The 10 best audiobooks of my year

The 10 best audiobooks of my year

My father became an avid “listener” of books at the end of his life as his eyesight gave out. The player and an endless supply of books on tape (in his category of choice) came to him free of charge thanks to an association for the blind in California. It was a lifesaver! My father liked to boast, “I’m a slow reader, but a fast listener.”

I’ve become an avid “listener” of books now as well. I listen to them while exercising, driving in the car, doing chores, and as I’m falling to sleep (see below).

Where to buy audiobooks

I mainly buy my books from Audible.com and listen to them on the Audible app on my iPhone. One nice thing about Audible.com is that you can return a book if you don’t like it, so I’ve become more experimental in my choices. (To return, go to the help menu on their website. It’s easy.) I’ve recently discovered AudioBooks.com and its app, and like it very much, as well.

Falling to sleep to an audiobook

I’ve become fond of listening to an audiobook while falling asleep. (I use a Bluetooth eyemask.) To listen to a book before sleeping, set the app to turn off after a period of time. I usually choose 30 minutes. Ideally, I will fall asleep before it clicks off. Often, the next day, I will backtrack back to a point I remember.

For falling to sleep, it’s important to choose a book that isn’t too dramatic and that has a soothing narration. For me, it’s best to choose books I’m already familiar with.

The most popular audiobook of the year?

No surprise here: it was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, narrated by Jim Dale.

My personal top ten audiobooks

All these are great books, but listening to an audiobook edition adds another dimension of pleasure to the experience. Some I end up buying in print as well because I want to savour the book on a sentence-by-sentence level. I also like being able to share a book I adore with friends.

I listened to dozens of audiobooks this year, and it was difficult to cull it down to only 10. Here they are, not in any particular order:

H Is for Hawk - Audiobook | Listen Instantly!

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, narrated by the author.

This is my current fave to listen to while falling asleep and the first from AudioBooks.com I’ve ordered. I’ve read the book once in print and once as a Kindle e-book, so it doesn’t matter if I gap out now and then. Macdonald has a wonderful voice.

10 Canadian books we're excited to read in September | CBC ...

All Things Consoled; a daughter’s memoir by Elizabeth Hay, narrated by the author.

I adore this memoir about Hay dealing with her ageing parents, and her voice is low and soothing. It’s a good one to fall to sleep to, but you might want to listen to it twice, in order to catch every word. Hay is a wonderful writer.

Becoming, by Michelle Obama, narrated by the author.

Frank, honest and inspiring. This is a good falling-asleep book, but you’ll want to repeat chapters you missed.

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar, narrated by Juliet Stevenson,

I love most any book narrated by the actor Juliet Stevenson; her voice is golden! This is a knock-out historical novel (with just a little fantasy). It’s one of the ones I ended up ordering in print, as well, because I loved it so much.

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty, narrated by Juliet Stevenson.

This mystery novel of sexual obsession is unusual for Juliet Stevenson — and me. Not recommended for sleeping, however!

David Sedaris' 'Calypso': Essays of humor, melancholy, and ...

Calypso by David Sedaris, narrated by the author.

I’m a Sedaris fan, and I think Calypso is his best yet. He’s a charming reader.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, narrated by Cathleen McCarron.

Room With a View by E. M. Forster, narrated by  Juliet Stevenson.

I listened to this twice and plan to listen to it again. It’s a beautiful novel and an excellent audio edition for falling asleep.

Note: there are a number of audio editions of this classic. Be sure to choose the one narrated by Juliet Stevenson.

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, narrated by Juliet Steveson.

Another Juliet Stevenson recommendation! Henry James is certainly the last author whose work I would describe as compelling or gripping, but this novel is both. I could finally understand why it’s considered a masterpiece.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, narrated by the author.

I adored this memoir about the science life — and learned a lot into the bargain. Eccentric, moving, extremely well-written. The author is an excellent narrator.

 

Happy listening! What were your favourite audiobooks this year?

Memories of a violent era — and why I became a Canadian

Memories of a violent era — and why I became a Canadian

JFK was murdered on November 22, 1963, fifty-five years ago today. I was nineteen and in university. I don’t remember the moment I learned — How is that possible? — but the images and the shock of it are indelible in my memory.

Mob hitman James Files claims once again he was the man ...

I have since read a moving biographical historical novel, titled, simply, Nov 22, 1963, by Adam Braver.

November 22, 1963 by Adam Braver — Reviews, Discussion ...

The assassination was made all the more horrifying in learning in this novel that JFK and Jackie had recently suffered the death of a baby. This tragic trip to Texas with her husband was Jackie’s brave first public event.

A Berkeley childhood

I grew up in Berkeley, California. Air raid siren drills were common; there was always the fear of annihilation. At Girl Scout camp, I remember a cloudy day being attributed to the test of a nuclear bomb in near-by Nevada. I was assigned to write stories about our last day alive in Grade School.

My high school years in Berkeley were vivid with protest. I was a proud member of Students for a Democratic Society. In English, I sat next to Tracy Simms, who led the very first sit-in against a hotel in San Francisco that did not hire Blacks.

These were intense years, rich with both excitement and fear. The Whole Earth Catalogue was Google in print. It’s message was: “You can do anything, go anywhere. Here are the tools.” It was a powerful concept, and an entire generation took it to heart.

Although I don’t remember the moment I learned of Kennedy’s assassination, I remember, vividly, the night of the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, two-a-half years before. I was seventeen, living in San Francisco with roommates in the Castro district, going to San Francisco State. We believed that it could be the end of the world, our last night alive. (In fact, recent scholarship shows how very close it came to being just that, by an accident of communication.) I imagine that there was a surge in births nine months later, for many young couples succumbed. Why wait?

The three assassinations

On April 4, 1968, four-and-a-half years after Kennedy was killed, Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was twenty-one, married and working in a factory in Belmont, California — a factory that provided micro-chips for fighter jets. I had to sign a Loyalty Oath to work there. I remember the Ohio Flute Society (or something similar) being listed as one of the suspicious organizations.

I couldn’t sleep the night of April 4. I got up and went downstairs. It was very late. I turned on the TV: screams, a newscaster’s urgent voice, flickering images. King had been shot.

The next morning, at the factory, a white guy riding a trolley yelled, fist raised, “We got another one!”

And then, only two months later, on June 6, the same thing. I couldn’t sleep, I went downstairs and turned on the TV. A newscaster’s urgent voice, flickering images, screams. Bobby Kennedy had been shot.

I’d been canvassing for him, handing out leaflets — it was my first involvement in a political campaign. Belmont was a conservative town, yet the day after Bobby Kennedy’s death there was, I was told, a rash of suicides.

A decision

That morning, the morning after, my then husband and I went to Half Moon Bay. Sitting on a sand dune overlooking the Pacific, stunned by the news, I said I wanted to move. Away. To another country. Bobby Kennedy’s death was the straw that broke my back.

And thus the decision was made to leave my country of birth for a more peaceful realm. Move to Canada — a “healing” country in the words of the wonderful Carol Shields, who had herself immigrated to Canada from the US. I found it to be just that.

A Canadian citizen now, I have never regretted that move. Even so, a part of me will always be American. A part of me will always love that country — love it, and fear for it. Which is one reason I, like so many others, am addicted to the horrifying daily news.

Are things worse now than they were during those violent and tumultuous years? I would say yes, although in a more institutional way. I believe in democracy, and greatly fear for it.

Machine Without Horses: a beautiful historical novella by Helen Humphreys

Machine Without Horses: a beautiful historical novella by Helen Humphreys

The two reviews I read of Helen Humphreys newest publication, Machine Without Horses, were somewhat negative, claiming that the combination of memoir and fiction simply do not work. Humphreys is one of my favorite writers. She never fails to please, and so I was curious.

I’ve just now finished it and I beg to differ. I found this to be an innovative and inspiring work.

Machine Without Horses is billed as a novel: therein, I think, lies the problem. The first half of this “novel” is a memoir of the author researching and thinking through how to write about her subject, Megan Boyd, a famous fishing fly maker from Scotland.

I particularly love the author’s thoughts on writing. Coming from Humphreys, these are gold. Here are some examples of her thoughts on character development:

The beginning of a life is often the start of the story. Character is formed from the early incidents and accidents, from sudden trauma, or reassuring constancy. These are more important than aspects of personality because they are the ground on which the inherent nature of the person blossoms or is stifled. (Page 7)

I particularly like this because it jives with my current thoughts on character development. (See my thoughts regarding the book Story Henius.)

When I set about making a story, one of the first things I think about is the motivation of the main character. What is it that they want? What are they driven by? Story is created from combining a character’s motivation with their circumstances. (Page 16)

In this section of Machine Without Horses, the author taking lessons on making fishing flies.

“Anything will help,” I confess.”I’m trying to work my way inside her mind before I write about her.”(page 24)

Her teacher Paul asks, “How do you get inside someone’s head to write about them? Especially someone who was a real person?”

This is the sixty-million-dollar question, and one that I don’t really have a definitive answer for because I’m constantly shifting my thinking about how to accomplish this kind of transference. It is hard enough to be oneself. How can we effectively become someone else? (pages 26/27)

This quote pertains especially to writing biographical fiction:

The trouble with writing a novel is that there are so many ways to make mistakes that you just have to give up on the idea of getting it right. Instead, you have to choose a few aspects to remain faithful to and do your best to make everything else as believable as possible for the reader. (page 33)

I especially love this passage:

A writer must slowly build a story and characters, as though they were making a machine, with each part intersecting snugly, each sentence casting forward to hook onto the next. You must lean the way they lean, have the understanding they have, never step outside the limits you have determined for them. You cannot just kill them off with no real warning. It will feel unbelievable to readers and they will stop trusting your story. Fiction is measured and reassuring in a way that life isn’t, and perhaps that’s why we read it, and also why I write. (pages 89/90)

Throughout this section, there are now and again descriptions that echo fly fishing, i.e. “each sentence casting forward to hook onto the next.”

Starting a novel is like starting a love affair. It demands full and tireless attention or feelings could change. Commitment takes time, and so there must be a rush of passion at the beginning. This means that the other life of the writer, the “real life,” has to fade into the background ground for a while. (Page 11–12)

Not exactly like being in love, however:

When I’m working on a book, I just wear the same clothes day after day, eat the same food with no variation. Novel–writing and depression have a great deal in common, as it turns out. (page 41)

This is a spare book, only 267 pages, and this section on Humphreys preparing to write about her subject accounts for more than half of it. The last 120 pages is the work itself, a beautifully spare biographical novella about Helen Boyd.

Exquisite.

World Falconry Day celebrates women falconers

World Falconry Day celebrates women falconers

Today, November 16, is World Falconry Day. This year the theme is specifically on female falconers, historically and currently. This is significant because traditionally falconry has been a male realm.

I’m in the research stage of writing a Young Adult novel about a young woman falconer in Elizabethan England, so naturally this caught my eye.

If you haven’t watched the award-winning documentary The Eagle Huntress, do! It’s amazing.

This video, too, is also about women practicing falconry with eagles:

The women talk about how hard it was at first. I’d like to know: Hard in what ways?

The best YA novels I’ve ever read (so far)

The best YA novels I’ve ever read (so far)

The YA novels below are ones that gripped me in special ways … gripped me and wouldn’t let me go. They’ve stayed with me. I highly recommend them to Young Adults of all ages. :-)

The Book Thief by Mark Zusak

The one book that opened our eyes to the wonder of YA.

Will we ever forget the haunting voice of Death? It’s time for me to reread this novel.

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

Buxbaum writes with wit and heart — and there is no better combination. This book woke me from a no-reading stupor. Some books are morning books, some books are nighttime books, and others become go-everywhere day-and-night books, just because you can’t wait to jump back into the story at any opportunity.

This, for me, was a go-everywhere book.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Tremendously moving, but never without humour.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

This novel has gotten a lot of attention, and for good reason. It opens our eyes to the realities of violent racism, but not without heart. No one is free of guilt.

(Hint: the audible edition is outstanding.)

Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys

(Not, this is not the Shades of Grey you’re thinking.)

This many-awards winning novel by Ruta Sepetys is a very realistic WWII story about the deportation of Lithuanians and the genocide of Baltic people. She decided to frame it as a YA because in interviewing the survivors, she discovered that as teenagers, they had had a stronger will to survive.

An amazing story.

 

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

A very honest, gentle and touching portrayal of a friendship turned to love between two boys.

The Agony of Bun O’Keefe by Heather Smith

This novel is my newest enthusiasm. It kept me up far too late at night. I will never forget young Bun O’Keefe and the wonderful gang that become a her caring family.

Wit in abundance, but also gut-wrenching moments. Unforgettable.

36 Questions that Changed My Mind About You by Vicki Grant is another novel that kept me up far too late at night. Clever, charming, dramatic and satisfying. I absolutely adored it.


So there you have it!

Note that I’m not including the books that meant so much to me when I was a Young Adult: Nancy Drew, of course, in my pre-teen years, and then novels by the inimitable Judy Blume … from which I seemed to have leapt directly into the French existentialists.

I do vividly remember one YA novel, a story of young lovers in Europe during WWII. The girl is raped by the enemy, gets VD, and decides to get her revenge by sleeping with the enemy. Heavy-hitting, indeed. I remember it still (and would love to track it down).

Was there truly not much in-between in the 50s and 60s? I think a number of the books I’ve listed above would have meant a lot to me then.

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My take on HARD CHOICES, by Hilary Rodham Clinton

My take on HARD CHOICES, by Hilary Rodham Clinton

Hilary Clinton’s HARD CHOICES was a game-changer for me. It’s going on my “Best of the Year” list.

Many dismiss this book as campaign positioning. I see it as far more. I think it’s a valuable historical document, a very detailed account of what one term as US Secretary of State entails. I also think it’s Clinton’s “for the record” legacy.

I came away extremely impressed with what she accomplished—or tried to accomplish—and impressed, as well, with the role of the US in attempting to keep world peace. The world is a tinder box of explosives; the job of the US Secretary of State is critical!

Hilary’s “Smart Power” approach—diplomacy being the most important part of the equation—strikes me as sound. She makes very strong arguments for environmental protection and equality for women worldwide being key to both US security and economic development. She is a tireless advocate of Democracy. She’s a little more of a Hawk than I like, but that’s easy for someone not in the thick of it to think. Her humanitarian values are front and centre.

I came away from reading Hard Choices wanting to campaign for Hilary for President. I’m no longer a U.S. Citizen, but the U.S., like it or not, has an enormous effect on the well-being of the world—my world—and whoever is running that country will have a profound effect on my life and the lives of those I hold dear.

I highly recommend this book as an overview of the extremely serious problems in the world today. (It would be a worthy task for any book club to take on. The discussions would be heated, without a doubt!)

I’m both heartened and alarmed after reading this book: heartened because of the worthy work being done, and alarmed at how how fragile things are. A party less inclined to effective diplomacy and one that does not recognize key dangers (one that denies global warming, for example!) could spell disaster for our world—my world.

I rarely speak out on political issues. Some of my wonderful readers and very good friends are not in agreement with my views, I know, and would be inclined to dismiss anything written by Hilary Clinton. I urge you to read her book, and then let’s discuss.


Note: I listened to the Audible edition—all 27 hours of it!— and I highly recommend it, with a few cautions. The lion’s share of this very long and detailed book is narrated by Hilary, and she does a fantastic job. I didn’t care for the other narrator, Kathleen Chalfant; she puts too much emotion into her voice, which, for me, is distracting. Fortunately, she only narrates the short opening and closing sections, which are not the meat of the book.