Loner
Author: Teddy Wayne
Narrator: David Bendena

Published 2016 by Dreamscape
6 hours, 8 minutes – Unabridged

Loner audioThis is the story of David Federman: entering Harvard as a freshman, leaving behind the New Jersey boyhood in which he was chronically and unjustly undervalued by his classmates, ready to manifest the greatness that he’s convinced is his by right. That’s his point of view, at any rate. And David’s point of view is the one the listener is privy to throughout this story, which starts out benignly enough but becomes increasingly not for the faint of heart. At first, it appears that this is going to be just another coming-of-age-at-college tale, with a misfit protagonist looking for his tribe in a new venue. David certainly is that misfit, but he is also the loner of the title, and he doesn’t seem all that interested in finding – or even particularly convinced of the existence of – members of his tribe. What he is interested in, from the moment he lays eyes on her, is Veronica Morgan Wells.

A beautiful, wealthy, and sophisticated Manhattanite, Veronica is pretty clearly (to the listener anyway) out of David’s league. He is instantly obsessed, however, and begins stalking her on and off campus and scheming his way into her schedule and her life. Like many outsiders, David is a keen observer (and critic) of the behaviors and foibles of those around him, but he displays a stunning lack of self-awareness and understanding of his own place in the social and academic landscape. Perhaps it is this bone-deep cluelessness that gives him a slight sympathetic edge at the outset, making him come across as equal parts pathetic and despicable. But the choices he makes and incremental insights into his outlook gradually pivot him to the darker end of that equation, and the listener’s sympathy falls away.

David’s narrative throughout is in the second person, aimed at the “you” who is Veronica Wells. Narrator David Bendena exhibits great skill, inhabiting David Federman’s persona completely, and providing essential vocal signals along the twisting route through the subterranean labyrinth of David’s reasoning and impulses. (I hope Bendena had access to counseling afterward, in case he needed it.) Hard to listen to at times, this is in no way a feel-good story, but it is an important one, and highly recommended for those who can stomach it.

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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.

Silence
Author: Anthony J. Quinn
Narrator: Caroline Lennon

Published 2016 by Dreamscape
9 hours, 40 minutes – Unabridged

silence“The past … Don’t you know? It’s the new front line.” So says one cop character to another in Silence. That’s the case in the “new” Northern Ireland, anyway – post-Troubles, trying to forge a new, peaceful future, and yet still haunted by the bloody times gone by. It’s the 21st century, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) is no more, replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). In County Armagh, near the border with the Republic of Ireland, the fragile trust between formerly warring factions is hard won and tested anew each day.

Inspector Celcius Daly, Catholic and thus a minority in the PSNI, returns for his third case in the borderlands south of Lough Neagh and north of the Republic of Ireland. Once again he is sorting out the connections between the fresh bloodshed of the present and the dark deeds of the past. This time, however, things get really personal.

The case is perplexing enough to begin with: an elderly priest has bypassed the barriers at a police roadblock, driven off the road and died in a crash. Some of the police seem eager to write it off as a suicide, but Daly is skeptical. The late Father Walsh turns out to have been working on a detailed “murder map,” linking a series of deaths from the late 1970s to one another in a new way. Were all of these people random victims of the general sectarian violence that rampaged in the area in those days? Or was something else going on? When Daly sees his own mother’s name tagging a pin on Walsh’s murder map, there is no way he is turning his back on this case.

Daly’s mother died when he was nine years old, and he grew up believing that her death was collateral damage, that she had been accidentally caught in crossfire between police and paramilitaries. Now he is uncovering evidence that she (and others) may have been specifically targeted – but why? And what is the link between those long-ago deaths and the recent demise of Father Walsh?

Though at first it may seem an unusual choice to have a female narrator perform a story told from the point of view of a male character, Caroline Lennon brings considerable talent to the task. Her Northern Irish accent is convincing, and her ability to cross genders with her voice soon has listeners forgetting to think about whether a man or a woman is reading.

For listeners interested in the history of The Troubles and their legacy in today’s Northern Ireland, the Celcius Daly mysteries are an absorbing addition to the crime fiction of the region. In Silence, he gets himself entangled in a metaphorical blackthorn thicket of secrets so dense and so personally challenging that one wonders if he will be able to return for a fourth book. Let’s hope so.

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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.

Emperor of the Eight Islands
Author: Lian Hearn
Narrator: Neil Shah

Published 2016 by Highbridge Audio
6 hours, 30 minutes – Unabridged

hb1113_emperoreight_204The first of a quartet of novels collectively titled “The Tale of Shikanoko,” this book tells the origin story of that character and establishes the nature of his relationships with a diverse array of beings, both mortal and magical – and all apparently at war with one another. Bloodthirsty warlords, ruthless bandit chieftains, crafty sorcerers, warlike monks, a powerful temptress, children who survive in the face of incredible odds – it’s all here in this sprawling tale of Shikanoko’s role in the rise of a dynasty and the destiny of a nation.

Shikanoko begins life as Kazumaru, orphaned at the tender age of seven while out hunting with his father. Taken in by his uncle, the boy suffers through some unhappy years until one day, on the brink of manhood and out on another hunting expedition, Kazumaru survives an attempt on his life and finds himself in the den of the forest sorcerer. The enchanter calls him “The Deer’s Child” because the young man’s life was saved by a stag who dies in the process. As a result, it is destined that Kazumaru should undergo a magical rite of passage involving a custom-fitted stag mask, at the end of which he takes on the name “Shikanoko,” which means “the Deer’s Child.” From here he sets out to meet his destiny.

Among the principal characters Shikanoko encounters are Kiyoyori, estranged from his younger brother since their father decreed the latter must give his wife to the former and move away; Sesshin, an ancient scholar whose hidden depths and abilities become apparent after Shikanoko arrives; and Aki, an adolescent girl whose father has taught her survival skills not traditionally passed on to daughters, and who ends up being entrusted with smuggling the young heir to the throne out of the battle-rocked capital city and toward hoped-for safety.

Neil Shah’s light tenor is versatile enough to convincingly voice both male and female characters, and young children as well as adults. It is not always easy to be certain who is speaking, but that is just part of the larger difficulty of keeping track of a large, somewhat disconnected cast of characters with Japanese names (and variations on those names) that may sound quite similar to any ear untrained in the sounds and rules of Japanese language.

Listeners who love all things Japanese – the culture, the history, the mysticism – will no doubt enjoy this historical fantasy that takes a medieval Japanese setting and turns up the volume on the magical elements inherent in that folkloric tradition. Good news for everyone who reaches the end of Emperor of the Eight Islands ready for more: the remaining three titles in “The Tale of Shikanoko” are already out and available from Highbridge Audio.

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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.

Burn What Will Burn
Author: CB McKenzie
Narrator: Bon Shaw

Published 2016 by Blackstone Audio
5 hours, 30 minutes – Unabridged

burnwhat-square-400When people think of gritty crime fiction, they probably most often envision an urban setting. With his latest standalone novel, CB McKenzie is here to remind us that small forgotten towns and the countryside surrounding them can supply all the grit required – and more – for a noirish adventure into the darkest corners of human nature. Welcome to Poe County, Arkansas. If you have read Daniel Woodrell, the terrain and its inhabitants will seem familiar. With McKenzie, that’s where you start, and then it’s as if Carl Hiaasen dropped in for a visit, tried for a while to lighten things up, and finally wound up fleeing in tearful confusion.

Our protagonist is Bob Reynolds, a self-described “dyspeptic poet with a little family money” who spends most days cultivating a steady state of drunkenness among locals who regard him mostly with indifference or hostility, or one of the attitudes on the spectrum between the two. Bob came to Poe County less than a year ago, hoping to leave his past behind him. Clues to Bob Reynolds’ past, and the general disorder of his psyche, emerge gradually through the storytelling, leading the listener to wonder just how reliable a narrator he might be.

Right off the bat, Bob Reynolds discovers a corpse floating in the Little Piney Creek in the early morning hours of a hot, dry August day. He really should have just left it alone and notified the authorities, and yet: “I pulled him ashore and started another series of events, which is all history is really, mine and everybody’s, just one damned thing after another.”

Soon our hero/anti-hero is getting a lightning lesson in how things really work in Poe County, and what’s going on just under the surface of the somnolent, secretive town of Doker, Arkansas. By the time he gets back to the creek with an officer of the law, the body that Bob Reynolds hauled up onto the bank has disappeared. To quote the well-known Buffalo Springfield lyric, “There’s something happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Thereby hangs the tale. As the story unfolds, so does the process of working out who knows what, who did what to whom and why, and just what Bob Reynolds’ real role is in all of this.

Bon Shaw’s deadpan reading suits the tone of the story, by turns somber, absurd, doom-laden, and dark with irony. Shaw has a slightly gravelly voice, pitched deep, which is just the right fit for Bob Reynolds and the story he tells. The various characters of Poe County, colorful and dangerous, are likewise well served by Shaw’s narration. Among these damaged souls, Bob Reynolds is more at home than he might care to admit. Listeners who like their crime tales built on a foundation of grit and ambiguous morality will find themselves absorbed by Burn What Will Burn.

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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.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
Author: Mona Awad
Narrator: Jorjeana Marie

Published 2016 by Blackstone Audio
6 hours, 30 minutes – Unabridged

13ways_bxt9-square-400Mona Awad’s compact work of fiction sneaks up on you. In 13 episodic chapters that are actually discrete little stories – consecutive vignettes from the life of Lizzie/Beth/Elizabeth – the punches keep coming, and their impact accumulates. Early on, the stories concern the teenage and college-student Lizzie and so are loaded with the burgeoning sexuality of youth and its implications for a fat girl. Listeners who employ audiobooks while driving should take warning: One depressing scenario after another may have you cringing so hard on the hapless protagonist’s behalf that you might have trouble maintaining your lane.

About one-third of the way in, however, Lizzie becomes Beth and emerges into adulthood. Her focus shifts from mundanely horrifying entanglements with untrustworthy men, to increasingly complicated preoccupations with food, clothing, and the comparative attributes of other women. She also starts to come into focus herself as an individual, and her continuing saga gets more interesting. The promised humorous elements of the story become loud enough to compete with the downers, and you’re hooked for the duration. At the risk of letting a spoiler slip, suffice to say that Elizabeth’s journey gives the lie to the common fantasy that weight loss makes everything hunky-dory.

Narrator Jorjeana Marie’s voice has a youthful timbre that is well suited to Lizzie/Beth/Elizabeth’s storytelling and to the characters of her contemporaries. Slightly adenoidal at times, her delivery tends toward the flat and laconic, which helps emphasize the main character’s continued detachment from the story she is relating. Instead of getting swept up in a maelstrom of dramatic emotion, the listener is free to observe and draw her own conclusions about how to sum up this baker’s dozen of close-up views of fat-girl life. It is an extraordinary accomplishment, and one with the potential to hit home and make you think – whether you identify with the title or not.

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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 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.

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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.

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.