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: Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

3 06 2013

Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

Read by Benjamin Percy

Hachette Audio

Length: 21 Hrs 43 Min

Genre: Literary Horror

Quick Thoughts: Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon tells the tale of the afflicted, the demagogues and the victims that this world of werewolves has created. It combines the detailed political and social alternate history of Harry Turtledove or Robert Conroy with the gut level horror of Stephen King told with a literary flair that escalates the novel beyond its influences.

Grade: A

I have always been fascinated by what motivates protest movements. I consider myself politically moderate, and have never felt the need to take to the streets over any issue. It’s not that I don’t have passionate beliefs, because I do. I will sign positions and write my legislatures, but I have trouble taking protest movements seriously. Maybe it’s a product of my conservative and religious upbringing where extreme political actions, even for things we cared about were looked down on. Maybe it’s a product of my age. My formative years were in the late 8o’s early 90’s. I remember the first Persian Gulf War and while people objected to it, there wasn’t the sense of outrage the second war brought about. I went to high school in the first Bush  years and college in the time of Clinton. We were more worried about the state of the economy than terrorism, human rights abuses by our government and social inequalities. Or maybe I was just lazy. Maybe I was so obsessed by my own personal struggles that I never looked outward. I’ll be honest, part of me still looks at the anti-war protests, the occupy movement and the modern social movements as a reflection on the desire of kids to have a 60’s like experience, than any true reasoned objection. It’s not that I don’t agree with them, it that I remember my politics at that age and how transformed I am now, and I can’t help but wonder if there will be some sort of reverse process for them. I have always been a “work within the system” type of guy. I think it fits my personality, and even though I have become much more liberal than the young republican college student I started out as, I still can’t see me grabbing a sign and joining the movements.

In a modern version of America where a prion infection brings about a lycanthropic change, those infected have been regulated to second class citizens, feared and hated by many aspects of the populace. When a gruesome terrorist attack leaves only one survivor, the country is up in arms letting their fear reign. The government cracks down on activist werewolves and begins to place restrictions on all lycans, while the war in the plutonian rich lycan home nation rages. Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon tells the tale of the afflicted, the demagogues and the victims that this world of werewolves has created. It combines the detailed political and social alternate history of Harry Turtledove or Robert Conroy with the gut level horror of Stephen King told with a literary flair that escalates the novel beyond its influences. Percy has created a political charged narrative ripe with modem day analogues, yet tells it a well paced, accessible story that doesn’t force an agenda down your throats. Fans of alternate history will appreciate the complexities and details he built into his world. Percy explores many area with a sociological authority that allows the readers to see the many shades of an issue that is far from black and white. Horror fans will have trouble getting their blood pressure down after an opening that will suck your breath from you lungs and fans of literary fiction will appreciate the well drawn characters, the lush prose and well told story. I loved every minute of Red Moon, yet, I do have one bit of hesitation when it comes to offering recommendations. As someone who truly loves alternate history and horror, this novel was right in my wheelhouse. Fans of horror may struggle a bit with the long trips into world building, wanting to get right back into the blood and gore. Yet, I reveled in it. I enjoyed the sprawling storytelling that took us from characters to character with an almost epic flair. While the story focused on three main characters, you truly felt you got a glimpse of the greater world within Percy’s intimate story. This isn’t really a werewolf tale, but a tale of humanity living with, adapting to and using fear. Percy even creates a limited apocalyptic scenario, ripe with dark images and tales of survival that truly rounded out one of the most satisfying reads of the year for me. Red Moon is one of my favorite novels of the year, offering something for everyone, and maybe a bit of extra for readers of my proclivities.

I am often hesitant about author narrators, but from the moment Red Moon started I knew I was in for a special listening experience. Thomas Percy has a deep sonorous voice that just made my hair stand on edge. He created such an oppressive, claustrophobic mood in the opening of this novel, that I was hooked. He has the perfect voice for horror, and while he lacks some of the polish in pacing that professional narrator may have, he captures his words with a raw beauty that causes them to leap off the page. He also managed to show a wide range of character voices. I did struggle with his voice for Patrick. Percy uses his narrative voice for this character, which was so deep it didn’t totally fit with the young naive juvenile  but this flaw was soon forgotten as he swept you up in his world. Surprising, his female voices was some of his best voice work. Percy shines mostly when things are happening, the flow during the expositional moments is where sometimes the pacing failed, but then you were sucked right back into the tale. If Red Moon isn’t nominated for an Author Narrated Audie next year, then a will take up a sign and march on the mysterious mansion of those who decide such a thing.

Note: Thanks to Hachette 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: The City of Devi by Manil Suri

19 03 2013

The City of Devi by Manil Suri

Read by Vikas Adam and Priya Ayyar

Blackstone Audio

Length: 14 Hrs 17 Min

Genre: Literary Post Apocalypse

Quick Thoughts: The City of Devi was never an easy tale for me, I often felt uncomfortable with not just the action but my reaction, yet, it was also a lot of crazy fun. For me, this tale worked on so many levels, creating a sort of beautiful mosaic of apocalyptic themes, strange love, and over the top absurdity.

Grade: A-

I always use this opening paragraph of my reviews to talk about something that stood out to me during my experience of an audiobook. Whether it be an issue within the novel, the reason why I decided to read it, or just an idea that percolates within my brain as the tale is being told. With The City of Devi there we a lot of potential topics to discuss. As a post apocalyptic fan, The City of Devi explored many themes that fascinate me, particularly the intermingling of the international economy,  reliance of modern technology for information, the importance of the balance of power among nuclear states, and how all these things can be manipulated into causing significant, even apocalyptic damage to a world increasingly balanced on a razor’s edge. I could discuss another of my favorite topics, religion or even tackle the importance of popular culture in propagandizing the masses. All of these are wonderful, fascinating ideas that are beautifully explored in The City of Devi, but I, like most red blooded males, want to talk about the sex. I want to believe I am a mature adult, well into his 30’s who can discuss matters of sexual relationships with a frank honesty. Instead, though, I fall somewhere between socially awkward and a giggling junior higher who just happened to stumble onto a Shannon Tweed movie on late night TV. When listening to an audiobook, there is an intricate relationship formed between listener, narrator and author, and when the audiobook is full of the sexin’, well, that can lead to some strange situations. I tend to listen to my audiobooks while at work, typically alone, but often near others, and when that audiobook talks about a newly married couples tentative sexual explorations, or one cousin donkey slapping another during naked wrestling, I find myself unable to make eye contact with those around me. I know what you think, “Grow Up Bob! Sex is a Natural Part of Life!! Who Hasn’t Donkey Slapped Their Cousin?” Yet, if there is one thing my ultraconservative Baptist upbringing taught me, it’s that listening to any form of Boy on Boy on Girl action in mixed company, well, may lead to awkward situations in which it is best to simply avert your eyes.

The City of Devi tells the tale of one woman’s search to find her husband amidst the chaos of war ravaged Mumbai, on the eve of a potential nuclear strike from Pakistan.  As she makes her way through the streets full of religious discord, apocalyptic paranoia and roving gangs, she encounter’s a young Muslim man with a secrets of his own, which may affect her directly. As the two search for her husband, they encounter many colorful and dangerous characters, one of which may be a manifestation of the cities patron goddess, Mumba Devi. The City of Devi is an absurdist romp through apocalyptic Mumbai that explores love, religion, pop culture and war in strange and brilliant new way. Its part Bollywood, part porn mixed into a screwball comedy yet set in a dark, and strikingly realistic near future dystopia. The two main characters, Sarita and Ijaz or “the Jazter” were lovingly explored and intricately developed forcing such a guttural reaction from me that caused me to question aspects of myself. I had such a negative early reaction to Jaz, his predatory nature, his brashness about sex, how it is just as much of a primal need to him as breathing and sustenance. I had to wonder if this reaction was due to some level of homophobia, on my part. Equally, my vision of Sarita as almost a victim, someone who needed to be protected from the likes of Jaz, caused me to wonder if that reaction was due to some misogyny on my part. Despite my personal conflicts with these characters, I found them fascinating. Even more so, I was blown away by the world created by Suri, how economics, religion and politics all contributed to a slow burn apocalypse. This multilayered exploration was so brilliantly done, it was almost scary. Add to this Suri managed to make what seemed to be almost an absurdist idea, the contribution of an over the top action movie about the goddess Devi to the chaos, seem strikingly plausible and even timely. Yet, the core of all this, the essence of the novel is a love story, in fact, a love triangle unlike any one I have experienced before. This was no Hollywood love tale, no easy love at first sight fallacy, but true love involving hard work, sacrifice, betrayal and self deception. The City of Devi was never an easy tale for me, I often felt uncomfortable with not just the action but my reaction, yet, it was also a lot of crazy fun. For me, this tale worked on so many levels, creating a sort of beautiful mosaic of apocalyptic themes, strange love, and over the top absurdity.

I think one of the major reasons this tale worked so well for me was the excellent performances of the two narrators, Priya Ayyar and Vikas Adam. The tale starts off in Sarita’s POV which is handled lovingly by Ayyar. Her narration is rich and beautiful, capturing the flavor of Mumbai, while also deftly showing the chaos and mayhem of a city steeped in desperation. Ayyar captures the frantic pace of the city, and she moves you from situation to situation, and then transitions to the back story of her relationship with her husband with a gentle intensity. Then comes Jaz. The transition is almost a punch in the face, as Vikas Adam takes an almost instantly confrontational tone with the listener. It’s as if he’s saying, “This is who I am. Deal with it.” Adam reads with the vocal equivalent of a sneer, yet as the two characters begins to interact, it softens and changes from outwardly aggressive, to an inner exploration. The interplay between the two narrators truly accentuated the story that Manil Suri seems to be telling. You can feel the reluctant bond form between the two characters. The pacing is sharp and distinct, carrying the listener along from situation to situation with ease, allowing us to fully follow each step on the journey. As with many multi-narrator productions, there is a slight disconnect in the voicing of shared characters, but in some ways that plays into the strength of the tale, showing how point of view affects perception. The City of Devi was a wonderful production of a fascinating novel that made me think almost as much as it made me laugh.

Note: Thanks to Blackstone Audio for providing me with a copy for review.





Audiobook Review: Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie Jr.

5 02 2013

Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie Jr,

Read by Jake Hart

Penguin Audio

Length: 8 Hrs 6 Min

Genre: Literary Fiction

Quick Thoughts: Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is a literary novel with a sprinkling of science fictional philosophizing. A rambling piece of conversational surrealism, that is as engaging as it is enraging. Ron Currie tells his true story with emotional honestly, even though it’s really not his story, and even if it was, it’s so influenced by his perceptions that it’s nowhere near the truth. Still, it was a fun and sort of weird audiobook experience, and for people looking for something just a little bit different, one that I most certainly recommend. 

Grade: B+

I think it’s pretty obvious to most readers that any work of fiction is just that, fiction. Yet, often times what we know, and what we KNOW are two different things.  I know, that despite my intellectual understanding that a book is merely a made up story involving made up characters doing made up things, that I ofter feel there is some level of truth in every piece of fiction. Somewhere, the line is blurred between the protagonist of a story, and the writer. The love interest that our protagonist is falling for, in our minds, is just a thinly veiled love interest from somewhere in the author’s life. We expect emotional honestly from the people who we pay to lie to us. I think the internet, and particularly social media has only amped up this feeling, removing the layers between author and reader. There used to be so much more separation between author and reader, yet now we can read about funny things their kids did, what book they are reading, which is their favorite beer and their impression of the latest political scandal. We interact with the authors more, becoming their friend simply by clicking on a link and supporting them by retweets and likes. Recently there was a scandal where an author, one whose work I have enjoyed in the past, was called out for writing fake reviews, both praising his work and bashing his so called rivals. I was disheartened by this, shocked at the dishonestly, the unprofessionalism and shady actions of this author who has told me stories I have enjoyed. Since then, I haven’t read his work, which, on retrospect, seems sort of strange. Do I now no longer trust his protagonist, because, for all I know, he’s just a sock puppet who slips out in the dead of night to punch puppies and write graffiti on the walls of KinderCare?

In Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, Ron Currie Jr., author of the wonderful Everything Matters, tells the story of a possibly suicidal, obsessively infatuated, and somewhat unfocused author named Ron Currie Jr. The story itself is an often hilarious, sometimes frustrating conversational account of his relationship with the women he’s loved all his life, the death of his father, and his barely mid-list writing career that takes a weird turn after a possibly botched maybe suicide attempt allows him to fake his own death. I had so many mixed feelings about Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles. I absolutely loved the beginning. It’s a mix of a sort of pretentious psuedo-babble, tempered by a self deprecating honestly that only suffers because of the total lack of self awareness by the author or maybe the main character, whoever is actually telling the story.  I loved the ending as well, which is a rewarding payoff of the Kaufmaneque deconstruction of the third wall between author and reader that the novel takes on. Yet, the middle of the novel was a weird ride of conflicting themes and unfocused ramblings, that made me laugh, shake my head, and sometimes wonder if something was going over my head. I can’t really explain what I took away from it, but I’m going to try. Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is not a love story, it’s a story about a love story. It’s a tale of one man’s journey to become self aware, only to discover that self awareness sucks. It’s an almost poetic account of how one day society will achieve perfection when the machines finally become sentient, and strip away all the human and biological flaws, allowing us to live in a state of bliss or erase ourselves completely. Basically, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is like sitting next to a drunk writer, as he attempts to be pretentious, scolds himself for being pretentious, tells the stories of his greatest love, the death of his father, and his biggest mistake. There were times when I absolutely loved this book and there were other times where I wasn’t exactly sure what the fuck I was listening to. Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is a literary novel with a sprinkling of science fictional philosophizing. A rambling piece of conversational surrealism, that is as engaging as it is enraging. Ron Currie tells his true story with emotional honestly, even though it’s really not his story, and even if it was, it’s so influenced by his perceptions that it’s nowhere near the truth. Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is fiction, except where it’s not. I think.

One of the reason’s I was excited about this book is I truly believe Ron Currie’s style translates wonderfully to Audio. His novel, Everything Matters, was one of the most unique and fascinating audiobooks I have listened to, and had a wonderful cast of narrators. Yet, one of the problems with being someone who listens to so many audiobooks, is despite how well a narrator performs, occasionally you can’t help but think how much better the overall experience would be if another narrator handled the role. Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles was narrated by a new to me, and seemingly new to audiobooks narrator named Jake Hart. There were moments in this audiobook where Hart captured the conversational tones of the novel perfectly. He would add a tint of an affected accent, or have a small break in his voice that fit the mood of the novel to a tee. There were other moments where he sounded more like a professional narrator than a guy telling us a story. It was like, instead of being told about a particularly absurd moments by the guy sitting on the bar stool next to you, you were being recited the facts of a situation by the "Welcome to Movie Phone" guy. Much of the time listening to the audiobook, I just couldn’t help thinking how awesome the book would be if it was narrated by Ray Porter. Not that Jake Hart was bad, he wasn’t. It was more so that I though this book was particularly well suited to audio, and deserved the best first person narrator in the business. Still, it was a fun and sort of weird audiobook experience, and for people looking for something just a little bit different, one that I most certainly recommend. 

Note: Thanks to Penguin Audio for providing a copy of this title for review.





Audiobook Review: Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer

21 01 2013

Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer

Read by Joshilyn Jackson

Macmillan Audio

Length: 10 Hrs 53 Min

Genre: Literary Fiction

Quick Thoughts: Shine Shine Shine is at times funny, frustrating and emotional, full of side trips and back stories, which slowly reveal the life of one of the most interesting and complex female character I have read in a while. Shine Shine Shine was a real departure for me as a reader, and it was one that totally paid off. I can’t say I will be adding Netzer to my "Must Read" list, but I can say she’s a writer I won’t soon forget.

Grade: B+

So, I have no problem admitting I came for the robots. I think I have a pretty good grasp on what kind of reader I am. I do a relatively good job choosing books I know I will like, and even when I take a chance and read outside of my comfort zone, these choices are rarely made haphazardly. One thing I know about myself, I will read almost anything if you add robots. You have a tale of a young girl getting into a creepy relationship with a 100 year old sparkly vampire, and well, you pretty much lost me at sparkly. Add Robots… I’m there. Historical Romance involving the High Society Dinner Parties… wake me up later. Have these dinner parties run by sentient robots set on world domination… consider me woken. You see, I have well oiled spot in my heart for our mechanized friends. I just can’t think of anything that doesn’t get better with robots, or worse without them. Subtract Mack Megaton from A. Lee Martinez’s The Automatic Detective, and you simply have another story about a detective fighting alien invaders. Cool, sure, but not as cool. Have a natural nemesis instead of a robotic one, and Daniel H. Wilson’s novel is simply called Pocalypse, and I highly doubt Spielberg becomes interested. Robots just make everything better. Without Robots Asimov’s classic novel that hatched the Three Rules just becomes another autobiography. Who would Luke be without R2D2? Who would Buck Roger’s be without Twiki? Basically, just bad B List Actors in forgettable films. Hell, even vacuuming is now worth talking about now that Roombas are torturing house pets across the planet. So, sure, a touching character study of a woman attempting to be the perfect wife and mother in suburban America isn’t my typically thing, but throw in an astronaut husband who works with self directing robots, and well, I’m sold.

Sunny is your typical Supermom. She manages to run her house like a well oiled machine, organize community events and present the image of the perfect suburban mother. Except, she’s not typical. Her husband and child are both autistic, her father’s death in Burma may not have happened exactly as she said it had, and she’s bald. Totally bald. Yet, despite the ire it causes her mother, she manages to cover all the problems in her life with cosmetic fixes. Until the day she’s in an accident, and her wig comes flying off. Shine Shine Shine is at times funny, frustrating and emotional, full of side trips and back stories, which slowly reveal the life of one of the most interesting and complex female character I have read in a while. Sure, I joke a bit about the robots, but what really drew me to Shine Shine Shine was Lydia Netzer’s portrayal of both Sunny’s autistic sons and husband. I am often frustrated by the portrayal of people with disabilities in movies and books. So often, there is sort of a magical aspect given to people in the autistic spectrum. Shows like Touch bother me, because while they do show some of the tougher aspects of living with disabilities, it’s tempered by all the "cool things" he can do. I have a 7 year old nephew who is autistic, and more than once people have asked me what he can do, like all autistic people have a trick that defines them. This almost frustrates me more than the people who approach me in the mall, when I am with someone I work with in a wheelchair with severe disabilities, and they ask me "So, what’s wrong with him?" Shine Shine Shine was a breath of fresh air for me, because it showed the bad and ugly parts of loving someone with disabilities, along with the joy it can bring. Yet, what really surprised me about Shine Shine Shine was how much I enjoyed the character of Sunny. Sunny maddened me at times, and I found moments where she came off as selfish, and ungrateful. She would go from thinking about her relationship with her husband Maxon as the greatest of all Epic love stories one moment then blame him for their inability to fit into society and his contribution to their son Bubber’s genetic make up the next. I found this maddening, sometimes reprehensible, and very, very real. There are many things that Netzer does in Shine Shine Shine that are prime example’s of why I don’t tend to enjoy Literary fiction, unresolved endings, nonlinear story telling, unfocused narratives and unnecessary side trips, yet, here, it just worked for me. I think it came down to me falling for these characters, and I just simply wanted to spend time with them, no matter what we were doing. Shine Shine Shine was a real departure for me as a reader, and it was one that totally paid off. I can’t say I will be adding Netzer to my "Must Read" list, but I can say she’s a writer I won’t soon forget.

I was quite intrigued by the idea of having another author, Joshilyn Jackson, whose only narration experience is for her own books, narrate Shine Shine Shine. Now, I haven’t ever read or listened to one of Jackson’s novels, and as one who tends to be skeptical of author read audiobooks, I was a bit wary of this one. Well, Jackson’s performance isn’t perfect. At times, her voice is just a bit to sweet sounding for the characters, in my opinion. On a technical level, her reading is solid. It won’t blow you away, but her pacing is good, and her grasps on the characters is strong. She has a clear, strong voice, and engages the listener well. Yet, the highlight of the reading is her passion for the material. You could tell she loved this story and the characters and really wanted to share them with the listeners. This level of passion doesn’t make up for all of the small flaws, but it comes pretty close. After this performance, I would have no problem listening to a novel narrated by Jackson. I would probably prefer a professional narrator, but having her name attached wouldn’t send me running into the woods as if I was being chased by self aware robot killers.





Audiobook Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

11 01 2013

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Read by Oliver Wyman

Harper Audio

Length: 11 Hrs 39 Min

Genre: Literary Fiction

Quick Thoughts: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a funny, farcical look at America in the 24 hour a day news culture where wars and tragedy become just as much entertainment as Football and movies. Fountain will have you laughing away the tears as you fall for Billy and his odd group of brother soldiers.

Grade: A

I learned the hard way that I can be a rather awkward when meeting someone I consider famous. When I was a teenager, me and my best friend went to see our favorite band at the time, a Christian Contemporary Rock band, called Petra, who was playing at a festival at the Philadelphia Race Track. The band played two sets, to a screaming twenty or so fans, and between the sets the various band members were on stage, and interacting with the fans. Being that me and my best friend made up nearly half the fans waiting to interact with the band, I got the chance to tell all my Petra stories, make my Petra jokes and blather endlessly about my Petra experiences. At one point, while retelling my stories to the keyboardist, it became apparent that I was annoying the hell out of the guy. Sadly, it took me longer than anyone else to realize this. I was mortified. Ever since then, when I met someone I liked, whether it is a musician, politician or author, I’m very wary of interacting with them. I remember plainly when I met Ed Rendell, who at that time was mayor of Philadelphia, at a fundraiser for a theatre I was working for. I tried my best to avoid him, but when I finally had to shake his hand, our interaction was basically, "So what so you do here?" "Sound." "Well, good job." "Thanks." Of course, then I worried that instead of annoying them, my brief terse conversations were offensive and cold. It seems its human nature to assume things about people who we feel a connection with, and assign qualities we respect to them without really knowing them. In Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk author highlights this phenomenon from the other side giving as a look into Billy Lynn and the Bravo Company as they interact with people who believe them to be heroes.

After a brutal battle between Bravo Company and insurgents in Iraq that was captured by FOX news, Billy Lynn and his fellow soldiers are on a brief stateside publicity tour before heading back to finish their stint in Iraq. While attempting to find a movie deal for their story, the boys of Bravo company finish out their final stop on Thanksgiving Day at Dallas Stadium, where they shake hands with powerful business men, mingle with the legendary Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and try to deal with being in the spotlight before returning to the front lines. Told from the perspective of Billy Lynn, a soft spoken 19 year old, now thrust onto the national stage, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a wonderful mix of humor, emotion and Americana run amok. For those who follow this blog, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a bit of a departure from my usual fare. I probably wouldn’t have listened to it except that it made a large number of end of year lists and was narrated by one of my favorite narrators, Oliver Wyman. Luckily, I did give it a listen and found it to be one of the more rewarding side jaunts for me this year. Billy Lynn is full of heart and humor and the ostentatiousness of America culture. Fountain manages to blend a pretty straightforward, accessible tale with moments of almost stream of consciousness as Billy and Bravo interact with streams of fans, all who assume that their politics and values are shared by the heroes. Set against the backdrop of the biggest America show their is, NFL Football, with it’s grandiose productions, hit musical acts and over produced Half Time Extravaganzas, Fountain manages to use the hugeness of it all to give us an intimate look at the conflicted soldiers. Fountain manages to evoke a wide array of emotions, from anger and embarrassment, to a bittersweet sadness, all through the eyes of a naive and conflicted soldier still attempting to deal with his grief while being gyrated against during Destiny Childs Half Time show. It these moments that really make this novel stand out, where the ridiculousness of the surroundings accentuates Billy Lynn’s internal conflicts. It’s a novel full of such contrasts, that you can’t help but see a little bit of yourself in the good and the bad. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a funny, farcical look at America in the 24 hour a day news culture where wars and tragedy become just as much entertainment as Football and movies. Fountain will have you laughing away the tears as you fall for Billy and his odd group of brother soldiers.

When a narrator of the caliber of Oliver Wyman says that a book is his favorite narration of the year, I pay attention. Wyman manages to capture the heart and humor of this novel perfectly. Wyman has a wide array of alter egos, ummm…. voices, to call on, yet none of them feel stock in anyway. Each character, from Billy himself, to the many people he interacts with along the way, are voiced with such authenticity, you almost forget your listening to a novel, but instead eavesdropping on hundreds of separate conversations. Wyman handles the interactions with the endless lines of glad-handers and well wishers especially well, allowing you to feel the frustration that Billy Lynn is too polite to show externally. If your an audiobook fan, and have yet to listen to one of Oliver Wyman’s narrations and are wary of quirky serial killers, spaceships and monster hunters, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk could be the perfect introduction to one of the best narrators out there.