Emma Rosenberg

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The only thing more exciting than the fact that author Angeline Boulley has followed up her bestselling, award-winning debut, Firekeeper’s Daughter, with a companion novel is that actor Isabella Star LaBlanc narrates the audiobook. LaBlanc, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota tribal nation, takes a break from filming season four of “True Detective” (in Iceland!) to share her thoughts on the communal power of audiobooks like Warrior Girl Unearthed (11.5 hours), and the joys and challenges of bringing the story of Perry Firekeeper-Birch to life.

You also narrated Angeline Boulley’s first book, Firekeeper’s Daughter. How did you feel about Warrior Girl Unearthed as you began to read it for the first time?
I’m a Firekeeper’s Daughter superfan first, and a Firekeeper’s Daughter audiobook narrator second. And as soon as I started reading Warrior Girl Unearthed, I knew Angeline had done it again. It felt like returning home. I fell in love with Perry immediately. From the first chapter, I was excited to go on this journey with her. 

What is your relationship with author Angeline Boulley like, especially in the time since you’ve recorded Firekeeper’s Daughter?
Angeline is the best! After my first day of recording Warrior Girl Unearthed, I texted her a little selfie and let her know how thrilled I was to be back in the saddle. When it comes down to it, I really am just trying to do right by her. Angeline is such a special person and writer. Her energy is infectious. We had so much fun doing press for Firekeeper’s Daughter. I count myself lucky to be in her orbit and to benefit from her support. I really owe her so much. 

Tell me a bit about transforming Warrior Girl Unearthed into an audiobook. How did you prepare, and what did you most enjoy about the preparation?
I was so honored when I was asked back to narrate Warrior Girl Unearthed, but I knew logistically it was going to be a challenge. I’m currently shooting a TV series in Iceland, which has my schedule packed and unpredictable. I really wanted to make it work, so after lots of back and forth with my manager and Steve Wagner from Macmillan, we were able to figure out a remote recording setup and scheduled sessions on the days I’m not on set. So I guess the first big preparation was scheduling, which is not very exciting, but it did feel like a miracle that it worked out.

After we got the logistics ironed out, I really dove in—which for me means spending a lot of time with pronunciation and starting to identify voices. I find a lot of joy in the preparation leading up to recording. It’s always a little daunting, but there’s something so exhilarating about hearing the story in my head for the first time and figuring out how to actually make it sound like that. 

What did you feel most strongly that it was important to get “right” as you narrated Boulley’s words in Warrior Girl Unearthed?
Definitely the language. The Anishinaabemowin is important not only to the storytelling but also to the characters and to the people these characters represent. I want my Ojibwe relatives to hear themselves in this. So I feel a huge responsibility to do the best I can to represent the language in a good way. Angeline and Macmillan, along with Michele Wellman-Teeple from Michigan State University, set me up with some amazing pronunciation resources. 

I think the language is just as much a character as Perry, and I want to honor it that way. Before we began recording, I put out some tobacco to thank the language for letting me spend this time with it. That felt like the right place to begin.

“Before we began recording, I put out some tobacco to thank the language for letting me spend this time with it. That felt like the right place to begin.”

What do you believe is the most rewarding thing that your performance brings to the listening experience of Warrior Girl Unearthed?
Firekeeper’s Daughter was my first ever audiobook. I had never narrated anything before that, and going in I knew pretty much nothing about the whole process. I have a lot more books and experience under my belt for this one, and it feels so rewarding to get to return to this world where it all began for me, and to now be able to offer up everything I’ve learned. I feel more in control of my work this time around, and my hope is that listeners will be able to hear that.

To listeners, it can sometimes feel like magic to hear a narrator move between dialogue and a lead character’s inner thoughts. What is your process when moving from Perry’s inner world to external interactions?
Perry is a teenager, and I think being a teenager is a lot about reconciling your inner and outer worlds. Something I notice with Perry is that her external interactions often exude confidence in a way her internal monologue doesn’t. I think there’s something really vulnerable in the way she talks to herself, and something really powerful in the way she interacts with the world. I really try to let both those parts of her peek through and to be heard in conversation with each other. 

As you read Warrior Girl Unearthed, what did you take away from the experience? Did you discover anything, either about the world Boulley depicts or about yourself?
I found myself left with big feelings about how the ways in which we take care of ourselves help us take care of our people. I love how the characters Angeline writes have very unique passions and strengths they honor and offer to the world. Some might argue that I’m already grown, but I want to be Perry and Daunis when I grow up. 

“So much of the culture I come from is centered on gathering together and sharing stories. Audiobooks feel like a new medium to do that.”

Boulley’s books reflect an exciting shift in children’s and teen literature toward diversifying which stories are published and who gets to write them. What would books like Firekeeper’s Daughter and Warrior Girl Unearthed have meant to you when you were growing up?
I think it’s hard to overstate how much of an impact these books would have had on me as a young reader. It really is a gift to see not only yourself but also your community represented with so much heart. As a young Indigenous person it’s easy to feel lonely, like so much of the world doesn’t understand what matters to you. I know I would have devoured these books, and I would have held them with me as companions while I navigated a lot of the things these characters experience. How lovely it would’ve been to have these reminders that girls like me get to be exceptional, and be loved, and save the world. 

With Warrior Girl Unearthed in mind, what do audiobooks offer that a book can’t?
I think there’s something communal about audiobooks. Whereas reading can feel beautifully individual, there’s something special about the idea that with an audiobook, each listener is hearing the same voices come alive. It’s almost an equalizer between listeners; it creates an inherently shared experience. 

I loved hearing that people listened to Firekeeper’s Daughter with their families. So much of the culture I come from is centered on gathering together and sharing stories. Audiobooks feel like a new medium to do that. We can listen to stories together, whether we’re in the same room or miles apart.  

In addition to your work as an audiobook narrator, you’ve also acted on stage and in movies and TV. What are some of the unique challenges and pleasures of audiobooks as compared to those other types of performing? How do you feel your work in other media informs your narration work?
I think all of my work informs each other. I feel like if I removed even one piece of the puzzle, one tool from the toolbox, I wouldn’t be the same artist. I’ve played all sorts of characters with different dialects, different ages, different dispositions. I feel like I draw on them to flesh out these books. So many of the voices I use to narrate come from characters I’ve played.

And now I feel my narration feeding back to my acting. I think one of the most challenging parts when I started narrating was learning how to act without being seen. So many character choices in visual mediums can be solely in your body. Narrating has allowed me to explore my voice, and in doing so has offered a tool to do more with less. I’m able to find a lot more stillness in my work on screen now.  

What’s one thing people might not expect about your role as narrator?
That I get to redo as much as I want! When people hear I do audiobooks, the first question is usually, “How can you read without messing up?” The answer is, I mess up a lot, and then a lovely engineer punches me back in and I do it again, and sometimes again after that. So the job actually has very little to do with reading a lot of words perfectly in one go. 

Who in your life has had the biggest impact on your work as a narrator?
I don’t think I can pick just one. I think most of the people in my life turn up in my narration in some way. You’ll probably hear them in this book. 

What do you believe is your greatest strength as a narrator?
My cultural vocabulary. What I might not know about technical voice acting, I do know about Native people. I can hear our voices, our rhythms, our laughter. I know about our ways of connecting to one another across tribes and regions. I find so much joy in narrating specifically for Native authors, because it feels like I was born for it. I grew up with these stories.

Voice actor Isabella Star LaBlanc returns for an encore after her powerful performance of Angeline Boulley’s bestselling, award-winning debut novel, Firekeeper’s Daughter. As LaBlanc reveals in our interview for Audiobook Month, performing Warrior Girl Unearthed required a deep understanding of the Anishinaabemowin, or Ojibwe language.
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Shaker Heights, east of Cleveland, Ohio, is an idyllic American town, a “planned utopia . . . plotted out, parcel by parcel.” With its mansions full of doctors and lawyers and paved streets lined with high-end department stores, it’s an unexpected place for a murder. Little, Crazy Children reveals what happens when teenagers take “justice” into their own hands, spreading misinformation and blurring the line between the accused and the guilty. 

Sixteen-year-old Lisa Pruett was known and loved by all as a romantic, a poet, a member of her church youth group—and someone who was madly in love with her boyfriend, Dan Dreifort. But in September 1990, Pruett was found dead in a back yard near Dreifort’s house, brutally stabbed. 

Dreifort admitted to having contaminated the crime scene—putting his fingerprints on Pruett’s bike while straightening it up. Dreifort’s bedroom, less than 100 yards from the crime scene, was full of empty bottles of Robitussin and contained the suspected murder weapon. In journal upon journal, investigators found that Dreifort had written of his blistering hatred for Lisa, of sacrificing a virgin and poking her eyes out with his pocket knife. 

But Dreifort was not the one the state chose to prosecute. Instead, they fixed their attention on another teenager, 18-year-old Kevin Young. An outcast in the community who vehemently denied any involvement, Young soon became the main suspect without ever being placed at the scene of the crime. 

Journalist, novelist and renowned true crime reporter James Renner (The Great Forgetting) forages for the truth among mixed-up rumors and lies. Renner writes in short chapters with propulsive pacing and cliffhanger endings, turning this disturbing journey into quite a page turner. With a casual narration style, Renner imbues his story with plenty of personal anecdotes, making it feel like readers are on the case alongside him. 

The tragedy recounted in Little, Crazy Children includes an undercurrent of romantic, religious and racial tumult. There’s a mysterious phone call predicting the murder, a series of troubling love letters and a highly loaded trial—details that are as engrossing for readers as they were for the townspeople of Shaker Heights. Much of the mystery is still unanswered, and Renner fills his final chapter with theoretical questions. You’ll have plenty to deliberate over even after you finish reading, making this the perfect pick for your book club of amateur sleuths.

In his latest true crime investigation, James Renner refuses to let the murder of Shaker Heights, Ohio, teenager Lisa Pruett be washed away by the tide of time.
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Actor Imogen Church’s voice is inextricable from Ruth Ware’s thrillers, consistently keeping the emotions high through each adrenaline-filled novel. Church returns once again to voice Zero Days (14 hours), the story of two hired hackers whose assignment to test a corporation’s security system goes badly awry. Madly in love, Jack and her husband, Gabe, cannot stop flirting with each other, but Church balances their passion with a strong sense of tension as they attempt to outsmart both physical and cyber security systems. When Gabe turns up dead, Jack becomes the main suspect for her husband’s murder and must go on the run while trying to find the real killer.

Church’s female voices are particularly strong, and her British accents keep the highest intensity moments—which are filled with hurled insults—especially entertaining. Church narrates at the pace of a racing heartbeat, mirroring the moment-by-moment chase as the action unfolds—and leaving the listener hanging onto every last word.

Read our interview with Ruth Ware about Zero Days.

Imogen Church narrates Ruth Ware’s thriller at the pace of a racing heartbeat, mirroring the moment-by-moment chase as the action unfolds—and leaving the listener hanging onto every last word.
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With a friendly, warm voice and clear, well-paced performance, Abraham Verghese narrates his second novel, The Covenant of Water (31.5 hours), which follows three generations of a South Indian family from 1900 to the late 1970s. The tale begins with 12-year-old Mariamma, who is arranged to be married to a 40-year-old man whose family members have a “condition” that leads to water-related deaths. Verghese poetically weaves the family’s faith with their mysticism as they search for an explanation for these losses. As Mariamma’s father says, “Faith is to know the pattern is there, even though none is visible,” and likewise the reader will find themselves seeking providential clues.

There’s no denying that this ambitious novel and its many subplots make for a very long audiobook, but Verghese gives voices to his ensemble cast that reveal the deep tenderness he has for their experiences and will carry listeners through the whole tale.

Read our starred review of the print edition of The Covenant of Water.

There’s no denying that this ambitious novel and its many subplots make for a very long audiobook, but Abraham Verghese’s performance will carry listeners through the whole tale.

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