Thursday, July 31, 2008

"The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs

Source: Literal Systems
Length: 24 min
Reader: Ray Gere

The story: In a small village, an elderly man, his wife and their son are visited by an old family friend, a major in the British Army just returned from a tour of duty in India. During their conversation, the major mentions the Monkey's Paw, a talisman he owns, that is alleged to grant its possessor three wishes. Although the major tries to destroy the artifact, the old man convinces him to give the Monkey's Paw to the little family. The major agrees, but with the warning that no good will come of it.

Probably among the most famous short stories in the English language, "The Monkey's Paw" is a staple of literature textbooks. It's not hard to understand why. Even though I could still hazily recall the basics of the plot, the telling of the story held me spellbound. Even if you've heard this old gem before, it's worth dusting off to admire its sparkle.


The reader: Mr. Gere's reading of this story brings out the suspense of the text. He has a rich, melodious voice that is pleasing to the ear. As the tension of the story builds, the foreboding is reflected in Gere's reading, but without overdoing the spookiness into campiness. The recording is clear and high-quality. Overall, this is the work of a talented storyteller who is working with good material that suits his style.

Monday, July 28, 2008

King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard

Source: Librivox | Zipped MP3
Length: 9 hr, 52 min
Reader: John Nicholson

The book: Set in British colonial South Africa, King Solomon's Mines tells of the extraordinary adventures of big game hunter Allan Quartermain. Sir Henry Curtis hires Quartermain as a guide for an expedition to find Curtis's brother, who disappeared while searching for the biblical King Solomon's fabled diamond mines. Joining them in the expedition are Curtis's friend Captain Good and Umbopa, a porter with mysterious purposes.

The action is told in an unadorned style that, along with the descriptions of Africa and its inhabitants, makes this Lost Civilization fantasy seem real. A major part of this realism is the character of Quartermain, who narrates the adventure in the first person with a sense of dry humor and a matter-of-fact tone. Quartmain is not a hero in the traditional sense - he admits to being a coward. Instead of a hero, he is someone that the reader can positively identify with: fair, practical, smart, and opposed to injustice, racism and greed. This enlightened protagonist, the fresh writing style and exciting plot make King Solomon's Mines a great read.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: Nicholson has a deep plain voice that is a perfect match for Allan Quartermain. The book is filled with difficult-to-pronounce names and words in Afrikaans and Zulu, but Nicholson says them with confidence. Whether or not he's right, I have no idea. The pace is sometimes too slow for my taste, but he does vary both the pace and volume. The recording has some background whine and a hiss on the esses.

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

Friday, July 25, 2008

"Why Brother Bear Has No Tail" by Joel Chandler Harris

Source: Lit2Go
Length: 8 minutes
Reader: Rick Kistner

The story: This story, also known as "Why Brer Bear Has No Tail" is a tale about a tail within a tale - a young white boy, son of a plantation owner, goes to find entertainment in the cabin of Uncle Remus, a former slave. Watching the boy trying to act "grown up", Remus tells him a story about Brother Bear trying to imitate the smaller animals in a game of sliding down slippery rocks in a creek. But Bear is too large for this pastime and as a result loses his beautiful tail.

For such a simple story, this is a complex narrative to analyze. In addition to the stated moral that people should take care when they try to imitate others, there is the additional complexity of this being a story told by a poor black man to a rich white boy. Is it a story about the consequences of acting outside one's place or is it about the big and powerful getting his comeuppance? If it's the first, then Remus may be warning the boy about stepping outside his social strata. If it's the second, then Remus may be telling the boy that those in power can meet their downfall by the brains of the weak.

The ambiguity of the story reflects the ambiguity of the author, or more accurately, the man who put the folktales to paper. Was Joel Chandler Harris mocking Uncle Remus in the spirit of minstrels? Or was he more akin to an anthropologist chronicling African-American folklore for later generations? I'll weasel out of the questions of about the story and its writer by answering to both: "it's a little of each".

Rating: 6/10

The reader: This story is written in dialect, so reading it aloud is really the best way to understand it. Kistner acts the part of Uncle Remus with great skill - his accent and pacing are similar to many old Southern men I've known. His reading does an excellent job of making the words understandable -- or at least understandable to me, since I'm a Southerner who has heard words like "chimbley" and "turkle" from my grandma. I reckon that non-Southerners will find it thicker than a day-old mess of grits.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Source: Librivox
Length: 6 hr, 47 min
Reader: John Greenman

The book: To my mind, Tom Sawyer is the quintessential book of summer. No other novel captures quite as well the possibility, freedom, and laziness of being released from the obligations of school. Even now that I'm an adult summer still carries an echo of the magic that Twain distills into this book.

I've mentioned before that Twain does not write novels so much as a series of short stories connected by place and character. Most of Tom Sawyer follows this pattern, but toward the end, Twain brings several threads together into something resembling a plot. It is not the plot, however, but the humorous episodes that most people remember when they think of this book: Tom convincing the other boys to whitewash a fence, Tom and Huck faking their deaths, Tom cheating to win a Bible at Sunday School. These episodes are what makes Tom such an unforgettable character and what makes this book a true classic.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Reading aloud a book like this requires considerable talent in order to convey Twain's unique brand of humor, which can range from subtle to slapstick. John Greenman does an admirable job of translating this humor to the spoken word. His voices for characters like Huck Finn and Aunt Polly are particularly memorable while his narration carries the hint of a smirk at the outrageous pranks that Tom pulls.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

"The Hammer of God" by Arthur C. Clarke

Source: The Time Traveler Show, Episode 26 (mp3)
Length: 1 hour, 17 min
Reader: Scott Brick with Gabrielle de Cuir

Note: This is a review of the 1992 story "The Hammer of God", not the 1993 novel of the same name.

The story: In the far reaches of the solar system, Captain Robert Singh begins a perilous mission to save Earth -- not from an invading alien fleet, but from a threat that has nearly wiped out terrestrial life before. The government agency Space Guard has determined that an asteroid, which they name Kali after the Hindu goddess of destruction, is on a collision course with Earth. If Kali hits, the only human settlements left would be those on the Moon and Mars. Singh's ship Goliath was designed to protect humankind from such a threat. Now, the Goliath's crew must attach their Atlas rockets to the giant rock to push her off course.

I find it interesting to contrast this story with the 1998 asteroid-disaster film Armageddon. Besides presenting an error-filled view of physics in space, the movie stresses a macho, aggressive response to the asteroid danger. The notion of heroism in the movie is a very Hollywood action-adventure concept that involves muscles, last second escapes and stuff gettin' blowed up.

The heroes in this story are not only the captain and crew of the Goliath, but also a scientist who advocates for the project Space Guard and a politician who puts his own priorities on hold to fund it. Heroism in Clarke's story is intellectual and begins long before the event, which is a very different view of heroism than Hollywood's. Just as Armageddon's science is laughable and Clarke's much more likely, I think Clarke's view of heroism is not only more realistic, but also more valuable.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: This episode of the Time Traveler is a full-on Arthur C. Clarke extravaganza. The story itself is read by Scott Brick, an Audie Award and Golden Voice Award winner, so I don't need to go into how good his reading is (it's REALLY good). The recording is from The Complete Short Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, podcast with permission of the publisher, AudioLiterature. If you're interested in just the story, it starts a little over 26 minutes into the program. I would highly recommend, however, listening to the entire episode, since surrounding the story is a collection of fascinating interviews and extras. I found the reflections of the producer and reader of this story's recording to be particularly interesting. Best of all is a real treat for any science fiction and film fan: a speech by Clarke himself entitled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Stanley Kubrick."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Welcome, new readers

In the past few days, I've noticed a big spike in my traffic, mostly driven by links from SFFaudio. I'd like to extend a word of welcome to all those who have visited and added my feed to their RSS readers. I'll briefly introduce myself, then get out of the way.

I'm a voracious reader, both of audio and physical books. I tend to listen to books during my train commute and occasionally when I'm doing something mindless at work. If any of it matters to you, I'm male, American, white, and a scientist.

I don't finish audiobooks that I don't like, so my rating scale for the book or story is between 6 (good, but with flaws) and 10 (all-time favorite). I also don't continue to listen to readers I don't enjoy; I don't believe in complaining about recordings given away for free. I will, however, try to be descriptive about readings so that people who get really angry about silly voices or background hiss won't start listening to something they'll hate.

I aim for diversity in my reviews - mixing up different genres, different sources, different readers and authors from week to week. Every week, I publish a book review near the beginning of the week and a story review toward the end of the week, usually both in the same genre or theme. You can browse past reviews via the categories to the right. Feel free to suggest books and thanks for listening!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

Source: Internet Archive (zipped mp3s)
Length: 6 hr, 45 min
Reader: Maria Lectrix

The book: Jack Halloway, a lone gem miner on the corporate-owned planet Zarathrusta, discovers a small furry alien hiding in his mining shack. The alien, whom he names "Little Fuzzy", is friendly, and although primitive, appears to be intelligent. When word gets out about Little Fuzzy, it means bad news for capitalist Victor Grego. Grego runs the entire planet under a Terran Federation policy that allows the Zarathrusta Corporation to operate with little interference, but only if the planet is not home to a sentient life form. If the Fuzzies, as they come to be called, are sentient beings, then they own the planet and all the profits that the Zarathrusta Corporation has been making are forfeit. A legal battle ensues, a physical battle looms, and Jack discovers that he's become responsible for a whole race of adorable aliens.

This is a fun young adult-aimed book with great depth. The early going is a little rough, as Piper introduces many characters one after the other before the reader can get a good handle on each. Later, as the relationship between these characters becomes apparent, the sense of being lost in a flood of minor characters diminishes. Toward the end of the book, the story seems to drag, but Piper is able to wrap up the plot before too much momentum is lost and arrives at a satisfying conclusion.

Although written in the 1960s, the book brings up many issues that are pertinent today. Piper's descriptions of climate change, corporate and government distortion of science, and the need for ecological preservation make the story seem, at times, like it was written in the present day. The issue that becomes the centerpiece of the last half of the book, whether Fuzzies are sentient beings, is not as esoteric as it appears. Many of today's most vexing ethical issues, such as abortion, stem cell research, and euthanasia, are in part, a debate over what divides a living thing from a sentient human being. To Piper's credit, he makes the debate in his novel entertaining as it is enlightening. I finished the novel with both a smile and something to think about.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Maria Lectrix delivers a delightful reading of a book she seems to love. Her voicing of the Fuzzies' "yeeps" is a high-pitched squeal that sticks in the mind. She does an admirable job reading the other characters parts, though I would have preferred if she had made each voice more distinct so the characters could be more readily identified. I won't say this is a perfect recording. There is a hiss when listening at higher volume and she stumbles over a word a few times. Yet, none of this interfered with my enjoyment of the novel, which in my mind, is the mark of a good storyteller.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

SFF audio

I'm pleased to announce that I am now in syndication! As I've mentioned before, is an excellent blog that reports on and reviews audiobooks, stories, and podcasts dealing with the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction. Recently they've added, under the Aural Noir heading, reviews and news about the genres of mystery, crime, and detective stories.

From now on, when I publish a post dealing with any of these genres, I'll republish it, sometimes with minor changes, on SFFaudio. Joining me in this adventure in recycling will be Forgotten Classics and Quasar Dragon, who will both be also publishing entries on SFFaudio. Other websites which are republishing my reviews in their entirety are doing so without my permission (I'm talking to you, Mr. Spamblog).

To celebrate, I will have two reviews of classic science fiction in the coming week. As always, I'll publish the book review in the first half of the week, and the short story review in the second half.

Friday, July 11, 2008

"A Jury of Her Peers" by Susan Glaspell

Source: Librivox (mp3)
Length: 53 min
Reader: Cori Samuel

The story: Most mysteries focus on the "who" or sometimes the "how" of a crime. In this story both "who" and "how" seem to be apparent from the beginning. The real question is why Minnie Wright would strangle her husband.

While the county attorney, the sheriff, and a neighbor search the house for clues, the wives of the sheriff and neighbor are left alone in the kitchen. Here, they discover secrets about the Wrights hidden within the details of domestic life. The clues are also symbols - spilled sugar, an open bird cage, a misformed log cabin patterned quilt waiting to be knotted - all these point to the crime, but they also represent the broken dreams of Minnie Wright.

These clues, combined with the condescension that the men show for their wives show how women can be pushed to the side of a marriage, no matter whether the husband is loving or spiteful. Despite their differences, all three women in the story share this difficulty; as Mrs. Hale tells Mrs. Peters, "We all go through the same things, it's just a different kind of the same thing."

Rating: 9/10

The reader: Cori Samuels has the most lovely British voice I can imagine. Some might argue that this story of rural America should not be read by a non-American accent. Those who argue such nonsense deserve every broken bone I'm wishing on them right now. Samuels' voice is a welcome teller of any story, particularly this one. She knows how to use pauses to set off a word or sentence without overly drawing attention. To build drama, she varies her volume and speed, then stops, and releases the tension. Her recording set-up is quiet and free from hiss. This is my first encounter with Ms. Samuels' reading; I will certainly be reviewing more of her work in the future.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Alchemist by Paul Coelho

For a limited time, The Alchemist is available for free from iTunes. Open up iTunes, and go to the audiobook page. Coelho's picture should be there with a link to the book. The offer is only good through July 14th (Monday), so you'll have to act fast. I won't be doing a full review of the book because I haven't listened to the audiobook, only read the book a few years ago. The story is about a young shepherd boy who leaves his flock to follow his dreams. While I found the mystical self-help angle of the book to be a bit over-the-top, I enjoyed the story and found myself rooting for the main character. If the not-so-subtle message of achieving your purpose in life doesn't move you either, the book can still be appreciated as a novel. After all, the cynical side of you can always point out that historical alchemists never achieved their goals in life.

Update: Reader Mrs. S points out that this recording may not be available for free outside the U.S. See comments for details.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Innocence of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton

Source: Librivox (Zipped mp3s)
Length: 10 hrs, 23 min
Reader: Brian Roberg

The book: The Father Brown stories, of which this is the first collection, are not always as exciting as a Sherlock Holmes story or as clever as some of the better Agatha Christie tales, but they do have G.K. Chesterton's great humor and intelligence embodied in the series' main detective, a priest by the name of Brown. Father Brown is the opposite of the hardboiled detective. Instead, he is Chesterton's ideal of a priest: clear-headed, non-prejudicial, and above all, forgiving. After catching a criminal, Brown would rather calmly reason with him to change his ways rather than turn him over to the police.

Chesterton wrote a number of non-fiction pieces defending and extolling Catholicism, and his fiction bears the same mark. The Father Brown stories often feature seemingly supernatural occurrences: witchcraft, divine judgment, a ghost, an invisible man. Father Brown reasons his way past surface appearances to a rational solution, implying that his faith in a supernatural God is a rational belief, not mere superstition. Although his stories are wrapped around Catholic teachings, Chesterton never loses sight of writing a good tale. He delivers a satisfying assortment of mysteries with the first Father Brown book and from what I've read of the second, continues in The Wisdom of Father Brown.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Brian Roberg reads with a measured pace that allows the listener to pick up clues, if they are mentally quick. He has careful pronunciation with a nondescript American accent. Roberg does not act voices for different characters, but he does vary his tone of voice with what is being said. The recording is clear and, as always with Librivox recordings, available in several formats, including two bitrates of mp3 as well as ogg vorbis.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

"The Open Boat" by Stephen Crane

Source: Lit2Go (Chapter 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 )
Length: 59 min.
Reader: Lorraine Montgomery

The book: "The Open Boat" tells of four men from the shipwreck of a steamer attempting to make it to the Florida coast in a small dinghy. The story is based on Crane's own experiences of surviving a shipwreck in 1897. The captain, a cook, an oiler, and the correspondent (Crane himself) have to contend with the sea to stay afloat. The story is peculiar in that little is said of the actual shipwreck. Instead, Crane narrows his focus to the four men and their puny surroundings.

The Romanticism popular through most of the 19th century held Nature as a godlike character , ready to reward the just and punish the wicked. Crane, on the other hand, writes in a realistic style, portraying nature as simply an uncaring force. The men in the boat fight against this notion by asserting that they do not deserve this punishment and asking, Job-like, "Why me? Why here?" Although Nature is shown to be unfeeling, Crane contrasts it with the great comradeship between the shipwrecked men. His descriptions of the individuals within the boat are loving portraits, flaws and all. Without this, the story would have carried a despondent view of the smallness of mankind in an vast indifferent universe. Instead, Crane holds out the hope that the brotherhood of man can give our lives significance even when those lives can so unexpectedly be cut short.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Montgomery has a pleasant alto voice that expresses the weariness, frustration, and occasional humor of Crane's story, but never indulges ruining the piece's naturalism by overacting. Although she reads with an American accent at a slow pace, it is not so slow that it becomes tedious. The recording is well-produced and professional, though there are some slight noises and page-turning in the background. The mp3 files are located on separate pages for each of the seven chapters, which requires the minor, but unnecessary, inconvenience of several extra clicks to access.

(photo "At Humanity's Call" (1895) from the British National Archives via flickr. No copyright restrictions)