Audiobook Review: Well Met by Jen DeLuca

Title: Well Met
Author: Jen DeLuca
Narrator: Brittany Pressley
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 3, 2019
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 45 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

All’s faire in love and war for two sworn enemies who indulge in a harmless flirtation in a laugh-out-loud rom-com from debut author, Jen DeLuca.

Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, for the summer to help her sister recover from an accident, but who could anticipate getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance Faire alongside her teenaged niece? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him?

The faire is Simon’s family legacy and from the start he makes clear he doesn’t have time for Emily’s lighthearted approach to life, her oddball Shakespeare conspiracy theories, or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the faire grounds he becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she’s in her revealing wench’s costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they’re portraying?

This summer was only ever supposed to be a pit stop on the way to somewhere else for Emily, but soon she can’t seem to shake the fantasy of establishing something more with Simon, or a permanent home of her own in Willow Creek. 

Okay, show of hands: Who among us hasn’t ever wanted to lace up a corset, grab a turkey leg, and head to ye olde Renaissance Faire for some old-timey fun? Not just me, right?

In Well Met, Emily Parker is 24, unemployed, and temporarily living in small-town Willow Creek while helping her older sister April recover from a serious car accident. Part of this help is ferrying around her 14-year-old niece, Caitlin, including taking her to sign up as a volunteer cast member for the upcoming summer’s Renaissance Faire. The catch, however, is that minors can’t volunteer unless they have a responsible adult volunteering with them, so Emily reluctantly finds herself roped into volunteering as a tavern wench for the summer.

Emily takes an immediate dislike to the Faire’s organizer Simon, who seems rigid and overly obsessed with filling out forms correctly. He causes further offense by accusing Emily of not taking Faire seriously — which, granted, she’s only half-heartedly doing, at least at first.

But as rehearsals warm up and the big event approaches, Emily is more and more drawn into the excitement, the pretend world of Faire, and the real world of Willow Creek. She’s had a hard few years, but is finally starting to feel like she might have found a place to put down roots and create a life for herself.

It doesn’t hurt that she and Simon seem to be developing some real chemistry — especially when they’re in their Faire personae of tavern wench and swaggering pirate.

Well Met is so much adorable fun! First off, the Faire goings-on are amazing and made me want to be there! Jousting, troubadors, Queen Elizabeth, ladies in waiting, kilted men… there’s just so much to love! And it’s so cute to see how into it everyone is, from giddy high school students to long-time Faire veterans.

I enjoyed Emily’s character,and there are plenty of great supporting characters too — such as April, Caitlyn, Emily’s new-found bestie Stacy, local bookstore owner Chris, and more.

Emily and Simon both have painful baggage, and their histories hold them back from fully exploring what they want and what they need to find happiness. When they do finally get together, it’s not all smooth sailing, as they both put up their defenses, misinterpret each others’ communications, and just generally mess things up quite a bit.

One of my standard romance complaints comes into play, which is that if people would only talk to each other rather than jumping to conclusions, life would be a whole lot easier! Of course, then the story would have less drama, but still. Emily spends a week worrying that she’s being fired from her job and that Simon played a part in it — but a), that’s a ridiculous assumption that’s really not based on anything concrete, and b) she could have asked one simple questions and clearly up her confusion instantly.

Still, what’s a romance novel without stumbling blocks? It would have all wrapped up much too quickly if Emily and Simon got together when they did and then remained blissfully happy until the end. So yes, we get the requisite drama, fight, and break-up, but hey, it’s a romance, so of course there’s going to be an HEA to end the story!

My one lingering complaint about Well Met is that there’s a storyline thread I would have loved to see get tied up. Part of Emily’s backstory is that she dropped out of college about a year short of an English degree in order to support her (awful) ex-boyfriend through law school. While Emily is happily employed and fulfilled by the end of the book, I would have loved for her to decide to go back to school and finish the education that clearly meant so much to her. Well, hopefully we’ll find out that that’s exactly what she did by the time the sequel comes out!

A note on the audiobook: I originally picked up a print version of this book, but I’m so happy I ended up going the audio route instead! I really enjoyed the narration. The dialogue is crisp and funny, and the narrator did a great job showing us the characters putting on their fake accents for the Faire personae and getting into the spirit of it all.

Well Met is the first in a trilogy of novels centered around Faire, each one focusing on a different couple’s love story. Book #2, Well Played, due out this coming September. And yes, I absolutely want to read it!

Well Met is good, romantic fun, and a great choice for a summer read.

Huzzah!

Audiobook Review: The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut, #2) by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut, #2)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: August 21, 2018
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 14 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Fated Sky continued the grand sweep of alternate history begun in The Calculating Stars. It is 1961, and the International Aerospace Coalition has established a colony on the moon. Elma York, the noted Lady Astronaut, is working on rotation, flying shuttles on the moon and returning regularly to Earth.

But humanity must get a foothold on Mars. The first exploratory mission is being planned, and none of the women astronauts is on the crew list. The International Aerospace Coalition has grave reservations about sending their “Lady Astronauts” on such a dangerous mission. The problem with that is the need for midjourney navigation calculations. The new electronic computation machines are not reliable and not easily programmed. It might be okay for a backup, but there will have to be a human computer on board. And all the computers are women.

I read The Fated Sky a year ago, but apparently didn’t write a review at the time. Don’t ask me why! But in any case, I’ve just completed a re-read via audiobook, and loved it all over again… so I think it’s about time to share my thoughts.

The Fated Sky is the follow-up to The Calculating Stars, which I love, love, love, love, love. A second book in a series is never quite as breathtaking as the first, in my humble opinion, because there’s already a familiarity with the world presented in the book. And so, while The Fated Sky didn’t blow me away the way The Calculating Stars did, it did keep me engaged in new and different ways, and was an altogether satisfying return to the world of the Lady Astronaut.

To get anyone new to this series caught up, here’s what you really need to know: It’s been about 10 years since a devastating meteor struck Earth, resulting in global catastrophe. The planet faces accelerating climate change, which will eventually become so extreme that human life on Earth will no longer be possible. In these dire circumstances, the international community comes together to pursue space exploration. After all, if people can’t live on Earth, they’ll have to live off Earth.

In book 1, we met Dr. Elma York, brilliant mathemetician and physicist, as well as a top-notch pilot who flew with the WASPs during WWII. Elma is married to Dr. Nathaniel York, an equally brilliant engineer. As the space program gets underway, Nathaniel becomes one of the lead engineers, while Elma pursues her dream of becoming an astronaut. It’s simply fascinating, and I urge you to read the book if you haven’t yet!

In The Fated Sky, we pick up in the early 1960s. Humans have established a colony on the moon, and the next target is Mars. The first Mars mission is about 18 months away — but not all on Earth are happy about the space program.

Earth Firsters are angry — they believe that space travel and colonization will end up being a privilege for the elite. How are the people left behind supposed to survive? With poorer areas still suffering the aftermath of the meteor’s destruction, with food, housing, and medical shortages, they feel that the country’s resources are being unfairly allocated to the space program. The protesters are becoming more outspoken, to the point of violence, in expressing their dissatisfaction.

Elma gained fame in book #1 as “the Lady Astronaut”, and when the IAC (International Aerospace Coalition) assigns her to the Mars mission, it’s clearly with an eye on public relations. But with this assignment, Elma replaces a dear friend who’d already been training for the mission, so she’s not only behind in her training but also facing resentment and hostility from the other crew members who see her as an interloper taking someone else’s place.

The Fated Sky takes place during the preparation for the Mars expedition, as well as the months of the actual journey to Mars. And while the science is absolutely fascinating, it’s Elma’s personal struggles and challenges that make it all so real and so deeply affecting.

Elma is a brilliant scientist. She’s also a devoted wife, a Southern Jew, a woman in a man’s world, and a white woman who’s not always as aware of her privilege as she should be. In the world of the Lady Astronaut books, the social unrest and upheavals of the real-world 1960s has largely been moved forward a decade along with the scientific advancements. We see women struggling for opportunity, even while being expected to maintain traditional standards of femininity (like always having their hair and makeup done before public appearances and deferring to their male counterparts even when they have superior knowledge or technical expertise. Not to mention that the female astronauts seem to be the only ones assigned laundry duty on their space mission. Argh.)

Racial inequality and civil rights feature much more prominently in The Fated Sky than they did in The Calculating Stars. There’s suspicion of the Black astronauts and whether they’re conspiring with Earth Firsters. Mission Control assigns them less prestigious assignments during the Mars expedition than their white colleagues, even when they’re clearly the better choice, which leads to disastrous results. And in myriad other, more subtle ways, the matter of race permeates the crew relations, so that even someone as well-intentioned as Elma ends up causing offense, until she’s finally told point-blank:

“One thing: Don’t explain my experience to me. It’s annoying as hell.”

On top of all this, one of the expedition crew members is a white South African, and remember, this is the early 1960’s — he’s so full of apartheid-era hate that it’s incredible that he was actually allowed to participate in the mission, and if not for international pressure related to South Africa’s financial backing of the IAC, he probably would not have been. By showing the Earth protests, the more subtle racial profiling and preferences on board the ship, and the blatant racism of this one particular astronaut. the author evokes a time of change and volatility — and sadly, exposes issues that still permeate society today.

Elma struggles too with her mental health. She’s suffered from anxiety for most of her life, which she’s worked hard to control. Her coping mechanisms are put to the test during the mission in response to the ongoing hostility she experiences from her fellow astronauts early on, especially as she realizes that she’s the only crew member who doesn’t really fit in and isn’t completely trusted.

I think maybe one of the reasons I had time loving this book the first time I read it had to do with how entangled my feelings were with Elma’s experiences. I felt so awful reading about Elma’s struggles and personal pain and how terrible she often felt. So it’s not that the book isn’t excellent — just maybe that I become overly invested in Elma as a person and didn’t like seeing her feel bad!

Anyhoo… the audiobook is such a treat! Author Mary Robinette Kowal is the narrator, and she’s a total pro. (She also narrates Seanan McGuire’s October Daye audiobooks, and does an amazing job with them.) She clearly knows these characters and what makes them tick, and I could feel Elma’s personality, as well as many of the other characters’, coming through so clearly. Fabulous.

I love the world of the Lady Astronaut, which the author first introduced in her short story, The Lady Astronaut of Mars (which actually takes place many years after the events of the books, but provides some additional context — you can read the story for free here.)

Listening to the audiobook was a perfect way for me to revisit the story of The Fated Sky. The 3rd book in the series, The Relentless Moon, will be released in July, and I absolutely can’t wait to read it!

The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and sabotage plague the space program. The IAC’s goal of getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable is being threatened.

Elma York is on her way to Mars, but the Moon colony is still being established. Her friend and fellow Lady Astronaut Nicole Wargin is thrilled to be one of those pioneer settlers, using her considerable flight and political skills to keep the program on track. But she is less happy that her husband, the Governor of Kansas, is considering a run for President.

Audiobook Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Title: Where the Crawdads Sing
Author: Delia Owens
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: August 14, 2018
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 12 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.

Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.

Where the Crawdads Sing has been on bestseller lists for at least a year now, as far as I can tell. And the fact that this was a Reese’s book club pick doesn’t hurt at all when it comes to creating buzz. So is it worth all the hype?

Now that I’ve read it, I can give an answer: Definitely yes.

Where the Crawdads Sing is lovely, rich, sad, and powerful. It tells the story of Kya Clark, a girl who is abandoned at a very young age and yet manages to raise herself in the North Carolina marsh she calls home.

Kya’s family lives in a shack in the marsh, scrabbling for daily sustenance and terrorized by their abusive, unreliable father. Kya’s older siblings have already left, and as the story opens, Kya is six years old, watching her mother walk away, never to return. Kya is left behind with her father and older brother, but even her brother doesn’t stay long. Soon, it’s just Kya and her father, and he disappears for days on end, or shows up drunk or angry, and simply can’t or won’t care for his child.

And so, from the age of six, Kya raises herself. She loves her home and the marsh and the birds and wildlife that are her truest friends. She scrapes by on the pennies her father provides. Eventually, even he leaves, and she is completely alone, surviving by digging mussels and selling them to the local sundry store owner, a warm and caring man named Jumpin’ who comes to love Kya as a daughter.

Despite the love and support of Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel, Kya is alone. When a truant officer comes to take her to school, Kya only lasts one day, feeling embarassed and tormented by the town kids who call her “Marsh Girl” and make fun of her. From then on, it’s just Kya in the marsh.

She does have one friend, a boy named Tate who once upon a time was friends with her brother. Tate is fascinated by Kya and takes it upon himself to teach her to read, opening up the world of science and biology and learning to her. Kya embarks on her lifelong passion to know and understand the marsh, collecting specimens and documenting them through writing and painting, turning her old shack into a personal natural history museum of sorts.

The story alternates between chapters following Kya’s life from early childhood onward and chapters set later, in 1969, when a local young man is found dead under suspicious circumstances. Chase Andrews had a history with the Marsh Girl, and although there doesn’t seem to be any evidence, she becomes a person of interest in the case, fueled by years of the townspeople’s harsh opinions and suspicions and gossip about her.

While I was less interested in the murder plot for most of the book, by the last third, the two story elements come together as the plot centers around the court case and resolution.

Where the Crawdads Sing is a moving and lyrical reading experience. I loved the descriptions of the marsh and the way the natural world is so much a part of who Kya is and how she looks at life. Kya’s life is horribly sad, yet also beautiful in its own lonely way. It’s incredible to think that a child could survive like that on her own all those years, yet she does. Between her natural intelligence and her lifelong study of her natural surroundings, Kya adapts and manages to thrive, despite her loneliness and sorrow throughout the years.

The audiobook narrator does a very good job of breathing life into the characters, especially Kya, using her voice to show her maturing over the years yet maintaining the core of who she is.

My one issue with the audiobook is that I feel I missed out a bit on certain written passages. Kya is passionate about poetry, and the poems she recites throughout the book are worth spending time on and contemplating a bit, but because I listened to the audiobook, they passed by a little too quickly for actual reflection. I think I’ll need to borrow a print edition so I can page through and spend more time on certain passages.

I won’t get into spoilers, so I can’t say more about the ending than that I was mostly satisfied and that the ending worked out pretty much as I expected despite a few red herrings — although there was at least one loose thread that I would have liked an answer to.

Overall though, the murder/mystery elements are not the most essential part of this book, in my mind. Yes, it was interesting, and yes, I felt that the ending made sense. But the biggest impact for me was the emotional resonance of Kya’s life, her loves, her relationships, and her incredible personal and professional achievements.

Kya is a woman to admire, one who overcomes extreme adversity to carve out a life for herself that’s meaningful and joyful.

Where the Crawdads Sing is a powerful and beautiful book. Highly recommended.

Audiobook Review: Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

Title: Akata Warrior
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Narrator: Yetide Badaki
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: October 3, 2017
Print length: 469 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 43 minutes
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A year ago, Sunny Nwazue, an American-born girl Nigerian girl, was inducted into the secret Leopard Society. As she began to develop her magical powers, Sunny learned that she had been chosen to lead a dangerous mission to avert an apocalypse, brought about by the terrifying masquerade, Ekwensu. Now, stronger, feistier, and a bit older, Sunny is studying with her mentor Sugar Cream and struggling to unlock the secrets in her strange Nsibidi book.

Eventually, Sunny knows she must confront her destiny. With the support of her Leopard Society friends, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha, and of her spirit face, Anyanwu, she will travel through worlds both visible and invisible to the mysteries town of Osisi, where she will fight a climactic battle to save humanity.

Much-honored Nnedi Okorafor, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, merges today’s Nigeria with a unique world she creates. Akata Warrior blends mythology, fantasy, history and magic into a compelling tale that will keep readers spellbound.

As soon as I finished the audiobook of Akata Witch, I knew I had to listen to the sequel too. And after a lot of starting, stopping, and continuous interruptions, I finally made it through to the end!

Akata Warrior is a longer book and audiobook than Akata Witch. Akata Witch introduces us to the characters and world of the story, and does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of setting up the story and providing an exciting and dangerous quest for the main characters as they grow into their powers.

In Akata Warrior, a year has gone by, and the four friends — Sunny, Chichi, Orlu, and Sasha — are advancing in their magical studies. Their abilities are becoming more developed as they work with their assigned mentors. Sunny, our main character whose point of view we inhabit throughout the story, is being mentored by the formidable Sugar Cream, a regal older woman with unmatched powers, who sets rigorous standards for Sunny while introducing her to esoteric powers and abilities.

Sunny continues to have visions of a coming apocalypse, but doesn’t understand why or what her role is supposed to be. Danger to her older brother forces her to break Leopard Society (magic society) rules, and the ensuing punishment pushes her forward on a path toward a quest that she doesn’t fully understand.

As in Akata Witch, seeing the four friends together is a treat. They’ve all grown up, and their interactions and roles are more mature, yet they’re still in their teens and must abide by the rules set for them. At the same time, their magical abilities mean that they’re able to take on riskier tasks, and they show examples of ingenuity again and again throughout their adventure.

As I mentioned before, Akata Warrior is considerably longer than the first book, and it shows in the pacing. While the characters spend at least half the book on their quest, each episode along the way feels very lengthy and drawn-out, to the point where the action seems to sag a bit from time to time. It’s still engaging and exciting, but I would have preferred for a faster pace and less time spent on logistics.

Still, all in all, the world of Akata Witch and Akata Warrior is rich and fascinating. The author has an amazing ability to bring the Nigerian setting to life through her descriptions of sights, smells, colors, textures, and the food. Oh, the food! So many descriptions of eating and the dishes that sound amazing!

Akata Warrior has the same audiobook narrator as Akata Witch, and I just loved listening to her voice. Her accents and intonations for the different characters are wonderful, and each person comes across as an individual. For whatever reason, every time Chichi has a line of dialogue, it instantly brought a smile to my face!

I really enjoyed both of these books. I haven’t heard that there are plans for another book in the series, but a reader can hope, right? I do love these characters, and would love to follow along on further adventures.

Audiobook Review: Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski

Title: Sword of Destiny
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Narrator: Peter Kenny
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: May 19, 2015
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 58 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Geralt is a witcher, a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent. He roams the country seeking assignments, but gradually comes to realise that while some of his quarry are unremittingly vile, vicious grotesques, others are the victims of sin, evil or simple naivety.

In this collection of short stories, following the adventures of the hit collection THE LAST WISH, join Geralt as he battles monsters, demons and prejudices alike…

Ready to toss another coin to your Witcher?

Geralt is back! In this second collection of Witcher stories, Geralt of Rivia once more battles monsters, saves people who can’t save themselves, fights his inner demons — love and destiny — and returns again and again to the people who are central to his life.

This set of six stories covers a lot of ground, some already familiar from the Netflix series, some new to me, and all delightful. As with the previous collection, The Last Wish, there are some fairy tale references included that make these stories extra fun.

While each story stands on its own, there are key characters (Dandelion, Yennefer, Ciri) who appear repeatedly. While the stories seem to be presented roughly chronologically, they’re only loosely connected — yet I’m guessing as a whole that they’re important in laying the groundwork for the novels that come next in the book series.

As for the stories themselves, the book opens with the wonderful The Bounds of Reason, which corresponds to the 6th episode of the TV series, “Rare Species”, aka the one about the dragons. The plotline isn’t exactly the same, but the main points hold true, and it’s awfully fun.

There’s also a story that focuses on Geralt and Yennefer, a story set in Brokilon Forest where Geralt and Ciri meet for the first time, a Little Mermaid-ish tale, and more. Throughout, the recurring theme is Geralt’s struggle to understand destiny — does it exist? Are we obligated to follow it? Is destiny enough to bring two people together, or does it require something more?

I had the pleasure of listening to the audiobook, as I did with The Last Wish, and I loved it. Narrator Peter Kenny does an excellent job of bringing the characters to life. I just love his voice for Geralt, although all are quite good, and even when there’s a crowd scene or a big action sequence, there’s never any doubt who’s speaking.

As an added plus, the narrator SINGS in the story about a mermaid, since that’s what mermaid language sounds like. It’s amazing.

Now that I’ve finished Sword of Destiny, I abolutely intend to continue with the series, and most likely I’ll stick with audiobooks. Blood of Elves is up next. Can’t wait!

Audiobook Review: Educated by Tara Westover

Title: Educated: A Memoir
Author: Tara Westover
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: February 20, 2018
Print length: 334 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 10 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag”. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.

Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent.

Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.

Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes and the will to change it.

Educated was all the rage in 2018 when it was released, and for the longest time, I didn’t think I’d be interested. A story about someone going to college? Okay… And then I heard that there was a lot of abuse described, and I thought, who needs it?

Well, I’m so glad I finally gave this book a chance!

Educated is a powerful, startling story — and so strange that you probably would find it too far-fetched if it were presented as fiction. In Educated, Tara Westover takes us through the painful, turbulent years of her upbringing in an isolationist, survivalist, fundamentalist family, and then shows how she found a way out, through education and the support of those who believed in her.

Tara and her siblings were nominally home-schooled, but in reality, they were simply unschooled. Her father’s radical beliefs included the notion that public schools were tools of an evil government that wanted to brainwash children, all part of a conspiracy by the Illuminati.

The medical establishment was seen as just as evil, full of poisons and deceit. Tara’s mother believed that even one dose of antibiotics could poison a person’s system for life, and that only her special tinctures and herbal remedies, along with faith healing, could actually purify the body.

Meanwhile, Tara from early childhood worked in the family junkyard alongside her brothers, exposed to horrifyingly dangerous working conditions, forced by her father to use machinery that could easily have left her maimed or dead.

I was constantly shocked by this book, and by what Tara and her siblings lived through. It almost doesn’t make sense that they all survived — through multiple accidents, including two instances of family members being severely burned and several occasions of head injuries — the family steadfastly refused to go to hospitals or see doctors, instead relying on Tara’s mother’s ability to heal at home. I mean, really, the fact that they didn’t all die of tetanus or infections is pretty incredible.

Tara lives through years of abuse at the hands of her volatile older brother, and these sections are particularly hard to read/listen to. She’s called a whore repeatedly, physically punished, and made to feel that she has to play along and not act as if anything serious has happened in order to retain her parents’ love.

Eventually, Tara enrolls at Brigham Young University, never having attended a single day of school before then. Her journey through higher education is fascinating, particularly as she describes waking up to how much she absolutely didn’t know about the world or life away from her family’s mountain in Idaho. (One small example: She was very confused in a freshman history class until she finally figured out that Europe was a continent, not a country.)

The fact that Tara Westover not only graduated college, but continued her education through graduate school, finally earning a Ph.D. at Cambridge seems nothing short of miraculous. Of the seven siblings in her family, three earned doctorates — and the others never graduated from high school.

Educated is an incredibly immersive and engaging book, even though it’s also quite difficult to take, particularly hearing about the ongoing emotional and physical trauma Tara suffered, as well as the continuing psychological torment inflicted by her fundamentalist parents in their determined denial of her reports of abuse.

I listened to the audiobook, and found it powerful and moving. Narrator Julia Whelan conveys so much through her delivery, and made the story feel personal and urgent.

Educated is highly recommended. My husband read it right before I did, and I’m so glad — I can’t imagine reading this book and having no one to talk about it with! This book is completely engrossing, often painful, but ultimately hopeful and uplifting too. Don’t miss it.

Audiobook Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Title: Akata Witch
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Narrator: Yetide Badaki
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: April 14, 2011
Print length: 349 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 49 minutes
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. Her features are West African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent” with latent magical power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.

Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But just as she’s finding her footing, Sunny and her friends are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a career criminal who knows magic, too. Will their training be enough to help them against a threat whose powers greatly outnumber theirs?

Stories about Chosen Ones seem to be very much on my mind these days, and so I’m glad I finally decided to give Akata Witch a try. Akata Witch is by Nnedi Okorafor, author of the fantastic Binti trilogy. This novel is aimed at younger readers, either advanced middle grade or young adult.

The main character, Sunny, is 12 years old, and her three classmates and best friends are around 13 – 14 years old. (I say around, because no one is actually sure how old Chichi is, and she’s not telling!)

At the start of the story, Sunny considers herself mostly ordinary, except for how much she stands out because of her albino coloring and her American birth and upbringing. She does know that something’s a bit off — one night, she has a vision while staring at a candle, and it scares her deeply and indelibly.

Soon, Sunny becomes closer to her neighbors Chichi and Orlu, along with the new boy Sasha who’s just arrived from Chicago after getting in trouble back home. Sunny is amazed to learn that the other three have magical abilities, and even more amazed to find out that she does as well.

In their parlance, they’re all leopard people — people with magical powers from all over the world, not just Africa. The world of the leopard people is very secretive, and non-magical folks (“lambs”) have no idea that it exists. Sunny is what’s known as a “free agent” — a girl whose parents aren’t leopard people, but who still has a connection to the world of spirits and magic.

Sunny begins learning alongside her friends, from the basic of juju to more advance spells and the nature of the leopard power structure. Meanwhile, a ritual murderer has been preying on Nigerian children, and the leopard community suspects that he may be one of their own.

Akata Witch is a wonderful story, and the audiobook narration is absolutely lovely to listen to. I love how the narrator conveys the spirit of the different characters, and uses Sunny’s American accent as a way to really show how “other” she feels in her daily life in Nigeria.

I was fascinated by the magical systems of Akata Witch, with the different meanings of symbols and secret transportation and hidden villages and libraries, as well as the elders and the large gathering and the special leopard events.

My main quibble with this book comes back to the Chosen Ones trope. Why is it always the untrained, inexperienced children who have to go fight the big bad? This isn’t confined just to this book, of course — I mean, really, wouldn’t Dumbledore have been a better choice to confront Voldemort than a bunch of schoolkids?

Okay, prophecy seems to always end up dictating who is Chosen, but at some point, it seems silly. Sunny has only the bare minimum of training, yet the most advanced magical elders of the community send her and her three friends up against the evil bad guy?

It’s not really a spoiler to say that they survive — there’s no chance that that wouldn’t be the outcome. But is it logical? Not really.

Still, looking beyond my issue with teen Chosen Ones as a whole, I did really love Akata Witch. The characters are wonderful, the setting is so vividly portrayed, and the plot just zips along.

I’m so glad that there’s a sequel, Akata Warrior. I will definitely be listening to this one too!

Audiobook Review: Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Title: Beartown
Author: Fredrik Backman
Narrator: Marin Ireland
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: April 25, 2017
Print length: 418 pages
Audio length: 13 hours, 11 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever-encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded town. And that rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior hockey team is about to compete in the national championships, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of the town now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

A victory would send star player Kevin onto a brilliant professional future in the NHL. It would mean everything to Amat, a scrawny fifteen-year-old treated like an outcast everywhere but on the ice. And it would justify the choice that Peter, the team’s general manager, and his wife, Kira, made to return to his hometown and raise their children in this beautiful but isolated place.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semifinal match is the catalyst for a violent act that leaves a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Hers is a story no one wants to believe since the truth would mean the end of the dream. Accusations are made, and like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

I have to admit, my knowledge about the plot of Beartown before reading the book was limited to basically one word: Hockey. I knew it was set in a small town, and that the town’s focus was hockey. Period. I guess I never read a synopsis, and because the book came out a few years ago and I’d heard how much people enjoyed it, I didn’t read the synopsis before starting the audiobook either.

So let’s just be clear up front. I did really enjoy this book. And at the same time, this is one of the rare occasions when I wish I’d known more ahead of time.

I’m not usually in favor of content warnings, and maybe if I’d read a synopsis ahead of time, the content wouldn’t have taken me by surprise quite so much — but I do feel like this book should have had a much more explicit content warning.

So, here’s my content warning: The “violent act” referred to in the synopsis is rape. And I did not at all realize that I was reading a book that would focus so much on rape and its aftermath. I was expecting petty grievances and sports fanatics and small-town politics, perhaps. So the content took me completely off guard. I don’t have personal trauma associated with sexual assault, but I can easily imagine how upsetting it would be for someone who’s survived such violence to be confronted by it unexpectedly in a book.

But let’s get back to the book itself. Because in many ways, Beartown is excellent!

Beartown is a small town in the forest (in Sweden) that’s seen better days… a long time ago. The town has a factory that’s going downhill, and it has an ice rink. The town is fanatical about hockey, and this year, it looks like the juniors team (15 to 17-year-old boys) has a shot at the national final. And if they win? The club’s sponsors have starry-eyed visions of a championship bringing a national hockey academy to Beartown, revitalizing the local economy and once again making the town a real place on the map.

It’s only a game. Everyone who plays it gets told that from time to time. A lot of people try to tell themselves that it’s true. But it’s complete nonsense. No one in this town would have been the same if that game hadn’t existed.

Through the novel, we get to know a huge cast of characters. There are the boys on the team, including superstar Kevin, who’s expected by everyone to turn pro. There’s Kevin’s best friend Benji, a stoner who also throws himself into every moment of the game in defense of his teammates. There’s Amat, son of the rink’s immigrant cleaning woman, finally given a shot to belong and to prove himself.

Then there are the boys’ families — some supportive, some demanding perfection while ignoring their children, some doing what they can, some doing nothing at all.

We also get to know the hockey club’s General Manager and his family; the coach of the A-team and the rising star coach of the juniors; the local pub owner, the school teacher, and so many more.

It’s only a game. It only resolves tiny, insignificant things. Such as who gets validation. Who gets listened to. It allocates power and draws boundaries and turns some people into stars and others into spectators. That’s all.

Author Fredrik Backman masterfully weaves together all of these people to paint a portrait of a community, with all its flaws and spots of ugliness as well as points of light and kindness. The small-town politics is real and cutthroat when it comes to hockey, and the toxic masculinity simply oozes off the page in various locker room and bar room scenes.

As I said, I expected a hockey story, but Beartown is so much more than that. The attack on the young girl is depicted with sensitivity, but doesn’t shy away from showing us the violence involved and the terror the girl feels.

From there, the focus becomes how the girl’s reporting of the rape triggers a huge and ugly reaction from the town, most of whom see her as a liar, a pathetic girl who got drunk, hooked up with a boy, and then got mad when he rejected her. It’s disturbing to see how far the town goes in portraying her as at fault, and how much abuse and intimidation is thrown at her, at her family, and at the few people who speak up for her.

I listened to the audiobook, and narrator Marin Ireland does a fantastic job with the dialogue and with portraying the different characters, giving them distinct sounds and personalities through her voice.

Maybe because I listened to the book, I became very aware of the author’s use of repetition as a device to drive home certain points. And perhaps in print, I wouldn’t have found it quite so annoying. Throughout the book, there are moments where we get lines of “Bang. Bang. Bang.” representing the sound of hockey pucks. Too much, after a while.

Likewise, I wasn’t crazy about the author’s habit of starting and ending chapters with declarative statements or big questions:

Why does anyone care about hockey?

A long marriage is complicated.

It’s Saturday, and everything is going to happen today.

Pride in a team can come from a variety of causes.

When you love hockey it feels like having your heart scalded.

I’m afraid I’ve focused too much on the negative, which doesn’t truly convey my feelings about this book. I do think Beartown is terrific storytelling. I was completely wrapped up in the plot and the characters — as proven by my tendency to make my walks longer and longer each day so I’d have more time to listen to the audiobook.

Some of these characters made me want to cry. I could really feel the accumulated hurts of so many of them, all the ways in which lifetime experiences add up to more than anyone could anticipate, all the ways in which spoken and unspoken words, actions allowed and forbidden, come back around with unintended and unanticipated consequences.

I was very invested in my favorite characters’ well-being, and wanted desperately to know that they’d be okay. When characters make choices that put them at risk as they stand up to do what’s right, I wanted to cheer, and at the same time, to yell at them to run far away and never turn back.

I guess that’s the sign of a great book — that despite any quibbles with the writing, the power of the characters makes you care so very, very much.

The sequel to Beartown, Us Against You, was released in 2018. And while Beartown felt complete and had a definitive ending, now that I know there’s more, I definitely have to get a copy.!

Audiobook Review: Get A Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Title: Get A Life, Chloe Brown
Author: Talia Hibbert
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Print length: 373 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 17 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Chloe Brown is a chronically ill computer geek with a goal, a plan, and a list. After almost—but not quite—dying, she’s come up with seven directives to help her “Get a Life”, and she’s already completed the first: finally moving out of her glamorous family’s mansion. The next items?

• Enjoy a drunken night out.

• Ride a motorcycle.

• Go camping.

• Have meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable sex.

• Travel the world with nothing but hand luggage.

• And… do something bad.

But it’s not easy being bad, even when you’ve written step-by-step guidelines on how to do it correctly. What Chloe needs is a teacher, and she knows just the man for the job.

Redford ‘Red’ Morgan is a handyman with tattoos, a motorcycle, and more sex appeal than ten-thousand Hollywood heartthrobs. He’s also an artist who paints at night and hides his work in the light of day, which Chloe knows because she spies on him occasionally. Just the teeniest, tiniest bit.

But when she enlists Red in her mission to rebel, she learns things about him that no spy session could teach her. Like why he clearly resents Chloe’s wealthy background. And why he never shows his art to anyone. And what really lies beneath his rough exterior… 

I have such mixed feelings about this book. I really liked the main characters, Chloe and Red, and appreciated so much about their story. And yet, there are parts of this book that I simply, literally, could not take and had to fast-forward through.

So, 3-stars is a really apt rating for my experience — squarely in the middle.

Let me back up and explain.

Chloe is an awesome main character. She’s a smart and talented black woman from a wealthy family, and is aware of the privilege she’s grown up with. She’s also chronically ill, suffering with fibromyalgia and continuous pain that leaves her completely debilitated at frequent intervals. Chloe protects herself fiercely; having been burned by a previous relationship and left with awful feelings of abandonment, she’s determined not to be vulnerable that way ever again.

And constantly living with physical pain, Chloe is not a risk-taker. She knows her limits, and sticks with them, until the day she has a near-miss with a drunk driver, and realizes it’s time to do more with her life. Hence her “get a life” list — because Chloe loves her life spelled out in neat and orderly lists, so a list is absolutely necessary if she’s going to make a change.

Meanwhile, Red is the red-headed, white, tattooed, super-hot superintendent of the building Chloe moves into, and while he’s lovely to everyone else, he and Chloe immediately rub each other the wrong way. He’s sure she’s a stuck-up snob, and she’s sure he’s rude and too into his bad-boy image.

Eventually, of course, they experience a breakthrough (thanks to Chloe pursuing a lost cat up a tree, and Red having to enact a seriously adorable rescue of both woman and kitty.) As they start to warm up and trust one another, a physical and emotional connection blossoms, each finding that one special person to help them move forward after painful pasts.

Here’s what I really liked about this story:

  • The playful flirtation and banter between Chloe and Red.
  • How Chloe and Red are each talented in their own fields, and wholeheartedly appreciate one another’s talents.
  • How they support each other’s weak points as well as their strengths, and show caring and concern in all sorts of little and big ways.
  • How freaking cute they are together at all times.
  • The sensitive way the author portrays Chloe’s disability.
  • The sensitive way the author portrays the emotional abuse that’s left Red traumatized.
  • How Chloe and Red learn together how to make room for their differences and their emotional wounds.

So what didn’t I like? Well, I suppose it gets down to my preferences when it comes to romances. I like steam… and I’m no prude… but I don’t need anatomical details when it comes to love scenes. And there’s a LOT of anatomy in this book.

The sex scenes are very graphically described — and again, good for Chloe and Red for having such a great time together! But I prefer my fiction to leave more to the imagination… and when that many body parts and secretions are described that often and in that much detail, that’s just not going to appeal to me. So, somewhere in the 2nd half of the book, I realized I could save myself some agony by using the fast-forward button in 10 second increments until I got to the afterglow, when the plot would safely pick back up.

Like I said, I know that’s just a personal preference, so no judgment for readers who like this sort of thing. It’s just not for me, and that’s too bad, because in the case of Get A Life, Chloe Brown, I really liked the characters and their story. But I found myself wishing that I had a magic editing button on my Audible app to allow me to edit out the explicit scenes and just stick to the plot (although that would have cut this audiobook down to about 60% of its length, I’d guess).

A note on the audiobook — the narrator is quite good! I liked her portrayal of Chloe. She made her so adorable! And Red’s voice was really good too, growly and rough, but also loving and appreciative of the wonder of Chloe Brown.

All in all, a good love story wrapped up in a package that just doesn’t 100% work for me. Which is too bad. There’s a new book coming out about Chloe’s sister, and part of me is intrigued — but after my experiences with this book, I’m not sure I could stand another round of anatomy lessons. Ah well. Can’t win ’em all.

Audiobook Review: Becoming by Michelle Obama

Title: Becoming
Author: Michelle Obama
Narrator: Michelle Obama
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: November 13, 2018
Print length: 426 pages
Audio length: 19 hours, 3 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America—the first African American to serve in that role—she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.

In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her—from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it—in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations—and whose story inspires us to do the same. 

I grew up with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighborhood, and I also grew up surrounded by love and music in a diverse city in a country where an education can take you far. I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.

Michelle Obama tells it all beautifully. In this powerful memoir, our former First Lady narrates her life with grace, dignity, and intelligence, from her childhood in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago to her life in the White House. It’s quite a journey, and by listening to the audiobook, I was able to hear the author’s own voice, and it was amazing.

There’s so much to love about this book. Michelle Obama is plain spoken as she shares her love for her family, talking about her parents, brother, and extended family, their challenges and their optimism, their dedication to making sure that no doors would be closed to them.

I really didn’t know much about her background prior to reading Becoming, and found myself impressed over and over again while hearing about her early education, her determination, and her hard work, as well as her devotion to the friends she met along the way.

The early stages of her romance with Barack Obama are simply charming, and I appreciated her no-nonsense approach to their story, getting across their mutual love and respect while also giving a sense of their challenges and where they differ as people.

Hearing more about the campaign trail and life in the White House was also fascinating, and I couldn’t help but admire the Obama’s commitment to raising their daughters with as normal a life as possible despite living in the ultimate fishbowl.

Becoming is a wonderful book, a moving memoir and an inspiring depiction of what two people dedicated to improving the world around them can accomplish. It also made me a little sad, missing the grace and intellect that the Obamas brought to the presidency, and made me wish for a time when doing good would mean more than political power.

Highly, highly recommended — and the audiobook experience is a treat.