Cliff Diver
Author: Carmen Amato
Narrator:
Johanna Parker
Published 2017 by Tantor
11 hours – Unabridged

J0299_CliffDiver-238x238When you’re the only female police detective in a world-famous Mexican resort city, with the hustle for tourist dollars on one side, the overwhelming power of the drug cartels on the other, and every interaction steeped in centuries of machismo, it’s complicated. For Detective Emilia Cruz of Acapulco, things are about to get a whole lot more tricky.

Sure, a beheaded chauffeur, an American couple’s SUV stuffed with counterfeit, and the recovery of a thumbless kidnapping victim sounds like a sensational sequence of events – but these things are unfortunately all in line with the usual crime business in today’s Mexico. And the squad room is a textbook case of the hostile work environment in a sexual harassment suit (if Mexico had such a thing): not only does Emilia have to carry her own roll of toilet paper into the detectives’ restroom – where the stalls have no doors – but her commanding officer invariably follows her in and silently observes her in the mirror while he’s at the urinal opposite. But it’s after this same lieutenant turns up dead on his boat, adrift in the bay, that Emilia’s situation really becomes challenging.

Despite her junior status among the detectives, Emilia is stunned to find herself designated acting lieutenant for the duration of the investigation into the supervisor’s death. It seems that some extremely powerful people in the chain of command view her as a useful pawn in a mystifying game. In order to survive, Emilia must not only discover the truth about the lieutenant’s demise, but also untangle a complex knot of police corruption, corporate financial shenanigans, and political quid pro quo that gets more dangerous as she goes. Her adversaries may have underestimated her, though, and as things heat up, Emilia begins to learn just what she’s made of.

Johanna Parker takes some getting used to as a reader. Her voice is soft and husky, almost whispery at times, and her delivery tends toward a monotonous sing-song. In voice characterizations, she is competent enough with females, but her portrayal of male characters is less successful. This is a case where the performance of the reader works against the text, and is more often a distraction than an enhancement.

Beyond the limitations of the reader, however, the listener can find pleasure in this audiobook. Emilia Cruz is an appealing character whose strength and courage are considerable, balanced by the constant battle to avoid being overwhelmed by her daily fight as a woman in a man’s world, and by the challenges of her personal life. The setting is a refreshing departure from the crime fiction norm; the juxtaposition of the sunny seaside splendor of Acapulco with the gritty realities of its seamy underside creates an interesting tension, as well as offering opportunities to reflect on the ways that a society of haves and have-nots tends to perpetuate crime.

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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.

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The Dark Flood Rises
Author: Margaret Drabble
Narrator:
Anna Bentinck
Published 2017 by Dreamscape
13 hours, 22 minutes – Unabridged

The Dark Flood RisesI read a Margaret Drabble novel for the first time almost 40 years ago, and was instantly hooked. What is it about her books that makes them so good? My sister and I used to ponder this, discussing how we would tend to respond whenever someone asked us, “But what’s that book ABOUT?” We agreed that the answer was, essentially, “It’s about some people and they know each other, and they all do some things, and think about some things, and maybe talk to each other about those things … .” Which always ends up sounding sort of lame, and makes people think the books may not have much to them. On the contrary, Margaret Drabble novels are invariably immersive and satisfying, providing not only windows into her small worlds of contemporary English educated middle-class adults, but mirrors in which the reader may contemplate his/her own reality.

At the heart of Drabble’s latest novel, The Dark Flood Rises, are the intertwined realities of aging and mortality – truly universal human concerns. The title comes from the D. H. Lawrence poem “The Ship of Death,” lines from which (along with the entirety of W. B. Yeats’s “The Wheel”) form the novel’s epigraph. References to both of these poems recur throughout the story, in the minds and mouths of various characters. Alongside the metaphorical rising flood of death as it approaches assorted characters in a number of ways, Drabble also works in the not-at-all-figurative worldwide rising waters that come with climate change. The result is a rich tapestry of 21st-century life among people who have lived many decades and have much to reflect on.

Fran Stubbs forms the axis upon which swing all the other characters and their narratives. Fran is 70-something, still working as an expert consultant on housing for the elderly. That is her paying job, and it takes her all over England, and in and out of various facilities. What takes up a lot of her unpaid time and attention is being a caregiver for her homebound, non-ambulatory, and still quite self-absorbed ex-husband Claude. Their two late-middle-aged children both currently find themselves in situations close to the physical rising waters of our world: Christopher is visiting friends and attending to some unpleasant personal affairs in the Canary Islands (an archipelago with shrinking coastlines and a burgeoning refugee population), and Poppet, who is semi-estranged from her mother for reasons never fully explained, lives on the banks of a canal at the edge of a salt marsh, where brown water swells and threatens to maroon her small cottage.

As the story unfolds, in England and in the Canaries, characters cope with the infirmities and deaths of friends and loved ones, reflect on history (ranging from the deeply personal to the broadly geopolitical), and try not to worry about forces beyond their control, including (but not limited to) genocide, earthquakes, disease, global warming, and slipping on the stairs.

Reader Anna Bentinck does a highly professional job, disappearing completely into the characters and the narrative until the listener no longer “hears” her voice, but seems to receive the story fully formed in the center of the skull. No flash, no furbelows – just a seamless audiobook experience that clips along smoothly without any sense of the time going by. This was my first experience with Bentinck, but I hope not the last.

Like most Drabble books, this is not a tale of big, cataclysmic events, but of the cumulative effects of everyday occurrences in interconnected everyday lives. If it seems to end rather abruptly, that is surely by design, given the novel’s preoccupation with the end of life. As Fran reflects after the unexpected death of a close friend, “Nobody will ever know now which way her mind was wandering, to what small revelations her enquiries were leading her. It’s of no importance whatsoever … .” And yet the listener finishes feeling grateful to have been privy to the gently lapping waves and the subtly shifting currents in the lives of these people Drabble has presented us with, as we await the flood that is coming for us all.

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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 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.