Category Archives: Audiobooks

SAVING RUBY KING by Catherine Adel West

Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West is a novel about how abuse, secrets and violence pervade and repeat through three generations of African-American Chicagoans living on the South Side. Told through five perspectives – two fathers, their daughters, and the church they attend – Saving Ruby King opens with a murder and ratchets up the tension throughout the book as truths come out and characters try to resolve their troubled relationships.

Why I picked it up: Saving Ruby King got great reviews, and when it came up on my library hold list AND Scribd had it available on audio, I took that as a sign.

Ruby and Layla have been best friends since they were little girls. Layla’s father Jackson is the pastor at their church, and Ruby’s father, Lebanon, a childhood friend of Jackson’s, is an angry violent man with a lot of resentment toward Jackson. When the book opens, Ruby’s mother Alice has been murdered in their house, and Lebanon is the prime suspect. Ruby wants to escape her father’s iron grasp, and Layla is determined to rescue her and get her out of Chicago. Meanwhile, Lebanon and Jackson have their own secrets and a complex relationship to work out.

There is a lot to like about West’s debut novel. You may think you know who the villains are, but the characters in Saving Ruby King are too complex for that. The worst among them have themselves endured pain and trauma that made them who they are – and that trauma gets passed along to the next generation. Calvary Hope Christian Church serves as the center of this community, the omniscient observer of its congregants’ lives and interactions. In addition to the intense family drama, West covers institutional racism and the South Side and police violence. Saving Ruby King felt almost Shakespearean to me, with trauma, betrayal and murder threading in parallel through the generations. For a debut novel, this plot is impressively complex.

There were a few things that kept Saving Ruby King from being a five-star read. First, for the first 100 pages or so, I had a hard time keeping the bloodlines straight. Second, there was too much telling instead of showing when it came to the characters. I prefer to get into characters’ heads and understand their motivations through their actions rather than being told how they are feeling by the author. Overall, though, Saving Ruby King was a very good book, and I recommend it.

I listened to Saving Ruby King on audio. There are 5 narrators, and I thought the three male narrators were very good (Adam Lazarre-White, who voiced Lebanon, was excellent) but the two female narrators – the voices of Layla and Ruby – were weaker. They sounded too young and girly. Overall the audio is quite good, but some of my confusion in the beginning of the book may have been exacerbated by doing it on audio.

Saving Ruby King was Book #52 of 2020.

SMACKED by Eilene Zimmerman

Eilene Zimmerman’s memoir Smacked: A Story Of White Collar Ambition, Addiction and Tragedy opens with her going to her ex-husband Peter’s San Diego home, concerned about him because their kids haven’t heard from him and he was ill the last time they saw him. She finds him dead in his bedroom and, shocked and devastated, assumes that he had a heart attack. She is incredulous when the police on the scene tell her that the likely cause of death is a drug overdose, having not suspected that Peter used drugs at all. Smacked is the story of the rise and fall of their relationship and Peter’s secret journey into drug addiction. How did this happen to him, and how could she have missed all the signs?

Why I picked it up: Smacked came highly recommended by Sarah at Sarah’s Bookshelves, and when I found it available on audio on Overdrive, I decided to give it a try.

Peter and Eilene married in their 20s after a mostly happy few years together, and then, after he graduated law school, they moved to San Diego so he could work for a top law firm as an intellectual property lawyer. They had two kids, and Eilene, a journalist, stayed home with the kids while Peter put in long hours at the firm, eventually making partner. Their marriage ultimately fell apart, but it wasn’t until Eilene learned the truth about his addiction that she could fully appreciate what had happened.

Smacked shines a light on a population that many people don’t know about: educated, white collar drug addicts. Looking for a way to relieve stress, or because they are unfulfilled in their jobs, they turn to drugs – prescription or illegal – for relief or to fill a void. They become increasingly dependent on the high to survive, leading to financial ruin and often serious health issues, including death. While Smacked is an intensely personal story, meticulously recorded and related by Zimmerman, it is also a wake-up call about a serious problem. So much of our modern lives can be characterized as addictive – technology, social media, medication – and this phenomenon of white collar addiction should really not be surprising.

Smacked, which is narrated by the author, is well-written and very compelling. I found the impact of Peter’s death on their kids to be the most heartbreaking part of the book. They too had no idea what was wrong with Peter, although they definitely knew something was. Peter went to great lengths to hide his addiction, resorting to increasingly strange and hurtful behavior to accommodate his needs. Zimmerman is understandably angry, regretful and sad, and ultimately sympathetic, which all comes across very clearly in her writing and her performance.

Smacked was Book #50 of 2020.

BIG SUMMER by Jennifer Weiner

You know that feeling when you think a book is going to be a certain way, and then you start it, and it turns out to be something different? You keep expecting – and maybe wanting – the book to conform to the genre you set out to read, and it doesn’t, and you sort of end up… blaming the book, however unfair that is? That’s what happened to me with Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner. It started out as I expected – kind of light fiction about a woman coming to grips with a friend who treated her terribly in high school but years later comes back into her life, asking her to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. About a third of the way in, Big Summer turns into a mystery/thriller – an entirely different type of book – and I’m not sure I ever fully recovered.

Why I picked it up: I haven’t read Jennifer Weiner in a very long time. I swapped for Big Summer a few months ago, and when I found it on audio on Scribd, I decided to go for it. It seemed like a good, light pandemic read.

Big Summer‘s protagonist is Daphne Berg, a plus-sized Instagram influencer. Daphne achieved notoriety when she was filmed telling off her high school friend Drue Cavanaugh, a rich, beautiful mean girl who humiliated her at a bar during college. Daphne finally told Drue off after years of being her poorer, heavy sidekick and enduring all of the pain and thoughtlessness inflicted by Drue. Years later, Drue tries to get back into Daphne’s life, apologizing for her behavior in high school and convincing her to be in Drue’s upcoming wedding extravaganza.

There’s a lot in that first third – Daphne’s self-esteem, her relationships with her family and roommate, how she recovered from the terrible high school years and why she stuck with Drue as long as she did. There’s also social media culture and body positivity and comeuppance. I liked that third quite a bit – it had some heft and poignancy and was an engrossing read.

Then something dramatic and unexpected happens, and Big Summer turns into a thriller and Daphne into a detective. What felt realistic and grounded in detail suddenly sped up and became faster-paced, less realistic and… an entirely different book. It was still engrossing and I still took the audio into the shower, but it was a lot less filling. And I have to admit that I felt a little resentful. So just know what you’re getting into if you decide to pick up Big Summer.

I listened to Big Summer on audio. It’s narrated by actress Danielle Macdonald, who I didn’t realize until right now is someone I’ve seen before in movies. (I guess that’s why she looks a lot like what I thought Daphne looks like!) She did a pretty good job. There are some weird pronunciations in the audio, which now makes sense because Macdonald is Australian. This is also her first audiobook. Here’s a Facebook Live recording of Weiner and Macdonald in conversation about the writing and recording process.

Big Summer was the 47th book of 2020.

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyasi

Like 2020, its year of publication, Yaa Gyasi’s latest novel Transcendent Kingdom is a swirl of issues and emotions. The book covers a lot of ground – racism, religion, addiction, science, depression and more – but never feels weighted down. Instead, it ricochets from topic to topic, decade to decade, taking readers through the narrative of a troubled Ghanaian immigrant family and how it was affected by these larger forces.

Why I picked it up: I read and enjoyed Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing (reviewed here), and buzz for Transcendent Kingdom was off the charts. It was an easy pick for my September BOTM.

Gifty grows up in Alabama, the daughter of Ghanaian parents (Ma and the Chin Chin Man). She adores her older brother Nana, and is an observant, thoughtful, religious girl who follows the rules and does what is expected of her. The family suffers two losses before Gifty turns 12: her father returns to Ghana, leaving his wife and two children in America, and her brother dies of an overdose after becoming addicted to opioids and then heroin following a basketball injury. These two traumas profoundly affect both Gifty and her mother, sending the latter into a deep depression and the former on a decades-long quest to reconcile her religious faith with her need to understand the science of addiction and whether humans can be prevented from falling prey to its clutches.

Gifty herself best describes the tension inherent within her:

This is something I would never say in a lecture or a presentation or, God forbid, a paper, but at a certain point, science fails. Questions become guesses become philosophical ideas about how something should probably, maybe, be. I grew up around people who were distrustful of science, who thought of it as a cunning trick to rob them of their faith, and I have been educated around scientists and laypeople alike who talk about religion as though it were a comfort blanket for the dumb and the weak, a way to extol the virtues of a God more improbable than our own human existence. But this tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false.

Transcendent Kingdom goes back and forth between Gifty’s lonely childhood in Alabama, her confusing undergraduate years at Harvard and her present job as a neuroscientist at Stanford. Decades later, Gifty is still trying to connect with her deeply withdrawn mother, while her research on mice is her own way of making peace with what happened to her brother and whether it could have been prevented.

For a rather short book (265 pages), there is a lot going on. While Homegoing was told in a linear format, tracing 300 years in the lives of two half-sisters and their descendants, Transcendent Kingdom practically floats from issue to issue, touching down long enough to ground Gifty’s search for meaning and understanding before moving on to another dimension of her family’s pain. Gifty talks about being a black female scientist, institutional racism, her difficulty in making friends and opening up to men, her anger at her father and her frustration with her mother, yet the book never feels preachy or dramatic. It is quite the opposite: compelling and deeply moving.

I listened to Transcendent Kingdom on audio. The narrator, Bahni Turpin, was excellent (her Ma was unforgettable), but I’d recommend doing this one in print. Given the meandering nature of Transcendent Kingdom, the audio version is a little disorienting. I was often unsure of where I was in the timeline of the narrative, and without the visual cues of paragraph breaks, it was sometimes hard to recover. This is not at all the fault of the talented narrator, but simply the reality of reading via audiobook vs print.

Transcendent Kingdom was book #46 of 2020.

I’M FINE AND NEITHER ARE YOU by Camille Pagán

In Camille Pagán’s novel I’m Fine And Neither Are You, Penelope Ruiz-Kar and her husband Sanjay live in the Midwest, have been married for 11 years, and are kind of… stuck. Penelope is the breadwinner, supporting their family of four by working in development for a medical school while Sanjay does freelance writing. She’s tired, frustrated and resentful. When she learns some secrets about her best friend Jenny that completely change how she had viewed Jenny’s perfect-seeming life, Penelope is driven to make some changes in her own.

Why I picked it up: I really enjoyed Pagán’s novel Forever Is The Worst Long Time (review here) and found the title to this one irresistible! I’ve had a 2019 ARC of I’m Fine And Neither Are You in the house for a while (I don’t remember where I got it) and thought I’d give it a try. (FYI – Camille Pagán was a guest on The Readerly Report podcast with me earlier this summer and we talked about her awesome titles!)

Penelope is a pretty relatable person. Like many women juggling family, marriage and career, she has a lot on her mind, but she isn’t always good about sharing it. And when she does, she feels guilty. But over the course of the book, she grows more confident and less afraid to tell the people in her life what she wants from them. There isn’t a lot of action here; the relationships in the book are what change over time. I’m Fine And Neither Are You is the opposite of escapist fiction; sometimes, I had to put it down because it all felt a little too familiar. Also, the book sometimes pinballs quickly between grief and snarky humor, which took some getting used to. But Penelope and Sanjay are multidimensional, interesting characters facing realistic challenges. Pagán has a great sense for how people communicate, and her books rarely strike a false note.

I listened to I’m Fine And Neither Are You on audio, and I wish I had gone with the print. The narrator, Amy McFadden, has a chirpy voice that seemed out of sync with the book and annoyed me as I listened.

I’m Fine And Neither Are You was book #43 of 2020.

PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf

There is a moment in Kent Haruf’s novel Plainsong when one character, a high school teacher, tells a teenage student, “These are crazy times, I sometimes believe these must be the craziest times ever.” I bookmarked that quote, because I think NOW really are the craziest times, and that the beauty of human connection that unfolds in Plainsong is even more reassuring than ever. This deceptively simple novel about interwoven small town lives in fictional Holt, Colorado was my final vacation read, and one of my favorite books I’ve read this year.

Why I picked it up: I’ve had Plainsong on my TBR ever since I read Our Souls At Night last year, which I also loved. Plainsong is #1 in a trilogy, which means I have two more Holt novels in my future!

In Holt, three separate storylines emerge in Plainsong. Victoria Roubideaux is a high school student who has gotten pregnant by an older boy who doesn’t live in town. She confides in a teacher, Maggie Jones, after she is kicked out of her house by her mother. Maggie approaches two older bachelor brothers, the McPherons – farmers who live outside town – and asks if they will take Victoria in, which they reluctantly agree to do. Meanwhile, another teacher at the school, Tom Guthrie, is dealing with a mentally ill wife and two small sons, Bobby and Ike. When his wife decides to leave Holt and move to Denver, Tom is left as a single father. Plainsong cycles through this triangle of character groups, braiding them tighter until they intersect at the end.

I loved Plainsong. Haruf is a master storyteller, using quiet spare writing that gives meaning and import to every sentence. The little details throughout lend immediacy and intimacy to the story, while the book itself is sweet and hopeful without feeling preachy, saccharine or out of tune. Bad things happen, characters become hurt or scared, and they do bad things to each other. But there is redemption for each one, and hope that their lives will become better. I also loved the interactions between Maggie, Victoria, Ike, Bobby and the McPheron brothers. They each had something to offer the others, which was ultimately what made the book so rewarding.

I am definitely reading #2 and #3 in the Plainsong trilogy.

I read Plainsong mostly in print, but I switched to audio when I returned home from vacation. The audio is fantastic too. It’s narrated by Tom Stechschulte, and with the exception of a few of the female voices, he was just perfect. His delivery greatly added to my enjoyment of the book. He could take a single word and imbue it with so much meaning that I often rewound and replayed just to experience it again.

Plainsong was book #41 of 2020.

THE FLATSHARE by Beth O’Leary

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary follows the typical romance fact pattern – take two people who seem to be a mismatch, keep them apart as long as possible while building up tension between them, let them hook up, throw a wrench into their romance, and then give them a happy ending. (I didn’t spoil anything there, did I?) The Flatshare is particularly creative in how it keeps its protagonists apart, leading to a cute and clever book that is nonetheless pretty light.

Why I picked it up: My book club wanted something light and romantic for August, and The Flatshare had been on my TBR for a while.

Tiffy is a book editor in London who has just been dumped by her boyfriend. She is in need of a cheap apartment, immediately. She finds a strange offer – Leon, a hospice nurse who works nights and weekends, is renting out his apartment for the hours he isn’t there. His flatmate will have the place when he’s not there, thus ensuring that the two never meet. Tiffy moves in, and eventually the two start communicating via post-it notes around the apartment. And – surprise! – they start to become friends, and maybe more, even though they’ve never met face to face.

The Flatshare is a cute story about two people who are very different but find themselves dependent on each other in surprising ways. Tiffy is loud and fun and dresses in kooky outfits; Leon is restrained and quiet but has a heart of gold. Tiffy’s ex-boyfriend reappears in the book, triggering memories of emotional and psychological abuse, which adds a more serious undercurrent that doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the book. (But it does throw more obstacles into Tiffy and Leon’s path to bliss.) Overall, The Flatshare is a cute read, good for a vacation or mental escape. It’s also very British – understated and sarcastic.

I listened to The Flatshare on audio, which I liked. The narrator for Leon’s chapters – Kwaku Fortune- is a little hard to understand at first, but Tiffy’s narrator – Carrie Hope Fletcher- is bright and clear and very easy to follow. If you want to pick this book up, I’d recommend the audio, which makes the story more immediate and evocative.

The Flatshare was book #40 of 2020.

THE STATIONERY SHOP by Marjam Kamali

The Stationery Shop by Marjam Kamali is a novel set in 1950s Iran and 1960s California/Massachusetts about a couple – Roya and Bahman – who fall in love as teenagers but are kept apart by family obligations and political upheaval shortly after their engagement. They end up living separate lives on different continents, passing the decades adjusting to new realities and the sharp pain of lost love. But they never forget about each other.

Why I picked it up: I put The Stationery Shop on the library hold list months ago after seeing several positive reviews. When my pickup library finally opened up again and the book came in, I grabbed it and also got it on audio so I could listen to it.

Roya and Bahman are teenagers in Tehran who meet in a stationery shop, where they fall in love. They both love reading and literature, while Bahman is politically active and supportive of Iran’s progressive prime minister Mossadegh. Their relationship grows during a time of political upheaval for Iran, yet the two remain steadfast and get engaged. Suddenly, however, Bahman disappears, with no warning or explanation. The two communicate by letter, via the owner of the stationery shop, and they make a plan to meet downtown and elope. Roya is there at the appointed time, but Bahman is not. He later breaks up with her by letter, shattering her dreams of her future.

A few years later, while attending college in California, Roya meets an American man with whom she builds a life. They experience joys and losses, the highs and lows of married life, but remain committed to each other over the decades. The reader hears sporadically from Bahman, who has remained in Iran and forged ahead with his life as well. Roya slowly adjusts to America, though she misses Iran deeply and never forgets about Bahman.

The Stationery Shop may be billed as historical fiction, but it’s really a historical romance. There isn’t all that much history here. The first third of the book explains the political situation in Iran in the 1950s, with uprising and upheaval serving as the backdrop for Roya and Bahman’s romance. Kamali writes about the Shah and the defeat of prime minister Mossadegh, then later briefly describes the unrest in the country when the Shah is ousted. But overall, The Stationery Shop is pretty light on history.

Kamali does better when she explores love, loss and acceptance. While I was never really all that convinced of the sustaining power of Bahman and Roya’s love, I found some of the other storylines and characters more interesting. I also liked the chapters about Roya’s new life in the U.S. But in the end, The Stationery Shop was a relatively light read that I’d characterize as romance/women’s fiction, rather than historical fiction. It’s a memorable love story, just not a particularly deep one.

I listened to The Stationery Shop on audio, and I enjoyed it in that format. Mozhan Marno, the narrator, is Iranian-American and therefore knew how to pronounce the foreign words, especially those having to do with Iranian food, which Kamali talks a lot about. I listened to the audiobook during long walks on the beach and it definitely kept my attention.

The Stationery Shop was Book #38 of 2020.

THE SWEENEY SISTERS by Lian Dolan

People taking DNA tests and discovering that their biological parents are not who they thought they were is becoming more and more common with the availability of DNA kits, so it was only a matter of time before this fact pattern showed up in fiction. The Sweeney Sisters by Lian Dolan is a recent entry into this category. When William Sweeney, a famous novelist living in Connecticut, dies in his 80s, he leaves behind three daughters (Liza, Maggie and Tricia), a memoir that was promised to his publisher but can’t be found, some shaky finances… and a fourth child that his daughters didn’t know about. Turns out that he had had a relationship with the next door neighbor and fathered a daughter, Serena, who is two years older than Liza. The Sweeney Sisters is about how the original Sweeney daughters cope with their father’s unexpected death and the discovery of a fourth sister.

Why I picked it up: I learned about The Sweeney Sisters on a William Morrow Summer Book Preview event on Facebook and requested it from the publisher because I liked the premise.

I found The Sweeney Sisters to be a pleasant read about rich white people problems. The sisters make fun of each other, but they are generally supportive and get along well. Liza’s perfect life is not as idyllic as it seems, and Maggie’s is a bit of a mess, but honestly, the conflict here is all pretty gentle and doesn’t seem to affect anyone too much. William Sweeney is a larger-than-life character whom Dolan nonetheless paints in realistic detail, from the plots of his famous books to his speaking engagements, famous friends and ego-fueled infidelities and betrayals. Poor Serena, meanwhile, whose life has been upended, is generally ignored by the Sweeney sisters, who try to like and accept her into the family but are so focused on each other that they have trouble remembering she exists.

I commend the author for creating a very realistic world with flawed characters and plausible situations. But in the end, The Sweeney Sisters was just an OK read for me. I just didn’t care that much about what happens. I was invested just enough in the story to keep going and finish, but it was easy to put the book down and pick up something else.

I listened to a lot of The Sweeney Sisters on audio. The narration by Brittany Pressley was pretty good: precise and emotive without being too dramatic. I liked her as a narrator; I just didn’t love the book.

The Sweeney Sisters was Book # 33 of 2020.

BEACH READ by Emily Henry

I am pretty new to the romance genre. I read a few of them last year – both Sally Thorne books (The Hating Game and 99 Percent Mine), which I enjoyed. I just read a third – Beach Read by Emily Henry – and the ones I’ve read have followed a pattern: 1) take a pair who have historically hated each other or had some other impediment to a civil relationship; 2) throw them into a situation requiring sustained contact; 3) reveal her to be stubbornly protective yet emotionally vulnerable and him to be quiet but deeply passionate; 4) build up the physical tension until it snaps; 5) give them a week or two of bliss; 6) throw a major wrench into the budding relationship; then 7) quickly remove the wrench and allow them to move on happily ever after. It’s a fun pattern, but definitely a pattern (at least gleaned from my admittedly small sample size).

Why I picked it up: Beach Read was an April 2020 Book Of The Month pick and got good buzz when it came out, so when I was invited by Berkley to join a blog tour for it, I thought I’d take a chance on another romance.

January Andrews is a romance novelist who finds herself broken and jaded about love after her father dies, leaving behind a secret mistress and a heretofore unknown beach house in Lake Michigan. January retreats to the beach house to try to finish her latest book, due to her publisher in a few months, and try to get over the loss of both her father and her trust in him. At the house, she discovers that her next door neighbor is her college rival Gus Everett, a literary fiction writer who is also plagued with writer’s block after his own emotional trauma. Gus and January were not exactly friends in college, so finding him living in the house next door is not a welcome discovery.

The two writers eventually learn that they are in the same predicament, and challenge each other to swap genres and see who produces the better work. Meanwhile, January will force Gus to take romantic outings with her on Saturday nights – all for the sake of research, of course – while Gus will bring January along on interviews he is conducting about mass deaths at a remote cult camp in order to expose her to grittier fodder for her literary fiction novel. (See steps 3-7 for the rest.)

Beach Read is a fun, light read that will likely please most romance fans. Henry does a nice job with the physical buildup between the Gus and January and simultaneous breakdown of the protective walls they’ve each erected. Despite (or perhaps because of) the incongruity between its subject and tone and the reality happening on TV and literally one mile from my house, I flew through this book. I don’t think I will ever become a romance fan – I like my books to surprise me more – but Beach Read provided a nice respite this month. The genre swap subplot felt a little forced at times and I’m not sure that either writer was truly pushed into unfamiliar ground, but it provided a nice pretext for put these two into some interesting situations. The banter between Gus and January was also sexy, smart and funny.

I listened to Beach Read on audio. It is performed by narrator extraordinaire Julia Whelan, which I found to be an interesting choice for January because she has a serious tone to her voice that didn’t necessarily match that of the book. (She’ll always be Tara Westover to me.) Nevertheless, it was a good audiobook and certainly kept me interested.

Beach Read was Book #23 of 2020. Thank you to Berkley for inviting me to participate in this book tour.