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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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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

So You Think You’ve Got Tough Neighbors?: Zombie Fallout by Mark Tufo (AUDIO)

The audiobook edition of Zombie Fallout by Mark Tufo made me chuckle, grossed me outCover image for Zombie Fallout audiobook, and kept me in suspense in about equal measure. Narrator Sean Runnette is well suited for the voice of Michael Talbot, the forty-something hero-narrator of Zombie Fallout (and, I assume, of the next five books in the Zombie Fallout series) who is a sarcastic, family-oriented, paranoid, obsessive-compulsive, anti-authority, irreligious survivalist and ex-Marine. Luckily for himself and his family, Mike is also a fanatic about zombie books and movies, so when the first living-dead neighbor shows up at his back door, Mike’s house is already stocked with a full arsenal of weapons, ammunition, survival gear, and a large amount of emergency rations. Although he never actually expected a zombie invasion, he felt it was important to be prepared for contingencies. Mike, his two sons, and son-in-law are all skilled shooters; his wife and daughter don’t play much of a role once the fighting starts (which is right away), although they are credited with being highly effective in using feminine wiles to manipulate the menfolk.

Zombie Fallout started life as a 99-cent Kindle book, and that unfortunately does show in the writing. I know I wouldn’t have enjoyed reading it on my own as much as I enjoyed it as an audiobook because of the author’s frequent use of ten-cent words when nickel words that he actually knew how to use would have been better. This was less distracting in the audio edition, because Sean Runnette spoke the words as if they were right, so you knew what the author meant. Zombie Fallout isn’t even in the same league as The Reapers Are the Angels if you compared them strictly on writing quality, but Zombie Fallout is pure, fast-paced entertainment and has to be enjoyed as such. If you’re a stickler for correct word usage (not that that’s going to help you in the event of a zombie outbreak) you’d probably be too irritated by Zombie Fallout to enjoy the story.

I first heard about Mark Tufo on the Guilded Earlobe’s amusing blog post about how Mark Tufo’s fans gently remonstrated with him about giving the Zombie Fallout series only a B rating, causing him to invite the author and some of his most rabid enthusiastic fans to contribute a guest post expressing their thoughts on the series. In addition to posting humble remarks about his fans, the author responded individually to each potential new fan who entered the giveaway for the Zombie Fallout audiobook by commenting on the blog post. Mark Tufo is a good example of how an amateur, self-published author builds a fan base using social media and becomes successful enough that a traditional publisher – like Tantor Audio, which published the audiobook editions of this series – can bring him on board with a ready-made audience for his work. Although he now lives in Maine, Mark Tufo is originally from Massachusetts, so when I didn’t win the giveaway, I decided to buy my own copy of the Zombie Fallout audiobook.

Although the Talbot family has moved to Colorado, the frequent references to Massachusetts places and sports teams and to Mike’s New England-style sarcasm (Who, us? Sarcastic?) all give Zombie Fallout a local flavor, but you definitely don’t want to eat anything while listening, what with all the descriptions of oozing pus (and other disgusting excretions) and body parts coming off. Not to mention the fart jokes and all the insensitive comments that Mike lets fly in the heat of the moment. (Mike Talbot and Howie Carr’s ex-cop Jack Reilly from Hard Knocks would probably be instant buddies if they met up in a Boston bar.)

Zombie Fallout is a fun zombie novel that imagines how people might respond to a sudden, utter transformation of everyday life while not changing, personality-wise, from how they always were. Although there are a lot of gross-out moments (to be expected in a horror novel) and not much world-building, I have to admit that it did make me laugh!

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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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Zombie Killing Fields: The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell (AUDIO)

cover image for The Reapers Are the AngelsThe Blackstone Audio production of The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell, narrated by Tai Simmons, is a mesmerizing horror story about a girl who comes of age amid the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. Temple is a fifteen-year-old survivor who kept herself and her younger brother Malcolm alive for years, who never knew her parents and doesn’t remember the “old times” – the time before the breakdown of American society, when stores sold things, roads were maintained, families lived together in one place, and people stayed dead after they died.
This book was highly recommended by Becky of RA for All and many other bloggers when it was first published two years ago, but since it also got compared to The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which I didn’t get past the first few pages of, I never got around reading it. But when I saw during Zombie Awareness Month (May, in case you didn’t know) that The Reapers Are the Angels made The Guilded Earlobe‘s list of Top Ten Zombie Novels and Series, I was convinced that audio was the way to go with this one.
At first I wasn’t sure I liked the narration by Tai Simmons. Temple’s thoughts even as she skillfully dispatches a zombie invading the safe haven she was living in (a small lighthouse) were delivered so matter-0f-factly that her affect seemed almost flat, until. as the listener, I began to understand how stoic Temple has had to be to survive. Being afraid is a luxury she won’t allow herself.
This book has a strong air of Southern Gothic, so the slightly Southern twang in Temple’s voice goes well with the story’s themes of grief, revenge, and redemption. Temple is like a reluctant avenging angel in her now aimless travels, cutting down zombies with a single swing of her always-sharpened gurkha knife…but only when she can’t avoid it. The zombies are following their nature, she knows; it’s not their fault that they came back so many and so suddenly that they destroyed all but a few pockets of civilization.
This is the most literary zombie novel I have yet come across. The old-fashioned language, almost biblical, reminded me in many ways of The Passage by Justin Cronin, which was often described as a literary vampire novel, and Temple’s precocious maturity reminded me of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. Be forewarned, however. There will be blood. And gore. And dismemberment. Beyond Faulkner’s wildest dreams.

Other opinions on The Reapers Are the Angels audiobook (all good):
Audiobook Heaven
dog eared copy

SFF Audio

Disclosure: I listened to a copy of The Reapers Are the Angels borrowed from the public library.

Research out the Wazoo: Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs (Audio)

Like shredded zucchini secretly added to the chocolate cake recipe, a good amount of health-related information is slipped through with the humor in Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, the fourth book by Esquire editor-at-large A.J. Jacobs, who read his own book for the audio edition. Although the author doesn’t have the reading voice of a professional narrator, he has a good delivery and it makes sense to have him telling his own story, especially as he writes a lot about his family, especially his 96-year-old grandfather, a well-known New York City labor lawyer in his day, and his health-conscious aunt Marti (who signs her email with “Your eccentric aunt Marti.”)
A.J. Jacobs is known for tackling wacky projects like reading the whole Encyclopedia Britannica or trying to live by the precepts of the Bible (all of them) and writing about his experiences (The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Improve Himself and The Year of Living Biblically). He also wrote The Guinea Pig Diaries,  a series of essays outlining his briefer adoption of other extreme ways of life (published in paperback under the title My Life As an Experiment) which I wrote about here.
In Drop Dead Healthy, the author researches and tries out various health and diet regiments under the skeptical eye of his wife Julie in an attempt to transform himself from an out-of-shape, forty-something writer into the healthiest man alive. (And I thought my husband was a man of extremes.) Each chapter deals with a different body part or aspect of overall health (e.g. “The Stomach: The Quest to Eat Right”; “The Heart: The Quest to Get My Blood Pumping”; and “The Butt: The Quest to Avoid Sedentary Life.”) He shares many, many snippets from his research with readers, and especially enjoys imparting contradictory results from scientific studies.
A.J. Jacobs was asked by Julie, his long-suffering wife, on behalf of her and their three young children, to stop ignoring the state of his body’s health after he had a sudden, life-threatening attack of pneumonia, so his wacky diet and exercise antics have a grain of seriousness, and are based on actual scientific or pseudoscientific health claims. However, this audiobook is best listened to as a humourous memoir, rather than for its health-related advice about the Paleo Diet or about one should or should not wear a bike helmet all the time, even when inside.
A.J.’s willingness to embarrass both himself and others in the pursuit of ultimate health (and the fulfillment of his book contract) does have its limits, but they are far beyond the average reader’s. His journalistic forays into extreme calorie restriction (very brief), eating only superfoods, calming meditation, and twenty-minute-a-week workouts, and other lifestyles are unscientific and his meetings with their proponents have a Best in Show mockumentary feel at times. If it were intended as serious journalism, Drop Dead Healthy would obviously miss the mark with its scattershot approach, but the bottom line is the book is funny and occasionally poignant, and it’s meant to be funny and occasionally poignant, so it’s good.
The Drop Dead Healthy audiobook edition includes A.J.’s lists, progress reports, vital signs, and quirky Harper’s Index-like statistics but one thing I discovered while writing this review that audiobook listeners will miss out on is the author’s extreme indexing (done with help from Sydney Wolfe Cohen), humorous in itself. Check out the index of the print edition on Google Books here.

Drop Dead Healthy (Audio)
Jacobs, A.J.
Narrated by the author
Simon and Schuster, 2012
978-0-7435-9876-7
10 hrs., 10 min.
9 CDs

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this audiobook from Simon & Schuster through Audiobook Jukebox. Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook here.

Other opinions on the Drop Dead Healthy audiobook (mostly good):
Devourer of Books
5 Minutes for Books
Shelah Books It

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