The Translator by Nina Schuyler

The Translator by Nina SchuylerThe Translator by Nina Schuyler
Narrator: Kirsten Potter
Published by AudioGO Ltd. on 7/1/13
Genres: Literary Fiction
Source: Audiobook Jukebox



Story: B
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

I liked this book quite a bit. The overall concept, the design of the protagonist’s character/story arc, the parallels between Hanne’s translation ability and how she related to people… all of that held a strong intellectual appeal for me. From the perspective of my internal emotional reader, it took me a long time to fall in sync with what was taking place in the story and although the emotional distress experienced by the characters felt realistic, I neither connected to it personally nor did I have much sympathy for Hanne or her daughter or Moto. That doesn’t make it a bad book (far from it) it just means I had two distinct experiences while listening but I consider it time well spent.

Publisher’s Blurb:

When renowned translator Hanne Schubert falls down a flight of stairs, she suffers from an unusual but real condition — the loss of her native language. Speaking only Japanese, a language learned later in life, she leaves for Japan. There, to Hanne’s shock, the Japanese novelist whose work she recently translated confronts her publicly for sabotaging his work.

Reeling, Hanne seeks out the inspiration for the author’s novel — a tortured, chimerical actor, once a master in the art of Noh theater. Through their passionate, volatile relationship, Hanne is forced to reexamine how she has lived her life, including her estranged relationship with her daughter. In elegant and understated prose, Nina Schuyler offers a deeply moving and mesmerizing story about language, love, and the transcendence of family.

My Thoughts:

Although there are no sudden revelations in this book that will take a listener by surprise, I’m throwing out the spoiler flag at the start of this review because there is a slow build in learning about the protagonist and the story took a path that I wasn’t initially anticipating. That was part of what made this book enjoyable for me and I’m going to talk about some of those aspects of character revelation in the review.

As the motivation for a protagonist’s flight from her existing life into one that forces her to re-evaluate her relationships and how she perceives the world, losing the ability to communicate via your primary language is an intriguing and clever catalyst for a novel’s arc. When Hanne Schubert is suddenly unable to speak any language other than Japanese, she begins a journey that brings her to a point where she is forced to confront the fact that, for her entire life, her ability to seamlessly move from language to language – deriving full meaning from each one – is the polar opposite of how she relates to people and personalities that differ from hers. Hanne’s daughter, Brigitte, whom she has always viewed as too sensitive and as someone who needs to develop resiliency in order to be successful or survive in life, is set adrift by her mother’s inability to understand her.

The book opens with Hanne translating a book from Japanese to English. She develops an obsession with the main character, Jiro, and constructs what she thinks is a deep and full knowledge of who the character is – to the extent that he features in her fantasy life. When Hanne is accused by the book’s author of completely misunderstanding who Jiro is and botching the translation, she seeks out the person rumored to be the inspiration for the character – a Noh actor named Moto – and starts down the painful path of realizing that not only has she mistranslated the book, she’s been “mistranslating” her daughter all her life with disastrous consequences. Moto is similar in personality to Hanne’s daughter: mercurial, emotional, and sensitive. Once the smallest crack in her perceived ability to translate develops, finding herself in the orbit of someone so similar in personality to her daughter but with an adult-to-adult power dynamic leads to a painful series of personal revelations.

It took me a long time to be anything more than intellectually engaged by the writing. Part of that is a resistance to third person present tense as a method of connecting to characters (despite its putative sense of immediacy) and the story seemed weighted more towards “tell” expository rather than “show” descriptive. We spend a lot of time with Hanne and her thoughts and for that reason alone I was surprised it wasn’t in first person. It wasn’t written as an objective narrative and was limited in terms of the narrator’s knowledge and I sometimes had a sense of objectivity or scientific observation in the authorial voice.

Where it did work particularly well for my readerly sensibilities was in the tightly constructed way in which the depth of Hanne’s character was slowly uncovered. Although by the end I disliked the perspectives of both mother and daughter, how they reached that point was completely understandable and even if I thought Hanne was a horrible mother (FYI, I didn’t…exactly) I understood her and what motivated her parenting style. None of that understanding was conveyed to me via a wordy bat upside the head but was explained by simply allowing me to observe Hanne going about her life day-by-day with visibility to the reminiscences that would flit through anyone’s mind.

There’s a lot of food for thought in this book and for that alone it’s worth the listen.

The Narration:

My first thought in describing the narration is that if you’ve heard one Kirsten Potter narration you’ve heard them all but that might leave you with a negative impression. What I mean is that Ms. Potter is the most consistent narrator I’ve listened to in terms of delivering narrative in a measured and clearly articulated manner, character differentiation, point of view, emphasis, and back-and-forth dialogue from book-to-book. If you like her voice and narration style, which I do, then you know all you need to know if you’re deciding whether to go with the audiobook version or a text version because there won’t be any surprises for you in the narration.

Much of the novel takes place in Japan (well, most of it takes place in Hanne’s thoughts but…) and rather than utilize a Japanese accent per se, she simply adds a bit of formality to the delivery of native Japanese characters and that worked well for me. The passion Hanne feels as she goes about translating a novel is evident in the delivery and each character is uniquely presented. The third person present tense narrative has a first person presentation style which works well given the amount of time we spend with Hanne’s thoughts and musings. Overall, a good narration that gives full weight to the author’s words and intent.



Disclaimer: I received this audiobook without cost from AudioGo via the Solid Gold Reviewer program at

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth WeinCode Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Narrator: Lucy Gaskell, Morven Christie
Published by Bolinda Publishing Pty Ltd. on 6/6/12
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult

Story: B+
Narration: A-/B+

Quick Review:

This was a very good book with clever plot building and strong writing. The way the story is constructed slowly ratchets the tension tighter and tighter until it snaps with a convulsive shock. The point of view is divided between two characters who are equally interesting and two audiobook narrators who bring their respective characters to vibrant life.

The Plot:

In the normal course of things, Maddie and Queenie would never have even met, let alone become friends. In World War II era Britain, however, things are far from normal. With so many men off fighting in the war the shortage of manpower at home opens doors for women in the workplace. Maddie had just obtained her civilian pilot’s license when the war started and after working as a radio operator, she was able to join the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) and help ferry planes across Britain. As a well educated young woman fluent in German and French, Queenie ends up working as a Special Operations Flight Officer. When a plane carrying the two young women crashes in occupied France, one is captured by the Gestapo and one makes it to safety. The story is split into not-quite-half as each gets a chance to tell part of the story, starting with Queenie telling us Maddie’s story as her own situation is slowly revealed.

My Thoughts:

I’m struggling to figure out how to talk about this book because there was one big issue that bothered me and had my inner critic jumping up and down trying to point it out. My inner reader, however, whipped out some Ninja moves and cold-cocked my inner critic who went down for the count so my inner critic is going have her say and then I’m sending her to her room so I can talk about how very good this audiobook was. My main issue with the story was that the major plot conceit – that these two women would have the time and ability to write such detailed accounts with what seemed to me to be an unrealistic degree of omniscience – was difficult for me to buy into. Fortunately, that thought was rapidly drowned out by the story itself which captivated me.

This is one of those audiobooks that I keep wanting to talk about in ways that aren’t necessarily about the text of the story, which unfolds in such an interesting way that I’d hate to spoil any part of it. I want to be able to convince you that this was a really good audiobook by telling you I finished it in one day and spent hours at a time listening because I just couldn’t make myself take out my earphones. That I would just nod and smile when someone spoke to me, pretending I could actually hear a word they said as I walked away. That I stayed up hours past my normal bed time (hey, it was a work night!) and, yes, the book made me cry. Have I convinced you? Let me try another tack.

The story structure is interesting, not just because it is written as what are essentially diary entries but also because we start out with Queenie, held prisoner by the Gestapo, telling Maddie’s story. When she reaches the point in the story where they meet and she’s talking about herself, it’s almost always in the third person. While this initially struck me as odd, that sense of distance made me uneasy about what Queenie wasn’t telling the reader about her current situation. As she details Maddie’s time transporting planes, the various airports she flies into, and the military officers and civilians fighting the war from British soil, we get a well-developed sense of both the time-period and the friendship growing between these two complex characters.

Interspersed with Queenie’s recounting of Maddie’s history are slowly revealed bits and pieces of the treatment Queenie is receiving under the direction of Hauptsturmführer von Linden, a character who begins to take on an unexpected depth. When the narrative switches over to Maddie’s diary the transition is smooth and my normal reluctance to switch character view point never materialized. Maddie’s story starts with the plane crash and details more current events. She finds safety with French resistance members and while she waits for a rescue flight back to England that is a long time in coming, she learns of Queenie’s capture. I was anxious for these two characters’ stories to merge again and as events started to gain momentum and everything began to unravel and the truth at the heart of the story was revealed, I was riveted.

The Narration:

The narration was very good. Morven Christie provided Queenie’s part of the story and I initially thought she was underplaying the emotion but as the story progressed it became clear how very well that delivery matched Queenie’s personality. At the point at which that seeming composure faltered, I was also forcibly reminded why audiobooks are such an effective method of transporting the listener into the story: less than a second of a shaky indrawn breath just prior to a single short sentence being spoken and my anxiety over where the story was going was tripled. In addition to using her native Scottish accent for Queenie, Ms. Christie seemed to effortlessly flow between English, German (accent and actual German), French (accent and actual French), and American – including actually singing parts of two different songs, one in German and one a Robert Burns song. The character voices were excellent, the impression of moment-to-moment scene discovery was fully realized and, after my initial opinion of the emotional content was revised, I was wrecked by the delivery of dramatic scenes.

Lucy Gaskell takes over as Maddie at a bit over half-way through. In some respects, this was the weaker of the two narrations – French and German accents weren’t believable in dialogue and sometimes Maddie sounded happier than I thought she should given what was going on – but much like the story completely overwhelmed my objection to the narrative-via-diary plot conceit, the character and personality of Maddie were so very vivid in Ms. Gaskell’s voice that I was never less than convinced she was Maddie. In addition, the range of emotions Maddie goes through were very effectively delivered. Overall, I was very pleased with the dual narration.


Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone

Swimming to Elba by Silvia AvalloneSwimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Published by Blackstone Audio on 6/14/12
Genres: Fiction

Story: B-/C+
Narration: A-


In many ways this audiobook was a journey to a foreign land and it was through the skill of the author that I was able to set aside a certain amount of ethnocentrism and immerse myself fully in the sensibilities of the story. In setting, the listener is presented with an incredibly clear sense of Piombino, Italy with its sweltering summers, crowded public housing redolent with the odors of life, the constant noise and motion of its inhabitants and the scent of the sea and the stagnating life washed up on its shore. Life in this steel town – the Lucchini steel foundry is the primary employer but is struggling to stay afloat in a post-industrial age – seems peopled with resentful young men who can’t escape the expectations of their life and who usually, like their fathers, end up taking a job in the steelworks. In the evenings they salve their restlessness with drugs and discotheques and sometimes a bit of theft. Youth seems destined to end early and there is a pervasive sense of suffocation and lives going nowhere as the men wear themselves out working in the foundry and the women sacrifice happiness in expectation of attaining security.

As a listener who happens to be a woman, it was also a trip back to the cusp between adolescence and maturity and in journeying along with Francesca and Anna I found, for good or bad, just as much of the familiar as the unfamiliar. The core of the story is two girls transitioning to adulthood who alternate between the naïveté of youth and an all-too-knowing confidence in their bodies and there is a palpable sexual charge that runs throughout the story. The self-absorption inherent in adolescence is nicely balanced by the affection each has for the other as well as the glimpses we have of the sometimes painful family dynamics that help shape them and drive the choices they make in life.

While Anna is reaching greedily for adulthood, Francesca is desperately clinging to the affection present in her friendship with Anna and I found them to be very realistic characters and often sympathetic ones – though not always likable. Francesca and Anna want nothing more than to escape their world of limited options and had always planned to do it together but when events shatter their already unstable family lives, the chasm that opens between them seems uncrossable and the choices they make after the split may separate them forever.

In addition to Francesa and Anna’s story the listener is presented with significant glimpses into the lives of many of the other characters. Alessio, Anna’s older brother, is a heavy machinery operator at the foundry and his drug use provides an imagined escape from being trapped. Arturo and Sandra, Anna’s parents, are in conflict as Arturo loses his job at the steelworks and then disappears for days at a time running cons in an attempt to earn enough to buy his family’s respect. Francesca’s father, Enrico, is abusive and his obsession with his daughter’s rapidly maturing body is extremely disconcerting to read. Francesca’s mother, Rosa, can’t bring herself to leave Enrico – even to save her daughter – and turns to medication to dull her pain. Toss in a handful of supporting characters and there’s a lot of head-hopping as each one gets to explain their perspective, adding a lot of tell rather than show. It also means that a large chunk of the first half of the book is brick-by-brick character creation which slowed the pace significantly.

There was a lot of minute detail in each of the perspectives. Although this played a large part in creating the well-developed sense of place that ran through the story, because it was split between such a large number of characters my overall connection with the story felt diluted. This book struck me as an intricately described year-in-the-life piece and while it was enjoyable because of how adeptly the author was able to convey the atmosphere of those lives, I often bogged down in the details and the repetition of them.

Despite not being able to say that I was completely wrapped up in the book or that I loved it, I have to acknowledge that these characters seemed like very real people to me. Even if I didn’t like them (and I definitely found Francesca’s father and his controlling nature repellent) I felt immense sympathy for Anna and, truth be told, Francesca absolutely broke my heart – especially in the beginning. At one point I alternated between wanting to pull her in close and feeling a desire to shake some sense into her.

While I am usually an audioook advocate, that’s especially true with this book because a significant amount of the connection I did make with this story was due to the narration.

The Narration:

This was my first experience with Cassandra Campbell’s narration and I’m marking it down as another win in my recent streak of new-to-me narrators whose work I need to find more of. I suspect I might have been tempted to put this book down and not pick it up again if it hadn’t been in audio and that would have been a shame because there’s a lot to appreciate in the writing.

As a translated work, it made sense to me that a heavy Italian accent wasn’t employed for the characters but combine the presence of that rhythm in dialogue with the liquid cadences of Italian proper names seamlessly wrapped in the smooth progression of Ms. Campbell’s delivery and suddenly I was entangled in lattitudes and longitudes that were miles distant and years away from my own.

I found there to be an almost gentle flow to the narrative. While that provided a striking contrast to the moments of frustration expressed by the characters and especially to the angry and controlling character of Enrico, on the opposite end of the spectrum it emphasized the slower pacing in some portions of the book. Offsetting that completely was the impression I received that the narrator (in both the literary and audiobook sense of the word) was achingly sympathetic to the characters, which kindled my own sympathies and interest to a surprising degree. Francesca was already hitting an empathetic chord in me but the almost gentle treatment her story received at times was uncommonly affecting.

The characters were distinct in presentation and personality and the vocal characterizations for Anna and Francesca were a nice blend of the supremely self-centered nature of adolescence and their awakening realization to the world outside themselves; this meant I was never irritated in listening to them because it balanced out nicely. This was an excellent narration that did nothing but enhance my interest in the story.


Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire SáenzLast Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Narrator: MacLeod Andrews
Published by Brilliance Audio on 2/23/11
Genres: Literary Fiction, Young Adult

Story: B
Narration: B

Quick Review:

A sad but ultimately hopeful book that evoked my sympathy (if not my empathy) and left me feeling a bit like an uninvited observer into someone else’s pain. The story is well-written and the narration is, objectively, very accomplished but I found myself vacillating between experiencing the story as it unfolded and being told a story. The drama is well-paced and despite some repetitive themes I found myself intrigued by the dynamics between characters.

The Plot:

Zach Gonzalez is an eighteen year-old boy from El Paso, TX who finds himself in rehab without any memory of how he got there. Some basic facts of his life are clear: his mother is a clinically depressed agoraphobic; his older brother, a drug user, beats Zach on a regular basis; his father is an alcoholic and Zach himself has taken to using alcohol and drugs as a way of coping with events in his life. Zach is intelligent, artistic, caring, and utterly unwilling to accept (or believe in) any helping hand offered him.

As Zach sits through group and individual therapy sessions and interacts with the people who are in rehab with him – most notably his therapist Adam and his much older roommate Rafael – he focuses his attention outward with surprising empathy for his fellow rehabbers rather than finding the courage to move past the block that prevents him from acknowledging how he ended up in rehab. Eventually the barrier he’s been propping up collapses and he’s forced to face his past.

My Thoughts:

Have you ever read a book and felt like you were overhearing a conversation you shouldn’t be listening to? This was that book for me. I would argue that because the Sáenz is also a poet there is an added air of intimacy to the writing. That isn’t meant to imply that authors whose sole medium is prose are incapable of writing stories that touch the reader on a deep level, just that I find poetry is an inherently intimate method of communication and that habit often carries over to a poet’s writing of prose. When combined with the also intimate medium of having a voice quietly speaking in your ear, this book made me a bit uncomfortable – not in the subject matter but just as an nosy observer of a life that crashed and burned and a young man who is trying to pick up the pieces.

The key word, though, is observer. I skimmed the border between observation and emotional engagement, dipping into either state at seemingly random moments so while I found Zach to be a sympathetic character, I never completely lost myself in this audiobook. Zach wavers between emotional reactions to his memories and dissociating from the world around him and perhaps that dissociation was part of my problem. There were certainly moments that rang with emotion but they were fewer than I expected.

Zach displayed a surprising amount of empathy for the people in his life, especially those who were in rehab with him. I struggled to reconcile my perception of the drug-abuser who smashed windshields with a bat as an expression of his pain with the young and tender Zach who displayed an overabundant (and maybe unhealthy) level of care for others as he went through rehab. I don’t know if I’ve absorbed too much of the media’s portrayal of men and boys as stoic and not in touch with their emotions or what but Zach’s frequent internal dialogue about his love for various people in rehab and the emotional touchy/feely that occurs between Adam, Zach and Rafael felt somewhat skeevy to me.

Zach frequently talks about what seems to be a major theme in the book – words. From the start we see Zach’s version of destiny:

“I have it in my head that when we’re born, God writes things down on our hearts. See, on some people’s hearts he writes happy and on some people’s hearts he writes sad and on some people’s hearts he writes crazy and on some people’s hearts he writes genius and on some people’s hearts he writes angry and on some people’s hearts he writes winner and on some people’s hearts he writes loser.”

For Zach, words are both fate and salvation. Although he rejects the hand reaching out to him when his teacher, Mr. Garcia, praises his written work in school, he holds on to that memory like it was keeping him afloat. Zach and his friends would pick words as if they were a secret password and scream them out at the end of each week. It’s through his reading of Rafael’s journal that he finds solace as well as a new addiction and it’s only when he can face his past and talk about it that he will be free from it. While the themes of words didn’t get repetitious for me as a listener, Zach’s reliance on repetitive word use in thought and speech (as true to life as it may be) was annoying. His favorite phrases (such as “tore/tears me up”, “stunned me out” and “wigged me out”) came up over and over and wore on me.

The Narration:

On the whole, I like the narration by MacLeod Andrews. His performance displayed an understanding of the author’s intent and he gave fully-formed and distinctive performances for every single character. I never needed text indicators to get a complete sense of the emotions in dialogue as they were very clear without being blatant. I really liked the way he lightly brushed several characters’ voices with just hints of an accent to portray the ethnicity or cultural aspect of their personality without allowing it to stereotype the character. My struggle with the narration came in that I often felt like Zach was reflecting on a past experience rather than allowing me to become absorbed in watching his recovery as it happened. This feeling of one-remove was an intermittent problem for me but not a deal-breaker in my enjoyment of the audiobook.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John GreenThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Narrator: Kate Rudd
Published by Brilliance Audio on 1/10/12
Genres: Literary Fiction, Young Adult

Story: B+
Narration: A

Publisher’s summary:

“Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 12, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs… for now.

Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault.

Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.”

My Thoughts:

Sometimes life collapses around your ears and it can happen with cancer, it can happen like it’s described in the book, and it can – to use the analogy Hazel does – go off like a hand grenade and send shrapnel flying into the hearts of those you least want to cause pain. With that, though, there can still be beauty and humor and love and I think that’s what makes this book more than a cancer story or a tear-jerker (and boy was it ever) or a YA book. It encompasses the full measure of messiness that life can be in a story told with grace and humor and not a few tears.

Hazel’s and Augustus’ battles with cancer are obviously the focal point but we don’t just get a self-absorbed or micro-perspective. The struggle their parents go through and the guilt Hazel feels over that are also part of the story. Facing an uncertain future and rejecting love because of that, the process of falling in love anyway, how the world looks at cancer patients and sees the disease more than the person… there are a lot of strands to this story. The thread of humor that runs throughout this book balances out the tragic moments and while I wasn’t completely sold on the storyline regarding the author Peter Van Houten (although I understand how it tied up in the end) and I might have experienced a momentary sense of disbelief at the level of erudition and whip-like humor that flowed through Hazel and Gus’ dialogue, it was still very amusing to listen to and not a stumbling block to my enjoyment of this audiobook.

I wish I had more to say about the book itself in terms of storyline or writing or the character development or any number of things but this book spoke to me on an emotional level far more that an intellectual one so although the writing was smart and the dialogue clever, I flounder in describing it because it’s the wrenching emotional impact of the story that burns brightest in my mind. That’s also why I feel compelled to write a review of it, even though mine will hardly be the most eloquent recommendation – this book just moved me that much. It was a very good book about a serious subject with enough humor to balance it out and I highly recommend it.

The Narration:

I have to ask myself: why have I never listened to a Kate Rudd narration before now? Excuse me for one moment… *pulls out newly acquired fan-girl soapbox* To put it simply, her narration of this audiobook was my idea of perfection. I’m tempted to tell you that the only person I heard narrating in this book was Hazel and leave it at that but that wouldn’t do justice to the skill that let me forget about the narrator and hear only Hazel’s very authentic voice. Ms. Rudd has an extremely natural sounding delivery and when voicing Hazel and Augustus she hit the humorous lines that alternated between wacky and deadpan perfectly. Hazel runs the gamut of emotions in this book and each minute I listened I heard a pure perspective of her point of view based on the inflections, emphasis, and a myriad of subtle vocal cues that were employed. The struggle to breathe that Hazel sometimes battled with would start out gradual and become more apparent without ever overwhelming the narrative or dialogue and I found myself tensing at the quiet onset of each of those scenes. The moments of grief or anger or exhaustion were never overdone and the emotional wallop that lives in the text of this story was allowed to resonate with the listener without overwrought narration getting in the way. The character voices were nicely distinct and Gus’ voice brought him to vibrant life with his goofy humor, bravado and burning desire to be a hero and live a life that leaves a mark. The dialogue was crisp and flowed organically and, in contrast to a common grumble of mine with YA audiobooks, the inspired casting meant the teenage characters sounded young but not childish and the adult voices didn’t sound artificially aged in order to contrast. In short, the voices just sounded natural. This was an excellent narration. *puts fan-girl soapbox away.*