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.

Elijah by Jacquelyn Frank

Elijah by Jacquelyn FrankElijah by Jacquelyn Frank
Narrator: Xe Sands
Series: Nightwalkers #3
Published by Tantor Media on 8/15/11
Genres: Paranormal, Romance

Book: C+
Narration: B+

Book three in the Nightwalkers series is the story of Elijah, Demon Warrior Captain extraordinaire, and Siena, the Lycanthrope Queen. See all those capitals in that sentence? That is what Jacquelyn Frank’s writing is like for me: emphatic, a little bigger than life, sometimes a little too important sounding, but at the same time quite fun. This audiobook made for an excellent weekend listen while I got on with the mundane tasks of life.

After almost losing his life in a traitorous attack, Elijah is rescued by Siena. She nurses him back to health and the time they spend together sparks an attraction that quickly turns into an inferno. Ruler of a generally matriarchal society and genetically programmed to mate for life, Siena is reluctant to accept her feelings for Elijah. After the death of her mother, her father assumed control of the monarchy and his hate for the demon race drove centuries of conflict. As a result, Siena refuses to share her sovereign power with any male. In addition to the emotional struggle the couple faces, the forces that ambushed Elijah have devised a plan that, if successful, would plunge the entire Nightwalker world into war.

What I liked:

I enjoy the power dynamics in the characters’ relationships. Ms. Frank does an excellent job at combining alpha and beta characteristics in her heroes rather than mainlining one genre convention. We also get some relationship angst but these characters are able to actually have discussions with one another and relationship conflict resolution is almost always over by the first half, leaving the second half of the book for external conflict resolution.

More so than any other author in the genre, Frank writes love scenes that vary widely in tone from serious and intense to passionate and just plain fun. I enjoy the playful scenes because so often in this line of stories, intimate acts are all about dominating animalistic need and quite frankly, variety is the spice of life.

What I didn’t like so much:

I haven’t completely bought in to a level of gravitas in the world-building that requires the word choices Frank employs. On one hand, I get the ‘ancient demon society with years of culture’ aspect that drives the prose to grandiose levels but I sometimes think it can be interpreted as pretentious.*

This book was a bit heavy on exposition and on catching the new reader up on the back-story.

The narration:

I think a large part of what makes this series so successful for me is the narration. Ms. Sands uses a cadence for the exposition that makes me take the text more seriously than if I was reading it and the dialogue has a natural flow with excellent character differentiation. There is an intimate quality to the reading of the sex scenes that invests them with emotional content and avoids the type of over-dramatic narration that tends to make me uncomfortable. Objectively, I might question the true-to-life nature of the French and Russian accents but to be honest, I’ve never seen the Nightwalker world as an alternate reality so I’m not listening for real-world analogs; I take the accents as given for the various races.

If you are looking for an intro to Paranormal Romance or prefer your PNR heavy on dominant alpha men, this isn’t the best book to pick. If you’re looking for an audiobook that can suck you in to a larger-than-life story with well-voiced characters, this series would be a good choice.


The true confessions part of the blog:

*I feel a bit like an idiot for writing that because I imagine I sound like that sometimes and I completely understand the idea that ‘but that’s just what that word means so it’s the right word to use!’ When I hear it, though, it just strikes me as jarring and makes me roll my eyes a bit.