Monday, June 30, 2008

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Source: Librivox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 7 hr, 33 min
Reader: Adrian Praetzellis

The book: This classic boy's adventure follows Jim Hawkins out of his innkeeper's life and into the world of pirates, danger, and buried treasure. Stevenson's imaginative mind introduced several new concepts into pirate literature, including the parrot on the shoulder and "X marks the spot" pirate maps. The story takes a few chapters to get underway as Stevenson takes extra time to build up a sense of foreboding, which pays off later in dividends of excitement as the action comes to fruition. On the other hand, the ending seems to arrive too quickly, with room for a sequel that Stevenson never got to write (though others have tried).

I first tried to read Treasure Island as a boy, but the combination of nautical terms and antiquated language made it a frustrating attempt. Coming back to the book with the experience of reading many 19th century books and a few Patrick O'Brian novels, I am now able to enjoy it more thoroughly. I find it incredible that a book written for boys such a long time ago still has the power to thrill an adult of the 21st century.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Adrian Praetzellis is my favorite Librivox reader. As I mention above, Stevenson's language can be a barrier to the enjoyment of the story, but Praetzellis's narration goes a long way toward bypassing this difficulty by making the meaning clear through his tone. Each character is given an interesting voice, using a multitude of accents. His acting of Long John Silver brings out the Sea Cook's beguiling friendliness as well as his hidden danger. When all the pirates sing "Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum", Praetzellis overdubs his voice to produce a chorus of buccaneers. This type of attention to every aspect of the recording reflects why this audiobook is so enjoyable.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

"Anda's Game" by Cory Doctorow

Length: Approx. 1 hr
Reader: Alice Taylor

The story: "Anda's Game" uses the setting of an online fantasy game to explore how world-spanning issues of responsibility are present even in the games people play. Like much of Doctorow's science fiction that I've read, this story takes place in a near-future or slightly alternate present. Anda, a high school girl, spends most of her time playing a World of Warcraft-like game. She and Lucy, a friend Anda meets through an online gaming group called the Fahrenheits, begin taking on in-game quests of a very unusual nature. As Anda begins to realize these quests are morally questionable, she is caught up in a situation she knows is wrong, but feels powerless to alter.

Doctorow fits a number of societal issues into his fiction and this story is no exception. His knowledge and care for his characters allow his handling of childhood obesity and game addiction to avoid the crassness of TV news shock stories. The story touches on rarely-discussed questions about sweatshop labor, world economy, and virtual economies. The story does not try to provide the answer to all these thorny issues, but instead suggests that relying on others through honest communication is the starting point for solving difficult problems, be they personal or international.

Rating: 7/10

The reader:
Alice Taylor has a mumbly British accent, which makes it sometimes difficult to understand, but fits the main character perfectly. While individual words are sometimes unintelligible, whether through pronunciation or slang usage, the meaning is always clear. When a character in the story types, Taylor types along on her keyboard, making an aural equivalent to what authors sometimes do by changing typeface or indentation to indicate a written conversation over computer. Each of the three episodes is introduced and ended by Doctorow's own comments on the story and his personal life.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Quarter Share by Nathan Lowell

Length: Approx. 7.5 hrs
Reader: Nathan Lowell

The book: This science fiction novel follows a young man named Ishmael (yes, really) as he takes a job on a interstellar cargo ship following the death of his mother. He gets a position as one of the lowest-ranked members of the crew, a quarter share, meaning that he gets one-fourth of what a fully qualified sailor would make as a share of the ship's profits. Ishmael begins to adjust to life aboard the trader and starts making plans to improve his situation in life through trading and advancement in crew specialties.

This book often reminded me of the Robert A. Heinlein classic, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. Ishmael’s story has the same mix of space adventure with a gentle didacticism. Watching Ịshmael pull himself up by his bootstraps through hard work and gumption makes for a gratifying read. However, as I listened to this book, I couldn’t help but think something was missing. Quarter Ѕhare is enjoyable enough in its world-building and minor struggles of the daily life aboard a space trader, but I felt like it needed a more robust framework on which to hang these trappings. A mystery, a personal conflict, or a conspiracy – any of these could’ve added some weightiness to the fairly straightforward story. Quarter Share has two sequels already and more are being written, so perhaps some twists are yet to come.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Lowell does a good job of reading his own work. He does voices for many of his characters, which gives them a bit more depth than the printed word would. The recordings are high-quality professional productions. Each episode begins with a summary of the previous episode, which is a bit tiresome for those of us who read the book straight through, but may be useful for those who take advantage of Podiobook’s other delivery options such as one file per week. The individual mp3 files are bookended by beautiful hornpipe music which gives this science fiction story an old-time nautical feel.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

"Fat Larry's Night with the Alligators" by Ken Goldman

Source: Well Told Tales
Length: 23 min
Reader: Rick Stringer

The story: This gangster story provides enough violence and double-crosses to satisfy a Sopranos fan. Mafia initiate Danny has just pulled off his first mob hit, icing Fat Larry for skimming profits. As the story begins, he and veteran mobster Sal DeLuca are headed to the Florida Everglades to dump the body. When they get to the swamp, Danny finds more dangers than just the alligators.

The story is told in coarse forthright language which lends it a sneering tough-guy attitude. Goldman provides the gory details to make this story a compelling window into mob life. Although the story moves slowly at first, Goldman doles out twists that make the earlier descriptive passages more than just atmosphere building in hindsight. This is not a story for the ages, but it accomplishes what it intends: entertainment.

Rating: 6/10

The reader: Rick Stringer gives a fantastic narrative performance. Varying his pacing with the action, Stringer builds the tension up to the story's climax. He does not overdo the Italian accent but instead voices the mobsters as individual characters: Danny with newbie excitation and Sal with ruthless callousness. The recording is well-produced by an entertaining podcast.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

Source: Librivox
Length: 6 hr, 31 min
Readers: Kristin Hughes and Kara Shallenberg

The book: Lord Peter Wimsey's mother has telephoned him to get her son to help out Mr. Thipp, an architect she has hired to do restoration work at her church. Thipp is apparently in trouble with the police over a dead body wearing nothing but a pince-nez who was found in the bathtub of Thipp's upper-floor apartment. Meanwhile, the family of Sir Reuben Levy has reported Sir Reuben to be missing. Are the two events connected? Is the body Sir Reuben's? If not, whose body is it?

The mystery, while suitably labyrinthine, is conventional of the genre, with clues dropped along the way and everything tied up neatly at the end. The main thing that sets this novel apart from other mysteries is the character of Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey is unusual among mystery novel detectives in that he's not that unusual. True, he's rich and slightly eccentric, but unlike Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot or Auguste Dupin, Wimsey is no social misfit. Instead, he's an engaging, likeable character who the reader cares about when he winds up in danger toward the end of the book. It's no wonder that Sayers returned to write about him for many more novels.

Rating: 8/10

The readers: When I started the Free Listens blog, I said that I would only review solo recordings, since reviewing multiple readers was too much work. I'm breaking that rule to review a book with two readers. Kristin Hughes and Kara Shallenberg trade off reading every other chapter of this novel. Hughes gives a pretty much "straight" reading, letting Sayer's words do the work of conveying feeling, while Shallenberg reads with a bit more emotion. Both readers are of the enthusiastic volunteers variety rather than the professional actor type. If you've been spoiled by great actors performing books in theatrical tones, look elsewhere, but if you would enjoy two of your friends reading a entertaining story to you, you'll have fun with this one.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

"Call of Cthulhu" by H.P. Lovecraft

Source: Cthulhu Podcast, Episodes 13, 14 and 15
Length: 1 hr, 42 min
Reader: Mark Nelson

The story: Imagine discovering papers concerning a shadowy religion, dedicated to the downfall of order and civilization. Sure, it's just a conspiracy theory, you think, but evidence begins to mount until you can't deny it any longer. Then you realize that you might have learned too much. . .

This is the premise of "Call of Cthulhu", one of many stories in H.P. Lovecraft's "Cthulhu mythos," but strangely enough the only story that features the squid-headed being Cthulhu himself. Lovecraft gradually builds the narrative in three parts, each touching closer to the source of a eerie cult that spans the globe. I've been told that Lovecraft's mythos was one of the inspirations for The X-files, and this story has the same queasy feeling of not-rightness. This is not such a scary story that you'll be staying up at night, but it is a piece of narrative that takes hold of the imagination to envision further scenarios. Indeed, many authors have built their own version of Lovecraft's imagery. If you'd like to hear an example, check out Neil Gaiman's story "A Study in Emerald" which features Sherlock Holmes in Lovecraft's world.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Mark Nelson is an internet audiobook superstar. In addition to his recordings at Librivox and WonderAudio, he has his own podcast SciPodBooks that features classic science fiction. Here, he does a superb job of building suspense as the story delves deeper into the cult's secrets. Lovecraft is known for difficult sentence structures and vocabulary, but Nelson does an excellent job of making it understandable, even pronouncing the cult's unpronounceable gibberish. The recording is clear and enhanced by sparse use of mood-setting music at the beginning and end of each episode. My only misgiving is that Nelson's voice may be a little too wholesome for such a dark story, but that's not something he can help short of taking up a pack-a-day cigarette habit (please don't, Mark).

This review copyright 2008 Free Listens.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

“Symbols and Signs” by Vladimir Nabokov

Source: New Yorker Fiction Podcast
Length: 28 min
Reader: Mary Gaitskill

The story: My favorite high school English teacher often admonished her class to "revel in ambiguity." By this, she meant that when the meaning of a story or poem was unclear, we shouldn't despair, but instead enjoy the possibilities of holding a variety of interpretations. Reveling in ambiguity is a great approach not only to literature, but also to all of life's mysteries (well, maybe not all - I'm not reveling in the ambiguity of where I misplaced my keys).

In this story, also published as "Signs and Symbols," an old Russian immigrant couple go to visit their adult son in an insane asylum. The son has a mental delusion in which he sees symbolism in everything around him. As the elderly couple travel, Nabokov drops a number of details which might be considered symbolic, though of what is unclear. In this way, the story is similar to Pulp Fiction or The Crying of Lot 49; it's a story that overtly hints of deeper meaning while denying there is any meaning to be found. As the extended discussion after the story suggests, Nabokov has created a playground for reveling in ambiguity.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Mary Gaitskill displays a wide range of emotions in her reading: sadness, anger, paranoia, resignation, and nostalgia. This is a difficult piece to read, as the interpertations are so wide open, but Gaitskill performs it well. This is also a difficult story for listening, as it demands rewinding to catch additional meanings in details not noticed the first time around. The discussion is magnificent. Host Deborah Treisman and Gaitskill open the story up with an engaging discussion about why its such an work of art.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Source: Lit2Go (iTunes link)
Length: Approx. 21 hrs
Reader: Amanda Eland

The book: Jane Eyre can be divided into five parts, neatly defined by Jane's five main places of residence. The first two sections, when she is with her Aunt Reed and at Lowood school made me think I would not enjoy the novel very much. Like Charles Dickens, Brontë spends a large portion of these early chapters beating the reader into sympathy through the injustice and hardships of an innocent orphan. Yet, I got the sense that Jane is not the Shirley Temple character she makes herself out to be in her first-person narrative. This tension of an unreliable narrator kept me interested in the book through the first two acts.

The real heart of Jane Eyre is the third section, when she becomes a governess at Thornfield. These chapters are a marvelous body of writing, encompassing romance, comedy of manners, mystery, and gothic horror. The momentum of the plot built up in this third part is so great that it carries the story through the fourth section, which starts out strong, but devolves into a "yes you will / no I won't" battle of wills. The fifth section brings the novel to a satisfying conclusion.

If you are reading this review, and are already a Jane Eyre fan, I would like to suggest, dear reader, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. This novel has a great story with a number of parallels to Jane Eyre. I was able to pick the unabridged CDs for around $3 from the sale table at a Borders Bookstore, then after I listened to it, sell it to a used bookstore for $10. I can't recommend it as a "Free Listen", but for me, that was better than free.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Amanda Eland has a pleasant girlish voice that suits the calm character of Jane quite well. The repartee between Jane and Mr. Rochester does not come across as engaging as perhaps it should be, but otherwise her characters are well established. Although I'm no foreign language expert, Ms. Eland seemed to have trouble pronouncing the French and German phrases in the book. Overall this was a good reading in a high-quality recording. The main fault I had was not with the recording itself, but how it is presented. To download each chapter, you have to follow a link from the table of contents to that chapter's page, then download the file for that chapter separately. The files are quite large in size, with some chapters weighing in over 90 MB. However, this large size translates into good audio quality, so if you have a fast connection and plenty of memory, this book is certainly worthy of a download.

(Entered in the Book Review Wednesday contest at Cym Lowell. Follow the link for reviews of other books by various bloggers)