is exhausting. All of the character voices are equally over the top, either stentorian or histrionic. Chill out, dude.

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5 of 5 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 10-27-15

Gute Geschichte, die aber mies endet

Ich frage mich immer, warum deutsche Science Fiction- und Fantasy-Romane immer amerikanische und englische Protagonisten haben. Das liegt vielleicht nur daran, dass die Autoren bereits schon an dem viel größeren Publikum, das sie mit eventuellen Übersetzungen erreichen, denken. Jedenfalls bleibt mindestens noch einen wichtigen Unterschied zur amerikanischen Konkurrenz: bei einem deutschen Roman kann man nicht unbedingt mit einem glücklichen Ende rechnen.

Ich bin selbst kein Fan des üblichen Happy Ends. Dennoch ist mir lieber, wenn das Ende einer Geschichte irgendeinen Sinn ergibt. In diesem Fall ist das Ende aber nicht nur mies, sondern sogar nihilistisch genug um klar zu machen, dass alle bisherigen Ereignisse von vorne hinein ohne Sinn waren, da der im Titel genannter Abgrund unmöglich auszuweichen war. Als ganzes gibt der Roman eher Anlass zum Saufen als zum Nachdenken, und da ich Alkohol schon längst aufgegeben habe, bleibe ich damit unzufrieden.

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