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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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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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

Food equals Love, Parisian style: Chez Moi by Agnes Desarthe

The title of Chez Moi, a novel by Agnes Desarthe, refers to a restaurant of sorts that the main character, Myriam, decides to open with no help, no business experience, and not much money. Forty-three years old and estranged from her family, her husband, and her only son Hugo for reasons she doesn’t reveal, Myriam pours her whole self and all her passion into cooking, a conduit for the love she can’t give her son. Her sole passion is to provide her new restaurant customers with the experience of home-cooked meals, but she doesn’t have the first clue about how to run a restaurant.
Chez Moi is translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, and was published in English in 2008. (The French title is Mangez-Moi, which didn’t get translated literally as “Eat Me” due to its connotations.) It has a je ne sais quoi (You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?) quality about it that’s hard to describe, like A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé. Chez Moi has what I imagine to be Parisian reserve; it doesn’t try too hard to win the reader over. On the other hand, Myriam is a very down-to-earth character, unpretentious; she describes herself as the “biggest f**ker-upper the world has ever brought forth.”
Readers have to accept Myriam as she presents herself: evasive, eccentric, lonely, depressed, gnawed by guilt, grieving lost love, and doomed to fail dramatically in her restaurant experiment if she doesn’t get help fast. She is in a fog much of the time when she’s not drinking herself into a stupor – avoiding thinking about her life beyond the need to make food for customers who may not even show up, given Myriam’s erratic restaurant hours, unconventional menu, sketchy table service, and nonexistent marketing skills.
There’s not much action in Chez Moi, and some of what does happen is surreal, as in a French movie with strangers walking in and out saying cryptic things. Myriam slowly reveals her past, musing philosophically whenever she’s not succumbing to despair, but she has a caustic wit that slices through her fatalism often enough to keep readers from getting too bogged down, and she also has that irrepressible love of food to keep her going.
To sum up the review, if you’re looking for a psychological novel set in Paris about an imperfect woman with a past; you enjoy sensual descriptions of cooking (including meat); and you aren’t expecting magical realism because you saw this book compared to Like Water for Chocolate in a review, then pick up Chez Moi and let me know what you think!

Read an interview of Agnes Desarthe here. [WARNING: Interview contains some spoilers.]

Other opinions of Chez Moi (mostly good):
Books on the Brain
Fleur Fisher in her world
Urban Domestic Diva

Disclosure: I read a public library copy of this book.
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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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Diary of a Wimpy Kid Gone Wild — Swim the Fly by Don Calame (AUDIO)

Swim the Fly by Don Calame is a laugh-out-loud funny audiobook. Really! Listening in my car, I literally laughed out loud many times. (Luckily, my commute is mostly highways, so if other drivers noticed me laughing by myself in the car, I didn’t care.)
Narrated by Nick Podehl for Brilliance Audio, Swim the Fly is the hilarious equivalent of Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging (narrated by Stina Nielsen for Recorded Books) for boys, or else a definitely PG-13 version of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Teachers, this is NOT one for reading aloud to the class. There is way too much raunchy humor, far too many creative names for male/female body parts, and more than one total gross-out scene — not to mention the bullying, sexting, and other inappropriate teen behaviors the author shamelessly mines for humor.
“Swimming the fly” refers to the 100-yard butterfly race — the hardest event in the swim team championship meet — which Matt finds his scrawny, out-of-shape self raising his hand to volunteer for at the beginning of the summer season, in order to impress the new girl on the team, Kelly. His best friends, Sean and Coop, knowing that Matt can’t even swim one lap of the butterfly without grabbing the side of the pool and gasping for air, derive endless amusement from his predicament, but are more focused on achieving the goal that Coop set for the three of them: to see a live, naked girl before summer’s end. Matt is so focused on Kelly, that his character development over his coming-of-age summer (giving the book its redeeeming social value) happens without his even realizing it.
Swim the Fly
won an AudioFile Earphones Award for excellence in audiobook presentation, and was selected as an 2011 Amazing Audiobook for Young Adults by the American Library Association.
The Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory blog has a recent interview with Don Calame.

Other reviews (all good):

The Book Zone (for Boys)

Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

The Overflowing Library

The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs

Winter snow and ice getting you down? Try some humorous reading. Esquire editor-at-large A.J. Jacobs has made a niche for himself by practicing various extreme ways of life — to the exasperation of his wife, friends, and complete strangers — and thenwriting about them.

His last book, A Year of Living Biblically, was about trying to follow all the prescriptions and proscription in the Bible. Before that, he read the whole Encyclopedia Britannica, from A to Z, and sharing his newfound knowledge in The Know-It-All.

In The Guinea Pig Diaries, the author writes about, among other experiments in abnormal living, trying radical honesty for a month (in a chapter called “I Think You’re Fat”) and, for another month, abiding by all of George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation (“What Would George Washington Do?”).
Here’s how the chapter on outsourcing (“My Outsourced Life”) begins:

“I really shouldn’t have to write this piece myself. I mean, why am I the one stuck in front of a computer terminal? All this tedious picking out of words on my laptop. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions. Sheesh. What a pain in my butt. Can’t someone else do it?”

Read a longer excerpt — and sample other memoirs– at SMITH Magazine here:
Excerpt: The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs | Memoirville

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