Author: Sarah Bird
Title: Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2018)
Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen is a historical novel loosely based on the true story of Cathay Williams, a freed slave who disguised herself as a man and served with the Buffalo Soldiers of the US Army. The fictionalized Cathy’s story begins when Philip Sheridan’s Union Army liberates the plantation where she was enslaved, and mistaking her for a man, assigns her as an assistant for the cook. The real Sheridan was a problematic figure, but the rapport and eventual friendship between Cathy and Sheridan in this novel is one of its most charming aspects.
After the war, Cathy decides there isn’t much opportunity for her as a freed person, and disguises herself as a man under the pseudonym William Cathay. In the novel, she gets herself into the cavalry and is known as a sharpshooter. Nevertheless, she faces the challenge of keeping her real identity secret amid bullying from the other soldiers and the fear of the danger she faced if discovered.
The earlier parts of the novel seem stronger to me as a plot in which Cathy has romantic feelings towards her sergeant dominate the latter half of the book. I suppose it’s a natural plotline, but it seems the most obvious trope of stories in which someone disguises themselves as the opposite gender going back at least to Shakespeare. On the other hand, if you are drawn to romance, it provides a nice balance to the grim realities of war, toxic masculinity, and racial prejudice depicted in the novel.
My enjoyment of this novel was greatly improved by the terrific voices that Bahni Turpin provides in her narration.
Recommended books: Jubilee by Margaret Walker, Blindspot by Jane Kamensky
Author: Mike McCormack
Title: Solar Bones
Narrator: Timothy Reynolds
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, 2017
Marcus Conway is a ghost. On All Souls Day, he sits at the dinner table waiting for his family to return, and unspools a stream-of-concious monologue about this life written in a single sentence (this is the second single-sentence novel I’ve read recently!). The single sentence isn’t as apparent in the audiobook – deftly narrated by Timothy Reynolds – but I do notice that he starts a phrase with “and” a lot, adding a certain rhythm to the prose. Marcus talks about his own father’s death, his sometimes troubled relationship with his wife and children, and his work as a civic engineer. Local politics also plays a big part of his story, from voting to a politicians thick-headed insistence on building a school that’s not structurally sound, to even the awful stomach virus that infects his community – including his wife – caused by bad sanitation. Over time, Marcus unravels the details of his own death and comes to terms with his mortality. The thing about this novel is that for all the experimental nature of its narrative, Marcus is a perfectly ordinary person doing ordinary things. McCormack’s writing unveils the fascinating stories within the everyday person.
Recommended books: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Title:Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens
Narrator: Ramon De Ocampo
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2012)
Previously Read By the Same Author: Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones, and Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia
The Alcatraz series continues with the great humor and cleverness of the previous books, including a great running gag on chapter numbering. The book focuses in on the history and meaning of the Smedry Talents bringing alight some fascinating details. The story also finds Alcatraz and his friends in the middle of war, with all the loss and sacrifice that entails. While humorous and never comes to a point that death seems possible, the book does exposit on the frightening reality of children in war. Finally, Alcatraz makes an unexpected alliance. Another great book in this series, and I look forward to the next and final volume.
Author: William Goldman
Title: The Princess Bride
Narrator: Rob Reiner
Publication Info: Phoenix Books (1999) [Original published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1973)]
Other books read by the same author: The Silent Gondoliers (as S. Morgenstern)
“Life isn’t fair, it’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”
The recent death of William Goldman prompted me to seek out one of my all-time favorite books, The Princess Bride. If you’re familiar with the classic 1987 film adaptation, Goldman’s book is even more funny, more clever, and more sweetly satirical. The book is written with a framing device in which he discovers that a beloved adventure book read to him by his father when he was sick as a child, was actually a long political satire that bored his own son. So Goldman decides to publish an abridged version with only the good parts. All of this framing device is fictional, as Goldman invented both the story of The Princess Bride and a fictional wife and son.
The audio book version I found to listen too is disappointingly an abridged version, ironic since The Princess Bride is already supposed to be an abridged book. Many of the scenes that don’t correspond directly to the movie are left out of the audiobook, including the majority of Goldman’s framing device interrupting the narrative. The audiobook doesn’t even have the Reunion Scene. As a bonus, the book is read by Rob Reiner – director of the film – in his wonderful Bronx accent.
It’s definitely worth putting this on to play to your kids if you’re not up for reading the book out loud yourself.
Recommended books: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, and The Once and Future King by T. H. White
Author: Chris Hayes
Title: A Colony in a Nation
Narrator: Chris Hayes
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2017)
Riffing off a phrase from Richard Nixon’s nomination speech, journalist Chris Hayes writes a series of essays about how African Americans have in fact become a “colony within a nation” in the decades since Nixon stressed the importance of law and order. The “colony” within the United States is denied the right people enjoy in the largely white “nation” and the nation is built on exploitation of the colony. Issues covered include police violence against Black Americans, and systems of police enforcement driven by drawing revenue from largely Black populations, the War on Drugs, the militarization of police, white fear, and Broken Windows ideology. Hayes notes that the “nation” requires that the “order” part of “law and order” be prioritized and thus law is often used as a blunt instrument rather than a tool of justice.
Hayes’ strongest writing comes in the analogies he uses to explain his ideas. The life for Black Americans in the colony is similar to Colonial Americans who rebelled against British rule. While unjust taxation is often credited with starting the American Revolution, Hayes traces the history of excessive force used by the British in an attempt to stop smuggling and make the Colonials pay tariffs being the real source of division. White fear that drives police officers and white gun owners to shoot Black people without thinking is similar to the siege mentality of early colonists living among Native Americans and slave owners who lived in constant fear that they’d be victims of violence from Native Americans and enslaved Africans. The idea of how community policing may work in comparison with the increasingly militarized and punitive policing in America today is demonstrated by how college campuses are policed. Colleges have a considerable amount of disorder and a high level of law breaking that is tolerated and even encouraged in a way that is opposite of how a poor, urban neighborhood is treating.
This is a well-written and thoughtful book and a good one to read to reflect on current events and how we can change things for the better.
Recommended books: Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein, and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Author: Kathleen Rooney
Title: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
Narrator: Xe Sands
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2017)
In this delightful first person-narrative, the octogenarian Lillian Boxfish celebrates New Year’s Eve 1984 in New York City goes to a bar, dines out at Delmonico’s, drops in at a party of a pair of young artists, and faces down some potential muggers. Lillian walks everywhere she goes amid the decay of 1980s Manhattan with the then current Subway Vigilante story a repeated warning of New York hitting bottom. But Lillian’s charm and curiosity means that she consistently is meeting and engaging with ordinary people in meaningful conversations – bartenders, clerks, security guards, drivers, a mother-to-be going into labor, and yes, even would-be muggers. Despite the city’s flaws, she despises the suburbs, Lillian admires the city’s energy and the opportunity to take her walks.
Along her walk, Lillian reflects upon her life in New York, starting in the 1930s when she became a successful writer of advertising for R.H. Macy and a poet. Eventually she marries and has a child, but the loss of her career and a troubled marriage lead to depression. These autobiographical details are sprinkled well throughout Lillian’s walk and experiences. For audiobook listeners, Xe Sands is terrific in capturing Lillian’s whimsical and thoughtful voice.
This book is a tribute to New York set at a transitional time that reflects on the city’s golden past and emerging future. It’s also a portrait of a fascinating woman who may be ahead of her time, but I think Lillian Boxfish would say she was right on time. Better yet, the novel is inspired by a real life person, Margaret Fishback.
“…the suburbs had always seemed mealy and unresolved. I understood that their in-between-ness — neither town nor country! — was supposed to be their very appeal, but I didn’t find it appealing. I always wanted either to be in, or get away from the city, not just be close to the city. Were I off in the pastoral hills shingling my own roof or riding a horse, well then, what fun. And were I catching a subway for a night at the opera, well then, hooray. But in the suburbs I could enjoy none of those pursuits with ease.” – p. 185
Author: Jeff Passan
Title: The Arm
Narrator: Kevin Peirce
Publication Info: [Ashland, Oregon] : Blackstone Audio, Inc. : Harper Audio, 
The subtitle of this book is Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports and “mystery” is an important word. No one knows for sure why some pitchers can gain incredible endurance and others are prone to injury. Practices for building arm strength and preventing injury are built more on guesswork than science. And while new surgical procedures have allowed some pitchers to return to successful careers, they are no panacea. At the heart of The Arm is the fact that throwing an orb overhand a 100+ times in succession is an unnatural action, and the mystery is that anyone manages to do it without injury rather than why some pitchers can’t avoid injury.
At the heart of this book, Passan provides eyewitness documentation of two contemporary pitchers – Todd Coffey and Daniel Hudson – as they undergo Tommy John surgery and attempt to return to pitching at the top level in Major League Baseball. In between there stories, Passan interviews various baseball legends: Sandy Koufax, whose Hall of Fame career was cut short in the days before surgeries that could’ve extended the life of his arm; Nolan Ryan, the opposite extreme, a pitcher known for his remarkable longevity despite refusing surgeries; and of course, Tommy John, whose eponymous surgery changed baseball. The career of orthopedist Frank Jobe, who humbly named ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction for his patient rather than himself, is also documented.
Outside of Major League Baseball, Passan investigates the increasing pressure in youth sports to specialize in one sport early and for coaches to overuse their young players’ arms in games. Tommy John surgery is skyrocketing among adolescents. An exploitative youth sports industry has also emerged that encourages young athletes and their families to pay to participate in showcases on the hopes of attracting attention of Major League scouts. Passan also visits Japan where the traditionalist view of “pitch until your arm falls off” in high school baseball is just beginning to be challenged by the younger generation.
The mystery of the arm is not resolved in this book, but Passan does an excellent job documenting what we know about pitching and exposing a seedy underside of our national pastime
Recommended books: Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball by R. A. Dickey and You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting
Author: Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
Title: My Lady Jane
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2016)
This work of historical fiction flat-out revels in the fact that it is completely made up. This version of the story of Lady Jane Grey, a.k.a. the Nine Day Queen, has the boy King Edward being manipulated and slowly poisoned by his adviser Lord Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Edward designates his favorite cousin Jane to be his heir and has her married to Dudley’s son Guildford.
So far, similar to reality, but sillier. In this alternate history, some people are Effians, that is having the ability to change into an animal. Swiftly, Jane inherits the throne when Edward is declared dead, and then she and Guildford are forced to flee when Mary in turn claims the throne. Jane, Guildford, and Edward (spoiler: he’s not dead) all have adventures, discover new powers, and meet interesting people along the way to a happier ending than reality. The book is riotously funny both in the dialogue and the authors asides. The audio book is excellently performed by Katherine Kellgren.
Recommended books: The Princess Bride by William Goldman, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain and The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White
Author: Neil Gaiman
Title: Fortunately, the Milk
Narrator: Neil Gaiman
Publication Info: HarperCollins (2013)
Previously Read by the Same Author:
We listened to this with the kids on a road trip this weekend, once in each direction. The narrator is a boy whose Dad goes out to buy milk at the corner store and after a long absence returns with an outlandish tale of where he’d been. His adventures include encounters with aliens in flying saucers, pirates, vampires, colorful ponies, and traveling as a companion to Professor Steg, a very wise stegosaurus. They travel through time, escape an erupting volcano, and never fail to hold on to the milk, all while on board a Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier (a.k.a. a hot air balloon). It’s all delightfully silly and a good follow-up to our previous favorite audio book for road trips, Gaiman’s The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, which very likely features the same family.
Author: Daniel José Older
Narrator: Anika Noni Rose
Publication Info: Scholastic Audio (2015)
This young adult fantasy novel is set in Brooklyn and features a teenager named Sierra who discovers that her family is able to communicate with the spirit world through art. And it is up to her to save her family and community from an anthropologist who has learned their secrets and is now turning the spirits against them. The book is full of humor, truly sinister monsters, and believable world building.
It’s good in weaving traditional YA fantasy tropes in with Caribbean folklore and a young woman of color as the protagonist. It also works as a metaphor for contemporary issues such as gentrification and cultural appropriation.
“hipsters are basically yuppies with tighter pants and bigger glasses.”
Recommended books: How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon, Mama Day
by Gloria Naylor, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, and Krik? Krak!
by Edwidge Danticat