Cut Your Losses?

How much time should you invest in a book that you really, really don’t like? In The Guardian recently, novelist Mark Billingham is quoted as saying, “twenty pages.” Every time this issue comes up in social media (or Amazon reviews) a few extraordinarily patient people say, “I can’t not finish a book. I have to read to the end, no matter what.” If so, you’re in company with almost forty percent of readers, while only about 16 percent give up as early as Billingham.

I used to always read to the end, but now . . . life is short. Every year, I read and review (or start to read) 60-plus mysteries and thrillers. I try to give new and unfamiliar authors a chance, if the premise sounds good. Alas, one or two books a year simply are not ready for prime time. If the book came by way of the author and not a publicist, I thank them and say I won’t be able to write a review after all.

If the story is good, even if the execution isn’t quite up to par, I will keep reading. But if a book is boring, I stop. I figure if it can’t hold my interest when I am excited by the premise and predisposed to read and like it, that’s a fail.

If I encounter numerous typographical and grammar errors in the first few pages, I stop. Because such slip-ups distract readers, authors should care about them. A lot. As people who purportedly care about words, they should know the difference between diffuse and defuse, between pique, peak, and peek. And on and on.

These days, an occasional typo crops up even in books from big publishing houses, and I speculate that some homonym errors are due to spellcheck’s “help.” But if it looks as if the author couldn’t be bothered, I can’t help but wonder what else wasn’t attended to. Research? Historical references? Geography? The way guns work? The million little details that distinguish an immersive reading experience from a first draft.

I reached the “throwing the book across the room” stage of frustration recently with an audiobook. (No, I did not throw my iPod.) That was a first. Usually, having somebody read to me is pure pleasure. But this book, by a popular author, just didn’t grab me. I didn’t like the whiny main character. I didn’t like the bratty children she was nanny for. And, a teenage daughter was about to enter the story, and I just knew she’d be insufferable.

So I did something I’ve never done before: I went to the Amazon one-star reviews to see if I was the problem, or did other readers suffer too? Oh, boy. Got an eyeful, including a lot of complaints about the ending. So I did something else I’ve never done before; I found a website where the ending was discussed in detail. If, as they say, “getting there is half the fun,” not only did I not want the journey, but I didn’t want to arrive at that particular ending. Saved myself another ten hours of listening time. What about you? When you don’t like a book, do you stick with it or cut your losses?

We Begin at the End

The annual lists of crime, mystery, and thriller award winners and nominees always reveal gems I’ve missed, like Chris Whitaker’s much-lauded We Begin at the End. The audio version is narrated by George Newbern with absolute fidelity to the different characters and where their heads are in the moment.

One of the protagonists is Chief Walker, whom everyone calls Walk, the long-time police chief of Cape Haven, a small town on the California coast. Walk, in his mid-forties, tries hard to keep his community from changing. In fact, he’d much prefer to go back in time about thirty years to before the hit-and-run in which his best friend Vincent King killed seven-year-old Sissy Radley.

Vincent received a ten-year sentence at an adult prison, with twenty more tacked on when he killed another inmate in a fight. The novel starts just before Vincent is released from prison and Walk is bringing him home to what promises to be a chilly welcome.

Before he can reclaim his friend, Walk is approached by two children—Duchess Radley, 13, and her brother Robin, five. Their mother has overdosed again, and Walk helps them get her to the hospital. Star Radley has been going off the deep end with increasing frequency. When they were all teenagers, Star and Vincent were a couple, part of a foursome that included Walk and Martha May, and it’s obvious that Walk remains deeply loyal to all of them.

The other main character is Star’s daughter, Duchess, who styles herself an outlaw and goes about proving it. Foul-mouthed and take-no-guff, Duchess has an uncritical eye only for her little brother. He has a lioness defending him.

Tragedy strikes, and Vincent King is once more accused of murder. Despite Walk’s pleading, Vincent won’t say a word in his defense, except that he wants Walk’s former girlfriend, Martha May, to defend him. She’s a family lawyer, and approaching her about Vincent’s case is a difficult journey into the past for them both.

Duchess and Robin are sent to live in Montana with a grandfather they’ve never met, and Duchess is determined not to like him or the ranch or Montana or her new school or anything else. You ache to see her fighting the relationships that would be good for her. You’ve probably known teenagers like this; perhaps you were one yourself.

The story includes many strong secondary characters, some of whom are quite admirable. Even those who do bad things are fully developed and drawn with compassion. Not a roller-coaster of a thriller, this book is more like a slow train through a darkening woods. The journey includes plenty of hazards, both physical and emotional, as it steadily, inexorably, carries you forward. If you take that train ride, you’ll find it’s both moving and memorable. There’s a small, but telling reveal near the end that stopped me, even though it had been in front of me all the time. And if you can do the audio version—do it! Newbern’s narration is flawless.

Order from Amazon here. Or here from your local Indie bookstore.

The Thursday Murder Club

What better review for today, right? I highly recommend the audio-version of Richard Osman’s award-nominated debut cozy crime novel, narrated by Leslie Manville. Osman, who’s had a career in television production, has a second book with many of the same characters already available for pre-order.

Four septuagenarians living in the Coopers Chase Retirement Village, located in the Kentish Weald, meet every Thursday to discuss cold murder cases. Their combination of still being sharp as a tack and varied life experience makes for lively, insightful discussions. Elizabeth, the group’s leader, is the veteran of some possibly clandestine career that took her to countries around the world, Joyce was a nurse, Ibrahim a psychiatrist, and Red Ron a notorious union organizer and gadfly.

Their differences in temperament add to the group’s chemistry. While Ibrahim would like to analyze every factor down to its nub, Ron’s instinct is to barge in and clobber somebody. Elizabeth keeps various thoughts to herself, but Joyce writes a diary, and lucky thing too, because in it, she tells us what the group is thinking and, possibly, why. Joyce’s diary is Osman’s clever way to handle backstory and summary without tedious authorial intrusions.

In an early scene, local DC Donna De Freitas visits the group to five her usual spiel on “Practical Tips for Home Security.” She’s barely begun before Elizabeth cuts her off. “Dear, I think we’re all hoping this won’t be a talk about window locks.” Ibrahim adds, “And no ID cards, please; we know about ID cards. ‘Are you really from the gas board, or are you a burglar?’ We’ve got it, I promise.” “And no need to tell us we mustn’t give our PIN to Nigerians over the phone.”

De Freitas regroups and asks what they do want to talk about, and an enjoyable hour-long free-for-all starts. They recognize that the young De Freitas, for all her amiability, is rather underutilized in the local police department. What she’d like to be working on is a nice juicy murder.

Fate conspires to accommodate her. Tony Curran, a man with a gangster past, and the greedy developer, Ian Ventham, intend to build a second phase of Coopers Chase, on more of the former convent land Ventham purchased from the Church, including plans to dig up the nuns’ cemetery. When Tony is stabbed to death in his kitchen, the Thursday Murder Club wants in on the action. Their new friend Donna De Freitas may be the key, if they can only manage to get her on the murder team and convince her to let them help.

Ventham’s helper Bogdan, has hardly started excavating the graves when he discovers a set of human bones, not in a coffin, but on top of one. This looks like trouble, so he reburies them. Now the Club has two mysteries to solve: who killed Tony Curran, and who is the extra body? Though the local police barely tolerate this amateur assistance, in truth, the oldsters run rings around them. Joyce especially has a way of sounding like a batty old lady, chatting about cakes and tea, while maneuvering the detectives into spilling some useful tidbit.

Although the overall mood is lighthearted, there are moments of sadness, as loss is ever-present in a place like Coopers Chase. That doesn’t stop these four memorable characters from living their lives to the fullest. If you’re in a summertime mood for something light and delightful, this book could be it. If you choose the audio version, Leslie Manville’s narration is tops.

Order here from Amazon.

The Only Good Indians

By Stephen Graham Jones, narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett –If I’d realized there was a supernatural element to this book, I probably wouldn’t have listened to it. Real life is scary enough! Boy, would I ever have missed something spectacular. I urge you not to be put off by the “horror” label attached to award-winning Blackfeet author Stephen Graham Jones’s latest, The Only Good Indians.

A crime sets the plot in motion. It’s the kind of irresponsible daredevilry four young male buddies are prone to. As a big snowstorm starts four days before Thanksgiving, Ricky, Lewis, Cass, and Gabe decide they need to put some of their own game on the holiday table. They take their hunt to the portion of the Blackfeet reservation set aside for the elders.

Down below a cliff, they find a herd of elk. They shoot into the herd, killing far more animals than they can drag uphill and far more than the truck can hold. Doesn’t matter anyway. At the top of the cliff, the game warden waits. One of the animals Lewis shot was a young doe. When he begins to field-dress her, he discovers she isn’t dead and she is pregnant. Her calf is alive inside her, and several more shots are required to finally kill her. Lewis takes her hide, intending to make something good out of this sad episode, not to waste one bit of her.

Ten years have passed since the hunt Gabe calls the Thanksgiving Classic. Ricky is working a temporary job with a North Dakota drilling crew. One night, outside a bar, he encounters a herd of elk in the parking lot. The animals panic and, in running away, do considerable damage to the parked trucks. Shrieking vehicle alarms send the bar patrons stumbling outside. They see a native, jump to the wrong conclusion, and chase and kill Ricky. ‘Indian Man Killed in Dispute Outside Bar.’ From the viewpoint of Lewis, Cass, and Gabe, Ricky’s death is totally predictable.

Lewis has married a white woman, Peta, works at the post office, and has his life pretty together until he starts see that pregnant elk lying on his living room floor. Increasingly obsessed with this notion, he digs her hide out his freezer—the hide he wanted to do something with and never has. As his mental state deteriorates, the intrusion of Shaney, his Crow coworker, disrupts the home equilibrium in ways you may not expect.

To this point in the story, you could legitimately think of the elk sightings by Ricky and the half-mad Lewis as hallucinations, possibly brought on by (in one case) alcohol and (in the other) guilt. The situations are strange and terrible, but not totally outside the realm of logical explanation—metaphorical, not metaphysical.

Amid much good-natured bantering, Gabe and Cass concoct a plan for a sweatlodge ceremony to commemorate their dead friends. Bad idea. Now revenge comes thundering toward them.

What I found most intriguing about this story is how enriched it is by Blackfeet traditions and folklore, put in a modern context. Folktales last for generations because they hold a kernel of truth. While this story would never work set in downtown Washington, D.C., in the remote world of Big Sky, of native culture? It finds its groove. The interesting way the men negotiate two different worlds, that worked for me.

Following and getting connected to the story was made easier by the stellar narration of actor Shaun Taylor-Corbett, who gave authenticity to every word. Even in the story’s most bizarre moments, never a sliver of doubt entered his voice. (Saw him on stage once, playing Romeo. Now there’s a contrast!)

Interestingly, many publishers of crime and mystery fiction these days say they want to see stories with ‘paranormal elements.’ Presumably, there’s market interest. If you give it a try, I think you’ll find it a memorable and moving experience.

Order here from Amazon.

Leapin Leprechauns!

When it comes to a painful history, Irish authors know whereof they speak, and they know how to tell a story laced with humor. Fiction is one way to process lingering cultural traumas.

While I’ve read quite a few books by Irish authors in paper, they are wonderful books to listen to, as the narrators’ accents are transporting.

Crime Fiction

Next up for me is A Galway Epiphany by the award-winning Ken Bruen, called “the Godfather of the modern Irish crime novel,” being released April 1. It features his character Jack Taylor, an ex-cop turned private eye who becomes the center of his own mystery, when he is hit by a truck and left comatose but unscratched (narrated by Gerry O’Brien).

In the Cold, Cold Ground – Adrian McKinty’s first book featuring police detective Sean Duffy–a rare Catholic in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. In the bleak Belfast spring of 1981, hunger strikers in HM Prison Maze are dying. Paramilitaries are setting off bombs, gunfire rakes the streets, and Duffy is investigating a possible serial killer who targets homosexuals. The violent backdrop is tangible, especially with the forceful narration of the award-winning Gerard Doyle.

Stuart Neville wrote a series of excellent novels also set in Belfast, including the one I listened to, The Ghosts of Belfast. Fellow author John Connolly called it “not only one of the finest thriller debuts of the last ten years, but also one of the best Irish novels, in any genre, of recent times.”  Also narrated by Gerard Doyle.

In an interview, Doyle says that when he was a child, his parents would often take him with them to the pub. “I’d sit on the bench late into the evening listening to the stories and the lies. And the music! I even sang sometimes. They’d put me up on a table. One of my best was Ronnie Donegan’s ‘My Old Man’s a Dustbin.'”

Other Fiction

The Gathering by Booker prize-winner Anne Enright “has more layers to it—of grief, love, lightness, tragedy, absurdity, and trauma—than an onion, and may cause as much weeping,” said the editors of The American Scholar. I felt privileged to hear her reading a few years ago under the auspices of Princeton’s Fund for Irish Studies.

Glenn Patterson is another writer who gave a memorable reading in Princeton, and his The International is the story of a single night in the bar of the International Hotel, while upstairs a consequential meeting forming the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association takes place. It’s not about militants at all but about state-of-mind.

You may think there’s not much new literary territory to explore in male-female sexual relations, yet award-winning author Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians finds it and mines it. Innovative, immersive, dazzling.

Two Entertaining Listens

Was your New Year’s resolution to get more exercise, and you’re having trouble bounding out of bed with the necessary zeal on these gloomy mornings? Here are two thrillers for your in audio that will get you up and moving, simply because you have to know “What happens next?” These two books are both impeccably entertaining and couldn’t be more different.

Blacktop Wasteland

SA Crosby, Blacktop Wasteland

When Crime Fiction Lover reviewer Rough Justice said “believe the hype” about SA Crosby’s rural noir novel, Blacktop Wasteland, he wasn’t kidding. Suffice it to say that Crosby has achieved that literary ideal—to create the universal by focusing on the specific. The types of challenges faced by Beauregard “Bug” Montage are faced by many sons of missing dads, by many hard-working people of limited means, by many who believe they cannot escape their past.

So much has been written about this multiple award-nominated novel, I won’t rehash the story, but if you like audio books, this is definitely one for your “must-listen” list. Actor Adam Lazarre-White is pitch-perfect, not only when it comes to the Black family at the center of the narrative but also in portraying the white trash grifters and petty criminals with their dubious, dangerous schemes.

Crosby has written his dialog with a precise ear for the rhythms and patterns of speech of his native southern Virginia (the pleading “Just hear me out,” from someone Bug should never in a million years listen to). Combined with Lazarre-White’s talents, Crosby’s characters come to life unforgettably. Good and bad, Black and white, brave and sniveling. They are real people.

Agent Running in the Field

This is John le Carré’s last novel published before his death in December, set in the upper realms of the British espionage establishment. The hero, 47-year-old MI6 agent Nat, is afraid he’s about to be shoved into retirement, but instead he’s given a lackluster post in a local backwater. Maybe this is to keep him out of trouble, but no matter, trouble finds him.

It’s an unsettled time, with Brexit looming and the political establishment, like all of Britain, deeply divided. Though you may anticipate what the sources of Nat’s deepening dilemmas will be, how he goes about extricating himself is exciting reading or, in this case, listening.

Agent is narrated by le Carré himself, and though I’m usually skeptical of an author reading his own work (mostly because I know what a bad job I would do), he offers a persuasive performance. Almost all the characters are British, which may help, or not. (Prof. Henry Higgins would be happy to dissect the regional and impenetrable idiosyncrasies of English speech.) Listening to le Carré read his own words here, quite expertly, as it happens, feels like a kind of good-bye.  

Listen Up!

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Two more excellent books in audio. One by a new author, the other by one of my favorites. Clicking the title takes you to my Amazon affiliate link.

Miracle Creek

Angie Kim’s debut novel received so many “book of the year” accolades, I acquired it on that basis alone. When I grasped the story-line, I was prepared to be uninterested. Boy, was I wrong! It pulls you deeper and deeper in as the plot twists and turns. Young Yoo and her teenage daughter Mary immigrated to America from South Korea with nothing. Young worked long and hard while her husband stayed in Korea to earn money.

Miracle Creek, Angie Kim

After several years, he does come to the States, distant relatives in the South Korean community provide underwriting so he can buy a Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment (HBOT) chamber and set up a treatment center in Virginia. A sealed HBOT device delivers 100 percent pure oxygen to the people inside and is touted as helpful for a wide variety of  conditions. However, the FDA considers its benefits unproven.

Among Pak’s clients is a group of mothers of children with autism who are convinced HBOT can help. One day, despite all the center’s safety precautions, a tragic fire erupts in the barn where the chamber is housed, killing parent and one child. It’s soon evident the fire was deliberate, and the mother of the dead child is arrested and put on trial. You’ll find everything is far more complicated than it seems. Expertly read by Jennifer Lim.

The Dutch House

The Dutch House, Ann Patchett

Probably I don’t need to say more than that this intriguing family story was written by Ann Patchett and narrated by Tom Hanks. Maeve and Danny Conroy grew up in the 1960s in a 1922 mansion built by the Van Hoebeek family. Located in the Philadelphia suburbs, the house is filled with extravagant touches, including a gilded ceiling in the dining room.

The children’s mother has abandoned them to go to India, it is said, and they are left mainly in the care of loyal servants. When their father remarries, they have little use for his new wife. She returns their disaffection and exiles them as soon as she can.

The adult Maeve and Danny sit in Maeve’s car outside the Dutch house and try to make sense of how they grew up, what they have lost, and what they have become. The house is a character in the story, the embodiment of lost treasure. Although there is plenty of opportunity for excessive sentimentality in this modern fairy tale, Patchett does not fall prey to it and her characters move briskly through life.

War Stories: Oddly Timely?

Can focusing on another low point in Western civilization sidetrack you from obsessing over the current news cycle? Does seeing how another generation coped with agonizing stress help? These engrossing World War II stories are like biting your lip as a distraction from a different pain. Click on the novel title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Interpreter

AJ Sidransky’s political thriller has a fresh and appealing story line. The war in Europe is winding down when US Army Intelligence recruits Vienna-born GI Kurt Berlin to help in its interrogations of captured Germans—Nazis, Wehrmacht officers, and members of the SS and Gestapo.

When he reluctantly agrees, he finds himself face-to-face with the Nazi who had a terrible impact on his own family. He’s in the excruciating position of keeping his own emotions in check, but can he sustain it? Read my full review here.

Night of Shooting Stars, Ben Pastor

The Night of Shooting Stars

Latest in author Ben Pastor’s award-winning World War II-era political thrillers about colonel Baron Martin von Bora, late of German military intelligence. Because his former unit was believed to harbor anti-Nazi army officers, Bora must keep looking over his shoulder when he’s asked to investigate a strange murder. Is it a trap? What he keeps uncovering are dangerous hints about a plot threatening Adolf Hitler himself. Read my full review here.

The Winds of War
War and Remembrance

The audiobook of Herman Wouk’s 1971 saga, The Winds of War, is long (45 hours, 46 minutes) and engaging—perfect for my daily 40-minute walk. There are an awful lot of characters in this story of events leading up to World War II—American, English, German, Polish—many of them real-life politicians and military leaders. At the core of the story is a single family, fictional US Navy officer Victor “Pug” Henry, his wife, his three adult children, and their significant others. Pug is desperate to command a battleship, but naval intelligence duties in the capitals of Europe keep delaying that assignment. You get a well-rounded picture of the multinational political forces and military maneuvering in the late 1930s, packaged in a rich skein of interesting plot lines. The book ends shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk

In its sequel, War and Remembrance (56 hours), Pug is still in the Navy, son Warren is a Navy flyer stationed on an aircraft carrier in Pearl Harbor, and son Byron is a submariner. Byron’s situation is complicated by his marriage to Natalie Jastrow, a Jew stuck in fascist Italy. With these three men in different branches of the Navy, Wouk thrillingly (for me) recreates many of the important battles and strategies of the war in the Pacific.

You may recall ABC’s 1980s miniseries of these books with Robert Mitchum as Pug Henry (Interestingly, all three children were played by different actors in the two productions.) Reportedly, a new adaptation, to be co-written by Seth MacFarlane is in the works.

The Winds of War was a best-seller, but the critics didn’t love either book. Too much emphasis on historical accuracy over character development, they thought. Exactly what made me enjoy it! It’s like an education about the war in an easy-to-digest package, with Wouk’s main point, the key word “remembrance.”

The audiobooks are narrated brilliantly by Kevin Pariseau, who kept me company all summer.

Thrills and Chills, Delivered Right to Your Ears

These are “OK-I’ll-take just-another-walk-around-the-block” audiobook listens. Award-nominated stories, great narrations! Click on the titles for my Amazon affiliate links. Enthralled by every one of these!

The End of October

Lawrence Wright, End of October

Lawrence Wright must have really polished up his crystal ball before writing this medical/political thriller about a brutal pandemic. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, he has a knack for describing scientific complexities and capturing both the big political picture and the significant details. The hero of the book is Henry Parsons, an American physician from the Centers for Disease Control trying to control the uncontrollable as world leaders behave in all-too-familiar, self-serving, short-sighted ways. Near the end, the book strays into conventional thriller territory, but the rest is terrific.

Mark Bramhall read the audio version, and I could hear Dr. Anthony Fauci every time he delivered Parsons’s words. Read my full review here.

American Spy

In Lauren Wilkinson’s highly regarded debut novel, it’s 1986 and Marie Mitchell is an FBI intelligence officer. As a young Black woman, she feels passed over, and her boss is hostile. She’s approached by CIA operatives running a campaign to discredit Thomas Sankara, the charismatic, pro-Communist president of Burkina Faso, and Marie agrees to help. What Marie  doesn’t expect is to fall under Sankara’s magnetic spell. Long after leaving Africa, the long tail of retribution is still chasing her, with deadly intent. Marie’s strong relationships with her family give the book tremendous resonance. Narrated by Bahni Turpin, beautifully

Stranger Diaries, Elly Griffiths

The Stranger Diaries Elly Griffiths’ award-nominated story describes Clare Cassidy, a high school English teacher with an affinity for the long-dead gothic horror writer R.M. Holland and his most famous work, “The Stranger,” a short story about a macabre murderer. When colleagues at the school where she teaches—where Holland himself lived and worked—start being murdered, there are mysterious links to Holland and every reason to think Clare may be next. Narrated by Esther Wane, Sarah Feathers, Anjana Vasan and Andrew Wincott, who reads “The Stranger,” bit by bit.

Tune Out the Politics: Listen to a Great Book Instead!

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Since I listen to audio versions of books nominated for various crime-writing awards (and there’s a lot of them!), they are almost always excellent listens. Clicking the title gets you to my Amazon affiliate link.

Your House Will Pay

Steph Cha has created a timely and unforgettable story about crime, injustice, and the collision of two Los Angeles cultures, not written in abstract terms, but in the painful impact the conflict has on multiple generations of two families—one Black, one Korean. Listening to this will give you more insight and compassion about American social conflict than in a hundred presidential debates!

Although most of Cha’s story takes place in 2019, it’s rooted in the real-life conflicts that ravaged the City of Angels in the early 1990s. Alternate chapters are told by Grace Park, a young Korean American woman whose parents harbor a terrible secret, and Shawn Matthews, a Black man a decade or so older than Grace. Greta Jung and Glenn Davis narrate. They nailed the multi-ethnic intonations and cadences, even to Grace’s stiffness and Shawn’s barely masked pain. My full review here.

The Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz

Fans of Golden Age mysteries will recognize the heritage of Anthony Horowitz’s story-within-a-story. Popular mystery author Alan Conway has written a new book. His editor, Susan Ryeland, is reading it, anxious that it be a best-seller and keep the publishing house she works for afloat. You hear Conway read the entire novel, which involves some grisly manor-house deaths and plenty of suspects, and as his story’s climax approaches, the manuscript abruptly stops, three chapters short of an ending. What happens next? Where are those essential chapters? Susan can’t ask Conway; he’s committed suicide. And there seems to be a larger plot afoot. Expertly narrated by Samatha Bond and Allan Corduner.

The Lost Man

Jane Harper’s award-winning family story delves into what binds and separates three brothers working on remote cattle ranges in the Australian outback. It’s a  powerful read. The story begins with the discovery of the most  successful brother’s body in the broiling sun. The outback almost becomes a character itself, with it’s implacable demands and brutal dangers. As the eldest brother sorts out what happened, secrets and missed opportunities are exposed. They may be brothers, but there’s a lot they don’t know about each other. Loved this, and the narration by Australian Stephen Shanahan, whose accent will carry you all the way across the Pacific.