Saturday, March 31, 2012

Armchair Audies: Susan Duerden Narrates Franny Billingsly's Chime

It's time for another of my Armchair Audies titles! This one is from the Teens category, and although I have a lot to explore before I can render my verdict, I'm pleased to have encountered such a strong contender. So much for my theory that Libba Bray's Beauty Queens would just run away with the title for both of the categories I'm taking on (Teens and Narration by the Author or Authors.) (This tendency to just assume the one title you've listened to will be the winner is part of the impetus behind the Armchair Audies, as I understand it. I'm extremely prone to that myself, so participating in this project is a fun challenge for me.)

Susan Duerden voices Franny Billingsly's Chime with 10 hours and 12 minutes of excellent narration. Here's the story: Briony Larkin has sequestered herself in her hometown on the edge of the swamp, a self-imposed atonement for the crimes she thinks she's committed against her family. Seventeen and curious about the world, she nevertheless sticks with her dead stepmother's strictures about not going into the swamp, not seeking the education she craves, always taking charge of her unusual twin, Rose. Stepmother has told her, in strictest confidence, that Briony is a witch. Only witches, after all, can see the Old Ones who live in the swamp, and Briony has played games with the spirits since childhood. Along comes handsome rebel boy Eldric, who sees Briony in ways that are beguile her, though her fear of being exposed as a witch (and her subsequent death by hanging) keep her from giving into his charms. Meanwhile, the spirits are sending a deadly swamp fever to the town's children in protest of the imminent arrival of a marsh-draining railway, and a local woman is being tried for witchcraft. It's a potent mixture of myth, romance, industrial espionage, and wicked stepmothering, plus a healthy dash of eel stew. So, basically, lots of fun elements I love.

Duerden has a lilting English accent and an aptitude for character voices. She manages sibilant spirits, a possibly-evil beautiful stranger, the dullard local swain, and a petulant sisters with aplomb. Everyone is distinct and so appropriate to their character. She totally avoids my biggest pet peeve of going too nasal or whiny to differentiate the voices, so everyone is easy on my ears. She did a great job with Briony's emotions - her trepidation, excitement, worry, love, sadness, and fear are all translated smoothly.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Armchair Audies: Rob Lowe Narrates Himself

It's Armchair Audies time! What's that? Never heard of them? Well, they're new. The Audies are annual "awards recognizing distinction in audiobooks and spoken word entertainment" and are awarded in June. There are 29 categories and 5 contenders in each category, so that's a lot of audiobooks. Rather more than even an audiobook maniac like myself can handle, so to get a handle on them all, blogger Literate Housewife spearheaded the Armchair Audies. Interested bloggers will listen to everything from one (or more) categories and give their opinions. I chose to listen to the "Narration by Author or Authors" and the "Teens" categories.

Books I've already talked about in the "Narration by Author or Authors" category: Libba Bray's Beauty Queens, and Tina Fey's Bossypants. I also listened to Ellen DeGeneres's Seriously... I'm Kidding. Now it's Rob Lowe's turn:

Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography, written and narrated by Rob Lowe, 9 hours & 10 minutes long.

Lowe opens with a story about the loose connections between himself and JFK, Jr. which is a very effective tone-setter. It tells me he’s been through a long rough period and worked hard to achieve not only his professional success, but also his very happy personal existence. He moves to his Midwestern childhood, his parents’ early divorce and his escape into the magic of childhood stage acting. When he was in middle school, he moved with his brother, his mom, and her third husband to Malibu – into a house down the street from Martin Sheen and his similarly-aged sons. Stage acting is harder to come by in the Los Angeles area, but Lowe threw himself into screen work instead. Prime time television didn’t have a lot of interest in the lives of teenagers at the time, though a few commercials and after-school specials were payoffs for his constant auditioning.

Now, I never watched The West Wing – though after a chapter of this book I decided I should, and requested the first season from my library – and when I was a prudish teen (I’m a few years younger than Lowe) I thought there was no one to whom the phrase “Brat Pack” more aptly applied than to the too-pretty, arrogant-seeming, wild kid himself. (Well, maybe Robert Downey, Jr., too, but he had something redeeming in the depth of his eyes, according to my teenage self.) Not that I didn’t see St. Elmo’s Fire and plenty of other good Lowe performances – and plenty of not so good ones, as well. He was never someone whose poster I would hang on my walls. I do, however, love him on Parks & Recreation. In many ways, his character Chris Traeger is very much like Lowe as he is now: earnest, enthusiastic, healthy (though not as much of a nut about it all.) So despite the book suffering from many of the same faults of other celebrity memoirs – glossing over some of the depths of his personal hell, casting a VERY rosy light on his own hard work and determination, a certain “I promise if they’d only done X or Y with this film instead of shafting me, however unintentionally, you’d have been AMAZED by my brilliance in it” vibe about many of his less-successful roles – I quite enjoyed Lowe’s stories about himself.

His narration is super-smooth and fun to listen to, for the most part. He is great at inflections, at varying his pitch and pacing to suit the mood of his narrative. He sounds like he is smiling when he reads. Unfortunately his Coppola voice sounded more like a Kermit voice, and he pulled that a couple of times – giving very odd sounding tones to the directors or actors with whom he was relaying conversations. As far as I know, they really do sound that way, but it seemed as that squeaky effeminate tone came out with people who really should have “done X or Y with this film instead,” while people whose association with him ended well for his career were portrayed with more pleasing voices. It’s probably quite natural – I’m sure I do it myself, just ask me to tell you about that Parisian girl who always was around to “help” my high school boyfriend study French. But in a self-narrated celebrity autobiography it smacks of a lack of a certain critical self-awareness that dovetails with that whole “I should have been treated better” tone. Not that I expect any sort of “of course they cut me because my line-reading was ridiculous” or “I was too high to perform well and no sane director would cast me at that point” self-deprecation. I just see it as a problem with the genre of celebrity memoir, which you’ll probably see again when I give my final judgment on this category in the Armchair Audies. I would love to hear Rob Lowe narrating someone else’s work – he has a wonderful voice. I only wish I didn’t have the feeling that someone had pointed out to him that he was weird-voicing certain people and he had responded with, “But that’s how they sound,” or “It’s funny that way,” or some other justifying remark, and refused to think critically about his own narrative choices.

I’m making him out to be monstrous in that regard. He’s not. He has a lot of interesting stories to tell, a lot of intelligent commentary about Hollywood in the 70s and 80s, a lot of revelatory interactions with a host of big names, all of whom become more human and accessible through Lowe’s portrayals. He was a tenacious and supportive son though some difficult times with his mother, and he’s applied hard lessons from his childhood to the work of raising his sons. His intense love for his wife and children shines throughout. All in all, it’s a well-written autobiography, and an engagingly-narrated one. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Scandinavian Thrills and Chills

Another review on a title courtesy of Audiobook Jukebox.
Publisher: AudioGo, Pub. Date: December 13, 2011, Length: 8 hours, 41 minutes

Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis are the co-authors of the Nina Borg thriller series, which center on Nina, a Red Cross worker who tends to run into situations. I wasn't familiar with any of that going into this book, but it didn't really matter - I might have cared a little more about what was happening with her marriage as she dealt with finding The Boy in the Suitcase, but really, that boy was the whole point. 

The plot: a three-year-old boy has been kidnapped from Lithuania, stripped, drugged, and transported to Denmark inside a suitcase. Nina's friend Karin works for the man who seems to be paying for the boy. When Karin finds the suitcase she freaks, quits, and picks Nina as the person to dump all this on. As so often happens in thrillers, knowing the main character can be a curse, and Karin ends up dead before long. Meanwhile, Nina, unsure who the boy is, what language he speaks, or what kind of situation he'd be in if she went to the authorities, opts to piss off her husband by taking off without any sort of explanation. She and the boy find Karin's body, evade the killer, and set off to find answers however Nina can. The boy's mother, Sigita, is working with the Lithuanian authorities to trace him, bombarded with nightmare visions of human trafficking and memories of the rough road single teen parenting has been thus far. 

The pacing is tight, which I always appreciate, and the authors create so many different and distinct POVs for the narrative, but I wish there had been a greater sense of immediacy to create more tension in the plot. And while there is a wide range of characters - rich men, poor women, dreamers, schemers - they don't always go much deeper than their descriptions. "Determined underdog teen mom with a sharp mind and disapproving relatives" and "social climbing businessman who wants his in-laws' approval" may be all we need to know about the boy's mom and the man who has tried to purchase him, but a little more complexity could have gone a long way.

Katherine Kellgren is an ideal narrator for this type of novel. She excels at creating different voices without forcing irritating affectations upon them. (I just listened to a narrator who practically whinnied when portraying an elderly woman, so I'm especially appreciative of that skill at the moment.) She also handles non-English names and place names with ease, and employs very effective pacing as things got tense in the narrative. There were still moments early on when I had to work to remember which one Nina was and how she related to Karin and how she related to Sigita, etc., but that's a constant drawback with audios with so many POV shifts. Overall, she really brought the text to life for me, and I was left feeling that this was one of those cases when the reader made the book better.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

So many books, so little time? Start here!

On some blog, somewhere - maybe it was on Twitter, these things are lost in the mists of time - I ran across mention of the 2012 Tournament of Books. It's a March Madness style bracket pitting various darn good novels from 2011 against each other. I'd read a few, or put them on my 'to be read' list, and many of the rest of them looked worthwhile. So I added to my list, and really, couldn't be happier with the selection. Thus far I've read 7 of the 16 titles, and started Swamplandia twice only to put it down twice. (I hear such good about it. It really ought to be up my alley. But I'm just not captivated. Has anyone read it? Yay or nay?)

The two I most recently finished are both slim and weighty, focused on unprivileged youths in small communities beset by natural disasters. Otherwise, they're vastly different in tone, subject, and style.

Nathacha Appanah's The Last Brother is set on Mauritius towards the end of WWII. Raj is an intelligent but weak nine-year-old when his older and younger brothers are killed during flooding at the sugar cane plantation where his family scraped out a life. His parents move him to the center of the island, where his abusive father begins work as a prison guard. Unbeknownst to Raj - or to most of the islanders - the prison is guarding a group of Jewish refugees who were turned away from Palestine and have no other home. When Raj is confined to the prison hospital to recover from a beating, he befriends a Czech boy named David. Although Raj knows nothing about the war, or the Jews, or why a boy a year older than him would be smaller than him, the two find common ground in imaginative games, exploration of their landscapes, and the little French each knows. After a cyclone rips the community apart, Raj helps David escape, which propels them on a fraught and sorrowful journey based on an elusive hope. Appanah's translator Geoffrey Strachan handles her words tenderly, I can tell. Each of her paragraphs, her scenes, is crafted with a precise balance that traps me on an island off Africa for the duration.

Jessmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones is set in rural Mississippi in the days leading up to and through Hurricane Katrina. The ungrounded but laser-sharp fourteen-year-old Esch has spent half her life raising her baby brother, whose birth ended their mother's life, and navigating minefield-heavy relationships with her father, her older brothers, and their omnipresent friends. As the novel opens, her father is obsessively trying to fortify their ramshackle home in preparation for the hurricane, her brother's prized fighting pit bull is giving birth, and Esch is only beginning to suspect that she's pregnant. Twelve days later, when the novel closes, the hurricane's destructive force is, at least, at an end, but Esch and her family have more than the physical rebuilding to attend to. In the interim, Esch's close observations and interest in Greek mythology, coupled with Ward's lyrical language and tight structure, forced me past each character's facade and into a complex human reality that keeps my eyes open long after I shut the book.

What have you read from the Rooster list? What will you put on your list? The tournament starts tomorrow, with The Sense of an Ending up against Devil All the Time. Since I haven't read Devil, and I liked Ending, I'll hope Barnes goes on. Or maybe I'll hope Pollock wins, to encourage me to read his novel soon.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Statistics & Challenges & Lists, Oh My

Well, I read a lot. I think we've covered that. So, it's not a super surprise that I read 33 titles in January, and 35 in February. (Here's my list.)

I also like spreadsheets a lot, and as I mentioned before, I seem to add a new column to my reading spreadsheet every year or so. This year, my column was for format/narrator. So I can tell you the following (is your breath bated? I bet it's bated.):

  • 18 paper books
  • 20 electronic books (mostly Kindle)
  • 30 audio books
  • 25 different narrators for those audios
  • 23 titles mentioned in the blog so far

What does a book blogger do for fun when she's not reading or blogging? Read other book blogger's blogs. (You envy my lifestyle. It's okay, you can admit it.) One thing a year or so of blogging has taught me is that there are a lot of reading challenges out there. One I've just finished is Beth Fish Read's "What's In A Name?" challenge. She came up with six categories of things that need to be in a book's title - topographical feature, something in the sky, creepy crawly, type of house, something you'd carry, and something from the calendar. My titles were Shelter Mountain, When Lightning Strikes, Tongues of Serpents, Safe House, Love in a Nutshell, and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. It was a lot of fun to participate, and to see what other participants are reading. Even if you're not a blogger yourself, check it out and think about joining in!

A second challenge I'm enjoying is the Speaking of Audiobooks listening challenge. They have a few different configurations for this, and since I'm voracious, I'm doing two versions of it.

For the Surprise by the Quarter track, I had to listen to two romances narrated by the winners of their 2011 poll. There were some great narrators to choose from. I listened to books read by Anne Flosnik, Davina Porter, Deanna Hurst, Franette Liebow, Renee Raudman, and Tanya Eby. I have my eye on a few of the other narrators, but my ears are only working for X number of hours per day, believe it or not.

The other track I'm following is the Listening to the Top Hits track, wherein I listen to twelve titles from their 2010 and 2011 best-of polls. So far I've managed two of those (To Die For by Linda Howard and Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie.) Onward!

My third challenge is from Teresa's Reading Corner, and it's also an audiobook challenge. This is purely quantity-based, with varying levels to strive towards. I picked the highest, which is 26+, and as careful readers of my stats already know, I've listened to 30 so far. Yay, me!

Teresa has a link to several other reading challenges for 2012, so poke around over there and find one that appeals to you. It's interesting to shape your reading choices around these challenges, and can bring you to some unexpected places.