About Jemma

Jemma's favorite things in life are audiobooks, Earl Grey tea and travel – preferably enjoyed all at once.

Staff Pick: Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

Title: Charlotte’s Web
Author: E. B. White
Narrators: Meryl StreepRobin MilesKirby HeyborneCassandra CampbellKimberly FarrLincoln HoppeMark DeakinsTavia GilbertDanny CampbellEmily RankinJanuary LavoyMacleod Andrews, Bahni Turpin, Julia Whelan

“Terrific.” “Radiant.” “Humble.”

It turns out that the words of praise Charlotte the spider writes in her web to describe Wilbur the pig, are equally suitable when considering the audiobook of this classic story.

Helmed by the unparalleled Meryl Streep as the narrator, this recent version is the first re-release since author E. B. White’s beloved original recording from 1970. It’s a short and sweet listen – only 4 hours long – but one I know I’ll return to. The adventures of Charlotte, Wilbur and the Arable children are phenomenally brought to life in this full-cast production, in which no narrator does double-duty. For audiobook lovers, the supporting cast is a who’s who of nearly two dozen prolific narrators: January Lavoy plays Charlotte with superb subtlety; Cassandra Campbell is a nuanced Mrs Zuckerman; Tavia Gilbert is a very fun Goose; Emily Rankin expertly plays Fern; Bahni Turpin is a wonderfully memorable Lamb; even Julia Whelan makes a small cameo as Charlotte’s daughter, Joy.

Charlotte’s Web is a masterpiece of juvenile literature for its moral sensibility, quotable truisms, depth of feeling, and fantastic sense of humor. White’s prose, while of course suitable for children, can truly be appreciated only in adulthood. I was particularly touched by the gentle melancholy with which he describes the changing of the seasons – so resonant for me at this time of year:

The crickets sang in the grasses. They sang the song of summer’s ending, a sad monotonous song. “Summer is over and gone, over and gone, over and gone. Summer is dying, dying.” A little maple tree heard the cricket song and turned bright red with anxiety.

The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year — the days when summer is changing into fall the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.

Everybody heard the song of the crickets. Avery and Fern Arable heard it as they walked the dusty road. They knew that school would soon begin again. The young geese heard it and knew that they would never be little goslings again. Charlotte heard it and knew that she hadn’t much time left. Mrs. Zuckerman, at work in the kitchen, heard the crickets, and a sadness came over her, too. “Another summer gone,” she sighed. 

Sad, sweet, and true – and when read to you by Meryl Streep (et. al.), nothing short of breathtaking. Charlotte’s Web is my staff pick for September for now is truly the perfect time of year to enjoy this story, but it’s also now one of my top recommendations of all time.

Publisher Summary:

Brought to life by Meryl Streep and a full cast, this beloved book by E. B. White, author of Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan, is a classic of children’s literature that is ‘just about perfect.’

Some Pig. Humble. Radiant. These are the words in Charlotte’s Web, high up in Zuckerman’s barn. Charlotte’s spider web tells of her feelings for a little pig named Wilbur, who simply wants a friend. They also express the love of a girl named Fern, who saved Wilbur’s life when he was born the runt of his litter.

E. B. White’s Newbery Honor Book is a tender novel of friendship, love, life, and death that will continue to be enjoyed by generations to come.

Includes an appreciation written and read by Caldecott Honor winner Melissa Sweet, the cover artist of this edition and author/illustrator of Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White.

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STAFF PICK: Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society

Title: The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society
Author: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Narrator: Various narrators

Here is a book that has languished on my (incredibly long) to-be-read list for years. It’s been recommended many times; indeed, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who has read this book and not adored it. I’m here to say that if it’s been on your to-be-read list too, then read it now. And if it wasn’t on your radar before, then skip adding it to your to-be-read list, and just dive in immediately.

The year is 1946: Britain is recovering from the Second World War and the mail service has finally been restored to the previously German-occupied Channel Island of Guernsey. Dawsey, a pig farmer turned booklover, connects with Juliet, a recently successful London author looking for a new story to tell, all thanks to the inscription inside of an old book. A lively correspondence begins, and it doesn’t take long before Juliet is exchanging letters with all of Dawsey’s best friends and neighbours, and planning a trip to the small Channel Island to visit.

What ensues is mix of delightfully quaint small-town moments mixed with sobering recollections of the horrors of war. The Occupation lasted for five years in Guernsey, and its nuances are brought to life in the most human of ways by the author’s gorgeous writing and the talents of the narration cast. Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows wrote in epistolary form, i.e. storytelling through letters, diary entries and the like. Perspectives, and therefore narration, constantly rotate depending on the letter-writer. Far from being confusing, this narrative style is utterly compelling, and in the hands of such expert voice talent, make for a sparkling listening experience.

A laugh-out-loud, heartbreakingly bittersweet modern classic, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a testament to and a celebration of the power of books.

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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STAFF PICK: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Title: Unsheltered
Author: Barabara Kingsolver
Narrator: Barbara Kingsolver

Of the many books I have read in 2018, this one takes the cake. Literary without being too self-important or cerebral; long enough to completely fall in love with all the characters and short enough to be bitterly sad that it’s over; incredibly relevant to today’s political climate while managing to be timeless; full of laugh-out-loud funny moments but also poignant truisms that took my breath away. In short: an extraordinarily excellent novel.

Unsheltered centers around two families, in two different centuries, who occupied the same house in Vineland, New Jersey. The house, which is a character as much as our 21st and 19th century protagonists, is falling apart. It was beginning to in the 1880s when Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher with a passion for Darwin, moved in with his in-laws, and it’s literally starting to crumble in 2015 when Willa Knox, a journalist thrust into a caregiver role, moves her complicated family into the historic home.

Through dual storylines told in alternating chapters, both families navigate their own personal traumas – a suicide, a miscarriage, infidelity – in the context of intense political and cultural upheaval. Thatcher struggles with a town that isn’t ready for the truth-bomb that is the Theory of Evolution but finds companionship in one of history’s real heroines of science: the botanist Mary Treat. Willa can’t comprehend the wave of nationalism overtaking America in the lead-up to the 2016 election but finds escape in researching the history of her property with the offbeat local museum curator.

Both centuries have a host of fully-developed and fabulously nuanced characters, full of quirk and charm and artfully narrated by the author herself. There’s Willa’s foul and feeble Greek father-in-law and her stubborn but saving-grace of a daughter. There’s Thatcher’s staunchly oppositional headmaster and his small-minded wife. All are brought to life, first by Barbara Kingsolver’s arresting prose, and then by her narration.

Sweeping in its scope and yet intensely personal, Unsheltered reminds us that change – large, small, welcome or dreaded – is tremendously difficult but entirely fundamental to the human experience. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Unsheltered.

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STAFF PICK: Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win by Jo Piazza

Title: Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win
Author: Jo Piazza
Narrator: Tavia Gilbert

In Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win, the hotly anticipated new novel from bestselling author Jo Piazza, Charlotte Walsh is dedicated, ambitious, and, you guessed it – likes to succeed in her endeavours.

She’s been applying her skills as a high-powered executive in Silicon Valley (Charlotte is positioned as a Sheryl Sandberg type), and happily raising her three young daughters alongside her equally hardworking husband. But when the opportunity to run for political office comes her way, her contentedness gives way to new ambition.

Charlotte runs for Senate, but not in California: the opportunity is in Pennsylvania, and requires relocating the family to her tired hometown, which until recently, she was all-too-happy to leave behind. That’s where her troubled brother (and her ray-of-sunshine sister-in-law) live, and serve as a microcosm for the kind of class politics and economic issues that Pennsylvania faces – and that Charlotte has vowed to fix.

Charlotte’s opponent, aging Republican incumbent Ted Slaughter, is as archetypal a villain as his surname suggests: he’s old-school sexist, shamelessly bigoted, and more than ready to run a vicious counter-campaign. Joining in the cast of characters are her wunderkind campaign manager, her endearing long-time assistant, her savvy social media manager, and her supportive family… Sort of.

Charlotte’s marriage makes for much of the emotional drama. With their relocation, her husband Max has moved into the stay at home dad role, but hasn’t taken to it. Gender politics, in which the personal is very much political, play out here in interesting ways. I found myself liking and disliking these complicated characters in equal measure as the story built to its fraught climax.

Narrator Tavia Gilbert does an expert job with the novel’s many personalities. She effectively conveys the pressure Charlotte is under, the exhaustion she feels, and the ominous sense of how high-stakes the election is – for the country, for the state, and for the personal lives of the people most involved.

Part homecoming narrative, part behind-the-scenes thrill-ride, part domestic drama and part political farce, Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win is a uniquely compelling story that could not be more timely. I highly recommend.

Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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STAFF PICK: Spymaster by Brad Thor

Title: Spymaster
Author: Brad Thor
Narrator: Armand Schultz

It’s summertime, and to me, that means road trips, poolside lounging, twilight walks, and breezy, easy reads. Brad Thor’s new thriller, Spymaster, is just what I’ve been looking for.

It’s a classic political thriller romp through Scandinavia, Europe and the Baltics as special agent Scot Harvath leads a team of elite operatives on a mission: thwart the Russians’ plan to sabotage NATO, destabilize the Western world, and invade and conquer unsuspecting countries (Hitler-pre-WWII-style).

Told in short chapters that jump between Washington, Russia, and Harvath’s current location, Spymaster’s pacing is quick and never drags. Brad Thor sprinkles plenty of cliffhangers throughout, and the question of “what’s going to happen next?” reverberated around my head for the whole 10 hour listening experience.

The whirlwind settings and a cast of interesting characters make for a fun listen. We meet Jasinski, the Pole who may-or-may-not have a thing for Harvath; Oleg, the Russian terror orchestrator; Ryan, the gorgeous and well-connected Washington ex-CIA director; and we learn more about Scot Horvath, the Navy SEAL turned covert counterterrorism operative who has been around the block, to say the least.

With a long list of major characters – each with unique accents, veteran Brad Thor narrator Armand Schultz really has the opportunity to shine. He’s a familiar voice to fans of the Scot Harvath series, having narrated the past 10 or so titles. Spymaster is number 17. For a newbie like me, Spymaster was an easy entry point into Thor’s colorful world, and I never felt that I was missing out on any of the action because I didn’t have a background in the series.

Whether you’re a stalwart fan of the author or just looking for something new, Spymaster is a great accessory to summer – especially when paired with a cold beer and your feet in the sand.

Spymaster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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STAFF PICK: Providence by Caroline Kepnes

Title: Providence
Author: Caroline Kepnes
Narrator: Paul MichaelMacLeod AndrewsEmily Rankin

Elementary school students Jon and Chloe are besties in a world that doesn’t understand them. They spend innocent time at their playhouse in the woods, and they both seem aware in a childlike way that they’re romantically destined for each other. But when their evil substitute teacher kidnaps Jon to run experiments on him that make him fatal to anyone with whom he shares an emotional connection, their fated romance is in serious jeopardy.

Jon’s kidnapping spans several years, and while he doesn’t have any memory of his time away, Chloe has had to struggle through high school without him. She has fallen in with the popular crowd, and fallen in love with the archetypal high school enemy: a jock who used to bully Jon. When Jon is finally released (or perhaps a more fitting verb would be unleashed) into the world by the teacher, he, Chloe and the jock have some reckoning to do.

“I am Providence.”

That line, along with other Lovecraftian homages, echoes like a mantra throughout this eerie read. Indeed, fans of H.P. Lovecraft, the O.G. of American horror writing, will probably find the most enjoyment in this third novel by Kepnes. It centres heavily on the 1929 Lovecraft title The Dunwich Horror, which Jon is convinced holds the key to understanding what happened to him during his kidnapping, and how to reverse its monstrous consequences.

The book is told from switching perspectives; each chapter is alternately told by Jon, Chloe or “Eggs” – the aging, obsessive investigator self-assigned to Jon’s case. Narrators Paul MichaelMacLeod Andrews, and Emily Rankin do a great job of capturing the main characters, adding a yearning, plaintive humanity to each of their struggles.

If you like unrequited YA romance with a hint of the supernatural, then Providence by Caroline Kepnes is the perfect summer read.

Providence: A Novel, Caroline Kepnes

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