Monday, September 29, 2008

Vacation week

I'm going on a late vacation this week, so there won't be any reviews until next week. Until then, check out some other audiobook review blogs:
  • Free Audio Review is one of my favorites. Felbrigg reviews everything from history to old-time radio shows.
  • Trucker Rich tends to favor horror, science fiction, and action.
  • I Like Podcasts is written by science fiction author Cat Rambo and features (what else?) mostly speculative fiction podcasts.
Hope these three will tide you over until next week. If you're searching for more, try the "blogs" tag on the navigation bar at the right.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

"A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift

Source: LibriVox
Length: 27 min
Reader: John Gonzales

The story: In 1729, Jonathan Swift published a pamphlet that proposed to solve all the British Empire's problems, particularly the poverty and starvation in Ireland. This solution would decrease the number of poor people, bring income, provide food for many, and alleviate religious conflict all without costing the British Empire a shilling. The proposal was simple, but obvious in hindsight: women of the lower classes would nurse their children until they were one year old, then sell them off as food for the higher classes. The skin of the babies could even be used for a gentleman's fine gloves! What possible objections could be raised to such a beneficial project?

"A Modest Proposal" was the grandfather of our current political satire. Even before the Industrial Revolution had begun, Swift saw that the rise of Britain as a mercantile power was pushing its people into a hyper-capitalist worldview that saw people as just another commodity to be exploited. No one was really wanting to eat the peasants' babies, but more were subscribing to the idea that everything has its price and that price should be maximized, without regard to who it hurt. Swift jumped on this idea and took it to its logical extreme. In a sense, this pamphlet was the first issue of The Onion or the first episode of The Colbert Report.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: This piece could be read aloud in two very different ways. One would be to play it straight, earnestly arguing that babies should be roasted and allow the listener to figure out that the reader is not, in fact, serious. The other would be to adopt Swift's tone of sarcasm, letting the listeners know that the reader is in on the joke. Gonzales chooses the second, but doesn't allow his sarcasm to become so thick that it ruins impact of what is being proposed. He has a snooty British accent that gives a overtone of reality, while at certain points his voice overemphasizes the deliciousness of baby flesh to play up the humor. The balance of straight man and joker is hard to achieve, but Gonzales hits it just right.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Length: Approx 10-11 hrs.
Reader: Dan Lezar

The book: One of the claimants to the title "First English Novel," Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719. Since then, so many adaptations, retellings, and borrowings have appeared that the story is familiar as a fairy tale. Like fairy tales, reading the original can be surprising to those who have only encountered its derivatives.

The novel shows its age in some places. Defoe was not writing with the advantage of centuries of prose fiction tradition. His plot does not flow in the way a modern reader expects, but instead progresses in fits and starts. Defoe cannot seem to end the narrative when it should end, but lets the book drag on after Crusoe's rescue. Defoe also betrays his colonialist attitudes: the natives, even Friday, are inferior and Crusoe has no moral qualms about slavery.

On the other hand, in some places the novel seems quite fresh and vibrant. Crusoe is an engaging character. Although he develops a tendency to moralizing, he can be optimistic and funny; essentially everything one would like in a desert island companion. The plot which lopes along leisurely for most of the book does have a few suspenseful moments, notably Crusoe's discovery of footprints on the supposedly uninhabited island. This episode, though I knew it was coming as well as its eventual outcome, kept me listening when I had nearly given up on the book. I'm glad I finished it, if only for the pride of having read one of the great foundations of Western literature.

Rating: 6/10

The reader: This recording is apparently taken with permission from cassette tapes produced by Random House. As such, the reading is professionally done, but the audio quality suffers from the technology. The reader has an excellent masculine voice that manages to unwrap Defoe's sometimes unwieldy sentences into listenable statements. The sound is full of tape hiss, which I was able to ignore most of the time by turning up the volume.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Source: LibriVox | MP3
Length: 32 minutes
Reader: Michelle Sullivan

The story: The narrator and her husband move to a neglected old estate in the countryside to allow the lady time to recover from her "nervous condition." Confined to her room and forbidden from all activity by her husband, she spends her days following the pattern of the horrible yellow wallpaper of her room. As she whiles away the hours between surreptitiously writing in her journal, she begins to notice something: there is a woman living in the wallpaper!

This story makes a great companion piece to The Turn of the Screw. Both were published around the same time, both are ghost stories set in a country estate and both feature women going slowly insane. The upper-class madwoman seems to have been a staple in Victorian literature. I've encountered her as far back as Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, but a can't recall her appearance in 20th century literature. Perhaps the coming of Freud's theories forced writers to construct a different type of the mentally disordered. This story turns the archetype on its head by suggesting it is not the woman being "the weaker sex" that causes insanity, but condescending treatment of women as weaker that leads to the Victorian madwoman.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: I don't know anything about Ms. Sullivan, but she certainly sounds as if she is a theater-trained actor. Her American voice brings out the character of the narrator as an intelligent, curious woman shackled by her husband's misplaced care. My only complaint is that Ms. Sullivan tends to make her "s" sounds too breathy. The recording has a slight hiss, but not so bad that it interferes with understanding the words.

(photo circa 1890 from Cornell University via flickr. No copyright restrictions)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Source: Librivox
Length: 5 hr, 43 min
Reader: Nikolle Doolin

The book: A young lady, charmed by a young gentleman in London, agrees to take up a job as a governess to his orphaned niece and nephew. After arriving at the country estate where the children live, the governess begins to see figures around the estate that do not seem to fit with any of the servants currently living there. She learns from other servants that the former governess, Miss Jessel, and her lover, Peter Quint, died mysteriously shortly before she was hired. Are the figures she has been seeing the ghosts of this couple or is it all in her mind?

James keeps up this ambiguity throughout the book, constructing dialogues and events that seem diabolical under one viewpoint and another perfectly innocent by another. The book is told from the 1st person perspective of the governess. This narrator is the only one who seems to notice the ghosts and their effects on the children, but we as readers are not sure we can trust this young lady. The degree to which James draws out the governess's decent into horror is a bit frustrating at times, but really, this is a short book and a classic in psychology.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Ms. Doolin sounds like a professional. Her reading is polished, using pauses and inflection to great effect. I found it interesting to compare the voice of the narrator from the first chapters where she is bright and innocent to the later where you can hear the suspicion in her voice. The other characters are not given full-fledged voices, but Ms. Doolin alters her diction and pitch enough to let us know who is talking. The recording is clean and noiseless.

Friday, September 12, 2008

"Iron Bars and the Glass Jaw" by Jeffery R. DeRego

Source: Escape Pod, Episode 27
Length: 35 minutes
Reader: Jonathan Sullivan

The story:Union Dues is a series of linked stories about an alternate version of our own world in which superpowers are real. People with these superpowers are kept separate of the "normals" by the Union, a extra-governmental organization which regulates the "supers." Supers who agree to certain conditions set by the Union become superheroes, with their own costumes and Union-produced comic books.

This particular story is the first in the series. Megaton, one of the Union's superheroes, has been arrested. The small-town sheriff begins to probe Megaton with questions, allowing DeRego a chance to throw in some expository dialogue. Yet, DeRego doesn't spend his entire story in world-building. He also manages to establish some of the themes and moral issues he will develop in later stories: the loneliness of being different, the manipulation of image in the media, and the right of the privileged to make decisions on behalf of the unprivileged. If it sounds like DeRego is trying too much, be assured that this is a a compelling story that introduces a fascinating world.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Jonathan Sullivan does an outstanding job with this piece. The story is told in the 1st person from Megaton's perspective, so it is this character's voice that dominates the story. Sullivan performs Megaton in a gravelly rasp, a more weary version of Batman's voice in Batman: The Animated Series. The other major character, the small town sheriff, is voiced by Sullivan with a Southern accent, but he avoids the Barney Fife caricature. As is typical with Escape Pod episodes, the production values are high.

Note: Jeffery DeRego, the author of this story, recently underwent heart surgery for a bypass surgery. The surgery reportedly went fine, but financial assistance would be welcome. If you listened to this story and liked it, consider donating via Paypal to Mr. DeRego and his family. The donation link is available through this Escape Pod link and will be open through the end of September 2008.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Brave Men Run by Matthew Wayne Selznick

Length: Approx 7 hrs
Reader: Matthew Wayne Selznick

The book: Nathan Charters is weird. Okay, it's the 1980s and everyone looks weird, but Nate is different. He has supersensitive hearing, smell, and nightvision. He has more strength and speed than this frame suggests, and he looks like a freak. So when William Donner makes a declaration on TV that there are other superhumans, "sovereigns" as he calls them, Nate can see his life in high school going from bad to worse.

A superpower novel has to have good action. Selznick delivers in this department with several exciting fights and many more suspenseful moments. But it is his great characters, particularly Nate, who make this an enjoyable novel.

Selznick's novel, at first glance, seems like a standard superhero genre young adult novel. The main internal conflict is the protagonist's struggle with identity. Like all adolescents, Nate is trying to figure out his own body, his sexual feelins for his girlfriend, his future, and most of all, what he is and what to call himself. Later in the story, he has to deal with the issues of parental trust in both directions. Yet, this story does not seem to be aimed at adolescents. Why set it in the 1980s and fill it with references to the culture and music of the time? Instead, I think it's aimed at the children of the 80's, now adults, who are trying to remember what it was like to be a teenager. Even though I was really a preteen in the 80s, the book was effective in bringing back nostalgia, not only for the time period, but for my own youth.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Selznick reads his own book, which is quite a treat. As I've mentioned before, he's an excellent reader. His young-sounding voice seems to fit Nate as the first-person narrator in this book. Selznick doesn't overdo the voices, but gives each character a slightly different sound that fits well. The music at the beginning and end of each episode sets the mood for an 80's story, though toward the end, I found myself fast-forwarding a minute or so to get to the story.

Friday, September 5, 2008

"An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce

Source: Librivox MP3
Length: 22 min
Reader: Matthew Stewart-Fulton

The story: This story, set in Alabama during the Civil War, opens with the preparations for the execution of a Southern saboteur. Bierce fills his description of the immanent hanging with cinematic details, likely drawn from his own military career in the Union Army. The scene is a quiet, still tableau waiting for the action to begin.

As the story progresses, Bierce contrasts the genteel ideals of the Southern gentleman-spy with the brutality of war. Again and again, the civilian asserts that some event is unfair or improper. These expectations of justice are intermixed with minute details of cold reality. In this contrast, Bierce shows how the South's self-image of a genteel aristocracy came at odds with the war that sought to maintain this fantasy.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Matthew Stuart-Fulton has a deep voice that's full of expression. He sets a great balance between the action and the contemplative tones of the story. The biggest fault of his reading is a tendency to breathe into the microphone, causing loud noises on some consonant sounds. If this bothers you a great deal, there are other perfectly decent versions of the same story at Librivox that can be found through a catalog search. I selected this version because I felt it was slightly better than the others, even with the minor annoyance of the breath noise.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

Source: Librivox
Length: 7 hr, 49 min
Reader: Karen Savage

The book: The passions of Revolution have taken hold of France, leading to the bloody purges of the Reign of Terror. Noblemen, even those innocent of the excesses of Louis XVI's court, are being rounded up and executed, along with their wives and children. Amid all this bloodshed, one man is foiling the Jacobeans and helping the nobility escape to England. This mysterious figure, hunted by the Republic's soldiers, is known by his symbol: a small red flower called The Scarlet Pimpernel.

This novel, though entertaining, failed to live up to my expectations. Part of the problem, I think, is that the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel is given away by the short description in the Librivox catalog. The identity may be obvious even without this spoiler, but it's more fun to guess correctly at even an easy mystery than to be told the answer before you've even considered the question. Still, the story has plenty of action and adventure even without the suspense of this intrigue.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: In the hands of an extremely gifted reader, this novel could have been read with great narrative flourishes, enhansing the action and suspense of the plot while giving the characters expressive voices. On the other hand, an unskilled reader could have ruined the book by trying the same thing, but overshooting his mark and burdening the already melodramatic plot with silly voices and overwrought drama. Librivox reader Karen Savage plays it safe by giving a fairly straight reading. Her voice is plesant and slow, allowing the listener to fill in the action from Orczy's prose. After the first few minutes of listening, Savage's voice goes unnoticed as the words of the story take over for the listener.