Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl audiobookWhat’s it about? Marriages aren’t always how they appear from the outside. Sometimes, they’re not even how they appear from the inside. That’s how it is with Nick and Amy. To anyone but their closest of friends, they have the perfect marriage so far, composed of a handful of years together in their glamorous city home punctuated by parties and sustained by Amy’s family wealth. On the inside, each thinks they are happy–or at least, that’s what we on the outside can tell from their alternating stories, Nick narrating directly to the reader and Amy’s story unfolding through the pages of her diary. Amy can’t talk to us directly, because after Nick moved her to the country to take care of an ailing family member and then lost Amy’s trust fund in his failed business efforts, Amy mysteriously disappeared. Of course, Nick is the main suspect.

The focus of Flynn’s riveting mystery is on both characters telling their own story, Nick starting in the present with Amy disappearing, and Amy starting in the past at the beginning of her relationship with Nick. The general question of the story is What happened to Amy?, but the real mystery is that the reader never knows who’s telling the truth. Nick swears he didn’t hurt his wife, but we don’t know if we believe him. Amy chronicles their happy history, but we don’t know if we believe her either. Ultimately, the two stories overlap in a mind-blowing conclusion.

Is the narrator any good? Out of necessity, Gone Girl features two narrators: one male to play Nick, and one female to play Amy. Experienced narrator Kirby Heyborne takes on the role of Nick, adding it to his extensive repertoire of fiction and nonfiction reads. The natural inflections in his voice and his conversational style of speaking lend the character an innocence that has the reader pointedly doubting all along that he could’ve ever harmed his wife, either emotionally or physically.

Narrator Julia Whelan, whose succinct voice has been featured in the works of such high-profile writers as Nora Roberts, gives Amy’s character a smartness that would be suspicious if she didn’t sound so darn innocent herself. Both narrators succeed in drawing the reader in to each character’s side, carrying the mystery all the way through the story until Flynn is ready to reveal all.

The verdict? I hate to use a cliché, but this audiobook will literally leave you perched on the edge of your seat (so maybe don’t listen to it while driving, like I did!). I spent most of the story wondering who was telling the truth and wanting to believe that both characters were, even though their stories were often contradictory. It’s a story that’ll make you be nicer to your own partner if you have one, and avoid pairing up if you don’t.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

world war z audiobookWhat’s it about? The title pretty much tells you all you need to know. I mean, we all remember when zombies nearly wiped out humanity, right? Wait, you don’t remember World War Z? Then you’re in for a deliciously creepy treat. Journalist Max Brooks sets out to commemorate the zombie revolution (now known as World War Z) by creating a documentary-like compilation of interviews with some of the war’s most amazing survivors, including some impressive military players. Appropriately, he starts at the beginning—with a survivor from a small Chinese town who personally witnessed the origin of the uprising with preteen Patient Zero’s descent into the zombie nation.

Brooks scoops classified stories from high-ranked military officials around the world, digging out the real story behind the government intervention (or lack thereof). But the best story of all is that of a teenage girl, who went north during the war with her family to battle starvation, cannibalism, and the worst of human nature in an unnamed land of perpetual winter, where zombies frozen for most of the year would still manage to reanimate their reign of terror each summer. The various survivors’ stories are necessarily episodic in nature, but each tale’s overarching goal of man vs. zombie ties them all together nicely.

Is the narrator any good? I wouldn’t be surprised if author Max Brooks wrote World War Z with an audiobook format in mind. The interconnected sessions of interviews lend themselves quite well to a vocal telling. I can’t imagine how much of the story might’ve been lost had I been reading the transcribed words of the interviewees, rather than hearing those words in their own voices, complete with accents and emotional reactions.

The author himself narrates the story, personally interviewing each of the survivors and providing transitions between stories as he travels to each corner of the world looking for survivors. And what luck that each of his subjects also happens to be an accomplished vocal actor! It just makes their stories all the more believable.

The verdict? You may have already noticed that this audiobook felt more real to me than any I’ve recently listened to. The somber music between interviews heightens the drama, and most of the characters describe their stories with a casualness that only accentuates the creepiness of the ordeal they survived. Even in the zombie-soaked climate of today’s pop culture-obsessed society, the unique format alone would be enough to make World War Z worth a listen. Luckily, you get much more than a unique format—you get an engaging apocalyptic tale.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild audiobookWhat’s it about? Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is a powerful memoir following the journey of Cheryl Strayed as she sets out on a 1100-mile solo hike up the Pacific Crest Trail. While the book contains plenty of adventure – Cheryl faces rattlesnakes, black bears, intense heat, record snowfalls and predatory men – the main story is Cheryl’s personal journey of piecing together a life that has come undone as a result of personal disasters, tragedies and poor life decisions.

At the age of 22 Cheryl lost her mother to lung cancer. As her family splinters apart and her marriage collapses, Cheryl begins to experiment with heroin and casual sex.  At 26, with nothing more to lose, she made an impulsive decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State – and to do it alone. She not only survives the journey, she  emerges stronger – healed – and finally willing to forgive herself for her mistakes.

Is the narrator any good?  Bernadette Dunne’s narration is excellent. Her reading is smooth and consistent, while also perfectly capturing the author’s grit and heart.

The verdict? In Wild, Cheryl skillfully weaves together an inspiring adventure story of physical struggling and succeeding against all odds, with a reflection on coming to terms with grief and abandonment. The raw emotional power made this audiobook hard to stop listening to. I also appreciated the honesty, humor and self-awareness with which Cheryl describes her journey.

To sum up: I loved this audiobook, and I can see why Oprah decided to pick it for her Book Club 2.0.

 

Tough Sh*t by Kevin Smith

Tough Sh*t audiobook Kevin SmithWhat’s it about? Kevin Smith describes himself a “fat, lazy slob who did good”. This good includes changing film-making forever at the age of twenty-three with Clerks, a number of other films such as Chasing Amy and Dogma (and some other not-so-good films…), owning a comic book store, building a podcasting empire and marrying a woman he claims is way out of his league.

Tough Sh*t is essentially a collection of stories from Kevin’s life and how they shaped the man he became. These include the death of his father and the infamous incident where he got thrown off a plane for allegedly being “too fat to fly”. The stories are usually filled with humor and perversity but always end with a touching note, a lot like his movies.

Is the narrator any good? Kevin reads the audio version of Tough Sh*t himself and does it well. He includes a number of asides which are a nice touch.

The verdict? I really enjoyed this audiobook – Kevin Smith is an interesting guy and I loved hearing the insider stories of Hollywood. He is also very funny, although his humor can be base and vulgar (consider yourself warned). Overall, a very entertaining listen.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay audiobookWhat’s it about? By the third (and last) book of the Hunger Games trilogy, all 12 districts (what’s left of them, at least) of the dystopian country of Panem are in outright rebellion. Seventeen-year-old Katniss Everdeen now lives in the previously unknown and underground District 13. Known as the Mockingjay, she’s become a sort of mascot for the rebellion, with all of the burdens and responsibilities that implies.

This audiobook chronicles District 13’s fight for freedom from the Capitol for all of the Districts, with the goal that no one will ever again have to answer to the Capitol or send children to fight in the Hunger Games. For Katniss, this means finally facing up to Capitol ruler President Snow, not to mention staring down everything else that’s crossed her path along the way. Choosing between Peeta and Gale. Protecting her mother and sister. Learning to preserve her sense of independence while dedicating her existence to serving the greater good. And just plain staying alive.

Is the narrator any good? Mockingjay is part of a trilogy, all narrated by Carolyn McCormick, a seasoned audiobook narrator with an MFA and a primetime acting career under her belt. This book has a different feel from the previous two, because in this one Katniss is a different person. Not only is she a little older (over a year lapses between the three audiobooks), but she’s been through so much in the span of two Games that permanent change is inevitable. It takes a special person to be able to reflect where someone’s been and at the same time where they’re going, but in this last installment, McCormick continues her balanced portrayal of the conflicted Katniss, right up to the twisty conclusion.

The verdict? The Hunger Games trilogy is one of those series whose closing moments you dread, because you know you’ll have to leave the characters to their own devices and move on to the next story. All throughout the audiobook Collins keeps one-upping herself, putting Katniss in increasing dire circumstances that made me regularly stop to wonder, How will she possibly get out of this one?, only to find in the next scene that things have somehow gotten worse. But when the end finally came, however unexpected, it was so organic to the story that it almost felt like a letdown. Or maybe that was just my own strange sadness that Katniss would now go on without me, and I without her.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games audiobookWhat’s it about? In the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen lives in a post-revolution used-to-be-America comprised of twelve dystopian districts now known as Panem. Every year the ruling class of the Capital picks one young boy and girl from each district to fight to the death in a televised event called the Hunger Games. Worst of all, the Games serve no solid purpose, hosted merely to show the districts that the Capital still controls the fates of all district inhabitants, including their children.

When Katniss’ younger sister Prim is, against slim odds, chosen to participate in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, the motherly Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place, and finds herself whisked off to the Capital to try to kill 23 of her peers (including one boy who once saved her life) in front of a live audience. The story follows her trek to and through the Games and includes a love triangle that, though only a minor subplot in the first book, ultimately makes the Edward-or-Jacob dilemma of the Twilight series look like a child’s parody. Readers get to live the Games right alongside their heroine, in all of her moral, physical, and societal quandaries. The writing is fast-paced and full of surprises, right up until the twisty ending.

Is the narrator any good? The Hunger Games is part of a trilogy, all narrated by Carolyn McCormick, a seasoned audiobook narrator with an MFA and a primetime acting career under her belt. I wasn’t a huge fan of her voice at the start, but to be honest, I usually prefer male narrators, particularly if they have a svelte British lilt, however biased that is. But McCormick eventually began to grow on me, and ultimately faded into the background as she became the character and the story took flight, sweeping me up in its wingspan. And to me, that’s a sign of good narration.

The verdict? Although the premise of child-on-child violence is quite disturbing, the book itself is not. Collins manages to deal with the violence graciously, with only enough gore to illustrate the horrific nature of the Games and of their puppetmasters. Katniss is complex and fascinating, somehow both a role model for strength and honor that modern girls (and boys, and men, and women…) can look up to, as well as a case study for the moral imperfection that lives inside of all of us. McCormick manages to express the youthful vulnerability that encases the steel-rimmed core of a brave teenage girl who, gladiator style, is sentenced to a kill-or-be-killed arena laden with traps set solely for their entertainment value.

Don’t let the premise deter you. This is an audiobook that’s not to be missed.

The Litigators by John Grisham

The Litigators audiobook John GrishamWhat’s it About? A steady pace and carefully constructed narrative characterize The Litigators, the latest offering from the king of the legal thriller, John Grisham. The story centers on the changing fortunes and legal education of attorney David Zinc who trades a high salary and the monotony of trust law for the turbulent adventures of the “boutique” law firm of Finley and Figg.

Mere blips on the legal community’s radar, the small firm of Finley and Figg offer Zinc a new perspective on the practice of law and the definition of justice. Seasoned in the art of quickie divorces, will preparation and a steady stream of drunk driving cases, the barely-getting-by Chicago attorneys stumble upon the makings of a lucrative class action lawsuit. With little experience or resources, Figg prepares his associates for a David versus Goliath fight against one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

The cholesterol drug ‘Krayoxx’ is blamed for numerous deaths across the country and its manufacturers are suddenly bombarded with civil suits. The case against Krayoxx builds quickly threatening to sully a public reputation that has already cost the pharmaceutical company millions to keep clean. Lawyers swarm around the case as it gains media attention looking for ways to profit from both the success and failure of the suit. The reader joins the optimistic but highly unprepared attorneys of the Finley and Figg law firm as they journey into the largest case of their collective lives and quite possibly their entire careers.

Is the Narrator any Good? Despite several awards under his belt I would not classify Dennis Boutsikaris as one of the best voices in the world of audiobook narrative. His slow steady interpretation of the text may be viewed as subtle talent to some but for me it came across as a distinct lack of personality. Good narration engages the reader and leaves them wanting more. I found Boutsikaris’ narration forgettable to say the least. The masculine yet uniform performance lends itself to the genre but there is certainly room for improvement.

Perhaps the most distracting part of Boutsikaris’ narrative is his abrupt stops in between chapters. For long time listeners of audiobooks the breaks are akin to the pause heard when listening to a book on tape. As an indication of a new chapter its a little dated not to mention jarring. Long time book listeners may find themselves reaching instinctively for the eject button to turn the cassette over; I know I did.

The Verdict? The Litigators is a well reasoned and thoughtfully written reflection of class action lawsuits in the current social and political climate; it just takes a while to get started. Grisham’s tendency to overwrite his narrative shows in the superfluous addition of a second story line and a cutesy epilogue. Yet under the clutter, and stretched out across an eleven hour period, The Litigators is a nice, easy to follow story about career changes, turning a profit and living the day to day life of an American attorney.

A Game of Thrones: Book 1 of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones audiobookWhat’s it about? George R.R. Martin has crafted a unique and relatable world to place the exquisite characters he creates in A Game of Thrones. The land of Westeros is reminiscent of medieval Europe with a few unusual twists; the seasons of summer and winter last for a decade or more and mythical creatures like dire wolves and dragons roam the land. A Game of Thrones follows three separate story lines in three different geographical locations.

In the North of the Seven Kingdoms Eddard Stark is the lord of Winterfell and strives to govern his land with a stern, but just hand. He struggles to teach his heir, Robb, to be an honourable leader and set an example for his other five children. When a dead mother dire wolf is found, and her six puppies are adopted by each of his children, Eddard Stark realizes that the motto of his house is becoming a reality. Winter is coming.

To the North of Winterfell, a giant wall of ice exists to protect the people of the seven kingdoms from the Barbarian “Wildlings” and other Northern threats. Eddard Stark’s bastard son Jon leaves his family to join the Watch on the Wall, and discovers a deadly threat to the safety of the entire Seven Kingdoms.

In the East, an exiled prince plots his return to the Westeros. He is slowly gathering every tool at his disposal to return to his murdered father’s seat and reclaim the Iron Throne that is rightfully his. Prince Viserys and his younger sister Daenerys make an allegiance with a powerful, nomadic tribe of mounted warriors in an effort to begin building an army.

With threats mounting from the North and the East, the Stark family must decide with whom their allegiance lies as the struggle for the Iron Throne begins. George R.R. Martin’s characters will completely consume you as you watch them mature and grow through the series.

Is the narrator any good? Because A Game of Thrones is filled with such a rich and diverse cast of characters, a talented and adaptable narrator is required to portray the many personalities. Roy Dotrice brings each character to life and makes them instantly recognizable by their accent, or the cadence of their voice. He is consistent throughout the entire audiobook and makes each of his characters distinct.

The verdict? The plot of A Game of Thrones is so unique and unpredictable that it captivates the listener from the first chapter through to the last. Pairing Roy Dotrice’s excellent performance with George R.R. Martin’s fantastic writing creates a listening experience that you can lose yourself in whether you’re stuck in gridlock, or on a 12 hour flight. I couldn’t stop listening to this audiobook and was so relieved that there were five more books in the series, as I didn’t want it to end. Whether or not you are a fan of epic fantasy, I highly recommend A Game of Thrones.