ALL SYSTEMS RED is a story, entertaining and well-written, that one can read in about 4 hours. Rated PG-13 for adult themes. I read this novella on a flight from Minneapolis to Seattle. I flew on Delta and none of the airline’s tv/film options seemed very thrilling to me. I often try to see HBO or Showtime options when on a flight because I don’t subscribe to either of those services in real life. Thank goodness I had taken this book with me, hardback, but thin, lightweight and easy to pack because it’s only 127 pages.
And now, for my Short, No-Spoiler Review
I highly recommend ALL SYSTEMS RED for these 5 reasons.
- Original voice…the narrator has the appeal of an innocent, he/she is like a child, yet holds the capacity to narrate a futuristic society inhabited by humans and AI living and working together
- Genre bending…science fiction merged with mystery…in other words, a page-turner
- Thought-provoking ideas about AI and how future humans might understand morality/humanity in regards to AI
- Interesting world-building and a great set-up for subsequent stories
- ALL SYSTEMS RED would make a great audiobook. See the longer review for more
Martha Wells has created a fascinating universe of humanity working and living off Earth, in space, in places that can only be reached via light-speed travel. She doesn’t fixate on the physics of the issue (regarding traveling across vast distances) but focuses on the gritty work life of humans and their bots. In the author’s futuristic world, full AI exist as sex workers and security units (SecUnits) and other helps in life. Also, some humans adopt robotic parts (augmented humans). So, there is a mix of how humans have integrated with tech and within the story world, there is little “judgment” about these realities.
While this is all true, the AI mind that narrates this story has a judgment about itself and humans. The view is not completely skewed toward disgust for humans, though there is some leaning in this regard. Granted, I’ve only read the first 1.5 novellas. But what works in the narrative is that Wells has put forward a more dispassionate, yet charming view of the world the way it is. I highly recommend these novellas as entertainment and am slowly discovering how they speak into deeper moral questions around humanity’s race toward the future, a future in which robots and artificial intelligence will be embedded.
Regarding the narrator. The voice is absolutely charming. I did not listen to the book, but can imagine the voice. This book would be a pleasure to listen to.
To buy the first book, click on All Systems Red
Four of the series in hardback can be bought together. Click on Murderbot Diaries
For the least expensive version to try out novella #1, click on Kindle version: All Systems Red
For the audio version of novella #1, click on Audio of All Systems Red
Five Reasons I recommend WIDOWLAND, by C.J. Carey
- Excellent pacing and page-turning tension
- A female hero who comes into her agency in a believable way
- Legit world-building of a bleak UK governed by Nazis
- The writing around the sexual relationships feels vital and true (more on this in the longer review)
- Given the consistent point of view and straightforward timeline, I’m guessing this would make a great audiobook
To purchase WIDOWLAND, click here
The Longer Review…
To control the past, they edited history. To control the future, they edited literature.
WIDOWLAND is an alternative history novel, set in London, 1953. This story would probably carry a PG-13 rating because of the sexual relationships although none of the sex scenes were explicit. For this reason, I wavered on the rating. Overall, the main sex scene was tastefully, even beautifully handled in terms of the emotional weight it carries within the story.
In this alternative history, Germany has invaded the UK and Hitler rules over it as a protectorate. The coronation of Edward the VIII (Queen Elizabeth’s uncle) and the American divorcee, Queen Wallis, is taking place soon. Significant because The Leader, Hitler himself will descend on London for the celebration. The soon-to-be King and Queen of England are collaborators with the Nazis, based on an actual historical and private meeting that took place between the Edward and Hitler at the Berghof in 1937. (No record of the meeting has survived).
The story, told in close third person by the main character, Rose Ransom, opens with a description of London preparing for the coronation. Through Rose’s eyes, the world unfolds. The reader quickly understands, that although Rose holds little power in the system, she sits at the top of the subjugated population as a Geli. She is young and her view of reality is sometimes naive and not always reliable, but the discoveries she makes along the way are a part of how Carey maintains tension in the story. The reader senses the danger she does not.
This is a story about a woman and about women living under Nazi occupation. Carey could have gone overboard painting the world, but deftly focuses the reader’s attention on the kind of oppression that exists in England for the vulnerable. The elderly, women and widows in particular, suffer under the yoke of the Nazis. She highlights the caste system which categorizes the “utility” of women. In this early excerpt, the reader begins to understand Carey’s 1953 London.
Members of the first and elite caste were popularly called Gelis after the woman most loved by the Leader, his niece Geli. Klaras–after the Leader’s mother–were fertile women who had produced, ideally, four or more children. Lenis were professional women, such as office workers and actresses, after Leni Riefenstahl, the regime’s chief film director. Paulas, names after the Leader’s sister, were in the caring professions, teachers and nurses, whereas Magdas were lowly shop and factory employees and Gretls did the grunt work as kitchen and domestic staff. There was a range of other designations–for nuns, disabled mothers and midwives–but right at the bottom of the hierarchy came the category called Friedas. It was a diminutive of the nickname Friedhöfefrauen–cemetary women. These were the widows and spinsters of over fifty who had no children, no reproductive purpose, and who did not serve a man.
There was nothing lower than that.
Rose first runs into trouble when the Cultural Commissioner of the UK Protectorate asks that she help him solve a mystery. She is to venture into Widowland and spy on a group of Friedas. An uprising is bubbling to the surface in London right as Hitler is set to arrive. These disempowered women are the suspected Nazi resisters. The clock is ticking and Rose’s big boss makes known to her that more than just her job is on the line if she fails.
What unfolds is a story of discovery for Rose and choices that will impact many.
One comment about the sexual relationships in this novel. The sex is not explicit. There is an implied disorder to the relationship between Rose and her lover, who is twenty-five years her senior. The power dynamics and how German men use power to procure beautiful young women is a part of the world these characters inhabit and is taken for granted in the novel world. However, the author adds a scene that is emblematic of sex within a loving relationship. The revelation that comes to Rose and the writing around this encounter are so poignant and beautiful, I will remember this passage of writing for a long time.
It’s August, which means we’re almost done with summer, but it is not too late to steer your teen away from screens and toward reading. I have a soft heart for parents of teens. I have two kids and know well the battle parents wage relentlessly to engage their teens with anything other than their devices. (Truth…we parents have an addiction as well…which is why tackling this issue is so tricky!).
But why even fight? Why fight the powerful riptide that sucks our kids into the digital universe?
I interviewed reading specialist, Dr. Marnie Ginsberg, who focuses on training teachers of early readers and has two teenagers of her own. Even she is familiar with the struggle! This is what she says about teen reading…
“Good teen readers read hundreds of hours more each year than average readers. As a result of this reading practice, they keep developing their reading achievement. And reading achievement is strongly correlated with so many positive outcomes for teens and their future selves that one can hardly count them all…”
Dr. Ginsberg’s list included these: “Higher reading achievement leads to…
- better school achievement–in all subject areas, including math
- stronger oral and written language knowledge and skills
- better job prospects
- higher wage earnings
- better health; and even better life expectancy!
- Besides these long-term benefits, time spent reading helps in immediate ways, too, such as mood regulation and stress reduction.”
Yet, Dr. Ginsberg said that most teens today are not reading enough to enjoy these varied benefits of high reading achievement. Multimedia usage instead, soaks up most of the typical teen’s day–upwards of 8 hours a day.
If you are an educator and want to learn more about how to better teach young readers the skills that will help them succeed at reading, check out her website. ReadingSimplified
Discovering Great Stories Your Teens Will Love…
The challenge for parents and teachers is to help the teens in their life discover great stories. Our kids still love stories, but they tend to take them in via the screen. Stranger Things, the Netflix hit, is one example, which became a must see event each season for most of our teenagers. Another must-see event, the latest Avengers’ blockbuster. Who will stand in line for a ticket and a seat? Those who want to engage the current story and amazingly, our teens want to do that in community. Great stories bring communities together.
Stories still matter us and they matter to our kids. Let this be your best ammunition as a parent. If you work hard at finding good stories in the books you are putting in front of them, your kids have a much better chance of actually reading.
Compelling stories are waiting to be uncovered by you/your teen, but how do you find them? Try going to Goodreads (book review site) or googling something like The Top 10 New Novels for Teens. Also, follow the lead of your teen who might have a favorite author or genre. I would advise heading to a library over a bookstore when looking for the right story because librarians are golden when it comes to know what is the latest great story for teens.
A goot librarian is like a matchmaker. Librarians read enough to know the answer to a question like this…What is the best Middle Grade book with a female protagonist who isn’t an orphan that is under 300 pages. A great librarian will be able to give your teen one or two books that fit that description.
However, if you’re in a hurry and a little stuck, check out reviews on my website (not all are teen appropriate), but here are a few I would put forward that are…
All these books except for AMERICAN BORN CHINESE are speculative fiction or sci-fi. To find out if the book is right for your teen, all of these books (with the exception of DOGSBODY) are reviewed on my site. You can find them via the search function.
- FEED, by MT Anderson. To buy the audiobook, click here.
- THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, by Nancy Farmer. To buy this audiobook, click here.
- DOGSBODY, By Dianna Wynne Jones. Click here to buy.
- DESCENDER SERIES (graphic novel series), by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen (See below for links to purchase)
- AMERICAN BORN CHINESE (graphic novel), by Gene Luen Yang. Click here to purchase.
In addition to finding the right stories. Here are a few strategies that will encourage teen reading
- Take a road trip where screens are forbidden in the car and listen to an audiobook that everyone has agreed on. Bonus…if you pick the first book in a series (and there are many of those out there), your teen might pick up the subsequent books on his/her own.
- Make it a summer tradition (or an all-year tradition) to read aloud together as a family before bed each night. I know a few families that practice this habit and their kids cherish the time. Think of it in a similar category as watching television together…
- Don’t despise the graphic novel. There are sophisticated stories, characters and lengthy dialogue to be had in the modern graphic novel.
- Go on a phone-free, screen-free vacation where every member of the family gets to take his/her own book of choice This NY Times article gives tips on how to best unplug in case one phone must come along.
Today, I look at China Miéville’s, EMBASSYTOWN. Beware of spoilers. This won’t be a review of the novel, but a study of the Ariekei, the aliens indigenous to the planet Arieka.
First, a little advice…If you have the opportunity, consume EMBASSYTOWN via audiobook. To buy EMBASSYTOWN via Audible, click here. To buy the physical novel, EMBASSYTOWN click here. Language is central to the story, but the Ariekei language is best experienced when heard rather than read, therefore my encouragement to read via Audible. The Ariekei (also known as the hosts) speak from two mouths at once. One mind, but two words emerge from the creature when it vocalizes. In the audio reading, the sound producers overlay two words spoken at once, like hearing two notes played at the same time. The effect is marvelous and strange.
For a synopsis: One human culture, the Bremen, has adapted and figured out a method of speaking with and listening to the indigenous population of Arieka, a planet on the edge of the known universe. Their motivation for doing so is to maintain a colony on Arieka. Like a typical colonial power, the Bremen dig for metals and also trade with the Ariekei, whose biotech is advanced and valuable across the known universe. The Ariekei are advanced in many respects, but their language does not allow them to lie or even speculate.
Conflict arises in EMBASSYTOWN when one Bremen ambassador introduces lying into the Ariekei language. He does this in the hopes of taking control of the host population, but chaos ensues. The main character, a woman named Avice Benner Cho, steps in to save those living on the planet, both human and Ariekei.
How does Miéville give the aliens, the Areikei, personality and tap into audience empathy?
- Similar to the film Arrival (see post 2 of 3), point of view is key. POV rests in one human character who is relatable. Avice narrates this tale in the first person. Not only is she human, she was raised on Arieka and is known by the indigenous population. She is returning to her home after many years of traveling through space. Avice is the “in between” character. She describes, interprets and translates for the audience.
- Miéville finds colorful shorthand ways of describing the physical and personality attributes of particular Ariekei. Miéville, through his narrator, Avice gives the aliens nicknames, like Spanish Dancer. It’s genius because this shorthand gives the audience color, shape and depth to individual Ariekei and is so much better than than referring to all of them as “insect-horse-coral-fan things” another set of descriptors Avice muses on in the novel. An artist’s rendering in the top image is not necessarily what I had imagined when I pictured the Spanish Dancer, but Miéville doesn’t need me to have that specific picture in my mind. The broad brush strokes are there in the nickname and not just any nickname…calling the creature a dancer implies grace and dignity. The name takes an alien that might be perceived as monstrous and draws our attention to its beauty and gentleness. Maybe this is why ocean scientists call the sea creature (pictured above) a Spanish Dancer. The moniker is descriptive and if I’m visiting an aquarium staring at this thing through glass, if I am thinking of dancers instead of monsters, my eyes are drawn to its beauty. Miéville is doing the same thing when he has Avice call one particular Ariekei, The Spanish Dancer.
- The Ariekei have known Avice since she was a child. Avice has a positive association with the Ariekei. She was raised on their planet and thrived. Humans and Ariekei have lived together for many years in peace. This underlying truth makes a difference in how the audience feels about the Ariekei.
- The Ariekei are vulnerable to human abuse. The narrative of indigenous people groups used and abused by empires and greedy civilizations is not an uncommon story for the current sci-fi reading audience. Miéville dips into that narrative in this novel, portraying the aliens as complex, but also also as innocent, in large part because their language makes it impossible for them to lie. The audience empathizes with the vulnerable indigenous population. The narrative of “empire” taking over the “innocents” and using them for its own gain is familiar. That story taps into the audience’s empathy and our empathy lies with the Ariekei in this case.
- Avice relates to individual Ariekei, Miéville’s way of showing the audience that the Ariekei are not a monolith. Spanish Dancer is the most important Ariekei to the story, but there are others. As Avice relates to her and describes her and other Ariekei, the audience recognizes that though they are different from humans, the Ariekei are not all the same as one another. They are distinct in appearance and personality just as human beings are distinct from one another. (contrast this reality with the hive mind aliens, like the Formics in the Ender’s Game series, or the big computer brain of the Cylons “toasters” in Battle Star Galactica television series. I will tackle hive mind aliens in my final post on this topic.
The Short Review. Why or Why not Read ACCEPTANCE?
- I already consumed the first two in the trilogy and like to finish things
- I wanted to understand more of the mystery that is Area X. There was definitely more backstory to absorb in this volume
- I enjoyed the deeply flawed, but thoughtful characters
- I wanted to spend more time in the imaginative world of Area X
- The writing style was unique and often beautiful
Why avoid reading?
- Because the point of view was shifting all the time, it was a challenge to attach to any one character
- Disappointing ending
- The writing style grew stale after a while…lots of interior musings and struggles without enough plot or even conflict (the conflict is underlying, but too diffuse for my tastes)
- Not only does VanderMeer shift points of view with every chapter, he also moves back and forth between past and present
- I started this book on audio, but switched to print about a 1/3 of the way through because POV and time switching was too confusing
To buy ACCEPTANCE, click here.
To buy the SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY, click here.
The Longer Review of ACCEPTANCE
If you read my earlier reviews, you understand that I started out a big fan of Annihilation. Not only was the main character, compelling, but the mysteries that unfolded in the narrative created the perfect amount of tension to keep me engaged. I’m guessing this was true for many other readers interested in the interior life of this quietly observant biologist as she ventures into Area X. The biologist (she is never named in the book) is at the heart a true scientist and in certain respects more attuned to flora and fauna than to people, but she observes people with a scientific eye. She is spooky, highly intelligent and trustworthy as a narrator in surprising and interesting ways. I really loved this character. I loved that she was introverted and anti-social. She also had clear motivation to act because her husband had been on a previous mission into Area X and returned damaged before succumbing to death She is a worthy rival to the various human and monster challengers that get in her way. In fact, she is such a great character that Alex Garland (screenwriter) took the story and created a feature-length film around her, that character played wonderfully by Natalie Portman. I loved the film, but it is not the same story told in the trilogy, nor is it the same story told in the novel after which it is named. The film narrative diverges in significant ways. I will post my review of the film tomorrow. I ought not say more unless I spoil the story.
What to say about VanderMeer’s style? Be prepared for words like ziggurat to be on the page. His writing is lovely and intellectually gratifying if you’re interested in imaginative metaphors and curious juxtapositions. This language mimics the beauty and strangeness of Area X. Here is an excerpt:
In Control’s imagination, the entrance to the topographical anomaly was enormous, mixed with the biologist’s vast bulk in his thoughts so that he had expected a kind of immense ziggurat upside down in the earth. But no, it was what it had always been: a little over sixty feet in diameter, circular, located in the middle of a small clearing. The entrance lay there open for them, as it had for so many others. No soldiers here, nothing more unusual than the thing itself.
I’m not opposed to imaginative language, but the extensive descriptions did sometime bog down the story for me, especially when I was trying to consume the book via audio. With a passage like above, I would sometimes have to rewind…What did he just say? Did he say ziggurat?
Finally, my reticence to fully praise this trilogy is that the mystery is not explained to my satisfaction. Too many unanswered questions. I guess VanderMeer has another novel called Area X, but given this group of books, Annihilation, Authority and ACCEPTANCE are presented to the world as a trilogy…I want satisfaction by the end of the third book. I don’t want to have to pick up another novel to figure out the answers I need.
Regarding the audio experience. For whatever reason, my brain struggles to follow an audio narrative that jumps around in point of view and in the timeline like this novel did. I struggled with this same issue when I listened to The Three Body Problem. Annihilation as an audio book was easier to listen to. It was straightforward, narrated by one character in the first person and unfolded more or less in a linear timeline (with a few memories/backstory as a part of filling out the character). That narration works well for me. I’m curious for those of you who consume a lot of audio books if you have these same struggles? Drop me a line and let me know.
I write this post in honor of International Women’s Day and I hope it might spur you to pick up a novel or download an audiobook that you might not have read without a little urging. You won’t be disappointed!
With that said, here’s the list:
- Octavia Butler
- Ursula K. Le Guin
- Margaret Atwood
- N.K. Jemisin
- Julian May
Octavia Butler, author of KINDRED, passed away in 2006. She was one of a handful of women to win multiple Nebula and Hugo Awards, as well as the Arthur C. Clarke Award. If you’re starting out and want a great taste of Butler’s writing, order or pickup BLOOD CHILD AND OTHER STORIES The novelette, BLOOD CHILD, won both the Nebula and the Hugo. If you’re a fan of graphic novels, try this version of KINDRED: GRAPHIC NOVEL
Ursula K. Le Guin, author of THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS passed away last year. Many love her for her fantasy, but she is perhaps chief among our mothers in the pantheon of many fathers who have written the most important science fiction in the last 40 years. She was the first woman to win a Nebula award and a Hugo, for THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. My review of the novel is here. Much adored by her fans is the THE EARTHSEA CYCLE novels that were intentionally targeted at the young adult audience (Le Guin was encouraged by her publisher to do so.)
Margaret Atwood, author of THE HANDMAID’S TALE, for which she won a Nebula award, The Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Booker Prize, has a contemporary fan base since her novel was adapted to television by HBO. That novel is worthy of your attention, but so are many of her others, like ORYX AND CRAKE, the first in the The MaddAddam Trilogy.
N.K. Jemisin is blowing the socks off the scifi community with her brilliant story-telling and characters that breathe prophetic. The Broken Earth Trilogy belongs on every scifi fan’s shelf. She is the first author in the history of the Nebula to win three awards in three consecutive years. For a dip into her writing, try some of her short stories, many of which are award-winning and/or brilliant in their own right. This collection is what you need. HOW LONG ‘TIL BLACK FUTURE MONTH: STORIES
Julian May passed away last year and will be the most obscure recommendation I make. I do so because I recently discovered her and feel her scifi to be completely wonderful, different and imaginative in a way I had not expected. She’s written a series called The Saga of Pliocene Exile which is a riveting tale with fantastic and memorable characters. I reviewed THE MANY COLORED LAND in the Fall. You can read the review here.
Women bring a unique voice to the science fiction landscape and they have mostly been welcomed by those who love the genre. They are still out-numbered on the shelves of your local bookstore and it’s good to be reminded of the best.
Who are your favorite female authors within the genre? I’d love to hear who you love.
AUTHORITY, by Jeff VanderMeer, A Book Review Without Spoilers.
First, A Little Data About this Book Review
- I listened to the novel via Audible and felt it was difficult to follow and a little boring, this after loving the Audible version of ANNIHILATION.
- AUTHORITY is the second book in the Southern Reach Trilogy. ANNIHILATION being the first, ACCEPTANCE is the third
- I have not yet read ACCEPTANCE, but have been told by a trusted scifi-reading friend that the trilogy is worth reading overall
The Short Review.
I Give this Book a Semi-Enthusiastic yes. Read AUTHORITY for these reasons:
- The story maintains the overall tension as introduced in the first novel.
- It may not resolve completely, but the novel reveals enough enticing details to make the reading worthwhile.
- The narrator character is the protagonist and insists on being called Control. Though I’m not fond of him, he establishes a relevant relationship to someone who has survived Area X.
- The writing itself, as is consistent with ANNIHILATION, has lovely moments.
So…if AUTHORITY was a stand alone novel, I might not write a stellar review and I would give up on reading any other VanderMeer novels, but since I loved ANNIHILATION so much, I will read on. If you’re curious about my review of the first Southern Reach novel, click here for the ANNIHILATION REVIEW
In AUTHORITY, the narrator is a male who calls himself Control. His birth name is John Rodriguez. He is the new director of the Southern Reach. In an early introduction, he insists that his colleagues call him Control. I realize the title of this novel is AUTHORITY and that the book is much about who has authority in the confusing situation that is taking place in and around Area X. This was another reason I was annoyed by John Rodriguez’s moniker. It felt like the author was trying to make me think in a certain direction and less about a person. I didn’t like that.
Control seems like a weirdo, socially. I was not fond of his narrative voice, nor his behaviors or leadership. Control does not compel me. I feel a distance from this character that I think I’m supposed to feel compassion for. Since the story is being told by him, in the first person, I can’t get away from him. I would have stopped listening had I not been told by a friend that the final book and the whole arc of the three books make sense when you finish them.
Despite me not feeling a connection to this narrator character, I can see why author, VanderMeer, changes perspective in this book. He wants the reader to receive another view into Area X. That which is mysterious and difficult to describe, much less understand in Area X, is seen from another angle in this novel. Control provides the US military/intelligence/bureaucratic angle as well as some recent history.
Given that the reader knows the content of ANNIHILATION, that Area X has consumed a number military and government expeditions, the background is helpful to the larger story.
But, for me, the main silver lining around this new narrator was that the reader finally received a physical description of the narrator and protagonist from the previous book.
“The biologist’s hair had been long and dark brown, almost black, before they’d shaved it off. She had dark, thick eyebrows, green eyes, a slight, slightly off-center nose (broken once, falling on rocks), and high cheekbones that spoke to the strong Asian heritage on one side of her family…”
This description does make me bummed about the filmmakers of ANNIHILATION casting the biologist for the cinematic story as a white woman (Natalie Portman) with zero (or near zero) Asian heritage. Bummed for many mixed-race actresses out there who did not get this part.
I will listen to the next book, AUTHORITY, on Audible. I hope to enjoy it more than this middle novel.
Click here to buy ANNIHILATION, Bk 1 of The Southern Reach Trilogy
Click here to buy AUTHORITY, Bk 2 of the Southern Reach Trilogy
Click here to buy ACCEPTANCE, Bk 3 of The Southern Reach Trilogy
THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION
by Nancy Farmer
read by Raúl Esparza
8 out of 10
Highly Recommend! This listen is perfect for a family road trip because the novel is well written and engaging enough to capture the interest of a variety of story-lovers, young and old. The audio voices are well-performed by actor, Raúl Esparza (Ferdinand, Law & Order: Special Victim’s unit) and the story lends itself easily to the listening ear.
5 Reasons for such a strong review:
1. Initially, there are few characters to follow and as new ones are introduced, the listener can maintain a grip on who everyone is…including, there are a number of characters with accents and very distinct voices (performed well by Esparza).
2. The point of view is third person, it stays close to Matt. It does not jump around from character to character.
3. The repetition of little stories told mostly by El Patrón, work like anchors for the listening brain. I write about this in my review of the novel, THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION Repetition is a common story-telling technique, much like songwriters or poets will use a chorus or a repeated stanza to drive a point home.
4. The writing is top notch, which means, the dialogue is well written. The dialogue feels authentic, like real people talking.
5. Description of Opium takes place slowly and organically. The listener doesn’t have to absorb a huge amount of exposition, the describing of places, houses, rooms, plants, animals, people etc..takes place incrementally. Matt’s life starts out small and his view of Opium is narrow, but little by little, as he learns, the listener learns. Details are added that are important, but not all at once. It makes the audio format easy to follow.
For more on how to choose a good audiobook, see Part II The Rise of the Audio Book
What to look for when choosing a book, especially if you’re a novice audiobook consumer…
Today, as I was having my teeth cleaned, my dental hygienist told me she is NOT a reader these days because of having two little girls to whom she reads all the time (a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old), but has found herself addicted to Audible when she drives, cooks and does other chores. She tells me while I am flat on my back, my mouth opened as wide as it will go,
“I fall asleep when I pick up a book to read right before bed, but during the day, I’m finding it so much fun to listen to a romance novel. I’m a sucker for a good love story.”
Audiobook listeners are coming out of the woodwork to talk to me when I indicate that I am writing this post. I don’t have enough data to know if this is a true cultural phenomena, but something is definitely percolating among us.
Like our ancestors of old, we still LOVE listening to stories. If you’re not an audio book-o-phile, consider this…
- More and more, writers and publishers are thinking about the audio platform and their customers who like to hear a story. They are organizing books to cater to our ear, for example, making chapter titles to anchor the listening ear and investing in professional actors as readers.
- You can download many audiobooks from your library for free…right at your fingertips, no subscription necessary…just a library card.
- If you need more choice, try Scribd’s free 30-day trial.
- You can do the same with Audible.
But, how will you know what will be a satisfying listening experience? Here are a few tips, my opinions on the best audio books and the ones to be wary of…
Say YES to these audiobooks…
- Theatrical Productions. Great if you’re listening to a play and can be fun for multi-character stories. Back in the cassette tape era, our family listened to a version of THE HOBBIT, produced by a company of actors under the label Mindspring. The production was originally done for radio and I say version of THE HOBBIT because I believe they edited out/streamlined some of the longer descriptive portions of the novel. My children often listened while they took baths (sometimes for an hour or more…getting extra clean). They begged to hear and re-hear the Bilbo/Gollum dialogue and the Smaug/Bilbo interactions. The varied voices captivated their imaginations.
- Well-reviewed Professional Actors Reading Fiction…Those able to perform the various voices are sought after. The best are employed to read best sellers…like…Harry Potter. There exists (believe me…I found out as I wrote this post…the debate is rabid) an epic debate about who voiced the characters better between two readers, Stephen Fry or Jim Vale…both brilliant in their own right, Fry reads the British version of HP and Dale reads the American version. I am not picky! I recommend both versions! This link to the very real debate reveals how nerdy the listening audience can be…and how nerdy Harry Potter fans often are:
- Any Compelling Story told in First Person. This means, as a listener, you get to stick with one point of view for all of the tale (or, at least most of the tale). HUCKLEBERRY FINN is a good example, so is HUNGER GAMES and one of my recent favs, ANNIHILATION. The first person narration puts the listener in the head of one person, usually the main character, and the main character only. Many find it easier to follow one voice as a listener because you become acquainted with that narrator, the sound, mood and tone of the voice, the opinions held by him/her. You don’t always have to trust the narrator’s opinions, but at least you know him/her and maintain that point of view as an anchor when navigating the story universe in your imagination. At the end of this article I will post a few more science fiction first person narrations I recommend.
- Tried and Tested Non Fiction Authors. Writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis are a great fit for the beginner audio consumer simply because they are such great communicators in writing and in speaking (they read their own audio versions). And, as always, you can also read reviews at Audible or ScribD’s online stores or google the information like the bestselling non-fiction audio books A list like this will point you in the right direction.
What to avoid if you’re unused to listening to stories…
- A Novel with Many Characters and Storylines. I enjoyed the novel, THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, but there were two things made that book a challenging listen…one was the vast number of character, some with semi-similar names. Since the book was originally written in Mandarin Chinese and my ear is not used to listening to the sounds and hearing the distinction regarding names, I was mixing up characters for a while before I got them straight. If I had had the physical book in front of me, I could have used the handy character list at the beginning of the book to keep myself straight. This story also jumps point of view, so anchoring in one mind and one voice were not an option.
- A Novel with Long Descriptive Passages. Tolkien fits into this mold. It’s not that you can’t listen to his books, but they might be challenging for beginners. I’m an audio learner and even my mind wanders when listening to Tolkien, especially portions of THE TWO TOWERS, as the vast landscape around Rohan is described for page after page.
- Poorly Written Anything with Poorly Constructed Characters. I might be a snob here, but certain novels that are written by men in particular who write “their fantasy” of a man (a super brilliant spy or detective, for example) and stereotype women as needy or pseudo-independent, but are really dependent on the super spy dude and the writer denigrates all the main character’s rivals and writes dialogue that is cliché or just terrible to listen to…um…I don’t like those books in any form, not in audio, not in print, not on the screen. My husband and I listened to a book like this for a few hours until I could stomach it no further. We never finished it.
- Beware of the Textbook. Unless that textbook writer is a master storyteller, don’t start with this genre. Not that you can’t work your way up to it, but the kind of info that is dumped onto the page of a textbook is often so dense, it’s better to read with highlighter in hand and in shorter spurts.
And now for THE LIST
Recent audiobooks I loved:
ANNIHILATION by Jeff Vandermeer (scifi), first person narration
EMBASSY TOWN by China Miéville (scifi), first person narration
THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir (scifi), mostly first person narration
The first ¾ of THE POWER OF HABIT by Charles Duhigg (non fiction) compelling subject matter for anyone
THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION by Nancy Farmer (YA speculative fiction), great story, few characters
Audiobooks that were a challenge to listen to:
THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, by Liu Cixin (scifi) for me, too many storylines and characters
the last ¼ of THE POWER OF HABIT by Charles Duhigg (non fiction)…it felt redundant and repetitive by the end. I quit before finishing, but I’m glad I listened to the first ¾.
THE GANGSTER by Clive Cussler, Okay…he’s a NYTimes bestseller, but I found it difficult to stomach the characters and dialogue, dominated by cliché speeches and stereotypical males/females…maybe his other writing is better?
Do you listen to audio books? I do (and my family does) and word on the street is, there are a lot of book-listeners out there.
Here’s what Forbes’ Media and Entertainment writer, Adam Rowe reported last year:
“In 2017, digital content subscription service Scribd’s fastest-growing segment was audiobooks. Primary audiobook subscriber numbers for Scribd grew by more than 20% in 2016. The rise isn’t unique to Scribd: Audiobooks are also up about 20% year over year across the publishing industry for the first eight months of 2017, according to the Association of American Publishers’ data reports from 1,200 publishers. In the same time period, print books rose just 1.5%, and e-books dropped by 5.4 %.”
Who is listening to audio books?
Commuters, the home parent who is cooking a meal each night, families on a road trip, dog walkers, endurance athletes who have to train for hours at a time, the gym rat with a literary bent…many are listening. There is evidence to suggest that those who listen to audio books are also avid readers and audio books simply allow these readers to consume more books than their average number, but I suspect, some folks who don’t like to sit still in order to read are consuming books anew, like they haven’t since college or high school.
Where do you fall on the spectrum?
I confess, I don’t often listen to audio books while walking my dog, but use it as a time to be quiet and enjoy nature, but on a long road trip, whether alone or with family, I’m huge fan of audio entertainment, books and podcasts. I live in the Western US, where getting places often requires a long car voyage. A visit to my parents and brother, 12 hours. A visit to my son at the university he attends, 8 to 10 hours depending on traffic. If my daughter decides to go to grad school, we will drive 15 hours to help her move. These are all one-way trips I’ve delineated, so double the car time and I end up with a whopping number of hours spent in a car.
That’s a lot of productive time…or entertainment time…or time to check one or two books off your to read list. You will find that the hours it takes to get through a book vary, but on average, 12 hours will get you to the final chapter. The roundtrip to my daughter and back, for example, is at least 30 hours of drive time, that is about a 2-novel voyage…or we could take on something very long, like Herbert’s DUNE.
That’s the math for the road tripper, but what about the gym rat?
For the gym rat: 5 hours per week, for 4 weeks…that is about one extra book per month.
For the commuter in urban America, the average car time or train time to work is 30 minutes. That is 1 hour per day, 20 hours per month, about 1 to 2 extra books consumed per month.
If you are a business person, imagine reading one dynamic leadership book per month for a year and how that might impact your career. This becomes a fairly compelling model when one thinks about taking in new information that could improve your life coupled with entertainment.
I’m usually buying a science fiction audio book when I listen, but every now and then, a great non fiction book like THE POWER OF HABIT, gets onto the listening list. It turns out, habits do impact a writer like me, sort of a no-brainer, but the book lays out what happens in the body and brain when we establish positive (or negative) habits of life and work. I’m glad I listened to that book. I listened with a group that was on a road trip. My husband, a couple of college-aged kids and I were driving down to pick up my son from college. We ended up engaging in great discussions around the topic of habit that lasted the entire weekend…all while picking up a kid from college and helping him move back home for the summer…a time when college kids can fall into habits, good or bad. Am I a scheming parent to have thought of this? No…We really just stumbled upon the book.
So…it’s important, if you are choosing a book for the driving/riding community, to think about the character of the group that will be listening. Do aim for a book pleasing to all, but also, provocative. Spur those discussions that will happen at In n Out Burger or Grandzella’s or wherever you end up pausing for a meal.
This is part I of a two-part post.
See my post, The Rise of the Audio Book. Part II where I explain the appeal of audiobooks and perhaps entice the skeptic to try them out.