Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris

Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine HarrisMidnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris
Narrator: Susan Bennett
Series: ,
Published by Recorded Books on 5/6/14
Genres: Mystery, Paranormal

Story: B
Narration: A

Publisher’s Blurb:

“From Charlaine Harris, the best-selling author who created Sookie Stackhouse the world of Bon Temps, Louisiana, comes a new, darker world – populated by more strangers than friends. But then, that’s how the locals prefer it.

Welcome to Midnight, Texas, a town with many boarded-up windows and few full-time inhabitants, located at the crossing of Witch Light Road and Davy Road. It’s a pretty standard dried-up western town. There’s a pawnshop (someone lives in the basement and is seen only at night). There’s a diner (people who are just passing through tend not to linger). And there’s new resident Manfred Bernardo, who thinks he’s found the perfect place to work in private (and who has secrets of his own). Stop at the one traffic light in town, and everything looks normal. Stay awhile, and learn the truth….”

My Thoughts:

Charlaine Harris culls two characters from other series she’s written and drops them in the town of Midnight, TX.  Manfred Bernardo – a young psychic who makes a living providing scam readings over the internet interspersed with true psychic visions – moves from the Harper Connolly series to this new trilogy. Bobo Winthrop – on the run from a family legacy of racism and violence covered in depth in the Lily Bard series – lands in Midnight and seems to have found his place in the world. Of course, there’s a host of other residents in town who weave into the story and each one is unusual. Bobo’s tenants: pale Lemuel who only comes out at night and the drop-dead gorgeous Olivia Charity are as deadly as they are mysterious. Across the street from the pawnshop Bobo runs is Fiji Cavanaugh – the proprietor of a new-age shop offering occultist paraphernalia and self-discovery workshops – who is a witch with unexpected power and and amusingly named pet cat: Mr. Snuggles.

This book is a tightly woven combination of mystery and paranormal with the cast of a small-town cozy. As a standalone, it works very well. As someone familiar with the characters from her other series, I had a very hard time adjusting. The Harper Connolly and Lily Bard series always struck me as straight contemporaries, despite Harper’s psychic abilities. To find characters from that world thrown into a small Texas town with vampires and werewolves was jarring. Other than the genre change speed-bump, they actually work really well as characters here and anyone unfamiliar with their pasts should find their presence seamless to the story.

As Manfred learns more about the town and its residents, Bobo’s ex-girlfriend’s body is discovered and he’s the primary suspect in her death. To compound his situation, white supremacists who believe he is in possession of his dead grandfather’s weapons cache are eager to do whatever it takes to get their hands on it. The story moves at a nice clip and I found myself entirely engaged throughout. It was only after it was over that I felt the lack of character building. There’s a thin layer of background for each person and an emotional depth (or lack) that’s primarily comprised of longing and unrequited love but with nothing for a reader to really sink her teeth into.

That kind of perceived flaw is usually a significant issue for me but the story was a lot of fun and it was such a nicely paced plot with a well-blended mix of genres and character types that, in conjunction with an audiobook narration that gave so much vocal depth to characters that it masked much of their actual lack of depth, I ended up enjoying this audiobook immensely and recommend it.

The Narration:

This was my first experience with narrator Susan Bennett and part-way through I stopped to look at what other books she’s done with the intent to pick some up. I was very impressed with her performance. First and foremost was the delightfully dry delivery she brought to the humor; she nailed all the amusing lines without missing a beat. Her character interpretations were excellent, giving me fully-voiced personae with clearly transmitted emotional nuances and varied speech patterns. Her voicing of the eventually-revealed villain of the story was excellent and surprisingly hackle-raising in its ability to reveal shifting glimpses of the evil hiding behind a… well, I’ll let you discover that for yourself.

The story opens with a third-person present tense narrative, a la Pushing Daisies, and Ms. Bennett provides the vocal equivalent (via voice tone) of a camera slowly spiraling in on the little town of Midnight as the omniscient narrator lands us in the story underway. With the switch to third-person past, the sense of being present in every moment is nicely delivered and the narration was perfect for my tastes: lightly burnished with a down-home flavor in terms of accents and laconic delivery and sweeping me into the story without distraction.

Loyalty by Ingrid Thoft

Loyalty by Ingrid ThoftLoyalty by Ingrid Thoft
Narrator: Rebecca Soler
Published by Penguin Audio on 6/18/13
Genres: Mystery
Format: Audiobook
Goodreads
three-stars

Story: C+
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

A feisty PI, dysfunctional family dynamics, good narration by Rebecca Soler, and a plot that moves along nicely make this a decent, if not groundbreaking, listen.

The Plot:

Josefina “Fina” Ludlow quit law school and became an investigator in her family’s law firm. The firm focuses on personal injury claims and has made its fair share of enemies in the police department so when Fina’s brother, Rand, becomes a suspect in his wife’s disappearance, not only will Fina have to untangle a web of family secrets, she’ll have to do it while racing to beat a hostile police detective to the truth.

My Thoughts:

Loyalty is constructed of two different story-lines that eventually converge into one. The astute listener (which was not me, in this case) will quickly see at what point they are likely to intersect but the story is engaging and well-paced enough to keep both the clue-solver and the clueless listener involved.

Fina’s father and her three brothers are all lawyers in the family firm but Fina flunked out of law school. In punishment, her father set her to working her way through various jobs at the firm and she found her place (and a mentor and true father-figure) with the firm’s private investigator. She lives at her (deceased) grandmother’s condo and splits her affections between her friend (with benefits) and massage therapist, Milloy, and her friend (with benefits) and inside source at the cop shop, Christian. She maintains contacts in various professions and social strata of Boston – including among the criminal element – and utilizes them when working a case. As she leverages some of them, it becomes clear that Fina’s investigation is seriously irritating someone because they keep trying to kill her or beat her up.

I like a tough PI protagonist as much as the next reader but the combination here struck me as somewhat awkward at times. Sure, Fina was more than willing to take a swing at a bad guy but she spent a lot of time collecting bruises from being run off the road or punched in the face to discourage her investigation. Then, when she confronts some of her more questionable contacts face-to-face (where her primary threats seem to be “I have a gun” or “don’t make me come back here a second time”) she strikes fear into their hearts? I felt that was more “tell” than a pattern of “show” in terms of how tough Fina is.

Fina loves her family but her father is forceful and controlling and she struggles to balance her desire to please him with how she wants to live her life and what she thinks is right. This sets up a nice internal conflict for Fina to accompany the external conflict of the search for her missing sister-in-law, although I would have enjoyed a deeper look into the dynamics there. The steps Fina goes through to track down her sister seemed logical and grounded, in contrast to many mysteries that rely too heavily on coincidence. Boston is the setting for the story but my sense of the city as a character came strictly from the accents used in the narration rather than atmospheric descriptions in the text.

I was slightly bothered by the fact that most of the adversaries Fina encountered in her investigation were categorized as physically unattractive: possessing cleavage that probably had to be “excavated for crumbs” at the end of the day (Lt. Pitney), or fat (multiple characters) and balding (Mark), or egregiously unfashionably dressed (multiple)  in contrast to the Ludlow’s fashionable attire and Fina’s beauty, rapid metabolism, and athletic nature. It’s a simplified bad guy vs. good guy shorthand characterization that limited the dimensions of the story for me.

It took a while for the story to get going, not because it was poorly paced but because none of the characters are particularly likable so I needed a better understanding of what their motivations were and how the plot pieces were going to start to twining together before I could sink into the story. The plot winds up to a very strong climax and Fina’s internal conflict as she finally uncovers all the components of her sister-in-law’s disappearance and how her family will be affected was particularly engaging.

The Narration:

I’ve enjoyed Rebecca Soler’s performances in the past (most notable with Cinder) and this audiobook was no exception. She does an excellent job encapsulating Fina’s personality and easily transitions between characters with distinctive changes in tone, accent, and pitch. The accents were well done: typical American, Boston-specific accents used intermittently (among the characters, not within the same character), light Hispanic, and a couple of nicely done mild Southern drawls. She conveys the bored teenager with aplomb while moving into the domineering patriarch with equal skill. Her pacing was good and overall, the production was very clean.

It didn’t get a perfect grade from me because a) I’m starting to prefer slightly more natural-sounding narrative and b) the reactive nature of the dialogue between characters, while good, still felt somewhat as if each character was recorded in their entirety and then another had all their lines recorded and… you get the point. This was certainly not the case but that impression was caused by every character having very smooth and consistent pacing in their dialogue with no breaks or leveraging of pauses to really humanize and individualize the characters as well as the presence of an almost metronomic regularity in conversational “call and response.” Overall, it was still a good narration that should suit any listener.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Penguin Audio via the audiobookjukebox.com Solid Gold Reviewer program.

three-stars

A Cold and Lonely Place by Sara J. Henry

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

Story: B
Narration: B

Quick Review:

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

The Plot (via Goodreads):

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

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

My Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Narration:

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

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

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

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

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

three-half-stars

Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus

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

Story: C
Narration: B+

The Plot:

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

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

My Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Narration:

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

 

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

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook by Daniel O’MalleyThe Rook by Daniel O'Malley
Narrator: Susan Duerden
Published by Hachette Audio on 3/1/12
Genres: Fantasy, Mystery
four-stars

Story: A-
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

A refreshingly unique story with an unexpected sense of humor, The Rook was an extremely enjoyable listen. Although I’ve found Susan Duerden’s narrations challenging in light of my voice/delivery preferences, she won me over with this one and gave an excellent performance.

The Plot:

Summary from Goodreads

“Myfanwy Thomas awakes in a London park surrounded by dead bodies. With her memory gone, her only hope of survival is to trust the instructions left in her pocket by her former self. She quickly learns that she is a Rook, a high-level operative in a secret agency that protects the world from supernatural threats. But there is a mole inside the organization and this person wants her dead.

As Myfanwy battles to save herself, she encounters a person with four bodies, a woman who can enter her dreams, children transformed into deadly fighters, and an unimaginably vast conspiracy.”

My Thoughts:

This was such a refreshing book. I found the plot and characters unique and engaging and the humor was an unexpected treat. There were almost two stories being told: that of the amnesiac Myfanwy and how she was maneuvering through her own life with absolutely no idea of what to do (except for the background info in a binder left her by her former self) and flashback scenes to Myfanwy’s past. Those flashbacks were usually in the form of information contained in letters written by pre-memory loss Myfanwy and the author nicely skirts turning them into info-dumps by making them almost their own story-line. While the transitions between the two worked very well for the first half of the book, they seemed to lose some of their cohesion later in the story. There certainly weren’t any whiplash moments of “Wha…? How is that relevant?” It’s just that I found it slightly harder to transition later in the audio.

The two iterations of Myfanwy have different personalities and as the amnesiac version begins to get her feet under her and starts to assert herself I enjoyed witnessing her character arc, especially as I could contrast it with the more timid Myfanwy in the flashback scenes. The world-building of this alternate England is smoothly accomplished and the supernatural abilities within the super-secret government group known as the Chequy (and I’m glad I had the audio version to pronounce that and other names for me) are not necessarily your standard superhero abilities and sometimes they’re just downright amusing. The structure of the Chequy and the intricacies of how it works unfolded in a pretty organic manner as Myfanwy began trying to uncover who was responsible for her loss of memory.

In terms of both the story-telling (text) and the narration (audio), I was sucked into the moment-by-moment discovery of the character. The pacing was perfect to maintain my interest (other than a brief stutter near the end), the writing is amusing, and the story is original. I recommend this audiobook.

The Narration:

I’ll start by making it clear that I have a personal bias against narrations or voices that are breathy or sometimes sound as if they aren’t fully supported. It’s strictly a matter of taste of course, and while it has nothing to do with the ability of the narrator to deliver all the performance aspects that can pull you into a story, it’s been a barrier for me in the past with this narrator. Wow, what a difference a book can make and I’m glad I didn’t let that chase me away from this audio.

It took me a little bit to get into this audiobook – both as I grew accustomed to the narration and as I waited to be grounded in the story as events started to unfold – but when I did I was completely immersed. As a first person narration, Susan Duerden’s voice seemed to effortlessly encapsulate Myfanwy’s personality (er, both of them) – sounding uncertain and timid at times and ratcheting up in confidence as amnesiac Myfanwy began to settle into her strange life. The cast of supporting characters were fully voiced and their personalities were vibrantly depicted by the pitch/tone/cadence/accent choices made for each.

There’s a consistent slide/drop-off at the end of many sentences that I didn’t like but that ended up being a minor issue. Pacing, emphasis, individualizing characters’ perspectives, and reactive delivery of dialogue were all very well-performed. The humor that permeates the book was particularly well done. It was never over-emphasized and often was given a dry tone that made me laugh out loud several times. Overall, this was an extremely enjoyable performance.

four-stars