My Favorite Reads of 2017

I read a lot of books in 2017, but most of them were graphic novels.

That does feel a bit like cheating, but I made up for it by reading them in high volumes and by tackling a few massive books over the course of the year.

My totals for 2017 were as follows:

111 total books

97 by male authors
14 by female authors

30 audiobooks
64 graphic novels

9 physical
102 digital

The Aeronaut's Windlass The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim ButcherAudiobook, 21 hrs and 46 mins, 2015 — I’m a fan of Butcher’s Dresden Files series, which is especially good in audio form, but I’ve been a little hesitant to try his other books because epic fantasy isn’t my bag. The Aeronaut’s Windlass might have convinced me to give the rest of his stuff a try, though. It definitely has an epic length, but it also has steampunk trappings and talking warrior cats. It helps that it doesn’t fall prey to the clichés of epic fantasy that I remember turning me off when I read The Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth back in the day. The early chapters were a little slow going, but after I dug deeper into the world, it had me hooked. It also helps that it reads like a standalone even though it’s the start of a series.
All Systems Red All Systems Red by Martha WellsDigital, 156 pages, 2017 — This novella has easily one of the best and most compelling narrators I’ve come across in a long time. Murderbot, as they secretly call themself, is a corporate security android who hacked their own governor module so that they could watch endless soap operas and ignore stupid orders from humans. All they want is for the humans to leave them alone, but when danger arises, they decide to help despite their scorn for humanity and general social anxiety. Hijinks ensue, and the humans learn the shocking truth that their security robot is a thinking and feeling being.
American Gods American Gods (Tenth Anniversary Edition) by Neil GaimanAudiobook, 19 hrs and 39 mins, 2011 — I first read American Gods back in 2001 in hardcover. I loved it then, and I’d thought about re-reading it over the years, but it wasn’t until I watched the Starz adaptation that I finally decided to take the plunge. The show is fantastic, but it made me realize that I’d forgotten everything that happened in the book aside from one or two scenes. The show is a pretty faithful adaptation – surreal and rambling and sometimes plotless, just like the book – but it only covers about a fourth of the story. The best parts of the book are still to come on the show, and I loved listening to those parts of the audiobook. I’ve been a little disappointed by the last few Gaiman books I’ve read, but American Gods has only gotten better with age, and the excellent audiobook adaptation elevates it into a masterpiece.
Brother of the More Famous Jack Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara TrapidoDigital, 256 pages, 2014 (first published 1982) — A young British girl comes of age, surrounded by the cleverest family of sarcastic hooligans and ne’er-do-wells ever put to page. They bring her into their orbit for a time when she is young, but after an inevitable heartbreak, she leaves and takes her lumps from the world. A funny, touching slice-of-life that still resonates. I don’t remember where I first heard about this book, but something drew me to it, and I’m glad I read it. Trapido has a flair for characterization and can definitely turn a phrase.
Countdown City Countdown City by Ben H. WintersAudiobook, 8 hrs and 18 mins, 2013 — I loved The Last Policeman and can’t recommend it enough, but for some reason it took me years to get around to reading the second book in the trilogy. In this sequel, Hank Palace is still stubbornly upright in the face of the continuing degeneration of the pre-apocalyptic world and still trying to solve crimes despite the consternation of everyone around him. I couldn’t help but root for him to make right some small part of his doomed universe. An end-times noir that is both tragically funny and absurdly sad.
Extreme Makeover Extreme Makeover by Dan WellsPaperback, 416 pages, 2016 — I’ve listened to the Writing Excuses podcast on and off for years, but this is the first Dan Wells book I’ve picked up and read, and holy shit is it a doozy. Let’s suppose that a cosmetics company accidentally invented an anti-aging crème that has the unintended side effect of overwriting your DNA with the DNA of the last person who touched the crème. Then let’s suppose that the executives at this company decide that DNA-rewriting crème could make them filthy rich, and imagine the worst possible things that could happen as a result of their greed. And then keep reading, because Wells runs through every possible horrible outcome, one after another, with a kind of insane glee. The result is both darkly hilarious and terrifying.
The Flintstones, Vol 1 The Flintstones, Vol 1 by Mark Russell and Steve PughDigital, 170 pages, 2017 — Someone had the genius idea to write a Flintstones comic that takes the characters seriously within the framework of a dark-but-funny social satire, and it works better than it has any right to do. Fred suffers from PTSD after his war service, household objects have existential crises, and consumerism is a newly invented scourge. The art is also fantastic, and it’s amazing seeing the characters drawn in a more realistic style.
The Goldfinch The Goldfinch by Donna TarttAudiobook/Digital, 32 hrs and 29 mins, 2013 — What if Harry Potter was an accidental art thief who never recovered from the trauma of his mother’s death? The protagonist of The Goldfinch goes to live with his shit-head father in the wastelands of suburban Las Vegas and finds himself lost among scam artists and gangsters. The lingering effects of drug use and dissipation from that time haunt him well into his adult years, along with the guilt and paranoia from stealing a priceless artwork. The Goldfinch is a sprawling, tragic, hilarious coming-of-age tale that ends with a white-knuckle heist. I loved the characters, and I loved every minute I spent with them. Although I mostly listened to this one in audio, I did jump back and forth between the Kindle and audio versions so that I could keep reading even when I didn’t have the time to listen. This combination of audiobook and e-book is definitely the best way to read a massive book.
It IT by Stephen KingAudiobook, 44 hrs and 57 mins, 2016 (first published 1986) — IT is another book I decided to read after watching an excellent adaptation. In this case, it was the 2017 movie version, which covers about half of the story, give or take. King is one of those authors that I read voraciously back in high school, but I haven’t kept up with the habit in recent years. IT was worth reading, though. The book has an imposing length, but every page adds up to an indisputable masterpiece. King is writing at the top of his form here, and it’s obvious he knows it. One of the most skillful scenes occurs early in the book, and involves a shift in perspective from one character to another when the power balance changes. I listened to the audiobook version, read by Steven Weber, and it was a pitch-perfect reading. Those 45 hours sped by in a flash, although I did read the last few chapters on Kindle because I was so caught up in it.
The Magician's Land The Magician’s Land by Lev GrossmanAudiobook, 16 hrs and 27 mins, 2014 — The Magicians was a great but flawed book; The Magician King built on that foundation to create something stunning, and this, the last book in the trilogy, brings it all home in excellent form. Quentin does what he can to learn and grow, even if everything he does still doesn’t work out. The Magician’s Land is about coming to terms with adulthood and reality, even if that reality still offers the ability to cast world-changing spells. I loved spending time with these characters and in this world, and the only reason I took so long to read this book is because I wanted to savor it.
The Portable Veblen The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenziePaperback, 448 pages, 2016 — I will be the first to admit that I picked up this book because it has a squirrel on the cover. That drew me in, but the synopsis sold me. Veblen and Paul are a young engaged couple. Veblen spends her free time as an amateur translator of Norwegian texts and Paul is an engineer working on a medical hole-punch for combat-ready craniotomies. They might be in love, but they’ll have to deal with Veblen’s neurotic mother, Paul’s ethically challenging work and Veblen’s obsession with a squirrel that she thinks she is falling in love with. It’s light, it’s funny, and it’s just a little weird.
Spoonbenders Spoonbenders by Daryl GregoryAudiobook, 14 hrs and 2 mins, 2017 — A multi-generational story about the family of a con artist, Teddy, and a psychic, Maureen, who fell in love. When they were young, The Amazing Telemachus Family travelled the talk show circuit to show off their amazing feats, but after a skeptic debunked them on live TV and Maureen died of cancer, the family never recovered. Imagine a family dramedy crossed with con artists and supernatural abilities, and you’ll get the basic idea of this hilarious, wonderful book. As soon as I finished reading it, I wanted a sequel and a TV adaptation. I loved the hell out of the book, which surprised me since I thought Harrison Squared, one of his earlier novels, was a bit disappointing.
Sword of Destiny Sword of Destiny by Andrzej SapkowskiAudiobook, 12 hrs and 47 mins, 2015 — I’ve played bits and pieces of The Witcher games, but I’ve never finished one. Even still, I played just enough for the world and the characters to intrigue me, so I decided to pick up some of the original books that inspired the games. The series starts off with two short story collections before getting into the meat of the “saga” that inspired the games. The first collection, The Last Wish, consists mostly of fairytale retellings, but this, the second collection, is where the world of The Witcher starts getting deeper and more interesting. Characters that will become significant later are first introduced here, and we begin to understand more about what drives Geralt. I definitely enjoyed reading this collection, and the audiobook version is especially good. It’s narrated by Peter Kenny, who also reads most of the Iain M. Banks Culture novels.
Version Control Version Control by Dexter PalmerAudiobook, 18 hrs and 52 mins, 2016 — This one was a slow burn, but that was also true about The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Palmer’s début. At first, Version Control feels like a near-future family drama about grief and marital intimacy, but as you keep reading, you start getting hints about something far deeper and stranger going on. This book does take a bit of patience, but that patience is more than rewarded by the end. It helps that the characters are sharply drawn, and they live in a chilling, believable semi-dystopia with just an edge of satirical social commentary.
The Vision, Vol 2 The Vision, Volume 2: Little Better than a Beast by Tom KingDigital, 136 pages, 2016 — Holy shit, The Vision is so good. Amid all the endless reboots and event series (which I have done my best to ignore), Marvel has still managed to produce some groundbreaking comics over the past few years. Volume 1 was on my list for 2016, and Volume 2 more than delivers on that promise. The entire series is a perfect stand-alone story arc even if you don’t know much about the greater Marvel universe. It’s also incredibly brutal, bleak and thought-provoking.
Wisp of a Thing Wisp of a Thing by Alex BledsoeAudiobook, 9 hrs and 14 mins, 2013 — I love the feel of this series about magic and the secret power of music made by country folk living in the Appalachian region. So far, every book in this series is essentially standalone, although there are recurring characters throughout. I think the best way to describe the Tufa books are as grounded fairy stories told through the lens of magical realism. It helps that Bledsoe is a talented, evocative writer, and the audiobook versions have one of the best narrators in the business thanks to Stefan Rudnicki.
The Woman Who Died a Lot The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper FfordeAudiobook, 10 hrs and 58 mins, 2012 — I’d forgotten how much I loved and missed this series until I finally listened to this, the most recent Thursday Next novel. Fforde fills these books to the brim with weirdness and satire. Most authors would stop after setting up a main character who travels inside novels to solve crimes, but he throws in lifelike humanoid doubles, genetically engineered dodos, time travel, contraband cheeses, authoritarian mega-corporations and much, much more. The sixth book, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, was a bit of an unfortunate misstep, but The Woman Who Died a Lot puts the series back on track. That said, it came out in 2012, and I’m starting to wonder if Fforde will ever return to the series. It doesn’t help that the end of this book definitely sets up a potential sequel. I may just have to re-read these books from the beginning, especially since I finally read Jane Eyre and might understand those references this time around.

My Favorite Reads of 2016

I love reading Best Of the Year lists even if I don’t always agree with what they’ve picked. After all, a really great list might introduce me to some awesome book, album or movie that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. Even a list full of willfully contrarian selections has some entertainment value. The worst thing a year-end list can do is be boring and predictable.

Of course, reading dozens of year-end lists is completely different from sitting down and trying to write your own. Writing an objectively comprehensive list requires an exhaustive knowledge of your chosen field of pop culture. That level of knowledge isn’t really possible unless you’re an obsessive or write for a living, and even then there’s only so much time in the day.

In my case, it doesn’t help that I’m rarely current on pop culture. My library of unread books is so deep at this point that I’ll never catch up unless I invent a way to freeze time and/or live forever.

That means it makes more sense for me to write about the books that I loved reading in 2016 rather than focusing on ones released this year. Of course, it turns out that a lot of my favorite reads were actually recent releases.

All the Birds in the Sky All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. Anders, the former editor of io9, made her debut as a novelist with this strange, far-reaching story about the complicated romance between an inventor and a witch. Touching, hilarious and weird. By the end of this book, I just wanted those two crazy kids to survive the apocalypse and work things out.
Bone Gap Bone Gap by Laura Ruby. Bone Gap is lyrically beautiful and full of just the right hints of gothic atmosphere and menace. A teenaged boy living in a small town deals with the aftermath of a beloved young woman’s mysterious disappearance, only to discover that something far stranger may have happened.
Crime and Punishment Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This is one of those classics that everyone says you should read, so I decided to finally take a crack at it this year and listened to the audiobook. Turns out I really loved the story, and especially enjoyed the ever-ratcheting tension as the main character tries to live with his terrible actions.
Glow Glow by Ned Beauman. I enjoyed the hell out of Beauman’s earlier novel, The Teleportation Accident, but the two books have very different tones. Glow is a paranoid conspiracy thriller populated with druggies and people living at the fringes of society. The occasional surrealist touches paired with the relaxed pace and laugh-out-loud humor made for a highly entertaining read.
The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. This one came out of nowhere and grabbed me by the throat. It’s dark, hilarious, and full of wild narrative misdirection. It requires a little patience in the early chapters, but pays huge dividends if you stick around for the ride. I want to walk up to people on the street and insist that they read this unsung bizarro masterpiece.
Paper Girls, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Curtis and Matt Wilson. Paper Girls hits the same sweet spot of surrealism, horror and nostalgia that Stranger Things exploited so masterfully, but even in this first volume, it seems clear that BKV and friends are shooting for something much more subversive. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on by the end of the first volume, but I was definitely hooked.
Rachel Rising Rachel Rising, Volume 1 & 2 by Terry Moore. I bought the complete Rachel Rising in a sale on Comixology, and I’m definitely glad that I did. Terry Moore’s story of a small-town girl who is mysteriously resurrected after being murdered starts off small and then slowly builds to something horrifying and apocalyptic. I’ve only read the first two volumes, but I love the gothic tone and Moore’s way with dialogue and characterization.
Stiletto Stiletto by Daniel O’Malley. O’Malley’s first book in this series, The Rook, reads like The Bourne Identity by way of Terry Pratchett, and I loved it. Stiletto manages to live up to that initial greatness even though it changes much of the formula; instead of focusing on the misadventures of amnesiac Myfawnwy Thomas, O’Malley introduces two new characters and turns it into an ensemble piece. It took a little while before I warmed up to these changes, but I ended up loving the book overall.
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. This book is billed as a short story collection, but it’s really a stealthy patchwork novel about loosely connected characters living in and around Chechnya. Each story shifts styles and perspectives, slowly building into a whole that is laugh-out-loud funny and full of sharply drawn characters who are simultaneously comical, ruthless, tragic and sympathetic.
The Unnoticeables The Unnoticeables by Robert Brockway. I literally picked up this book on a whim and read it because of its awesome cover design and blurb. Luckily, those didn’t steer me wrong. The Unnoticeables is gruesome, funny, and occasionally flat-out terrifying. It’s both a Hollywood satire and an apocalyptically nostalgic tale about crust-punks in 1970s New York City. As soon as I finished it, I bought the second book.
The Vision, Volume 1 The Vision, Volume 1 by Tom King, Jordie Bellaire and Gabriel Hernandez Walta. Marvel is doing some of its best work with second-tier characters like Hawkeye, Howard the Duck and now The Vision. In this series, The Vision builds a family for himself and tries to live a “normal life” in suburbia. Things go tragically, horribly wrong almost immediately, and the book traces The Vision’s slow but inevitable downfall while discussing heady topics like existential questions about the true nature of humanity.
Vox Vox by Nicholson Baker. Vox has a simple (now quaint) conceit: a wide-ranging phone conversation between two people on a phone sex line. Although their conversation does occasionally get steamy, the book is more about the real human connection between two strangers who are nothing but voices on a line. By the end of the book, both characters feel incredibly sharply drawn thanks to the glimpses Baker gives us into their innermost private thoughts.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. A family saga with a twist, 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.

Millennials Love “Real Books” and Other Generalizations

millennials love books

Over at Mashable, MJ Franklin declares that he is “a millennial, and (he) will never give up reading real books“. If you were wondering, he defines “real books” as the paper-and-glue sort, not those filthy ones-and-zeroes people keep locked up in their e-readers. Audiobooks don’t even enter the discussion, so his post is already inadequate as far as I’m concerned.

At the heart of Franklin’s thesis is a study of “300 university students in the U.S., Japan, Germany, and Slovakia” that reveals how millennials, the internet’s favorite generation, say that they prefer physical books to digital ones by an overwhelming margin. The study focused on the students’ medium of choice for textbooks, but Franklin repurposes the statistic as a generalization about the state of books, and not for the first time.

I’m technically a millennial, although I’m at the top of the cut-off, so I exist in that uncomfortable middle-ground where I’m old enough to side-eye the newest whine/rant but young enough to get lumped in with bullshit trends. Even still, from an anecdotal perspective, I feel like I’ve definitely seen evidence of this particular trend in my life. My parents love their e-readers, but many of my peers seem to prefer physical books. Also, I won’t deny that I love physical books. Anyone who has seen my apartment knows that for a fact.

When Franklin says that he recently bought a new shelf to house his “to-read” collection, I had to laugh, because I have five bookcases full to overflowing with “to-read” books. I keep buying physical books even though I ran out of space years ago. I don’t think the demand for hardcovers and paperbacks will go away any time soon.

It’s fair to say that I agree with some of the sentiment behind Franklin’s post, but I don’t agree with his conclusions. He portrays the choice between physical books and ebooks as a pitched battle, as if only one format can survive and Your Loyalty Will be Tested. It’s a strangely petulant and exclusionary stance.

It doesn’t help that I’ve never been able to relate to people who like to write in the margins of books. I shudder at the thought of ruining a book by writing in it, and I thoroughly hate it when I buy a used books only to discover writing in the margins. I’ll admit that Franklin’s love of marginalia didn’t really improve my opinion of him, but I suppose if that’s how he likes to read, who am I to stop him?

That’s really the main point, though, isn’t it? How does my enjoyment of audiobooks and ebooks interfere with Franklin’s appreciation for the printed page? The answer is that it doesn’t, not one bit. Every reading format has positives and negatives, and they can (and should) co-exist.

Audiobooks are great for times when I want to keep my brain occupied during a mindless or repetitive task like driving, exercising or washing the dishes. I love audiobooks, but I would never sit down on the couch and listen to one unless I was doing something else at the same time.

I definitely love physical books as objects, especially when they have a cool cover design. I also feel like reading the printed page  transports me into a world of my imagination like nothing else. Problem is, I hardly ever have the time to sit down and do nothing but read for more than half an hour or so. I can maybe squeeze in a chapter or two of reading during my lunch break, but I finish books faster if I listen to them during my commute.

Ebooks are by far the most convenient medium. I’ve read books on my iPhone while waiting for the subway, and my Kindle is crucial when I travel. I also love that I can put my Kindle or my iPhone in my pocket and carry hundreds of books with me wherever I go. The biggest downside, though, is that it is incredibly easy to forget about all of those ebooks I’ve impulse-purchased for $1.99 over the years. I never look at them, so they might as well not be there.

As I grow older and my life becomes fuller, I have to squeeze in reading for fun when I can. Focusing on the “realness” of a physical book over more practical considerations like storage space, free time and convenience is a luxury I can no longer afford. It’s the kind of lesson you can only learn by growing older and understanding how your priorities have changed.

I’ll probably never stop buying physical books because I have terrible impulse control, but that doesn’t mean I think they’re any better or worse than other mediums. I want books in every format so that I can read as much as possible.

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!

Romance By Any Other Name

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.

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.

Update, March 2016: As of Overcast 2.5, patrons can upload DRM-free audio files for their own personal use. When you upload a file, it goes directly to storage hosted by Marco Arment, the app’s creator, so you don’t have to do any further setup. I’m still using the home-grown podcast configuration I explain below, but if you want to skip all that, it’s as easy as becoming an Overcast patron.

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 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 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.

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.

Netflix for Books: Scribd vs Kindle Unlimited

Update, 10/5/2015: Scribd is terrible now.

People keep trying to make “Netflix for books” happen. It’s probably because someone out there thinks I don’t have enough to read. I was definitely skeptical about these services at first because I have always been perfectly happy getting too many books from my local library. However, once they started introducing options that included audiobooks and comic books, it wasn’t long before I gave a few of the all-you-can-read services a spin. Luckily, most of them offer a free trial month, so it was easy for me to get sucked in.

Kindle-Unlimited-Launched-for-iPhone-and-iPad-All-You-Can-Read-for-9-99-7-39-451298-2The first service I tried was Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s $9.99 a month offering. Unlimited offers both ebooks and audiobooks, and thanks to Amazon’s close integration of Kindle and Audible, you can take advantage of Whispersync and download some books in both formats. Unlimited offers a lot of flexibility because you can read ebooks on Kindles or in Kindle apps, and listen to audiobooks in either the Audible app (which is fantastic) or any of the Kindle apps or devices. One of the killer hidden features of Whispersync is that it works even if you check out a Kindle book from the library, and Audible discounts show up even if you’re just borrowing the e-book.

As far as the titles available on Unlimited, it’s best for independent books, Amazon exclusives and smaller publishers. I listened to the first two Wayward Pines books by Blake Crouch and then used the Audible discount for Whispersync titles to buy the first two Magic 2.0 books by Scott Meyer. I also read a Kindle single and a book on writing. If you want more mainstream books, Unlimited does offer a few good options like the Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games, but you won’t find most of the big new bestsellers on Unlimited. If you really enjoy independent genre fiction, Unlimited is probably a really good deal, but ultimately this selection wasn’t enough to keep me subscribed.

scribd-e-booksOnce I cancelled Unlimited, I decided to try Scribd, which costs $8.99 a month and works on iOS, Android, Kindle Fire and web browsers. Scribd was originally an online document publishing platform, but they announced a subscription book service a few years ago and that has completely taken over the site. Although I was first drawn to Scribd by their comic book library, I haven’t actually read a comic on there yet. Instead, I’ve mostly used it to listen to audiobooks. I was definitely impressed with their audio and e-book libraries when I first joined, but when Scribd announced a partnership with Penguin Random House Audio, their audio selection grew exponentially.

If you’re a fan of audiobooks like I am, Scribd is more than worth the monthly fee. I actually cancelled my Audible subscription a few months ago and haven’t really missed it. It helps that I already own plenty of books on Audible, but Scribd is actually a strong contender even when compared to Audible’s full library. So far I’ve listened to Lucky Alan by Jonathan Lethem, Get In Trouble by Kelly Link, The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore and In The Garden of Iden by Kage Baker. I’m also currently reading At The Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson. Some of those are brand-new books.

However, the Scribd app isn’t as polished as the Audible app. The default volume settings are way too quiet when I’m driving, for one thing. Although Scribd does offer some books in both e-book and audio formats, you can’t sync between the two automatically. Additionally, when you open a book, Scribd spends a long time syncing to their servers before the book actually opens. This happens even for books you’ve downloaded to your device. The e-book reading experience is at least as good as the Kindle app, but I’m not sure I’d ever choose it as my primary way to read e-books, just because I really prefer e-ink screens for text. That said, if they can beef up their comic book selection and work on improving the app, Scribd would be firing on all cylinders.

I’ll probably stick with my Scribd membership for the foreseeable future, although I may try other services if they seem like good options. I know that Oyster is fairly well-liked, but they’ve said they have no plans to expand into audiobooks, so that’s a deal-killer for me. No matter what, I’m sure I’ll buy and borrow books from every place I can get them. I can never have too many books, after all!

A Few of My Reading Statistics from 2014

Number of books I read last year: 53

2014 Reading Challenge2014 was the first year in a good long while where it felt like I might fall short of my reading goal. I’d originally challenged myself to read 75 books – I’ve easily read at least that many for the past few years – but it wasn’t long before I walked that back to 52.

Why the slowdown? I listened to a lot fewer audiobooks, for starters. I no longer have a job that is well-suited to audiobook listening, and I haven’t been going for walks like I used to. I also read during almost every lunch break at my old job, but I haven’t been doing that as consistently since getting my current job. All of these things combined to cut into the time I spent reading this year.

Number of graphic novels: 25

ComixologyI got back into graphic novels in a big way thanks to my regular use of the Comixology app on my iPad. It helped that comic books and graphic novels are usually quick reads and made it easier for me to work in some reading time without feeling like I was committing to yet another book I might not finish.

Number of audiobooks: 14

AudibleThis number is definitely low compared to previous years when my Audible membership was the primary way I did my reading. It didn’t help that two of the books I listened to took half the year to finish. Of course, they’re also the longest books I read all year.

Physical books vs. digital books: 16 to 37

4460748699_1eefa8dfb1_qGood thing I have so damn many unread physical books sitting on my shelves, right? A lot of the digital books I read were comics in Comixology, but the number also includes a few library books and all the review copies I received from Netgalley and finished during the year.

Books with female authors or artists: 13

LandlineSeveral of these include graphic novels written by a man but illustrated by a woman (Saga) or short story collections that include work by both men and women (Dangerous Women, Rip-Off!). I definitely need to do better on this count.

Longest books: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and Dangerous Women by various authors

The LuminariesThe Luminaries weighs in at a solid 848 pages in hardcover. I listened to the audiobook version, which lasts 29 hours and 14 minutes and took me from June to November to finish. Ultimately I wasn’t a huge fan of the book, but after a certain point I stuck with it out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

rp_51PmRdBcW-L-199x300.jpgDangerous Women is 784 pages in hardcover, but the audiobook version is 32 hours and 49 minutes long, possibly because the narrators read their stories at varying speeds. I listened to this collection from December 2013 through July 2014, and wrote a detailed review of my impressions once I finished.

Most favorite book: Lexicon by Max Barry

rp_51JJOXEz4-L-198x300.jpgI raved about Lexicon as soon as I finished it. I loved the premise and thoroughly enjoyed listening to the audiobook version. It’s especially interesting that I loved this book so much, considering the fact that my only previous exposure to Max Barry was Jennifer Government, which I thought was pretty terrible when I read it back in the day.

Least favorite book: Pretty Deadly, Volume 1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick

rp_pretty_deadly-194x300.jpgPretty Deadly was doubly disappointing because DeConnick is an author who gets a lot of raves for her work on Captain Marvel. I also wrote about Pretty Deadly here.