Tag Archives: audiobook

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.

NOT DEAD YET by Phil Collins

phil-collins-not-dead-yet-photoPhil Collins came out with his memoir, Not Dead Yet, this fall, joining a crop of rock bios that have been getting a lot of attention recently. I was a big Genesis/Phil Collins fan back in the 80s, so I was excited to get my hands on the audio version of Not Dead Yet.

Collins narrates the audio version, which enhances the sense of intimacy the listener feels with him throughout the book. It opens with his early days in suburban London and tracks his family life and his childhood/early adulthood obsession with music. From there, the juggernaut of Collins’ career kicks in: joining Genesis, touring larger and larger venues, taking over frontman status from Peter Gabriel, more Genesis albums, his explosive solo career, more Genesis albums, Disney soundtracks, hit movie songs, and on and on. There is a reason Phil Collins seemed ubiquitous in the 80s and 90s – he was. He was also a workaholic who couldn’t say no to any opportunity – to sing, to compose, to produce, to collaborate. He would travel the globe while on world tours, and then return to his home base where he would jump immediately into the next project without stopping.

This lifestyle took a toll on his personal life, which Collins does not gloss over. Three marriages, three divorces, long distance relationships with his five kids – these all weigh on Collins, and he perseverates on them throughout the book. He takes the blame for the failure of his marriages, though he manages to make himself look OK at the same time. Collins was criticized by the media when all of this was going on, particularly his delivering his request for a divorce from wife #2 via fax, and his affair with a woman half his age while on tour. Collins takes the blows here, for sure, but it’s clear that he is relieved to finally be telling his story.

He also shines a light on some other personal stuff, like his obsession with the Alamo and the physical ailments that plagued his later career, like an ear stroke that caused him to lose his hearing in one ear and the hand and back issues that put an end to his prolific drumming. The toughest section comes at the end, when Collins describes in painstaking detail his slide into alcoholism in the early 2010s and the terrible toll it took on his body and his family.

I thoroughly enjoyed Not Dead Yet, especially the behind-the-scenes look at the music, the bands and the touring. On many occasions, I paused the audio to call up a song on Spotify or a video on YouTube, which definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the book. I am addicted to 80s nostalgia, and Not Dead Yet did not disappoint. If you were even a casual Genesis or Phil fan, I think you’ll enjoy this book.

Collins is apologetic about his ubiquity – almost overly so. He suggests that his transatlantic dual performances on Live Aid in 1985 were almost accidental, and he distances himself from the coincidence of having hit songs with two bands on the charts at the same time. He basically says, “I get it – I was sick of me too.” (Sometimes this is a little too much.)

Collins is clearly an emotional, complicated guy, and Not Dead Yet shows him in the most flattering light possible. I’m sure there are other sides to a lot of his stories (and in fact I heard a few of them at Thanksgiving dinner from someone who knows him), but I liked hearing (and believing) Phil’s version for 10 hours. I mean, that’s the point of a rock memoir, right? To clean up the reputation?

Collins’ albums have all been recently remastered, and if you listen to them on Spotify you get a new cover, a closeup of Phil’s sixtysomething face instead of the thirtysomething faces I remembered from the original covers. It’s kind of creepy, but it’s reality – our rock gods are aging. Not Dead Yet at least gave me glimpses of that younger guy, and for that I am grateful.

(And yes, I found out what “In The Air Tonight” is about. Not this:)

MODERN LOVERS by Emma Straub

modern-lovers-review-ewOne of the hot books this past summer was Modern Lovers by Emma Straub. It’s about a group of college friends who, twenty years later, live near each other on the same street in Brooklyn. Andrew and Elizabeth are married with a son, Harry, who is in high school. Zoe is married to Jane and they have a daughter, Ruby, who has just graduated from the same high school. Andrew, Elizabeth and Zoe were bandmates in college, but have now settled into more middle age pursuits – owning a restaurant, real estate, parenting, etc. When an movie agent comes calling, hoping to get them to sign over their “life rights” so that a biopic can be made about the fourth (now dead) member of the band, the three come to face the fact that their kids are now almost the age they were when they met, and that they are no longer the same people they once were. Is what they have enough? Are they happy? Or should they be making some dramatic changes?

Typical middle age angst.

Here’s what I liked about Modern Lovers: clean, descriptive writing full of realistic details and observations (typical of Straub’s books); a mildly suspenseful plot that makes you want to keep reading (but not too fast); some humorous sendups of Brooklyn stereotypes, like the cult-like people at Andrew’s yoga studio and the private school kids; and Straub’s exploration of middle age.

Here’s what I didn’t like as much: the whininess of the main characters (except Harry, who I liked); the #firstworldproblems that they can’t stop complaining about; their preciousness (Ruby! Oy); and did I mention the whininess? It’s hard to get really invested in these people, with their ennui and the mild discontent that taints their whole existence. I don’t mind books about middle age angst, but I’d like for them to have something to really angst over.

I am not sure why Modern Lovers got all the fanfare and attention that it did. I liked it enough, but I certainly didn’t love it.

I listened to Modern Lovers on audio, and I thought the gentle but precise narration by Jen Tullock was excellent. She developed distinct accents for the different characters that conveyed their personalities well. (I especially liked her voice for Dave, the scammy yogi.) I recommend the audio if you want to give Modern Lovers a try.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr

Welcome to 2014! Yes, I finally read All The Light We Cannot See.

What more can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said?

all-the-light-we-cannot-see-9781476746586_hrIf you’re inexplicably unfamiliar with this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, it’s the story of two young adults – Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl who escapes Paris with her father at the start of the Nazi occupation, and Werner Pfenning, an orphan boy who earns admission to an elite German military academy before joining the Nazis as a radio technology specialist. All The Light We Cannot See traces Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s experiences both leading up to and during the war through short chapters that rotate among several characters and subplots.

All The Light We Cannot See has been incredibly well-reviewed and acclaimed, so I was a little leery going in. Would it live up to the hype? Yes, there is a lot to like here. Doerr is a masterful storyteller, with the main plots teasing slowly to keep the reader quite involved. I found this book almost unbearably suspenseful at times, as I waited to learn the fates of these characters. The story is of course quite sad and very difficult at times, with Nazi horrors and violence in abundance. But there is goodness in these main characters, and by the time their lives intersect as the Allies bomb St. Malo, you’ve grown to care deeply about both of them.

You have to suspend your cynicism when you read All The Light We Cannot See. Some of it is just a bit too coincidental, and the story about the jewel that protects its custodian while destroying those close to him is more of a fable than a plot. Instead, enjoy the luminous prose and let yourself get caught up in the heart-pounding suspense and the triumph of humanity.

I listened to All The Light We Cannot See on audio, which was beautifully narrated by Zach Appelman. It’s a long book, so you’ll get to know Appelman’s voice. No complaints – perfect accents, good job with both male and female characters, calm delivery despite some horrific and scary moments. I highly recommend the audio.

 

THE NEST by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

This book cover image released by Ecco shows "The Nest," a book by Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney, about four adult siblings whose inheritance is in jeopardy. (Ecco via AP)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this summer, you’ve heard of or possibly read The Nest. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney got a massive advance for this debut novel, which she wrote in her spare time, about four siblings in New York fighting over their lost inheritance. Leo Plumb, the bad boy, got into an accident driving drunk with a waitress in his car, and had to use the whole inheritance to settle with her. Meanwhile, Jack, his brother, needs his portion of the money to pay back a hastily obtained home equity loan, while their sister Melody needs to pay for her twins’ college education. Bea, the fourth Plumb, doesn’t need the money as much as she needs some inspiration to buoy her flagging career as a novelist.

The Nest is a relatively light, entertaining read. While it’s tempting to dismiss the Plumbs as self-absorbed one percenters, as the novel went on I found myself caring about them and their predicaments. They they start out as just another dysfunctional family, but they eventually grow to care more about each other and even try to find ways to help each other out of their bad situations. (Leo remains pretty despicable.) They are both easy to mock, and easy to like.

Layered into the family drama are Sweeney’s insightful observations about New York, publishing, parenting and relationships. The plot moves along quickly, as she weaves from character to character and shows their different perspectives.

I listened to The Nest on audio and really enjoyed it. Mia Barron was the perfect narrator for this book – precise, urbane and wry, but sympathetic when she needed to be. I highly recommend the audio for The Nest, though I did read a few chapters in print and enjoyed them just as much.

If you want a fun summer read with some substance and heft, give The Nest a try and help Ecco justify that huge advance.

HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

One of the books with a lot of buzz going in to BEA this year was Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. It is definitely one of the hot books of June, and for once, I actually read a book right when it came out! Shocking.

9781101947135Homegoing is a sweeping book about the legacy of slavery in Ghana that covers 300 years tracing the ancestors of two half-sisters. One, Effia, married a British colonist and moved to a life of relative luxury, while her half sister, Esi, is sent to America ship via the slave trade, where her children and grandchildren are raised as slaves. The book follows the two threads of the family tree as the generations are born and the decades pass. The chapters alternate between Ghana and America, with each chapter devoted to one person from each generation.

Homegoing is an admirable novel, and I enjoyed it and am very glad that I read it. Gyasi powerfully depicts the shameful legacy of slavery and racism in so many contexts, providing a rich and, at times, almost unbearably painful picture of how deeply they have affected society over the last few hundred years. The African chapters trace European colonization, the slave trade, tribal warfare and poverty, while the American chapters loko at slavery, Jim Crow, racism, the Great Migration and the civil rights movement. The two threads come together in the end, when the present day descendants of Effia and Esi meet and decide to return to Ghana and, unwittingly, the place where their ancestors were originally entwined.

This is not a light read.

I commend Gyasi for her meticulous construction of these parallel paths, and how the dual plots unfold in lockstep despite the thousands of miles and cultural abysses that separate them. Her chapters are almost like short stories, since each one introduces a new character (and a new type of injustice), but the stories are linked both in theme and in genealogy. I think that the wide cast of characters may have made the book less enjoyable for me, as every time I had to re-establish where I was in the family tree (luckily included at the front of the book) and the historical context for the latest installment. This construct made the book a little harder to get into.

At the same time, I learned a lot that I didn’t know before, such as that freed slaves in the South were routinely convicted of petty crimes and forced to work in coal mines for years to pay off their fines, effectively reestablishing slavery despite its illegality. There is a lot of unforgettable horror in here, but there is also love and hope. Homegoing is not a simple book: Gyasi offers a textured portrayal of black Africans who traded their own people to Europeans and light-skinned black Americans who forsook their roots and abandoned their children to avoid the impact of racism.

I listened to Homegoing on audio. The narrator, Dominic Hoffman, ably handled both continents, adopting one accent for the African chapter and another for the American ones. I thought he did an excellent job. HIs voices for men, women, children, white, black – all seemed accurate and authentic.

Overall, I really recommend Homegoing. It’s not a beach read, so save it for when you’re looking for something you can really think about and digest.

(I went to a Q&A with Yaa Gyasi a few weeks ago, which I will write up here in a few days.)

 

 

THE AFTER PARTY, by Anton DiSclafani

9781594633164The After Party is a buzzy book this spring, one that I’ve seen on a few “Summer Must Read” lists, and I jumped at the chance to get the audio version a few weeks ago. I never read DiSclafani’s earlier novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls, but had heard great things about it.

The After Party takes place in the mid-1950s in Houston, and it is about two women: CeCe Buchanan, the narrator, and Joan Fortier, her best friend. CeCe and Joan grew up together, inseparable. CeCe always admired Joan’s wealth and beauty, but felt she fell short on both counts. When CeCe was fifteen, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and passed away. Her father had moved out of the house earlier to be with another woman, so CeCe moved into Joan’s huge house and was supported by Joan’s parents until she reached adulthood and married.

The After Party is about the strange, tortured relationship between CeCe and Joan, which followed a similar pattern: Joan acted out, CeCe tried to tame and protect her, Joan pushed CeCe away, Joan left for some significant period of time, Joan returned without warning and Joan kept CeCe at arm’s length but permitted just enough closeness to keep CeCe in her life, but always wanting more. This pattern continued for years. CeCe got married and had a son, but Joan was always a looming presence – or absence – in her life. The book is about CeCe’s coming to terms with this imperfect friendship, and her ultimate understanding of why Joan acted the way she did.

So here are my issues with The After Party:

  • CeCe was frustratingly inconsistent. She’d insist that she didn’t care about Joan anymore, that she was through with her, and that she loved her husband and son more than anything, and then a paragraph later she’d contradict herself. I understand that this was DiSclafani’s way of conveying Joan’s power over CeCe, but it was frustrating as a reader.
  • I didn’t buy into the Joan Fortier mystique. She was self-centered and not a particularly supportive friend. I did understand why CeCe felt so indebted to Joan (I won’t spoil that here in the review), but why she was so enthralled, I don’t know. This is the type of friendship that runs its course when people grow up.
  • The book needed more editing. There were certain phrases that were repeated over and over. Aside from my eventual fatigue with hearing the name “Joan” so many times, I also grew tired of hearing CeCe say the same things. Perhaps she was trying to convince herself that she was happy in her life? Whatever the reason, the book needed another good read-through with a red pen.

That said, I do think DiSclafani is a good writer, the repetition aside. She expertly conveyed CeCe’s loneliness and her anxiety about her young son, who had not spoken a single word well into his 3s. There were two chapters that I found incredibly moving: when CeCe’s mother was dying, and when CeCe meets up with her childhood nanny, ten years later. Those two chapters were excellent. I also liked the author’s depiction of high society Houston in the 1950s, and how it trapped women into certain roles and expectations.

But I was angry by the time I finished The After Party – angry at CeCe and angry at the book. My friend Nicole called it “claustrophobic”, which is a perfect description for it.

I listened to The After Party on audio. I thought the narrator, Dorothy Dillingham Blue, did an excellent job. I loved her Texas accent. (It’s not her fault that I had to hear the name Joan so many times!) I would definitely recommend the audio if you want to give The After Party a try.