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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

Dysfunctional Family Bonding Dysfunctionally: The Red House by Mark Haddon

Book Cover Image of The Red House by Mark HaddonDaily crises,  confrontations, misunderstandings, adolescent hormonal outbreaks, sexual tension, attempted suicide, a nervous breakdown, a dramatic brush with death, and no cell phone reception except in a tiny corner of an upstairs bedroom don’t make for a relaxing family holiday, but make The Red House by Mark Haddon, where much of what happens is happening inside someone’s head, an intriguing novel of family and identity.
Angela’s brother Richard phones Angela out of the blue after their mother’s funeral, to invite her, her under-employed husband of twenty years, Dominic, and their three kids (athletic Alex, age 17; born-again Daisy, 16; and dreamy Benjy, 8) – to spend a week’s holiday with him and his new wife, Louisa, and stepdaughter Melissa (age 16) in a rented house in the hilly countryside of Herefordshire on the Welsh border. Although resentful of Richard because of the years she spent dealing with their mother’s long, alcoholic decline while her financially successful younger brother paid the bills and kept his distance, Angela accepts his invitation –  unable to take her family on any vacation at all otherwise, much less to a more exotic locale, as she pointedly reminds Dominic, the failed family breadwinner. Five weeks from the surprising phone call, they’ve all met up at the shabby but comfortable rental house and started getting to know each other, somewhat stiffly and awkwardly.*
Sentence fragments. Many fragments. Passing thoughts, random images, partial memories, inchoate yearnings. (This was how I thought of starting out the review, but I was afraid it would sound negative, and I want readers of literary fiction to read The Red House, even though it is more like A Spot of Bother,** the author’s second novel, than his more popular first, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.)
It takes a while to get used to the poetic style of the author’s writing. (Sentence fragments. Many fragments.) You don’t always know what is being thought or who is doing the thinking at first, but this is the way the author gets the reader into the characters’ heads. People don’t think in fully-formed, coherent paragraphs, or even in full sentences, sometimes not even verbally.
Also confusing at first is the way the author uses italics instead of quotation marks to signify that a character is talking, not thinking – the opposite of the usual use of italics. I don’t know why the author decided to do this. Maybe just because most of the book would have been italicized if it had been done the usual way.
Even those who aren’t relative strangers to each other learn something about their siblings, spouses, parents, children, or themselves during the week away – some good, some bad – and have had to revise their thoughts about themselves or someone else during their time outside of usual life. Nothing is charming or particularly heartwarming (no group-hugs), but the brief period of togetherness makes their individual lives of quiet desperation a little less lonely and desperate.

*understatement of the year
**understatement of THAT year

Read a Telegraph article about author Mark Haddon here, which includes a short excerpt from near the beginning of The Red House.

Disclosure: I received an e-galley of this book from Doubleday through NetGalley.

The Red House
Haddon, Mark
Doubleday
June 12, 2012
978-0-385-53577-9
272 p., $25.95, hc

Guilty English Pleasure: More Than You Know by Penny Vincenzi

English author Penny Vincenzi‘s books are like granola bars – not much more nutritious than candy, but their mini chocolate chips and tiny marshmallows or sweetened dried cranberries satisfy a candy craving, with a few nutritious oats and nuts tossed in.
None of the author’s later books have ever appealed to me as much as The Spoils of Time trilogy, a saga of the Lytton publishing family in London. (The start of the trilogy, No Angel, was the first of her books to be published in the U.S. – in 2004 – and several books later, that’s the one that’s still mentioned on the cover of this one.) But I still find her books addictive, and whip right through each new one.
In More Than You Know, fashion journalism and fashion design in the sixties (which the author had first-hand experience of) form the backdrop of the drama that plays out when headstrong career-girl Eliza Fullerton-Clark – whose shabby genteel parents are struggling to maintain their large village house, Summercourt – falls for the working-class, chip-on-his-shoulder Matt Shaw – who is well on his way to making his first fortune in property development. Money and class; marriage and career; tradition and changing times…all these make for a stormy relationship between Eliza and Matt, eventually bringing them to the brink of the vicious child custody battle alluded to at the beginning of the book.
But that’s just one of the multiple story strands that readers of More Than You Know will be following. Along with the relationship ups-and-downs of Eliza’s brother and Matt’s sister (not together), Eliza’s ex-beau Jeremy (handsome and rich, like Matt, but from Eliza’s upper-class world), and friends of Matt’s or Eliza’s, there are soaring or flattening career arcs – with Eliza caught between motherhood and her burgeoning fashion journalism career and Matt working with cutthroat competition (sometimes within his own office) – the siren call of the kinds of temptation that the swinging sixties and seventies were rife with, parenting struggles, and too many other plot threads to mention, all switching back and forth across each other.
Penny Vincenzi is a master of the sexy, literary potboiler. More Than You Know will be devoured by her fans, but it might not be the one to hook a new reader unless the London fashion scene is a big draw. I still recommend No Angel if you’re trying to decide whether you’ll like Penny Vincenzi or not.

Disclosure: I received an e-galley of this book from Doubleday through NetGalley.

More Than You Know (published as The Decision in the U.K.)
Vincenzi, Penny
Doubleday
Pub Date: April 3, 2012
978-0-385-52825-2
608 pp.
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How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr & Saving June by Hannah Harrington

Doing two overdue reviews in one post today! How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr and Saving June by Hannah Harrington are both realistic young adult novels that deal with grief after sudden death, so it actually makes sense to review them together. They’re not all that similar, but both have several scenes that might make tears spring to your eyes, so have tissues handy while reading if you’re a crier like me.
It’s refreshing in How to Save a Life, to have at least one of the two mother-daughter relationships in the book not be completely dysfunctional, and see it improve over the course of the story. Seventeen-year-old Jill MacSweeney is grieving for her father who died in an accident ten months ago, and still angry at the drunk driver who killed him, when she finds out that her mother has (insanely) decided to adopt a baby (sight unseen) from a pregnant teen she connected with online. To make matters worse, the pregnant girl, Mandy – just a little bit older than Jill – is traveling from Omaha to Denver to stay with Jill and her mother for a few weeks until the baby is born.
As readers, we get to know Mandy (naive and a little dishonest) from Jill’s point of view, and Jill (prickly and unappreciative of her friends and family) from Mandy’s perspective, as they sort out their mixed feelings while waiting for the baby. Mandy is afraid she’ll be as bad a mother as her own mother has been to her, sure that her baby will be better off with Jill’s mother. Jill, whose life and plans have already been upended once by the death of the parent she felt closest to, isn’t sure what she thinks of Mandy’s situation, but she’s sure she doesn’t like the idea of her mother starting over again with a newborn baby daughter.
Saving June is edgier than How to Save a Life, and the grief is more immediate. Just after her sister’s funeral, when the book begins, sixteen-year-old Harper Scott’s shock and sadness over her sister’s suicide is raw and new. No one knows why Harper’s seemingly perfect older sister June committed suicide right before graduating from high school. There were no warning signs, even in retrospect. Her mother wouldn’t allow her to go to college in California – a longtime dream of June’s – and there was boyfriend trouble, but June had still seemed to be okay.
The only clue to June’s state of mind that Harper finds is a mysterious mix tape filled with an earlier generation’s music that Harper never knew her sister listened to. When Harper, a prickly girl with Goth leanings (like Jill in How to Save a Life, by the way) hears at the funeral that her divorced parents plan to divide June’s ashes between them, she knows what she has to do.
After running into a brooding guy outside her house after the funeral who’s not the sort of person June would normally hang out with (i.e. not a prom king type), Hannah discovers a connection between June and this musically opinionated, annoying, but somehow sexy guy, Jake Tolan. She swallows her pride and asks him to drive her and her best friend Laney and the stolen urn of June’s ashes to California.
It’s a strange premise for a road trip novel, maybe a little unrealistic, but the book has definite teen appeal, with sparks of both sorts flying between Harper and Jake, the best-friend issues of Harper and Laney, passionate arguments over music, politics, and religion, and the partying that fills the trip. When they come to the end, they’re all a little more ready to face the void that June has left.

How to Save a Life                                           Saving June
Zarr, Sara                                                         Harrington, Hannah
Little, Brown, 2011                                            Harlequin Teen, 2011
978-0-316-036061, h.c.                                    978-037321-024-4, soft.
$17.99 U.S.                                                      $9.99 U.S.

DIsclosure: I received electronic advanced reader’s copies of How to Save a Life from the publisher Little, Brown (Hachette Book Group) and Saving June from the publisher Harlequin Teen through NetGalley.

Other opinions about How to Save a Life (all good):
The Compulsive Reader
The Readventurer
Rhapsody in Books

Other opinions about Saving June (all good):
Adventures of 2.0
My Books. My Life
Popcorn Reads

Much Obliged, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse (Audio)

P.G. Wodehouse‘s stories about Jeeves, the erudite and unflappable valet, and his young English master, Bertie Wooster, first started appearing in 1917, but they are still hilarious today. A few years ago, I listened to a couple of early story collections: The Inimitable Jeeves, narrated by Martin Jarvis, and Carry On, Jeeves, narrated by the late Jonathan Cecil. Each of the narrators was excellent as the voice of Bertie Wooster, the foppish, dimwitted, and conceited young bachelor who doesn’t realize just how often he relies on his imperturbable manservant not just to keep his wardrobe and the household in order, but also to keep him (Bertie) in the good graces of his rich aunts, out of the dreaded state of matrimony, and out of the farcical scrapes he’s always getting mixed up in due to his misreading of a situation.
Much Obliged, Jeeves purports to be a continuation of Bertie Wooster’s memoirs. I suppose Bertie’s oblivious, upper-class snobbery could be offensive to class-conscious listeners. But much of the humor stems from Bertie’ being so smugly self-centered that he doesn’t realize he could ever offend, except maybe unwittingly (and that would be highly unlikely, as he prides himself on his sensitivity.) Bertie relates the events of his life in such a way that we the readers understand that he’s completely clueless, while Bertie himself clearly remains clueless about being clueless.
I worried at first that a new narrator wouldn’t be able to fill the shoes of previous Wodehouse narrators (who also number among them the popular Simon Prebble) but Dinsdale Landen captured both Bertie’s exaggerated sense of entitlement and Jeeves’ stoic air of patience very well. I thought that he read a bit fast compared to other audiobook narrators, and I had to listen extra closely not to miss anything, but I got used to the fast pace. It seemed to fit the breezy, breathless nature of the Bertie’s memoir.
If you’re in the mood for something funny and frivolous, the Jeeves books are perfect. They are not educational or multicultural; there are no take-home messages, but, hey, they’re English classics, so you can feel virtuous about listening to them as you laugh.
Much Obliged, Jeeves refers frequently to events from earlier books but Bertie helpfully suggests “heaps of things” that the “old gang” (readers already familiar with the other characters mentioned in this book) can do while he catches new readers up on who the people he’s talking about are.
Much Obliged, Jeeves can be enjoyed on its own, but if you’d prefer to listen to the Totleigh Towers books in chronological order, here’s the list:
Code of the Woosters
The Mating Season
Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves
Much Obliged, Jeeves

Listen to an excerpt from Much Obliged, Jeeves here.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of the audiobook Much Obliged, Jeeves from AudioGO, formerly known as BBC Audiobooks America.

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We Need to Talk About Daniel: The Good Father by Noah Hawley

In the first two pages of The Good Father, a novel in the form of a father’s memoir by Noah Hawley, Dr. Paul Allen summarizes, as if for a case study, the activities of his twenty-year-old son Daniel in the months prior to the shooting death that is the catalyst for this book. Over the rest of the book, he attempts to make sense of the shocking crime Daniel is accused of committing.
A rheumatologist, Paul thinks of himself as a “medical detective” – the clinician who is called in to review test results, scans, and every detail of a patient’s symptoms when a diagnosis remains elusive, and who puts the pieces of the diagnostic puzzle together. So he painstakingly reconstructs the chain of events in Daniel’s history, tries to uncover symptoms (anger? depression? neurological disorder?) that he missed, busy as he was with his own career and new family. What part of Daniel’s upbringing or psyche put him on the path to being accused of the assassination of a beloved politician? How much should Paul blame himself, for divorcing Daniel’s mother and moving to New York when Daniel was only 7, leaving him to fly for so many years – an unaccompanied minor – back and forth between him on the East Coast and his ex-wife Ellen on the West Coast?
Paul throws himself fully into his son’s defense, hiring a high-powered attorney and trying to understand the person that his son has become – a lone gunman, a drifter who calls himself Carter Allen Cash and who is seen as some sort of monster. He pores over investigative reports and witness statements, imagining scenarios and reconstructing the events of his son’s life that led him to that watershed moment when he was caught on video holding the gun.
Though not as explosively as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (which was from the point of view of a mother whose child committed a heinous crime), The Good Father builds up tension steadily as details are uncovered and facts are revealed; a psychological profile of Daniel as a directionless young adult emerges. Paul’s obsession with proving his son’s (and, correspondingly, his own) innocence starts to jeopardize life with his new family – wife Fran and their twin 10-year-old sons, Alex and Wally, who are now the bewildered half-brothers of an accused murderer.
Career-driven and sure of himself, Paul is not an entirely sympathetic character at first. He is arrogant and imperious with his son’s arresting officers, confident that he can fix things for his son. But these hard edges quickly erode, and, except for one scene in a men’s room that reminded me of The X-Files, The Good Father is a pretty realistic portrayal of a father might react to the implosion of his son’s life and the derailment of his own. (Remember Cigarette Smoking Man from The X-Files? He has a book out. Or, I should say, the actor who played him on TV does.)
The fourth novel by Noah Hawley, who is also a screenwriter and producer, The Good Father will be released in March 2012.

Other Opinions (Mostly Good)
The Coffee Lover’s Blog
For the Love of Books

The White Rhino Report

Disclosure: I received an electronic advanced reading copy of this book from Doubleday, a division of Random House, through NetGalley.

Roots and Root Causes: Faith by Jennifer Haigh (Audio)

Jennifer Haigh writes the kind of thought-provoking, character-driven novel (see Mrs. Kimble, Baker Towers, and The Condition) that I love to settle down with and read…imperfect families, societal roles, the conflicting pulls of love and duty, passion and personal responsibility, etc. But I’m also always looking for great audiobook recommendations, so when I saw this rave at You’ve Gotta Read This, I decided to listen to the audio version of Jennifer Haigh’s latest novel Faith (HarperCollins, 2011). A good choice!
Narrated by Therese Plummer, Faith is a novel in the form of a memoir of sorts. In it, Sheila McGann has pieced together stories of people involved in her brother Art Breen’s life, past and present — some remembered, some imagined, some told to her. As in all of Jennifer Haigh’s novels, every character has depth and emotional complexity. A lot of painful feelings (shame, anger, sorrow) and, occasionally, joy or contentment run underneath these characters’ stories; Therese Plummer conveys this very well in her narration.
Sheila’s brother Art (12 years older than Sheila, her mother’s son from a early, annulled marriage) had been a parish priest in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston for many years when the clergy sex abuse scandal broke over the Boston area in 2002 like a storm across Grantham (a fictional working-class, South Shore, harbor town modeled on Hull, Massachusetts), where the Irish-Catholic McGann family lived. When Art himself is accused of molesting a child, the small McGann family (never close) is devastated and divided.
Much about Art’s faith and life in the priesthood remains a mystery to Sheila, a non-practicing Catholic, even after she works out the truth about events leading to his suspension and public disgrace. Sheila McGann loves and respects her brother, although she doesn’t share his faith, but how well does she really know him.
Faith is more about a family in crisis than it is about religion or the Catholic Church. (Although the leaders of the Boston archdiocese and St. John’s Seminary are the closest thing to a villain you will find in this book, they are presented as flawed individuals within an institution, not as evil pedophiles.) Faith and religion certainly play a role in the novel, but they are presented almost neutrally; no one’s religious faith is belittled or praised. Author Jennifer Haigh conveys sympathy for victims of abuse without demonizing all Catholic priests.
My only quibbles with the audiobook narration are that a couple of local place names were mispronounced and the broad Boston accents on a few of the characters (especially Sheila’s mother) sounded a bit overdone to me. (We don’t really sound like that around heah, do we?) But they are really just quibbles, because, over all, the narration — even of the male voices, which can be difficult for a woman to pull off — was excellent.
Faith is one of the best books I’ve read in 2011, hands down. It’s true, You’ve Gotta Read This!

Preview the audiobook at HarperCollins.
Therese Plummer talks about Faith as the best book she’s ever narrated on the Audible Web site.

Other opinions about Faith (all good):
Age 30+: A Lifetime of Books
Bibliophile by the Sea
Devourer of Books
My Books. My Life
nomadreader

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