Books

Alexander The Great by Erin Wade

I have a long-term Audible subscription that gives me two credits per month towards audiobooks. When I say "long-term", I mean that this is something that has been in place since well before Amazon purchased Audible. In fact, according to my account information, I’ve been a member since January 2001 - not quite since the beginning of its existence in 1995, but still pretty early in its lifespan.

I listen to a lot of spoken word content in a blend of podcasts and audiobooks. At times, the volume of podcasts means that it takes a while to get back to the audiobooks, and from time to time I’ll hit a point where I have to use some of my Audible credits or I will lose them. Long story short, this is how I came to purchase Alexander The Great by Philip Freeman. It reflected an area of interest - I do enjoy history and biographies - but a mild one. It was something that I figured it wouldn't hurt to have, but I wasn’t sure when I would get to listening to it.

I should not have put it off. The worry, with a biography on a long-past historical figure like this is that it will be a series of dry facts, that it will be an experience more like taking one’s medicine - it’s good for you, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean that you enjoy it. The approach taken for this tome, however, was different. Rather than simply providing a series of facts, Freeman takes a cue from David McCullough. This book reads more like a novel than a history book, with the author providing descriptions of the locations, and offering (perhaps speculative) insights into the feelings and minds of the many players in the life and times surrounding the legendary man. That he is doing so is addressed early on in the book - there is no pretense that he actually knows what the people of the time were thinking, but rather the author notes that he intended to make a more picturesque tableau, and he does so quite nicely. The reader gets a sense of what it may have been like to be there marching through Macedonia, Greece, or Asia with Alexander.

Not that this should suggest that historical facts are left out of the picture. In fact, the book does a fine job of giving an impression of events during, after, and before the rise of Alexander. For myself, having a passing interest in his story with little to no specific background information, I found this book a wonderful introduction.

To provide clear context of the events that lead to the rise of Alexander, the author chooses to begin with going into detail on the rule of his father. I’d known that Alexander was not actually Greek, and that he was the son of Philip of Macedonia, but that was honestly all I’d known, a tiny bit of trivia retained from my undergraduate Western Civ class far more years ago than I’d care to admit. Who Philip was (the hard-won king of Macedonia) or how that provided the ground work that made Alexander’s conquests possible was something that, frankly, I’d never even thought to consider. Understanding that Alexander learned at the feet of a political and strategic mastermind who did considerable consolidation of the lands of Macedonia and Greece certainly provides a clearer picture of how the events surrounding the man himself are possible - such legendary figures do not simply appear, pristine, from the ether. Rather they rise up along the steps provided by those who come before.

Among the other things this book helped to provide was some clearer context in terms of the historical timeline. I’ve always though of Alexander as ancient, and he was, but my picture of him lacked context. This telling clearly puts him in a context with respect to other events in history, with touchstones such as battle between the Spartans and Xerxes (as reflected in 300), his relative presence to Greek philosophers, and the existence and his experience with the great pyramids in Egypt. At one point Freeman notes that the distance in time between Alexander and the builders of those monuments is akin to the distance between our time and that of Alexander. It makes one realize that the ancient world was a long time ago, but that it was also an incredibly long span of time itself, with huge swaths of history already past by the time this conqueror’s sandals trod the earth.

The narrator for this book is Michael Page. He sounds to be a British reader, and he is pleasant company for the journey in the book. The only caveat I’d make for this is that it may be beneficial for the American listener to visit the Wikipedia page on Alexander The Great to look at the spellings of some of the names and terms. Page has a delightfully English pronunciation style that will be different than we’d expect. The most frequent example is his way of reading the name of Alexander’s primary foe in the book - Darius the Third. Most of us in the States would likely say "Dare-E-Us", but Page pronounces it "Duh-Rye-Us". For the record, Dictionary.com agrees with him, as does Merriam-Webster, so perhaps I’m just off on this, but I suspect others may find it a bit confusing as well.

This book is a survey of the times, and rolls past like a story rather than a text, so it will likely be unsatisfying for someone well-versed in the lore of Alexander the Great. But if this is an area of interest for you, and particularly if you’ve wondered how to start in this, this book provides a very nice entry point.

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) - A Review by Erin Wade

Weird on the Internet

This one is a memoir, written and read by Felicia Day. Odds are good, if you are reading this, that you know who Felicia Day is, but if not, you may have seen her in:

...And many, many others. Basically, if it's geeky and good, Felicia Day has very possibly been involved with it.

This particular book is, as mentioned, a memoir. It recounts her life, beginning from a childhood in the Deep South, home schooled and living a self-described off-kilter life, and continuing up through her professional career, into very nearly current day (the Audiobook was released in 2015) and reflecting her struggles with Gamergate.

Anyone can relate the details of their life, moving from time to time and from event to event. You've probably had an uncle or grandparent do this to you at family gatherings while you desperately looked for some means of escape. What so often (if not always) makes the difference is the telling of the story. And it is in the telling that this book truly shines.

It's a rare book that can truly make me laugh out loud, but this did on multiple occasions. The writing is quick and delightfully clever. She manages to be both wonderfully self-deprecating and reflect pride her accomplishments, sometimes simultaneously. As I mentioned before, it's read by Felicia herself, and this magnifies the telling - like the best audiobook performances, the narration feels like a conversation, a storytelling, not a reading. It's intimate, familiar material for her, and she delivers it with all that entails. I was genuinely sad to reach the end of the book.

As a bonus, because the audiobook was recorded after the tree corpse version's release, there is additional material about events that occurred as part of her book tour. These are very fun as well.

So look - if you are reading this, you probably already know and love Felicia Day's work. You owe it to yourself to pick up (or download) this book.

Station Breaker - A Review by Erin Wade

Station Breaker

Station Breaker by Andrew Mayne is a speculative fiction piece surrounding a private company astronaut, in a near future setting, where trips to and from space are handled by a Space X-like company. The setting is somewhat reminiscent of The Martian, in that it presents bits of technology that might not quite yet exist, but you know are just over the horizon.

That setting in time, however, is where the resemblance ends. Astronaut David Dixon is on his first actual space mission and, even before liftoff, things don't seem quite right. Why is the mission commander, a seasoned NASA astronaut, surreptitiously packing along a pistol?

This story is a breakneck-speed adventure from start to finish. Setting development is efficiently handled, giving a feeling for time and location while trusting the reader to come along quickly, and then never looking back or slowing down. The narrative is in first person, mostly present tense, giving the impression you are seeing things as David Dixon sees them, and keeping you directly in the moment. You, as has David, have been dropped into a very difficult situation with no explanation of what is really happening, nor of why, keeping you on the edge of your seat.

For the hard science fiction aficionados there is real time and attention paid here to the physics of things, both in space and otherwise. Still, this is done in a way that won't be intimidating to readers unfamiliar with these components - if proper physics is important to you, it's there. If it isn't, you won't be forced to pop over to iTunes U and take a course to understand what is going on - it's nicely laid out mostly as color to the overall story, and briefly, clearly explained when it's more important to what is going on.

The physics, and the story, don't only happen in space. This story rolls its way across multiple locations, Indiana Jones style, with some considerable effort on the part of our main character. It's an adventure from moment one.

As (almost) always, I experienced Station Breaker via audiobook. This story was my companion for many a bike ride thru the countryside (one ear only, the other open to the road, of course). It is read by Kyle McCarley. He narrates a number of audiobooks on Audible - 61, based on a narrator search - but this is my first experience with him as a reader. It sometimes takes me a little while to adjust to a new reader - each narrator has their idiosyncrasies, and while an audiobook is certainly the presentation of the author's material, it's also a performance, and the narrator is absolutely a factor in the experience of the book. In this case, I enjoyed his voice, but initially found his way of emphasizing certain words - particularly the word blood (which appears several times early in the book) - took a little while to adjust to. However, I often find that, if I press on a bit, I do adjust, and this was the case here. And in fact, given that time I found that Mr. McCarley does an excellent array of voices, and is able to maintain them consistently throughout, which is certainly not the case for every narrator.

All in all, the book was an excellent companion for multiple rides. It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and there is a second book in the series - Orbital - which I have lined up in my cue. Notably, the second book is also read by Kyle McCarley, which offers a nice bit of continuity - it can be somewhat jarring when the narrator changes partway thru a series and all of the characters you've come to know sound different.

If you are looking for a high-adrenaline thrill-ride, with a bit of a science fiction angle to it, I can happily recommend Station Breaker.

Another Fine Myth by Erin Wade

Another Fine Myth Cover

I periodically enjoy going back and consuming entertainment from my youth - movies, TV shows, music, and books that I have fond memories of and/or remember enjoying. Sometimes this is more successful than others

When I'm in this mood in relation to books from my past, I will check Audible to see if they happen to have been produced as audiobooks yet. There was a long, dry spell for this in the early years of the service - apparently science fiction and fantasy novels from the 1970's and '80's were not viewed by the company as a growth market (I can't imagine why). This seems to have changed over the past several years, I suspect due in part to the increased level of resources made possible when the company was purchased by Amazon.

The MythAdventures series by Robert Aspirin has been one of the collections I periodically check for. I read and re-read these over and over again as a pre-adolescent and teenager. I remember the books being fun, and each was relatively brief - they were, frankly, just about the perfect type of book for bringing to class and reading under the desk while the teacher droned on and on about... well... about whatever they were talking about. How should I know? I was lost in another world.

I don't recall exactly what made searching for the MythAdventures occur to me this time. Often it's little things - someone, somewhere, offering a turn of phrase that reminds me of the books might do it. But regardless, I decided to take a look a few weeks ago, and there they were!

Another Fine Myth is the first book in the series, and it's apparently been available on Audible since April of 2013 (I would swear I do these types of searches a couple of times a year; clearly my perception of time is a little off).

There is risk to going back in this way. Somethings turn out to be as wonderful as one recalls, and others turn out to be... disappointing. I am frightfully aware of this each time I take this plunge. Fortunately, my return to the universe of Aahz and Skeeve was an enjoyable one.

This first book is an introduction to the characters and the universe, as one might expect. It is a little bit friendly satire - poking fun at the tropes of the fantasy novel universe of the era - and a lot of silly, with self-aware use of puns and delightful turns of phrase (for example: Aahz is from a dimension called Perv, the inhabitants of which are called Pervects, he insists, but which everyone else refers to as Perverts...). In many ways, what The Hitchhiker's Guide was to science fiction novels, the MythAdventures series is to fantasy.

The book holds up well - in most ways it reads as a road novel, moving from place to place with each setting a backdrop for the fun the author wants to have. There is a central storyline - a bad guy who wants to rule all of the dimensions must be stopped - and it reads fine, but it is secondary to the overarching mission of the book, which is to have some fun. The narration is mostly good, and I see that it's the same narrator for almost all of the books, which is always preferable. It's not perfect - the narrator forgets the voice he used for one particular secondary character later in the book, a failing that is easy to notice in such a short piece. Still, overall the reading is good, and complements the story. Some of the lines in the book actually benefit from hearing over reading, particularly the introduction between the two main characters: "my name is Aahz - no relation".

Although I lost track of the series towards the end of the 1980's, Wikipedia tells me that Robert Asprin went on to write another 11 books in the series on his own, and teamed up with author Jody Lynn Nye to write several more up till Aspirin's death in 2008. Nye has written at least two additional books in the series since then, with the most recent coming out in 2016. Ordinarily I'd be dubious about co-authored books, but Robert Aspirin had a long history of collaborative work, most notably the Thieves World fantasy series, which I also remember fondly (but which is not available on Audible. Perhaps I should say not yet - whaddya think, Audible?). This gives me some confidence in the collaboration that I might not otherwise have.

If you lean towards fantasy novels, and are looking for something fun to fill a few hours of time - this could easily be read or listened to in one long sitting in the car, on the beach, or under a tree in the woods; or perhaps over multiple sessions in the back-yard hammock - I can heartily recommend Another Fine Myth. I enjoyed it enough that I've already dropped the next two books in the series into my Audible shopping cart.

Norse Mythology by Erin Wade

![Norse Mythology](FullSizeRender (3).jpg)

Neil Gaiman probably needs no introduction for regular readers. He is a prolific author primarily of fantasy and fantastical stories, sometimes bordering on horror (and sometimes stepping over that line with works such as The Graveyard Book). He has embraced a variety of formats, stretching out beyond novels and short stories and into comics and children's books. He collaborates with illustrators across multiple formats, often to great effect.

One of my personal favorite examples of this is The Wolves in the Walls. This is an illustrated children's book I read to my child so many times that I can simply close my eyes and immediately picture entire sections of the book. It's a delightful read that uses its illustrations not just to entertain, but to guide the reader - it's clearly meant to be read aloud, as the hand drawn text changes size and shape as stage direction for the intensity and volume the reader should employ. To this day I can say to my child "when the wolves come out of walls..." and get the response "...it's all over". The experience with this book led LB to seek out Gaiman's work as they were seeking out other material as well.

When I learned that Neil Gaiman was putting out a book on the Norse Myths I was both delighted and frustrated. Delighted because it's Gaiman writing in an area of long-held personal interest - I grew up on Marvel comics and I've always been particular to Thor (Hercules and Zeus can suck it). That had led me to seek out and read accounts of the myths themselves. I've returned to them again and again over the years, and I always find them as old friends.

Frustrated because I've always thought of them as fruitful ground for my own writing, well, you know, eventually. And here Neil f&@king Gaiman is, stealing my thunder (<--that's a Thor reference. Get it? Anyone??).

Turns out that the stories he presented here are different than I expected. For the most part he's hewed closely to the original stories, modernizing them slightly in terms of language, and fleshing them out just a bit where some additional detail is needed. It is, frankly, a demonstration of storytelling mastery - he knows the core of the stories are strong, and only adds what is needed to make them more accessible. It's a real service to these tales, which do reflect human struggles as shown in the lives of gods, but can sometimes be culturally different in a way that may make them hard for the uninitiated to follow.

As is typically the case, I listened to this book rather than reading it. There's an additional bonus here for the audiobook customer, because Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller. He routinely reads his work in public, and virtually always reads his books when the audio version is recorded. In a lot of ways, his writing style reflects this - he writes like a spoken storyteller, and while his stories are fine to read silently to ones self, they are virtually always improved by being read aloud, and never more so than when being read by Neil himself.

These tales are from a different culture in a different time. The motivations of the characters are unimpinged by many of the consternations that modern western audiences will be familiar with (though fans of the show Vikings will likely find similarities here). They are very much worth exploring, and never more so than with this opportunity - explore them with a master storyteller to guide your way. And - if you can - take the opportunity to do so via audiobook and let Neil take you all the way there.

Packing for Mars by Erin Wade

Packing for Mars Cover

Author Mary Roach is a national treasure.

Ms. Roach is a science writer who tackles topics that other authors might shy away from or, if not, would handle in a dry and stale fashion for fear that, to do otherwise would somehow tarnish their reputation. My introduction to Mary Roach's work was a book called Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, an account of the myriad possibilities that may happen to the body when it is donated to science. I had never heard of this book or of Mary Roach until it was recommended by a friend (thanks Greg). That recommendation opened up for me a world of delightfully irreverent, yet informative writing on topics that one does not often see treated in an entertaining way.

That book - on a topic I might not have otherwise explored not for squeamishness but rather for lack of interest - revealed a narrator with an incredibly earthy approach to topics others might find distasteful. In addition, there is a clear zeal and intense curiousity for the subject of each book that simply becomes infectious. In reading Stiff one could see that she was fascinated with how cadavers are used - whether for medical training or forensic exploration or as crash-test dummies (really!) - paired with an unflinching willingness to get into the nitty gritty (sometimes very gritty) components of that exploration. She quickly joined David McCullough on my very short list of non-fiction authors I will read regardless of the specific topic.

My most recent journey down the road paved by Mary - or perhaps I should say off the launching pad - was Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. Though told against the backdrop of a manned mission to Mars, the book is more an exploration of what we have learned and understand about the effects of prolonged exposure to life in space, and how we have learned it.

In characteristic fashion she jumps delightfully to the point: "To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with." It is a relatively simple thing to launch satellites into orbit and even rovers to other planets compared to determining how to manage human beings in space. She goes on:

You and your fluctuating metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations. You are unpredictable. You're inconstant. You take weeks to fix. The engineer must worry about the water and oxygen and food you'll need in space, about how much extra fuel it will take to launch your shrimp cocktail and irradiated beef tacos. A solar cell or a thruster nozzle is stable and undemanding. It has no ego. It does not excrete or panic or fall in love with the mission commander. It has no ego. It's structural elements don't start to break down without gravity and it works just fine without sleep.

In the course of this book the author spends time in a Russian space training facility and interviewed former cosmonauts, took a ride on the "Vomit Comet", and along the way explores all of the realities - including the most real, human components - of the challenges of spending extended periods of time in space. Some of the simplest activities that we take so very much for granted rely far more heavily on the effect of our natural environment - especially gravity - than one might think. Anyone making their way through Packing for Mars will never think of the word "separation" in quite the same way again.

With any of her works be sure to read the footnotes as you go. They are, by design, asides from the topic of the moment, but like the marginal art of Sergio Aragonés, it adds little bits of additional delight as you work your way through the book. As is usual for me, I listened to the book on Audible, and the reader understood this implicitly. She made sure to include the footnotes as she went, inserting bits of additional factual fun.

One of my favorite facts revealed - one of many - was the sizing on the condoms used as a part of the urinary catheter system developed by NASA. The devices come in three sizes but, knowing the ego of the human male, those sizes are Large, Extra Large, and XXL - proper fit is vital, and they knew no male astronaut would choose a small or medium...

And while it's all great fun as you go, I don't want to leave the impression that it's not rigorously composed. Whether it is finding that accounts reported and repeated in multiple NASA histories have no reliable basis in fact, or determining whether someone actually did film the act of coitus on a parabolic flight (I'll let you discover that for yourself), Mary Roach demonstrates an admirable tenacity for getting her way to truth behind the story.

For anyone with even a passing interest in science writing and/or the space program I can heartily recommend this book.