Category Archives: Audiobooks

I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson

This is the longest stretch I’ve gone all year without finishing a book. I mostly blame baseball – my beloved Washington Nationals made an unprecedented postseason run from the Wild Card game to the World Series, surviving several elimination games and beating the odds to win the pennant. We are a baseball house, which meant late nights throughout October and much exhaustion and distraction during the days. My reading ground to a halt. I stopped and started about 4 books, getting nowhere, before finally just accepting that I was not going to be getting any reading done until the end of the Series.

Another reason for the inactivity: the one book I was reading/listening to just wasn’t doing it for me. For the “Movie in 2019” category of the 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge, I chose I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson, a YA novel that I JUST DISCOVERED IS NOT COMING OUT AS A MOVIE IN 2019. OH MY GOD. How did that happen? I can’t believe I read this book for no reason. I may have confused it with another book? It is in development, but no release date has been set. WHY DID I READ THIS BOOK? I may just give myself a pass on this because I truly believed it was coming out this year. My blog, my challenge, right?

I’ll Give You The Sun is about twins in Northern California – Noah and Jude – who used to be inseparable but became estranged between ages 14 1/2 and 16. The story of why they stopped speaking to each other unfolds throughout the book in alternating chapters, with the early years narrated by Noah and the later years narrated by Jude. In those intervening years, the two grapple with a lot of complicated things: sexual identity, death of a parent, competition between them for academics and their parents’ attention, sexual assault. It sounds like it should be an interesting book, and I am particularly drawn to books about twins because I am a twin mom, but I had a really hard time with this one.

Things happen in I’ll Give You The Sun that are implausible or make no sense. There are weird supernatural effects throughout, such as conversations with dead family members. Noah and Jude are totally self-absorbed, even for adolescents, and act in unforgivably selfish ways. There are inappropriate sexual relationships and underdeveloped characters who fall in deep love with little explanation. The plot was hard to follow. And, it was boring! It took me SO LONG to finish this book. And I didn’t enjoy it at all.

Maybe this is an age thing? People seem to love this book.

I alternated between listening to and reading I’ll Give You The Sun. It is narrated by the excellent Julia Whelan and Jesse Bernstein. I thought Bernstein in particular did a great job with Noah – I actually googled him because he was so convincing as a 14 year old and I wanted to see what he looked like. But even this duo couldn’t save I’ll Give You The Sun. I found my mind wandering as I listened to it – the death knell for an audiobook.

At least I completed one of the challenge categories… kind of.

THE DEARLY BELOVED by Cara Wall

The Dearly Beloved is a quiet, contemplative novel about two couples who are brought together when their husbands are hired as ministers at the same church in Greenwich Village in the 60s. Lily and Charles and Nan and James each grapple with their own relationships to faith and how differences in their faiths impact both their marriages and their relationships with the other couple. But while faith is a major theme of The Dearly Beloved, at its core it is a novel about friendships and marriage. So if you’re daunted by the religious bent, don’t be.

Charles and Lily meet when he’s in divinity school and she’s in graduate school at Harvard. He pursues her energetically, despite her pronouncement that she doesn’t believe in God and never will. He breaks through her hard shell and convinces her to marry him. As their relationship unfolds, Lily remains rigid and aloof, but challenges they face later as a couple ultimately bring them closer together while Charles’ commitment to God is tested.

James and Nan are both believers, but he is an activist and leads his congregation intellectually and socially rather than spiritually, while Nan is a traditionally observant Christian who is uncomfortable with social change. They too face challenges as a couple, but their relationship is less fraught than Charles and Lily’s.

When the two couples’ lives become entwined, Wall explores the dynamics between the four, putting them in situations where their individual relationships strain and rebuild, expand and evolve. The Dearly Beloved is not an action-packed book; much of what happens is inside the characters’ heads. But the book moves along at a nice pace and unfolds consistently. I was invested from the start, interested to see how these four lives would unfold and how the characters would change. I also found the conversations about faith interesting. There’s not a lot of God in the book, but there is discussion about the different role that religion plays in people’s lives, even those who choose ministry as a calling.

I’ve read complaints about The Dearly Beloved from people who didn’t like Lily or who found the book slow or boring. Lily can be frustrating, for sure, but her corner of the square in in many ways the most interesting of the four. (And I don’t mind unlikeable characters.) I also didn’t find the book boring. It’s quiet, but compelling. I’m glad I read it.

I listened to The Dearly Beloved on audio. It was narrated by Kathy Keane, who did a nice job with it. Her performance, like the book, is understated, never overly dramatic, matching the tone of the book. I had no trouble telling the characters apart and always looked forward to listening.

THE NEW ME by Halle Butler

A few years ago, I read a dark novel called Jillian by Halle Butler about two women working in the same office whose hatred for each other simmers just below the surface, making for a depressing but also bitingly funny read. Butler’s new novel, The New Me, has a slightly different setup, but it’s as dark as, and perhaps deeper than, its predecessor.

The New Me is about Millie, a thirty year-old living in Chicago who has a temp job at a home design showroom. Her job is basically unnecessary – she answers intermittent phone calls and puts folder together for potential clients – leaving Millie with a lot of time to surf the Internet and feel bad about herself. She’s a few years out from a breakup, and with the exception of one self-absorbed friend, she spends all her time alone. She doesn’t have any money, but she fantasizes about the ways she will improve – get a job, go to yoga, upgrade her wardrobe, do her dishes, make new friends – once she lands a job. Meanwhile, she fritters away the hours at the temp job, unwittingly torpedoing any chance she has of getting a permanent offer.

While there is a lot of biting humor here, The New Me is really a sad commentary about isolation and loneliness in lives lived online and in hermetically sealed apartments with streaming Netflix. Millie is actually smart and cultured (we see glimpses to her childhood when she was a precocious reader and listened to The Rite Of Spring as a toddler). She has been beaten down by her own anxiety, depression and lack of motivation, condemning her to living hand-to-mouth as a thirty year-old who is dependent on her parents to buy her new clothes and get her a haircut when she goes to visit them as a last resort.

Halle Butler may not be for everyone, but I enjoyed The New Me and laughed through my cringing (cringed through my laughing?) many times. I found this interview in The Paris Review to be pretty helpful in understanding Butler and where she’s coming from. If you want a mostly depressing but also biting and incisive look at millennials and the modern workplace, give The New Me a try.

I listened to The New Me on audio. It’s narrated by Butler, the author, and while she’s not the best performer (her voice is kind of monotonous, and this felt more like a book reading than a professional audiobook), her style actually worked really well with the book. Millie is disaffected, which was conveyed pretty well by Butler’s almost blase narration. So for this reason, the audio worked pretty well.

THINGS YOU SAVE IN A FIRE by Katherine Center

Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a Katherine Center book.

Things You Save In A Fire, like the other Center books I’ve read (Everyone Is Beautiful and How To Walk Away) is a light-ish, enjoyable read with a bit of heft to it. Cassie, a firefighter in Austin, is receiving an award for bravery when she unexpectedly lets loose on the local politician presenting the award. Cassie has her (understandable) reasons for attacking him, but her very public altercation leads to the loss of her job. At the same time, her estranged, ailing mother summons her to come live with her in Massachusetts for a year to help take care of her, providing Cassie with a convenient place to find a different job.

Cassie moves after finding a position at an old-fashioned, all-male firehouse that doesn’t take well to women colleagues. Her boss in Austin warns her not to give them any additional reasons to dislike her – don’t dress like a woman, don’t cry, don’t show any feelings, and most important, don’t get romantically involved with anyone at work. For Cassie, who has built a brick wall around her emotions since she was a teenager, this won’t be hard. She’s tough, tireless and fearless, and winning over the new firehouse is just the latest in a long string of challenges she has overcome.

Once in Massachusetts, however, Cassie has to confront something she hasn’t before: her own conflicting feelings about her mother and the undeniable attraction she feels for the Rookie, a young firefighter who started the same day she did. And we also learn what the Austin politician did to harm Cassie so much that she beat him up at an awards ceremony. So while Things You Save In A Fire is generally a light read, there are some complex feelings at stake.

I enjoyed Things You Save In A Fire. It’s a good palate cleanser if you’ve read something heavy and need a break, or if you just enjoy a well-told story with a compelling, strong woman at the center. Also – bonus – I learned a lot about firefighting. Things tie up a little nicely at the end, but that’s not so bad every once in a while.

I listened to Things You Save In A Fire on audio. It’s narrated by Therese Plummer, one of my all-time favorite performers, and she was perfect for Cassie. She does romance really well, but she’s also awesome at narrating gruff men with Boston accents and she infused Cassie with humanity and humor. I highly recommend the audio version.

HOW NOT TO DIE ALONE by Richard Roper

I am not sure what made me pick How Not To Die Alone by Richard Roper as my next read a week or two ago. I think it’s because I had a review copy on audio and had swapped a book for the print copy, so it was easy logistically. In retrospect, I’m not sure it was what I was in the mood for, as I’ve had a run of lighter books lately.

How Not To Die Alone is about Andrew, a man in London approaching middle age, who is (like the last book I read) an introvert stuck in a stagnant life. He works for the city doing the difficult job of going into the homes of people who have died without leaving a will or next of kin. He goes through their apartments looking for clues about who might be able to pay for – or even attend – their funerals, and when he finds none, he attends himself. It’s a grim, sad job, but Andrew has done it for a years, all while living in a dreary flat where he obsesses over his model trains and communicates online with other train enthusiasts whom he knows only by their online handles.

Andrew’s world is ripe for upending. Three things happen in short order: he suffers the loss of an estranged family member; a new female co-worker starts work in his office; and his officemates come closer and closer to discovering that Andrew’s life as they know it as a lie. For he has fabricated a wife and two children in order to fit in at work, and when his boss proposes a rotating series of dinner parties at team members’ homes, Andrew’s falsehood becomes harder and harder to maintain.

How Not To Die Alone is a cross between a dark book and a rom-com. The book is infused with loneliness – Andrew’s as well as that of the people whose homes he searches – and he’s a pretty depressed guy. But at the same time, the book takes on a lighthearted feel as Andrew bumbles his way through a crush and navigates an IRL meetup with his train friends. The constant straddling of both paths makes How Not To Die Alone, in the end, not terribly successful on either front. It was pleasant enough, but I wasn’t really compelled to return to it after having a break.

I listened to How Not To Die Alone on audio. It’s performed by acclaimed British narrator Simon Vance, and he did a good job with it. (Anything performed in a British accent is automatically good, right?) I think I enjoyed the book more on audio than I would have in print, thanks in large part to the narration. He gave Andrew the stammering, well-meaning persona that you expect him to have, while infusing the whole book with dignity and poignance (perhaps more than it deserved).

I’ve seen this book described as the male version of Eleanor Oliphant Is Fine (reviewed here). I don’t really agree. Andrew isn’t as awkward as Eleanor, and his backstory isn’t as dark. That seems like convenient marketing to me. In the end, this was just OK for me.

FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner is about a married fortysomething couple – Toby and Rachel Fleishman – whose relationship goes south. Toby, a doctor at an Upper East Side hospital, and Rachel, a successful talent agent, were once happy and in love, but now detest each other. They’ve separated, with their two children shuttling between their two apartments, and Toby has moved on, thanks to a long string of sexual encounters with women he finds on Tinder-esque apps. When Fleishman Is In Trouble opens, Rachel has dropped the kids off at his apartment, unexpectedly – and then promptly disappears.

The majority of the book tells Toby’s story. The narrator turns out to be Libby, a woman who Toby became friends with during a high school summer trip to Israel and who is now living in New Jersey and taking a pause from her career as a journalist for a large men’s magazine. This narrative structure is a little strange at first, but it makes more sense over time, as Libby’s role in Toby’s present life grows more consistent.

Fleishman Is In Trouble is a very smart, funny book. Brodesser-Akner takes no prisoners: the rich women in cheeky workout tank tops; the desperate single divorcees texting obscene photos via apps; the Instagram-obsessed teenagers Toby’s daughter hangs out with. But this is not a satire. Instead, it’s a blistering look at the pressures on modern marriages between two working adults, from income disparity and fights over childcare to rote sex and the double standard that punishes working moms and makes saints of men who walk their kids to school every day.

But just when you think you know where Brodesser-Akner has gone with this book, she throws a curveball that makes you realize you’ve only been seeing half the forest. My perspective completely changed late in the game – and not just once – making me appreciate that the author was telling a much more complex – and sadder – story than I had expected, especially where women are concerned.

I listened to Fleishman Is In Trouble on audio. The narrator, Allyson Ryan, was fantastic. She handled urbane New York voices perfectly, both men and women (not always easy to pull off), and gave the recording the perfect tone of urgency with an everpresent undercurrent of anger. This is a long audiobook at 14.5 hours, but it’s easy to follow and never tedious. Ryan really did a great job with it – great casting!

I rarely buy books these days since I get so many via ARCs or swaps, but this is one I shelled out cash for. I don’t regret it at all – worth every penny.

SEARCHING FOR SYLVIE LEE by Jean Kwok

Searching For Sylvie Lee – which has dominated summer best-of lists and is the June Today Show Read With Jenna pick – is the third novel from Jean Kwok (after Girl In Translation (reviewed here) and Mambo In Chinatown (reviewed here). It came out at the beginning of the month and I just finished it on audio.

Like Kwok’s earlier books, Searching For Sylvie Lee is about immigration, identity, family and loss. Sylvie Lee was born to Chinese parents in New York City but was sent to live with her grandmother and cousins in the Netherlands as an infant. She moved back to the States as an awkward 9 year-old, joining her parents and baby sister Amy in New York, but never felt that she fit in. She worked hard, attended Princeton and married a white guy from a rich family and got a job at an investment bank. When the novel opens, she has gone back to the Netherlands to see her dying grandmother and reconnect with her family in Amsterdam. When Sylvie disappears while in Amsterdam, her cousin Lukas calls Amy (now in her 20s) to see if she has heard from her. Amy, frantic, travels to the Netherlands to retrace her sister’s steps and try to find out what happened to her.

Kwok is expert at communicating the loneliness and isolation that comes from feeling that you don’t belong, or that you are far from people who love and understand you. She does it again here in Searching For Sylvie Lee. Sylvie never fit in in Amsterdam as a child, one of only a few Chinese kids in her school, and when she moved back in with her parents in New York, their family unit had formed without her. Meanwhile, there are secrets and resentments among her Amsterdam family that Sylvie never understood, relying only on her grandmother and cousin for emotional intimacy. The theme of disconnection and misunderstanding is threaded strongly through Searching For Sylvie Lee, even as the thriller-y mystery of Sylvie’s fate propels the story along.

I especially enjoyed Kwok’s atmospheric descriptions of Amsterdam and Venice, where Sylvie and Lukas spend a weekend. Those cities play their own role in the book, with the buildings and water in both providing backdrops to pivotal scenes and interactions. The gondolas, the bicycles, even the food come into sharp relief through Kwok’s sensuous writing. The scenery also reinforces the sense of loneliness that often pervades the book.

Searching For Sylvie Lee is a bit of a departure from Kwok’s earlier books, and while I am not naturally drawn to thrillers, there is enough else here to make for a very compelling read.

I listened to Searching For Sylvie Lee on audio. There are three narrators, one each for Amy, Sylvie and their mother. The narrators – Angela Lin, Samantha Quan and Caroline McLaughlin – did a very good job of conveying these three characters’ different viewpoints and personalities. The rapid rotation among the three voices kept the audio moving at a fast pace, but not too fast to blur the emotional impact of Kwok’s writing. On the most recent episode of The Readerly Report podcast, Kwok talked to Nicole and me about the process of choosing narrators for the audio version (she was heavily involved) and why she felt it was so important to have three different voices.