Tag: DuttonBooks

Listen Here: He Said/She Said, We Are Okay, and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

Listen Here: He Said/She Said, We Are Okay, and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

I’ve been on a tear with audiobooks recently so, without further ado, here are three I’ve finished in the last few weeks.

He Said/She Said
Synopsis: He Said/She Said follows Kit and Laura, alternating between their early days of dating to today, ten plus years’ married. Kit is a solar eclipse chaser and, at one of the first festivals where he invites Laura into the fold, Laura interrupts a rape. The repercussions of that rape and the interruption are continuing some fifteen years later when Kit breaks their years of hiding to travel for another eclipse, leaving Laura pregnant at home.

This is a book I probably should have done a bit more research on before diving in, though I’m not sure even that would have prepared me for this book. All I knew going in was that it was on Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Summer 2017 Reading Guide and it was about solar eclipse chasers—a timely choice since there was the total solar eclipse last summer in the United States. I actually tried to start the book a few times on Kindle but kept not being able to get into it before it was due at the library again. I finally gave up on reading it and reserved the audiobook.

And WOW was there a difference. Where I was feeling ambivalent about reading the book, the audiobook brought this thriller to life for me—the voices of Laura and Kit were chosen well and I’m a sucker for a novel set in Britain read with accents (really, I think any book set outside the United States is almost always better on audio for this reason). I was immediately sucked into Laura’s anxiety over her life in hiding with Kit, Kit’s near-obsession with chasing solar-eclipses now placing them at risk since the impending eclipse means he will be partially coming out of total hiding, like the sun moving out of the moon’s shadow—a metaphor that I suppose only works if solar eclipses lasted the years Kit and Laura have been in hiding.

I should probably have guessed from the title but the central action revolves around a rape accusation—a rape interrupted by Laura during an eclipse fifteen years prior. (Hence my suggestion that I probably should have done research on this one—all the trigger warnings for rape, misogyny, and gaslighting.) In an unexpected turn of events, Laura winds up befriending the victim, Beth, until that friendship places Laura and Kit’s lives in danger. As Kit and Laura tentatively step out of hiding, the events of that day and the players involved come crashing back into their lives.

I think I’ve said this before, but I’m pretty good at predicting where a book, movie, or show is going to go. It drives my boyfriend a little crazy when we’re watching something on television and I can predict what’s about to happen, sometimes down to the way the characters say whatever the big reveal is. He Said/She Said had more than one twist I found surprising—Kelly kept me on the edge of my seat and had twists that were shocking, though not so farfetched as to be implausible. Indeed, even what points Kelly was going to make—is she really going to suggest a woman would lie about rape? Is Men’s Rights really going to make an appearance in this book?—weren’t entirely clear through significant portions of the book. There were moments where I couldn’t stop myself from listening, even though I wasn’t sure if what was about to happen was going to make me angry. Kelly’s agenda wasn’t clear until almost the end of the book—something that is rare and made this book all the more gripping.

The majority of my “reading” of audiobooks is done in the car. The sign of an excellent audiobook is if I choose it over a physical book once I get home. I couldn’t put He Said/She Said down and wound up cleaning my entire house and eating meals staring into space just so I could keep the last half of the audiobook playing. I recommend this one if you can handle the triggers and may be re-listening to this one with the boyfriend if we have a long drive coming up.

Published: June 6, 2017 by Minotaur Books (@minotaur_books)
Author: Erin Kelly (@erinjelly)
Date read: February 17, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

We Are Okay
Synopsis: We Are Okay follows Marin, a college student at an unnamed college in New York as she prepares to stay in the dorms over the Winter Break. As you come to learn through Marin’s flashbacks and conversations with a high-school friend/possible former sweetheart who has come to visit, Marin has no other home, having lost her grandfather shortly before she was to start college. The novel explores the reaches of grief, though as the reader comes to understand, Marin’s grief is complicated by the complicated person she discovered her grandfather to be only upon his death.

I can see why this book was an award winner but for me it was sort of a mellow come-down since I started it the same day I finished He Said/She Said. It was good, but it wasn’t exciting—it’s a slow burn, one that never really ignited for me, though I think this is a book that is deserving of its accolades. I probably just wasn’t in the right place at the right time for this book since it is one to savor rather than devour, and I was in a devouring mood.

I don’t know how the author, Nina LaCour, identifies and I don’t want to label her. What I can say is that she is married to another woman and they have a child together, so at a minimum, her orientation is not strictly heterosexual. I mention this (awkwardly) because I do think it is important to read diverse books and books that speak to the experience of traditionally marginalized populations. In this way, We Are Okay fits into the category of #ownvoices. As the reader swiftly comes to recognize, Marin also doesn’t identify solely as straight and, from what she says as you go further into the book, probably identifies as a lesbian. I say “probably” because Marin’s sexuality is in no way the point of the book, so she doesn’t really talk much about how she identifies on the orientation spectrum. While I valued The Miseducation of Cameron Post (amazing book—you should read it) and Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit (okay, but not as good as Cameron Post), those books were mostly about what it was like to come out and live out. Even Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, while broader in scope, addressed the sexuality question head-on as a major theme (also amazing and Lin-Manuel Miranda reads the audiobook and, at one point, laments having to learn about Alexander Hamilton which made me pause the book and cry laughing…but I digress). In We Are Okay, Marin is not straight but that’s really the point of the book. Instead, we have a girl who is grieving, whose grief is compounded by losing, at the same time, what was likely her first meaningful romantic relationship. We Are Okay is a book you could easily flip the sex of Marin’s partner and hardly notice a difference. In other words, We Are Okay is powerful in its lack of fanfare—Marin is (probably) a lesbian and that’s hardly worth noting except it’s entirely worth noting and celebrating. We have a book with a lesbian main character acting exactly like heterosexual teenager grieving her grandfather. There is both a universal experience (grief) and a lesbian character presented as simply living her life—exactly as life is. There is representation that matters and there are themes that are universal. We need the Cameron Posts but we also need the books with diverse characters in books that aren’t just about coming out. While We Are Okay didn’t hit the high note for me at the time, I do think this is a valuable book that is well-written and is one I recommend for fans of diverse books and/or YA.

Published: February 14, 2017 by Dutton Books (@duttonbooks)
Author: Nina LaCour (@nina_lacour)
Date read: February 18, 2018
Rating: 3 1/2 stars

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
Synopsis: On the last night of 1983, Lillian Boxfish finds herself taking a walk through New York City, reminiscing the good times and the bad, remembering what she was like as the highest paid woman ad-writer of her time, as a poet, as a broken woman, and as she is now—not entirely whole, not entirely all-right, but certainly not like any old lady you know.

Keeping with the theme of “okay” books and moving to the other end of the age spectrum, I also listened to the audio of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk earlier in the month. The voice for the audio is fantastic—she sounds like the octogenarian Lillian without having a voice that sounded grating or shrill or like the voice actor was trying to sound “old.” With the narrative itself, I have gotten the sense from a few other readers that Lillian Boxfish is a book that several readers gave up on—I do think it takes over a third of the way in until the book picks up sharply. The first third or more is a veeeeeery slooooooow setting of the stage and introduction of Lillian’s character so that when she meets her future husband, the reader experiences a shift of a startling magnitude—it isn’t that Lillian is being inconsistent, but rather, you see how what you thought of Lillian—how what she thought of herself—wasn’t entirely accurate. How others can have a profound and lasting impact on us, even after they are gone.

The struggle with this book, however, is that the first third provides so little payoff that it is hard to feel like continuing to read (or listen) is worth the time—you don’t see that back-end payoff coming, ever. I will admit that if any of the books I had on my hold list for audiobooks had come available at the time, I’m not sure I would have stuck this one out. The first third to half was a driving-only audiobook. The second half swiftly became the laundry-folding, shower-cleaning can’t-put-down variety.

Lillian as a narrator is tongue-in-cheek funny and is the kind of old lady I think I’d like to be. Her snappy one-liners were really the highlight of the book for me. Some of my favorite samples:

“His expression was sheepish enough to supply a Highland village with wool and milk. I cocked a loaded eyebrow.”

“Most of what we consider beauty is manufactured. But the fact of that manufacture does not make it unbeautiful.”

“For though I was raised Protestant, my true religion is actually civility.”

“One need not believe in something for it to happen anyway.”

“Choice is an illusion promoted by the powerful.”

If you’ve got time to invest, Lillian Boxfish may be worth your time but this is ultimately a take-it-or-leave-it book for me.

Published: January 17, 2017 by St. Martin’s Press (@stmartinspress)
Author: Kathleen Rooney
Date read: February 8, 2018
Rating: 3 stars

Header photo credit : Lee Campbell

Review: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green


“I was beginning to learn that your life is a story told about you, not one that you tell.”

“No, it’s not, Holmesy. You pick your endings, and your beginnings. You get the pick the frame, you know? Maybe you don’t choose what’s in the picture, but you decide the frame.”

Turtles All the Way Down is the story of Aza Holmes, a sixteen year old Indianapolis high school student with a crazy best friend and a raging complex of anxiety disorders.  Throughout Turtles, Aza vacillates between being defined and driven by her anxiety, OCD, and grief for her departed father and  having moments of peace, during which she watches stars and eats Applebees with Davis Pickett, son of an eccentric billionaire who’s gone missing, and her best friend Daisy Ramirez, internet-famous author of Star Wars fanfic.  With a focus on Aza but eyes on Davis and Daisy as well, Turtles is ultimately a story of what it means to be resilient, even when everything — your family, your friends, life circumstances, and even your own brain chemistry– are fighting against you.

A John Green Book
I’ll admit. I’m one of those cliché people that loved The Fault in Our Stars (and to be further cliché—that’s the book and most definitely not the movie). I was so into it that I even finished listening to the audiobook on the way to a wedding and arrived a mess—red faced and sobbing before the wedding ever started. I was that girl who googled “An Imperial Affliction” and was disappointed to learn it was not a real book.

I then eagerly read Looking for Alaska and was disappointed and could never get into Paper Towns. My burning love for John Green ignited by TFIOS quickly fizzled and revealed itself as a mere flash-bang rather than an enduring fire. So it was with some hesitation that I even checked out Turtles All the Way Down from the library. And yet, Turtles is the closest I’ve found Green to come back to TFIOS—I’d even go so far as to say that Aza Holmes, in all her flawed glory, feels more authentic than Hazel and Augustus.

With that said, Turtles All the Way Down is still, 100% a John Green book. As Preston Yancey noted on an early episode of the What Should I Read Next podcast, YA should be vibrant and intense—the colors are bright and the feelings are feelings. The dialogue that happens in a John Green book is unlikely to happen anywhere else—it’s snappy and intelligent in ways that normal conversation is occasionally, but not all the time. Because of this, Turtles feels inauthentic in the best way—mental illness and grief aside, this is the world as it should be—the dialogue crackles, the air is crisp, and everything has meaning.

Aza’s Anxiety and OCD
Speaking of mental illness, Green himself apparently has OCD and anxiety so his writing these into the character of Aza feels authentic—an #ownvoices of a different type.

“And we’re such language-based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume that it isn’t real. We refer to it with catch-all terms, like crazy or chronic pain, terms that both ostracize and minimize. The term chronic paid captures nothing of the grinding, constant, ceaseless, inescapable hurt. And the term crazy arrives at us with none of the terror and worry you live with.”

Aza’s thought spirals could easily feel overdone and stereotypical but Green pulls them back from this edge. Aza, for all her self-loathing and flaws, remains likeable. She breaks your heart as you watch her hurting, wanting to pull her back from the prison her mind has made for her. (Wanting to pull her away from the damn hand sanitizer.) In my experience working with and being friends with people with mental illness, Turtles All the Way Down felt like an accurate portrayal of these disorders that didn’t stray into sensationalism or stereotype, nor is Aza ultimately defined by her mental illness.

Supporting Characters
Aza’s love interest in the book was sweet and conveniently rich, making Davis the perfect John Green character. He was wiser and kinder than I remember sixteen year old boys being—though, as an aside—my recent spate of YA novels has me wondering if everyone was really having this much sex in high school and I just didn’t know about it (arguably, likely) or if the feeling that all these YA characters are more grown up than I was at their age is partly a function of the earlier and earlier sexualization of American teenagers.

But I digress. Davis was lovely and just the right amount of wounded and imperfect to be the foil for Aza. The Aza-Davis relationship differed markedly from Hazel-Augustus and, despite his immense wealth, Davis felt like a more well-rounded character than Augustus. (Augustus felt too perfect, except for the part where he was…you know, dying). I appreciated how Green resolved the Aza-Davis relationship—it was believable rather than forced, when the easy temptation (especially in YA) is for the happily-ever-after.

Aza’s best friend Daisy was perhaps one of my favorite characters, though one I remain a bit conflicted about. She had many of the hallmarks of the manic-pixie-dream-girl (hence the conflict), though her character revealed the growth in Aza, not a boy. Daisy was Alaska, but far less wounded, better fleshed-out, and a writer of Chewbacca fanfic.  (Her life motto—“Break hearts, not promises.) She was snappy and funny, quirky in the way I wanted to be but certainly never was in high school.   Turtles is told from Aza’s viewpoint, so part of the reason Daisy kept the manic-pixie-dream-girl vibe for so long was, frankly, because that’s the role Aza relegated her to. Daisy busts this mold to an extent part of the way through the book, when she chews out Aza for being self-absorbed—so caught in her spirals that she doesn’t see the hardship Daisy has been living with. While I doubt Green would do it, I would love a Daisy novella about this same time period so that we see Daisy as she sees herself. I want more of her.

The Ending
I’m going to be intentionally vague here so I don’t think there needs to be a spoiler warning. I’m not exhaustively versed in his body of work, but the voice, perspective, and final words are not a choice that I think we’ve seen Green make as readers. I go back and forth on whether I found the way this choice provided closure comforting or if it would have been better to leave the book more open-ended.   There are many books that I want to know what happened after the book, though having gotten that to an extent here, maybe we are better off not always knowing. The grass is always Greener….(Sorry. But not really.)

If you find John Green or YA generally to be too much, this isn’t going to be the book for you. Green goes new places with Aza, but his voice and his writing remains true to what has made him the popular author he is. If you can handle the occasional YA and/or want to start a John Green book but don’t want to start with the one everyone talks about where the kids are all dying of cancer, then I absolutely recommend Turtles All the Way Down. The topic is serious but the dialogue makes it feel lighter and a thread of hope for Aza runs through the entire book. I listened on audio and found the voice to be a good match for the story—I may even use an Audible credit to purchase my own copy of the audiobook to re-listen.

Published: October 10, 2017 by Dutton Books (@duttonbooks)
Author: John Green (@johngreenwritesbooks)
Date read: December 23, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars