Friday, December 31, 2010

"Firstborn" by Brandon Sanderson

Source: (mp3)
Length: 1 hour, 13 minutes
Reader: Brandon Sanderson and Emily Sanderson

The story: If you keep up with fantasy literature, you probably know Brandon Sanderson from his own large fantasy novels, such as the excellent Mistborn, the juvenile fantasy Alcatraz series  or as the writer called in from the bullpen to finish the late Robert Jordan's sprawling Wheel of Time fantasy series. So for Sanderson to be writing space opera science fiction and a short story is two unusual situations at once. He's so successful, at least in this story, that I wonder why he doesn't write more short science fiction.

"Firstborn" is set in a galactic empire where space navies do battle with rebel forces, complete with space fighters dogfights. Dennison Crestmar, a young nobleman in the Imperial Navy, is struggling as an unsuccessful officer who is constantly compared to his older brother, the famed admiral Varion Crestmar, who has never lost a battle. The setting, plot, and characters seem ripe for a series of clich├ęs, but somehow Sanderson crafts these parts into an engaging and inventive story.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Sanderson, as he freely admits, is not a professional voice actor. He doesn't have the richness of sound that the pros have and the recording quality has a bit of hiss. Yet, Sanderson is a very good amateur reader. He is expressive and seems to be enjoying reading his own work. When his wife checks in to read some of the middle portion of the story, she does an equally fine job. Although he does a good job here, I don't think I'd like to see Sanderson narrate those fantasy novels he's best known for; those things are long and I'd rather have him writing sequels than reading!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Thousandth Night by Alastair Reynolds

Source: Subterranean Press (part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15)
Length: Approx. 3 hours
Reader: Sam A. Mowry

The story: In the far future when Thousandth Night is set in, humankind has advanced to the point where almost anything is possible: living for hundreds of thousands of years, travelling across the galaxy, and transforming the structure of the human body to almost any form. One thing that is not possible is breaking the laws of physics by travelling or communicating faster than the speed of light.

One group of humans, the Gentian line, meets every few thousand years. For 999 days each member shares his or her experiences from travelling through the galaxy. Then on the thousandth night, they elect the member with the most entertaining presentation to prepare the next reunion.

Reynolds introduces together a number of space opera technologies on the framework of a mystery during one Gentian reunion. He later reused these technologies in the setting for another novel, House of Suns.  Although the big science fiction ideas are the star, Reynolds never loses sight of the effects of science on humans. In fact, one of the major themes of the novella is our efforts change the physical world around us and the long-term consequences, good and bad, of those actions.

Note: This story contains sexual situations and may not be suitable for younger listeners.

Rating: 8 / 10

The reader: Mowry has a wonderfully smooth voice with a richness like a less gravelly Charlton Heston. His reading is clear and his pacing is rhythmic. He doesn't try to charge the reading with emotion that isn't there, but instead remains restrained. The only complaint I have is that his fairly straight reading sometimes makes it difficult to know what is narration and what is dialog. After a bit, I got into the story and had no trouble with knowing when characters were speaking and enjoyed his reading tremendously.

Friday, December 24, 2010

"Twas the Night before Christmas (A Visit from St. Nicholas)" by Clement C. Moore

Source: LibriVox (mp3)
Length: 4 minutes
Reader: Peter Yearsley

The poem: 
'Twas the night before Christmas,
and all through Free Listens
I was trying to play an iPod with mittens.
I loaded this poem and the O. Henry tale,
to look through the cards that had come in the mail.

I had listened to stories read for free,
while putting the lights up on the tree.
The best audiobooks were burned to CDs
To give to my friends I wanted to please.

Later, while baking some cookies in kitchens
I'll make the time pass with the ghost of Charles Dickens.
And before I lay down for a long winter's nap
I'll listen once more to Santa kidnapped.

But I just want to say, as I turn out the light
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

Rating: 8/10

The reader: There are nine different readings of "Twas the Night Before Christmas" at the LibriVox link above, plus several more scattered around the LibriVox site. Picking one out of the group is mainly a matter of personal taste. Yearsley has lovely British accent that gives some maturity and gravity to such a childish poem. The places he chooses to pause and words he emphasizes make this very familiar poem new and fresh. There's a bit of a recording hiss, since I think this is a project from the early days of LibriVox.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"A Kidnapped Santa Claus" by L. Frank Baum

Source: LibriVox (mp3)
Length: 22 minutes
Reader: Judy Bieber

The story:  This children's story, written by the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,  presents a Santa Claus a bit different from the version that you may know from the animated Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  The popular image of Santa was not yet solidified when this story was written in 1904. Instead, Santa lives in the Laughing Valley, not the North Pole, his reindeer don't fly, and he's helped by a host of different fairies and sprites, not elves. All these imaginative details come from Baum's earlier book, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (also available through LibriVox).

One thing that modern audiences will recognize is Santa's inherent goodness. Evil demons try to tempt Santa Claus into being bad, but when Santa rebuffs them all, the demons come up with a plan to kidnap Santa Claus. Although the story resolves itself without any action, this pleasant tale has a fable-like quality that makes for a nice listen on the way to Grandma's house for Christmas.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Bieber has a neutral American voice that neither adds much to the story nor distracts from it. Her high tone has a singsong quality that is common to parents reading a bedtime story. Listeners who are used to a more active reading may be disappointed, but I thought that this reading was just fine for an amateur recording.

(cover image from a new comic book version by Alex Robinson. Available at multiple online retailers or your local bookstore. See a preview here.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Cicero" by John Lord

Source: ejunto (part 1 | 2 )
Length: 49 minutes
Reader: Andrew Julow

The story: Cicero, the greatest statesman of the last days of the Roman Republic, has a life that makes for a great story. He rose from a modestly weathly, but politically weak family to become the consul of Rome without being a general or patrician nobleman. Then, outmaneuvered by his political opponents, he was exiled for proclaiming without trial a sentence of death on the minor members of an attempted coup. He rose again to prominence through the force of his writing, then fell again when he chose to back Pompey against Julius Ceasar in the Roman Civil War. After the murder of Ceasar, Cicero spoke out against Mark Antony, finally submitting to execution after Antony entered a power-sharing agreement with Augustus.

Lord makes no excuses for giving his opinions about Cicero or any other subject that comes his way. He draws parallels between the Romans and individual politicians of his own time. Although these comparisons were probably enlightening for people reading his words in the 19th century, I had difficulty following some of his references. Lord's opinionated retelling is entertaining and educational, but I found myself wishing he had spent more time on the details of this fascinating man's life, and less time pontificating about the lessons we should learn.

Rating: 7 /10

The reader: Julow has a serious, earnest baritone that is a good match for history. The only problem is that he doesn't vary his delivery much, sticking with the same punctuated declarations throughout. Personally, I enjoy a looser style, but Julow's stiff reading is probably more accurate for the time it was written. Other than this matter of taste, the reading is good and the sound quality excellent.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Twelve Byzantine Rulers by Lars Brownworth

Length: 5.5 hours, plus sidenotes
Reader: Lars Brownworth

The book: I initially was divided over whether to include this podcast as an audiobook or not. I usually only review individual episodes of a podcasts, but for this I felt it met my criteria of an audiobook for three reasons: 1) limitation of scope 2) consistancy of authorship 3) book-level quality. Unlike many podcasts, this one is limited in both the number of episodes and the scope of its subject: the lives and accomplishments of a select few emperors of the Byzantine Empire. Secondly, this is more like a book because of Brownworth's consistent viewpoint, unlike many podcasts which feature a different guest or author each episode. Lastly, Brownsworth delivers his information in the format of a well-written history, rather than the conversation, variety show, or audio magazine formats that many podcasts use.

The format works well, especially since Brownsworth is a remarkable storyteller. He has the ability to connect the events of the Byzantine Empire into a gripping narrative. The emperors and their contemporaries are introduced as complex people, some with heroic qualities, but all with some flaws. Told in this way, the little remembered eastern remenant of the Rome becomes a Tolkeinesque epic of how one nation stood against the Muslim empires long enough to allow Western Europe to become strong.

Rating: 8 /10

The reader: Brownsworth has a way with words that takes me back to some of the best courses I had in college. His speech is never dry, instead he varies his voice to share the enthusiasm he has for history.  The sound recording is a little bit noisy, but not bad. The main thread of the book is presented in individual chapters, with additional audio sidebars that can be downloaded seperately.

Friday, December 10, 2010

"The Dinner Party" by Joshua Ferris

Source: New Yorker Fiction Podcast (mp3)
Length: 46 minutes
Reader: Monica Ali

The story: The unnamed protagonist and his wife are preparing for a dinner party where the guests will be the wife's best friend and her husband.  The protagonist isn't shy about his dislike for his wife's friends and makes some crude jokes about them. The wife good-naturedly joins in; she knows he'll put up with them on her behalf.

What starts out as this outrageously funny slice-of-life scene develops into a darker and deeper story, which is difficult to talk about without giving away spoilers.  Ferris, best known for his novel And Then We Came to the End, delivers a complex main character who is likable but also distasteful. His story delves into the multiple faces we present to the world and how our everyday masks can hide our true feelings.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Ali, author of Brick Lane, has a beautiful British accent with a melodious voice. She starts confidently inside the character of the protagonist, changing her vocal tone as the tone of the story alters. Her reading brings out the wonderful turns of phrase that Ferris provides. The discussion between Ali and New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman is enlightening and entertaining. This podcast is one to add to your list: in some episodes it falls flat, but from time to time produces really great stories like this one.

(image from Kevin Dooley. Creative Commons attribution license.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Magnificant Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

Source: Librivox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 11 hours, 18 minutes
Reader: Mark F. Smith

The book: The Magnificent Ambersons won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919 for best novel and was famously adapted by Orson Welles in what is widely regarded as a potentially great film ruined by studio meddling. More recently, the book was included on the Modern Library list of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century. Because of these accolades, I was perhaps expecting too much from this book, so it was not surprising that I was disappointed.

The novel starts out well, introducing a family who has made their fortune in building up the commercial and residential sections of their town during the late 1800's. In the first few chapters, Tarkington beautifully sets up a pair of potential romances as well as the seeds of conflict. He then squanders the entire middle part of the book by simply reiterating the characterizations that he so efficiently established at the beginning, while beating the reader over the head with the fact that automobiles have changed the face of America. The changes in society due to new transportation could have been an interesting thesis, but very little happens in these chapters that wouldn't be improved by cutting the length. The story recovers to a satisfying conclusion in the last ten chapters or so, but not before most of my interest was lost.

Rating: 6 / 10

The reader: I've said many times before, but it bears repeating that Mark Smith is one of Librivox's best readers. His excellent narration is one of the reasons why I was able to continue listening through the doldrums of the middle chapters. Smith's petulant whine for the spoiled Georgie is spot-on and his Ward Cleaver-like George Amberson captures the character's geniality. If you're going to listen to an audiobook of The Magnificent Ambersons, this should be it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

“Rogue’s Gallery” by Robert Barnard

Length: 26 minutes
Reader: Robert Barnard

The story:  Robert Barnard has become a successful author in the mystery world, but like The Secret Adversary for Agatha Christie, this story is a bit of a departure from the genre for which he is best known.  After Prince Paulo loses much of his fortune in modern-day Italy, he (with the suggestion of his butler) opens his family’s art collection to viewing to raise money. To draw in the tourists, however, the Prince needs to show the one painting that the family has kept hidden for years: a portrait by Van Dyke.

This story is closer to the light horror genre than a whodunit.  Though there isn’t a great deal of suspense in the plot, Barnard keeps the listener engaged through his use of dry British humor and an intriguing backstory for the painting.  It’s not really a masterpiece, but the story delivers the entertainment it promises.

Rating: 6/10

The reader: Barnard’s reading of this piece reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock’s introductions for the old “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV series.  He has the same deadpan wit as Hitchcock and the same tendency for ghoulish understatement.  Bernard’s cultured English accent and the inclusion of a classical piano piece during the breaks in the story sonically compliment the subject matter of intrigue in the art world. 

Painting by Velaquez. "Portrait of Pope Innocent X"

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

Source: Forgotten Classics (Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10)
Length: about 8 hours (book itself), about 12 hours (book + commentary)
Reader: Julie

The book: Agatha Christie is widely known today for her mysteries such as Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None.  This book, one of her earliest, is not a mystery, but is what we would today call a spy thriller. Although most Agatha Christie books are still in copyright, this one is out of copyright in the United States by virtue of it being published before 1923. Other countries have different copyright regulations, so check the legality where you are before you download.

This exciting novel begins with the sinking of the Lusitania (pictured above) and centers around a post-war conspiracy to overthrow the governments of Europe. The main characters, Tommy and Tuppence, are a pair of  young people who had tasted Independence in the war years, but now in the 1920's don't have the money to support themselves. Through a series of unlikely coincidences, they become entwined into discovering the plot of a shadowy figure named Mr. Brown. As is typical for Christie, the novel runs through a series of twists and adventures that kept me entertained and always guessing.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: The amount of love that Julie has for the books she reads can be felt in her tone. She has a bright, expressive voice with an American accent. For most characters, she changes her voice to reflect the speaker, usually with great success, though as she points out, her foreign accents are amateurish. Each episode is preceded and ended with a lengthy commentary on the book, other podcasts, and Julie's life in general. These commentaries are interesting, but toward the end of the book, I found myself skipping them, although that's due more to the desire to want to know what happens next in the novel than anything to do with Julie.

(This review was entered as part of Cym Lowell's Book Review Wednesday contest. Visit the site for other reviews.)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Ode to Autumn" by John Keats

Source: Classic Poetry Aloud (mp3)
Length:  2 minutes, 13 seconds
Reader: Anonymous (credited as Classic Poetry Aloud)

The poem:  Happy Thanksgiving! I won't have the chance to write much since I'm spending time with my family. I would like to say how thankful I am for my readers; I've enjoyed the comments you have left and the kind words others have written on other sites about my blog.

I chose this poem because it celebrates the beauty and bounty of the season. Keats was certainly not thinking of the holiday of Thanksgiving -- Keats was British and Thanksgiving wasn't even an official holiday in the United States at the time. However, the poem exemplifies the spirit of Thanksgiving, if unintentionally. Where most poets would admire the vibrancy of Spring and relegate Autumn to a metaphor of impending death, Keats sees inspiration in the present, luxuriating in the harvest and taking in the smells, tastes, sights and sounds of the season he is in, rather than wishing for another time.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: With his BBC-quality British accent, the reader of Classic Poetry Aloud is the epitome of fine culture. His deep, mellow voice is soothing and rich, fitting the sensual qualities of the poem. He does an excellent job bringing the listener into the poem by varying his speed and pitch to convey the emotions of the poet, but he doesn't overdo his theatrics. Listening to a few other poems from the website, I find Classic Poetry Aloud to be a go-to resource for older poems.

photo by Per Ola Wiberg, Creative Commons by attribution license.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Cabaret Ludwig" by Rachel Wetzsteon

Source: Poetry Magazine podcast (mp3)
Length: 42 seconds (starts at 2:23)
Reader: Don Share

The poem: As Poetry Magazine editor Don Share points out in this podcast, not many modern poets use rhyme in their poems. Rachel Wetzsteon does, and uses rhyme with such ability that I immediately had to listen to this poem again, then again. The effect is like a hit song where you're drawn in by the sound before you even get a grasp on what the words are saying.

The words hold up to the sound. Wetzsteon starts out confrontational, but shows her playfulness with the last line of the first stanza: "for this is not a duck". The poem becomes flirty: "Let's multiply and twitch our noses", then concludes with a determination to find love despite difficulties and despite what others might say.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: I could have picked any of over a half-dozen top-notch poems from this episode of the Poetry Magazine podcast. Eleanor Ross Taylor's "Vita" is a tiny gem of childhood life. Jane Mead's two poems have a lovely sound and are really enhanced by the podcast's production. The second poem by Bob Hickman, about his dying 17 year old dog was both touching and laugh-out-loud funny. The commentary by Share and associate editor Fred Sasaki point out images and words I missed on the first listen and made me want to revisit these poems. If you're a fan of poetry, this is a monthly podcast you'll want to add to your listening list, and Poetry Magazine may be something you'll want to add to your Christmas list.

Friday, November 19, 2010

"If" by Rudyard Kipling

Source: Librivox (mp3)
Length: 2 minutes, 39 seconds
Reader: Chip

The poem: This poem can be dismissed in modern times as Victorian sentimentality. The poem councils stoicism, moderation, and virtue. At first reading, Kipling presents a series of impossible rules to live by that are contradictory and lengthy.

Yet, aside from the insinuation that only a man can have these qualities, this is actually good advice. Kipling councils a middle road, more of a melding of Eastern and Western thought than the arrogant colonialism that is usually credited to him. He acknowledges the difficulties of life, while asserting that these can be turned, judo-like, to the credit of he who receives those difficulties. Listening with fresh ears breaks away the familiarity around these words and breaks open their depth as a credo to live by rather than a tedious set of standards.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Chip has an American radio announcer's voice. He's somewhat overwrought, but this fits well with the subject and background of this poem. He varies his pitch, tone, and pacing to dramatically present the poem, bringing out the meaning behind the words. This is a interpretation of the poem that would do Kipling proud.

photo by academy of american poets via Flickr. Creative Commons license: attribution, non-commercial, no derivative works 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Books" by Campbell McGrath

Source: Slate Poetry Podcast (mp3)
Length: 1 minute, 40 seconds
Reader: Campbell McGrath

The poem: If you haven't already noticed, I love books. This poem combines books with biology, another great passion of mine. McGrath starts with a simile comparing books to the honey stored in beehives, then goes on to reference trilobites, the inhabitants of benthic vents, and whale evolution.

The imagery here is a kaleidoscope for the senses, but the metaphors are so dense that they overwhelmed me on first listen. I found it better to go where the poem took me than to try to analyze each part. McGrath's flow from one image to the next make the poem a journey through a library of books, with each subject as fascinating as the one before it.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Slate poetry podcast offers poems from living poets, often reading their own work. The webpage provides the text and a discussion by readers, making it easy to follow along. McGrath reads his poem with a voice that has a conversational tone, but with the rhythms of poetry. He speaks clearly in a general American accent and reads at a slow-to-moderate pace that lets the words fill the mind as they go by.

Friday, November 12, 2010

"The Unconquered Dead" by John McCrae

Source: LibriVox (mp3)
Length: 2 minutes, 19 seconds
Reader: Joseph Finkberg

The poem: I know from personal experience how hard it is to write a eulogy. To write a eulogy for several hundred men must be more difficult by a factor of several hundred. On this day after Veterans Day (or Remembrance Day/Armistice Day, depending on where you are), I'll let John McCrae, author of "In Flander's Field" say what I wish I could.

Traditional war eulogies have either honored the dead for fighting to uphold a righteous cause or extolling their bravery in victory or defeat.  In the First World War, with no clear righteous cause and victories measured in the temporary gain of few miles of trench, neither approach seemed appropriate. Instead, McCrae freely admits that the soldiers in his poem may have surrendered or fallen back, had they not been killed. He asserts that, in death, they are victorious, having achieved the goal of staying put. Touchingly, McCrae honors the fallen soldiers for their death alone.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: The LibriVox page linked to above offers several readings of this poem, many of them quite good, but none pack the emotional punch of Finkberg's reading. He reads with a warm, somber voice, dropping to a whisper for emphasis. I think one of the most difficult parts of reading poetry is in placing pauses effectively. Here, Finkberg excels, keeping the rhythms of the poem without sounding unnatural. This is a masterful reading of an effective poem.

Photo of Ypres cemetery by Redvers. Creative Commons attribution license.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"Another Reason Why I Don't Keep A Gun in the House" by Billy Collins

Source: The Best Cigarette on (mp3)
Length: 1 minute, 12 seconds
Reader: Billy Collins

The poem: I love Billy Collins. He's witty, charming, and, sadly, the only living poet I can name off the top of my head. Collins first came to my attention via an appearance on A Prairie Home Companion where his self-effacing humor stole the show. As a former poet laureate of the United States, he's achieved both popular and critical success.

This poem, from his Creative Commons licensed collection The Best Cigarette, is an example of why he's so well-known. The subject matter is approachable and recognizable: a neighbor's dog that won't stop barking. Collins takes the situation from commonplace to hilarious by trying to drown out the barking with a Beethoven record, but ends up imagining the dog as part of the symphony. He then transform the imagery from silly to profound by commenting on the critical response to his imaginary Barking Dog Solo. Rather than being just a joke, this poem ends up examining what makes art good and how the influence of cultural gatekeepers can make something seen as annoying in one context seem a work of genius in another.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: I always get a kick out of listening to an author reading their own work. Some really put on a performance, others just try to read their work straight, allowing the words they wrote to be the centerpiece rather than their acting. Collins takes this second path, but that doesn't make the recording any less interesting. His staccato reading brings out the rhythms of the barking dog which aren't immediately apparent when the poem is read on the page. The recording is clear and crisp, being originally created for a commercial CD before Collins released it for free.

Photo copyright by fauxpasta. Used by permission

Friday, November 5, 2010

"The Emperor of Ice-Cream" by Wallace Stevens

Source: Librivox (mp3)
Length: 1 minute, 25 sec
Reader: Alan Davis-Drake

The poem: The scene is of a funeral. The corpse, an old woman, is covered by a sheet that doesn't quite fit her body. People come to pay their respects and drop off flowers, but there's an air of dressed-up shabbiness about the whole affair. Unusually for a funeral, a man is serving ice cream.

The poem is about the finality of death ("let be be the finale of seem"), yet the titular ice cream emperor lends a bit of ridiculousness that keeps it from being maudlin. Stevens is able to keep the tone of a potentially depressing poem playful through his alliteration and attention to detail ("flowers in last month's newspapers"). This is the kind of funeral I want to be remembered by some day -- one that does not deny the reality of death, but suggests a metaphor for life as ice cream: sweet while it lasts.

Rating: 8/10

The reader:Alan Davis-Drake, as I've said before, is a professional-sounding reader. He reads the words carefully, with an ear for pauses and emphasis. This poem comes from a Librivox collection of Wallace Stevens poems all read by Davis-Drake. If you like this one, I recommend  the entire collection.

Photo from Flickr by iMaxx. Creative Commons license: attribution, no derivative works.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Poetry month at Free Listens

I was reading a newspaper article the other day and came across an interview with poet laurate of the United States W.S. Merwin:
"Most people you bump into on the street will tell you they never read poetry, and if you ask him why they'll say they don't understand it. I tell them, don't worry about understanding it, listen to it for pleasure. Very often all people have to do is hear it -- if they hear poetry, they'll get it."
Like the people Merwin bumps into on the street, I don't read (or listen to) much poetry.  I like poetry, I just tend to overlook poems when deciding what to read. This month, I'm making a conscious effort to change that by reading and reviewing more poetry. For the rest of November, I'll be reviewing two poems a week.

This focus on shorter works will also give me the chance to get caught up on some listening for books that I'll be reviewing in December and January. So, if you're not interested in audio poems, check out the archives or come back in December - I'll have some really great books to point out to you!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Hometown Horrorible" by Matthew Bey

Source:Pseudopod (mp3)
Length: 25 minutes
Reader: Elie Hirschman

The story: Fans of H.P Lovecraft can point to his influence, popularity, and continued relevance of his horror, but they have to eventually face the negative aspects of his work. Several stories contain the subtext, and sometimes blatant statements, of racism. Lovecraft was also not financially or critically successful in his lifetime, and the frustrations of his failure come through in his work.

Bey's story fictionalizes the life of Lovecraft as a relatively unknown Wisconsin writer named Helmut Finch. As the main character of his own story, Bey describes themes and parts of Finch's writings in a mockumentary style that tantilizes by suggesting more than it reveals. There's not much actual horror until the ending, but setting the pieces up pays off in the chilling climax.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: As one of the Escape Pod family of podcasts, Pseudopod brings the same high standards to the production of this story. Hirchman gives the narrator a neutral voice, but does appropriate accents for the minor characters. His subtle reading brings out the wry humor of this piece, which might be lost in the hands of a less talented reader. The intro and wrap-up by Alasdair Stuart set the story in context and add an interesting connection.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft

Source: Uvula Audio (part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 )
Length: 4 hours, 53 minutes
Reader: Craig Nickleson

The story: Traditionally, horror has explored the unknown and unknowable: ghosts, demons, and similar superstitions. With the coming of the 20th century and the seemingly inexorable progress of science, it appeared that these superstitions would be overcome by triumphant rationalism. In H.P. Lovecraft's horror, progress brought with it new horrors, not of the unknown, but of knowing too much.

This novella is Lovecraft's most critically admired, though I prefer some of his shorter stories. This tale follows an Antarctic expedition that makes some startling discoveries about prehistoric times and wakes something that should have been left undisturbed. . . If it sounds like you've heard this story before, that's because this novel was hugely influential on later writers. I usually am a bit disappointed to read an influential work, since the familiarity of the copies make the original seem, perversely, unoriginal. At the Mountains of Madness is no exception, but if you can ignore what you've seen or read before, this story still has the power to chill and thrill.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Craig Nickerson's baritone works well as the voice of the narrator, geologist William Dyer, who tells the story of his polar expedition. When Dyer begins his story, Nickerson's strong voice reflects the hardness of a man who has experienced terror and is reluctantly sharing it. As the story progresses, he adds a quiver to his voice, bringing the listener along with Dyer's horror at his recollection. The recording does have a bit of an echo and some background noise, which can distract from the storytelling, but once again, Uvula Audio does a good job at bringing a classic to free audio.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Snow Glass Apples" by Neil Gaiman

Source: Seeing Ear Theatre (part 1 | part 2)
Length: 46 minutes
Reader: Seeing Ear Theatre cast

The story: Neil Gaiman has a fascination with the dark side of fairy tales. He has explored this theme in his novel American Gods, his comic series Sandman and returns to the theme again in this story. "Snow Glass Apples" retells the story of Snow White, but from the perspective of the stepmother queen.

This is not the Disney cartoon; Gaiman invokes every taboo of our society: incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, torture, and murder by children.  I was disturbed enough that several times during the story that I had to stop the recording.  The story that Gaiman weaves is so intriguing that I had to settle myself down and continue listening. This is what horror is: the fascination of looking into the darkest aspects of humankind even when we almost can't stand to look.

Rating: 8/10

The readers: This story is mostly narrated by the queen, played by Bebe Neuwirth, the actress best known for her portrayal of Dr. Fraiser Crane's ex-wife Lilith on Fraiser and Cheers.  She brings a steely sneer to the role, but is engaging enough to not push the listener away. Other characters are voiced by additional actors, all of high enough quality to complement the talents of the lead actress, though none particularly stood out for me. The music and sound effects contribute to the eerie mood of the story. Overall, this is a wonderfully done production that really enhances Gaiman's storytelling.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Personal Effects: Sword of Blood by J.C. Hutchins

Source: J.C. Hutchins (episode 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7)
Length: 3.8 hours
Reader: J.C. Hutchins

The book: While listening to NPR on a car trip last year, I heard a story about Personal Effects: Dark Art by J.C. Hutchins, who I had previously heard of from his podcast novel 7th Son. What intrigued me about Dark Art was that in addition to the printed story, the book came with additional documents, like a drivers' license, case files, and phone numbers to call. Along with these, Hutchins released this free audio novella, Sword of Blood, as a prequel to promote the full-length novel.

I love this marketing idea; it gives me the chance to meet the characters, sample the author's style, and decide whether or not I want to invest the time and money to read a longer book. In this case, though, I decided the longer book really wasn't something in which I was interested. Sword of Blood introduces Zach Taylor, an art therapist at a mental institution. When one of his elderly patients finishes a quilt and lets it slip that a coded message is hidden in the pattern, Taylor begins to investigate the old woman's background and the crime that put her in the asylum in the first place. I enjoyed the plot, though it requires a considerable suspension of disbelief, but Hutchins' writing style, which involves throwing rapid-fire nerd culture references, seemed strained and instantly dated. Although I enjoyed the audiobook enough that I didn't feel like I wasted my time, I don't think I'll be buying the novel.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Reading his own material, Hutchins gets the chance to enhance his story by putting the right emphasis on words and using his own patterns of speech for each character. He's a gifted reader and does a great job at making the scary parts more exciting. Each episode is bracketed by announcements by Hutchins for his novel, which is understandable, but gets annoying after a few episodes. The aggressive music that starts and ends the episodes fits in well, but listeners should be aware that it's coming, lest they startle themselves.

Friday, October 15, 2010

"The Empty House" by Algernon Blackwood

Source: LibriVox (mp3)
Length: 47 minutes
Reader: Bernard Spiel

The story: For a long while, I've figured that Algernon Blackwoodmust be the perfect name for a writer of horror fiction. In this story, he of the perfect sobriquet spins a marvelous ghost story. A young man and his elderly, but thrill-seeking aunt decide to visit a deserted house to test not only the stories of it being haunted but also their own resolve.

Blackwood slowly builds the tension with a unexplained noise here, a slamming door there, and a glimpse of face later on. He uses the contest of nerves between the young man and the old lady to amplify the fear of the reader. By the time the climax arrives, we are ready to jump out of our seats with fright.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Bernard Spiel reads with an abundance of drama in his voice. Normally, I would find this over-acting to be annoying, but with ghost stories, the spooooooky telling is part of the fun. At first, the narrator is distracting, but once the characters arrived in the house and scary things start happening, Spiel's style seems to fit the story quite well.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s or M4B file)
Length: 5 hr, 22 minutes
Reader: Alan Winterrowd

The book:  Halloween is getting close, so for the remainder of October, I'll be posting reviews of horror novels and stories here at Free Listens. House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson is the perfect place to start, since it was a major influence on the writing of H.P. Lovecraft and ushered in a new type of supernatural horror novels for the 20th century.

Two gentlemen vacationing in Ireland find a manuscript in the ruins of an old house. In it, the former owner of the house describes how his house lies on the border of a demonic realm and how he ends up having to defend himself against pig-like invaders from this other dimension. The beginning of this narrative is eerie while the climax is heart-thudding terrifying, but a large section of the middle, in which the narrator describes a hallucinogenic dream in which he travels to the end of the world, dips into boredom. Apart from this middle section, the novel is a short, spooky classic of horror literature.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Winterrowd is a voice that I haven't come across before. His voice is strong and confident, with an American accent. He gives a fairly straight reading, without much emotion. This doesn't mean that his reading is dull - he varies his pace and emphasis - but he doesn't try to embellish the text, which can be good or bad, depending on your taste. In some early chapters, there's a faint ringing in the recording, but later on this problem seems to go away and the sound is fine.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

"The Overcoat" by Nikolai Gogol

Source: (part 1 | part 2)
Length: 1 hr, 28 min
Reader: Alan Davis Drake

The story:  This classic tale, also translated as "The Cloak", is one of the most revered stories in Russian literature. Akaky Akakievich is a poor clerk in a government office who is the butt of many jokes from his colleagues as much for his social ineptitude as for his threadbare overcoat.  Many of the themes that would be common to the greats of Russian literature trace their heritage to this story: the hopelessness of poverty, the striving to move up in a class-striated society, government indifference and arrogance, and injustice for the powerless. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov would continue these themes in their own literature, building great works from common starting material. 

Despite the heavy themes, this is a story with plenty of humor. Gogol even pokes fun at the conventions of storytelling by breaking the fourth wall. Part of the genius of this story is the tension between the listener's tendency to sympathize with the plight of Akaky Akakievich or laugh at his awkwardness and eagerness to impress his colleagues.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: This may be a free recording, but that doesn't make Alan Davis Drake any less of a professional. His voice is smooth and expressive in his narration, bringing out the sometimes subtle humor in this piece. His intonations for the dialogue bring out the pattern of Russian speech without doing a broad accent. The short musical pieces at the beginning and end of each part do not distract from the reading and are not played over the narration.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Source: Lit2Go
Length: Approx. 20 hours
Reader: Rick Kistner

The book: Even within the lofty lists of Western canon, there are some books that stand above the rest in reputation. Even if you haven't read them, you don't challenge the placement on these lists of books like Ulysses, Moby Dick, or Anna Karenina. Crime and Punishment is one of these classics and up until a few months ago, I had never read it. Then I started to notice references to the book or its protagonist Raskolnikov in articles, books and even in music. Clearly, the universe was telling me what to read next.

It's not an easy read. Raskolnikov is mentally unstable through most of the book and Dostoevsky reflects his character's delirium in dreamlike imagery. To make matters more difficult, the characters are often hiding their true motives, and part of the effort of reading is figuring out how much each character knows about the other and how much each knows the other knows about the first.  The on-again, off-again lucidity of the protagonist, combined with the web of deception make the book a challenging, but rewarding puzzle.

Beneath this puzzle lies a theme that is familiar to many people nowadays: the tyranny of money. Almost every scene in the book concerns who has or doesn't have money, how much they are spending, or how they plan to get enough money to live a few more days. In doing the research for this review, I wasn't surprised to find that Dostoevsky himself was deeply in debt and wrote the book to pay his bills. Of course, there are other themes as well - morality, justice, love, and all the other big themes of human existence - but I find it comforting that this book about poverty is now available to people who can't pay for it.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Rick Kistner again does an excellent job with this reading. For a full evaluation of his reading style, see my recent review of The Jungle. My problem in the audiobook is not so much with the reader or the recording, but that it's a difficult book to listen to. Several times in the novel, the narrative tends to change direction in a few sentences, so that if you missed a phrase or short sentence, you completely miss the twist. It's a book that requires your full attention and several re-reads of important paragraphs, so listening as an audiobook is perhaps not the best approach to take to this demanding novel.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Other audiobook sites

I'm not posting a review this week - too many things to do. If you're looking for an audiobook review fix, try one of these other fine blogs:
I'm sure I've missed plenty of audiobook-dedicated sites and regular book review sites that have occasional audiobook reviews. If you have any you'd like to suggest, link to them in the comment section.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang

Source: StarShipSofa (mp3)
Length: 1 hr, 10 min (story is about 45 min)
Reader: James Campanella

The story: This time travel story, winner of the 2008 Hugo Award for best novellette, is set in caliphate Baghdad. This unusual setting for science fiction gives the story its unique flavor and allows it to feature an unusual approach to the old trope of a time travel story.  Chiang gives a nod to Arabian Nights by writing several stories within a framing story. Unlike Arabian Nights, where the framing story was simply an excuse to tell a diverse mix of unrelated stories, here the stories intertwine and touch one another.

Like many time travel stories, this one focuses on the consequences of our actions in life. Unusually for this genre, Chiang explores the uses of forgiveness and repentance on how we view the past. Interestingly, this echoes St. Augustine's views on the nature of time and forgiveness. We cannot travel through time in our own world, but by asking forgiveness we can try to change how we and others see our past.

Rating: 8 /10

The reader: Every time I listen to Campanella narrate a story, I come away more impressed. The man is a master of voices. In this story, he mimics the melody of a Middle Eastern accent, then shifts it to create different characters. He is a middle-aged man, a young man, an old man, and an evil thief. He even reasonably impersonates a young woman and an old woman, a feat that I consider the pinnacle of achievement for a male narrator. The Starship Sofa podcast is a reliable source of good science fiction audio, winning a Hugo Award itself this year. This story fills the first half of the episode linked to above.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Variable Man by Phillip K. Dick

Source: LibriVox (Zipped mp3s)
Length: 2 hr, 49 min
Reader: Gregg Margarite

The book: In the distant future, the expansion of Earth's colonies has stalled due to a cold war with the empire of Proxima Centauri. Like the Cold War of Phillip K. Dick's time, the war has ground to a stalemate because computer analysis shows that neither side can conclusively win. A new faster-than-light bomb may turn the tide in Earth's favor. As Earth mobilizes for war, a malfunction in a time probe brings Thomas Cole forward from the early 20th century into the far future.

Old science fiction tends to have the problem of newer technology passing it by. In this case, the entire motivation for the plot, the wiring of a faster-than-light bomb, was made irrelevant 5 years after publication with the invention of the integrated circuit. Science fiction isn't just about technology, though. At its heart, science fiction is about positing a world that is in some ways different from our own and conjecturing how people would act in this world. In this novella, humankind has given up control of their world; they've given control of decisions to computers, control of their electronics to the manufacture, and control of making things over to specialists. Although the specifics of this novel are far outdated, the themes are as important today as they were in the 1950s. 

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Greg Margarite has done a number of recordings of science fiction stories for LibriVox, but this is the first of his that I have reviewed at Free Listens. Margarite is a good match for classic science fiction since, like James T. Kirk, he has a habit of putting Emphasis on Almost Every other Word. After a brief time where I found this annoying, I quickly dropped in to the story and Margarite's narration seemed to fit the novella perfectly. His style may not be for everyone, but I thought it was well-done.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Source: Lit2Go
Length: Approximately 15 hours
Reader: Rick Kistner

The book: The Jungle is best known today as the novel that awoke the American public to the importance of food safety in industrialized meat packing and inspired the foundation of what would become the Food and Drug Administration. The author's intent, however, was to get the public riled up not about the product but about the people of the meat packing industry. Sinclair was a socialist, and believed that through collective action, the workers could wrest control of the meat packing industry away from the greedy capitalists and into the hands of the workers, raising wages and improving working conditions at the same time.

The areas where The Jungle fails are largely due to the transparency of Sinclair's efforts to force his readers to sympathize with the workers. Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkis and his family are hard-working and honest bunch who are just looking a better life in America. Sinclair piles onto this family a host of hardships and swindles, trying to achieve a sentimentalism that is never quite earned. As the story unfolds, we're treated to a fascinating tour of the slums of Chicago and the many ways that workers can be cheated out of their pay, but eventually, Sinclair's agenda overwhelms the verisimilitude of his intensive research. By the end of the book, the deus ex machina solution that Socialism will solve everything seems like mere propaganda.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Kistner does an nice job with what must have been a difficult book to narrate. The text is filled with tongue-tying Lithuanian names that, to my unknowing ear sound as accurate as I could guess they are. Kistner reads with a quick pace; nonetheless his reading is understandable. There are occasional audible lip smacks, but the sound quality is otherwise good.

Friday, September 10, 2010

"The Barber and his Wife" by Dashiell Hammett

Source: CrimeWAV (mp3)
Length: 28 minutes
Reader: Seth Harwood

The story: This was the first published story for Dashiell Hammett, author of such noir classics as The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest. While this story doesn't feature the same hard-boiled detectives as in those books, it does include some classic Hammett themes: violence, deception, and infidelity. The barber of the story's title, Louis, is the type of man who enjoys watching boxing, going to burlesque shows, and eating red meat. He is having troubles in his marriage, but he thinks he's secure in everything that really matters to him: respect, health, and above all, manliness.

This story, published in 1923, has much in common with many of the other pulp stories I've read from this decade. I think what Hammett was struggling with in this story, like in the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, was the role of a man in a society that had given up its agrarian model of manliness. Being a strong traditional man no longer meant that one could get ahead in American society, not when strong, manly men could be easily cut down by machine gun fire in the trenches of World War I or left without a job through the dealings of effete bankers on Wall Street. As Hammett points out at the end of this story, "Why, a man might as well be just a weakling."

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Seth Harwood, as I've mentioned before, is an excellent narrator. He uses a tough voice for the character of Louis and a nasal Northern accent for his wife, Pearl. The story is told in a matter-of -fact tone that reminds one of Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of Hammett's most well-known character, Sam Spade. Breaks in the story are marked by a film noir trumpet blast that fits in well with the story, but is a bit jarring if you're not expecting it. The podcast includes a short introduction and concluding statements from Harwood, putting the story in context.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop
Each week Christine at posts a new topic and encourages book bloggers to post on that topic. The goal is to get book bloggers interested in each others blogs and find new readers and new things to read. I won't be participating every week, but I may do a few from time to time. This week's topic is "Post a link to a favorite post or book review that you have written in the past three months."

Probably the favorite book review I've done over the past three months is the The Curse of Capastrano / The Mark of Zorro, but since that one was done just this week, I'll choose The Woman in White as my recent favorite.

When I re-launched this site after a year's hiatus, I wanted to come back with a book I really loved, but one I would have never read if I hadn't been looking for free audiobooks. The Woman in White fit the bill perfectly. The story is suspenseful, the characters memorable, and the reading is excellent. The length is a bit daunting, but listening a little bit at a time while doing chores really makes the time go by. I hope you'll enjoy the review and leave me a comment to let me know you visited.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Curse of Capastrano by Johnston McCulley

Source: Librivox (zipped mp3s or M4B file)
Length: 6 hr, 34 min
Reader: Barry Eads

The book:  Never heard of this book? Perhaps that's because it's the secret identity of its more famous alter-ego. Following the successful Douglas Fairbanks movie based on The Curse of Capastrano, McCulley reissued his novel under the same name as the silent film: The Mark of Zorro.

It's easy to see why this book became a blockbuster film; it's full of action, humor, romance, and plot twists. McCulley has a great sense of pacing, building up suspense and taking Zorro from scene to scene with great efficiency. Each short chapter ends with a mini-cliffhanger. Many of the supporting characters are one-dimensional, but I was happily surprised to find the main female character, Lolita, to be a self-reliant woman with a brain, rather than a damsel in distress.The Curse of Capastrano is a great short action-adventure book, perfect for putting a little pep in your morning commute or gym routine.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: Barry Eads does a terrific job with this narration. There are a number of speaking characters in this book, and Eads does a distinct voice for each one, making it easy to figure out who is talking. Even his female voices are believable. He varies the pacing and tone of his narration to keep up with the changes in action, making it easier to follow Zorro's spectacular feats. The only fault I could find is that Eads tends to mispronounce some of the many Spanish words, but if you're not a Spanish speaker, you will have no problem with this.

Friday, September 3, 2010

"A Horseman in the Sky" by Ambrose Bierce

Source: Spoken Alexandria (zipped mp3)
Length: 17 min
Reader: Alex Wilson

The story: In the Civil War, a young Virginian has chosen to join the Union Army despite his father's wishes. Now out on guard duty, he's faced with the consequences of his decision. Should he, from his place of concealment, ruthlessly shoot the Rebel scout that has discovered the army's location or should he risk the lives of his comrades by holding his fire?

This little story and it's surprising conclusion highlight what made the Civil War such an important event in American history. For the first time since the Revolution, Americans were fighting their fellow Americans, giving the war a intimate reality that struck home for many families. Was it right to kill people with whom they had more in common than in difference, or were some principles, like state's rights, abolition, and duty to country more important that blood?

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Alex Wilson is a superb reader and his Tell Tale Weekly website, along with its free component, Spoken Alexandria, is a worthy project that has been largely overshadowed by the bulk of LibriVox. Wilson's goal was to produce a free audio library using professional narrators, charging a low price per download at first to recoup the cost of the recording, then release each recording under a Creative Commons license after 5 years. Unfortunately, it looks like Tell Tale is no longer producing new works, but the recordings produced in 2005 are, true to promise, being released for free now in 2010. Wilson is an excellent narrator. He has an actor's feel for delivering words and his confident American voice fits well with this story. This recording would have been worth paying for, but now it's yours for free.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 4 hr, 45 min
Reader: Mike Vendetti

The book: To wrap up my August back-to-school assigned reading month,  I'm reviewing a book that seems to be the bane of every high school American literature student. I really, really, really hated The Red Badge of Courage when I was forced to read it in my junior-year English class. Reading it again, I realize it's not so bad, though still not an especially exciting read.

The book mainly concerns a young soldier in the Civil War. Despite the premise, it's not an exciting adventure book, but instead a mediation on the young man's thoughts and experiences around the time of a battle. The main character flees panics and flees during the first engagement he's in and the book seems to meander along as he encounters various people behind the battlelines. Like the young soldier, the book eventually regroups and produces a fine conclusion, but it's a long journey to get there.

Rating: 6/10

The reader: Mike Vendetti is a professional voice-over actor with an inspiring voice. His deep baritone rumbles like a far-off cannon, making him a perfect pairing with this novel. With Crane's description-heavy text it is easy to fall into a drone, but Vendetti avoids this by giving dramatic emphasis to his reading. The recording is clear and beautifully done.

Friday, August 27, 2010

"Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway

Source: Miette's Bedtime Story Podcast
Length: 11 minutes
Reader: Miette

The story: When I read this story in high school, I hated it. I had no idea what the two characters were talking about or who they were. This is a story about subtlety; it's an overheard conversation where you don't know anything about the speakers, but enough hints are dropped to figure out the outlines of their situation.

The key to the story is the title. Back in high school, I had never heard the expression "white elephant"; we didn't do white elephant Christmas present exchanges back then (if I recall correctly, we called it a "Yankee Swap" as a slur against Northerners).  Nowadays, we call a present that we don't want a "White Elephant", but the original meaning was a gift of an albino elephant: a great honor in Southeast Asia, but one that could potentially bankrupt the recipient with the high cost of its upkeep. In relation to this story, I wonder: what present could a man and his girlfriend give each other that one would see as a financial burden and the other would see as a wonderful gift?

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Miette, as always, does a wonderful job reading this story. Her British accent is beautiful and easy to listen to. There's some background noise and the recording is a little bit quiet, but these issues are easily overlooked.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Source: Wired for Books (Act 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 )
Length: 1 hr 48 min
Readers: Actor's Theater of Columbus, Ohio

The book: Macbeth is a good subject of the Scottish King Duncan until some witches show up to suggest Macbeth will be king. With his wife's heavy persuasion, Macbeth murders Duncan and becomes King of Scotland himself. For a while, everything is fine. But if you've ever seen a Coen brothers film, you know that these kind of criminal enterprises tend to go horribly wrong. Soon, Macbeth is murdering everyone around him and Lady Macbeth has gone insane.

Although I first read Macbeth in high school, it took until I saw the play live at the  Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta until I really enjoyed it. Like many great works of art, I have to see, hear, or read Shakespeare's plays several times before I can really appreciate them. The first time through, I'm just trying to puzzle out the language. It takes until the third or fourth time I encounter the play, usually in different formats, before I can really appreciate the depth of the work. Even if you've already read or seen this play, do yourself a favor and listen to it one more time.

Rating: 8/10

The readers: The reason I rarely review audio plays is because there's just so much going on that it's hard to encompass everything in a short review. I'll be brief by saying the actors here do a fine job of bringing the play to audio. Sometimes it's a bit difficult to follow what they're saying, but that's more because of the complexity of the language than the actors' voices or the recording quality. I'd recommend following along with a printed text rather than trying to listen to this one in your car.

Friday, August 20, 2010

"The Lady or The Tiger?" by Frank R. Stockton

Source: Librivox (mp3)
Length: 17 minutes
Reader: David Federman

The story:  In a faraway kingdom, the king has devised a crowd-pleasing spectacle for executions. The accused in placed in an arena and allowed to open one of two doors. Behind one waits a man-eating tiger and the prisoner's certain death. Behind the other waits a woman who will become his bride. When the princess's paramour is captured and sentenced to the arena, an additional wrinkle is added to the problem.

This story is often included in English literature textbooks to introduce the concept of ambiguity in stories. Children can have low tolerance of unclear endings: "And then what happened?"  But part of developing an appreciation for literature is being able to consider the psychology of characters in a story when not enough information is available to know for certain what the character is really thinking. This story explicitly asks that question, and becomes a more complex story than if the ending was simply stated.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Since this is such a widely-anthologized story, there are several recordings available at LibriVox as well as on other websites. From the sampling I did of these, Federman's recording is the best. He uses inflection and dramatic pauses to create a fairytale-like telling of the story, which complements its "long ago and far away" setting. He speaks in distinct enunciation and varies both the pitch and loudness of his voice like a professional storyteller. The recording is well-produced with almost no background noise.

(Tiger background Creative Commons by attribution licensed from didbygraham)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 10 hours
Reader: John Greenman

The book: When I read this book in high school, I remember it being good for the about the first two-thirds of the book, then interminably boring for the last third. Now that I've read several books by Mark Twain, I can recognize a pattern in his books. Twain often starts his books with a great premise. He strings together some amusing anecdotes with very little overarching plot, but with often hilarious characters. As the book goes along, though, Twain tends to grow bitter towards his own characters and the tone turns from gentle humor to a darker misanthropy.

Huck Finn follows this pattern in that the opening chapters are filled with great episodes, like the formation of Tom Sawyer's gang, Huck dressing up as a girl, and Huck's stay with the Grangerfords. Later, after the Duke and the King join Huck and Jim on the raft, the writing turns more mean-spirited. Instead of innocent pranks, the characters are now involved in more harmful swindles, culminating in the two con-men betraying Jim. The rest of the book portrays Jim more as a racist stereotype and the adventures lose the fun quality that they had at the beginning. These final chapters mar the book's reputation and brought my personal enjoyment of the book down.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: John Greenman is a great narrator of Mark Twain. Greenman has the ability to bring out the Midwestern tone of Twain's writing. He delivers the humor without overselling it and has a light breezy style of speech that reflects the conversational style of the book. For more of Greenman's excellent narration, check out his work in Tom Sawyer.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

"A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor

Source: The Morning Oil (via Black Market Kidneys) (mp3)
Length: 32 minutes
Reader: Flannery O' Connor

The story: A family in Georgia is heading out for a family vacation to Florida. The situation is familiar to anyone who's taken a family road trip this summer: the kids are bratty, the grandmother tells dotty stories, and the father just wants to get there. On this vacation, though, something goes terribly wrong and the story takes a much darker turn.

This is one of my favorite stories ever written. It seems like every time I read it, I find new details that are funny, disturbing, or that give new insight into the complex characters that inhabit this short piece of fiction. The meaning of the story is also complex. Are people generally good or inherently evil? What makes a good person good and and evil person bad? It's a difficult story to interpret, but I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I do.

Rating: 10/10

The reader: This reading comes from a talk that O'Connor gave at the University of Notre Dame shortly before her death. A couple paragraphs near the beginning of the story get cut out due to a recording skip, but the lost section isn't vital to the story. The sound quality isn't that great, but it's a pleasure to hear O'Connor reading her own work in her Deep South drawl. The combination of the poor sound and the heavy accent may make it difficult for some people to understand, but being a Southerner myself, I had little problem.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


The school year is starting this month in the United States. Soon, students will be getting their lists of books for book reports and class-wide reading. Yesterday, I posted a review of Call of the Wild, a popular choice for assigned reading in U.S. schools. For the rest of the month, I'll be continuing this theme by reviewing books and stories that are often read in English literature classes.

For students and parents of student reading this, I hope that by being able to listen as well as read the books that more students would actually complete their assignments. By using audiobooks as a supplement, not a replacement for reading, I think students have a greater chance of actually enjoying the books the read. This after all is one of the goals of literature classes: to instill in students a life-long love of reading that will continue their education long after they've graduated.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Call of the Wild by Jack London

Source: Uvula Audio (Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 )
Length: Approx 4 hours
Reader: J. Campenella

The book: I first read Call of the Wild for my middle school English class. Reading it again, I am struck by two things: 1) it's an better story than I remember and 2) it's way more violent than I remember. Even though I, like many before me, have classified it as a children's book, it is definitely a book for older children, as well as adults.

London, writing from first-hand knowledge, explores the boundary between civilization and the wild. Unlike many writers, he neither extols the progress in taming the wilderness nor does he romanticize the purity of Mother Nature. Nature only cares for survival by any means, he says, and civilization is a luxury that must be abandoned where it is not practical. These are harsh statements, directed at an adult audience, and the way in which London goes about illustrating his view make it worth revisiting Call of the Wild as an adult.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: Campanella is an excellent reader, though he has a tendency in this book to fall into a up-and-down cadence that can lull the inattentive listener away from the words in long descriptive passages. His voices for each character are a delight, however, and enliven the reading. The recording is well-produced, though it includes sound effects. I find these sound effects to be often intrusive, particularly the sounds of the whimpering and growling of the dogs. London's text is descriptive enough without the additions.

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