Thursday, December 30, 2010

Girlish

My last two book posts both relate to my desire to read the original material before seeing the movie. In the case of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I saw before I read/listened. (The hold list was so long ... ) And I think that really, really impacted my enjoyment/appreciation for this first novel in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy (at least I now know why it's called the Millennium trilogy ... I thought it had something to do with, you know, the millennium).

For any readers who have been living in a cave for this millennium, a brief plot summary: Journalist Mikael Blomkvist is hired -- after a young researcher/hacker named Lisbeth Salander has provided a thorough dossier -- by a wealthy Swedish industrialist named Henrik Vanger. The elderly Vanger wants Blomkvist to discover what happened to his beloved great-niece Harriet, who disappeared from the family's compound 40 years earlier. Salander, an odd girl/woman with the tattoo and a multitude of socialization issues, joins him in his research. In keeping with Larsson's original title for the novel, Men Who Hate Women (Män som hatar kvinnor), the answer to Harriet's disappearance is related to sexual violence and perversion.

An intrinsic part of the novel is Blomkvist's journalistic vendetta against another Swedish businessman, Hans-Erik Wennerström. At the beginning, Blomkvist has just lost a libel suit and is sent to prison. At the end, well, I won't spoil it for the three people who haven't read this and -- like me -- plan to.

Because I knew already what was going to happen, I found most of the book to be a bit of a slog. Hardly suspenseful in any way. The sexual perversions are extremely brief (much longer and more terrifying in the movie ... but maybe that's because I didn't know they were coming). There are lengthy passages of family relationships, mind-numbing discussions of business dealings, and meandering conversations over dinner and coffee that give you a peek at character development but nothing you haven't learned three times over. The dialogue is fairly clunky. After the mystery of Harriet's disappearance is resolved, you still have three discs to go and these are deadly: email conversations, editorial meetings, and a lengthy con by Salander that might be amusing if it were 20 minutes shorter.

All in all, I am wondering what the fuss is about.

I chose to listen to this primarily because of Simon Vance. His recordings of the three novels have been praised, awarded, and loudly feted since he began producing them two years ago. Considering how much listening I do, I am surprised at how infrequently I've listened to Vance.

All the praise is well-justified, Vance is pretty darn good here. He has a wonderfully mellifluous voice that soothes and inspires confidence. He reads rapidly to keep the plot moving and yet pauses appropriately for emotional or suspenseful moments. His great skill is character development and he does a brilliant job with the many, many people in this novel. What I particularly enjoyed was that no one speaks with a Swedish accent (see here); all the accents are variations on English. And, of course, he's completely consistent and easily switches between characters in dialogue.

In the Vance-narrated novel I listened to a year ago, I noted a general dissatisfaction with his voices for women. Not a problem in Girl: I liked his interpretation of Salander a lot. Her spikiness and intelligence are crystal clear in Vance's characterization and despite my general lack of enthusiasm for the novel, I was completely caught off guard at the very end at Salander's loneliness and heartbreak.

Inappropriate moments of hilarity: One of the secondary characters is named Dirch Frode, which is pronounced FRO-deh, but every time I heard it, I had a wee picture of a certain hobbit in my head.

Depending on ear-space, I think I'll probably give the next in the series a listen. I'd like to go into at least one of these without preconceptions ... except, of course, that I'm visualizing those two actors. And while the Swedish actor Mikael Nyqvist is probably a more accurate portrayal of a middle-aged man, it's hard to deny the visual appeal of Daniel Craig. Darn it! Now I'll have James Bond in my head while listening! Now that is deeply wrong.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland
Narrated by Simon Vance
Books on Tape, 2008. 16:21 (unabridged)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best of 2010

I started this blog in 2007 in order to keep track of the books I was listening to on behalf of the Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults and, later, the Odyssey Committees. All I listened to in those years were the current year's audiobooks and to produce a "top ten" list seemed inappropriate. So, to commemorate my first year of "free" listening, I bring you my favorites.

Audiobooks for children and teens:

Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce, narrated by Jason Hughes.
Numbers by Rachel Ward, narrated by Sarah Coomes.
Outcast (Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, Book 4) by Michele Paver, narrated by Ian McKellen.
Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd, narrated by Sile Bermingham.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, narrated by MacLeod Andrews and Nick Podehl.

Audiobooks for adults:

Chasing the Devil's Tail by David Fulmer, narrated by Dion Graham.
A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse, narrated by Jonathan Cecil.
In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant, narrated by Stephen Hoye.
The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard, narrated by Charles Leggett.
Still Midnight by Denise Mina, narrated by Jane MacFarlane.

In the category of "so great they'll be on best-of lists forever:"

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, narrated by a full cast.
My Bonny Light Horseman by L.A. Meyer, narrated by Katherine Kellgren.

In other year-end news, I can only say that I've become a piker. Listening hours are way, way down! Numbers of interest only to me:

2008: 96 audiobooks, 726:25
2009: 125 audiobooks, 694:32.
2010: 65 audiobooks, 543:02

[Picture credit: Yuval Y (from Wikimedia Commons)]

Here's to another year of great listening! (After one more post ...)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Welsh Job

So you know that I like to read the book before I see the movie, and this holds true for television as well. I've been watching Masterpiece Theatre (it must have been here that I developed my devotion to the English accent) for decades, and -- although it might be easy to quibble with the "masterpiece" status of some of their more recent offerings -- I still try to read the book first. So, when I saw that this Sunday's feature is Framed, based on the book by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Imagine my delight to see that we owned the audiobook. It went right on hold and into the ears.

I read Cosmic earlier this year and really enjoyed its whimsy and true suspense, but what is most lovable about both it and Framed is its portrayal of a fractious but loving family. Team Hughes (Dad, Mum, Marie, Dylan, Minnie and baby Max) run the Snowdonia Oasis Auto Marvel (garage) in the tiny village of Manod in Northwest Wales. Manod used to be a fairly bustling place, as everyone was employed in extracting the shale from the nearby mountain. But the shale is gone, men and their families are leaving for economically greener pastures and Dylan -- at age nine -- finds himself the only boy left in Manod; there's no one to play football (soccer) with. More ominously, Dad announces that the Snowdonia Oasis is falling on hard times as well, and that Team Hughes needs to strategize how to increase profits.

Dylan keeps the garage logs -- noting down which cars stop at the Oasis and what they purchase there. So, he's the first to observe when the quiet of Manod is disrupted by a series of white vans passing by the Oasis and heading up the mountain. The family soon realize that they can cater to the individuals driving the vans and expand the Oasis' offerings to snacks and fancy coffee. One driver stops and, admiring Dylan's new chickens -- Donatello and Michelangelo (named after two of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) -- invites him up the mountain to see what's going on.

This man, Lester, is heading a major crisis project: Unending rains in London have flooded the National Gallery and Lester has brought all its masterpieces to be stored in the mountain at Manod. Sixty years earlier, another curator did the same thing -- protecting the artwork from the London Blitz (Cottrell Boyce reports that learning this was the inspiration for the novel). When Lester learns the names of Dylan's chickens, he assumes he is a fellow art lover and shows him some of the stored works. Dylan knows nothing about art, but in the interest of "customer service" he pretends to -- aided by his smart younger sister Minnie.

Eventually Lester -- who would really rather not have to share the country's masterpieces with his fellow, read unappreciative, countrymen -- is convinced to show some of the paintings to the citizens of Manod. The drab, depressed village is transformed by viewing the art, although Lester can't see that. But when Minnie and Dylan decide that one of the works, Van Gogh's Sunflowers -- easily substituted with a paint-by-numbers version -- will be just the thing to get the Snowdonia Oasis Auto Marvel out of debt, Lester quickly starts paying attention.

[And here is the point where Blogger lost the rest of my post, which was -- of course -- the most erudite, scintillating prose ever committed to the internet, never to be resurrected.]

Framed is a romp. The Welsh setting is so vivid, and the plot feels fresh. The novel has the potential to be some didactic bore about the redeeming power of art, but Cottrell Boyce doesn't go there. Instead he stuffs the story full of interesting, funny people who may or may not be changed by what they see, but who cares, because they are already fun to know.

The novel is read by Jason Hughes. He has a lovely lilting Welsh accent that is so charming to listen to. He does a great job creating individual voices for all the different Manod-ites, most notably Tom -- the slightly dim adult hired hand at the garage who's the chief Turtles fan. And while Hughes sounds a bit too old for Dylan's voice, he has completely grasped Dylan's innocence. He's very good with the novel's girls: Minnie, the criminal mastermind; Marie, an adolescent with body issues; and a bully who goes by the name of Terrible. They all sound girlish without being femmy and Hughes is outstanding at Marie's frequent adolescent outbursts. You can almost hear the door slam.

Throughout the story, amidst the musical Welsh inflections, Hughes easily slips into the character of Lester -- smooth as silk. The voice grows deeper and more resonant, the vowels go clipped. The transitions in and out of character are seamless; I would go all jello-y when the voice appeared..

Jason Hughes plays a detective on the television program Midsomer Murders, which I recall watching fairly faithfully when I had cable. I stopped watching before Hughes joined the cast, but I'm tempted to take a gander (if only to hear the voice). Except, for goodness sake: There are 16 seasons of this! This seems excessive, particularly when you realize that each episode is pretty much like the one that came before it. I guess we like to cuddle up with something familiar in these uncertain times.

Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Narrated by Jason Hughes
Harper Children's Audio, 2006. 7:00 (unabridged)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The pain of it will ease a bit

The 1969 film, True Grit, is -- along with Romeo and Juliet -- one of the memorable movies of my childhood. I saw it several times and I checked out a copy of Charles Portis's novel from my local library. I recall not liking it very much, probably because it wasn't like the movie (sound familiar?), so when I realized that another movie version of the book was opening soon (and that a. I would want to see it and b. I would want to revisit the book beforehand), I took a copy of the audiobook out of the hands of some deserving old person as the book was headed into the delivery van (the only lending library I have regular access to is that of Library Outreach Services). I'd just like to add that the book was not on hold for anyone, it was just going into a general mobile circulating collection.

[Why do song lyrics stick in your head forever? The title of this post is part of the execrable "theme song" of the 1969 movie by Glen Campbell. Alas, I had no difficulty whatsoever in dredging that from my brain. But can I remember the name of the book I read last week?]

True Grit is the story of Mattie Ross, a bossy, self-possessed 14-year-old girl growing up in Yell County, Arkansas in the decade following the Civil War. Her father travels to Fort Smith with their hired hand, Tom Chaney, in order to purchase some horses. After an argument, Chaney shoots her father dead in the street and escapes west to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Her mother is too devastated to see to the details, so Mattie goes to Fort Smith to claim her father's body and to hire someone who will track down Tom Chaney and see that justice is done. On the recommendation of local law enforcement, Mattie hires Deputy U.S. Marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn because he's the meanest. He's also a drunk, probably a racist and he doesn't like little girls very much, but he likes the idea of Mattie's money and so he takes the job.

Mattie meets up with another lawman, a Texas Ranger called LaBoeuf, who is also hunting Chaney down for another murder. The two men agree to conduct the manhunt together, but neither is very happy when Mattie succeeds in coming along. Mattie's got a lot of "sand" in her, but she's also a prudish, condescending pain in the ass. The tough journey the three of them make in search of Chaney only takes up about a third of the book, but it's a fascinating exercise in character development to watch how each is changed profoundly by their experience. I liked the book a lot more than I did as a teenager -- it's really funny, and the sense of time and place feels very authentic. I enjoyed the voice of Mattie -- so confident, yet so clueless about her effect on others.

The part of the cover image that you can't read says "with an afterword by Donna Tartt." Tartt, the author of two novels I've been meaning to read, also reads this audiobook. She has a pleasant, Southern-tinged voice that is pretty perfect for young Mattie. Even though Mattie is an elderly woman telling us her story, Tartt thankfully doesn't attempt to sound old. I disagree, though, with her interpretation of Mattie's coolness and unflappability. She reads the novel way too flat emotionally, with barely an acknowledgement of Mattie's moments of panic and fear, not to mention grief.

Tartt reads her own afterword, which is an essay on her lasting affection for the novel. I appreciated the way she revisited sections of the story to support her points, and that the quoted sections came from the audiobook.

Nearly every other character in the novel is male and Tartt attempts to create distinct voices for Rooster, LaBoeuf, Tom Chaney and another nasty bandit, Lucky Ned Pepper. She's not terribly consistent with her voices, and -- in many places -- I could not easily determine who was speaking. Her attempt at a Spanish accent for another character fails completely.

I don't mean to pile on, but the recording itself wasn't very good either. There were gulps and swallows, lip smacks, breath intakes and all manner of bodily noises pretty much constantly throughout the recording. Now, I believe these sounds show up all the time when books are being recorded and the publishers simply do their voodoo and excise them. Did Recorded Books deliberately choose not to edit out the sounds because Tartt is not a professional narrator (although she has recorded her own novels)?

The 1969 movie ended differently than the novel (which I didn't remember). Now that I've done my homework (and, despite my criticisms, I enjoyed it), I'm very curious to see what the talented Coen brothers will do with the material.

True Grit by Charles Portis
Narrated by Donna Tartt
Recorded Books, 2006. 6:30 (unabridged)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pianoforte Needlework Necromancy

Does this ever happen to you? I read about a book (or an author) and then place a hold and weeks later when it appears, I go huh? There's more of a "huh?" in the case of Interlibrary Loan, because I don't see the book title every time I scan my holds list. At some point in the last couple months, I read someone's blog saying that T.H. White's version of the Arthur legends are the best. I found an audiobook of The Sword in the Stone using World Cat, did the voodoo and forgot about it. Then, it appears ... like magic! Of course, when an ILL (I always like seeing where the books come from, don't you? Thank you Douglas County Library System!) arrives, everything on the listening list gets moved down one because these aren't renewable.

(And even though I enjoyed this, I'm really not a big enough Arthur fan to commit to another 24 hours to wrap up the five-novel saga.)

Young Arthur, parentage unknown (to him), is being raised in the castle of the noble knight Sir Ector and is friend and companion to his son, Kay. Arthur, who is called the Wart by all in the castle, will likely become Kay's squire when Kay becomes a knight himself. Wart is a sweet-natured boy (unlike Kay), and when Kay proposes that they take the young falcon, Cully and put him through his paces, Wart obligingly agrees. Of course, neither boy can control the bird, who flies away. Kay -- unwilling to take responsibility -- stomps back to the castle, while Wart soldiers on into the Forest Sauvage trying to re-capture him. Lost and frightened, he stumbles across the cottage of an old man, who introduces himself as Merlyn.

Merlyn announces that he will become Wart's tutor. He and Wart travel back to the castle and embark on his education. Merlyn is a magician (pointy hat and all) and can transform Wart into various living creatures -- transformations designed to instill leadership qualities into the boy and to broaden his experiences. Because Merlyn is living life in reverse and he knows what's going to happen: That Wart will come upon the sword in the stone, pull it out, and by doing so he will prove that he is the man to rule England.

This novel is full of hilarious anachronisms -- mostly courtesy of Merlyn's knowledge of the future -- but occasionally they are just, ridiculously, there. (The heading of this post is the sign outside the cottage of a local she-witch, Madame Mim, which goes on to say: "No hawkers, circulars or income tax. Beware of the dragon.") There's also a fair amount of rollicking fun with Merlyn's battle to the death with the aforementioned Madame Mim, a tilt between two hapless knights, a dash of Robin Wood (whose name has evidently been misunderstood as Hood for centuries), and an exciting rescue from a giant's lair. White includes a fair amount of what we would call environmental activism and the occasional jab at modern (1930s) politics.

I thought this was going to be "litrachure;" it's really just a romp.

A new-to-me narrator, Neville Jason, reads the novel. (Scroll down and listen to this podcast of him chatting about his work. I always enjoy these peeks into the audiobook production process.) As you can hear, he has a lovely speaking voice -- those rounded British vowels, of course; but he understands and perfectly delivers the dry humor in the story.

There are lots of characters for Jason to portray and he skillfully brings out the qualities in each one -- the professorial Merlyn (modeled, as he says in the podcast, on the British politician Tony Benn), the slightly dim Sir Ector, the really dim King Pellinore, petulant Kay, and the curious and impressionable Wart. There's a fair amount of animal life given voice in the novel, but I find that Jason's slightly less successful here -- although I did enjoy the subtle baa's as he voices a sad little goat, many of the creatures that Wart encounters in his transformations all had the same soft, whispery quality that made these episodes blend together a bit in my head.

I'm trying to figure out what it is about Arthur that I can't get into his mythology. While I very much enjoyed Philip Reeve's recent riff on the subject, Here Lies Arthur, I think it must be Franco Nero lip-synching "C'est Moi" as Lancelot in the movie version of Camelot. Oh, the horror! Clearly I should stick with Arthur's youth -- I've always been curious about Kevin Crossley-Holland's trilogy ... which is available through World Cat ... stop me! Stop me!

The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White
Narrated by Neville Jason
Naxos Audiobooks, 2008. 9:41 (unabridged)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Crow brothers

There are some things you just shouldn't ask the Internet, unless you wish to waste vast amounts of time. What, for example, is the difference between fairies and faeries? There's just an awful lot of people with an opinion, but no one cites a source (except, occasionally, Wikipedia). I hate those Q&A websites where you're allowed to vote on which answer you like the best (whether it's right or wrong ... did I have to say that?), but here is the answer to my question that I liked the best (it was as I suspected -- fairies are just namby-pamby cuties with wings).

Laini Taylor's faeries are definitely of the edgy variety. In the first book in her Faeries of Dreamdark series (now repackaged as just Dreamdark), Blackbringer, we are introduced to the intrepid young faerie, Magpie Windwitch. 'Pie is around 100 years old, which makes her fairly youthful in the faerie world, and she is spending her adolescence roaming out in the wide world -- a world full of humans ("mannies"), demons, imps, djinns and other life forms -- restoring order. With her posse of crazy crows (who have a hilarious list of bad habits including smoking, gambling and ham acting), 'Pie hunts down and recaptures demons that those pesky humans have released from the enchanted bottles (think Aladdin) meant to keep them incarcerated for eternity.

One day, 'Pie comes across the opened bottle of a dreadful demon, one she eventually finds out is called Blackbringer. Blackbringer simply absorbs its enemies into a terrifying nothingness. She rushes back to Dreamdark (faerie land) to convince an old djinn named Magruwen to help her capture Blackbringer. She discovers that all is not well in Dreamdark; Blackbringer has preceded her there and the faeries are fighting a losing battle. 'Pie also learns she is destined for great things -- as predicted by her christening -- and that she is the only one who can battle and defeat Blackbringer and bring about harmony in Dreamdark once more.

I got a slow start on this novel, as it took me a week to get through the first three discs. I bogged down in the world-building and kept forgetting where I was in the story, so I'd listen to it again. I don't think this is Taylor's fault; with the broken ankle I just haven't had the opportunity/desire to do some serious, time-consuming listening. [Sometimes, TV is better (eek! I said it!).] But there's a lot to love about this book: an accomplished, mouthy heroine, a nicely realized setting (the caves, castles and nether reaches of Dreamdark are particularly evocative), some high-octane action, a little romance, some delightfully inventive swearing (including skive and blither) and those crows.

Even though this novel was written right here in Portland, Oregon, the audiobook comes straight from a faerie-filled England as read by the talented Davina Porter. Porter is a skilled and experienced narrator who does a fine job of managing a large cast of characters with cleverness and distinction. 'Pie speaks with a Scots accent that is entirely endearing (I love her pet name for her crows, Feather.) The crows don't caw exactly, but their working class voices are raspy and doting. Magruwen is suitably grumpy and slightly menacing, while an imposter queen (whose hair is turned into worms by 'Pie) is imperious and screechy and her paramour is sycophantic. The romantic hero, Talon -- disabled because of his stubby wings -- is a bit dim, but proves worthy of 'Pie. Even the characters we meet once are pretty memorable: Porter does a lovely little cameo of a smart, but naked chicken -- formerly owned by a magician -- who has sought sanctuary with a brood of "human" chickens.

Porter reads the action scenes with verve and enthusiasm and gives the exposition and world-building a delivery that's just quick enough. She's a very good narrator, and I was surprised to learn that I (think) I've only listened to her once.

(Wait! Let me check Audiobook Jukebox! Nope, just the one. Thank goodness for this website, since I lack the tech savvy/interest in making my blog more searchable.)

I love that so many authors of teen literature live here in Portland! We had a mini roaming-authors (a la YALSA's Coffee Klatch) session at a recent meeting where I met Dale Basye, Susan Fletcher, Heather Frederick, April Henry, Nancy Osa, Rosanne Parry, Emily Whitman, and someone whose books I'd never heard of and so I've forgotten her [I am so sorry!]. Author (and librarian) Sara Ryan organized the meeting. Notable (for me, but I'm sure there are others) in their absence: Laini Taylor and L.K. Madigan.

Blackbringer ([Faeries of] Dreamdark, Book 1) by Laini Taylor
Narrated by Davina Porter
Recorded Books, 2008. 11:30