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

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

Never Seduce a Scot by Maya Banks

Never Seduce a Scot by Maya BanksNever Seduce a Scot by Maya Banks
Narrator: Kirsten Potter
Series: The Montgomerys and Armstrongs #1
Published by Tantor Media on 9/25/12
Genres: Historical, Romance
Format: Audiobook
four-stars

 

Story: B+
Narration: A-

Once Upon a Time…:

There was a little girl who liked to be told stories that transported her to another world… and every now and again I find an audiobook that reminds of that joy I felt as a child at being read to. The fact that this audiobook was nominated for an Audie award in the romance category as well as its place as the first in a new series whose second book (soon to be released) piqued my interest prompted me to pick it up. I’m glad I did because I enjoyed this audiobook tremendously. Through much of the book, I felt a lot like a kid who was sitting down for story-time at the library (erm, not during the sexy bits though) – including moments when I talked back to the “reader” of the book as I got caught up in the story and couldn’t help myself.

In a Land Far Over the Mountains and Across the Ocean:

“Eveline Armstrong is fiercely loved and protected by her powerful clan, but outsiders consider her “touched.” Beautiful, fey, with a level, intent gaze, she doesn’t speak. No one, not even her family, knows that she cannot hear. Content with her life of seclusion, Eveline has taught herself to read lips and allows the outside world to view her as daft. But when an arranged marriage into a rival clan makes Graeme Montgomery her husband, Eveline accepts her duty -unprepared for the delights to come. Graeme is a rugged warrior with a voice so deep and powerful that his new bride can hear it, and hands and kisses so tender and skilled that he stirs her deepest passions. Graeme is intrigued by the mysterious Eveline, whose silent lips are ripe with temptation and whose bright, intelligent eyes can see into his soul. As intimacy deepens, he learns her secret. But when clan rivalries and dark deeds threaten the wife he has only begun to cherish, the Scottish warrior will move heaven and earth to save the woman who has awakened his heart to the beautiful song of a rare and magical love.” – blurb via Goodreads

There Lived a Princess:

There’s a lot in this story that’s reminiscent of Disney-version fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White. The persecuted heroine (take your pick from: Eveline fears marriage to a brute of a suitor who terrorized her; within her own clan she’s scorned by some for her seeming lack of faculties; after marriage to the chief of her clan’s mortal enemies she’s reviled for being an Armstrong as well as simple, etc.) eventually finds her prince in a castle (OK, a Scottish keep if you want to be picky), faces the hatred and mistrust of the keep’s women (evil step-sisters, anyone?), is set to work at menial tasks (including floor scrubbing), is kidnapped and rescued by her “prince”, and lives happily ever after.

Who Found Her Prince:

Although Graeme Montgomery is laird of his clan and a fierce warrior, he’s nothing but gentle and understanding when it comes to Eveline: traits I find uncommon in a romance hero outside of a beta hero construct, which Graeme definitely isn’t. The conflict in the story is primarily external to the relationship between the two. Graeme and Eveline both want to find a way to make their pairing work – initially because neither blames the other for their forced marriage or the history of war between their clans and eventually because they fall in love. It’s clan vs. clan conflict, Eveline struggling for acceptance by the Montgomery women, and the late-in-the-game appearance of an evil-doer that drives the story.

Until a Curse Came Between Them:

Eveline made a pretty stupid decision several years previously (for mostly understandable reasons) and is trying to find a way out of the consequences of that choice. That’s part of why she seems so young to me. Add to that the resistance and mocking she receives from the women of the keep and there’s a certain feel of grade school bullying that adds to my impression of her as very young and naive. It also sets her up as a very sympathetic protagonist. Since the story starts with her being pushed out of the protective arms of her family by marriage to Graeme, we meet her at the point at which she’s starting to grow up and trying to make the best of what she’s been handed. She has the requisite “plucky” moments but overall, her arc of character development was very enjoyable.

And Evil Swept Her Out of the Arms of the Prince, who Strove Mightily to Rescue her:

The tension ratchets up at the end of the story as Eveline finally has to contend with her long-ago suitor who is intent on preventing the Armstrongs and Montgomerys from uniting through the marriage and although the ending is never in doubt, several plot threads are tied up nicely and there’s a very smooth setup for the next book in the series.

And They All Lived Happily Ever After:

Really, I just found this to be a sweet story with very likable protagonists who are pitted against outside conflict but who triumph over adversity and find their HEA. Close family interaction – one of my favorite ingredients in romances – combined with a youthful heroine who teased a ghost of protectiveness from me and a caring hero who doesn’t act like an asshat left me with a happy smile on my face when I finished this one… within 12 hours after starting it.

The Narration (aka “I’m Sure I Could Stretch the Fairytale Structure of the Review Sections to Include a Bard but…”):

Also in aid of leaving me with the impression of sitting down to be enthralled with a tale is Kirsten Potter’s delivery. Within a very clear and measured narrative is also an impeccable sense of timing that paces the story perfectly to maximize listener engagement during action-heavy sections and allow more quiet and contemplative reflection with scenes of softer emotion. The one delivery point with which I take issue is during sex scenes. That niggle about the narration kicked off a broader set of thoughts for me so although my discussion of what bothered me takes up a lot of page space, please be aware that it was a very minor thing. The narration was excellent overall and I absolutely recommend the audiobook version.

Romance is most often written in such a way as to make sex scenes (pardon the expression) the climax of the book or at least make it the linchpin of a character arc that’s been building for a while. Because structurally the story is peaking at that point in terms of pacing and emotional build-up, the addition of strong vocal dramatics such as overt breathiness or really ramping up the intensity of the delivery usually pushes it too far over the top for me. In general, subtle will always work better at those moments and Ms. Potter is close the least subtle narrator during sex scenes that I’ve heard. (You can and should take that with a grain of salt, however, since I skip the more theatrical narrators entirely.) Of course, attempts at straight analysis aside, it may also be that I’m a typically prudish American who feels uncomfortable if you’re talking too loudly about sex. ;-)

In a generic reflection on narrators/narration and romance audiobooks, I sometimes wonder how much narrators with formal training as stage actors have to work to pull back their performance in recognition of the fact that the audience is no longer twenty plus feet away from their voice but rather, in the case of earphones, mere millimeters. It also occurs to me that a narrator of a romance title who prefers to work with a different genre may (incorrectly, I would argue) perceive sex scenes as the point of the story and so maximize their emphasis there unnecessarily.

But enough of that. Back to the actual narration! I wouldn’t know an authentic Scottish accent if it walked up behind me and whispered sweet nothings in my ear (although I wouldn’t mind an opportunity to test that theory) but the accent Ms. Potter employed worked well with the caveat that I think the physical construction of how she achieved the accent made every character occasionally sound as if they should be carrying a handkerchief to mop up some spit spray when they spoke with emphasis.

In any story with multiple brothers (in this case, two different sets), voice differentiation can be problematic but that wasn’t the case here. Each brother (three in the Montgomerys and two in the Armstrongs) was distinct in voice and I had no problem determining who was speaking. Also of note since brothers in romance novels seem to invariably get their own story, all the voices were appealing. I could finish up here with additional comments on the technical aspects of the narration that made it a very successful listen for me but they all boil down to the same result: these characters felt real to me, the events were given immediacy, and I was immersed in the story to the point that I forgot it was being narrated.

four-stars

A Cold and Lonely Place by Sara J. Henry

A Cold and Lonely Place by Sara J. HenryA Cold and Lonely Place by Sara J. Henry
Narrator: Abby Craden
Series: Troy Chance #2
Published by Dreamscape Media on 2/5/13
Genres: Mystery
Format: Audiobook
three-half-stars

Story: B
Narration: B

Quick Review:

An enjoyable listen, this one is a slow scraping away of layer after layer of one man’s life in search of the reason he died. The location is well-drawn and atmospheric, the characters are interesting and multi-dimensional, and the narration – which I found enjoyable – has aspects that lead me to suggest you seek out samples to see how suitable it is for your listening tastes.

The Plot (via Goodreads):

“Freelance writer Troy Chance is snapping photos of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival ice palace when the ice-cutting machine falls silent. Encased in the ice is the shadowy outline of a body–a man she knows. One of her roommates falls under suspicion, and the media descends. Troy’s assigned to write an in-depth feature on the dead man, who, it turns out, was the privileged son of a wealthy Connecticut family who had been playing at a blue collar life in this Adirondack village. And the deeper Troy digs into his life and mysterious death, the murkier things become. After the victim’s sister comes to town and a string of disturbing incidents unfold, it’s clear someone doesn’t want the investigation to continue. Troy doesn’t know who to trust, and what she ultimately finds out threatens to shatter the serenity of these mountain towns. She must decide which family secrets should be exposed, what truths should remain hidden, and how far her own loyalty can reach.

A Cold and Lonely Place, the sequel to Learning to Swim, follows Troy on a powerful emotional journey as she discovers the damage left by long-hidden secrets, and catches a glimpse of what might have been.”

My Thoughts:

I really enjoyed Sara J. Henry’s 2011 release Learning to Swim and had a pretty high level of anticipation for the second book starring Troy Chance. If you’re thinking of jumping in with the second book though, it works very well as a stand-alone read. The sense of place in both books is exceptionally well-drawn and the character of Troy is easy to connect to while still retaining the personality flaws that make her realistic. With A Cold and Lonely Place, the speed of the action slows down a bit but the story has more interpersonal depth and that suited me nicely.

This isn’t a mystery where there are clues dropped and the reader should feel triumphant for arriving at the solution before the end of the book. Rather, it’s a slow reveal – layer by layer – of the life of the dead man and the lives that intertwined with his. Although the majority of the book is focused on Troy’s efforts to understand who Tobin Winslow was and what events in his life led him cross-country to his death in the town of Saranac Lake, there’s also a nice narrative tension drawn between Troy’s first person musings on her resistance to personal connections and her actions – often protective and always empathetic – when it comes to those she’s close to. The plot was effective at providing the framework for that part of the story to run like a low-voltage current throughout.

I found this story to be character-driven but that shouldn’t be taken to imply the pacing was slow (granted, I do have a distinct preference for character-driven novels, even when the pacing is slow.) The book unfolded smoothly with constant forward motion but any chills passed on to the reader were more due to the author’s skill in constructing the quiet winter setting than the presence of dramatic action sequences.

The basic premise for Troy investigating Tobin’s death is that a) he was the boyfriend of one of her roommates and b) the newspaper she often writes for allowed a shoddy and biased article to be published and is trying to make amends by asking Troy to write an in-depth exploration of the dead man and his life. This initially struck me as slightly contrived but as the story progresses and Troy comes into contact with Tobin’s sister, Jessica “Win” Winslow, the way in which the details of the story spin out made me forget about that. The arc of Jessamyn’s (Tobin’s girlfriend and Troy’s boarder) story – although it wrapped up a bit more neatly than I would have liked – was well integrated with ongoing events and I was struck by the fact that in both Learning to Swim and A Cold and Lonely Place, Troy’s initial involvement in the mystery is sparked by her (almost maternal?) protective instincts.

I enjoyed how Troy’s preconceptions about who Tobin was and, to a certain extent who Jessamyn is, slowly shifted with every new interview she did and each new bit of information she gleaned. She herself reflects on the assumptions she initially made and how she was proved wrong. Tobin’s history turns out to be far more complex than expected and it’s the mystery in his past that holds the key to the momentum of the story more than the current one.

This was an audiobook that took a solid story-line about a suspicious death and spun it out into a broader examination of not so much whodunit as how did events reach that point. The small town feel of Saranac Lake and a sympathetic protagonist who feels more disconnected in her relationships than she actually is grounds the reader in the story and the supporting characters are interesting in and of themselves. Overall, this was an enjoyable listen.

The Narration:

The second book in this series comes with a change of narrator and for the most part, that worked well for me. With the first book, I wasn’t sure Suzanne Toren brought an age-appropriate voice to the character of Troy. With this one we have a younger sounding narrator but again there’s a slightly rougher quality to the voice (Was that intentional, Dreamscape? To ease the transition to a different narrator?)

I’m of two minds on Abby Craden’s narration and it took me a while to pin down exactly why. Just in terms of the quality of her voice, I found her performance appealing. She has throaty voice with a scratch in the lower register that I find very pleasing and her narrative delivery was relatively soft and intimate. That worked extremely well for nailing the performance marker of The here and now and as the story unraveled I felt like I was right there seeing events through Troy’s eyes with a sense of immediacy.

In terms of delivery choices and how I perceived them – it took me half the audiobook to be able to relax into the narration and immerse myself in the story because Ms. Craden has a very specific rhythm to her narrative voice that I had to accustom myself to. She regularly ended a sentence (or, just as often, made a comma or em dash sound like the end of a sentence) by raising the penultimate syllable and dropping the last one. The pause and sense of closure this generated wasn’t egregious but it was noticeable. It didn’t come across as used in aid of navigating the subtext of a phrase/sentence and as the narration went on it created a disruption within individual sentences as well as generating a rhythmic nature to the narrative that didn’t sound natural to my ear. That persistent two syllable pitch rise/fall was the only barrier I had to total immersion in the story.

The range of character voices were unique although anytime a character was angry they expressed it with the exact same clipped “spitting nails” delivery. Each bit of dialogue sounded as if it was from the specific point of view of the character speaking and the back and forth within conversations was reactive and realistic. A lot of the chapters (and a few of the larger scenes within a chapter) ended with a wrap-up statement (and I don’t even know if there’s a term for that but I’m going to label it “wrap-up”) similar to those foreshadowing lines some authors use at the end of a section such as “I left the gun in my purse. That turned out to be a mistake.” (except Ms. Henry eschews the use of heavy-handed foreshadowing lines) and I found the narrator’s delivery of those lines oddly effective at giving me a gut-punch sensation and setting my sense of anticipation for the next chapter.

My split opinion of the narration is basically this: I liked the narration and particularly like the timbre of Ms. Craden’s voice. I’ll pick up another audiobook narrated by her without hesitation although I won’t expect to be able to immediately lose myself in the story. I do suggest you look for an audio sample first, to see if her performance melds with your personal tastes.

three-half-stars

Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus

Snow White Must Die by Nele NeuhausSnow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus
Narrator: Robert Fass
Series: Bodenstein & Kirchoff #4
Published by AudioGO Ltd. on 1/15/13
Genres: Mystery
Source: Audiobook Jukebox
two-half-stars

Story: C
Narration: B+

The Plot:

Tobias Sartorius was sent to prison for the murder of two girls the summer after he graduated from high school. The case against him was circumstantial since the bodies were never found. After ten years he’s been released and returns to his hometown to find his childhood home in disarray, his father’s restaurant shut down, his parents divorced, and he and his family facing boundless hostility from the townsfolk in Altenhain. When his mother is assaulted and a body is found soon after his return and then another girl goes missing, the horrible events from his past are stirred up into a toxic brew.

Called in to investigate the assault and the newly discovered remains, Detective Superintendent Oliver von Bodenstein and Detective Inspector Pia Kirchoff find themselves investigating both the past murder and the current disappearance. At the same time, they have to contend with inter-office strife in the Division of Violent Crimes at the Regional Criminal Unit in Hofheim as well as struggling with various issues in their personal lives.

My Thoughts:

This is a complex mystery story that relies on a multitude of characters as it winds a twisty path to a final whodunit revelation. I couldn’t shake the sense that I’d picked up a cozy mystery that had been thrown into a blender with a true-crime novel and mixed on high. I’d call it an anti-cozy except the in-depth involvement and accompanying portraits drawn of a large cast of villagers was oddly reminiscent of one, as was the “whodunit” nature of the story and the lack of gratuitous descriptions of violence. The amount of venality, anger, unlikable characters, and dysfunctional personal lives in the story pretty much took the “cozy” aspects to the mat for a body slam, however.

I was slow to warm to this book. I suspect there’s one big reason for that: the majority of my reading selections – especially in detective/mystery fiction – have trained me to focus on one or two primary protagonists and I had a hard time adjusting to the sheer number of detailed perspectives and lives in play. This novel has a large cast of characters and while there is something of a focus on Tobias and the police duo who are investigating the current-day crimes, the story branches out in what seemed like far too many tangential directions.

The police procedural aspects of the story made me expect a certain amount of straightforward presentation of detail but the majority of descriptions tended towards factual rather than atmospheric. This created a mental image of this story, the characters, and the environment that was very black and white rather than full-color and multi-dimensional and so my ability to firmly construct vibrant character sketches and connect to them was limited.

Without knowing what the directive was to the translator (i.e. how much leeway he had to make phrases seem more natural to an English-speaking audience) it almost feels unfair to nit-pick but while the meaning of almost everything was clear, I had a few places where I had to make assumptions. Phrasing like a reference to a necklace found in the “milk room under the sink” and “But until today he’d had those black holes in his memory…” – implying his memory returned today when the context of the story actually indicates it should be “To this day he had those black holes in his memory” (indicating the persistence of his lack of memory) – made me pause. I also found it interesting that it wasn’t until I translated a phrase back into the German words I’m accustomed to seeing it in (Kinder, Küche, Kirche) that I understood the cultural implication/context of its use.

The mystery was engaging and I did enjoy the layer-by-layer reveal of motives and connections among the populace of Altenhain once I was grounded in the story and the cast. There are hints dropped throughout the book so it would benefit the listener to pay close attention. This is the fourth book in this series that follows Bodenstein and Kirchoff and although it worked as a stand-alone I got the sense that the events in the Regional Criminal Unit and in the personal lives of the detectives would have been easier to mentally organize (and would have generated more sympathy for the characters) had I started with the first book.

I found the ending frustrating and that had a noticeable impact on how I graded this one. After the basic outline of who/how had been worked out, there was an hour left in which some very unlikely plot twists took place. By that point there was no room in my brain for a couple of not-introduced-until-now names/people and I was just waiting for the end to make sure everything wrapped up. If you are a frequent consumer of mysteries and police procedurals though, I think there’s a lot in this one that will appeal to you.

The Narration:

The narration worked well and I would imagine that Robert Fass’ delivery will satisfy any listener. Characters were clearly differentiated although I would have found additional delineation/characterization through varied cadences and more character-specific emotional delivery to be beneficial. The narrative and character dialogue was, as I would expect in a translated work, delivered primarily in American accent. Proper nouns, however, were given their full German-accented pronunciation which I appreciated tremendously. Male/female vocal range separation was done well, the narrative voice was distinct, pacing was excellent, the delivery was smooth, and production was top-notch.

 

Thank you to AudioGO for providing me a copy of this audiobook for review purposes via the Solid Gold Reviewer program at www.audiobookjukebox.com
 
two-half-stars