Maplewood, NJ, United States | Member Since 2008
Persuasion was the only Jane Austen novel I had not read so I recently decided to remedy that. Juliet Stevenson had cracked me up as the neurotic mother in Bend It Like Beckham, so I was sure I could count on her to bring out the comical side of the story (and Jane Austen always offers up some comedy). But I had no idea Stevenson was such a subtle and talented actress. As the omniscient narrator she sounds sensible, measured, and lovely. She delivers the story while not allowing the listener to get bogged down in Austen’s sometimes antiquated language. She successfully confers masculinity to the male voices without attempting to impersonate. And the women who are meant to be laughable, such as Anne’s sister Mary, with them she is ruthless. And it’s delightful.
In terms of the story – this is probably Jane Austen’s best. Pride and Prejudice will always be my long-standing favorite, having been the first book in my life that I couldn't put down, but Persuasion is Austen's smartest work, and you can sense her own maturity in it (it was her last completed novel). It takes the kind of characters we meet in her other novels and fast-forwards them ten years. These are grown women – not girls – dealing with love and loss, and learning about second chances.
That headline is my highly professional assessment of this book. Strangely, I decided to give both the performance and the story a three, while overall I felt the book was four-star. Somehow the total was greater than the sum of its parts - or average in this case. In short, the story wasn't perfect - it felt a bit disjointed and I can't tell if it's much more or much less clever than I thought it was (but I'm certain it's one or the other). The performance was cute but the pacing was a bit odd and somehow I felt that Zara Ramm could have helped me keep track of the myriad characters better than she did. Plus, I think with any time travel book the narrator really has to work extra hard to help keep all the threads clear for the listener. But despite my grumbling, all the way through I was engaged and intrigued and charmed. This isn't life-changing literature but it is good, zany entertainment.
A heads up: it took me a long time to get in to this book. If you’re in need of a quick fiction fix, this might not be the place to start. I spent two-thirds of the book grumbling to myself that as intriguing and unsettling as this story is, it just wasn’t living up to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry for me. But I’m so thankful I stuck with it – Rachel Joyce delivers in spades. It’s not so much that she gives a clever, tidy wrap-up (though there is a twist near the end), but she creates an utterly complex ending that somehow feels completely familiar. How is it that the history of your life moves along in a zig-zaggy, random, and seemingly unremarkable fashion, but then somewhere along the way it feels as if it was pre-destined all along? This instinctual belief is both incredibly universal and totally flawed – and Rachel Joyce captures it all.
She beautifully renders the earnestness with which children approach the issues of adulthood, and the inherent misunderstandings that arise when these two worlds collide. She heartbreakingly depicts the damage that is caused when children aren’t just loved simply and wholeheartedly. I just can’t stop thinking about this book and reflecting on my own childhood in the context of it. And in the final chapters there is a scene of reconciliation that takes place in a suburban café that feels like it maybe happened in the background as Harold Fry and his entourage marched on by. Where Joyce’s first book contains elements of individual triumph, Perfect simmers with anxiety until reluctantly, gratefully finding peace and forgiveness.
Paul Rhys was a solid choice for narrator, and I think it was probably necessary to choose a man to read, but I didn’t always love his female voices, so I’m pulling one star off for this.
In the wake of the recent overturn of DOMA and Prop 8, I occasionally came across articles and social media posts referencing one of E.M. Forster’s lesser-known classics, Maurice. Having never read or listened to it before I thought this was an appropriate time to pick it up.
Due to the fact that that homosexuality was illegal in England for much of Forster’s life – and that Forster himself was a closeted gay man – the author requested that the novel not be published until his death. But the themes and subject matter may be the least shocking thing about Maurice (especially to contemporary ears). And indeed, as is often noted by Maurice’s first love, Clive Durham, the Greeks wrote about homosexual love quite rapturously. No, the most intriguing thing about Maurice – and here is the spoiler alert – is that this story has a happy ending. One is so prepared to expect tragedy from such a premise. But the fact that Forster could imagine two men finding happiness, if not societal acceptance, in pre-WW1 Britain, was remarkably forward thinking for his time. However the two men have to literally disappear into the ether, and the story ends that way - with a true vanishing - giving one the sense that Forster was unable to conjure up a viable realistic circumstance in which a relationship such as this could flourish. But he writes with such exhilaration for a possible future that Maurice ultimately serves as a hopeful and wonderful last testament from the grave.
Peter Firth’s reading is elegant, and perfectly captures the various levels of social strata through which Maurice travels, lending credence to the impossibility of the situation that a modern reader might struggle to grasp otherwise. He illuminates the desperation and anxiety with which Maurice faces his predicament and his clarity of tone helps the listener hear and feel the story beneath some of the heavier, more intellectual monologues that Forster peppers throughout. This definitely falls into my list of classics that are better heard than read.
In my self-description I wrote that I’m often drawn to heart-wrenching books. Well, this one certainly qualifies. If you read the synopsis of this story it will tell you that Me Before You is about a quadriplegic and the relationship that he forms with his care giver and how an unexpected love blossoms between them. Fine. This is indeed the narrative. But I’d tell you that what it’s really about is the impossible. (And not in the nice, hopeful “he did the impossible!” way. I mean in the wretched way.) I’ve never listened to a book that made me feel more trapped and claustrophobic. This is a real-life horror story about people who desperately want something they simply can’t have, and about differing perspectives that can never be reconciled. There’s a creepy old maze in the town where this novel is set that serves as a central point of imagery. And that’s what Jojo Moyes’ book feels like exactly: a tangle of directions, an unsolvable problem, knowing that there's no way out. How do you move forward if you keep turning circles on yourself because there is no acceptable answer? This book is simply crushing and will make you feel grateful for every moment of happiness you’ve ever had in your life. And yet, please don’t let the depressing picture I’ve painted scare you off. I can’t say this book is uplifting: it’s not. But it is revealing and instructive and even occasionally lovely.
Given the heavy subject matter, I don’t think I could stand it if Me Before You wasn’t perfectly narrated, and luckily it is - by a brilliant multicast. Though the content of the story is nothing like The Help, the multiple-perspective casting here is as authentic and well-executed.
I recommend this one highly to anyone up for an emotional challenge. However, there were a handful of side characters whose viewpoints just didn’t strike me as valid, or who could have been more sophisticatedly rendered. It’s only for this reason that am I not giving this book a full five stars.
Full disclosure: The Handmaid's Tale is my favorite book. It is my number one all-time pick among books, having topped my list since I first read it five years ago. So perhaps I came to this audiobook somewhat biased, but in a sense I think my love of the work set me up to be a harsher critic of the audio production. But listening to it served as a total reminder of why it is so incredible.
Last month, when we ran a little editorial feature about the books we were grateful for, I wrote about The Handmaid's Tale. It makes me grateful for a lot of reasons: I'm grateful to live in this society, in this time period. I'm grateful that my daughter won't know the kind of oppression so wrenchingly depicted by Margaret Atwood (who is for the record a total genius). And I'm grateful for how totally humbling this book is. No other work of literature is such a complete reminder that we are all just fragments, or moments in time, and we're all destined to become - if we're so lucky - mere historical footnotes. The framed narrative Atwood uses (and I won't elaborate so as not to spoil) really drives this point home.
I was worried that no narrator could live up to my expectations given my belief in the importance of this book. But Claire Danes is just vivid. She doesn't act, and she doesn't need to. She recounts. She breathes out the tale as if she is living it. Resigned, beaten down, traveling through hell by putting one step ahead of the other. I was utterly convinced by her performance and have not been able to shut up about it since. Everyone on my team is going to listen to this before I'm through, and I hope everyone who reads this review will too!
After talking my my co-worker Chris into checking out some of my favorite YA books it was my turn to take him up on a recommendation – and his pick for me was WAY outside of my normal listening zone. 14 is a Lovecraftian sci-horror novel that feels pulpy and modern at the same time. There’s plenty of kitsch, and lots of old-fashioned sci-fi techniques are on display here, but the voice is still totally fresh, as is Ray Porter- who totally nails the narration. It’s one of the weirdest and best books I’ve ever listened to, and from the number of 5 star reviews it would seem our listeners agree!
The problem I often find with panoramic works of fiction is that too many characters and too many time periods can dilute the power of a novel. It’s tough to spread ourselves so thin in real life and it’s the same with a book: how can you care about so many characters at once? But in Beautiful Ruins – a grand work that reaches back 60 years and stretches to encapsulate a remote Italian village and the glamour of Hollywood under the same roof – Jess Walters manages to make every character’s individual perspective legitimate. From the German World War II soldier whose name we never learn, to the 19 year-old drug dealer/club promoter/romantic, and even to Richard Burton himself, Walters gives each character a voice – but not a pigeonhole. And Edoardo Ballerini’s performance – in its myriad voices, each perfect in its own way - bestows a level of believability and immediacy. His narration serves as a great equalizer: everyone here deserves the same respect and reverence.
Around the office we’ve been referring to Beautiful Ruins as the next The Help. That always gets a few disbelieving raised eyebrows. But while Walter’s novel may not contain the same clear moral imperative, its message, while subtler, is just as important. If you’ve ever – in one of your more metaphysical moments – felt overwhelmed by the swirling stories, the multiple points of experience, the many lives all existing at once, this book untangles the mess for you - and the result is pretty beautiful.
I’m writing a review of the first book in this series, but that’s because you need to begin at the beginning and keep going. But you don’t want to miss any of the books in Bowen’s adorable and delightful Royal Spyness series. These books are total charmers. They tell the story of Lady Georgiana Rannoch, cousin to the Queen, in 1930s England. She’s a minor royal who's completely penniless, but expected to keep up with the Joneses. Uninterested in marrying for money, she’s trying to figure out how to make her own way in the world, with very few suitable options available to her. And then there’s the fact that keeps running into dead bodies (as tends to happen in these cozy mysteries). You may be rolling your eyes, but trust me: these books are absolutely wonderful little gems. And while I would never dare discourage reading, you really ought to listen to them. Katherine Kellgren is the real star here. She gives perfect voice to all of the characters Georgie encounters: her Cockney grandfather, a handsome Irish rogue, a crazy German princess who’s obsessed with American gangster movies, a stuffy butler, and even Wallis Simpson and Coco Chanel. I can’t wait for the next one!
I picked up Extreme Measures as part of an editors challenge - we decided to listen to books outside of our comfort zone, and for me a hard-core thriller was exactly that. I’ve only ever listened to one book that could be called a thriller - but it had literary and supernatural themes, so my fellow editors quickly dismissed it as “not counting”. I tried to get away with going the Stieg Larsson route, but no dice due to its wide-spread appeal. I needed to pick something ultra-macho and gun-toting, and Vince Flynn fit the bill. And while I’ve always considered myself to be a fairly lefty liberal, I was raised in the south in a family of hunters, so I was way more receptive to the tone of this book than I ever thought I would be. The fast-paced (and frankly, witty) dialogue pulled me right in. The political debate was actually way better than the action scenes. There’s nothing quite like hearing a bunch of burly Navy SEAL types, lunatic jihadists, and slimy politicians barking at each other about who’s the most heroic in the privacy of your own headphones. This was top–notch entertainment and definitely worth a return visit.
Ok I’m only halfway through The End of the Affair, but I’ve been talking everyone’s ears off about it around the office and just had to go ahead and write a review before finishing it (something I’m generally opposed to doing).
I’m not sure quite how to capture just how exceptional Firth’s performance is, but I'll give you two good examples. Graham Greene writes a lot about how close together love and hate are (apathy being the true opposite of both), and Colin Firth totally connects with his meaning. When Firth says the word “hate” you really feel rapture simmering beneath the surface. When he utters the word “love” he spits it out like venom. The two are irreparably intertwined. The subject matter is there - this being, in essence, a record of great passion gone wrong - and Colin Firth does it justice. Every word is impassioned without ever being too much or over the top. Narrators have to be careful to walk this fine line when dealing with emotionally heavy material and Firth succeeds perfectly. But Bendrix, the protagonist isn’t just a man of great feeling – he’s also a curmudgeon, he’s difficult, he’s maybe a little cruel – but Firth makes you care for him despite the fact that you really don’t like him. Another vocal juggling act performed without flaw.
I have never read The End of the Affair before and only have a vague memory of seeing the movie, so I don’t really know where the book is going to end up – but I just hope I can somehow elongate the delicious few hours left that I have with it. Seriously, seriously, seriously – don’t miss this performance.
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