Saturday, October 27, 2012

Not to be read after dark

I've had to eye-read the last two of the adventures of seventh son Tom Ward and his master, John Gregory the dark-fighting Spook, in Joseph Delaney's The Last Apprentice series (called the Wardstone Chronicles in England).  This has disappointed me, since I've become quite attached to the narrator -- Christopher Evan Welch -- so when I saw that my library had purchased the (almost) most recent Spook book, Rage of the Fallen, on audio, I knew it was destined for my ears.  Sometimes it seems ridiculous to keep reading a series where every book ends up being pretty much like the one before, but I'm kind of caught up in Tom's story and wonder how things are going to work out for him. (On the other hand, a part of me wishes the author would just get on with it and end things!  See Bloody Jack.)

In this installment (Book 8, not counting the short story collections), Tom, his witchy friend Alice, and the Spook have had to leave the County where war destroyed the Spook's home and library. They made their way first to Mona (the Isle of Man) and now they're on the run again, to Ireland.  Some people there are very glad to see a Spook, and they enlist the travelers in an elaborate plan to destroy the Goat Mages who meet annually to call up the spirit of Pan to reign destruction and keep the natives in check. Things go terribly wrong: Alice is taken away by their old arch-enemy, the Fiend, and Tom is captured by the mages who torture and use him to lure Pan to their nasty ceremonies. With the aid of the assassin witch Grimalkin, Tom escapes and between them they destroy the Fiend (or maybe not?).

I thought the gore was ratcheted up considerably in this installment, with dismemberment, murder, animal sacrifice, and torture all described in Tom's quiet, matter-of-fact manner. I continue to enjoy Welch's narration;Tom's natural youthfulness, the gruff businesslike speech of the Spook, Alice's high-pitched bossiness -- these are the voices I heard in my head when I eye-read the two previous books.  Grimalkin takes on a much larger role in this novel, and I quibble a bit with Welch's characterization of her -- she sounded way too girly and weak.  That woman is a killer! When I look back on my notes on the last installment I listened to, I realize that Welch changed voices for this interpretation of Grimalkin. I noted that previously he'd given her "a sharp, raspy delivery." I did not hear that this time round.

I do admire Welch's skill in reading the punchy, declarative sentences that Delaney uses to tell his stories.  There is nothing complex in his writing (they read really quickly), but Welch paces and varies his reading in ways that keeps the narrative interesting.

I haven't really minded reading the print versions of this series because the books are so well-designed.  They are slightly more square than your average novel, and I love the admonition that's always to be found on the back cover: Warning! Not to be read after dark, followed by "especially" and a page number.  Patrick Arrasmith's interior illustrations add terrifically to all the deliciously dare-I-say-spooky atmosphere.

[Although you can see Arrasmith's artwork on the cover of each book, this page from Attack of the Fiend (downloaded from his website) shows how well the interior art is incorporated into the story.  Grimalkin, the assassin, is pictured here.]

Rage of the Fallen (The Last Apprentice, Book 8) by Joseph Delaney
Narrated by Christopher Evan Welch
Recorded Books, 2011.  6:45

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Gateway drug

I think I've wittered on in this forum on more than one occasion about the virtues/pitfalls of re-reading from one's childhood. As I am still (three months and counting) without my own computer, I am still mostly listening from downloads (instead of copied CDs, my preferred method) and in a recent panicky search (omg ... there is nothing to listen to) I came across an author who loomed very large in that halcyon reading period of my youth where I wavered between ya and adult. An author I thought I had put firmly behind me.  But, in a panic, I thought, why not try her again?  Once I discovered Georgette Heyer (pronounced by the reader of this audiobook as GEORGE-jet HAIR) at the age of 11 or 12, I sucked up every one of her books I could get my romantically inclined adolescent hands on. Now I realize that Heyer set me on the path to one of my favorite authors ever, my beloved Jane Austen.

The Convenient Marriage was written by Heyer in 1934 and takes place not during the Regency period most of us associate with her and Austen, but in the 1770s (during the far-off war in America, which makes a cameo appearance).  Except for the fact that ladies are powdering their hair and wearing skirts with gigantic panniers, it might as well be taking place in the 1810s or so. All the familiar stuff is there. Arranged marriages that turn out to be true love, dissipated young heirs, lengthy descriptions of hair and clothing, dancing and parties, perhaps a highwayman or a duel.  And, oh yes, dialogue that sparkles and amuses and a generous dollop of satire.

It's best not to spend too much time in summary, since the story is so very silly.  Horatia (Horry [god help us]) is the youngest of the three impecunious Winwood sisters, and when she realizes that her eldest sister will have to marry the notorious bachelor, the Earl of Rule (in order to save the family fortunes), she steps in and offers herself as bride instead. She promises that he will be free to continue his bachelor lifestyle as he wishes. Horry, just 16, revels in the attention and freedom of being a wealthy countess and soon discovers the joys of gambling, while falling under the (non-sexual) spell of the wicked Lord Lethbridge, who has his own reasons for wanting revenge upon Lord Rule. Hi-jinks ensue, the couple finds that they have fallen in love and all ends with a kiss (which I think is what appealed to me as a tween reader).

Once I got over the creeps that arose when I thought about the May-December quality of the marriage (the Earl is 35), and the frustration at our heroine's occasional pigheadedness (which -- for some reason -- bugs me in that same way I am bugged by Inspector Rebus [see below]), it just became a romp. Horatia, I decided, was in fact, a perfect feminist example of what happens when you pen up smart women with nothing to do but gossip and sew. Given the freedom that marriage and money afforded her, she explored and became enamored of the wider world (even if she lacked the maturity to comprehend that not everyone in that world acted without self-interest). There were a couple of other interesting characters -- Horry's slightly dim brother and his even dimmer friend were rather hilarious as they attempt to help Horatia recover a piece of jewelry. The Earl himself was a bit of a cipher (handsome, of course) who doesn't do much until the end of the novel, but he has a young, Scots secretary who was quite entertaining as well.

I'd been thinking about listening to a Heyer novel for some time, but the only copies I could find on CD are all abridged (oh, the horror ... and by the way, WHY?).  I think that BBC Audiobooks hauled out some of its backlist when audio went digital because OverDrive has a whole load of unabridged versions.  Alas, none of these are read by the estimable and sexy Richard Armitage (who narrates the abridged ones), so I settled for Caroline Hunt. I think that Hunt is another one of those perfectly capable British actors (of whom we know little) who has a pleasant speaking voice, reads with clarity and pacing, ably portrays a multitude of characters from all classes and generally keeps things interesting over 10 hours or so. If her Horry's stutter doesn't sound completely natural and all her dialogue is somewhat baby-ish, so be it.  She manages to keep Lord Lethbridge from coming across too mustache-twirling, and the slightly drunken dialogue between Horry's brother and his friend was appropriately tipsy. All in all, a nice trip down memory lane.

Which brings me to the real gap in my listening. Where is Jane? I've listened to Jane pastiches and to Jane-alikes. Nearly ten years ago, I listened to a wonderful, but brief, biography of Jane by Carol Shields.  But never the original. Plus, it's been a really long time since I've actually read one (all those movies). Who is Flo Gibson and why should I listen to her?

[The novel's denouement occurs at Ranelagh Gardens, pictured in this 1754 print by Thomas Bowles. It was uploaded by Merchbow, and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer
Narrated by Caroline Hunt
BBC Audiobooks America (now AudioGO), 1999.  9:35

Quiz show

I first used the Internet when I went to work for a small college in 1997, and was exposed to that annoying pop-up in the lower right corner telling you that you had a new message. (That has not gotten any less annoying, or distracting.)  I went online personally two years later in order to go to graduate school. Which puts me roughly on a par with Detective Siobhan Clarke, a forward-thinking, ambitious copper who has to borrow a "laptop" (one can only imagine its size) in order to help solve the disappearance of a young co-ed in Ian Rankin's 13th mystery featuring the irascible Edinburgh detective John Rebus, The Falls, first published in 2001.  There are two curious things about this novel: the novelty of computers and the Internet (which occasionally makes it feel like it's talking about the Model T) and the mention by several reviewers that this was going to be Rankin's "break-out" novel.

Rebus' force, the Lothian and Borders, is called out en masse when Philippa Balfour, the only child of a wealthy Edinburgh banker, vanishes from her posh apartment. Siobhan nabs Flip's computer and soon discovers that Flip had been playing a mysterious online cryptic-puzzle-solving game run by an email correspondent calling him/herself the Quizmaster (to a 2010s era reader, this game could just as easily been played through snail mail, but then where would the plot be?).  She initially adopts Flip's screen persona and continues to play the game in hopes of discovering what happened to Flip.

In the meantime, the alternately despised or feared Rebus (who is/was a maverick long before one Sarah Palin coopted the term) is headed off in another direction (as he is wont to do) and discovers a miniature coffin -- occupied by an equally small human figure -- hidden in the open near Flip's parents' country estate.  He quickly links this coffin to others that have been located in proximity to other unsolved deaths or disappearances, and wonders if these are somehow connected to a collection of them on exhibit in the National Museum of Scotland. Scholars suspect that these coffins may be related to two 19th century murderers, Burke and Hare, who were accused of collecting cadavers for sale to physicians for dissecting purposes.  Do you think we have strayed far from the disappearance of Flip Balfour ... so does everyone else on the case, except for John Rebus. Guess who's right?

I have liked Ian Rankin's Rebus books from the beginning (no break-out necessary for me ... except that I'm 10-years behind his publishing pace). This was the first one I'd read since visiting Edinburgh in 2010 and that's one of the things I've really enjoyed about them over the years -- they have such a strong sense of place. Rebus' Edinburgh is smoky and dank -- just the place for the likes of the Burke and Hare, and their more modern murderous counterparts. On the other hand, John Rebus would never be a friend of mine -- he's far too moody and unpredictable, never lets the facts get in the way of a little witness intimidation, has little respect for his idiot superiors (who aren't really idiots), and ... oy, the drinking. This is a man who doesn't give a damn that it's not 5 o'clock somewhere.

Siobhan is the only copper who really respects him, but even she is juggling her fondness for him with her need to distance herself for her own promotional prospects. And they are just two of Rankin's cast of complex and conflicted characters. For Rankin, it seems, solving the puzzle is not the critical piece of his work -- he likes the atmosphere and his all-too-human characters. I like this in a lot of the mysteries I read, but I can't take a steady diet of this form.  I'll stick with Rebus, though, if for no other reason than to find out what the hell eventually happens to him!

A completely unfamiliar narrator (I'm thinking that he's a regular for a British publisher who just got repackaged for us Yanks) reads The Falls: Samuel Gillies. He reads simply and without either drama or exaggerated characterization, it's just fine. I don't know how you listen, but I find myself spelling proper names in my head when I hear them which often can help me remember who's who; and in many cases here, I couldn't take a consistent stab at spelling many of them. I really believe that's my American ear, though. There was no problem following dialogue or the plot, so that ends up an exceedingly minor quibble.  I am glad to now know that Rebus ex-lover, current boss/nemesis Gill Templar is a "jill." (However, the narrator's name is pronounced with the hard 'g.')  And just as a personal preference, Gillies' Scotsmen (and women) weren't Scots enough -- their lilting burrs were quite subtle for the most part (and probably perfectly acceptable for most listeners).

A peek at Rankin's website reveals that he's pulled an Arthur Conan Doyle (kind of) -- his latest book resurrects Rebus (put to bed, I thought, in 2008's Exit Music), and connects him with Rankin's newer detective, Malcolm Fox. When I listened to the Fox book a year ago, it made sense to me then that these two men would somehow meet (and that it wouldn't be pretty) and I guess that day has come.

[The photograph of the tiny coffins found on Arthur's Seat in 1836 was retrieved from National Museum of Scotland's website.]

The Falls by Ian Rankin
Narrated by Samuel Gillies
Recorded Books, 2008.  16:45

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Murray Poppins

I don't think that I was alone in being curious about Christian Burch's The Manny Files when it was published in 2006. A nice, gay-positive and appropriate story for elementary school kids.  There aren't very many of these (although I just read another one that pushed its message a little too hard and thus wasn't as entertaining: My Mixed-up Berry Blue Summer by Jennifer Gennari); hence the curiosity. And since the story is more about the Manny's charges, in particular, a "sensitive" boy named Keats, there is certainly an audience for this novel. I think most kids won't care one way or the other about anyone's sexual orientation.

Keats is the only boy in the excitable and close Dalinger family.  Mom and Dad work (in interesting jobs), his grandmother is pretty freewheeling, his two older sisters each have strong personalities and his baby sister prefers to not wear clothes. Keats is lonely at school (with one very loyal friend), teased relentlessly by some other third-grade boys and often spends recess crying behind the dumpster. One day, his mother hires another in the long line of nannies, but this one is pretty different. The Manny -- who doesn't reveal his name until the end of the book -- changes Keats' life forever.

The Manny sends lunch off with affirmations: Be interesting! That affirmation just happen to be written on a coconut. He dresses up to meet the school bus. He organizes at-home opera performances. He spends a lot of time with Keats' Uncle Max. Oldest sister Lulu is mortified by the Manny's excesses and begins keeping track of his perceived transgressions in a notebook she calls "The Manny Files". Keats is sure that Lulu's list will mean that the Manny will be fired -- she's done it before -- and worries incessantly, even though the Manny tells him not to.

I liked the book, but the Dalingers are a really unusual family. A lot seemed just a bit over the head of the average third-grade reader, and the bullying without consequences I don't think will be a part of most kids' experience (will it?). The Manny talks about his next career -- but it's all related to pop culture that is so 2006. Keats keeps an off-and-on diary (I couldn't figure out what prompted a journal entry) where he concludes each entry with a short list of who was born on that day.  And the people he names aren't really on the radar of most elementary school students (although the book concludes with brief biographies of those mentioned):  Martha Graham, Olga Korbut, Ross Perot to name but three.  The Manny Files almost seems like a book where the idea was better than the execution. Or one that is trying too hard.  Still, would it be a good book to hand to the parent who asks for books for her sensitive boy?

An actor who I remember from the 80s TV series, Lou Grant, Daryl Anderson (yikes! that's a trip down memory lane), reads the novel.  He definitely sounds like an adult, but he reads with a calm that seems designed to provide confidence to the listener. Yes, things look bad for Keats, but with the help of this dependable adult (the Manny, the reader) he's going to be all right. Anderson's gentle reading sounded just like a close adult reading this story aloud to a boy like Keats. Keats' fears and anxieties are clear in the reading without Anderson adopting a boyish delivery. He does similar work with Lulu's character -- the personality shines through dialogue that doesn't attempt to sound like a teenaged girl. It's a subtle reading, but it worked for me.

I have to ask, though: Why does the Manny have to be gay?  I mean, it's OK that he's gay, but why is any male who works in a role traditionally filled by women automatically assumed to be gay?  (OK, perhaps not any male.)  If the book is attempting to make us think a little differently, can't the manny be manly?  (And yes, I completely believe that manliness has nothing to do with sexuality ... you know what I mean.)  Actually, it's utterly unfair of me to ask that of this book. This book is doing something else and on some levels, it succeeds.  Alas, it is not Mary Poppins (no, not that Mary Poppins), nor even the delightfully anarchic Nanny Piggins, It's just another kid's book from the aughts that is unlikely to stand the test of time.

[The image above is an 1819 portrait by Charles Brown of Keats' namesake, the Romantic poet.]

The Manny Files by Christian Burch
Narrated by Daryl Anderson
Listening Library, 2009.  6:09

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Just your run-of-the-mill family dysfunction

We had a special treat at my library early this summer: Two publisher reps came and talked about the books they were most excited about for the rest of the year.  They also provided some ARCs and other goodies (including signed copies of Daniel Wilson's [local boy] latest novel) and generally added to my metaphorically towering list of things to read. As is my wont, I reviewed the list's audio potential (several goodies -- including Gone Girl for which I am now 81st in the queue). I got overly excited when I saw who was narrating Mark Haddon's latest book, The Red House. Satisfyingly, this one was just waiting on the shelf.

I've only read Haddon's books for younger readers (see here), so I was looking forward to listening (in addition to my narrator crush). I'm not sure it was the best candidate for audio, but I enjoyed it.  Richard and Angela are estranged siblings who meet up -- uncomfortably -- at their mother's funeral. Richard is on his second wife (who appears to be "something slightly footballer's wife" and has a sullen teenage daughter) and is a successful doctor. Angela's family is struggling a bit -- her deadbeat (and philandering) husband Dominic is unethusiastically employed (I might be forgetting and he is unemployed) and Angela works as a teacher. They've got three kids. Richard, in a moment of magnaminity, invites Angela and her family to join his for a week's holiday at a rented house in Wales. She doesn't really want to, but figures this will be her family's only chance at a nice vacation. The reader is primed for disaster.  

But the drama here is more of a domestic variety. Everyone's emotions are pretty internalized and we spend a lot of time inside each character's heads as they review their own petty problems (from infidelity to malpractice to a stillborn baby to several teenage flirtations) and comment on the pettiness of the other character's perceived problems. Everyone has a secret and some are revealed. There is bad behavior from several family members, but also occasional moments of deep empathy. After a week, the families part and small repairs in the tears of their relationships have begun, but there's no shouting (well, there was a little shouting), no earthshattering revelations. I believed they would meet again. It felt very Chekhovian to me.  Life goes on.

I liked the characters, though (with the possible exception of that slimeball Dominic). The four children (three teenagers all very close in age and much younger brother Benjy) were very engaging and original. While the drama that played out amongst the teens was unsurprising (two girls, one boy), they acted in unexpected ways. The adults were a little more trying (those tiresome adult problems), but they surprised me too.

The writing is quite splendid as well. The book begins with the two families traveling -- Richard by car, Angela by train. We are treated to a spot-on description of a train journey ("Seventy miles an hour, the train unzips the fields." "...that train smell, burning dust, hot brakes, the dull reek of the toilet.") as well as neat little slices that introduce each family member (describing what each child is reading). The Welsh countryside and the weather are vividly clear from Haddon's writing.

The novel follows a chronological course of the week the families spend together in the red house, but it flits from perspective to perspective. There are visual clues (extra space) in the book when we are entering the mind of a new character, but it was actually very difficult to follow in the audiobook.  It might be two or three sentences before we hear in whose head we are. Some of the passages are quite brief before we move on. There are also short quotations occasionally popped into the text that I think are from made-up books (but maybe not) that might illuminate what is to come. These were a tad distracting as well, until I figured out what they were.

The question is, does Maxwell Caulfield overcome these flaws?  I really like listening to this man's voice (I've said that before, twice), and there aren't very many opportunities. It's husky and honeyed at the same time. He narrates the novel with a calm and command that reflects the quiet nature of the story, reading clearly and with a pacing that keeps things moving. What he doesn't do is voice this audiobook, create vocal portrayals for the novel's eight characters. The girls and women might speak in a slightly higher register, Benny is clearly childlike (but so is his dialogue), but there's very little distinction between everyone. Since the novel is in the third person, does it make sense to change the "narrator's" voice when we are changing from one character's perspective to another?  Very tricky, I think. It might start to sound like a three-ring circus. So, I think he made the right choice as a reader, but it undoubtedly would have worked better if there had been eight narrators (okay, yes, that costs a lot of money).

My favorite Haddon book (I've listened to all I've read of his) remains The Curious Incident .... Things were so crazy last month that I missed my chance to see the stage version produced by NT Live. I am hoping for an "encore."

[Richard's misadventures on a fog-shrouded mountain in Wales is a turning point in The Red House.  This photograph is of Hay Bluff. It was taken by ceridwen and was retrieved from the geograph.org.uk website.]

The Red House by Mark Haddon
Narrated by Maxwell Caulfield
Books on Tape, 2012.  9:30

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Giddy-yap, Rainbow!

I'm behind about four books.  I'm also kind of stalled listening-wise which means it could be a lot worse.  Last year on this date, I had finished listening to my 67th book (although, interestingly, I got jammed up on blogging last year at this time too). I'm in the midst of two listens right now, but the last book I finished was only my 44th of the year.  We could blame it on my (still) broken laptop, my vacation where my mp3 player died and I had no way of charging it up again, but it's mostly due to this, which finished up last weekend and was fun, fun, fun ... but was also a huge time-suck.  (I am pictured in the final photo, one of the two women looking at a camera ... I'm the one on the left.)

Today, let's discuss the 42nd book I have finished, last in my ears 27 days ago, so I probably won't have much to say about it.  The Hidden Gallery is the second book in Maryrose Wood's pretty funny series, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place.  For some reason, my library didn't purchase the first one in audio until it had been out for a couple years, so I eye-read it. But I was glad to find The Hidden Gallery on CD because I had wanted to listen to Katherine Kellgren's reportedly delightful performance.  The reports are true.

First, I shall attempt a summary. Miss Penelope Lumley, just 15 and a recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, has been sent to the estate of Lord Fredrick and Lady Constance Ashton to serve as governess to the three children -- Alexander, Beowulf and Cassiopeia -- that Lord Fredrick found living wild in the woods.  For some mysterious reason, Lord Fredrick seems compelled to take responsibility for them.  (More mysterious are the inexplicable changes in Lord Fredrick's behavior in the days preceding a full moon.)  Plucky Penelope is not daunted by her three wild charges and -- using examples from her favorite book series about a girl and her horse, Giddy-yap, Rainbow! -- she nearly succeeds in civilizing them enough to attend the Ashton's Christmas ball. If only someone hadn't let the squirrel loose in the ballroom.

In Book 2, Penelope and the children have been included in the Ashton's plan for a sojourn in London, while the mess the Incorrigibles made of Ashton Place at the Christmas ball is repaired.  Penelope is very excited as she is hoping to consult with her teacher at the Swanburne Academy, Miss Charlotte Mortimer, on how to best teach the Incorrigibles. But her one meeting with Miss Mortimer only leads to more questions, including why must Penelope resume dying her hair that mousy brown when it's just coming into a lovely shade oddly similar to the children's, or why the one-of-a-kind Hixby's Guidebook Miss Mortimer sent her seems to be directing her towards Gallery No. 17 (?) at the British Museum.

Alas, like the first book, we are left with some tantalizing clues and yet more questions as to the origins of both Penelope and the children.  These books are actually pretty slight, they build and build and then kind of fizzle into the next installment without resolution.  I don't think that will bother most readers, though, because Wood's writing is very kid friendly. The clues are not blindingly obvious, but most kids will pick up on them; the language is elaborate, but silly with it. The Incorrigibles each have a distinct character, and you can definitely enjoy their funny mix of civilized lupineness.  Yes, these stories resemble those of the Baudelaire children, but sadly, the Baudelaires didn't have the steadfast Miss Penelope to look after them.  And Penny does give these books a much-appreciated heart at the center.

Kellgren is up to her usual standard here (don't I say that every time?). She's fine as the extremely omniscient narrator (who clearly knows more than she is telling), but she shines with the novel's characters.  Calm, sweet Penelope contrasts nicely with distressed and distressingly hysterical Lady Constance. The three Incorrigibles are occasionally incomprehensible with their wolf-ish, growly pronunciations, but it is easy to figure out their dialogue in context. Cassiopeia has a babylike delivery that is actually quite funny, particularly when she expresses her love for her squirrel, Nutsawoo. On the mostly natural-sounding male side are the blustery and confused Lord Fredrick, the threatening Judge Quinzy (what's his story?), and the heroic young Simon Harley-Dickinson -- playwright and navigator. I also enjoyed the Cockney stylings of housekeeper Mrs. Clarke and the friend-or-foe coachman, Old Timothy.

The most intriguing voice introduces this audiobook:  "Listening Library presents ...." I swear to god, it sounds like Sean Connery. An emphatic Scottish lilt for 13 seconds (which I listened to about three times in a row trying to figure out who it was). I've done enough listening that I can usually peg who is doing it (George Guidall shows up a lot), but I have no idea who does this one.Wouldn't it be a pip if it was Sean Connery? I wonder if he's introduced the other two audiobooks?

Well, I guess I did have a lot to say. The real question is, will I stick with them to the end? I don't think so, not because they aren't enjoyable, they are. But there's ... wait for it ... too little time.  I guess I'll have to rely on the Internet to tell me what eventually happens.

[The British Museum from the northeast was taken by Ham and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Hidden Gallery (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 2) by Maryrose Woods
Narrated by Katherine Kellgren
Listening Library, 2011.  5:57