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.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs by Claire MessudThe Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Published by Random House Audio on 4/30/13
Genres: Literary Fiction
Format: Audiobook
four-half-stars

Story: B+
Narration: A-

Quick Review:

An entire novel spent in the head of a woman who describes herself as “the woman upstairs” (single, childless, never making a fuss and somewhat resentful that she set aside her dream of being an artist in order to please her mother) might not be everyone’s idea of a good read but the character study in play and the tension drawn between who Nora Eldridge is, who she wants to be, and how she begins to evolve was riveting. The dynamic between Nora and the Shahid family who acts as a catalyst for her to move beyond her restrictive life is compelling while also being frustrating. Strong prose and very good audiobook narration easily move the text beyond the small irritants it held for me.

Publisher’s Blurb:

From the New York Times best-selling author of The Emperor’s Children, a masterly new novel: the riveting confession of a woman awakened, transformed and betrayed by a desire for a world beyond her own.

Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, long ago compromised her dream to be a successful artist, mother and lover. She has instead become the “woman upstairs,” a reliable friend and neighbor always on the fringe of others’ achievements. Then into her life arrives the glamorous and cosmopolitan Shahids—her new student Reza Shahid, a child who enchants as if from a fairy tale, and his parents: Skandar, a dashing Lebanese professor who has come to Boston for a fellowship at Harvard, and Sirena, an effortlessly alluring Italian artist.

When Reza is attacked by schoolyard bullies, Nora is drawn deep into the complex world of the Shahid family; she finds herself falling in love with them, separately and together. Nora’s happiness explodes her boundaries, and she discovers in herself an unprecedented ferocity—one that puts her beliefs and her sense of self at stake.

Told with urgency, intimacy and piercing emotion, this brilliant novel of passion and artistic fulfillment explores the intensity, thrill—and the devastating cost—of embracing an authentic life.

Spoiler Warning:

This review contains spoilers, insofar as I tell you things that happen later in the book. I suspect that even the least observant of readers (a group I firmly place myself in) will fail to be surprised by their occurrence and I found that the narrative tension and strength of the book was never in wondering what would happen and being surprised but rather in the character study and the detailed understanding of what leads up to the inevitable. Nonetheless… Spoilers ahoy!

My Thoughts:

I’m going to start off by addressing the elephant in the room. If you’re uninterested in the minor Internet kerfluffle that ensued when Claire Messud was asked by a slate.com interviewer about, essentially, the likeability of her protagonist and she responded with a seemingly indignant spate of questions about the likeability of other literary characters (most of them by male authors and so giving the impression she felt the question was based in gender bias) then feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.

The question that was posed struck me as more of a lead-in to an interview by a genre reader. I say that out of a belief that, arguably, likeability is a factor in genre reading because (with enough exceptions that I hesitated before making this statement) the additional support of lyrical prose and/or the presentation of universal themes that can deeply engage the reader may be lacking. Having read about the Slate interview prior to picking up the book, I went into it with the expectation that I wouldn’t like Nora or would, at the very least, have to put up with an irrational and angry protagonist who would be made bearable by the writing that propped her up and perhaps some larger themes that might engage my brain. I was mistaken, and after finishing the book I better understand the author’s response to the question.

I don’t need to like the protagonist of the book I’m reading but I do need to understand her, either because the author has constructed a fully-formed “real” character with understandable motivations who acts in ways consistent with her backstory and the events she experiences in the book or because there is a characteristic or a situation specific to my experience or to the human experience that I can empathize with. Messud succeeds on both fronts.

Nora Eldridge is a self-defined “woman upstairs” – unmarried, childless, appearing still on her surface:

We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. In our lives of quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are, with or without a goddamn tabby or a pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.

Despite the fact that the book begins with “How angry am I?” and early on includes the above description of “furious,” for most of the book Nora struck me more as trapped, struggling, and awakening to new possibilities. Although I was frustrated by the fact that she engineered her own destiny but is compelled to continue to rail against it, there’s a clarity to her perception of who she is and what she wishes she was that, in contrast to how constrained she feels within her own life, creates a strong sense of tension for the listener. She can see the walls that block her, acknowledges that they are primarily of her own making, and can even see past them to what she wishes her life was but she can’t surmount the obstacle.

Nora made the decision to forego art school in order to get, at her mother’s urging, a practical degree that would allow her to support herself if her art didn’t provide for that. She was there to support her mother when she battled cancer and lost and as the book begins, she’s now the dutiful daughter who is always there for her elderly father. She set aside her dreams of being an artist and now she teaches elementary school. While she has friends with whom she interacts, at the end of the day she goes home to an empty apartment and that eats away at her. She struggles to reconcile the life she’s living with the dreams she had when she was younger and her inner self –  the person she feels like she is within her own thoughts – and the person that the world perceives her as are at odds.

And it explains much about me, too, about the limits of my experience, about the fact that the person I am in my head is so far from the person I am in the world. Nobody would know me from my own description of myself; which is why, when called upon (rarely, I grant) to provide an account, I tailor it, I adapt, I try to provide an outline that can, in some way, correlate to the outline that people understand me to have—that, I suppose, I actually have, at this point.

When Nora first meets the new child in her class, Reza Shahid, the draw she feels toward him is unsettling and initially struck me as the start of an obsession. When a playground incident occurs in which Reza is injured, it brings his mother into Nora’s life. When the two women discover they are both artists, they strike an agreement to rent a shared studio and it’s at that point that everything in Nora’s life begins to change.

Sirena is aptly named in terms of the dynamic Nora has with her. Nora is drawn to Sirena in some elemental way and she acts as as both a symbol of what Nora might have become and as someone Nora believes can see the real woman and not the outline she’s been forced into in response to life’s expectations. It’s the point at which Nora’s need to be seen can only be fulfilled by the Shahids that my unease began.

Although I in no way intend to imply the book delves into a Fatal Attraction or Single White Female dynamic, the symbiotic relationship that develops between Nora and Reza and then between Nora and Reza’s mother quickly moves toward a parasitic one and I’m put in mind of the kind of unhealthy relationship typified by movies of that nature: the kind where the start of a relationship seems normal but it descends into an unhealthy dynamic that can only end badly. Nora’s sheer obliviousness to the ways in which she might be manipulated is both pathetic and heart-breaking.

Perhaps, in the end, that reader response is validation of the characterization Messud emphasizes so fiercely (and ad nauseum) via Nora’s internal dialogue: that of “the woman upstairs,” the woman whose surface is a comfort in its passivity and seeming lack of need or anger or desire. The woman who, when it becomes clear that she’s none of those things, makes the observer uncomfortable at having their expectations and perceptions shunted aside by the reality of the complexity that each person carries within.

“I see you” and “being seen” are common refrains in the book. Nora desperately wants to believe that someone sees her for who she really is. Thematically that dovetails nicely with the idea of art and the disparate artistic visions that Nora and Sirena have. Sirena’s room-sizedWonderland art installation is about a choice in how we perceive and are perceived:

One Wonderland was about trying to see things as they are, she said, about believing that such a thing as clarity was possible; and the other was about relativism, about seeing things from different perspectives, and also about being seen, and about how being seen differently also changes you. Both possibilities were amazing and frightening at the same time; but only one of them, she said, could lead to wisdom.

Nora’s small and intricately modeled dioramas of an interior landscape where careful observation through a small portal reveals a world of detail is very much like the cage she’s built around her identity and her life, with it’s stifling exterior and rich and detailed interior. Nora constructs a story about her life with the Shahids much like she builds her dioramas and it’s after visiting a friend and entertaining her daughter that the echoes between Nora’s art, her interior self, and her need to be seen begin to sound.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that Lili’s world was not so different from my dioramas, or even from Sirena’s installations: you took a tiny portion of the earth and made it yours, but really what you wanted was for someone else—ideally, a grown-up, because a grown-up matters, has authority, but is also not the same as you—to come and see, to get it, and thereby, somehow, to get you; and all of this, surely, so that you might ultimately feel less alone on the planet.

Nora wants to be seen and needed for who she feels herself to truly be while fearing that her neediness will give those who “see” her power over her. She’s right. When the veil of her illusions begins to be drawn aside, it’s painful to observe and when she finally sees, literally, how Sirena sees her and has seen her all along, suddenly “being seen” is not such a desirable thing.

As Nora and Sirena’s friendship develops while working together in the studio, Nora inevitably becomes more involved with the whole Shahid family on a regular basis. She begins babysitting Reza. Sirena’s husband, Skandar, begins walking her home on the nights she’s at their house. As Sirena’s attention moves away from Nora and towards her upcoming exhibit, Nora finds herself increasingly drawn to Skandar. Skandar’s cosmopolitan viewpoint and the stories he shares about being a boy growing up in Lebanon force Nora to evaluate her own perspective on the world. As with Sirena, Nora develops an attachment to Skandar that’s largely based on her belief that he understands the real her.

Skandar has a year-long fellowship from a university to write a book about how history can (or can’t) be told truly because it will never encompass a 360 degree view of events. In the end, it must at least be told in an ethical manner. The description of what he does and what his book is about was one of the conversations Nora and he had during one of their walks.

“What does it mean, you see, that the first thing every American child knows about Germany is Hitler? What if the first thing you knew was something else? And maybe some people would say that now it’s important, after the Second World War, it’s ethical and vital that Hitler is the first thing a child knows. But someone else can argue the opposite. And what would it do, how would it change things, if nobody were allowed to know anything about Hitler, about the war, about any of it, until first they learned about Brahms, Beethoven and Bach, about Hegel and Lessing and Fichte, about Schopenhauer, about Rilke—but all this, you had to know first. Or one thing only, the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, or the Goldberg Variations, or Laocoön—one of those things you had to know and appreciate before you learned about the Nazis.”

“But the world doesn’t work like that.”

“No, it doesn’t.” He smiled in that vague way, as if amused by a joke only he had heard. “But what does it mean that it doesn’t? And what would it mean if it did?”

In addition to the fact that personally, I find that to be an intriguing philosophical consideration, it forced me to re-evaluate the way Messud was constructing Nora’s story as well as the way in which Nora constructed the story that she used to define her life.

The construction Nora puts on her relationship with the Shahids, in addition to being rooted in a lie, never seems anything but unhealthy and the degree to which the Shahids, Sirena in particular, become the catalyst that pushes Nora back towards the plans and dreams she had as a young woman to be an artist and not just someone who is occasionally creative (“…a spinster with a hobby”) was discomfiting. Nora seemed to almost need to intertwine the orbit of her life around the Shahids instead of using them to spin off into a completely realized future more in line with her dreams.

This unhealthy dynamic was only emphasized by the way in which Nora actively resents the moments in which she imagines the Shahids’ life is going on without a single thought being spared to her. Those moments were also a reminder of how very self-involved we all can be at times and it typifies one aspect that I disliked about the book: spending that much time with someone so self-involved and immersed in her own head can be very tiring and very frustrating to observe.

When her (literal) dream of a sexual encounter with Skandar becomes a reality, the dynamic between Nora and the Shahids changes once again. I found it fascinating that the dream of the affair with Skandar is far more potent in its detail than the reality of the act when it takes place, which is viewed through before and after perspectives rather than given the immediacy of a description of “during.” The way this both emphasizes the lack of meaning in the act and the difference between what Nora has constructed in her head regarding her relationship with the Shahids vs. what the reality of it is, is notable. The detail that is added in Nora’s later reflection of the event is, again, emphasis on how Nora’s internal life is a very different reality that her actual life – even when she thinks she’s finally aligning both with reality.

Because it’s written from the perspective of the protagonist looking back at the events that jolted her out of her role as “the woman upstairs,” the structure of the story balances the “now” of the evolving Nora, whom the reader can see heading down a path that can’t possibly work out, and the narrative voice of the Nora who is speaking from the future looking back in anger and dismay at her own naiveté. That contrast drives the story forward nicely and pulls the reader along with it. That division in narrative voice is also particularly effective at illuminating the character. When she speaks from hindsight, her “You know, of course…” asides to the reader are particularly engaging because they aren’t truly statements of what’s obvious to the reader, they’re statements of what Nora has just realized herself and is embarrassed to admit so she eases into the revelation with flattery to her listener.

I found this book very engaging; not a surprise considering my love of character-driven novels and my tendency to want to deconstruct the ways in which we think and what shapes us as people. It was also occasionally painful to listen to in the way that listening to someone describe actions that you know will lead to disaster is painful and annoying in the way that spending too much time hearing someone’s self-centered monologue is annoying. The writing is  strong in both characterization and in the lyrical nature of the word choices and sentence construction and I recommend it but acknowledge it isn’t for everyone.

The Narration:

Cassandra Campbell’s narration was excellent. I will admit that I spent the first hour wondering if she had been miscast but just as with my incorrect expectation that Nora would be little more than an angry and resentful woman with a grim outlook on life and I would have to find most of my readerly solace in the construction of the prose and thematic elements of the book, I was soon proved equally wrong in my initial impression of the narration. I suspect that my preconceptions of Nora’s character were what led me to expect a hard-voiced narrator who allowed barely suppressed rage to fill every utterance, but I also came to realize that what Ms. Campbell delivered was a far more accurate reading of the text and is the strongest selling point for choosing audio over text for this book.

The point of “the woman upstairs” is that she’s easy to be around and just as easy to overlook. As constrained by life and as frustrated as Nora is on the inside, on the surface she’s the elementary school teacher who leads a nearly invisible life. The narrator selection for this book ended up working to my advantage by reminding me of that fact. It’s with no intended disrespect that I say that Ms. Campbell has an unremarkable voice: it’s relatively soft at its base tone, it’s not noticeably high or low in pitch, it’s relatively “mid-west newscaster” in terms of enunciation and accent, it’s not husky or raspy… it could be anyone’s voice and to a degree, I think it subverts the author’s overall description of the character as “furious” but to the vast enrichment of the listener. It reminds us that beneath anyone’s surface is a complex life (and perhaps a life unlived) and when it winds up into moments of bitterness and true rage near the end of the book, it’s all the more powerful for that contrast.

I found each character to be clearly delineated and their personalities were nicely encapsulated within the voice they were given. Sirena’s Italian accent and her coaxing tone with its notes of subtle flattery was so vocally evocative that it was easy to see how Nora was enticed and how she could allow herself to be misled. Sirena, as spoken, struck me as more self-involved than intentionally deceitful or manipulative and that “read” of her worked better for me than what I might have mentally constructed from the text. Skandar’s cosmopolitan voice with its Lebanese underpinnings was almost ambiguous in its inflections and the vocal subtext during his interactions with Nora was very subtle, matching my uncertainty as to his motivations for engaging with Nora the way he did. Which is all in aid of saying these characters seemed very real and were never simply being voiced by someone.

Because there are two voices to Nora: the retrospective narrative voice that knows how the story ends and the voice of the woman who is going through the real-time transformation due to her friendship with the Shahids, there’s a delicate balance that needs to be maintained in the narration. Ms. Campbell was adept at providing the listener with a very real sense of “now” in dialogue and in the narrative sections that demand a sense of discovery while delivering a retrospective voice that hints at what’s to come without being so layered with disenchantment that the ending becomes a let-down.

I think this is one of those cases where the way in which the narration discovers and delivers the author’s intent makes the audiobook version a better way to go than the text alone.

four-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

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini TaylorDays of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor
Narrator: Khristine Hvam
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone #2
Published by Hachette Audio on 11/6/12
Genres: Fantasy, Romance
five-stars

Warning – there may be spoilers in this review for both Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight. Nothing that should ruin your reading but definitions of “spoiler” vary. If you haven’t read the first book yet, I strongly urge you to stop and go listen to it now (and I envy you your first encounter with it.) In fact, if you haven’t listened to Daughter of Smoke and Bone yet and would like to, I will gift a copy to the first two or three Audible.com members (or anyone who can set up an Audible.com account) who use my “Contact Us” form to tell me they’d like one; I’m in the mood to share my audio love for this series.

Story: A
Narration: A

Quick Review:

Damn that was a good audiobook.

The Plot:

Karou has learned the secret of her origins but the gift of that knowledge has left her with nothing but the bitter taste of ashes. The world she knew is now forever out of her reach and she is once again set adrift from the familiar. Beset by guilt and driven by her anger at Akiva, she joins the rebel army and picks up where Brimstone left off. Being a human among the chimaera would be hard enough but the disdain her affair with a seraphim engenders has isolated her even more and she is forced to struggle with her doubts, blame, and the very real moral quandary of her actions.

The seraphim have declared victory over the chimaera and it would seem that all that’s left to do is to mop up the survivors – meaning slaughter the few remaining chimaera solders who are willing to fight and to enslave the civilian populace. Akiva struggles to balance his orders against the moral imperatives that are now driving him while coping with his guilt over the role he played in the war.

My Thoughts:

There are some big themes in this book: love and forgiveness, conflict and what begets a continuation of war vs. what can end it, self-doubt and the blame we take on ourselves when our actions have unexpected consequences, the nature of friendship, and several more. While that makes it sound like an “issues book” it really isn’t. It’s the story of these characters and their world and the very real and understandable inner turmoil they face, bracketed by the physical dangers that swirl around them as the waning war between their races takes on a new urgency.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone was my favorite audiobook of 2011. The lyrical writing, the layered plotting, the blend of humor with the more serious stuff, the complex but relatable characters – all of it was seamlessly combined and the same is true of Days of Blood and Starlight. One of my favorite aspects of DoSaB was the shift mid-way through where the world of the chimaera and seraphim came into focus and the history of their conflict was revealed layer by layer. The sequel takes that aspect and distills it to a very potent emotional brew.

There were long stretches of this audiobook that I can only describe as bleak. I held out little hope for even the continuing survival of our protagonists, let alone that their dream of peace could ever come to pass. My initial reaction when I finished the audiobook was that I didn’t like it as much as Daughter of Smoke and Bone. After some time thinking about it I realized that wasn’t the case at all. The truth is, I found this a harder book to listen to because so much of what it evoked was (theoretically) on the negative scale: tension, long stretches of hopelessness, that peculiar literary fear at the decisions made by the characters that weren’t going to result in sunshine and rainbows, serious thoughts about what drives conflict between cultures and nations, and an intricate teasing out of whether I felt Karou and Akiva were right to blame themselves and whether their actions were justified or not – to name just a few. None of that would have affected me the way it did, however, if the writing wasn’t so evocative, the larger issues it made me consider weren’t framed within the context of a very good story that lent them a certain subtlety, and the characters weren’t written in such a way that they almost to take on a life outside the pages of the book and I’ve come to care about them.

Tightly woven into the story of the aftermath of war between these two races, however, are faint threads of hope. There are small acts of mercy and compassion, on and off the battlefield; characters who realize that destruction will never be a sustainable way to ensure the continued survival and well-being of their people and who evince a willingness to find another way; hints that forgiveness, although incredibly difficult to find within oneself, can and should be given and received; and always present was the strong bond of friendship between Karou and Zuzana. Thank goodness for Zuzana and Mick – the comic-relief sidekicks who, despite my use of that cliched characterization term, were an integral part of the story whose presence was both necessary to the plot and to my continued emotional survival as I listened.

As much I enjoy complicated, messy, wrenching, ambiguous novels, I have to admit that it’s easier to immediately proclaim “I loved this book!” when I’m still riding a wave of happily-ever-after endorphins rather than trying to pick up the pieces of my expectations and shattered hopes. I find that it’s easier for an author to make me happy than it is to create a narrative that can reach out and grab my emotions and wrench them about while keeping me totally invested in the story and characters although there’s no doubt that as a reader, the rewards for books that can do the latter are greater for me. Days of Blood and Starlight is just as good a book as Daughter of Smoke and Bone and it added a complexity to the overall plot that I don’t often find in second-in-a-series books. This was an incredibly good audiobook and I highly recommend it.

The Narration:

Khristine Hvam pretty much nails the narration of this audiobook. I’ve enjoyed her work in the past although I sometimes felt there was an element of the theatrical to it that didn’t quite suit my preference for subtle storytelling. With this one, I can’t imagine listening to the text in the hands of any other narrator. While it may just be that I’m familiar with her take on the characters now, it almost seemed that her delivery had softened a bit and took on an even more natural tone.

The aspects of character delivery that keep the listener in the moment and on the edge of their seat: Point of View, Discovery, the Here and Now, very real vocal responsiveness in Dialogue, and Accents were all flawless. If it seems I’m just running through a list of narration “performance markers” and checking them off, well, in a way I am because at no point in the story did it occur to me “oh, that’s very natural sounding dialogue.” I was never less than immersed in the characters and rarely spared a thought for the narrator. The accents were a particular high-point as was the pitch-perfect delivery of humor with the character of Zuzana a perfect exemplar of this. An excellent narration and I strongly recommend choosing the audio version.

five-stars

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden Series: The Space Regency Sequence

Local Custom, Scout's Progress, Mouse and Dragon by Sharon Lee, Steve Miller
Narrator: Bernadette Dunne
Published by Audible Frontiers Genres: Romance, Science Fiction

Welcome to the second post about the Liaden Universe audiobooks as produced by Audible Frontiers (the publisher being particularly relevant because I also have a copy of the Buzzy Multimedia version of Local Custom). This one covers the Space Regency sequence. I don’t know who devised that name but it’s perfect for the set of books that includes Local Custom, Scout’s Progress, and Mouse and Dragon. Fair warning for anyone keeping track: if you thought I had a crush on Conflict of Honors from the Agent of Change sequence, it can’t hold a candle to how I feel about Scout’s Progress. Don’t worry, though, that’ll be my last squeal-y fan-girl moment.

The Story Line(s):

Warning: it’s distinctly possible there will be spoilers in the following plot summaries and review. I do my best to avoid disclosing anything that would ruin your enjoyment of the books if you know it ahead of time but of course, my judgment on that might not match how you experience books.

Unabridged Length: 11 hrs 31 mins

Local Custom

Liaden and Master Trader Er Thom yos’Galen knows he must marry. His family (Clan Korval) has become a bit thin on the ground and if they are ever to increase their numbers to a sustainable level, ever clan member must do his or her part to provide an heir. The problem is that he just can’t stop thinking about Terran scholar of comparative linguistics Anne Davis with whom he had a brief affair. When he makes a trip off-world to see Anne one more time in the hopes he can finally put her from his mind, he discovers the bond between them isn’t going to be easily put aside.

Anne is delighted to see Er Thom but there’s just one problem: when he left, she did some things in accordance with her customs that are in direct opposition to how things are done on Liad. Above all things, Liaden honor and custom must be satisfied so after being offered an opportunity to complete the life’s-work of a Liaden scholar she had been corresponding with, Anne accompanies Er Thom to Liad for a meeting with his delm. On a world with little respect for Terrans, Anne and Er Thom must battle both family and custom to win through to love and even life.

Scout’s Progress

Unabridged Length: 11 hrs 13 mins

Clan Mizel’s middle daughter, Aellianna Caylon, is a brilliant scholar of mathematics. As the reviser of a set of math tables used in building piloting equations, she’s honored and admired by the Liaden Scouts (think Exploratory Corps) that she teaches. At home, however, she is far from honored by her clan. Her older brother delights in tormenting her and she’s survived by keeping her head down and keeping quiet. When an unexpected turn of luck makes her the owner of a spaceship, the clock begins ticking on her race to win her freedom.

Daav yos’Phelium is contracted to wed but that decision rests uneasily with him. Seeking distraction by performing casual labor at the Binjali repair yard, he encounters Aelliana Caylon. Acting as a piloting instructor for the skittish math instructor is second-nature for the ex-Scout and head of Clan Korval – after all, the clan values pilots and ships above all else – but with every lift where he stands as co-pilot to her, the bond between them grows. When Aelliana’s brother learns she owns a spaceship, he plans to take it from her…at any cost. Will Daav lose her when she takes to space and a new life or can they fashion a solving between them?

Unabridged Length: 12 hrs 27 mins

Mouse and Dragon

I’m going to have to grab the blurb on this one from Goodreads. If you plan on reading Scout’s Progress, may I suggest skipping any and all plot summaries of Mouse and DragonView Spoiler »

My Thoughts:

I listened to a set of interviews of the narrators chosen for the Liaden Universe audiobooks and in the post’s introduction to the interview with Bernadette Dunne, the author wrote “…that Local Custom and Scout’s Progress were written as tributes to Heyer…” For a long time I’ve described these books as “if Jane Austen wrote sci-fi” but I’m going to have to amend that to “if Georgette Heyer wrote sci-fi” because I think that’s a better stylistic match. I don’t think I can quite call it a comedy of manners but with this series I particularly enjoy the subtle formality of the phrasing used to represent the use of the various modes of high and low Liaden tongue. It’s deeply amusing when it is employed (as it often is) in pursuit of dry humor. In fact, I find the writing style/phrasing in these books so immersive that for days after finishing one of the books, my own communication style – from e-mails to conversation – takes on a more formal tone and subtle humor.

The structure of Liaden society, while not quite defined as class-based, has a primarily closed social group comprised of the clans. The clans are further broken out into high, middle, and low houses who engage in activities reminiscent of what you might find in an historical romance: social occasions I’d liken to a ball, from which one might find themselves stricken from the invitation list; social slights and snubs; devastating verbal put-downs – usually in the aristocratic (my term) High Tongue – for social gaffes; arranging contract marriages in an attempt to increase the financial standing of a poorer clan; and more. Although I enjoy the romantic elements in this sequence, there’s certainly more to it than that.

Even the name given to the overall Liaden Universe series implies some in-depth world-building but although the world is fully defined and complex, its place in the story is how it defines and informs the characters rather than existing as a construct that distracts the reader with all its flashiness and unique devising. That’s part of why the fact that these stories are science fiction shouldn’t dissuade a reader leery of that genre from picking them up – especially the first two books. By the same token, if you enjoy spec-fic and are taken aback by the “Regency” part of the sequence name, don’t let it scare you away. Simply put, these books tell stories – those of Er Thom and Anne and of Daav and Aelliana – and if the slice of time we get to see in the lives of, say, Daav and Aelliana happens to contain a smoothly woven blend of math, space ships, games of custom and manners, daring flights of rescue to off-world ports, family conflict, social strictures, life-threatening events and love… well, real life can be just as full and complex can’t it? That’s why I enjoy these books so much: they contain multi-dimensional characters who could be real…somewhere.

Coming as it did after my original reading of the Agent of Change sequence, Local Custom was a welcome glimpse into half of the family from which Val Con and Shan originated. Er Thom and Anne Davis, however, quickly took their own place in my affections. Watching these two navigate their relationship through the filter of their own “local custom” (and the misunderstandings caused by that) was enjoyable. Although clan members of either gender have contract marriages arranged for them, the fact that it’s the man who struggles with plans for an arranged marriage is a nice bit of turn-about to what I’m accustomed to in historical romance. The way in which family – both as supportive of the protagonists and as a point of conflict and opposition – is tied into the weave of this story is particularly appealing to me.

In the Agent of Change review post, I mentioned Miller/Lee as my “desert island” authors. Should the need for my services pounding coconut husks into paper pulp never materialize, the next best scenario is to be stranded with is my copy of Scout’s Progress. Just to be clear… Favorite. Book. Ever.

As much as I’d like to say “talk trash about this book and I’m up for a throw-down with you,” I can see why it wouldn’t appeal to readers with certain character preferences. With the current trend in spec-fic being for kick-ass heroines, Aelliana Caylon might be a challenging figure if that’s your bent. Self-described as “craven,” she begins the story as a sympathetic but far from strong character. What this story does have that offsets that is the best character development arc I’ve encountered. Returning to my comment on how fully developed the author’s characters are, Aelliana is a completely human mix of characteristics. Her social and physical tentativeness is in contrast with her unquestioning belief in her intelligence and skill with math. While she may start at a low point in self-confidence and strength of will, the ways in which she gradually changes in response to events in the story is realistic (no sudden plot gift that allows her to do a 180° character flip – she has to work for everything) and by the end of the tale, it’s clear that the heroine can (and even must) rescue herself.

As for my thoughts on Mouse and Dragon … this book is excellent but it both makes me the romantic in me happy and breaks my heart. I wouldn’t want to change anything about it but…. I’ll let you discover this one for yourself.

The Narration:

(Not so much the narration itself as a comment on what I learned from the audio version: apparently I’ve been (mentally) pronouncing half the proper nouns in the Liaden Universe accented entirely different than the authors’ presumed intent.)

I’ve listened to several audiobooks narrated by Bernadette Dunne and she is, without a doubt, an extremely talented narrator. Even when I wasn’t immediately sold on her casting as the narrator of a particular book (because the tenor of her voice doesn’t immediately make me think “young protagonist” or some such thought) I wouldn’t get very far into the story before becoming immersed in it and forgetting about my unnecessary casting concerns.

As a text reader, I almost never build such a strong image of a character that switching to an audiobook version throws me because the narrator’s interpretation doesn’t match the one my internal reader has developed. A few of the books in this series turned out to be the reason that last sentence included “almost” before “never” because I have such a familiarity with many of the Liaden Universe books (I may have actually spoken several lines in sync with the narrator) that it seems I did develop a pretty rigid preconception on one point: I mentally hear the cadence of the more formal Liaden-style phrasing (especially that containing humorous undertones) differently than the narrators of this series (up until Kevin T. Collins’ delivery in the Books of Before sequence; apparently he hears it the same way I do.) I find that to be my one hang-up with the narration of this sequence but that turned out to be a small issue because whatever my initial expectations, it’s the consummate skill of a narrator like Bernadette Dunne that reminds me that an actor who can convey the story in such a way that

  • The events in the book have an immediacy because the narrator speaks her lines as if she was each individual character and those characters are discovering the events of their lives at the very moment they occur
  • The intonations and inflections used are the natural product of a varied cast of characters who experience a wide range of feelings and are not used to artificially modulate words in an attempt to convey an emotion the narrator isn’t feeling
  • The basics of voice delivery – clearly differentiated characters, easily determining male from female voices regardless of contextual clues, age-appropriate voices – are all present
  • The narrative sections are given just enough emotion that they enhance the dialogue and never come across as a character in their own right
  • Scenes with dialogue have a natural flow because each line is responsive to the previous one

will almost always blow my pre-conceived notions out of the water and let me sink into the story.

In addition to the above narration aspects, one particular area where Ms. Dunne handily exceeded my inner reader was in her ability to work with the punctuation. Scout’s Progress makes liberal use of dashes to indicate Aelliana’s hesitance in expressing herself and my internal reader invariably stumbles over that profusion. Not so, the narrator of the audiobooks.

In the final analysis, if you’re coming to this audiobook with no preconceptions, you should be nothing but pleased. If you have a delivery expectation built on how your internal reader performs, you may be initially uncertain but should soon be sucked under with an immersive performance. In fact, I kicked off a second listen to Scout’s Progress and heard a nuance in delivery that I missed the first time because my internal reader had finally shed her rigid expectations.

Rating:

This sequence earns an unreserved (and uncommon) A grade from me for the books while the narration is a B+.