Restless in the Grave by Dana Stabenow

Restless in the Grave by Dana StabenowRestless in the Grave by Dana Stabenow
Narrator: Marguerite Gavin
Series: Kate Shugak #19
Published by Macmillan Audio on 2/14/12
Genres: Mystery

Story: B
Narration: B

Quick Review:

This was a good story that will satisfy followers of the series although it lacks the emotional punch or extreme life-and-death drama of some of the previous entries. It’s suitable for new listeners but, not a surprise at book nineteen, there’s a ton of back-story that makes time spent with these characters a much richer experience. Combining protagonists from the author’s two primary series worked surprisingly well and despite not having read any of the Liam Campbell books, I felt completely at home with the characters. Marguerite Gavin’s narration was very good with the exception of moments of unusually rapid-fire delivery of the narrative sections. This shouldn’t be a deal-breaker, especially for those already familiar with the audio versions, but it’s worth sampling before buying.

The Plot:

When Alaska State Trooper Liam Campbell’s wife, bush pilot Wyanet (Wy) Chouinard,  becomes a suspect in what may or may not be a murder, he asks Sergeant Jim Chopin for help with the investigation. P.I. Kate Shugak, who also happens to be Jim’s lover, is only too happy to have an excuse to absent herself from the Park. After serving a term as Chair of the Niniltna Native Association, she’s ready to let the new Chair take on the burden of shareholder demands and a bit of undercover work is as good an excuse as any to get out of town.

As Kate tends bar in Newenham, she begins to piece together Finn Grant’s life (and death). A pilot and the owner of Eagle Air – a fixed-base operation that provides service and support to pilots and planes – he also ran his own air transport business from a decommissioned Air Force base he bought dirt-cheap at auction. A sudden increase in income, a spurned spouse, a son with an eye on his father’s money, and the recent death of Finn’s daughter in Afghanistan mix with a town where no one has a nice word to say about him and make for an involved investigation where someone is trying to keep Kate from discovering the truth.

My Thoughts:

Although the story primarily follows Kate as she works undercover to discover whether Finn Grant was murdered, there are some alternating points-of-view that keep the listener up-to-date on what Jim is doing back in Niniltna and provide insight into Liam Campbell’s life in Newenham. The transitions between the perspectives were smoothly written and never had me wishing for a switch back to Kate. The book was peopled with the expected cast of amusing, often odd, frequently irascible and utterly picturesque characters I’ve come to expect in Stabenow’s (or maybe I mean Kate’s) Alaska and the geography of the state was a character in and of itself. The pacing was sufficient to keep my interest although I never felt any real moments of tension or anxiety around how events would resolve themselves.

There were a few small points of contention for me, the main one being that the end of the story was in no way a surprise. If there were a reader’s yearbook, I would definitely be voted “least likely to figure out the end of a mystery” but there was a give-away line relatively early on that clued me in to “who done it.” In addition, as the series has progressed I’ve become increasingly irked by the rising level of anthropomorphism Kate’s dog Mutt is given and although I realize it’s fiction, Mutt seems awfully spry for a wolf dog at the end of a normal life-span. All told, those were minor quibbles.

A lot of the relationship dynamics/tension that are present between Kate and Jim were, for obvious reasons, absent in this book. While the mystery was enough to hold my interest, I missed their interactions and didn’t feel compensated by the flashes of attraction Kate had to Liam and the more serious attraction she felt for movie star (and investor in Eagle Air) Gabe McGuire. If there’s one thing that’s crystal clear about Kate, it’s her rock-solid moral compass.

Kate, Jim, Liam, Wy… these are all well-constructed characters and regardless of where this book falls along my “like/love” continuum for this series, I enjoyed spending time with them.  I got the feeling that there was ground-work being done in this book for a really spectacular showdown with a figure from Kate’s past and the intimation of that has me anxious for the next book.

The Narration:

Although I would qualify Marguerite Gavin’s narration as a success, I had an odd disconnect between what I heard in the performance of the narrative and how effective it was at connecting me with the story’s emotional intent. Ms. Gavin spits out portions of the narrative like she’s laying down covering fire for the dialogue, which has a somewhat more leisurely pace and is really the “hero” of the narration. The disconnect is that it wasn’t quite the stumbling block for me it would have been if this was my first experience with this series but newcomers to the audio version may want to take note. I’ve listened to this series in audio from book one (on cassette) and developed complete buy-in to her portrayal of the characters that inhabit Kate Shugak’s world so by book nineteen I wouldn’t usually notice small changes but the unexpected rapidity with which the narrative was delivered is new and startling. When combined with small pauses between words (as if for a breath) that don’t commonly have pauses in natural speech, I found myself intermittently drawn out of the story. The dialogue was excellent; Ms. Gavin is so successful at inhabiting the characters and portraying the organic back-and-forth of actual conversation that it seemed to flow effortlessly. That facility for dialogue combined with the way each character was made distinct through tone, pitch, accent, and personality made enough of the audiobook a transportive experience to call it a qualified success.

Home Front by Kristin Hannah

Home Front by Kristin HannahHome Front by Kristin Hannah
Narrator: Maggi-Meg Reed
Published by Macmillan Audio on 1/31/13
Genres: Fiction

Story: B+
Narration: C+

After twelve years of marriage, Michael and Joleen Zarkades are watching it crumble from beneath their feet. Michael is a criminal defense attorney whose work is keeping him away from home more and more and Joleen serves in the National Guard as a helicopter pilot after having spent fourteen years in the Army. Ideologically, Michael has never understood Joleen’s military service and has held himself apart from that aspect of her life. Joleen grew up seeking attention and affection from parents who never provided it. When she was orphaned at the age of seventeen, she joined the army and and shaped herself into a woman who was determined to control her own happiness through force of will. When Joleen’s National Guard unit is deployed to Iraq, she ships out knowing she’s leaving behind her two girls, ages four and thirteen, who need her more than ever and a husband who just told her he no longer loves her. As Michael’s relationship with his daughters begins to grow, he’s forced to take a hard look at his marriage and his feelings for his wife. When word arrives that Joleen’s helicopter was shot down, the family is thrown into complete disarray as the most difficult part of their journey begins.

Before I talk about the audiobook, I have a few general comments:

I requested this audiobook through AudiobookJukebox.com’s Solid Gold Reviewer program in return for an honest review and Macmillan was kind enough to send it to me. If you have an interest in reviewing audiobooks, this program is a good way to give it a try. I didn’t realize it was an abridged copy when I requested it and this is my first listen to an abridged audiobook. It’s worth keeping that in mind when I talk about the flow of the story.

This was an uncommonly emotional book for me. In fact, emotion is almost all that comes to mind as I write this review. There are a lot of serious issues that play out: the slow dissolution of a marriage, parent/child relationships, war and the effect of it on both the soldier who fights it and the family who waits for her return, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), the state of after-care for returning veterans, death and loss… I’m going to offer a quote from a piece of dialogue spoken by Michael’s mother, Mila, as a single sentence summary: “We all knew it would be hard to have you gone. But no one told us how hard it would be when you came back.” Part of what made this book so evocative and thought-provoking is that Michael, Joleen, and their family have an “everyman” quality about them. Whether it’s something the reader is likely to relate to – like the break-down of a marriage – or something I hope you have no experience with – like PTSD – the emotions evoked in this audiobook are intense because the listener can see it happening to themselves or anyone they know. My heart ached as I watched the very controlled Jolene, who firmly believes it’s your mindset that determines your happiness, lose any sort of control over her life due to the PTSD. As she recognized that she had a problem and still tried to handle it on her own with her “army of one” mindset, the effect it had on her relationship with her daughters when that didn’t work was heart-breaking.

Michael’s gradual evolution from a man whose connection to his wife is slipping away to a man who is ready to be the supportive husband his wife is in desperate need of was realistic but spurred by one of those “only in a book” coincidences that had him defending a soldier who suffered from PTSD and was accused of murdering his wife. Descriptions of the physical surroundings weren’t as full as I would have liked and there were some repetitive elements but, and I’m going to be repetitious here myself, the emotional content more than filled that void for me. I was content with the way the story wrapped up and was pleased with the mixed bag of resolutions for the various plot points.

Maggi-Meg Reed brings a breathless drama to the story that worked for me in some scenes but as the book progressed, it wore on me, as did the amount of dialogue that was performed as if the speaker was gritting their teeth. The subject matter was grim and tense enough at times and for me, a subtler performance would have been more effective at maintaining my tension. As it was, I was becoming a bit worn out by the last 1/3 of the audiobook and was glad it was abridged. On the flip side, the abridgement may very well have been responsible for condensing the story to the most dramatic moments without the needed intervals of calm. The only other factor that I took issue with was pitch. In audiobooks, I struggle to stay in the story when a male voice is higher in pitch than most of the female voices (which happened with the therapist Michael hired for his case) and when children’s voices are lower than adults (which happened with Joleen’s thirteen year-old, Betsy) but the emotions came through clearly and I particularly enjoyed Mila’s Greek accent.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Cinder by Marissa MeyerCinder by Marissa Meyer
Narrator: Rebecca Soler
Series: The Lunar Chronicles #1
Published by Macmillan Audio on 1/3/12
Genres: Science Fiction

Book description (via Goodreads):

“Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl. . . .

Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.”

My thoughts:

True confession: I’m not a fan of the Cinderella fairy tale but with this book, the story of Cinderella is just a launching pad for a terrific YA sci-fi tale. A theme of injustice that turns to triumph is clearly the basic framework for this series but the author has created an inventive riff on the old folktale and she takes it and runs with it, often in unexpected directions – not the least of which is “Cinderella” as cyborg. From Lunar people who possess magic to portions of the story from the Prince’s point-of-view to a virulent plague that affects both Cinder and Prince Kai’s families, there are new elements mixed in with the familiar that keep the book moving at a steady pace.

Can I spot aspects of the story that some readers might find bothersome? Yes. The listener is dropped into the middle of the world without a lot of explanation about how it came to be and that aspect isn’t developed as the story goes along. The political structure is suitably defined and a pretty strong sense of place is present in terms of the physical surroundings but the cultural component/flavor (this is New Beijing, after all) is surprisingly absent. Other than knowing they exist and meeting their deliciously evil Queen, we learn nothing about how the Lunar people came to live on the moon and there is very little information about their society other than that there are those who possess glamours and those who are reviled and killed for not having them. In addition, the revelations near the end will come as a surprise to no one. Since this book is labeled as the 1st in the Lunar Chronicles, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are a lot of unresolved plot lines at the end of the book. Not a cliff-hanger according to my definition but it certainly left me wanting more information (or the next book). None of these aspects particularly bothered me because the story moved at a nice clip and I was immediately invested in the characters but they are worth acknowledging.

The story succeeded on multiple fronts for me. Creativity is a big one but in addition, Cinder is a very relateable and sympathetic character. I was a bit surprised at the level of outrage I felt at the prejudice towards her based on her cyborg parts (she’s only 36% mechanical for crying out loud and she thinks and feels, how does that make her sub-human!?) let alone the way she was treated as property by her “stepmother” so the social metaphors that could be built on that plot line were clearly effective on me. Cinder is a competent young woman and while I might have been wishing for her to find her happy ever after, I was content in the knowledge that if she didn’t get it, she’d be fine on her own.

The Narration:

This is probably more of a producer-related comment because my opinion of the narrator’s skill is wholly positive. I am at a complete loss as to why characters who dwell in New Beijing have American accents. I might have gone with an assumption of a homogenous future in terms of universal language or accents but at one point, Cinder wonders if the doctor’s accent was “European? American?” I’m discomfited at the idea that a production decision was made based on a belief that Americans won’t listen to audiobooks where the main character has an Asian/Chinese accent.

That aside, Rebecca Soler delivers very age-appropriate voices for the characters and her performance choices perfectly matched Cinder’s youth (she’s sixteen), which helped increased my indignation about her maltreatment. Whether it was a monotone robot, a silky and sly-voiced Lunar queen (that one raised my hackles), a chipper and plucky android, the noble yet down-to-earth prince, or the ambiguous figure of the royal doctor, I can’t imagine the characters being performed any other way. There were times, especially when her thoughts were sliding to the negative end of the scale, when Cinder’s inner dialogue was given a sense of vocal intimacy that was a superb delivery choice. Not only did it clearly delineate the lines as thoughts rather than speech, it also had an immediate emotional effect on me as the listener. The energy Ms. Soler brought to the story was perfect and I don’t have a single criticism about her performance.

This was good book with great narration and I enjoyed it quite a bit while still feeling it had more of a YA vibe than most of the books in that category that I’ve read.