Friday, August 26, 2011

Shakespeare slept here

The final book finished on the summer's great road trip was a work of nonfiction: The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl. Taking his cue from Shakespeare's testimony in a financial dispute (the only time the Bard's words were recorded and acknowledged to be his by his signature), Nicholl creates a vivid picture of the playwright and actor in middle age, what life was like in Jacobean London, and how Shakespeare's tenure on the corner of Silver and Muggle (the locals' shortened version of Monkwell) Streets may have influenced such plays as King Lear, All's Well That Ends Well, and Pericles.

Shakespeare's testimony in the 1612 case of Belott v. Mountjoy (recorded verbatim on the second page of text in this PDF) was unearthed by an American researcher in 1909 (much to the horror of many British scholars) and tells us that he assisted his landlady, Marie Mountjoy, to convince her family's apprentice, Stephen Belott, to marry her daughter, Mary, in 1604. The Mountjoys were French Huguenots (Calvinists) who had fled to England following the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. Once in London, they became very successful "tirers" -- creators of elaborate headdresses -- who counted the Queen among their clientele. According to the lawsuit, Mary's father Christopher had promised the young couple a dowry, but eight years later, Christopher had yet to pay out.

Nicholl uses a very charming "we" voice to speculate a great deal about Shakespeare in his 40s -- why he sought to live at a slight distance from his theatrical cronies, what he might have seen coming and going from the Mountjoy's tire shop, how he may have formed relationships with the less-salubrious (including the owner of a brothel who later collaborated with him on his play Pericles) denizens of Cripplegate, and the affectionate, paternal relationship he may have developed with Mary that may be the result of her own father's distance and/or cruelty. It's fascinating stuff, and it is written in such an avuncular and accessible style that "we" want to keep listening. (Only once did my ears glaze over, during an especially lengthy and detailed description of the tires of Jacobean London.)

Simon Vance contributes to this accessibility, I think. His low, pleasant voice invites us to be a part of Nicholl's "we." He's just telling us this fascinating story over a pint in a London pub. Throughout the book, he has the opportunity to orate -- to recreate a passage from a Shakespeare play or sonnet, or another primary document. When individuals are speaking from these documents, Vance provides the appropriate accent -- Huguenot immigrant, cockney brothel keeper, loving daughter, even Shakespeare himself (who has a little bit of a country accent).

Since I've listened to Vance read two nonfiction titles practically back-to-back (purely by accident), I just need to add that there is a nonfiction narrative technique that he -- and others -- employ that I just don't like. (Although in a post on another nonfiction title earlier this year, I said that this technique was "appropriate" [for goodness sake, Lee, make up your mind!].) I fully understand why they read this way and can't offer an alternative way to satisfy the requirements of the text.

Here it is: When an author incorporates a quotation (either a person speaking or simply a passage from someone else's material) in the middle of a sentence, narrators inevitably take a dramatic pause and read the quoted section in another voice -- a set of auditory quotation marks. To my listening ear, this sounds dreadfully awkward and artificial. But how else are we supposed to know that the author is quoting? I suppose it would be worse if the narrator actually said the word "quote." No matter how much I love listening (and enjoy listening to nonfiction), the medium can occasionally fail. It's a question of weighing the two and, for me, the medium ultimately outweighs the artificiality of the "quotation marks." You'll be relieved to know [ ;-) ], I'm not going to stop listening to nonfiction.

[The portrait of Shakespeare is believed to be from around the time he was living on Silver Street (1610), and was possibly painted by John Taylor. It resides at the National Portrait Gallery (the first portrait acquired for its collection), and this image was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl
Narrated by Simon Vance
Tantor Audio, 2008. 9:00

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Under the sea

When we last saw Jacky Faber, she was sprawled on the sand in France after some misadventures on a German battlefield, awaiting a bullet in her head. Fortunately, fiancé Jaimy Fletcher and personal servant and friend John Higgins hustle her aboard the Nancy B. Alsop and hie across the English Channel to London. Jacky prepares to wed (finally!). But, oh no ... British Naval Intelligence believe she's still in service to them and Jacky and friends find themselves headed to the Caribbean for a little treasure hunting.

Yes, I'm at book the seventh: Rapture of the Deep: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Soldier, Sailor, Mermaid, Spy. The British have noted Jacky's excellent swimming abilities and they send her off, accompanied by the H.M.S. Dolphin (the ship upon which Jacky first sailed the seas), to bring up the golden treasure that sunk with a Spanish warship many years before. The British have a newfangled diving bell -- a device that hangs below the ocean's surface, but has a pocket of air held there by the pressure of the water. A diver can explore the ocean floor holding her breath, returning to the bell (rather than the surface) for air.

Jacky is reluctant to participate, and then she thinks about siphoning off some of the treasure. She rigs herself up a bathing suit and a pair of goggles for efficiency and gets to work. Of course, this being Jacky's story, a lot of other things are going on as well: several chaste nights of spooning with Jaimy, an alligator attack, buying (and freeing) a slave in South Carolina (who becomes the ship's cook "Aunt" Jemima, and who tells Brother Rabbit stories to entertain the crew), training a rooster for cockfighting, pirate mutiny, a sea battle or two, and several doublecrosses over the Spanish gold. Another satisfying outing.

Katherine Kellgren. Up to her usual great job. Excellent narration, terrific character studies (some Spanish pirates and sailors are particularly good), singing, laughing, crying, shouting. The cockfighting and battle descriptions are breathlessly thrilling, Jacky's moments with Jaimy tender and touching. Ho hum. I guess the surprise would be if she didn't perform to the very high bar she has set.

This audiobook concludes with a lengthy conversation between Kellgren and author L.A. Meyer. They sound so natural here, chatting like old friends. I learned that Lou's original inspiration came while listening to music while framing pictures in his studio one day -- all those ballads about young girls disguising themselves as boys began forming the idea in his head. He has written the final Bloody Jack adventure, but he's not ready to publish it. Katy has consulted with vocal coaches to get some of the accents right. She keeps the voices of recurring characters on her iPod and calls them up when she needs a refresher (I know that Jim Dale does this as well).

Mary Burkey recently posted a short clip of Kellgren narrating a bit of an upcoming Bloody Jack (book the ninth) at her blog, Audiobooker. With at least three more books to go (and probably more), I think I'll just take to posting that I listened to it and yeah ... it was great!

[The engraving of Edmund Halley's Diving Bell was retrieved from PortCities UK. The original engraving is held by the National Maritime Museum.]

Rapture of the Deep: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Soldier, Sailor, Mermaid, Spy by L.A. Meyer
Narrated by Katherine Kellgren
Listen and Live Audio, 2010. 12:20

Wolf at the door

Two years ago, I needed to read Kathleen Kent's The Heretic's Daughter for one of our new book trainings for teachers, and when I was browsing the outreach shelves for audiobooks to take on our road trip, I spotted her latest title: The Wolves of Andover. I was looking for a mix of genres from which to choose, but I think the reason we selected this title to listen to was because it was one of the relatively short ones on our auto bookshelf. Nevertheless, we both enjoyed it. Kent writes about her 17th century New England ancestors with compelling suspense and an eye for detail.

In 1673, Martha Allen is sent from Andover by her father to help a cousin, Patience Taylor, in Billerica, Massachusetts. Patience is pregnant and her husband's carting work takes him from the family farm for weeks at a time. Martha -- who is 23, blunt and outspoken, and considered nearly unmarriageable -- is to help manage the household and look after Patience's two children. Also working at the farm are two hired men, Thomas Carrier and John Levistone. They will work the Taylor's land for two years, at the end of which each will be rewarded with a parcel of his own. Martha's keeps a journal in which she writes her most private thoughts -- she is harboring a terrible secret there. And Thomas has a secret of his own.

The novel's setting switches to England. King Charles II, recently restored to the throne following the Interregnum of Oliver Cromwell, hires an assassin. This man, Tiernan Blood (changed from Thomas for the novel), gathers a team of five who will sail to the American Colonies in search of the man who wielded the axe at the beheading of Charles' father, King Charles I, 24 years earlier.

It's not difficult to figure out who the axeman is here; what does make for a good read is how Kent follows the assassins on their journey from London -- alternating with the story of Martha and Thomas as they tentatively explore a relationship, cautious of exposing the horrors of their pasts. She brings the 17th century vividly to life -- full of gore (war, dog fights, childbirth), ceremony (waiting for an audience with the king, a visit from a Puritan preacher), and snippets of daily life (the community grain harvest, the death of a child, the making of a bright red cloak). Wolves do make an appearance -- as they seek the Taylor's lambs and chickens -- but it's the human wolves one should be most wary of in this novel.

Ellen Archer is the narrator. I've only heard her read once before, and this performance is much, much better. The novel is relatively short, and she reads it with an appropriate energy that keeps it moving along. There are a wide range of characterization opportunities -- English of a variety of social classes, the Welsh Carrier and the Scot Levistone, a few Dutchmen, and the American colonists. She seems comfortable voicing them all, and can portray both men and women in a realistic way.

There is a long passage, recorded by Martha in her journal, where Thomas is telling the story of the King's death that gets a little tedious. Archer has chosen to voice Thomas as the large man he is described to be -- by making his speech patterns slow and deliberate. This works fine in dialogue, but becomes ponderous at length. Oddly, the story itself is riveting. We were dead quiet in the car, hanging on every word.

Kent is a descendent of Martha Allen Carrier (evidently there are a large number of them), proud of Martha's refusal to admit to witchery in order to save her life 18 years later in Salem, Massachusetts. Cotton Mather called her a "rampant hag" (you go girl!). She wrote about this last part of Martha's life in her first novel. As someone whose knowledge of these trials didn't extend far beyond Arthur Miller's The Crucible, I liked learning that Martha died with John Proctor.

For some reason known only to the publisher's marketing staff, The Wolves of Andover is being renamed The Traitor's Wife in paperback. I guess they seek symmetry with The Heretic's Daughter, but she spends very little time as a wife in the story. Have you ever heard of metaphor, people?

[The photograph of Daniel Mijtens the Elder's portrait of Charles I, hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was uploaded by PKM. Wikimedia Commons considers that "faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain."

Alas, the photograph of Martha Carrier's memorial stone in Salem, Massachusetts was retrieved from a website of which I am too ashamed to mention by name, although I admit to a vast curiosity about why the image is located there.]

The Wolves of Andover by Kathleen Kent
Narrated by Ellen Archer
Hachette Audio, 2010. 8:42

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Never complain, never explain (H. Ford)

The Complaints was our entertainment during our lengthy drive from Portland to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks this month. Upon arrival, we had to do a little bit of extra driving around to finish off the last 66 minutes because we didn't have access to a player (and as I type this, I give myself the dope slap -- I had my laptop, duh!) outside of the car. Sitting in the car in a hot, exposed burn area, we then tried to make sense of what we had just finished. Alas, I'm still not entirely clear, but I think author Ian Rankin likes it that way.

Rankin has retired (he's not dead is he? ... I'm not up to the last novel yet) legendary Inspector John Rebus, and he's moved to another department in the Lothian and Borders Police, the Professional Standards Unit, otherwise known as Complaints and Conduct. This is where the police police themselves (in the U.S., it's usually called Internal Affairs?), its officers are sarcastically referred to as The Complaints. On the surface, Inspector Malcolm Fox is the antithesis of his literary predecessor -- sober, connected to family, willing to work with others, preferring birdsong on the radio to classic rock; plus you get the feeling he may have had a run-in or two with Rebus -- yet as we get to know him, we see the a similar independent streak and crafty intelligence. It shouldn't surprise you to learn that Fox himself gets suspended, but he still can't stop solving the crime(s).

Said crime involves real estate gone bust, an online pedophile ring, the murder of Fox's sister's abusive boyfriend, and more that all twist together into something that makes a little sense. I still can't get my head around the deus ex machina who appears near the end of the novel and explains why they had to manipulate Fox so ... but ten days later, I really don't care. I like the metaphor of Fox, and that everyone is the novel is complaining about something. Rankin's writing is pure pleasure and -- having recently been there -- I love the way that Edinburgh is always a central character.

The audiobook is in fine hands in the voice of narrator Peter Forbes. Forbes reads with a pleasant Scottish burr that he adapts and tempers depending on who is speaking. Characters are pretty easy to tell apart, although I experienced occasional confusion when Fox and the other main male character, Jamie Breck, are conversing. For an author who propels his plot along with a lot of dialogue, Rankin doesn't write a lot of "Fox said"s. Everyone sounds like a real person and considering the large size of the cast of characters, this is a great narrator job. Forbes keeps the complex story moving along.

I blame myself for not really understanding the story's conclusion; I don't think it's difficult to sustain concentration as one listens to books in substantial chunks (much larger chunks than I'm used to), but maybe I zoned out somewhere in Idaho. Rebus novels (which I have only eye-read) are often confusing, but I'm always able to leaf back to clarify something. Maybe I'll test myself by listening to an upcoming Rebus novel and reading the next Malcolm Fox.

[The rather amusing Wikimedia complaint flowchart can be viewed in all its glory if you click on it. It was designed by Cary Bass and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Complaints by Ian Rankin
Narrated by Peter Forbes
AudioGO, 2011. 12:16

Truth is stranger than fiction

I've mentioned before that I enjoy listening to adult nonfiction, as I find it easier to tune out of (and then tune back in) the elaborate detail sometimes provided while listening rather than reading. I can't remember where I heard of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (British subtitle: or The Murder at Road Hill House; plus somewhere along the U.S. publication trail, the words A Shocking were added before Murder) but when I did, I knew it was right down my alley. The author, Kate Summerscale, posits that Mr. Whicher and the crime he investigated were Wilkie Collins' inspiration for his classic (long considered the first) detective novel, The Moonstone. As I was listening, I marveled at the drama of everyday life because this story does indeed have all the hallmarks of a rattling good yarn.

Samuel Kent lived with his second wife, the many children (eight?) of his first and second marriages, and numerous servants in a large house in rural England. He was your classic Victorian paterfamilias, tyrannical to family and employees, but concerned about what the neighbors thought. Several years earlier, he succeeded in declaring his first wife insane and had her committed to an asylum where she soon died. He then married his children's nursemaid. His older children were essentially banished to the nether regions of the house, while his wife and their children occupied the more comfortable rooms.

On the morning of June 30, 1860, the youngest son of the family -- Saville, just under four years old -- was found to be missing from his bed. Not too many hours later, his body was found stuffed in the privy with multiple stab wounds and a slashed throat. The local constabulary assumed an outside perpetrator, but soon it became clear that the murderer was familiar with both the property and the routines of Road Hill House. One of the brand-new detectives (there were only eight of them at the time) from Scotland Yard -- Jonathan "Jack" Whicher -- is sent to investigate. Pressure from Samuel Kent and a hysterical national press led to the arrest of the nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, but she was soon released. To Whicher, Saville's half-sister Constance -- then 16 years old -- was clearly in the frame. But the Victorians' ideals of family couldn't support such a finding (and Whicher's evidence hinging on a missing bloody nightgown was circumstantial), and the charge was dropped. Five years later, she confessed to the crime. She was sentenced to hang; quickly commuted by Queen Victoria to 20 years incarceration. Following her release, Constance vanished.

And if you think that's the end of the story, many more surprises (unearthed in the 20th century) remain. I was riveted by what Summerscale uncovered and revealed in her very compelling narrative. While it doesn't read like fiction, as we and the author can only speculate about the emotions and motives of the individuals connected with the murder, the story of the Saville Kent murder certainly has enough twists and surprises that your average crime novel might look like an imposter when compared to it. Infanticide! Mental illness! Disease!! Miscarriage!! Romance with the governess!! Religious conversion!!! Sibling rivalry and intense sibling closeness!!! Shocking revelations to descendants!! A character who lives to 100!!! Even Charles Darwin and Jack the Ripper put in appearances.

The effortless Simon Vance narrates here. I say effortless not because he has put no effort into his narration, but because the reading is the clear, smooth work I have come to expect from him. His voice is both pleasant to listen to and utterly authoritative. He reads in a neutral tone to tell the story, but there are multiple opportunities here to add emotion and character as Summerscale includes many, many quotations from the multiple primary sources available to her. Vance's skilled use of accents to designate class differences helps to delineate the story's characters. As the 20th century revelations mount, he increases his intensity to bring things to an astonishing close.

The catalog entry for the audiobook says that it included a six-page genealogical table and house plan, which was long gone from the copy I had. It would have been helpful since the Kent children and servants eventually mostly blended together (plus, I really love a map in a book!), but I ended up just looking at a copy of the print version to satisfy my general curiosity.

Even before I learned that other minds were well ahead of me, I knew this story would make great television. (Here's the trailer, which has a few more spoilers than I've provided.) Shown in the spring in England, hopefully it will be on this side of the pond before too much longer. Like the book, just right for me.

[The image of Constance Kent is from The Encyclopedia of Murder (by Wilson and Pitman) and is now in the public domain; it was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale
Narrated by Simon Vance
HighBridge Audio, 2008. 9:45

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Yo ho ho!

A couple of years ago, school library staff in Oregon created a children's choice award and named it after perhaps the state's most famous writer, Beverly Cleary. It's aimed at readers too young for the ORCA, and my outreach team works hard each fall to get the nominees into the hands of readers in Multnomah County's poorer schools. So, I like to have a passing familiarity with the nominated titles; one of this year's is Megan's McDonald's Judy Moody and Stink: The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt. Long, long ago I listened to the first Judy Moody book and found it fun and entertaining -- and as this installment was only a little more than an hour, spending a little time with the squabbling Moody siblings was no burden at all.

(Listening also brought me over the 400-hour mark for 2011, and was my 50th audiobook. I'm in "Megaphone Shout" territory in the Whisper Stories in My Ear challenge.)

The Moody family is spending a weekend on Okracoke Island (Stink calls it Artichoke Island), and as they step off the ferry they are greeted by a pirate who invites the kids to participate in a pirate treasure hunt. The winner will get a sixteen pieces of eight, a gold doubloon, and the chance to sail on a pirate ship. The clues are rhyming puzzles and will take the searchers all over the island. As they are figuring out the answers, Judy and Stink notice another brother and sister team and identify them as their chief competitors. After a day and a half, the Moodys are triumphant; then they realize that the other kids helped them solve one or two of the clues and so offer to share their pirate booty with them. Oregon kids will like it, but probably not as much as they'll like Nubs (my early guess of the winner).

This being a book for less experienced readers, there's a lot of dialogue, short sentences and repetition. Not always the best combination for an audiobook. However, Barbara Rosenblat does just fine. (She's so calm and experienced, she probably recorded this in an afternoon!) She reads slowly enough that following along with the book is possible, but the story never drags. When things get a little exciting or scary, she picks up the pace.

Her characterizations are welcome as they create additional interest in what is really a simple story. Stink has a slightly hoarse voice, while Judy's is lighter but still child-like. Neither are child-ish, Rosenblat never attempts to be a kid while she is narrating. Parents are simply adults without quirks, while the pirate's (Scurvy Sam, aka Captain Weevil) voice is suitably gravelly and ever-so-slightly menacing. It actual brought back fond memories of some other pirates I've heard Rosenblat voice (and not this unfortunate title). I am impressed at Rosenblat's range -- it's not every narrator who can successfully transition from a stinky boy to a condescending French concierge.

Is the title of this book meant to refer to the this old movie? It might be fun for families to watch after reading the book. I watched it recently (I don't think I'd ever seen it before) and it is pretty darn funny (although kinda long).

[The image of a 1798 Spanish doubloon is in the public domain and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Judy Moody and Stink: The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt by Megan McDonald
Narrated by Barbara Rosenblat
Brilliance Audio, 2010. 1:10

Friday, August 5, 2011

Friday afternoon's checklist

Two things to note before the weekend:
  • The librarian bloggers who host AudioSynced have posted their links for July (including mine, she says modestly). I'm always so impressed that they have actually read everyone's blog posts, as I am more of a scanner myself.
  • Another blog, Audiobook DJ, alerted me to something featured at the Audiobook Jukebox: Solid Gold Reviewer. Here is a place for publishers to post the audiobooks they have available for review and for bloggers to express interest in receiving a copy. The requirements are minimal -- essentially, just review what you are given within six weeks -- so I'm going to give it a try. I don't want to appear to be pressuring the publisher by telling you what I requested, but I hope I get it!

Well-deserving

Six years ago, I listened to a book by Kate Atkinson (undoubtedly I read a review ... but did I place a hold or find it on the shelf?) called Case Histories. I loved it, loved its private eye, and vowed to read more when subsequent installments appeared. I'm three books behind ... well, now I'm only two books behind. But, like the cardholders at my library who have suddenly created a queue for Kate Atkinson's books (it's so nice to know I'm not alone in my obsessions), an impending television version is on its way (courtesy of Masterpiece [I still call it] Theatre) so I've got to read them first. Fortunately, not a difficult assignment. One Good Turn is sheer fun.

I can't always say with confidence (since I've invariably read the one[s] before) that you don't have to start at the beginning, but in this case I can. I don't remember much from six years ago -- except a fondness for Jackson Brodie -- and I did just fine, thanks. Jackson used to be a copper (both military and civilian), then a PI, and now he's retired to a farmhouse in the south of France thanks to an generous inheritance from a grateful client. He's got a steady girlfriend and he finds himself at somewhat loose ends in Edinburgh because actress/girlfriend Julia is rehearsing and will be performing in a really bad play, "Looking for the Equator in Greenland," during the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival (which starts today!).

He witnesses an incident of road rage -- Peugeot Man suddenly stops his car for an absent-minded tourist/pedestrian and is rear-ended by Honda Man, who leaps out of his car swinging a baseball bat and proceeds to smash all the Peugeot's windows out before turning his weapon on Peugeot Man. Like many of the other witnesses, Jackson isn't certain that this isn't street theatre. But as he's deciding whether or not to step in, another observer flings his computer bag at Honda Man who subsequently gets back into his car and roars away.

Then Atkinson begins working her magic. We get introduced to four of the witnesses: Gloria, a frumpy, middle-aged woman who is not as she appears; the bag-thrower, Martin, a milquetoast cozy mystery author who would very much like to be not as he appears; two teenagers with petty crime on their minds; and Jackson, who is struggling with the aimless direction his life is taking. Their stories expand and spin out. And yes, because this is fiction, the seemingly disparate plots and lives begin to connect and coincide. I love this in a novel; I love the anticipation and the guesses you make, and then the aha! of seeing one more piece click into place. The pieces involve money laundering, women brought from Eastern Europe for purposes of prostitution, shoddy real estate developers, murder-for-hire, and just plain murder. It's the kind of crime fiction where the "whodunnit" is really beside the point, it's the how and the why that are interesting.

On top of this, Atkinson is terrifically funny. She brings her wit and her satirical eye to bear on pretentious actors, aggressive comics, mystery novelists and publishers of all sorts (presumably including herself), slightly corrupt coppers, animal lovers, McMansions and their owners, and more. There were times I was laughing aloud while listening. I'm amazed at how well she keeps the balls in the air, the story moving along and still making sense. I had a few questions about some minor details at the end (what was with the Matryoshka dolls? [I mean literally, I get the metaphor]), but on the whole I finished feeling satisfied. And ready to dive into the third book, but I'm saving that for vacation (in print).

Steven Crossley narrates the novel. He's got a lot of audiobook experience, but this was the first time I'd heard him. I thought he really took command of this complex story and its many characters. Jackson has a quiet strength, and a very pleasant gravelly baritone. Martin, the novelist, always has an edge of panic in his voice, yet when he's immersed in his active fantasy life he's calmer and more authoritative. Crossley's characterizations of the novel's women run the gamut -- some (notably Julia) were rather painfully femmy, while others -- a Russian immigrant call girl and a smart Scottish policewoman -- are much more authentic sounding.

And the Russian and Scottish reminds me that there are many opportunities for different accents (originating from region, country or social class) in this novel, which Crossley handles superbly. I even heard variations within the Scots which is pretty amazing. Atkinson's humor is always present in Crossley's delivery, as well; it's never obviously emphasized. Wisely, the narrator just lets the author's words speak for themselves.

The British version of this novel is subtitled "A Jolly Murder Mystery," which was left off the U.S. version. Martin began writing his bloodless, extremely conventional, mystery series featuring the perennially perky sleuth Nina Riley at the request of his publisher for a "jolly murder mystery." Nostalgia sells, she tells him. Is the book's U.S. publisher afraid we won't get the joke? Or heavens, the irony? I wish they wouldn't tamper with books that come from across the pond.

[The photograph of a street performer at the Fringe Festival was taken by snappybex and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
Narrated by Steven Crossley
BBC Audiobooks America (now AudioGO), 2006. 14:12

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Off the map

I finished The Emerald Atlas last week and already it has pretty much faded into that hazy part of my brain where the non-memorable reads go. This is the first book in a projected trilogy, The Books of Beginning, and is written by John Stephens, who is -- as many have said before me (in a "cue the movie script" way) -- a writer for television (Gilmore Girls and The O.C. -- I've seen an episode or two of the former, and none of the latter). The book has a lot of buzz and when Listening Library went to Jim Dale for the audiobook, I thought it must be worth hearing.

Four-year-old Kate is the only one who was old enough to remember the Christmas Eve night she and her brother and sister were spirited away from their parents and lost their last name. For ten years, Kate, Michael and Emma P. have bounced from orphanage to orphanage -- each one worse than the previous. The last, the Edgar Allan Poe Home for Hopeless and Incorrigible Orphans, seems to be the end of the line. When they spoil their last chance at adoption by claiming to not be orphans, the manageress of the E.A. Poe Home finds an orphanage run by Dr. Stanislaus Pym of Cambridge Falls and quickly ships them to Vermont. The siblings discover that they are the only residents and pretty much have the run of the place.

Here's where the haze sets is. They find a book and discover that they can travel to the place and time of any photograph placed into the book when they end up in a nearly deserted village about 15 years earlier. The place is still Cambridge Falls, but it's a Cambridge Falls ruled by a terrifying, ageless Countess -- who is holding the town's children hostage so the men will diligently search for a long-buried book. The Countess has no delicate sensibilities when it comes to killing children.

The book the Countess seeks is -- of course -- the one the children have found 15 years later, and over the course of the story we learn that Kate has the powerful ability to make it do its thing: time travel. Along the way, bookish Michael meets the creatures of his dreams -- a clan of quarrelsome dwarfs, feisty Emma finds a warrior father figure, and Kate catches a glimpse of her long-lost mother (before she was born). Chases, battles, and daring rescues ensure, much (much!) is explained and the stage is set for the next book (Book).

I found all the time travel and the boatload of exposition to be both a drag on the momentum of the story and overly confusing. The author throws pretty much everything into the story, and borrows copiously from those who have gone before him: Narnia, Oz, Hogwarts and its wizarding world, Middle Earth. The different influences lend an air of incoherence to the whole thing, and I just couldn't get very excited about the three children and their adventures. Each seemed like a stereotype and nothing else.

Jim Dale does his manful best with the material. He's such a good reader (and it's been a long time since I've heard him!) -- setting a beautiful pace, filling the story with subtle emotions (nobody does tender moments like him), and imparting a general sense of excitement at the story's developments. And then there are the characters. Yes. Plenty of opportunities for Dale to shine: the professorial Dr. Pym, his cranky housekeeper, the imperious Russian Countess, her squealing and hissing secretary, elderly and loyal Abraham (Pym's handyman), stalwart and heroic Gabriel (Emma's father figure), and those dwarfs.

It is with the Scots-accented dwarfs (don't ask how they found themselves in Vermont) that Dale shows all his trademark goofiness. There's the righteous Wallace (who should be king) and his overblown brother (who is king), plus a few warriors to keep things lively. Except for the fact that the dwarf-ish sections of the story were milked for all they had (and then some), Dale's rollicking humor makes these intervals mostly hilarious.

The siblings at the center of the story are nicely portrayed as well, it's just that they are the straight men of this story and of Dale's performance. (In much the same way that Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson are the center around which all those other actors deliciously revolve.)

So, Dale reads about the adventures of three American children in his English accent. It doesn't bother me, but I will admit I had trouble remembering the story takes place in Vermont. I'm not sure it really matters where this story occurs, but it is an interesting narrative choice. To my few, but loyal, readers ... does this matter to you?

Despite my lack of enthusiasm, The Emerald Atlas will no doubt appeal to a large number of readers. (Crikey! I just checked the holds and the audiobook has 34 in the queue!) It's got all the elements of a fun fantasy read for those who devour same. And the audiobook is great road trip material, for all but the most sensitive of listeners. Not ear-time ill-spent, it's just not amongst the great ones.

[The photograph of the (time-traveling) Tardis was taken by Paul Hayes and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Emerald Atlas (The Books of Beginning, Book 1) by John Stephens
Narrated by Jim Dale
Listening Library, 2011. 11:38