Audiobook review: “My Absolute Darling” by Gabriel Tallent

My Absolute Darling

Gabriel Tallent

Narrated by Alex McKenna

August 29, 2017 | Penguin Audio

Literary Fiction | Coming of age




Turtle Alveston, given name Julia, also known as Kibble. At 14, she’s spent most of her life living in isolation in the woods along the Northern California coast with only her tortured, survivalist father Martin to care for her.  She roams the woods freely, claiming tide pools, creeks, craggy islands, and the coastline as her playground.

But the outside world confounds her. She refuses to make friends or to ask for help, turning away anyone – teachers, students, administrators – that dare attempt to get to know her.

All this changes one day, as she wanders through the woods and creek beds, and she comes across two lost high school boys, and she’s instantly drawn to one of them. Jacob is funny and smart, lives in a large house with his successful parents and sister, and looks at Turtle like she could do anything. Suddenly Turtle sees her world clearly: her life with Martin is precarious and unsafe, and she starts to imagine escape.

When escape becomes the only answer, Turtle uses the survival skills Martin drilled into her to save not only herself, but others she’s come to care for, maybe even to love.


Before embarking on the My Absolute Darling audio journey (I used Audible for it, spending one of my precious monthly credits), I had read quite a bit about the book. I wasn’t sure if it was the kind of book I wanted to read right at that point in my life.

And then Stephen King said I should give it a try (not in person  – duh!), and, since I’ve been on an SK roll, I gave it a try.  I’m glad I took the chance.

Before I get into the book, however, I need to talk about Alex McKenna, the narrator of Gabriel Tallent’s novel.

McKenna has a raspy, raw voice, and she’s the perfect choice for this book, in my opinion. When listening to a book, the narrator is so vitally important, and a voice can make or break a book. McKenna’s voice perfectly matched Turtle’s isolated, primitive existence.  It’s uncommon raspy timbre enhanced the story for me, adding another layer unavailable with the book. (I don’t say this lightly. I LOVE reading books more than anything. I usually find audiobooks useful as a way to ‘read’ while doing other things, but rarely do I say I listening adds to the book. This is an exception.)

Okay, onto the contents and the story. My Absolute Darling really wasn’t what I would have picked for myself at this point in my life (as you know, it’s been a hard year) if I would have thought beyond an impulse. It’s pretty dark and disturbing at points, and, had I really thought about it, I would have turned away.

But I have to say another thank you to Stephen King. I needed this. I needed dark and disturbing but real and raw. My Absolute Darling is scarier than any horror movies in places, because there is a world out there like Turtle’s, and real people living lives similar to hers.

I’m a firm believer that fiction should sometimes push us out of our comfort zone and take us to other places. Sometimes fiction needs to make us think beyond our contentment.

(But I also believe in feel good fiction more often than not. Go for contentment most of the time, just push yourself outside of it every so often.)

My Absolute Darling definitely took me out of my comfort zone – as a reader, a mother, and a human being. But Gabriel Tallent also told me the story of a true survivor, and that made it all worth it.

Tallent uses bleak, startling language to tell Turtle’s story, and he uses it well. His descriptions of the natural world are so spot on, putting me along the coast and on the craggy islands, walking me through creekbeds and making me watch spiders and scorpions with fascination.

In the beginning, Turtle wants nothing to do with the world outside her own, which makes sense. But, when her grandfather dies, she has to venture out. Seeming like a minor character, his death shows him for what he was: a buffer between Turtle and her father, protecting her from the worst. A person who shows her love (although limited), rather than the control and ownership that passes for love with her father Martin.

It’s after her grandfather’s death that she must start to figure it all out and to venture out. She starts to realize that life can be different. She decides to fight for herself and her own soul, because she realizes her soul belongs to her and no one else.

(A couple of questions that are never answered and would make GREAT discussion questions:

  • What went on between Martin and his father to make Martin hate him so much?
  • What REALLY happened to Turtle’s mother?

If you read My Absolute Darling, please tell my your thoughts!)

What spurs her on, after her grandfather’s death, to venture out into the unknown, to want more than her small life, is the same thing that makes teenagers the world over start to want more than their small lives: it’s love. For Turtle it’s a deep friendship with Jacob, a boy who can see past the rawness of Turtle to the beauty, brains, and grit of her. A boy who thinks she can do anything.

And that shows Turtle that she’s more than just her father’s disciple. It puts a piece of her into place, showing her that love is more than being scared. Because Jacob expects more of her, she becomes more. She stops worrying about only herself and her small world, starts worrying about how her actions – and inactions – can and are affecting the world around her and those she cares about.

My Absolute Darling is a story of survival, but it’s also a coming-of-age story. Turtle’s world is not normal, and her life is one of extremes and violence, one that she has to survive more than live. But, at it’s heart, My Absolute Darling is an age old story of a girl finding her place in the world.

If you do decide to read or listen to this, know that it’s dark and difficult. Don’t listen to it with children around, the story has some very graphic moments and vulgar words (beyond crass into true hateful vulgarity). I had to take a break from it for a few days, it was just that disturbing in a real world kind of way.

But I did come back. The story’s compelling and irresistible qualities won over its more disconcerting and unsettling ones.  Turtle is a commanding protagonist, one demanding your attention, refusing your desire to turn away.  Tallent doesn’t shy away from her dark thoughts and realities, but that makes her triumphs that much more substantive. Turtle is the real deal.

She’s a real survivor.



Post-apocalyptic fiction + Review: “The Salt Line” by Holly Goddard Jones

When readers come to me, asking for book suggestions, I ask them about books they’ve recently read and enjoyed, and books they’ve liked in the past.

They list some books for me, and sometimes they list The Hunger Games or something similar (there are a lot that are similar).

“But please no dystopian stuff,” they tell me. “I’m over it.”

STOP that people. JUST STOP! There are other types of ‘dystopian’ fiction!!

A couple of years ago, dystopian YA books were all the rage. Beautiful, strong heroes and heroines fighting incredibly flawed totalitarian systems in order to free the masses from oppression.

And, although the oppression was different, there was a formula at work. There’s nothing wrong with it, nothing at all, but after it worked a couple of times, it seemed like it was EVERYWHERE.

Because of their similarities, dystopian fiction took over one of my favorite literary genres (or is it a device? A sub genre?).  I’m talking about post-apocalyptic fiction. A less totalitarian, more literary version of its younger cousin.

I fell in love with post-apocalyptic fiction the first time I read Stephen King’s The Stand, in my teens. If there had been dystopian fiction back in those golden olden days, I would have devoured it. But there wasn’t, not in the way we think of it today.

After reading The Stand, I searched out various takes on the end of the world as we know it (well, pretty much the end of America as we know it), with most of my favorites taking place less than 100 years after the fall.

In the past few years I’ve read some wonderful takes on the end of our reality. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, California by Edan Lepucki, American War by Omar El Akkad all are wonderful, imaginative takes on what happens after the end.

At some point I’ll do a list of my favorite post-apocalyptic fiction, but these three are all relatively new and incredibly well written, doing what great post-apocalyptic fiction does best — studying the complexities of humanity and relationships in times of extreme stress, providing an in-depth looks at what people will do to survive.

I just finished one that give readers all the best of post-apocalyptic fiction. Here’s my take on The Salt Line by Holly Goddard Jones.


 The Salt Line

 Holly Goddard Jones

September 5, 2017 | G.P. Putnum’s Sons

Literary fiction | Post-apocalyptic fiction | Science fiction

In a vague point in the future, the United States has been redistricted into zones bordered by salt-scorched earth. Those within the zones are safe, but their lives are limited and ruled by fear.

What’s outside of the zones, behind those protective salt lines? Most of the world — but it’s crawling with ticks. A disease-ridden, deadly species known as miner ticks.

It’s the pregnant female tick that cause the majority of the trouble. With a that bite numbs the skin, she gives herself time to burrows in before she’s really noticed. After she nests, she releases her eggs under the skin, which can spread quickly. If not stopped, the eggs eventually erupt out of the skin –a birth that’s incredibly painful and possibly deadly to the host.

But it’s the blood-borne diseases that cause the real problem. Specifically Shreve’s disease; a fast, deadly disease that causes pain and paralysis before it kills.

If you live in a zone, you’re safe. Few travel outside of their zone, and it’s a huge deal to travel between zones. There are lumber companies and other industries located out-of-zone, and workers are paid handsomely to work and live outside the salt line.

And, because safe is boring, there are adventure companies taking rich adrenaline junkies on out of zone tours. Jones’s novel focuses on the members and their ‘adventures’ during such one such expedition.

This group includes Jesse, an egotistical pop star; his working class girlfriend, Edie; the tech wunderkind Wes; and Marta, a housewife and mother harboring a secret.

Once this group is beyond the wall, they get so much more than they bargained for. Kidnapped by a community that lives and thrives out-of-zone, the expedition group realizes there’s another world outside the salt line, one with tenuous connections to the zones that allow them to thrive.

When those connections are threatened, the outer zone survivors will do just about anything to protect their community. The kidnapping seems like their answer.

Seeing this community thrive where no one is supposed to be able to live causes Edie, Wes, and Marta to question their worldviews, wondering at what point the promise of safety turns into control. At some point, each must decide how important it really is to be on the ‘right’ side of the salt line.

The Salt Line is a searing look at what humans will do to survive, and what they’ll do for the people they love. Jones writes superbly about the best and the worst in humans: self-sacrifice, compassion, and cooperation tempered with greed, insecurity, and pettiness.

I had a hard time putting down The Salt Line. The protagonists were likable and complex; the antagonists hard to judge and to label as bad guys. Sometimes the lines between the two was blurred and confused, making it that much more engrossing.

I highly recommend The Salt Line.  Absorbing, captivating, and compelling.