Audiobook Review: Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers, #3) by Becky Chamber

Title: Record of a Spaceborn Few
Series: Wayfarers, #3
Author: Becky Chambers
Narrator:  Rachel Dulude
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication date: July 24, 2018
Print length: 368 pages
Audio length: 11 hours, 36 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Brimming with Chambers’ signature blend of heart-warming character relationships and dazzling adventure, Record of a Spaceborn few is the third standalone installment of the Wayfarers series, set in the sprawling universe of the Galactic Commons, and following a new motley crew on a journey to another corner corner of the cosmos—one often mentioned, but not yet explored.

Return to the sprawling universe of the Galactic Commons, as humans, artificial intelligence, aliens, and some beings yet undiscovered explore what it means to be a community in this exciting third adventure in the acclaimed and multi-award-nominated science fiction Wayfarers series, brimming with heartwarming characters and dazzling space adventure.

Hundreds of years ago, the last humans on Earth boarded the Exodus Fleet in search of a new home among the stars. After centuries spent wandering empty space, their descendants were eventually accepted by the well-established species that govern the Milky Way.

But that was long ago. Today, the Exodus Fleet is a living relic, the birthplace of many, yet a place few outsiders have ever visited. While the Exodans take great pride in their original community and traditions, their culture has been influenced by others beyond their bulkheads. As many Exodans leave for alien cities or terrestrial colonies, those who remain are left to ponder their own lives and futures: What is the purpose of a ship that has reached its destination? Why remain in space when there are habitable worlds available to live? What is the price of sustaining their carefully balanced way of life—and is it worth saving at all?

A young apprentice, a lifelong spacer with young children, a planet-raised traveler, an alien academic, a caretaker for the dead, and an Archivist whose mission is to ensure no one’s story is forgotten, wrestle with these profound universal questions. The answers may seem small on the galactic scale, but to these individuals, it could mean everything.

Argh… again with a misleading synopsis blurb! Why does whoever writes things keep coming back to a “motley crew”? That is SO not what this book is about! Anyway…

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the 3rd installment in the fabulous Wayfarers series, and it leaves me in absolute awe of author Becky Chambers and her vision of this sprawling fictional world. Here, she moves the story to a place we’ve heard about but not seen — the Exodan Fleet.

Many generations earlier, humans left Earth as it became uninhabitable, creating a fleet of homesteader ships that headed out into the galaxy with no idea of an endpoint or destination. Eventually, the human fleet encountered other sapient species, much more advanced in technology and in the social complexities of cross-species relations. After some time, the humans were accepted into the Galactic Commons (kind of like a UN for alien species), and many of the humans of the fleet sought out new homes on already established worlds or set out to colonize new human habitations on unsettled planets.

Not all, though. Many remained with the fleet, where their ancestors had lived already for centuries. Among the ships of the fleet, a shared community of sustainability, common interest, respect for the past, and well-ordered social expectations had been built over time. For the Exodans who stayed with the fleet, they were no longer on a journey — the fleet was home.

Within this setting, we follow the lives of several very different characters — some lifelong residents of the Asteria homesteader ship, some newcomers, some alien visitors. Through each, we learn more about Exodan life, their rituals, their beliefs, and the reality of their day-to-day.

The action starts with an unprecedented tragedy — one of the Exodan ships is destroyed in a freak accident. For the rest of the fleet, this is not only a human tragedy with countless deaths, but also a stark reminder of the potential danger and precariousness of their own homes. As the story moves forward, we see the ripple effect on the different characters, some of whom question their commitment to the fleet and wonder about other options, and some of whom reinvest in making sure that the fleet society has a future.

It’s all quite fascinating. In some ways, life in the fleet reminds me of a traditional kibbutz — communal life, with all jobs valued, each giving back to the community through labor, with shared communal living spaces balanced with family spaces, and a shared responsibility for daily tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and childcare. I was also intrigued by the deeply ingrained ethos of reusing and repurposing. When resources are scarce and the world is a closed system, everything serves a purpose, and nothing can be wasted.

The characters themselves are unique individuals, each with their own interesting lives and sets of joys and worries. These include an archivist, who tends the collective memories of the fleet; a newcomer seeking new meaning after growing up planetside and without connections; a caregiver whose job is to lovingly tend the dead through carefully established rituals; an alien sociologist spending time on the Asteria to study this example of human society, and a teen who isn’t sure where he’s meant to be or what his purpose is. They’re all wonderful, and I can’t say there was any one storyline I preferred over the others.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is loosely connected to the first book in the series, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, as one of the characters is the sibling of the ship captain from the 1st book. Otherwise, this is a stand-alone story within a shared universe. I love how each book in the series opens up a new aspect of life within this fictional universe, broadening our understanding of what life is like for these future humans — among the stars, on a planet, or on a homesteader ship.

While these books are science fiction, there are no raging space battles or chases or high-tech weaponry. The series is about a society, about what it’s like to live in a galaxy where one’s own species is both a novelty and a minority, dependent on the tolerance and generosity of others species. The characters we meet, the choices they make and the dilemmas they face, are far more important to the overall tone and themes of the books than the details of water recycling, propulsion system, or the mechanics of keeping a spaceship working for centuries.

It’s all fascinating, and a remarkable creation. I’ve been listening to the audiobooks — narrator Rachel Delude gives an incredible performance, voicing so many different characters, keeping them distinct and identifiable, and bringing emotion and humor whenever needed. It’s been a terrific listening experience.

I can’t recommend this series strongly enough! Each book is a delight, and each one adds new dimensions to our understanding of the world of the series.

Next in the series: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

I have one book left in the series — The Galaxy, and the Ground Within — and can’t wait to keep going (although I’ll be sad to finish). After hearing about this series for so long, I’m so glad that I finally made it a point to dig in! I’m just sorry that it took me so long.

Audiobook Review: Beyond the Wand: The Magic & Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard by Tom Felton

Title: Beyond the Wand: The Magic & Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard
Author: Tom Felton
Narrator: Tom Felton
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: October 18, 2022
Print length: 286 pages
Audio length: 6 hours, 36 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

They called for a break, and Gambon magicked up a cigarette from out of his beard. He and I were often to be found outside the stage door, having ‘a breath of fresh air’, as we referred to it. There would be painters and plasterers and chippies and sparks, and among them all would be me and Dumbledore having a crafty cigarette.

From Borrower to wizard, Tom Felton’s adolescence was anything but ordinary. His early rise to fame saw him catapulted into the limelight aged just twelve when he landed the iconic role of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films.

Speaking with candour and his own trademark humour, Tom shares his experience of growing up on screen and as part of the wizarding world for the very first time. He tells all about his big break, what filming was really like and the lasting friendships he made during ten years as part of the franchise, as well as the highs and lows of fame and the reality of navigating adult life after filming finished.

Prepare to meet a real-life wizard.

Draco speaks!

In Beyond the Wand, actor Tom Felton shares stories from his early childhood, the Potter years, and beyond. Unlike some of the seriously dire and disturbing celebrity memoirs of the past year, Beyond the Wand is a mostly upbeat, light-hearted romp through the life of an actor whose professional work will forever be defined by the sneering Slytherin he portrayed so well.

Significantly younger than his three older brothers, Tom grew up with a healthy dose of love and fun, but also humility — his brothers were always happy to cut him down to size before celebrity could go to his head. After roles in two smaller films, Tom’s life changed forever when he was cast as Draco Malfoy… without ever having read the Harry Potter books. (His description of the audition scene, where he had to fake knowledge of the story — and failed — is very funny).

His descriptions of the early years of filming are sweet, humorous, and eye-opening. There’s nothing scandalous here, don’t worry! Tom shares stories of on-set experiences, filming challenges, and lots of fun little stories — for example, his grandfather, acting as Tom’s required on-set chaperone, had such an impressive white beard that director Chris Columbus ended up casting him as a Hogwarts professor!

Because Draco was a lower-profile character than the big three of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, Tom’s profile as a star was somewhat lower-key as well. And because he had fewer scenes over all, he was able to continue attending his Muggle school in between filming, which he credits with enabling him to have a semi-normal childhood. Yes, he had a lead role in one of the biggest movie franchises ever, but he also had regular school, friends, and older brothers to keep him grounded (and occasionally get him into trouble as well).

The tone of Beyond the Wand is light and funny. Listening to the audiobook is a pleasure — he narrates his own story, and speaks it all as if he were hanging out with you and telling stories. It feels accessible and personal, and he injects a sense of fun into it all.

One of the elements I really appreciated in Beyond the Wand was Tom’s depiction of the older cast of Harry Potter and their influence on him and his child co-stars. As he describes, walking onto set as a 12-year-old, he had no idea of the stature of the adult cast members. And yet, over time, he came to realize just how fortunate he was to act alongside actors such as Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, and Alan Rickman. He shares plenty of lovely anecdotes about their interactions with the children, their influence, and their generosity, and he also pays loving tribute to the cast members no longer with us, which is quite touching.

It’s only in the last couple of chapters that we get to anything darker, as he describes his post-Potter Hollywood years, his sense of loss of direction, a brief period of alcohol abuse, and struggles with mental health. The focus is mostly on the positive, though — on the importance of being able to get help without shame, and the value he’s found in seeking treatment when needed.

Other than those chapters, the tone is very fun and full of larks, and overall, Beyond the Wand is a really enjoyable listen. Even for huge Potter fans, there are plenty of behind-the-scenes tidbits shared here that will be new and fresh. (Nothing scandalous — it’s all good fun, with a sense of Tom’s enjoyment at being a bit of a rascal.)

This would be a great gift for any adult who grew up on Potter. Tom Felton presents his story with humor and modesty, as well as deep appreciation for the experiences he’s had and the people he’s worked with. He comes across as very human and not overly impressed with his own celebrity — it’s a friendly, chummy memoir about a boy who ended up following a very unusual path. Lots of fun — definitely recommended.

Audiobook Review: A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers, #2) by Becky Chamber

Title: A Closed and Common Orbit
Series: Wayfarers, #2
Author: Becky Chambers
Narrator:  Rachel Dulude
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication date: October 20, 2016
Print length: 365 pages
Audio length: 11 hours, 29 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Embark on an exciting, adventurous, and dangerous journey through the galaxy with the motley crew of the spaceship Wayfarer in this fun and heart-warming space opera—the sequel to the acclaimed The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in a new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who’s determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet introduced readers to the incredible world of Rosemary Harper, a young woman with a restless soul and secrets to keep. When she joined the crew of the Wayfarer, an intergalactic ship, she got more than she bargained for—and learned to live with, and love, her rag-tag collection of crewmates.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the stand-alone sequel to that beloved debut novel, and is perfect for fans of Firefly, Joss Whedon, Mass Effect, and Star Wars.

Beware the misleading synopsis… this book is definitely not a “journey through the galaxy with the motley crew of the spaceship Wayfarer”. In fact, A Closed and Common Orbit has almost nothing to do with the Wayfarer spaceship or its crew, except as a point of origin and connection for its characters. But that caveat aside, let’s talk about what this book actually is.

A Closed and Common Orbit picks up after the events of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Spoiler for those who haven’t read book #1 — the Wayfarer’s sentient AI, Lovelace, ends the first book by being transferred to an illegal body kit by the mechanic Pepper, and the two of them depart on their own adventure.

Book #2 picks up soon afterward, as Pepper, her companion Blue, and Lovelace travel back to Pepper’s home in Port Coriol, where Lovelace faces the daunting task of trying to act like a “normal” human. Inhabiting a high-quality artificial body that appears real, Lovelace adopts a new name, Sidra, and settles into life with Pepper and Blue. But Sidra misses the expanded senses and awareness of being a ship’s AI, and despite the unexpected ways she finds to explore and enjoy using her physical senses, she feels out of place and harshly limited by only being able to experience the world using the “kit” (as she refers to her physical manifestation).

In alternating chapters, we also get Pepper’s backstory. Now a tech wizard who can fix just about anything, Pepper got her start as a child slave in a factory policed by robotic “mothers”, a girl whose entire life consisted of sorting scrap on a planet mainly used as a junkyard. After escaping the factory at age 10, Pepper (then known as Jane) survived by finding shelter in an abandoned shuttlecraft, thanks to the guidance and nurturing of that ship’s AI, Owl. Over nine long years, Jane scavenged the nearby junkheaps and slowly repaired the shuttle until it was finally ready to take flight and escape.

For both Sidra and Jane, learning to be a person presents a huge challenge, as each has been denied human companionship and experiences in key ways. Though their sitations are very different, each must learn how to navigate their new realities and to rely on their own sense of self for survival, and each must ultimately figure out their own purpose in the new worlds in which they end up.

When I started this book, I was a little disappointed that the characters from book #1 wouldn’t be part of the story, but ultimately, I did get very caught up in Pepper/Jane and Sidra’s stories. I loved how some of their experiences paralleled one another, and found their explorations of their respective worlds really fascinating.

While the synopsis describes this book as a stand-alone, I wouldn’t recommend reading it without having first read book #1. The worldbuilding is too complex to fully appreciate without the grounding provided by the first book — there are planets and government entities and alien species to sort out and become familiar with, all of which are introduced in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. That said, this feels in some ways more like a bottle episode of a TV show — set in a familiar world, but with a narrow focus on just a few characters. Like good bottle episodes, this story illuminates more intricacies of the Wayfarers universe than previously seen, and at the same time provides a deep and meaningful interlude in the lives of the characters it focuses on.

I’m curious to see where the series goes next, and plan to continue just as soon as my library hold for the next audiobook comes in. (Side now: As I mentioned in my review of the first book, the narrator here is excellent!)

I’m so glad that I finally got around to starting this series — which has been on my TBR for way too many years. Well worth the wait, and highly recommended.

Next in the series: Record of a Spaceborn Few

Audiobook Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers, #1) by Becky Chamber

Title: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Series: Wayfarers, #1
Author: Becky Chambers
Narrator:  Rachel Dulude
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication date: July 29, 2014
Print length: 432 pages
Audio length: 14 hours, 23 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Follow a motley crew on an exciting journey through space—and one adventurous young explorer who discovers the meaning of family in the far reaches of the universe—in this light-hearted debut space opera from a rising sci-fi star.

Rosemary Harper doesn’t expect much when she joins the crew of the aging Wayfarer. While the patched-up ship has seen better days, it offers her a bed, a chance to explore the far-off corners of the galaxy, and most importantly, some distance from her past. An introspective young woman who learned early to keep to herself, she’s never met anyone remotely like the ship’s diverse crew, including Sissix, the exotic reptilian pilot, chatty engineers Kizzy and Jenks who keep the ship running, and Ashby, their noble captain.

Life aboard the Wayfarer is chaotic and crazy—exactly what Rosemary wants. It’s also about to get extremely dangerous when the crew is offered the job of a lifetime. Tunneling wormholes through space to a distant planet is definitely lucrative and will keep them comfortable for years. But risking her life wasn’t part of the plan. In the far reaches of deep space, the tiny Wayfarer crew will confront a host of unexpected mishaps and thrilling adventures that force them to depend on each other. To survive, Rosemary’s got to learn how to rely on this assortment of oddballs—an experience that teaches her about love and trust, and that having a family isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the universe.

The Wayfarers series has been on my to-read pile for far too long, so I’m thrilled that (a) I finally read book #1, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and (b) I loved it!

Rosemary Harper is our entry point to the world of this book, although once introduced, she’s just one of many characters whom we follow. The cast here is the crew of the Wayfarer, a tunneling ship that hires out its services to bore tunnels — wormholes — to link far-flung points in space. It’s dangerous, complicated work, but absolutely necessary in an expansive universe in which humans are a minority species without a planet to call home.

Centuries earlier, humans left Earth due to planetary failure — some colonizing Mars, but others, known as Exodans, setting off on generation ships to permanently wander. Eventually, humans were allowed to join the Galactic Commons, the governing body that unites in alliance (sometimes uneasily) the various species who work together to keep the peace and provide structure to the greater world of sapient beings.

The plot of The Long Way takes place on and around the Wayfarer ship, as Rosemary (and we readers) become acquainted with the crew, their personalities, roles, conflicts, and desires, and prepare for the biggest job they’ve ever had. There are romances, secrets, and dangers, but the people are all wonderful (except for one jerky algaeist, but even he gets slightly more tolerable eventually).

The storytelling is very episodic. While there’s an overarching plotline concerning the big, dangerous job the Wayfarer takes on and its aftermath, this is more of a background element for much of the book. Instead, from chapter to chapter, we spend time with the different crew members in different scenarios, learning about each of their backgrounds and what brought them to the Wayfarer, as well as placing them in settings and seeing them go through different experiences.

Because of this episodic approach, there isn’t a lot of building tension throughout the book. Somehow, though, that’s okay. From time to time, there are a few big action sequences or big emotional encounters or high-stakes threats, but the main focus of the book is on the characters themselves and their relationships. The tone overall is, believe it or not for a space adventure, rather cozy… and I liked this approach! We really get to know the characters, so when there are moments of high drama, we understand the stakes and the why and how of different people’s reactions.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Rachel Dulude, and thought it was wonderful. I’ve had experiences of struggling with science fiction audiobooks in the past, where I’ve found it challenging to absorb the tech and details of a complicated sci-fi setting and its world-building. Here, though — perhaps because of the focus on the characters themselves — it simply flows. The narrator gives distinct voices to the characters, even the non-human ones, so there’s never any confusion about who is speaking or what they’re feeling. The narration is crisp and dynamic, and I enjoyed it so much that I’ll probably choose audiobooks when I’m ready to continue the series.

Overall, I really and truly enjoyed The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. It wasn’t what I expected, but I loved what it was! I’m eager to continue with the series — just waiting for book #2 to come in at the library.

Sometimes when I read a book that I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time, the end result is a let-down. Fortunately, The Long Way surprised me in lovely ways and was worth the anticipation. Highly recommended.

Next in the series: A Closed and Common Orbit

Audiobook Review: Rules at the School by the Sea (Maggie Adair, #2) by Jenny Colgan

Title: Rules at the School by the Sea
Series: Maggie Adair / Little School by the Sea
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Jilly Bond
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: Originally published 2010; reissued 2022
Print length: 288 pages
Audio length: 7 hours, 32 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

It’s summer, but school is in session in the delightful second book of New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan’s utterly charming School by the Sea series, set at a girls’ boarding school in Cornwall.

For the second year at Downey House, it’s getting harder and harder to stick to the rules . . .

Maggie Adair’s first year as a teacher at Downey House was a surprising success. After making the leap from an inner-city school in Glasgow, she’s learned to appreciate the mellower pace of the girls’ boarding school by the sea.

Now engaged to her longtime boyfriend, sweet and steady Stan, Maggie’s just got to stop thinking about David McDonald, her colleague at the boys’ school down the road. Well, hasn’t she? Can Maggie take a leaf out of the Well Behaved Teacher’s exercise book and stick to her plan for a small but elegant wedding and settled life of matrimony?

Even as Maggie tries to stay within the lines, rules are being broken all around her. Maggie’s boss, headmistress Veronica Deveral, has more to lose than anyone. When Daniel Stapleton joins the faculty, Veronica finds herself forced to confront a scandalous secret she thought she’d carefully buried forever. How long will she be able to keep her past under wraps?

What does a new year of classes, rules, and camaraderie hold for the students and faculty at Downey House?

After listening to the first book in the Little School series, Welcome to the School by the Sea, I thought I’d wait a bit and enjoy the anticipation before listening to the second… but in the end, I just had to see what happens next!

In Rules at the School by the Sea, we start a new school year alongside teacher Maggie, headmistress Veronica, and the rambunctious group of girls — Simone, Fliss, and Alice — we got to know in the first book.

Maggie is much more settled into her life at Downey House. She’s more confident in her teaching abilities, and plans to grab her girls’ attention by focusing on romantic poetry from the World War I era during English lessons. Maggie and her long-time boyfriend Stan have recently become engaged, but Maggie seems to be in a bit of denial: She doesn’t really have any interest in wedding plans, and despite Stan’s urging, really doesn’t want to leave Downey House and look for a teaching job in Glasgow.

For Veronica, she’s both thrilled to have her biological son teaching at the nearby boys’ school, but also worried about whether news of her having once given up a baby for adoption will create a scandal among her staff and the parents. Meanwhile, she and Daniel are cautiously beginning to get to know one another, but Veronica is finding it almost impossible to balance her growing love for her son and his family with her deeply ingrained need for privacy.

And the girls — well, what can we say about a bunch of 14 (almost 15) -year-old girls in all their glorious confusion of hormones and growing up and still being so very young in so many ways? A new girl, Zelda — the daughter of a US army officer temporarily stationed in the UK — shakes up the group of friends with her brashness and American approach to school, while Fliss and Alice fall out over a boy and Simone takes Zelda up on her offer of a total image makeover. There are arguments and rule-breaking and hilarity, and it’s quite fun to see the girls’ petty squabbles as well as their friendship and commitment to one another.

Rules is quite a lot of fun, capturing the excitement of the school year from the perspective of the students as well as that of the teachers. Overall, I quite enjoyed this 2nd book, but I did feel particularly frustrated by Maggie’s romance story line.

Maggie has been with Stan for ages and cares for him, but she’s so clearly in love with (and better suited for) David, the English teacher from the boys’ school. Maggie spends the entire book trying to convince herself that her crush on David is just a passing phase, and that she really does want to marry Stan — but it’s entirely obvious that she and Stan have grown apart and want very different things out of their lives. It seemed as though there were plenty of opportunities for Maggie to face the truth and take responsibility for breaking off the engagement with Stan, but each time, she backtracks and recommits, even though she isn’t actually happy.

I know this back-and-forth love triangle stuff is supposed to add drama and tension, but after a while, it just makes it seem as though Maggie is emotionally unaware, and that doesn’t feel true to her character. There’s a bit of a cliffhanger ending in the final chapter, but it does appear that Maggie has finally had an epiphany and is on the verge of taking action… and I hope that’s really the case! (This is why I’ll probably grab the 3rd book the very first second that I can — I need to know what happens next!!)

On a more serious note, the problematic focus on Simone’s weight from book #1 continues here. Again, there’s nothing wrong with Simone making an effort to adopt healthy eating habits if that’s what feels right to her, but the over-emphasis on being slim in order to gain popularity and attract boys leads to an eating disorder for another of the girls in the group. On the one hand, I’m glad that the darker aspects of this focus on dieting are shown, but there’s still something very uncomfortable about how much weight and appearance matter in the girls’ lives. (Perhaps this is an aftereffect of the fact that this book was originally published in 2010 — if it were written today, I’d hope that the fat-shaming and focus on a specific standard for acceptable bodies would be addressed or eliminated altogether).

My frustration with the romance and the weight/dieting storylines aside, I did find Rules a sweet, entertaining, engaging read. I love how the storyline bounces between the adults and students, and how we get to see each sides’ attitudes and perceptions about the other. The characters are all quite endearing — even the obnoxious spoiled girls have something going for them — and the story as a whole is just such a yummy treat in the way it presents a somewhat idealized yet still modern-day version of life at a lovely boarding school.

This is the 2nd book in a series that was originally published over 10 years ago under a pseudonym, now being reissued with spiffed-up covers, titles, and the actual author’s name! The third reissue, Lessons at the School by the Sea, will be released in March 2023 — although since I have a paperback of the original version, I may have to read it much sooner. (Apparently, I am terrible at waiting.)

The audiobook is very enjoyable — I really liked the narrator’s approach to voicing the different characters. She does a very good job of capturing their personalities, although I found her version of an American/Texan accent for Zelda incredibly grating and overdone. Otherwise, though, it’s a charming listening experience.

And finally, one lovely bit is that the audiobook ends with a collection of Maggie’s poems — the poetry she teaches her class over the course of the school year. It was a sweet treat to get to hear all of these after the main story had concluded, and even though pieces of some of these are included earlier in the story, it was lovely to get to listen to them in their entirety. (My favorite of these is Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou — see the full text here).

Another nice little bit at the end — after finishing the audiobook, I picked up my paperback edition and discovered that the final piece included is step-by-step instructions for some of the dances that the girls learn, including The Dashing White Sergeant, Strip the Willow, and Eightsome Reel. (I can’t actually visualize the dances from reading the instructions, but seeing these pages is motivating me to go look for dance videos online.)

Wrapping it all up…

I love when a first book’s promise is delivered on in the second book, and that’s definitely the case with Rules at the School by the Sea. There’s much still unresolved plot-wise, but it’s wonderful to see these likable characters continue to learn and grow, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for all of them!

Book #3, to be released March 2023

Audiobook Review: I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

Title: I’m Glad My Mom Died
Author: Jennette McCurdy
Narrator: Jennette McCurdy
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: August 9, 2022
Print length: 320 pages
Audio length: 6 hours, 26 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A heartbreaking and hilarious memoir by Jennette McCurdy about her struggles as a former child actor—including eating disorders, addiction, and a complicated relationship with her overbearing mother—and how she retook control of her life.

Jennette McCurdy was six years old when she had her first acting audition. Her mother’s dream was for her only daughter to become a star, and Jennette would do anything to make her mother happy. So she went along with what Mom called “calorie restriction,” eating little and weighing herself five times a day. She endured extensive at-home makeovers while Mom chided, “Your eyelashes are invisible, okay? You think Dakota Fanning doesn’t tint hers?” She was even showered by Mom until age sixteen while sharing her diaries, email, and all her income.

In I’m Glad My Mom Died, Jennette recounts all this in unflinching detail—just as she chronicles what happens when the dream finally comes true. Cast in a new Nickelodeon series called iCarly, she is thrust into fame. Though Mom is ecstatic, emailing fan club moderators and getting on a first-name basis with the paparazzi (“Hi Gale!”), Jennette is riddled with anxiety, shame, and self-loathing, which manifest into eating disorders, addiction, and a series of unhealthy relationships. These issues only get worse when, soon after taking the lead in the iCarly spinoff Sam & Cat alongside Ariana Grande, her mother dies of cancer. Finally, after discovering therapy and quitting acting, Jennette embarks on recovery and decides for the first time in her life what she really wants.

Told with refreshing candor and dark humor, I’m Glad My Mom Died is an inspiring story of resilience, independence, and the joy of shampooing your own hair. 

My kids and I spent countless hours watching iCarly, and we always loved that crazy Sam character, with her wild antics and silly schemes and out-there sense of humor. But now, having read Jennette McCurdy’s painful, raw memoir, I don’t think I could ever watch iCarly in quite the same way again.

The Goodreads synopsis (above) doesn’t really do justice to this book — if anything, it goes light on the depths of abuse and trauma portrayed through Jennette’s story. There’s very little here I’d describe as “hilarious” — and the “joy of shampooing your own hair”? Please. As we find out in the book, she was not allowed to shower on her own until late in her teens. There’s nothing joyful about it.

From an absurdly young age, Jennette was conditioned to make her mother’s happiness the absolute focus of her life. From the annual family ritual of watching an old video of her mother’s dying message to her kids (from an earlier bout with cancer, which she survived for another 20 years or so) to her mother’s emotional meltdowns if Jennette voiced her desire to quit acting, the mother’s narcissism and need to be in control was the dominant influence in the family’s lives.

As she describes so meticulously and painfully, every aspect of her life and career was dictated by her mother’s wishes and need for the spotlight, even if only available vicariously through her daughter. Jennette’s preferences didn’t matter. She was forced into auditions, acting classes, hours of dance lessons per week, and the pursuit of any other skill that casting directors might want. In one anecdote, she relates that after not getting cast for a part that required bouncing on a pogo stick, her mother immediately bought a pogo stick and forced her to practice on it in their backyard until she could get to a bazillion bounces in a row. Anything in pursuit of fame and success.

Much more dire than the endless lessons and “beauty” treatments is the eating disorder. As she began developing breasts on the cusp of puberty, Jennette’s mother offered to help her stay childlike (and therefore, more castable) by teaching her about “calorie restriction”. Essentially, the mother taught her own child how to be anorexic.

In addition to the severely unhealthy mother-daughter relationship, further trauma was inflicted by the toxic working conditions on the Nickelodeon set, in particular in regard to the man referred to in the book as “The Creator”, whose behavior paints him as creepy, emotionally abusive, and invasive — as well as being the person who gave the very young actress her first taste of alcohol.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author, and I have to be honest, it’s a very tough listen. Jennette McCurdy’s delivery is full of personality, and she certainly knows how to use her voice to evoke and portray emotion — but the story she tells is so gut-wrenching that it can be really hard to hear. Somehow, listening to her voice her own story makes it that much more painful — it feels very personal and real.

I’m Glad My Mom Died has a provocative and controversial title, but I think her point is very well articulated through her writing. She examines how there’s a whole culture built up around putting mothers on pedestals, and how incredibly difficult it can be for someone with an abusive mother to understand that she wasn’t perfect, and that she was in fact responsible for so much of the trauma in her child’s life.

As I’ve said, this book is not easy. While there are some funny moments, and the actress’s trademark deadpan delivery can be really offbeat and startle a laugh out of the listener, it’s overall quite serious and heartbreaking. As well as the emotional, mental, and physical abuse, there are very frank discussions of eating disorders and addiction, so readers for whom those topics are triggering may want to consider whether this is the right choice for them.

Overall, I’m Glad My Mom Died is a strong, deeply sad memoir, told with honestly and blistering forthrightness. It’s uplifting to learn how far the author has come in her personal growth and recovery, but that doesn’t change the harrowing truths about her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Jennette McCurdy bravely shares her truth in this book and makes a lasting impression.

Audiobook Review: Welcome to the School by the Sea (Maggie Adair, #1) by Jenny Colgan

Title: Welcome to the School by the Sea
Series: Maggie Adair / Little School by the Sea
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Jilly Bond
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: January 1, 2008 (reissued March 29, 2022)
Print length: 304 pages
Audio length: 7 hours, 54 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library (audiobook)
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The first book of Jenny Colgan’s delightful new four-part series, set at a charming English boarding school on the sea.

Maggie went to the window and opened it wide, inhaling the lovely salt air off the sea. Why had she never lived by the sea before? Why had she always looked out on housing estates and not the little white hulls of trawlers bobbing off in the distance?

It’s gloriously sunny in Cornwall as the school year starts at the little boarding school by the sea. Maggie, the newest teacher at Downey House, is determined to make her mark. She’s delighted by her new teaching job, but will it come at the expense of her relationship with her safe, dependable boyfriend Stan?

Simone is excited and nervous: she’s won a scholarship to the prestigious boarding school and wants to make her parents proud. Forced to share a room with the glossy, posh girls of Downey House, she needs to find a friend, fast.

Fliss is furious. She’s never wanted to go to boarding school and hates being sent away from her home. As Simone tries desperately to fit in, Fliss tries desperately to get out.

Over the course of one year, friendships will bloom and lives will be changed forever. Life at the Little School by the Sea is never dull…

Jenny Colgan books are always a treat, and this one was an especially nice surprise! Originally published under the pseudonym Jane Beaton starting in 2008, the three books in this series were hard to find in the US, and I finally landed copies of the UK editions (titled Class, Rules, and Lessons) by ordering via EBay.

The series is now being reissued by Avon, with books 1 and 2 available, and #3 coming in early 2023. Although I’ve had my paperbacks for several years, seeing the new editions made me realize that it was finally time to give this series a try!

The books are set at an English boarding school, Downey House, located in a beautiful old manor house on the shores of Cornwall. While there are several point-of-view characters, our lead character is Maggie Adair, a young teacher from Glasgow who applies to Downey House on a whim. Maggie cares deeply about education and providing opportunities for youth, but she’s frustrated by her early years of teaching in an underfunded school where the headmaster doesn’t even bother learning new teachers’ names, since he’s sure they won’t last. Maggie spends her days on discipline and making sure her students are safe and have food, rather than being able to actually teach her beloved literature.

The job offer at Downey is a surprise to Maggie, as well as to her long-term boyfriend Stan, a good-natured guy who just wants life to continue as it’s been, with pub quizzes and a non-changing status quo. But Maggie sees Downey as an opportunity to truly stretch herself and grow as a teacher, and hopes to one day bring what she’s learned there back to Glasgow and its lackluster schools.

Downey House is run by the stern but impressive headmistress Veronica Deveral, who has secrets of her own. It’s an all-girls school, with a partner boys’ school just down the road. Students enter at age 13 and continue on for six years. Most are from hyper-privileged families, with money (oodles of it), fancy homes and vacations, and the clear impression that the world is theirs. Not all, though — there are the occasional scholarship students, and one of these is Simone (originally with the last name Kardashian, but changed for the new editions to Pribetich).

Simone is from a working-class Armenian-British family, a brilliant girl who’s shy and insecure after years of bullying in her local school. Downey is a chance for her to shine, but even there, she’s ostracized by her classmates from day one because of her looks, her background, and her embarassing family.

Then there’s Fliss, the younger daughter of a very popular older student (she’s a prefect!), who absolutely doesn’t want to leave her friends back home and go to a stupid posh school. Fliss is determined to get kicked out, so she breaks rules, has a nasty attitude, and teams up with one of the worst girls there to cause trouble and act up.

Maggie has a hard time fitting in at first, and the girls are obnoxious as hell about her Scottish accent. Still, she’s clearly a gifted teacher, if a bit headstrong, and begins to make a difference, and she finds a friend in the glamorous French teacher (who smokes contraband cigarettes out the window) and the dashing English teacher from the boys’ school.

Jenny Colgan writes in her author’s note that she grew up loving boarding school books, but not being able to find any for grown-ups, she decided to write some! Reading this book, it occurs to me that everything I know about English boarding schools basically comes from Harry Potter! I mean, prior to HP, I’d never heard of school houses or prefects or any of the other terms and concepts of this type of school — but reading Welcome to the School by the Sea, I had fun seeing how pieces I assumed were Hogwarts-specific are actually just elements of a boarding school (sans magic).

At Downey, the girls are divided into four houses (Wessex, Plantagenet, York, and Tudor), and live in house dorms with their classmates. There are school uniforms, mandatory sports sessions, classes and exams, and annoying teachers to gossip about. There are also pranks, holidays, performances, and competitions, as you’d expect in this kind of story.

I really enjoyed the interplay between the characters, and appreciated that the characters we spend the most time with (Maggie, Veronica, Fliss, and Simone) are each given well-developed backstories and their own sets of challenges and adventures.

Maggie’s romantic life quickly develops into a love triangle. Stan is not supportive of her new position and gives her a very hard time about it for most of the book. He’s a lovable doofus, and Maggie has been with him since they were teens — but clearly, he’s not the right guy for her. Underneath his mocking and lack of support, he does truly care for Maggie, but even though they stay together, we know this won’t last. Meanwhile, David from the boys’ school is surprising, fun, and very much in tune with Maggie in terms of dedication to education, and they seem to work. The triangle is left hanging by the end of the book, but it seems pretty obvious that the Maggie/David pairing is end-game for this series.

A few bits seem dated, or perhaps don’t quite fit with current sensitivities. For me, the most annoying was the emphasis on Simone’s weight. When she arrives at Downey, she’s quite heavy. It’s clear that she’s been overindulged with sweets by her doting mother, and due to the bullying she grew up with, has found refuge in food and has always tried to avoid further ridicule by shying away from physical activity. That’s all fine, as far as backstory goes, but she continues to be referred to as chubby or fat throughout the book, and after a while, it starts to feel like too much. The fact is, at Downey, she discovers that she’s a gifted field hockey goalie and starts to eat a healthier diet away from her mother’s influence, so whether or not she’s still plus-sized, she’s definitely getting healthy, and that should be applauded.

Other than that, there’s some mean girl business that’s a bit too obvious, but I was happy to see unexpected friendships formed by the end of the first year, and assume we’ll see these characters and their relationships continue to grow in the next books.

The audiobook is quite fun to listen to (although the audiobook uses Simone’s original last name, so it’s a little inconsistent when compared to print editions). At the start, I found the audiobook hard to follow, as we’re introduced to so many characters right away, each with their own POV sections. After a while, it becomes clearer, and I appreciated the narrator’s ability to give the various characters their own distinct voices.

Overall, this is a fun, engaging listen, and I can’t wait for more! Book #2 (Rules at the School by the Sea) is now available, so I’m already in the queue for it at the library, and I hope to listen to the 3rd as soon as it’s released. As for additional books, the synopsis (above) refers to this as a four-book series, although in the author’s notes, she mentions intending to write six books… but as of this moment, I don’t see anything specific online about books beyond the current three.

If you’ve visited my blog over the past few years, you may have noticed that I’m a Jenny Colgan fan. It’s true!! Her books are sweet, good-humored, and full of engaging, funny characters, and she excels at building a fictional community around key lovable, memorable characters. I can’t get enough, and I’m always excited for her new releases. Bring on Rules… and keep ’em coming!

Audiobook Review: Travel by Bullet (The Dispatcher, #3) by John Scalzi

Title: Travel by Bullet
Series: The Dispatcher, #3
Author: John Scalzi
Narrator:  Zachary Quinto
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: September 1, 2022
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 3 hours, 43 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Audible and New York Times best-selling “Dispatcher” series returns with a brand-new mystery, performed by Zachary Quinto.

The world has changed. Now, when someone is murdered, they almost always come back to life—and there are professionals, called “dispatchers,” who kill in order to save lives, to give those near the end a second chance. Tony Valdez is a dispatcher, and he has never been busier.

But for as much as the world has changed, some things have stayed the same. Greed, corruption and avarice are still in full swing. When Tony is called to a Chicago emergency room by an old friend and fellow dispatcher, he is suddenly and unwillingly thrown into a whirlpool of schemes and plots involving billions of dollars, with vast caches of wealth ranging from real estate to cryptocurrency up for grabs.

All Tony wants to do is keep his friend safe. But it’s hard to do when friends keep secrets, enemies offer seductive deals, and nothing is ever what it seems. The world has changed… but the stakes are still life and death.

I hadn’t been aware that a third Dispatcher audiobook was on the way, so I was surprised in the best way to see it available on Audible this month!

In the sci-fi/speculative world of the Dispatcher series, death has become much more optional. Death by natural causes is still death, but if someone is murdered, in 999 cases out of 1,000, the murdered person pops back into life with a “reset”, waking up someplace they feel safe — usually their own home — back in the condition they were in several hours earlier.

In this brave new world, professional Dispatchers are trained and licensed to turn natural deaths into murders, all for the sake of saving lives. A person on the verge of death from cardiac arrest, for example, gets a professionally administered bullet to their brain, and (unless they’re that 1 in 1,000 exception), they end up totally fine. I mean, they should probably go see a doctor ASAP for that heart condition, but they’re alive and have a chance to remain that way.

In Travel by Bullet, things have changed yet again in all sorts of interesting ways. The role of Dispatchers has been around for about 10 years at this point, and our main character, Tony Valdez, is tired. The world has been going through the pandemic for the past couple of years, and new laws have been instituted that give families the right to demand a dispatch for their dying relatives, meaning that Dispatchers are now employed full time in hospitals and are kept incredibly busy.

The problem is, for someone on a ventilator approaching death, a reset by dispatch isn’t really going to fix things. The patient will wake up in their own bed in a condition from a few hours earlier, but as in all dispatches, they travel without anything but their bodies — no clothes, and most importantly in these cases, no equipment. Often, desperate families who demand a dispatch are dooming their relatives to pain and confusion and inevitable death, but without the benefit of hospital staff to ease the journey. Tony spends much of his time trying to talk families out of using his services, but at the end of the day, he is required by law to perform if that’s what the family wants.

His daily grind is interrupted when a friend and fellow dispatcher is brought into the ER, on the verge of death and asking specifically for Tony. Tony knows that this person has been involved in the shadier side of dispatching, and the circumstances of the accident that brought him to the hospital are very sketchy.

Tony reluctantly gets drawn into his friend’s mess, and ends up at the center of a conspiracy that draws in the Chicago PD, the FBI, mobsters, VC billionaires, and assorted hoodlums. Tony becomes increasingly threatened as he struggles to keep his friend safe while not alienating other allies or putting his life and livelihood into grave danger.

It’s all very quick-paced and complicated, with crypto-wallets changing hands, billionaires behaving horrendously, and Dispatchers being used in some truly awful business settings (as well as providing the “travel by bullet” concept that gives this story its name).

In my review of the 2nd book, Murder by Other Means, I wrote:

At just barely 3 hours, this audiobook is perfect for a quick entertainment. The action is fast-paced, and the narration is terrific. The vibe is noir, but with enough weird elements to let you know you’re living in a Scalzi world. I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn’t a Dresden book (minus the magic) — it’s that kind of smart, quick urban storytelling.

The same is absolutely true here! (Sorry, I don’t usually quote myself…)

Travel by Bullet is slightly longer, but still under 4 hours. Actor Zachary Quinto is marvelous when it comes to voicing Tony and handling the storytelling. His narration absolutely nails the noir vibe of the entire story, and it all just works.

I would recommend starting with the first book in this series, The Dispatcher, in order to get a good feel for the world of dispatching and its rules and quirks — but since they’re all relatively short, you’ll speed through them in no time!

Note: Travel by Bullet is an Audible exclusive as of now. The first two books in the series were also originally Audible-only, but were later released in print format too, so I’d assume that eventually, this one will be as well. For now, though, if you want to experience Travel by Bullet, Audible is the only option.

Audiobook Review: Mr. Perfect on Paper by Jean Meltzer

Title: Mr. Perfect on Paper
Author: Jean Meltzer
Narrator: Dara Rosenberg
Publisher: Mira
Publication date: August 9, 2022
Print length: 387 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 27 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

From the author of The Matzah Ball comes a pitch-perfect romcom following a third-generation Jewish matchmaker who unwittingly finds her own search for love thrust into the spotlight…

The perfect Jewish husband should be:
* A doctor or lawyer (preferably a doctor)
* Baggage-free (no previous marriages, no children)
* And of course—he must be Jewish

As the creator and CEO of the popular Jewish dating app J-Mate, matchmaker Dara Rabinowitz knows the formula for lasting love—at least, for everyone else. When it comes to her own love life, she’s been idling indefinitely. Until her beloved bubbe shares Dara’s checklist for “The Perfect Jewish Husband” on national television and charming news anchor Chris Steadfast proposes they turn Dara’s search into must-see TV.

As a non-Jewish single dad, Chris doesn’t check any of Dara’s boxes. But her hunt for Mr. Perfect is the ratings boost his show desperately needs. If only Chris could ignore his own pesky attraction to Dara—a task much easier said than done when Dara starts questioning if “perfect on paper” can compete with how hard she’s falling for Chris…

Jean Meltzer, author of 2021’s The Matzah Ball, is back with another Jewish-themed romance, this one depicting a young Jewish matchmaker’s search for her own true love.

Dara Rabinowitz is the powerhouse CEO of J-Mate, the super successful Jewish dating app she created inspired by her mother and grandmother’s careers as matchmakers. Knowing what makes a good match, as well as being a hugely talented coder, is the secret to Dara’s rise to corporate stardom. Dara lives with generalized anxiety disorder, which she’s quite open about, and manages her high-pressure life through coping and calming strategies as well as medication.

Dara is devoted to her darling grandmother, bubbe Miriam, whom she considers her best friend — but Miriam wants to see Dara happily married and exploring life. When Miriam goes off-script on a TV appearance and shares a private list of Dara’s requirements for her perfect husband (written one night while drinking with her sister), Dara is utterly humiliated… until the video clip goes viral, the show’s rating skyrocket, and suddenly everyone wants more of Dara.

The show’s host, Chris (handsome, non-Jewish, and a widowed father of a tween girl) is enchanted by Dara, and sees her as a potential key to saving his floundering show. Reluctantly, Dara agrees to his proposal: He’ll use her app and algorithms to find her nice Jewish men who are “Mr. Perfect on Paper” — checking all the boxes on her list — and she’ll allow the show to follow her on her dates.

What could go wrong?

Obviously, plenty. Dara encounters one dating disaster after another… and meanwhile, even once she meets a man who might really be her perfect match, she can’t quite shake her attraction and feelings for Chris himself. Chris, too, feels drawn to Dara, but he knows he’s not what she wants. But what if????

Dara and Chris are both sensitively portrayed and well developed. I really felt like I got to know each of them, with attention paid to their family backgrounds and the tragedies and struggles they’ve each endured. Chris’s story is particularly sad, and his dedication to being the best dad he can be, while navigating the tricky world of dealing with a pre-teen girl, is quite moving.

Dara and Chris have good chemistry, and I appreciated how genuine their care and concern for one another is. While denying to themselves that they could ever be romantically involved, they do both consider themselves friends, and they’re truly there for one another in the way that real friends should be.

Some elements of the book just didn’t work as well for me, however. Based on this book as well as her previous one, it seems that this author’s approach to conveying humor is to create slapstick moments where everything goes wrong. Maybe some readers will find these moments funny (such as Dara ending up dunking her head into a barrel of water in the middle of a date in order to get away from a pesky bumblebee), but honestly, I tend to find them too silly and embarrassing and over the top.

I had to question some of the Jewish elements too. Dara is devoted to her religion and her people, which is nice to see, but some of her choices in regard to the TV show seem questionable — for example, allowing the camera crew to come to synagogue on Yom Kippur and follow the date that arranged for her at the break fast. I doubt any synagogue would actually allow a camera crew to set up and film on the holiday, and the idea of having a blind date at a break fast after a day of fasting seems like a set-up for disaster (which is exactly how it ends up).

The audiobook was mostly enjoyable, but the narrator seemed to struggle with some of the Jewish/Hebrew/Yiddish terms and names, and that was very distracting to me. Still, when the characters are in more natural or relaxed setting, the narration flows well, and I liked the scenes with Chris and his daughter very much.

Overall, Mr. Perfect on Paper is light entertainment with a sweet story to tell. The characters are bright spots, very engaging and sympathic, but on the downside, the predictable nature of the plot and the occasional cringe-worthy pratfalls and dating disasters keep this book from being totally successful. It’s fun, but I had to overlook a lot of my quibbles in order to appreciate the good stuff.

Audiobook Review: Birds of California by Katie Cotugno

Title: Birds of California
Author: Katie Cotugno
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication date: April 26, 2022
Print length: 288 pages
Audio length: 7 hours 49 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Former child actor Fiona St. James dropped out of the spotlight after a spectacularly public crash and burn. The tabloids called her crazy and self-destructive and said she’d lost her mind. Now in her late twenties, Fiona believes her humiliating past is firmly behind her. She’s finally regained a modicum of privacy, and she won’t let anything–or anyone–mess it up.

Unlike Fiona, Sam Fox, who played her older brother on the popular television show Birds of California, loves the perks that come with being a successful Hollywood actor: fame, women, parties, money. When his current show gets cancelled and his agent starts to avoid his calls, the desperate actor enthusiastically signs on for a Birds of California revival. But to make it happen, he needs Fiona St. James.

Against her better judgment, Fiona agrees to have lunch with Sam. What happens next takes them both by surprise. Sam is enthralled by Fiona’s take-no-prisoners attitude, and Fiona discovers a lovable goofball behind Sam’s close-up-ready face. Long drives to the beach, late nights at dive bars… theirs is the kind of kitschy romance Hollywood sells. But just like in the rom-coms Fiona despises, there’s a twist that threatens her new love. Sam doesn’t know the full story behind her breakdown. What happens when she reveals the truth?

Sparks fly and things get real in this sharply sexy and whip-smart romantic comedy set against the backdrop of a post #metoo Hollywood from New York Times bestselling author Katie Cotugno–page-turning escapist fun in the spirit of Beach Read, The Kiss Quotient, and Red, White and Royal Blue.

In Birds of California, former star and tabloid bad-girl Fiona has left her acting days firmly in the past, preferring a quiet life tending to her father and sister, working in the family print shop, and avoiding the spotlight. Of course, it’s hard to actually forget her past when not a day goes by without being recognized, but for the most part, Fiona lives a private, quiet, hidden life.

Until one day, her ex-agent calls out of the blue with big news: There’s going to be a reboot of Birds of California, the show that made Fiona a breakout teen star, and the production wants her in it. Fiona wants no part of it — but then Sam Fox, her former co-star shows up at the print shop on a mission to change her mind. Fiona still is adamantly opposed to doing the show… but she’s less opposed to spending time with Sam.

The two start to connect, and rediscover a chemistry that was cut short back in their teen days, but of course, misunderstandings and hidden secrets arise and threaten to tear them apart, just as they’re growing closer.

Birds of California is billed as a romantic comedy, and yes, there are some funny moments, but a lot of it really has to do with the damage done to Fiona as a rising Hollywood star hounded by tabloids and paparazzi. The romance between Fiona and Sam is dynamic and worth cheering for, but I did wish they’d each open up and be honest a lot sooner than they did.

Mild plot spoilers ahead…

Mostly, my lasting impression of Birds of California has to do with its brushing up against toxic Hollywood culture and the #metoo movement. It’s pretty clear early on that Fiona didn’t publicly self-destruct for no reason — she was a young girl who wasn’t adequately protected and who was victimized by the people and studios that should have kept her safe. Unfortunately, while the book eventually makes clear what actually happened to her, it focuses so much on the current-day romance between Fiona and Sam that the past isn’t explored sufficiently.

I would have liked a little more attention at the end of the story, after Fiona finally tells Sam about her experiences, on what happens next and why. I would REALLY have liked to see the fall-out and (hopefully) justice that must be coming for the people who so seriously mistreated Fiona — the story ends with wheels set in motion, but no concrete consequences.

Overall, I enjoyed the characters and the story, and the audiobook narration — by Julia Whelan, one of my very favorite narrators — makes it both fun and heartfelt. I wish there had been a bit more substance beneath the romance, including more development of the more serious aspects of the story, but still, Birds of California is an entertaining read with fresh, funny, authentic characters to root for.