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

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audiobook Review: Mr. Perfect on Paper by Jean Meltzer

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What could go wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audiobook Review: Birds of California by Katie Cotugno

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mild plot spoilers ahead…

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

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

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

Audiobook Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

Title: The Kaiju Preservation Society
Author: John Scalzi
Narrator: Wil Wheaton
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: March 15, 2022
Print length: 272 pages
Audio length: 8 hours 2 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Kaiju Preservation Society is John Scalzi’s first standalone adventure since the conclusion of his New York Times bestselling Interdependency trilogy.

When COVID-19 sweeps through New York City, Jamie Gray is stuck as a dead-end driver for food delivery apps. That is, until Jamie makes a delivery to an old acquaintance, Tom, who works at what he calls “an animal rights organization.” Tom’s team needs a last-minute grunt to handle things on their next field visit. Jamie, eager to do anything, immediately signs on.

What Tom doesn’t tell Jamie is that the animals his team cares for are not here on Earth. Not our Earth, at at least. In an alternate dimension, massive dinosaur-like creatures named Kaiju roam a warm and human-free world. They’re the universe’s largest and most dangerous panda and they’re in trouble.

It’s not just the Kaiju Preservation Society that’s found its way to the alternate world. Others have, too–and their carelessness could cause millions back on our Earth to die.

If you’re looking for highly dramatic science fiction with dire stakes, intricate world-building, and mind-boggling technology… this is not that book.

BUT… if you’re looking for a super fun sci-fi romp that’s funny and fast and full of f-bombs and smart-asses, well, look no further!

The Kaiju Preservation Society is a feel-good story (yes, really) about an alternate-dimension earth where gigantic creatures known as kaiju are powered by internal biological nuclear reactors, everything in the environment wants to eat people, and a team of adrenaline-junkie scientists and grunts work to keep the kaiju safe, and to keep our Earth safe from them.

It’s 2020, New York is on the verge of lockdown as COVID hits, and Jamie Gray, expecting a promotion at work, is instead laid off, joining the ranks of food-delivery drivers during the pandemic. A chance encounter with an old friend leads to a job offer with KPS, an organization devoted to the welfare of “large animals”, as they explain to Jamie during the interview.

Before he can reconsider, Jamie is whisked off to a secret location (in Greenland, of all places!), where he and a few other newbies are ushered through a dimensional portal into an alternate world, where scientists work to study and preserve kaiju life. Jamie’s job, as he reminds people repeatedly, is to “lift things” — he’s one of the few non-scientists at the base, but he’s a good guy, a hard worker, and indeed, good at lifting things, and he’s soon fully immersed in the crazy life of KPS.

The action is non-stop, and it’s a wild world into which we (and Jamie) are thrown — there are tree crabs and giant parasites and swarms of flying insects, all of which would love to eat people. Not to mention the kaiju themselves, who are scary and huge and have a tendency to explode under certain circumstances.

When bad guys show up, the action gets even heavier, but the banter and humor never flag, even when our scrappy band of heroes face death at every turn. I mean, it’s pretty clear that the good guys will win, but the fun is in seeing just how that comes about.

I always love John Scalzi’s books, and The Kaiju Preservation Society feels like a throwback to the style and attitude of some of his earlier books (which I happen to adore), such as the ridiculously entertaining The Android’s Dream.

The audiobook is narrated by Wil Wheaton, who does many of Scalzi’s books, and is amazingly talented when it comes to narrating action and multiple character voices. He projects tons of humor, even when our lead characters are confronted by gigantic creatures that may eat them — even their fear and hysteria come across as funny.

I really appreciated that the audiobook included the author’s note at the end — many don’t, which is a pet peeve of mine. Here, it was incredibly helpful and enlightening to hear about the author’s experiences in 2020 and 2021, and why and how he ended up writing this particular book during the pandemic.

All in all, I’d say that The Kaiju Preservation Society has to be one of my most fun listening experiences of the year! If you have low tolerance for salty language and progressive politics, this may not be the best choice for you — but those obstacles definitely don’t apply to me, and I loved every moment!

John Scalzi is a go-to, must-read author for me, and The Kaiju Preservation Society is a total win. Coincidentally, just this week, his publisher announced his next upcoming novel, Starter Villain, to be released in June 2023. Sign me up!!



Audiobook Review: All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

Title: All Creatures Great and Small
Author: James Herriot
Narrator: Nicholas Ralph
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Publication date: Originally published 1972
Print length: 448 pages
Audio length: 15 hours 23 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The first volume in the multimillion copy bestselling series.

Delve into the magical, unforgettable world of James Herriot, the world’s most beloved veterinarian, and his menagerie of heartwarming, funny, and tragic animal patients.

For fifty years, generations of readers have flocked to Herriot’s marvelous tales, deep love of life, and extraordinary storytelling abilities. For decades, Herriot roamed the remote, beautiful Yorkshire Dales, treating every patient that came his way from smallest to largest, and observing animals and humans alike with his keen, loving eye.

In All Creatures Great and Small, we meet the young Herriot as he takes up his calling and discovers that the realities of veterinary practice in rural Yorkshire are very different from the sterile setting of veterinary school.

James Herriot’s memoirs have sold 80 million copies wordwide, and continue to delight and entertain readers of all ages.

If you’re looking to let a little bit of sunlight and warmth into your soul, you couldn’t ask for more than this lovely classic (fictionalized) memoir.

All Creatures Great and Small, originally published in 1972, is the memoir of a country veterinarian, going back to the beginning of his career as a newly qualified vet in the late 1930s. James Herriot wrote a series of eight memoirs during his lifetime, which have been published and republished many times in the years since. All Creatures Great and Small consists of the first two of his books and a smidge of the third — and these stories have also been adapted for film and television (more on that later).

All Creatures starts with young James arriving in the Yorkshire Dales to become an apprentice at an established veterinary practice. James’s specialty is farm animals, and the practice’s clientele are largely the region’s farmer, although they do care for the assorted household pets of their village as well. James’s mentor is Siegfried Farnon, an oddball man who’s clearly very gifted at his work, but who has many personality quirks and a disturbing ability to disregard or forget anything that’s inconvenient to him.

Over the course of the book, James develops confidence in his veterinary skills, and slowly earns the grudging respect of the locals, who initially view him as an inexperienced outsider. James is gifted when it comes to the animals under his care, saving countless lives through his modern approaches and determination to see procedures through, no matter how hard.

One of the lovely aspects of the book is the description of the people themselves — from the curmudgeonly farmers to the eccentric mansion dwellers to the race horse owners, and more. The author describes them all with humor and kindness, and brings to life the oddities and personality traits that makes them all so unique.

Note: I mentioned above that this is a fictionalized memoir — a fact I didn’t actually realize until a book group friend provided some background. The author’s name is actually a pen name, the town where he sets the book is not a real place, but rather a made-up town based on the author’s experiences in the area of the Yorkshire Dales, and he’s altered/embroidered many of the chief characters in the book and/or based them on real people, but with different names and some different characteristics. Not that any of this truly matters to me. The book is so enjoyable that I don’t mind the blend of fact and fiction. For more on James Alfred “Alf” Wight, the man behind the James Herriot pen name, see articles here and here.

The audiobook edition that I listened to is a new version which has the star of the current PBS Masterpiece production as the narrator. Nicholas Ralph is terrific in the TV role, and he’s wonderful as the audiobook narrator too. His voice is so familiar at this point that it truly feels like sitting back and listening to James Herriot himself telling us his stories! The actor not only brings James’s character to life, but also delivers distinctive, enjoyable versions of all the various characters, and it’s a delight.

If you haven’t checked out the TV series yet, I highly recommend it! Two seasons have aired so far, and season 3 will be released in the US in January 2023.

I absolutely loved listening to the audiobook of All Creatures Great and Small (and once again, need to give a shout-out to my book group for picking it!). It’s a gentle, heart-warming, funny look at a bygone time, and James Herriot’s love for the community and his profession shine through on every page and with every story he tells.

Highly recommended… and as for me, I look forward to reading (or listening to) the next book in the series, All Things Bright and Beautiful.



Audiobook Review: Thank You for Listening by Julia Whelan

Title: Thank You for Listening
Author: Julia Whelan
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publisher: Avon and Harper Voyager
Publication date: August 2, 2022
Print length: 432 pages
Audio length: 11 hours 16 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley (ebook); purchased audiobook via Audible
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the author of My Oxford Year, Julia Whelan’s uplifting novel tells the story of a former actress turned successful audiobook narrator–who has lost sight of her dreams after a tragic accident–and her journey of self-discovery, love, and acceptance when she agrees to narrate one last romance novel.

For Sewanee Chester, being an audiobook narrator is a long way from her old dreams, but the days of being a star on film sets are long behind her. She’s found success and satisfaction from the inside of a sound booth and it allows her to care for her beloved, ailing grandmother. When she arrives in Las Vegas last-minute for a book convention, Sewanee unexpectedly spends a whirlwind night with a charming stranger.

On her return home, Sewanee discovers one of the world’s most beloved romance novelists wanted her to perform her last book–with Brock McNight, the industry’s hottest, most secretive voice. Sewanee doesn’t buy what romance novels are selling–not after her own dreams were tragically cut short–and she stopped narrating them years ago. But her admiration of the late author, and the opportunity to get her grandmother more help, makes her decision for her.

As Sewanee begins work on the book, resurrecting her old romance pseudonym, she and Brock forge a real connection, hidden behind the comfort of anonymity. Soon, she is dreaming again, but secrets are revealed, and the realities of life come crashing down around her once more.

If she can learn to risk everything for desires she has long buried, she will discover a world of intimacy and acceptance she never believed would be hers.

I think I’ve found my favorite audiobook of the year!

Julie Whelan is a gifted narrator — according to her Goodreads bio, she’s narrated over 500 audiobooks! I’ve had the pleasure of listening to several of the books she’s narrated, and she is very, very good. But did you know she’s also an author? Her previous novel, My Oxford Year, was published in 2018 (and is one that I haven’t read yet, although I certainly intend to!). And now, in 2022, along comes her 2nd novel, and what could be more perfect than a story of an audiobook narrator?

In Thank You for Listening, main character Sewanee Chester did not intend to become a highly successful, award-winning audiobook narrator — but her Juilliard-trained acting career was cut short in her 20s, just on the cusp of break-through success, by a freak accident. It’s taken Sewanee years to recover — and emotionally, it’s questionable whether she’s actually recovered at all.

Sewanee is now the voice behind the scenes, incredibly gifted at bringing characters to life — so much so that clueless fans can’t believe what she can do, even when she states it plainly:

Roy peered at Sewanee, seeing her anew. “You crushed it! Wait, so did you meet the guy who played Butch and Sundance? Do you, like, record together?”

Adaku and Sewanee looked at each other, then back at Roy. Adaku said, “What guy?”

“The guy! The guy who voiced the guys.”

Adaku and Sewanee looked at each other again. Adaku said, “That wan’t a guy.”

“No, the Butch-and-Sundance-guy guy.”

“Ohhhh, that guy. Yeah, he wasn’t a guy.” Adaku was enjoying this a bit too much.

“Who wasn’t a guy?”

“The guy reading.”

“Wasn’t a guy?”

“Nope.”

When Sewanee and her best friend Adaku, a rising Hollywood star, share a celebration in Las Vegas that gets interrupted when Adaku has to leave early, Sewanee is left on her own… and meets a dashing stranger in a bar. After an intense connection and a one-night stand, Sewanee and Nick part without exchanging contact information, and Sewanee is left with amazing memories of a night that was very out of character for her.

Back in her real life, she receives an unexpected job offer: Although she’d long ago stopped recording romance audiobooks, which she’d done under the pseudonym Sarah Westholme, she’s asked to do it one more time. Bestselling romance writer June French, who recently passed away, left a final script, and she specifically wanted it read, in alternating voices, by Sarah Westholme and romance audiobook superstar Brock McKnight. While Sewanee is initially reluctant, the insane money on the table means she’d be able to maintain her beloved grandmother in comfort at her pricey but wonderful memory care facility, so she takes the job.

As she and Brock (a pseudonym, naturally) start recording their chapters and communicating via email and text about delivery, intonation, accents, and other details, a friendship develops. Their exchanges are funny, smart, and full of hilarious double-entendres and innuendos, and while not knowing each others’ true identities, they click in a way that’s unexpected and potentially more than just collegial.

This is a story that unfolds in lovely, unexpected ways, so I won’t go further into plot details (although I’m sure you can guess where certain elements are headed). What’s wonderful about this book is the character development, the chemistry, and the way the author, via her characters, deliberately plays with and acknowledges romance genre tropes, even while making these tropes fit and support such a thoughtful, funny, and emotionally rich story.

Sewanee’s past and present are shaded by sorrow and disappointment, from her parents’ failed marriage to worries over her grandmother’s dementia to her own tragedy and the self-doubts that have plagued her since. Sewanee’s pain and insecurities feel real and relatable. Would any of us be able to bounce back as far as she has? She doesn’t immediately, magically get better thanks to the power of love, either — instead, we see her process her past over time, and learn how to see a possible future that could include happiness. It’s not easy, but it does feel well-earned and fought for.

I loved not only Sewanee, but the supporting cast as well, including Adaku, the hilarious Blah-Blah (Sewanee’s outrageous grandmother, a former Hollywood starlet whose favorite name for her granddaughter is “Dollface”), Brock (of course), and even Sewanee’s mother’s new beau, who’s very funny in his own right, in a way that just needs to be experienced.

I also loved how each section of the book is introduced by both a “literary” quote (such as thoughts by Hemingway on pain and writing) and a quote from a (fictitious) June French interview with Cosmopolitan, where she’s brash, blunt, and incredibly funny:

It’s always the men, isn’t it, talking about writing from a place of pain. Maybe try writing from joy. We get it, the world is hard. Which is precisely why I write: to escape it. Calm down with this tortured artist shit already, my God.

I originally received an ebook ARC via NetGalley, and as wonderful as this book is in print, I simply had to take the audio path — so I treated myself to the Audible version as well. I’m so glad I did! The opportunity to hear Julia Whelan not only narrate her own book, but narrate a book about a narrator, seemed too good to miss! She’s just as amazing here as you’d expect: As a listener, I was never, not for a moment, confused about who was speaking, whether the lines were intended as spoken dialogue or a character’s inner thoughts, or what the mood or intent was. Dialogue snaps and crackles, chemistry blooms, and even when the characters are putting on their own fake voices, it absolutely works.

Beyond the central plotline, I also loved the behind-the-scenes view into the world of audiobook narration — how it works, how some narrators become stars in their own right, and what challenges the industry faces. Also wonderful is the power of non-romantic love — Sewanee could never have come as far as she does in this book without her beautiful friendship with Adaku, the care she and her mentor Mark share, or the family heartstrings connecting her to Blah-Blah and to her mother.

Thank You for Listening is a treat, start to finish, and I highly recommend it!



Audiobook Review: The Comeback by Lily Chu

Title: The Comeback
Author: Lily Chu
Narrator: Phillipa Soo
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: July 14, 2022
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 12 hours 14 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Audible download
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Who is Ariadne Hui?

• Laser-focused lawyer diligently climbing the corporate ladder
• The “perfect” daughter living out her father’s dream
• Shocking love interest of South Korea’s hottest star

Ariadne Hui thrives on routine. So what if everything in her life is planned down to the minute: That’s the way she likes it. If she’s going to make partner in Toronto’s most prestigious law firm, she needs to stay focused at all times.

But when she comes home after yet another soul-sucking day to find an unfamiliar, gorgeous man camped out in her living room, focus is the last thing on her mind. Especially when her roommate explains this is Choi Jihoon, her cousin freshly arrived from Seoul to mend a broken heart. He just needs a few weeks to rest and heal; Ari will barely even know he’s there. (Yeah, right.)

Jihoon is kindness and chaos personified, and it isn’t long before she’s falling, hard. But when one wrong step leads to a world-shaking truth, Ari finds herself thrust onto the world stage: not as the competent, steely lawyer she’s fought so hard to become, but as the mystery woman on the arm of a man the entire world claims to know. Now with her heart, her future, and her sense of self on the line, Ari will have to cut through all the pretty lies to find the truth of her relationship…and discover the Ariadne Hui she’s finally ready to be.

I enjoyed last year’s The Stand-In, Lily Chu’s debut, released an Audible Original (and later, as a paperback) — so when I saw that a new Audible novel was being released this year by the same author, and once again with the amazing Phillipa Soo as narrator, naturally I had to grab it! \

The new book, The Comeback, brings some of The Stand-In‘s elements to a fresh story. Once again, we have an ordinary Canadian woman who ends up in the ultimate wish-fulfillment scenario of finding love with one of the world’s biggest stars — in this case, a K-pop idol.

Ariadne is a work-obsessed lawyer whose sole focus is making partner with her conservative, almost-all-white law firm. (She’s dismayed to overhear a coworker describe her as the firm’s “diversity hire”). Ariadne is Canadian born and of Chinese descent, but she constantly finds herself having to explain where she’s from and that no, she doesn’t speak Chinese and was actually born in Toronto. Her father, also a lawyer, is overly invested in Ari’s career and sends her link to business articles on how to impress the boss and how to get ahead.

Ari tells herself that she’s fine and happy. So what if she never actually takes any of the amazing vacations she fantasizes about? Making partner is all that matters!

Or so she thinks… until her orderly life is disrupted when she comes home to find a strange man in her apartment. After a comical misunderstanding (kitchen knives are involvled), she learns that this is Jihoon, her roommate Hannah’s cousin from Korea, who just needs a place to get away and be quiet for a while after a bad break-up. He seems nice enough, and Hannah is her best friend, so Ari agrees, so long as she can keep working around the clock.

But Jihoon is hard not to notice, from the expensive skincare products spread out all over her bathroom counters to the ramen in her kitchen, and their brief daily encounters turn into texting GIFs, sharing food, and eventually, exploring Toronto together. And the more time Ari spends with him, the more they seem to connect. Okay, yes, he’s super hot, but he’s also kind, intelligent, supportive, and interested in Ari in a way no one else has ever been.

Their time together is cut short, first by the early return of Hannah, and then by the arrival of two of Jihoon’s friends, come to bring him home. They’re not just any friends, though — they’re two of the five members of the enormously huge K-pop group Star Loon (Star Lune? Starloon? Can’t tell from listening to an audiobook!). And guess what? It turns out Jihoon is actually their lead singer, stage name Min, whose video Ari had just watched a few days earlier.

Ari is devastated by Jihoon’s lies (lies of omission still count, especially when the truth he hid is “oh, by the way, I’m an idol with millions of obsessed fans”). Although on the verge of falling in love (who is she kidding? she’s already fallen!), Ari is terrified by Jihoon’s fame and lack of privacy, and breaks off their growing relationship as he departs for Korea.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there, and we get to see what happens when Ari travels to Seoul for a work trip, reunites with Jihoon, attends a VIP Starlune concert, and eventually, gets spotted in an intimate moment with Jihoon. Can their love survive her “outing”, especially when “Starries” brand her a “sasaeng” (stalker/obsessed fan)?

This may all sound rather silly, but it’s actually got quite a bit of emotion and thoughtfulness, and is a very engaging, absorbing listen. Ariadne is a wonderful main character, talented and smart, obviously, but with plenty of blind spots. Her single focus on work keeps her from examining just why she wants so badly to please her father, why she’s never reconciled with her free-spirited older sister, and why she wants a career in law in the first place. Once she opens herself up to love and all the messy emotions that go with it, she starts to see how many limits she’s imposed on her own life through her strict devotion to meeting other people’s expectations, and it actually starts to free her enough to consider what she really wants out of life and how she wants to live.

Jihoon is, perhaps, too good to be true. Because yes, he’s a pop idol with his face on everything from cereal boxes to bottled water, and a video of him taking a nap for five minutes has millions of views, but he’s really just a nice, sensitive guy who wants to experience true connection with someone real. He loves his bandmates and his fans and appreciates all of the advantages he’s gotten from becoming an idol, and yet he also yearns to write the music that matters to him, and to spend time with a woman who loves him for himself, not for his manufactured image.

The Comeback is sweet and entertaining, and even thought-provoking. We can dream of a gorgeous celebrity falling for us, but would we really want the constant surveillance and online criticism (which is putting it mildly) that goes with it? Ari’s dilemma and heartache feel real, because yes, she’s fallen for this man, but she’s nowhere near sure she can handle the demands of his public life — not to mention the public shaming that seems headed her way once the company that controls Starlune gets involved in managing the messaging.

As with The Stand-In, the audiobook narration is a treat. Phillipa Soo is terrific voicing Ariadne, and captures the other characters really well too. I have the same complaint here that I did with the previous book, however — this is a first-person story, and in scenes with dialogue, it can be very difficult to tell whether Ari is saying something out loud or whether certain lines are asides that she’s thinking to herself. I’ve heard narrators who’ve managed to change up the delivery/intonation enough to make it clear, but here, it can be confusing, and there’s not always enough context to tell the difference.

Other than that, though, the audiobook is delightful. This is not a heavy story by any means, but it definitely kept my attention — enough that I found myself driving the longer way to my destinations just to get a few more minutes of listening time into my day!

PS – I am not a K-pop fan… but after listening to The Comeback, I think I may need to expand my horizons!

PPS – If you’re as ignorant of K-pop culture as I am (was), check out some basics:

Kpop Idol – Life and Career of Korean Music Artists
2022’s Top K-Pop Artists
50 Most Liked Kpop Videos of 2022

Enjoy!



Audiobook Review: The No-Show by Beth O’Leary

Title: The No-Show
Author: Beth O’Leary
Narrators:  Evanna Lynch , Heather Long , Kathryn Drysdale , Luke Thompson
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: April 12, 2022
Print length: 352 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 47 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Siobhan is a quick-tempered life coach with way too much on her plate. Miranda is a tree surgeon used to being treated as just one of the guys on the job. Jane is a soft-spoken volunteer for the local charity shop with zero sense of self-worth.

These three women are strangers who have only one thing in common: They’ve all been stood up on the same day, the very worst day to be stood up–Valentine’s Day. And, unbeknownst to them, they’ve all been stood up by the same man.

Once they’ve each forgiven him for standing them up, they let him back into their lives and are in serious danger of falling in love with a man who seems to have not just one or two but three women on the go….

Is there more to him than meets the eye? And will they each untangle the truth before they all get their hearts broken?

Three women who seemingly have nothing in common find that they’re involved with the same man in this smart new rom-com by Beth O’Leary, bestselling author of The Flatshare.

It’s going to be hard to talk about The No-Show without giving away too much — but let me offer this caution up front: This book is delicious, and really and truly, you should avoid reading reviews that go into details. Trust me — not knowing is what’s in store is key to appreciating how great this story is.

As the book opens, we meet three women who have all been stood up by Joseph Carter: Siobhan waited for him for a breakfast date; Miranda sat at a restaurant way longer than she should have waiting for him to show up for lunch; and Jane ended up abandoned at an engagement party he’d promised to be her “friend date” for.

And all I could think through these initial chapters was: What a jerk! Who is this guy who (a) is dating three woman simultaneously and (b) is so rude and inconsiderate that he no-shows on all three of them?

There’s more to the story, of course. As the plot moves forward, told through chapters that alternate between Siobhan, Miranda, and Jane, we learn more about Joseph’s involvement with each woman — how they met, how their relationships developed, what their big challenges are. At the same time, we get to know each of these three women, and get to see how fabulous they are.

All quite different, Siobhan, Miranda, and Jane have distinct personalities and very different lives. Jane is perhaps the hardest to get a handle on — she’s scared and shy and completely lacking in self-esteem when we meet her, and it’s hard for us (and Joseph) to get past her protective shell to see the person she is inside.

Connections between the different characters’ worlds become apparent as the story unfolds. And just when I thought I had it all figured out (feeling rather self-satisfied, to be honest), it turns out that I didn’t. Beth O’Leary pulled the rug out from under me in an amazing way — and I love when fiction surprises me like that, giving me something that I didn’t see coming, but that completely fits and makes sense.

So… I absolutely refuse to give anything away about the plot, but let me just say that Joseph is not the jerk I initially suspected him of being, and that everything will eventually make sense!

I love the writing, the character development, and the fresh take on strong women who feel deeply and have interesting lives. The characters are all terrific, and for the audiobook, different narrators take the different characters’ chapters. The voices and delivery really suit each of the characters, and the whole story flows quickly and really works.

I was completely engaged, and as often happens with good audiobooks, I found myself dying for my next car ride or walk so I’d have an excuse to listen more! The audiobook even brought me to tears (but fortunately, I was alone in my car at the time, so managed to avoid public embarrassment over the waterworks).

Based on its cover, The No-Show seems like it should be a light, silly story, but really, it’s so much more than that. This book has light, romantic moments, but also deeply felt emotions, sorrow, and struggles, and really well told character arcs as well.

Definitely one of my favorite books of summer 2022!

Audiobook Review: An Island Wedding (Mure, #5) by Jenny Colgan

Title: An Island Wedding
Series: Mure
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator:  Eilidh Beaton
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: June 21, 2022
Print length: 400 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 26 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan brings us a delightful summer novel that will sweep you away to the remote Scottish island of Mure, where two very different weddings are about to take place…

On the little Scottish island of Mure–halfway between Scotland and Norway–Flora MacKenzie and her fiancé Joel are planning the smallest of “sweetheart weddings,” a high summer celebration surrounded only by those very dearest to them.

Not everyone on the island is happy about being excluded, though. The temperature rises even further when beautiful Olivia MacDonald–who left Mure ten years ago for bigger and brighter things–returns with a wedding planner in tow. Her fiancé has oodles of family money, and Olivia is determined to throw the biggest, most extravagant, most Instagrammable wedding possible. And she wants to do it at Flora’s hotel, the same weekend as Flora’s carefully planned micro-wedding.

As the summer solstice approaches, can Flora handle everyone else’s Happy Every Afters–and still get her own?

The 5th installment in Jenny Colgan’s wonderful Mure series brings us back to this beautiful, remote Scottish island. It’s like a reunion with old friends, as we see what our beloved characters are up to now, and for at least some, get to witness the happy event they’ve been building toward over the four previous books.

(For the story so far, see my wrap-up post, here.)

In An Island Wedding, Flora Mackenzie is finally set to marry the man of her dreams. But there’s a problem — Flora, born and bred on Mure, wants to celebrate with everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE. The entire island expects to be at their wedding, from Mrs. Kennedy’s dance school students to the old fishermen who drink away their evenings down at the Harbor’s Rest. But Joel, a product of a lonely childhood in the foster care system, wants only those who truly love them to be with them on their big day — just immediate family, an intimate occasion, and donate all the money that would have gone to a big wedding to the local couple who take troubled youth on outdoor adventures.

What’s Flora to do? She loves Joel, and wants to do what makes him happy… but she can’t help but feeling just a wee bit sad and guilty every time an island neighbor comes up to tell her how much they’re looking forward to her wedding.

Meanwhile, Olivia MacDonald, the beautiful island native who’s now an international Instagram star, has decided to hold her own lavish wedding back home on Mure, in a most likely misguided move to impress her fabulously wealthy, fabulously snooty future in-laws with her connection to an authentic Scottish community. Olivia arrives with an upscale wedding planner in tow, and proceeds to transform The Rock (the hotel Flora manages) and the entire island into the fantasy wedding setting of her dreams.

Most of the book is devoted to the wedding plans, as well as to the ongoing tension between Flora and Joel over their divergent visions for how they’ll get married. I was never truly worried about Flora and Joel — they love each other, and they’ve been through enough so far that I was sure it would all work out — but it was sad to see them at what appeared at times to be an impasse.

The most moving and gripping parts of An Island Wedding have to do with the love story between Lorna, the island’s schoolmistress, and Saif, the Syrian refugee doctor who’s found a new home for himself and his two sons on Mure. Saif’s wife’s fate has been a question mark since the start of the series, and when new information is uncovered, it forces Saif to make an impossible choice. I won’t say too much, but it’s heartbreaking. The terrible sadness of the situation is written so beautifully, and my heart just ached for Lorna, Saif, and for the boys too.

The stakes for the Flora and Olivia storylines never feel terribly high or risky — after all, it’s really mostly to do with wedding plans! Still, it’s fun to follow along and laugh at all the mishaps, miscommunications, and over-the-top wedding arrangements, and the ending left me with a few little tears of happiness. After spending so much time with Flora and Joel over the course of this series, I was ready for them to get all the joy they deserve!

My initial understanding had been that this would be the final Mure book… but actually, I don’t see that stated anywhere, and given that there’s a MAJOR story thread left hanging, I’m hopeful for more! So please, if you happen to meet Jenny Colgan someday, tell her we want MORE MURE. I’m not ready to say good-bye to these wonderful characters and the beautiful island just yet!

Book Review: Written in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur

Title: Written in the Stars
Author: Alexandria Bellefleur
Narrator: Lauren Sweet
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: November 10, 2020
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 11 hours, 11 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

With nods to Bridget Jones and Pride and Prejudice, a charming #ownvoices queer rom-com debut about a free-spirited social media astrologer who agrees to fake a relationship with an uptight actuary until New Year’s Eve—with results not even the stars could predict!

After a disastrous blind date, Darcy Lowell is desperate to stop her well-meaning brother from playing matchmaker ever again. Love—and the inevitable heartbreak—is the last thing she wants. So she fibs and says her latest set up was a success. Darcy doesn’t expect her lie to bite her in the ass.

Elle Jones, one of the astrologers behind the popular Twitter account, Oh My Stars, dreams of finding her soul mate. But she knows it is most assuredly not Darcy… a no-nonsense stick-in-the-mud, who is way too analytical, punctual, and skeptical for someone as free-spirited as Elle. When Darcy’s brother—and Elle’s new business partner—expresses how happy he is that they hit it off, Elle is baffled. Was Darcy on the same date? Because… awkward.

When Darcy begs Elle to play along, she agrees to pretend they’re dating to save face. But with a few conditions: Darcy must help Elle navigate her own overbearing family over the holidays and their arrangement expires on New Year’s Eve. The last thing they expect is to develop real feelings during a fake relationship.

But maybe opposites can attract when true love is written in the stars?

The synopsis really says it all — Written in the Stars is a fake-dating, opposites-attract romance with a guaranteed HEA, but with a few bumps along the road.

Darcy is a (gorgeous) tightly-wound actuary who likes her world orderly, clean, and easily analyzed and compartmentalized; Elle is a (super-adorable) astrologist who likes gel pens, glitter, marching to her own drummer, and a certain amount of chaos. They have nothing in common — yet somehow, their fake-dating arrangement starts to feel more and more real as they have fun together, learn to see beneath their surfaces, and (obviously) recognize that they have a major spark going on.

The comparisons to Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones are mostly unnecessary. Yes, the Darcy character comes across as judgy and off-putting, but that’s just a piece of the puzzle in this relationship, and the P&P trappings (sisters named Jane and Lydia, for example) are just minor details that don’t particularly matter.

Elle and Darcy have a lovely chemistry, each forcing the other to rethink basic assumptions and stretch a bit in their worldview — although honestly, most of the changing seems to happen on Darcy’s end. They’ve each been hurt in different ways in the past, through family dynamics or disastrous relationships, and they bring their baggage with them. As their fake relationship deepens into something more, they’re forced to open up and be honest about their dreams and their fears — but of course, as happens in pretty much all romance fiction, there’s a major falling out before they can get to a happy ending.

I enjoyed Written in the Stars, but not without some quibbles. The writing is spirited and light, and I liked getting chapters from both Darcy and Elle’s perspectives. But, certain wording choices started getting on my nerves, possibly more noticeable because I listened to the audiobook and repetitions really jumped out at me — for example, I lost count of how many times it’s mentioned that a particular character licked her lips. (It was a lot.)

All romance novels have the inevitable obstacle right before the happy ending, but the big drama here had to to with an overheard conversation and misinterpretation, and the way the scene was constructed left me feeling that the characters were behaving unreasonably and with a lack of maturity. Yes, their fall-out was over some big issues that they needed to address and resolve in order to move forward, but an actual conversation would have been a much healthier approach.

Side note: Some day, I’d like to read a romance where the main characters have a misunderstanding and then TALK ABOUT IT LIKE ADULTS, rather than having to go through a break-up, pints of ice cream, ugly crying, and then a BIG GESTURE in order to get to a good place. Anyway…

In terms of sexual content, there aren’t a huge number of sex scenes, but the ones that do exist are on the graphic end of the scale. (See my thoughts on a ratings scale for sex scenes in books, here). We are up close and personal with the characters through every moment of their encounters. Not my personal taste in fiction, but could appeal to those who generally enjoy these scenes on the explicit side.

Overall, Written In the Stars is a sweet story with lots of cute and funny moments. The audiobook is well done, with the narrator infusing humor and personality into the dialogue (and doing a great job with how she reads the many texts between characters — a very fun aspect of the story).

There are two more books that follow Written In the Stars, one focusing on Darcy’s brother, the other on Elle’s best friend and roommate. I don’t feel a need to continue at this point, but I may keep them in mind for when I want a light diversion at some point down the road.