Monday, January 27, 2014

Is anyone there?

The Séance is right in my wheelhouse: Historical, suspenseful, narrative within narrative, puzzle. I'm sure it registered on my reading brain when the book was published (2009), but luckily I never opened it because I got to listen instead! Australian John Harwood has written a deliciously old-fashioned novel that is satisfactorily atmospheric, true to its genre (really there weren't any secrets that weren't obvious, but oddly I liked this), and a thumping good adventure.

Constance Langdon was raised in a barren Victorian home, occupied by a beyond-distant father and a mother who never recovered from the death of Constance's two-year-old baby sister. She feels apart from them to the extent that she thinks she might be a foundling. Constance attempts to cure her mother of her overwhelming grief by taking her to several séances where she has no trouble seeing through the tricks of the mediums, but her mother takes the sessions to heart and soon commits suicide.

At the age of 21, Constance learns that she is an heiress -- a distant relative has left her Wraxford Hall, a dilapidated, some-say-haunted mansion deep in the country. The lawyer who finds and notifies Constance of the bequest tells her "sell the Hall unseen; or burn it to the ground ... but never live there." As proof of the Hall's horrors, he includes two diaries to convince her: his own narrative of what he knows of the Hall and that of Eleanor Unwin Wraxford, the wife of the last owner of Wraxford Hall, who disappeared -- along with her infant daughter -- the night 20 years ago when her husband, Magnus, died inside the disturbing electrified sarcophagus that an earlier Wraxford installed in the Hall's gallery. Magnus was only the latest Wraxford heir to die in mysterious circumstances.

These documents, of course, spur Constance toward Wraxford Hall (could she be a closer relative than the lawyer thinks?). She connects with the gentlemen of the Society of Psychical Research (one of whom broke up one of the séances Constance and her mother attended) to get to the bottom of the last night of Magnus' life and learn -- if possible -- what happened to Eleanor and her daughter.

(You think you know, don't you? And knowing [or possibly not] is one of the things I most enjoyed about this.)

The Victorian atmosphere seems genuine and genuinely scary (when Constance finds herself alone in Wraxford Hall on a dark and stormy night ... whew!), Constance and Eleanor are strong and interesting women, and the story is extremely satisfying. Wraxford Hall, perched at the edge of the haunted Monks' Wood (where unwary travelers enter at their peril), is evocatively described; as is a picture of it painted by John Montague when he was a young man which plays a crucial role.  And, as I said earlier, Harwood embraces the conventions of a Victorian ghost story, which means that some of the surprises aren't really, but there are plenty of uncertainties (and twists) that keep it highly entertaining.

The audiobook is narrated by three: Katherine Kellgren reads Constance's narrative, Simon Vance John Montague and Fiona Hardingham Eleanor Unwin. I'm very familiar with the first two, but this was my first listen to Hardingham. All are excellent, reading with the right amount of Victorian formality (reflecting the ornate language of the author) and mystery as each teases out their part of the story. Their extensive experience means that they can skillfully build suspense with pacing and vocal tension and their expertise adds considerably to the enjoyment of the novel. Hardingham does particularly well because of the nature of her narrative (to say more would spoil it).

I'd go so far as to say that The Séance is best encountered in audio. Listening forces me to slow down so that I don't miss all the ornate descriptions and language and deliciously extends the suspense to a toe-tingling point.

This audiobook was made available to me from its publisher, Blackstone Audio, through the Audiobook Jukebox's Sold Gold Reviewer program. Thanks for a great treat!

[A "séance conducted by John Beattie, Bristol, England, 1872, from the Eugène Rochas papers held at the American Philosophical Society Library." In the public domain, this photograph was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Séance by John Harwood
Narrated by Fiona Hardingham, Katherine Kellgren and Simon Vance
Blackstone Audio, 2014.  10:49

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Growing pains

As is my wont, I do occasionally go on and on. In 2013 I experienced blowback from a loss of reading mojo, unable to face much reading of the books for the youth. Of the very few books for young people that I read last year, pretty much all of them were audiobooks. Oddly, I'm planning on waking at the crack of dawn tomorrow to catch the children's books "Oscars," or -- as I call them -- the Sumacs (because they now go by the acronym YMA [youth media awards]), because -- as is also my wont -- I am hoping to overcome my problem with a PLAN: Get my mojo back by reading all of them (and listening to all that I can of course ... including the Odyssey winners, natch).

Those who indulge in speculation about the winners put Holly Black's Doll Bones in contention. While I found this (as I do most of Black's books) very enjoyable, it does not scream (or even whisper) Newbery. [Edited to add: Question: well, what do I know? Answer: nothing!] Doll Bones introduces us to three tweens -- Zach, Poppy and Alice. Playing with dolls is what these friends do together, but it's not a tea party these dolls are engaged in. Instead it's an ongoing, wild and magical adventure straight from their imaginations, presided over by the Queen, an antique bone-china doll sitting safely -- but malevolently -- behind glass at Poppy's house. But, at 12, it's sometimes hard to keep up with the saga along with all the other things that are going on in their lives. Things come to a head when Zach returns home from school one day to find that his father -- long estranged from his family, but now back living with them -- has thrown his dolls (really, they're "action figures") away: Zach's too old, playing that way is too girly.

Zach is devastated, but for some reason he can't explain what happened to the two girls, so he just announces to them that he's done playing. Poppy insists that they need to do one more thing before they put the game to rest: Take the Queen to a graveyard in Ohio and bury her. Poppy believes that the doll's china parts were made of the bones of a little girl who died a century ago; she believes this because the Queen has started to haunt her dreams. Loyally, her friends agree to help and the kids hop on a bus at 2 a.m. figuring they'll be back in time for dinner that evening. Instead they are off on an adventure that begins to eerily resemble their made-up saga.

This is one of those books that you read as an adult and wonder what the heck these kids were thinking! And at the same time, it's so enjoyably a kids' story -- with their ridiculous belief in what they are doing and the rightness of how they are doing it.  There's suspense and horror, but it's on a perfect kid scale.  The Queen is actually one authentically scary doll, who appears to be possessed. Black's underlying message -- which is voiced rather clunkily at one point by Poppy -- that the games and friendships of childhood aren't the same as those of teens is touching. There's even a pink-haired librarian, but she's actually kind of a drag.

The reliable teen-age-channeler Nick Podehl narrates here. The story is from Zach's viewpoint and Podehl does a good job of honoring the youth of the three adventurers, without sounding young. Each of the three has a unique voice that Podehl uses consistently, and when the trio is involved in their play, each character adopts a heightened theatricality. The difference between the two girls -- sensible Alice and excitable Poppy -- is particularly good.

Podehl can build the story's considerable suspense with a varied pace and vocal tension. There are a few adult characters that are memorable, including that unimaginative librarian and the frightening Tin-Shoe Joe, a drunk the kids encounter on their late-night bus trip. I liked listening to this, as the whole novel has the feel of a ghost story, and so I could imagine several nights around the campfire as your favorite counselor Nick strings out the tale.

Black's 2013 novel for teenagers, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, was named by Booklist as the "top of the list" of audiobooks for youth last year. I've enjoyed all of Black's books (and I've listened to six of them!), so it's easy to add this one to the listening pile.

[Eliza Wheeler provided spot illustrations in Doll Bones, and this illustration of the three adventurers was retrieved from her website.]

Doll Bones by Holly Black
Narrated by Nick Podehl
Listening Library, 2013.  5:12

Monday, January 20, 2014

As free as we are

Proud member of the Professional Organization of English Majors (well, not really), I am somewhat abashed to admit that this was my first reading of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. (As a member of POEM, I can't count the movie [although it was very good].)  Wharton's Pulitzer-Prize-winning (this is fascinating, if for no other reason than the description of the book as "wholesome") novel skewers the manners and mores of high society New York in the seventies (the 1870s) from the distance of 1920 through the story of Newland Archer, a member of that society.  Newland thinks he is different from his friends and social equals because he likes architecture and unpopular literature and that he thinks "women ought to be free -- as free as we are." But Newland can't see that he isn't free and so endures a life of restriction and proper behavior that stultifies him as much as it does the women in his life.

At the beginning of the novel, Newland plans to announce his engagement to May Welland, a young woman who he is hopeful of molding into someone who enjoys art and literature the way he does. A cousin of May's has returned to their social circle, the Countess Olenska, disrupting Newland's careful plans. The Countess, Ellen, is fleeing an abusive husband and -- after growing up in Europe -- has returned to her grandmother (also May's grandmother) in the hopes of attaining a divorce that will offer her some financial independence. Divorce and the slightly risque Countess are not quite acceptable in New York society, so May and Newland move up their betrothal announcement to demonstrate their support for her. However, Ellen's allure and her somewhat bohemian lifestyle attract Newland, who encourages a reluctant May to move up the date of their marriage in the hopes of reducing the attraction. Alas, when he realizes that his love for the Countess is reciprocated, May is delighted to say that her family has agreed to immediate nuptials.

And this triangle consumes the remainder of the novel. From Wharton's perspective (as a happily divorced woman), this unconsummated love is a tragedy, from ours perhaps a farce, but what saves this novel is its characters. No one is who they appear, all are operating to serve their own needs. The true innocent is Newland (which makes his dilemma utterly poignant to me rather than farcical), who can see the emptiness of his life and his society, but seems helpless to alter it. Or is he helpless? Perhaps he's lazy. That's the beauty of Wharton's work.

Wharton's descriptions of her characters are delicious and her language reveals so much about them (and how she feels about their selfish and unexamined existence).  Revel in this description of May and Ellen's grandmother, Mrs. Manson Mingott, from Chapter IV: "The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon."

David Horovitch, an actor with whom I'm familiar from all that British television that I watch, reads the novel. It is an interesting choice to have an English accent as the narrative voice in this American novel, but I enjoy that ironic sang froid Horovitch brings to Wharton's prose. He voices the characters with American accents that almost all suffer from an excessive 'r' that English narrators and actors often give to American characters. The Countess, for example, is O-LEN-sker. 

But I really didn't care about this, as Horovitch's interpretations all dipped beneath the surface of the characters to expose their inner lives. May, for example, is no shrinking violet vocally but has an undercurrent of steel; and the Countess, with a whisper of Eastern Europe in her delivery, has a soft helplessness that rises to an oddly distant passion. The novels many other characters are all portrayed uniquely and consistently, clearly demonstrating that Horovitch paid very close attention to his textual clues.

Audible shows 11 different versions of this novel (two abridgements and two dramatizations, plus a very fast reading from one Mary Sarah). I picked Horovitch because that's the one my library owns, but it would be hard to resist John Singer Sargent's Lady Agnew of Lochlaw hanging in the Scottish National Gallery if there had been any competition.

[Unlike the Countess, Edith Wharton did not have to return to New York begging her relatives for support once she got rid of her philandering husband. She lived the rest of her life in Paris; here is the commemorative plaque noting her home while writing The Age of Innocence, at 53 rue de Varenne. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, this photograph was taken by Monceau.]

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Narrated by David Horovitch
AudioGo (originally from Cover to Cover), 1993.  12:02