Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone

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

Story: B-/C+
Narration: A-

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Narration:

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

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

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

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

two-half-stars

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey NiffeneggerHer Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Narrator: Bianca Amato
Published by Simon & Schuster Audio on 9/29/09
Genres: Fiction, Mystery

Story: C
Narration: A-

Quick Review:

An intriguing premise quickly collapses under the weight of unlikeable characters, a lack of focus on multiple plot fronts that held few surprises for me, and some inconsistencies in character actions and one particular event. Even an excellent narration couldn’t quite save this for me although it did keep me listening until the end rather than DNF-ing.

Publisher’s Summary:

“When Elspeth Noblin dies of cancer, she leaves her London apartment to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. These two American girls never met their English aunt, only knew that their mother, too, was a twin, and Elspeth her sister. Julia and Valentina are semi-normal American teenagers–with seemingly little interest in college, finding jobs, or anything outside their cozy home in the suburbs of Chicago, and with an abnormally intense attachment to one another.

The girls move to Elspeth’s flat, which borders Highgate Cemetery in London. They come to know the building’s other residents. There is Martin, a brilliant and charming crossword puzzle setter suffering from crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; Marjike, Martin’s devoted but trapped wife; and Robert, Elspeth’s elusive lover, a scholar of the cemetery. As the girls become embroiled in the fraying lives of their aunt’s neighbors, they also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including–perhaps–their aunt, who can’t seem to leave her old apartment and life behind.”

My Thoughts:

Opening with the death of Elspeth, this book then takes a leisurely path through the grief of her lover Robert and the introduction of her twin nieces. The time spent with Julia and Valentina in America watching them interact with their parents is a thin layer of background information that establishes the fact that neither twin is at all ambitious (or employed) and that Valentina has subsumed her wants and desires to Julia as the more dominant twin. Edie and her husband were at odds with Elspeth for almost all of their married life although the reasons aren’t laid out until much later in the book. The twins come across as uncommonly juvenile to me, even though they are twenty, and that was part of the struggle for me given that they have so much page time. I was unable to like, sympathize, or generate interest in most of the the people in this story. Of all the characters in this book, I most liked Martin, with his OCD and more optimistic mindset and his (mostly absent during the book) wife Marjike.

Leaving the intriguing story of what could have been a study of family dynamics, the twins move to England to take up residence in the apartment Elspeth bequeathed to them They set about exploring their new environment but this acted more as a prop piece for further fleshing out the dynamics between the two and otherwise seemed a listless ramble around the new environs and the new characters they meet. What seems to be a case of an overbearing twin further develops as we learn of Valentina’s health problems. As “mirror image” twins, Valentina was born with many of her internal organs on the opposite side and she has asthma and a weak heart. Julia’s at first overbearing demeanor reveals itself as more of a protective streak for her weaker “half” and Valentina’s smothered personality is revealed as partly related to a weak character and an inability to forge her own path. Robert spends much of the middle of the book avoiding the twins and existing in a pool of grief.

As the presence of Elspeth becomes more and more clear to the girls, Robert begins to play his part in the story. He’s weak both with and in his grief. His avoidance of the twins turns into an odd obsession with following them and then a paltry imitation of infatuation with one of them. The supernatural element introduced with Elspeth was a change of pace and I was enjoying it, thinking the story might start taking off but it ended up being just another messy plot slapped onto an already wobbly structure. I did enjoy the complexity of Elspeth’s character while not particularly finding much to like about her but the next change-up in the plot threw me for a loop with it’s utter unbelievability and I was ready to tune out at that point. There were few surprises as to how events in this book would turn out and while I normally appreciate a less-than tidy resolution to stories, I was disappointed that there was nothing to redeem a batch of generally unlikeable characters.

The Narration:

The narration was excellent and is really what kept me listening. Bianca Amato is quickly becoming a favorite narrator of mine because of her care in handling every part of the author’s narrative, her pleasing voice, the understated strength with which she delivers the emotional content of the characters’ arcs, and the easy transition between character voices. The American accent wasn’t perfect but wasn’t “off” enough to really distract me and every other pat of the narration suited my listening preferences.

 

Saving Angelfish by Michele Matheson

Saving Angelfish by Michele MathesonSaving Angelfish by Michele Matheson
Narrator: Xe Sands
Published by Iambik Audio on 3/29/12
Genres: Fiction

Story: B
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

An unflinching look at the life of a junkie whose addiction is spiraling out of control and isolating her from family and friends, the suggestion of this story as literary memoir thins the protective veil of ‘fiction’ and leaves the listener with front row seats to a train wreck in progress. Not an easy book to listen to but incredibly thought provoking and delivered with care by a narrator who sounds willing to take your hand and walk you through the dissolution of a life.

The Plot:

Maxella “Max” Gordon is a drug user whose addiction has driven her parents to cut off any type of support and practically all communication with her. After a brief flirtation with staying clean, she soon succumbs to her heroin habit and is back to chasing happiness at the end of a needle, crack pipe, or pill. As an actress, the toll drugs have taken on her body has limited her to a commercial shoot for contact lenses since her eyes are the only part of her body, or so she thinks, not affected by her drug use. A disastrous encounter with her landlord and sometimes dealer puts her square in the sights of his boss and supplier Carlotta and Carlotta’s son Albert. As Max is coerced into dealing, the fragile relationship she has with her parents (long divorced but still united in their love for their daughter) is in danger of completely disintegrating but even more at risk is Max’s life.

My Thoughts:

It’s difficult to use the word ‘like’ with a book that delivers such a raw glimpse into the life of a junkie but as hard as this was to listen to with its blunt and very physical descriptions of drug use, the consequences for the body of the user, and the ruin it made of Max’s life and family, it was worth the effort. I often enjoy fiction that takes me on a virtual trip to a different country or culture or world and in a way, this book did exactly that even though the setting was California. The world of a hard-core drug addict is outside my realm of experience but the fact that the character of Max in this audiobook was loosely based on the author’s personal experiences had the effect of removing the protective layer that fiction often draws between reader and text and I felt like a helpless and appalled bystander watching a car crash. I can’t say I want to take a return trip to that unflinchingly described world but it’s a visit that I won’t easily shake from memory.

There are some complex dynamics at play in Max’s life. The break in her relationship with her parents that her drug use causes was achingly well written. As she experiences the physical effects on her heart of chasing heroin with cocaine, Max muses that “The heart’s a funny thing…there’s a lot of pressure on it. It never gets to rest.” That’s an apt metaphor for the burden her parents suffer under: wanting to help her and being unable to cut her off completely, even though they commit to a ‘no contact’ policy because continuing to enable her could end up causing her death.

There’s a somewhat dizzying vignette quality to this story that I’m not sure was intentional although it aptly implies the confusion of Max’s drug use and the snapshot moments of clarity she seems to experience. There’s a hint of the surreal that runs through the book as a porcelain angel figurine that Max steals from the Rite Aid speaks to her with the apparent intent of saving her as she stumbles around seeking her next high. That was actually far less of a surrealistic aspect for me than the the scenes of Max shooting up. While I felt that blossoming or opening was an overused description for how Max experienced the first hit, those scenes did engender a deep sense of unease. This was primarily due to the sharp contrast in how happy using initially makes Max feel, the description of the rush she gets, and the sometimes lyrical language used to describe it which contrasted starkly with the graphic descriptions of the physical damage Max was doing (and had already done) to her body and how her personal hygiene became a secondary consideration. Also in contrast to my expectations were the actions of Carlotta, the dealer. Although she coerced Max into dealing for her, she displays moments of maternal (or perhaps just manipulative) care and in one scene is preparing first communion bibles while Max and Albert are prepping baggies in another room.

In many of Max’s interactions with the surrounding characters there is a lack of a clear right or wrong line. While it’s always obvious that Max is responsible for her own actions it’s also plain that she is in no way deserving of some of the things that happen to her. She is both a sympathetic and frustrating character as the story reveals her weaknesses and inability to kick her habit while also letting the listener see the essential core of good that resides in her and her wish that she could change. Although I was mildly frustrated by an incomplete understanding of what started Max down the road she’s on and found the addition of Max’s recollections of her now absent lover Ernest to be superfluous, I admire the author’s ability to maintain a balance between the aspects of right/wrong, good/evil, victim/villain in all the characters. The end of the book, much like life, doesn’t provide any easy answers but I was satisfied with being able to draw my own conclusions.

The Narration:

The narration of this audiobook struck the right tone to carry me through a difficult listen. Xe Sands gives the narrative a gentle delivery that blends fatalistic with matter-of-fact. The inflection and emphasis of the narration is organic and the narrative is delivered with a subtlety that made the overall impact of the story more poignant considering the blunt descriptions of drug use and the unflinching picture of the physical and emotional damage to users. While some of the vocal cues such as the sudden relaxation in Max’s voice after she shoots up and the increased tension in her voice when she’s starting withdrawal added to the immersive nature of the audio, I was occasionally drawn out by the tendency of Carlotta’s accent to fade in and out. Dialogue is spot-on, flows naturally, and is consistent with the construction of the characters and their emotional states. This was very good narration that enhanced the text.

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.

Home Front by Kristin Hannah

Home Front by Kristin HannahHome Front by Kristin Hannah
Narrator: Maggi-Meg Reed
Published by Macmillan Audio on 1/31/13
Genres: Fiction

Story: B+
Narration: C+

After twelve years of marriage, Michael and Joleen Zarkades are watching it crumble from beneath their feet. Michael is a criminal defense attorney whose work is keeping him away from home more and more and Joleen serves in the National Guard as a helicopter pilot after having spent fourteen years in the Army. Ideologically, Michael has never understood Joleen’s military service and has held himself apart from that aspect of her life. Joleen grew up seeking attention and affection from parents who never provided it. When she was orphaned at the age of seventeen, she joined the army and and shaped herself into a woman who was determined to control her own happiness through force of will. When Joleen’s National Guard unit is deployed to Iraq, she ships out knowing she’s leaving behind her two girls, ages four and thirteen, who need her more than ever and a husband who just told her he no longer loves her. As Michael’s relationship with his daughters begins to grow, he’s forced to take a hard look at his marriage and his feelings for his wife. When word arrives that Joleen’s helicopter was shot down, the family is thrown into complete disarray as the most difficult part of their journey begins.

Before I talk about the audiobook, I have a few general comments:

I requested this audiobook through AudiobookJukebox.com’s Solid Gold Reviewer program in return for an honest review and Macmillan was kind enough to send it to me. If you have an interest in reviewing audiobooks, this program is a good way to give it a try. I didn’t realize it was an abridged copy when I requested it and this is my first listen to an abridged audiobook. It’s worth keeping that in mind when I talk about the flow of the story.

This was an uncommonly emotional book for me. In fact, emotion is almost all that comes to mind as I write this review. There are a lot of serious issues that play out: the slow dissolution of a marriage, parent/child relationships, war and the effect of it on both the soldier who fights it and the family who waits for her return, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), the state of after-care for returning veterans, death and loss… I’m going to offer a quote from a piece of dialogue spoken by Michael’s mother, Mila, as a single sentence summary: “We all knew it would be hard to have you gone. But no one told us how hard it would be when you came back.” Part of what made this book so evocative and thought-provoking is that Michael, Joleen, and their family have an “everyman” quality about them. Whether it’s something the reader is likely to relate to – like the break-down of a marriage – or something I hope you have no experience with – like PTSD – the emotions evoked in this audiobook are intense because the listener can see it happening to themselves or anyone they know. My heart ached as I watched the very controlled Jolene, who firmly believes it’s your mindset that determines your happiness, lose any sort of control over her life due to the PTSD. As she recognized that she had a problem and still tried to handle it on her own with her “army of one” mindset, the effect it had on her relationship with her daughters when that didn’t work was heart-breaking.

Michael’s gradual evolution from a man whose connection to his wife is slipping away to a man who is ready to be the supportive husband his wife is in desperate need of was realistic but spurred by one of those “only in a book” coincidences that had him defending a soldier who suffered from PTSD and was accused of murdering his wife. Descriptions of the physical surroundings weren’t as full as I would have liked and there were some repetitive elements but, and I’m going to be repetitious here myself, the emotional content more than filled that void for me. I was content with the way the story wrapped up and was pleased with the mixed bag of resolutions for the various plot points.

Maggi-Meg Reed brings a breathless drama to the story that worked for me in some scenes but as the book progressed, it wore on me, as did the amount of dialogue that was performed as if the speaker was gritting their teeth. The subject matter was grim and tense enough at times and for me, a subtler performance would have been more effective at maintaining my tension. As it was, I was becoming a bit worn out by the last 1/3 of the audiobook and was glad it was abridged. On the flip side, the abridgement may very well have been responsible for condensing the story to the most dramatic moments without the needed intervals of calm. The only other factor that I took issue with was pitch. In audiobooks, I struggle to stay in the story when a male voice is higher in pitch than most of the female voices (which happened with the therapist Michael hired for his case) and when children’s voices are lower than adults (which happened with Joleen’s thirteen year-old, Betsy) but the emotions came through clearly and I particularly enjoyed Mila’s Greek accent.