I’ve listened to so many audiobooks lately, mostly for two reasons. One, I’ve been doing some tasks for my summer internship that are rather repetitive and don’t actually require any cognitive thinking. I don’t want to get into the details, but think things like data entry. Second, I’ve also played so much Stardew Valley lately. It’s not a good time in my life to start such an addictive game between school, work, and internship, but here we are anyway. At least I’m getting a lot of audiobook listening out of it. I thought I’d round-up some my thoughts on my recent audiobook “reads”.
1. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma
narrated by Georgia King and Sandy Rustin
On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement.
On the inside, within the walls of the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom.
Tying their two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries…
What really happened on the night Orianna stepped between Violet and her tormentors? What really happened on two strange nights at Aurora Hills? Will Amber and Violet and Orianna ever get the justice they deserve—in this life or in another one?
In prose that sings from line to line, Nova Ren Suma tells a supernatural tale of guilt and of innocence, and of what happens when one is mistaken for the other.
This was a re-read via audio. I originally gave the book 5 stars and I loved the audiobook just as much. It took me a little while to get into the audiobook for a few reasons. One, Nova Ren Suma’s writing is so lyrical and poetic I found the audiobook a bit distancing from that at first, but as the story went on I fell into the cadence and really began to enjoy listening to the story. It was very much like listening to a ghost story being told around a campfire by a particularly gifted storyteller. I also enjoyed the dual narration, but it takes a while for that to get going. The Walls Around Us tells the story of two girls, Violet and Orianna, or Ori, who were best friends and gifted ballet dancers. Ori is sent to a juvenile detention center for a double murder, but there’s more to what happened one night than may first appear. Ori’s story, however, is not narrated by Ori. Instead, the reader gets Amber, a girl who has been inside the detention center for three years for killing her stepfather. Even though the book is split narration, the narration is not split evenly. Amber’s POV takes up much more time than Violet’s does. The Walls Around Us can be a confusing book at times, but I actually found it less confusing in audiobook format, though that may just be because I was already familiar with the story. Still, I love this twisty tale of justice and what girls can be. My favorite quote in this book is “some girls make enemies of other girls, and you don’t even know why,” because it gets at the heart of such a common experience, and that line was even more powerful in audiobook. Highly recommend picking this one up in either format! 5/5 stars.
2. The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith
narrated by Rebekkah Ross
In the tradition of Speak, this extraordinary debut novel shares the unforgettable story of a young woman as she struggles to find strength in the aftermath of an assault.
Eden was always good at being good. Starting high school didn’t change who she was. But the night her brother’s best friend rapes her, Eden’s world capsizes.
What was once simple, is now complex. What Eden once loved—who she once loved—she now hates. What she thought she knew to be true, is now lies. Nothing makes sense anymore, and she knows she’s supposed to tell someone what happened but she can’t. So she buries it instead. And she buries the way she used to be.
Told in four parts—freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year—this provocative debut reveals the deep cuts of trauma. But it also demonstrates one young woman’s strength as she navigates the disappointment and unbearable pains of adolescence, of first love and first heartbreak, of friendships broken and rebuilt, and while learning to embrace a power of survival she never knew she had hidden within her heart.
Man, this was such a tough listen. I read a lot of books that deal with sexual violence, because I read mostly contemporary YA and I tend to enjoy the “serious” books in that genre the most. My favorite is still Courtney Summer’s All the Rage, but The Way I Used to Be was such a harrowing, developed look at sexual assault as well. Freshman year of high school, Eden was raped in her own bedroom by her brother’s best friend. What follows after that is Eden trying to distance herself as much as possible from that night in every way possible. The Way I Used to Be follows Eden from all four years of high school, and the reader sees how she went from being a demure, happy girl who played in band and had friends to someone who people wrote words on the bathroom wall about and constantly pushed people away.
One thing I appreciated about The Way I Used to Be is that it doesn’t follow the typical survivor narrative we see in YA. Eden is allowed to feel broken. She is allowed to act out. She has character growth, but it takes a long time to get there. She doesn’t shy away from other people’s touches, but instead hooks up with many different guys in a way to take her choice back. Her continued survival is not pretty. I like to think there’s room for many, many different kinds of survivor stories in YA. There’s room for both the hopeful Exit, Pursued by a Bear and the angry All the Rage and this, the slow, sad, self-destruction Eden has before she starts getting better.
I also want to make a point to say I really loved Rebekkah Ross’ narration. It was so emotional, but not in a dramatic, theatrical way. It was subtle, but so effective, and dynamic. I felt so connected to Eden’s story in a way I’m not sure I would have if I had just read the book. I want to listen to many more of her audiobooks for sure. 4/5 stars.
3. Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica
narrated by Cassandra Campbell, Tom Taylorson, & Jorjeana Marie
She sees the teenage girl on the train platform, standing in the pouring rain, clutching an infant in her arms. She boards a train and is whisked away. But she can’t get the girl out of her head…
Heidi Wood has always been a charitable woman: she works for a nonprofit, takes in stray cats. Still, her husband and daughter are horrified when Heidi returns home one day with a young woman named Willow and her four-month-old baby in tow. Disheveled and apparently homeless, this girl could be a criminal—or worse. But despite her family’s objections, Heidi invites Willow and the baby to take refuge in their home.
Heidi spends the next few days helping Willow get back on her feet, but as clues into Willow’s past begin to surface, Heidi is forced to decide how far she’s willing to go to help a stranger. What starts as an act of kindness quickly spirals into a story far more twisted than anyone could have anticipated.
I’ve been wanting to read one of Mary Kubica’s books for awhile, and I have to say I was sadly disappointed in this book. I’m not sure if it as the audiobook or just the story itself, but I was bored the majority of the time I was listening to this. I would have put it down, but I was engaged in the mystery and I did want to learn more about certain aspects of the story, so I kept listening. Pretty Baby has three points of view: Heidi, the woman who sees the homeless girl on the train platform with a baby, Chris, who is Heidi’s husband, and Willow, the homeless girl with the baby who Heidi sees. All of them were performed by a different narrator in the audiobook. I liked the narration for Chris and Willow, but loathed Heidi’s narration. While listening to this, I was under the impression that I was supposed to like Heidi with her big heart and do-good attitude, but I disliked her immediately. I’m fine disliking characters — in fact, I often love characters who are meant to be disliked — but it’s rather different when I get the impression that I was suppose to like Heidi.
There were a few twists and turns to Pretty Baby, though I saw the ending coming from miles away. Willow’s story was by far the most interesting and my favorite narration. There’s a lot of bleak stuff in this book about Willow’s past, but the narrator did a good job of really emphasizing what a scared, young girl Willow was. I did also appreciate that the author does some different things with Chris’ character. For one, he’s not the horrible husband who normally appears in thrillers (which is not to say that he’s a good husband, either, but at least he doesn’t fall into the character trope that he so easily could, considering he’s an affluent investment banker).
And maybe it should have been obvious from the title, but I got bored with how repetitive this book was with Heidi’s baby fever. Yes, clearly she loves babies, but from the summary I was expecting more of a thriller, not half-an-hour segments of Heidi contemplating how much she loves babies and wanted another of her own after the birth of her only daughter. It got old fast, which was why the ending couldn’t salvage this one for me. I was already too annoyed. 2/5 stars.
4. Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
HER PERFECT LIFE IS A PERFECT LIE.
As a teenager at the prestigious Bradley School, Ani FaNelli endured a shocking, public humiliation that left her desperate to reinvent herself. Now, with a glamorous job, expensive wardrobe, and handsome blue blood fiancé, she’s this close to living the perfect life she’s worked so hard to achieve.
But Ani has a secret.
There’s something else buried in her past that still haunts her, something private and painful that threatens to bubble to the surface and destroy everything.
With a singular voice and twists you won’t see coming, Luckiest Girl Alive explores the unbearable pressure that so many women feel to “have it all” and introduces a heroine whose sharp edges and cutthroat ambition have been protecting a scandalous truth, and a heart that’s bigger than it first appears.
The question remains: will breaking her silence destroy all that she has worked for—or, will it at long last, set Ani free?
I listened to this one right after I listened to Pretty Baby, and my positive feelings towards this book are mostly because this book was better than that one, which is not exactly high praise. I’m not exactly sure why this book is considered a thriller. It’s dark, exceedingly so, yes, but it’s more like a particularly dark career-driven book than a thriller. Ani seems to have it all: good editing job, successful soon-to-be-husband, and she’s moved up the class ranks. Yet, the reader is alerted very early on that Ani is not exactly what one would call a nice person. She’s vicious, cruel, and destructive at heart, but on the surface she’s a chameleon, able to effortlessly blend in and fool everyone. Told in a split timeline, the reader learns what happens to Ani in high school to make her the way she is when the book opens.
First, there is so much disordered eating in this book. SO MUCH. Ani herself seems to have a binge eating disorder, though it’s never labelled as such. The word “anorexic” is thrown around frequently and casually. The majority of Ani’s coworkers and friends have likewise unhealthy attitudes towards food. It’s understandable, given the subject matter of the book as it goes on, but I’m surprised I haven’t seen more reviews warn for it, because it’s everywhere.
Secondly, there is a lot going on in this book. Ani’s high school experience was awful, but none of it was developed properly. It went from a hard-hitting look at bullying and other high school traumas to a level of drama and violence more suited to a soap opera than a book. It’s not like I think a character can only have one traumatic event happen to them ever, but in the case of Luckiest Girl Alive I felt none of those traumas got a chance to be properly developed. Luckiest Girl Alive is trying to be a psychological thriller, but it fails on developing the thoughts and inner lives of the characters. Yet, there was something compelling about it. At the end of the day, I am a sucker for stories about women who will do whatever it takes to fit in, to climb the corporate ladder, to get their perfect lives. Luckiest Girl Alive does not do this as skillfully as some other books, but it is still that kind of story. 3/5 stars.