The Driver (Audiobook) by Hart Hanson, Ari Fliakos

The DriverThe Driver

by Hart Hanson, Ari Fliakos (Narrator)

Unabridged Audiobook, 9 hrs and 11 mins .
Penguin Audio, 2017

Read: August 10 – 14, 2017


Michael Skellig was a Special Forces Sergeant in the Army, who came out of the War on Terror with more than just scars and stories. He also came back with a burden to help Vets. So far, he’s gathered a small group of them around him in his limo company. It’s more than just a company, it’s a family — a place for them all to heal. These are the strangest, most tragic, yet funniest group of characters you’re likely to meet this year. You’ll be glad that Hanson introduced you to them as well as being a little angry that he does what he does to them.

Skellig is driving for a skating mogul/rap musician/all around lifestyle entrepreneur, Bismarck Avila, and he stumbles upon an attempt on Avila’s life and thwarts it — with no help at all from Avila’s bodyguards. Avila blackmails Skellig into driving for him regularly (no, really) which gets Skellig involved in Avila’s less-than-legal activities. All Skellig is trying to do is keep Avila alive — and maybe find out why people are trying to kill him.

But Avila’s criminal associates and rivals don’t understand that, they think Skellig is an accomplice, assistant, or just generally in cahoots with Avila. So they come looking for a pound of flesh from Skellig and his little found family, hoping that’ll result in them getting what Avila owes them. All it does is provoke Skellig.

Skellig isn’t your typical thriller figure — he’s got a couple of PhD’s — one in mathematics, a sense of duty and loyalty, a knack for categorizing people using Hippocrates’ four humors (hey, it beats Myers–Briggs Types — at least for entertainment value), and an odd sense of humor. I don’t know that Hanson’s setting this up as a series, but if he is, Skellig is going to be one of my favorite series’ leads soon.

Avila . . . I just don’t know what to say about him. He’s an interesting weasel of a character. There are times when you’d like Skellig to just walk away and let the police or some criminal or another take him out. Other times you feel sorry for the kid and hope someone protects him from himself and his dumb choices.

The plot moves quickly — not so much that you don’t get invested in characters, their hopes, dreams, phobias — and steadily. There’s a wit to the writing, as well as to the dialogue. Skellig’s right-hand-man is his former interpreter, an Afghan man, is wise, funny and wily — he’s also Skellig’s conscience pretty often. The two of them going back and forth is one of the highlights of the month for me. The writing is crisp, descriptive (sometimes you might feel overly so, as you read descriptions about the kinds of trauma visited upon bodies/body parts), and engaging. Really, for a debut, this is some outstanding work.

Ari Fliakos does a fantastic job — accents, voices, emotions, humor — he nails them all. Last year, I listened to his narration of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which was easily as good as this. But I didn’t recognize his voice — the only reason I know both books had the same reader is that’s what the Internet tells me — the performance he gives is so good. I’ve got to make a point of listening to more things with his name on them.

The Driver is perfect for fans of Shane Kuhn’s John Lago books (The Intern’s Handbook, Hostile Takeover) or Josh Bazell’s Peter Brown (Beat the Reaper) books — but a little less violent. Just as smart, just as witty, just as . . . not your typical thriller. This is probably the best thing that Hanson’s ever brought into the world, I hope this is the first in a long line of novels from him.

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4 Stars

Whispers Under Ground (Audiobook) by Ben Aaronovitch, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith

Whispers Under Ground (Audiobook)Whispers Under Ground

by Ben Aaronovitch, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (Narrator)
Series: The Rivers of London, #3

Unabridged Audioboook, 10 hrs., 17 min.
Tantor Media, 2012

Read: July 24 – August 5, 2017


Okay . . . man, how to sum this one up. Peter, Lesley and Abigail Kamara (a teen-aged neighbor of Peter’s parents) go down into the tunnels of the Underground to look for ghosts, and find one. What we learn here will be important come The Furthest Station. This is a fun little foray into the wider supernatural world of this series.

And then we get back to police work — a man is stabbed at the Baker Street tube and there’s enough for Stephanopoulis to bring in Peter just to rule out magic. Which he can’t do. It turns out that the victim is an American, which makes everything unnecessarily complicated. And then it turns out that he’s the son of a US Senator, and things get worse. The FBI sends an agent — Kimberly Reynolds — over to help out/observe/get in the way. So Peter has to handle to non-normal side of the investigation, keep Seawoll from having to hear about magic (because it interferes with actual police work in his mind), and not let Reynolds know that there’s anything not run-of-the-mill about Peter and the investigation. All at the same time.

Very quickly, it seems clear that there’s something going on that Peter and the rest just don’t get. Yeah, magic was involved in the killing, but there’s no real trace of it in the victim’s life — not with him, his school, his friends, his enemies, or anything. So where’s that come into play? The answer comes when it’s least expected and in a direction that was impossible to predict.

Aaronovich really pulled a rabbit out of his hat this time. Sure, he made both the rabbit and the hat, so it’s to be expected that he’d do that. But, there’s just something about the way he did this one — police procedural that accidentally turns up the answers and leads to something bigger than anyone expected. A great balance of UF and Procedural (the last one was a bit too light on the procedural for me).

Guleed doesn’t get enough to do, but I liked her presence. Lesley really gets to shine a bit here, and her inability to be a regular part of the police force is underlined here for her and Peter — and just how horrible that is emphasized throughout. When Stephanopoulis is the rational, supportive authority figure for Peter (other than Nightingale), you know that Seawoll is a little over the top in his antagonism to all things Folly. But mostly, this was about characters we know and like getting to do things to keep us liking them, and probably liking them more while introducing some new figures for us to enjoy.

Really, the main take away I had from this audio production was a bit of joy over the fact that Holdbrook-Smith isn’t perfect. His Agent Reynolds was just bad. At least the American accent part of it. I enjoyed his flubbing of that more than I should have. Meanwhile, everything else he did was just fantastic — especially Lesley. The range of emotion, sarcasm, etc. that he can put into her voice while still accounting for her lack of face is just incredible. Also, Zach Palmer — the roommate of the murder victim — was just hilarious. I know a lot of that was in the text, but the way Holdbrook-Smith brought him to life was wonderful.

As impressed as I was with the way that Aaronvich did everything he did, something about this one didn’t work for me as much as others in the series do (either in this re-read or originally). I’m not sure why. Still, this was a good, entertaining book that anyone who likes the concept of a Police Officer/Wizard in training should enjoy.

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3.5 Stars

Miles Morales (Audiobook) by Jason Reynolds, Guy Lockard

Miles MoralesMiles Morales

by Jason Reynolds, Guy Lockard (Narrator)

Unabridged Audiobook, 6 hrs. 53 min.
Listening Library, 2017

Read: August 7 – 8, 2017


It was Bendis/Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man that brought me back to comics after a decade-plus break, and no matter what else I read, it was one of my Top 2 titles on my pull-list. Financial concerns got me to stop reading/collecting about a year before Miles Morales showed up. I was able to deal with letting everything else go, but USM was tough — especially when I heard about this new kid. I never learned much about him, I know he’s Afro-Hispanic, that his uniform is the best one since Ditko’s original, I heard they did a good job showing Miles and his parents going through a Charter School lottery, I know he’s popular enough they brought him over from the Ultimate universe.

Still, I saw this cover floating around Twitter last week and thought it looked pretty cool, so grabbed it when I had a moment. There’s a lot of Miles, his family and his school, not a lot of Web Head. But when he shows up, it counts.

Miles is having some Spidey Sense problems, which is leading to problems at school — a suspension and some trouble with his History teacher. He’s not sleeping well — tormented by nightmares about his uncle’s death. Miles starts to wonder if people like him — descendants of criminals –should have super-powers, if he should be a super-hero. It’s hard to describe the threat that Miles and his alter-ego face, really it unveils itself slowly throughout the book. But it’s a doozy, and it’s not what it seems to be early on.

I think Miles is a great character, he’s Peter Parker-esque in the best sense of the word, while being his own guy. His parents are fun, his dad in particular is a wonderful character — a great dad, it seems. Miles’ best friend and roommate, Ganke is a hoot. There’s a girl, of course, because he’s 16. I don’t know if Alicia’s a fixture in the comic or not, but it’d be interesting to see how she is outside of this.

Oh, Miles having camouflage powers? That’s just cool.

I think Lockard went over the top occasionally with his narration. Maybe part of that is pandering to the 11-13 year-old audience that Audible tells me this is directed toward. Maybe he and the director are just excitable and/or excited. It didn’t detract from anything, it was just occasionally too much. By and large, his energy kept things moving, lively — just the way a Spider-Man story should be.

This isn’t for everyone, but for those who like the idea of a Spider-Man novel, for fans of Miles Morales, or those who are just curious about him — this’ll entertain. I won’t say I’ve read every Spider-Man novel printed in the last couple of decades — but I’m willing to be my percentage is pretty high. Miles Morales is among the best.

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3.5 Stars

The Hate U Give (Audiobook) by Angie Thomas, Bahni Turpin

There’s just so much I want to say about this book, I know I’m leaving stuff out even as I prepare to hit “Publish.” Also, I know that I’m not doing justice to how good this book is. Given that, here’s my best shot.

The Hate U Give (Audiobook)The Hate U Give

by Angie Thomas, Bahni Turpin (Narrator)
Unabridged Audiobook, 11 hrs., 40 min.
HarperAudio, 2017

Read: July 27 – August 1, 2017

I’ll be honest, the hype around this one turned me off initially. It just didn’t seem like my kind of thing. But my wife bought a copy and tore through it and started telling everyone she came across that they needed to read it (especially those of us she lives with). When I saw the library had a copy of the audiobook, I snagged it, because I hadn’t got that far on my TBR. By this time, I only remembered “YA,” “something about Black Lives Matter,” and “Mrs. Irresponsible Reader said I needed to.” Which is about as tabula rasa as one could get when coming to a book.

Our central character is Starr Carter. She attends a very nice private school in the suburbs of whatever unidentified city she lives in. She plays basketball there, has friends and a boyfriend and seems to be generally well-regarded by all. Then there’s her “other life”, that has almost no relation to that one — she and her family live in a poor neighborhood where almost no one knows her by anything but “Mav’s daughter what works at the store” (or something close to that). She has a friend or two in the neighborhood, but mostly works and then goes home. On one of the rare nights she goes out to do something social, she runs into her childhood best friend, Khalil, who she hasn’t seen for a few months. Their reunion is cut short, sadly, while he drives her home and they’re pulled over by a police officer for a routine traffic stop. I’ll leave the details for you to read on your own, but essentially, her unarmed friend is shot repeatedly by the police officer in front of Starr.

In the days that follow Khalil’s death is a nationwide story, Starr’s being questioned by the police and is trying to keep her psyche intact while the wheels of justice grind slowly. There are problems at school, unforeseen challenges at home and in the neighborhood, add in the involvement with the criminal justice system and activists, and it’s clear that neither of Starr’s lives are going to be the same again.

Yes, this book is about the shooting of Khalil and the aftermath. But it’s about more than that, too. Similar to the way you could say that To Kill a Mockingbird is about the trial Tom Robinson and its aftermath. There’s a whole lot of other things going on in both books that are just as much a part of the essence as the shooting/trial. There’s family growth and change, individual characters learning more about the world and changing, there’s the evolution of localities and best of all, there are characters taking all of this in and exercising a little agency to change themselves — and impact everything in around them.

One thing I didn’t expect was how fun this book would end up being. I laughed a lot — her father’s strange theories about Harry Potter, her Fresh Prince of Bel Air obsession, the teasing between her friends, her family’s very cut-throat approach to watching the NBA finals and trying to jinx each other’s teams, are just a start. Even when it’s not being out-and-out funny, there’s a joie de vivre that characterizes the lives of these characters.

When they’re not grieving, being threatened (by criminals or those who are supposed to be protecting them from criminals), being angered at the way that the system seems to be destined to fail them, or scared about their lives, that is. Because there’s a lot of that, too. All of which is justified. The interplay between the emotional extremes speaks volumes to the authenticity of Thomas’ work, and makes it much more effective than it could’ve been in less careful hands.

There are so few YA novels with healthy — or existing families — that Thomas should probably win an award or three just for having so many in one book. None of the families are perfect (though Starr’s comes close), some push the boundaries of “dysfunctional” into something we need a new word for; but at the very least there were at least a core of people caring about each other and trying to help each other, in their own way.

Yes, there are political overtones — or at least ramifications — to this book, but this is first and foremost a human story and can be appreciated by humans from all over the political spectrum. Thomas, as far as I can tell, went out of her way to be fair and balanced. It’d have been very easy to paint some of these characters/groups as all evil, all good, all misunderstood, all [fill in the blank]. Instead, she took the more difficult, more honest, and much more interesting approach and filled the book with people all over the moral spectrum, no matter their profession, ethnicity, socio-economic background, education, etc.

A few words about Turpin’s work. I loved it. She was just fantastic, and rose to the challenge of bringing this kind of book to life. Looking at her credits just now, that doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for her — she’s clearly a talented heavy-hitter on the audiobook front.

I laughed, I cried . . . it moved me. This is the whole package, really. It’ll challenge you, it’ll entertain you, and give you a little hope for tomorrow (while helping you despair about the time until tomorrow comes).

—–

5 Stars

The Vanishing American Adult (Audiobook) by Ben Sasse

The Vanishing American Adult (Audiobook)The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance

by Ben Sasse

Unabridged Audiobook, 11 hrs., 9 Min.
Macmillan Audio, 2017

Read: July 24 – 26, 2017


I typically don’t like to do this, but in the interest of time, I’m just going to use the text from the publisher’s page to describe the book:
Raised by well-meaning but overprotective parents and coddled by well-meaning but misbegotten government programs, America’s youth are ill-equipped to survive in our highly-competitive global economy.

Many of the coming-of-age rituals that have defined the American experience since the Founding: learning the value of working with your hands, leaving home to start a family, becoming economically self-reliant—are being delayed or skipped altogether. The statistics are daunting: 30% of college students drop out after the first year, and only 4 in 10 graduate. One in three 18-to-34 year-olds live with their parents.

From these disparate phenomena: Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse who as president of a Midwestern college observed the trials of this generation up close, sees an existential threat to the American way of life.

In The Vanishing American Adult, Sasse diagnoses the causes of a generation that can’t grow up and offers a path for raising children to become active and engaged citizens. He identifies core formative experiences that all young people should pursue: hard work to appreciate the benefits of labor, travel to understand deprivation and want, the power of reading, the importance of nurturing your body—and explains how parents can encourage them.

Our democracy depends on responsible, contributing adults to function properly—without them America falls prey to populist demagogues. A call to arms, The Vanishing American Adult will ignite a much-needed debate about the link between the way we’re raising our children and the future of our country.
The first third or so is Sasse laying out the problems with the 30-and-younger set (and the parents and grandparents that got them and their society in the sorry state they’re in). The next two-thirds are his suggested solutions, what he believes parents can do to help raise a generation with the necessary rigor and grit to make it. Nothing here can be implemented like blueprints — these are all just things to get parents thinking. Even if the reader disagrees with Sasse (as I do frequently), you get the feeling that he’s more concerned with people and parents thinking about these ideas and doing something about them, even if it’s what he doesn’t think needs to be done.

There’s a chapter devoted to helping our children and teens become critical readers — talking about the necessity of being more than just functionally literate, but people that interact with books — good books, as well as entertaining books. People reading this blog should find a lot to love (and a little to demur with) in this chapter — I almost listened to it twice in a row it was so good.

The book is largely a-political. Yes, politics does enter into it. Yes, if you agree with him (before or after reading the book), it’ll likely lead to certain political moves — but people on all points on the political spectrum should be able to get something out of this book. Just because Sasse is a U.S. Senator, don’t think that this is a book about that. He does highly value “republican” values — but he usually goes out of his way to stress that it’s “small-R republican” he’s referring to. Ditto for the Christian point of view he writes from — Sasse’s very up-front about that, but goes out of his way to show how non-Christians (or even Christians from different traditions) can agree with much of the book, or disagree constructively.

There was problem with the audiobook — there’s no text to refer to. There’s so much that you want to go back and re-read, notes you want to take, quotations/citations you’d like to double check. The literature chapter alone needs to be re-read. And it’s just such a pain to do all that with an audiobook. Trust me, get the hardcopy. The audiobook is a very effective advertisement for the hardcover. It is good to hear Sasse read this himself.

There’s a lot of this book that I just don’t get — I’m not saying he’s wrong, necessarily, but I don’t think he’s always as right as he thinks he is. But I’m telling you, I thought a lot about what he talked about — I talked a lot about the content of this book. I’m looking for ways to put some of this into practice, and wish I’d done a better job of doing it years ago.

Agree with it or not, this is a book well worth reading.

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5 Stars

The Mask (Audiobook) by Taylor Stevens, Hilary Huber

The MaskThe Mask

by Taylor Stevens, Hillary Huber (Narrator)
Series: Vanessa Michael Munroe, #5

Unabridged Audiobook, 13 hrs., 54 min.
Random House Audio, 2015
Read: June 1 – 6, 2017


I spent a lot of time being annoyed with Michael in this novel — more time being annoyed with Miles, however. Well, that’s not true — events keep Miles off of the board for most of the book, so let me say that I spent more time annoyed with him while he active. I get that communication is hard for them, and I guess it was good to see that Miles was human, too — even his ability to understand Michael’s needs and desires has limits.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So Michael’s got her head on right after The Catch and goes to join Miles in Japan. He’s there in a strange corporate security consulting gig that he really won’t clue her in on. They spend a few months together, him working days and her trying not to get bored and learning Japanese. The latter of those two works a whole lot better than the former. She needs something to do — and not in the “I’ve gotta kill someone or take drugs” kind of way she did back in The Vessel. She just needs something to occupy her time while he’s putting in 15 hour days. Which isn’t dong their relationship any good. Before she can have it out with him, he gets arrested for murdering someone at the tech company he’s working for. If she had tried to talk, if he’d explained himself a little better — if they had communicated at all . . . so much of this novel wouldn’t have happened. Too many books/movies/TV shows rely on this poor interpersonal communication to force plots forward, it really gets on my nerves.

First, we get a little lesson in Japanese jurisprudence, which by itself was enough to convince me that I don’t want to end up arrested in Japan (not that I really want to be arrested anywhere). Then Michael goes to work to clear his name, no one else is going to. The hoops she has to jump through make her previous adventures seem easy — sure, she was in more peril in most of the previous books, but it seemed easier for her to get around and get the information she wanted. Cultural and corporate protocols are tougher to beat by bribery, sensuality and violence than other things, I guess. Throw in some underworld figures and you’ve got yourself a thriller worthy of Monroe. I really enjoyed this story once Miles got arrested and things got moving — Stevens is getting better at plot intricacies.

There’s a great corporate espionage plot throughout with an operative that could probably sustain her own novel if Stevens ever got around to it. I’m not sure I can say more than that without messing something up. But as despicable as I find (some of) her methods, they made for good reading.

About the time that I’d given up on Michael doing more than outwitting her opponents, she got sucked into a very violent confrontation. I didn’t spend a second thinking that she was in trouble, but man, she had to work hard to eliminate these guys. There’s that scene in The Vessel where Stevens cuts away from the action, and we don’t get to see Michael kill her captives, we just know she’s about to do something and then Miles comes along later and finds the aftermath. This fight scene was probably pretty similar to that — but there’s no cut. We get the whole thing.

I should take a moment to talk about Hilary Huber, but I can’t say anything about her narration than I’ve said before. Now that I’m caught up with these, I’m going to have to track down some other books that she’s narrated.

I never expected a happily ever after scenario between Michael and Miles — but I expected something better than this (not that this is in any way, shape or form the end of their relationship), and that took some of the shine off this book for me. Otherwise, this was very entertaining, gripping, and so on — a Michael Monroe thriller that tops its predecessors, and deepens our understanding of Michael. Not much more to ask.

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3.5 Stars

Moon Over Soho (Audiobook) by Ben Aaronovitch, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith

Moon Over Soho (Audiobook)Moon Over Soho

by Ben Aaronovitch, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (Narrator)
Series: The Rivers of London, #2
Unabridged Audiobook, 10 hrs.
Tantor Media, 2012
Read: June 21 – 23, 2017

When I think back over the first books in this series, I remember them being a lot of fun — pretty funny, really, with moments of tension and drama.

I don’t know why I think that. Listening to the first two have been a good corrective. Yes, Peter is witty, and some of what he does while learning magic or talking to other police officers is amusing. But these are not light books — this is solid police work mixed with dark magic. They’re still fun, just a lot less light than I recall. Actually, my poor memory extends beyond just the tone. I remembered almost nothing about the plot of this one (I remembered almost everything that wasn’t involved in the main plot, the long-term investigation into the Faceless Man, the stuff with Lesley, etc.). Which made it a great experience to re-read.

Jazz musicians are dropping dead after performances of a lifetime — in ways that seem like natural causes, but Peter (and Dr. Walid) can tell there’s something more going on — just what that might be is a touch beyond them. There’s another supernatural predator traveling in London hotspots, preying on unsuspecting men. Peter and DS Stephanopoulos work together to get to the bottom of things — we also meet PC Sahra Guleed. After Guleed’s appearance in Body Work, I’ve been trying to remember where I knew her from, but I couldn’t come up with it, so pleased to have that question resolved for me — I remember now, and I remember what a great character she is.

Peter’s spirit, his curiosity, his drive — they make for a great protagonist, and I quite enjoy spending time with him. I would’ve liked a bit more Nightingale — but I understand why he wasn’t around. Even Peter’s new love interest and his new musician friends are a blast. Really, I can’t think of any characters in here I don’t dig.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith . . . I’m telling you, this guy is just great. His characterizations of the regular characters, plus the ones that we meet here, are great, he just brings everyone to life. But, the job he does with Lesley May’s voice as she recovers from the devastating injuries she sustained at the end of Midnight Riot? I don’t know how to talk about how wonderful — and heartbreaking — I found that.

Another little plus that the audio books bring (not attributable to Holdbrook-Smith) are the interstitial music, that little jazz bit between chapters. It’s just perfect for this series. If you could get that on a chip in the paperbacks to play when you turn the page of a new chapter (or on a whim)? That’d be gold.

A great installment in the series, solidifying the world and helping every character move forward following Midnight Riot.

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4 Stars