Category Archives: Audiobooks

THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACE ON EARTH by Lindsey Lee Johnson

One buzzy book this winter was The Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson. It’s about a high school in Mill Valley in Marin County, CA, and the very privileged kids who go there. When the book opens, the kids are in eighth grade, and one of them makes a very passionate pronouncement of love to another one. His letter was made public by the recipient, and after the relentless teasing and bullying that ensued, he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Three years later, the kids are juniors and still dealing with the ramifications of the suicide.

Each chapter basically focuses on a different character, and by the end, the reader has a pretty good sense of the whole group, as well as some of their teachers. For the most part, the kids are privileged, entitled, indifferent and spoiled, with little respect for their teachers or even each other. There are overachievers (intense ballerinas and academic stars) as well as hippies, drug dealers, misogynistic athletes and thugs. Their parents are either neglectful or cloying. Johnson does manage to show other sides of these kids, eventually, but in the end it’s hard to find a redeeming person in the whole book.

What I liked:

  • Beautiful writing
  • Realistic incorporation of social media and other realities of teenage life today
  • Good pacing

What I didn’t:

  • Overall, it was pretty superficial.
  • Characters were rarely revisited (one simply disappears altogether) so there isn’t much continuity
  • Adults were very disappointing, as were parent-child relationships
  • The kids never learned lessons or changed their ways; some of them got worse over time

I kind of wonder what the author’s point was. To make us all despondent over the fate of humanity, if these kids represent our future? To try to get to the heart of teenagers? To shame us into better parenting? I’m not sure.

I’d read more by Lindsey Lee Johnson just because of her writing, but this was a bit of a disappointment.

I listened to The Most Dangerous Place On Earth on audio. It was narrated by veteran narrator Cassandra Campbell. She did an excellent job with the voices, differentiating them for each kid and sounding as natural with the boys as she did with the girls, which isn’t always the case with narration. She’s precise and easy to listen to, and and she moved the story along nicely. It’s funny – I just looked up books that she has narrated and many of them are sitting on my bookshelf. I know I’ve listened to other Cassandra Campbell performances but I can’t remember which they were.

Others seemed to have enjoyed The Most Dangerous Place On Earth more than I did. If you read it and liked it, I’d love to hear why.

 

THE TURNER HOUSE by Angela Flournoy

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy is about a large African-American family in Detroit. Viola and Francis Turner lived on Yarrow Street in Detroit for fifty years, where they raised 13 children and saw the neighborhood turn from vibrant to dilapidated. Francis is now dead, and Viola, in ailing health, lives with her oldest son, Cha Cha, in the suburbs. The house is still standing, though, and Viola owes more money on the mortgage than the house is worth. The question of what to do with the house sets the plot of The Turner House in motion, as the Turner siblings deal with their own feelings about the house, their parents, their siblings, and the state of their lives.

I had heard good things about The Turner House before I picked it up, and in theory, I should have liked it. It’s about a large sprawling family, told from shifting points of view, with complex relationships between siblings. But honestly, I found it pretty boring. There’s a large subplot about the haints, or ghosts, which have plagued Cha Cha since he was a teenager. I couldn’t really get into it. I enjoyed following Lela’s story, the youngest sister who has a gambling problem. But that wasn’t enough to save this book for me. I slogged through it and was happy when it was done. Too many siblings, many of whom never got any airtime or distinguished themselves from the others. Too little resolution – we don’t even find out what ultimately happens to the house in the end. And frankly, not enough conflict. The family is big and messy but they basically all get along and no one really does anything too terrible.

I would have enjoyed hearing more about growing up with 12 siblings and how it impacted each of the kids. I would have enjoyed hearing about what meals were like, what doing homework was like in a small house with 15 people in it.  Instead, I had only a shadowy sense of this family, and way too much information about Cha Cha and the haints.

I listened to The Turner House on audio. It was narrated competently Adenrele Ojo. She did a good job differentiating the featured siblings and I liked her voice and narration. But she couldn’t save a boring, meandering plot.

Sadly, I can’t recommend The Turner House. Based on the reviews I read, a lot of people enjoyed it. It just wasn’t for me.

 

 

THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

I just finished The Girls by Emma Cline, which was one of the hot books of 2016 that got big advances and lots of attention. The Girls is about a summer in the late 60s when a teenager named Evie got involved with a group of other young women living on a ranch under the thrall of a charismatic musician named Russell. The reader learns early on that, at Russell’s direction, members of the group committed a quadruple murder in California (an act based on the Manson murders). The Girls explores how Evie got involved with the group and how that involvement reverberates through her life for decades to come.

First, I will say that Emma Cline is a beautiful writer.  She has a way of describing rooms, scenes, people, actions that make you feel as if you’re seeing it unfold right before you in vivid, sensual detail. I’ve seen some people criticize this book as too flowery, but I thought the writing was its greatest strength.

Clines’s storytelling is not quite as strong. I suspect she looked up “why do people join cults?” and then created a story to satisfy each of the criteria that can lead to susceptibility to cult leaders like Russell. Evie’s parents were separated; her best friend turned on her; she was rejected by the boy she liked; she was bored. Cline sets up Evie’s involvement with the cult perfectly on paper, but I was never really convinced of it in action. Evie’s devotion to Russell and his clan is also premised on her love for Suzanne, one of the girls in the group. Her infatuation with Suzanne is what brings her back to the ranch, over and over, and what landed her in the car with the others when they headed out on the night of the murders. But I didn’t really believe in the ardor, the passion that Evie had for Suzanne, who was basically a hippie from a rich family who stole from strangers and passed her hours stoned and disconnected.

Without a really convincing reason at its core for Evie to lose herself in Russell and his hippie ranch dwellers, The Girls loses its import. Why tell this story, after all? I wanted more – more of Suzanne, more of Evie’s loss of objectivity and judgment. As written, it’s a beautifully told story without a lot of substance.

I listened to The Girls on audio, mostly, and it was one of the rare times where I thought the audiobook detracted from the experience of the book. The narration by Cady McClain was fine; it’s just that Cline’s writing – almost poetic at times – was easy to miss on audio. I found myself re-reading passages in print to make sure that I fully appreciated her imagery and descriptions. I’d recommend the print over the audio for this one.

Was The Girls worth a $2 million advance? I don’t think so. It’s good, but not that good.

 

KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST by J. Ryan Stradal

If you think you share my taste in books, based on reading this blog or knowing me in real life, then I highly recommend you check out J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens Of The Great Midwest. I suspect that it will be one of the top two or three books I read in 2017. It’s that good.

Kitchens Of the Great Midwest follows the life and career of Eva Thorvald, a girl born in Minnesota to a chef with a very refined taste for ingredients and the preparation of food. The story is told through chapters that jump forward in time, and Eva is often just a bit player in those chapters. Stradal changes the focal character each chapter, though characters recur throughout the whole book. Each chapter also features a different ingredient – sweet pepper jelly or venison, for example – which is central to the plot of that chapter. And those ingredients also become a part of Eva’s life and her history. Eva evolves into becoming a world-renowned chef with a sought-after pop-up dinner party that ultimately costs $5,000 per person, and the book culminates in a dinner that incorporates each of the ingredients from the preceding chapters.

I didn’t expect to like Kitchens Of The Great Midwest as much as I did. I don’t generally like books with “quirky” characters or books that focus on food. I’m not much of a foodie. But I absolutely loved this book. Stradal is a beautiful writer with excellent pacing and an unexpected edginess that I adored. (“Since then, he seldom came to mind; she’d thought of him only when she’d made certain mistakes with men in her unmarried years, and the Napa Cabs and Central Coast Pinots he introduced her to had their sentimental associations smudged away after years of repeated exposure.”) Each character was beautifully fleshed out, even the ones who only showed up for one chapter. And if you’re from the Midwest, I think you’ll love this even more than I did.

The structure of the book may be unusual, but it worked beautifully here. I couldn’t wait to see who would show up next.

I listened to the first half of Kitchens of the Great Midwest on audio, and then I couldn’t resist and had to finish the rest in print (though I read it slowly and in limited bursts so as to draw it out). The audio was fantastic, with some chapters narrated by Michael Struhlbarg and some by Amy Ryan (you may remember her as Michael Scott’s girlfriend on “The Office”). I especially liked the narration in “Venison” – authentic accents and a lot of sympathy for the characters. I loved the audiobook and I loved the print.

What a treasure this book is.

WATCHING EDIE by Camilla Way

The first book I finished this year was Camilla Way’s Watching Edie, a suspense novel about two friends who reconnect twenty years after a tumultuous summer that destroyed their friendship and forever changed their lives.

9780735207363Edie, a thirty-three year-old woman living in London, is facing a pregnancy as a single mother with few friends or connections. When she’s at a vulnerable spot before the baby arrives, Heather, a friend from high school, appears at her door. Edie is shaken and upset: what is Heather doing there? Why, after all these years, has she reappeared in Edie’s life after the demise of their friendship? After Edie’s baby daughter is born, when she is at her most vulnerable and alone, Heather appears again, taking care of Edie and the baby as Edie slips into a deep post-partum depression. Edie eventually emerges from the depression and is shocked by the control Heather now has on her life. She ejects her from her apartment and manages to pull herself together.

Meanwhile, Way threads the women’s history through the narrative, flashing back to their high school years and teasing out what happened to cause their estrangement.

I find that reading thrillers like Watching Edie is like inhaling a bag of movie popcorn. It’s addictive and tastes good as you’re doing it, but in the end you feel empty and a little ill. I think Way is a good writer, and I got drawn into this story quickly and was quite sympathetic toward Edie. (Way’s depiction of PPD alone is chilling.) The last chapter, however, when you find out what happened between the two women, was disappointing. The big reveal, while quite upsetting, wasn’t the shock I was expecting. Everything ended very suddenly with the novel taking a sharp turn away from what came before.

There were also some details early in the book that didn’t make sense in retrospect, but I won’t address them here because I don’t want to spoil the story.

I listened to Watching Edie mostly on audio, and I thought the two narrators, Fiona Hardingham and Heather Wilds, did an excellent job. Their accents and voices were easy to distinguish and they really established the two women’s personalities well. I was so engrossed in the audiobook that I eventually picked up the print version and just finished it off so that I could get to the ending more quickly. (Popcorn.)

Not a bad start to the year of reading, but I think I am swearing off thrillers for a while.

 

 

THE RISEN by Ron Rash

risen-hc-cHow have I not read anything by Ron Rash before?

The Risen is my first foray into Rash’s Appalachia, and hopefully won’t be my last. It is about the summer of 1969, when a young woman comes to a small town in North Carolina and upends the lives of two brothers, Bill and Eugene. She disappears shortly after the summer ends, and when her dead body is discovered 45 years later, Bill and Eugene finally confront what happened that summer between them and the woman, and also the role they played in her ultimate demise.

The Risen is told very simply. It is narrated by Eugene, and jumps back and forth between the present and that fateful summer. Details are teased out slowly throughout the book, about Eugene’s troubled, alcoholic life and ruined relationship with his daughter; about Bill and Eugene’s strict, domineering grandfather; about how the brothers’ roles as kids persists throughout their lives.

Despite its short length, the story is a rich and complicated one, with a few twists along the way. It’s about loyalty and responsibility, resentment and disappointment, and how lives can be irrevocably changed in one summer and set on immutable courses for years to come. I finished it a few days ago, but I keep thinking about it, discovering new dimensions and connecting new threads.

I highly recommend The Risen and plan to check out more of Rash’s books.

I listened to the first 2/3 of The Risen on audio, and it was excellent. The narration by Richard Ferrone was *perfect*. I can’t say enough about how well-cast this production was. Ferrone captured Eugene’s passion and shame just perfectly, with a deep, passionate voice that had just the hint of a tremble in it. He’s best known as a thriller and mystery narrator, which makes sense, though he added the perfect dose of romanticism to troubled, dreamy Eugene. Huge props to the audio version of The Risen – I was sorry not to have had the opportunity to listen to the last third.

 

 

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben Winters

winters_undergroundairlines_hcUnderground Airlines by Ben Winters imagines an America where the Civil War never took place. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while fighting to abolish slavery, and modern day America is now made up of 46 states where slavery is illegal and 4 Southern states where it is not.

The narrator, Victor, was a slave in a meat processing plant in one of the Hard Four, and he managed to escape several years before the book opens. He was eventually caught in Chicago, but instead of going back to the factory, he made a deal with the U.S. Marshals: he’ll become a slavecatcher – someone who tracks down runaways – and has a chip inserted into his neck so that the government can always find him. He’s free, but not free. He’s a slave, but not a slave.

When Underground Airlines opens, Victor has been assigned to find a runaway in Indianapolis. As the case evolves, he discovers details missing that suggest that the man he is looking for – Jackdaw – is not the typical runaway slave. From there, Victor is drawn into an increasingly complex web of underground abolitionists, double agents, unethical government agencies and people willing to give up their lives to the cause of undermining the slave economy. He finds himself ultimately returning to the South and going back “behind the fence” to try to solve the case, although who he is working for – and whose directions he is following – shifts throughout the book, keeping the reader guessing.

I commend Winters on the creativity behind Underground Airlines. His depiction of institutionalized slavery is chilling and deeply offensive, but also sadly realistic. He included the fictional legislation ensuring slavery will continue legally into perpetuity, and also traced the global economic forces brought on by U.S. slavery and their ramifications throughout the 46 free states. I am always impressed with writers of dystopian fiction who are able to conjure up whole worlds different from our own and convey many layers and levels of those societies.

Victor was a complex and interesting character, and I also liked being in his head.

I am not a big fan of thrillers, so I wasn’t as crazy about the parts of the book involving escapes and gunfights and beatings and violence. Not my thing. It wasn’t gratuitous in Underground Airlines– slavery is violent – but again, not my favorite thing to read. That said, the violence was relatively contained so I was able to get through the book. I also had trouble tracking a few of the plot twists, but ultimately, I think I understood it. There’s a pretty big reveal at the end that explains why the stakes were so high in this particular recon mission, and I am proud to say that I followed it! Yay me.

I listened to Underground Airlines on audio, and the narration by William DeMerritt was SO good. His ability to transform realistically into so many different characters – white or black, young or old – was pretty amazing (though I didn’t love his narration of a female character named Martha). He did an excellent job with this book, conveying Victor’s anger, helplessness and intelligence as needed throughout the story, and like Victor, he never lost his cool or his consistency. I highly recommend the audiobook of Underground Airlines.

This was a pretty good read, overall. I am not sure I would have picked it up had I known it was as much a thriller as dystopian/moderately realistic fiction, but I am still glad I read it. Thought-provoking, especially at a time when so many of our institutions seem to be at risk.