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.

Short Story of the Week: How to Become a Mars Overlord by Catherynne M. Valente

Lightspeed Magazine, August 2010Catherynne M. Valente is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors even though I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of her work. She’s most well-known now for her Fairyland series (which starts with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making), but she’s also a highly prolific author of short stories and novels for adults.

I first heard of her thanks to the novel Palimpsest, which was nominated for a Hugo and which I checked out from the library (but did not actually read). The thing about Valente is that her prose is thick with imagery and convoluted sentences. The effect is beautiful, but her writing can be a bit difficult to parse if you aren’t in the right mind-frame. Even the first Fairyland book was far more descriptive than your average middle-grade novel.

However, I’ve had good results by listening to the audio versions of her stories. Thankfully much of her recent work is available in audio, and a number of her short stories have been recorded for fiction podcasts, so there are a wide selection of excellent places to start with her bibliography.

Lightspeed: Year OneOne stand-out story is How to Become a Mars Overlord, included in the Lightspeed: Year One anthology, a collection of stories first published online at Lightspeed Magazine. I picked up the audio version from Audible, but most (if not all) of the stories are still available free on the Lightspeed website.

How to Become a Mars Overlord is, much like it sounds, a primer on becoming overlord of your very own version of Mars. You see, it turns out that some analog of the fabled red planet exists in every galaxy, and ambitious overlords across the universe have been striving to conquer it throughout history.

The narrator describes various shining examples and cautionary tales for the edification of his audience of aspiring despots, and each is both strikingly alien and gorgeously imagined thanks to Valente’s luxuriant prose. Additionally, the narrator of the audio version, Robin Sachs, is a pitch-perfect choice for the character. Sachs is arch, knowing and oh-so British, and Valente’s words roll off his tongue with precision and aplomb.

The story doesn’t have an overall narrative arc, but the series of vignettes about various Martian overlords paints a picture of a strange and wonderful world that harkens back to the science fiction of old while twisting it into something modern and far more surreal.

I’ll definitely be checking out more of Valente’s work (and giving Palimpsest another chance) very soon.

You Must Go and Win by Alina Simone

Published: October 25th, 2011
Publisher: Neil Gaiman Presents
Genre(s): Non-fiction, Personal Memoirs
Format: Audiobook
Length: 7 hrs 13 mins

I’d never heard of Ukranian-born musician Alina Simone before Neil Gaiman added You Must Go and Win to his line of audiobooks on Audible, but the combination of her background and career piqued my interest, and a recommendation from Gaiman sealed the deal. It is perhaps a little strange that I listened to the book before ever listening to any of her music, but, luckily, her stories are compelling enough to stand on their own.

The book consists of almost a dozen long essays largely focused on the intersections between Simone’s heritage and her tentative musical career. The stories are occasionally rambling, sometimes thoughtful or poignant, and almost always funny. Simone was a childhood friend of Amanda Palmer’s, and one chapter recounts their shared experiences as struggling artists right up until the point when Palmer starts finding success. My favorite story by far involves Simone’s absurdly terrifying experience at a Siberian strip show, where, to her horror, the male strippers pull more than willing audience members onstage and do unmentionable things to them.

Simone is a relatable, down-to-earth storyteller, and her struggles with success are thoughtfully presented throughout. However, the most fascinating stories focus on her oddball fascination with Siberian religion and culture. For example, her idea of reading for fun involves diving into a dense tome about an obscure religious sect who believed that self-castration was the best way to purify the soul. She cheerfully suggests that women carry this book – Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom – as a defense against harassment after using it to scare off an overbearing Italian fan. Her obsession with the strangeness of Siberia was contagious, and I found myself wanting to know more about that faraway region.

Although Simone does a good job keeping things moving with wry, self-deprecating humor and fascinating regional details, some of the stories feel like they are missing a through-line. I enjoyed what she had to say, but I wasn’t always clear how one anecdote tied into the next, and a few of her endings were more elliptical than revelatory. Additionally, the first story or two seemed like comparatively mundane horror stories about the life of a struggling musician, and I was initially worried the whole book would continue in that register.

Overall, however, this collection of essays is a brisk, entertaining read, and an audiobook seems like the ideal format. I came away feeling like I’d learned a few things about Siberia, and I’d especially recommend the book to anyone interested in creativity and the arts.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Amazon | Audible | BookPeople | Indiebound

Why Audiobooks are the Best Kind of Digital Reading

Hello, strangers! I come to you bearing book-related opinion pieces! I know I’ve stayed away for far too long, but this blog fell prey to modern life, as is so often the case. Countless blogs gather dust while their owners spend time trying to find the cutest picture of a cat on the internet. I’ve also heard rumors of a strange cult known as the “tumblers“. However, instead of dwelling on my own shortcomings as a purveyor of content, let us instead turn our attention towards all things digital…

The general consensus in the book world is that exciting and/or frightening things are happening on the frontiers of digital publishing, but the discussion is, in my opinion, giving short shrift to audiobooks as a digital medium. Although my Kindle is a wonderful convenience – the best way to cart around various 1000+ page tomes by Stephenson, Martin, and Murakami – it is my audiobook collection that holds a special place in my heart.

eBooks might save space on overcrowded bookshelves, but great audiobooks do them one better by bringing a story’s characters and ideas to life, filling them with breath and emotion, and transporting you into another world. It’s my opinion that audiobooks are a far more exciting digital medium than ebooks will ever be. I also feel like the practical benefits are more compelling; going from a box full of a dozen CDs or cassettes (bulky AND overpriced) to a few digital files seems like such a huge evolutionary leap, even compared to the transition from the printed word to digital text.

Accordingly, I was particularly excited by the recent launch of ACX, the “Audiobook Creation Exchange”. ACX helps authors connect with narrators to produce professional-quality audiobooks for books that might otherwise get indifferent, tone-deaf productions or simply never get adapted. Neil Gaiman used the service to launch his own Audible “label”, featuring books he loves that were never previously adapted for audio. Self-published authors have been podcasting their books for years now, and ACX feels like taking that DIY impulse to the next level. My sincere hope is that the floodgates open and we start getting audiobook adaptations of obscure, out-of-print, or just plain weird authors.

In an interview with Salon, Gaiman says that one of the reasons he became an evangelist for ACX and audiobooks in general is that, when listening to an audiobook, “you often notice things that the author in all probability thought he or she had buried brilliantly in the text, sitting there in plain sight.” This has definitely been my experience more than once; truly great audiobooks bring something to the table that you’d never discover in the text alone. In fact, I’d argue that some authors should only be experienced in audio form.

I doubt that David Sedaris’ stories are quite the same if they aren’t read in his peculiarly expressive voice, and I firmly believe that Woody Allen’s comic writing doesn’t quite come alive without his unique delivery. However, it makes sense that non-fiction would be best experienced when read by the author; the far more astonishing experience is a narrator who brings a fictional narrative and all its myriad characters to three-dimensional life in your head.

Late last year, when I first started my Audible membership, one of the first books I bought was The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. The narrator of the book, Steven Pacey, did such an incredible job with distinct voices and accents for every character that I was completely hooked and ended up listening to the entire series in audio form. You know an audiobook is firing on all cylinders when you can immediately tell which character is talking by the sound of the narrator’s voice.

It has actually reached the point where audiobooks are becoming my medium of choice. I’m far more likely to read a brand new book if I buy it in audio, simply because I can listen to it while I’m working, or going for a walk, or doing errands around the house. A few years ago I only listened to audiobooks on long trips out of town, but nowadays I’m finding more and more time to multi-task while listening to a good story. In fact, I’d argue that listening to audiobooks has majorly increased my productivity over the last year, because I’m far more likely to do something mindless or repetitive if I have a good story to keep me occupied.

All of these and more are reasons why my dream future is one where every great book has a great audiobook, and all of them are sold at reasonable prices. I’ll be listening. Will you?

Underwhelmed by OverDrive

Digital publishing presents a huge challenge for public libraries. OverDrive is a service that proposes to address that need by offering a catalog of eBooks and audiobooks that libraries can offer online for checkout.

I heard about it from a few friends that work at a local library currently offering OverDrive books. According to my friends, it’s far from an ideal solution; one of the more onerous limitations is that eBooks can only be checked out a certain number of times before the license expires.

However, even knowing that the licensing terms were pretty heinous, I still wanted to give the system a test run. I’ve spent a lot of money on audiobooks this year, so it’s in my interest to find a cheap or free way to legitimately listen to more audiobooks.

In retrospect, I wish I’d just spent the money. I’ll never get back the intensely frustrating hours of my life I spent just trying to download one audiobook from the service.

I’ve included a blow-by-blow of my whole tortuous experience after the break. Incoming rant alert!

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My Kindle (Almost) One Year Later

When the Kindle 3 came out last August, I decided to take the leap into the digital future and pick one up. I’d recently moved across town to another new apartment, and after moving several dozen extremely heavy boxes of books, it occurred to me that it might be worth my time to stop owning so damn many shelves full of books. It also helped that the Kindle 3’s price point and features hit a particularly attractive sweet spot.

Now, I knew going in that the Kindle would probably never fully replace my desire for physical books. I can’t resist a used book store, especially when they have a sale, and I’m never far from a library here in Austin. However, after almost a year of living with the Kindle, I’m surprised at how few ebooks I finished on the device. Off the top of my head, I’d say I finished no more than a dozen digital books, whereas I read several dozen physical books.

The most likely explanation? I have a huge backlog of  unread physical books in my personal collection, more than 300(!) at last count. I’ve also always had at least one library book checked out at all times. I think there’s just something about actually seeing books sitting on a physical shelf that still has power over me. It’s much easier to forget I even own the books in my Kindle collection. They don’t loom on my bedroom bookshelves, demanding to be read. I can’t quite decide if that’s a good or bad thing.

I was also disappointed to discover that Kindle book gifting isn’t quite ready for prime time. When I filled my Christmas wishlist with Kindle books last year, my parents were hesitant to purchase them. They were told that delivery would be instant and I’d get an email, ruining any possibility of a Christmas surprise. When my birthday rolled around I only listed physical books to keep things simple, which just seems like an oxymoron. You’d assume that digital gifting would be the simpler option, but the technology hasn’t quite caught up with common sense yet.

However, the Kindle store isn’t the only viable digital option out there. I actually ended up listening to a lot of audiobooks this year. I’ve been an occasional audiobook listener over the years, but the combination of my iPhone and the extremely well-made Audible app turned me into a dedicated listener. I ended up spending way too much money on a lot of audiobooks this year. It turns out that audiobooks really help me focus at work when I’m doing data entry, so I pulled up the Audible app whenever I needed to buckle down and be productive.

On the whole, I’m glad I bought the Kindle. It’s definitely not my primary source of reading material yet, but I like having the option available if I want to read an ebook. I’ve started buying all of the big new release books as ebooks, which is especially nice for thousand-page epics, but it’ll take years (maybe decades) before I run out of books to read from my existing collection. I think my transition to a full-time digital reader is going to be a gradual thing, happening over the next 5-10 years, rather than something that happens over night.

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Published: October 28, 2010
Publisher: Orbit
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Space Opera
Format: Audiobook
Length: 20:28

Surface Detail is the ninth book in Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, and the third I’ve read. As soon as I read the summary, I couldn’t wait to pick it up. Fortunately, the Culture books are generally standalone stories, so it was easy to skip ahead.

The book has a good half-dozen plot threads that run concurrently, all somehow touching on the effects of technologies that have made it possible to back up a person’s “mind-state”, essentially a digital recording of their soul. Once a mind-state is backed up, it can be “re-vented” into a new body, or consigned to a virtual afterlife, some of which are decidedly unpleasany. Naturally the disposition of digital souls has huge social, political, and religious implications. The issue of virtual hells is a controversial one, and a war has broken out in the galaxy between The Culture (among others) and societies who believe it is their right to send the digital dead to eternal damnation.

The main thread of the book focuses on Lededje Y’breq, a young woman who is an indentured servant of the most powerful man in her society, Joiler Veppers. She is more than just a slave, however; her society has a form of indenture that involves a full-body tattoo genetically etched onto every cell in her body. She is an “intagliate”, and is marked with both an exotic beauty and an ever-present reminder of her status as chattel.

When Lededje tries to run away from Veppers, he hunts her down and stabs her to death in a sudden rage. However, what neither Lededje or Veppers realize is that The Culture has taken an interest in her plight. After she is murdered, she awakens on a Culture ship light-years away and discovers that all of her memories are intact, along with a pressing need for revenge. Events in the book are set into motion when she begins the journey back to her home world to exact that revenge.

Some of the story takes place in the real world, some in virtual worlds simulating an endless war, and some in the virtual hell run by an alien society. The story jumps wildly from place to place and character to character. We are introduced to so many fascinating people and exotic places over the course of the book, it is sometimes hard to keep track of everything as it flies by. The book is basically impossible to summarize succinctly, and must be read to truly be experienced. The plot is twisty and full of misdirection, but rewards a patient and attentive reader.

I listened to the Audible audiobook version of Surface Detail, which is narrated by Peter Kenny, and I would highly recommend experiencing the book that way. Kenny does a fantastic job of giving each character a unique voice and temperament, and that made it a lot easier to keep the huge cast straight in my mind. Also, one of my absolute favorite parts of the book was only made possible by his narration. Near the end of the book, a normally sedate alien – who Kenny gives a cutesy high-pitched voice – starts becoming seriously pissed off when his plans start falling apart. The alien becomes so foul-mouthed and sarcastic that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I was pleased to find out that Kenny does the narration for all of Banks’ novels on Audible, so I’ll definitely be picking up another one sometime soon.

I think my only criticism of the book is that the ending falls a little flat. Although all of the disparate threads do end up connecting in some fashion, it still seems like an awful lot of fuss for something that feels a bit anticlimactic. However, I enjoyed the ride up until that point so very much that I wouldn’t necessarily discount the resolution for not quite adding up.

Surface Detail is a hell of a book. It manages to discuss incredibly complex moral and philosophical issues in an engaging and entertaining way, all while throwing in a bit of action, terror, and humor for seasoning. It’s another fine slice of Banks’ particular brand of space opera, and if you’ve enjoyed previous Culture books, I think you’ll definitely enjoy this one.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Audible | Amazon | BookPeople | Indiebound

P.S. If you’ve never read a Culture book, the Kindle version of the first book in the series, Consider Phlebas, is 99 cents for the month of April!

2010: My Year in Reading

I had a great year of reading in 2010. I read even more than I did in 2009, and easily beat my previous record of 60 books in one year by finishing 68 in 2010. To be fair, that does include all 6 of the Scott Pilgrim books, which are fairly short and took about 1-2 hours to read, on average, but a book is a book, that’s what I say. I figure as long as I’m not counting Little Golden Books in my numbers I’m doing alright.

2010 was also a big deal for me because I decided I needed to do something about my ever-expanding collection of paperbacks and hardcovers. Carting around several dozen boxes full of books every time I move doesn’t get more fun the more I do it. Accordingly, in the hopes that it might help de-clutter my life, I bought myself a Kindle. The Kindle doesn’t dominate my reading life yet – I still have hundreds of physical books to read, and the public library is never far away – but I hope that in time it will at least prevent me from needing to buy another big bookcase to store my ever-expanding collection.

I also started an Audible membership this year, mostly because I was in a book club and needed to read the new David Sedaris book quickly, but also because they have a snazzy iPhone app and I thought I might like having a regular stream of audiobooks to listen to at work. Audible also happens to fit in quite nicely with my desire to avoid new physical book purchases.

The Sedaris was a bust – one of the two truly terrible books I read last year – but Audible has been a huge winner for me. The iPhone app has a lot of really cool features, especially the ability to view your entire Audible library and add and remove new books on the fly so that you don’t worry about taking up too much space. My favorite listens so far have been the First Law books by Joe Abercrombie, but I was also excited to pick up a collection of Woody Allen books read by the man himself. Listening to audiobooks at work has really been helping make the days go by quicker. I think it even makes me more productive some days.

Of course, no year-in-review post would be complete without a best-of list, so I’ve included a list below of all the books I read in 2010 and rated 10 out of 10. These are the books that blew my mind and made me love reading just that much more.

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