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Audio Book News
By Jonathan Lowe

JUNE 2014
by Jonathan Lowe

In his new novel THE KRAKEN PROJECT author Douglas Preston postulates an artificial intelligence named Dorothy, who was created to assist a probe to explore Titan, but when an accident happens Dorothy escapes into the Internet, and is then pursued by greedy traders who see the potential for even quicker profits on Wall Street. But the internet has "changed" Dorothy, and even CIA agent Wyman Ford is wondering whether saving Dorothy is the right thing, or if the A.I. is bent on "wiping out the cancer that is humankind." Or so goes the description on the audiobook. Unfortunately, not even this cliché premise is borne out in the text. Having just published a novella on this subject, I wanted very much to see the idea expanded into a fully realized novel, with mind expanding vision and insight. Instead what we get is an A.I. that is equivalent to a teenage girl, with the same human emotions and thought processes. Worse yet, science takes a back seat to the more pedestrian personal story that unfolds between the principals, as though this was a romantic suspense complete with chase scenes, descriptions of sunsets, and interludes of contemplation about various relationships. Normally I don't do negative reviews, but after the movie Transcendence wimped out at the end, despite its promise, (and because Hollywood has gone back to making Terminator/ Transformers nonsense,) the usual arc of this subject is of particular frustration. The plot imagines a very human A.I., perhaps one vulnerable to taking Selfies like your typical teenager, and yet she can be uploaded into the internet or via household power line very easily when not in robot form, (perhaps even via DSL or dialup?) Preston posits the key to making an A.I. is allowing the program to sleep and dream like a human. No explanation beyond this as an idea is given, perhaps because, although it sounds good, it just doesn't compute: a digital mind is not an analog mind like our own, and so would be quite different and faster. Storage is also a problem. An equivalent human consciousness would require massive storage, and uploading even via fiber optic cable from a quantum computer would take days. It's simple physics. Then the ominous message which the President never actually delivers at the end of the novel is like that Twilight Zone episode where a guy speaks a secret sentence into a radio microphone which makes everyone listening go mad. By this point in The Kraken Project, it's too late to save the book, though, even with a neat trick. To sum up, Kraken is padded, trite, short on Titan and A.I., and long on cliché. Narrator Scott Sowers, despite his melodramatic emphases, cannot save a text that contains neither the vision nor the poetry of, say, William Gibson. Much prefer his last book with Lincoln Child titled WHITE FIRE, read by the more sensitive Rene Auberjonois.

Kai Bird has penned a very detailed study of the life and times (and death) of CIA operative Robert Ames. Titled THE GOOD SPY, the audiobook, as ably narrated by an always curious Rene Ruiz, tells the story of a man who was trained "old school" style to learn his craft for the purposes of infiltrating the ranks of the enemy. Ames was called good because he was. While "spy" rhymes with "lie" for a reason, Ames was nonetheless empathic (as opposed to sociopathic.) Killed during an Embassy bombing in Beirut, Ames formerly lived a normal home life, yet traveled the world as he long wanted to do, shadowing Yasir Arafat's intelligence aide, and being instrumental in providing intel that figured into the most momentous political decisions involving the Middle East. Bird, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, brings into the mix various letters, memos, and interviews made with Ames, and talks to some length about how America has changed since Ames' era, relying more and more on electronic surveillance instead of spies on the ground. The point of this is that one of the reasons we have screwed up so much in recent years is because politics is about relationships, and if you don't have intel from people in relationships, your view is skewed. (Skewed equals screwed?) Ominously, Bird contends that the death of Ames and Ali Hassan Salameh has led us downhill in a rush of distrust, and is a contributing factor in the rise of the NSA over the CIA.

In THE MAP THIEF investigative journalist Michael Blanding probes the history of an antique map dealer turned thief. Subtitle is The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps. The thefts of E. Forbes Smiley were in support of his sometimes falling fortunes, one most surprisingly due to his own extravagance at building a luxury home "money pit" that included imported stone and a kitchen floor costing $29G. Something of an enigma, Smiley backed out of Blanding's initial article and book proposal after several interviews, but that only served to intrigue the author, sending him on a fact finding mission on his own to various libraries (such as Yale) where Smiley was suspected (and later known) to have plundered maps. Listeners to Sean Runnette's engaging and authoritative reading of the book will learn much about the history of map making, or cartography, and why antiquarian maps included in rare books became the target of thieves like Smiley, who used a small hobby knife to quietly separate maps from bindings, slipping them into his pocket or case. Like works of art, these maps were difficult to sell, but Smiley, as a dealer, was nonetheless able to elude detection for a period of years. His total take exceeded two million dollars. An audiobook recommended for anyone with an interest in history related to maps, rare books, and a little traveled side road in the saga of art theft, by the author of the book that blew the caps off a soda giant's high pressure mass market propaganda campaigns: The Coke Machine.

Congrats to Susan Boyce for winning an Earphones award reading THE MISSILE NEXT DOOR: The Minuteman in the American Heartland by Gretchen Heefner (Blackstone Audio.) The book chronicles the distribution of intercontinental ballistic missiles across South Dakota, Missouri, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska during Eisenhower's Cold War era, circa 1961 to 1967, when paranoia ran rampant that Russia would attack at any moment. A rancher named Paul Jensen was one of those selected to allow the Pentagon to bury a missile on his land. He later witnesses its destruction, but half of the 1000 missiles deployed are still out there, requiring billions each year to maintain. And then there were the Atlas and Titan missiles deployed in silos in California, Washington state, Arizona, and Texas. Some of the decommissioned sites are up for sale as homes, possibly for those who wish to escape economic collapse in 2016 (profiled by Thom Hartman in The Crash of 2016) or the Zombie Apocalypse (for those who only read comic books.) Have there been accidents at any of these many sites? There have, according to Eric Schlosser in Command and Control. I've explored an abandoned missile base myself for research on my first novel, Postmarked for Death, which features a duel in the dark there as the climax.

The Corsican Caper by Peter Mayle is a short novel or novella (4.5 hours on audio) about a billionaire in the south of France who becomes the target of a superrich tycoon, a Russian named Oleg Vronsky. Oleg has parked his yacht close to Francis Reboul's estate, buzzed it with a helicopter, and then offered to buy it "at any price." Instead of asking for more money than the guys on Millionaire Listings ever dreamed of, Francis rebuffs the offer. At which point schemes come into play to kill him by luring him to Corsica. The novel is read by Erik Davies, who is superb in delivering the Russian accents while maintaining the kind of tone required of men whose egos are as big as their wallets, and also Mayle's official sleuth Sam Levitt. The action is subdued, since most very rich people buy others to take their risks, while amid the luxurious and sumptuous gourmet meals they have time to indulge in speculation over what to do, what to eat, and why intrigue has come to the Riviera (instead of, say, Queens.) So it's a light hearted cosy meal, with only a dollop of horseradish on the side. If you prefer a darker novel, try Jo Nesbo's new THE SON, a Nordic crime novel set in an Oslo prison and featuring a revenge-intent heroin addict. It's read by Gildart Jackson for Random House Audio. Nesbo himself even wears a hoodie, unlike Mayle, who prefers pin striped shirts and cardigans. (He lives in Provence, after all.)

Joyce Carol Oates writing horror fiction? Odd, you say. I mean, here's a literary author known for delicate portrayals of social register types, delineating character with poetic studies of cultural rituals and mores. In HIGH CRIME AREA, though, Oates shows us the subtle side of horror. With the subtitle "Tales of Darkness and Dread," the audiobook version is atmospherically presented with the administrations of multiple actors, including Julia Whelan, Tamara Marston, Chris Patton, Luci Christian, Donna Postal, and Ray Chase (whose engaged reading of the opening story features a twisted view of a convent named Craigmillnar, where Gestapo worthy nuns perform cruel punishments on their helpless charges.) Here's a story book which proves my contention that cozy and mostly bloodless horror can be more effective than what Hollywood produces, which is slasher plots starring mindless vamps and villains. I was reminded of Ray Bradbury, whose horror comes at you askance, with accessible language befitting the genre, and yet without the buildup to a twist ("look, baby…something bright, something shiny…a scalpel.") Oates is a female Bradbury here, with unique slices of horrific reality from the dark sides of human nature. (7 hours on 6 CDs; Highbridge Audio)

Finally, like Jenny McCarthy's new book, LET'S JUST SAY IT WASN'T PRETTY by Diane Keaton is another celebrity memoir focused about growing older than the teen heartthrobs which now dominate the movies. But the tone is different, and there's less attempt at advice here on how to maintain one's delusions of everlasting youth (via sheer force of will, if not nip and tuck.) Random memories and a more intimate style are on display, too. In her own modest way, Keaton attempts to understand the muddy mess of the fashion culture women have had mass marketed to them, as she wistfully emulates the great women who largely ignored the trends, and who were original thinkers and dressers. (Like Audrey Hepburn, Diana Vreeland of Vogue, Katharine Hepburn.) She talks again about men she's known or had relationships with, too. Like Woody Allen, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Sam Shepard. Known for her turtlenecks, outrageous shoes and wide brimmed hats, Keaton relates anecdotes around the idea of our pursuit of beauty, with the idea that beauty should come from the inside out, and not the other way around. Her message, if there is one, is that women shouldn't let everyone else decide what's beautiful, and to find the courage to know and tell the truth about themselves while accepting who they are. "Courage is a form of beauty," she says. Alas, listening to her narrate, one isn't sure that Keaton fully accepts herself yet, and I can't help but feel what she feels between the lines she speaks: Hollywood is broken, fame is fleeting, and America's number one discrimination is not race, but age.

2014 Past Columns