Audiobook Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

6 06 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Read by Fenella Woolgar

Hachette Audio

Length: 15 Hrs 34 Min

Genre: Fiction (Beyond that, you decide.)

Quick Thoughts: Life After Life is a novel that defies easy categorization. It’s a genre busting look at life in the 20th century through the eyes of a normal women given the extraordinary ability to relive her life. Life After Life is one of the most fascinating novels I have read in a long time, and while at times I felt dragged down by the melancholy of the tale, by the end, I wanted to keep experiencing the many lives of Ursula Todd.

Grade: A-

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson was a book that was barely even on my radar. Sure, I had heard of Kate Atkisnon. I knew she wrote some curious dog book or something. I had heard the news that two books with the same name were released on the same day. I placed all this information in that nice box where you put information about books that other people will be reading in, and wrapped it up with one of my twisted, nano-infused bows and forgot about it. Slowly, I begin hearing rumors that people were calling Life After Life a speculative fiction novel, and that may have tickled a bit part of my brain, even if I wasn’t quite sure which Life After Life they were talking about. It really wasn’t until I read Devourer of Books review that suddenly the box was ripped open, the nano-bow thrown to the side, and my interest was piqued. My first reaction upon reading her excellent review was that this book reminds me of one of my all time favorite novels, Replay by Ken Grimwood. Now, I knew Life After Life wouldn’t be anything like Replay, in reality, but it seemed to share its genre defying classification and use of metaphysical Time Travel. The idea that we can relive and redo out lives has always fascinated me. If I could have one thing, it would be a restart button, where after I screw something up royally, I can just reset the game and start again. Yet, how much would remain? What lingering effects would choices made in one play of the game affect the choices after we flip the switch? How different would my life by if I changed one thing, or avoided one event? 

On a snowy day in 1910, Ursula Todd was born, and then died before barely even taking a breath. On a snowy day in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, this time to take that breath. Thus begins the many lives of Ursula Todd. Through heartbreak and tragedy, war and trials, Ursula Todd lives and dies, each life taking different paths. Life After Life is a novel that defies easy categorization. It’s a genre busting look at life in the 20th century through the eyes of a normal women given the extraordinary ability to relive her life. It would be easy to say Life After Life is a novel about fate, about how choices and events shape a person, greatly affecting the lives we lead. While it’s true I also I think this is an oversimplification. What Life After Life is truly about is character. With each life, each direction, Ursula remains Ursula at her core. There will be no perfect life, no time where she makes all the right choice, finds the love of her life, and lives happily forever after. Like every human that has ever lived, Ursula is flawed, and destined to live her life as she will. Sure, there are huge life altering moments, both experience and avoided, that send her spiraling down entirely different paths. Part of me wondered if major events in one life began to leave psychic scars for her next life, thus preventing her from ever achieving full success in any one area of her life. Atkinson uses the format she creates to manipulate us on an emotional level. She balances extreme melancholy moments, with moments of shocking morbid humor. 8 year old Ursula will, for reasons she’s not even totally sure of, take drastic steps to prevent family members from interacting with people during the outset of the Spanish flu  She finally gives Ursula a true Romanic side, a true storybook romance, except the man she falls for just happens to be a Nazi. At the center of this all is a very turbulent historical epoch that Atkinson captures wonderfully. Her tales of the London Blitz were especially well done, cultivating the conflicting emotions of that time, and truly presenting a harrowing, apocalyptic vision of WWII that we often gloss over in out American History classrooms. There is an unevenness to Life After Life, that I think actually ends up serving the tale. Not every moment will work for every person. I struggled with some of Ursula’s lives, while others completely enthralled me. Overall, this unevenness created a fascinating mosaic of life choices and core values that made Ursula a character that sticks with you well after the final page. Life After Life is one of the most fascinating novels I have read in a long time, and while at times I felt dragged down by the melancholy of the tale, by the end, I wanted to keep experiencing the many lives of Ursula Todd.

The unique story structure of Life After Life creates challenges for audiobook narrator Fenella Woolgar. It takes a while for the listener to adjust and buy into the format of the story. For me, it was a good hour before I started getting my brain around things, and probably another hour before I really became ensnared in the story. Woolgar does an excellent job easing the listener into the story. There is enough pause, and change in tone to indicate the transitions of the tale, and while at times disconcerting, Woolgar does a good job picking up Atkinson’s cues and emphasizing them as each new life begins. What I really loved about Woolgar’s performance was her ability to allow her characters to mature, and keep it consistent. She manages to tailor her characters voices to fit their age and station in life, and keeps her vocalizations fluid from life to life, while maintaining the core of each person. Woolgar did an excellent job bringing Atkinson’s tricky tale to life, making it an audiobook worth investing a part of your life in.

Note: Thanks to Hachette Audio for providing me with a copy of this titles for review.





Audiobook Review: The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter

22 08 2012

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter

Read by Paul Boehmer

Random House Audio

Length: 22 Hrs 45 Min

Genre: Historical Fiction/Alternate History

Quick Thoughts: The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is a well plotted tale, with a touch of romance, action and a whole lot of betrayal, set against one of the more misunderstood periods of American History. While Carter tends to weigh down his prose with some unnecessary exposition, he fills his tales with complex and interesting characters and steeps them in a rich and divisive history.

Grade: B

It seems every time my television accidentally tunes into one of the 24 Hour Newsertainment channels, or I stumble across a group of people discussing some hot topic working its way through our legislature I encounter a statement by someone on just how divisive politics have become. They talk about how our legislature and media have lost their sense of civility in the debate and discussion of current issues. I often think it would be nice to take a trip in their brains to when legislative bodies were a gentlemanly sport of friendly banter and constructive give and take. Back when the news media stayed unbiased when reporting events, and ethically avoided even the appearance of impropriety. This is a land where "Fair and balanced’ was not just a witty rejoinder made to rub in the faces of everyone that this state is in fact, it’s exact opposite. In this world, children are paid in lollipops to clean the streets that are unlittered and full of elaborately dressed women wishing them good day. Everyone worked 9-5 with an hour for lunch, and only had to come in on the weekend for the rare emergency. I like to call this land that existed before we lost our civility, Fairytale town, ruled over by The Good Lady Pipe Dream. One of the things I like about well researched historical fiction is it gives us a taste of the reality of those good old days so many dream of, often throwing dirt over their pristine reputations. I think that the true reasons that our politics seems so unseemly, and our news coverage overly biased is because we just have more information today. We have more access to the machinations of government then ever before. We have numerous cable news stations that spend more time covering what the other channels cover than the actual news. America’s history is full of biased news coverage. If you think the coverage of Gay Marriage is contentious, you should see the battlers between the newspapers supporting the Rebels, and those loyal to England during the American Revolution. The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, while an alternate history, takes place during a time where Congress and the Executive branch were constantly at each others throats. Impeachment threats were a tool use often by congress to attempt to reign in the power of the Executive. It was divisive, and not very civil. Sound familiar?

In The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln author Stephen L. Carter asks a fascinating "What if?" What if, on the fateful night at a small Washington Theatre, Lincoln met with grave injury at the hands of a traitorous actor, yet managed to pull through. What if the attempted assassination of Vice President Andrew Johnson actually succeeded and Mary Todd Lincoln dies in a tragic accident. These changes, as well as many other historical alterations set the stage for a complex tale of treason, espionage, and murder. As the Radical elements of Lincoln’s own party accuse him of going too soft on the South and attempting to turn his position as President into a Tyranny, a young colored women named Abigail Canner gets hired as a clerk for the firm defending the President. After one of the firm’s lawyers is murdered, Abigail and her fellow clerk, the white upper crust Jonathon Hilliman, get entangled in a messy conspiracy aimed to bring down the president and subvert justice. First, I should point out, this is a work of fiction. While Carter pulls heavily on actually history, he also takes liberties with history and social mores when it suits the plot. Carter has managed to create a fascinating story that gives us a good glimpse at the diversity of Washington Society right after the end of the Civil War. While a lot of the early parts of the novel are heavy in professorial exposition, he makes up for it with a compelling, if not a bit overly complicated plot, and some wonderful characters both historic and fictional. One of the more fascinating elements of the novel is Abigail’s navigation through the social society of Washington. As one will imagine she has a seemingly overwhelming number of obstacles to overcome set up by a very racist society, yet even more fascinating is the responses she gets from the so called supportive element which are often even more demeaning. Part of me wondered if she, being black and a women, could actually have accomplished many of the things she did in the novel, but again, this is of course fiction and some level of suspension of disbelief is required. The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is a well plotted tale, with a touch of romance, action and a whole lot of betrayal, set against one of the more misunderstood periods of American History. While Carter tends to weigh down his prose with some unnecessary exposition, he fills his tales with complex and interesting characters and steeps them in a rich and divisive history.

In many ways, my feelings about the narration echoes my feelings about the book, it was good, but it could have been better. I really don’t fault Paul Boehmer for some of the issues I have. He is an excellent narrator who can handle a wide cast and really shines during fast paced, intensive scenes. In particular, in this novel, he handles the actual Impeachment trial scenes wonderfully, and his pacing and tone on the action scenes were impeccable. The problem was, this novel exposes some of his weaknesses as a narrator. Boehmer’s tone becomes a bit dry and mechanical during many of the long expositional parts of the prose, and since this novel is plagued with them in the beginning, it takes a while to really get into the novel. I think that casting a narrator like Dion Graham who can pull the beauty out of the driest text could have bolstered this story a lot. I think this was one of those books that needed something more than just a solid, professional narrator. I think it would have benefited from an African American, or even female narrator. I would love to hear the transitions between mild mannered but opinionated Abigail, and the society women that someone like Katherine Kellgren would pull off. I should reiterate that Boehmer does a good job, especially in the latter moments of the book, yet, I couldn’t help maybe wanting just a bit more for this novel. 





Audiobook Review: A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka

25 06 2012

A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka

Read by Cassandra Campbell

Audible Modern Vanguard

Length: 14 Hrs 19 Min

Genre: Literary Historical Fiction

Quick Thoughts:  A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True is an audiobook that would have never been on my radar if it wasn’t for the audiobook community. It tells stories I don’t often read in a manner that I wasn’t prepared for. Pasulka manages to take settings I an unfamiliar with and characters who are nothing like me, and make me feel for them. This bittersweet, lovingly crafted glimpse into a fading history will stick with me for a while.

Grade: A-

Today is the first day of Audiobook Week and my first review is for the title A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka. Up until about two weeks ago, I had never heard of this book. In fact, the first time I heard of it was when audiobook engineer Ted Scott mentioned it in our interview as a book he often recommends. When I first read his answer, I thought he was discussing two books, one called A Long, Long Time Ago and another title called Essentially True. After playing with the Google monster I discovered that this was actually one book. I also discovered that narrator Cassandra Campbell lists it as one of her favorite performances. Cassandra Campbell is a narrator who I have listened to trice before and both of those productions were of Zombie Audiobooks. While I love a good Zombie Novel they are not often the best example of a narrators work. I’ve enjoyed my experiences with Campbell as a narrator, but I have yet to be blown away by her performances. A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True is a type of novel I almost never listen to. It is Literary Historical Fiction that takes place in Poland. It’s tells the story of a family living in a small village during World War 2 and their descendants living in Krakow after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The closest audiobook I have experienced that took place during this time and setting was Harry Turtledoves World War series, yet I highly doubt that Pasulka’s tale would include alien lizards.  I felt if a narrator was going to blow me away, this was precisely the type of story that would give her the vehicle to shine.

A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True was nothing like I expected. When I first started reading it, I thought the small town setting and the significance of "The War After The War to End All Wars" would make that part of the book my favorite. Pasulka tells her tale in alternating passages, and I expected the scenes involving Beata, the bar girl in post Soviet dominated Krakow to only serve as color for the more interesting tale of the struggles of a small town during the Nazi invasion of Poland. I had this entirely backwards. Pasulka’s tale of Half Village and their struggles during the war is told in a surface level, almost fairy tale like way. While you are instantly engaged with the characters, they have an almost underdeveloped feel. They often felt more like grand characters of legend, then actual people dealing with actual troubles.  While I was expecting a lot out of this story, the tale she told wasn’t what I expected. Pasulka tells of those left behind, the family that must deal with the consequences of their sons, husbands and fathers as they fight as partisans against the invading story. It was compelling and at times touching, but it lacked a certain depth. Yet the simplicity of this side of the story only serves as counterweight to the lavish, heart wrenching tale of the awkward, village girl Beata, struggling to find her place in big city Krakow. Stripped of everyone she loved Beata moves into a boarding house with her hard Aunt and irresponsible cousin. She works each day in a jazz club, where she pines for a meek clarinet player who plays occasionally in the owner’s band. Pasulka created a character who is quite different from me yet was instantly relatable. Her attempts to find her place in the world and struggles with esteem and purpose have a universal quality that manages to avoid coming off pat. The true beauty in the tales is the way it balances the two stories, having each play off each other in unexpected ways. Small reveals in one tale, lead to even bigger insights into the next. Each tale individually would be missing something, but tied together Pasulka paints a truly beautiful portrait of family and the search for ones place in the world. A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True is an audiobook that would have never been on my radar if it wasn’t for the audiobook community. It tells stories I don’t often read in a manner that I wasn’t prepared for. Pasulka manages to take settings I an unfamiliar with and characters who are nothing like me, and make me feel for them. This bittersweet, lovingly crafted glimpse into a fading history will stick with me for a while.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons I choose this audiobook was that I was hoping to be blown away by Cassandra Campbell’s performance. Well, I was. What amazed me about her reading wasn’t just her ability to pull of authentic Polish characters, but the way she managed to make each character distinctive. Often times, when narrators have multiple characters with similar ethnic background, these characters will sort of run into each other. Yet, Campbell puts loving detail into each character bringing them alive in wonderful ways. Under the narrators fine touch, this world comes alive. Campbell uses changing rhythms and tones to display the contrast between the big city life in Krakow and the environs of Half Village that helps increase the affect of Pasulka’s alternating timelines. This is truly one of the beautiful things about audiobooks, when you do take a chance and step outside your comfort zones, the right guide can make that trip even more rewarding.





Audiobook Review: The Gods of Gotham by Lindsay Faye

16 04 2012

The Gods of Gotham by Lindsay Faye

Read by Steven Boyer

Penguin Audio

Length: 12 Hrs 9 Min

Genre; Historical Thriller

Quick Thoughts: I really couldn’t have picked a better book for one of my first forays into Historical Thrillers. Faye has combines a gritty and authentic portrait of New York City in 1845 with a wonderful, complex mystery that will keep you guessing even after you think you may have it all figured out.

Grade: A-

I’ve been in a sort of a non-speculative fiction funk so far in 2012. Of the nearly 60 audiobooks I’ve listened to so far in 2012, only 8 have been thrillers with no elements of science fiction or fantasy. Of those 8 novels only two of them have been by authors I’ve never read before, and both of those have been legal thrillers. I have taken a lot of chances this year in my SFF readings, trying new authors, taking on debuts and reading outside of my comfort zone but in in thrillers and mysteries I’ve stayed pretty much pat. When I received a list of upcoming digital releases from Penguin Audio, the title The Gods of Gotham jumped out at me. I mean, I like mythological stories about gods, and Gotham is where Batman is from, where could I go wrong? Then I researched the novel and discovered it’s a Historical Thriller set in New York City around the time of the formation of the NYPD. Now, I realty haven’t read much Historical fiction, unless you include Joe Lansdale’s various depression era novels. I’m really not sure why I haven’t taken the plunge into this genre. I have always loved history. In college, I tried to pepper my schedule with as many history courses as I could fit. Alternate History is one of my favorite subgenres of science fiction, and I always enjoy when real historical figures are immersed into these types of tales. With my current thriller funk, and knowing that I will have very little flexibility in my listening schedule due to various commitments and events until June, I decided to give The Gods of Gotham a chance while I still could.

In 1845 New York City, the Irish potato famine has lead to a flood on Irish immigrants bringing with them their Catholicism and willingness to take on even the dirtiest of jobs. Bartender Timothy Wilde is trying to save up his tips in order to marry the girl of his dreams while avoiding his politically active low life brother. Then a devastating fire leaves Timothy penniless, disfigured and dependent on his brother. Against his instincts, Timothy takes a job with the newly founded New York City Police Department that his brother arranged, planning to use it to get back on his feet. Yet, a chance encounter with a 10 year old child prostitute covered in blood gets him entangled in a case that will take him from the lowest degradations to the highest levels of corruption. The Gods of Gotham is a brilliant Historical thriller set in a powder keg of a city ripe with ethnic tension, religious fervor and class warfare. Everything about Faye’s vision of New York feels authentic, the streets and the people are dirty, tired and bug ridden. Timothy Wilde is a fascinating and flawed character. While he resist the job his brother arranged for him, he, and the readers, slowly realize that he’s perfectly suited for it. Timothy begins to realize that this job isn’t just about being a brute who is there to prevent crime, but he can actually solve crimes. The mystery itself was well plotted. There were numerous times where I cockily believed I had it all figured out, then Faye would through me for another loop. Yet, the best part of the novel was how Faye took historical facts and brought them to life. The depiction of the mistrust of the Irish and Catholicism was something I know of intellectually, but never really understood the depths of it until I read this book. In historic context, with the debates over immigration and this country’s changing demographics, this is the timeliest of books showing how we often isolate ourselves in our own history forgetting that these issues have been a struggle in our country since Jamestown was first founded.  I really couldn’t have picked a better book for one of my first forays into Historical Thrillers. Faye has combines a gritty and authentic portrait of New York City in 1845 with a wonderful, complex mystery that will keep you guessing even after you think you may have it all figured out.

Steven Boyer is a wonderful narrator with a crisp pleasant voice. Yet, there was something just a bit off in his reading of The Gods of Gotham that it took me a while to figure out. In the early part of the book, I had trouble connecting with the time period of the novel, and Timothy Wilde as a character, and I knew it was due to the narration and not the writing. I should have figured out why sooner. I have always stated that the most important job of a First Person narrator is to create an authentic voice for the main character. Here, Boyer reads Timothy Wilde in his narrative default voice. Wilde is a character who is emotionally devastated, just lost everything he cared about, forced to work with people he doesn’t trust, and taking on an emotion filled job, and Boyer reads his with an almost pleasant nonchalance. I could never feel the turmoil of the soul that the text of the novel seemed to be presenting. Also, while Boyer wonderfully captured the spirit of the city in his interpretations of the salty, colorful characters that filled the pages of this story, he read Wilde in a sort of neutral, Middle American unaccented voice. There are some narrators, like MacLeod Andrews and Phil Gigante who have spoiled me by tailoring their voices to create unique narrative voices, and I believe Boyer is capable of doing this, yet in The Gods of Gotham, he just didn’t. Overall, the reading was nice, but for someone who listens to as many audiobooks as I do, and expect more than just clear concise readings, there was something missing in Boyer’s interpretation of Lindsay Faye’s beautiful and tragic novel.

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