Friday, November 28, 2008

Audiobooks for Christmas

According to retailers, today marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Last year, my family put a focus on making a gift to give to everyone rather than buying so much. So, I designed and printed several covers for audiobooks from LibriVox. I burned the CDs and packaged them in some nice cases from Sleeve Town. The total cost was around $2 or $3 per gift, including the blank CDs, the CD cases plus shipping and some quality paper for printing. These were a big hit with my family.

If you'd like to try it yourself, you can get the cover designs at The Internet Archive and find a tutorial on how to create your own covers at the Librivox Wiki. If you don't have a program like PhotoShop, you can use GIMP (a free PhotoShop clone) or even use the limited graphic capabilities of MS Word or Powerpoint. Use the sidebar on this blog if you want to find a particular length of book or genre. This is a great do-it-yourself Christmas gift for anyone looking for cheap Christmas presents.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

"The Boy Who Snared The Sun" by William T. Larned

Source: LibriVox (MP3)
Length: 15 min
Reader: Chip

The story: This story, taken from the larger collection American Indian Fairy Tales, is from the Ojibwa (Chippawa) tradition. The stories of this book were collected in the 1820s by the geologist and ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft while he was Indian Agent assigned to the Ojibwa tribe. About 100 years later, William T. Larned rewrote the stories and placed them in the framework of an old Indian storyteller imparting the tales to a young Indian boy and his sister. This particular story concerns the doormouse and how he came to be so small after having once been the largest of all animals.

This folktale has two opposite examples of a reversal motif. The titular boy who snares the sun is the weak triumphing over the strong, while the giant doormouse becoming small is the strong becoming weak. These motifs reoccur in literature throughout the world, from Horatio Alger stories to Greek tragedy. The repetition of these two opposing trajectories, one up and one down, suggests that change may not always for the better, but at least it's more interesting than staying the same.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Chip has the voice of a natural storyteller; he is well suited to this folktale. His professional-quality baritone squeezes every drop of drama out of the narrative. The recording has a bit of a hiss on the "S" and "K" sounds, but this is easily overlooked because of the quality of the reader. The story and storyteller make me feel as if I had just curled up next to a roaring campfire to hear a great yarn-spinner work his craft.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

Source: LibriVox
Length: 17 hr, 18 min
Reader: Gary Sherwin

The book: The Last of the Mohicans is set in upstate New York during the French and Indian War. Natty Bumppo, known to the British-allied Indians as Hawkeye and to the French and their Indian allies as "Le Longue Carabine," is a scout in the hotly-contested portage between the Hudson River and the Great Lakes. He and his friends Chingachgook and Uncas, the last two members of the dwindling Mohican tribe, pledge to help two young ladies and their escort through the forest to Fort William Henry where their father is in command of the British forces. But the forest is filled with the French-allied Huron Indians, so it will take all of Hawkeye and the Mohicans' skill to get them through alive.

I was expecting this book to be a plodding period drama with long-winded descriptions of the American frontier and boring philosophical speeches on the noble savage. Cooper did throw in a few of these, but I found the descriptions moving and the speeches short and to-the-point. For the most part, this book was much more fun than I expected. Cooper designs some exciting action sequences with interesting devices for the heroes' escape. His villains and heroes alike are well-formed characters, despite borrowing heavily from American Indian stereotypes. The main asset of the book, however, was the setting. The French and Indian War is a short chapter in most American textbooks and little more than a footnote in European history, but Cooper's story is a great example of literature making history come alive.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Sherwin's reading is that of an amateur, but a talented amateur. He stumbles over a word from time to time, and noises like page turns and edits are clearly audible. His tone and pacing, however are near-perfect. Sherwin does voices with varying success. His voicing of the villain is scarily menacing, while the comic choirmaster's voice is hilariously funny. On the other hand, the female characters' voices made me cringe at times. His natural voice is fairly deep, which is liability for the women characters, but for his narration and male voices it's a great asset. Fortunately, most of this book plays to his strengths, so I can highly recommend this reading.

Friday, November 21, 2008

"Fokker Filibuster" by Robert Sidney Bowen

Source: Dial P for Pulp (MP3)
Length: 52 min (story itself is about 20 min long)
Reader: Elisha Sessions

The story:The pulp magazine stories of the early 20th century were often cookie-cutter genre pieces. Despite their cliches and political incorrectness, however, the best of these stories are still entertaining for a modern audience. In fact the pulps have experienced a resurgence as the Internet has made stories long out of print once more available to a wider audience.

In this story, Lt. Joseph Todd is a World War I fighter pilot in the US Army Air Service. Todd is a good pilot, but he has one problem: he can't land on the tiny battlefront air strips without damaging his aircraft. True to the conventions of this type of story, Scott is called up on a suprise mission where he will have one last chance to redeem himself.

I found this story predictable, but still an exciting action-adventure piece. The plot has plenty of bursts of aerial and ground fighting coming one after the other. "Fokker Filibuster" isn't a memorable story, but it is a fun one.

Rating: 6/10

The reader:The Dial P for Pulp podcast combines reviews of pulp fiction, drama, and games with readings of stories from classic magazines or their modern imitators. "Fokker Filibuster" starts at about 29 minutes into this episode. Sessions reads with great liveliness. His character voices are spot-on and his narration conveys the bang-pow attitude of the genre. The story
begins and ends with a plane engine effect at the that flies straight through the headphones from one side to the other, setting the stage for a well-produded recording.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Source: LibriVox
Length: 9 hr, 20 min
Reader: Mark F. Smith

The book: What would happen if a human baby from parents of the best quality was raised by animals of the most barbaric sort? Would the child reflect the attributes of his biological parents or social environment? The nature versus nurture debate has engaged philosophers, then later scientists, for centuries, but neither Hume nor Locke wrote any treatise half as entertaining as Burroughs' pulp novel. Tarzan's animal upbringing gives him the strength and abilities of the jungle, but his "good breeding" affords him the morality and intelligence to make him a super-man.

Although Tarzan's parents were English and his upbringing African, he can be seen to be a metaphor for the United States, which was at the time just becoming a world power. Like Tarzan, the USA boasted a European heritage that had been tempered by the hardships of the frontier. Led by Teddy Roosevelt, himself a blend of aristocracy and outdoorsman, America had subjugated the savages and taken its seat at the table of the Western powers.

Of course, this version of America's place in the world is very colonialist and Tarzan reflects this prejudice. The depiction of black people, both native and Westernized, is racist. Burroughs seems to imply that black people are at worst cannibals and at best comic sidekicks, depending on the environment where they were raised. This viewpoint provides a dark contrast to Tarzan's triumph of heritage over surroundings. Although modern psychology has shown that our physical nature governs many of our basic behaviors, our human qualities are much more influenced by culture than Burroughs supposes.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: As in several other books I have reviewed, Mark F. Smith does an excellent job with this book. He reads with a moderate cadence that allows for easy understanding. His narration is in a slightly nasal American accent, but performs a few decent accents for the characters' voices. The recording is marred by a background whine. Some people will be able to ignore it, but others will find this noise distracting.

Friday, November 14, 2008

"The Absent Minded Coterie" by Robert Barr

Source: Librivox (Part 1) (Part 2)
Length: 1 hr, 27 min
Reader: Czechchris

The story: French detective Eugene Valmont is approached by Spenser Hale of Scotland Yard concerning a case which is frustrating the London police. Because of a decline in the price of silver, a band of counterfeiters have begun producing British silver coins in actual silver, making the phonies difficult to identify (historical note: because Britain at the time was on the gold standard, the value of the silver in a coin did not equal its face value). Suspicion falls on a Mr. Summertree who appears to be the one distributing the false coins, but the police need Valmont, as a Frenchman not under English police procedure, to perform a warrantless search to find out who is actually making the coinage. Valmont agrees to take the case, but finds a much more ingenious conspiracy than counterfeiting.

The mystery presented here is both interesting and surprising, with plenty of plot twists that left me shaking my head and chuckling. The entertainment is magnified by the confident figure of Eugene Valmont as a slyly funny narrator. Although the story is set in 1896, modern readers will recognize some features of the story are current in the news: warrantless searches, the use of foreign operatives to avoid national laws, and the election of a new American President in a time of economic crisis.

Rating: 8 / 10

The reader: Czechchris, despite his Slavic username, has a British accent that sounds wonderful, though it jars somewhat with the French identity of the narrator of this particular story. I, however, am not of the opinion that a reader's accent must match the character, since it would be a pity to deny such a good reader as this one the chance to perform this story. The reader does not "do voices" but his reading of the different characters lines are true to the emotions that the characters are expressing. The sound quality of this recording is superb.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Red Thumb Mark by R. Austin Freeman

Source: Internet Archive
Length: Approx 8 hr
Reader: Maureen S. O'Brien

The book: The London police are presented with an open-and-shut case. A precious metals dealer had a large value of diamonds stolen from his office safe. The only people with access to the safe were the owner and his two nephews. Inside the safe, the police find a few drops of blood and a damning piece of evidence: the owner's ledger sheet for receipt of the diamonds marked with the bloody thumbprint of one of the nephews - Rubin Hornby.

Dr. John Thorndyke, a medical examiner for legal cases, takes up Rubin's case. Dr. Thorndyke believes he can clear Rubin's name. The most advanced science of Edwardian times will be brought to bear in this turn-of-the-century CSI. But how will Thorndyke and his new associate Christopher Jervis solve the mystery?

The difficulty of a mystery story is that, according to convention, the author should leave enough clues available to the reader to guess the outcome, but obscure the facts enough that most will not. Even so, some readers will see the solution very quickly. With the benefits of history and advancement of science, modern readers have additional advantages over Freeman's contemporaries. Although this story has a number of twists that may have thrilled past readers, I found it to be an entertaining, but predictable, mystery.

Rating: 6/10

The reader: Ms. O'Brien has a lovely American voice for narration. For the characters, she drops into voices that identify each quite well. This reading does not disguise the fact that it is amateur; O'Brien goes back to re-read phrases she flubs and there is some noise of page turning and bumps. However, if you can forgive the lack of polish, it is a very good amateur reading with acceptable sound quality.

Friday, November 7, 2008

"The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfield

Source: LibriVox (MP3)
Length: 34 minutes
Reader: iremonger

The story: As the time for their garden party approaches, the Sheridan household is abuzz with activity. Mrs. Sheridan and her daughters, Laura, Josie, and Meg, must supervise the workmen, servants, cooks, and gardeners. It's such hard work getting ready for a party! When a tragedy strikes nearby, the family must decide how they will incorporate these events into their plans.

Katherine Mansfield's story is a great exploration of class distinction. Her words hang with dramatic irony. The banality of the Sheridans' activities contrast with the later events in a twisted kind of foreshadowing. I found the ending a bit of a cop-out, but I think that might be the whole point of the story. Life is either incredibly meaningful or incredibly meaningless, either way, it lies beyond words to describe.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: This is a beautifully read piece by the incongruently named iremonger. The reading has a lyrical quality. Early on, he stumbles a little, but as the narrative goes along, the reader seems to fall into a grove and tells a good story. The sound quality is high with only a few background noises.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Source: Librivox
Length: 3 hr, 12 min
Reader: Elizabeth Klett

The book: The titular character in Ethan Frome is a man living in rural Starkfield, Massachusetts, trapped in a marriage with a woman who is both sickly and demanding. When his wife's beautiful cousin Mattie comes to stay with the couple as a domestic helper, Frome begins to dream of a better life away from Starkfield with Mattie. But Frome is a good man who won't allow himself to wrong his wife. The story is a classic example of the struggle between desire and commitment.

Ethan Frome is one of those stories which ten years ago I would have have not enjoyed. I would have seen Frome as a selfish, weak man, not recognizing his quiet heroism. Since then, my own experiences with difficult moral decisions in a past relationship have changed my perception. I can now sympathize with Frome's wanting to leave but knowing it is right to stay. I think it's amazing how a book can mean nothing at one time, but be so meaningful if read at a different time in life. I'm humbled to realize that these reviews I write are valid for myself alone, only at the time that I write them.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Elizabeth Klett is a wonderful reader. I've already mentioned how much I liked her reading of Howard's End by E.M. Forster. This reading is just as good, with an even better sound quality. Ms. Klett has lovely voice with clear, crisp enunciation. Her reading makes use of variations of tone and volume to create an enjoyable audiobook. I would reccomend her readings to anyone looking for the best readers of LibriVox.