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The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audiobook, 1+ hours
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The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, narrated by Vanessa Redgrave, is an adaptation of Joan Didion’s memoir of the same name. It has been transformed into a one-act play. The devastation felt by Didion is immense but the undulating way in which this story is told is as disjointed as her emotions must have been during this time in her life, losing a husband and daughter. This shattering loss propelled the author into a world of magical thinking.

There’s an examination of marriage and its push and pull and the motherly promise that you’ll never leave your child. There is that magical thinking that your own motherly focus can keep things moving forward into the future as you’d like them to be.

Redgrave is the perfect narrator for this play. Her voice lulls you into the story and breaks your heart when Didion’s is broken. But Didion’s narrative is also very factual and linear in some parts. I honestly think this is probably best viewed as a play, rather than on audio because my mind would wander away from the story when it was a bit too clinical. I might read the memoir at a later date.

RATING: Tercet

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey (audio)

Source: Purchased

Audible, 6+ hours

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Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey, narrated by himself, is a look at his 50 years of life and his outlaw code and how he’s lived his life and what he’s learned by living it. If you’re looking for gossip, this is not the book for you. I did like his approach to Hollywood and rebranding himself as an actor — that was definitely a risk and it panned out for him.

His career is one of luck, perseverance, hard work, and self-examination. Unlike many people, he pauses to think about where he is in life and analyze why he feels stagnant or unsatisfied when he seemingly has everything he could ever want. Like those of us who strive to learn and grow, he pauses to examine his life and make changes he thinks will lead him where he wants to go. As he says, sometimes there are red lights in life and sometimes there are yellow and green lights — he notes that a red light at one point in your life might turn green eventually later on. You have to be aware enough to know why the lights are red, move forward and return to those lights to see them turn green when it is the right time.

His early years with his family and his stay in Australia were very eye opening and I can say I applaud him and his upbringing for tolerating that Australian family like he did. I think I would have lost it. He does include some “prescriptions,” bumper stickers, and poems. These are what he considers some insightful advice, which it could be for those who haven’t experienced these teachable moments or who need something to articulate what they’re feeling in a succinct way. It seemed like he was shouting these sections at you in the audio, which got more obnoxious as I listened (but it might be less annoying if you don’t listen to it too long in one sitting). My one main issue here is people will probably take this as life lessons for them, and these will not work in every day people’s lives because they have obligations that are bigger than these seemingly easy fixes he talks about.

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey is a series of stories that are likely a bit inflated (at least one had to be hyperbole). It was entertaining, but not life affirming or life changing. And while the stories are fun and sometimes outrageous, they are by no means that deep and tell us little beyond what we know about McConaughey and his “outlaw” look at life. I use the “outlaw” term very loosely here. Judging on his performance alone (which was stellar) would be a disservice to the content. I do admire his self-awareness, and that’s something others should take note of and try to incorporate into their lives.

RATING: Tercet

Elizabeth: Obstinate Headstrong Girl edited by Christina Boyd (audio)

Source: Publisher

Audiobook, 10+ hours

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Elizabeth: Obstinate Headstrong Girl edited by Christina Boyd, narrated by Elizabeth Grace, is a delightful collection of short stories written by some of the best Jane Austeneque writers — Joana Starnes, Amy D’Orazio, Jenetta James, Karen Cox, Christina Morland, Elizabeth Adams, Beau North, J. Croft, and Leigh Dreyer. From historic pieces and those set during the time of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice to modern stories in which Elizabeth is an electrical engineering student in a male-dominated field, these authors explore the inner workings of Elizabeth. We see her prejudices and preconceptions, but we also see her flaws, as well as her self-analysis of her own actions and those of others.

Elizabeth Grace is a wonderful narrator, breathing light into each of these Elizabeths and situations. She’s an admirable narrator who becomes a one-woman cast.

“Resistive Currents” by Karen M Cox is one of the more modern tales. Here, we see conundrum of a teaching assistant Mr. Darcy drawn to an intelligent electrical engineering student, Elizabeth, bent on proving to the male-dominated field that she’s a capable student who just wants a fair shot — the same as her male colleagues. First, the title of this story is brilliant given the content, and I love how it plays on the electricity between Elizabeth and Darcy as they navigate the relationship of student and TA in a world where Elizabeth feels she has to continually prove herself worthy. Like this story, Christina Morland’s “Atmospheric Disturbances” explores the tensions that are bound to rise up between two passionate and strong-willed people in love. Every moment of the drawing room is meant to build the tension between these characters that barely know one another — a tension borne of a lack of knowledge between them.

Elizabeth Adams’ “Something Like Regret” brings to life the thoughts of Elizabeth on her visit to Pemberley after her rejection of Mr. Darcy’s proposal at Rosings. It’s a time when many have speculated that she would accept Darcy because of his fortune or because his housekeeper praised his disposition, but as a rational and passionate creature, Elizabeth must make a more intelligent and deeper examination of her rejection of him and many of their exchanges. I love this introspection as she walks about the house and the gardens and how Darcy appears. It is a beautiful story. I love her observations of the changes in him upon first seeing him. She’s so observant here, despite the shock of seeing him. “The Last Blind Date” by Leigh Dreyer is a delightful modern story that reminded me of those awkward dates you have and the tentative exchange you have as strangers until you realize there could be something more. Darcy is not talkative, and Elizabeth is quick to judge, but rather than call the blind date quits, they move ahead with it, tentatively.

Elizabeth: Obstinate Headstrong Girl edited by Christina Boyd, narrated by Elizabeth Grace, is another anthology winner, hitting the stories out of the park with a range of angst, love, prejudice, and pride, but what I loved based about these sweet stories is that we see Elizabeth in all her turmoil and introspection. She’s forced to rethink her past actions, her current actions and behavior, and she forces herself to apologize on more than one occasion. These stories are deep, emotional, and about the roller coaster ride of young love when it is first budding.

RATING: Cinquain

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (audio)

Source: Purchased

Audible, 11+ hours

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Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, narrated by Stephen Lang, is a ghost story from the beginning to the end, but Judas Coyne (formerly Justin Cowzynski) is an unlikable character with a penchant for collecting macabre items. This penchant is what gets him into a big mess — all of his sins come to roost as he battles the unseen man tied to a suit he buys online in a heart-shaped box. He has effectively retired from public life after his bandmates have either killed themselves or died, but little else has changed with his life — still moving from woman to woman and collecting oddities on the underground web.

Lang is a decent narrator no matter the character and he has the timbre to create a creepy atmosphere.

Jude and his latest woman (like all his women are called by their former state of residence) find that they are locked together in a battle against a ghostly man who is out for revenge. It’s clear this ghost hasn’t had a lot of practice with revenge from beyond the grave, but Jude gets some help from his former girlfriend who has been dead for some time. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, narrated by Stephen Lang, is a dark tale of beyond-the-grave revenge.

RATING: Quatrain

You Need a Budget by Jesse Mecham (audio)

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 5 hrs
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You Need a Budget by Jesse Mecham, narrated by the author, is a hard and fast look at budgeting. The first big takeaway for me was that budgets are not rigid tools, but are meant to be flexible. You can visit the website and signup for the software and more too.

Here are your four rules for budgeting:

  • Rule One: Give Every Dollar a Job.
  • Rule Two: Embrace Your True Expenses.
  • Rule Three: Roll With The Punches.
  • Rule Four: Age Your Money.

For couples, this means you have to also embrace the goals and expenses of yourself and your spouse and some goals and expenses may belong to both people in the relationship. No one goal or expense (that are necessary or desired expenses) supersede another.

The biggest rule for me that made me rethink budgeting is rule two because it shouldn’t just include the mortgage or the utilities and food, but also large, less-frequent expenses like holiday gifts, car repairs, etc. I need to break them into manageable, monthly “bills” that we assign dollars to — giving them a job.

One of the hardest lessons will be this: commit to the process of planning. You can stop timing bills to a specific paycheck — this is probably a foreign concept for many people, especially those not taught about finances. Much of what I’ve learned about finance is on the fly and with many failures. For couples, the biggest lesson will be communicating about spending on a regular basis, which can mean a monthly meeting.

One of the best parts of the book is the chapter on teaching children about money and how to talk to them about money without freaking them out. My one issue is that it talks about how he plans to not save for his kids’ college education and that he expects them not to take out student loans. I found this section a bit “pie in the sky” given the high cost of tuition in America. I did like the allowance portion of the book, however, because it enables kids to be kids and spend their money how they want and learn that they might have wanted to save that money they spent for something else. This turns into practical lessons.

You Need a Budget by Jesse Mecham is an intriguing listen with real-world examples of people paying off debts, learning how to budget as a couple, and more. But I think I would have preferred a print version that I could mark up. It’ hard to mark up and audio. Good thing there’s a website with free tools and more.

The Engagement Gift by Lauren Blakely (audio)

Source: Audible freebie
Audiobook, 2+ hrs.
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The Engagement Gift by Laura Blakely, narrated by Elena Wolfe and Teddy Hamilton, is a short, erotic novella in which a young engaged woman debates in her head and with her friend whether she should ask her intended for a secret fantasy. Lily is adventurous in the bedroom and so is her fiance, Finn, but there’s one thing she struggles to ask her mate to do because it could ruin the intimacy they’ve created.

For me, this novella was steamy and erotic, but the characters felt a little flat and the relationship between Lily and Finn was one dimensional. I understood that they were hot for each other and obsessed with adventure in the bedroom, but it felt like that was all there was between these characters and for a marriage, I think you’d need more than that.

The Engagement Gift by Laura Blakely, narrated by Elena Wolfe and Teddy Hamilton, is a short read and I think that was part of the problem if you’re looking for character development. If you’re looking for a quick “romp in the hay,” however, this might be for you.

RATING: Epitaph

When Mary Met the Colonel by Victoria Kincaid (audio)

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 2+ hours
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When Mary Met the Colonel by Victoria Kincaid, narrated by Stevie Zimmerman, is a delightful novella with a meet-cute between Mary Bennet and Colonel Fitzwilliam at the wedding breakfast of Mr. and Mrs. Darcy at Longbourn. Mary is considered the religious one, but what if there was a bit of rebel in her too? Perhaps she’s more like Elizabeth than anyone suspects — she does do quite a bit of reading.

Zimmerman is always a delightful narrator and her inflections are fantastic. She makes the perfect match here as Mary’s voice, but even the men are narrated well. I expect nothing less.

Kincaid’s novella is short and sweet, and sadly that was the one drawback for me. I wanted to see more of them together and apart. I wanted more of the colonel in the battle scenes and more of his military mind explored on the battlefield. However, I did love the bits of impropriety here and thought that they worked out well. But once the cat is out of the bag, I suppose I expected a bit more “proper” response from Elizabeth and Darcy, but perhaps marriage has softened them.

Mary Bennet is full of surprises, and like her elder sister has a sharp mind and a bit of mischief in her. I was delighted to see a better side of Mary in this novella, and I loved that the Colonel could appreciate her. Their story is short and sweet, but there is no lack of tension when a lord comes to call at Matlock House and disrupts the whole will-they, won’t-they drama. This is the moment where having more would have helped the story line. I wanted to see how this Lord had become interested in Mary and what their interactions were like so when he arrives, I’m less surprised and confused by his sudden ardor.

When Mary Met the Colonel by Victoria Kincaid, narrated by Stevie Zimmerman, is a satisfying story for a young lady too often left in the background, but here, she is center stage and shines brightly, especially when she gets her happily ever after.

RATING Quatrain

See my other reviews.

The Institute by Stephen King (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audiobook, 18+ hrs.
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The Institute by Stephen King, narrated by Santino Fontana, is a really long listen and probably would have went much faster if I had read the print book or ebook, but the audio was enjoyable. Tim Jamieson is a young man on the road, seemingly aimlessly wandering after something tragic happened. He lands in DuPrey, South Carolina, as a night knocker. But his story is put on pause once he gets there and starts talking with the police department and settling into his life. (He’s clearly a plot device)

Shifting the story to the trail to The Institute, we’re introduced to genius boy, Luke Ellis. He is the latest child taken to The Institute, which has a room that looks just like Luke’s, except there is no window. Luke is unclear what has happened and why. He begins wandering the sterile halls where he sees kids like him but who smoke cigarettes and behaving oddly. He vaguely realizes he’s been kidnapped and begins to puzzle out what has happened and what is going on in The Institute. His high intelligence enables him to determine what is going on, but when Avery Dixon comes on the scene, the ball game changes and the scales tip in favor of the kids — the kids with telekinesis and telepathy.

Luke makes friends with those kids in Front Half — Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. But like those before them, they will “graduate” to Back Half where the real work begins. From the sinister Mrs. Sigsby to Trevor Stackhouse, there are men and women pulling the strings of the institute, but there is clearly a larger organization or group of people behind the scenes. Kids are punished and given tokens when they’re good — tokens they can be used for candy, food, cigarettes, and alcohol.

The Institute by Stephen King, narrated by Santino Fontana, is part dig at Trump and the administration and the wide reaching conspiracy theories that have been bandied about for decades about secret government groups controlling the world. The only twist is that King leans on previous work like the clairvoyance and the need to save the future in The Dead Zone and other work. This one seemed too long in places and in need of editing. I think the political commentary about the current administration, though it isn’t much in the greater scheme of things (though some can draw parallels if they look hard enough), could be grating to some looking for an escape.

RATING: Tercet

About the Author:

Stephen King is the author of more than fifty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers. His recent work includes Doctor Sleep and Under the Dome, now a major TV miniseries on CBS. His novel 11/22/63 was named a top ten book of 2011 by The New York Times Book Review and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller as well as the Best Hardcover Book Award from the International Thriller Writers Association. He is the recipient of the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.

Other reviews can be found here.

Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage by Tori Amos (audio)

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 8+ hrs.
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Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage by Tori Amos, a memoir of creativity read by the author, explores a variety of political climates through the lens of an adult. When Amos was playing piano bars in Washington, D.C., the hotbed of political machinations, at age 11 in the 1970s, she was likely not aware of the political situation as much as she is as an adult. She brings her knowledge of now when she looks back on those experiences, but what sticks with her was how a marginalized group took a chance on her young talent as a pianist to provide entertainment for the political elite. Growing up in music bars throughout the city and in hotels where lobbyists made their deals with politicians provided Amos with a window into the truth of our Republic. Young people learning about our government and its structure often have a naive view of how our country is run, and I can tell you from experience that it is devastating when you learn how deals are struck and powerful men always seem to have the upper hand even if the side they are on is clearly wrong and devastating.

I love the structure of this memoir and how Amos uses her song lyrics to discuss her inspiration, the process of creativity, and what aspects of the wider world helped fuel her muses. While some of the songs may seem only tangentially connected to the world affairs she connects with them, that’s the beauty of art. It grows beyond the original intent or words to paint a wider experience of the world around us and help us to see our part in that world.

While Amos’ creative process will not be something that everyone can ascribe to or understand, it is an intriguing journey that she’s made with her family and alone. She speaks about the death of her mother briefly, which must have been particularly devastating. But it is clear that her strength as an artist and women comes from her mother and the inspiration and direction she received from her.

Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage by Tori Amos is a memoir that I’ll remember for a very long time, and is definitely a step above compared to her first, Tori Amos: Piece by Piece. Each artist comes to their work in a different way, and while some may be excellent performers, there is a richness that comes with artists’ like Amos who create work that deeply affects their own soul, as well as those around them. Her memoir is even more relevant today that it was when it was written — before the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the COVID-19 pandemic and ignorance of society about public health protections and so much more.

RATING: Quatrain

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner (audio)

Source: Publisher
Audiobook, 9+ hours
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The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner, narrated by Richard Armitage, combines not only my love of Jane Austen and her novels, but also WWII. Armitage does an admirable job narrating all eight of the main characters from the steadfast and stoic Dr. Gray to the U.S. starlet of Mimi Harrison. Each of the characters’ lives — Adam, Adeline, Andrew, Evie, Frances, Dr Gray, Mimi, and Yardley — are revealed slowly throughout the novel and how they connect to one another reminds me of those moments in movies where chance meetings create a lasting bond. Some of these characters also mirror those in Austen’s novels, like the awkward shyness of Dr. Gray and the forward-thinking Adeline. WWII is a perfect time period for these characters because of the loss endured by those whose family die in the war and how Austen’s novels tangentially spoke about the tensions between England and France. Set in Chawton, England, what better place for a Jane Austen society to form?!

“I just feel, when I read her, when I reread her–which I do, more than any other author–it’s as if she’s inside my head. Like music. My father first read the books to me when I was very young–he died when I was twelve–and I hear his voice, too, when I read her.”

Jenner’s novel pays homage to Austen in a way that many other variations don’t. She understands the Austen characters and their motivations, but in creating her characters and their motivations they are not talking to us as Austen’s characters but fans of Austen’s words, her thoughts, her dreams. Jenner’s characters want to talk about Austen in a way that helps them deal with their own losses and pains, but they also want to preserve Austen’s great novels for generations to come and to do so by preserving her home in Chawton, even if it is against the wishes of the owner, Mr. Knight.

I loved how class lines are crossed in Jenner’s novel and how forward-thinking women drive the action, but the men can be so obtuse sometimes. The funny little moments of misunderstanding are definitely reminiscent of Austen, but I was irked that Mimi failed to see the opportunist streak in Jack Leonard after awhile. She saw it at the beginning, but once she got comfortable, she lost all sense where he was concerned.

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner, narrated by Richard Armitage, is a book not to be missed by Janeites. I really loved Armitage’s narration — he was so soothing to listen to and he carried the character-driven novel really well. Do not miss out on this gem.

RATING: Cinquain

Check out an excerpt from the audio read by Richard Armitage:

Spotify users can access a playlist for The Jane Austen Society.

About the Author:

Natalie Jenner is the debut author of THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY, a fictional telling of the start of the society in the 1940s in the village of Chawton, where Austen wrote or revised her major works. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie graduated from the University of Toronto with degrees in English Literature and Law and has worked for decades in the legal industry. She recently founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. Visit her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and GoodReads pages.

The Outsider by Stephen King (audio)

Source: Audible purchase
Audiobook, 19+ hours
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The Outsider by Stephen King, narrated by Will Patton, is superbly narrated as always by Will Patton (he’s one of my go-to narrators for audiobooks). This king novel reads more like a crime novel in the first half after a young boy is discovered in the woods, mutilated and murdered. Terry Maitland, Flint City Little League coach and English teacher, is a pillar of the community, but he’s soon a suspect and arrested in front of the whole town. Detective Ralph Anderson, partially motivated by disgust because his son was once on Maitland’s team, now finds that some of the evidence may contradict, and a solid alibi causes serious doubts.

“Reality is thin ice, but most people skate on it their whole lives and never fall through until the very end. We did fall through, but we helped each other out. We’re still helping each other.”

The second half of the novel is pure King, a build up of creepy into an underworld of darkness and strange beings that cannot be easily explained and are often ignored because they call too much of reality into question. Have you ever wondered what your doppelgänger would look like? Most of us have, but what if that doppelgänger was just evil….pure evil? You’d probably want to know before you’re arrested for their crimes. The outsider is more than just a man who looks like Maitland, and there are many dark secrets hiding in his flesh.

The Outsider by Stephen King, narrated by Will Patton, is a suspenseful horror novel, with a light horror feel for much of the novel. In the later three or four sections, the craziness ramps up and that’s when you know you’ve entered Stephen King’s world.

RATING: Quatrain

Drift by Alan King (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audiobook, 1+ hrs.
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Drift by Alan King, from Audible and narrated by the poet, is a new experience in poetry, providing listeners with their own personal poetry reading. With jazzy music, sound effects, and the lyrical sounds of his poems, King transports listeners into an urban landscape where comic book heroes don’t live, but young boys still wish they would and that they could be them to battle the ugliness.

There is beauty in this collection, and it is a creative use of music, sound effects, and poetry. Tired of podcasts, depressing news, and television, enter the poetic world of Alan King and have your own personal poetry reading.

For more about the individual poems, my review is here.