Friday, June 8, 2012

"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" by Robert Browning

SourceLibriVox (mp3)
Length: 13 minutes
Reader: Algy Pug

The poem: In The White Company, Conan Doyle mentions the great knight Roland as the company travels from France into Spain through the Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees Mountains. Roland, a knight of King Charlemange, died while holding the rearguard in a battle in the pass, made famous by the French epic poem The Song of Roland.

This poem, composed hundreds of years later, follows a legendary earlier quest by Roland to the Dark Tower. Browning describes a desolate landscape full of imagery of death, reminding him of other knights who have failed this quest. Roland himself holds little hope of himself succeeding at finding the Dark Tower, but continues on anyway. Browning, perhaps, is commenting on the futility of life as well as our duty to keep living as best we can. The depressing nightmarish land described in the poem have been a inspiration to other writers, notably Steven King's The Dark Tower series and Gordon R. Dickenson's Childe Cycle.

Rating: 8 /10

The reader: Pug does an adequate job here reading a very difficult poem. He has a strong Australian accent, but it did not inhibit my understanding of the words. I did have trouble following the poem due to its complexity and had to follow along by reading the text. Each stanza heading (1, 2, 3, 4) is read out loud, which, although faithful to the text, is somewhat distracting. Though Pug's reading does little to aid the interpretation of the poem, his neutral tone is probably best for those wishing to find their own sense of meaning.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The White Company by Arthur Conan Doyle

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 14 hr, 43 min
Reader: Clive Catterall

The book: Although known now as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle considered The White Company and his other historical fiction as his best work. The title refers to an English mercenary band of archers during the Hundred Years' War. The book follows the adventures of two men from very different parts of the feudal hierarchy: Alleyne, a second son of a minor nobleman who after being raised in a abbey, goes off to find his fortune and John, a massively strong peasant who has been kicked out of the same abbey for flirting and drinking. They both fall in with Aylward, an enthusiastic recruiter for the White Company.

The story takes a long time in getting started, with plenty of descriptions of everyday life in the 1300s before the action gets going. Perhaps Conan Doyle was trying to set up a connection with the characters before thrusting them into danger, but they never seemed more than two-dimentional to me. The action set pieces are quite exciting and worth the wait. Although this was a fun book, I'd have to disagree with Conan Doyle and go with the Sherlock Holmes books as his greatest legacy.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: Catterall's narration is outstanding. He's a gifted narrator, using his tone of voice and pacing to play up all the action and humor that's in the text. His character voices are particularly well thought out. Sam Aylward's rolling baritone perfectly brings out the bravado of the old soldier. This is a top-notch recording. I'll be looking forward to hearing more of Catterall's work soon.

Friday, May 18, 2012

"The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains" by Neil Gaiman

Source: Starship Sofa (mp3)
Length: 54 min (starts at 12 min in of a 1.5 hr episode)
Reader: Richie Smith

The story: I was a bit disappointed by this story.  Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors. His works, from the Sandman comics, to American Gods, to The Graveyard Book, are filled with mind-blowing ideas and a personality that is both grotesquely horrific and charmingly idealistic. When I heard that he had a story on StarShip Sofa AND the story had won the Locus Poll Award for Best Novellette, I had high expectations.

Those expectations were not met, but this is still a good story. It starts out simply: A man, small in stature, has lost a daughter. He seeks a guide to take him to the Misty Isle where there is legendary treasure in a cave. Along the way, secrets about both the man and his guide come to the surface, leading to a much more dangerous journey than it would first appear to be. The journey format seems to drag the story out longer than it should to an ending which is predicable, but satisfying. This is one of Gaiman's less memorable stories, but is a Gaiman  story and that's quality enough.

Rating: 7 /10

The reader: Richie Smith is a superb reader for this story. He has a clear voice that's easily understood. There's not much emotion in his voice, but that may be because this story is rather understated. The recording is well produced. Besides the main story, the podcast contains some additional commentary on science fiction and a old radio play. Tony, the host of Starship Sofa, has put together an excellent podcast. If it's not on your weekly listening list already, it should be.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Crown Conspiracy by Michael J. Sullivan

Source: Podiobooks
Length: Approx. 9 hrs
Reader: Nathan Lowell

The book: Literature that is innovative can be challenging and mind-changing. With the long days of  summer approaching, though, a good story with familiar elements is just as welcome. The Crown Conspiracy liberally borrows from its predecessors in the medieval fantasy genre, but lack of originality can be forgiven when the tale is told well.

The main characters here are a pair of hear-of-gold thieves distinctly reminiscent of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.  The heroes get themselves into trouble through a obvious set-up and set about trying to escape from captivity and avoid their pursuers. There are some plot twists that aren't terribly surprising for anyone familiar with the genre, but the story is told with such humor and a sense of adventure that these tropes feel natural. The writing alternates between exciting set-pieces and long exposition conversations as the author fleshes out his fantasy world. This short novel is the first in a series of six, so there are some loose ends, but the book itself winds up to a satisfying conclusion.

Rating: 8 /10

The reader: As I stated in a previous review of his own book, Lowell is a gifted reader. The recording is professionally produced with appropriate music for the beginning and end of each segment, along with shorter bits of music for scene changes. If I have any complaints, it's in Lowell's voices for his characters. I found it hard to distinguish between the voices, and the uneven distributions of British accents added to the confusion. Overall, though, this was an excellent recording.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Free audiobooks from Sync return

Just like last summer, Sync Audio is giving away free audiobooks all summer. Every week from June 14 to August 22, two audiobooks will be available for free download. One of the books each week is a young adult novel, the other a classic. Downloads are in the Overdrive format, so you'll need to get that free program, but once they're downloaded, the files do not expire.  Find the full list of books by clicking below

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"The Wine Breath" by John McGahern

Source: The New Yorker Fiction Podcast (mp3)
Length: 39 minutes
Reader: Yiyun Li

The story: Each year, The Reading Life hosts Irish Short Story week during the week of Saint Patrick's Day. Last year, I listened to stories from two familiar Irish writers, "The Dead" by James Joyce and "My Oedipus Complex" by Frank O'Connor. This year, I'm branching out to an Irish writer I had never encountered before, John McGahern.

This story is a quiet, wistful reflection on the paths a life can take as it travels toward the inevitable death. These types of stories with almost no plot don't usually appeal to me. However, McGahern keeps the story interesting by opening new insights into the life of his main character, a priest, as the narrative jumps from the present to the priest's memories. The absence of any clear plot reinforces the seeming aimlessness of the priest's life, yet the fact that there is a plot, hidden beneath flashbacks and descriptions, hints that we can impose a meaning on our lives whether or not any true meaning exists.

Rating: 8 /10

The reader: Li has a noticeable Chinese accent which can make it difficult to understand individual words. Since I routinely speak with native Chinese speakers on a daily basis, I did not find the accent distracting, but others may dislike this reading. Avoiding this story for the accent alone would be unfortunate, since it's a quite good story and Li otherwise does a decent job of reading it. The conversation with fiction editor Deborah Treisman opened up new ideas for me about the story and inspired me to listen to it a second time.

(photo by bripod via flickr. Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst

Source: Miette's Bedtime Story Podcast (mp3)
Length: 39 minutes
Reader: Miette

The story: When I first read this short story in early high school, it was presented as sort of an "Introduction to Symbolism" text. I don't know how at the time I thought the symbolism obtuse, when reading it again it seems so explicitly stated. Having just read and enjoyed Moby Dick, it's interesting to see how far I've come in my lifetime as a reader.

The story itself is presented as a childhood memory. Hurst contrasts the idyllic nostalgia of the relationship between him and his little brother Doodle with the darker undertones of the story. These causally mentioned themes - the desire to kill Doodle as a baby, the cruelty that grows out of the narrator's pride, and the background of the carnage of World War I - combine with other more subtle, morbid clues to make a story that's worth rereading.

Rating: 8 / 10

The reader: Miette is a charming reader. She's by no means perfect - her reading at two seperate times is hilariously interrupted by a tweeting bird and a chiming tone - but this, and her embarrassed "Sorry" just adds to the charm. She reads slowly, but with meaningful inflection. I find her accent lovely, but some people may have trouble understanding a few words. As the title of the podcast suggests, this is not a professional reading, but the kind of intimate storytelling you would expect at your bedside.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Source: LibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 24 hr, 38 min
Reader: Stewart Wills

The book: Moby Dick. For years this was a book that I didn't feel ready to tackle. Of course, I knew the hype of it being the Greatest American Book Ever Written, but I'm often disappointed by hype and wary of nineteenth century literary prose. I'd heard about the long passages that dealt entirely with whaling practices or the whiteness of the whale. I'd also run into innumerable references to it in other works, which is usually a cosmic sign from the Literary Gods that I should read a particular book. Like the White Whale itself, this book held both fear and fascination for me.

So, when I started actually reading it, I was surprised how much I liked it. The legendary Ishmael I had heard so many jokes about is a funny, sarcastic guy himself. The view of the world is surprisingly enlightened for its time, simultaneously taking part in and subverting the view of non-Europeans as savages.The parts on whale anatomy are there, sure enough, but as a biologist, I found that I actually enjoyed them. My fears relieved I was able to get into the book.

What a book! Peeking at an annotated copy in the library, I begin to realize how many symbolic and historical references I was missing. Even so, I caught many of the Biblical and literary allusions Melville was throwing out. Catching these morsels made the reading like an obscure game - great fun for people who can play, but baffling if you don't know the rules. I don't think this is a book that I would have liked as a high schooler, and I'm glad my English teacher never assigned it. This is a book that rewards a mature mind with the background of years of reading.

Rating: 9/10

The reader: Like with many long audiobooks, this is one I read part as an ebook and listened to part as an audiobook. As I went along, I found myself more and more listening to Steward Wills excellent narration and going back to the printed text only to reread parts I didn't fully understand. Wills is a great narrator for such a complex book. He has a patience to his pace without being so slow as to make the story boring. His characterizations of the different sailors are magnificent, especially important in the chapters written as stage directions. I'm sure there are some pretty high-priced versions of Moby Dick read by famous people, but you couldn't do much better than this free production.

Entered in Cym Lowell's Book Review Part Wednesday. Follow the link for more book review blogs,

Monday, January 16, 2012

Happy New Year

I've been meaning to post here, but since the new semester started, things have been busy and don't show signs of letting up. Therefore, I'll probably be posting much less on Free Listens. You'll still see an occasional review, but I'll not be posting every week like in months past.