Thursday, June 28, 2012

Audiobook Week - Three Family Stories


It’s Audiobook Week which is encouraging me to catch up and review the backlog of audio books that I’ve listened to but not yet reviewed.  For this post I’ll review three very different family stories. 
Defending Jacob
by William Landay, read by Grover Gardner, Blackstone Audio, 12 hours and 25 minutes, January 2012

Defending Jacob is a taut family drama that reads like a thriller.  Andy Jacob is an assistant district attorney who finds that his fourteen year old son is accused of murdering another student.  His son proclaims his innocence and Andy supports him despite mounting evidence that incriminates his son.  The story examines a number of issues – the limits of parental love, the possibility that violent tendencies are inherited and the actions of families in crisis.  There are lots of twists and turns in this story and a shocking ending but all in all I think the story could have been better edited as it moved at a slow pace.  The narrator, Grover Gardner did a great job with this story, just the right amount of emotion in his reading.
I bought this audiobook

A Shoemakers's Wife by Adriana Trigiani narrated by Annabella Sciorra and Andriana Trigiani, Harper Audio, 18hrs, 19 min.  April 2012
The Shoemaker’s Wife is an epic family drama that tells the familiar immigrant story.  This time it is Northern Italians, Ciro and Enza who in the early years of the twentieth century meet in their native Italian village but do not reconnect until some years later in New York City.  It is a big story.  Enza leaves behind her mother and siblings and accompanies her father to the US to earn enough money to build a home in Italy.  She ends up working with the Metropolitan Opera as a seamstress.  Ciro driven from his native village by a sleazy Catholic priest (too many of those lately) learns a shoemakers trade in NYC and then enlists in the army and fights in WWI where he is gassed. After a number of false starts Enza and Ciro finally marry after the war and move to Minnesota where he sets up shop as a shoemaker.   I liked the characters in the story, clearly the author is writing with love and affection for her grandparents who served as models for the lead characters.  It is a long listen, more than 18 hours but if you’ve the time it is enjoyable.  The first half of the story is ably narrated by Annabella Sciorra and then the author Adriana Trigiani narrates the last half.  The unannounced change of narrators was a little disconcerting to me and I did not understand why it occurred until I read a review of the story that included the fact that Trigiani wanted to narrate that portion of the story.
I received a review copy of this audiobook from the publisher


The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, narrated by Christopher Evan Welch, Harper Audio, 6 hrs 56 mins, June 2009 
The Art of Racing in the Rain is a family story with a different twist; it is narrated by the family dog Enzo.  It is a wryly told tale.  On the eve of his death Enzo recounts the life of his owner Denny Swift a race car driver (skilled at driving in the rain, hence the title).  Enzo has a human soul and a marvelous voice.  He has educated himself by watching TV and listening to Denny.  He believes that life’s problems can be solved by applying the techniques used by race car drivers.  While the premise sounds somewhat loony the story works well.  Denny marries and has a daughter.  Tragedy strikes and a happy family falls apart.  Denny fights to hold onto his family and Enzo narrates it all for us.  This is a poignant story that is at the same time funny and uplifting.  Christopher Evan Welch does an outstanding job bringing Enzo and this story to life.  Don’t miss this one! 
I bought a copy of this audiobook

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Billy Lynn's Long Half Time Walk

by Ben Fountain, Ecco Publishing, May 2012

...the Catch 22 of the Iraq War

In this entertaining satire of patriotic America we are introduced to the soldiers of Bravo Company and our hero Billy Lynn.  Bravo Company have become instant heroes because of their actions at al-Ansakar Canal.  In a brief 4 minute battle the soldiers have been recorded by an embedded Fox News TV crew valiantly and successfully battling a contingent of Al Qaeda.  For his actions in the battle Billy Lynn was awarded the Silver Star.  The Pentagon has taken Bravo Company out of Iraq and sent them on a public relations tour in the US.
All of the action in this story takes place on the last day of their tour.  It is Thanksgiving and the men of Bravo Company are feted at the Cowboys game at Texas Stadium.  They will participate in the half time ceremony, though their part in the activity is not well defined.  The day will include a meet-up with the Cowboys cheerleader and a half time performance by Destiny’s Child.  Both events are high on the list for the young soldiers.  Billy’s thoughts narrate this story.  He is an uneducated Texan who has ended up in the Army to avoid sentencing for a vandalism charge.  Flashbacks of the battle and Billy’s visit to his dysfunctional family are interspersed with the day’s activities at Texas Stadium.  During the battle one of Billy’s sergeants has died in his arms and he continues to grapple with that.    Billy is a very likeable character and probably a true portrait of the young men we send to fight our wars.

There are parts of this story that are absolutely spot on.  The actions of the young soldiers, drinking, partying and just in general carrying on in a controlled way, responsive only to their sergeant resonate as genuine.  But the absolute best part of this satire are the caricatures of the Cowboy’s owner (an unnamed Jerry Jones) and the “patriotic” Americans who support Bravo Company.   The writing in the novel is very funny and while it is not a book with much of a plot it is entertaining and thought provoking. Definitely the Catch 22 of the Iraq War.   

I read a copy of this book provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Child 44

by Tom Rob Smith, Grand Central Publishing, April,2008

 ...a great book for mystery fans- highly recommended!

A neighbor handed me this book with a great recommendation.  He was so right.  This is a taut, chilling mystery set in Stalinist Russia.  Leo Demidov, who works for the State Security Service, is a war hero and a believer in the communist state.  As the story opens Leo is charged with explaining away the murder of a co-worker’s child (in communist Russia the state is “crime free”).  Ever dutiful, he carries out this task, despite his desire to work on a more serious case of a defector.  The paranoia that existed is post war Russia is palpable in this story.  There is no one who can be trusted – coworkers, neighbors and even spouses are capable of spying and denouncing. Because Leo has tried to control the savagery of his second in command he is then charged with investigating his wife, Raisa for Anglo-American sympathies.  In the investigation he refuses to denounce her and is demoted and exiled from Moscow.   Leo and Raisa barely escape Moscow with their lives.  Their marriage appears irreparably damaged by Leo’s actions during the investigation. At this point the serial killer plot starts to develop.  The state refuses to recognize that someone is murdering children but Raisa and Leo with the help of ordinary citizens mount an investigation knowing that these actions will doom them.
The plot summary I’ve given really doesn’t convey how good this story is.  The author has done a remarkable job of creating the setting of Stalinist Russia and the fear of being arrested for saying (or even thinking) the wrong thing.  He has conveyed the absolute hopelessness that marked this era.  Leo is a very believable character.  He is far from the standard detective hero, more an anti-hero; he has done some horrible things for the state and is now penitent.   In the 1950s there were still a significant number of Russians who thought that communism was the answer to the chronic poverty and hunger that had challenged Russia.  Leo’s gradual loss of faith in this system is documented throughout this story.  His relationship with his wife Raisa matures as the story progresses and in the end is very credible and convincing.  The serial killer story (based on a real life Russian serial killer from the ‘80s) is excellent.  The tension that develops as Leo and Raisa attempt to prevent the killer from taking another child is palpable.  This is really a page turner.  I will even forgive a bizarre twist at the end of the story. That twist really strained credibility and wasn’t necessary to make this a great book for mystery fans.  Highly recommended!
I read a copy of this book borrowed from a friend.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Gold

by Chris Cleave, Simon and Schuster, July 2012 
... a great summer Olympics story with believable characters and real life relationships beautifully written
 A few spoilers.  Just in time for the 2012 summer Olympics we have a powerful story of competitive Olympic cyclists.  Kate, Zoe and Jack meet in the late 1990s as nineteen year olds when they joined the development program for British cyclists.  They are coached by an older cyclist Tom who in an earlier era missed winning an Olympic gold medal by a tenth of a second.  The story opens at the Athens Olympics in 2004 as Zoe wins a gold medal and Kate is at home with her infant child Sophie.  The back-story for each of these cyclists is told in small flashback segments.  Zoe and Kate are friendly rivals from the first time they meet.  Both are fierce competitors in very different ways.  Zoe looks for every advantage, going so far as to compete with Kate for Jack’s affections just to gain a psychological advantage over Kate.  Zoe who has suppressed her emotions struggles with this dark side of her personality and has no life beyond the velodrome.  Kate who has married Jack after forgiving him for his dalliance with Zoe is just as competitive but has a softer side to her.  She and Jack have a daughter Sophie.  Sophie was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia as the Beijing Olympics opened.  Kate misses the chance to compete and flies home with Sophie to begin treatment.  The story now shifts to 2012 and Sophie has had a reoccurrence of the disease that both Jack and Kate thought cured.  As the London Olympics approach Kate and Zoe are locked in a struggle as only one of them will be able to compete in the Olympics.  The stage is now set for the final struggle between Kate and Zoe, let the action begin!
I liked this story.  The subject of competitive cycling is well examined; these athletes and I’m sure most top tier competitors live lives that revolve around gaining even small advantages that will allow them to succeed.  Every morsel of food they eat is dictated by a nutritionist, every hour of their days is programmed, and every workout they perform is scripted.  The racing scenes are thrilling. 
The writing in this novel is excellent, not overly descriptive but flawless in telling the story.  The real strength of this novel though is in the character development.  All of the major characters are complicated and complex.  I especially thought that Sophie was a really well imagined character.  She speaks in her own voice and has created an alternate universe (Star Wars worlds) where she channels her pain and suffering.  She is well tuned to her parents' fears and works to hide her pain from them.  Impossible not to like and root for her!  The Zoe character has a back-story that when told does explain her emotional struggles and her inability to sustain a normal relationship with anyone.    I think that you must buy into the friendship between Zoe and Kate to accept the fact that Zoe allows Kate to rejoin a pivotal race late in the book.  I was right on the edge with this but in the end it did work for me.  I did wonder (maybe I did know) though why Kate and Jack allowed Zoe to stay in their lives as she was clearly an unstable person.
This is a great summer Olympics story with believable characters and real life relationships beautifully written.  For Chris Cleave a worthy follow-up to his runaway bestseller Little Bee.
I read an advanced copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Mr. Churchill's Secretary

by Susan Elia MacNeal, Bantam, April 2012

...definitely worth a second look for those who like historical fiction

Maggie Hope is a whip smart Brit who is orphaned and raised in America by her aunt.   She returns to London to sell the house of a grandmother she did not know existed. Unable to sell the house she stays on in London as WWII breaks out.  Postponing her doctoral studies in math she tries unsuccessfully to get a meaningful job with British Intelligence that will use her skills.  Because she is a woman only typist positions are open and she ends up, with a little help from friends, at No. 10 Downing St. as part of Churchill’s secretarial pool.  

Maggie has a group of high society friends and we see some of the night life that took place during the “phony war” of 1940.  The Blitz has just started and Londoners have no idea what they are in for.  Maggie develops some good friends and a love interest.  But things are not as they seem.  There is an assassination plot a foot and a conspiracy to blow up a famous landmark.  Maggie is at the center of it all and in the end her math skills play a key role in foiling these plots.  She also discovers some of the strange circumstances around her parents’ death in a car crash.
This book is the first in a new series.  I liked the period aspects of this story.  The London setting is well described and the integration of real life people into the story is fun if a little unrealistic.  The mystery is threaded throughout the story and has the requisite red herrings and suspense. The mystery plot has suspense thriller aspects to it dealing with an attempt on Churchill’s life and a plot to blow up St. Paul’s and while that type of a plot is fun it has aspects that strain credibility.
 I have seen some comparisons of this series to the Maisie Dobbs series; I’ll withhold my opinion on that until I read another book in the series.  In the Dobbs series you have a realistic picture of the losses and tragedies of WWI, the Hope series so far seems a little light on this front but the worst of times are still ahead.  Definitely worth a second look for those who like historical fiction.
I read a copy of this book provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Last Refuge

by Ben Coes,St. Martin's Press, July 2012

..If you like the novels of Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn or Brad Thor check out this series I think you’ll enjoy. 

This book is the third in the Dewey Andreas series but the first I’ve read.  Andreas is a former Seal and Delta (how is that possible?) who sets out to meet an Israeli officer who has saved his life on a previous mission.  The Israeli is captured on the streets of NYC by the Iranian secret service before he can share with Andreas the fact that Iran has a functioning nuclear weapon aimed at Tel Aviv.  Andreas decides to free the Israeli and at the same time steal the nuke (love it!).  He must operate independently because the US currently has na├»ve leadership (a common theme in these stories) and he does not want to provoke Iran into a premature attack.

The action moves to the Mideast where Andreas counting on help from a small number of friends goes native into Iran.  The scenes alternate between the torture of the Israeli in the high security prison in Teheran and Andreas organizing the plan to switch out a fake bomb for the real one.  Let me stop the plot description here and just say the action is nonstop and our hero doesn’t fail in any key aspect of the challenge.
I am addicted to spy thrillers like this one.  I read them all the while thinking that the plotting is unrealistic (let me hire someone to make a fake 10 ton nuclear bomb), the action scenes fantastic (Andreas jumps thru the glass door, up onto the balcony, over the railing and as he falls pivots to fire back at the pursuer) and the heroes inevitably successful.  The characters in this story are fleshed out a bit and Andreas as a hero is likeable.   If you like the novels of Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn or Brad Thor check out this series I think you’ll enjoy. 

I read an ARC provided by the publisher