Category Archives: Audiobooks

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.

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.