Category Archives: Audiobooks

Virgins

Novella prequel to the “Outlander” series

Content warning: sexual assault, sex work

After having no positive COVID-19 cases in my city for over 3 months, I have accepted that I really have no excuse for not returning to the gym. It has been a bit surreal, to be honest. I’m santitising all the equipment before and after use, and I’m jogging to and from the gym to reduce my time in the space. However, it has been really good to be able to increase how much time I’m listening to audiobooks for (though I have to say, I seem to have a neverending amount of mowing to do). After my last audiobook, I thought I would try something a bit shorter this time. While I have mentioned her books previously, I actually haven’t reviewed any of this author’s books on my blog before. This is wild to me because I am a huge fan of the TV adaptation of this series and watch it religiously every season, and have been reading these books since I was a teen. The most recent book was published in 2014, and the author has been busily working on the 9th book of the series since then. I had this on my Audible wishlist and it was blessedly short, and kept me busy for two gym sessions and a run.

Virgins cover art

“Virgins” by Diana Gabaldon is a historical fiction novella and prequel to her “Outlander” series set in France in the 1700s. Two young Scots, Jamie and Ian, are reunited when Jamie joins a band of mercenaries in rural France. Jamie, beset with physical and emotional wounds following an incident with the English back in Scotland, takes a while to open up to his best friend about what really happened. Meanwhile, a simple job to escort a priceless treasure and a young woman safely to Paris soon goes awry.

This is a quick novella that shares a brief insight into the life of Jamie Fraser before he meets Claire in the main series. Although Jamie is traumatised, badly injured, over-confident and very naive, we see glimmers of the man that he will become later in the series. Jamie and Ian’s friendship is a given in the “Outlander” series, so it was interesting to see a little more of the interplay between the two and to see Jamie occasionally being less than generous with his best friend, bragging about his superior education. A large part of the plot centres on a femme fatale archetype which was titillating if not surprising.

I think if you haven’t read any of the other books in the series, I probably wouldn’t recommend you start with this one. While there are no spoilers, there are a lot of nods to character development and history that I think would make a lot more sense to a reader with more context. “Dragonfly in Amber” is largely set in France, and I think it makes for interesting reading to reflect on Jamie’s first experiences there knowing what happened later on than vice versa. There was a graphic sexual assault scene in this book that was pretty confronting as I was jogging along to the gym alone in the evening, and while I think that the scene was certainly historically plausible and Gabaldon does revisit the incident later in the book to mete out some justice, it was pretty shocking hearing the assault being rationalised due to the victims occupation as a sex worker.

This is a quick, easy book to read (or listen to) and I think my suspicions that I need audiobooks to be quick and easy have been proved once again. A good choice for an “Outlander” fan looking for something to tide them over until the next book and season.

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Beloved

Historical fiction about a mother’s trauma in the wake of slavery

Content warning: slavery, racism, infanticide

Last year, the renowned author Toni Morrison sadly died. She was the recipient of countless awards for her work including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 (a display of which I was able to see when I visited the Nobel Prize Museum last year).

I have only read one of Morrison’s novels, “The Bluest Eye” and I had been debating for a while which of her books I would read next. I found out that many of her novels are available as audiobooks narrated by Morrison herself, and despite this year being a bit shaky for my gym/audiobook routine, I had been doing a bit of running and lawnmowing in lieu of the gym, and decided that I would listen to this one next.

Beloved cover art

“Beloved” by written and narrated by Toni Morrison is a historical fiction novel set in Ohio, USA just after the American Civil War. Sethe, an African American woman and former slave, lives in a haunted house with her 18 year old daughter Denver. The presence in the house is furious, chasing off Sethe’s two sons, and the mother and daughter live an isolated life together. However when Paul D, another former slave from the plantation Sethe escaped, arrives, he challenges the spirit and encourages Sethe and Denver to leave the house. He takes them to a fair, but when they return, they find a girl waiting at the doorstep. The girl, who calls herself Beloved, Sethe believes is her daughter who was killed as a baby.

This is a complex, subtle novel narrated beautifully by Morrison herself. She has a soft, breathy yet expressive voice with each sentence punctuated for excellent dramatic effect and the characters each brought to life. Sethe is a particularly interest character who, up until this point, appears to have been operating on two parallel levels. When Beloved manifests at the house at 124, and Paul D arrives with his questions and memories of the plantation, the two layers of Sethe’s psyche are unable to continue to exist separately. Denver, also initially drawn to Beloved, is the perfect lens through which to observe the changes in Sethe as a result of Beloved’s arrival and goes through significant character development herself. This book is a critical exploration of the multifaceted traumas caused by slavery, and the interplay between memory and identity.

I will admit that despite Morrison’s beautiful narration, this wasn’t a great book for me to listen to as an audiobook. I do have some difficulties with listening comprehension sometimes, and I think the subtlety and the cleverness of this book meant that each time I started daydreaming, I missed a critical part of the book. However, it was captivating enough that I think I would like to reread it in text so if I do, I will come back and update this review.

An excellent and provocative piece of fiction that I would very much like to revisit.

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Picture Perfect

Novel about love, family violence and belonging

Content warning: family violence

As I’ve mentioned previously, while everything is still under varying degrees of lockdown, I’ve had to find other suitable opportunities to listen to audiobooks that involve some kind of exercise. My solution: yard work. I’ve been trying to stick to shorter audiobooks to make it easier to pay attention, and this one came up when searching. Although this author is very popular and often a bit divisive, I have enjoyed a number of her books over the years, so I thought I would use an Audible credit on this book.

Picture Perfect cover art

“Picture Perfect” by Jodi Picoult and narrated by Megan Dodds is a novel about a woman who is found in a graveyard suffering from amnesia. She is taken to hospital by Will Flying Horse, who has moved to Los Angeles to work as a police officer. While Cassie recovers, pieces of her memory come back and she discovers that her real life is actually like something out of a fairytale. However, like most fairytales, there is a dark undercurrent and it will take all of Cassie’s strength to be her own hero.

Listening to this book, I was actually struck by how similar the story was to another book I read recently. Like “The Brave“, this story is about a woman who marries a movie star, who experiences domestic violence and who finds salvation in the arms of a biracial Native American man. Picoult’s novel was written 15 years earlier and I think hers is the better novel. Cassie is an anthropologist; educated, articulate and adventurous, she certainly doesn’t seem like the kind of person likely to be affected by family violence. However, the whole world falls for Alex Rivers’ charm and the acting skills he brings to the screen are just as effective at home. I felt like Picoult did a very convincing job of exploring the cyclic nature of family violence, and acknowledged that family violence does not discriminate and can happen in any type of family. Cassie is one of the three point of view characters, but unlike Nicholas Evans’ novel, it is her perspective that is put front and centre. I think I actually preferred this exploration of domestic violence to Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies“.

I am no expert on Lakota culture, but the novel felt much better researched in this regard as compared with “The Brave”, and Will’s character seemed far more well-rounded than Evans’ character Cal. Instead of being little more than a literary device, Will experiences his own struggles with his biracial identity, racism in the police force and frustration with Cassie’s situation. The narration of this book was quite good, and Dodds has a drawling, contemplative voice that lends itself to many of the reminiscing chapters. Unusually, some of these chapters had a bit of music backing which helped distinguish between past and present.

This is one of Picoult’s earliest novels, and I think it is fair to say that her storytelling has improved considerably over the years. The plot of this book was a little meandering, and I think that in trying to fully explore each character’s background, character and motives, something of the tension in the novel was lost. I am so used to Picoult’s hard-hitting, fearless plot twists that I was quite surprised that this novel petered out on a rather positive note.

A thoughtful book that was ahead of its time in discussing family violence, but not quite as punchy as Picoult’s later books.

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Normal People

Irish novel about love, communication and trying to fit in

Content warning: mental health, domestic violence

Now that I have discovered that, for me, less is more when it comes to audiobooks, I was intrigued to see this one offered for free on Audible last month. I’d heard about it, and one of the cover designs is quite memorable with the people inside the anchovy tin, but I didn’t know much about it. It was a quite achievable 7.5 hours long, and, regrettably, was the last book I started before the gyms closed.

Normal People cover art

“Normal People” by Sally Rooney and narrated by Aoife McMahon is a novel about two teenagers, Marianne and Connell, who go to the same school in a small Irish town. Connell, though quiet, is popular at school while Marianne has no friends. Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s mother, and although he and Marianne have never spoken at school, they begin to chat when he comes over to collect his mother after work. When they find themselves drawn together, they agree to keep things secret from everyone else at school. However, despite the magnetism between them, the secrecy makes their relationship uncertain. When they later cross paths at university, they click and become friends again, but changes in social standing and shortcomings in communication undermine the security they long to find in each other.

This was an absolutely stunning novel. I was absolutely hooked on every sentence. When the gyms had to close, I was desperate to find something active to do so I could keep listening and I ended up tackling the wilderness that had become our lawns. I found myself laughing aloud and my jaw actually dropping more times than I could count while listening to this book. Rooney has an absolute gift for exploring the tension, vulnerability and misunderstanding that can occur between two people. For a book that is ostensibly just about two people, there was not a dull moment. McMahon was a fantastic narrator and captured the tone of each character perfectly.

By getting to know each other more and more deeply over the years, Connell and Marianne slowly reveal their own secret struggles with mental illness and domestic violence to each other and become each other’s biggest support. However, Rooney is unmerciful in exploring how as humans we can fail one another, and how sometimes the only way to make amends is to grow as a person and succeed the next time. Rooney also provides some interesting commentary on class. She examines how class differences can complicate relationships, asking whether those complications are not insurmountable, and noting that wealth doesn’t guarantee happiness protect against abuse.

This book was just fantastic. I’ve already been recommending it to friends. Even more exciting, just weeks after I read it, I found out that a TV adaptation is coming out that started YESTERDAY. If you want to read something really good, this is really good.

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Braised Pork

Surreal novella about a young Beijing widow

Back in the good old days, before social distancing, I used to go to the gym and listen to audiobooks to inspire me to keep going back. After my last few experiments, I thought perhaps 10+ hours of audiobook was a little long for my limited attention span and memory, so I thought I would try something a little shorter. On Audible, you can set the search terms for books of particular lengths, so I browsed some of the shorter ones (4 – 6 hours). This one was just over 5 hours, and sounded perfect.

Braised Pork cover art

“Braised Port” by An Yu and narrated by Vera Chok is a surreal novella about a young woman called Jia Jia whose husband dies unexpectedly while taking a bath. Childless, largely locked out of his will and without the structure of her traditional marriage, Jia Jia is left with their apartment and a small allowance. As she slowly starts to venture out into the world seeking a new independence through her art, Jia Jia begins to be plagued by realistic dreams of a watery world and the image of the fish man drawing her husband left on the bathroom slink. Eventually, after her attempt at a new romance falls flat, Jia Jia decides to retrace her husband’s last trip to Tibet to try to discover the significance of the fish man.

This is an unusual, dreamlike story the pacing of which mirrors Jia Jia’s own meandering life. I really enjoyed Yu’s writing style. She has some striking imagery that really stayed with me. There was one particular scene where she refers to Jia Jia’s hair as looking like a stroke of calligraphy, and there are quite a few similar turns of phrase throughout. This is an original story with a unique point of view. Jia Jia is an intriguing character who, after having lived her whole life doing what she’s told, suddenly finds herself cut adrift. Although she finds a new purpose searching for the meaning of the fish man, there is still the sense that she is struggling to find her independence from men, be it her belated husband, her father, her lover or even a fellow traveller. Yu explores some interesting nuances of class in Beijing, in particular Jia Jia’s new status as a widow with limited financial resources. Chok is an excellent narrator with a clipped accent and matter-of-fact style that lends itself perfectly to the story.

Although it is a short read, this is a complex story that incorporates a lot of themes, elements and locations. While many of the scenes were themselves steeped with meaning, the story didn’t always feel as though it had a strong central thread to connect them together. I think the part that I struggled with the most was the significance of the watery world and the fish man. I’m not quite sure if I had tuned out while I was doing stretches at the gym or whether the story was deliberately left open-ended, but it felt like despite the several small revelations, the final picture was still kind of indecipherable.

A fascinating debut that perhaps leaves the reader with more questions than answers, I’m looking forward to seeing what Yu writes next.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism, Novella

Migraine: A History

Non-fiction book about the history of treating migraines

Back in the days when gyms were allowed, I was using audiobooks to help motivate myself to go. The rule was that I was only allowed to listen to the book while physically inside the gym building. This meant that in order to hear what happened next, I would have to go back to the gym. It was a great system! Anyway, I was flipping through Audible, trying to figure out what to spend my credits on, and I came across this book. I’ve had migraines since I was about 10 years old, so this is a topic close to my…brain.

Migraine: A History cover art

“Migraine: A History” by Katherine Foxhall and narrated by Robin J Sitten is a non-fiction book about the history of diagnosing and treating migraines. Foxhall examines how early physicians responded to their patients complaining the constellation of symptoms we now associate with migraine, and attitudes changed over time.

This is a fascinating book that taught me a lot about the way migraine is viewed by society. Interestingly, Foxhall argues that during the Middle Ages, physicians were more sympathetic to migraines (despite the brutal treatments they often tried out on their patients). It was only later that migraine began to be associated with weak, feminine and intellectual individuals unsuited to the hardships of labour outdoors. Foxhall argues that this change in social attitude has meant that migraine, despite being such a common and debilitating chronic condition, has received so little medical interest and funding. She compares this with other illnesses associated with women and touches on the issue of pain bias in the medical profession.

Foxhall is a clear, thorough researcher who explores in great detail the hardships many patients were subjected to in addition to their migraines. Sitten does an admirable job of bringing spirit into a non-fiction work, and her slightly sardonic tone was particularly enjoyable when reading the more gruesome treatments patients were subjected to.

However, this book taught me two other things. One, non-fiction is difficult for me to listen to for prolonged periods of time. Two, long books are difficult for me to listen to for prolonged periods of time. Despite Foxhall’s compelling research and Sitten’s reading style, it is hard to make a non-fiction book exciting to listen to, especially one written in an academic style. This book is just shy of 10 hours long, and with introductions, chapter summaries and conclusions, there was quite a lot of repeated information. Foxhall also spends a significant amount of time at the end of the book describing migraine art competitions which felt a little bit hard to relate to without actually looking at the artwork itself. It is also worth mentioning that this is a Eurocentric book, and while I appreciate that linguistic barriers exist, I would have really liked to have learned about how migraine has been considered and treated in non-Western cultures as a comparison.

Although perhaps a bit too long and academic to keep me enthusiastic at the gym, I related a lot to this book and learned a lot about how medical opinions on migraines have changed over the centuries, and not necessarily for the better.

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The Swan Book

Speculative fiction novel about an Aboriginal woman and her swans

Content warning: sexual assault

I’ve mentioned previously on this blog that I’ve started listening to audio books as a means of motivating myself to go to the gym. I’m still fine-tuning how exactly I select which books to listen to, but certainly the quality of the narrator is something I’ve realised is important to me. I have been trying to read more books by Aboriginal authors, and although I had heard of this author, I hadn’t actually read any of her work. I was scrolling through the categories on Audible and this book jumped out at me. I listened to the narrator in the sample, and immediately knew I wanted to hear more.

Image result for the swan book audible

“The Swan Book” by Alexis Write and narrated by Jacqui Katona is a speculative fiction novel about an Australia in the not too distant future. The story is about a young woman called Oblivia Ethylene who does not speak and whose story begins when she was found living in a tree. Taken in by a climate migrant Bella Donna, Oblivia lives on a swamp inside a rusted out hull in the middle of a military-run Aboriginal camp in Australia’s far north, and they are visited often by the overbearing Harbour Master.

Black Swan

A photo I took a while back of black swans on Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra 

However, as time passes, it becomes clear that Oblivia is not a reliable narrator, and her life actually began before she was found in a tree. We learn that Oblivia was gang raped, outcast from her family and deeply traumatised by the experience. Oblivia forms a deep connection with swans that come to Swamp Lake, later renamed Swan Lake, inspired by Bella Donna’s own love for the white swans of her homeland. After Bella Donna dies, Oblivia is visited by the newly sworn-in first Aboriginal President of Australia, Warren Finch who informs her that she is his promised bride. As Oblivia is forced to follow him to the Southern cities, she is in turn followed by the ghosts of her past and confronted by new ghosts in her future.

This is a deeply rich and complex novel that tackles a number of issues through a unique perspective such as trauma, the Intervention and climate change. I was struck by how many of the issues and predictions Wright made seem even more pressing now, only 7 years after publication. Oblivia is a fascinating character who appears both more aware and more naive than she first seems. Wright is a natural storyteller with a patient style, slowly unfurling each new piece of information and examining it from several perspectives before laying it down carefully before you. Nothing is rushed in this novel, yet at the end I found myself still unsure about so many elements of the plot. How much was real, how much was Oblivia’s fantasy, and how much was something in between? I’m still not certain what happened to the Genies or to Warren Finch, and whether Oblivia saw herself on TV or an impostor.

I absolutely must comment though on the narration of this book. Jacqui Katona was a superb narrator who captured the spirit of the novel completely. She has a soft, slightly cracked voice that reminds me of dust picked up by a desert wind. I loved listening to Katona speak in language, and she had a great knack for capturing the voices of the different characters, the matter-of-factness of the narration generally and even singing refrains from some of the songs referenced in the book.

Although Katona brought this book to life, I did at times find it a bit challenging to listen to. It’s no secret to anyone who has met me that I’m not the best at processing what I hear, but I did find this book at times maybe a little complex to concentrate on while I was also trying to count reps at the gym. Although Wright revisits pieces of the story several times, I did at times find myself asking whether a certain part was supposed to be ambiguous, or whether I had just missed something while I was trying to set the speed on the cross-trainer.

A captivating, intricate and extremely relevant book that Katona impeccably narrates.

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The Underground Railroad

Audiobook alternative history about the Underground Railroad

Content warning: slavery, violence, sexual violence

As I said in a previous review, I’m currently trying to motivate myself to go to the gym by listening to audiobooks only when I am at the gym. I was scrolling through the available books, and this one jumped out at me. I had heard that it had won lots of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and they were more than enough credentials for me to try it out.

The Underground Railroad cover art

“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead and narrated by Bahni Turpin is an alternative history novel about slavery in the USA. The story is mostly about Cora, a young slave who lives on a plantation in the state of Georgia. When she was very young, Cora’s mother Mabel escaped without her. Left to fend for herself against attempts to steal her tiny plot of land, gang rape and beatings, when Cora is asked by another slave called Caesar to escape with him, she eventually agrees. The Underground Railroad, which Whitehead imagines as a literal railroad underground, takes Cora and Caesar to South Carolina. Given a job and a new life in a new city, Cora must decide which is greater: the cost to stay, or the risk to keep running.

This is a heavy, intense book that reimagines this period of American history and distills it to its essence. Whitehead’s depiction of the underground railroad as an actual railroad was so convincing, that I was most of the way through the book before I asked myself, hang on… This is an incredibly challenging book, and the seemingly never-ending variety of horrors enslaved people were subjected to is very difficult to hear. Cora’s characterisation as a resilient young woman living in her mother’s shadow, and with her mother’s abandonment, was engaging, and I thought that the last few chapters of the book were the best.

The ending really elevated this book for me, and I have to admit that there were parts of the book that did stretch on – especially when Cora was hiding in an in North Carolina, completely dependent with her health slowly ebbing away.  I think that while she was a clear narrator, Turpin had a sardonic, languid style that I felt was sometimes at odds with Cora’s inherent gumption and opportunism. However, it certainly aligned with the parts of the book where Cora was required to stay very still like on the railway, working in the museum and later in the attic.

A well-written, fraught and necessary book with a superb ending.

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Beautiful

Audiobook retelling of Nordic fairy tale 

I am a Juliet Marillier tragic, and I was so excited to hear that she had a new audiobook coming out, and was even more thrilled when I won a copy on Audible in a contest! To win, I had to share which fairy tale I would most like to see retold from a unique perspective, and I said Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes” because (like many of his fairy tales) I always felt the punishment was disproportionate to the crime. Anyway, I had recently joined the gym and I decided to waste no time and start listening during my next workout. I had listened for about 5 minutes while I was on the stair-climber (or something equally painful), when I laughed aloud because I realised that I had just read this story very, very recently.

Image result for alien iii william gibson audible

“Beautiful” by Juliet Marillier and narrated by Gemma Dawson is a retelling of the Nordic fairy tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” about Hulde, a princess who lives in a palace at the top of a glass mountain. Her mother, the queen, rules over Hulde and the palace servants with an iron fist. Hulde is told from a young age that her destiny is to marry the most beautiful man in the world. The only friend Hulde has is a white bear called Rune who comes to visit, and who shows her kindness and takes the time to teach her about the world. However, when he leaves, Hulde is left with more questions than answers about her future. When her wedding day arrives, her life is turned upside down and she finally has the opportunity to make her own destiny.

This book was an absolute delight. I have never been so motivated to go to the gym as I was to hear the next part of this story. There are so many wonderful parts to this book that I kind of don’t want to tell you about for fear of spoiling the joy of discovering them for yourself. Hulde is a brilliant, complex protagonist whose physical, emotional and perhaps even magical strength helps her to overcome the many challenges she is faced with. Marillier does a wonderful job showing Hulde’s journey from naive, innocent girl to fully-realised woman. In this story, problems aren’t solved by violence or trickery, but rather with patience, kindness and courage. I’m still smiling about the companions Hulde meets along the way, and the thrill of finding out the romantic direction the book took. I would also like to mention that I quite enjoyed Dawson’s narration, and felt that she captured Hulde’s innocence and strength really well while also creating distinct voices for the different characters.

I think the only thing that people may find frustrating about this story is that quite a lot of the book is about her learning things that the reader likely takes for granted and making mistakes that the reader likely feels are easily avoidable. Hulde is very young in spirit, and while this means that she has a lot of character development, there is a fair amount of time taken up by people explaining things to her. However, I do think that this is a necessary part of the story as Hulde navigates issues like power, independence, kindness and love.

I simply adored this story and if anything was going to get me to the gym, it was the prospect of listening to this.

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