Omens by Kelley Armstrong

Omens by Kelley ArmstrongOmens by Kelley Armstrong
Narrator: Carine Montbertrand, Mozhan Marno
Series: Cainsville #1
Published by Penguin Audio on 8/20/13
Genres: Urban Fantasy

 

Story: B+
Narration: B+

Publisher’s Blurb:

Twenty-four-year-old Olivia Taylor Jones has the perfect life. The only daughter of a wealthy, prominent Chicago family, she has an Ivy League education, pursues volunteerism and philanthropy, and is engaged to a handsome young tech firm CEO with political ambitions.

But Olivia’s world is shattered when she learns that she’s adopted. Her real parents? Todd and Pamela Larsen, notorious serial killers serving a life sentence. When the news brings a maelstrom of unwanted publicity to her adopted family and fiancé, Olivia decides to find out the truth about the Larsens.

Olivia ends up in the small town of Cainsville, Illinois, an old and cloistered community that takes a particular interest in both Olivia and her efforts to uncover her birth parents’ past.

Aided by her mother’s former lawyer, Gabriel Walsh, Olivia focuses on the Larsens’ last crime, the one her birth mother swears will prove their innocence. But as she and Gabriel start investigating the case, Olivia finds herself drawing on abilities that have remained hidden since her childhood, gifts that make her both a valuable addition to Cainsville and deeply vulnerable to unknown enemies. Because there are darker secrets behind her new home and powers lurking in the shadows that have their own plans for her.

Quick Review:

I really enjoyed this audiobook – not in the “jump up and down when you finish it and shout about it from the rooftops” way but in that calmer “why are these characters still running around in my brain a week later? I think I better listen to it again and hey, it was just as good the second time” kind of way. There was one particular shift (to my mind) in how things developed that left me momentarily adrift but the writing is solid, the characters are interesting, the story is nicely layered, and I sense there’s a lot more to look forward to in this series. The narration was very good and the primary narrator excelled at chewing the syntax in a way that completely individualized all the characters and allowed me to immediately sink into the audio experience.

My Thoughts:

In the early minutes of the story, we find Olivia Taylor Jones at a dinner party with her fiancé. Clearly wealthy, educated, privileged and seeming to have it all, I wasn’t sure what was going to be of interest in her storyline but in no time at all I was hooked by the both the construction of her character and the way in which the events leading up to her adoption were gradually uncovered. Symptomatic of how involved I became in the story and how complete of a character Liv seemed to me: I have never in my life wanted so badly to crawl into an audiobook and chastise a group of people in defense of the protagonist as I did while listening to this one. Early on, Liv is beset by the press while at her mother’s house and I was absolutely infuriated by their behavior. Then I reminded myself they were fictional characters and felt a little silly… but they were obnoxious!

As Liv begins digging into her biological parents’ background, she ends up forming a working relationship with her mother’s ex-lawyer, Gabriel Walsh. He’s an interesting character in that I found him very likable but he’s also completely self-interested. As more of his background is revealed, that becomes understandable but the portion of character arc (or perhaps it’s just reveal) that takes place over the course of the book is tantalizing. I really enjoyed the dynamic between Liv and Gabriel. I don’t know if there will end up being romantic elements there but if so, we’re in for a very slow build-up to it. I think that’s part of why these characters are sticking around in my head: just like real people, they had a life before each other, they have separate interests when they’re together, and they have an organic push/pull relationship that could go anywhere or nowhere. It isn’t that other books I’ve read don’t have fully-formed characters, it’s just that there are often far too many parallelisms in their personalities, mythos, or experiences to make them completely realistic.

There were a lot of structural things I liked about this book: the slow reveal about Cainsville and its origins, the mechanics of how Liv ended up there, the introduction of supporting characters with enough background to make them interesting and well-integrated to the story but not distracting, the gradual peeling back of layers regarding Liv’s seemingly supernatural abilities (although that was a very low key aspect to the story and it felt more normal than paranormal overall), the plotting decision to address just one of the three murders Liv’s biological parents were accused of as the main investigation in the book, and more. The point at which I hit a wall, though, was rather abrupt.

The events that led Liv to Cainsville felt like Tetris pieces falling into place and many of the events that took place there also gave the impression of things clicking into place; even though I couldn’t see the overall design, I liked how it was shaping up. As the action started rising and we hit the climax of the core story/investigation that drove the book forward, it was like I’d been watching red and blue blocks falling neatly into place but the picture that was suddenly revealed when it was over was flowing lines painted in various yellows (this analogy would work better if there were more than three primary colors because I don’t want to imply the resolution was monochromatic) and the disconnect in how it resolved vs. how it started building was problematic for me because it didn’t feel like a plot twist, it felt like the story going off the tracks a bit. I liked both parts/concepts on their own, they just seemed like slightly different stories to me. One positive aspect to that, however, is that I still have a sense of a vast number of stories and underlying mythologies that are yet to be explored.

There are books that strike you as wildly inventive or incredibly fast-paced and exciting and it’s pretty easy for me, when I finish one of those, to point out all the showy bits that made it a great book. Then there are books that just seem layered or dense (not in a lit-fic-y way) or that leave you with an emotionally tangible sense of the characters that lingers as if they were real people and had infinite future possibilities for their lives. Omens falls into the latter category for me and I often find it difficult to rate or review books like that because my logical brain is telling me . o 0(Where are the elegant turns of phrases that merit a high rating? The wildly inventive world-building? What about that slap-in-the-face to your expectations in the last 1/8th of the book?) while the other side of my brain is mooning around about . o 0(Those reporters were so effin’ obnoxious. Don’t they know they can’t do that?! I hope Liv and Gabriel hook up; he’s adorable in an oddly semi-sociopathic way. I bet when he falls for her he’s going down hard. Do you think Peter is a [redacted]? What’s up with Liv and those creepy omens?) Sometimes that’s an artifact from listening to the audiobook version: a well narrated book puts real voices to the characters and I engage with the text on a deeper level. Sometimes there’s something in the story or character that resonates with my personal experience and adds depth to my read. In this case, I think those were factors but all-in-all it’s just a well-written book with a lot of detail woven in and I’m really looking forward to the next one.

The Narration:

This was a dual narration with Carine Montbertrand performing the majority of the story from the first person perspective of Liv and Mozhan Marno delivering short segments interspersed throughout from multiple characters’ perspectives. Both narrators delivered strong performances.

I really liked the way Ms. Montbertrand chewed over the syntax and committed all her energy to each sentence without sounding artificial or too dramatic. She does one of my favorite narrative things: leverages the timing in sentence and individual word delivery in a very natural way. She weights some words with preceding or following pauses (not obnoxiously long ones – realistic ones you would do yourself when speaking) and doesn’t deliver each word with metronomic pacing but draws some out for emphasis. As a related performance trait, she individualizes characters by giving them differing phrasing styles or cadences. When that kind of real-life conversational feel to a story is combined with strong character differentiation and backed by an emotionally invested performance, my opinion on whether the voice sounds age-appropriate or is, in and of itself, aurally pleasing becomes almost irrelevant. Although the emotional content throughout was conveyed nicely, the character of Rose has some zinger lines and I particularly enjoyed the way the humor was delivered with delightful matter-of-factness.

The short third person sections assigned to Ms. Marno contributed to the overall strong narration. She has a very pleasing timbre to her voice and her character differentiation and pacing is very good. I think I would have been equally satisfied with either narrator as the primary.

Although I was happy with both narrators, I am curious about the production decision to a) use two narrators and b) select women for both narrators. The primary narrator should obviously be a woman since it’s Olivia’s first person perspective but the alternating third person viewpoints vary between women and men and include a bit of Gabriel’s perspective which, I would think, would be better served by contrasting Liv’s portions with a male voice. In addition, there’s a section of the third person narration where Olivia speaks and the difference in voices for the same person is jarring. Of note, the alternating perspective contains the only description of Olivia’s voice (contralto) and that’s what we get. I have zero musical/vocal experience but I’m pretty sure the primary narration doesn’t give her a contralto voice. While that has nothing to do with the overall quality of the narration, it was one of those discrepancies that was oddly jarring for a moment when it came up.

A few other niggling issues were present. In particular, I was struck by was how audible the narrators’ breaths were…for both narrators. That seemed particularly odd to me and makes me wonder how much of that was an editing decision to leave natural (non-character) breaths in. I also noticed several sections with a lot of thuds – as if the microphone was being bumped – and there were some pronunciations that struck me as inaccurate such as “eschew” as “as KEW” (yes, that’s technically third in the M-W list of pronunciations but I’m making an argument against using less common pronunciations when it’s a homophone with another word), “femoral” as “FEE moral” and “sociopathy” as  “socio PATHY.”

None of the negatives listed above were particularly detracting to the performance but they were momentarily distracting. Overall, the quality of the performances make audio the way to go with this one.

Tempting Danger by Eileen Wilks

Tempting Danger by Eileen WilksTempting Danger by Eileen Wilks
Narrator: Full Cast
Series: World of the Lupi #1
Published by GraphicAudio on 6/1/2013
Genres: Romance, Urban Fantasy

 

Book: B
Performance: B

The Plot:

A bold new world where the magical and mundane co-exist in an uneasy alliance–and a cop balanced on her own knife-edged struggle is their only hope against a cold-blooded killer.

Lily Yu is a San Diego police detective investigating a series of grisly murders that appear to be the work of a werewolf. To hunt down the killer, she must infiltrate the clans. Only one man can help her–a were named Rule Turner, a prince of the lupi, whose charismatic presence disturbs Lily. Rule has his own reasons for helping the investigation–reasons he doesn’t want to share with Lily. Logic and honor demand she keep her distance, but the attraction between them is immediate and devastating-and beyond human reason. Now, in a race to fend off evil, Lily finds herself in uncharted territory, tested as never before, and at her back a man who she’s not sure she can trust.

This review contains spoilers only to the extent of what you would find if you read the blurbs for the next books in the series.

My Thoughts:

Listening to this graphic audio production was something of an experiment for me: in the past I’ve stayed away from any and all full-cast productions – especially those with sound-effects – because I dislike them…except, it would seem, for when I don’t. *sheepish look*

Tempting Danger by Eileen Wilks was a book I had read before and I enjoy the World of the Lupi series. It’s one of the few series I read whose main couple are married for most of the books and, like J.D. Robb’s Eve and Roarke, the conflict that drives the stories is primarily external with a nice splash of realistic relationship issues here and there. Re-listening to Lily’s introduction to Rule over the murder investigation that kicks off the story was almost like experiencing the book for the first time because of the style of the production.

One of the things I like about the world that Wilks has created is that even after working my way through a glutted market of Urban Fantasy and Paranormal books containing werewolves and demons and their own mythology, it still manages to seem fresh. Part of that is because the books have a solid real-world feel in terms of the dynamics of character relationships, Lily’s police job and the procedural elements in play, and the political machinations that take place and when the more fantastic elements are layered over that foundation, it makes for solid and relatable world-building. This series also manages to take my least favorite PNR thematic element – fated mates – and make it not just palatable but an integral and enjoyable part of the series. It helps that the characters act rationally about it and there’s no “I must treat you badly because I can’t resist you” dynamic in play.

Structurally, the murder mystery is the primary focal point although Rule and Lily’s growing relationship adds a nice romantic element as well. Between the two primary protagonists, we get alternating views and I really like that split perspective. The peripheral characters are very well drawn and one of the areas in which Wilks excels in this series is integrating a large cast of characters and seamlessly weaving in multiple story-lines without confusing the reader.

The prejudice the lupi experience and the ways in which that complicates Lily’s investigation, the lupi hierarchy, family conflicts between Rule and his brothers and father, the resentment Lily experiences from some of her fellow police officers, the spiritual divide between Lily and Rule, the construct of magic systems and who has which abilities… there were just a lot of elements that blended together nicely to make this well-rounded story and I recommend it.

The Performance:

My initial thought was that the casting for this audiobook was excellent and while that is undoubtedly true, the vocal skills of each voice actor were uniformly strong, so credit where credit’s due. From the perspective of getting to hear realistic dialogue, well-delivered emotional content, and strong performances, I was entirely pleased. I did have to adjust to Lily’s voice. Her character was delivered well but it just wasn’t what I was expecting. Her voice was strong, tough, and typically West/Mid-west in inflection and intonation and I think I was expecting her Chinese mother and grandmother to have had more influence on her inflections. I don’t have any text-based reason for the disconnect, just my mental expectations as a reader. Rule, Cullen, Lily’s grandmother…well, the rest of the cast, really, completely met my expectations vocally.

There’s a pretty broad cast of characters who get more page time than might be expected and the full-cast production works well to highlight that. That’s definitely one thing a full-cast production has going for it: the ability to present the listener with perfect voices regardless of age, gender, background, etc. I’ll still never like music underlying the voices in my audiobooks and during kissing scenes the heavy breathing was little loud and the smacking sounds were annoying (if I never again hear the sound effect of someone slurping coffee, it will be too soon) but those ended up being minor quibbles because I enjoyed this production to a surprising degree and immediately moved on to the second one.

I was intrigued by several aspects of the production. I don’t know that I would call it abridged so much as I would call it an adaptation. Having read the book, I had it on hand to compare to the performance and while certain things were omitted, it was more along the lines of descriptions of things that were given voice through sound effects. I was more surprised by the way dialogue was altered slightly with similar wording inserted in place of what was actually written – almost as a person might accidentally do while reading aloud. The story remains wholly intact, though.

Overall an enjoyable audiobook that, if you’re like me and tend to avoid audio dramas, just might change your mind on that. One thing that really assisted me in making a decision about whether or not to buy this audio was the fact that GraphicAudio has an extended sample available on SoundCloud so I’m linking to it here:

 

 

Widow’s Web by Jennifer Estep

Widow’s Web by Jennifer EstepWidow's Web by Jennifer Estep
Narrator: Lauren Fortgang
Series: Elemental Assassin #7
Published by Audible Frontiers on 8/21/12
Genres: Fantasy
three-half-stars

Story: B
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

This enjoyable continuation of the Elemental Assassin series again finds Gin battling not just for her life and the safety of those she loves, but also to hold on to what she has built with her lover Owen after his old-flame returns to town. Narrator Lauren Fortgang knows her characters and delivers her smoothest narration to date.

The Plot:

Life is never dull for Gin Blanco, the former assassin known as the Spider. With the leadership of the criminal underworld of Ashland still in flux after the death of Mab Monroe, every contender for the top spot has their eye on taking out the Spider to prove their chops and Gin is getting tired of it. At least she has the support of her lover, Owen Grayson, to rely on. Except… Owen’s ex-flame, Salina Dubois, has moved back to town and not only does she have her sights set on picking up where she left off with Owen but she has even bigger plans that will shake not just the foundation of Ashland’s underworld, but everything Gin has come to hold dear.

My Thoughts:

I really like the Elemental Assassin series and this one is probably my second favorite in the continuum of Gin’s story. These books are solid entertainment. Those familiar with the series know there’s a pretty consistent premise: a powerful “big bad” who has Gin on the ropes in their first major encounter but who ultimately falls to her determination, the silverstone knives hidden up her sleeves, and the elemental power combo that always seems to surprise her with its strength. Throw in some type of relationship conflict between Gin and her love interest and there’s a pretty good mix of action and emotion.

The similes and descriptions are all standard fare and the world is drawn in broad strokes but the writing is solid, the elemental universe still feels fresh within the Urban Fantasy genre, and the simple fact of the matter is that what works so very well for me in this series is this: I just really like Gin. She’s a good combination of tough and vulnerable and is easy to sympathize with. She’s blunt, she swears, she’s a heck of a cook, and she’s had an interesting arc of emotional growth.

The repetitious elements as new readers are introduced to Gin and her world that have been niggling irritations for me in previous books were far less apparent in this one. The action scenes are well-written and as Gin struggled to balance what she thought was the right course of action with what Owen and his sister were asking of her, I empathized with her internal conflict. There was a lot of back-story to fill in the gaps in Owen’s past and Phillip Kincaid, leader of Ashland’s gambling operations, played a key role. I enjoyed his presence and the game of “is he a good guy or isn’t he?” The familiar characters from the series all made an appearance but I enjoyed the tighter focus on Gin, Owen, and Eva with a large dose of “Philly” and Salina. An enjoyable entry in the series.

The Narration:

Lauren Fortgang really has a handle on both the characters and the world that the author has built and her delivery has smoothed out since the first book. The voice she gives Salina nicely communicates “evil seductress” and raised the hair at the nape of my neck a time or two and the amused sarcasm in Gin’s voice each time she said “Philly” made me smile whenever she said it. Excellent dialogue, very distinct voices for each character, and just the right flair in performing these larger-than-life characters without pushing it into the realm of comic makes this a series I will follow in audio for some time to come.

three-half-stars

Spider’s Revenge by Jennifer Estep

Spider’s Revenge by Jennifer EstepSpider's Revenge by Jennifer Estep
Narrator: Lauren Fortgang
Series: Elemental Assassin #5
on 9/27/11
Genres: Urban Fantasy

Book: B
Narration: B

Gin Blanco has been waiting for this moment since she was a child and it’s finally here. The time has come for her big showdown with Mab Monroe: the ultra-powerful Fire elemental who killed Gin’s mother and older sister and has caused her so much grief. I’ve seen Gin embrace her life as the assassin nicknamed The Spider and watched her kill without remorse. I’ve been along for the ride as she lost her mentor, lost her confidence in her ability to be loved after being rejected by her lover, nominally retired only to find herself taking on pro bono work, found the baby sister she thought was dead, found another chance at love, and gradually worked her way towards avenging her family’s murder – one body at a time. In comparison, I have only been waiting one year and eight months for a resolution to this chapter in Gin’s life but it was worth the wait.

Mab Monroe knows The Spider is coming for her so she puts a bounty on the assassin’s head, never realizing Gin Blanco, the unassuming owner of the Pork Pit (Ashland’s best BBQ joint) is The Spider. Gin’s sister, Detective Bria Coolidge, is also in Mab’s crosshairs under the mistaken impression that Bria is the sister who wields dual elements strong enough to pose a threat to Mab. As the story progresses, the masks come off, the body count rises, and the only way Gin is getting out of this one alive is if she can learn to rely on her friends and family and trust in her elemental Ice and Stone powers.

It will come as no surprise, given the way I describe Gin, that I find her a surprisingly relatable and oddly sympathetic character. Urban Fantasy is scattered with tough women but Gin brings something unique to the table. I find it refreshing to engage with a character who is blunt, brash, always ready with an F-bomb, sure she knows the best solution to every problem (which usually involves a fatal application of her silverstone knives) and truly unrepentant about being a killer. On the flip side of that coin, she is a character who is humanized by her awkward skills at relating to people, her tortured nightmares of her family’s murder, her intense feelings of guilt at her perceived failure to save her family and her mentor, her struggle to find love and acceptance from her romantic interests, and the soft-spot she develops for those who have no other place to turn for help.

There’s a very superhero/comic book vibe to this series. Not a surprise given a protagonist with a secret identity, super-powers, an evil nemesis with minions at her beck and call, a city that becomes a character all its own, and very vivid fight scenes. I’ll admit that by this, the fifth book, some of the new has worn off and elements of the world Gin inhabits have become repetitive. Gin’s multiple references to her “black black” heart and repeat reminders of past events (even from earlier in the book, not just series refreshers) does a disservice to the reader, whose memory and ability to cull inference from the “show” part of the narrative and not the “tell” part should be given more respect. Overall, though, this book (and this series) is a vivid, straight-forward, action-packed, engaging listen. It’s peopled with interesting characters who grow throughout the series and it moves forward at a nice pace with plenty of well-written and exciting action sequences.

Lauren Fortgang turns in a good narration with this book. Her voice embodies Gin Blanco for me and each character is uniquely voiced. I’d be interested to hear male/female differentiation done in more subtle tones since I feel like too many of the male characters get a growl to their voice as part of the masculine characterization. To be fair, a lot of those voices belong to giants (and now that I think about it their voices sound a lot like you would expect if you were reading Jack and the Beanstalk out loud and dropped into a gravelly voice to say “Fe Fi Fo Fum”…) and that may also contribute to that air of comic book-ness I pick up. The core narrative is delivered in a deliberate and relaxed drawl apropos of the fictional Southern setting, the range of Gin’s emotions are nicely conveyed, and the tension that builds during action scenes is superbly assisted by the vocal choices of the narrator.

A good wrap-up to the first arc in a really fun series – this audiobook delivers tension, action, and good narration that draws you into the world.

Hellbent by Cherie Priest

Hellbent by Cherie PriestHellbent by Cherie Priest
Narrator: Natalie Ross
Series: Cheshire Red #2
Published by Brilliance Audio on 8/30/11
Genres: Urban Fantasy

Book: B+
Narration: A-

So the other night Raylene Pendle was telling me this story… What’s that? That was an audiobook? Someone named Natalie Ross narrated it? Nope. Sorry. You’ve got it all wrong. I don’t know where you’re getting your information but that was Raylene telling me the story of her adventures. I don’t know who this Ross person is. So as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted….

Raylene and I are friends, you see. She confides all the sordid details of her life to me and I listen and nod and often snort whatever I’m drinking out my nose. She’s a vampire and a famous (or is that infamous?) sneak-thief. The funniest things happen to her! We were up half the night yesterday while she told me all about this really weird job she took on. You see, she was hired to steal some baculum (yeah, you’re going to have to consult the Oracle at Google for that one just like I did: I don’t want to kick off any more jokes about it than I’ve already heard from Raylene – she’s got a bit of a dirty mouth, you know.  Oh, but wait until you’re not at work to do it, ‘k?). Anywho… she’s usually pretty tight-lipped about her jobs but get a single glass of wine in her and you don’t have to tip her ‘cause she’ll spill. Oh, don’t worry if you are thinking of hiring her; she has some discretion about her work because she obviously changed names and locations and has never really been to the area she said her last job was in. I can tell because of how she pronounces Willamette.

So like I was saying… she was almost blown up while on this job and when she got home her roommate, Ian, had just found out his patriarch… oh, yeah, Ian’s a vampire too… had died and Ian was suddenly in line to take his place. Only, that’s a bad idea because Ian is blind. So Raylene took off for California to sort things out for him and her pal Adrian (he’s an ex-Navy SEAL/current drag-queen) went too. Then there was this crazy sorceress who wanted the baculum for herself and so Raylene had to deal with that also. Well, you’ll just have to get her to tell you the whole story herself. I can’t do it justice at all.

Seriously, you should hear her when she talks about the people she meets. She’s quite the impressionist. You’d think you were listening to a whole other person… or people. She’s such an amazing storyteller; before I knew it half the night was gone and let me tell you, the double entendres were just fa-LY-ing (as someone I know says). That Raylene, she’s such a kick and let me tell you, she gets off some snarky zingers. She’s really smart too although when she first started telling me this story her humor was a little… well…I thought I was back in sixth grade again. I’m not usually much of a fan of that kind of humor but when Raylene laughs you just can’t help but laugh too. Now I need to go find some aspirin and a glass of water but gosh, I hope she stops by again soon. I can’t wait to find out what happens to her next.

What?! Would you please stop interrupting me?! What do you mean ‘Cherie Priest wrote that story about Raylene’? Whatever. I don’t know who this Cherie Priest is or … what was her name? Natalie Ross? but if they can tell a story half as good as Raylene can then they should… I don’t know… write books or narrate audiobooks or something.