Tag Archives: audiobook

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.

 

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.

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!

 

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 TURNER HOUSE by Angela Flournoy

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy is about a large African-American family in Detroit. Viola and Francis Turner lived on Yarrow Street in Detroit for fifty years, where they raised 13 children and saw the neighborhood turn from vibrant to dilapidated. Francis is now dead, and Viola, in ailing health, lives with her oldest son, Cha Cha, in the suburbs. The house is still standing, though, and Viola owes more money on the mortgage than the house is worth. The question of what to do with the house sets the plot of The Turner House in motion, as the Turner siblings deal with their own feelings about the house, their parents, their siblings, and the state of their lives.

I had heard good things about The Turner House before I picked it up, and in theory, I should have liked it. It’s about a large sprawling family, told from shifting points of view, with complex relationships between siblings. But honestly, I found it pretty boring. There’s a large subplot about the haints, or ghosts, which have plagued Cha Cha since he was a teenager. I couldn’t really get into it. I enjoyed following Lela’s story, the youngest sister who has a gambling problem. But that wasn’t enough to save this book for me. I slogged through it and was happy when it was done. Too many siblings, many of whom never got any airtime or distinguished themselves from the others. Too little resolution – we don’t even find out what ultimately happens to the house in the end. And frankly, not enough conflict. The family is big and messy but they basically all get along and no one really does anything too terrible.

I would have enjoyed hearing more about growing up with 12 siblings and how it impacted each of the kids. I would have enjoyed hearing about what meals were like, what doing homework was like in a small house with 15 people in it.  Instead, I had only a shadowy sense of this family, and way too much information about Cha Cha and the haints.

I listened to The Turner House on audio. It was narrated competently Adenrele Ojo. She did a good job differentiating the featured siblings and I liked her voice and narration. But she couldn’t save a boring, meandering plot.

Sadly, I can’t recommend The Turner House. Based on the reviews I read, a lot of people enjoyed it. It just wasn’t for me.

 

 

THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

I just finished The Girls by Emma Cline, which was one of the hot books of 2016 that got big advances and lots of attention. The Girls is about a summer in the late 60s when a teenager named Evie got involved with a group of other young women living on a ranch under the thrall of a charismatic musician named Russell. The reader learns early on that, at Russell’s direction, members of the group committed a quadruple murder in California (an act based on the Manson murders). The Girls explores how Evie got involved with the group and how that involvement reverberates through her life for decades to come.

First, I will say that Emma Cline is a beautiful writer.  She has a way of describing rooms, scenes, people, actions that make you feel as if you’re seeing it unfold right before you in vivid, sensual detail. I’ve seen some people criticize this book as too flowery, but I thought the writing was its greatest strength.

Clines’s storytelling is not quite as strong. I suspect she looked up “why do people join cults?” and then created a story to satisfy each of the criteria that can lead to susceptibility to cult leaders like Russell. Evie’s parents were separated; her best friend turned on her; she was rejected by the boy she liked; she was bored. Cline sets up Evie’s involvement with the cult perfectly on paper, but I was never really convinced of it in action. Evie’s devotion to Russell and his clan is also premised on her love for Suzanne, one of the girls in the group. Her infatuation with Suzanne is what brings her back to the ranch, over and over, and what landed her in the car with the others when they headed out on the night of the murders. But I didn’t really believe in the ardor, the passion that Evie had for Suzanne, who was basically a hippie from a rich family who stole from strangers and passed her hours stoned and disconnected.

Without a really convincing reason at its core for Evie to lose herself in Russell and his hippie ranch dwellers, The Girls loses its import. Why tell this story, after all? I wanted more – more of Suzanne, more of Evie’s loss of objectivity and judgment. As written, it’s a beautifully told story without a lot of substance.

I listened to The Girls on audio, mostly, and it was one of the rare times where I thought the audiobook detracted from the experience of the book. The narration by Cady McClain was fine; it’s just that Cline’s writing – almost poetic at times – was easy to miss on audio. I found myself re-reading passages in print to make sure that I fully appreciated her imagery and descriptions. I’d recommend the print over the audio for this one.

Was The Girls worth a $2 million advance? I don’t think so. It’s good, but not that good.