Review of Puttering About in a Strange Land

July 16, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Puttering About in a Strange Land PKDPuttering About in a Strange Land
By Philip K. Dick; Performed by Luke Daniels, Kate Rudd, Amy McFadden
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 11 hours

Themes: / marriage / boarding school / literary / infidelity /

Publisher summary:

When Roger and Virginia Lindhal enroll their son Gregg in Mrs. Alt’s Los Padres Valley School in the mountains of Southern California, their marriage is already in deep trouble. Then the Lindhals meet Chic and Liz Bonner, whose two sons also board at Mrs. Alt’s school. The meeting is a catalyst for a complicated series of emotions and traumas, set against the backdrop of suburban Los Angeles in the early fifties. The buildup of emotional intensity and the finely observed characterizations are hallmarks of Philip K. Dick’s work.This is a realistic novel filled with details of everyday life and skillfully told from three points of view. It is powerful, eloquent, and gripping.

Puttering About in a Small Land (written 1957 but first published in 1985) feels very different from Philip K Dick’s usual stuff. It’s a dark and funny slow-burn set in 1950s Southern California, but there are no simulacra, no time slips, and no telepaths, and the only artificial reality is the one built out of society’s expectations of suburban married life.

It also seems unusually sensitive for PKD – not in a corny or sentimental way but just finely tuned into human relationships. He captures the subtle and imperfect communications of a dysfunctional marriage where two people are pretending to work together but are really pushing and pulling below the surface, wanting different things and resenting each other for it.

“I’ll be back pretty soon,” he said. From his eyes shone the leisurely, confident look; it was the sly quality that always annoyed her.

“I thought maybe we could talk,” she said.

He stood at the door, his hands in his pockets, his head tilted on one side. And he waited, showing his endurance, not arguing with her, simply standing. Like an animal, she thought. An inert, unspeaking, determined thing, remembering that it can get what it wants if it just waits.

“I’ll see you,” he said, opening the door to the hall.

“All right,” she said.

The story is told in three alternating points of view: Roger, his wife Virginia, and the “other woman” Liz. All three are trapped, one way or another, in self-made realities they don’t enjoy.

Some readers complain that PKD writes unflattering female characters, and as usual these ones aren’t much to admire: Virginia is gossipy and judgmental, her mother is a controlling nag (who often corners Roger and has some of the funniest scenes in the book), and Liz Bonner is so naïve and childlike she verges on the idiotic.

“She’s sort of a—” Mrs Alt searched for the word. “I don’t want to say lunatic. That isn’t it. She’s sort of an idiot with a touch of mysticism.”

But even so, Virginia has her strengths, and Liz Bonner is lovely in a quirky way. Her flaws and naïve unpredictability are exactly what free her from society’s expectations, and are what attract Roger. Despite the deceit and infidelity, their love story is somehow still beautiful.

And to be fair, PKD also writes pretty unflattering men. For example, Roger not only cheats on his wife, he also abandoned his previous wife and daughter and seems to be a compulsive liar. He’s a bristly, bad-tempered, and indifferent to his wife’s gestures of love and compromise. All he really cares about his TV retail-and-repair business, which is where the book title comes from: he’s a little king “puttering about in a small land.”

The waning of a marriage and infidelity appear in a lot of PKD’s stories, but in this one they really drive this plot. Normally I wouldn’t try to detect an author’s own life in his fiction, but since PKD has openly admitted he weaves autobiographical details into all his stories, it seems safe to see something of him in Roger.

His essay “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later” might give some more clues to his approach to fiction set in the real world. Just because the characters’ universe is based in reality doesn’t mean PKD won’t try to disintegrate it.

I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Do not believe—and I am dead serious when I say this—do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. … Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live.”

I listened to Puttering About in a Small Land on audio and read the print version too. The audiobook was read by Amy McFadden, Kate Rudd, and Luke Daniels, one for each of the main characters. All three were great, although using three narrators didn’t work so well for me since the story is in third-person. Hearing the same characters read three slightly different ways gave the audiobook a patchwork feel and was a bit jarring and distracting sometimes.

I’d recommend Puttering About in a Small Land for PKD fans but not so much as an entry to his works. For anyone who knows his style, it’s very cool to see a more subtle side of him and to see how beautifully he can write about human relationships in the artificial universe we call reality. Definitely worth the read.

Posted by Marissa van Uden

 

Review of Red Glove by Holly Black

July 23, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Fantasy Audiobook - Red Glove by Holly BlackRed Glove: The Curse Workers, Book 2
By Holly Black; Read by Jesse Eisenberg
7 Hours, 5 Minutes – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Listening Library
Published: 2011
Themes: / Fantasy / Urban Fantasy / Con men / Curses / Magic / Boarding school /

A review by Julie D.

Red Glove is the second book in Holly Black’s Curse Workers series, the first of which was White Cat. |SFFaudio Review|

As the book begins, we get more of a feel for the insecure world in which Cassel grew up. It is the end of summer vacation and he’s living with his mother in Atlantic City, drifting from hotel to hotel, helping her con a series of wealthy gentleman friends for support. It is an anxiety-filled existence, with the potential for exploding violence at any moment.

When his senior year at boarding school begins, Cassel is glad to reenter the familiar environment. That is derailed when Lila, the girl he loves but must avoid, begins school there as well. Inevitably, it seems, she becomes one of his circle of friends and the angst of seeing the girl he cannot have is constantly on his mind.

Just a few days into the school year, Cassel’s oldest brother is murdered and the Feds try to recruit him to help solve that case and investigate a possibly related string of unsolved murders. The only clue is video footage of a woman wearing red gloves but whose face cannot be seen. They also want Cassel to become an informant on the Zacharov crime family, with which his own family has long been aligned. Complicating matters, the Zacharov’s also want to recruit Cassel to use his transformation powers on their behalf. As if that weren’t pressure enough, the state government is heightening efforts to test everyone to identify curse workers.

As Cassel attempts to untangle the web of lies in which he finds himself, he must resort to a big con to both discover the truth and solve his problems about who he will work with. Naturally this is great fun and there are many plot twists and cliff-hangers along the way in the story which make it somewhat addictive listening. Only the final twist of the book was fairly predictable. However, it is fairly unimportant to the book overall as it serves to act as the bridge to carry the reader forward into the next book of the series.

Red Glove conveys more of the feel of Cassel’s age since much of the action takes place around classes or with school pals. However, as in White Cat, the key issues are still those of trust, betrayal, friendship, identity, truth, and true love, all on a higher level than the ordinary book set among this age group.

As in the first book, Cassel walks a tightrope between right and wrong in his world of gray ethics. However, the fact that he now has some close friends allows us to see him opening up to others and extending himself in their time of need. He will use his con skills when needed but is taking increasing chances by telling the truth to those around him. This allows for personal growth that makes his choices harder much of the time, but which we can see slowly building to a way out of the crime-filled, worker world he has always inhabited.

Black does us the great favor of not worrying much about back story or lengthy flashbacks. She will add a sentence or two when the stories overlap to be sure the reader is oriented and then moves on. This kept the story moving at a fairly brisk pace, although it did bog down a bit in the middle when Cassel goes hunting for who set up a particular murder victim.

As before, Jesse Eisenberg narrated the book with great skill, conveying Cassel’s emotions as the awkward high school senior longing for normalcy. Usually he would simply alter his voice a bit to portray other characters but occasionally would use accents to great effect, as in his portrayal of the head of the Zacharov family.

Red Glove is not as fresh and sparkling as White Cat, but it is a worthy successor. I definitely enjoyed it and am considering getting the print version for rereading. Recommended.

Posted by Julie D.

Review of Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

October 3, 2007 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Reviews, SFFaudio essential 

SFFaudio Review

Princess Academy by Shannon HalePrincess Academy
By Shannon Hale; Read by a Full Cast
8 CDs – 8 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Full Cast Audio
Published: 2007
ISBN: 1933322772
Themes: / Fantasy / Young Adult / Magic / Culture / Royalty / Boarding School / Economics /

Earlier this year (2007), the unabridged Full Cast Audio production of Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl won an Audie Award for Achievement in Production. Now, Full Cast Audio offers another Shannon Hale novel in a production that may be even better. Princess Academy is a wonderful YA fantasy novel that is a sure bet to enthrall readers (and now listeners) of all ages.

It’s become cliché to say that this or that YA novel has wider appeal than their target audience but Shannon Hale’s, without question, fit that description. They are appropriate for young listeners (the box says “ages 10 to adult”) and at the same time are smart enough and, most importantly, true enough for older readers. This novel is entertaining, but the characters live realistic and difficult lives. Through them, Hale helps us understand that there’s nothing more important in life than love.

The main character of the novel is Miri, a fourteen year old girl who is small for her age. She lives in a mountain village, where most of the residents work in the nearby quarry. One day, a herald arrives and announces that priests have determined that the bride of the prince, who lives in a bustling city, will come from the tiny region that Miri lives in, and that all girls 14-18 years old must report to an academy so that they might be educated for the prince’s visit one year later, when he will make his choice. The girls are collected and brought to the academy, some of them willingly, and some of them not.

Miri is not happy about it, and her feelings of inadequacy due to the overprotective way her father treats her are compounded and confused by the fact that he does not put up much of a fight to keep her from going. But once she gets to the academy and learns to read, she realizes the benefit and takes full advantage of the experience, which is made all the more difficult by a very hard headmistress. Throughout the story, Miri learns of a magic called “quarryspeak”, which is a method of psychic communication that seems to work only between quarry workers while in the quarry. She finds that there’s more to it than that, and she finds out there’s a lot more to everything else, too.

The Full Cast Audio team has mastered their unique method of unabridged audiobook production. There is no other company that produces audiobooks the way they do it, and every book they come out with is technically better than the last. Actors are used for all the dialogue, and a narrator reads everything else. An 8 hour production like this would lose its appeal if any of the roles were cast with questionable talent, but that’s not a problem here. Particularly good were Jo D’Aloisio, the young girl who played Miri, Laura Credidio, the narrator, and Alice Morigi, who played Tutor Olana, the icy headmistress. The entire cast deserves kudos. Skilled acting and directing along with perfect music and editing make this production a wondrous experience. Simply excellent, all around.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

Review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

September 30, 2005 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

Fantasy Audiobooks - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood PrinceHarry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
By J.K. Rowling; Read by Jim Dale
17 CDs – 19 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Listening Library
Published: 2005
ISBN: 0307283658
Themes: / Fantasy / Magic / Wizardry / Youth / Magical Creatures / School /

At this point, the Harry Potter universe has become so entrenched in our culture that it’s impossible to approach the newest installment of the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, with anything like objectivity. Most readers already care so much about Harry and his associates that the reading experience has become less like enjoying a good novel and more like continuing the biography of a good friend or beloved celebrity. Which isn’t to say that The Half-Blood Prince isn’t a good novel; on the contrary, it ranks right up there with The Prisoner and Azkaban and The Goblet of Fire, and is a damn sight better than 2003’s gloomy and ultimately disappointing The Order of the Phoenix. For those of us who feel better when things are given in Star Wars terms, The Half-Blood Prince is most similar to The Empire Strikes Back; it advances and complicates our views about the series and its characters, while apparently moving backward from the hero’s inevitable triumph over the villain.

In The Half-Blood Prince, author J.K. Rowling maintains her own tradition of opening the novel without the titular hero in sight. In this case, the muggle Prime Minister of England is anxiously awaiting a visit from the Minister of Magic and reminiscing about their previous, mostly unpleasant, meetings. When Cornelius Fudge arrives, he brings news that the wizarding world is in an uproar; Lord Voldemort is apparently growing more and more powerful, Voldemort’s followers, the Death-Eaters are becoming more brazen in their attacks, and wizards, witches, and muggles are all at increasing risk of severe harm or death.

While Rowling never mentions real-world events in the books, the tone and situations of the two novels published since 9-11 indicate that the world inside her head is not completely insulated from the world outside. It’s telling of Rowling’s own views that the Ministry of Magic is, at best, ineffectual in dealing with these threats, and is often outright dangerous; in The Half-Blood Prince, the Ministry of Magic detains individuals it knows to be innocent, in order to give the appearance of making some progress against the enemy.

The initial expository scene, combined with a tantalizingly ambiguous revelation about one of the Hogwart’s professors, makes for such a dark opening that it’s an almost tangible relief when Harry finally makes an appearance. The likeable young wizard is now 16 years old, and Rowling has again taken pains to ensure that the novel has matured along with Harry. Passages dealing with the magical comeuppance of the Dursleys, the pointless ins and outs of Quidditch matches (why bother with anything but the snitch?), and the minutiae of wizard candy are fleeting and widely spaced, while more chapters are devoted to fairly violent magical battles (a faithful movie adaptation could very well garner an “R” rating), career counseling, and “snogging,” (making out, for those of us on the Yankee side of the pond).

Once the novel starts in earnest, Rowling doesn’t stray from Harry’s point of view, but she cheats somewhat by using the “pensive,” a magical device that allows Harry to explore the memories of others. The pensive is put to good use in the book, as its main function is to investigate the background of “He-who-must-not-be-named.” Readers who are hoping for a complicated, even sympathetic, take on Lord Voldemort (ala Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon) will be disappointed. It turns out that Voldemort is just plain bad, always has been, and apparently, always will be. More psychopath than sadist, Voldemort never hurts or kills just for enjoyment, his villainies are always means to an end. Voldemort’s particular brand of evil means that the guilt that might be expected to accompany these activities just isn’t there.

Other magical items are used less effectively in the story. An episode involving a bottle of “liquid luck”, called “felix felicis,” (the letters of which do not rearrange to spell deus ex machina) feels so contrived, requires a such a lengthy and complicated set-up, and requires Harry, Ron, and Hermione to act so outside their characters, that it’s one of the few times the book feels like something that somebody made up, rather than a description of actual events.

All told, however, the sixth installment in the Harry Potter series is excellent, and the unabridged recording of the novel makes for a very enjoyable listen. The folks at Listening Library made an inspired choice when they chose Jim Dale to read The Sorcerer’s Stone, and, five books, two Audie Awards, five Headphone Awards, three Grammy nominations and one actual Grammy later, his performance of The Half-Blood Prince is, to borrow a word from Harry, brilliant. Even without sound effects, music, or multiple actors, The Half-Blood Prince plays like a good BBC radio drama. Dale lends nuance and individuality to each of the characters, while his “normal,” narration voice is dignified, yet accessible. Dale also has an uncanny knack for interpreting speech adverbs; where Rowling writes “reprovingly,” or “reminiscently”, Dale puts reproach or reminiscence into the dialogue, so much so that very often the listener will be able to predict Rowling’s choice of adverb before Dale reads it. Maybe the highest compliment that can be paid to the audio book is that at no point is the reader reminded of the sub-par (but increasingly better) film adaptations of the books. While listeners who desire an experience closer to reading, with more neutral performances that allow for more personal interpretation, might resent having Dale’s vigorous interpretation thrust upon them, most listeners, particularly younger ones, will enjoy all 19 hours of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

May 27, 2004 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

Fantasy Audiobooks - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
By J.K. Rowling, Read by Jim Dale
7 Cassettes – approx 12 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Listening Library
Published: February 2000
ISBN: 0807282316
THEMES: / Fantasy / Young Adult / Magic / School / Magical Creatures / Childhood /

The Harry Potter juggernaut is about to leave port once more. The film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is scheduled for release on June 4. I’ve got two kids myself, both Potter fans, so I thought I’d revisit this audiobook.

It was my pleasure to do so because the Harry Potter audiobooks (all five to date) represent one of the finest matches of reader to material that I have heard. Jim Dale is brilliant as… well, as everybody in this book. He reads with a nuanced energy and enthusiasm for the text, creating an audio experience that’s every bit as entertaining as any movie. More so, in fact, as the novel has a depth that the films simply can’t match.

The story? After extracting himself from yet another summer spent with the Dursleys, Harry discovers that a man named Sirius Black has escaped from the infamous Azkaban prison. Further, Potter finds out that Black is a friend of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (er… Voldemort), and therefore out to get him. Harry spends the school year trying to live normally at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry while the adult teachers try to keep him protected. Flanked by his best friends (Ron and Hermione) he navigates the year, discovering things about himself along the way.

Not only has J.K. Rowling filled Hogwarts with interesting and funny characters, but she’s also added the witty details of the Wizarding world, which are endlessly entertaining. Harry and his friends grow up a little in each book – this is not the same Harry we met in the first book, and is not the same Harry we meet in books 4 and 5. This is what I think makes the book so appealing to adults as well as children – we enjoy experiencing Hogwarts as much as the kids, but with the added dimension of viewing childhood from afar.

A fun, engaging story. An excellent reader. Fabulous.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson