For this installment of Amazing Audiobooks, I have a jumble of fun, funny, exciting, just-plain-great fiction that didn’t fit with the previous three categories. But you have my word: all these are winners!

  • Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. You’ll laugh out loud at this one, in which the Apocalypse goes all wrong when an angel and a demon accidentally swap out the Antichrist for a normal human boy.
  • The charming Flavia de Luce Mysteries by C. Alan Bradley, beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
  • Calico Joe by John Grisham
  • 11th Hour, the latest from James Patterson (or if you’re new to the Women’s Murder Club series, start at the beginning with 1st to Die)
  • …In Death series by J.D. Robb: a futuristic police procedural – particularly recommended for those who like listening to sexy, seductive, lilting Irish accents.
  • The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, a novel about a college baseball phenom (I reviewed the novel in June)
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: A deeply sad but very sweet and rewarding novel; tells the story of a girl who learns about death and love while helping her parents hide a Jewish man from the Nazis in a small German town. Appropriate for teens and older kids as well as adults.
  • Stephen King’s latest hit, 11/22/63, about JFK’s assassination and time travel.
  • The Night Circus, a lovely atmospheric love story brought to life by Jim Dale. Lexie reviewed this on the blog back in October. There’s a movie version in development scheduled for a 2013 release, so get in on the ground floor of opinionated ‘book-was-better’ arguments by reading the book first!
  • Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella: listen to Lara, a twenty-something Brit, spar with the ghost of her great-aunt Sadie, whose 23-year-old form has come straight out of 1927 to beg the living girl to track down her missing necklace. It’s a hoot!

Who says summer road trips have to be boring? Load up the family and hit the open road: the trip will fly by when you bring an audiobook from DPL! Unlike your child’s Nintendo DS or iPod Touch, audiobooks don’t require charging and they will entertain more than one person at a time, including the driver.

These recorded books are winners for the entire family:

Harry Potter series, read for you by Jim Dale: The whole family is sure to love the expertly performed Harry Potter series. Jim Dale’s narration is absolutely perfect; even if you’ve already read the novels, you’ll find something new to love in the recordings. If your children are a bit younger, there are admirable recordings of the Magic Tree House series. For the kids who’ve already read (or aren’t interested in) HP, try Artemis Fowl or Percy Jackson.

 

Bring a box of tissues along with the kids’ classic Bridge to Terabithia, warmly brought to life by narrator Tom Stechschulte. The poignant story of Jess and Leslie has been a favorite since Katherine Paterson penned it in the ’70s. For kids 10+.

Recordings of Suzanne Collins’ runaway hits The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay will be a hit with everyone: mature themes and violence probably make this too grown up for the littlest ones, but don’t let the YA label fool you – adults adore the series too. For kids 12+.

In Nerd Girls: The Rise of the Dorkasaurus, 8th grader Maureen risks life and limb – ok, she risks embarrassing herself in front of the whole school – to stand up to the popular girls who bully her. A funny, relatable story about friendship and the perils of middle school. For kids 12+.

Megan McDonald’s Judy Moody series makes for a charming listening experience – Judy’s misadventures show kids how to handle things when their grand plans don’t work out, and narrator Kate Forbes captures her spunky spirit. Just Grace, about another spirited grade schooler, is a fun choice for the kids who’ve already enjoyed Judy Moody. For kids 8+.

All kinds of great books for kids are available from DPL, from classics like The Chronicles of Narnia and Harriet the Spy to popular new hits like The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Warriors series. Princesses, Sports, Dragons, Animals – whatever your child is interested in, we have an audiobook for it!

*Age recommendations reflect the guidelines printed by the publisher, not DPL’s opinion. Always take your child’s unique level of maturity and experience into account when helping him or her choose books to read.

The Art of Fielding follows the tale of Henry Skrimshander, a naturally gifted shortstop, blessed with a powerful throw, catlike reflexes, and an almost supernatural gift for seeing the ball’s path as it comes off the bat. But when his can’t-miss aim misses, breaking the cheekbone of a teammate, Henry’s life – and the lives of his teammates and friends at Westish College – is thrown into chaos.

This novel has generated a lot of buzz and was mentioned on a lot of ‘best-of 2011’ lists. The hype, for the most part, is justified. Multidimensional characters and a lot of pretty language are the strong points; baseball may be boring, but Harbach’s sentences describing it are not. The weaknesses (occasional point of view problems, a plot that requires some definite leaps of faith, and just tons of baseball) are minor. The best thing about it may be the setting: Westish College, a fictional Wisconsin liberal arts school, feels very like Augustana (my alma mater), and a campus novel is always a treat.*

Westish and its people share a near-obsessive devotion to Herman Melville, who (in the fictional universe of this novel) visited the school late in his life and gave a speech. That visit turns Westish into an unlikely center of Melville scholarship, and an adoptee of a new mascot – The Harpooner – in honor of the author. If you’re a fan of Herman Melville and Moby-Dick, you’re going to love the packed house of literary allusions: if not, rest easy. Luckily for most of us, you don’t need to be a Melville scholar (or a baseball fanatic) to enjoy this novel.

*If, like me, you enjoy reading about campus life, by all means check out the novels of David Lodge, especially Small World. Jane Smiley’s Moo and Richard Russo’s Straight Man are also excellent choices.

Inspired by a glowing review on NPR and the gorgeous cover design, I snapped up The Dark Rose as quickly as I could. It’s a mild thriller-cum-literary novel that tangles with the questions of morality and guilt. If you intend to do harm but fail, are you guilty of the crime? If you intend to do good, but fall into the wrong side of the law, are you morally at fault?  Yes and yes, according to Erin Kelly, an author who hands out death and disaster with a free hand; hers is a universe where even minor crimes don’t go unpunished, and the result is oddly satisfying (if a bit bleak). The story follows two central characters – Louisa and Paul – and three timelines: Louisa’s volatile relationship with rocker Adam Glasslake as an 18 year old in 1989 London, Paul’s troubled upbringing in a suburban slum under the wing of his illiterate best friend Daniel, and the present day, where the two characters meet and work together restoring a sixteenth-century garden in the British countryside. Louisa is immediately drawn to Paul, a doppelganger of her long gone lover Adam, and Paul – vulnerable in the aftermath of agreeing to testify against his best friend in a murder trial – is drawn to her as well. Each of them is flawed in interesting and unique ways, and they have coping methods and personalities that feel genuine as well as compelling.

Juggling multiple timelines is a feat successfully maneuvered by few authors, but Kelly does a respectable job matching the pacing and tone between her segments and blending them together the right way. Unfortunately, she’s much better at characterization than plotting, as her attempt isn’t without flaws: the present day story starts off running and only picks up speed, while the back stories start off slower and eventually grind to a crawl near the 2/3 mark. It’s frustrating to have to leave the exciting, sensual present to revisit teenaged Louisa and Paul flailing in 1989 and 2009, respectively, as they cope with circumstances and guilt that will haunt them going forward. That aside, the language in this book is splendid and the gardening subplot is a rich source of metaphor and a tidy frame for the story.

We are all guilty of something; this book is about what happens when that guilt catches up to you.

It’s so lovely when a novel can turn a well-worn trope into a fresh, lively story. Just as she did with time travel in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger turns cliches into something more in Her Fearful Symmetry. The story follows 21 year old twins Julia and Valentina, who inherit their aunt Elspeth’s London flat and fortune on the condition that they live in the dwelling, without their parents or any other chaperone, for one year. The catch: Elspeth, mute and invisible, has clung to her flat and haunts it – and she’s getting stronger every day. Don’t groan! It sounds horribly cliched – identical twins; an inheritance contingent upon ridiculous demands; London; ghosts – but it’s so much more than it seems. Elspeth is the estranged twin sister of Julia and Valentina’s mother, Edie; the elder sisters have a history of secrets that Niffenegger unravels throughout the tale. Even more impressive is the host of delightful secondary characters: Martin, an obsessive-compulsive neighbor who writes crossword puzzles for a living, and his estranged wife Marijke (pronounced Mah-RYE-Kuh); Robert, a cemetery historian and Elspeth’s former lover; even the white kitten the twins adopt has personality and verve. They call him “The Little Kitten of Death.”

It’s a beautiful, unusual tale that unfolds slowly and doesn’t pander to the reader. Both of Niffenegger’s novels tell the stories of ordinary, although perhaps quite unusual, people who must find a way to navigate a frightening, supernatural situation. She tells the tale at the pace she wants, rather than dropping in action sequences and extra dialog where they don’t belong. If you liked the style of The Time Traveler’s Wife, you’ll be pulled in by this ghostly, ethereal tale. I listened to this as an audiobook, and it was excellent in that format; a perfect companion for rainy springtime commutes!

The History of Love is a bittersweet novel that tells the intertwined stories of Alma Singer and Leo Gursky, a teenage girl and an old man whose lives collide under extraordinary circumstances.

When Alma explores her namesake, the main character of the book-within-a-book also titled “The History of Love,” she discovers a dense tapestry of love, heartbreak, and friendship that centers around another Alma, Leo Gursky, her deceased father, her bereft mother, an unknown writer from Poland by way of Chile, and the famous American author Isaac Moritz. Nicole Krauss makes this potentially convoluted tale feel truly magical by illuminating the long, tangled strings of time and events that bring her characters together. There are few detours from the plot and no wasted words, so the story is fully explored and feels deeper than its 272 pages. It’s sweet and sad and thought provoking, but doesn’t carry any depressing baggage to sour your mood. The ending is uplifting without being tidy and perfect.

I selected this book for my book club and I was delighted to see quotations from its pages popping up in my fellow members’ status updates and conversations. There are a lot of beautiful language moments and highly quotable passages (“her kiss was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering” – *swoons*), which help make the book such a joy to read.

Krauss is married to author Jonathan Safran Foer, and their novels make lovely companions. If you loved his novels Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or  Everything Is Illuminated, you will fall for The History of Love, and vice versa. Both authors employ lyrical language to explore the topic of Jewish history (to put it broadly) through the eyes of fictional writers. In Everything is Illuminated, the protagonist is a writer who travels throughout eastern Europe looking for the history of his family and their village. In The History of Love, every major character and almost every minor character are writers in one form or another. Both books are so beautiful that it’s hard to decide which one I liked better, but either or both would make a great springtime read.

Little Bee offers a lot to talk about, but without a lot of substance. It exhibits a weird tension between visceral and twee, with its pretty cover, gimmicky blurb, Dickensian coincidences, and gritty portrayal of humanitarian crises in western Africa. It’s a book that doesn’t make you decide between ‘drama of unimaginable cruelty and violence’ and ‘saga of suburban ennui and infidelity’ – it just has both, and by virtue of that uniqueness, it’s already worthy of discussion. Additionally, the sadness of the subject matter and its real-life inspiration make this a heart wrenching book that will absolutely give book clubs fodder for great discussion.

There’s a lot of good in Little Bee; it’s snappy and readable, even beautiful in its language at times. Its setting contrasts the familiarity of London with the unknown of its asylum-seekers and Nigeria’s oil conflict in a surprisingly effective way. But there are lots of negatives too: the plot has turns so contrived you’ll wince, and Little Bee herself is so perfectly perfect that her nobility can be tiresome. Few of the characters are memorable and even fewer are sympathetic.

It also suffers from the plight of Changed Title Syndrome, wherein the publishers change the original title in an attempt to appeal to American audiences (this also famously happened with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – because presumably, American kids would never stoop to read something with a word as dull as ‘philosopher’ in the title). In this case, the wonderfully apt and evocative title “The Other Hand” was rewritten to the rather plain and accessible “Little Bee.” Rather than calling attention to the central metaphor and most vivid scene of the book, the new title simply names the main character, and it’s rather banal by comparison.

“Little Bee” is an unusual, readable book that, while imperfect, would make a great choice for book clubs (provided all members are comfortable with some gritty, violent scenes).

 

Though first published in 1996, A Game of Thrones and its four sequels (collectively known as A Song of Ice and Fire) have become a phenomenon in library hold queues of late thanks to HBO’s serial adaptation (season 2 premieres on April 1) and the summer ’11 release of the bestselling A Dance With Dragons. If you’re interested in the series but were turned off by the verbose visuals and relentless attention to detail, you are not alone. Try these titles for an alternative jaunt into gritty, political, and subtly-fantastical realms.

If you are intrigued by the era of Martin’s inspiration, England’s Wars of the Roses, try The White Queen by Philippa Gregory, or any of her rich historical novels set in a similar time period, including The Red Queen (a direct sequel), The Other Boleyn Girl, and The Other Queen. For a factual (but nonetheless exciting) version of the story, try Alison Weir’s The Wars of the Roses.

Part of the appeal of Martin’s work is the very small part that magic and fantasy play in the narrative. If you appreciate that ratio, consider The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, in which a modern woman is embroiled in the continuing high-stakes mystery of Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula). Another tale of subtle magic is Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, which explores the lives a Southern family with a unique talent for growing (and using) magical plants in a successful catering business.

If the gripping political drama of a royal family pulls you in, but the fantasy elements are off putting, you’ll love Bernard Cornwell, whose Arthur books (beginning with The Winter King) make the mythic saga fresh, exciting, and utterly believable.

If you enjoy gritty fantasy but not a lot of length, consider The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch or The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. Both are #1 in their respective serials, but can be enjoyed individually. Additionally, they each still come in very far below the page count Martin sets. In hardcover, A Song of Ice and Fire numbers 4,223 pages in total – a truly intimidating figure. By contrast, Abercrombie’s entire trilogy numbers only 1,810, and Lynch’s tale wraps up in a snappy 752.

Here’s the last entry in our Best Books of 2011 from our blogging librarians.

Maggie says “My favorite of 2011 is Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. It’s a dense, relatable, beautifully written book by my favorite author. It’s also the most moving book I read this year. P.S. very hard to pick just one….”

And here’s Ann’s choice. “2011 wasn’t a particularly “good” reading year for me; I read several entertaining books, but nothing that knocked my socks off. However, there was one book from this year that will always be a stand-out for me – Rick Steve’s Paris 2011. With the huge number of travel books available, Rick Steves is a great choice for the first-time traveler, showing you the basics yet encouraging you to get off the beaten tourist path. You can be sure that all of his recommendations have been personally vetted (and they have never steered me wrong) And yes, the trip was fantastic!”

Now it’s your turn – what was your favorite book that you read in 2011? Let us know in the comments!

Best wishes for a Happy New Year in 2012 – may it be overflowing with great books!

More best books from our Blogging Librarians! Michelle and Lexie kind of cheated since they each picked two titles; however, they’re both so good at picking books we don’t mind a bit.

Michelle starts with a mystery. “Louise Penny’s quirky, yet endearing characters make A Trick of the Light one of my favorite mysteries of the year. Penny’s clever writing style combined with her main character, the legendary Inspector Armand Gamache, make for a superb mystery book (and the latest release in the series)”. Read more in her blog post from earlier this year.

A fiction book is Michelle’s second pick. “Katie Lee’s debut work of fiction, Groundswell was a favorite beach read in 2011. Groundswell follows a main character who becomes caught up in the glitz and glamour of stardom only then to discover what is important in life after a traumatic event”. Michelle’s blog post about this book is here.

Lexie says go big or go home with George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire. “An epic fantasy series set in a land where seasons can last for decades. The series is filled with political intrigue, plenty of shocking plot twists, romance, and engaging characters who don’t fit into a traditional mold of good or evil. This complex world that Martin created has become an absolute obsession for me; the fifth book was just released in July and I’m already eagerly anticipating the next installment”. Read more from Lexie about it in her earlier blog post.

Her second pick is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. “31-year-old “carer” Kathy looks back on her youth, which was spent in an isolated English boarding school with her two best friends and plenty of secrets. This book is haunting and incredibly thought-provoking. I couldn’t put it down once I started, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it once I finished”. Lexie blogged about it here.