The Past
Author: Tessa Hadley
Narrator: Caroline Lennon

Published 2016 by Dreamscape
10 hours, 35 minutes – Unabridged

The PastGrown siblings return to their late grandparents’ country home to decide whether to keep it or sell it in this leisurely exploration of a microcosm of contemporary bourgeois English mores and family dynamics. The novel spans several weeks of a summer, in which Harriet, Alice, Roland, and Fran contemplate their shared past, scattered presents, and possible futures. Roland’s new wife Pilar, a beautiful Argentinian of regal bearing and little tendency to suffer fools, is meeting her husband’s three sisters for the first time, with mixed results. Meanwhile, the younger generation spends the long summer days pursuing their own escapades. Fran’s two children, nine-year-old Ivy and six-year-old Arthur, explore the abandoned cottage in the woods and wrestle with the implications of what they find there. Molly, Roland’s sixteen-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, and Kasim, a university student whose father is an ex-boyfriend of Alice’s, cultivate the inevitable sexual attraction, born out of lack of other options, as much as anything. The middle of the book contains an interlude of flashback to an episode in 1968 involving the siblings’ mother Jill, a poet who died of cancer when they were teenagers.

Nothing much of any note really happens in this story. That in itself is not necessarily a barrier to enjoyment or recommendation – as long as the characters are sufficiently interesting, and the dialogue and relationships between them are sparkling and memorable. Regrettably, neither of these conditions are met by The Past. Though the narrative is delivered via several different characters’ points of view, the only ones in the present day that the listener gets any sense of are young Ivy and, to a lesser degree, her aunt Harriet. The inner life of Jill in 1968 is more evident, and her story more captivating, than any of the people or goings-on in the contemporary setting – but that segment of the book is all too brief. In a book titled The Past, one expects a strong through-line from past to present, or at least a robust exploration of the effects the past has had on the people and events of the present. Here, those expectations are disappointed. The people do what they do and say what they say for no apparent reason, with only the shallowest of delving into what makes them tick.

Caroline Lennon has a pleasant voice and is a capable reader, but her efforts are not enough to lift this bland novel out of its doldrums. Her spirited evocation of Ivy, the dramatic, scheming pre-teen, represents the best of her work on this title. With so little in the way of clues from the author to distinguish between the rest of the characters, it is no wonder that Lennon’s portrayals of them are not always easy to tell apart. Ultimately, it is hard for the listener to care much what happens to any of these people or their house.

~*~

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.

I completed 116 books in 2015 — 86 print and 30 audio. Here is the spreadsheet.

Among the standouts in AUDIO, in no particular order:

audio gallery 2015

A GOD IN RUINS – by Kate Atkinson; read by Alex Jennings. The English 20th century as lived by the extraordinary Teddy Todd. It’s not necessary to have read LIFE AFTER LIFE before reading this, but I recommend you do anyway.
THE CASUAL VACANCY – by J.K. Rowling; read by Tom Hollander. I was completely enthralled by this intricate portrait of a tiny English village whose social and political pot is boiling over.
STATION ELEVEN – by Emily St. John Mandel; read by Kirsten Potter. What happens to the world, and the experience of being human, after a sudden flu outbreak instantly reduces the global population to a fraction of itself? What roles do art and hope have to play?
FUNNY GIRL – by Nick Hornby; read by Emma Fielding. Small-town girl rises to fame as sitcom sensation Sophie Straw in Swingin’ 60s London, with resulting hilarity and heartbreak.
THE NOBODIES ALBUM – by Carolyn Parkhurst; read by Kimberly Farr. A middle-aged novelist, who has mined her personal life for the kernels of her popular stories, tries to piece together where things went wrong between her and her grown son when he is arrested for murder.

Among the standouts in PRINT, in no particular order:

print gallery 2015

OLIVE KITTERIDGE – by Elizabeth Strout. Impossible to describe this focused yet kaleidoscopic novel in any way that does it justice. Olive and the people around her tell the story of what it is to be human in a way that struck straight at my core.
MINK RIVER – by Brian Doyle. In stunningly beautiful prose, Doyle weaves a small, exquisite tapestry of a diverse little community of lovable eccentrics.
THE THINGS THEY CARRIED – by Tim O’Brien. The classic novel of the Vietnam War that famously tests, bends and stretches the boundaries between fact and story, truth and fiction.
THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB – by Will Schwalbe. A man’s memoir of the last two years of his mother’s life and the books they read together while she’s dying. A powerful illumination of the role story can play in a life, and its relationship to mortality.

Some numbers of note:

  • Breakdown by book’s intended audience:
    • Adult: 87
    • Children: 18
    • Young Adult: 11
  • Fiction 101 vs. Nonfiction 15
  • Twelve were re-reads.
  • Average number of books completed per month = 9.66
  • Month with the most books completed: March (13)
  • Month with the fewest books completed: July (6)
  • Average audiobooks per month: 2.5
  • Average print books per month: 7.16
  • After ungenrefied fiction, Crime/Mystery takes the prize for most-read genre at 41 titles.

In the course of my reading year, there were a lot of books I really liked, quite a few that were just average, and some that I would call not so hot. In other words, a typical year.

What the numbers do not reveal is the sizable number of books that I started but gave up on. Starting in 2016, I will attempt to find a manageable way to track those as well. I am not one to stick with a book if I don’t absolutely have to; if it’s not working for me, I put it down. Life is too short, and there are too many excellent books.

In 2015, I continued reading/listening to several series of which I am very fond, with some really stellar entries in all. Here are the highlights:

Gaius Petreius Ruso series by Ruth Downie: CAVEAT EMPTOR and SEMPER FIDELIS, both on audio, read by Simon Vance.

Charlie Zailer/Simon Waterhouse series by Sophie Hannah: THE CARRIER. Also note that I started listening to Book 9, WOMAN WITH A SECRET (published in the UK as THE TELLING ERROR), read by Julia Barrie & David Thorpe, in December 2015, and am midway through it now.

Benny Griessel series by Deon Meyer: THIRTEEN HOURS on audio, read by Simon Vance.

Breen & Tozer series by William Shaw: THE KINGS OF LONDON (Book 2). Book 3, A SONG FOR THE BROKENHEARTED, drops here in the US in a few weeks.

Department Q series by Jussi Adler-Olsen: THE MARCO EFFECT and THE HANGING GIRL, both on audio, read by Graeme Malcolm. THE MARCO EFFECT is my favorite so far in this great Danish crime series.

Sean Duffy & the Troubles series by Adrian McKinty: GUN STREET GIRL. I’m excited about Book 5, RAIN DOGS, coming in March. I love these in both print and audio, and I plan to do an audio re-read of GSG before reading RD.

Rivers of London/Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch: Did an audio re-read of BROKEN HOMES, then read FOXGLOVE SUMMER. I hope to audio re-read FS just prior to reading THE HANGING TREE when it finally hits the states this spring. These books are amazing, and getting a refresher by listening to Kobna Holdbrook-Smith perform one is pure pleasure.

Longmire series by Craig Johnson: I read three of these in 2015. KINDNESS GOES UNPUNISHED, ANOTHER MAN’S MOCCASINS, and JUNKYARD DOGS.

Matthew Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom: The long-awaited LAMENTATION did not disappoint.

Brigid Quinn series by Becky Masterman: I started and continued this excellent series, with RAGE AGAINST THE DYING, followed by FEAR THE DARKNESS.

Emmanuel Cooper series by Malla Nunn: Another fine series I started and continued, with A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE, followed by LET THE DEAD LIE.

Tiffany Aching series by the late, great Terry Pratchett: THE SHEPHERD’S CROWN on audio, read by Stephen Briggs. The final segment of Tiffany’s story, published posthumously. Sigh.

So — onward and upward and into 2016, with more wondrous reading ahead.

 

The Ways of the World
Author: Robert Goddard
Narrator: Derek Perkins

Published 2015 by Highbridge Audio
12 hours, 45 minutes – Unabridged

ways of the world“Peace is as dirty a business as war,” opines one of the characters in this thriller set in Paris in the immediate aftermath of World War I. That simple statement is as good a way as any of summing up the action and the tone of the novel.

First in a trilogy, The Ways of the World introduces James “Max” Maxted, veteran of the recent conflict and the second son of an English baronet. Max was an ace pilot for the Royal Flying Corps until his plane went down over enemy territory and he spent the remainder of the war in a German POW camp. Now, in the spring of 1919, he’s back home and reconnecting with his mechanic buddy from the RFC, Sam Twentyman. The two are cooking up a scheme to open a flying school on a piece of land belonging to the Maxted family’s country estate, as Max feels confident his father will agree to allow him the use of the property. In the opening minutes of the story, however, Max learns that his father, a lifelong (though semi-retired) member of the Foreign Service, has died in Paris, falling from a rooftop. Paris, of course, is where the diplomats of the world have gathered to conduct the peace conference that will result in a treaty to formally end the war. Sir Henry was there as part of the British delegation, and his sudden death seems to be viewed by the powers that be as an inconvenience and a potential embarrassment.

Max travels to Paris to make arrangements, expecting to find nothing more damning than an amorous liaison to account for Sir Henry’s presence on a rooftop in a neighborhood far from the peace talks. Instead, his instincts are instantly alerted to a number of suspicious factors indicating there’s more going on here. A lot more, as it turns out. While Parisian police and some rather mysterious British and American officials all want Max to believe his father either lost his footing and fell accidentally, or flung himself off the building in a suicidal fit of despondency, Max begins to form his own opinion: Sir Henry was murdered. But why? And by whom? Max won’t rest until he discovers the truth. Meanwhile, even as more and more suspects are added to the roster, the bodies of the dead start to mount up.

Narrator Derek Perkins tells the story capably, and handles the accents of both aristocratic and working-class Englishmen, as well as the various accents of Europe and Asia heard in the cosmopolitan setting of Paris during the 1919 peace conference. Goddard’s writing style favors plot over character development, which is acceptable in a thriller in which the action keeps clipping along. Here, although the story bogs down a bit in the middle, once the action picks up again, it’s nonstop all the way to the end.

While Max does eventually find answers to the “who” and the “how” of his father’s death, what he learns about the “why” is that it is far more complicated than he could have imagined. He’s determined to discover the whole story … and listeners can look forward to his doing just that in Books Two and Three.

~*~

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.

Plain Heathen Mischief
Author: Martin Clark
Narrator: David Aaron Baker

Published 2015 by Recorded Books
19 hours – Unabridged

Plain Heathen MischiefJoel King is a disgraced Baptist minister in Roanoke, Virginia, having just served a jail sentence after pleading guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor. This is shorthand for a certain level of sexual shenanigans with a 17-year-old girl. Joel is the only one surprised by the fact that his wife has divorce papers waiting for him on the day of his release. So he is headed across the country to Missoula, Montana, to stay with his sister until he gets back on his feet, and he gratefully accepts the generous offer of a ride from Edmund Brooks, the only member of his former congregation who stuck by him in the aftermath of the scandal.

Edmund is a flashy, flamboyant, cheesily ingratiating guy who comes across like a two-bit con man right away, and it’s not long before his true nature is revealed, once again surprising the strangely oblivious Joel. Edmund’s plans for Joel include a stop in Las Vegas that plunges our hero into the moral and legal morass in which he flounders for the rest of the novel.

Having begun this audiobook with certain preconceived notions of what it was going to be, I could not help but be disappointed. I thought it was going to be funny: an irreverent caper chock-full of madcap shenanigans and colorful characters. In fact, it’s a different kind of story altogether. I have seen the book classified as a legal thriller and as psychological suspense, but to my mind it is at best a weak example of either genre. Slow-moving and recursive, it’s never very thrilling or suspenseful. I found the main characters to be neither likable nor the least bit interesting.

David Aaron Baker is a veteran audiobook narrator whose work I have enjoyed in the past, and he holds up his end of things reasonably well here. Female voices are not his forte, however, and they all tend to evince this irritating whine. In the case of Christy, the “bad” teenager who is purportedly at the root of all of The Reverend King’s problems, of course, that is perfectly in keeping with how the listener is intended to feel about the character. Joel King himself, to me, was just as irritating in all his smarmy piety; in his case, though, we are not treated to a vocalization that hammers it home.

Your mileage may vary, of course. If an unrelenting churchiness does not bother you, and you don’t go in expecting either a laugh riot or a gripping crime story, you might enjoy this low-key tale of a preacher facing his frailties.

~*~

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.

War of the Encyclopaedists
Authors: Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite
Narrators: Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite

Published 2015 by Simon & Schuster Audio
13 hours, 20 minutes – Unabridged

war-of-the-encyclopaedists-9781442385771_hrBest-friend co-authors Robinson and Kovite have written an unusual and rewarding first novel about best friends Halifax Corderoy and Mickey Montauk. War of the Encyclopaedists is a millennial generation coming-of-age story that manages to unite the hipster art scene of the Pacific Northwest, the ivy-covered halls of New England academe, and the U.S. military occupation of the Middle East. This may sound like a stretch, but it’s beautifully executed, with a broader scope than that usually inhabited by the typical single-protagonist bildungsroman.

Halifax (“Hal”) Corderoy and Mickey Montauk are The Encyclopaedists, a pair of friends recently graduated from college in Seattle who have taken to hosting art-happening events/exhibits/parties at the big house Montauk shares with a bunch of roommates in the city’s hip Capitol Hill neighborhood. Having been written up in a local free weekly, The Encyclopaedists qualify to have a Wikipedia article about them, which they duly create themselves as a stub, a Wikipedia term for “an article deemed too short to provide encyclopedic coverage of a subject.” Of course, an entry titled “The Encyclopaedists” can’t stay non-encyclopedic for long, and soon the two are making impromptu individual updates as life events dictate.

And life events do dictate. Hal’s girlfriend Mani meets with an accident, and Hal boards a plane for Boston where he’s entering grad school in English literature. Montauk was supposed to be going too – he was accepted to Harvard – but it’s 2004, and his National Guard unit has been called up for active duty in Iraq. So he’s headed instead to a local Army base for training with his platoon before they ship out. Montauk had joined the National Guard pre-9/11 with no thought of actually serving overseas, but as a graduate of Officer Candidate School, he is now headed for Baghdad to be the lieutenant in charge of a platoon.

Corderoy is entering a crucible of his own. It’s not a combat zone, it’s the groves of academe, but it proves to be no less of a personal ordeal for Hal. What passes for intellectual rigor on Seattle’s Capitol Hill does not necessarily pass muster at Boston University, as it turns out. Add to that his loneliness and the guilt he feels about how things went the last time he saw Mani in Seattle, and you have a roadmap for a classic downward spiral.

Montauk and Corderoy don’t write to each other, so they use their periodic updates to the Wikipedia article as a postmodern – and rather oblique – way to keep in touch. These updates are interspersed throughout the text like visits from a Greek chorus, providing commentary that is humorous and somber by turns, amplifying the action and punctuating the story, heralding its major movements. Developments in the lives of the two protagonists test them individually in the course of the year, as well as testing their friendship.

The authors of War of the Encyclopaedists perform the narration for the audiobook version of their novel. Author narration is not always a good idea, but in this case it pays off. Robinson and Kovite are not trained professional voice performers, but their personal engagement with the material and with each other makes up for that. For the most part, Kovite delivers the sections told from Montauk’s point of view, while Robinson narrates Hal’s portions, but at key points in the narrative they co-narrate more tightly and poetically, most notably on the Wikipedia entries and the closing passages of the book.

War of the Encyclopaedists is an engaging listen, full of both humor and pathos, and should be broadly appealing to fans of coming-of-age tales. At the same time, the use of Wikipedia and other tools and methods of the millennial generation lends this novel a fresh, new flavor that sets it apart.

~*~

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 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.

~*~

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.

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