Most of my reading these days is actually . . . listening.
If I hadn’t discovered audio books (with a helpful push from book bloggers) a few years back, I’m pretty sure my reading total for the year would be about, oh, five.
Wish I were joking.
Over the years, I’ve gone from someone casually aware of audiobooks as a form of recreation, entertainment and education to a listener who is never without one — or three — from the library. I now have favorite authors I will only ever “read” this way, including David Sedaris. (He’ll get his own post later on. I’m kind of obsessed.)
I know my book reviews have been pretty absent these last few months. To be honest, my focus has been off lately. Between the lingering exhaustion inherent with having an infant (even one who sleeps through the night) and the fact that I can never stay up past 9 p.m., very little holds my attention these days.
I’m trying to fix that — and have been making progress. As I type, I’m nearing the end of Natalie Meg Evan’s The Milliner’s Secret and will be desperate to talk about it with someone soon. It’s easily the most engrossing story I’ve read in ages: historical fiction done right and extremely well. It has everything: a strong heroine who cobbles together a new life in Paris; a salacious, forbidden love affair between two people who really shouldn’t be together, yet are magnetized to one another; the dramatic, tragic backdrop of Nazi-occupied France.
But, you know, this isn’t about The Milliner’s Secret. We’ll return another day.
This? This is about audiobooks. Between my triangle trips to day care, work, home and back again, I average an hour in the car each day. Plenty of time to get through an audiobook every week or so.
Here’s what I’ve had cranked up lately:
Beautiful Day by Elin Hilderbrand
Published in 2013; 3/5 stars
Knowing she won’t be able to see her daughter get married, Beth leaves behind “The Notebook”: her guide to how she envisions her youngest child’s wedding day, right down to the menu and napkins. Jenna chooses to follow her mother’s wishes to the letter — right down to the menu, napkins and tent suggestions. It’s the least she can do, she thinks.
As her extended family descends on the family estate on Nantucket, the Grahams and Carmichaels must find a way to get along as new details about their own relationships come to light. Will everything come together to form the perfect day Beth imagined for Jenna?
Filled with enough characters to fill a train car, Beautiful Day would have been a simple, pleasant enough read if I’d been able to keep track of who all these people were. We have two large families — the bride’s and the groom’s — with a trunk full of issues each.
While it was entertaining, I was lost in the midst of this ensemble and unable to connect to anyone in particular. Jenna was pretty annoying, honestly. Beth’s words in The Notebook open each chapter, and I eventually found the extremely specific details to be grating. It just all felt . . . very melodramatic. I mean, we’re talking about a posthumous wedding guide, though, so I guess that’s to be expected?
Regardless, I enjoyed Hilderbrand’s easy-breezy setting and writing style — nothing too taxing; easy listening for my drives. My lukewarm reception to this one didn’t stop me from picking up another novel. In fact . . .
Winter Stroll by Elin Hilderbrand
Published in 2015; 3/5 stars
Christmas with a side of major baggage.
It’s December in Nantucket, and the Quinn family has gathered for the annual Christmas Stroll on the island. Patriarch Kelley Quinn was recently left by his wife, Mitzi, as the pair struggle with the disappearance of their Marine son in the Middle East. Kelley’s first wife, Margaret, returns with her doctor boyfriend as their children, spouses, grandchildren and extended clan arrive to celebrate the baptism of the first Quinn granddaughter.
There’s Ava and Scott, Patrick and Jennifer, Isabelle and Kevin and Genevieve. Then we have Margaret, Drake, Bart, Norah and the Quinn grandsons, most of whom are misbehaving.
Sense a pattern here?
Like Hilderbrand’s Beautiful Day, I struggled to find my footing with this large and complicated family — but enjoyed Winter Stroll for its holiday setting and more-than-meets-the-eye subplot for several characters (the perfect mom addicted to painkillers; the not-so-evil first wife who is a famous news anchor). Some of the storylines worked better than others, like Kelley and Mitzi’s attempts at reconnection over Ava’s bizarre, flat “love triangle” with two cardboard cut-out dudes.
Though no one felt fully-formed to me, fleshed out and messy and real, I found Winter Stroll to be a nice diversion getting closer to the holidays myself. This is the second book in a series, but I read it as a stand-alone. The extremely abrupt ending is an obvious precursor to another installment . . . and I would have liked more resolution. That was a downer.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Published in 2014; 3.5/5 stars
Spoiled teens behaving badly. We’ve read this story before — but definitely not like this.
This novel came to my attention last year when everyone was freaking out about it, but it somehow slipped from my radar again until recently. Other readers (correctly!) point out that it’s best not to know much about the plot going in, so perhaps this will suffice: a rich extended family converges on their private island off Cape Cod each summer, the teen cousins growing up together as their mothers squabble with their aging grandfather over how best to spend his fortune.
Caught up in her parents’ divorce, narrator Cady misses two summers after an accident on the island leaves her battling horrible migraines, memory lapses and anger issues. When she returns, she finds that much has changed with her family. Will she learn the truth about Summer 15 . . . and what happens when she does?
Cady is a tough character to bond with or really know — but that’s not really the point, is it? After finishing We Were Liars, I did a lot of thinking about whether it’s necessary to like a story’s characters to appreciate the book. No, I decided — but it helps.
“Appreciate” is a good word to use here. I appreciated this story, but did not necessarily like it. Mirren, Johnny and Cady were privileged, entitled and foolhardy, and the only character I really felt sorry for was Gat. A family friend who doesn’t hail from the WASP-y Sinclairs, Gat is caught up in their infighting and skepticism of outsiders when all he wants is to belong.
Did it shock me? Yes . . . and no. I didn’t completely see the twist coming, but I saw shades of it that got my wheels turning earlier on. Once finished, I considered returning to the beginning armed with my new knowledge to piece it all together again.
It is smart, suspenseful, ominous and interesting — but in the end, my dislike of the Liars themselves kept me from loving this one. It is unique, however. Lockhart’s sparse, moody writing made We Were Liars very memorable. Plus, as a lover of the Bard? I was all about the allusions to Shakespeare’s King Lear. Quite cool.
Landline by Rainbow Rowell
Published in 2014; 4/5 stars
This is it: Georgie McCool’s big break. The opportunity for the TV show she’s been working on with Seth, her longtime friend and writing partner, for decades. But it comes with a cost . . . missing Christmas in Omaha with Neal, her college sweetheart, and their two daughters.
Neal doesn’t understand how Georgie could choose to stay alone in Los Angeles rather than travel for Christmas, proving — once again — that she isn’t as invested in their family as she should be. Once a brooding cartoonist who won Georgie over by essentially telling her that he disliked her less than everyone else in the world (um, swoon?), Neal has changed. Their partnership has floundered under the pressures of parenting young children, battling finances, Georgie’s long hours. Normal life, basically.
When Neal and the girls depart on ugly terms, Georgie retreats to her eccentric mother’s house to nurse her wounds between her writing shifts with Seth. It’s there that she finds an old analog phone — a landline — and connects to Neal in Omaha. But it’s not her Neal — stay-at-home dad Neal; discontent and angry Neal — but the young, idealistic college student Georgie fell in love with decades before.
With this portal to the past, Georgie realizes she’s “found” her husband when he was still a sort-of-ex-boyfriend — a few days before Christmas in the ‘90s when he took a fateful trip to Nebraska and returned, quite unexpectedly, with an engagement ring.
Does Georgie have a chance to right her wrongs . . . and does she want to? Is it too late to fix what somehow became quite broken?
Rainbow Rowell is such a talented, perceptive and engaging writer, and Landline was a treat. Rowell even makes reading extremely long phone exchanges — normally a reader pet-peeve of mine — pleasurable. I totally loved Georgie McCool.
Though this story doesn’t have the swoon factor of the other Rowell novels I’ve read, I thought her observations on long-term relationships and parenting were superb. The unexpected highlight of the book for me was the dynamic between Georgie and her 18-year-old sister, who happens to be wiser than most of the adults in her life put together.
Also? Landline’s audio narrator, Rebecca Lowman, was awesome. I have a reader crush on her and will be desperately seeking whatever she lends her dulcet vocals to from now on.