The Second Mrs. Hockaday
Author: Susan Rivers
Narrators:
Julie McKay and James Patrick Cronin
Published 2017 by Highbridge
7 hours – Unabridged

hb1141_secondhockaday_204Seventeen-year-old Placidia Fincher, daughter of the Valois plantation in South Carolina, had no immediate plans for marriage on that day in April 1863 that she came home to find a stranger negotiating the purchase of a mule from her father. Still less did she expect that within days she would be mothering a small child and running the estate of an absent Confederate officer, but as the new Mrs. Gryffth Hockaday, that is exactly where she ended up. For the widowed Major Hockaday of Holland Creek, it was perhaps equal parts attraction and expedience that drew him to the bewitching Placidia; with his first wife not long dead, he needed someone to raise his infant son and take charge of his household while he continued to wage war against the Union.

These events are already several years in the past as the novel begins. Right away, we learn that Placidia is in jail, awaiting trial, and it’s not long before we find out why. She gave birth to a child during the two years her husband was away, and is accused of murdering the infant within hours of its birth. The story unfolds through letters between Placidia and her cousin Mildred, and through transcripts of sworn testimony from various parties at the coroner’s inquest. Later in the novel, letters between other family members, interspersed with diary entries by Placidia during the time she was on her own as mistress of Holland Creek, gradually fill in the mysterious gaps in the tale.

It is a riveting tale, indeed. In authentic-sounding Southern accents, Julie McKay reads the entries expressing Placidia’s point of view (as well as those letters penned by her cousin Mildred), while James Patrick Cronin reads the coroner’s inquest documents, letters from Gryffth Hockaday, and later letters by male family members. All the different perspectives on life during and after wartime, and on the societal conventions of South Carolina throughout the period, commingle to paint a picture of a time and place in which is change is already under way before the people living through the change even realize what is happening and what it means. As the facts of the case come to light and fall into place, the listener begins to understand how changing the world can begin with facing up to the truth about your own family. Upheavals that start small in the home may ripple outward and alter the tide of history.

The Second Mrs. Hockaday is top-notch historical fiction that also packs a suspenseful punch. A layered story and thought-provoking story with a mystery to solve at the center, it is a relatively brief but highly satisfying listen that should appeal to listeners of many tastes.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.