Cozy queer fantasy romance about coffee and building community
I came across this book via NetGalley, and although I wasn’t accepted to review it, I liked the premise so much that when it came up as a recommendation when I was searching for my next running book, I decided to download it. It was Mardi Gras in Sydney over the weekend, so this is an ideal book to wind down the festivities with.
“Legends & Lattes” written and narrated by Travis Baldree is a cozy fantasy romance novel about an Orc called Viv who has quit her life as a mercenary and is opening up something the town of Thune has ever seen before: a coffee shop. With enough capital to get things started, Viv buys a suitable premises and starts ordering in supplies and equipment. Although initially the citizens of Thune are unsure about coffee, Viv slowly builds a community of customers and colleagues including Cal the hob, Thimble the ratkin and Tandri the succubus. However, as the coffee shop grows in popularity, so too does interest from the Madrigal, the local protection racket, and people from Viv’s past. Is Viv’s new life strong enough to withstand disaster?
This was an absolute delight to listen to. I went into this book with no expectations whatsoever and I was utterly charmed. Baldree narrated the book himself and he has an incredible talent for narration. All the character’s voices were unique, consistent and expressive and it was so easy to settle in and let the story wash over me. I’m not sure if it is the relentlessness of living through a pandemic, but the uncomplicated dream of opening up a little café and taking steps to implement that dream was so soothing, I couldn’t get enough. I found myself looking for extra opportunities to listen to the book: going for runs, gardening, folding washing; any excuse.
This story is all about building trust, respectful communication and slow burn romance. It is a character-driven story and Baldree has an aptitude for sensitively and kindly navigating relationships. Some of the characters were just adorable as well, and I couldn’t get enough of Thimble and his baking creations. I also really enjoyed the simple pleasure of Viv working out how best to deliver the drinks and snacks her customers wanted, and the joy of their shared satisfaction. While there wasn’t a huge amount of fantasy in the book, the generic medieval fantasy setting was a perfect blank slate for Baldree’s characters to shine against.
A warm and relaxing story ideal for anyone who likes fantasy, romance and happy endings.
General fiction novel set in Singapore about family, career, love and identity
Content warning: alcoholism, family violence, fatphobia
It was time for my next running book and the title of this one caught my eye. I have spent a lot of time living in South-East Asia and I absolutely adore cooking with and consuming all soy sauces, so I was keen to see what this book was like. It was also mercifully short.
“Soy Sauce for Beginners: a novel” by Kirsten Chen and narrated by Nancy Wu is a general fiction novel set primarily in Singapore. Gretchen has moved back to Singapore leaving behind her marriage and career in San Francisco, USA. The family business is making premium soy sauce and, after moving back in with her parents, Gretchen also finds herself with a ready-made job and all the perks. However, while Gretchen struggles to face the reality of her mother’s alcoholism and her failing marriage, she is also forced to confront the truth of what is happening within the family business.
This was an easy book to listen to. Chen’s straightforward writing style and Wu’s flexible narration worked well together. I think the highlights for me were definitely the scenes set in the soy sauce factory, and learning more about how different flavours and styles are achieved through different fermenting techniques. Singapore is such a dynamic country, and I always enjoy reading books set there, so it was an interesting to read a perspective from a character who is resentful to be home.
However, there were a few things that didn’t quite land for me in this book. Although the premise was fairly uncomplicated, I did find it hard staying invested in the story towards the end. While I appreciate this book was published nearly 10 years ago, I did find a lot of the commentary about weight, especially Gretchen’s friend Frankie’s former weight, quite grating. Chen deliberately doesn’t always portray Gretchen in an especially positive light, and I understand this book is about personal growth, but it did feel at times to be to such an extent that it was hard to empathise with Gretchen.
A heartfelt book that maybe just needed a dash more soy sauce.
Memoir about being a child actor with an abusive mother
Content warning: child abuse, emotional abuse, eating disorders, sexual harassment
I 100% chose this book for the provocative title. I was couple of years too old to be the target audience for this author’s breakout role in the Nickelodeon TV series “iCarly“, so I wasn’t familiar with her work or fame but when I saw this book come up I thought it would be an interesting one to listen to while out jogging.
“I’m Glad My Mom Died” written and narrated by Jennette McCurdy is a memoir about her life as a child actor. The book opens with Jennette visiting her mother who is unconscious and dying of cancer. In an attempt to get her mother to wake up, Jennette tries to tell her mother something that she will be really proud of: that she is very thin. The story then goes back to Jennette’s early life and her mother’s desire that Jennette become famous. Initially, Jennette will do anything to make her mother, who is a cancer survivor, happy. However, as Jennette grows older, she soon realises that she actually doesn’t enjoy acting. The pressure caused by the auditions and pursuit of perfection starts to take a toll on her, but the successes seem to make her mother happy and start to bring in some income for the family. When Jennette lands a role on the TV series iCarly, her fame becomes a rollercoaster that she cannot get off. However, it is a rollercoaster that takes her away from her mother’s control and slowly, painfully and with many bumps along the way towards independence.
This was a captivating, heart-breaking story that was beautifully and expertly narrated by McCurdy herself. I think given the public fascination with celebrities and TV stars, it is easy to think that become famous must be a wonderful and easy life. Some of the pressure has been highlighted in reality TV shows like “Dance Moms“, but these highly scripted shows often focus more on the adults and the competition. It was truly illuminating hearing from someone who was for all intents and purposes forced into the life of a TV star, and truly heartbreaking hearing the impact on her through vulnerability to controlling behaviour, condoned and encouraged eating disorders and poor mental health. I think, however, the most devastating part of this book was how little the rest of her family and the television industry intervened in what everyone could see as abuse from her mother. There were also some really horrifying stories about behaviour from men in positions of power on the shows Jennette was appearing on. McCurdy has a warm, slightly sardonic style and a clarity of voice that other ghostwritten memoirs don’t seem to always have.
A challenging and honest memoir that reveals the darker sides of the dream being a child actor in Hollywood.
Memoir about a mother trying to explain cancer to her son
Content warning: death, cancer
There has been a lot of loss in my family this year. When looking for my next audiobook to keep me company while running and gardening, I came across this one. Although I read one of this author’s books previously and didn’t love it, I thought that something to help me make sense of grief would be helpful.
“Bedtime Story” by Chloe Hooper and narrated by Lisa McCune is a memoir about Hooper’s partner’s cancer diagnosis. Narrated in the second person to her eldest son, Hooper turns to children’s literature to try to find a way to explain the diagnosis to her children. However, she soon finds that most children’s literature is manifestly inadequate when it comes to explaining death and mortality. As her partner grows more unwell as treatment progresses, Hooper puts off the explanation further. However, she finds that her son picks up more than she thinks and finds his own ways of making sense of what is happening to their family.
This is a thoughtful, gentle book that grapples with how we break terrible news to children. I enjoyed Hooper’s exploration of different examples of children’s literature and they ways in which they do (or do not) deal with death. Second person narratives are a relatively unusual form of storytelling and one that I think worked well for the subject-matter. McCune’s narration captured the tone really well. It is matter of fact but sensitive, soft but clear.
I think this was probably not the right book for me at this time. I think this is a book for someone who is pre-grief; who is dealing with life-shattering news but the axe has not yet fallen. Someone who is dealing with waiting and who is hoping for the best but expecting the worst. I realised too late that this book is actually illustrated and for that reason alone, I do regret listening to the audiobook version because of course they weren’t included.
An introspective story about dealing with difficult news as a family.
Non-fiction book about the beanie baby craze of the mid-1990s
Content warning: mental illness, family violence
I needed a new running book, but I can’t remember exactly why I picked this one except it had something to do with this photograph:
As a 90s kid, but not one who had beanie babies (Pokemon cards, yoyos, Tazos and Tamagotchis on the other hand…), I found myself intrigued about how exactly this craze came about. The book was an ideal length for me (approximately 8 hours) and I was in the mood for some non-fiction.
“The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass delusion and the dark side of cute” by Zac Bissonnette and narrated by P. J. Ochlan is a non-fiction book about Beanie Babies, collectible animal bean bag toys created by billionaire Ty Warner. Bissonnette pieces together the notoriously reclusive Warner’s life through interviews and memoirs of people who knew him and worked with him, and uses economic and business theory, to try to understand the meteoric rise of Warner’s Beanie Babies in the mid-1990s. Bissonnette also looks at the secondary market created by Beanie Babies, inflated prices, the role played by the internet and Warner’s own unique, perfectionist personality.
This was a really interesting book in many ways. I have next to no knowledge when it comes to business and economics and I found Bissonnette’s explanations of the marketing and scarcity tactics used by Warner’s company Ty to be both highly informative and very engaging. Bissonnette goes into lots of detail about the design (and redesign) of Beanie Babies that made them so attractive to consumers and the various factors at play during the time that created the perfect environment for the craze. Bissonnette also spends a considerable amount of time on Warner’s biography, especially through former employers, employees and girlfriends, to try to understand the man, and the salesman, behind the plush toy. For someone not interested in economics in the slightest, I found this book really easy to listen to. Bissonnette skillfully constructed a narrative around the phenomenon, and if he didn’t have all the answers, he certainly had a story.
I think the only thing I found less interesting were some of the superfluous details about Warner’s personal life. While he certainly seems like a very singular character, there were parts of the book that felt almost voyeuristic. I much preferred the parts of the book that, for example, discussed how an intern came up with the idea to create a Beanie Babies website which would regularly crash it was so popular, rather than sad, secondhand information about Warner’s broken family relationships.
A fascinating book about how an affordable plush toy became a worldwide craze.
“The Summer I Turned Pretty” by Jenny Han and narrated by Lola Tung is the first novel in a young adult trilogy about a teenager called Belly who is on summer vacation. Every summer, she and her family stay with her mother’s best friend Susannah and her family. The four kids grow up together: Belly, her brother Steven and Susannah’s two sons Conrad and Jeremiah. Belly is the youngest and she has always felt like the little kid running after the boys. Nevertheless, she looks forward However, this summer, Belly is determined that things are going to be different. They are, but different in ways that she never could have expected.
This is standard coming of age novel set in the idyllic fictional beachside town of Cousins Beach. Han uses flashbacks to previous summers to build the groundwork for the dynamics between the two families, and Belly’s long-term crush on the handsome, brooding Conrad. This book is beautifully narrated by Lola Tung who also plays Belly in the TV adaptation, and she has a way of bringing all the sweetness, optimism and drama you could want in a young adult novel.
However, I frequently found this book frustrating. Although I suspect that Han was often trying to make a point, in reality Belly came across as extremely superficial. This summer, Belly’s primary currency is attention and she is constantly observing who is giving her attention, who could be giving her attention and who is getting attention instead of her. Belly is so self-involved, she completely misses what is going on with everyone around her. However somehow, despite multiple instances of incredibly selfish, bad behaviour, things do work out for her.
I have to say, this is one of those rare instances where I prefer the TV adaptation to the book. Through the series, all of the characters are much more filled out, especially Belly’s mother, Jeremiah and Belly’s brother Steven. I also felt that the TV show was a lot more diverse. Unlike the book, Belly is clearly cast as Eurasian with her cultural background mentioned more than once. There are queer characters and the debutante ball, not present in the book, was a great backdrop against which to explore ideas of beauty, tradition and class. I also felt like Belly was much more relatable in the show, and had some keen hobbies and interests outside boys.
A really nicely narrated audiobook, but while I think I’ll stick with the TV series, I don’t think I’ll read any more in the series.
Fictional podcast about a death at a mysterious girl’s school
Content warning: bullying, suicide
The time had come to choose my next running audiobook. I was flicking through the options and came across this: a fictional podcast. I really enjoy fictional podcasts and I’ve listened to more over the years than I have reviewed on this blog because I’m never quite sure if they count as books. I actually find fictional podcasts (or radio plays) easier to listen to than audiobooks: I think the extra sound editing and production makes the story more immersive, and the voice actors make the characters more distinct. Anyway, maybe I should review more fictional podcasts but in the meantime, let’s start with this one.
“The Orchard” by Mike Jones and Mike Cowap is a fictional podcast about a detective and single dad called Adam Durwood who is about to resign from the force. His last case is to investigate the unusual death of a teenage boy by the orchard of an exclusive all girls’ school. His superiors are eager to write it off as a suicide but Detective Durwood is not convinced. He questions students and staff but their responses are confounding; hinting at the school’s secret history. As impartial as Detective Durwood thinks he is, something about the case is pulling him in and while he is distracted, something is pulling his daughter away from him.
This was a really eerie, well-scripted story with exceptional voice acting. There was a surprisingly stellar cast of characters, with Eric Bana as Adam Durwood, Magda Szubanski as Barbara and Gary Sweet as DI Simes. Bana in particular was a standout and captured the nuance of dogged detective and struggling dad perfectly. Each episode was only about 20 minutes or so, which was a pretty ideal length for a short run. There was quite a sinister vibe and I found this podcast really quite creepy to listen to when I was running by myself at night after work. The story covered a range of issues, and I thought one of the most compelling elements was the impact something like a catastrophic car crash can have on a family, the way we process grief and what you would do to get your family back.
As enjoyable as the podcast was, the closer I got to the ending the less convinced I was with the plot direction. I thought that there had been some really strong groundwork around the school, secret societies and the way alumni connections can be used to propel students towards success. However, the final reveal in the story took a completely different path that I found less interesting and much less convincing.
An enjoyable story with a great cast that didn’t quite land the ending.
A couple of years ago I listened to a book by this author and I thoroughly enjoyed it. A couple of months ago, I saw a trailer of a TV series adapting another of her novels. So when I was choosing my next audiobook to listen to while running, I thought I would try it out.
“Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney and narrated by Aoife McMahon is a novel set in contemporary Ireland about a young university student called Frances who is also a poet. She performs her poems together with her best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi. After their performance is noticed by renowned writer Melissa, she invites them to her home to be photographed for a feature article. There, they meet Melissa’s husband, an actor called Nick. As the novel progresses, Frances and Nick are drawn to each other, and the interplay between the four characters becomes more and more complicated.
While sometimes it can be difficult to discern pace listening to an audiobook, this is a slow-paced book that explores the power dynamics between emerging and established figures in the literary world. Outwardly quiet and composed, Frances has a tumultuous inner life where she is constantly evaluating and weighing up her complex and fraught relationships. Frances obscures her family life and financial situation from her new community and remains acutely aware of class differences.
I have to say, I did not enjoy this book nearly as much as “Normal People”. The magnetism and impeccable tension between Marianne and Connell was absent in this novel; replaced instead with awkwardness, repressed feelings and many, many things left unsaid. There are a lot of parallels between this story and “Normal People”: isolated young university student, a sexual relationship devoid of commitment, a summer trip to France (replaced with Croatia in the TV show). While the novel is hyperaware of Frances’ inability to confide in others and discomfort navigating all these complex relationships, it does nothing to get the reader onside. Despite McMahon’s excellent narration, there was no humour in this book. I didn’t feel invested in these characters or sympathetic to their lives. I didn’t feel like I learned anything or got a unique perspective. At the end of the novel, I was indifferent to Frances and who she might have a relationship with.
I have tried watching a few episodes of the TV adaptation, and I just couldn’t get into that either. I think, ultimately, this was not as engaging a story and ultimately I was left feeling disappointed.
Fictional science fiction podcast set in a future where forests are memories
I recently moved house and I knew that a huge job was going to be getting the garden ready for the final inspection. In addition to running, I like to listen to podcasts when I’m gardening and I was in the mood for something outdoorsy. I was scrolling through different podcasts that were not too long, and I came across this one. I really enjoy radio plays and this one looked really interesting and unique.
“Forest 404” by Timothy X Atack is a fictional podcast set some centuries in the future about a young woman called Pan who works in a job sorting through sound recordings from the past. The recordings are from a time known as the Slow Times, before an event known as the Cataclysm that destroyed most of the data. Pan is very good at her job, and finds it easy to delete music and speeches and stories from another time to create valuable space for more data. However, one day Pan listens to a recording that changes everything. Something she has never heard before and something she cannot begin to fathom: a rainforest. Pan is mesmerised and listens to the recording over and over, but little does she know that making copies of the recording is not only illegal, it is extremely dangerous.
This was a really interesting project. There were 9 episodes of the story, 9 episodes of interviews with various experts about different scientific questions, and 9 different nature soundscapes. The story itself was really compelling. The voice actors were excellent and there was a palpable sense of tension and urgency. I really enjoyed the effortless diversity of this book as well, and the complexity of Pan’s relationship with Daria. However, the interviews and soundscapes were equally as engrossing. It was really relaxing listening to the soundscapes while working in the gardening, and because each episode is so short it never gets boring. The writing was really good, but the editing was also really good and the entire production was thoroughly immersive.
A really enjoyable podcast that is perfect for any sci-fi fans who enjoy the outdoors.
The Black Saturday bushfires were a horrific collection of disasters with an enormous cost that still reverberates across Australia today. Although I wasn’t in Victoria at the time, the most destructive of the fires was right next to where I grew up and right next to the town where several members of my family live. After the fires, when lots of locals who had lost their homes were trying to rebuild, my family’s book charity opened its doors to help replace the books people had lost as well. I have to admit, I didn’t follow a huge amount of the news at the time, I think to be honest it was a little too close to home. However, when I heard about this book and that it covered the trial and conviction of a man found to be responsible for one of the fires, I thought that now, more than a decade later and after the 2019-2020 bushfires, I was ready to listen.
“The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire” by Chloe Hooper and narrated by Sibylla Budd is a non-fiction true crime book about the Black Saturday bushfires. The book opens with a harrowing account of the experiences of many Victorians in the fatal Churchill fire complex, including those who lost their loved ones and the detective who begins investigating the case. As the story unfolds, it appears that the fires may have been lit deliberately by someone, and one too many coincidences suggests one major suspect.
This is a thoughtful, considered book that carefully steps through the events of the bushfire with a strong focus on the stories of the people involved. I think the strongest parts of the book were the stories Hooper told about the people most directly affected by the fires. I don’t think I will ever forget the story of the man who lost his wife before his eyes, or the teenager who texted his father goodbye. I think Hooper did try to take a balanced approach to the book by providing a lot of background about the life of prime suspect Brendan Sokaluk and how he spent his days, and acknowledged the uncertainty around intent, capacity and guilt.
However, in some ways this book reminded of “Joe Cinque’s Consolation” and while I think Hooper was more sympathetic to Sokaluk’s background, disabilities and mental health issues than Helen Garner was, I similarly found her coverage of the investigation and trial a bit uncomfortable. One of the things that Hooper talked about at length was Sokaluk’s diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Although she did focus on the ways that ASD may have impacted Sokaluk’s ability to understand police interviews, court proceedings and engage with his peers socially, I really felt like she speculated far too much about how his ASD diagnosis led him to set the fire due a particular theory that people with autism who set fires are “mesmerised” by the flames.
I listened to the audiobook so I wasn’t able to tell whether there was a bibliography or not, but Hooper was critical of a psychologist who was a court witness for not telling the court “that psychologists often [emphasis added] separate autistic fire-setters from others who deliberately light fires because some neuro-atypical people find the flames not just mesmerising, but soothing”. In somewhat of a contrasting view, a 2019 paper titled Firesetting and arson in individuals with autism spectrum disorder: a systematic PRISMA review noted that relatively little research has been conducted to date exploring firesetting or arson in individuals with ASD. While the paper did conclude that there may be some ASD symptomology that may contribute to arson, the paper did stress that there is no empirical support for an association between ASD and criminality, and that studies have found that people with developmental disabilities may be more likely to be victims of crime.
After listening to this book, I went back and checked the publication date (2018) because of my surprise at some of the language used. Several times Hooper refers to “Aborigines”. I note that IndigenousX states that this term “has largely disappeared in favour of Aboriginal people/s (except for a few older people who haven’t kept up with the times and a few racist commentators trying to make the point that *checks notes* they are cartoonishly racist)” and that the Australian Government Style Guide acknowledges this term can be offensive and discriminatory. Hooper also several times repeats the slur r*tard as it had been used against Sokaluk. These are words that editors and publishers should really be checking for prior to publication.
I know this review is getting a bit long, but I did want to make a quick mention of the narrator, whose familiar and rather comforting voice initially reminded me of SeaChange actor Kate Atkinson, but was familiar because she is the actor who played Gabby in the Aussie drama The Secret Life of Us. Budd has a very clear, empathetic way of speaking but occasionally I wondered if it was her tone or the text of the book that occasionally felt a little too simplistic.
An important book that provides a lot of insight into one of the multiple factors behind the Black Saturday bushfires and that eloquently and with empathy tells the stories of those whose lives were lost. However, a book that I felt went too far in some of its conclusions and that could have used more rigorous editing for respectful language by the editors.