Category Archives: Audiobooks

WHEN WE WERE VIKINGS by Andrew David MacDonald

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald is a novel about siblings trying to make their way through life despite a lot of adversity. Zelda and Gert’s parents are gone – their mother, an alcoholic, died of cancer and their father disappeared when they were young. Zelda was born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, compromising her mental development and limiting her independence. She is obsessed with Vikings, and turns to Viking culture and rules to guide her throughout life.

Why I picked it up: I got When We Were Vikings as an ARC at Book Expo last year and recently started seeing reviews as its January publication day approached. I’ve seen comparisons to Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, which I enjoyed a lot.

Zelda and Gert have a lot going against them. They’re young and living on their own, having moved out of their uncle’s apartment after he started sexually abusing Zelda. Gert has dropped out of college and now deals drugs in order to support them, and Zelda, who spends her days either at the community center or seeing a therapist or hanging out at home, is dependent on Gert for everything.

When Zelda discovers that Gert is no longer attending classes, she draws inspiration from her beloved Vikings to try turn his life around while contributing more substantially to their home. She gets a job, experiments with having a boyfriend, and tries to repel the shady characters who have started invading their already fragile household, thanks to Gert’s new livelihood.

Zelda is an interesting narrator: she is articulate, engaged and compelling, but she is also naive and has poor judgment. MacDonald walks a fine line here – he has to make Zelda complex enough to feel invested in, but if she comes across as too smart, she’s not plausible as a character. For the most part, I think he did a good job achieving this balance. There were a few times when she seemed too sophisticated and used words that she wouldn’t have known, but in general MacDonald did a good job creating a consistent character.

Gert and Zelda are flawed but fundamentally good people who have been dealt some tough cards. I felt a sense of dread as the book went on, worrying about what was going to happen to them and how they would get through it. (Hint: it’s never good when a gun appears in a book.) When We Were Vikings is a touching novel and Zelda a winning protagonist. I also learned a lot about Vikings. It could have used a little more editing and the end is a bit abrupt (and unrealistic), but for a debut novel, When We Were Vikings was pretty impressive. And Macdonald did a very nice of getting into a woman’s head.

I listened to When We Were Vikings on audio. The narrator, Phoebe Strole, had a perky, upbeat delivery that at times was incongruous with what was happening in the book, but her narration gave Zelda a naivete and optimism that was entirely consistent with her character. I recommend the audio version.

When We Were Vikings was Book #6 of 2020 and satisfies the Debut Novel category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

DEAR EDWARD by Ann Napolitano

Dear Edward has one of those storylines that makes you want to pick the book up: a plane from New York to Los Angeles crashes over Colorado, killing everyone on board except for one person, a twelve year-old boy named Edward who was flying with his parents and older brother. Dear Edward follows Edward’s life after the crash, when he moves in with his aunt and uncle, and also flashes back to the hours leading up to the crash and the lives of some of the other people on the plane.

Why I picked it up: I fell for this irresistible premise once I started seeing buzz about this book everywhere. It was Read With Jenna‘s January pick as well as a BOTM selection from December. Dear Edward had also been sitting on my shelf since May, when I got it at Book Expo 2019.

I have mixed feelings about Dear Edward. On the one hand, it’s an interesting story, and there were elements that I found particularly compelling. Edward received letters from families of the people who died – hundreds of them – and I could understand that being a realistic response by their authors. After all, Edward was the last person alive to see the other passengers before they died. His sense of dislocation and emotional paralysis after the crash also made a lot of sense and was depicted well by Napolitano.

But I had a hard time connecting to Dear Edward. Napolitano glossed over huge parts of the story, simplifying them down to a conversation or even a few sentences. Edward’s grief – as well as his aunt’s – was superficially plumbed, leaving little sense of the true depth of their loss. Edward’s relationship with Shay, the girl next door who befriends him immediately upon his arrival in his new home, forms the backbone of Dear Edward, but how realistic is it that he would sleep on her bedroom floor for three years straight and not make a single other friend? For every element that rang true, there was one that left me shaking my head. In the end, I had trouble connecting emotionally to this book and found it more simplistic than its topic warranted.

I listened to Dear Edward on audio, and I wonder if that had something to do with my feelings about it. I found that when I read it in print (which I did from time to time), I liked it better. There was something about Cassandra Campbell’s narration that didn’t work for me here. I’ve listened to a lot of her books and maybe she just sounds too familiar to me at this point? When I read the book in print, I found it more substantive.

In the end, this was a 3.5 star read for me. Enough there to make it memorable but not, in the end, one of my favorites so far this year.

Dear Edward was Book #5 of 2020 and satisfies the Book With A Blue Cover category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

YOU WERE THERE TOO by Colleen Oakley

Mia is a thirtysomething artist living in suburban Pennsylvania with her husband Harrison. When she meets a man by chance named Oliver who has also appeared in her dreams since she was young, she starts to question everything – her marriage, what she wants out of life, and whether she and Oliver are destined for a deeper relationship.

Why I picked it: Random House/Berkley Publishing invited me to participate in a blog tour supporting You Were There Too’s January 2020 release.

You Were There Too has an interesting premise. What role do, and should, our dreams play in our lives? Can they predict the future? These questions intrigued me. I also liked the setup of the book. Mia and Harrison have had a number of miscarriages which have put a strain on their marriage, and Harrison is now unsure about whether he wants kids at all. Mia, who has paused her career as an artist to start a family, is understandably upset about Harrison’s change of heart, and is confused about how to resolve her disappointment in his decision along with the feelings she’s developing for Oliver.

Oakley builds suspense throughout the You Were There Too, and I definitely wanted to know how it would resolve and who Mia would choose. Mia is a complicated character, and I liked that the people in the book defied stereotypes and felt real. But I did find that the story dragged and got repetitive at times. Mia was inconsistent in a way that weakened the story by making her feelings less believable. The ending was abrupt and tied together a number of threads in a confluence of events that actually confused me more than it explained.

I see on Goodreads that a lot of people adored this book and found it gut-wrenching and heartbreaking. There were definitely parts of it that I found touching – especially the treatment of infertility – but I wasn’t nearly as affected by it as many other readers have been.

I listened to You Were There Too on audio. It was narrated by Sophie Amoss and Dan Bittner, and they did a nice job with the performances. Amoss made Mia relatable, and she has a very memorable voice that I can still hear in my head days after I finished it (in a good way). Bittner’s chapters are told in third person, so they don’t leave as much of a mark as Amoss’, but they provided a nice contrast with and break to the Mia chapters.

You Were There Too was Book #3 of 2020. Thank you to Berkley/Random House for inviting me to participate in the blog tour.

SUCH A FUN AGE by Kiley Reid

I am on vacation, trying to get in the last reviews of 2019, so this will be short. Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid is a novel about two women: Alix, a white mom of two and motivational speaker/writer who has recently moved from NYC to Philly, and Emira, her African-American nanny. Late one night, Alix calls Emira to ask if she take her three year-old daughter Briar out of the house because it has been egged and they need to call the police. Emira comes to get Briar and they head to a nearby market that is open late, and while there she is detained by a security guard who questions why she is there with a white child and whether she has taken Briar without permission. This racist incident sets the book in motion.

Alix has a weird fascination with Emira that borders on an obsession. She wants to get to know Emira better and help develop in her the qualities she has built a career on encouraging in other young women, yet she also fears Emira will quit and is downright clingy with her. Emira, meanwhile, is puzzled by her boss’ new intensity of attention and is herself trying to become an adult with her own health insurance and career goals. When Emira’s new boyfriend turns out to be someone from Alix’s past, things get more complicated, quickly, as the two women navigate some

There is a lot to Such A Fun Age – Reid explores issues of race, privilege, motherhood and professional success and identity through relatable characters and authentic dialogue and situations. Alix, while well-intentioned, is clumsy and clueless, and watching her flail through her relationship with Emira can be funny, if cringey. Emira’s perspective gives the book its depth and heft. It is an easy, quick read with more going on than appears on the surface.

Such A Fun Age is a buzzy book that is going to get a lot of attention, soon.

I mostly listened to Such A Fun Age on audio. It was narrated by Nicole Lewis, who did a good job with a range of voices (including Briar’s). My only quibble is that Emira’s coming to terms with what she wants from her life is a big part of the book, but Lewis made Emira sound more aloof and immature than she came across in print. I needed to have confidence in Emira’s judgment and personal growth, and I had a hard time doing that with the audio version, where she seemed indifferent to everything.

CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES by Penelope Farmer

For the twelfth and final category of the 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge, I had to choose a book that came out during my birth year. This proved surprisingly difficult. I had a hard time finding something appealing from that year that I could get my hands on easily and that wouldn’t take forever to read. (This category will not be making a repeat appearance next year.) I ended up choosing a children’s book called Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer about a time-traveling teenager in 1950s England who visits 1918 every other day.

(Incidentally, this book is the inspiration for the Cure song of the same name.)

First, YAY, I FINISHED THE CHALLENGE.

Second, Charlotte Sometimes was just OK. It’s about Charlotte Makepeace, a girl who starts at a new boarding school in England. After a few nights in her new school, she wakes up in the same bed and the same building, but 40 years earlier. She has changed places with someone named Clare, who is also attending the boarding school along with her little sister Emily. Every other night, Clare and Charlotte change places. This leads to much confusion among their classmates and teachers and poses challenges to the two girls themselves, who learn to communicate with each other via notes stuffed into the bedpost. When Charlotte (as Clare) finds herself trapped in 1918 because she and Emily are sent to live with a family and she’s no longer sleeping in the magic bed, she faces questions about who she is, where she belongs and what would happen if she did not return.

Here’s why I didn’t love Charlotte Sometimes. It’s slow and boring at times, with a lot of extraneous detail that bogged down the story and made my mind wander. I listened to Charlotte Sometimes on audio and it was a struggle to concentrate. But even more important, Farmer did not take advantage of time travel, which is a literary and narrative goldmine. Think of all the things that can befall someone living in another era: cultural confusion, astonishment at technological advancement (or its converse), and, of course, the ramifications of doing things that can affect your future self or the people you love. Time travel books make my head hurt in the best way; they are confusing and mind-bendy and intellectually challenging. Charlotte Sometimes barely scratched the surface of time travel. It almost never acknowledged the differences between the two eras, other than that there were no airplanes in 1918, and Farmer didn’t even address the logic fallacy of time travel until the very end. What a waste!

As I mentioned, I listened to Charlotte Sometimes on audio. Narration by Hannah Gordon was precise and dramatic like British narrators often are, but even she couldn’t keep me focused on large swaths of the book. Despite her capable narration, I was relieved when I finished.

OK – 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge completed. Stay tuned for my wrapup and the announcement of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

ASK AGAIN, YES by Mary Beth Keane

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane is a novel about two families who move next door to each other in suburban New York in the 70s and how tragedy soon links them inextricably for generations. The Gleesons (Francis and Lena) and the Stanhopes (Brian and Anne) move to the same suburb after Francis and Brian serve as partners on the NYPD in their twenties. Soon after moving in, both couples have children, and those children grow up together. But there is no closeness between the two couples – Anne and Lena never become friends due to Anne’s increasingly paranoid and erratic behavior.

One night, Anne becomes violent after a confrontation with her son Peter, and the repercussions are tragic, leading to the collapse of the Stanhopes and leaving an indelible mark on the Gleesons. Ask Again, Yes tracks the years that follow, as Peter deals with the aftermath of his family’s breakdown and tries to navigate his way to adulthood largely on his own. When he reunites with the Stanhopes’ daughter Kate years later, the tragedy they endured as kids resurfaces in many complicated ways.

Oh boy did I like this one. There’s quite a bit here – coming of age, family estrangement, substance abuse, mental illness, loyalty and disillusionment. These characters endure a lot. But I loved how Keane rotated around among them, giving them closeups and then pulling back, checking in with them and revealing how their lives were progressing and changing. Rather than include every notable event in their lives, she often addressed them in flashbacks, focusing instead on daily vignettes and seemingly unimportant moments that provided a more nuanced and realistic view of her characters’ lives. The pacing was perfect, with incremental shifts rather than dramatic change happening as the years unfolded. The details are spot on – body language, dialogue, small decisions made or actions not taken – all combining to paint a compelling picture of the Stanhopes and the Gleesons.

I spent so much of this book just wanting to give Peter a hug – a similar impulse to how I felt last week reading The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (reviewed here). In the end, I liked Ask Again, Yes even more. The characters were more complex and their lives were more richly conveyed. I do wish Keane had allowed some ups to balance out the downs. There isn’t much joy in Ask Again, Yes, and even when discover that her characters were, at one point, happy, those are inevitably times we only learn about later, in flashbacks.

I listened to Ask Again, Yes on audio except when I just couldn’t stay away from it and had to pick up the print. It was narrated by Molly Pope, who did a great job conveying the gravity of the story (and the occasional Irish brogue). I actually looked up a video of Pope narrating the book because I was curious to see what the narrator looks like (does anyone else ever do that?) and learned that she is an actress and singer who is not always as serious as this book is! I highly recommend the audio.

Ask Again, Yes is going to be a a top-5 read for me this year. If you enjoy multigenerational family sagas that tackle tough topics with empathy and kindness, this one is definitely for you.

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.