The Translator by Nina Schuyler

The Translator by Nina SchuylerThe Translator by Nina Schuyler
Narrator: Kirsten Potter
Published by AudioGO Ltd. on 7/1/13
Genres: Literary Fiction
Source: Audiobook Jukebox

 

 

Story: B
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

I liked this book quite a bit. The overall concept, the design of the protagonist’s character/story arc, the parallels between Hanne’s translation ability and how she related to people… all of that held a strong intellectual appeal for me. From the perspective of my internal emotional reader, it took me a long time to fall in sync with what was taking place in the story and although the emotional distress experienced by the characters felt realistic, I neither connected to it personally nor did I have much sympathy for Hanne or her daughter or Moto. That doesn’t make it a bad book (far from it) it just means I had two distinct experiences while listening but I consider it time well spent.

Publisher’s Blurb:

When renowned translator Hanne Schubert falls down a flight of stairs, she suffers from an unusual but real condition — the loss of her native language. Speaking only Japanese, a language learned later in life, she leaves for Japan. There, to Hanne’s shock, the Japanese novelist whose work she recently translated confronts her publicly for sabotaging his work.

Reeling, Hanne seeks out the inspiration for the author’s novel — a tortured, chimerical actor, once a master in the art of Noh theater. Through their passionate, volatile relationship, Hanne is forced to reexamine how she has lived her life, including her estranged relationship with her daughter. In elegant and understated prose, Nina Schuyler offers a deeply moving and mesmerizing story about language, love, and the transcendence of family.

My Thoughts:

Although there are no sudden revelations in this book that will take a listener by surprise, I’m throwing out the spoiler flag at the start of this review because there is a slow build in learning about the protagonist and the story took a path that I wasn’t initially anticipating. That was part of what made this book enjoyable for me and I’m going to talk about some of those aspects of character revelation in the review.

As the motivation for a protagonist’s flight from her existing life into one that forces her to re-evaluate her relationships and how she perceives the world, losing the ability to communicate via your primary language is an intriguing and clever catalyst for a novel’s arc. When Hanne Schubert is suddenly unable to speak any language other than Japanese, she begins a journey that brings her to a point where she is forced to confront the fact that, for her entire life, her ability to seamlessly move from language to language – deriving full meaning from each one – is the polar opposite of how she relates to people and personalities that differ from hers. Hanne’s daughter, Brigitte, whom she has always viewed as too sensitive and as someone who needs to develop resiliency in order to be successful or survive in life, is set adrift by her mother’s inability to understand her.

The book opens with Hanne translating a book from Japanese to English. She develops an obsession with the main character, Jiro, and constructs what she thinks is a deep and full knowledge of who the character is – to the extent that he features in her fantasy life. When Hanne is accused by the book’s author of completely misunderstanding who Jiro is and botching the translation, she seeks out the person rumored to be the inspiration for the character – a Noh actor named Moto – and starts down the painful path of realizing that not only has she mistranslated the book, she’s been “mistranslating” her daughter all her life with disastrous consequences. Moto is similar in personality to Hanne’s daughter: mercurial, emotional, and sensitive. Once the smallest crack in her perceived ability to translate develops, finding herself in the orbit of someone so similar in personality to her daughter but with an adult-to-adult power dynamic leads to a painful series of personal revelations.

It took me a long time to be anything more than intellectually engaged by the writing. Part of that is a resistance to third person present tense as a method of connecting to characters (despite its putative sense of immediacy) and the story seemed weighted more towards “tell” expository rather than “show” descriptive. We spend a lot of time with Hanne and her thoughts and for that reason alone I was surprised it wasn’t in first person. It wasn’t written as an objective narrative and was limited in terms of the narrator’s knowledge and I sometimes had a sense of objectivity or scientific observation in the authorial voice.

Where it did work particularly well for my readerly sensibilities was in the tightly constructed way in which the depth of Hanne’s character was slowly uncovered. Although by the end I disliked the perspectives of both mother and daughter, how they reached that point was completely understandable and even if I thought Hanne was a horrible mother (FYI, I didn’t…exactly) I understood her and what motivated her parenting style. None of that understanding was conveyed to me via a wordy bat upside the head but was explained by simply allowing me to observe Hanne going about her life day-by-day with visibility to the reminiscences that would flit through anyone’s mind.

There’s a lot of food for thought in this book and for that alone it’s worth the listen.

The Narration:

My first thought in describing the narration is that if you’ve heard one Kirsten Potter narration you’ve heard them all but that might leave you with a negative impression. What I mean is that Ms. Potter is the most consistent narrator I’ve listened to in terms of delivering narrative in a measured and clearly articulated manner, character differentiation, point of view, emphasis, and back-and-forth dialogue from book-to-book. If you like her voice and narration style, which I do, then you know all you need to know if you’re deciding whether to go with the audiobook version or a text version because there won’t be any surprises for you in the narration.

Much of the novel takes place in Japan (well, most of it takes place in Hanne’s thoughts but…) and rather than utilize a Japanese accent per se, she simply adds a bit of formality to the delivery of native Japanese characters and that worked well for me. The passion Hanne feels as she goes about translating a novel is evident in the delivery and each character is uniquely presented. The third person present tense narrative has a first person presentation style which works well given the amount of time we spend with Hanne’s thoughts and musings. Overall, a good narration that gives full weight to the author’s words and intent.

 

 

Disclaimer: I received this audiobook without cost from AudioGo via the Solid Gold Reviewer program at Audiobookjukebox.com

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

Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire SáenzLast Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Narrator: MacLeod Andrews
Published by Brilliance Audio on 2/23/11
Genres: Literary Fiction, Young Adult

Story: B
Narration: B

Quick Review:

A sad but ultimately hopeful book that evoked my sympathy (if not my empathy) and left me feeling a bit like an uninvited observer into someone else’s pain. The story is well-written and the narration is, objectively, very accomplished but I found myself vacillating between experiencing the story as it unfolded and being told a story. The drama is well-paced and despite some repetitive themes I found myself intrigued by the dynamics between characters.

The Plot:

Zach Gonzalez is an eighteen year-old boy from El Paso, TX who finds himself in rehab without any memory of how he got there. Some basic facts of his life are clear: his mother is a clinically depressed agoraphobic; his older brother, a drug user, beats Zach on a regular basis; his father is an alcoholic and Zach himself has taken to using alcohol and drugs as a way of coping with events in his life. Zach is intelligent, artistic, caring, and utterly unwilling to accept (or believe in) any helping hand offered him.

As Zach sits through group and individual therapy sessions and interacts with the people who are in rehab with him – most notably his therapist Adam and his much older roommate Rafael – he focuses his attention outward with surprising empathy for his fellow rehabbers rather than finding the courage to move past the block that prevents him from acknowledging how he ended up in rehab. Eventually the barrier he’s been propping up collapses and he’s forced to face his past.

My Thoughts:

Have you ever read a book and felt like you were overhearing a conversation you shouldn’t be listening to? This was that book for me. I would argue that because the Sáenz is also a poet there is an added air of intimacy to the writing. That isn’t meant to imply that authors whose sole medium is prose are incapable of writing stories that touch the reader on a deep level, just that I find poetry is an inherently intimate method of communication and that habit often carries over to a poet’s writing of prose. When combined with the also intimate medium of having a voice quietly speaking in your ear, this book made me a bit uncomfortable – not in the subject matter but just as an nosy observer of a life that crashed and burned and a young man who is trying to pick up the pieces.

The key word, though, is observer. I skimmed the border between observation and emotional engagement, dipping into either state at seemingly random moments so while I found Zach to be a sympathetic character, I never completely lost myself in this audiobook. Zach wavers between emotional reactions to his memories and dissociating from the world around him and perhaps that dissociation was part of my problem. There were certainly moments that rang with emotion but they were fewer than I expected.

Zach displayed a surprising amount of empathy for the people in his life, especially those who were in rehab with him. I struggled to reconcile my perception of the drug-abuser who smashed windshields with a bat as an expression of his pain with the young and tender Zach who displayed an overabundant (and maybe unhealthy) level of care for others as he went through rehab. I don’t know if I’ve absorbed too much of the media’s portrayal of men and boys as stoic and not in touch with their emotions or what but Zach’s frequent internal dialogue about his love for various people in rehab and the emotional touchy/feely that occurs between Adam, Zach and Rafael felt somewhat skeevy to me.

Zach frequently talks about what seems to be a major theme in the book – words. From the start we see Zach’s version of destiny:

“I have it in my head that when we’re born, God writes things down on our hearts. See, on some people’s hearts he writes happy and on some people’s hearts he writes sad and on some people’s hearts he writes crazy and on some people’s hearts he writes genius and on some people’s hearts he writes angry and on some people’s hearts he writes winner and on some people’s hearts he writes loser.”

For Zach, words are both fate and salvation. Although he rejects the hand reaching out to him when his teacher, Mr. Garcia, praises his written work in school, he holds on to that memory like it was keeping him afloat. Zach and his friends would pick words as if they were a secret password and scream them out at the end of each week. It’s through his reading of Rafael’s journal that he finds solace as well as a new addiction and it’s only when he can face his past and talk about it that he will be free from it. While the themes of words didn’t get repetitious for me as a listener, Zach’s reliance on repetitive word use in thought and speech (as true to life as it may be) was annoying. His favorite phrases (such as “tore/tears me up”, “stunned me out” and “wigged me out”) came up over and over and wore on me.

The Narration:

On the whole, I like the narration by MacLeod Andrews. His performance displayed an understanding of the author’s intent and he gave fully-formed and distinctive performances for every single character. I never needed text indicators to get a complete sense of the emotions in dialogue as they were very clear without being blatant. I really liked the way he lightly brushed several characters’ voices with just hints of an accent to portray the ethnicity or cultural aspect of their personality without allowing it to stereotype the character. My struggle with the narration came in that I often felt like Zach was reflecting on a past experience rather than allowing me to become absorbed in watching his recovery as it happened. This feeling of one-remove was an intermittent problem for me but not a deal-breaker in my enjoyment of the audiobook.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John GreenThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Narrator: Kate Rudd
Published by Brilliance Audio on 1/10/12
Genres: Literary Fiction, Young Adult

Story: B+
Narration: A

Publisher’s summary:

“Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 12, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs… for now.

Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault.

Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.”

My Thoughts:

Sometimes life collapses around your ears and it can happen with cancer, it can happen like it’s described in the book, and it can – to use the analogy Hazel does – go off like a hand grenade and send shrapnel flying into the hearts of those you least want to cause pain. With that, though, there can still be beauty and humor and love and I think that’s what makes this book more than a cancer story or a tear-jerker (and boy was it ever) or a YA book. It encompasses the full measure of messiness that life can be in a story told with grace and humor and not a few tears.

Hazel’s and Augustus’ battles with cancer are obviously the focal point but we don’t just get a self-absorbed or micro-perspective. The struggle their parents go through and the guilt Hazel feels over that are also part of the story. Facing an uncertain future and rejecting love because of that, the process of falling in love anyway, how the world looks at cancer patients and sees the disease more than the person… there are a lot of strands to this story. The thread of humor that runs throughout this book balances out the tragic moments and while I wasn’t completely sold on the storyline regarding the author Peter Van Houten (although I understand how it tied up in the end) and I might have experienced a momentary sense of disbelief at the level of erudition and whip-like humor that flowed through Hazel and Gus’ dialogue, it was still very amusing to listen to and not a stumbling block to my enjoyment of this audiobook.

I wish I had more to say about the book itself in terms of storyline or writing or the character development or any number of things but this book spoke to me on an emotional level far more that an intellectual one so although the writing was smart and the dialogue clever, I flounder in describing it because it’s the wrenching emotional impact of the story that burns brightest in my mind. That’s also why I feel compelled to write a review of it, even though mine will hardly be the most eloquent recommendation – this book just moved me that much. It was a very good book about a serious subject with enough humor to balance it out and I highly recommend it.

The Narration:

I have to ask myself: why have I never listened to a Kate Rudd narration before now? Excuse me for one moment… *pulls out newly acquired fan-girl soapbox* To put it simply, her narration of this audiobook was my idea of perfection. I’m tempted to tell you that the only person I heard narrating in this book was Hazel and leave it at that but that wouldn’t do justice to the skill that let me forget about the narrator and hear only Hazel’s very authentic voice. Ms. Rudd has an extremely natural sounding delivery and when voicing Hazel and Augustus she hit the humorous lines that alternated between wacky and deadpan perfectly. Hazel runs the gamut of emotions in this book and each minute I listened I heard a pure perspective of her point of view based on the inflections, emphasis, and a myriad of subtle vocal cues that were employed. The struggle to breathe that Hazel sometimes battled with would start out gradual and become more apparent without ever overwhelming the narrative or dialogue and I found myself tensing at the quiet onset of each of those scenes. The moments of grief or anger or exhaustion were never overdone and the emotional wallop that lives in the text of this story was allowed to resonate with the listener without overwrought narration getting in the way. The character voices were nicely distinct and Gus’ voice brought him to vibrant life with his goofy humor, bravado and burning desire to be a hero and live a life that leaves a mark. The dialogue was crisp and flowed organically and, in contrast to a common grumble of mine with YA audiobooks, the inspired casting meant the teenage characters sounded young but not childish and the adult voices didn’t sound artificially aged in order to contrast. In short, the voices just sounded natural. This was an excellent narration. *puts fan-girl soapbox away.*

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane SetterfieldThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Narrator: Bianca Amato, Jill Tanner
Published by Simon & Schuster Audio on 9/11/06
Genres: Literary Fiction

Book: B+
Narration: A-

The Thirteenth Tale is a compelling and atmospheric story-within-a-story with Gothic elements that both repulse and draw the reader in. The core mystery is served up in bits and pieces, the writing is excellent, and the story is skillfully delivered by dual narrators. This audiobook was an engaging listen and has placed Bianca Amato on my list of favorite narrators.

Margaret Lea’s life has been steeped in books. In addition to being a devout reader, she is an amateur biographer and a bookseller’s daughter who assists her father with antique book acquisitions. When she is contacted by Vida Winter and invited to write the famous author’s biography, she is intrigued but reluctant. Vida Winter is best known for the sheer variety of life-stories she has given interviewers and for her collection of short stories that was supposed to contain thirteen tales but was published with twelve. When Margaret journeys to the Yorkshire moors to meet with Ms. Winter, she is promised the truth of the writer’s past. As her tale of privileged but disturbed siblings, twin baby girls, and the haunted estate of Angelfield House where ghosts can be glimpsed in mirrors begins to unwind, the listener smoothly navigates between Vida Winter’s life both past and present as well as Margaret’s life and her troubled past as a woman whose twin died at birth.

The Thirteenth Tale is both an homage to the books that become touchstones for us as well as a Gothic-flavored ghost story. There’s a sense throughout the book that it’s the stories we don’t tell that haunt us and this theme runs through the life of all the characters. Vida Winter has been making up stories her entire adult life. Some stories were created for entertainment and profit and some as method of holding the world at one remove but her past is also full of stories too horrible to be told. Margaret is comforted by the books she’s been reading since she was a young girl (most notably Jane Eyre) and tormented by the story that was never told to her. She uncovered evidence of her dead twin on her own at an early age and her sense of herself as incomplete is often mentioned. I found her focus on this and on the seeming betrayal by her parents to be an irritating lament throughout the book although it was so convincingly portrayed by the narrator that it was a minor irritation rather than the major one it might have been in print.

This audiobook was an interesting experience. As I started listening, I was immediately captivated by the writing. There is a lovely texture given to many scenes by the word choices employed. It isn’t singular adjectives or similes that build the mental image for the reader but a string of carefully chosen words that act as much subconsciously as on the surface to provide depth and atmosphere. When describing Margaret’s love of books, the language is tactile and sensuous and culminates in an analogy of ravishment. A scene of intense grief is written with words evoking the inevitability of a shipwreck in a storm as the vessel meets a rocky shore and is torn apart, piece by piece, until it is wrack and ruin. The words themselves, though, were rapidly overtaken by the narration. Bianca Amato gives voice to Margaret Lea in a smooth and realistic manner and her presentation of Vida Winter is a carefully controlled work of art. The emotions expressed by these characters are portrayed with a vocal subtlety that belies the intensity that is transmitted to the listener.

As the story shifts to Vida Winter’s recollections of the past, Jill Tanner takes over the narration. I’ll admit to struggling with the contrast in the two narrations. Both were excellent but I had become accustomed to Amato’s characterization and found the almost grande dame delivery style for Tanner’s version of Vida to be discordant, especially for the disturbing events at Angelfield House. The recollections from the past that encompass the middle of the story were at times disconcerting and I had a hard time reconciling the narrative pattern – not just the narration shift but particularly the pronoun shifts. My logical mind understood the that the tale of the twins, their bond, and their sense of themselves as an inseparable single unit that was drastically affected by the events at Angelfield was ideally portrayed by that language shift but the part of me that just wanted a story felt irritated. Vida Winter is a storyteller and as an observer to her tale, I was unsure where the truth of the tale would fall and whether she could be considered a reliable narrator. That was my perspective at the time, however. Having finished the book, I have a better understanding of why it was set up as a dual narration and why events unfolded the way they did. Clearly there is a core mystery to this tale and I am the type of reader who patiently waits for the author to reveal all in his or her own time but those of you who are more aggressive plot untanglers may very well put the pieces together early on. Even so, there is enough of a story outside of the mystery to keep any reader engaged.