After six audiobooks in May (though KSR’s 2312 went on well into the first week of June) I listened to eight in June, with Tim Powers’s On Stranger Tides and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay being the outstanding audiobooks, with plenty to recommend Mark L. Van Name’s No Going Back, John Scalzi’s Redshirts, and Jon Sprunk’s Shadow’s Son.
REVIEWS: (Note: as I’m terribly terribly behind in these reviews, these are short (or long in the cases where I did not have time to make them shorter) and mostly off the cuff.)
Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas By John Scalzi Narrated by Wil Wheaton for Audible Frontiers — Length: 7 hrs and 41 mins — Wheaton does not engage in too much in the way of narration gymnastics other than an early chapter with alien language, plotting a fairly heady pace through Scalzi’s self-aware novel of starship ensigns beginning to deduce that there is something “monumentally fucked up” about the mortality rates for “redshirts” on away missions. This is a trope well observed by Star Trek fans, but Scalzi takes it further; not only inventing bizarre and colorful ways for his stalward ensigns to die, but constructing over-arching narrational (is that a word?) reasons behind what’s going on, and populating his starship with interesting characters and archetypes familiar and quirky. Wheaton is, of course, perfectly cast to voice Ensign Dahl and the rest of the tale here. The meat of the story is followed by three codas. Coda 1 didn’t do too much for me, but the emotional impact begins to really gear up with coda 2 (a video about wasting your life), and a LOT of emotion in reading the final coda.
Shadow’s Son by Jon Sprunk, read by a full cast for GraphicAudio (review copy) — approx. 7 hours — This was the first GraphicAudio title for me, and was a fairly straightforward download process, a zip file with several mp3 files inside. I first heard about GraphicAudio a while ago, but have been hesitant to pick up a title due to fearing they would be over-produced, with too much noice, too many sound effects, and end up just distracting me from the story. But when Shadow’s Son showed up in their catalog, so far not available in “regular” audiobook, I knew it was time to dip my toes in. (And thanks to GraphicAudio for providing me with a review copy to grease the wheels.) What I found was not quite what I expected, but it was a very, very enjoyable listening experience. The sound effects were not a distraction, nor was the production overwhelming. What I found was something very interesting, and what I can only call an adaptation of the novel for this format. At times, instead of a narrator reading “A door creaked” or similar, an actual door creaking sound would be heard. Swordfights, grunts, and horse hoofs were not overwhelming to the narration and text, and really did make for an entertaining and richly textured listen. What I most noticed, though was that throughout there were almost no “he said, she said sarcastically, he whispered, she shouted” attributions to the text. Instead, the quite distinguished character voices (which were all excellent, and well-cast) were used, trusting the listener to remember who is speaking. This was seamlessly done and I enjoyed it, but I wondered what (if any?) of the author’s coloring of the prose I was missing. Another production touch I enjoyed, rather becoming that feared distraction, was the use of an echo (and other) filter on the voice of Kit, who is the protagonist’s (Caim’s) guardian spirit, lending her voice an ethereal quality which really made her lines come alive; as if in reading, her lines were italicized, or *different*, if that makes any sense at all. Hm. I’ve gotten here and not talked much about the story. Well, at first I thought I was in for a fairly typical thief/assassin tale, but with Kit’s accompanying sarcasm, Caim’s struggles to control his demonic powers, and suitably sinister over-arching political plots, this book really built into something which I found myself finding time to get back to listening to. I’m not sure how many titles I will be picking up from GraphicAudio, particularly if they are available in “regular” audiobook format (GraphicAudio does have Brandon Sanderson, Peter V. Brett, and Brent Weeks titles), but for exclusive titles (such as just-released The Saga of the First King by R.A. Salvatore and forthcoming Only Superhuman by Christopher L. Bennett) I will not be afraid of being overwhelmed by sound effects and over-production. Thumbs up.
A Short, Sharp Shock by Kim Stanley Robinson, read by Paul Michael Garcia for Blackstone Audio (review copy) — I wanted to do some KSR reading ahead of diving into 2312, and so was very happy when Blackstone sent this along. Unfortunately it ended up, though being certainly well narrated and produced, not being one of my favorites for the month. The first half of the story seems to fail to build any particular driving force. It could be a story about recovering from amnesia — but the protagonist (Thel) seems singularly unconcerned. It could be a story about finding The Swimmer, but she disappears figuratively from the story before she does so literally, and the search seems desultory before becoming suddenly desperate and urgent. Halfway through, after being separated by the tide and waves and then wandering a bit, Thel encounters a strange village and an ever stranger cat-woman; lots of sex follows. There are shell people; a beautiful line about the “shared illusion of a language”; and some stranger-still masks and mirrors; but overall this short novel/long novella left me more puzzled than satisfied.
No Going Back: Jon & Lobo, Book 5 By Mark L. Van Name, Narrated by — Series: Jon and Lobo, Book 5 — Length: 10 hrs and 34 mins — The previous book in this series, 2010’s Children No More, was my entry point, and right away I was very taken both by the dark, scarred history of Jon (a genetically enhanced super-soldier), his relationship with Lobo (a sentient spaceship), and the world of mysterious jump gates, as well as Stechschulte’s narration — particularly his incredibly deep voice for the artificial voice of Lobo. When we left things off in Children No More, Jon and Lobo had been involved in fighting for the freedom, safety, and rehabilitation of child soldiers on an outpost planet. Here, the two answer a message from a lover in Jon’s past, and head to one of the power centers of human civilization. Jon must continue to hide his past and his powers — even from Lobo — but after discovering that his sister, Jenny, may still be alive, heads very much into the open (though undercover) via a wonderfully inventive scheme, falling in love again along the way. This is a science fiction book with plenty of high concepts and action (though again it’s primarily close quarters rather than massive ship-to-ship space battles) as well as well-done music fiction, and! also two honest to goodness, well done love stories. (And a third when you count, as you should, the familial love which drives Jon’s search for his sister.) It’s a book with a lot of heart, and Stechschulte’s gravelly, teeth-gritting lines bring it wonderfully to life. Both of the books I’ve read in the series can be read standalone, so: jump in anywhere.
Hamlet’s Father by Orson Scott Card, read by Stefan Rudnicki for Blackstone Audio (review copy) — Even though I have been following NC writers fairly closely, it was only a firestorm of controversy around this book’s re-publication as a standalone print volume from Subterranean Press (it had previously appeared in an anthology without much comment) which brought Card’s novella-length re-telling of Shakespeare’s play to my attention. Card’s Hamlet is a fairly Ender-esque character (or if you prefer, a Danny North-esque character, or a Rigg-esque character, or…) — a precocious youth (though older than Ender, certainly!) with smarts, physical skills, and a tendency toward working out decisions and consequences via internal monologues. The cast of the play is here, though Card picks up the story well ahead of Hamlet’s perambulations with the ghost of his murdered father through the castle Elsinor. We follow a younger Hamlet and his friends at court, until Hamlet is disappointed greatly when he is sent away to study. When news of his father’s death reaches him, he sets off on the return journey home, only to find his mother already re-married to his uncle Claudius. Then, of course, the game is really quite afoot, with a ghost begging revenve, a doomed Ophelia, and most of our usual cast. There are tweaks here and there, but mostly Card’s hand is behind or to the side of the scenes of the play we know — most expansively with Hamlet’s sojourn at university — rather than contradictory. Surely, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is the better parallel novel here, but for my (small) part the controversy is a bit over-blown. The book is not an anti-gay book (though the author is, of course, fairly famously known for his stance against gay marriage) but rather it is an anti-pedophile book, though most primarily it is a short parallel novel around the play, Hamlet. While there is not much to amaze, I was particularly pleased, I must admit, with Card’s “wise fool” rendition of Yorik, alas, that poor fellow whom Hamlet knew so well. Yorik’s wordplay is very well done, lines such as “Soap is full of ‘lies’” and the use of rhyme in conversation — it’s a pity we don’t see too much of him, though, perhaps, that would spoil the fun. It’s a fairly short book at 2 hours and 45 minutes in audio, with Rudnicki to absolutely nobody’s surprise giving a flawless (and, dare I repeat myself, Ender-esque) narration, bringing out Hamlet’s internal turmoil, thundering with the voice of command when called for, and generally being Stefan Rudnicki, always a pleasure.
On Stranger Tides By Tim Powers, Narrated by Bronson Pinchot for Blackstone Audio — Length: 12 hrs — Once Powers was announced as the literary guest of honor for illogiCon 2013 (January in Raleigh, NC, don’t ya know) I decided to remedy several of my reading holes where it comes to his work. In March, I listened to Simon Vance’s absolutely perfect narration of The Stress of Her Regard, and somehow skipped a couple of months. Silly me, because On Stranger Tides is also amazing and wonderful, and also very, very well narrated. Somehow it is also my first audiobook from Pinchot, though I’ve seen his name on many an enticing audiobook, he had until this recording still been the Perfect Stranger, Balki Bartokomous. He had his work cut out for him in this novel, with a staggering range of accents and voices, and they are all fantastic. And the story, well… it weaves all in and out of larger than life legends we all know, or at least have heard of. Blackbeard; Ann Bonny; The Fountain of Youth; and a setting of side characters and adventures so rich that Disney could mine it for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie and still leave plenty where that came from. There are certainly some overlaps in themes and style with The Stress of Her Regard, which was cast in Britain and Europe with the poets Shelley, Byron, and Keats: ghostly hauntings, rich historic fantasy, though one leans gothic and one leans pirate, and some portions of the protagonists journeys have some similarities as well, from innocence to complicity to redemption and finally acceptance. John Chandagnac starts out innocently enough, on a ship to confront his uncle for stealing his inheritance, but when the ship is waylaid by pirates and Chandagnac must join them or die, “Jack Shandy” is born, and from then on, Chandagnac the erstwhile upright citizen and Shandy, the adventurous pirate, wage a private battle for dominance. Meanwhile, Shandy is dragged along… well, enough about the story. Just go listen, it’s wonderful.
Clementine: A Novel of the Clockwork Century By Cherie Priest, Narrated by for Audible Frontiers — Series: Clockwork Century, Book 2 — Length: 5 hrs and 46 mins — Neither the book nor the narrators are as strong as in the stunning Boneshaker, but once I finally forgave Priest for not just giving me more Swakhammer, damn it, it was a pleasure to explore more of her Clockwork Century ahead of meeting her at ConTemporal in late June. We do follow, quite literally, one of the tangential plot lines from Boneshaker, as Captain Croggon Hainey pilots his stolen airship cross-country to attempt to reclaim his stolen stolen airship. Priest brings in a delightful, and reluctant, Pinkerton agent, a former Confederate spy named Maria Isabella Boyd, whose mission is to track the ship down as well. The pair race against each other, time, and other hunters for the quarry that is the dirigible Clementine. It remains to be seen for me how much this adventure is a side plot, or if Priest ties in the action of this short novel with the remainder of the Clockwork Century, and Bevine seems a bit below form here; the action is far removed from the zombies of Seattle, and once you’ve had zombies clawing at your barricades, even dirigible on dirigible action seems just a notch too tame, though bullets and grapples fly quite fiercely throughout. With Dreadnought and Ganymede already out, and The Inexplicables coming in November, there’s plenty more Clockwork Century to enjoy.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay By Michael Chabon, Narrated by David Colacci for Brilliance Audio — Length: 26 hrs and 20 mins — The previous, abridged version of this audiobook was a scant, thin, emaciated, not even quite 9 hours. How in the world 15 and a half hours were cut from this beautiful novel escapes me. Let me get this out of the way, since this is of course a science fiction and fantasy focused blog: this book is not speculative. It’s simply an amazing story set in the rise of the Golden Age of comics, against the rise of Nazi Germany, WW2, and post-WW2 aftermath of red scares (among other persecutions). Joe Kavalier is a brilliant, trained Czech painter and illustrator — as well as a highly-trained escape artist, the fruit of the latter’s labor being his escape from German-occupied Prague to Brooklyn, where his cousin, Sammy Clay, dreams of writing comics and pulps. Together, they create The Escapist and, literally, knock both comics and (well, more figuratively) Hitler a new one. There are complications, not the least being Rosa, “the love interest”. There are further complications, not the least being Joe’s family still amidst the horrors of the Holocaust. But it’s a beautiful novel of friendship and love and comics and pulps and war and… and… I would be shocked if it doesn’t end up being my 2012 audiobook of the year, though of course with my sf/f leanings I have a couple contenders. Colacci is supremely in control of the book, with characterizations for both Sammy and Joe which are just wonderful and memorable. Absolutely my highest recommendation here.
In my print reading, I very much enjoyed John Claude Bemis’ new middle grade novel, The Prince Who Fell from the Sky. Bemis is the author of the Clockwork Dark trilogy, also middle grade, which casts the legend of John Henry’s Nine Pound Hammer and other colorful pieces of American folklore and legend against the menace of dark machines; here he tells something of a post-apocalyptic, mythopoetic fable of talking animals in an Earth without humans, and a young boy who survives a spaceship crash. Bears, wolves, and rats (and vultures, those vultures…) each have their own developed cultures, and somehow I still have a soft spot for middle grade, whereas I find myself rarely able to stand books marketed as YA. Definitely one to read either for yourself or, preferably, with your kids.
I also started on Hush (Dragon Apocalypse, #2) by James Maxey. (Which, now that it’s nearly mid-September, I’ve long, long since finished.) What I’ll note here is that somehow I’ve found myself saying of Greatshadow, which is book one in the series, that it’s so “fun” and such. But that’s short-changing a wildly creative book, with ruminations on language and knowledge mixed in amidst the puns and high-level action. In Hush even to end June it was amazing to watch Maxey continue to pull off a dead narrator. (Having the deceased stick around as a ghost does help.)
Plans for July: Well, once again, it’s September now, so I know what I listened to in July. In short:
- Earth Unaware by Orson Scott Card (review copy)
- Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan — recommended
- Into the Black by Evan Currie (review copy)
- The Rook by Daniel O’Malley — recommended
- Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson — recommended
- Vlad by Carlos Fuentes
- The Sagan Diary by John Scalzi
… and the beginning of A Book of Tongues, the first book in the Hexslinger Trilogy, by Gemma Files (Iambik) and the first chapters of Chimera by T.C. McCarthy; but those won’t be reviewed until the August report. So, whenever I get to that…