Category Archives: Audiobooks

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.

FOREVER IS THE WORST LONG TIME by Camille Pagán

Forever Is The Worst Long Time by Camille Pagán is a bittersweet story about the unexpected paths that life can take – and the adjustments we make to accommodate them. The book centers on a love triangle: in his mid 20s, James Hernandez travels from Michigan to NY to meet his best friend Rob’s new girlfriend, Lou. Unfortunately for him, he falls in love with her, kicking off a frustrating decade of longing and stasis in the rest of his life. An aspiring author, he can’t commit to a book, and, in his romantic life, he shies from longterm commitment as well. When Rob and Lou hit a rough patch in their marriage, James find himself with an opportunity to act, finally, on his feelings – a reckless decision that has serious ramifications for all three.

I was expecting a light read when I picked up Forever Is The Worst Long Time, and it started out that way. But as the book progressed and the characters got older, the book got more serious. I don’t want to give away too much in this review, but I found this book to be moving and quite memorable. There are a lot of relationships to explore here – friendships, parents and children, and couples – and Pagán skillfully conveys how they evolve and mature over time.

I can only find one thing to complain about: I didn’t find Lou as compelling as I needed her to be to be the convincing center of this long triangle. She was sort of opaque, with her inner feelings a mystery through a lot of the book. I wanted to understand her better – or at least understand why she deserved to be the object of Jim’s love for so long.

I listened to Forever Is The Worst Long Time on audio until I chose to finish it off in print. The narrator, Timothy Andres Pabon, was an excellent choice for James, who narrates the book. His depiction of James as steady, understated and quiet was spot on. (Unfortunately, like many male narrators, his female voices were not good.)

Forever Is The Worst Long Time was a pleasant surprise for me. I’ll be looking into other books by Pagán.

THE BODY IN QUESTION by Jill Ciment

The Body In Question – a new summer 2019 release coming out on June 11 – is a relatively short but addictive novel by Jill Ciment about a woman in her 50s who is chosen as a juror for a murder case in Florida. The jury is sequestered due to the sensational nature of the charges – a teenage girl is accused of setting a fire that killed her baby brother – and during the trial, the juror (#C-2) develops a sexual relationship with one of the other jurors (#F-17). She has a much older, infirm husband, and the first half of the book covers her affair with the juror and the culmination of the trial, while the second half explores her relationship with her husband after the trial.

I really enjoyed The Body In Question, for a bunch of reasons. First, jury dynamics are fascinating. I don’t like courtroom dramas and find trials really tedious (hello, ex-lawyer here), but I really like learning about juries and how they come to their decisions. Ciment did a great job here with realistic characters and dialogue, relatable situations and consistent tension throughout the book. I felt invested and wanted to know how the trial would come out, as well as whether C-2 would end things with F-17 before they got caught by the other jurors or the guards at the Econo-Lodge.

There are a lot of big issues at play here – loyalty, mortality, guilt and obsession for starters. C-2 has a coldness to her, reflected in her interactions with both her husband and F-17, which keeps the reader at arm’s length, emotionally. But it didn’t impact my enjoyment of the book. The writing is spare and efficient, with no extraneous detail or dialogue. The last section is particularly powerful, where Ciment looks unflinchingly at difficult choices made at the end of life.

I listened to The Body In Question on audio. It was narrated by Hillary Huber, who was a perfect choice for this book. Her raspy voice conveys confidence and brashness, just like C-2. It’s like she’s daring you to judge C-2, while at the same time communicating that she doesn’t care if you do. Excellent audiobook.

MY EX-LIFE by Stephen McCauley

My Ex-Life by Stephen McCauley is about how ex-spouses David and Julie, married briefly in their twenties, find their way back into each other’s lives a few decades later at a time when they each need some support and friendship. (Similarly, I read and loved a few Stephen McCauley books in my own twenties, like The Object Of My Affection, The Easy Way Out and The Man Of The House, but hadn’t read any others of his recent books until now, when I needed something lighter to balance out some heavy reads.)

Julie has just gotten divorced, and her second ex-husband wants to buy her out of the house they owned together. Meanwhile, her daughter Mandy, a high school junior, needs help getting her college applications together and reaches out to David, who is a college application consultant for the rich. David’s younger, hotter boyfriend has left him, and he is facing eviction from the San Francisco carriage house he has been renting at a huge discount. With no real plans for his future, David accepts Mandy’s invitation to come out to Boston and help her get into college.

So, yeah, it’s a rather contrived setup. And My Ex-Life is an old-fashioned novel, with chapters that end with mild cliffhanging sentences and gentle, wise humor about relationships, parenting and modern absurdities like AirBnB and the San Francisco real estate market. But I enjoyed it. It’s not edgy or groundbreaking, but it’s incisive and readable, not unlike other McCauley novels. I laughed out loud a few times at McCauley’s funny observations, and I was rooting for David and Julie to figure out a way to help each other address the problems in their lives.

If you’re a Stephen McCauley fan, My Ex-Life will feel like welcome, familiar ground. And if you’re new to him, it’s a nice update to his canon.

I listened to My Ex-Life on audio. It was narrated by George Newbern, who did a great job communicating McCauley’s wry humor. He’s got this reassuring, wise voice that makes you believe that even though everything is falling apart, it’s all going to end up OK. Great pick for this book.

99 PERCENT MINE by Sally Thorne

I was in need of a palate cleanser after a few recent stressful reads, so when I saw 99 Percent Mine on the New Releases shelf at the library, I grabbed it. I had read Thorne’s The Hating Game earlier this year and enjoyed it a lot, so I though I’d give her next book a try too.

99 Percent Mine has a similar setup to The Hating Game. Darcy Barrett and her twin brother Jamie grew up with a boy in the neighborhood named Tom Valeska. Tom and Jamie were best friends, while Darcy and Tom had a more complicated relationship: they were deeply drawn to each other, but Darcy, afraid of Tom’s feelings for her, escaped from him when she was 18 by leaving to travel the world. It’s now many years later, and Darcy is still single, living alone and bartending in between her long periods of traveling. Tom has gotten engaged, and Jamie and Darcy are not on speaking terms because they disagree with what to do with their late grandmother’s cottage, which she left them to them to renovate and sell.

Tom, a contractor, appears on Darcy’s doorstep (she’s living in the cottage) to begin the renovations. With the two now living in close quarters, their feelings for each other are harder to ignore. And so begins a long buildup of serious tension, will-they-or-won’t-they and ok-they-did-but-will-it-stick? Sounds like The Hating Game, right? I got sucked into this story, like I did with her last book, and mostly enjoyed the ride, but when I got to the end, I found it sort of silly. There was something so appealing about The Hating Game’s Josh Templeman and Lucy Hutton and their tortured road to happiness, while Darcy and Tom just seem… stubborn and inconsistent. Thorne worked so hard to draw out the tension and keep her characters apart that she forgot that the story had to make sense. Darcy was contradictory and inconsiderate, vacillating between pining for Tom and trying to be tough and sexy. Tom was compelling but unrealistically insecure. It got tiresome by the end, and when it came time for the two to be together, Thorne invented a flimsy reason to keep them apart for a few more chapters.

99 Percent Mine was a quick, light read, but it wasn’t as fun or irresistible as its predecessor. It did do its job: I am now ready for meatier fare.

I listened to 99 Percent Mine on audio, and the narration was the best part. Jayme Mattler’s raspy, sexy voice was just perfect for Darcy – tough yet vulnerable at the same time. And her Tom was also perfect, which isn’t always the case when female narrators perform male characters. Listening on audio definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

EDUCATED by Tara Westover

Educated, the juggernaut memoir by Tara Westover, needs no introduction, but for those who may have just returned from time travel or a few years of hibernation, it’s the story of the author’s life growing up in a extreme, survivalist Mormon family in Idaho. At 17, Westover managed to separate herself from her family and go to college at BYU and graduate school at Cambridge. The book is about how education – she never attended school until college – opened her mind to understand her family and how her upbringing had affected her, often negatively.

Educated is a harrowing read, as there are many times when Westover and her parents and siblings were in grave physical danger, whether from a car accident or a gruesome accident at her father’s junkyard. Her parents did not believe in doctors or medicine and were deeply distrustful of government institutions like schools or hospitals. When her brother Luke suffered a horrendous burn when a fuel tank exploded, he was treated with natural remedies and painkillers. When her mother suffered severe head trauma in a car accident, she recovered at home, treating her frequent migraines with herbs.

Westover also experienced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her father and one of her brothers, leading to a near-constant atmosphere of fear and tension at home. She is honest about the impact this abuse had on her as a young woman: she tried not to feel anything at all so that she wouldn’t have to face the pain that they caused.

I admire Westover’s remarkable resilience, as well as her clear, unflinching writing. Her ability to teach herself all that she missed growing up without schooling is astonishing. And her loyalty to her parents, despite their repeated failure to protect her from dangers at home or to take responsibility for the pain suffered by her and her siblings, is a testament to the power of family and upbringing.

I am glad I read Educated, but I can’t say that I loved it. It’s not an enjoyable read, for sure, given the nature of her upbringing. But even beyond that, there is a coldness there, a distanced retelling of her family’s stories that makes it hard to appreciate their full impact. Westover is probably still processing all that happened to her, and the book is clearly part of that process of coming to terms. I am not sure that she is fully on the other side yet. I wonder whether the book would feel more complete if she had waited a few more years to write it, when everything was a little less raw.

I listened to Educated on audio, and it was narrated by acclaimed performer Julia Whelan (aka the author of My Oxford Year and Grace Manning on “Once And Again”). Whelan won an Audie for Best Female Narrator for this performance earlier this year. Her narration was measured and unemotional, almost bordering on angry. I wonder how much her performance contributed to my sense of remove from the book, and whether reading it in print would have made for a different experience.

TIN MAN by Sarah Winman

Tin Man by Sarah Winman is a quiet novel about three friends – Ellis, Michael and Annie – and the legacy of their complicated friendship. When Tin Man opens, Ellis is a widower living a lonely, isolated life in his town in England. It’s clear that Michael and Annie – now dead – formed with Ellis a very tight threesome, made complicated by the fact that Ellis and Michael were once more than just friends. As the book goes on, Winman teases out how Michael’s relationship with Ellis and Annie waxed and waned over the years, and what eventually happened to Michael and Annie. The first half of the book is set in the present day and told through Ellis’ perspective, and the second shifts to Michael and tracks where he was during the times he was out of Ellis’ and Annie’s lives.

This is a sad book! Ellis’ grief is enormous – in his relatively short life, he lost his mother, his wife and his best friend – and he is simply lost at sea, with almost nothing tethering him to life. The discovery of a box of Michael’s belongings in his father’s attic finally gives him insight into Michael’s thoughts and actions, and ultimately releases him to try living again.

Tin Man is a tough book to review. It sounds like not a lot happens, right? And it is a short and straightforward read. But it’s achingly lonely and sad, and it makes you want to reach out and give each character a long hug. Winman’s writing is eloquent – spare but also powerful, with little details that pack a punch.

I listened to Tin Man on audio, which I don’t recommend. Narration – by the author – was fine, though Winman has a relatively strong British accent that I had to get used to. I don’t recommend the audio because the book has short chapters that jump around in time quite a bit, and it was a little hard to follow on audio. I usually have the print copy along with the audio, but this time I didn’t and I missed it. I even ducked into a bookstore once just to orient myself with the print copy!

Tin Man was a recommendation by a number of reviewers I follow, and I am glad I read it. This simple yet profound story will stay with me for a while.