Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

Source: Librivox (direct link)
Reader: Mark Nelson
Length: 5hr, 12 min

The book: Although P.G. Wodehouse’s most famous character, Jeeves, is still a household name in the U.S, I doubt most Americans have read or seen any adaptations of the Wodehouse books. If I’m right, they’re missing out on some very funny tales. Right Ho, Jeeves is not the first Jeeves story, but if you're a stickler about reading the series in order, don't worry. The Jeeves stories are like syndicated sitcoms: a number of things happen, but at the end, not much has changed.

The set-ups for the humor (or should I say humour?) will also be familiar to sitcom fans. Wodehouse provides all the standard family-hour TV machinations: a “sure-fire plan” with obvious flaws goes horribly wrong, a vague conversation leads to mistaken understandings, a man sticks his foot in his mouth and his love becomes overly offended by it. Perhaps these tropes weren’t so played-out when Wodehouse wrote them, but Wodehouse’s ability to make them seem fresh and funny to modern jaded eyes (or ears) is a testament to his talent.

Much of the humor is derived from the protagonist Bertie Wooster’s use of what I assume is 1930’s slang. Other than Cole Porter lyrics, I’m not deeply familiar with the culture of the time, so I can’t say whether his use of this slang was intended to be funny because his lingo was slightly behind the times (current equivalent: “I am so jiggy with it”) or because Bertie was an upper-crust aristocrat using terms reserved for the more avant-garde members of society (“This gala is totally crunk”). Either way, his mode of speech is infectious, so I have to proclaim this book "delish."

Rating: 8/10

The reader:Anglophiles may argue that Wodehouse should never be read by someone with an American accent, but listening to Mark Nelson's performance, I have to disagree. Nelson's voice captures Berty's aristocratic aloofness perfectly. I'd rather listen to someone portray the essence of a character in his tone rather than going outside his abilities to try an English accent. The voices of the other characters are equally good, with Gussie's nasal whine being a particular favorite. Funny books pose a particularly difficult challenge to readers, but Nelson displays excellent comic timing. The clarity of this recording ranks among the best at Librivox.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Book selection

With four books in the archives, I'll point out a few of my tendencies concerning book selection.
  • Solo recordings - I tend to review recordings made by one person, rather than the chapter-per-person organization of the Librivox group recordings. I do this for two reasons: 1) I like solo recordings better and 2) it's easier to review. Listing the qualities of 14 different readers is difficult enough as it is without the possibility that I'll have to own up that one of the 14 is sub-par.

  • No bad reviews - If I'm reading a book and decide I don't like it, I'll put it aside; no hard feelings. I've come back to books from time to time and discovered that they're actually good books, but I just wasn't in the right mental state to enjoy it. The same goes with readers. I won't continue listening if I dislike the reader, but neither will I publish my opinion that the reader is awful. There's too much of good stuff out there to spend time dwelling on the negative.
For the month of January, I've been choosing classics: Lord Jim, Pride & Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Conn. Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I decided that since everyone would be visiting my blog for the first time, they would like to see something familiar - either something they've read or something they've been meaning to read. I can introduce off-the-beaten path finds later.

These classics tend to be long books, so to introduce a little variety, I've decided to review short books for February, the shortest month of the year. Occasionally, I'll pick a month and do a theme for that month, like science fiction or mysteries. I'll also start throwing in a short story review at irregular intervals in addition to my weekly book reviews.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A CT Yankee in King Arthur's Ct, by Mark Twain

Source: Librivox (direct link)
Reader: Steve Anderson
Time: 13 hrs, 43 min

The book: On writing the title for this post, I chuckled when I realized that the postal code for Connecticut and court are the same. I don't think Twain intended this abbreviated pun, but I think he'd be amused by it nonetheless. Twain didn't use puns too often in his humor; he preferred getting his laughs from placing outlandish characters into difficult circumstances then watching them weasel their way out.

In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Twain does just that -- he magically transports the titular Yankee, Hank Morgan, into the mythical world of King Arthur and sets him up to be burned at the stake. The plot is nothing more than a constant rehash of this same type of set-up and escape, but the character is what is most memorable about the book. Twain has a talent for making his characters simultaneously over-the-top and real, creating a person both exasperating and fascinating. Hank, as "The Boss", is constantly making grand plans and trying to convince his medieval compatriots to adopt a late 19th century lifestyle. You'd love to be friends with Hank, so long as you didn't have to spend an entire evening talking with (or listening to) him.

Apart from the unforgettable characters, the other hallmark of Twain's works is his misanthropy. Toward the end, the sarcasm becomes a bit too harsh to be enjoyable as Twain's love for persons individually begins to be outweighed by his distaste for people in general. Before this poison starts to take effect, though, Twain gently but effectively ridicules organized religion, politics, advertising, personal hygiene, war, and, of course, the Arthurian legend. It helps if you have tried to read (and, like me, failed to finish) Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur, but anyone familiar with chivalrous tales of knights in shining armor is bound to get the joke.

Rating: 8/10

The Reader
: Steve Anderson's reading is full of enthusiasm. He lends just the right amount of sarcasm to his telling and makes Hank's story come alive with wit. Anderson doesn't "do voices" for other characters very often, which since the story is told as a 1st person narrative, is just fine. The only small fault is with the recording itself. There's a bit of background hum and the louder tones are cut off, giving the voice a tinny character at times.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A few related blogs

This blog is dedicated to reviewing free audiobooks and audio stories on the Internet. I know this isn't a totally original idea. So I thought I'd give a roundup of some similar blogs of note:
  • ReadEar reviews only Librivox books and tries not to comment on the reader(s), unless the reading is particularly great.
  • earideas rates audio of all sorts: podcasts, audiobooks, and other recordings.
  • SFFaudio focuses on science fiction, whether free or not.
  • Learn Out Loud catalogs, rates, and sells audio of all sorts, both free and pay.
  • The Best Media In Life is Free has reviews of ebooks, music, and some audiobooks, all free.
You'll note that each of these blogs focuses on a slightly different aspect of my goal, so I think I'm still providing a useful and unique service.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Source: LoudLit / Literal Systems (direct link)
Reader: Jane Aker
Length: 16 hrs, 15 min

The book: Usually, I find Charles Dickens too sentimental for my tastes. A Tale of Two Cities is my favorite Dickens book because he gives his characters some depth and sets them in an interesting time. Typical of Dickens' work, there's still the extremes of the supremely good Lucie and supremely bad Madam Defarge, but he also throws in characters in shades of gray, like Monsieur Defarge and Sydney Carton.

The plot is doled out piecemeal, as is normal for serial novels, with a go-nowhere subplot about one of Lucie's suitors taking up too much space in the middle of the novel. I also found the chapters about Jerry to be tedious and full of supposed humor regarding wife abuse. Once the action moves to France, however, the pace picks up and I found myself doing a few more laps at the gym to find out what would happen to Charles, Lucie and the doctor.

The historical background is, of course, the French Revolution. I'm not sure how much actual research Dickens did into time period beyond what was generally known in the history books. I don't have a good handle on the historical events of the Revolution in all its complexity and contradictions, so I can't really comment on his verisimilitude. Dickens' portrayal, however accurate, of the persecution of the poor by the rich and the resulting bloodthirstiness of the Reign of Terror trials is something that will stick in my mind.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Jane Akers is a marvelous narrator. She speaks at a slow pace with clear enunciation. She performs a wide variety of accents for the characters which makes Dickens' often difficult dialect much easier to understand. The recording is professionally done at a studio with no background noise or hiss.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Source: Librivox (alternate version)
Reader: Anne Coleman
Length: 13 hr, 25 min

The book: I started this novel thinking that it would be a girl-book full of overwrought emotions, improbable love, and very little action. This is not my kind of book. To my surprise . . . I was completely right. But the real surprise was that I liked it.

Austen tells her story while chuckling at her characters, which is what makes the whole love story palatable. I say "chuckling" because she rarely actually makes fun of the characters by forcing them into paper-thin stereotypes (Mr. Collins may be the only exception), but instead portrays real people acting with their own goals in mind and crossing each other's paths. Elizabeth, the main character, is especially agreeable and so completely breaks the stereotype of the swooning love-lorn girl that I can't see why romance writers ever went back. The plot can be a bit difficult to follow when listening, since you can't flip back a few pages to see who some minor character is, but is not unmanageable. It wasn't my favorite book; toward the end, I felt like smacking a few heads to speed the characters toward an ending that was by now obvious, but I understand why many of my female friends claim it as their favorite.
Rating: 8/10

The Reader:
Anne Coleman is one of Librivox's excellent amateur readers. You'd never mistake this reading for a pro job; there's some background noise, some pops and crackles in the recording and some breathing into the mike. Ms. Coleman's voice, though, is lovely to listen to and her love of the book shows through the reading she gives. She has a nondescript American accent and gives enough voice to her characters to usually know who is speaking, but not so much that it's annoying. If you're an audiophile who loves a clean recording this isn't for you, but if you're willing to overlook some noise, this is a fine reading.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Source: Librivox (direct link)
Reader: Stewart Wills
Length:14 hr, 25 min

The book: At first, I came to Lord Jim expecting it to be about the adventures of a young man in the South Seas and was initially disappointed. The plot would sometimes drag and minutes would go by in circular talk between characters.

Once I decided to take the time to think about what Conrad is doing in this novel and how he's doing it, I recognized the fine craft that went into telling the story and began to enjoy the plot as well. Conrad is what I call an "English teacher's writer". Listening to the book, you could go through every entry in the Big Book of Literary Devices and check each off: foreshadowing, flashbacks, unreliable narrator, dramatic foil, symbolism, mythological references, and so on. I found myself composing little essays in my head about the symbolism in the novel and its relation to the British Empire.

I still got frustrated at times listening to a description of Jim standing on the bank of a river, but now I was able to let my mind explore not only the portrait Conrad was painting, but also to examine the detail of the brushstrokes, then step back to admire the big picture.
Rating: 8/10

The reader
: I would've never gotten to the point where Lord Jim started becoming interesting to me if Mr. Will's reading hadn't been so compelling. He does voices for each character, and does them well, enhancing rather than distracting from the text. His recording is crystal-clear. This is a audiobook I would gladly pay money for if it wasn't being offered for free.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

What this is all about

This blog will be my reviews of free human-read audiobooks available on the web. I'll be pulling from a number of different sources, including Librivox.org, Podiobooks.com, and some commercial sources. The format will be as follows:

The book - I'll give a rating on a ten point scale for the book itself. I'll write up what I like and didn't like, trying to avoid any spoilers beyond what you'd read on the cover of a paperback. Of course, my reviews are my own opinion and I may change my opinion.

The reader - Realizing that these books are being given away for free, I'll try not to be too harsh on the reader. Rather than giving a numerical rating, I'll keep my review descriptive. I'll note any obvious accent, voice quirk, background noise, or "doing voices" acting. I intend to present these without judgement and allow others to decide if they like or dislike each. I'll also note if the recording sounds professional (meaning a quiet background and a NPR/BBC-type voice) or amateur (some noises and an untrained voice) . I don't regard these qualities to be judgmental - some people enjoy an ordinary neighborly voice, while others want a voice-over candidate.

I'll try to keep up a pace of at least one book a week. Since I have a backlog of things I've already listened to, I think this is reasonable. Suggestions are always welcome. I hope you enjoy my reviews. Please leave a comment if you're interested.