Monday, January 28, 2013

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Simon and Schuster Audio
Narrated by Hope Davis
Length: 10 hours 5 minutes

Mary Beth Latham is the central hub around which the rest of her family radiates. From her tender and supportive husband, to the twin teenage boys who couldn’t be more different from each other, to her confident and triumphant daughter Ruby, Mary Beth is the crux of her familial wheel. But lately, things have felt like they are getting just a touch out of control. While Mary Beth’s marriage is as rock steady as it’s always been, having three teenagers in the house is causing her to reevaluate the life she’s leading, as well as the lives of her children. Her twin boys seem to be having issues with each other: Max beginning to spiral into depression while Alex is always finding a way to harangue him for being different. Ruby, her incredibly charismatic and successful daughter, is just about to graduate from high school and is thinking about breaking up with her longtime friend and boyfriend, Kiernan. This causes problems for both mother and daughter, for Kiernan is a sad boy who is having trouble with his own family. Over the course of the book, Max seems to become more and more glum, forcing Mary Beth’s attention to be directed towards him in an attempt to help guide and nurture him. So engrossed in this situation, Mary Beth misses other warning signs, and before she can realize what’s happening, her family is shattered by a deep act of violence that she never saw coming. Mary Beth’s attempt to pick up the pieces and go on with her life for the sake of her family is the emotional ride that forms the heart of this novel. As she painfully moves forward, trying her best to normalize life again, she reflects deeply on the things that happened on the one tragic night that her eyes slid away from the truth that was right in front of her—the night that everything fell apart.

When this book initially came on the scene, I read many reviews with growing enthusiasm. It seemed that everyone loved it and were very deeply moved by Mary Beth’s story. I let the book linger for a rather long time on my shelf but decided to grab an audio version because of my recent success with the format and the incredible hype that this book produced in its readers. Hope Davis did a magnificent job narrating this story. She was a very believeable Mary Beth, and through the various permutations of plot and emotion, she had a vocal presence that commanded attention. Her vocal style went from confident to overwhelmed to broken-hearted without any preamble or awkwardness, and it was because of her stellar narration that I was able to really submerse myself fully into this tale of a mother’s heartbreak.

There’s a lot I won’t be able to say in this review, so those in fear of spoilers, have no worries. The plot ambles from gentle and robust to tragic and impactful in the blink of an eye, and takes its readers to the center of the protagonist’s heart and mind, blowing past former obstacles in one fell swoop. It was amazing how much gravity this book contained. The once carefree wife and mother of three thrown into a chasm of doubt, guilt and horror, and though there was support everywhere, Mary Beth faced most of her fear and pain alone, allowing no one entrance into her fragile existence. This was the kind of book that shocks its readers out of their complacency and makes them take a look into the darker and more troublesome parts of life.

Each part of this book hinges upon the other like a series of steps on a ladder, and it’s only when the climax hits that readers can look back and see the warning signs that they, and Mary Beth, have overlooked. It’s a frightening spiral downward, everything taking on a portentous tone that rings through the narrative like a pealing bell. With candor and fervor, Davis masterfully powers through the myriad complexity that Quindlen creates in this heartbreaking and beautiful novel. What starts out as a family drama evolves into a tale of memory, reminiscence and loss that captivated me and kept me riveted, trying to figure out where Quindlen would navigate to next.

This is a dense novel, filled with sadness and loss, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no humor and buoyancy in the plot. On the contrary, there are moments of laughter and great amounts of lightness in the early sections of the book. After the tragic incident takes place, it’s almost as if the book shifts genre and style into something more weighty and pressing. Every Last One is a book that takes the alien aches and hindrances of loss and shoots them straight into the reader’s heart, effectively breaking it, only to loosely patch it together again.

If you’re looking for a book that will not fail to move you, this is the one. I think mothers in particular will relate to the early Mary Beth and watch her growing situations with careworn alarm and genuine sympathy. It’s a brilliant piece of fiction that deserves all the praise that it has gotten. I know that it wasn’t what I was expecting, but it is a book that will never leave me. Tremendously powerful and masterfully moving, this is a novel that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. A tour de force of modern literature.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Phoenix Books
Narrated by Kirby Hayborne
Length: 10 hours 31 minutes

In this haunting menagerie of a novel, three disparate people find themselves thrown into a complex identity theft of grand proportions. While some of them realize a little too late, some don’t even have the chance to figure out where they’re going or who is orchestrating the madness that surrounds them. Miles Chesire has been looking for his twin brother, Hayden, for years. Hayden, a very sophisticated yet mentally ill man, has kept Miles consistently one step behind him for the last ten years. The only reason Mies even knows that Hayden is alive is due to the letters that await him at every dead end in his quest to find his missing brother. Meanwhile, Lucy Lattimore, a plain young girl with no prospects, has just graduated from high school, and rather than face a dead end life has decided to run off with her bright and attractive former history teacher. The two have a plan that will involve the theft of millions of dollars while granting them new identities. In the third narrative arc, Ryan Schuyler, a young college student, has just learned some shocking news about his family that results in him walking off campus into a sordid life, never to look back. Presumed dead in his rush to abandon his old life, he will find that his new life holds more danger than he could have ever imagined. In this tense and winding tale, Dan Chaon will twist each of these stories together into a tight and punishing knot, leaving the reader to uncover the single thread that ties all of them together—a stunning secret that reveals itself once the ultimate horror has already been inflicted upon each of them. A masterful work of literary suspense, Await Your Reply is a terrifying look into the world of charismatic mania and the theft of the most basic thing in the world: our separate and mingled identities.

After hearing so many great things about Chaon and his stellar writing skills, I picked up this book for review knowing that it was a favorite of Marie over at Boston Bibliophile. I do confess that I got more than I ever expected from this dark and sinister tale, and was glad that I chose the audio version, narrated by Kirby Heyborne. Heyborne delivers this tale with a great amount of verve and savvy, creating a sinister vibe that is belied by his calm narration. I think his unaffected vocal inflections actually made this book more menacing, and his ability to never lose control of his vocal mastery left me more and more anxious about what was to come. Never did Heyborne drop the ball or flub his delivery, which only added a layer of subtle nuance to the tale and keep me guessing until the end.

This is ostensibly the story of three very different individuals. One arc about a man with a missing twin brother who may or may not be dangerous, a young girl who just wants to succeed in a life headed toward failure, and a young man who is disenchanted to find out that there is a secret about himself that nobody has ever told him. On the surface, as the narrative zings along from one thread to another, these people couldn’t be more different. They are all at different points in their life, all range in age and sex, and all are trying to find bits of themselves floating in the flotsam of everyday life. As the complex revolutions of the plot move forward, I began picking up small bits of symmetry between these three—odd little bits that tied these stories together, however tenuously. Great personal catastrophe looms ahead for all of them, but somehow they never see it coming, and I, as a reader, never saw it coming either, which only heightened the payoff for me.

The major theme of this story is the mutability of identity and the clever ways in which it can be manipulated and overtaken. Some of these characters are knowledgeable in the ways and means of their own and others’ identities, and others are totally na├»ve, barely fitting even in their own skins. To some, identity is something that can be put on and shucked off just as if they were changing clothes, while others are so ingrained in their own identity that it causes them immense problems and internal strife. Some characters are in the gray area of misapprehension about who they are or who they are to become, and some base their identities solely on the peculiarity of others. It was impossible for me to cease inspecting each and every character to see if they were a plotter or being plotted against, and it wasn’t until the final chapter ended that I saw Chaon’s meticulously built house of cards. But instead of everything crashing down around me, this story held on and glued itself into my consciousness completely.

There is fear and insecurity compounded by resolve and ceaseless engineering in this tale, for only one will come out unscathed while the rest are set on paths toward a slow destruction. This wasn’t a tale that I could idly listen to without speculating, but magnificently, it held its own, and I was totally surprised by the eventual outcome that marked the novel’s conclusion. What at first was grey and indistinct grew into a fully realized and complex set of disturbing facts and harsh realizations that had me awed with Chaon’s cleverness and ingenuity. It was more than a diverting read though—it was a read underscored with passion and cruelty, danger and instability. I wasn’t expecting as much as I got with this novel, and was not only pleasantly surprised but also creepily unsettled. The narration only highlighted this unsettling feeling for me.

If you haven’t tried any of Chaon’s work, I would recommend starting here. It’s not a super long novel, but it’s one that will have you reaching back into the recesses of the story to see where the pieces have fallen and asking yourself if there is any way that you might have seen the ending coming. The complex interweaving of these seemingly random people will have you shaking your head in awe over what Chaon manages to do with his pagespace. A highly inventive and creative read that will leave you deliciously unsettled and keep you flipping pages. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets by Kathleen Alcott — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Blackstone Audio
Narrated by Carrington MacDuffie
Length: 4 hours 49 minutes

Ida, Jackson, and James all grew up together from the time they were infants, though they are not all siblings. Jackson and James, brothers who live with their irascible mother after their father abandons them, have been joined at the hip to Ida, who lives with her father just next door, a single parent after his wife’s untimely death. The three are inseparable as children, and they do all the typical things that children do together, like snaking through the woods to have rowdy campouts and creating treasure maps on the butcher paper that James and Jackson’s mother pins to the wall. The three grow together, separate roots all growing into one tree, yet as they age, their perspective begins to shift and they begin to see each other in new lights. It is Ida that has the most trouble with the feelings that she experiences, for both Jackson and James are tortured souls: Jackson becoming violent while sleeping and dreaming of the violence of the boys’ father, and James a schizophrenic with a raging drug habit. Though Jackson and James are damaged, Ida finds herself drawn again and again towards one brother while silently being watched by the other. Through the winding vines of innocence, turned to lust and finally abandonment, the three walk through an ever growing strangeness and distance, only to become close and fulfilled in each other time and time again. In this novel of childhood harmony turned to a dangerous and haunting passion, Ida tells her story in bits and pieces, moving smoothly between the past and the present, finally completing the map of three would-be siblings caught in somewhere between unaffected naivety and desperately compelling debauchery.

One day, while blog-hopping, I came across a review of this book written by Wendy at Caribou’s Mom. It made me eager to read the book, because it was so different than any that I had been reading at the time. I  decided to purchase the title on audio and get to it immediately. It was a relatively short book, and I listened to it over a one day period. The problem was that the narrator, Carrington MacDuffie, was not the right choice for this book. Her voice was clinical and at times almost sterile of emotion and nuance. My husband, who was listening over my shoulder, made the same comment about the narrator, inferring that her voice was too placid and  overly monotone. I think that the lack of finesse in the narration left me feeling half full, for I couldn’t properly enjoy the story in the face of the troublesome delivery. I ended up liking the book, but not loving it, due to this factor.

Jackson, James and Ida were interesting characters to get to know. Ida was a little girl who had to have someone to hold onto and later on turned into a woman bearing the same characteristics, which put her in harm’s way more often than not. I agree with Wendy’s assessment that she based her own identity on the brothers, as they both did with her. The three were a very insular group as adolescents and went as far as teasing others who attempted to pry into their little world of three. At first, this seemed like the only way to keep people out, but it later had consequences for Ida. So far removed from any others, these children grew to depend on each other for almost everything, a situation that deeply coalesced as the parents of the tribe came together as well. What once was considered a blended family also became mutated when the three turned into teenagers, and though they were all almost of an age, Ida chose to intensify her relationship with one brother and not the other, causing the three to be split into uneven camps.

This story was not told in a linear manner, which combined with the flat delivery soon began to wear on me. I couldn’t keep up with where the three were chronologically in the tale, and soon I became a bit frustrated. But time after time, I would catch the hook and find my place, and soon become enmeshed again. I really feel as though there were crucial bits of information that were delivered improperly through the narration that kept me from fully connecting with the story that Ida tells. As the story moved forward, I kept wishing that I had read the book instead of listening to it. The full weight of the words was lost on me, whereas on paper, things might have looked and felt a bit different. The tale of the three was indeed compelling, it just wasn’t compelling enough for me to be moved as I had hoped to be.

Some of the things that I did find interesting about this tale were the glimpses into mental illness, the nightmarish struggling of Jackson’s psyche, and the artistic development that came out of it. Ida’s story was one of hope and empathy that moved through an organic arc towards frustration and confusion at the two brothers. They were so different yet still somehow easily similar, though they struggled with different demons. I asked myself a lot of questions while listening to this book, such as: Was the passion between Ida and her choice of brother in a way comparable to incest? Such questions loomed large over the narrative and wormed their way towards me as I listened and considered. Why did she do the things she did when she knew it was painful to both brothers, and even to herself? These thoughts loomed large on my radar, indicating that there was a great book just beneath the tepid narration.

I would recommend this book to lovers of family dramas and to those looking for something off the beaten path, but would be very shy of recommending the audio version because I think it tainted the story. This is a tale that is easily digestible, as it is not a very long book, and I’m eager to hear what more readers think about the experience of reading or listening to it. This was a good and solid read for me, but regrettably, not a great one for reasons mentioned above.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Midwife’s Tale by Samuel Thomas — 320 pgs

In this page-turning and thrilling debut, Lady Bridget Hodgeson, a midwife living in 1644 London, must fight for the life of a dear friend who seems to have been set up for murder. As battles rage across the city between the King’s men and the Puritans, Lady Hodgeson plies her trade among both the rich and poor mothers to be. When news comes to her that her great friend Esther is accused of murdering her husband, Lady Hodgeson must become both midwife and investigator to prove her friend’s innocence. With the help of a new servant named Martha who has a very questionable background indeed, the two women get themselves embroiled in some of the most heinous and spirited danger—quite unusual in the life of a genteel and respected member of society. But as clues begin to pile up, it seems that Esther may have had more to hide than first believed, and in her efforts to free her friend, Lady Hodgeson finds herself rubbing many powerful people the wrong way. As the story moves forward with power and momentum, both Martha and Lady Hodgeson traipse all over the city, delivering babies to mothers in travail and uncovering more and more disturbing information. Before long, the women find themselves in terrible danger from all sides, but Lady Hodgeson refuses to give up despite several menacing warnings. Will Lady Hodgeson and Martha find the evidence they need to free Esther before her scheduled day of execution at the King’s hand, or will their prying be rewarded with violence and murder? Rich in atmosphere and incredible detail, The Midwife’s Tale captures the reader in the gritty London streets at a time when men carelessly engage in treason to satisfy their most base desires, and lies and truth can be bought and sold as a cheap commodities.

I have a confession to make: I will read anything involving a midwife. I find the the subject of midwifery fascinating and will even pepper my friend Stacy (who is a midwife) with question after question about her work and all the different scenarios that she sees day to day. Reading this book was a no-brainer for me, and though the book’s ratio of midwifery to mystery was about 40/60, I still had a great time following Lady Hodgeson and Martha’s adventures in pursuit of justice. I think that the author is very talented, for he seems to really understand the minds and dogged determination of women, and at times I had difficulty believing that this book was indeed penned by a male. It was a tale full of corruption and torpor, but there was a deep humor and an unexpected amount of twists and turns to the tale as well.

Lady Hodgeson is a woman who brooks no nonsense, and when Martha shows up at her door, her internal skepticism and curiosity are mingled with her humanity and sense of decency. She hires Martha on the spot and begins to train her to be her assistant and new housekeeper. It’s through the careful undulation of the plot that the reader begins to see that Martha has pulled the wool over Lady Hodgeson’s eyes, and this situation doesn’t last for long. When the truth is revealed, Lady Hodgeson carefully weighs the options and chooses to stick with the duplicitous woman, and her choice later reaps full reward when Martha turns out to be both capable and valuable in teasing out information and helping Lady Hodgeson gain admittance to places that she normally would be barred from. Martha is indeed a lady of incredible skill, and with the right tutelage, she becomes very useful indeed.

When Martha and Lady Hodgeson discover that Esther is to be burned at the stake for the murder of her husband, something doesn’t compute with the midwife, and she takes the investigation into her own hands, despite strong warnings from her family and agents of the King. But Lady Hodgeson will not be fobbed off, and soon she is embroiled deeply into the shady life of Esther’s dead husband, a man whose Puritanical leanings were severe and perhaps even savage. Lady Hodgeson will not let this matter drop, though she is pressured, cajoled and even threatened, and her insistence coupled with her insolence mires the two women ever deeper into the claws of a set of sinister secrets. Meanwhile, both the affluent and destitute women of the city are clamoring for her attentions as a midwife, and she must juggle the two pursuits without dropping either one.

This is a story full of secrets, and though it seems impossible, Lady Hodgeson is like a dog on a scent for information, uncovering deeply disturbing plots and schemes that swirl around Esther and make her look decidedly guilty. But Lady Hodgeson suspects that this is not so, when even Martha is sure that Esther is to blame. The atmosphere of the tale is one of myriad conspiracy and complicity all wound around the dirty and crowded streets of King Charles’ domain. Edgy and fast-paced, the tale ignites the imagination and kept me questioning until the very end, when all is revealed in a rather shocking and believable manner. I was wound tight as a spring trying to figure it all out ahead of Lady Hodgeson, but the author’s talent at pulling the rug out from under the reader’s feet was too great, and I was not able to predict the ending to this story.

If historical fiction is not your bag but you love mysteries or midwifery, I would tell you to jump on this book quickly. If you are a lover of historical fiction, this is a natural winner that will keep you up at night devouring secret after secret until the final page seems to turn effortlessly in your hands. I loved this book—not only for its unpredictability, but for its originality in characterization and plot, and I feel that others who take a chance on this one will feel the same. An excellent work of fiction, to be sure. Highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter — Audiobook Review

Recorded by HarperCollins
Narrated by Edoardo Ballerini
Length: 12 hours 53 minutes

It is 1962, and on the coastline of Italy, a young man is desperately hauling sand to a little inlet to create a beach for his father’s hotel, The Adequate View. When the man turns toward the water, he spies a boat getting closer and closer. This boat carries the hotel’s first American guest, a dying starlet who has been removed from the set of Cleopatra to die in peace and  obscurity. But all is not what it seems at The Hotel Adequate View. Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline occurring in the current year, an unlikely group of people will all converge (for different reasons, of course) at  the studio where the dying starlet once captivated the heart of a famous star. From the flop director to his assistant who has bigger dreams and the man who hopes to produce his film and see Hollywood success, they will all become entangled in the dreams of the young Italian boy, who is now an old  man, and has come to America to have a myriad of puzzling questions answered. In this verbally taut and finely crafted novel, Jess Walter proves that he is not only a comedic author, but one that can weave generational heartache betwixt gaiety and profundity. Beautiful Ruins is a story that teases and tantalizes as it pulls its readers gently down the steep slope of its peculiar secrets and its shocking revelations.

After a trying few months of being underwhelmed by reading paper or e-books, I decided that for a little while, I would go with audio. This seems to be the right choice for me, as I am listening more avidly than I ever have before. Seeing this book in the bookstore daunted me due to its hefty size, and so, after reading Sandy’s glowing review, I bought it for myself on audio. I think that choosing Edoardo Ballerini as the narrator for this book was a stroke of genius. As he fluidly and confidently strides through the story, his tone is both perfectly modulated and carries at times a poetic leaning. He was great with accents, and when he voiced female characters, he wasn’t too breathy to be taken seriously.

This book is akin to two entwining rings. What happened in the past sets the stage for the future, and by the conclusion of the book, you can really see that Walter is comfortable in his ability to hook his audience into following the twin rings of plot that he opens up for his readers. I also liked that there was an appearance made by a real person in the story, though I am loathe to reveal who it is, as I don’t want to spoil the book. Walter took a great chance by creating such a large and sprawling story with so many different characters, and there was a trademark witticism that I detected in this tale, something that I have grown to expect from this author.

At its most simple, this is a story about secrets and lies—the ones we keep inside ourselves, and the ones that we share with others. It is redolent with denied passions and ambling dreams, all of which keep the characters firmly within each other’s story, yet also outside of it. I wouldn’t call it a melancholy tale, but there are hints of that emotion lying under the substructure of the book. While there was room for sadness, there was also a casual humor to the story that kept it from turning out as an overinflated and maudlin tragedy. Yes, there were tears, but they were bittersweet, and as all the stories melded, there was exponential gravitas that took me right to the edge without ever dropping me.

I will conclude by saying that this book is an excellent audio choice, and for those looking for a bit of nostalgia resting comfortably in the arms of modernity, this is the one to choose. I’m unsure if the book would have made the same impact on me in print, but I’ve heard others who have read the book say that it’s just as moving and meticulously plotted. Wise and wily, Walter has a fan in me, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.
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