Audiobook Review: Helen & Troy’s Epic Road Quest by A. Lee Martinez

29 07 2013

Helen & Troy’s Epic Road Quest by A. Lee Martinez

Read by Khristine Hvam

Audible, Inc.

Length: 9 Hrs 34 Min

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Quick Thoughts: Helen & Troy’s Epic Road Quest is a twisted take on the Hero’s Journey and Greek Mythology set in a wonderful world which is like our own, but so very not. It’s a fun, funny tale with wonderful characters that’s full of things that would appeal to a broad range of listeners making it the perfect summer family road trip listen. Doesn’t hurt that it’s narrated by one of the best in the business, Khristine Hvam.

Grade: B+

I have always been a huge fan of road trips. I love to drive down the open road, in total control of everything. I can stop where I want, listen to what I want, basically, it’s the closest I have to freedom in this world full of responsibilities. The longest road trip I was ever on was a 20 hour drive to a music festival in Illinois, sadly, this was back before I was driving, so I had to serve as the passenger. This isn’t as fun. As the passenger, you have a role to fulfill. You must keep the driver awake, capitulate to their will as far as eating, breaks and listening. When I finally was old enough, every once in a while, when I felt a bit trapped in, I would just pick a direction and drive. It would be a bit of a mini-vacation, an imaginary day where you could pretend you were free of the world, a lone traveler on the concrete rivers of America. I never cared if I got lost, or stuck in traffic or even had the slightest clue where I was heading. It was my escape. Of course, this was back in the days when gas prices were hovering around $1 a gallon, and my truck was relatively new. Now, my truck is over 15 years old and gas is flirting with the $4 dollar a gallon price tag. Yet, I still love to drive. My most recent road trip was just over a year ago when I drove to visit my brother and his family in Huntsville, Alabama. I had made this drive once before, drove straight through the day on very little sleep. It was crazy and a bit reckless, and a whole lot of fun. On the way home, I took many side trips, and excursions, choosing scenic routes over the humdrum of the major highway. There was something truly epic about that road trip, luckily, though, it was taken by my own choice, and not under the curse of a malevolent hamburger god. That would just suck.

Helen, a tall, dark haired…. umm.. dark furred… oh hell, she’s a minotaur, almost gets sacrificed to her bosses god who was recently incarnated into some raw hamburgers. Now she’s faced with a tough decision, go on a sacred quest for this god and possibly bring doom down onto the world resulting in thousands of horrible deaths, or be utterly destroyed. Luckily, Troy, her practically perfect coworker, has also been pulled into the gods path, and now she gets to spend some quality time with him. With the help from shadowy agents from the Federal Questing Bureau and a three legged dog, Helen and Troy set out on an epic quest, in a kickass roadster with very little direction. Once again A. Lee Martinez has taken an almost slapsticky premise and produces a fun, funny and utterly engaging tale well beyond the boundaries of normal. Martinez has created fascinating world like ours in many ways but decidedly not in many others. Here, Minotaur work in fast food restraints and Orcs spend their leisure time when not working as accountants and mechanics, as polite motorcycle enthusiasts, who secretly desire to unleash their inner ravenous hordes. Martinez doesn’t spend a lot of time setting up his world, he just acts like it assumed that the gods treat humanity as playthings, and the laws of physics are ridiculous religious beliefs. He throws references around willy nilly, where you the reader are like, “Wait.. What now?” as he quickly moves on to other topics with a bit of a wink. It’s frustrating and funny and perfectly sets the mood for this tale. Helen and Troy are wonderful characters, a minotaur with body issues crushing on the boy whose biggest problem is that everyone thinks he’s so perfect that no one takes the time to get to know the real him… who is perfect. Helen is a character that you just can’t help but love, and Troy one you want to hate… but you just can’t, because he so damn nice and always says the perfect thing. The quest itself is a totally twisted and hilarious mishmash of the Hero’s journey and Greek legends. While the ending is overall a bit predictable, there are enough small surprised along the way to keep readers guessing.  Martinez’s humor works so well, because he’s not trying to tell jokes, just telling a ridiculous story in a way that you simply wish was reality, even if a bit over the top. For fans of A. Lee Martinez, you get what you expect, a funny ride through genre tropes full of unexpected twists, re-imagined classics scenarios and totally likeable characters. For those new to Martinez, well, jump on the bandwagon. Martinez consistently provides genre books that stand wonderfully on their own, and open the door to wonderfully strange new worlds that you wished were real.

Khristine Hvam is one of my favorite narrators, simply because she finds just the right tone for each book she reads. With Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest she embraces the lighthearted nature of the tale, giving it an almost breezy feel with an emphasis on bringing these wonderful characters to life. She never tries to sell the humor, just delivers the world in a tone that says, “Hey, this is how it is… ain’t it grand.” I was especially glad that she allowed Helen to sound like a typical young adult, and didn’t try to turn her into some gruff, caricature of a Minotaur. This allowed the listener to get to know her as the person she is, and not the monster she is perceived as. Since much of this novel takes place in her head, that was essential to maintaining the feel of the book. Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest is the perfect summer listen. If you just happen to be heading out with you family on a big road trip, this title has plenty that can appeal to all members of you family, some young adult angst, action, witches, monsters, orcs, a touch of romance and most importantly, a three legged dog. Who doesn’t love a three legged dog?

Audiobook Review: Gil’s All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez

29 05 2012

Gil’s All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez

Read by Fred Berman

Macmillan Audio

Length: 6 Hrs 48 Min

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Quick Thoughts: People looking for a unique, clever and highly entertaining supernatural tale will find Gil’s All Fright Diner fits the bill. It’s a great change of pace book for when you’re stuck in a bit of a rut, and are looking for something which is simply pure entertainment to clear your palate.

Grade: B+

I think we as a society tend to stereotype our monsters. All too often our vampires are displayed as eccentric and fascinating, with more than a touch of sexiness. They are pale and mysterious, often with European roots, and a seductive tone. Also, unless they are teenage boys who sparkle, they tend to be evil. While I can accept this for the most part, sometimes I look for a bit of diversity in my monsters. We are living in a society that teaches us to embrace our different cultural heritages. We shouldn’t fear that which is not like us. So, shouldn’t we celebrate diversity in our monster fiction? While, in essence, vampires and werewolves are monsters, can they not also be heroes? I feel it’s time for us to remove the stigma from the word Monster. There are many things that may be hiding in our closets or under our beds. When we walk down a dark alley, wouldn’t running into a petty criminal or rabid raccoon be just as frightening as encountering a Wendigo or chupacabra? We like to put the label of monster on our most heinous criminals, yet wouldn’t this be like mythical creatures labeling their evil doers humans? We also place such a value on beauty, while ogres and ghouls are considered monsters, other mythological creatures like unicorns and fairies are heralded, despite their potential for devastation. Should we really be judging mythological beings based on their looks, or what they like to eat? Well, maybe if what they like to eat is us… but I digress. Monsters, maybe it’s time to rise up and… well, maybe I need to think about this a bit more.

Gil’s All Fright Diner introduces us to two weary travelers named Duke and Earl who are just looking for a quick bite to eat before heading back on the road. Yet, they are not surprised while eating some of Loretta’s pie to find themselves under attack by zombies. You see, according to Earl, they live under the Law of Anomalous Phenomena Attraction where supernatural events are drawn so supernatural creatures, and Earl is a Vampire and Duke a werewolf. Gil’s All Fright Diner reads like a southern fried comedic version of Being Human. Duke and Earl are instantly likeable and the antitheses to the mysterious emo-monsters that all too often occupy our supernatural horror tales. These two everyman stay on to help the robust Loretta solve her zombie problem, as well as the other strange events plaguing the town of Rockwood, before the local Sherriff, Marshall Kopp is forced to close down Loretta’s business. So, quick aside, I totally had one of those embarrassing, "is he crazy" audiobook moments when snorting out loud when discovering the local Sheriff’s name was Marshall Cop. In fact, Gil’s All Fright Diner is full of clever comedic gems, as well as lots of action, a touch of romance, and zombie cows. It’s sometimes hard to remember the dark Lovecraftian, potentially apocalyptic danger the Rockwell is in, because of all the great characters and hilarious moments the book is full of. Yet, Martinez pulls it all together with world bending, unconventional ending that doesn’t fail to thrill. People looking for a unique, clever and highly entertaining supernatural tale will find Gil’s All Fright Diner fits the bill. It’s a great change of pace book for when you’re stuck in a bit of a rut, and are looking for something which is simply pure entertainment to clear your palate.

I really enjoyed Fred Barman’s performance in Gil’s All Fright Diner, and this was definitely a performance. Berman hit’s all the right notes and you can tell he just goes all out in bringing this tale to life. In fact, I would say that it is worth the price of admission just to hear Berman’s Zombie Cow moan. It is an audiobook highlight for me that I won’t soon forget. Berman handles all the characters well, bringing about the distinctiveness in their personalities in the voices he crafts for them. He paces the narrative crisply, bringing the weird and wild aspects of Rockwood to light. This is the third audiobook I’ve listened to from A. Lee Martinez, and it won’t be my last. Each of his novels has such a distinctive tone and unique, wonderfully drawn characters that translate so well into the audio format with the right narrator, and here, Berman was definitely an excellent choice.

Audiobook Review: The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez

3 04 2012

The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez

Read by Mark Vietor

Audible Frontiers

Length: 9 Hors 3 Min

Genre: Science Fiction

Quick Thoughts: The Automatic Detective combines the best aspects of crime fiction and science fiction to make a truly unique comic romp full of unexpected heart and a ton of fun action. If there was a Mack Megaton T-Shirt, I’d totally buy it.

Grade B+

The Automatic Detective is an Audie Award nominee in the Fantasy Category.

Recently I have been thinking a lot about Genre, particularly after reading this blog post on Staffer’s Book Review. I abhor labels, yet so much of fiction is defined by labels. Tack the label “Science Fiction” on a title and certain people will instantly be compelled to it, while others will reject it out of hand. I have personally never come across a definitive definition of science fiction. I am one of those strange people that define the genre of a novel in a very wishy washy way, by feel. Some novels just feel like Science fiction, while others feel like Fantasy. For the first time ever, The Audies have broken down the Speculative Fiction nominees into three categories, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Paranormal. Scanning over the nominees, I find some of the choices of which category a title belongs in interesting. When I originally reviewed SM Stirling’s The High King of Montival, I labeled it as a Post Apocalyptic Fantasy, yet the Audies have it listed as Science Fiction. I was also surprised to see Richard Morgan’s The Cold Commands listed as Science Fiction. Now, I haven’t read The Cold Commands, but I read its prequel The Steel Remains and found it to be pretty solid in the Fantasy camp, yet some research shows me that there are some scifi elements to the follow-up. The one that confused me most was The Automatic Detective by A Lee Martinez. Upon finishing this listen recently, I continue to be confused. For me, this was pretty clearly Science fiction with Paranormal elements yet it was nominated in the Fantasy Category. Now, I am not all up and arms about this. There is a natural blending of Speculative Fiction subgenres and so this sort of mishmash is natural, but I wonder, who decided on the Category a nominee is placed in. Is the title being evaluated entered into a specific category by the producer, or does the final decision lie with the Audio Publisher’s Association?  Yet, in the end, this topic is unimportant, what truly matters is that The Automatic Detective is quite an entertaining listen.

Mack Megaton is just a regular Joe, working a nine to five as a cab driver, trying to make his way through his probational status to become a citizen of Empire City. Like most people, Mack is trying to find his humanity among the hustle and bustle of the big city. What makes this harder is that Mack is a hulking robot original designed for destruction, who through a programming fluke developed free will and defied his creator. So when the family next door is kidnapped and the little girl left a note behind pleading for Mack to find them, Mack is on the case, because that’s what good citizens do. I really believe that A. Lee Martinez is one of the most underappreciated original voices working in speculative fiction today. The Automatic Detective is a prime example of this. Martinez creates a truly original character voice in the robotic noir delivery of Mack Megaton, and keeps it consistent throughout the novel. He never breaks character, keeping Mack’s narrative, clipped and robotic, full of clever puns and brilliant dialogue that plays off his nature as a machine. The Automatic Detective is a cybernetic Chinatown, with strange dangerous hoods, a brilliant and beautiful dame and a city setting that becomes a character in itself. The plot was delightfully over the top, full of colorful characters, crazy conspiracies and a whole lot of destructive action. Mack Megaton may be one of my favorite characters in a long time. Despite his robotic ways he has a lovable naiveté that is only augmented by his unflappable loyalty and actual progression as a character. The Automatic Detective combines the best aspects of crime fiction and science fiction to make a truly unique comic romp full of unexpected heart and a ton of fun action. If there was a Mack Megaton T-Shirt, I’d totally buy it.

I have always liked Mark Vietor as a narrator, but if I had one complaint, it’s that sometimes he comes off a bit robotic. Well, hello there. The casting of Vietor as narrator for The Automatic Detective was simply inspired. Vietor understood exactly what Martinez was trying to do, and pulled it off flawlessly. I could easily picture Mack as a huge lumbering Robot, wearing a Fedora and Trench coat, traveling the streets of Empire City trying to find the score. Vietor captured the pace of the novel perfectly, staying in character, delivering the action scenes in a crisp, straightforward manner. Even his dialogue had an organic feel to it, allowing his interactions with his beautiful damsel, or his best friend who just happened to be a sentient ape, to not feel forced. The Automatic Detective is one of those moments of synergy when the perfect narrator is given the opportunity to perform a novel seemingly tailored to his talents.

Audiobook Review: Monster by A. Lee Martinez

12 12 2011

Monster by A. Lee Martinez

Read by Eric Michael Summerer

Audible Frontiers

Length: 8 HRs 42 Min

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Quick Thoughts: Monster is a novel that is so full of fun adventure and wonderful unique characters and creatures, that it’s easy to over look how well plotted the overall story is, and how accessible he makes his conceptual mythology. Urban Fantasy fans, looking for a break from zombies, fairies and vampires, should definitely give Monster a try.

Grade: B+

It’s been about six years since my reading habits transitioned from solely print, to almost entirely audio. Changing from print to audio was not done because I fell in love with audiobooks, it was done because my reading time was significantly altered by a change in work position, and in order for me to maintain the pace of reading I had become accustomed to it would have to be in audio. This change was not supposed to affect other reading habits, like what types of books I read, but it did. Before audiobooks, I listened to a lot of thriller/mysteries, plenty of science fiction with only a dash of fantasy. Most of my fantasy readings were truly Dark Fantasy or horror novels. As far as more epic fantasy, I took on King’s Dark Tower series, along with Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, and that’s about it. Yet, I never did urban fantasy. It wasn’t until 2010, when I listened to James Marsters read my first Harry Dresden novel did I enter the world of urban fantasy. I discovered along the way that audiobooks are the perfect format for urban fantasy. Give a talented narrator a novel full of weird creatures, and listen to the magic happened. This year, I have heard the voice of a Shoggoth, became enthralled with a monosyllabic Minotaur, met all sorts of demons and fallen angels, and discovered that zombies can fall in love. I have met monsters, and well, I sort of like them. Then came A. Lee Martinez and his fantasy novel Monsters a virtual smorgasbord of paranormal creature. How could I even consider turning that one down?

A. Lee Martinez introduces us to a character named Monster, a man who wakes up everyday a different color, with a different power. Monster uses the training he undertook at a magical community college to work as a cryptobiological containment agent, basically a dogcatcher for paranormal creatures. While on a call he meets Judy, a young women who seems to be plagued with all sorts of mythological infestations. Monster is a bit of a dickhead. He really isn’t the most likable of protagonists, but Martinez makes up for his hero’s faults by surrounding him with a cast of wonderful and fascinating characters. There is Chester, a paper gnome from another dimension who works as Monster’s assistant, and Ed and Ferdinand, henchmen of an evil cat lady and simply hilarious characters. With each page, you meet new characters or creatures from giant purple worms to insistent unicorns. Every character, no matter how big or small their role adds something special to the overall tale. Yet, this novel doesn’t rely solely on its quirky inhabitants, but is full of interesting concepts ranging from magical awareness to the origins of the universe. In many ways, Martinez sucks you in with his lighthearted style, and witty phrasings, so when it time to delve into his high concepts, you are already enraptured with his world. Monster is a novel that is so full of fun adventure and wonderful unique characters and creatures, that it’s easy to over look how well plotted the overall story is, and how accessible he makes his conceptual mythology. Urban Fantasy fans, looking for a break from zombies, fairies and vampires, should definitely give Monster a try.

I liked the work that Eric Michael Summerer did with the reading of Monster. I was happy that he used his deep narrative voice to present the prose, but also developed the character voices well. He read Monster with a nice, crisp tone, a bit higher than his narrative voice, allowing us to easily differentiate between Monster’s internal thoughts and external words. I did find his reading of the final confrontation between hero and villain a little odd. Most narrators speed up their reading to increase tension during these types of scenes, but Summerer actually slowed down, and utilized these long pauses between sentences. While this allowed the listener to easily follow the action, I personally found the pauses to be a bit distracting. Yet, overall, I think Summerer did a good job with his reading. This was my first time listening to an A. Lee Martinez novel, and I definitely will be checking out more of his work.