Give It a Listen: Our Favorite Audiobook Narrators

Both of us like to listen to some of our books as audiobooks. And as any fan of this format of reading knows, the narrator really makes or breaks the story. There have been ok-ish books that have been greatly aided by the clever performance of a great reader. And then other quality books that have felt bogged down by a narrator who just doesn’t seem to quite fit with the story they’re trying to tell. Throughout the years, we’ve each identified some clear favorites, and so that’s what we’re bring you today!

Serena’s Picks:

Barbara Rosenblat

Barbara Rosenblat has been a long time favorite of mine. She’s pretty much a long time favorite of most audiobook readers and is one of the more sought after narrators out there, especially due to her wide range of accents that the can seemingly effortlessly apply to any work. I first came across in a read of one of Kathy Reichs “Temperance Brennan” series. I’ve read those on and off, but have always enjoyed them more in audiobook format as Rosenblat’s superb narration can add some flare to some criminal mystery elements that could be a bit dry for my usual mystery reading preferences. The other obvious favorite read by Rosenblat is the “Amelia Peabody” series. I read the first several as print books before, due to lack of availability at the library of the next one in print, I looked up the audiobook version on a whim and discovered Rosenblat narrated these, too! That sealed the deal. Even if I had to go back to reading a print version of this series, I don’t think I could do it without hearing Rosenblat’s pitch perfect rendition of Amelia Peabody’s voice. This series, character, and narrator is the perfect blend that comes from many great things coming together to make something that is,together, beyond reproach.

Tim Gerard Reynolds

Tim Gerard Reynolds is also a well-known, much-awarded audiobook narrator. And as he narrates a bunch of fantasy and sci-fi titles, I’ve run across him a number of times. There is an added challenge when narrating fantasy/sci-fi titles in that many of these works include completely fictionalized words, names, peoples, and worlds. This leaves a lot of creative interpretation at the hands of the narrator. Obviously, the author knows how certain words should be pronounced, but many readers are left to their own devices to succeed, or not succeed, in matching these expectations when reading from a print book. As an audiobook, readers fully experience the world and these words as they’re meant to be presented. On top of that, there is a lot of room for creativity in the voice work of characters who are from worlds and cultures that don’t exist. Reynolds is an expert at all of these things, making the most extreme fantasy setting and people jump off the page, seemingly fully formed and as common place in their idioms and voices as anyone on our good, ole, normal Earth. Each character has a distinct voice, and I’m particularly pleased with the way he interprets women’s voices. The “Age of Myth” and its fellow books have a huge cast of female characters, and Reynolds provides an excellent voice for them all, never falling into any of the pitfalls that can occur when trying to narrate for the opposite gender. He’s also excellent with action, and I particularly enjoy his work in the “Red Rising” series, a group of books full of intense, sci-fi actions scenes.

Simon Vance

Simon Vance is an audiobook narrator whom I had actually forgotten I enjoyed so much until I ran across him again in my read of Naomi Novik’s “Temeraire” series. I’ve read a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay in my day, many of them audiobooks. And while I remember particularly enjoying them as audiobooks, it’s been years since I’ve listened to one, so couldn’t remember who narrated them specifically. But when I started listening to the first “Temeraire” book, “His Majesty’s Dragon,” it all came back with the first sound of Vance, clear, melodious British voice. While many of Gavriel Kay’s books are fantasy, they also have a feeling of a historical fiction work. And obviously, so too with the “Temeraire” series. Vance voice perfectly bridges these two genres, in a sense grounding the more fantastical elements of a story into a world that feels believable as set in our own world. Novik’s sotry is one of dragons fighting during the Napoleonic Wars. Nothing could sound more far-fetched. But with her own brilliant world-building, paired with Vance’s smooth, proper voice, it suddenly feels completely believable that a gentleman would go to war on the back of a massive dragon. Now that I’ve rediscovered his voice work, I’m eager to dive back into several of Gavriel Kay’s books that I’ve been meaning to get to, all, of course, narrated by Vance.

Kate’s Picks:

Santino Fontana

Some people will always see Santino Fontana as his various Broadway characters. Others will always see him as Prince Hans in the Disney movie “Frozen”. For me, Fontana is always, ALWAYS going to be the voice of Joe Goldberg in Caroline Kepnes’s “You” books. Fontana brings the creepy and yet hilarious Joe to life through his dark and yet endearing performance, capturing all angles of one of my favorite literary villains, and characters, of all time. His delivery is versatile for the characters in the books, and his timing is spot on, finding the proper beats to build suspense and find the humor. “You” and “Hidden Bodies” are my go to audiobooks when I need something familiar and comforting(?) to listen to, and while part of that is the narrative, the other part is Fontana. Fontana is not only an avid voiceover artist, he’s recently won a Tony for his leading performance in Broadway’s “Tootsie”, and he is going to be the audiobook narrator for Stephen King’s upcoming “The Institute”! So, that may have to be an audiobook read for me as well!

Will Patton

I first heard Will Patton perform an audiobook when I checked out “Doctor Sleep”. My main points of reference for him were movies like “Remember the Titans” and “The Mothman Prophecies” (and many, many more), but didn’t know what to expect from him doing an audiobook. But my goodness, he completely blew my mind. Patton’s strengths are that he knows how to completely transform his tone, cadence, and vocalizations for each and every character, and not only does he modify his voice when they are talking, he also does so for the entire section that is focusing on said character. Whenever I find out that he is going to be doing the voice work on an audiobook I’ve checked out, I get that much more excited for it. He emotes perfectly, and I have to say that his interpretation of Rose the Hat in “Doctor Sleep” is still one of my favorite performances from an audiobook, bar none. His versatility is on display when he’s an audiobook narrator, and if you find yourself with something read by him, get hyped.

Anika Noni Rose

This is an example of how a not so positive reading experience can be transformed by the person who is reading it. I tried to read a print copy of “Shadowshaper” by Daniel José Older, but just couldn’t get into it. My pickiness about fantasy strikes again. But one day I was looking at the books that were available for audio download, and saw that “Shadowshaper” was narrated by Anika Noni Rose. Given that I really like Rose, thanks to her turns in “Dreamgirls”, “The Princess and the Frog”, and “Everything, Everything”, I was intrigued to see how that would go. I was so happy with her performance, I listened to the entirety of “Shadowshaper” and am planning on going into “Shadowhouse Fall” as well. Rose has always been an expressive actress, and not only do we get her personality on the page, in “Shadowshaper” we get to hear her stellar singing voice. I truly believe that I wouldn’t have enjoyed “Shadowshaper” had it not been for her, and it just goes to show that sometimes what you need to enjoy a novel is a different reading medium.

Do you guys have any favorite audiobook narrators? Let us know who they are in the comments!

Serena’s Review: “Storm Cursed”

9780425281291_StormCursed_FCO_mech.inddBook: “Storm Cursed” by Patricia Briggs

Publishing Info: Ace, May 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: My name is Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman, and I am a car mechanic.

And a coyote shapeshifter.

And the mate of the Alpha of the Columbia Basin werewolf pack.

Even so, none of that would have gotten me into trouble if, a few months ago, I hadn’t stood upon a bridge and taken responsibility for the safety of the citizens who lived in our territory. It seemed like the thing to do at the time. It should have only involved hunting down killer goblins, zombie goats, and an occasional troll. Instead, our home was viewed as neutral ground, a place where humans would feel safe to come and treat with the fae.

The reality is that nothing and no one is safe. As generals and politicians face off with the Gray Lords of the fae, a storm is coming and her name is Death.

But we are pack, and we have given our word.

We will die to keep it.

Previously Reviewed:“Moon Called,” “Blood Bound,” “Iron Kissed,” “Bone Crossed,” “Silver Borne,” “River Marked,” “Frost Burned,”and “Night Broken” and “Fire Touched” and“Silence Fallen”

Review: I had some trepidation going into this book. As a whole, the Mercy Thomson series has been on somewhat of a downward trend for me the last several books, so I was worried that would continue. On top of that, the last “Alpha and Omega” book introduced a new aspect to a beloved character who appears in both series, and one that influences Mercy’s own history more than anyone’s. And I had feelings about that. Not good ones. So I was worried how that might come into play here. And then, of course, my lovely Kate Daniels series just finished up, so now all of my urban fantasy hopes and dreams rest on this series. It was a lot. But I am pleased to report that what you have before you is a review where for once all of my worst fears were for naught and instead I found this book to be a happy return to what I always loved about this series in the first place!

Mercy and the Pack are busy protecting the territory that Mercy has claimed as theirs to protect. On top of that, she’s trying to re-open her car shop and help her husband, Adam, balance precarious negotiations between the powerful fae Grey Lords and the human political powers. These things barely in hand, Mercy is dismayed to find that a new group of witches have taken up residence in her neighborhood, bringing with them all the terrors and sorrows that accompany the dark magic they need for their powers. With tensions running high, this is just the challenge they don’t need. And on top of it all, Mercy and the others begin to wonder what role their own resident witch, the powerful Elizabeta plays in all of this.

The first thing that this book did right, in my estimation, is return to the original, single narrator format. I’ve always been here for Mercy and her story. And while the last few books have had a few interesting things to offer with the added POVs from Adam, overall, I’ve found these chapters to be at best distracting and at worst detracting from Mercy’s story overall. In the last book, for example, I came away from the story feeling that Adam’s portion could almost have been removed entirely with no other changes really needed. And as it was, those chapters just took away page time from Mercy herself.

So I was incredibly happy when I opened this book and realized that the entire thing would be from Mercy’s perspective alone. There’s not a lot of new things to say about her as a narrator, as we’re now so many books into the series. But the strengths that were there in the beginning were back again here: Mercy’s unique perspective on the supernatural world, her wit, and her practical approach to navigating challenges that are often far outside of her wheelhouse.

Overall, she was a bit more reactive to the events going on around her than proactive, but I think this is a natural change for her character, as the world she exists within has gotten so much bigger. With this expanding world has come an entire host of friends and allies to call upon, and I’m always glad when I see these individuals pulled in in creative ways. In particular, I enjoyed the return of Stephan, the vampire friend with whom Mercy now shares a complicated relationship that they are each still learning to navigate.

As for the story itself, I was pleased to find that no mention was made of the “reveal” that came up in the last “Alpha and Omega.” I’m hopeful that at the very least we can all go along pretending that that never happened, though I’d be happier still to find it categorically negated in some future book.

This book also felt much more dark than some of the previous entries. Witches and their black magic rely on inflicting pain and suffering on other creatures, so any book that features them as the primary antagonists is going to go to some pretty horrific places. For those animals lovers out there (among whom I count myself), definitely be prepared for some tears and cringe worthy scenes. At times it felt like a bit much. But on the other hand, I think I was also more invested in the downfall of the “big bads” in this book than in many of the previous ones due to the increased horror of their actions.

Accurate across all supernatural books/shows, it seems. 

I could have used a bit more Adam/Mercy time, and the book description with its focus on the negotiation between the fae and the humans is a bit misleading, as that feels like a more minor story line, ultimately. But overall, I greatly enjoyed this book, much more so than the last several in fact! It’s always great to see a long-running series prove that it still has something fresh and new to offer. This goes a long way towards reassuring my near panic about not having an urban fantasy series to look forward to any longer. Fans of the series should be pleased with this one!

Rating 8: Mercy Thomson and Briggs can still deliver!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Storm Cursed” is mostly on Goodreads book lists that have to do with new titles this year, so here’s one of those it is on: “2019 Paranormal.”

Find “Storm Cursed” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Clueless: One Last Summer”

38926467Book: “Clueless: One Last Summer” by Amber Benson, Sarah Kuhn, and Siobhan Keenan (Ill.)

Publishing Info: BOOM! Box, December 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Cher, Dionne, and Tai set off for one last summer of footloose and fancy-free fashion and fun before college starts! 

The class of 1997 has left Bronson Alcott High School for good, and as the weather heats up, Cher and besties Dionne and Tai head off for their last summer vacation adventure together before, ugh, REAL LIFE! 

Picking up after Clueless: Senior Year, head back to the ’90s for summer fun and fashion from superstar writers Sarah Kuhn (Heroine Complex) and Amber Benson (The Witches of Echo Park), and illustrator Siobhan Keenan.

Review: It took a little while for my library to get this book in their catalog, but they did and I got it right in time for summer! As I mentioned in my review of “Clueless: Senior Year” (linked at the bottom of the post), “Clueless” is one of my favorite movies and no matter how many times I watch it I will never get sick of it. I was very excited for the next comic when I heard that it was coming out, and the sort of long wait was absolutely worth it. Just like “Senior Year” before it, “One Last Summer” brings back Cher, Dionne, Tai, and more, and gives them worthy stories of their fabulous characters. On top of that, we got some focus on characters we hadn’t even seen yet (still no Elton though. I get it, but I love that creep so much that I can’t help but be bitter).

Cher, Dionne, and Tai are the primary focuses of the story, as they all have their own conundrums to solve, while trying not to think about how things are going to be changing in their lives. Cher has taken on a summer internship as an assistant to an advice columnist (who is not a very good or honest person, much to Cher’s chagrin), Dionne is in charge of planning a beach party that her parents are helming, and Tai is preparing for her favorite aunt to come to town, and introducing her to Travis. On top of that, all three of them are hoping to solve a mystery for their friend Summer, who has a secret admirer. The stories are kind of simplistic to be sure, but the characters were just so in character and absolutely on point that I highly enjoyed every foray that they went on. I also enjoyed that for some of the characters, especially Dionne, the worries and anxieties about having to go to a new environment and leave people behind make things all the more stressful, even if they don’t totally get why. I found Dionne’s storyline to be especially compelling, as she and Murray are going to different schools across countries from each other. The anxiety and fear of a long distance relationship after high school was captured perfectly, and as someone who knows from experience hers was the story that I most related to. It’s also great seeing the spotlight being shared between these three girls once again, as they all are so endearing and different from each other.

But as mentioned above, “One Last Summer” also brings more attention to other characters that didn’t get as much last time. The biggest one is Summer, a character from the movie who is probably best remembering for her shining moments at the Valley Party, where she initiated a game of Suck and Blow, and snagged a lawn snowman for no discernible reason. I liked seeing her being brought into the main three friend group, and I liked how well she fit in. Benson and Kuhn made her a distinct and fun character who is similar enough to fit in with Cher, Dionne, and Tai, but different enough that she felt like she had her own complexities. And I mean, fine, if we can’t get Elton I was totally happy getting another awesome lady character. Along with Summer we did see a little more focus on other characters, like Josh, Murray, and Travis. And on top of that, they got to play roles that usually are reserved for female characters, which felt like a bit of a subversion and I REALLY liked it. For Josh, we got to see his own insecurities when it comes to his relationship with Cher and his worries that she still may judge him when he’s a bit of a geek. For Murray, it’s his fears about the long distance relationship, and not being sure of how to deal with Dionne when her anxiety turns into anger. And for Travis, HE IS JUST SO SUPPORTIVE AND ADORABLE AND SWEET, just there to love Tai like she’s the goddamn best thing ever. HOW WONDERFUL IS THAT?

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While Josh and Cher are my favorite couple, THESE TWO MELT MY HEART TOO. (source)

And the art continues to be very bubblegum and perfect for the tone. The characters look enough like their counterparts that it feels like the actors and actresses, but also show off Keenan’s unique style.

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Awww. (source)

“Clueless: One Last Summer” was a bittersweet but lovely story for the characters from “Clueless”. I understand that Benson and Kuhn might stop here, but honestly they could keep telling these stories with these characters and I would be filled with joy.

Rating 8: Another fun and nostalgic story featuring some of my favorite movie characters, “Clueless: One Last Summer” brings back some classic characters, brings in new ones, and serves some cute summer stories!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Clueless: One Last Summer” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Summer Break Books for YA”, and “Comics & Graphic Novels by Women”.

Find “Clueless: One Last Summer” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “Clueless: Senior Year”.

Serena’s Review: “Fray”

40696990Book: “Fray” by Rowenna Miller

Publishing Info: Orbit, June 2019

Where Did I  Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: Open revolt has been thwarted — for now — but unrest still simmers in the kingdom of Galitha. Sophie, despite having built a thriving business on her skill at both dressmaking and magic, has not escaped unscathed from her misadventures in the workers’ rebellion. Her dangerous foray into curse casting has rendered her powers unpredictable, and her increasingly visible romantic entanglement with the Crown Prince makes her a convenient target for threatened nobles and malcontented commoners alike.

With domestic political reform and international alliances — and her own life — at stake, Sophie must discern friend from foe… before her magic grows too dark for her to wield.

Previously Reviewed: “Torn”

Review: I enjoyed the political, magical-sewing, romance story that was “Torn,” so it was a no brainer to request a copy of its sequel. The first book had moved rather slowly, for all that it was introducing new characters and a new world, so I was hopeful that now that that groundwork had been laid, the pace would pick up a bit more here. Unfortunately no.

Sophie’s orderly life of quiet competence as a small business owner is quickly falling apart. Not only does she have a rebel leader for a brother, one whom she was tied closely to in the failed revolt that took place not too long ago, but her growing attachment to the Crown Prince is thrusting her into a completely new part of society, and one that doesn’t look too kindly on the doings of revolutionaries. On top of all this, after she used her magic in new ways in the last book, she has begun to lose control of it. These dueling priorities are often at odds with each other and it’s beginning to look like Sophie is going to have to choose a side eventually.

Many of my opinions from the first book carried over to this one, however, ultimately, I didn’t enjoy it as much. For one thing, the pace of the book is still incredibly slow. I enjoy a political fantasy novel as much as the next person, but much of the slowness here is spent on minute day-to-day details, rather than backroom scheming. Much of what helped the first book manage its slow pace was the fact that it was a first book and was throwing tons of new stuff at the reader simply due to that fact. With a second book, and an established world and main character, the story itself needs to provide the points of interest. Unfortunately, it didn’t really do that and I still feel like the book could have been edited down significantly.

I also still enjoyed the magic system, however. Especially now that it is getting out of Sophie’s control. In the first book, it was made clear that Sophie herself didn’t fully understand her magic, and when she pushed herself into new aspects of charming, she was exploring without much of a guide. Seeing the calm, controlled Sophie that we knew from the first book deal with the unexpectedness that is now her magic was fun to read. It was also interesting having her explore the morality of how she uses her magic and how that ties into the way the magic behaves itself.

The romance was also still fairly bland for my taste. But I did like how the book was tackling the sexist laws of the land that will prevent Sophie from owning her own business once she gets married.

However, the one big strike against this  book for me was Sophie herself and the way the brewing revolution seems to be being handled. One of the most compelling aspects of the first book was the honest look at what revolutions look like, the tough places where idealism and practicality meet and explode. The fact that there are good and bad people on both sides. And, even more importantly, there are people in the middle who can understand both sides but just want to get on with life. That was Sophie. Unfortunately, here, in the second novel, much of that nuance and layered exploration is thrown out. Sophie seems almost out of character with how much she sides now with the revolutionaries. And, conveniently, the story itself has molded the two sides to make this choice easier. The common people are fully in the right. The aristocrats are completely evil. It’s a really unfortunate loss, simplifying matters back into the easy good vs. evil conflicts we’ve seen a million times. And with the unoriginal “common folk vs. the evil nobility” theme nonetheless.

In the end, I don’t feel that this book moved the series in the right direction. Some of the flaws from the first one (slow pace, bland romance) carried over to this one. And the interesting additional layers to Sophie’s magic weren’t enough to make up for the fact that the complicated political philosophizing was thrown out the window for a more standard, less interesting, revolution of the good folk against the bad ones. If you enjoyed the romance and the pace of the first book more than me, perhaps this one won’t be as much of a let down. But unfortunately, it was a bit of a dud for me.

Rating 6: Loses its nuance, and with it, its point of interest.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Fray” is a newer book so isn’t on any Goodreads list but it, like “Torn,” should be on “Crafty Magic.”

Find “Torn” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Last Astronaut”

40881567._sy475_Book: “The Last Astronaut” by David Wellington

Publishing Info: Orbit, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a paperback copy from the publisher.

Book Description: Mission Commander Sally Jansen is Earth’s last astronaut–and last hope–in this gripping near-future thriller where a mission to make first contact becomes a terrifying struggle for survival in the depths of space.

Sally Jansen was NASA’s leading astronaut, until a mission to Mars ended in disaster. Haunted by her failure, she lives in quiet anonymity, convinced her days in space are over.

She’s wrong.

A large alien object has entered the solar system on a straight course toward Earth. It has made no attempt to communicate and is ignoring all incoming transmissions.

Out of time and out of options, NASA turns to Jansen. For all the dangers of the mission, it’s the shot at redemption she always longed for.

But as the object slowly begins to reveal its secrets, one thing becomes horribly clear: the future of humanity lies in Jansen’s hands.

Review: Thanks to Orbit for sending me a paperback copy of this book!

Perhaps you are all looking at the title and the primary genre of “The Last Astronaut” and are thinking to yourself ‘well hey now, isn’t Sci Fi Serena’s literary wheelhouse?’ And you’d be right. As a matter of fact, I tend to avoid Science Fiction unless it meets very specific characteristics. But when I was reading about “The Last Astronaut” by David Wellington, my interest was piqued. For one thing, a few of the early reviews used words like ‘terrifying’ to describe it. When you do that and throw around phrases like ‘large alien object’, something about ‘transmissions’, and ‘the future of humanity’, my mind is going to go to one place.

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Did he have the special? (source)

It turns out that “Alien” this is not, but ultimately that wasn’t a bad thing.

“The Last Astronaut” does mix some elements of horror in with sci-fi and character study, and it comes together to be an entertaining tale of slow burn suspense. We have the familiar scenario of a crew of different people with different motivations coming together for the purpose of investigating an alien object heading towards Earth, but the person at the forefront is astronaut Sally Jansen. Jansen was supposed to be the head of a mission going to Mars years before, but disaster struck and left other astronauts dead and Jansen in disgrace. Now she is hoping for redemption, and another chance at discovery. Jansen is a complex and strong protagonist, and has many layers that we slowly get to peel back as the story goes on and the stakes get higher and higher. She is competent and determined, but she is also headstrong and hard to trust, at least for the other crew members. Her actions had severe consequences for NASA and space exploration, but her talent is undeniable, even if her trauma and fall from grace is still haunting her. Her dynamic with the other crew members as they have to board the object is rife with tension, and their inherent mistrust of her makes for emotional conflict on top of the slow revealing other environmental conflict. While there were certainly other compelling characters, specifically ship scientist Parminder Rao who is elated at the prospect of alien life, this is Jansen’s story, and she is well centered and well developed.

The plot, while not as heavy on the horror as I had hoped, is still filled with suspense and tension, which made it an engrossing read for me in spite of the genre clash. The Alien Object is reminiscent of the recent space object ‘Oumuamua (and it is referenced in the book as well), but is larger and seems to have a clear path, heading straight for Earth. When the NASA crew finally encounters it in hopes of learning more, not only have they been beaten by the private company KSpace, but that the crew from the KSpace mission isn’t answering attempts at communication. And once they board the object, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that they are in way over their heads, and that this object isn’t what it seems. I really don’t want to spoil anything in this review, as the slow reveal is effectively creepy and well done. What I will say is that the alien being in “The Last Astronaut” is effective because it feels like something we haven’t really seen before. If you take elements from space horror classics like “Annihilation” and “Event Horizon”, you might be part way there, but Wellington has created a mythos that feels original, at least to this reader.

You may be wondering why this isn’t rated higher, as it seems that I liked a lot about it. And the reason is solely based on personal preference. At the end of the day, “The Last Astronaut” is still pretty heavy on the sci-fi, and it’s done in a way that didn’t really connect with me as much as I had hoped it would. I think that had the horror elements been ramped up more it would have left more of an impression, but as it was, this ultimately isn’t my genre. That said, I really do believe that sci-fi fans would probably find a lot to like about this book, as even I can appreciate the trajectory and story elements that it had. It may not achieve genre crossover as much as I thought it would, but don’t let my words discourage you from giving it a try if it has grabbed your attention!

Rating 7: While the story was more sci-fi than horror and therefore not my usual wheelhouse, I liked the originality that came with “The Last Astronaut” and its main character, and think sci-fi aficionados will find a lot to enjoy!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Astronaut” is included on the Goodreads lists “Upcoming 2019 SFF With Female Leads or Co-Leads”, and “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2019”.

Find “The Last Astronaut” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “Kindred”

60931We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Kindred” by Octavia Butler

Publishing Info: Doubleday, June 1979

Where Did I Get This Book: I borrowed it from my Mom!

Book Description: The first science fiction written by a black woman, Kindred has become a cornerstone of black American literature. This combination of slave memoir, fantasy, and historical fiction is a novel of rich literary complexity. Having just celebrated her 26th birthday in 1976 California, Dana, an African-American woman, is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched through time into antebellum Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy there, she finds herself staring into the barrel of a shotgun and is transported back to the present just in time to save her life. During numerous such time-defying episodes with the same young man, she realizes the challenge she’s been given: to protect this young slaveholder until he can father her own great-grandmother.

Kate’s Thoughts

Usually when only one of us can read the book, we will forego our book club review. But even though Serena was otherwise indisposed for our book club meeting, I really, REALLY wanted to make a post about “Kindred” by Octavia Butler. One reason is that it has been on my personal reading list for awhile now, even though it was fellow book club member Alicia’s pick for this session. But the second, and more pressing, reason is that “Kindred” blew me away and I want to talk about it. Why did I wait so long to read this book? Why? It is still as powerful and relevant today as it was in the 1970s when it was first published.

While it may have similar conventions to what we’ve come to expect of time travel stories, “Kindred” pushes the bounds of what the reader thinks they are going to read. Our protagonist Dana is a 20th Century Black woman who keeps getting sent back to the Antebellum South to save her white ancestor, slave owner Rufus Weilan, from danger, as he needs to live to father her great great grandmother. Butler doesn’t explain why this is happening, nor does she go into the details of various time paradoxes, but honestly, that didn’t bother me at all when usually it really, really does. The more pressing and immediate danger for her, however, is not the existential crisis of her very existence, but whether or not her trips back will ultimately leave her broken, hurt, or killed because of the fact she’s a Black woman in a slave state, and a culture that treats her like chatel and property. She learns to care for Rufus, as her initial meetings with him are when he is a vulnerable child, but as he grows older and more entrenched in the violent white supremacy of his time period their friendship becomes more strained, toxic, and abusive. Dana has every reason to try and keep him alive, but doing so becomes more and more dangerous for her and for the slaves on his family plantation. Butler tackles this complexity with a lot of nuance, but doesn’t shy away from the horrors of chattel slavery in the American South, and the monstrous actions of many white people during this time period. From Rufus to his mother and father to patrollers, the psychological and physical abuse that many white people in this book throw towards the slaves is historically accurate, and therein very upsetting. She doesn’t hold back on the violence and cruelty, and there are many moments in this book that are hard to read, but also necessary to confront. “Kindred” has more gumption on tackling these issues than a number of stories about slavery that have been published after it, and it really says something to me that a book written forty years ago feels braver than more recently published books about slavery. 

On top of the compelling and powerful social commentary, the time travel story had a well developed and interesting system that I could fully buy into. When Dana goes back in time and lives out the timeline then, weeks for her could be minutes for the modern day. This is demonstrated by her relationship with her husband Kevin, who tells her that after her first encounter that she was gone for only a moment, while to her it felt like quite a bit longer. This plays out in more dire, and somewhat tragic, ways later, as a time separation extends for years for one of them, and days for the other. As mentioned earlier, we don’t know how this time travel happens, or what the origin of it is, but it’s well established and believable enough that you don’t find yourself questioning it. You know how she gets there, how she gets back, and that is all you really need to know. The rest doesn’t really matter. This is a significant piece of science fiction, and Butler completely owns and deserves the status of a Sci-Fi heavyweight.

I am so, so happy that I’ve finally read “Kindred”. I now absolutely have to take on other works by Butler, as while Sci-Fi isn’t really my jam, I have a feeling that anything she does in the genre is going to work for me. If you’re a science fiction fan and haven’t read this, you absolutely must do so. 

Rating 9: A stellar, gripping, complex, and compelling piece of speculative and historical fiction, “Kindred” remains one of the best science fiction books that seamlessly combines the all too real with the fantastical.

Book Club Questions

  1. “Kindred” was written in the late 1970s, but still has a lot of resonance today. If it was written today, what, if any, differences do you think there would be in the narrative? Do you think that the social commentary would be the same? Different?
  2. What did you think of the science fiction aspect of the story? Do you want more details? Did it hold up within the narrative?
  3. Dana’s husband Kevin is both a supportive, caring, and sensitive husband, but he also has moments of ignorance and naïveté when it comes to her experiences as Black woman. What did you think of him and Dana as a couple?
  4. Do you think that Dana ever had the ability to change Rufus? If you think she could, what do you think she’d need to have done?
  5. Slavery is a large theme within this novel. How does to content of “Kindred” compare to other slave narratives you’ve read?
  6. What did you think of the ending of the book?

Reader’s Advisory

“Kindred” is included on the Goodreads lists “Speculative Fiction by Authors of Color”, and “Best Time Travel Fiction”.

Find “Kindred” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan

Serena’s Review: “Kingdom of Exiles”

42366222Book: “Kingdom of Exiles” by Maxym M. Martineau

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Casablanca, June 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: copy from the publisher!

Book Description: Fantastic Beasts meets Assassin’s Creed in this epic, gripping fantasy romance from debut author Maxym M. Martineau.

Exiled beast charmer Leena Edenfrell is in deep trouble. Empty pockets forced her to sell her beloved magical beasts on the black market—an offense punishable by death—and now there’s a price on her head. With the realm’s most talented murderer-for-hire nipping at her heels, Leena makes him an offer he can’t refuse: powerful mythical creatures in exchange for her life.

If only it were that simple. Unbeknownst to Leena, the undying ones are bound by magic to complete their contracts, and Noc cannot risk his brotherhood of assassins…not even to save the woman he can no longer live without.

Review: This has been a sad run for me lately in the urban fantasy arena. First, the Patricia Briggs’ “Alpha and Omega” series introduced a new aspect into a beloved character that has some pretty unfortunate consequences not only for that series but for the “Mercy Thompson” one as well (though I’m working my way through the latest, so check back soon to see how that fares!). And then my beloved “Kate Daniels” series finished up. So, naturally, I’m on the look out for a replacement urban fantasy series and when I saw “Kingdom of Exiles” pop up on NetGalley, I requested it right away.

Leena values her magical beasts above anything. But when things get dire, she finds herself exactly where she didn’t want to be: deep in the underbelly of society, trading away her beats. And things only get worse when an assassin shows up on her doorstep with an order marking her for death. Luckily for her, Noc is too intrigued to simply off her right then and there, and they both find themselves caught up between several rocks and hard places, with their growing affection and love putting the other at greater and greater risk.

For me, the largest appeal of this story was the unique “charming” ability that Leena possesses and the super cool magical beasts who surround her because of it. Like the book description implies, there are a lot of similarities with these animals and the ways in which Leena interacts with them and keeps them that feels very similar to the “Fantastic Beasts” series. So if you’re a fan of that particular aspect of that story, the same will be found here. But I was glad to see there were some added twists to this version of the concept, namely the idea that these beasts can be animal familiars, essentially. And it is this fact that makes them so valuable and Leena’s ability to gather and control them so important.

The comparison to “Assassin’s Creed” is a bit less on the money, and this is where things began to fall apart for me a bit. The action of the story was quite a bit less than I’m used to finding in my urban fantasy/paranormal stories. Compared to the two series I mentioned earlier, this one has very little going on in that area. There were a couple of action-oriented scenes, but they felt very fleeting. This also added to the uneven read of the book, with the balance between plot and character moments felt odd at times.

I also didn’t love Leena or Noc, particularly. I could see how on their own they might be better, but for a book that is a paranormal romance story, it’s pretty important that they work well together. Leena, who comes across as pretty competent in the beginning of the story, immediately falls into the trope hole of becoming useless and making stupid decisions once the love interest shows up. Noc, for his part, talks on and on about how important it is to keep one’s distance from one’s target and then promptly makes zero effort to follow his own advice, quickly falling for Leena.

The romance itself was also not to my taste. It was a bizarre mix of the type of romance you would typically find in YA stories, full of angst and unnecessary drama. But then all of the steamy scenes one can expect from adult romance novels. The two did not mix well together, in my opinion. But I’m generally not a fan of angsty or dramatic romantic relationships, so this was going to be a hard sell for me regardless of anything else.

Overall, this book wasn’t for me. I think the world-building and fantasy elements were very interesting. And I could even wave away some of the pacing issues as simply the learning curve of a debut book. But my dislike for the main characters and the way their romance played out was enough to land this book solidly in the “meh”-to-dislike category. However, if you are more interested in this type of romance, this could potentially be a good paranormal romance series to get in on early! And to help you with that, make sure to enter our giveaway for a copy of the book!

Rating 6: More romance (and not my favorite kind either) than urban fantasy, this book was a miss for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Kingdom of Exiles” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy Romance” and “From Contest to Contract.”

Find “Kingdom of Exiles” at your library using Worldcat!