Thursday, May 31, 2012

Completion

I’ve listened to all but one (that one oddly not available through Library2Go and the book on CD is owned by just a handful of libraries) of Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, which means that for me IanMcKellen is inextricably connected to these stories of a fantastical pre-history. McKellen is the mage, we are the members of the clan, keeping our fears at bay while we listen to the stories that help to explain our world. While he’s speaking, I can hear the fire crackling, and I can see him -- hooded eyes, sharp nose, undoubtedly wearing a cloak [Lord-of-the-Rings influenced, sorry]. This is one of those cases where it’s not a bad thing to have a person’s (actor’s) picture in your head while you read. I wonder, though, whether he is quite so well-suited to any other kind of story. (I see that he has read Homer’s Odyssey – another story where he can be the bard.)

Ghost Hunter is the last of Paver’s Chronicles of the orphan Torak, his pack brother Wolf and the sympathetic members of the Raven Clan who have adopted him. (It won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize in 2009.) Since Torak’s Fa died at the hands of a demon bear, things have not been right in their world of forest, mountain and sea. Mages from the various clans have turned to evil, becoming Soul Eaters, in the hopes of amassing the power of the souls they eat (metaphorically?) to dominate the world. In each story, Torak has faced and defeated an evil Soul Eater. Eostra, the Eagle Owl Mage/Soul Eater, is the only one left but she is powerful, sending out sickness to the clans and magicking dogs and children to wreak havoc. The only way to defeat her is to confront her on her territory, the Mountain of Ghosts. Even though it is likely to destroy him, Torak knows that he is the only one who can face and conquer her.

I confess that while I have enjoyed these audiobooks immensely, whole swaths of clan mythology and immortal battles to the death elude regularly elude me. Am I just too dreamy listening to Ian McKellen that I lose focus on the story? They seem to build and build and then finish so quickly that I feel I’m missing something in the denouement. In Ghost Hunter, the climax builds from three different perspectives quite effectively, but then suddenly it is all over. A character (from the first novel) mysteriously appears as well (I only know this because I reviewed the synopses in Wikipedia) and I’m still not quite sure what he did. (And really, Michelle, I read that book seven years [and 1500-odd books] ago, do you honestly think I’m going to remember?)

All that being said, the listening experience is terrific. McKellen’s narration trumps the books’ flaws, as he seems to understand the epic sweep of the story and his responsibility to deliver the characters’ emotional arcs as well as the forward momentum of the adventure. Like many an actor, he knows the value of a good pause – even in the middle of a sentence. He voices the novels, but not with dramatic differentiation, and he uses volume, silence, and register to express emotion so effectively. He’s totally tuned into the anthropomorphic Wolf who feels his own suffering and that of his pack brother deeply.

One of the characters is described with a voice of rattling bones, which McKellen portrays with a hoarse, dry rasp. I also enjoyed his interpretation of the albino outcast, Dark, who is giddy with excitement upon finally connecting with his own kind. Even the tame ravens, Rip and Reck, get a little bit of avian dialogue, accurately provided.

With so little time for reading, I sometimes wonder why I stick with some authors’ whose work is kinda average. For the same reason that I insist on starting at the beginning, I’m also a bit of a compulsive finisher. Like The Ranger’s Apprentice (which I stopped listening to long ago – but kept reading – as I grew tired of the narrator), which I started around the same time as the Chronicles, I’m satisfied to be a completist, but I feel no desire to pursue additional work by the authors. It’s kinda the same with Bloody Jack, except I’m not sure that L.A. Meyer will write anything else. It might be time to move on, but sometimes our obsessions just don’t have much to do with reality.  Sorry!

[The photo of the Indian eagle owl was taken by Charles C and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.  Sir “Ian McKellen bei der Weltpremiere des dritten Teils des Herrn der Ringe in Wellington (Neuseeland)” was taken by Stefan Servos and also retrieved from WikimediaCommons.]

Ghost Hunter (Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, Book 6) by Michelle Paver
Narrated by Ian McKellen
Harper Audio, 2010. 6:19

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Autumn

It must have been a review that sent me to Charles Finch's first mystery featuring his Victorian-era gentleman sleuth Charles Lenox, but it's been a long time since I read it (2007).  The September Society is next in the series and I went for it because it was an mp3 from Library2Go (there are so few).  (I inexplicably checked it out for three weeks, but just noticed that audiobooks can be returned early now.  Ah, progress.)  Lenox lives off his investments (or some such) in a nice London neighborhood, next door to his dear friend, the widowed Lady Jane Grey.  Approaching 40, he just needs a bit more confidence to ask for her hand.  He spends his days reading the newspapers and planning travel to exotic locations, which he will never visit.  Periodically, he takes cases from the upper classes, aided by his reliable manservant, Graham, and the crusty Scots physician Thomas McConnell.  He reminded me of a more socially adjusted Sherlock Holmes, but many others compare him to Dorothy L. Sayers' Sir Peter Wimsey.

The September Society begins in India in the 1840s when two British Army officers are shot -- seemingly by their fellow officers.  Fast forward 20 years and Lady Annabelle Payson is calling on Charles Lenox, in hopes that he will find her son, George, missing now from his Oxford college for several days.  Lenox is happy to visit Oxford -- his happy home for several years while he attended at Balliol (alma mater of Peter Wimsey and the second time it's showed up in an audiobook in a month!) -- and takes the case.  Although there is no sign of a struggle, he finds Payson's room in a mess, objects scattered in what appears to be a willy-nilly way.  A dead white cat -- stabbed through the neck -- is laying on top of a calling card that says "The September Society."  Mystified, but not particularly worried, Lenox begins his inquiries.  But two days later, a naked body completely shorn of its body hair, is found dead in Christ Church Meadow.

This was um, OK.  I could suggest it to readers looking for an historical mystery, or those that don't mind a somewhat meandering journey to the conclusion, which is your classic we're-all-assembled-here-and-the-big-reveal-will-shock-you-all.  (I was listening very closely at the beginning, so it actually didn't surprise me much.)  There's violence, but I'd classify this as a "cozy."  Lenox has numerous internal monologues about the beauty of and his happiness at Oxford, his love for Lady Jane and whether or not she loves him back (don't worry!), and the state of Britain and the Liberal Party.  He probably spends half of the novel actually gathering and assessing clues.  I liked it, but it's not the kind of series I'll be rushing to catch up on and breathlessly (OK, breathlessly is an exaggeration -- clearly I'm being influenced by teenagers) await the next installment.  But, if the next one is on the shelf one day when I'm browsing, I'll read it.

James Langton narrates the novel, and he knows exactly how to do it.  He reads with a hint of effete diffidence, perfect for a well-bred Englishman solving the crimes of his social peers.  His narration voice is slightly high and reedy without being unpleasant to listen to.  Women are softer spoken, and most of the men are louder and, well, more masculine than Lenox.  Langton -- who I listened to earlier this year -- has the British narrator's ease with regional and class accents, nicely evident in Dr. McConnell's Scottish burr and the quiet, forward-thinking (he's advocating for a new system that will match bullets with a particular gun) Scotland Yard inspector, among others.

Often when I listen to mystery novels I miss something that I'm likely to catch while reading.  Or, at least I have the capacity to scratch the itch of vaguely remembering something by leafing back through the print version.  I think The September Society was almost formulaic -- while having an interesting main character and beautifully rendered setting -- which means that the clues were hard to miss.  By this time in my reading life, if I don't know that I need to pay very close attention to a prologue set years earlier and then make even the most tenuous connections later on, well ... I have only myself to blame if I'm surprised.

[The view of Christ Church Meadow with the College in the background was taken by Bryan Pready as part of the geograph.org.uk project and was retrieved from that site.]

The September Society by Charles Finch.
Narrated by James Langton
Tantor Audio, 2011.  8:46

Saturday, May 19, 2012

East side, west side

Let us take a moment to ponder the holds list.  The Hunger Games has 800+ holds on it right now, and the book on CD version is just tipping over the 300 mark (statewide holds on the downloadable version are at 800).  The new buzz-y book The Lifeboat has 143 holds, and the book that was featured on today's Weekend Edition, Bunch of Amateurs, suddenly has seven.  The Gods of Gotham currently has 40 holds, but the audiobook was sitting on the shelf (and is back there today) when a reader who often reads what I like recommended it to me. (Although she -- like many -- compared it to The Alienist (five holds), which I read, enjoyed but didn't think I needed another [I'm vaguely remembering a disappointing sequel?].)

I felt so lucky!  Maybe I'll move it to Staff Picks later today .... Lyndsay Faye has written a (literal) barnburner, where her command of historical research is evident in a huge cast of lively characters, an oppressive and humid, yet vivid setting, and bad deeds by pretty much everyone.  If the audiobook is residing unloved at your library, go get it now.

Timothy Wolfe was orphaned at 12 when a fire raged through his family's homestead in 1830s New York City.  Raised by his ne'er-do-well older brother, Valentine, and succored by the kindness of the Reverend Underhill and his beloved daughter, Mercy, Tim has been contentedly tending bar and saving his money so he can propose to Mercy and maybe take her to London, where she can write books.  His dreams go up in smoke again, during a conflagration on July 19, 1845 that destroys both his workplace and his home, badly scarring his face as he attempts to retrieve his savings.

Forced to take a job, courtesy of Valentine's (and the Democratic Party) patronage, with the newly formed New York City Police Department, Tim dons the copper star and makes his rounds of the Sixth Ward, home to the notorious Five Points slum (immortalized in the movie [which takes place later in time] Gangs of New York).  The Sixth Ward is where most of the Irish Catholics fleeing the potato famine are settling, much to the chagrin of the City's upstanding Protestants.  One of his first cases involves sending a young Irish woman to The Tombs for strangling her infant.

Disheartened he considers quitting, but on his way home early one morning (he patrolled 16 hours a day), a little girl (a "kinchin") barrels into him.  Her fancy nightgown is soaked in blood, and she whispers, "They'll tear him to pieces."  After determining that it is not her blood, Tim takes her to his German landlady and the two of them clean her up and slowly earn her trust so that she tells them her story.  Bird has escaped from the house of a popular madam, Silkie Marsh, who claims that the children in her care are servants, not "stargazers" (prostitutes).  Silkie claims to know nothing of the hooded figure Bird has seen carrying large bundles -- bundles the size of a small child -- out of her house, not even when 19 corpses are found buried in the country, a little bit north of West 30th Street.  Police Superintendent George Washington Matsell decides to pull Timothy from his rounds and give him the job of solving the crime, not preventing it hopefully before anti-Catholic hatred reaches its boiling point.

Faye's research seems impec-cable to me.  She begins each chapter with a primary source quotation (mostly from anti-Catholic screeds), but there is not a speck of the dust of history in her story.  Everything is fully realized here -- from the privy where the insane Irishwoman stuffed her baby to the opulent dresses of Silkie Marsh to the sweet, stifling bakery where Tim rents his room.  The use of the street "flash-patter" is appropriate and doesn't get in the way of narrative (when Tim has to explain what something means, it's smoothly done).  The characters will surprise you -- no one in this book is who you think they are -- and while most are not motivated by anything other than profit or survival, they are largely sympathetic.  No one can be completely evil in a society that is so corrupted.  According to a review in the Washington Post, "Timothy Wilde is apparently polishing his copper star for a second outing."  Can't come soon enough for me!

Steven Boyer, a narrator whose steady, unglamorous work didn't immediately bring him to mind as the reader for this book, does his usual fine job here.  He's gives Timothy a calm delivery that also makes clear the many, many emotions roiling beneath the surface: his love for Mercy, his complicated relationship with Valentine, his growing affection for young Bird, and a commitment to his work that surprises him.  There's no really dramatic voicing in his narration and Boyer delineates gender and age clearly but without caricature.  That's what I mean by "unglamorous," which -- once I began listening -- I soon realized that the novel doesn't need drama from its reader, there is plenty to go around!  Following conversations isn't difficult and Boyer keeps the tension up.  (Bird is removed from Tim's care without his knowledge in one scene and his mad dash to rescue her was riveting.  It was one of those listening moments where you aren't going to stop until it's over.)

Faye's previous novel brought Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper together, and that one's narrated by Simon Vance.  I am still waiting for my transcendental S.V. experience.  Tempting ...

[N. Currier's "View of the terrific explosion at the Great Fire of New York. From Broad St. July 19th, 1845" is housed in the New York Public Library's Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.]

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye
Narrated by Steven Boyer
Penguin Audio (cover says Dreamscape Media), 2012.  12:11

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Down under

One shouldn’t go too long without a visit with Jack.  At the same time, however, one’s familiarity with Jack can make one a bit impatient – how much more is one (or is Jack, for that matter) expected to endure before her saga comes to a satisfying close?  Are we in The Wheel of Time territory (14 and counting and he’s been dead for five years!)? During my last visit with Jack, I listened to an interview between Jack’s creator, L.A. Meyer, and her interpreter, Katherine Kellgren, which led me to the somewhat horrifying conclusion that there were many more Jacks to come before wrapping things up. 

This makes me ponder, briefly, about who authors of young adult literature are actually writing for – if we are generous, the intended audience really only hangs around for 10 years at the most, so is there any point in going on and on … and on?  Is Meyer writing for we elderly young adults, willing to keep reading whatever he churns out year after year?  There is no doubt that things in this eighth installment in Bloody Jack’s adventures, The Wake of the Lorelei Lee: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber on Her Way to Botany Bay have taken a decidedly more adult turn, even though our beloved heroine is still just going on 17.  This is most definitely not an all-ages car trip kind of audiobook. 

Jacky secured her fortune while assisting the British Navy in salvaging the wreck of a Spanish ship in the Caribbean during her last adventure.  She just neglected to tell them of all the extra gold she brought to the surface and tucked away in the hold of her own vessel.  She’s purchased her own ship, the Lorelei Lee (whose buxom figurehead bears a not-coincidental resemblance to our heroine), and – hardworking girl that she is – plans on running a for-profit but not exploitative emigration service from Ireland to the United States.  A quick stop in London leads to her arrest by the British Secret Services (a government change means that her friends are no longer in charge), who toss her into Newgate Prison to await trial for treason.  Her death sentence is commuted to deportation for life to the penal colony in New South Wales

In an ironic turn of events, the Lorelei Lee is confiscated by the government for the purposes of transporting a ship full of female convicts, Jacky included.  Most of the other convicts are prostitutes, and the very convivial captain encourages fraternization between crew and passengers (since he’ll earn even more payment per live passenger if she’s pregnant upon arrival), but Jacky quickly figures out a way to keep body and soul together without resorting to the world’s oldest profession.  It helps that her loyal friend Higgins has managed to come aboard as assistant purser, but Jacky’s irrepressible personality saves her as always.

Then there’s Jaimy, Jacky’s beloved, who is also convicted of treason and transport to Australia.  His ship, the Cerberus, is not the fun cruise Jacky is enjoying on the Lorelei Lee, and the boy finally shows some backbone as he attempts to wrest control of the vessel and meet up with Jacky in the penal colony.  Add to the mix Chinese pirates, burial at sea, salvaging a giant gold Buddha, cultural insensitivity in depicting the goddess Kali, a marriage of convenience, attempted rape, several murders (always of bad people, of course), the cat o’ nine tails, a miscarriage, the doldrums, a new tattoo and even a discreet lesbian interlude.  Whatever next, you ask?  Typhoon, anyone?


Does it sound like I don’t like Jack?  Maybe I’m a little tired of her, but I’ve got to admit that her hijinks just keep on surprising me.  The novels’ pattern stays the same (just one last thing to do before she and Jaimy can marry, and whoops! fate intervenes), but the vagaries of fate continue to entertain. 

It’s likely I’d have thrown in the towel long ago were I reading these to myself, because a large part – dare I say, 99% – of the enjoyment here is due to narrator Kellgren.  She throws herself into these novels with unflagging enthusiasm and her prodigious talents for storytelling, acting and singing.  Here is no exception; in fact, it seemed like she was working even harder (it might also have been the contrast between this narration and the one I listened to immediately beforehand – a very subdued narration of a 1960s literary masterpiece [I’ve stored up this review for Audiobook Week]).  Jacky was more vivid, Jaimy certainly came into his own (finally showing himself worthy of his fiancĂ©e), and the novel’s huge cast each made an impression – the raucous madams, the hard-partying captain, the sadistic captain on Jaimy’s ship, his Irish fellow convicts, Jacky’s posse of young Newgate denizens, the imperturbable Higgins (who gets a tad perturbed), a young Indian boy rescued from a mob in Bombay, a glamorous Chinese lady pirate and the Italian Jesuit who translates for her; and many, many more.  Kellgren sings, of course – one of the ongoing treats of these audiobooks – and I particularly enjoyed how she sang both as Jacky and as various other characters. 

I’m thrilled to see that I am almost caught up with these.  Book the Tenth is not due out until October, which gives me five months to slip in The Mark of the Golden Dragon.  About that typhoon …

["The Landing of the Convicts at Botany Bay" is a print from Watkin Tench's A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay, first published in 1789.  This image was posted to Wikimedia Commons by Gaston Renard.]

The Wake of the Lorelei Lee: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber on Her Way to Botany Bay by L.A. Meyer
Narrated by Katherine Kellgren
Listen and Live Audio, 2010.  14:55