Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Best free audiobooks

Since restarting the blog, I've had quite a few new visitors who haven't been reading all along. To make it easier to find my favorites without digging through the entire archives, I've listed my top 10 favorite free audiobooks below. Of course, it's impossible to compare such different books, and my favorites change depending on my mood, but you can't go wrong with these:
  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. Howards End by E.M. Forester
  3. King Solomon's Mines by R. Rider Haggard
  4. The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope
  5. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  6. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  7. Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
  8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  9. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  10. Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers
Wow! That was really difficult to pick out only ten! So now it's your turn. What some of your favorite free audiobooks? Leave a comment and I'll listen to your favorites and review them in the near future.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

"Dear Doctor Watson" by Steve Hockensmith

Source: Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine podcast (mp3)
Length: 35 min
Reader: Steve Hockensmith and Mike Willtrout

The story: In the Wild West, cowboy Old Red is inspired by his brother Big Red's readings of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Old Red decides to take up "deductifyin'" on his own and begins to apply to local establishments of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. But who would hire a rough-around-the-edges cowboy as a detective?

This story combines some of my favorite genres: detective mysteries, westerns, and humor. If there had been a science fiction or fantasy component, I think it would have hit every genre button. While the mystery itself is neither mind-blowing nor particularly suspenseful, the story has a easy, homespun quality about it that recalls some of Mark Twain's writing, without the misanthropy. This is a fun, funny story that makes an appropriate homage to the influence of Sherlock Holmes on everyone who reads about him.

Rating: 7/10

The readers: This rather new-ish podcast presents mysteries published in the long-running Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. If this is your first introduction to the podcast or the magazine, I encourage you to check them out. The readers here do an excellent job of bringing these characters to life with their voices. There are a few errors and repeats that don't get edited out, but overall, the story is well-told and the recording well-done.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 10 hr, 45 min
Reader: Laurie Anne Walden

The book: On the frontier of Utah, Jane Withersteen, a member of the Mormon faith, owns a prosperous ranch. But as the Notorious B.I.G. once said, "mo' cattle, mo' problems" (or was that "moo cattle"?). The corrupt Mormon leader Elder Tull wants to force Jane to marry him to add to both his wealth and his harem. Her non-Mormon friend Bern Venters is being harassed and threatened. Then, an entire herd of her cattle is stolen, probably by the fearsome outlaw Oldring and his mysterious accomplice, the Masked Rider. Into all this turmoil rides Lassiter, a gunfighter and well-known killer of Mormons.

Like the other Zane Grey novel I've reviewed, The Lone Star Ranger, the novel consists of two main plots: the relationship of Jane and Lassiter and the exploits of Bern Venters against the Oldring gang. Unlike that other book, the multiple plots of this novel are intertwined and overlapping, creating a complex story. If you haven't read many westerns, this is a great introduction. Unlike later westerns, it maintains the conventions of the genre, but with more depth and interest than some of its pulpy brothers.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: Walden does not perform this work with multiple voices and strong emotion. Instead she reads clearly, smoothly, and simply. She lightly inflects her voice to carry the meaning of the story without overwhelming it. Her pleasant Southern accent fits in well with this novel. The recording is clear and well-made.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Giving it Away" by Cory Doctorow

Source: The Internet Archive (mp3)
Length: 9 min
Reader: Jan Rubak

The essay: This essay, originally published in Forbes magazine, was reprinted Doctorow's non-fiction collection Content. In it, Doctorow gives his own testimony on how he can make money by giving away some versions of his books for free.  Giving away ebook and fan-made audio versions of his books, Doctorow claims, actually increases the sales of the hard-copy versions of his books. Most of the people who download the books wouldn't have bought a copy anyway, he reasons, so only a small percentage are actually lost sales. Balancing these lost sales are the readers who get the free electronic copy, then either buy a hard copy themselves or recommend it to friends.

Does it work? Well, Doctorow has certainly become fairly successful, but I'm not completely sold on this working for every author on a large scale. I have no problem reading most of my books from a PDA or listening to amateur readings of books. In fact, between free (legal) downloads and borrowing from friends or the library, I rarely buy books any more these days. I do think that, for authors I've never heard of, I would be more likely to buy their books if I had previously read or listened to another work of theirs previously. I have, in the past, bought books that were sequels to books that were given away freely. This "take the first, pay for the next two" strategy, along with the free distribution of a few short works, such as short stories and novellas, would seem to me to be a great strategy for beginning authors trying to convince readers to support them with their money.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Jan Rubak speaks clearly and distinctly. In fact, this is sometimes too much of a good thing as his over-enunciation may annoy some people, while others might find it helpful. Other than the distinct consonants, there's really nothing to complain about in this reading. He has good recording setup with very little noise. After the initial stilted reading of the title and source, Rubak settles down into a tone consistent with Doctorow's casual style.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Free by Chris Anderson

Source: Wired magazine (Zipped mp3s)
Length: Approx. 6 hr
Reader: Chris Anderson

The book: Many of the online comments about Free: the Future of a Radical Price have completely missed the point of the book. In this book, Wired editor Chris Anderson is not arguing that that internet piracy is good or that everything should be free. Instead, Anderson calls attention to something you probably already know: giving away some things for free helps marketers to get the attention of paying customers.

What's new about this? Anderson points out that in the past, most free giveaways were limited by the cost of the object: a free sample size of detergent, a free toy in the cereal box, a free razor with expensive replacement blades. Now, with the extremely low cost of data storage and bandwidth, online providers can give away lots of free stuff with very little marginal cost. This allows them to give away content to millions of people while expecting only a small percent to ever buy anything. So, we can have free multiplayer online games where only a few people pay for more powerful equipment; free software where a few heavy users will pay for premium features; and a free audiobook for which a few people will pay for a hard copy.

My main criticism of this book is that it focuses on business success stories. I would've liked to hear a bit more about what happens when things go wrong: when does free not work and why? I also was disappointed that Anderson doesn't delve into some of the great non-profits give things away for free. Project Gutenberg, Wikipedia, the Internet Archive, and Librivox are some of the biggest producers of free content on the internet, yet they don't make one cent of profit.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: This is a professionally produced audiobook with high production values and low background noise. Anderson reads his own material with a breezy, conversational tone. The overall effect is that of being at a particularly slick business seminar, but without the sleep-inducing Power Point presentations.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling

Source: Librivox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 1 hr, 30 min
Reader: Phillipa

The story: In British-ruled India, the narrator, a correspondent for a colonial newspaper, meets a pair of con-men while riding on the train. Several months later, the two con-men show up at the newspaper office with a wild scheme. They plan to sneak into the border region of Afghanistan with 20 Martini rifles, raise small army of natives, and become kings of the region.

This story enjoyed great admiration when it was first published in the 1890's, but now it is difficult to read without recognizing the racist and colonialist overtones. The view of non-Europeans as so simple as to be swayed by a few Masonic rites and the authority of a white man is a bit difficult to buy. However, these are professional con artists and well-educated Europeans have been taken in by less. What really struck me was the colonialist goal of the story and how it compares to modern news. That one could, with modern weaponry and tactical know-how, train a local army to take over the Afghan mountains seems to be a persistent idea. In fact, I could see this story being adapted to modern times, with only a few adjustments.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Phillipa has a beautiful British accent. She reads with a steady pacing, slow enough to take in the words easily, though some people may wish for a faster read. Her dialect for the two con-artists' voices adds character to the recording, though at first I found it hard to understand. The recording is as crisp and clear as one could ask for.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

Source: Librivox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 12 hr, 24 min
Reader: Gesine

The book: In 1903, the German Empire had grown into a political and military power in Europe and was looking to expand its influence around the world. Britain, meanwhile, was confident in its separation from mainland Europe and its strong navy to defend itself from any enemies. Childers, an Englishman, wrote Riddle of the Sands to wake his countrymen up from their complacency and recognize the threat of the German navy. The story revolves around two Englishmen, based on Childers himself, who discover a German plot as they cruise in a small sailboat around the waters off the Baltic Sea coast.

Although the novel is a direct influence on later spy novels, I found much of the book not the exciting, suspense-filled yarn like those of John le Carre or Frederick Forsyth. Instead, the first part of the book reads like a travelogue of the Baltic coast mixed with a introduction to nautical terms. This part of the book highlights its difficulty as an audiobook; it relies heavily on the reader following the boat's progress on a map provided in the print editions. Later on in the novel, Childers delivers suspense and intrigue as the two friends creep through fog to spy on the German plans and find their earlier explorations pay off with their knowledge of high-tide paths through the treacherous estuaries.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Gesine speaks in a pleasant British alto. She reads in a measured pace, with only a little variation. It's not the type of performance that enhances the text, but in my experience, this type of no-frills reading fades allows the listener to pay attention to the words while the reader fades into the background. As I mention above, much of the book relies on reference to a set of maps. The LibriVox catalog page includes a link to these maps so listeners aren't completely left in the dark, but the constant referral back to maps may make this an unwelcome book for some listeners who prefer to listen untethered from a screen.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Best of Escape Pod

Speaking of Escape Pod, the blog Diabolical Plots has a list of "The Best of Escape Pod".  While you're there, also check out "The Best of Podcastle" for short fantasy fiction, and "The Best of Pseudopod" for short horror fiction.

"Sinner, Baker, Fablist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" by Eugie Foster

Source: Escape Pod, episode 214 (mp3)
Length: 57 min
Reader: Lawrence Santoro

The story: As always, I've selected a story connected to the audiobook review. This week, the connection is that the author of the audiobook, Mur Lafferty, has taken up the reins as editor of Escape Pod, the source of this week's story. For 5 years, Steve Eley did an admirable job producing, editing, and hosting the best fiction podcast anywhere (see Escape Pod 100 for a reason why). Every week, I would look forward not only to the story being presented that week, but also Steve's commentary on the story and bits about his own life. Steve, you will be missed. I'm glad you've left Escape Pod in such capable hands.

This story describes an alien race which uses high-tech masks to take on a different identity every day. Foster uses this culture to explore issues of identity and the faces we show in different situations. The story is the winner of the 2009 Nebula Award for best  novelette and is currently a nominee for the 2010 Hugo Award for best novelette. For those of you who don't keep up with these things, those are the two biggest science fiction awards.  I chose this story not only for its excellence, but also because the themes of a persona that is changed out for another can apply many of the people I "know" through the internet, such as Steve Eley. I realize I may never know the real person (if such a thing exists), but I've had a great time getting to be friends with that one particular persona. Thanks.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: Santoro sounds like a professional audiobook narrator. His voice is deep and clear, with a standard American accent. He speaks not as if he's reading, but as if he actually is the character. The tone, pacing and emotion of his voice are as close to perfect as I've heard. This is a great reading of an excellent story. As always, Escape Pod is introduced by a host, which this time is not Steve, but another host, Alistar. His recording set-up isn't as clear, so if you're new to Escape Pod, you may want to fast forward to about the 1:05 mark where the story begins.

Warning: This story contains explicit descriptions of sex and violence.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Playing for Keeps by Mur Lafferty

Source: (or zipped mp3's)
Length: Approx. 8 hrs
Reader: Mur Lafferty

The story: Keepsie Branson has a superpower. This alone should make her a superhero: fighting crime, wearing a costume, and waving to her adoring public. Right? Well, that's not exactly the case, for three major reasons. First, Keepsie lives in Seventh City, a metropolis with lots of people who have superpowers of one sort or another. Second, Keepie's superpower isn't all that useful when it comes to fighting crime. Third, the superheroes of Seventh City, the ones with actually useful superpowers, tend to be jerks. So, instead of donning a cape and tights, then going out to fight crime, Keepsie owns and manages a bar, one that caters to other people with mostly-useless superpowers.

What I enjoyed most about this book is that Keepsie and her friends are likable characters with real human flaws. The worldbuilding is interesting, but borrows heavily from other "superheroes aren't what the public sees" worlds like Watchmen and The Incredibles. The plot often relies on characters acting stupidly or impulsively, but this can be forgiven since real people do sometimes act in these ways. This is a fun, funny novel that isn't a great work of fiction, but is an entertaining story.

Rating: 6/10

The reader: This novel was originally podcast in installments, so there's a bit of talk, promotions and music that you may want to fast-forward through at the beginning and end of each episode. The audio is well-produced, with only a bit of volume-clipping at the top ranges. Lafferty is an excellent reader of her own work. She puts emotion into her characters' voices and changes her pacing and tone to improve the novel beyond what it would be in print.