Good Behavior: Good, Not Best

Good Behavior by Blake Crouch

Published: November 15th, 2016
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller, Short Stories
Format: Audiobook
Length: 5 hrs and 46 mins

Good Behavior is simultaneously the definitive collection of Letty Dobesh stories by Blake Crouch and no longer the definitive story of Letty herself.

These stories were originally published as three separate novellas over the course of a few years. As of 2016, they are also the basis for a TNT series starring Michelle Dockery in her first post-Downton role in an ongoing series. This volume collects the stories along with author commentary.

However, unlike other book adaptations, I think I might recommend watching the show before reading Good Behavior. These stories read a hell of a lot like the rough draft of the show, and might best be appreciated with that in mind.

Crouch’s commentaries reinforce this impression. He discusses how he and the show’s co-creator adapted and cannibalized each story for the show, and it’s obvious that he thinks the adaptation is an improvement.

He points out more than once how the stories as written didn’t match the tone of the show or how tweaking events and characters for the adaptation opened things up in new and exciting ways.

As I listened to the audiobook, I oftentimes found myself thinking “Letty wouldn’t do that” or “this isn’t a Letty story”. Michelle Dockery’s portrayal is so compelling that I couldn’t picture the character any other way.

That said, I did enjoy reading Good Behavior. That’s especially surprising after I gave up on Crouch’s Wayward Pines trilogy after two books. I just couldn’t work up the energy to care about the finale, and I barely enjoyed the second book.

It helps that Letty is a much more interesting and likable protagonist than the main character in Wayward Pines, who spends most of his time hitting his head and blacking out. Also, it felt like Crouch had a better handle on style and language in these stories. He pulls off a few clever turns of phrase here and there that add a nice noir flavor.

Ultimately, I do recommend picking up Good Behavior, but only as supplemental material for the show and not a true standalone work. In fact, this collection is entertaining enough that I’m willing to give Crouch another chance, especially since he had a hand in writing the show.

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

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Lincoln in the Bardo: A Tumult of Hauntings

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Published: February 14th, 2017
Publisher: Random House Audio
Genre(s): Fiction, Historical, Ghost Story
Format: Audiobook
Length: 7 hrs and 25 mins

George Saunders is an amazing short story author. I’d put him up there with Kelly Link, Steven Millhauser and Jorge Luis Borges in my pantheon of personal favorites.

However, until Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders had never published a novel. This is a common trait among the short story authors I love; they rarely, if ever, turn their talents to novel-length works.

Lincoln in the Bardo is also unique because of its audiobook, which involves 166 different narrators acting out the massive cast of characters.

Nick Offerman, David Sedaris and Saunders himself take top billing. Voices you’ll probably recognize from movies, TV and audiobooks surround them on all sides. The care that clearly went into the audiobook production easily makes it the definitive version of Saunders’ novel.

At its heart, Lincoln in the Bardo tells a fairly straightforward story. After young Willie Lincoln dies from a protracted illness, Lincoln visits his son’s grave in the middle of the night, setting off a chain reaction that forces the other ghosts in the cemetery to examine their existence (or lack thereof).

Stories about the restless dead alternate with scholarly citations explaining the national attitudes towards Lincoln before and after the death of his son. The ghosts and citations interrupt and build upon each other, blending into long streams of conversation and contradiction. The effect is simultaneously poetic, hilarious and ironic.

And Lincoln in the Bardo is definitely funny, even though it is also filled with stories about incredible tragedy and heartbreak. One of the first ghosts we meet – Nick Offerman’s character, Hans Vollman – spends his afterlife walking around naked with a giant boner, insisting that he isn’t dead, just “sick”.

One of my favorite parts of the book was nothing but quotations describing Lincoln’s eyes; the quotes come one after the other, oftentimes directly contradicting each other on very simple information like his eye color. It’s a subtle way of emphasizing the subjective nature of historical narratives. I often wondered if any of the quotations were from real works or if Saunders invented them all.

I definitely enjoyed Lincoln in the Bardo, and would hold it up as an example of why audiobooks are a fantastic way to read, but I do think it feels a bit like a short story that grew to escape the confines of its word count.

The sheer avalanche of details, both personal and historical, are definitely compelling. I felt like I learned things about Lincoln that I’d never known, and Saunders is a master of characterization with a sensibility like none other. That said, the book felt a little slight thanks to its minimal plot.

Even still, I highly recommend checking out Lincoln in the Bardo, especially as an audiobook.

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Harrison Squared: Attack of the Teenage Fish People

Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory
Published: March 24th, 2015
Publisher: Tor Books / Audible Studios
Genre(s): Fantasy, Horror, Young Adult
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hrs and 10 mins

Daryl Gregory’s Harrison Squared is a much sillier book than its cover implies. The sinister Lovecraftian overtones suggested by the tentacles looming behind the protagonist are present, but the book’s overall tone is actually pretty goofy even though it’s about a kid trying to find his missing, possibly kidnapped mother.

Most of the goofiness comes from the random literary jokes and pop culture references that Gregory includes throughout, but it doesn’t help that Harrison Squared feels pitched at a younger audience than I was expecting. Instead of a Tor SF&F novel with a teenaged main character, it reads more like a young adult novel in adult packaging.

Of course, I read plenty of YA, so I don’t necessarily have a problem with the book’s reading level. The real issue is that I was expecting something deeper and richer than Gregory delivered. The book’s town of Dunnsmouth is sketchy and underdeveloped, and Harrison barely spends any time going to the school at the center of the story.

Gregory also sets up a number of threads that don’t really pay off. The other students at Harrison’s new school speak in a complicated sign language that he never actually learns. They also take part in a religion that seems to consist mostly of singing in an unknown language. More damning is a late revelation about Harrison himself that feels superfluous to the story. All of these details hint at a world without actually making it feel lived-in.

Harrison Squared ends in a way that seems to require a sequel, but it turns out that a semi-sequel already exists. One of Gregory’s previous novels, We Are All Completely Fine, includes an adult Harrison in its ensemble, although the summary makes him sound very different from the version portrayed here.

Harrison Squared is a quick read, and I did laugh a few times, so I’d be willing to give Gregory’s work another chance. Ultimately, though, I thought this book was a bit forgettable. It just doesn’t break any new ground in the fashionable mini-genre of Lovecraft pastiches.

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Full disclosure: Although I did receive a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, I listened to the audiobook on Audible.

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The Unreliable Family: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Published: May 30th, 2013
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Genre(s): Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hours and 57 minutes

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a family saga with a twist. Unfortunately, the marketing and summaries of the book don’t try very hard to hide that twist, so if you somehow manage to read the book without knowing it, I am very impressed.

The good news is that I knew the twist and it didn’t ruin the book for me, but I do wish I could have experienced it completely fresh. The bad news is that the fact I even mentioned that there was a twist is probably telling you more than you should know.

Fowler is an interesting author. Her early works and short stories are best described as “slipstream” or “magical realism”, but she’s most well-known for The Jane Austen Book Club, a bestseller later adapted into a movie. Nothing fantastical happens in that book or in her newest novel, but as I read them, my awareness of her history as a fantasist was always at the back of my mind.

Even when Fowler’s books are technically realistic, they seem to hover on the edge of the strange. Reality is thin wherever she turns her gaze, even if it’s only upon an overly personal discussion of the complete Austen. That sense of oddness is probably why I’m drawn to her books, regardless of the subject.

Rosemary, the narrator of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, is weird and broken and compelling in a million different ways. She barrels through life, trying to run from her past and her family, but never quite escapes from her many failures and disappointments. She’s an unreliable narrator disappointed by her inability to pin down the truth.

The problem is that she can’t actually remember what happened between her and her sister when they were young, but she knows that it broke her family apart, and isn’t that almost the same thing? Over the course of the novel, Rosemary unpacks her past, dancing towards truth and only veering away when she realizes that her own biases and imaginings have become more authoritative than factual.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is quietly devastating, but it’s also funny and strange and next door to the unreal. Reading it made me misty-eyed more than once, and I always consider that a point in favor of a book. I absolutely loved it.

LOVED IT

Full disclosure: Although I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, I actually listened to the audiobook.

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First, Do Your Homework: Texts From Jane Eyre

Texts From Jane EyreTexts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg

Published: Tantor Audio
Publisher: January 21st 2015
Genre(s): Humor
Format: Audiobook
Length: 2 hrs and 22 mins

The Toast is (was?) a hilarious website (RIP) and Mallory Ortberg is one of the funniest people I’ve ever read, so when Audible put her book, Texts From Jane Eyre on sale for 99 cents, I picked it up without a moment’s hesitation.

The basic premise of Texts From Jane Eyre is that your favorite characters from classic literature have the anachronistic ability to communicate by text. Hijinks ensue.

That is a great setup for comedy, and the audiobook does it one better by having those texts performed by a pair of actors who dive into their roles with gusto. I’m a firm believer that comedy oftentimes only comes through when performed, and I think this book is no exception. Texts From Jane Eyre reads like a series of sketches that would kill in front of a receptive (and hopefully literary) audience.

The only problem with Texts From Jane Eyre is that it really does require a deep knowledge of classic literature. I would consider myself fairly well-read, but I felt like I was missing the English lit prerequisites to understand most of these jokes. There were still a few solid laughs throughout even when I wasn’t intimately familiar with the works in question, but most of this collection sailed over my head.

That said, I don’t think this book would necessarily land better if I had read every single novel referenced. Pop culture references don’t automatically make for good comedy. There were also a few conversations here and there that strained at the edges of the conceit; I found myself wondering why characters were apparently standing next to each other and texting. It’s possible the real problem is that this joke only has enough steam to sustain a handful of blog posts and not an entire book.

In any case, my mild disappointment with Texts From Jane Eyre won’t stop me from picking up whatever Mallory Ortberg writes next now that The Toast is winding to a close. If you have a few hours free, Texts From Jane Eyre is worth a listen, but make sure you have Wikipedia handy if you do.

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Girl vs. Ash: Darla’s Story by Mike Mullin

DarlasStoryCover-HighResDarla’s Story by Mike Mullin

Published: February 2, 2016
Publisher: Mike Mullin
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction, Apocalypse
Format: Audiobook
Length: 1 hr and 35 mins

Darla’s Story is a novella that provides a bit of back-story for a character in Mike Mullin’s Ashfall trilogy. I haven’t read the trilogy, but the author meant the novella to stand alone as a complete work, so I read it with that in mind.

I instantly liked the fact that this story features an Iowan farm girl as its main character. I also liked that it doesn’t take place in a far-flung dystopian future. Instead, it occurs immediately after an apocalyptic volcano eruption (with a real-world basis!) covers the entire US in falling ash. Midwesterners and the mid-apocalypse aren’t common tropes in YA (at least not the books I’ve read), so I found the novelty intriguing.

The story follows Darla and her mother as they work to survive in the aftermath of the eruption. Theirs is very much a contained apocalypse, focusing as it does on the minutiae of day-to-day survival for two people stranded in the country. Luckily, Darla is mechanically inclined thanks to her late father’s influence, so she’s one of the best people to get stuck with in an apocalypse. As soon as the eruptions stop, she starts fixing necessities like the water pump and her tractor.

Ultimately, volcanic ash is the primary antagonist in Darla’s Story. Interpersonal conflict only comes into play very late in the action, and it’s really just a complication in Darla’s fight against the endless ash-fall.

To be honest, a little man versus nature went a long way for me. After a few chapters of fix-it work, I was impatient for a more personal conflict. I wanted something to happen that might push Darla out of her bubble.

When the outside world does finally intrude on Darla’s life, it feels more like a frustrating inconvenience than a dire misfortune. In fact, a lot of the stakes in this story feel strangely low. Despite the apocalyptic setting, Darla is both capable and determined, and it never seems like she is in immediate danger.

I think a lot of my impatience with this story stems from the fact that it really does only function as a prequel to a larger work. If Darla’s Story was a screenplay, this novella would be maybe 90% of the first act. It’s everything leading up to the part where Darla finally leaves her ordinary world and goes on a quest. The problem is that Darla can’t get to that point here because the meatier action happens in the main trilogy.

Even though I feel like Darla’s Story doesn’t actually work as a standalone piece, I enjoyed the character and setting. Reading Darla’s Story was enough to piqué my interest in Ashfall, but I’m not sure it’s a great starting place for the overall series. It probably works better as a way to fill in back-story after you’ve read the main series.

As for the audiobook, I thought the narrator was perfect for the character. I’d definitely recommend listening to Darla’s Story in audio form if you do pick it up.

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Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the author.

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It’s Kind of a Funny Story: Bream Gives Me Hiccups

Bream Gives Me Hiccups & Other Stories by Jesse EisenbergBream Gives Me Hiccups by Jesse Eisenberg

Published: December 1st 2015
Publisher: Audible Studios / Brilliance Audio
Genre(s): Comedy, Short Stories
Format: Audiobook
Length: 4 hrs and 28 mins

Bream Gives Me Hiccups is actor Jesse Eisenberg’s debut short story collection. Although it doesn’t feel like a vanity project, it is definitely a little derivative. Eisenberg’s work is in the same wheelhouse as Woody Allen’s short fiction, and doesn’t always fare well by comparison.

Most of the stories in Bream Gives Me Hiccups are slight comic riffs on a premise. The joke is oftentimes spelled out in the story’s title. When these shorter pieces are good, they deliver some of the best laughs in the collection. When they’re bad, they’re almost entirely forgettable.

Included with the short pieces are two longer stories that appear at the beginning and middle of the collection. The title story, “Bream Gives Me Hiccups”, is one of the best in the collection. The second long piece, “My Roommate Stole My Ramen”, is easily the worst.

One thing Eisenberg does to set himself apart from Allen is make his characters seem like real people with emotions. He only succeeds intermittently, but when he does, the stories are particularly good. Allen is by far the better writer, but the characters in his fiction were always held at arm’s length.

Section I, “Bream Gives Me Hiccups”, is framed as a series of restaurant reviews by a nine-year-old. Each review quickly devolves into a rundown of the main character’s life and troubles – with his divorced parents, his best friend, and the kids at school – and the result is both hilarious and affecting.

Section II, “Family”, mostly consists of a series of extended jokes from the perspectives of Eisenberg’s family members (real or imagined). There are a few standouts here: “Separation Anxiety Sleepaway Camp” is an absurdist exploration of childhood neurosis, and “My Nephew Has Some Questions” is by far the best example of Eisenberg committing to the game of a joke.

Section III, “History”, is all bits and no characters. I remember laughing once or twice at this section, but the stories didn’t leave much of an impression. Also, the joke in “Marxist-Socialist Jokes” is that they’re all non-jokes, which is just annoying.

Section IV, “My Roommate Stole My Ramen”, is where this collection went off the rails for me. In a series of letters to her high school guidance counselor, a spoiled freshman rants about everyone and everything in her life. There isn’t much of a narrative arc, and the main character doesn’t learn or grow by the end of the story. Eisenberg doesn’t appear to have any sympathy for this horrendous character, so it’s hard to understand why this story spends so much time with her. The end result is both tone-deaf and misogynist.

Section V, “Dating”, lands with a thud. I wasn’t particularly entertained by four variations on a bar pick-up, and found this section completely skippable.

Section VI, “Sports”, was also pretty lame. “Marv Albert Is My Therapist” is only mildly funny if you know who Albert is. “Carmelo Anthony…” is slightly entertaining because the Eisenberg character is completely delusional about his “pickup game”.

Section VII, “Self-Help” brings in some much-needed darkness with “Smiling Tricks” and “If She Ran Into Me Now…”, both of which feature delusional and/or downright psychotic main characters. It also helps that neither story overstays its welcome.

In Section VIII, “Language”, the best story is “My Spam Plays Hard to Get”, in which even scammers don’t want to steal from Eisenberg. “Nick Garrett’s Review” has a fairly obvious twist, and the remaining stories are unremarkable.

Section IX, “We Only Have Time for One More”, just feels unnecessary.

So, to summarize, although there are definitely worthwhile stories and the occasional bright spot in this collection, the second half almost sinks under the weight of unpleasant characters and unremarkable stories.

It’s a shame, because I really enjoyed several of the stories and wish the overall collection was that consistently good. However, I’m still willing to recommend picking up this collection because of the handful of truly great stories. I’d also recommend picking up the audiobook version so that you can hear these pieces performed by the author.

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Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, but I actually listened to the audiobook version from Audible. Go figure.

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Wrong-Headed: Noggin by John Corey Whaley

NogginNoggin by John Corey Whaley

Published: April 8, 2014
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hours and 45 minutes

I wanted to like Noggin more than I did. It has a clever premise, it’s definitely funny, and it delivers on more than one genuinely touching moment. Unfortunately, despite everything the book does right, I just wanted to wring the main character’s neck after a certain point. During one scene late in the book I actually grimaced in horror at his stupidity.

Travis Coates starts out with a lot of sympathetic qualities. Noggin opens as he awakens from a surgery to attach his severed head to a donor body. In his former life, Travis was a sixteen-year-old kid with inoperable cancer. When it became clear that he was going to die, he volunteered for an experimental program with a chance to save his life.

The program worked, but that catch is this: five years passed while his head was cryogenically frozen. He’s still mentally sixteen, but his friends are in college and his parents lived with the grief of his loss for years.

That mental age ends up being Travis’ biggest obstacle. Everyone else has grown up and moved on, but he’s still petulant and selfish and unwilling to let go of the past. When he discovers that his best friend and girlfriend didn’t wait around for him to come back, he proceeds to blow up their lives and friendships with his behavior.

Travis spends most of Noggin trying to win back the love of his former girlfriend, Cate, who is now five years older than him and engaged to another guy. It’s obvious from the start that Travis’ quest is a huge mistake. He’s going to fail, and when he does, he’s going to ruin his relationship with someone he claims to love.

There’s probably a way to tell this story that would make it feel like Travis and Cate are star-crossed lovers, but I never found myself sympathizing with his wish to win her back. He just seemed like a pathetic asshole. His self-delusion lasts for so long and goes to such extremes that I lost all patience for his idiocy.

Travis is exactly the sort of “nice guy” who just won’t take a hint, and the Cate is so forgiving that she just keeps giving him the benefit of the doubt. When Travis makes a completely boneheaded “grand gesture” near the end of the book, Cate actually forgives him… and then a few chapters later he ignores her feelings yet again. I groaned aloud.

Honestly, I’m not sure I believe that Travis learns anything over the course of the book. Instead, it feels like he just decides to blame everyone else for not understanding what he’s going through.

Although I might be willing to give John Corey Whaley’s books another chance, I’m glad I’m done spending time with Travis Coates.

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Treacherous Parts: You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine

You Too Can Have a Body Like MineYou Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman

Published: August 25th 2015
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Genre(s): Literary Fiction, Surrealism
Format: Audiobook
Length: 9 hrs and 17 mins

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a catalog of the mundane made nightmarish and surreal. Eating an orange is a visceral act of destruction and consumption. Applying makeup is an absolute negation of the self.

Sex is dissociative and alien, a study of individual body parts joining and separating in feverish dispassion. Commercials are bizarre tragedies populated with gruesome cartoon imagery.

Your favorite game show ruins lives and breaks up marriages. The neighbors dressed themselves in bed sheets with holes for their eyes and checked out of society to join a new cult. Your roommate wants to become you so thoroughly that you might no longer exist.

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a bit difficult to summarize in any kind of concise fashion, but the back copy certainly tries. The main thing you need to know before reading it is that it isn’t particularly plot-driven and the characters aren’t much more than archetypes.

The first three-fourths are an episodic, anxious meditation on body image, consumerism and food issues. The last quarter changes gears a bit when the main character decides she has found a solution to her general malaise, and the book loses a bit of its odd, surrealist charm. That last quarter also suffers from a sudden influx of jargon, but the end still mostly sticks the landing.

My favorite parts were Kleeman’s descriptions of terrifying commercials for a chemical-filled brand of snack cakes. Imagine an existentialist Wile E Coyote who doesn’t just fall but breaks at a spiritual level thanks to the machinations of sentient dessert, and you’ve got the general idea.

I also appreciated the author’s horrifying descriptions of food and eating even as they made me cringe. Eating is basically never pleasurable in this book; instead, it’s an act of violence against both food and eater.

I’m honestly not entirely sure why I enjoyed this book as much as I did. I’m not usually patient enough to read weird, arty books, and it was definitely a bit pretentious and overwritten. It’s possible that listening to the audiobook was a big part of why I liked it; in fact, I’m pretty sure I would have gotten bogged down trying to read it in print.

Accordingly, I’d rate this one as a qualified recommendation. If a rambling, slim story about body image and food issues sounds like it might be worth your time, you’ll probably get a few laughs and/or shudders out of Kleeman’s début.

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LIKED IT

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Awesome Authors Who Are Also Fantastic Narrators

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!