Fall has always felt like a season of beginnings to me. There’s the beginning of the academic year, and there’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is one of my favorite holidays. But fall itself also feels like a beginning. It’s a season of change, and even though some of that change involves plants dying back and animals going into hibernation, any change is always a chance to start again. I’ve been thinking a lot about unexpected and unusual beginnings on my fall walks, and I’ve listened to several incredible audiobooks about the kinds of beginnings that don’t arrive with a big fanfare but that still have the power to transform our lives.
Nicola Dinan’s debut novel BELLIES is a messy and beautiful story about two queer twenty-somethings who are confronted over and over again with the often difficult truth that no one ever really arrives—there’s always a new (and sometimes scary) beginning just around the next corner. Nathaniel Curtis and Octavia Nyombi give equally stellar performances as Tom and Ming, who meet and fall in love at university. Their relationship is thrown into turmoil when Ming decides to transition, and both she and Tom have to reckon with how this change will affect both their lives.
This is such an intimate novel—as listeners, we’re treated to Tom and Ming’s internal struggles, even when they don’t share what they’re thinking and feeling with each other. Curtis voices Tom in a chipper, friendly voice that captures his nice-guy persona as well as the insecurity and confusion he often masks with jokes. Nyombi’s performance as Ming is full of feeling, and sometimes a bit aloof. She does a brilliant job expressing just how difficult it is for Ming to keep parts of herself hidden before coming out. Both Curtis and Nyombi give Dinan’s characters the depth they deserve, and the result is a poignant, funny, and sometimes heartbreaking listen.
Romance novels are an obvious place to turn for stories about beginnings—they’re often about new relationships, after all—but Kacen Callender plays with all the expected tropes and delivers some truly unexpected beginnings in their debut adult romance, STARS IN YOUR EYES. André Santana and AJ Beckles star as Logan and Mattie, two actors who agree to pretend to date as a publicity stunt for their failing movie. Mattie is everyone’s favorite up-and-coming golden boy, and Beckles gives him a voice to match: bright, cheerful, excited, and full of optimism. Logan is one of Hollywood’s most hated celebrities, known for his public fits of rage and unpredictable behavior. Santana perfectly captures his above-it-all persona in a gruff, almost uncaring voice.
The real magic is what happens when Mattie and Logan begin to spend time together away from the cameras. They both begin to open up, and Logan reveals just how much trauma he’s carrying as a survivor of sexual assault and abuse. It’s a marvel how different Santana’s voice sounds in these moments—raw, unstudied, and emotional. This is not a light or easy book, as it delves into the complex realities of people living with PTSD. It takes Mattie and Logan a long time—and many beginnings—to find a way to love each other and themselves. But Callender handles Logan’s character arc with immense care, and Santana gives an especially powerful performance. An ensemble of excellent narrators, including Dani Martineck and Avi Roque, chime in as reporters, fans, bloggers, and social media commentators, adding some levity and giving the book an appropriately cinematic feel.
Ross Gay’s newest collection of essays, THE BOOK OF (MORE) DELIGHTS, which he reads with infectious warmth and curiosity, is all about finding beginnings in everyday happenings. Over the course of a year, he records the small delights he encounters as he goes about his days. Sometimes these “essayettes” are about a beloved fruit tree he passes on his bike or an afternoon spent in a café in his home of Bloomington, Indiana. Sometimes a bird or an overheard conversation or song reminds him of a memory—a moment with his father, a basketball game from his youth. He narrates these short pieces in a voice that makes them come alive—often you can hear the hint of a smile in his voice, or the echo of laughter. His voice is as exuberant and joyful as his prose, and he uses both to insist that delights are all around us, if only we pay attention.
This might not sound like a book about beginnings, but Gay’s way of looking at the world is a reminder that we can always start again. There is always something else to see, think, learn, experience, fall in love with. Every afternoon spent in the garden, every conversation with a beloved person, every glimpse of a familiar tree is another unexpected beginning. If you’re feeling stagnant or stuck in a rut, this audiobook might be able to gently guide you out of it and toward something new.