Free Listens Review: The Willows by Algernon Blackwood


The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

Length: 2 hours, 21 minutes
Reader: Michael Thomas Robinson


The book: Considered one of the greatest stories in horror literature, The Willows lives up to its reputation. Two friends canoeing down the Danube stop for the night on an island in the middle of a huge expanse of willow trees. The place seems mystic, almost otherworldly, and in the night the two interlopers find out why.

Blackwood could have set this story in any exotic river in the world, but he chose the Danube. This river, which runs through the heart of Europe, is the wildness that runs through what was then the epitome of civilization. As the atmosphere of this turns from idyllic to terrifying, Blackwood is showing that the unknown horrors of the world can be anywhere, even where we should be the most safe. This, I think, is the most horrifying realization of all.

Rating: 9 / 10

The reader: At first, I was not impressed by Robinson’s voice. He’s somewhat nasal, and starts the book with a bored, straightforward style. As the story went on, though, I realized the initial bored tone was probably intentional, contrasting with the building dread of the story. His pace quickens and slows to build the tension, drawing the listener into the horror of what the narrator is experiencing. Despite my early misgivings, I greatly enjoyed this reading.

Posted by Seth

Free Listens review: “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum


“A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum

Source: LibriVox (mp3)
Length: 58 minutes
Reader: Greg Margarite
The book:  In 1970, The Science Fiction Writers of America voted “A Martian Odyssey” as the second best science fiction story of all time, after Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall” (previously reviewed). While I disagree that it’s that great of a story, I can appreciate how influential it was on all science fiction that came after it.

The tale is told by astronaut Dick Jarvis to his fellow explorers on the first human mission to Mars. After Jarvis’s sidetrip from the expedition ends in a rocket crash, he sets out on foot for the main rocket. Along the way, he meets several alien species including the intelligent bird-like creature who introduces itself as “Tweel.”

Tweel and Jarvis’s attempts to communicate and understand one another comprises the leap that Weinbaum made over his contemporaries. Weinbaum imagines an intelligent being who is not just odd sounding or funny-looking, but actually alien in its thought patterns. This took the alien in science fiction from being either a bug-eyed antagonist or a green-skinned stand-in for other humans, to being a rational but unknown xenobiology species. Although this isn’t among the best science fiction stories you’ll ever read, it is a good one that all fans of the genre should know.

Rating: 7 / 10

The reader: Greg Margarite has read numerous science fiction stories for LibriVox. He has an expressive voice that clearly conveys the printed page. In this story, Jarvis is narrating his adventures to the other members of the crew, so Margarite gives the astronaut a cocky tone that fits well with his character. He emphasizes the international nature of the rest of the crew by giving them accents for their few lines. Margarite narrates other Weinbaum stories in the Collected Public Domain Works of Stanley G. Weinbaum at LibriVox, including the sequel to this story “The Valley of Dreams.

Posted by Seth

Free Listens review: Fantomas by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre


Fantômas 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.

posted by Seth

Free Listens review: A Shadow over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft


A Shadow over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft

Source: Voices in the Dark (Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 )Voices in the Dark logo
Length: 2.6 hours
Reader: Sean Puckett

The book: While on a architectural tour of New England, a man visits the isolated port of Innsmouth. Locals from neighboring towns view the place with suspicion and treat the odd-looking Innsmouth natives with disgust. While there, he hears rumors of strange goings-on and investigates further. His investigations turn up more than he expects.

This is a dark and frightening tale that also causes some unease when it comes to digging beneath the surface as a modern-day reader. Lovecraft is obviously drawing upon pre-War racist attitudes and fears of miscegenation in his portrayal of the Innsmouth people. He shows mistrust of non-Western people and their “demonic” religions. Though thematically distasteful, this novella is probably my favorite H.P. Lovecraft story, though I can’t say I’ve read Lovecraft’s entire oeuvre.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: Puckett narrates this story in a melancholy tone that fits well with the mood. For characters like Zadoc, he drops into a believable-enough dialect. He has a few repeats of phrases and there is some background noise, but otherwise this is a good recording.

Posted by Seth

FREE LISTENS REVIEW: The 39 Steps by John Buchan


The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan39 steps cover

SourceLibriVox (zipped mp3s)
Length: 4 hours, 20 minutes
Reader: Adrian Praetzellis

The book: Before Dan Brown or The Bourne Identity, John Buchan got the ball rolling in the man-on-the-run conspiracy novel sub-genre in 1915. The 39 Stepsfollows Richard Hannay, a South African mining engineer who has moved to London to start a new life. Hannay finds this new life dreadfully boring until he crosses paths with a secret agent who has uncovered a shocking conspiracy. Soon, the shadowy members of the Black Stone are on the trail of Hannay and he must discover the meaning of the phrase “the thirty-nine steps” before time runs out.

This was a fun light read. The plot relies far too much on serendipitous circumstances to be believable, but the story is exciting and fast-paced enough to let the ridiculous coincidences slide. Buchan strikes the right balance between making Hannay competent enough to be interesting without making him a do-everything superman. I can easily see how this novel became a favorite among soldiers in the trenches of World War I: it’s great escapist fiction.

Rating: 8/10

The reader: As I mentioned in my review of Treasure Island, Praetzellis is probably the best narrator at LibriVox. In fact, I’d put him in the top 10 of all narrators working in audiobooks, professional or amateur. He does wonderful voices for each of his characters, from a deep Scottish brogue to the received pronunciation of government officials. I’ve read this book before in print and don’t remember enjoying it near as much as I did from Praetzellis’s narration.

Posted by Seth

FREE LISTENS REVIEW: The Land that Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs


The Land that Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

SourceLibriVox (zipped mp3’s)
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.

Posted by Seth