Spinning the Wheel: A review of Robert Jordan’s “A Crown of Swords; The Wheel of Time Book 7.”

I have such mixed feelings about Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ saga, all present in the book. Starting with the problems.
There is a lot of detail in this series. I mean, micro-detail. The action will stop for a description of a character making tea (it’s a fantasy brew), or of a piece of furniture, or a piece of costume. Does this book need a red pen? A tin of red pain would not suffice to cut extraneous detail. Yes, it can be good for world building, but I am sure, for example, the same descriptions of e.g. military uniform occur more than once.
Then, there are dubious gender politics. I am not a prude, or pollical correctness gone mad incarnate, but in these pages bosoms heave, women are tortured tied down, naked, in spread eagled form. Women fight over the lead character Rand Al Thor and really don’t mind that he has multiple sexual partners. There are a lot of allusions along the lines of “Women eh? Can’t live with them, can’t live without them!” In this book there is a seduction scene that is basically rape, of a man by a woman, told in a bawdy low comedy kind of way.
Then there are plot lines that are left dangling, a lot of them in this book. I have no doubt they will be resolved in future books, but I think in a work this size you need more resolution.
And everything points to a climactic confrontation that isn’t climactic, things being resolved by a shadowy third party.
But you read these works to be fully immersed in the world, and it does work. And there are some effective action set pieces in this book, and some moments of creepy horror, and some frightening villains. Jordan was a soldier in Vietnam, and you get a taste of the reality and rush of battle, at times. The diversity of characters, creatures and nations is mind boggling, a real achievement. And the characters do live in your head. Robert Jordan clearly lived and breathed this world, and so do we. It shouldn’t work. And yet it does. I’ll be there for the next one.
The narrators of the audio book are good, well suited to the work. Michael Kramer seems to read his sections with one eyebrow continually raised, the better to express the bawdy “phwwoooar, eh?” humour and descriptions. His gravelly matter of factness suits the military themes of the novel. Kate Reading is a likeable presence, and gets through her sections with dignity intact.


Of being in two places at once: a review of Stephen King’s “The Outsider.”

Detective Ralph Anderson wants justice, and he wants it bad. Evidence, incontrovertible forensic and witness evidence, pegs Terry Maitland, a baseball coach, for the sadistic sexual murder of a young boy. And ‘Coach T’ coached Anderson’s own son. So, in the first of many gripping passages, Anderson arranges for a public arrest, in the middle of a junior baseball game, of Terry Maitland.
But then Terry exhibits none of the classic traits of a guilty perp. He looks Anderson in the eye, with none of the tics and signs that would give him away. And evidence stacks up that Coach T was indeed elsewhere, at a book signing, very public, on cctv, with friends.
How, then, can someone be in two places at once?
The first quarter is Terry’s struggle for justice, and the violent disintegration of the murdered boy’s family. It culminates in a violent scene at Terry’s arraignment that gives one hell of a rug pull, a real visceral gut punch.
From that point on the story incorporates Holly Gibney, a character from King’s ‘Mr Mercedes’ set, an obsessive-compulsive woman open to the supernatural. And Holly, Ralph, and their friends embark on their quest for the truth, before another violent death of a child, and another case of someone seemingly being in two places at once.
Part crime and mystery thriller, part supernatural horror, this is King giving his fans possibly what he does best, pulp page turners of compulsive readability. I’m not sure if this will rate as one of the author’s classics; the second half is not as tightly wound, claustrophobic or horrifying as the first. There are a lot of scenes of character’s being folksy together that should really have seen the red pen. But this is a great, unpretentious slice of King with some vivid and unforgettable scenes.
The audio book is narrated by Will Patton, who brings accomplished character acting and gravelly, PI tones to the task. His halting, fluttering delivery of Holly’s lines is a joy, conveying the dep concentration this character needs to keep her shit together. He’s one of those narrators that seem to be an all-star cast in one.

Freeing the soul from BUMMER: A review of Jason Larnier’s “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now”

Jason Larnier is poacher turned gamekeeper:  a renowned silicon valley scientist who is here blowing the whistle on a very technological hold on reality; the use of algorithms chiefly by social media websites to manipulate you at fundamental level.

He bases his work around the acronym BUMMER: “Behaviour of Users Modified, and Made into Empire for Rent.”  Here the villains are chiefly Facebook and Twitter, and companies associated with Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.  Larnier contends that those who pay money to advertise, whether they be Russian cyber agents or commercial giants, corrupt personal discourse, politics, economics, even metaphysics; questions about what is free-will, choice and how we view reality.  Becoming immersed in such social media makes into vindictive arse-holes, argues Larnier, on many different levels.  We switch from an individual to a pack mentality.  We lose sight of the context of our friends and individuals, and they lose sight of ours.  Hence the ability to truly empathise and perceive what is going on becomes corrupted.

The work builds to a particularly powerful climax that appeals to our sense of wonder in experience and ability to be awed by mystery.  Such spiritual perspectives, Larnier argues, are grotesquely distorted by social media.

So he argues for deletion of accounts simply to give ourselves time to pause and think, and rediscover ourselves and real discourse.

LinkedIn pretty much gets a pass, as we are told, it is motivated by something other than pack vs pack competition, e.g. personal and career development.  I’m not sure.   If ever a platform makes people appear assholes afraid of debate, its this one.

Also, why not just give the platforms a rest instead of deletion?  Test your will-power and assert your individuality that way?  Then delete if that feels necessary?  That’s what I’m doing with Facebook, although I have deleted Twitter, simply because its tendency to go to distilled hate and give a quick way to vent spleen seems to me the most harmful of all.

A goods thoughtful and much needed work, this deserves your attention and very serious consideration.

Just another bug-hunt. A review of the Audible production ‘Sea of Sorrows’

‘Sea of Sorrows’ is the newest canonical Alien drama, a sequel to ‘Out of the Shadows.’  These audio dramas started life as novels by James A Moore and Tim Lebbon respectively.  They gently skirt the issue of Alien 3, with Out of the Shadows occurring after the events of the movie original ‘Alien,’ and ‘Out of the Shadows’ occurring decades after the events of ‘Aliens.’ Bridging the gap, we had ‘River of Pain,’ a novel / audio drama that was a direct prequel leading up the events of ‘Aliens.’

This production is another atmospheric, pacy audio drama that Dirk Maggs is making an name for on Audible, with his X Files and Alien dramas.  Great production values, writing and acting are pulling one win out of the bag after another.

In this tale, Alan Decker, a descendant of one Ellen Ripley, is kidnapped by Stockard Channing’s scenery chewing company hard case Andrea Rollins, and sent to advise a team of Mercenaries on their expedition to planetary mining outpost ‘New Galveston,’ scene of the Alien infestation of ‘Out of the Shadows.’  Decker is an empath, or telepath, it transpires, with an uncomfortable ability to get on the Xenomorph’s wavelength.  But as Ripley’s ancestor, they know who he is, and their cold hatred and desire for revenge awaits…

And here lies the main weakness of this tale.  The Alien’s are meant to emotionless, only fuelled by a desire to kill and survive.  Here they  display a full range of negative emotions, as well as telepathic ability.  It really stretches the Alien lore to breaking point.

The Mercenaries too are indistinguishable from the Marines of other Alien tales, and their personalities feel a bit too off the Marine conveyor belt. That said, there are some memorable characters here, such as ‘Silent Dave’ and a few Brits to add to the diversity.

And the tale ends a little too open for the sequel, and does not close events satisfactorily, for me.

All that said, this is still gripping stuff, that hits enough of the right notes to keep you on board and engrossed.  There are enough Queens, soldier aliens, chest bursters, face huggers, ambushers and fire-fights to keep events barrelling along in a fun way.  And the sound production is right on the money, with the face-huggers smothering its victim sounding uncomfortably close.

And John Chancer’s Alan Decker is a pleasingly complex character and likeable presence.

Not as tense and complete a drama as ‘River of Pain,’ this is nevertheless another recommended listen from the Maggs production stable.

‘The road goes ever on….’ A review of Rob Inglis’s narration of J.R.R Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”

Rob Inglis is the perfect choice to read these epochal works. He has gravitas and a lightness of tone that matches both the bright radiance and dark terrors of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. He is a great character actor, bringing life to Hobbits, men, elves and monsters. He lends the songs melody and charm, history and tradition. The temp quickens in the more dramatic passages in a way that makes you sit up and listen. Sheer brilliance. His reading of this work has calmed me at night so that I drift into sleep, as well as completely commanded my attention and made me forget everything else on my commute into work.

The tale itself is well familiar to me and many others, but if you are new to this world, welcome and I envy you, to see it all with an explorers eyes for the first time. Frodo Baggins inherits his Uncle Bilbo’s ring when Bilbo leaves the Shire, exhausted after the adventures of ‘The Hobbit’ and by his possession of the ring, which draws from its bearer a heavy cost, as well as magical boons such as an unnaturally long life. This may be granted but it comes with a dep fatigue of ‘being spread too thin.’ It also belongs to the darkest power in the land, Sauron, who now seeks the ring as it is the key to dominance of all life. The wizard Gandalf sets Frodo, his gardener and friends Sam, Merry and Pippin, on a quest to find out what to do with the ring. They meet up with Aragon, ‘a ranger from the North,’ and journey to the Elves of Rivendell to take Council, where the fellowship grows, and they begin their epic quest to destroy the ring….

The Lord of the Rings is the last word in world building, J R R Tolkien having invented whole languages, histories and mythologies for his world through his life, informed by his career as a soldier in World War One and by his academic career as an Oxford Professor.
Just typing this makes me feel ‘not worthy’ and ‘stretched too thin’ to do this work justice. just sink into it, and be renewed.

“Winder!” W-I-N-D-E-R! Now go and clean ’em!” A review of the Audible Production of Charles Dickens’s “Nicholas Nickleby”

This audible production of Charles Dickens’s classic Victorian melodrama has been released in nineteen parts (mirroring Dickens’s original print serialisation), averaging about two hours each. It has it’s own epic, sweeping theme music, and a ‘next time on Nicholas Nickleby’ teaser trailer to the next episode, which cleverly utilises Dickens’s original chapter headings.
Left Destitute after his father’s death, Nicholas, his mother and sister Kate travel to London looking naturally for family help from his Uncle Ralph Nickleby. Unfortunately Ralph is anything but natural, he is a debased, scheming Usurer or money-lender, who has utterly disregarded his humanity in his quest for wealth. Ralph sets Nicholas on his apprenticeship to the schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, who with his family run a brutal boarding school regime where physical, mental and emotional abuse are the norm. Nicholas is driven to an act of rebellion that leads to him going on the run with the friendless, abused, damaged and abandoned lad, Smike. This is only the start of Nicholas’s adventures, however, and through the course of the novel we shall encounter theatrical troupes, ruined dressmakers, suffering servants, heroic philanthropists and a range of heroes, villains and grotesques, moments of high comedy, incredible dramatic coincidences, edge of the seat drama, social criticism and satire that hits its mark every time.

What a joy this production is. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s narration is a wonder of character acting; from the rasping, biting tones of Ralph to the free ranging witterings of Mrs Nickleby, the wheedling whining of Squeers, the quietly spoken heroism of Nicholas, and much more. Narrator and writer seem perfectly matched,and the result is one of the happiest, most compelling listens I have found on audible. It is first class, and its production values and use of music lift the mood and atmosphere further.

My recommended audio-book of the year and definitely in my top five of all time.

A gripping but inadequate chronicle of the times: A review of Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House.”

I read Bob Woodward and Car Bernstein’s ‘All the Presidents Men’ some time back, as I have always been fascinated by the Nixon Presidency, with all its drama and dysfunction and ‘dark side of Camelot’ themes, as well as the tortured psychology of Nixon himself. Woodward has chronicled pretty much every President since, and has traced the effects of Watergate through successive Presidencies.
Trump, though, is a new low of dysfunction, a new standard of venality and dysfunction in the White House that makes Nixon look the soul of integrity. How does Woodward tackle him? he uses the ‘deep cover’ that has serviced him well in the past, speaking to senior officials off the record. And it does here make for gripping drama. the book is mainly reconstructed dialogue of various situations in the Trump Presidency as harvested from these interviews, with linking narrative and background there, but kept to a minimum.
It works well in conveying immediacy, drama, the white hot moments of critical events unfolding. Trump’s criminal stupidity is of Godzilla proportions, stomping on any good sense that gets in its way, as his beleaguered officials try to steer him, contain him, and snatch documents from his desk so that he can’t sign his own harmful directives.
That all said, I am left feeling that Bob Woodward used his usual playbook, which is very ‘Washington,’ always slightly dazzled by the culture of the Hill and the language and customs of power. And that play-book can’t do justice to the Trump Presidency. This is a Presidency that is tearing up all the norms of political and human decency. Woodward’s style is more suited to days when they were still ascendant, even when they were tarnished by Nixon. Woodward wrote well about that tarnishing. But here, I feel he needs a tougher approach.
Woodward pretty much buys into the idea that the GOP contains heroes trying to restrain Trump. But he ignores why more of them aren’t being more active in defying this President. It is one thing to whisper to a journalist in deep cover, or sneak a document off a desk. Another to really do something that counts, by taking a public stand. And why does Woodward dismiss Christopher Steele’s dossier on Russian Collusion as trash? This is an essential theme and he does not explain his view, or acknowledge its importance.
All in all this is a compulsive read, but inadequate to the times.

As a postscript, I tried to post this review on Amazon, but was blocked, as Amazon says “reviews are being limited because of unusual reviewing activity.”  Go figure.