Tuesday, January 24, 2012

You know my methods

I wouldn't call myself a true Sherlock Holmes disciple (I believe they call themselves Sherlockians), but I have enjoyed the stories as well as fiction inspired or influenced by them. I might be more familiar with Holmes cinematically (or whatever the television equivalent of that is), rather than in print (although I have read some stories). So, when I was perusing the offerings from Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer program, Between the Thames and the Tiber: The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in Britain and the Italian Peninsula caught my eye. I hadn't heard the reader, Simon Prebble, in many a day, so I requested it ... and received it for review.

Because I must, I made sure that I read the first of Indologist Ted Riccardi's Sherlock pastiches before embarking on this one. The previous volume purported to be Holmes' adventures in the Far East when he was lying low after Professor Moriarty tried to kill him at the Reichenbach Falls.

In this volume of 12 stories, Dr. Watson explains that he was the recipient of an unexpected inheritance and he and Holmes decided to create a second home in Rome (no mention of the sadly neglected Mrs. Watson). The stories are all over the place chronologically, and incorporate real-life events and personages: Brother Mycroft's death precipitates World War I, Arthur Conan Doyle himself shows up at a séance, Richard Wagner is poisoned, and Pope Leo XIII protects a possible apostate. Sometimes the details overwhelm a very slight story, and I was confused on more than one occasion by a case's outcome. A week later, I can hardly remember any of them.

One could argue that most of the Holmes' stories blend together, since they all feature the same elements: Watson's cluelessness, a few red herrings, Holmes' inexplicable behavior, the sudden solution (the pipe, the violin, the opium, the deerstalker, etc., etc.). Maybe I'm not the semi-fan I thought I was ... or perhaps they need to be absorbed the way they were originally written: Once a month (or so) in the Strand Magazine.

I am a fan of Simon Prebble, though (who might be languishing in the shadow of that other Simon, Vance). I've been impressed in the past how he can transcend ordinary material; he doesn't judge the writing but finds the emotion in the story and from that the motivation for the characters which he then translates into the speech rhythms, accent, volume, timbre. His characters always sound like real people, because the voices Prebble creates come honestly. It doesn't hurt that Prebble's voice is extremely pleasant on the ears.

In this book, he does his usual stellar work. The characterizations are interesting and believable. Prebble doesn't fall into the unemotional Holmes trap -- his Holmes speaks rapidly and with a bit of an edge, but he's not an automaton. Neither is Watson an idiotic slowtop, Prebble gives the narrator a softer, yet still intelligent delivery. The stories' many other characters are ably created, the accents sound authentic and are used consistently. It's a fine performance, but truthfully I was never captured by the stories. And, I think -- ultimately -- if a reader/listener isn't captured by a Holmes story (and is predisposed to), then the story isn't very good.

I just scanned our catalog for other books narrated by Prebble, and I see that he does one of my favorite mystery series, featuring tortured World War I veteran, Ian Rutledge. Place hold.

Thanks to Audiobook Jukebox and AudioGO for the copy of the audiobook.

[The view of the Tiber River, south of Rome, was taken by Delbene and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Between the Thames and the Tiber: The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in Britain and the Italian Peninsula by Ted Riccardi
Narrated by Simon Prebble
AudioGO, 2011. 9:17

Monday, January 23, 2012

Delinquent

I needed a quick listen over the weekend and chose Gordon Korman's The Juvie Three (it's so nice to be back working in a library where I can actually hit the shelves!). Korman would rarely be my first choice (and I picked him this time because of the narrator), but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. It's a little more serious that the yuk-fests I associate with the author (this is the only other one of his I've listened to), but it still has plenty of humor and adventure. The way he got the parents (in loco or otherwise) out of picture seemed original to me.

Disheartened by his own experiences as a juvenile offender, Douglas Healy has made his life's work an experimental program to provide a nurturing, positive environment for kids like him: Kids who have ended up in the juvenile justice system, but who might avoid recidivism with special support and counseling. Healy selects three teen offenders to live with him in his halfway house/apartment in New York City: Gecko Fosse, car thief and getaway driver; Arjay Moran, sent to adult prison for manslaughter; and Terence Florian, gangbanger and all-around jive-talking operator. While they live with Healy, they must attend school, keep their grades up, participate in group therapy and complete community service. The three boys struggle with the requirements, particularly Terence. Late one night, Terence attempts to break curfew via the fire escape. First, Gecko and Arjay try to stop him, and then Mr. Healy. Healy tumbles to the street, sustaining a head injury. The boys rush him to the hospital, but leave with his ID before he and they can be identified.

They decide to wait things out at the apartment, proceeding through their days and required activities as if all were normal. If the authorities realize that they are without supervision, they'll be re-incarcerated. But when they discover that Mr. Healy has no memory of who he is, the boys know they'll have to be on their best behavior long-term, with varying success. But when the dragon/social worker demands a onsite inspection, and Mr. Healy is transferred to the loony bin in The Bronx, desperate measures are required. The Juvie Three will each have to re-connect with their bad side if they're going to stay free.

There's something for everyone in here: bromance, romance, car chases, punk rock, wealth and privilege, knife fights, group therapy with a model cum psychiatrist and a couple of wacky patients, an African American (Arjay) with two loving parents and white kids from less happy homes, and To Kill a Mockingbird. It's fast and breezy, almost squeaky clean, and its message of redemption goes down easy. The breakout from the loony bin is pretty exciting and the ending is satisfactory.

A favorite narrator of mine, Christopher Evan Welch, reads the novel. I like listening to his slightly husky, compassionate voice. While he doesn't sound particularly youthful, his rhythms and delivery capture a youthful feel. He creates individual voices for the three boys, and if Terence sounds a little stereotypically hiphop-y (in a white way), it proves distinctive enough that I accepted it. Gecko is the central character of the three boys, and I enjoyed the mix of loneliness and naïveté I heard in Welch's voice (much the same as the empathetic voice he provides in The Last Apprentice books). Welch creates natural-sounding voices for most of novel's secondary characters as well. I enjoyed his voices for the three other misfits from therapy -- a kleptomaniac, a nerdy hacker, and a goth girl, as well as Roxanne, Gecko's almost-girlfriend.

OK, I digressed into cozy mysteries, satisfying quests, and teen humor. I've still got a book I didn't like very much to blog about, but now it's back to the grindstone. Bring on the biracial orphans, suicide, and grave robbers -- just a titillating taste of what's to come!

[The logo from Portland's own Amnesia Brewing is from its twitter site.]

The Juvie Three by Gordon Korman
Narrated by Christopher Evan Welch
Recorded Books, 2008. 5:30

We have a winner!

The Odyssey Award was announced this morning. Of the five titles, I've just listened to one (I liked it a lot and counted it among my top five for 2011) and I've eye-read two others. I found the winner, Daniel Kraus' Rotters, on downloadable and I put in an interlibrary loan request for the other new-to-me title, Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri. In WorldCat, I was surprised to see that very few libraries own either of these titles (including mine!). Hope the award gives them a lift.

Congratulations to the committee (two members known to me) and to the authors, narrators and publishers.

Winner: Rotters by Daniel Kraus, narrated by Kirby Heyborne, published by Listening Library.

Honors:
Since I'll be going to ALA Annual in June, I'll be able to attend the awards ceremony. Fabulous!

I also see that RUSA unveiled its first Listen List: Outstanding Audiobook Narration, featuring audiobooks for adults. This list extends well back in time (but annoyingly doesn't provide a pub date for any of its titles), but anyone looking for suggestions will find this a great resource. (I'm intrigued by Connie Willis' All Clear [except that it's 23 hours long]!)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Taran and friends

Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain are in that category of books that I keep meaning to read, but they always get shoved aside in favor of more recent titles. As I'm trying to alternate between adult and juvenile/teen books this listening year (and the fact that the new youth audio is arriving so glacially here at my library), I needed a book for the j side and remembered The Black Cauldron. It had been almost five years since I'd read the first book of the Chronicles, The Book of Three.

I actually had to consult some reference materials (thank you Literature Resource Center, the Foundation Stones of Prydain, and the Prydain Wiki) and listen to the first disc twice to figure out what was going on (note to self: don't wait five years between books). The "companions" (Alexander's term and I do like it) from the first book -- Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper, the beautiful princess Eilonwy, the ever-hungry man-beast Gurgi, the fibbing bard Fflewddur Fflam, and Doli of the Fair Folk -- join the quest of Lord Gwydion to locate and destroy the black Cauldron of the death lord Arawn, who deposits the bodies of dead men into the Cauldron where they emerge Cauldron-Born (zombies). The companions become separated from the quest and end up unexpectedly locating the Cauldron in the possession of three witches, Orddu, Orwen and Orgoch, where they learn two things: 1. The only way to obtain the Cauldron is to trade something meaningful for it and 2. the only way to destroy it is if someone voluntarily enters the Cauldron. The pot will be destroyed, but so will the person who went inside it.

I think you can tell by the cast of characters why I was initially so confused. The names, oy, the names! Flying fast and furious, none of them recognizable (to most listeners), some of them similar sounding (Arawn - Annuvin, Eilonwy - Ellydir, Gwydion - Gwythaint), created a big mishmash in my head. Once I got things straightened out, though, I enjoyed the story. I understand that the Chronicles are grounded in Welsh mythology, notably a collection called the Mabinogian, but a reader doesn't need to know this in order to appreciate it. I kept getting flashes of The Fellowship of the Ring (the actual fellowship, not the book) with its mismatched characters, each with a quirk or two, together on the same quest. Alexander brings humor, loss, sacrifice and danger into what amounts to a very short book (under 200 pages); nothing is wasted.

Of course, narrator James Langton helps immensely with the names. Instead of tripping over them time and again reading to yourself, Langton whips them off with confidence and ease. He fully voices this story, creating believable, individual characters for a large cast of humans and non-humans. The three witches are very memorable if a bit cackling, as are the lilting bard (pronounced FLOO-dah) and Doli (who sounds like Sean Bean in the Sharpe series [this is not a bad thing]). He's equally at home voicing our innocent hero, a jealous and impatient warrior, and evil incarnate. Langton delivers the narrative in a bard-like voice, one that is pleasant on the ears and knows how to pace a good story. Plus, I now know that Prydain does not have a long i: Prih-DANE. (In further developments in what I know -- Prydain is Britain in Welsh.)

This recording is old enough that it ended with that familiar (to me) audiobooks-are-good-for-young-readers message from Jim Dale. ("Hullo, this is Jim Dale.") I think that message colored a significant amount of my early listening, so I enjoyed the flashback.

[The (poor) reproduction of the map of Prydain was retrieved from the Prydain Wiki (and is probably not copyright-free since it is from the print books, and I feel bad, but not badly enough). I think I've said before how much I like a map in a book.]

The Black Cauldron (The Chronicles of Prydain, Book 2) by Lloyd Alexander
Narrated by James Langton
Listening Library, 2004. 5:26

Friday, January 20, 2012

Unmoved

After 9/11, dystopic Chicago, a cranky old lady from Maine, a family broken by loss, and a woman kept as a sexual captive for seven years, I was feeling the need for something a little lighter in tone. Now one might argue that a book that contains a violent death and the impact that death has on a small community isn’t exactly light, but Still Life, Louise Penny’s first novel featuring Inspector Armand Gamache and the town of Three Pines, Québec, could be categorized in that mystery genre called cozy. Not much violence, a little scary, and a satisfying conclusion.

Three Pines is a close-knit community located in Québec’s Eastern Townships, where the factory has closed down (and the matriarch of the factory owning family has recently died from cancer), but artists, antique dealers, and well-off retirees are keeping the town vital. A long-time resident and retired schoolteacher, Jane Neal, has recently submitted a painting to the local art show, and those who have seen the painting are surprised and amazed by its primitive style. Just a few days after Jane learned that her work had been accepted for display, she is found dead in the woods outside her home – an arrow pierced her heart.

As a formality, officers from the Sûreté de Québec are sent to investigate what everyone believes to be a hunting accident, but the experienced Chief Inspector Armand Gamache begins poking around and soon reveals that someone murdered Jane face-to-face in a particularly grisly way. And then, you know how it goes.

The setting is evocative here; the action takes place in the days following Canadian Thanksgiving as the light recedes, the cold grows deep, snow threatens, and Jane’s friends come to the horrific realization that someone they know has killed in cold blood. The descriptions of Jane’s art – as well as that of some of the other characters – are vivid enough that you can easily visualize them. I liked the dual nature of the title, not only its visual art connection (although Jane does not paint still lifes), but the idea that a person who resists change remains still, or stagnant. I had pegged the murderer pretty early on (well, not really pegged, but I was viewing the person very suspiciously), but Gamache and Three Pines were so engaging that sticking with the story was no problem.

Still Life is read by Ralph Cosham, a new-to-me narrator. He reads with a quiet command of characters and story, much as Inspector Gamache controls both his own staff and the residents of Three Pines. It’s not a fully voiced interpretation, but dialogue is natural-sounding and determining who is speaking is not a problem. When we’ve learned who the murderer is and this person is threatening another character, Cosham reads tensely. His Québeçois French sounded OK to me, but I am not really a judge. It’s been a while since I listened to this, but I remember that Cosham’s pronunciation of Sûreté surprised me. I thought it was in three syllables (SUH-reh-tay), but he said it more in two (SUR-tay). (Warning: Neither of those written pronunciations capture what the word actually sounds like!)

I’ve said before that I really don’t need to start another mystery series (I’m way behind – Penny’s written seven books), but Gamache and Three Pines are worth visiting again. Of course, where I really want to visit is the Eastern Townships (directly north of Vermont and New Hampshire) themselves. Sometimes it feels like the places I want to go is as long a list as that of the books I want to read.

[The image is a print from Pinsonneault Frères of Upper Melbourne in the Eastern Townships in 1910.The original is located in the McCord Museum of Canadian History, and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Still Life by Louise Penny
Narrated by Ralph Cosham
Blackstone Audio, 2006. 9:35

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Four walls to hear me/Four walls to see/Four walls too near me/Closing in on me

New Year's resolution: Much as I appreciate the opportunity to return to children's and teen's books that the last 10 years of youth librarianship afforded me, I'd really like to balance my reading a little more and bring my adult books up to at least half of my reading. About 34% of listening and 23% of all reading (books and audiobooks) were adult books last year.

So, let's get started! Room by Emma Donoghue has been on the TBLT list for awhile, as something drew me to the idea of listening to this instead of reading it. An excellent decision, I think, as the voice of five-year-old Jack is still resonating four days later.

For those even more out of the adult reading loop than I am, Room is a story narrated by Jack. Jack and his Ma live together in Room -- which, as far as Jack is concerned, has everything he needs to be content: a few books, the TV (which shows him stories of fictional "outer space" worlds outside of Room, a particular favorite is Dora the Explorer), food and shelter, and the fierce love and companionship of his mother. Occasionally, Old Nick unlocks the door and comes into Room, but Jack is sent to sleep in Wardrobe while Old Nick is there. If he doesn't fall asleep, he counts the number of times the bed creaks during Nick's visits.

We first meet Jack and Ma on the morning of Jack's 5th birthday, but we quickly grow to understand what Ma knows -- that Jack cannot be contained by Room for much longer. Ma's story of kidnap and rape slowly emerges as she convinces Jack to be her hero and help her pull off a preposterous escape. I don't want to spoil, since I was truly invested in Ma's success or failure, so I shall finish this inadequate summary simply by saying that I was drawn in by this story from beginning to end.

Donoghue never loses sight of Jack's perspective. Yes, he's ridiculously articulate, but that five-year-old capacity for seeing the world very clearly in limited ways is also part of his narrative. His struggles -- and how he observes those of his Ma -- to come to terms with their life remain childlike, occasionally funny but also quite poignant. I was seriously creeped out at the beginning of this novel, because I knew what was really going on, and then it morphed briefly into horror at Ma's plan to escape. Clearly, I was invested in these two people and their fate mattered to me up until the end.

Yay audio! Room is one of those books where listening adds a whole level of intensity to the literary experience. It's not my voice I'm hearing, it's Jack's. And that made it utterly real to me. The narrator is Michal Friedman and she is pretty amazing. Her voice and rhythms are childlike, without being childish (unless Jack is, of course). I think that's why I was so disturbed at the beginning -- I was hearing this horror story from a child. When Jack is learning of Ma's plans for their escape, he and I had the same reaction: This is not going to work. I was listening to this part of the novel while trying to fall asleep ... and couldn't. It was nail-bitingly tense.

The audio publisher chose three other narrators to read the dialogue of the book's adult characters: Ellen Archer reads Ma, Robert Petkoff reads Old Nick and the other males, and Suzanne Toren takes all the female roles. (I guess that's a spoiler ... sorry!) Like Full Cast Audio does, the "s/he saids" are all removed from the narration, and since the narrators are only reading dialogue, they need to get all the character and emotion into just line readings, which can be treacherous. They all do well, but occasionally my ear would rebel if the voice actor was having a conversation with him/herself. This was a rare occurrence, and Toren had to do it most often. Toren also tried a few accents -- Irish and Spanish -- which never sounded completely natural. I've heard all three of them read before (Archer, Petkoff, and Toren before this blog).

I've also heard Michal Friedman read, although the publisher of that audiobook spelled her name incorrectly (and thus, so did I). But in trolling the internet to find out more about her, I came upon tragic news: She died in November from complications after giving birth to twins!

Donoghue, considered primarily an historical novelist until she wrote Room, shies away from "inspired," but does say that the notorious case of Josef Fritzl "triggered" her creation of Jack. And, masterfully in my opinion, it's Jack who keeps the horror at bay, Jack's innocence that keeps the story from sensationalism, Jack's wonder at a brave new world that makes Room so compelling. There's something ironic in beginning a resolution to read more books for adults with a book that so effortlessly tells a child's story.

[The lock on the door of a garden shed was taken by Ajmint and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

[Post title is the chorus of "Four Walls," sung by Jim Reeves.]

Room by Emma Donoghue
Narrated by Ellen Archer, Michal Friedman, Robert Petkoff and Suzanne Toren
Hachette Audio, 2010. 10:52

Monday, January 2, 2012

Away did run

Last audiobook of 2011. I'm still trying to figure out how I managed to listen to 30-1/2 days of books this year ... whew! That's a lot of miles (on foot and in a car).

The Piper's Son was one of those audiobooks that I selected out of desperation, as the new children and teen offerings at my library have seemed very slim this past year (or I'd already read all the new ones we ordered). I'm kind of meh about author Melina Marchetta (ch sounds like k) -- really didn't like Jellicoe Road, sort of enjoyed Finnikin of the Rock (not enough for the 2012 sequel). And even though this book is identified as a "companion" to Saving Francesca, and yes ... I read that about two months ago. I think I liked that one best of all her books.

Tom Mackee (pronounced MEH-key) was one of the group of private-school friends formed in Saving Francesca, the one who always remained slightly apart, the bullying one. It's several years later, but he's drifted away from those friends -- mostly because he's mired in a deep substance-fueled depression at the death of his Uncle Joe two years ago in the July 7, 2005 transit bombings in London. The loss has affected his very close family as well -- his parents are separated and Tom hasn't seen or heard from his alcoholic father in more than a year.

After falling down drunk late one night and splitting his scalp open, Tom discovers that he's been evicted from his shared apartment and shows up on his Aunt Georgie's doorstep looking for a place to stay. Georgie's got her own problems -- aside from her dead and/or missing brothers, 42-year-old Georgie is carrying the child of her former lover. Upon learning of his infidelity six years ago (resulting in a child), Georgie split with Sam. Since Joe's death, she's been leaning on him for emotional support and more. But she's still not ready to allow him back into her life permanently.

The Piper's Son is the stories of Tom and Georgie and their struggles to come to terms with their losses, and re-form their families (related by blood or otherwise) again. For me, it was a big steaming pile of melodrama and by the end of it I was sick to death of all of them. Oy, the suffering! Oy, the long internal monologues about how bad they feel! It pretty much stood in the way of my appreciating Marchetta's vivid portrayal of a close-knit Sydney, Australia neighborhood and her spot-on characterization of Tom -- a young man trying to balance the influences of his edgy, near violent father and his kind, kind uncle.

Michael Finney narrates the book. His Australian accent was initially impenetrable to me, so I ended up listening to the first half of the first disc twice. Once my ear got attuned, though, it's just delightful to listen to that unique speech -- for some reason, I Love those Long, deLiciousLy sLurpy "L's." Finney does a nice job with characterizations as well, managing the large cast of characters with interest and slight distinctions so all sound completely natural. The dialogue flowed easily in his reading. And for a very emotion-driven story, Finney brings acting skills that help us hear the tears or laughter, or anger or sadness.

Unlike other (more widely read) bloggers, I have issues with a book that purports to be for teenagers that features a middle-aged woman as one of its protagonists. I found Tom's journey to be very teen-friendly (who that age doesn't think about their post-"uni" years?), but Georgie's seemed out of place. Oddly though, Georgie's relationship with Sam doesn't seem much different than Tom's post-adolescent yearnings for Tara. I also learned more about Georgie's sex life than Tom's, much to my horror. I kept flashing back to a memorable few sentences in Finnikin about a long-parted, well-into-middle-age couple loudly coupling.

My second novel in two weeks about families of the victims of terrorist acts, and an interesting contrast in ways of mourning (and ways of writing novels). I seem to be on a bit of a downer lately -- the last truly happy book I read (both eye and ear) was Goliath. I think I need some cheering up ... oh, the one that's currently in my ears is certainly happy. Not.

[There's a memorial to the victims of the July 7 bombings in London's Hyde Park. The photograph is a closeup of one of the 52 stainless-steel stelae, one for each of the dead. It was taken by David Hawgood as part of the geograph.org.uk project and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

[I like the Australian cover of this book a lot!]

The Piper's Son by Melina Marchetta
Narrated by Michael Finney
Bolinda Audio, 2010 (published in the US by Brilliance Audio, 2011). 8:22

Looking back

It’s been a pretty good year for listening. Most hours ever (well, I’ve only been tracking this for four years) at 731:54! This is a vast improvement over last year’s 543 hours. I also listened to 22 more books than I did in 2010: 87. The average length of the books listened to was almost exactly the same (weird): 8.4 (2011) and 8.3 (2010) hours. (For anyone keeping an extremely close eye, I’ve got one more book to post about.)

Some other interesting data:
  • 24 of the books were downloads
  • 30 of them were written for adults
  • 8 were nonfiction
Five favorite audiobooks for kids and teens:
Honorable mention: Goliath by Scott Westerfeld

And five for adults:
Dion Graham was this year’s most-listened-to narrator, with five audiobooks (Black Jack, Black Water Rising, The Cut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and Here in Harlem). Bahni Turpin (Bird in a Box, The Other Half of My Heart and Smekday) and Simon Vance (The King’s Gambit, The Lodger Shakespeare, and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher) were runners up with three each.

I’m surprised at the Dennis Lehane novels on my favorites list, but he also leads the pack of most frequent authors, with those two. The only other author I listened to more than once was Adam Rex (Fat Vampire and Smekday).

I think this might have been the year I listened to the most authors reading their own work: Libba Bray, Neil Gaiman, Jack Gantos, Wes Moore, Susan Orlean, Louis Sachar, and the memorably bad Amy Tan.

I could go on parsing my list to death, but I’d rather be listening! Happy New Year.

[“It is not uncommon, on an early morning walk around Bangor seafront, to find the discarded remnants of the previous night’s revelries. This empty champagne bottle, found at the Long Hole, was a little more upmarket than the usual discoveries.” Photograph and commentary from Ross on January 1, 2009, via the geograph.org.uk project; retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]