Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Discover new blogs

I've taken up the Weekly Geek challenge to find some new book-related blogs to add to my reading list. Note that these are book review sites, not necessarily audiobook reviews. Here's some good ones I've found:
  • things mean a lot Nymeth reviews mostly science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative fiction. Includes some links to on-line fiction. I've already found one author from whom I want to read more.
  • The Hidden Side of a Leaf The founder of this idea to find and link to new-to-you literary blogs. A good place to find new books to read.
  • 50 Book Challenge A blog about reading through 50 books in a year. I have a list of my own about reading 50 or 52 books a year, which I'll post next week.
  • Book Nut Good reviews mostly about modern fiction, but what really sold me on this blog was the post on the best jacket flap copy that she's read recently.
  • Can I Borrow Your Book? In a nice coincidence, Juli is currently listening to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. If you're looking for another free audiobook to listen to, see her review of Librivox's Dracula.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Source: Librivox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 3 hr, 45 min
Reader: J. Hall

The book: When I started reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, my first question was, "How could the book possibly be better than the movie?" After all, the 1939 film starring Judy Garland has rightly become a classic of American cinema. As I listened to the book, I found similar admiration for Baum's book. While the movie contributes new facets to the story through the use of color, music and a distinct visual style, the book contains an episodic plot and playful language that don't quite translate to the screen. A number of the episodes in the book are altered or removed in the film. Baum's repetition of plot elements recall fairy tales like "The Billy Goats Gruff" and "The Snow Queen". After all, Baum was attempting to create an American fairy tale and so the oral structure of fairy tales comes through, making this a perfect book for listening.

A few weeks ago, I wondered whether children would still enjoy Alice in Wonderland. I don't think there's a doubt that most kids would like The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps this is because the book is closer to our time and doesn't have the dated references to forgotten poems and Victorian life. Maybe it's because Baum's book is not as ambitious as Carroll's; Oz keeps the plot grounded in a fantasy world with rules rather than going off in surreal flights of fancy as in Alice.
In this way, Oz is a book that reflects child's play itself: imagination and adventure within a framework of rules and repetition. This, I think, is a reason for Oz's continued success: that it makes us remember how we play as children.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: J. Hall narrates the book with a pleasant American accent that would be at home at NPR. This isn't a professional reading; Hall has several minor stumbles and he doesn't attempt distinguishing voices for the characters. However, these minor faults can be easily overlooked when one considers the excellent pacing and emphasis with which Hall reads. The recording is free of any background sound, but has a compressed sound when played at higher volumes, perhaps due to noise filtering. All in all, this is a excellent choice if you're looking for a recording of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that comes without silly voices or overacting.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

"The Rocking-Horse Winner" by D.H. Lawrence

Source: Voices in the Dark (mp3)
Length: 33 minutes
Reader: Dawn Keenan

The story: "The Rocking-Horse Winner" features a set-up that is sure to resonate with the current economic downturn. In 1920's England, a middle-class family feels the financial strain of trying to keep up the appearances of prosperity. The constant unspoken refrain of "There must be more money" turns the mother to resent her children. In response, Paul, the only son, resolves to become lucky and through luck bring money to the family.

Writing during the heyday of psychoanalysis, Lawrence packs his story with Freudian themes and imagery. The motivating force for the plot is the mother's coldness and her son's desperate seeking for her love and attention. The father is almost absent from the story, his place taken up by Uncle Oscar and the gardener Bennett. Devoid of both maternal and paternal love, Paul channels his energy into horse racing. In the Freudian case study of Little Hans, to which this story bears a number of resemblances, horses are connected with sexual desire; the climatic scene in this story has the feel of being caught in flagrante delicto. Lawrence is echoing the psychoanalyst's interest in the sexual and physical obsessions that result when the parents care more about money than expressing parental love.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Ms. Keenan delivers a fine reading of a story that can pose a difficulty to oral interpretations. She begins the story with a dead tone that matches the bitterness of the story's mood, but soon warms to the flow of the plot. She performs an excellent facsimile of young boy's soprano and a good gruff voice for the uncle. Her other voices are nondescript, but also less important to the story. In the sound quality department, there is a bit of high-pitched tinkling during audio edits, but that may simply be an artifact of listening on earbud-type headphones. Otherwise, the sound is professionally recorded.

(photo by Mrs. Logic via flickr. Creative Commons Attribution license.)

Monday, April 21, 2008

Howards End by E.M. Forster

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 12 hr, 11 min
Reader: Elizabeth Klett

The book: Although Howards End is a deep book, it is not a difficult book. The story mainly concerns two families: the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes, and to a lesser extent a third, the Basts. All three families occupy the middle class, the Schlegels through inheritance, the Wilcoxes through business acumen, and the Basts barely clinging to the lower rungs of the middle class. Forster's book concerns the relationships between these families, but the plot does not get weighed down with the sense of overreaction to insignificant problems that burdens many novels of manners. Instead, Forster rewards the reader with humor and warm characters that enliven a plot full of twists.

However, Forster is not content to make this a merely entertaining novel. He spells out his symbolism and has his characters discuss his themes. The Schlegels come to symbolize the World of Ideas, the contemplative life, and the brotherhood of nations, while the Wilcoxes represent the World of Things, the active life, and imperialism. Howards End poses the question of along what direction will England's future be: that of the Wilcoxes, the Schlegels, or the Basts' struggle for existence? Forster doesn't chose one over the other, but instead as Margaret Schlegel says, "Our business is not to contrast the two, but to reconcile them."

Rating: 9/10

The reader: If I had read this as a physical book instead of as an audiobook, I don't think I'd ever have finished it, not because it was too boring, but because I would have had to read back over the most beautiful passages again and again. Elizabeth Klett does credit to Forster's language with her marvelous reading. She has an American accent for narration, but for voices she performs a variety of English accents that are, as far as I know, quite accurate. My favorite voices she does are those of Jackie and Dolly, two characters that could be annoying but are instead humorous in Ms. Klett's able hands. My only complaint with the reading is a bit of an echo in an otherwise clean recording, but this I became accustomed to after the third or fourth chapter.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

"Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolff

Source: New Yorker Fiction Podcast
Length: 19 min
Reader: T. Coraghessan Boyle

The story: Although I don't know the circumstances for the writing of "Bullet in the Brain", I could imagine that it began as a revenge fantasy against a critic who had panned Wolff's work. The story, in the beginning, is a harsh portrait of a book critic who has lost the joy of literature and instead sees cliches in every novel he reviews. The man is such an ass, in fact, that he can't help but smirk and heckle in the middle of a bank robbery, exactly when he should keep his mouth shut.

If this story was indeed first written as revenge against a critic, I can picture Wolff coming back to his draft and realizing that he had been unfair to the character he created. In the second part of the story, the plot takes a major turn and we get to see the humanity of the critic. This contrast of putting a comic figure into a serious situation makes the story both laugh-out-loud funny and deeply profound. If, like me, you've been bored with the navel-gazing path that contemporary short fiction has taken, this story is a welcome change.

Rating: 10/10

The reader: T.C. Boyle certainly has an enthusiasm for the story he's chosen. His appreciation for Wolff's language comes through in the vivid narration Boyle gives. He speaks with an easy amused air, as if he's expertly telling a well-rehearsed joke rather than reading words off the page. Boyle's voices are excellent, especially the Sopranos-worthy Jersey accent he voices for the robbers. The discussion at the end with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman is enlightening; they talked about so many relevant topics that I almost didn't have anything to add in my review!

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Source: Librivox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 5 hr, 42 min
Reader: Andy Minter

The book: This was a book I downloaded on a whim, just because I was going on a trip and needed a book about 5 hours long. Now, it's one of my favorite books from Librivox. From the plot description, I wasn't expecting much: Rudolf Rassendyll, an English aristocrat visits the (fictional) European kingdom of Ruritania and discovers that he looks exactly like Ruritania's king. To defeat an attempted coup, he assumes the throne in the king's place and begins a counter-plot to rescue the king.

This set-up sounds like a cliche, something you've already read in The Prince and the Pauper or seen in the movie Dave. However, I found the novel to be funny and entertaining, with enough twists to the basic switcharoo plot to keep me interested. The story has a little bit of everything: dry humor, swordfighting, romance, intrigue, and innuendo. With such breadth, The Prisoner of Zenda should be a good pick for just about anyone, though middle school guys should especially enjoy it.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: I could listen to just about anything that Andy Minter reads; it's a bonus that he's reading such a fun novel. The first person narration allows Minter's deadpan British accent brings out Rudolf's dry wit. Minter doesn't perform voices, so it can be difficult at times to tell who is talking, though the text is usually clear on this point. There is a bit of exhalation and page turning noises in the recording, but the sound is otherwise clean.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Trunk & Disorderly by Charles Stross

Source: Subterranean Press
Length: Approximately 1.5 hr
Reader: Charles Stross

The book: This novellette/long story is a hilarious re-imagining of the Jeeves stories, but set in a futuristic science fiction universe. If you've never read a Jeeves story, I recommend listening to Mark Nelson's reading of Right Ho, Jeeves. If you are familiar with Jeeves, you'll recognize Stross's skillful imitation of Wodehouse's use of slang, hyperbole, and breezy tone to create a humorous atmosphere with only a few actual jokes.

Stross's cosmic playboy Ralph is certainly the spiritual heir of Wodehouse's aristocratic layabout Bertie Wooster. He's burdened with a Wooster-like dilemma in that, all at the same time, he's trying to patch up a relationship with his robot girlfriend, babysit his relative's pet dwarf mammoth, and attend an atmospheric re-entry and party on Mars with his club friends. My favorite character, Ralph's friend Toadsworth is a cross between a Roaring 20's frat boy and a dalek. In fact, the only part of the Jeeves stories that Stross fails to capture is Jeeves himself.

In Wodehouse's stories, Jeeves is a character full of subtlety and contradictions, which Wodehouse plays off against one another for humorous effect. Stross's robot valet Ms. Feng, by contrast, is a deux ex machina (or, perhaps, machina ex deus) who serves mostly to get past difficult plot points. However, it's hardly fair to fault Stross for failing to live up to one of the greatest characters in English popular literature when everything else is done so well.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: I wrote earlier that Mark Nelson's reading of Wodehouse with an American accent did nothing to diminish its brilliance. I stand by that statement. In this reading, though, Stross's British accent lends an additional authenticity and humor to Ralph's narration. Stross proves himself an accomplished voice actor in reading his own work. The only misstep is from his attempt at a Southern woman's voice for Laura, though since she is a robot, the Scarlet O'Hara drawl can be excused as an intentionally bad exaggeration. The recording is professionally well-made and broken up into 13 short chapters.

Note: This story contains sexual themes, economic injustice, and heavy use of alcohol.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Source: Storynory
Length: Approx 3.6 hours
Reader: Natasha

The book:
The basic plot of Alice in Wonderland should be familiar to everyone: young Alice, while reading underneath a tree, is distracted by a white rabbit rushing by while looking at his pocketwatch and muttering "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!" Alice follows him down a rabbit hole and proceeds to have a number of bizarre encounters with talking animals and playing-card royalty.

Although I've grown up watching the Disney animated movie, I found the book very interesting not only as a comparison between the book and movie, but also from the perspective of an adult reading a children's book. Lewis plays on puns, literal illustrations of idioms, and parodies of poems. For an American in the 21st century, unraveling these jokes can require an annotated edition of the book, even if one is a fairly well-educated person. I would never expect a child to have heard of the expression "mad as a March hare", or know what Turtle Soup is, or be able to recite "Thou art old, Father William."

Would a child still find this book funny? I'm not sure. From my own experience looking back at how many jokes from Sesame Street or The Flintstones went over my head, I'd like to think that if the story and characters are entertaining, as they are here, then the individual jokes don't matter so much.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Natasha of Storynory lends the art of a storyteller to his reading. Her narraration is in a sing-song American pronunciation, but she drops into a variety of animal voices and silly accents for the dialog. It's an impressive performance, especially considering the number of characters that Alice meets during her adventures. The recording is clear and easy to understand. The download page requires you to go to each post and download the files separately and there is no standard naming convention for the files. In chapter 4, Natasha experiments with some canned sound effects, but the result is distracting and she wisely discards the noises in later chapters. Apart from this, the reading is one that will appeal to both children and adults who love fun voices.

Friday, April 4, 2008

"Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov

Source: Escape Pod, Episode 100
Length: 1 hr, 31 min
Reader: Stephen Eley

The story: "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov is a classic of science fiction by one of the genre's greatest writers. Astronomers on a planet in a solar system with multiple suns have predicted an event that will mean the end of their civilization, if they are right. In their observatory, the scientists are visited by a reporter who, along with the rest of the planet, has ridiculed the astronomers' prediction. Now, as the supposed moment of doom approaches, the reporter is seeking an interview.

I think what makes this story work is that Asimov invites the reader to be a scientist as well. We have information that the scientists in the story do not have, but we must apply it in an unfamiliar context: an alien world whose details we learn bit by bit in conversation among the characters. This set-up forces us to form and reform hypotheses while we wait along with our fellow scientists for the experiment to come to fruition.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: Steve Eley is a wonderful narrator. Along with being the host of Escape Pod, he reads many of the stories, so he's had plenty of experience in getting his intonation right, acting characters' voices, editing out noise, and all the other skills that go into making a clean, enjoyable recording. This episode is the 100th of Escape Pod's history, so in the intro Eley gives a bit of a look back at what Escape Pod is and how it started. If you haven't heard much Escape Pod before, this is a great place to dip your toes in; it's got an interesting intro, an excellent narrator, and a classic story.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Escape Artists

I'm happy to point out the launch yesterday of Pod Castle, the fantasy short story podcast spin off from the science fiction podcast Escape Pod. Their first story is "Come Lady Death" by Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn. If you're rolling your eyes at the thought of listening to stories of chainmail bikinis and dragons, let me point out that fantasy, broadly defined, is any story dealing with magic or the supernatural. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the Conan the Barbarian stories are all fantasy, but so are One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Tempest, and Indiana Jones. Judging by the breadth of fantasy stories that Escape Pod has already published, I'm sure that Pod Castle will feature many types of fantasy.

In related news, Steve Eley, the host of Escape Pod, recently announced that after being let go from his day job he will be spending his primary efforts on Escape Pod and the other Escape Artists podcasts: Pod Castle and PsuedoPod, the horror story podcast. Steve gives away all three for free and only asks for donations in return. There is some advertising on the websites and podcasts, but they're pretty minor and non-annoying. So, if you're able, please give a donation to Escape Artists and show your support for one of the greatest sources for free audio. If you're unfamiliar with Escape Pod, I'll be reviewing one of my favorite stories of theirs later this week.