Audiobook Review: Meg & Jo by Virginia Kantra

Title: Meg & Jo
Author: Virginia Kantra
Narrators: Shannon McManus, Karissa Vacker
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: December 3, 2019
Print length: 400 pages
Audio length: 13 hours 46 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The timeless classic Little Women inspired this heartwarming modern tale of four sisters from New York Times bestselling author Virginia Kantra.

The March sisters—reliable Meg, independent Jo, stylish Amy, and shy Beth—have grown up to pursue their separate dreams. When Jo followed her ambitions to New York City, she never thought her career in journalism would come crashing down, leaving her struggling to stay afloat in a gig economy as a prep cook and secret food blogger.

Meg appears to have the life she always planned—the handsome husband, the adorable toddlers, the house in a charming subdivision. But sometimes getting everything you’ve ever wanted isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

When their mother’s illness forces the sisters home to North Carolina for the holidays, they’ll rediscover what really matters.

One thing’s for sure—they’ll need the strength of family and the power of sisterhood to remake their lives and reimagine their dreams.

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.

And a Little Women retelling wouldn’t be nearly as convincing if it didn’t start with that memorable opening line!

Dangle a Little Women retelling in front of me, and naturally I’m going to read it. And while Meg & Jo has been on my TBR for a while now, I finally got the motivation to dive in thanks to my book group, since this is our February pick.

In Meg & Jo, the March sisters are all grown up and living their own lives. Meg has settled into married life with her husband John and their adorable two-year-old twins, staying put in the family home town in North Carolina. Jo moved to New York years back to pursue a journalism career, but after being laid off from her newspaper job, she’s working as a prep cook at a fancy restaurant while secretly writing a food blog. Beth is in school studying music, and Amy has an internship in the fashion world.

Meg & Jo is narrated in alternating chapters by (obviously) Meg and Jo, and it’s their stories that are the focus of this book. (Beth and Amy are still there, mostly in the background and in their occasional appearances as they visit home, but they’re not POV characters in this book.)

As the book progresses, we learn that neither Meg nor Jo is truly leading their best lives. Meg is a stay-at-home mom, and her husband gave up his teaching and coaching job to work at a car dealership so he could better support their growing family once they found out Meg was pregnant. Neither one is entirely happy. Sure, they love each other and their children, but Meg pressures herself to do it all as payback for John working so hard, not realizing how she’s shutting him out and denying him the opportunity to be a true partner. Meanwhile, John is working at a job that means nothing to him, and can’t bring himself to talk to Meg about it. The communication problems between Meg and John are the central challenge they face.

As for Jo, her blog is doing well, but she’s frustrated. She likes working in the restaurant, but it’s not exactly advancing her writing career. As the story progresses, she falls into a romantic relationship with Eric, the renowned chef and owner of the restaurant, but secrets and a lack of clear intention seem to doom the romance before it can really bloom.

Complicating Meg and Jo’s separate lives further is family drama back home. The March parents live on the farm passed down through Abby’s (Marmee’s) side of the family. Abby runs the farm and the home herself, while her husband Ashton seems to devote all his time to his calling, serving as chaplain and counselor to military vets. When Abby becomes injured, her farm duties fall to Meg — and once Meg takes over, she starts to realize the precariousness of the farm’s future.

As the sisters return home for their mother’s recuperation and for the holidays, they come together to support and love one another. Secrets are revealed, there are plenty of surprises, and ultimately, there are promises of future happiness for Meg and Jo.

So… did I enjoy Meg & Jo? Yes, for sure! It took some getting used to, but seeing the March family transplanted into modern-day lives was quite fun and for the most part, really engaging. I did want to give Meg a good shake from time to time — it was so obvious to me that her attempts to take the household burdens off of John were actually alienating him. The book does a good job of showing how she was modeling her approach to doing it all on what she saw in her own parents’ marriage and internalized as the way things should work, and I was actually proud of Meg when she finally started to understand that accepting John as a true partner was the key to their future happiness.

Jo could be pretty clueless about certain things, and OF COURSE keeping her blog a secret was going to come back to bite her. I had a hard time believing some of the fallout, good and bad, once her secret came out. I did like her relationship with Eric, although I would have liked to see it given a little more time to grow before the big blow-up.

Beth and Amy seem to be basically true to their Little Women depictions, although (150-year-old spoiler alert!) Beth is alive and well in Meg & Jo! I held my breath for about half the book, waiting for her to develop a horrible illness, but thankfully, the book didn’t go there. Beth is gentle and sweet, very shy, and is committed to her musical career. Amy is spoiled, flighty, and impulsive, just as you’d expect.

One of my favorite parts of the book is Amy calling Jo out on trying to put them all into boxes, reminding Jo that in real life, people aren’t just one thing. I loved that their argument started over Pride and Prejudice – Jo sees Meg as Jane, and herself as Lizzie — but what roles does that leave for Beth and Amy? Amy rightfully resents that Jo can’t see her as anything but the pampered, entitled child she once knew. I loved the coming to terms that starts to occur between the sisters.

Another big difference between Little Women and Meg & Jo is how the March parents are depicted, especially the father. In Little Women, Mr. March is largely absent, off in the war and doing God’s work. They miss him terribly, but know he’s following an important path and never seem to resent him. In Meg & Jo, Mr. March comes off as kind of a jerk, at least when it comes to being a husband and father. Yes, he has a calling to tend to the men and women who are suffering after giving so much to their country — but he absolutely neglects his family in order to do so, leaving his wife and children to manage on their own and taking no responsibility for their financial or physical well-being.

Meg & Jo is a little longer than it needs to be, and some interludes at the restaurant and on the farm could have been tightened up a bit. I’m glad I listened to the audiobook rather than reading a print copy, since that helped me feel less like the story was dragging (and I could listen at a faster speed when it was!) The audiobook has different narrators for Meg and Jo, but honestly, their voices are very similar, so if I picked up in the middle of a chapter, it wasn’t obvious from the narrator whose chapter I was on.

As a Little Women fan, I was happy to experience Meg & Jo and see the author’s vision of a modern-day March family. While the story is a little light-weight at times, I enjoyed the characters and their challenges, and it was amusing to see how their 19th century lives could be translated to the 21st century. A follow-up, Beth & Amy, is due out this spring, and I will definitely be reading it!

Audiobook Review: The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Title: The Giver of Stars
Author: Jojo Moyes
Narrator:  Julia Whelan
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: October 8, 2019
Print length: 388 pages
Audio length: 13 hours 52 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From the author of Me Before You, set in Depression-era America, a breathtaking story of five extraordinary women and their remarkable journey through the mountains of Kentucky and beyond.

Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.

The leader, and soon Alice’s greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who’s never asked a man’s permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.

What happens to them–and to the men they love–becomes an unforgettable drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. These heroic women refuse to be cowed by men or by convention. And though they face all kinds of dangers in a landscape that is at times breathtakingly beautiful, at others brutal, they’re committed to their job: bringing books to people who have never had any, arming them with facts that will change their lives.

Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, The Giver of Stars is unparalleled in its scope and epic in its storytelling. Funny, heartbreaking, enthralling, it is destined to become a modern classic–a richly rewarding novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.

Over a year ago, I wrote a post questioning whether we really needed another book about the Depression-era Kentucky pack hours librarians, after having read the excellent The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. A variety of sources had identified concerns about he similarities of this book and The Giver of Stars, which was published later in the same year.

At the time, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read another book on the same historical subject, particularly given some of the questions raised. However, I finally got around to The Giver of Stars after all, and I have to admit, it’s really good.

In The Giver of Stars, we’re introduced to the small town of Baileyville, Kentucky through the eyes of Alice Van Cleve, a young Englishwoman recently married to Bennett Van Cleve, the son of one of the wealthiest and most influential local men. Alice’s starry-eyed approach to marriage is shattered by the absolute lack of affection from Bennett and his constant deferral to his father, in whose house they live and who controls every aspect of their lives.

At a town meeting, a local woman introduces the idea of starting up a pack horse library as part of a WPA project spearheaded by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. While many townsfolk (mostly men) are scandalized, Alice is quick to volunteer, needing to find a purpose and an occupation to take her away from her domestic unhappiness.

The librarians, led by outspoken Margery O’Hare, ride up into the mountains on their mules and horses to deliver books and magazines to the families living there. The job is strenuous and difficult, but rewarding. The women of the library are clearly changing lives with each contact and each delivery.

Alice’s father-in-law is not one to tolerate disobedience, and he takes a particular dislike to Margery’s flouting of traditional feminine roles, painting her as an evil influence to anyone who’ll listen. Mr. Van Cleve owns the local mine that employs much of the adult male population of the area, and he has his own doubtful interests to protect, especially once he suspects Margery of promoting pro-union activism and helping the mountain folk to find ways to thwart his intended mine expansion. His anger becomes more and more dangerous to Alice, Margery, and the existence of the library itself.

The Giver of Stars is an absorbing read, with unique characters we come to care about a great deal, and a nice mix of focus on their personal lives with the bigger picture drama of life in Baileyville and its gossip, natural and man-made dangers, and good-old-boy politics.

The audiobook is lovely, with narration by the talented Julia Whelan, who brings the characters to life, but also beautifully narrates the more descriptive passages about the Kentucky landscapes and the quality of life in the hills.

So, I hereby take back my skepticism about this book! While there are some similarities to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek (apart the most obvious, the choice of general subject matter), there was nothing that particularly jumped out at me while I was listening the The Giver of Stars enough to be disturbing or distracting.

Yes, I guess we really did need two books about pack horse librarians! Both are terrific. My main recommendation would be to read them with some time in between, so each can be appreciated on its own merits. I’m glad I finally gave The Giver of Stars a try!

Audiobook Review: The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline

Title: The Exiles
Author: Christina Baker Kline
Narrator:  Caroline Lee
Publisher: Custom House
Publication date: August 24, 2020
Print length: 370 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 17 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Orphan Train returns with an ambitious, emotionally resonant novel that captures the hardship, oppression, opportunity and hope of a trio of women’s lives in nineteenth-century Australia.

Seduced by her employer’s son, Evangeline, a naïve young governess in early nineteenth-century London, is discharged when her pregnancy is discovered and sent to the notorious Newgate Prison. After months in the fetid, overcrowded jail, she learns she is sentenced to “the land beyond the seas,” Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony in Australia. Though uncertain of what awaits, Evangeline knows one thing: the child she carries will be born on the months-long voyage to this distant land.

During the journey on a repurposed slave ship, the Medea, Evangeline strikes up a friendship with Hazel, a girl little older than her former pupils who was sentenced to seven years transport for stealing a silver spoon. Canny where Evangeline is guileless, Hazel — a skilled midwife and herbalist – is soon offering home remedies to both prisoners and sailors in return for a variety of favors.

Though Australia has been home to Aboriginal people for more than 50,000 years, the British government in the 1840s considers its fledgling colony uninhabited and unsettled, and views the natives as an unpleasant nuisance. By the time the Medea arrives, many of them have been forcibly relocated, their land seized by white colonists. One of these relocated people is Mathinna, the orphaned daughter of the Chief of the Lowreenne tribe, who has been adopted by the new governor of Van Diemen’s Land.

In this gorgeous novel, Christina Baker Kline brilliantly recreates the beginnings of a new society in a beautiful and challenging land, telling the story of Australia from a fresh perspective, through the experiences of Evangeline, Hazel, and Mathinna. While life in Australia is punishing and often brutally unfair, it is also, for some, an opportunity: for redemption, for a new way of life, for unimagined freedom. Told in exquisite detail and incisive prose, The Exiles is a story of grace born from hardship, the unbreakable bonds of female friendships, and the unfettering of legacy.

It’s been a few days since I finished listening to this fascinating, moving, and well-written story, and I feel like I’m still catching my breath.

In The Exiles, author Christina Baker Kline tells a powerful story of women displaced by the rules of others, struggling to survive and to find a place to call home. While the story is uplifting, it’s often so heartbreaking that it made me want to stop and sit quietly for a while to regroup and get my emotions under control.

The book starts by focusing on two very different characters: First, we meet Mathinna. At the opening of the story, she’s eight years old, already living in a sort of exile along with her tribe, who’ve been removed from their lands and forced to relocate to the harsher landscape of Flinders Island. Even there, their lives aren’t peaceful. They’re ruled by British governors, forced to adopt English speech and dress, and limited in their abilities to live as their people always have. When young Mathinna catches the visiting governor’s wife’s attention during a schoolchildren’s performance, Mrs. Franklin decides that Mathinna will be her next experiment. With no consent needed, Governor and Mrs. Franklin leave instruction for Mathinna to be brought to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), to be raised in their home as a test subject — to see if “savages” can be civilized enough to fit into proper society.

At the same time, back in London, we meet Evangeline Stokes, the inexperienced, orphaned daughter of a vicar, who seeks work as a governess with a wealthy family in order to survive after her father’s death. Evangeline is seduced and impregnated by the elder son of the family which employs her, and after she’s found with his ring in her possession, she’s arrested and imprisoned. (He, of course, is such a cad that he never lifts a finger to help her.)

Evangeline is sentenced to transportation, and begins the harrowing four-month sea voyage from England to Australia. To survive, she forges friendships with some of the other women convicts, but the voyage itself is dangerous, as are some of the crewmen onboard the ship.

During the voyage, the character Hazel is introduced as well — a teen girl convicted of robbery, after her alcoholic mother sent her out to pickpocket for their survival. Hazel is a trained and gifted midwife, and her skills become invaluable to Evangeline and the other women on the ship, as well as providing Hazel with a way to improve her own life once she arrives in Van Diemen’s land.

The relationships among the women are complex and important. While their backgrounds vary widely, all find themselves at the mercy of an unfair justice system that deprives them of their voices and their freedoms. As becomes very clear, poor and powerless women have no one to defend them, and no ability to contest or avoid the judgments handed down against them. And as one woman points out to Evangeline, it’s not just about punishment — as British colonizes the Australian territory, they need more women to build a society with, so why not solve two problems at once?

The story alternates in sections between the experiences of Evangeline, Hazel, and the other convicts, and the strange and awful half-life Mathinna is forced into. Again, here is a young woman with no voice and no power, treated as an object of curiosity and a plaything, but all too easily cast aside when her novelty wears off.

All of these women truly are exiles, removed from their homes and families, given no choice about where they’ll go or how they’ll live, forced to give up everything they’ve known and start over in a foreign land. In Mathinna’s case, of course, it’s not just the story of a personal tragedy but the tragedy of a people, as British colonization decimates the lives of the native people of Australia.

The Exiles is a beautiful and powerful read. I don’t want to talk too much about the individual characters and what becomes of them, because the specific storylines are best discovered by reading the book. Overall, this is a tragic and lovely story, and it left me wanting to learn more about the actual history of Australian settlement.

Book/Audiobook Review: Clanlands by Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish

Title: Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare, and a Scottish Adventure Like No Other
Authors: Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish
Narrator:  Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication date: November 3, 2020
Print length: 352 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 22 minutes
Genre: Travel/adventure/history/nono-fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From their faithful camper van to boats, kayaks, bicycles, and motorbikes, join stars of Outlander Sam and Graham on a road trip with a difference, as two Scotsmen explore a land of raw beauty, poetry, feuding, music, history, and warfare.

Unlikely friends Sam and Graham begin their journey in the heart of Scotland at Glencoe and travel from there all the way to Inverness and Culloden battlefield, where along the way they experience adventure and a cast of highland characters. In this story of friendship, finding themselves, and whisky, they discover the complexity, rich history and culture of their native country.

Take two actors, put them in a rickety camper van, and turn them loose in the Scottish Highlands. What do you get? Clanlands, the new book by Outlander stars Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish — part road trip memoir, part bromance, part history lesson, and all good fun.

Sam and Graham met thanks to their work on Outlander, and in Clanlands, they set out together to explore their native land, traveling from site to site in search of deeper meaning and connection, with the occasional adventure and crazy stunt thrown in along the way.

Reading or listening to Clanlands, we learn about the history and role of the clans in Scotland, the various wars and rebellions, and how Scotland’s history is still very much a part of the land and its people today.

We’re also treated to Sam and Graham’s ongoing banter, in which they complain, ridicule, and criticize one another (while making it clear how very much they actually do value each other’s friendship.) It’s pretty adorable.

There are also stories shared about the filming of Outlander and how the show has changed their lives, as well as stories from their earlier acting days and the various roles and opportunities that led them to where they are today.

Plus, Sam seems to delight in making Graham as uncomfortable as possible at all times, so besides hair-raising near-misses while driving, there’s also kayaking, bicycling, climbing rocks and rocking boats, a motorcycle sidecar ride that nearly ends in disaster, and so much more.

I’d originally picked up a hard copy of the book, then had to get the audiobook once I realized it was narrated by Sam and Graham. I highly recommend going the audio route! The two narrators put so much of their personalities into their narration, and listening, we’re treated to their bickering and comedic moments in a way that the printed page doesn’t capture nearly as well.

Outlander author Diana Gabaldon wrote the book’s forward, and she reads this on the Clanlands audiobook, so yet another treat for fans.

The book includes pages of terrific photos, as well as maps and various lists and glossaries, but fortunately, these are also available with the audiobook as a downloadable PDF.

I think Clanlands is especially a treat for Outlander lovers — you really do need to know who the two authors are and have a sense of what they’re like to appreciate their chemistry and how funny they are together. Still, there’s a lot of truly interesting information included about Scottish culture, history, and locations, so a non-fan could enjoy much of the book too.

The road trip that Sam and Graham describe in Clanlands was taken while filming the upcoming Starz series Men in Kilts, which I personally cannot wait to see.

If you’re looking for a holiday gift for the rabid Outlander fan in your life who already has ALL of the Outlander books and assorted memorabilia, consider getting them Clanlands. They’ll love you for it.

And if you yourself are an Outlander fan, particularly a fan of the TV series, then treat yourself to the audiobook. For me, it’s been a laugh-inducing, silly, informative, and overall delightful way to spend 10 hours!

Audiobook Review: Mythos by Stephen Fry

Title: Mythos: The Greek Myths Reimagined
Author: Stephen Fry
Narrator:  Stephen Fry
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Publication date: August 27, 2019
Print length: 352 pages
Audio length: 15 hours 26 minutes
Genre: Myths & legends
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Rediscover the thrills, grandeur, and unabashed fun of the Greek myths—stylishly retold by Stephen Fry. This legendary writer, actor, and comedian breathes new life into beloved tales. From Persephone’s pomegranate seeds to Prometheus’s fire, from devious divine schemes to immortal love affairs, Fry draws out the humor and pathos in each story and reveals its relevance for our own time. Illustrated throughout with classical art inspired by the myths, this gorgeous volume invites you to explore a captivating world, with a brilliant storyteller as your guide.

Stephen Fry’s book on Greek mythology is an absolute delight, and his narration of the audiobook is a perfect showcase for his wit and humor.

From the creation myths through the age of the Titans and the Olympians, Stephen Fry treats us to story after story that never fail to amuse. It’s a wonderful accomplishment, breathing fresh life into stories that many of us have heard repeatedly since childhood. In Mythos, even the most familiar of tales feels fresh, and there are plenty included that I’d never heard of before.

Of course, it’s all very funny too, and is kept at a very light and entertaining level. This isn’t an academic study — it’s storytelling, and it works beautifully. I also really appreciated the little nuggets of linguistic origins tucked in amidst all the gods and demigods and nymphs — the narrator always points out the modern day words and places that are related to the Greek names of the figures in the myths. As a word geek, I found it just so much fun!

Stephen Fry’s versions of the stories are light-hearted and told for maximum entertainment, and every so often there are some absolute gems, such as this line from the story of King Midas:

Everything around him glinted and glittered, gleamed and glimmered with a gorgeous gaudy golden glow but his heart was as grim and grey as granite.

After listening to the audiobook, I couldn’t resist treating myself to a physical copy of the book, and I’m so glad I did — it’s beautiful. The text is of course wonderful, and there are illustrations throughout that add to it and make it a book I’ll be happy to open at random and flip through from time to time for years to come.

This is one instance where I feel confident in saying that you’ll be missing out if you only read the print version, because Stephen Fry’s narration is just so terrific. So, if you enjoy mythology told with flair, absolutely give a listen to this great audiobook!

I can’t wait to listen to the next in the series!

Audiobook Review: Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal — and so we reach the end of the amazing Glamourist Histories series!

Title: Of Noble Family (Glamourist Histories, #5)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrators:  Mary Robinette Kowal, Prentice Onayemi, Robin Miles
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 28, 2015
Print length: 572 pages
Audio length: 15 hours
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The final book of the acclaimed Glamourist Histories is the magical adventure that might result if Jane Austen walked on the darker side of the Regency…

Jane and Vincent have finally gotten some much-needed rest after their adventures in Italy when Vincent receives word that his estranged father has passed away on one of his properties in the West Indies. His brother, who manages the estate, is overwhelmed, and no one else in his family can go. Grudgingly, out of filial duty the couple decide to go.

The sea voyage is long and Jane spends enough time unable to perform glamour that towards the end of the trip she discovers that she is with child. They are overjoyed, but when they finally arrive at the estate to complete what they expect to be routine legal tasks, they realize that nearly everything they came expecting to find had been a lie. Also, the entire estate is in disarray, with horrifying conditions and tensions with the local slave population so high that they are close to revolt.

Jane and Vincent’s sense of peril is screaming out for them to flee, but Vincent cannot stand to leave an estate connected with his family in such a condition. They have survived many grand and terrifying adventures in their time, but this one will test their skills and wits more than any they have ever encountered before, this time with a new life hanging in the balance.

Allow me to wipe away my tears before I start writing my review…

Not that this book itself is heart-breaking (although it does have its moments) — but simply because I’ve now reached the end of the Glamourist Histories series, and I’m so sad to be done! Over the course of these five books, Jane and Vincent have become so dear to me, and I just hate to leave them and their world behind.

In Of Noble Birth, Jane and Vincent must undertake a sea voyage to the Caribbean, to the Hamilton estate on the island of Antigua, after Vincent receives word that his father has died. His elder brother, the heir to the estate, has been injured in an accident and is unable to travel, so calls upon Vincent to go retrieve their father’s will and settle the family’s affairs in Antigua.

After an arduous journey, during which Jane discovers her pregnancy, they arrive at the Hamilton estate to discover unwelcome surprise after unwelcome surprise. The couple, thanks to Lord Verbury’s manipulations, is unable to leave, and are forced into staying at the plantation, at least until Jane can safely deliver her baby.

Once there, they find deplorable conditions amongst the slave population, a lack of appropriate medical care, an untrustworthy overseer, and a household staff who bear a remarkable resemblance to Vincent and his brothers. Jane and Vincent have a lot on their plates, including Jane’s worrying health, the deceit of the overseer, and the ongoing aftereffects of Vincent’s horribly cruel and abusive upbringing.

While Jane and Vincent are honorable and well-intentioned, they still make mistakes, although they try their best to rectify their errors and to support and protect the people enslaved by Vincent’s father. The severity of the conditions is portrayed sensitively yet without shying away, and I appreciate that Jane is once again not perfect but is given room to learn from her errors.

Glamour itself takes a backseat to the conditions on the plantation and Jane and Vincent’s efforts to protect the people there and improve their lives. There are plenty of new characters, many of whom are quite delightful, and we get an introduction (alongside Jane) to non-European approaches to glamour thanks to the elder women of the plantation.

As with previous books, I felt absolutely drenched with anxiety whenever my beloved Jane and Vincent were in danger, and in particular, Jane’s experiences with a devastatingly high risk pregnancy had me in tears.

Without offering egregious spoilers, I’m happy to say that the series has a perfectly happy conclusion… despite leaving me wanting more, more, more.

Mary Robinette Kowal again narrates her novel, although this time around she’s joined by two additional narrators, Robin Miles (who’s so amazing as the narrator of the Binti books) voicing the women of Antigua, and Prentice Onayemi doing all the male voices. It was a little jarring to me to have someone besides MRK herself narrating, especially having listened to the series pretty much straight through — and this is most noticeable for the voice of Vincent, since I’d gotten quite used to the author’s version. Still, after I got past the initial shock, I finally adjusted and ended up enjoying the listening experience very much.*

*Although the male narrator’s voice for one elderly character sounded an awful lot like Voldemort, which was more than a little distracting! Then again, it’s a truly despicable character, so I suppose it fits.

I also need to mention that Mary Robinette Kowal tends to sneak in little geeky moments throughout the books, not usually too obvious — usually just a wink to pop culture fans. This one made me laugh out loud:

She sighed to cover her agitation. “You are insufferable.”

“I prefer ‘inscrutable.’” He smiled, softening a little at her teasing tone, and because she had allowed the change of topic.

“Inexplicable would be more accurate.”

“Inconceivable!”

She rested her hand on her ever-increasing stomach. “Not any longer.”

He laughed and kissed her on the forehead. “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

“Humph!” But Jane was delighted that she had managed to make him laugh. 

I can’t say enough good things about The Glamourist Histories as a whole. I’m so glad that I finally read/listened to them, and loved experiencing them all in a row, as one cohesive story. The world of glamour is amazingly rich, and Jane and Vincent are simply unforgettable. I know the author is supposedly done with this world… but if she ever goes back to it, I’ll be first in line to get my hands on future books!

Audiobook Review: Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Valour and Vanity (Glamourist Histories, #4)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator:  Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 29, 2014
Print length: 405 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 12 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Acclaimed fantasist Mary Robinette Kowal has enchanted many fans with her beloved novels featuring a Regency setting in which magic–known here as glamour–is real. In Valour and Vanity, master glamourists Jane and Vincent find themselves in the sort of a magical adventure that might result if Jane Austen wrote Ocean’s Eleven.

After Melody’s wedding, the Ellsworths and Vincents accompany the young couple on their tour of the continent. Jane and Vincent plan to separate from the party and travel to Murano to study with glassblowers there, but their ship is set upon by Barbary corsairs while en route. It is their good fortune that they are not enslaved, but they lose everything to the pirates and arrive in Murano destitute.

Jane and Vincent are helped by a kind local they meet en route, but Vincent is determined to become self-reliant and get their money back, and hatches a plan to do so. But when so many things are not what they seem, even the best laid plans conceal a few pitfalls. The ensuing adventure is a combination of the best parts of magical fantasy and heist novels, set against a glorious Regency backdrop.

More fun with Jane and Vincent! Yes, I’m hooked on this series. Listening to the audiobook for #4, Valour and Vanity, was just as much fun as the first three. I’m only sad that there’s just one more left!

In Valour and Vanity, we’re treated to a high calibre caper. The synopsis is right to describe it as something out of Ocean’s Eleven!

Following a disastrous sea voyage in which they lose all their money and possessions, Jane and Vincent arrive in Venice penniless. To make matters more difficult, their intended host, Lord Byron, has left town on romantic pursuits, leaving Jane and Vincent with no place to go and no funds to pay for lodging or even a fresh set of clothes. Fortunately, a fellow traveler from their ship offers them his generous assistance…

And clearly, there’s more to the story, but I’m not going to give any spoilers! Let’s just say that there are twists and turns, all sorts of sneaky double-dealing, plus helpful nuns, a brave puppeteer*, gondola chases (yes, you can in fact have a chase scene with gondolas!), glass-blowing, and so much more.

*Fun fact: Author Mary Robinette Kowal is a professional puppeteer, so her inclusion of a heroic puppet-master here is just delightful.

Once again, Jane and Vincent are a terrific twosome. They’re unconventional, incredibly talented, and very much in love. They also feel real in the way that they face difficulties and disagreements, react emotionally, talk things through, and find ways to move forward. They don’t have to be perfect around each other — they love each other passionately and accept each other exactly as they are.

The Venice setting is new and different for this series, and provided a great setting for a plot where Jane and Vincent have to navigate without any of their usual allies or safety nets. The action is fast-paced, and the schemes are just oh-so-clever.

One sure sign that you’ve become overly involved as a reader is when you can’t stand for bad things to happen to beloved characters, even if the bad things lead to exciting storylines. This was my only problem with Valour and Vanity — I’m so in love with Jane and Vincent that it upsets me too much when their well-being is threatened, so even though the caper aspects of the story are really fun, I was also incredibly tense throughout! I just needed to know that the characters I care about would come out okay in the end. (Yes, of course they do. After all, we still need to get to book #5!)

This series continues to be a delight, and I can’t wait to start the final book, Of Noble Family. Well… I’m actually dreading it, because I don’t want the series to be over… but still, I have to know what happens next!

For an interesting look at the author’s puppetry career and her transition to writing, check out this article.

Audiobook Review: Murder by Other Means by John Scalzi

Title: Murder by Other Means
Author: John Scalzi
Narrator:  Zachary Quinto
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: September 10, 2020
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 3 hours, 3 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From Hugo and Audie Award-winning author John Scalzi comes an exciting sequel to The New York Times best-selling, number one Audible hit The Dispatcher, performed by the incomparable Zachary Quinto.

Welcome to the new world, in which murder is all but a thing of the past. Because when someone kills you, 999 times out of 1,000, you instantly come back to life. In this world, there are dispatchers—licensed killers who step in when you’re at risk of a natural or unintentional death. They kill you—so you can live.

Tony Valdez is used to working his job as a dispatcher within the rules of the law and the state. But times are tough, and more and more Tony finds himself riding the line between what’s legal and what will pay his bills. After one of these shady gigs and after being a witness to a crime gone horribly wrong, Tony discovers that people around him are dying, for reasons that make no sense…and which just may implicate him.

Tony is running out of time: to solve the mystery of these deaths, to keep others from dying, and to keep himself from being a victim of what looks like murder, by other means.

If you’re looking for a quick audio listen that’s a noir/sci-fi treat, you have to check out this new audiobook by John Scalzi!

Murder By Other Means is the newly released sequel to The Dispatcher. Both are terrific. These Audible Originals are written by John Scalzi, narrated by Zachary Quinto, and just so much fun.

In the world of these books, death has been (mostly) defeated. For some unfathomable reason, as of about 10 years earlier, anyone who is murdered instantly zips back to life back in their own home, naked, and completely unharmed. This is not true, though, for natural or accidental deaths (basically, anything non-murdery). Die without murder, and dead is dead.

Hence, the rise of a profession known as Dispatchers. Say you’re going into surgery for a risky procedure — well then, keep a dispatcher on hand, so if things go wrong, one quick bullet in the brain will send you home again. There’s the 1 in 1000 chance that the dispatching won’t work, but most people are willing to take that chance.

In these audiobooks, our main character is Tony Valdez. Time are tough, and there aren’t as many legit dispatcher jobs these days, so when Tony is offered something that’s not entirely by the book, but that pays piles of cash, he does the job. And then things get screwy. After witnessing a robbery at his local bank branch, complete with dead and not-so-dead bodies, Tony is implicated, and when one of the investigating detectives ends up dead too, things go from bad to worse.

Tony has to figure out how to clear his name, get the cops off his back, and solve a puzzle regarding a slew of deaths in the city that can’t be murder… but they sure seem like they are.

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.

Murder By Other Means includes enough stage-setting that you can listen to it without being completely lost, but it makes a lot more sense to listen to The Dispatcher first, to gain a full picture of what life in a death-less world feels like.

Audiobook Review: Without A Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Without a Summer (Glamourist Histories, #3)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator:  Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 2, 2013
Print length: 361 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 35 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Up-and-coming fantasist Mary Robinette Kowal enchanted fans with award-winning short stories and beloved novels featuring Regency pair Jane Ellsworth and Vincent. In Without a Summer the master glamourists return home, but in a world where magic is real, nothing—even the domestic sphere—is quite what it seems.

Jane and Vincent go to Long Parkmeade to spend time with Jane’s family, but quickly turn restless. The year is unseasonably cold. No one wants to be outside and Mr. Ellsworth is concerned by the harvest, since a bad one may imperil Melody’s dowry. And Melody has concerns of her own, given the inadequate selection of eligible bachelors. When Jane and Vincent receive a commission from a prominent family in London, they decide to take it, and take Melody with them. They hope the change of scenery will do her good and her marriage prospects—and mood—will be brighter in London.

Once there, talk is of nothing but the crop failures caused by the cold and increased unemployment of the coldmongers, which have provoked riots in several cities to the north. With each passing day, it’s more difficult to avoid getting embroiled in the intrigue, none of which really helps Melody’s chances for romance. It’s not long before Jane and Vincent realize that in addition to getting Melody to the church on time, they must take on one small task: solving a crisis of international proportions.

My love affair continues! Book #3 in Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Glamourist Histories is just a captivating as the first two. I simply love the story and the characters and the storytelling!

In Without A Summer, the weather is unseasonably cold, with snow lingering into May and June. Unhappy, desperate people need someone to blame, and so they blame the coldmongers — the glamourists who are skilled in providing cooling for people with fevers, for overly warm indoors during the summer, and to help grocers keep their produce longer. But as any knowledgeable glamourist can attest, it is simply impossible for glamour to affect the weather. Even the relatively smaller amounts of glamour worked by the coldmongers often leads to severe injury or death.

In the midst of the weather crisis, Jane and Vincent travel to London to work on a commission. They bring along Jane’s younger sister Melody, who lacks society or any prospects of a match on her parents’ country estate.

Jane and Vincent soon find themselves involved in intrigue, with a suspected plot involving both the coldmongers and Melody’s Irish Catholic suitor. What’s more, the couple encounter Vincent’s estranged father while in London — a hateful man with lots of power, who clearly wants to make Vincent pay for separating himself from the family and his father’s toxic influence.

The plot quickly becomes complicated and suspenseful, and by the final section of the book, I found myself incredibly worked up and tense with worry over Jane and Vincent’s fate. Rationally, I knew that — with two more books in the series — they’d surely be okay in the end. Still, until reaching the resolution of the high stakes drama, I was fairly terrified over seeing them in mortal peril.

As with the other books in the series, I found this one delightful. Beyond the action of the main plotlines, I just love seeing Jane and Vincent together. Too often, stories of romance end with the wedding ceremony. In The Glamourist Histories, we get to see what a devoted, happy, passionate marriage looks like. Jane and Vincent are deeply in love, enjoy a robust physical relationship, and have a true partnership as equals, pursuing their chosen professions together with grace and trust.

A nice surprise in Without A Summer is getting to see Melody as something other than the pretty, shallow girl she’s been portrayed as so far. Here, she shows surprising intellectual depth and curiosity, as well as commitment and bravery that are quite admirable. It’s a nifty trick of the author’s to make us share Jane’s surprise at Melody’s underlying strength and seriousness — having seen her through Jane’s eyes, we’ve only seen her as the sum of her face, her flirtations, and her standing as the pampered little sister.

Another aspect that bothered me at first, but ultimately made me appreciate the writing all the more, is seeing Jane as flawed. She’s always so strong and good, but in Without A Summer, she allows her unknowing prejudices to influence her interpretation of the events she witnesses. It’s not malicious on her part, but it’s still there, and puts certain characters in grave danger that might otherwise have been discovered or averted sooner.

The audiobook narration, courtesy of the author herself, is wonderful as always. I love her presentation of Jane, Vincent, Melody, and especially some of the young coldmongers they encounter.

I do love this series, and book #3 is a fabulous story. I can’t wait to continue!

Audiobook Review: Well Played by Jen DeLuca

Title: Well Played
Author: Jen DeLuca
Narrator: Brittany Pressley
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 22, 2019
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 59 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Another laugh-out-loud romantic comedy featuring kilted musicians, Renaissance Faire tavern wenches, and an unlikely love story.

Stacey is jolted when her friends Simon and Emily get engaged. She knew she was putting her life on hold when she stayed in Willow Creek to care for her sick mother, but it’s been years now, and even though Stacey loves spending her summers pouring drinks and flirting with patrons at the local Renaissance Faire, she wants more out of life. Stacey vows to have her life figured out by the time her friends get hitched at Faire next summer. Maybe she’ll even find The One.

When Stacey imagined “The One,” it never occurred to her that her summertime Faire fling, Dex MacLean, might fit the bill. While Dex is easy on the eyes onstage with his band The Dueling Kilts, Stacey has never felt an emotional connection with him. So when she receives a tender email from the typically monosyllabic hunk, she’s not sure what to make of it.

Faire returns to Willow Creek, and Stacey comes face-to-face with the man with whom she’s exchanged hundreds of online messages over the past nine months. To Stacey’s shock, it isn’t Dex—she’s been falling in love with a man she barely knows.

It’s a pleasure to return to Ye Olde Renaissance Faire in Well Played, the sequel to last year’s Well Met.

In Well Met, the love story centered on Emily and Simon. In Well Played, Emily’s best friend Stacey takes center stage. Stacey is a home town girl, born and raised in Willow Creek, Maryland. While she once had the prospect of a fashion internship in New York, she gave it up when her mother had a sudden heart attack. Now, years later, Stacey lives in the apartment above her parents’ garage, works as a dental office receptionist, and lives for the few weeks each summer when she volunteers at Faire.

This year, things feel decidedly off for Stacey. Emily and Simon have announced their engagement, Faire is over, and she faces a long year ahead until she can break out her wench’s costume once again. After a few too many glasses of wine, she sends a drunken message to Dex McLean, the hottie musician with whom she’s had no-strings hook-ups the past two Faire seasons.

Of course, she’s horrified the next morning, until she sees that Dex has actually replied, and what’s more, sent a really appreciative message in return. From there, the two begin to text and email, and as the months go by, their communication becomes more personal and intimate. Stacey is shocked but delighted — could Dex really be this deep? Could he really be ready for a more serious connection?

I’m sure you can see where this is going. I certainly did from their first exchange. So…

Minor spoiler ahoy!

It’s not really Dex with whom she’s been texting and emailing all this time, but his cousin Daniel, the cute redhead who manages Dex’s band. Stacey and Daniel had been casually friendly over the years, but she never really noticed him, being so wowed by Dex’s glamor. A minor slip-up in an email right before Faire starts the next summer leads Stacey to realize that she’s been fooled all these months — but was this cruel catfishing, or is there a reasonable explanation?

I’ll be honest — no matter the explanation, this felt too uncomfortably on the catfishing side of the line, even though Daniel was coming from a place of misguided good intentions. Yes, there might be an element of Cyrano here (as the characters discuss), but at the end of the day, he just wasn’t being honest with her.

Do these two lovebirds overcome their obstacles? This is a romance — what do you think?

Once they get past the initial arguments, Stacey and Daniel become even more deeply connected, but naturally there are some major miscommunications that lead to a huge fall-out and break-up. And as in Well Met, I was wishing for some good old adult conversation rather than emotional storms where no one quite manages to say what they mean or what they want.

Still, the book is lots of rom-com fun. On a more serious side, I thought Stacey’s dilemma about wanting to see the world but feeling tied to her hometown and and worrying about her mother’s health felt realistic and very sympathetic. Stacey is a great character, and her journey through this book says a lot about growing up, finding independence, leaving the nest, and figuring out the right balance between dreams and obligations.

Of course, the Ren Faire setting is just as great as in the first book, even though there’s much less time spent there in Well Played. A good portion of the book takes place during the year in between Faires, and I missed spending more time on Faire preparation, costumes, and the day-to-day experience of the glories of Faire.

A note on the audiobook: Well Played has the same narrator as Well Met, and she does a great job with the characters and their dialogue, particularly capturing their different voices for when they’re themselves and when they’re in their Faire personae. A great listen!

I really enjoy the characters and the relationships in this series, and I’m excited that a third book is on the way! Lots of fun for anyone in the mood for light, upbeat romance with a memorable setting. (Plus, kilts and corsets!)