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 White Cat by Holly Black

June 24, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

LISTENING LIBRARY - White Cat by Holly BlackWhite Cat: The Curse Workers, Book One
By Holly Black; Read by Jesse Eisenberg
1 |MP3| – Approx. 6 Hours 41 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Listening Library
Published: May 11, 2010
ISBN: 9780307711816
Themes: / Fantasy / Urban Fantasy / Con men / Curses / Magic /

I wake up barefoot, standing on cold slate tiles. Looking dizzily down. I suck in a breath of icy air.

Above me are stars. Below me, the bronze statue of Colonel Wallingford makes me realize I’m seeing the quad from the peak of Smythe Hall, my dorm.

I have no memory of climbing the stairs up to the roof. I don’t even know how to get where I am, which is a problem since I’m going to have to get down, ideally in a way that doesn’t involve dying.

[…]

I’d dreamed of a white cat. It leaned over me, inhaling sharply, as if it was going to suck the breath from my lungs, but then it bit out my tongue instead. There was no pain, only a sense of overwhelming, suffocating panic. In the dream, my tongue was a wriggling red thing, mouse-sized and wet, that the cat carried in her mouth. I wanted it back. I sprang up out of the bed and grabbed for her, but she was too lean and too quick. I chased her. The next thing I knew, I was teetering on a slate roof.

A siren wails in the distance, drawing closer. My cheeks hurt from smiling.

Eventually a fireman climbs a ladder to get me down. They put a blanket around me, but by then my teeth are chattering so hard that I can’t answer any of their questions. It’s like the cat bit out my tongue after all.

Born into a family of curse workers, Cassell doesn’t have the magical powers to be a “worker.” Curses come in all shapes and sizes from transforming victims into something else down to emotionally influencing people. All that is needed is the touch of a finger. This makes gloves much more than a fashion accessory since they are a necessary item of protection.

Curse work is illegal so curse workers are all either part of the powerful crime families, con workers, or exist with their secret on the edges of society. Cassell’s family owes allegiance to a powerful crime family and working cons is as normal as breathing. In fact, working the con is the thing that makes up for not being a worker and Cassell eyes the world from this vantage point, which makes him a solitary figure with few friends.

Cassell has a dark secret, a problem with sleepwalking, and a family who specializes in running cons. He also lost the love of his life, Lila, long ago. However, he put that all behind him and is concentrating on life in boarding school and building a normal life, along with keeping book on the side. (Hey, a guy has to have a little spending money, right?) So when a white cat begins following him everywhere, terrifying dreams bring Lila back into his waking thoughts, and those dark secrets begin surfacing again, Cassell begins to suspect that he is a pawn in a complicated con game.

Can he out-con the pros and solve his problems? Well, of course he can or what would be the point of reading the book? The fascination is with watching Cassell have to admit that he needs help from others, seeing his longing for family ties even as he fears that he may have been betrayed by them,

Holly Black has a fully realized alternate world where the presence of curse working and magic define much more than Cassell’s personal problems. There is a slight but interesting subplot about an organization that is working for “worker’s rights.” The government has begun pushing a testing program, urging workers to come forward and be identified. Family loyalty along with the inner workings of crime families are also interesting embellishments to the plot. The magical abilities described are fascinating, as is the concept of “blow back” which besets anyone who works a curse. Nothing is done with impunity so you’d better be darned sure you want to curse someone because you will suffer some sort of severe reaction in turn.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is that Cassell is an unreliable narrator. What is more, he knows he is an unreliable narrator as he is afraid that he is too influenced by dreams or that his memory has been worked. Everyone around him is fairly unreliable as well since Cassell is never sure when someone is working a con or being natural. Although some major plot twists are fairly well telegraphed ahead of time, this hardly matters because we are so concerned with the fact that Cassell may be working a con we don’t see or that he is being conned himself.

The story is narrated by Jesse Eisenberg, who is probably best known for portraying the awkward college student in Zombieland or the equally awkward Mark Zuckerberg in Social Network. His trademark delivery works perfectly as the story is told by Cassell who is equally as awkward as either of those movie characters. Furthermore, Eisenberg alters his voice slightly but effectively to portray different characters: a fortune teller, Cassell’s mother, his roommate Sam, and the crime boss all get slightly different intonations which perfectly convey character. I would have liked the book anyway as a straight read, but with Eisenberg’s narration I bought it hook, line, and sinker. Just like an average mark, in fact.

It is called urban fantasy but didn’t really feel that way to me. It is fantasy because of the curse working element but other than that there are precious few fantastic elements. Likewise, it is labeled YA, but aside from the age of the narrator and some elements like having to attend classes, it didn’t feel like something written for younger readers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. What can I say? I like con stories. I like the universe Holly Black created. Jesse Eisenberg’s narration pulled me into the story so I stayed there long enough to care about a boarding school student with an interesting set of problems. I also liked the fact that the story arc was concluded in this book except for one element which obviously serves as a bridge to the second book of the series.

It’s just plain fun all round and moves at a fast, addictive pace. Recommended.

Posted by Julie D.

Aural Noir Review of Gentlemen Of The Road by Michael Chabon

May 31, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Aural Noir, Reviews 

Aural Noir: Review

RANDOM HOUSE AUDIO - Gentleman Of The Road by Michael ChabonGentlemen Of The Road: A Tale Of Adventure
By Michael Chabon; Read by Andre Braugher
Audible Download – Approx. 4 Hours 13 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: October 2007
Provider: Audible.com
Themes: / Adventure / Crime / Jewishness / War / Politics / Mercenaries / Con-men / Khazaria /

Gentlemen Of The Road was first published as a serial in The New York Times Magazine. Despite it’s sword and sorcery feel, it is not actually a Fantasy novel, but is instead a “swashbuckling adventure” set in an obscure, but real, historical setting. Its heroes, Amram and Zelikman, are an odd, but vaguely familiar, pair. Familiar in their companionable rivalry and clearly inspired by Fritz Leiber’s famed pair of characters: Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. But, instead of one being a short, urban thief and the other a hulking Northern barbarian, the two are instead the titular gentlemen of the road, wandering Jews, or as Chabon himself states in the audiobook’s afterword “Jews With Swords.” And that’s what was really important in this story; though each of these two Jews looks entirely unalike from the other, they are tied together by far flung tradition, common heritage and similar tales of woe. The larger of the pair is Amram, a swarthy Abyssinian with a penchant for shatranj and quite literally an axe to grind. The slighter and paler of the pair is Zelikman, a fair haired Frank, who far from being a member of the thieves guild is actually a doctor (he wields an “over-sized bloodletting lance as a rapier”). Together they are a neat pair of dark age sell-swords/con-men, working the taverns and inns of southern Eurasia. It is, all in all, one of the neatest set-ups for a book I’ve ever heard. And you couldn’t find a funner fictional premise for illustrating the Jewish diaspora in an adventure novel.

One evening (circa AD 950), a chance encounter at a roadside inn in the kingdom of Aran leads to a body-guard job. The job involves a journey to the neighboring khaganate of Khazaria. Along the way they meet many a fellow road traveler and have some less than polite encounters. Eventually, Amram and Zelikman (A & Z) find themselves fully entangled in a rebellion and plot aimed at restoring a displaced Khazar prince to the throne.

Narrator Andre Braugher is a television actor that I’ve admired since his portrayal of the unwaveringly professional detective Frank Pembelton on Homicide: Life on The Street. Braugher has a powerful voice that he uses to deliver Chabon’s ornately constructed descriptive scenes and dialogue. You can tell, with every sentence of Braugher’s delivery, that Chabon loves language. I thoroughly enjoyed the book after I got into it. But it wasn’t easy, I really had to shift gears. This is embellished storytelling, it feels both old-fashioned and unrepentantly ostentatious. It has very little of the usual fantasy stylings, it dumps any ordinary flat or prosaic description in favour of the deliberately lavish. Once I did get into it, I loved it. There’s a lot of detail to enjoy here. Chabon’s hulking Abyssinan, for instance, has a battle-axe. He gained it after combat with the Varangian Guard in Byzantium. A runic inscription on it roughly translates into “defiler of your mother.” Another writer would have done it another way – another writer wouldn’t have done it at all. This is what makes Chabon, his books and this novella in particular so special.

Sadly, the audiobook lacks the map and the 15 terrific black and white illustrations (by Gary Gianni ) found in the paperbook. Here is a peek at both:

Gentlemen Of The Road - MAP

Gentlemen Of The Road - PAGE 161

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Lost Gods by Drew Beatty

August 19, 2009 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Fantasy Audiobook - Lost Gods by Drew BeattyLost Gods
By Drew Beatty; Read by Drew Beatty
Publisher: Podiobooks.com
Published: 2008
Themes: / Fantasy / Gods / Con Men /

Kweku Anansi is just another down-on-his luck con man who preys on the more fortunate during the day and goes home to his loving wife at night. That seems rather a comedown for the African trickster god, which is his real identity. However, Anansi is close to one of the “lost gods” whose powers are fading as the number of people who believe in him grow fewer with time. He meets up with another con man who has a good idea for a big haul when they are confronted by a group of gods who would do anything to be worshipped again. When they offer him the chance to regain his lost power and worshippers Anansi must make a choice between the mortal world which includes his wife and that of the gods.

I always enjoy stories about Anansi whether the authentic folk tales or the modernized use of the character such as is found in Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys. This is a smaller tale than Gaiman’s but still well told. We like Anansi from the beginning and pull for him along the winding path his adventures take. Author Drew Beatty does a good job of reading the book, slightly changing his voice to portray characters so that one can really visualize them well. The only problem I came across was that the last three chapters had unedited duplications where the author had reread for proper wording or emphasis.If these are fixed then the story will be much smoother.

I enjoyed this book thoroughly, especially Beatty’s inclusion of the trickster gods from pantheons of both current and long gone religions around the world. If you enjoy modernized tales of gods among us, of the urban fantasy oeuvre, this this will be your cup of tea as well.

Posted by Julie D.