Thursday, February 28, 2013

Rooster Tournament of Books

On Monday the official Tournament of Books (hosted by The Morning News) (sponsonred by Nook) (enjoyed by me) begins!

They have a fancy fun circular "bracket" printable, which is nice and all, but I... I've mentioned me & spreadsheets, right? I love spreadsheets. And traditional looking brackets. So I made one.

Feel free to download, copy, share, adjust, make fun of my color choices, etc.

Here's the blank bracket (well, with opening round filled in):
And here's my picks:
(I'm sending my picks to Kerry at Hungry Like the Woolf - she runs a contest to see who picks correctly. Enter yours by Sunday night!)

Happy Roostering, y'all.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Houses: Not so Safe on the Isle of Man, Apparently

Safe House by Chris Ewan
(Minotaur Books, 2012)
Format: Audio download via Audiobook Jukebox (narrated by Simon Vance for AudioGO)

From Goodreads: "When Rob Hale wakes up in hospital after a motorcycle crash he is told that Lena, the woman he claims was travelling with him, doesn't exist. The woman he describes bears a striking resemblance to his recently deceased sister, Laura, but has he really only imagined her? Rob sets out to find the answers to who Lena is and where she has gone. He is aided by Rebecca Lewis, a London-based PI, who has come to the Isle of Man at the behest of his parents to investigate his sister's suicide. But who is Rebecca really and how did she know his sister? Together Rob and Rebecca follow the clues to discover who took Lena. In doing so they discover that even on an island where most people know each other, everyone hides a secret, and that sometimes your best option isn't to hide but to stay and fight."

This is my first Chris Ewan. Won't be my last. I've seen his titles often, since I'm such a Simon Vance fan, and Vance narrates Ewan's Good Thief's Guide series. Safe House is Ewan's first stand-alone mystery, and it's a compelling, transporting tale. As a matter of fact, when I shot my husband a sardonic look for interrupting me in the last 1/4 of this book, and he accused me of being "in a trance with Simon Vance," I would have taken the time to explain that it was the plot that was distracting me from getting stuff done, not the narrator. Except that would have taken time away from the book.

I immediately liked the main character, Rob, who is a solid, trustworthy, everyday kind of guy. A plumber, a motorbike racer, just another resident of the Isle of Man. one whose sister has recently committed suicide, and whose memory may or may not be screwed up after he crashes his bike either with or without a mysteriously missing stranger named Lena. He doesn't see the tangled webs woven by - well, by someone. He can see a couple of strands, enough to make it easy to discount "it's just a result of head injury" as an explanation, and enough to make him suspicious of people he's known for a while, and some newcomers as well. Gradually he decides to just about trust Rebecca, whose story seems almost plausible, if he can accept some strange things about his sister. And Rebecca stands by him, believing in Lena's disappearance, which earns her plenty of points. I wasn't very engaged by Rebecca as a character - she seemed to be a compilation of necessary parts: spy craft, investigative skills, insider knowledge. But not a lot of personal chemistry, which made her hard for me to care about or believe that Rob cared much about. But they team up, and together, they start to trace those tangled webs, which Ewan has laid out in a cunning pattern. There's a good amount of tension in this book, as well as some humor, some not-too-over-the-top complexity, cringe-inducing violence, engaging descriptive passages, and, to make it complete, a good dog.

Vance's narration - what can I say beyond what I always say? His deftness with accents has a real chance to shine here, between the Manx, the Londoners, and the Dutch. This is a slow-paced thriller - or a violence-laden mystery? - either way, Vance's pacing suits it quite nicely, and his calm but determined voice for Rob really carries just the right weight for the character.  

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Armchair Audies Time!

The Audies nominees for 2013 are out - and there are some excellent audio productions included in the finalists list. Of the dozen that I've read (listened to), ten are among my favorites of 2012. (I listened to 149 books last year, so ten is a chunk of them, but not a massive percentage.)

In order to really judge, though, I can't look just at the one or two in a category I've read. And I'm not alone in that - a group of bloggers are, for the 2nd year in a row, taking on a category (or more) each. We'll listen to each nominee in that category and decide which we think should win. It's called The Armchair Audies, and it's quite a fun group blogger project (now with Facebook page!)

(Last year I did this with the Teen and the Narration by Author or Authors categories, and I was right about both my picks. Go, me!)

Anyhoo - this year I've picked 3 categories. That's 14 titles, but I've already heard 6 of them. I'm excited about the rest of them. These are the audiobooks you can look forward to me blathering on about in the near future:

LITERARY FICTION (a.k.a., Two Simons and a Colin, a.k.a. Melanie Heaven)         
REMEMBER BEN CLAYTON Stephen Harrigan Read by George Guidall (Recorded Books) 
HEFT Liz Moore Read by Kirby Heyborne, Keith Szarabajka (Blackstone Audiobooks) 
BRING UP THE BODIES Hilary Mantel Read by Simon Vance (Macmillan Audio) 
THE REMAINS OF THE DAY Kazuo Ishiguro Read by Simon Prebble (Tantor Media) 
THE END OF THE AFFAIR Graham Greene Read by Colin Firth (Audible, Inc.)          

SOLO NARRATION - MALE (a.k.a. Did I Mention the Simon and the Colin? Plus Edoardo!)       
BEING THERE Jerzy Kosinski Read by Dustin Hoffman (Audible, Inc.) 
THE ABSOLUTIST John Boyne Read by Michael Maloney (Tantor Media) 
BEAUTIFUL RUINS Jess Walter Read by Edoardo Ballerini (Harper Audio) 
THE END OF THE AFFAIR Graham Greene Read by Colin Firth (Audible, Inc.) 
THE TAO OF POOH Benjamin Hoff Read by Simon Vance (Tantor Media) 

TEENS (a.k.a. LOVE Green & Bray, LOVE Rudd & Kellgren - The Category of Fun and Tears)         
INHERITANCE Christopher Paolini Read by Gerard Doyle (Listening Library) 
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS John Green Read by Kate Rudd (Brilliance Audio)
ENCHANTED Alethea Kontis Read by Katherine Kellgren (Brilliance Audio) 
THE DIVINERS Libba Bray Read by January LaVoy (Listening Library) 
DODGER Terry Pratchett Read by Stephen Briggs (Harper Audio)  

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Gritty Realism Doesn't Care that Magical Realism Would be More Fun

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
(Little, Brown & Company, 2012)
Format: audio CD via library (read by Tom Hollander for Hachette Audio)

From Goodreads: "When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.

Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils...Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity, and unexpected revelations?

A big novel about a small town, The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling's first novel for adults. It is the work of a storyteller like no other."

As my sister-in-law texted me after reading this: I have thoughts.

Now, being the voracious reader that I am, I'm as happy with boy wizards as I am with scheming small-town councillors, so long as the writing holds up. And as anyone would expect from Rowling, the writing definitely holds up. I got a whiff of "after this, no one can accuse me of only achieving success through escapism" out of the plot, but that's the trouble with knowing too much about the author's life instead of taking a book strictly on it's own terms. And what terms they are. Pagford, quiet, idyllic little Pagford, is in fact a seething mass of modern venality under a polite veneer.

My friend S wrote, I think, a perfect review of it, and I'm reprinting this from her:

  • "Rowling skips nothing – prejudice, bullying, disillusion, failure, success, rejection, mental illness, drug addiction, and tragedy. All of it weaves together to create a world that we all know but, out of an intense desire to be polite, we ignore. But that world exists and, by not acknowledging it, we condone it."
I will say that this moved a lot more quickly for me once I switched to the audio version. I was completely absorbed in Hollander's narration, and his ability to convey not just the right voice, but the right attitude for each character. It is a great skill, and his light, charming tone carried me inexorably into this often-grim and dismal world. It almost felt like cheating, to allow the narration to be a conduit into Rowling's examination of the underbelly of life, but I think in a way it also kept poor dead Barry around a bit more for me. 

Everything that spins out of control in this novel is a direct result of Barry's untimely death. So often the characters were, in their minds, grasping the baton from him and running headlong into the future. But no one ran in the same direction, and many of them were on crash courses. It's kind of a joy to have been a rubbernecker at the scene.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Stories Worth Grasping for Dear Life

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro
(Douglas Gibson Books, 2012)
Format: ebook via library

From Goodreads: "With her peerless ability to give us the essence of a life in often brief but spacious and timeless stories, Alice Munro illumines the moment a life is shaped -- the moment a dream, or sex, or perhaps a simple twist of fate turns a person out of his or her accustomed path and into another way of being. Suffused with Munro's clarity of vision and her unparalleled gift for storytelling, these stories (set in the world Munro has made her own: the countryside and towns around Lake Huron) about departures and beginnings, accidents, dangers, and homecomings both virtual and real, paint a vivid and lasting portrait of how strange, dangerous, and extraordinary the ordinary life can be."

Short stories aren't always my cup of tea. (I adore tea, BTW. A cup of tea is always my cup of tea.) Short stories ask so much of the reader in such a short space, if they're done well, but if they're not, well, it's cheating, isn't it? The writer just not having a book's worth of conversation to have with me, but not making the shorter chat weighty and worth my time.

(Sometimes I am hard to please. And judgmental.)

Anyway, Munro never does that. The only problem I have with reading Munro is that she reminds me of why I get impatient with non-Munro short story writers sometimes. Also, I want to stop after each one and reflect and reread and relish, but I also want to race forward to the next one. It's all giddy-girl with her first crush, me and these stories. The quiet but essential inner lives of the characters, the spotlight nature of small town inhabitants never not in each other's business, the language! Munro's language is simple and precise, incisive, alive.

I was going to tell you my favorite stories so you could dip in if you don't believe me, but it would just be the first ten items on the table of contents. Maybe Amundsen or Gravel, but they all sang to me, so I'm not going to choose. I will say that the final quartet of stories, which she sets apart with a note about them being more autobiographical, are my least favorite in this collection.

That said, even in those, Munro's turn of phrase seemed designed, at times, to shoot arrows of self-realization at me. I mean, could this sum up my own child's play any more smoothly:

  • From Night, describing the games of her younger sister: "These tended towards domesticity rather than glamour."

Or this, my suspicion about how I'm viewed today:

  • From Voices, describing why her mother didn't always fit in: "I think people found her pushy and overly grammatical."

This is one of the nominees in the Tournament of Books and I'm looking forward to the discussion about it. Unless people don't say nice things about it, and then I'll get judgmental on them.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Oh, Fantine, Our Time is Running Out

Howdy, Reader(s). 

Volume 1: Fantine - Book 6 was a nice short one for my Les Mis Project this week - just two chapters. But it brings me to 15% completion of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables

I wish I'd unearthed this
Fauchelevant-under-a-cart cover
for the last book's entry,
because: awesome!
Book Sixth - Javert
So, Fantine's laid up in M. Madeline's endowed hospital. Being take care of isn't helping much, thanks to the lout that shoved snow down her back in the last book. She wakes one day to see the mayor by the bed, staring at a crucifix. "His gaze was full of pity, anguish, and supplication." (p.146) So now she's as impressed by him as everyone else.

Also, everyone's full of gossip because Javert sent a letter to Monsieur le Prefet of Police, so they figure after the dust-up with Madeline, he's resigning.

Before we figure out anything about that, M. Madeline starts sending demand letters to the Thenardiers to produce Cosette. They asked for 120, he sent 300. "This dazzled Thenardier. 'The devil!' said the man to his wife; 'don't let's allow the child to go. This lark is going to turn into a milch cow.' " (p.147) So then he asks for 500 (300 paid on account), so M. Madeline sends another 300.

Ancient Scorn!
The nursing sisters started out disapproving of the whore in their midst, which Hugo relates with delightful relish: "Those who have seen the bas-reliefs of Rheims will recall the inflation of the lower lip of the wise virgins as they survey the foolish virgins. The ancient scorn of the vestals for the ambubajae is one of the most profound instincts of feminine dignity; the sisters felt it with the double force contributed by religion." (p.147)

So, although Fantine is doing badly, she and M. Madeline have a mutual admiration society going on, and he's doing everything to get the kid back. But doom lurks. "Carve as we will the mysterious block of which our life is made, the black vein of destiny constantly reappears in it." (p.149)

The black vein in question shows up when Javert stops by Madeline's office to ask to be fired for showing such disrespect and suspicion towards the mayor for so long. He confesses that he's been convinced that Madeline is this no-good scum convict called Valjean, and he even informed against him to the Prefecture of Police. There was certainly a lot of circumstantial evidence:

  • "I thought it was so. I had had an idea for a long time; a resemblance; inquiries which you had caused to be made at Faverolles; the strength of your loins; the adventure with old Fauchelevant; your skill in marksmanship; your leg, which you drag a little;-I hardly know what all,-absurdities! But, at all events, I took you for a certain Jean Valjean." (p.150)
But then! The Prefecture let him know he was wrong, since they'd just arrested the real Jean Valjean. To which news Madeline dropped the paper he was holding, "raised his head, gazed fixedly at Javert, and said with his indescribable accent:- "Ah!" (p.151) Because although the guy denies it, there's a lot of circumstantial evidence against him, too:

  • He's arrested for theft of some apples, and "The jail being in a bad condition, the examining magistrate finds it convenient to transfer Champmathieu to Arras, where the departmental prison is situated. In this prison at Arras there is an ex-convict named Brevet [who recognized him as Jean Valjean from his Toulon galley days as soon as he saw him.]" (p.151)
  • "This Champmathieu had been, thirty years ago, a pruner of trees in various localities, notably at Farverolles. There all trace of him was lost.... Now, before going to the galleys for theft, what was Jean Valjean? A pruner of trees. Where? At Faverolles. Another fact. This Valjean's Christian name was Jean, and his mother's surname was Mathieu. What more natural to suppose than that, on emerging from the galleys, he should have taken his mother's name for the purpose of concealing himself, and have called himself Jean Mathieu? [Then the local dialect mangles it and he is] transformed into Champmathieu. You follow me, do you not?" (p.152)
  • The only other two convicts who have ever met Valjean are shown Champmathieu, and immediately i.d. him. 
  • "The same age,-he is fifty-four,-the same height, the same air, the same man; in short, it is he." (p.152)
  • Champmathieu keeps denying it, and Javert thinks he knows why. "Indeed, Mr. Mayor, it's a bad business. If he is Jean Valjean, he has his previous conviction against him. To climb a wall, to break a branch, to purloin apples, is a mischievous trick in a child; for a man it is a misdemeanor; for a convict it is a crime.... It is no longer a matter of a few days in prison; it is the galleys for life." (p.152)
  • Plus, and most essentially, Javert goes to see the examining judge and takes a look at this guy. Madeline is on edge, asking him what he saw. "Javert replied, his face incorruptible, and as melancholy as ever:- 'Mr. Mayor, the truth is the truth. I am sorry; but that man is Jean Valjean. I recognized him also.' ... 'And even now that I have seen the real Jean Valjean, I do not see how I could have thought otherwise. I beg your pardon, Mr. Mayor.' " (p.152)
Madeline brushes it all aside as unimportant, and gives him a list of local issues to deal with. A long, long list. Then adds, "But I am giving you a great deal of work. Are you not to be absent? Did you not tell me that you were going to Arras on that matter in a week or ten days?" (p.153) (Subtle, M. Madeline!)

Mr. Mayor is in for another surprise. Javert has to leave that night, as the case will be tried the next day.  But he'll be back soon, because it will only last "One day, at the most. The judgement will be pronounced to-morrow evening at latest. But I shall not wait for sentence, which is certain; I shall return here as soon as my deposition has been taken." (p.153)

Even though the mayor tells him to go away, Javert - showing what it is that drives him - refuses to go without being fired first. He reminds Madeline, "If one of my subordinates had done what I have done, I should have declared him unworthy of the service, and expelled him. Well? Stop, Mr. Mayor; one word more. I have often been severe in the course of my life towards others. That is just. I have done well. Now, if I were not severe towards myself, all the justice that I have done would become injustice. Ought I to spare myself more than others? No! What! I should be good for nothing but to chastise others, and not myself! Why, I should be a blackguard! Those who say, 'That blackguard of a Javert!' would be in the right. Mr. Mayor, I do not desire that you should treat me kindly; your kindness roused sufficient bad blood in me when it was directed to others. I want none of it for myself." (p.154)

He really is his own harshest judge, poor guy. "All this was uttered in a proud, humble, despairing, yet convinced tone, which lent indescribable grandeur to this singular, honest man." (p.154) The mayor still won't fire him, so he has to go off to Arras bearing what he sees as the burden of false accusation.

And the mayor? In the next book, we shall see....

Friday, February 15, 2013

History, Fact, Fiction, Terror, Bravery, and a Possibly-Green Car

HHhH by Laurent Binet
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012)
Format: hardback via library, translation by Sam Taylor

From Goodreads: "HHhH: “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich”, or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”. The most dangerous man in Hitler’s cabinet, Reinhard Heydrich was known as the “Butcher of Prague.” He was feared by all and loathed by most. With his cold Aryan features and implacable cruelty, Heydrich seemed indestructible—until two men, a Slovak and a Czech recruited by the British secret service, killed him in broad daylight on a bustling street in Prague, and thus changed the course of History.

Who were these men, arguably two of the most discreet heroes of the twentieth century? In Laurent Binet’s captivating debut novel, we follow Jozef Gabćik and Jan Kubiš from their dramatic escape of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to England; from their recruitment to their harrowing parachute drop into a war zone, from their stealth attack on Heydrich’s car to their own brutal death in the basement of a Prague church.

A seemingly effortlessly blend of historical truth, personal memory, and Laurent Binet’s remarkable imagination, HHhH—an international bestseller and winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman—is a work at once thrilling and intellectually engrossing, a fast-paced novel of the Second World War that is also a profound meditation on the nature of writing and the debt we owe to history."

Here's what I think:          . 

This is so complex but playful but sobering but deft but messy that I'm having trouble knowing where to start. First of all, a factual thing - yes, the parachutists and their mission are followed in some detail, but this is really, I think, a novel about Heydrich. Who, if you don't know much about him, kind of sucks. Binet's account of his rise to power and absolutely single-minded ruthlessness is as chilling and nausea-inducing and gob-smacking as you'd expect, given that he truly was, as the synopsis says, 'feared by all and loathed by most.' Binet doesn't give us everything - well, it would take several volumes to give us everything - but he does enough. More than enough. 

Mixed with that is the author-as-narrator voice, where Binet details his own growing interest in Heydrich's assassination and the ways in which he builds up information and impressions to turn them into this book. While I looked askance at this through the first third of the book - not because I object to the intrusion and inversion of traditional narrative, but because I was rolling my eyes at Binet's view of himself - I hit a point where the author-narrator comments were treasures. From then on, the book flew by and I hated to put it down. In my mind, he was assembling a bunker around himself of source materials, so that by the end he was fully immersed in each second of the attack and attempted escape. I actually came to care whether the Mercedes Heydrich was in was the black one in the museum, or green, as reported in a couple of earlier fictionalized accounts. 

So now I'm changing my earlier statement. (Announcing this is a very Binet-like thing to do.) This isn't a novel about the Slovak and Czech who united under the Resistance to kill "the Butcher of Prague." It isn't a novel about how Heydrich grew into each of his terrifyingly well-earned nicknames, making him a most desirable target for assassination. It's a novel about writing a history, about Binet as writer and Binet as character, destined to make you think about him every time you encounter a historical account from here on out. 

Read it, and tell me if you are as flipped over by it as I am.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

I Run a Business of Repute; I am the Mayor of This Town!

This next part of the Les Mis Project was a long one, full of misery. 

Book 5 of Volume 1: Fantine of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (I'm getting quite adept at accenting my Es on the keyboard! You never know what a project of this nature will bring you.) 15% through the whole. We've just left Baby Cosette with the Thenardiers and Fantine has made her way to M. sur M. in search of a new life with fewer financial problems.

Is this the best 70s paperback
with yellow-edged paper
font you've ever seen, or what?
Book Fifth - The Descent - well, that title doesn't bode well for Fantine. It starts out fine. Turns out, in Fantine's absence from town, some super smart, brave, nice guy called Father Madeline has shown up out of nowhere in particular spreading goodness to all. (No one asked for his papers after he showed up in the nick of time to save the guard-captain's kids from a burning building. Very convenient!) He figured out a new, cheaper way to manufacture the black glass trinkets the town was known for, and it was a clear case of trickle-down economics. "This very small change had, in fact, prodigiously reduced the cost of the raw material, which had rendered it possible in the first place, to raise the price of manufacture, a benefit to the country; in the second place, to improve the workmanship, an advantage to the consumer; in the third place, to sell at a lower price, while trebling the profit, which was a benefit to the manufacturer." (p.120)

So, Father Madeline has become wealthy and respected, runs his factories with strict moral guidelines and plenty of pay for all, endows schools and hospitals, seeks out the poor to enrich them, yadda yadda yadda. Your basic living saint. He has plenty of cash, but still spends a million or so on teacher salaries, nursery schools, infrastructure, etc. The King decides he should be mayor. He says no thanks. They freak out. The King tries to give him the Legion of Honor for his invention. He says no thanks. No one can figure him out. Five years later, the King and everyone say again he should be mayor, and he's trying to refuse despite the crowds insisting he take it, and finally when an old townswoman says, "A good mayor is a useful thing. Is he drawing back before the good which he can do?" (p.123), he takes the job.

Also, he's gentle but an expert shot when he has to be, super strong but only uses his strength to do things like lift carts caught in the mud and stop runaway bulls, the usual. He always hands coins to begging kids, advises farmers about how to improve various bits of their lives, does good works as anonymously as he can, makes toys for the children. Did I mention the living saint thing? Hugo is very intent that we pick up on this facet of M. Madeline. Just to emphasize:

  • "...respect became complete, unanimous, cordial, and towards 1821 the moment arrived when the word 'Monsieur le Maire' was pronounced at M. sur M. with almost the same accent as 'Monseigneur the Bishop' had been pronounced in D-- in 1815. People came from a distance of ten leagues to consult M. Madeline. He put an end to differences, he prevented lawsuits, he reconciled enemies. Every one took him for the judge, and with good reason. It seemed as though he had for a soul the book of the natural law. It was like an epidemic of veneration, which in the course of six or seven years gradually took possession of the whole district." (p.126)
But! There's one suspicious guy who fails utterly to be charmed by M. Madeline. I love how Hugo has him look at Madeline: "with folded arms and a slow shake of the head, and his upper lip raised in company with his lower to his nose, a sort of significant grimace...." (p.127) You guessed it, right? It's Javert. He's a police inspector, who moved to town after Madeline had become successful, so he missed out on the whole 'save the kids, bypass the passport' episode. You get the feeling that even if it had been Javert's babies who were saved from the fire, though, he'd still have asked for Madeline's papers. Here's another gem of a description:

  • "When Javert laughed, - and his laugh was rare and terrible, - his thin lips parted and revealed to view not only his teeth, but his gums, and around his nose there formed a flattened and savage fold, as on the muzzle of a wild beast. Javert, serious, was a watchdog; when he laughed, he was a tiger." (p.128) Sexy!
  • And then one day a guy who doesn't even like Madeline much gets trapped under a cart, is a soon-to-be-dead old man, and Madeline is telling the rubber-neckers to get under the cart to lift it, as it's sinking into the mud. Everyone looks at him like he's crazy. Cart's HEAVY, dude. And Javert, cool as can be, says, "I have never known but one man capable of doing what you ask." (p.130) They have a stare-down while Javert emphasizes that the strong man he knew was a convict at Toulon, and Madeline again offers to pay the refusing bystanders good cash if they'll get under the cart, and finally: "Madeline raised his head, met Javert's falcon eye still fixed upon him, looked at the motionless peasants, and smiled sadly. Then, without saying a word, he fell on his knees, and before the crowd had even had time to utter a cry, he was underneath the vehicle." (p.131)
  • Of course after much tension and agony, he gets the cart up and saves the old man. "Madeline rose. He was pale, though dripping with perspiration. His clothes were torn and covered with mud. All wept. The old man kissed his knees and called him the good God. As for him, he bore upon his countenance an indescribable expression of happy and celestial suffering, and he fixed his tranquil eye on Javert, who was still staring at him." (p.131) Dun dun dun!!
M. Madeline continues to rise, Javert continues to watch, and Fantine works steadily away, even though the Thenardiers keep raising the cost of keeping Cosette. She can't write, so she has to have a letter-writer send the payments, and the mean gossips take plenty of note. The letter-writer is a bit of a loose-lipped drinker, so it's not long before the mean gossips figure out about the child, and ensure that she loses her job. She's not brave enough to approach the mayor about it (the forewoman is the one who sent her off), and tries to earn enough by sewing shirts. Then Cosette needs winter clothes, so she sells her gorgeous blond hair. (The Thenardiers gave the petticoat she sent to Eponine.) 

Not long down the road, they say she needs lots of cash for medicine (they didn't like getting clothes instead of cash after Fantine sold her hair.) She comes across a "dental professor" who offers her a gold napoleon for each of her pretty white front teeth. It repulses her (she's not the only one! ick!) but she needs the two coins for Cosette's medicine. When her neighbor sees the money later that night and asks where she got it, "...she smiled. The candle illuminated her countenance. It was a bloody smile. A reddish saliva soiled the corners of her lips, and she had a black hole in her mouth." (p.138) Thanks for that graphic description, Hugo!

She had to move to the attic since she couldn't afford the regular rooms. It was "one of those attics whose extremity forms an angle with the floor, and knocks you on the head every instant. The poor occupant can reach the end of his chamber as he can the end of his destiny, only by bending over more and more." (p.138) In case we weren't sure how it was going with Fantine.

The innkeepers want 100 francs or they'll throw Cosette out. Fantine is sewing seventeen hours per day, but can't make nearly enough cash. She also sows her hatred of M. Madeline, who she blames for this whole predicament. She can't get 100 francs honestly. Finally, sad, desperate, " 'Come!' said she, 'let us sell what is left.'   The unfortunate girl became a woman of the town." (p.138) (This slow descent into prostitution and destitution is the first big deviation from the musical, which until this point had compressed action but not directly messed with causality.) 

A local lout starts to heckle Fantine one night. She ignores him, but he only steps up his abuse, until he's shoving a handful of snow down the back of her only 'good' dress, and she flips out and attacks him. Of course she's the one Javert hauls in to jail. (Oh - check out the lout:)

  • "At that period a dandy was composed of a tall collar, a big cravat, a watch with trinkets, three vests of different colors, worn one on top of the other - the red and blue inside; of a short-waisted olive coat, with a codfish tail, a double row of silver buttons set close to each other and running up to the shoulder; and a pair of trousers of a lighter shade of olive, ornamented on the two seams with an indefinite, but always uneven, number of lines, varying from one to eleven - a limit which was never exceeded. Add to this, high shoes with little irons on the heels, a tall hat with a narrow brim, hair worn in a tuft, an enormous cane, and conversation set up by puns of Potier. Over all, spurs and a mustache. At that epoch mustaches indicated the bourgeois, and spurs the pedestrian. The provincial dandy wore the longest of spurs and the fiercest of mustaches." (p.140)
Anyway, Javert has Fantine at the station-house (everyone tries to get a look at what's happening, because "Curiosity is a sort of gluttony. To see is to devour." (p.141)) She sobs and begs and explains about the snow and about Cosette and asks for his pity and help. Poor Fantine. "Great sorrow us a divine and terrible ray, which transfigures the unhappy. At that moment Fantine had become beautiful once more." (p.142)

Javert don't care. "She would have softened a heart of granite; but a heart of wood cannot be softened." (p.142) He's all set to toss her in jail for six months, when Madeline speaks up. He's heard it all, unobserved by either. He stops the soldiers, and when Javert calls him "Mr. Mayor," Fantine pulls away from the soldiers and spits in Madeline's face. Madeline wipes his face and tells Javert to set her free. Ay caramba!

  • "Javert felt that he was on the verge of going mad. He experienced at that moment, blow upon blow and almost simultaneously, the most violent emotions which he had ever undergone in all his life. To see a woman of the town spit in the mayor's face was a thing so monstrous that, in his most daring flights of fancy, he would have regarded it as a sacrilege to believe it possible. On the other hand, at the very bottom of his thought, he made a hideous comparison as to what this woman was, and as to what this mayor might be; and then he, which horror, caught a glimpse of I know not what simple explanation of this prodigious attack. But when he beheld that mayor, that magistrate, calmly wipe his face and say, 'Set this woman at liberty,' he underwent a sort of intoxication of amazement; thought and word failed him equally; the sum total of possible astonishment had been exceeded in his case. He remained mute." (p.143)
  • Fantine's a little confused, too. She's so anti-Madeline that she's sure it's Javert who stopped her trek to the cells. But he still wants to send her, and again the Mayor stops it. Javert argues that she's broken the law, and finally, "M. Madeline folded his arms, and said in a severe voice which no one in the town had heard hitherto: - 'The matter to which you refer is one connected with the municipal police. According to the terms of articles nine, eleven, fifteen, and sixty-six of the code of criminal examination, I am the judge. I order that this woman shall be set at liberty.' " (p.145)
  • Javert finally, coldly, stiffly, gives in and leaves. Fantine doesn't know what to make of these powerful authority figures fighting over her fate. "And at the very moment when she had insulted him in so hideous a fashion, he had saved her! Had she, then, been mistaken? Must she change her whole soul? She did not know; she trembled." (p.146) Recurring theme much, Hugo?
And then! M. Madeline tells her he will help her get Cosette back, set them up with a home and living expenses wherever she likes, absolve her of her sins, pay her debts, and basically make her life dreamy. So Fantine faints, and that's the end of the book.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

How to Lose Her: Be a Philandering Jerk

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
(Riverhead Books, 2012)
Format: Audio CDs via library (narrated by Junot Díaz)

From Goodreads: "On a beach in the Dominican Republic, a doomed relationship flounders. In the heat of a hospital laundry room in New Jersey, a woman does her lover’s washing and thinks about his wife. In Boston, a man buys his love child, his only son, a first baseball bat and glove. At the heart of these stories is the irrepressible, irresistible Yunior, a young hardhead whose longing for love is equaled only by his recklessness--and by the extraordinary women he loves and loses: artistic Alma; the aging Miss Lora; Magdalena, who thinks all Dominican men are cheaters; and the love of his life, whose heartbreak ultimately becomes his own. In prose that is endlessly energetic, inventive, tender, and funny, the stories in This Is How You Lose Her lay bare the infinite longing and inevitable weakness of the human heart. They remind us that passion always triumphs over experience, and that 'the half-life of love is forever.' "

The thing is, no matter how artfully you tell me the story of the bad boy who keeps screwing around and screwing up his relationships, he's eventually got to be a little redeemed for me to care about his self-pitying pain. And while I was quite drawn in to the relationship between Yunior and his dying-young big brother Rafa, this is a collection of stories about romantic love. And Yunior sucks at romantic love. He's great at seducing, at having affairs, at throwing himself passionately at women he reveres even as he treats them poorly. But anyone careless enough to keep years worth of explicit emails from lovers where a rightfully suspicious girlfriend can find them is just not as interested in mature love as he claims. (Perhaps if I'd 'met' Yunior in Díaz's other books I'd be more tolerant of him, but coming to him cold leaves me, well, a bit cold.)

It's a great audio production, though. Díaz is phenomenal at tapping into his narrative voice as he reads. Now, you'd think that this is a no-brainer - he is the author, after all - but I've heard plenty of narration by authors, and non-authors, where the narrative voice is flat and uninspired. The dialogue may be great, the pacing lovely, but without that connection to the 'in between' bits, an audio book just isn't rich enough. Díaz's narration kept me engaged no matter how I felt about Yunior, and I'm glad, since his writing is lush and raw and inviting.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Warning: Cliffhanger Ahead, Parkour No Help

What We Saw at Night by Jacquelyn Mitchard
(Soho Teen, 2013)
Format: Audio download via Audiobook Jukebox (narrated by Rebecca Gibel for AudioGO)

From Goodreads: "Allie Kim suffers from Xeroderma Pigmentosum: a fatal allergy to sunlight that confines her and her two best friends, Rob and Juliet, to the night. When freewheeling Juliet takes up Parkour—the stunt-sport of scaling and leaping off tall buildings—Allie and Rob have no choice but to join her, if only to protect her. Though potentially deadly, Parkour after dark makes Allie feel truly alive, and for the first time equal to the “daytimers.”
On a random summer night, the trio catches a glimpse of what appears to be murder. Allie alone takes it upon herself to investigate, and the truth comes at an unthinkable price. Navigating the shadowy world of specialized XP care, extreme sports, and forbidden love, Allie ultimately uncovers a secret that upends everything she believes about the people she trusts the most."

So I quite like Mitchard. She's not a 'must-read' with me, but I'm generally happy enough to pick up her books and get her take on family dynamics, especially in the face of uniquely trying long-term issues. And Allie, with her XP, abandoning father, 'daytiming' family, and a potential murderer on the loose certainly qualifies for Mitchard's stock-in-trade. And she definitely does her thing here - Allie is a stranger in a strange land of darkness and that spot between childhood and adulthood that can need careful navigating. She's bright but not always sure of herself, and since her social life necessarily consists mainly of the other two XD kids her age in town, plus various interactions with hospital and research adults, her willingness to put up with and ability to be hurt by Rob and Juliet is deep.

Still, I was irritated by a couple of things. Allie's narration is a 'recent past' one - there are several moments of 'if I'd known then what I know now...' which grated on me. Every time it happens, I expect Allie to change a little, to react differently next time. But she tends to push on as always, and as appealing as she is, she is far too often reacting to external drama instead of taking internal stock. But the more problematic issue is the one of the cliffhanger. Instead of being one that seems to close this story while leaving a new one looming around the corner, this novel ends fairly abruptly, with Allie's life calmer, sure, but with the same mysteries and threats over her head as existed from the beginning, although she knows more about them now. It's a TV-season ending, and I find it far from satisfying.

I did enjoy Gibel's narration. She handles the emotional and suspenseful sections extremely smoothly, giving Allie's reactions a real resonance. I feel the love.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Masterpieces and the Pursuit of Truth

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
(Algonquin, 2012)
Format: audio cds from library (read by Xe Sands)

From Goodreads: "On March 18, 1990, thirteen works of art today worth over $500 million were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It remains the largest unsolved art heist in history, and Claire Roth, a struggling young artist, is about to discover that there’s more to this crime than meets the eye.

Making a living reproducing famous artworks for a popular online retailer and desperate to improve her situation, Claire is lured into a Faustian bargain with Aiden Markel, a powerful gallery owner. She agrees to forge a painting—a Degas masterpiece stolen from the Gardner Museum—in exchange for a one-woman show in his renowned gallery. But when that very same long-missing Degas painting is delivered to Claire’s studio, she begins to suspect that it may itself be a forgery."

Oh, immersing fiction that puts me in a world I never knew with characters I don't want to leave behind, how I do enjoy you. Shapiro incisively and immediately turned Claire into a reality, a narrative voice I was happy to follow as she navigated the fallout from her past and the pitfalls in her present. There is a sensuous element to this novel, in the descriptions of the painter's art, the supplies and techniques Claire uses, the way she responds to Degas's work. And the mystery of how the stolen Degas made its way to Claire's studio and the basis for her suspicion that it was a forgery were fascinating to me. My immediate trust of Claire as a narrator didn't stop me from distrusting her feelings about and trust in other people, and I cringed a few times at her failure to take a more cynical view of her interlocutors. But she forges on and creates beauty, both in her Degas reproduction and in her original work. I was so moved by her fascination with Degas that I wanted to head off to a museum myself, which isn't my normal milieu. I mean, I like Degas, who doesn't, but now I am a little more in awe of his work. And I'm definitely impressed by Shapiro's facility with language, character, and story.

One of my favorite narrators, Sands gave perfect expression to Claire's voice, by turns impatient, passionate, exasperated, and wry. I loved the flow of her narration and the distinctive character voices which made each person more solid a presence. Between the writing and the narration, this was all-too-often one of those "can't leave my car just yet, still absorbed in this story" audiobook experiences. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Dragons, Flutes, Castles, Adventures, and an Evil Plot

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
(Random House, 2012)
Format: audio download via library (narrated by Mandy Williams)

From Goodreads: "Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors....

An unusually gifted musician, [Seraphina] joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen's Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect [a secret] so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life."

So - a YA fantasy world where queens and dragons parlay when necessary but prejudices against the "worms" run strong in the populace. A talented girl whose father has tried to keep her in the shadows all her life. A dragon tutor with secrets of his own. A cute - but betrothed - roguish prince. Anti-dragon hate groups, a beheaded royal, mysteriously denounced saints, and a dream world whose denizens pop up disconcertingly in real time. It's all a complex stew of elements that blend into an exotic, flavorful whole that's hard to resist. Hartman writes affectingly of the ways in which Seraphina is torn between so many different, equally vital paths in life, putting her at the center of a tangled maze so that any misstep will affect not only her, but the course of her entire nation. I thought her pacing was a little off at times, but the world is great and I really want to find out what happens next. 

Williams is a new-to-me narrator. I wasn't really taken with her tone, though it very much matches the lilting soprano Hartman describes. She does a fine job with emotional resonance and read the novel as if she was as caught up in the narrative as her listener, which is my most listened-for criteria for liking an audiobook. And she really gets Seraphina's understated wryness, which was great. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Old Books and the Power of the Web (also, Ladders)

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)
Format: hardback via library

From Goodreads"The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone—and serendipity, sheer curiosity, and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey has landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead “checking out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he’s embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behavior and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what’s going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore."

Silliness of the finest kind - a bookstore that is a front for some sort of obscure intellectual organization, or perhaps for a cult, or a giant hoax. It's all a mystery to Clay, and one which draws him deeper and deeper into the dusty shelves of the under-utilized bookstore where he spends his nights. Between his artistic roommate, his Google-guru girlfriend, and his childhood D&D pal / programming genius, Clay pieces together the secrets of Mr. Penumbra's eccentric clientele. They're a quirky group and a lot of fun to follow on their intellectual quest. 

I enjoyed the juxtaposition of dusty, archaic tomes with the bright, buzzy on-line world. I loved the description of the store, all tall narrow corridors and ladders into the darkness - it was immediately, viscerally appealing. And the journey Clay and his pals undertake, complete with code names and disguises and strange contraptions made out of cardboard, is both frothy and thought-provoking. 

Plus, the cover? All those yellow books? Glow in the dark!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Wodehouse-ian Revels

Uncle Fred in the Springtime by P.G. Wodehouse
(AudioGO, 2012)
Format: audio download via Audiobook Jukebox (narrated by Jonathan Cecil) - 7.5 hours 

From Goodreads: "Pongo Twistleton is in a state of financial embarrassment and it's not for the first time. Uncle Fred, meanwhile, has been asked by Lord Emsworth of Blandings to foil a plot to relieve him of the Empress, his much-adored prize pig."

As far as I can tell, there is no good reason not to include a Wodehouse or three in everyone's annual reading list. (Don't look at those links up there with my books from last year. I didn't read any in 2012. My bad. I did spend a good few months in middle school checking out every Wodehouse in the public library I passed on the way home, then calling my grandmother from the lobby pay phone to ask for a ride since I had too many check-outs to walk the mile home in my preferred manner: reading as I went.) 

So, I went into this expecting the usual froth of joy and sharp observation masked by understatement. And you know what? I got it in spades. Poor Pongo is putty in Wodehouse's hands - not one thing is resolved before a newer, worse obstacle appears to cause him more agony. And Uncle Fred is at his best here, managing to manipulate everyone while having as much fun as possible and staying (mostly) out of trouble. There are aristocrats and impostors and scary aunts and fancy-dress parties and more romantic entanglements than you can shake a stick at. Plus, a prize-winning pig starring in the role of bone of contention. 

Cecil narrates with just the right touch of coolness that Wodehouse seems to demand, treating Pongo's worries with slight disdain and Fred's antics with straightforward acceptance. His voices are quite well done, and the whole narration races by.