Monday, April 30, 2012

Suspense, Passion, and Evildoers Doing Evil

Through one of my Twitter pals, audiobook narrator Xe Sands, I discovered the oeuvre of Anne Stuart, who writes suspenseful romance, both contemporary and historical. Xe spearheaded a project called Going Public, where people can upload short audio readings, and one of her posts was a snippet from Anne Stuart's On Thin Ice. I was captivated.

Stuart was a new to me author a couple of months ago, but my library had a handy selection, and her House of Rohan books were immediately available. I read a couple, and listened to Susan Ericksen's well-paced and engaging narration of a couple. The series centers around a family of fairly reprobate-y reprobates who bounce around Europe, mostly in the Regency area. (That's loose, as there are generations of bad boys involved.) For the most part, the men are beyond dissolute, and are very eager participants in a sort of elitist underground orgy called the Heavenly Host. But they're jaded, too, and stumbling into their midst comes a lovely innocent of some ilk. The innocent is blackmailed or desperate enough or resigned to being ravished by the rake. As it turns out, the bad boy is hiding his tender heart and the pure maiden is the key to his new outlook on life. Of course, complications ensue, along with occasionally perverse sex, and I know I'm not giving away too much when I say they eventually fight their way to a HEA. (That's a Happily Ever After, folks who don't read romance sites as often as I do.) It's all totally great. Stuart's characters - especially the seemingly powerless women - are very well fleshed out (hubba hubba!) and sympathetic, and the Rohans have pulled me more than once into reading well past my bedtime.

Stuart's contemporary series is the Ice books. This is where On Thin Ice comes in, and as I was lucky enough to win a copy of the audiobook on another book blog's page, I got to hear all of Xe's interpretation and not just the little bit I linked to above. Of course, being the series completest that I am, I tried my best to read the rest of them before I popped in my earbuds, but after the first three I was too impatient to wait for my holds to come in, and jumped ahead. Soooo yummy; my lack of impulse control was totally worth it. These books are set in the current age, and center around operatives for another shadowy (but less orgy-prone) group called The Committee. The operatives are generally deep-cover agents fighting global terrorism, and on the brink of fulfilling a very major and world-saving mission. From the sidelines, in stumbles the unexpected complication of an innocent lovely young woman. The operative should really just kill her immediately, lest she not only foil his chance at a clean, successful mission, but also lay unexpected claim to that cold spot where his heart should be. (He has no heart due to a difficult early life and the aging-before-his-time experiences with the evildoers. The evildoers are bent on global destruction for their own gain as well as the thrill of rape and torture and debasement along the way. And revenge when things get personal, of course.) Now his super-honed alpha-male operative skills will war with her intuitive but effective but delaying beyond all reason tactics. Their innate attraction to each other will help them eventually to trust each other and sacrifice for each other, if need be. After some life-threatening evil plot stuff, along comes the HEA. Yummy yummy yummy, am I right?

I loved Xe Sands's narration of this book. Finn MacGowan's Irish lilt drew me in to start with, but I was beyond impressed when MacGowan was rapid-fire pretending to be South American and British and the narration stayed firmly in MacGowan's voice. She also has a natural storyteller's knack for dramatic tension and creating a vocal atmosphere that paired perfectly with the text. I'm not just saying all of this because she's probably going to retweet the link to this blog - it's some extremely impressive work. (Thanks for all the RTs, Xe - you're so supportive of bloggers!)

Plus, go listen to her voice on any of those Going Public links. I always find it soothing but with a quality that makes me want to sit up and pay close attention, make sure I'm not missing anything. Rather like bedtime story time, in fact, except I'm not acquainted with the kids who would want to hear quite this much graphic detail about how escaping from a kidnapper's jungle prison camp is fraught with natural and man-made peril every two and a half feet.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Yelling at Jane Green's Latest

Another review on a title courtesy of Audiobook Jukebox.
Publisher: Macmillan Audio, Pub. Date: March 13, 2012, Length: 13 hours, 43 minutes

Another Piece of My Heart is the latest in Jane Green's string of relationship fictions. Here, Andi is a stepmother who desperately wants a baby, but has entered menopause and the odds are against her. Meanwhile, her oldest stepdaughter, Emily, has dealt with the fallout from the divorce and her alcoholic mother by jumping on a goth / booze / drugs / sex teenage carousel, and is in no hurry to get off. Her dad Ethan is constantly in the middle of his manipulative daughter and his outraged wife. 

I'm as fond of Green's reads as the next middle aged suburban mother, and there were times that this very much grabbed me by the tearducts and refused to let go. (True story: when I was an infant, I couldn't cry. I believe I had dacryostenosis. I think the doctors did something involving a probe and my tear ducts, which I'd rather not think about. And my kids will tell you that I've been crying at fiction pretty much ever since.)

But my point is, I spent far more time yelling at the characters in this novel than in crying over them. It wasn't a good ratio. I give Green credit for the efficacy with which she managed her POV shifts - just when I was ready to give up on, say, Andi, Green would switch to Ethan and through his eyes, Andi would become sympathetic again. I don't really like that roller coaster, though - especially since so few of the characters really grew in this novel. Six years after it opened, and very near the end, the hot-button issues and emotional triggers were just as problematic, even when the characters identified for themselves what the issues were. No one could communicate, and it drove me batty. 

I don't think it's a bad book. Green writes very smoothly, and she had a firm grasp on each main character, even if they did seem to be frozen in place, emotionally. I wish she'd given a lot more weight to younger sister Sophia's perspective - she was the most interesting character in the novel, but she served entirely as a reflector against whom everyone else occasionally examined their own actions. 

I do very much wish I'd read it in print, or that Green hadn't narrated it herself. While Green has a quite pretty voice, and she clearly understands the import of the words she's reading aloud, she was not a good narrator for this. Her London accent didn't sit well on the Californian family, and she doesn't have the knack of differentiating characters by applying separate speech patterns. If I ignored the context, any given section of this multiple-POV novel could have been Ethan, Andi, Emily, or part of the (of course fabulously friendly, sympathetic, good at entertaining and loving towards the children) gay couple next door. It's the difference between story-time and narration, and having heard several Jane Green's books on audio with professional narrators, I was surprised and, ultimately, disappointed that she read this one herself. 

If you haven't read any Jane Green, and want a 'beach read' - try Dune Road, which is funnier, or Babyville, which is better at motherhood musings, or The Other Woman, which doesn't make me wonder if the family relationships Green writes about are pulled from a statistical analysis of a Troubled Family Advice Column Database somewhere. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Armchair Audies: John Lithgow Narrates Himself

So, I finished the final audiobook in the Audies "Narrated by the Author or Authors" category. Before I render my verdict I'm going to revisit the ones I listened to last year (Beauty Queens by Libba Bray, Bossypants by Tina Fey, and Seriously... I'm Kidding by Ellen DeGeneres.) I can tell you right now, though, that my predilection for good storytelling is going to play significantly in my choice, right alongside the skill of the narration and the production quality. I've been known to make the "I could listen to him/her read the phonebook" observation, but my ear wants some engaging content along with those mellifluous sounds. (And the phonebook? Oughtn't we to update that chestnut? "I could listen to him read my contact list?" "I could listen to her recite my 16 year old's Facebook friends list?")

Anyway. John Lithgow's Drama: An Actor's Education is so very much a book you can judge by its cover. Or its title, at any rate. Want to know how Lithgow became an accomplished young actor? It's all here. I'm not familiar with Lithgow's stage work or his children's books, but of course I've seen him on-screen for decades. He's never been a huge favorite but I've enjoyed his work, and really admire his range - he can jump from sublimely funny to intently serious and carry it all with ease.   Apparently this all stemmed from his childhood immersion in theatre, as the son and periodic cast member to a father who directed Shakespeare Festivals and dramatic seasons in several theatres as Lithgow grew up. They moved frequently, and fairly often with a cloud over them. No matter what he had to do to gain entree to another set of peers, though, Lithgow retained a close relationship with his parents and siblings, helped in no small part by their all participating in myriad ways with the senior Lithgow's latest productions.

Lithgow didn't expect to become an actor - he was a passionate artist. Until college, when he immersed himself in the life of the Loeb Theatre at Harvard, he basically regarded acting as a thing he did while spending time with his dad. After Harvard, a Fulbright sent him to London for a couple of years, which is where he developed the semi-British manner that stuck with him in the same way that a couple of years in England left me saying "half-twelve" for 12:30 even though I haven't lived there for almost two decades. Once back in the States, he spent his time developing his career as a stage actor and director, and the screen work that I know him for is the denouement of this book.

Frankly, I wouldn't have picked this up if it weren't for the Armchair Audies, and while I definitely enjoyed some anecdotes and have shared a few of Lithgow's thoughts with my recently-bit-by-the-theatre-bug teenager, it wasn't my cup of tea. (And you all know how I love a cup of tea. If you didn't, let me assure you: me + tea = love.) On the other hand, Lithgow is so successful and award-winning for a reason, and he can really tell the heck out of his anecdotes. He has a deftness and a dramatic flair that carried me through the bits I didn't particularly care about, narratively. I would have liked him, as an author, to dig a little deeper into the "how I feel about my rise during my father's decline" trench, but as a narrator he gave a strong performance. His pleasure and his sorrow and many other emotions were transparent as he read. When he wanted to giggle, I wanted to giggle along with him. It was a rich listening experience, and if you've any interest in Lithgow or in seeing the stage from the point of view of an actor, this would be a rewarding audiobook.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Armchair Audies: Katherine Kellgren Narrates L.A. Meyer's Lorelei Lee

And the Armchair Audies listens march on into April.... I've added another completed title to my spreadsheet from the "Teens" nominees, and it's not just that the last thing is the best thing - this was a truly excellent choice. This is a seriously well developed group of nominees.

Granted, The Wake of the Lorelei Lee: Being an Account of the Adventures of Jacky Faber, on Her Way to Botany Bay is an excessively long title, even by L.A. Meyer's standards. I'll just call it Lorelei Lee for short, and be glad to have listened to it. As I mentioned last summer, I am excessively fond of Jacky Faber, who by the age of sixteen has impersonated a ship's boy in His Majesty's Navy, refined her Cockney roots at a Boston boarding school, became a privateer accused of piracy, been captured by slavers, piloted a ship down the Mississippi, spied for England in Napoleon's army, and dived for sunken Spanish treasure. Now she has been accused by nemeses Bliffil and Flashby of stealing some of the Spanish gold, and, as the title suggests, sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay. Although the transportation sentence was fairly foregone, the imprisonment and trial kept me on the edge of my seat (well, when I was sitting while I listened - I quickly became too impatient to parcel this story out during my commute, and carried it with me throughout my days as well.)

Being Jacky, imprisonment on a transport ship is hardly enough to squelch her spirit, or stop her from getting into further scrapes. Friends and foes both old and new abound in this story, and Meyer as usual keeps the story rolling along through yet another evocatively-conveyed slice of time and place. Lorelei Lee definitely ranks as one of my favorite of the Jacky Faber tales, and although it is the 8th and therefore represents an investment to readers, I do recommend the entire series, in order. (Blue Tattoo is my least favorite, but it establishes an important part of Jacky's world. I just like it best when she's on the water.) While I'm at it, I'll also recommend Naomi Novik's Temeraire series (more Napoleonic-era British Naval globe-trotting, but with dragons) and Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series (again with His Majesty's Royal Navy criss-crossing the globe in the early 1800s.) Audios for both of those series are read by the incomparable Simon Vance.

Like Vance, Katherine Kellgren has a voice I could (oh, and do!) listen to for hours. She so thoroughly inhabits Jacky, who is a girl of many, many moods. Many. And throughout the series, Kellgren gives not only Jacky but her beloved Jaimie, her devoted Higgins, and a panoply of tertiary characters deeply developed and individual voices. Go ahead, test me. Play two or three random words of Kellgren's dialogue of Jacky, Jaimie, Higgins, or Amy. I can tell you not only who it is, but what mood they're in. (Sure, most of the time the mood is "outraged or frustrated by the latest thing Jacky has gotten herself into," but that's hardly the point.)

Particularly admirable in this novel, Kellgren has to do a lot of singing. And not just in Jacky's voice - a whole host of characters from a whole range of accents and timbres in a variety of styles all lift their voices in song during Lorelei Lee, and Kellgren nails them all. I have a tin ear myself, so to me this is a mind-boggling accomplishment. And it's all great fun to hear, to boot - one of the things I can point to when people wonder what makes listening to some books preferable to reading them.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Pick Me! Pick Me!

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Monday, April 2, 2012

StarTribune Review of Making Babies

Here's my review of Anne Enright's Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood, which appeared in the StarTribune on 3/31/12. Enjoy! Especially if you have made babies!

Although my youngest is 12 (and a quarter, today - and, wow, it's been a long time since I had kids who counted their ages by fractions), this book really pulled me back to those early moments. The obsession over every expression, the overwhelming love and overwhelmingly relentless work, the certainty that every kiss or meal or diaper is somehow the most vital one in his little life. Now I just assume the boys know I love them more than life itself and that whatever they need, I'll somehow take care of it, or their dad will, or they can do it themselves. Or do without. Something.

I'm off to buy the 16 year old a binder for his orchestra class. Because as it turns out, one you make the babies, the work is far from done.