Sunday, March 30, 2008

Earthcore by Scott Sigler

Length: Approx 15-16 hours
Reader: Scott Sigler

The book: I had intended to wait and write a review for this book in the summer. After all, it does have the "beach-read" feel of a sunscreen-logged paperback. But then I saw where Random House is publishing Sigler's new book, Infected and giving away pdf copies until April 1st, when the print version arrives in bookstores. So, this is my last chance to review Earthcore before Sigler becomes the next Stephen King.

If you're familiar with Michael Crichton's science fiction thrillers, you'll recognize the plot outline: a hubris-heavy corporation tests the limits of science to gain massive profit . . . until Something Goes Wrong. Earthcore concerns a company drilling a three-mile deep mine shaft to excavate a massive platinum lode. When Something Goes Wrong, they employ some good guys to find out what the problem is. As they explore the problem, company redshirts are mysteriously killed by platinum-bladed knives. Meanwhile, a sadistic killer employed by a rival company is trying to wreck the whole enterprise. Earthcore may have a ridiculous and over-the-top plotline, but it's good eye-rolling fun.

This isn't a book for the squeamish and it's definitely not for kids. Sigler throws around blood and gore like a low-budget zombie movie. Curse words abound and there's a particularly gruesome torture scene. However, if you're wanting an action-packed novel that doesn't waste time on things like "relationships" and "literary merit", Earthcore is great popcorn entertainment.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: I think Sigler knows his book is a lowbrow sugar rush; he reads his own work with an enthusiasm that winks, "Can you believe this, folks?" He does voices for every character, which range from pretty good to campy silliness. Sigler's falsetto women's voices are somewhat grating, but it's hard to fault him when he's obviously having so much fun. Each episode is bookended by aggressive nu-metal and some remarks by Sigler. The files are hosted by Podiobooks, which requires a free registration to download the book. The registration only requires an alias and email; I did not see any increase in spam to the email address I registered. Once you've registered, it gives two download options: a subscription to a podcast, which delivers the files on a daily, weekly or other time-release basis or by an "all-at-once" option which lets you get all the files.

Friday, March 28, 2008

"The Outcasts of Poker Flat" by Brett Harte

Source: Librivox (mp3)
Length: 27 min
Reader: William Coon

The story: In "The Outcasts of Poker Flat", the town of Poker Flat decides to purge itself of impure influences following a spate of unrelated crimes. A prostitute, a madam, a gambler, and a drunkard are exiled from the town and begin their trek to the nearest settlement, Sandy Bar. On their way, they meet Tom Simpson and his sweetheart, Piney, who have run away from Sandy Bar and are headed to Poker Flat to elope. These two groups, one innocent and the other sinful, pitch their camp together. Soon after, the cruelties of man and nature force the two group to rely upon one another for survival.

Harte writes a suspenseful Western that is enjoyable enough on the superficial level, but he pushes hard the innocent versus sinful theme. He contrasts the whiskey-soaked amusements of the outcasts with the "square fun" introduced by Tom and Piney, showing how drunken squalor leads to harm, while the more high-minded hymns and literature inspires the company to acts of self-sacrifice. However, Harte does not pass judgement on the outcasts. After all, the crimes they are exiled for, drunkeness, prostitution and gambling, were not comitted without the complicity of the townsfolk of Poker Flat. Toward the end, the virgin Piney and the prostitute Dutchess have a touching scene and show their similarities. Harte's audience was likely moralistic and judgemental, and in this story he reminds them to not judge too harshly.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: William Coon has a clear voice that rises and falls with the story. He voices the gambler Oakhurst with a John Wayne drawl. Women's voices tend to be the downfall of many male narrarators, but here the women's lines are few and Coon performs them just fine. The recording is clean with just a touch of background hiss. Coon reads on a number of Librivox recordings and his voice is one worth seeking out.

(painting "The Fall of the Cowboy" by Fredrick Remington. 1895. via Wikimedia. No copyright restrictions.)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

More posts, more often

When I started this blog in January, I decided that I'd post one audiobook review a week. I was worried that 1) I wouldn't have time to post more than that and 2) my rate of posting would exceed my rate of reading. As I've been posting, I've realized that I do in fact have enough time for multiple posts a week.

So, starting this week, I'll be reviewing one audiobook and one short story per week. Audiobook reviews will be posted at the beginning of the week (Monday or Tuesday) and story reviews will be at the end of the week (Thursday or Friday). News, links, and other posts will fall on Wednesday or on the weekends.

And speaking of posting links, Free Audio Review is a new-ish blog presenting reviews of free audiobooks. I'm glad to have some company in reviewing free audiobooks and excited to try out some of the books that are reviewed there.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Lone Star Ranger by Zane Grey

Source: Librivox
Length: 11 hr, 12 min
Reader: Mark F. Smith

The book: Lone Star Ranger is an exciting Western that follows the career of Buck Duane, a young man who kills a cowboy in a gunfight, then flees his home to escape the law. As he travels the wilds of Texas, Duane gains a reputation for both his gunfighting skills and his sense of justice. This reputation attracts the attention of both outlaws and lawmen, leading Duane to be pursued by both.

Grey writes about a Wild West that is a man's world. Duane is the white-hat gunfighter: handsome, haunted, and fatalistic. Women unfailingly fall in love with him, whether they are of the dark temptress or damsel in distress archetype. Looked at from a modern perspective, Grey's purple prose and stereotypes are uncomfortable, if not nearly laughable.

As backwards as Grey's writing may seem by today's standards, he does deliver up an exciting yarn. Every chapter has at least one action scene, and Grey mixes these up: gunfights, fistfights, chases and hiding all take their turn as Grey moves his hero across the landscape. The plot throws in so many twists and turns that by the second half of the novel, I felt I had already read an entire book. It's easy to see why Zane Grey remains a popular author, and if you can get past the flaws, this is an entertaining listen.

Rating: 6/10

The reader: This recording is of excellent quality with almost no background noise. Mark F. Smith has a steady, somber reading voice which adds weight and an understated excitement to this book. His normally slow pacing builds suspense when needed and carries the action at a faster pace. He impersonates a reasonably good Texas drawl when appropriate, but doesn't ham it up too much, though I did almost laugh out loud when he delivers the last chapter's Librivox disclaimer in character.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

"The Gospel According to Mark" by Jorge Luis Borges

Source: New Yorker Fiction Podcast
Length: 22 minutes
Reader: Paul Theroux

The story: In this short story, Espinosa, an Argentine man, leaves his intellectual life in the city to visit a cousin's ranch. When the cousin leaves for a business trip, the man is left alone with the ranch foreman and his family, the Gutres. A flood cuts off the ranch from the outside world, and left alone, Espinosa passes the time by reading to the Gutres from the Gospel of St. Mark, which they had never heard before. The Gutres understanding of the story of Jesus's life is quite different from what would be expected.

The story is startling in its impact. It's a difficult story to grapple with, especially without giving away any spoilers. I believe Borges is contrasting the simple agrarian lifestyle of his countrymen with the intellectualism of his readers. The focal point for this contrast is the most well-known, heavily analyzed, and retold story in all of Western Culture: the story of Jesus, but in its earliest and simplest written form: the gospel of Mark. Espinosa sees St. Mark's story through both the religious viewpoint of his pious mother and the humanist viewpoint of his atheist father. Paradoxically, with all his intellectual tools for examining the story, he thinks very little about the meaning of Jesus's life as he tells it to the Gutres. On the other hand, the Gutres think deeply about the Bible story and arrive at a surprising conclusion.

Rating: 9/10

The Reader: Paul Theroux is an accomplished writer, but it does not always follow that good writers are good readers. Fortunately, in this case, Theroux delivers a wonderful performance of this piece which he so enthusiastically adores. He varies his pitch, enunciates clearly, and matches the speed of his reading to the action. The recording is part of the New Yorker podcast, in which a current author picks a story from the New Yorker archives, then introduces the story, reads it and discusses the story and author with the New Yorker's fiction editor. I found the discussion to be nearly as entertaining as the story, with Theroux's anecdote about reading to the elderly, blind Borges making the reader feel like he is sharing an experience of listening to a story in common with Borges.

Monday, March 17, 2008

"Araby" by James Joyce

Source: Spoken Alexandria
Length: 16 min
Reader: Alex Wilson

"Araby" by James Joyce is the first in his collection Dubliners. The unnamed narrator is a boy growing up in a neighborhood in Dublin, Ireland. The story tells of his childhood games, his infatuation with a friend's sister, and his attempt to impress the girl by going to the titular traveling bazaar. It's a story about hope and disappointment, which Joyce equates to growing up.

As with most of Joyce 's work, this is a story of great meaning buried beneath a surface of banality. Joyce invests each word with such depth that it is difficult to actually enjoy the story on first reading it. This is a story that demands work, a prying apart of the symbols and allusions. However, I think it's the most accessible story in Dubliners and well worth the effort.

Rating: 7/10

The Reader: Alex Wilson turns in another good performance. As I mention above, this is a piece that is difficult to fully understand the first time through, and the difficulty is compounded when you cannot go back and dwell on a sentence. Wilson acts the piece as a performance, which helps, but tends to narrow the meaning of the words to his own interpretation. So, I think this reading is best as a supplement to the text for re-reading or pre-reading the actual printed page.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Silas Marner by George Eliot

Source: Librivox
Length: 6 hr, 46 min
Reader: rachelellen

Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe is a book about a man first isolated by his community, then brought back in. Silas is kicked out of the weaver's guild after being wrongly accused of theft. He tries to begin a new life in the hamlet of Raveloe, but his attempts to join the community are regarded with suspicion. He falls in to hoarding the gold he gains from his weaving, and it takes an unlikely series of events to draw him back out again.

Elliot manages to alleviate the pathos of Silas's story by interspersing it with the story of two sons of the village's major landholder. These active personalities lift the resigned mood of the narrative and provide an engine to the plot. Eliot's vivid descriptions of Silas's cottage, of formal dances, and of the people of Raveloe likewise give the story a life it would otherwise lack.

I think the themes of isolation from the community in this story as as relevant today as when they were written. Personally, I know only one of my neighbors well, a few others by name, and most not at all. Although online communities are wonderful things, I believe that George Eliot would still want us to connect to our physical communities.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Librivox reader rachelellen provides a captivating performance. Her warm alto voice lends life to Eliot's sometimes antiquated prose.
She doesn't attempt elaborate characters, but pronounces words distinctly with an American accent. Listening on headphones, I could hear a faint background hiss, but no other noise. This is a good straightforward recording that brings out Eliot's language to its full potential.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Source: Librivox
Length:13 hr, 8 min
Adrian Praetzellis

The book: Kim by Rudyard Kipling is a meandering voyage with an Anglo-Indian boy and his Tibetan mentor through colonial India. Kipling provides a detailed portrait of India’s diversity of cultures, landscapes, languages, and races comparable to Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children.

Although Kipling is known as a colonialist writer, I found his characterization of the native people to be even with that of the English. Europeans are definitely in control, but the native population is able to get the upper hand through its knowledge of local dialect and customs. Superstition is gently ridiculed, but the Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims are all portrayed more positively than the Anglican clergyman.

The problem with this journey is there is no drive to the narrative. Kipling never seems to instill the sense of danger that the plot calls for. Kim is set during the Great Game, when Russia and England were on the brink of war over Afghanistan. Kim’s story often intersects these larger events, but it never builds the tension reflective of an international conflict. We’re left with a story that promises adventure but delivers a travelogue. The quality of Kipling's characters and the few hints of excitement provide a novel that can be rewarding for those with patience.

Rating: 6/10

The reader: Adrian Praetzellis provides a crystal clear recording punctuated by distinctive voices for each character. This approach is entertaining but forces the listener to adopt the reader’s characterizations. For example, Praetzellis acts the Tibetan Lama as old man with a high-pitched sing-song voice. From the couple of times I’ve seen talks by the Dali Lama , I’d judge it an excellent imitation of a Tibetan holy man. But I wonder if I would have seen the character as less pitiable and more heroic if he had a sonorous rather than wheezy voice. With any text, voice actors, like their film and stage counterparts, must make decisions on their performances. Here, Praetzellis turns in a wonderful performance and makes the book much more entertaining than it would otherwise be.