Hunter: A Thriller by Robert Bidinotto

Hunter: A Thriller by Robert BidinottoHunter: A Thriller by Robert Bidinotto
Narrator: Conor Hall
Published by Robert J. Bidinotto on 9/13/12
Genres: Suspense
two-half-stars

Story: C+
Narration: B+

The Plot:

A series of vigilante killings have grabbed headlines in the Virginia/D.C. area. Of even more interest is the fact that with each murder, a recently published newspaper article that exposes how the victims of the murdered criminals were failed by the justice system is left on the body. Dylan Hunter, the journalist responsible for the articles, is a man on a crusade to expose the failings of a system that releases criminals to re-offend. When he attends a victim support group, he meets Annie Woods and the two begin a romantic affair.

Annie is a security officer with the CIA. After the Agency traitor she uncovered is assassinated right in front of her, she vows to find the ‘mole’ responsible for giving away the location of the safe-house he was stashed in. As her life begins to intertwine with Dylan’s, the threads of their separate causes start to overlap.

My Thoughts:

Hunter is a vigilante thriller with good pacing, an interesting and hyper-capable protagonist, and a dose of romantic elements thrown in. Overall, this was a decent listen although there were some areas that I struggled with.

The biggest stumbling block to my full enjoyment of this audiobook was the impact of a tendency to tell rather than show. In terms of the justification for vigilante action, there were multiple scenes that provided an information dump with an accompanying dose of moral outrage that explained why the criminals targeted by the vigilante killer were worth inclusion on his list of targets. When justification is presented in that fashion rather than by allowing me to simply “see” the precipitating events as part of the plot I often feel like I’m being hit with a big moral stick rather than reaching my own conclusions. That lack of subtlety and the simplification of good vs. evil affected my reading enjoyment. Symptomatic of this push to give the reader a conclusion rather than leading them is the way even the musings of the protagonist move from singular to a plural that seems intended to include the reader:

He had enrolled in that world of untruth as an eager volunteer. It had been for a vital cause: to protect his country and its people. Because our enemies use clandestine and covert methods against us, we would be insane to handicap ourselves and risk our very survival by foreswearing such measures in self-defense.
 
There’s a difference between deception and treachery. Sometimes, we must use deception to protect the innocent from evil.

 

My second area of discontent was a particular sex scene that seemed out of context and where I feel the following bit of dialogue didn’t meet what I assume to be its intended goal:

He grabbed the back of her hair. Pressed his lips into light contact with hers. His eyes, so close, bore into hers.
 
“You listen to me, Annie Woods. The one word that’s forbidden when we’re in bed is ‘no.’”

 

Dylan’s alpha/uber-male status had been established by that point and if the sudden inclusion of a scene dealing with sexual consent was intended to entice or titillate readers whose reading includes erotica that deals with power dynamics, it would have been more effective to build to it rather than dropping into the middle of an otherwise rather pleasant love affair.

From a plot standpoint, I wasn’t sure how the opening few scenes, which immediately grabbed my attention, would tie into the story (other than introducing Annie) but they eventually folded in nicely. As the story moved to Dylan’s perspective, I was intrigued by the turn the story was taking and the slow reveal of how it all was going to tie together. I enjoyed the mystery surrounding Dylan’s past and the explosive reveal of it.

While the vigilante’s identity wasn’t shocking (and I assume the omission of his name or immediately identifying information about him during his scenes was to build suspense as to his identity),  the scenes from the his point-of-view were engrossing and the tension surrounding whether he would survive each encounter (let alone get away with it) was ably evoked. The range of weapons employed and the creativity when setting the scene for the discovery of the bodies added to the strong pacing of the book.

Dylan and Annie are multi-dimensional characters and I was able to connect to them and their emotional turmoil. The interaction between Dylan and Annie, their increasing attraction to one another, and the secrets each kept from the other added a dollop of tension. If you’re not set on teasing out a path through a moral quagmire, Hunter holds its own in the vigilante sub-genre of thrillers. Although the inclusion of romantic elements should broaden its appeal to a larger audience, I actually would have preferred a straight thriller.

The Narration:

I enjoyed Conor Hall’s narration and, given the skill displayed, was rather surprised to find that this is the only listing under that name at Audible. Mr. Hall has a deep and resonant voice that is pleasant to listen to. He’s a perfect example of how even a narrator with what I’d consider a bass voice can deftly use slight pitch changes to give female characters completely believable voices in the context of the audiobook. His character differentiation was excellent – including tone, cadence, and occasionally accent variations in addition to the standard pitch alterations – and his delivery of the primary bad guy was particularly effective. He pushed the ‘teeth-gritted/hard-boiled’ voice a little too far for a couple of the characters, giving them a noir-like feel that I found unnecessary but he clearly has a facility for vocal characterization and I hope to hear more of his work.

Disclaimer:

I received this audiobook from the author at no cost to me and with the expressed expectation that my review would be objective.

two-half-stars

Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale

Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. LansdaleEdge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale
Narrator: Angéle Masters
Published by Hachette Audio on 3/25/12
Genres: Suspense

Story: B+
Narration: A-

Quick Review:

Edge of Dark Water is part coming of age story, part murder mystery, a lot Southern Gothic story, part river adventure, part… well, it’s a whole lot of things but most importantly – it’s a very good book. Joe R. Lansdale creates an extremely well-drawn sense of time and place with characters who immediately grabbed my attention. There’s a very “classic” feel to much of this story (think To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn) with well-placed doses of horror. Although the writing by itself would have sucked me in to the story, the narration did an excellent job of stepping up the experience just that much more.

The Plot:

The story is set in depression era East Texas where young May Lynn’s body is found at the bottom of the Sabine River weighted down with a sewing machine tied to her ankles. That discovery sets in motion a chain of events that propel sixteen year old Sue Ellen, her “sissy” friend Terry, and their “colored” friend Jinx out of childhood and onto a painful path towards adulthood. Beautiful May Lynn dreamed of movie stars and California and after discovering her secret map to a stash of stolen money, Sue Ellen and her friends decide to burn May Lynn’s body and carry her ashes to Hollywood. In the process, Sue Ellen thinks to escape a drunk and abusive father and a mother who has medicated herself into nothingness with her bottles of laudanum-laced “cure-all” while Terry wants to leave behind his step-father’s controlling ways and Jinx is more than willing to leave behind her life of drudgery and deeply entrenched racism. When money is involved though, the consequences can be deadly and in addition to battling the river on their way out of Texas, Sue Ellen, Terry, Jinx, and Sue Ellen’s mother end up playing a life-and-death game of hide-and-seek with a corrupt sheriff, Sue Ellen’s uncle, and a legendary bogeyman – the tracker and killer known as “Skunk.”

My Thoughts:

There’s an almost elegiac quality to the first half of the story as the characters reveal themselves in all their poverty, twisted home lives, and the crushing economic and social realities of the era. What buoys this story of leaving youth behind, though, is the resiliency of spirit that inhabits each character. Sue Ellen’s voice as narrator is down-to-earth and forthright and while her daddy may beat her and her mother, she’s more than willing to brandish a piece of stove wood to ensure he keeps his hands to himself at night. I didn’t find Jinx to be as fully developed of a character as I would have liked because several times she seemed to be along solely as the snappy side-kick (granted, some of her lines were laugh-out-loud amusing). Terry was much like the river: a seemingly steady path to an end but with some surprising undercurrents. As I watched them navigate through each other’s lives with all the destructive and beneficial power that can exist among friends I was riveted.

When the book takes a turn in the middle as the events the characters are running from catch up to them, there are several sharp bursts of tension and action that were extremely well paced and they generated far more tension in me as a reader than I’ve experienced with a book in a long time. A few particularly gruesome scenes didn’t faze me as I had given myself over to the bubble of time and place the author so deftly created. The characters were also brought to life in such a way that even some small complaints I have about some of the level of dialogue and banter these teenagers had as well as Sue Ellen’s mother’s Helen of Troy-like beauty – even after years of drug use, abuse, and rough travel – failed to do more than flit through my mind and fade away as I once again submerged in the tale.

While there’s certainly enough well-paced plotting to maintain the reader’s attention, the book really shines in its prose. The similes and descriptions were alternately beautiful and colorful but they were dished out sparingly and avoided veering into anything resembling a stereotypical country-dweller or redneck characterization. The personalities were vivid from the start but continued to build and be refined and as events progress we see Sue Ellen, Terry, and Sue Ellen’s mother pared down to the essence of their character as they struggle to survive and move into whatever their futures hold. The Texas landscape and everyone who peoples it in this book are brought to life with regional phrases, activities (e.g. fishing by electrocuting them with a crank phone) and a clear portrait of a harsh way of life.

The Narration:

I really enjoyed Angéle Masters’ narration. I only had one issue with it but it also highlights one of the outstanding areas. I occasionally had a hard time differentiating between Sue Ellen’s dialogue, her mother’s, and sometimes Jinx’s as well if their lines weren’t very long because they often had a pretty similar pitch. Given a short period of time with either one speaking, though, and it was crystal clear who was talking because every character in this book was given their own speech patterns and cadences within the overall Texas drawl. The accent was another area that stood out for me. I’m accustomed to narrators using a generic Southern drawl to portray a character from anywhere in a wide swath of the Southern U.S. But Ms. Masters’ accent seemed distinctly Texas (granted, my only experience with that accent was a father-in-law from Texas but….) All of the other performance markers I listen for (or rather, ideally never notice because they’ve served to suck me into the story completely) such as each character’s distinct POV, the sense of a here and now and the discovery of events taking place just as the story unfurls, the care with which the author’s words were given weight as they were spoken, the pacing of the various scenes… it was all very nicely delivered.

Drowning Instinct by Ilsa J. Bick

Drowning Instinct by Ilsa J. BickDrowning Instinct by Ilsa J. Bick
Narrator: Kathleen McInerney
Published by Audible, Inc. on 3/5/12
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult

Story: B+
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

This is a very good book that takes an in-depth but never gratuitous look at quite a few issues which, if less skillfully done, might be considered cheap fodder for driving a YA novel. It’s the immediacy of Jenna’s first person narrative and the lack of moralizing that combines with the tension of the no “black and white” answers and uncertainty about what’s going to happen (and what has already happened) to create a story that should capture and hold the attention of almost any reader. The audiobook narration is well done and captures the emotional intent of the story and the very distinct ‘voice’ of Jenna as the storyteller.

The Plot:

I often think including a plot summary in a review is an excellent way to a) refresh my memory of what I want to talk about and b) include events from the book I found relevant that may not be part of the publisher’s blurb or jacket copy while also giving someone reading the review an idea of what my focus in the book was. In the case of Drowning Instinct, not only is there a slow unwinding of the story that shouldn’t be spoiled but I also just can’t beat the back cover copy from the hardback:

I’m beating around the bush. I know I am. I don’t want to tell this story, and you know why? Because this is a fairy tale with teeth and claws, and here’s what completely sucks: you’re going to want black and white, right and wrong. I’m not sure I can give that to you. That’s the problem with the truth. Sometimes the truth is ambiguous, or a really bad cliché.

But this is the truth: I’m a liar.

I am lucky, a liar, a good girl, a princess, a thief —
and a killer.

And my reality —
my story —
begins with Mr. Anderson.

My Thoughts:

As Jenna uses a police detective’s voice recorder to detail the events leading up to her admittance to the emergency room, it quickly becomes clear that there are a lot of issues at play in this story. By the time the story starts, Jenna has been through a significant amount of trauma but she’s a young woman with a lot of resilience. Her story is compelling and the mental make-up of her character drew and held my interest but I did have a minor complaint: that degree of resilience in a sixteen year-old without allowing me direct observation of the back-story that details how it was acquired served to put her at one-remove from me in terms of establishing an emotional connection. The dysfunctional dynamics in Jenna’s family are clear but knowing about her alcoholic mother and controlling father and seeing how her childhood made her who she is are two different things. There’s a bit of sophistry in that comment though because complaining about the one layer of distance that caused is like skipping a third piece of cheesecake and pretending that’ll prevent weight gain – really, the investment was been made before that third piece.

Moving from psych ward patient to private “techie-science” school student is a bit of an adjustment for Jenna but as she settles in to her new school, she finds her way somewhat smoothed by her chemistry teacher. As her home life begins to slowly slide into greater disarray, Mr. Anderson becomes a touchstone for her. At this point, you may be thinking (as I was) I know how this is going to end but there were several surprises in store for me and the ending was only one of them. While most of the social/family issues in this story are subtly handled, it’s worth mentioning that Jenna’s struggles with cutting are front and center if that’s a topic you prefer to avoid.

This story is character-driven and part of what makes it so gripping is the gradual reveal of the psychological make-up and moral complexity of the characters. None of them are one-dimensional and they feel very true-to-life. The dynamics between Mr. Anderson and Jenna can whipsaw the reader’s emotions from one extreme to the other and as the threads of this story begin to wind together it’s like watching a disaster unfold. Not only was I not sure how the story would end though, I wasn’t even sure how I wanted it to end. The title represents only one of the metaphors in play in this book and I found it to be a particularly a powerful one. This is a story about family, where we find safety in our lives, how we navigate tragedy, and how we survive all of that. Jenna is most certainly a survivor but watching her get there was quite a ride.

The Narration:

Kathleen McInerney has an excellent read on the character of Jenna. She gives her an appropriately youthful voice and it morphs over the course of the story to reflect Jenna’s emotional changes. She is also one of the best narrators I’ve listened to in terms of differentiating male/female characters using only subtle tone or pitch changes. Although the listener is aware that the story structure is Jenna narrating past events, the sense of immediacy and “here and now” in the tale is fully realized. The emotions resonate through the narration and are never overdone, making them all the more powerful.

Fifth Victim by Zoë Sharp

Fifth Victim by Zoë SharpFifth Victim by Zoë Sharp
Narrator: Justine Eyre
Series: Charlie Fox #9
Published by Dreamscape Media on 1/12/12
Genres: Suspense

 

Story: B+
Narration: B-

When Parker Armstrong, head of the Armstrong Meyer close protection agency, is hired by Caroline Willner to provide bodyguard service for her daughter Dina, he assigns the job to Charlotte “Charlie” Fox. Charlie is English and ex-army and after her life was turned upside down and she was court-martialed she parlayed her uncanny marksmanship, hand-to-hand skills, and ability to react instinctively to a threat into a job as a bodyguard with help from her lover Sean Meyer. With Sean out of commission after events that took place in Fourth Day, Charlie is working solo guarding Dina as she flits among the other young people who exist in a bubble of unimaginable wealth on Long Island. Three recent kidnappings have everyone on edge and while Charlie’s job may be prevention, an attack on her principal followed by an attempt on her own life sends her on a desperate race to track and stop the kidnappers.

Zoë Sharp’s books all seem to follow a pattern in terms of how involved I become in them. For the first half, I find myself enjoying the story and interested in the set-up but at somewhere around 50% a switch always seems to get flipped and I enter “go-away-I-don’t-care-if-the-house-is-on-fire / sleep-who-needs-sleep?” territory. This book was no exception and probably qualifies as my favorite in the series. It works as a stand-alone but Charlie has a lot of baggage she’s worked through and has a well-written character arc so I would suggest starting from the beginning of the series if possible. As Charlie follows Dina on her usual circuit of parties and horse-back riding, the two establish an accord. In many ways, Dina is a young woman that reminds Charlie of what her life might have been like if she hadn’t set her sights on joining the army. While I wouldn’t call her feelings toward Dina maternal, in her usual practical manner she tries to guide/advise Dina on a personal level in addition to being on hand to foil an attempted kidnapping. The supporting characters are multi-dimensional, the “whodunit” is somewhat twisty, and the three plot lines (the close protection gig, Charlie’s relationship with Sean, and tying up some loose ends from the previous book) are adroitly woven into a cohesive tale with an ending that wrapped up the main story-line but left me wondering “what happens next!?” The action scenes are tightly paced and realistic (it’s refreshing to hear the terms magazine and round instead of clip and bullet) and the interaction between Parker and Charlie adds a nice bit of tension.

There were two aspects to the narration that I found challenging. In the “it’s not you, it’s me” category is the fact that when a narrator has a very distinctive voice/tone/vocal flutter, I have a difficult time sinking into the narration. I was also distracted by the English and New York accents, in part because up until this installment I’ve read hard-copy and had already created a voice for Charlie in my head and I struggled to reconcile my mental version of Charlie’s Cheshire accent with Justine Eyre’s interpretation. I did, however, reach a point in the narration where my buying into the accents or not became a moot point because what I was sold on was Justine Eyre’s ability to voice the core aspects of Charlie’s personality. Each character was given a unique voice and the pacing of the narration was excellent, particularly during action sequences.

This was a well-paced story with excellent action sequences and well-crafted characters who capture the reader’s interest. The narration is good although I suggest listening to a sample to ensure compatibility with your individual preferences.

The Innocent by Taylor Stevens

The Innocent by Taylor StevensThe Innocent by Taylor Stevens
Narrator: Hillary Huber
Series: Vanessa Michael Munroe #2
Published by Random House Audio on 12/27/11
Genres: Suspense

 

Book: B+
Narration: B+

The nightmares were getting worse. When you’re afraid to sleep next to someone because you’ve woken up with tangled sheets and, oh, yes, a pair of knives stabbed into the mattress next to you, it’s time to take action. For Vanessa Michael Munroe, the solution is exactly that. Always at her best (and with her inner demons at their most subdued) when she is constantly in motion, Munroe accedes to a plea from her best friend Logan to help him find and recover Hannah, a thirteen year-old girl and former member of a cult known as The Chosen. Kidnapped by her mother’s boyfriend and spirited away to South America, Hannah is being shuttled between the cult’s various compounds in an effort to keep her hidden. A trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina in the company of Logan and two other former members of The Chosen starts Munroe walking a dangerous high-wire where the only one she can truly trust is her back-up man, Miles Bradford. Finding the compound where Hannah is being held and infiltrating the cult is a task made more difficult as Munroe deals with the hidden agendas and power plays within her team and her own nightmares and memories dredged up by the accusations of child abuse within the cult.

This is going to be a pretty simple review and I’ll just let you know in advance, if you’re looking for a reason you shouldn’t listen to this audiobook I won’t be providing you with one. Every now and then I pick up an audiobook that just sucks me in and when I emerge from the other side of it, all I remember is the rush of the ride and none of the rocks I may have bounced off along the way. This is one of those books. If I sat down and thought it through could I come up with some negative comments? Possibly. The reason I didn’t write any comments down while listening is the same reason I don’t have criticism to offer: this audiobook provided a completely immersive experience and even in retrospect, I only re-experience the slow build of tension, the moments of lightning quick violence, the vivid settings, and the well-developed characters that seemed almost real. My analytical half never makes it past the “dang, that was an excellent story” reaction to arrive at any type of critical structural break-down.

Munroe is a fascinating character and in the second book in this series the reader gets more insight into the complexity of her psychological makeup as well as the changes she’s undergoing based on events in the previous book and the choices she makes in this one. Much of the story is from Munroe’s viewpoint but when there is a shift in POV, it’s seamless and works well to further the story. In fact, there are several instances where a very dramatic scene begins from Munroe’s point of view but ends with the reader seeing the conclusion or aftermath from another character’s point of view. Some readers may find that disrupts the tension of action scenes but I appreciated the way it subtly echoed Munroe’s tendency to slip into an almost fugue state when threatened. It also worked extremely well at weaving together these character’s lives even tighter and providing a very organic feel to events, where the consequences of our actions are only fully realized later or through someone else’s eyes.  The story plays itself out with both a sense of inevitability, like a boulder building speed down a long slope, as well as sharp moments of violence. Layered in with the physical action that drives the story forward are the instances of recognition and connection the reader can find with any/all of these fully-formed characters.

Hillary Huber’s narration was excellent. I often take issue with the performance of narrators who present with a very specific and structured cadence but in this case, Huber’s rough voice and deliberate pacing and delivery admirably ratchets up the tension and adeptly portrays Munroe’s moral ambivalence and matter-of-fact attitude toward doing what needs to be done. The characters are easy to track through sections of dialogue and I experienced an almost physical shiver while listening to the voices given two specific characters whose belief in what they were doing, combined with the fact that what they did was just wrong, was masterfully blended together to create a complex vocal portrayal.

This was a great listen and I recommend it but I think you’ll enjoy it even more if you’ve read the first book in the series.