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The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 5+ hrs.
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The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, narrated by the author, is a collection of short stories, with some seeming to be autobiographical or at least inspired by his own life here in the United States. Some of these refugees are seen through the eyes of another, and in this way, Nguyen provides us with a dual perspective — how the narrator views the refugee and how the refugees view themselves.

The narration was satisfactory as read by the author, but some of it could have been better served by a more practiced audiobook narrator who could have breathed life into the characters and helped readers “feel” the tensions a little more deeply. The author’s narration really didn’t add anything to these stories, like a trained narrator would have.

Despite the narration falling flat, these stories explore what it means to leave one’s homeland for another and be caught between them — between what happened in that other country and what is happening now as a result of those experiences. But not only has Nguyen given us stories that explore that rift in identity and culture shock of entering a new country to call home, he also explores the family bond and how it can be frayed by the past in Vietnam, dementia, sibling jealousy, and so much more. What are the dreams of these refugees and immigrants, will they be achieved, have the given up, are they settling, can they feel at home in a new country that is so different from where they came from? These are the kinds of questions explored in theses stories, and many of these characters seem to stem from Nguyen’s own experiences and family history.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen is probably best read in print or in ebook, rather than on audio, so the nuance of Nguyen’s stories are not lost on the reader. I did enjoy spending time with these characters, but I’ll likely revisit them in print.

RATING: Tercet

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Billy Summers by Stephen King (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 16+ hrs.
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***trigger warning for sexual violence***

Billy Summers by Stephen King, narrated by Paul Sparks, is beyond the supernatural, horror that this author is known for, but it brings to life new horrors — those of real life. Billy, a former soldier, is a murderer for hire, and he’s looking for one last job so he can begin a new life. The set up for an assassination job is detailed and slow going, but readers will delight in the character building of Billy’s alter egos — the plants in various towns to hide what he is really doing. Masquerading as a writer in an office building, a computer IT guy, and his own Billy Summers’ shtick, which isn’t really how he acts.

In many ways, the face of Summers is similar to King’s characters created in years past — Billy is almost a stand-in for King, one of the ultimate character creators. King does give a nod to his previous writings here later on in the novel with a sneak peak atop a ridge at The Overlook. It is almost like this novel is an homage to all the risks he’s taken in his career and a middle-finger to the industry that counted him out and pigeonholed him. But I could be over-analyzing here.

Paul Sparks does an excellent job with every face of Billy Summers, and the narration is back and forth into Summers’ past in Falluja when he was a sniper. What I’ve always loved about King’s novels is his attention to detail, his ability to create well-rounded characters, and the settings that mirror real, small town life that is often considered pale in comparison to large, city life (a perception that he blows out of the water every time).

The most troubling aspect of the novel, however, is the obligatory rape of a young woman who becomes an acquiescent victim with Stockholm syndrome.  But even here, King is stretching this trope as he builds the sad relationship between her and Billy Summers into a morally ambiguous argument that not all snipers are bad guys. Perhaps, there are some who do draw a line in the sand, and Billy does rationalize his actions.

Even as I say that Billy is a mirror for King, so is the young woman by the final pages. It almost made me wonder if King may be done writing, but then there’s something more to this young lady that makes me confident that King is not done with his fictional worlds quite yet.

Billy Summers by Stephen King, narrated by Paul Sparks, is a multilayered story about a stone-cold, calculating assassin for hire who continually wrestles with his morality. King takes you on a journey that will leave you wondering about your own morality and mortality. Things in real life can run astray at any moment, even in a small town.

RATING: Cinquain

Later by Stephen King

Source: Purchased
Audible, 6+ hrs.
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Later by Stephen King, narrated by Seth Numrich, is another of those thriller and less-horror King novels.

(trigger warning for possible domestic violence and incest)

Jamie Conklin sees dead people, but you’ll learn this right from the start of this novel. His life is anything but conventional, especially because of his gift. However, his mother, who works in publishing, struggles financially as a single mother and victim of a Ponzi scheme. What I loved was Jamie’s character development, his innocence was whittled away little by little as others use him for his ability, but at the same time, he learns to think for himself and set some boundaries. His mother seems to have learned little from her romantic struggles, and I sense that she doesn’t think beyond the immediate needs and risks to the bigger picture in many cases. But she’s really more of a background character, like Jamie’s invalid uncle.

King always seems to have a firm grasp on childhood and the struggles kids face with parents, peers, and other adults. He makes their lives real and reminds us that we all had those struggles once. But his supernatural elements really bring the creep. Jamie must contend with some dark evils in this novel, and while not always successful, King’s supporting characters round out the story and provide the main protagonist with the direction he needs in a believable way.

Later by Stephen King provides the best in character development and story-telling, but there is a rushed element near the end that seems like it was tacked on a little too quickly. I wanted a little bit more here, but given that it is told from Jamie’s 20-something point of view after everything happened, it seems like he has more to process later on. Perhaps there will be more, later.

RATING: Quatrain

The Unexpected Past of Miss Jane Austen by Cass Grafton and Ada Bright

Source: Purchased
Kindle, 372 pgs.
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The Unexpected Past of Miss Jane Austen by Cass Grafton and Ada Bright (the second book in this time travel series and these definitely should be read in order) is a delightful read. Rose Wallace is just getting to live her dream when Jane Austen reappears in her life at the most inopportune time. After some mild prodding, Austen engages Rose in another time travel adventure, and this time, Dr. Aiden Trevellyan joins her in the past where he’s in his glory — sketching the church, documenting Chawton House, and so much more.

***Don’t read below if you don’t want spoilers***

Rose is eager to help Jane in any way that she can, but she also wants to stay in her time and revel in the revelations she’s had with Aiden. Alas, there isn’t time because pressing matters require Rose to come back with Jane to 1813.

“No, this time, she had to live out the story, not just observe it … “

What I loved about this story is that Aiden and Rose know each other well enough to embark on this journey together, yet their new relationship status still provides that bit of insecurity and awkwardness we love to see in newly beginning relationships.

***Continue reading***

Grafton and Bright are a fantastic team in this series, providing the right amount of tension, awkwardness, and misunderstandings to keep the plot moving forward. Again, Rose finds herself in a situation that leaves her unmoored, but she finds that she can be as confident and courageous as Jane if she quells her emotions and thinks a bit more rationally. The societal confines of 1813 add to the tension and the emotional roller coaster here, which readers will love and hate at the same time.

I actually liked The Unexpected Past of Miss Jane Austen by Cass Grafton and Ada Bright more than the first book, and I really loved the first book. So I cannot wait to see where this series goes next. I hope I won’t have to wait too long.

RATING: Cinquain

The Particular Charm of Miss Jane Austen by Ada Bright and Cass Grafton

Source: Purchased
ebook, 366 pgs.
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The Particular Charm of Miss Jane Austen by Ada Bright and Cass Grafton is part romance and part time travel, but it is also a novel about friendship and finding the gumption to go after what you want. Our heroine Rose Wallace is eager to meet her online friend Morgan after spending so much time with her online in Jane Austen forums.

“‘Is this one of those moments when I don’t understand you because you’re British?'”

But she’s also eager for the annual Jane Austen festival that takes over Bath, and added bonus, she’ll get to help archaeologist Dr. Aiden Trevellyan settle in before his talk on his most recent research and dig in Chawton. But soon, she becomes intrigued with an upstairs visitor, Jenny Ashton, who has a peculiar way about her and simply seems to live the older customs now.

“‘Pray, how is this a convenience store? One can barely turn about, ’tis so narrow, and there is no logic to the produce on display. I find naught of convenience about it.'”

Through a portal, Rose and Jenny are thrust into a time where Rose’s life is less independent from her not-so-great mother, and (GASP!) the works of Jane Austen have never been written. Rose and Jenny must either find a way back to their old lives or resign themselves to the new ones — ones in which Rose may flounder at her job at the library but one that could provide her a romantic partner. How do you choose between the life you’ve known and loved with one full of unknown possibilities?

The Particular Charm of Miss Jane Austen by Ada Bright and Cass Grafton shines in the building and rebuilding of friendships across time and space. No TARDIS needed here, but Rose must learn to meet the challenges before her without losing sight of who she wants to be.I just loved all of these characters and their misunderstandings and awkwardness. It’s wonderfully funny too.

I just had to get the next book in this series… stay tuned for that review.

RATING: Quatrain

My One Week Husband by Lauren Blakely (audio)

Source: Audible Purchase
Audiobook, 7+ hrs.
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My One Week Husband by Lauren Blakely, another audiobook with a full cast, is delightful in terms of romance and sexual tension, but my favorite parts are the musical interludes as we learn about the secret past of Daniel Stuart. His past is integral to how he acts, reacts, and engages in relationships with women and why his drive is so business focused. Like Daniel, Scarlett Slade is a savvy businesswoman, and as the newest business partner of Daniel and his college buddy Cole, she brings a bit of sexy into Daniel’s life, but she is far more than just a body to ogle. She is smart and she holds secrets that driver her in business.

Daniel and Scarlett are flirty, fun, and made for each other. And their relationship goes from business to red hot once they decide they need to scope out their next hotel chain acquisition by pretending to be newlyweds — hence the title. These two gamble in business day in and day out, but when their hearts are on the line, can they take the risk?

Lately, I’ve been on a Paris kick — watching movies and reading books set in Paris — I am longing to travel somewhere, and Paris is romance. Here Daniel is English, and that accent and Paris are a lovely combination. Add in classical music and violins (see videos for some of the pieces mentioned – Beethoven is one of my favorites), and I am over the moon with this romantic tale. My One Week Husband by Lauren Blakely is one of her best — there is a ton of character development here and hot, steamy scenes.

RATING: Cinquain

The Break-Up Book Club by Wendy Wax

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 384 pgs.
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The Break-Up Book Club by Wendy Wax explores the unexpected friendships of a local book club in Atlanta at Between the Covers bookstore. This is an unusual book club where the members have a wide-range of backgrounds and experiences. Former tennis star Jazmine, empty-nester Judith, young assistant Erin, and bookstore assistant Sara are just four members of this eclectic book club that also has an EMT named Chaz, bookstore owner Annell, a budding fashion designer named Carlotta, and Meena, Judith’s best friend.

“It’s enough to make me wonder whether any of the things we think we know about each other are true.”

At the heart of the book is friendship, especially unexpected friendship, but this novel has a more solemn tone to it than some of Wax’s other, more light-hearted books. These women have experienced significant losses and hard times, and many of their secrets are kept close to the vest. While these women meet for book club to unwind and discuss books, the book club itself isn’t the main focus of the book, so much as the development of the characters. Jazmine is a single mother and a sports agent at a local boutique firm, but she’s haunted by the past, which keeps her closed off, ambitious, and focused on protecting her daughter. Judith is an older married woman whose husband seems even more distant, leaving her wondering what’s the next chapter for them until something tragic happens. Sara is the most blindsided of the four women when she discovers a heavy secret her husband has been hiding. Erin, on the other hand, is a young engaged woman who’s loss is for the best in many ways and allows her to blossom into a stronger version of herself.

“It’s strange how you can know people for so long yet only uncover slivers of who they really are and what they’ve been through.”

Wax explores the boundaries of friendship within this book club. Many readers have joined book clubs and have found friendship, fun, and wine, but would you call of the people in your book club a friend? Do you share personal experiences, talk about your heartaches, and delve deeper than the pages of the book to create lasting relationships outside of the book club? These are the questions that Wax explores in her novel, and while I love her lighter, beach reads, it is clear to me that these characters have depth — more so than her other characters — and that the sorrow in these pages is born of real experience.

My only complaint would be that the online dating mystery is wrapped up rather quickly and is too simplified, making it seem like an afterthought or something that was added to make it the book more relevant to today’s dating world. However, The Break-Up Book Club by Wendy Wax is an excellent read that explores friendship and how it can evolve over time as long as you are willing to open yourself up and be vulnerable. Definitely a read you won’t forget.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Wendy Wax, a former broadcaster, is the author of sixteen novels and two novellas, including My Ex–Best Friend’s WeddingBest Beach EverOne Good ThingSunshine BeachA Week at the LakeWhile We Were Watching Downton AbbeyThe House on Mermaid PointOcean Beach, and Ten Beach Road. The mother of two grown sons, she has left the suburbs of Atlanta for an in-town high-rise, that is eerily similar to the fictional high-rise she created in her 2013 release, While We Were Watching Downton Abbey.

Frankie Sparks and the Lucky Charm by Megan Frazer Blakemore

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 128 pgs.
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Frankie Sparks and the Lucky Charm by Megan Frazer Blakemore, illustrated by Nadja Sarell, is another strong book in the series that helps kids learn about science and investigation, while having fun. We love that this series provides tips on how to make your own designs and solve your own problems through science. In this one, Frankie is wondering about whether leprechauns are real, and she decides that setting a trap is the best way to find out. One problem, if she proves they don’t exist, her friend Maya might just be devastated, since she believes they are real.

Kids will learn about designing foolproof traps for leprechauns and how to design things with potential failures in mind. But how Frankie tackles her friend’s possible sadness over the results of her experiment will teach children to consider others’ feelings and work together to solve problems. It also was good to see that Frankie has more scientists in her family. Her Aunt Nichelle is working on a space garden, but of course she has to do some experiments on Earth, rather than space, but the ultimate goal is to enable astronauts to grow their own food in space. The exchange between Frankie and her aunt was fantastic. It demonstrated that kids are not alone and that they can lean on their elders to learn more and grow.

Frankie Sparks and the Lucky Charm by Megan Frazer Blakemore, illustrated by Nadja Sarell, is a strong series of books in which kids can not only learn how to work with friends and classmates, but also adults. Along they way they will garner skills in experimentation and design, among others. We highly recommend these books.

RATING: Cinquain

Instant Gratification by Lauren Blakely (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 8+ hrs.
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Instant Gratification by Lauren Blakely, an audio with a full cast, was so much fun to listen to. Jason Reynolds and Truly Goodman have significant chemistry but a pact she made with her brother nearly a decade ago stands in their way of getting together, even if they had a one night of hot romance. Both of these workaholics also don’t have time for dating. Jason Reynolds is The Modern Gentleman Of New York and a best man for hire, two jobs he doesn’t want to see collide, and he needs to finish his work as a best man in order to help pay for his sister’s medical school.

While the sexual tension is palpable and the heat rises on more than one occasion, Blakely shines in her comedy. The zingers between the men and their friends, the banter between Truly and Jason is hilarious, and there is so much more fun to be had in this audiobook. There is a full cast of audiobook narrators on this one, and they clearly had a grand time making this one.

Instant Gratification by Lauren Blakely is a riot, and I was laughing out loud. My daughter was dying to know what I was listening to, but sadly this is not for young ears. I needed a good laugh and this book hit the spot. The characters are well drawn and their interactions are believable — for high-end Manhattanites.

RATING: Cinquain

Suburban Souls by Maria Espinosa

Source: Publicist
Paperback, 232 pgs.
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Suburban Souls by Maria Espinosa is a disturbing story with emotional and physical abuse, but the real crux of the novel is the impact of trauma on not only the generations immediately affected but how that trauma becomes a ripple effect throughout more than one generation. Gerda and Saul are survivors of the Holocaust and after escaping to the United States, they fall into a marriage because of their shared past, but is that enough to heal them.

“It began for Hannah during the winter of eighth grade.

The artificial feeling. I am not acting real, she would think. I am not real. I don’t exist, pressed between my mother’s and father’s spirits, suffocated by their warring. While she responded cheerily to her friends’ overtures, she felt as if she were artificial, a windup doll.” (pg. 91)

Readers will be taken into the tormented mind of Gerda and how her outbursts and physical abuse of Saul and her children leads to her daughter, Hannah, internalizing Gerda’s psychological issues. Readers will be drawn into this family quickly, but at the start, readers will likely be slack jawed in disbelief. Trauma affects people in different ways. Saul is no less affected by trauma, but his manifests in less violent ways. He withdraws from his family completely to protect himself, he doesn’t act to protect his children, he’s a passive observer of his life.

Espinosa is a gifted storyteller and her novel pulls no punches about mental health and its reverberating effects from parent to child. She clearly has some experience with mental illness and it shows in the realistic portrayal of this family and their struggles. Like many with mental illness, there is no resolution or solution that remedies everything in their lives, and Espinosa doesn’t pretend that there will be. Her characters are broken, the edges are sharp, and the story is stark. Don’t miss out on reading Suburban Souls by Maria Espinosa.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Maria Espinosa, a former Bay Area resident who now lives in Albuquerque, has been an author for over 50 years. A novelist, poet, translator, and teacher, who has been reviewed in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, New York Review of Books, and The San Francisco Chronicle, she is featured in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. Her five novels include: Incognito: Journey of a Secret Jew, Dark Plums, and Longing, which received an American Book Award, as well as Dying Unfinished, which received a Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence from PEN Oakland. Her fifth and most recent novel Suburban Souls, tells a tale of Jewish German Holocaust survivors in 1970s San Francisco. She has also published two collections of poems, Love Feelings, and Night Music, and a critically acclaimed translation of George Sand’s novel, Lelia. Concerned with human communication on a level that transcends the norms permitted by society, her novels focus on the subtle as well as the obvious forces that shape a human being.

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