Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris

Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine HarrisMidnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris
Narrator: Susan Bennett
Series: Midnight, Texas #1
Published by Recorded Books on 5/6/14
Genres: Mystery, Paranormal

Story: B
Narration: A

Publisher’s Blurb:

“From Charlaine Harris, the best-selling author who created Sookie Stackhouse the world of Bon Temps, Louisiana, comes a new, darker world – populated by more strangers than friends. But then, that’s how the locals prefer it.

Welcome to Midnight, Texas, a town with many boarded-up windows and few full-time inhabitants, located at the crossing of Witch Light Road and Davy Road. It’s a pretty standard dried-up western town. There’s a pawnshop (someone lives in the basement and is seen only at night). There’s a diner (people who are just passing through tend not to linger). And there’s new resident Manfred Bernardo, who thinks he’s found the perfect place to work in private (and who has secrets of his own). Stop at the one traffic light in town, and everything looks normal. Stay awhile, and learn the truth….”

My Thoughts:

Charlaine Harris culls two characters from other series she’s written and drops them in the town of Midnight, TX.  Manfred Bernardo – a young psychic who makes a living providing scam readings over the internet interspersed with true psychic visions – moves from the Harper Connolly series to this new trilogy. Bobo Winthrop – on the run from a family legacy of racism and violence covered in depth in the Lily Bard series – lands in Midnight and seems to have found his place in the world. Of course, there’s a host of other residents in town who weave into the story and each one is unusual. Bobo’s tenants: pale Lemuel who only comes out at night and the drop-dead gorgeous Olivia Charity are as deadly as they are mysterious. Across the street from the pawnshop Bobo runs is Fiji Cavanaugh – the proprietor of a new-age shop offering occultist paraphernalia and self-discovery workshops – who is a witch with unexpected power and and amusingly named pet cat: Mr. Snuggles.

This book is a tightly woven combination of mystery and paranormal with the cast of a small-town cozy. As a standalone, it works very well. As someone familiar with the characters from her other series, I had a very hard time adjusting. The Harper Connolly and Lily Bard series always struck me as straight contemporaries, despite Harper’s psychic abilities. To find characters from that world thrown into a small Texas town with vampires and werewolves was jarring. Other than the genre change speed-bump, they actually work really well as characters here and anyone unfamiliar with their pasts should find their presence seamless to the story.

As Manfred learns more about the town and its residents, Bobo’s ex-girlfriend’s body is discovered and he’s the primary suspect in her death. To compound his situation, white supremacists who believe he is in possession of his dead grandfather’s weapons cache are eager to do whatever it takes to get their hands on it. The story moves at a nice clip and I found myself entirely engaged throughout. It was only after it was over that I felt the lack of character building. There’s a thin layer of background for each person and an emotional depth (or lack) that’s primarily comprised of longing and unrequited love but with nothing for a reader to really sink her teeth into.

That kind of perceived flaw is usually a significant issue for me but the story was a lot of fun and it was such a nicely paced plot with a well-blended mix of genres and character types that, in conjunction with an audiobook narration that gave so much vocal depth to characters that it masked much of their actual lack of depth, I ended up enjoying this audiobook immensely and recommend it.

The Narration:

This was my first experience with narrator Susan Bennett and part-way through I stopped to look at what other books she’s done with the intent to pick some up. I was very impressed with her performance. First and foremost was the delightfully dry delivery she brought to the humor; she nailed all the amusing lines without missing a beat. Her character interpretations were excellent, giving me fully-voiced personae with clearly transmitted emotional nuances and varied speech patterns. Her voicing of the eventually-revealed villain of the story was excellent and surprisingly hackle-raising in its ability to reveal shifting glimpses of the evil hiding behind a… well, I’ll let you discover that for yourself.

The story opens with a third-person present tense narrative, a la Pushing Daisies, and Ms. Bennett provides the vocal equivalent (via voice tone) of a camera slowly spiraling in on the little town of Midnight as the omniscient narrator lands us in the story underway. With the switch to third-person past, the sense of being present in every moment is nicely delivered and the narration was perfect for my tastes: lightly burnished with a down-home flavor in terms of accents and laconic delivery and sweeping me into the story without distraction.

Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris

Deadlocked by Charlaine HarrisDeadlocked by Charlaine Harris
Narrator: Johanna Parker
Series: Sookie Stackhouse #12
Published by Recorded Books on 5/1/12
Genres: Fantasy

Story: C+
Narration: A-

Quick Review:

The title of this entry in the Sookie Stackhouse series sums up my feelings. Although I liked it better than the previous book, I get the feeling these books have become a bit deadlocked on moving forward. I keep waiting for an exciting plot, further world development, and/or a character arc explosion and Ms. Harris seems to just be waiting with the pacing. It was a pleasant listen and Johanna Parker’s voice now completely embodies these characters for me but it lacked the excitement and rapidly changing events that hooked me on this series originally.

The Plot:

Publisher’s Summary:

“With Felipe de Castro, the Vampire King of Louisiana (and Arkansas and Nevada), in town, it’s the worst possible time for a body to show up in Eric Northman’s front yard—especially the body of a woman whose blood he just drank.

Now, it’s up to Sookie and Bill, the official Area Five investigator, to solve the murder. Sookie thinks that, at least this time, the dead girl’s fate has nothing to do with her. But she is wrong. She has an enemy, one far more devious than she would ever suspect, who’s out to make Sookie’s world come crashing down.”

My Thoughts:

The story begins with a pretty interesting little mystery: who is behind the attempt to set up Eric for murder and are they also trying to break up Eric and Sookie and why? Although that question was answered, it felt like the book started off well, took a detour in the middle to follow Sookie around as she dealt with her friends and relatives and normal life, and then picked up again near the end as the mystery reached a resolution. Sookie’s love for Eric, while still steady, seems to be losing a bit of its shine as she is faced again and again with his practical decision making and the violence that surrounds him. Sookie herself is becoming hardened and throughout this book she just seems tired of all the things going on in her life. That made it hard for me to not feel tired of the slow progression of this story. Her job at Merlotte’s is back to its usual routine although she has a little more decision making power and responsibility because of her loan to Sam.

Sookie’s fairy relatives Claude and Dermot are still living with her and it’s on this front that the second piece of conflict in the story begins. With the closing of the portals to Faery, the otherworldly employees of Hooligans strip club are getting restless and when Claude abandons them to go back into Faery with Niall (fairy prince and Sookie’s great-grandfather) in an effort to investigate who cursed Dermot years ago, their unrest increases. Several are drawn to Sookie’s house and begin hunting in her woods while Dermot tries to manage the business and employees in Claude’s absence.

While that plot bubbles away on the back burner, the Queen of Louisiana pays Sookie a visit to size up the competition for Eric’s hand. A quick encounter and Sookie is back to her everyday routine. There’s some progress in the peripheral characters as babies are born and marriages are announced. I was expecting the visit from Felipe de Castro to turn into a critical event as Eric and Sookie dealt with the repercussions of killing his regent, Victor, but that never materialized and Felipe mostly seemed to fade away. If this all sounds a bit disjointed, it’s just symptomatic of a book that never seemed to really hit its stride with any of the plot threads until the very end, when it was too late to effectively capture my interest. I’ve gradually been losing my interest in this series and was almost ready to give up after the last book so I wasn’t crushed by the recent announcement that the final book will be released next year. I’ll be buying it but just to see how the whole story wraps up for these characters that I’ve followed along with for years.

The Narration:

Johanna Parker brings the expected performance to this installment of the series, which is to say – a very good one. She seems to effortlessly capture the voices and personalities of the large cast of characters and transitions with ease between the varied accents, cadences, inflections, and male/female pitch changes without ever leaving the listener behind or confused. The narration unfailingly provides a moment-by-moment sense of “the here and now” and it’s easy to sink into Sookie’s experiences because of that.

The Chalk Girl by Carol O’Connell

The Chalk Girl by Carol O’ConnellThe Chalk Girl by Carol O'Connell
Narrator: Barbara Rosenblat
Series: Kathy Mallory #10
Published by Recorded Books on 1/17/12
Genres: Mystery

Story: B+
Narration: A-

A young girl found wandering in Central park is a problem but when she leads the police to the dead body of her “Uncle Red” the problems begin to multiply. The dead body isn’t Coco’s “uncle,” he’s her abductor. He also isn’t the only body to be found in the park and Coco isn’t your typical child. She has Williams syndrome, a disorder that can cause (among other traits) being overly friendly towards and trusting of strangers and an unusual star-like pattern in the iris of the eye. Enter Special Crimes Unit detective Kathy Mallory and her partner, Detective Riker. Mallory might seem to have a lot in common with Coco, both having been lost children on the streets of New York and both evincing savant-like abilities, but where Coco’s experience and disorder trigger a need and ability to connect emotionally to just about anyone, Mallory’s childhood gave her the skills of a thief and an inability to make emotional connections. As the investigation proceeds, the current murders are linked to a fifteen-year-old case and corruption, blackmail, and an all-too real story of bullying twine together into an intricate and occasionally unnerving mystery.

I’m a fan of this series and whether this book is your introduction to Mallory or you’ve been along for the ride, I recommend it. I’ll admit to limited experience with the genre but if you’re looking for well-written crime fiction with vivid and fully realized characters and a complex mystery that isn’t intended to mislead you up until a shock ending but rather to engage you completely in the unraveling of the tale, you’d be hard pressed to find a better book. In addition to elegant writing, the aspect that I enjoy most with O’Connell’s books is her ability to be fiendishly creative with the mystery that develops. By the tenth book in a series, I usually expect a loss of ingenuity when it comes to the crime or mystery being investigated but not here.

The area in which those familiar with the series will find repetitive themes is character behavior and appearance. The descriptions of Mallory as a beautiful blond with startlingly green eyes who is always dressed in perfectly tailored clothes contrasts nicely with Riker’s disorganized life and rumpled and always-stained clothing. The emphasis on their outward appearances act as a reference for the inner composition of each character: Mallory as the emotionally sterile master manipulator who demands order and organization and Riker, a man who has been worn down but is always willing to protect Mallory from herself (regardless of the mess it might make of his professional and personal life) out of an unending well of sentiment for her foster father and his memories of her damaged childhood.

The word sociopath is applied to Mallory throughout the book(s) and, within the structure and rules her world was given when she was fostered by Detective Louis Markowitz at the age of nine, she behaves consistently with that description. The cadre of old men who were her foster-father’s contemporaries (a rabbi, the Chief Medical Examiner, a lawyer, and Mallory’s lieutenant) make their usual appearances, alternately impeding and being manipulated by Mallory. Charles Butler, psychologist and friend of the Markowitz family, is still hopelessly in love with Mallory while acknowledging she’s incapable of returning that emotion. As familiar as these elements are, however, they still work for me.

I liken my reading of Mallory to an astronomer who seeks to detect that which can’t be seen by observing the behavior of the visible orbiting bodies. It’s through Mallory’s interactions with these familiar supporting characters who so adore her and find her worthy of their time and affection that I catch glimpses that imply perhaps there is more going on in Mallory’s heart than we’ve been led to believe and that gets me every time. As Charles reflects on Coco’s devotion to Mallory and her child-like hope that Mallory will return her affections, I’m uncomfortably reminded as the reader that one of the emotional hooks this story has caught me with is an almost maternal wish for Mallory’s emotional shell to crack, despite an intellectual understanding that Mallory is a sociopath and always will be. It’s an amusing contradiction that I found myself very dissatisfied with what I assumed was the series end in book nine, Find Me, (possible spoiler hidden) View Spoiler » I find it intriguing that a character without a speck of empathy can evoke such emotion in me as a reader.

Like most listeners, a change in narrator this far into a series (all previous audiobooks have been narrated by Alyssa Bresnahan) usually creates a stumbling block for me but quite frankly, Barbara Rosenblat is A Voice. With her distinctive cadence, tone, resonance and a delivery that I find a bit closer to VO/theater than typical audiobook narration, it’s impossible to mistake her for any other narrator. That type of statement is usually followed by me saying “which doesn’t really work for me” but Ms. Rosenblat is a singular exception. Each character’s voice is built true to the author’s intent and is distinct in tone and speech pattern. The male/female differentiation is incredibly realistic to my ears and although the level of…acting?… emotional interpretation?… during the narrative sections strikes me as more suited to a story told first-person rather than third, her dry delivery is such a good match for the text/story that it all combines into an excellent listening experience.

Pirate King by Laurie R. King

Pirate King by Laurie R. KingPirate King by Laurie R. King
Narrator: Jenny Sterlin
Series: Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #11
Published by Recorded Books on 9/6/11
Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery

Story: C
Narration: A-

The eleventh outing in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series finds Russell all but fleeing her home to take on an investigation for Scotland Yard after learning that her brother-in-law, Mycroft Holmes, is coming to visit. After events in the previous book, Russell and Mycroft are at odds and a stint investigating the strange (and illegal) events that seem to accompany every Fflytte Pictures film shoot will take her out of his path.

Acting as a producer’s assistant, Russell begins the thankless job of shepherding cast and crew on a journey from England to Portugal and finally to Morocco. Fflytte Films is engaged in making a film called Pirate King. Pirate King (the film) is the story of a film crew who is making a film (also named Pirate King) about the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance. As they film their “picture within a picture”, the fictional film crew becomes involved with real-life Barbary pirates. The book, of course, adds another layer in that it is itself a story about film crew who becomes entangled with pirates after hiring them to act the part of film pirates (in the film that is about a film crew making a movie about The Pirates of Penzance).

Did I like the book? It was well-written and modestly entertaining but it didn’t capture my attention and interest in the way that all the previous books in this series have. It generally takes at least one of three things to make a novel successful for me: an emotionally engaging character-driven story, a tense or exciting action driven plot, or a complex and layered story-line. In Pirate King I found the characters of Russell and Holmes to have hit a static point in their development and, in fact, Holmes was absent for at least half the book so much of the amusing interaction between them was absent as well. I found very little action or true mystery to draw me in and when the story peaked in terms of plot reveals, I found myself feeling let-down at the simplicity of it. In terms of layering and complexity, if there was any, I apparently needed to be hit over the head with it because other than the plot-within-a-plot-within-a-plot theme, I missed it. I kept watching layers of the story being peeled away, waiting for a truly unique character or mystery to be revealed or a situation to occur that required Russell and Holmes to apply their unique skill-set, only to end up with nothing left at the end other than a vague sense of dissatisfaction. I think if it was a stand-alone, I would probably rate it a better book but it suffers significantly when compared to others in the series.

The first book in this series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, was one of two audiobooks that started my obsession with the medium and with this latest release, Jenny Sterlin continues to deliver an outstanding performance. In that most wonderful of audiobook magic, she has come to simply be the voices of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes in my head. The cadence and inflection she gives Russell aptly portrays her intellectual and forthright personality and Holmes’ more relaxed intonations and his tendency to draw out certain words when annoyed encapsulates the jaded and no-need-to-tell-me-I-know-everything-already persona King has fleshed out. I admire Ms. Sterlin’s ability to differentiate between male and female characters with relatively subtle voice shifts and she smoothly navigates between various accents and dialects.

Overall, excellent narration failed to make what I consider the weakest book in the series more than just a relatively pleasant listen.