Friday 23 July 2004
Locus Listens to Audio:
In this third installment of the book-hopping adventures of literary detective Thursday Next (following The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book), Thursday goes on maternity leave from SpecOps and takes up residence in the Well of Lost Plots (the home of unpublished novels), inside a dreadful murder mystery called Caversham Heights. This is accomplished by means of Jurisfiction's Character Exchange Program, which allows characters to take vacations from their roles, allowing other characters, or in this case, a real person, to take his or her place. However, all is not well in the Well: with the impending launch of UltraWord, the new Book Operating System, there are plenty of shady dealings going on, but fortunately for us and for the residents of BookWorld Thursday Next is on the case.
Elizabeth Sastre's overall performance is quite good she does an excellent job with the primary narration of the tale (told from Thursday's point of view); those passages are delightful, as are most of the character voices. However, there are a few repeated (but mercifully brief) annoyances that mar an otherwise fine reading. Sastre's Cat-formerly-known-as-Cheshire is at best bearable, at worst annoying; so can be said of the voices of the three witches from MacBeth, though "grating" and "wince-inducing" might be more accurate. One highlight of the audio edition, however, was hearing the scenes in which the "mispeling vyrus" strikes; it provides for some tricky pronunciations that are sure to amuse. So, overall I was quite satisfied with this audio production, and would gladly forego reading the hardcopy in favor of listening to another entry in this series.
Though originally published in 1975, King's second novel, ‘Salem's Lot, has not been available as an audiobook until now, but I can assure you, it was well worth the wait. Novelist Ben Mears returns to his hometown of ‘Salem's Lot hoping to put to rest some demons and to do a little work on his next book. Though at first glance the town still appears to be the sleepy little burg he remembers, an implacable, omnipresent evil seeps into the Lot like a tainted water supply and poisons the town's residents. When a young boy is mysteriously killed, the investigation into his death and subsequent undeath leads Ben to a pair of dark strangers who have taken up residence in the Marsten House the scene of a long-ago murder-suicide and the source of Ben's nightmarish childhood trauma. Left with many questions, few answers, and no other options, Ben gathers together a diverse group of like-minded companions and sets out to put an end to the malevolent force plaguing the Lot.
Like a good film director, narrator Ron McLarty understands that what's terrifying about the horror genre is not always what's on the surface, and he successfully conveys the creepy atmospheric dread of King's tale with foreboding and an underlying warmth that fits the text perfectly. He has a pleasant throaty timbre to his speech and does a fine job altering the tone of his voice to distinguish between narration and character speech, all very subtly, never going over-the-top. His performance is never a distraction and does not draw attention to itself; instead, he simply, beautifully, brings this classic to life. King's prose and plotting, as always, shine, and translate well into an enjoyable listening experience.
Pattern Recognition is a bit of a departure for William Gibson, in that it takes place in the present day rather than the future, but it contains his usual sterling prose and his always-provocative insights into technology and what it means to be human thus successfully capturing what it is that makes a Gibson novel essentially Gibsonian.
Cayce Pollard is a "coolhunter," a freelance market researcher who is paid to evaluate corporate logos, advertising campaigns, and to predict what the next big thing will be. The novel revolves around Cayce's obsession: "The Footage", a collection of movie clips being released on the Internet by unknown filmmakers. But Cayce's obsession and her work collide when she is hired by advertising magnate Hubertus Bigend to find the people responsible for releasing the footage. Her quest to uncover the filmmakers takes her all over the world, from London, to Tokyo, to Moscow, and thrusts her into a world of espionage and deception, leading to an unexpected connection to her father, who has been missing since 9/11.
Though Shelly Frasier's reading voice is pleasant enough, I was never fully engaged by her performance; I frequently found my thoughts drifting, forcing me to do a lot of rewinding the bane of any audiobook production. Also problematic were some of Ms. Frasier's accents though she shifts seamlessly between American and British English, I thought the voice for Dorotea Benedetti sounded more Indian than Italian. There are other examples, too numerous to mention here, but overall I found most of the dialects employed in her reading detracted from rather than enhanced my listening experience. If I could read Pattern Recognition again for the first time, I think I'd opt for the dead-tree edition.
In my first foray into the adventures of Pip and Flinx (the eighth novel in the series), the titular Flinx is disturbed by dreams of a great evil looming beyond the Great Emptiness at the edge of the galaxy a cosmic phenomenon on course to consume the Milky Way. Troubled by this and by his psychic powers which are rapidly spiraling out of his control, Flinx seeks out old flame Clarity Held. But in Clarity, he does not find the solace he seeks, for he is being pursued by the mysterious Order of Null, those earnest devotees of ultimate destruction, who seek to kill Flinx and prevent him from stopping the great evil from accomplishing its malevolent task. But our hero is spared an untimely death that he will survive is never in doubt by the timely intervention of some old friends. Ultimately, the story here ends up being merely an episode in the grander scheme of the Pip and Flinx series, and Foster denies us the climax this novel builds up to by saving the true denouement of the plot for future entries in the cycle.
Stefan Rudnicki is one of the best performers (and producers) in the business I think he could read a shopping list and make it sound fascinating and here he does not disappoint. The deep bass of his narration is utterly compelling, and that I found myself thoroughly engaged by this somewhat minor novel is itself a tribute to Rudnicki's talent. Flinx's Folly is a fun, lighthearted SF adventure story, and fans of Foster (and this series) should have no qualms about picking up this audio edition. But readers who prefer more substantive works might want to skip this and check out one of Rudnicki's other excellent audio productions instead.
James Patrick Kelly, who is probably best known for his short story "Think Like a Dinosaur" and for his frequent appearances on the Hugo and Nebula Awards ballots has recently posted some audio recordings of his short fiction on his website, www.jimkelly.net, as part of his new "Free Reads" series. These recordings are being released under a Creative Commons License, which means you can download (and distribute) them for free. However, the PayPal tip jar on his website is open to donations, so if you enjoy these recordings as much as I did, you'll want to spare what you can so Mr. Kelly can continue to bring us new recordings in the future.
As mentioned in the introduction to each of these recordings, Kelly is no actor, but he does a fine job as narrator in each of these tales. All of these are of professional sound quality, with the possible exception of "Monsters", which we are warned "was recorded on tape and transferred to [Kelly's] computer" but don't let that frighten you off. The story itself is brilliant and Kelly's performance is top-notch, so it's well-worth enduring the marginal sound quality of the recording. Of these seven recordings, "Fruitcake Theory", a fun Christmas story featuring very alien aliens, perhaps takes advantage most of the audio format, as it features a multitude of voices, all done well. While I felt these two were the best of the lot, all are of exceptional literary quality, and the recordings are as good as most commercially-sold audiobooks and better than quite a few.
Telltale Weekly is an ambitious new project launched in February of this year that will attempt to "build an audiobook equivalent of Project Gutenberg" by recording public domain texts and making them available at incredibly low prices, with the goal of "releasing them under the Creative Commons Attribution License five years after their first appearance . . . (or after a hundred-thousand purchases of the recording, whichever comes first)."
The first three recordings I listened to were all read by site founder Alexander Wilson, and he does a superb job on all of them. "A Song Before Sunset" is a haunting post-apocalyptic tale of one man's desire to play the piano one last time, and of the clash between culture and barbarism that inevitably arises in the wake of any great cataclysm. Accompanying the reading of this text are selections from Beethoven's Piano Sonata, Opus 109; this welcome addition helps bring the story to life as the music the protagonist is playing in the story itself is interspersed with Wilson's performance. "The Magic Shop" is a rather standard "curio shop" story, but since it's by H.G. Wells, it's likely one of the first, and so is an interesting listen if only out of historical curiosity. "A Green Thumb" is an inventive tale of a world where people grow cars like plants instead of building them, and of a young man's relationship with his father amusing and heart-warming at the same time, and read with feeling and emotion by Wilson.
Also available from Telltale Weekly is a quartet of stories written and read by Tom Gerencer. All four are delightfully bizarre, and are read nicely by Gerencer. His comic timing is spot-on, and his authorial voice is so distinct that when I later read a story by him in hardcopy, I could almost hear his voice in my head. Of these four, "Demo Mode" and "A Taste of Damsel" stand out, but all four are well worth the price of admission.
I didn't go to Small Beer's website expecting to find an audio recording, much less one of such high quality, so you can imagine my surprise and delight to find this little gem of a story by Richard Butner, which was originally published in the recent Kelly Link-edited anthology, Trampoline (2003). "Ash City Stomp" tells the story of a young couple on a road trip who pick up a scrawny hitchhiker who turns out to be the devil. In an interview, Butner says of this fantasy, "it's serious at the core but overlaid with goofist trappings," and that's as good a description as any. Butner's performance conveys the tone of the story flawlessly, and his careful pacing and diction provide for an engaging auditory experience.
The Book of Three, the first chapter of "The Prydain Chronicles", tells the tale of young Taran, a brave and sometimes pigheaded Assistant Pig-Keeper, who gets his chance to become the hero he's always dreamed of being. Taran is sent on a quest to recover his master's oracular pig, Hen Wen, for if her prophetic powers were to fall into the wrong hands, it could spell doom for Prydain. Taran is joined by a cast of lively characters, such as: clever, valiant Gurgi, the half-man/half-beast, always in search of "crunchings and munchings"; Eilonwy, the sharp-tongued orphaned princess who was raised by an evil enchantress and learned a bit of magic along the way; Fflewddur Fflam, the would-be bard and owner of the truthful harp that breaks a string every time he tells a lie; and Doli, the fiery-haired dwarf of the "Fair Folk," the only member of his family unable to turn himself invisible at will. Together, this band of five sets out to recover the missing pig and to put an end to the villainous reign of the Horned King, the champion of the Death-Lord Arawn. But the key to defeating this nigh-invincible warrior lies with Hen Wen, and so Taran and his companions must rescue her at all costs, before the Horned King finds her and silences her prophecies forever.
In volume two, The Black Cauldron, Taran and his intrepid companions must save Prydain once again as they embark upon a quest to find and destroy the powerful Black Cauldron, that evil kettle which allows Arawn to create the Cauldron-Born, his army of undying, undead warriors. But gaining possession of the Cauldron proves more difficult than initially planned, and destroying it requires someone to willingly pay the ultimate price.
James Langton's performances here are, quite simply, enthralling. He reads these tales in a wide variety of Welsh-accented voices, ranging from the boisterous and slightly snooty parlance of Fflewddur, to the lilting brogue of Eilonwy, to the growling rhyming couplets of Gurgi-speak, and completes the ensemble by narrating with a childlike enthusiasm that evokes the sense of wonder that all speculative literature strives for. So whether you've read "The Prydain Chronicles" when you were young, or you're contemplating picking them up now for the first time, this audio edition is sure to delight and enchant you.
While it's debatable whether or not these 12 stories truly are the greatest of the 20th century conspicuously absent, for instance, is Daniel Keyes's "Flowers for Algernon" I think it is safe to say they're all pretty darn good. But I can say without hyperbole that this truly is one of the greatest science fiction audiobooks of the 20th century, and it is not to be missed.
From the uproariously funny "Allamagoosa" by Eric Frank Russell to the quietly powerful "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin, this audio-exclusive anthology runs the gamut, offering a nice variety of strong SF stories which serves equally well as an excellent introduction for newcomers or as a welcome bit of nostalgia for those well-versed in the genre. Also appearing in the book are: "Why I Left Harry's All-Night Diner" by Lawrence Watt-Evans, "Jeffty Is Five" by Harlan Ellison, "The Nine Billion Names of God" by Arthur C. Clarke, "The Crystal Spheres" by David Brin, "Huddling Place" by Clifford D. Simak, "That Only a Mother" by Judith Merril, "Fermi and Frost" by Frederik Pohl, "Tangents" by Greg Bear, "Bears Discover Fire" by Terry Bisson, and "Twilight" by John W. Campbell, Jr.
This audiobook is read by a panoply of talent: the always-brilliant Harlan Ellison (who reads with a vibrant, infectious, gosh-wow! zeal), along with a cast of gifted entertainers including Wil Wheaton, Alexander Siddig, Nana Visitor, David Ackroyd, Terry Farrell, Denise Crosby, Melissa Manchester, Arte Johnson, James A. Watson, and Richard McGonagle. All of these performers do a fine job; my only quibble is that the background music that introduces each story is a bit overbearing it's too loud and goes on for too long, sort of like a radio disk jockey talking over the opening of a song before the lyrics start.
Though the original audiocassette editions of this title are out-of-print (but are still readily available used via Amazon and other online booksellers), The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of the 20th Century happily remains "in print" in digital form, thanks to Audible. Whether you listen via your PC, Audible's affordable (and serviceable) Otis™ digital audio player, or the pricier (but much fancier) Apple iPod, digital is by far the best format for audiobooks (in both sound quality and ease-of-use), so don't be afraid to try it out.
John Joseph Adams
First published in Locus Magazine, July 2004
John Joseph Adams is the editorial assistant at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and the audiobook reviewer for Locus Magazine. His non-fiction has appeared in (or is forthcoming from) The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Science Fiction Weekly, and Amazing Stories. You can visit his website at www.tuginternet.com/jja.
Audiobooks for review should be sent to John Joseph Adams, PO Box 3447, Hoboken NJ 07030.
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