Crucial Listens: The Best Audiobook Experiences

I’ve had an Audible membership for a few years now, and although I’d enjoyed audiobooks before I started my membership, it wasn’t until I started listening regularly and widely to audiobooks that I began to understand how much difference a great audio production can make when it comes to reading. I’d argue that some books only truly come alive when you hear them read aloud; humor comes across more clearly, characters become more vivid, and good books transform into great ones.

The Blade Itself audiobook, read by Steven PaceyThe First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, read by Steven Pacey

The Blade Itself was one of the first books I picked up with a credit, and Steven Pacey’s performance blew me away. Like many epic fantasy series, The First Law has a huge cast of characters, and Pacey accomplishes the rare feat of giving each character a unique voice and accent that makes them immediately stand out. After a certain point, Abercrombie could have forgone character identification and I would always have known which character was speaking. It also helps that the series is bloody, subversive and thoroughly entertaining.

Redshirts audiobook, read by Wil WheatonRedshirts by John Scalzi, read by Wil Wheaton

If you’re going to tell a metafictional story about a starship crew that realizes they’re actually characters on a terrible sci-fi TV show, you really can’t pick anyone else to read it but Wil Wheaton. Luckily Wheaton isn’t just a former sci-fi TV star, he’s also an excellent narrator with a flair for reading comic novels like this and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Wheaton doesn’t do too much with character voices, but he understands the emotional core of this and other books I’ve heard him read, and I’d easily pick up any new book read by him on that criteria alone.

Bandits audiobook, read by Frank MullerBandits by Elmore Leonard, read by Frank Muller

I picked Bandits because it’s one of my favorite books by Leonard, but really anything read by Muller is worth picking up. He’s the perfect narrator for Leonard’s casts of characters on both sides of the law (but usually the wrong one). Muller growls and drawls with the best of them, giving Leonard’s minimalist prose the exact right amounts of menace and wry humor. I recently went on a Leonard listening spree, and Muller immediately became one of my favorite narrators.

Middlemarch audiobook, read by Kate ReadingMiddlemarch by George Elliot, read by Kate Reading

Middlemarch is a massive tome about life in a small British town at the turn of the century. One of the main characters, Dorothea, is a pious woman who enters into a loveless marriage with a shriveled old academic named Casaubon. It might seem intimidating and potentially dry, but it’s actually gently satirical, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny and wonderfully emotional. I feel like Reading’s arch delivery went a long way in aiding my comprehension and enjoyment of the book. Some of my favorite parts are her readings of Casaubon’s meandering writings. Until I listened to this audiobook, I would never have imagined that Middlemarch would become one of my all-time favorite books, but as soon as I finished, I wanted to listen to more classics.

Skippy Dies audiobook, read by a full castSkippy Dies by Paul Murray, read by a full cast

Most audiobooks have one or maybe two narrators, but Skippy Dies boasts almost a dozen men and women who play students, teachers and administrators at an Irish private school. The book is sprawling, and the huge cast of characters is well-served by the tag-team narration style. I couldn’t imagine reading this hilarious, sad story any other way.

The Night Circus audiobook, read by Jim DaleAnything read by Jim Dale

Best known for narrating the Harry Potter books and Pushing Daisies, Dale brings an impeccably British whimsy to everything he narrates. When I started my Harry Potter re-read, I decided to pick up the audio versions just so I could enjoy his narration. Dale’s narration is a perfect fit for anything with a bit of magic and humor in the mix.

On Progress Bars and Persistence


I recently bought a Kindle Paperwhite after years of saying I probably wouldn’t replace my Kindle until it broke. The old one still works just fine, but I found myself with a sizable gift card balance burning a hole in my digital pocket thanks to a bonus from work, so I gave in to gadget lust and upgraded.

So far I love it. It appears Amazon has fixed the previous generation’s issues with backlighting, and I have to say that the reading light is indispensable. The contrast is so much better, and the page turns feel more responsive. I thought I’d miss the hardware page-turn buttons, but I’ve gotten used to swiping and/or tapping in no time at all. My favorite feature, though, is displaying your progress as the estimated time left in the chapter or the entire book.

As I’ve mentioned several times before, I’ve been ever-so-slowly reading Anna Karenina since late last year. Most of that time I only read a chapter or two when I picked it up, and generally felt like I wasn’t making any progress because the overall percent read never changed, and the version I have doesn’t support page numbers. The “location” numbers are essentially meaningless, so it was always pretty easy to get disheartened after reading for what felt like a long time.

However, I’ve managed to make a huge amount of progress in the last few days, and I would definitely chalk it up to the estimated time remaining feature. I’ve got it set to display the estimated time left in the book, and for whatever reason just seeing a reassuringly small amount of time remaining – around five and a half hours as of this writing – is all I need to keep pushing through and making progress.

It doesn’t matter whether the number is entirely accurate; I’m sure the Paperwhite is still getting used to my reading speed, although it was pretty close when I read most of Fangirl in one marathon session. All that really matters is that I can see myself making progress in a measure that makes sense to me. I think that measure of tangible progress is one thing I miss the most when I read a digital book. There’s nothing quite like holding the weight of a thousand pages in your left hand as you finally wrap up the tail end of a book in your right. For whatever reason, measuring my progress in time comes closer to that sensation than measuring progress with a percentage.

When is it time to give up on finishing a book?

pages fluttering

People who read for fun (or read at all) each have their own individual way of dealing with a book they can’t quite manage to finish. Some folks stubbornly insist on finishing every book they start, even if it’s a grueling death march towards an unsatisfying end. It’s possible I am biased against this methodology, because I tend to give up on books after a chapter or two if I’m not getting into them.

The problem is that there are occasionally books that I really want to finish for some reason, but I never want to have to force myself to read something. I feel like that’s against my personal reading for fun beliefs system, a religion I founded and observe by regularly updating my progress on Goodreads.

So, a quandary: what happens when I come across a book that I’d really like to finish, that I might even enjoy in short bursts, but that I just don’t find myself picking up to read? What if I manage to read a huge chunk of the book – more than the maximum fifty pages I give most books – but it’s still not clicking for me?

I try not to drop books when I’ve made it too far into them, but it has happened before. I made it 100 pages into Dan Wells’ Partials and just could not bring myself to care about what was happening. I’m pretty sure I read a good chunk of Cinder by Marissa Meyer before I gave it up as a lost cause.

The only books I’m more likely to force myself to finish are review copies, because someone was nice enough to give me a free book and I should repay the favor. Even still, if a review copy isn’t a quick read and I already know I don’t like it after a chapter or two, it’s probably best that I go ahead and skip writing about how much I hated it.

I’ve been known to put down books and try again later when I’m in the right mood. This happened three times with White Noise, which I eventually finished out of sheer stubbornness. Sometimes I’ll stop reading a book in print and try again later as an audiobook. This worked with Heist Society, which didn’t grab me when I first tried to read it but came alive thanks to an excellent narrator.

Right now, though, the book I’m thinking about most is Anna Karenina. I started reading that sucker in December of 2012, and somehow it’s nine months later and I’m only halfway through. I feel like I’ve invested way too much time in the book to give up on finishing it, but it’s also just taking so damn long to read! I keep imagining I’ll sit down for a marathon reading session and make some good progress, but every time I try, I make maybe 1% of progress and wander off to do something else. I’d like to finish the book before I die of old age, if possible.

Will I ever finish Anna Karenina? I think at this point I may have to throw myself a little party if I make it to the last page.

What I’m Reading Right Now

ReadingMy life has been in a bit of upheaval recently, and it’s definitely impacted my reading habits. First off, I moved from Austin to Los Angeles at the end of June. The months leading up to the move were pretty stressful as I obsessed over every little detail and generally drove myself crazy. I did fit in some reading during that time, but it mostly consisted of listening to audiobooks.

Now that I’m more settled here in LA, it feels like I haven’t been reading as much as I used to. The nature of my work has changed such that I don’t end up listening to as many audiobooks while I’m working. I haven’t been going for walks like I used to in my neighborhood back in Austin (but I was already bad about that before I moved), and when it comes to the printed word, I’ve been working on several books for a pretty long time.

Anna Karenina is the worst offender by far. I started that in December of 2012 and only pick it up to read about once a month. I’m maybe 400 pages into that 1000+ page tome, and I’d still like to finish it if I can. I don’t normally read that far into a book without finishing it. I’m also still “reading” a short story collection that I started in March and last read in April.

More recently, I started Neil Gaiman’s newest book, which is short and should be a quick read, but I just haven’t been making time to pick it up. Of course, I read an entire book by Lisa Lutz in the middle of reading the Gaiman, so maybe it’s just me.

There is also the fact that I’ve been reading a lot of screenplays recently. Reading so many scripts has been taking up a lot of my free time when I’m not devoting it to playing video games, but reading scripts just doesn’t feel the same as reading a good book.

Either way, I’ll be done with the scripts soon and I think I’ll be able to devote more time to reading for fun. As for my huge audiobook collection, if listening to them is the only thing that will get me outside for a walk, then maybe that’s for the best. I just need to find a good part of my new neighborhood to take a walk.

Horrible Author Thinks Libraries Are Outdated Concept

LibraryEarlier this week, Terry Deary, author of the popular (in the UK) Horrible Histories series, started quite the shit-storm when he declared that libraries “have been around too long” and are “no longer relevant”, among other things. Apparently Deary just wants people to buy his books instead of getting them for free. Never mind the fact that he also says library use is declining in the UK, which would seem to lessen the impact on his bottom line.

First off, something I wasn’t aware of is the fact that UK authors are paid a small fee every time one of their books is checked out from a UK library, with the total amount capped at £6,600 annually. That sounds like an awesome idea that I wish was feasible to implement in the US. I have a feeling that it wouldn’t fit into library budgets, however. Even still, that payment wasn’t enough for Deary, who feels entitled to the sales he thinks he would have made if those were books bought instead of checked out.

Deary’s rant, focusing as it does on his need to get paid, manages to come off as petulant, greedy and classist to boot. In one gem of a quote, he declares that “this is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature” because I guess poverty is no longer a worldwide epidemic, right? Poor people who want to read should just skip a meal and pay for books instead, and when physical books go the way of the buffalo, they should start paying for e-readers and internet access too. (But that’s a whole other issue.)

Never mind the fact that books are more than just commerce. A good book is food for the soul, and libraries make readers. Readers buy books. Just because it’s possible to get books for free from the library doesn’t mean people stop buying books as well, and it never has. I’ve always got a good half-dozen books checked out from the library, but I still spend $50-$100 a month on new and used books.

Also, it’s a fallacy to assume that if libraries went away that people would buy as many books as they borrowed. I buy a lot of books as it is, but I’d probably have to double or triple my budget to buy as many books as I check out from the library. It’s just not going to happen. It’s the same fallacy record labels use to claim that every pirated mp3 equates to a “lost sale”. When people can get things for free – from the library or by piracy – they tend to pick up more than they would ever buy.

Of course, libraries are about more than “free books”. They’re one of the few public spaces where you can sit and work or read and use the wifi without having to buy a cup of coffee. They provide easy access to computers and the internet for people who wouldn’t have access otherwise. They offer community events, meeting places, educational programs and more. Also, librarians do more than shelve books. They’re skilled researchers, talented educators, and passionate evangelists for great books. Every librarian I’ve ever met is a huge book-lover, and you don’t want to get on a book-lover’s bad side.

Ultimately, you have to wonder what exactly Deary was thinking when he decided to air his complaint. I suppose he felt like an iconoclast declaring a subversive opinion, but mostly he just came off like an avaricious, tone-deaf idiot. It’s bad enough that bookstores are closing by the dozens; if libraries started closing down at the same rate, I’d consider us lost as a species.

To paraphrase John Waters: “If you go home with someone, and they don’t like libraries, don’t fuck ’em!”

A Selection of Scary Stories

I’ve never been a huge fan of horror, but over the years I’ve gained an appreciation of scary stories. They aren’t necessarily the same thing, either. As I see it, horror is a genre with a few common tropes, one of which is that the story may or may not be scary. For example, I’ve never really thought that slasher movies were scary. They’re mostly just gratuitous. I’ve read a bunch of Stephen King, but few of his books are truly scary and most feel more like dark fantasy than outright horror. Evil Dead 2 isn’t particularly scary, either, but it’s definitely a horror classic.

Scary stories, on the other hand, can exist in almost any genre. I think a good author can wring a bit of terror out of something entirely realistic and/or mundane. However, it’s pretty rare that I read something that genuinely freaks me out. When it does, it’s the sort of thing that sticks with me forever, which is definitely something to strive towards as a writer. I’m certainly drawn to writing scary stories myself.

LullabyWhen I think of scary stories, one of the first that springs to mind is Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, which tells the story of a man who discovers an African culling song in a children’s book. Unfortunately for him, he only discovers the song’s powers after he’s read it to his wife and child and accidentally killed them both. Then, of course, the song gets stuck in his head, and if he inadvertently thinks it at someone, they die. Needless to say, I found the concept of a deadly thought virus completely and utterly terrifying.

CoralineNext in line is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which is probably my most favorite of all his books. The funny thing about the book is that I’ve heard it tends to scare adults far more than children. Apparently a young girl exploring a frightening alternate universe full of terrible danger tends to freak out adults but sounds like an adventure to kids. Go figure! Gaiman skillfully uses surrealism and an omnipresent menacing atmosphere to keep the reader constantly off-kilter, and the tension just keeps building. Coraline isn’t the only work of Gaiman’s that I’ve found creepy and/or disturbing. Some of his short stories are particularly chilling as well.

The End of EverythingI’d also argue that Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything fits in this category. The narrator, Evie, is a teenage girl in the 1980s whose best friend suddenly disappears one day. Was she abducted? Did she kill herself? Panic in the community builds as the disappearance drags on and on, and Evie takes it upon herself to investigate what happened. Part of what makes the book so terrifying are the uncomfortable parallels between Evie’s crush on an older man and the increasing likelihood that her friend was abducted by a pedophile. Nothing in the book is black and white, and even though it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, I hesitate to recommend it to anyone simply because it filled me with such a palpable feeling of uneasiness throughout.

I hope to someday tell a story that manages to convey the same sense of dread and uneasiness I felt when I read those books and others. Until then, I’ll continue on my quest to read truly frightening books wherever I may find them.

Old Friends -or- The Same Book Over and Over Again

The "double-reading" selfportraitWhen I was a kid I read and re-read the same handful of books. The complete works of Douglas Adams were in heavy rotation. Hitchhiker’s Guide, sure, but I also read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency until the cover fell off. I also picked up Roald Dahl over and over again. I remember reading The Witches most often, despite the fact that when I tried to watch the movie version it terrified the hell out of me. (The girl stuck in the painting? Nightmare fuel.) Those are the books that stand out in my mind, but I’m sure there were others.

This habit didn’t stick with me, though; as I grew older, I got out of the habit of re-reading books. Part of it may have been that as I had more disposable income (and a car), I could pretty much always get my hands on something new to read, so I no longer felt the need to go back to familiar old books. I certainly have plenty of new books to read now, so It’s rare that I’m willing to make the time to re-read something, even if it was years ago.

However, whenever I talk to people who are regular readers, re-reading books seems like a fairly common pastime. Based purely on anecdotal evidence, I get the impression that re-readers are far more common than folks like me who only tend to read books once before moving on. The simple explanation for a lot of the people I’ve talked to is that they like re-reading books because it’s comfortable. Sure, they might know what happens in the story, but reading it again is like visiting old friends or a familiar place. I’ve never been drawn to re-read books out of comfort, but I can understand the appeal.

I can also definitely see the value in re-reading books like Catcher in The Rye at different points in my life. That book meant something different for me when I was in high school than it did when I was in college, and I’m about due for a third reading. I’ve also re-read books for purely practical reasons, such as when I had to read A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings for a second time because I was completely lost when I tried to start reading A Storm of Swords.

Lately I’ve been considering going back and picking up books and/or series from my childhood and reading them again just to get a new perspective. Despite reading Hitchhiker’s Guide a dozen times, I don’t remember too much about it, so reading it again now would be a revelation. I am a little hesitant, though. Sometimes the things we love in childhood don’t stand up to scrutiny when we return to them as adults.

I did actually start a Harry Potter re-read last year – this time listening to the audiobooks – but I only made it through the first two books before I got distracted by other things to read. I’ll finish the series eventually, but once I do, I want to take a crack at some other iconic authors from my childhood. I’m also seriously considering picking up some of the books ruined by my high school English classes. The Great Gatsby got it the worst, but I might also take another crack at A Tale of Two Cities. Not sure if The Scarlet Letter is worth a third read, though.

Ultimately, however, I don’t think I’ll ever be a re-reader by nature. I’m always looking forward to the next new book in line. I only pick up books I’ve already read by conscious choice… or if they were so unmemorable that I completely forgot about reading them (which has happened before). That said, I think I will be making a conscious effort to dive back into some past reads over the course of the next year, just to see what I may have missed back then.

My Most Anticipated Books of 2013

The Human DivisionThe Human Division by John Scalzi, January 15th to April 9th, 2013 – The first two installments of John Scalzi’s episodic novel set in the Old Man’s War universe have already been released, but there are eleven more episodes to look forward to over the next few months. The first episode, The B Team, felt like the opening of a novel, but the second episode, Walk The Plank, was very different stylistically and focused on entirely different characters. I have a feeling that Scalzi plans on playing with our expectations over the course of the series, and I’m very curious to see what he does next.

HomelandHomeland by Cory Doctorow, February 5, 2013 – I have mixed feelings about Cory Doctorow. On one hand, I don’t always agree with his politics – or at least the extremity of his views – but I thoroughly enjoyed Little Brother when I read it a few years ago and I am definitely looking forward to this sequel. Much of Doctorow’s work seems closely tied to his personal politics, and Homeland is no different. Here he tackles a Wikileaks-style information dump that young hacker/activist Marcus has to decide how to disseminate, all while he is being chased by mysterious agents and trying to rescue a kidnapped friend.

The Teleportation AccidentThe Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman, Feb 26, 2013 – Whoever wrote the blurb for this book is an absolute genius. The book is described alternately as “a romance novel that arrives drunk to dinner” and “a science fiction novel that can’t remember what ‘isotope’ means” among other things. The book sounds hilarious, weird, obsessed with sex and exactly the sort of thing I’d like to read despite the fact that I’m not entirely sure what it’s actually about. Those kinds of books either turn out to be my all-time favorites or complete wrecks that I abandon within fifty pages, but they’re always worth giving a shot.

YouYou by Austin Grossman, March 26, 2013 – Austin Grossman – twin brother of Lev Grossman and author of Soon I Will Be Invincible – draws on his experiences working in the game industry to tell the story of a game designer who joins a legendary developer in an attempt to solve the mystery of his friend’s death. However, once he starts working on their upcoming game, he discovers a “mysterious software glitch” that leads him on a path towards discovering something bigger and far more dangerous. I haven’t read Grossman’s first book, but this one sounds like it’ll scratch the same itch as Ready Player One and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson, April 2, 2013 – Kate Atkinson’s first novel in several years that doesn’t focus on detective Jackson Brodie also has an intriguing time-bending premise. Ursula Todd is first born in in 1910 only to die that same night. Except she also lives, only to die again and again throughout the course of her odd life. This one completely snuck up on me; I haven’t read all of her Jackson Brodie books, but I was starting to get the impression that she was planning on sticking with that series for the foreseeable future.

NOS4A2NOS4A2 by Joe Hill, April 30, 2013 – I still need to read Horns, but Heart-Shaped Box and Locke & Key were more than enough to convince me that Hill is a talent to watch. Here he tells the story of Victoria McQueen, the girl with “a secret gift for finding things”, and Charlie Manx, a very dangerous man in a Rolls-Royce that can travel between worlds. They cross paths one day and Victoria barely escapes with her life. The story picks up again years later when Charlie comes after Victoria’s son. The book sounds intense and ambitious, and I’m definitely looking forward to checking it out.

The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, June 4th 2013 – First off, this book gets absolutely ecstatic reviews from everyone that reads it, so that’s definitely a vote in its favor. I read Beukes’ Moxyland a few years ago, and although I did enjoy it, it felt a bit like William Gibson-lite. Here it seems like she might have truly come into her own with a story about a time-travelling serial killer and the girl who survives to hunt him down. Also, it’s being published by Mulholland Books, who seem to have a lot of fascinating crime/sci-fi crossovers on their schedule this year.

JoylandJoyland by Stephen King, June 4th 2013 – Joyland is the first of two King books coming out in 2013. What makes this one interesting is that it’s the second book he’s published through Hard Case Crime (the first was The Colorado Kid), which implies that even if there are supernatural elements, the book will fall more on the pulp/thriller side of things. As you might guess from the title, the book focuses on a young man who works at an amusement park and discovers something sinister. King’s last few books have been epics, so it’s nice to see him stepping back and telling a story that isn’t quite so wide in scope.

Bohemian HighwayClaire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran, June 18th 2013 – I read the first Claire DeWitt book with my book club, and Gran immediately joined the short list of authors whose every work I want to read. City of the Dead focused on the detective’s return to post-Katrina New Orleans, and the mix of mysticism, surrealist detective manuals and local New Orleans flavor combined to make an incredibly compelling read. Here DeWitt travels to San Francisco to solve the murder of her musician ex-boyfriend. One of the things I loved most about City of the Dead was that New Orleans felt like a character, so the choice of San Francisco as a setting seems like a natural progression.

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, June 18th 2013 – I don’t know what Gaiman’s next novel for adults is about, but I know I’ll be picking it up and reading it as soon as it comes out. It’s actually kind of pleasant not knowing the synopsis of such a big release, so I think I might do what I can to stay relatively unspoiled until June (if at all possible). I will admit that the last few things I’ve read by Gaiman haven’t grabbed me as much as Neverwhere or American Gods, but Coraline is one of the few books I’ve read that actually freaked me out, so I’ll forgive the occasional bit of uneven writing after that terrifying little book.

Naptune's BroodNeptune’s Brood by Charles Stross, July 2, 2013 – Far-future “mundane” space opera set in the same world as Saturn’s Children with a storyline that apparently involves interstellar finance. Stross is one of few authors I’ve read who manages to make wonky discussions of economics, technology and politics both exciting and palatable. I finished reading his Merchant Princes books last year, and although it was occasionally a bit of a bumpy ride, I was fascinated by all of the economical maneuvering Stross wove into the story.

SkinnerSkinner by Charlie Huston, July 9th 2013 – Huston is another one of those authors whose books I will buy and read immediately upon release. I absolutely loved Caught Stealing, Sleepless and The Mysterious Art of Erasing All Signs of Death, so it’s hard to contain my excitement for Huston’s debut with Mulholland Books. The blurb describes it as “a combination of Le Carre spycraft with Stephenson techno-philosophy” and that just sounds like it’ll hit all the right buttons for me. Huston is a master of spare, intense crime thrillers that are alternately grim, gruesome and hilarious. Can not wait.

Doctor SleepDoctor Sleep by Stephen King, September 24th 2013 – A sequel to The Shining that catches up with Danny Torrance as an adult working in a nursing home. One day he meets a young girl who has “the brightest shining ever seen” and she draws him into a battle both against his personal demons, including the legacy of his father’s alcoholism, and against a murderous tribe of paranormals called The True Knot. I never actually finished The Shining, but I’m still looking forward to this sequel. I plan on reading a lot of Stephen King this year, and have made a pile of King books next to my bed in preparation.

SteelheartSteelheart by Brandon Sanderson, September 24th 2013 – The synopses for Sanderson’s books don’t generally grab me, but that’s probably because I’m really not much of an epic fantasy reader. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the description of Steelheart, which tells the story of a world where people called “epics” were granted superpowers by a burst in the sky. Instead of being a force for good, epics used their powers to become despotic tyrants. The only people willing to fight against the epics are a group of normal humans called “reckoners”, who spend their time working on finding ways to assassinate the epics. I love the idea of normal human beings fighting against super-powered tyrants, so I’ll definitely be giving this one a chance.