Friday, October 31, 2008

"The Keeper" by Ken Goldman

Source: Pseudopod
Length: 29 minutes
Reader: Alasdair Stuart

The story: For Halloween, I've picked a creepy horror story in the could-be-real vein of The Silence of the Lambs or Cape Fear. In this gruesome story, the mentally retarded keeper of a lighthouse kidnaps a young lady and takes her back to his tower. She fights back with all her wits and wile, but will it be enough to keep her alive?

Normally, I don't read this type of story. Graphic violence turns my stomach, whether it be in the horror, science fiction, or crime genres. Occasionally, however, I allow myself a peek into a darker world (Jack Wakes Up, for example). I think part of this is a morbid curiosity that is widespread among all human beings, as evidenced by the traffic jams caused by people rubbernecking at a wreck on the other side of the freeway. Secondly, and more philosophically, depictions of graphic violence in literature and entertainment allow us to embrace physical suffering and violent death as part of the human condition in sort of a memento mori of pain. Lastly, I think part of the attraction of gruesome horror is an effort to confront the things we fear, like a self-imposed variation on the exposure therapy that psychiatrists use to help people with fear disorders. Of course, there's not really much difference between inhibition of a abnormal over-response to fear and a habituation to gore to the point that things which should scare us no longer do. What's medicine for some can be poison for others, so I try to take care to keep my dosage of violence low.

Rating: 6/10

The reader: Pseudopod generally retains the high production values of its sister podcasts, Escape Pod and PodCastle. This story is no exception in being very well-produced, with low noise and good sound. Alasdair Stuart speaks clearly with a English accent. He gives some voice to the characters, but is sometimes strangely flat when the action is more emotional. This can be a bit disconcerting, but also adds somewhat to the creepy atmosphere of the story.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Source: Lit2Go
Length: Approx 17 hr.
Reader: Rick Kistner

The book: My impressions of Dracula are heavily influenced by my first reading of it when I was in middle school. This was a revelation to me: that an old book could also be good. Dracula certainly deserves its reputation as a classic. Although some parts are a bit slow, others carry a profound spookiness that is untouched by the bombardment of gore and cheap frights of many modern horror movies.

Despite its many adaptations to film and other media, I'm not sure that Dracula the novel is ideally suited to audiobooks. For one thing, it's a long book, an aspect which telescopes in the spoken word where slow parts drag on. Complex action is difficult to re-read. Stoker makes heavy use of letter, diaries, and false documents to tell his story. These lose some of their feeling of veracity then taken off the printed page. There are some stories which are enhanced by the sound and rhythm of voice, while others are documents which take full advantage of the physical medium of the book. To Dracula's great credit, even though it belongs in the class of a primarily physical book, it still works well in the spoken format.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: Kistner has a deep voice that is full of color. He alters his accent and tone for the different characters, making them recognizable. The pace of his reading is not always ideal, but overall this is a decent reading. The main complaint lies with the recording. There is some background noise. Lip smacks and breathing are clearly audible. These issues are excusable to some people, while others may find that they make the book unenjoyable. I'll allow you to decide whether or not the quality of the story and reader make up for some audio noise.

Friday, October 24, 2008

"My Financial Career" by Stephen Leacock

Source: Mr. Ron's Basement MP3
Length: 7 min
Reader: Ron Evry

The story: If Anne of Green Gables is the Canadian Tom Sawyer, then Stephen Leacock is Canada's Mark Twain. Although Leacock is relatively unknown here south of the Friendly Border, he was once quite popular world-wide, and is still well-loved in Canada. I have only in the past year come across his writing. While I don't find all of Leacock's humor side-splittingly funny, he is worthy of a smile and occasional laugh.

This short piece, detailing his dealings with a bank, seems relevant for the current times, even though it was written in 1910. The humor mostly comes from the narrator's unfamiliarity with banking, but a few absent-minded remarks increase the confusion on the bank's part as well. These foot-in-mouth statements capture perfectly the universal nervousness of trying something new and different, so that even if we're quite comfortable banking, we can see ourselves in the narrator's troubles. The ability to laugh at others while secretly laughing at ourselves heightens the humor and allows the reader to identify with what would otherwise simply be a goofy character.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Ron Evry has an expressive baritone that aids tremendously in conveying Leacock's humor. Evry stumbles over a few words and occasionally puts a pause or emphasis in the wrong place, but by-and-large, this is a decent amateur reading. The recording is somewhat noisy and has a slight hiss, although I wasn't distracted by it. I only really noticed the hiss because I had my player turned up to high volume for another recording that was much softer, while this recording is fairly loud. Don't do what I did and hurt your eardrums. Turn it down!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Source: LibriVox
Length: 9 hr, 34 min
Reader: Rachelellen

The book: Anne of Green Gables is like a female version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer set in the Canadian maritime provinces rather than the American Midwest. Like Tom Sawyer, this book doesn't have so much of a plot as a series of interrelated humorous episodes. But while Tom has adventures in getting into fights, faking his own death, and tricking his friends, Anne's adventures consist of making friends, having tea parties, and going to poetry recitals.

While they may express it differently, Anne and Tom have a similar view of the world as a place of adventure to be explored. Tom's adventures get more outrageous as the book goes on until he finally ends up in mortal danger. Anne, on the other hand, channels her sense of adventure into pathways deemed acceptable to society. Yet, even though this may appear to be a capitulation to the pressures of adulthood, Anne still keeps her sense of wonder and vivacity. Montgomery seems to be propounding a philosophy that one can grow up without leaving behind the essential spirit of childhood.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: This is an excellent recording of an amazing reader. Rachelellen voices fill the characters with so much life, I can't imagine reading this book without her. Her voicing of Anne, Marilla, and Matthew, not to mention her hilarious acting of Mrs. Rachel Lynde, made me love the characters and kept me listening. Rachelellen's narrating voice is clear and bright, with wonderful phrasing and diction. I think Anne herself would applaud Rachelellen if she were to go to a recital.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Junius Maltby" by John Steinbeck

Source: MP3
Length: 49 min
Reader: Jay King

The story: You may have noticed that I typically pair a story with the same week's book on the basis of genre, theme, or time period. This week, the story and book have a rather tenuous connection: both feature a character named Junius who departs San Francisco for the Pastures of Heaven. "Junius Maltby" was published in the story collection The Pastures of Heaven and in some editions of The Red Pony.

In Steinbeck's story, Junius is a young man who leaves his accountant job to recover from illness in the idyllic-named valley of Pastures of Heaven, where he learns the joys of laziness. Junius would rather read Robert Louis Stevenson than work (it's too bad LibriVox hadn't been invented yet; Junius could've listened to Treasure Island or Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde while he hoed the fields). Steinbeck tells his story with his characteristic Californian style. The story has the simplicity of a fable at the beginning, but adds layers of complexity as it progresses. With some laugh-out loud moments, Steinbeck tells a story about happiness in individuality and society.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Mr. King reads this story with obvious love and familiarity. His delivery brings out Steinbeck's sense of humor, which is sometimes easy to overlook in print. King gives light voicing to the characters and narrates with a calm, masculine American accent. The recording has a bit of hiss and crackle, but is easily understandable.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Jack Wakes Up by Seth Harwood

Length: Approx. 10 hrs
Reader: Seth Harwood

The book: Sometimes you just need to have some fun being bad. This is both the theme and the best reason for reading Jack Wakes Up. Former action-movie star Jack Palms is stuck in a rut on his road to recovery from the nadir of drugs, divorce, and the implosion of his acting career. He has cleaned up and turned his life around, but has no direction and no income until his friend Ralph contacts him. Ralph is coordinating an agreement to supply some Czechs with cocaine to deal. All Jack has to do is help entertain the Czechs and impress them with his minor celebrity status.

Like Jack, the reader will have to check his scruples at the door. The language is harsh, with copious swearing. The plot, while fast paced and cinematic, is concerned with drugs, strippers and plenty of graphic violence. Jack himself is a likable character, but many of the others behave with stupidity, greed, or sadistic cruelty. This is not a pretty world that Harwood has drawn, but if you're a fan of Quentin Tarentino or Elmore Leonard, you'll enjoy this entertaining novel.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Harwood's reading of his novel is good. He provides voice characterizations using patterns of pauses, tone of voice, and accents. His narrating voice is straightforward and honest-sounding, fitting Jack's personality. My biggest problem with the recording comes with everything outside the book. The introduction and exit music is hip-hop, appropriate for the mood. But almost every episode begins and ends with clips from the previous episode and next one. This may have been necessary when the chapters were first podcasted, but now that they're collected, it becomes tedious. Also tedious is the swaggering "homie" attitude that Harwood adopts for announcements and self-promotion. He's trying to sound tough, but ends up sounding ridiculous. If you can skip over everything between the introduction and first chapter of each episode, you won't miss a thing.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

"Beyond Lies the Wub" by Philip K. Dick

Source: Time Traveler Show | MP3
Length: 32 min
Reader: Mac Kelly

The story: Philip K. Dick is probably best know today for the many science fiction movies based on his stories and novels: Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Blade Runner (from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), Total Recall (from "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"), and Screamers (from "Second Variety"). This short story "Beyond Lies the Wub" was Dick's first published piece of fiction. In it, Peterson, a junior member of a space freighter on a distant planet, buys a piglike beast called a wub, intending to use it for food. After blastoff, he discovers the wub is actually very intelligent, but his captian still insists on eating the animal. Peterson is caught between doing what he is told and doing what his conscience tells him.

Even though this was Dick's first short story, much of his trademark style is apparent. Dick has a wry sense of humor that he often used to satarize greedy commercialism, as he does here. Much of his work (or at least what I've read of it) concerns beings which are not what they appear to be at first look. Dick was a big fan of Carl Jung, and so the wub's discourse on The Odyssey sounds an awful lot like the beginning of a Jungian thesis. If this is your first introduction to the work of this science fiction master, you've picked a good place to start.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Mac Kelly accomplishes something with this story rarely seen in audiobook narraration: he actually enhanses the story with his voice. Kelly's voicing of the wub, in particular, brings out its porcine character better than the actual text. The rest of his narration is equally excellent and the recording environment is nicely silent. Surrounding the actual story are several promotions for other podcasts and audiobooks for sale, but since these are directly related to the story itself, they are unobjectionable and may be useful to some listeners.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Plague Ship by Andre Norton

Source: Librivox
Length: 7 hr, 4 min
Reader: Mark Nelson

The book: Plague Ship reads like two separate short books, joined by characters and universe, but with completely different local settings and plots. In the first half, the crew of the independent trading ship Solar Queen have to outwit and outfight the representatives of a rival company to gain trading rights for the planet Sargol. The inhabitants of Sargol are a feline race with a tribal culture and the Solar Queen's crew must gain their trust to make this trading venture a success. In the second half of the book, the crew heads home to Earth. One by one crew members begin to fall ill from a mysterious ailment. The remaining spacemen know that unless they discover the cause of the disease, they will be branded as a plague ship, unable to dock at any port for fear of an outbreak in the general population.

This book was published in 1956, one year before Sputnik was launched. The pre-spaceflight innocence shows in some plot holes. Even though hundreds of rocket ships take off every day from Earth in the book, neither they nor any satellites notice that a presumed desert wasteland is actually a verdant jungle. Other anachronisms make it clear that this is historical science fiction. Taken as such, Plague Ship is an enjoyable light novel with plenty of adventure.

Rating: 6/10

The reader: Mark Nelson is an excellent reader. His voice is clear and masculine with a wholesome sound. The recording is noiselessly clean. Nelson adds in a little laser-beam sound effect after the Librivox disclaimer. It's silly, but it shows that he really cares about the product he's producing and giving away. For more of his readings, check out "Call of Cthulhu" and Right Ho, Jeeves.