Sunday, September 22, 2013

Dangerous men

The sands of historical fiction now take us back into the 20th century, but in a place so steeped in ancient history as to be barely thought of as modern: Egypt, 1921 Egypt to be precise. Where events that took place are still reverberating nearly 100 years later. In Dreamers of the Day, Mary Doria Russell plops her heroine, a 40-ish spinster named Agnes Shanklin, amidst the intrigues of the 1921 Cairo Conference -- a post-World-War-I meeting of selected rulers from the Middle East with the British powerbrokers Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence. The national boundaries drawn at that conference, as filtered through Russell's eyes, laid a clear path to our misadventures in Iraq 80 years later, and even to the human disaster currently ongoing in Syria.

But unlike the book that preceded this one, this novel never forgets that it's about Agnes Shanklin. Agnes is the plain (she's a bit cross-eyed), eldest daughter of a withholding and domineering mother. She is leading a sheltered life as a schoolteacher in Cleveland, Ohio when her entire family is killed by the influenza pandemic that swept the world shortly after World War I. Finding herself an heiress (but still hearing the voice of her disapproving mother in her head), she decides to travel to Egypt and Palestine -- where her beloved younger sister spent a few years as a Christian missionary, and where her sister met T.E. Lawrence. When Agnes, along with her beloved dachshund Rosie, arrives in Cairo, she meets Lawrence almost immediately and is taken up (in a condescending way) by the other Englishmen and women there for the Conference. She also meets a handsome German Jew, Karl Weilbacher, to whom she (and Rosie) is almost instantly attracted. Even though Lawrence quietly cautions her about Weilbacher, Agnes continues to welcome his suave advances.

While I enjoyed this book, it really has a schizophrenic feel. Once it's clear that Karl is not a part of the Cairo Conference, Agnes' narration divides into two parts: One where she dines and converses and sees tourist sites with the English and the other where Karl provides commentary on the state of the world outside of the British myopia and shows Agnes the "real" Egypt. The two strands never meet again. And mostly because Agnes' burgeoning romance with Karl is quite frankly a little more interesting than Middle East politics, the latter occasionally gets in the way of the listener who wants to resume the love story.

In addition, Russell takes the historical novelist's task of including what- happened -afterwards to all the real people in the story (as well as the fictional ones) to an interesting place. One that provided the satisfaction that such wrapping up provides, but was also kind of weird. Slight spoiler: We learn fairly early on that Agnes is speaking from the grave, but just where that grave is is pretty original.

Ann Marie Lee narrates the novel. She's awfully good with Agnes' flat Midwestern vowels (ah pronounced more like eh), although I found her production of them somewhat inconsistent. There's a fair number of non-American accents that populate this novel (English, German, Egyptian) which Lee carries off professionally. However, I found the male characters to be pretty much all the same, as their dialogue is delivered in a gravelly low register overlaid with a quiet intensity.  Still she reads the descriptive narrative with variation and appropriate emotion, that of a no-nonsense sensible Ohioan whose world has been knocked off its axis.  

My post title is continuation of a quote from Lawrence's autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, that Russell took as her title: "... the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible."

[Russell includes this photograph in her novel (p. 156) where she fictitiously places Agnes third from the left.  The copyright page of the book says that this photo lives in the Gertrude Bell Archive from Newcastle University, but I could not find it there. I found it instead at the very informative Clio History site about T.E. Lawrence, linked above. Churchill, Gertrude Bell and Lawrence are to the immediate right of the standing Arab (below the Sphinx's chin).]

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell
Narrated by Ann Marie Lee
Books on Tape, 2008.  11:28

Friday, September 20, 2013

Dominus et deus

Continuing in our travels across the annals of time and the sweep of history, let's leave the 19th century and head back a millennia or two to the first century. Jesus Christ has been born and crucified, but the Roman Empire lingers on. We're past Julius Caesar and the Claudians (discussed briefly here) and have moved on to the Flavians. The author Lindsey Davis, who has chronicled the anachronistic adventures of a wise-cracking P.I. named Marcus Didius Falco who operated during the Emperor Vespasian's era, has moved on -- in a stand-alone historical romance -- to the troubled reign of his son, Domitian, in Master and God.

Gaius Vinius Clodianus is a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress reluctantly mustered into the Emperor's Praetorian Guard (his personal bodyguards) under the maxim of no good deed goes unpunished. Flavia Lucilla is the daughter of a freedwoman with a talent for hairstyling and cosmetics who has Domitian's wife as a client. They are primed to watch a once-promising leader spiral into madness, a man who insists on being addressed as not only emperor, but god: Dominus et Deus. Through circumstance, they end up sharing an apartment, with very definite boundaries laid where each is welcomed. And -- although it does not come easily -- they are destined for each other. If they can survive the political intrigues and romantic missteps they encounter over the 15 years of Domitian's rule, it just might end happily.

Considering my appreciation and enjoyment of historical fiction, there is simply too much history here. Master and God is laden with details from Davis' research, some of which is interesting, but for me, it mostly got in the way of the engaging ill-starred romance between Flavia and Gaius. They finally became a couple at Disc 10, and my first thought was what was left to happen in the last three discs? Oh, yes ... we have to get all the way through Domitian's era. What follows is an excruciatingly detailed description of the plot to assassinate the Emperor, full of confusing names and meeting places and plots and counterplots. There was also a hugely obvious foreshadowing of the fate of the couple that pretty much destroyed all the remaining tension.

The late Robin Sachs narrates the audiobook (it must have been close to his last work).  He has a soothing, yet rusty, voice that is very pleasant to listen to. It was Sachs as narrator that drew me to this audiobook, as I listened to him earlier this year and wished to try him again. He reads fairly deliberately here, but I enjoyed his characterization of the flawed yet appealing Gaius.  Sachs captures that contradiction of good-man/bad-decisions in his reading. He reads women in a natural way that brings Flavia to vivid life as well.

On Davis' website, she talks about the English version of this audiobook which has two readers who read the dialogue of Gaius and Flavia when they are having a tête-à-tête, and then take on the whole narrative depending on whose perspective the part of the story is from. Davis herself adapted her book (but did not abridge it) for this approach. The purist in me asks why do only the main characters have this kind of dialogue, but then again, it might be kind of interesting to listen to (not interesting enough to work through this book for the second time, though).

One of the joys/perils of working in a library is the continual temptation of the products available to borrow. I came home with three more audiobooks (to add to the three already waiting for me at home) this weekend. And yes, two of them are historical fiction -- the trend is evidently to continue.

[Domitia Longina's fancy hairdo may well have been created by Flavia. This bust lives in the Musée de Louvre and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Master and God by Lindsey Davis
Narrated by Robin Sachs
AudioGO, 2012.  15:44

Patience is rewarded

I appear to be in the grip of historical fiction in a lot of my reading this year. I emerged from more than a decade of largely reading stuff written for children and teens occasionally interspersed with adult material and I am reverting to an old favorite genre of mine: painless history lessons delivered via fiction. Fifteen years ago, Iain Pears (his last name was pronounced in the audiobook credits as we Americans would pronounce Pearce) wrote what I remember as a terrific piece of historical fiction, The Instance of the Fingerpost, where -- in the interests of self-education -- I learned a lot about Oxford University and the part it played in England's Interregnum. In my continuing attempts to remain caught up here, I am looking for the big books and Stone's Fall (24 hours!) fit the bill when I needed something new for the ears. (And incidentally, I did catch up while listening to this one ... but now I'm behind again.)

Pears' novels are classically styled as the narrative of a single event from many viewpoints. I love this approach, mostly because I like the comfort of knowing that everything is a clue to what comes after. In Stone's Fall, the conceit is what we know about wealthy businessman John Stone at his suspicious death in 1909 will all make sense when he (Stone) finally tells us what happened 40 years earlier. But first we have to meet a callow reporter -- Matthew Braddock -- hired by Stone's exotic widow, Elizabeth, to find a hitherto unknown child alluded to in Stone's will. The novel moves backward to 1890, where an equally self-centered young man, Henry Cort, embarks on a career of banking and espionage that reveals a little more about Stone and his wife. And finally, we "begin" in Venice in 1867 where Stone, a young man himself, makes some decisions with those delicious repercussions 40 years on.  All I'm saying is think about that child as Anton Chekhov's gun.

Aside from the payoff, the pleasure in this book is its attention to period detail (and there is a lot of it) about 19th century banking and arms production and journalism and espionage (and I concur that this may make a lot of people sigh and move on), its precise descriptions of time and place (Paris in the fin de siecle and most vividly the fetid backwater that was Venice in the years just following Italian unification), and its vast and entertaining cast of characters. There are few things more satisfying in fiction to greet a new character -- whose name resonates from earlier in one's reading and await the revelation of why they've shown up.

The three sections are all in first person; each is read by a different narrator.  John Lee takes the role of Matthew Braddock, Roy Dotrice reads Henry Cort and Simon Vance becomes John Stone.  Each brings his personal style to the narration.  Lee has that precise diction and slight lilt that seem a natural for the aspiring-to-wealth-and-power Braddock. Dotrice (the only one of the three whom I have never heard before) is voicing a long (long) letter written when his character is in his 80s relating events of 50 years earlier and brings an old man's raspiness and breathlessness to the narration. I wasn't entirely crazy about this, but it works. Vance's cool distance and warm emotions bring out the contradictions in ambitious John Stone (contradictions we know about but that the character is not yet aware of). Each man is a master of international accents and phrasing, I particularly enjoyed Lee's interpretation of an accent that Pears describes as Manchester-Italian.

This novel is catalogued Mystery at my library (and others), but I don't really see it as a mystery. Yes, there's a puzzle to be solved, but it's not obviously a crime and doesn't really involve a character getting to the bottom of something. The reader is trying to get to the bottom of it though, so I guess I'm not as convinced as I thought I was. (Here's what the NoveList Plus database says about capital-M mysteries: "Mysteries are puzzles. This puzzle involves a crime, usually murder, and the resulting body. An investigator, whether professional or amateur, solves the question 'who-dun-it,' and the culprit is brought to justice. The Mystery tracks this investigation, with its concomitant exploration of the victim's the murderer's, and the detective's lives.")

For part of the time I was listening to this, I eye-read an installment in Pears' conventional mystery series, where art thefts and forgeries are conventionally solved by two sprightly contemporary art historians. They couldn't be more different in tone and accomplishment. I wonder if working on these is the occasional palate cleanser for when he needs a break from his major works. Still, I can see the glimmers of Pears' descriptive prose and sparkling dialogue in these novel-ettes.

[The view of Venice painted in the 19th century is by an unknown artist and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Stone's Fall by Iain Pears
Narrated by Roy Dotrice, John Lee and Simon Vance
Books on Tape, 2009.  24:11

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Highwayman

I know that author L.A. Meyer is influenced by the folk songs (and other non-copyrighted music) that play such a prominent role in his stories of Bloody Jack. He claims that long days of listening to his community radio station led to the creation of Jacky Faber.  But in the latest of Jacky's journeys -- The Mark of the Golden Dragon: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Jewel of the East, Vexation of the West, and Pearl of the South China Sea -- it appears that Meyer's strongest influence was the early 20th century poem by Alfred Noyes, "The Highwayman."

Having successfully escaped transportation and indentured servitude in Australia in her last escapade, Jacky finds herself captain of a small fleet of ships (in addition to her own beloved Lorelei Lee, the other ships have two rivals for her affection at their helms -- fiancé Jaimy Fletcher and rakish Joseph Jared) making its way back to England. Simple, happy endings for our heroine are simply not possible: A typhoon sweeps Jacky overboard, leaving Jaimy and her many other friends believing her dead. But, in her ninth novel Jacky has now equaled (and probably surpassed) the number of lives accorded to a cat and she washes up onto a "deserted" island accompanied by Ravi, the young Indian boy she rescued in the last book. Have no fear, Jacky moves on to Life No. 11 (she also survives a tsunami in this book), reunites with the Lorelei Lee and sails for England.

In England, Jacky discovers that Jaimy's grief has caused insanity. Seeking revenge on two of Jacky's tormentors, Flashby and Blifil, Jaimy has turned to highway robbery ... and eventually, murder. Jacky is determined to find him, but "Bess the landlord's daughter" stands in the way.

Jacky is also involved in a convoluted plot to bring treasures from the East to the British Museum hopeful of a pardon for her past crimes. To accomplish this, she masquerades as a mysterious Asian seductress in partnership with another old flame Richard Allen.

Confession time: It might be time to take a break from Jacky. While I admire Meyer for not pandering to modern sensibilities at the same time my modern sensibilities were squirming at the whole fetishizing of Asian women as geisha, china doll, etc. I also was uncomfortable at Jacky's regular (yet inexperienced?) use of her sexual attractiveness to get what she wanted, without -- putting it baldly -- putting out. (I hope) I'm not a prude, but these books are written for teenage girls and some of Jacky's antics seem a little inappropriate.

I believe there are few superlatives left in my vocabulary to define Katherine Kellgren's ongoing immersion into Jacky's character. Suffice it to say that she's up to her usual standard of lively characterization, emotional range, loads of accents (some more disturbing than others ... see above about Asian stereotyping), and singing. Always the singing. It's so very wonderful that L.A. Meyer's researches the obscure and not-so obscure songs of the late 18th and early 19th century and gives them to Jacky to sing. At the very end of this novel, Jacky provides a snippet of an old favorite of mine: "Over the Hills and Far Away." (For a sung version, there's an enjoyable Sean Bean flashback here, but I think this is a more permissions-appropriate version.)

I used the Internet to see how many Jacky books are out there waiting for me to read, and I see that number 11 is about to be published. I took advantage of the opportunity to sneak a peek, and read the first chapter, 'cause I'm wondering if I should maybe eye-read an installment. And there it was -- page 4 -- the first song. I can't eye-read these, they will lose so much without the singing.  Guess I'll keep listening (although I think I will take that break).

Fall is always my favorite season -- new beginnings in the fresh, crisp air (who cares that winter is coming!). I have caught up with my blogging (an infrequent occurrence this year). The book in my ears is a 24-hour whopper and I'm only about 2/3 through! I can kick back for some guilt-free listening.

[This "old print" of "The Highwayman" was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Mark of the Golden Dragon: Being a Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Jewel of the East, Vexation of the West, and Pearl of the South China Sea (Bloody Jack, Book 9) by L.A. Meyer
Narrated by Katherine Kellgren
Listen and Live Audio, 2011. 10:20

Sunday, September 1, 2013

I expect foreigners to speak English

My previous post shows how TV can influence my reading choices, but it's beginning to look like a bad habit because this audiobook choice was also idiot-box inspired. My few fans know that I am a long-time devotee of Masterpiece Theatre, and that -- if the opportunity arises -- I like to read a book before seeing a movie/TV based on that book.  The Lady Vanishes intrigued me when I learned it was on the Masterpiece schedule, as I'd seen the Alfred Hitchcock movie years ago, but didn't realize it was based on a novel. Further exploration revealed that my library doesn't even own a copy of the book (is it even in print?), but had one lone copy of the audiobook. It was only after I finished listening and was looking for a review that I realized that Ethel Lina White's novel is not even called The Lady Vanishes, but The Wheel Spins.

Wealthy, unattached Iris Carr is vacationing with some of her friends in an unnamed country in the Balkans. She and her friends exhibit rowdy bad manners and a strong sense of what we now call entitlement that has not endeared them to Iris' fellow Englishmen and women at the resort where they are all staying. Unfortunately, she sees quite a few of these travelers as she waits for the train to Trieste that will take her home. Iris faints at the station, but manages to get on the train feeling a little odd and ill. She is comforted by another Englishwoman, a Miss Winifred Froy, who chatters on about her former position as governess to a highly placed Balkan nobleman and plies Iris with tea.  However, when Iris awakes from a refreshing nap, Miss Froy is nowhere to be found and no one on the train claims to have seen her.

For some reason, Iris -- whose character has not led us to believe that she gives a rap about anyone but herself -- feels compelled to solve the puzzle of what happened to Miss Froy. It could be that she hates being patronized by her fellow passengers, who all provide versions of "there there, remember you had a nasty faint earlier" as they doubt her story of Miss Froy. But it wasn't enough for me. The whole thing was wafer thin, not particularly entertaining, and definitely a product of its time (1936).

Judi Dench's (just watched her final M this weekend) daughter Finty Williams narrates the novel. She brings a British flintiness to the narration, clipped and imperious, full of that English-centric belief (exemplified by a quote from Iris that I've used as my post title) that the world should revolve around them.  But Williams contributes to my general sense of ennui about this book because she reads with zero tension. And I think we're supposed to feel Iris' tension and anxiety as the "wheel spins" bringing her closer and closer to Trieste and the probable end of Miss Froy. I heard a fair number of inhales and other mouth noises in this audiobook as well.

So this was a bit of a summer trifle which now permits me to snobbily say that I've read the book first. The television film (as they say in England) adheres quite closely to the novel, but they were both pretty blah. I know that there are plenty of Masterpiece fans who use our library, so I wonder how many of the 21 people who have placed holds on "The Lady Vanishes (DVD)" in our catalog know they will be getting the Hitchcock film, since the DVD didn't go into the catalog until after the Masterpiece airing.  Those wacky cataloguers, keeping us on our toes!

[The Avramovo train station -- the highest in the Balkans (1267 meters) -- might have been where Iris waited for her train to Trieste. This photograph was taken by Felix O and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Lady Vanishes (The Wheel Spins) by Ethel Lina White
Narrated by Finty Williams
BBC Audiobooks America (now AudioGO), 2007.  6:08

As seen on TV

I had that final argument with Comcast this month, and cancelled my cable. I didn't have much cable, just enough for reception, but it actually hadn't worked at all for a couple months (because I couldn't distinguish between all the junk mail Comcast sent me and something telling me that I needed to get a box. [And can I just say, didn't I get a new TV in the early 00s because I needed to adapt to a digital world? I still don't understand why I hadto get that box.]) Anyway, the box ceased working shortly after installation, Comcast sent me a higher bill and I just pulled the plug. I can do this, of course, because I've figured out how to watch some TV shows on my computer and my library will pretty much order whatever DVDs of cable-rific TV programming it can get hold of.  I am not a complete Luddite!  I am contributing to the end of broadcast TV!!

Yes, amazingly enough, this does relate to the book I listened to.  Even though I've never had super-cable, I do keep track of what's worth watching on those premium channels, and this summer I read about Jack Irish. Since I knew it would be awhile before the DVD came my way, I thought ... why not read one?  A perusal of the catalog revealed that we owned an audiobook, which I quickly learned was not Jack Irish, but what the heck -- try out the author in a standalone. (We do own an audio of Jack Irish, but -- you guessed it -- not the first one!)  And that is the too-long version of how I ended up with Peter Temple's The Broken Shore in my ears.

Detective Joe Cashin is taking a kind of leave of absence from his homicide work in Melbourne as he recovers from a botched investigation that left a young colleague dead and him seriously injured. He's policing Port Munro, the small town on the South Australia coast where he grew up, which gives him plenty of time to fix up his family's falling-down house and take long walks with his beloved Standard poodles. (Temple's descriptions of Cashin's canine companions clearly identify him as a dog lover.) Even when a prominent citizen is attacked in his home and severely beaten, Cashin can work on the case without reliving what happened to him in Melbourne. But when the victim dies and three young Aborigine boys are accused of the crime and soon after end up dead in a police raid, Cashin knows he has to dig a little deeper to get to the bottom of the assault. What he uncovers with his big-city police skills will shake him and his small town to its core.

This novel was far more gruesome than I usually like to read, but I thought it was an amazing piece of detective fiction. Temple sets his scenes beautifully with descriptions of the Australian coast and countryside that make them easy to picture but also infuse them with a sense of menace that is deeply disturbing. There are all these wonderful character studies of cops, villains, townspeople that vividly populate the story. The puzzle is compelling as well, as hints accumulate neatly and pay off in a satisfying way.  I'm not the only one who thinks so, as Temple has been awarded the Ned Kelly Award for Crime Fiction several times, including for The Broken Shore.

There are a lot of Aussie- isms in this book, which most readers will under- stand from context. But if not, the US audiobook publisher has thoughtfully provided a glossary, which I did find helpful for the occasional really obscure reference.

The audiobook was originally produced in Australia, so its narrator, Peter Hosking, comes with an authentic accent. And an authentic Aussie accent means I really have to pay attention as the rhythms are unfamiliar to my ears and speakers talk fairly quickly. My attention paid off though in enjoying a fine performance from Hosking. He reads at a fairly steady pace, but with a lot of emotion from the weary and anxious Cashin's perspective. His characters are easily distinguishable and I'm sure he offers a racial distinction between Cashin and the Aborigine policeman with whom he eventually partners. What I heard here was the Aborigine's deep, raspy voice as mentioned in the text. His women sound natural, but I thought he went over the top a bit with the psychopathic murderer. That's a quibble, though; Hosking is a narrator I'd listen to again.

And Temple is an author I'll read again. But maybe not the Jack Irish books, since those will probably be available to me in a more accessible form within a couple of months. Sometimes it just easier to watch TV.

[The Victorian coast of southern Australia, in a photograph taken by Alpapad and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Broken Shore by Peter Temple
Narrated by Peter Hosking
Blackstone Audio, 2007. 9:56