Awesome Authors Who Are Also Fantastic Narrators

speaking-into-can

I recently started listening to H is For Hawk by Helen MacDonald. The book is a rare experience, both because I don’t read many non-fiction books and because the author is a fantastic narrator. Her recitation is both deeply personal and carefully, perfectly enunciated in the exact sort of British accent that makes for a pleasant listening experience. In fact, listening to a clip of her narration is a big part of what sold me on the book.

Listening to her read made me think of other authors who are also great narrators. In my experience, the combination is extremely rare. The sort of person who is willing to spend endless hours writing in solitude tends not to enjoy public speaking. Of course, it also doesn’t help when your favorite authors turn out to have weird nasally voices and a tendency to drone.

Thankfully, when an author is good at reading out loud, they are oftentimes very, very good. I’ve listed a few notable examples below.

Neil Gaiman – One of the most obvious examples of a great author-narrator is Neil Gaiman, who has a way with words and an excellent sense of pacing and intonation. Many of his stories feature thinly veiled versions of the author himself, so hearing them read aloud is crucial. I wasn’t a huge fan of his most recent collection of short stories, but Gaiman is still one of my all-time favorite authors thanks to his novels. Hearing him read anything aloud is wonderful.

David Sedaris – The weird thing about David Sedaris is that his voice is so bizarre and off-putting, but his stories just aren’t the same without it. When I first listened to Sedaris’ short stories, I wasn’t sure if I would ever get used to his voice, but a few short hours later I was weeping profusely at his story about his family’s history with dogs. His work is very much a case where the performance is an important part of every story, and if you’re just reading his words on the page, they don’t have the same effect at all.

Catherynne M. ValenteValente narrates several of the books in her Fairyland series, and although she isn’t as polished as some of the other authors on this list, her reading of September’s adventures in Fairyland gives it a unique character that I missed when another narrator took over for book two.

Mary Robinette Kowal – I actually haven’t read any of Kowal’s books yet, but I’ve listened to her narration on a number of books by other authors, and I really enjoy her voice. She’s actually a fairly prolific narrator, and I’ve also listened to many episodes of her work on the Writing Excuses podcast. I’m sure I’ll get around to reading one of her books someday soon!

Romance By Any Other Name

outlander

We’ve been watching the Starz adaptation of Outlander recently, and it got me thinking about how I’ve never actually read a “romance” novel, but I’ve read plenty of stealth romance sold as other genres. I’ve actually owned Outlander on Kindle for a while – it was free at one point and I thought I might as well find out what all the fuss was about – but I never actually got around to reading it.

Now we’re just over halfway through the first season and I’m definitely enjoying the show. Jack Randall, the villain, steals pretty much every scene he’s in, and the episode where he describes flaying Jamie’s back is simultaneously mesmerizing and horrifying. The show does have its problems here and there, however. The first episode spends a bit too much time in Claire’s head; she narrates most of the episodes, but that first one feels like it’s half an hour of her staring out a window thinking pretty thoughts. The narration does get better from there, however.

Sexual violence is also a pretty common trope on the show so far. I do think they’re making an effort to give Claire some agency when these moments occur, but I have to wonder if she’s going to face the threat (or reality) of rape literally every other episode. Additionally, there are a few particularly controversial scenes (one of which we just watched) that I know completely turned people off on the experience. I can’t really compare since I haven’t read the book (yet), but I get the impression that the show might be doing a better job with some of the more borderline material. Your mileage may vary?

In any case, I’m enjoying Outlander, but that wasn’t really a surprise. I’ve known for a very long time that I’m a huge sucker for cinematic romance although I normally stick with comedies. Outlander is oftentimes a very funny show, but it’s mostly dramatic. Luckily it generally avoids melodramatic or soapy plot twists (unlike Downton Abbey, for example), so that helps with my enjoyment.

So, here’s me: a sucker for romance, but I’ve never read an actual Romance Novel. I’ve enjoyed reading romantic books sold as fantasy or literary fiction – books like The Night Circus, Kushiel’s Dart, Soulless, Attachments, A Little Night Magic and Firethorn – so why haven’t I taken the plunge and picked up a flat-out romance?

The short and most obvious answer is: marketing. Romance novels tend to have covers that don’t appeal to me and summaries that don’t catch my interest. I haven’t figured out how to interpret the packaging to find the books I would actually enjoy the way I can with a genre novel. My rule for SF&F was that I wouldn’t read a book with a spaceship or a shirtless dude wielding a sword unless I was already familiar with the author, but I don’t know what rules to follow in the romance world. My best guess is that I should avoid books featuring Fabio on the cover.

For now, I’m going to follow Sunil Patel’s lead and pick up a book by Courtney Milan. His article over at The Book Smugglers makes a compelling case for why guys should give romance novels a chance. It’s kind of amazing to think about how much mental inertia I must have in place that I can thoroughly enjoy romantic movies and TV shows as well as blatantly romantic novels but I still hesitate at the thought of picking up a Romance Novel.

Turn Overcast Into an Amazing Audiobook App

overcastOvercast is one of the best podcasting apps on the market, but I decided that I wanted to use it to listen to audiobooks. The only problem? Overcast only works with podcast feeds.

As far as I can tell, there isn’t a simple way to manually load in MP3s or point the app directly at a file. However, I didn’t let this limitation discourage me; instead, I came up with a convoluted solution that probably isn’t for the faint of heart.

There are two really good reasons I went to so much effort: Smart Speed and Voice Boost. Smart Speed is a killer app for listening to the spoken word – it automatically speeds up podcasts and audiobooks by dynamically snipping out pauses, all without distortion. As for Voice Boost, it automatically equalizes the volume in your file, when comes in handy for too-quiet books.

Overcast also tracks how much time you’ve saved thanks to Smart Speed, and it’s kind of astonishing. I’ve used Overcast to listen to two books so far – Funny Girl and The Library at Mount Char – but it’s already saved me six hours of time. When I tried to listen to Funny Girl at normal speed as an experiment, the pauses were excruciating.

How did I manage to pull this off? I installed Podcast Generator, an “open source podcast publishing platform”. It runs in PHP and doesn’t need a MySQL database, so it’s very easy to set up. Once you’ve installed it on a server, you can use an FTP program to upload M4A or MP3 files and Podcast Generator will automatically add them as new episodes in your feed.

Here’s my current workflow for transferring audiobooks into Overcast:

  1. Download an MP3 audiobook from places such as Downpour, SYNC or your local library’s Overdrive collection.
  2. If your audiobook comes in parts, you’ll probably want to convert it into one combined file. I use a program called Join Together, which generates an M4B file and automatically adds it to iTunes.
    • If you do create a combined M4B, you’ll need to change the file extension to M4A before you upload the file into Podcast Generator.
    • This doesn’t work with extremely long books (anything involving George R.R. Martin), which will need to remain broken into smaller parts.
  3. Upload your audiobook into Podcast Generator’s media folder.
  4. Go into the Podcast Generator Admin console and choose “FTP Feature (Auto Indexing)” to refresh your feed. Your audiobook should now appear in the list of episodes.
  5. I like to edit the metadata for new episodes so that they have proper descriptions and author information, but this isn’t strictly necessary. If you want to change the order of the books in your feed, you’ll need to edit the date of the episode.
  6. Once you’ve finished adding audiobooks, go to the main page of your Podcast Generator installation and click on the RSS Feed button. This should give you your feed url, which will look something like http://example.com/feed.xml. Open Overcast and  use the “Add URL” option to subscribe to that link.

You can now stream or download audiobooks in Overcast to your heart’s content!

A Bloody, Surreal and Hilarious Trip to The Library

The Library at Mount Char by Scott HawkinsThe Library at Mount Char

Published: June 16th 2015
Publisher: Crown
Genre(s): Fantasy, Horror
Format: Audiobook
Length: 16 hrs and 47 mins

The Library at Mount Char is a fantastic book, but it’s almost impossible to summarize. Part of the problem is that a lot of the book hangs on misdirection. The main character knows a lot of things that she isn’t telling us, so we have to work with what little the author provides.

This means that to summarize the book past the first few chapters is to spoil some really great surprises. On the other hand, some of the bat-shit weirdness that occurs in later chapters is what made me truly, madly, deeply love this completely insane novel. It’s a bit of a quandary, because I want to recommend this book to everyone I know.

It doesn’t help that the book’s cover looks like the sort of thing you might find on a remaindered thriller in the bargain bin. The design doesn’t really grab you by the face and insist that you start reading the book RIGHT THIS INSTANT.

The basic summary is as follows: Carolyn and her adopted brothers and sisters are apprentice librarians in a massive, strange Library full of books that include all the knowledge in the world. When they were young, all of their parents died suddenly and a mysterious man they call “Father” adopted them. Father is viciously cruel, incredibly dangerous and infinitely powerful… but he’s gone missing and now none of them can get back into the Library. When they discover what actually happened to Father, it may change the fate of the entire universe as we know it.

Read more

The Private Eye is Weird Neo-Noir for Luddites

The Private Eye: Deluxe EditionThe Private Eye: Deluxe Edition
Written by: Brian K. Vaughan
Art by: Marcos Martin
Color by: Muntsa Vicente
Published: December 17th, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics / Panel Syndicate
Genre(s): Sci Fi, Crime, Graphic Novel
Format: Hardcover
Length: 300 pages

Brian K. Vaughan might be one of the busiest writers in comics, and every new project he announces is weirder than the last. The Private Eye was the first series published through Panel Syndicate, a digital-only, DRM-free, pay-what-you-want imprint that releases comics designed specifically for tablets.

The Private Eye’s 10-issue run was so popular and well-regarded that Robert Kirkman from Image Comics convinced Vaughan to let them publish a deluxe hardcover edition of the series. This all-in-one edition is probably one of the best ways to enjoy this limited series.

The year is 2076, and it has been decades since the “cloudburst” leaked everything stored in the “cloud” to the public and secret search histories ruined lives. There is no internet, no wi-fi, and iPhones are forgotten relics of the past. In another twist, the press handles law enforcement and is known as the “Fourth Estate”.

P.I. is an unlicensed paparazzi – a private investigator by another name – who keeps an office in the Chateau Marmont and spends his time trying to photograph adulterers despite the fact that everyone wears masks and uses pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

When a young woman hires P.I. to investigate her past and she almost immediately turns up murdered, the killers and the press target P.I., and he soon finds himself roped into an investigation into her death. He eventually uncovers a conspiracy that will change the state of the world as he knows it.

At its heart, The Private Eye is a fairly traditional murder mystery. The bizarre trappings – hologram tiger-heads and Luddite tendencies – are what make it stand out from the crowd, as does Marcos Martin’s kinetic art style. The Los Angeles setting is carefully drawn, with a number of details that make it feel believable and lived-in, which only adds to the noir flavor of this book.

However, the story doesn’t always make sense. For example, I’m still not entirely sure why the villain felt the need to murder the woman who sets off the main plot. I also never quite bought into the villain’s motivations in general; it felt more like Vaughan was trying to say something about the present day through a sci-fi lens and molded his bad guy to fit that narrative and not the other way around.

Overall, The Private Eye is a fast-paced and entertaining read. If you’re curious about the story and aren’t quite ready to drop big bucks on a collected hardcover, you can always buy digital copies very cheaply from the Panel Syndicate website.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: Although I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, I also purchased my own copies as they came out.

Amazon | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound | Panel Syndicate

Horrorstör Was Assembled From Generic Parts

HorrorstorHorrorstör by Grady Hendrix
Published: September 23rd 2014
Publisher: Blackstone Audio / Quirk Books
Genre(s): Horror, Satire
Format: Audiobook
Length: 6 hrs and 16 mins

Anyone who has ever shopped in an IKEA knows that it is the ideal setting for a horror story: a vast, maze-like structure filled with an infinite number of uniform objects designed to frustrate the sane mind. Not to mention all the screeching children jumping on mattresses in the bedding section.

In an ideal world, Horrorstör would deliver that perfect combination of surreal horror and retail satire. Unfortunately, although there are clever touches throughout, the book falls flat.

Amy works at Orsk, a US-based IKEA knockoff that is identical in everything but name. She’s disaffected, burnt out and sarcastic, mostly because she hasn’t lived up to any of her potential. When her straight-laced boss, Basil, asks her to stay after work to help him investigate some strange goings-on in the store, they discover something far more sinister than smelly goo in the furniture aisle.

For a book billed as a horror comedy, Horrorstör is relatively laugh-free. The satire of retail drudgery feels non-specific, and as soon as the supernatural elements come to the forefront, the rest of the story is humorless bordering on bleak. The only sustained joke are the fake product listings, but they’re only mildly clever.

The horror aspect of the book relies on well-worn tropes, and after a certain point it feels like the events could be happening in any enclosed space as opposed to specifically inside a big-box furniture store. Hendrix introduces the idea of the characters getting lost in Orsk’s seemingly endless showroom, but it’s quickly dropped in favor of more traditional supernatural horrors. I also thought it was a huge missed opportunity that none of the characters assemble an improvised weapon out of random kitchen-ware and furniture pieces.

The main character spends most of the novel avoiding responsibility, reacting to horrible events or giving up entirely. Following her was frustrating, and she only develops as a character very late in the story. The conclusion is open-ended enough that Hendrix could write a sequel, but it definitely feels like he saves all potential character development for another book.

Ultimately, Horrorstör is underdeveloped and forgettable. The book’s design was by far the best part of an otherwise disappointing package.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, but I listened to an audiobook version from the library.

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A Portrait of Two Difficult Books

8d15823f74e0f98c95f9941d90e22063I’ve already blown past my reading goal for the year on Goodreads1, so I thought it was time I started reading something that would offer a bit of a challenge.

I’ve done this in years past with books like Anna Karenina, Middlemarch and The Count of Monte Cristo, but I was in the mood for something more modern this time around, so I picked up House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. Also, those books were only really a challenge because of their length and subjects.

Even in paperback, House of Leaves is a massive tome. My backpack feels about twice as heavy when I bring it to work with me. I haven’t made much progress, but so far the book is relatively straightforward, consisting mostly of faux-academic articles with digressive footnotes that occasionally ramble on for pages at a time. I keep flipping to the later pages where the formatting starts getting really weird, and I wonder what happens between here and there.

One thing that surprised me about the early chapters is that the most grounded part of the story is about a found-footage horror movie. It probably felt a bit more surprising and new back in the day.

I’ve also joined a book club at The Hatchery, a shared writing space that I was a member of for a while this year. So far it isn’t anything like my long-time club back in Austin, which was equal parts book discussions and hanging out with friends. The discussions at The Hatchery’s club are far more academic, and the book selections have trended towards Important Literature2.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManThe most recent book we read was A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, which I’d picked up once or twice but never actually tried to read. I managed to read it over the course of a week thanks to a cheap audiobook, but I didn’t really enjoy it much. Although I definitely respect the craft involved throughout, and I did enjoy a few scenes here and there, I was alternately frustrated with the stream-of-consciousness storytelling and bored by the excessive focus on religion3.

My disappointment is perhaps a little ironic, because I’m sure that House of Leaves is only building on literary styles and techniques that Joyce pioneered. Maybe it’s just that Danielewski eases you into the experimental parts with a long introduction. By comparison, the first chapter of Portrait is oftentimes completely random and disassociated without much prelude.

I’m definitely drawn to books with experimental narratives, so you’d think I’d be all in on a seminal work by one of the forefathers of literary experimentation, but it just didn’t work for me. My best theory is that I’ve read too many books that build on Joyce’s techniques, so what seemed revolutionary at the beginning of the 20th century just felt dated today. Also, maybe I’m just not a fan of disjointed narratives about the religious doubts of Irish schoolboys?

No matter what, I probably won’t pick up Ulysses any time soon. Instead, I think I’ll focus on getting to the weirder parts of House of Leaves.

Armada: Second Wave Slump

ArmadaArmada by Ernest Cline

Published: July 14th 2015
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Length: 349 pages

The Last Starfighter is a very bad movie. The too-thin story is nothing but a delivery mechanism for a few minutes of primitive CGI, and I question the taste of anyone who could watch it nowadays without groaning.

Accordingly, if you operate under the theory that very bad movies are the ones that actually deserve reboots, there has never been a premise more ripe for a “re-imagining” than The Last Starfighter. The advances made to video games since the heyday of arcade cabinets are exponential, and the line between games and combat simulators has never been thinner.

Armada is Ernest Cline’s pitch for a Last Starfighter reboot, tailor-made for the inevitable blockbuster film adaptation. It improves on the movie in a few ways but introduces new problems; although it is more grounded and believable than the original, the plotting is slapdash and the pop culture references are overwhelming.

In Armada, Cline tells the story of Zack Lightman, a fatherless teenage gamer with anger-management issues and a high score in the titular game – a popular space-flight simulator/shooter. Zack’s late father was also a gamer obsessed with pop culture, but he also had a crackpot theory that all science fiction is part of a government plot designed to prepare people for alien invasions.

Zack obsesses over everything his father loved despite his suspicions that Lightman the elder might have been a little crazy. Although his obsession does eventually tie into the plot, it’s mostly just Cline’s excuse for peppering the dialogue with references to 80s movies. In fact, in the book’s most egregious moments, the characters quote dialog verbatim instead of having real human conversations.

When Zack sees a ship from Armada flying past his school, he thinks he’s going crazy like his father, and tries to write it off. However, we immediately know a few things that he seems willfully ignorant about despite his intimate familiarity with The Last Starfighter:

  1. He isn’t crazy. That was totally a real alien ship.
  2. He is going to get recruited by the military.
  3. Oh, and, his dad is totally alive out there somewhere. Duh.

All of this is screamingly obvious, but the book takes its sweet time getting to the point where Zack actually steps into a spaceship. I’m sure that once this is a movie, the pacing of this section will be better and it won’t feel like such a drag to spend time on Zack’s normal life, but here the first act of the story is deadly dull. I could definitely have done without the chapter-length walk-through of Armada’s in-game mechanics, especially because at that point the stakes were still nonexistent.

It doesn’t help that Cline spends a lot of time setting up characters and situations that never really pay off. Zack’s anger issues just go away without him ever actually addressing them. His love interest gets one significant scene and then barely appears in the rest of the book even though she’s actually a pretty cool character. The overall effect is a book that feels underdeveloped and rushed, as though producing a movie-ready follow-up was the main priority here.

And, yes, the pop-culture references that Cline is known for do feel a bit heavy-handed. Somehow the same obsession with 80s culture worked just fine in his début, but here it took me out of the action almost every time. There’s also a weird scene where Zack describes how hot his mom is and admits to a mild Oedipal complex. These are all things that I think Cline would have fixed with another rewrite or two.

It’s a shame, really, because I genuinely enjoyed Ready Player One, and I was really excited for Cline’s follow-up. I think he has a lot of potential as a writer, and I could still see that potential in Armada even if I don’t think the execution is there. For example, the government’s recruitment plan makes a lot more sense than The Last Starfighter, and once the invasion gets underway, Cline introduces a new mystery that makes for a far more compelling dramatic question than whether Zack will get recruited.

Cline already has a lucrative deal for his third book, so it’s not like the shakiness of his craft on Armada is going to derail his career, but I hope he gets the chance to put a bit more love and attention into his next book.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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Never Mind, Scribd is Terrible Now

scribd-thumbs-downShortly after I posted my glowing, enthusiastic review of Scribd’s service (especially the audiobook selection), they decided to blow up their entire business model and the app went swiftly downhill.

The two things aren’t necessarily connected, but together they were enough to get me to cancel my subscription and delete the app out of sheer frustration.

So, what exactly happened? Scribd decided that they were going to change their business model, but only for audiobooks. Instead of being able to listen to any book in their (at the time) extensive library, your $8.99 would get you 1 credit for an audiobook, which brings them in line with other digital audiobook services like Audible or Downpour.

It makes sense that they had to make this change, because endless audiobooks are probably not a sustainable business model, but it’s still disappointing. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only thing that changed, and Scribd seriously dropped the ball when it came to communicating the changes.

First, I received an email telling me that some of the titles in my library were going to expire soon. The email didn’t explain anything about their new business model; it just let me know that I’d be seeing expiration dates on some of the titles I’d saved. When I checked, it turned out that all the expiring titles were from Penguin Random House, which meant that almost all the audiobooks I’d added to my list were going to expire from the service. Naturally, I’d barely dented my list of books.

I don’t remember how I found out that their business model was changing to credits-only, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t through an email. In fact, I think I started seeing little flags for “credit required” on audiobooks I’d saved before I read anything about the changes. I did finally get an explanation when I went to the Scribd website, but I’m sure there were plenty of people who only use the app and had no clue what was going on.

As part of Scribd’s explanation of the changes, they claimed that some audiobooks would be available under their unlimited plan, but I could never find them. I have no idea what these “thousands” of unlimited audiobooks might be, because everything in my list was either expiring or required a credit.

If it was just a matter of the service’s value changing, I might have continued paying for my membership… but then the app turned into a buggy mess, and that was more than I could take. I was trying to finish Armada before it expired, but the Scribd app started doing this infuriating thing where the beginning of the next section of book would start playing before the current section finished, so I’d have dueling Wil Wheatons and no way to fix it while driving. It didn’t help that I’d already had to delete and re-install Scribd several times because of changes to the service and unstable app updates.

Once it became clear that the Scribd app was a complete shit-show, I deleted it and submitted a cancellation request. It’s entirely possible that they’ve fixed some of the bugs in the month since I cancelled my service, but when I weighed what Scribd was offering – inconsistency and instability – versus my long-term experiences with Audible, it was no contest.

The Audible app and service are both far better than anything Scribd now offers in the audiobook space, so it wasn’t long before I’d restarted my full Audible membership and picked up a copy of John Scalzi’s new space politics adventure story.

First Impressions of The Library at Mount Char

The Library at Mount CharScott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char is dark, weird and funny. It’s basically the perfect book for me. I knew I was going to love it within a few sentences, and so far it hasn’t disappointed.

The main character, Carolyn, has penchant for brutality that constantly surprises me, too. Where other books would establish that the main character had done terrible things but they were all in the past, Hawkins gleefully undermines those expectations. Carolyn behaves in ways that are utterly inhuman without necessarily making her an unlikable character. Of course, it definitely helps that other characters in the book are much, much worse.

My only real criticism so far is that the book’s cover completely misses the mark. It feels like the kind of cover you’d see on your average literary thriller sent straight to the bargain bin. I’m sure it happened because the book already feels impossible to sell from what I’ve read so far, but it’s incredibly unfortunate because I would not have picked this book up off a shelf without first understanding the completely bat-shit premise.

I’m only about 15% through at this point, so it’s possible the book won’t deliver on its early promises, but who can go wrong with chapter titles like “Buddhism for Assholes”?