Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Justice deferred

It's been a couple of months since I reviewed an adult mystery novel mid-series, so I'm not feeling so guilty about listening to Uniform Justice, the 12th book by Donna Leon featuring the suave Venetian commissario Guido Brunetti. Brunetti is kind of a standard-issue Italian literary cop -- well- versed in the byzantine corruption endemic in Italian business, politics, military, etc. but scrupulously honest. Brunetti always gets his man, but his man is often able to circumvent the justice system and remain free.

(Other Italian cops I read and enjoy: Andrea Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano and Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen. Do Romans count? Lindsay Davis' Marcus Didius Falco and Steven Saylor's Gordianus the Finder.)

In Uniform Justice, Brunetti is called to an elite military academy to investigate the hanging death of a young cadet, Ernesto Moro. The school's administrators seem oddly uninterested in the boy's death, as are his parents, who ask to be left alone to grieve. Brunetti keeps pushing for answers -- aided by the genius of his idiot superior's administrative assistant Signorina Elettra Zorzi, who -- it seems -- can find out anything using her computer and her vast network of friends and relations. He uncovers attempted murder and government corruption, and figures out what happened to young Moro. As always, Brunetti's cynicism and despair are assuaged by his envy-inducing home life: a fabulous top floor apartment with a terrace overlooking Venice, two intelligent children, and the wonderful Paola -- who manages to put an incredible meal on the table at a moment's notice and teach English literature at the university level.

Venice and the Veneto, described lovingly and with wonderful detail, is a very important character in these novels.

I listened to a Brunetti novel several years ago, and -- when I checked my reading log -- I had the same complaint about that one as I do about this one, even though they didn't share a narrator. All characters speak in English (the novels are written in English) with Italian accents. The narration itself is in unaccented American English. Why? In this case, everyone in the novel is Italian -- there's no need to differentiate between characters' origins. Why would Italian speakers in a novel taking place in Italy speak with an accent (unless it was a Venetian, as opposed to a Sicilian accent)? Instead of sounding like regular people going about their work, everyone sounds like they were immigrant extras in The Godfather. I didn't like it one bit.

Which means that I really didn't like David Colacci's reading of the book, although I think this is a director's decision and it's not fair to blame him. He's clearly an experienced narrator -- although I've never heard him read before -- as he knows how to vary a novel's pace, and he is skilled at voicing characters. When I try to listen beyond Brunetti's mobster accent, I can hear an emotionally true reading -- Brunetti's public cynicism and private despair are quite clear in Colacci's performance.

Some things are better left unread aloud. At one point Brunetti and one of his young subordinates, Puccetti, are having a conversation. With the "Brunetti saids" and the "Puccetti saids" flying around along with the Italian-English inflections; well, it began to sound like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. And not in a good way. I think I'll go back to eye-reading this otherwise outstanding series.

Uniform Justice by Donna Leon
Narrated by David Colacci
BBC Audiobooks America, 2004. 8:11 (unabridged)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Silly old dramatization

A year ago, upon finishing a listen to the authorized Winnie-the-Pooh sequel, Return to the Hundred-Acre Wood, I mused about listening to the original books at some later date. Alas, when I sought these out in our catalog a few weeks ago, I selected the wrong one. (I blame Stephen Fry ... and poor cataloguing, or -- now that I examine the cover more carefully, publisher information designed perhaps to mislead.) Because this 1997 recording of The Collected Stories of Winnie-the-Pooh is only unabridged in the sense that the adaptation by none other than the author of the aforementioned Pooh sequel, David Benedictus, is -- in fact -- not abridged. It is, however, not a full-cast reading of the books by A.A. Milne. It is [shudder] a dramatization.

It is not a bad dramatization of the charming children's stories about Christopher Robin and his loyal animal friends, whose characters remain so memorable more than 80 years later. I have forgotten much of the Pooh stories, but those I remember are still vivid in my mind, so revisiting them was a treat. Still, my adult audiobook listening mind is convinced that I missed something in listening to this. (At the same time, I wasn't willing to listen to this dramatization while holding the book in my hand to make myself feel better.) Since unabridged full-cast audiobooks are not unusual, one wonders why these stories were adapted in this way. In 1997, though, maybe dramatization was the way to go. (This version that I listened to was reissued last year, by a different publisher.)

The cast of readers is mostly wonderful. I'll list them here:

Winnie-the-Pooh: Stephen Fry
Piglet: Jane Horrocks
Eeyore: Geoffrey Palmer
Kanga: Judi Dench (who also narrates)
Owl: Michael Williams [the late Mr. Dench] (who also narrates)
Rabbit: Robert Daws
Tigger: Sandi Toksvig
Roo: Finty Williams [offspring of Dench and Williams, and the only one of this cast that I've actually heard read a book]
Christopher Robin: Steven Webb

[A short pause for a TMZ moment: Stephen Fry and Steven Webb are now an item.]

While Dench and Williams lend the right tone of nurturing, calm narration that's also reflected in their character voices, the standout for me in this cast is Jane Horrocks. Wikipedia tells me she was born in Lancashire in England, so I'm going to assume that her distinctive pronunciation (which I lack language to describe for you, so I'm directing you to "North-West" here) is due to this regional accent. On top of these refreshing sounds, she adds a husky squeakiness that brings Piglet endearingly to life. When Piglet is hanging on for dear life in Owl's upside-down house and then bravely overcomes his fear to climb up that string, well I felt as proud and triumphant as Piglet does.

I also enjoyed Geoffrey Palmer (while I had the picture of Geoffrey Rush in my head the whole time) who captures both Eeyore's depression and his sense of superiority. Robert Daws as Rabbit is appropriately bossy and stressed by all his Friends and Relations. I also like Steven Webb's youthful line readings and confident air as the friend of that silly old bear.

However, this dramatization falls apart in the hands of Stephen Fry, whose bored and supercilious Jeeves-like speech just does not fit with the shy, relatively clueless Winnie-the-Pooh. I like Stephen Fry, he's immensely funny and full of sly wit, but I'm not entirely convinced there's a heart in his chest. Whereas poor Pooh is all heart. On top of this, Fry reads Pooh's many hums/poems (channeling Rex Harrison?) with a slight bit of rhythm that matches the sprightly music that accompanies each one. He doesn't attempt to sing them at all, a real disappointment. A natural question: Why was this man hired if he cannot sing?

Each story begins with a cheerful musical introduction, music that is occasionally reprised in Pooh's hums. The music is original and composed by John Gould. It seems that David Benedictus has a history with Pooh, one that began before last year's unfortunate sequel, so I guess I can cut him a little more slack.

The Collected Stories of Winnie-the-Pooh (Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner) by A.A. Milne, adapted by David Benedictus
Narrated by a full cast
Hodder Children's Audio, 1997 (reissued by Listening Library, 2009). 4:28 (dramatization)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A frozen furnace

Two years ago, I listened to Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains, and when I went back recently to review my thoughts about it, I was surprised at how cranky I was. Some of the things that seemed to bother me immensely are present in the sequel to Chains, Forge, where they didn't bother me a bit. I can only excuse myself by saying that at that point in 2008, I was wrapping up my job as chair of Amazing Audiobooks and my enthusiasm for anything related to audiobooks was on a temporary wane.

I enjoyed Forge, which continues the story of Isabel and Curzon, two black Americans struggling for another kind of freedom at the beginning of the American Revolution. Curzon, whose master said that if he enlisted in Continental army he -- his master -- would set him free, has escaped a dreadful prison with the help of Isabel, who has also run from her mistress. Curzon tells us early in Forge that he and Isabel quarrelled and separated shortly after their flight because Isabel insisted on heading south to search for her younger sister. Curzon finds himself accidently mustered back into the army and participates in the great, unexpected Colonial victory at Saratoga in 1777. For safety's sake, he decides to stay with the army as it marches to its winter headquarters in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Along with Curzon, we endure the horrific conditions of starvation, cold and disease that frigid winter.

As the winter ends, a delegation from the Continental Congress comes to Valley Forge to examine what happened to the army and learn how to prevent it from happening again. To Curzon's horror, a member of that delegation turns out to be the master from whom he ran away. And, that master has brought another slave with him, Curzon's friend Isabel. His and Isabel's roles are reversed now: It will be up to Curzon to free himself and Isabel.

Laurie Halse Anderson is a terrific writer -- her research is painstaking and she knows how to marry the fascinating information she unearths with a great story. In an effort to revitalize this dying (dead?) genre, Historical Fiction, she urges rebranding to Historical Thriller. Even though this sounds awkward to me (trying too hard?), as a lover of novels that take place during a historical time period -- who wishes to share that love with young readers -- I'll try to use the new term. And be sure: Forge is a thriller. From the battle of Saratoga through to Curzon's audacious exit from Valley Forge, the suspense is palpable. Of course, Anderson's got a terrific character in Curzon -- a proud, intelligent black man with one overriding goal -- freedom. He's more sympathetic than Isabel, whose singleminded aim of reuniting with her sister can make her more than a little annoying. And the things he does for her ...

Forge is narrated by Tim Cain (generally, I wouldn't link to Facebook, but it's nice to have a picture), who evidently has a lot of audiobooks to his name, but I've never heard him before. He has a rich, resonant speaking voice and a good range of character voices. Curzon is a character of many depths -- compliant black slave, proud brother-in-arms, tentative lover of Isabel, and a man terrified by the loss of his freedom -- and I hear all the shadings in Cain's interpretation. He stretches a little bit to portray the Marquis de Lafayette, but sounds comfortable voicing a Dutch slaveholder and his slaves (the parents of Sojourner Truth!).

[This latter fact I only found out upon obtaining a print copy of Forge as the author's Q&A-formatted appendix is disappointingly not included in the audiobook. I looked at the print version as I was in search of a map of Valley Forge and it did not disappoint. I love a map in a book!]

There is a "huh?" audiobook moment at the pronunciation of the name Curzon. Cain says "CORE-zun." This is eventually explained, but it does lead me to wonder why Anderson just didn't spell the name that way in the first place. I'm mildly curious (in other words, not curious enough) to hear how Curzon is pronounced in Chains.

The end of the print book also promises a third volume featuring Curzon and Isabel, Ashes. I'll be there, and one of the things that I'm wondering about -- aside from what Revolutionary War history they will wander into next -- is how Anderson will sustain the wonderful double and triple meanings of her book titles in this series.

Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson
Narrated by Tim Cain
Brilliance Audio, 2010. 7:45 (unabridged)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Artist at work

Scumble is a technique used by painters to soften colors or blur outlines of images (presumably to perfect them). Scumble is also the name of Ingrid Law's second book about an extended family each of whom possess one unique supernatural power that arrives shortly after their 13th birthday. That power is called a "savvy," and the most important thing a teenager can learn about their savvy is how to "scumble" -- or control -- it. And in Scumble, Ledger Kale is having trouble with this task.

Ledger is related to Mibs Beaumont, heroine of the first novel, Savvy. It's nine years later when Ledge turns 13; his non-gifted father hopes that he will become a super fast runner. Instead, Ledge's savvy arrives smack in the middle of a family wedding in Wyoming, causing human-made things like motorcycles, barns and even picnic tables to spectacularly break into pieces. Needless to say, Ledge is deeply disappointed; but he's really upset when his parents decide to leave him at his uncle's insect ranch (his Uncle Autry having turned his savvy -- attracting insects and butterflies -- into a career), the Flying Cattleheart, until he learns to scumble his savvy. His adult cousin, Rocket, is living at the ranch for the same reason and Ledge is pretty depressed at the prospect of never being able to scumble enough to leave.

On top of this, Ledge has to keep the inquisitive cub reporter Sarah Jane Cabot from sniffing around and exposing the family secret in her weekly self-published newspaper, the "Sundance Scuttlebutt." And then there's Sarah Jane's father -- a collector of oddities -- who seems intent on foreclosing on all the small businesses in their small town, including Uncle Autry's. It's going to be a long summer.

What I liked about Savvy when I read it two years ago was that the story seemed so original -- for a coming-of-age tale. Law's rich and imaginative language is both humorous and complex enough (in a good way) to make a great read-aloud. Her characters are engaging people that you want to get to know. Ledger and Sarah Jane -- and their story -- are just as much fun. I didn't need to get caught up on Mibs' story again, but I really appreciated the concept that this large, loving family extends well beyond the Beaumonts. I also enjoyed this novel's tall-tale feel, the sensation -- through language and events -- that we are out in the wild West, where anything can happen.

David Kremenitzer reads the novel. He has a pleasant speaking voice and reads Ledger's first-person narration with a nice mix of youthful confidence and terror at the situation in which he finds himself. He reads Law's intricate, metaphoric language naturally. (There is the occasional tongue-tying moment where he just doesn't get all the words out completely ... but I understand what he means.) He can be snarky at the sight of his cousin Rocket falling for a girl, and awkwardly sappy when his own heart beats a little faster. Kremenitzer keeps the story moving along quickly without feeling rushed. I liked his knowing portrayal of Ledger's little sister Fedora, who wears a protective helmet and is deeply (and humorously) obsessed with safety: "Safety starts with an S, Ledge, but it begins with you."

However, it is clear that Kremenitzer isn't entirely confident as a multi-character voice actor. He attempts different voices for the novel's many characters, but they mostly sound stiff and forced. The male adults all speak with a deep-voiced formality, the women are preternaturally calm and collected, Grandpa Bomba is quavery and doddering, and the teen girls are kind of swishy and whiny. Many of the characters are so awkward sounding that it's hard to remember that you are listening to such an engaging story. I had trouble liking the audiobook for this reason.

In addition to this, there were abrupt and unfinished ends to each track of this audiobook. This was a downloaded book, so each disc becomes a track; of the six tracks, four of them ended in the middle of a sentence. I don't think I missed anything important -- maybe just 10 seconds or so -- but this is deeply annoying. Is this a downloaded problem on my end, or something that got screwed up in the digitizing process?

(I'm not a happy listener at the prospect of all downloadable all the time -- the quality is still not consistently good enough. I don't have the technology that enables me to listen in all the places I can listen to CDs. At the same time, I do like the broader listening options that downloadables currently offer me [I have an ever-growing "wish list".]. I'm conflicted. Sigh.)

Scumble by Ingrid Law
Narrated by David Kremenitzer
Penguin Audio, 2010. 7:11 (unabridged)

Off-topic

This is not a newsy blog -- I can barely keep up with reviews -- but I had to share this interview between Scott Westerfeld and Alan Cumming about recording the audiobook of Behemoth. I loved Leviathan so much, I simply could not wait for my library to purchase the audio of Behemoth, and so I read it (and loved it!). I think I also wished to experience the book with its illustrations, since I had heard so much about them. Occasionally, I could hear Alan Cumming's voice in my head as I read, which is almost as good as listening. When part 3 comes out, though ... I think it'll be Cumming again (I'll wait for as long as it takes, Alan!).

I found this video at Fuse No. 8.

And while no one should have to follow Alan Cumming or Deryn and Alek, I am belatedly thanking the women who promote AudioSynced each month, who link to my reviews. This month's roundup also features a link to a current member of a committee near and dear to my heart, Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults. Julia Riley talks about what makes an audiobook "amazing."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Jack's back! And this time it's personal

I listened to the first Bloody Jack adventure in September 2007 and I haven't been disappointed yet. After a 10-month hiatus from this blog, it's a delight to revel in My Bonny Light Horseman: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, in Love and War, her sixth literary adventure. (One of the many things that I love about these books is the conceit that they are being written as fast as Jacky is having the adventures by her best friend and confidante, Amy Trevelyan.) Author L.A. Meyer shows no indication that he might be wrapping this series up anytime soon. At the same time, one wonders what could possibly happen next with the poor girl. (It's probably best not to ask ...)

At the end of Mississippi Jack, Jacky reconciled with her beloved Jaimy Fletcher, who will spend the next year escorting merchant ships to and from the Far East. Jacky decides to use their (final?) separation to beef up the coffers of Faber Shipping Worldwide and has been sailing from Massachusetts to the Caribbean carrying freight. The nefarious British Navy captures her, planning to take her to London for an accounting of her crimes. Through circumstances that would only happen to Jacky, the British vessel is captured by the French while Jacky -- a prisoner -- is in command! Attempting to keep her pirate alter-ego (La Belle Jeune Fille Sans Merci) a secret, Jacky and the rest of the sailors are thrown in a French prison awaiting exchange. Then, Jacky is yanked from her cell and walked to the guillotine! Her friends watch horrified as she is decapitated ...

Wait! Jacky finds herself facing British Naval Intelligence, where they "encourage" her to become a spy for the royalist French, eager to bring down that upstart, Napoleon Bonaparte. Jacky will join a small, somewhat risqué, dance company, where the dancers double as high-class prostitutes. She is to finagle some pillow-talk secrets from the French military men who patronize the dancers. And, for those who wish to experience the rest of the story on their own, I will stop. Suffice it to say that this adventure takes Jacky from the boudoir to the battlefield in a way that seems entirely logical (for fans of the series).

"Outstanding." "Fluid and effortless." "Highly entertaining." "Fine performance." "She cries, yells, sings, flirts, commands, consoles." These are all things I've said here about Katherine Kellgren in her previous performances of the novels. They all apply to this installment as well (ho hum!). As a narrator of a lot of audiobooks, Kellgren is pretty darn good; in Bloody Jack she has found her boon companion. Kellgren is Jacky. With all Jacky's fine qualities and her warts, it's a completely honest peformance. Yes, there are accents (French and German as well as the many variations of English), there is singing (all the loops and flourishes of Rule, Britannia [Anglophiles: I think you'll enjoy that link!] among other songs), there are tears, fears, love and -- above all -- Jacky's sheer lust for living. But aside from all the fireworks, there's Jacky's heart: As deep and wide as the ocean she loves. And Kellgren never forgets that it's Jacky's heart we've connected to -- and that's what makes her interpretation of this character so affecting and memorable.

You know, I could leave Meyer's Jacky at this point -- her adventures get more and more preposterous and her anticipated reunion with Jaimy (if it arrives) is probably going to be a bit of a snore. But I can't tear myself away from Kellgren's Jacky. I want to see how it all works out for her. I don't think I'm alone in this: In some slightly specious fact-finding (in the spirit of today's elections), 9% of the print copies of My Bonny Light Horseman are checked out, while 57% of the audiobooks are checked out. [PolitiFact analysis: 1 of 11 print copies, 4 of 7 audiobooks.]

My Bonny Light Horseman: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, in Love and War by L.A. Meyer
Narrated by Katherine Kellgren
Listen & Live Audio, 2009. 12:01 (unabridged)