Review of Blackout

Blackout

by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon

performed by Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Dion Graham, Imani Parks, Jordan Cobb, Shayna Small, A. J. Beckles, and Bahni Turpin

HarperAudio, 2021. 6 hours, 55 minutes.
Review written December 30, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2021 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #5 Teen Fiction

This is a lovely collection of six love stories written by six outstanding authors for young adults. All the stories are set on the day of a major blackout in New York City, and all the teens are Black. All the couples are also gravitating toward a block party supposed to happen in Brooklyn that night.

But given those constraints, we’ve got lots of variety. One story is presented in five acts as the couple attempts to walk across New York City from Harlem to Brooklyn to get home. They had recently broken up after years together, and now they’re stuck with each other again when the subways aren’t running. Another story has a boy helping another boy in the dark of the subway — and he’s only beginning to admit to himself that he’s attracted to that boy. One story takes place on a tour bus with a class from Jackson, Mississippi, exploring New York. There’s a love triangle on the bus. Another girl is helping out residents of a retirement home when she finally meets the girl her grandfather’s been telling her about. One girl wants to get to the party to confront her ex and get him to take her back. That plan is disrupted by the driver of the car she hired. Another couple have been friends for years and now they’re on a quest to settle a bet in the dark in New York Public Library after they were supposed to leave with everyone else.

All of the stories are charming, and all of them are fun to listen to. Tiffany D. Jackson’s story in five acts begins the collection, and then another act is presented in between the other stories. Each story happens a little bit later in that fateful evening as we hear about the couple walking across the city. And as that couple progresses through the city, they come near each other couple along the way. The listener gets a sense of walking through the city, but focusing in on side stories along the way.

And as they chose outstanding writers for this collection, they chose amazing narrators for the audiobook. This collection is a complete delight.

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Review of Pony, by R. J. Palacio, read by Ian M. Hawkins

Pony

by R. J. Palacio
read by Ian M. Hawkins

Listening Library, 2021. 7 hours.
Review written November 29, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Wow. If you read the author’s book Wonder, you won’t be surprised that she can tell a good story, but this one is completely different from that one – but completely captivating.

We’ve got a 12-year-old narrator named Silas who lives alone with his Pa outside a small town in 1860 in the west. His Pa is a bootmaker who has figured out how to print daguerreotypes on paper. One night, some rough men come to their house and take his Pa away with them, saying they want him to help them out with a job. They bring a pony for Silas, but Pa refuses to go with them if they take Silas. He tells Silas to stay in the house and not let anyone in.

When the pony comes back a couple days later, Silas takes it as a sign that he should go find Pa. Sometime in there we discover that Silas has the ability to see ghosts. And he’s got a ghost companion, a sixteen-year-old boy he calls Mittenwool. Mittenwool tries to convince him to stay home like Pa told him, but Silas is determined to help Pa.

Fortunately, they come across a federal marshal named Enoch Farmer who is on the track of a gang of counterfeiters. They establish that the men he’s after are the ones who took Pa. The marshal helps Silas navigate the wilderness, have food to eat, and follow the track of the counterfeiters. The marshal doesn’t know how much Mittenwool helps them stay on track. But when they’ve found the counterfeiters’ lair, an accident means Silas is going to need to get help on his own.

This story had me not wanting to stop for anything. The part after the dramatic confrontation is a little long, but kids do like loose ends being tied up, so I can’t really fault the author for that. And I was happy to know how things turned out for Silas.

This is a wonderful yarn with danger and adventure and a kid you can’t help but love, a kid who’s got the smartest and best Pa in the world. And the help of a remarkable pony.

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Review of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V. E. Schwab

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

by V. E. Schwab
narrated by Julia Whelan

Macmillan Audio, 2020. 17 hours, 10 minutes.
Review written October 5, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

This is the amazing epic tale of a girl who sold her soul to the god of Darkness.

She was at her wits’ end. She lived in a small village in France in 1714. At 23 years old, her family had decided she must marry an older man from the village. Her life stretched out before her bleak and hard. She wanted to live! And she wanted to be free.

But when she prayed desperately to the gods on the day of her wedding, she hadn’t realized that the sun went down and it was the Dark who answered. He was happy to give her the wish – but when she got tired of living, her soul would be forfeit.

However, in granting her wish to be completely free, the Dark cursed her to never be remembered. She could interact with people, but as soon as they turned their back or a door closed between them and Addie, they would completely forget her. And there was more – she couldn’t speak her name or tell her story. If she tried to write words or make any kind of mark, it was instantly erased. In fact, the only person who remembered her and knew her name was the god of Darkness himself.

First, her family and the friends in her village forgot her, as if she had never existed. But Addie quickly learned that it was difficult even to order food or rent a room. Eventually, she learned that she could steal, because that is anonymous. But if someone saw her stealing and was able to stop her, she would still suffer.

She could suffer – but she did not age or get illness or lasting wounds. She had immortality – and the Dark underestimated her stubbornness, as well as her excitement in discovering new things. She wasn’t willing to forfeit her soul. She even learned, over the years, that ideas are more lasting than memory. While she never could have an accurate painting or photograph made of her, she could and did inspire art and music.

But one day in New York City, almost 300 years from the day she was cursed, she brings a book back to a bookstore that she stole from it the day before – and the bookstore clerk remembers her! And it continues! She finds she can even tell him her name.

And so, after almost three hundred years, Addie LaRue’s life changes. But the reason why this boy can remember her brings with it a new set of problems.

This story tells about Addie’s long life and adventures interspersed with scenes from the present (2014), weaving a rich tapestry of an amazing life, which may not have been entirely invisible.

And of course it raises many questions. Would it be worth living a long life if you couldn’t leave any mark on the world? Is it possible to love people who forget you? What are the things that make life worth living? And of course the big one: What would you be willing to give up your soul to get?

The audiobook was wonderful, giving Addie a slight French accent and distinguishing the characters well, but it’s very long. I enjoyed a trip through Skyline Drive in early Autumn to finish it off, and it made the drive all the more incredible.

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Review of The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T. J. Klune, read by Daniel Henning

The House in the Cerulean Sea

by T. J. Klune
read by Daniel Henning

Macmillan Audio, 2020. 12 hours, 12 minutes.
Review written June 29, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

I listened to this book based on several recommendations from my Silent Book Club Facebook group as a feel-good read. I was delighted with the story. It felt like a familiar children’s fantasy book opening, but then I realized the twist is that the main character is a man in his forties.

Linus Baker has worked for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth for seventeen years. His reports are meticulous and he cares about the children in the orphanages that he inspects. No matter what their alarming magical capabilities, children deserve to be well-cared for.

However, when Linus is not in the field inspecting orphanages, his life at the office and at home is gray and dreary. Besides the constant rain and the rows of desks a little too close together for someone of Linus’s girth, there’s a supervisor always looking for reasons to give demerits. So one day when she calls out Linus and tells him to report to Extremely Upper Management, he thinks he’s in big trouble.

But because of those meticulous reports, Linus has been asked to inspect an orphanage that is Classified Level Four because of some very unusual magical powers in the children. He’ll spend a month there, and he’s expected to keep an objective demeanor.

And that’s where if the story were a film, it turns from black-and-white to technicolor. The orphanage is a house on an island in the Cerulean Sea. And this is where the book turns to one of those stories where the adult’s life is transformed because of the love of children – but again, the twist is that this time we’re seeing it from the adult’s point of view. Oh, and also because the children are extremely unusual.

The master of the orphanage, Arthur Parnassas, is also unusual. As Linus gets to know the children and Arthur, he sees someone training some rather alarming children with wisdom and grace. He needs to stay objective, but he also wants to do what’s best for the children.

It’s not too much of a spoiler to tell the reader that one of the children’s files says he is the antichrist, and his father is the devil. If you know anything about what the Bible has to say about the antichrist, as I do, you’ll know that they get every detail about that wrong. However, if you can shake that aside and think of Lucy as a fantasy creature and a little boy who is presumed to be evil because of his parentage, and who plays on all the stereotypes of that parentage – but who Arthur teaches Linus to see as a child with as much potential for good as any other – then you will still thoroughly enjoy this book.

I didn’t like the narrator at first, because I think he puts pauses in odd places, but he grew on me and seemed right for Linus Baker, a bureaucrat who lives his life by the book – the book of Rules and Regulations that he carries around with him.

This is a lovely warm story of transformation and the wonder of children – even wildly diverse children. And there’s even a nice bit of romance.

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Source: This review is based on a library eaudiobook from Fairfax County Public Library.

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Review of The Garden of Small Beginnings, by Abbi Waxman

The Garden of Small Beginnings

by Abbi Waxman
read by Emily Rankin

Penguin Audio, 2017. 9 hours, 51 minutes.
Review written June 15, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

I read this book after reading The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, by the same author, because all of Abbi Waxman’s books had been recommended in my Silent Book Club Facebook group as feel-good reading. They were right! This is a nice happy story about a young widow named Lilian, the mother of two girls, who gets signed up for a gardening class by her boss – and the class is led by a handsome instructor from Europe with a marvelous accent (especially appreciated in the audiobook version) who is also attracted to Lilian.

But Lilian isn’t ready to date, even though it’s been four years. And she doesn’t believe her kids are ready either. So the book is about Lilian working through that, and the gardening class, and the friends she makes in the class, and the family and relationships around Lilian, including her wonderfully precocious kids.

I do have a caveat: I’m an older single and have my eyes open for a match – with very little luck. I recently told off a couple of married friends who implied that I was overlooking possibilities. Trust me, that’s not a thing! And this destroys my suspension of disbelief when it comes to reading a Meet-Cute story. There is no way I can bring myself to believe that in real life the instructor would be single and available, near her age, handsome, and a good match for her. It just wouldn’t happen. And they are not even the only couple that meets in this book!

So, I’m going to have to switch over and read some murder mysteries or nice tragedies or maybe a revenge novel. I’m still glad, though, I finished this book – sometimes fairy tales are nice to read. And if you’re looking for a happy and thoughtful romance-after-loss about some delightful people you’ll be glad to hang around, I do recommend this book. If you’re turning cynical, though, you might need to set it aside. This is a feel-good book for people who are already feeling pretty happy.

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Review of Barracoon, by Zora Neale Hurston, read by Robin Miles

Barracoon

The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

by Zora Neale Hurston
read by Robin Miles

HarperAudio, 2018. 4 hours, 25 minutes.
Review written August 22, 2020, from a library eaudiobook

A barracoon is an enclosure used to hold people who were abducted and then shipped to America to be enslaved. In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston interviewed Cudjo Lewis, the last living survivor of the last ship that had brought captives from Africa. This book tells his story.

Cudjo Lewis was eighty-six years old in 1927 and had outlived his children and his wife, so his story is a tough one. I did enjoy listening to this rather than reading it, because the narrator Robin Miles did a wonderful job reading his dialect so I could listen to it smoothly, and I think that reading it might have made me stumble. As it was, she captured the character of this old man remembering an eventful life.

The Introduction at the beginning is dry, and I almost gave up, but the narrative once Cudjo starts his story is gripping. He was an older teen when his whole village was slaughtered or abducted in Africa. Then there was a secret voyage across the ocean, since shipping captives from Africa was then illegal. He was enslaved for five years. After they told him he was free, those who had come from Africa were looked down on by the American-born freed people, so they formed their own town and built their own church and school. He wanted to go back to Africa, but it was far too expensive, so he made the best of life in America.

A lot of the book is devoted to what his life was like in Africa. He was not yet considered a man when he was abducted, but he was old enough to remember experiencing his entire childhood in Africa.

The story of his children’s deaths is hard to listen to, though at least he had grandchildren left and one daughter-in-law. He was sexton of his church and clearly had a community looking out for him. I like the way he’d tell Zora Neale Hurston to stay away for a few days when he planned to work in his garden. She didn’t insert herself into the narrative much, but I did like hearing about them sharing peaches and watermelons together. He appreciated someone listening to his stories – and now you can hear them, too.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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Review of Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict, by Laura Viera Rigler

Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict

by Laura Viera Rigler
read by Kate Reading

Tantor Audio, 2009. 9 hours.
Review written May 17, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

I’d already read and reviewed the companion to this book, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, where Courtney Stone from modern-day Los Angeles gets transferred to the body of Jane Mansfield, a young lady who lived in Regency England. This book gives us the flip side of that exchange, and tells us what it’s like for Jane Mansfield to wake up in modern-day Los Angeles, in Courtney’s body.

I enjoyed this story more. I’m sure it was partly that I’d gotten used to the premise and didn’t get bogged down on the fantasy of the mechanics and how it wouldn’t really work to switch bodies. I was used to the idea and just went with it.

And the challenges of a young lady from the past trying to deal with present-day technology are astounding! She didn’t even have the vocabulary to know what things were called. The author did make use of “cellular memory” – the body itself knew how to do things, just as Courtney was remarkably good at embroidery when she was in Jane’s body. So Jane in Courtney’s body could quickly navigate using a computer, once somebody showed her what it was. She used her concussion as a reason to need a lot of things explained to her.

It was a lot of fun seeing the modern world through a 200-year-old consciousness. When she arrives and Pride and Prejudice is playing on Courtney’s TV, Jane is astonished, wondering how the actors got into the box, and she definitely recognizes the scene, for she, too, is a Jane Austen addict – but didn’t even know the name of the author of Pride and Prejudice. She’s delighted that there are four more novels by this same author on the shelves of her modern-day apartment.

I still wasn’t exactly happy about how each woman was trying to straighten out the other’s love life. Because who is really in love with whom if it’s a different person in that body? And then the author fudged the ending a bit, so it didn’t end exactly as I expected it to. Did I misunderstand the ending of the other book? All the same, it seems everyone will live happily ever after. What more could you ask for?

This set of books is a lot of fun, and the more so the less you get bogged down in trying to figure out how it would work. Don’t try; just enjoy it. After all, it would take a little magic for someone to live and learn to thrive in a life 200 years in the future.

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Review of The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, by Abbi Waxman

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

by Abbi Waxman
read by Emily Rankin

Penguin Audio, 2019. 9 hours.
Review written May 10, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

This book was recommended by members of my Silent Book Club Facebook group as a feel-good read, and I was delighted with it.

Nina Hill lives alone with her cat and likes it that way. She has plenty of activities after her work day at a bookstore, but she’s careful to schedule one night per week for reading. She was raised by a nanny, as her international photographer mother was always traveling, and her mother told her she didn’t even know who Nina’s father was.

So Nina is surprised when a lawyer informs her that her father has died and she’s mentioned in the will. It turns out that her mother had told him to never contact Nina, but he was, in fact, her father. It also turns out that she now suddenly has a great big family of siblings and nieces and nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews who also live in the Los Angeles area. (When I say “great big,” it’s not anywhere near as big as my family. But going from zero to a dozen or so is a big change. So I’m talking big for a normal person.)

At the same time, her trivia team members are urging her to get to know the handsome man on an opposing quiz team – and his team members are urging the same thing. But can Nina have a good relationship with someone who doesn’t read?

Honestly, I took it a little personally that the book implied that Nina looking for a man who reads would be unrealistic. I couldn’t actually see that they have a whole lot in common and wonder what they will talk about after they stop spending all their time together having sex. (Though admittedly, it turns out that his occupation is perfect.)

On top of that, every new family member she got to know had something in common with Nina, many being avid readers, and it was easy to see she’ll become good friends with them. Shouldn’t she also have something in common with a romantic partner? (Bear in mind that I’m unduly sensitive, since I would like to find a man who reads. I suppose if he’s good-looking, smart, and kind, like this guy, that might be enough – but I’m reserving some skepticism.)

It’s a delightful book, though. I related to book-lover Nina so very much. I did keep wishing she’d discover Library Science, though! She could get a Master’s in Library Science, become a librarian, and do all the things in a library that she was doing in the bookstore – without having to make a profit and getting a little more respect for her prodigious knowledge. She could still run book clubs and activities, but instead of needing to sell books, she could simply encourage people to read books. And her encyclopedic knowledge of trivia would come in handy at the reference desk.

But that’s the book I wanted, not the book before me. And the book before me was wonderful!

If you’re a book-lover at all, there’s an excellent chance you’ll love this particular book – the story of one of us.

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Review of The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen A. Flynn

The Jane Austen Project

by Kathleen A. Flynn
performed by Saskia Maarleveld

HarperAudio, 2017. 11 hours on 9 CDs.
Review written May 3, 2021, from a library audiobook.
Starred Review

Here’s another book featuring time travel to Jane Austen’s time. My time listening to this audiobook in the car happened to overlap with listening to the eaudiobook Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. But this one meticulously explained how the purposeful and planned time travel happened – much more satisfying to the science fiction reader in me.

You see, in the future, after the “die-off,” time travel has been developed. Rachel Katzman, a doctor who has done work with disaster relief and happens to love Jane Austen novels, applied and was accepted to the Jane Austen Project, an undertaking of the Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics.

Her mission, together with Liam Finuca, an Austen scholar, is to go back in time to 1815, not long before Jane Austen’s death. They are posing as a brother and sister, Dr. William Ravenswood and his sister Mary. They arrive in 1815 with counterfeit money strapped to their bodies. They plan to ingratiate their way into the society of Jane’s brother Henry, and from there make the acquaintance of Jane. And they want to be good enough acquaintances to somehow get a copy of the complete version of The Watsons as well as find the missing letters, before those letters get burned by Jane’s sister Cassandra, and maybe diagnose the disease that killed Jane.

Can they do all this? They’ve got a letter of introduction from an Austen relative in Jamaica, so it would be difficult to check. But can they win Henry over, and then Jane? It helps when Henry gets sick and Liam becomes an attentive doctor friend checking on him. Henry doesn’t know that it’s “Mary” who’s the real doctor, telling her “brother” what questions to ask.

There begin to be signs that they’ve disturbed the “probability field,” so they have worries about what they’re changing by all their actions in their own past.

This book was delightful. I loved the way they had to know all about Jane Austen’s life and about customs of the time, so that gets conveyed to the reader (unlike the poor clueless heroine in Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict). The book pulls you in and helps the reader see all the difficulties one would face if you tried to be accepted into the society of 1815 without detection.

This book is like Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict in that part of the difficulty – and some of the humor – is a woman with more modern attitudes regarding sex trying to fit in during that time, when attitudes are very different. Fair warning to Jane Austen fans: This book has more sex scenes and sexual situations than Jane Austen’s books do.

I’m not completely satisfied with the ending, when it’s revealed, that yes, their time travel changed some things. (I think it’s not a spoiler if I don’t say what was changed, parts of which made me happy.) But then, I always have trouble with time travel paradoxes. I did appreciate that they attempted to explain the repercussions.

And the book is so much fun! You forget it’s fiction and feel like you’ve been immersed in Jane Austen’s time and Jane Austen’s society. A real treat for Jane Austen fans.

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Review of Three Keys, by Kelly Yang, read by Sunny Lu

Three Keys

by Kelly Yang
read by Sunny Lu

Scholastic Audiobooks, 2020. 6 hours, 11 minutes, on 5 discs.
Review written April 6, 2021, from a library audiobook
Starred review

Three Keys is a sequel to the wonderful Front Desk, continuing the story of Mia Tang, who immigrated with her parents to California in the 1990s and ended up becoming owners of the motel they were managing.

In this segment of the story, now although they don’t have a harsh owner to work for, they still need to manage the motel in ways that will make a profit. The investors give them a hard time if profits are down. Mia learns that her parents have dreams of their own, since her mother was an engineer and her father a medical researcher in China. But now they’re busy cleaning rooms.

Meanwhile, the author takes on social issues again, setting the story in 1994, when Governor Pete Wilson was running for reelection and pushing the passage of Prop 187, which would crack down on undocumented immigrants and not allow their children to go to school or for them to receive any services.

I no longer lived in California in 1994, but my family did, so I had a sinking knowledge as I read the book of who would win the election. The book showed some of the hate crimes and strong anti-immigrant sentiment that came out at that time. Meanwhile, Mia’s best friend Lupe’s parents are undocumented, and her father gets arrested with looming deportation. But Mia is determined to fight it.

Even knowing what would happen with the proposition, this book still managed to be hopeful and show a human face to immigration and make you care about these kids, trying to spread concern for others. They encounter obstacles, but make a difference with many of those obstacles.

Oh, in the author’s note at the back, the author does connect the dots between Pete Wilson’s campaign in 1994 and Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016, and how both stirred up hatred and fear against immigrants. She mentions that Prop 187 was struck down by the courts, but her characters would have been worse off in 2020 than they were in the book world in 1994. She does point out this is a timely topic.

Mia’s a character you can’t help but love. I hope there will be more books about her and her struggle to make the world a better place, even if it’s in small ways.

frontdeskthebook.com
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