Dreamer’s Pool by Juliet Marillier

Dreamer’s Pool by Juliet MarillierDreamer's Pool by Juliet Marillier
Narrator: Natalie Gold, Nick Sullivan, Scott Aiello
Series: Blackthorn and Grim #1
Published by Audible Studios on 11/4/14
Genres: Fantasy
Source: Audible
three-half-stars

Story: B
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

An engaging fantasy novel that smoothly incorporates a bit of mystery and a dash of “whodunit,” Dreamer’s Pool broke me out of a listening slump and I found it easy to become invested in the story and characters. Three narrators deftly shift between the three points of view at play and while all bring different strengths in terms of delivery, all three added to the listening experience.

My Thoughts:

I started my listen of Dreamer’s Pool expecting a pretty traditional fantasy story built on Irish mythology and folklore.  My expectations were incorrect and this is one of the rare instances in which that was a good thing. This audiobook struck me as a mix of fantasy and mystery and was far lighter on magical elements than I anticipated. The mystery wasn’t just in terms of the more-than-one “whodunit” plot lines, it was also in the way in which the characters’ backstories were woven into the overall tapestry of the story.

As the story introduces us to Blackthorn and Grim – imprisoned and facing torture or death – events begin their rush forward and it’s only with some skillful weaving of backstory into ongoing events that we begin to learn some of the history of our main characters. Making a bargain with Conmael, a fey nobleman who offers Blackthorn her freedom (for reasons known only to him) in exchange for her agreement to three conditions, the healer and her fellow prisoner—a taciturn giant of a man named Grim—find themselves free and heading to Dalriada where Blackthorn is to set up as a healer and wise-woman.

There, they cross paths with Oran, the Dalriada prince and the future king of the realm. Oran is an intelligent and unexpectedly romantic figure who has agreed to an arranged marriage and is awaiting his future bride in his holding of Winterfalls. With his intended’s arrival in advance of the hand-fasting, though, comes questions the prince needs answers to. Through her work as a healer, Blackthorn and Grim become embroiled in a sordid investigation involving abduction, murder, and arson. Their success with the investigation leads the prince to seek their help solving the greater mystery of his intended bride and Dreamer’s Pool.

Blackthorn is a hardened and bitter woman whose past has taught her to distrust those in authority. She’s sympathetic overall but that consistent core of anger may make her a frustrating protagonist for some. Her character arc isn’t one of self-discovery so much as it is one of re-discovery: how to trust again, how to be among people again, and (I’m projecting to future books here) how to let go of her anger and desire for revenge against the man who wronged her and learn to build a fulfilling life. Her experiences have made her distrustful of men and blind to the truth on some issues. Although (or perhaps because) I was particularly engaged with this book, I reached a point where frustration made me stop listening for almost a full day when Blackthorn took actions based on those bitter influences from her past in that way that we never recognize in ourselves in real life but get so frustrated with in our fictional characters.

Grim’s character arc is the most nebulous of the three—not because it was poorly written or because he was an incomplete character but because the author was able to make him integral to the story while letting Oran and Blackthorn fill out the majority of the gradual weaving of the tale. The story was neatly wrapped up with no cliff-hanger but there are more than enough threads, many of them Grim’s, for me to look forward to the next in the series.

Oran was an unexpected character for me. Part of that is due to how the narrator voiced him, which I’ll get to in a bit, but I found him to be the most complex character of the three. He was an intelligent and fair-minded ruler but relatively young with a streak of romanticism and poetry in his soul that struck me as atypical (in my experience with the genre) for the character who possessed the most agency and secular power in the world-building structure.

There was one significant point of break-down for me and minor spoilers will be necessary in the explanation that follows. Two threads to the story incorporate violence (physical and sexual) against women. While that’s a theme I’m getting a bit weary of personally (at least it wasn’t used to justify character flaws or toughness,) from an historical and world-building standpoint I can understand the placement of it as well as the inclusion of an attitude reminiscent of “she was probably hooking up with a boy already anyway so she got what she deserved.” It did strike me as an odd contrast to Blackthorn’s more modern view in defense of the victim via a clear statement that it didn’t matter if the victim has slept with everyone or no one, rape is rape. That progressive (for the times) attitude then seemed at odds with her later attitude towards a false accusation of rape. Not that Blackthorn the character wouldn’t have logically fell victim to an issue that hit a personal trigger but that the transition was from historically accurate “women as chattel and not deserving control of their bodies” to the very modern “no means no regardless of the victim’s character/dress/etc.” to a muddying false rape accusation. All that likely says more about me as a modern reader that it speaks to a flaw in the writing but it was… disturbing to me.

Overall, the story is, if not fast, then certainly well-paced, both in terms of a smooth and story-appropriate shift in character perspectives as well as in terms of forward momentum in plot. I was wrapped up in the tale and the characters and the narration was an enhancement to the experience of the written word.

The Narration:

All three narrators are skilled and delivered a listen-worthy (vs. a “go with the text” recommendation) experience. Although I have a few specific complaints, the amount of text I dedicate to them below is not at all indicative of their impact on the audiobook as a whole. For all the narrators, character differentiation was always excellent; voicing the opposite sex never sounded forced or unnatural to me, especially when combined with the “here and now” narrative skills of all three; delivery was smooth and corrections were nicely blended with the original tone and dialogue ebbed and flowed with a pretty natural give and take.

In addition to the above high notes, Natalie Gold has a pleasant voice that meshed well with the age and experience of the character. If I had one complaint, it would be that Blackthorn is, as mentioned, a woman whose life experiences have hardened her and while she showed moments of softening, the emotion I pulled from the narration was delivered more consistently from inflection that vocally highlighted the textual emotion rather than from a wholly organic read of the subtext. This was less problematic for me here than in many of my past listens but it had the unfortunate effect of blunting the impact of what should have been some really great moments. When Blackthorn allows her past to color her perspective on everything she had learned up to a critical point, the fact that vocal inflection is a mask rather than a transformation became evident and her anger didn’t translate as betrayal or a bitter pill swallowed whole against the ways in which her new experiences had been wearing down the edges of her past, it was just a slightly amped up version of the anger she’d carried all along.

If I had been asked to describe how Oran sounded, it wouldn’t have been at all what Scott Aiello delivered… so thank goodness I’m not an audiobook director because Oran’s character was complex and that came though nicely in (or perhaps was truly best illuminated because of) the vocal delivery. I’m tempted to break out into an in-depth wine analogy about top notes and subtle undertones but I’ll spare you and boil it down to the fact that in addition to varied cadences that made each of Mr. Aiello’s characters incredibly distinct, his ability to express the wide emotional range that can be crossed not just in a single character but sometimes within the arc of a few sentences made for a very organic and natural feel to Oran as a character.

I imagine voicing Grim came with its own set of challenges for Nick Sullivan; I know it did for me as a listener. With a deep voice for Grim and as a character with very little to say and a tendency to do it in short sentences, Mr. Sullivan had two text-imposed limits that affected how his delivery struck me. Terse sentences combined with the gravelly, lowered voice invariably set up a hard-boiled noir detective vibe at the start of each section from Grim’s point of view. This set up a disconnect between the actual genre/mood and my immediate interpretation. It’s an artifact forced strictly, I would argue, by the translation from text to audio but it was nevertheless a momentary disruption to my ability to wholly immerse myself in the listening experience.

Overall, though, three strong performances. I would listen to more audiobooks by any of these narrators.

I received this book at no cost from Audible Studios in exchange for a review. The book’s source does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
three-half-stars

Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris

Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine HarrisMidnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris
Narrator: Susan Bennett
Series: ,
Published by Recorded Books on 5/6/14
Genres: Mystery, Paranormal

Story: B
Narration: A

Publisher’s Blurb:

“From Charlaine Harris, the best-selling author who created Sookie Stackhouse the world of Bon Temps, Louisiana, comes a new, darker world – populated by more strangers than friends. But then, that’s how the locals prefer it.

Welcome to Midnight, Texas, a town with many boarded-up windows and few full-time inhabitants, located at the crossing of Witch Light Road and Davy Road. It’s a pretty standard dried-up western town. There’s a pawnshop (someone lives in the basement and is seen only at night). There’s a diner (people who are just passing through tend not to linger). And there’s new resident Manfred Bernardo, who thinks he’s found the perfect place to work in private (and who has secrets of his own). Stop at the one traffic light in town, and everything looks normal. Stay awhile, and learn the truth….”

My Thoughts:

Charlaine Harris culls two characters from other series she’s written and drops them in the town of Midnight, TX.  Manfred Bernardo – a young psychic who makes a living providing scam readings over the internet interspersed with true psychic visions – moves from the Harper Connolly series to this new trilogy. Bobo Winthrop – on the run from a family legacy of racism and violence covered in depth in the Lily Bard series – lands in Midnight and seems to have found his place in the world. Of course, there’s a host of other residents in town who weave into the story and each one is unusual. Bobo’s tenants: pale Lemuel who only comes out at night and the drop-dead gorgeous Olivia Charity are as deadly as they are mysterious. Across the street from the pawnshop Bobo runs is Fiji Cavanaugh – the proprietor of a new-age shop offering occultist paraphernalia and self-discovery workshops – who is a witch with unexpected power and and amusingly named pet cat: Mr. Snuggles.

This book is a tightly woven combination of mystery and paranormal with the cast of a small-town cozy. As a standalone, it works very well. As someone familiar with the characters from her other series, I had a very hard time adjusting. The Harper Connolly and Lily Bard series always struck me as straight contemporaries, despite Harper’s psychic abilities. To find characters from that world thrown into a small Texas town with vampires and werewolves was jarring. Other than the genre change speed-bump, they actually work really well as characters here and anyone unfamiliar with their pasts should find their presence seamless to the story.

As Manfred learns more about the town and its residents, Bobo’s ex-girlfriend’s body is discovered and he’s the primary suspect in her death. To compound his situation, white supremacists who believe he is in possession of his dead grandfather’s weapons cache are eager to do whatever it takes to get their hands on it. The story moves at a nice clip and I found myself entirely engaged throughout. It was only after it was over that I felt the lack of character building. There’s a thin layer of background for each person and an emotional depth (or lack) that’s primarily comprised of longing and unrequited love but with nothing for a reader to really sink her teeth into.

That kind of perceived flaw is usually a significant issue for me but the story was a lot of fun and it was such a nicely paced plot with a well-blended mix of genres and character types that, in conjunction with an audiobook narration that gave so much vocal depth to characters that it masked much of their actual lack of depth, I ended up enjoying this audiobook immensely and recommend it.

The Narration:

This was my first experience with narrator Susan Bennett and part-way through I stopped to look at what other books she’s done with the intent to pick some up. I was very impressed with her performance. First and foremost was the delightfully dry delivery she brought to the humor; she nailed all the amusing lines without missing a beat. Her character interpretations were excellent, giving me fully-voiced personae with clearly transmitted emotional nuances and varied speech patterns. Her voicing of the eventually-revealed villain of the story was excellent and surprisingly hackle-raising in its ability to reveal shifting glimpses of the evil hiding behind a… well, I’ll let you discover that for yourself.

The story opens with a third-person present tense narrative, a la Pushing Daisies, and Ms. Bennett provides the vocal equivalent (via voice tone) of a camera slowly spiraling in on the little town of Midnight as the omniscient narrator lands us in the story underway. With the switch to third-person past, the sense of being present in every moment is nicely delivered and the narration was perfect for my tastes: lightly burnished with a down-home flavor in terms of accents and laconic delivery and sweeping me into the story without distraction.

Night of Cake & Puppets by Laini Taylor

Night of Cake & Puppets by Laini TaylorNight of Cake & Puppets by Laini Taylor
Narrator: Kevin T. Collins, Khristine Hvam
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone #2.5
Published by Hachette Audio on 12/5/13
Genres: Fantasy, Romance

Story: A
Narration: A-

Quick Review:

Adorable! An amusing and romantic short story set in the generally more serious universe of Daughter of Smoke and Bone. The dual narration was unexpectedly perfect. Honestly? Don’t bother with the review, just go buy the audio.

Publisher’s Blurb:

In Night of Cake & Puppets, Taylor brings to life a night only hinted at in the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy—the magical first date of fan-favorites Zuzana and Mik. Told in alternating perspectives, it’s the perfect love story for fans of the series and new readers alike. Petite though she may be, Zuzana is not known for timidity. Her best friend, Karou, calls her “rabid fairy,” her “voodoo eyes” are said to freeze blood, and even her older brother fears her wrath. But when it comes to the simple matter of talking to Mik, or “Violin Boy,” her courage deserts her. Now, enough is enough. Zuzana is determined to meet him, and she has a fistful of magic and a plan. It’s a wonderfully elaborate treasure hunt of a plan that will take Mik all over Prague on a cold winter’s night before finally leading him to the treasure: herself! Violin Boy’s not going to know what hit him.

My Thoughts:

I think I’m pretty much onboard to read anything Laini Taylor wants to write but when I heard that there was an upcoming novella about Zuzana and Mik – characters from the fantastic Daughter of Smoke and Bone series – I… er… I may have squeed aloud. A little bit. And pestered @HachetteAudio to find out if there would be an audio version. Some of my favorite scenes in Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight contain Zuzana. As the perfect humorous foil for the darker material in the book, she got most of the funny lines and I glommed onto her like a raft in the emotional storm that was Karou’s life. I was pleased to discover that this novella lived up to my expectations.

Although we get a short glimpse of the early friendship between Karou and Zuzana, the story is primarily about Zuzanna as she plots her first date with Mik and leads him on a treasure hunt to get to it. Unexpectedly, we also get to hear Mik’s perspective on this adventure. Both characters speak directly to the listener which is a conceit that can sometimes be a bit problematic for me when it’s overdone or seems too clever. In this case it worked perfectly and made me feel like I was overhearing a conversation in a coffee shop the day after a first date.

In addition to the magic of romance, there’s a little of the real magic that inhabits the DoSaB world and they blend together well. As in the full-length novels, Prague comes alive in the story and the atmosphere of one snowy night in that ancient city is a vivid construction in the listener’s imagination. The imagery is beautifully rendered and the phrasing is well-written. This is a sweet, adorable, and laugh-out-loud funny story that’s a perfect companion to the series or a lovely stand-alone listen when you’re in the mood to be charmed.

I was going to include some quotes of the amusing or well-worded parts of this novella but then I realized I’d been cutting and pasting practically the entire book and decided…perhaps not. As a short précis of Zuzana, though, I can’t resist:

“I mean, who would I be if I’d been raised on milquetoast bedtime stories and not forced to dust the glass prison of a psychotic undead fox Cossack? I shudder to think.

I might wear lace collars and laugh flower petals and pearls. People might try to pat me. I see them think it. My height triggers the puppy-kitten reflex – Must touch – and I’ve found that since you can’t electrify yourself like a fence, the next best thing is to have murderer’s eyes.”

and a bit later…

“Anyone with an older brother can tell you: Cunning is required. Even if you’re not miniature like me – four foot eleven in a good mood, as little as four foot eight when in despair, which is way too often lately – morphology is on the side of brothers. They’re bigger. Their fists are heavier. Physically, we don’t stand a chance. Hence the evolution of ‘little-sister brain.’

Artful, conniving, pitiless. No doubt about it, being a little sister – emphasis on little – has been formative, though I take pride in knowing that Tomas is more scarred by years of tangling with me than vice versa. But more than anyone or anything else, it’s Deda who is responsible for the landscape of my mind, the mood and scenery, the spires and shadows. When I think about kids (which isn’t often, except to wish them elsewhere and stop just short of deploying them hence with my foot), the main reason I would consider…begetting any (in a theoretical sense, in the far-distant future) is so that I can practice upon small, developing brains the same degree of mind-molding my grandfather has practiced on us.”

As for Mik…the cat analogy… oh, the cat analogy. It was brilliant and amusing and so well voiced by Kevin T. Collins that I’m not going to quote it but only suggest you listen to it yourself. This novella is well worth a listen and likely several re-listens.

The Narration:

I was concerned when I saw that this novella was going to be voiced by dual narrators. I was please to see that Khristine Hvam would be narrating – after all, she does such a great job with the full-length books in the series – but why did we need another voice? Well, aside from the fact that the story is actually broken out into “Her” and “Him” alternating sections, as it turns out, Kevin T. Collins was awesome as Mik.

Each narrator brings personality and individualization to the characters: from the squeak when Zuzana gets excited about what she’s saying to the tentative uncertainty Mik displays and the way in which Mr. Collins leverages perfect inflections to build the character and his mood and personality in my mind, this pairing was audio gold.

Why the “-” to the A” grade? I heard a little inconsistency in Zuzana’s accent and Mr. Collins uses a lot of breath(iness) to push out Mik’s lines. These were very minor issues as the narration was above average and makes audio the way to go with this story.

Written in Red by Anne Bishop

Written in Red by Anne BishopWritten in Red by Anne Bishop
Narrator: Alexandra Harris
Series: The Others #1
Published by Penguin Audio on 3/5/13
Genres: Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Goodreads
three-half-stars

Story: A-
Narration: C

Quick Review:

An excellent story with a new twist on werewolf/vampire origins, vibrant characters, intriguing world-building, and very good pacing make this a highly recommended read. The narration, however, was something of a challenge for me.

My Thoughts:

I enjoyed this story immensely; so much so that I ended up buying a copy of the e-book with the intent to revisit the intriguing world of the terra indigene. The prologue gives a short snippet of how humans and the Others found themselves coexisting in Thaisia and I was immediately wrapped up in thoughts of an alternate history where colonists landed on the coast of what I picture as North America (given the references to the Great Lakes and Sparkletown in the west where movies are made) and, à la the Roanoke Colony, disappeared. Subsequent settlers encountered the powerful natives who viewed them as prey but they were eventually able to bargain with them for small plots of land and access to natural resources in exchange for the goods and technology human ingenuity could produce.

The natives learned to assume a human shape and moved between that and their natural forms which were generally either an animal form or, in the case of the Sanguinati, a mist-like form that can draw blood through the skin of its prey. That was a refreshing world-building perspective for the origin of werewolves and vampires. More frightening than the Others whom the humans interact with, however, are the elemental powers that dwell in the heart of the terra indigene lands.

When Meg Corbyn stumbles into the Courtyard, shivering and under-dressed for the winter weather, the first person she encounters is Simon Wolfgard – leader of the Others in Lakeside. Simon is considered progressive among his kind. Human settlements often have a Courtyard – a large area of land off-limits to humans where the Others live and can keep an eye on their human “tenants” – but Simon has set up a shopping area where humans are permitted and interaction between the races takes place. Gruff and growly Simon reluctantly agrees to hire Meg for the job of Human Liaison and timid, on-the-run Meg thinks she’s finally found a place where she can hide from the powerful consortium who kept her enslaved in order to use her abilities as a cassandra sangue or blood prophet.

At this point, I was pretty sure I had a handle on how this story was going to be constructed and although I did slide into the story like I was pulling on a familiar and comfy sweater, I didn’t get too far into it before I realized someone had turned my monochromatic wardrobe into something brilliantly colored and patterned and I couldn’t stop reading.

Simon is confused by his urge to care for, rather than hunt, Meg. She doesn’t smell like prey so in his confusion he snaps and snarls at her at every turn. Meg is something of a tabula rasa, holding only a limited set of visual and auditory experiences that were provided to her via media by her Controller in order to give her just enough experience of the world to prophesy and, in theory, not enough to enable her to successfully escape and evade imprisonment. As a character, this made her an interesting foil for the community of Others she is surrounded by. The contrast between the predatory and powerful terra indigene and the very young-seeming and innocent Meg is a dynamic that worked to strengthen and ground the characters of the various Others that Meg is surrounded by. It was almost as if her naïveté and inexperience set her up as a negative space that ends up defining the shapes (characters) surrounding her and allowing the reader to see them more clearly and in more detail.

The point of contrast that I was less satisfied with was the ingenue/femme fatale dichotomy of Meg vs. Asia Crane. Asia has been hanging around the Courtyard and trying to pique Simon’s interest. Her real goal is to star in her own TV show and in order to achieve that, she’s taken on the job of infiltrating the Courtyard to learn more about the Others on behalf of a shadowy figure in Sparkletown she calls the “Bigwig.” Her manipulative, jaded, sleep-with-someone-to-get-what-she-wants personality was such a contrast to the innocence of Meg that it made her seem overdone as a character and villain.

All of that doesn’t mean Meg is a weak or unfinished character. She may be unworldly and somewhat fearful but she does stand up to Simon when it’s important and her struggle with her itching need to prophesy when she senses danger might be near is affecting. Given how very young and stressed she seemed, I was actually slightly uncomfortable being an observer to her process of cutting herself to bring on a vision and the pleasure/pain combination this engendered in a cassandra sangue.

Providing a completely human perspective on life in Thaisia among the Others is Lieutenant “Monty” Montgomery. Monty has been transferred from the big city of Toland to podunk Lakeside in disgrace. His new captain makes him the intermediary between the police and the Others. Through his eyes we learn how the Others handle trespassers (hint: they eat them), how humans generally view the Others, and exactly how much control the terra indigene can exert on the human settlements if the whim strikes them. Monty is a well-developed and interesting character but really, my main comment about him at the moment (if you’ve read the book) is a question: why on earth is his daughter’s name Lizzy Borden?

There were a double handful of supporting characters and every one of them was an integral part of the story. As they wove their way in and out of the story, I never begrudged them page-time in favor of more Meg or Simon. Meg ends up baby-sitting Simon’s nephew, Sam, who was traumatized when his mother was killed by humans when she and Sam were out for a run. Meg and Sam are simply adorable together. The scenes where some combination of Simon, Meg, Sam, or Nathan (another Wolfgard member) engaged in playtime or Meg was introducing them to the delights of dog snacks and dog beds were very amusing. The nosy and acquisitive nature of the members of the Crowgard clan who keep an eye on Meg was another humorous aspect of the book that nicely rounded out the story.

Great characters, interesting world-building, a nice blend of humor and tension, and a well-paced and satisfyingly dramatic ending with a wrap-up that left me looking forward to finding out what’s next in the world of the Others make this a recommended read in text form.

The Narration:

As a performer, Alexandra Harris has a very pleasing voice. In addition to that, she created a voice for Meg that was nicely youthful and she did a very good job vocally reflecting the character’s lack of worldliness . Her voice for Sam was also well done and she’s one of the better narrators I’ve listened to in terms of delivering a believable child’s voice. She then deftly ages her voice for the character of Erebus in such a way as to immediately convey both his position as the oldest of the Sanguinati and his unimaginable power.

On the whole, though, I had a very difficult time engaging with the narration of this audiobook. My initial thought was that I was being read to rather than being so drawn into the story that I lost awareness of the narrator but I kept rejecting that thought. After all, there was very good voice differentiation and the narrative section was performed differently than dialogue (both critical factors in preventing a “you’re reading not narrating” impression) so why should I feel like I was being read to? As the book progressed though, I returned again and again to that initial analysis and here’s what it boiled down to for me: the combination of very deliberate enunciation, single-speed pacing, and a tendency toward artificial inflection intended to mimic emotion rather than express something actually felt prevented me from enjoying the audio.

Deliberate enunciation: being able to understand the narrator is critical but rather than leveraging the performance marker of chewing the syntax to highlight the author’s intent, the way in which the story was deliberately and precisely spoken was reminiscent of how a reader might slow down and speak very clearly and with simplified dramatization when reading to a child. That had a secondary effect of making me feel like this book was distinctly young adult or even middle grade…which it isn’t at all. (Not to mention the YA audiobooks I’ve listened to have all had the same presentation as “adult” books.)

Single speed pacing: the unwavering consistency in pacing made the humor that’s sprinkled throughout the book fall flat because there was nothing to lift it out of the surrounding lines. On the other end of the spectrum, even the occasional use of the word “fuck” by a character – something that usually stands out because of its placement as an emphatic pejorative – was rolled into the sentence as if it was just any random noun or adverb. As events were progressing (theoretically) at a fast and furious pace as they reached the climax of the book, the narrative pacing didn’t appropriately reflect that forward motion and it also made transitions between scenes invisible, leaving me momentarily confused when we switched days/characters/locations.

Artificial inflections: the performance marker of Emphasis (to paraphrase producer Paul Ruben who defined the performance markers I keep in mind when reviewing) asks the listener ‘is the emphasis in the delivery emerging from an immediate discovery of the events taking place and so is organic (natural) or is the emphasis modulated (forced) in order to “juice” the narration?’ I doubt the narrator is consciously trying to punch the narration up but the delivery doesn’t strike me as organic. It holds a more intentional tone that might be better suited to voiceover delivery. Character voices had much more vibrancy and a somewhat more organic flow (as, of course, they should) but I still felt a dissonance with natural speech patterns and completely realistic expression of emotions.

While the author’s text is the heart of the story, a strong narration of the audiobook version can do amazing things in terms of enhancing the reader’s experience with a book. Unfortunately, the narration detracted from the text for me and made it a lesser experience that I might have wished.

 

Disclaimer: I received this audiobook without cost from Peguin Audio via the Solid Gold Reviewer program at Audiobookjukebox.com
 
three-half-stars

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook by Daniel O’MalleyThe Rook by Daniel O'Malley
Narrator: Susan Duerden
Published by Hachette Audio on 3/1/12
Genres: Fantasy, Mystery
four-stars

Story: A-
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

A refreshingly unique story with an unexpected sense of humor, The Rook was an extremely enjoyable listen. Although I’ve found Susan Duerden’s narrations challenging in light of my voice/delivery preferences, she won me over with this one and gave an excellent performance.

The Plot:

Summary from Goodreads

“Myfanwy Thomas awakes in a London park surrounded by dead bodies. With her memory gone, her only hope of survival is to trust the instructions left in her pocket by her former self. She quickly learns that she is a Rook, a high-level operative in a secret agency that protects the world from supernatural threats. But there is a mole inside the organization and this person wants her dead.

As Myfanwy battles to save herself, she encounters a person with four bodies, a woman who can enter her dreams, children transformed into deadly fighters, and an unimaginably vast conspiracy.”

My Thoughts:

This was such a refreshing book. I found the plot and characters unique and engaging and the humor was an unexpected treat. There were almost two stories being told: that of the amnesiac Myfanwy and how she was maneuvering through her own life with absolutely no idea of what to do (except for the background info in a binder left her by her former self) and flashback scenes to Myfanwy’s past. Those flashbacks were usually in the form of information contained in letters written by pre-memory loss Myfanwy and the author nicely skirts turning them into info-dumps by making them almost their own story-line. While the transitions between the two worked very well for the first half of the book, they seemed to lose some of their cohesion later in the story. There certainly weren’t any whiplash moments of “Wha…? How is that relevant?” It’s just that I found it slightly harder to transition later in the audio.

The two iterations of Myfanwy have different personalities and as the amnesiac version begins to get her feet under her and starts to assert herself I enjoyed witnessing her character arc, especially as I could contrast it with the more timid Myfanwy in the flashback scenes. The world-building of this alternate England is smoothly accomplished and the supernatural abilities within the super-secret government group known as the Chequy (and I’m glad I had the audio version to pronounce that and other names for me) are not necessarily your standard superhero abilities and sometimes they’re just downright amusing. The structure of the Chequy and the intricacies of how it works unfolded in a pretty organic manner as Myfanwy began trying to uncover who was responsible for her loss of memory.

In terms of both the story-telling (text) and the narration (audio), I was sucked into the moment-by-moment discovery of the character. The pacing was perfect to maintain my interest (other than a brief stutter near the end), the writing is amusing, and the story is original. I recommend this audiobook.

The Narration:

I’ll start by making it clear that I have a personal bias against narrations or voices that are breathy or sometimes sound as if they aren’t fully supported. It’s strictly a matter of taste of course, and while it has nothing to do with the ability of the narrator to deliver all the performance aspects that can pull you into a story, it’s been a barrier for me in the past with this narrator. Wow, what a difference a book can make and I’m glad I didn’t let that chase me away from this audio.

It took me a little bit to get into this audiobook – both as I grew accustomed to the narration and as I waited to be grounded in the story as events started to unfold – but when I did I was completely immersed. As a first person narration, Susan Duerden’s voice seemed to effortlessly encapsulate Myfanwy’s personality (er, both of them) – sounding uncertain and timid at times and ratcheting up in confidence as amnesiac Myfanwy began to settle into her strange life. The cast of supporting characters were fully voiced and their personalities were vibrantly depicted by the pitch/tone/cadence/accent choices made for each.

There’s a consistent slide/drop-off at the end of many sentences that I didn’t like but that ended up being a minor issue. Pacing, emphasis, individualizing characters’ perspectives, and reactive delivery of dialogue were all very well-performed. The humor that permeates the book was particularly well done. It was never over-emphasized and often was given a dry tone that made me laugh out loud several times. Overall, this was an extremely enjoyable performance.

four-stars