Friday, January 28, 2011

"26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson

Source: Starship Sofa (mp3)
Length: 30 minutes
Reader: Diane Severson

The story: It took me a long time and a lot of searching to find my place in the world. I'm not sure I've "found myself" yet, but I feel much more comfortable in who I am and what I do for a living and for fun.

Finding a place in the world is what this short story is all about. Kij Johnson incorporates a travelling magic act that involves disappearing monkeys into a sweet romance about a woman letting go of her insecurities. It's way less corny than it sounds, mainly due to the sense of mystery surrounding the magic act. This is a great story to introduce literary fiction fans to modern speculative fiction.

Rating: 8 /10

Reader: Tony at Starship Sofa has built one of the best science fiction and fantasy podcasts in the English language. His narrators are usually top-notch and Severson is no exception. She has a lovely soprano voice, as is fitting for a professional musician, and she uses it well as the voice of the protagonist of the story. If you're not listening to Starship Sofa on a weekly basis, you're really missing some great fiction.

(Photo credit: Creative Commons Non-Commercial, Share Alike, by Courtenay via flickr)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Land that Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Source: Librivox (zipped mp3's or M4B file)
Length: 3 hr, 49 min
Reader: Ralph Snelson

The book: Set during World War I, this adventure novel starts with the sinking of an Allied ship by a German U-boat. Bowen Tyler, his dog, and the beautiful Miss Lys La Rue are rescued by a British tug, then captured by the same U-boat. Through a series of prisoner revolts, double-crosses and sabotage, the U-boat ends up at an uncharted island near Antarctica. Here, they are attacked by dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts.

Sounds like a good, old-fashioned adventure, right? Well, it is for the first two-thirds of the book. The final third consists of Burroughs dragging his characters to an unsatisfying conclusion. As in The Lost World, I expect some amount of pseudoscience in these types of early science fiction adventures, but Burroughs' mystical version of evolution on the island severely strained my suspended believability. Perhaps the narrative is more fully resolved in the sequels, but after finishing, I felt cheated rather than wanting to know more.

Rating: 6 / 10

The reader: Snelson has a deep voice with an American Southern accent. His reading and recording quality are amateur, but satisfactory. His characters have distinctive, but not silly, voices. Snelson's matter-of-fact narrating tone doesn't add much to the story, but neither does he ruin the novel by trying to over-embellish the action.

Friday, January 21, 2011

"The Travelling Musicians" by the Brothers Grimm

Source: LibriVox (mp3)
Length: 9 minutes
Reader:  Jedopi

The story: One of my favorite stories from the Brothers Grimm, I recently read a storybook version of "The Travelling Musicians" to my little niece, who also loved it. The German folktale is also known by the name of "The Musicians of Bremen" because the main characters, a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster, are travelling to that city in hopes of becoming musicians there. They don't make it to Bremen, but instead meet a gang of robbers and scare them away from the robber's den through their group and individual talents.

I think the reason why I like this story so much is because of the way the various animal characters work together. The image of them standing on each others' backs like a living matryoshka doll is so memorable, it's even featured in a statue in the modern city of Bremen. More than anything, though, I love the way that these animals, who were abandoned by their masters, are able to find a new life by becoming self-reliant.

Rating: 8 / 10

The reader: Jedopi is a storyteller in the classic sense. This story gives good readers a chance to show off their voices, and Jedopi rises to the occasion, with distinct donkey, dog, rooster and cat sounds. Unfortunately, the audio quality isn't as good as the reader's talents. The sound is clipped at the louder amplitudes, making the recording sound as if it's being played on a set of speakers turned up too high. I was able to mostly ignore the faults after a few minutes, but if you want another option, try Story Nory's version (mp3).

(picture Creative Commons Attribution/Non-commercial/Share Alike licence from J Whiteman)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Literary Book Blog Hop: What book did I not like?

Each week, the Literary Book Blog Hop asks a question and has writers from literary book blogs engage in a discussion around that question. This week's topic isLiterary Blog Hop

Discuss a work of literary merit that you hated when you were made to read it in school or university.  Why did you dislike it?

When I was in high school, we had to read Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy as summer reading. I hated everything about the book. The long, flowery passages in which Hardy describes the English countryside tried my patience. In contrast, the most important event in the book, Alec's rape of Tess, has only a passing allusion. Since I had switched to skimming the book to get through the long descriptions, I didn't even realize anything had happened until Tess had a baby. At this point, I became annoyed at the weak characters including the pitiful Tess, her useless eventual husband Angel, and her rapist-with-a-heart-of-gold Alec. I ended up skipping to the end and limping my way through class discussions.

These were my views at the time, but I wonder what I would think if I read it now. My tastes have changed. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have liked Crime and Punishment as a high schooler, and re-reading Red Badge of Courage changed my opinion of it from hate to a begrudging appreciation. On the other hand, reading the plot summary of Tess from Wikipedia didn't pique my interest in the least, so perhaps I'll pass on a re-read.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pirate Jack by Alessandro Cima

Source: Candlelight Stories
Length: Approx. 3.5 hours
Reader: Alessandro Cima

The book: Jack and his father build wooden boats in modern-day Florida. When a real estate developer sets his sights on their house and workshop, Jack needs a way to find money for his dad. He ends up being transported back in time to the age of Caribbean piracy and falls in with a gang of buccaneers to earn his pirate gold.

Pirate Jack is a fun, short novel with plenty of adventure. It's not for young children; there's violence and mild swearing, but older kids will find it interesting. As an adult, I really enjoyed the story, though I felt that characters at times did unlikely things simply because the plot demanded the character to dig in the sand, to give one early example.  Although the writing, specifically the ending, is sometimes clunky, I found this book to be an entertaining quick listen.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Cima is a blast as a reader. He gives his characters so many different accents and voices that part of the fun is listening to what he'll come up with for the next voice. The novel is split into individual files by chapter, some of them extremely short. This can cause some exasperation when you have to listen to the Candlelight Stories intro and copyright notice multiple times in quick succession, but then again, this book is being given away for free and the intro isn't terribly long.

Note: I originally downloaded this book from  As of this writing, that site is down and asking for donations. If you're able and if you've enjoyed free books from them before, please donate to their website.

Friday, January 14, 2011

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Source: (mp3 or m4a)
Length: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Reader: Alan Davis Drake

The story: This story, made famous by the movie starring Brad Pitt, follows the life of Benjamin Button, a man who for unknown reasons, lives his life in reverse. Benjamin is born as an old man and then, as time passes, becomes younger and younger. Fitzgerald skirts the practical questions of how or why Benjamin grows younger with time and instead focuses on the character.

The power of speculative fiction (a catchall term for fantasy, science fiction, alternate history, and any fiction that departs from reality) is that it allows us to see what could be in order to better understand what is. In this story, Benjamin's condition causes misunderstandings, both hilarious and tragic, that highlight how his apparent age affects both how people treat him and his own desires and needs. Even though Benjamin's actual situation is nothing I could remotely relate to, I could understand him because I myself have felt the frustration of viewing myself as younger than I actually am or conversely being young and wanting to be seen as mature.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: If you've been following this blog, you've already read my high opinion of Alan Davis Drake. His interpretations of this work of literature makes clear both the humor and sadness of Benjamin's life. He gives his characters distinct and appropriate voices that fill out their written descriptions and make them more three-dimensional. There are other recordings of this story, many of them quite good, but this one, I think, is my favorite.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Source: Librivox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 2 hr, 47 minutes
Reader: Elizabeth Klett

The book: During World War I, Captain Chris Baldry's homecoming is eagerly awaited by his wife Kitty and his cousin Jenny. A woman shows up at their door to tell them that Chris has returned, suffering from amnesia, and now he thinks that it is 1901. This woman, Margaret Grey, was engaged to him then and he thinks he is still in love with her. He has no memory of the war or of his wife.

The amnesia works as both a plot point and a symbol for the desire for the world to go back to the way it was before the war. I was less than impressed with the accuracy of the soldier's illness. Although psychogenic amnesia does sometimes happen following traumatic events, it does not usually include amnesia of events before the trauma, as far as I know. I liked the book fairly well as a work of fiction, but I wished that West would have accurately portrayed the more common experiences of post-traumatic stress disorder, as Dorothy Sayers does in her books.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Elizabeth Klett is a marvelous reader, one of the LibriVox'ers who could be a professional reader. Her voice during the Librivox disclaimer and chapter headings is a standard American accent, but when she narrates the book, told from the perspective of Chris's cousin Jenny, her voice transforms into a beautiful upper-class English accent. She brings this narration alive with the skill of an actor, making Jenny a distinct and deep character.  I couldn't imagine any other recording of this book, at any price.

(This review was entered for a Book Review Wednesday contest at Cym Lowell's blog)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Some other audiobook challenges

Besides the "52 Free Audiobooks in 2011" list here, there's a few other audiobook listening challenges out on the web
    Bewitched Bookworms
  • "Whisper Stories in My Ear" at Bewitched Bookworms. Read twelve audiobooks in the year and enter contests for monthly prizes.
  • 2011 Audiobooks Challenge at Theresa's Reading Corner. Chose a level and read 3, 6, 12, or 20 audiobooks in a year.
  • There's still a few books open in the 5th Annual SFFaudio Challenge. In this one, you record rather than listen to any of the books from a list of science fiction, fantasy, or noir novels in the public domain. Winners get their choice of a selection of audiobooks as a prize.
I'm joining the Whisper Stories in My Ear and the 2011 Audiobooks challenge. As you can guess, it's no big deal for me to listen to over 12 audiobooks in the course of a year. I'm not doing the SFFaudio Challenge - I've recorded a few chapters for LibriVox before, but recording books is tough and takes a lot of time! I have so much respect for the volunteers at LibriVox. I may record a few more chapters or short stories this summer when I have more time, but for now I'll have to stick to listening and reviewing.

Literary Book Blog Hop: How did I get into literature?

Literary Blog Hop
Every week the Literary Book Blog Hop, hosted by the Blue Bookcase, asks participants to answer a question, then read other participants' responses. Here's this week's question:

How did you find your way to reading literary fiction and nonfiction?

You may have noticed that many of the books I tend to review are classics. This is mainly due to the fact that I'm limited to free audiobooks for this blog, and most of the free audiobooks are novels that have fallen into the public domain and then recorded by LibriVox or other organisations. But  I wouldn't be reviewing these classics at all if I didn't enjoy reading them.

I suppose my love of literary fiction originates with my lists. If I see a list of book suggestions, be it an assigned reading list for a class or a list of best books of 2011 posted at the library, I want to be able to check them off. The other big influence on my love of literature comes from the classes I've taken in high school and college. My teachers in these classes taught me how to investigate a book, rather than just be a passive observer. This approach appeals to my inquisitive nature and helps me to cut through difficult language to get to the author's intent.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

52 free audiobooks to read in 2011

It's the beginning of the year; time to make New Year's resolutions! I've seen many fellow book bloggers tackling some impressive lists of books, like the dubious 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (from a book by Peter Baxter) and the somewhat better 1000 Books Everyone Must Read from the Guardian newspaper.

 So on a lark (and with nothing better to publish this week), I've come up with a list of my own: 52 Free Audiobooks and Short Stories You May or May Not Want to Read in 2011. I tried to keep all selections under 10 hours and include plenty of diversity in terms of authors, narrators, source websites, and age of the books. I've broken it into sections of five books from the same genre plus a dozen assorted short stories. I don't seriously expect anyone to complete this list, but if you do, let me know and I'll feature you in a post.