audiobook reviews

Review – The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

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Reading The Luminaries is like being dropped in the midst of New Zealand’s Otago Gold Rush, blindfolded and totally without reference, and then being spun round in circles by a stranger and let loose to feel around the landscapes and stand near their inhabitants, prospectors and bankers and Chinese diggers and tattooed Māori streaming around you, the women left to pleasure and care for these teeming throngs of men nearly knocking you over as they rush this way and that, and just as you feel overwhelming lost amidst these endless characters, totally without equilibrium in this many-plotted story centered in a town where everyone wants to make it rich, Eleanor Catton comes and takes you by the shoulder and steadies you for just a moment, and you breathe in the smells of dirty men and sea water as ships wreck upon the beach and scavengers look upon the ships and you sigh and know that despite there being too much information here, maybe just too much life here, for one book to ever express, you must keep reading.

the luminaries full coverAnyone coming off of a Goldfinch buzz and wondering what their next ambitious, too-long book will be should look no further than The Luminaries. Both books are written with the crisp observations that make them so much more than plot recounted. These are stories of life, magnified. Stories of how life could be if we all drunk in details of each other’s quirks and charms, every insecurity and affect, every ugly part and every beautiful one, and then maximized them into sentence-formed still lives spilling over into paragraphs so illustrative of this human condition we’re stuck in they act like paintings on pages changing ordinary days into phenomenas, ordinary interactions into humorous, tragic, wonderful things worth documenting. This is how these books get to be close to 1,000 pages long–life magnified is a very big thing, indeed.

The Luminaries, as I’ve mentioned, is the story of New Zealand’s Otago Gold Rush, and the story of a plethora of characters drawn together by an unfortunate set of circumstances. Men in all sorts of businesses centered around profiting off of gold or the men who find it feel uneasily bamboozled, they all sense a caper of some sort, and yet trying to pin down who has down wrong when is like trying to sift the gold dust apart from the dirt. The plot is complicated, and meant to be, as that’s the fun and beauty of the thing. Also, this is a book that uses the word “whore” quite a bit. Prepare yourself for that.

Catton includes all sorts of bells and whistles, but she really didn’t need to, as her writing stands on its own. There are astrological signs and charts of each character’s place on the zodiac, and there are chapter lengths that get progressively shorter by half until it seems almost hard to keep up with all the pieces that are being put together. As I listened to The Luminaries on audiobook, I missed much of this but gained narrator Mark Meadows deftly juggling the varied accents required amidst the cultural mish-mash of gold rush New Zealand. I appreciate getting lost in layers of meaning as much as the next book nerd, however, and I’ll be picking up a hard copy of the book to read again for further understanding of the whole astrological subtext.

I was quite fed up with non-linear narrative as a plot device, especially as so many authors now seem to use it as a cheap trick to create a sense of suspense where otherwise there would be none. The Luminaries, while not traditionally non-linear, told its story with such elegant disregard for linear storytelling that it renewed my faith in non-linear narrative. I wasn’t even aware of the story as non-linear until the elegant end of the book, which brought things to a fully circular close. “Oh,” I thought. “I see.” Books with a satisfying ending, that have so many twists and motives and lies and running through them, are rare indeed.

Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries via

Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries via

This was one of those books, that if you tune into the book world of things, became mildly controversial. The longest book to win the Man Booker Prize, by the youngest ever author to win it, The Luminaries is an astounding (literally record-breaking, although we save that sort of term for sports) achievement. After winning the prize, Eleanor Catton said in an interview with The Guardian that old male reviewers don’t take young women authors seriously, and they reviewed the book negatively. From the article:

I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel,” she says. “In my experience, and that of a lot of other women writers, all of the questions coming at them from interviewers tend to be about how lucky they are to be where they are – about luck and identity and how the idea struck them. The interviews much more seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime.

I want to acknowledge Catton for voicing this issue, as a young woman of such mighty talent in the book biz. I’m sure this is something most women can relate to, as I have found myself sometimes saying to friends, “I wish people would want to know my mind, rather than see if I’m dateable.”

Some negative reviews by women asked why a young woman would write a book featuring only two women, one being a whore. This seems the saddest, most limiting sort of criticism–judging someone’s book content because of their sex seems to be an alarming double standard placed on a woman by a woman.

The Luminaries on 

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Review – Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill

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Next, we had to yell at square glass ashtrays at the top of our lungs. The idea was to train ourselves to express absolutely clear intentions, and by mastering this we’d be able to guide our future preclears to successfully confront things. And it didn’t end there. Directing our intentions into particular parts of the ashtray, we’d ask our ashtray very specific questions. The belief was, that whenever you asked a question, you had the intention of getting that question answered, as you should when you had a preclear in session. The ashtray was required to be square. We were to direct questions into each of its four corners.
“Are you an ashtray?”
“Are you a corner?”
“Are you made of glass?”
The same principles that we were trying to learn and understand as auditors were the principles that prevented us from questioning these ridiculous tasks. We’d been trained to follow instructions, just as we were now learning how to make others follow ours. Outlandish as all these tasks were, none of them ever struck me as odd, but remembering the scene now, they were. . . . All these courses were supposed to be about training auditors to be smooth with their communication, and less distracting to preclears in session. But the result is that it made all of us more robotic. It automated our responses, turning everything we said into a script.
-Beyond Belief, Jenna Miscavige Hill

Jenna Miscavige Hill (via)

Jenna Miscavige Hill was raised in an alternate reality, with its own hyper-abbreviated lingo, strict work ethic, and complicated belief system. She was raised as a Scientologist, and amazingly survived her bizarre upbringing of manual labor and indoctrination to leave the church and write a memoir, Beyond Belief. As Scientology is a relatively new development (started in 1952), it seems safe to assume these stories (and memoirs) may become more common as more children are raised in these situations, flee, then report back to the outside world what exactly they experienced inside the secretive church.

Beyond Belief is simply written, as Hill doesn’t spend much time waxing poetic. She documents her experience, and allows the reader to infer from her life what they choose. She repeated L. Ron Hubbard mantras over and over in what was called “Chinese School”; she and other kids did manual labor at the ranch they lived on, after class and on weekends; she saw her parents once or twice a year at times; and when she and others encountered the usual trials and tribulations of adolescence they were interrogated or banished. What seemed like fun and games to Hill as a young child began to cause pain and heartbreak as she aged and thought more independently.

Some of the situations recounted in Beyond Belief seem so ridiculous they are almost comical (Hill is asked to sign a one-billion year contract when she is seven years old), others are painful to read about. Much of Scientology’s power over its members seems to be derived from separating family members, and Hill struggles to communicate with family and loved ones throughout the book.

Certainly one of Hill’s intrigues is her last name. While both her parents held prominent positions in the church, her uncle, David Miscavige, ultimately took over the church and is still its leader today. Those seeking insider information regarding David Miscavige or an overview of the church’s intense and nefarious business dealings may want to look elsewhere before reading Beyond Belief. This is ultimately Jenna’s personal story, as it should be. For a thorough overview of the church, I suggest Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman (although I realize there is high praise for Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright I haven’t had a chance to read it yet). Without some background on the Church of Scientology, you may find yourself lost amidst all the practices unique to the church in Hill’s story: abbreviations and talks of preclears and auditing, which are explained briefly in Beyond Belief but examined in more detail elsewhere.

Even after reading other books about Scientology, I was surprised by how extreme Hill’s childhood experience was. She now works with the website Ex-Scientology Kids to provide support to others leaving the church. In this type of situation, where Scientology values its image so much and markets itself as a church, it does seem like one of the most powerful things to do is to make these voices heard.

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill on

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Review – Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

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What happened to that little kid from The Shining, once he grew up? What would have happened to his dry drunk of a father, if he had found Alcoholics Anonymous? These are two of the questions Stephen King wanted to answer in Doctor Sleep, he explains at the end of the novel. King has built up quite the tale out of the Overlook Hotel’s ashes: I listened to the audiobook version of Doctor Sleep, narrated by Will Patton, and it was just awarded best audiobook of the year at a few days ago.

Doctor Sleep brings us that little strong, sweet, and smart kid Danny Torrance all cragged and grown up; Danny is such a painful portrayal of innocence lost he’ll make you wistful for your own early childhood, before all the mistakes started piling up. The Overlook still haunts poor Danny’s dreams, and he’s now a drunk who despises himself for turning out like dear old dad.

King takes us through Danny’s alcoholic bottom with the descriptive language he has such a knack for, making the first bits of the book difficult, but necessary, to get through. King loves to linger a bit on the rough stuff in life; rather than having an off-putting effect, this is part of what makes him a horror powerhouse. The man who spent paragraphs describing wind-up teeth in “Chattery Teeth” and didn’t shy away from documenting the split of a woodchuck into two in Under the Dome turns his attention to Danny’s low points with alcohol, and we are spared no detail of where Danny’s drinking takes him. Danny’s recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous is a part of the story, something that is becoming more common in novels and television shows.

Oddly enough I may have been happy with a story of Danny Torrance without the horror, but rather than only documenting Danny’s struggle to find recovery, King introduces a new and unlikely set of villains: a nefarious band of energy banshees called the True Knot, disguised as old folks touring America in RV’s and campers. They feed off of the shining that those like Danny possess. They sense something delicious in a bright young girl named Abra, who shines something strong and needs a mentor like Danny desperately.

The characters here were delightfully vivid for me. The evil figures, roving in a band of trailers, were reminiscent of the post-apocalyptic armies in Robert McCammon‘s Swan Song, and I’d be interested to know if King was influenced by that classic in any way while writing this book. King has in Doctor Sleep, as he does in many of his books, an appreciation for the full spectrum of human capability.  It would have been so simple for King to write Abra as a one-dimensional sweetheart, but she has her own dark side–as we all do, King seems to be noting.

Where the story lost me a bit was in the action. Without giving too much away, many of the battle scenes felt a bit silly to me because they were taking place, well, in people’s minds. When used in books and in films, incredible mental powers (let’s face it, all magical powers) can often feel a bit hokey as they can at anytime become a cheap trick. I think King relied on this type of thing too much towards the end of the book. Things become much more cerebral than they did in The Shining, and I was disappointed there wasn’t a more epic The Stand style battle between good and evil.

The final question here is Abra, Danny’s delightful and powerful-beyond-belief mentee, whose temper matches her strength. Will we meet Abra again, in her own book? It would be wonderful to see the capabilities of an older Abra, adolescent and out-of-control. It seems like too good of a story not to tell.

Doctor Sleep on

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Review – Homeland: Phantom Pain by Glenn Gers


“You are truly the worst terrorist I have ever met. With nonsense like that and your friends in the CIA. I thought you would be another spider, hiding under the rug, sneaking out to bite. I have met them, these soldiers of god. That’s not you. You’re not even a good patsy. You think too much for yourself. And you care so much about individuals! It’s all personal for you isn’t it? You’re a fucking civilian!”

Although perhaps just a small blip on the grand radar screen of the literary world, Homeland: Phantom Pain is an release worth mentioning. Showtime and Audible came together to create this free 3o-minute audiobook, narrated by Sergeant Nicholas Brody himself, Damian Lewis. A noir glimpse into Brody’s journey between Seasons 1 and 2, Phantom Pain is a chance to see what we miss when we can only spend an hour a week with these characters.

Lewis is a fantastic narrator, which isn’t always a given when actors turn to story narration. We can’t forget Molly Ringwald’s bracing performance of The Middlesteins, in which it seemed she was gasping her way through each line almost desperate for the book to end. Lewis’s narration is understated but comes across as softer than he portrays his character on the show, and there is something irresistibly charming about him writing a letter to Carrie:  “I tried to imagine what you were doing at that very moment. All mussed up in your bed or all put together in your suit, with your ID tag clipped to the pocket.”  Lewis manages to convey emotion without distracting from the words he’s reading, which can be quite a challenge.  Narrators must walk a fine line between blasé and hokey, Lewis does it well.

The story here is poignant for both the main characters on the show, and emphasizes a bit of the love story that has been lost in this second season without getting sappy. I was skeptical of listening to this at all, even thought I downloaded it quite a while ago, as I thought a TV tie-in work of fiction would be pretty low quality. I think anyone who likes to read and watches the show will be pleasantly surprised, however. This isn’t an adventure style promo-piece, it is a great addition to the show that gives us a realistic glimpse into Brody’s struggle to come to terms with being the most wanted man in the world, traveling in foreign lands, with memorable and untrustworthy characters.

This would make sense with Homeland, as with many of the TV shows as of late. As Difficult Men, a book I recently reviewed noted, TV has gone through a sort of cultural renaissance. Where it was once considered fairly low brow (and certainly, much of it still is), TV shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, and certainly Homeland can claim to be works of art on par with many movies or books. It would then make sense that this type of television translates more successfully into literature.

The buzz is that more of these stories are on the way… We can only hope! If you don’t have an account and you like to read, I can’t suggest it enough. The company lets you return any audiobooks you don’t like, no questions ask. They also giveaway a lot of stuff (like this story). I double (at least) the amount of books I read by listening to audiobooks in the car, while I’m doing chores around the house, and while I’m taking walks or doing other exercise. I have a Bluetooth headset so I don’t have to worry about being connected to my phone. People often ask me how I read so much–and I do, certainly, I read a bunch. But I also listen!

Homeland:  Phantom Pain on

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Review – The Never List by Koethi Zan

the never list

In honor of Halloween I’m reading some seriously scary books right now (revisiting The Shining, listening to Snow White Must Die). The Never List by Koethi Zan had been on my to-read list for a bit, and I decided this was the appropriate season to check it out. The Never List chronicles the aftermath of heroine Sarah’s traumatic kidnapping, in which she and her best friend were chained in a basement and tortured with two other girls.

The Never List is a quick read and it is hard not to fall for Sarah’s frank and wry narrative voice. You will find yourself cheering for her as she overcomes fears, deals with her past, and becomes a stronger person. I listened to this on audiobook and it was the best kind of story to listen to, as it kept me looking for chores around the house I could do while I kept listening.

Clearly, this is a book only for the bravest of readers. I was a bit hesitant about the subject matter, as I enjoy a great twisted tale of suspense but dislike the sort of gruesome and gory torture porn that horror films like Hostel have made popular.  The Never List is tastefully done for such dark subject matter, in the way that I think the best tales of suspense often are. Although we get flashbacks of what Sarah and the other girls suffered through, the focus of the book is not on human suffering.

Zan has done a great job of creating a gang of likable female sleuths who have overcome an awful trauma together. When the three kidnapping victims who escaped the basement are told their captor will be eligible for parole, they reunite to investigate loose ends of their case, assisted by a benevolent male FBI agent always a phone call away but slow to arrive in crucial moments. The Never List is the girl-power thriller that The Shining Girls wanted to be;  these women are honest, flawed, strong, taking control of their past and their future.

I heard about this book because of its odd timing – right around the time of its release (July 2013) we all watched in horror as women were rescued from Ariel Castro’s home in Cleveland. The similarities between the real life news story and the events in the work of fiction are bizarrely similar–three women kept chained in a house by a sadistic man. There is an interview on about Zan’s almost surreal reaction to watching the news in Cleveland unfold. As she says, “I’d written a book based on my worst nightmare, and there it was on the screen—real.” It was such an eerie coincidence.

I look forward to Zan’s next work, as I believe this was her first novel and it was an impressive start. Having completed the The Never List, my house is swept, my laundry is done, and I’m all ready for Halloween.

The Never List on Amazon

The Never List on IndieBound

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Review – Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink


Five Days at Memorial:  Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital was everything that makes nonfiction great to read:  a subject worth uncovering, documented by a voice with a clear penchant for obsessive detail.  Sherri Fink recounts the struggle for survival at New Orleans’ Memorial Hospital, which acted as a port in previous storms, in the days following Hurricane Katrina; she discusses at length the choices made by hospital staff (several doctors and nurses made the choice to euthanize patients they felt couldn’t be evacuated) and the investigation that followed.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and I could not stop telling people about it. First off, I had no idea things got this bad at Memorial Hospital during Hurricane Katrina.  The scenes described were more harrowing than any fiction could be: hospital staff stuffing preemie babies in their shirts to evacuate as there was no space for incubators, nurses ventilating patients by hand due to power outage, stifling heat with smashed windows acting as the only ventilation, while gunshots were heard outside, and rumors of martial law were spreading.  Hurricane Katrina was a testament to our government’s inability to organize a response to disaster, and Five Days at Memorial illustrates the high human costs of that inability.  This was at points a difficult book to get through; the descriptions are so clear I felt sick even imagining such an experience, let alone living through it.  I kept asking myself, “Why doesn’t the army come to relieve these exhausted hospital staff members, and help them evacuate these dying patients?”  It was so frustrating to know this happened in America and there was nothing I could do about it now.

The questions of justice presented here are some of the most difficult questions that exist about human life, and at points reminded me of the perplexing moral issues presented in Michael Sandel’s epic Justice class at Harvard, free on iTunes U.  Is it right to evacuate the most able-bodied people, who need the least help and will be the quickest to get into helicopters? Or is the more moral choice to evacuate the most sickly to safety first, as they are the most in pain and most in need of help? The questions presented at Memorial Hospital in that hellish time after the storm speak to historical ethical dilemmas, and Fink does a great job of explaining the dangers with and benefits of each choice.

Kirsten Potter narrated the audio version of the book, and did an incredible job. This story could have easily been overdone by a different narrator.  Potter managed to stay neutral but interested, the voice of a reporter bearing witness to history rather than a character actor.

Although the second part of the book (covering the aftermath of choices made at the hospital) may not be as gripping as the harrowing account of survival in the storm, I think this is the portion that makes this book so important.  We can all guffaw at the tragedy, but examining it with a critical eye is the only thing that will keep it from happening again.  Perhaps the most terrifying part of Five Days at Memorial is its end, when Fink embeds with American medical disaster teams after the earthquake in Haiti.  Seemingly logical decisions to preserve oxygen for those who need it most almost cost a young woman her life.  It seems like in a disaster, the luck lies with those who have the most innovative, creative doctors who are able to see beyond the complicated machines of modern medicine.

Five Days at Memorial on

Five Day at Memorial on

7 Audioworthy Apocalypses

1. The Passage by Justin Cronin, narrated by Scott Brick


When I speak of The Passage I refer to it as “the epic apocalyptic novel The Passage” each time, as this book’s epicness can not go unmentioned even once in conversation. Scott Brick, the best audiobook narrator known to man, reads this one with the sadness of a dusty old cowboy sitting at a campfire in the middle of the night while vampires are creeping in on all sides around him. Yes, that’s right–The Passage is a vampire book! This doesn’t make it simple, though. It isn’t an action movie disguised in book form, not a vampires-are-sexy sort of book or a teens swooning sort of book. Cronin maps out each gripping and startling detail towards the fall of man and the rise of vampires, and then each step towards survival in the post-vampire world. He builds up such a detailed culture around the historical narrative of the vampire attack, it asks for genealogy and maps and wikis and other such fan-stuff. Cronin’s writing is well paced, informal, authentic, unafraid to take on big ideas and small details. Like the best authors, he describes things in a way that makes them just a bit sharper than real life.  The Passage unabridged has a listening time of almost 37 hours – it is a story that stays with you for a bit.  I recall a friend getting into my car while I was listening to this and being like “OMG is this still that same book?  That book is so long!”  Yes, yes it is.

2. Swan Song by Robert McCammon, narrated by Tom Stechschulte


A book that starts with the line “Once upon a time, we had a love affair with fire,” is clearly a winner worth pursuing. This isn’t for the weak (is any apocalyptic listening?), as McCammon lays down a harsh and brutal future, exploring a loss of humanity among people after nuclear bombs fall and things get rough. Listening to Swan Song is like being dropped into a nightmare, and I mean that in the best way possible. Add to the epicness narrator Tom Stechschulte–he reads this book like he’s really mad about it, and it is the perfect tone to take. The unabridged audio of Swan Song clocks in at almost 35 hours–a true apocalypse takes a while.

3. The Stand by Stephen King, narrated by Grover Gardner


Any apocalypse list is incomplete without The Standoriginally published in 1978, and now a classic of post-apocalyptic fiction. The Stand gained a larger audience with a mini-series in the 90’s, and there have been constant low murmurings of a Stand movie in the works. The unabridged audio was released last year in updated format (previously it was on tape), and the tale is the longest on the list at just under 48 hours listening time. Two days straight!

4. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, narrated by Campbell Scott


A brief tale compared to the previous three audiobooks we’ve covered, Atwood spins a creative and enchanting story here with less of the gore of much apocalyptic fiction but all of the evil. Atwood can write about anything and make it seem wistfully romantic, and this makes Oryx and Crake all the more sinister. At about 10 hours listening time, you can knock this one out in a single night where you stay awake and force yourself to listen, concerned about the growing number of audiobooks in the world and your lack of ability to listen to them all.

5. Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich, narrated by Kirby Heyborne


So far we’ve covered the classics–the biggest vampire epic novel of recent history, a really long and creepy book from the eighties, and The Stand by Stephen King.  Odds Against Tomorrow is the new kid here. Rich has written an apocalypse for today’s thinking man, for Wall Street Bankers, for capitalist America. He’s written this book for everyone who keeps working even after their office fire alarm goes off. This book is funny, weird, and dark. It approaches apocalypse from a totally different angle, and different is good. Odds Against Tomorrow is also a lesser time investment at 10 hours listening time.

6. 14 by Peter Clines, narrated by Ray Porter


Peter Clines is another fairly new author, but he is here to stay.  This man is serious about his end of the world.  This book is what Chris Matthews is constantly calling everyone on The Bachelor/Bachelorette–a “fan favorite.”  I discovered 14 by looking at reviews of another book on, and someone had posted “This book is great but if you have to pick one book right now get 14!  Get this one later!” The urgency convinced me. 14 is another creative apocalypse, very outside the box. A sort of steampunk-ish Clue game of our world’s end. Some people may argue that this doesn’t even qualify as apocalyptic fiction and I would say those people may be right, but check it out anyways. One thing I think is really funny, another author gave this book a blurb that says “A riveting apocalyptic mystery in the style of LOST.”  The TV show?  I think this book has more in common with… books. Again, its a shorty – almost 13 hours.

7. Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, narrated by Will Patton


That’s right, we’re taking it back. Way back. Alas, Babylon wasn’t the first post-apocalyptic novel (it was originally published in 1959), but it is a quick beautiful read that still has relevance today. Will Patton does a great job narrating, as he sounds smooth like a song, but sad like he knows the bombs have destroyed most of America. Patton clearly knows how to do apocalypse, he was in the movie Armageddon and he currently stars in the alien-apocalypse TV series Falling Skies. He is an expert at experiencing apocalypse. Some novels seem racist, sexist, simple, or just poorly written as time plods on but Alas Babylon maintains its original power.  It is a read-in-highschool novel, as it should be.  For those of us who didn’t get to this one in school, the audiobook clocks in at just over 11 hours.