Series: Cainsville #1
Read by: Carine Montbertrand, Mozhan Marno
Length: 14 hrs 40 mins
Published by Penguin Audio on 8/20/13
Twenty-four-year-old Olivia Taylor Jones has the perfect life. The only daughter of a wealthy, prominent Chicago family, she has an Ivy League education, pursues volunteerism and philanthropy, and is engaged to a handsome young tech firm CEO with political ambitions.
But Olivia’s world is shattered when she learns that she’s adopted. Her real parents? Todd and Pamela Larsen, notorious serial killers serving a life sentence. When the news brings a maelstrom of unwanted publicity to her adopted family and fiancé, Olivia decides to find out the truth about the Larsens.
Olivia ends up in the small town of Cainsville, Illinois, an old and cloistered community that takes a particular interest in both Olivia and her efforts to uncover her birth parents’ past.
Aided by her mother’s former lawyer, Gabriel Walsh, Olivia focuses on the Larsens’ last crime, the one her birth mother swears will prove their innocence. But as she and Gabriel start investigating the case, Olivia finds herself drawing on abilities that have remained hidden since her childhood, gifts that make her both a valuable addition to Cainsville and deeply vulnerable to unknown enemies. Because there are darker secrets behind her new home and powers lurking in the shadows that have their own plans for her.
I really enjoyed this audiobook – not in the “jump up and down when you finish it and shout about it from the rooftops” way but in that calmer “why are these characters still running around in my brain a week later? I think I better listen to it again and hey, it was just as good the second time” kind of way. There was one particular shift (to my mind) in how things developed that left me momentarily adrift but the writing is solid, the characters are interesting, the story is nicely layered, and I sense there’s a lot more to look forward to in this series. The narration was very good and the primary narrator excelled at chewing the syntax in a way that completely individualized all the characters and allowed me to immediately sink into the audio experience.
In the early minutes of the story, we find Olivia Taylor Jones at a dinner party with her fiancé. Clearly wealthy, educated, privileged and seeming to have it all, I wasn’t sure what was going to be of interest in her storyline but in no time at all I was hooked by the both the construction of her character and the way in which the events leading up to her adoption were gradually uncovered. Symptomatic of how involved I became in the story and how complete of a character Liv seemed to me: I have never in my life wanted so badly to crawl into an audiobook and chastise a group of people in defense of the protagonist as I did while listening to this one. Early on, Liv is beset by the press while at her mother’s house and I was absolutely infuriated by their behavior. Then I reminded myself they were fictional characters and felt a little silly… but they were obnoxious!
As Liv begins digging into her biological parents’ background, she ends up forming a working relationship with her mother’s ex-lawyer, Gabriel Walsh. He’s an interesting character in that I found him very likable but he’s also completely self-interested. As more of his background is revealed, that becomes understandable but the portion of character arc (or perhaps it’s just reveal) that takes place over the course of the book is tantalizing. I really enjoyed the dynamic between Liv and Gabriel. I don’t know if there will end up being romantic elements there but if so, we’re in for a very slow build-up to it. I think that’s part of why these characters are sticking around in my head: just like real people, they had a life before each other, they have separate interests when they’re together, and they have an organic push/pull relationship that could go anywhere or nowhere. It isn’t that other books I’ve read don’t have fully-formed characters, it’s just that there are often far too many parallelisms in their personalities, mythos, or experiences to make them completely realistic.
There were a lot of structural things I liked about this book: the slow reveal about Cainsville and its origins, the mechanics of how Liv ended up there, the introduction of supporting characters with enough background to make them interesting and well-integrated to the story but not distracting, the gradual peeling back of layers regarding Liv’s seemingly supernatural abilities (although that was a very low key aspect to the story and it felt more normal than paranormal overall), the plotting decision to address just one of the three murders Liv’s biological parents were accused of as the main investigation in the book, and more. The point at which I hit a wall, though, was rather abrupt.
The events that led Liv to Cainsville felt like Tetris pieces falling into place and many of the events that took place there also gave the impression of things clicking into place; even though I couldn’t see the overall design, I liked how it was shaping up. As the action started rising and we hit the climax of the core story/investigation that drove the book forward, it was like I’d been watching red and blue blocks falling neatly into place but the picture that was suddenly revealed when it was over was flowing lines painted in various yellows (this analogy would work better if there were more than three primary colors because I don’t want to imply the resolution was monochromatic) and the disconnect in how it resolved vs. how it started building was problematic for me because it didn’t feel like a plot twist, it felt like the story going off the tracks a bit. I liked both parts/concepts on their own, they just seemed like slightly different stories to me. One positive aspect to that, however, is that I still have a sense of a vast number of stories and underlying mythologies that are yet to be explored.
There are books that strike you as wildly inventive or incredibly fast-paced and exciting and it’s pretty easy for me, when I finish one of those, to point out all the showy bits that made it a great book. Then there are books that just seem layered or dense (not in a lit-fic-y way) or that leave you with an emotionally tangible sense of the characters that lingers as if they were real people and had infinite future possibilities for their lives. Omens falls into the latter category for me and I often find it difficult to rate or review books like that because my logical brain is telling me . o 0(Where are the elegant turns of phrases that merit a high rating? The wildly inventive world-building? What about that slap-in-the-face to your expectations in the last 1/8th of the book?) while the other side of my brain is mooning around about . o 0(Those reporters were so effin’ obnoxious. Don’t they know they can’t do that?! I hope Liv and Gabriel hook up; he’s adorable in an oddly semi-sociopathic way. I bet when he falls for her he’s going down hard. Do you think Peter is a [redacted]? What’s up with Liv and those creepy omens?) Sometimes that’s an artifact from listening to the audiobook version: a well narrated book puts real voices to the characters and I engage with the text on a deeper level. Sometimes there’s something in the story or character that resonates with my personal experience and adds depth to my read. In this case, I think those were factors but all-in-all it’s just a well-written book with a lot of detail woven in and I’m really looking forward to the next one.
This was a dual narration with Carine Montbertrand performing the majority of the story from the first person perspective of Liv and Mozhan Marno delivering short segments interspersed throughout from multiple characters’ perspectives. Both narrators delivered strong performances.
I really liked the way Ms. Montbertrand chewed over the syntax and committed all her energy to each sentence without sounding artificial or too dramatic. She does one of my favorite narrative things: leverages the timing in sentence and individual word delivery in a very natural way. She weights some words with preceding or following pauses (not obnoxiously long ones – realistic ones you would do yourself when speaking) and doesn’t deliver each word with metronomic pacing but draws some out for emphasis. As a related performance trait, she individualizes characters by giving them differing phrasing styles or cadences. When that kind of real-life conversational feel to a story is combined with strong character differentiation and backed by an emotionally invested performance, my opinion on whether the voice sounds age-appropriate or is, in and of itself, aurally pleasing becomes almost irrelevant. Although the emotional content throughout was conveyed nicely, the character of Rose has some zinger lines and I particularly enjoyed the way the humor was delivered with delightful matter-of-factness.
The short third person sections assigned to Ms. Marno contributed to the overall strong narration. She has a very pleasing timbre to her voice and her character differentiation and pacing is very good. I think I would have been equally satisfied with either narrator as the primary.
Although I was happy with both narrators, I am curious about the production decision to a) use two narrators and b) select women for both narrators. The primary narrator should obviously be a woman since it’s Olivia’s first person perspective but the alternating third person viewpoints vary between women and men and include a bit of Gabriel’s perspective which, I would think, would be better served by contrasting Liv’s portions with a male voice. In addition, there’s a section of the third person narration where Olivia speaks and the difference in voices for the same person is jarring. Of note, the alternating perspective contains the only description of Olivia’s voice (contralto) and that’s what we get. I have zero musical/vocal experience but I’m pretty sure the primary narration doesn’t give her a contralto voice. While that has nothing to do with the overall quality of the narration, it was one of those discrepancies that was oddly jarring for a moment when it came up.
A few other niggling issues were present. In particular, I was struck by was how audible the narrators’ breaths were…for both narrators. That seemed particularly odd to me and makes me wonder how much of that was an editing decision to leave natural (non-character) breaths in. I also noticed several sections with a lot of thuds – as if the microphone was being bumped – and there were some pronunciations that struck me as inaccurate such as “eschew” as “as KEW” (yes, that’s technically third in the M-W list of pronunciations but I’m making an argument against using less common pronunciations when it’s a homophone with another word), “femoral” as “FEE moral” and “sociopathy” as “socio PATHY.”
None of the negatives listed above were particularly detracting to the performance but they were momentarily distracting. Overall, the quality of the performances make audio the way to go with this one.