Audiobook review: We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker

I’m not sure where Chris Whitaker’s books have been all my life, but if they are all as stellar as We Begin at the End, I have been missing out.

What it’s about

From the Goodreads description:

Walk has never left the coastal California town where he grew up. He may have become the chief of police, but he’s still trying to heal the old wound of having given the testimony that sent his best friend, Vincent King, to prison decades before. Now, thirty years later, Vincent is being released.

Duchess is a thirteen-year-old self-proclaimed outlaw. Her mother, Star, grew up with Walk and Vincent. Walk is in overdrive trying to protect them, but Vincent and Star seem bent on sliding deeper into self-destruction. Star always burned bright, but recently that light has dimmed, leaving Duchess to parent not only her mother but her five-year-old brother. At school the other kids make fun of Duchess―her clothes are torn, her hair a mess. But let them throw their sticks, because she’ll throw stones. Rules are for other people. She’s just trying to survive and keep her family together.

A fortysomething-year-old sheriff and a thirteen-year-old girl may not seem to have a lot in common. But they both have come to expect that people will disappoint you, loved ones will leave you, and if you open your heart it will be broken. So when trouble arrives with Vincent King, Walk and Duchess find they will be unable to do anything but usher it in, arms wide closed.

My thoughts

This book is prominently billed as a crime novel, but We Begin at the End is so much more than that. While the whole plot is centered around crime, it’s truly a character-driven, emotionally wrenching, well-written piece of literary fiction.

The characters in this novel are center-stage: Walk is such an affecting and raw force, clearly unable to move past how things were in his small town when everything changed 30 years ago, and always doing the best he can by the people he has devoted his life to. His storyline and the way he cared for (and carried torches for) Vincent, Martha, Star and her children really broke my heart. Duchess is also an incredible character—I am astounded that a man in the UK was able to so well give voice to an underprivileged, vulnerable teenage girl in small town America, but Whitaker most certainly did. Outlaw Duchess is complex, infuriating but sympathetic, and reminds me of more than one child I’ve met in my social services career. In addition to our two mains, this book is populated with many other well-drawn, distinct characters that kept me guessing until the end. Anyone who has grown up in small-town America can probably find some authenticity in these colorful people.

Whitaker’s prose is just beautiful, the language and imagery perfect compliments a completely riveting story. I started this book yesterday and finished early today—I was not able to put it down for anything else once I got going. The mystery aspect is masterfully plotted such that I was honestly surprised more than once at the turns the story took. Be warned that this is not a happy, upbeat novel… it’s hard to read at times and it seemed like every time something positive happened, there was a hardship around the corner, especially for Duchess and her poor brother. The ending of this story was both heartbreaking and uplifting.

The audiobook is great, masterfully narrated by George Newbern. He captures the hopeless, bleak feeling of much of the novel very well, while also infusing the narrative with bits of sunshine and humor.

Thank you to NetGalley and Macmillan Audio for my audiobook copy in exchange for this honest review. It was a real pleasure to soak in this book.


Audiobook review: The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

I often struggle with newish thrillers… they tend to be a little too formulaic (even with all of their twisty business) and full of characters I can’t stand. Still, this one is inspired by Jane Eyre, so of course I had to give it a try.

What it’s about

From the Goodreads description:

Meet Jane. Newly arrived to Birmingham, Alabama, Jane is a broke dog-walker in Thornfield Estates—a gated community full of McMansions, shiny SUVs, and bored housewives. The kind of place where no one will notice if Jane lifts the discarded tchotchkes and jewelry off the side tables of her well-heeled clients. Where no one will think to ask if Jane is her real name.

But her luck changes when she meets Eddie Rochester. Recently widowed, Eddie is Thornfield Estates’ most mysterious resident. His wife, Bea, drowned in a boating accident with her best friend, their bodies lost to the deep. Jane can’t help but see an opportunity in Eddie—not only is he rich, brooding, and handsome, he could also offer her the kind of protection she’s always yearned for.

Yet as Jane and Eddie fall for each other, Jane is increasingly haunted by the legend of Bea, an ambitious beauty with a rags-to-riches origin story, who launched a wildly successful southern lifestyle brand. How can she, plain Jane, ever measure up? And can she win Eddie’s heart before her past—or his—catches up to her?

With delicious suspense, incisive wit, and a fresh, feminist sensibility, The Wife Upstairs flips the script on a timeless tale of forbidden romance, ill-advised attraction, and a wife who just won’t stay buried. In this vivid reimagining of one of literature’s most twisted love triangles, which Mrs. Rochester will get her happy ending?

My thoughts

First things first—this book is definitely a contemporary thriller with a lot of the familiar contemporary-thrillery things that can either make me love or hate a book: twists and turns (some you can see coming, others you cannot), characters that you really can’t stand with almost no redeeming qualities, at least one case of insta-love or lust. In this case, all of these things came together well enough that I didn’t roll my eyes the whole time and actually ended up enjoying the story.

The parallels to Jane Eyre definitely helped. Brontë’s classic is one of my favorite books, so I was certainly going to hang in there and see what happened to these modern-day versions of characters I love. This Jane, unlike our beloved Jane Eyre, is not a likable person, and I honestly wasn’t rooting for her at all. This Eddie, though clearly described as gorgeous, is somehow not as appealing as the definitely not-gorgeous Mr. Rochester, and Bea is not a sympathetic character at all, unlike the poor original Bertha. Still, I enjoyed the way Hawkins chose to modernize the story (dogwalker vs governess, Thornfield estates, etc).

The drama and rampant deceitfulness , the bitchy neighbors, and the unexpected turns the story took all made this a quick and enjoyable listen. I really, really disliked the ending, though… I would have preferred an epilogue that didn’t leave things so up in the air. All told, there’s no way The Wife Upstairs will be as memorable for me as Jane Eyre, but it was a fun diversion.

The audiobook is extremely well done. Emily Shaffer and Laura Fortgang narrate expertly for Jane and Bea, alternating bitchiness and charm. I was also pleased to hear Kirby Heyborne read Eddie’s parts—he’s one of my favorite narrators. I definitely recommend this audiobook to fans of twisty thrillers, especially those who will appreciate the Jane Eyre connections.

Thanks to NetGalley and Macmillan Audio for the chance to listen to this book in exchange for my honest review.