Friday, July 9, 2010

Only kidding

The author Reginald Hill likes to let his intellect show, I think. Not in an obnoxious way, although it can be a bit show-offy. While I understand the tyranny of a successful book series and how it can threaten to bore the author to tears (forcing you to murder your characters, a la Arthur Conan Doyle), sometimes I think I can tell when you are getting bored. And I fear Mr. Hill is getting bored, because he tosses in everything including the kitchen sink into Death's Jest-Book, the 20th entry in his long-running detective series featuring Yorkshire Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel and his long-suffering Inspector Peter Pascoe.

It's massive (17+ hours), features a large cast of characters, two suspicious deaths and two other deaths that came from nowhere, and two more bodies just for good measure, slips in both the Christmas and New Year's holidays, as well as two flashbacks to the 19th century, and includes a peripatetic character who -- in addition to having sex with a mother and her two daughters (or was it only one?) -- visits far too many places in a short time frame. Now, I'm all for sophisticated writing and intellectual ideas in your standard detective fiction, but this was exhausting.

I'm not sure I can summarize. a) Peter Pascoe begins receiving lengthy letters from an intelligent young man named Franny Roote. Roote has recently been released from prison (Pascoe put him there), and just seems to be a little too interested in Peter and his family. He's the aforementioned traveler of the story and two people hanging inconveniently around him end up dead. Everyone tells Peter he is overreacting. Oh, and Roote has inherited the literary estate of his mentor (murdered by the serial killer in the previous book in the series) who was researching the life of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, an English man of letters and author of the original Death's Jest Book.

b) Another recurring character, the gay Sergeant Edgar Wield gets involved (not sexually) with a "rent boy" named Lee, who -- we learn -- has connections with some not so savory characters, including a defense attorney and his shady clients. Lee passes on some pillow-talk tips to Wieldy.

c) The serial killer, the librarian (!) Rye Pomona, is threatened by the friend of one of her victims. This victim has been named by the police as the serial killer, but this friend smells a cover-up. (Only the reader knows Rye is the killer ... certainly not her lover, Constable "Hat" Bowler.)

d) A large "hoard" of ancient British treasure may possibly be sold out of the country. (I could never understand the proper noun used to describe said hoard.)

e) Superintendent Fat Andy Dalziel (pronounced Dee-ell) knows more than he's telling and profanely tells everyone what to do.

I suppose the trick here is that all the strands knitted almost neatly into a resolution. Almost. I won't spoil it, but I didn't like it. And one of the reasons I didn't was that neither Pascoe nor Dalziel seemed to be acting in character. Peter -- the cool, educated one -- is noisily obsessing about Roote for 16-and-a-half hours and then has an utter about-face (with reason, some might say, but I don't buy it), and Dalziel -- well, suffice it to say that he kindly embraces one of his subordinates at the end of novel. What? I've read all 20 of these novels, and the crude, politically incorrect Fat Andy only embraces lasciviously!

I think it goes without saying that diving into this largely entertaining series at this point would be a mistake. Go back at least one, but I recommend starting at the beginning. (I can't remember when I first discovered Dalziel and Pascoe, but they were so unlike anything I'd read before that I was easily hooked.)

So, the audiobook. It's read by Shaun Dooley, whoever he might be. He appears to be the go-to guy for Dalziel and Pascoe though, and he is very good. He has a very deep, pleasant voice and reads with humor and pathos. The various shadings of Yorkshire and other British accents accurately reflect the characters -- what's not to love about Dalziel's "owt and nowt" properly rendered. Dooley seems to have particular fun with Franny Roote's breezy, lengthy missives -- there is no doubt in my mind that Roote is slyly pushing every one of Peter's buttons in Dooley's slightly snarky delivery. He's generally good at portraying females, if occasionally painfully high-pitched. For vocal pyrotechnics, he tosses off a German conversation with a Swiss housekeeper with aplomb, and even does a short rendition of "Total Eclipse of the Heart" in a karaoke bar. This song is from my top-40-listening days, I was singing along ...

Despite all my complaints about the story, I was pretty riveted to the book. I really blasted through -- completing it in about 10 days. When I finish a book that fast, I'm totally in the listening zone. I think Mr. Dooley's fine performance may have helped me along, when sticking with it in print may have been a challenge. Bored or no, Mr. Hill writes a very entertaining book and his characters are well worth revisiting. I'm about four books behind in this series; I've no doubt I'll keep going.

Death's Jest-Book by Reginald Hill
Narrated by Shaun Dooley
Clipper Audio/Recorded Books, 2005. 17:15 (unabridged)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Island girl

In preparation for an annual educator training we do at my library where we talk about the recent crop of books for young readers, I've been reading a boatload of historical fiction. When I was a young reader, I loved historical fiction (and still do), but I think that most kids today view it with a kind of dread. Too much information, not enough action? Me, I like the info I learn about another time and place, and I'm pretty sure that I read Elizabeth George Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond when I was younger, perhaps even when I was living in Massachusetts just a short distance away from the novel's Connecticut setting.

Mrs. Speare won her first (of two) Newbery Medal for this story of Kit Tyler, who -- after the death of her wealthy grandfather -- gets herself from Barbados to Weatherfield, Connecticut on the good ship Dolphin hoping to find a new home with her aunt and uncle. Reluctantly, but recognizing that they are her only relations, they take her in and try to mold Kit into a proper Puritan daughter. Independent and well-read, Kit doesn't fit into Weatherfield society easily, despite the attentions she receives from one of its wealthier citizens. She acquiesces to the courtship believing she can regain her independence with marriage.

Kit meets Hannah, an old woman living alone at the edge of Blackbird Pond; but she realizes that she must keep this friendship a secret, as Hannah is a Quaker, a faith regarded as anathema by the Puritans. Hannah's presence in Weathersfield is barely tolerated, as many citizens believe Hannah to be a witch. When sickness strikes Weathersfield, the Puritans search for a scapegoat and when Kit's association with Hannah is revealed, they think they've found one.

I loved the descriptions in this novel -- the hot, sweaty journey on the Dolphin up the river to Weathersfield, the marshy fields that lead to Blackbird Pond, Hannah's cozy cottage, the cornshucking party, Kit's first snow, and the many brief, but evocative, character descriptions that sum up a person so memorably.

The actress Mary Beth Hurt reads the novel. She's got a nice husky voice that she uses to good effect to portray the headstrong (yet slightly dim) Kit, her unhappy cousin Judith, as well as the stalwart young seaman, Nat. Hurt reads the many adult characters with nice differentiation -- stiff, solemn Uncle Matthew, kindly Hannah, pompous suitor William. There's a young child in the story, Prudence, who is properly childish without sounding babyish.

I downloaded this from the library and the sound quality was pretty bad. It was tinny and reverberant at the same time. It took me a while to get through this novel, because the audiobooks download one disc as one track and for some reason I kept losing my place. I listened to several sections more than once. No wonder I didn't want to get out of bed at the crack of dawn!

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
Narrated by Mary Beth Hurt
Listening Library, 2003. 6:33 (unabridged)

Head over heels

Frances O'Roark Dowell's Chicken Boy is one of those audiobooks that has stuck with me over the years, so when I spied -- from my library's meagre new audio offerings [but that's another story] -- her latest novel, Falling In, I dipped right into it. On the surface, it seems dramatically different from her other books -- as it involves changelings, witches and herbal healing, but when I think about it, the novel reflects themes of otherness and belonging that I've noticed in the other Dowell's titles I've read and enjoyed.

Isabelle Bean is a sixth grader who has never fit in. She's a loner who'd rather explore a thrift store than hang out at the mall. She doesn't pay much attention in class and isn't at all close with her single mother. Isabelle's a reader, and has long believed that she is a changeling -- the fairy replacement of a human child snatched from her cradle. Lately, she's been hearing a buzzing sound that no one else has noticed and -- during a visit to the nurse's office one day at school -- follows the buzzing inside the supply closet and tumbles into an alternative world.

In this vaguely medieval world, she discovers that the Witch of the Wood has been terrorizing children for 50 years -- insisting that the small villages turn over a child or two on a rotating basis, in exchange for the witch's child who died at their hands. The villages send their children off to place of safety, and Isabelle meets some of these kids as they are making their way to these camps. Initially -- wearing her red boots -- she is mistaken for the witch, but once she sets the children straight she doesn't follow them to the sanctuary, but walks the other way -- thinking that she'd very much like to meet a witch.

The novel is told by a very omniscient narrator, one who pipes in regularly with her own thoughts and opinions about Isabelle's adventures. She speaks directly to the reader, and is occasionally cranky as she anticipates the reader's complaints about how the story is going. It's this format that makes it such a natural for audio. Falling In is read by Jessica Almasy (here's an interview with the author of another book she recently narrated), who -- as a narrator -- is familiar to me, but I was surprised to realize that I have never listened to her.

She is pretty good here, nailing the right tone of omniscience for her snarky narrator. She's sounds youthful enough to portray the many children in the story, and she works very hard to differentiate the main characters. She gives many of the children from the magical world a pretty wobbly English accent, but now that I don't have to worry about such things, I didn't find it bothersome. Her portrayal of Isabelle clued us into her intelligence and loneliness and I liked that. If she relied a little too much on quavery to give us Grete -- who might possibly be a witch -- I was wrapped up enough in the story and Almasy's humorous narration that I could accept this. Over all, it's a brief, fun listen.

I may not have been giving this story my full attention, but I didn't really understand the whole hiding-away-from-the-witch-in-camps aspect of the novel. Surely someone in the past 50 years had realized that she hadn't taken a bite of one child in all that time, or conversely, what was to stop Grete from pursuing the children to their camps? Those are just quibbles, really.

Falling In by Frances O'Roark Dowell
Narrated by Jessica Almasy
Recorded Books, 2010. 5:00 (unabridged)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

I'm not listening, so I may as well talk

My listening is sluggish lately (The Witch of Blackbird Pond is dragging just a bit, although it's actually my fault since I can't seem to drag myself out of bed in the morning to go for a listening walk), but I want to give a monthly shoutout to the women who promote AudioSynced: this month hosted at Stacked.

I didn't attend ALA this year, and so missed the Odyssey Award ceremony, but one of my committee colleagues sent me this photo of our fabulous narrators (from left): Katherine Kellgren, Barbara Rosenblat, and Dion Graham. And Mary Burkey at Audiobooker gives a nice recap of the ceremony itself.

One last thing, AudioSynced turned me on to another exclusively audiobook blog: Audiobook DJ. I popped it right onto my Bloglines ... 'cause, you know, I need more books to listen to!

Wait, another last thing! The Audiobook DJ makes a request about providing bibliographic info for the books I review and I shall start doing that. To make a start here, congratulations to the publishers of the four Odyssey titles: Live Oak Media, Listen and Live Audio, and Brilliance Audio. Without their support, things like the Odyssey Award and Amazing Audiobooks would just not be possible.