Twelve days before Hurricane Katrina lands in Bois Savage, Mississippi, we meet 14-year-old Esch Batiste, a most unlikely heroine. Living in dire poverty with three brothers and her oft-drunken father, her attention is divided between a hidden pregnancy and a new litter of pit bull puppies. Winner of the National Book Award, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward is an evocative story of an already-embattled family faced with incomprehensible forces of nature. Narrator Cherise Boothe fascinates as the heartbreaking Esch, a girl used by boys since she was twelve but who dreams of being the strong women of mythic tales. Under Boothe’s skill, what might otherwise be a difficult story to hear is transformed into a lyrical narrative with universal resonance.
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In Cold War-era Britain, compulsive reader Serena Frome is unexpectedly recruited by MI5. Her big chance comes with the launch of Operation Sweet Tooth, one designed to fight Communist propaganda by secretly supporting writers with the right ideals. Serena’s beauty and interest in books puts her in an ideal position to befriend rising author Tom Haley. From the first paragraph of Ian McEwan’s latest, we already know that the mission doesn’t end well, but it’s easy to be distracted by the earnest narration of actress Juliet Stevenson. Through her voice, Serena feels her way through perception, deception, and manipulation. Exposure is imminent, but who, by whom, and how? Just wait for the final reveal, one that will especially gratify fans of Atonement.
“Today I will shoot a policeman. In the leg. And every day I will shoot a policeman, until you charge the murderer.” It isn’t enough that Cape Town homicide detective Benny Griessel is tasked with the cold-case stabbing of Hanneke Sloet; he also has to contend with the ticking clock of a sniper who insists the police are engaged in an active cover-up. South African sensation Deon Meyer writes tense crime thrillers against a backdrop of racial conflict and complex personality. With no apparent motive, no viable suspects, and no new leads, how will Benny solve a 40-day-old mystery while at the same time protecting his colleagues? British narrator Simon Vance steers listeners through Seven Days of dire circumstances to create a riveting audiobook experience.
It is a gifted writer who can compose sentences that remind you of haunting melodies. Kazuo Ishiguro is one such author, and his collection Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall boasts charms that will soothe the savage breast. Set in different cities worldwide, each story is shared from the perspective of a single musician, all struggling to balance the idealism of music’s promise with the colder realities of making one’s way in the world. A sense of humor lightens many of the characters’ exploits, especially in the title story, in which an aging jazz musician undergoes plastic surgery to improve his image. Narrators Mark Bramhall, Simon Vance, Kirby Heyborne, and Lincoln Hoppe each take their turns at the podium to orchestrate Ishiguro’s symphony in words.
The Flight of Gemma Hardy transports the story of Jane Eyre to twentieth-century Iceland and Scotland, successfully honoring the source material while still offering a few surprises. The graceful, lilting narration of reader Davina Porter perfectly renders Gemma’s progression from neglected waif to independent young woman.
In one of the most fascinating starts in recent fiction, Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in a London park surrounded by dead bodies wearing latex gloves, and she has no idea how this happened or even who she is. A note in her jacket pocket begins, “The body you are wearing used to be mine,” kick-starting a story that escalates in both action and intrigue. The Rook by Daniel O’Malley is masterfully read by Susan Duerden, who rises to the challenge of voicing two versions of Myfanwy — one of whom is revealed through stacks of preemptive letters, and the other who is trying to ferret out a conspiracy in the secret organization which battles supernatural forces in Britain.
If you knew the world were going to end in six months, would solving crimes still matter? Young Detective Hank Palace insists it does, and he is determined to prove that the apparent suicide found in a former McDonald’s restroom is really a murder victim. In The Last Policeman by Ben Winters, the impending asteroid strike has led most people to abandon their jobs and embrace life without consequences, but Palace won’t let this go. Reader Peter Berkrot’s superb narration balances the earnest with the hard-boiled, leading us through changing directions and multiple red herrings while keeping us thoroughly invested. The Last Policeman is a satisfying mystery that takes full advantage of its pre-apocalyptic setting, offering keen insights into human thought and behavior.
“More girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century.” Wow. But as startling as statistics like that may be, Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn know that people don’t respond to numbers — they respond to stories. Accordingly, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide focuses on people: those who have been victimized, those who are working to combat untenable situations, and those who have survived unimaginable horror and are now fighting back themselves. This extraordinary work celebrates the victories, the progress, and the solutions, and it gives specific options for each of us to respond to a call to action. As we pause to reflect on our own blessings at this time of year, it is also good to be reminded that most of us know very little of real need or oppression. What can one person do? Read this life-changing book and find out.
If reading the book seems too much, check out the audiobook (expertly read by Cassandra Campbell) or the documentary series on DVD. Your only regret will be that it took you this long to have your eyes opened.
One of the most evocative images in The Book of Jonas is that of an orphaned baby gazelle being cared for by a lioness that has lost her cub. This unusual and dangerous relationship comes to symbolize that of two characters thrown together after a horrific bombing: teenaged Younis, who lived in the targeted village, and Christopher, a U.S. soldier who later vanishes. What ultimately becomes of these young men is pieced together through the efforts of Rose, Christopher’s mother, and the therapist who urges Younis to speak openly. Award-winning narrator Simon Vance adds dramatic weight to Stephen Dau’s powerful debut, giving empathetic voice to different perspectives as the story entwines past and present revelations.
Sometimes an author’s narration can go terribly wrong. In the case of Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray, the author’s narration brings the book to life! Telling the story of teen beauty queens stranded on a remote island, Bray gives each queen a distinct voice so that humor, drama, and weirdness abound!