Audiobook Review: Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien

27 09 2013

Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien

Read by Christina Moore

Recorded Books

Length: 5 Hrs 59 Min

Genre: Post Apocalyptic

Quick Thoughts: The classic Young Adult Post Apocalyptic tale holds up well since my initial reading over 30 years ago. There is a reason this novel is a classic, and it’s themes of overcoming misogyny, the destructiveness of science, and individualism still has value for today.

Grade: B+

Note: If you have yet to read this novel, This review may contain some spoilers. BE WARNED!

When I was in elementary school at good old Christ Home Christian School, I remember the bookcase. The bookcase was a shelf of donated books that the kids in the lower grades could sign out and read on their own volition purely for entertainment sake. Growing up in a fundamentalist household, church and school, this was the first time I felt like I could choose my own entertainment. Of course, it never entered my brain the books here where highly vetted acceptable books, just that I could choose them. Through this shelf I had my first boyhood crush on Laura Ingalls Wilder, went on my first otherworld adventures in Narnia, Oz and on the Phantom Tollbooth, and traveled with some strange characters across the Atlantic in the belly of a giant peach. I was also introduced to some rather amusing rats trying to escape from the National Institute of Mental Health. Every once in a while, new books would be added to the bookshelves. One day, a book titled Z for Zachariah by the same author as the NIMH books was added to the shelves. Since the Rats of NIMH was one of my favorites, I just knew I had to read this book. Little did I know that this would be my first foray into the subgenre known as Post Apocalyptic fiction, which would one day become my literary obsession. So, for those of you out there disturbed by my fascination with the end of civilization, you very well may have a bunch of talking rats to blame for it.

Z for Zachariah is the tale of Ann Burden a teenage farm girl from a small town, who due to a geological anomaly finds herself the last resident of a valley that offers protection from the radioactive fallout of a global nuclear war. She lives day to day, supporting herself through hard work, longing for the company of other human beings yet fearing the dangers others may bring. When a strange man wearing a protective suit shows up, her world is forever altered. While not in any way the first Post Apocalyptic novel, for many of my generation, Z for Zachariah was the introduction to the genre and can be listed as a classic example and predecessor to books like The Hunger Games and other modern YA dystopian. It’s also a darkly fascinating tale of claustrophobia and loneliness battling hope in the midst of the fall of humanity.

The main theme of the novel, both as a young elementary student, and now a much older, bordering on middle aged man, is just how stupid men can be. Ann Borden is young and naive sure, and can be frustrating but she is a strong character, full of the right mix of knowledge to survivor the apocalypse. When Mr. Loomis shows up, you can’t help but think he’s hit the jackpot, a young farmer girl who can run the tractor, cook, fix engines and grow crops, plus well, let’s face it, if you believe you are the last man on earth, finding a smart, resourceful 16 year old woman is reason to celebrate. Yet, the chemist, Mr. Loomis, who never had to worry about where his next meal came from before the apocalypse, decides that this young women isn’t his ally in survival, but his property, and not much more valuable than breeding stock. I remember, the younger Bob being flabbergasted by this. Remember, I grew up in a culture where women were encouraged to call their husbands "Lord and Master" and even I found Mr. Loomis to be a stupid misogynistic dillweed before I even understood what the concept of misogyny was. Rereading it now, and understanding things I didn’t as a kid, including the near rape scene, only cemented my belief the Mr. Loomis is not only one of the most despicable characters in literary history, but one of the stupidest.

This is not in anyway to say that Z for Zachariah is a bad novel. I am focusing on the area that stuck out most to me. In reality, Z for Zachariah should be applauded for creating a wonderful strong female character in Ann Burden, who despite her naiveté, displayed true strength in a devastating world. I know if I was to find myself in similar circumstances of this young girl, I would be dead within weeks. O’Brien’s use of the diary format gives us a very limited perception on the story, yet also adds lots of depths to the tale by showing us Ann’s thought processes, and the evolution of her understanding of Loomis. In many ways, this style allows us to see the process of her maturation, from the girl hiding in a cave but dreaming of marrying the mysterious stranger, to the girl who finally bests the highly educated scientist. There is a reason why Z for Zachariah is a classic of the genre. It’s a wonderfully plotted tale that taps into the essential issues of a post apocalyptic world, highlighting the evolving moralities of the changed world. 

While the audio production is solid, it also displays one of the problems with the format. Christina Moore reads the first person tale with a sort of stunned coldness at first, morphing eventually into something harder. While this is appropriate for the character, it doesn’t make for the most entertaining of listens. Moore often uses a flat affect to show how much Ann is affected by the world, muting her emotions. This makes some scenes more powerful at the end of the novel, when Ann’s emotions finally shows through, but it also at times gives the book an almost dreamlike flow that creates a barrier between the listener and the tale. Overall, I think Moore gives the right performance which brings out the author’s intent but, this doesn’t always keep the reader entranced as a more emotive performance would have.

Audiobook Review: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente

19 09 2013

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente (Fairyland, Bk. 2)

Read by S. J. Tucker

Brilliance Audio

Length: 8 Hrs 18 Min

Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

Quick Thoughts: THE GIRL WHO FELL BENEATH FAIRYLAND AND LED THE REVELS THERE  maintains all the magic, dark adventure and vicarious joy of the first novel, and builds on it with delightful results. Catherynne M. Valente’s twists of classic fairytales and portal fantasies is a magical joyride for people of all ages.

Grade: A

It’s been a year since September has returned from Fairyland, where she had grand adventures, made fabulous new friends and helped overthrow the Marquess who wanted to prevent any other little girls from crossing over into Fairyland. A year of patient waiting for her father to return from the war, for her 13th birthday, and for the wind to sweep her back to Fairyland where now that the darkness has been defeated she can delight in the magic and the company of her friends. Yet, when she finally does return, nothing is right. Someone has been coming up from Fairyland Below and stealing the shadows of those from Fairyland Above, and September suspects that the shadow thief may be her own shadow she left behind a year ago. OK, let‘s screw suspense, people…. I LOVE LOVE LOVED this book. This book made me want to have kids just so someday I can introduce them to the wonderful world of Fairyland where young girls can be bishops, markets run wild, shadows can dance and play, and science is a device searching for it’s use. Catherynne M. Valente’s twists of classic fairytales and portal fantasies is a magical joyride for people of all ages, from wide eye children to gruff brutish, emotionally distant, socially awkward almost 40 year old men like myself. Following September’s adventures in Fairyland is the closest I have come to reliving those days when I would give anything to travel to Narnia or Oz and have grand adventures with talking animals, ogres and ghouls, and maybe have tea with a family of beavers. THE GIRL WHO FELL BENEATH FAIRYLAND AND LED THE REVELS THERE  maintains all the magic, dark adventure and vicarious joy of the first novel, and builds on it with delightful results.

There is so much in the book I loved that it’s would almost be easier to write a checklist of awesomeness. While you may miss out on the illustrations that come with the print version, the story itself is perfect for audio. Valente, in the form of a nameless narrator, tells this story in a conversational tone. The narrator acts as a conspiratorial conduit for the tale, letting the reader in on bits and bobbles and tiny secrets that the characters of the book are not privy to. She is quick to defend September for her often rash manner, explaining to us about how she is just now finding her heart, and is just getting used to it. This style truly pulls the reader into the tale, becoming more than an outside observer, but investing themselves into September’s adventure. I was amazed at the small and subtle moments of wisdom that Valente sneaks into her tale, flipping typical platitudes on their heads, and revealing as much about our world as Fairyland through the absurdity and wonder of it’s denizen’s. Small words of wisdom about ones "bone’s desire" and how you never forget what you do during war, ring even more true through the innocents of these characters. Like the first novel, Valente create magic through the mundane, taking regular items and having them act in irregular ways. Often times, the magic that forms is more in the altering of perceptions of everyday things than on spells and potions. While I am not a parent, I am an uncle, and I feel this book is one that little girls should read to understand their true potential, and little boys should read to understand little girls. Also, adults, because adults should always take moments in their lives to remember what it was like to be children. While THE GIRL WHO FELL BENEATH FAIRYLAND… is all these things I have mentioned in theme and execution, it is also a delightful, suspenseful and engaging story full of magic humor and wonderful characters. Most of the characters from the first novel, or some altered version of them, return, and often it surprising ways. Old friends become new enemies, and old enemies are surprising allies. Also, there are a couple of crows because crows are awesome. As I said, I could go on rambling and rambling about the many reasons I loved this book, and will probably hate myself tomorrow when I realized I missed 10 or 20 more, but just know I loved this book, and if you still have a heart somewhere, whether you remember how to use it or not, you will love it too.

THE GIRL WHO FELL BENEATH FAIRLYAND AND LED THE REVELS THERE had been languishing on my TBL pile for a while, and the only reason I decided to listen to it at this time was due to a malfunction in my planned audiobook. So, with all this love of the book, why wait? My hesitation was solely from the change in narrator. This first novel was read wonderfully by the author, and I balked at a new voice taking over these delightful characters, particularly in a narrator I have never experienced before. So, it was somewhat of a shock to me when I absolutely fell in love with S. J. Tucker’s performance of this novel. She has a rich exotic voice, with a bit of spice that perfectly fed into the otherworldly magic of the novel. Tucker reads it with an unrecognizable accent, something not quite American and not quite British, but somewhere in between, adding a lyrical cadence to made the simplest line sing with poetry. I have always said, when talking about audiobooks, that readers can hear a smile, yet, with S. J. Tucker’s performance you can hear the shades of the narrator’s grin from the sly smile to the devilish Cheshire. While I am not sure if it was planned, Tucker’s performance seemed to have a continuity with Valente’s. I suffered no dissonance, each character felt right to me, as if I had already spend plenty of time on adventure with them. There were so many wonderfully memorable moments in this production, but I would be remised if I didn’t mention the rhyming goblin sales pitch, which was wonderfully written and performed and a joy to experience. As I mentioned early, this series is almost tailor made for audio, and S. J. Tucker’s beautiful performance enhanced the experience.

Audiobook Review: Stranded by Jeff Probst and Chris Tebbetts

11 03 2013

Stranded by Jeff Probst and Chris Tebbetts

Read by Charles Carroll


Length: 2 Hrs 56 Min

Genre: Middle Grade Adventure

Quick Thoughts: Stranded is a nice start to a series that I think kids will enjoy with the potential for better things to come. While I would have liked to see a bit more happen overall, I think this serves as bait for the hook, and it’s enough to snare a decent sized fish. Survivor fans may get a bit of a chuckle at how Probst’s experience as the host of the hit show comes into play in the tale, then happily hand the book off to their kids.

Grade: B

I know many of you are asking, why is Bob, a mid to late 30ish guy with no kids who has a penchant for dark horror, apocalyptic fiction and violent thrillers, reviewing a Middle Grade adventure novel? Let me assure it is simply because, despite having no children of my own, I am an uncle known for purchasing books as gifts for his sibling’s progeny and as a conscientious consumer I feel it’s important to get a good handle on books you may give to children and not due to my unhealthy obsessions with Jeff Probst and the show Survivor. Stranded intrigued me because it reminded me of the days I would stay up way too late reading adventure tales like Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island and watching movies like Swiss Family Robinson and not the hours I spent arguing each move made by the Survivor contestants on chat rooms and Instant messaging, blogging about the show and playing online Survivor RPG’s. As a child I dreamed about writing tales of pirates and deserted islands and this passion has always stayed with me, even if I did end up putting together and writing two seasons of my own online RPG about a Survivor tournament taking place in Post Apocalyptic America. So yea, I may be a bit of a fan of the show, and I may have argued more than once that Probst is the best reality host on TV and sure, maybe I once tipped a bartender twenty dollars to put on Survivor in a Casino in Biloxi because I was too drunk to walk to my hotel across the street before the show started, but hell, my love of adventure tales as a kid was the true catalyst to me listening to this book. Heck, I probably would have listened to it even if it was written by someone else, perhaps Phil Keoghan.

Stranded follows four children Carter, Buzz, Jane and Vanessa who have recently become a family when Carter and Jane’s mom married Vanessa and Buzz’s father. Of course, there’s a bit of tension and while the parents are away on their honeymoon their uncle takes them on a boat trip in the Pacific as a bionding exercise. A storm hits, and the kids are separated from the adults, left stranded on a deserted island. Now, they must find a way to work together in order to survive until help can come. So, Stranded isn’t going to blow anyone away. It’s a lightweight, but fun adventure tale with some relatable characters and just a touch of danger. I think that the writers do a good job setting up the scenario and developing the characters, but that takes up the majority of the tale, with maybe the last hour for just a bit of family drama, searching the island, and some daring do. Fans of Survivor will pick up some of the classic themes of the show, like prioritizing water over shelter, a mishap leading to drama, and personality conflicts exasperated by the tense situation. I like how the writers created realistic positive and negative aspects of each child, giving them all a role to play in their survival yet making it necessary for them all to work together. It creates a nice message while also building the drama. The major problems with the tale come in its depth. The reader doesn’t yet feel the true desperate nature of the situation, because the group is relatively well stocked at the moment, and sort of oblivious to the dangers of their situation. Being the first in a series, Probst ends the episode with a smack in the face for the kids that should up the ante for the next installment. Overall, it’s a nice start to a series that I think kids will enjoy with the potential for better things to come. While I would have liked to see a bit more happen overall, I think this serves as bait for the hook, and it’s enough to snare a decent sized fish. Survivor fans may get a bit of a chuckle at how Probst’s experience as the host of the hit show comes into play in the tale, then happily hand the book off to their kids maybe creating the next generation of obsessed Probst fans.

Charles Carroll brings a lot of youthfulness to his reading of Stranded. Carroll’s characterizations are well though out and age appropriate, without becoming caricatures of children. He gives each child a distinct voice fitting to the personalities the author develops. I particularly liked the segments where Jane is recoding a video blog of her adventures, he gives Jane a light femininity with a studious cadence to her speech. He did a good job capturing both Carter’s frustration and Buzz’s self doubt, while showing Vanessa’s struggles as the oldest sibling. His pacing was a bit slow, which probably works well for younger listeners who haven’t really developed their active listening skills yet, but can be a little frustrating for seasoned audiobook listeners. I think this audiobook would work well for a group listen, especially for a family car trip or morning carpool. There is just enough fun and adventure and a good diversity of characters to please all types of listeners, even moms and dads.

Book 2: Stranded: Trial by Fire will be out in June!