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

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