Staff Pick: The Gown by Jennifer Robson

TitleThe Gown
AuthorJennifer Robson
NarratorMarisa Calin

I don’t know about you, but between the popularity of the historical drama The Crown, and the real-life drama of the comings and goings of the Royal family of late, The Gown, written by Jennifer Robson and narrated by Marisa Calin is just what the doctor ordered! You must forgive the pun when I say that this piece—an audiobook of historical fiction—talks to the making of the wedding dress that was to be worn by Princess Elizabeth in her marriage to Philip Mountbatten. And what an intriguing subject of choice by Jennifer Robson! The weighty anticipation for Meghan Markle’s wedding dress pales in comparison to the expectancy for the dress worn by Princess Elizabeth, if for no other reason than the socio-economic backdrop of her engagement in what was then a war-exhausted England.

Even setting aside the recent fascination with the Royals, The Gown is an audiobook that is well worthy of every minute of its 11 hours and 38 minutes’ narration. Jennifer Robson carefully builds its storyline around three female protagonists: Ann, a 25-year-old self-admitted “plain girl”; Miriam, a French Holocaust survivor; and over 6 decades later, Ann’s granddaughter, Heather, who is determined to discover the significance of a box of exquisitely embroidered flowers bequeathed to her by Ann. This, in and of itself—the growth of the characters and their relationships—makes for an intriguing tale.

Add to that narrator Marisa Calin‘s voice and narrative flair are perfect for the subject matter at hand. She transports the listener effortlessly from wherever they may choose to listen and thrusts us into the throes of the lives of these three strong female characters, and the interesting and unexpected twists and turns their lives take over the span of multiple decades.

Whether you devoutly devour every bit of the daily barrage of news about the Royals, passionately take sides on Harry and Meghan’s UK exit (like my mum!), stand passively by with mere (mild) curiosity (more like I do), or lie somewhere in-between, The Gown—interwoven with just the right amount of drama and historical fact—is skillfully wrapped around the tale of three captivating characters which makes for a riveting story that you will not want to miss!

Publisher Summary:

London, 1947: Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory, burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory. Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.

Toronto, 2016: More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother. How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?

With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created. Balancing behind-the-scenes details with a sweeping portrait of a society left reeling by the calamitous costs of victory, she introduces readers to three unforgettable heroines, their points of view alternating and intersecting throughout its pages, whose lives are woven together by the pain of survival, the bonds of friendship, and the redemptive power of love.

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Staff Pick: More Myself by Alicia Keys

Title: More Myself: A Journey

Author: Alicia Keys

Narrator: Alicia Keys with Oprah WinfreyMichelle ObamaClive DavisAmerica FerreraBonoSwizz BeatsTerri AugeloCraig CookDj WaltonJay-ZKrucialLeigh Blake

There is something so special about listening to a memoir read directly by the person who lived through it. Their emotion and dialect humanize the story, making the audiobook a deeper, more intimate experience. But even my love for author-narrated memoirs did not prepare me for the work of art that is More Myself: A Journey by Alicia Keys.

Keys walks us through her life with an air of pleasant nostalgia, reflecting on the good times while sharing the lessons she learned during the hard times. From her modest upbringing in New York City, where she learned to play piano and got herself into all the typical kinds of teenage trouble, to her big break into the ruthless music industry and her experience working with huge names like Prince and Oprah. Her journey to becoming the Alicia Keys we all know and love hasn’t been easy, but she still manages to recount these heartaches with a profound positivity.

I knew that listening to Keys read this audiobook would be a treat. Even still, it needs to be said that she is an incredible narrator with a buttery-smooth voice that is somehow soothing and rousing at the same time. Not to mention that she adds another layer to this listen by integrating her musical talents and breaking into song or playing the piano throughout.

As if Key’s narration wasn’t enough of a gift, More Myself is studded with star voices from all aspects of the entertainment industry. Oprah, Bono, Michelle Obama, and Jay-Z are among some of the big names that contribute their experiences to help form a full 360-degree picture of her life.

More Myself was the beautiful journey of a talented 14-year-old girl whose dedication pushed her forward into a difficult but rewarding industry. If you’re a fan of Alicia Keys, or even just in the mood for a well-made, inspiring audiobook, this is the perfect next listen for you. 

Publisher Summary:

As one of the most celebrated musicians in the world, Alicia Keys has enraptured the globe with her heartfelt lyrics, extraordinary vocal range, and soul-stirring piano compositions. Yet away from the spotlight, Alicia has grappled with private heartache—over the challenging and complex relationship with her father, the people-pleasing nature that characterized her early career, the loss of privacy surrounding her romantic relationships, and the oppressive expectations of female perfection.

Since Alicia rose to fame, her public persona has belied a deep personal truth: she has spent years not fully recognizing or honoring her own worth. After withholding parts of herself for so long, she is, at last, exploring the questions that live at the heart of her story: Who am I, really? And once I discover that truth, how can I become brave enough to embrace it?

More Myself is part autobiography, part narrative documentary. Alicia’s journey is revealed not only through her own candid recounting but also through vivid recollections from those who have walked alongside her. The result is a 360-degree perspective on Alicia’s path, from her girlhood in Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem to the process of growth and self-discovery that we all must navigate.

In
More Myself, Alicia shares her quest for truth—about herself, her past, and her shift from sacrificing her spirit to celebrating her worth. With the raw honesty that epitomizes Alicia’s artistry, More Myself is at once a riveting account and a clarion call to listeners: to define themselves in a world that rarely encourages a true and unique identity.

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Staff Pick: A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

TitleA Good Girl’s Guide to Murder
AuthorHolly Jackson
NarratorRobert FassCarol MondaKevin R. FreeMarisa CalinMichael CrouchPatricia SantomassoSean Patrick HopkinsBailey CarrGopal DivanShezi SardarAmanda Thickpenny

Like many others, the very first podcast I ever listened to was Serial. It was so addicting and kept me enthralled during my long commute to my job at the time. It’s been a while since something caught my attention like that, until I listened to A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder follows Pip, a high school senior who chooses to investigate the infamous case of a murdered girl in her hometown. Pip is convinced that the prime suspect didn’t actually commit this crime, so she starts digging into the details and someone in town isn’t too happy about it.

The story is told through Pip’s project log, which gives us an insight to her inner thoughts and information that she gathers from her investigations. I also loved the fact that this audiobook featured a full cast, so that the interviews Pip did in-person or over the phone seemed that much more real.

While I did notice some similarities in this story to Serial and some investigations did mirror the ones that were featured in the Serial podcast, this story definitely took a different route than I expected and it had me guessing the whole way through. I got so heavily invested in these characters, I even shed a tear while listening on my drive home one night.

Even though I’m a fully grown adult, I’m shamelessly a fan of teen dramas. There, I said it. Riverdale, Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, Degrassi…you name it, I’ve watched it. Plus, I love all things horror, thriller, and true crime. If that sounds like you too, then you’re not going to want to miss A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder.

Publisher Summary:

For readers of Kara Thomas and Karen McManus, an addictive, twisty crime thriller with shades of Serial and Making a Murderer about a closed local murder case that doesn’t add up, and a girl who’s determined to find the real killer–but not everyone wants her meddling in the past.

Everyone in Fairview knows the story.

Pretty and popular high school senior Andie Bell was murdered by her boyfriend, Sal Singh, who then killed himself. It was all anyone could talk about. And five years later, Pip sees how the tragedy still haunts her town.

But she can’t shake the feeling that there was more to what happened that day. She knew Sal when she was a child, and he was always so kind to her. How could he possibly have been a killer?

Now a senior herself, Pip decides to reexamine the closed case for her final project, at first just to cast doubt on the original investigation. But soon she discovers a trail of dark secrets that might actually prove Sal innocent . . . and the line between past and present begins to blur. Someone in Fairview doesn’t want Pip digging around for answers, and now her own life might be in danger.

This is the story of an investigation turned obsession, full of twists and turns and with an ending you’ll never expect.

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Staff Pick: Layoverland by Gabby Noone

Post by Erin O’Neill

TitleLayoverland
Author: Gabby Noone
Narrator: Sophie Amoss

When I first heard about Layoverland, I was told that it’s comparable to one of my favorite shows, The Good Place. For anyone who hasn’t watched the show, it follows a morally-unsound lady after her death and through her journey in the afterlife. She builds friendships with some memorable characters, gets herself in some cheeky trouble, and finds a little bit of romance. For me, The Good Place has it all. How could anything compare?

Let me tell you, Layoverland did not disappoint. It’s like a delicate nod to all of the things I loved about the show but with a different take on the afterlife. Though it may sound like a drama, the story maintains light-hearted humor throughout. And just like The Good Place, the audiobook brings lots of light to a dark situation.

Beatrice Fox, a bitter, mean, and hilarious high school student, wakes up in an airplane with no idea where she’s going. One minute she was driving home, the next flying through the air. At the airport, Bea finds out she died in a car crash and was taken to… neutral ground, a.k.a Layoverland. She is told that she will, one day, be sent to Heaven but must earn her spot by proving she has a good heart. Because of Bea’s natural sarcasm and extreme pessimism, she’ll have to work extra hard to make it to Heaven. Her task: help 5000 people on their way to Heaven say goodbye to the life they lived on Earth.

Like a real airport, people are constantly coming and going through this story, which is quite impressive of Gabby Noone. Her characters were all lovable and had their own distinctive personality. I especially loved Bea’s mentor in her airport job, a perky beauty queen named Sadie, who died during a pageant in the 80s – very memorable. Noone’s writing reminded me of what I loved about The Good Place but her witty style made the story all new and exciting.

I was equally impressed with narrator Sophie Amoss, who nailed how I’d expected Bea to speak: with a young but very jaded voice. And even with so many characters, I could always distinguish who was talking by the sound of their voice. I would definitely listen to her narrate another audiobook in the future.

Overall, Layoverland was a lot of fun to listen to. It was sharp, funny, and at times even really sweet. Just like The Good Place, this book surprised me with a thought-provoking and enticing story of the afterlife, a story that I didn’t want to end.

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STAFF PICK: Theme Music by T. Marie Vandelly

Title: Theme Music
Author: T. Marie Vandelly
Narrator: Sarah Mollo-Christensen

Dixie, when I let you go
Thought you’d realize that I would know
I would show
The special love I have for you
My baby blue

Upon first reading the synopsis for Theme Music I immediately thought of The Amityville Horror and it definitely had a similar feeling to it with a mysterious family murder and a ghostly presence in the place where it all began. What set Theme Music apart for me was the unique twists and turns that the story took. From horror to psychological thriller to family drama – this fast-paced listen kept me hooked all the way through.

When Dixie Wheeler was just a baby her father murdered her entire family on Thanksgiving day. A neighbor found her, the only survivor, in her high chair while Baby Blue by Badfinger echoed through the empty house. Thus, Dixie’s nickname Baby Blue was born and the Wheeler murders became something of a local legend.

After being raised by her aunt and uncle, 25 years later Dixie wants answers about what happened that day. Dixie moves into her family home where her life was forever changed and now, she must come face to face with the ghosts of her past…which seem a little too real. Once people start to turn up dead around her, she wonders how real those ghosts actually are.

I must warn you, if you do plan to embark on this twisty tale, there is a fair bit of gore – especially right off the bat. But the way that T. Marie Vandelly describes the macabre really sets the scene and allows you to immerse yourself in the story. Since Dixie was only a baby when the murders took place, she can only recount that day from what she’s read in newspapers and heard from rumors and gossip from people around town. In a way, the reader is in the same position as Dixie – we see everything through Dixie’s eyes and we learn everything she learns about what happened that day. This makes every twist that much more suspenseful! I’m telling you, I couldn’t listen to this audiobook fast enough – I had to know what would happen next!

Theme Music was narrated by Sarah Mollo-Christensen, an Audie-nominated narrator who has lent her voice to over 70 audiobooks on Audiobooks.com. Sarah’s portrayal of Dixie expertly mixed Dixie’s dark humor and uneasiness, which allowed me to connect with her character that much more.

Ghost story? Check. Psychological thriller? Check. Crime fiction? Check. If you’re looking for a new listen that’s packed with all of the goodness listed above, then you’ll definitely want to give T. Marie Vandelly‘s debut novel, Theme Music a listen.

Publisher Summary:

She didn’t run from her dark past. She moved in. 

For the lucky among us, life is what you make of it; but for Dixie Wheeler, the theme music for her story was chosen by another long ago, on the day her father butchered her mother and brothers and then slashed a knife across his own throat. Only one-year-old Dixie was spared, becoming infamously known as Baby Blue for the song left playing in the aftermath of the slaughter.
 

Twenty-five years later, Dixie is still desperate for a connection to the family she can’t remember. So when her childhood home goes up for sale, Dixie sets aside all reason and moves in. But as the ghosts of her family seemingly begin to take up residence in the house that was once theirs, Dixie starts to question her own sanity and wonders if the evil force menacing her is that of her father or a demon of her own making. 

In order to make sense of her present, Dixie becomes determined to unravel the truth of her past and seeks out the detective who originally investigated the murders. But the more she learns, the more she opens up the uncomfortable possibility that the sins of her father may belong to another. As bodies begin to pile up around her, Dixie must find a way to expose the lunacy behind her family’s massacre to save her few loved ones that are still alive—and whatever scrap of sanity she has left...

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STAFF PICK: The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

Title: The Book of M
Author: Peng Shepherd
Narrators: Emily Woo ZellerJames Fouhey

Every year, twice a year, everyone and everything between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn loses their shadows. For a few brief moments, the sun shines directly overhead in that area, and everyone’s shadows shrink ever and ever smaller until they magically disappear. The shadows always return, of course, after which everyone goes about their lives. Until, one day, in a marketplace in India, a man named Hemu Joshi inexplicably loses his shadow forever.

He becomes a global sensation, strutting about without his dark companion. Doctors and scientists are baffled; news outlets are enraptured. It seems like a miracle until Hemu begins to lose his memories—and then, as the consequences of his memory loss become apparent, horror ensues. Before long, others begin to lose their shadows, forgetting themselves and their realities, collapsing the world as we know it. And so, the story begins.

In the aftermath of the Forgetting, Orlando “Ory” Zhang and his wife Max have taken refuge in the hotel they had been staying in for a wedding when the Forgetting reached the United States. When Max loses her shadow, she quietly slips away while Ory is out scavenging to spare him the pain and anguish that will inevitably follow.

The story unfolds as Ory embarks on a desperate journey across an unrecognizable United States to find Max before she forgets completely. The opening chapter is a powerful emotional hook, compelling and tender with just the right amount of exposition—by far one of the best I’ve had the pleasure of listening to.

The Book of M straddles the line between science fiction and romance, and Peng Shepherd is an expert at threading tender, human connections through a world that is wholly new, disturbing, and at times nonsensical. As the inescapable shadowless disease spreads and reality becomes unhinged, listeners are anchored by Ory and Max’s bond, which is a steadfast, comforting force that propels the story through strange and frightening terrain.

James Fouhey is a transformative narrator, bringing to life three out of four characters through whom the story is told: Ory Zhang; Mahnaz Ahmadi, an Iranian athlete training in the USA; and The One Who Gathers, a mysterious individual with a unique understanding of memory. Rounding out the cast is Emily Woo Zeller as Max, whose poignant, heartbreaking performance is an absolute standout.

Clocking in at just over 17 hours, The Book of M isn’t exactly a short listen, but Shepherd makes every second of it necessary and meaningful. With plenty of post-apocalyptic intrigue and lyrical prose, Shepherd’s stunning dystopian debut manages to be innovative and extraordinary in a genre that is inundated with repetitive stories. Capped off with an ending that will pull the rug out from under your feet, The Book of M is a novel that you’ll want to treasure in your memory for a very long time.

Publisher’s Summary:

One afternoon at an outdoor market in India, a man’s shadow disappears—an occurrence science cannot explain. He is only the first. The phenomenon spreads like a plague, and while those afflicted gain a strange new power, it comes at a horrible price: the loss of all their memories.

Ory and his wife Max have escaped the Forgetting so far by hiding in an abandoned hotel deep in the woods. Their new life feels almost normal, until one day Max’s shadow disappears too.

Knowing that the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become to Ory, Max runs away. But Ory refuses to give up the time they have left together. Desperate to find Max before her memory disappears completely, he follows her trail across a perilous, unrecognizable world, braving the threat of roaming bandits, the call to a new war being waged on the ruins of the capital, and the rise of a sinister cult that worships the shadowless.

As they journey, each searches for answers: for Ory, about love, about survival, about hope; and for Max, about a new force growing in the south that may hold the cure.

Like The Passage and Station Eleven, this haunting, thought-provoking, and beautiful novel explores fundamental questions of memory, connection, and what it means to be human in a world turned upside down.

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