Monday, December 27, 2010

Four Epiphanies

Instead of listing my favorite books of 2010, I've decided to summarize a few of the ideas that emerged from my reading & listening this year and, the titles that informed them:

Aggregating Grief

Grief is a very special kind of pain in that it is often born of love and has the power to break you or transform you. Note that I did not say that it can "make you or break you" because 1) I eschew cliches and 2) it's not true. There is no doubt that grief can break you; but I balk at the idea that "what you survive makes you stronger." Tragedy may reveal a hitherto undiscovered strength; but with equal dexterity it can prey upon weakness as well. Grief will extort all of one's resources of character to survive and it's never pretty. It's tragic. Earlier this year, I reviewed Atiq Rahimi's Earth to Ashes and The Patience Stone both of which illustrated this very powerful concept. Looking back, I can also see how the theme was masterfully executed in Thomas Trofimuk's Waiting for Columbus.

Sensible vs Sensual Reading

In a guest post and giveaway on Jenn's Bookshelf, C.J. Lyons, author of the Angels of Mercy series, wrote about Sensing vs Intuitive Types. In responding in the comments, I made a similar distinction with my own reading: that I am a "primarily a "sensible" reader, able to discern patterns and structures within a book ergo issues w/construction of the story. Every once in while though, a story will be so powerful I feel like I’m experiencing the story rather than reading it. I guess that for those books (very rare for me) I become a “sensual” reader!" The book that did it for me this year was Matterhorn (by Karl Marlantes; narrated by Bronson Pinchot.)

The Space Between the Lights

In reading and reviewing Scott Phillips' The Ice Harvest (narrated by Grover Gardner) I came to understand true noir vs gritty realism. Gritty realism is what you find in Richard Price's Lush Life, a police procedural about the shooting death of a bartender. The narrator, Bobby Canavale, has an ear for the cadence and vocabulary and the you can see the story play out in your mind's eye, much like a season of The Wired :-/ However profane the situations are though, the characters are imbued with just enough pathos to render them recognizable or sympathetic to the readers. With noir, however, characters are often severely damaged, the tone is unrelentingly harsh and the sordidness can be grueling. The Ice Harvest actually has some comic moments to relieve the tension in that Scott Phillips does not shy away from the absurd; but if you really want some hardcore noir, I don't know if you can beat James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia. Narrated by Stephen Hoye, The Black Dahlia pulls the listener into the gutter and it's almost easy to lose sight of the fact that the story is very well crafted.

The True Horror

In a genre-busting move, this year I started reading a little horror. It didn’t start out that way. It actually all began with the beautifully written novel, The Angels are the Reapers (by Alden Bell; narrated by Tai Sammons) which led to I am Legend (by Richard Matheson; narrated by Robertson Dean) which has now led to me listening to Hell House (by Richard Matheson; narrated by Ray Porter.) And I discovered, it’s not about the monsters, it’s about the humans and, the true horror is not in the ghoulishness of the zombie/vampire/mutants/monsters; but in what we as humans have allowed or will allow ourselves to become. There will be more on this later as I think about stuff like civilization, music, mirrors, evolutions and circles...

Actually, there will be more on each of these themes in 2011. Atiq Rahimi's third novel, A Thousand Rooms of Dreams and Fear comes out on January 11 and I'm eager to see if it is yet another exposition on the idea of "Aggregating Grief." In terms of looking for another book that will blow me away the same way that Matterhorn did, well, I don't actually go looking for it. Only twelve titles in fifteen years have made my personal Audiobook Pantheon of All-Time Greats and, each time it was a complete surprise to me. I never know what chemistry of words and narrator will affect me! As for the noir genre, you'll probably start seeing words like "existentialism" and "nihilism" thrown in for good measure in future noir novel reviews. I'm thinking about hitting up the Parker series (by Richard Stark a.k.a Donald Westlake; narrated by Michael Kramer) or possibly more James Ellroy, though that's tougher to find in unabridged audio CDs or in digital dnload. I'm also hoping to return to the horror genre's prototypes, Dracula (by Bram Stoker) and Frankenstein (by Mary Shelley; narrated by Simon Vance.) I did read the latter in print earlier this year, but I think another read with a different mindset might be in order.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I am Legend

I am Legend
by Richard Matheson
narrated by Robertson Dean
5.30 recorded hours

A couple of months ago, I was in a hotel room with a flat screen TV, cable, and a remote all to myself and the moment was glorious! The offering across many channels that night was I am Legend (starring Will Smith) and so that's what I settled into that night. I had not read the book or read any reviews about it so I didn't know to be outraged at the deviations from the original story by Richard Matheson or even what it was about. The film features a scientist, Robert Neville, who barricades himself in his home and lab while a viral contagion sweeps the world as we know it and turns everyone into mutants. The two items that caught my attention in the film were that The Infected (apparently something on the order of zombie vampires) were living in communities ("hives") and that they adapted in order to survive. I was hoping that the original book would explore those themes more. When I reviewed The Reapers Are the Angels (by Alden Bell; narrated by Tai Sammons) I was reminded of the film, something about the loneliness of the protagonists, that both had undertaken missions in their new world landscapes and, some ineffable quality that must be the stylistic glue that defines post-apocalyptic tales. Le0pard13, in his comments to The Reapers are the Angels brought I am Legend, the audiobook to my attention and so I made it a point to go borrow a copy from Blackstone (The irony of other reviewers bringing audiobooks that are in the Blackstone catalog to my attention does not escape me. That said, Blackstone produces a lot of audiobooks and it's physically impossible for me to have listened to them all.)

The horror genre has lousy PR. When the horror label is slapped on a work, images of lumbering monsters like Frankenstein or campy ghouls like zombies come to mind. Despite that fact that the prototypes of the horror genre, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula are very rich in literary style and content, the film industry has corrupted the idea of what horror is about and given us Bela Lugosi and CGI-enhanced zombies. True horror is not about the monsters, it's about what it is to be human. True tales of horror delve into the human psyche and explore what it is that makes us human in the face of dehumanizing or inhumane conditions. When it's clear that the antagonists are undead, it's an easy call to make as to what makes us human; but what about when maybe some of the antagonists are not as undead as the others? Or it's someone you know? Or when you feel a sympathy or understanding for one or more of them?

The idea of what makes us human not only resides in the contrasts or relative comparisons, but in our sense of history. When you are the only one who remembers the past, who are you in the new world? What if your memory is a legacy that is not valued in the new world? What is it to survive in a place where there is no past but you are compelled not merely to survive but move forward? Who are you? What are you?

The audiobook is narrated by Robertson Dean who reflects the pathos and the vacillating sanity of Robert Neville, the last known survivor in a world plagued by vampires. There are hysterical gasps as Robert Neville reaches out for love, alcohol-fueled bouts of insanity, the raspiness of a little-used voice, the intellect of a man grasping at the last vestiges of civilization and his own sense of self and, the resignation of a man who understands all too well the fate at hand. The range of Robert Neville's psychological states is expressed with all due flair and nuance by a narrator clearly connected to the text, to the story, to the man that is Robert Neville. The vampires in the story are foils against which the tragedy of Robert Neville is played out.

As for the movie starring Will Smith, it is not Richard Matheson's story in style, content or spirit. I don't expect movies to adhere to the novels they are based on but I am disappointed when the screenwriters completely abandon the spirit of the writing as is the case with I Am Legend. In the movie, there are hints of Robert Neville's pathos ( e.g. the scene with the cartoons;) but all the events that lead to a fuller examination of what it is to be human, the set-ups that would have truly made this a first class horror film, were removed and replaced with action-adventure sequences. The movie is I am Legend in name only.

n.b. Le0pard13, in his blog Lazy Thoughts from a Boomer, has a comparative review post featuring the graphic novel, the three movies that were based on I am Legend and the audiobook. Check it out!

Friday, December 10, 2010

South Asian Challenge 2011

To promote more people reading South Asian literature, Swapna Krisna is sponsoring the South Asian Challenge 2011. There have been a couple of changes to the challenge from last year, which broadens its scope and appeal: While any book's setting must take place in a South Asian country, the title does not necessarily have to be written by a South Asian and; there is a one-book commitment :-)

Last year, I did not meet my three-book commitment (hangs head in shame.) I only read one title, The White Tiger (by Aravind Adiga) but I had managed to cache quite a number of qualifying titles for the challenge anyway. Now in an effort to make significant headway into by TBR stacks, I think I can manage to read at least one of the South Asian books in that stack!

Some of the titles I am considering:

Shantaram (by Gregory David Roberts; narrated by Humphrey Bower) - an epic tale about an escaped Australian convict who ends up in India. This story has it all: love, loyalty, pageantry, squalor... Yes, I've listened to all 42+ hours of this audiobook before but I would love to listen to it again. It's that good.

Sacred Games (by Vikram Chandra) - I have this in both print and audio (narrated by Anil Margsahayam) - I may not be able to follow this in audio so I have a backup print edition, just in case

Satanic Verses (by Salman Rushdie; narrated by Sam Dastor) - This is a title I may combine with the What's in a Name Challenge #4 for the category in which readers pick a title with "evil" in the title. I have to admit though, I find it a little intimidating and may instead end up picking one of Rushhdie's children's folk tale books as an entre to his writing.

The Palace of Illusions (by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni; narrated by Sneha Mathan) - audio

The Twentieth Wife (by Indu Sundaresan; narrated by Sneha Mathan) - audio

Heat and Dust (by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) - 1975 Man Booker winner

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Ice Harvest

The Ice Harvest
By Scott Phillips; Narrated by Grover Gardner
4.50 recorded hours

The Ice Harvest
Based on the Novel by Scott Philips
Directed by Harold Ramis
Starring John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Platt, Connie Nielsen, Randy Quaid and Mike Starr
1.50 hours running time
Focus Features; available at iTunes

Christmas Noir is all about the space between the holiday lights and in that negative space is where The Ice Harvest takes place. At Christmas-time, one's attention is usually drawn to the lights that trim the house, the glittering star atop the tree, the Light of the World whose birthday we ostensibly celebrate. But Christmas Noir takes a look underneath, at the clogged gutters, the light in the strand that is out and, the giant sagging inflatable snow globe sitting on the front lawn. In The Ice Harvest, it is no accident that the writer details the darkened letters in the strip club's neon sign, the blood stained snow in the parking lot or, in the movie, rain desecrating the Christ child's body in the town's Nativity display.

The Ice Harvest is about Charlie Arglist, a lawyer of dubious morals and ethics who works for a local crime syndicate out of a Kansas city. His plans for this particular Christmas Eve are to clean out his boss' cash reserves and leave town. We follow Charlie as he scurries from strip club to strip club, bars and spartanly furnished homes as he attempts to tie up loose ends and put his past behind him.

Both the book and the movie unapologetically embrace the absurdity that is the (flawed) human. The comic aspects of the story and its characters rise very close to the surface in any given situation, providing a way for the audience to make some of the scenes more psychologically bearable. But while the book's style hews closer to the grim and grisly, the movie plays more to the comic aspect and can be justifiably accused of pulling its punches when it comes to the darker moments of the story, especially at the end. It's shame really, because in deciding to produce a dark comedy instead of a modern day noir movie, the film did not seem to gain anything. It certainly did not go on to be a blockbuster and its status as a dark comedy is dubious at best. That said, it's worth watching for the performances of John Cusak (Charlie Arglist,) Billy Bob Thornton (Vic Cavanaugh, Charlie's partner-in-crime,) Randy Quaid (Charlie's boss,) and Oliver Platt (Charlie's brother-in-law.) Connie Nielson as Renata, the strip club manager and love interest was okay. She was certainly sexy, just not exotic enough. And maybe that's the best description of the film as a whole.

Other Stuff: I picked this title as the final audiobook in the Sounds Like a Mystery Holiday Challenge wherein listeners pick four titles, preferably mysteries or thrillers, each featuring a holiday. How I picked this title was that I went to the Blackstone Audio web site, typed "Christmas mystery" in the search box and chose the first hit that was either a stand-alone or a first-in-series. I then went over to the warehouse and borrowed a library edition of the audiobook. I did NOT review the audiobook per se due to a conflict in interest. I rented the movie several years ago and prior to listening to this audiobook and again this past week (from iTunes) to watch after I had listened to the audiobook.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Speak of the Devil

Speak of the Devil
by Richard Hawke
narrated by Paul Michael
11.00 hours
Books on Tape, Inc.
Available at

I'm participating in two mini-challenges sponsored by the Yahoo! group Sounds Like a Mystery: the State Challenge wherein listeners choose four books set in New York state and, the Holiday Challenge wherein listeners pick four books, each featuring a holiday. Imagine how pleased I was to find a book that qualified for both challenges! Especially at the end of the year when I'm trying to finish my current challenges, finding a title that will double up is very helpful:- )

SPEAK OF THE DEVIL is set in New York City and the action starts on Thanksgiving Day during a shootout at the big parade. The story then careens into a first-person (private investigator Fritz Malone) narrative filled with ludicrous characters underscored by risible characterizations on behalf of the narrator and, a plot that is only equaled in its incredibility as it is in the number of implausible twists. I had started to listen to this audiobook as a serious modern-day thriller, but was actually confused as to the intent of both the writer and the narrator fairly quickly. There are echoes of gumshoe detective novels in this story which takes place in a post-911 NYC. I wondered if both or either of them, the author and the narrator, were intentionally bringing those echoes into play either in a loving pastiche or as a cheap gimmick.

The story, about a terrorist who targets New York City, is filled with corrupt policemen, cardboard cut-out politicians, nuns, The Nightmare (a villain with an arch-nemesis name!) and other assorted characters all drawn with near-hyperbolic zeal. The narrator then matches the author's zeal by showcasing each character as a caricature. Paul Michael, in an eyebrow-raising choice of interpretation, actually has the police commissioner speak with a heavy Irish brogue! Well, I will say that in showing off his character/accent work, Paul Michael does make every character distinct. There is never any doubt as to who is speaking at any given time :-/

The story itself is like a bumper car ride at an amusement park. There is no sense of shape or drive to the story and again the narrator does very little to help the text along. Equal weight is given to describing a garbage truck as describing the moment when our hero has an epiphany regarding who is behind the terrorist acts. As such, it's difficult to determine what is noteworthy and what is merely background noise. The plot twists are best described as diagenetic run-ins of such far-fetched credibility that they only lacked paranormal features to make them even more fantastical. I'm not so sure that they changed the direction of the plot as much as they obscured the story line, on the given that a story line was actually outlined in the first place.

The listener is treated to a laundry list of the elements of writing style; but the author did not integrate these elements without self-consciousness or polish. All the ingredients for a thriller were there: descriptive passages that touched on all the five senses, action lines and scenes that covered the journalistic Who-What-Where-When-Why-and-How premise, interior dialogue for that idea of character depth, witty retorts, action and passive scenes....; but the overall awkwardness of the construction left the listener removed from the story. The writing was not powerful enough to draw the listener into the time and place sensually or experientially.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Where Are You Reading? Challenge

Yes, it's me again, Ms "I'm-not-gonna-do-any-challenges-next-year!" And yes, I've signed up for another challenge, Book Journey's Where Are You Reading? Challenge but it's not what you think :-)

The Where Are You Reading? Challenge is pretty straight forward in premise: Create a google map and place markers on the map indicating the primary setting of the book you are reading. That's it. No book reviews. No lists. Okay, I'm good with that so far because I love maps! I know, that's a pretty weird thing for someone like me, who is seriously globally disoriented, but I love, love, love maps! I can read maps, I can lay out maps in my head when areas are being described, I just can't actually use a map or even see constellations in the sky. If it wasn't for my Garmin, I wouldn't be able to get home from the grocery store parking lot which is only a couple blocks away. Before GPS, I used to write directions on an index card and on the reverse side, write out the directions on how to get back. If there was a detour, I was doomed. At the time before GPS, I was living in the Washington, D.C. area which meant that I would inevitably cross a bridge and end up in Virginia with no left turns until you got to Richmond.... but I egregiously digress. So, the map, presented below with no placemarks yet because the challenge doesn't begin until 2011.

Now the way the challenge is set up, readers are encouraged to read a book for each state in the United States (No, no, not one book covering fifty states; but fifty books, each one covering a different state.) Those who manage to complete fifty books in fifty states will earn a chance to win a fifty-dollar Amazon gift card.

But you know what? I'm gonna be honest. I'm not playing to win. Next year, I want no-stress/no-guilt reading, no vortexes of panic that will lead to no-joy/end-of-year cram sessions or drunk blogging. So what I'm doing is simply placing placemarks for the books that I'm actually reading. I might even add a couple extra placemarks (different color) to show various independent bookstores that I'm visiting or maybe some literary event like the Books on the Nightstand Readers' Retreat or the BEA... We'll see. I'm using the challenge to complement other reading that I'm doing next year and hopefully having a little fun being creative with the map.

View dogearedcopy map 2011 in a larger map

Wordless Wednesday: Audiobook Edition

Sunday, November 28, 2010

What's in a Name Challenge #4

Every year, right about October 15th and continuing to the end of the year, I sink into a vortex of panic and guilt over the challenges I've committed to but did not complete. I start buckling down and reading the books in order to complete the challenges, but there's no joy in it. So I said I wasn't going to do it/any next year. And then Beth Fish Reads announced the What's in a Name Challenge #4 and I clicked on the link and I couldn't resist!

I have moderately a sized TBR stack and a listening queue that only seems to grow and I'd really like to make a dent in either/both. To that end, I decided to participate in the What's in a Name Challenge #4 using titles that I already had on hand. Looking at the newly arranged stacks though, I realized I still needed a creative and interesting approach to the challenge.

With some Thanksgiving Weekend introspection aided by an inexpensive bottle of Viognier*, I decided to create audio-print-video entries wherever possible. For instance, for the Numbers category I could read 1421 (by Gavin Menzies) watch 1421 (the PBS documentary based in the book) and then go on to listen to 1434 (by Gavin Menzies; narrated by Simon Vance.) Some of the categories won't be that neat; but the fun is in the trying!

Besides being fun, and helping to clear my bookshelves and queues, the challenge also enables me to expand my blog beyond just posting audiobook reviews. Sometimes it's days or even weeks before I can post audiobook reviews and the challenge will allow me to ramp up my blog without getting meme-y or abandoning the audiobook core of the blog.


* Oh, by the way, drunk blogging. Don't try this at home, kids! The dangers of writing a rambling, heartfelt, badly misspelled and grammatically atrocious post about blogging, identity, audiobooks, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and babies is apparently very high!

An excerpt from last night's attempt at "Drink Bloggin, nono DRUNK BLOGGING"
"... If you were with me write now, you would be heariung mr ME speak hyper-articulately becuase I'm always afraid thet people will know I'm frunk If i dint make the effort. but my typing skills are another matter. I do NOT typer better when I'm drunk...
Also, I'm doing a challenge. I know I tweeted somewherre that I wasn't gonna becuase I got cuaght up in a guilt think and feeling bad somewhere around Octov er 15 of ever year becuase I was crshing on books that I didn't even feel like reading anymore. No joy. BUt this one sounds like fun. It's the What's in a Nme Challenge #4. I 'm gonna read a book with a NUMBeR in it, a book with EVILO in the tite, a title with SIZE in it, a boom with a germ/jewlry in the title, a book with TRAVL?MOVEMENT in the title and a book with a LIFE STAGE IN THE TITLE. TO MAKE THIS challenge unique or creative form my end, I'm gonna combine audio and print titles for each title, Maybe more...."

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Reapers are the Angels

The Reapers are the Angels
by Alden Bell
Narrated by Tai Sammons
7.4 recorded hours
Blackstone Audio

When I was in high school and VHS tape players had become household items, I rented George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD. I thought it was lame. I laughed and went to bed. And then proceeded to torture myself with imagining myself in a shopping mall, hopelessly surrounded by zombies. If you read my post about The Amityville Horror, you may realize that horror, bedtime and an overactive imagination are the prime ingredients for that peculiar psychological stew that I get myself into and that I'm sure mental health professionals would love to savor at hourly rates... So it should come as no surprise that I've never really bought into the zombie culture. I don't recoil at the thought of zombies like I do Satan, but you have to give me more than the fact that there are zombies involved for me to be interested. In the case of THE REAPERS ARE THE ANGELS, the deciding factor was this review written by Julie D. over at SFF Audio, appropriately titled, "Review of The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell." Now, even though I have not read or listened to any Flannery O'Connor (hangs head in shame) and Julie D. clearly states "It isn't Flannery O'Connor..." the review managed to hit upon my literary pretentiousness and intrigue me. So off to the warehouse I went and snagged an MP3-CD.

"God is a slick god. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe."
Those are the opening lines to the some of the most mesmerizing, beautifully wrought and gorgeous writing I've ever experienced. The basic linear narrative is that a fifteen-year-old girl from Tennessee treks through points South to deliver a charge (a retarded man) to his home in Texas. The world had changed in the past twenty-five years so that the landscape is populated by zombies; but far from this being some sort of cheap gimmick, the zombies serve as the counterpoints to the passages about civilization, humanity and, lots of "deep thoughts." Shades of I AM LEGEND (by Richard Matheson, starring Will Smith) come to mind; but then again it's much more than that, with its Carson McCullers-plus-George Romero writing style and the sense I'm listening to lit-fic rather than pulp. Yes, some of the scenes are gory, but there is a both a macabre and entrancing quality to those scenes that keeps the listener riveted. There are scenes imprinted in my mind's eye like a dream with the same sense of surreality.

And, too, a carnival of death, a grassy park near the city center, a merry- go- round that turns unceasing hour by hour, its old- time calliope breathing out dented and rusty notes while the slugs pull their own arms out of the sockets trying to climb aboard the moving platform, some disembodied limbs dragging in the dirt around and around, hands still gripping the metal poles— and the ones who succeed and climb aboard, mounting to the top of the wooden horses, joining with the endless motion of the machine, dazed to imbecility by gut memories of speed and human ingenuity.
As for Tai Sammons, she was dead-on right as the voice of Temple, the protag in this story. The audio sounded like Temple telling her story, with Temple casting the roles of the other characters, not Tai. And Tai also kept true to the voice of Temple throughout the story, even when it could have easily shifted into another narrative voice.

If this wasn't the end-of-the-year crunch for me when I was trying to finish up all my challenges, I would do something I have never done before: re-listen to it immediately. I suspect that the ending isn't what many people would like or expect; but it really couldn't be any other way and still be "true." Loved this audiobook.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hallowe'en Party

Hallowe'en Party
by Agatha Christie
narrated by John Moffat
6.90 recorded hours
BBC Audiobooks America

The Yahoo! Group Sounds Like a Mystery (S.L.A.M.) is sponsoring another little mini-challenge, the S.L.A.M. Holiday Challenge, wherein participants pick four audiobooks, preferably mysteries that have a holiday theme. The first book I chose for this challenge was Hallowe'en Party and I scored a copy from the Jackson County Library System which serves Southern Oregon.

In this later Poirot mystery (1969,) Poirot himself is an older gentleman who must negotiate the changing mores of the times and, their influence on the crime as much as he must be able to discern the facts of the case. The case involves the drowning of a 13-year-old girl at a Hallowe'en Party and overall, the plot is a bit thin and incredible; but does underscore the social commentary that Agatha Christie, clearly an older woman herself dismayed at the changing world, has embedded in this tale. Though a listener may argue that the story remains relevant to present times, it does get a bit tiresome after a while.

The narrator, John Moffat starts off reading rather quickly and I was, at first, afraid I was going to have trouble keeping up; but he either settles down or I got used to him because I ended up not having any trouble at all. His character delineations were excellent, to the point that, though it sounds cliche, there were times I wondered if I was listening to a single narrator!

It was all rather interesting to compare this work with the first Hercule Poirot story, THE AFFAIR AT STYLES. HALLOWE'EN PARTY was simpler, heavier on the social commentary and slower in pace. "Styles" was more dynamic in style, pace, characters and setting; but there is something to be said about an author who exercises her right to truly develop her characters over the arc of a series and enable them to respond to the changing times.


Friday, November 5, 2010

The Amityville Horror

The Amityville Horror
by Jay Anson
narrated by Ray Porter
6.40 recorded hours

When I was eleven years old, I was a very devout little Roman Catholic girl. I went to Parochial School. I wore plaid skirt uniforms. I had nuns in habits for teachers who also wielded yardsticks. I paid attention in Church and when I grew up, I thought it was prerequisite to be a nun before you could be a teacher or nurse. I was a believer.

The year was 1976 and my best friend's name was A. That's not really her name or even her initial, but even now I'm afraid that somewhere, someone will know exactly who was complicit in this tale and I might get in trouble, like maybe go to hell or have my Confirmation voided or my eighth grade diploma declared invalid. Anyway, A. got her hands on a copy of The Amityville Horror. It was quite the sensation at the time and everyone believed it was true. How A. managed to get a copy of this book is not important; but it was lent to her with the caveat that she tell no one that it had been lent to her, who had lent it to her, and that she probably shouldn't tell anyone that she had the book at all. But I was her BFF and so of course I knew and of course, I was insanely jealous that she had been entrusted with this book when I had not. I persuaded her to lend the book to me for one night and she reluctantly agreed. And so begins the most terrifying period of my life. It started that night and ended four years later. During that four year period, I believed I was doing nightly battle with the Devil for my soul. I prayed fervently. I cried myself to sleep. I wouldn't sleep with my back to the door because for some reason, I thought Satan himself would bother with the courtesy of using a human portal to come after me. And every night, I woke up at 3:15 a.m. When I developed an allergy-induced eczema on my hands, I was ecstatic, thinking I was showing the ultimate sign of devotion, the stigmata. I was going to be a Saint! Of course, when a variation of that same eczema manifested itself on my scalp, I thought I was developing the horns of a devil and that I was damned. I think it would be an understatement to say that upon finishing that book that night, I was immediately scared and scarred for life.

Flash forward to 2009. One of The Sisters (Acquisitions Agents for Blackstone Audio) tells me she's bought the rights to this book. I hadn't thought about the book specifically for years, though I still hate seeing flies in cold weather and still prefer not to sleep with my back to the door. I tell her the story of my eleven year-old self which was probably a mistake as she starts sending me "funny" e-mails, signed "Jodie." Sigh. A little later, I was in Studio A working with Ray Porter on another project and he mentions that's his next narrating job is The Amityville Horror. He talks animatedly about the book and we share a few laughs and he goes on his way. I can't wait to hear the audio. Though I had hoped it would be released by Halloween of 2009, it was released in March of 2010 (?!)

And so now we come to 2010. It's Halloween and I want to listen to this book because I want to see if it stills has any hold on me and because I remember Ray Porter being so enthusiastic about it. When Jason was looking for recommendations for an October Selection for The Audiobook Club Online, I didn't hesitate. I offered copies for a promotional give-away and we were off.

I uploaded the audio onto my iPod and, I have to tell you, when I heard the Priest's Introduction, there was a moment when I had to take a little breath. I wondered where my rosary beads were and if I found, them, would I remember how to say it? But after the Introduction, I have to admit I was a little disappointed in the audio for two reasons: 1) Ray Porter sounded stiff and 2) the story didn't seem scary or real. I really don't know what to say on Ray Porter's behalf, other than that, if you had heard him talk about the book in Studio A that day, you wouldn't recognize the narrator of the audio. Gone was the enthusiasm and half-convincing incredulity. I mean, as much as we scoff at tales of the paranormal, I think I can honestly say there's a part of us that illogically believes. I wanted to hear that little voice that decried the debunking of the story. Ah, the story itself. The writing seemed a bit amateurish and the story unbelievable. Could anyone really have believed that story? Looking at the story now, it seems pretty clear that George and Kathy Lutz took on more than they could financially handle when they purchased that house and, they found a way to exploit The Exorcist fad and walk away from their mortgage. I say that and sound so cynical. But I know that given the chance to live at 112 Ocean Drive, I wouldn't. All it would take would be for me to wake up one night at 3:15 a.m. and that "little voice" I spoke of earlier? That would be the screams of an eleven year-old who still believes.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Black Echo

For January, 2009, the Yahoo! Group, Sounds Like a Mystery (SLAM,) which discusses audiobooks in the mystery genre, selected The Black Echo as the group listen. Recently, a twitter thread appeared in which the book was being recommended from one friend to another and I thought I would post a blog review from my notes on the SLAM discussion. Instead, I've decided to post my discussion responses in full, with editorial notes in red, like this.

I purchased a used copy of The Black Echo from an Amazon Marketplace vendor and though the box showed a teensy bit of wear, the 12 CDs inside were perfect.

The Black Echo
By Michael Connelly
Narrated by Dick Hill
Brilliance Audio
13.25 recorded hours
SERIES: Harry Bosch #1
PREMISE: A homicide detective works in the Hollywood Division
ABOUT: Harry Bosch works a tandem investigation, which involves the death of a Tunnel Rat and a bank heist, w/the FBI

S.LA.M. Discussion Questions


· Did you like the book? Why? Why not? What did you think about the plot?

I was remarkably ambivalent about "Black Echo." I neither liked it nor disliked it, but it would be harder to convince me to like it than not. Police procedurals have gotten formulaic (cf Martin Beck, John McClane, Inspector Rebus) with stock characters and plot devices. Protags tend to have a traumatic event in their past, dysfunctional domestic lives, a method of doing things outside of departmental procedure, a degree of a Luddite mentality and, a way of snagging an attractive counterpart along the way. Plot devices include some organizational preparation, the hunch and, then the stroke of luck, which brings it all together. In a year, it may be hard for me to recall the specifics of this story outside of the Viet Nam references.

· How did you like the narrator?

The narrator is Dick Hill and I am not a fan. I've endured samples and even a couple of CD sides of other books and this is my first full audio book by him. I do not care for the way he breaks up certain sentences or, the whiny quality to his voice. The cinematic styling of the story may also have contributed to my experiencing a disjunct between Dick Hill's voice and what I imagined Harry Bosch to be like. I was imagining Al Pacino/Serpico and Dick Hill provided an odd mid-western twang with an occasional New England drop of the "r," for character delineation (e.g. Rourke).

I am aware that there are people who love Dick Hill and others who, well, do not. Whichever way your preference lies, my opinion can either mean nothing or everything. I'm okay with that, so please don't take my disappointment with this performance as a personal assault on your sensibilities. Thank you.


******* SPOILER ALERT! *******



"*******END OF SPOILER*******"

· Did you figure out “whodunit?” Was there a twist that threw you? Was the plot believable? Did you get hooked? At some point did you have a hard time putting it down? What was the point?

When Eleanor started "acting differently somehow," the listener had been telegraphed that she was involved in some way, but the extent of her involvement was not clear. By the time Harry had looked (two or three times) at the vase of daisies in the hospital, ruminated over the look on Rourke's face when he was shot down and, listened to Eleanor mention that she was quitting her job to travel with money she had saved, the "leftover" criminal had been tipped pretty heavily (I actually thought the diamonds were going to turn out to be IN the vase of daisies, mixed with the water and, that Eleanor had come to claim them there OR that she was going to offer to split with Harry. THEN she would be nabbed by the powers-that-be (who would have left the tape recorder going) while she attempted to flee to a non-extradition country!) At the end of CD 11 (when Harry grabs his clothes and makes to leave the hospital), thinking that the audio book was over, I thought that a nemesis was being born... how interesting! Eleanor was going to turn out to be smarter than I gave her credit for! I was ready to go get the next title in the series! Alas, there was one more CD and it was a disappointing end of the story arc. The visit to the mock Viet Nam Memorial a little confusing. I had understood that Harry HAD found Eleanor's brother's name on the monument, but the opposite was true (?!) Anyway, Eleanor’s motivations were anti-climatic and not very convincing.

******* END OF SPOILER *******

· How did you feel about the main characters?

The criminals are never as smart as they are ambitious and, the protags are never as smart as they are lucky!


· Did anyone or anything distract you in the story?

This is the second Brilliance title I've handled within the past six months (the first was "The Woods" by Harlan Coben and narrated by Scott Brick.) Both titles were on CD and both had terrible production values. Three was a suppressed quality to the overall recordings and they also use a sound effect that drives me crazy: when there is a telephone conversation in the story, Brilliance engineers manipulate the voice for the "person speaking on the other end of the line" to sound like they are on the telephone, on the other end of the line. I find it annoyingly distracting. It always pulls me out of the story and reminds me that I'm listening to a guy, in a booth somewhere, reading the text and later, an engineer looking at a sound wave on a screen. I've stopped "experiencing" the book.

· Did the book grab you emotionally? Did you connect with the characters in the book? With the place?

No, the book did not grab me emotionally. Perhaps this novel resonates more with people who are contemporary with Harry Bosch. In my lifetime, the Viet Nam War was something very remote (I was born two days after the first US troops were formally introduced into the conflict and only ten years old when Saigon fell.) None of my family members served. Viet Nam has really become something of a media permutation and less of an experience, even a tangential one, for me. I would probably identify more with those who fought in Desert Storm and of course, I know people who are "in the sandbox" now. As for the tunnel experience, I don't really suffer from claustrophobia (except when I'm on a plane for too many hours and forced to breathe processed air), which is the closest thing I can imagine the tunnel/sewer experience being akin to. But again, I'm not "feeling" the gut-wrenching angst or Black Echo PTSD (just a need to open a plane window!) The flashbacks in the book had a very cinematic quality to them and perhaps that too, is why it didn't hit a nerve with me. There were times that the book felt like an amalgam of "Apocalypse Now," "Hamburger Hill," and "Die Hard."

Since listening to THE BLACK ECHO, my figurative distance from The Vietnam War has closed and I now am extremely fascinated by the topic (of the Vietnam War.) It's very possible that had I listened to the audiobook after having listened to MATTERHORN, I may have responded differently to the flashbacks.

· What about the use of sex or violence in the story?

Here, it must be noted that when I wrote these responses, I had created and was using "The Ellroy Scale" whereby children's books and cozies rated low on the scale in terms of sex/violence ("00" - "01") and James Ellroy's novel, The Black Dahlia, rated a "10." The scale mostly reflects an "Eeeew!" factor and is totally subjective on my part.


00 Sorcerer's Stone

01 Crocodile on the Sandbank

03 To Kill a Mockingbird

03 The Thirteenth Tale

03 Water for Elephants

04 The Black Echo

05 Odd Thomas

07 The Almost Moon

10 The Black Dahlia


· On a Scale from 1-5 (5 is best) or a Grade of F-A+, how would you rate this book?


· Would you seek out other books by this narrator?

No, if I didn’t have to, I’d rather not go there.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Lotus Eaters

The Lotus Eaters

By Tatjana Soli

narrated by Kirsten Potter

14.90 recorded hours

Blackstone Audio

Matterhorn (by Karl Marlantes) whetted my appetite for more novels about the Vietnam War. Previously a topic that did not particularly interest me, given that I'm not much for topics that happen in my own lifetime, the Vietnam War had made little impression upon my quotidian thoughts. That changed when Karl Marlantes managed to dump me in the middle of the jungle. So now, the Vietnam War has gotten into my head. Everyday I think about it. Sometimes it's a small thought like when I see a Vietnam War Veteran’s license plate. Sometimes it's a bigger thought like when journalists compare Iraq with Vietnam. But the point is, that the Vietnam War has become a part of my living history, my present, even though I was not there. The most natural way for me to feed my interests is to read. Fiction. Non-Fiction. It doesn't matter because in reading more and more about any topic, what is true becomes evident and what isn't falls away.

When Matterhorn was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, a companion review of The Lotus Eaters also appeared (read Danielle Trussoni's review and Janet Maslin's earlier review.) I was at first reluctant to pick up The Lotus Eaters because it didn't sound gritty enough. It sounded more like a love story for women to read then a book that would transport me to the Vietnam War. I can’t pinpoint what changed my mind; but it may have been pure laziness. The company I work for produced the audio and so I could (and did) walk over to the warehouse and borrow a copy. And besides, there is a helicopter on the cover…

The story is about Helen, a girl who arrives in Vietnam as a novice photographer, ostensibly choosing Vietnam because she wants to discover more about the circumstances of her brother’s death as a soldier. It becomes clear however, that Helen’s own nature has led her there and, now that she is in Vietnam, is intrigued by the land and people. But the overarching theme of the novel is really the addictions that war junkies (the hard core soldiers, the correspondents and photographers who stay on and, the civilians who remain) both relish and suffer despite common sense and the relationships that would otherwise temper risky choices.

The book opens with the fall of Saigon. The listener becomes a voyeur of events that unfold during that day in April 1975 when the crush of people motivated by fear and desperation struggle to escape the approaching conquering armies. The listener follows Helen, the veteran female war photographer as she negotiates the physical and psychological detritus of the city. It becomes clear that this is not your musical, Miss Saigon. Images of the day imprint upon the mind’s eye as much as a newspaper photograph would, a clever literary technique given the protagonist’s profession. This photograph-as-prose approach is subtle in the beginning and more obvious later when certain scenes are literally framed.

Kirsten Potter’s voice is very cool, calm and detached and, appropriate for the novel. Her voice is clear and transparent enough to tell the story and very subtle changes in her tone convey a shift in mood and/or speaker and, accents are used sparingly. The listener is relegated to the third person omniscient POV from the onset of the book and remains there as the author intends. And therein lies my quibble. I don’t want distance from the events. I want to feel them. And I don’t. Still, the highly descriptive prose and the writing technique make this a worthwhile listen. Just don't expect Matterhorn.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A is for Awful

A is for Alibi
By Sue Grafton

Narrated by Mary Pieffer

Books on Tape, Inc.

7.60 hours

This was a Sounds Like a Mystery (SLAM) group selection for the June 2010 discussion. I got my copy of the audiobook from the Jackson County Library System. The cover was different and, correctly identified the reader as Mary Pieffer; but this is the cover art currently used both by Random House Audio, Inc and
This review was originally published on before I had my blog set up.

This is the first of Sue Grafton's Alphabet series featuring Kinsey Millhone, a private investigator based in Santa Teresa, CA. In this book, Kinsey Millhone is hired by a woman (who has been convicted for the homicide of her husband) to find out who really killed her husband. It was okay, except for three problems: Mary Pieffer, Kinsey Millhone and, Sue Grafton:

  • Mary Pieffer (the narrator:) This is an older recording (1993) and narration styles were different then. Attention was paid to verbatim and neutral interpretation of the text. So maybe, in 1993, listeners found this recording acceptable and even commendable; but now, the narration is annoying. The narrator's voice was colorless and sometimes it sounded like a computer reading.
  • Kinsey Millhone (the protagonist:) Ewww! She doesn't like dogs, likes the smell of her own sweat and, she likes small, dreary, cheap spaces. She's supposed to come across as tough, but I thought of her as crass and belligerent. Seriously, by the time of the climatic action scene in the water, I really didn't care if Kinsey made it or not. Actually, that's not true. I was kind of hoping she'd get swept out to sea. [And no, I don't consider this a spoiler since we know Kinsey makes it to appear in 20 more novels to date!]
  • Sue Grafton (the author:) In creating an unlikable heroine who gives the reader/listener no opportunity to invest any enthusiasm for the protag, I am surprised that SG has generated a following of readers willing to follow her through to "U!" In A IS FOR ALIBI, the writer tips off "whodunnit" almost immediately (which makes Kinsey look stupid for not picking up on this) and, has her protag immediately investigate "the homicide of [the accountant]" as opposed to "the death of [the accountant]." Maybe this was all innovative (in terms of writing style and mystery plots) in 1988, but it doesn't work for me now.

I've been told that some titles are better than others; that Judy Kaye is a better narrator and, that I should give the series another chance; but really, I have a ton of other books and audiobooks that sound more appealing, so I'll pass.