After my slowest listening month in a very long time — four audiobooks and a novella podcast episode in September — I was back up to seven audiobooks, buoyed a bit by fall review copies coming in. It was a fantastic month in terms of enjoying what I was listening to as well, from fantasy (Hal Duncan’s Vellum, Christopher Buehlman’s Between Two Fires) to anthologies (V Wars, Fantastic Imaginings), a non-fiction collection (Neal Stephenson’s Some Remarks), and even a rare (for me, apparently) non-genre fiction title (Lydia Netzer’s sparkling Shine Shine Shine) making for one of my best months in a long time. Helping buoy that claim of “7! In one month!” was another novella, Nancy Collins’ Bram Stoker-nominated “The Thing from Lover’s Lane”.
Vellum by Hal Duncan, read by Bernard Setaro Clark for Audible, Inc. — I had not even read the back copy, and so had absolutely no idea what to expect. Maybe a fantasy set in a vaguely Scottish monastery, though full of the fantastic imagination and powerful writing I expected from the many recommendations I’ve received over the past few years for this book, also on my “first novels to be nominated for the World Fantasy Award” list. It turns out to be a novel of an endless war between angels and demons, re-cast and re-cast again and again through history and mythology from Enki to Enoch to Metatron. Much of the storyline is either contemporary, or set in a near future of VR and AR goggles. It is there a kinship with parts of Snow Crash is felt, though themes of deep linguistics and layers of archaelogy permeate the novel throughout. There’s a density of ideas and frame-shifting, mind-screwing avalanche of sensawunda that I can compare to only a few novels, like Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief or M. John Harrison’s Light. There’s also, through the multiple split by millenia and then decades timelines, somewhat reminiscent of Daren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, but a more apt comparison might be with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with souls replaying their dances across multiple lives. But these don’t really capture what’s going on at all, either. It’s brilliantly original and creative, heartbreakingly personal and yet epic, fantastical yet with technological elements as well. Fantastic book. (And I haven’t even touched the plot… which is perhaps a bit disjointed, adding to the effect of amazement over the imaginative romping Duncan is doing across myths and history, with a bleak, devastating gut-punch of an ending, with a mouth full of dirt for dinner.) The narration — let me back up. So, this book in its novel form is presented in such a way, told in such a way, that there were doubts as to how well the narrative could be followed in audio. But Clark was fantastic. I’d never heard of him — this looks to have been his first professional narration, which boggles the mind. (It looks like he spent the better part of 2012 narrating a dozen of Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels.) But he was wonderful: carrying Seamus’ Irish brogue, Metatron’s power, gritty when needed, soft when needed. A fantastic audiobook on top of a fantastic book.
The Thing from Lover’s Lane by Nancy Collins, read by Shandon Loring (review copy) — Originally published in the 1996 Martin Greenberg anthology “It Came from the Drive-In”, this Bram Stoker Award-nominated short novella sets a bit of lover’s lane “parking” gone wrong against Lovecraftian horror — so it goes horribly wrong. The setting includes the Miskatonic River and explicitly mentions something horrible happening in Dunwich, so we’re in the neighborhood when two lovers head down a logging road for some deep woods privacy. Something goes bump. Billy Mahan goes out to investigate, and his head is introduced to something with even less give. When Carol Anne Fairweather — whose parents already judge Billy as a good-for-nothing — tiptoes out of the car to investigate, someone (or some thing) brutally attacks her. Naturally Billy is the prime suspect, and so he heads back to the woods to clear his name, and begins to poke into the secrets of the evil which lurks in Misty Valley. The production here (unless I miss my guess, an ACX match between author Collins (who has continued to publish her longer stories in audio since “The Thing from Lover’s Lane”) and narrator Loring) is somewhere between a very good podcast and a professionally produced audiobook, with not quite as clean a room for as richly fidelious recording; there’s excellent voices for men and especially the mountain men, but women’s voices didn’t quite hold up. The opening lines in particular (from Carol Anne) were almost too soft to hear — indeed overall the audiobook was a bit quiet, though always listenable, and Loring’s mainline narration carried well the weight of fog and sleepy mountains of the setting. Still, under $5 for a Bram Stoker Award-nominated novella, it’s priced appropriately as a taste of something a little different.
Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer, read by Joshilyn Jackson for Macmillan Audio (review copy) — I came to this novel for the very near future NASA mission to the moon, and stayed for the fantastic writing and story and characters. On the “sf” front, it’s basically today, with a slight advance in self-replicating semi-intelligent moon mining robots ready to go and maybe one notch up in terms of space shuttle capability. These (though they play pivotal roles in both the plot and structure of the book) are not the focus of the book and aren’t in the foreground much at all, which is more specifically about a pregnant, congenitally bald woman, her high-functioning genius autistic husband (whom her mother, a strong badass woman, helped raise…) and their autistic son, Bubber. The through-line story for the novel sees Maxon already in space, with Sunny becoming involved in a car accident; using flashback chapters and asides, Metzer fills in the background for Maxon and Sunny (and Sunny’s mother’s story of marrying a Laos-bound missionary) and creates a fantastic portrait of the characters and their relationship. Meanwhile, both Sunny’s pregnancy and Maxon’s mission come to precarious pivot points, and at the same time Sunny’s mother continues to fade away in hospital. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, as well as the narration (and production, though more on that later). At first, I though Jackson’s voice was a little “young” (for lack of a better word perhaps) for my growing picture of Sunny, but came to quite appreciate what the narrator was doing on that front and found it gave another layer of realness to Sunny’s character. Plus, as some flashback scenes include an under-10 Sunny and Maxon, and then a teenage Sunny, and then a college-aged Sunny, I found the narration really able to capture this emotional and vocal arc. Jackson’s voices for Maxon and in particular Bubber (“like a duck’s… if a duck sounded like a robot”) are fantastic as well. Now a moment on the production: the novel concludes with an interview between author Metzer and narrator Jackson, in which I find just how well-matched this pairing is as the two are friends, and that Metzer had started the novel in 1999 (13 years until publication) while pregnant and halfway through her PhD program. Finally, the production concludes with two original music tracks which also added to the book, with lyrics like “inside a robot there is an animal, inside the animal there is a man … inside the mountain there is a rail station, inside the rail station there is a girl”and (said not quite earnestly) “robots are better than boys, they have no sweat they have no toys”. A deserving book I’ve seen on several year’s-best lists, well-narrated and produced.
V Wars edited by Jonathan Maberry, with stories by Maberry, Nancy Holder, Yvonne Navarro, James A. Moore, Gregory Frost, John Everson, Keith R. A. DeCandido, and Scott Nicholson, read by Cassandra Campbell, Gabrielle de Cuir, Roxanne Hernadez, Arte Johnson, Lisa Reneé Pitts, John Rubinstein, Stefan Rudnicki, and Wil Wheaton for Blackstone Audio (review copy) — V Wars is a woven shared world anthology which chronicles the opening chapters of an outbreak of vampirism. It opens with a police procedural, a throughline story by Maberry which re-appears throughout theanthology, read by Stefan Rudnicki. Then Nancy Holder’s story opens well outside of town, a “biker gang with an undercover officer story” I really liked. I think that post-apoc desert kind of works for me for vampire stories, where more regular urban settings which are mostly undisturbed just don’t make sense to me. THERE ARE FREAKING VAMPIRES, SOCIETY DOESN’T WORK. Anyway. By the time the first chapter of Holder’s story is in the books and you’ve poked at the table of contents, a few things are already apparent. First, this is a gorgeous production, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Second, these authors have gone to the mattresses and really come through with depth of character and setting. In all, it reminds me more of the first two of GRRM’s Wild Cards anthologies, which interleaving stories and recurring, well-tied-together storylines coming back and forth, a cadre of authors on their A-game and on the same page under a demanding editor, produced fantastically into the audiobook format — though for the Wild Cards anthologies, narrator Luke Daniels is on his own, and here, Rudnicki has quite a few friends. Also, it has begun to become apparent that, like Justin Cronin’s The Passage and The Twelve, Maberry is taking a more serious (from a literary perspective) and fresh look at vampire mythology in terms of characterization and development. We don’t have shallow or archetypal characters or simple situations. The threaded Maberry story, “Junk” (for “junk” DNA) story continues, followed by a new story’s kick-off, a talk show host named Danica fairly obviously turning into a vampire. Let me interrupt this for another aside… Note: there are vampires, some kind of virus type thing. You or someone you know having strange symptoms, and dreaming of rare meat? CLUE STICK. Still, this turns out interesting, as Danica uses her talk show connections to bring on vampire experts and get questions answered. Then: More “Junk” read by Rudnicki; here we see the vampire expert and an imprisoned vampire patient zero, both mentioned in the Talk Show story. Another key stories which come and go and return are “The Ballad of Big Charlie” which covers a (new) racially charged political campaign and “Vulpus” by Gregory Frost, which sees its characters going glacier climbing and taking samples, giving more specific climate change / arctic ice melt origins for the virus outbreak, and sets up the age-old werewolves vs. vampires mythology. The most fun story — the one written with the brightest, boldest, most exotic colors — might be “Stalking Anna Lei” by James A. Moore, read by Wil Wheaton. From the first person perspective of John Lei, a fourth generation American from San Francisco, and also a vampire. Wheaton has a great voice for the “giant green ogre” who is brutally mutilating its kills and has kidnapped John’s sister and set John up for the murder of the leader of a rival Triad gang. Naturally John must track down this ogre, and more than one high-action confrontation between supernaturals ensues. Meanwhile the Maberry/Rudnicki storylines have evolved from “Junk” to “Escalation” and “Embedded”, and finally “Last Bites” which has vampire anthropologist Swan speculating that there are many, many more vampires in hiding, due to the over-reacting war started by the US government. More shades of Wild Cards here, with themes of citizen rights, protests, etc. The inter-leaving narratives work best (at least for me…) if you keep notes about storylines and characters, and give yourself a chance to refresh from those notes when the storyline changes, particularly for remembering “Roadkill” (Nancy Holder’s biker gang story) characters across half the audiobook. Very well produced, directed by Gabrielle de Cuir, with well-cast narrators across the storylines. It can read very much like a threaded novel, and is quite a success from the standpoints of excellent narration, production, and setting up this shared world, though we don’t see too much of these “Wars” promised by the title, at least not at scale. Maybe that’s to come. (Also check out The Guilded Earlobe’s review.)
Between Two Fires. by Christopher Buehlman, read by Steve West for Blackstone Audio (review copy) — Reads a bit like GRRM’s A Game of Thrones, a gritty 14th century Hundred Years War era world of unscrupulous men — but instead of being at the scale of great lords, we have: Sets up with a trained but fallen Norman French knight (Thomas) rescuing a young girl (whose father has died from the plague) from being raped by his erstwhile bandit companions. The girl is a “weird witch” and a “pain in the ass”; she claims revelatory dreams and to be able to see people’s souls and presses Thomas to take her with him. She has a dream of going to Avignon — the site of the rival papacy to Rome. Comets are appearing in the sky. And really bad things are about to be afoot. It’s a wonderful narration by West, whom I haven’t heard before. I also loved the chapter titles “The thing in the murk” and so on, which while not giving too much away as to what was to come, helped set a theme for the chapters. Throughout, the girl is a light in the darkness between two fires, and slowly but surely her purity and faith begin to redeem Thomas, or at least begin to help him believe himself capable of redemption. This is quite a story, of redemption and forgiveness, with excellent use of language, light, and shadow, and darkness, yet there is a lightness of grace amidst the steep, dark tones of the world and the demons at play in it, as well as no small amount of levity and wit in the banter between Thomas and the girl. Here’s a perhaps flippant made-up blurb: “What if the gargoyles and saints carved into Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth came to life and waged war and plague? And about half of the side excursions into discursive description were cut?” Yet where Buehlman does turn up the descriptive prose, there are some beautifully crafted lines. If I were to nit-pick a few things: the narration was maybe a half-step too slow; it could have been a bit less leisurely and been quite clear. And the ending of the novel — not the epilogue, which was quite good — felt a bit rushed to me, and a bit more “tell” rather than “show”, though I can’t get into too many specifics here without offering up some fairly egregious spoilers. Certainly recommended and (from perusing many year’s best and favorites lists so far) apparently overlooked.
Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson, read by Jeff Cummings for Harper Audio (review copy) — The obvious analog here is William Gibson’s Distrust That Particular Flavor earlier this year, though Stephenson’s collection is longer and includes a dabble of fiction. Narrator Cummings here brings to life the sarcasm and gritted-teeth asides of Stephenson’s writing, with a voice that is very close to Stephenson’s own — an amazing casting job really. “Arsebestos” had me looking to put a walking treadmill workstation in at work, or at least finally transition to a standing workstation. The Slashdot interview is an interesting look back at the 2004 interview I probably submitted some questions for, and at least read. The final question, about publishing and copyright and digital distribution, is one I wonder if Stephenson has re-visited since. Then: Metaphysics of the Royal Society, giving background from The Baroque Cycle; Leibniz, monads, Loop Quantum Gravity, … A few pieces later, a speech to a college treads a lot of the same ground we’ve just heard, about the bifurcation of book cultures, geeking out vs. vegging out, etc. The longest piece is “Mother Earth, Mother Board” — the story of FLAG, the then-world’s longest telecom cable, with “hacker tourism” and some beautiful writing snuck in there. A bit hard to distinguish speaker in a couple rapid exchanges in The Salon interview, which being a complete author interview geek I read way back then, but well worth reading again. But, aha, gotcha! At 44:35 narrator Cummings says “revalent” instead of “relevant” which is what appears in the online text version of the interview. Overall the collection of essays (and that dabble of fiction, including something very Snow Crash ish and a throwaway first line of a The Hobbit fanfiction) more than anything made me remember why Neal Stephenson is my favorite author, despite not absolutely loving Reamde or the multi-author The Mongoliad in recent years. (Though it actually did add some authorial coloring to both of those books, as some germs for both are quite apparent in the essays.) And while several of the essays were of pieces which Stephenson aficionados would have already read, there were some new pieces (such as “Arsebestos” which again I very much enjoyed) and the chance to revisit these in audio was excellent. I do wish that we’d been given a bit more in terms of Stephenson’s reactions to re-reading the essays in the context of 2012, but it’s a good collection and well worth the time in listening.
Fantastic Imaginings: A Journey through 3500 Years of Imaginative Writing, Comprising Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction, compiled and edited by Stefan Rudnicki, with an introduction by Harlan Ellison, read by a full cast for Blackstone Audio — Wow. This one came out of nowhere for me, just showing up in Audible.com’s new releases on a Friday in mid-October, before the physical CD sets were published in mid-November. Harlan Ellison’s reading of his introduction is quite something; in this indeed “fantastic” audio anthology, which is a guided tour through genre fiction with Rudnicki as the guide, I encountered my first Silverberg story finally, as the first story, and later very much enjoyed hearing a sf story by Fritz Leiber, “A Pail of Air”. Sometimes someone has to hold your hand and direct you where to go. Crowley’s “Novelty” is a bit too meta to be the second piece (third counting the short Crane prose poem), but soon the anthology picks back up again to continually entertain and delight. Overall one gets the idea of a kind of Masterpiece Theatre for short speculative fiction, with musical interludes, Rudnicki in a massive leather armchair introducing themes and stories, with fantastic performances by some of the industry’s best narrators. Lew Shiner’s story visits the themes of time travel and music again, as in his wonderful novel Glimpses, though here we have Elvis Presley as a young serviceman, seeing his own awful future, visited by a destroyed Jimmy Dean, wondering. There was a bit of a “lull” for me in the middle of the anthology, as it covers the overly familiar territory of Greek myth, Dante’s Inferno, etc. I thoroughly enjoyed the next section, particularly the poem “Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti. Onward! The narration of W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Comet”, a forgotten masterpiece of early science fiction, is magnificent. Harlan Ellison’s reading of his (quite affecting) story seems sadly lower in recording quality, but half-way through I stopped noticing as the story pulled me along to the end. A Le Guin story; later, Rudnicki’s Irish/Scottish narration was actually better done than the softer English accent on another late 20th century story. Clark Ashton Smith’s story is short, but through long, obscure words it seems longer. An interesting affect. Finally, the anthology concludes with three essays. The first from Ben Bova, a second on the miserable life of Edgar Allen Poe — the Dickens connection was fascinating to me — and finally Orson Scott Card’s essay on childhood and sf. There are some great stories and performances, though it is heavy of late 19th and (more:) early 20th century American and English early Weird writers. Overall, an excellent addition to your library (or for libraries to carry), or simply listeners looking for a survey of stories and narrators. I wish I had time to put a better full article together, but instead have to just dump some of what I said when the audiobook was released, to get most of my thoughts into one place: Rudnicki’s aim with the anthology seems to be to demonstrate the power and primacy of fantastic and mythic fiction, and to trace the roots of and follow the permutations of various subgenres, drawn from the stories which inspired him and which became his favorites over his many years teaching in the fields of theatre history, drama, acting, directing, etc. While I don’t think this anthology achieves that indeed rarified aim in total (though what non-encyclopedic tome could?), what it does at certainly give me, in addition to simply an impressively produced and collected anthology, is something I am more than interested enough in: Rudnicki’s own germline in the fantastic. I have a keen interest in the voices which bring me the stories I love, and Rudnicki’s has been a huge part of my development as a listener, and his prodigies and co-conspirators in that pursuit also carry his influence. While some too-meta and obscure choices (Crowley’s “Novelty” for example) and double-dipping into the same mythological pool (Pan gets multiple feature-length treatments) crowd out a potentially more diverse set of selections (there are no writings from South American, African (other than a very brief examination of Hatshepsut), or Asian traditions, and very few from female writers) their power as stories cannot be denied, from Robert Silverberg’s “After the Myths Went Home”, a quite good choice to begin the anthology (after Ellison’s introduction and a short Stephen Crane poem), through selections from Arthur Rimbaud, Nikolai Gogol, Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith, W.E.B. DuBois, Ursula K. LeGuin, Ambrose Bierce, Lewis Shiner, R.A. Lafferty, Guy de Maupassant, on and on.
And lastly I snuck in the short-short Neil Gaiman free Halloween story, Click-Clack the Rattlebag. Since Dave reviewed that in full as part of his “All Hallow’s Listen” series, I’ll steal back some time and try to finally get to some November reviews.
November preview: In print I read Pizzula by David Foland and Jason Strutz, and the new edition of Mark Danielewski’s The Fifty Year Sword. In audio, I’ve had a pretty wide selection of review copies to choose from. For November I went with: Building Harlequin’s Moon by Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper, The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, Red Country by Joe Abercrombie, The Mongoliad: Book Two by Neal Stephenson (et al.), Mogworld by Yahtzee Croshaw, Clockwork Angels: The Novel by Kevin J. Anderson (read wonderfully by Neil Peart), and (borrowed from the library) Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.