Audiobook Review: The Scarlet Plague by Jack London

23 08 2013

The Scarlet Plague by Jack London

Read by Drew Ariana

Dreamscape Audio

Length: 2 Hrs 12 Min

Genre: Classic Post Apocalyptic

Quick Thoughts: The Scarlett Plague is a classic post apocalyptic tale of one man’s survival during a global pandemic, that is fascinating more because of it’s vision of our future, then any special aspects of the tale. If read as a satire on a possibly classist future America, it is actually full of some funny absurdist moments, I’m just not quite sure that is what the author intended.

Grade: B-

One of the reasons I like reading classic science fiction is I am always fascinated by people from another time’s view of the future. I think you can tell a lot about a person and their culture by seeing how they imagine the future to be. I first read Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague about 12 years ago, when I was obsessed with reading all the classic examples of Post Apocalyptic fiction I could get my hands on. Listening to it now, I paid more attention to its vision of out future. The Scarlett Plague was written just over 100 years ago, and Jack London’s titular plague struck humanity in 2013. So, I was quite interested in seeing how this man view our future to be, before 2 world wars, the rise of the US to being perhaps The Superpower and the technological leaps we have taken.  London’s take on 2013 America is, well, kind of weird. I was first impressed with his population tabulations, putting Earth’s 2013 population at around 8 Bullion. Yet, his sociology was simply strange to me. London imagines 2013 is a very class based society, with what seems like an almost American aristocracy, and a subjugated working class. Before you start going all political, yes, I do believe elitism and classism exist in America, but it’s much more subtle, and perhaps more insidious, than appears in The Scarlett Plague. I think if you walk up to an American, rich or poor and ask them directly whether or not someone is a better person based on their economic and social class, most people would scoff at you and answer no, despite what they may actually think. In London’s 2013 America, I think you would get the opposite reaction. What fascinates me is what aspects of 1912 culture caused London to believe this was were we were heading. I can understand why he believed we would travel by airships, but this social aristocracy aspect fascinates me.

Sixty years after over 99% of the world was wiped out by a fast acting disease called, The Red Death, and old man bemoans’ the survivor’s fall into savagery as he tells the story of his survival to a group of his tribes crude young adults.  The Scarlett Plague is a classic post apocalyptic tale of one man’s survival during a global pandemic that is fascinating more because of its vision of our future, then any special aspects of the tale. It was really strange to revisit this tale. When I first read it, I took it very seriously. London does a good job telling a tale of a society falling into ruins, then finding a way to reconnect. It, at times, reads like an outline to a novel like Earth Abides, with a barebones approach, telling mostly the bullet points. Yet, on my second run through, perhaps due to the performance of the narrator, it turned into an almost absurdist comedy. I’m not sure if London wrote this as a bit of satire, or if it just comes across this way due to how it has aged, but I found laughing. The main character was such an unlikable, cantankerous old bastard that he reminded me of a racist grandfather who makes ridiculously socially awkward statements that he seems more like a really bad caricature instead of a toxic bundle of hate. I found myself laughing as he described the brutishness of the working class that provided them with everything they need in an interesting style them resembled economic blackmail. His love lorn talk about the high society woman who was lowered to the status of a brutalized wife of a former "service industry" person was balanced by his absurd attempt to purchase her from this brutal man. The old geezer took every opportunity to degrade the boys he was talking to commenting on their lack of civility and their reliance on strange new superstitions.  It was all a bit disconcerting, but also interesting. It’s funny, because in many of the descriptions The Scarlet Plague is said to be about an older man sharing his wisdom to his grandsons. What isn’t revealed is how ridiculous his wisdom is, and how much utter contempt he has for his grandsons. One interesting aspect is the evolution of language. While not as drastic a change as you would see in Hoban’s Riddley Walker, London still gives his post apocalyptic survivors their own patois of mish-mashed words. It gives the story a little bit extra, and also adds for some interesting examinations of just how far society has regressed. Overall, this is a story that hardcore post apocalyptic fans should read, since is serves as a blueprint for a lot of classic and modern novels exploring pandemic survival, for anyone else, there are much better examples of the genre to check out. 

I really have mixed feelings Drew Ariana’s performance in The Scarlet Plague. My initial reaction was basic cringing at his voices, particularly those of the kids. I find that narrators voicing kids is very tough, and often they sound like cartoon characters instead of actually children. I also wasn’t a fan of his old man voice, which was too bad since the book was mostly an old man telling his tale. I though maybe a narrator with a gruffer voice would have been better suited for the narration. Then I began to think. My initial annoyance with his old man voice was based on my thought of the character as an old survivor of an apocalyptic pandemic. Yet, as I began to think of it as a satirical novel, and the old man as a former professor who was on the fringe levels of a modern aristocracy chagrined at his new station in life, I found the voicing a bit more appropriate. In fact, it made me laugh.  I really think that, despite his annoying kid voices, Drew Ariana’s is a pretty good narrator. I think his impression of the character probably ended up mirroring my own, and this was reflected in his performance. Other aspects, his pacing, and strength of voice were quite good. This is why I have a mixed feeling. I ended up enjoying listening to Ariana and he probably highlighted the satirical elements of this novel. I’m just not totally sure what London’s true intentions were.

Thanks to Dreamscape Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.

Audiobook Review: Aftershock by Andrew Vachss

2 07 2013

Aftershock by Andrew Vachss

Read by Phil Gigante and Natalie Ross

Dreamscape Audio

Length: 11 Hrs 2 Min

Genre: Crime Fiction

Quick Thoughts: Aftershock is crime fiction at it best built around a solid cast of characters, with an intriguing mythology. Vachss covers many of his classic themes yet in a way that seems to have invigorated his writing, allowing him to explore these themes in new and fascinating ways. As always, there is a brutal reality to Vachss writing, with unapologetic characters and real human evil, yet Aftershock also contained an element that I haven’t always felt in Vachss writing, hope.

Grade: A

Over the past year or so, I have heard more and more talk about our "rape culture" and the "war on women." Now, in no way do I believe that these concepts weren’t discussed before, perhaps in just as much detail, but the past year I have become more and more attuned to this discussion. I’ll be honest, I*’m not someone who is overly qualified to discuss such issues. I had a grand total of one class in college on woman in politics, and it was more of a historical analysis, and that took place nearly 20 years ago. Yet, I do have feelings. Not many answers, but feelings. I know I have lost faith in our criminal justice system to deal with sexually based crimes. Years ago, I had a friend who was quite upset with me that I wasn’t a strident supporter of Megan’s Law, and the sexual registration of offenders. Not that I didn’t believe in what it was trying to accomplish, I just couldn’t get past the idea that if we need to set up such measures to protect ourselves from habitual sexual offenders, why were we letting them out of jail? I believed then, and I still do that no matter what laws we pass to protect people from predators, those predators will find a way not just to beat but to use it to their advantage. I find sexual predators more insidious, more harmful to our society than murderers. Sexual Crimes cause waves that rip through families, communities and history even more so than any other violent crime. I am not a supporter of the death penalty, but I would much rather see it used on those who exploit children and perform violent sexual assault then those who kill. One thing that truly bothers me is it seems that our criminal justice system is set up more to protect those who perform these acts, then the actual victims. I understand the need for this. I understand that it’s better for 100 guilty to go free than for 1 innocent man to be found guilty. Yet, how many victims of these horrific acts are we willing to accept to make sure we stay true to this founding precept. I have no answers. I just have questions.

When the star softball player, Marylou "Mighty Mary" McCoy walked into her high school with a gun, and shot and killed one boy and wounded two others, people were quick to view it as just another school shooting. Yet, Dolly, a former nurse who worked in war zones around the world, knew there was more to the story. She asks her husband Dell, a former Legionnaire in hiding with a past so mysterious even he can’t remember it all, to look into it. What Dell uncovers is an evil so insidious it has corrupted their seemingly idyllic town, putting everything he loves at risk. I have to say, Aftershock surprised me. When Vachss introduces us the Dell, and his violent back story, I expected this to be another tale of a dark vigilante exterminating a human evil. While this plays into Aftershock, it is far from its overriding theme. Vachss explores the corruption of the legal system that places more value in maintaining its reputation than is punishing evil, and how a few warriors for justice can make a difference.  Dell was a fascinating and complex character. He was unsure and awkward socially, but also able to inspire people to break away from what they believe was expected of them, and do what they believe was right. There were times when the fact that the story was filtered through Dell’s perspective that I became uncomfortable. Not with brutal yet clever solutions to problems, but in his quickness to slap labels on people based on physical and emotions shortcomings. Yet, there was a balance to this. While Dell was quick to label people he found reprehensible as things like "Pigface" he was often able to see past labels people had slapped onto others and discern their true nature, just not often in a polite socially acceptable manner.  The true beauty of this novel came in his other characters. Dell is a warrior, yet, Vachss doesn’t highlight the kind of warrior who can kill a man twenty different ways with his pinky. He highlights a woman who takes time to truly give girls a safe place to discuss issues that their teachers or parents would instantly judge them for. He shows us victims who were brutalized and humiliated, finally taking a stand against a system seemingly designed to marginalize them. He shows us warriors fighting within a corrupt system, whose exposure to violent crime can have extremely horrific affects. From psychologists and social workers, to victims and those who love them whether they are connected through DNA or not, these are the people who could win the fight. Vachss did something that I didn’t expect, he made me feel a little bit of hope that there are good people fighting the fight. On top of these themes, Aftershock is a solid legal thriller. I love legal thrillers, but I have been sick and tired of the down and out lawyer who finds redemption through a case, Here, instead, Vachss shows us a lawyer who finally discovers himself when he is willing to begin believing that he can make a difference. There is just so much I loved about Aftershock, and am quite excited that it’s the start of a new series. Dell and Dolly are two characters I really want to see more of. Aftershock is crime fiction at it best built around a solid cast of characters, with an intriguing mythology. Vachss covers many of his classic themes yet in a way that seems to have invigorated his writing, allowing him to explore these themes in new and fascinating ways. As always, there is a brutal reality to Vachss writing, with unapologetic characters and real human evil, yet Aftershock also contained an element that I haven’t always felt in Vachss writing, hope.

Part of me is really glad that I listened to Vachss’ anthology Mortal Lock before I listed to Aftershock, because it prepared me for the dual narration style of Phil Gigante and Natalie Ross. What I didn’t expect is how effective it would be in Aftershock. Phil was brilliant as always, and his interplay with Natalie was natural and flowing that I didn’t experience any of the dissonance this type of narration often gives me. What truly amazed me was Phil’s handling of the French scenes, which he spoke as if he was fluent in that language. I’m not sure if he is or not, but anyone listening to Aftershock will be more than ready to call him Le Gigante. Ross brought so much to this production, that for those small stretches where she wasn’t contributing I truly missed her. There are so many strong female characters in Aftershock, including Dolly, MaryLou, and a social worker who contributed highly to the defense, and Ross brings them all alive in vivid fashion. Yet, my favorite of her performances was that of Danielle, MaryLou’s sister. Ross helped create a character that simply gave me chills, for many reasons. Aftershock was a brilliant production and one of my favorite listens so far this year. If you have yet to experience the work of Andrew Vachss, Aftershock is a great place to start.

Note: Thanks to Dreamscape Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.

Audiobook Review: Mortal Lock by Andrew Vachss

26 06 2013

Mortal Lock by Andrew Vachss

Read by Phil Gigante and Natalie Ross

Dreamscape Audio

Length: 10 Hrs 12 Min

Genre: Short Story Collection (Multiple Genres)

Quick Thoughts: A solid short story Anthology featuring the Vachss signature noir style, fascinating if unlikeable characters and an authenticity you rarely find in the pages of books. Fans of Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard will be excited to see this duo show up for a great story, as well as a few other of Vachss characters. The anthology ended with a high concept screenplay that may not suit even hardcore Vachss fan’s tastes, but has moments of hidden gems.

Grade: B

There are two kinds of experts in our world. There are the kinds that study something, that break it down to its intricate details, who speculate, postulate and theorize. They use this knowledge to develop opinions, join think tanks, become talking heads on TV news programs and teach courses. Then there is the kind of expert who simply lives something. They may not know why something work, or develop their theories based on intangible concepts of instinct, and heart, but while the studios expert is working on the textbook, they are out applying their knowledge, living and dying by their expertise. Andrew Vachss often writes about that second type of experts. One of the reasons I enjoy single author short story collections is to see how an author takes the central themes of their writing, and explores them through different situations and even genres. Mortal Lock is no different. Vachss inhabits his stories with his signature characters. Vachss’ characters are truly what sets him apart. They are never loveable, and often lot even close to likeable, but they bring a perspective that it seems even the most research oriented author often misses. There is something authentic in their reality, even when they are in situations the push plausibility. In Mortal Lock, Vachss’ applies his themes and characters to 20 different stories, some quite short, while others more detailed, giving us a glimpse into worlds that us everyday tourist rarely ever see.

It is really hard to evaluate and recommend a short story anthology, without going into detail about every story. Like in most anthologies, there is a hit and miss quality. There were some stories that were simply quick slices of life, that seemed to serves as buffers between larger tales. This is something I haven’t seen as often in anthologies, and for the most part I liked it. While I didn’t LOVE every story, three of the larger tales truly make this anthology worth the time and money of any Andrew Vachss Fan. For me the highlight of this short story collection was Veil’s Visit, which Vachss cowrote with Joe Lansdale featuring one of my favorite literary dues Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. Add to this the fact that the story was a Courtroom tale where Leonard is on trial for burning down his neighborhood crackhouse, and the legal theory used by the Defense was priceless. The two other stories that I thought were exceptional were As The Crow Flies, which features the protagonists from his upcoming novel Aftershocks and Profile, which has another of Vachss characters, Cross, hunting an online predator. Yet, these stories were far from the only gems. Vachss starts it off with Ghostwriter, featuring a brilliant writer who was completely unlikeable and sociopathic and did whatever it took to see his works come to print. One of my other favorites was A Piece of the City where rival gangs come to blows over and incident that may be more that it seems. Along the way, Vachss gives his twisted take on Crime Fiction staples like spurned husbands and serial killers. Vachss even breaks away from his typical crime noir to expand into other genres, most notably a tale of a Hit Man searching for a cure for AIDS for his dying sister, who encounters monsters of legends. The only downside of the collection comes in the form of the long screenplay that is the finale. Not that it wasn’t interesting and full of some excellent themes and fascinating explorations. I have never been much of a screenplay reader, and experiencing one in audio was interesting. The tales is definitely high concept, extremely visual and very avante guard. It is more of a series of intertwined vignettes told in a Dystopian World were society is now underground. Vachss creates a disturbing system where the establishment allows many types of evils to flourish, the family structure to break down, and truths told through graffiti painted on walls. If such a movie was ever made, it would be more at home next to the subtitled foreign films at The Ritz than at your local Movie Hut. I think Underground is something I enjoyed more considering the aspects he explored later than during the actual exercise of listening. There were some moments where the story was truly fascinating, some hidden gems in the screenplay, but at times it was hard to stay focused on it.

I am typically not a fan of multi-narrator productions where the male narrator reads the male lines and the majority of the prose, than a female narrator pops in for the female dialogue lines. It just never seems to feel natural for me. This process was used often in Mortal Lock, and while effective, I often cringed when it happened. Luckily, the two narrators had an obvious rhythm down, and made it as natural as possible. That really isn’t a surprise, since the narrators were Phil Gigante and Natalie Ross. Phil handled the majority of the work, and was wonderful as usual. In fact, when Veil’s Visit began, I had a huge idiot grin on my face as the familiar voice of Hap Collins filled the cavern within my skull. Gigante has a knack for knowing when to go low key, and when a bit of over-the-top is appropriate. He is the perfect narrator for Vachss, able to capture the dark humor and noir stylings of Vachss writing, while giving his characters a realism that just feels right. This was my first time listening to Natalie Ross, and I enjoyed her work. Surprisingly, I think some of her best work was done during the screenplay, as well as one particularly creepy serial killer tale. She offered a nice counterbalance to Gigante. Overall, Mortal Lock is a must listen for fans of Andrew Vachss. For those interested in getting a taste of Vachss style, Mortal Lock gives a nice spectrum of indulge in.

Note: Thanks to Dreamscape Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.

Audiobook Review: The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns

4 04 2013

The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns

Read by George Newbern

Dreamscape Audio

Length: 13 Hrs 34 Min

Genre: Literary Suspense

Quick Thoughts: The Burn Palace is a beautifully written tale full of wonderfully absurd characters, strange surreal events and horrific acts of violence and violation told is a disconcerting style that is both thrilling and frustrating. It’s like an intricate puzzle that comes together beautifully yet leaves you with a handful of unused pieces you don‘t exactly know what to do with.

Grade: B

I often hear people lament those good old small town days where everyone knew each other and kept an eye out for strangers and danger and stranger danger. I never experienced that. I have always lived in the suburbs of a major metropolitan area and only rarely even knew the names of my neighbors. I was always lucky enough where by the time I reached the next block, I was walking in anonymity, far from any nosy neighbors who may tell my mother what nefarious deeds I was up to. I can understand longing for a time when neighbors were neighborly, but people must remember I grew up on Stephen King. I read tales of small towns with dark secrets and twisted evil. I don’t want to know my neighbors. I don’t want to know what dark secrets lie in their hearts or how the choose to spend their time when the lights are off and no one is paying attention. For all I know, the upstairs neighbors could be performing cabalistic rituals and animal sacrifice, and I’m happy as long as they don’t bang around too much when they are getting their kids ready for school in the morning. I’m happy with the nod my head and smile relationship I have with the guy next door and have no need to know that his inner dialogue consists of thinking of all the different ways he would dispose of my corpse after my torturous murder. You know why I don’t want to know more about my neighbors because I’m damn sure they probably don’t want to know about me. Would you really want to know that the guy next door to you enjoys listening to tale involving hordes of undead infected humans devouring the land one brain at a time? For Fun! Really, we are all better off. Let my neighbors perform some ancient ritual that unleashes Cthulhu from his inter-dimensional prison to eat the souls of the wicked as long as they keep the chanting down while I’m watching Doctor Who.

Brewster is a small, quiet Rhode Island town that nothing of note ever really happens in, at least on the surface. When a baby goes missing from the local hospital and is replaced by a snake, the town begins to unravel leading to a string of violence, mayhem and maybe even something supernatural. The Burn Palace is a character rich genre blending tale of small town paranoia, occultism and murder with affective results. Dobyns creates a mosaic of characters, where their dark secrets and hidden motivations become just as essential to the plot as the evil acts that have thrown this sleepy town for a loop. Dobyns develops each character so intricately that they just jump off the page. He tells the tale using an omniscient third person narrator making it seem almost as if the town itself was telling the tale. While this created a lot of wonderful moments in the tale, it also made the story a bit unbalanced. Dobyns transitions from one character to the next is an almost surreal manner opening a lot of story threads along the way, and never quite wrapping the vast majority of them up. While the prose was relatively straight forward, it gave it an airy almost intangible feel, where just as you began to grasp onto one element of the plot, it slipped through your fingers leaving you to chase after the next tangent. It created an atmospheric mood full of clever humor, creepy moments and horrific acts that mesmerized the reader but didn’t always serve the story well. This is the gist of my mixed feelings with The Burn Palace. I loved listening to it. I loved the characters who were all so vibrant and real. I loved the clever way that certain elements played into the overall plot while others were just there to add color. Yet, I felt like I do at the end of a long running TV series finale, full of "what about this, and what about that." I enjoyed the hell out of listening to the tale, but I also felt frustrated along the way. Overall, The Burn Palace is a beautifully written tale full of wonderfully absurd characters, strange surreal events and horrific acts of violence and violation told is a disconcerting style that is both thrilling and frustrating. It’s like an intricate puzzle that comes together beautifully yet leaves you with a handful of unused pieces you don‘t exactly know what to do with.

Let me first say that I absolutely loved George Newbern’s narration of The Burn Place. For The Burn Palace to work, the narrator must become a character of sort, and not just some unbiased observer. He guides you through the tale, taking you from character to character with a sort of knowingness, exposing each character for who they truly are. Newbern does this wonderfully, injecting personality into the prose, guiding the listener with a wink and a nudge. That being said, I think I would have enjoyed this novel more in print than audio. It’s not an issue with the production at all, but in the style of the book. Dobyns flowing transitions probably worked better with visual cues than here in audio. The transitions were so fast and so smooth that at times it took you a while to figure out that anything even had changed. Often, throughout the audio, I was like, "Ummm. Wait… what character are we on now?" These transitions required more focus from the listener than usual during an audiobook. In fact, I really wished that this audio came with a cast of characters, because, although every character was so vivid and real, the rapid change from one to the next often made me have to stop for a moment to remember the new character’s backstory. Not that it was a bad listen, I really enjoyed it. If you are someone who listens strictly to audio, by all means, give this one a go, but if it’s a choice for you between print and audio, well, I would probably recommend trying it first in print.

Note: Thanks to Dreamscape Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.

Audiobook Review: Dead Aim by Joe Lansdale

30 01 2013

Dead Aim by Joe Lansdale (Hap Collins & Leonard Pine, Bk. 10)

Read by Phil Gigante

Dreamscape Audio

Length: 2 Hrs 2 Min

Genre: Thriller

Quick Thoughts: Dead Aim is the glorious return of Hap and Leonard to audio. I listened to the audiobook with a shit eating grin plastered to my face, laughing out loud at inappropriate times and not caring one bit about the nervous glances I was given. Anyone looking for a fun mystery full of action, some inappropriate humor and two of the best characters in fiction today, run and nab yourself a copy of Dead Aim, then when you’re hooked on these two smartasses, grab the rest of the series.

Grade: A

I am a person who places a high value on friendship. I don’t make a lot of friends. I can be social, and spend time interacting with lots of people on a surface level, but the true commitment of friendship is something that it takes me much longer to develop. I definitely never insta-friend, nor have I ever fallen in love at first sight. One of the saddest things for me is when someone I truly value as a friend moves away and we lose contact. As I get older, this happens much more often, yet, recently a few of my dear friends that moved to the farthest comers of the earth, have moved back to my area, and for me, this is a big cause for joy. As someone who also values books, when characters I love leave, when a series ends or a character dies, I feel a sense of loss. Yet, I find this to be even greater when these characters are within the digital pages of an audiobook. One of the biggest complaints about audiobooks is that a narrator creates another level between the reader and the character. Yet, with the perfect narrator, this is also one benefit of audiobooks. When I read, I often merge with a character, attributing aspects of myself to them, and comparing them to me. They become me, or a friend, or someone in my life, on a subconscious level. Reading can become an almost egotistic act where you become the hero. When a narrator becomes a character, adds a new dimension to these characters, reflects emotion that you may not when reading, characters can become more real, independent creations. More like friends that compliment you, than reflections of you. One of my favorite series that I have experience totally in audiobook form is Joe Lansdale’s Hap & Leonard series. Through the voice of Phil Gigante, these characters became real to me. When this series was no longer made in audio, I read the novels, which were still great, but in someway, it was like my friends had changed a bit. This is why I was so excited to hear Phil would be back narrating the latest Hap & Leonard novella, Dead Aim. In many ways, it was like reconnecting with lost friends.

In Dead Aim, Hap Collins and Leonard Pine are hired to protect a woman and “gently” persuade her soon to be ex-husband from harassing her and beating up her dates. Hap and Leonard are experts at gentle persuasion, especially when it involves their trusty axe handle. But when things go sideways, as often happens with out heroes, and bodies begin to drop, Hap and Leonard find that what they were told may not be the whole truth. Dead Aim is a classic Hap and Leonard tale. Lansdale melds together folksy wisdom, locker room humor and fast violence into something that is pure joy to experience. The heart of this series is the relationship between Hap and Leonard, a more than family bond that transcends race, and sexual orientation. Lansdale creates some of the most realistic, natural, yet uproariously funny dialogue that I have ever read. In all honesty, if Lansdale wrote a short story of Hap and Leonard waiting in a Dentist office, I would be thrilled. Yet, throw in a well conceived plot and some fast and furious action, and you get more bang for your buck in this novella than in the typical full length novel. Lansdale writes with an economy of words that it’s almost magical how fully fleshed out his stories are, and how highly visual the final confrontation is. Lansdale is a master at the turn of phrase, creating metaphors that would seem ridiculously corny, but comes natural to the characters he creates. Lansdale can summon a belly laugh out of what typically would only elicit a polite chuckle, then surprise you with the depth of the seemingly simple wisdom he’s sharing  If you are new to Hap and Leonard, Dead Aim would be a great way to meet these characters. While you may miss out on some of the back story, this novella stands well on its own and would totally wet your whistle, enticing you to go back to the beginning of the series.

If I was a poet, I would find a much better way to sing the praises of Phil Gigante in iambic pentameter but I’m not, so you’ll just have to bear with me. Gigante infuses this novella with Southern charm and wit, capturing these two characters perfectly. The Hap and Leonard series, along with his readings of Andrew Vachss Burke series, and the Stainless Steel Rat series are what made Gigante my all time favorite narrator. What’s great about Gigante is how he captures the flavor of each title he works on. There is almost a lackadaisical pace to his reading of Dead Aim, like a good friend telling a story after a couple or six beers. It makes the reader feel comfortable, allowing them to be just as ready for a dirty joke as a moment full of emotional resonance. Somewhere in heaven, the audiobook gods were singing a particularly special song the day Phil and Joe were placed together as a team, and every time I get to experience it, I sacrifice something to honor it. Dead Aim is the glorious return of Hap and Leonard to audio. I listened to the audiobook with a shit eating grin plastered to my face, laughing out loud at inappropriate times and not caring one bit about the nervous glances I was given. Anyone looking for a fun mystery full of action, some inappropriate humor and two of the best characters in fiction today, run and nab yourself a copy of Dead Aim, then when you’re hooked on these two smartasses, grab the rest of the series.

Note: Thanks to Dreamscape Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.

My Top 20 Audiobooks of 2012

27 12 2012

2012 was a great year for audiobooks. As an avid listener of audiobooks, I don’t think I can remember a year quite like this. With the releases of some classics like Stephen King’s The Stand and the complete Chronicles of Amber, to some breathtaking debuts, and a bunch of authors and narrators releasing some of their best works, it will be a year I remember for a long time. At one point early in the year, I was wondering if I had been becoming to easily pleased based on the number of A reviews I was giving, or if the quality was just better this year.

As far as quantity, I have easily broken my record this year. In 2011, I listened to 174 audiobooks. As I am writing this post, for 2012 I have written 192 audiobook reviews, including two posts that reviewed the 10 Chronicle of Amber novels, as well as a few double reviews of audiobook novellas. If I include all my multiple reviews, and those audiobooks I have listened to yet haven’t reviewed yet, my total for 2012 is over 200. Now, some of these were shorter novellas and short story anthologies. Of these 200, about 30% received a grade in the A range, while 60% fell into the B range.

Favorite posts like this are very subjective. I know a lot of people who listen to the kind of audiobooks I enjoy, but few who match my specific likes, so I will never call my picks the best. If you are new to my blog, I listen to a wide range of speculative fiction genres, which leans heavily towards Horror and Dark Fantasy, as well a blend of science fiction. I listen to a lot of Zombie and Post Apocalyptic novels. I also enjoy Crime Fiction and Thrillers, particularly detective stories and legal Thrillers.  For my 2012 list, I limit it to audiobooks which are produced in 2012, even if the book itself was written pre-2012.

I really struggled with my picks this year, moving things around repeatedly and even considered expanding my list to 25 titles. Yet, in the end, I stuck with 20. I went back and forth on my number 1 pick this year. I knew which book resonated with me the most this year. It was the best mix between content and narration, and thinking about it still haunts me. Yet, I considered going with another title because it was an audio reread of a novel written in 1990. It is one of my favorite novels of all time and listening to it now in audio, in a new production with a wonderful performance by the narrator made me love it even more. So, I went with it. I mean, heck it’s my list, right?

This year I decided to try something a little different. Instead of writing a new blurb for each book, instead there is a link to my original review, plus my "Quick Thought: entry. Also, I invited some authors and narrators to talk about their experience with the audiobook versions of the entries. I want to thank those who contributed on short notice during this hectic holiday season. So, here it is my 20 favorite audiobooks of 2012. Hopefully, you will find something here to love as well.


A Gift Upon the Shore by M. K. Wren

Read by Gabra Zackman

Audible Frontiers

My Review

What I Said: A Gift Upon the Shore is one of my all time favorite novels, a darkly beautiful vision of a nuclear apocalypse. This novel stands apart from many within the genre by its frightening realism and its strong female characters. Narrator Gabra Zackman captures the poetry of the novel perfectly, making it a wonderful example of how good an audiobook can be.

Gabra Zackman, narrator of A Gift Upon the Shore

“A Gift Upon the Shore was one of my favorite books to record.  Partly because the story seemed so vital and relevant, and partly because it felt personally meaningful. It’s a really beautiful thing to connect emotionally to a book you are recording… it doesn’t happen all the time, and it makes the reading infinitely better when it does.  At the time I was in a fascinating life space… I was about to make a move cross country to new terrain and was both excited and scared by the prospect.  So to read a book about female pioneers re-inventing life in a landscape of the unknown was…. extraordinary.  Comforting.  Validating.  And offered me some courage I badly needed.  In addition to all that, I am a passionate lover of language, and the folkloric nature of the writing was music to my ear.”

Blackout by Mira Grant

Read by Paula Christensen and Michael Goldstrom

Hachette Audio

My Review

What I Said: Blackout is full of adventure, betrayal, true love, sacrifice, conspiracies revealed, surprise enemies and allies, fascinating science and of course, zombies. It has everything you want in a series finale, leaving you both utterly fulfilled, and desperately wanting more.


The Stand by Stephen King

Read by Grover Gardner

Random House Audio

My Review

What I Said: For fans of this novel who, like me, are skeptical of allowing another person to become the voice in your head, bringing this world you love to life, don’t be. The audiobook version of The Stand achieves its goal of presenting this classic in a way that will be accessible for both long time fans and those new to King’s frightening landscape.

Assassin’s Code by Jonathon Maberry

Read by Ray Porter

MacMillan Audio

My Review

What I said: Assassin’s Code is a fast paced, no holds barred science thriller with perhaps the most engaging series character in fiction today. If you have yet to listen to a Joe Ledger Book, makes sure you have plenty of time on your hands because once you start, you will not want to stop.

Ray Porter, narrator of the Joe Ledger series:

“I am a big fan of Jonathan Maberry. Every time I get to read Joe Ledger it is like visiting a good friend. I was very entertained by both books and I hope people have as good a time with them as I did.”

Spellbound by Larry Correia (Book 2 of the Grimnoir Chronicles)

Read by Bronson Pinchot

Audible Frontiers

My Review

What I Said: Spellbound left me simply breathless. Larry Correia has taken classic fantasy tropes and blended them into something that is almost its own new genre. The Grimnoir Chronicles with its blending of Superheroes, Steampunk and Alternate History is a series you simply cannot miss.

Larry Correia, author of Spellbound: “I’ve been blessed with amazing narrators. For Hard Magic and Spellbound, Bronson Pinchot makes the characters come alive. Sometimes it is really hard as a writer to listen to an actors interpretation of somebody you made up, because obviously they are never going to match exactly with what you’ve got in your head. Bronson does such a darn good job in Spellbound that as I’m writing the third book I find that the characters in my head now sound like his version of them.”

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

Read by Susan Duerden

Dreamscape Audiobooks

My Review

What I Said: The Rook is one of the most fascinating Fantasies I have experienced in a long time, truly touching that sense of wonder as only the best Fantasies can. In many ways, this is the novel that JK Rowling’s should have wrote next, an adult fantasy that reminds us of those feelings we would get as a child  hiding under our blankets trying to read just one more chapter.

Defending Jacob by William Landay

Read by Grover Gardner

Blackstone Audio

My Review

What I Said: Defending Jacob made my courtroom thriller loving heart sing for joy, a well written, deftly plotted legal tale that was full of hidden depths. Fans of crime fiction, even if not particularly legal thriller fans, should not miss this utterly enthralling novel.

Year Zero by Rob Reid

Read by John Hodgman

Random House Audio

My Review

What I Said: If I can compare a book to Ready Player One, Agent to the Stars and The Hitchhikers Guide, then it should be a given that I loved it. I did. Year Zero may be the most pure fun I had listening to a book this year. There was enough inappropriate laugh out loud moments that the weird looks I began receiving from strangers and coworkers became part of the scenery. Year Zero is the kind of accessible, pop culture ridden science fiction that should be embraced by a wide audience.

14 by Peter Clines

Read by Ray Porter

Audible Frontiers/Permuted Press

My Review

What I Said: Peter Clines novels are always highly visual, with intricately detailed action that comes across splendidly in audio. If there is any justice in the world, 14 is a novel that should make Peter Clines a household name among not just horror fans, but fans of good stories, expertly told. Clines has created a novel with characters to cheer for, twists to be honestly shocked by and stunningly vivid horrors that will make your dreams  uncomfortable.

Ray Porter, narrator of 14:

“I really enjoyed Peter Clines’ book, I look forward to more from him. I’d love to have a chance to narrate another of his books.”

Cold Days by Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files, Bk. 14)

Read by James Marsters

Penguin Audio

My Review

What I Said: Cold Days reinvigorated my love for this series. Butcher takes everything you think you know about The Dresden Files and smashes it, twisting and pulling it like taffy. He expands his world in amazing new directions, answering questions you never knew you where asking, while creating whole new realties to deal with.

Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor (Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy, Bk. 2)

Read by Khristine Hvam

Hachette Audio

My Review

What I Said: Days of Blood & Starlight left me totally breathless. Taylor creates her worlds with poetry, twisting our perceptions of the genre with each word, creating something both comfortable and unique with a magician’s touch. Fans of Daughter of Smoke and Bones will not only have their anticipations paid for with this novel, but they should be totally blown away.

Khristine Hvam, narrator of Days of Blood & Starlight:

“I think we can all agree that the world Laini Taylor has created is incredible. It is an honor to be a part of it.

We finished up recording Days of Blood and Starlight in a beautiful New York City Studio, with some pretty awesome people, a few months ago. Since then the response to the book, and the audio version have been fantastic. What an honor to have been cast for this project. Taylor’s story gives me so much room and opportunity to discover new voices, play with old ones, and develop as a voice artist. It’s kind of what we all wish for in a project.”

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Read by Phil Gigante

Brilliance Audio

My Review

What I Said: Throne of the Crescent Moon is the rare fantasy that seems to do everything right in an accessible, highly readable way. This book will thrill fantasy fans, and make them long to discover even more about Saladin Ahmed’s intriguing world. Even better, this is the type of accessible fantasy that I would have no trouble recommending to people whether they are fans of the genre or not.

Phil Gigante, narrator of Throne of the Crescent Moon:

“I really loved Saladin Ahmed’s juxtaposition of classic Arabian tales with a "Western" Fantasy style. He captured the true history and intrigue of his Middle Eastern roots, and told a story worthy of the best modern Fantasy authors. It is beautiful and lyrical, as the best Fantasy should be. I met Saladin at a sci-fi convention where he was touring for the book, and I found him to be a great person, and a writer to watch for a long, long time. He also has possibly the best hair of any writer working today! I’m really looking forward to the sequel, as all the Eastern pronunciations really gave my glottal stops a workout.”

The Reanimation of Edward Schuett by Derek J. Goodman

Read by David Letwin

Audible Frontiers

My Review

What I Said: The Reanimation of Edward Schuett is a novel that blends the unique zombie perspective of a novel like Zombie Ohio, with the recovered society motif of Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series, mixing in a liberal dose of the quirkiness of Raining Stony Mayhall, then adds it’s own secret blend of herbs and spices making it the most unique, and perhaps, rewarding zombie experience of the year.

This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It by David Wong

Read by Nick Podehl

Brilliance Audio

My Review

What I Said: This Book is Full of Spiders is just pure fun for any fan of horror fiction, full of adventure, plenty of creepy scares, monsters, shadowy government types, weird otherworldly weapons, slapstick irreverent humor and of course, a good dog and an even better woman. Fans of John Dies at the End will love this latest adventure with their buddies David and John, and if you have yet to spend time with this duo, go do it now. You’ll thank me.

Death Warmed Over by Kevin J. Anderson (Dan Shamble, Zombie PI, Bk. 1)

Read by Phil Gigante

Brilliance Audio

My Review

What I Said: Death Warmed Over is a haunted Halloween treat that pulls from The Police Squad as much as classic monster tales. Kevin J. Anderson has created a tableau for storytelling that should please a wide plethora of fans across many genres. Death Warmed Over is a tragic yet beautiful romance, an action filled buddy comedy, and a unique legal thriller all rolled into a tasty noir zombie shell and readers will want to take a big bite out of it.

Phil Gigante, narrator of Death Warmed Over

“I was impressed, as Bob mentioned in his review, how Kevin J. Anderson takes what could be every cliche in the "undead" realm, and layers on characters and situations that hit home mentally, spiritually and emotionally. He adds layers of true love, justice and intrigue, as well as screamingly funny dialogue, making the listener actually care deeply about the ghosts, zombies, mummies and other "Unnaturals" that make up the Big Uneasy. I screwed up many studio takes laughing out loud. Anderson even takes on modern slavery in the follow-up with tenderness and aplomb, all the while keeping the humor at a fever pitch.”

The Prophet by Michael Koryta

Read by Robert Petkoff

Hachette Audio

My Review

What I Said: The Prophet is a crime novel with literary flair. It is a tale of redemption and relationships which can uplift your spirit while devastating your soul. Koryta continues to prove that no matter what genre he is tackling, he is one of the best storytellers working today.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

Read by John Lee

Blackstone Audio

My Review

What I Said: Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a beautiful, vivid tale of relationships colored with a touch of the fantastic. Joyce never spoon feeds his readers but creates a vibrant mosaic for each person to translate on their own. Some Kind of Fairy Tale is simply wonderful storytelling and one of the most rewarding tales I have experienced this year.

Zombie by J. R. Angelella

Read by Alston Brown


My Review

What I Said: Zombie is truly a feat in storytelling. It reads like a novel Chuck Palahniuk would write after reading too much Robert Cormier. Full of witty dialogue, pop culture references and a unique rivalry between the bittersweet and the bizarre, Zombie is a buzz worthy book that defies classification, but would definitely make a wonderful edition to anyone’s bookshelf.

Control Point by Myke Cole (Shadow Ops, Bk. 1)

Read by Corey Jackson

Recorded Books

My Review

What I Said: Control Point delivered what I thought it would, tons of action, a fascinating world, and an authentic military feel. Yet, it’s what I didn’t expect that put this over the top for me. A hero I’m still not quite sure I can believe in and a blurred line between the good guys and the bad guys that lead to an emotionally devastating climax. Control Point is a novel that will be bouncing around in my head for a long, long time, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Myke Cole, Author of Control Point:

"When I first heard that CONTROL POINT was being made as an audiobook, I asked my agent to get me an audition. How hard could it be to read your own book? I mean, heck, I know how to properly pronounce all the names, and acronyms, and . . . uh . . . other names. CONTROL POINT was packed with incredibly nuanced words, like . . . "helicopter" and "sorcerer" and "pentagon."

To my great shock and dismay, Recorded Books politely declined.

So, I went home and beat my breast, shouted at the heavens, lamented the injustice of it all.

And then I heard Corey Jackson, channeling Oscar Britton with a passion and sensitivity that I would never have been able to muster. When I first saw the US cover of the book, I felt as if Michael Komarck had reached into my head and plucked images there for the final painting. Hearing Jackson was the same way. His voice *is* Oscar Britton’s voice. It always was.

The hard lesson here? Heinlein was wrong. Specialization isn’t for insects. It’s for specialists. And sometimes, it’s best to stand back, swallow your pride, and let them do their jobs. I’m sure glad I did."

What It Was by George Pelecanos

Read by J.D. Jackson

Hachette Audio

My Review

What I Said: Pelecanos fans will rejoice in a new Derek Strange tale and he certainly does his fans justice. What is Was is the hip thrilling story that his fans have come to expect, full of authentic, almost poetic dialogue, and human characters which will leave the listener wanting more.

Some Notes on the List:

Favorite Book published in 2012: Blackout by Mira Grant
Favorite Standalone Book published in 2012: Defending Jacob by William Landay
Favorite Debut of 2012: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
Favorite Fantasy Novel Published in 2012: Spellbound by Larry Correia
Favorite Horror Novel published in 2012: Blackout by Mira Grant
Favorite Science Fiction Novel published in 2012: Year Zero by Rob Reid
Favorite Mystery/Thriller published in 2012: Defending Jacob by William Landay

This is the first time that my top 2 Audiobooks were written by Female Authors.
Five of the top 20 picks were from debut Authors:

Honorable Mentions:

There were a lot of titles that would have made the list in any other year. Legion by Brandon Sanderson was a wonderful audiobook, but as it’s only a two hour novella, I couldn’t justify putting it on the list. I broke out of my typical genres and listen to a few more literary titles, among which A Land More Kind Than Home probably would have been in place #21 if I expanded the list particularly due to the wonderful performances by the narrators. Based solely on the book, Stephen King’s The Wind Through the Keyhole would have been a top 10 pick, but the author’s narration, while decent for what it was, knocked it down a bit on my list. Another recently audiobook reissues of a classic, The Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle was wonderfully produced by AudioGo, and, as part of the so called A List, Anne Hathaway’s reading of the beloved children’s classic The Wizard of Oz is a must listen. Lastly, for shared world anthologies, you can’t get much better than V-Wars edited by Jonathan Maberry and full of some wonderful performances by a star studded cast of narrators.

Now, onto 2013!

Audiobook Review: A Bomb Built In Hell by Andrew Vachss

13 11 2012

A Bomb Built In Hell by Andrew Vachss

Read by Phil Gigante

Dreamscape Audio

Length: 6 Hrs 12 Min

Genre: Crime Fiction

Quick Thoughts: A Bomb Built in Hell isn’t an easy listen. Its brutal betrayal of a human monster blossoming from the cesspool of the cultural outcast is stark and disturbing. Vachss tells the story with an authentic flair and creates vivid images that will stick with you long after the final track. It may not be easy, but it’s a tale worth experiencing.

Grade: B

Every time I take on an Andrew Vachss novel I find myself thinking about the very nature of evil. As someone who enjoys speculative fiction of the darker variety, horror, dark fantasy, paranormal and apocalyptic fiction, it’s all too easy to put a monsters face onto evil, Throughout history humanity has often tried to put the blame for evil onto supernatural elements, demons, witches and angry gods are just a few examples. This is because most often evil wears a human face. Evil things are done by humanity every day, from the rich and powerful playing games with the lives of many, to adults preying on the innocent, these acts of evil can be brazen, or hidden, but they occur. Andrew Vachss characters are seldom evil people, yet they can do evil things. I have yet to experience the Vachss novel where the main character is truly a hero. Even calling them anti-heroes is stretching things because almost any heroic act is a byproduct of their self interest. Yet, many of them have redeeming qualities. They have their own moral code which they stick to more so than the most pious preacher. They are fiercely loyal to those who have earned their loyalty. In the Burke series, often times Burke and his family of choice will take down the lowest of lows, the predators that prey on those weaker than them, as long as there is a payday in it for them. You may not like what these characters do, or the way the make their ends justify their means, but there is on some level a twisted nobility to their actions. They are not good guys by any definition, but like most of Vachss’ characters they are not evil. Then I listened to A Bomb Built In Hell.

A Bomb Built in Hell starts off with an author’s note talking a bit about Vachss history as a writer, and how this, his first full novel, received almost unanimous rejections from those he submitted to. I can totally understand why this happened. A Bomb Built in Hell is a brutal listen. I have always been fascinated by the Wesley character. I haven’t yet completed the entire Burk series, but Wesley is a sort of ghostly presents that haunts much of the series. He is part mentor, part cautionary tale, and part boogeyman that influences much of Burke’s philosophy. A Bomb Built from Hell is Wesley’s story. It isn’t a Robin Hood tale, of a crook who battles the powerful in the name of the poor, and Wesley is no anti-hero. He’s not even a proper villain. Wesley is a monster in human skin, warped by the system. It’s hard to find a single redeeming quality to Wesley. He kills indiscriminately, and places no value on life. Reading about Wesley is like witnessing a horrific act, brutal, stomach turning but mesmerizing. Vachss details his life in vivid, sickening detail. He tempts you along the way, making you want to feel sympathy for this man, and then smacks you in the face with the essence of the character. Much of Vachss characterizations in other novels creates a character you can cheer for, because despite being villains, they are taking on worse scum then they are. They are the hero by comparison. Wesley is nobody’s hero. He kills the innocent just as quickly as the evil. Even his attempts to do something good are so warped by his mindset that it suffers its own futility. I can’t really say I liked A Bomb Built in Hell because it was an emotionally draining experience. Vachss is a brilliant writer and each step in this novel is executed to perfection. I totally appreciate what he does here, and the time I spent listening was time well spent. I think the most fascinating thing about A Bomb Built in Hell was that it was written back in the 70’s, and while some historic and cultural elements are definitely from that time, Wesley has the feel of the modern day monster.  Vachss details actions by this man that would seem almost ridiculous 20 years ago, but modern day readers will see recognizable qualities in Wesley to that applies to some of our more modern atrocities. A Bomb Built in Hell isn’t an easy listen. Its brutal betrayal of a human monster blossoming from the cesspool of the cultural outcast is stark and disturbing. Vachss tells the story with an authentic flair and creates vivid images that will stick with you long after the final track. It may not be easy, but it’s a tale worth experiencing.

Phil Gigante has become the go to narrator for Vachss work, and that’s a valuable asset for any author. Gigante reads A Bomb Built in Hell with an appropriate low key style that fits this dark tale. There are a lot of colorful characters along the way, and Gigante is one of the best at voicing the various lowlifes, scum bags and human detritus that can populate the dark criminal worlds that Vachss creates. Yet, what Gigante does so well here is the transformational journey that he takes Wesley’s character on. Wesley’s journeys from his days s a young hood, to his time as a soldier, through his prison years being mentored by an aging criminal, to his days as hitman and assassin, and as he moves through his life, Gigante’s portrayal of him morphs. From the eagerness in his voices as he learns the tools of his trade, to the cold deadness of his tone as he moves closer to his fate, Gigante captures each stage in his life perfectly. Gigante uses his voice to paint Vachss dark portrait with such vivid detail that it makes the novel even that much more shocking. Like a musician finally finding just the right song, Vachss world is the perfect fit for Gigante, and together they create something special.

Note: Thanks to Dreamscape Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.

Audiobook Review: Goats by Mark Jude Poirier

23 07 2012

Goats By Mark Jude Poirier

Read by Ray Porter

Dreamscape Audio

Length: 8 Hrs 47 Min

Genre: Literary Fiction

Quick Thoughts: Poirier’s character study is full of dark humor and over the top characters but manages to humanize them all enough to make the story work. Goats is definitely a step away from my traditional plot driven genre reads, but its highly enjoyable entertaining situations, offbeat characters and strong lead make it worth the trek.

Grade: B+

I know this may come as a big surprise to many people, but marijuana hasn’t really played a significant role in my life. Most of my experience with drug culture hasn’t come from direct experimentation on my part. The strange thing is, despite not being someone who explored mind altering substances, I tended to be drawn to people who did. While I was never really in any of the major "cliques" in high school, the people I tended to hang out with at school where, I guess what you would call stoners. Some of my favorite people in the world own lava lamps, enjoy Phish concerts and tended to spend a lot of time talking about nonconformity. I’m not saying these people would partake, but, well, it would be easy to make assumptions about them based on outward modes of expression. Yet, maybe despite the fact that I love these people, I never really was drawn to the traditional stoner entertainment. In all honesty, I found Phish and even The Grateful Dead to be sort of boring. I’ve read Hunter Thompson and Jack Kerouac, but I don’t find their work to be particularly life changing. I’ll laugh at stoner comedies, like Friday or Dazed and Confused, but it’s more of a laughing at the idiocy of the characters then relating with them. I have to admit, I sort of choose Goats by Mark Jude Poirier on a whim. In fact, I choose it more because I was amused that the main character was called "Goat Man" then because it was about an unlikely relationship between a young boy and an immature middle aged man who bonds over a mutual appreciation of the herb. I guess you can say I was more drawn to the characters then the actual use of marijuana in the story. The more things change…

Goats is a touching coming of age story about older than his years 14 year old Ellis, and how the change of him moving away from his irresponsible trust fund mother, and immature pot smoking mentor, to an upper crust boarding school changes the relationships between them all. Poirier uses a common archetypal character, the overly mature responsible, highly intelligent young adult and thrusts him into an untraditional story full of manipulative and immature characters. Ellis, in many ways, is baggage to all of the adult in his life. To his mother Wendy, he is her calming force and a steadying influence, yet, he is also a game piece that she uses to strike at her ex-husband. For Goat Man, a roustabout handy man who lives in Ellis’s mother’s pool room and trains goats for cross dessert treks, he is a surrogate son, yet one he uses to justify the shortcomings in his life. And for Ellis father, called "Fucker Frank" Ellis is evidence of his poor choices and failures, whose guilt causes him to reach out to, yet only as long as he fits into his comfortable world. All of the adults are, if not comfortable, accepting of Ellis to some level, as long as he stays true to their perspectives of him, but as he begins to change and grow, it strains all the relationships in strange new ways. While much of the book centers on drug use, the true story is about a young boy trying to break away from his broken family. Anyone who grew up in a nontraditional home easily recognizes the struggles that Ellis must deal with. I may not get his desire to escape into the haze of a drug induced stupor, but I totally understood his conflicting feelings as he was being used like a pawn by those meant to protect him, then blaming him when he doesn’t conform to their whims. Probably my favorite aspect of the overall tale is the loving manner in which he develops the characters of Lance and Frieda, who are well, Goats. Poirier does a splendid job giving each animal unique personalities that tie into the story very well. The segments where Ellis and Goat man interact directly with these animals are some of the highlights of this tale.  Poirier’s character study is full of dark humor and over the top characters but manages to humanize them all enough to make the story work. Goats is definitely a step away from my traditional plot driven genre reads, but its highly enjoyable entertaining situations, offbeat characters and strong lead make it worth the trek.

What is there to say about Ray Porter? You basically always know what you are going to get, a strong, clear humanizing read by an actor who understands characters. Porter is at best when he is tackling complicated character, and Goats is a playground for his skills.  For each character, Porter finds the root of their persona and brings it to life. For Goat Man, Porter is all gravelly but with and air of whimsy and his shrieking hysterical Wendy is spot on. I was wondering how a man with a strong baritone voice would handle a 14 year old, but he just softens his voice, and takes on the cadence and petulant vocal styling of a pretentious youth, and it works.  It’s always helpful when stepping out of you literary comfort zone in audiobooks to have a narrator you trust and more and more Ray Porter is one I feel I can constantly rely on to guide me through a book of any stripe.

Note: Thanks to Dreamscape Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.

Audiobook Review: Blackjack by Andrew Vachss

10 07 2012

Blackjack by Andrew Vachss

Read by Phil Gigante

Dreamscape Audio

Length: 6 Hrs 59 Min

Genre: Crime Fiction… well, sorta Crime Fiction

Quick Thoughts: Blackjack is over the top story telling that defies all of the expectations I have placed on the author. This novel is a game changer for Vachss. While he still brushing with many of the same strokes, he has totally reinvented his canvas. Brilliant and disturbing, Blackjack still lingers with me days after completing it.

Grade: A-

What the crap? No… No… Really, what the crap? OK, deep breathe… Let me explain. I’m not good at building things. Hell, I can barely pull off children’s crafts and popsicle stick houses. Yet, sometimes I manage to build a beautiful box of expectations and place my favorite authors inside them. It’s true. I do that. But really, what the crap? Sometimes an author will tear apart my craftily built box, and break out in a way that I never expected.  I first discovered Andrew Vachss like 10 years ago when I picked up a used copy of his novel Blossom. Now, strange thing, I didn’t remember much about Vachss or that novel. I have vague recollections of enjoying it, yet, I didn’t truly become a fan of his work until I started listening to his Burke series based solely on the fact that it was narrated by Phil Gigante and looked interesting. In fact, I didn’t realize that I had read one of his books before until I started listening to Blossom, and realized I had read this book, and dug it out of my vast paperback collection. So, now, I am truly a fan. At this point, I have listened to about half of The Burke series, and 4 of his standalones. So, with about 13 of his novels under my belt I had him pretty well pigeon holed as a stylish crime fiction writer, whose vivid characters and precise prose pushed right up against the established boundaries. Yet, what I never expected him to do was utterly shatter those boundaries. So, I was ready, in my comfortable shoes, to listen to another solid Andrew Vachss crime fiction tale with characters that are more anti than heroes. Then, suddenly… What the crap?

Blackjack is the start of a new series by Andrew Vachss, and like his popular Burke series it features a cast of characters that make a sort of strange family living among the outcasts of society. Cross’s crew are all broken in some way, a collection of outcasts living within their own existence. Those who join Cross’s crew are required to answer one question, “Do you hate them? Do you hate them all?” I went into my listening of Blackjack cold. I had no expectation except for what I know of Vachss as a writer. It seems Cross and his crew has appeared in some of Vachss’ short stories, but I really wasn’t even aware of that until researching it after the fact. Blackjack is a game changer for Andrew Vachss. He is still brushing with the same strokes, but has totally reinvented his canvass. This is over the top story telling even for Vachss. Blackjack reads more like three interconnected novellas, than one complete novel, and this keeps the reader totally unprepared for where the author is taking them. Again, Vachss explores the very nature of evil. When Cross is approached by a shadowy group to hunt down an almost mythological group of hunter killers, you feel you are on solid ground. Yet, that ground is utterly shaken by what Cross experiences when he goes undercover at a prison that the group believes these killers have invaded. Vachss explore evil in a way that is unprecedented in crime fiction, causing you to question the realities of the genre, because, quickly you begin to learn that this really isn’t crime fiction. This is something else. This is other. Vachss never lets you off the hook in Blackjack. There are no easy endings or pat answers. The characters aren’t forced into any life altering realizations about their existence. This is the truly unsettling thing about Blackjack, while everything you assumed when starting the novel has changed, nothing has really changed. Blackjack, I am sure, will be a very controversial novel in the author’s oeuvre. I imagine many longtime Vachss fans may hate it, wanting the author to stay within the carefully created box they created for him. I for one was mesmerized by the novel. It still lingers with me days after completing it.

Phil Gigante gives another wonderful performance in an Andrew Vachss novel, bringing the gritty setting and offbeat characters to vivid life. Blackjack has a purposefully underdevelopment of some characters that serves the narrative, yet, Gigante manages to pull the pieces of the characters together making them even more memorable than they would feel on print. Blackjack has many mood shifts, with Vachss often giving us a bird’s eye view of his characters from a surveillance perspective, then thrusting us into the midst of the urban jungle, getting close and intimate with the characters. Gigante handles these tricky transitions smoothly, portraying the moods and feel of each setting precisely, never letting it linger too long past a transition. His voices Cross with a strong, yet laid back authority that reeks of pretension, but also displays the defensive boundaries the character builds. I think what truly makes this audio work is that Gigante understands what Vachss is doing, where he’s taking the characters and the mood of the writing and is able to get that across to the listener. Gigante has a relationship with the text, and is able to bring that across in wonderful ways. Blackjack is a tough one for me. I enjoyed it as much as I was unsettled by it. It’s a reminder that one should never get too comfortable in the fictional worlds created by your favorite writers. I am looking forward to seeing the reactions of other fans of Vachss work, as well as those new to him. Expect some good, some bad, and probably just a touch of ugly.

Note: A special thanks to Dreamscape Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.

Audiobook Review: Married With Zombies by Jesse Petersen

16 05 2012


Married With Zombies by Jesse Petersen (Living With the Dead, Bk. 1)

Read by Cassandra Campbell

Dreamscape Audio

Length: 6 Hrs 39 Min

Genre: Zombie Apocalypse

Quick Thoughts:  Married With Zombies may not be the most original novel in the zombie subgenre, but with it’s likable characters, laugh out loud humor and realistic romance it’s one I liked a lot more that I expected to.

Grade: B

I know many of you ladies out there may be shocked to learn this, but I am not married. I know, I know… In fact, I’ve always been a bit oblivious about women and romance. More than once, one of my female friends will reveal to me that someone was interested in me romantically, long after it would do me any good to know this fact. This is one of the reasons I think I have never really taken to the romance subgenre, and often find romantic subplots an annoying distraction to the overall story arch of a novel. Often the budding relationships will start with these moments of undeniable chemistry, where the two are instantly and irrevocably drawn to each other, and this is just something I never experienced. Romance and dating for me, takes effort. This week, as part of my month long celebration of Zombie Awareness Month, I decided to take on some zombie titles that I wasn’t instantly drawn to, or had an offbeat or unusual theme. One of the series I had seen at various places on the old internet was Jesse Petersen’s Living With the Dead series. I had sort of written this off as a Zombie Romance, with a comedic tilt. Now, I try to keep an open mind to various genres, but, all too often I look at Romance titles as a bit of fluff. So, based on the title of the book, Married With Zombies, I expected a cute and funny, but sort of fluffy love story between a husband and wife with some awkward martial bickering thrown in for flavor.

Married with Zombies was nothing like I expected, and neither was my reaction to it. Jesse Petersen’s Zombie outbreak novel was a fun, fast paced undead thriller full of lots of action and gore. On some levels its plot was full of standard zombie situations. You had the initial outbreak, scavenging for guns and supplies, a road trip hampered by clogged roadways, head shots, beheadings, tragic decisions, and crazy cultists. None of the situations of this novel were particularly unique. Yet, what made this novel unique for me was its likable, funny and interesting first person voice. I was instantly taken with Sarah, the main character, as she escorted us through her apocalypse with dark humor. In fact, her description of her and her husband David’s squabble with their undead marriage counselor, made me realize I was in for something a bit different.  While I have read a lot of accounts of struggles with a zombie, never had the tale’s narrator pointed out to me the colors of the zombie’s nails, or the type of heels it was wearing. Most of the zombie novels I have read, even the ones told from a female perspective would find these sort of detail superfluous, yet, I though having a truly normal everyday female perspective actually enhanced the feel of the novel. Also, I actually found the romantic aspects of the novel added to the story. This wasn’t some sort of puppy dog, instant sexual tension sort of love, but a romance that took work. The concept that being forced to work together to survive a Zombie Apocalypse allowed this couple to put aside some of their pettiness, and figure out what really mattered actually worked for me. Married With Zombies may not be the most original novel in the zombie subgenre, but with its likable characters, laugh out loud humor and realistic romance it’s one I liked a lot more that I expected to.

As narrator, I though Cassandra Campbell was the perfect choice for the voice of Sarah. She reads the story with a wry, understated wit and competent sexiness that suited the character just right. She brought a blend of maturity and whimsy that allowed the humor of the novel to stand out organically, never forcing a joke. She delivers the action is an evenly paced manner that allowed us to experience the grueling, vicious zombie slaying as if we were right there with Sarah and David. Campbell other characterizations work as well, delivering the male voices in a believable tone, and giving each character their own little twist.  I think Campbell is especially well suited to first person narration and I look forward to seeing what she does with the rest of the series.