Monday, April 25, 2011

A slip of a girl in a pointy hat

I have really enjoyed reading/listening to Sir Terry Pratchett's books about Tiffany Aching, the Hag o' the Hills. In I Shall Wear Midnight, Tiffany has pretty much finished with her training, and is efficiently tending to the needs of the denizens of The Chalk -- aiding the sick, seeing that the dying are comforted at the end, cleaning up after the shenanigans of the Nac Mac Feegle. Her tentative romance with the Baron's son, Roland -- rescued by Tiffany from the nasty Queen of the Fairies -- has evaporated now that he has become engaged to Leticia Keepsake and she's sensing that people are feeling sorry for her. In truth, Tiffany is feeling a little isolated, a little bit of an outsider, and that maybe people are a wee bit frightened of her as she makes her way around The Chalk on her broom in her pointy black hat.

As the story begins, Tiffany helps the old Baron to his peaceful death. Accused of hastening his death and of stealing some money that the Baron gave her, she hies off to the big city (Ankh Morpork) to find Roland and tell him that his father has died. Along the way -- accompanied by the Feegles, who love the feeling of their kilts flapping in the wind -- she encounters a terribly evil presence. It doesn't have substance, it's just a feeling. When Tiff arrives in London, she meets up with a very old witch who tells her that the presence is the Cunning Man, witch-hunter and -hater. Discworld's witches manage to control him, but every once in a while a spell mistakenly releases him, and he takes human form (by finding a body to take over) in order to wreak his havoc. When Tiffany kissed the Wintersmith, she unwittingly unleashed the Cunning Man (it didn't help that Leticia also tried to hex her). Now it's up to Tiffany to send him away again.

I find these books to be hilarious. Pratchett has such a way with wordplay that the puns, the plays on words or phrases, and the miscellaneous jokes keep a smile perpetually on one's face while listening. At the very beginning of this novel, Pratchett does a whole riff on the chalk figure of the Rude Man (Cerne Abbas Giant) that is quite funny, without being the slightest bit ribald. And another great scene takes place at the King's Head where Tiffany manages to track down Roland, Leticia and Leticia's gorgon of a mother, Lady Keepsake (or is she a lady?). And then there are the Feegles. Always good for a laugh, or twenty. I'm going to miss the Feegles.

Stephen Briggs does the narrating honors, as he does for all of Tiffany's adventures (plus a few more of Pratchett's Discworld novels). He reads very quickly (very) and has an emphatic, staccato-like delivery. It could be annoying, except that his dry humor is a perfect match for Pratchett's. His speed trips him up just a few times. Briggs' characterizations are quite skilled -- he manages quite a large cast of characters mostly without caricature. (Some of the characters are caricatures by nature, of course.) He does girls and women without sounding femmy and he brings out the English class differences with ease.

And then there are the Feegles (I'm repeating myself). Rob Anybody and his gang of mischief makers are truly brought to life through Briggs' brogue. In this novel, we meet another Feegle (who doesna know he's a Feegle): Wee Mad Arthur. He bests the Feegles in a barroom brawl. Crivens! They are a literary creation worthy of ... well, J.Lo!

The title of this novel refers to Tiffany's habit of not (yet) wearing black, as most witches do. When I am an old woman, she says, I shall wear midnight. This seems to be inspired by a poem called Warning by Jenny Joseph, which seems an odd choice for a book for teenagers. Not so odd, though, for a man who appears to be facing his own mortality with calm, grace and great humor. Check out this video. He wore pajamas!

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett
Narrated by Stephen Briggs
HarperAudio, 2010. 9:46

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bus of fools

Continuing the discussion of authors reading their own work, I present the talented Amy Tan. My copy of the audiobook has a special oval to the right of the image that says "Read by the Author!" (Exclamation mark is included.) Alas, I cannot recommend this audiobook in any way. Saving Fish from Drowning fails on many, many levels.

A sophisticated and successful San Francisco art dealer, Bibi Chen has meticulously planned a Christmas/New Year's tour of out-of-the-way must-see locations in southwest China and its neighbor, Burma (called Myanmar by the military regime [per the CIA World Factbook] that has ruled the country for the last 22 years) for 12 close (and wealthy) friends. Unfortunately, Bibi dies under mysterious circumstances just days before departure. Her 12 friends decide to take the trip in her memory; Bibi -- by now an unsettled ghost -- is able to accompany them and she tells the story of their ill-starred journey.

The traveling group might have been friends with Bibi, but they are not friends with each other and there's considerable adjustment in the first days of the trip. Without Bibi to guide them, they make poor decisions at seemingly every opportunity. When one of their crew uses a grotto in Yunnan's Stone Bell Temple as a urinal, a local chief curses them, and the group decides to leave China and head to Burma earlier than scheduled. Bibi -- by now fully aware of the bad luck haunting this trip -- knows this is a bad idea. Settling in at a resort on Inle Lake, Bibi's friends set out for a early morning lake cruise and a Christmas Day surprise from some local villagers. Instead, they are abducted by men from a Karen (pronounced care-ENN) village -- who are hopeful that the teenage boy they have spotted doing card tricks is the long-awaited Younger White Brother. According to legend, Younger White Brother will free the Karen from the oppressive Burmese junta and lead them to victory.

One of the travelers was unwell the morning of the cruise and is not taken with the others. While the 11 slowly adjust to their predicament (they believe they have been stranded in the village because a rickety suspension bridge has collapsed), Harry Bailley -- celebrity dog trainer, a la The Dog Whisperer -- ineptly attempts to find his friends (Harry is the one who peed in the temple).

[If I knew how to caption images, I would tell you that Inle Lake is very near to Taunggyi on this map of Burma found via Wikimedia Commons. And now I see that it is impossible to actually see Taunggyi, so I will tell you that it is the spot roughly in the middle right (not on the river). While I'm giving credit, this post's title is a wholesale theft from the New York Times Book Review.]

If you are familiar with Amy Tan's work, you know that this is a departure from her domestic fiction of modern Chinese Americans coming to terms with their families' histories. And I don't mean to belittle her work with that simplistic description -- I love the sweeping drama of those histories and the authentic emotions that result from their exploration. I've read all but one of her novels. But Saving Fish from Drowning is a disaster. I think it's supposed to be funny, perhaps even ironic, but Tan's touch is so heavy that it appears almost desperate to please. There's nothing subtle going on, which makes it difficult to take seriously the way she tries to expose both the traveler's ugly American-ness and the horrors of the Burmese government.

Then, there's Tan's narration. Oy vey! It is so bad that I can only quote from this review from Publisher's Weekly: "When Amy Tan walks into a bookstore and reads from her work, the audience is enthralled by her very presence. But an audio recording is an art form and a performance, not an author appearance. Some authors excel as performers ... but Tan is not gifted with an actor's range. Alone in a studio, Tan does not do justice to her own work. Words melt when Tan drops her voice at the end of sentences--and even in the middle. It sounds as if she is rocking back and forth in front of the microphone, or perhaps looking down and away from the mike to study the text."

Her inability to individually voice her large cast of characters doesn't help (and when she tries to -- as she does with a few British characters -- it's cringingly unsuccessful). About three discs in, I grabbed a copy of the book so I could figure out who was who. This helped immensely going on, but the book is still too lengthy for its unskilled narrator to sustain interest. She seemed uncomfortable reading the sexy or scatological sections, and her voice grew very lulling and fakishly sincere when she was describing the tragedies endured by the Karen. I was finished with the story and its characters long before I actually finished.

Which I did. Because that's what I do.

No more Amy Tan narrations for me. A long time ago (before I kept track using my reading log), I listened to her read -- jointly with the actress Joan Chen -- The Bonesetter's Daughter. I don't remember feeling that she was so egregiously bad then ... have my ears just gotten so much more sophisticated? Probably. But I agree with the PW reviewer, who says: "Hopefully, she will leave future recordings to someone who can give her novels the breadth they deserve." Please.

Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan
Narrated by the author
Brilliance Audio, 2005. 18:28


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Just a little Odd

There's a small universe of narrators to which I would listen to anything they read, and I think I'm going to have to add Neil Gaiman to this list. Of course, Gaiman only reads his own books -- which shrinks the offerings a little, but that's not necessarily a bad thing since my brain is already spilling over with all the audiobooks I want to listen to. Odd and the Frost Giants is a little slip of a tale that Gaiman wrote to celebrate World Book Day (in 2008?). There's something intriguing about the fact that Gaiman's most recent chapter books for children have characters named Bod and Odd.

Odd is an unlucky boy. His dad handled horses for conquering Vikings, and he died from hypothermia after saving one of his charges. His mother -- originally captured by the berserkering Norsemen from her home in Scotland -- has remarried someone named Fat Alfred, who really doesn't like Odd.
The boy badly injured his leg while chopping wood and now he can't walk without pain. And the exceedingly long winter is making Odd particularly cranky. He heads to his family's isolated old cabin to wait out the cold. A fox appears at his door one day and Odd understands that he must follow it.

Odd and the fox are trailed by an eagle flying overhead, and after much arduous walking, they come across an enormous bear who has trapped himself while greedily scooping honey out of a cleft in a tree. Odd frees the bear and soon discovers that the animals are bespelled Norse gods. Odin (eagle), Thor (bear), and Loki (fox) have been tricked by the Frost Giants, who have succeeded in removing them from their home in Asgard. Odd decides to help them and the rest of the novella is a funny, gentle tale of a clever boy outwitting those who are bigger and stronger.

I like this cover better. It's the original (?) edition, published for World Book Day. It just makes the novel look a whole lot more interesting than that thick blue framed image.

Gaiman packs so much into this little story -- perfect little character studies, precise descriptions of the natural landscape, sly humor and even a gentle lesson about who is more powerful -- the smart one or the strong one. And with the author to read it aloud to you, well ... it goes down easy. His distinctive voice is very pleasant to listen to, he reads his work smoothly and with lots of expression. The three Norse gods each has an individual voice; I really liked the harshness with which Gaiman shouted eagle Odin's single-word pronouncements. The Frost Giant's loud bluster is electronically altered (unnecessarily, in my opinion), but he still sounds like a huge, very dim creature.

I listened to Odd for a brief break in a very long audiobook I've been working through that also happens to be read by its author. Which has led me to think about what makes a good author/narrator:
  • We understand you are a writer, not a performer. Read with emotion, without emoting.
  • Familiarity shouldn't breed contempt. An author should read his/her work as if it were as fresh as the day they wrote it.
  • Be present as you read. Your every word might not be gold nuggets, but we want to hear them anyway.
  • Accept your limitations (we do). Yes, your characters might have a distinguishing accent or vocal mannerisms. But if you can't do this, please don't try.
I think most listeners who listen a lot understand we're having a unique experience listening to an author read the book. It's not that our expectations are lower, they are just different. But we can be demanding when the author just isn't cutting it.

Gaiman exceeds expectations, and is as good a reader of his own work as Philip Pullman. Who else is good? Hmmm ... I went through the reading log I've been keeping since 2003, and I've listened to 17 authors read their work. Six of these were memoirs of various sorts, which is a different kettle of fish, reading-wise. Of the other 11, Sherman Alexie and Louis Sachar stand out with Gaiman and Pullman; while Catherine Gilbert Murdock and Stephanie Hemphill should simply not do it again. So, of the 11, there are just two who really fail ... I'd say this belies the truism that authors shouldn't read their own material. Most authors bring idiosyncrasies to their readings that would be unacceptable if they were reading another's work, but they seem to be just fine reading their own.

Most of the time ... [dum, da dum dum]

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman
Narrated by the author
HarperAudio, 2009. 1:46

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Disordered

The Mermaid's Mirror is my 20th audiobook this year. That makes me -- over at Teresa's Reading Corner -- certifiably Obsessed. Now there's news. I'm about 10 days ahead of last year, except that my listening year didn't officially start until after the Odyssey Award, so I think I'm going at the same clip.

As for my other challenge, I'm just under 40% (157) of 400 hours.

Now, back to the 19-hour monster that's in my ears.

Swimmingly

So, what I said earlier about liking the fact that authors are dead so that there is a limited universe of their work does not apply when the author is just getting started and needs more time to write more books. It does not apply to Siobhan Dowd, nor to L.K. Madigan. Madigan, a Portland author, died last month way too young. She'd published just two books: Flash Burnout, winner of the 2010 William C. Morris Debut YA Novel Award, and The Mermaid's Mirror. I really enjoyed Flash Burnout and so, in Madigan's honor, I downloaded The Mermaid's Mirror for a listen.

Lena has grown up near the Pacific Ocean, but her father has forbidden her to learn to surf. He suffered a near-fatal accident about the time that Lena's mother died and has been afraid to get back on his board. He remarried, and Lena has lived in a secure and loving home with her parents and her younger brother Cole. At 16, Lena begins to chafe under her father's proscription and she begins to learn to surf in secret. She's also been having some odd physical episodes: She's sleepwalked to an isolated beach cove, entered a fugue state several times, and fainted on a trip to San Francisco. During another visit to that cove, Lena is certain that she saw a head and shoulders bobbing in the waves. She hopes the surfing lessons will enable her to paddle out and see for certain what is out there.

What is there, of course, is a mermaid. And when Lena risks her life trying to reach her, the mermaid saves her, slipping an old-fashioned, golden key into her hand. When Lena finds the object opened by that key, she learns a family secret that makes her deeply (I thought too deeply) angry.

Oh, for heaven's sake! Spoiler: Lena's mother is a mermaid! [Doesn't the lore of mermaids come from sailors' sightings of manatees? These Florida manatees come via the Encyclopedia of Life.]

Lena follows her mother -- using her mother's sealskin cloak to help her lungs breathe water -- into the merpeople's kingdom. And I won't spoil it any more than that.

Sadly, I didn't much care for this. I found Lena whiny and tantrum-prone. Her journey wasn't so much one of personal growth and discovery (a natural for a teen novel), as a selfish run to the parent that "understands" her. The time under the sea turned into a teen romance -- complete with a merman with chiseled chest (no, no ... not the chest!) and green-gold hair. The other characters in the novel weren't very interesting or original (except maybe for her stepmother's nurse-midwife mother, who delivered Lena in secret, just in case there were complications ... but that's another novel). I wasn't ever in any doubt about which world Lena would choose, and when she does choose she seemed to throw off the losing parent with no long-lasting heartache (considering how much complaining she had done earlier).

And I think part of why I didn't like Lena was that the novel's narrator, Katie Schorr, seemed only to be able to portray Lena's whiny side. Her soft, high-pitched voice had a sameness that grew tiresome to listen to. There was also a fair amount of painful sibilance. (I think that this condition -- which is pretty much in all our voices -- is exacerbated in downloadable books ... is it my cheap player?) There are many opportunities to sing in the novel, but nearly all of the lyrics are spoken. Some of the songs are originals, so I didn't understand why there wasn't singing. I wouldn't have noticed this particularly, except that one song was sung (several times) -- an adaptation (I think) of "By the Light of the Silvery Moon." Schorr's singing voice is lovely and I wish I'd been able to hear more of it.

Did you notice on Schorr's website that she refers to narrating this book for Audible.com (about halfway down the "Latest News"). The book's ending credits refer to Audible, but gives the copyright to Brilliance Audio. (I've deleted it which means I can't quote it exactly.) I knew that Amazon.com acquired Brilliance, which I thought made them a direct competitor to Audible. And then there's the whole Audible download vs. Overdrive download. It's best that I don't think about these things ...

The Mermaid's Mirror by L.K. Madigan
Narrated by Katie Schorr
Brilliance Audio, 2010. 7:23

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

I never think about the future -- it comes soon enough (Albert Einstein, 1930)

There's been a lot of discussion lately in children's literature circles of the appeal of dystopian fiction. Do readers like it because it helps to control their anxieties about the future? That things will never get as bad as they are in Panem, in New Pretty Town, in the Traction Cities? If this is the case (and I'm not sure it is), readers will want to stay away from Saci Lloyd's Carbon Diaries novels. These take place in a way-closer future with a disturbingly possible premise. Unlike a lot of dystopic novels, these aren't escapist.

I read the first installment about a year ago, and just finished up its sequel: The Carbon Diaries 2017. Laura Brown is our diarist and her observations about her world turned upside down with the introduction of carbon rationing by the government of Great Britain are hilarious, poignant and chastening. Laura lives in a suburb of London and lives for her punk rock girl band, the Dirty Angels. The carbon rationing is majorly inconvenient, but at the end of her diary's year we believe she's adjusted.

The sequel takes place two years later and things are a bit more precarious. Laura's now a college student, but her study time is spent looking for decent housing and scrabbling for carbon credits. The government is showing less and less tolerance for peaceful protest from its citizens. A terrorist group -- calling itself 2 after the 2°C rise in global temperatures that will bring about irreversible climate change -- engages in random attacks. Laura jumps at the chance to tour with the Dirty Angels in Europe, but she can't escape the world's problems. One band member (token male, token black and Laura's boyfriend) decides he must travel to Africa to help the drought-stricken refugees there, but he contracts malaria and the rest of the group must hustle to Italy to save him. As they try to make their way back to London, they encounter human suffering and government ineptitude beyond their experience. Laura never loses her sense of humor, but she's a different girl at the end of this novel.

I like these a lot. The combination of humor and horror is captivating. I read to learn what happens next in this plausible scenario, but I really enjoy what Laura thinks of what happened next. Laura's self-centered focus on her band and her life's dramas seems teen friendly, but the book doesn't stop there: Laura knows there's a wider world out there with bigger problems. This seems a really spot-on teenage viewpoint. Lloyd (whose first name is pronounced SAH-chee ... yay, audiobooks!) teaches this age group at what appears to be a post-high-school/pre-college institution. She's drawn from her experiences to create the characters of Laura and her friends.

A reader named Kate Harbour narrates the book. Her vocal talents might be familiar to listeners far younger than the audience for this book: fans of Shaun the Sheep or Bob the Builder. I guess it goes without saying that I've never heard her before ... although maybe I have -- isn't there a Shaun the Sheep short film before that pretty darn delightful chicken movie?

Anyway, Harbour's amazing! She pretty much creates an original voice for each one of the people in this novel. And while some are a little less distinctive than others (I had trouble differentiating between Laura's two close girlfriends), and some are kind of oddly distinct (Laura's mother -- an American -- has a strange gravelly delivery that sounds slightly off), the whole package is quite a narrative tour de force. I think it's a whole lot easier to voice a big cast of characters when many of the characters aren't human -- the exaggeration required to make the distinct voices seems a whole lot less exaggerated when the speaker is an alien/elf/droid, etc. Harbour doesn't have this option.

She's also delightful as Laura herself. Laura's smart, opinionated, emotional and really, really funny. Her diary entries are these micro-views of a world gone crazy, and Laura can't keep from rolling her eyes (in prose). Harbour expertly voices the changes that Laura undergoes in 2017; as the horrors mount, Laura's voice grows quieter and less rambunctious: I can hear her exhaustion. I also enjoyed Harbour's few trips into the world of punk music, as she growled and yelled the lyrics of the Dirty Angels. She should do more audiobooks.

The most recent dystopian novel I read is like The Carbon Diaries in its scary reality. I eye-read Andy Mulligan's Trash because it was the only book in School Library Journal's most recent Battle of the Kids' Books 2010 I hadn't already read. It's a thrilling adventure, and it was only defeated by the contest's winner.

The Carbon Diaries 2017 by Saci Lloyd
Narrated by Kate Harbour
AudioGO, 2010. 9:19

Farewell to Narnia

There's something satisfying about being done. This is particularly satisfying to a reader like me, since I read a fair number of series-type books -- both adult and children -- and I'm most definitely a finisher. (Talk to me about the knitting project I have now dubbed "too big to fail.") As I was working my way through the endless list of Agatha Christie novels as a young reader, I was so relieved to discover Dorothy L. Sayers, who had only written eleven Peter Wimsey stories. There won't be any more, she's dead! (Well, there are some more, but only as a technicality.)

C.S. Lewis is also dead! And so is Narnia. I've finished The Last Battle -- having listened to each of the seven novels, beginning six-and-a-half years ago (just two are covered in this blog). King Tirian is ruling over Narnia, but he is helpless when the evil Calormenes invade at the instigation of a very ambitious ape named Shift who has figured out how to impersonate the lion Aslan. Aslan has long been absent from Narnia, so when he "reappears" the humans and Talking Beasts of Narnia are quick to do his bidding -- which is to accept the invading Calormenes and their god/leader Tash. King Tirian and his faithful unicorn advisor, Jewel, are imprisoned; and in a last, desperate plea he calls upon the old rulers and friends of Narnia to help him.

Eustace and Jill appear in Tirian's prison and -- even though the odds are against them -- vow to help the King save Narnia. The other Kings and Queens arrive as well. All is nearly lost when Aslan appears, but it is too late for Narnia. Even so, Aslan escorts them out of a darkened and destroyed Narnia into an even more wonderful new world. Spoiler: We learn that all the children who visited Narnia -- the Pevensies and Eustace and Jill -- have been killed in a railroad accident in their (our) world!

Can you say Christian allegory? Aside from Aslan living again after his death in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, this destruction of the world and emergence into an even better place seems the most Christian moment in the entire series. Very Left Behind (which I've never read). Like all the Narnia books, these read very old-fashioned to me: Lots and lots of talk, without much action. And that's OK. I really enjoyed Lewis' loving descriptions of Narnia's landscape.

Despite The Rapture, The Last Battle is a bit of a downer. The enslavement of the Talking Beasts is disturbing, as is King Tirian's bottomless despair as he is held captive. The terrible battles where Cair Paravel's inhabitants are slaughtered by the Calormenes, and where the Narnians take their last stand are fairly frightening. Narnia's gradual destruction brings the story down further. I don't remember this much violence in any of the other stories.

Actor Patrick Stewart reads the book. He's got that rich, deep bardic voice that lends itself very well to the relative vastness and sweep of the novel. He reads with an intensity that serves the story's wildly divergent emotional swings. A listener feels the pain of an enslaved Talking Horse, the despair of King Tirian, even the barely disguised fear of young Eustace. Stewart largely steers clear of dramatic characterizations, his interpretations are more subtle, but it's still easy to follow conversations.

HarperAudio published all seven books in audio format beginning in 2000, employing some well-known British actors (to U.S. listeners) to read them. Stewart is probably the most familiar (do I have to say why?). Evidently, there was a perfectly good set produced in the 1990s from Chivers Audio (absorbed [?] by BBC Audiobooks, now called AudioGO), all read by Andrew Sachs. (One wonders why it took so long to get these books -- published in the 1950s -- an audio version at all.) It must be a commercial decision, but I know there's a number of British-produced audiobooks that I'd like to listen to ... no American mediation required. (One of these is coming up ...)

The Last Battle (Chronicles of Narnia) by C.S. Lewis
Narrated by Patrick Stewart
HarperAudio, 2004. 4:51