A Tale Worthy of a Listen

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…

  1. 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.
  2. You can download many audiobooks from your library for free…right at your fingertips, no subscription necessary…just a library card.
  3. If you need more choice, try Scribd’s free 30-day trial.
  4. 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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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:
  3. 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.
  4. 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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

 

The Martian
The Martian

Review of the Novel
By Andy Weir

THE MARTIAN became a must-read science fiction novel a few years ago. Not only did the book go mainstream, but the story captured the imagination of Twentieth Century Fox. Under Fox Entertainment, Drew Goddard adapted the book to screen and Ridley Scott was hired to direct. In 2015, THE MARTIAN became Scott’s top grossing film. Mark Watney, the hero of the story, became a household name as did many of his quips, like:

  • In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option: I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.
  • I don’t want to come off as arrogant here, but I’m the greatest botanist on this planet.
  • They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!

THE MARTIAN in novel form

THE MARTIAN tells the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars. He is a member of NASA’s third mission to the red planet, having traveled on Hermes, a one-of-a-kind craft that has the capability to reach Mars. The story is set in the year 2035. While the crew is on day 5 of their 30-day mission and living in a tent-like research structure, a 175 mph sandstorm erupts on Mars. This leads them to abort the mission, but while Watney and the rest of the crew rush out of the tent and are on their way to the ship that will take them back to the Hermes, Watney’s suit is penetrated by a blowing antenna. All of his fellow crew members know this to be a death sentence in the harsh Martian environment and in the confusion of the storm, they lose contact with him and make the tough decision to leave his body behind, assuming he is dead. But, Watney survives.

The rest of the story unfolds as part survivor tale, part rescue mission. The tension is palpable throughout. Watney is the main narrator, making journal entries about every challenge and every Mars-life-hack he performs to survive. He is an engineer and a botanist, so his skill-set comes in handy. He needs to make water, grow food and figure out a way to contact NASA to let them know he is alive. He meticulously details the science in his journal entries and they are funny, while being brilliant. When he does finally reach NASA and his former ship mates, the rescue mission begins, but not without its own challenges/impossibilities.

The narrative broadens in vital ways when NASA is contacted. Now, the reader sees new characters and just in time. It might not have been so compelling a read without the new voices and the new motivations. Watney’s story continues to be mainly told in his journal entries. The NASA folks come into the story via omniscient narrator. Very quickly, NASA tells Watney’s crew (still en route back to Earth) that Watney is alive. Now they become a part of the story, trying to figure out a way (if there is one) to rescue their fellow crewman…These characters are all interesting and are making decisions that ramp up the tension. Saving Watney is going to be extremely costly and potentially fatal for the Hermes and its crew. There are a million reasons to let Mark Watney die.

This story succeeds in capturing the unique voice of a space hero. Mark Watney cannot fly around like Ironman (a reality he bemoans at one point in the story), but his superpower is his ingenuity, his intelligence and his sense of humor in the face of the slimmest of odds. He is matched by NASA’s creative problem solving and his crew mates, who show themselves to be people of courage and sacrifice.

I laughed aloud reading this book (actually consumed it via audio book with my family while on a road trip…all four of us love a good scifi story and Weir’s first person narration does make for a great audio experience). Watney’s voice rings in one’s brain following a good listen.

I highly recommend this novel and will write another post for educators, as the science-inspired story potentially gets kids revved up about their studies.

To buy the Martian, click here.