Audio book review: ‘Prophecies, Libels and Dreams’ by Ysabeau S. Wilce

This was a fun listen: “Prophecies, Libels and Dreams” by Ysabeau S. Wilce, which I got in a giveaway from Small Beer Press (Thank you, Small Beer Press!).

I didn’t know what to expect, and so this was my introduction to the fictional world of Califa that Wilce has written about in previous books, where there’s magic, magic boots, thieves, soldiers, deceptions, betrayals, and arranged marriages.

The best part of these interconnected stories is Wilce’s exuberant facility with language. Here’s a long example from the story “Quartermaster Returns”:

He died a hero’s death, Lieutenant Rucker did, trying to save, not another comrade, but rather the hog ranch’s entire supply of beer. The story is short and tragic: the freight train dropped fifteen cases of beer at the hog ranch, before proceeding on to Rancho Kuchamonga; an inexperienced drover off-loaded the beer in the arroyo below the hog ranch; when the storm came up, Pow organized his fellow whist players into a bottle brigade and supervised the shifting of fourteen cases to higher ground; the water was already foaming when Pow went back for the last case—refusing to allow the others to join him in harm’s way; Pow heroically managed to shove that case up the bank, just as a wall of water twenty feet high came roaring down the ravine.

This minitale is a great example of the kind of tall tales that dominate the seven stories in this collection. And these stories are offset by short “corrections” in the guise of an academic critique, often decrying the inexactitude of the previous tale. It’s a nice movement to add this layer to deepen a sense of place and time.

An unfortunate aspect of this audiobook is that the first story, which may be the whimsical, elicits from the reader some of the most forced interpreations that make him sound actorly in a too-forced storybook way. The audiobook does get better though.


When do you give up on a book?

I quit a book the other day.

I’ve seen Harlan Coben books everywhere, but I had never looked at one. At the library, I picked up the audiobook version of “Six Years,” read by Scott Brick (who I think has done a great job with Justin Cronin’s “The Passage” and “The Twelve”).

I only made it through the first disc.

The novel’s title “Six Years” refers to the length of time from when the narrator, Jake, attends his ex-lover’s wedding to when he reads of her husband’s death (and attends the funeral). He reads the obituary, and then he attends the funeral and is surprised to find out that the dead husband was a doctor, had a teenage son, and his wife was some other woman instead of Jake’s ex-lover.

Here’s the problem: those facts (that he was a doctor, his wife’s name being different from the name of his ex-lover) are all things that should’ve been part of the obituary. Sure, I’ve worked in journalism for many years, and maybe that gives me a specialist’s knowledge about how a professional would write an obituary. Though I’m pretty sure most people would expect that kind of information. So it made me not trust this book. After all, Jake’s surprise – his need to get to the truth of the matter – seems to be the main engine of the book. But because it required him to go to this funeral, even though the obituary should’ve given him the same surprising information, the contrivance of the plot revealed itself too me far too readily.

Have you quit a book because the author tried, and failed, to use something in your area of expertise?

#tbt review: Lisey’s Story by Stephen King

This review originally appeared in the Times Union on March 1, 2007.


“Lisey’s Story” by Stephen King. Read by Mare Winningham. Unabridged, 19 hours, 16 CDs. Simon & Schuster. $49.95.

In ancient Greek drama, deus ex machina was used when the plot got so out of control that only divine intervention could resolve it. “Lisey’s Story” is the opposite.

Lisey is the widow of a famous author still dealing with grief two years after his death. Her loneliness is convincing, as is the magical place — Boo’ya Moon — where her husband found inspiration and confronted horrors.

What bedevils the plot, though, is an insane stalker who terrorizes Lisey for her husband’s papers. This one-dimensional, inexplicable character clearly arrives for some anti-divine intervention to create chaos. King, however, eventually keeps the plot tidy and unsurprising.

Winningham does a winning job of conveying Lisey’s melancholy as well as other characters’ madness.


#tbt review: World War Z by Max Brooks

2013-03-12-worldwarz_audiobookThis review originally appeared in the Times Union on Jan. 2, 2007, long before the Brad Pitt movie came out.

“World War Z,” by Max Brooks. Read by a full cast. Abridged, 6 hours. Random House Audio. $29.95.

The stellar cast includes Alan Alda, Carl Reiner, Mark Hamill, Henry Rollins, John Turturro, Rob Reiner and Brooks as the one compiling interviews with survivors of a worldwide war between zombies and humans.

While the variety of locales — China, Israel, South Africa, Canada, the United States, Cuba, Chile, Finland, Greenland, Barbados, Japan — puts to shame any James Bond story, the book lacks suspense.

Instead, it has realism to emphasize how the zombie wars upend how people live and what they hold sacred.

The best example occurs in South Africa, where a dreaded apartheid-era figure comes up with a plan to save the country by sacrificing parts of the population. Though most of the politicians are aghast, they accept it once the unnamed but recognizable Nelson Mandela figure approves.

The performances emphasize this human quality of physical and psychological struggle.


Review: The Cut

The Cut
The Cut by George Pelecanos
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve enjoyed other George Pelecanos’ books, especially The Turnaround, much better than this. The character Spero Lucas just seems too pretty/macho/lucky/wise/serious to feel real or to be seriously.

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Review: Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist

Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist
Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist by Bill McKibben
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bill McKibben opens up about his mixed feelings of turning from writer about the environment to activist. A heartfelt and compelling read.

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Big-name books on LibriVox

LibriVox, the all-volunteer effort turning public-domain books into audio files, has recently released some classics of literature:

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

The Autobiography of Mother Jones

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller

“Extracts from Adam’s Diary”

Among the latest releases from LibriVox — the volunteer group that publishes free audio files of public domain books — is Mark Twain’s “Extracts from Adam’s Diary,” a fun and funny collection of ruminations from humanity’s first man.

Here’s a print excerpt:


The naming goes recklessly on, in spite of anything I can do. I
had a very good name for the estate, and it was musical and pretty
–GARDEN-OF-EDEN. Privately, I continue to call it that, but not
any longer publicly. The new creature says it is all woods and
rocks and scenery, and therefore has no resemblance to a garden.
Says it looks like a park, and does not look like anything but a
park. Consequently, without consulting me, it has been new-named
–NIAGARA FALLS PARK. This is sufficiently high-handed, it seems to
me. And already there is a sign up:


My life is not as happy as it was.

Audiobooks review: “I Like You”

“I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence” by Amy Sedaris. Read by the author. Unabridged, 5 hours, 4 CDs. Hachette Audio. $29.98.

Early in this book about entertaining at home, Sedaris says, “Even though the word entertainment is commonly used today, to me it sounds charmingly old-fashioned, like courtship or back-alley abortion.” Those words give a pretty good sense that you are far from the world of Miss Manners.

Or are you? A lot Sedaris says is practical. She suggests that, when grocery shopping, you should buy things in boxes instead of bags, because boxes can be reused. Then again, one of her tips for a children’s party sounds like “Survivor”: drive them blindfolded about an hour away and see who could be the first to get back to the party.

Included in the book (and as a PDF) are her “self-award winning recipes.” Quirky if not always laugh-out-loud funny, “I Like You” is pleasantly twisted.

Sedaris, an accomplished performer, gives an assured reading.

Note: Can’t get enough of the Sedarises on audio? Hachette has also recently released “The Ultimate David Sedaris Box Set,” 20 CDs and 22 hours of Amy’s brother’s previously released audiobooks for $99.98.

Amy Sedaris’ official Web site.