Well, I’ve lapped myself in terms of getting out these so-called “monthly” listening reports, as these listens are all from a year (and counting) ago. But it was a fantastic month for me, with all four books showing up in my favorites of the year, spread across four genres: horror (The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates), heroic fantasy (No Return by Zachary Jernigan), literary speculative fiction (Life After Life by Kate Atkinson), and a hard-to-categorize novel of game development and friendship (You by Austin Grossman).
The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates, read by Grover Gardner for Harper Audio [review copy] — I wrote a brief review of this for my Received: March 2013 roundup: A leisurely, indulgent enigma of an historical/supernatural literary novel from Oates, set in early 20th century Princeton, New Jersey, under (Princeton University, not yet United States) President Woodrow Wilson, with characters such as Grover Cleveland, Upton Sinclair, Samuel Clemens, Jack London, and more arcing into the unusual narrative structure, that of the book being the historical account of a “curse” as compiled in the mid-20th century from a Princeton historian. Everything is couched, to me, in a kind of veil of deniability: is Oates publishing an overtly supernatural novel? Is in fact even this fictitious historian doing so, or is he merely reporting, via “deciphered” journals and other (perhaps suspect?) eyewitness accounts the (purporedly) biographical and historical details? This book had me very, very often at Wikipedia, cross-referencing the real history with that of The Accursed, all the while being drawn along slowly by the dry current of a strange, but thoroughly enjoyable, novel.
No Return by Zachary Jernigan, read by John FitzGibbon for Audible Frontiers [review copy] — I reviewed this on Audible back in April, so it’s an easy cut and paste here: In a crowded year of strong debut fantasy novels, “No Return” is a very strong contender. Beginning with an assured voice, a prologue of a pitiless landscape of an hallucinogenic salt lake, expanding out to a world whose currency is the powdered skin of an Elder race, populated by (among others) rival enclaves of warrior monks engaging in ritualized battles to defend and proselytize their competing faiths. There is a god with city-killing orbital kinetic ordinance at his whim; there are deeply weird and sexualized alchemistic magics; there are sentient constructs of magical metal spheres; there are dragons and ghosts.
The narrative is split along 5 principle points of view in a rotating fashion, across two primary storylines. In the first, it is a ‘journey’ narrative, in which we meet the three companions who form a bond as they travel to a massive gladiatorial tournament. These three are 1. a warrior monk, 2. a female sell-sword, and 3. a construct. In the other, it is a more political/academic setting of advanced magical research, and the power struggles (and competing lusts) of a senior mage and one of her more junior colleagues with experimental theories. These “outbound mages” make excursions to space, to observe the god and take measurements of his “spheres” — the two smallest of which had been used centuries before to demonstrate the planet-killing power at hand.
The world builds and deepens and widens; the journey narrative treks us through disparate peoples and landscapes and histories, developing the characters and (through flashbacks) providing back stories as well. Throughout there’s always the atmosphere of a deeper world at work, at mysteries not yet revealed. Who is the god Adrash, what does he want? Building toward dual climaxes in both narratives and powering on into denouement and stage-setting for a sequel, a lengthy epilogue serves to further widen the mysteries of this world by another deep breath. All in all, a very strong, no-holds-barred and emotionally impactful debut novel by Jernigan, whose short fiction I have followed on and off through M-BRANE SF and Asimov’s. His is a bold, determined voice, with a razor’s edge balance of rawness and assuredness; each character’s point of view was distinct and fully realized. This is absolutely an heroic fantasy novel not to be missed.
I had never heard of the narrator John FitzGibbon before; presumably he was found by Audible through taking on stipend-eligible ACX titles. In any case he appears to be a US stage actor, and this training serves him exceedingly, exceedingly well. There are some passages of potentially uncomfortable content, from eviscerating violence to explicit sexual encounters. FitzGibbon does not shy away from any of these, nor over-emphasize in a campy way. His voices for each character are solid and distinct, bringing accents which accentuate the character’s backgrounds. In particular his voice for the construct, Berun, is as outstanding a character voice as you’ll find in audio.
Life after Life by Kate Atkinson, read by Fenella Woolgar for Hachette Audio — I’d been hearing great things about this book for months, starting with multiple Lev Grossman interviews where he heaped “book of the year” style praise, and continuing on with starred reviews left and right. The novel did not disappoint. A powerful, mesmerizing, beautifully-written book which shows over the course of dozens of Ursula’s lifetimes the horror of the Blitz like no novel in my memory, and opens with a daring scene like a navigational star for the course of the book. Born again and again on a snow night in England, 1910, Ursula dies at childbirth, strangled on the umbilical cord. She’s born again and dies of the flu. Of falling down the stairs. Of drowning in the sea. Bit by bit, a deja vu of these previous lives prickles at her memory, guiding her ever-so-slightly here or there at times, ever towards the dramatic confrontation — a gun in her hand, pointed at Hitler’s head in pre-WW2 Germany — depicted in the prologue. She dies in the Blitz. She survives the Blitz to old age. She volunteers. She emigrates to Germany and later endures a Russian siege. A question, though: Why are we inhabiting the early 1900s so much right now? The Accursed, Downton Abbey, now Life after Life. Is it a longing for a supposedly simpler time, of clearly good and clearly bad? I suppose that question is well out of bounds for a short review… In any case, Life after Life ended up in my top 3 audiobooks and books of 2013, and should not be missed. It’s one of the rare books that does what the best books do: breaks you apart and rebuilds you into something new, both more fragile and more resilient than before.
You by Austin Grossman, read by Will Collyer for Hachette Audio —I enjoyed Grossman’s superhero debut Soon I Will Be Invincible, and was looking forward to seeing what the past several years has done to develop Grossman’s authorial talents. As a software engineer myself, the idea of large software projects taking on lives of their own, mysterious glitches, the intrigue of lost, forgotten code emerging from the dark, is right up my alley, and I did very much enjoy this one; both as a “software engineer by day” who has worked for quite a long time in a big software project release environment, and as a gamer, this one really was quite fantastic: with apologies to Jonathan Coulton, this is what it feels like to write software for a living. The Guilded Earlobe does have a full review up, which sits as a kind of mid-point I think of the range of responses to the book. I think some of the range comes from the book being pitched a bit as something that it wasn’t. Taken as what it was, and (again) as someone who writes and tests big software projects for a living, and grew up playing a lot of games similar to those that are featured in You, I loved it. If you go into it thinking it is going to be an AI thriller of international high stakes game development gone wrong, well then, you‘ve been sent down the wrong path. (For that, might I recommend Richard Dansky’s Vaporware, which is also more complex than that but also does have that? In fact, how about this: a reading list for gamers: Joel Rosenberg’s Guardians of the Flame series, Yahtzee Croshaw’s Mogworld, Stephenson’s The Big U and Reamde, Lev Grossman’s Codex, J.L. Hilton’s Stellarnet Rebel, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, Scott Meyer’s Off to Be the Wizard, and (of course) Austin Grossman’s You and Richard Dansky’s Vaporware. With two bonus levels, one for programmers, Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, and one about the history of Dungeons & Dragons, David M. Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men.)
Whew. Well, I’m sure also that I read some books (or more likely some of a book) and some comic books in April 2013, listened to some podcasts, etc. but it all escapes me at this remove. On to finally getting to reviews only a year old, and staying on the “lead lap”…