Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Delicious Foods

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham
(Little, Brown & Company, 2015)
Format: Audio CD (narrated by the author)

From Goodreads: "Darlene, a young widow and mother devastated by the death of her husband, turns to drugs to erase the trauma. In this fog of grief, she is lured with the promise of a great job to a mysterious farm run by a shady company, with disastrous consequences for both her and her eleven-year-old son, Eddie--left behind in a panic-stricken search for her.

DELICIOUS FOODS tells the gripping story of three unforgettable characters: a mother, her son, and the drug that threatens to destroy them. In Darlene's haunted struggle to reunite with Eddie, and in the efforts of both to triumph over those who would enslave them, Hannaham's daring and shape-shifting prose not only infuses their desperate circumstances with grace and humor, but also wrestles with timeless questions of love and freedom."

Did I know what to expect? Nope.

Did I get way more than I was expecting? Oh, heck yeah.

Our prime players here are Darlene, Eddie, and Scotty. Darlene is Eddie's mom. Scotty is...I'll let Scotty be a surprise. You will be surprised. And maybe a little fascinated and terrified.

And you'll laugh. And then Hannaham will stab you right through your sternum while you laugh. With something jagged and rusty.

There is a section of the novel during which young Eddie searches the summer streets of Houston for his missing mother. He starts near the center of my hometown, biking further and further each night, befriending all manner of hookers and night shift workers and random souls offering him mom-hunting advice. Those pawn shops and diners and strip malls are the same ones I've passed, ignoring pedestrians and bike riders and people seeking the shade of bus shelters while I pilot my air conditioned car, listening to audiobooks about eleven year olds networking with people named Giggles and Fat Back.

See? Jagged and rusty.

But don't worry, you don't have come pre-equipped with visuals of the gritty, hot Houston pavement to be stabbed yourself. Just read this book, then go buy a watermelon or a couple of carrots. Or, hey, turn on the news. And don't say I didn't warn you.

Hannaham is a trickster author, and bonus: a great narrator. I loved the way he modulated his voice according to which of his characters was in charge of the story. Scotty's energy, Eddie's dry young tone, and Darlene's love and loss. I originally planned on reading this instead of listening (author-narrators aren't always this strong), but June is Audiobook Month, so I gave the audio a try, and it was the right choice.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Reading Challenges

I am a competitive person. Blame my parents for having 4 kids in the space of 5 years. Epic Connect Four and UNO battles. (Um, also, Happy Father's Day, Dad! I don't blame you for my worst traits, I promise.)

I am also bonkers about reading.

Now, one might think that competitiveness and a solitary activity like reading are incompatible. But oh, no, my friends! Let me tell you about reading challenges.

The bookish website BookRiot first introduced me to the Seasonal Reading Challenge on Goodreads, which led me to a spreadsheet that occupies too much of my time. And then they developed the #ReadHarder challenge of their own, which challenges participants to pick titles from a wide range of categories in their 2015 reading. (Works in translation, different genres, authors old and young and hailing from across the globe, etc.)

With Euphoria, I completed the 24th & final task. Which means two things:

  1. I'm done! 
  2. I have to convince myself that it's not a good idea to repeat the challenge with the books I read in the second half of 2015.

Are you participating in any reading challenges? Do you want to tell me about them? 

Warning: if you do, I'm more than likely going to join in. (Especially if you happen to be one of my siblings.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Euphoria: A Book, and How I Feel About Audiobook Month

Euphoria, by Lily King
(2014, Atlantic Monthly Press / Blackstone Audio)
Format: audio download (read by Simon Vance and Xe Sands)

From Goodreads: "From New England Book Award winner Lily King comes a breathtaking novel about three young anthropologists of the '30s caught in a passionate love triangle that threatens their bonds, their careers, and, ultimately, their lives.

English anthropologist Andrew Bankson has been alone in the field for several years, studying the Kiona river tribe in the Territory of New Guinea. Haunted by the memory of his brothers’ deaths and increasingly frustrated and isolated by his research, Bankson is on the verge of suicide when a chance encounter with colleagues, the controversial Nell Stone and her wry and mercurial Australian husband Fen, pulls him back from the brink. Nell and Fen have just fled the bloodthirsty Mumbanyo and, in spite of Nell’s poor health, are hungry for a new discovery. When Bankson finds them a new tribe nearby, the artistic, female-dominated Tam, he ignites an intellectual and romantic firestorm between the three of them that burns out of anyone’s control."

June is Audiobook Month! Which means, really, that June is yet another chance for me to tell you people that you should listen to audiobooks, because they are The Best. Case in point: Euphoria.

Back in my college days, I studied a bit of anthropology, and learned a bit about Margaret Mead, but nothing in particular about her personal life. King's novel plays closely with that life, but Nell, Fen, and Bankson are wholly independent of their real-life inspirations. Nell is magnetic, both to the men in her life and to the people she works with - and definitely for the reader. Her voice is broken and strong and intriguing and true. And the vision of her we get through Bankson's eyes highlights her fascinating nature.

Oh, to be an anthropologist studying an anthropologist like her!

The narrative team of Vance and Sands is a dream. I may or may not have raved extensively about them both (okay, I have), and to have them together on this project was magic for me. No wonder this book won the Audie for Literary Fiction last month! It's a gorgeous production. I'm so glad it found its way into my ears.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Written in My Own Heart's Blood by Diana Gabaldon
(Bantam / Recorded Books, 2014)
Format: Audible download (narrated by Davina Porter)

From Goodreads: "WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEART’S BLOOD is the eighth novel in the world-famous OUTLANDER series. In June of 1778, the world turns upside-down. The British army withdraws from Philadelphia, George Washington prepares to move from Valley Forge in pursuit, and Jamie Fraser comes back from the dead to discover that his best friend has married Jamie’s wife. The ninth Earl of Ellesmere discovers to his horror that he is in fact the illegitimate son of the newly-resurrected Jamie Fraser (a rebel _and_ a Scottish criminal!) and Jamie’s nephew Ian Murray discovers that his new-found cousin has an eye for Ian’s Quaker betrothed.

Meanwhile, Claire Fraser deals with an asthmatic duke, Benedict Arnold, and the fear that one of her husbands may have murdered the other. And in the 20th century, Jamie and Claire’s daughter Brianna is thinking that things are probably easier in the 18th century: her son has been kidnapped, her husband has disappeared into the past, and she’s facing a vicious criminal with nothing but a stapler in her hand. Fortunately, her daughter has a miniature cricket bat and her mother’s pragmatism."

The American Revolution and Jaimie and Claire and John and William and Young Ian and Rollo - oh, Rollo! 

What can I say? I listened to the audio - I always choose audio for Diana Gabaldon books because of Davina Porter's amazing narration - and looking at a 45 hour audio can seem daunting, unless you know it's going to be as absorbing as an Outlander book. I found myself feeling grumpy when I saw there were "only" 9 hours left (for those who aren't audio readers - 9 hours is an entire novel in a lot of cases). And then as I tearfully listened to the final moments that I thought weren't quite final moments, and was dropped unceremoniously into a 15 minute author's note on research, I was so upset to be deprived of the moments I'd thought I had.

This is the 8th very long book in the series (if you don't know it in text form, perhaps you've seen the beautiful Starz adaptation? As if I weren't already a bit Jamie-mad.) It's full of characters I've come to love over the course of their lives (okay, maybe they're not alive-alive, but to me they are), and it was a real pleasure to hang out with them again. 

I'm confident it's not a tome a newbie could pick up, although it has so many fun elements of adventure and heartbreak and laughter and kick-ass strong women striding across the centuries. You'd want to meet young Ian in his toddler days, the better to feel for his journey as a young man. But if you like the series, you'll like this volume. The Jamie-Claire-Lord John stuff is a lot of fun, I can't get past my delight in Roger Mac, and did I mention Rollo? Rollo!

Porter keeps me on the edge of my emotional seat from the opening paragraphs - I think she, too, loves these characters, after so long reading them. If she doesn't, she never lets on. I think she's one of the best audio narrators out there. 

The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
(Viking / Penguin Audio, 2014)
Format: audio via library (narrated by Jenna Lamia and Adepero Oduye)

From Goodreads: "Hetty "Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.

Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid.We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.

As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements."

I'm always surprised by what Sue Monk Kidd comes up with next. It all fits into the puzzle of her authorial voice, but it's not a picture I would predict based on any one title. Her newest is the story of a Charleston slave and the girl who was her owner (Sarah Grimke was a real abolitionist; this telling of her life is, like wings, invented.) As they move from girlhood to adulthood, their influence on each other is constant if never easy. (Well, duh. Handful's a slave. Sarah's opposition to the institution doesn't make a lot of practical difference for most of Handful's life. Other than when she's punished for things Sarah does, such as teach her to read.) 

Charleston and its inhabitants are full of life, especially the various Grimke family members and slaves. Kidd embroiders together several threads of influence and counter-influence - political, religious, familial, economic - as she completes the picture of their world. 

I find Jenna Lamia's voice syrupy, especially when she's narrating younger characters, and I find some
of her secondary characters grating. As Sarah matures, Lamia's tones mellow and I was able to enjoy her reading. This is the first time I've heard Adepero Odyue's narration, and I loved how well her interpretation of Handful conveyed weariness, elation, fear, and hope in turn. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mr. Mercedes

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
(Scribner / Simon & Schuster Audio, 2014)
Format: audio download from library (narrated by Will Patton)

From Goodreads: "In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in a distressed Midwestern city, hundreds of desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair. Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.

In another part of town, months later, a retired cop named Bill Hodges is still haunted by the unsolved crime. When he gets a crazed letter from someone who self-identifies as the "perk" and threatens an even more diabolical attack, Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing another tragedy.

Brady Hartfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. He loved the feel of death under the wheels of the Mercedes, and he wants that rush again.

Only Bill Hodges, with a couple of highly unlikely allies, can apprehend the killer before he strikes again. And they have no time to lose, because Brady’s next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim thousands."

As a teen, I tore through my parents' collection of Stephen King books. Even though they scared me, I was always sucked in to King's deftly constructed, uncomfortable worlds. Some time in the decades since, I lost the King habit. Then Audies season rolled around, and Mr. Mercedes was on the fiction nominee list. 

I thought I'd dislike the creeping sense of horror. I thought I'd be antsy to finish and move on to a title with far less suspense. I was so wrong. The things I was right about: I knew Will Patton would do a great job, and I knew Stephen King would force me to care about characters he would proceed to endanger. 

Retired investigator Bill Hodges and his misfit companions are complex, complete characters. Hodges' inability to let the Mercedes Killer go, and his sharp insights into the mind of the man taunting him with his crimes, drew me fully into the plot. And it's no surprise that King is a master plotter.

Patton is consistently strong, and I learned long ago that I could trust his instincts when he is narrating a story. His pacing is excellent, which is so important during suspenseful moments, and he always seem to relish language and word play while narrating. I appreciate that he doesn't go overboard with dramatics - voices are distinct but mild, and even the crazy people sections remain understated, leaving room for the listener to process the narrative.

Fingers crossed that Patton narrates the next books in this trilogy, because now that I've reacquired the King habit, I want Patton to be my dealer.

Sunday, April 26, 2015


Us by David Nichols
(Harper / HarperAudio, 2014)
Format: audio via library (narrated by David Haig)

From Goodreads:"Douglas Petersen understands his wife's need to 'rediscover herself' now that their son is leaving home.

He just thought they'd be doing their rediscovering together.

So when Connie announces that she will be leaving, too, he resolves to make their last family holiday into the trip of a lifetime: one that will draw the three of them closer, and win the respect of his son. One that will make Connie fall in love with him all over again.

The hotels are booked, the tickets bought, the itinerary planned and printed.

What could possibly go wrong?"

This is my second Nicholslike 'everyone' I read One Day back in the day. I wasn't sure for the first third or so why I especially cared about Douglas and Connie and their bratty son and their failing marriage. Sure, Douglas was a little, um, dull, but even his selfish family ought to have been able to tell that he cared, even while he was being wrong-footed about showing it. 

But the drag of the introductory period finally let up and Douglas's voice began to shine through. He's  a little hopeless and a lot likable and his journey across Europe with his family isn't a thing like the one he meticulously planned, but it's the one he needs, nevertheless.

David Haig is a new-to-me narrator, and he was good at inhabiting Douglas's sometimes fretful but always measured voice. I don't think he could have done a thing more to make this a higher-rated listen for me, given the fine but not overwhelmingly compelling source material. 

I don't mind having listened, but in a category as strong as this year's contenders for the Fiction Audies, this one is easy to put at the bottom of the pile. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Fives and Twenty-Fives

Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre
(Bloomsbury / Brilliance Audio, 2014)
Format: audiobook via Audible (narrated by Kevin T. Collins, Nick Sullivan, Jay Snyder, and Fajer Al-Kaisi)

From Goodreads: "It’s the rule - always watch your fives and twenty-fives. When a convoy halts to investigate a possible roadside bomb, stay in the vehicle and scan five meters in every direction. A bomb inside five meters cuts through the armor, killing everyone in the truck. Once clear, get out and sweep 25 meters. A bomb inside 25 meters kills the dismounted scouts investigating the road ahead.

Fives and Twenty-Fives marks the measure of a marine’s life in the road-repair platoon. Dispatched to fill potholes on the highways of Iraq, the platoon works to assure safe passage for citizens and military personnel. Their mission lacks the glory of the infantry, but in a war where every pothole contains a hidden bomb, road repair brings its own danger.

Lieutenant Donavan leads the platoon, painfully aware of his shortcomings and isolated by his rank. Doc Pleasant, the medic, joined for opportunity, but finds his pride undone as he watches friends die. And there’s Kateb, known to the Americans as Dodge, an Iraqi interpreter whose love of American culture - from hip-hop to the dog-eared copy of Huck Finn he carries - is matched only by his disdain for what Americans are doing to his country. Returning home, they exchange one set of decisions and repercussions for another, struggling to find a place in a world that no longer knows them."

This novel wasn't on my radar until the 2015 Audies nominees came out, and I wasn't sure how I'd like it, when I started this year's Armchair Audies project (judging the fiction nominees). I liked it!

Most of the action of the novel happens after Lt. Donovan's platoon is back home in America, and his interpreter, Dodge, has gotten out of Iraq but is free-floating through an unstable Mideast. There are flashbacks to their service, and to the events that brought each of them, particularly Dodge (who is such a compelling, complex, tragicomic guy), together. There's a pivotal incident that each grapples with as they struggle to find out who they are, now that they are no longer serving.

Michael Pitre focuses tightly on the disconnect between life in the Marines and life afterwards. Even when characters appear to be picking up where they left off, they are permanently changed by their years of service, in ways that family and friends don't know how to process. These aren't gruff vets incapable of processing what happened overseas; rather, they are all very aware of changes in the world and in themselves. They saw a war that took place in people's homes and shopping centers, where determining friendly from combatant isn't always easy, and where a few from all sides are conspicuously gathering as much war-related wealth as possible.

The distinctive voices of the marines were smoothly handled by Nick Sullivan, Kevin T. Collins, and Jay Snyder, but the standout for me was Fajer Al-Kaisi as the Iraqi interpreter Dodge. Al-Kaisi's gusto as he takes on Dodge's vibrant, sometimes angry, always analytical personality made a lively character come even more strongly to life. I've read several fictions set in and around the post 9-11 war zones, and am impressed with the way Pitre used Dodge to bring to life the realities of living in Iraq as a citizen; most American novelists I've seen writing about Iraq and Afghanistan are a lot more stand-offish when it comes to the locals whose lives are being blasted apart. But like Dodge's beloved Huck Finn, he is the kind of character it would be fun to drop in to any number of novel situations (ha) just to watch how he navigates it. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Armchair Audies Time!

As in the past couple of years, I am participating this spring in the Armchair Audies project. (The first 7 words in that sentence link to the 7 categories I judged for 2014 & 2013. Have I mentioned I love audiobooks?)

What's the Armchair Audies? It's a delightful gig where a group of bloggers pick categories from the year's Audies nominees and listen to each title in their category, review it, and pick who they think should win.

I am listening to the 2015 Fiction nominees, and having a blast. Although I'll be going a tad far out of my comfort zone when I get to the Stephen King title - I am not much for horror! But every other title has had rewards either large or small, so I'll be taking a deep breath and plunging in.

Meanwhile, look for some reviews of great titles from me, because this is a fine crop of audio nominees. Happy listening!

Monday, March 9, 2015

2015 Tournament of Books

Goodness. How y'all been? I've been off writing my own books, and it's left poor Overreader a little Underwritten.

(See what I did there? That's how you know I'm an author, those word play games.)

But it's time once again for The Tournament of Books! The TOB (aka the Rooster) is a March-Madness style books tournament (go figure) which pits some of the most discussable books from the prior year against each other.

There are 16 books this year. To date, I've read 13 and have plans to read one more before the first round judgement. And I pretty much enjoyed them all - some I've loved. 

My current favorites: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Redeployment by Phil Klay, Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball.

I loved the whole Ferrante trilogy (well, series - there's a fourth forthcoming), and my family and I listened to Station Eleven with great pleasure on a road trip in December. 

Anyway, there will be ranting and cheering and exclaiming aplenty in the next couple of weeks as the TOB first round gets underway, and I'm super excited.