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This One’s a Winner!: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (AUDIO)

I take back everything I’ve ever said about authors narrating their own audiobooks (don’t, please, don’t!) after listening to Libba Bray‘s incredible performance on Beauty Queens. She brings to life her own satirical look at advertising and news media, corporate ethics, commercialism, and pop culture, through the darkly humorous story of teen beauty pageant contestants who survive a plane crash onto a jungle island. (Only a small percentage of the original fifty states’ contestants survive. Miss Massachusetts is not among them, although her gown does come in handy at one point.) The airline staff, the camera crew…all dead. As if in a reality show without the show, the girls appear to be on their own with only few supplies other than some waterlogged bags of airline pretzels and a surfeit of beauty aids.

With this year her last chance to win before she ages out, the bold and brassy Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins, representing Texas, takes charge, insisting that the girls keep up their pageant routines while Adina (Miss New Hampshire) sardonically observes that shelter, food, and water should probably take priority, but is ignored. Each of the main characters has a story that gets revealed as they begin to trust each other, but there’s no time to sentimentalize each girl’s individual discovery of strengths she didn’t know she had, as the author throws the girls into one dangerous situation after another, and not just snakes, tropical storms, slumbering volcanos, or other jungle threats. The author’s wild subplots involving terrorist, politics, reality shows, and more, keep the action and humor going strong. And, yes, some hot boys do eventually come into the picture, so there’s romance too, but with a few twists on the usual YA romance fare.

Like the Miss Teen Dream contestants themselves, who are not all as they present themselves to pageant judges and each other, this young adult novel is more than meets the eye. Under the hilarious satire, skewering everything from product placement to international arms dealing, lie serious themes that readers of both sexes can think about and form opinions on. The salty language, frank talk about sexual desire in teens, left-leaning politics, and the distinctly Sarah-Palin-by-way-of-Tina-Fey voice of Ladybird Hope (former Miss Teen Dream now presidential candidate) might make this book slightly less humorous to social conservatives than to more liberal-leaning readers. But I was impressed by the author’s even-handedness in many parts of the book where she avoided the common pitfall of only being open-minded about opinions that match our own, allowing for the girls from both red and blue states to experience some brief, eye-opening moments of understanding before switching the story over to crazed villains or hot pirates.

The audiobook production – with its distinctive voices for each contestant, sound effects signaling the end of a CD, and Saturday Night Live-worthy “commercial breaks” – is far more than just a reading of the book. It deservedly won this year’s Audie Award for best narration by an author. An interview with Libba Bray at the end of the audiobook is also humorous and enlightening.

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Malady in a Monastery: The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (AUDIO)

Cover image of The Beautiful Mystery audio editionSet in a monastery deep in a forest in northernmost Quebec in mid-September when the leaves are already turning, The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (narrated by the talented Ralph Cosham) is a great audiobook to listen to as nights are getting longer and winter looms. In this eighth Chief Inspector Gamache novel, there’s no visit to the village of Three Pines, where readers of the first seven novels may have imagined spending quiet nights in the local B&B (quiet, except for when there has been a murder in or around the village), but meeting the fictional monks of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-Les-Loups and catching up with the continuing story of the fallout for the chief inspector and his second-in-command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, from traumatic events of the previous year (see Bury Your Dead and A Trick of the Light) more than made up for not hearing about my favorite Three Pines characters – Clara, Peter, Gabri, Olivier, Myrna, and Ruth.

“Some malady is coming upon us. / We wait. We wait.” These lines from T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral keeps entering the mind of Armand Gamache, the usually mild-mannered head of homicide at the Sûreté du Québec, during the time he spends at the remote St. Gilbertine monastery. No outsiders have ever before been allowed entrance; in fact, no outsiders – including the Pope – had known the monastery even existed until a few years ago. Chief Inspector Gamache appreciates the beauty of poetry and of the Gregorian chant that the monks have suddenly become famous for, but he’s no pushover when it comes to investigating murder. In this case, that murderer is clearly one of the twenty-three cloistered monks remaining in the building with the thick stone walls, behind the door that is always kept locked, but that isn’t the most dangerous thing lying in wait for Armand Gamache and his more philistine, but beloved, friend and lieutenant Jean Guy.

Listen to an excerpt from The Beautiful Mystery as narrated by Ralph Cosham here. If you like audiobooks at all, I guarantee you’ll like the audio editions of Louise Penny’s books, but you should start with Still Life, the first one. (Still Life is also a good one to read in the fall, if I remember correctly.) The only quibbles I had with The Beautiful Mystery narration is the way the author distinctly pronounced the “o” in the word “Catholic” (“Cath-oh-lic”) which sounded odd to me, and that he forgot to use the French pronunciation of the name “David.” Otherwise, the audiobook narration was as heavenly and mesmerizing as the Gregorian chant that was sung to near perfection by the monks of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-Les-Loups.

The Beautiful Mystery (Unabridged)
Penny, Louise
Macmillan Audio
August 28, 2012
978-1-4272-2609-9
13.5 hours on 11 CDs

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of The Beautiful Mystery on CD from Macmillan Audio through Audiobook Jukebox.

Other opinions of The Beautiful Mystery audiobook (all raves):
AudioFile
Bookin’ with “Bingo”
Thoughts in Progress

You may also be interested in my review of The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny, here.

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What It Means to Be Real: Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

cover imageWritten from a clever point of view that it took only about fifteen minutes of listening to Matthew Brown’s reading for me to warm up to, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks is narrated by Budo, the imaginary friend of Max Delaney, a smart eight-year-old boy with a great imagination, an eye for detail, and an unofficial diagnosis of being somewhere on the autism spectrum (although his father believes Max is just a “late bloomer.”) Thanks to Max’s strong imagination, Budo is very well formed for an imaginary friend – some of whom, he explains, are no more than spots on a wall, or are missing body parts, such as ears. Budo also claims that being imaginary, and only visible to Max, doesn’t mean he isn’t real.

Sounds cutesy, I know. At first it did seem just too convenient that Budo was constrained in some ways by the limits of Max’s imagination (who, though precocious, is still a child), yet at the same time, can sound and act very adult, learning things that Max can’t and even getting into friendly arguments with him. Budo speculates early on that when Max as a four-year old first brought Budo into being, he may have imagined him as a teenager, an adult,  or maybe “a boy with a grown-up’s brain.” Budo describes his strange place in the world living in the “spaces between  as straddling the fence. “I’m not exactly a kid, but I’m not exactly an adult either.”

But the author (and the talented audiobook narrator) manage to pull off this tricky adult-child voice, which could easily become grating. The voice of Budo talking about Max – his talents and his limitations – and about Max’s parents – how they argue over what is best for Max and whether he needs more than just patience – allow for insight into how it might feel to be Max, to have constant sensory overload around people, even family, and a high-functioning brain that’s more comfortable in a world of video games and imagined battles than in the real world.

Although he worries a lot about Max and tries to help him navigate the daily life of school and home, Budo also has his own existential concerns. He has seen many imaginary friends go “poof,” and he’s desperate to know what happens after the “poof.” He knows that he only exists as long as Max continues to believe in him. After the plot heats up, Budo’s place in Max’s world gets called into question even more. This would make a good book discussion book for a philosophically minded group. There’s a lot to talk about in the differences between Max and Budo, Max’s world and Budo’s world, and the different disconnects each of them has with the world of Max’s parents (i.e. the real world. Maybe?)

Read an excerpt of Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend here to get a sense of how the short sentences and chapters look on the page.

Read other reviews and find the link to a sample of the Macmillan audiobook on these blogs:
Jenn’s Bookshelves

The Literate Housewife

The Reading Frenzy (includes author interview)
Shelf Awareness (includes narrator interview)

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend
Dicks, Matthew (author)
Brown, Matthew (narrator)
Macmillan Audio
August 21, 2012
9781427225887
9 hours on 9 CDs

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this audiobook on CD from Macmillan Audio at Book Expo America.

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A Thread of Sadness: The Untelling by Tayari Jones (AUDIO)

Cover image of The Untelling audio editionIn The Untelling, an emotional roller coaster of a second novel by Tayari Jones, author of the critically acclaimed novel Silver Sparrow (Algonquin, 2011), only Aria Jackson’s prickly mother calls her by her given name, “Ariadne,” a too-grand name from Shakespeare that Aria – who already stuck out in school due to entering puberty very early – never felt comfortable with.

Aria and her sister, Hermione, along with their mother, survived the single-car accident that killed their father (the driver) and six-month-old baby sister Genevieve when Aria was only nine and the family was on the way to her dance recital. At age 25, Aria has graduated from college, gotten a job, and is sharing an apartment in an un-gentrified neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia with a friend, but she still remembers the accident vividly – how her father swerved to avoid an oncoming car, how the cake she was holding in her lap was ruined, and how “silent and impossibly bent” Genevieve looked in her mother’s arms as her mother hurried out of the front passenger seat, leaving Ariadne in the back.

This traumatic car accident left the Jackson family broken, financially and psychologically. The Untelling is the story, narrated by Aria, of how she tries to go on to have a normal life, despite being permanently branded as different from girls with whole families. Reading between the lines, the reader gathers that Aria has never felt that she really belongs, has few friends, struggles to act natural around people, and regrets not having the close-knit family she had before the accident.

The audio edition of The Untelling (AudioGo, 2005,) is narrated very well by Michelle Blackmon. It must have been hard to figure out how to pitch Aria’s voice because of her unusual personality – a mix of naivete and defensiveness; the reader can’t be sure how perceptive she is about her roommate, her boyfriend, her mother, or even herself. Other characters in the novel range from Cynthia, a neighborhood crack addict, to Lawrence, Aria’s boss at the nonprofit literacy agency she works at who wants to adopt a baby with his partner, and Michelle Blackmon differentiates the voices well, without making the male voices unnaturally gruff or deep. All of the main characters in the book are African-American – an interesting perspective for readers outside of the black community who are accustomed to reading white-centric fiction – but race isn’t a theme of the novel.

Readers who liked The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate (also a first-person story of a woman with a messed-up family) or who like realistic novels about women’s lives of quiet desperation will be moved by Aria’s story in The Untelling. (Most mainstream reviews I’ve seen give away a lot of the plot, so beware of spoilers, even visiting the publisher’s Web site.)

I haven’t read Silver Sparrow yet, but plan to soon.

The Untelling
Jones, Tayari
Narrator: Blackmon, Marjorie
AudioGo
ISBN-13: 978-0-7927-3638-7
Unabridged
Length:  8 Hr 25 Min, on 7 CDs

Listen Up! Final day of Audiobook Week 2012 #JIAM

This post is part of the Listen Up! Audiobook Week June 25–28 event hosted by Jen of Devourer of Books, with help from Jen of A Book and a Latte, in which I answer these questions:
Where do you learn about great audiobook titles? Find reviews? Buy your audiobooks? Share your secrets with the rest of us!

Three words: The Guilded Earlobe.

What? That’s cheating to have a three-word answer when everyone else (including Bob at The Guilded Earlobe) is writing thoughtful, detailed posts? OK, so for audiobook reviews and suggestions, I also go to: Devourer of Books and Everyday I Write the Book.

I make heavy use of the public library system to feed my audiobook addiction. I don’t have any secrets for obtaining audiobooks, unless there are some bloggers who don’t know about being a reviewer for Audiobook Jukebox. Their site is a clearinghouse for audiobook reviews and you can sign up to be a Solid Gold Reviewer (see badge in sidebar). It’s a great place to find audiobook reviews from bloggers, too, even if you don’t want to write reviews yourself.

If you’re on Twitter, type in the hashtag #JIAM for June Is Audiobook Month, and follow everyone who is using it this month!
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Listen Up! Audiobook Week Day 3 #JIAM

Midweek Meme for Day 3 of Audiobook Week hosted by Devourer of Books

Current/most recent audiobook
The Untelling
by Tayari Jones, narrated by Michele Blackmon (Chivers Sound Library, 2005)

Impressions
This novel is a first-person narration by main character Ariadne Jackson who grew up in the shadow of a family tragedy. All may not be as it seems at first. Reading by Michele Blackmon excellent so far. Her Atlanta, Georgia accent…not twangy at all!

Current/most recent favorite audiobook
This is a tough one, but I think Ready Player One has been mentioned enough already this week, so I’ll pick The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant, narrated by Hillary Huber, published by AudioGO. Read my review here.

Favorite narrator you’ve discovered recently
Tai Sammons who read The Reapers Are the Angels. Beautiful and sad!

One title from your TBL (to be listened) stack, or your audio wishlist
Adding lots to the TBL pile with all the Audiobook Week recommendations, but one I picked up at BEA that I’m looking forward to is Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks, narrated by Matthew Brown (Macmillan Audio).

Your audio dream team (what book or author would you LOVE to see paired with a certain narrator, can already exist or not)
Lenny Henry’s narration of Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman was absolutely perfect. I don’t understand why some like it when Neil Gaiman reads his books himself, when it has been clearly demonstrated that a pro does a far better job. *ducks*
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Miracles of Science in the Amazon: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (AUDIO)

Cover image of State of Wonder audiobookNarrated by Hope Davis, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (Harper Audio) recently won the 2012 Audie Award for literary fiction. Very well deserved! It is an incredible performance of a story that starts with the barest of news of the death of a colleague somewhere in the Brazilian jungle and gradually develops into a Heart of Darkness-style journey from Minnesota to the Amazon for Dr. Marina Singh.
A tall, dark-haired woman of Indian-American descent, Marina (pronounced on the audiobook as “More-ray-na”) was the consummate outsider among the other Minnesota natives – tall, blond, and easily sunburned. The idea that she would be sent alone to the Amazon, after the death of the last emissary of the Vogel Pharmaceutical Company, Anders Eckman, Morena’s lab-mate and friend, father of three young boys, who also went along, seems crazy, but is explained by the delicacy of the mission and the dangerously eccentric secrecy demanded by the doctor in charge of the jungle camp, Annick Swenson, who is on the verge of developing a fertility drug that will make Vogel’s fortune. The complexity of the story grows rapidly from the opening scene, developing tendrils and offshoots in a matter of hours like a rainforest vine.
In a remarkable reading, greatly enhancing my enjoyment of the story and the characters, narrator Hope Davis conveys Marina’s natural scientific detachment, outsider’s tendency to observe without engagement, and reluctant probes into her own state of mind after she is transported to a setting far more exotic and remote than her childhood trips to visit her father in India prepared her for.
The psychological, suspenseful, and topical aspects of the complicated story intertwine in combinations that seem unbelievable yet inevitable, making this an excellent choice for a book discussion group. I highly recommend this as an audiobook!

Listen to an excerpt from the HarperAudio edition of State of Wonder here.

Other opinions of State of Wonder audiobook (mixed):
Audiobook Jukebox (Find links to other reviews here)
Devourer of Books
Everyday I Write the Book
Literate Housewife

State of Wonder
Patchett, Ann
HarperAudio, 2011
ISBN: 9780062072498
Unabridged Length: 12 h, 25 m
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