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. Valente – Valente 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!
Overcast 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:
Download an MP3 audiobook from places such as Downpour, SYNC or your local library’s Overdrive collection.
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.
Upload your audiobook into Podcast Generator’s media folder.
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.
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.
Once you’ve finished adding audiobooks, go to the main page of your Podcast Generator installation and click on the RSS Feed button. This should give you your feed url, which will look something like http://example.com/feed.xml. Open Overcast and use the “Add URL” option to subscribe to that link.
You can now stream or download audiobooks in Overcast to your heart’s content!
Published: June 16th 2015 Publisher: Crown Genre(s): Fantasy, Horror Format: Audiobook Length: 16 hrs and 47 mins
The Library at Mount Char is a fantastic book, but it’s almost impossible to summarize. Part of the problem is that a lot of the book hangs on misdirection. The main character knows a lot of things that she isn’t telling us, so we have to work with what little the author provides.
This means that to summarize the book past the first few chapters is to spoil some really great surprises. On the other hand, some of the bat-shit weirdness that occurs in later chapters is what made me truly, madly, deeply love this completely insane novel. It’s a bit of a quandary, because I want to recommend this book to everyone I know.
It doesn’t help that the book’s cover looks like the sort of thing you might find on a remaindered thriller in the bargain bin. The design doesn’t really grab you by the face and insist that you start reading the book RIGHT THIS INSTANT.
The basic summary is as follows: Carolyn and her adopted brothers and sisters are apprentice librarians in a massive, strange Library full of books that include all the knowledge in the world. When they were young, all of their parents died suddenly and a mysterious man they call “Father” adopted them. Father is viciously cruel, incredibly dangerous and infinitely powerful… but he’s gone missing and now none of them can get back into the Library. When they discover what actually happened to Father, it may change the fate of the entire universe as we know it.
Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix Published: September 23rd 2014 Publisher: Blackstone Audio / Quirk Books Genre(s): Horror, Satire Format: Audiobook Length: 6 hrs and 16 mins
Anyone who has ever shopped in an IKEA knows that it is the ideal setting for a horror story: a vast, maze-like structure filled with an infinite number of uniform objects designed to frustrate the sane mind. Not to mention all the screeching children jumping on mattresses in the bedding section.
In an ideal world, Horrorstör would deliver that perfect combination of surreal horror and retail satire. Unfortunately, although there are clever touches throughout, the book falls flat.
Amy works at Orsk, a US-based IKEA knockoff that is identical in everything but name. She’s disaffected, burnt out and sarcastic, mostly because she hasn’t lived up to any of her potential. When her straight-laced boss, Basil, asks her to stay after work to help him investigate some strange goings-on in the store, they discover something far more sinister than smelly goo in the furniture aisle.
For a book billed as a horror comedy, Horrorstör is relatively laugh-free. The satire of retail drudgery feels non-specific, and as soon as the supernatural elements come to the forefront, the rest of the story is humorless bordering on bleak. The only sustained joke are the fake product listings, but they’re only mildly clever.
The horror aspect of the book relies on well-worn tropes, and after a certain point it feels like the events could be happening in any enclosed space as opposed to specifically inside a big-box furniture store. Hendrix introduces the idea of the characters getting lost in Orsk’s seemingly endless showroom, but it’s quickly dropped in favor of more traditional supernatural horrors. I also thought it was a huge missed opportunity that none of the characters assemble an improvised weapon out of random kitchen-ware and furniture pieces.
The main character spends most of the novel avoiding responsibility, reacting to horrible events or giving up entirely. Following her was frustrating, and she only develops as a character very late in the story. The conclusion is open-ended enough that Hendrix could write a sequel, but it definitely feels like he saves all potential character development for another book.
Ultimately, Horrorstör is underdeveloped and forgettable. The book’s design was by far the best part of an otherwise disappointing package.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley, but I listened to an audiobook version from the library.
Published: February 10, 2015 Publisher: 47North / Brilliance Audio Genre(s): Fantasy, Comedy, Adventure Format: Audiobook Length: 11 hrs and 46 mins
Scott Meyer’s Magic 2.0 series is fantasy with a science-fiction hook: a computer hacker named Martin discovers an all-powerful file that lets him control reality, so he travels back to medieval times and pretends he is a wizard. This fails spectacularly when he meets all the other hackers who had the same idea.
An Unwelcome Quest is the third book in the series. The first two weren’t perfect by any means, but they were at least funny and light on their feet where this one quickly wears out its welcome. It’s a huge shame, because this series was exactly what I was looking for when I wanted to have a few laughs during my commute. One definite bright side is that Luke Daniels continues to bring his A-game as narrator. Also, I occasionally enjoyed the last quarter or so after gritting my teeth and slogging through the fairly dire middle.
I think the only reasons I made it through this installment in the series are because I wanted to know what happened to the characters and the fact that I received a review copy. Unfortunately, one of the first big changes in An Unwelcome Quest is that the events take place almost entirely in the magical world instead of jumping back and forth between modern times and the past. This means that treasury agents Murph and Miller don’t even appear during the story. Their presence is sorely missed. Meyer also splits up his cast of heroes into two groups, with Martin – the main character in the earlier books – relegated to a supporting role in an ensemble.
The book opens with Todd, a psychotic ex-wizard, escaping from prison. He kidnaps half of the characters and forces them to run through a badly designed RPG campaign. When Martin and the remaining wizards realize their friends are missing, they rush to the rescue and run through the same campaign in slightly different ways. Both sets of wizards bicker endlessly at every turn, and the effect is more sour than funny. It doesn’t help that Meyer includes constant explanations and recaps at every turn, in case you weren’t paying attention during the previous chapter. This repeats ad nauseam.
There is also a running joke that all the enemies in the game have the same basic attack pattern, which does nothing but undermine the already very low stakes. In fact, the villain explicitly tells the wizards that the obstacles they face will only annoy them without actually killing them until they reach the climax. That final sequence is basically the only part of the book where it feels like the characters are in even mild danger.
In the end, An Unwelcome Quest feels like an over-padded novella. There are entertaining moments here and there, and I did actually laugh out loud a few times. Unfortunately, getting to those good parts required slogging through a lot of tedium and redundancy. I might be willing to read another book in this series if Meyer somehow course-corrects, but it’ll take some pretty glowing reviews to convince me.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley. Of course, I ended up going ahead and buying the audiobook version because Luke Daniels is a fantastic narrator.
Published: February 3rd, 2015 Publisher: Random House Genre(s): Short Stories, Slipstream, Fantasy, Surreal Format: Audiobook Length: 9 hrs and 57 mins
Kelly Link has a knack for expertly juxtaposing weirdness with the mundane, and it’s basically catnip for my reading soul. Get in Trouble is no different.
However, one thing I noticed as I read is that only a handful of these stories are terrifying, which is a change from the norm. Link never really writes flat-out horror, but she has a way with chilling details and building suspense.
Although her talent for disturbing atmosphere does still come into play, Link spends most of her energy creating real, lived-in characters that leap off the page. In many ways, Get in Trouble finds her in transition; it’s still odd and unsettling, but it’s also some of her most accessible work.
The audiobook version, narrated by a full cast, features both familiar and new voices, some of whom are better than others. Tara Sands, who reads Secret Identity, is probably my favorite of the bunch. Ish Klein, who reads The New Boyfriend, has a high-pitched voice and staccato delivery that actually adds to the strangeness of the story. The only narrator I had some trouble with is Susan Duerden, whose odd cadence and breathy voice was very distracting at first.
“The Summer People” read by Grace Blewer
Fran and her (alcoholic, absentee) father are caretakers for vacation summer homes. Most of the time this just involves cleaning up after out-of-towners, but sometimes Fran has to deal with a different and far more dangerous type of summer people. This story starts out slowly, but Link steadily builds the danger and weirdness until delivering a punch of an ending. My only complaint is that the audiobook narrator completely ignores Fran’s accent.
“I Can See Right Through You” read by Kirby Heyborne
The Demonlover, aging star of a massively popular supernatural romance, reconnects with his former co-star/girlfriend as she films a TV segment about mysterious disappearances at a nudist colony. This story actually manages to humanize a celebrity couple who bear a very strong resemblance to Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. That said, the story opens with a prologue that feels completely disconnected from the main plot, and the ending is both sudden and unexpectedly surreal. I enjoyed the middle, but I’m still not quite sure what to think about the rest of this story.
“Secret Identity” read by Tara Sands
Told in the form of a confession and an apology, this story relates the adventures of a sixteen-year-old girl who travels to a New York hotel to meet a man more than twice her age under false pretenses. When she arrives, she discovers that the hotel is hosting two conventions: one for dentists, and another for superheroes. Much to her dismay, everyone assumes she is there to audition as a sidekick. Easily my favorite story in the entire collection; the main character is sympathetic and relatable even when she does terrible things. I also loved how Link plays with the idea of “secret identity” throughout.
“Valley of the Girls” read by Robbie Daymond
Decadent rich kids fight and fuck and build pyramids to house all of their worldly goods while lookalikes called “faces” make public appearances in their names. This story felt a bit overstuffed – too many disconnected ideas and not quite enough character development. Either “faces” or the Egyptian aspects of the story would have been enough to carry it, but both together are a bit too much. Ultimately Link doesn’t spend very much time exploring the concept of “faces”, so it just ends up confusing things.
“Origin Story” read by Rebecca Lowman
A small-town waitress spends the night with her former boyfriend, a now-famous superhero, at a dilapidated Wizard of Oz theme park. They have sex and talk about life, slowly but surely revealing shared histories and the intimacies of a long friendship. As they speak, we get glimpses of the strange world around them, full of mutants and people with superpowers. This story was a little willfully confusing at first, but once I got into the world, I definitely enjoyed it.
“The Lesson” read by Cassandra Campbell
Tan and Harper decide to attend a wedding held on an island despite the fact that their surrogate, Naomi, is in danger of delivering their baby prematurely. This is definitely the most realistic story Link has ever published, but there are still a few quirky touches and moments of strangeness. I liked this story, but I spent the latter half waiting for supernatural occurrences that never arrived.
“The New Boyfriend” read by Ish Klein
Immy and Ainslie are best friends, but Immy kind of hates Ainslie for getting everything she’s ever wanted and more. Especially her “boyfriends”, which are actually lifelike robots entirely devoted to their owner. When Ainslie receives a new boyfriend for her birthday, Immy’s jealousy overwhelms her, and she takes drastic measures. This was probably my second-favorite story in the collection. The narrator’s flat affect and unreliability paired well with the creepy concept of a “ghost boyfriend” who might be possessed by a real ghost.
“Two Houses” read by Susan Duerden
Astronauts on a long-haul spaceship – the House of Mystery – tell ghost stories during one night of their years-long trip to Alpha Centauri. This story was a mix of sci-fi and the supernatural, and although it builds to a particularly creepy moment at the end, it mostly relies on atmosphere and not plot or character.
“Light” read by Kirsten Potter
This story is so full of strange details that it’s nearly impossible to summarize properly. An alcoholic woman with two shadows works security at a company caring for “sleepers” – people found randomly lying asleep on the ground. She visits pocket universes, sleeps with the occasional wolf-man, and fights with her troublesome twin brother, who sprung forth from her extra shadow. Although I did enjoy this story, the strangeness was at such a high level that it was kind of overwhelming at times.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley… and then I listened to the audiobook version on Scribd instead. It was worth it!
Published: February 24th, 2015 Publisher: Random House Audio Genre(s): Short Stories, Literary Fiction, Magical Realism, Surrealism Format: Audiobook Length: 4 hrs and 22 mins
The only thing I remember about Jonathan Lethem’s first collection of short stories is that he really liked abrupt endings. Lucky Alan is no different. Sometimes the endings work, and sometimes the stories just feel unfinished. That’s probably why this collection has so many one-star ratings – people assume that Lethem is trying to palm off his fragments on an unsuspecting public, and they react with vehemence.
Thing is, I think the one-star critics are being overly harsh. Yes, a few of these stories are duds, but the good ones far outweigh the misses, and it’s possible that Lucky Alan is Lethem’s strongest collection (although I’d have to re-read his earlier work for a definitive verdict). It definitely made me want to pick up his most recent few novels, and I haven’t been as interested in his work since he starting writing in a more exclusively literary vein.
Although I definitely recommend listening to the audiobook version of this collection – the narrators are all pretty great, even Lethem himself – all the stories (but one) are available online from their original publications.
“Lucky Alan” read by Mark Deakins
Very much about New York and the people who live there. An actor and a theatre director strike up a casual friendship, and one day the director tells a story about his fraught relationship with a neighbor. Subtle but great. All about small details and the way people perceive each other and themselves.
“The King of Sentences” read by David Wain
A couple is so obsessed with an author they call “The King of Sentences” that they travel to his hometown and stalk him until he appears at the local post office. The object of their affection responds with distaste but it doesn’t faze them in the least. Heightened and satirical but still entertaining – I could almost picture this as a sketch on Portlandia.
“Traveler Home” read by Mark Deakins
A man known only as Traveler survives a blizzard along with his dog, only to find a baby under odd circumstances. Lethem uses a stilted, affected style here that I found distracting. This out of all the stories felt the most like it was the first part of something unfinished.
“Procedure in Plain Air” read by Amy Landecker
A road crew digs a hole in a sidewalk outside a coffee shop and puts a prisoner inside. The only witness feels responsible for the nameless, voiceless prisoner and decides to keep watch. I think I liked the oddness of the situation more than the story itself, which felt lacking in incident.
“Their Back Pages” read by Isaac Butler
Characters from classic newspaper comic strips crash-land on an island and slowly but surely devolve. This is probably the most stylistically ambitious of the stories in this collection, alternating between descriptions of comic panels and more traditional narrative scenes. At first I wasn’t sure what to think of this story, but once I caught on to what was happening, I really enjoyed it.
“The Porn Critic” read by Bruce Wagner
A man writes reviews of porn tapes for his job, but it ends up interfering with both his reputation and his personal life. This felt a bit reminiscent of a Woody Allen story in some ways, although far more realistic than most of Allen’s fiction. Both this and the title story are very stylistically similar, and both feel like they are specifically about New York City.
“The Empty Room” read by Michael Goldstrom
A man designates one room in his house as the “empty room”, explaining to his family that they aren’t allowed to leave anything in the room once they finish using it. Over time, he ends up basically living in that room, away from his family. This story had a nice undercurrent of surrealism that helped bring home its more allegorical aspects. Additionally, although the ending is sudden, it works really well for the material.
“The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear” read by Jonathan Lethem
This story has one joke, really: that if a blog is like a house, a banned commenter is the rotting corpse left resting on the threshold. Once the joke becomes obvious, Lethem just keeps hammering it home. This is the only story in the collection that I’d consider an absolute dud.
“Pending Vegan” read by Mark Deakins
A man who has stopped taking his antidepressants goes to SeaWorld with his family despite his looming sense of disaster. For whatever reason, this story wasn’t particularly memorable. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t really hold my attention, either. The main character’s anxiety and endless worrying didn’t really add up to much in the end.
Author: Edan Lepucki Published: July 8, 2014 Publisher: Little, Brown & Company Genre(s): Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic Format: Audiobook Length: 12 hrs and 26 mins
I wouldn’t normally post about a book that I didn’t finish reading, but considering the fact that I received not one but two free copies of California by Edan Lepucki – one from NetGalley, and one thanks to the Ford Audiobook Club on Goodreads – I feel as though I need to at least give my impressions of the five chapters I did manage to read.
California got a lot of buzz when it first came out. The author appeared on The Colbert Report, and Colbert gave it a ringing endorsement. Bestseller status was a foregone conclusion. On top of all that, I tend to enjoy stories that play with the boundaries of genre storytelling, so I was definitely interested in picking up California when it came out.
The basic premise of California focuses on a young couple, Cal and Frida, as they do their best to get by in the California countryside after American society collapses. When Frida discovers that she might be pregnant, the possibility throws everything about their lives into question.
As soon as we got a copy of the audiobook, my girlfriend and I decided to listen to it during a weekend trip. We enjoyed it well enough, but after that trip I rarely found myself in the mood to keep listening. I eked out another hour or two over the next few months, but my interest in the book quickly waned and I finally decided to give up once I realized how long it had taken to read a measly five chapters.
What I will say about the book is that the author’s portrayal of a doomed fear-future Los Angeles hits close to home. It doesn’t seem that far out of the realm of possibility now that I’ve lived in LA for more than a year. I was also slightly drawn to the book’s flashback scenes, which show how life in Los Angeles changed before Cal and Frida left for good.
The problem with California is that it seemed like the most interesting story was happening in the past, and only by proxy. Most of the book’s present-day storyline focused on Cal and Frida worrying about the minutiae of getting by in the wilderness, which quickly wore out its welcome.
Although there were hints of a bit more forward motion coming soon, I just couldn’t work up enough interest to keep listening. Additionally, so much time had passed since I’d started the book that it felt like I was just trying to force it by continuing to read.
Maybe I’ll give California another shot some day, but it doesn’t seem likely. I’ve got several hundred other books in my queue, and they’re calling my name.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley as well as a promotional copy from the Ford Audiobook Club on Goodreads.
Edited by: George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois Published: December 3rd, 2013 Publisher: Random House Audio Genre(s): Fantasy, Science Fiction, Crime, Historical Format: Audiobook Length: 32 hrs and 49 mins
Dangerous Women is one of George R.R. Martin’s many side projects. The pedigree of contributors is excellent, but the quality varies, sometimes wildly. Of course, that’s true about most short story collections, even those largely considered masterpieces of the form.
The nice thing about Dangerous Women is that a large percentage of the stories are worth reading and most tie in to the overall theme fairly well. On that level, the collection is a success. It’s also an excellent collection to pick up in audio because the talent on offer is both varied and impressive. Actors like Sophie Turner, Iain Glen, Claudia Black and Jonathan Frakes all narrate, as do audio mainstays like Scott Brick.
One thing to keep in mind is that a few of the stories tie in to existing series and may constitute spoilers if you aren’t caught up. The Jim Butcher story takes place late in the Dresden Files series, and Lev Grossman’s story is a direct prequel to the upcoming third novel in his Magicians trilogy. I wasn’t necessarily current on all the related works, but for the most part I was able to enjoy the tie-in stories on their own merits.
Dangerous Women also isn’t a strictly SF&F anthology, including several crime, historical and literary stories in the mix. Some of those stories are the best parts of the collection, but if you are particularly stringent about your genre tastes, you may come away disappointed at the balance between SF&F and other genres.
As for the individual stories, capsule reviews follow after the jump.