December 2021
Adult Reviews
*Katherine Center. Things You Save in a Fire.
Read by Therese Plummer.
8 CDs. 9.5 hrs.
Macmillan. 2020.

Things you Save in a Fire is a stellar novel from bestselling author Katherine Center, read by award-winning narrator Therese Plummer, teaches lessons about forgiveness and fortitude. Cassie Hanwell is, of all things, a firefighter in Austin, Texas. But not forever. When she was a sophomore in high school she was raped by a senior who goes on to become an Austin City Councilman. When she wins an award for bravery, which is presented by the said councilman, she bashes him over the head with it and refuses to apologize. Job over. Then she gets a call for help from her detested mother Diana in Boston. Mom has only one eye, can't drive, falls down, and needs her help for a year. Sounds great, right? But Cassie hates her mother, who abandoned her and dad when she was a sophomore in high school. Two traumas to deal with. Cassie deals by shutting down her emotions. However, she might as well become a Boston firefighter for a year.

So she moves in with mom and joins a local fire department, which thinks her incapable of doing a tough physical job. She's only a female, after all. Of course she proves them wrong but she must contend with a new rookie for her position. Naturally he is handsome but she must maintain her indifference.

And so the story goes. An engaging tale narrated by Therese Plummer, actor and audiobook narrator with over 400 titles to her credit. She also won a 2020 Audio Award. She gives Cassie's story a full-voiced reading, complete with various accents. Male and female characters are equally believable. Both the book and the narrator are highly recommended.

Reviewed by Janet Julian
*Megan Chance. A Splendid Ruin.
Read by Carly Robins.
9 CDs. 11 hrs.
Brilliance Audio. 2021.

Set in 1904 San Francisco, Megan Chance's novel A Splendid Ruin chronicles the changing fortunes of penniless May Kimble, who has just arrived at the request of Florence Sullivan, an aunt she has never met, to live with her family after the death of May's mother, Mary. May knows only that her father was very wealthy, and that his family forced him to end his relationship with Mary Kimble and their illegitimate daughter. Thus, May had never known her father -- or even his name. While the Sullivan family warmly welcomes May into their opulent Nob Hill mansion, May gradually comes to the realization that the family is rife with secrets. Her cousin, flashy Goldy Sullivan maintains a full and influential social life, but, as May soon learns, she also frequents the opium dens of Chinatown. The Chinese servant woman, Chin and others try to warn May, but provide no clues as to the reasons. May, whose life-long passion has been designing house interiors, is drawn to Ellis Farge, an architect and friend of the family, who admires her drawings and tempts her with promises to utilize her talents. Returning home one evening late, May finds her aunt dead and herself targeted as the murderer. Shocked and afraid, May is forcibly seized and taken to the Blessington Home for the Incurably Insane, where she is treated inhumanely, unable to escape or defend herself from the charges. Then, comes the San Francisco earthquake, destroying much of the city and reducing the Sullivan house on Nob Hill to a ruin. Fortunately, the earthquake provides May with the means of escape from her situation, because Blessington has also suffered damage. The rest of the audiobook recounts May's dangerous escape, her brilliant disguise and alliance with investigative reporter, Dante DeRosa, and her careful plans to redeem the fortune left by her father, but which the Sullivans had schemed to obtain.

Action-packed, Megan Chance's story is full of secrets and lies, schemes and suspense, interwoven with the tumultuous early history of this beautiful city. In this fully-voiced audiobook, narrator Carly Robins delivers an excellent and professional presentation of characters, especially of May. Listeners can see her evolve from the naïve, sheltered New York girl into the tough, self-sufficient and clever, young woman, who not only rescues her reputation and inheritance and reveals those who perpetrated crimes against her, but also carves for herself a new career as an interior designer and business woman. A Splendid Ruin will appeal to adults and some teens who love historical fiction, mysteries, adventure stories, and ones with a specific, intriguing setting and a strong female protagonist.

Reviewed by Susan Allison

Victoria Dowd. The Smart Woman's Guide to Murder. (Smart Woman's Mystery, book 1)
Read by Esther Wane
Digital download. 8 hrs 40 mins
Tantor Audio. 2021.

Ursula Smart (not her real name) has been forced to accompany her mother, Pandora (also not her real name), to her yearly book club getaway in the middle of nowhere. Ursula is not really sure why; as a 26-year-old woman, she can not be left alone at home. She dislikes almost all of the book club members and they never even read the book. Just as she has resigned herself to a boring weekend the snow starts to descend and the bodies start to drop around them. Ursula is determined to discover the identity of the murderer before anyone else dies. Will she discover who is behind all of the death before the snow lets up and they can call for the police or will they all fall victim to the murderer?

Narrator Esther Wane went to drama school in London, and her life as an actor began at age forty. She has narrated many audiobooks in all genres. Esther lends a beautiful air of aristocracy to the characters. Told from Ursula's point of view, you feel her confusion and determination. Sometimes the other character voices can sound similar, but you never fall out of the story due to it. It is a wonderful high society British accent and perfect for the characters. She portrays the thoughts in Ursula's mind perfectly.

Reviewed by Meghan Yost
*Paula Hawkins. A Slow Fire Burning.
Narrated by Rosamund Pike.
Digital download. 9 hours, 19 minutes.
Penguin Audio. 2021.

This latest thriller from author Paula Hawkins, author of the best seller The Girl on The Train, is set in London. It is filled with disturbed women all involved with a young man murdered on a houseboat, and all blamed in some way. The book begins with Laura, who seems to be troubled girl who can't catch a break, and who has no judgment. But then it is revealed that she suffered a terrible accident as a child and is brain damaged, but she has a good heart and takes care of an old woman by getting her groceries. All are involved in not only with the death of the young man but also other crimes as well. Laura seems the most sympathetic at first. Then just as the listener starts feeling sorry for her, Laura steals money from the old lady's purse. In general, the listener, at least this one, begins to lose faith in everybody when it is revealed beyond the possible murder of the unlikable victim, all of them have very slimy undersides. The real kicker is that all the characters are read by the same person, brilliant British actress Rosamund Pike who does a fantastic job of separating each vocally, but since they all are tinged with evil, misjudgment and murder, everyone is dirtied. All characters speak in heavy British dialects that Pike delivers beautifully. As twisted as the story is, I could never stop listening and the ending surprises even more.

Reviewed by Nola Theiss
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson. My Monticello
Narrated by Aja Naomi King, January LaVoy, Landen Woodson, LeVar Burton, Ngozi Anyanwu, Tomiwa Edun.
Digital Download. 7.5 hours.
Macmillan Audio. 2021.

Jocelyn Nicole Johnson's My Monticello is a collection of short fiction, including a novella. It is remarkably poignant in a time when it seems that we are in a world that is on the brink of disaster and the word dystopian seems appropriate, especially as applied to our country's racial history where Black people are always in danger to some extent. Each of the five stories is read by an excellent narrator, led by Aja Nomi King and the use of stirring music separates the stories.

LeVar Burton reads the first story, "Control Negro", which reflects on the life of his son who is born of the narrator and a white woman, both professors, as an experiment devised by his father. His first thought was to find a young biracial man who could be his "control" child, but gradually realized he needed to create with a white woman one so he could observe his son's life from his birth, although he plans to be an observer only. Over the course of his son's life, the father observes his son from a distance and sometimes interferes by paying others to influence his son, for example, to take swimming lessons instead of playing basketball.

The novella, "My Monticello" is set in a time that the world seems to be falling apart and dangerous for Black people to be on the streets. The narrator of this story is a young woman who is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sallie Hemmings. She and a few of her friends start working at Monticello as tour guides because they believe it will be a safe place to live. It is not. They are forced out of Monticello and seek safety elsewhere, but safety is hard to find in the described historical period as it was when Jefferson lived there, at least for the slaves, and as it is now.

This collection is so beautifully performed that narration seems to be an inadequate description of the content and performances of the stories which serve as a focus for all of us, of every race, to deal with the world as we know it now and to find some solace and much concern in our own current world.

Reviewed by Nola Theiss
*Dan Mayland. The Doctor of Aleppo. A Novel.
Read by Fajer Al-Kaisi.
8 CDs. 10.5 hrs.
Blackstone. 2020.

In Dan Mayland's gorgeous, demanding novel The Doctor of Aleppo, American Hannah Johnson can't leave Syria. At first, she doesn't want to go home: as the daughter of a Syrian immigrant to the United States, she's both tied to the country and hopeful that her work on a municipal park project will bring beauty to a struggling Aleppo. But as the civil war intensifies, Hannah's freedom of movement - and her personal ties - make leaving the country nearly impossible.

Another character clinging to Syria is Rahim, a leader in Assad's secret police. When Rahim's son is injured in a car accident, he meets Hannah, who sits by her Swedish boyfriend's bedside as he recovers from surgery on his leg. Standing between them is Dr. Sami Hasan, a Syrian surgeon whose hope to practice medicine while staying neutral in the battle between the rebels and the Assad regime backfires after a seemingly accidental mix-up at the hospital. Hannah, Dr. Sami, and Rahim float through each other's orbits in The Doctor of Aleppo, their fates increasingly bound up together and dependent upon their resiliency, conviction, and ability to forgive.

Mayland, who is described as a "geopolitical forecaster" in his biography, demonstrates an extensive knowledge of the civil war in Syria and seems to possess a strong understanding for the literal geography of the city as it was during the 2010s, when this story takes place. While sensitive readers may want to skip The Doctor of Aleppo because of its frank depictions of gruesome injuries, torture, and extrajudicial killings, a novel about Aleppo's brutal civil war would not be complete without these elements.

The book's Iraqi-Canadian narrator Fajer Al-Kaisi brings even more life and spirit to an already vibrant novel. Al-Kaisi bears a heavy load, reading in the accents of Syrian, Swedish, American, and British characters, but he manages it well while imbuing both urgency and empathy into every line.

Reviewed by Joanna Theiss

*Liza Nash Taylor. In All Good Faith.
Read by Sophie A. Moss.
10 CDs. 12.5 hrs.
Blackstone. 2021.

In All Good Faith tells the story of two women trying to survive during the Great Depression. One, Dorrit Sykes, lives with her father in a tenement house in Boston. The other, May Marshall, calls a Virginia farm home. Dorrit's and May's paths cross when Dorrit is found near her death on May's land. They'll have to lean on each other if they are to survive.

Narrator Sophie Amoss has a thoughtful and gentle voice, which plays well when bringing Dorrit to life. The teen is full of innocence and insecurities, having lost her mother and been raised in a very strict religion. Amoss's vocals clearly enhance Dorrit's feelings throughout the story, and as the young woman's confidence grows, Amoss's efforts echo Dorrit's growth.

May's Southern twang and kind heart are also beautifully emphasized by Amoss. May has been humbled by countless mistakes in her past, but she manages to rise above her past choices in order to help her family survive. Amoss balances May's remorse and determination well, even when pitted against her "traditional" husband.

The supporting characters are also well presented by Amoss. Regardless of age, race, and education, listeners will find each person believable and their vocals true to form.

Reviewed by Lisa Arnold
*Cadwell Turnbull. No Gods, No Monsters.
Read by Dion Graham.
8 CDs. 10 hrs.
Blackstone. 2021.

No God, No Monsters, the first book of Award-winning author Cadwell Turnbull's projected Convergence Saga, is a somewhat confusing urban fantasy tale that leaves a lot of unanswered questions. In Turnbull's world there are numerous shapeshifting "monsters" who maintain their abilities in secret until an event occurs that exposes their presence in the world. There are a number of secret societies to which the monsters belong with two main secret orders that are constantly in opposition to one another. In this first installment of this series, we are introduced to several main characters who will certainly appear in other installments including a young boy who can shift into the form of a dragon and several people who can become wolves. There are some strange unexplained scenes in which the narrator seems to see the alternate universes. The title is a phrase that was chanted by several groups at a sort of rally with each group expressing a different meaning for the phrase.

Dion Graham's semi-voiced reading is excellent. He captures the characteristics of the main players very effectively through his use of a variety of voices and the timing of his reading.

Reviewed by Hugh E. Flick, Jr.
*Colson Whitehead. Harlem Shuffle.
Read by Dion Graham.
9 CDs. 10.5 hrs.
Penguin/Random House Audio. 2021

In Colson Whitehead's brilliant period novel Harlem Shuffle, Ray Carney lives in the uncomfortable space between "straight" and "bent." On the straight side, Carney is a husband to Elizabeth, the daughter of law-abiding, professional citizens. Ray is a father to young children, and he is a business owner, proud of the upscale furniture he sells in his store. On the bent side: Ray is the son of Mike Carney, a notorious neighborhood hustler. Ray's furniture store acts as a transit stop for stolen merchandise, from radios to expensive jewelry. Ray's cousin Freddie dwells on the bent edge, too, often drawing Ray into his schemes and bringing both the thugs and the law (who are sometimes the same) onto Ray's head. Harlem Shuffle takes place in the squeeze, a push and pull that leads Ray to both earnestly want to join a prestigious social club, while also resorting to blackmail when things don't go his way. We feel the walls closing in with each passing year, as Ray grows in respectability but delves more deeply into serious crime. Meanwhile, the civil rights movement and riots during the late 50s and mid 60s create their own complicating force on the plot. For example, Carney becomes anxious about the effect of riots on foot traffic outside of his store, and Elizabeth's career blossoms when the travel agency she works for helps Freedom Riders and Black tourists alike navigate the Jim Crow South. History in Harlem Shuffle shadows the characters and their actions, just as history can act as either a backdrop or a supporting actor in our own lives.As if Harlem Shuffle could get any better, the talented audiobook narrator and actor, Dion Graham, reads Harlem Shuffle. Graham never rushes, allowing the listener to soak up Whitehead's bountiful descriptions of New York. Subtle modulations in his voice add to the story's tension, while he lends dignity to each of these characters, no matter whether they live on the straight side, the bent side, or somewhere in between.

Reviewed by Joanna Theiss
*Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams. The Book of Hope. A Survival Guide for Trying Times. Read by the Authors.
6 CDs. 7 hrs. Bonus PDF on the Final Disc.
Macmillan. 2021.

An outstanding example of how an audiobook can be more powerful than the print version depends not only upon the topic but also upon the presentation. When the brilliant narrators are Jane Goodall, the naturalist first famous for her study of chimpanzees in Tanzania and now renowned globally as an advocate for ecological awareness, and her interviewer, Douglas Abrams, author of The Book of Joy, celebrating the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Listeners will be spellbound.

Although Jane Goodall was 87 at the time of this recording, her English accent is clear, crisp, and forceful. Douglas Abram's voice is low-pitched and pleasant, respectful and supportive. Both show their deep concern for the future.

Hope, as defined here, is never passive. It requires unremitting hard work to be fulfilled. According to the authors, human beings have four qualities which can make them able to restore a viable worldwide ecological change.

The first is our amazing human intellect., which gives us the capacity to choose correctly. although our mere intelligence may lead us astray.

The second is the marvelous ability of nature to survive and regenerate.

The third is the power and commitment of young people.

The fourth is our indomitable spirit to achieve despite seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

Jane Goodall illustrates these points richly and convincingly with true stories of achievement, from Greta Thunberg, to successful lives led by the severely handicapped, to the magic of 2000-year-old seeds to germinate. But if problems such as climate change and the loss of biodiversity can be solved, our efforts must be universal. Everyone is capable of helping. Will she be heard, or will she be another Cassandra?

Reviewed by Pat Dole
*Stephanie and Charlie Wetzel. The Spanx Story. What's Underneath the Incredible Success of Sara Blakely's Billion Dollar Empire.
Read by Hayley Cresswell.
4 CDs. 4 Hrs.
Brilliance. 2020.

Attention ladies. Which of you would like to be named the youngest self-made female billionaire? Well, I'm sorry, but you will have to be the second one, because Sara Blakely claimed the title in 2012 at age 41. This detailed and inspirational biography tells how she achieved her success, and it was not an easy task.

Born in Florida in 1971, Sara was the daughter of Ellen, a watercolor artist and John, a prominent trial attorney. She became an early entrepreneur, selling charms for socks to students. She sold pictures door to door. But she couldn't pass the LSAT, so no career in the law. At 22. what to do now? Eventually she decided to invent her own product. She had been invited to a party and wanted to wear an expensive pair of white pants with her sandals. She had cellulite so panty hose were required, but to make them work she had to cut off the feet. The only problem was that the hems kept rolling up. No problem without a solution. She would have to get a patent herself and find a manufacturer to make the prototype. She named to product Spanx. She finally found a mill in North Carolina. She then went cold calling, eventually getting her product on the shelves of Nieman Marcus. She was living in Atlanta and so she went to the store herself to connect with customers. She hated to fly but gritted her teeth and went to other stores in the chain. Word spread. Eventually she got the attention of Oprah, who said in 2000 that Spanx were her favorite things. Sara appeared on the show and donated one million dollars to charity. Sara married and had four children but still invented new products with witty slogans such as "not your grandma's girdle" and "Don't worry. I've got your butt covered." The product also sold in Bloomingdales, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks. Sara also appeared on QVC and in 2017 was a shark on TV's Shark Tank.

Hayley Cresswell narrates Sara's story. She makes Sara's life of hard work and inventiveness come alive, with Sara's own advice at the forefront. Sara's story in highly recommended.

Reviewed by Janet Julian