Audiobook Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

1 07 2013

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Read by Khristine Hvam, Peter Ganim, Jay Snyder, Joshua Boone, Dani Cervone, Jenna Hellmuth

Hachette Audio

Length: 10 Hrs 36 Min

Genre: Time Travel Crime Fiction

Quick Thoughts: The Shining Girl is a novel that never allows you to get comfortable. It shifts and blends, leaving you feeling disconcerted and disturbed but utterly enthralled. Beukes combines the elements of paranormal time travel and crime fiction in a way that lifts this novel about the typical, making it truly special.

Grade: A-

I have to admit, there was a small part of me that was hesitant about Lauren Beukes latest novel, The Shining Girls. Mostly I was excited. Very, very excited. For a while it was my must have novel of the summer. Let’s face it, this one falls right into my wheelhouse, a time traveling serial killer. I love time travel novels. I love crime fiction. And I especially love novels that blend my favorite subgenres together into something unique. The Shining Girls was like a gift from some deity saying “Hey Bob, here’s a book you will love.” Yet, part of me was still worried. There was one lingering aspect of the novel that had me concerned, the setting. I have nothing against Chicago. In fact, I think it’s one of the best settings for a crime fiction novel, full of political corruption, superstitions and colorful characters. Yet, my first experience with Lauren Beukes was her wonderful Johannesburg set Zoo City. One of my favorite aspects of Zoo City was a look into a city, although quite changed by Beukes magical shift, that I have rarely encountered in fiction. It offered something unique, beyond Beukes fascinating mythology, to see it play out in a setting I have known existed in mostly a theoretical level. When I learned Beukes was setting her next novel in Chicago, I was like “…but… but… Chicago isn’t in South Africa. I have read tons of stories that took place in Chicago!” I was worried we would be given a touristy glimpse of Chicago where we got to experience the Cubbies, and Ditka jokes and oh my gosh… they love Polish sausage. Yet, I guess I shouldn’t have worried. Sure, I missed the Johannesburg setting but Beukes time shifting trip through Chi-town offered a unique glimpse at this city that I have rarely encountered before.

Harper Curtis is a brutal killer from the past, who finds a strange house that opens him up to strange future worlds, where he encounters girls who shine only for him. He knows the house wants him to kill these girls, he just doesn’t know why but once he kills them all, this should be revealed. Kirby Mazrachi survived a brutal attack that the police believe was random, but she is sure is the work of a serial killer. Together with a former homicide reporter now covering the Cubs, she pieces together a series of brutal murders that could lead her to her attacker. The thing that I love about the Shining Girls is how both aspects of the novel work so well on their own. Strip away the strange paranormal house and time traveling elements, and you have a solid Crime Fiction novel on par with Michael Connelly’s The Poet or Warren Ellis’s Gun Machine. Strip away the crime fiction elements, and you have a seriously spooky ghost house story on par with such dark fantasists and Stephen King or Robert McCammon. It’s how Beukes layers these two elements together that elevates The Shining Girl beyond solid examples of these genres, to something brilliant and utterly beyond simple classification. Beukes has it set up so not even her characters know what kind of book they are in until it all crashes together in a breathtaking finale. Unlike most Serial Killer tales, this isn’t some Cat-and-Mouse game between a brilliant serial killer and those attempting to stop him. Instead, it’s almost as the players are working on their own puzzles, dealing with their own pasts, and putting together their pieces towards goals that eventually force them to the inevitable conflict. It’s not that there isn’t an procedural investigatory arc, there is and it’s quite strong in it’s own right, yet, Kirby and Dan don’t really know what they are looking for, so it’s like that are trying to make a picture out of pieces from many different puzzle boxes. Beukes doesn’t spend a lot of time setting up the mythology of the eerie house that sends serial Killer Harper on his time tripping spree. Instead she tickles around the edges of the paranormal, having the house be a tool not even the wielder understands. He knows he has a mission, and he understands that the girls are shining and must be extinguished, yet even he doesn’t truly understand the whys and hows. In many ways, he is also part victim, while a sadistic and brutal one. It‘s hard to say how much of his mission came from The House, and how much he becomes The House‘s mission. This sort of fluidity may be frustrating to some readers who want solid answers, but I found it to add to the disconcerting charm of the novel. The Shining Girl also reeks of authenticity. The city of Chicago comes alive in a way that you can’t find on tourist guides and her characters just feel real. Even the murder scenes are full of visceral imagery and meticulous detail that gives you insight into both the victim and the perpetrator. The Shining Girl is a novel that never allows you to get comfortable. It shifts and blends, leaving you feeling disconcerted and disturbed but utterly enthralled. Beukes combines the elements of paranormal time travel and crime fiction in a way that lifts this novel about the typical, making it truly special. The Shining Girl is a novel I will be thinking about for a long time, too of tem late at night as the darkness begins to creep into my dreams.

Hachette Audio has really made a name for itself by putting together some of the best multinarrator productions in the industry. In The Shining Girls, Hachette has brought together some of the best narrators in the business, and combined them with some new narrators with lots of future potential. All the narrators gave strong, solid performances. Khristine Hvam, as Kirby, is stellar as usual, and Peter Ganim deftly captures the charming yet unstable Harper Curtis. Jay Snyder has a brilliant, crisp almost perfect voice, and the work is so on point that you never really feel any disconnect when the narrators shift. Yet, I think this was also my problem with the audiobook version of The Shining Girls. At times, particularly with Snyder’s work, it seemed all too perfect. Jay Snyder has the vocal equivalent to movie star looks, and I would have loved to see a bit more flavor and grit in his performance of down and out reporter Dan Velasquez. Dan was ethnically Hispanic, and while I don’t expect him to sound like he just came up from Tijuana, I would have liked just a little Hispanic edge in his voice. I though the work of the smaller roles, particularly that of Joshua Boone and Jenna Hellmuth added just the right counterpoint to the other narrators. Dani Cervone was also strong, but her voice was a bit close to Hvams, which didn’t allow it to stand out as much as the work of the other two. Overall, the audio production was excellent. It was well paced, sounded crisp and in the end served the story well. Any issue I had came down ultimately to listener preference.

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

Audiobook Review: Black Light by Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan and Stephen Romano

12 10 2011

Black Light by Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan and Stephen Romano

Read by Peter Ganim

Hachette Audio

Length: 12 Hrs 50 Min

Genre: Horror

Quick Thoughts: Despite some flaws, Black Light is an exciting, fast paced supernatural adventure that should appeal to a broad spectrum of genre fans.

Grade: B

So, it’s the second full week of October, and I am moving through my selected titles for Murder, Monsters and Mayhem. So far we have had zombies, werewolves and vampires, as well as human monsters like child molesters and spree killers. What I wanted next was a ghost story or more properly a story about ghosts. For me, my love of horror began with ghost stories. I always found something particularly creepy about ghosts. Monsters are one thing, it’s easy for us to think of monsters as fictional characters, but when you are walking through a creaky old house, late at night, with a soft wind blowing it’s not hard to believe in the reality of ghosts. I grew up in a religious family, so I was preconditioned to believe that our spirits went somewhere when we die. It’s not that hard of a stretch to think the essence of those who left us too early, or under horrific circumstances could linger.  I went back and forth on what type of ghost tale I wanted. I already had chosen a haunted house tale to read later this month, so I wanted something different. That is when I discovered Black Light by Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan and Stephen Romero. Black Light is the story of Buck Carlsbad, a medium who literally pulls ghost into himself and then vomits them into a silver vessel to dispose of them. Buck works as a sort of ghostbuster, catching the spirits of evil men that are still tormenting those left behind after their deaths. Buck uses these encounters to get a glimpse into the Black Light, the place where spirits go to rest, in hope of finding information on what exactly killed his parents. Black Light is just the kind of novel I was looking for, a genre blending character driven tale of the supernatural.

From the moment I started the book, I knew that this was going to be one heck of a ride, I just wasn’t sure if that ride would take me to a thrilling conclusion or end in a tragic train wreck. The action in Black Light started early and just kept building pace. A significant portion of the tail takes place on a bullet train from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and this literary device was the perfect metaphor for the tale itself. The story moved so fast that at times it felt a bit out of control, with so much happening during scenes that I found myself having to regroup a bit, and even occasionally having to backtrack in order to relisten to some parts to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Now while this can be annoying at times, it is also proof that I didn’t want to miss any of the story. The trio of writers kept the story on the rails for the most part, and added a bunch of twists and turns that were well executed. Now, with a character driven first person tale such as this, so much depends on the main character. I was quite intrigued by Buck Carlsbad, including his awesome name. Yet, I think I was more intrigued by the concept of the character, then the actual character himself. I look at series like Butchers’ Dresden Files, or Kadrey’s Sandman Slim and these series work because their main characters just reek with personality. I feel that with this book, so much was happening that we never really had time to truly engage with this character. In fact, I found more humor and personality in the author’s dedications at the end of the novel then the character himself. Yet, despite these flaws, which can be fixed easily in future editions, Black Light is an exciting, fast paced supernatural adventure that should appeal to a broad spectrum of genre fans.

I have to say, I hesitated to take on this audiobook when I found out it was read by Peter Ganim. I have listened to quite a few of his novels, and he is quite a stylistic reader whose style I don‘t always enjoy. Often when reading third person exposition, he has this strange staccato reading style that can come off as robotic to the point of monotony. Yet, I always thought that he was excellent at character voices, and Black Light being a first person narration, I decided to give it a go. I’m glad I did because Ganim knocked this one out of the park. Black Light is a good example of a narrator performing a book, and not just reading it. He handled the breathless pace flawlessly, and exceeded my expectations on voicing the characters of the story. Sure, there were moments, particularly when the action slowed down that his staccato reading was evident, but it would smooth out as the pace quickened. Black Light reads like the perfect October blockbuster, and the audiobook production only helps enhance that feeling, giving you a fun action packed thriller. 


Note: Special thanks to the good people at Hachette Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.