Danya Kukafka’s ‘Notes on an Execution’; Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘You Don't Know Us Negroes’; and More Stellar Audiobooks | Starred Reviews, Mar. 2022

Essential audiobook titles reviewed in the March 2022 Audio In Depth spotlight.


Evison, Jonathan. Small World. Books on Tape. Jan. 2022. 16:01 hrs. ISBN 9780593452219. $95. F

Evison (All About Lulu) pieces together a vivid mosaic of the imperfect American dream. Incorporating four sets of ancestors and their descendants, who will literally collide as passengers on a train in 2019, the narrative is constantly in motion, a restlessness also embodied in many of Evison’s supremely well-crafted characters. The ancestors’ tales begin in the mid-1800s: young Irish immigrant twins are cruelly separated by the orphanage that took them in after their mother died; a slave escapes and finds the love of his life, though not the freedom he deserves; a Chinese immigrant finds both his fortune and true love, but only after acts of violence for which he cannot forgive himself; and a young member of the displaced Miwok nation runs from the memory of her parents’ murder, finding a new life with a wonderful husband, until this happiness is threatened as well. The 21st-century story lines track the descendants striving for their version of the American Dream, pushing back against racism, sexism, and income inequality, 170 years after their ancestors fought these same exhausting battles. Narrator William DeMeritt magnificently portrays the multitude of characters while maintaining perfect pacing throughout 16 hours of constant temporal and point-of-view shifts. VERDICT This absolutely enthralling audiobook production is a testament both to DeMeritt’s skill and to Evison’s storytelling brilliance.—Beth Farrell

Hurwitz, Gregg. Dark Horse. Macmillan Audio. (Orphan X, Bk. 7). Feb. 2022. 15:07 hrs. ISBN 9781250787880. $26.99. THRILLER

In the new chapter of the “Orphan X” saga (following Prodigal Son), Evan Smoak, aka Orphan X, will need all his skills and experience. After breaking with the government and quitting his role as a secret assassin, X changed his name to the Nowhere Man and adopted a new mission, going to bat for underdogs. Here the daughter of a local crime kingpin is kidnapped in rural Texas by a drug cartel. The kingpin is not entirely bad and is the kind patron of a town and its people. The effort to get the girl back is taut and stressful and allows the Nowhere Man to fight what he hates most: bullies and abusers. The characters are extremely well written, and their backstories are rich and complex. The action carries listeners through the story like a raging torrent. Scott Brick’s narration, as always, makes the listen so much more enjoyable. VERDICT This may be the best entry in Hurwitz’s series so far. Highly recommended.—Scott DiMarco

Kukafka, Danya. Notes on an Execution. HarperAudio. Jan. 2022. 9:42 hrs. ISBN 9780063052765. $26.99. SUSPENSE

After seven years on death row, serial killer Ansel Packer has mere hours to live. He has a plan, a theory, and a rock-solid certainty that his life won’t end as simply as those girls’. Shifting perspectives among the man condemned by his choices and the stories of four women linked, through him, to each other, this audiobook is perfect for fans of psychological suspense and complex female characters. Jim Meskiman’s nonchalance and gravelly conviction put listeners directly into contact with the banality of evil in Ansel’s chapters. Mozhan Marno (who voices Lavender, who made the mother of all choices to save her own life; Saffron, a fellow foster child with a long memory and hunter’s instincts; Hazel, raised in her twin sister’s shadow; and Blue, young and hopeful of finding family) crafts a distinct tone for each woman, reflecting generational and class differences but imbuing all with the sympathetic capacity that Ansel notably lacks. With commentary on the institutions of American justice, this is a thoughtful exploration of crime and punishment. VERDICT The dual narrators perfectly contrast Ansel’s suffocating solipsism with the tragically interwoven lives of the women who survive him. Recommended most highly.—Lauren Kage

Mann, Peter. The Torqued Man. HarperAudio. Jan. 2022. 11:21 hrs. ISBN 9780063072138. $26.99. THRILLER

In his debut novel, Mann takes listeners on a grand adventure in Germany during the last few years of the Third Reich. Moral ambiguity, intrigue, double crosses, and deception are ever present, as are humor, mythology, and numerous murders. The story progresses in alternating chapters of the journals of “the Torqued Man,” Adrian de Groot. The journals begin in the heady days of the Spanish Civil War and ultimately are being read by an American OSS agent after World War II. The Torqued Man was an Abwehr agent and handler of Frank Pike, an IRA agent originally recruited by the Nazis from a Spanish prison to assist in their planned invasion of England. Each entry views the same subject from a very different point of view. Pike is charming, gregarious, and secretly plotting to kill Hitler’s personal physician, while de Groot is cool and Teutonic. The story is fascinating, and well-written characters add to the complexity. The narration of John Lee is superb, especially his believable Irish and German accents. VERDICT A real treat for listeners; highly recommended.—Scott DiMarco

Mohamed, Nadifa. The Fortune Men. Books on Tape. Dec. 2021. 10:31 hrs. ISBN 9780593589915. $85.50. F

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Mohamed’s devastating third novel explores the true story of the wrongful conviction of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali seaman known to Mohamed’s father, also a Somali sailor. Mahmood arrived in Cardiff, Wales, along with immigrants from all over the world, to replace the British seamen lost in World War II. Because he was a convicted petty thief and known gambler, Mahmood was a convenient target for the police in a community with entrenched racism, despite, or perhaps because of, the need for immigrant workers to maintain Cardiff’s merchant trade. Mohamed’s extensive research is evident as she recounts in detail Mahmood’s arrest for the 1952 murder of Lily Volpert (fictionalized here as “Violet Volacki”) on the flimsiest of evidence, his cruel imprisonment, and the sham trial that resulted in his execution. Effectively weaving in flashbacks to Mahmood’s childhood and time at sea, Mohamed creates a richness of character that, coupled with Ghanaian-born British actor Hugh Quarshie’s resonant voice and smooth, conversational cadences, allows listeners to connect deeply with the doomed man. Also exceptionally moving are Quarshie’s tender readings of the intimate glimpses into the domestic lives of Mahmood and Violet. VERDICT This harrowing account of institutional racism and mistreatment of immigrants is heartbreakingly relevant today.—Beth Farrell

Prose, Nita. The Maid. Books on Tape. Jan. 2022. 9:38 hrs. ISBN 9780593452691. $76. M

An extremely sympathetic and unique main character, fully detailed secondary characters, and a juicy murder make for an involving contemporary mystery in Prose’s superb debut. Molly has just lost her beloved Gran, who helped her neurodivergent granddaughter navigate the subtleties of verbal and physical communication. Molly is thrilled with her job as a maid at the swanky Regency Grand Hotel, where she takes great pride in returning each room to its “state of perfection” through comfortable, repetitive tasks. Her coworkers are mostly cruel, though Molly has found a friend in the beautiful young second wife of wealthy but unpleasant guest Charles Black. When Molly finds his dead body in the Blacks’ hotel room, a series of naive actions cause police to arrest her for his murder. Her few work allies help as Molly’s methodical brain figures out the identity of the real murderer. Actress Lauren Ambrose narrates with perfectly succinct diction, which is totally in character for precise Molly. She deftly conveys Molly’s frequent bewilderment and nearly complete inability to understand humor. VERDICT A must-purchase for all public libraries. In addition to being both delightful and a satisfying mystery, the book has been optioned for film; there will likely be high demand.—B. Allison Gray


Gottlieb, Robert. Garbo. Books on Tape. Dec. 2021. 11:22 hrs. ISBN 9780593553923. $95. BIOG

Greta Garbo quickly gained notice in her native Sweden in the early 1920s, in a few films and promotional commercials for local department stores. She and her mentor, Mauritz Stiller, were sent to Hollywood at the request of Louis B. Mayer. Garbo shot to fame with her first silent film, and she reigned supreme at the MGM Studios for 15 years before her abrupt retirement in 1941. She would never grace the screen again. Her mystique was enhanced by her aloofness and an icy hostility to anyone who tried to approach her. She lived until the age of 90 and was frequently spotted walking the streets of New York City. Gottleib’s (George Balanchine) entertaining book is part biography and part critical assessment, as well as an analysis of Garbo’s cryptic persona (his witty personal comments are also entertaining). The last part of the book includes snippets of observations from other books, as well as full articles by the likes of Kenneth Tynan, Lili Palmer, and fan magazine reporter Harriet Parsons. Actress Maria Tucci, who is married to the author, narrates. Her resonant delivery is perfect for the material. VERDICT An engrossing biography of a cinema icon, not to be missed by fans of classic Hollywood.—Phillip Oliver

Hurston, Zora Neale. You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays. HarperAudio. Jan. 2022. 15:19 hrs. ISBN 9780063043886. $29.99. LIT

What is there to say about Hurston that hasn’t already been said? One of the most lauded writers of the 20th century, particularly with regard to her work during the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston defies categorization. The importance of sharing and celebrating her work should not be understated, and this collection of essays (edited by Genevieve West and Henry Louis Gates Jr.) does just that. It spans 35 years of Hurston’s prolific career, allowing listeners to hear her develop as a writer, critic, and archivist of African American art and culture. The collection includes some of her last published works, written during the early years of the civil rights movement. Truly a joy to listen to, the thematically grouped essays cover a breadth of subjects: politics, African folklore, gender, race, and Black art’s significance in American culture. The spectacularly talented narrator Robin Miles imbues these most important works with the gravitas and flair they deserve. VERDICT The essays and their subject matter are made all the more impactful by the truly moving experience of listening to Miles’s interpretation of Hurston’s words.—Anna Clark

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