Friday, December 31, 2010

"Firstborn" by Brandon Sanderson

Source: Tor.com (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

Source: 12byzantinerulers.com
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"