Monday, March 25, 2013

Strings attached

Considering how I lost my reading mojo last year (and I do promise to stop going on about this eventually ... perhaps when I get it back), I was kind of impressed how well I'd done on the Newberys (three out of four), compared to how I stood Printz-wise (two out of five). Just one of these four was available to me in audio, so into the ears it went: Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz. Totally in my wheelhouse, another delicious homage to Dickens (see here and here).

We're back in Victorian London, where two orphans -- Lizzie Rose and Parsefall -- have been taken in by the slightly creepy puppeteer Grisini. They assist him with the marionette show he presents on the streets of London, Lizzie Rose plays music, while Parsefall is learning Grisini's tricks of the trade. A lonely young girl, Clara Wintermute (a nicely Dickensian moniker) -- sole survivor in what once was a family of five children -- sees Grisini's show one day and begs her over-protective (yet almost afraid to love her) parents to bring the puppeteer to their home for her 12th birthday party. Just a few hours after the party, Clara disappears.

A few days later, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall discover a new marionette hanging on the "gallows" with the others: A puppet that bears an uncanny resemblance to Clara. This is followed quickly by a dramatic fall down the stairs of their boarding house by Grisini, a fall that they believe he has not survived. Yet, his body vanishes a few hours later. When Clara's father visits Lizzie Rose and Parsefall and discovers the puppet, the orphans know they must leave London.

Fortunately (well, not really), Lizzie Rose recently received an invitation from an old woman named Cassandra, who heard of her and Parsefall's situation through her relationship with Grisini, and now wishes to leave her estate in the North of England and all her considerable wealth to them.  Of course, we know that that's not what she intends to do at all, because Cassandra is a witch who needs the children to do something for her that will keep her from dying. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall pack up the Clara puppet and head north.

Splendors and Glooms is all about atmosphere: damp, foggy London, the rickety boarding house (with its landlady straight out of Dickens who provides an important clue to the whereabouts of the children in a proper Dickensian plot development), Cassandra's frigid castle with its crumbling tower and overheated bedroom, there's even an evocative trip by train.  Schlitz' writing is beautifully descriptive -- the details all add up to an atmosphere of cold and menace that puts the listener in the ragged shoes of Lizzie Rose and Parsefall. The characters are extremely stock -- plucky orphans, lonely rich girl, evil puppetmaster, a witch who is rotting away -- but I think Schlitz intends to do this. The story is just one of Grisini's puppet shows -- where good undergoes great peril but ultimately triumphs over evil -- writ large.  I enjoyed this a lot (possibly more than the Newbery-winning gorilla!).

The audiobook is in the extremely capable hands of Davina Porter, whose calm and confiding style carries the story beautifully. There's a kind of grandmotherly quality to her narration; she can do the scary bits scarily but not so much that you don't want her to keep going. Porter is very skilled at characters, at depicting individuals from all levels of English classes. She's equally at home with the tipsy, Cockney landlady as she is with Clara's distant father, with the ancient hag perfectly willing to sacrifice children and the Italian puppeteer who's also using them for something nefarious.  Porter reads the two girls in a natural way, giving Lizzie Rose a slight Welsh lilt. Parsefall speaks in Cockney but with an oddly adult gruffness. I appreciate the emotional honesty with which Porter invests her characters -- Clara's fearfulness, Lizzie Rose's cheerful optimism, Cassandra's real pain (both physical and spiritual), and the guilt and grief of Clara's father once she disappears -- are all clear in Porter's interpretations.

The intros and outros (This ends Disc 1, etc.) are read by the actress Juliet Stevenson (I think), who rich voice is such a pleasure to listen to.  Years ago, I listened to her read a wonderful book called I, Coriander by Sally Gardner, and I would like to hear her again.  (Hmmm ... several options at my own library!)

I also noticed that Recorded Books has returned to those endless (up to 10 seconds) pauses between chapters, which Amazing Audiobooks in 2008 tried to convince the company to shorten. Well, I guess it has been five years, but it's still not a good idea.

Schlitz chose a rather interesting epigraph -- part of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem mourning the death of John Keats, "Adonais." The eponymous Splendo[u]rs and Glooms are part of Adonais' funeral cortège. Everyone in this novel has suffered a loss, which -- even though things end well for our young heroes -- gives the story a certain solemnity in keeping with the dank London streets and the lonely castle on the heath.

[Cassandra has a problem with a fire opal she's held onto for 60 years or so and she's hoping that Lizzie Rose and Parsefall can help her.  The photograph of this uncut fire opal was taken by Parent Géry and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz
Narrated by Davina Porter
Recorded Books, 2012.  12:03

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Breakage

To paraphrase Ranganathan: Every audiobook its listener. Somewhere out there is a person (likely more than one) who will enjoy Caleb Carr's magnum opus: The Legend of Broken.  That person is not me. I stuck it out -- all 36 hours -- because I believed I might be getting another book like The Alienist (which I remember reading, but don't really remember) when I asked the Audiobook Jukebox for a copy. And since Audiobook Jukebox obtained me a copy, I felt obliged to listen. But it wasn't easy: I listened to five other audiobooks while I worked my way through this bloated piece of fake history.

For something that clocks in at a day and a half, there should be more to it. The Legend of Broken spends hours and words building up to a great confrontation between two factions of a 8th or 9th century European society -- one that will decide the future of that society -- only to end in a fizzle. Pretending to be a lost manuscript, discovered by Edward Gibbon (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) who wrote his friend, Edmund Burke, about it. Burke warns Gibbon that the story is too radical (huh?) and Gibbon tucks it away until it is "found" amongst his papers by Carr. Carr annotates the story to death (once the novel ends, there are FOUR AND ONE HALF HOURS of notes). This isn't a novel, it's a self-indulgent display of "scholarship." Carr's not interested in his readers (unlike Ranganathan), he's only interested in making sure we know how much he knows.

This approach to storytelling is boring. And it's boring capped by trite, more-often-than-not awkward writing.  I'll share some quotes pulled out by reviewers more skilled than I.  "Between the overhanging branches of the trees that so desperately grab the rocks on both sides of the ever-furious river" (from the New York Times).  "Although graced with angular, handsome features, he scowls out harshly from beneath a bristling shock of auburn hair" (from the Boston Globe). "'Ever the pedant, even without your legs, eh Caliphestros?'"(from Entertainment Weekly).

OK, now I know I'm piling on: NOTHING HAPPENS. Things are explained by characters in that awful expository dialogue, the narrator would then explain them again, and another character might chime in for the third time (or it arises again in the NOTES). Sentences run on and on and on. I would listen -- finger poised on the pause button -- for the end of a sentence that never came. Eventually, I just gave up and shut it off willy-nilly.

But wait, the characters. Oy vey.  Not actual people, not even archetypes. Utter cardboard. Noble military hero - check.  Loyal (still beautiful) wife of noble hero - check.  Power-hungry ruler with the hots for the wife - check. Effete religious figure - check. Forward-thinking religious figure (complete with white panther) tortured and banned  - check.  Quirky (they are short!) folk who are one with nature - check.

I'm not even going to bother with summarizing the 36 hours of non-story (it's a Game of Thrones wanna be, suffice it to say), but go straight to the audiobook.  The endless hours are narrated by Tim Gerard Reynolds, a narrator new to me. Considering that even I -- the Finisher -- would never have endured this book in print, I can only say that Reynolds kept me afloat in this sea of mediocrity. He reads with an assured English accent and just keeps going. He has sufficient skill with character voices that dialogue is easily followed and no one sounds like an idiot. He would occasionally change his delivery so significantly that I thought there was another reader, but I think he was just starting again after a break (and there must have been a lot of breaks). The few women in the story are acceptably feminine without being swishy. I don't believe that anyone could keep this novel interesting, so I applaud him for his effort.

The audiobook has two other readers. First, George Guidall, who reads the notes. These footnotes come at the end, but refer to instances throughout the story. So they are almost 100% pointless in an audiobook as they come entirely out of context. Some were downright weird, like reciting the web address of a site dedicated to saving big cats, or a lengthy discussion of Gibbon's swollen testicle. The major plot development that begged for a note (Greek fire) was not explained in any way. Guidall is an experienced narrator, but not a favorite of mine as I just listen to him getting juicier and juicier the longer he goes on.  He reads the notes with commitment and even interest, but by this time I was just focused in reaching the finish line.

The third narrator is John Curless, who reads the letter of Burke to Gibbon (or maybe it was Gibbon to Burke). In his brief appearance at the beginning of the novel, he chooses to read the letters in a careful, slightly artificial style that I believe is intended to represent 18th century educated correspondence.

To top it off, this book behaved very oddly once it was transferred to my Sansa Clip. I would transfer about 10 to 15 tracks (of 108!) at a time because they would show up on the Clip in an utterly random order. I should be grateful that the tracks were lengthy ones, so I didn't have to keep clicking around to get them to play in the correct sequence. Each individual track also looked funny while playing: You know that line that moves from left to right as the track plays itself out? Well, that line was a completely inaccurate reflection of the amount of time left to play in this instance. Just ONE MORE THING making this listening experience unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.

I am appreciative of the gift of a professionally produced audiobook from Simon & Schuster Audio as part of the Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer program. I aim to find it a home where it will be loved.

[Edmund Burke's portrait is from the studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds; Edward Gibbon's (in the oval) is by Henry Walton. Both hang in England's National Portrait Gallery, and were retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Legend of Broken by Caleb Carr
Narrated by Tim Gerard Reynolds, George Guidall and John Curless
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013.  35:58

Boys' life

It took me a long time to get through Hannah Tinti's The Good Thief, as I probably listened to it off and on for about a month.  I don't recommend this as a way to read anything, but the setting, characters and plot of this novel remained vivid over the long haul. There was more than one occasion when I thought, while listening, that I had no idea where this book was headed.  That's a good thing.

This is the story of the orphan Ren, abandoned as a baby to the tender mercies of the order of St. Anthony through a one-way swinging door. Ren -- so named because of the tag on the inside of the shirt he was wearing when he arrived -- is now 12 years old and he's rapidly losing faith he will be adopted. He fears the fate of the boys who never leave the monastery: involuntary recruitment into the army.  Ren is a smart, attractive boy who has a lot of appeal to the people who come looking for a son to adopt, until they see his missing left hand, with its neatly stitched scar tissue over the wrist. Then, the larger-than-life Benjamin Nab arrives, claiming Ren as his long-lost brother. He sweeps Ren up and out into the world -- a world of con artists, grave robbers, giants and dwarves, a town where all the men are dead, a cruel mousetrap magnate, and perhaps even the answer to the mystery of who Ren is.

This book is dark; it's terrifying what Benjamin Nab and his alcoholic former-schoolteacher partner are up to and what they make Ren do to help them. The emotional (not to mention the physical) wear-and-tear on the boy is cruel and hard to listen to.  But the story is a true gothic wild ride. I was riveted by the situations (digging up bodies for use by the local surgeon or the dangerous production of the mousetraps), the characters (beside the giant and the dwarf, there's a girl with a harelip, a buyer and seller of teeth, a deaf landlady with a heart of gold, and a gentle horse [who deserved a better fate -- I'm just warning the animal lovers out there]), and the plot, which propels you through one bizarre setting after another until we reach the aptly named town of North Umbrage where the complicated strands of Ren's origins come to a head. In its unspecified 18th or 19th century setting (somewhere in North America), the bizarre characters and all the coincidences, The Good Thief seems very Dickensian.  I like Dickens.

The story isn't particularly original -- boy goes on journey to discover who he is -- and the discovery of Ren's parentage seemed logical (if you accept that books like this have a logic), yet I found myself surprised, but the getting there is highly entertaining.

The somewhat squeaky-voiced William Dufris narrates the novel. With that slightly strained hoarseness, he has a knack of capturing the characterization of frightened pre-adolescent boys (in a much gentler setting here [and I said almost the exact same thing about his voice ... embarrassing!]) and his creation of Ren is another in this vein. His reading -- filled with desperation and fear -- evokes a significant amount of sympathy for our young hero. He is an experienced reader, skilled at reading both narrative and dialogue and he keeps the story moving along. There's nothing surprising or innovative in his interpretation, but it suffices. A reader who specializes in more dramatic narration might make a lot more of the wildly baroque characters, but it's not fair to criticize what the audiobook might have been.

Dufris does make some differentiation in the largely male characters who populate this novel -- louder, lighter, more gravelly, giant-voiced or dwarf-voiced. The deaf landlady shouts (I believe in all caps in the print version) and this is remarkably unpleasant to listen to. Although I enjoyed the little bit of love she showered on poor Ren, I wasn't too dismayed when she ended up in the hospital with ... (well, some 19th century disease from which she recovers).

The Good Thief was recognized by the Alex Award committee of YALSA in 2009, an annual list of recommended books for teens written/published for an adult audience. (Just thinking about that committee's reading list boggles the mind.) Since I still enjoy books for teenagers, but have sworn off the ones actually written for them this year, these lists may be a good place to look for some good reads/listens. Not that I'm having any trouble finding books to read.

[The photograph of this historical mousetrap from the Museum der Schwalm was taken by Massel tow and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.  Here's the Google translated version on how it works:  "The mouse enters the chamber barred bottom left, lured by a bait and triggers the trap door. The only possible way leads through the wire tube vertically upwards. If it continues to run to the right, she falls into the water-filled bowl and drowned." I'm pretty sure that these are not the mousetraps made by the evil Mr. McGinty.]

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
Narrated by William Dufris
Brilliance Audio, 2009.  10:46

Monday, March 11, 2013

Comings and goings

Emma Donoghue and I share a favorite story in her outstanding collection of short stories, Astray: the first one of the 14 tales of individuals who have headed out -- in one way or another -- in search of something new.  "Man and Boy" tells the true story of one man and his best friend, Jumbo the Elephant; as the man -- Matthew Scott -- determines that he's the only one who can escort Jumbo from his old home in the London Zoo to his new one under the tender mercies of one P.T. Barnum in 1882.  Inspired -- as are all the stories in Astray -- by a historical nugget (newspaper article, correspondence, or autobiography) -- "Man and Boy"is a long diary entry or letter that Scott writes to his charge. In a delightful reveal, we're fully wrapped up in this story of friendship before Donoghue lets slip that the friend is an elephant.

Donoghue explains the concept of Astray far better than I can: "With the turn of each page, the protagonists of these stories go astray in various senses. They are emigrants, runaways, drifters; gold miners and counterfeiters, attorneys and slaves. They cross borders of race, law, sex, and sanity. They travel for love or money, under duress or incognito. ... lighting up four centuries of wanderings that have profound echoes in the present."  She describes her own emigration experience (from Ireland to Canada, for love) as the impetus of her research.

All 14 stories are well worth reading, but I particularly enjoyed "The Long Way Home," about a tomboy/cowgirl in late 19th century Arizona aiming to set something right; "The Gift," a heartrending story of a mother who delivered her child to an orphanage with every expectation of returning for her -- but the child's adoptive father feels otherwise; "Daddy's Girl," where a young woman discovers that her father was not the man she thought he was (literally); and "What Remains," a story of loss as one elderly woman faces the future without her longtime companion.

Interesting, isn't it, that these are all from a woman's perspective (except for Matthew Scott and Jumbo), so I must mention "The Widow's Cruse," enjoyably about a lawyer who believes that the woman he has taken on as a client is telling the truth; and "Last Supper at Brown's," where a man's slave and his wife work together to solve the pesky problem he presents.

Each story concludes with a brief explanation about what inspired it, as Donoghue cites her research and discoveries.

What I like here is Donoghue's curious mind and the flights of imagination that the historical tidbits send her on. I'm continually astonished at the drama of everyday life, and I love that these stories are grounded in the truth.

The audiobook has five readers: Dion Graham, Khristine Hvam, James Langton, Robert Petkoff, and Suzanne Toren. (The latter two read parts in the other Donoghue book I've listened to: Room.)  One fave (Graham, alas, narrates just one story: "Last Supper at Brown's"), two in the category of oh-you-are-very-good-and-I-will-listen-to-you-again (Hvam and Langton), and two that I would be fine not listening to ever again. All are simply terrific. Toren, whose narrations I have -- quite frankly -- never liked, surprised me with her breadth. In the credits, Toren and Langton are identified as directors.

Langton takes gold for me: He's simply wonderful as the self-satisfied, yet emotionally stunted, Matthew Scott; but also he shines in two stories I didn't actually like very much: "The Lost Seed," about a holier-than-thou colonist in 17th century Massachusetts; and he's devastating as a young Hessian in the British army forced to rape young American women as part of a conquering army in "The Hunt."  He's also funny/sad in telling the story of two young gold prospectors barely hanging on (to each other) in the Klondike ("Snowblind").  His characters sound like they are just confiding their story to you, the listener, with all the emotional quality that implies. He's having a delightful one-sided conversation.  The gentle irony he imparts to the ridiculous history of Jumbo the elephant epitomizes his conversational narrative style.

Each story opens with the tale's location and title and concludes with an underbed of music before the author's note.  This is so helpful to a listener, giving you those important clues that help to guide your stopping and starting.  (I think I might have been especially cognizant of these clues as Astray was one of the many [five!] books I listened to in an attempt to break up the tedium that was The Legend of Broken, which offered absolutely no guidance whatsoever, as it went on and on and on. I swear the sentences had no end. But more about this in a bit.)

There's also a final essay by the author, read by her in her slightly lilting Irish/Canadian accent. She's too choppy to narrate a full book, but she holds her own among the heavyweights. All in all, an outstanding audio production.  I'm not the only one to think so: AudioFile magazine gave it an Earphones Award, and it's up for a 2013 Audie.  I've listened to quite a few good books this year, but this is most definitely the best of those published most recently.

In the department of it-really-doesn't-matter-but-I-find-it-interesting-anyway: The credits of the audiobook read as follows:  Langton, Hvam, Petkoff, Toren, Graham.  I wonder if that's mic time. Just curious.

[Matthew Scott and Jumbo giving a ride to children at the London Zoo, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Astray by Emma Donoghue
Narrated by Dion Graham, Khristine Hvam, James Langton, Robert Petkoff, and Suzanne Toren
Hachette Audio, 2012.  6:31

Eye of the beholder

At the risk of repeating myself (actually not a risk, I am repeating myself), last year's reading for the Morris Award really killed my reading mojo, and what contributed to its death more than anything else was the paranormal.  I read about various iterations of angels, demons, valkyries, lycanthropes, the "kind and the unkind" until they all blended together in a jumble of lasting romance, gawky girls not aware of their tremendous beauty and powerful skills, and eyes of a color rarely (if ever) found in nature. So, I was predisposed not to like Elizabeth Fama's Monstrous Beauty, one of the Odyssey's Honor audiobooks. I think you can tell from the cover what non-human human is featured.

But Monstrous Beauty has some quirks that help it rise above your ordinary paranormal. A fully realized setting (Cape Cod near Plymouth Rock), a main character who has an unexpected reaction to learning of her species, lots of great historical detail, some fairly shocking violence and an ending that (fingers crossed) is an actual no-sequel-needed ending. Hester is a 17-year-old nerdy history buff who lives with her father and stepmother in Plymouth, Massachusetts. She works at nearby Plimoth Plantation as an interpreter. There's a boy who likes her but Hester has made it quite clear that romance is not in the works. She fears romance, in fact, as she comes from a tragic line of women who all die mysteriously in the days immediately following the births of their daughters.

Escaping from a school-year-end party, Hester retreats to a cave on the beach only accessible at low tide and has a conversation with an unseen man -- whose name she later learns is Ezra. Drawn to this man even before she fully meets him, she is charmed by his courteous manners and old-fashioned way of speaking. We've already met Ezra by the time Hester does, because we've also been reading about the life of another young woman, who lived about 130 years earlier in the 1870s. Syrenka is a mermaid with a penchant for humans (after several tries, she figures out how not to kill them) and she has met and fallen in love with Ezra, a young naturalist. Like another mermaid, she makes a significant sacrifice to join her lover on land, but Syrenka's fate has longer lasting consequences. Ezra is not the only ghost Hester encounters hanging about Plymouth.

I'm predisposed to like Hester because she goes to the library to do research (although preposterously, she finds what she is looking for during her lunch hour ... and then, there's the question of the theft!). If she gets a little too swoony over Ezra, I'm trying to give her some slack (it's in her genes). And she is capable of making some hard decisions that she knows are right, even though they may end her romance. I really enjoyed her scenes at Plimoth Plantation, where she speaks in that 17th century vernacular for the tourists, while skewering stupid tourist questions at the same time. The 19th century characters who haunt the churchyard are more interesting than the contemporary ones, perhaps because their stories are ultimately tragic.  The mermaid sequences get a tad tiresome -- although the Sea Hag is quite awesomely evil.

I enjoyed the twining of the two stories -- I thought I had the con- nection figured out and was pleasantly surprised when it worked out slightly differently. Where Fama truly excels is her setting, which I had no trouble picturing as I listened -- the wild ocean off Cape Cod, the tide-strewn beach, the old meeting house and its creepy crypt, a dusty history museum, even the lair of the Sea Hag.

I did find the main premise -- Hester can't fall in love because she mustn't have children -- to be a bit of a stretch and not exactly the message that I'd like young women to take away from this book, i.e., love = children. Also, I want young readers to practice birth control and to know that there are many ways to make a family without actually giving birth. But I also realize that quibbling about this is fairly ridiculous.

Katherine Kellgren -- whose narrative gifts have been recognized by all but one of the Odyssey Committees since the award's inception in 2008 -- narrates the novel.  She's good, per usual. Her narrative authentically captures Hester's insecurities and Syrenka's predatory, seductive nature. She shines in the sections at Plimoth Plantation, and she produces a terrific characterization of an alcoholic Scots preacher. There are even dolphin-like clicks as she creates a mermaid language. It's a fine performance -- among all her fine performances -- worthy of Odyssey notice.

There's a brief musical intro and outgo that is suitably siren-y -- complete with vocalizations. There are the mermaids sunning themselves, combing their hair and humming a few bars.  Kellgren and Fama (FAH [like the note that's a long long way to run] -ma) enjoy a brief conversation at the conclusion of the audiobook that is the usual questions (on both sides), but is interesting nevertheless. (You know which questions I'm talking about: where did you get your ideas, how did you research it, what's your favorite character, etc.)

In the department of weird: This blog records three books featuring mermaids (including this one), and I posted on the first two almost exactly one year apart -- while this third one comes in at the 11-month mark. Wonder what I'll be listening to next year ...

[This photo of Plimoth Plantation was taken by Nancy and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama
Narrated by Katherine Kellgren
Macmillan Audio, 2012.  8:01