Saturday, August 31, 2013

Wyrd-ed out

In what has become a fairly boring refrain I'm sure, I'm behind again. I don't know about you, but I'm kind of compulsive about completing things in their proper order. This post is about a book I finished last month and didn't find particularly memorable, but because I'm wedded to completion and proper order I can't get around to blogging about subsequent books until I get this one out. I realize I'm a grown-up and can skip around if I want, but there will always be this niggle in the back of my mind that I skipped something.

So, The Weird Sisters. It sounded promising: Three sisters raised in a Shakespeare-loving (no, make that Shakespeare-obsessed) household who return as adults when their mother is diagnosed with breast cancer. I enjoy the occasional academic tale (although I didn't like the last one very much), and if it's about the Bard even better. But Eleanor Brown's tale of three sisters, each named after a Shakespearean heroine and all deeply arrested development-wise, was pretty much a conceit wrapped around thin-as-air chick lit.

Narrated by an omniscient fourth sister -- who uses personal possessives (we, our) but never I (although I swear one time I did hear a third person "her") to tell the story -- we meet Rosalind (Rose), Bianca (Bean) and Cordelia (Cordy), daughters of a Shakepeare professor at a small college in Ohio. They're happy with the appellation "weird sisters" (from Act 2, Scene 1 of Macbeth), because they prefer the old Anglo Saxon spelling "wyrd," connoting fate. I guess that's pretty accurate because none of these women are in much command of their fates, permitting others to make decisions for them.

Rose has never really left home -- she supports herself by teaching math as an adjunct professor at a nearby, larger, university in Columbus. She's got a dishy fiancé, who is in England on a fellowship and encouraging her to come visit him. Bean is living a glamorous life in Manhattan, but has just been fired for embezzling from her employer in order to pay for it.  Cordy has been kicking around the country in an aimless series of nasty crashpads and suspect boyfriends but finds herself pregnant. When the girls learn of their mother's illness, they all come flying home.

And there they engage in sisterly squabbles, sibling competition and discovering what really matters while ostensibly caring for their mother and looking after their bereft father. Barnwell, Ohio is kind of this weird a-technology oasis as no one has a cell phone or searches for information on the Internet,  communicating by landline or letter. The single men living in this small town are pretty darn available (and caring and sensitive to boot) for Bean and Cordy. Not to mention that Bean is conveniently chosen to step in and replace the ancient librarian when she needs a job (OK, I'll admit I'm overly sensitive) -- a library, I might add, that still checks out books with a stamp pad.

Kirsten Potter is the narrator and she's fine. I've heard her a couple times before (all books for teens, for which I don't think she is suited) and she's not a favorite of mine -- she's kind of imperative in her readings, i.e., listen to this it is important.  But this is a good quality for the omniscient sister telling the story, there's some irony and skepticism that it is right for the "character." It's just somewhat tiring to listen to after a while.

In its defense, The Weird Sisters did hold some surprises in the end. The man we think is going to be right for Bean is sensibly not, and when Cordy's baby arrives, it gets a Shakespearean name, but not the one I was thinking of (Miranda).  But ultimately, I was very glad to come to the end of this one and to move on to something really different.

[Johann Heinrich Füssli/Henry Fuseli's portrait of Macbeth's witches (Die Drei Hexen) was painted in 1783 and now hangs in the Picture Gallery of the Royal Shakespeare Company (according to Emory University). Wikimedia Commons claims it for the Kuntshaus Zürich. (Of course, there could be more than one.)]

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
Narrated by Kirsten Potter
Books on Tape, 2011.  10:26

Monday, August 5, 2013

Hidden depths

My library recently decided to go solo in the downloadable arena -- we still get our audiobooks from OverDrive, but we aren't part of a consortium any longer. Some of the consortium's books are no longer in our collection, so -- in preparation -- I reviewed my wish list to see if there was anything on there that I'd be truly disappointed not to have the chance to listen to. It turns out that none of the items on my wish list were carried over, which makes me wonder why I selected this one from it. I think it may have been for no other reason than the right length (I needed a book for a car ride where I didn't have to "change" discs.)

Several years ago, I listened to the first installment in Arthur Slade's The Hunchback Assignments. It tells the origin story of a young shapeshifter, Modo, and his apprenticeship with the Permanent Association. Modo, allied with another teenaged spy Octavia Milkweed, saves the world from the evil Mr. Hyde and his Clockwork Guild. Despite their successful teaming, Modo won't reveal his true (deformed) appearance to Tavia. Now, in The Dark Deeps, Mr. Socrates has sent the duo on another mission -- find out why all these ships are disappearing without a trace in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, not to mention why the Association has lost contact with one of its spies in New York.

Disguised as husband and wife, Tavia and Modo learn that the spy died under mysterious circumstances, but left a coded message of longitude and latitude that sends them by boat to a spot near Iceland. Before they arrive at their destination, their ship is rammed and Modo falls overboard. Unbeknownst to Tavia, Modo finds shelter inside the huge mechanical submarine-fish, Ictíneo, but soon realizes that he may never escape from it. The reckless Captain Delfina Monturiol -- determined to create the world of socialist harmony her father dreamed of -- won't allow him to betray the secret of the underwater world of Icaria.  But, someone else came aboard the Ictíneo with Modo, and Captain Monturiol's world will soon be a secret no longer. Can Modo keep the Ictíneo from the mechanical hand of Miss Haakensdottir and the Clockwork Guild?

This is a rollicking adventure story inspired by Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and other Victorian adventures. Modo is an inspiring hero, sincere and straightforward (he doesn't make a very good spy really) and full of self-doubt. The spunky Tavia (along with the other two strong women he meets here -- the Captain and the French/Japanese spy Colette Brunet) provide a nice foil to this appealing young man. There's a lot of fun steampunk here with the mechanical fish and the tools of the Permanent Association's spy trade and the insane invisible boy Griff.

Jayne Entwhistle does the narrating here. I intially heard her read the first of these Hunch- back adven- tures and liked her husky, childish voice.  She brings the right amount of innocence to Modo's dialogue and invests each of the novel's women with a feminine authority that makes for a pleasant change. It's interesting that Modo's voice is in a higher register than the women in the story.  Entwhistle gets plenty of practice in accent-wise as this novel's characters include Americans, French, Catalan, whatever Nordic culture the evil Haakensdottir hails from, the East Indian Mr. Tharpa and others. She reads the novel with a breathless sense of wide-eyed fun that is fully in the spirit of Modo and his friends.

Now that I'm no longer in the exclusively-reading-for-youth arena, I've got to pick more carefully which series I stick with (as I can say with a lot of confidence that -- for many [dare I say most?] of them -- if you've read one, you've read them all. I'm slightly curious about the fate of Modo and the Permanent Association, though. Slade states at the books' website that it's over at four books ("The fourth and final ..."), which almost makes me feel that I should reward him for keeping it within reason and go ahead and finish the series. Sadly, though, I can't listen to them -- as they are no longer in my library's OverDrive catalog. I think I might be more interested in listening to Entwhistle read something else (although I did listen to her read Flavia de Luce and really didn't like it).

[The Ictíneo, or new fish, was the 19th century invention of one Señor Monturiol and was the first submarine to successfully navigate underwater. This replica lives on the grounds of the Museu Marítim in Barcelona. The photograph is by Till F. Teenck and it was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Dark Deeps (The Hunchback Assignments, Book 2) by Arthur Slade
Narrated by Jayne Entwhistle
Listening Library, 2010.  8:14

Anything goes

Like many readers, I was introduced to John McPhee via The New Yorker. A true Renaissance person, McPhee is entranced by the world around him and attempts to understand it by researching and writing. His essays are funny, insightful, chock full of information and never dull. I've never read them in book format, and chose to consume this audiobook, Irons in the Fire, in occasional doses, which worked perfectly.

There are seven pieces here, un-united by any theme that I could detect, although I do enjoy the idea of the various irons in McPhee's fire.  Forensic geology ("The Gravel Page") aside cattle brand inspectors ("Irons in the Fire") aside Plymouth Rock ("Travels of the Rock") aside tire recycling ("Duty of Care") aside first-growth forest in New Jersey ("In Virgin Forest") aside a computer that takes dictation for a blind writer ("Release") aside exotic car auctions ("Rinard at Mannheim").  Just a glimpse into the active (and still writing) mind of John McPhee.  All were fascinating, but that is just the beauty that is McPhee -- he can take any subject and delve in in such a way that you want to absorb all that he discovers and shares.

The forensic geology piece was fascinating, its depiction of the CSI of dirt rivaled that from the television program leading to the solving of several murders including the 1960 kidnapping-gone-wrong of the heir to the Coors Brewing Company. I also liked the story of the cattle brand inspectors in Nevada.  My favorite is the Plymouth Rock essay, which McPhee traces from its origins (did William Bradford et al really step on it as they exited the Mayflower?) to a 1990s repair job bid on for a dollar by a local stonemason.  It's the perfect McPhee mix of whimsy and fact -- recognizing that the facts of Plymouth Rock shouldn't stand in the way of the story of the Rock and why that story was concocted and remains important. I felt like I was reading about a saint's fingerbone preserved in some out-of-the-way Italian church.

Narrating nonfiction can be tricky -- should a narrator read emotional context into a collection of facts or read with a neutrality that affords a slight distance from the text?  Nelson Runger (pronounced like the rung of a ladder) chooses instead a kind of jolly informativeness that might be a reflection of McPhee himself -- the facts yes, but the facts delivered with a little humor and personal expression.  I didn't object to this, but I wouldn't have wanted to listen to eight straight hours of it as it had an underlying current of bonhomie (isn't this fascinating?) that felt a little faky. Aside from this, Runger's narration is well-paced and pleasant to listen to.

As is often the case when I come across an author I've liked but haven't read in a while, I think about adding something else from him/her to the reading/listening pile. We have a couple of McPhee audiobooks where he reads his own work which might prove worth checking out.

[Plymouth Rock, mostly buried in sand and behind bars, lives at the bottom of that neo-classical structure (designed by McKim, Mead and White) photographed by Raime and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Irons in the Fire by John McPhee
Narrated by Nelson Runger
Recorded Books, 1997.  7:42

Pure gold

In what will not be news in this my seventh year of keeping this blog (maybe I am experiencing an itch of some variety), my blogging is lagging behind my listening. Home with a nasty summer cold (which comes with much greater case of self-pity than those acquired in the cooler months), I've decided to try and catch up.  I'm hoping that the morning's silence so far bodes well (cold or not, the sound of a leaf blower has just gotten on my last nerve lately).

I ended up listening to Laurie R. King's Touchstone thanks to a reference desk conversation last month. Noticing that a new King title was just loaded into the catalog, we were talking about King's delightful character Mary Russell and hoping that this book would finally get her out of northern Africa. Further exploration revealed that this latest book, The Bones of Paris, does not include Mary Russell at all, but does feature a character King had created for an earlier book. A book I realized that I had not read yet. Ah, the pleasures of not always needing to read the "latest" book (says the woman who has been waiting forever for Beautiful Ruins), Touchstone was on the shelf.

Touchstone takes place in 1926 England and introduces us to Harris Stuyvesant, a pugnacious New Yorker currently employed by J. Edgar Hoover's Bureau of Investigation. He is on the trail of a skilled and clever terrorist, responsible for several bombs aimed at politicians and businessmen in the US. This bomber, Stuyvesant believes, is an English politician named Richard Bunsen -- a rising star in the Labour Party. Stuyvesant, who has gone undercover before, needs access to Bunsen's circle and -- in order to get it -- has entered into a uneasy relationship with Aldous Carstairs, a government functionary who doesn't appear to be connected with an actual government agency. Carstairs suggests that Stuyvesant meet a World War I veteran Bennett Grey, who has exiled himself in deepest Cornwall.  Due to profound war injuries, Grey, the touchstone of the title, can sense secrets and truths normally kept hidden when he is in close proximity with people. Carstairs has gone to great lengths to put Grey's skills to use, but Grey has resisted. If Stuyvesant brings Grey to the country house where Bunsen is participating in last-minute negotiations to prevent the General Strike, Stuyvesant's bomber may be captured, but at what cost to Grey?

Yikes! Confused? Suffice to say that King exhibits her usual attention to period detail while creating characters that seem painfully truthful. Grey's suffering is profound, and if Carstairs is a little too secret-government-agency evil, their match of wills is a tantalizingly suspenseful one. Stuyvesant is a fairly complicated guy himself, a blend of Hoover-ish anti-Communism and thoughtful liberal understanding with a dash of American derring do (and violence), which keeps him interesting as well (even if his motives for catching the bomber are a little trite -- dead fiancée, brother with traumatic brain injury). He's no Mary Russell, but he is entertaining.

A new-to-me narrator, Jefferson Mays, reads the novel. Mays has some stage experience in playing multiple roles (I Am My Own Wife and A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder), so audiobook narrator appears to come naturally (perhaps it came first?).  He's excellent here -- portraying a large cast of characters with naturalness and accuracy. Mays produces a variety of accents -- from the American of Stuyvesant to the public school tones of Grey and Carstairs, from a working-class Labour politician to a Scottish butler. His women sound natural, yet feminine.

King mostly tells this story from Stuyvesant's view but occasionally we get into the heads of Grey and the bomber.  While Mays maintains an American accent for the novel's narrative portions, he creates a subtle difference when the perspective changes from Stuyvesant to the other characters. He speaks with a more neutral tone in these parts adding to a sense of dislocation, while Stuyvesant's portions have an American energy and compulsion to keep solving the puzzle. At the end of the novel -- switching suspensefully between Stuyvesant and the bomber -- it's nail-biting.

I recognized the voice of narrator John Keating as the reader of the intros and outros on this audiobook. I don't much like Keating as a narrator, whose tics I have commented upon before. But his elongated pronunciation of "Laurie OR King" really lost me. The beginning of this novel is a tad confusing for a listener who can't leaf back and I was completely not in the audiobook for the first couple of minutes shaking my head over Keating's "r." Fortunately, I could just start over.

[I think the book on the cover represents The Book of Common Prayer, but I don't think it's a very good cover choice. Are those the "touchstone's" hands? The bomber's? The victim's? The frontispiece from the 1762 John Baskerville ("fonted" in Baskerville in his honor) Book was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Touchstone by Laurie R. King
Narrated by Jefferson Mays
Recorded Books, 2008.  17:28

(Ah yes, too much to hope for. The blowers have landed.)