Monday, January 28, 2013

One two three, one two three

In my tentative attempts to move more boldly into the world of books for grownups, I decided to start with the brand new award from librarians, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and read Anne Enright's The Forgotten Waltz. (And now I sit here trying to figure out what to say.) I believe it to be a very successful work of fiction -- encompassing all the things readers think about when they think about books:  vivid setting, complex and interesting (but not particularly nice) characters deftly drawn, a central conflict in need of resolution, a compelling story. Well, maybe not that last one.

Gina Moynihan first meets Sean Vallely -- who is a little bit older than her and is the father of a pre-teen girl who seems just a little bit off -- at a party at her sister Fiona's house in Dublin. It's the early-2000s and Ireland is booming (the Celtic Tiger). Both are married, and both are ambitious. Gina brings Sean on as a consultant in her workplace and a couple of years later, they embark on an affair while on a business trip together in Dubrovnik (the city might be wrong). It's a heady affair, one where Sean texts Gina the name and room number of a swanky hotel and they meet in the afternoon for a bout of sex. For additional titillation, they frequently encounter each other in the company of their somewhat dim spouses.

In 2008, the fairytale romance comes crashing down. The economy tanks, leaving Gina with an underwater mortgage.  She loses her high-paying job and Sean's consultancy isn't as successful as it once was. The lovers are found out, but even then Sean is reluctant to leave his family. Gina's mother dies, leaving her with a rundown home that can't be sold for any price. Without any place to live after she leaves her husband Gina moves into her childhood home. When Sean's wife finally tosses him out, he joins her.  After a very amusing misunderstanding, when Sean -- looking for a freshly laundered shirt -- asks Gina if the iron is on the fritz, they settle into an uneasy domesticity that kind of snuffs out their romance.  Exacerbating the situation are weekend visits of the now teenaged Evie.  The waltz of passion seems to have ended, soon to be forgotten. (My take on the metaphor, although the author never uses the term in her novel; if she did I missed it.)

Enright's writing was justly cited by the Carnegie Medal committee, "sharp yet subtle prose." Gina is a prickly narrator not afraid to cruelly dish on the failures of those who surround her.  She can judge herself pretty harshly as well and she's hard on Sean, too. There's no accounting for the romantic relationships of others, but these two pretty much deserve each other. Oddly, at the end, I felt that another romance might be brewing: Gina and Evie (not in an icky sense). It was extremely satisfying to see how Evie was managing to worm her way through Gina's defensive sarcasm.

But really, I didn't like this much. While the author's skills are considerable, I just couldn't be interested in the world and people she created.  Gina and Sean's affair is not a timeless match of literature, they actually don't seem to like each other very much. The events and characters that revolve around them -- while affording me interesting glimpses into a culture I don't know much about -- didn't really move me. I'm not sure I would have made it reading on my own.

Heather O'Neill (a narrator I heard years ago and enjoyed so very much reading Julie Hearn's The Minister's Daughter) helped me get through this novel. She portrays Gina with all her cruelties and insecurities intact, investing her character with a rapid-fire, caustic delivery that probably contributed to my dislike of her.  Her Irish accent is consistent (and delightful to listen to), and she creates interesting vocal personalities for many of the characters. The way the Irish swear is endlessly entertaining, and the disbelief in Sean's voice over the fact that Gina has not ironed his shirts (like the dutiful wife she is not) was deeply enjoyable.  I would listen to her again.

Enright, though, I'm not so sure. After all these years at the grindstone of books for young people, the world of adult prize-winning fiction still intimidates me. My experience with the Booker Prize or the National Book Award is extremely limited. And I'm not sure I've gotten off to a very good start. Oh well, there's always next year.

[This cartoon image of the Celtic Tiger was created by CGorman and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
Narrated by Heather O'Neill
Recorded Books, 2011.  7:15

A-mazement

A not-quite-senior moment: An email arrives from Mary Burkey of the blog Audiobooker: I've won her giveaway!  No memory whatsoever of entering this giveaway, but enter I evidently did. So late last year, I found myself in possession of Delia Sherman's The Freedom Maze (which, in true Pacific Northwest fashion sat on my doorstep in the pouring rain and arrived soaked through ... luckily it was not a retail audiobook with those flimsy boxes and survived with no damage). Among the several reading resolutions I made for 2013 is to read books/audiobooks cluttering up my bookshelves and give them new homes. (Of course, I really don't have a prayer of doing this, but I'll make a valiant effort.) With The Freedom Maze I've made a start.

Six years ago I read Sherman's Changeling and remember really enjoying it's delightful mix of Manhattan and fairyland. In The Freedom Maze, Sherman does something similar: portraying the same character in 1960 and in 1860.  In 1960, Sophie Fairchild has been unceremoniously dumped at the decaying Louisiana sugarcane plantation of her maternal grandmother and spinster aunt, since her newly divorced mother needs some time to focus on her new job in New Orleans. Sophie's family are segregationists, decrying the upheavals in their lives brought about by Negroes insisting on their civil rights. Her father moved to Greenwich Village upon his divorce and has just announced that he has married a Jewish woman. One day Sophie gets lost in a dilapidated hedge maze, discovering the falling-down summer house at its center; but she needs her aunt's help getting out.

While in the maze, Sophie also encounters a mysterious trickster and makes an injudicious wish for excitement that sends her back in time but in the same place. Her tanned skin and somewhat frizzy hair ensure that she is assumed to be Negro, but her resemblance to the Martineaus is striking: everyone believes she is the daughter of the family black sheep, who is living in New Orleans with his mixed- race mistress. Sophie's prickly personality make it difficult for her to fit in with the plantation's Negroes, and it soon gets her into serious trouble with her "owners." But, as the creature has told her, there is something critical that only Sophie can do and until she does it, she won't be leaving 1860. The question is, can Sophie survive slavery to complete her task? Will she ever return to her own time?

Sherman's story is oddly compelling (I had a hard time getting excited about this book due to its cover), and she looks at what happened to enslaved African Americans with a clear eye: miscegenation, physical violence, the emotional toll of racism, and the unbelievably taxing and dangerous work are unflinchingly portrayed here. Child readers do not get a pass.  Sophie is not a particularly likable person, but we definitely grow to respect her over the course of the novel. The issues -- from both eras -- are big here, but the story never feels overwhelmed.  My own liberal biases make me itch, yet again, for a story where black people can be in command of their own salvation but the convention of the white savior works in this context. There's a sly revelation at the end that eases my concern about this a little bit.

The reason why I won this audiobook was because I made the "best" comment on the blog post announcing the giveaway, and what I said was how interested I was in listening to the narrator -- Robin Miles -- who I had heard once before but wanted to hear again.  Miles is excellent here, managing a large cast of characters from two centuries and races. She is as believable as a 13-year-old 20th century white child of Southern privilege as she is an enslaved black mother as she is an elderly white woman being served by who she thinks is her granddaughter. She's equally at home in the novel's male characters, although -- upon reflection -- this is a pretty matriarchal book. I also enjoyed how Sophie's growing maturity is reflected in Miles' narration, as her voice replaces petulance with increasing confidence. The audiobook's pacing is just right as well, with a lot of tension as the novel reaches its pretty exciting conclusion.

I was disappointed that Miles chose not to sing a spiritual that occurs in the book. The audiobook concludes with an interview with Sherman where the usual questions (Where do you get your ideas? What kind of research did you do?) get asked and answered. Sherman discusses the book cover, which she liked a lot, explaining the artist's design intent (alas my memory fails me exactly what this was). Kathleen Jennings, the artist, explains a little bit about her process here. While I haven't changed my mind about it -- it does not encourage young readers to pick it up off the shelf -- I appreciate this insight.

(This is my second book in a row narrated by a Robin.)

The Freedom Maze makes several references to a 1958 novel by Edward Eager (not much online about Mr. Eager), The Time Garden. Eager, in turn, was a big fan of E. Nesbit. Having just sat in on the annual lovefest (yay! Seraphina) that is the may-I-say awkwardly named YMA press conference (which always makes me think of Yma Sumac), it's always lovely to see how the world of books and reading for children honors its past while always in search of the next Nesbit, Eager, Sherman, or whomever.

[A half-naked statue hidden in the middle of the maze has been dubbed "Belle Watling" by Sophie's Aunt Enid, who sends the girl in search of Gone With the Wind to find out why.  "She never did figure out why Belle Watling was a good name for an armless statue. (p. 30)" This publicity still is Ona Munson, who played Belle in the movie. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman
Narrated by Robin Miles
Listening Library, 2012. 8:19

Saturday, January 26, 2013

All wolf and no gang

“Reader, I ate him.”  Just a little taste (tee hee) of the mordant wit of one Jacob Marlowe, the eponymous (anti) hero of Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf.  I’m not so much with the paranormal stuff, but something about this novel caught my eye and I put it in my ears.  If you can withstand the gore and can tolerate the somewhat raunchy sex (Jake seems to have an animal-like fascination with not-the-usual female orifice), this is a very enjoyable, compelling story. 

When I first began listening, I was disturbed at the use of Jake/Jacob, as it brought to mind another werewolf, one that I would rather not be conjuring up. (I also got the occasional hit of Jacob Marley, but the internet tells me that Marlow is the main character in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is what the author meant to reference I’m going to guess.)  Soon enough, though, other literary Jakes or Marlows ceased to matter; I got entangled in Jake’s adventures, because he is one hell of a storyteller.

Jake learns that he is the last werewolf early in the novel. He’s about 200 years old – having been turned, almost by accident, while on a walking trip with his best friend in the 1840s. He’s grown fabulously wealthy, is a philanthropist (hoping to assuage the spirits of those he has killed and eaten) and lately has been eating only those “no one wants;” his last meal before the novel starts is a hedge-fund manager. But the news of the death of the appropriately named Wolfgang puts him in a funk.  Against the advice of his human friend, Harley, Jake decides he’ll just give himself up. But the operatives of WOCOP (World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena) won’t take him down in human form, it’s going to be another month before Jake is hunted down, speared by a silver stake, and beheaded.

If only that were possible. Jake gets his house in order but as the next full moon waxes, he is kidnapped by … wait for it ... vampires who believe that a virus in certain werewolf blood will enable them to live in the sunlight. Then, Jake makes a stunning discovery; one that alters his worldview entirely, and he finds he's got a reason to live.

What’s most fun about this novel (and I grant that it may not be fun for all) is Jake. He is the best of narrators – witty, cynical, self-aware with a touch of self-pity, feral and human, completely in command of the structure of climax and aftermath.  His tale takes on an air of tragedy in a few places and Jake lets us in on his suffering. The 11+ hours sped by, and I’ll probably tune in for the sequel.

Robin Sachs, a narrator I’ve heard of but never listened to before, takes command of Jake’s story from the get-go and never lets up.  Jake has a deep, smoky voice redolent of the single malt he drinks that makes him very easy to listen to.  Sachs varies the pace brilliantly (Jake’s escape from the vampires is a model of tension and release), and never loses sight of Jake’s emotional journey. Jake is British, but Sachs can pretty much toss off multiple accents with conviction.  There are a couple of Americans in the story who sound entirely authentic.  It’s an excellent performance.

I will add that late in the novel, another character assumes the first-person narrative. Rather than change narrators, Sachs continues on, which was an interesting editorial decision. I wouldn’t want to have listened to an entire book in this voice, but Sachs does a reasonably good job of portraying a type of character he wouldn’t normally create. (Trying to avoid spoilers here; it seems very obvious to me what I’m referring to, but maybe it will remain a secret for you.)

A word about sex. Several other audiobook bloggers mentioned how graphic they found Jake’s sexual encounters. I didn’t find them particularly disturbing, but maybe I’m more used to the overly flowery and detailed descriptions from the occasional trashy romance. They certainly are true to Jake and his animal nature (his mantra is “fuckkilleat”), and I’m not sure you could have a novel about werewolves without it.  Just another thing that makes this werewolf named Jacob several cuts above that imposter from Forks, Washington.

["A(sic) 18th century engraving depicting a wolf attack from Johann Geiler von Kaiserberg's Die Emeis (1516)."  Wikimedia Commons tells me that its image is from a book by Ian Woodward called The Werewolf Delusion.]

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan
Narrated by Robin Sachs
Books on Tape, 2011.  11:34

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Dracophilia

So, now it can be told: This past year I've been reading first-time authors (conventionally published ones) with books for teens for this year's William C. Morris YA Debut Award. We announced our shortlist last month, so it's OK for me to say that I've been revisiting them in preparation for our discussions and selection during the last weekend of January. Only one of our five titles is available in audio, so I've listened to (and am now eye-reading) Seraphina by Rachel Hartman.

Seraphina Dombegh (DOM-bee) is the recently hired assistant music mistress at the palace of the rulers of Goredd, a slightly steampunkish medieval mashup of several world cultures (houppelandes co-exist with ouds and something called a megaharmonium). The Goreddi are about to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their historic treaty with the dragons who had preyed on them for centuries, but who became even more frightening enemies when they learned to transform themselves into passable humans, a disguise known as saarantrai. It's an uneasy peace, and one that may be doomed by the recent murder of the crown prince -- a murder that carries a draconian signature by virtue of the fact that the prince's head is missing.

Seraphina, urged by her father to keep out of any palace intrigues is hiding a secret herself: she is the half-breed offspring of a human and a dragon. Her mother, who died giving birth, fooled even her father in her saarantrai. Seraphina has telltale scales wrapped around her waist and left arm (easily hidden by her capacious houppelande). Her mixed blood has caused her some physical problems, as she has debilitating visions of a variety of strange human-ish beings. Fortunately, her dragon uncle Orma, long a saarantrai resident and teacher in Goredd, has taught her many things about how to manage her (analytical) dragon side and its accompanying grotesques. He also gave her the music instruction that has landed her the job in the palace. Despite her best intentions, Seraphina is drawn into the investigations into Prince Rupert's death, investigations led by the handsome Captain of the Queen's guard, Lucian Kiggs.

Two things I really enjoyed about this book: Setting (the world of Goredd and surroundings) and the characters.  (The plot, while enjoyable, is fairly predictable.)  Hartman really shines in her creation of this world -- a city of neighborhoods, the non-Goreddi of distant lands, the bar where dragons and humans can drink together, the vendors, the cathedral; the cathedral reminds me of the gentle hints about Goreddi religion and the mysterious heresy of one Saint Yirtrudis. The long history of dragons and humans is trickled out in a natural, information-giving (but not overloading) way. You might want to know some details earlier than you get them, but is a relaxing desire -- you can be confident that Hartman will deliver.

The characters in the novel are vivid creations, led by our semi-reliable narrator, Seraphina. We learn as we read that even though Seraphina considers herself human, there's a lot of dragon peeping through her personality. I'm not a re-reader as a rule, but revisiting Seraphina knowing the story allows me to catch glimpses of that other side of her character that are shared before we really learn why. Other characters I was glad to meet: Seraphina's dragon uncle Orma (one of those classic "alien" characters who studies humankind without ever fully understanding them), the Princess Glisselda who you think is an empty-headed twit but has layers, the bastard Prince Lucian Kiggs, stalwart defender of what is right if not popular, the host of Seraphina's grotesques, the gout-ridden music master Viridius, and quick character studies of dragons, knights, townspeople that all add to the rich atmosphere of the setting. Not one is extraneous or poorly written.

A minor flaw for me: Seraphina as music mistress seems very, very unusual and I couldn't figure out why (beyond that it makes her stand out). All her musicians are identified as male, so I guess I wanted some explanation of how she was able to break into the Goreddi music biz, so to speak. There are plenty of strong women in this story -- queens, ambassadors, part of the anti-dragon resistance, leader of the saarantrai police force -- so the lack of musicians, which amounts to the lack of women with "ordinary" jobs, stood out for me.  There will be sequels, so maybe I'll learn more later on.

Mandy Williams, a narrator I think I've heard before but I can't find any actual evidence of doing so, portrays Seraphina with a voice that reflects her prim, analytical nature with that of a girl who is just beginning to spread her wings.  When she realizes her love for Prince Lucian (engaged to another), Williams' voice is filled with joy and horror. Williams creates a consistent cast of voices for the novel's many characters, but a few times she makes the odd decision not to voice a character as it has been suggested in the text. She has a pleasant English accent, reads quickly, occasionally flubbing a word, but not to the detriment of the story. She also has a minor version of Barbara Walters' "r" problem (which I now know is called rhotacism!), which seems odd in an audiobook narrator, but it actually makes for a nice little fillip to Seraphina's character. She is also given a few opportunities to sing, which she does (hooray!) in a lovely, girlish soprano.

Another reader, Justine Eyre, narrates the sections where Seraphina's dragon mother is a voice in her head. Her distinctive and rich voice, last heard here, is a soothing counterpart to Williams' tinged with a knowing sadness as she contemplates her daughter's heritage.

There were a surprising number of first-time authors available in audio, but I decided not to listen to them for Morris purposes. Some of them that I read and (this is my opinion only) enjoyed in print and might have enjoyed listening to:  Angelfall by Susan EeMy Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher, The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann (18 years old!), Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi, and What's Left of Me by Kat Zhang (19 years old!).  ALA awards time also makes me think about my old friend the Odyssey ... I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's highly unlikely that I've listened to that audiobook yet.

[For those of you wondering what a houppelande is here is Maria d'Harcourt et d'Aumale, wife of Reinald IV, Duke of Guelders and JΓΌlich, in a houppelande, folio 19 of the Breviary of Marie de Gueldres.  This 15th century book of hours is owned by the Berlin State Library; the image was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Narrated by Mandy Williams and Justine Eyre
Listening Library, 2012.  13:14