Book Review: Where the Lost Wander by Amy Harmon

Title: Where the Lost Wander
Author: Amy Harmon
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Publication date: April 28, 2020
Length: 343 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy via NetGalley; audiobook purchased via Audible
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In this epic and haunting love story set on the Oregon Trail, a family and their unlikely protector find their way through peril, uncertainty, and loss.

The Overland Trail, 1853: Naomi May never expected to be widowed at twenty. Eager to leave her grief behind, she sets off with her family for a life out West. On the trail, she forms an instant connection with John Lowry, a half-Pawnee man straddling two worlds and a stranger in both.

But life in a wagon train is fraught with hardship, fear, and death. Even as John and Naomi are drawn to each other, the trials of the journey and their disparate pasts work to keep them apart. John’s heritage gains them safe passage through hostile territory only to come between them as they seek to build a life together.

When a horrific tragedy strikes, decimating Naomi’s family and separating her from John, the promises they made are all they have left. Ripped apart, they can’t turn back, they can’t go on, and they can’t let go. Both will have to make terrible sacrifices to find each other, save each other, and eventually…make peace with who they are.

Where the Lost Wander is a beautiful story of love and tragedy, set in the era of westward expansion and wagon trains.

We know from the prologue that terrible events are coming, as we see a group of wagons attacked by a band of Shoshoni warriors, leaving all dead except Naomi and her infant brother, who are taken captive. How this came about, who these people are, and what happens next will be revealed over the course of the story that follows.

Naomi May is a young woman traveling west with her parents and younger brothers as part of a large wagon train. At St. Joseph in Missouri, their point of departure, she meets John Lowry, a young man of mixed heritage who’ll be traveling with the train, along with his prized set of breeding mules.

As the wagon train makes its slow journey, they face danger from every direction — perilous river crossings, cholera, accidents, hostile encounters with other travelers — but along the way, Naomi and John grow closer, falling in love despite their own personal backstories. I came to care deeply about these characters and to wish for their happiness, but experienced a growing sense of dread as well, knowing from the prologue that tragedy was coming, but not knowing when.

Where the Lost Wander is beautifully written, full of emotion as well as history. The author strikes a good balance in presenting both the dreams and desires of the emigrants and the devastating impact of the white man’s encroachment onto Native lands. The tribes encountered are portrayed with sensitivity, and we get to know certain people as individuals, giving us entry into a way of life that’s under constant threat.

Naomi and John’s story, from initial attraction to trust and longing and finally, to love and commitment, is moving and well-told. Given the era and the setting, we know this cannot be a happy, pain-free story, but I couldn’t stop hoping for good outcomes and peace for these characters, even in the most dire of situations.

Overall, this is a well-researched, vivid depiction of a time in America’s history that’s in many ways well-known, but here, presented with so much more nuance and perspective than in typical tales of the Old West. Highly recommended.

Via Amy Harmon’s author website: https://www.authoramyharmon.com/wherethelostwander.html

A note on the audiobook: The audiobook (11 hours, 46 minutes) is narrated by Lauren Ezzo and Shaun Taylor-Corbett, who read as Naomi and John. It’s a lovely performance, with each one capturing the emotions of their characters and giving dramatic, expressive expression to the more descriptive passages. I enjoyed it very much, and while I referred back to the print version for clarity on places and people, I’m glad I chose to experience this book via audio.

Audiobook Review: Gwendy’s Final Task by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

 

Title: Gwendy’s Final Task
Authors: Stephen King and Richard Chizmar
Narrator: Marin Ireland
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: February 15, 2022
Print length: 408 pages
Audiobook length: 7 hours, 23 minutes
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy (ebook) via NetGalley; audiobook purchased via Chirp
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

When Gwendy Peterson was twelve, a stranger named Richard Farris gave her a mysterious box for safekeeping. It offered treats and vintage coins, but it was dangerous. Pushing any of its seven coloured buttons promised death and destruction.

Years later, the button box re-entered Gwendy’s life. A successful novelist and a rising political star, she was once more forced to deal with the temptations that the box represented—an amazing sense of wellbeing, balanced by a terrifyingly dark urge towards disaster.

With the passing of time, the box has grown ever stronger and evil forces are striving to possess it. Once again, it is up to Gwendy Peterson, now a United States Senator battling the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease, to keep it from them. At all costs. But where can you hide something from such powerful entities?

Gwendy’s Final Task is a wildly suspenseful and at the same time deeply moving novel in which ‘horror giants’ (Publishers Weekly) Stephen King and Richard Chizmar take us on a journey from Castle Rock to another famous cursed Maine city to the MF-1 space station, where Gwendy must execute a secret mission to save the world. And, maybe, all worlds.

Gwendy is back, and this time, she’s going out on her own terms.

Gwendy’s Final Task is the third in the unusual, bizarre, frightening, and inspiring trilogy focusing on a powerful central character, Gwendy Peterson, and the strange box that’s become inextricably intertwined with the main events of her notable life.

[I won’t recap the first two novellas, but if you’re interested, see my reviews of Gwendy’s Button Box and Gwendy’s Magic Feather to catch up on the backstory.]

Here in book #3, time has passed, and we’re now a few years in the future. It’s 2026, the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, although its impact is still felt, and 64-year-old Senator Gwendy Peterson is about to be launched into space on a privately funded mission to MF-1, the Many Flags Space Station in orbit around Mars. As a US Senator, she’s one of two civilian passengers on the mission — the other being Gareth Winston, the billionaire whose corporation provides the big bucks needed to further the US space project.

Gwendy also has a secret, or actually, two secrets. With her, in a sealed cased marked “confidential”, is the button box that’s followed her all her life. The presence of this confidential case piques the curiosity of her teammates, but she’s keeping its contents to herself. Also kept secret is Gwendy’s early onset Alzheimer’s. She’s faking it as best as she can, but there are days when she can’t even remember how to tie her shoes. As she prepares for launch, Gwendy can only hope that she can hold it together long enough to accomplish her final task.

As the story progresses, we learn more about how the box reentered her life for the third and final time, what her mission truly is, and what she’s done to prepare for it. We also learn more about the challenges and heartbreaks Gwendy has endured to get to this point. I couldn’t help but admire her for her dedication and perseverance — most of us would likely have given up in the same circumstances, but not Gwendy.

The plot moves forward at a fast pace, alternating between the recent past building up to the mission and the days onboard the space station during the mission itself. We see Gwendy’s struggles to keep her mind together, to focus on her task, and to both reassure the crew members about her own stability and to evade the suspicious behavior of the resident billionaire, who seems to be encroaching more and more into Gwendy’s personal space as the days go by.

The two previous Gwendy stories have been novellas, so I was curious going into Gwendy’s Final Task to see whether a full-length novel would fit with the mood and style of the previous installments. Fortunately, yes, it does — this 400+ page novel absolutely delivers, but never feels overstuffed or unnecessarily drawn out.

I love Gwendy as a person by this point, having seen her all the way from early teens through to her mid-60s. She’s strong, fierce, and determined, with an unbreakable moral core and a deep love for her family. She’s also been through a lot, and I felt her pain so keenly as she reflects on her losses and struggles to keep hold of her memories just a little bit longer.

While initially I though the premise far-fetched (how exactly would a Senator with Alzheimer’s ever make it through the intense screening required for a space mission?), eventually, it all makes sense. And even before I got to an explanation that helped connect the dots, I was immersed enough in the story to push my skepticism way to the side, so it never stopped me from enjoying the story as it unfolded.

For long-time King fans, there are lots of references to amuse and delight. There are plot points centered around the town of Derry, Maine (including a local’s description of hearing voices coming from the drains and another’s tale of being chased by a clown), and later, references to the Dark Tower as well. [Note: I never did get through the whole Dark Tower series, but I think I got the point here anyway.]

The audiobook narration is terrific. Marin Ireland is a gifted narrator, capturing Gwendy’s inner voice as well as describing the surroundings and events. She brings the crew members and ground control into the story very well, and gives an immediacy to all descriptions and dialogues. This is a change in narrator from the first two Gwendy audiobooks, but it didn’t feel jarring, and overall, was very well done.

There are creepy moments, one decidedly gross/icky scene, and plenty of existential dread and overarching terror. Still, by the end of the book, I was feeling very emotional about Gwendy herself and the conclusion of the story. Despite the horror and the thrills, the biggest takeaway for me was the heartbreaking beauty of Gwendy’s journey, and that’s really saying something.

This is a convincing and well-plotted conclusion to an unusual and inventive trilogy, and I’m so glad to have been along for the journey.

Book Review: In a Book Club Far Away by Tif Marcelo

Title: In a Book Club Far Away
Author: Tif Marcelo
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: April 6, 2021
Length: 381 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From the author of Once Upon a Sunset and The Key to Happily Ever After comes a heartwarming and moving novel following three Army wives—estranged friends—who must overcome their differences when one of them is desperate for help.

Regina Castro, Adelaide Wilson-Chang, and Sophie Walden used to be best friends. As Army wives at Fort East, they bonded during their book club and soon became inseparable. But when an unimaginable betrayal happened amongst the group, the friendship abruptly ended, and they haven’t spoken since.

That’s why, eight years later, Regina and Sophie are shocked when they get a call for help from Adelaide. Adelaide’s husband is stationed abroad, and without any friends or family near her new home of Alexandria, Virginia, she has no one to help take care of her young daughter when she has to undergo emergency surgery. For the sake of an innocent child, Regina and Sophie reluctantly put their differences aside to help an old friend.

As the three women reunite, they must overcome past hurts and see if there’s any future for their friendship. Featuring Tif Marcelo’s signature “enchanting prose” (Amy E. Reichert, author of The Coincidence of Coconut Cake) and the books that brought them together in the first place, In a Book Club Far Away honors the immense power of female friendship and how love can defy time, distance, and all old wounds.

In a Book Club Far Away is a story about the lasting value and importance of women’s friendship. Set amidst a group of Army wives, with chapters taking place both in the present day and 10 years earlier, it tells the story of close connections, long grudges, and the possibility of reconciliation and renewal.

In the present, Regina and Sophie both receive “SOS” messages from their old friend Adelaide. [Note: The synopsis above is inaccurate — Regina and Sophie have remained closed with Adelaide across the years, but are estranged from one another.] Regina is a former officer herself, a divorced mom, and the owner of a struggling catering company in Georgia. Sophie is a nurse, whose life partner is retired military, raising their soon-to-be-college-students twin daughters in Florida. When Adelaide calls for help, they both drop everything else to be there for her… although discovering that Adelaide failed to disclose the other’s presence to Regina and Sophie almost sends them out the door again.

But Adelaide is in dire need of help, and the old code amongst Army wives, to always be there for each other, especially when their husbands are deployed, can’t be ignored. The affection Regina and Sophie each have for Adelaide is enough to get them to agree — unwillingly — to spend time in each other’s presence for the week.

Meanwhile, there are chapters that take us back ten years, to when the three women first met and bonded at an Army base in upstate New York. As their men, members of the same military unit, head out on a nine-month deployment, they turn to one another for companionship. Adelaide decides to organize a military spouse book club, to help bring people together during the long months of loneliness. From this book club, Sophie, Regina, and Adelaide soon form an unbreakable bond.

It’s clear early on that something terrible happened back in those days to break up the trio and destroy their trust and affection, but we don’t completely find out the details until late in the book. Meanwhile, as Regina and Sophie care for Adelaide and her toddler, their close proximity forces them to reconsider past events, examine their own lives, and start to form a shaky new relationship.

I might not have been drawn to this book if I’d bumped into it in a bookstore, but because I had an ARC, I decided to finally read it — and I’m glad I did. The cover and the title don’t particularly convey the main themes of the story. This is, first and foremost, a story about how meaningful women’s friendships can be. Yes, they all have relationships and partners and families, but they turn to each other for understanding and support that they can find nowhere else.

I thought the book did an excellent job of showing the lives of military spouses — the pain of separation, the worry, the loneliness, the seemingly unwinnable challenge of having to start all over again every few years, even the challenge of having the military member return from deployment and finding a way to reintegrate them into the life they’ve been away from for so many months.

I really enjoyed the interplay between the past and the present, and of course, a big plus for me is the importance of the book club. The book is broken into sections corresponding to the books the group is reading, and it makes sense thematically (as well as just being entertaining). And how could we not love a book that shows how important books are in our lives?

I did the think the big reveal about what caused the friendship to break up ten years earlier was a little less dramatic than I expected. It sounded as though there were some miscommunications and misplaced blame that caused the big fight. It was sad to think about all the wasted years, but this made me appreciate how the women came back together even more.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The women’s lives were all interesting, their relationships with the significant others in their lives were varied and well portrayed, and most essentially, their bond of friendship was just lovely to read about.

This isn’t a particularly heavy read, although there are sad moments and challenging issues from the women’s lives that are honestly shown. Still, the overarching theme of the women’s connection and their importance in each other’s lives is beautiful and makes this a fulfilling read.

Audiobook Review: Gwendy’s Magic Feather by Richard Chizmar

 

Title: Gwendy’s Magic Feather
Author: Richard Chizmar (with a foreword by Stephen King)
Narrator: Maggie Siff
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: January 21, 2020
Print length: 223 pages
Audiobook length: 4 hours, 37 minutes
Genre: Thriller
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In this thrilling sequel to the New York Times bestselling novella by Stephen King and award-winning author Richard Chizmar, an adult Gwendy is summoned back to Castle Rock after the mysterious reappearance of the button box.

Something evil has swept into the small Maine town of Castle Rock on the heels of the latest winter storm. Sheriff Norris Ridgewick and his team are desperately searching for two missing girls, but time is running out.

In Washington, DC, thirty-seven-year-old Gwendy Peterson couldn’t be more different from the self-conscious teenaged girl who once spent a summer running up Castle Rock’s Suicide Stairs. That same summer, she had been entrusted—or some might say cursed—with the extraordinary button box by Richard Farris, the mysterious stranger in the black suit. The seductive and powerful box offered Gwendy small gifts in exchange for its care and feeding until Farris eventually returned, promising the young girl she’d never see the box again.

One day, though, the button box suddenly reappears but this time, without Richard Farris to explain why, or what she’s supposed to do with it. Between this and the troubling disappearances back in Castle Rock, Gwendy decides to return home. She just might be able to help rescue the missing girls and stop a dangerous madman before he does something ghastly.

With breathtaking and lyrical prose, Gwendy’s Magic Feather explores whether our lives are controlled by fate or the choices we make and what price we sometimes have to pay. Prepare to return again to Stephen King’s Castle Rock, the sleepy little town built on a bedrock of deep, dark secrets, just as it’s about to awaken from its quiet slumber once more.

Gwendy is back!

In the 2017 novella Gwendy’s Button Box (reviewed here), we meet teen-aged Gwendy — a young girl whose life is forever changed by the mysterious box entrusted to her by a stranger. The box doles out treats and rewards, but also has the power to cause very, very bad things to happen.

In this 2nd book, Gwendy’s Magic Feather, Gwendy is all grown-up. After becoming a bestselling author, Gwendy became determined to make a change in the world, and is now a US Congresswoman. While her photojournalist husband flies around the world to cover developments in war zones, Gwendy works hard in her DC office. She’s had a successful life and has made real achievements, but always wonders: How much of what she’s accomplished did she do herself, and how much is thanks to the box?

She’s shocked and horrified when the box suddenly reappears in her life, right before her return to Castle Rock for Christmas with her parents. She has enough worries in her life already — her mother has recently finished cancer treatments, her husband is halfway around the world in the midst of a rebel uprising, it’s the eve of Y2K, and the hardliner new President seems to be blustering his way toward war. Tucking the box into her carry-on, Gwendy heads home, but the power and temptation of the box is never far from her mind.

While Gwendy’s Button Box was co-authored by Chizmar and King, in Gwendy’s Magic Feather, Chizmar is flying solo. And honestly, it still feels very King-like! There’s mounting tension, a small town with secrets and bizarre occurrences, weird happenings that may be supernatural, but also plenty of ordinary humans going about their business and having better or worse days than usual.

Gwendy is a terrific character, and it’s so interesting to see how her life developed after her eventful and traumatic teens. I’m glad I got around to this book, as #3 — Gwendy’s Final Task — will be published in May 2022. This new book will be the final in the Gwendy trilogy, and appears to be full novel-length, as well as co-written once again by Chizmar and King.

I listened to the audiobook of Gwendy’s Magic Feather, and loved it. Maggie Siff (Tara from Sons of Anarchy) is the narrator, and her voice is just perfect for Gwendy’s story.

This is a terrific 2nd book in a fascinating trilogy, and I can’t wait to see how it all wraps up!

Audiobook Review: Just Haven’t Met You Yet by Sophia Cousens

Title: Just Haven’t Met You Yet
Author: Sophie Cousens
Narrator: Charlotte Beaumont
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: November 9, 2021
Print length: 400 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 3 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of This Time Next Year comes a heartwarming and hilarious tale that asks: What if you pick up the wrong suitcase in an airport, only to fall head over heels for its unseen owner?

Laura’s business trip to the Channel Islands isn’t exactly off to a great start. After unceremoniously dumping everything in her bag in front of the most attractive man she’s ever seen in real life, she arrives at her hotel only to realize she’s grabbed the wrong suitcase from the airport. Her only consolation? The irresistibly appealing contents of the case: a copy of her favorite book; piano music; and a rugged, heavy knit fisherman sweater only a Ryan Gosling lookalike could pull off. The owner of this suitcase is Laura’s dream man–she’s sure of it. Now, all she has to do is find him.

The mix-up seems written in the stars. After all, what are the odds that she’d find The One on the same remote island where her mom and dad had first fallen in love, especially as she sets out to write an article about their epic romance? Commissioning surly cab driver Ted to ferry her around seems like her best bet in both tracking down the mystery suitcase owner and retracing her parents’ footsteps. And if beneath Ted’s gruffness lies a wit that makes their cab rides strangely entertaining, so much the better. But as Laura’s long-lost luggage soulmate proves difficult to find–and as she realizes that the love story she’s held on a pedestal all her life might not have been that perfect–she’ll have to rethink her whole outlook on love to discover what she really wants. 

In Just Haven’t Met You Yet, main character Laura’s belief in meant-to-be true love fuels her professional success, but leaves her constantly dissatisfied in every romantic relationship. Laura writes and produces segments on how couples met, swooning over chance encounters that seem like destiny. She was also raised with the ultimate story of written-in-the-stars love — her parents met one summer when her mother tracked down the other half of an old coin that was in her family’s possession, and through the coin, met Laura’s father. Laura grew up with her parents’ beautiful love story as a model for how love should really be.

When Laura needs a story to pitch at work, she lands on an idea related to her own past: Retracing her parents’ love story by going to the island of Jersey and following in their footsteps, recreating all the magical elements of that special summer when they first feel in love. Sadly, her parents’ marriage was cut short by her father’s tragic death when Laura was three years old, and Laura is still grieving her mother’s death only two years prior to the start of this story, but she believes that visiting Jersey will help her feel closer to her parents and may even help her find closure and a way to move forward.

What Laura doesn’t expect is to land in a meet-cute of her own. Arriving at her hotel in Jersey after a tense cab drive with a driver she was rude to, Laura discovers that she grabbed the wrong suitcase at the airport. But as she looks inside the suitcase to find the true owner’s identity, she seems to discover the man of her dreams — a copy of her favorite book, sheet music for songs by her favorite singer, the perfect fisherman’s sweater, a thoughtful gift for the suitcase owner’s mother… every single item manages to check her boxes for her perfect match.

Laura embarks on a search for the suitcase owner, at the same time being ferried around the island by the same grumpy cab driver. Hijinks ensue, lost family members share secrets, and Laura finds herself torn between a man who’s perfect on paper and another who seems to grab her heart.

Just Haven’t Met You Yet is light-hearted and fun, with silly, goofy moments interspersed with more introspective interludes. Laura has a lot to sort out, between coming to a clearer understanding of her parents’ relationship to figuring out her own professional priorities to trying to untangle what makes a true soul mate.

My patience for Laura’s adventure was sorely tested at points, as she makes a series of ridiculous decisions that may have been intended to be endearing, but to me, just make her seem idiotically immature. Those scenes threatened to ruin my enjoyment of the book, but fortunately, there are enough other elements that are more charming and engaging, so ultimately I just overlooked the more ridiculous interludes.

The action of the book takes place mainly over one weekend, making the finding-true-love scenario feel somewhat implausible… but because this is such a breezy story, I was happy to just accept it, realistic or not, and go along for the ride.

I’m not sure that I would have enjoyed this book as much in print — but the audiobook experience is really fun. The banter and silliness comes across quite well, and I really liked the characters’ conversations and funny dialogue.

Just Haven’t Met You Yet is not at all a serious book — but if you’re looking for light entertainment with a romantic angle, this one works!

Audiobook Review: People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry

Title: People We Meet on Vacation
Author: Emily Henry
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 11, 2021
Print length: 364 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 46 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased (Kindle); Library (audio)
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Two best friends. Ten summer trips. One last chance to fall in love.

Poppy and Alex. Alex and Poppy. They have nothing in common. She’s a wild child; he wears khakis. She has insatiable wanderlust; he prefers to stay home with a book. And somehow, ever since a fateful car share home from college many years ago, they are the very best of friends. For most of the year they live far apart—she’s in New York City, and he’s in their small hometown—but every summer, for a decade, they have taken one glorious week of vacation together.

Until two years ago, when they ruined everything. They haven’t spoken since.

Poppy has everything she should want, but she’s stuck in a rut. When someone asks when she was last truly happy, she knows, without a doubt, it was on that ill-fated, final trip with Alex. And so, she decides to convince her best friend to take one more vacation together—lay everything on the table, make it all right. Miraculously, he agrees.

Now she has a week to fix everything. If only she can get around the one big truth that has always stood quietly in the middle of their seemingly perfect relationship. What could possibly go wrong?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Beach Read, a sparkling new novel that will leave you with the warm, hazy afterglow usually reserved for the best vacations. 

Poppy and Alex are a delightful pairing in all the right ways. They’re diametrically opposed when it comes to lifestyle and goals. Poppy dreams of travel and freedom; Alex dreams of home and family and being settled. He’s uptight, she’s loose and open. And yet, they bond so tightly that everyone and everything else in their lives are extraneous. So long as they have each other, even if they only see each other during their annual summer trips, then their lives are good.

But something went wrong two summers ago, and they haven’t talked since. And for Poppy, nothing makes sense any more. She has her dream job, working for a high-end travel magazine and basically getting paid to go anywhere in the world and enjoy the hell out of it… but her life has been pretty joyless ever since Alex was removed from the equation.

People We Meet on Vacation is framed around “this summer”, but interspersed chapters take us back to “10 summers ago”, “5 summers ago”, etc. Through these chapters that show past history, we get to experience the depth of Alex and Poppy’s connection, why they mean so much to one another, and get hints of why they are the way they are, as we learn more about their families, their upbringings, and their formative years.

I loved the chemistry and the adorable banter between the two. They’re funny in so many unexpected ways. Any scene that they’re both in absolutely shines.

At the same time, there’s plenty of harder times in the mix as well. Why did their friendship fall apart? Why do they seem to have such a hard time identifying what they want? Why do none of their romantic partners ever work out for them?

The travel segments add crazy fun, as most of their plans end up derailed or taken in unexpected directions, and their random adventures and encounters keep the entertainment value of this novel high.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the masterful Julia Whelan, and it was a delight. I can see why people become fans of certain audiobook narrators. I’ve now listened to more than a few audiobooks narrated by Julia Whelan, and she’s truly gifted. Here, her voices for Poppy and Alex are perfectly tuned to their personalities, and her delivery of their funnier exchanges made me laugh out loud.

I have to admit that it was touch and go for me for the first few chapters. The introduction of Poppy’s best friend, a social media influencer, made me want to duck out, and their discussion of “millennial ennui” was practically the nail in the coffin… but since I really enjoyed my last book by this author (Beach Read), I decided to stick with it. And I’m glad I did!

People We Meet on Vacation is surprisingly insightful for a book with such an upbeat cover and title. It allows its characters to dig into their wants and needs (while also showcasing their outstanding chemistry and dynamics), including introspective moments that give greater depth to the story without ever weighing it down.

This ended up being an excellent audio experience — highly recommended!

**********

Through affiliate programs, I may earn commissions from purchases made when you click through these links, at no cost to you.

Buy now at Book DepositoryBookshop.orgBarnes & Noble



Audiobook Review: Heroes by Stephen Fry

Title: Heroes: The Greek Myths Reimagined
Author: Stephen Fry
Narrator:  Stephen Fry
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Publication date: June 2, 2020
Print length: 352 pages
Audio length: 15 hours 1 minute
Genre: Myths & legends
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In this sequel to Mythos, legendary author and actor Stephen Fry moves from the exploits of the Olympian gods to the deeds of mortal heroes – Perseus, Jason, Atalanta, Theseus, Heracles.

Rediscover the thrills, grandeur, and unabashed fun of the Greek myths. Whether recounting a tender love affair or a heroic triumph, Fry deftly finds resonance with our own modern minds and hearts.

Illustrated throughout with classical art inspired by the myths, this gorgeous volume invites you to explore a captivating world with a brilliant storyteller as your guide.

• Each adventure is infused with Fry’s distinctive voice and writing style.
• Connoisseurs of the Greek myths will appreciate this fresh-yet-reverential interpretation, while newcomers will feel welcome.
• Retellings brim with humor and emotion.

“Mostly Chiron saw in the child, and the young man he became, boundless courage, athleticism, intelligence, and ambition. He saw too lots of words beginning with ‘self,’ which gave him pause. Self-belief, self-possession, self-righteousness, self-confidence, self-love. Perhaps these characteristics are as necessary to a hero as courage.”

In Heroes, Fry draws out the humor and pathos in both tender love affairs and heroic battles, and reveals each myth’s relevance for our own time.

If you have any interest at all in the stories of Ancient Greece… and/or if you enjoy listening to Stephen Fry telling a great story… then Heroes is a must-listen!

Heroes is the 2nd in a 3-book series by Stephen Fry, retelling the myths and legends of Ancient Greece with intelligence and humor. The first book, Mythos, was an absolute delight, starting with the origins of the world, the Titans and the rise of the Olympians, and putting a fresh twist on stories we’ve all heard so many times over the years.

Now, in Heroes, he picks up with the world of Ancient Greece once again, this time focusing on the mortals and semi-mortals who go off on epic quests, with either the assistance or the obstruction of the gods.

Many, if not all, of these stories were already familiar to me to some extent, but here, Fry delves deep into the details, tracing each heroic arc from origin to (potential) downfall. He cites conflicting narratives as needed, but he’s clearly done his research and has put together his own preferred versions of the stories.

Heroes includes the stories of Perseus, Heracles, Oedipus, Orpheus, and Theseus, with lots of characters and side stories and fun tangents. The book is informative and entertaining, but never feels like listening to a lecture. Instead, it’s storytelling at its finest, with a master storyteller lending his narrating skills to keep the stories flowing and fresh.

As with Mythos, I couldn’t resist treating myself to a copy of the hardcover edition of Heroes, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a beautiful book, with maps, illustrations of classical art to go with the stories, and an overall lovely presentation.

Still, while the physical book is gorgeous, I think you’d be missing out by reading it in print rather than listening to the audiobook. These are stories that are meant to be told, and in the voice of Stephen Fry, it’s an engaging and magical performance.

Upcoming listen: Book #3, Troy

Audiobook Review: The Stand-In by Lily Chu

Title: The Stand-In
Author: Lily Chu
Narrator: Phillipa Soo
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: July 15, 2021
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 10 hours 55 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Audible Plus Catalog
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

How to upend your life:
–Get fired by gross, handsy boss
–Fail to do laundry (again)
–Be mistaken for famous Chinese actress
–Fall head-first into glitzy new world

Gracie Reed is doing just fine. Sure, she was fired by her overly “friendly” boss, and yes, she still hasn’t gotten her mother into the nursing home of their dreams, but she’s healthy, she’s (somewhat) happy, and she’s (mostly) holding it all together.

But when a mysterious SUV pulls up beside her, revealing Chinese cinema’s golden couple Wei Fangli and Sam Yao, Gracie’s world is turned on its head. The famous actress has a proposition: Due to their uncanny resemblance, Fangli wants Gracie to be her stand-in. The catch? Gracie will have to be escorted by Sam, the most attractive—and infuriating—man Gracie’s ever met.

If it means getting the money she needs for her mother, Gracie’s in. Soon Gracie moves into a world of luxury she never knew existed. But resisting Sam, and playing the role of an elegant movie star, proves more difficult than she ever imagined—especially when she learns the real reason Fangli so desperately needs her help. In the end, all the lists in the world won’t be able to help Gracie keep up this elaborate ruse without losing herself… and her heart.

The Stand-In is an Audible Original in which an ordinary woman suddenly gets the chance to experience the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It’s a fun Cinderella story, but it helps to suspend disbelief A LOT to truly enjoy it.

When we meet Gracie, she has a job she hates thanks to a boss who sexually harasses her constantly — but rather than making a fuss or going to HR to report him, Gracie tries even harder to blend into the background, dressing dully and using makeup that’s neutral and not the least bit eye-catching. Gracie’s mother, a Chinese immigrant to Canada, drilled into Gracie’s head that she should always try to fit in, not stand out.

But when Gracie is mistaken for Chinese actress Wei Fangli in a coffee shop, her world changes dramatically. Caught on camera by a paparazzo on a day when she’d called in sick, Gracie is fired by her creepy boss and plunges into despair. How will she afford the nursing home her mother needs if she has no income? With her mother’s dementia steadily progressing, Gracie feels the pressures mounting, and none of her daily planners and apps seem to help her get her life under control. (Remember the bit about the planners — this is important later.)

Gracie is approached by Wei Fangli and her super-hot costar Sam Yao with a proposition: Because of their similar looks, Fangli wants to hire Gracie — for a huge amount of money — to be her public double. Gracie will dress and act like Fangli and attend social engagements in her place, allowing Fangli to just focus on her theater performances and otherwise avoid the pressure of a public life.

Against her better judgment, Gracie accepts the offer. She needs that money! But she soon learns that she likes it, too. She gets to dress in gorgeous clothes, live in a luxury hotel suite, and spend lots and lots of time with Sam. Yes, she feels guilty for essentially lying to everyone she meets as Fangli, but she keeps reminding herself that she’s doing it for her mother.

The Stand-In is a fun fairy tale of a story, with echoes of The Prince and the Pauper too. Wouldn’t every “ordinary” person love the chance to walk in a celebrity’s (high-priced designer) shoes? I wouldn’t say the plot is believable — I mean, they can’t really be that identical, can they? But it’s certainly amusing to see Gracie trying to master the art of posing on a red carpet, being photographed from every angle, and speaking as if she’s used to being the center of attention.

There are some interesting ideas too about public personas and what it means to always be on, especially as compared with someone like Gracie who’s been taught all her life not to make waves. Additionally, Grace is a biracial woman living in Toronto who doesn’t speak Mandarin, yet is impersonating a Mandarin-speaking Chinese actress and is also trying to connect with a mother who slips more and more into the language of her youth. Gracie has to deal with issues related to identity and race, on the one hand being seen as Chinese rather than Canadian, yet being seen by Chinese people she interacts with as not Chinese enough.

There’s also a love story, of course, and while it comes across as absolute wish-fulfillment (the sexiest man in the world falling for an ordinary woman!), it does have some very sweet moments of flirtation, sharing secrets and wishes, and making connections. Also, Sam really is a great character, and it’s easy to see how some of his big romantic gestures might make anyone with a heartbeat swoon.

I really liked Gracie’s blossoming friendship with Fangli and the ways in which they end up helping and supporting one another. I wasn’t crazy about the plotline revolving around Gracie inventing a daily planner. While I suppose the point is to show Gracie finding a way to take control of her own life and make a splash as a businesswoman, there’s too much time spent on her figuring out ways to organize her tasks and to-do lists.

Plotwise, The Stand-In really is more romantic fairy tale than real-life contemporary drama. A lot of the developments are ridiculous if you think about them too hard. If you can put aside the need to say “but this could never happen!”, it’s still a fun listen. I would also add my main quibble about the plot — the old “listening through a doorway and jumping to conclusions” romance trope. This makes me batty — a character overhears a conversation, immediately misinterprets what they hear, and then take dramatic action based on this misinterpretation. It’s just so dumb. At least verify what you think you’ve heard!! Sigh… but then where would the drama be?

In terms of the audiobook narration, it’s a treat to listen to Hamilton star Phillipa Soo. This is her first full-length audiobook — you can read more about her experience recording it here. Overall, I think she does a good job voicing the different characters and making them distinct. The one complaint I have is that in dialogue scenes, it can be hard to tell whether Gracie is thinking a response to herself or saying the response to the other person — her voice isn’t actually different for asides, so it does get confusing.

The Stand-In is an Audible Original and is available (free) as part of the Audible Plus Catalog. For those who have access, I recommend giving it a listen. The story is sweet and engaging, and despite the fairy tale-esque twists and revelations, the characters are really special and will stick with you.

**********

Through affiliate programs, I may earn commissions from purchases made when you click through these links, at no cost to you.

Buy now at Amazon

Check out video interviews and more about this book at Audible



Audiobook Review: The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary

Title: The Road Trip
Author: Beth O’Leary
Narrators: Josh Dylan, Eleanor Tomlinson
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 1, 2021
Print length: 398 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 15 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Two exes reach a new level of awkward when forced to take a road trip together in this endearing and humorous novel by the author of the international bestseller The Flatshare.

What if the end of the road is just the beginning?

Four years ago, Dylan and Addie fell in love under the Provence sun. Wealthy Oxford student Dylan was staying at his friend Cherry’s enormous French villa; wild child Addie was spending her summer as the on-site caretaker. Two years ago, their relationship officially ended. They haven’t spoken since.

Today, Dylan’s and Addie’s lives collide again. It’s the day before Cherry’s wedding, and Addie and Dylan crash cars at the start of the journey there. The car Dylan was driving is wrecked, and the wedding is in rural Scotland–he’ll never get there on time by public transport.

So, along with Dylan’s best friend, Addie’s sister, and a random guy on Facebook who needed a ride, they squeeze into a space-challenged Mini and set off across Britain. Cramped into the same space, Dylan and Addie are forced to confront the choices they made that tore them apart–and ask themselves whether that final decision was the right one after all.

In The Road Trip, exes Dylan and Addie are forced into spending time together on a road trip from hell. In sections alternating between “Now” and “Then”, we see the awful hours spent in the car as well as flashbacks to their first days of romance — and most importantly, learn how they went from swooningly in love to completely estranged over the last few years.

Addie and Dylan first meet in the most romantic of settings, a huge villa in the south of France where Dylan is vacationing and Addie is the summer caretaker. There’s an immediate attraction, and within days they’re spending every waking moment together (as well as every night in bed together). Even when they’re joined by a swarm of Dylan’s buddies (including his posh but toxic best friend Marcus), Dylan and Addie are inseparable.

When the holidays are over, they pick up their relationship back in England, but not without hiccups. Addie is a teacher in training, and Dylan is still trying to find himself. He’s a poet, and wants to pursue a graduate English degree, but his domineering, emotionally abusive father wants him to either join the family business or be cut off entirely. On top of this, Marcus wants Dylan by his side constantly and resents Addie’s presence, and does what he can to pry the two apart.

Meanwhile, in the “now” portions of the story, the cramped Mini and its passengers encounter hazards and accidents and a variety of unfortunate escapades they make them later and later to the wedding. The upside of the crowded car and the endless hours on the road is that Dylan and Addie are literally thrown together, and are finally forced to confront the circumstances that drove them apart. Emotions run high, truths are shared, and ultimately, the couple have an opportunity to face the problems that came between them and to admit to the deep love that still exists.

The Road Trip is not nearly as light and fluffy as I’d expected it to be, but it works remarkably well. The “now” side of things is mostly light-hearted and comical — there’s spilled breast milk and a random trucker and an ill-timed pee break and a musty motel room without enough beds… not to mention a mad dash to save the bride from a stalker and getting lost in a faux castle. It can be quite silly, but the more we get to know the characters, the more endearing it all is.

In the “then” parts of the story, Addie and Dylan go through tremendous ups and downs, and these sections are much more wrenching than the “now”. The author gives a sensitive portrayal of two young adults with enormous chemistry and a deep love between them, yet shows that other people and other problems can derail even the most devoted of couples. A love story that starts in a summer villa has the feel of a perfect fantasy romance, but when it has to survive in the real world of jobs and family and unreliable friends, the fantasy elements fall away and the couple’s love faces its hardest tests.

I listened to the audiobook, and it was wonderful. There are different narrators for the Addie and Dylan sections, and can I just take a minute to fangirl over the fact that Eleanor Tomlinson narrates Addie??? Eleanor Tomlinson is the actress who played Demelza in the BBC series Poldark, and she’s wonderful. Her narration gives so much character and expressiveness to Addie. I’m not sure whether I’d have enjoyed it nearly as much in print — the narration is that good!

Overall, The Road Trip is often touching, sometimes very sad, quite a bit silly, and frequently very romantic. There’s a nice mix of serious and fun moments, and the framing of a hellish road trip works very well as a contrast to the sweetness and then sorrow of the earlier days of Addie and Dylan’s relationship.

The characters are all well-drawn and nicely detailed, from leads Addie and Dylan, to an array of supporting characters including sad-sack Rodney, unsteady and mostly unlikeable Marcus, Addie’s wild sister Deb, and the very over-the-top bride Cherry. Their banter and arguments and lighter moments feel very in tune with how they’ve been depicted, and I really enjoyed the time spent with them.

The Road Trip is a great summer read, and I especially recommend the audiobook edition. Enjoy!

**********

Through affiliate programs, I may earn commissions from purchases made when you click through these links, at no cost to you.

Buy now at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org



Audiobook Review: Beth & Amy by Virginia Kantra

Title: Beth & Amy
Author: Virginia Kantra
Narrators: Janet Metzger, Brittany Pressley, Catherine Taber
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 11, 2021
Print length: 348 pages
Audio length: 11 hours 8 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Four sisters face new beginnings in this heartfelt modern take on Little Women by New York Times bestselling author Virginia Kantra.

Amy March is more like her older sister Jo than she’d like to admit. An up-and-coming designer in New York’s competitive fashion industry, ambitious Amy is determined to get out of her sisters’ shadow and keep her distance from their North Carolina hometown. But when Jo’s wedding forces her home, she must face what she really wants…and confront the One Big Mistake that could upend her life and forever change her relationship with Jo.

Gentle, unassuming Beth grew up as the good girl of the family. A talented singer-songwriter, she’s overcome her painful anxiety to tour with country superstar Colt Henderson. But life on the road has taken its toll on her health and their relationship. Maybe a break to attend her sister’s wedding will get her out of her funk. But Beth realizes that what she’s looking for and what she needs are two very different things….

With the March women reunited, this time with growing careers and families, they must once again learn to lean on one another as they juggle the changes coming their way.

The March Sisters audiobooks are a treat — let me tell you why! I enjoyed the first book, Meg & Jo, and I’m happy to be able to report that Beth & Amy is a worthy follow-up.

Note: While I rarely include content warnings in my reviews, I do think I need to mention that this book deals extensively with an eating disorder, so keep that in mind if that’s a triggering subject for you.

Obviously, from the title, the focus of this second book is on the two younger sisters from the world of Little Women, whose stories never get as much attention as Meg and Jo’s. Here, Beth and Amy take center stage, and it’s really fun to see author Virginia Kantra’s take on these sisters’ inner lives.

In these books, the girls are grown-ups, all in their mid-20s to early 30s. And let me just take a moment to dispel any fears, at the risk of being spoilery: Beth lives. So if you might avoid this book in order to avoid the heartbreak of Beth’s death… you’re good.

(And excuse my digression, but this seems like a good time to share one of my favorite Friends moments:)

As Beth & Amy opens, both characters seem to have achieved career success. Amy is living in New York, running her own business designing and selling fashion handbags. Orders are starting to pour in, now that a certain Duchess has been seen with one of Amy’s bags. But she’ll need to expand if she wants to really make her mark, and that’s going to take a cash infusion.

Beth is on tour with country superstar Colt Henderson, having written two songs for him that led to Grammy nominations. But she’s paralyzed by stage fright, and after a particularly awful experience, Colt sends her home to her family to recuperate. It doesn’t help that she’s in a relationship with Colt, and he seems more focused on his tour and his next Grammy than on Beth’s well-being.

The family is reunited for Jo’s wedding back in North Carolina, and it’s here that the sisters begin to reevaluate their hopes, their dreams, and what it looks like to be happy.

As in Meg & Jo, Beth & Amy is narrated in alternating chapters by different narrators, each representing one of the two sisters. This time around, their mother Abby also gets a voice, with a few key chapters of her own woven into the sisters’ story. The audiobook makes this story especially fun, and the narrators bring each character to life in a way that feels fresh and engaging.

I did really enjoy Beth & Amy. I’ve always loved Little Women, and before coming across these books, I would have had a hard time imagining that a modern-day retelling could work. The author does a terrific job of bringing the sisters’ lives and relationships into the 21st century, balancing contemporary issues with the more classic elements of the family dynamics.

I feel invested enough in Virginia Kantra’s vision of the March family at this point that I just wish there could be more! Maybe continue with retelling Little Men and Jo’s Boys next?

Final note: I think these two books are engaging enough to work perfectly fine even if you haven’t read Little Women — though of course, if you do love Little Women, these retellings will be even more fun.

**********

Through affiliate programs, I may earn commissions from purchases made when you click through these links, at no cost to you.

Buy now at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org