Thursday, December 26, 2013

13 Reviews to End 2013

Instead of boring you with another self-serving summary of my writing, I will make my final post of 2013 a review of all the books I have consumed this year.

I say consumed as I don't read any more since I subscribed to an Audible gold membership late last year. I still have issues with the draconian international licensing that restricts certain titles from Australia, but otherwise, I have found Audible to be a wonderful marketplace for the audiobookphile.

At $15 per month I get access to a decent library of new and old books, and the quality of both the recordings and narration is consistently excellent. But by far the best thing about Audible is the convenient synchronisation with my phone app. The biggest hassle with 'buying' audio books from a miscellaneous range of suppliers is getting the file into a format and playlist and onto your device of choice. I would pay $15 to never have to manage 500 separate mp3s in 14 different chapter folders, with each file numbered from 1-34.

Like spotify and the appstore, audible has worked out the way to market digital content: make it easier than the swedish alternative.

So on with the reviews.

1. The Blade Itself.


This is the first book I listened to this year, and to be honest, I didn't fall in love with the story half as much as the narration. Lots of people love Joe Abercrombie, but to me he rambles and I got the sense early on that the payoff of the series would not be worth the investment. And my 'Low Fantasy' quota is already taken up with game of thrones.

2. The Diamond Age.


I love Neal Stephenson, but i'd never read the Diamond Age--some say his best work--and perhaps I should have left it that way. Yes the ideas are big--as all Stephenson's are--but unlike the Baroque cycle or Cryptonomicon, the Diamond Age just doesn't have many characters I can care about. The narration is also a little too formal for me--much like the older audio books made primarily for the blind and the elderly who apparently didn't need emotion in their stories.

3. Redshirts


After two disappointing months, I decided March was time for some fun. And what says fun more than Wil Wheaton reading a star-trek parody where the main character is one of the expendable extras in constant fear of being killed. I was not disappointed. In fact the end of the book really surprised me in the way it transcended the 'joke' of the book and became something much more interesting.

4. Finding Ultra.


By April I was getting more determined to actually finish my C25k app, and as fate would have it reddit brought Rich Roll to my attention. I decided to break my fiction-only reading habit and used my monthly audible credit on a book about running ridiculously long distances. It made my struggle to complete 5k seem appropriately pathetic.

5. Why We Get Fat


Hot off the heals of a book about running I decided on another non-fiction book. I found that when immersed in my own writing, listening to fiction was not necessarily helpful. Also, since cracking 5km and on my way to 10, I was now more determined than ever to get into shape. Like most of us though, it was not working as well as thermodynamics dictates. I was adding up my calories with one app, and subtracting them with another. The deficit suggested that I should be strutting catwalks, but the scales mocked such vanity. This book explained what was going on.

6. The Great Gatsby


Continuing the theme of self improvement, and in need of a dose of fiction to remind me that language can do more than inform, I decided to read one of the books I always told people i'd read. At a little over 4hours of narration, I finished Gatsby in just a few of my 10k runs, and loved every minute. Jake Gyllenhaal did a great job narrating and he should have been cast in the film. There is a reason this is a classic.

7. Ender's Game


I heard the movie was finally getting made, and so I thought it was time to revisit a book i'd loved when I was 12. Ender's Game was one of the books that made me cross over from high fantasy to hard sci fi, and it was great to hear two narrators voice different characters. Great book. The film was almost as disappointing as its sequels.

8. Light


I took a risk on this one, having heard nothing about M. John Harrison before. Turns out he is a mix of Iain M. Banks and Dan Simmons. Pity about the cliche ending of the book, but I will read the sequels when and if they are ever released in my DRMd region. Sigh.

9. Intuition Pumps and other tools for thinking.


A friend gave me the paper version of this one, and I could hardly fit it in my bag. At the time I was looking for another novel, but I started to flick through the opening chapters and was hooked. Luckily it was available on audible, and so I dived into what turned out to be a very enlightening book, and perhaps the best thing I read all year. This is now on my must read list for anyone interested in philosophy. Cannot recommend enough.

10.  The Better Angels of Our Nature.


After the last book, I just couldn't find a fiction work that interested me, so when another friend started talking about a book that traced out the sweep of human history with an optimistic thesis about how things are getting better,  I couldn't resist. Unlike 'Intuition pumps' this is not a book for the faint of heart, nor is it something I suggest to people unless I know they are already intrigued by the ideas it champions. This is a big and difficult book, that brings together history, psychology, philosophy, politics and evolution, using copious amounts of statistical data to back up the central claim. To be honest this is the kind of book I would normally abandon, but due to the nature of audiobooks, it was easy to just let the words wash over me during my now 16km runs. I am glad I stuck with it. More than any other book this year, 'Better Angels' is the one that has left a lasting impression. I would love to try to sum up what it is all about, but at nearly 40 hours of narration, such a task is futile. If you want a challenge, this is the book for you.

11. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.



Better Angels had exhausted my ability to process information, and I was now determined to find a great novel to escape in. Lots of people seemed to love this one about magicians, and I gave it a good go, but I just couldn't get into the world Susanna Clarke created. Both her prose and story are long winded, and once again I didn't see any payoff for the huge investment of time. Perhaps i'll go back to this one and give it another go, but a book that is over 32 hours long needs to hook me early on. The premise that magic was mundane became, well, mundane.

12. Gentlemen of the Road.


I needed something short and sweet and literary and fun--full of action and wrapped up in clever prose. I wasn't asking for much. Luckily another friend had just the answer in Michael Chabon's lovesong to pulp-fiction adventure books. My friend gave it to me in dead tree form, and after reading the blurb I didn't hesitate to get the audiobook. This kind of story is everything I love about writing. Plus it has swords. At just over 4 hours, it inspired me to go on a few more runs than I usually do so that I could finish it in a week. People have criticised Chabon for this departure from his usual literary works about divorce, anxiety and existential malaise, but I thought it was brilliant, and am glad it was the first thing of his I read.

13.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.


And so I end the year on another Chabon, and am already hooked. I'm only a few hours in, but already there is a Golem and an escape from Nazi occupied Prague. I can see why this author is so well garnished with awards. This is what great writing should be: an even mix of big ideas, well crafted prose, and fun.


T.B.