An Audio-Book Review: Anything That Can Go Wrong…

How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword

Book 9 of the How to Train Your Dragon Series

By Cressida Cowell

Published by Hachette Children’s Books

Read by David Tennant


The Book:

The story of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III continues. This time the Viking tribes of the Archipelago have gathered to choose a king by way of a sword fighting tournament. Ah, if only it were that simple.

This is where the events of previous stories begin to stack up against Hiccup. The Dragon Furious is back as promised and raising a dragon rebellion. Also, our old “friend” Alvin the Treacherous and his mother the witch are back, trying not only to steal the crown but to pay back Hiccup and his friends for past insults. Also, as implied at the end of the last book, the slave mark that Hiccup acquired sometime back and has kept carefully secret is about to be revealed. So… what could possibly go wrong?

This is a darker story than previous one and many people actually die in the battle between the dragons and the Vikings, although as far as I can tell, no one we actually know by name.

The story starts out normally enough even when several leaders go missing (including Hiccup’s Dad, Stoic the Vast) and Alvin’s mother forces Hiccup, Fishlegs and Kamikaze to find and retrieve the ancient crown of the last Viking king. And then we have the tournament itself, in which Hiccup actually does fairly well and finds himself facing his father in the finals. However, something goes very, very wrong and… well, I have already given too much of the story away.

However, keep in mind this is the first part of a story arc and the story ends on a bit of the cliff-hanger with a big bold “To Be Continued next time!”

In spite of the darkness, this is yet another fun book in a very fun series, but I definitely recommend reading it in order.


The Audiobook:

I will not go so far as to say that only David Tennant could read this book. I think Tom Baker, Tony Robinson, Stephen Briggs and Stephen Fry could all have had a good time reading these books, but it’s David Tennant who got the job and a great job he makes of it. Mister Tennant is fun to listen to and I think he really enjoyed reading these stories as well because when an actor is just putting in a performance, it shows and there’s none of that here.

So, we have the enjo0yable continuation and a great children’s series and it is read excellently by one of the few actors I would trust to do it.

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An Audio-Book Review: I Should Have Taken that Left Turn at Albuquerque

The Long Cosmos

By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Published by Harper Audio

Read by Michael Fenton Stevens


The Book:

At last, the conclusion of “The Long Earth” series. Way back, at the start of the series, there was an article on how to make a device called a “Stepper” using a simple circuit and a potato. Assemble, turn it on and find yourself on an entirely different Earth, one in which Homo sapiens never evolved. Turn it on again and you go to another and then still another. Flip a switch and you go back the other way and after as many “steps” as you took in the first direction, you find yourself back where you started; on so-called “Datum Earth.” Each step takes you to a world in which something fairly basic went differently. This collection of billions of Earth versions is called the Long Earth.

Is the Long Earth infinite? Hard to say. Physicists (well, actually only the authors) used a “necklace of beads” metaphor to describe how this chain of worlds works, but that would imply that if you went out far enough you would eventually come back, but explorations out billions of worlds never found a limit.

Humans may only have evolved on a single world, but there are other sentients on the Long Earth. Many of them are hominins, vaguely related to humans, many of whom are natural steppers (They can do it without the potato) but other genera are represented, Canids for example and some rather exotic life forms as well. And through it all, strides Joshua Valliente, a natural human stepper who on that initial “Step Day” discovered he did not need the potato device to step from one world to the next.

Well it turns out there are a lot of people who don’t need those potatoes. So many, in fact I had expected that eventually it would be discovered the potato circuit was just a crutch, a placebo, if you will, that allows people to step when they don’t think they can. Well, apparently not.

As each book in the series progresses the Long Earth and the way it works gets more and more complex, which is odd, since in a world that is, for all purposes, infinite, a lot of the added complexity was far from necessary, so along with threats of various sorts from “Joker” worlds, gaps in Earth’s actual existence, creature of the far realities and so forth. We have travel to other planets where it turns out that any world that has or has had sentient life also has alternative realities (which implies that those that do not have only one reality) and apparently the various realities of the other Long Worlds have nothing to do with each other… until this final book in which they are described as a skein in which each of the Long World necklaces interlink in some places.

It’s an interesting notion, but like many interesting notions it is not enough to hold the story together by itself. What you need are well-developed characters and a plotline. The story does have that although most of the book meanders over territory we have seen over and over again in previous volumes. That applies even to places our characters go where no one has been before. It is all just more of the same with the message, “The Unknown is dangerous.” And yet, even Valliente, one of the more experienced travelers on the Long Earth, gets hurt repeatedly, but we have seen that before too.

So, what’s new? Well, the only thing that is new is a psychic message from the stars, “Join us.” And is this some cliché Galactic alliance of sentients inviting Earth to be a part of their great civilization? Is it an invitation to be the entrée some grand galactic banquet? Something else? Well… we never find out.; After wandering through the distant probabilities trying to put a crew together for the entire book, a single ship goes forth into deep space using unknown and unexplained technology they were expected to take on faith. They discover a few new worlds, which are also Long (having alternate realities demonstrating that somewhere is or was sentient life) and then decide to return to Earth and let other expeditions continue the exploration.

In all, I felt the book had roughly one chapter’s worth of novelty and the rest was just rehashing what the rest of the series had done so far. This was NOT a satisfying end to what was a very long story.


The Audiobook:

Once again Michael Fenton Stevens read acceptably as he has throughout the series. For the most part he reads very well, but as I have noted in the past, every so often he resorts to funny-sounding and rather annoying voices. Some readers can make that work, but not this one. Mostly the funny voices are attributed to talking non-humans, which helps a bit but really does not make it any less annoying.

All told, I think the story fell flat and what might have made a good short story got stretched out for no good purpose other than, perhaps, to make money. Too bad, since the concepts in the series were fascinating even when the story itself was not.

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An Audio-Book Review: Politics Perilous

Al Franken: Giant of the Senate

By Senator Al Franken

Published by Hachette Audio

Read by Senator Al Franken


The Book:

I cannot honestly say that I did not know what to expect when I downloaded and started listening to this book. I expected it would be an autobiography spiced up with backroom tales and Al Franken’s characteristic humor. That’s what I got and, to tell the truth, I would have been sorely disappointed if I had not. However, that does not really tell of the whole story.

A lot of senators… heck! A lot of politicians write books not only to push their own political agenda but to make a bit of extra cash while in office and any politician at the national level could fill a manuscript with Lorem Ipsum filler and I doubt they would have any trouble getting it published. In case you do not know, Lorem ipsum is ersatz-Latin filler text, originally used to display the graphic elements of a document before the accompanying text was ready. Here’s an example:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur adipiscing elit, condimentum ridiculus sociosqu sagittis eros ac non nec, nunc proin penatibus nam pharetra tempus.

There are Lorem ipsum generators available online, by the way, if you are one of the poor, only semi-literate politician and need to fill a book. Al Franken did not need such filler in his book.

For his long-time fans he does include a few chapters on Saturday Night Live as well as his career before and after his association with the show, but the main thrust of the book is his decision to go into politics, as a lIberal talk show moderator/commentator and then his run for Senator of Minnesota. He spends quite a bit of time explaining why he chose to leave show business to pursue a life of “bean feeds” and other grass roots political activities. For a while it seems like all he did was campaign especially when his first election went into super-secret overtime with not only a recount, but a court fight to contest the results that put him only 312 votes ahead of the incumbent. As a result he was not sworn in until six months after the rest of this senatorial class.

After that, Senator Franken explains how he had to learn not to be funny and explains how the Senate’s rules of behavior work, why the refer to each other as “My esteemed colleague” even when they do not esteem them very much and so forth. He also gives several examples of ways in which he got into trouble when he failed to live up to those rules and how he strove to be worthy of the title of “Senator.”

He also goes on to explain that he actually likes quite a few of his Republican colleagues even if he hopes they all lose their next elections and, in fact, in the book he really only breaks the rule of collegiality once for one particular senator (no spoilers… read it for yourself. It’s best that way).

Senator Franken manages to cover a long set of serious matters, explains how things work (above and beyond what you might have learned in middle school civics classes) why he feels about the issues he finds important and also covers the multitude of legislative matters that really are bi-partisan in spite of how it might seem while watching the evening news. And along the way, he sprinkles in the jokes and amusing stories with the pace and timing only a master of the art can.

Even if you disagree with Al Franken’s politics, I think there is a lot of valuable content in this book for anyone interested in national politics especially as it stands today. And if you find yourself consistently depressed by what has been in the news since last November. This book might be the perfect tonic.


The Audiobook:

No one else could have read this book effectively. Oh, okay, maybe other gifted actors might have, but it would never have been the same. There is no doubt that Franken’s anecdotes are being read with just the right tone whether it be sarcasm, sincerity or irony. No one reads Franken like Franken. Only he has the expressiveness, timing and the right voice… of course.

All told, I really enjoyed this book and recommend it highly.

Posted in Al Franken, Audio Books, Autobiography, Books, Humor, Nonfiction, Politics, Social Commentary | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Audio-Book Review: I stand by “Forty-two!”

Reality Is Not What It Seems:

The Journey to Quantum Gravity

By Carlo Rovelli

Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre

Published by Penguin Audio

Read by Roy McMillan


The Book:

I like reading books on Cosmology and the frontiers of Physics. I’ll admit readily that I have none of the required training to understand the math behind the theories involved but when a well-written book comes along that explains the concepts, I am willing to let the experts worry about the theoretical proofs. I’m more interested in understanding how the universe exists and how it came to be.

If a theory is later discredited, I do not feel I have a horse in the race so I can let one go and pick up on the next plausible explanation. Besides, I believe we often have to go through steps toward whatever the truth will turn out to be. As Rovelli says himself, Newton’s Physics were an approximation that eventually led toward Einsteinian Relativity and that, along with the various theories of Quantum Physics may well turn out to be mere approximations toward whatever we come up with next. If we do not adequately explore a proposed theory, there is no telling what might have been missed.

First of all, on the off chance anyone reading this is the sort who say, “Evolution is just a theory, so there is no proof,” please let me say this; an idea without any firm proof is a hypothesis. If it is truly a theory, there is proof. Evolution, for example, has been scientifically proven over and over again. If your religious beliefs do not allow you to accept that, I will allow you to believe what you will although to my way of thinking, no mere mortal can truly know the mind of God nor how He (or She) works, so to use religious belief to deny something well-proven is, to say the least, hubristic. Better to honestly admit that there are some things you just do not know or understand.

Back to theories; so, we have a plethora of theories these days describing how the universe is built, how it works and how it came to be that way. Strangely, quite a few contradict each other and yet for each of these theories there is proof. It is possible that each of them will turn out to be special cases of some more general theory we have yet to grasp, or some will turn out to not be true despite the tons of mathematical proof behind them. Just because something is possible, it does not mean it necessarily exists and much like Schrödinger’s cat, we won’t know which is dead and which still lives until we look inside the box… so to speak.

Doctor Rovelli sides with those who believe that Quantum Gravity will prove to be the key to discovering how the Universe works and so that is the direction this book heads in although he spends a lot of time building up to that and honestly admits that Quantum Gravity and Loop Theory might turn out to be a dead end like so many other modern attempts have thus far proven. It does not stop him from making a few smug remarks about how String Theorists have been so far disappointed, but I suppose he cannot help it.

He starts out over two and a half millenia ago with Democritus’ atomic theory and spends probably more time than he should in extolling Democritus’ foresight in seeing natural phenomena in terms of the arrangement and rearrangement of atoms in a void. On the surface, the theory seems amazingly modern and quite a few writers have said so. Rovelli mourns the fact that none of Democritus’ books have survived into the modern world, but it seems to me that ancient science of the sort Democritus and Aristotle wrote about were more based in philosophy and what ought to be right, so Democritus could speculate about atoms, but his assertions had no more scientific basis than those of Artistotle’s continuum. Still, if Democritus’ writings not be lost we might have developed modern atomic theory long before we did.

Rovelli goes on to describe General Relativity and Quantum Physics in a reasonable easy to understand manner although I though he got a bit condescending several times with comments like “Try not to be confused by what I am about to discuss,” and “I do not expect the reader to understand the following equation” (NB those might be paraphrases… I was not taking exact notes). I, for one, have read other books on Relativity (Einstein wrote a particularly easy to understand popular account of his theory. No, it did not go into the mathematical proofs, but did clearly explain how it worked( and Quantum theory and so forth and while I would never say I can understand the math, I do understand the explanations so I do not need to be warned that I am about to enter the realm of high science… or something like that.

However, that condescending note might be more of a translator’s artifact than Rovelli’s original intention. I cannot say and aside from those few remarks, I found this book both interesting and informative and in all fairness to Doctor Rovelli, he does spend the final chapter explaining that while he thinks  that Loop Theory and Quantum Gravity is valid, he does not actually know that it is and cannot until we learn still more.


The Audiobook:

Roy McMillan reads the book well. He sounds like he is genuinely interested in the subject and  his British ac cent makes him sound like he ought to be giving a lecture on the subject at Oxford or Cambridge. That’s good because had he suddenly broken out in a fit of funny voices I would have demanded my money back.

Well, seriously, yes, I think he read the book well and in the manner a text book or even one like this written for the layman, ought to be.

So, it’s a good, lucid discussion of the search for Quantum Gravity with many interesting a related side trips along the way and it is read perfectly.

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An Audio-Book Review: Going in Circles!

Around the World in Seventy-Two Days

By Nellie Bly

Published by

Read by Mary Reagan


The Book:

After enjoying Ten Days in a Mad House, much to my surprise, I found I was interested in reading Nellie Bly’s account of her Jules Verne-inspired whirlwind tour of the world. What I got was pretty much what I expected; a light travelogue of the world in the late 19th Century.

Nellie Bly was the nom de plume of Elizabeth Jane Cochran Seaman. She might have started out as a journalist, best known for her sensationalist stunts such as her trip around the world and faking insanity in order to see the inside of the women’s asylum at Blackwell Island, but over the course of her life she was also an industrialist, charity worker and inventor. She may have invented the 55-gallon drum – the patent was in her name although some claim the patent was merely assigned to her, but there is no doubt she did invent two other sorts of cans.

In any case, in 1888, she convinced Joseph Pulitzer into sponsoring her in an attempt to circumnavigate the world in seventy-five days, five days shorter than the fictional record set by Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg. Along the way she accepted an invitation to visit with Jules Verne and his wife and tour various places during lay-overs in Ceylon, Chine and Japan.  She was delayed a few times by weather and missed connections, but owing to a chartered train Pulitzer had hired to meet her in San Francisco, she was able to arrive in New York seventy-two days after she left from Hoboken.

While she was racing against the clock, it turns out another woman, Elizabeth Bisland, a reporter from a competing newspaper was racing against her in the opposite direction. Bly first heard about her competition while in China where she was informed that “The other woman” had left several days ahead of her. However, Bisland was still in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when Bly finished her record setting trip.

Her record did not last long, however, and was broken just a few months later by George Francis Train (whose prior circumnavigation had originally inspired Verne).

Nellie Bly’s narrative of her trip is that of a determined, but delighted young woman (if you consider 26 to be young) out on her own to see the world for herself. I dare say the stories she sent back to Pulitzer’s paper The World, delighted her readers as well as her penultimate chapter is an account of the crowds who came to greet her and the gifts they gave her as she sped across the US on her chartered train.

The book is not a long one and probably worth reading although with my Twenty-first century eye I detected more than a few instances in which a certain 19th Century bias in favor of Western civilization and its amenities were displayed as well as her use of words for people that would be considered impolite in this latter day. I am not sure if that was strictly an American viewpoint of the time or if she was heavily influenced by the Victorian Britons she travelled among much of the way across the Mediterranean and Asia.

The travelogue, as it was, is not really a study of the people she met, merely her observations as she passed briefly among them as a tourist. In many ways, it has more in common with the journeys of Herodotus and some of the other ancient travelogues (both factual and fictional) than with sociological studies that were contemporary with her trip. She noticed the differences and the oddities, but was not looking for what people have in common. Well, the differences are what make such stories interesting in the public, I suppose.


The Audiobook:

Mary Reagan reads the story wonderfully and captures the notes of delight perfectly. She might have sounded a bit more disappointed where Nellie Bly learns of Bisland’s attempt to beat her around the world – it comes as a surprise to Bly who, up until then, had no idea she was racing against anything but the clock. And Bly’s disgust with the leper colony and the general filthiness she observed in China might have been read differently, but Bly’s own narrative does not really dwell on the more unattractive aspects of the trip – probably would not have been as well received by the public – so maybe Ms Reagan has the right of it.

In all, it was a fun book to listen to, both from Bly’s descriptions and Mary Reagan’s reading.

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An Audio-Book Review: Government Hasn’t Changed

The Rat Race

By Jay Franklin

Published by

Read by Nick Bulka


The Book:

Every so often I will download something by an author of whom I have never heard. I looked him up and  it turned out that he was a fellow SE Massachusetts boy who wrote an impressive number of politically-based novels and some works that are  considered valuable historical resources for the New Deal Era under the pen name “Diplomat” and “Unofficial Observer.” It sounded interesting enough, then I read the synopsis.

This is the story of one Lt. Commander Frank Jacklin, an office aboard the secret battleship USS Alaska. When the ship is destroyed by the atomic explosion of a top-secret “Thorium Bomb,” Jacklin wakes up in the body of stockbroker, Winnie Tompkins, a determined womanizer and wife-swapper. Unlike in many such stories, Jacklin does not attempt to tell anyone who he really is, but instead starts attempting to live as Tompkins, claiming he has amnesia. One thing leads to another and between the women in his life, his knowledge of the fate of the Alaska, and various other top-secret matters, he gets in trouble with the government. It was here that I realized that Franklin was not attempting to write science fiction. In fact, aside from an atomic bomb there is precious little sciences involved, although he does seem to believe that mysticism and psychic powers are all valid.

Instead this is commentary on who various governmental departments and organizations work and from what I can see, nothing has really changed… well, except for the nature of the man in the oval office who in this novel is FDR and, soon after Harry Truman. One can only imagine how Franklin would have handled, say, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Donald Trump. That might have been wildly different, but the government functionaries probably would have been the same.

I don’t consider the story very well written, however. Pacing is bad and it drags terribly on several occasions and none of the characters are three dimensional. In fact, even to call them two-dimensional is generous. However, as commentary as to how government agencies work, I will admit that Franklin would know far better than I. Sadly the end is somewhat abrupt, disappointing, but also telegraphed well in advance. So, no real surprises.

However, if you what a cynical insider’s view of WW II era government, this is probably a very good way to get it wrapped up in a fictional setting.


The Audiobook:

It took me at least two hours of listening to get used to Nick Bulka’s reading style this time. In fact, I think it took him that long to get used to reading this story too. At first, he sounded incredibly bored with the whole project, making me wonder why he was bothering to read it for Librivox.

Further in, he starts to sound a bit more interested and is, by extension, a bit more interesting to listen to, but I still did not find him an engaging reader to listen to. Still, it might have simply been this book since I thought he was pretty good when he read Preferred Risk by Frederik Pohl and Lester Del Rey. Not this time, though. Perhaps it was the slow story pace, but whatever it was, I was ready for the end, however disappointing, buy the time it came.

So, I’m sorry but my verdict is that the story could have been a lot better and the reading was possibly all it deserved.

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An Audio-Book Review: Six Impossible Tasks Before Breakfast

How to Break a Dragon’s Heart

(How to Tame Your Dragon #8)

By Cressida Cowell

Published by Hachette Children’s Books

Read by David Tennant


The Book:

 Last week I reviewed Adventures of a Brownie, a children’s’ story from the Victorian era. Now let’s looks at a fine example of what is being written for similar aged children in the “Second Elizabethan Era.”

So far, I have reviewed the first seven books of the series and have found them all a lot of fun. These might be marketed for children, but seriously they are not just for kids. There is humor and drama and extremely good pacing. The characters probably could be more complex, but we don’t expect depth out of Rocky and Bullwinkle, The Warner Brothers and their sister, Dot or Phineas and Ferb. However, as a whole, these stories have something in them that will engage the reader on one level or another.

This time our hero, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III must save his friend Fishlegs from being fed to the Beast because Fishlegs made the unforgiveable faux pas or writing a love poem to a beautiful Viking princess. To save Fishlegs, Hiccup must undertake an impossible task while battling Berserks and dodging Scarers. At the same time, he is being hunted down by an old enemy and must learn the secret of the Lost Throne of the Hairy Hooligans. Oh… and his friend Kamikaze, daughter of Big-Boobied Bertha, Chief of the Bog Burglars, is missing. It might just be that the impossible task is the easy part.

Like the stories that precede it, this one is a lot of fun. As I have said before, forget almost everything you might have seen in the movies that were adapted from these stories. About all they have in common is a few of the names and the fact there are Vikings and dragons and I really think the stories are better. They last longer and are both more dramatic and funnier. Read them for yourself and see if I am not right.


The Audiobook:

Once again, David Tennant. the 12th Doctor Who and one-time Harry Potter villain, reads the continuing story of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III masterfully. Admittedly he did cross the line a coup0le times from dramatic reading to funny voices, but as I once commented about a reading by another Doctor Who portrayer (Tom Baker), the way he does it is what most other readers attempt to do, but fail. When Tennant uses a funny voice, it seems to fit the character so well that I was able to forgive him. Indeed, if other readers did it as well I doubt I ever would have come up with that as a point of criticism.

So, this is a fun story whether relegated to children or also shared with adults and I don’t think I would want to hear anyone by David Tennant reading it.

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