Category Archives: Audiobooks

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.

THE DINNER LIST by Rebecca Serle

The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle opens with its main character, Sabrina, walking into her birthday dinner and finding 5 guests waiting for her: her best friend Jessica, her ex-boyfriend Tobias, her late, estranged father Robert, her favorite college professor Conrad, and Audrey Hepburn. This list of guests came from a game she used to play with Jessica: which five people would you invite to a dinner party?

Sabrina has unfinished business with some of the guests. When he died, she hadn’t seen her father since she was an infant, and had been angry at him for years for his abandonment and for moving on with a new family and daughters. She also feels abandoned by Jessica, with whom she had lived in New York City in their twenties but who has graduated to a house in Connecticut with a husband and a new baby. And most complicated is her relationship with Tobias, a man she was involved with for almost a decade but with whom she is no longer together. The Dinner List goes back and forth between the conversation at the restaurant and the recounting of Sabrina and Tobias’ relationship.

I am not really a fan of magical realism, so the suspension of belief needed to accept that Sabrina was at dinner with dead people didn’t come easily to me. The dinner conversation is strange, of course, given the company at the table and the circumstance of their gathering. I preferred the chapters that told Sabrina and Tobias’ history: a typical twentysomething relationship with its ups and downs as they tried to make lives for themselves that worked for each other too. The book is full of sadness , as Sabrina tries to work through the ways her relationships changed over time, ultimately disappointing her and leaving her feeling alone. The inclusion of Conrad and Audrey Hepburn seemed gimmicky to me. Neither added much to Sabrina’s understanding and acceptance of the turns her relationships took – especially Audrey – so while the dinner list idea was cute, it didn’t actually contribute much to the story in the end.

The Dinner List is not a light read. It’s a bittersweet story about accepting that the people we love aren’t always who we want them to be, nor can we always be who we want for them. Life is full of loss and disappointment; the best we can do is appreciate the moments and people we have for the time we have them.

I started The Dinner List on audio and DO NOT recommend it. It’s narrated by the author, and while she can write, she can’t narrate. Each character was performed in the exact same breathless, monotone. I read a review that said that the audio reminded the reviewer of a writing student sitting in the front of the room reading her story out loud. YES. I switched to the print copy about halfway through the audiobook and it made a HUGE difference in my enjoyment of the book. So if you’re tempted to do this on audio, don’t.

BECOMING by Michelle Obama

I just finished the 19-hour audiobook of Becoming, narrated by author Michelle Obama. It was totally worth the time investment, as I loved every minute of it.

Becoming is Michelle Obama’s memoir of her life to date (age 54 when she finished the book). It opens with her childhood on the south side of Chicago, where she lived with her parents and her older brother Craig. She describes the Robinsons’ small apartment, her father’s debilitating MS, her mother’s consistent and loving parenting, and the schools she attended in Chicago. The book follows her to Princeton, to Harvard Law School, to her years as an associate at a big law firm, and to her meeting a young summer associate named Barack Obama. The rest of her story is well-known, at least on the surface.

Becoming is an intensely personal, eloquent and relatable memoir about, as Michelle herself describes herself, “an ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey”. My favorite parts: her days as a young working mother, when she would run errands at a nearby mall during lunch and congratulate herself on getting it all done; her struggle with infertility, combined with a frequently-absent husband; her struggle to balance the demands of the White House with the need to support her daughters and keep their lives private; and the insights into her partnership with Barack and their relationship within the walls of the White House.

It’s powerful to hear her talk about the issues and causes that meant so much to her – healthy eating and exercise for kids (including the White House garden), supporting military families and wounded veterans, empowering girls around the world – and how hard she worked to use her position to make meaningful progress with those causes.

I also loved the behind-the-scenes details about life at the White House and how isolating it could be. One night, when the White House was lit in rainbow colors to celebrate the legalization of gay marriage, Michelle and Malia tried to sneak out of the residence in order to experience the lights the way the thousands of celebrants outside did. She wanted to hear the sounds – something that was impossible to do within the White House.

Becoming is beautifully written, utterly captivating and pure pleasure to read. I can’t say enough good things about it – and its author.

I listened to Becoming on audio. Michelle’s narration makes the book even that more powerful. It is amazing to hear her experiences and thoughts in her own voice. She’s a consistent and compelling narrator. If you can spare the time, I highly recommend the audio!

THERE THERE by Tommy Orange

There There, the debut novel by Tommy Orange, takes a group of 12 Native American characters living in Oakland, explores each person’s history, and then throws them all together at the same event, a powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. There are recovering alcoholics, kids whose parents have left them behind, drug dealers, drug counselors, aspiring filmmakers and obese gamers… a kaleidoscope of interwoven lives of sadness, disappointment, resignation and the occasional glimpse of hope.

There’s quite a lot to like about this searing novel. Orange takes his readers through a shameful litany of the ways America has treated and depicted Native Americans over the centuries before introducing his cast of characters, hanging a backdrop that provides the grim context for their lives. He revisits each character a few times throughout There There, tracking their progress toward the event that brings them all together at the end and exploring the reasons why they attended it. Some worked at the powwow, one went to meet his birth father, one discovered her birth mother, and some just went to get a better understanding of their Native American heritage.

This isn’t a light read, but it’s a good one. Orange is an efficient, incisive writer who isn’t afraid to shock his readers with the harsh reality of our shameful history with Native Americans. Some of the characters ran together, but I started jotting notes at the beginning at each chapter, which helped. In the end, it’s the cumulative effect of their stories – not the individual threads – that really heighten the book’s power.

I was disappointed by the ending, where Orange turned to violence to wrap up these stories. Is that his message? The only way out from these lives is blood and murder? History may have proved him right, but it felt like a cop-out here, especially after such a rich buildup.

I listened to most of There There on audio, and it was narrated by four people – Darrell Dennis, Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Kyla Garcia and Alma Cuervo – who each took on a few characters. The narration was quiet and moving, fitting for the book. It’s a little confusing to listen to There There on audio, simply because the chapters are short and there are so many changes in perspective. I recommend having a copy of the print as well, and as I mentioned earlier, jotting down a few notes while characters were fresh was very helpful for me.

Despite the ending, I recommend There There, both for the importance of the subject matter and the merits of the writing. It’s a worthwhile book and I am glad that I read it.