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.