Monday, April 22, 2013

Cash only

Who came first, I wonder? Cora Cash, Duchess of Wareham, the heroine of The American Heiress?  Or Cora Levinson, Countess of Grantham? There's no doubt that the former probably enjoyed a bit of a jump in sales due to the latter. If you look at the entry for Daisy Goodwin's 2010 novel on my library's Bibliocommons overlay (I refuse to call it a catalog), you'll find it shows up on 20 Downton Abbey reading lists.  I don't think a Downton Abbey fix is the reason why I picked the book up, but maybe it made me susceptible.  I'm a sucker for a historical romance in almost any form.

It's the late 19th century. Cora Cash -- naive, spoiled, but also pretty self-aware -- is the richest girl in the United States. Her mother, a faded Southern belle, is extremely interested in bagging her a titled husband ... in exchange for a lot of cash of course. They sail to England in search of prey.  Cora loses her way while on a foxhunt, and tumbles from her horse. She comes to in the dilapidated castle of the Maltravers, the Dukes of Wareham. The current Duke, Ivo, is the second son of the impoverished family and it's just a few short weeks before he is down on his knee in the family's chapel asking for Cora's hand. Cora, who is still a teenager after all, has fallen hard, hard enough to believe that it's a love match.

After their marriage in New York, the couple return to Lulworth Castle and Cora sets out to establish herself as a hostess to be reckoned with.  The hidebound English love her money, of course, but turn their noses up at what they perceive to be her excesses of taste. Ivo has grown more distant since their marriage. When Cora's attempt to surprise her husband with a portrait of her painted by London's celebrity artist goes terribly awry, he leaves the country and she is banished to Lulworth to await the arrival of their baby. More misunderstandings arise upon his return and the birth of his heir before ... well, I don't want to give it away.

I ate this kind of stuff up as a teen reader, but maybe I read too many of them, because ultimately this bored me. It followed an extremely predictable path (I knew immediately what the "noise" was that startled Cora and her horse ... although I convinced myself it was the love that dare not speak its name that was going to rear its ugly head instead of a run-of-the-mill sordid affair), and the lavish descriptions of clothes, food, dinner parties, the motivations of the villains, the "problem" with the husband, all came out of the historical romance guidebook. Cora seemed particularly dense to me, but maybe that was her "Americanness" -- honesty, forthrightness, eyes firmly focused on the prize.

I was never quite sure what the author intended with the character of Bertha, Cora's Negro maid. We occasionally viewed the story through Bertha's eyes, but I couldn't grasp why some situations were narrated from this perspective and others weren't. Bertha's own romance was very thin, again I couldn't figure out why we were privy to it.

I muddled through, though, with Katherine Kellgren's help. She is, of course, born to read a novel like this -- one that allows her to show the full range of her repertoire of English accents as well as those of her own American origins. She creates a cast of hundreds, all with distinct and appropriate voices. Her Cora is steely, yet wounded and Ivo is sincere and gallant. Bertha has a soft, Southern-tinged voice and her lover Jim (?) comes with a nice country accent. The Prince of Wales makes an appearance or two with the rounded, condescending tones of a man who lets others let him win at cards. The couple's no-good mothers do tend toward the harridan-like and there are a couple of other villains who are a bit over the top as well, but these don't kill the audiobook.

The audiobook concludes with a brief interview with the author, which turns into an enthusiastic monologue about her love of audiobooks. She's like me -- audiobooks slow her down and "force you to savor a book." Her children don't go to sleep without listening to Stephen Fry read Harry Potter!

The original British title for this book is My Last Duchess, and Goodwin's epigraph for the novel is a quote from the Robert Browning poem of the same name. Isn't this about about a man who kills his wife?  It seems logical to assume that The American Heiress would head in that direction. At the very end of the novel, Ivo is standing on a cliff edge, but even then he doesn't topple over. In this story, love does indeed triumph. What was that thing Leo Tolstoy said about happy families?  Dull, dull, dull.

This blog post brings me (for what I think it the first time all year) completely up to date! It's amazing what a vacation deadline can do to focus one's attention. I'm off to explore my roots with two weeks in Sicily. Several audiobooks are cued up. See you on the other side.

[Goodwin reports that Cora Cash is modeled on Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough. No doubt the Cash "cottage" in Newport was equal to that of the Vanderbilts, pictured here. The photograph of The Breakers was taken by Ad Meskens and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
Narrated by Katherine Kellgren
Macmillan Audio, 2011.  13:26

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The fantastic voyage

I'm getting ready for another European walking trip in a couple of weeks so I've been putting on the miles, which means that I'm listening to books at a very rapid (for me) clip: I'm up to about a 12-hour book a week.  Last Sunday, I wound up Ann Patchett's State of Wonder as I was on the last steps of the eight miles I had clocked that morning. Today, I finished another book about three-quarters into my route, which made for a very awkward transition in time, place and writing.  I'm glad I'd had a little time to process the wonders of State of Wonder.

This is one of those titles that "everyone" has already read/listened to, so there's no need for a long synopsis. Marina Singh, mixed-race Minnesotan and pharmaceutical researcher, is sent on a (ridiculous) mission to the heart of (Brazilian) darkness by Mr. Fox, her boss and lover: Find out what Marina's former (and feared) mentor Annick Swenson is up to in her research with the Lakashi tribe in the Amazonian jungle (and that Vogel Pharmaceuticals has been paying for).  Marina goes also to see if she can discover what really happened to her colleague and friend, Anders Eckman, sent by Mr. Fox on the same errand six months earlier, whose death has been reported by Dr. Swenson in a terse letter that provides more questions than answers.

What Dr. Swenson is up to is quite horrifying actually, but it's just one of many unsettling situations in which Marina finds herself upon landing in Manaus. As the book's heroine, she's got to make that journey into the heart of darkness and -- naturally -- she doesn't return unchanged. I enjoyed the gently humorous fish-out-of-water sequences as Marina ventures well beyond her comfort zone (she's a Minnesota homebody at heart), and I so appreciated the casual way she got used to life in the jungle.  I didn't mind when the novel made a turn into the preposterous, because ... well, because it was kind of preposterous to begin with. Patchett's descriptions of both the wide Minnesota prairie and the dense, humid, danger-filled jungle have a you-are-there quality, that made me long for a warm sweater and insect repellent. And Marina's antimalarial Lariam™-filled nightmares of separation are vivid and disturbing.

The actress Hope Davis reads the novel. Her soothing voice with the hint of a lisp seems ideally suited for Marina's story -- quiet and responsible, Marina is a person who seems like the calm center of a world seething with emotion and messiness, but inside she is roiling with fear, wonder and dismay herself. Davis captures Marina's contradictions with variations in pacing and by raising the level of her voice to near hysteria upon occasion.  The cast of characters are international in scope and Davis manages to invest each with the flavor of their origins, including Australian, African English, Brazilian and Amazonian Indian.  The command in her voice when reading Dr. Swenson's dialogue leaves no doubt as to the forcefulness and authority of this woman, who expects nothing less than complete obedience from everyone she encounters.

Davis seems initially to be unable to decide how to pronounce Marina's name, before finally settling on what I thought was incorrect all the time I was listening. I'd pronounce Marina Ma-REE-nah; Davis goes with Meh-RAIN-ah.  I wish I could say that I eventually let go my annoyance at this, but I never did.

My nit-pickiness didn't matter to the voters of the 2012 Audies, who named Davis the winner in the Literary Fiction category.  Here's the list of Audie nominees for 2013.  I don't pay much attention to these, mostly because I'm not much of a must-read-the-latest/hottest/bestest-book right now (and because I limit myself mostly to what's available at my library... look at all those titles published by Audible).  And I gotta say, I've got issues with any organization that thinks that Bill O'Reilly is an audiobook narrator worth listening to.  Really?

[Marina takes the Rio Negro to find Dr. Swenson and the Lakashi. The photograph of the river was taken by Ymichael and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Narrated by Hope Davis
Recorded Books, 2011.  12:25

Monday, April 15, 2013

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars

I have had pretty good success with jester stories.  There was this one, which was excellent.  There was this one, which was OK, but since it shared the narrator of the excellent one, I enjoyed it as well.  So, I turned to Jepp, Who Defied the Stars with high hopes. After all, I had also enjoyed listening to the author's previous book (although, as was my habit all too often when I first began blogging, I never mentioned her name: Katherine Marsh).  As Jepp himself would say, the stars were aligned.

Jepp (pronounced yep) is a young man, growing up in the safe confines of his mother's inn on the edge of Austraveld, a small town in what is now the Netherlands. In the late 1500s, the Netherlands is a part of the huge Spanish empire. And the Infanta, ruler of that corner of the empire, has a taste for dwarfs. (As my loyal readers know, I always like to provide links to other websites that might be of interest ... if only to me.  What I learned in my search for links this time is that the Infanta pretty much had her portrait painted by every painter of the late 16th and early 17th century [one of which is below]. But here's a link to a little bit of information about her.)  Jepp has endured the occasional jokes and indignities at his expense at his mother's inn (indignities she always put an immediate halt to), so when a strange man with a long name -- a man Jepp decides to call Don -- entices him with tales of the Infanta's court in Brussels, he agrees to leave his mother and make his way to the Infanta's court at Coudenberg Palace believing he is destined for bigger things.

Even though Jepp finds a room scaled to his size and meets other dwarfs, he doesn't meet the Infanta until Don arranges for him to jump out of a pie.  A bright boy, who learned to read and write from the travelers at his mother's inn, Jepp soon realizes that he is in a prison ... a prison of wealth and comfort, but a prison nonetheless. And when a fellow dwarf, the beautiful Lia, turns to him for help escaping that prison, disaster strikes.  Exiled from the Palace, Jepp is placed in a cage and carried to another castle, a place called Uraniborg in Denmark. Jepp will become the dwarf and plaything of an eccentric astronomer, Tycho Brahe. Not only will Jepp continue to jump out of pies and sit at Tycho's feet at the dining table, he will now sleep with Brahe's pet moose.

Jepp asks the big questions: Was his fate already decided for him at his birth? Can he only leap from pies? Or can he take charge of his future and chart his own course? Perhaps his fate is both written and self-determined.

Kind of a perfect subject for a novel for teens. And there are no surprises in Marsh's story. Still, I liked it. Jepp is a completely sympathetic character and his fate matters. I enjoyed her research (there really was a dwarf named Jepp at Uraniborg, and a moose).  There is an old-fashioned quality to Jepp's first person narration that had moments of melodrama, but they didn't detract from what became a story of real pathos and triumph.

The novel is narrated by Paul Michael Garcia, who -- alas -- is not Maxwell Caulfield. I realize it is entirely unfair to ask one narrator to be another, but I found Garcia's reading to be almost too mature in a way.  He makes no attempt to portray Jepp's youthfulness, although Jepp's longings and questions are nothing if not that of a young man. I also confess to missing the English accent (not necessarily of Caulfield), as -- in some ways -- it seems a more appropriate choice for a story taking place in 16th century Europe. (Why, you may ask? Nothing but personal preference.)

Garcia creates characters well, although he seems more comfortable with men than women. No one has an accent indicating their origins (Spanish, Dutch, Danish among others), but he does give an appropriately nasal voice to a character who has no nose (Tycho). He pronounces Tycho two ways (TIE-ko or TEA-ko) when that character first enters the novel, eventually settling on the latter (which I believe is the correct one).

Interestingly, the author (in some cute little videos on her website) pronounces Jepp with the hard J.

Sadly, the author's afterword is not included in the audiobook and I -- for one -- would have enjoyed listening to it.  There is a lot of fascinating history in this book and I would have appreciated the author's perspective on that history.

Marsh is the second young adult author to use the quote from Shakespeare I've used as my post title as her novel's epigraph. The other?

[How to choose from the many illustrative possibilities provided by this novel.  The portrait of the Infanta with her dwarf was painted by Frans Pourbus the Younger and is owned by the Queen.  The image of Uraniborg is from Joan Blaeu's Atlas Major.  Both were retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars by Katherine Marsh
Narrated by Paul Michael Garcia
Blackstone Audio, 2012.  11:07

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Fever fever

Philip Reeve is an author who can pretty much do no wrong for me, I've read all but one of his books owned by my library and they have all been superb. His books for teen readers were bleak, inventive (I mean, Municipal Darwinism!) dystopias before that became the "it" genre for young adults. His books for younger readers have a sly hilariousness that make them enjoyable for all but the most jaded reader.  Opting to listen to the last of the Fever Crumb novels (the prequels to the Predator Cities books), Scrivener's Moon, was a no brainer when I found it among the downloadables.  I just had to wait an astonishingly long time for it to show up in my inbox.

Somewhat at peace with what she learned about her grandfather, Auric Godshawk -- last of the Scriven who used to run London -- and the nano-technology that he placed in her body, Fever Crumb left the traveling theatrical company and returned to the city with her long lost mother, Wavey Godshawk. The age of the Scriven is over, and the age of the Engineer is rising, as Fever's stepfather, Dr. Crumb leads the effort to mobilize London -- to get it up on tank-like rolling treads and move out into the countryside.  London's first battle must be with those rising up in the North, but who knows who it will conquer after that?  Wavey has heard of a mysterious black pyramid somewhere in the North, and believes that she and Fever may find some important answers there. Despite the dangers, they set off on a perilous journey (accompanied by, in another Reeve-ian stroke, a freak show known as the Carnival of Knives).

Tragedy strikes, and Fever is taken captive but becomes close friends with a young woman whose visions have made her the oracle of the Northern tribes, Cluny Morvish. They find the black pyramid and discover its secrets and learn some other secrets of their own, but it's too late to stop the invasion by London (and the millennium-long rule of the Traction Cities).

Scrivener's Moon has it all -- battles, betrayals, revelations, and these lovely little references to the future   series, and clever references of our own present (and its technological detritus). It has a tender one-sided romance as Fever falls hard for Cluny. (Fever has kind of a fickle heart, as she fell equally hard for the young aviator, Arlo, in the second book, A Web of Air. Actually, I just think Fever is young and believes in the emotionless creed of the Engineers, so when human feelings strike, they overwhelm her.)  The "launching" and movement of London is literally felt, and there is a sense of the impending disaster in the future.  Although, satisfyingly, that disaster does not extend to Fever.

One of the reasons that I chose to listen to this one (even though I'm generally not a fan of downloadable audio) was the narrator, Sarah Coomes.  I listened to her read about three years ago and was impressed enough to put her on my list of favorites for that year.  As I began listening to Scrivener's Moon, I was really troubled by Coomes' tendency to draw out, exaggeratedly, her vowel sounds. It made for really hard listening at the beginning. Did she stop reading this way or did I just get used to it?  I'm not quite sure (and the book is gone from my computer, so I can't doublecheck).

In spite of this reading technique, Coomes has a good grasp on the novel's many characters.  Everyone has distinctive voices (although I must have missed the reference to London's mayor, Nicolas Quercus, hailing from Moscow) and she uses them consistently.  I loved Cluny's Northern inflections, the Cockney ambitions of Charley Swallow (future mayor), and the oddly compelling Borglum, leader of the traveling freak show. She also does an excellent job imitating the computer voices of the abandoned Stalkers inside that black pyramid. Coomes is very good as Fever, at a loss on so many human levels but disastrously buoyed by her confidence in technology.

This audiobook comes with credited original music (the composer of which I cannot remember) playing at the very beginning (and lasting a long time as the book began) and at the end.  Despite the fact that it hasn't stayed with me (all I remember is that it was there), I applaud publishers who commit to augment their audiobooks like this.

[The photograph of the pyramidion (or capstone) of the "black pyramid" of Amenemhet III in Dahshur (Egypt) was taken by Jon Bodsworth and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Scrivener's Moon (Fever Crumb, Book 3) by Philip Reeve
Narrated by Sarah Coomes
Scholastic Audio, 2012.  11:00

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Kiss me Hardy!

Oh my goodness, Code Name Verity is a good book! I read it last fall -- and in my jottings to myself about it I said that I thought it would be a great audiobook.  When it came up honor-worthy for the Printz this year, it just seemed right to try and give it a listen. Hooray for interlibrary loan! For those who have (eye or ear) read this book, its shocking twists make it the perfect candidate to revisit. Knowing the ending gives you the opportunity to listen for all the clues (and to dread it all over again).

It is so deliciously complex, but I shall attempt a synopsis without spoilers.  Elizabeth Wein's novel tells the World War II story of two young British women, Julie and Maddie. Just before the war began, Maddie -- a working class girl with a mechanical mind -- was learning how to fly.  Julie -- a Scottish aristocrat, with a French grandmother and educated in Switzerland -- had a raft of language and other talents.  Both decide to join the women's military services, and both are soon deployed to areas that will use their talents to their full potential:  Julie to the Special Operations Executive and Maddie to the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. They first meet before either has their final assignment when Julie fools a German pilot into safely landing his plane. They become fast friends.

Maddie doesn't see Julie much as she prepares for an important mission in France, but -- when Julie needs a pilot to take her across the Channel, Maddie is there. And from this point, things start to go terribly wrong.

But I'm telling it in the wrong order.  We learn about Julie and Maddie in flashbacks, because Julie (now Verity) made a rookie mistake on her first day in France -- she looked the wrong way before crossing the street.  She is now a prisoner of SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden in a former hotel/now prison in the small French town of Ormaie and she has agreed to tell him everything, if only he will bring her her clothes and stop the torture. Maddie died in the plane crash; von Linden has made sure she saw the pictures.

And that is quite enough of that.

I love World War II spy novels (Alan Furst, anyone?). I loved these girls and their tight friendship. I loved the intrigue and the almost unbearable uncertainty that was sustained for almost the entire novel. (It's a novel for young adults, right? Everything will turn out OK, right?)  Wein's characterizations are of people you want to know and of places you want to be. When Maddie visits Julie's brother in the family's drafty castle in Scotland, I was ready to pack my bags. And ultimately, I wanted to read it again (which is something I almost never, ever do).

The audiobook is narrated by two readers, Morven Christie narrates the first part of the book -- Julie's confession -- and (this is a teeny, but unavoidable spoiler) Lucy Gaskell takes over the conclusion, with Maddie's story. Christie is brilliant. We hear Julie's fear and her pain and her defiance and her anger ("I'm Scottish, dammit!") in her voice. She creates plenty of realistic characters, including the several roles that Julie plays. I loved listening to the Scots burr come and go and each time it was a deliberate choice.  She gives Maddie a slight tinge of a working class accent.  And Christie sings, beautifully.

There is a letdown when Gaskell takes over the narrative duties, because ... well, because she's just not as good as Christie. She's at a bit of a disadvantage from the outset because she doesn't sound like the Maddie that Christie created and that is the person I kept wanting to hear. But Gaskell just doesn't have the breadth and consistency that Christie does with the novel's characters, not even her own. While she does have a grasp of Maddie's emotions as she tells her story, her accent comes and goes. In her defense, Maddie's story simply isn't as interesting as Julie's, she's not the same kind of storyteller. Regardless, as the novel concluded, I was crying ... again.

Don't read the origin of the post title phrase until you've read the book.   It will break your heart.

The audiobook concludes with a debriefing with Wein (pronounced "wean" [and mispronounced "vine" in the audiobook]), who is a pilot herself. I'm pretty sure that this is in the print version, as well.  She reads it clearly, except for sounding as if she is in a tunnel.  I like her work: Previously, I'd read her alternative Arthur cycle (she calls it The Lion Hunters and I'm not sure if I ever read the fifth one) and enjoyed them, and oh my ... she's got another WWII/WAAF novel (which takes place where Julie was fated to be deported ... oh no!) due in the fall. Must keep up!

[Maddie and Julie probably saw this poster hanging in the pub. It is in the public domain and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Narrated by Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell
Bolinda Audio, 2012.  10:07

Down by the station early in the morning

I keep listening, and keep falling further and further behind in posting. And then there's my failing memory (and the related tendency I've had lately to repeat myself), so the next few posts are likely to be short ones (mercifully).

I think I've always conflated The Boxcar Children with The Railway Children, so I was kind of surprised while listening to the latter to learn that E. Nesbit's child heroes, Bobbie, Peter and Phyl, never actually live in a train car.

Written in 1906, The Railway Children is the story of three siblings who have to leave their comfortable life in the suburbs when their father is mysteriously taken away in the night by two strange men.  They find a cozy cottage, Three Chimneys, near a railway line, and begin hailing the regular runs of the train as it makes its way up to or down from London.  (Because, for a reason never explained, they don't go to school.) One morning, they save the train from disaster by waving their red flannel petticoats, and are quickly befriended by the station porter and others in the little town. Bobbie, the eldest, begins corresponding with one of the passengers -- the Old Gentleman who waves at them every time -- and it doesn't take very long before others become interested in the fate of their father and all ends happily.

Nesbit had one of those fascinating Victorian lives (Wikipedia provides a much livelier biography than that earlier link), full of scandal, political activity and intelligence. It's telling that when Mother has to support the family in Father's absence, she turns to writing, as it appears Nesbit was supporting her wayward husband (and his lovers and children) in a similar fashion. The story itself is charming in an old-fashioned way, but I appreciate the portrayal of Bobbie and Phyl (Roberta and Phyllis) as adventurers equal to their brother.

The audiobook is from a publisher I've never listened to before:  iambik, which evidently grew out of LibriVox. Without ever having listened to a LibriVox audiobook, my first reaction to learning of its philosophy was "why?" Why would I want to listen to an audiobook read by ... me, when there are professionals about? (Maybe I'm over-sensitive at the moment. I see my own employer turning the more and more of the work formerly done by professionals to those who haven't made the education and training commitment that I have.)

However, there is nothing unprofessional about this production, read by Cori Samuel. If she chooses conventional voices for all the characters -- earnest and girlish for Bobbie and Phyl, louder and more rambunctious for Peter, calm for Mother, etc. -- none of them are caricatures.  She reads the narrative portions clearly and with appropriate emotions for the somewhat omniscient narrator.  It's an enjoyable listen all round.

Once I got over my disappointment that the kids were never going to be taking up residence in a railway car, I remembered that I had actually seen a movie (or a television) version ... maybe even both. The actress Jenny Agutter played Bobbie in a 1970 version and then played saintly Mother in 2000. Now, Agutter is even more saintly (she can rock a wimple) in my current television fave, Call the Midwife. She's one of those child actors who has managed to age well, and thus we happily know little about her.

This audiobook was a gift from iambik, through the Solid Gold Reviewer program at the Audiobook Jukebox.

[Maybe this is Three Chimneys? This photograph from the geograph.org.uk project is of a lovely cottage probably no where near a rail line, although I think it is located in the general vicinity of where this novel takes place.  It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
Narrated by Cori Samuel
Iambik Audio, 2012.  6:03