Audio book: You Should See Me in a Crown

by Leah Johnson
Read by Alaska Jackson
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s some bullying, a race and homophobic-centered hate crime, and one f-bomb. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Liz Lighty has kept her head down through all of high school, avoiding crowds, avoiding any sort of drama. Which isn’t easy in Campbell, Indiana because she is one of only a handful of black kids in the school (and town). But when she doesn’t get a scholarship to the college of her choice, she decides to enter the competition for Prom Queen, since winning that comes with a scholarship. And then, all of a sudden, she’s thrust into the limelight, where she isn’t comfortable.

But there are good things that come out of running for prom queen, too. Like re-kindling her friendship with Jordan, whom she fell out with their freshman year. And the new girl, Mack, who is smart and funny, and whom Liz might just have more than a little crush on.

Oh, this was such a delight to listen to! The narrator is perfect for the book, pulling me in with Liz’s voice and just keeping me there. And Johnson balanced some heavy topics: like a mom who died from sickle cell anemia, as well as the idea of popularity, and overt and covert racism and homophobia. But it’s never an “issue” book. It’s centered in Black joy and excellence, and is just a delight every step of the way. Plus the love story is super super cute. So much cute.

It was exactly the thing I needed and I’m so happy I listened to it.

Audio book: The End of Policing

by Alex S. Vitale
Read by Michael Butler Murray
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some description, none graphic, of abuses by police officers over the history of policing in the United States. It’s in the sociology section of the bookstore.

When all the protests started happening around the death of George Floyd, one of the things I heard and saw was a call to defund the police. I had no idea what that meant, and so (as I do), I found a book — the author was in a story on NPR — to explain it to me.

Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College, collects data in various areas, from homelessness to the war on drugs to protest policing, about how effective the police force and criminal justice system is in the United States. The short answer: the police are completely and utterly ineffective in dealing with problems in communities. They are there to protect those who have property (usually white people) from those who don’t (usually poor, non-white people). And the methods they use are, to be frank, racist and ineffective.

The data in the book is a bit old; the most recent is from 2014-2015, but I don’t think much has gotten better. Vitale asserts that without real reform — and not just more “diversity training” — to communities and the way they tackle things like poverty, joblessness, mental illness, and immigration then searching for “criminals” and arresting Black and brown youth are not going to solve the problems. In short: defund the police and send the money into the social programs that we have been starving for 40 years.

The thing is: this isn’t a Republican/Democrat thing. Vitale reminds readers that Clinton and Obama were as bad promoting policing as the answer to being “tough on crime” as Reagan and the Bushes were. It’s a policy thing. Which reminds me of something else I’ve seen: the system isn’t broken. This IS the system. The way policing has developed in this country is inevitably skewed against the poor and the non-white. And to change it will take an overhaul of not just policing, but the whole system. It’s not going to be fixed with short-term, “look at us we’re doing ‘reforms'” bills, but a constant holding politicians and elected leaders accountable for the money that is going into the policing system.

And I think Vitale has convinced me that we really do need to #defundthepolice.

Audio Book (sort of): James and the Giant Peach

by Roald Dahl
Read by Taika Waititi and friends
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Content: It’s silly, but much like most of Roald Dahl books, mostly harmless.

I don’t know how I stumbled upon Taika Waititi (and friends) reading James and the Giant Peach, but it has been something that has utterly delighted me these past few weeks. It’s a silly story, one I’ve read maybe once (there’s a bit about the wicked aunts killing spiders I think about every time I deep clean, though), one I have usually dismissed as “lesser” Dahl.

But in Waititi’s hands, it was magical. He’s a gifted storyteller, and the people he’s assembled to help him are wonderful as well. Some are more memorable than others: Meryl Streep and Benedict Cumbertbatch as the aunts in Episode 2 were hilarious, Cate Blanchett as the Centipede in Episode 3 was absolutely perfect, and YoYo Ma as the grasshopper was simultaneously incredibly earnest and utterly endearing. I listened to three episodes every Friday, which was about an hour, and I was always charmed.

It’s still a silly story, with an utterly pedantic ending, but Waititi made it wonderful.

Audio book: Me and White Supremacy

by Layla Saad
Read by the author
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Content: There is some mild swearing. It is in the Self-Help section (I think?) of the bookstore.

I am going to say this up front: I read this book wrong. It was meant to be an interactive 28-day journey with journaling and extensive deep reflection. However, that just doesn’t work (for me) in audio format. I listen in the car or doing a puzzle, and it’s just not conducive to a lot of serious reflection. So. I am going to purchase this book (when it’s reprinted; it’s on backorder now) and do the actual work.

Some thoughts though:

This book, by a Black woman, centers on how white people are privileged by the system we live in. Saad asks some tough questions, explains some tough concepts (like white privilege and white fragility), and encourages readers to do the work to become anti-racist and more inclusive. She also asks about concrete commitments we (white people!) can make in order to continue the lifelong pursuit of becoming anti-racist. It’s a challenging book to read, if only because she (very calmly and eloquently) challenges the very fabric of the society white people are used to.

And for that, it’s very much worth reading.

Audiobook: Over the Top

by Jonathan Van Ness
Read by the author
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Or listen on Libro.fm
Content: Jonathan has not lived a PG-13 life, and his book reflects that. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

Much like Tan France’s memoir, I listened this for the sheer pleasure of getting to “know” another person’s story. Jonathan grew up in Qunicey, Illinois, as one of the few out gay people in the town (as he said: “Hunny, I was never in!”). It wasn’t easy. He’d experienced sexual abuse at a young age at the hands of a family friend, and spent most of his childhood and 20s trying to suppress the shame and trauma that came along with that abuse. It doesn’t make for a light, fluffy, fun book, but that’s the point. JVN is known on Queer Eye for being the positive, optimistic one, and he sets out in this book to share all the parts of himself with us. Part of that is bubbly and optimistic, but there’s a lot that isn’t. He’s been through a lot. And I’m glad he’s talking about it.

He was absolutely delightful as a narrator, as well. I liked that he made himself giggle at times and that his voice was choked with emotion at other times (the death of his stepdad, whom he loved, was particularly hard). It’s a very personal story, and I’m glad I chose to experience it in this personal way.

It’s not high literature, but I never expected it to be. It is engaging and entertaining and enlightening, though. And I loved it for those reasons.

Audio book: Mobituaries

by Mo Rocca
Read by the author.
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There may be some mild swearing. And sometimes the topics are kind of gross. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

I picked this one up because I like Mo Rocca on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. Which is also the reason I picked to listen to it rather than read it. I enjoyed listening to Mo tell these stories — some of which I knew, most of which I didn’t — about people and ideas that have passed on. The problem? In audio, while it was going, I was interested and entertained. Afterward, though, I couldn’t tell you a single thing about what I heard. Maybe it’s just how I retain knowledge, maybe it was a bit the way the book was structured (it was more a trivia book than anything else), but I didn’t retain a single thing. It’s very much a bathroom book: read a story while you go to the bathroom, and then put it down.

That does’t mean it was bad. Mo is very entertaining, both as a writer and a reader, and some of these stories were quite fascinating. But it just didn’t stick with me in the long run.

So: entertaining, but not really informative.

Audiobook: The Glass Hotel

by Emily St. John Mandel
Read by Dylan Moore
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This one is a bit hard to sum up, plot wise. We mostly follow Vincent, who grew up in a small town in British Columbia, on the ocean, and whose mom died in a freak accident when she was 13. She’s working as a bartender in the posh Hotel Caiette when she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, who ends up going to jail for running a Ponzi scheme. There are various sub-plots and diversions, but that’s the basic meat of it.

However, the joy in this book comes from the diversions. It doesn’t follow a linear timeline, jumping back and forth throughout the years, as we get to know Vincent and others. Mandel focuses on the effects of actions, and everything in the book is interconnected. There’s a bit of mystery, a bit of romance, a bit of commentary on class issues, and a bit of reflection of art. That sounds disjointed, but it never felt that way. Mandel knows how to bring a reader in and help them care about her characters.

Though, maybe it’s because I listened to the book. The narrator was fabulous, and she was able to pull me in and keep me interested even though the timeline wasn’t always the easiest to follow. I found myself caring about Vincent and her life, as well as a lot of the people who intersected with it, and I’m sure that’s almost entirely because of the way Moore told the story.

It’s not my favorite book of the year, but it was certainly an intriguing one.

Audiobook: Pretty Things

by Janelle Brown
Read by Julia WhelanLauren Fortgang & Hillary Huber 
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Or listen on Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including many f-bombs, as well as non-graphic depictions of sex. It’s in the Fiction section of the bookstore.

Nina Ross has always been at the mercy of her mother’s lifestyle. They’ve moved over and over again, never quite getting ahead. Mostly because her mother really couldn’t hold down a job, preferring to con rich men out of their money. It’s not been a great life, except for that one year when she lived up in Tahoe, and met Benny, but was put off by his uber-rich family (including his sister, Vanessa). But that was all in the past, and Nina herself has resorted to conning and stealing with her boyfriend to help pay her mother’s medical bills since she came down with cancer.

Vanessa is the privileged daughter of a once uber-wealthy family. She wanted to make her own mark on the world, though, so she tried out several things (losing a lot of her trust fund) until she settled on being an Instagram influencer and all that comes with it. But her mother committed suicide, her brother is in an asylum because of his schizophrenia, and her father died and left her the family home, Stonehaven, at Tahoe.

Which is where Vanessa and Nina’s lives intersect: Nina and her boyfriend head up to Tahoe to con Vanessa out of the money Nina is sure is in the house safe. But will they succeed?

Alternating Vanessa and Nina’s viewpoints, this one kept me thoroughly engrossed. I don’t know if it was in part because the narrators were so fabulous (So fabulous!) or if it was the story that kept me interested, but I would sit for hours (working on puzzles) listening to the tale of Vanessa and Nina unfold. There’s a lot in there as well: class issues and privilege and perspectives and how we do or don’t trust and believe in people. Ultimately, it is the story of two women figuring out how to believe in themselves.

Definitely worth reading.

Audiobook: Stop Missing Your Life

by Cory Muscara
Read by the author
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Or listen at libro.fm
Content: There were two f-bombs and some mild swearing, which seemed odd and out of place. It’s in the mindfulness section of the bookstore.

I’m not entirely sure why I picked this up, other than to satisfy a category in the #ReadICT challenge, but I’m kind of glad I did. It’s a how-to and a why book on meditation, something I tried for a while (about a year, I think) and then dismissed as something “too hard” (sitting still is quite hard for me). I do yoga kind of regularly, once or twice a week, but meditation? Not so much.

But, in this crazy world (and especially after the insanity surrounding COVID), I really kind of needed this. Yeah, it’s another Buddhist mindfulness book, but I liked that Muscara is practical about the whole thing. He does impart Buddhist philosophy: that the idea to “happiness” is to be able to sit with emotion and situations as they are, whether “good” or “bad”, and be able to interact with them without trying to control them. That’s not how I usually think of “mindfulness”, and I appreciated thinking differently. He also gives a huge variety of meditation practices, from what you traditionally think of “meditation” to a practice with your phone (or any technology) in order to interact with it in a more present and mindful matter. I think, for me, the simple question of asking why am I doing things has made the most difference. Why am I scrolling through Facebook? Why am I eating the cake? Why do I feel anxious? It’s helped. That, and doing a body scan practice, which, yes, is a form of meditation, every night.

And I highly recommend it on audio. Cory is a good reader, and it’s beneficial to be able to go through some of the practices as he reads them. It’s a very conversational book, which works well in audio form.

It’s probably not drastically changed my life, but I do have a wider perspective on things, and maybe that will, in the long run, be a good thing.

Audio book: The Worst Best Man

by Mia Sosa
Read by: Rebecca Mozo and Wayne Mitchell
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: This is super sweary including a lot of f-bombs, and there’s on-screen sex several times. It’s in the romance section of the bookstore (yes, we have a romance section now!).

Lina Santos has worked hard to get where she is: the owner of a reputable wedding planning business. Sure, she was left at the altar by her fiance four years ago, but she hasn’t let that get in the way. Now, she’s got a shot at the job of a lifetime: wedding coordinator at a prestigious hotel chain. The catch? She has to work with her ex-fiance’s brother, Max, on the presentation. The double catch? They’re totally attracted to each other.

Oh this was so much stupid fun. It’s that sort of smart and sexy romance with a dash of Brazilian flavor (the author identifies as Brazilian-American) that is just fun to read. And this was definitely enhanced (*cough*) by the narrators. Mazo was delightful to listen to and if it’s possible to have a very sexy and sassy voice, Mitchell definitely has it. I think a good two-thirds of the fun of this one was in the delivery of the book. Not that the book itself wasn’t full of that great push and pull (*ahem*) of a well-written romance (and the sex scenes were definitely steamy!), but the narrators brought it to life and made it pop.

Not for everyone, obviously, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it.