Tag Archives: audiobook

THE ADULTS by Caroline Hulse

The Adults by Caroline Hulse is about two divorced parents in England – Claire and Matt – who decide to spend Christmas together, along with their current partners, so that they can both spend the holiday with their seven year-old daughter. Their partners – Claire’s boyfriend Patrick and Matt’s girlfriend Alex – reluctantly join them, leery of how the long weekend will unfold. Unsurprisingly, as the days pass, nerves fray and old tensions resurface, while both relationships are tested. The weekend ends with an archery incident that sends one of the four to the hospital (not a spoiler), with the book gradually explaining how they got to the point that one of them was shot by one of the others.

This book is meant to be funny, and it definitely has its funny moments. I liked Hulse’s little observations about parenting and relationships, and the fun she pokes at The Happy Forest, the family-friendly resort that this doomed fivesome chooses for their holiday. The partners are insecure about Claire and Matt’s relationship, Alex is a recovering alcoholic and a very bad drunk, while Patrick secretly tries to flirt with a popular girl from high school who is coincidentally at the resort at the same time. And Scarlett – the 7 year-old daughter – talks incessantly to an imaginary giant stuffed rabbit.

I listened to The Adults on audio. The narrators – Penelope Rawlins, Peter Kenny, Sarah Ovens – were entertaining. I especially liked the narration for Patrick – I assume that was Peter Kenny – because he made Patrick seem so desperate, yet sympathetic at the same time. If you like wry British narrators, you’ll enjoy this one.

In the end, I found The Adults to be mildly entertaining and pretty forgettable. None of the characters was particularly likable, and while their predicament was unenviable, I grew kind of impatient by the end with how poorly they coped with the weekend. The archery incident was unrealistic and over the top. So I give The Adults a rather tepid recommendation.

I AM, I AM, I AM by Maggie O’Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell is an exquisite collection of essays about 17 brushes with death by the Irish author Maggie O’Farrell. From the medical – a c-section gone wrong, a brain infection – to near-drownings while on vacation and narrowly escaped violence at the hands of others, O’Farrell has faced a lot of physical adversity and danger over the course of her life. A life lived on the razor edge of death made O’Farrell less, rather than more, risk-adverse, pushing her to embrace mortality, almost daring it to stop her as she sought out adventures and experiences, often ill-advised, that her body may not have been able to handle.

Some chapters are more successful than others; the chapter about an AIDS test ends rather vaguely, for example, and detracts slightly from the overall collection. But there are others in which danger is so clearly present that I found myself rattled and anxious, even knowing, of course, that O’Farrell is alive and well. How frequently have we all been in situations where our safety was in grave danger, most likely without even knowing it? Life is a daily, ongoing miracle that we so often take for granted and think about only fleetingly, yet many of us could likely fill 17 chapters with our own harrowing brushes with disaster. I finished this book feeling grateful and lucky.

I enjoyed I Am, I Am, I Am quite a bit as I read it, but my feelings about it changed when I got to the last chapter, which is about O’Farrell’s daughter. Without spoiling the book, it wasn’t until that last chapter, when risk and worry were upended and transposed, that I really understood why O’Farrell wrote it: her ever-present, unwavering and never lessening fear and vigilance caused by her daughter’s auto-immune disorder. As a parent, I found this chapter the most harrowing of all.

I Am, I Am, I Am is definitely worth a read. If you’ve read any of O’Farrell’s novels (see here for reviews of Instructions For A Heatwave and The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox), then you know already what a beautiful writer she is. Her writing about her own personal experiences is even more meaningful and moving.

I listened to I Am, I Am, I Am on audio. It was narrated by Daisy Donovan, who did a great job conveying the intensity of this personal narrative. (I was a little surprised that it wasn’t narrated by O’Farrell herself, and I supposed I just pretended it was O’Farrell reading it as I listened.) I highly recommend the audiobook, which breathlessly and urgently conveyed the gravity of the subject.

GOODBYE FOR NOW by Laurie Frankel

A fellow book blogger, Catherine of Gilmore Guide to Books, recommended a book by Laurie Frankel as one of her top reads of the year. I am reading that book now – This Is How It Always Is – and when I was researching it, I came across another one of Frankel’s books that caught my eye. That book showed up on audio sooner than the other one, so I picked it up first.

Goodbye For Now is a novel set in Seattle. When it opens, Sam and Meredith are coworkers at an online dating company, Sam a programmer and Meredith in marketing. Sam develops an algorithm that identifies soul mates, which identifies Meredith as his perfect match. They start dating and fall in love, and all goes well until Sam is laid off and Meredith’s grandmother dies. Meredith is devastated, and desperate to make her feel better, Sam creates a program that mines all of Meredith’s emails from and video chats with her grandmother and creates a posthumous, digital version of her capable of interacting with Meredith on her computer. Meredith is horrified at first, but as soon as she finishes their “chat”, she wants to do it again.

From this experiment, a company called RePose is born. The recently bereaved hire RePose to create digital alter egos of their loved ones, and then come to RePose’s office to interact with them. Word of this new service spreads quickly throughout Seattle, and Sam and Meredith find themselves very busy with their new venture.

Goodbye For Now is a thought-provoking exploration of death, grieving and the ways in which survivors try to comfort themselves. There are many types of deaths in Goodbye For Now – sudden ones, deaths after long illnesses, deaths of children, spouses and parents, deaths of friends. There are even non-deaths, as families with loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s sign up for RePose to be reminded of what they were like before the disease. Does RePose actually help the people left behind? Or does it keep them from moving on? What about the people who can talk more freely and honestly to the RePose version of their dead spouse than they could to the living one, while he was alive? And does RePose put pressure on the dying, who feel they need to create a positive, happy digital archive for their families so that they can have positive, happy conversations after they’ve died?

Heavy stuff. And I haven’t even mentioned the deaths that actually happen in the book.

I love Frankel’s writing and her sense of humor. She’s smart and thoughtful, which shows through in both Goodbye For Now and This Is How It Always Is. I wish we were friends IRL – she seems like a very cool person. (Laurie – friend me!) I also liked Sam and Meredith’s relationship, which was not plagued with conflict (unusual for a novel) but was built on love, attraction and respect.

Overall, I liked Goodbye For Now, though it dragged in places and seemed to take a while to get through. There is a lot of detail and a lot of conversation, some of which could have been trimmed. But it’s a moving and sad book, and it’s one that will stay with me for a long time. If you can stomach the sadness and grieving, it’s a worthwhile investment.

I listened to Goodbye For Now on audio. It was narrated by Kirby Heyborne, and even though it was written in third person, he was the perfect narrator for Sam, the main character. He sounded like a programmer – precise and focused, yet kind and passionate (and emotionally broken, when necessary). The audio was well done and I recommend it, though it too was a little long.

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere is the latest novel from Celeste Ng, who wrote the popular Everything I Never Told You (reviewed here) in 2014. Little Fires Everywhere takes place in idyllic Shaker Heights, OH, where Elena Richardson lives with her husband Bill and four kids, Tripp, Lexie, Moody and Izzy. The Richardsons are well off – they have a big house and their kids drive fancy cars, do lots of activities and apply to Ivy League schools.  When the book opens, someone has set fire to the Richardson house, and everyone suspects Izzy. But why?

Izzy’s anger at her mother – building for years – is stoked when Elena leases a small rental house the family owns to a mother and daughter, Mia and Pearl, who move to town with few belongings under a shroud of mystery. Elena is immediately suspicious of Mia, an artist who has lived her life on the move and who embraces none of the traditional trappings that Elena has always sought. Mia and Pearl’s lives become increasingly intertwined with the Richardsons’ when Mia starts cleaning their house and Pearl becomes close with three of the four siblings. Izzy, meanwhile, is drawn to Mia and becomes an apprentice of sorts to her, which drives a wedge even further between her and her mother.

Ng is a good storyteller, letting the connections between the two families slowly grow deeper as the pages turn. There is a side plot involving the adoption of an abandoned Chinese baby by a white family, but while I expected that story to be more central to the novel, it wasn’t. Elena and Mia wind up on opposite sides of the controversy over the adoption, but the real story here is about the relationship between the two families.

Little Fires Everywhere has been very well-received, but I have to admit that I didn’t love it. There were too many neat parallels involving motherhood and pregnancy for the story to remain plausible to me. Elena – a reporter – got access, often too conveniently, to information that she shouldn’t have known, and everything ultimately got resolved too abruptly and dramatically in the end. Some of the characters became more one-dimensional over time, particularly Elena, making them less sympathetic and the story less complex. So while I enjoyed the process of the story unfolding, I found in the end that it lacked substance. I didn’t take away much from the book.

I listened to Little Fires Everywhere on audio. Jennifer Lim’s narration was precise and empathetic, though at times a little too upbeat for the subject matter. But she moved the story along nicely, and the hours went by quickly. I just wished the promise of the story had held up throughout the book.

STAY WITH ME by Ayobami Adebayo

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo is a moving novel about a marriage tested and strained by infertility, secrets and the pressure of tradition. When the book opens, Yejide and Akin, a modern Nigerian couple who met at college, are in love and have a respectful marriage of equals. After several years of marriage, Yejide is not pregnant, and Akin’s family pressures him to take a second wife to produce a child, even though he promised Yejide that she would always be his only wife. The introduction of that wife, Funmi, sets into motion a chain of events that does lead to pregnancy, but also brings heartbreak and tragedy.

There are layers of secrets and betrayals to be revealed, the cumulative effects of which drive a wedge between Akin and Yejide that causes them to separate for a decade (which is made clear in the first chapter). This is a terribly sad story, with two people who love each other deeply but who are also desperate to get what they want as well, by whatever means necessary. Ultimately, this modern couple cannot escape tradition – the traditional pressures to have children, the looming spectre of polygamy, even the genetic disease that Yejide carries – and that pull of tradition dooms them.

Adebayo is a masterful storyteller. The book took some turns I didn’t expect, and her slow revealing of Yejide and Akin’s history was enthralling. But I often had the sensation of being in a downward spiraling eddy, as things got worse and worse with little hope of redemption. I kept wanting things to get righted, and they don’t.

I listened to Stay With Me on audio. The narration by Adjoa Andoh was just perfect –  so many accents, dialects, tones, moods, each done beautifully. I really enjoyed the performance and felt that it really enhanced my understanding of and appreciation for the book.

Stay With Me has gotten a lot of acclaim this year, and rightly so. I recommend it – just be emotionally ready for it.

 

THE MISFORTUNE OF MARION PALM by Emily Culliton

So, someone in my neighborhood was recently found to have embezzled $35K over the last two years from the school-parent association at my son’s elementary school while serving as treasurer. I don’t know her – I don’t even know who she is, or even if she’s a she – but this development may have accelerated the rise of The Misfortune Of Marion Palm up my TBR list. Emily Culliton’s novel is about Marion Palm, a woman living in Brooklyn who goes on the lam after embezzling $180k from her daughters’ school.

This is an odd book. The story is told in a series of short chapters, told in the alternating viewpoints of Marion, her daughters Ginny and Jane, her husband Nathan, some of the people who work at the school and a detective who is investigating Marian’s departure. There is not a single likable character in this book, nor are they even relatable. Marion is oddly cold and unfeeling, admitting easily that she doesn’t miss her children after going underground. Nathan, her husband, is pretty pathetic until he launches a lifestyle blog about being a single dad, and then he’s just an opportunist. The daughters are cold and weird (and we see a glimpse of their future and it isn’t particularly bright). The school board members are gossipy and self-absorbed.

Culliton DID do a decent job of exploring how Marian started with the embezzling – and why she stuck with it – which was of course why I wanted to read the book. So that was satisfying. But I found the process of reading The Misfortune Of Marion Palm quite a slog. I wasn’t rooting for Marion or hoping she’d get away with the crime, because she was so unlikeable and didn’t have a plan of any sort for the money. Culliton has a sharp eye for detail and spares no one with her snark, but that didn’t make the story worth it for me.

I listened to The Misfortune of Marion Palm on audio. Narration by Saskia Maarleveld was fine, if a bit flat. She didn’t infuse much emotion into the characters, but it’s hard to fault her for that, given how they were written. Honestly, I just wanted to finish it and move on.

I’d be curious to hear from someone who liked The Misfortune of Marion Palm. There are a number of 5 star reviews on Goodreads so they are clearly out there. What did you like so much about this book?

 

THE WINDFALL by Diksha Basu

The Windfall by Diksha Basu is about the Jhas, a middle-aged Indian couple in Delhi who move from their middle-class apartment and neighborhood to a fancy new house when Mr. Jha sells his website for a lot of money. They are sad to leave their old friends behind and experience some growing pains as they get used to a bigger house and being able to buy whatever they want, but Mr. Jha in particular is eager to show off his wealth to his new neighbors. Meanwhile, their son Rupak is failing out of graduate school in America and hiding his American girlfriend from his parents.

That’s pretty much the whole book, other than a subplot about a young widow (neighbor to the Jhas) who finds love with the brother of the Jhas’ new neighbors.

So, I *really* didn’t like The Windfall. The characters were vapid and materialistic, caring only about appearances and keeping up with the rich neighbors and impressing the old ones. They don’t talk about anything of substance, ever. There is one time when Mr. Jha seems to question the purpose of life to Mrs. Jha, but that lasts about 2 sentences and is over before she can even respond. Rupak is aimless, inconsiderate and lazy, and when he gets booted from Ithaca College for smoking dope, his parents welcome him back to India and seem almost proud that he’s back living on their dime, because it shows that they are rich enough to support him. He at least seems a little more introspective than his parents, who just bicker and whine at each other.

There was so much potential here – The Windfall could have been funny, incisive, biting, wry, or even just plain interesting – and it was none of those things. There was no tension or suspense, and one out-of-character meltdown right at the end of the book seemed totally implausible and out of place, rather than serving as some sort of dramatic peak.

I didn’t even get a good sense of Delhi from this book – just the fancy new neighborhood of Gurgaon and the Jha’s new sofa.

I listened to The Windfall on audio. Narration by Soneela Nankani was fine – she did different accents for different characters, particularly people of different social levels – but I wonder if her narration exacerbated my issues with the book. Even she seemed to be irritated by the characters. She probably could have toned the performance down a little bit, just to make it all seem a little less absurd, but I am not sure it would have redeemed the book for me.

Cute cover, at least.