Amazing Audiobooks Part Four: Fab Fiction

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!

Amazing Audiobooks Part Two: Gargantuan Greats for Grown-Ups

For this segment of Amazing Audiobooks, I’m focusing on the behemoth novels that fill up disc after disc of listening material. These exciting, immersive *bugcrushers will eat up time spent on the road, on the treadmill, or doing chores – listen while you cook dinner or fold the laundry; listen when your knitting needles click or break out your headphones when you want to keep reading but your partner insists on lights out!

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, read for you by John Lee: A beloved gargantuan novel of the people building a cathedral in 1100s England – filled with mystery, suspense, rich historical detail, and captivating characters. This 32-disc novel is a winner! Its sequel, World Without End, is similarly enthralling.

 

A Game of Thrones, written by George R.R. Martin and masterfully performed by Roy Dotrice. This single novel takes up 28 CDs, or 33.5 hours. More than enough for the usual road trip! The four sequels to this novel are each around 30 discs of listening material, which would supply your listening needs long enough to drive from Davenport to Orlando Florida and back – three times!

 

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, written by Susanna Clarke and performed by Simon Prebble, is a fantasy novel that answers the question: what if a society of proper London magicians were around to magically assist the armies of England in the Napoleonic wars? And what if the leaders of that group were fighting against each other as well as taking on malevolent forces from the realm of Faerie? And what if all of this was written in a superb Jane-Austen-esque style that evokes all the sparkling wit and manners of the times without sacrificing the edge-of-your-seat action that modern audiences expect? Or, to put it more simply: This is an amazing novel and you should listen to it or read it right away. 32 hours of listening pleasure on 26 discs.

Some more excellent, lengthy novels:

*Bugcrusher: A book that is so big and heavy, you’d like to have it in hand to squish a scary bug.

Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale

Don’t judge this wonderful book by its covers, which are egregious. Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm is, by a wide margin, the most intelligent and engaging romance I’ve ever read. It proves what romance readers have known for generations: a love story with a happy ending can be just as powerful and thoughtful as any other literary novel. The heroine, Maddy Timms, is a devout Quaker: she speaks in a thee-thou manner that other characters remark upon as often you inevitably will. It’s infuriating, it’s different, it’s overly pious and hard to understand. It marks Maddy as a person who lives apart, in a smaller and humbler world than her Anglican peers. Her religion is restrictive and judgmental, but it’s also warm and forgiving and kind – just like Maddy herself. Christian Langland is a standard romantic hero (a strapping, handsome, fabulously wealthy Duke who happens to be a well-known rake), until a neurological illness strikes out of nowhere, shattering his ability to communicate. Only Maddy recognizes that he is not incompetent, an idiot, a savage struck down by God for his immoral ways: he is a sick man. And she is led by God to restore him to health.

There are layers upon layers in this book. Christian is mad; Maddy is a Christian. Flowers and storms pop up in significant junctures throughout the story, bolstering the plot as well as reminding you of the central theme: there is always a way to find something beautiful, something wonderful, even in the darkest and most harrowing times. The point of view alternates between Christian and Maddy, and Ms. Kinsale does an absolutely phenomenal job of illustrating Christian’s rapid mental decline and slow recovery both from inside and outside his fuddled mind. She very rarely writes the same moment from both characters’ perspectives, so you only know what Christian can piece together or what Maddy has been present to see. The scenes inside the lunatic asylum in the immediate aftermath of Christian’s illness are heartwrenching, as we watch him struggle to make even the simplest thought understood by his doctors. Maddy is the first and only person to truly understand him, to know that his intelligence is as fierce as ever but his ability to speak and to understand has been compromised. As their love blossoms, Maddy struggles with her religious convictions and Christian struggles with his illness, his family, and his legal obligations. I’ve never been moved to root for a romance novel couple as I was for these two.

If you’re a romance reader and you’ve never read Flowers from the Storm, do so right away! You won’t regret it. Then, pass it on to a skeptical friend who thinks romances are cheap, tawdry, worthless, or sub-literary: I’ve never read a book more likely to change their mind.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James is a mystery set 6 years after Pride & Prejudice, when Lizzie’s disgraced sister Lydia comes to the Darcy estate screaming that her husband – the notorious rogue George Wickham – has been murdered. Everyone has a different opinion on Pride & Prejudice sequels. “Glorified fanfiction,” some say. “Total crap,” or “completely wonderful,” say others. I think the line between success and failure depends not only on good writing, setting, plotting, and characters, but on a critical distinction: no one but Jane Austen should write Jane Austen’s characters. Elizabeth’s wit and Darcy’s mysterious motives are the critical features that make Pride & Prejudice such an enduring classic, and any other authors trying to inhabit these characters inevitably struggle to do as well as Austen did. P.D. James, although an accomplished and talented author by any definition, is regrettably no exception. Her Darcy is wooden and boring, her Elizabeth does little but turn up every 25 pages and agree with her husband, and her speculation on Colonel Fitzwilliam’s future and character is hardly in line with the lovable, friendly man we know from P&P. The characters she invents – a dashing suitor for Georgiana, the staff of Pemberley – are much more vivid and entertaining.

James can turn a phrase admirably; even in its most stilted information-dumping passages (lots of early 19th century criminal law needs to be explained – feel free to skim these parts), the writing isn’t at fault here. It’s revealing that the best chapter of the entire book is the first one, where James neatly summarizes the events of Pride & Prejudice and weaves in the 6 years of additional plot she’s invented. You would expect a summary to be boring, but this one’s remarkably engaging; it’s the plodding mystery that stalls this book.

If you love mysteries and you love Austen continuations, give Death Comes to Pemberley a try. Although truth be told, you might be happier re-reading the original, especially if you’re an Austen purist or a demanding mystery fan. Despite a few good ideas, this book doesn’t satisfy on either end of that spectrum.

Read This, Not That: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

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.

The Terror by Dan Simmons

The HMS Terror and HMS Erebus left port in England in 1845, crewed by sailors and explorers fully expecting to find the fabled Northwest Passage. They sailed west, making stops in Greenland and Baffin Bay, until they reached northern Canada. Then, somewhere around Devon Island, all trace of them was lost. The ships vanished into the pack ice; no one has ever known the truth of what became of them. In The Terror, Dan Simmons retells the factual voyage and surmises the terrifying last leg of the journey. The explorers had an experienced commander, two strong ships, the hopes of their countrymen on their shoulders, and fabulously promising food stores made possible by the recent invention of canning.

But everything went wrong almost immediately. Captain Franklin meets a grisly end early on. The ships quickly become useless when pack ice surrounds them and threatens to crush them into splinters. The grip of scurvy, starvation, and madness sink into almost all the crew. As if these natural terrors weren’t enough, a faceless, hungry, menacing terror is stalking them as they flee south across the ice.

This is a beefy book but definitely worth the effort. Simmons does a fantastic job of weaving truth with fiction; he makes the historical facts of the trip exciting and the conjecture completely compelling and believable. The science fiction-y elements of this book are subtle and scary, but the real terror comes from the natural world: an Arctic winter so frigid and unforgiving that it makes a Midwestern winter look tropical by comparison! This thrilling book is an excellent choice for anyone who likes adventure or historical fiction.

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

I really wanted to read this book, but I kept putting it back on the shelf.  At nearly 1000 pages (985 to be exact) I knew I could read three books in the same time it would take me to finish just this one.  I shouldn’t have waited.  Turns out, it really was a pretty quick read — but that’s because I hardly ever put it down!

Fall of Giants isn’t Ken Follett’s first historical fiction book, nor will it be his last.  Readers will no doubt remember his Pillars of the Earth, which was an Oprah Book Club choice, plus its sequel, World Without End. And of course, this title is just the first in a planned Century trilogy.   But let’s get to the book.  It covers five families — Welsh, Russian, German, American and English.  Some are wealthy aristocrats, like the Fitzhuberts, and others, like Billy Williams and his sister Ethel, are on the opposite end of the socio-economic scale.  Rounding out this mix are the orphaned Peshkov brothers in Russia, an American lawyer working in the White House, and, oh yes, a German spy.  So you see, there’s a little something for everyone –political intrigue, scintillating sex and romance, and some action-packed battle scenes.  Plus the multiple story lines (arranged chronologically) keeps you turning those pages.

What’s most intriguing is how the lives of all these diverse characters somehow logically interconnect.  Though I’m certainly no expert on the World War I era (the book spans the years 1911 to 1924) I was familiar enough to recognize that Follett had meticulously researched this tome, and his inclusion of real historical figures, such as Winston Churchill, seems to enhance it’s believability.  Believe me, even if you think you don’t, you really do have time to read this book.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

After his Father’s death, Shen Tai leaves the glittering and sophisticated world of  Xianan, the capital city, and travels to the far western borders of the civilized world to Kuala Nor, the site of an epic battle where thousands died. There, in homage to his father, Tai begins to bury the dead. At night Tai can hear the ghosts of the dead howl and cry in sorrow and pain; sometimes, when one voice falls silent, he knows he has laid that ghost to rest.

Unexpectedly, two years into his mission a foreign princess gives him an unimaginable gift for his efforts – 250 rare and valuable Sardian horses. It is a gift that could change the course of empires, and it will change Tai’s life in unforeseen and unexpected ways.

Loosely based on ancient Chinese history and legend, Under Heaven is an epic novel of an ordinary man being swept into history’s current, how he adapts and how his actions change the course of his country’s path. Melding the experiences of the ordinary and the powerful, Under Heaven creates a complex and layered story of a turbulent era.

Parrot & Olivier in America

Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey creates a vividly funny work of historical fiction in Parrot and Olivier in America by imagining the real-life experiences of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and author of Democracy in America, a hugely popular work first published in 1835. 

Carey cleverly uses dual narrators, each with completely different perspectives;  Alexis is protrayed as Olivier while his servant companion is John “Parrot” Laritt.  Parrot is the orphaned son of an itinerant English printer who is forced to accompany Olivier as he sets sail for the United States.  Ostensibly, Olivier is being sent to research the U.S. penal system for a report to the French government.  In reality, he’s being sent by his parents (who barely avoided the guillitine during the French Revolution) as a politically-correct way for their son to safely escape the reignited Terror back in France.   

In alternating chapters, Parrot sets the tone as the more likeable character — though uneducated and long-suffering, he’s obviously talented and intelligent.  Olivier initally comes across as a pampered snob (Parrot often refers to him as “Lord Migraine) but he proves remarkably open-minded in observing  most Americans (with President Andrew Jackson as a notable exception). 

As the novel progresses, we see a change in attitude.  Indeed, a most unlikely friendship develops, particularly as both title players have varying troubles with their love lives.  I think it’s primarily because the characters are so well developed (even the minor ones) that makes this an enjoyable and entertaining read.  And then, the little history lesson is just thrown in for free!

Parrot & Olivier in America

Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey creates a vividly funny work of historical fiction in Parrot and Olivier in America by imagining the real-life experiences of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and author of Democracy in America, a hugely popular work first published in 1835. 

Carey cleverly uses dual narrators, each with completely different perspectives;  Alexis is protrayed as Olivier while his servant companion is John “Parrot” Laritt.  Parrot is the orphaned son of an itinerant English printer who is forced to accompany Olivier as he sets sail for the United States.  Ostensibly, Olivier is being sent to research the U.S. penal system for a report to the French government.  In reality, he’s being sent by his parents (who barely avoided the guillitine during the French Revolution) as a politically-correct way for their son to safely escape the reignited Terror back in France.   

In alternating chapters, Parrot sets the tone as the more likeable character — though uneducated and long-suffering, he’s obviously talented and intelligent.  Olivier initally comes across as a pampered snob (Parrot often refers to him as “Lord Migraine) but he proves remarkably open-minded in observing  most Americans (with President Andrew Jackson as a notable exception). 

As the novel progresses, we see a change in attitude.  Indeed, a most unlikely friendship develops, particularly as both title players have varying troubles with their love lives.  I think it’s primarily because the characters are so well developed (even the minor ones) that makes this an enjoyable and entertaining read.  And then, the little history lesson is just thrown in for free!