Sunday, February 17, 2013

Attempted murder in the cathedral

I've been in such a funk of overcommitment coupled with all the to-dos still lying in wait that I've neglected to mention the 2013 Odyssey Award. An interesting mix of novels; but I want to listen to just two of the honor books: Monstrous Beauty (just cued up this morning) and Cornelia Funke's Ghost Knight (translated by Oliver Latsch). As I have stated previously here, I have long been a fan of this writer, so it was no pain at all to give this a listen.  (It actually provided some short-term relief from the endless The Legend of Broken [36 hours!]; this strategy has worked so well that I'm employing it again with Monstrous Beauty!)

Jon Whitcroft has been sent away to boarding school at Salisbury Cathedral. He is in serious need of an attitude adjustment, as he's intent on destroying his widowed (?) mother's romance with a dentist he refers to as The Beard. But since the couple is currently enjoying a holiday in Spain, at this point all he can do is whine about his situation to us, his listeners. But just when he was starting to get a wee bit boring, 11-year-old Jon finds he has bigger problems: An angry ghost, accompanied by some wicked dogs and a few evil henchmen, aims to avenge his own hanging for the murders of two of Jon's mother's ancestors. The only other person sympathetic to Jon's troubles -- since no one else can see the ghost -- is Ella Littlejohn, whose eccentric grandmother Zelda provides ghost tours to Cathedral visitors.

Ella convinces Jon to consult another Cathedral ghost, William LongespĂ©e, the Earl of Salisbury, who was instrumental in getting the magnificent edifice -- with the tallest church spire in England -- erected. (My aversion to Wikipedia means that this article [where the source isn't cited] contains the most history I can find about the Earl). According to Ella, LongespĂ©e swore an oath -- shortly before his death -- to always help those in need. All you have to do is ask. Together, Jon and Ella raise the Earl's ghost and vow -- in return -- to find his stolen heart and lay it on the grave of his beloved wife, Ela, who is buried in nearby Lacock Abbey (and has some pretty interesting history on her own). The ghost knight easily dispatches Jon's enemy, but finding his heart proves a task requiring much courage from our young heroes.

Like in the first book of Funke's I read, The Thief Lord (which takes place in Venice), I loved the mixing of the real place with the fantastical.  Funke rightly sees the Cathedral -- especially at night -- as a place of danger and excitement. With her setting the scene, you just believe that magic might happen there.  Funke gives you plenty of historical information, using a clever combo of bored kids listening to a teacher drone on about dates and names, with deeds of great derring do and honor mixed in to keep things interesting. Jon and Ella have the right mix of kid and adventurer, so that it doesn't matter very much that their scrapes nearly all take place in the small hours at places they have no business being (they get locked into the Cathedral and other locations with no difficulty at all).

One thing gave me a wait-a-moment feeling, which was why Jon didn't recognize Ella's last name as that of someone else he knows, but that's a pesky adult detail.

A narrator entirely new to me, Elliot Hill, reads the novel. He has a very pleasant voice and delivers the usual mix of English accents that a book like this calls for.  Even though Jon is telling us his story from the distance of eight years, I enjoyed how his voice changes from a petulant entitled brat to a boy who can recognize the feelings and motivations of others. His Ella sounds natural, and I like the slight cluelessness Hill provided for The Beard. I personally didn't care for his interpretation of Zelda, Ella's grandmother, who has a high-pitched, exaggerated loopiness that came just to the edge of Monty-Python-like.

I think I might just disagree with the Odyssey committee about this one (except that I didn't listen to every audiobook published for youth in 2012), as I thought Hill's narrative delivery -- the way he reads the non-dialogue sentences -- was kind of ordinary. He gives each sentence the same rhythm, providing very little variety in the listening. This is endurable in a short novel, but can get pretty tiresome over many hours.  (It's so easy to be a critic.)

The library award season also includes the Listen List, audiobooks for adults selected by members of the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA).  Some of the books here are most intriguing to me, and I'm pleased (well, sort of, I really didn't enjoy it that much) to see that I've actually listened to one already. I find the listen-alikes to be intriguing as well, particular since they aren't limited to 2012 productions. The mind boggles at the amount of listening done by that committee.

[So many wonderful image possibilities from Funke's setting, I had to insert two: The photograph of Salisbury Cathedral, "in early morning light," was taken by Andrew Dunn and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. The tomb of William Longspee, inside the Cathedral, was taken by Bernard Gagnon and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke
Narrated by Elliott Hill
Listening Library, 2012. 4:53

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