The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Audiobook)

Fantastic science fiction that should be read, nothing more need be said.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu)

Published by Tor Books. Read by Luke Daniels. Produced by Macmillon Audio. I got this a long time ago because it won the Hugo in 2015, but I only just got around to it in my January 2018 listening binge.

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

Listen time: 13.5 hours, 1/24/2018 – 1/26/2018.

This book is a masterpiece of science fiction. You should read it, or listen to it. It deserved to win the Hugo Award in 2015. That’s all I really need to say about it.

It is obvious that this is a translation, but it did not detract from the experience at all for me. In fact, I found it even more interesting because of it. Sentences were not quite the way I might have expected them to sound, which gave them a mysterious and creative appeal.

The first half of the book is a little confusing, and I didn’t quite understand how everything fit together, but there is an underlying mystery that compelled me to keep listening. (Actually, if I’d read the blurb above, the first half might have made more sense… I had no idea there were going to be aliens in this book.)

I was surprised to find Luke Daniels reading this book. I didn’t know if he could pull off reading a serious book, but he did. At first it was a little jarring to hear obvious American-sounding characters in a Chinese book about Chinese people, but after a while, the story engrossed me so much that I didn’t care.

The book stands alone, but there are more in this series. I’m not sure I want or need to listen to any more though. What if the sequels aren’t as good? Might it cheapen the experience of the first book?

As an aspiring author, this is the kind of book that it is both inspiring and thoroughly depressing. My immediate reaction is something like, “Well that’s it then, I guess there’s no point in trying to sell a book now.” There is simply no way I could come up with a plot to compete with the level of detail and imagination in this one. Only after some time has passed will I be able to return to my silly pew-pew stories again with any confidence.

See more of my book reviews here.

UPDATE

After I lamented my lack of confidence in writing, I noticed Yoast had this to say about this very post:

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson (Audiobook)

A very artful, atmospheric fantasy where “stuff happens.”

Gardens of the Moon: The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Book 1 by Steven Erikson

Published by Tor Books. Read by Ralph Lister. Produced by Brilliance Audio.

The Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, bled dry by interminable warfare, bitter infighting and bloody confrontations with the formidable Anomander Rake and his Tiste Andii, ancient and implacable sorcerers. Even the imperial legions, long inured to the bloodshed, yearn for some respite. Yet Empress Laseen’s rule remains absolute, enforced by her dread Claw assassins.

This is a fantasy book that is not quite grimdark but nowhere near high fantasy, either. Somewhere in the realm of low fantasy I suppose, except that there is a lot of magic. I guess there was a lot of fighting and dying so maybe it’s classified as grimdark after all. It wasn’t really “on screen,” though, and there’s magic of a distinctly high fantasy sort (teleportation), so maybe not. I don’t know what it is, to be honest. :)

Listen time: About 4 out of  the 26 hours, 1/23/2018 – 1/24/2018.

After four hours of listening I couldn’t identify a plot or any characters that I cared about. I would describe this as a fantastic book where “stuff happens.” The stuff that happens is relayed to the reader very artfully, with interesting sentences and dialog, but I wasn’t hooked by any of it. Perhaps it is a long, slow burn, which makes some sense because it’s a long audiobook, and it’s the first book of a series. I intentionally listened for a long time (four hours) because I figured it would start slow, but then I remembered that I had tons of other books in my backlog.

I will admit that my attention faded in and out while listening to the first four hours, so I’m not terribly clear on the story. There is a war, but I don’t know what they are fighting over, for, or against. I’m not even sure *who* is fighting. It’s hard to get invested in a book when you don’t know the stakes.

Ralph Lister is a very good narrator and I would definitely listen to more of his work. His narration is probably the main reason that I listened to four hours of a story that wasn’t really grabbing my attention. He reads the material as if it is the most important work of our generation, and really brought the character’s voices to life, far more than the text did, I think. I was also very interested in the way he pronounced certain words, like “swathed” (swaythed) and “migraine” (meegraine). (I always thought they were swahthed and mygraine. I will concede the first but I’m reasonably confident of the second.)

Perhaps another time I will return to this book and finish it.

Pandemic: The Extinction Files by A. G. Riddle (Audiobook)

A disappointment despite some compelling side characters.

Pandemic: The Extinction Files, Book 1 by A. G. Riddle

Published by Riddle, Inc. Read by Edoardo Ballerini. Produced by Audible Studios.

In Africa, a mysterious outbreak spreads quickly. Teams from the CDC and WHO respond, but they soon learn that there is more to the epidemic than they believed. It may be the beginning of a global experiment–an event that will change the human race forever.

Another one where I have no idea how or why this book got into my Audible library. I don’t know if it was recommended to me or if I just randomly clicked on something on the front page of the site to try to use up my Audible credits before I cancelled my subscription. Probably that latter one, because I had a lot to use up, and I try to vary my genres now and then. (I think this is a “thriller.”)

Listen time: About 75% of the ~19 hour run time, 1/21-1/23/2018.

This was a very interesting book, but probably not for the reasons you might expect. I found it to be an incredibly mixed bag. It had *just* enough interesting material to keep me listening to the very end, though.

It might surprise you to learn that Pandemic is about a virus outbreak. It starts with a fairly typical outbreak story that you’ve probably read or seen a hundred times before (person in third world gets sick, local doctors suspects it’s Very Bad, virus spreads, CDC workers begin efforts to stop the outbreak, etc.). It was so ordinary that I thought I would stop listening after an hour or so and move on to another book.

But then a few chapters hooked me, mainly the ones involving a WHO woman named Peyton. I was intrigued by the mobilization efforts to fight the pandemic, and the descriptions of how such a fight is conducted. I am a sucker for end-of-the-world stories, and the realistic portrayals (real to me, at least, who knows absolutely nothing about fighting pandemics) fascinated me. (Personally I am pretty sure the human race will end because of something like a virus or bacteria, not a nuclear war or climate change.)

I, the reader, kept fighting with the author, though, who insisted that Peyton was not the main character, and kept returning to chapters about another guy named Desmond. Desmond is a super-spy-ish, computer-ish guy who had lost his memory, rather similar to that Jason Bourne guy. I started skipping his chapters as soon as I heard his name. He was running from police, logging into computers, hacking passwords, playing virtual reality games, trying to find out who he was. I didn’t care one whit about him, because his plot arc did not intersect with the struggle against the outbreak.

I enjoyed the book the way I was listening to it: Skipping the Desmond chapters without remorse, listening with fascination to the Peyton chapters that dealt with the outbreak in Kenya.

Unfortunately the two characters of Desmond and Peyton came together into a single plot thread, taking Peyton away from the outbreak, and the story kind of veered off a cliff for me. It happened a bit shy of the halfway point. The characters boarded a helicopter, and there followed a very long period of backstory and exposition that demolished the book’s pacing and threw the unfolding pandemic far into the background.

I might have stopped listening, but unfortunately for me, I was invested in a few other side characters that I cared about, and wanted to hear how their stories turned out. Their stories, back in Kenya and Atlanta, were more compelling to me than the main “thriller” story of the globetrotting duo of Desmond and Peyton trying to track down the people responsible for the pandemic. Sadly, the side characters only got about half a chapter in every ten, if they were lucky. I would have loved to hear more of them.

I skipped a lot of chapters. A lot of other chapters I didn’t pay much attention to, even though I technically played them. My ears only perked up when the story returned to the side characters I liked. In the end, I was satisfied with the narrative arc for the side characters, but the plot for the main characters (ie. the main plot for the book) turned out to be a disappointment.

Edoardo Ballerini, by the way, is another competent reader, but he doesn’t have a lot of personality. He is more of a TV commercial voice than a storyteller, if you know what I mean. He seems to be more concerned with perfect diction and consistency, as opposed to conveying strong emotions. Actually that’s probably not fair. He’s certainly not the worst I’ve ever heard. But he doesn’t really “bring characters to life” in the way someone like Luke Daniels or an actor would.

Would I recommend it? Not unless you’re bored. It would probably make a much better movie. But they really need to work on Peyton’s character. She started out a “strong female lead” and then deflated into little more than “the girlfriend” for the main character. I was really disappointed in that.

Despite giving this book a somewhat poor review, I still found it fascinating from an author’s perspective. This book broke *so many* of the rules that everyone tells you about. Yet for some reason, it was published, and someone made an audiobook of it! Show, don’t tell, they say. This book told like a maniac. Use active voice, they say. I don’t think this book had a single active verb from beginning to end. Almost every chapter began with a very formulaic establishing line like, “X verbed in Y, verbing.” “Jerry sat in his office, looking over the research papers.” “Betty walked the streets of Berlin, searching for the suitcase.” “Rex stood in the Atlanta hospital, staring at the whiteboard.” Every. Single. Chapter.

Weirdly … sometimes it worked. There were plenty of chapters where I was riveted by what was being “told.” It feels like the kind of book that needs to be studied to understand why some parts worked and others didn’t.

For example, I understand why it makes sense to begin every chapter with a line to quickly establish the character and setting, because almost every chapter switched to a different location. It’s just that the author made no effort to deviate from a very specific grammatical formula. But then, why would you? Formulas are formulas because … they work.

The Land: Founding by Aleron Kong (Audiobook)

A self-published effort that falls short.

The Land: Founding: A LitRPG Saga: Chaos Seeds, Book 1 by Aleron Kong

Self-published. Read by Nick Podehl. Produced by Tamori Publications LLC.

Tricked into a world of banished gods, demons, goblins, sprites and magic, Richter must learn to meet the perils of The Land and begin to forge his own kingdom. Actions have consequences across The Land, with powerful creatures and factions now hell-bent on Richter’s destruction.

This is definitely a winner for the largest number of sub-titles within one title. I have no idea where I heard about this book or why I got it.

Listen time: ~32 minutes on 1/21/2018.

This book did not click with me at all. It is about (stop me if you’ve heard this before) a guy who accidentally gets transported to a real fantasy world after playing a game (a virtual MMORPG). It is, I think, a comedy targeted at an audience demographic who plays online games or tabletop RPGs, i.e. people who will “get” the in-jokes.

I listened to four audio chapters while I was trapped in the shower, and afterward, it was a fairly easy decision not to continue. I would describe the first four chapters as boilerplate setup chapters heavy on exposition, the kind of chapters I have written plenty of times before and been embarrassed about.

On the plus side it is competently read by Nick Podehl, who actually sounds a bit like a cut-rate Luke Daniels. I would consider listening to other books read by him. I don’t think I would consider reading any other LitRPG books, though. It’s possible it gets better, but I just don’t have time to wait for it. Maybe when I run out of other audiobooks I’ll skip ahead to the middle to see if it improves.

See more of my book reviews here.

The Authorities by Scott Meyers (Audiobook)

A fun listen, packed with Scott Meyers absurdity and Luke Daniels voices.

Published by Rocket Hat Industries. Read by Luke Daniels. Produced by … Scott Meyer? (Presumably the author paid Luke Daniels to make the audiobook.)

Sinclair Rutherford is a young Seattle cop with a taste for the finer things. Doing menial tasks and getting hassled by superiors he doesn’t respect are definitely not “finer things.” Good police work and bad luck lead him to crack a case that changes quickly from a career-making break into a high-profile humiliation when footage of his pursuit of the suspect—wildly inappropriate murder weapon in hand—becomes an Internet sensation.

I’m pretty sure I picked up this book because it was another Scott Meyer/Luke Daniels collaboration. I found the Magic 2.0 series juvenile but also very funny.

Listen time: ~10 hours, 1/18-1/20/2018.

Very much like the Magic 2.0 books, the story and writing of The Authorities did not do much for me, but it is brilliantly read by Luke Daniels. I am very biased though because anything that Luke Daniels reads becomes 1000% better in my personal opinion. The Authorities is basically a long series of absurdly comedic situations (Scott Meyer’s trademark) loosely tied together into a police procedural format. It’s a fun listen, that’s about it.

I would recommend the audiobook solely because it has a lot of funny moments, and Luke Daniels is perfect for this kind of humor. I’m not sure I would recommend *reading* the book, though. There were long stretches where I checked out and didn’t pay much attention. For example, I didn’t care a whit about the mystery of whodunnit. The victim and the murderer just didn’t matter. But I enjoyed the hijinks that occurred along the way of solving the crime. I guess that’s another way of saying that the characters were far more interesting than the plot. It had a bit of an absurdist A-Team vibe to it.

See more of my book reviews here.

Thoughts on Mr. Mercedes

I recently finished listening to Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King.

A while back I decided to cancel my Audible.com subscription, because my income was decreasing. I had somewhere around eight credits saved up that I had to use before I could cancel, so I picked up a bunch of random audiobooks. One of them was Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King.

I pretty much like anything that Stephen King writes, so it’s no surprise that I liked it. But it was the first time I had ever listened to Stephen King read as an audiobook. (Actually that’s not true, but it was the first time I’d listened to a full-length King novel as an audiobook.)

Mr. Mercedes was very well-read by Will Patton. I greatly prefer it when actors read books instead of when “voiceover artists” read books. They put a lot more feeling behind the words, rather than simply enunciating them clearly.

This book illustrates exactly what I was trying to say in a previous post. Mr. Mercedes had no supernatural elements whatsoever. There’s simply no way it should be classified as “horror,” which is true for quite a lot of Stephen King books. But what is it? Popular fiction? Suspense? Thriller? It certainly wasn’t genre fiction. I suppose I would have to guess “suspense” since it was very … well, suspenseful.

I probably shouldn’t give away anything but it had one of the happiest endings I can ever remember seeing in a Stephen King book.

The Curse of Chalion, Part 2

This book really grew on me. I almost stopped reading it at about 20%, but pressed onward, and I’m glad I did, because I feel like I learned something important about writing from this book. When I got to about 35% I was hooked, and when I got to about 40% I was riveted. I won’t spoil it but if you’ve read the book you probably know the events that caused the riveting. The book has a lot of religious themes after the 40% mark which are really interesting.

I said I learned something important about writing, and that was: People that give advice on how to write aren’t always right. Or perhaps I should say: Successful authors don’t always follow the rules. I knew that before, but this book really exemplified it. Fully the first 1/3 of the book is a prologue or preamble or backstory. The "inciting incident" that propelled the main character past the point of no return didn’t occur until precisely the 37% mark. That is *completely* contrary to the "in-late, out-early" formula drilled into every new writer’s head. By conventional new-writer wisdom, the "inciting incident" should occur at approximately the 0% mark, or possibly even a negative percentage mark and told in flashback, because we are told that you only have a sentence or a paragraph or maybe — if you’re very lucky — a page or two to hook new readers. Bujold threw that advice completely out the window. And the book was published in 2001, so it’s not like it’s an old book from the 60s when people had more attention spans.

(Granted, she had several award-winning and -nominated novels under her belt prior to writing this one, so she already had a fan base that would read no matter what. New writers don’t have that luxery.)

The book felt extremely epic, yet it was written with only one POV, defying the notion that you have to write a dozen different POV characters to write epic fantasy.

Almost no time was spent on traveling, despite the fact that the main character changed settings several times. To me, this was amazing, because I find myself mired in "road trip" chapters all too often. It’s nice to see that you can just skip over a long journey if you need to.

Another thing I found amazing was that *there was no action in this book.* I mean, there were no sword fights, no chases, no dungeons, no wars, no rope-swinging, no fist-fights, no hanging from ledges by a fingernail, no nothing. Well, okay, there was a little bit of sword-fighting toward the end, but it was almost an after-thought. It was 99% medieval court politics and human relationships and religious philosophy, and yet somehow those topics which sound insufferably boring on the surface were made tense and exciting. And it was elegantly written to boot, with a wide variety of interesting grammar and vocabulary.

I feel like describing Curse as a "classy" book, as opposed to something like a Game of Thrones which I might be tempted to call "crass" by comparison. Those aren’t very good words, but hopefully you know what I mean.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

I started reading The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold.

I started reading The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold … and this time, I actually *mean* reading, not listening to the audiobook. (There are people who insist that listening to an audiobook is the same as reading, but IMO they are very different media consumption experiences.) I picked it up because I saw that it was the next book in The Sword and Laser book club, so on impulse I got it. Not because I wanted to participate in The Sword and Laser, but because I’d wanted to read a Bujold book anyway because her name appears somewhat frequently on the Hugo award winner list.

Well, I’m now about 20% into this book, and I’m thinking about stopping. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with the book. It’s well-written and charming in its way, but I’m running into the same problem I have with a lot of books. I don’t know what the main character’s goal is. He doesn’t seem to have a mission. I really have a hard time getting into stories when the characters don’t have some kind of quest or conflict driving them.

Also, I believe this is the first book in a series, and I don’t really want to get into a long series that is just “okay.”

Well, well. I was looking up how many books were in the series and found it’s not really a series at all. It’s sequel is Paladin of Souls, which is a Hugo-award-winning book that I *do* want to read. So perhaps I will discard all of my biases and press onward. It’s a relatively fast read for a fantasy book anyway.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl is a pretty good psychological thriller/mystery.

Gone Girl

Someone at work recommended Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, so I got it from Audible with one of my credits. This same person also recommended Hunger Games, so my expectations were not very high. But as it turns out, Gone Girl is a pretty good psychological thriller/mystery.

Overall the book makes some pretty strong feminist statements, as well as having some brutal social commentary about the state of the media and judicial system. It had a pretty big twist about halfway through, which I did not see coming at all, so congratulations to the author for completely fooling me. I can’t elaborate without spoiling it, so if you haven’t read it, you might want to skip the rest of this.

[spoiler]The reader is subtley and not-so-subtley led to believe that one character is an unreliable narrator, but it turns out that the other character is really the unreliable one. It was a great example of surprising-but-inevitable. Once it’s revealed, you think, “Oh, of *course* it’s like that! I should have seen it.”[/spoiler]

The book is presented as two different first-person points of view, which is somewhat unusual. There were no issues figuring which one was which, because each chapter was labeled with the speaker. I believe most of it was in present tense, though I think there was some past tense as well. I’d have to go back and check on that. Present tense seems to be really in vogue these days.

One thing I did not like was that at one point a character broke the fourth wall and more-or-less directly addressed the reader. I found it unnecessary. It only happened for one chapter, which made it especially odd.

Ender’s Game

I just finished the audiobook for Ender’s Game.

I just finished the audiobook for Ender’s Game, which I have never read before. I’ve missed quite a few science fiction classics over the years, so I’m trying to make up for it with my Audible credits. The audiobook, by the way, was very well read.

I don’t know what I would have thought if I’d read this book when I was younger, but now, I found it to be a tragically depressing story. Basically it’s about the military using a child to commit genocide on an alien race.

I think the reason this book has been so well-received over the years is that it’s not a typical science-fiction book. Most SF books tend to be about the science, and the characters and story are pretty secondary. For example, I listened to The Mote in God’s Eye about a year ago – a brilliant, classic SF book – but I couldn’t tell you the name of any of the the characters or anything about their personalities or any of the problems they faced. But I could tell you a fair amount about the Moties and their culture and their evolution, because that was the main focus of the book. The story was just a vehicle to write about an interesting alien species.

But in Ender’s Game, the science takes a back seat. The science is almost non-existent, actually. We are never told exactly *how* Ender interacts with his games, for example. It could be a keyboard, a touch screen, telepathy, switches and levers, or anything in between. It doesn’t really matter. The book is all about Ender the boy and his interactions with other boys and girls. If it had been *just* Ender and his struggles with not wanting to kill people yet being trained to kill people, that would have been pretty dull, because that story has been done to death. But with the addition of his mean older brother and his compassionate older sister, it turned into a kind of touching family story.

As I was reading, I noticed there was very little set description in it. Most of it took place in the proverbial white fog, which is somewhat unusual I think for science fiction. I don’t remember any descriptions of the Battle School, or the Command School. I had no real sense of what any of the "games" looked like. Maybe that is another reason the book made such an impact. It gives me hope because I don’t feel like I’m very good at describing settings.