"White Ivy," by Susie Yang. (Simon & Schuster, unabridged, 13 hours.)
It's not surprising that Susie Yang's remarkable debut, a character study rich in plot twists and suspense, is being developed into a Netflix series. At its center is Ivy Lin, a Becky Sharp or Lily Bart for the 21st century. Preoccupied with race and class, she is ashamed of her family with whom she emigrated from China to America when a child. Ivy grows up lacking a sense of identity that she can live with, becoming a practiced liar and thief. She develops a middle-school crush on Gideon Speyer, son of a politician, and enters a relationship, alternately friendly and antagonistic, with another boy, Roux Roman, son of a kept woman. Years later, Gideon and Roux enter her life again. Rotating between determination and despondency, Ivy sees hope for an ideal life in Gideon and destruction of that hope in Roux. Narrator Emily Woo Zeller gives a brilliant performance, bringing a chilling, hard edge to Ivy's interior calculations, but also capturing the woman's anguish, causing listeners to feel some sympathy for this complex if ruthless character.
"The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams," by David S. Brown. (Simon & Schuster, unabridged, 14 hours.)
David S. Brown begins his calm, eloquent biography of Henry Adams, historian and man of letters, with his subject's own words: "I've outlived at least three quite distinct worlds since 1838." The young Adams had the greatest expectations including that he, like his grandfather and great-grandfather, would occupy the White House. Brown shows how this scion of presidents made a philosophy of history out of his failure and his distaste for the moneymen and industrialists whose power waxed as that of the founding families waned. His wife's suicide in 1885 further deepened Adams' melancholy, causing him to refer to his subsequent existence as his "posthumous life." Adams became increasingly ironical in his observations on the impotence of individuals set against the relentless movement of history — a progress toward chaos, as he saw it. Along the way, Brown shows how Adams' loves, friendships and animosities made up a discrete little current in a fast-changing society. Jacques Roy's narration is beautifully paced, unhurried and deftly altered to distinguish narrative from quotation.
"The River Within," by Karen Powell. (Dreamscape, unabridged, 8 hours.)
Karen Powell's first novel introduces us to the little Yorkshire village of Starome in the summer of 1955 where Danny Masters, apprentice carpenter, has just been found drowned in the river. Accident, suicide — or what? We learn that Danny had been smitten with Lennie Fairweather. Lennie, alas, did not reciprocate Danny's affections but is in love with Alexander, another of the ruinous yearnings that mark the novel. Because this is doomy Yorkshire of old, an atmosphere of jealousy, passion and madness pervades the story. It would be too much for our sunny souls to bear, except for the great pleasure it gives us to piece together Powell's puzzle of a plot: The story zips around in time, visiting scenes from one or another character's life, before haring off to attend to another. Narrator Helen MacFarlane's good, strong voice, commanding manner and deliberate pace help us keep everything straight in this artfully shuffled narrative.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, reviews for the Star Tribune and the Wall Street Journal. She writes this column for the Washington Post.