Bones are Forever by Kathy Reichs

Bones are Forever by Kathy ReichsBones are Forever by Kathy Reichs
Narrator: Linda Emond
Series: Temperance Brennan #15
Published by Simon & Schuster Audio on 8/28/12
Genres: Mystery
three-half-stars

Story: B-
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

The fifteenth entry in the Temperance Brennan series is an enjoyable listen that focuses on a moderately complex mystery that takes an unexpected turn. Somewhat more action/motion-driven as opposed to a strong focus on further character development and lighter than normal on the depth of forensic medical detail, the story is still engaging, educational, and well-delivered by a narrator who, from her first line, immersed me back into the character of Tempe and the world she inhabits.

The Plot:

Forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan is assigned to an investigation at the house of a Montreal woman, Amy Roberts, who presented herself at the emergency room showing signs she had recently delivered a child but who then vanished. After discovering multiple infant remains, Tempe and Lieutenant-détective Andrew Ryan follow the woman’s trail to Edmonton, Alberta where they join forces with RCMP Sergeant Oliver Hasty. It’s in Edmonton that Amy Roberts morphs into Alma Rogers as well as Alva Rodriguez before becoming Annaliese Ruben. A tangled trail of prostitution, disappearances among the disenfranchised and at-risk population, and turf wars over drug distribution sends the trio to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories where the disappearance of Annaliese Ruben and the mystery of the dead infants turns into something altogether unexpected, placing Tempe and her search for justice directly in the line of fire.

My Thoughts:

This audiobook started out with an intriguing (if gruesome) case for Dr. Brennan: a trio of infant remains to be examined and their presumed mother, who may or may not be a prostitute, nowhere to be found. I enjoy a complexity of plot (I loved Spider Bones) and while I liked this book, as the investigation moved from city to city the introduction of supporting players and the fracturing of case leads began to dilute my initial interest in what started the story. It took a long time before Annaliese Ruben’s story was known and as the one constant in the investigation, I would have liked to understand more about her earlier on.

Rather than mysterious forensic anomalies, this book leveraged interpersonal tension to a high degree, above and beyond the expected police/suspect interaction. Tempe and Ryan were in conflict, primarily due to anger on Ryan’s side that was unexplained until near the end. Ryan and Oliver held pissing contests every time one of them opened their mouth. Events in Edmonton were based on antagonism between prostitutes, drug dealers, and law enforcement and as the story moved to Yellowknife, with its high density of Aboriginal people of the First Nations, minor Anglo/Aboriginal conflict as well as local/outsider and more law enforcement/marginalized population tensions were added.

Tempe spent a lot of time pursuing answers and justice and was universally distrusted by those she sought those answers from. I appreciate that a veneer of legitimacy for Tempe’s presence throughout the entire investigation was in place although I found her to be more impulsive than in previous books and I think this novel held the most I’ve seen of Brennan’s character making questionable decisions. Two events near the end – one that required revisiting Brennan’s history of alcoholism and the other being the sudden disappearance of Ryan’s anger after Tempe’s final life-threatening escapade – strained my credulity a bit but the book reached a satisfying conclusion to an involving mystery.

I always enjoy the well-described forensic detail in these books and this one was no exception. Added to that was detail on the geology of the Northwest Territories in the second half of the book that was right up my alley. Tempe had a stronger emotional investment in this case than most and that was a nice addition. The diverse cast of characters were well-drawn and took on vibrant life in my head, as did the locales. The interactions between Tempe and Ryan were snappy and fast-paced and her reaction to Oliver’s come-ons (they had a fling in the distant past) were amusing.

Overall this was a good audiobook that won’t disappoint those who follow the series and, despite the history of the characters that has been built through books one to fourteen, can be read as a standalone without newcomers to Temperance Brennan’s world feeling lost.

The Narration:

Given a good narrator, I always prefer the audiobook version but that is particularly true when French accents or a large smattering of French words are in play since that happens to be the one language both I and my internal reader are guaranteed to mangle beyond recognition. Linda Emond does an excellent job on my behalf, giving distinct voice to both the Quebecois version of a French accent and to classical French inflections. While I am sometimes struck by her distinctive cadence containing modulations that sometimes seem out of place, she so effectively speaks from each character’s point of view that those similar speech patterns across the dialogue were far less of an issue (maybe even a non-issue) for me than it might have been. Her portrayal of Tempe’s internal monologue – more factual than dramatic and with an educator’s intonation – has always struck me as spot-on for a highly intelligent woman (speaking of Tempe, here, although for all I know it applies to Ms. Emond as well) who views the world through a more scientific or objective lens as opposed to an emotional or dramatic perspective. Easily recognizable characters, the sense of discovery present as the story progresses, realistic back-and-forth in dialogue, and the fact that from the first line my immediate thought was . o O(Ahh, back to Dr. Brennan and interesting forensic tidbits) will always make my choice for this series the audio version as long as Ms. Emond is narrating.

 

Book Source:

I requested this audiobook from Simon & Schuster Audio via the Solid Gold Reviewer program at www.audiobookjukebox.com and they were kind enough to send it to me free of charge.

three-half-stars

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey NiffeneggerHer Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Narrator: Bianca Amato
Published by Simon & Schuster Audio on 9/29/09
Genres: Fiction, Mystery

Story: C
Narration: A-

Quick Review:

An intriguing premise quickly collapses under the weight of unlikeable characters, a lack of focus on multiple plot fronts that held few surprises for me, and some inconsistencies in character actions and one particular event. Even an excellent narration couldn’t quite save this for me although it did keep me listening until the end rather than DNF-ing.

Publisher’s Summary:

“When Elspeth Noblin dies of cancer, she leaves her London apartment to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. These two American girls never met their English aunt, only knew that their mother, too, was a twin, and Elspeth her sister. Julia and Valentina are semi-normal American teenagers–with seemingly little interest in college, finding jobs, or anything outside their cozy home in the suburbs of Chicago, and with an abnormally intense attachment to one another.

The girls move to Elspeth’s flat, which borders Highgate Cemetery in London. They come to know the building’s other residents. There is Martin, a brilliant and charming crossword puzzle setter suffering from crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; Marjike, Martin’s devoted but trapped wife; and Robert, Elspeth’s elusive lover, a scholar of the cemetery. As the girls become embroiled in the fraying lives of their aunt’s neighbors, they also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including–perhaps–their aunt, who can’t seem to leave her old apartment and life behind.”

My Thoughts:

Opening with the death of Elspeth, this book then takes a leisurely path through the grief of her lover Robert and the introduction of her twin nieces. The time spent with Julia and Valentina in America watching them interact with their parents is a thin layer of background information that establishes the fact that neither twin is at all ambitious (or employed) and that Valentina has subsumed her wants and desires to Julia as the more dominant twin. Edie and her husband were at odds with Elspeth for almost all of their married life although the reasons aren’t laid out until much later in the book. The twins come across as uncommonly juvenile to me, even though they are twenty, and that was part of the struggle for me given that they have so much page time. I was unable to like, sympathize, or generate interest in most of the the people in this story. Of all the characters in this book, I most liked Martin, with his OCD and more optimistic mindset and his (mostly absent during the book) wife Marjike.

Leaving the intriguing story of what could have been a study of family dynamics, the twins move to England to take up residence in the apartment Elspeth bequeathed to them They set about exploring their new environment but this acted more as a prop piece for further fleshing out the dynamics between the two and otherwise seemed a listless ramble around the new environs and the new characters they meet. What seems to be a case of an overbearing twin further develops as we learn of Valentina’s health problems. As “mirror image” twins, Valentina was born with many of her internal organs on the opposite side and she has asthma and a weak heart. Julia’s at first overbearing demeanor reveals itself as more of a protective streak for her weaker “half” and Valentina’s smothered personality is revealed as partly related to a weak character and an inability to forge her own path. Robert spends much of the middle of the book avoiding the twins and existing in a pool of grief.

As the presence of Elspeth becomes more and more clear to the girls, Robert begins to play his part in the story. He’s weak both with and in his grief. His avoidance of the twins turns into an odd obsession with following them and then a paltry imitation of infatuation with one of them. The supernatural element introduced with Elspeth was a change of pace and I was enjoying it, thinking the story might start taking off but it ended up being just another messy plot slapped onto an already wobbly structure. I did enjoy the complexity of Elspeth’s character while not particularly finding much to like about her but the next change-up in the plot threw me for a loop with it’s utter unbelievability and I was ready to tune out at that point. There were few surprises as to how events in this book would turn out and while I normally appreciate a less-than tidy resolution to stories, I was disappointed that there was nothing to redeem a batch of generally unlikeable characters.

The Narration:

The narration was excellent and is really what kept me listening. Bianca Amato is quickly becoming a favorite narrator of mine because of her care in handling every part of the author’s narrative, her pleasing voice, the understated strength with which she delivers the emotional content of the characters’ arcs, and the easy transition between character voices. The American accent wasn’t perfect but wasn’t “off” enough to really distract me and every other pat of the narration suited my listening preferences.

 

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane SetterfieldThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Narrator: Bianca Amato, Jill Tanner
Published by Simon & Schuster Audio on 9/11/06
Genres: Literary Fiction

Book: B+
Narration: A-

The Thirteenth Tale is a compelling and atmospheric story-within-a-story with Gothic elements that both repulse and draw the reader in. The core mystery is served up in bits and pieces, the writing is excellent, and the story is skillfully delivered by dual narrators. This audiobook was an engaging listen and has placed Bianca Amato on my list of favorite narrators.

Margaret Lea’s life has been steeped in books. In addition to being a devout reader, she is an amateur biographer and a bookseller’s daughter who assists her father with antique book acquisitions. When she is contacted by Vida Winter and invited to write the famous author’s biography, she is intrigued but reluctant. Vida Winter is best known for the sheer variety of life-stories she has given interviewers and for her collection of short stories that was supposed to contain thirteen tales but was published with twelve. When Margaret journeys to the Yorkshire moors to meet with Ms. Winter, she is promised the truth of the writer’s past. As her tale of privileged but disturbed siblings, twin baby girls, and the haunted estate of Angelfield House where ghosts can be glimpsed in mirrors begins to unwind, the listener smoothly navigates between Vida Winter’s life both past and present as well as Margaret’s life and her troubled past as a woman whose twin died at birth.

The Thirteenth Tale is both an homage to the books that become touchstones for us as well as a Gothic-flavored ghost story. There’s a sense throughout the book that it’s the stories we don’t tell that haunt us and this theme runs through the life of all the characters. Vida Winter has been making up stories her entire adult life. Some stories were created for entertainment and profit and some as method of holding the world at one remove but her past is also full of stories too horrible to be told. Margaret is comforted by the books she’s been reading since she was a young girl (most notably Jane Eyre) and tormented by the story that was never told to her. She uncovered evidence of her dead twin on her own at an early age and her sense of herself as incomplete is often mentioned. I found her focus on this and on the seeming betrayal by her parents to be an irritating lament throughout the book although it was so convincingly portrayed by the narrator that it was a minor irritation rather than the major one it might have been in print.

This audiobook was an interesting experience. As I started listening, I was immediately captivated by the writing. There is a lovely texture given to many scenes by the word choices employed. It isn’t singular adjectives or similes that build the mental image for the reader but a string of carefully chosen words that act as much subconsciously as on the surface to provide depth and atmosphere. When describing Margaret’s love of books, the language is tactile and sensuous and culminates in an analogy of ravishment. A scene of intense grief is written with words evoking the inevitability of a shipwreck in a storm as the vessel meets a rocky shore and is torn apart, piece by piece, until it is wrack and ruin. The words themselves, though, were rapidly overtaken by the narration. Bianca Amato gives voice to Margaret Lea in a smooth and realistic manner and her presentation of Vida Winter is a carefully controlled work of art. The emotions expressed by these characters are portrayed with a vocal subtlety that belies the intensity that is transmitted to the listener.

As the story shifts to Vida Winter’s recollections of the past, Jill Tanner takes over the narration. I’ll admit to struggling with the contrast in the two narrations. Both were excellent but I had become accustomed to Amato’s characterization and found the almost grande dame delivery style for Tanner’s version of Vida to be discordant, especially for the disturbing events at Angelfield House. The recollections from the past that encompass the middle of the story were at times disconcerting and I had a hard time reconciling the narrative pattern – not just the narration shift but particularly the pronoun shifts. My logical mind understood the that the tale of the twins, their bond, and their sense of themselves as an inseparable single unit that was drastically affected by the events at Angelfield was ideally portrayed by that language shift but the part of me that just wanted a story felt irritated. Vida Winter is a storyteller and as an observer to her tale, I was unsure where the truth of the tale would fall and whether she could be considered a reliable narrator. That was my perspective at the time, however. Having finished the book, I have a better understanding of why it was set up as a dual narration and why events unfolded the way they did. Clearly there is a core mystery to this tale and I am the type of reader who patiently waits for the author to reveal all in his or her own time but those of you who are more aggressive plot untanglers may very well put the pieces together early on. Even so, there is enough of a story outside of the mystery to keep any reader engaged.

Flash and Bones by Kathy Reichs

Flash and Bones by Kathy ReichsFlash and Bones by Kathy Reichs
Narrator: Linda Emond
Series: Temperance Brennan
Published by Simon & Schuster Audio on 8/23/11
Genres: Mystery

Book: B
Narration: B+

In a series that remains surprisingly fresh in its 14th outing, forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan is back in North Carolina and investigating the remains of a body discovered in a landfill near the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The discovery of the remains, found packed in asphalt in a metal drum, restarts a long-dead investigation into the disappearance thirteen years earlier of a twenty-four year-old man and nineteen year-old woman who were last seen at the speedway. A plea from the missing girl’s brother and the confiscation of evidence by the FBI induces Dr. Brennan to initiate her own investigation in cooperation with Detective Slidell of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD. The two cross paths with Cotton Galimore, the former lead detective on the initial investigation and now head of security for the Charlotte Motor Speedway, and the investigation begins tracking a winding course through the world of NASCAR racing, bio-terrorism, extremist militia groups, and prejudice.

This book delivered what I have come to expect from this series – not in the “been-there-done-that” sense but in terms of a good story with a complex and involved mystery that requires careful listening. The characters – well-developed, often familiar, and certainly intriguing – weren’t what drove the story for me. The central force that carries the reader forward is the mystery and I enjoy being able to rely on Ms. Reichs to consistently deliver a new and utterly engrossing puzzle within the expected mystery conventions of death, investigation, and the unmasking of a killer. Yes, there were some problematic parts of the story for me. I asked myself at least once what a forensic anthropologist was doing becoming so involved in the police investigation portion of a murder. There were a few points in the book where I raised an eyebrow at the level of coincidence in how various characters had ties to each other in both the past and present. Tempe’s repeated internal commentary on how the parts of a case remained just shy of cohesion in her brain until her big “ah ha!” moment is an overly familiar device from previous books. After drifting through my mind, though, those niggling complaints disappeared and I was pulled under by the narrative.

I found the pacing to be ideal, the scene descriptions gave me a strong sense of place that helped build my mental story board, and while I am not going to pretend that reading this series qualifies me as a forensic anthropologist, I’m quite certain I could play one on TV after absorbing the detailed forensic descriptions that pepper this series. They are very well done; clear and neither too abstruse nor too simplified. I always come away from a book in this series feeling a little smarter and vastly entertained.

My listening tastes, in terms of a narrator’s delivery, tend more toward the subtle than the dramatic so for the most part Linda Emond’s narration worked very well for me. I found her voice to be quite pleasing and the various character voices easy to track. I expect that listeners who prefer a more robust performance might have some complaints since even I didn’t feel the level of urgency the plot suggested during the climactic scene. I haven’t experienced Ms. Emond’s narration outside of this series and I’ll be interested to seek out some of her other work. She has created a unique “voice” for Temperance Brennan not just in tone but in what I hear as a specific speech pattern. That distinct cadence (which, if I was transcribing from the audio would cause me to add half-again as many commas as the text indicates) and the inflections perfectly convey Brennan’s droll commentary and have come to be the voice of this character in my head, evicting the voice of my internal reader. It does, though, bleed over into the other character voices which in most audiobooks tends to diminish the level of character differentiation but worked for me in this first-person narrative that is sprinkled with mild Southern drawls.

A complex and engrossing mystery with narration that pulled me in – I would recommended this one for most listeners but only after sampling the narration.