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

29 07 2013

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

Read by Khristine Hvam

Audible, Inc.

Length: 9 Hrs 34 Min

Genre: Urban Fantasy

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

Grade: B+

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

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

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

Audiobook Review: The World Ends in Hickory Hollow by Ardath Mayhar

3 08 2012

The World Ends in Hickory Hollow by Ardath Mayhar

Read by Dennis Holland

Audible, Inc.

Length: 6 Hrs 4 Min

Genre: Post Apocalyptic

Quick Thoughts: The World Ends in Hickory Hollow is a simple, straight forward tale of survival that stands out from other classics of the genre by its strong female characters. For me, it is the quintessential example of a Cosy Catastrophe, where the residents of Hickory Hollow, despite some conflict, find a new rewarding way to live in the ashes of the modern world. Sadly, any effectiveness of the novel is obliterated by the unforgivable decision to cast a male narrator for a tale told from a first person female perspective. Shame on you Audible!

Grade: C  (B for the Book, F for Casting the wrong narrator.)

I recently read an article on the Cosy Catastrophe subgenre of Post Apocalyptic fiction. Cosy Catastrophes have always been hard to define for me. The term was created by legendary science fiction author Brian Aldiss as a sort of criticism of the works of John Wyndham. He decried that most of Wyndham’s major works were about people "having a pretty good time… while the rest of the world is dying off." I definitely feel this was an unfair criticism of Wyndham’s work, and quite limiting for a definition of this subgenre. Jane Rogers, novelist and author of the article I read, agreed. She expanded her definition of Cosy Catastrophes to be fiction set in a "recognizably realistic world, familiar and therefore cosy" that then suffers a catastrophe. I also had issues with this definition. First off, where Aldiss’ definition was too limiting, Rogers is way too broad. Under her definition, almost any Post Apocalyptic novel set in modern times would fall under this definition. Yet, and this is my most important point of contention, it defines the genre based on external factors, how the reader views the world, as opposed to internal factors, how the characters of the novel view the world. In Roger’s definition, as the novel ages, and is no longer set in a recognizable world to the reader, it would no longer fit in the subgenre. So, I have thought long and hard about my definition of cosy catastrophes, and I think I came up with one. For me, a Cosy Catastrophe is a Post Apocalyptic novel where the characters feel by the end that they are better off in the world they now inhabit then the world that was destroyed. It doesn’t mean that their path was easy, or that they don’t morn the multitude of deaths and destruction, just that the world left behind, and the simpler unencumbered life is inherently better. Under the definition I posit, the subject of today’s review, The World End in Hickory Hollow by Ardath Mayhar, fits nicely.

When the bombs begin to fall, in The United States and Asia, the Hardeman family didn’t even notice. Years earlier, they left the hustle and bustle of big city Houston, to live a simpler life on the outskirts of Hickory Hollow, TX. Yet, their weekly trip into town revealed it to be nearly abandoned. Already used to a life without the luxuries of the modern world, Lucinda Hardeman prepares her family and the few remaining resident of Hickory Hollow for what needs to be done to survive the transition. Yet, the Ungers, a group of hard women who where outcasts before the bombs, begin to cause trouble for the survivors, and the town must join together to protect what is theirs. The World Ends in Hickory Hollow is a simple tale of survival and adjustment in rural Post Apocalyptic America. Hickory Hollow reflects many classic tale, like Malevil, Earth Abides and Alas, Babylon, yet where it stands out is in its strong female lead. Mayhar has a straight forward story telling style, as simple as the people she is writing about. The tale is told from the perspective of Lucinda Hardeman, who has a quiet confidence, and an affecting manner. Unlike the typical male leads of Apocalyptic tale, there is no swagger or demagoguery, just strong will and competence. The Ungers are a disturbing group of antagonists. This group of women who survived pre-Apocalypse by government assistance and prostitution, have almost gone feral, and must prey on the townsfolk to survive. The contrast between Lucinda and the Ungers are striking. Hickory Hollow is full of anti-establishment messages, yet it comes off as a character traits, and not Mayhar pushing some sort of agenda. Yet, Hickory Hollow also suffers a bit from an imbalance of descriptive depth. She describes in loving detail each task that the survivors need to perform to survive, but when it comes to the action, the depth falls off, giving it an almost glossed over feel. The World Ends in Hickory Hollow is a simple, straight forward tale of survival that stands out from other classics of the genre by its strong female characters. For me, it is the quintessential example of a Cosy Catastrophe, where the residents of Hickory Hollow, despite some conflict, find a new rewarding way to live in the ashes of the modern world.

I am really, really upset with Audible for what they did with this audiobook. There really isn’t any excuse for it. For a company who is the leading distributor of audiobooks, and one of the major producers of audiobooks, a mistake in casting this bad should never be made. The book is told from the perspective of a woman, with the many strong female characters, and the main antagonist are also female, yet, the narrator is a male. Not just a male, but a male with a pretty deep baritone voice. I can not tell you how many times in this 6 hour production that I had to remind myself that the narrative voice should be female. The funny thing is, when the book originally started, I thought that perhaps the Hardeman’s were a homosexual couple, until I found out that our perspective character’s name was Lucinda. Now, Dennis Holland isn’t a bad narrator. He did a great job giving the book a Texas feel, but it was a male Texas feel. Having a male narrator was simply asinine. There are so many great female narrators that could have taken on this role, Xe Sands, Cassandra Campbell, Khristine Hvam… Hell, Tai Sammons would have been brilliant here. It angers me to no end how simply wrong and lazy this casting was. It would have been like casting Tom Arnold to star in Pretty Women, or to have Carrot Top star in a Malcolm X biopic, or cast Tom Cruise to play Jack Reacher… oh, wait… So, yes. WRONG. I just wonder if anyone at Audible actually read the novel. Harrumph…

This review is part of my weekly Welcome to the Apocalypse series.

Also, Presenting Lenore is again hosting a celebration of Dystopian Fiction on her blog.