Category Archives: Audiobooks

THE AWKWARD AGE by Francesca Segal

If you enjoy seeing families in distress under a microscope and watching them squirm, then you will enjoy The Awkward Age by Francesca Segal.

The cast of characters: 46 year-old Julia, widowed and newly in love with James, a 50-something American OB/GYN; Julia’s sullen 16 year-old daughter Gwen, who is still grieving the loss of her father; and James’ 18 year-old son Nathan, who is about to graduate high school and go to a prestigious college to study medicine. Julia and James move in together in London, merging their families, while Gwen and Nathan hate each other… until they don’t.

Gwen and Nathan’s relationship turns romantic, which is terribly awkward for Julia and James, at also puts them at odds for the first time in their relationship. And then, Gwen gets pregnant, which sends the whole difficult situation into overdrive. How will they, as a family, handle this mess? How can be it resolved in a way that doesn’t cause terrible pain? Are James and Julia ready to be grandparents – to the same baby?

Francesca Segal relates her story with detail, compassion and that beautiful eloquence that so many British writers have.  The Awkward Age is told mostly from Julia and Gwen’s perspectives, but there are additional characters with a stake in this family, and Segal lets us into their heads too. We see the action unfold from several perspectives, with much attention paid to their inner turmoil these characters are in.

What I liked: the writing, the very plausible dialogue, the theme of the awkwardness of love at any age.

What I didn’t like as much: how spoiled Nathan and Gwen were (it detracted from the plausibility of the story), the claustrophobia triggered by pages of dialogue (internal and spoken) among the same small family. Sometimes I just needed a break!

Overall, I liked The Awkward Age and would recommend it to people who enjoy domestic drama. I listened to it on audio, and particularly liked Jayne Entwhistle’s precise, British pronunciation. Her American accents were a little off, but I got used to them quickly. She conveyed empathy for each character, even babyish Gwen – it never felt as if she was judging them or their circumstances – which I think was Segal’s point. Life can get awkward, and we just need to deal with it.

THE STARS ARE FIRE by Anita Shreve

About 3/4 of the way through Anita Shreve’s latest novel, The Stars Are Fire, I lost my mind. I was listening the book on audio, without the print to go back and forth to, and I was at a point of such tension and suspense that I simply could not stop listening. The only problem is that I didn’t have the audio on my phone – only on CD – and I had no opportunity to listen to the CDs over the weekend. PANIC! How was I going to get my fix?

So here’s why I was so invested. The Stars Are Fire is about Grace, a woman in her early 20s, who is married to a gruff, unaffectionate man. The setting is Maine in 1947, and with two children and no means to support herself, Grace is trapped in her marriage. She knows that she is unhappy, but has little recourse. Then one fall, a massive fire spreads through the drought-stricken coast, and Grace’s house burns to the ground. She manages to escape and saves her children’s lives by escaping to the beach and shielding them in a boat. Gene, meanwhile, who was working further inland to prevent the fire’s spread, disappears after their town is destroyed.

With her husband gone and her house destroyed, Grace must figure out how to provide shelter and an income for her family. The Stars Are Fire is about Grace’s emerging independence and confidence, at a time when women had few freedoms. There is also the ever-present uncertainty surrounding Gene’s whereabouts and the possibility of his reappearance. Other characters come and go, some affecting Grace more than others, which bring additional dimensions to the story.

I’ve long been a fan of Shreve’s. She’s an expert storyteller with a gift for building suspense and keeping her reader interested. I HAD to know what happened to Grace, and was distracted and frustrated until I could find out.

The Stars Are Fire is not a perfect book. The end is a bit tidy, given all the buildup, and some key twists were unrealistic or too convenient. But who cares? This was a thoroughly immersive, engrossing book and I will not soon forget it.

As I mentioned, I listened to The Stars Are Fire on audio. I thought the narration by Suzanne Elise Freeman was just OK. Her delivery was a little robotic, and she made Grace harsher and more aggressive than I suspect Shreve intended. But again, I didn’t care! I just wanted to finish it. I just recommend also having the print version or ebook if you’re going to listen to this book on audio, because you will want it!

So, yes, recommended.

June Is Audiobook Month Blog Tour and Giveaway

It’s June! My favorite month because of the long days, the glorious weather, and the promise of summer ahead. It’s also Audiobook Month, the annual celebration of all things related to audiobooks.

I’ve been very vocal here on EDIWTB about my love of audiobooks. I got hooked when I started listening about 8 years ago. I always have an audiobook going in the car, and listening has not only allowed me to add many more books to my list each year, but it has given me a whole new appreciation for the genre. I am obsessed with audiobooks – how they are cast, produced and performed. Writing this blog has luckily given me the opportunity to get to know some narrators, and I think they are some of the coolest people on the planet.

So I was very excited when I was asked to participate in a blog tour for June Is Audiobook Month. First, check out five awesome audiobooks below, if you’re looking for a new listen. Second, check out the other posts in the tour, which will continue throughout June with many more audiobook recommendations from other bloggers. And finally, leave me a comment below with the name of a favorite audiobook to enter into a contest to win an awesome giveaway: three free downloads from Audiobooks.com and a pair of headphones!

5 recent audiobooks that I loved:

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal is my favorite book so far of 2017, and the audio was just as good as the print. Authentic Minnesotan accents and empathetic narration beautifully matched this treasure of a book. I recommend it to anyone who will listen to me! Give it a try on audio. Narrators: Amy Ryan and Michael Struhlbarg.

The Risen by Ron Rash. This is a haunting story, simply and beautifully told, and the audio version is just perfect. The narrator wonderfully captured the troubled, dreamy Southern protagonist and brought this story to life. It’s a short listen and totally worth it. Narrator: Richard Ferrone.

Underground Airlines by Ben Winters. Don’t confuse this book with Underground Railroad, which came out at the same time. This one imagines a United States where slavery was never abolished. It’s a thought-provoking, dystopian thriller performed by an excellent narrator who expertly conveyed a wide range of emotion. Narrator: William DeMerritt.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. I thought the narration of this unforgettable Iraq War novel was just perfect. So many accents, emotions, sound effects – all nailed by the audio. I didn’t love the women’s voices, but that’s a minor quibble. Pick this one up. Narrator: Oliver Wymer.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. If you haven’t read this book yet, give it a try on audio. The narration of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning World War II novel is calm and even, despite its many tense and horrific moments. The audio is long, but it goes quickly as the suspense ratchets up. Narrator: Zach Appelman.

Leave me a comment below with your favorite audiobook to be entered into the contest, and be sure to check out the other blog posts on the tour!

CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD by Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel, Cruel Beautiful World, is not unlike her earlier books: full of sad, lonely characters who have suffered cruel twists of fate trying to find happiness in challenging circumstances. In this most recent novel, 16 year-old Lucy has run off with her 30 year-old teacher William, a hippie who has been fired for not adhering to the traditional curriculum. It’s the 60s, and William’s talk of running away to be free and in love persuades the immature teenager to leave her sister Charlotte and her much older adoptive mother, Iris. Unsurprisingly, life in the small rural town William takes Lucy to is isolating and boring, while he goes off to work every day but forbids her from talking to anyone or contacting her family because she is underage.

Cruel Beautiful World is a bit of a thriller – what will happen to Lucy? can she escape from angry, controlling William? When it doesn’t all go as planned, who will find out, and will justice be served? Interspersed with Lucy’s story are the offshoot stories of Iris, Charlotte, and Patrick, a widower whom Lucy secretly befriends during her long, lonely days. I enjoyed the explorations of these characters, and I think that is where Leavitt is at her strongest. She takes her time explaining how her characters became the people they are, and she imbues them each with dignity, empathy and just enough hope to keep the reader invested.

The story of Lucy and William was much more problematic for me. William is a child predator: emotionally abusive and unconscionably selfish. I know that Leavitt intends for the reader to understand that about him – in interviews, she said she based him on a real-life controlling partner – but shockingly, she sort of lets him off the hook in the end. It’s as if she wants the reader to wonder if he were really that bad. (!)  (Yes, he was.) Also, I found it unrealistic that Lucy would have kept silent for so long. She had opportunities for escape and didn’t take them. I wasn’t convinced enough of her love for (or fear of ) William that she would have stayed with him that long. She was immature and selfish herself, and I think in the end she would have just done what she wanted.

So Cruel Beautiful World was a mixed bag for me. I loved the classic Leavitt touches but found the underlying plot problematic.

I listened to Cruel Beautiful World on audio. Xe Sands did a masterful, restrained performance, especially during the Iris chapters. Her smooth, understated delivery was perfect for the book. I did wonder whether she was as frustrated with the main characters as I was!

 

OUR SHORT HISTORY by Lauren Grodstein

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein has an almost unbearably sad premise: Karen Neulander, a 40-something political consultant and single mother to a 6 year-old boy named Jake, is dying. She has had a recurrence of ovarian cancer, and is two years into a four-year prognosis. She decides to write a book – a memoir – for Jake, so that he can read it when he is older and understand who his mother was.

Unbearable, right?

Well, I read Our Short History, and I made it through to the other side. I didn’t even cry until the last few pages (and no, Karen doesn’t die at the end of the book). It is sad, to be sure, but it’s also well-written and funny at times and not needlessly maudlin. Karen is flawed, but realistically human. She is in a terrible situation and she’s trying to make the best of it. She is a dedicated, diligent mother with large – but not infinite – reserves of patience for her son, and she’s smart and determined. She also happens to have Stage IV cancer, which has thrown her a big curveball.

The book opens with Jake asking Karen, once again, to find his father and introduce them to each other. Karen has resisted this request of Jake’s for many years, but he has worn her down, and given her (and his) circumstances, she finally relents. She sends a Facebook message to the man she had dated seven years earlier, whom she had loved but who told her he didn’t want children. Karen doesn’t really think through all of the ramifications of this outreach (which is kind of unlike her) – if Dave wants to see Jake, how often will she let that happen? Will visitation become a regular thing? What rights might he have to custody? Will he try to get custody after Karen dies?

Karen may be frustrating at time, even irrational, but I don’t know who wouldn’t be in the same situation. Grodstein has created an utterly realistic depiction of the choices a mother would reasonably make facing her premature death and the care of her beloved son. Karen loves Jake with a ferocity than even she can’t control sometimes, which pushes her to behave in ways she might regret, but which are oh so understandable.

So yes, Our Short History is a sad book, and at times Karen’s plight took my breath away. But I appreciate Grodstein’s writing and her storytelling, which made this much more than a tearjerker. I am a fan of her earlier works, and was not disappointed at all by this one.

I listened to Our Short History on audio. It was performed by accomplished narrator and EDIWTB friend Karen White, who did a great job with this one. She conveyed (fictional) Karen’s desperation and anger as persuasively as she did Karen’s pride and pettiness. I wonder how hard it was to keep her composure when she got to some of the more difficult scenes in the novel. Overall, excellent audiobook.

PERFECT LITTLE WORLD by Kevin Wilson

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson is not a perfect book, but it’s a really interesting one. It’s about a 19 year-old woman named Izzy who gets pregnant on the eve of her high school graduation. The father is her art teacher, and when she tells him she is pregnant and wants to keep the baby, he has a breakdown and tells her he doesn’t want her to keep it. The teacher’s rich parents, who learn of the pregnancy and want to get Izzy out of the picture, connect her with a new social experiment funded by a very wealthy friend of theirs. In this experiment, ten families with newborns will move into a state of the art group home complex to have the babies raised communally, with all of the advantages they could ever want, to see whether such an upbringing has a significant impact on child development. Determined to have the baby, broke, and with no family to support her, Izzy decides to join the project.

The Infinite Family Project, as it’s called, requires its participants to commit to ten years in residency. The children are not told until their 5th birthday who their biological parents are, and at that time they move in with their parents instead of living in the communal setting. Most of the book is told through the eyes of Izzy, the only single parent there.

Perfect Little World raises a lot of questions about parenting and identity, as these parents grapple with the instinct to be close to their own children despite their commitment to them all. But I think that the book could have gone deeper. Wilson’s parents face a number of challenges – such as some infidelity among the group or differences in theories of discipline – but they are dealt with quickly. With 19 parents involved, realistically there would be more conflict and disagreement about how the children should be raised. And I didn’t feel that I got to know most of the characters other than Izzy and Dr. Grind, the head of the project, very well at all. A few stood out, but most were indistinct. I wanted more dynamics, more conflict, more there there. It also took a long time to get to the project – there’s a lot of setup as Izzy’s circumstances are established – but then the treatment of the project is disappointingly shallow.

Strangely, my issues with Perfect Little World arose after I read it, when I started thinking about what to write in this post. I actually enjoyed the book a lot while I was reading it. Wilson is a good writer: he’s funny, sharply observant, and occasionally gently mocking of the preciousness of the Infinite Family Project. But he has a lot of empathy for his characters, despite the bad decisions some of them make.

My enjoyment of Perfect Little World was undoubtedly enhanced by the exquisite narration of Therese Plummer. Plummer is one of my favorite narrators of all time. She never hits a false note, and her narration seems to be imbued with deep respect for the work she’s performing. She differentiates her characters beautifully, and she gets both male and female characters equally right. From the 80 year-old project benefactor to Izzy’s redneck enemy in the complex, Plummer gave them each a distinctive, memorable voice that was just pitch perfect. It was a pleasure to listen to Perfect Little World on audio. It sounded like Plummer was having a good time too.

Despite its shortcomings, Perfect Little World was worth the time. I wanted more from it, but I did enjoy what I got.

 

 

THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACE ON EARTH by Lindsey Lee Johnson

One buzzy book this winter was The Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson. It’s about a high school in Mill Valley in Marin County, CA, and the very privileged kids who go there. When the book opens, the kids are in eighth grade, and one of them makes a very passionate pronouncement of love to another one. His letter was made public by the recipient, and after the relentless teasing and bullying that ensued, he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Three years later, the kids are juniors and still dealing with the ramifications of the suicide.

Each chapter basically focuses on a different character, and by the end, the reader has a pretty good sense of the whole group, as well as some of their teachers. For the most part, the kids are privileged, entitled, indifferent and spoiled, with little respect for their teachers or even each other. There are overachievers (intense ballerinas and academic stars) as well as hippies, drug dealers, misogynistic athletes and thugs. Their parents are either neglectful or cloying. Johnson does manage to show other sides of these kids, eventually, but in the end it’s hard to find a redeeming person in the whole book.

What I liked:

  • Beautiful writing
  • Realistic incorporation of social media and other realities of teenage life today
  • Good pacing

What I didn’t:

  • Overall, it was pretty superficial.
  • Characters were rarely revisited (one simply disappears altogether) so there isn’t much continuity
  • Adults were very disappointing, as were parent-child relationships
  • The kids never learned lessons or changed their ways; some of them got worse over time

I kind of wonder what the author’s point was. To make us all despondent over the fate of humanity, if these kids represent our future? To try to get to the heart of teenagers? To shame us into better parenting? I’m not sure.

I’d read more by Lindsey Lee Johnson just because of her writing, but this was a bit of a disappointment.

I listened to The Most Dangerous Place On Earth on audio. It was narrated by veteran narrator Cassandra Campbell. She did an excellent job with the voices, differentiating them for each kid and sounding as natural with the boys as she did with the girls, which isn’t always the case with narration. She’s precise and easy to listen to, and and she moved the story along nicely. It’s funny – I just looked up books that she has narrated and many of them are sitting on my bookshelf. I know I’ve listened to other Cassandra Campbell performances but I can’t remember which they were.

Others seemed to have enjoyed The Most Dangerous Place On Earth more than I did. If you read it and liked it, I’d love to hear why.