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The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (3/100)

FYI, I’m blogging my way through what I hope to be 100 books read in 2020.

I really enjoyed listening to The Night Circus on audiobook so when Erin Morgenstern’s new novel The Starless Sea came out I figured why not go with the same format. My reward?An enchanting, mythical, romantic and adventure filled story about stories. Rich with characters, world building, and storytelling of the highest order.

Publishers Description:

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues—a bee, a key, and a sword—that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library hidden far below the surface of the earth. What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians—it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also of those who are intent on its destruction. Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose—in both the mysterious book and in his own life.

As noted, I started with audiobook, which I listened to in the car, but I had to read it when I wasn’t driving because I was so enthralled with the writing, story and characters. Having read some of the reviews, I will admit I am open to the idea that the audio version is the more engaging one.

After all, it is a story about stories. And what better way to get sucked into a story is to have it told to you complete with characters, voices, and all that modern audiobooks provide? Now, granted not all audiobooks pull you in and hold your attention but great storytelling with audio production values can really work.

Once I was sucked into the story, I quickly found myself reading the Kindle version when I wasn’t in the car. But I listened to the vast majority of the book.

Here is what I wrote about The Night Circus:

Morgenstern builds her world slowly and at first you might be tempted to ask “Where is all this going and what does it mean?” But the details are worth reading even as the world begins to come together.  And even as you know in some important ways what will happen you are carried along increasingly pulled into how it will happen and what the ramifications will be for these future events.  And just as you begin to get a sense of understanding all of the intertwining threads Morgenstern begins to pull at these threads and reveal more in the unraveling.

And there is a sense that the details are more important than the larger picture. If you are looking for intellectual or philosophical depth or coherence I am not sure you will find it. Instead, it works best if you can lose yourself in the details.

I think that is equally true for The Starless Sea.

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Now that I have an extended commute I am always on the lookout for good audiobooks. Fuzzy Nation came up on Audible at a steep discount and so I grabbed it.

In John Scalzi’s re-imagining of H. Beam Piper’s 1962 sci-fi classic Little Fuzzy, written with the full cooperation of the Piper Estate, Jack Holloway works alone for reasons he doesn’t care to talk about. On the distant planet Zarathustra, Jack is content as an independent contractor for ZaraCorp, prospecting and surveying at his own pace. As for his past, that’s not up for discussion.

Then, in the wake of an accidental cliff collapse, Jack discovers a seam of unimaginably valuable jewels, to which he manages to lay legal claim just as ZaraCorp is cancelling their contract with him for his part in causing the collapse. Briefly in the catbird seat, legally speaking, Jack pressures ZaraCorp into recognizing his claim, and cuts them in as partners to help extract the wealth.

But there’s another wrinkle to ZaraCorp’s relationship with the planet Zarathustra. Their entire legal right to exploit the verdant Earth-like planet, the basis of the wealth they derive from extracting its resources, is based on being able to certify to the authorities on Earth that Zarathustra is home to no sentient species. Then a small furry biped – trusting, appealing, and ridiculously cute – shows up at Jack’s outback home. Followed by its family.

As it dawns on Jack that despite their stature, these are people, he begins to suspect that ZaraCorp’s claim to a planet’s worth of wealth is very flimsy indeed and that ZaraCorp may stop at nothing to eliminate the fuzzys before their existence becomes more widely known.

It turned out to be an entertaining listen. It took me a while to get used to a protagonist who is a first class jerk. But the futuristic set-up, supporting characters, and numerous plot twists kept me listening and held my interest.

I know nothing of the book this is based on and/or an update to but this is the third audiobook from Scalzi that I have enjoyed. Will Wheaton does a nice job with the narration which may or may not add to the fun depending on your opinions and/or interests.

The politics seems to me a little too easy in some ways, giant greedy corporation that doesn’t care about the environment or anyone who gets in the way of profits, lawyers as soulless tools of that corporation, wealthy jerk about to become head of said corporation, etc.

But that doesn’t really get in the way of enjoying the story. As I say, he sets up the futuristic scenario in a believable and entertaining way and the plot has enough twists and turns to keep you guessing. The lead character may be a serious jerk but he is an interesting one.

Scalzi may bring me back to science fiction.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

OK, enough navel gazing about blogging, how about some book reviews?

Regular readers will be aware of my interest in folklore, fairy tales and fiction dealing with faith and/or religion.  The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden touches on all of these elements which piqued my interest when it was released.  I had it on the To Be Read list for some time. I didn’t buy it, however, as I was unsure it would suit my tastes despite the subjects above.  Last year I was able to listen to the audiobook via Overdrive.  I recently listened to the sequel, The Girl in the Tower, and figured I should post a review.

I found it to be a fascinating and enchanting listen; a truly epic tale of life in the north where magic and religion still live side by side. I don’t know enough about the Russian fairy tales and legends to know how closely this tracks with them, but I found it engrossing and suspenseful; full of history, family life, religious conflict and fantastical folklore.

Vasilisa is a great character and her unique personality and gifts really drive the novel.  Arden does a great job describing the unique setting and building her characters.  She builds the tension and even as she paints this wonderful and complex picture of the world of Russian wilderness.

It has a fairly strong feminist streak, the main protagonist’s goal is both to protect her family and escape the role society expects of her. It also has an element that seems anti-religion. But no matter your opinion on these topics or others, it is wonderful written and highly entertaining.

Kathleen Gati does a great job with the narration.  She really helped to bring the characters alive and is just right with the tone, pace, etc.  It is an audiobook it is easy to lose yourself in. And those are the best kind.

I usually avoid historical fiction but this one is in a time period I am not very familiar with and the folklore/magical elements give it a different feel. Recommended for sure.


A New Hope: The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy by Alexandra Bracken

We are big Star Wars fans in our family.  I enjoyed the films in my youth (they premiered on my seventh birthday) and my kids are, if anything, even bigger fans.  So when the classic trilogy were reimagined as young adult novels I was sorely tempted to read them. I even checked them out of the library a few times but never quite got around to read them.

But looking for something to listen to on a family car trip I picked up A New Hope: The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy by Alexandra Bracken from Overdrive as an audiobook.  We ended up listening to it in the car on that trip and finished it driving around on various other trips. My 9yo son in particular loved it and asked to listen to it whenever he could.

I thought it was well done, if with the obvious draw back of already knowing what happens. The audiobook does a nice job of giving the characters a voice and offering an interesting take on their backgrounds, personalities and what they might have been thinking as this famous story unfolds. Sound effects add to the fun.

Solid entertainment for longer car trips for the young Star Wars fans.

Midnight Riot (Peter Grant, Book 1) by Ben Aaronovitch

As the handful of people who read this blog regularly, or who follow me on Goodreads, know I have gotten in the habit of listening to audiobooks and lectures on my daily commute.  What I have found is that neither the overly-complex nor the particularly subtle, literary or quiet work well in the car.  Relatively straightforward lectures or history can work, provided you are in the mood, or fiction with action, plot and drama work best.

I bring this up because I stumbled on a great series for audio book aficionados. I don’t even remember why I put Rivers of London on my Amazon wish list but when looking for potential audiobooks I decided to see it was available on Overdrive.  It turned out it was but under the title Midnight Riot.  And it is a great listen.

midnight-riotProbationary constable Peter Grant dreams of being a detective in London’s Metropolitan Police. Too bad his superior plans to assign him to the Case Progression Unit, where the biggest threat he’ll face is a paper cut. But Peter’s prospects change in the aftermath of a puzzling murder, when he gains exclusive information from an eyewitness who happens to be a ghost. Peter’s ability to speak with the lingering dead brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who investigates crimes involving magic and other manifestations of the uncanny.

Now, as a wave of brutal and bizarre murders engulfs the city, Peter is plunged into a world where gods and goddesses mingle with mortals and a long-dead evil is making a comeback on a rising tide of magic.

This is exactly the type of book that works in the car, at least for me.  It has strong characters, a great setting, an interesting hook and engaging language and style.

Peter Grant is a great character and voice.  An average, or perhaps slightly above average, guy trying to make it as a (mixed-race) copper in London.  He is fascinated by technology, the city, and cars among other things but he is not a particularly adept or perceptive constable.  But the magical elements gives him a potential career path.

The style is witty and laidback; a sort of urban fantasy meets police procedural with a good mix of nerdiness (architecture, computers/phones, music, Harry Potter, etc.) mixed in.  It has an enthusiasm that is contagious.  Which is one of the points of audiobooks in the car; to be entertained while traveling.

The narrator, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, does a great job with the voices and personalities involved. It was like listening to a radio drama. And along the way you get a great sense of London as both a place and as an identity.

The plot is rather convoluted and not particularly tight or tension filled.  But it is the characters and voice of the novel that is the attraction here not the plot.

I found Midnight Riot to be a great combination of fantasy, London as a place and a character, literature, wit and mystery. And I am looking forward to listening to the rest of the Peter Grant series.

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