Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Merry Christmas

I'll not be posting any new reviews for the next few weeks while I'm on vacation for the Christmas and New Years' holidays. Until then, check out these seasonal free audiobooks and stories from years past:

"The Dead" by James Joyce
"Twas the Night Before Christmas" by Clement C. Moore
"A Kidnapped Santa Claus" by L. Frank Baum
"The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry
"A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens

Friday, December 16, 2011

"Markheim" by Robert Louis Stevenson

Source: LibriVox (mp3)
Length: 44 minutes
Reader: William Coon

The story: In desperate need of money on Christmas Day, Markheim approaches a local pawnbroker.  Markheim's evil intentions go beyond just selling stolen goods. His deeds, however secretive, do not go unnoticed. A touch of the supernatural enters into the story, bringing the tale beyond the usual trappings of a dark crime story and into a discussion of the nature of evil and the powers of free will.

This story strongly reminded me of Crime and Punishment (previously reviewed) with both its general outline and its themes. The major difference is  the addition of the supernatural into the story. This addition allows Stevenson to open up the story into the future and past, but also into the soul of Markheim and investigate the essence of his being. With only a fraction of the length of Dostoevsky's novel, Stevenson is able to visit many of the same themes.

Rating: 8 / 10

The Reader: Coon is a superb reader. He builds the tension of this story so that the listener feels the growing psychological horror of the crime. Even though this recording dates to the early days of LibriVox, Coon's recording is clear and well-made.

photo by wallg via flickr. Creative Commons by attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Wondersmith by Fitz-James O'Brien

Source: Maria Lectrix (Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 )
Length: 1 hr, 32 min
Reader: Maureen O'Brien

The story: On a back street of 19th century New York stands an odd shop labeled simply "Wondersmith." No one is quite sure what is sold there, though beautiful toy figures are arranged in the shop window. Deep within the Wondersmith store, a secret meeting is held shortly before Christmas to devise a plan to use children's gifts to advance a nefarious plot.

"The Wondersmith" is the type of racist and formulaic tale that sold lurid dime novels in the mid 1800s. The villains are evil gypsies intent on murdering Christian children. The heroine is perfect and noble as she is beautiful. Yet, despite these tropes, the story is exciting and chilling. It's easy to see why such stories sold so well to a public in search of Christmas entertainment.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: As the host of the Maria Lectrix podcast, Maureen O'Brien has years of experience in telling stories. Her podcast is focused on Catholic religion, but she also reads stories and books only tangentially related to religion. The archive features large number of stories, novels and religious nonfiction. All this experience shows in her reading of this story. She has a warm, expressive voice that she modulates for the different characters. She slightly alters the text of the story to replace a misused word, but otherwise the story is complete and unabridged.

photo by geekygirlnyc via flickr. Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"The Happy Prince" by Oscar Wilde

Source: Spoken Alexandria (mp3)
Length: 25 min
Reader: Alex Wilson

The story: Children's stories are a convenient framework to present a fable about life in the world of adults. This is what Oscar Wilde does in this famous short story. Like Hard Times, "The Happy Prince" presents the despair of poverty and greed of the rich.

The Prince of the title is a statue of a man who was wealthy in life, but now sees the sadness of the poor from the vantage point of his pedestal. His companion is a sparrow who has delayed in flying south with the rest of his flock and decides to help the prince to alleviate the suffering of the people of the city. The story has the melancholy feel of Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree".

Would this be a good story for modern children? Perhaps. Depressing stories seem to have fallen out of favor recently as parents try to shelter their children against a depressing world, but the lessons of empathy for others is one that everyone, both children and adults, need to learn.

Rating: 8 / 10

The reader: Wilson is an outstanding performer of short stories. He voices the creatures and people of this story with such great characterizations that they almost become real. The voice of the birds is an especially expressive one. The recording is superbly engineered and provided in several formats other than the mp3 directly linked above.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Source: Librivox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 12 hr
Readers: narrated by Bob Neufeild, voiced by many

The book: The lower classes do all the work and have little to show for it, while the rich get richer. Charles Dickens saw the same problems 150 years ago that people are protesting today. Like Upton Sinclair in The Jungle (previously reviewed), Dickens blends fiction and social activism in his attack on industrialization and the plight of the working class.

Unlike Sinclair's muckraking style, Dickens lacks authenticity in his novel. At the time of writing this book, Dickens was already a well-known writer, so it's unlikely that his sources were anything better than second-hand accounts of life in the factories. Instead of realism, Dickens makes his industrialists into blatant cartoons, bluntly criticizing what he did not know. Still, the novel is readable for Dickens' sense of humor and his trademark pathos. I just wish he had taken his approach more seriously and shown the real pathos in the working man's life.

Rating: 6 / 10

The readers: This book is presented as a dramatic reading, somewhere between a play and a narration. None of Dickens' words have been changed (the "he said"s are even still there), but different readers play each part. This can be a great help in keeping track of who is who, but it gets a bit disconcerting to hear all the different voices, especially since they have different accents and recording equipment. The parts are done very well, for the most part, and edited together nicely. Bob Neufield, as the narrator, does most of the speaking. The main parts are all well-acted, but I won't spend time naming names. This is an interesting way to present an audiobook and, for the most part, it works.

(Entered in Cym Lowell's Book Review Wednesday. Follow the link to read reviews of other books)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

"Second Variety" by Phillip K. Dick

Source: Librivox (Part 1 | Part 2)
Length: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Reader: Greg Margarite

The story: In case you haven't noticed, I usually try to pair the stories I review with the book I've reviewed earlier in the week. I like the way that interesting comparisons sometimes result from the juxtaposition of two narratives. This week, the book was a science fiction novel that is no longer plausible because the basis in scientific fact has been overturned. In this science fiction story, the science aspect is still plausible, but the political situation it depicts is history.

In the story, a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the U.N. has turned Earth into a battlefield. American scientists left robots called "claws" to battle the Soviets, then fled Earth to the moonbase. When a U.N. General returns to Earth to negotiate a peace treaty, he discovers what the Russians already know -- that the robots have modified themselves into a human form to better trap unsuspecting soldiers. No one can be trusted - anyone could be a robot in disguise.

If you feel you've heard this before, it's because Dick's story has become hugely influencial in science fiction. The 1995 film Screamer's was directly based off the story. More significantly, both The Terminator and the newer version of Battlestar Galactica have elements of Dick's paranoid thriller.
Rating: 8 /10

The reader: I've reviewed Margarite's readings before on this blog, including his tendency to give a William Shatner-like delivery. The more I listen to him, though, the more I like him. It's a good thing that I 've grown to love his readings, since he has an extensive catalogue of science fiction stories that he's narrated for LibriVox.