Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s or M4B)
Length: 5 hr, 2 min
Reader: Meredith Hughes

The book: In the winter of 1892, Rudyard Kipling was living in a small cottage in Vermont, the homeland of his new bride.  In the midst of caring for his first child, born that winter, he must have been thinking about childrens' stories and his own childhood in British India. He published a collection of stories, mostly set in India, in 1894 as The Jungle Book.

The first few stories deal with Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves in the Indian jungle. As he grows, Mowgli is taught the ways of the jungle by the wolf Akela, the panther Bagheera and the bear Baloo while fighting for survival against the tiger Shere Khan and the monkeys of the Bandor Log. Other memorable stories in the book include the brave mongoose Riki-Tiki-Tavi's fight against the cobra and the coming of age story set among the elephant-drivers in "Toomai of the Elephants".

I was less enthralled by the two stories not set in the jungle, "The White Seal" and "His Majesty's Servants".  Apart from these two, the stories are entertaining and gently didactic, though more violent and harsh than most childrens' stories are nowadays. Kipling, I think, would argue that children can safely be exposed to some level of harshness, since it is their introduction to the Laws of the Jungle and the how the world works.

Rating: 8 /10

The reader: Hughes has a youthful-sounding American accent that is bright and cheery without being overwhelmingly saccharine. She doesn't perform extreme voices for the animal characters, but does inflect her voice to indicate dialogue.  Her reading reminds me of a bedside reading of a favorite book for a child: friendly, warm, and fun.

(Entered in Cym Lowell's Book Review Party Wednesday. Click the link to see more book reviews.)

Friday, June 24, 2011

"Queen of the Black Coast" by Robert E. Howard

Source: SFFaudio podcast (mp3)
Length: 1 hr, 20 min
Reader: Gary Kobler

The story: Long before the upcoming Conan the Barbarian movie or even the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic, Robert E. Howard created the character of Conan. This original Conan was an inversion of the classic primal vs. civilized conflict. While most stories champion civilization over red-toothed nature, Howard saw in the Wall Street collapses of his time that civilization could be the corrupt one and savagery be more noble. Conan is unashamedly barbaric in his drinking, womanizing, and violence, but the civilizations he is pitted against have rotted from their own decadence. Conan, at least, is strong enough to stand by his own warrior ethic.

In this classic story, Conan escapes a courtroom where he's asked to go against this personal code. He joins up with a merchant headed for Kush, who is overhauled by pirates. The notorious and beautiful pirate captain Belit lusts after Conan and spares his life. Together, they journey up a river to loot the treasures of a fallen empire and learn the story of its decay. Even if you're not a fan of medieval fantasy, this is a great introduction to the philosophy of Conan.

Note: This story contains adult themes and may not be suitable for children.

Rating: 8 / 10

The reader: Kobler is a professional narrator who performs this story for the Audio Realms edition of People of the Dark: The Weird Works of R.E. Howard Vol 2. Thanks go out to the publisher and SFFaudio for making this full-length story available for free. Kobler does an excellent job of capturing the excitement and suspense of Howard's writing. His voicing of Conan is a bit cartoonish, but it fits the pulpy nature of the hero. One of the weaknesses of Howard's writing is his tendency to use stereotypes for minor characters; this is reflected in Kobler's broad accents for the supporting cast. The recording itself is well-produced and professionally made.

(Image copyright Marvel Comics. Incidental use for criticism falls under the Fair Use provision.)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sync is giving away free audiobooks

Like last summer, Sync is giving away free audiobooks this summer. Each week, they're offering a free contemporary YA fiction audiobook and a free classic from common assigned summer reading lists.

There are a few caveats: first you have to use OverdDrive media console (not available for all operating systems) to download the files. I was able to burn the audiobook that I downloaded to CD to listen to in my car, but it's not clear if all books will be burnable. Second, each audiobook is only available for download for one week, though the files do not expire once you download. The schedule of release dates is available after the jump. Third, you have to give a valid email address.

To download the first two books, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater and Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, go to Sync and follow the directions.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Literary Book Blog Hop

Literary Blog HopThe Literary Blog Hop brings together blogs that post on novels with literary qualities. Though the last two novels I've posted on have been summer books, before those two I posted on The Time Machine and "Rappacinni's Daughter", so hopefully my Literature Club card hasn't been revoked.

This week's question for the blog hop is

Should literature have a social, political, or any other type of agenda? Does having a clear agenda enhance or detract from its literary value?

My first answer is that every type of writing has some sort of agenda, even if it's simply an agenda to entertain. I think what the question is asking, though, is about books with an overt agenda, that frame the raft trip down the Mississippi to tell you how people should get along no matter what their skin color.  I think the presence of such an agenda can be distracting from the literary value, but it depends on the skill of the author.

Let's take the example of two books that deal with a similar agenda: the denigration of the industrial working class in the early 1900's. In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair tells what could be a touching story of hardship in the meatpacking factories of Chicago, but clumsily overdoes the pathos. The plight of the workers and the Socialism presented as the savior are so extreme as to be cartoonish.

In Howards End, on the other hand, the working class people are portrayed as less desperate, the upper class people as less villainous and the  solution as promoting understanding between the two classes, rather than a political panacea. Even this would come across as weak and idealistic if not for Forster's great skill with prose. Despite having an agenda, his work is more literary than Sinclair's not because of the agenda, but the writing in which he expresses it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Shadowmagic by John Lenahan

Source: Podiobooks (download the first chapter)
Length: Approx. 7 hours
Reader: John Lenahan

The book: When 18 year old Connor is visited by an unexpected guest, he learns that his father is not an eccentric professor, but a prince from a magical kingdom and his mother is a witch who practices the forbidden sorcery of Shadowmagic. The premise for the book is the well-worn magical coming of age story, like a Celtic mythology version of Percy Jackson.  Like Percy Jackson, Connor is full of teenage quips and a tendency to get himself into trouble.

The plot moves forward in bursts, with plenty of action at the beginning and ends of chapters, interspersed with exposition. I found the characters uninteresting, though the setting and magic were fascinating. In reviewing this, I realize that I'm not part of the target audience of young adults, so what seems immature and trite to me may be awesome for younger readers. Lenahan's writing may be unpolished, but this is still an amusing book for fans of young adult fantasy fiction.

Rating: 6 /10

The reader: Lenahan is a talented reader. He voices his book with enthusiasm that makes it much more enjoyable than the actual story by itself. He doesn't overdo himself with difficult Irish accents, but stays within his range. The podcast is introduced by an upbeat Celtic reel that reflects the subject and tone of the book. The recording is well-produced with excellent sound quality.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Book blogger hop

Book Blogger HopEvery week the Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Crazy for Books, asks a question, then encourages book blogger to see what others have written on the same subject. This week's question is

"How many books are currently on your To-Be-Read (TBR) pile?"

For me, the answer to this question depends on what you mean by a TBR pile. I have a list of over 400 books that I'd like to read. These are usually books I have heard about from others or seen on lists of book recommendations and have caught my interest. Having such a big list is useful, since it allows me to plan what I'll read next. When I'm at a large used bookstore or library, I no longer disappointed when my first choice isn't available, since I have plenty of other books to read.

I have a much smaller pile of books that are actually present in one way or another, whether that be audiobooks and ebooks that I've downloaded, but haven't started on yet or actual physical books on my shelves that I plan to read. I don't keep an actual list of these books, but I estimate it to be around twenty books. I like to have a few options on my phone to listen to or read when I'm stuck in a waiting room, and I always have some audiobook ready for the car. The actual physical pile of books is only two to three books sitting on my nightstand, waiting to be read.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Justice Delayed" by Decoder Ring Theatre

Source: Decoder Ring Theatre (mp3)
Length: 25 minutes
Reader: Full cast

The story: Decoder Ring Theatre produces a modern take on old-time-style radio with their great superhero serial The Red Panda and their private detective series Black Jack Justice. The short radio plays are backed by music and sound effects in a way that draws listeners into the stories. They feature exciting plots, snappy dialogue and usually nothing more objectional than comic-book violence and mild innuendo.

This story, one from the first season, has a plot that was to my mind predictable, but enjoyable nonetheless. The main joy in listening to these stories is from the banter between Jack Justice and his business partner, Trixie Dixon, Girl Detective. These witty insults and sly flirtations recall the better writing from the Golden Age of pulp detective writing and writers like Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Though the characters are not fully developed here, as the series goes along, they become deeper and more interesting. With forty-two episodes over six seasons, there's plenty of time to get to know these characters and hours of entertaining listening.

Rating: 8 / 10

The readers: Christopher Mott, as Jack, is perfect in his role as a hard-boiled detective. He's got a no-nonsense declamatory style with the right doses of hard-boiled and human. As Trixie, Andrea Lyons is sassy and smart. She's got a Chicago-ish accent, though the exact name of the city where the action takes place is never mentioned. The other characters are well-acted, particularly Detective Nick Sabin, who becomes a recurring character in the series. The music adds to drama and fits in well, giving the right amount of atmosphere without overdoing it. The sound effects likewise are professionally done and make the production a polished product.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fantomas by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s or M4B)
Length: 10 hrs, 11 min
Reader: Alan Winterrowd

The book: Literature is full of great detectives; less so with great criminals. The criminal masterminds that take center stage in novels are often either effeminate plotters or crooks-with-a-heart-of-gold types. Fantômas is the rare criminal genius with the brawn and cold-heartedness to carry out gruesome murders, yet the charm to seduce a princess as he robs her. Close on his heels is the detective Juve of the Paris police, a master of disguise with the intelligence to almost, but not quite, catch up with Fantômas.

In France, Fantômas stars in over 40 books by Allain and Souvestre; the authors' system of working together on the plot, then dividing the writing of the chapters led to this astounding productivity. Fantômas's criminal exploits and his pursuit by Juve make for an entertaining read, but the characters do not have the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes nor the humor of Arsene Lupin.  Although the characters are not so deep, the plot twists so much that even when I thought I knew the identity of Fantômas, there were still several more surprises. Fantômas belongs in the middle ground between the pulps and the great classics of the crime genre.

Rating: 7 / 10

Reader: Allan Winterrowd has a strong American baritone that does not distract from the story. He varies his tone slightly for the various characters, without going so far as to perform voices. As far as I could tell, he pronounces the French place-names correctly, though I'm no expert in French. Winterrowd speaks in a steady pace that allows the listener to keep up. The recording itself is well-done and clear.

(Entered in Cym Lowell's Book Review Party Wednesday. Visit the link for reviews of other books.)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Free Listens on Vacation

I'll be taking a two week break from posting new reviews while I'm on vacation. So, no reviews this week, and no reviews next week. In the meantime, check out these other audiobook review blogs: