What I Read in 2015: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Audio Books

So I thought I would take a few minutes to wrap up what I read in 2015.

2015 was the year that I finally embraced the power of Audible. Back when I was living in Toronto and commuting on public transit it was easy to read a book weekly. These days if I am reading it can take me a month to get through one book. As my GoodReads stats can attest  I was having a hard time making 12 books a year for the last couple of years. You can’t imagine how sad that makes someone who loves fiction in all shapes and sizes both as a writer and a reader. There are so many books and so little time.

TimeEnoughAtLast

An apocalypse might be the only way to free up enough reading time, but we all know how that works out.

I first tried out Audible.com in late 2014 and was soon hooked buying a membership which gives a free monthly credit and discounts on other titles. One of the reasons I “resisted” audio books (and this is going to sound dumb) is because it felt like cheating. It felt like reading the Coles Notes (Cliff Notes to you Americans) version instead of the real thing. That’s being unfair of course, because Audible versions are mostly unabridged and there’s no explanation/summary of the concepts in the story for you to grasp. Still when talking to people about a book I just read in conversation, I pause and explain that I didn’t “read” it that I listened to it on audio as if I am apologizing for not being literate enough to read it. I guess that’s probably the real reason right there. That I somehow think people are going to judge me as less literate or something. Huh, see blogging can tell you something about yourself. Anyhow this was the year that I embraced the audio book full on. As you will see from my list, the majority were audio books.

I set my goals for 2015 at 24 books, but ended up only hitting 16 for the year. Just slightly more than a book a month, but still progress on my recent downward trend.

Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin translated by Ken Liu

Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu translated by Ken Liu

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu Translated by Ken Liu. Narrated by Luke Daniels

First up was this mind-bending tale from China’s celebrated science fiction author Cixin Liu whose work is just being discovered by English audiences thanks to this fabulous translation by SF author Ken Liu.

I don’t think I can even begin to summarize the plot of this novel and do it justice. The description in GoodReads mentions that it’s “a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.” Yeah, lets go with that.

It involves aliens trying to communicate via physics and using simulated worlds/game in a conspiracy all set against the backdrop of China and all the politics that go with it. If you like Hard SF and head scratchy this one is for you.

As for the Audio production of this story – I would listen to ANYTHING narrated by Luke Daniels. The first audio book from Audible that I listened to was Michael Underwood’s “Crocus and Shield” which Luke narrates with a full cast of voices that brought the text to life.

I’m looking forward to listening to the other books in this series as they become available.

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep by Timothy Verstynen, Bradley Voytek

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep by Timothy Verstynen, Bradley Voytek

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain by Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek. Narrated by Scott Aiello.

I would have read this one just  based on the title’s play on words of Philip K. Dick’s “Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?” alone, but it had the added bonus that it came recommended by Canadian SF author Robert J. Sawyer.

Basically Verstynen and Voytek are two neuroscientist dudes by day and geeks by night who pulled together some very scientific observations about zombie behaviour based on representation of zombies in pop culture.  While I went in expecting them to lean more on the pop culture side of the equation, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the book is structured in such a way that you are sneakily being educated about neuroscience.

Don’t be put off by the thought of trying to understand neuroscience terms like ganglia and how Alzheimers works on the brain. The audio production of this novel lends itself beautifully to the text as it is related in a very informal lecture style and Scott Aiello’s delivery as narrator is very accessible. I would definitely recommend to fans of Zombies or someone just wanting to learn more about how the brain works, but to approach it in a fun way.

Silver Screen Fiend - by Patton Oswalt

Silver Screen Fiend – by Patton Oswalt

Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt. Narrated by the Author.

I’ve been vaguely aware of Patton Oswalt’s career as a comedian and an actor for a few years now, but had never really tuned into him until recently. I was curious when this book came out since I’m a lapsed cinephile myself and this book covers a period of Oswalt’s life when he was obsessively watching “classic” films as part of his education on the way to becoming a film director during the ’90s when I too was an active movie junkie.

As far as autobiographies go its an interesting inside look both at the comedy business and the cult like nature of cinephiles that relish that next hit of celluloid. Oswalt does a great job of telling a good anecdote while at the same time having the maturity and insight to put it in perspective. One part coming of age story and one part pursuing the creative dream, it was a worthy read.

Autobiographies on audio books are a perfect medium if they are read by the author. The author knows the stories intimately and the delivery is better than anything you could expect from either reading it on the page yourself or having someone else narrate them.

Hominids - Robert J. Sawyer

Hominids – Robert J. Sawyer

Hominids (Neanderthal Parallax #1) by Robert J. Sawyer. Narrated by Jonathan Davis

I read this book initially back when it was first released in 2003 and decided to revisit it when it came up as a deal on Audible.com one day. Here’s what I said in my GoodReads.com review of it (lightly edited for clarity here)

The first in a trilogy Hominids does a good job of being a stand alone book as well as opening up the world for future books. To date I have still only read/listened to the first book of the series.

While I have problems with some of the choices the author makes for telling the narrative in this story including rape as a character motivation, I have to temper that disappointment/frustration with the things the author gets right.

In addition to imagining an alternate universe where Neanderthals rose to prominence as Humans faded from existence, Robert Sawyer explores a number of larger issues including religion, violence in society, and the rise of consciousness. He does this while essential framing the narrative as both a stranger-in-a-strange-land story and a courtroom/mystery drama.

While the book may not be for everyone and I would have a hard time recommending it to a general audience based on the issues I outlined above, I think its a worthy read for the larger issues it explores.

Nothing in particular stood out about the audio production of this one, maybe because I was already familiar with the story.

An Improvised Life: A Memoir by Alan Arkin

An Improvised Life: A Memoir by Alan Arkin

An Improvised Life: A Memoir by Alan Arkin Narrated by the Author

My second memoir of the year was by Alan Arkin. His journey into acting is an interesting one and as you’d expect with someone with such a rich career, Arkin has a lot of insight into his life and a creative process. A short book (4 hours and change listening time) it was  quick read.

I enjoy listening to people talking about their creative process as it is often illuminating and gives me food for thought for my own creative process. My only criticism of the memoir was that it was very narrowly drawn memoir and Arkin, doesn’t dwell on aspects of his life that he doesn’t want to share. Which is fine, except that it sometimes fell like he was glossing over things to perhaps paint himself in a better light. Regardless I would recommend it to people with an interest in acting or Arkin himself.

Not My Father's Son: A Memoir

Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir by Alan Cumming

Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir by Alan Cumming, Narrated by the Author

I had wanted to check out this memoir of Alan Cumming since it came out in print back in 2014, but getting it on Audio was worth the wait. Again having the author read his own words carries so much more emotional weight and in the case of Cumming’s memoir its essential.

The memoir deals largely with the emotional and physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his father growing up and how he’s been forced to deal with it all his life. Not an easy topic for him to discuss or the audience to listen to, but a very poignant one that was worth listening to. The novel is also about family and what it is that means. Alan recounts the story of his mother’s father, his maternal grandfather, Tommy Darling, and the mystery behind his disappearance in the Far East after WWII as it came out during the filming of an episode of the genealogy show “Who do You Think You Are?”.

Genius by by Steven T. Seagle, Teddy Kristiansen

Genius by by Steven T. Seagle, Teddy Kristiansen

Genius by Steven T. Seagle, Teddy Kristiansen (Illustrations)

I picked this graphic novel up at a used book sale, intrigued by the premise and the artwork. Middle-aged Teddy Marx works as a quantum physicist who feels like he’s not living up to his potential genius. He becomes obsessed with his father-in-laws connection to Einstein and a potential secret that Einstein shared with his father-in-law that may unlock secrets to the universe and could elevate Teddy’s standing as a physicist if he could uncover it.

The story didn’t really go where I expected, which is a good and a bad thing. I liked what it did with the story, but just didn’t feel as connected to it as I wanted to be. Your mileage may vary.

 

The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

I’m cheating a bit with this one since it was a stand alone short story and not a novel, but I am counting it and sharing it all the same. It won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 2014 and I finally got around to downloading it and reading it.

Definitely not your typically SF story, but so poignantly done that you can’t call it anything else but speculative fiction. Here’s the description from the GoodReads.com blurb about the book:

In the near future water falls from the sky whenever someone lies (either a mist or a torrential flood depending on the intensity of the lie). This makes life difficult for Matt as he maneuvers the marriage question with his lover and how best to “come out” to his traditional Chinese parents.

Definitely check it out.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, Narrated by Almarie Guerra

My favourite new book of 2015, this book hit all the sweet spots for me. It was gripping, well written, great characters, had a nice blend of SF and Detective Noir going for it, plus Almarie Guerra’s delivery in audio was on fire.

Set in a near future that hits a little too close to home for comfort, Bacigalupi paints a frightening picture of a perpetually drought stricken Southwest where those with wealth have sought to control their destinies and insulate themselves from the impending environmental disasters while the rest of the world lives on the edge of ruin. Thrown into this is a Water Knife named Angel who is essentially a hired gun for powerful interests who does what it takes to secure the water rights necessary for his clients prosperity. Angel’s story becomes intertwined with two other characters – Lucy Monroe a investigative reporter who’s become increasingly caught up in the corrupt powers at play, and naive but tough Maria Villarosa, an orphaned Texan migrant who calls Phoenix home but dreams of breaking free and escaping to the North.

The ride was well worth it and in the end its one of those stories that you can’t stop thinking about.

Charlotte's Web - E.B. White

Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

I took time this summer to read Charlotte’s Web to my 8 year old daughter. A classic that was a treat to go back and read as an adult. I found E.B. White’s characters delightful and the voices he lends the animals are so distinct and memorable.

The other thing I liked about Charlotte’s web is that it doesn’t pull any punches. Things such as Wilbur’s fate and Charlotte’s future are not shied away from.

There’s a reason why this is such a timeless book. If you haven’t read it before or it’s been a long time since you last spent time with it,  I suggest you take a moment to get reacquainted. You’ll be surprised at how well it stands up.

An Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler's Army by Georg Rauch

An Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler’s Army
by Georg Rauch

An Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler’s Army by Georg Rauch

Another memoir, this one brought home by 11 year old son from a Scholastic book fair. I was a bit dubious at first that this book was being market to such as young audience. My son and I chose this to read along together.

It’s essentially a posthumous reprint of the author Georg Rauch’s memoir that was initially published in the 1980s while he was still alive. Repackaged and promoted to a new audience the book is well written and harrowing first hand account of a young man conscripted against his will and forced to serve in what he knows is a losing war.

Georg survives what sound like impossible odds in the book. He shares his opinion and experience with the war through a series of letters sent home to his Mutti (Mother) and fillls in the remaining recollections with very vivid anecdotes.

My son who was on a real World War II history kick appreciated this insight into the war from such a unique perspective as a Austrian Jew forced to fight for the German army. Definitely mature subject matter, but a good eye opener for a young audience.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora (#1 Gentlemen Bastards) by Scott Lynch, Narrated by Michael Page

I had hear a great many good things about this novel before downloading it on audio. I haven’t been a big reader of Fantasy novels since high school which was many years in my past. After listening to this audio book, all I had to say was that if more Fantasy was like this I would read more.

The Lies of Locke Lamora was fun, entertaining, gripping and managed to transport me to a fantasy world unlike most I had seen. Set in a vaguely Venetian setting, the story revolves around Locke Lamora, an orphan with a unique talent for thieving. The book builds, taking the time to inter-weave Locke’s back story into the present intrigue that he and his gang are working on. Locke’s Gentlemen Bastards soon find themselves caught up in the Grey King’s own plans to unseat the ruling Capa Barsavi.

I loved the characters and the world building that went into this book. Throughout the book the author pauses after a particular action filled chapter to cut to an “Interlude” where he takes the time to tell more of Locke’s and his bands’ backstory, which one some level should be frustrating delay in the action for the reader, but actually worked for me as the interludes were a good mix of delayed gratification and foreshadowing that made the story stronger.

I had the good fortune of meeting Scott Lynch in person this year (no, not name dropping at all!) and had a chance to tell him first hand how I admired the amount of craft that went into this novel, as well as thanked him for the frustration he caused me at these drawn out interludes that worked so well.

I can see why he has the following he does. I hope to get a chance to read/listen to the rest of the series in the near future. I would highly recommend the audio production of the Lies of Locke Lamora because the banter works so well and the narrator Michael Page does a good job of coming up with so many distinct voices for the characters.

Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson

Sister Mine
by Nalo Hopkinson

Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson Narrated by Robin Miles

I read and enjoyed Nalo Hopkinson’s earlier urban fantasy novel Brown Girl in the Ring a few years ago and wanted to try her more recent novel – Sister Mine.

The novel focuses on the relationship of Makeda and Abby, formerly co-joined sisters, with an special bond. Their family is descended from celestial beings and there is a power struggle going on that they are not fully aware of. Nalo Hopkinson does a wonderful job painting a picture of a Toronto not seen by others and the familial struggle between siblings is all too real. The ending was a little less tidy than you might otherwise expect, but in hindsight I was okay with that and how it fit with the rest of the book. It was an enjoyable read/listen and I look forward to more of her work.

Camp X by Eric Walters

Camp X by Eric Walters

Camp X by Eric Walters

I recommended this to my son as story that might interest him. I hadn’t read it before myself, but was aware of Eric Walters writing and this series. Set in Canada during World War II the Camp X series follows two young protagonists 12 year old George and his older brother Jack as they get entangled in a series of adventures involving the secret spy camp located outside of Toronto called Camp X.

We read this together and I have to say it was a gripping read and a perfect fit for my 11 year old son who has some learning disabilities and has been a delayed reader. Perfect, not in that it was easy for him, but rather that it was such a page turner that he couldn’t put it down. More than once he said to me that he didn’t want to put it down and go to bed. Since finishing the book in September he has left me in the dust reading another 3 or four in the series. I think Eric Walters has a fan for life now.

The Peripheral by William Gibson

The Peripheral by William Gibson

The Peripheral by William Gibson, Narrated by

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this novel. I hadn’t read any reviews or descriptions, but knew there was some sort of ‘time travel’ element to it. As with much of Gibson’s work he doesn’t slow down to explain concepts to the reader and expects you to keep up and that you’ll piece together things as you go which was fine by me. I’m glad I listened to it on audio though, because I think had I been reading it I would have tended to put it aside for long stretches as I tried to absorb what was happening. With audio I was afforded the luxury of being able to push ahead and keep going while on my daily commute.

Gibson’s characters and his world building were fabulous in this story, although the central plot driving the tale left me a bit wanting. It seemed to be a bit of a MacGuffin (definition here) and I felt that despite the tension throughout there was not as much at stake as was let on.

I loved how Gibson captured the nuances of the characters dialogue and that it felt authentic to their different eras and circumstances. The narrator Lorelei King did a great job with the dialogue for the characters, but I found her narration otherwise robotic sounding. So much so that I found myself googling the narrator to see if she was the voice of Siri or not. I am not sure the choice was intentional or not, but I found it distracting at first.

Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

Star Wars: Aftermath – By Chuck Wendig, Narrated by Marc Thompson.

Despite being a life long Star Wars fan, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything in the Expanded Universe growing up. Not sure why I hadn’t, but I decided it was time to dip my toes into the Star Wars literary world by reading Chuck Wendig’s book Aftermath. The story takes place in the wake of the explosion of the 2nd Death Star and the fallout from end of the Empire’s iron-fisted reign.

First a word about the production values of this audio version. This was the first audio book I had listened to where it was more of a ‘radio play’ than a dramatic reading as it was complete with sound effects and some musical score during critical scenes. I can’t complain about added Star Wars sound effects of blaster fire or Tie Fighters screaming across my speakers, because who doesn’t love that.  I have to admit, though there were a few times where I muted the sound to check to see if the noises I was hearing were the background thrum of Star Destroyer engines or some odd noise my car was making.

I thought the story was well done and I loved the characters and their interactions.I thought the parent/child relationship at the heart of the story played well and I love stories that include family. I felt the story was a good balance of action and introspection on the nature of the battle between the Empire and the New Republic and what it meant to overthrow the government. I think Chuck Wendig brought a unique perspective to the Star Wars universe both in his love for Star Wars and in his view of the world. I don’t know how to explain it, but the novel felt to me like it had a very uniquely American perspective to it, and I mean that in a good way. Buy me a beer sometime and I will try to do a better job of explaining what I mean by that.

I’d highly recommend this to fans of the Star Wars franchise and people new to Star Wars the same.

I thought Marc Thompson did a good job narrating, but his voice characterizations for Temmin Wexley and Admiral Ackbar reminded me a bit too much like other characters from non-Star Wars properties that it distracted me at first. I won’t mention who they reminded me of to avoid prejudicing you in case you choose to listen to it.

In Conclusion

Not the most diverse reading list in the world, but perhaps one reflective of my random/eclectic tastes. I didn’t plan out this reading list in 2015, but rather just went from one property to another. There were a few books on my reading list in 2015 that I started but didn’t finish before the year ended, so they didn’t get included here. They will probably make appearances on my 2016 list, assuming I finish them.

For 2016 I hope to make it to 24 books as planned. I suspect there will be fewer books that I read to my kids (not that I don’t enjoy reading to them!), and fewer autobiographies, but you never know.

I also read a lot of comics during 2015 (although my backlog of comics to-be-read is getting out of hand), and hope to do a little retrospective post of that side of my literary reading elsewhere on this blog.

Oh, and congrats if you read this all the way through this post. I had no idea I was going to write 4,000 words plus about 16 titles I read this year. Thanks for reading along.

What were some of your favourite reads of 2015?

Z is for Zombies

a-to-z-letters-z I can’t believe the A to Z Challenge is coming to an end. It’s been an interesting experience and I want to thank everyone who took the time to read some of my entries and a big thanks to those that took time to comment.

Zombies seem to be everywhere these days (no not literally, you can put down the crossbow). From AMC’s The Walking Dead to the upcoming movie World War Z they’re on the big screen and small screen. I won’t bore you with a long lecture on the history of the undead in popular culture, especially since I am far from an expert. Personally, I suspect part of our fascination with zombies is our uneasy relationship with death in modern society as well as our fears of disease and sickness. On the one hand we a reluctant to talk about death in our society, we hide it from public view and only reluctantly deal with it in our mourning rituals. We act as if death itself were contagious and that we don’t want to risk drawing attention to ourselves by talking about it. I also think that we fear (and rightly so) infectious disease and its spread. From influenza pandemics to exotic and deadly viruses like Ebola and Coronavirus we fear the rapid, uncontrolable spread of disease that can rob of us family and friends and threaten ourselves.

It’s interesting in recent years that serious organizations like the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have come out with Zombie Preparedness programs. While it is tongue in cheek, it does serve a real purpose in getting people thinking about dealing with the spread of such an outbreak.

Like my passion time travel, I find Zombies a very rich story telling device that can be used in so many ways. From slow zombies to fast zombies and everything in between. While most modern fans of Zombies wouldn’t consider re-animating the dead on purpose to be true zombies, I consider Frankenstein and re-animated zombies found in Voodoo culture like depicted in the movie “The Serpent and the Rainbow” to be direct ancestors to the modern day zombie in fiction.

In 2003 Max Brooks wrote The Zombie Survival Guide which was a very popular guide that discuss both the history of the zombie and also survival techniques. Online I follow a twitter feed called Zombie Training that offers no nonsense practical advice on surviving zombies. More than once I’ve read on of their tweets and thought, that makes perfect sense.

Getting back to the fiction side of things I want to leave you with a couple of references for interesting additions to the genre.

The first is a short Australian film that you can find online called “I Love Sarah Jane” that is heart breaking in more than one way and is only 14 minutes long.

The second is for the trailer for Warm Bodies (2013) that uses Zombies in a way to explore what makes us human. The movie is based on the book by Issac Marion.

The last is a trailer for a film I keep meaning to watch but haven’t seen yet. A Canadian film called Pontypool that looks at language as a virus. It’s based on the book “Pontypool Changes Everthing” by Tony Burgess

What’s your take on Zombies? Love them or hate them?