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House of Robots

James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein,
read by Jack Patterson. Hachette Audio, unabridged, 3 CDs, 3 hrs., $18 ISBN 978-1-4789-5585-6

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In his audiobook debut, reader Patterson (the 16-year-old-son of the James Patterson) gives a heartfelt, animated delivery and, in tandem with the authors, proves that having a robot brother is a premise that does not just entail silliness. The robot is E, and the siblings are Maddie and Sammy Hayes-Rodriguez. Much to Sammy’s chagrin, E will be accompanying him to school, which lays the groundwork for three enjoyable hours of listening hors. After E disappears without a trace, the audiobook mesmerizes due to the plot and the reader’s performance. Authors Patterson and Grabenstein provide an appealing story line, with short chapters for those with comparable attention spans, never missing an opportunity to educate their young audience on severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), hand washing, and science. The authors never dumb down their amusing and meaningful lessons about friendship, family, and feelings, and the story is charming through reader Patterson’s wonderfully brought-to-life characters. Kudos to whoever had the idea of using synthesizer-style effects on Patterson’s voice for robot E. This technique makes an already delightful listen even more entertaining, and Patterson delivers age-appropriate voices for each character, adding a cartoonish lilt to keep young listeners engaged. Ages 8–12. A Little, Brown hardcover. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Rumble

Ellen Hopkins, read by Kirby Heyborne. Simon & Schuster Audio, , unabridged, 7 CDs, 9 hrs., $29.99 ISBN 978-1-4423-8510-8

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In his narration, Heyborne proves once again to be a voice-actor extraordinaire, especially with his portrayal of Matthew Turner, the protagonist. In this book about loss, each emotion of the complicated but immediately sympathetic and likeable young man—including faux indifference, teenage lust, and indignant grieving—is realistically verbalized by Heyborne. Hopkins’s story line is logical and progressive, highlighting an endless loss and encompassing grief, the loss of a sibling, suicide, bullying, homosexuality, divorce, and relationships with authorities and peers. Dialogue is thoughtful, yet free-flowing, and Heyborne never fails at vocally embodying the essence of each character. The tale remains consistently cohesive until the last several tracks, when a rushed and unsatisfying ending is saved only by Heyborne’s unwavering telling of an otherwise expertly written story. Nevertheless, the coupling of Hopkins’s words with Heyborne’s voice is still fairly close to a slice of audiobook heaven, and a sequel to this book, offering the reader yet another glimpse of this impressive character in his altered young adulthood, would be most welcome. Ages 14–up. A S&S/McElderry hardcover. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Food: A Love Story

Jim Gaffigan, read by the author. Random House Audio, unabridged, 6 CDs, 7.5 hrs., $35 ISBN 978-0-80419221-7

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Gaffigan, a veteran stand-up comedian and the author of the bestseller Dad Is Fat, follows up with a new title exploring his relationship with food and offering insights about the American culinary landscape. Gaffigan takes the tongue-in-cheek approach and seems aware that his everyday choices aren’t always healthy while remaining sufficiently carefree to place tremendous value on what tastes good. In delivering his narrative, Gaffigan engages the listeners with a confessional tone that is irreverent without over-the-top antics. He especially nails the armchair travel aspects of the book, detailing visits to such food-lover destinations as Savannah, New Orleans, and Chicago, with a gift for charming storytelling and an ear for how locals discuss their regional menus with visitors. Gaffigan highlights some of his quirks as a Midwesterner who found his way to New York City—including his dismissive attitude toward seafood and salads and his love affair with pizza and most (but not quite all) types of barbecue. Listeners seeking a blend of humor and the kinds of trivia featured on cable food and travel programs will find themselves satisfied. A Crown Archetype hardcover. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion

Meghan Daum, read by author. Dreamscape Media, , unabridged, 6 CDs, 7 hrs., $29.99 ISBN 978-1-63379-287-6

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Los Angeles Times columnist Daum articulates “the spin we put on our lives” through a genuine, unaffected narration of her well-written essay collection. The audio edition is bookended with meditations on mortality: it opens with “Matricide,” the story of her problematic relationship with her mother and her mother’s death, and closes with “Diary of a Coma,” about Daum’s own very close brush with death. In between, she speaks eloquently about her choice not to have children, lesbianism, Joni Mitchell, Nora Ephron, foster care advocacy, dogs, and food. Daum writes with intelligence and wit, and she reads with the confidence of someone who has reflected at length on her life and her choices, and then mined that material for this collection of “unspeakable thoughts.” She employs an unsentimental, often inflectionless tone, most notably during “Matricide.” The exception to this delivery style is in her essay on dogs, where she is less guarded and more relaxed, loving, and poetic, breaking listeners’ hearts with the pain of losing her beloved dog, Rex. Daum is a daring and sometimes provocative writer; her voice is mellow and conversational, and she possesses the storyteller’s ability to draw listeners in with her pleasing rhythm and relatable experiences. A Farrar, Straus and Giroux hardcover. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help

Amanda Palmer, read by the author. Hachette Audio, , unabridged, 10 CDs, 11.5 hrs., $30 ISBN 978-1-47898288-3

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Palmer, well-known in the alternative music scene for her work with the Dresden Dolls and her groundbreaking use of social media and crowdsource funding to support her creative endeavors, offers a fusion of autobiography and self-help, presenting a message of empowerment for those afraid to ask others for help in furthering personal and professional goals. Palmer in particular has had to find peace with accepting various forms of support from her financially successful spouse, the bestselling author Neil Gaiman. The narrative is interspersed with related songs from Palmer’s own repertoire and musical appearances by singer-songwriter and friend Ben Folds. Palmer’s transitions between speaking and singing flow effectively, and she provides a warm and quirky conversational style. Granted, some listeners who are looking primarily for personal development may not take to the artistic facets of the recording, but Palmer’s talent cannot be denied. The renderings of her famous husband’s calm and collected British delivery are especially entertaining. A Grand Central hardcover. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Hilary Mantel, read by Jane Carr. Macmilllan Audio, unabridged, 4 CDs, 4.5 hrs., $24.99 ISBN 978-1-4272-5170-1

..
Mantel’s clever, keenly observant prose is well rendered by reader Carr’s classy, British-accented delivery. The 10 short stories in this collection are a blend of ordinary people struggling emotionally and physically, and more-seriously flawed characters who are disturbed, exposing a dark side of human nature. The first story, “Sorry to Disturb,” is an incisive, cringeworthy look at unwanted friendships and the peril of being too nice. While in Saudi Arabia with her husband for work, a stranger inserts himself into a woman’s life in a persistent, uncomfortable fashion. As she struggles to be rid of him without being hurtful, it becomes obvious his intentions are romantic, and there are some humorous moments. Mantel throws a shock into the seemingly tame “Winter Break,” as an ordinary taxi ride becomes a murderous journey. A sudden stop, followed by the narrator’s repetition of a single word, remains with the listener long after the conclusion. “The Heart Fails Without Warning” is a harsh look at a heartbreaking illness. Anger, frustration, and sibling snark are expressed deftly. The provocative conclusion, “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,” is light on action, but heavy on dialogue between two strangers: a mild-mannered woman with a deceptive edge to her voice, and a gruff, accented IRA assassin who commandeers her apartment. Throughout, Carr provides lively, nuanced expression to Mantel’s complex characters. A Henry Holt hardcover. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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10:04

Ben Lerner, read by Eric Michael Summerer. Dreamscape Media, unabridged, 6 CDs, 7.5 hrs., $59.99 ISBN 978-1-63379-010-0

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Summerer reads Ben Lerner’s multilayerd literary novel with a cool, calm delivery that fits well with author’s bare prose. Set mostly in New York, in the time between hurricanes Irene and Sandy, this deeply introspective novel follows the narrator, a poet turned novelist, as he deals with the complexities the world around him. Will he finish his second novel, will he father a child with his best friend, and will the aneurysmal dilation of his aortic root kill him, or will a brain tumor get to him first? The author presents lovingly rendered reflections on art, creativity, life, death, and the world today through the eyes of the book’s perpetually bemused and befuddled protagonist, all with an expansive literary verbiage that can feel overwhelming—but Summerer’s straightforward delivery keeps the story focused, understandable, and moving at a controlled pace. He embraces the richness of Lerner’s language but never to the point of overindulgence. His dialogue is effective, with the characterizations appropriately individualistic but understated and without affectation. There is humor, drama, artistic angst, ennui, and Summerer manages to capture it all with talented aplomb. A Faber & Faber hardcover. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Spark

John Twelve Hawks, read by Scott Brick. Random House Audio, unabridged, 9 CDs, 11.5 hrs., $40 ISBN 978-0-553-39906-6

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Twelve Hawks’s new novel, set in a dystopian near future, is told from the perspective of Jacob Underwood, the survivor of a terrible motorcycle accident that left him spiritually and emotionally dead. Lacking conscience, empathy, and fear, Jacob is the ideal contract killer for a secret department of a multinational organization named DBG that will do anything to smooth out corporate ruffles. Trouble begins when Jacob is ordered to kill the embezzling son-in-law of a brutal Indian power broker, along with the man’s daughter and young grandson. He quickly murders the thief, but can’t bring himself to dispatch the others—especially the child. He becomes even more reticent when he’s sent to find Emily Buchanan, a young DBG employee who’s gone missing with a flash drive containing information harmful to the corporation. He’s to recover the flash drive and kill Emily. When that doesn’t happen, both of them are on the run. Reader Brick uses an appropriately affectless voice for Jacob, but subtly adds just enough emotion to keep the narration engaging. Among his best interpretations are Jacob’s handler, Ms. Holquist, whose Southern accent doesn’t quite disguise her iron purpose; the gruff, sadistic Larkin Tate, another assassin and Jacob’s bête noir; the youthful Emily, who quickly loses her sunny disposition; and her eager and slightly naive boyfriend, Sean. A Doubleday hardcover. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Fifty-Fifty O’Brien: A U.S. Marine Sniper in One Hell of a War with One Shot to Survive

L. Ron Hubbard, read by a full cast. Galaxy, , unabridged, 2 CDs, 2 hrs., $12.95 ISBN 978-1-59212-320-9

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The title entry, along with “The Adventure of X” and “Red Sands,” are short tales of derring-do involving, in order, a fleet-footed U.S. Marine carrying messages past camps of insurgents in the jungles of Central America, a French Foreign Legionnaire who pretends to be an officer in order to lead a platoon in a seemingly hopeless battle after the real officers are killed, and another Legionnaire, a disgraced Chicago cop, who uses his detective skills to suss out a murderous traitor. These yarns of adventure, which originally appeared in pulp magazines of the 1930s, are given a properly melodramatic performance by lead actor Taron Lexton and his associates, aided by stirring music and the sound effects of battle. As their stories progress, the heroes take on an air of confidence and determination until, as the fighting begins, they’re shouting over the battles’ din, exhorting their comrades on to victory. As might be expected, the two Legionnaire stories feature an assortment of French accents, along with a couple of Russian growls. These enacted “stories from the golden age” harken back to a time when heroism was unfettered by self-doubt and action thrillers filled the airwaves. Pulp fiction fans will find much to enjoy. A Galaxy paperback. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Night Garden

Lisa Van Allen, read by Amy Rubinate. Tantor Audio, , unabridged, 10 hrs., 9 CDs, $39.99 ISBN 978-1-4945-0082-5

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Rubinate narrates Van Allen’s complex, character-driven story about love and loss. Her methodical voice is well suited to the main character of Olivia, a wildly successful New England gardener whose secrets cause her to keep her neighbors at arm’s length. Rubinate also does a fine job portraying May, a pregnant teenager who finds refuge at Olivia’s farm. May’s childish defiance, combined with a very adult ability to manipulate others, make her a force to be reckoned with. Rubinate’s performance is less convincing for the two main male characters: Sam, the boy next door who returns home after being physically and emotionally damaged in his years outside Green Valley; and Olivia’s father Arthur, whose bitterness over loss and the mistakes of his past have made him an eccentric recluse. Overall, Rubinate’s voice is quiet, gentle, and slightly breathy, its sense of wide-eyed wonder making room for the magical realism that infuses Van Allen’s story. A Ballantine paperback. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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