04 May 2021

What I Read in April: Part 1

Time for another quick round-up of the books I've read and listened to lately. I finished 16 books in April, most of them audiobooks. Why so many books? I spent the month doing some major paper shredding and cleaning out a storage room. All that gave me hours of good listening time!

Here is part 1 of what I read last month, in the order I finished each book (part 2 will go live on Thursday). Note that the following thoughts are also available on Goodreads. Thanks to the publishers and to Libro.fm for the print, digital, and audiobook review copies. "AFM" means you can find my thoughts about the audiobook production over on the AudioFile Magazine website.

Review of The Babysitter by Liza RodmanThe Babysitter: My Summers with a Serial Killer by Liza Rodman (Atria, March): In the 1960s, author Liza Rodman spent the summers in Provincetown, MA, so her schoolteacher mother could take on seasonal work and party with her friends. Liza and her little sister were left in the care of whomever their mother could find. One of their favorites was Tony Costa, a charming local handyman who would buy the girls ice cream and take them on drives to the nearby woods. When Liza was 10, Tony disappeared from her life, and it wasn't until years later that she learned he had been sent to prison for the gruesome murder and dismemberment of several young women.

The story alternates between Liza's memories of the two or three summers she knew Tony, including her interactions with her neglectful, heavy-drinking mother, and sections based on investigations into Tony's life and crimes. I love true crime, but this book seemed to lack a gripping element. The murders were, of course, horrific, but Liza herself didn't seem to be in any danger. In addition, Tony is described as being well liked, despite the fact that he was into drugs and had a checkered work life. You may have better luck.

The audiobook was read by Andi Arndt and Aida Reluzco, who alternated between the chapters based on Liza's memories and the chapters based on Tony. Their performances were fine; nothing particularly outstanding or problematic.

Review of Lightseekers by Femi KayodeLightseekers by Femi Kayode (Mulholland, March): I like a good mystery and was drawn to this book because it takes place in contemporary Nigeria. The general set up is this: Philip Taiwo and his family return from a long residency in the United States to their native Nigeria. Philip is a criminal psychologist with an interest in hate crimes. He's picked to investigate a brutal murder that took place in a small university town.

The narrative is full of interesting details about life in modern Nigeria, from university life to the courts, the law, and the power of the wealthy. The characters were well wrought and multidimensional. Despite these strengths, the novel, as a mystery, didn't hold up for me. By the middle of the book, I felt lost--partly because the book itself lost focus and partly because I'm not familiar with Nigerian university culture and politics, which played large roles in the story.

Narrator Cary Hite did a fine job with the audiobook. His expressive delivery; varied tempo, cadence, and volume; and good accents strengthened the setting and enlivened the characters.

Review of Anna K by Jenny LeeAnna K: A Love Story by Jenny Lee (Flatiron, 2020): I'm not sure how I missed this contemporary retelling of Anna Karenina when it first came out. Set in Manhattan, this novel includes the familiar characters (like Count Vronsky) of the original but adds in pop and social media references and places most of the upper-class diverse cast in high school. The story follows Anna K and her brother and friends over the course of a party- and drama-filled school year and veers from Anna Karenina in a couple of significant ways.

Despite the multiple brand name references (it got a little tiring), it was easy to get drawn into the YA story, and you don't need to be familiar with Tolstoy to like Anna K. The author's note at the end explains Lee's choices for her version of the classic. I'm looking forward to reading the just-released follow-up novel, Anna K Away. (library book)

Review of All Girls by Emily LaydenAll Girls by Emily Layden (St. Martin's, Feb.): Set in 2015 over the course of a school year in a prestigious private all-girls high school in Connecticut, this story is told from a variety of perspectives. From the opening pages we learn about a 20-year-old rape accusation, which the school has buried and for which the male teacher has suffered no consequences. The over-arching thread of the novel is the mystery of the rape: Did it happen? Who did it? Was it a one-time event?

Each female voice has something to say about the case and its affect on the school. The students also reveal their inner life and the personal issues they face, from their own #MeToo moments to bullying, eating disorders, family pressures, and feminism. The chapters flow well with each other, and the story gives us lots to think about. A complaint is that it's easy to lose track of who is who among the students and staff (AFM).

Review of Dust Off the Bones by Paul HowarthDust Off the Bones by Paul Howarth (Harper, June 8): One of the best books of the year. Note that this is a sequel to Only Killers and Thieves (2018), which you should read first. (Click the link for my thoughts on book 1.)

Brothers Billy and Tommy McBride were forced into estrangement after their unwitting and complicated involvement in crimes against an Aboriginal community in the 1880s, when the boys were young teenagers. Now adults, Billy has become a wealthy landowner and seemingly has moved on from the tragedies of his youth. Tommy has changed his name, has rarely settled in one place, and has struggled all his life to come to terms with the events of his childhood.

Now almost 20 years later, a two-bit lawyer is hired to prosecute Noone, the brutal Native Police Inspector who was responsible for the crimes and for involving the boys. Noone, now a powerful and still cruel-man who is able to control a wide network of evil men, sets out to murder all witnesses to his earlier offenses. The McBride brothers are principal targets.

As in the first book, Howarth pulls no punches: there are no fairy tales in real life, and cold, calculating men don't soften with old age. Billy, Tommy, Noone, and others are vividly drawn and evoke strong and true emotions. The pace and tension are so tightly constructed it's almost impossible to put the book (or in my case, audiobook) down. Australia itself--the land, the people--plays a central role. This duology should be on your must-read list. Please try to avoid spoilers.

The unabridged audiobook was brilliantly read by David Linski, who also performed book 1. Linski portrays the characters perfectly and matches his tempo and volume with Howarth's style.

Review of One Two Three by Laurie FrankelOne Two Three by Laurie Frankel (Henry Holt, Feb.): This is the story of triplets, born in a town that has been scarred after a chemical plant contaminated their drinking water. Nearly everyone in the community has been affected, especially the children, most of whom are disabled in some way. Everyone who had any kind of money long since left the area; the ones who remain suffer in some way.

The Mitchell girls refer to themselves as One, Two, and Three (based on birth order). Mab, seems to be a typical teen, and Monday, the middle triplet, is on the autism spectrum. Mirabel is severely physically disabled, unable to speak or control her body, except one arm and hand. She is, however, intellectually brilliant and communicates through an app, which vocalizes what she types. Their father died from the poisoning and their mother has spent 16 years trying to get a class-action suit off the ground.

The story takes place over the course of a few months when the son of the original factory owner returns to town with his family to try to reopen the factory. Reminiscent of Love Canal or the PG&E case in California, this story is about the battle between big business profits and real people with real lives. The girls and other characters are sensitively and realistically portrayed. Very worth your while.

The unabridged audiobook was read by Emma Galvin, Jesse Vilinsky, and Rebecca Soler, who alternated the chapters told from the perspectives of the sisters. They conveyed the personalities of the girls nicely.

Review of Pride and Premeditation by Tirzah PricePride and Premeditation by Tirzah Price (Harper Teen, April): This was fun. Using the characters from and general time period of Austen's Pride & Prejudice, this first in a cozy mystery series works on a number of levels. While the characters are recognizable from their personalities, this book places them in a completely different context from the original. Longbourn and Pemberley are family law firms, and Bingley's family is in shipping. When Bingley is accused of murdering his brother-in-law, Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy are both determined to solve the case.

Readers familiar with P&P will smile at the reconfigurations of Mr. Collins, Charlotte, Wickham, and others. The mystery itself was less engaging for me than Price's take on Austen. I enjoyed the book, though, and am looking forward to the next in the series.

The audiobook was nicely read by Morag Sims. Some listeners may have trouble with her accent and tone, so I advise giving the audio sample a try before buying.

Review of Lost in Paris by Elizabeth ThompsonLost in Paris by Elizabeth Thompson (Gallery, April): I picked this one up because the summary indicated a Jane Austen tie-in. That link turned out to be a very minor piece of the story, though Thompson includes a number of literary and and art references. The story is set in two time periods. In modern times, Hannah, an American woman living in London is surprised by a visit from her unreliable, alcoholic mother (Marla) who has been settling her own mother's estate back in their native Florida. Marla's showing up unannounced is only part of the surprise: Hannah's grandmother has willed the two women a paid-for apartment in the heart of Paris. In the past, we hear from the grandmother's mother, who lived in Paris in the 1930s, where she met many of the great writers and artists of the time.

This was only okay for me. The story was completely predictable and at the same time fairly unbelievable. I didn't connect enough to the women to root for any of them. Others will likely enjoy the details of Paris, the light romance, and the various mother-daughter themes.

The audiobook was read by Emily Tremaine and Imogen Church, who alternately took on the sections that were set in the present and past. I like both these narrators, but I don't think these were their best performances.

6 comments:

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea 5/4/21, 10:39 AM  

I have to get my hand on The Babysitter - I loved Provincetown and tend to venture down there about every 5 years. One, Two, Three is also on my audio book list. You read some interesting books in April. Happy May.

Vicki 5/5/21, 8:07 AM  

You sure did a lot of good reading! The Babysitter sounds really good. I can't imagine finding out an adult you spent time with as a child was a serial killer, WOW!

Jackie McGuinness 5/5/21, 9:13 AM  

Thanks for some good suggestions!

Mae Travels 5/5/21, 11:55 AM  

That's a lot of interesting (mostly) books. It's interesting how numerous the copycat books --like on Tolstoy and Jane Austen-- are these days. Have you read "What Happened to Anna K.: A Novel" by Irina Reyn? It's a pretty close plot to the Tolstoy version.

best... mae at maefood.blogspot.com

Tina 5/6/21, 10:27 AM  

Dust off the Bones will be a great follow up, must get that. I think Lost in Paris appeals to me for the setting.

Les in Oregon 5/8/21, 2:33 PM  

I loved Laurie Frankel's previous novel and am so glad to hear that her new one is worthwhile, especially on audio. Yay!

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