Serena by Ron Rash (audio)

Source: Public Library
Audiobook, 10 CDs
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The Pembertons hack their timber empire out of the North Carolina mountain wilderness in Serena by Ron Rash, narrated by Phil Gigante. Serena and George meet in Boston, and their instant connection and passion drive them to flout the calls for a National Park System in 1929 to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  They effectively take action to buy up more and more land to prevent its creation.  Serena is seen by her husband and the workers as a shrewd businesswoman capable of making deals and expanding the business.  Serena and George are connected in business, love, and obsession, but when George begins to look on something else as more important, a woman scorned can be hard to appease.

Gigante’s narration is superb, even as he narrates the female characters.  His voice never takes on a ridiculous tenor as he takes on the persona of Serena and George’s former paramour.  In a world where deals are made over bourbon and cigars, a woman is not expected to be wiser than them.  When Serena takes things too far, George has to make a decision, which could put him at odds with his strong-willed, wild wife.  Serena has few redeeming aspects, and in fact readers may even fear her as many of the other characters do.  She’s an imposing presence, even when she is not front and center in the action.

Serena by Ron Rash, narrated by Phil Gigante, is a tale of ambition in a time when the Great Depression has taken a deep hold on the country, and it extrapolates how easily business tycoons can manipulate deals and people to get what they want.

Rating: Quatrain

About the Author:

Ron Rash is the author of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Finalist and New York Times bestselling novel, Serena, in addition to three other prizewinning novels, One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, and The World Made Straight; three collections of poems; and four collections of stories, among them Burning Bright, which won the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and Chemistry and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award. Twice the recipient of the O.Henry Prize, he teaches at Western Carolina University.

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (audio)

Source: Public Library
Audio, 13 CDs
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The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley, narrated by Rosalyn Landor, was our January book club selection, which I read in December.  Carrie McClelland has been writing for some time and she has lived a life with her characters as most authors do, but in this case, her ancestors begin to speak through her.  A novel about the failed attempt to return the exiled James Stewart to the crown in the spring of 1708 in Scotland, McClelland is pulled in another direction when she realizes that her novel needs a new point of view.  In so choosing Sophia Patterson, her late-night writing takes a very different turn, as she uncovers her own family’s past.  In alternating points of view between Carrie as she meets the owner of a cottage she rents for writing and his sons and Sophia’s point of view, the story of her family comes alive.

The dramatic landscape and winter sea call to Carrie, like it called to her ancestors.  In many ways, Kearsley’s narrative asks whether memories can be inherited through DNA?  It also seeks to touch upon how much of our personalities and inclinations come from the people in our families who have gone before us.  The courage and power of love is palpable in Kearsley’s prose, and her characters face a number of obstacles beyond their control, at least in Carrie’s novel.  The life of an author can be lonely, and Carrie falls a bit quickly in love.  However, the author focuses not only on the romance of these characters in the present and past, the Jacobite Movement is well fleshed out, with intrigue and danger.  Landor is a passionate narrator, and she makes all of the twists and turns believable.

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley, narrated by Rosalyn Landor, is wonderfully crafted, combining history with romance in a fantastic way.  Landor does an excellent job with the Scottish accents and dialects.

About the Author:

Susanna Kearsley studied politics and international development at university, and has worked as a museum curator.  Her first novel Mariana won the prestigious Catherine Cookson Literary Prize and launched her writing career. Susanna continued her mix of the historical and paranormal in novels The Splendour Falls, Named of the Dragon, Shadowy Horses and Season of Storms. Susanna Kearsley also writes classic-style thrillers under the name of Emma Cole.

What the book club thought:

Everyone seemed to enjoy this book for the most part.  A couple members wanted a bit more of a supernatural element to tie together the past and present storylines.  It seemed like things happened to connect Carrie McClelland with her ancestors’ past, but it is unclear why.  The Past narrative worked better for me, but others didn’t seem bothered by the past or modern story’s disconnect.  It was definitely an engaging story with an expected happy ending, at least expected by most of us.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (audio)

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 14+ hours
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The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, narrated by Simon Vance, was our November book club selection and is a steampunk alternate history set in 1855 in England.  Vance is a wonderful narrator as always, so there were no issues in that regard.  The novel seeks to explore the political and societal implications of when Charles Babbage succeeds in building an analytical computer, the Difference Engine, creating a barely recognizable world in which technological advancements are ubiquitous and enabling Britain to become more powerful and the United States to become more fragmented than unified.  However, as the water and the air become more polluted, the wealthy are able to flee outside of London, while the laborers are stuck in the city with the soot and pollution.  The anger this engenders, causes the laborers to become revolutionaries, rising up and calling for anarchy.

Intelligence agencies, difference engines (computers) and secrecy abound in this topsy-turvy world, but on audio, some of the intricacies are lost.  A lot of the narration is spent on describing clothes, surroundings, some of the machines, and mundane actions, like opening containers and whether people are wearing gloves.

Among the minutiae, a mystery about computer punch cards emerges, and everyone seems to want them.  Paleontologist Mallory is the only interesting character, but his segment in the plot ends and the final third of the novel plods along once again.  At least he lasted longer than the other interesting character, Sybil Gerard.  While some believe the cards can be used to place bets and win big, it is clear that’s a red herring.  The tug-of-war between the luddites and the ruling class that espouses the benefits of technology and advancement is often lost in the narration, which takes on several iterations — the only clue that the narrator is an outside observer.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, narrated by Simon Vance, is convoluted  and mysterious to its own detriment.  Overall, while readers may enjoy Vance as a narrator, this book might get a better reception in print.  However, this particular novel also has a number of confusing plot lines that intersect haphazardly, almost as if the writers were trying to confuse the reader.  Unfortunately, at some point readers may give up caring about uncovering it.  This is an overly stylized novel aimed at a sliver of readers, with a very masculine tone and vaunted scientific jargon and theories.

What the Book Club Thought:

We all agreed that the plot didn’t take up much of the book, and that the mystery reveal at the end was kind of a let down, especially given all that had happened to obtain the punch cards.  Some of the characters were disliked, the choice of a paleontologist was an odd one for some, and a few of us skimmed or did not finish the book.  Those of us who did finish the book thought that it had been more of a world-building exercise.  Moreover, some of the things that happened in the background are things that some of us would have rather had in the main parts of the story.  Overall, none of us really cared for any of the characters too much and thought that the book was wordy at best.

About the Authors:

William Ford Gibson is an American-Canadian speculative fiction novelist and essayist who has been called the “noir prophet” of the cyberpunk subgenre.

Bruce Sterling is an American science fiction author who is best known for his novels and his work on the Mirrorshades anthology. This work helped to define the cyberpunk genre.

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (audio)

Source: Public library
Audiobook, 6 CDs
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Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, narrated by Jeannie Stith, is an extremely disturbing look at the mindset of a teenager caught in the grips of anorexia.  Cassie calls Lia a wintergirl, a girl living between life and death with a beating heart but not really living.  Lia and Cassie are no longer friends by the time we meet Lia, who is trapped in a world of counting and restraint.  Like her mother, Lia wants to be in control and she keeps her feelings bottled up inside.  Her parents are frustrated, and Lia’s frustrated with herself because she cannot be thin enough, she cannot escape Cassie’s taunting, and she cannot change.  Her parents are as trapped as she is, but Anderson has crafted a narrative that forces the reader to be trapped with them.

Lia’s plight will make readers uncomfortable, especially if they have ever thought they were too fat or unpopular.  Most teens have been bullied for one reason or another, but Lia’s problems go deeper than what her peers call her — the biggest problem is what she calls herself and how she hates herself when she eats, when she doesn’t act “normal,” and when she fails those around her and herself.  This is a harrowing tale and a nightmarish narrative that will shake readers from their complacent ideas about anorexia.

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, narrated by Jeannie Stith, is disturbing and world-shaking.  Anderson is a powerful writer who understands teens very well, and her stories are relevant and worth reading for adults and teens.  While the subject matter may hit too close to home and concern parents that teens will take the narrative to heart and begin their own anorexia journeys, these are the books that are here to challenge our way of thinking, to make us reassess our perceptions of these disorders, and incite us into action.

I read this for Banned Books Week.

About the Author:

Laurie Halse Anderson is the New York Times-bestselling author who writes for kids of all ages. Known for tackling tough subjects with humor and sensitivity, her work has earned numerous ALA and state awards. Two of her books, Speak and Chains, were National Book Award finalists.

Mother of four and wife of one, Laurie lives in Northern New York, where she likes to watch the snow fall as she writes. You can follow her adventures on Twitter and on her tumblr.