Audiobook Review: The Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski

Title: The Time of Contempt (The Witcher, #2)
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Narrator: Peter Kenny
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: 2013 (first published 1995)
Print length: 331 pages
Audio length: 11 hours, 55 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Geralt is a witcher: guardian of the innocent; protector of those in need; a defender, in dark times, against some of the most frightening creatures of myth and legend. His task, now, is to protect Ciri. A child of prophecy, she will have the power to change the world for good or for ill — but only if she lives to use it.

A coup threatens the Wizard’s Guild.
War breaks out across the lands.
A serious injury leaves Geralt fighting for his life…
… and Ciri, in whose hands the world’s fate rests, has vanished…

The Witcher returns in this sequel to Blood of Elves.

It’s always confusing to try to keep track of the book of the Witcher series — an explanation is always necessary.

The Time of Contempt is the 4th book in the Witcher world, but it’s considered The Witcher #2, because it’s the second novel — the first two books are interwoven short stories, but they rightfully should be considered books 1 and 2. Anyhoo…

The Time of Contempt picks back up with the story of Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher of the series’ title, his ward/foster daughter Ciri, and the enchantress Yennefer. Our main characters spend most of their time separated from one another, but always trying to to reconnect or find a way to save the others.

Ciri is young and impetuous, trained as a Witcher but also with her own magical powers. In the company of Yennefer, she’s traveling to Aretuza, the academy for young enchantresses, where she’ll be enrolled as a novice. Meanwhile, Yennefer plans to attend a conclave of mages, where intrigue and alliances and plotting take center stage. Geralt is in pursuit of both, aware that there are terrible forces trying to locate and control Ciri, if not outright kill her.

It all goes to hell, as the conclave turns into a massive battleground. After briefly being reunited, the main trio is once again separated, with Geralt left critically injured, Yennefer’s whereabouts unknown, and Ciri isolated and forced to survive danger after danger.

If you’ve read this far in the Witcher series, none of this will be terribly surprising. The series thrives on thrusting the main characters into horrible danger over and over again. It’s at its strongest when we see them using their skills and their wits to outmaneuver, outfight, and outthink their opponents.

In The Time of Contempt, a lot of time is spent on political wrangling, and that’s where the story frequently lost me. There are kingdoms, kings, the kings’ mages, borders, fortresses, and all are seemingly at odds or in cahoots or shifting loyalties or betraying one another. It’s a lot, and maybe especially because I listened to the audiobook, I had an awfully hard time trying to keep all the players straight.

At the same time, I do truly love the narration of the audiobooks. Narrator Peter Kenny does a fabulous job with the characters, and I especially love hearing him do Geralt and the bard Dandelion. He also does a great Ciri and Yennefer, and excels at all the various accents the supporting characters of different countries and races speak in.

Overall, I have very mixed feelings about The Time of Contempt. There are some compelling new developments, but too much time is spent away from the main characters, and that’s where my attention and interest inevitably drop off. I found the politics too confusing to follow via audio, but fortunately, there’s a huge Witcher fandom and I counted on the various wikis to clarify matters for me whenever I lost track of who was who and which side they were on.

I do want to continue the series, and I have a hard time imagining sticking to the print version, since I’d really miss the sound of Geralt’s voice. Still, I’m a little hesitant, because I can only imagine that as the plot progresses, it’ll only get more complicated, and potentially all that much more difficult to follow.

If you’ve read the Witcher books, I’d love a little advice: Continue with the audiobooks, or switch to print? I guess the bigger question is whether it’s worth continuing with the series at all, but my gut is telling me yes! And how could I stop now?

Audiobook Review: The Christmas Surprise by Jenny Colgan

Title: The Christmas Surprise (Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop, #3)
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Pearl Hewitt
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: 2014
Print length: 272 pages
Audio length: 8 hours 51 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Little Beach Street Bakery and The Bookshop on the Corner comes a delightful holiday tale full of sweetness, love, heartbreak, and happiness—perfect for fans of Debbie Macomber and Elin Hilderbrand.

Rosie Hopkins, newly engaged, is looking forward to an exciting year in the little English sweetshop she owns. But when fate deals Rosie and her boyfriend Stephen a terrible blow, threatening everything they hold dear, it’s going to take all their strength and the support of their families and their friends to hold them together.

After all, don’t they say it takes a village to raise a child?

Perhaps I was pushing my luck with a SECOND Christmas-themed book, but since the books in question are the 2nd and 3rd books in a trilogy featuring characters and a setting I love, it was awfully hard to resist.

Note: Some spoilers ahead, since otherwise I can’t really talk about the book, the series, and why I felt the way I did about this 3rd book.

The Christmas Surprise picks up right after Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop. Rosie and Stephen are newly engaged and blissfully happy in their little cottage next to the sweetshop in their country village of Lipton. Their close friends are engaged too and planning a fancy wedding, the sweetshop is thriving, Stephen is loving his teaching job at the village school, and Rosie’s great-aunt Lillian is ruling the roost at her senior living home. All is well.

But not for long.

After a surprise pregnancy (about which Rosie and Stephen are elated) ends in miscarriage, Rosie is plunged into despair, especially upon learning that a future pregnancy will be extremely unlikely without intervention such as IVF — way beyond their means.

A surprising email leads them in a new direction. Years earlier, Stephen had volunteered with Doctors Without Borders as a teacher in an African village, and he’s heard from his contact there that the young daughter of a family he became close with is expecting a baby, and the family would like him to be the godfather. Stephen and Rosie begin raising funds for the village and the family within their own small community, but then decide that a trip to visit might be just the thing to break them out of their low times.

It wasn’t a shock by any means to see how this all turned out.

The book of course ends on a happy, jolly note, with just about everyone getting a sweet and happy “ever after”, but it does take some effort to get there. Rosie and Stephen face financial challenges that seem to drive a wedge between them, there’s a major disagreement over medical treatment for their baby, and ongoing difficulty with Stephen’s aristocratic mother’s seeming indifference and coldness toward their new little family.

Naturally, there are also tears of joy, village-wide celebrations that include moments of chaos and comedy and silliness, and plenty of laughs and small-town craziness to go around.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but felt a bit on edge with the Africa storyline. First off, it’s always just “Africa” — as if the continent is one big entity. Why not identify a country? The descriptions are all generic outsider views — the bustle and color, the heat, the lack of modern amenities in a remote village. Rosie and Stephen swooping in and saving the day smacks of white saviourism, and when a snooty mom back in Lipton refers to Rosie’s actions as “colonial privilege”, I didn’t think she was far off.

I mean, of course it was lovely that they adopted this newborn who was essentially given up on by his birth family, but it felt a little too pat and condescending for my comfort — even though it did result in the happiness that the characters were so desperately in need of.

I’m not sorry I read/listened to this book, since I really do enjoy the characters and the entire town of Lipton, and was happy to see everything wrapped up with a pretty bow by the end. Still, it stretched my tolerance in parts and the ultra-happy ending, while predictable, was also a bit too pat and deliberately joyful for my taste.

Then again, there was simply no way I wasn’t going to finish the trilogy, and ultimately, it’s been a fun, sweet reading and listening experience. I can’t say no to Jenny Colgan books, and I’m glad to have spent time with Rosie and her adorable little sweetshop!

Audiobook Review: Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop by Jenny Colgan

Title: Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Lucy Price-Lewis
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: 2013
Print length: 368 pages
Audio length: 8 hours 31 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Rosie Hopkins is looking forward to Christmas in the little Derbyshire village of Lipton, buried under a thick blanket of snow. Her sweetshop is festooned with striped candy canes, large tempting piles of Turkish Delight, crinkling selection boxes and happy, sticky children. She’s going to be spending it with her boyfriend, Stephen, and her family, flying in from Australia. She can’t wait.

But when a tragedy strikes at the heart of their little community, all of Rosie’s plans for the future seem to be blown apart. Can she build a life in Lipton? And is what’s best for the sweetshop also what’s best for Rosie?

A Christmas-themed book is such a non-typical reading choice for me — unless it’s a book by Jenny Colgan, and especially if it includes favorite characters and is a follow-up to a favorite book!

I absolutely adored Sweetshop of Dreams, and just needed to keep main character Rosie in my life a little longer, so naturally, I couldn’t resist starting Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop right away.

This 2nd book in the series (it’s a trilogy) picks up about a year after the events in the first book. Rosie is happily settled in the little town of Lipton, running the town sweetshop, living with her beloved boyfriend Stephen, and feeling happier than she’s ever felt in her her life.

As Christmas approaches, things are looking good. Rosie’s family is about to arrive from Australia (although she hasn’t quite gotten around to telling Stephen yet). Stephen has just started his dream job teaching at the little local primary school. They’re happy in their cozy cottage, and Rosie is relieved to know that her great-aunt Lillian is happy too in her retirement home, where she merrily raises holy hell amongst the old folks and is as feisty as ever.

But tragedy strikes due to a freak accident that injures Stephen and threatens the future of Lipton’s school. As Stephen recovers and Rosie’s family hits town, tensions rise and eventually come to a head. Meanwhile, because of the accident, an elderly man suffering from dementia ends up in Lipton, and appears to have connections to the town that no one could have imagined.

Once again, Jenny Colgan’s book strikes just the right note of joy and love, while blending in dramatic complications and moments of fear. The tensions play out throughout the plot, but we readers can rest easy knowing that the author would never truly leave us in devastation. There are sweet secrets revealed, plenty of feel-good family moments, adorableness from small children, dramatic rescues, and plenty of romantic highlights too.

As the 2nd book in a trilogy, Christmas at Rosie Hopkin’s Sweetshop left me very happy, but also eager to read more about these characters — most of who I’d like to either hang out with or give big hugs to, or both.

This was a quick and cheery listen that also packs in emotional moments and enough worries and sorrow to keep it from going too far over the line into a nonstop sugary utopia. I’ve loved both books about Rosie, and need to start #3 immediately! Highly recommended.

Audiobook Review: Sweetshop of Dreams by Jenny Colgan

Title: Sweetshop of Dreams
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Beverley A. Crick
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: 2012
Print length: 422 pages
Audio length: 12 hours 50 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A delicious rom-com about finding yourself and breaking out of routines, The Sweetshop of Dreams is full of tempting desserts, family secrets, and second chances.

Rosie Hopkins has gotten used to busy London life. It’s…comfortable. And though she might like a more rewarding career, and her boyfriend’s not exactly the king of romance, Rosie’s not complaining. And when she visits her Aunt Lilian’s small country village to help sort out her sweetshop, she expects it to be dull at best.

Lilian Hopkins has spent her life running Lipton’s sweetshop, through wartime and family feuds. When her great-niece Rosie arrives to help her with the shop, the last thing Lillian wants to slow down and wrestle with the secret history hidden behind the jars of beautifully colored sweets.

But as Rosie gets Lilian back on her feet, breathes a new life into the candy shop, and gets to know the mysterious and solitary Stephen–whose family seems to own the entire town–she starts to think that settling for what’s comfortable might not be so great after all.

A one-sentence review: I loved this audiobook!

Need more?

Jenny Colgan’s books inevitably lift my spirits and get me deeply involved in her characters’ lives, and Sweetshop of Dreams is no exception.

Rosie is an auxiliary nurse, working busy hospital shifts and living in a small London flat with her boyfriend Gerard, who’s maybe a little too comfortable with their living arrangements. She thinks he’ll propose… eventually… but meanwhile, it’s been years, and he seems perfectly content with the status quo.

But after Rosie’s great-aunt Lilian injures her hip, Rosie’s mother Angie asks her to go stay with Lilian for a little while. Someone needs to get Lilian moved into a care facility and get her ancient sweetshop prepped for sale. And since Angie is currently living in Australia with Rosie’s brother’s family, it falls on Rosie to see to the family obligations in England.

Off Rosie goes to the small country village of Lipton, thinking she’ll be in and out in a matter of weeks. What she finds, though, is that Lilian’s shop hasn’t been opened in a few years, and that Lilian herself is underfed and weak, having stubbornly refused outside help or to leave her cozy little cottage. Rosie dives in, tending to Lilian and cleaning up and reopening the shop — because how can she put it on the market to sell unless she can demonstrate that it’s a viable business?

The longer Rosie stays in Lipton, the more she becomes involved in village life. Even though she sticks out like a sore thumb at first, with her city ways and clothes that can’t withstand the country weather, she eventually makes friends and finds a new purpose in life.

In a dual-timeline approach, we also get little snippets of Lilian’s life during the 1940s, as the young men of the village head to war and Lilian helps her father with the sweetshop. Through these flashbacks, we learn about why Lilian has been alone all these years and what caused the heartbreak she experienced so long ago.

Rosie is a lovely character, upbeat and curious and not afraid to jump in when a pair of hands are needed. Although she’s there for the shop and for Lilian, she also becomes friends with the village doctor, who involves Rosie in his most challenging case — which leads to a whole new set of possibilities for Rosie after she finally dumps her city boyfriend.

I really enjoyed Lilian as a character as well, and found myself so moved by her backstory and her experiences. The book treats Lilian with great respect as she ages, and I found her relationship with Rosie to be just so sweet and lovely.

And the sweetshop!!! Can I just say right now that I’d love to live inside it for a year or so? It sounds so bright and wonderful, full of nostalgic treats and joy and happiness. This book makes village life seem like something idyllic and peaceful and funny and wonderful.

The audiobook narrator, Beverley A. Crick, does a terrific job with Rosie and Lillian, but also masterfully conveys the voices and personalities of the other village residents, from small schoolboy to grumpy old farmers. Listening to this book was such a treat!

Sweetshop of Dreams does include a love story for Rosie, and it’s a good one, but it’s not the sole focus of the book. Instead, this book is a sweet mix of romance, quirky characters, family bonds, and a celebration of community, and it’s utterly enjoyable.

As with the best of Jenny Colgan’s books, Sweetshop of Dreams kept me enchanted by the setting and the people, and left me wanting to spend more time with all of these characters. Luckily for me, there’s a follow-up Christmas book (Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop), and while I don’t normally read Christmas books, I just can’t resist this one!

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!