Audiobook: Victoria

victoriaby Daisy Goodwin
Read by : Anna Wilson-Jones
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some illusions to sex and scandal, but mostly it’s a pretty straight-up historical fiction. Good for those who are interested in England and/or queens and/or history. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I have always had a bit of a weakness for historical fiction when it comes to royalty. I ate up the Phillipa Gregrory books about the Tudors back in the day, and I’m sure there’s more than I’m forgetting. I’ve had my eye on this one since it came out back in November, mostly because the cover is so pretty (and we all know I’m a sucker for pretty covers). I didn’t quite know what to expect about the book, though.

For the most part, I enjoyed it. Taking place over the first year or so of Victoria’s reign, it deals with her conflicts with her mother and her mother’s “companion” Conroy, with learning how to govern (and her dependence on, and infatuation with which was heavily played up, Lord Melbourne), and with finding her feet. It ends just as she meets and marries Albert, so there’s very little of the Victoria she came to be.

But the thing that kept me listening was the narrator. She was FANTASTIC. All the perfect inflections for every character, and she kept me wanting to know more about the characters and the story. I’m sure I would have enjoyed this one in print; Goodwin is an excellent writer, and she knew how to balance the personal aspects of Victoria’s story with the political ones to keep it intriguing. But, listening to it gave it the push it needed for me to really enjoy the book.

 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

billylynnby Ben Fountain
First sentence: “The men of Bravo are not cold.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: Oh, the swearing! Lots and lots and lots. It’s in the adult fiction section at the bookstore.

This one is going to be tricky to sum up. It takes place over several hours, during a Thanksgiving day Dallas Cowboys football game in 2004. But, it’s more than that. It’s the story of the Bravo team in the Army who are on a Victory Tour after a battle in Al-Ansakar, in which one of their members was killed. It’s the story of Billy, a 19-year-old who enlisted after he was arrested for smashing out the windows of his sister’s awful boyfriend. (It was either the Army or jail.) It’s the story of Billy’s relationship to his family, and the people who are concerned about him going back to the war. It’s the story of a post 9/11 America, of the people who were so patriotic and so gung-ho about the war and the conflict between their vision of the war and the reality that Bravo experiences.

I’m not entirely sure how accurate it is in portraying a military experience, but I found it fascinating. I enjoyed getting to know Billy and the Bravos (I especially liked their sergeant, Dime.) and learning Billy’s backstory (his father was especially awful). I was fascinated by the contradiction between military life and civilian life; those of us not in the military really do take things for granted, and no amount of  patriotic “I support the troops” will change that. I don’t know if Fountain’s objective was to make that division clear, but that’s what came through to me. That all the things we, as civilians, usually do to call ourselves patriotic (flying the flags, saying we support the troops, etc.) pales in comparison to what those who actually join the military do. They’re the ones who put their lives on the line, every day. And flying the flag and saying we love the USA is nothing in comparison.

It got me thinking, anyway, which is a hallmark of a good book.

Reader, I Married Him

readerimarriedhimEdited by Tracy Chevalier
First sentence: “Why is ‘Reader, I married him” one of the most famous lines in literature?”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: Some of the stories are sweary, including a dozen or so f-bombs spread out over several stories. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

First, a confession: while I’ve read Jane Eyre, I don’t love it. I’m not a huge Bronte fan, though I recognize the literary merit of their books. So, I really didn’t know what to expect from a short story collection that was built around one of the pivotal moments in Jane Eyre.

And, for the most part, I enjoyed this. I liked the ones that spun off completely from the idea of Jane Eyre, except for “The Mirror” which played with the idea that Mr. Rochester was a narcissist, an idea to which I can definitely ascribe. I also liked the parallels to the original in ” The Orphan Exchange.”

Other than that, I liked the ones that played with historical fiction — like “Since I First Saw Your Face” and “Reader, I Married Him.”  Though I think my favorite was “Self-Seeding Sycamore. ” I liked the play between the characters in the story; I think it was the only one where I felt there was actually chemistry between the characters.

So, while this was not a collection I would have picked up on my own (it was a book group book), I did enjoy it.

 

Audiobook: Today Will Be Different

todaywillbedifferentby Maria Semple
Read by Kathleen Wiljoite
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s two f-bombs, and assorted other milder swearing. There’s also some uncomfortable domestic issues, and thematically it skews, well, adult. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

I loved the way this book began:

Today will be different. Today I will be present. Today, anyone I’m speaking to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today I’ll play a board game with Timby. I’ll initiate sex with Joe. Today I will take pride in my appearance. I’ll shower, get dressed in proper clothes and only change into yoga clothes for yoga, which today I will actually attend. Today I won’t swear. I won’t talk about money. Today there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I’m capable of being. Today will be different.

It’s such a gloriously low bar for everything. I can completely relate.

Eleanor is trying to make it through each day. Some days are more successful than others. And on this day — the book takes place in 24 hours, with some flashbacks — she will be challenged. Her 8-year-old son, Timby, will fake being sick to get out of being bullied at school. She will discover her husband told his office he’s on vacation, which he is most assuredly not. She will be reminded — strongly — of her estranged sister. She will get a concussion and steal someone else’s keys. It will not be a winner of a day, by any standards, but Eleanor will be — hopefully — better for it.

I think the secret to this one, at least for me, was listening to it.  The narrator was AMAZING. So good in fact, that I want to hunt out other books she’s read. I think she captured Eleanor perfectly, and she pulled me into the narrative. I’m pretty sure it was because of the narrator that I came to love Eleanor and look forward to hearing more about this crazy day (and her crazy past) she was having. (Maybe I would have liked it in print… Stemple is a good writer; the story is entertaining and made me think as well. Plus there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments as well.)

Sometimes I like adult books. This was definitely one of those times.

Meg

megby  Steve Alten
First sentence: “From the moment the early morning fog had begun to lift, the sensed they were being watched.”
Content: There’s a handful (a dozen or so) s-words, and damns, and some inferences to sex. It would be in the science fiction/fantasy section if we had it in the bookstore.

Jonas Taylor was a hot shot navy submarine pilot, until, down in the depths of the ocean, he encountered something rare and horrifying. It cost the lives of two men, and a dishonorable discharge for Jonas. But he was certain: he saw a Crcharodon megalodon, a prehistoric shark. He dedicated his life to researching the meg, as he calls it, to the exclusion of everything else. It cost him his marriage, it made him a joke, but he became the expert. And now, there’s another expedition into the depths, and he’s been called on board: there’s something odd down there and Jonas is called back into service. No, he wasn’t crazy: there was a megalodon down there, and it’s awake and terrorizing the waters.

This is definitely not my usual reading; I picked it up because I was asked to be on a review board for a challenge on this book. (It’s being challenged for the swearing and the inferences to sex.) I accepted before I knew what this book was, and I have to say, content-wise, it’s not that bad. (I suppose, if it was being read to 6th graders, I suppose I’d balk.) But, it’s not a great book. Sure it’s got action (the body count is way high), but it’s pulpy, and the writing pedantic. And maybe just prehistoric sharks aren’t my thing, but I never really liked it. I have issues with the way he treated women — there were two; one was a “bitch” and “deserved” to die, the other the love interest who was never given much of anything to do. And Jonas, I think was supposed to be “troubled” and edgy, but mostly came off as insecure and whiny. You know when you’re rooting for the shark that things are bad.

So, no, I don’t think it should have been challenged for content. But, there are definitely better books out there.

Redshirts

redshirtsby John Scalzi
First sentence: “From the top of the large boulder he sat on, Ensign Tom Davis looked across the expanse of the cave toward Captain Lucius Abertnathy, Science Officer Q’eeng and Chief Engineer Paul West perched on a second, larger boulder, and thought, Well, this sucks.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: Aside from the number of deaths (some of which were gruesome) and a bunch of swearing (including a lot of f-bombs), it’s fairly accessible. I’d give it to any nerdy geek (teen and up) who’s interested.  It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Things are a bit weird on the starship Intrepid. Sure, they’re the flagship of the Universal Union, but they’re experiencing a higher than average number of deaths. Mostly of new ensigns. And no one seems to know why it’s happening. Sure, they’ve figured out it’s always the newbies, and that going with certain crew members either ensures your safety (or demise). But there’s really no rhyme or reason to it. When five new ensigns  — Dahl, Duvall, Hester, Hanson, and Finn — get assigned to the Intrepid, they’re thrown into the weirdness of it all. Except that they (especially Dahl) really like their lives and want to continue to live. Thankfully, there’s one person on the Intrepid — a hermit named Jensen — who has things sort of figured out. It’s all just a lot weirder than anyone was expecting.

First: I’m not really a Trekkie. Sure, I watched some of TNG and most of Deep Space 9. I’m fluent in Trek, I know what’s going on, but I’m not a super huge mega fan or anything. All that is to say that even if you’re not a Trekkie, and you only know the basic fringes of the show (especially the original show), you’ll get what Scalzi is parodying here. And that is enough to have enormous amounts of fun with this. No, it’s not side-splitting hilarious, but it is amusing. And entertaining. It’s not deep (though the epilogues are clever and sweet), but it’s fun. The characters are delightful (mostly), and it’s fascinating watching the meta upon meta plot unfold. In short: it’s a well-written romp through a genre that sometimes takes itself way too seriously.

And sometimes that is exactly what you need.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

tenantofwildfellby Anne Bronte
Fist sentence: “Dear Halford, When we were together last, you gave me a very particular and interesting account of the most remarkable occurrences of your early life, previous to our acquaintance; and then you requested a return of confidence from me.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s a lot to digest: a lot of characters, etc. and there’s some reference to… unsavory… things but nothing actual. If you can handle any Bronte or Austen book, then this is for you. It’s in the Adult Fiction section of the bookstore.

I picked this one up on M’s recommendation (I’m not a Bronte fan); she said it was her favorite of the Bronte books she had to read in class, and that I might like it.

The basic plot is this:  a woman — Mrs. Helen Graham — moves into an empty house with her son. She soon becomes the subject of gossip in the neighborhood, and garners the interest of a young man, Gilbert Markham, who soon professes his love for her. Unfortunately, Mrs. Graham isn’t free to love, and she — through letting Gilbert read her diary — confesses all to him. And the all is sordid. She thought she was marrying a good man (or at the very least, an okay one that she could reform) and it turned out that she, well, didn’t. He was a liar, a cheat, a philanderer, and not very kind her her. She put up with it for a while, for the sake of their child, but eventually had enough and left.  Which was unheard of in 1847.

So, on the one hand: good for her! Good for her for getting her and her child out of the marriage. Good for her for sticking up to her beliefs. Good for her for staying strong.

But.

Ugh, why do the Brontes have to be SO moralistic? Was it just a Victorian thing? Even though she was the victim, and I think her husband was all sorts of Awful, she was SO very moralistic. She had absolutely no faults about her, and was always right. Which makes for a very boring main character. It was all: oh! look at the virtuous woman and how she suffers. And I don’t mean to demean women’s suffering or the fact that they were (are!) treated badly at the hands of men. It’s just that, as a character in a book, reading about someone who is So Good is kind of, well, dull.

And then there’s the end. (Spoilers ahead.) She goes back to her husband when he gets ill (really?) because she’s So Good. And then he dies, so she’s free to remarry Markham and live happily ever after. Nice and all, but I dislike the Victorian (again!) notion that a woman is only happy with the (right) man. I’ll give Anne props for including the (right); I’m sure societal conventions were more along the lines of marry the girl off, as long as he’s rich who cares. (See: Jane Austen.) It makes me glad for how far we’ve come.

Or maybe just reading the Brontes makes me irritable. They’re all melodrama and no humor or societal observation. Give me Austen any day.