Night of Cake & Puppets by Laini Taylor

Night of Cake & Puppets by Laini TaylorNight of Cake & Puppets by Laini Taylor
Narrator: Kevin T. Collins, Khristine Hvam
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone #2.5
Published by Hachette Audio on 12/5/13
Genres: Fantasy, Romance

Story: A
Narration: A-

Quick Review:

Adorable! An amusing and romantic short story set in the generally more serious universe of Daughter of Smoke and Bone. The dual narration was unexpectedly perfect. Honestly? Don’t bother with the review, just go buy the audio.

Publisher’s Blurb:

In Night of Cake & Puppets, Taylor brings to life a night only hinted at in the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy—the magical first date of fan-favorites Zuzana and Mik. Told in alternating perspectives, it’s the perfect love story for fans of the series and new readers alike. Petite though she may be, Zuzana is not known for timidity. Her best friend, Karou, calls her “rabid fairy,” her “voodoo eyes” are said to freeze blood, and even her older brother fears her wrath. But when it comes to the simple matter of talking to Mik, or “Violin Boy,” her courage deserts her. Now, enough is enough. Zuzana is determined to meet him, and she has a fistful of magic and a plan. It’s a wonderfully elaborate treasure hunt of a plan that will take Mik all over Prague on a cold winter’s night before finally leading him to the treasure: herself! Violin Boy’s not going to know what hit him.

My Thoughts:

I think I’m pretty much onboard to read anything Laini Taylor wants to write but when I heard that there was an upcoming novella about Zuzana and Mik – characters from the fantastic Daughter of Smoke and Bone series – I… er… I may have squeed aloud. A little bit. And pestered @HachetteAudio to find out if there would be an audio version. Some of my favorite scenes in Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight contain Zuzana. As the perfect humorous foil for the darker material in the book, she got most of the funny lines and I glommed onto her like a raft in the emotional storm that was Karou’s life. I was pleased to discover that this novella lived up to my expectations.

Although we get a short glimpse of the early friendship between Karou and Zuzana, the story is primarily about Zuzanna as she plots her first date with Mik and leads him on a treasure hunt to get to it. Unexpectedly, we also get to hear Mik’s perspective on this adventure. Both characters speak directly to the listener which is a conceit that can sometimes be a bit problematic for me when it’s overdone or seems too clever. In this case it worked perfectly and made me feel like I was overhearing a conversation in a coffee shop the day after a first date.

In addition to the magic of romance, there’s a little of the real magic that inhabits the DoSaB world and they blend together well. As in the full-length novels, Prague comes alive in the story and the atmosphere of one snowy night in that ancient city is a vivid construction in the listener’s imagination. The imagery is beautifully rendered and the phrasing is well-written. This is a sweet, adorable, and laugh-out-loud funny story that’s a perfect companion to the series or a lovely stand-alone listen when you’re in the mood to be charmed.

I was going to include some quotes of the amusing or well-worded parts of this novella but then I realized I’d been cutting and pasting practically the entire book and decided…perhaps not. As a short précis of Zuzana, though, I can’t resist:

“I mean, who would I be if I’d been raised on milquetoast bedtime stories and not forced to dust the glass prison of a psychotic undead fox Cossack? I shudder to think.

I might wear lace collars and laugh flower petals and pearls. People might try to pat me. I see them think it. My height triggers the puppy-kitten reflex – Must touch – and I’ve found that since you can’t electrify yourself like a fence, the next best thing is to have murderer’s eyes.”

and a bit later…

“Anyone with an older brother can tell you: Cunning is required. Even if you’re not miniature like me – four foot eleven in a good mood, as little as four foot eight when in despair, which is way too often lately – morphology is on the side of brothers. They’re bigger. Their fists are heavier. Physically, we don’t stand a chance. Hence the evolution of ‘little-sister brain.’

Artful, conniving, pitiless. No doubt about it, being a little sister – emphasis on little – has been formative, though I take pride in knowing that Tomas is more scarred by years of tangling with me than vice versa. But more than anyone or anything else, it’s Deda who is responsible for the landscape of my mind, the mood and scenery, the spires and shadows. When I think about kids (which isn’t often, except to wish them elsewhere and stop just short of deploying them hence with my foot), the main reason I would consider…begetting any (in a theoretical sense, in the far-distant future) is so that I can practice upon small, developing brains the same degree of mind-molding my grandfather has practiced on us.”

As for Mik…the cat analogy… oh, the cat analogy. It was brilliant and amusing and so well voiced by Kevin T. Collins that I’m not going to quote it but only suggest you listen to it yourself. This novella is well worth a listen and likely several re-listens.

The Narration:

I was concerned when I saw that this novella was going to be voiced by dual narrators. I was please to see that Khristine Hvam would be narrating – after all, she does such a great job with the full-length books in the series – but why did we need another voice? Well, aside from the fact that the story is actually broken out into “Her” and “Him” alternating sections, as it turns out, Kevin T. Collins was awesome as Mik.

Each narrator brings personality and individualization to the characters: from the squeak when Zuzana gets excited about what she’s saying to the tentative uncertainty Mik displays and the way in which Mr. Collins leverages perfect inflections to build the character and his mood and personality in my mind, this pairing was audio gold.

Why the “-” to the A” grade? I heard a little inconsistency in Zuzana’s accent and Mr. Collins uses a lot of breath(iness) to push out Mik’s lines. These were very minor issues as the narration was above average and makes audio the way to go with this story.

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

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini TaylorDays of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor
Narrator: Khristine Hvam
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone #2
Published by Hachette Audio on 11/6/12
Genres: Fantasy, Romance
five-stars

Warning – there may be spoilers in this review for both Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight. Nothing that should ruin your reading but definitions of “spoiler” vary. If you haven’t read the first book yet, I strongly urge you to stop and go listen to it now (and I envy you your first encounter with it.) In fact, if you haven’t listened to Daughter of Smoke and Bone yet and would like to, I will gift a copy to the first two or three Audible.com members (or anyone who can set up an Audible.com account) who use my “Contact Us” form to tell me they’d like one; I’m in the mood to share my audio love for this series.

Story: A
Narration: A

Quick Review:

Damn that was a good audiobook.

The Plot:

Karou has learned the secret of her origins but the gift of that knowledge has left her with nothing but the bitter taste of ashes. The world she knew is now forever out of her reach and she is once again set adrift from the familiar. Beset by guilt and driven by her anger at Akiva, she joins the rebel army and picks up where Brimstone left off. Being a human among the chimaera would be hard enough but the disdain her affair with a seraphim engenders has isolated her even more and she is forced to struggle with her doubts, blame, and the very real moral quandary of her actions.

The seraphim have declared victory over the chimaera and it would seem that all that’s left to do is to mop up the survivors – meaning slaughter the few remaining chimaera solders who are willing to fight and to enslave the civilian populace. Akiva struggles to balance his orders against the moral imperatives that are now driving him while coping with his guilt over the role he played in the war.

My Thoughts:

There are some big themes in this book: love and forgiveness, conflict and what begets a continuation of war vs. what can end it, self-doubt and the blame we take on ourselves when our actions have unexpected consequences, the nature of friendship, and several more. While that makes it sound like an “issues book” it really isn’t. It’s the story of these characters and their world and the very real and understandable inner turmoil they face, bracketed by the physical dangers that swirl around them as the waning war between their races takes on a new urgency.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone was my favorite audiobook of 2011. The lyrical writing, the layered plotting, the blend of humor with the more serious stuff, the complex but relatable characters – all of it was seamlessly combined and the same is true of Days of Blood and Starlight. One of my favorite aspects of DoSaB was the shift mid-way through where the world of the chimaera and seraphim came into focus and the history of their conflict was revealed layer by layer. The sequel takes that aspect and distills it to a very potent emotional brew.

There were long stretches of this audiobook that I can only describe as bleak. I held out little hope for even the continuing survival of our protagonists, let alone that their dream of peace could ever come to pass. My initial reaction when I finished the audiobook was that I didn’t like it as much as Daughter of Smoke and Bone. After some time thinking about it I realized that wasn’t the case at all. The truth is, I found this a harder book to listen to because so much of what it evoked was (theoretically) on the negative scale: tension, long stretches of hopelessness, that peculiar literary fear at the decisions made by the characters that weren’t going to result in sunshine and rainbows, serious thoughts about what drives conflict between cultures and nations, and an intricate teasing out of whether I felt Karou and Akiva were right to blame themselves and whether their actions were justified or not – to name just a few. None of that would have affected me the way it did, however, if the writing wasn’t so evocative, the larger issues it made me consider weren’t framed within the context of a very good story that lent them a certain subtlety, and the characters weren’t written in such a way that they almost to take on a life outside the pages of the book and I’ve come to care about them.

Tightly woven into the story of the aftermath of war between these two races, however, are faint threads of hope. There are small acts of mercy and compassion, on and off the battlefield; characters who realize that destruction will never be a sustainable way to ensure the continued survival and well-being of their people and who evince a willingness to find another way; hints that forgiveness, although incredibly difficult to find within oneself, can and should be given and received; and always present was the strong bond of friendship between Karou and Zuzana. Thank goodness for Zuzana and Mick – the comic-relief sidekicks who, despite my use of that cliched characterization term, were an integral part of the story whose presence was both necessary to the plot and to my continued emotional survival as I listened.

As much I enjoy complicated, messy, wrenching, ambiguous novels, I have to admit that it’s easier to immediately proclaim “I loved this book!” when I’m still riding a wave of happily-ever-after endorphins rather than trying to pick up the pieces of my expectations and shattered hopes. I find that it’s easier for an author to make me happy than it is to create a narrative that can reach out and grab my emotions and wrench them about while keeping me totally invested in the story and characters although there’s no doubt that as a reader, the rewards for books that can do the latter are greater for me. Days of Blood and Starlight is just as good a book as Daughter of Smoke and Bone and it added a complexity to the overall plot that I don’t often find in second-in-a-series books. This was an incredibly good audiobook and I highly recommend it.

The Narration:

Khristine Hvam pretty much nails the narration of this audiobook. I’ve enjoyed her work in the past although I sometimes felt there was an element of the theatrical to it that didn’t quite suit my preference for subtle storytelling. With this one, I can’t imagine listening to the text in the hands of any other narrator. While it may just be that I’m familiar with her take on the characters now, it almost seemed that her delivery had softened a bit and took on an even more natural tone.

The aspects of character delivery that keep the listener in the moment and on the edge of their seat: Point of View, Discovery, the Here and Now, very real vocal responsiveness in Dialogue, and Accents were all flawless. If it seems I’m just running through a list of narration “performance markers” and checking them off, well, in a way I am because at no point in the story did it occur to me “oh, that’s very natural sounding dialogue.” I was never less than immersed in the characters and rarely spared a thought for the narrator. The accents were a particular high-point as was the pitch-perfect delivery of humor with the character of Zuzana a perfect exemplar of this. An excellent narration and I strongly recommend choosing the audio version.

five-stars

Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale

Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. LansdaleEdge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale
Narrator: Angéle Masters
Published by Hachette Audio on 3/25/12
Genres: Suspense

Story: B+
Narration: A-

Quick Review:

Edge of Dark Water is part coming of age story, part murder mystery, a lot Southern Gothic story, part river adventure, part… well, it’s a whole lot of things but most importantly – it’s a very good book. Joe R. Lansdale creates an extremely well-drawn sense of time and place with characters who immediately grabbed my attention. There’s a very “classic” feel to much of this story (think To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn) with well-placed doses of horror. Although the writing by itself would have sucked me in to the story, the narration did an excellent job of stepping up the experience just that much more.

The Plot:

The story is set in depression era East Texas where young May Lynn’s body is found at the bottom of the Sabine River weighted down with a sewing machine tied to her ankles. That discovery sets in motion a chain of events that propel sixteen year old Sue Ellen, her “sissy” friend Terry, and their “colored” friend Jinx out of childhood and onto a painful path towards adulthood. Beautiful May Lynn dreamed of movie stars and California and after discovering her secret map to a stash of stolen money, Sue Ellen and her friends decide to burn May Lynn’s body and carry her ashes to Hollywood. In the process, Sue Ellen thinks to escape a drunk and abusive father and a mother who has medicated herself into nothingness with her bottles of laudanum-laced “cure-all” while Terry wants to leave behind his step-father’s controlling ways and Jinx is more than willing to leave behind her life of drudgery and deeply entrenched racism. When money is involved though, the consequences can be deadly and in addition to battling the river on their way out of Texas, Sue Ellen, Terry, Jinx, and Sue Ellen’s mother end up playing a life-and-death game of hide-and-seek with a corrupt sheriff, Sue Ellen’s uncle, and a legendary bogeyman – the tracker and killer known as “Skunk.”

My Thoughts:

There’s an almost elegiac quality to the first half of the story as the characters reveal themselves in all their poverty, twisted home lives, and the crushing economic and social realities of the era. What buoys this story of leaving youth behind, though, is the resiliency of spirit that inhabits each character. Sue Ellen’s voice as narrator is down-to-earth and forthright and while her daddy may beat her and her mother, she’s more than willing to brandish a piece of stove wood to ensure he keeps his hands to himself at night. I didn’t find Jinx to be as fully developed of a character as I would have liked because several times she seemed to be along solely as the snappy side-kick (granted, some of her lines were laugh-out-loud amusing). Terry was much like the river: a seemingly steady path to an end but with some surprising undercurrents. As I watched them navigate through each other’s lives with all the destructive and beneficial power that can exist among friends I was riveted.

When the book takes a turn in the middle as the events the characters are running from catch up to them, there are several sharp bursts of tension and action that were extremely well paced and they generated far more tension in me as a reader than I’ve experienced with a book in a long time. A few particularly gruesome scenes didn’t faze me as I had given myself over to the bubble of time and place the author so deftly created. The characters were also brought to life in such a way that even some small complaints I have about some of the level of dialogue and banter these teenagers had as well as Sue Ellen’s mother’s Helen of Troy-like beauty – even after years of drug use, abuse, and rough travel – failed to do more than flit through my mind and fade away as I once again submerged in the tale.

While there’s certainly enough well-paced plotting to maintain the reader’s attention, the book really shines in its prose. The similes and descriptions were alternately beautiful and colorful but they were dished out sparingly and avoided veering into anything resembling a stereotypical country-dweller or redneck characterization. The personalities were vivid from the start but continued to build and be refined and as events progress we see Sue Ellen, Terry, and Sue Ellen’s mother pared down to the essence of their character as they struggle to survive and move into whatever their futures hold. The Texas landscape and everyone who peoples it in this book are brought to life with regional phrases, activities (e.g. fishing by electrocuting them with a crank phone) and a clear portrait of a harsh way of life.

The Narration:

I really enjoyed Angéle Masters’ narration. I only had one issue with it but it also highlights one of the outstanding areas. I occasionally had a hard time differentiating between Sue Ellen’s dialogue, her mother’s, and sometimes Jinx’s as well if their lines weren’t very long because they often had a pretty similar pitch. Given a short period of time with either one speaking, though, and it was crystal clear who was talking because every character in this book was given their own speech patterns and cadences within the overall Texas drawl. The accent was another area that stood out for me. I’m accustomed to narrators using a generic Southern drawl to portray a character from anywhere in a wide swath of the Southern U.S. But Ms. Masters’ accent seemed distinctly Texas (granted, my only experience with that accent was a father-in-law from Texas but….) All of the other performance markers I listen for (or rather, ideally never notice because they’ve served to suck me into the story completely) such as each character’s distinct POV, the sense of a here and now and the discovery of events taking place just as the story unfurls, the care with which the author’s words were given weight as they were spoken, the pacing of the various scenes… it was all very nicely delivered.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini TaylorDaughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Narrator: Khristine Hvam
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone #1
Published by Hachette Audio on 9/27/11
Genres: Fantasy

Book: A-
Narration: B+

Meet Karou: a seventeen year-old art student in Prague, she spends her days easing her way through life with the small wishes she carries like beads on a string and entertaining her classmates with her sketches of inhuman figures.  Those sketches, however, are portraits of her family. She earns her wishes from a creature who has been the only father she remembers – the horned Chimaera named Brimstone who runs a shop where he trades in teeth (both human and animal) and wishes. The errands Karou runs on behalf of Brimstone take her through magic doors to the farthest reaches of the world, where she bargains for merchandise for the shop. It is on one of these errands that Karou is spotted by the angelic Akiva and he attempts to kill her as part of an ongoing battle between the Seraphim and the Chimaera. Wounded, Karou returns to the shop but is soon cut off from her family when the magic doors close for good. So begins Karou’s journey of discovery – of who she is, where she comes from, and how she can get back to her family.

After finishing this audiobook I felt a bit like Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I picked up what I thought would be a “candy bar” of a book and ended up with a golden ticket to an amazing world and a lot more than what I was expecting. If I had to pick one word to describe this book it would be “refreshing”: in setting, use of language, and in world-building – to name just a few aspects that captured my imagination.

There’s a terrific over-arching mythology that develops describing the conflicts of two worlds, two species at war, two star-crossed lovers… but it is all made not just relatable but completely engaging by the sheer humanity of the characters. The interactions between Karou and the beastly, horned, teeth-buying creature that she thinks of as her father are resonant with the emotions any teen/parent interaction would have. Along with what seems to be a magical fated love affair, there is (in contrast to most YA paranormal/fantasy) a vignette where, far from aggrandizing the loss of virginity, the potential awkwardness of that moment and its after-effects is deftly captured with subtle strokes. (Also, if I had daughters they totally would have been given the speech about “inessential” things. I imagine it was amusing in text form but in audio it was a priceless scene.)

There is a surprising depth to the conflict between the Chimaera and the Seraphim, not because the cause of the war is complex or unique but because rarely have I seen an author take the time to move beyond a simple good vs. evil paradigm and really map out the way in which each side has constructed their own mythos about how the war started and who is the cause in addition to how the ripple effects of that war and prejudice impact the characters.

Before you get the wrong impression, let me assure you that the story is not all war, creatures, and conflict. There are some truly amusing sections of dialogue, particularly between Karou and her friend Zuzana. I was also enchanted by the mental picture the author’s words built of the city of Prague, which became a character in its own right. Even if I had been inclined to take issue with some particular plot point (which I‘m not) the writing was amazing. There were such lovely moments of description in this book and they were made richer by the fact that in addition to highlighting and adding depth to the characters and storyline, as good writing often does they also served as small moments of illumination into the character of the reader and their world.

I’ve encountered Khristine Hvam’s narration skills before (most notably with Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series) so I wasn’t too worried about her ability to provide good character differentiation and story delivery but there were several facets of her performance that worked particularly well for me in this book. I found the flow of dialogue to have a very natural feel and Zuzana’s amusing banter was delightful in both content and delivery, providing outright laugh out loud moments. Hvam also does an amazing job at voicing a single character in both youth and maturity with a pitch-perfect (in both the figurative and literal sense) tone.

In summary (in case I was in any way vague) I loved this audiobook.