Audiobook reviews: The Book of Dust; Turtles All the Way Down; The Midnight Line

Dust, Turtles, MidnightJenni Laidman
Chicago Tribune
Nov. 20, 2017

“The Midnight Line” by Lee Child, narrated by Dick Hill, Random House Audio, 13 hours, 6 minutes

Dick Hill is Jack Reacher for audiobook fans. Hill narrated the last 18 of the 22 books in this Lee Child series. Although he missed books two through four, he spoke at the genesis with the first Reacher book, “Killing Floor.” So it pains me to say this, but: It’s time for Hill to go. Somewhere around book 19, “Personal,” Hill’s voice developed a warble. With each successive novel, Reacher sounds less like a tough guy and more like someone’s uncertain grandpa. The problem is more of tone than age. There is little in the books to remind us that Reacher, who fights with the ferocity and experience of a 30-something brawler, is actually 57. But Hill’s narration turns him geriatric. While it is delightful to imagine pops taking on seven outlaw bikers — none of whom so much as scuffs his shoes — it strains even my very elastic credulity when it comes to Jack Reacher. (I also miss the days when Reacher still took an occasional punch.)

More problematic: It’s often difficult to tell who’s talking. Is it Reacher or the private investigator he’s teamed with? Is it Reacher or the general who runs West Point? They are frequently indistinguishable. You can regain a younger Reacher if you speed the playback to 1.25x on your smartphone, but that doesn’t fix the dialogue confusion. Hill is a celebrated narrator, with more than 500 titles to his name and three Audie awards. He’s earned his place among the great voices. But for Jack Reacher, his voice is great no longer.

“The Book of Dust” by Philip Pullman, narrated by Michael Sheen, Listening Library, 13 hours, 7 minutes

“His Dark Materials,” Philip Pullman’s beloved trilogy about the indomitable girl hero, Lyra Belacqua, are full-cast recordings, Technicolor feasts of memorable voices. Lyra’s scrappy breathlessness remains my favorite girl voice, and the rumbling Iorek Byrnison, my favorite bear. So what were they thinking, giving a single actor the “Dark Materials” prequel, “The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage”?

For the rest of this review, plus “Turtles All the Way Down,” follow the link.

Audiobook Reviews: The Music Shop; My Absolute Darling; Montpelier Parade

Music, My Absolute, MontpelierJenni Laidman
Chicago Tribune

“The Music Shop” by Rachel Joyce, narrated by Steven Hartley, Random House Audiobooks, 8 hours, 33 minutes

Rachel Joyce, the author of the delightful and not-quite believable “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” has done it again with the often laugh-out-loud funny and similarly unbelievable “The Music Shop.” The shop is owned by Frank, who sells only vinyl records. One day Ilse Brauchmann stops by his shop and collapses, and thus the love story begins. Frank has a special musical gift. He can look at anyone and know what music they need to hear. He’s done it for Father Anthony, who runs the small religious gift shop next door. He’s done it for Maud, who owns the nearby tattoo studio. But his gift fails him in the face of Ilse Brauchmann.

English actor Steven Hartley approaches this narration with the good humor it requires, gamely singing when it’s called for — just don’t expect to be reminded of Aretha Franklin or Handel’s Messiah when he tackles them. Joyce is clearly an author who loves her characters, and Hartley helps make each memorable, from the prickly Maud, not-so-secretly in love with Frank, to Frank’s lovable and clumsy assistant, Kit, who, in one of the book’s most adorable chapters, dances around the record shop to the tune of “Shaft.” Frank is ill-prepared to believe he has the right to love, which leads to the plot twists that just don’t bear scrutiny. But, do you really expect believability from a story built around one man’s magical ability to find the music to save your life? Of course not. So just sit back and enjoy the music.

“Montpelier Parade” by Karl Geary, narrated by Geary, Audible Studios, 5 hours, 51 minutes

Actor and club owner Karl Geary, who left Dublin for the United States as a teenager, adds a mournful shade to every sentence in “Montpelier Parade,” his debut novel shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. It’s an appropriate tone for a story so full of longing.

To read the rest of this review, and a review of “My Absolute Darling,” click here.

Audiobook reviews: Munich, Anatomy of a Scandal, This Could Hurt

Anatomy, This, MunichJenni Laidman
Chicago Tribune
April 10, 2018

“Munich” by Robert Harris, narrated by David Rintoul, Random House Audio, 9 hours, 38 minutes

Actor David Rintoul, the narrator of Robert Harris’ thriller, “Munich,” summons a grumbling chorus of voices as the diplomatic maneuvers to prevent World War II unfurl. Not only must Rintoul manage the dry-leaves delivery of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the beer-hall harshness of Adolf Hitler, he has all the politicians and civil servants at the hearts of the British and German governments to enliven. Rintoul keeps a taut rein on the growing tension as a pair of young men — one German, one English — try to change the course of history.

The story of Chamberlain’s effort to forestall war is so well-worn, it’s lost its edges for many, but Harris’ story snaps the prime minister’s motivations into place. Chamberlain is a wily negotiator, working hard to outflank Hitler. If words could bind a criminal, Chamberlain’s desperate machinations would have changed history. But the prime minister disregarded Hitler’s essence; Paul von Hartmann, temporarily assigned to Hitler’s staff, has information he hopes will change Chamberlain’s course. His only hope of passing it along is a former Oxford friend, Hugh Legat, a low-ranking member of Chamberlain’s staff. Harris, who wrote “Fatherland” and the Cicero Trilogy, is a master of layering detail for tightly plotted, immersive fiction. His two young schemers are positioned to provide an intimate view of the political and defense calculations on both sides of the channel, while on the streets of London, workers scurry with sandbags and shovels to prepare for the worst — the only efforts that, in the end, really mattered.

To read the other reviews, follow the link here.

The best fiction of 2016, according to me

Where is it written that one must have 10 items in any list of favorites?  Here are my picks for the nine best novels of 2016.  What a great year for readers.

1. Moonglow

by Michael Chabon


In this fictionalized memoir, author Michael Chabon sets out to solve the mystery of his grandmother’s life, and creates a masterpiece with unforgettably vivid characters, as solid and substantial as anyone you know. These are  people who I longed to see again the moment I finished the book’s final line. There is the grandfather, wandering Europe during World War II, hunting for Nazi rocket scientist Werner Von Braun; the beautiful, troubled grandmother with the blue tattooed numbers on her wrist; the rascal rabbi-turned-pool-shark uncle. Chabon is imaginatively precise. Of his grandmother leaving the mental hospital, he writes: “She emerged from that first time at Greystone in a fragile and quiet state, holding herself like an egg balanced on a spoon.” A girl’s lips are “painted red as Bicycle hearts and diamonds.” A late-model Mercury Cougar is “the color of a spoonful of sweetened condensed milk.”  A German woman apologizes for her brother: “… having been born a baby and finding he enjoyed it, he never bothered to stop.“  And then: “My grandmother’s embrace was something implacable and impersonal. It was like an undertow or the impact of a concrete sidewalk.”

2. Nutshell 

by Ian McEwan

nutshell-coverIan McEwan’s smart, daring, and funny “Nutshell” includes a contender for the best opening line ever published: “So, here I am, upside down in a woman.” The speaker is an erudite baby, tucked snuggly in the womb of his mother, Trudy. He’s already feeling nostalgic for the days when, “I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults…” But now, nearing the end of his stay, he has a problem more significant than his tight quarters. His mother and her lover are plotting to murder his father, a poet at the helm of a struggling publishing house. What’s a pre-born infant to do?

3. The Little Red Chairs

by Edna O’Brien

A bearded foreigner arrives in an Irish town one winter evening in The Little Red Chairs, Edna O’Brien’s 17th novel. Cloonoila is a small enough village that a new arrival is the subject of barroom gossip, even prompting one person to issue a warning about Rasputin during a rowdy discussion. The visitor, Dr. Vladimir Dragan, sets up a New Age healing practice. Slowly, townswomen trickle in, starting with Sister Bonaventure. But it is the town beauty, Fidelma, the draper’s wife, who truly falls under his spell, determining Dr. Vlad will be the man to give her what her own husband could not —  a baby.  O’Brien, 85 when this book was published, shows no more reluctance to buck conventions today than she did when she wrote her first novel, Country Girls, in 1960, when its frank treatment of sex prompted banning and burning in her native Ireland. The conventions she bucks here are writerly, employing rapidly shifting points of view, and giving away a major plot point by revealing Dragan’s dark backstory early in the novel.  In fact, Dragan is a hunted war criminal, not unlike the “Butcher of Bosnia,” Radovan Karadžic. Because the reader knows with whom Fidelma is noodling, the drama stays focused on her plight, the brutal and disturbing attack she suffers at the hands of Dragan’s former associates after his arrest, and her flight to London when her town and her husband turn on her. In the book’s second half, Fidelma lives among the victims of the world’s Dragans, the refugees who struggle to create a life in marginal jobs, as Fidelma must now, too. “In the mornings, after they clocked out, they ran, recklessly, they ran as if they were fleeing catastrophes. The fear that governed their whole lives was now compressed into this urgency to catch a bus or a train to allow a husband or a mother or a cousin to go to work.”

 4. My Name is Lucy Barton

By Elizabeth Strout

This book has been absent from many of the “best of” lists for 2016, and I can only conclude it’s because reviewers can’t remember all the way back to January 12, when it was released. I almost forgot it myself. But you shouldn’t. Lucy Barton lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters, and the shocking poverty she grew up with seems far behind her. Until she was eleven, her family lived in a garage with only a “trickle of cold water” from a  makeshift sink. In winter, it was always cold, sometimes too cold to sleep. The family was isolated and the three children shunned by their peers. When Lucy’s mother visits her in the hospital, it becomes  plain that the past has never lifted its hand from Lucy. She is childlike in her pleasure at this long-delayed reunion: “Her being there, using my pet name, which I had not heard in ages, made me feel warm and liquid-filled, as though all my tension had been a solid thing and now was not.” The book’s graceful, simple sentences in Strout’s fifth novel are an embrace, and the relationship of mother and daughter, and Lucy’s true self, unfolds like an opening bud.

5. Peacekeeping 

by Mischa Berlinski

Mischa Berlinski creates unforgettable characters in this tale of Haitian politics and corruption. At the center is Terry White, a former Florida sheriff’s deputy who became part of the United Nation’s police force in Haiti — which he pronounces Hades — after losing a sheriff’s race back home. As the narrator says, “People either liked Terry very much or could not stand him; and when people said they couldn’t take him, I understood. He was a know-it-all.” His stock phrase is “you gotta understand” or some variation used to dismiss all other arguments. “He told me how many people he had tased, and he offered to tase me to show me how it feels. …He called his wife his Lady. He was vain: I told him I got caught in a current down at the beach and came back breathless; he told me that his boat capsized in the Florida Keys, leaving him surrounded by sharks.”  For all his bluster, White tries to do the right thing, including helping  a local politician defeat a corrupt senator. But the weight of Haitian life is substantial for even the best intentions to carry.

6. The Nix 

by Nathan Hill

Nathan Hill’s debut novel is a hurricane that sweeps you up and dances you wildly, careening from suburban backyards in Iowa to the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention to 2011 Occupy Wall Street and even to Norway. Several subplots spin around the main character, Professor Samuel Anderson, whose mother disappeared when he was a 11. He was already a frightened boy, given to weeping. As an adult, he is lost, squandering his small share of success as a writer by hiding in his college office playing an online game for hours, his only friends his fellow World Of Elfscape players, whom he’s never met. Now, a lawyer wants Sam to help his long-gone mother. She faces prison for pitching rocks at a gun-toting governor planning to run for president.

7. The Loney

by Andrew Michael Hurley

This book, another debut novel, is the opposite of The Nix. Where The Nix is reckless and wild, Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney is quiet and controlled. Where Nix is multicolored neon, The Loney is as gray as the sea in winter and subtle as its shadings.  The Loney of the title is a “wild and useless length of English coastline,” where dangerous tides “come in quicker than a horse could run” so that only a visitor would play on its shores. The story’s narrator is a boy who is never named. He and his family visit the area as part of a small group of Catholic pilgrims hoping for a miracle that will restore to the narrator’s brother, Hanny, the ability to speak. But the priest who took them on this journey each year has died in unusual circumstances, and his replacement just doesn’t seem to be what God needs to supply the miracle. Hurley creates a beautiful portrait of the brothers’ relationship as he unwinds this disturbing tale.

(Unlike the other books in this list, The Loney was not published in 2016. If first appeared in 2014 as a limited edition, with only 200 copies. It was released by a publisher in 2015.  I put this list together thinking all the books were from 2016. I found out at the last minute this doesn’t really qualify, but I don’t much care. It’s my list, and I’ll do what I want. Besides, it’s just stuck in my mind so persistently, I couldn’t leave it out.)

8. Death and the Seaside 

by Alison Moore

(Most of this review is lifted from one I wrote for the Chicago Tribune.)

Bonnie Falls is a woman adrift in Alison Moore’s sly third novel, “Death and the Seaside.” She abandoned a degree in literary criticism and never found her way after. About to turn 30, she can’t distinguish friends from acquaintances, and can’t even muster resentment in the face of her father’s persistent and cruel teasing. Nothing she starts is ever finished; she puts off doing her laundry so long, she has to take a suitcase full of wet clothing on vacation. It seems inevitable that the short story she is writing will meet the same moldering fate. She abandons it for days and weeks at a time, until her landlady, Sylvia Slythe, takes an interest. Sylvia’s character is shrewdly constructed, with layers of personal history accreting gradually, revealing someone that the hapless Bonnie is unprepared to understand. The lonely young woman never stops to wonder why the elegant Sylvia has taken such an interest in her. She’s about to find out.

9. Dark Matter

by Blake Crouch

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is a fun, face-paced jaunt for anyone who likes their thrillers with a seasoning of woo-woo physics. (And who wouldn’t?)  Crouch’s earlier mystery/thriller/science fiction trilogy, Wayward Pines, was turned into a Fox series. In his newest book, his main character, Jason Desson, is  a happy family man who teaches physics at a small college. Then he’s kidnapped, and spirited into a parallel universe, where he has the chance to live the road not taken as a wizard of quantum superposition. It was the road he left many years earlier when his girlfriend got pregnant. But Jason no longer prizes that science fame; he wants to get back to his family. That’s not so easy in this house of quantum mirrors, where he must leap from universe to universe, encountering ever-expanding numbers of Jasons, hoping to, eventually, land back in the universe where he belongs.

In lieu of a 10th book, here are some other titles I enjoyed.

Three young adult books:

Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley: A  high school girl decides she can rescue a former classmate with agoraphobia, even though he hasn’t left his house since junior high. Funny and tender.

Riverkeep by Martin Stewart: A son tries to save his father from a monstrous possession by taking him to confront a sea monster. It’s wonderfully creepy and often funny, although the plot is a bit too linear.

Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy: A Russian boy genius comes to America to help NASA keep an asteroid from colliding with Earth and destroying California and his new girlfriend. Delightful and witty.

Two children’s books:

Pax by Sara Pennypacker: A story of a boy and his pet fox as war creeps ever closer.

Anna and the Swallow Man by Gabriel Savit: When German soldiers take Anna’s father, an encounter with a mysterious man who can whistle like a swallow is her salvation.

And two more grown up books:

Do Not Say We Have Nothing  by Madeleine Thien: The Cultural Revolution and Tianamen Square  steamroll through the lives of musicians at Shanghai Conservatory. Thien weaves magic in this tragedy full of large, memorable characters.

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty: A scientist has an affair and ends up on trial for murder.

Man Booker Short List Predictions, sort of

I still haven’t read all the Man Booker long list entries, but, for the hell of it, here are the six I’d put into the short list if I was the one making the announcement on Sept. 9 — if anyone was mad enough to  let me have a say. This isn’t a prediction — despite my misleading headline. My track record at predicting this prize could not be worse. Last year, the short list book I hated ran away with the prize.

And of course, the best book may still be among the short stack of entries I haven’t yet read. I need to quit my job and catch up with my reading.

My list, in no particular order:

The History of the Rain by Niall Williams

Us by David Nicholls

Orfeo by Richard Powers

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt