Ode to Audiobooks

If you check in and read my posts these days, you might notice I have been reviewing a lot of audiobooks. Solely audiobooks, as a matter of fact. Summer in my neck o’ the woods is beautiful, especially this year after a particularly harsh winter. Between visitors and trying to get the most out of every nice day, it has been difficult to settle in to read. I don’t have a backyard, so hammocks are out and if I go to the park that substitutes for my backyard, my feet always seem to keep going along the trail instead of stopping at a bench.

I don't have a backyard, but this trail is so close it might as well be.

I don’t have a backyard, but this trail is so close it might as well be.

My great aunt's picture from this winter- which lasted from early November until late April.

My great aunt’s picture from this winter- which lasted from early November until late April.

While nothing compares to curling up with a good book, I have to say a great narrator can be a treat. Much like good casting for a movie, they can sometimes lift up an average thriller or mystery to quality entertainment.

Do you mix audiobooks into your reading routine? Are there any narrators you particularly like?

Summer Quickie: Stories I Only Tell My Friends

lowe

It is rare for me to read an autobiography. I have nothing against them in theory, but they often strike me as self serving. Despite this sentiment, when Rob Lowe showed up as a suggested author during an audiobook sale I couldn’t resist. A friend had recommended it a few months ago and I thought I would give it a shot.

First let me say, this was fun! It really did feel like Rob Lowe was sitting in the room sharing an anecdote about JFK, Jr. while I was making dinner. He gives just the right emotion to every story as one does after years- sometimes he laughs a little, sometimes his voice drops to a somber tone- but he never oversells his memories. Not sure if it is good acting or good storytelling, but I really enjoyed it.

With stories about his film career, details about his sex tape, and his honesty about getting sober, Lowe shares some of the defining moments of his life. This is the perfect beach read for a fan or anyone looking for something light (but not shallow). If you can listen to Lowe read it himself, it is even better.

Any recommendations for another fun celebrity bio?

Totally ’80s: Ready Player One

ready player one

Though Ready Player One takes place in the not too distant future of 2044, it is very much a love letter to the 1980s. More specifically “geek” culture of the 1980s.

In Cline’s future, Americans live most of their lives in a virtual world called the OASIS. OASIS was created by James Halliday as an inexpensive, alternate reality for people to escape the world- now in the midst of an energy and, seemingly, quality jobs crisis. Ready Player One begins five years after Halliday’s death. In his will, he left his vast fortune and control of the OASIS to whoever can unlock the “Easter egg” (a hidden feature in a game, for non-gamers) in the world he created. A race to unlock Halliday’s clues has been underway ever since- pitting average users called “gunters” versus “Sixers”, players who have signed their avatars over to corporate behemoth IOI for kickbacks.

When 18 year old Parzival (Wade in the real world) unlocks the first gate in the hunt, an all out battle begins both in the OASIS and reality with very real consequences. Parzival is a loner who has formed a brotherhood of sorts with four other gunters- Aech, Art3mis, Daito and Shoto. But when he only knows people in the virtual world, who can he really trust with his life?

As noted, I listened to the audiobook read by love him or hate him geek icon, Wil Wheaton. Personally, I enjoyed his reading. He struggled a bit voicing females but that is not uncommon. Still, the story is told from Parzival’s first person perspective, so it does not really detract from the narration as the character’s tone is so central. Wheaton brought a geek’s enthusiasm to Parzival. If I had just read the book I am not sure I would have gotten as swept up in the story or felt the tension of what was meant to be a high stakes game.

Great literature this is not, but if you were a child or older in the 1980s I recommend this book as a fun read with pop culture references that will make you smile. Even if you were not a gamer or Dungeons and Dragons fan, the movie and musical references still made it relatable.

Casting American Gods

The Russian cover because I think it is pretty cool.

The Russian cover because I think it is pretty cool.


Anyone who knows me, knows I LOVE American Gods. For years I have cast and re-cast a film/tv version of, what I believe, is a very adaptable book. My hopes were dashed a bit when HBO’s option on the book expired in January of this year, but raised all over again when FremantleMedia picked it up in February (on my birthday of all days!).

At the time several industry sources claimed HBO had pushed American Gods to the back-burner when it picked up Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers. Last week HBO’s Michael Lombardo claims the network tired three different writers, but could not get a satisfactory script. The timing of his comments, over four months after HBO’s option expired, sounded a lot more like poisoning the well for future attempts than coming clean to me.

I still have hope one day we will see Shadow, Mr. Wednesday, and the assorted gods and outcasts of American Gods on the small screen (series or mini-series would be fine by me). Here is my ideal cast using realistically available actors because… why not?

Shadow: Michael Ealy or Jason Momoa- they both would be good choices given the description of Shadow’s stature and ambiguous ethnicity.
Wednesday: Charles Dance- I actually pictured him in my mind while reading it years ago, long before Game of Thrones.
Laura: Alexis Bledel, mostly because of her eyes, but I think it would be interesting to see her play loving wife with Shadow, then take care of business as needed.
Loki: Stephen McHattie- I pictured Loki a bit older given his history with Wednesday. Mackenzie Astin, if younger.
Mad Sweeney: Chris Rankin- he played straight-laced Percy in the Harry Potter films, I would like to see him in almost the opposite role. Plus, ginger.
Czernobog: Tom Waits. Think about it.
Mr. Nancy: Morgan Freeman- he has the personality and would totally rock those suits.
Ibis: Giancarlo Esposito, also one I pictured while reading the book.
Jacquel: Lance Reddick- he has the right gravitas to be lord of the dead
Kali: Sarita Choudhury- she seems like a good representation of Mama-Ji
Hinzelmann: John Mahoney or Len Cariou- both men have the kind, grandfatherly vibe but could pull off the twist
Buffalo Head: James Earl Jones (voice)- because how could it not be his voice?

So AG fans, who would you choose? Any characters I missed that you would cast? Or are you waiting on another optioned book to finally be adapted?

Series Binge: Agent Pendergast

Hello to anyone who is still checking in here! Lots has been happening (I’m even on a library board now!). There will be plenty of time to catch up in the near future. For now, let’s just say this will still be my reading echo chamber- though I hope more of you will join with comments and change that.

Now, let’s jump right back in.

My former roommate raved for years about Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Agent Pendergast series- specifically, the audiobooks. A couple months ago, I started listening and am now nearly through the series to date. Full disclose- some of the audiobooks were abridged.

The series follows the exploits of the eccentric, erudite Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast of the New Orleans FBI office. Few of his adventures take place in Crescent City though, as Agent Pendergast seems to have an arrangement with his employers as to what cases he chooses to investigate.

The Good:
Special Agent Pendergast. I am a fan of the PBS Mystery series Inspector Morse and at first read Pendergast reminded me of a young Morse- intelligent, diligent, but almost awkward in his interactions with others. There is something timeless about Pendergast, the only remaining heir to a wealthy family, and he seems at times to be a throw back to the genteel Southern gentleman. His sharp intellect and cold logic often negate it though and his justice can be swift and cruel.
Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta Vinnie is the Watson to Agent Pendergast’s Sherlock in the truest sense. D’Agosta is the rough, reactionary counter to the smooth, cool Pendergast. At times he can be a little slow on the uptake, but Preston and Child (P&C) do a decent job making him a true partner when he shows up in the books.
The Cases The series starts with a truly supernatural mystery. All the cases are spooky and suspenseful, but no matter how creepy the case P&C are not afraid to show sometimes humans are frightening without any paranormal help. They also often feature some kind of historical thread with a creative mythology tying the past to whatever mysterious going-ons are occurring in the present.
René Auberjonois Auberjonois voices Pendergasts deep, mannered Southern drawl. Though he sometimes falters with women’s voices, he rises to the occasion with so many other voices- from D’Agosta’s Queens bark to dog howls. I almost never listen to abridged books, but Auberjonois only did them for the early part of the series so I broke my rule for his readings.

The Bad:
The Women P&C cannot write women characters competently. Reading this series with a year between each book it might not be as noticeable, but binging on them it becomes annoyingly so. Every female given any “screen time” in these only makes bad decisions, never learns from past experience, and is usually stubbornly questioning Pendergast’s plans. I like the character of Pendergast enough I tolerate this bad bit of writing, but it can be maddening.
Horror/Thriller The Agent Pendergast mysteries have not failed to have very original plots, but P&C can fall into the traps and tropes of genre as much as the next author(s).
The Trilogies There are two “trilogies” in the Pendergast series. One called the Diogenes Trilogy, which deals with Pendergast’s nemesis, his brother Diogenes. The other the Helen Trilogy, dealing with the mystery of his dead wife, Helen. The stories themselves are much better than I was led to believe, but they probably could have been two books each.

Where to Start:
The first in the series, Relic, does not feature Special Agent Pendergast very prominently (if you ever saw the movie, his character is not even in it). Same applies to the sequel, Reliquary. For this reason you can skip to the third book, Cabinet of Curiosities, where Agent Pendergast becomes the focal point of the series.

Final Judgement:
There are certainly some flaws in this series, but as a whole, these are overall clever, fun reads. With a lot of clever historical components involving famous figures like Arthur Conan Doyle and John James Audubon and suspenseful mysteries in the present, the annoyances can be ignored. The real appeal is Special Agent Pendergast himself, who P&C have kept a mystery, slowly revealing more about the enigmatic character as the series progresses. Surprisingly, I have not lost my patience with the slow reveal and look forward to more of his unusual exploits.

What do you think of the series? Have you read it? Added it to your “to read” list?

The Devil in the Details: Libba Bray’s The Diviners

the diviners

Though I am a fan of the YA genre, I have to admit I still underestimate it at times. The Diviners is the perfect case in point. With a busy week ahead of me not long ago I decided to put down a book I had been savoring to read something lighter that did not require as much attention… or so I thought. I picked up my copy of The Diviners from my “to-read” stack as a diversion, despite its length. Well, the joke was on me because I stayed up until the wee hours on a Sunday until I forced myself to put it down and go to bed. Repeat on Monday night. Tuesday night I put it down early- because I had finished it.

Evie O’Neill is forced to leave her hometown in Ohio after another unsettling incident with her powers, which allow her to read people just by touching an object. She is sent to live with her Uncle Will in the roaring New York City of the 1920s. Uncle Will is the curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult and is far more interested in research than the goings on of a teenage girl. His assistant, Jericho, is not so distracted and definitely keeps an eye on Evie. So too does Sam, a young thief who seems to have a preternatural ability to move around places unseen.

Reunited with her old pen pal from a former visit, seventeen year old Evie seeks out all the marvels of the big city she has heard so much about- from speakeasies to Vaudeville shows. Along the way she meets Theta, a showgirl, and her piano player brother, Henry. The unadulterated fun does not last long before Uncle Will cracks down on her wild behavior. At the same time, the police come to Uncle Will for help with a bizarre murder that turns out to be the first of many. With the use of her powers, Evie quickly discovers her uncle and the police are not after any ordinary madman. Naughty John is an evil she has never encountered.

At the same time Uptown, Memphis Campbell is a young man running numbers in Harlem. His position gives him some status in his neighborhood, but his past as a healer (used as a faith healer) still haunts him. Now his brother is showing signs of a gift as well and Memphis tries hard to protect him. Surrounded by influences like Langston Hughes, all he really wants is to focus on his poetry and writing. Still, something more pressing threatens him and his family. Unbeknownst to him, the evil Naughty John stalking the streets of Manhattan has his origins close to home.

Evie’s and Memphis’ stories eventually intersect. As they do the threads connecting Diviners (though they are not referred to collectively like that in the book) are woven more tightly. To say more would be to give away the end, but it does bode well for more cohesive sequels.

Personally, I loved the rich historical detail in this book. Chances are no one reading this was alive in the 1920s and Bray did a great job bringing New York of that decade to life. She did not just give a great sense of what Broadway must have looked like or talk about a Follies show, she also went into the day to day moments. So much of life today is driven by technology, having the operator used to make a call in the story or discussing how movie theaters were cooled before air conditioning units were widely available was very interesting to me.

The malevolence of Naughty John and the eerie feel of his character and actions throughout the book also drew me in. In contrast to the vibrancy of Evie’s Manhattan and Memphis’ Harlem, Naughty John is a darkness that clouds their youthful exuberance. It is drawn tension that crosses into the other narratives as well and builds at a great pace. I am as pragmatic as they come, but there were a couple times when regular household noises in the middle of the night prompted me to get up and look around just to be sure because the story had me on edge.

At almost 600 pages, Bray gets in a lot and it can sometimes feel drawn out. This is meant to be the first in a trilogy from what I understand, but it feels as though Bray is trying to cram a lot into the first volume. The changes in perspective are great at some moments while very frustrating at others. They are not short shifts in perspective, but long chapters between characters. There was also one twist at the very end with a character I thought might be coming, but was still disappointed when it did. I hope Bray has a good use for it in the rest of the series.

I felt Memphis’ character and the backdrop of the gangsters and Harlem Renaissance would have made a great stand alone sequel to really get into the scene. Maybe Bray was eager to make the characters connect in this book. With more issues being raised about the whitewashing of YA books, maybe it never even occurred to her editors to suggest a book about a young man in Harlem could be a standalone. That is all just conjecture though. It stands as it is and the character is one I do look forward to reading about in future novels. I hope she continues to give Harlem the same (or more) attention throughout the series.

All said, with a vivid historical setting and seriously spooky (sometimes downright scary) tones, this was an enjoyable read. If you enjoy historical fiction, light horror, and/or supernatural mysteries, pick this one up to lose yourself for a few hours in 1920s Manhattan.

Sign of the Times: Gypsy Rose Lee and the 20th Century

americanrose

“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing slowly . . . very slowly”
-Gypsy Rose Lee

I have written and rewritten this post, but having just returned from NYC (only a few hours ago) I was inspired to revisit it. My trouble is not the book was bad or too complex, but because Gypsy Rose Lee herself is so hard to pin down. My experience with American Rose was not what I expected.

Karen Abbott begins the book as Gypsy is about to headline the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, a crowning moment in her career in the city that made her a legend. As she is prepared to take the stage, the narration switches to the story of her birth. Details of her early years are sparse until her sister was born in 1913.

Upon her sister’s birth, her mother, Rose Hovick, renamed Gypsy Rose Louise and her sister was given Gypsy’s birth name, Ellen, as her mother thought it a pretty name and more fitting for her prettier new girl. This moment captures the first battle in a lifelong fight for her mother’s attention and affection.

Abbott jumps around Gypsy’s timeline shifting between Gypsy at the height of her career, early years dragged around the Vaudeville circuit with her mom and sister, and the time just before her death in 1970. These shifts are not always smooth and were especially confusing with an audiobook. That is not to say Bernadette Dunn fails with the narration. On the contrary, her reading is understated and allows Gypsy’s words and actions to provide the drama. Still, the way the book was written, as a listener, I had to pay attention and pick up on the people mentioned to piece together what time period Abbott was covering at that moment.

Gypsy’s life, as Abbott shows, was not solely about fame, scandalous images, or her who’s who of friends. What still haunts me about Gypsy was her mentally unstable mother and the damage she did to both Gypsy and June (who became the actress June Havoc). Rose Hovick’s horrible abuse of the girls without out interruption to start might have turned me off the book entirely. By jumping between Gypsy at her zenith and her nightmarish childhood, Abbott made the harder moments a bit easier to read.

Since Abbott is writing non-fiction she is left to piece together Gypsy’s life from the the knot of tales Gypsy herself told, the press reports of different eras, and documentation which, given her mother’s talent for fraud, are not even the most reliable sources. Abbott also accomplished what few who have set out to study Gypsy did- she actually interviewed her sister June, offering some of the most honest and emotional bits of the book. This look beyond the story told on the stage was an appreciated layer in the story.

As a whole, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in “old Hollywood” bios, the darker side of the entertainment industry, the 1930s-1950s, or fans of Gypsy the musical who would like to know the real story. While the Dunn’s narration is great, I would only recommend listening if you can devote yourself to paying attention. Otherwise, the physical book will make the time changes more easy to follow.