Author: Ryka Aoki
Title: Light From Uncommon Stars
Narrator: Cindy Kay
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2021
Shizuka Satomi is a world-renown violin instructor who has made a deal with a demon to trade the souls of 7 violin prodigies for success. She has one more soul to collect and has returned home to Southern California to find a likely candidate.
Lan Tran is a starship captain who has escaped a galactic war with her family, and now operate a doughnut shop as their cover.
Katrina Nguyen is a teenage transgender girl who has run away to Los Angeles from her abusive family and supports herself making YouTube videos. She also plays the violin.
Somehow not only are all these characters in the same novel, but their interactions create a heartfelt human story that transcends genres. Shizuka and Lan meet, share their strange histories, and strike up a romance. And of course, Shizuka takes on Katrina as her student, and yet treats her with such tenderness that it’s hard to believe she plans to sell Katrina’s soul to the Devil.
And that only scratches the surface of the brilliant, warm, funny, and creative novel!
Author: A. J. Hackwith
Title: The Library of the Unwritten
Narrator: Lisa Flanagan
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2019
I typically don’t include an official publisher’s description in my book reviews, but I can’t find the words to sum up this book any better:
Sounds quirky, doesn’t it? The premise also feels like a crossover of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series with Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. But the similarities are superficial. This is a creative and beautifully strange book. And while the characters are mostly demons, angels, muses, fictional beings and, well, the dead, it is also a very human story.
I’ve learned that this is the first book in a series, and while I won’t be rushing out to read the next book, I will definitely read it at some point.
Author: Katherine V. Forrest
Title: Curious Wine
Narrator: Jane Merrow
Publication Info: Allure Audio (2009) [originally published in 1983]
Someday I need to start keeping track of where I find out about the books I put on my reading list, because this is definitely not the typical book for me to read. Which is a good thing, so thank you random person who recommended it to me.
Curious Wine is the story of a women’s retreat at a cabin at a Lake Tahoe ski resort, and through encounter games and various intimate conversations share a lot about themselves. Two of the women, Diane and Lane, form a bond that leads to a sexual relationship. The problem is that up to that point they had considered themselves straight and have a lot of things to navigate in order to continue the relationship.
This was one of the first mainstream romance novels about a lesbian relationship by a lesbian author. The novel goes to great lengths to add “respectability” to the relationship by having two white, professional women who’ve previously had relationships with men as the protagonists who then put a lot of effort into making sure no one can consider their love “just a phase.” This was certainly necessary in the early 1980s but feels awkward now. Nevertheless it is a sweet and honest story with well-developed characters.
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Title: The Pearl Thief
Previously Read by the Same Author:
Publication Info: Los Angeles : Hyperion, 2017.
Part of the cycle of loosely-tied together novels about women during World War II, The Pearl Thief acts as a prequel to Code Name Verity. The novel’s protagonist is Julie Beaufort-Stuart, the Scottish aristocrat who is one of the two main characters of the earlier novel, and is set one year prior to the war when she is just 15. She returns home her family estate from boarding school to find herself embroiled in a mystery regarding the disappearance of a scholar working with artifacts recovered from their property.
Julie is a great character, impulsive and bold that make her stand out among the staid expectations of her time and class. Much of the novel explores her new friendship with the siblings Ellen and Euan McEwen, who are members of Highland Travellers’ community that camp nearby. The trio get into many adventures, and they encounter much prejudice against the Travelers (which Julie attempts to shield with her privilege). The book also explores Julie’s romantic attraction to Ellen and to an older man named Richard revealing her burgeoning sexuality (and hooray for bisexual representation!).
This is the first book by Elizabeth Wein that I don’t love, but it is a great character study even if I found the narrative to be a bit slight.
Author: Catriona Ward
Title: The Last House on Needless Street
Narrator: Christopher Ragland
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2021
The Last House on Needless Street is a strange and unsettling horror/mystery where it’s clear that something is very wrong, but one doesn’t know what it is. The story is told from the point of view of four different characters:
- Ted Bannerman is a man who lives in a ramshackle house with boarded up windows, is haunted by the memory of his authoritarian mother, and has frequent blackouts.
- His teenage daughter Lauren visits from time to time, but Ted doesn’t allow her to go out of the house, and its unclear where she goes when she’s not at Ted’s.
- Ted’s pet cat Olivia (yes, part of this book is narrated by a cat) who is deeply religious and, well, catty.
- Dee, a woman who moves in next door. Her little sister was abducted a decade earlier and she’s been looking for her ever since. The police searched Ted’s house at the time of the crime but have since cleared him. Nevertheless, Dee suspects Ted to be the kidnapper.
The book slowly unravels the mysteries in a story where no one is who they appear to be. I have to admit that I got frustrated in the early going and had to look online for plot summaries to get through it (which are hard to find since no one wants to spoil the book). But I did find that later parts of the book to be satisfying and it has a more positive, upbeat ending than I imagined was possible for a book like this.
Author: Kaitlyn Greenidge
Narrator: Waites Channie
Publication Info: [Prince Frederick] : Recorded Books Inc., 2021.
Previously Read By The Same Author: We Love You, Charlie Freeman
Set during and immediately after the American Civil War, Libertie is narrated by a free Black girl named Libertie Sampson. She’s raised in Brooklyn (often referred to in the historically accurate parlance of Kings County) by her mother Cathy who is one of the first Black women to become licensed as a medical doctor. In addition to running a practice for the local community, Dr. Sampson helps enslaved people who have escaped from the South.
Libertie is under a lot of pressure from her mother to also go into medicine, although Libertie does not wish to follow that path. Eventually, after flunking out of college, Libertie accepts the marriage proposal of her mother’s apprentice Emmanuel and moves with him to Haiti. Despite the promise of a new nation of free Black people, Libertie grows quickly disenchanted with Haiti and it at odds with Emmanuel’s family.
This book deals with a lot of issues. The conflict between mother and daughter is at the heart of the novel, but also more broadly the idea of how Black people should be and act now that they’ve gained their freedom. The book also deals with colorism, as Libertie herself is dark-skinned, and the discrimination among Black people. Finally, it’s a book of self-discovery as Libertie having decided how she does not want to live her life figures out what she really wants to do.
This was a tough book to read since Libertie seems constantly to be dealing with the disapprobation of others and her own self-criticism. It made me anxious to read. Nevertheless, this is an excellent narrative with a lot of interesting period detail.
Author: City of Girls
Title: Elizabeth Gilbert
Publication Info: New York : Riverhead Books, 2019.
This novel is narrated by Vivian Morris, the black sheep of a wealthy New York State family who flops at Vassar College in 1940. Her parents ship her off to New York City to live with her eccentric Aunt Peg, who operates a low-rent theater. Vivian offers he skills as a seamstress to costume design and gets sucked into the glamorous life of the New York theater world. Along the way she befriends a showgirl Celia, becomes enchanted with the refugee English actor Edna, and falls in love/lust with the lead actor. After a few poor choices she finds herself embroiled in a scandal.
The latter parts of the novel explore Vivian’s life during World War II and in the decades beyond. Vivian matures and takes on more responsibility and eventually starts her own business, finding the right balance for a countercultural life as an independent woman in the years before women’s liberation. She also forms a relationship with a WWII veteran suffering PTSD, Frank. This latter part of the novel is interesting but it feels more like a long epilogue to Vivian’s life in the pre-WWII theater world.
City of Girls is an enjoyable historical novel and I definitely found it to be a page turner. True to its title, almost all the significant characters are female with men playing supporting parts which is a good change from the typical novel. It’s a long book and yet packing several decades of Vivian’s life into maybe the last third of the book still feels rushed, but that’s its only really flaw.
Author: TJ Klune
Title: The House in the Cerulean Sea
Narrator: Daniel Henning
Publication Info: New York : Tor, 2020.
Linus Baker is an effective but unambitious caseworker in a large bureaucratic organization called the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. Unexpectedly, he is singled out by Extremely Upper Management for a longer assignment to an orphanage on the remote Marsyas Island. The home only has six magical children under the care of the eccentric Arthur Parnassus, but one of them is Lucifer (a.k.a. “Lucy”), the son of the Devil. (Yes, two of the main characters are named Linus and Lucy and thus prompt a Vince Guaraldi earworm). Other children at the orphanage include wyvern, a gnome, a forest sprite, a shapeshifter, and a gelatinous, tentacled child named Chauncey.
The story is fairly predictable. Linus’ experience with the children and Arthur leads him to break out of his shell and become more of an advocate for magical children against widespread discrimination. The children, in turn, learn to accept themselves and begin to form relationships with the nonmagical humans on the mainland. What makes the book work though is just the wonderful characterization. The children are so very childlike while also being fantastic and strange. It also has a same sex romance plot and the story can be read as an allegory for the treatment of LGBTQ people cis/het society.
Author: Laurie Frankel
Title: This is How It Always Is
Publication Info: New York : Flatiron Books, 
Rosie (a doctor) and Penn (a novelist) are a loving couple who have five children, all boys. At the age of 5, their youngest child Claude expresses a preference for wearing dresses and eventually takes the name Poppy. The narrative explores how even parents with the best intentions struggle with raising a transgender child. The central conflict is whether Poppy’s transgender identity should be publicly known or kept secret. The family tries both with some bad outcomes to either approach and ultimately no “right way” is found. The book can be overly didactic at times, but I did enjoy a lot of Frankel’s writing flourishes
Author: Kevin Wilson
Title: Nothing to See Here
Narrator: Marin Ireland
Publication Info: HarperAudio, 2019
Lillian, the narrator and protagonist of this novel, is a working class woman in Tennessee trying to make ends meet when she receives an invitation to a job from her old friend Madison. As a teenager, Lillian excellend at academics and earned a scholarship to an elite private school for girls. Madison was her prosperous and seemingly perfect roommate, and they maintained their uneven friendship for years after Lillian was expelled, for reasons I won’t divulge here.
Now, Madison is married to a US Senator and living on a sumptuous estate. She invites Lillian to be a “governess” for the Senator’s twin 10-year-old children from a previous marriage, Bessie and Roland Roberts, after the death of their mother. The problem that Madison needs Lillian to keep under wraps is that the children literally burst into flames when they’re upset. The fire doesn’t consume the children but can cause considerable property damage.
Over the novel, Lillian forms a bond with the children, deals with the machinations of the elite, and begins to realize what she wants from her life. This novel is equally parts silly, charming, and satirical and made for an enjoyable read.