Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Long Book List for a Short Month . . . and a Rant on Vocal Fry in Audio Books

I got a lot of reading done this month--this list doesn't even include a few books I read "selectively" (but well more than half of each) so I could comment on them in our One Book One Broomfield deliberations. But before I get to this month's list . . . my rant. Two books I've listened to lately have featured liberal use of "vocal fry." In case you don't know what that is, vocal fry refers to a fad, particularly among younger women, in which (technical description) "the vocal folds are shortened and slack so they close together completely and pop back open, with a little jitter, as the air comes through. That popping, jittery effect gives the voice a characteristic sizzling or frying sound." If you don't know what I'm talking about, try sustaining a word in your normal speaking register, as if singing, and then dropping your voice several notes lower--does your voice "sizzle" slightly?  That's vocal fry (if that doesn't work, check out this article: http://mentalfloss.com/article/61552/what-vocal-fry).

I find vocal fry very irritating, both in real life and in audio books. I realize (and I sure hope I'm right about this) that the narrator is using this technique for effect to show us something about the character. But it's not necessary; if the book is well-written, we'll understand from the author's descriptions and the dialogue that the character is young, somewhat less than completely serious, talks like a Kardashian, etc. So please, please, please, audio book narrators, knock off the vocal fry!!

Okay, now to books.


The Widow, by Fiona Barton
An Obvious Fact, by Craig Johnson
The Language of Secrets, by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Until You're Mine, by Samantha Hayes
Escape Clause, by John Sandford
Right Behind You, by Lisa Gardner

The Widow is a creepy story told from four perspectives: the widow of a man suspected of kidnapping and killing a child several years earlier; the man himself; the police officer who has tried to convict the suspect; and a reporter. While the story is creepy, it's not very surprising, although I assume the author thought she would surprise us with developments in the widow's story. Sadly, I could see the developments coming. Mediocre at best.

I had never read any of Craig Johnson's Longmire series, and I don't think I will read any more. There's nothing terrible about An Obvious Fact, but the tongue-in-cheek attitude just doesn't appeal to me and the mystery (involving a hit-and-run accident at a motorcycle rally) is not especially interesting.

The Language of Secrets is the second in a series featuring Canadian police officers Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak). Beautifully written, it deals with a complicated case of terrorism, infiltration, and professional jealousy--so complicated I found it a bit hard to track. However, I liked it well enough to decide I would go back and read book 1 in the series, hoping the background it provides would help me better understand this book. Definitely worth a look for mystery fans interested in different settings and exploration of terrorism.

The protagonist of Until You're Mine is pregnant social worker Claudia Morgan-Brown. Married to a naval officer who brought twin sons to the marriage, Claudia has recently hired a nanny, Zoe, to help her while her husband is at sea and the baby is born. Meanwhile, someone is killing pregnant women and their babies, and Claudia begins to fear that something is off about Zoe--and so are the readers! While author Samantha Hayes does spring a surprise ending on readers, I didn't find it very convincing--in fact, it seemed so out of sync with the rest of the book that the book was essentially ruined for me.

Escape Clause is the latest Virgil Flowers mystery, and it is a lame story about the kidnapping of two tigers from the Minnesota zoo, A subplot about Frankie (Virgil's girlfriend) and her sister's attempts to help factory workers does little to redeem the book. Not recommended.

Lisa Gardner has returned to former FBI profiler Pierce Quincy and his wife Rainie in Right Behind You. Pierce and Rainie are about to adopt Sharlah, whose brother Telly killed their parents eight years earlier. Suddenly, Telly returns, apparently involved in a spree killing; evidence suggests Sharlah must be in danger.  Pierce, Rainie, and Sharlah (the extent to which they allow the child to be engaged in the case is ridiculous)--with the aid of the local police--must figure out exactly what is going on, Not great, but an okay diversion.


Tomorrow, by Graham Swift
Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin
Small Admissions, by Amy Poeppel
Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
Past Imperfect, by Julian Fellowes
Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix
News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

Graham Swift is a Booker-prize winner, but Tomorrow is frankly disgusting. It is formatted as a letter being written to teenage twins by their mother on the eve of the day on which she and their father will reveal a family secret to them. The secret is fairly clear long before it is actually revealed, and the narrative is one of the most cringe-worthy I've read; the mother is horrible, sharing lewd details of her sex life with her husband with her children and evincing attitudes toward the meaning of parenthood that made me sad and disgusting. So not recommended.

I had never read any Colm Toibin, but had seen many glowing reviews of his work. Sadly, I was not too impressed with Brooklyn, which is the story of Eilis Lacey, who grows up in Ireland, is sent to the United States to find greater opportunities, and returns to Ireland when her beloved sister dies. Much of the narrative is taken up with romances and work. Many reviewers have described her as an unforgettable character, but I found myself unable to get beyond her passive nature and really idiotic decision-making. I enjoy a good book about the immigrant experience, but, in my opinion, Brooklyn isn't it.

Small Admissions is a satire focused on (1) millennials who cannot get out of bed after a break-up and subsequently get jobs for which they are totally unqualified and (2) young parents in New York who try to get their children into the best private schools. The descriptions of admissions interviews and parents' efforts to obscure their children's real personalities and foibles are hilarious. Not deep but fun.

Homegoing is an interesting book, a novel that seems more like a series of short stories. The book alternates between chapters about the lives and descendants of two Ghanaian half sisters, Effia and Esi. Under pressure from her stepmother, Effia marries the British governor and her family remains in Ghana for two centuries; through their stories, we learn about Ghanaian history, including conflicts between tribal groups and with the British. Esi is sold into slavery and, through her descendants' stories, we get one perspective on the experience of slavery and "freedom" in the United States. Both families encounter difficulties that are hard to imagine--and Gyasi tells the stories beautifully. Near the end of the book, the two families encounter each other in a manner that is somewhat predictable but still rewarding. I recommend this emotional and insightful book.

Past Imperfect, written by the creator of Downton Abby, lays bare the lives of young English men and women of the upper classes in the late 1960s and explicates how life for those  folks has changed since then. The story is set up as a somewhat ridiculous quest--a man agrees to find the illegimate son Damian Baxter, a dying man he actively hates because of a traumatic vacation decades earlier. Through his interviews with the numerous women in their set with whom Damian slept, we see the foibles of the wealthy. Really a very silly book.

And speaking of silly, Horrorstor starts out as a satire of Ikea, complete with book pages that resemble a catalog. But the book quickly morphs into a ridiculous ghost story chronicling horrors that befall a group of employees trapped in the Ikea clone overnight. Perhaps I am just too old for something like this, but I cannot recommend Horrorstor.

In News of the World, Captain Jefferson Kidd, 70-year-old veteran, travels around Texas, charging a dime to read articles from East Coast and European newspapers to people in small towns. Then he is tasked with taking a 10-year-old girl recently rescued from the Kiowas to her relatives hundreds of miles away. Johanna, who has spent four years with the Kiowas, has forgotten English and the ways of her German-American family; in her mind, she is Kiowa. The book is the story of their journey and the process by which they came to love each other. Though I don't think this is a great book (several of my friends disagree), it is sweet and I recommend it.


Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

I remember enjoying Invisible Man in college, but all I could recall was that the protagonist lived underground in New York, surviving off the grid as a literal and virtual invisible. In fact, the book is about the events that led him to that point--growing up in the severely racist South; a tragi-comedic series of events that led to his expulsion from a historically black college; his efforts to find work in New York, unaware that his letters of recommendation from his college's president are really letters of condemnation; his experience as a spokesman for "The Brotherhood," an activist group (likely modeled on the Communist Party). At every phase of his life, he ends up feeling duped, unseen by those who take advantage of him. Invisible Man is a powerful exploration of racism and identity in mid-century America--yet many of its observations still seem relevant. Strongly recommended.

Young Adult

What We Saw at Night, by Jacqueline Mitchard

Allie, Rob, and Juliet are teenagers who suffer from a genetic disorder, Xeriderma Pigmentosum that prevents them from going out in the sunlight. At night, the three take part in a dangerous activity called Parkour, which involves climbing and jumping from tall structures. During one of their Parkour adventures, Allie believes she witnessed a murder. Things become even more complicated when it appears that Juliet has a relationship with the murderer and the threesome experiences a rift when Rob and Allie become a couple. XO and Parkour are kind of interesting but the story is murky and unrewarding. Not recommended for young or old adults.


Blindsided: Lifting a Life Above Illness, by Richard M. Cohen
Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, edited by Shaun Usher

Blindsided is an interesting look at what it is like to live with a chronic illness (MS) diagnosed at an early age and to deal with an acute illness (cancer twice). Cohen details how the illness affected both his personal and professional lives. Honestly, I'm not sure I could survive being either the person with the illness or his spouse (Cohen is married to Meredith Vierra); while neither is perfect, they both are admirable. It would have been interesting to get more of their three children's perspectives,  but I understand why a father would deal only indirectly with the children's responses. Recommended.

Letters of Note is indeed an eclectic collection. Some examples of letters included: letters from mothers who placed their children for adoption, an eight-year-old's missive to Richard Nixon, a Campbell's Soup marketing executive's letter to Andy Warhol, Raymond Chandler's response to being overedited, Virginia Woolf's suicide note, a letter from Queen Elizabeth transmitting a recipe to President Eisenhower, advice from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a long description (by his wife) of Alduous Huxley's dying). I would think that any reader would find some letters of particular interest to him/her (while the reader who would be enthralled by all might be a rarity). Worth a look.  BTW: The abbreviation OMG dates back to 1917!

Pick of the Litter:  Invisible Man

Favorite Passages

I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself.

Ralph Ellison, in Invisible Man

We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So, when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth?

Yaa Gyasia, in Homegoing