Audiobook Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Audiobook Review: All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The first volume in the multimillion copy bestselling series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Audiobook Review: Thank You for Listening by Julia Whelan

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, the Butch-and-Sundance-guy guy.”

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

“Who wasn’t a guy?”

“The guy reading.”

“Wasn’t a guy?”

“Nope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Audiobook Review: The Comeback by Lily Chu

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Who is Ariadne Hui?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy!



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

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Title: Book Lovers
Author: Emily Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Print length: 377 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One summer. Two rivals. A plot twist they didn’t see coming….

Nora Stephens’ life is books—she’s read them all—and she is not that type of heroine. Not the plucky one, not the laidback dream girl, and especially not the sweetheart. In fact, the only people Nora is a heroine for are her clients, for whom she lands enormous deals as a cutthroat literary agent, and her beloved little sister Libby.

Which is why she agrees to go to Sunshine Falls, North Carolina for the month of August when Libby begs her for a sisters’ trip away—with visions of a small-town transformation for Nora, who she’s convinced needs to become the heroine in her own story. But instead of picnics in meadows, or run-ins with a handsome country doctor or bulging-forearmed bartender, Nora keeps bumping into Charlie Lastra, a bookish brooding editor from back in the city. It would be a meet-cute if not for the fact that they’ve met many times and it’s never been cute.

If Nora knows she’s not an ideal heroine, Charlie knows he’s nobody’s hero, but as they are thrown together again and again—in a series of coincidences no editor worth their salt would allow—what they discover might just unravel the carefully crafted stories they’ve written about themselves.

I’ll keep this brief — at this point, when I see a cute contemporary romance cover and discover the book is by Emily Henry, it’s going to be a must-read for me. Book Lovers caught my eye immediately (I mean, the title alone! who can resist?), and it was a perfect pick for reading during a vacation week.

In Book Lovers, main character Nora is a hard-edged, polished, driven literary agent who is unrelenting when it comes to making deals for her clients. Her nickname is the Shark — but don’t call her that to her face. While she represents highly successful authors, including those who write heart-warming love stories about small-town romances, she knows absolutely where she fits in the trope: She’s the one left behind.

You know how it goes: A big city character heads to a small town for some vague business purpose, falls unexpectedly in love with the local farmer/baker/craftsperson, and gives up city life for a life full of purpose, love, and baked goods in the country — breaking up with their former city boyfriend/girlfriend along the way. And that city boyfriend/girlfriend who gets dumped is Nora. It’s happened to her again and again, and she’s over it.

But Nora also has a soft spot for her younger (and very pregnant) sister, so she reluctantly agrees to a three-week sisters’ trip to a small town in North Carolina, where her sister Libby is determined to milk the experience for every romance-worthy trope possible. What they do not expect is for (a) Nora’s New York business nemesis Charlie to also show up in the same town and (b) for all the sparks that fly between Nora and Charlie.

The plot has much more depth than you might expect. Emily Henry excels at creating funny, quirky, unusual characters, then giving them rich backstories that humanize them and expose the pains and sorrows behind their facades. The same is true here, and it makes Nora much more likable than she initially comes across, so much so that I became very invested in her happiness and well-being.

I liked Nora and Charlie together as a couple — their banter is adorable! And while it takes them a while to get past the outer animosity to their inner deep connection, it’s totally worth the journey. The sisters’ relationship is just as important as the romantic relationship, and I really appreciated how lovingly their connection is portrayed.

The writing is light and fast-paced, but there’s plenty of emotion to unpack too. I truly enjoyed Book Lovers — although I’m a little mad that the author managed to burst the bubble of all my small town romance fantasies! The book trope talk is so much fun, there are plenty of references to real books (which made me really happy), and I love that the author includes “Nora and Libby’s Ultimate Reading List” at the back of the book!

Book Lovers is a perfect choice for a summer beach book! Don’t miss it.

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!