Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel (narrated by Elizabeth Klett)

My most recent audiobook download from Iambik.com is Rebecca Pawel’s novel Death of a Nationalist.  Set in 1939, in the early days of Franco’s Spain, it’s a murder mystery that doesn’t shy away from the complexities of history.

…The Spanish Civil War, often  considered a practice run for WWII, has only recently ended.  The short-lived Republic is no more.  The Nationalists, backed by Nazi Germany and Italy, are the winners.  The remains of the Republican army – a mixed bag of Communists, Socialists and Anarchists backed by the Soviet Union & Mexico, (and more quietly by England & the U.S.) – are in hiding.  Once discovered they’ll be imprisoned… if they are lucky; “taken for a walk” if they are not.

All in all, this is not a good time in the history of Spain.  People are starving in the streets of Madrid and the black market thrives. The population is still divided over the recent war.  Death of a Nationalist opens with the murder of a member of the Guardia Civil, the often corrupt civil police force tasked with restoring order and normalcy to the city.  The murdered man’s best friend and fellow Guardia, a Sargeant Carlos Tejada, is determined to find the killer.  What follows is an investigation fraught with wrong turns, mistaken beliefs, moral ambiguity and a number of red herrings.  All of which plays out against a vividly rendered historical backdrop.

So well rendered that at the end of the audiobook I was looking for the name of the translator.  Guess what?  There isn’t one.  Rebecca Pawel was born in New York City.  She’s still alive and still writing books.  Death of a Nationalist (published in 2003) is the first in a series featuring Sargeant Carlos Tejada Alonso y León.  A series that now consists of four books.

My point is:  Death of a Nationalist has all the strength and authenticity of a novel written in the 1930’s.  The writing style, historical details and psychology of the narrative reminded me so much of Nada by Carmen Laforet that I completely mistook Pawel for a contemporary. There is an immediacy to the events and opinions, an absence of hindsight, that I thought would be hard to create so long after the fact.

Death of a Nationalist throws you head first into the plot.  A young schoolgirl witnesses the murder of the Guardia, and that random act creates a domino effect that changes the course of her life and the lives of her family.  Pawel keeps a large cast of characters at her disposal.  To her credit I never felt lost or confused.  Everyone fit neatly into place without the plot being formulaic.  The main protagonist, Tejada, is something of an anti-hero.  He’s a fascist, not your typical knight-in-shining armor.  His beliefs make him unpredictable.  That unpredictability only increases the suspense.

As for the audio:  Iambik has come a long way in a short time.  More indie publishers are on board, more audiobooks are available – their library is constantly growing.  Now, when you click on the book title it takes you to a page where you can listen to a segment and decide whether or not you like the narrator’s voice.  A feature which I love!  Elizabeth Klett, who narrates Death of a Nationalist, does a great job. Her character voices are nuanced, each is imbued with subtle individuality.  I’ll definitely be listening to more of her work.  And I’ll definitely be looking for the next book in this series.  Which, sadly, is not yet available in audiobook.

Death of a Nationalist is available in traditional book form through Soho Crime.
ISBN:  978 1 56947 344 3

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City of Thieves by David Benioff (audio narrated by the incredible Ron Perlman!)

The City of Thieves audiobook, written by David Benioff and read by Ron Perlman, is AMAZING! I might be over-stating this, but I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed an audiobook as much.  The plot manages to entertain despite its being somewhat predictable (everyone ends up where you expect them to).  It’s the characters, combined with Ron Perlman’s narration and Benioff’s gift for dialogue, which make this book a must-listen.

Of course I’m jumping too far ahead.

Imagine WWII.  The Russian city of Stalingrad (nicknamed “Peter” by the locals) is under siege.  A young, Jewish boy named Lev Beniov is imprisoned for looting.  His cellmate is a handsome, charismatic Russian soldier who has been arrested for desertion.  The soldier’s name is Kolya.  Both expect to be shot in the morning.  Instead they are taken to the home of an important colonel in the Russian army and given an assignment.  Locate a dozen eggs in the starving city for a wedding cake.  Lev and Kolya have five days.  Five days during which they  travel through the maze of Peter: into basements, onto rooftops and finally out into the surrounding countryside.  They encounter children and cannibals, German and Russian soldiers, Partisans, unlikely allies and unintentional enemies. It’s a grand, if absurd, adventure.

Part-history, part-bromance novel – the high point of City of Thieves is Lev & Kolya’s friendship.  The chemistry that exists between these two is magic.  Their conversations are hilarious. Lev plays Burns to Kolya’s eccentric Allen (bridge the generation gap here), with Ron Perlman performing both parts with impeccable timing.

The reading of this story should win awards.  Perlman’s voices are dead on – each one unique, distinctive & authentic.  He has a talent for putting a subtle inflection on a word or a sentence which carries a whole chapter’s worth of meaning.   He brings the multitude of characters in this novel (I stopped counting at 15) vividly to life.

At this point in the review I’d like to go on the record as stating that I intend to track down every audiobook narrated by Ron Perlman and listen to them all.

My gold standard test of an audio book is whether or not it makes me want to extend my 60 minute commute.  Did City of Thieves pass? Well, let’s just say that I may have received at least one (O.K. – maybe two) texts from my husband asking why I was sitting in the garage.  City of Thieves will do more than keep your attention, it will transport you for 8-1/2 hours…and introduce you to two characters who will stay with you for even longer.

Publisher:  Penguin Audio, New York (2008).
ISBN:  978 0 14 314347 5

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Audio Books….. ACTIVATE!

This week has been dubbed by the powers that be Audio Book Week.  I love that!  Sadly, I do not currently have an audio book in my queue to review.  So instead, I’m going to link back to some oldies-but-goodies from BookSexy’s reviews past.  Enjoy!

I’ve also listened to, but never reviewed, the following two books (both of which I enjoyed & can highly recommend) –

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
  • Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

And last on the list

That link is to my friend Lori’s review at The Next Best Book Blog.  Imagine me cutting and pasting her post into this blog and adding “What she said” at the bottom.

Happy Audio Book Week!

The Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu Takagi (Audio)

Akimitsu Takagi’s The Tattoo Murder Case is an extremely clever mystery, populated with psychologically complex characters and convoluted plot lines.  But I found that the most interesting aspect of the book by far was its setting: occupied Japan.  A time when, suddenly, – after 8000 years of history, tradition and believing that their Emperor was a god – Japan became a democracy.  Poof! Just like that an entire society is transformed.  Traditions are set aside, American G.I.’s pop-up like dandelions, and Western clothes (not to mention: values) are adopted by all.   Kazuo Ishiguro explored this to a certain extent in his novel An Artist of the Floating World.  While less introspective and dramatic, Akimitsu Takagi’s recreation of post-WWII Tokyo is just as realistic.  This book was written in 1948, so it must have been all too easy for the author to reconstruct the Japan in which he lived.

The main protagonist of The Tattoo Murder Case is Kenzo Matsushita, a young doctor recently returned from the war in the Philippines.  He cuts a sad (and strangely familiar) figure – a veteran who has returned home alive, but with no direction.  He lives in the bachelor room at his elder brother’s home, is working on a thesis that has hit a dead-end and has no love life to speak of.    But he’s a likeable loser.  The book begins with Kenzo attending the annual meeting of an elite tattoo society as research towards his studies to become a forensic doctor.  There he meets a beautiful, dissolute young woman with a stunning full-body tattoo.  Inexplicably, she seduces him and they begin an affair.  Within a few chapters that woman is dead.  Her corpse dismembered.  It is Kenzo who discovers the remains – her head, lower arms and legs – in a room locked from the inside.  Her tattoo covered torso is nowhere to be found.

The reader is drawn, along with Kenzo, into the tragic history of the three cursed Nomura siblings – each tattooed by their gifted father in the Irezumi style.  At its foundation, The Tattoo Murder Case is a hard-boiled detective story (think Raymond Chandler or James Chandler)  with all the tropes of the genre.  But Takagi takes full advantage of his exotic locale and its rich history.  Kenzo partners with his elder brother, the famed Detective Chief Inspector Daiyu Matsushita, in order to solve the case.  They fail, with dire consequences to those around them.  As the body count multiplies, Kenzo asks an old schoolmate – a Holmesian genius named Kyosuke Kamizu – to take on the puzzle.

The Tattoo Murder Case was the first novel of the Japanese author Akimitsu Takagi, who went on to write several other books in the crime genre.  I haven’t read any of his other work, so perhaps he got better with age.  While I enjoyed this book in a general way, it’s disconcerting how Takagi threw in every stereotype that was available to him.

  • A locked room mystery.
  • A femme fatale who seeks the hero’s help, only to end up dead. (She’s even a gangster’s moll!)
  • A hardened Detective Chief Inspector (Kenzo’s brother)
  • The character of Kenzo Matsushita, who plays the bumbling Watson to his friend Kamizu’s Sherlock.

And let’s take a second to discuss Kyosuke Kamizu, who drops out of the sky seemingly just to solve the case.  The introduction of his character in Chapter 40 (-ish) felt like a hail Mary desperately thrown by the author in order to move the book to some kind of conclusion.  (Because, likeable or no, Kenzo sure as hell didn’t possess to facilities to solve the mystery).

What saves this book – and makes me want to explore more of Akimitsu Takagi’s writing – is that all the characters are remarkably well-developed.  The occupied Japan in which they live is described in vivid detail without being overdone.  And while the solution to the mystery strains the boundaries of believability –  it does not cross them.   All in all, it’s a killer (forgive the pun) combination that will leave most readers satisfied.  Or, at the very least, feeling they haven’t completely wasted 12 hours of their time.

The Tattoo Murder Case is available in audio from Iambik.com.  Unfortunately, the narrator isn’t the best – his voice would have been better suited to something set in the American mid-West than Tokyo, Japan.   I was also incredibly disappointed in his inability to create distinctive individual voices for the characters, which made it difficult to determine who was saying what in the early chapters.  But have you ever noticed how, with most audio books, your ear adjusts to the narrator’s voice?  The Tattoo Murder Case is no exception.  And while the narrator lacks inspiration, he does give a clear and well-modulated reading of the text.  That, and the low cost to download this book, allows me to cut him some slack.

The print edition is available through Soho Press.

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Iambik.com Gets Hard Boiled

Iambik.com is back with a new collection of audio books.  Crimes, murders, heists…  10 new recordings in all.

I’ll be downloading The Tattoo Murder Case by Japanese author Akimitsu Takagi.  Set in Tokyo in the aftermath of WWII, a girl is found brutally murdered – her full-body tattoo taken,  only her head and limbs are left at the scene.  A detective and his brother, a naive young doctor,  investigate.   It all sounds very Silence of the Lambs meets Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson (though that’s my initial reaction based on the blurbs and nothing more).

I’m also leaning towards Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel… another murder mystery.  This time set in pre-war Franco’s Spain.  Ever since seeing the film  Pan’s Labyrinth this period has been on my radar.

Both books are, entirely coincidentally as relates to my choosing them, published by Soho Press.

As I’ve said before – I like Iambik because its audio library is built around books from small, independent presses.  Books that were overlooked by the audio book industry.   Iambik takes their service one step further – offering these audio books at remarkably good prices ($6.99 each or $44.99 for the whole lot).   If you enjoy the indie presses and listening to audio books, it’s still a difficult deal to beat.

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