Audiobook Review: Meg & Jo by Virginia Kantra

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audiobook Review: The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audiobook Review: The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audiobook Review: Mythos by Stephen Fry

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audiobook Review: Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy

 

A bold, heartfelt tale of life at Green Gables . . . before Anne: A marvelously entertaining and moving historical novel, set in rural Prince Edward Island in the nineteenth century, that imagines the young life of spinster Marilla Cuthbert, and the choices that will open her life to the possibility of heartbreak—and unimaginable greatness

Plucky and ambitious, Marilla Cuthbert is thirteen years old when her world is turned upside down. Her beloved mother has dies in childbirth, and Marilla suddenly must bear the responsibilities of a farm wife: cooking, sewing, keeping house, and overseeing the day-to-day life of Green Gables with her brother, Matthew and father, Hugh.

In Avonlea—a small, tight-knit farming town on a remote island—life holds few options for farm girls. Her one connection to the wider world is Aunt Elizabeth “Izzy” Johnson, her mother’s sister, who managed to escape from Avonlea to the bustling city of St. Catharines. An opinionated spinster, Aunt Izzy’s talent as a seamstress has allowed her to build a thriving business and make her own way in the world.

Emboldened by her aunt, Marilla dares to venture beyond the safety of Green Gables and discovers new friends and new opportunities. Joining the Ladies Aid Society, she raises funds for an orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity in nearby Nova Scotia that secretly serves as a way station for runaway slaves from America. Her budding romance with John Blythe, the charming son of a neighbor, offers her a possibility of future happiness—Marilla is in no rush to trade one farm life for another. She soon finds herself caught up in the dangerous work of politics, and abolition—jeopardizing all she cherishes, including her bond with her dearest John Blythe. Now Marilla must face a reckoning between her dreams of making a difference in the wider world and the small-town reality of life at Green Gables.

After reading the entire Anne of Green Gables series this year for the very first time, I felt a need to stay immersed in Anne’s world a bit longer, and decided to read this prequel book, written by contemporary author Sarah McCoy and published in 2018. I’m often skeptical when modern authors decide to continue or riff off of a beloved older book or series (I’m thinking about the debacle that was Scarlett, the “sequel” to Gone With the Wind, among others).

Can a modern author pull off the tone and feeling of the original? Does the new story add anything in terms of character development? Does it feel true to the heart of the original story?

In the case of Marilla of Green Gables, the answer is YES to all questions. While not completely perfect, Marilla is a worthy addition to the Green Gables saga, and I enjoyed it start to finish.

As readers of Anne of Green Gables know, Marilla is the aging spinster who, along with her older brother Matthew, adopts an 11-year-old orphan girl (while actually thinking they were bringing home a boy to help with the farm), and completely up-ends their orderly life. Anne Shirley is a wonder, and her bright, inquisitive, imaginative nature brings new life to Marilla and Matthew and changes their world forever.

But what do we really know about Marilla from the Green Gables books? We only see her through Anne’s eyes –an older woman who keeps house while her brother farms, who has never left the family home and never married. She’s a pillar of the community and has many close friends… but we really don’t know much at all about her childhood or adult life prior to Anne’s arrival.

Marilla of Green Gables starts when Marilla is thirteen. Her mother Clara is pregnant, her brother Matthew works the farm with their father Hugh, and their home life is simple but happy. Marilla has a growing friendship with a classmate of Matthew’s, John Blythe, who is a few years older than Marilla. They seem to be on the verge of romance, but when Clara dies during childbirth, everything changes for Marilla.

Having promised her mother to always take care of Hugh and Matthew, Marilla knows that she will never leave Green Gables. As her relationship with John strengthens over the years, she feels torn between her feelings for him and her responsibility toward her family. On top of this, there’s growing political unrest in Canada, and the Cuthberts are on opposite sides of the issue from John. Finally, it’s the political disagreements that drive a wedge between Marilla and John, leading to an estrangement that lingers for many years.

Over the years, Marilla becomes more and more involved in the issue of runaway slaves from America, motivated initially by orphaned children she encounters who were rescued from enslavement but are still pursued by bounty hunters. While on the surface a simple farm woman with an ordinary, house-bound life, Marilla becomes involved in the abolition movement and works to arrange shelter as part of the underground railroad.

There’s something really heartbreaking about a prequel. You know where the players have to end up, having read the original story. So, seeing Marilla and John’s romance blooming over the years was incredibly bittersweet. On the one hand, they’re just so lovely together, and their affection and regard for one another is sincere and pure and heartfelt. At the same time, I know that Marilla never marries, and that John must end up married to someone else, since his son Gilbert is Anne’s love interest and eventual husband in the Anne books. It really felt terrible at times to see Marilla’s happiness with John and see her experiencing all the sweet emotions of a young first love — not knowing how it will go wrong, but knowing all along that they simply can’t end up together.

Author Sarah McCoy does a lovely job of emulating the feel and style of the Anne books, reveling in the natural world of Prince Edward Island, the simple joys of a small community in an earlier time, and the daily routines and habits that build a full life. Marilla’s voice and perspective feels clear and authentic — we’re able to see a young Marilla and see the roots of the woman she’ll become someday.

The only jarring note for me was the emphasis on politics. Politics rarely gets mentioned in the Anne series, and here, the unrest within Canada is a large focus and becomes the driving point for the breakdown of Anne and John’s relationship. It’s not that it’s uninteresting; simply that it doesn’t feel all that well aligned with the tone of the original series.

Still, I found the book as a whole delightful. It felt like a revelation to get to know a young Marilla and understand how she became the stern spinster we meet in Anne of Green Gables. I love the depiction of life in Avonlea, and was moved by Marilla’s devotion to improving the life of those less fortunate, including putting herself at risk in order to protect children fleeing enslavement.

Marilla of Green Gables is a lovely addition to the world of Anne of Green Gables. For those who haven’t read the original series, I’d say start with those books, at the least the first three or so, before reading Marilla. While Marilla of Green Gables could stand on its own, I think the heart and soul would somehow have much less impact without the greater context of the Anne series.

A note on the audiobook: Lovely! The narrator captures Marilla’s sweetness, the gossipy nature of Marilla’s friend Rachel, the compassion of John, and all the flavor of the many other characters in the story. Really a terrific listen.

I highly recommend Marilla of Green Gables for any fans of the Anne series, and really applaud author Sarah McCoy for adding a new and interesting storyline while staying true to the essence of the original books.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Marilla of Green Gables
Author: Sarah McCoy
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: October 23, 2018
Length (print): 320 pages
Length (audiobook): 9 hours, 14 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library

Aubiobook Review: Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

From Rob Thomas, the creator of groundbreaking television series and movie Veronica Mars, comes the first book in a thrilling new mystery series.

Ten years after graduating from high school in Neptune, California, Veronica Mars is back in the land of sun, sand, crime, and corruption. She’s traded in her law degree for her old private investigating license, struggling to keep Mars Investigations afloat on the scant cash earned by catching cheating spouses until she can score her first big case.

Now it’s spring break, and college students descend on Neptune, transforming the beaches and boardwalks into a frenzied, week-long rave. When a girl disappears from a party, Veronica is called in to investigate. But this is not a simple missing person’s case. The house the girl vanished from belongs to a man with serious criminal ties, and soon Veronica is plunged into a dangerous underworld of drugs and organized crime. And when a major break in the investigation has a shocking connection to Veronica’s past, the case hits closer to home than she ever imagined.

My Thoughts:

More Veronica Mars? Yes, more Veronica Mars!

If you’ve visited my blog at all during the last couple of months, chances are you’ve seen me chatting up my VMars obsession, which was reignited by the new season of the TV series, then further fueled by going back and re-watching the show from the beginning. I capped it off by watching the 2014 Veronica Mars movie… so naturally, what came next was the first of two Veronica Mars books, written by series creator Rob Thomas.

And in case you’re wondering — no, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line does NOT read like a cheap novelization. Instead, it’s a complex, well-developed detective story that kept me on the edge of my seat. And of course, the true delight is getting to spend more time with the characters we know and love.

As a bit of context, the plot of The Thousand Dollar Tan Line is set about two months after the events of the movie. (Seriously, go watch the movie if you haven’t!). Veronica is back in Neptune, turning her back on a lucrative law career and a boring relationship (bye, Piz!) in New York to join her father in the family business, Mars Investigations. And if you think Papa Mars is happy about that, think again! Keith explodes in anger, furious that Veronica has given up the safety of corporate law to wade back into the seedy, dangerous PI business. Of course, his anger is really a mask for fear. He’s terrified that Veronica will end up hurt, or worse, and with good reason. She just does not know how to back down when she’s chasing a lead, no matter the danger involved.

What about Logan? Well, Veronica and her true love Logan Echolls reunited in the movie, and they’re still together, building a relationship, in this book — although “together” is a relative term, since he’s in the Navy and away on a mission for the duration of The Thousand Dollar Tan Line. Still, it warms my little heart to know that these two crazy lovebirds are back in each other’s lives.

As to the mystery fueling the plot, it centers around the lunacy of spring break in Neptune, a magnet for drunken rowdiness for college students from all over, who descend on Neptune and party like there’s no tomorrow. And for one unlucky girl, there isn’t — a college freshman named Hayley goes missing after a wild party at a fancy mansion. Once national attention becomes focused on the debauchery of Neptune, the town’s leaders realize they need the girl found in order to protect the lucrative Neptune spring break business, so they hire Mars Investigations to find her (because the local sheriff is both corrupt and incompetent, don’t ya know.)

Keith is out of commission, having been severely wounded in a car crash (in the movie) and still recovering, so Veronica jumps in and takes the lead on the case. Her investigations lead her to college campuses, the rich and powerful of Neptune, and even to a Mexican drug cartel, putting her own life in grave danger (naturally). A second girl goes missing, and this time, it’s personal — it turns out that Aurora is the underage stepdaughter of Veronica’s mother, a woman who abandoned her years ago and whom she hasn’t seen in over a decade.

The plots twists are just as good and unpredictable as any Veronica Mars fan might expect. And Veronica herself is as much of a reckless bad-ass as ever, with plenty of smarts and a handy Taser to back her up. Not to mention her good friends in her corner — Wallace and Mac are back, as are some other old favorites, such as the DA Cliff and even the ridiculous Dick Casablancas.

The writing is terrific, with all the quippiness that makes Veronica Mars so much fun.

Sometimes, if it looks like a murderous duck and quacks like a murderous duck… well, you know.

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line is tons of fun. If you’re thinking about reading it — I can’t stress this enough! — pick up the audiobook! Kristen Bell does the narration, and it’s perfect. I mean, you really can’t get any better than having the actress who plays Veronica Mars reading the Veronica Mars novel. She does a good job with the supporting characters too, although it’s a little weird to hear Kristen Bell doing Keith and Logan, but I got over it.

If you’ve never watched Veronica Mars, then likely this is all gibberish to you (although what are you waiting for? Go watch the TV series, and be sure to start at the beginning!) This book is a total treat for fans, and I would guess that even folks not familiar with VMars might enjoy the detective story here.

As for me, in case it isn’t already clear, I loved it. There’s one more book available, and I can’t wait to start it!

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The details:

Title: Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line 
Author: Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Narrator:  Kristen Bell
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publication date: March 25, 2014
Audiobook length: 8 hours, 42 minutes
Printed book length: 324 pages
Genre: Mystery
Source: Purchased (Audible)

Aubiobook Review: The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli

One devoted modern girl + a meddlesome, traditional grandmother = a heartwarming multicultural romantic comedy about finding love where you least expect it

Raina Anand may have finally given in to family pressure and agreed to let her grandmother play matchmaker, but that doesn’t mean she has to like it–or that she has to play by the rules. Nani always took Raina’s side when she tried to push past the traditional expectations of their tight-knit Indian-immigrant community, but now she’s ambushing Raina with a list of suitable bachelors. Is it too much to ask for a little space? Besides, what Nani doesn’t know won’t hurt her…

As Raina’s life spirals into a parade of Nani-approved bachelors and disastrous blind dates, she must find a way out of this modern-day arranged-marriage trap without shattering her beloved grandmother’s dreams.

My Thoughts:

The Matchmaker’s List had been on my to-read list for a while, and after a few heavier books, I thought this would make a nice, light change of pace. And yes, it did, but it was also frustrating and ultimately disappointing.

In The Matchmaker’s List, Raina is 29 years old, a serious career woman — an investment banker — coming off a break-up with the love of her life. Dev is another investment banker, hard-driven in a way that Raina isn’t, and always puts his career ahead of their relationship. Raina is so blinded by love that she puts up with it, until she just can’t any more. As the book starts, Raina is living back in Canada after her time in London with Dev has ended, single, and devoted to her grandmother Nani, the woman who raised her.

Raina’s best friend Shay is newly engaged, and Shay’s mother Sarla is planning the ultimate Indian wedding bonanza. Nani just wants to see Raina settled as well, so she convinces Raina to go on a series of blind dates with suitable men from Nani’s list. The men are, for the most part, duds — arrogant or looking for an insta-mommy to their kids or just plain strange, and Raina is so not into it.

It’s a fairly cute set-up so far, right? Raina wants to please her Nani, and she’s not having any romantic success on her own, so why not try some traditional matchmaking? Except Raina is still hung up on Dev, who stays in touch just enough to keep Raina on the hook.

And here’s where I got really turned off by Raina’s character: After a misunderstanding, Raina lets Nani think she’s gay. In fact, she confirms it, thinking it’ll stay between the two of them and keep Nani from pursuing even more extreme measures to find her a prime Indian man to marry. Of course, it doesn’t stay between them, and soon, the entire Indian community knows the “truth” about Raina, causing a huge amount of scandal and division, and leading to Nani being shunned by the women she used to be friends with.

Still, Raina keeps up the fiction, even when she sees that Nani has been browsing the internet to learn more about gay rights and how to support one’s gay chldren, even investigating reproductive options for lesbian couples. Yup, Nani is ready to become a gay rights activist in defense of her beloved Raina. Raina still doesn’t back down — not even when the boy she used to babysit, now 18 years old, uses Raina’s “coming out” as inspiration for his own, pushing him out of the closet before he’s really ready and causing a huge rift within his family.

On top of Raina’s ongoing lie, which feels like a cop-out to me, so unnecessary and causing so much drama and tension, she just doesn’t strike me as a particularly good friend or nice person. When Shay mentions that she’d like to introduce Raina to one of her fiancé’s friends who’s just back from traveling the world for the past few years, Raina labels him a drifter and dismisses him — and when she meets him, she immediately decides he’s a stoner with no real evidence to support her conclusion, and continues to refer to him that way to his face even during additional encounters. Judgmental much?

What seems the most unforgivable to me is the huge fight she and Shay have during Shay’s bachelorette weekend, when Shay hears from Sarla that Raina is a lesbian. Shay knows that that’s a lie, and confronts Raina, and the two end up in a screaming match, during which Raina says this awful thing to Shay:

“I wonder if Julien would still marry you if he knew what a slut you used to be.”

Really? Slut-shaming her best friend? And threatening her this way? Just disgusting.

As is the way with what’s supposed to be a breezy romantic story, things of course work out for Raina and she ends up meeting the man of her dreams, getting the awful ex-boyfriend out of her life, telling the truth to Nani, and making up with the boy who came out because of her and felt horribly betrayed. And of course, she and Shay make up and are closer than ever, with Shay supporting Raina every step of the way.

And really, I just couldn’t. How could Shay possibly forgive Raina after the horrible thing she said? I’m sorry, I don’t care how angry Raina was (without justification, I might add) — I think her actions and statements were pretty unforgivable.

Also, by allowing Nani to believe she was gay, she thrust her unprepared grandmother into a controversy that caused her all sorts of grief and turmoil. Raina later seems to be using the experience to show how sexual orientation shouldn’t matter in terms of being loved and supported by one’s family and community, but it felt like co-opting someone else’s struggle. Raina, a straight woman, pretending to be a lesbian for her own convenience, and somehow holding herself up as a symbol of pride and equality? No.

I wish I could say the story itself is charming enough to get me to see past these issues, but it’s not. It wasn’t a slog to get through or anything — the narrative moves along quickly, and there are plenty of amusing incidents and vignettes that keep the pace going. Nani is a great character, and I enjoyed the sections that showed the complications of Raina’s childhood, her mother’s life, and the backstory for her relationship with Nani.

The cultural elements are also quite good — I loved getting the little snippets about Raina cooking with Nani or enjoying their favorite Bollywood movies together, as well as the customs surrounding a traditional Hindu wedding, and can only imagine how spectacular it might be to actually be there and experience the gorgeous clothing and amazing tastes and sounds and smells.

Still, that doesn’t outweigh how offensive I found so many of Raina’s actions. I’d love to hear opposing thoughts, of course. But for myself, I can’t really recommend this book, despite its occasional amusing and entertaining parts.

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The details:

Title: The Matchmaker’s List
Author: Sonya Lalli
Narrator:  Soneela Nankani
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publication date: February 5, 2019
Audiobook length: 10 hours, 40 minutes
Printed book length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

Aubiobook Review: Kopp Sisters on the March by Amy Stewart

 

In the fifth installment of Amy Stewart’s clever and original Kopp Sisters series, the sisters learn some military discipline—whether they’re ready or not—as the U.S. prepares to enter World War I.

It’s the spring of 1917 and change is in the air. American women have done something remarkable: they’ve banded together to create military-style training camps for women who want to serve. These so-called National Service Schools prove irresistible to the Kopp sisters, who leave their farm in New Jersey to join up.

When an accident befalls the matron, Constance reluctantly agrees to oversee the camp—much to the alarm of the Kopps’ tent-mate, the real-life Beulah Binford, who is seeking refuge from her own scandalous past under the cover of a false identity. Will she be denied a second chance? And after notoriety, can a woman’s life ever be her own again?

In Kopp Sisters on the March, the women of Camp Chevy Chase face down the skepticism of the War Department, the double standards of a scornful public, and the very real perils of war. Once again, Amy Stewart has brilliantly brought a little-known moment in history to light with her fearless and funny Kopp sisters novels.

My Thoughts:

Long live the Kopp sisters! This brilliant series continues strong, as fearless Constance Kopp and her sisters Norma and Fleurette leave behind their New Jersey farm to attend a women’s training camp. The US is on the verge of joining the war in Europe. Young women, mostly of privileged families, sign up to attend a National Service School to learn military bed-making, bandage-rolling, and some basics about marching in formation and understanding signalling.

For most of these women, it’s not particularly serious. Most will go back home to mommy and daddy afterward — but for some, it’s a stepping stone to sailing for France, where they hope to join the war effort in whatever way they can. And for one woman in Kopp Sisters on the March, the camp and France represent an escape from her intolerable, scandal-ridden life.

When the Kopp sisters arrive at camp, it’s the year after Constance has lost her job as a sheriff’s deputy, after the election of a new sheriff who has no interest in or tolerance for women in law enforcement. Constance is adrift and rather hopeless, until she ends up being put in charge of the camp after the camp matron is injured. Under Constance’s direction, the camp takes on a more disciplined and focused feel, and she even introduces secret hand-to-hand combat and shooting lessons for the small group of women who are determined to be taken seriously and prepare themselves for the war.

The narrative is split between Constance and her sisters and the historical figure Beulah Binford. As the author explains in her notes, there’s no record of the real-life Beulah attending such a camp, but it seems like a great fit for her to place her in this story. Beulah was the “other woman” in a highly publicized murder case, and while she was never charged with a crime, she was dragged through the papers and became one of the most notorious women of the time, forcing her to live under assumed identities and live in hiding. I didn’t realize until I got to the end of the book and read the notes that Beulah was a real person — this made her parts of the story all the more fascinating and tragic, seeing how an uneducated, resourceless woman could end up having her life so thoroughly ruined.

It’s a bit jarring to have the action in a Kopp sisters book move away from law enforcement and local police work to a military setting, but it tracks with the timeline of the real Kopp sisters, and seems like a natural choice for them in the context of the US’s war preparations. As always, Constance is a strong character who doesn’t back down and who is determined to improve the lives of the women around her. I’m less fond of her sisters — Fleurette is flighty as always, and Norma and her pigeon-obsession are a bit much to take — but their family dynamics are always fun.

As with the previous four books, I listened to the audiobook version, becuase the narrator is so gifted when it comes to portraying the sisters and the various other characters. As I mentioned in my reviews of the other audiobooks, she makes each character come alive, and as a listener, I really got the essence of each character’s personality through Chrsitina Moore’s presentation.

The author’s notes at the end of the book are essential reading (as they are in all of the Kopp Sisters books). Amy Stewart provides the historical context, explains her research, and makes clear which parts of her story are from the record and which are her invention. It’s fascinating to see how she so skillfully weaves together fact and fiction, and really remarkable to learn just how much of these women’s lives actually happened.

And as I’ve said in each review I’ve written for the books in this series:

If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the Kopp Sisters books yet, start with Girl Waits With Gun, and then keep going!

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The details:

Title: Kopp Sisters on the March
Author: Amy Stewart
Narrator: Christina Moore
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: September 17, 2019
Audiobook length: 10 hours, 26 minutes
Printed book length: 355 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Audible download (purchased); ARC from the author

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Audiobook Review: Reticence by Gail Carriger (The Custard Protocol, #4)

Dueling covers: US version

 

Bookish and proper Percival Tunstell finds himself out of his depth when floating cities, spirited plumbing, and soggy biscuits collide in this delightful conclusion to NYT bestselling author Gail Carriger’s The Custard Protocol series.

Percival Tunstell loves that his sister and her best friend are building themselves a family of misfits aboard their airship, The Spotted Custard. Of course, he’d never admit that he belongs among them. He’s always been on the outside — dispassionate, aloof, and hatless. But accidental spies, a trip to Japan, and one smart and beautiful doctor may have him renegotiating his whole philosophy on life.

Except hats. He’s done with hats. Thank you very much.

Reticence is a fun, enjoyable wrap-up to a delicious series. The Custard Protocol is four books of fluffy good times, as an odd crew of misfits and eccentrics set sail through the aether on their giant spotted dirigible, seeking danger and adventure all around the globe.

In Reticence, the last remaining unmatched member of the Spotted Custard’s officers finally meets his true love in the form of Dr. Arsenic Ruthven, a Scottish doctor whose no-nonsense approach and absolute devotion to learning and libraries secures her a spot in Percy’s antisocial little heart.

As Arsenic learns to love the crew and vice versa, they set off on a trip first to Egypt and then to Japan, seeking out more supernatural shapeshifters and a missing spy, and discovering all sorts of new and exciting mysteries to solve. With plenty of explosions, tea, and parasols along the way.

As the conclusion to both the Custard Protocol series and, it would appear, the Parasol-verse at large, Reticence features cameos by a who’s who of characters from all of the related books (including the Parasol Protectorate and Finishing School series). Because really, how could we possibly leave this amazing world without one more check-in with Alexia, Conall, Ivy, Lord Akeldama, not to mention Sophronia, Lady Kingair, and more?

Dueling covers: UK version

The adventure itself is fun, and seeing Percy lose his heart in the most awkward way possible is highly entertaining. With Percy at center stage, I did miss spending time with Rue and Quesnel, who are much more my favorites, and the wonderful character Tasherit spends most of this book literally asleep.

Once again, the audiobook is a total delight — so much so that I can’t imagine enjoying this series quite so much on the printed page. Narrator Moira Quirk is outstanding, giving each character a unique voice, capturing the silliness to perfection, and keeping the action sequences exciting and easy to follow.

I’m sorry to see the series come to a close. I know there are more related novellas in the works, but I do hope the esteemed Ms. Carriger decides to treat us to yet more full-length books (or, dare I suggest, four-book series?) set in this oh-so-special world. The Custard Protocol is a treat. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: Reticence (The Custard Protocol, #4)
Author: Gail Carriger
Narrator: Moira Quirk
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: August 6, 2019
Length (print): 339 pages
Length (audiobook): 12 hours, 21 minutes
Genre: Fantasy/steampunk
Source: Purchased

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