Monday, September 26, 2022

Phreaks by Matthew Derby

Occasionally, I'll pick up a title on Audible that I wouldn't ordinarily listen to or care about, and the radio play Phreaks by Matthew Derby is one such. Granted, it didn't take much to twist my rubber arm because one of my favourite actors lends his vocal talents to the production. If you ever watched Gotham, you'll know and love Ben McKenzie as much as I do. Of course the added tease (and here I'm wearing my 1990s on my sleeve) is that Christian Slater also has a decent part.

This full-cast radio play that is set in 1970 grabbed my attention from the get go. We meet teen Emma Gable, who is obsessed with making random phone calls so she can chat with whoever picks up. Despite her disability (or perhaps because of it) she is plucky and possesses a sharp tongue. These phone calls are her idea of entertainment and a link to a world beyond her current life, and honestly, I don't blame her. If you're blind, your parents are troubled, and you've got little else to keep you occupied after school, then why the hell not. Except it's all fun and games until she stumbles onto a bunch of people who use the phone systems to run what was then (very) basic hacks.

We also meet Bell security agent Bill Connolly (McKenzie – he's such a typical detective type down to his voice) who's chafing at how his career is going nowhere. That he's stuck working for Bell when he has greater aspirations ... and it looks like he's going to spend most of the play grumbling until he gets a whiff of this group of hackers, and figures that Emma is the key he needs to unlock the problem.

While there're no high-octane car chases, this is still a thrilling listen, and the characters you encounter are fascinating and flawed. I love how Emma, ever the misfit, garners a degree of social clout thanks to her skill with gaming the phone system. Emma's father (voiced by Slater), is his own worst enemy, and I'd cheerfully like to slap him upside the head for the way he treats Emma's mum, who is clearly quite ill thanks to the hazards of her job.

Beneath the slow burn of the gradually evolving plot, we are faced with the small-town tragedies that everyday people face, drawing to a bitter-sweet conclusion. I admit that I know very little about hacking and how the phone systems worked back then, so it was fascinating having a glimpse into an era that was the reality for so many people less than a decade before I popped out of my mum's womb. Our world is very different now, and Phreaks feels like a little bit of a time capsule for those who might be curious.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok by Ben Waggoner

Staying with my dive into the old Northern myths and legends, I gave The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok, as translated by Ben Waggoner, a spin as it was included in my Audible subscription. Narrated by Ray Chase, whom I admit I needed a little time to grow accustomed to after my binging on similar content narrated by Jackson Crawford, this proved to be an equally fascinating listen.

Although, if pressed, I'll admit that I struggle with particulars of names and exact events, this was nonetheless an engaging offering that cast light on my ancestors' pre-Christian cultural heritage. And if I'm ever looking for story seeds, there're more than enough here for me to live up to my Viking ancestors doings and pillage to my heart's content. 

Ragnar Lodbrok with his hairy pants and serpent-slaying prowess is certainly a fascinating figure, especially in terms of him portrayed as a trickster and warrior. I've watched most of Vikings on Netflix, which I'd say is only *roughly* based on the doings of this legendary figure. And when I say roughly, I really do mean roughly. Though I can see how the screenwriters' heavy-handed foreshadowing about a snake pit came about. Admittedly, I've stalled on watching the fourth season because, frankly, I've grown bored. The actual source material is far more exciting – or at least how I picture things in my head while I listened. And I admit I have a rather vivid imagination. It takes quite a lot for a show or movie to live up to my expectations. At least while reading or listening to the audiobook, I am free to create my own visuals.

Fatalism, treachery, violence, the inescapability of one's wyrd – these are all recurring themes in any of the old Norse sagas, and The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok are no exception. Ragnar is, at the end, a victim of his own hubris, and watching his inevitable downfall as well as the epic doings of his many children is great entertainment. But I've got to wonder about heroes who act in ways that would class them as TSTL* in a modern-day work of fiction. I guess knowing that a tragedy is unfolding is what makes this all worth the journey. Not to mention the occasional pearls of wisdom one uncovers.

*Too stupid to live.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt by Bob Brier

I'm a huge fan of The Great Courses offerings, possibly because I'm a frustrated academic at heart. I've also been following some of Bob Brier's videos on YouTube, so I was on familiar turf when I downloaded Great Pharaohs of Egypt, which forms part of The Great Courses: Ancient History series.

First off, Brier is eminently listenable. He was a wonderful, conversational style that really brings his subject matter to life – especially when we consider personalities who existed so far back in the mists of time that it's almost impossible for us to even imagine what their lives must have been like. Brier's boundless, breathless enthusiasm for his subject matter is a joy to behold. And his sly humour certainly adds an extra dimension to a subject that could otherwise be as dull as dishwater.

As the name of the course suggests, we're deal with the lives of some of ancient Egypt's greatest pharaohs in a period that spans three thousand years. Merely thinking about that amount of time for an entire culture to exist and flourish breaks my head a little – especially if I think of how *recent* some of our contemporary nations are – a mere drop in the bucket compared to ancient Egypt. 

Something that struck me as quite profound was Brier's statement that ancient Egypt's people is what made the ancient nation great. He draws the focus away from the tombs and monuments, to the individuals who ruled, crafted, built, and cultivated. And there certainly were some remarkable rulers – he examines the likes of Hatshepsut (my favourite pharaoh), Cleopatra, Narmer, Tutankhamen, and a whole host of others over 12 lectures.

Even as a seasoned veteran of armchair Egyptology, I found myself enthralled by how Brier spoke about these rulers, imbuing them with life in a way that didn't feel as if he was making too many assumptions with pet theories (a real danger for any historian, according to another of my favourite Egyptologists, Barbara Mertz). Whether this is your introduction into this amazing culture or if you've steeped your spare time in ancient Egypt, this course is both entertaining and informative, and very much falls under the banner of 'not to be missed'.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

The Republic of Thieves (Gentleman Bastard #3) by Scott Lynch

Admittedly, when I first read The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, I did so knowing that this was very much a Marmite book that elicited strong reactions in readers that sliced either way. It also took me a few chapters to get into Lynch's style, which veers away from the present convention for writing a tight first- or third-person to dwelling in a kind of limited-to-verging-on-omniscient style. But. Of course there's a but. Lynch does this so very well. And he won me over to the fate of Locke and Jean from the get go. 

You'll not find a slippier pair than these two friends who have a nasty habit of getting themselves caught up in cons that often go way over their heads. To the point where, with every instalment, I keep wondering how the heck Lynch's imagination gets so twisty. And not only that, but Lynch's style is right up there on the top shelf. The Republic of Thieves, which is book three in the Gentleman Bastard series, is an absolute cracker that I savoured over the space of a few months.

What I absolutely adored out of book three was that only only do we pick up on the basic cliff hanger left over from book two, which I won't spoil, but we see Locke and Jean given an 'out' from their predicament that may well cost them much more than they're prepared to pay. And Lynch's clever mind not only tells this story, of how Jean and Locke find themselves in the midst of helping throw a political election, pitted against someone who's rather a blast from the past (once again, no spoilers), but Lynch also nests an entire other novel within these pages, going back in time to how Locke, Jean, Sabetha, and all their fellow Bastards are sent off to strut the stage in a very Shakespearian manner in another city. What I enjoyed about this segueing into the past was that it offers a glimpse into Locke and Jean's formative years and their interactions with their old gang, which are an absolute joy to behold. 

Let me please just gush again about the exquisite poise, sly humour, and detailed world building in Lynch's prose. This is a book to be savoured. 

And I absolutely must quote my favourite line ever:
He had no chin to speak of, and long hair so ill-kept it looked as though a brown hawk had perched on the back of his head and clung there until it died.

This legit had me laughing so much I frightened the cat right off my lap.

Suffice to say, going into the depths of the story will spoil it for you, my gentle readers. If you've yet to encounter the misadventures of Locke and Jean, hie your bones to your nearest copy of The Lies of Locke Lamora, and take it from there. You're welcome. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake

I'm almost immediately wary whenever a novel is touted as a 'must-read TikTok sensation with over 11 million views'. It's a clear indication that a hype machine in some shape or form has been working in overdrive. But, I was curious about The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake, and the subject matter itself appealed to me enough for me to make grabby fingers a while back when the opportunity to read the novel presented itself.

The premise is as follows: Six magicians are invited to compete for a place within a secret organisation known as The Alexandrian Society, where they will have access to centuries of hoarded knowledge. The only catch is that one of them will have to die.

I wanted to like this book, I really did, but as the story progressed, I felt as if the author was more concerned with the characters' cleverness than progressing a plot that feels as if it has enough momentum to carry me forward. We also see the story told from different points of view, which in itself is not such a bad thing, save that I felt that there was a lot of sameness to the characters' voices, so that for the first half of the book, while I was trying to get to know them, I struggled to tell them apart.

Small details, like the one character being South African, but none of his inner landscape even suggesting to me that he *was* actually South African, kinda annoyed me. In fact, I found most of the characters all quite bland and somewhat entitled. 

Sure, there was some interesting moral and philosophical talk that happened here and there, but for the most I felt that there was an awful lot of navel gazing, and I kept waiting for the exciting stuff to happen. Because, I mean, hello, magic. One sequence involving Parisa was quite thrilling and somewhat cleverly written, but for the most, not so much.

It's clear that Blake is a gifted writer, and there are moments where the prose shines, but I suspect the fault lies with me, the reader, for not glomping onto the text wholeheartedly. Evidently, The Atlas Six was thrilling for those thousands of other readers who are lauding this novel as a paragon of literary greatness. I'm not one of them.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

King of the Hollow Dark by Cat Hellisen

Cat Hellisen does something in King of the Hollow Dark that I feel we don't see often enough in the fantasy genre – a recognisably modern secondary world setting. No princess in need of rescuing, jousting, or castles here. Okay, so there is a mysterious city that at some point crumbles into so much sand... And many other strange sights and occurrences besides. As any veteran who's read many of Cat's books will attest to. 

We meet Georgina, or George, as she prefers to be called, who lives with her dad in an apartment and is desperately trying to live an ordinary life. The reason for this arrangement is that her mum was responsible for a ghost uprising a few years before, and was hauled off and executed by the Empress, who is not exactly the kind of person you want to cross. 

George is anything but normal, as she soon learns, and despite her reluctance to get involved with any of the necromancy that was the grist to her mum's mill, she finds that things change after she's separated from her body and winds up in the afterlife with a slight case of being dead. Except things there are not quite what she expected, and she gets tangled up in a plot to overthrow the Empress, whose actions are slowly eroding the barriers between the world of the living and the dead so that the Hollow Dark is doing a The Neverending Story-esque Nothing. And nope, we can't have that.

King of the Hollow Dark reminds me a lot in tone and theme to Neil Gaiman's The Sandman – it has the same eerie, dream-like quality as the characters journey across one surreal landscape after the other, and often find themselves in precarious situations. George and her friends fight against great odds to return the worlds to their balance, but to do so will also require a great sacrifice – and despite her great reluctance, George finds herself in the position of linchpin for the entire debacle. Because if she doesn't do anything to stop it, the Hollow Dark will devour everything. 

At times surreal and mysterious, this story is, much like Cat's other writing, incredibly lush and populated with delightfully awkward characters who somehow manage to band together to deal with their bigger problems. And their problems are of the rather large, world-ending kind.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran

A while ago I was able to finish the rather ambitious (and hefty) The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George, which left me wondering about possible historical novels about her children. Hence me picking up Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran. Told solely from the point of view of Selene, Cleopatra's daughter, we travel with her and her brothers from Egypt to Rome, after their parents' suicides.

Rome, with all its intrigues and complex familial structures, is a totally different world for Selene – one that she initially struggles to navigate. Then again, anyone who grew up with the assumption that they are destined to rule, only to find themselves at the mercy of a merciless emperor in a foreign city, will most likely face challenges adapting to a new way of life.

With any re-envisioning of ancient times into a work of fiction, come the inherent issues of turning reality (or at least how much of it we can glean from historical sources) into a compelling tale. Moran has taken some liberties by creating a fictional organisation known as the Red Feather that seeks to overthrow existing power structures, which I felt was a little tacked on but not too annoyingly so. I did feel that the conclusion peters off without a satisfying punch, though there were a few memorable scenes throughout – I can't quite put my finger on what bothered me, except that I felt that Selene didn't quite evolve as a character, buffeted along by events instead of being active, with a twist of a realisation right at the end that felt somewhat too sudden for my liking.

Despite some of the heavy content (a focus on the issue of slavery, which was inherent to this era, as well as the trouble with arranged marriages, as well as some deaths and violence) this is still a sweet story that kept me engaged. If you're in the mood for a slow-burn historical romance without any overtly erotic scenes, then Cleopatra's Daughter may well hit the mark.

Saturday, September 3, 2022

The Book of the Dead by Charles Rivers Editors

If you're looking for an actual translation of the ancient Egyptian funerary texts, then this little audiobook brought out by Charles Rivers Editors is not going to be for you. The Book of the Dead: The History and Legacy of Ancient Egypt’s Famous Funerary Texts is exactly what it says it is – and it's a (very) brief, somewhat shallow glance at the complex funerary texts and their applications in ancient Egypt over the ages. 

Narrator Jim D Johnston does a fair job narrating this short audiobook that, if you're anything like me – an armchair Egyptologist who's read widely and deeply over the years – you're bound to be slightly let down by the content. I learnt nothing new here, so I would recommend this more for people who are going to use this as a starting point for their own studies.

We can tell much about a culture based on the objects found in tombs, and the sheer attention to detail the ancient Egyptians invested in their art has provided a veritable treasure trove for archaeologists, despite the plundering of the final resting places of all their material wealth, in most cases. The gist of the whole deal with the ancient Egyptian books of the dead is that we're not dealing with *a* book of the dead, but rather an ever-changing selection of spells inscribed at first on the walls of tombs, and on coffins, and eventually on papyri buried with the deceased. These spells assured a safe journey into the Amduat (netherworld) and offered protection from many ills, among other things.

If you're new to the study of ancient Egypt, then this rather 'slim' volume might be right for you. But if this is not your first rodeo in terms of researching history, rather seek elsewhere.