Thursday, February 20, 2014

Night, night

Since I read a lot of mystery fiction, I feel inured to most forms of violent death (let me emphasize -- in fiction; no one I've known has died from violence). Descriptions of wounds and rotting flesh don't really make me squeamish; the point of mysteries is not the victim but the solution, so I can mostly gloss over the details of the initial crime. But Mark Billingham's Sleepyhead (or is it Sleepy Head?) gave me big-time creeps. Because the victim isn't exactly dead ... she's worse than dead. She's locked in.

It wasn't until Alison Willets ended up not dead in the ICU that Detective Inspector Tom Thorne realized that she -- and the three young women who had previously died of mysterious strokes -- was a victim of a crime, of a killer who actually doesn't want to be a killer. Champagne Charlie incapacitates his randomly chosen victims with drugged Champagne, then he places enough pressure on their neck arteries to induce a debilitating stroke, resulting in a waking coma or locked-in syndrome. The brain works, but the body doesn't. Alison was Charlie's first success, and oh is he proud.

Thorne, a typical fictional "maverick" policeman -- prefers to work alone, operates on the edges of legal procedure, listens to "authentic" music that identifies him as a man of independent intelligence, and despite physical flaws (his subordinates refer to him as the Weeble behind his back) and middle age has no difficulty getting women to sleep with him -- believes he has pegged the murderer as Dr. Jeremy Bishop, the anesthetist who cared for Alison when she was first admitted. But even though the killer demonstrates some perverse connection to Thorne, he is careful to leave no evidence, and only Thorne is convinced that it's Bishop. And the last time Thorne trusted his instincts, things went terribly wrong.

The novel switches between three perspectives: Thorne, the killer (both from the third-person), and Alison.  The killer continually drops hints about his activities and motivations, without giving the game fully away. Alison -- full of wit and sarcasm -- struggles with the knowledge of her condition and strains to communicate with eye blinks and an alphabet board. Thorne's sections move the story along while providing insights into his troubled past and present loneliness.

Aside from the deeply disturbing condition of Alison Willets, which just gave me the willies, I found Sleepyhead fairly ordinary detective fiction. Few surprises, fairly standard characters, a modicum of suspense, and a perpetrator that I sussed out really, really early (I'm not usually this clever). I've got to say that when Thorne cued up the Johnny Cash in his car stereo, there was some serious eye-rolling on my part. Thorne's chase to stop the last murder is a nailbiter, although the scene he comes upon was like a bad opera -- with a whole lot of singing (to extend the metaphor) from the killer before the denouement.

I haven't heard Simon Prebble narrate very many books, so I look for opportunities to remedy that. When I saw he was the narrator of this book -- offered via the Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer program -- I requested it. Prebble is such a fine, consistent reader -- infusing the narrative with honest emotion, authentic voices and brilliant pacing. He alters his reading speed along with the timbre and volume of his speech to build suspense, create characters and always move the story forward with excitement and interest. Sleepyhead is no exception.

Prebble changes his delivery with each narrative perspective -- it's clear when we move from one to another.  He voices the characters distinctively but without a lot of drama, which makes everyone sound natural. When he's reading Alison's sections, he moves into a higher register without being femmy and her underlying fear and hovering tragedy are clear in Prebble's voice.

I wish the producer had inserted just a wee bit more silence when the perspectives changed, though. The switches -- although clear in Prebble's narration -- gave this listener a bit of whiplash as my brain tried to catch up with each change. A short pause would have helped to prepare me, serving the same purpose as that bit of white space does in print.

At the end of the novel, Alison makes the decision that I think I would make were I in her shoes, and I'm glad that Billingham chose that fate for her. In his afterword (ooh! so happy the afterword was included!), originally published in 2001, Billingham makes a dig at English politicians who, "while they happily purchase private healthcare, consistently refuse to fund the NHS [National Health Service] adequately in the hope that it will die a nice quiet death." Sounds a little like our no-nothing Congress, except that they are going about their hoped-for execution of the Affordable Care Act with a great deal of noise.

HighBridge Audio provided me a copy of Sleepyhead. I thank them for the opportunity to listen.

[The illustration of the physics principles by which a Weeble operates was created by KDS444 and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham
Narrated by Simon Prebble
HighBridge Audio, 2013. 10:32

Monday, February 10, 2014

To be regarded

Quite possibly, it was Jane Eyre who turned me into an English major, and -- from a great distance -- a librarian. I can remember -- clear as a bell -- my revelation, upon reading Jane sometime in high school, that Jane was the origin story for all those trashy "governess" romances (I'm talking to you, Victoria Holt) that I inhaled wholesale at an earlier age. And Charlotte Brontë's version was so much better! (Curiously, as I was listening to this latest audiobook, a friend of mine reported that she is deep into a winter study of the book, its cousins and its many, many film interpretations. My library owns seven different versions ... I'm pretty sure I've seen them all!)

So, like The Séance from two weeks ago, Margot Livesey's The Flight of Gemma Hardy is meant for me. Livesey moves the novel's time period forward about 100 years to the late 1950s-early 1960s, relocates the memorable Yorkshire landscape to Scotland, the Orkney Islands and Iceland, and [sorry fans] does away with the madwoman in the attic. But otherwise, this is Jane Eyre to the life.

We first meet Gemma Hardy, age 10, coping with the recent death of her beloved uncle (who took her in when she was orphaned at three) and her resulting "demotion" in his family -- from cousin and niece to barely tolerated denizen of a cold attic room. Gemma's father was Icelandic and she was christened with an Icelandic name, but her history is a blank. Her nasty aunt soon packs her off to Claypoole, a boarding school where Gemma will be one of the "working" girls, paying for her education by helping with the meals and the cleaning. Of course, she and the other working girls are really slave labor with a snippet of education tossed in, but Gemma forms one close friendship with Miriam, a doomed asthmatic. Another of her many losses.

When the school closes before Gemma has a chance to taken her university entrance exams, she finds a job as an au pair at Blackbird Hall on the remote Orkney Islands, looking after the spoiled niece of Mr. Rochester ... er Mr. Hugh Sinclair, a London banker with family roots in the Orkneys. You know what happens next ...  I won't spoil the non-madwoman part, but Gemma has to do a little more fleeing and a little more finding of herself before, well, before the final clinch.

There is so much for an Eyre fanatic to love here -- the deliciousness of coming upon each familiar scene of the original and seeing how Livesey has updated the story. For example, Gemma and Mr. Sinclair meet on a dark night as he is changing the tire on his car. Gemma finds shelter with two lesbians after running from her broken engagement. The author also brings the wild settings of rural Scotland, the Orkneys and Iceland to vivid life. The characters are numerous, but all are fully realized -- and not a one resorts to a type (well, maybe the femme fatale that Sinclair brings with him to the Hall), and occasionally act differently (but honestly) from their 19th century counterparts. Although I've got to say that while Gemma is a worthy successor to Jane, Mr. Sinclair pales next to Mr. Rochester.

The one flaw for me was Gemma's reaction to the revelation of Mr. Sinclair's wrongdoing in the hours before her wedding. While the announcement comes honestly (it doesn't spring from nowhere), Gemma's horror seems excessive. As I write this, I may be reconsidering ... Her uprightness and occasional self-righteousness have been amply demonstrated, while (on the other hand) her youth and innocence seem to belie her understanding of the revelation. Hmm ... perhaps I'm too much on Team Eyre/Rochester to accept this as a reason for Gemma's flight. But Gemma has to leave, her flight is the whole point of the novel.

I understand that the trajectory of this novel is also influenced by Livesey's own childhood and adolescence. (Now, where did I read this?) From her website: "The Flight of Gemma Hardy is, in my mind, neither my autobiography nor a retelling of Jane Eyre. Rather I am writing back to Charlotte Brontë, recasting Jane's journey to fit my own courageous heroine and the possibilities of her time and place. And, like Brontë I am, of course, stealing from my own life." From the New York Times: "When Margot Livesey was nine years old, growing up motherless and lonely in Scotland, a book on her father's shelf caught her eye: Jane Eyre."

The marvelous Davina Porter (listen to her here talk about her work) narrates the book. She is just about perfect, reading Gemma's narrative in a tinged-with-Scottish English accent, while Gemma's dialogue has a much thicker burr (as if the years in London as Mrs. Sinclair had smoothed it out). Gemma's sense of fair play and moral rightness are clear in Porter's insistent delivery. The novel's other characters are all fully voiced, with everyone -- regardless of age, gender or origin -- sounding natural and authentic, even the Icelandic relatives Gemma unearths. Porter paces the lengthy novel so well, with moments of tension, romance, and loving delivery of the bountiful descriptions of the settings.

As often happens, reading one book leads to contemplation of another -- in this case, the original. Audio offerings at my library are beyond pitiful: one version on CD (no downloadable) read by a narrator I didn't care for the one time I listened to her. Audible has a version read by Juliet Stevenson, which would likely be marvelous ... marvelous enough to pay?

Margot Livesey also winds me about to the actor Roger Livesey ... are they related? Or is it just a really common Scottish name (or is it Welsh)? Whatever ... one of my very favorite romantic movies starred Roger Livesey and took place in Scotland: I Know Where I'm Going! I try to watch this every year or so.

[Two scenes from Gemma's travels.  Gemma and Mr. Sinclair visit the 3,000-year-old ruins of Skara Brae on the Orkney's Bay of Skaill. This photograph of the settlement was taken by Antony Slegg as part of the Geograph Project and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

[A landscape in Iceland, taken by Manfred Morgner, also from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
Narrated by Davina Porter
AudioGO, 2012. 14:53

Sunday, February 9, 2014


It's our third day of snowed-in here in the beautiful (and usually not snowy) Pacific Northwest. I haven't been at work for three days, but I'm not at the crazy state yet ... since I ventured out both Friday and Saturday. But today we are at the freezing-rain part and it's a good one to stay in and catch up on things like this blog!

Three posts ago, I shared my intention to return to the world of reading for youth by making my way through all the 2014 Youth Media Awards. I barely wasted a moment in downloading my first audiobook, Clare Vanderpool's Navigating Early (Printz Honor). This committee took its charge to award books for ages 12 to 18 very seriously, because this one is definitely on the 12 end.

Like Vanderpool's 2011 Newbery Award-winning first novel, Navigating Early is historical fiction. World War II has just concluded, but Jack Baker couldn't do what his naval officer father instructed him to do in his absence: Look after his mother. Just before the war ended, Jack's mother dies of a cerebral aneurysm. Because Jack's dad is stationed far way from their home in Kansas, he's enrolled his son in the Morton Hill Academy for Boys in rural Maine. Although Jack tries to fit in by learning how to row crew and run the steeplechase route made famous by Morton Hill's most illustrious alumnus -- the Fish -- he's as much of an outsider as "that strangest of boys," Early Auden. Early rarely attends class, listens to particular music on particular days (Billie Holiday when it's raining), organizes his jelly beans by color, and believes in the epic journey of a boy named Pi.

A math teacher at Morton Hill has shared with his students evidence that the numeral pi is nearing its end (as it appears to be running out of ones); this terrifies Early who wants to contact Pi to warn him.  On a school break when Jack finds himself at loose ends, Early convinces Jack to come with him on the quest into the Maine woods to find Pi.

As the boys became friends, Early told Jack the epic of Pi and the boys' quest soon shows an eerie resemblance to it. It also looks a lot like the Odyssey (which I have never read). On this odyssey, of course, both boys are seeking more than Pi. To say more would be to spoil it.

I'm of two minds about this book. I was both annoyed and enchanted by the boys' journey -- really, the coincidences were ridiculous, but the way that Vanderpool brought the "reality" of the quest in line with Early's fantastical relating of Pi's story was deeply entertaining. There are moments of genuine terror and of profound poignancy, and for a young reader the ending can't be anything but deeply satisfying. The Maine woods (and its characters) are a vivid character. However, the literary trope of the nothing-but-the-truth-telling Early, clearly (to our 21st century eyes) on the autism spectrum, became tiresome. And the whole thing -- leading up to the quest and on the quest -- felt long.

A new-to-me narrator, Robbie Daymond, reads most of the novel, which is related by Jack. He has a nicely youthful, occasionally breaking husky voice that is pretty perfect for this story. He infuses his voice with Jack's sorrow from which he slowly emerges over the course of the novel. Daymond paces the novel beautifully, lingering over the descriptions of the wonders Jack and Early encounter, while never losing the journey's tension. When he reads Early's dialogue, Daymond raises his voice in volume and lowers the affect as instructed in the text. As Jack reacts to Early's obtuseness, his frustration is clear in Daymond's delivery.

[I now realize that while I was listening to this novel and it was featured on the right side banner I misspelled Mr. Daymond's last name. Argh! Preserved forever on the internet! My humblest apologies to the narrator.]

Mark Bramhall reads the Pi epic in a very stentorian, bard-ic manner. It is actually shocking when he first begins speaking as it is so different from Daymond. Bramhall's resonance and deliberate pace lends majesty to the adventures, but it feels all wrong to me. It's Early who is telling the tale, after all, and while his loud monotone would no doubt have been difficult to listen to, I would have preferred a more youthful reading here. Not necessarily Daymond, but not the obviously adult Bramhall.

The book's after matter, an epilogue and an author's note, is read by Cassandra Campbell in a straightforward, appropriate style. I confess, this mystifies me as well, as Daymond would have sufficed in this role. I'm pondering multiple narrators, and it occurs to me that I've had less and less to complain about lately as publishers are meeting the needs of each book with the appropriate number of narrators, but three seems excessive here.

To end on a positive note, there is a musical squib, lovely to listen to and evocative of a magical journey, that underlies the intro and outgo of this audiobook.

As for pi, I just don't get it (literally). What is important about the fact that a circle is a little more than three times its width around? Why do I care that it is irrational? What does that even mean? What is the point of writing it out to 100,000 digits much less a million? What is with the Greek letter? Why pi?

[Jack and Early do encounter a one-eyed man on their odyssey, as did Odysseus on his. This painting of Polyphemus is by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein and it hangs in the Landesmuseum Oldenburg.

[Anonymous uploaded this photo of the sculpture Pi Monumentum to Wikimedia Commons. The sculpture was possibly a temporary installation on the Harbor Steps in Seattle, Washington in 2008.]

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool
Narrated by Robbie Daymond with Mark Bramhall and Cassandra Campbell
Listening Library, 2013. 7:20

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Madame justice

I've been thinking about why memoir/autobiography is not of much interest to me as a reader. Unlike others, Sonia Sotomayor's memoir, My Beloved World, didn't send me in any way. It was in my ears this month because it is the 2014 selection for my library's community reads program, Everybody Reads, and is another in a long line of "inspirational/aspirational" books that I've slogged through as a result. See herehere and here. [The latter book breaks this mold but it was because there was a special grant.]

My Beloved World -- which concludes with Sotomayor's first judicial appointment to the U.S. District Court and not with her ascension to the Supreme Court -- tells a tried-and-true American story: Humble origins (immigrant [debatable depending on whether you believe Puerto Ricans are immigrants] parents, fatherless at eight, Catholic upbringing in the "projects"), self-made success (scholarships and academic achievement at Princeton University and Yale Law School), hard work and creativity (New York District Attorney, private practice), and dream/ambition realized. Sotomayor relates how each experience led to the next and how that careful construction influenced (and continues to influence) her personal and professional beliefs. Her rambunctious family and her extended family of friends and colleagues are lovingly portrayed. Although many are simply names that passed through my ears, a few were memorable and well-worth knowing ... notably her feisty grandmother (who hospital-bed final smoke was hilarious and touching) and her strong-willed mother.

But, in truth, I was bored. Sotomayor's writing isn't very complex and much of what I was hearing felt like a list of accomplishments (humbly presented, of course). I had the same problem when I listened to the Miles Davis autobiography. When she veers into the personal, it's an awkward chapter; but where she tells of her parents' romance I was fascinated. I finally realized that intellectually I care about her story (and I'm very pleased that she is where she is -- except for this!), but ultimately ... I don't know her, I don't really care about the minutia of her life story. One could argue that I don't know fictional characters, so why should I care about their stories ... but somehow I can sense the distinction. Perhaps the memoirist's obligation to not "brag" is something that a fictional person doesn't have to pretend to do. And that humility occasionally feels false, as it occasionally did here.

The actress Rita Moreno narrates most of the book. While I found her too soft-spoken, her rusty voice adds interest to the ordinary writing, infusing the very few moments of suspense/surprise with tension and authority. She keeps the narrative professional, though; I never felt that Moreno was impersonating Sotomayor. The little bits of Spanish are ably presented, not surprising as Moreno shares the author's Puerto Rican roots.

Sotomayor reads her own forward and prologue. She has a similar rusty sound to her voice, with the added piquancy of a distinctive Bronx accent. Her reading is very precise, and although heartfelt, it's as straightforward as her writing. I thank her for not insisting on reading the whole thing.

A little Internet searching tells me that the Justice dictated her memoir and those transcripts were polished by a poet, Zara Houshmand, which goes a long way in explaining the fairly pedestrian prose that resulted. Very few of us speak in swathes of interesting language, and one wonders if the poet had to rein in her innate tendency to metaphor-ize to sustain Sotomayor's voice.

[This photo of Sotomayor with her parents Celina and Juli (Juan Luis) is in her memoir. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
Narrated by the author and Rita Moreno
Random House Audio, 2013.  12:27