The Ice Queen audiobook cover imageThe Ice Queen
Author: Nele Neuhaus
Translator: Steven T. Murray

Narrator: Robert Fass
Published 2015 by Blackstone Audio
14 hours, 36 minutes – Unabridged

There is certainly no shortage of candidates for the title role in this crime thriller by one of Germany’s most popular writers in the genre. In fact, there’s no gender discrimination, either – the book could have been titled The Ice Monarch, the better to include all of the cold-hearted characters of both sexes that populate the story. It’s a good thing, too: the plethora of potential suspects and the welter of ill feeling they all seem to bear toward the mounting roster of murder victims in greater Frankfurt presents the listener with a complex puzzle to solve.

The first murder to occur is that of David Goldberg, a prominent 92-year-old Jew who was a high-profile Holocaust survivor, past adviser to the U.S. president, and internationally recognized advocate for reconciliation between Israel and Germany. But the postmortem reveals an incongruous tattoo that calls into question everything the world thought it knew about who Goldberg really was. Superintendent Oliver von Bodenstein and Inspector Pia Kirchhoff have an escalating case on their hands when more bodies turn up. The powerful Kaltensee family, with ties to both the old Prussian aristocracy and burgeoning German industry, seems to be at the center of what’s going on, and yet the dots just don’t seem to connect. When the complicated plot does begin to sort itself out, it becomes apparent that even in the 21st century, decades after reunification, today’s Germany still grapples with its Nazi-haunted past, and with the lingering shadows of the Stasi (East Germany’s secret police).

The third and most recent of Nele Neuhaus’s Bodenstein & Kirchhoff police procedural series to be translated into English and published in the United States, The Ice Queen actually precedes the first two transatlantic arrivals (Snow White Must Die – which I reviewed in 2013 – and Bad Wolf) in the chronology of the series. These novels can be enjoyed on their own, or in any order.

Robert Fass reads The Ice Queen, as he does the others in the series. He’s very good with all of the German pronunciations, ably voices characters of all ages and both genders, and keeps things going at a lively pace throughout. Fass has an expressive reading style that lends itself well to the high drama and extremes of emotion that build as the plot approaches its climax. Any fan of the recent wave of European crime fiction that’s finding an American audience should give Nele Neuhaus a try, and you can’t go wrong with these audio productions.

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Disclaimer: I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program administered by Audiobook Jukebox. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.

Offcomer
Author: Jo Baker
Narrator: Nicola Barber

Published 2014 by Dreamscape Media
7 hours, 33 minutes – Unabridged

Offcomer audiobook cover imageClaire is a young Englishwoman, raised in Lancashire and recently graduated from Oxford. As the story opens, she is living in Troubles-era Belfast, working in a pub and recently estranged from a lover. The narrative shifts back in forth in time to reconstruct how Claire has ended up here, finally showing how she might move forward.

You know Claire is damaged goods from the word go, as the very first scene shows her perched on the edge of the bathtub, methodically cutting herself with a razor blade. Hearing someone come into the house, she hastily hides the evidence of her self-mutilating activity, and gets on with her day. Adrift on the currents of daily life, Claire is naive and awkward on the job, aimless and unsure everywhere else. We learn that she moved to Belfast with her boyfriend Alan from Oxford, and that this relationship has recently ended. Claire succumbs to her longing to sleep with handsome pub regular Paul, then – horrified at the implications, since he is her roommate’s boyfriend and an old friend of Alan’s – she flees across the water to seek some comfort back in her Lancashire hometown.

Now the listener gets transported back to Oxford, to the occasion of Claire’s meeting Alan, and how they got involved. Alan is pretty despicable, and Claire was already hopeless, even back then. We are privy to some narrative from Alan’s point of view, which helps to explain – though not mitigate – the way he acts. He is just as damaged as Claire, without the benefit of self-mutilation as a convenient outward sign. Because so many times these things “just happen,” Claire and Alan become lovers, despite the fact that they really don’t seem to like each other much, and when Alan accepts an academic post in his hometown of Belfast, Claire moves there with him. From there, it all goes downhill quickly.

There is, as I said, a lot of chronological back and forth in the telling of Claire’s story, and I found it difficult at times to determine whether the narrative was in the past or the present. This is a particular pitfall of audiobook listening, and I’m not sure there is really a remedy for it. It did make for rough going at times. However, as the gap closed between the story of the past and the present day, everything began to settle into place.

Offcomer is a Bildungsroman with a protagonist who should be painfully familiar to anyone who has ever been a young woman. Her eye turned relentlessly inward on herself, Claire is brutally self-critical while at the same time having difficulty believing that she actually exists. Nicola Barber is an excellent choice as the voice of this passive, self-obliterating ingenue. She is also quite handy with the Northern Irish accents of the other characters.

This is the kind of book in which not a whole lot happens of substance, and it’s all about slow character development through a lot of navel-gazing and vivid sensory detail. Offcomer is beautifully written, though, and when the penny does finally drop for Claire, when some revelatory encounters with her family and with her childhood friend Jennifer finally make her begin to wake up, the upward lift of her future prospects makes for a satisfying conclusion.

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Disclaimer: I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program administered by Audiobook Jukebox. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.

Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (Oz series, Book 4)
Author: L. Frank Baum
Narrator: Erin Yuen

Published 2015 by Dreamscape Media
5 hours – Unabridged

Dorothy and the Wizard In OzDorothy Gale is on her way to meet up with Uncle Henry again at a relative’s California farm after their return from Australia. It was during that Australia trip, of course, that the little girl from Kansas was whisked away for the adventures in the Lands of Ev and Oz that were related in Ozma of Oz. Now she is back in America, but not for long; an earthquake causes the ground to open up, and she falls down a deep crevasse, along with her cousin Zeb, his old cart-horse Jim, and a kitten named Eureka. It’s not long before the animals are talking, and then of course every Oz reader knows we’re in fairyland now.

It turns out there are all kinds of curious realms below the Earth’s surface. Dorothy and her companions land in the country of the Mangaboos, vegetable people who grow on bushes and have a really bad attitude toward outsiders. Fortunately, not long after their arrival, another victim of the earthquake appears: it’s Dorothy’s old friend the Wizard, landing the hot-air balloon in which he has plummeted through the crack in the surface. Still one of the world’s worst real wizards, he is very proud to be among the greatest of the humbug wizards. With the aid of his tricks, gizmos, and street-smarts, our friends get away from the Mangaboos and proceed through a series of interesting locales, all hidden below ground. Having survived the Valley of Voe, the land of the Gargoyles, and the den of the Dragonets, the travelers wind up at long last in the Emerald City. After a curious episode in which Eureka the kitten is put on trial for murder (perhaps Baum just couldn’t resist injecting some of the sensationalism from his days as a newspaperman), everything wraps up in the usual Oz fashion. The Wizard stays on to serve as an advisor to Ozma, while the rest of the Americans return home to the land of E Pluribus Unum. There’s all the reason in the world, however, to hope that Dorothy, at least, will be back for more adventures.

Narrator Erin Yuen seems to have settled into the task at hand somewhat since recording Dreamscape’s production of Ozma of Oz last year. Her delivery is more fluid and natural overall, allowing the listener to relax into the story without being distracted by over-enunciation or stilted cadences. One could wish for a little clearer distinction between different character voices; perhaps if Yuen signs on to read Book Five (The Road to Oz), that will come.

Kudos to Dreamscape for producing new recordings of these early-20th-century classics. Listening to the Oz stories is a delight for longtime readers of the books, and these audio versions offer a fun and communal way to introduce the Baum canon to a new generation.

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Disclaimer: I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program administered by Audiobook Jukebox. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.

Ozma of Oz (Oz series, Book 3)
Author: L. Frank Baum
Narrator: Erin Yuen

Published 2014 by Dreamscape Media
4 hours, 33 minutes – Unabridged

Ozma of OzAfter The Wonderful World of Oz (first published in 1900) became one of the most popular children’s books of all time, L. Frank Baum wrote 13 sequels (in addition to lots more novels and other works). If you love Dorothy and her friends, and the magical land where they found so many adventures, discovering the rest of the series is a fabulous literary gift you can give yourself, no matter what age you are. If, like me, you have known and loved all 14 books from an early age, reading and rereading them many times over, then finding them reissued in new audio productions is a real treat. Dreamscape has brought out four of the Oz books on audio as of this writing.

On a side note: the terrifically well-done 1985 movie Return to Oz managed to take elements from Book Two, The Marvelous Land of Oz (in which Dorothy does not appear), and Ozma of Oz (Book Three), and braid them together into one strong story that hewed very true to the tone and atmosphere of the original books. Oz fans who somehow missed that film should definitely check it out.

Back to the book at hand. As Ozma of Oz opens, Dorothy Gale of Kansas is on a sea voyage to Australia with her Uncle Henry. When the ship hits a storm, the girl is pitched overboard with only the remnants of a chicken coop to cling to. She is only mildly surprised when she washes up on an unknown shore to find that her sole companion is a seemingly ordinary yellow hen called Billina who can suddenly speak English. If that development were not enough to convince Dorothy that she is back in fairyland, she soon finds ample evidence of the fact. From the discovery and liberation of Tik-Tok the clockwork man from a hidden chamber among the rocks, to encounters with a rolling race called the Wheelers and with the dangerous Princess Langwidere (owner of dozens of interchangeable living heads that she keeps in cabinets and can swap onto her neck at will), it’s quite clear that Dorothy is not in Kansas anymore.

In fact, Dorothy finds herself in the Land of Ev, one of the countries that adjoins the Deadly Desert surrounding the Land of Oz. Before long, Ozma herself arrives via magic carpet with an entourage of persons both familiar (the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion) and new (the Hungry Tiger). Readers of The Marvelous Land of Oz will recall that Ozma is the girl ruler of Oz, introduced in that volume in quite an unexpected fashion. The travelers from Oz have come to Ev to confront the Nome King, who holds the entire royal family of Ev captive in his underground realm. Dorothy and her new companions join the expedition, and they all face a series of perilous tests before everything is resolved.

Erin Yuen brings a nice youthful tone to Dorothy’s voice , and is also completely convincing as Billina the yellow hen. At times Yuen’s admirable commitment to clarity of speech seems to overtake her ability to relax into the characters, though, and she tends to over-enunciate. While this is a great fit for Tik-Tok’s mechanical monotone, it sometimes works against the folksy, colloquial tones of the author’s narrative voice and of Dorothy’s Kansas-bred diction. However, this minor quibble is only a slight, intermittent distraction, and not enough to undermine the charm of the characters and the momentum of the story. The goofy, dreamlike carnival music that serves as background to the opening and the conclusion of the audiobook adds a nice atmospheric touch to the overall production.

Originally published in 1907, Ozma of Oz is a classic entry in a timeless series of great children’s stories. We can all be thankful that Dreamscape is coming out with these fresh new audio productions, and hope that they plan to complete the series.

[Edited to add: See my review of Dreamscape’s audio production of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, Book Four in the series.]

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Disclaimer: I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program administered by Audiobook Jukebox. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.

The Hilltop
Author: Assaf Gavron
Translator: Steven Cohen

Narrator: Robert Fass
Published 2014 by Dreamscape Media
18 hours, 36 minutes – Unabridged

The Hilltop audiobook cover imageBy the time I finished listening to The Hilltop, I felt I had spent a year getting to know the Jewish settlers of the tiny West Bank outpost of Ma’aleh Hermesh C, and that I had known the two grown brothers at the center of the story since their boyhood. Epic and intimate: that is the dual scope of Assaf Gavron’s portrait of modern Israel with all its contradictions and complications, its absurdity and anguish, its beauty and brutality.

Orphaned as very young children, brothers Roni Kupper and Gabi Nehushtan are now pushing 40. Having been semi-estranged for some years, they find themselves as the story opens both pitched up on the hilltop where the trailers of Ma’aleh Hermesh C crouch precariously. The two men took very different paths to get here, and the novel proceeds in alternating chapters to relate current events in and around the settlement, and to trace the history of the Kupper/Nehushtan brothers.

From some key incidents in their shared childhood on a kibbutz in Galilee to their separate paths through young adulthood from Israel to the United States and back again, Gavron spins out the circumstances that made Roni and Gabi who they are and led to their reunion on a West Bank hilltop. The flashback sections of the novel trace the roots of the brothers’ idiosyncrasies, charting their individual rise and fall, and bringing the listeners back around to each man’s present-day fumbling, scrambling rise from his own ashes.

The main story of life in Ma’aleh Hermesh C in the course of a pivotal year is no less compelling. Founded four years prior to the action of the novel by Othniel Assis, an entrepreneurial accountant-turned-farmer who had grown frustrated with the restrictions of life in the original settlement of Ma’aleh Hermesh A, the outpost has developed in a vague, semi-illegal fashion made possible by the byzantine nature of Israeli bureaucracy. Officially, Ma’aleh Hermesh C does not exist (after all, it’s not on the map) — and yet, here it is, bustling with people, politics and plans for the future. The fact that the settlement abuts the ancient olive groves of Musa Ibrahim in the nearby Arab village of Kharmish leads to the central drama of the present-day narrative.

Narrator Robert Fass ably gives voice to an array of characters young and old, Jewish and Arab, religious and secular, Middle Eastern and American. His narration ranges from mellow to melodramatic, as needed in a story that encompasses everyday village life, simmering psychological turmoil, and sudden violence. Fass strikes just the right tone for the strong thread of humor that runs through the fabric of the tale, providing invaluable auditory clues to the ironies and absurdities inherent in so many of the situations.

Listen to The Hilltop if you want to travel without danger to modern Israel and spend some time in a version of the place that goes beyond the usual simplistic, binary portrayal of it in the news. In his telling of the tale of the small neighborhood of Ma’aleh Hermesh C, Assaf Gavron has also given readers the bigger picture of contemporary Israel and the West Bank, as well as a close-up portrait of two men adrift in the tides of history.

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Disclaimer: I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program administered by Audiobook Jukebox. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.

Crimson Angel (Benjamin January, Book 13)
Author: Barbara Hambly
Published 2014 by Severn House

Crimson Angel book coverFriends of Benjamin January have ample reason to rejoice. Barbara Hambly has delivered us a new mystery adventure starring the free black surgeon/musician/sleuth of 1830s New Orleans, and it’s another awe-inspiring page-turner. Ben and his friends and family are here, with plenty of intrigue and danger to spare for all concerned, as they are induced to travel first to Cuba, and then to Haiti. This time, the stakes are even higher, since Ben and his wife Rose now have baby John relying upon their survival.

It all starts when Rose’s white half-brother, Jeoffrey Vitrac –- or, as he has Americanized it, Jefferson Vitrack -– shows up in New Orleans with a small gold and red enamel angel charm that Rose recognizes at once as a family talisman. Surrounding this artifact is a tangle of legend regarding a cache of hidden treasure, lost to the family when the slaves of the island of Saint-Domingue rebelled and established the nation of Haiti in 1791. Since no white man can safely set foot on that island now, Vitrack seeks his black brother-in-law’s help in tracking down and retrieving the riches, in exchange for a portion of the find. Despite the January family’s pressing need for a cash infusion in this desperately impoverished year of 1838, Benjamin declines. However, when Vitrack turns up dead a few days later, and a stranger makes an attempt on Rose’s life in a crowded street, it becomes clear that some investigation is called for.

Just as clearly, Rose and Ben must get out of town, while trying to ensure the safety of the surviving descendants of Absalon de Gericault, Rose’s white great-grandfather. Baby John is smuggled into the household of Ben’s sister Olympe, and Ben and Rose board a boat for Grand Isle, Louisiana, to warn the other Vitrac half-brother: Aramis, owner of Chouteau Plantation. By the time they arrive, however, Aramis has already been wounded in what he has taken to be a hunting accident, but which his sister and brother-in-law recognize as another murder attempt. Someone is highly motivated to wipe out what remains of the family line. It seems there’s no choice now but to voyage on to Cuba, where the first clues to the truth about the de Gericault treasure are said to lie. Benjamin’s dear friend, the white fiddler Hannibal Sefton, joins them for the journey.

What follows is a rip-roaring adventure through the streets of Havana, Santiago de Cuba and the Cuban countryside, followed by a headlong pursuit into the troubled heart of Haiti. Suffice to say that there is more to the hidden cache of the de Gericaults than anyone suspected. Many dark secrets will be revealed, help comes from unexpected quarters, and Ben faces some desperate choices in his determination to ensure that Baby John does not grow up as an orphan.

This 13th installment in the Benjamin January saga will be enormously satisfying for longtime devotees of the series, but new readers will also be captivated by the three-dimensional characters and the well-researched historical setting, as well as the lively wit and warm humanity that Hambly always delivers. Start here, and you will definitely want to go back and discover the rest of the story of Ben, Hannibal, Rose, and their antebellum New Orleans world.

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Disclaimer: I received an advance reader’s copy of this book from NetGalley for review. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.

tidying-upI know I’m not alone in finding myself inexorably drawn to each new “organize your stuff and improve your life” book that crosses my path. Books about organizing and reducing clutter are perennially popular at the library where I work. Getting organized seems to be the Holy Grail of modern domestic life. Certainly clutter – both physical and mental – is one of the more visible hobgoblins of my own daily existence. So when I read a description of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (Ten Speed Press/Random House, 2014), and learned I could get my hands on a free review copy through Blogging for Books, I decided to go for it. One more approach to getting the mess sorted out couldn’t possibly hurt, and who knows? This just may be the one that finally works.

The book’s subtitle is “The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” and Kondo is not only a highly successful organizing consultant in her native Japan, but her book has already sold more than two million copies there and in Germany and the UK, prior to its publication in the United States. This little nonfiction guide has even been adapted into a Japanese television drama. Apparently, it’s not just we ugly Americans who suffer from a junked-up existence, and pursue an elusive dream of clearing out and starting fresh.

Kondo calls her approach the KonMari method, and touts it as an altogether different way of thinking about and tackling clutter. It’s true that there are a few key elements to the methodology that I don’t recall seeing elsewhere. One is Kondo’s insistence that the “tidying up” process must be tackled and accomplished all in one go, rather than piecemeal. Another is the directive to tidy by category as opposed to by location. She also recommends that the first step must be to discard, and that no amount of tidying or organizing can take place until the discarding has been 100 percent completed.

If any of these ideas sound fresh and inviting to you, then you may find The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up to be a useful book. Kondo’s tone throughout is conversational and intimate, as she lays out the reasons why you may have failed to keep an organized home thus far, leads you through the process of discarding items, goes one-by-one through the categories of objects to organize, discusses her philosophy of storage and strategies to implement it, and reflects on the ways that getting your house in order can change your life and dramatic and unexpected ways.

On the other hand, if you have limited patience with assertions about the spiritual life of your possessions, and the benefits of engaging in conversation with inanimate objects, you might have problems engaging with this book. Additionally, certain key aspects of Kondo’s methodology may seem impractical to carry out in the real life of a typical American: notably, the notion that it is possible to complete the entire discard-and-organize operation for a whole household “in one fell swoop,” rather than in stages. The author admits to a lifelong obsession with tidying, and anecdotes of her childhood recreation hours spent discarding her siblings’ belongings and organizing their rooms offer a revealing (and somewhat disturbing) glimpse of how Kondo found her calling. Her assumption that others might choose – or be able – to spend so much of their time on this single-minded pursuit may not sit well with all readers.

In any case, it’s a slim enough volume, and a quick read. Readers on a quest to slay the clutter demon may benefit from picking up The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and adding some new ammunition to their organizing arsenal.

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Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.

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