The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky, read by Soneela Nankani


From page one, this story is enormously captivating. At college Leah Kaplin has sex with a friend, for which she charges him $100 (why? why not). After the second time her friend confesses to the honours board and Leah is expelled.

The story continues apace and six years later Leah is working as an “executive administrative assistant to head of human resources at facilities management at the University of California”. Her boss has big plans for Leah but Leah doesn’t take her job seriously – it’s just something she’s doing until her real career (whatever that may be) gets started.

Next, it’s ten years later. Leah has married a man because his student visa was about to run out and he would have to return to Europe. It seemed like a good idea at the time. She is working as a writer and has just published her first novel when she gets the phone call that will change the course of her life.

Leah’s old boss, Judy, from the University of California, has died. In her will she has left to Leah her car – a red sports car that to Judy epitomised success. The catch? Judy died in her red sports car.

If at this point the story calls to mind The Ballad of Lucy Jordan, it’s ok. Leah is going to get to drive through California, if not Paris, in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair. Leah flies to San Francisco in time for Judy’s funeral. Even before she takes possession of Judy’s car it’s clear this is Leah’s re-awakening. It’s her do-over, her chance to get life right this time. But it’s never that simple – neither the car, nor Leah’s new life are going to be a smooth ride.

I suspect Marcy Dermansky has had serious fun writing this novel. It’s pacy, much like the titular red car, it’s unpredictable (also like the car), and best of all it’s just plain old good fun. Once you’ve picked it up it’s a difficult book to put down. Dermanksy keeps the action rolling and while she doesn’t delve deeply she leaves clues and plenty of space for the reader to do so.

Narrator Soneela Nankani is always on the money with her reading. She performs Leah with a young voice, a great match for a character who (whether she likes it or not) is coming into her own. She gives a great sense of Leah’s intelligence but also her naivety.

The Red Car is a surprise of a book – you’ll have loads of fun reading it.

The Red Car • by Marcy Dermansky • read by Soneela Nankani • 5.8 hours • published by Blackstone Audio • October 11, 2016 • ISBN 9781504745277

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Shelter in Place by Alexander Maksik, read by James Patrick Cronin

c0o5-square-400James Patrick Cronin performance as the voice of Joseph March is raw edged and brittle. Joe is a young man who lives with depression., although he would never call it that. Cronin’s voice moves between no emotion, to a strained, taut characterisation, to an adrenaline packed anxious excitement. Right from the beginning it’s clear from Cronin’s voicing that whatever Joseph March has been through as he tells the story of his family and of the love of his life, it’s not all beer and skittles.

Joe March is 20 in 1991, living in Los Angeles. It’s a summer of travel, meeting new people, working odd jobs and relaxing. Until it hits him:

…out of thin air it arrived in the dead centre of my chest. A dull, cold pain. It knocked the paperback from my hand, it closed my eyes, and there in the dark I saw thick tar inching through my body. Then, as the pain sharpened, a blue-black bird, its talons piercing my lungs.

Joe despises descriptions such as “blue”, “feeling low” or “sadness”.

There is that word they use, but it is severely insufficient, and one I loathe. I’m not talking about sadness. I’m not despondent. I’m talking about the body. I’m talking about invasion and possession. This is a physical thing.

While working at a bar Joe meets a woman who knocks him off his feet. Tess is supposed to be a summer romance, but when Joe gets a life changing phone call Tess follows him to White Pine.

In White Pine Joe’s mother is imprisoned for the murder of a man who was assaulting his partner in a shopping centre car park. Anne Marie March has been convicted by a jury but there are other people who see her as an anti-domestic-violence hero, Tess among them.

The adrenaline that Joe gets from following Tess’ increasingly militant response to domestic violence seems to be what keeps him going, keeping the thick tar from his veins and the blue-black bird from piercing him.

Maksik’s previous novel A Marker to Measure Drift, narrated by Angelle Haney Gullet and published by Random House Audio was the remarkable story of a woman who is homeless, having fled Liberia to an island in the Agean. There’s something spellbinding about the prose and the characters in A Marker to Measure Drift. It is more compelling than Shelter in Place. Nonetheless, Joseph and Tess have an unusual dynamic, and the metaphors used to describe Joseph’s depression convey his experiences in a way more empathetic than many other novels I have come across.

Cronin’s narration adds a layer to Joseph’s voice that would be missed on the page. His performance creates for the reader the fragility, the anxiety and the fine thread that has held Joseph for so long.

As usual a top production from Blackstone Audio.

Shelter in Place • by Alexander Maksik • read by James Patrick Cronin • 10.1 hours • published by Blackstone Audio • September 13, 2016 • ISBN 9781504749725

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The Anatomy Lesson by Philip Roth, read by Malcolm Hillgartner

bsdf-square-400The Anatomy Lesson is the third in Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman novels.

If you look back through this blog you’ll see it’s not long ago I reviewed another book by Philip Roth, narrated by Malcom Hillgartner. It was a considerable pleasure – Hillgartner is a fantastic voice for Nathan Zuckerman – so when I saw another opportunity to review a Nathan Zuckerman novel read by Hillgartner I grabbed it. It was a good decision – no, wait, it was a great decision!

Nathan Zuckerman has filled many pages of Philip Roth’s novels over the decades. Whether or not he reflects any of Roth’s own experiences as an author, Zuckerman is a fully developed character, and never more so than in The Anatomy Lesson.

Here we’re introduced to Zuckerman’s chronic pain. He has visited numerous health professionals for answers and for treatment or cure and is told it is something he might just have to live with.

It was nothing! Yet to nothing he was losing his confidence, his sanity & his self respect.

This book will be very familiar to sufferers whose chronic pain has wreaked havoc on their lives. Zuckerman is in turns defeated, enraged, disbelieving. If only he can find the right doctor, the right drug, the right distraction, his pain will all melt away.

What are all the ways of confronting chronic pain?

You can suffer it. You can struggle against it. You can hate it. You can attempt to understand it. You can try running and if none of these techniques provide relief, percodan. If nothing else works then to hell with consciousness as the highest value: Drink vodka and take drugs.

And so he does. Vodka. Percodan. Weed. Sex. If only he can escape his body perhaps he can escape its pain.

Hillgartner gives Zuckerman a compelling, highly engaging narrative voice. This isn’t really a review as much as much as my opportunity to reaffirm Malcolm Hillgartner as the best voice of Nathan Zuckerman. For all the fantastic performers who have narrated Philip Roth’s novels, Hillgartner is my favourite.

Philip Roth is among the greatest of the past generation of American authors and I’m so pleased that Blackstone Audio is making his novels accessible to audio readers. They’ve picked out the best of Roth’s novels and paired them with an ideal narrator.

This is a fantastic production and I highly recommend it.

The Anatomy Lesson • by Philip Roth • read by Malcolm Hillgartner • 7.6 hours • published by Blackstone Audio • July 5, 2016 • ISBN 9781504724876

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The Unseen World by Liz Moore, read by Lisa Flanagan

btyd-square-400Alzheimer’s is a heartbreaking disease and I found myself crying at points during The Unseen World. It reminded me of how my grandmother struggled to care for her husband in his late years with Alzheimer’s. My husband also has a grandparent with the illness. It’s something that feels particularly close and is dreadfully frightening.

Ada Sibelius is a 12 year old girl who lives with her father, David. Their lives are unconventional. Ada does not attend a school. Instead she is homeschooled, which in this case means every day she follows her father to the software lab he heads up at the Boston Institute of Technology. There Ada works the rest of the team on their projects. The lab’s main project is a self learning language software based on ELIZA. For me their software, ELIXIR was another key character in the book and I enjoyed the development of ELIXIR alongside Ada’s own as they “grew up” together.

When David is no longer able to hide the signs that he is developing Alzheimer’s Disease Ada’s world begins to fall apart. As hard as she tries to stop it from happening, this is something Ada cannot manage alone. And David’s secrets do not stop at trying to hide the onset of his illness. The mystery at the heart of this novel is an unusual one.

Lisa Flanagan has a beautiful, clear voice. This is the first time I’ve come across her and her performance is very enjoyable. She creates Liz Moore’s characters extremely well and makes the overall experience a pleasure.

Shortly after finishing the novel articles began to appear about a new drug that has been able to reverse the physical damage Alzheimers causes to the brain. After the desolation of The Unseen World this was a welcome hope. If scientists can show there are cognitive benefits this drug could change outcomes for people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.

The Unseen World and Ada both inherit their names from the work of Ada Lovelace, the writer of the world’s first software program, before the machines that could utilise such programs were created. This novel is a touching tribute to humanity’s frailty and strength.

I’d previously read Heft by Liz Moore so I was looking forward to this new novel. I wonder how frustrating it is for authors to have their new works compared to their previous ones. Somehow I felt as though The Unseen World didn’t quite measure up to Heft. There are minor grammatical flaws that occasionally distracted me from the text and although I understand why Liz Moore may have made the sentence structure choices she did, they irked me.

I’m a picky reader with a preference for literary fiction and this was well into general fiction territory. For a piece of general fiction I thought it very enjoyable and I’m positive it will be very popular among young readers in particular. Overall it’s a good book with a great performance by narrator Lisa Flanagan. Well worth whiling away fourteen hours.

The Unseen World • by Liz Moore • read by Lisa Flanagan • 14.4 hours • published by Blackstone Audio • July 26, 2016 • ISBN 9781504724371

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The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (read by the author)

bpgz-square-400In The Argonauts Maggie Nelson presents her well considered, sometimes complex thoughts and experiences of love, gender, sex, pregnancy, parenthood and family in contexts outside of the traditional.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the book is the lesson that change may not be a journey toward something as much as it is a turning away from something. To turn away might be enough, it isn’t always necessary to arrive at a particular destination.

Throughout the book Maggie Nelson challenges us not to accept binary labels and reminds us that every person, every relationship, every family is unique. She generously allows that we may need to learn things multiple times as we learn, forget, learn again.

This is an extremely intelligent memoir. True to Maggie Nelson’s style it doesn’t fit into the category of “memoir” as easily as most – it’s perhaps closer to an essay. But it is a close and unashamed examination of Nelson’s internal and external life. It is intimate and requires attention to every word but it is accessible and rewarding.

The description of the Christmas mug Maggie’s mother gifted her one year is delightful and was, for me the point at which I felt I “got” this book. “This is the most heteronormative thing I’ve ever seen” says a visiting friend. The mug has an image Maggie’s partner Harry, Harry’s son & a pregnant Maggie, all dressed in their best, looking for all the world like the traditional, nuclear family.

I also loved Maggie Nelson’s take on “love.” I’ve heard of people who believe “I love you” is something to be withheld and presented formally, only when earned, and only on rare occasions. But Nelson sees each utterance of “I love you” as a renewal. I couldn’t agree more. “I love you” doesn’t get stale by repetition – it becomes more powerful, more meaningful and more true.

Rightly, Nelson narrates her own work. It’s an intimate story and to put another narrator between Maggie and the reader might lessen the impact. However her voice is a little monotone which makes it harder to listen to long stints. A professional narrator would make the book easier to read, but it might also make the book less personal.

This is a fascinating read that will broaden the worldview of any reader. Take what you will from it, you cannot be the same person having read The Argonauts.

The Argonauts • by Maggie Nelson • read by Maggie Nelson • 4.8 hours • published by Blackstone Audio • August 4, 2016 • ISBN 9781504660822

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Strange, Seductive and Powerfully Sensual: Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk”

61ud2qngezl-_sl300_Oh my gosh what an exciting novel Hot Milk is. I was a bit worried by the title that I was about to read some sort of weird MILF erotica. Just to be clear, it isn’t MILF erotica (or any other kind of erotica). It is a very sexy novel, but not in the way you’re thinking.

It’s the story of Sofia and her mother, Rose. They are in Spain seeking treatment for an ailment that has stumped Rose’s doctors in England.

Sofia at 24, is an example of “failure to launch.” She has quit her PhD in anthropology to care for her mother. She works in a coffee shop. She has no romantic relationships, no home of her own. She failed her drivers licence four times. Seriously – four times! I’m in no place to criticise here, but she didn’t even pass the theory!

In Spain Sofia drops her laptop, shattering the screen. By breaking the laptop screen she also breaks the spell that has bound her gaze to it. Freed, she turns her anthropological eye upon herself. It’s the beginning of her discovery of her sexuality, her seductiveness and her inner monster.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Sofia and Rose crackles with tension and hums with rage. Between them they are stuck. But as the epigraph of the novel instructs: “It’s up to you to break the old circuits.” And it is up to Sofia and Rose to narrate their own new legends.

Levy’s writing is itself powerfully seductive. It as warm as the air of southern Spain. It’s smooth and divine and devilishly funny. It’s also terribly sensual. The story has an ethereal quality that makes it feel hard to pin down at first, but the golden thread of Levy’s metaphors lead us to see both the divine and the mortal in Sofia.

Romola Garai’s velvety narration brings divinity to the seductiveness of Levy’s prose. It’s a perfect match of book and narrator. Garai’s voicing, timing, characterisation – it’s all perfect. I hope she’ll find time in her busy schedule to narrated other audiobooks. Bravo Ms Garai, and bravo Ms Levy. A beautiful combination.

I’m not a classicist so I keep the internet handy when I’m reading. I get really excited by references that help me understand the book I’m reading better. In this instance I hunted down “milk as metaphor” (“hot milk” is semen for those interested. I wonder who else was visiting Juan in the injury hut! Otherwise “milk” can refer to spiritual immaturity, which I liked as a metaphor in this instance, or “mother’s milk”). I also read about the myth of the Medusa, the beautiful, strong maiden who is turned into a powerful monster, later beheaded at the command of Athena. Also The Laugh of the Medusa, the essay from which Hot Milk takes its epigraph. Keep an ear out for David Bowie lyrics too!

Did I mention I loved this book? I loved this book. Seriously, loved it. It’s long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and is a very worthy contender.

Hot Milk • Deborah Levy • read by Romola Garai • 8.5 hours • published by Penguin Books Ltd. • March 24, 2016

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What Belongs to You, by Garth Greenwell, read by Piter Marek

61i0155knel-_sl300_Garth Greenwell’s quiet but urgent style is superb and this, his debut, is stunning in every respect. His novel is a profound dissection of a character caught between desire and morality.

A young American man is working as a teacher in Bulgaria. There he meets and becomes infatuated with a young man named Mitko. Initially the two develop an intense relationship that exists at the axes of shame and desire.

Thereafter follows a period of self reflection which includes recollections shameful, humiliating, and alienating. Greenwell fearlessly confronts the difficulties of a young gay man coming to know himself with a genuineness that is humbling to the reader.

Lately, poet-novelists such as Garth Greenwell are forming the base of my favourite contemporary storytellers. They often bring a lyricism to their storytelling that weaves well with the audio form. Audio seems the perfect format in which to experience these authors. I’m deeply fond of Garth Greenwell’s creation as told by Piter Marek, whose narration is intimate and sincere.

There has been much praise calling Greenwell’s book “The Great Gay Novel”. I believe it stands with E. M. Forster’s “Maurice”, and with the novels of Alan Hollinghurst and David Leavitt. I’m very surprised to see it left off the Man Booker long list for this year; to me it’s definitely one of the highlights of the past year and won’t soon be forgotten.

What Belongs to You • by Garth Greenwell • read by Piter Marek • 6.3 hours • published by Recorded Books • March 14, 2016 • ISBN 9781501905841

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The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood, read by Alisa Piper

51j3imzfy2l-_sl300_What have you done Charlotte Wood? You have made Golding’s Lord of the Flies for this century and you have made it so very thrilling and real.

Verla wakes from a drugged sleep. She doesn’t know where she is, nor why she’s there. Another woman is thrust into the room – Yolanda. Verla and Yolanda are two of ten women who find themselves in the middle of the desert. Their heads are soon shaved and they are clothed in coarse, modest but completely impractical skirts.

The dread begins from the first scenes and Wood never lets up. The girls are always on guard, and so are we.

The women are jailed in a compound in outback Australia, surrounded by an electric fence powerful enough to kill. One evening the electricity at the compound goes off. The food begins to run out. Things were already bad and they are about to get worse.

There is nothing about this book that is predictable. Wood keeps us guessing and second guessing at every turn. It is exquisite, the sort of book where you need to remind yourself to breathe. Do not be fooled by the beautiful cover of the book. Wood’s story is ugly, ugly, ugly. It is the very worst of ourselves.

The book won the 2016 Stella Award (Australia’s top award for Women’s Literature) and is shortlisted for Australia’s most prestigious award, the Miles Franklin Award.

Alisa Piper gives the characters a powerful Aussie twang, perfectly suited to the women (and men) Wood has written. Piper draws you in quickly and performs the voices of each character superbly.

The Natural Way of Things • by Charlotte Wood • read by Alisa Piper • 7 hours • published by Wavesound Audio • August, 2016 • ISBN 9781510037496

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The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth, read by Malcolm Hillgartner


Philip Roth is one of the finest writers in the United States and Blackstone Audio’s pairing of this book with Malcolm Hillgartner’s narration is an excellent match.

An older Nathan Zuckerman recalls a visit to his idol and mentor E. I. Lonoff, 20 years ago when Nathan was 23. During the visit Nathan begins to confront his Jewishness as a part of his identity, specifically his identity as a writer.

There is a reason behind Nathan’s identity crisis. His parents believe his latest manuscript is anti-semitic. Being told that “artists are responsible to their community” has left him questioning his identity both as an author and as a Jew.

Not only is E. I. Lonoff Nathan’s idol, but he’s also the Ghost of (Nathan’s) Christmas Future. It’s comedic to watch Nathan sentimentalise his hero’s family life while it disintegrates. There is tension between Lonoff’s wife and the young research assistant staying with them with strong suggestions of an affair between Lonoff and the younger woman; an affair which Nathan also manages to romanticise.

This is the first novel featuring Nathan Zuckerman who went on to appear in an additional eight of Roth’s novels. Roth is a profoundly talented author and this book, originally published 37 years ago, demonstrates his undeniable skill as a writer.

I’m also very excited about Malcolm Hillgartner’s narration. I’m used to hearing George Guidall and a select few others narrating Roth’s novels. Hillgartner’s narration is easily their equal. His voice a perfect fit for this novel and I’ll look forward to more audiobooks with his voice. Excellent casting from Blackstone Audio, and as usual a great production. A big thanks to Blackstone Audio for making this book available in audio format.

The Ghost Writer • by Philip Roth • read by Malcolm Hillgartner • 4.5 hours • published by Blackstone Audio • May 03, 2016 • ISBN 9781504726580

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Horror by George Eliot? Yes Really!

br51-square-400Clive Chafer sets an ominous, foreboding tone for George Eliot’s unusual horror story.

The Lifted Veil is a big break from the George Eliot I’m used to – the George Eliot of Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss.

We’re introduced to Latimer, a dying man who is ready to tell the murky story of his unusual gift and of his marriage to the woman originally intended for his brother.

As a young child Latimer developed a severe illness. Although he recovered it left him with the gift of clairvoyance. In adulthood Latimer is jealous of his older brother Alfred who will inherit their father’s fortune, but more importantly to Latimer, Alfred is courting the young heiress Bertha. Latimer is smitten with Bertha and suffers while watching her favours bestowed on his older brother.

One night Latimer has a vision of Bertha as his wife and the dreadful person she really is.

“…Bertha my wife with cruel eyes, with green jewels and green leaves on her white ball dress, every hateful thought within her present to me: madman, idiot, why don’t you kill yourself then? It was a moment of hell I saw into her pitiless soul saw its barren worldliness, it’s scorching hate and let it clothe me round like an air I was obliged to breathe.

Instead of running a mile as any sane person would, Latimer marries Bertha following the death of his brother. As his vision foretold she becomes a callous, unkind creature.

AND THEN: I’m not going to spoil the rest of the story for you by telling it here!

Any good horror is usually told with a good helping of humour and The Lifted Veil has as much as most with a solid deux ex machina to help Latimer toward the end of his tale.

Eliot’s foray into the realm of the horror was published the same year as her first novel, Adam Bede. It is a charming tale that will delight anyone who enjoys a gothic horror and which will intrigue Eliot fans.

Chafer’s reading is delicious – it makes you want to dim the lights, cuddle up in a rug and steel your nerves.

The Lifted Veil • by George Eliot • read by Clive Chafer • 1.9 hours • published by Blackstone Audio • February 16, 2016 • ISBN 9781504673303

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