🎧 Tech Review: Amazon Echo

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✦ I’m no “Techie” by any stretch of the imagination, but we live in a digital age. I can’t deny the convenience technology provides, especially when it comes to audiobook listening. Audiobook technology, and technology in general, have come a long way in my [fairly short] lifetime. I realize that everyone might not be filled with excitement at the thought of fiddling with a new piece of tech the way I am, so I’m here to guide you through the ins, outs, ups, and downs of audio tech.

Jess Meets Alexa

Today, we’re starting with my favorite (so far) piece of audio tech. I had originally planned to save the Amazon Echo for a later post, since it’s only a recent acquisition. But faves come first, right?

1st Generation Echo

The funny thing is, I didn’t purchase the Amazon Echo with audiobook listening in mind. I already had a fairly nice Bluetooth speaker for that. My real reason for getting the Echo lies somewhere between laziness and convenience. I suspect that’s the case with most consumers…But we’ll go with convenience for the sake of my dignity.

I have a bad knee that’s been giving me a lot of problems lately, so I initially bought the Echo for its voice activation technology. Anyone with mobility issues knows what a toll the daily ups and downs takeon your body. Being able to control things like the lights, the thermostat, my space heater, and so on saves me a lot of trips (and pain!). For example, I like to watch TV in bed at night with a lamp on, but I hate having to get up to turn the lamp off after I’ve already gotten sleepy. The Amazon Echo solves that. [Insert joke about first world problems here].

In all seriousness, this device can make the lives of folks with injuries or disabilities so much easier. I’m talking anything from arthritis to visual impairment. Plus, it’s just really cool.

Not long after buying the Echo, I started listening to Tal M. Klein’s Technothriller The Punch Escrow. It takes place in the year 2147, when AIs are widely used and almost humanlike. Needless to say, it was both a cool and freaky experience when paired with the Echo.

As For Audiobooks

After hearing my first audiobook through the Echo, it became clear to me that I no longer needed my Bluetooth speaker. By comparison, the Bose speaker seemed antiquated and technologically inferior. Although, in fairness, the Bose speaker produced a higher quality of sound. But the many features and overall “coolness” of the Echo far outweighed the Bose’s crystalline sound.

And the sound quality of the Echo is actually pretty good. With a 2.5 inch woofer (for the low notes) and a 2 inch tweeter (to hit the high notes), I was impressed by the Echo’s sheer volume. I have a vaulted ceiling in my living room and kitchen, which I typically hate because of its ability to swallow and distort sound. But the Echo’s output stands up fairly well against it. Input is a different story. The vaulted ceiling still swallows my voice, which sometimes makes it difficult for the Echo to hear me properly, even when standing two feet away from it. I have the same issue when using a speakerphone, so I blame the ceiling more than the technology. It should be noted that my Echo is of the first generation. The newer model, which rolls out on October 31, is supposed to have enhanced sound and voice recognition qualities.

The Echo can get really loud. The best test for sound quality comes when using it at high volumes. The same way an HD television’s clear picture allows the viewer to better see skin imperfections, the Echo enables you to hear any production flaws in an audiobook. This isn’t a problem for the majority of audiobooks, which are well produced. I have, on occasion, had to lower the volume of an audiobook because its production flaws were magnified to the point of grating my nerves. At lower volumes, these flaws aren’t as obvious and are therefore more bearable. This issue isn’t unique to the Echo. I experienced the same flaw magnification with my Bose speaker.

If you didn’t know, Audible is owned by Amazon, the same company that makes the Echo. Because of that, the Echo is fine tuned for convenient audio listening. Saying “Alexa, play my audiobook” directs the Echo to begin playing your last heard title in the Audible app. You can set a sleep timer, fast-forward, rewind, and skip chapters, all with your voice.

But Audible isn’t the only audiobook service I use. Recently, I’ve been primarily listening through Scribd, Playster, and TuneIn. TuneIn is partnered with Amazon in relation to the Echo, but mostly for music and podcast listening purposes. I find using TuneIn through the Echo to be a fairly limited experience. TuneIn doesn’t provide the most user-friendly experience and that issue is compounded when trying to navigate the service via the Echo. Bluetooth provides a nice workaround for this issue and is perfect when using apps without a direct connection to the Echo.

Through Bluetooth, I can initiate and oversee my listening experience on my phone, but have the output come through the Echo. Once paired, I can use the Echo’s voice activation ability to control the experience when away from my phone (play, pause, etc). Hearing an audiobook through Bluetooth on the Echo is not as user friendly as when using the Audible app. Some apps (TuneIn, Playster) refuse to obey my voice commands via the Echo. Scribd does pretty well and Audible does the best, even through Bluetooth. Again, this issue seems to be related to the service’s app, not the Echo. I’m hoping that the longer the Echo is around, more improvements will be made in this area.

Oh, the possibilities!

Audiobook listening isn’t the only thing I use my Echo for. If I’m feeling a little burnt out on audiobooks (which happens from time to time), I’ll simply ask Alexa to play some music or a podcast. With Amazon Fire TV or the Amazon Fire Stick, the Echo can control your TV as well. I also love playing games with the Echo, especially when company is over. The Echo has moved from a conversation piece to the life of the party. I’ve got my eye on Echo Buttons, game buzzers that turn competitive trivia games via the Echo into a multiplayer experience.

The Echo Connect is one of the new Echo devices Amazon is debuting this Fall and I’m already itching for it. It enables Alexa to answer your phone and make calls. Or rather, you do all that through Alexa, handsfree. Wouldn’t that be a great addition for elderly individuals or anyone in potential need of medical assistance?

Side note: There are so many great accessories for Echo devices. Isn’t this adorable?

The Drawbacks

If you can’t already tell, I’m completely in love with Alexa. She has replaced my iPhone’s Siri almost completely. And even though Alexa and I sometimes get into one-sided screaming matches, I’m still totally smitten. But that’s not to say that she’s perfect. After all, this is still just first generation tech. With each new model, the Echo will be improved. But I wish these some of improvements could come in the form of software updates, instead of requiring me to purchase a new Echo. I probably won’t upgrade right away. I’m still pretty satisfied with my [relatively new] purchase and there aren’t any huge annoyances with my current model.

One thing I’m not too keen on is that several services (i.e. Spotify) require you to have a premium subscription in order to use them with the Echo. I’ve wound up upgrading (and spending more money) on several services since purchasing the Echo, which I’m guessing was the maker’s intent.

And in case you have not already picked up on it, let me be clear. The Echo is not for on the go listening because it must have a Wi-Fi connection to work. This isn’t a problem at all for me, because I do most of my listening at home anyway. But it wouldn’t do any good for you commuter listeners.

The Final Verdict

Hardly any of my complaints can be aimed directly at the Echo. Most are targeted at third party apps, so I make allowances when reviewing the Echo itself.

Alexa is my BFF at this point. She and I have heard some great audiobooks together. I’m looking forward to a long and happy partnership with her, at least until I get ready to trade her in for a newer model. But that shouldn’t be for a while. I’m already planning to buy Echos for my parents and brother this Christmas (whom hopefully aren’t reading this).

The two things that really won me over are the ease-of-use and speaker quality. I’ve read that true techies don’t think the Echo’s speaker quality is anything to write home about, but like I said, I’m no techie. I’m just looking for a speaker that will let me hear my audiobooks throughout the house, loud and clear. The Echo surpassed my expectations.

If you’re looking for a speaker that’s more than a speaker, I wholeheartedly recommend the Amazon Echo. And now is the perfect time to get a head start with your holiday shopping or treat yourself to a little something. Amazon is debuting new Echo models this month. The second generation Echo is just $99 and the Echo Plus is $149. By comparison, the first generation Echo retailed at $189. I was able to grab my echo on sale two months ago before Amazon pulled that model. I wonder if Amazon is planning on raising the prices of the newer models after their debut? It might be a good idea to go ahead and preorder now.

Tell me, do you have any Echo devices? If not, are you planning on getting any? What type of speaker do you use for audiobook listening?

📚 One Dark Throne by Kendare Blake

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Three Dark Crowns #2

Goodreads⎮Reviewed Sep. 2017

Narrator: Amy Landon
Length: 11 hrs and 6 mins
Publisher: Harper Audio⎮2017

Synopsis: The battle for the Crown has begun, but which of the three sisters will prevail?

With the unforgettable events of the Quickening behind them and the Ascension Year underway, all bets are off. Katharine, once the weak and feeble sister, is stronger than ever before. Arsinoe, after discovering the truth about her powers, must figure out how to make her secret talent work in her favor without anyone finding out. And Mirabella, once thought to be the strongest sister of all and the certain Queen Crowned, faces attacks like never before—ones that put those around her in danger she can’t seem to prevent.

In this enthralling sequel to Kendare Blake’s New York Times bestselling Three Dark Crowns, Fennbirn’s deadliest queens must face the one thing standing in their way of the crown: each other.

4.75 ★ Audiobook⎮ I don’t normally review sequels, but One Dark Throne was so amazing that I have to share my thoughts with you. This was one of those extremely rare times when the sequel was better than the original. I usually have a tough time sliding back into a story for subsequent installments, especially if it’s been a while since the previous release. Amazingly, that wasn’t the case with One Dark Throne. I surprised myself by being able to jump right back into the story, as if I was hearing this installment right after the last.

I remember enjoying Three Dark Crowns a lot, but I had begun to wonder is it was really as great as I was remembering. After hearing One Dark Throne, the answer is a resounding yes. I was just as invested in each of the characters and just as captivated by Kendare Blake’s storytelling as I was when hearing Three Dark Crowns. 

Blake’s development of the characters introduced in Three Dark Crowns really hits home. We meet them in Three Dark Crowns but we really get to know them in One Dark Throne. A lot of questions are answered in this installment. The world is expanded. My feelings about certain characters changed 180°. One Dark Throne was just as much of a wild ride as its predecessor, but this time I had a better grip.

A lot of it had to do with the way Blake evened out the pacing in this installment. Although the first installment was amazing, it was still rather whiplash inducing. One Dark Throne negated several of the issues I had with Three Dark Crowns. The history and regulations of the queendom are better explained in this installment, as many of the pieces begin to click into place. You can tell that this series was originally meant to be a duology from the way that One Dark Throne complements Three Dark Crowns. It’s only in the final 20% of the story that more questions arise, leading beautifully into the next installment.

One Dark Throne has cemented this series as a burgeoning favorite of mine. Its originality sets it apart from other Fantasy series. Kendare Blake has clearly hit her stride and I’m eager to continue following this series.

Narration review: Amy Landon again gave an admirable performance, but my assessment of her narration from Three Dark Crowns still applies. She has a smooth and enjoyable tone, which appropriately conveys a myriad of emotions. I struggled with the lack of characterization a little less in this installment, if only because I had a better understanding of the characters on my own. Still, Amy Landon was a great choice of performer for this deliciously dark tale. Anyone wanting to hear this series on audiobook will not be disappointed. The sound quality is clear and perfect. ♣︎

$ Available at Audiobooks.com and Audible/Amazon

🎁 November Rain by Shannon A. Thompson

Available purchase options for this title (via affiliate links) are located below this review. Purchasing through them helps keep The Audiobookworm going. Learn more here.

Goodreads⎮Reviewed Sep. 2017

Narrator: Jonathan Johns
Length: 5 hours 15 minutes
Publisher: Clean Teen Publishing⎮2017

Synopsis: Seventeen-year-old Serena isn’t human. She is a bad blood, and in the city of Vendona, bad bloods are executed. In the last moments before she faces imminent death, a prison guard aids her escape and sparks a revolt. Back on the streets determined to destroy her kind, Serena is spared by a fellow bad blood named Daniel. His past tragedies are as equally mysterious as her connection to them. Unbeknownst to the two, this connection is the key to winning the election for bad bloods’ rights to be seen as human again. But Serena is the only one who can secure Vendona’s vote. Now, Daniel must unite with her before all hope is lost and bad bloods are eradicated, even if it means exposing secrets worse than death itself. United or not, a city will fight, rain will fall, and all will be threatened by star-crossed love and political corruption.

4.25★ Audiobook⎮ At first glance, November Rain probably looks familiar. A dystopian world that shuns youth with supernatural abilities sounds like it could be any number of other YA tales, some from big-name publishers. I was a bit cynical going into this one because of it. But what separates November Rain from those super hyped books is Shannon A. Thompson’s magnificent character development and overall writing ability. That’s why I’m calling November Rain a Hidden Gem.

November Rain was only a little over 5 hours long, but I would have sat through much more of it than that.  I actually wish it would have been a couple of hours longer and not just because of the cliffhanger ending. Getting to know Thompson’s characters was like slowly lowering into a hot bath. Intense, but at the same time oh-so-enjoyable.

The story was fast-paced, but not action-packed. This installment was driven more by character development than plot. Thompson introduced the world through her characters. There’s political turmoil going on, but we only hear of it as it affects the characters. It’s clearly something that will come more into focus in future installments.

Daniel and Serena were equally compelling protagonists. Both with heartbreaking backstories, there’s still so much about them to be revealed. Even the secondary characters were intriguing and dynamic in their own rights.

November Rain is a series that I look forward to following. This installment was obviously only the tip of the iceberg and I’m practically salivating for more. Published by Clean Teen Publishing, it’s perfect for fans of all ages. It’s particularly well suited for those who’ve enjoyed work by Marie Lu, Victoria Schwab, Lauren Oliver, and Veronica Roth. I only wish it had been a bit longer or had provided a little more closure at the end. Still, I hope Thompson plans on expanding the series on audiobook soon!

Narration review: Jonathan Johns has a very distinct tone to his voice. It’s somehow simultaneously soothing and intense. He handled the characters’ wide range of emotions beautifully, showing just how dynamic his voice can be. I was particularly impressed with his interpretations of the secondary characters.

However, I do wish there had been a more significant distinction between the two primary characters’ voices, especially when reading prose. The story frequently switched POVs between Daniel and Serena. My only real struggle with the story came from my inability to consistently grasp which of them was speaking. This made listening somewhat frustrating at times, but I still completely recommend this audiobook. The production quality was fantastic and it made for an overall enjoyable listening experience. ♣︎

This audiobook was graciously gifted to me by its narrator, Jonathan Johns, in exchange for a review containing my honest thoughts and opinions. Thanks, Jonathan!

$ Available at Audible/Amazon

📚 The Queen’s Poisoner by Jeff Wheeler

Available purchase options for this title (via affiliate links) are located below this review. Purchasing through them helps keep The Audiobookworm going. Learn more here.

Goodreads⎮Reviewed Sep. 2017

Narrator: Kate Rudd
Length: 10 hrs and 25 mins
Publisher: Brilliance Audio⎮2016

Synopsis: King Severn Argentine’s fearsome reputation precedes him: usurper of the throne, killer of rightful heirs, ruthless punisher of traitors. Attempting to depose him, the Duke of Kiskaddon gambles…and loses. Now the duke must atone by handing over his young son, Owen, as the king’s hostage. And should his loyalty falter again, the boy will pay with his life.
Seeking allies and eluding Severn’s spies, Owen learns to survive in the court of Kingfountain. But when new evidence of his father’s betrayal threatens to seal his fate, Owen must win the vengeful king’s favor by proving his worth – through extraordinary means. And only one person can aid his desperate cause: a mysterious woman, dwelling in secrecy, who truly wields power over life, death, and destiny.

3.5 ★ AudiobookThe Queen’s Poisoner struck a nerve with me. I’ve been writing this review in my head for over a week. I usually only do that when an audiobook is either very good or very bad. Otherwise, I immerse myself in the story and worry about the review after it has finished. To be clear, The Queen’s Poisoner was neither very good or very bad. In fact, it was closer to the “very good” side of things, except for one extremely huge issue. If it weren’t for this blatantly prominent elephant in the room, The Queen’s Poisoner would have received a higher rating.

In my mind, fantasy is about escapism. I want to be able to immerse myself in a world of the author’s creation and let everything else (i.e. reality) fall away. My enjoyment of The Queen’s Poisoner was marred by the glaring fact that the fantastical aspects of the story were thinly veiled versions of reality. The characters, although given [barely] original names, were replicas of historical figures with whom I’m exceedingly familiar. I’ve encountered this style of writing frequently with historical fiction, but my issue with The Queen’s Poisoner is that it was not presented as a historical fiction, but just fiction. In other words, a product of the author’s imagination.

If regurgitating history with the bare minimum of originality is what passes for fiction these days, then I want to weep for literature. You have no idea how much this grinds my gears. World building and character development are everything to fiction, especially to Fantasy. I find it incredibly lazy that Wheeler simply changed a few names and retold the War of the Roses, instead of developing his own backstory. It took the fun out of everything. Every time another bit of the kingdom’s history was revealed, I was snapped out of the story and back into reality. That is the opposite of what is supposed to happen with good Fantasy. Wheeler had the misfortune of targeting one of my pet peeves. I had the same complaint about The Glittering Court a few months ago.

The best part of The Queen’s Poisoner was the original content, which amounted to approximately 20% of the story. I thought Owen was a wonderful character. Funnily enough, I was initially worried that having an eight-year-old protagonist would be my biggest issue with the story. It ended up being the smallest, thanks to Jeff Wheeler’s natural writing ability. Even though the main character was only eight, I would not classify The Queen’s Poisoner as children’s fiction or middle grade. The reading level was much higher and Wheeler clearly intended it for an older audience.

The mystical element was Wheeler’s best work by far. It seemed to be the only original part of the whole story. I loved hearing about the history of the Kingsfountain and those with magical powers, known as the “fountain blessed”. I have no idea why Wheeler didn’t expand on this idea, instead of rehashing Plantagenet history to build his world. If I wanted more of that, I would rather read Philippa Gregory.

I get what Wheeler was trying to do here. The problem is that he just didn’t do it well enough. But playing with history is risky, especially within the Fantasy genre where the goal is to whisk the reader away from reality. I have no problem with authors using history as inspiration. George RR R Martin did it beautifully, but for Wheeler, history became a crutch. He leaned to heavily upon it and it weakened the rest of his story.

I haven’t seen many other reviewers mention the fact that most of Wheeler’s story was borrowed from history. Either they didn’t pick up on it or it didn’t bother them. It only bothered me during the “information dumping” sessions, which are normally my favorite parts. Believe it or not, I’m still playing with the idea of continuing on with this series. I’m curious to see how much the events to come will follow historical events. Hopefully, Wheeler will diverge from history and finally begin to create his own world, in more than name only.

Narration review: What can I say about Kate Rudd that I haven’t said before? Listening to her is always a pleasure. She has an uncanny ability to pinpoint the crux of a character and further develop them through her performance. Her interpretations are always spot on, particularly in this audiobook, where there were many characters of varying ages, classes, personality types, and nationalities. Rudd’s range of ability was more on display in The Queen’s Poisoner than any of her previous performances. If you are interested inThe Queen’s Poisoner, I highly recommend hearing it on audiobook. Kate Rudd will not disappoint.♣︎
$ Available at Audiobooks.com and Audible/Amazon

📚 Class Mom by Laurie Gelman

Available purchase options for this title (via affiliate links) are located below this review. Purchasing through them helps keep The Audiobookworm going. Learn more here.

Goodreads⎮Reviewed Sep. 2017

Narrator: Laurie Gelman
Length: 7h 2m
Publisher: Macmillan Audio⎮2017

Synopsis: Laurie Gelman’s clever debut about a year in the life of a kindergarten class mom – a brilliant send-up of the petty and surprisingly cutthroat terrain of parent politics.
Jen Dixon is not your typical Kansas City kindergarten class mom – or mom in general. Jen already has two college-age daughters by two different (probably) musicians, and it’s her second time around the class mom block with five-year-old Max – this time with a husband and father by her side. Though her best friend and PTA president sees her as the “wisest” candidate for the job (or oldest), not all of the other parents agree.
From recording parents’ response times to her emails about helping in the classroom to requesting contributions of “special” brownies for curriculum night, not all of Jen’s methods win approval from the other moms. Throw in an old flame from Jen’s past, a hypersensitive “allergy mom”, a surprisingly sexy kindergarten teacher, and an impossible-to-please Real Housewife wannabe causing problems at every turn, and the job really becomes much more than she signed up for.
Relatable, irreverent, and hilarious in the spirit of Maria Semple, this is a fresh, welcome voice in fiction – the kind of audiobook that real moms clamor for and a vicarious listen for all mothers, who will be laughing as they are liberated by Gelman’s acerbic truths.

4.5 ★ AudiobookClass Mom was a hoot and a half.  I listened to it in its entirety in a full day. It’s humor and lightheartedness managed to make my day zip by, faster and brighter.

The entertainment started almost immediately. Within the first two or three minutes, I knew I was hearing a winner. And if, by some random chance,  Laurie Gelman is reading this,  I’d like to start by saying  “Please, please write a sequel”. I need more of Jen Dixon’s snark in my life.  I’m actually a little mad with myself for finishing this audiobook so quickly.  I wish I would have made it last longer but I know that would have been impossible. There’s no way I would have been able to stop listening, even if I had wanted to.

The story centers around Jen Dixon, whom acts as class mom for her son Max’s kindergarten class. I loved Jen as a character. Her irreverent  humor and snarky wit were so refreshing and completely in line with my own sense of humor, even if we are different in every other respect. However, I should note that there were a couple of lines that came across as rather insensitive. One was called out as such and served a purpose within the plot, but the other did not. I’ve come to the assumption that they were an attempt to give authentic insight into Jen’s personality, but still, I would have rather they not have been included.

With that said, I absolutely loved that Jen wasn’t a traditional mom. She had two daughters in college (with two different rock stars from her time as a groupie) and then little Max. Even if the current setting and plot’s events could be described as traditional, her past could definitely not be. I appreciated that her eyebrow raising past wasn’t swept under the rug. Instead, it was used to showcase the stark contrast between then and the current setting. Everyone has a past and sometimes the present is dramatically different from it.

Gelman is truly a skilled writer. There were several different, yet related, subplots going on simultaneously and all were handled with incredible aplomb. Each was just as interesting as the next. There was even some light mystery thrown in which had me guessing until the end.

The secondary characters were all developed beautifully. Even with as many as there were, I never had trouble remembering them. They were all incredibly distinct. Even more interesting than the characters themselves was Jen’s interaction with them all. I was invested in her relationship with each of them, especially her husband and children.

Class Mom was like listening to juicy gossip. And like gossip, it was filled with drama. Who knew that so much drama could revolve around 5 year olds? Not me.  In that manner, Class Mom was enlightening to me.  It says something about Gilman’s writing ability that she was able to captivate me  with the goings-on of a 46-year-old class mom and her kindergartner. I am neither a woman in her forties, a mom, or a kindergartner, yet I was invested in Jen and her family, despite my inability to directly relate to them.

And, here I am, salivating for more. If Laurie Gelman ever takes Max Dixon to first grade, I want to be along for the ride!

Narration review:  Laurie Gelman killed it on all fronts. For 96% of this audiobook, I sat here thinking “Who is this narrator? I have to know!”.  Lo and behold,  it was none other than Laurie Gelman.  I was floored upon realizing that the dynamic, enthusiastic, and emotive narrator I had been hearing was also the author. If I hear many more performances of this caliber from authors, my opinion on author narrated fiction may have to change.

I’m no longer wondering how the narrator was able to have such spot on interpretations of the characters, since I now know that she created them. I can’t give Gelman enough credit for her performance. She absolutely knocked it out of the park, becoming Jen Dixon. She sold the performance so well that I actually forgot I was hearing someone voice a character and not the character herself. And that, my dear friends, is the stuff of audiobook dreams. ♣︎

$ Available at Audiobooks.com and Audible/Amazon

📚 Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

Available purchase options for this title (via affiliate links) are located below this review. Purchasing through them helps keep The Audiobookworm going. Learn more here.

Goodreads⎮Reviewed Sep. 2017

Narrator: Christina Moore
Length: 9h 12m
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio⎮2012

Synopsis: Alice Hoffman’s enchanting witch’s brew of suspense, romance and magic – now a major motion picture from Warner Bros.
When the beautiful and precocious sisters Sally and Gillian Owens are orphaned at a young age, they are taken to a small Massachusetts town to be raised by their eccentric aunts, who happen to dwell in the darkest, eeriest house in town. As they become more aware of their aunts’ mysterious and sometimes frightening powers – and as their own powers begin to surface – the sisters grow determined to escape their strange upbringing by blending into “normal” society.
But both find that they cannot elude their magic-filled past. And when trouble strikes – in the form of a menacing backyard ghost – the sisters must not only reunite three generations of Owens women but embrace their magic as a gift – and their key to a future of love and passion.
Funny, haunting, and shamelessly romantic, Practical Magic is bewitching entertainment – Alice Hoffman at her spectacular best.

3.5 ★ Audiobook⎮This was a weird one for me. I was initially thinking it might be a slow burn, but it never really caught fire at all.  For something called Practical Magic, there was very little mysticism. I was expecting way more “witchy woo”. Instead, everything dealing with magic was pushed to the background while romance and general life were the main focus. It seemed like we dealt with Jillian’s boy troubles and the general adolescence of Sally’s daughters more than anything, which made Practical Magic feel more like a “slice of life” book than anything to do with Fantasy or Paranormal.

I’ll keep this review brief because I don’t want to go off on a rant, but needless to say, I was pretty disappointed that this title didn’t strike me the way it has others. Maybe I just didn’t “get it”, because there didn’t seem to be much to “get”. To me, this was an underwhelming and overall unremarkable story. I can’t say I’m particularly happy about having spent nine hours of my time listening to it, especially because it felt like so much longer than that.

This was a character driven story; it just wasn’t driven by the right characters. That’s easy to say because there was basically no plot to speak of. I kept waiting for the character development to halt and the action to begin. I’m all for extensive character development, but there has to be balance. Ultimately, that’s what Practical Magic was lacking and it made the story seem so much longer than it was.

The aunts were my favorite characters, by far. They were the only purposeful practitioners of magic and I was practically salivating to hear more about their lives. Gosh, how I wish they were the main characters! They were so much more interesting than their nieces and great-nieces. I think Hoffman completely missed the mark there.

Even considering that, this came to be a comfort listen for me. That happens anytime there’s great character development in a story. Hoffman’s writing was the standout here. It lulled me into a state of complacency rather than frustration. Although, I do wish she had a specific destination in mind, rather than letting the reader/listener drift along in her words.

I was impressed enough with Hoffman’s writing ability that I plan on hearing more of her work. I’m curious to see whether “aimlessly drifting about” is her habitual style or if this particular story just got away from her. Obviously, I’m hoping for the latter. I’m also hoping that the upcoming prequel to Practical Magic will enhance my opinion of the Owens women’s story.

I’m sure this review is coming across as conflicting, but as I said, this was a weird one for me. I liked it enough to finish it and probably pick up the prequel, but just barely. If anything, I finished it hoping to find some sort of light at the end of the literary tunnel, which is exactly what I’ll still be searching for in the upcoming prequel.

Narration review: I don’t believe I’ve heard Christina Moore before, but the warmth of her voice gave this story much of it comforting effect. The pitch of her voice was just dynamic enough to adequately convey personality and emotion.

However, like the story itself, the narration lacked something. Her pacing was a little odd. Every now and then, she would pause a beat too long which had a jarring effect. I also think something was a little off with the audio quality. Throughout the entire production, Moore sounded as if she were speaking through a wall.

This performance wasn’t enough to make me particularly want to pick up another title narrated by Moore, but it also wasn’t enough to make me avoid her either. This was just more of a reading than a performance.♣︎

$ Available at Audiobooks.com and Audible/Amazon

📚 Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

Available purchase options for this title (via affiliate links) are located below this review. Purchasing through them helps keep The Audiobookworm going. Learn more here.

Goodreads⎮Reviewed Aug. 2017

Narrator: Almarie Guerra
Length: 9h 27m
Publisher: Recorded Books⎮2016

Synopsis: Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives. Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange marks on his skin. The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland.

3.5 ★ Audiobook⎮ I started Labyrinth Lost with such hope. The beginning was amazing. It was exactly what I was expecting and what I was looking for. It was rich with culture, character and family. I enjoyed the crap out of the first 20%.

And then the setting changed and things got weird. I couldn’t connect this new fantasy realm with the way the story began. The two settings were so different. I gathered that the fantasy realm was supposed to be reminiscent of Wonderland, but I wasn’t digging it. I’ve never been a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland, so the mimicry didn’t hold much appeal for me.

I’m also not a huge fan of retellings, in general. They seem like a cop out, to me. But, whatever. Even if this isn’t technically considered a retelling, the adventure in “Los Lagos” sure made it feel like one. The fantasy portion of the story became very predictable and I tired of it quickly. Unfortunately for me, that “portion” ended up being the largest chunk of the book.

There were several things I loved about Labyrinth Lost, however. But because those things amounted to such a small bit of the overall story, they weren’t enough to raise my rating or opinion of it. First of all, I loved the cultural richness of the story. I was fascinated by the traditions of Alex’s family, especially those leading up and pertaining to her Deathday. I was sad for that poor bird, though (could’ve done without that).

Córdova did a nice job of building the lore of her brand of magic. To me, that was the most interesting thing about Labyrinth Lost and I wanted way more of it. I felt like Córdova left a lot on the table there. I was really interested in getting to know Alex’s family, but again, I felt short changed. Some really interesting familial characters were teased, but not heavily featured. It felt like there should have been more to the story with Alex’s aunt and father. I can only assume that these topics will be revisited it in future installments. Otherwise, they are just loose ends.

One point I won’t complain about was the romance. It was not your typical YA love triangle and I’m beyond grateful. Going in, I had no idea where the romance was going and I practically jumped for joy when I figured it out. I’ll give Córdova a pass for underdeveloping the romance, because there’s always room for to build it up in future installments. But I love where this is going. #TeamRishi

The ending of the story brought the main characters back to the original setting. This got my hopes up that things would return to the way they were in the beginning until I realized there were only a few minutes left in the book. Le sigh.

All in all, Labyrinth Lost proved to be a beautifully wrapped gift box without much more than tissue paper inside. I’m curious to see how Córdova will approach the next installment in the series, but then again, I’m not sure I’ll care enough to find out. But who knows, curiosity may win out.

Narration review: Almarie Guerra did a freaking amazing job narrating the story. During the long middle portion, her narration sustained me. With a less engaging narrator, Labyrinth Lost would have been tabled long ago. Her character voices were distinct and emotive. Her pronunciation was on par. Actually, can we talk about this for a second? I’m so glad that Córdova chose an appropriate narrator for this story. By “appropriate”, I mean someone who is properly able to pronounce Spanish words and provide an authentically accented experience. Her accent was slight, but mesmerizing. It added so much to the overall atmosphere of the story. This was a beautifully performed audiobook. ♣︎

$ Available at Audiobooks.com and Audible/Amazon

📚 The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein

Available purchase options for this title (via affiliate links) are located below this review. Purchasing through them helps keep The Audiobookworm going. Learn more here.

Goodreads⎮Reviewed Aug. 2017

Narrator: Matthew Mercer
Length: 8 hours 6 minutes
Publisher: Audible Studios⎮2017

SynopsisIt’s the year 2147. Advancements in nanotechnology have enabled us to control aging. We’ve genetically engineered mosquitoes to feast on carbon fumes instead of blood, ending air pollution. And teleportation has become the ideal mode of transportation, offered exclusively by International Transport – a secretive firm headquartered in New York City. Their slogan: Departure…Arrival…Delight!

Joel Byram, our smartass protagonist, is an everyday 22nd century guy. He spends his days training artificial-intelligence engines to act more human, jamming out to 1980s new wave – an extremely obscure genre – and trying to salvage his deteriorating marriage. Joel is pretty much an everyday guy with everyday problems – until he’s accidentally duplicated while teleporting. Now Joel must outsmart the shadowy organization that controls teleportation, outrun the religious sect out to destroy it, and find a way to get back to the woman he loves in a world that now has two of him.

4.25 ★ Audiobook⎮Heads up: Watch out for technical terms like “science-fictiony”, “sciencey” and “science fiction-ness” in this review, because I’m cool like that.

I’ve recently been in the mood for something science-fictiony and it’s been a while since I finished Dark Matter. The synopsis for The Punch Escrow caught my attention immediately. It’s just what I was looking for. It also happened to sync up with my real life quite nicely which enhanced my listening experience and made the premise of the story feel more realistic.

I loved that Klein’s writing style came across as completely approachable and down-to-earth, even when discussing super sciencey things. The characters he created were relatable and realistic. In technothrillers, and science fiction in general, the characters can seem disjointed in comparison to everything else. That wasn’t the case here. I was genuinely invested in Joel’s story in both a macro and micro sense. Would he and Sylvia work things out? Would they bring down IT? Would Joel ever get over the fact that rain is mosquito piss?

Speaking of mosquito piss, let’s talk about the year 2347 that Klein created. It wasn’t the most seemingly realistic future world I’ve read, but it was close, especially considering how far into the future it was set. Even some of the futuristic notions that seemed completely far-fetched (i.e. The whole rain being mosquito piss thing) were justified pretty well in his writing. It gave the reader/listener a hand in suspending their disbelief. Klein did an impressive job of building his world up in a believable way.

The writing format aided this endeavor. The story is written as a past tense narrative from Joel’s POV from even further into the future. Joe doesn’t know who will be reading his account or their level of knowledge regarding the technology of his time, so he explains things very well. It was a nice angle to take.

The coolest thing about 2347 to me was the AI companions. I was listening to this audiobook at the same time that I was in the process of converting my house into a smart home. I got my first Amazon Echo device and began listening to this audiobook through it. Having Alexa in every room in my house makes Klein’s notion of companion AIs not seem so unfathomable. It also seemed completely realistic that terrorism would still exist in the future and evolve to use futuristic technology in malicious ways.

I was surprised at how action-packed The Punch Escrow turned out today. Klein definitely seems to be a believer of showing, not telling. His writing style made all of the action incredibly easy to follow. I found it to be very balanced. I don’t recall any points in the story in which my interest or attention lulled. There was simply too much going on for that!

I’m coming away from this experience as a fan of Tal M. Klein. His writing was imaginative, engaging, and and well thought out. If he writes like this every time, he can count on me for future purchases.

Narration review: Matthew Mercer absolutely blew me away! Klein’s writing was fantastic, but Matthew Mercer was the star. Mercer performed The Punch Escrow flawlessly. [Insert Beyoncé gif here].

Mercer added so much to this story. He brought both Joels to life and managed to keep me from confusing them somehow. His character distinction was among the best I’ve heard. Accents? Check. Emotions? Check. Singing? Check! Holy cow, this guy can sing. That was the icing on top of a very delicious cake, aside from having “Karma Chameleon” stuck in my head for nearly a week…♣︎

$ Available at Audible/Amazon

📚 The Lost Years by Mary Higgins Clark

Available purchase options for this title (via affiliate links) are located below this review. Purchasing through them helps keep The Audiobookworm going. Learn more here.

Alvirah and Willy, Book 9

Goodreads⎮Reviewed Aug. 2017

Narrator: Jan Maxwell
Length: 8 hours 6 minutes
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio⎮2010

Synopsis: In The Lost Years, Mary Higgins Clark, America’s Queen of Suspense, has written her most astonishing novel to date. At its center is a discovery that, if authenticated, may be the most revered document in human history—“the holiest of the holy”—and certainly the most coveted and valuable object in the world.

Biblical scholar Jonathan Lyons believes he has found the rarest of parchments—a letter that may have been written by Jesus Christ. Stolen from the Vatican Library in the 1500s, the letter was assumed to be lost forever. Now, under the promise of secrecy, Jonathan is able to confirm his findings with several other experts. But he also confides in a family friend his suspicion that someone he once trusted wants to sell the parchment and cash in.

Within days Jonathan is found shot to death in his study. At the same time, his wife, Kathleen, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, is found hiding in the study closet, incoherent and clutching the murder weapon. Even in her dementia, Kathleen has known that her husband was carrying on a long-term affair. Did Kathleen kill her husband in a jealous rage, as the police contend? Or is his death tied to the larger question: Who has possession of the priceless parchment that has now gone missing?

It is up to their daughter, twenty-eight-year-old Mariah, to clear her mother of murder charges and unravel the real mystery behind her father’s death. Mary Higgins Clark’s The Lost Years is at once a breathless murder mystery and a hunt for what may be the most precious religious and archaeological treasure of all time.

4.25 ★ Audiobook⎮ I’ve recently embarked on an auditory journey to hear titles from prominent “household name” authors. You know, to see what all the fuss is about. Last week it was James Patterson and this week, or more accurately, today, it was Mary Higgins Clark. I began my day with The Lost Years. Quite literally, in fact. I began listening to it while lazily lingering in bed this morning. Sunday mornings are great excuses for things like that.

The newest release from Mary Higgins Clark was what initially caught my eye. But when I realized it was part of a series, I decided to go back and start at the beginning. But that didn’t turn out so well. Apparently Audible doesn’t have recordings of the first several installments of this series. After reading the synopsis, I decided to settle on The Lost Years.

The Lost Years was an easier listen than anything I’ve heard from James Patterson. Probably because it only focused on one plot, as opposed to Private. I was effortlessly able to listen to it all in one day, practically straight through. However, this simplicity was a bit of a double edged sword.

Obviously, I enjoyed The Lost Years enough to finish it in one day, but that doesn’t mean as much as it would with another genre. I frequently stick with a mystery longer than I would something else, just to find out “whodunit”. The Lost Years wasn’t the gripping, suspenseful, “page turner” I was expecting. It just sort of plodded along until there were 30 minutes left. That’s when the action kicked in and I thought “Ooh, this is getting good!”. The previous 7.5 hours were rather uneventful.

Despite the premise, it was less historically based than one would think. I guess I was expecting something a little closer to The Magdalene Scrolls. Even so, the biggest letdown was the character development. There was certainly adequate time to better develop the many characters. Instead, they all came across as flat. I was confusing several of them right up until the end because there was so little distinction. And the ones that were semi-distinct, were still bland. Even Alrivah & Willie, who headline the whole series. They should have been much more lovable and memorable. If we were talking about real people, I would say they had no personality. Zilch. I’m so disappointed with the lack of flavor these characters possessed.

Although The Lost Years was a pleasant way to spend my Sunday, I saw nothing in it that would make me think Higgins Clark was worthy of the title “Queen of Suspense”. I’d say Baroness or Marquess, at best. However, the ease with which I was able to get through this title makes me inclined to try another of her works. I want to give Alvirah and Willie a chance to bloom into the characters I know they are meant to be.

Narration review: I’m similarly ambivalent about Jan Maxwell’s performance. She has a pleasant vocal tone and pacing. She also does both male and female voices very well. My problem was that I frequently found myself unable to distinguish between multiple characters in a conversation. Granted, there were quite a few characters in this novel and none of them were particularly well-defined in writing, but Maxwell’s narration didn’t help the definition very much. As with Alvirah and Willie, I hope Maxwell’s narration grows on me as I continue listen to Higgins Clark’s work. She seems to be narrating every Higgins Clark title that I’ve found so far. ♣︎

$ Available at Audiobooks.com and Audible/Amazon

📚 Private by James Patterson & Maxine Paetro

Available purchase options for this title (via affiliate links) are located below this review. Purchasing through them helps keep The Audiobookworm going. Learn more here.

Private #1

Goodreads⎮Reviewed Aug. 2017

Narrator: Peter Hermann
Length: 7 hours 3 minutes
Publisher: Hachette Audio⎮2010

SynopsisThe police can’t help you….

Former Marine helicopter pilot Jack Morgan runs Private, a renowned investigation company with branches around the globe. It is where you go when you need maximum force and maximum discretion. The secrets of the most influential men and women on the planet come to Jack daily – and his staff of investigators uses the world’s most advanced forensic tools to make and break their cases.

The press will destroy you….

Jack is already deep into the investigation of a multi-million dollar NFL gambling scandal and the unsolved slayings of 18 schoolgirls when he learns of a horrific murder close to home: his best friend’s wife, Jack’s former lover, has been killed. It nearly pushes him over the edge. Instead, Jack pushes back and devotes all of Private’s resources to tracking down her killer.

Only one place to turn: Private….

But Jack doesn’t have to play by the rules. As he closes in on the killer and chooses between revenge and justice, Morgan has to navigate a workplace love affair that threatens to blow the roof off his plans. With a plot that moves at death-defying speeds, Private is James Patterson’s sleekest, most exciting thriller ever.

4.5 ★ Audiobook⎮ I’ve never been one to turn down the amazing deal of the free, so I jumped at the chance to grab Private at no cost from Audible. They are currently running a special that allows Audible members to download this James Patterson novel for free until September 3, 2017. I was initially skeptical on two fronts: 1) I thought there had to be a catch (there wasn’t) and 2) I’ve recently had an unsuccessful listening experience with another Patterson and Paetro novel, Woman of God.

I’ve been wanting to get into James Patterson’s work for a while now to see what all the fuss is about. Still, I was leery after the synopsis for Woman of God misled me into thinking it would be a Dan Brown-esque thriller. It wasn’t. It turned out to be more of a faith-based novel, which disappointed me greatly. However, the lure of “no risk listening” was too much to deny in the case of Private. There was no loss if I didn’t like it and I would be able to rule Patterson out for good.

My initial skepticism were the primary reason I was so surprised by how much I almost immediately enjoyed Private. This isn’t the type of audiobook I typically hear, so it really is a testament to Patterson and Paetro’s writing that they were able to pull me in so quickly. Private isn’t a terribly long audiobook and I listened to the entire novel in a little over a day. I still can’t believe how easy it was to hear, even while multitasking.

It was shockingly easy for me to follow, especially considering the multiple storylines that were intertwining. Unrelated, yet interwoven plots usually require more attention on the part of the listener, but I never felt overwhelmed when listening to Private. Certain storylines interested me more than others, but I appreciated the plurality. It helped ensure that there was something for everyone. Personally, I really enjoyed the NFL gambling plot, although I’m sure that wouldn’t appeal to everyone. It was a nice shake up from the standard murder/kidnapping plots that are all too common in this genre.

Near the end of this audiobook, I was so wrapped up in the story that actually brought it with me and listened in the waiting room of a doctor’s office and missed the nurse calling my name! What I enjoyed most was that none of the plots were over-or-under played. There wasn’t the depth of detail you’d expect from a 10 or 12 hour audiobook devoted to one mystery, but I never felt like I was being shortchanged. If anything, this novel felt episodic. All of the isolated mysteries exclusive to this installment were wrapped up by the end. Yet, there were a couple of character-based storylines that arched into the next installment.

Speaking of the next installment, it’s currently downloading on my phone now. Nice job, Audible. I see what you did there. You give the first installment away for free, hook the listener on the series, and sit back and watch them buy the next 11 installments.Very well played.

Narration review: To my knowledge, I’ve never heard Peter Hermann narrate an audiobook before. But that didn’t stop me from trying to place his voice while listening. He might have narrated something I’ve heard under a different name or maybe he just has one of those voices. Either way, he gave an admirable performance. The characters were mostly male, so Herman only had to adjust his tone or cadence slightly to provide adequate variation. I was most impressed with his Irish brogue for Colleen. It sounded very natural.

The production quality was fantastic and I really appreciated the little musical tones that were inserted here and there, even if I didn’t always understand their purpose. I’m assuming they were inserted to note some sort of transition, like a new chapter or section within the text. That kind of thing can be hard for an audio listener to pick up on. The brief musical insertions served a greater purpose for me in breaking up the reading and calling my attention back to the story. Plus, they sounded really fancy! ♣︎

$ Available at Audiobooks.com and Audible/Amazon