Audiobook Review: Pillar to the Sky by William R. Forstchen

27 02 2014

Pillar to the Sky by William Forstchen

Read by Grover Gardner

Blackstone Audio

Length: 15 Hrs 30 Min

Genre: Science Fiction

Grade: B+

More and more I’m convinced that without a concerted push into space, humanity’s time is numbered. For this reason, William Forstchen was totally preaching to a choir of 1 in his latest novel, Pillar to the Sky, a fictional history of the people who came together to build the first Space Elevator. I was quite impressed with Pillar to the Sky, a total change of pace from his post Apocalyptic EMP novel One Second After and his quirky military portal fantasy Lost Regiment series. Here, Forstchen describe big, world changing events through the intimate perspective of four major characters. It’s slow developing and uneven at times, so if you are looking for a rip roaring SF adventure, you won’t find it here. What you will find is a careful constructed character study built on top of the political machinations of disruptive technologies. While reading this novel, these characters truly came alive for me. I was often frustrated with the necessary big leaps in time, because I wanted to know what was going on with the characters. In many ways, the trials, missteps and small victories within the process of building the Space Elevator became a character in its own. Unlike the utterly dark mood of One Second After, Pillar to the Sky left me with a feeling of hope for humanity. While I am in no way an engineer, and have no idea of the feasibility of the project, I felt like Forstchen was writing a love letter to the American and human ingenuity. That, if there is a way for something to be done, and the proper motivation for people to do it, that despite the many pitfalls along the way, it will get done. Pillar to the Sky will not thrill and titillate you, but it will capture your imagination is your mind is open to the experience.

Grover Gardner will always have a special place in my heart for his wonderful reading of The Stand. While his performance of Pillar to the Sky doesn’t reach that level of awesomeness, I think he for the most part hits the right notes. Pillar to the Sky is filled with lots of technical jargon, and an international cast. Gardner gives a comfortable performance. Instead of trying to wow you with stunning voices, he brings an almost professorial tone, walking you through the intricate landscape with a friendly feel. He brought the characters to life, without pushing them on you, just letting them grow naturally. For a book that could easily get bogged down in the minutiae of detail, Gardner guides you through it with a veteran’s touch.

This Audiobook was reviewed as part of Audio Jukebox’s Solid Gold Reviewer’s program. Thanks to Blackstone Audio for participating.

My Top 20 Audiobooks of 2012

27 12 2012

2012 was a great year for audiobooks. As an avid listener of audiobooks, I don’t think I can remember a year quite like this. With the releases of some classics like Stephen King’s The Stand and the complete Chronicles of Amber, to some breathtaking debuts, and a bunch of authors and narrators releasing some of their best works, it will be a year I remember for a long time. At one point early in the year, I was wondering if I had been becoming to easily pleased based on the number of A reviews I was giving, or if the quality was just better this year.

As far as quantity, I have easily broken my record this year. In 2011, I listened to 174 audiobooks. As I am writing this post, for 2012 I have written 192 audiobook reviews, including two posts that reviewed the 10 Chronicle of Amber novels, as well as a few double reviews of audiobook novellas. If I include all my multiple reviews, and those audiobooks I have listened to yet haven’t reviewed yet, my total for 2012 is over 200. Now, some of these were shorter novellas and short story anthologies. Of these 200, about 30% received a grade in the A range, while 60% fell into the B range.

Favorite posts like this are very subjective. I know a lot of people who listen to the kind of audiobooks I enjoy, but few who match my specific likes, so I will never call my picks the best. If you are new to my blog, I listen to a wide range of speculative fiction genres, which leans heavily towards Horror and Dark Fantasy, as well a blend of science fiction. I listen to a lot of Zombie and Post Apocalyptic novels. I also enjoy Crime Fiction and Thrillers, particularly detective stories and legal Thrillers.  For my 2012 list, I limit it to audiobooks which are produced in 2012, even if the book itself was written pre-2012.

I really struggled with my picks this year, moving things around repeatedly and even considered expanding my list to 25 titles. Yet, in the end, I stuck with 20. I went back and forth on my number 1 pick this year. I knew which book resonated with me the most this year. It was the best mix between content and narration, and thinking about it still haunts me. Yet, I considered going with another title because it was an audio reread of a novel written in 1990. It is one of my favorite novels of all time and listening to it now in audio, in a new production with a wonderful performance by the narrator made me love it even more. So, I went with it. I mean, heck it’s my list, right?

This year I decided to try something a little different. Instead of writing a new blurb for each book, instead there is a link to my original review, plus my "Quick Thought: entry. Also, I invited some authors and narrators to talk about their experience with the audiobook versions of the entries. I want to thank those who contributed on short notice during this hectic holiday season. So, here it is my 20 favorite audiobooks of 2012. Hopefully, you will find something here to love as well.


A Gift Upon the Shore by M. K. Wren

Read by Gabra Zackman

Audible Frontiers

My Review

What I Said: A Gift Upon the Shore is one of my all time favorite novels, a darkly beautiful vision of a nuclear apocalypse. This novel stands apart from many within the genre by its frightening realism and its strong female characters. Narrator Gabra Zackman captures the poetry of the novel perfectly, making it a wonderful example of how good an audiobook can be.

Gabra Zackman, narrator of A Gift Upon the Shore

“A Gift Upon the Shore was one of my favorite books to record.  Partly because the story seemed so vital and relevant, and partly because it felt personally meaningful. It’s a really beautiful thing to connect emotionally to a book you are recording… it doesn’t happen all the time, and it makes the reading infinitely better when it does.  At the time I was in a fascinating life space… I was about to make a move cross country to new terrain and was both excited and scared by the prospect.  So to read a book about female pioneers re-inventing life in a landscape of the unknown was…. extraordinary.  Comforting.  Validating.  And offered me some courage I badly needed.  In addition to all that, I am a passionate lover of language, and the folkloric nature of the writing was music to my ear.”

Blackout by Mira Grant

Read by Paula Christensen and Michael Goldstrom

Hachette Audio

My Review

What I Said: Blackout is full of adventure, betrayal, true love, sacrifice, conspiracies revealed, surprise enemies and allies, fascinating science and of course, zombies. It has everything you want in a series finale, leaving you both utterly fulfilled, and desperately wanting more.


The Stand by Stephen King

Read by Grover Gardner

Random House Audio

My Review

What I Said: For fans of this novel who, like me, are skeptical of allowing another person to become the voice in your head, bringing this world you love to life, don’t be. The audiobook version of The Stand achieves its goal of presenting this classic in a way that will be accessible for both long time fans and those new to King’s frightening landscape.

Assassin’s Code by Jonathon Maberry

Read by Ray Porter

MacMillan Audio

My Review

What I said: Assassin’s Code is a fast paced, no holds barred science thriller with perhaps the most engaging series character in fiction today. If you have yet to listen to a Joe Ledger Book, makes sure you have plenty of time on your hands because once you start, you will not want to stop.

Ray Porter, narrator of the Joe Ledger series:

“I am a big fan of Jonathan Maberry. Every time I get to read Joe Ledger it is like visiting a good friend. I was very entertained by both books and I hope people have as good a time with them as I did.”

Spellbound by Larry Correia (Book 2 of the Grimnoir Chronicles)

Read by Bronson Pinchot

Audible Frontiers

My Review

What I Said: Spellbound left me simply breathless. Larry Correia has taken classic fantasy tropes and blended them into something that is almost its own new genre. The Grimnoir Chronicles with its blending of Superheroes, Steampunk and Alternate History is a series you simply cannot miss.

Larry Correia, author of Spellbound: “I’ve been blessed with amazing narrators. For Hard Magic and Spellbound, Bronson Pinchot makes the characters come alive. Sometimes it is really hard as a writer to listen to an actors interpretation of somebody you made up, because obviously they are never going to match exactly with what you’ve got in your head. Bronson does such a darn good job in Spellbound that as I’m writing the third book I find that the characters in my head now sound like his version of them.”

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

Read by Susan Duerden

Dreamscape Audiobooks

My Review

What I Said: The Rook is one of the most fascinating Fantasies I have experienced in a long time, truly touching that sense of wonder as only the best Fantasies can. In many ways, this is the novel that JK Rowling’s should have wrote next, an adult fantasy that reminds us of those feelings we would get as a child  hiding under our blankets trying to read just one more chapter.

Defending Jacob by William Landay

Read by Grover Gardner

Blackstone Audio

My Review

What I Said: Defending Jacob made my courtroom thriller loving heart sing for joy, a well written, deftly plotted legal tale that was full of hidden depths. Fans of crime fiction, even if not particularly legal thriller fans, should not miss this utterly enthralling novel.

Year Zero by Rob Reid

Read by John Hodgman

Random House Audio

My Review

What I Said: If I can compare a book to Ready Player One, Agent to the Stars and The Hitchhikers Guide, then it should be a given that I loved it. I did. Year Zero may be the most pure fun I had listening to a book this year. There was enough inappropriate laugh out loud moments that the weird looks I began receiving from strangers and coworkers became part of the scenery. Year Zero is the kind of accessible, pop culture ridden science fiction that should be embraced by a wide audience.

14 by Peter Clines

Read by Ray Porter

Audible Frontiers/Permuted Press

My Review

What I Said: Peter Clines novels are always highly visual, with intricately detailed action that comes across splendidly in audio. If there is any justice in the world, 14 is a novel that should make Peter Clines a household name among not just horror fans, but fans of good stories, expertly told. Clines has created a novel with characters to cheer for, twists to be honestly shocked by and stunningly vivid horrors that will make your dreams  uncomfortable.

Ray Porter, narrator of 14:

“I really enjoyed Peter Clines’ book, I look forward to more from him. I’d love to have a chance to narrate another of his books.”

Cold Days by Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files, Bk. 14)

Read by James Marsters

Penguin Audio

My Review

What I Said: Cold Days reinvigorated my love for this series. Butcher takes everything you think you know about The Dresden Files and smashes it, twisting and pulling it like taffy. He expands his world in amazing new directions, answering questions you never knew you where asking, while creating whole new realties to deal with.

Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor (Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy, Bk. 2)

Read by Khristine Hvam

Hachette Audio

My Review

What I Said: Days of Blood & Starlight left me totally breathless. Taylor creates her worlds with poetry, twisting our perceptions of the genre with each word, creating something both comfortable and unique with a magician’s touch. Fans of Daughter of Smoke and Bones will not only have their anticipations paid for with this novel, but they should be totally blown away.

Khristine Hvam, narrator of Days of Blood & Starlight:

“I think we can all agree that the world Laini Taylor has created is incredible. It is an honor to be a part of it.

We finished up recording Days of Blood and Starlight in a beautiful New York City Studio, with some pretty awesome people, a few months ago. Since then the response to the book, and the audio version have been fantastic. What an honor to have been cast for this project. Taylor’s story gives me so much room and opportunity to discover new voices, play with old ones, and develop as a voice artist. It’s kind of what we all wish for in a project.”

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Read by Phil Gigante

Brilliance Audio

My Review

What I Said: Throne of the Crescent Moon is the rare fantasy that seems to do everything right in an accessible, highly readable way. This book will thrill fantasy fans, and make them long to discover even more about Saladin Ahmed’s intriguing world. Even better, this is the type of accessible fantasy that I would have no trouble recommending to people whether they are fans of the genre or not.

Phil Gigante, narrator of Throne of the Crescent Moon:

“I really loved Saladin Ahmed’s juxtaposition of classic Arabian tales with a "Western" Fantasy style. He captured the true history and intrigue of his Middle Eastern roots, and told a story worthy of the best modern Fantasy authors. It is beautiful and lyrical, as the best Fantasy should be. I met Saladin at a sci-fi convention where he was touring for the book, and I found him to be a great person, and a writer to watch for a long, long time. He also has possibly the best hair of any writer working today! I’m really looking forward to the sequel, as all the Eastern pronunciations really gave my glottal stops a workout.”

The Reanimation of Edward Schuett by Derek J. Goodman

Read by David Letwin

Audible Frontiers

My Review

What I Said: The Reanimation of Edward Schuett is a novel that blends the unique zombie perspective of a novel like Zombie Ohio, with the recovered society motif of Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series, mixing in a liberal dose of the quirkiness of Raining Stony Mayhall, then adds it’s own secret blend of herbs and spices making it the most unique, and perhaps, rewarding zombie experience of the year.

This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It by David Wong

Read by Nick Podehl

Brilliance Audio

My Review

What I Said: This Book is Full of Spiders is just pure fun for any fan of horror fiction, full of adventure, plenty of creepy scares, monsters, shadowy government types, weird otherworldly weapons, slapstick irreverent humor and of course, a good dog and an even better woman. Fans of John Dies at the End will love this latest adventure with their buddies David and John, and if you have yet to spend time with this duo, go do it now. You’ll thank me.

Death Warmed Over by Kevin J. Anderson (Dan Shamble, Zombie PI, Bk. 1)

Read by Phil Gigante

Brilliance Audio

My Review

What I Said: Death Warmed Over is a haunted Halloween treat that pulls from The Police Squad as much as classic monster tales. Kevin J. Anderson has created a tableau for storytelling that should please a wide plethora of fans across many genres. Death Warmed Over is a tragic yet beautiful romance, an action filled buddy comedy, and a unique legal thriller all rolled into a tasty noir zombie shell and readers will want to take a big bite out of it.

Phil Gigante, narrator of Death Warmed Over

“I was impressed, as Bob mentioned in his review, how Kevin J. Anderson takes what could be every cliche in the "undead" realm, and layers on characters and situations that hit home mentally, spiritually and emotionally. He adds layers of true love, justice and intrigue, as well as screamingly funny dialogue, making the listener actually care deeply about the ghosts, zombies, mummies and other "Unnaturals" that make up the Big Uneasy. I screwed up many studio takes laughing out loud. Anderson even takes on modern slavery in the follow-up with tenderness and aplomb, all the while keeping the humor at a fever pitch.”

The Prophet by Michael Koryta

Read by Robert Petkoff

Hachette Audio

My Review

What I Said: The Prophet is a crime novel with literary flair. It is a tale of redemption and relationships which can uplift your spirit while devastating your soul. Koryta continues to prove that no matter what genre he is tackling, he is one of the best storytellers working today.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

Read by John Lee

Blackstone Audio

My Review

What I Said: Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a beautiful, vivid tale of relationships colored with a touch of the fantastic. Joyce never spoon feeds his readers but creates a vibrant mosaic for each person to translate on their own. Some Kind of Fairy Tale is simply wonderful storytelling and one of the most rewarding tales I have experienced this year.

Zombie by J. R. Angelella

Read by Alston Brown


My Review

What I Said: Zombie is truly a feat in storytelling. It reads like a novel Chuck Palahniuk would write after reading too much Robert Cormier. Full of witty dialogue, pop culture references and a unique rivalry between the bittersweet and the bizarre, Zombie is a buzz worthy book that defies classification, but would definitely make a wonderful edition to anyone’s bookshelf.

Control Point by Myke Cole (Shadow Ops, Bk. 1)

Read by Corey Jackson

Recorded Books

My Review

What I Said: Control Point delivered what I thought it would, tons of action, a fascinating world, and an authentic military feel. Yet, it’s what I didn’t expect that put this over the top for me. A hero I’m still not quite sure I can believe in and a blurred line between the good guys and the bad guys that lead to an emotionally devastating climax. Control Point is a novel that will be bouncing around in my head for a long, long time, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Myke Cole, Author of Control Point:

"When I first heard that CONTROL POINT was being made as an audiobook, I asked my agent to get me an audition. How hard could it be to read your own book? I mean, heck, I know how to properly pronounce all the names, and acronyms, and . . . uh . . . other names. CONTROL POINT was packed with incredibly nuanced words, like . . . "helicopter" and "sorcerer" and "pentagon."

To my great shock and dismay, Recorded Books politely declined.

So, I went home and beat my breast, shouted at the heavens, lamented the injustice of it all.

And then I heard Corey Jackson, channeling Oscar Britton with a passion and sensitivity that I would never have been able to muster. When I first saw the US cover of the book, I felt as if Michael Komarck had reached into my head and plucked images there for the final painting. Hearing Jackson was the same way. His voice *is* Oscar Britton’s voice. It always was.

The hard lesson here? Heinlein was wrong. Specialization isn’t for insects. It’s for specialists. And sometimes, it’s best to stand back, swallow your pride, and let them do their jobs. I’m sure glad I did."

What It Was by George Pelecanos

Read by J.D. Jackson

Hachette Audio

My Review

What I Said: Pelecanos fans will rejoice in a new Derek Strange tale and he certainly does his fans justice. What is Was is the hip thrilling story that his fans have come to expect, full of authentic, almost poetic dialogue, and human characters which will leave the listener wanting more.

Some Notes on the List:

Favorite Book published in 2012: Blackout by Mira Grant
Favorite Standalone Book published in 2012: Defending Jacob by William Landay
Favorite Debut of 2012: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
Favorite Fantasy Novel Published in 2012: Spellbound by Larry Correia
Favorite Horror Novel published in 2012: Blackout by Mira Grant
Favorite Science Fiction Novel published in 2012: Year Zero by Rob Reid
Favorite Mystery/Thriller published in 2012: Defending Jacob by William Landay

This is the first time that my top 2 Audiobooks were written by Female Authors.
Five of the top 20 picks were from debut Authors:

Honorable Mentions:

There were a lot of titles that would have made the list in any other year. Legion by Brandon Sanderson was a wonderful audiobook, but as it’s only a two hour novella, I couldn’t justify putting it on the list. I broke out of my typical genres and listen to a few more literary titles, among which A Land More Kind Than Home probably would have been in place #21 if I expanded the list particularly due to the wonderful performances by the narrators. Based solely on the book, Stephen King’s The Wind Through the Keyhole would have been a top 10 pick, but the author’s narration, while decent for what it was, knocked it down a bit on my list. Another recently audiobook reissues of a classic, The Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle was wonderfully produced by AudioGo, and, as part of the so called A List, Anne Hathaway’s reading of the beloved children’s classic The Wizard of Oz is a must listen. Lastly, for shared world anthologies, you can’t get much better than V-Wars edited by Jonathan Maberry and full of some wonderful performances by a star studded cast of narrators.

Now, onto 2013!

Audiobook Review: Energized by Edward M. Lerner

30 07 2012

Energized by Edward M. Lerner

Read by Grover Gardner

Blackstone Audio

Length: 10 Hrs 27 Min

Genre: Science Fiction

Quick Thoughts:  Energized is high concept science fiction that should appeal to fans of Larry Niven and Greg Bear. Yet, for me, I could never engage with the world, the plot or the character until far too late, due to expositional world building. The latter half of the novel is quite good, but by the time I got there, I just didn’t really care. There is definitely an audience out there for Energized. Sadly, I wasn’t it.

Grade: C+

I’ve always liked softer things. In college, I studied the softest of soft science, Political Science. In fiction, I have always preferred softer science fiction to hard science fiction. In hard science fiction, writers tend to explore our world using a strict adherence to scientific laws as we know them. When done right, the science almost becomes a character in its own, influencing plot, pushing the characters in interesting direction, and creating a logical world but one the can push the boundaries of who we are. Yet, far too often, it becomes a Deus Ex Machina, a device that boxes in the plot, creating unnecessarily limitations, but eventually providing a last minute save for the character. Often, the science in poorly done science fiction, doesn’t interact with the characters, but tethers them, strips away their agency and eventually sucks the life right out of them. I think poorly executed hard science fiction muddles the waters between hard and soft scifi. Originally, soft science fiction was meant to portray science based fiction that focused on the softer sciences like sociology, psychiatry, anthropology and the like. Yet, too often, people look at soft scifi as character driven and hard scifi as concept driven. Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way. Leviathan Wake is hard science fiction, yet the science based elements doesn’t take away from the wonderful characters and story telling. So, one of my goals this year was to try to read more harder science fiction than I have in the past. Unfortunately, I haven’t really done that. So, when I read the synopsis for Energized, and realized it was hard science fiction and a lot of concepts I liked in in, I decided to give it a go.

Energized is a topical near future science fiction tale which takes place years after a catastrophic attack on the Middle East petroleum reserves, which leaves Russia as the most significant oil producing nation on earth. This leads to a sort of new cold war between Russia and the US. Yet, when NASA discovers an asteroid on a near earth trajectory, they figure a way to pull it into earth orbit, affectively making it another moon, one rich in energy potential. While this is good for the US the change in balance creates political repercussions. While Edward M. Lerner tale is full of fascinating concepts, his world building is overly complex and is parsed out using expositional tricks that suck the life out of the first half of the novel. Lerner over uses the science fiction trick of creating the back story through meandering thoughts of the characters. While this is better than straight exposition, it also leads to a sort of glossing over of the actual development of the characters. This makes the players in this tale fall a bit flat, and leaves the readers unmotivated to embrace them. The main character of this tale Marcus Judson, is a likable guy, yet, by the time he becomes an active participant in the tale, instead of a spectator, I had basically lost interest in him. It seems at about the halfway point, Lerner realized he needed to make his characters people you can care about, rather than a Redshirt whose peril creates no tension. Yet, by that point, it was far too late. Case in point, he creates a sort of tepid, mechanical relationship between Marcus and a brilliant astronomer, yet, right before he is sent away on a dangerous mission, they discover that they are in fact desperately and passionately in love. This romance, despite being between two likable characters, felt forced and a necessity of the plot, rather than a true organic human relationship. The second half of the novel was much better, providing real tension, big time villains, and some fun use of technology and cunning among the characters. Lerner has skills as a writer, but I think he was so fascinated by his concept, which is a good one, and their implications, which could be fascinating, that he spent more time setting things up and showing off his mind, then trying to suck the readers into his world. Energized is high concept science fiction that should appeal to fans of Larry Niven and Greg Bear. Yet, for me, I could never engage with the world, the plot or the character until far too late, due to expositional world building. The latter half of the novel is quite good, but by the time I got there, I just didn’t really care.

None of my problems with this audiobook can be blamed on the narrator. Grover Gardner gave a solid performance for what he had to work with. Energized has a large international peripheral cast, which Gardner handled with ease. A good narrator, with an engaging tone can make some of those longer expositional passages a bit easier to take and Gardner‘s skills definitely kept me going with this novel. Yet, one of my issues with the book was that it didn’t really utilize some of my favorite aspects of Gardner’s narration. Gardner is great at capturing the dark humor and dry wit of the text, and this novel was largely lacking in humor. By having a narrator that is great at pulling the humor out of the text and displaying it for the audience, it made the often lifeless tone of the book stand out like a sore thumb. Energized is one of those books that has a lot of things I should have liked, a catastrophe with a corny name (the Crudetastrophe, guffaw), near future political and scientific exploration and robots, but fails to engage me. There is definitely an audience out there for Energized. Sadly, I wasn’t it.

Note: Special thanks to Blackstone Audio for providing me with this title for review.

Audiobook Review: The Stand by Stephen King

27 02 2012

The Stand by Stephen King

Read by Grover Gardner

Random House Audio

Length: 47 Hrs 58 Min

Genre: Post Apocalyptic Dark Fantasy

Quick Thoughts: For fans of this novel who, like me, are skeptical of allowing another person to become the voice in your head, bringing this world you love to life, don’t be. The audiobook version of The Stand achieves its goal of presenting this classic in a way that will be accessible for both long time fans and those new to King’s frightening landscape.

Grade: A

*Note: I broke away from my typical review format, leading to a much longer review than usual. If you are interested specifically in my thoughts of the audiobook production, feel free to skip to the final two paragraphs of this review. For more information on the recording process, check out narrator Grover Gardner’s Post on his audiobook blog.

I will always remember the day, standing on the ground floor of The Grundy Memorial Library, spinning the spirally paperback bookshelf dedicated to horror novels, when I first discovered The Stand. I was 15 years old and only beginning to discover myself as a reader. I had always read, but it was mostly school books and hand me down mysteries. I had recently started working, and had purchased my first horror novel, Dean Koontz’s The Bad Place. That day, I was actually looking for another Koontz novel to read, when I found a battered version of The Stand. It was the original Paperback version, with a ghostly face in a blue horizon, and the cover was barely held on by scotch tape. I tore through this novel, meeting characters for the first time that I would develop a life long relationship with. Now, this wasn’t my first Stephen King novel, a friend has lent me Christine a few months before, nor was it my first time reading Apocalyptic fiction since I had read Z for Zachariah back in my elementary school days, but it did bring about a transformation in me as a reader. I avidly searched down Stephen King’s books, never really reliving that initial wonder until I read It, and the Dark Tower novels. I became obsessed with Post Apocalyptic novels, consuming books like Swan Song and Dark Advent. The Stand became my gateway book. The Stand led to The Dark Tower which pushed me deeper into fantasy. The obsession with Apocalyptic novels opened the door to science fiction, and other subgenres like alternate history, time travel, colonization tales and parallel worlds. I discovered Brian Keene’s The Rising, which ignited a love of Zombie fiction. It was a slippery slope into the world of speculative fiction.

A few years after reading The Stand for the first time, I came upon the new Expanded Uncut edition. I remember standing in the Oxford Valley Mall’s Waldenbooks reading Stephen King’s message to me, the constant reader, warning me that this novel wasn’t a new novel, just an expanded version of the original. I didn’t waste a moment taking it to the front counter. For the first time, I truly met the Campion family and learned of Baby Levon’s love of horsey back rides. I met The Kid, and to this day I still believe I may have been better off never knowing him. I learned of women locked in meat freezers, and other victims of the second plague. It was like a window looking into a world I loved, showing me new things I never knew about. In college, the miniseries was about to air, and I had left my copy at home, so I scored a new copy with pictured of Molly Ringwald and Gary Sinise on the cover and read through it again. All in All, I have read The Stand five times from cover to cover, and countless times at night when I have trouble sleeping I will turn to a favorite part, and just read a few chapters.

On the rare chance you may not know, The Stand is a novel about a Government Manufactured Biological Weapon that escapes a secret military facility. The Plague was an antigen shifting strain of influenza that had a susceptibility rate of 99.4% and was fatal to anyone who contracted it. In the end, this disease, called Captain Trips, Tube Neck, The Rales, or just plain Super Flu, would decimate the United States of 1990, killing off around 248 million of its 250 million population. Stephen King tells this story in three books, but for me, there has always been four parts. The first is the outbreak, and desolation of Captain Trips, with its government cover up and suppression of news. This part is the science fiction aspect of the novel. It meticulously describes the affect this plague has, paralleling the breakdown of the body, with the breakdown of society. In the second part, the novel turns to supernatural fantasy, with a good old fashion Post Apocalyptic road trip. As the survivor’s make there was through a nightmarish landscape of death and lawlessness, they begin sharing dreams leading them to one of two locations, to the home of an 108 year of African American women, or further West, where a dark figure know as The Dark Man, or The Walking Dude is setting up.  The third part of the novel focuses on those drawn to Mother Abigail, as they set up in Boulder, Colorado, and begin the job of starting society up again. For many fans of the novel, this is their least favorite part, and at times you can feel the story slipping away from King, but as a Political Science fan, I always loved this part of the novel, with its committees, and reclamation projects. Finally, the last part, which King titles “The Stand”, is the final confrontation between the forces of good and evil.

There are many reasons I love this novel. First and foremost it’s the characters. These characters have all become like family to me. They are my brothers and sisters, my aunts and uncles, my friends and my enemies. Each time I read this novel, I was at a different place in my life, and would find myself being drawn to different characters. I would sympathize with Harold, as I hated him. At times I had crushed on Frannie, and other times I found her annoying. What I loved about these characters was that they were never black and white. The lines that separated those on the side of good and those aligned with evil were often blurred. I also liked the crossed genres. The Stand is not an easily labeled book, and I loved the blending of science fiction and dark fantasy. For many critics of the novel, this was something they hated. It was as if the book couldn’t decide exactly what it wanted to be, but for me, this was the beauty of the novel. You never really knew where it would go. It was supernatural, but grounded in reality. The book, especially the uncut version, is not without its flaws. It can be uneven at times, with characters disappearing, and then showing up again hundreds of pages later. Also, when King edited it for the expanded edition he moved the date of the plague forward 10 years, leading to references that sometimes didn’t quite fit. Yet, none of these flaws took away from the wonder I feel every time read this novel. It is easily my favorite book of all time, and each time I end it, I wonder with sadness if I will ever reenter its world, to once again spend time with Stu, and Tom Cullen. To wonder just what Randall Flagg has in store for me in my dreams.

When I first heard that Random House Audio was doing an audiobook version of The Stand, I was equal parts excited and trepidatious. While I knew this would be another chance to experience my favorite novel in a new way, the book is so engrained into me that I worried any narrator could do it justice. Two things had encouraged me though, first, last year brought the audio edition of a book which I have also loved and read multiple times, Robert McCammon’s Swan Song. I actually found the audiobook version brought about a new understanding of the novel. The other thing was that it was being narrated by Grover Gardener a narrator who I highly respect. To start off plainly, I didn’t love any of Gardner’s character voices for The Stand. In many ways it was like someone doing a good interpretation of your mother. The voice fits, but it’s not quite what you remember. Yet, more importantly, I didn’t hate any of the voices either. I loved that Gardner didn’t try to do more with each character than give them an appropriate accent, and allow subtle changes to help differentiate characters. Any narrator who tried to too much with these characters would probably have lost me. Yet Gardner did just enough to allow me to fall into the story, and by the end, especially with Flagg, he even manages to scare me a few times.

There were a few things that stood out to me with the audiobook version. The first thing, a minor but sort of fun one, that I never really noticed in my readings is that at some point in the novel almost every character wets there pants. Whether they peer, urinated, wee’d or some other euphemism, they all had moments where fear led to a bit of incontinence. There are two major aspects of the novel that I feel Gardner’s narration did a good job emphasizing. The first one was the transformation of the characters. King does a lot of work balancing out the characters story, and presenting original, and changed versions of characters. The best example of these are Lloyd Henry, who goes from incompetent fool, to Flagg’s conflicted right hand man, and Tom Cullen, who is transformed from a half wit to something more, and perhaps the true hero of this story. Gardner seems to realize this, allowing their voices to change, and fill out as the story progresses. The other aspect is that of choice. For every character there is a moment of choice. Whether it is to embrace their dark side and join forces with evil, or to become a leader despite your self doubts, each character has their pivotal moment. A lot of the character development in The Stand takes place within their inner dialogue, and Gardner does an excellent job highlighting this. For fans of this series who, like me, are skeptical of allowing another person to become the voice in your head, bringing this world you love to life, don’t be. The audiobook version of The Stand achieves its goal of presenting this classic in a way that will be accessible for both long time fans and those new to King’s frightening landscape.

Audiobook Review: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

10 02 2012

Last week on Welcome to the Apocalypse we discussed some of my favorite Adult Dystopian novels.

Today, I will continue my focus on Dystopian novels with a review of what many believe is the grandfather of the modern dystopia, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I will be abandoning my typical  Review Structure, and taking an expanded look at this classic novel.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Translated by Clarence Brown

Read by Grover Gardner

Tantor Audio

Length: 6 Hrs 56 Min

Genre: Dystopian Science Fiction

Quick Thoughts: We has everything the lover of modern dystopias would want, from romance, and sex, to humor and adventure and its devastating ending will stay with you for a long time. There is a reason why many consider We to be the grandfather of the modern dystopia, and I personally feel that any fan of dystopian fiction will only enhance their appreciation of the subgenre by experiencing this novel.

Grade: A

I first fell in love with Dystopian novels in my teenage years. As with many high school students of my generation, 1984 and Brave New World were required reading and my first real introduction to the dystopian subgenre. I was happy that my middle school required me to read these novels, but I’m not sure, at that age, if I truly appreciated them. I don’t think, in the environment I lived in, that I could truly grasps the subtleties of what these dystopian classics were trying to portray. I first read We by Yevgeny Zamyatin when I was 15 years old. I was told that it was the inspiration for Orwell’s work, and I gave it a go. I loved it of course, but looking back, I think I may have loved it for many of the wrong reasons. I remember thinking that the stories main protagonist, D-503 was a moron. He spends much of the narrative talking about how much better life is when the state controls every aspect of your life. D-503 was a man of logic and reason, and believed that true happiness could never be achieved by this ridiculous notion freedom. I scoffed at this, because, I knew freedom was great. I knew this because I grew up free, and my teachers, and pastors and favorite celebrities all told me that being free was great. Recently, I read a point/counterpoint series of blog posts on a popular dystopian series. One person found it totally unbelievable that a group of people, oppressed and hungry, would choose to go along with the seemingly illogical dictates of the ruling class. The 15 year old Bob, who grew up on stories of the Revolutionary War and movies like Red Dawn, where we all leaned that fighting oppression is the natural way, would have cheered this sentiment.  Heck, I probably would have been wearing my "Give me liberty or give me death" t-shirt while doing my cheering, happy in the knowledge that I lived in a country that valued freedom. Always had, and always would.

I decided to give revisit this novel in audiobook form, when I found out about Presenting Lenore’s Dystopian February. This event was just the thing I needed to revisit some dystopian classics, and read or listen to some I may have neglected.  It has been 22 years since I first read this novel. The first thing I realized is how ironic my initial view of D-503 was. I grew up in an evangelical protestant conservative community. We believed in God and Country.  I knew that while America wasn’t perfect, only God held that distinction, it was better than any other country on the planet. I was a product of my environment, surrounding myself with people who perpetuated my beliefs. I remember the first phone call to my new college roommate, the shock that hit me when I realized that despite the fact that he was also a Christian, he wasn’t a supporter of George Bush. Like D-503, I believe in the logic of my universe, because it made sense to me. People didn’t question my beliefs, so I didn’t question them either.

We was written in 1921 by a Russian author who lived through the turmoil of the Russian revolutions in 1905 and 1917. It is set in the highly regimented society called OneState, overseen by The Benefactor. OneState is a walled city, highly industrialized, and totally separated from nature. The citizens live according to The Table, with every hour planned and every activity scheduled. The Table told you when to eat, when to sleep, when to take a walk, and when to have sex. There are two hours a day for free time and D-503 longs for the day when even those hours are controlled by The Benefactor. In OneState, nobody has a name, but a number and everyone wore the same uniform. D-503 is a mathematician and the designer of the great space ship Integral, which will be taking the wonder that is OneState to the stars. He begins his journal, which makes up the text of this novel, as an expression of love for his state, and its Benefactor. Yet, at the celebration for the great spaceship, he meets a women I-330, who is unlike anyone he has met. She is unpredictable and throws D-503’s previously ordered life, into a spiral of self doubt and questioning of his core beliefs.

Zamyatin takes on many issues of his day, from oppression of the people in the name of people, to social Darwinism and Eugenics. I was surprised how fresh this book actually is. For a novel written over 90 years ago, it is highly appropriate for many of the issues we are dealing with today with the advances in science, and the attempts to balance safety with freedom.  We is also full of humor, which was another aspect I didn’t remember from my initial reading. D-503 so fervently believes in OneState, and its regimented Table, that it was laugh out loud funny at moments. I think a lot of the credit for this can also be placed on narrator Grover Gardner who reads it with a wry wit, delivering the absurdity of D-503 statements with the vocal equivalent of a straight face. Another aspect of this novel that is surprising is the strength and modernity of I-330. One of the things I often struggle with when reading classic science fiction is the roles of women. Often, even the strong women portrayed in these novels, comes off out of place for a modern reader. I-330 is not just unpredictable and outrageous, but is the strongest character in the novel, full of self assuredness and a true understanding of who she is. It’s obvious why D-503 becomes obsessed with her.

For those intimidated by a Russian novel written in the 1920’s don’t be. This translation is very accessible, and very readable. We doesn’t feel Russian, but more in the style of the English Dystopian classics. The audiobook version is well produced, and narrator Grover Gardner is excellent as always. He truly gives D-503 an authentic voice, and handles some of the trickier moments, like the substitute of the word “number” for person or people, and the use of the numbers as proper names, seamlessly. It has everything the lover of modern dystopias would want, from romance, and sex, to humor and adventure and its devastating ending will stay with you for a long time. There is a reason why many consider We to be the grandfather of the modern dystopia, and I personally feel that any fan of dystopian fiction will only enhance their appreciation of the subgenre by experiencing this novel.

One word of warning, there is a forward by the translator Clarence Brown that I found interesting and quite informative. It contains a lot of information of why he chose certain word choices and phrasings in the novel.  I highly recommend giving it a listen, but I suggest maybe waiting to after listening to the text of the novel due to some significant story spoilers.

Audiobook Review: Defending Jacob by William Landay

31 01 2012

Defending Jacob by William Landay

Read by Grover Gardner

Blackstone Audio

Length: 11 Hrs 40 Min

Genre: Legal Thriller

Quick Thoughts: Defending Jacob made my courtroom thriller loving heart sing for joy, a well written, deftly plotted legal tale that was full of hidden depths. Fans of crime fiction, even if not particularly legal thriller fans, should not miss this utterly enthralling novel. 

Grade: A

Maybe I’m the only one, but for some reason I think it’s sort of weird that my two favorite subgenres of fiction are Post Apocalyptic Scifi, and courtroom thrillers. I mean, shouldn’t your favorites of anything be sort of similar? To me, that would be like saying my favorite two flavors of ice cream are mango and battery acid. Yet, it’s the truth. For years, those are the two types of novels I loved. As a teenager I would rotate between reading The Stand, or Swan Song, with novels by Scott Turow or John Grisham. In high school the two novels that I reread the most were The Stand and Phillip Freedman’s Inadmissible Evidence. When asked what career I aspired to be, my typical answer was lawyer, mostly because when I answered Apocalyptic Road Warrior adults tended to frown at me. Yet, I feel that after the big Grisham boon, legal thrillers, particularly actual courtroom thrillers, took a down turn. Sure, there were occasional decent novels from people like Paul Levine, William Bernhardt and others, but I felt a lot of the established legal thriller writers moved away from solid courtroom tales, and branched into other thriller subgenres. At the same time, Post apocalyptic novels were starting their resurgence, and I slowly moved away from the mystery/suspense genre and science fiction and fantasy titles started dominating my reading. Yet, I am making a prediction. With series like Connelly’s Mickey Haller series, and a few standout standalones, courtroom thrillers are about to make a resurgence.  Especially, with the budding scientific and behavioral advances about to force our legal system to adapt, or become shamelessly ill prepared, legal fiction may be the perfect medium to highlight the social changes of our rapidly changing world.

The latest stellar legal thriller to tackle such an idea is William Landay’s Defending Jacob. Defending Jacob centers on a father’s worst nightmare, to find his 14 tear old son charged with the murder of a classmate. Landay’s main character, Andy Barber, is an assistant DA and investigating a brutal murder of a 14 year old boy when his son is arrested. Barber is a well conceived character with a fascinating secret that colors much of the book in interesting ways. Andy’s secret, which he withheld from himself as much as from his family, is that he comes from a long line of brutal violent men. In fact, he may just have what laymen call the murder gene. Defending Jacob is a fascinating look at the legal process, and how it changes everyone involved. Landay doesn’t just take us through the legal maneuverings, but also gives us a view into a family attempting to maintain an air of normalcy in a town where everyone thinks their son is a murderer, and trying to deal with the specter of the upcoming trial hanging over them. Landay deftly guides us through the plot, offering some very memorable scenes, from Andy’s first meeting with a father he’s tried to forget, to a particularly chilling scene where Andy and his wife lay in bed discussing a strange noise outside their house. There is so much depth to this tale, so much intricate plotting that even the predictable moments are filled with shocking undercurrents. My only true complain was the heavy handed foreshadowing used by the author throughout the book, lines like "it was a good day in court, but it would be our last" acted almost like author endorsed spoilers. Yet, even the foreshadowing, as I now look back on the novel, gave greater impact to the ending of the novel which was brilliant and devastating. Defending Jacob made my courtroom thriller loving heart sing for joy, a well written, deftly plotted legal tale that was full of hidden depths. Fans of crime fiction, even if not particularly legal thriller fans, should not miss this utterly enthralling novel.  

Every time I listen to a Grover Gardner narration, I feel like I have been tricked. Gardner has this wonderful voice that is just suited for first person narratives.  He almost sounds like your favorite uncle, the one who always has the best stories to tell you. You become so used to his voice, one that has a unique quality to it, that, especially in first person tales, it takes you a while to realize just how well he is voicing the peripheral characters. You expect to hear his normal narrative tones saturate all the other characters, but in fact, they don’t. He truly finds authentic voices for those other characters. In Defending Jacob, I was happily listening, engrossed in a the story, Gardner allowing the words to push the narrative, when there was a scene between Andy and his father, and I realized just how authentic it sounded. I think one of the hardest things for a narrator to do is have authentic sounding dialogue between two characters, and here it was like I was listening to a masters class on how to do it. Maybe I am being overly effusive, but, when I first heard Grover Gardner would be narrating The Stand, I wondered how he would handle all those characters. Characters that have become iconic to me. When I think of Grover Gardner, I always think of his voice and not his voices. Defending Jacob was just so well narrated, it only made me more excited when I remembered Gardner would be narrating my all time favorite novel. 


Note: A special thanks to the wonderful people at Blackstone Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.

Audiobook Review: Dog Tags by David Rosenfelt

12 08 2011

Dog Tags by David Rosenfelt (Andy Carpenter, Book 8 )

Read by Grover Gardner

Listen & Live Audio

Genre: Legal Dog Thriller

Quick Thoughts: While the overall plot was a bit of a mess, Dog Tags is worth a listen based on its laugh out loud humor and excellent narration.

Grade: C+

One of my favorite subgenres of fiction has always been the Courtroom thriller. I am not going to go off on my typical rant about the state of legal thrillers today, I have done it plenty of times in previous reviews. I am just going to reiterate, I like Courtroom Thrillers, not detectives with a Bar card, but books that actually have significant courtroom scenes. I have been reading/listening to David Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter series since the first book, Open and Shut. Andy Carpenter is a fun mix of self deprecating humor, and odd but solid legal skills. His typical novels involve him reluctantly taking on a murder case, and doing his legal maneuverings while his team tries to find the real killer. Oh, and typically someone wants Andy dead. This is all pretty typical legal mystery stuff and though often predictable, it makes a nice light read. Recently, starting with his sixth Andy Carpenter novel Play Dead, Rosenfelt adds Dogs into the legal equation. Dogs have always been a big part of the series, but Andy now actually starts doing legal work for dogs, which is an interesting little twist, though often bordering on cutesy. In Dog Tags, Andy is pulled into a murder trial when his cop friend asks him to look into the case of an ex-police dog whose owner, an ex-cop turned thief, has been charged with murder. Of course, eventually he reluctantly decides to defend the accused murderer. Oh, yeah, and someone wants to kill him.

Dog Tags offers a particularly complex plot dealing with international finance, price manipulations, corrupt soldiers and murder. Also, Andy Carpenter spends a lot of time trying to get Milo, the ex-police dog to trust him. You see, Milo has buried potential exonerating evidence, and will only lead someone he trusts to where he hid it. In all honestly, the whole plot come off as a bit convoluted and just strange. Rosenfelt would seem to put a lot into a developing storylines, which would eventually lead nowhere. The whole resolution of the plot seemed to come out of left field, and the increasingly obvious eventual violent confrontation seemed almost misplaced in the context of the investigation. It all had an off balance feel that was off-putting. On the positive side, there were plenty of laugh out loud moments in this book. Andy Carpenter is a character that’s just hard not to like, and his quips and asides are always entertaining. I found myself enjoying Andy’s inner dialogue, while the external situations just seemed to be one bug hot mess. Rosenfelt also made some changes as far as Andy’s team, with one brilliant but quirky attorney leaving and being replaced by another brilliant but quirky attorney. Also, my favorite character, the series own Dues ex Machina, Marcus, was relegated to window dressing and the brunt of the occasional joke. While all in all, this book was a disappointment to me, I still have some faith in the series, and hope the next installment will restore my faith in Andy Carpenter and his strange little team.

Since the beginning of the series, Grover Gardner has been the voice of Andy Carpenter, and with all luck, he will continue that role as long as this series goes on. One thing I have always liked about Gardner is he always seems to pick roles that just perfectly suit him. He brings such authenticity to the role of Andy Carpenter, it would be very hard to hear someone else take on the character. Gardner also has an excellent sense of comic timing, which actually allows many of Andy’s increasingly corny jokes to work. Despite my problems with the overall plot, Gardner made the story, at the very least listenable, I am not sure if I would have made it through reading the print edition, without getting too annoyed. I still will recommend this series for people looking for a fun, light change of pace in their listening schedule, because even when the book itself doesn’t really work, the narration and humor is always there.