The Name of the Game: Cryptofauna by Patrick Canning

CryptofaunaCryptofauna by Patrick Canning

Published: January 23, 2019
Publisher: Patrick Canning
Genre(s): Humor, Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 9 hrs and 17 mins

Cryptofauna is an entertaining book that runs on pure momentum. The sheer volume of absurdity paired with the author’s constant digressions and convoluted wordplay keeps things humming along while the mysterious nature of the game at the center of the book keeps you hooked until the end.

Reading this felt like strapping myself to a narrative rocket with no time to stop and think about the whys and hows of it all. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think it could get a bit exhausting if the book was too much longer.

Cryptofauna is about a suicidal janitor named Jim, stopped from killing himself and recruited into the titular game by a mysterious older gentleman named Ozymandias (Oz for short) who lives in the mental institution slash retirement home where Jim works.

Oz doesn’t explain much to Jim before setting him off on a series of three tasks – his initiation as an “operator” in Cryptofauna. Jim meets a lot of colorful characters and ends up in a series of bizarre or distressing situations that always feel playfully absurd even when they are also deadly serious, and the book carries us along his journey.

Cryptofauna the game is never explained in much detail. We get the broad strokes, i.e. that it involves sets of operators battling each other over the course of their artificially extended lives to either improve or undermine the state of the world. The actual details of what that means in practice are vague, probably because it’s funnier that way. I have mixed feelings about this if only because the whole thing feels a bit hand-wavy; the silliness and humor are clearly the point, so the rules don’t matter.

Also, the book spends most of its length focused on Jim completing the seemingly random tasks that serve as his initiation. His assigned rival doesn’t play by the rules, so we don’t get to spend much time with Jim as a practicing operator. Jim’s tasks sort of make sense in a macro way while also feeling arbitrary for the sake of comedy.

There is a scene late in the book where Jim and his allies destroy a sinister boarding school, but instead of dramatizing the action, Canning summarizes it in a few non-specific sentences and explains that it was a battle for the ages. Again, this is presumably meant to be a joke, but it felt more like a placeholder.

I did enjoy this book, and I’d probably be up for reading another by Canning, but I think I would enjoy it more if it balanced humor with a slightly more grounded narrative.

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

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More Than Wordsmiths: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside cover detail

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Published: August 21st, 2018
Publisher: Random House Audio
Genre(s): Fantasy, Heist, Adventure
Format: Audiobook
Length: 19 hrs and 34 mins

Golems from Jewish folklore have always fascinated me, with their heads full of instructions written on a life-giving scroll. A golem is both the creation myth in miniature and a way to codify magic, a sort of early computer programming where the processors are clay giants. It’s strangely comforting to imagine that human beings could control the world in such a fashion, while also terrifying to imagine the many ways it could go wrong.

In Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett takes some of those basic elements and introduces a world where craftsmen use the art of scriving to write a reality-controlling language on inanimate objects and give them a form of consciousness; everything in creation is nothing more than a golem waiting for its instructions. Then, he imagines all of the ways that this power could and would go sickeningly, catastrophically, heartbreakingly wrong.

Sancia is a thief, and a damn good one, all thanks to her ability to touch any object and understand how it works. When she touches an object, understands everything about it, which comes in handy when she needs to pick a lock or avoid a trap, but makes it hard to focus when she has to tune out her own clothes.

When the book opens, Sancia is about to start a seemingly mundane job for a mysterious client: steal a small wooden box from the waterfront and deliver it unopened, no questions asked. As you might imagine, the heist goes catastrophically wrong, and Sancia decides she needs to know what she went to all that trouble to get.

Inside the box, she discovers a bizarre scrived key that can open any lock and that also happens to speak in a snarky voice that she can hear in her head. Sancia quickly realizes that she is in deep shit with any number of people who want to kill her, and she sets about trying to find a way to survive.

This wouldn’t be a book about a thief if there wasn’t eventually a bigger, more dangerous heist in the cards. As Sancia comes to understand the true stakes of her situation, she slowly but surely builds out a crew of friends and allies while Jackson Bennett unpacks her history and reveals the horrors of her former life.

Meticulous worldbuilding always feels like the “fun” of an epic fantasy novels, the part of the book that the author obsessed over, sometimes to the detriment of the story. Jackson Bennett’s worldbuilding is fun, but scriving is also the rotten core at the heart of Foundryside.

Sancia’s world and its wonders exist only because of atrocities that seem like ancient history but that happened not so long ago. The worst part is the revelation that the modern-day scrivers only understand a tiny fraction of the language of their ancestors, and all the power will go to the first scriver who puts enough pieces of the language together to remake the world in their image.

Foundryside is the first of Jackson Bennett’s novels that I’ve read. I had heard endless praise for his Divine Cities trilogy, and I’m sure I’ll read it before too much longer, but for whatever reason, I was more drawn to Foundryside’s fascinating premise and high-stakes magical heists. Highly recommended.

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

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A Detailed Mirage: Fata Morgana by Steven R. Boyett and Ken Mitchroney

Fata Morgana by Steven R. Boyett and Ken Mitchroney

Published: June 13, 2017
Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Genre(s): Adventure, War, Science Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Length: 12 hrs and 9 mins

I think what drew me to Fata Morgana was the promise of an old-fashioned adventure with a bit of romance: a WW2 bomber plane flies through a portal to another world and the crew has to learn how to deal with extreme culture shock while their captain falls in love with a mysterious woman. However, I wasn’t expecting that it would also include an obsessive attention to detail about the intricacies of flying and crewing a bomber.

Fata Morgana does deliver on that initial promise of adventure, but I have to admit that it required a bit of patience on my part to get invested in the story. I don’t generally enjoy it when an author has clearly gone out of their way to get every little detail right and wants to make for damn sure that you know about it. If you want to read an exhaustive catalog of the US Army Air Force bomber crew experience during WW2, you’ll probably love this book, but if you aren’t into that level of minutiae, you might have to give it some room to grow on you.

It doesn’t help that the characters are all fairly one-dimensional archetypes and they never rise above their first impressions. They wisecrack, they make earnest speeches, they sacrifice for the good of the crew, they’re generally stand-up guys. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, per se, because the story well-executed and there isn’t a false note throughout, but I can barely remember any of their names.

There is one interesting sequence late in the book where reality comes unstuck and things get a little surreal, but it goes on for long enough that it started feeling repetitive. The best parts of the book are when the crew has to do their job and fight back against their enemies, be they Nazis or otherwise. These sequences are thrilling and evocative, and are part of what brought the book home for me. There are a few action sequences full of heart-pounding moments and thrills, especially late in the book.

I did like Fata Morgana, but it feels like this review landed a bit more on the negative side than I intended. I think this a book for a certain type of reader laser-focused on verisimilitude, even in their science fiction. I don’t generally fall into that category, but I can still appreciate a story well-told.

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The Self-Made Detective: IQ by Joe Ide

IQ by Joe Ide

Published: October 18, 2016
Publisher: Hachette Audio
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller, Mystery
Format: Audiobook
Length: 9 hours and 8 minutes

Joe Ide’s debut novel, IQ, won’t revolutionize the detective genre, but it does tell an entertaining story about well-drawn and complex characters. It wasn’t the most exciting crime novel I’ve ever read, but I’d be happy to follow the future exploits of Isaiah Quintabe wherever they lead.

Isaiah – IQ for short – is a smart, talented guy whose life changed tragically when a hit-and-run driver killed his brother, Marcus, right in front of his eyes. Before his brother’s death, Isaiah might have gone on to college and great things, but that all fell apart in an instant.

After the accident, Isaiah withdrew into himself, living alone in the apartment he’d once shared with his brother and hoping that social services wouldn’t come for him. When his money ran out and it reached the point that he might lose the apartment, he offered a room for rent to a kid named Dodson in a moment of desperation. Their uneasy friendship would soon have wide-reaching affects on both of their lives.

IQ jumps back and forth between 2005, when Isaiah and Dodson take up a life of crime that escalates with deadly results, and 2013, when Dodson brings Isaiah a case to solve the attempted murder of a dissolute rapper by a hitman with an enormous pit bull.

The best parts of IQ are the characters and the world they live in. Isaiah and Dodson are friends first by necessity, but as they try to solve a case together as adults, it becomes clear that their friendship runs deeper than their youthful robbery spree.

The actual case feels a bit low-stakes because the potential victim is an asshole burnout rapper doing his best to alienate everyone he knows. It’s hard to have much sympathy for a millionaire too doped out of his mind to think straight. That said, the villain is definitely creepy, and the unique detail of having him breed and train pit bulls is off-kilter in a particularly LA way.

Isaiah is a bit of a DIY detective, almost entirely self-taught after he dropped out of high school. When he solves a mystery, it doesn’t feel like another example of the Smartest Guy in the Room throwing his weight around. Instead, he uses inductive reasoning and makes his best guesses at likely outcomes, not always with perfect results.

IQ is a quick, entertaining read, and the audiobook has an excellent narrator. I enjoyed the book, and I’ll probably pick up the sequel, but it isn’t at the top of my list.

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

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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 NetGalley, 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 NetGalley, 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 NetGalley, 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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