Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Best Free Audio Short Stories

A few weeks ago I posted my list of Best Free Audiobooks. I got a great response for this post, so I thought I'd do another one with my favorite free short stories that I've reviewed at Free Listens. Of course such lists are inherently silly, as they depend upon the listmaker's tastes, current mood, memory, and a host of other little factors that have nothing to do with the quality of the story. So, if you'd rather, here's a list of 10 really darn good stories (but maybe not the best):
  1. "The Lottery" - Shirley Jackson
  2. "A Rose for Emily" - William Faulkner
  3. "The Gospel According to Mark" - Jorge Louis Borges
  4. "The Gift of the Magi" - O. Henry
  5. "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov
  6. "Bullet in the Brain" - Tobias Wolff
  7. "A Sound of Thunder" - Ray Bradbury 
  8. "The Monkey's Paw" - W.W. Jacobs
  9. "The Open Window" - Saki
  10. "The Yellow Wallpaper" - Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"The Assasination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" by J.G. Ballard

Source: Miette's Bedtime Story Podcast (mp3)
Length: 7 minutes
Reader: Miette

The story: I listened to this story while in Dallas, on a commuter train that passes Dealey Plaza and the Texas School Book Depository on my way to my job next to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where President Kennedy died. So, when I heard the story, I knew the geography intimately, and was aware of the facts surrounding the assassination, having recently attended the Sixth Floor Museum at the Book Depository.

Ballard approaches the JFK assassination with dark humor. The extended metaphor of a downhill race to the murder of a President satirizes the heavy media revisiting of the assassination from every possible angle. The light tone of the story shocks the reader out of his familiarity with the events, paradoxically making Pres. Kennedy's death more disturbing.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: As I've mentioned before, Miette has a wonderful soft voice that I could listen to over and over again. Her lovely British accent doesn't quite fit with the subject matter, but it is undeniably pleasant. Her pacing is slow and her tone is neutral, allowing the listener to decide his own views on this disturbing piece of writing.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Our Island Story by H.E. Marshall

Source: Librivox (part 1 zipped mp3s | part2 zipped mp3s)
Length: 16 hr, 53 min
Readers: Kara Shallenberg and Jim Mowatt

The book: Our Island Story is a children's history book of Great Britain, up to the end of the Victorian Age. As its name implies, this is not a scholarly history, but a series of history stories. Marshall does not investigate the socio-political background behind events or apply economic theory to the past. Instead she tells the legend of Boudica in the same narrative style as a story about the signing of the Magna Carta.

What this type of narrative history may lack in scholarly rigor, it makes up for by being a fascinating read. This is the history that people remember, long after the facts and dates have faded from their minds. Of course, this history must be taken with a grain of salt, since it carries many of the prejudices and nationalism of the British Empire. As someone who knows only the barest bones of British history, this was a great, fun introduction to the characters and events of the past.

Rating: 8/10

The readers: To me, Kara Shallenberg is the epitome of LibriVox readers: decidedly amateur, but wonderful nonetheless.  Comparing a LibriVox book to a professional audiobook is like comparing a cake that your friend made you to a cake baked by a high-end baker and cake-decorator. The professional product is perfect, with smooth icing, moist cake, and eye-popping decorations. Your friend doesn't have the training, experience, or expensive equipment that the pro does, but her cake is made because she loves to bake and that makes it special.

Kara's reading is full of little mistakes like birds chirping in the background, but it's a labor of love from which it's easy to pick up her enthusiasm for the book. When Jim Mowatt joins her to read every other chapter in the second half of the book, he adds some weightiness and an appropriate British accent to this story of British History. This is not a recording for those who like their audiobooks perfect, but instead it's for anyone who appreciates a good amateur effort.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" by Mark Twain

Source: Thought Audio (part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4)
Length:17 minutes
Reader: Michael Scott

The story: Tricked by a friend into talking to Simon Wheeler, an old man with a tendency to ramble, the narrator hears the story of Jim Smiley. Smiley is the kind of guy who would bet on anything, but his prize bet-winner is his frog Dan'l Webster. With this highly-trained super-frog Smiley can beat any other challenger . . . or so he thinks.

The genius of this story isn't in the plot itself, which is a fairly standard trickster getting tricked folktale. Instead, Twain produces laughs from the over-the-top characters and his trademark front-porch storyteller's style. Twain paints a recognizable, if somewhat hyperbolic, portrait of the long-winded storyteller Simon Wheeler, sort of a proto-Grampa Simpson. Twain's style is clearly based on the oral tradition of tall tales of the American frontier. This spoken-word origin of the story is what makes it adapt so well to an audio version.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Michael Scott is a professional reader with a great recording setup. In this story, he adds a bit of a twang to his voice to approximate the language of Mark Twain. The result is a well-made piece of audio humor. Although the story is only 17 minutes long, it's separated into four parts, which to me seems a bit excessive, but could be helpful for those burning it to CD.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Jeeves in the Morning by P.G. Wodehouse

Source: Uvula Audio (part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12)
Length: 7.8 hours
Reader: Jim Campanella

The book: Jeeves in the Morning (UK title: Joy in the Morning) is a typically  hilarious Bertie and Jeeves novel with a typically convoluted plot. This time, Jeeves convinces Bertie to spend some time in the English countryside in order to help out his Bertie-hating uncle on a business deal. Meanwhile, Bertie gets entangled in trying to sort out the troubles of two pairs of engaged couples. Added to this recipe for disaster is Edwin, a Boy Scout with a tendency to "help" people in the most inept and clumsy way imaginable.  All these threads build together to create a knot that even Jeeves might not be able to sort out, at least not without a heaping serving of anchovy paste.

In this novel, Wodehouse outdoes himself in ridiculous situations and silly dialog. Like in the other Bertie and Jeeves novel I've reviewed, Right Ho, Jeeves, many of the jokes are from the same formulas that are used by modern sitcom writers, but Wodehouse seems to have a better mastery of these formulas than most. At times, I think I must have missed jokes owing to my unfamiliarity with British culture and the contemporary times, but there are enough laugh-out-loud moments that the book as a whole never seems stale.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: Campanella is an outstanding reader and puts out a top-notch podcast novel. His voices for each of the characters is distinct, fitting, and over-the-top funny. The narration is in an American accent, but Campanella affects a variety of British accents for each character, from Bertie's aristocratic squeak to Uncle Percy's menacing brogue. Each episode begins and ends with some pleasant big-band jazz that fits in well with the text, though it does become somewhat tedious after several times hearing it. Taken as a whole, though, I can't say enough good things about this production.

(This review was entered as part of a Book Review Wednesday contest at Cym Lowell's blog. Follow the link to find other great reviews.)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Red Shadows" by Robert E. Howard

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 1 hr, 2 min
Reader: Paul Siegel

The story: Robert E. Howard is probably best known for his muscular barbarian, Conan the Cimmerian. This story introduces one of Howard's other great action-adventure characters, Solomon Kane. While Conan is hedonistic anti-hero, Kane is a Puritan and a righteous avenger of God. With his adventures set in the early 1600s, Kane pursues his enemies with rapier and flintlock, exacting divine vengeance with a dour visage.

In this story, Kane finds a young woman, raped and dying and vows to kill the leader of the bandits that murdered her and looted her village. Kane's pursuit ranges across continents and into the heart of dark Africa. This is a story full of slashing swords and purple prose. Howard is one of the better pulp fiction magazine writers and his stories crackle with action. This story, and those like it, are one of my favorite literary guilty pleasures.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Siegel's expressive narration adds to the atmosphere of dark adventure. He adopts a variety of accents that sound as if they came from 1920s radio villains, as befits this type of pulpy story. The recording has a bit of hiss that I could detect, but nothing distracting.

(Cover image from SFFaudio)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 8 hr, 22 min
Reader: Mark F. Smith

The book: Not to be confused with the Michael Crichton novel of the same name, Conan Doyle's The Lost World is an unbelievable adventure, in both senses of "unbelievable". Like Watson in Conan Doyle's more famous Sherlock Holmes series, the narrator, Edward Malone, is a tag-along to the real main character of the book, the conceited and quarrelsome Professor Challenger. Malone, a newspaper reporter, accompanies Challenger on  an expedition to a plateau in the jungles of South America, where dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts are rumored to live.

 Although the premise for the book can now be seen as impossible, Challenger's assertion of living dinosaurs is met with extreme skepticism by his colleagues in the novel, effectively removing the reader's ability to criticize it. The story proceeds at a gallop, with new adventures happening every chapter. This book is fast and fun, making it a great light read for the summertime.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: You probably know by now that Mark F. Smith is one of LibriVox's best readers. He's done a wide range of books, and I can't think of any of them that is bad. Smith's dialog puts the listener into the story and his narration carries a bit of sarcasm at the right places, to help the listener see the wittiness in Conan Doyle's writing. The recording, as always with Smith, is beautifully done.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Young Adult audiobook giveaway

For a limited time this summer, Sync is giving away free audiobooks, mostly in young adult fiction. The books are free, but there are some hoops to jump through. First, you have to sign up for Audiobook Community. Then you have to join the Sync group in Audiobook Community and download them from there. To download the files, you'll have to install Overdrive Media Console (presumably a DRM program). Some of these books may not be available outside the US and I have no idea what players the Overdrive DRM is compatable with, so listener beware.

After the break, I've listed the available books.