STAMFORD, CT, United States
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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-31-18

The War is Not Over

Warlight is a novel of mystery and loss. The young narrator, Nathaniel Williams, and his sister Rachel are left in London by their parents at the end of World War II, ostensibly because their parents are relocating to Asia. Nathaniel and Rachel are left at their London house under the care of secretive, potentially unsavory characters they call the Moth and the Darter. But those characters and the others who frequent the Williams’ house are not so bad. They protect the teens and fascinate them as well. By example, they teach them something about grown-up life.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the cool, seductive narration by Steve West. The second half of the novel focuses on Nathaniel’s mother’s activities during the war, and that too is an engaging if troubling story. The threads come together with an understanding that actions taken in war have ongoing impact, and that for some the war is never over.

The novel reminded me of “When We Were Orphans,” by Kazuo Ishiguro, another novel with parentless children dealing with war and loss, smoky atmospherics, and with surprising—perhaps shocking--plot turns. (And that’s another excellent audiobook.) Both books are highly recommended!

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1 of 1 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-20-18

So Sixties. So Current.

The War Between the Tates was written in 1974, and it takes place in the late ‘60s. But its plot and its themes are quite current. The novel turns on issues like the importance of marital fidelity, the right to life, women in the workplace, alternative philosophies, lonely individualism and academic freedom. An attempt by students to shut down a right-wing, conservative professor could have taken place now.

This is a campus novel, focused on Erica Tate and her professor husband Brian. Both are attractive, smart, articulate and unhappy with middle age. Brian acts out with a needy, free-spirited graduate student, while Erica tries to maintain her ordered life. The events are potentially sad and disturbing, but Alison Lurie writes with a light, bemused touch (and she writes beautifully). The novel is frequently comic—a combination of Jane Austen manners and John Updike infidelity.

My only disappointment was the treatment of the Tates’ teenage children, Jeffrey and Matilda. They are never developed beyond a one-note grumpiness. I felt like Lurie was trying to show the generation gap without really understanding it.

The narration by Judith West was excellent.

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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-28-18

Well-Told, Well-Read, So Tragic

Idealistic Americans go to Spain in the 1930s, fighting for the duly elected Republic against the stronger and better equipped army of the Fascist Nationalists. This military coup tends to be overlooked, coming between the two World Wars, but this war was mighty brutal too. “Spain in our Hearts” doesn’t hold back from describing the violence, the torture and gratuitous murders on both sides. And while Adam Hochschild’s sympathies are clearly with the Republic and its international brigade, he doesn’t hesitate to show the problems with Soviet Union support, including political killings of rival Communists and leftists.

“Spain in our Hearts” is the second brilliant book by Hochschild that I’ve read. The first was “King Leopold’s Ghost,” about the brutal colonization of central Africa to exploit its natural resources. This book is equally distressing. Both histories are compelling, dismaying and tragic. Both show the scariest side of humanity, the horrifying acts people commit for bad reasons. But Hochschild is objective, coolly offering his analysis of events and their causes and consequences. The discussion of the benefits and risks of Soviet support, when the Western democracies refused to supply arms to the Republic, was especially well done.

The narration by Henry Strozier was excellent. He read with an avuncular tone, and I appreciated the way he slowed and lowered his voice for the most unhappy moments.

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1 of 1 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-09-18

For Camp and Country

Summer camp provides the setting for this busy novel. The central tensions in the book are between affluent kids going back to the land at Llamalo, a quasi-wilderness camp in Colorado ranch country, and the struggling locals whose jobs were lost when the mining company (Exxon!) left town. There’s Caleb, the founder of Llamalo, trying to handle locals Don and Donny, whose ancestors settled the area and who lost their land to Caleb following the shutdown of a mining project. Then there’s Rachel from Berkeley, whose father owns a famous left-wing weekly, and her lifelong crush David, who wants to leave school to live at Llamalo year-round.

The characters tend to lie, to others but mostly to themselves. Caleb sees himself as a heroic land preservationist, but he shamelessly manipulates people. Rachel sees herself as a left-wing revolutionary, but she is still Daddy’s girl. The portrait of Llamalo itself is quite appealing. As the reader, I wanted to visit there myself.

The book has a serious weakness. In the first half, the characters tend to be one-dimensional, closer to stereotypes than to real people. That is bad enough, but the Jewish characters in particular come off as cartoonish—especially the Jewish liberals like Rachel and her father. This changes as the book progresses and the characters deepen, but it left a bad taste. The book is nowhere near as subtle as Meg Wolitzer’s “The Interestings,” another novel about affluent teenagers finding themselves at summer camp.

Having said that, I enjoyed “The Ordinary Decade” and became increasingly engrossed in the characters and the plot. Heather Abel is a talented writer, wrestling with important contemporary issues like class conflict, individualism, environmentalism and the value of protest.

The narrator did a good job, nicely differentiating the many voices.

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3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 05-30-18

Loyalty beyond Reason

“One of the Boys” was an absorbing novel about two brothers whose father abandons their mother, removing the boys from their family home in Kansas to a small, creepy apartment in Albuquerque, where they are often brutalized, lied to and kept under lockdown. Despite the father’s increasingly violent behavior, the boys remain loyal to him. There are other, minor characters, but the boys’ only relationship appears to be with Dad.

Surprisingly, I found myself more interested in the father’s psychology than that of his sons. He was capable of charm and profound self-deception, something of a sociopath. The boys’ inability to protect themselves was disturbing, something of a Stockholm Syndrome.

The ending was weak—the reader needed more resolution of some of the conflicts. Perhaps Daniel Magariel is planning a sequel, which would be helpful.

The narration was good.

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2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 05-06-18

Southern Eccentrics

I usually like quirky characters, but not these. I didn’t believe any of them, and mostly I kept wishing for the book to end. The only character I liked was Temple, a black (really, unlike the two white characters who pretend to be black) student who wants a normal successful life. I am sure the book had a lot to say about racial and gender identity, class and corruption, but if you don’t believe in the characters you have trouble engaging with the themes. The book picked up in the last quarter, and the narration was okay.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 04-12-18

Long Night in the Dorm?

Ryan Holiday narrates his tale of the takedown of Gawker like a college senior keeping his younger classmates awake with an all-night monologue in the dorm. He has a world-weary, slightly nasal, slightly condescending voice that sounds like he is keeping himself going with No-Doz (remember that?). He speaks with odd rhythms, pausing every couple of words midsentence, as if to let the listener absorb the points he is making. He casually drops in obscure factoids of history (the Spartans lost an important if forgotten battle through overconfidence), and he quotes repeatedly from smart conspiracy philosophers (Herodotus, Seneca and repeatedly Machiavelli).

I mention the dorm because there is something sophomoric about this entire story. Peter Thiel, the outed billionaire, goes on a vengeance quest that costs millions and smacks of an immature need to boost his self-image by destroying a company—and all the jobs that go with that—that did him wrong. Nick Denton, the arrogant and blinkered owner of Gawker, is stubborn, smug and seemingly incapable of empathizing with the victims of its often pointless gossip. Hulk Hogan, who comes off as a minor character in his own story, has dignity, but he is also the one who could not resist sleeping repeatedly with his best friend’s wife.

There is much to learn from this book. Holiday has a broad knowledge of philosophy, world history and literature, and he doesn’t mind showing it off. This gives his story a little more gravity and oomph than it may deserve. Much of the philosophy focuses on the methods and risks of conspiracies. Peter Thiel’s conspiracy to take down Gawker and Nick Denton is well-planned and well-executed, following a Machiavellian playbook. In light of the damage done by Gawker to so many celebrities, Thiel is almost sympathetic. But he ultimately loses that sympathy because of the implications of his secret vendetta. If Thiel can take down Gawker, will other billionaires with extreme political views use their wealth, secretly, to go after other, more responsible media outlets that may offend with their opinions? Can they destroy these voices merely by financing multiple questionable lawsuits and pursuing them relentlessly? Holiday raises these troubling issues but has no clear solutions.

So this was a thoughtful, surprising and challenging book. I only wish Holiday had engaged a professional narrator who would have focused the listener more on the story and less on his own quirky voice.

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2 of 2 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 02-14-18

Antarctic Arts and Science

What an unusual book. The first half is a romantic comedy, with a group of likeable misfits working together at the South Pole Station and looking for their “ice wives” and “ice husbands” for the long dark winter. The second half turns philosophical, with a bitter battle between science and religion and a sweet but troubled artist acting as the go-between.

The main character, Cooper Gosling, has come to the South Pole Station to escape her demoralized family. Her twin brother was a suicide, and her parents have turned against each other and, to a degree, Cooper. She fits in well with the South Pole loners, especially Sal, a physicist with issues with his own father. The author gives several of the “Polies” their own chapters, well-done profiles that highlight the psychology of those who are attracted to the desolate station.

I confess that my interest waned in the second half. The science was hard to follow, and the plot became a little strained. Nevertheless, author Ashley Shelby showed ambition and a readiness to wrestle with profound issues of science, religion, politics and relationships. She is off to a great start as a novelist.

The narrator was good with the different characters' voices.

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3 of 3 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 01-17-18

Wow! What a Ride

I was surprised by what I regarded as the author's balance in this amazing tale of unexpected success and its consequences. Donald Trump is a fascinating character, and the author tries to be level-headed and fair in reporting the rivalries, the ambitions and the apparent chaos around Trump.

Holter Graham is one of my favorite narrators. (Check out his reading of the novel Canada, by Richard Ford.) He reads Fire and Fury like a roller coaster ride, filled with thrilling ups and downs. His narration has the inflections and enthusiasm of an Aziz Ansari monologue, kind of excited and kind of stupefied by the amazing tale he is telling.

Overall, this book was both fun listening and insightful into the current administration.

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2 of 4 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 01-12-18

Those Beautiful Lakes

Dan Egan notes at the end of this absorbing study that those who love the Great Lakes often cherish early memories of fishing on one of the lakes. As someone who grew up in Buffalo, I remember a lot more than the good fishing on Lake Erie. I remember swimming in water that was clear and cool when I was a kid, then filled with muck and scary as I got older. I remember storms on the lake, when the water rose to wash over the beaches. I remember the occasional great blue heron, which brought us tiptoeing down to the water to look more closely.

The lakes have suffered greatly in the last 50 years, and Egan carefully follows one ecological disaster after another—first the lampreys, then the alewives, then the mussels. The book focuses on the damage wrought by invasive species, not industrial pollution. Egan returns again and again to the dangers of international freighters bringing contaminated ballast water down the St. Lawrence Seaway to the lakes, often with creatures from places like the Black Sea or Caspian Sea. But he also discusses the problems with intentionally introduced species, like chinook salmon that were imported as better catches for sport fishers, because the salmon fought harder than native fish.

Egan sometimes shifts to parallel problems in lakes and rivers around the world, and he brings a wide view of the consequences of weak regulation of our fresh water supplies. But he also brings hope, noting recent successes in bringing back native species in some of the lakes.

This was a thoughtful, factual book of interest to anyone who cares about fishing, natural beauty, our water supply and our health.

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3 of 4 people found this review helpful