Good for You by Tammara Webber

Good for You by Tammara WebberGood for You by Tammara Webber
Narrator: Kate Rudd, Todd Haberkorn
Series: Between the Lines #3
Published by Brilliance Audio on 12/3/12
Genres: Romance
four-stars

Story: B
Narration: A-

Quick Review:

This was a highly enjoyable romance with protagonists who step outside some commonly seen themes to develop into complex characters with depth. The dual narration works extremely well and enhances this first person contemporary YA/NA quite nicely.

Goodreads Summary:

“Reid Alexander’s life is an open book. His Hollywood celebrity means that everything he does plays out in the public eye. Every relationship, every error in judgment is analyzed by strangers. His latest mistake totaled his car, destroyed a house, and landed him in the hospital. Now his PR team is working overtime to salvage his image. One thing is clear – this is one predicament he won’t escape without paying for it.

Dori Cantrell is a genuine humanitarian – the outward opposite of everything Reid is about. When his DUI plea bargain lands him under community service supervision, she proves unimpressed with his status and indifferent to his proximity, and he soon wants nothing more than to knock her off her pedestal and prove she’s human.

Counting the days until his month of service is over, Dori struggles to ignore his wicked magnetic pull while shocking him with her ability to see past his celebrity and challenge him to see his own wasted potential. But Dori has secrets of her own, safely locked away until one night turns her entire world upside down. Suddenly their only hope for connection and redemption hinges on one choice: Whether or not to have faith in each other.”

My Thoughts:

What starts out as some often seen (and often simplified) themes in romance novels – a good girl (preacher’s kid), a bad boy (and a movie star to boot), and sparks flying as the two butt heads when forced by circumstances to interact – reveals itself to be more than the initial setup might suggest. I haven’t read the first two books in this series (and by the way, this one worked very well as a stand-alone) so I didn’t have any preconceptions about the character of Reid but I hear he was a bit of a jerk in the earlier books. While he was definitely a spoiled and self-centered movie star to kick off the book, he wasn’t unbearable and as the story progresses not only does his personality begin to change in response to his experiences but his actions are understandable given his history. His shift in personality and his desire to be better than he was seemed reasonable to me and I enjoyed his transformation.

Dori was the protagonist who benefited the most from the in-depth characterization she was drawn with. She judged Reid pretty harshly (understandably so) to start with but found herself drawn to him anyway. I reached a point in the story where everything could have wrapped up nicely into a romantic resolution but with more than half the book left, Dori started coming into focus and carried much of the rest of the story for me. She could easily have been a goody-two-shoes but she had some real (and realistic) struggles with her faith that were backed up by an unexpected history that broke my heart. Her present wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows either.

The struggle between Dori and Reid to establish a relationship was lengthy and it was interrupted part-way through as they pushed each other away and as life pulled them in separate directions. Usually this interruption of “together time” in the middle of a romance would make the book seem drawn out but it worked particularly well for me here because each of them needed to see what life without the other felt like. Dori in particular had to figure out what need Reid met (besides the obvious – nudge-nudge-wink-wink) in her life.

I often find literary characters who evince a religious faith to be written in a manner inconsistent with my experience with religion in real life. They seem to hit an extreme end on the spectrum: either overzealous and so preachy as to be irritating or a former believer whose faith has been crushed by tragedy and now they reject religion entirely. Dori’s religion was a real-world version and she questions it as life throws curve balls her way. It was also a part of who she was and for once, I didn’t get a sense of authorial intent behind the inclusion of faith – that was simply who this character needed to be.

I really enjoyed this audiobook. I listened to it in a couple long sessions over a two day period and it captured my interest completely and had terrific narration.

The Narration:

Although it isn’t my intent to take away from the author’s ability to make a story containing common romance elements something fresh and engaging because the characters are written as complex and interesting people, the fact that the narrators delivered such contemporary and natural voices for the characters absolutely enhanced my enjoyment of this book. Alternating short chapters that switch first person perspective between the protagonists is an ideal situation for a dual narration casting. The selection of narrators who can swing age-appropriate voices in addition to being very skilled in their craft was a major score. If I have one complaint (and I do) it’s that Dori’s voice, which is described as “lyrical”, is given the slightest hint of an Hispanic accent when read by Todd Haberkorn but not when read by Kate Rudd. While either delivery is fine, it’s the disconnect between the two that I had to get used to.

This was my first listen to one of Todd Haberkorn’s narrations but I won’t hesitate to pick up another with his name on it. He was convincing as a young and spoiled movie star while still managing to not make him so much of a jerk (vocally) that I tuned him out in self-defense. He delivered the emotional gamut the story and character called for and nailed distinctive voices for each character. His delivery was very natural sounding which sucked me right in and I heard Reid as a person rather than a character.

This was my second listen to Kate Rudd’s work (and she’s two for two at making me cry, thank-you-very-much) and she was the perfect pairing to put up against Mr. Haberkorn. Her youthful inflections matched Dori’s age and she was pitch-perfect at the lines that delivered the biggest emotional punch. She also brought a very natural sound to the character as well as providing distinct voices for each of the supporting cast. Her delivery was very effective at providing me with a sense of immediacy as events unfolded.

four-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 Witness by Nora Roberts

The Witness by Nora RobertsThe Witness by Nora Roberts
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Published by Brilliance Audio on 4/17/12
Genres: Romance, Suspense

Story: B-
Narration: C+

Quick Review:

Front-loaded with the suspense storyline, this audiobook dissolves into a pleasant contemporary romance with enjoyable protagonists I was happy to follow along with as they fell in love. A socially stunted super-genius heroine and a relaxed almost beta hero combine with a tidy resolution to the conflict introduced at the start of the book to make for a pleasant read. The narration should suit most listeners although the very deliberate inflections and enunciation of narrative sections was problematic for me.

The Plot:

Nora Roberts’ 200th book (can I just take a moment to say “wow!” at that?) begins with sixteen year-old Elizabeth Fitch who has finally worked up the nerve to defy her mother. Dr. Susan Fitch is a clinical and cold woman who has orchestrated the ideal food, exercise, and educational regimen to raise a perfect specimen of a daughter and her only failure is in not ending up with one as beautiful as she is. Liz’s childhood (a misnomer since she never really had one) was loveless and her first act of teenage rebellion brings it to an abrupt end the night she creates a fake ID, sneaks into a club owned by the Russian mob, and is the sole witness to a double homicide. Secreted away in a safe house and guarded by U.S. Marshals, she’s ready to testify against the mob but when two marshals are killed and the safe house blows up just as she makes her escape, she begins a life on the run.

Fast forward twelve years to Liz living under the name Abigail Lowery in a small Arkansas town. Her work as a security specialist and her unceasing vigilance keep her occupied but not happy. When newly minted police chief Brooks Gleason catches a glimpse of Abigail’s concealed weapon, he pays her a visit to check out the reserved woman and finds himself intrigued with her. As he wages a quiet campaign to convince her to let down her walls and trust him with her secrets, his life is complicated by the reckless son of one of the town’s wealthiest men, who seems intent on sowing destruction everywhere he goes. As they become lovers, Abigail realizes the time has come to deal with her past in order to allow her to really live.

My Thoughts:

There’s a decent amount of the book spent setting up Abigail’s back-story but she’s the kind of character who needs some explanation. More lab experiment than child in the eyes of her mother, Abigail is a genius with almost no socialization skills. She started college early and is a computer geek with hacking skills. If you’re familiar with the TV show Bones and the character of Dr. Temperance Brennan, you’ll find an almost exact match in Abigail. Prone to taking people literally and speaking with a certain objective bluntness, she isn’t comfortable with emotion. This makes her gradual transition to “humanity” under Brooks’ coaxing teasing an enjoyable journey.

Brooks is a mellow care-taking hero with, as is typical in many Nora Roberts’ books, strong family bonds. The involvement of family in the romance is an aspect I’m particularly fond of so I enjoyed the part his mother and sisters play in the story. Brooks is protective without being possessive and the dance between him and Abigail as she learns to trust and then comes to love him is amusing and sweet. The conflict between Brooks and the town’s troublemaker isn’t so much a suspenseful or mystery storyline as just a part of what drives the story forward and Brooks and Abigail together but it is well-integrated to the whole.

The romance is sweet and there are several spots of the amusing dialogue I’ve come to expect with Robert’s writing. Her habitual shortened sentences in dialogue, use of nouns as verbs, and tendency to omit pronouns was far less evident in this audiobook. Overall a good story.

The Narration:

If you’re familiar with Julia Whelan’s narrations (or Sophie Eastlake’s – I’m 99% sure they’re the same person) then read no further – you’ll be fine with the performance. The delivery is very clearly enunciated with not-quite metronomic timing between words, which was not my ideal. That had an unfortunate effect on my sense of the events as ‘here and now.’ The same inflections in narrative were employed regardless of who was being described or who was thinking. This meant that when the bad guy was thinking “He wanted to f**k her” it sounded the same as when the male protagonist was thinking that about the female lead character which lent the narration a certain degree of ‘being read to’ rather than experiencing the story. The characters were very clearly distinguished and each character had a smoother flow to their dialogue. As a strictly personal preference, I wasn’t carried away with the male protagonist’s voice because he’s one of those lovely almost-beta heroes that Roberts writes and his light tenor combined with his care-taking instincts didn’t provide the contrast or “awwww” factor that a deeper voice would, something I prefer with that particular character construction. Abigail’s speech pattern was formal/stilted which worked to emphasize her characterization as a very unsocialized and cerebral woman but Ms. Whelan did an excellent job letting it relax as Abigail fell in love and the restrained emotion worked into her voice as she recounted her past to Brooks engendered more tension that the description of the original drama.

Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess by Phil and Kaja Foglio

Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess by Phil and Kaja FoglioAgatha H and the Clockwork Princess by Kaja Foglio, Phil Foglio
Narrator: Angela Dawe
Series: Girl Genius #2
Published by Brilliance Audio on 4/1/12
Genres: Fantasy, Steampunk

Story: B-
Narration: A-

Quick Review:

A fun audio although a surprisingly slow build-up to the climax and an overly large cast of characters sharing page time with Agatha made this book, while still entertaining and worth the listen, a bit of a letdown in comparison to the first audiobook in this series. The narration continues to shine, conveying the colorful and inventive world and strong, often amusing, characterizations with assurance and energy without sliding into caricature.

The Plot:

Book two of the continuing saga of the “Girl Genius” and her steampunk-flavored alternate history finds Agatha on the run for her life. After escaping from the floating citadel of Castle Wulfenbach and its Baron, Agatha Clay (now revealed as the missing Heterodyne heir and daughter of Lucrezia Monfish and Bill Heterodyne) and her companion Krosp, the talking cat, set out on a journey to return to her home in Mechanicsburg. When their stolen dirigible crashes in the Wasteland, they happen upon Master Payne’s Circus of Adventure and after saving the circus from a rampaging mechanical construct, Agatha and Krosp are invited to travel with them as they wind their way towards Mechanicsburg.

Baron Wulfenbach is determined to capture the last of the Heterodynes and he dispatches his son Gilgamesh and the psychotic airship captain Bangladesh DuPree to find her and bring her back. Agatha, with the help of the circus folk, evades capture and soon begins immersing herself in the life of a performer. The circus troupe puts Agatha to work repairing the caravans, an old calliope, and various mechanical devices and she also makes friends with a sword-mistress named Zeetha, who takes Agatha on as a student and is soon running her ragged with training. The fires of a budding romance with the actor Lars are fanned as she takes the stage playing Lucrezia Mongfish opposite his Bill Heterodyne but as they travel on towards Sturmhalten Keep, a danger from Agatha’s past looms before her.

My Thoughts:

This was a good audiobook with a lengthy but cohesive story and it progressed the overall arc of the series significantly. As the novelization of a web-comic series, I was surprised that book one didn’t reflect the episodic nature of that medium. With book two, some of that underpinning becomes apparent. It wasn’t so much that the audiobook was long (many of my favorites are) or that the story was disjointed but rather that the action bounced between the Baron, Gil, and DuPree; Agatha and a detailed group of circus performers; the shady goings-on of Tarvek Sturmvoraus and his sister Anevka at at Sturmhalten Keep; and smaller snippets of time spent with Jägermonsters and the newly introduced Geisterdamen. All of it was interesting but spread the story out too thinly to offer much drama prior to the conclusion of the book. It also had the effect of delaying some significant developments in Agatha’s character until the end, leaving her a very static player for much of the listen.

Although that’s a lot of complaining, I did enjoy this book and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as a follow-up to Agatha H and The Airship City. The cast of characters is amusing and diverse, Baron Klaus Wulfenbach is shown in a new perspective, the circus people are well-constructed supporting characters who demand their own stage time, there are several new people introduced who both complicate Agatha’s life and will likely be significant in future installments, and while not as consistently engaging as book one, it’s still a lot of fun.

The Narration:

The narration by Angela Dawe was excellent and while I generally suggest going audio over text, with this one it’s a particularly strong recommendation. There is a wide cast of characters who are not only easily distinguished by pitch and tone but also by a bewildering variety of accents that Ms. Dawe seems to keep up with effortlessly. The pacing is good although an extra (and distracting) beat of silence occasionally sneaks in but the energy level is high and the dynamic delivery will suck you in to the story. The voices of the Jägermonsters and Bangladesh DuPree are reason enough to seek out the audio version but it’s a strong performance in total.