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Blood on Snow

Jo Nesb%C3%B8, trans. from the Norwegian by Neil Smith, read by Patti Smith. Random House Audio, , unabridged, 4 CDs, 4 hrs., $30 ISBN 978-0-553-54595-1

Nesbø, the leading light of Norwegian noir, returns with this slim standalone thriller about a hit man with a heart of gold. Olav is a contract killer in 1970s Oslo, working for a ruthless drug kingpin named Daniel Hoffman. Hoffman orders Olav to kill Hoffman's own wife, Corina, whom he believes is having an affair. But, this being a Nesbø novel, things aren't as they seem, and Olav makes a snap decision that saves Corina, but places himself in danger and leads to a showdown with Hoffman. American singer-songwriter Smith is an odd choice as reader: the book is translated into colloquial British English, told from the first-person perspective of Olav. But Smith's affectless American drawl manages to somehow convey the deep humanity of an antihero who comes up short in the empathy department. At a trim four hours, this audio edition is a bit of a departure for Nesbø, whose novels tend to be two or three times as long (at least), but there's plenty of blood and snow to go around. A Knopf hardcover. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Darkest Part of the Forest

Holly Black, read by Lauren Fortgang. Hachette Audio, , unabridged, 8 CDs, 8.5 hrs., $25 ISBN 978-1-4789-5589-4

Fairfold is a contemporary American town long beset by fairies. This isn’t a secret—it’s a tourist attraction that provides the citizens with a healthy source of income (although the visitors do occasionally get eaten by the more dangerous fairies). Hazel, a local high school student, is in love with the town’s biggest tourist attraction, a fairy prince who has slept for generations in a glass coffin in the forest, as is Ben, her older brother. Meanwhile, things have been unbalanced in Fairfold ever since a mortal woman refused to return a changeling—who grew up to be Hazel and Ben’s friend Jack—to the fairies. Fortgang reads with a smooth, calm voice that guides listeners through the jumble of characters and landscapes in Black’s supernatural tale. Still, listeners are likely to be confused by the content. The modern references (to the show Mad Men, social media, and cellphones, for examples) seem out of place and jolt, reminding us that the story takes place in the present, antithetical to what we are feeling from the mishmash of different literary genres and techniques employed. Without Fortgang’s confident and expressive voice, it would be a much more exhausting effort to follow Black’s progression into the many rabbit holes making up the bulk of this saga. Ages 12–up. A Little, Brown hardcover. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Dragons at Crumbling Castle and Other Tales

Terry Pratchett, read by Julian Rhind-Tutt. Listening Library, , unabridged, 4 CDs, 4 hrs., $30 ISBN 978-1-101-89201-5

This collection gathers 14 short stories written by the late fantasy author when he was a teenager. Dragons get ousted from their caves and take over a castle. The world’s most boring knight wins half a kingdom and the princess’s affection through sheer doggedness. A tortoise journeys far from home and discovers bravery and a new life. A champion “egg dancer” forfeits his win to catch some thieves. Fans of Sir Terry’s later work will recognize the seeds of some of his Discworld characters and themes in these tales: wordplay, puns, silly jokes, wonderfully goofy names, characters with strong ethics, and wild ideas grounded in reality. In the audio edition, musical interludes and other sound effects help to divide some of the very short stories. Rind-Tutt’s flexible voice and spot-on accents allow listeners to immediately grasp the nature of the characters. His Scotsmen are daring adventurers, his upper-crust ladies have hooting, high-pitched voices, and the heroes sound sturdy and forthright. Parrots, princesses, tortoises, and very proper butlers all come to life. Rind-Tutt’s energetic performance is both goofy and warm, just perfect for Pratchett’s sensibilities. Ages 9–12. A Clarion hardcover. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Nightbird

Alice Hoffman, read by Jenna Lamia. Listening Library, , unabridged, 4 CDs, 5 hrs., $30 ISBN 978-0-553-55223-2

Set in a realm where enchantment intermingles with everyday realities, Hoffman’s story centers on 12-year-old Twig Fowler, her baker mother, and her older brother, who all keep to themselves in their farmhouse in Sidwell, Mass. Twig’s mother is said to have supernatural cooking skills, but the real magic is the curse that hits the males of the Fowler family—they grow wings. Twig’s brother, James, flies at night, befriends birds, and no one in town knows he exists because the family fears their reaction. Twig remains friendless until she meets new neighbor Julia Hall and her older sister, who might be able to help reverse the spell plaguing the Fowler family. Reader Lamia has perfected the character of Twig, who sounds shy and youthful as the story unfolds. The adult characters come alive as well, each with such a distinct voice that it’s easy to forget there’s only one person performing. Between Hoffman’s lovely prose and Lamia’s terrific performance, this is a delightful audiobook that can be enjoyed by the entire family. Ages 10–up. A Random/Lamb hardcover. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Alex Crow

Andrew Smith, read by MacLeod Andrews. Listening Library, , unabridged, 7 CDs, 8 hrs., $45 ISBN 978-1-101-89083-7

Careful listening reveals connections between the four disparate stories in Smith’s latest. First is that of a 14-year-old boy, Ariel, who survives the bombing of his home amid a civil war (in an unnamed country) and is bought to America as a refugee. Then there is the tale of the 19th-century Arctic expedition on the ship The Alex Crow and what the crew finds in the ice along the way. There are the travails of Leonard Fountain, an insane man driving across the American South on a mission of destruction. And finally the story of Ariel, now in America (in the present), and his new brother, Max, at the odd Camp Merrie Seymour for Boys. The text could make for an audio nightmare: four different stories, each with multiple characters, taking place in diverse locations and times, as the narrative jumps between them. But Andrews avoids confusion by immediately grounding the listener in the proper place. He does amazing vocal gymnastics, creating voices that are frightened, bold, cocky, confident, confused, charming, formal, warm, and dangerous. Listeners will easily find themselves immersed in the story. Ages 14–up. A Dutton hardcover. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America

Jill Levoy, read by Rebecca Lowman. Random House Audio, , unabridged, 11 CDs, 13.5 hrs., $45 ISBN 978-0-449-00971-0

Lowman brings her considerable talent for taking on male voices to the audio edition of acclaimed journalist Levoy’s examination of violent crime in urban America. Levoy’s narrative centers on the work of a core group of dedicated homicide detectives on the streets of South Los Angeles and their relationships with victims, suspects, and the wider community. Lowman shines in her portrayals of John Skaggs, a white officer who takes great pains to transcend his conservative suburban image, and Wally Tennelle, a black officer whose decision to live inside the neighborhood he polices comes into serious question when his own teenage son Bryant is shot to death. Lowman also brings her gift for characterization to the rendering of Jessica Midkiff, a young prostitute struggling to rehabilitate herself who happens to be the principal witness to the murder of Tennelle’s son. The palpable tension of a no-holds-barred interrogation comes to life in impressive detail, and Lowman never misses a beat. A Random/Spiegel & Grau hardcover. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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A Kim Jong-il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power

Paul Fischer, read by Stephen Park. Random House Audio, , unabridged, 10 CDs, 12.5 hrs., $40 ISBN 978-1-10191318-5

Actor Park, a cast member of the sketch comedy show In Living Color during the early 1990s, brings his considerable talent to the audio edition of Fischer’s book. Fischer recounts the kidnapping of the South Korean film director Shin Sang-Ok and actress Choi Eun-Hee, both powerful entertainment figures who were forced to make movies for North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il during eight years of captivity beginning in the late ’70s. Fischer sets the stage with extensive historical context covering both sides of the 38th parallel and then shifts into James Bond mode, with a roller-coaster ride of covert intrigue. Park, an American actor with Korean heritage, successfully navigates the minefield between presenting the over-the-top elements of the “hermit kingdom” dictatorship without descending into one-dimensional parody. He gives the individuals inside the isolated nation—ranging from prison guards and household servants to actors and studio bureaucrats—individual attention in his performance rather than simply playing stock villain caricatures. The result will keep listeners on the edge of their seats. A Flatiron hardcover. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

Barney Frank, read by the author. Macmillan Audio, , unabridged, 11 CDs, 13 hrs., $39.99 ISBN 978-1-4272-5929-5

Frank—who recently retired after four decades in Congress—chronicles his rise to political power as his homosexuality became increasingly more compatible with his political career, while at the same time his core liberal principles surrounding the virtue of activist government fell more and more out of favor. Frank confesses that elocution and diction have never been his strong suits, but he has played on his quick wit and masterful debating skills during his time in the public spotlight. His performance demonstrates the matter-of-fact authenticity that over the years has helped him score points with allies and adversaries alike. The expository portions of the narrative may not always flow smoothly, but Frank’s gift for reciting memorable barbs offers pure entertainment. He delivers his critique of the unruly aspects of the 1993 gay-rights march on Washington in the manner of a somewhat gruff sage figure who shares wisdom from his own experiences. A Farrar, Straus and Giroux hardcover. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Moody Bitches: The Truth About the Drugs You’re Taking, the Sleep You’re Missing, the Sex You’re Not Having, and What’s Really Making You Crazy

Julie Holland, read by Cassandra Campbell. Penguin Audio, , unabridged, 11 CDs, 12 hrs., $45 ISBN 978-1-61176-362-1

Campbell’s fluid narration drives home the points made in this exploration of some women’s mood swings and the science behind drugs used to treat them. Campbell’s matter-of-fact tone and precise enunciation moves the listener easily through the research, which reveals how drug companies, powered by huge marketing campaigns, have turned normal human experiences, such as anxiety and stress, into diseases that they claim need to be fixed through medication. While well-timed pauses and modulations highlight the surprising statistics offered—such as that antipsychotic drugs are the #1-selling medication in the “Altered States of America”—Campbell’s soothing voice also serves Holland’s argument that fluctuations in a woman’s mood are not only normal but necessary. Even the usually negative connotations of bitch become positive and powerful when Campbell utters the word with a crispness and attitude, helping to accentuate the author’s spin on women’s sexuality. A Simon & Schuster paperback. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the ‘Lusitania’

Erik Larson, read by Scott Brick. Random House Audio, , 11 CDs, 13 hrs., $45 ISBN 978-0-553-55162-4

Reader Brick’s measured, natural voice is a soothing counterweight to Larson’s tragic recounting of the 1915 sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania by a German U-boat—one of the catalysts for the United States’ eventual entry into World War I on the side of the Allied Powers. Brick maintains a steady hand when describing scenes of heightened emotion, such as the critical 18 minutes it took the ship to sink. He does not engage in showy voice characterizations or individual accents for the story’s international cast of characters, which includes English officers, American passengers, and the captain of the German U-boat (though Brick’s pronunciation of the book’s German words and names is excellent). Brick’s understated approach is fitting for this work of history, bringing poignant humanity to those who survived and those who lost their lives on the Lusitania. A Crown hardcover. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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