Sunday, July 20, 2014

The wilderness years

I've been on a World War II kick for some time now (mentioned before), but have veered lately (with the exception of the wonderful All the Light We Cannot See) into the speculative arena with a couple of "alternative" versions. One, in print only, is Jo Walton's Small Change series (highly recommended) and another is Michelle Cooper's Montmaray Journals. The middle in the latter trilogy, The FitzOsbornes in Exile, was (somewhat) recently in the ears.

The FitzOsbornes are the owners/rulers of a small island in the Bay of Biscay, Montmaray, that was bombed and overrun by Nazis in the first novel. The king was slightly mad and died just prior to the invasion, and his heir is not his extremely capable daughter, Veronica, but her cousin, the feckless Toby. Toby's younger sister, Sophie, keeps the journals that are telling this story.

In this installment, Sophie describes the aftermath of the family's flight to England (to live with their wealthy aunt) and their efforts to bring the plight of Montmaray to the attention of the League of Nations as Europe stumbles towards war in the late 1930s. There's also a certain amount of gaiety as Aunt Charlotte tries to prepare a reluctant Veronica and Sophie to enter society and Toby gets regularly sent down from his studies at Oxford. Add to the mix youngest sister and tomboy Henrietta (Henry) and the dead king's bastard son, Simon, along with a cameo appearance by Jack and Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, and you should have a Masterpiece Theatre-ready costume drama.

Instead, it is a big schizophrenic yawn. Does it want to be a political story or a novel of gay (in the old sense) young things? (Speaking of gay, Toby comes out as homosexual and everyone is perfectly OK with it!! Really? 1930s? Oy!) It veers back and forth with screeching changes in tone and then comes to an abrupt end with a not-so-nail-biting trip to Geneva chased by the Nazi who led the invasion of Montmaray. There's a great deal of talking, talking, talking without much of anything happening. Now, as I've said, I love my World War II historical fiction, but this felt like it would never end. Get to the war, already (which it evidently does in Book 3)!

The audiobook is narrated by Emma Bering. I see that I've listened to her previously, and appear to have enjoyed her work, but here she's gone seriously wrong. She reads with a very odd, English-ish accent that sounds off from the beginning. Is she trying to invent a Montmaravian accent in her narration as Sophie? If she is, it's too bizarre and so only calls attention to itself as bad, rather than different. It doesn't sound remotely natural, so her reading isn't relaxed. The vowels are oddly exaggerated, occasionally she sounds almost drunk. As an example, here's her pronunciation of persuaded: per-soo-aided.

I have a note that says Aunt Charlotte = ghastly. I can't remember exactly what I meant by this, but I'm pretty sure she was screechy in a Monty-Python-drag kind of way. And Bering's inconsistent when she reads the word Montmaravian: Sometimes it's a long a for the third syllable, and sometimes it's an ah -- Mont-more-AH-vee-an.

So perhaps it isn't the novel that felt like such a slog, it's the uncomfortable listening that made it onerous. Back when I was listening "professionally" for Amazing Audiobooks, I had a colleague who referred to a Fakeland accent. Bering's Sophie is a prime example of this. In the final analysis, she's probably a good narrator (she's read an Odyssey Honor book) having a very bad day.

When the book was published, there was some discussion of the mysterious smoke on the cover photograph. Just like Clement Hurd's photograph for newer editions of Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon, the cigarette is missing. I hated smoking when I was the age of the intended readers of this book; I wonder if a visible cigarette would have been a turnoff. As far as I can remember, nobody actually smokes in this book ... but, of course, nearly everybody did in the 1930s, so I think I'm in favor of the return of the item. What would really benefit the series, though, is a uniform design. The U.S. cover of the first book needs updating, because -- aside from the fact that it doesn't match the other two -- it looks like an old-fashioned submarine emerging from the sea.

Ooh, I've just been a hater here. It's time to stop.

[Here is Lady Hartington, neƩ Kathleen Kennedy, photographed in 1943 in her Red Cross uniform, long after she met Sophie and Veronica, but just a year before her marriage to the heir of the Duke of Devonshire. This image, from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The FitzOsbornes in Exile (The Montmaray Journals, Book 2) by Michelle Cooper
Narrated by Emma Bering
Listening Library, 2011. 14:32

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