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The Island of Dr. Libris

Chris Grabenstein, read by Kirby Heyborne. Listening Library, , unabridged, 4 CDs, 5 hrs., $35 ISBN 978-0-553-55271-3

Billy is spending the summer in a cabin on a lake with no TV, internet, or video games. The cabin’s owner, Dr. Libris, has a large collection of books that Billy is welcome to use if he can find the key to the bookcase cabinet. Needing distraction, Billy tackles puzzles in the library until he finds the key. He begins reading The Twelve Labors of Hercules when he looks up he notices an island in the middle of the lake where two enormous men are fighting; Billy conjured up Hercules and Antaeus simply by reading about them. Grabenstein mixes up a melange of characters from the books Billy (and eventually two neighbor children) reads, with Hercules, Robin Hood, the Three Musketeers, Maid Marian, and Pollyanna coming together in dangerous escapades. Even modern myths show up: video game creatures and wizards from trading cards. Reader Heyborne gives each a quirky trait that adds even more color to the story. For example, he gives Robin Hood a delightful over-the-top laugh; the Musketeers have recognizably French accents but are easily understandable; and the video game Space Lizard’s ultra-hissy sibilant voice will give listeners shivers. Heyborne’s performance conjures up the magic of literature and the excitement of summer. Ages 8–12. A Random hardcover. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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An Ember in the Ashes

Sabaa Tahir, read by Fiona Hardingham and Steve West. Listening Library, unabridged, 12 CDs, 15.5 hrs., $60 ISBN 978-1-101-89075-2

This is not the first time Hardingham and West have worked together to bring a YA novel to life: the two previously teamed up on Maggie Stiefvater’s hit The Scorpio Races, and they both have a wealth of audiobook experience as solo narrators. Hardingham narrates the part of Laia, a young woman whose life is turned upside down after most of her family is killed by the Empire (Tahir’s nod to ancient Rome). Hardingham portrays Laia’s fear convincingly through the novel’s first half, when she is roped into spying as a slave inside the household of the Empire’s sadistic military commander—who also happens to be the mother of Elias, the character voiced by West. Elias is a top student at the military academy but longs for freedom and a nonviolent life; West does a fine job depicting Elias’s struggle to remain honorable in a society that rewards only cruelty. Both narrators also voice other characters; for West, one standout is his sage treatment of an ancient soothsayer named Cain, and for Hardingham, it is the raspy narration of a jaded rebel turned-slave whom Laia meets while undercover. Engaging vocal performances and a fast-paced story line will keep listeners riveted. Ages 14–Up. A Razorbill hardcover. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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In Defense of a Liberal Education

Fareed Zakaria, read by the author. S&S Audio, , unabridged, 3 CDs, 3.5 hrs., $19.99 ISBN 978-1-4423-8976-2

Zakaria provides a profound and well-argued defense of a traditional liberal-arts education, in the face of a large push in the United States to devalue and defund it. He does this in part by examining his own education, in both India and the U.S., while also addressing the assumptions, misinformation, and misunderstandings about the liberal-arts education in general. Zakaria provides a strong, energetic reading for the audio version of his book. His narration also benefits from his sense of emphasis and pacing. The weight of the subject is evident in his voice, and he navigates the complex issues deliberately, helping listeners better understand the text. His light Indian accent also makes the narration feel all the more personal and connected to Zakaria’s experience and knowledge. A Norton hardcover. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance

Christopher McDougall, read by Nicholas Guy Smith. Random House Audio, , unabridged, 11 CDs, 14 hrs., $45 ISBN 978-0-80419414-3

Veteran British voice-over actor Smith does his best to handle the wild ride of journalist/author McDougall latest book, which explores sports and fitness from scientific, historical, and cultural perspectives. McDougall examines a relatively little-known Allied success story from late in WWII, when a highly unorthodox unit of covert soldiers from the United Kingdom banded together with the local Greek Resistance to kidnap a Nazi general on the island of Crete. Smith does an effective job of juggling the distinctive accents from all over Europe in the primary story line. The challenge—for both Smith as a performer and for listeners—comes with McDougall’s continuous asides, challenging our current notions of what constitutes strength, endurance, and heroism, and highlighting the exploits of iconoclastic heroes from other points in history. Smith tackles the transitions as smoothly as possible, but audiences not steeped in the subjects at hand may still have a difficult time keeping up with the story. A Knopf hardcover. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop

Steve Osborne, read by the author. Random House Audio, , unabridged, 8 CDs, 9.5 hrs., $40 ISBN 978-1-101-88946-6

Osborne shares stories from his 20 years as a N.Y.C. police offer. Each one contains some measure of danger, hilarity, and ridiculousness, usually ending with a heart-warming message. Osborne’s pieces, which were largely adopted from his unscripted performances for the popular radio show the Moth, work quite well when narrated, especially with Osborne breathing life into them. He knows all the right places to put emphasis, pause, move quickly, and slow down. His deep and raspy voice pulls in listeners and keeps them engaged throughout the production. His thick N.Y.C. accent adds flavor and authenticity to the narration, enhancing it in a way that the book could never achieve. It’s hard to imagine that a professional narrator could do better. A Doubleday hardcover. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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A Fine Romance

Candice Bergen, read by the author. S&S Audio, , unabridged, 11 CDs, 14 hrs., $39.99 ISBN 978-1-4423-7702-8

Actress Bergen performs a beautifully entertaining and down-to-earth reading of her memoir, which is as heartwarming and stirring as her performance. There is tenderness in her voice as she reads the first letter that her late husband, Louis Malle, wrote to her, and wonderment when she recounts traveling with him. She speaks with candor about widowhood, motherhood, remarriage, and aging in a society driven by appearance, all of which are conveyed effectively by Bergen’s signature gravelly voice. Most endearing of all is Bergen’s delightful sense of humor—dry and self-deprecating—sparing herself little dignity as she describes her fears during childbirth, her passion for food, and her “skewed sense of moral superiority to women who are intensely self-disciplined when it comes to food.” She sounds on the verge of laughter as she recounts the pranks on the set of the television show Murphy Brown. Bergen’s memoir is a charming blend of joy, sentimentality, and unabashed honesty that is augmented by Bergen’s skillful and heartfelt performance. A Simon & Schuster hardcover. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood

Jim Grimsley, read by Henry Leyva. HighBridge Audio, , unabridged, 6 CDs, 7 hrs., $29.99 ISBN 978-1-62231-572-7

Accomplished narrator Leyva brings his considerable versatility to the new memoir from acclaimed novelist Grimsley, which recounts his experiences growing up as a white person in rural North Carolina during the school desegregation struggles on the 1960s and ’70s. Grimsley, who has made a name for himself in the realms of both Southern and gay fiction, homes in on how his effeminate mannerisms and nagging sense of being an outsider led to a special affinity with black female students in the earliest days of integration, when he was still in elementary school. Leyva makes his most memorable contributions as a vocal performer in these compelling exchanges between Grimsley and his friends. The delicate dance between being an outsider and being coconspirator in breaking down the Southern social order shines through, particularly in Leyva’s portrayal of Violet, the African-American girl who responds with confidence when Grimsley uses a vulgar racial term upon their initial introduction. Leyva also does an effective job of conveying the nuances and complexities of the present, when Grimsley experiences his hometown’s current racial polarization during a class reunion. An Algonquin hardcover. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Mary Norris, read by the author. Recorded Books, , unabridged, 7 CDs, 8 hrs., $29.99 ISBN 978-1-4906-7379-0

Norris is not a professional actor, and at times her performance betrays that lack of training. She breathes audibly and nasally before reading long passages, and she often punctuates the narration with long sighs. Sometimes these sighs are entirely appropriate, however, such as when she expresses her self-disgust about the time she erroneously addressed a transgender family member by the wrong pronoun, or when she relays her irritation at Charles Dickens’s penchant for gratuitous commas. But since she’s reading her own story—a memoir covering over three decades as a copy editor at the New Yorker—all of those feel like natural, conversational quirks, not problems. Norris’s gravelly voice guides us through the many jobs she held before joining the literary magazine, the thrill she experienced when she first caught mistake, and her thoughts about the ways the English language is evolving. Throughout, her enthusiasm is clear as she recounts pilgrimages to Melville’s study and a pencil museum, or dishes on some of the literary giants she’s been privileged to edit. A Norton hardcover. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief, and Manipulation

Melissa Rivers, read by the author. Random House Audio, unabridged, 5 CDs, 5.5 hrs., $30 ISBN 978-1-101-92334-4

Melissa Rivers offers a humorous and tender retrospective on the life and character of her mother, the late comedian Joan Rivers (1933–2014). Melissa recollects her mother’s hilarious and outlandish behavior, her persistence to overcome her personal demons, her larger-than-life presence as a celebrity, mother, and grandmother, and their final moments together. Melissa portrays her mother as intelligent and sensitive, with a strong sense of traditional values about life and family. Her impact on her daughter’s life is clear from the stories Melissa shares, but also in Melissa’s narration. Melissa’s speech patterns and the slight rasp in her voice are reminiscent of her mother. Moreover, she conjures Joan’s spirit in a pitch-perfect imitation of her mother. While much of the memoir achieves its goal to make people laugh, it also succeeds in defining Joan Rivers beyond her outrageous sense of humor. A Crown Archetype hardcover. (May)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Fifth Heart

Dan Simmons, read by David Pittu. Hachette Audio, unabridged, 20 CDs, 23.5 hrs., $40 ISBN 978-1-4789-8314-9

Reader Pittu fully realizes his role as narrator in this highly entertaining historical mystery. In 1893 Paris, a despondent Henry James is standing on a bridge overlooking the Seine, contemplating suicide, when he is detained by the legendary Sherlock Holmes. Both men are at moments of crisis in their lives, James by his lack of real artistic or financial success, and Holmes by his conclusion that he is not real at all, merely a literary construct. But the two men join forces and travel to America to investigate the purported suicide of diplomat Henry Adams’s wife, Clover, in 1885. The result is a romping good adventure, full of intrigue, narrow escapes, and murder most foul. Pittu does a wonderful job bringing this Victorian tale to life. He uses numerous voices for all the side characters, whether a two-bit New York Street tough talker or upper-crust politico. But it is his interpretations of Holmes and James that is the heart of this story. Holmes is true to form, obsessively determined and arrogant, while the poor, put-upon James is often befuddled and humorous, but never a buffoon. There is something for everyone to like in this book, Holmes fans or not. Pittu and Simmons form a dynamic duo of their own. A Little, Brown hardcover. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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