Review: Tricked by Kevin Hearne

Review: Tricked by Kevin HearneTricked (The Iron Druid Chronicles, #4) by Kevin Hearne, Luke Daniels
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Iron Druid Chronicles #4
Pages: 368
Published by Random House Audio on April 24, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Druid Atticus O’Sullivan hasn’t stayed alive for more than two millennia without a fair bit of Celtic cunning. So when vengeful thunder gods come Norse by Southwest looking for payback, Atticus, with a little help from the Navajo trickster god Coyote, lets them think that they’ve chopped up his body in the Arizona desert.

But the mischievous Coyote is not above a little sleight of paw, and Atticus soon finds that he’s been duped into battling bloodthirsty desert shapeshifters called skinwalkers. Just when the Druid thinks he’s got a handle on all the duplicity, betrayal comes from an unlikely source. If Atticus survives this time, he vows he won’t be fooled again. Famous last words.

My Review:

I wasn’t looking for something to link between Tony and Anne Hillerman’s Leaphorn, Chee and Maneulito series about the Navajo Tribal Police and Thor: Ragnarok, but I found it anyway. It’s Tricked, the 4th book in the Iron Druid Chronicles.

Hel is the daughter of Loki, not Odin, but just as in the movie, she does preside over the realm of the dead who do not qualify for Valhalla. As far as Atticus is concerned, the big problem is that she has possessed the body of his late friend, the Widow MacDonogh, in order to chase him down all that much more effectively.

In Hammered, Atticus and his friends killed Thor and crippled Odin, along with a whole bunch of the Norse pantheon. Hel wants to thank him for making her victory at Ragnarok inevitable. When he spurns her thanks, she sets her dogs on him. Not just dogs, of course, but also beings native to the Four Corners Reservation where he is currently hiding out.

She sends skinwalkers. And gives them a compulsion to find and eat Atticus O’Sullivan.

Not that he wasn’t there to deal with them anyway, in a roundabout sort of way, but she’s just made it way too personal.

This story is just full of roundabout ways by roundabout people, because Atticus is on the rez to pay Coyote back for helping to stage his death. His recent raid on Asgard has left the denizens of several pantheons out for his blood. Not because he messed with the Norse, but because he has proven that he can successfully mess with any of the gods – and none of them want that to get around.

Atticus in in a big mess – as per usual. Coyote did him a big favor, and now he wants a big favor in return. Coyote died for him twice – not the he wasn’t absolutely certain he’d come back – both times. But in return, Coyote wants Atticus to create a gold mine in the middle of the rez, so that the gold can be used to fund a renewable energy empire.

Coyote is a trickster, so Atticus knows there has to be a catch, and a big one. But Coyote isn’t scamming the locals, who are, after all, his people. And he’s not exactly scamming Atticus. But he’s also not exactly not scamming Atticus. He’s just being Coyote.

As is usual with Atticus adventures, figuring out what is really going on is going to result in a lot of bloodshed – some if it even belonging to Atticus himself.

And there will be a butcher’s bill to pay. Whether the results will be worth it – only time will tell.

Escape Rating A-: This one had some absolutely hilarious moments. The sequence about the relative measurements of shitload, buttload and fuckton had me grinning for several miles on the treadmill – and laughing out loud. I know the other people at my gym think I’m crazy.

In spite of the trademark snark, in full abundance in Tricked, this story also had its darker elements. As I said in my review of Hammered, it feels as though the series has turned a corner, and that things are going to get darker from here. In Tricked, we saw several of the loose ends left over from Hammered try to wrap themselves like nooses around Atticus’ neck.

But the action in Tricked revolves around Atticus fulfilling his deal with Coyote. One of the problems of working with Coyote is that he just can’t stop himself from trying to get the better of every deal. He is, after all, one of the quintessential trickster avatars. So while Atticus is more than willing to pay his debts – he is unwilling to pay more than his fair share – particularly without being asked first. No one enjoys getting taken advantage of over and over again – which is always Coyote’s aim. He really can’t play it straight.

So Atticus finds himself saddled with one job that he can barely handle, and one that is way, way outside his skillset, while frequently wondering which is which. As usual, he’s making it up as he goes along.

Because Oberon is sidelined for much of Tricked, his outsider commentary and comic genius has to be picked up by someone else. In Tricked, those roles are taken by Frank Chischilly, the hatałii who is conducting the ceremonies to bless Coyote’s operation.

Frank is an old man, and a very powerful one. His Blessing Way ceremony is providing real magical protection. And while he doesn’t know exactly what either Atticus or Coyote are, he is aware that they are much more than they appear to be. He’s pretty sure about Coyote, and I believe that the only reason he can’t identity exactly what Atticus is that that what Atticus is is considerably outside his cultural magical framework.

Frank is not humorous in the same way that Oberon is. Frank mostly plays straight man to some of Atticus wilder moments. But his wry humor and outsider’s perspective often result in a chuckle rather than the guffaws that Oberon generates. But he does provide some of the story’s lighter moments – until he provides the darkest one of all.

As snarky as Atticus is, this story is still much darker in tone than the first two books in the series, Hounded and Hexed. Atticus’ actions continue to have mounting consequences. But as serious as things are, there are points where it might have been better to cut to the chase a bit. The repeated attacks of the skinwalkers, while always life-threatening and scary, began to have a sameness about them. The skinwalkers don’t have a lot in the way of imagination. Or strategy or tactics.

But Atticus’ snarky and irreverent point of view always carries the reader along. I’ll be continuing with Two Ravens One Crow, the novella that sits between Tricked and Trapped.

Review: Hammered by Kevin Hearne

Review: Hammered by Kevin HearneHammered (The Iron Druid Chronicles, #3) by Kevin Hearne, Luke Daniels
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Iron Druid Chronicles #3
Pages: 336
Published by Brilliance Audio on July 5, 2011
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Thor, the Norse god of thunder, is worse than a blowhard and a bully — he’s ruined countless lives and killed scores of innocents. After centuries, Viking vampire Leif Helgarson is ready to get his vengeance, and he’s asked his friend Atticus O’Sullivan, the last of the Druids, to help take down this Norse nightmare. One survival strategy has worked for Atticus for more than two thousand years: stay away from the guy with the lightning bolts. But things are heating up in Atticus’s home base of Tempe, Arizona. There’s a vampire turf war brewing, and Russian demon hunters who call themselves the Hammers of God are running rampant. Despite multiple warnings and portents of dire consequences, Atticus and Leif journey to the Norse plane of Asgard, where they team up with a werewolf, a sorcerer, and an army of frost giants for an epic showdown against vicious Valkyries, angry gods, and the hammer-wielding Thunder Thug himself.

“Kevin Hearne breathes new life into old myths, creating a world both eerily familiar and startlingly original.” —NICOLE PEELER, author of Tempest Rising__________Unabridged, 8 audio discs, 9 hours 43 minutes

My Review:

I mostly listened to this, and usually while working out. But I finished up reading the ebook, because my workout ended in the middle of the climactic battle, and I just couldn’t wait to see how issues resolved.

They mostly didn’t. And that’s probably as it should be. The book ends with a lot of loose ends still jangling.

Hammered feels like the “turning point” book in the Iron Druid Chronicles. Although Atticus faced a certain amount of trouble in the first two books, Hounded and Hexed, at the end of each book Atticus was able to settle down after a job well done and live what counts as his normal life while waiting for the next crisis to jump up and bite him in the ass.

Hammered has a much different tone, and there was a strong sense throughout the story that however things ended, life was never going back to what passed for “business as usual” for Atticus, his Irish wolfhound Oberon, and his apprentice Granuaile, no matter how things turned out.

The warnings from both the Morrigan and Jesus that Atticus was stepping into a pile of shit that was going to rain crap all over everyone were not the only hints that he was messing with something that should never have been messed with, but they were the biggest and certainly the freakiest.

And of course they don’t stop him. He gave his vampire friend his word that he would take him to Asgard to help him kill Thor – no matter what it takes, and no matter what it costs.

Even if that cost is higher than he ever wanted to pay.

Escape Rating A: I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am absolutely loving this series in audio. I’m not sure how consuming one right after another would work if I were reading them, but as something to listen to on the treadmill, Atticus’ snarky sense of humor read in Luke Daniels’ marvelous voice is just about perfect.

I smirk, I chuckle, I snigger and occasionally I even laugh out loud. A lot. The scene where Jesus shows up to have a beer with Atticus and deliver his warnings – along with a rather painful lesson – had some fantastic laughter inducing moments.

But the overall tone of Hammered is pretty darn serious. Atticus is making plans to take his vampire friend and lawyer Lief as well as his werewolf friend and lawyer Gunnar to Asgard so that they can finally get revenge on Thor for some pretty seriously awful stuff.

Atticus spends a lot of the book making contingency plans. If he comes back, he knows that the gods, not just the Norse gods but multiple pantheons of gods, are going to be after him, and he needs to leave Tempe and lie very, very low for a while, along with Oberon and Granuaile. He does a lot of serious leave-taking all around, and his farewell to the Widow MacDonagh had me sniffling.

But Atticus is also planning for the reality that he might not come back, something that Granuaile doesn’t want to hear or deal with, and who can blame her?

It’s obvious throughout the story that whatever happens in Asgard, it certainly won’t stay in Asgard. Some of their very assorted company will not make it back, and even if they do, Atticus life will be irrevocably changed. The creatures who will be coming after him will be bigger, badder and a lot more powerful.

The story is going to get darker from here – and it’s going to be one hell of a ride. Even if that’s where it goes.

I have a feeling that the events in Hammered are going to be crucial for the events in the next several books, And I can’t wait to find out. I’ve already got the audio of the next book, Tricked, cued up and ready to begin.

One final comment. As Atticus and Lief’s very motley crew get ready for the trip to Asgard, there are several chapters where all the participants tell their individual stories of just why they are willing to possibly throw their lives away for a shot at Thor. The individual stories are absolutely riveting, and all are ultimately tragic. But the storytelling sequence itself reminded me very much of the author’s epic fantasy, A Plague of Giants, which is told in its entirety as a bard telling stories to a crowd. I found myself wondering if the genesis of that book might be in this sequence. Whether it is or not, A Plague of Giants is marvelous!

Review: Hexed by Kevin Hearne

Review: Hexed by Kevin HearneHexed (The Iron Druid Chronicles, #2) by Kevin Hearne
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Iron Druid Chronicles #2
Pages: 296
Published by Brilliance Audio on June 7th 2011
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Atticus O’Sullivan, last of the Druids, doesn’t care much for witches. Still, he’s about to make nice with the local coven by signing a mutually beneficial nonaggression treaty—when suddenly the witch population in modern-day Tempe, Arizona, quadruples overnight. And the new girls are not just bad, they’re badasses with a dark history on the German side of World War II.

With a fallen angel feasting on local high school students, a horde of Bacchants blowing in from Vegas with their special brand of deadly decadence, and a dangerously sexy Celtic goddess of fire vying for his attention, Atticus is having trouble scheduling the witch hunt. But aided by his magical sword, his neighbor’s rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and his vampire attorney, Atticus is ready to sweep the town and show the witchy women they picked the wrong Druid to hex.

My Review:

The usual pattern with urban fantasy is that the hero or heroine finds themselves going into darker and darker places, fighting bigger and more powerful evils, as the series continues. But when you open the series by defeating a vengeful god, it’s a bit difficult to get anything bigger or more powerful.

That doesn’t stop things in Hexed from upping the darkness scale, finding Atticus and his allies fighting the witches that seem to have fanned the flames of World War II – with even more flames.

In this second entry in the series, the one and only remaining Druid, now calling himself Atticus O’Sullivan, is dealing with the fallout from events in the previous book, Hounded. And while I think that enough backstory is provided that a person could read Hexed without reading Hounded, I’m not sure why anyone who likes urban fantasy would ever want to.

Atticus’ epic battle with the Celtic god Angus Og at Tony Cabin in the Superstition Mountains created a whole lot of collateral damage, beginning with his Viking vampire lawyer (say that three times fast) and Leif’s hate-on for Thor. Not that there’s not a long line of people who hate Thor. He’s not a quarter as handsome or reasonable as the movie version.

But in this universe where not only all the pantheons but all the versions of all the pantheons seem to exist, Atticus is not exactly eager to step up to the plate and bat at all the various versions of Thor, one after another.

He has enough problems dealing with the version of Coyote who shows up at his doorstep, expecting Atticus to kill one of the leftover demons from his fight – the one that is messing with Coyote’s people in Tempe. Not that Atticus doesn’t get tricked in the process, because that’s what Coyote does.

In the end, the big bad that Atticus has to take care of in this story is one that he has wanted to beat on for years, decades in fact. There’s a coven of very evil witches that wants to move to Tempe to unseat the local coven. A local coven that is now vulnerable and at reduced strength, after having gotten caught in the middle of Atticus’ fight with Angus Og.

While Atticus doesn’t really trust witches, he is about to sign an alliance with the remainder of the local coven. He may not exactly trust Malina and her coven, but he is convinced that he, they and the werewolf pack are a big part of what’s keeping Tempe a nice place to live.

And he’s been hunting for their mutual enemies (and vice versa) since the dark days of the Holocaust. He wants payback – but so does everyone else. Even with the help of the local witches and that Viking vampire lawyer, the good guys may have bitten off more than they can chew.

They might get chewed, instead. And not in a good way. Not even like one of Oberon’s tennis balls.

Escape Rating A: If you are ever looking for an audiobook with while to while away untold numbers of hours while going from laughs to thrills to giggles to chills and back again, I can’t recommend the Iron Druid series as read by Luke Daniels enough. I listened to most of Hexed while on a treadmill, and it made the miles just fly by.

Admittedly, the people who were next to me probably wondered about the shit-eating grin on my face. The story is told by Atticus O’Sullivan in the first person, in Luke Daniels’ Audible Narrator Hall of Fame voice, and this is a case where the first person perspective really, really works.

Especially since the reader/listener gets to hear the thoughts in Atticus’ head, which are usually even snarkier than whatever comes out of his mouth.

As the second book in the series, Hexed offers readers an even deeper dive into both its main character and the world in which he lives, including much more information about his friends, associates and enemies. Including his nosy neighbor with the rocket launcher in his garage.

A big part of Hexed is Atticus being forced to look back at a past he usually buries – his actions as a maquisard in World War II, helping to smuggle Jews out of occupied France to reach the port in Lisbon where they could leave Europe’s charnel house. His recitation of this particular snippet of his history is absolutely riveting.

This story also marks a turning point for Atticus, as he comes to the realization that he is no longer on the run from Angus Og, as he has been for almost the entire Common Era. He finally figures out that he has put down roots in Tempe that are worth defending, and has made friends that he wants to keep and needs to protect from anyone else who might – make that almost certainly will – come after him in the future.

Hexed has absolutely everything that those of us who love urban fantasy read it to find, a terrific, kick ass, thoughtful and snarky hero, a great bunch of sidekicks and irregulars, and a world full of magic that just might be our own.

I can’t wait to get Hammered, and I probably won’t.

Review: Apollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger

Review: Apollo 8 by Jeffrey KlugerApollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger
Format: audiobook, eARC, hardcover
Source: publisher, publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: nonfiction, science history
Pages: 320
Published by Henry Holt on May 16th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The untold story of the historic voyage to the moon that closed out one of our darkest years with a nearly unimaginable triumph

In August 1968, NASA made a bold decision: in just sixteen weeks, the United States would launch humankind’s first flight to the moon. Only the year before, three astronauts had burned to death in their spacecraft, and since then the Apollo program had suffered one setback after another. Meanwhile, the Russians were winning the space race, the Cold War was getting hotter by the month, and President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade seemed sure to be broken. But when Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were summoned to a secret meeting and told of the dangerous mission, they instantly signed on.

Written with all the color and verve of the best narrative non-fiction, Apollo 8 takes us from Mission Control to the astronaut’s homes, from the test labs to the launch pad. The race to prepare an untested rocket for an unprecedented journey paves the way for the hair-raising trip to the moon. Then, on Christmas Eve, a nation that has suffered a horrendous year of assassinations and war is heartened by an inspiring message from the trio of astronauts in lunar orbit. And when the mission is over—after the first view of the far side of the moon, the first earth-rise, and the first re-entry through the earth’s atmosphere following a flight to deep space—the impossible dream of walking on the moon suddenly seems within reach.

My Review:

Anyone who has lived in Chicagoland knows that while expressways may be designated official numbers from the DOT, no one ever calls them by those numbers. Highways in Chicagoland have names; the Ryan, the Kennedy, the Ike. And if you travel through Northwest Indiana, the Borman.

The Borman is named for Frank Borman, the native Hoosier who was one of the first three people to see the far side of the moon with his own eyes, up close and personal. Frank Borman was the commander of Apollo 8, the first mission by any country to send humans around the far side of the moon.

They may not have landed there, that honor was bestowed on Apollo 11, but they were the first humans to leave not merely the Earth, but to entirely leave Earth’s gravitational field and become temporary residents of a different celestial body, in orbit around the Earth’s moon.

Apollo 8 is the story of not just that one mission, but of as much as possible of everything that came before it. Frank Borman was not one of the original Gemini astronauts. He just missed inclusion in that celebrated group with the “right stuff”. He was, however, part of the second class of astronauts, merely referred to as the “next eight”.

It’s always the ones who get there first who get all the good names.

So this is the story of not just the crew of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, and of their lives and careers in NASA up to that point, but it is also the story of NASA itself. Now that’s a story of “big science”, where there are many, many people who give significant portions of their lives to work together for what they hope (and in this case they were right) is a cause greater than themselves.

There are heroes here, too. Names we’re familiar with like Gene Krantz and Deke Slayton. (Krantz was the Mission Controller who helped bring Apollo 13 back from the brink.) But there are plenty of both sung and unsung heroes among this early corps of NASA movers, shakers and believers, and the author does a skillful job of weaving the parts that they play into the narrative of this one, singular mission.

It is also the story of America in the 1960s. While this book does not attempt to portray the entirety of that tumultuous decade – nor should it – within its narrow scope it does set the missions of NASA in general and Apollo 8 in particular into their historic context. Not just the story of what was done, but why it was done and how it felt to be a part of or even watch as it was done.

And to show why the space program was so important. What it did, and what it celebrated. And just how much was accomplished and how many people around the world celebrated with it.

Reality Rating A: I have a very soft spot in my heart for anything to do with NASA and the space program. I was a child during the 1960s, and the space program, its successes and its tragic failures, formed part of the backdrop of my earliest years.

We accomplished so much. We went so far, and we showed such promise. And now it seems to be gone. Not just the adventure itself, but the promise of the future it provided and the surprising amount of unity it engendered.

(Readers interested in a bigger picture of exactly what it means that we don’t go into space much anymore should read Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean)

Apollo 8, the book, does a terrific job at showing the importance, the risks and the rewards of Apollo 8, the mission. By focusing on the smaller perspective of the three astronauts, and particularly Borman, it allows the author to paint the broader picture in a way that allows readers to empathize with the people and to grasp the size and scope of NASA’s operation and how it worked – and how it occasionally didn’t with disastrous results.

So while the focus is on Borman, Lovell and Anders, this is also very much a book about “big science”. And like The Interstellar Age by Jim Bell, it does a good job of making that “big science” comprehensible. And makes the reader wish they could have been there.

I found Apollo 8 to be compelling reading, to the point where I began by listening on audio and then switched to print to see what happened faster, even though I already knew what happened. I was absorbed in the details and the perspectives. As glad as I was to have the crew get back safely, theirs was a journey that I never wanted to see end.

But it did. As did our journey with them.

I leave you with this iconic photograph taken from Apollo 8. Earthrise.

Review: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Review: Magpie Murders by Anthony HorowitzMagpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Pages: 496
Published by Harper on June 6th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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When editor Susan Ryeland is given the manuscript of Alan Conway’s latest novel, she has no reason to think it will be much different from any of his others. After working with the bestselling crime writer for years, she’s intimately familiar with his detective, Atticus Pünd, who solves mysteries disturbing sleepy English villages. An homage to queens of classic British crime such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Alan’s traditional formula has proved hugely successful. So successful that Susan must continue to put up with his troubling behavior if she wants to keep her job.

Conway’s latest tale has Atticus Pünd investigating a murder at Pye Hall, a local manor house. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but the more Susan reads, the more she’s convinced that there is another story hidden in the pages of the manuscript: one of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition, and murder.

My Review:

I really wish that the Atticus Pünd series existed, because the one we got in Magpie Murders was absolutely marvelous. I’d dearly love to read the rest of the series.

What we have, however, is the final book in the series, encased within a framing story about the death of the fictitious author of this fictitious book, and the many, many ways in which art seems to be imitating life – or vice versa.

The story begins with its frame. Susan Ryeland, editor at a small but prestigious publishing house, settles in for the weekend to read the latest manuscript by her least favorite and most favorite author. Susan loves Alan Conway’s work, but the man himself is far from lovable.

As Susan settles in to read, we do too. We read Magpie Murders by Alan Conway right along with her. And it is a marvelous take on the Golden Age of mystery, reading as though it should sit on the shelf beside Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham.

The detective, the perpetual outsider, comes to a small English village to investigate what turn out to be a series of murders. It’s an absorbing case, and the readers, along with Susan herself, are sucked right into the mid-1950s, the mind of the detective and the murderous goings on of this otherwise unremarkable little place.

Until the story ends abruptly, and we, as well as Susan, are left wondering “who done it?”. The last chapter of Magpie Murders is missing. And its author has just been found dead, an apparent suicide.

So Susan begins by hunting for that missing chapter, and finds herself hunting for the truth about Alan Conway’s life, and about his death. By the time those missing pages are found, Susan has uncovered much more than she, or anyone else, could have bargained for.

After all the times when she has blurbed that “reading such-and-such’s latest book changed her life”, just this once, it’s all too true.

Escape Rating B+: Magpie Murders is really two books in one. There’s a classic historical mystery sandwiched within the pages of a contemporary mystery thriller. And for this reader, the historical mystery wins out.

I absolutely adored Magpie Murders by Alan Conway. It was both a wonderful homage to the mysteries of the Golden Age, and a terrific case itself. Atticus Pünd would make a wonderful addition to the ranks of series detectives, right up there with Poirot, Marple, Wimsey and the rest. In its post-WWII time period, it takes the reader back to a simpler but no less deadly time, and its play on the locked room/locked house mystery keeps the reader guessing.

It gave me a tremendous yen to pick up a “real” historical mystery at the first opportunity. It reminded me how much I love the genre, and gave me a hankering to return. Or just to re-watch Poirot.

The abrupt ending to Conway’s novel jarred me almost as much as it did Susan Ryeland. I felt cheated. I wanted to know who the killer was every bit as much as she did. But I had a difficult time getting into the framing story.

In fact, I started the book once, couldn’t get into it, and then picked it up on audio. Listening to it got me over the hump, to the point where I was so captivated by Pünd’s story that I changed the audio back for the book, so that I could find out whodunnit that much more quickly – only to be disappointed when Susan discovers that the final chapter is missing.

Susan’s own quest turned out to be fascinating as well, but for some reason I didn’t find her as sympathetic or interesting a character to follow as the even more fictional Pünd.

The problem is that Pünd, while a bit distant in the traditional detectival mold, is a sympathetic character and seems to be a generally nice man. We want him to succeed. Alan Conway, on the other hand, will not be missed by anyone, except possibly his publishers.

Conway’s series is the marquee title for small but prestigious Cloverleaf Books. It’s their one big moneymaker, and it tides them over an awful lot of less successful ventures. Conway, or rather Atticus Pünd, pays the bills and keeps the lights on. But no one likes Conway. There are certainly people who benefit from his death in the direct, traditional way, but there are even more who are just happy at his absence from this earth, beginning with his ex-wife and ending with Susan’s lover. While there are plenty of people who will miss Atticus Pünd, no one will miss his author.

Susan finds herself with plenty of motives, too many suspects, and a police investigation that is all too happy to consider it suicide and close the case. There’s plenty of evidence to support that theory, and damn little to support anything else.

Until Susan starts digging, and nearly digs her own grave. In the end, no one is certain that good triumphed and evil got its just desserts. Not even Susan. And that’s what makes the contemporary thriller less satisfying than the historical mystery it contains. Mystery, as a great writer once said, is the romance of justice. Good is supposed to triumph, evil is supposed to get those just desserts. When that formula is subverted, as it is in the contemporary frame for Magpie Murders, it feels wrong, at least for this reader. While there may be a metaphor in there about the world being more complicated than it used to be, or that the real world isn’t half so neat and tidy as fiction, the framing story is also fiction. I want my neat and tidy ending, and I’m disappointed that it wasn’t there.

But we do finally get to read Atticus Pünd’s last chapter. And that was well worth waiting for.

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas PrestonThe Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston, Bill Mumy
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: adventure, archaeology, history, nonfiction
Pages: 304
Published by Grand Central Publishing on January 3rd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A five-hundred-year-old legend. An ancient curse. A stunning medical mystery. And a pioneering journey into the unknown heart of the world's densest jungle.
Since the days of conquistador Hernán Cortés, rumors have circulated about a lost city of immense wealth hidden somewhere in the Honduran interior, called the White City or the Lost City of the Monkey God. Indigenous tribes speak of ancestors who fled there to escape the Spanish invaders, and they warn that anyone who enters this sacred city will fall ill and die. In 1940, swashbuckling journalist Theodore Morde returned from the rainforest with hundreds of artifacts and an electrifying story of having found the Lost City of the Monkey God-but then committed suicide without revealing its location.
Three quarters of a century later, bestselling author Doug Preston joined a team of scientists on a groundbreaking new quest. In 2012 he climbed aboard a rickety, single-engine plane carrying the machine that would change everything: lidar, a highly advanced, classified technology that could map the terrain under the densest rainforest canopy. In an unexplored valley ringed by steep mountains, that flight revealed the unmistakable image of a sprawling metropolis, tantalizing evidence of not just an undiscovered city but an enigmatic, lost civilization.
Venturing into this raw, treacherous, but breathtakingly beautiful wilderness to confirm the discovery, Preston and the team battled torrential rains, quickmud, disease-carrying insects, jaguars, and deadly snakes. But it wasn't until they returned that tragedy struck: Preston and others found they had contracted in the ruins a horrifying, sometimes lethal-and incurable-disease.
Suspenseful and shocking, filled with colorful history, hair-raising adventure, and dramatic twists of fortune, The Lost City of the Monkey God is the absolutely true, eyewitness account of one of the great discoveries of the twenty-first century.

My Review:

The road to The Lost City of the Monkey God begins with a high-tech Indiana Jones and ends with Guns, Germs and Steel, with a couple of detours for pestilential diseases and “academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” Except that in this case the stakes are not small at all, and the story is fascinating from beginning to end.

This is a true story. It’s a story of obsessions both great and small. And a story about con men, soldiers and scientists. And ultimately, it’s a story about the price that we pay for the knowledge that we gain.

There have been legends about this city, whether under the name Ciudad Blanco or as the title describes it, the Lost City of the Monkey God, since the time of Hernan Cortes and the conquistadores. The Spanish conquerors of Central and South America came across many, many stories of fabulous lost cities of gold and jewels. One of the most well-known of those legends is that of El Dorado, the city of gold.

But a film producer named Steve Elkins was particularly fascinated with the legends of Ciudad Blanco, the white city that was supposed to be hidden somewhere in the Mosquitia province of Honduras. Honduras as a country in modern times has been through some very hard and violent times, and the Mosquitia province is infamous for its dangers, not just from the hazards of its jungle terrain, but from the guns of the narco-traffickers who make Mosquitia their home.

While the narco-traffickers have not always been the problem that they are today, the jungle has always been there. During the great age of European exploration in the 1800s, and even afterwards, there were multiple attempts to locate the famous “White City” but to no avail. Very few of the documented expeditions seem to have even gotten close to this mythical place, and one of the best documented was recently discovered to be completely fraudulent.

It seemed like an obsession that was doomed to never be fulfilled, but technology caught up to dreams. On the ground, the jungle swallows everything, but from the air it’s a different story. Or at least it is to LiDAR imaging, a combination of lasers and radar that can see through the dense ground cover to the remains of any structures underneath.

Initially, the story was first to discover, well, if there was anything to discover. It took years and money and grants and cooperation from multiple organizations and at least two iterations of the Honduran government to finally get permission to survey possible sites, and then even more money and permissions to get the still top-secret LiDAR on site to survey the possibilities.

Which turned out to be enormous, both literally and figuratively. The story in The Lost City of the Monkey God is about the author’s participation in these expeditions, both the original LiDAR mapping and the “ground-truthing” with archaeologists a few years later, to make the jungle yield up her long buried secrets.

And exact her toll.

Reality Rating A: The Lost City of the Monkey God is one of the most absorbing pieces of nonfiction it has ever been my pleasure to listen to. June is Audiobook Month, and I’m thrilled to have such a marvelous story to recommend. For a science fiction geek, that Bill Mumy, Lennier from Babylon 5 (also Will Robinson from the classic Lost in Space) read me a story just added to my enjoyment. His voice conveyed just the right tone of understated enthusiasm that seemed perfect for this story.

And the story itself is fantastic. There’s something for adventure readers, history buffs and even science geeks. That’s a lot of groups to appeal to.

It’s not just that the author distills a lot of historical research into great reading, but that the research he has to distill is just so interesting. They say that all myths and legends have a grain of truth in them, and it’s that grain of truth that Elkins and his team are hunting for. But there’s a lot to wade through. Finding out that the best documented case was a complete load of bunk just added to the wild and crazy aspects of the story.

There’s a “you are there” aspect to the author’s story of the expeditions themselves, and it rings true because he actually was there, waiting out the rain and dodging snakes with the rest of the team. There’s a lot of emphasis on the dangers of the environment, the romance of its pristine nature and the changes and destruction that are made in the pursuit of this great archaeological treasure.

And it is a great treasure, not in the jewels and gold sense, but in what it adds to the knowledge of a lost people and their society.

This is also a story that reminds the reader that “nature bats last” on multiple vectors. Unlike so many discoveries of supposedly lost civilizations, the cities in Mosquitia really were lost. This is not a story where the locals know all about the place but it isn’t considered “discovered” until white men find it. In Mosquitia, the cities were abandoned in the early 16th century, the jungle closed in, and the remote nature of the valley along with the dangers of the few methods of getting to them meant that no humans went there. This was a place where you actually couldn’t get there from here, even when “here” was defined as the next province. Traveling through the dense jungle, as opposed to flying over it and dropping in on a helicopter, was too hazardous for anyone from any culture to attempt when there was no one to see and nothing that anyone knew of to gain.

But nature also bats last in the Guns, Germs and Steel sense. The devastating pandemics that obliterated the Central and South American civilizations in that same 15th and 16th century time periods were not the type of diseases that die without a human host. Oh no, these pathogens were quite happy to cook themselves into new and more virulent strains in animal and insect hosts, while patiently waiting for a new batch of humans to enter their lair. As the expedition members did, with life-changing and sometimes life-threatening results.

For the reader, this is a journey that will stick with you long after the final page. For the participants, its aftermath will shadow the rest of their lives.

Review: The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge

Review: The Night Ocean by Paul La FargeThe Night Ocean by Paul La Farge
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, mystery, thriller
Pages: 389
Published by Penguin Press on March 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the award-winning author and New Yorker contributor, a riveting novel about secrets and scandals, psychiatry and pulp fiction, inspired by the lives of H.P. Lovecraft and his circle.
Marina Willett, M.D., has a problem. Her husband, Charlie, has become obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft, in particular with one episode in the legendary horror writer's life: In the summer of 1934, the "old gent" lived for two months with a gay teenage fan named Robert Barlow, at Barlow's family home in central Florida. What were the two of them up to? Were they friends--or something more? Just when Charlie thinks he's solved the puzzle, a new scandal erupts, and he disappears. The police say it's suicide. Marina is a psychiatrist, and she doesn't believe them.
A tour-de-force of storytelling, The Night Ocean follows the lives of some extraordinary people: Lovecraft, the most influential American horror writer of the 20th century, whose stories continue to win new acolytes, even as his racist views provoke new critics; Barlow, a seminal scholar of Mexican culture who killed himself after being blackmailed for his homosexuality (and who collaborated with Lovecraft on the beautiful story The Night Ocean); his student, future Beat writer William S. Burroughs; and L.C. Spinks, a kindly Canadian appliance salesman and science-fiction fan -- the only person who knows the origins of The Erotonomicon, purported to be the intimate diary of Lovecraft himself.
As a heartbroken Marina follows her missing husband's trail in an attempt to learn the truth, the novel moves across the decades and along the length of the continent, from a remote Ontario town, through New York and Florida to Mexico City.
The Night Ocean is about love and deception -- about the way that stories earn our trust, and betray it.

My Review:

Originally, The Night Ocean was a short story written by Robert H. Barlow and H.P. Lovecraft. Mostly by Barlow.

However, this version of The Night Ocean is ostensibly, although not actually ABOUT Barlow and Lovecraft. It’s a Russian nesting doll of a story, with story inside story inside story, all of them told by unreliable narrators, one more so than the others.

And yet, at the same time, much of the story is true – it just didn’t happen to the people who said it happened to them. Or did it?

Charlie Willett committed suicide. Or he didn’t. His journey parallels that of Robert H. Barlow, or it doesn’t. Or that of L.C. Spinks. Or maybe not. Or maybe Charlie just got lost along the way.

His wife (or possibly widow) Marina, finds that she can’t quite let Charlie go. There’s no body, so it is all too easy to imagine that Charlie is still alive. In order to find her closure, or expiate her grief, or both, Marina sets herself on the trail of Charlie’s last days and final quest, and that’s where Lovecraft (and Barlow and Spinks) come in.

Charlie was both a writer and a dream, and one of the things he dreams of writing is about H.P. Lovecraft, that famous, and infamous, writer of horror fiction and Weird Tales. Lovecraft was famous, among other things, for writing about mythical books, notably the Necronomicon, that bane of librarians everywhere. (It doesn’t exist, it never existed, but every generation of Lovecraftians persists in searching libraries for it)

Although the Necronomicon never existed, Charlie dreams of finding another one of Lovecraft’s mythical tomes. And falls into a wild goose chase for an entirely different apocryphal work, the Erotonomicon.

Charlie gets taken for a long, sad and ultimately costly if not tragic, ride. And Marina, whether out of love or guilt, follows along after him.

It’s a strange journey, as weird as any of Lovecraft’s tales, that winds from Arkham to Florida to Mexico City to Parry Sound on Lake Huron in Canada, with stops along the way in New York City, at the 1950s House Un-American Activities Committee, and the beginnings of science fiction fandom.

And it’s only when Marina exposes the spider at the heart of this web that she has even a chance at escaping from this very weird tale. Just when she does, it drags her back in. Or does it?

Escape Rating B: This story has so many aspects, that I think each reader is going to be reading a different book, depending on which parts grabbed them and stuck. Like a jellyfish.

A lot of people are going to pick this up because of the H.P. Lovecraft connection, which doesn’t feel quite as large as the blurb makes it out to be. Characters enter this story because of their connection to Lovecraft, but it isn’t really about him. If it’s about anything in reference to him, it’s about all of the friends, fans and controversy that swirls in the wake of his relatively short and continually controversial life.

The part of this story that grabbed me and hung on was the rather deep dive into the early years of science fiction fandom. And even though the narrator of those parts of the story is completely unreliable, the story itself matches historical fact. Those were the people at the center of those early days, and that was how they behaved and what happened to them.

For those of us who have been involved in fandom, even tangentially, it is fascinating to feel like a witness to those early days, and to see people that we knew at the end of their lives as young, ambitious and more than occasionally stupid. Certainly arrogant. But still visionary, even if we never did get our flying cars.

And it is part of the seduction of the book, and of Charlie and Marina Willett that these stories are true, it’s only their setting that’s false. The characters and personalities of those people feels a bit more real than either Charlie or Marina, who in the end become vehicles to tell someone else’s story.

A story that isn’t even really theirs.

I was grabbed and startled by this book early on, when Charlie discovers the surreptitious publication of the Erotonomicon and the absolutely scathing response to it by the scandalized science fiction community. One of those scathing responses is from well-known fan (and author) Wilson “Bob” Tucker in his fanzine Le Zombie. I knew Bob Tucker in the early 1990s, and the quote certainly sounds like him. It was also beyond weird to have someone I knew appear in a book.

Ironically, one of the things that Tucker was famous for was a practice that was named for him, Tuckerization. Tuckerization is the insertion of a real person’s name (and sometimes other characteristics) into an otherwise fictitious story. Today, this is often done for charity. But now that I’ve finished the book, I find it funny that Tucker was himself Tuckerized in The Night Ocean.

Tucker’s appearance in the story added to the verisimilitude so much that I went on my own wild goose chase, hunting for the cited issue of Le Zombie. But that issue is not preserved. So it all could have happened. Just like Marina and Charlie, I too got caught up in the desire to believe this was all real.

Reviewer’s Note: I listed to the audiobook of this one, and I think it made the story more compelling, as the structure of the book is that its variations are often being told by one person to another, rather than being read or happening in the present. However, I discovered when I looked at the print copy that the audiobook narrator left out the footnotes. For those familiar with the history, the footnotes are interesting but not necessary. But a reader who is not already familiar with the early history of science fiction fandom, and admittedly that’s most people, is going to lose some of the context and the verisimilitude by the omission of those notes.

Review: Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Review: Moonglow by Michael ChabonMoonglow by Michael Chabon, George Newbern
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, literary fiction
Pages: 430
Published by HarperCollins Publishers on November 22nd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Following on the heels of his New York Times–bestselling novel Telegraph Avenue, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Michael Chabon delivers another literary masterpiece: a novel of truth and lies, family legends, and existential adventure—and the forces that work to destroy us.
In 1989, fresh from the publication of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon traveled to his mother’s home in Oakland, California, to visit his terminally ill grandfather. Tongue loosened by powerful painkillers, memory stirred by the imminence of death, Chabon’s grandfather shared recollections and told stories the younger man had never heard before, uncovering bits and pieces of a history long buried and forgotten. That dreamlike week of revelations forms the basis of the novel Moonglow, the latest feat of legerdemain in the ongoing magic act that is the art of Michael Chabon.
Moonglow unfolds as the deathbed confession, made to his grandson, of a man the narrator refers to only as “my grandfather.” It is a tale of madness, of war and adventure, of sex and desire and ordinary love, of existential doubt and model rocketry, of the shining aspirations and demonic underpinnings of American technological accomplishment at mid-century and, above all, of the destructive impact—and the creative power—of the keeping of secrets and the telling of lies. A gripping, poignant, tragicomic, scrupulously researched and wholly imaginary transcript of a life that spanned the dark heart of the twentieth century, Moonglow is also a tour de force of speculative history in which Chabon attempts to reconstruct the mysterious origins and fate of Chabon Scientific, Co., an authentic mail-order novelty company whose ads for scale models of human skeletons, combustion engines and space rockets were once a fixture in the back pages of Esquire, Popular Mechanics and Boy’s Life. Along the way Chabon devises and reveals, in bits and pieces whose hallucinatory intensity is matched only by their comic vigor and the radiant moonglow of his prose, a secret history of his own imagination.
From the Jewish slums of prewar South Philadelphia to the invasion of Germany, from a Florida retirement village to the penal utopia of New York’s Wallkill Prison, from the heyday of the space program to the twilight of “the American Century,” Moonglow collapses an era into a single life and a lifetime into a single week. A lie that tells the truth, a work of fictional non-fiction, an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir, Moonglow is Chabon at his most daring, his most moving, his most Chabonesque.

My Review:

I listened to Moonglow, and finished a few days ago. Since then, I’ve been mulling it over. It’s a book that makes the reader think. And in my case, feel.

One of those sets of thoughts regards belief, particularly the reader’s belief in how much of this narrative is true, and how much is fictional. And possibly where that blurry line is in the middle.

If, as the quotation says, “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth” then which parts are relatively factual and which are stitched up out of the ‘whole cloth’ doesn’t really matter. The story as a whole still feels true.

It’s a story about the ongoing costs of World War II, particularly on the generation that fought and survived that brutal war. It is also a story about one particular family, a family for whom, as the narrator says, “Keeping secrets was the family business. But it was a business, it seemed to me, that none of us had ever profited from.”

This is the author’s attempt to profit from that family business, both in the literal sense, the hope that the book is a success (which it is), and in the figurative sense of finally laying some of the family ghosts to rest. Or at least of getting the family skeletons out of their hidden closets and finally burying the old bones.

Escape Rating B: On the one hand, I got caught up in Moonglow. On the other, I set it aside for an entire week while on a trip where I didn’t have the chance to listen to it. On my alien third hand, I was able to slip right back into it when I returned.

What made that easier was that the story is not told in a chronological narrative. Instead, the bits and pieces of the life of the author’s grandfather (we never do hear his name) is told in flashes and slightly loopy flashbacks. The man is in the final week of his life, dying of cancer, and pumped up with some major drugs to alleviate his pain. Or make it at least bearable, yet still something that they don’t always seem to accomplish.

But the drugs open the floodgates of memory, not because the man has forgotten anything, but because he was never one to tell stories, and certainly not about himself. It is a fascinating story, one that moves to and from the old Jewish neighborhoods of Philadelphia to the concentration camps of WW2 to NASA to a retirement community in Florida, with stops along the way in Operation Paperclip, space booster conventions, Wallkill Prison in NY and the meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of Chabon Scientific Company, where his grandfather crisscrossed the country attempting to pick up the pieces of his son-in-law’s misrepresentations and lies as a way of helping his daughter get back on her feet. He certainly didn’t do it for his son-in-law.. The author’s grandfather was a very busy man.

The parts of the story that stick in the mind, or at least my mind, were the parts about Operation Paperclip and its aftermath. The author’s grandfather was part of what was then a top-secret mission to sweep up as many of the Nazi scientists as possible and give them safe homes and sanitized backstories in the U.S. The intent, of course, was that they could continue their work, and do it for the U.S. and not the Soviet Union. Operation Paperclip, and its “capture” of Wernher Von Braun led directly to the U.S. Space Program. And also to lots of questions later about whether the ends justified the means. Those questions remain unanswered.

The harrowing scenes from this part of the story reminded me a lot of Slaughterhouse-Five. War is always hell.

But unlike in Slaughterhouse, we see more of the story after the war. And somehow the author makes what should have been a mundane life emblematic of the post-war years. It helps that the life he chronicles seems to have been anything but mundane.

And what he learns about his family, and himself, makes him re-think so much of what he always assumed to be true. So do we.

Although I can describe the plot, well, more or less, the power in this book was that while it told me the author’s hidden family stories, it also made me think about my own family. Some of the stories, and certainly some of the circumstances, parallel a tiny bit. And there are hidden stories that changed things upon their reveal. And it made me wonder how much of the circumstances of his grandfather’s life would parallel that of my own parents.

And the Chabon Scientific debacle, whether real or a metaphor, made me dredge up an old memory. The author’s references to the less than savory actions of both his father and his mother’s uncle made me think of something that my family would have said. In the end, they both turned out to be “no-goodniks from no-goodniksville”. And I hear those comments in voices that I have not heard for decades.

As I said at the beginning, the story made me think, and it made me feel. And it made me remember.

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi + Giveaway

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi + GiveawayThe Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi, Wil Wheaton
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Interdependency #1
Pages: 334
Published by Audible Studios, Tor Books on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The first novel of a new space-opera sequence set in an all-new
universe.

Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible -- until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.

Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war -- and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.

The Flow is eternal -- but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals -- a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency -- are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

My Review:

My first thought upon finishing The Collapsing Empire was “Oh…My…GOD

The second was that rolling your eyes while driving is a really bad idea, especially if you do it OFTEN. Actually I had that though much earlier in the book, when I was doing a LOT of eye rolling. The ending is far from an eye roll situation, but the advice still stands.

So i’m back to the Oh My God reaction, which I’m still hearing in Wil Wheaton’s voice as the reader of The Collapsing Empire. Which I listened to, pretty much everywhere, sometimes rolling my eyes, often smiling or even outright laughing, from the surprising beginning to the even more astonishing end.

Which isn’t really an end, because it’s obvious that this is just the beginning of a much bigger story, which I hope we get Real Soon Now, but don’t actually expect for a year or more.

So what was it?

The title both does and doesn’t give it away The Empire, in this case the human empire that calls itself the Interdependency, is about to collapse. Not due to warfare or anything so prosaic, but because, well, science. The interstellar network that keeps the far-flung reaches of the Interdependency interdependent is on the verge of an unstoppable collapse.. So what we have at the moment is the story of the maneuvering and machinations as what passes for the powers that be, or that hope to be the powers that become, jockey for position (and survival) in the suddenly onrushing future.

And humans being humans, while some panic there are a whole lot of people who remain so invested in the status quo that they are unwilling to act because any actions upset their positions now, and they hope, very much against hope, that the predictions are wrong. Not because they really believe in their heart of hearts that they ARE wrong, but because they want them to be wrong so very badly.

Any resemblance between the Interdependency and 21st century America is probably intended – but agreeing or disagreeing with that statement doesn’t change the sheer rushing “WOW” of the story.

That story of the empire that’s about to collapse is primarily told through the eyes of four very, very different people (not that the side characters aren’t themselves quite fascinating). But as things wind up, and as the empire begins to wind down, we get our view of the impending fall mostly from these four, or people who surround them.

The first is Ghreni Nohamapeton, the most frequent source of my eye-rolling. Ghreni is a slippery manipulative little bastard, but he is about to be hoist on his own petard. Or possibly not. He thinks he knows what’s coming, and of course, he doesn’t. Or does he?

Kiva Lagos may possibly be the most profane character it has ever been my pleasure to encounter, in literature or out of it. And her constant, continuous cursing sounds a bit much in an audiobook, but perfectly fits her character. Kiva is also manipulative as hell, and mercenary into the bargain. But somewhere between the hells, damns and f-bombs, there’s a heart. Or at least the desire to one-up Ghreni that provides some of the same functionality.

Marce Claremont is about to be the bearer of very bad tidings – if he can survive being the chew toy between Ghreni and Kiva long enough to deliver his message. And even though he knows that the delivery of it means that he really, really can’t go home again. Ever.

And finally we have Cardenia Wu, the recent and very reluctant Emperox of the Interdependency. A woman who is about to experience the very extreme end of that old saying, “be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.” As a great man once said, “Some gifts come at just too high a price.” And that’s true whether you have to dance with the devil to get them, or just roll dice with fate.

Escape Rating A: I listened to this, and also have the ebook. I expected to switch between, but in the end just couldn’t tear myself away from Wil Wheaton’s marvelous reading. He does a terrific job with all of the voices, and adds even more fun to a book that was already fantastic.

But I need that ebook to look up all the names. It seems as if none of them are spelled quite the way they sound. And the ship’s names are an exercise in absurdity from beginning to end. (This aspect may be an homage to the late Iain Banks’ Culture series). But the first ship we meet is the “Tell Me Another One” which is this reader’s general response to Scalzi’s work. I want him to tell me another one, as soon as possible. But also, and as usual, everyone’s leg is getting pulled more than a bit, and not from the same direction.

Lots of things in this story made me smile, quite often ruefully. The scenario is painful, and as this book closes we know that the situation in general is only going to get worse, and possibly not get better. But for the individuals, life is going on. And the characters exhibit all of the sarcasm that this author is known for.

Some of it has the ring of gallows humor to it, and that’s also right. No one is likely to come out of this unscathed by the end, and that’s obvious to the reader from the beginning, even if not to the characters.

This is also a story of merchant empires and political skullduggery. And yes, there is plenty of commentary on that aspect to chew on for a long time, quite possibly until the next book in the series. Like so much of Scalzi’s work, The Collapsing Empire makes the reader laugh, and it makes the reader think, quite often at the same time.

Ghreni and Kiva both represent different ways in which the current systems of the Interdependency have been taken to their extreme limit. But Marce and Cardenia are the characters that we sympathize with. They are both operating against impossible odds, and we like them and want them to succeed. Whether they will or not is left to the subsequent books in this series.

And I really, really, really can’t wait to see what happens next.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Because this is part of my annual Blogo-Birthday celebration, I want to share the love. And the books. John Scalzi is one of my favorite authors, and I hope he’ll become one of yours too. To that end, I’m giving away one copy of any of Scalzi’s works, (up to $20) to one lucky commenter on this post. This giveaway includes The Collapsing Empire, but if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of Scalzi, Old Man’s War is probably the best place to begin.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Hounded by Kevin Hearne

Review: Hounded by Kevin HearneHounded (The Iron Druid Chronicles, #1) by Kevin Hearne, Luke Daniels
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Iron Druid Chronicles #1
Pages: 292
Published by Brilliance Audio on October 28th 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Atticus O’Sullivan, last of the Druids, lives peacefully in Arizona, running an occult bookshop and shape-shifting in his spare time to hunt with his Irish wolfhound. His neighbors and customers think that this handsome, tattooed Irish dude is about twenty-one years old—when in actuality, he’s twenty-one centuries old. Not to mention: He draws his power from the earth, possesses a sharp wit, and wields an even sharper magical sword known as Fragarach, the Answerer.
Unfortunately, a very angry Celtic god wants that sword, and he’s hounded Atticus for centuries. Now the determined deity has tracked him down, and Atticus will need all his power—plus the help of a seductive goddess of death, his vampire and werewolf team of attorneys, a bartender possessed by a Hindu witch, and some good old-fashioned luck of the Irish—to kick some Celtic arse and deliver himself from evil.

My Review:

Because I love urban fantasy, friends have been recommending the Iron Druid series to me for years, and because I get perverse when people push too hard, I haven’t gotten around to it. Until now. And one of these days maybe I’ll learn to ignore that particular quirk of mine, because just like other books that friends have frequently and heartily recommended (I’m thinking of Legion and Thieftaker here), the Iron Druid series, at least on first introduction, is absolutely awesome.

Hounded is just full of the kind of irreverent snark that I expect from the best urban fantasy, while telling a great story that is anchored in the real world. And as the first book in the series, it introduced me to a fantastic character (in multiple senses of fantastic) in Atticus O’Sullivan, the last remaining druid.

Atticus claims to be 21, and looks the part, as the cover pictures indicate fairly well. But Atticus isn’t 21 years old, as he lets people assume. He’s 21 centuries old, and was born in Celtic Ireland a millennium before the Common Era began.

And all the gods are real. Not just the Celtic pantheon to which Atticus still owes some allegiance, and to some of whom he still bears some grudges. But ALL the gods of all the pantheons either existed or have existed. (If this reminds you a bit of American Gods, it does me, too).

But speaking of those grudges, one of those Celtic gods is still harassing Atticus, centuries after losing a famous sword to the Druid in an epic battle. It turns out that the Celtic god of love is actually a selfish, self-centered and manipulative arsehole. And I just insulted arseholes, but in a way that Atticus would probably have approved.

So the short version of this story is that it is all about Angus Og manipulating people and events in order to finally get the great sword Fragarach back from Atticus. The long version of the story is much, much more interesting, as it introduces us to Atticus and all the people in his world, from his werewolf and vampire lawyers (all Vikings) to his slightly dotty old neighbor, to his absolutely marvelous Irish wolfhound, Oberon, who always has his eye on his next sausage breakfast and dreams of harems of French poodles.

Along the way, we meet witches and demons, and get introduced to the gods of the Fae who still deign to mess with the lives of mortals, or at least with the life of Atticus O’Sullivan. Whether that’s for his good or his ill, or even a bit of both, is just part of the wonder of this story.

Escape Rating A: I loved this. And I can’t wait to go back. But this was such a marvelous treat, that I know I need to space them out a bit. Like Halloween candy. But even better, because no calories.

The story is told from the Atticus’ first-person perspective, something that worked particularly well in the audiobook. We hear what he hears, and we also hear what he thinks inside his own head, which is usually much snarkier than what comes out of his mouth – but not always. Listening to the book is like listening to Atticus’ own voice inside his head. It works.

One of the things that works really well is that Atticus is able to communicate with his dog Oberon. And Oberon, while slightly more intelligent than the average, is still very “doggy”. Oberon mostly lives in the now, and that’s a perspective that the 2100 year old Atticus needs to be reminded of every so often, and he recognizes it.

Also, Oberon’s comments on the events are frequently laugh out loud funny, and it’s impossible to resist smirking along with him. This can be a bit problematic if one is listening in public. Or at work.

As much as I enjoyed Atticus’ interesting blend of snark and sweet (his relationship with his elderly neighbor is precious – at least when they aren’t hiding dead bodies together) it is the action and adventure of the story that kept me on the edge of my seat, or sitting in my car waiting for Atticus to find his way out of whatever mess he’d just been dropped into. He’s been hiding in Tempe Arizona for years, and is none too happy when the Morrigan comes to tell him that Angus Og is after him yet again. But this time he decides to stand and defend the life he’s made, and it’s a marvelous tale from beginning to end.

Hexed is up next. Atticus doesn’t trust witches. And there’s a good reason. Again. Fantastic!