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 cold 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 story 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.


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.

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.

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.


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.]


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.


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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.