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Broken Homes – Ben Aaronovitch, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith

So let’s see. I need to post a review about something I liked. *scans list of recent reads* Nope… nope… no, not that either… Ah.

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There are some writers who feel they need to inject a little geekery into their books, trying to claim geek cred they haven’t really earned; I’ve seen more sadly misused references to LotR and Star Trek and so on than I care to think about, the sorts of things that would make someone as unfamiliar with the referent as the writer nod knowingly, but which make a geek like me long to send the writer brownies dusted with iocaine powder.

But Ben Aaronovitch is the legitimate and true owner of a TARDIS-load of honest-to-Eru geek cred, so when Peter Grant remarks to Toby the dog that “We’re living in Isengard”, or remarks on something’s similarity to modern Gallifreyan (“They looked disturbingly like the payload zones of a demon trap and even more disturbingly like modern Gallifreyan”), it’s just a happy happy thing of beauty.

Broken Homes is another excellent installment in an excellent series. The hunt continues for the so-wonderfully-named Little Alligators; another “Falcon-related” death comes the way of the little strange-crimes unit housed in The Folly; life goes on much as usual. Until Peter and Leslie are called upon to go undercover in an apartment complex called Skygarden, long known to be a locus of probable criminal activity, and now revealed as a possible locus of magical activity.

There is, perhaps, a bit more than is actually fun of Aaronovitch/Peter’s 1234favorite hobby horse, architecture – but it is relevant. And it is acknowledged that other characters’ eyes pretty much glaze over when Peter rabbits on about it, so that’s okay then.

I confessed in a Goodreads update that Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s voice reduces me to a state of squeeing fangirl; it’s an understatement, I admit.

Though what Peter/Aaronovitch has against Dire Straits – and Queen – I don’t know. I will overlook it because Peter is otherwise kind of awesome and he is very young. And a music snob. I blame his father.

As seems to be usual, the plotline is the weak area of the book. Characterization, setting, world-building, all of that stuff is terrific, but in Broken Homes the plot has the same flaw as one or two of the other books in the series: it meanders a little. It just feels like the plot could use a bit of tightening.

But, as usual, I had enough fun with the rest (especially KH-S, of course) that I don’t care.

What I do care about is the meaning of the title. I wondered about it now and then. I mean, “The Rivers of London” is pretty obvious, and the rest make good sense as well … so, I wondered briefly here and there, what homes are broken here? Well, I found out, I did. And it made me say “No, oh no no no…” out loud. It’s bad. Not to spoil anything, but it’s really bad.

*ahem*sniffle* Anyway.

This installment moves the story forward substantially – things are happening in the hunt for the Faceless Man and the Little Crocodiles, and I think Peter might say “shit’s getting serious”. (Sorry.) It’s going to be a long, long wait until the next book.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2014 in books, fantasy

 

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The Three Musketeers (insert sad trombone noise here)

Here’s the sad trombone noise…

61HkYyXY5KL._SL300_My rating for this surprised me, and I imagine it might be a surprise to others.

 

 

One star?? A swashbuckling adventure novel beloved for a couple of centuries? Yeah, well.

I’ve tried to read this before. It had “me” written all over it: aforementioned buckling of swashes, romance and derring-do and so forth. But I never penetrated very far. There was a tone – perhaps to the particular translation I tried, perhaps to the work itself – that just put me off, exemplified by the instance of D’Artagnan selling the yellow horse after his father impressed upon him how he must never do so, and he promised faithfully that he would not. It was such a dishonorable, dishonest, ugly thing to do, in a book I had expected to be dripping with honor – and it was just the beginning.

Last year I finally went with the audiobook, on the theory that classics that have not held a huge amount of interest for me go down better read aloud. I hold the reader, John Lee, responsible for my being able to finish it with as much tolerance as I did; if I’d been just reading words on a page I think it would have ended up in the trash by page 200. I hated this. I truly, deeply hated this. I’ve seen at least a couple of movie versions; I’ve enjoyed them, somewhat, as frothy swashbucklers, of course. I always expected the book to be better, though.

One of my two Goodreads comments on the book was:
“These people are all horrible – honorless, slutty morons. And this is a classic, beloved by schoolboys for – what, over 200 years? God help us.”

3473426And that’s my biggest problem with the book. Perhaps it was supposed to be ironic, some kind of commentary on honor and courage and standards and morality through the depiction of noble swordsmen who were actually men you wouldn’t trust alone with a coin or a woman. I don’t remember ever coming across that take on it, though.

Athos, Porthos, Aramis, D’Artagnan. These are the heroes I wanted to read about. The brave and loyal soldiers, the champions of right and defenders of womanhood and of France … I have no idea where my ideas came from – the movies, perhaps? What I found as I listened to the book was that Athos was a hypocritical prig, Aramis was a hypocritical pseudo-religious, Porthos was a gluttonous gambling dandy, and D’Artagnan a cocky young jackass. They were all four drunkards, given any opportunity; they were all womanizers, cuckolding widely and wildly, dropping whatever girl they had been bedding to move on without a pause or juggling as many as possible simultaneously. And the much-vaunted all-for-one loyalty? I didn’t see it. Every single one of them was as likely to throw his buddies under the 18th century equivalent of a bus as to support them, or to leave them in assorted lurches. Then get a good laugh out of it. And the interactions between these four and the man-servants they could barely afford but NEEDED made The Comedy of Errors seem like a shining illustration of workplace harmony. It was depressing.

D’Artagnan in particular was a letdown. The whole situation of swiving the maid in the room adjacent to her mistress, and vice versa – I wanted to throttle him. A lot. For one thing – seriously? They’ve let prepubescent boys read this for centuries? Oh, that’s just awesome. So, buckling of swashes, romance and derring-do and so forth? The swashes were askew at best; the romance was not the way Anne Shirley defines it (nor me), the doing wasn’t so derring. I only made it through the whole thing because it was an audiobook with a good narrator, and because I gritted my teeth in determination to see it all the way through. It was a deep disappointment, and I hated it.

My other Goodreads comment:
“Chapter 67: Conclusion
Oh, thank God.”

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2014 in books, Classics

 

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Wuthering depths…

15997364This is one of those classics I was never able to get very far into. The first time I got the whole gist of the story was watching the Olivier-Oberon film some time back, which surprised me with how much I disliked every single soul in the story.

Last year I finally got determined to crack the shell of this thing and listen to the audiobook. Heck, I thought, I listened to one of my most-hated-books-ever, Tess of the Durbervilles, and ended up appreciating it; surely it would work with Wuthering Heights.

Or not.

Which is nothing against the narrator. Anne Flosnik was the only good thing about the experience: she was excellent.

But the book made me want to bang my head against a wall until it was over. Put it this way: there was a very high body count in this book – it was one grim death after another. But I didn’t mind so much in WH because, as in the movie, I hated every single character. They were either so weak that a mouse sneeze would knock them over, or strong in the way that a serial killing psychopath is strong. So there was me listening to the book thinking “Yes! Die! Die! Die!”

I honestly don’t know if I’ve read and enjoyed a book where I’ve been unable to like anyone involved. And here it was beyond simply not liking anyone – this was a pulsating loathing. I don’t know if I’d be able to like this one even if some of the characters were more amiable – there was another big factor in my loathing of this book: the utterly impenetrable dialect. Now, I can usually manage accents, especially British accents of all types. I love ‘em. But my lord. A random sample that I pulled out: ‘Ony books that yah leave, I shall tak’ into th’ hahse,’ said Joseph, ‘and it’ll be mitch if yah find ‘em agean; soa, yah may plase yerseln!’ On paper, I can read that without such a problem. Aloud? It might as well have been Bantu.

Kind of thought it might be now and then.

But no. Hateful characters and impenetrable accents aside, this thing was just so unremittingly bleak, so grim and ugly … Heathcliff hanged Isabella’s dog. As a warning. And now if someone could explain to me why he’s considered (from Wikipedia): “an archetype of the tortured romantic hero”….

“Romantic hero”.

There is more to the word “romantic” than the common usage. I know that. What frightens me is the people who don’t know that, and still call Heathcliff a romantic hero. I would as soon call Ted Bundy a romantic hero.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2014 in books, Classics

 

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Quiet – Susan Cain, Kathe Mazur

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking kicks off with the tale of Rosa Parks. The author imagined – and maybe I did too – that Miss Parks was a stately woman with a bold personality who could stand off against a bus full of people, an irate driver, and the police, and win – but she wasn’t. She was small, and quiet, and tired, and simply refused – quietly – on that particular evening to comply with a stupid rule. And the author asks “How could you be shy and courageous?” This surprised me. Aren’t the shy inherently courageous? What extroverts do without thinking – from asking questions in meetings or class to going to parties – introverts see as hurdles to be got over. Extroverts have to be brave in extraordinary circumstances. The shy have to be brave every damn day.

This sets the stage for the book. I learned quite a lot, but questioned some of the conclusions and directions the author went with, and in the end I can’t say I feel the power the subtitle mentions. It’s possible, and I see how – but it’s a hard row to hoe, and all the other metaphors in “Hard Knock Life”.

I should say, before I begin to maunder and meander about the book, that Kathe Mazur does a lovely job of the reading. She maintains a mostly neutral tone, so that her voice merges with the work; she disappears into the narration, for the most part. I’m curious about how her style would work with fiction; with non-fiction it’s perfect.

I scored 19 out of 20 in the evaluation quiz in this book’s first chapter; my only diversion from pure introversion (sorry ’bout that) is that I do like to multitask. I don’t like to just watch tv – I’ll be on the computer at the same time, or sewing, or something, anything. I hate driving with just the radio on now – if I don’t have an audiobook in my ear I feel like I’m wasting valuable time. But even this might be a result of living in an extroverted world; I’ve had to learn how to multitask in my jobs, and it’s sloshed over into life.

Rosa Parks, introvert heroine

Being an introvert (with the addition of shyness, which, I find, is not the same thing – just shoot me now) … For me, that means that almost every morning when it came time to go to school I would feel sick. I had a ridiculously high absentee rate, because in general school was hell for me. I liked the classes, loved the way the world opened up a little every day, even kind of liked homework sometimes. But being expected to participate, being called on whether or not I raised my hand, having to participate in the group projects and readings-aloud and other torments teachers love to devise … Having to cope with my classmates, even those I considered friends… When I was in my mid teens I saw Dead Poets Society for the first time, and I was shattered. I was, I am Todd Anderson (only with much better parents). The wonderful, fictional Mr. Keating recognized Todd’s limits, and knew how to move him past them. I never met the teacher who cared to do that – I never had a Mr. Keating, or even a Neil. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about go watch the movie. Yawp.)

In elementary school, in high school, in art school, had I been outspoken, had I been outgoing, had I at least been able to speak up and say “Oy! Over here!” – things might have been different. I wasn’t able. Knowing that without a drastically different setting things I couldn’t have been able – that alone made this a worthwhile read. “At school you might have been prodded to come ‘out of your shell’—that noxious expression which fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter”. Well, yeah. And prying a snail out of its shell will have disastrous results for the snail.

And then there’s work. The same thought processes go on in the average manager’s minds as in the average teacher’s: reward the ones who successfully walk the line between conformism and aggression, and pay attention to the ones who make you pay attention. Three words: “Team-building exercises”… the mere phrase makes me queasy. Why don’t managers realize that the reason these things build camaraderie is because it unites everyone in their absolute loathing of the moronic and grating waste of time that they are? How does anyone think they’re a good thing? Or, at least, that they’re a good thing for everyone?

There is a section of the book which focuses on the Harvard Business School, and everything this author says about the school makes exquisite sense in terms of W’s attendance there. For me, for introverts in general and those poor buggers who matriculate their introversion, it’s another circle of hell. The title of an article from the HSB newspaper is quoted: “Arrogant, or Simply Confident?” Er. If you have to ask … Heh. If you have to ask, you might be an introvert.

A bit of an aside, from this section: “‘It is approximately 2:30 PM, October 5th,’ the students are told, ‘and you have just crash-landed in a float place on the east shore of Laura Lake, in the subarctic region of the northern Quebec-Newfoundland border.’ Um … huh? Newfoundland is an island, and so doesn’t exactly share a border with any province; Quebec borders the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Also, this furthers a stupid stereotype that Newfoundland is glacial and filled with walruses and igloos. It’s really not. Perhaps they meant Labrador? Also, Google Maps shows the lake is something like 13 hours from the coast. What idiot wrote this scenario?

Eleanor Roosevelt, not in a Griselda mood

Part of what helps make people successful, or perhaps simply a characteristic of successful people, is in their speech patterns. “Verbal fluency and sociability are the two most important predictors of success, according to a Stanford Business School study.” Also, talking fast is seen as a good thing. Well, as the Mythbusters say, there’s your problem. When I talk fast it’s obviously nerves, not aggression or confidence. And, sadly, I’m one of those who waits for an opening to speak. I despise people who begin talking before I’ve finished a sentence – shockingly, customer service reps do it all the time; I’ve gotten into the habit of just finishing anyway. For me, it doesn’t matter if the person I’m speaking to has just said something moronic (for instance, that Lake Laura is on the border of Newfoundland) or brilliant or anything in between that requires a response from me, I will wait for a pause before I interject. It’s what I was brought up to call “politeness”, and also ties into my own reserve. Apparently, what I see as basic manners is actually a hindrance to my success. Oh dear.

I unfortunately did not make note of who said it, but here’s a quote that’s sending me (and this review) on another tangent: “I’m sure Our Lord was [an extrovert]“… Really? How odd. I suppose every group tries to claim Jesus as one of their own, but I’ve never thought of Him as an extrovert. Charismatic, certainly; not shy, by any means; confident – well, sure, with God on His side… but extraverted? I really hesitate to class Christ in with some of the huckster evangelists making millions off his name.

Okay. Anyway. Another quote:

“Embarrassment reveals how much the individual cares about the rules that bind us to one another. … It’s better to mind too much than to mind too little.”

That’s interesting. And it’s true – the ones who are never embarrassed are the ones you have to be wary of. My sociopathic ex-boss was never embarrassed.

Or waiting rooms

It suggests … that sensitive types think in an unusually complex fashion. It may also help explain why they’re so bored by small talk. If you’re thinking in more complicated ways … then talking about the weather, or where you went for the holidays, is not quite as interesting as talking about values or morality. The other thing Aaron found about sensitive people is that sometimes they are highly empathic. It’s as if they have thinner boundaries, separating them from other people’s emotions, and from the tragedies and cruelties of the world. They tend to have unusually strong consciences. They avoid violent movies and tv shows. They’re acutely aware of the consequences of a lapse in their own behavior. In social settings they often focus on subjects like personal problems which others consider “too heavy”….

And

“The description of such characters as “thin-skinned” is meant metaphorically, but it turns out it is actually quite literal … skin conductance tests … High-reactive introverts sweat more.”

Fabulous. Shoot me now. Yup, this book is all about me. (Except I love Criminal Minds, and when I spent a solid week a while back catching up on Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones I tended to walk away from my computer dazed at the enormous body count.)

I’ve gone through my life saying – or at least thinking – Don’t you see that? Don’t you hear that? Well, now I know – they, whoever they are at any given moment, might not see or hear – or feel or understand – whatever it is I do. I’ve said elsewhere that my sociopathic ex-boss loved to refer to me on every possible occasion as the office’s “bleeding heart liberal”. And here I learn that that hasn’t been entirely a choice with me. I am wired to cry at Hallmark commercials and well up when someone else – even a complete stranger on tv – cries.

Yay. Bloody amygdala. Bloody pain in the arse amygdala.

How nice – how calm and unstressful and unteary – it must be to function at a lower level of empathy and heart-bleeding.

I loved the tidbits about the “Griselda moods” of Eleanor Roosevelt – “named for a princess in a medieval legend who retreated into silence”. Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt – having two such standouts among “my people” makes it all seem a little less dreadful.

I loved the example of “The Bus to Abilene”: “about a family sitting on a porch in Texas on a hot summer day and somebody says, ‘I am bored. Why don’t we go to Abilene?’ When they get to Abilene, somebody says, ‘You know, I didn’t really want to go’. And the next person says, ‘I didn’t want to go – I thought you wanted to go’ and so on…. The Bus to Abilene anecdote reveals our tendency to follow those who initiate an action – any action.” The ones who speak up control the actions of the rest – especially those of us who hesitate to express an opinion.

This was a fascinating book; it was enlightening; it was clarifying. As I said at some point earlier, it is good in a way to know that, for the most part, I couldn’t have handled a great many situations in my life very much differently. I’m wired to behave as I do. Also … knowing I’m not alone in this is, I suppose, also good. The introverts are the ones who don’t network and make a splash, which means you can be in a room with ten introverts and two extraverts and it’s the latter pair you – and the introverts – will remember later. Whereas each of those ten introverts will go away thinking they were the only ones who were uncomfortable and itching to get out. What a shame. If those ten introverts could get together, they might have a better time. Then again, getting together is antithetical to their nature, so … basically? The upshot? It sucks to be an introvert.

On the whole, though, I’m not sure what reading this accomplishes. It’s startling to read (listen to) a really damned accurate description of my own personality, and to learn that there have been scientific studies done on people exactly like me to find out why we are like me.

It’s nice to have confirmation that there are scientific reasons why to me the word “party” does not mean this

And that there are plenty of other people who feel the same way.

I think I understand better now why some people love Bosch and death metal and bull fights, when I prefer Vermeer and Billy Joel and the Puppy Bowl.

But I don’t really need validation. I’m old. I’ve (finally) reached a point in my life where I know my limits, know when I can push them and when I’d be better off not, know how to fake it when I have no choice. “Power”? In a world which disregards those who don’t push themselves forward? No.

 

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2013 in books, non-fiction

 

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The Convenient Marriage – Georgette Heyer, Richard Armitage

coverThis was my first Georgette Heyer, to which I was irresistibly drawn by the fact that it’s an audiobook read by Richard (Thornton Guisborne Thorin) Armitage. Also: Georgette Heyer. All I’ve ever heard about her is how wonderful her books are, the epitome of their genre, not to be missed.

I feel let down.

It’s a cute idea. Horatia (“Horry”) (note to parents everywhere: don’t name your child Horatia, or that’s what will happen) Winwood sees her older sister Elizabeth being drawn inexorably into a terrible situation: she loves someone else, but the Earl of Rule has asked for her hand. Given the family’s financial situation – including a brother who enjoys the drink and the gambling – there is no choice: Elizabeth must marry the rich lord and not her penniless soldier boy. So Horatia – though very young by current standards – takes matters into her own hands. She tromps off to present herself to Rule and – calmly, coolly, and collectedly – offer herself as a substitute. Purely a business arrangement, you understand, and neither of them expected to interfere with the other; he can even keep seeing his mistress. (!) When her mother and sisters find out they all nearly conniption from the horror and embarrassment, but when it turns out that Rule rather liked the audacity of it all things look much brighter.

coverThe problem is that the concentration of the story drifts from there into other waters. If it had held its focus on Horry being unconventionally audacious and ahead of her time, convinced that whatever she was starting to feel for him the marriage was one of convenience purely, and so on, I might have had fun. But her unconventionality transmutes into a penchant for gambling and the high life just like her brother’s, and it was a little nauseating. She was presented as being a smart girl, and yet she immediately forgets what it was like not to have very much and begins spending money like one to the manner born. Then the whole thing deteriorates into a rather unpleasant farce involving an extremely unwise flirtation with another man leading to results so nearly tragic I was a little stunned; I had expected something light and clever, not this adventure, involving at least two episodes of faux-highway-robbery, near-ravishment, a missing brooch, disuises, and Horry’s brother and his Wodehouse-esque goofy sidekick.

Armitage did a fine job of reading it – as well, that is, as any man could be expected to do with a book featuring a passel of women in the primary roles, one of whom has – wait for it – a stutter.

I have to ask – whoever chose this among all of Heyer’s novels – what were they smoking? An audiobook of a novel whose main character stutters? It was painful to listen to – I can only imagine it was painful to narrate. I hope they paid Armitage well.

I understand that this is one of Georgette Heyer’s early books, and not among the best; also, I just belatedly noticed that the audiobook was (horrors!) abridged. So this won’t put me off the author’s body of work.

Almost. But not quite.

 

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2012 in books, Chick lit

 

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A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens via Tom Baker

I don’t do abridged. I cordially despise abridgements. Reader’s Digest Condensed versions? Abominations. But this particular abridgement is an audiobook read by Tom Baker. I will listen to a calendar read by Tom Baker. I think I would even listen to Sarah Palin’s autobiography read by Tom Baker. (Maybe.) Tom Baker is magnificent.

He’s Tom Baker.

His voice is deep and rich and pleasurable as the center of a dark chocolate truffle. When Dickens’ humor comes out in the text, Baker’s amused tone deepens it. In more dramatic moments, the passion in his voice is tangible. His characters are beautiful. Truly, I don’t think he put a foot wrong in the whole lamentably short reading.

Oh, and Dickens is pretty fantastic too. One of many reasons I curse the school system is that it made me hate Dickens for a while there. I resent that. This is a gorgeous story – and yes, I will be reading (or listening to) the unbutchered version before long.

As I’ve said so often this year about so many books, I read A Tale of Two Cities a very long time ago, and had forgotten quite a bit. As these things go, I think this audiobook – from Audible – was a very good abridgement. Quite a lot of dialogue and a fair amount of character development was retained (though not the revelations about Madame DeFarge’s knitting); I wouldn’t want to sit listening to this with the book in hand, but whatever reason there was to cut the book down, at least they did it rather well. But I’d pay good money (if I had it) to hear the whole 400-500 page novel read by Tom Baker.

Or, you know, the phone book.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2011 in books, historical fiction

 

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Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban – as read by Jim Dale

It was so interesting to listen to this book. I’ve read it at least a couple of times over the years, and I’ve seen the movie – oh, I don’t know, probably a couple of times in its entirety, and bits and pieces dozens of times, so I know what’s going to happen and about when. This would drive a lot of people up a wall, I take it, but I’m happy. I can enjoy the characters and, yes, the writing, and of course Jim Dale’s performance.

The latter is one reason I was excited about listening; I became his willing slave with Pushing Daisies. A Goodreads acquaintance prefers Stephen Fry’s British audiobook, and found Dale to be a bit over the top – and I can’t argue with that adjective. But I love it. He has a voice for every character: Aunt Marge sounded like her dentures didn’t fit, and Lupin is slow and deliberate; Snape hisses and McGonagall is Scots. Harry, funnily, sounds a lot like Daniel Radcliffe, and Hagrid is wonderfully Robbie Coltrane. Although his girls and Hermione’s constant “Har-reeeee!” do twinge a nerve or two.

Harry Potter for me long ago stopped being books to be analyzed and dissected, plots to be judged and syntax to be critiqued. It’s an old friend. Like any friend it isn’t perfect, but like a good friend, while it’s had a bad day here and there, it’s never let me down. I’m always mildly surprised at attacks on Jo Rowling’s writing, because … I don’t care. I don’t notice excessive use of adverbs (at least I didn’t before reading Stephen King’s article a while back) or any failing in action scenes. There’s nothing as breathtaking as something out of Tolkien or Guy Kay, but neither is there anything eye-rollingly egregious: the writing exists to tell the tale, and the tale is well served by straightforward and transparent telling. The books will never be held up as textbook examples of perfect writing, but I think they’re going to last a very, very long time as textbook examples of great storytelling.

**Spoilers**  (but if they’re spoilers, seriously, go read the book please.)

It’s at least four years since I read this, and listening to the pivotal scene in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione hear the executioner’s blade come down was a surprise: the film-makers changed this whole segment dramatically. I was expecting the tightly choreographed dance that Harry and Hermione executed in the film, and there was little sign of it. The book’s version is excellent in its place, and the film’s version is excellent for its purposes – uncommon.

That was the first element of surprise; the second was how heart-rending it was. Hagrid’s grief wasn’t played for laughs at all anymore by this time – no more handkerchiefs the size of tablecloths, no more helpless sobbing. The kids were furious and horrified and helpless. And, after, as Hermione sways in shock, all I could think was that even after all they’d been through, this was solid and undeniable proof for them at a very young age that their government was corrupt: they know without question that Lucius Malfoy though fear and cronyism has rigged this game from the beginning, and they never stood a chance. As far as they are aware at that moment, an innocent (relatively) creature is put to death, and there was nothing in the world, magical or mundane, that they could do to stop it. As I recall, though other terrible things happened in the earlier books – Hagrid being sent to Azkaban, for one big one which is actually played down more than I’d expect – this was the first time they learned that their leaders could not be relied on even in a matter of the life or death of an intelligent creature. The government, with few exceptions the adults, are closed-minded and prejudiced (Hippogriffs are wild and dangerous!) and easily bought. And often – confirming what the three of them already learned by experience at Hogwarts – the only way to get what you want is to circumvent the rules. Without rereading Sorceror’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, my impression here is that the trio’s childhood innocence pretty much died with that axe stroke.

One thing that can never be said of Jo Rowling is that she is too gentle on her characters. The level of horror that Harry in particular has to put up with and live through is remarkable. In a lot of books for and featuring young adults there is bullying or a terrible family or both. There is often death, and – especially in fantasy – a threat to the main character’s life. It’s been some time since I read a steady diet of YA, so I could be entirely wrong, but I don’t think there are very many books or series in which the young hero faces a truly and definitively hateful family, bullying by students and teachers at school, a constant threat against his life, and the deaths of several friends and allies. Harry survives a lot.

I thought about the epilogue now and then, and how Harry’s life ran after school ended. Did he ever miss the adrenaline rush of his adventures? Did he look back on his youth as the most exciting time of his life? Or was this a good thing – as he matured was he just as happy not to have to face death on such a regular basis? Or did he have enough adventures as an adult to keep him from going mad with boredom?

There is no pretense at unbiased story-telling in this book. The narrator, as the reader, is heartily on Harry’s side. When he’s hurt and hurting, the tone is sympathetic; when he is happy, the narrator is happy. When Harry’s enemies get some comeuppance, it is described in loving detail. And there is plenty of comeuppance in this. If Draco wasn’t such an evil bullying manipulative little prat all of the things that happen to him would be just awful. But maybe some of this book’s events account for why Draco turned out the way he did.

All in all, I don’t think I cussed at nearly as many drivers while listening. It’s apparently therapeutic: I actually enjoyed the drive.

 
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Posted by on October 20, 2011 in books, fantasy

 

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Caliban’s Hour – Tad Williams

A long-held habit of multi-tasking is hard to break, so you’d think I’d listen to more audio books.  Effectively reading while doing chores – winner.  But I don’t.  The cost of audiobooks aside (though that’s a lot to put aside), I just never have been drawn to books-on-tape (or whatever the format).  Generally I’ll listen to music or a podcast while cleaning or some such – there’s not as much need to hear every word (except, of course, for Chop Bard).  Also, I haven’t enjoyed the narration of some of the audiobooks I’ve sampled.  Librivox is a wonderful thing, all volunteer if I understand correctly, so good on them … I just haven’t been able to settle in with some of the voices, like a Jane Austen or two I’ve started.  I’m voice-fussy.

However, my car is still trying to kill me by randomly changing stations in mid-song (several times, when it wants to).  I know there is intent behind it and that its intentions are evil because it’s switched me to the country station knowing I will do anything it takes to get OFF the country station.  Then it sent me to a hip-hop station, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I found myself upside down on the verge, wheels spinning, half-killed by the impact and the airbag and still flailing at the radio controls.  I’d tried a tape – The Hobbit, actually, which was one of the times I haven’t enjoyed the narration because it was too much rather than too little, and then something went awry with the playback.  I’d tried a CD, but after a few days of behaving just fine it suddenly would start skipping around the tracks when I accelerated.  (The car is evil, remember.)  I tried my iPod for a while, and there was nothing the car could do about that – except that the cord tangles with the seat belt and earbuds fall out, and when the buds are in place I don’t like being that deaf to outside noise.

Ron Perlman at the 2006 Toronto International ...

Image via Wikipedia

So when I came across an audiobook I picked up some time back at a library sale, Tad Williams’s , I decided I’d give the cassette deck another try.  The main reason I bought it was probably the author; I liked Tailchaser’s Song, and I liked The Dragonbone Chair and Stone of Farewell, though I got bogged down after that.  I think the audiobook’s narrator came as a pleasant surprise after I bought it: Ron Perlman.

I adore Ron Perlman.  And Ron Perlman’s voice is one huge reason I adore Ron Perlman.  His performance in this was beautiful.  In places, this was not fun, and the only saving grace was that voice.

Add to Ron Perlman and Tad Williams the conceit that this is a sequel of sorts to Shakespeare’s Tempest, and this ought to have been heaven.

Well…

I started calling it a Shakespeare fan-fic, and every virtual page just cemented this for me.  It’s both a sequel to The Tempest and the story from Caliban’s point of view.  It’s both knowledgeable of the play and completely dismissive of it … and anyone who’s read any of my blog knows how “dismissive of Shakespeare” is going to sit with me.

Basically, the tale takes place some twenty years after The Tempest, and a shadow has come to Verona seeking Miranda – seeking revenge.  It’s not spoilerific to say that once he discovers where she is, he spends the rest of the story looming over her in her bed forcing her to listen as he tells her his version of everything that happened.

Everything.

Abso-bloody-lutely everything.

The two areas in which this story frustrates me are the pace and the language.  Not my usual complaint about crudity or lack of imagination, but the opposite.  This Caliban is silver-tongued, lyrical, and most of all verbose.  The language shouldn’t bother me, but I keep thinking “Really?  Caliban using a word like ‘inchoate’?”  I thought, well, I suppose Shakespeare gave him as good a vocabulary as any of them, and as Prospero taught him not only to speak but to read and he therefore had access to Prospero’s books, “inchoate” isn’t too big a stretch.  I don’t think. Except if Caliban has been alone on the island for twenty years, no one to talk to, no books, nothing, I would think some of the vocabulary might atrophy.  Now, four-plus hours of listening to guttural monosyllables would be unpleasant, even in Ron Perlman’s voice, but my opinion is that if you’re going to base your work on someone else’s you need to have some respect for the original.  Otherwise, why bother?  I contented myself while listening to (most of) it by telling myself that no character in Shakespeare is monosyllabic; Prospero did in fact teach Caliban, so Caliban could legitimately be well-spoken.  Except if Caliban has been alone on the island for twenty years, no one to talk to, no books, nothing, I would think some of the vocabulary might atrophy.  But then I finally went to take a look at the play.

Caliban speaks 1348 words in the play, totalling 5631 characters (that may actually include some punctuation; oops).  That’s an average of (assuming I did cull all the punctuation) 4.177 letters per word.  I sorted them and eliminated duplicates and counted them again, and that gave me 541 unique words, totalling 2781 characters: about 5 letters each.  (He says “I” and “me” more than any other words, which brings down his overall average.)  He never uses vocabulary like “inchoate”, he never waxes rhapsodic as the novella’s does.  He does use some polysyllabic words, but they are mostly names and words that he heard from Prospero: “nonpareil”, for example.  I don’t buy this Caliban’s eloquence.  Also, I don’t believe it was ever said that Prospero taught Caliban to read.  

The other Issue I have, the pace, is a more serious quibble.  When I step back from it, I realize that it’s a good story, and the writing is, on the whole, excellent; it’s a solid, knowledgeable (I think) imagining of Caliban’s origins and inner life.  My frustration with the book is that I can’t shake the feeling that this could easily have been a short story My issue is the storytelling conceit that Caliban is standing over Miranda spewing out all this tale, a tale which takes something like four hours on the cassettes but which would take a person telling the story ex tempore a good bit longer, I’d expect.  And I just can’t buy a setting like this, of a man stooped over a woman’s bed for hours at a time, threatening her with death, but in the meantime … just talking.  Without the framing story (and the occasional “You see, Miranda”), told as a straightforward tale of The Tempest From Caliban’s Angle, I think this would be much stronger.  Or perhaps if it started just the same in a prologue, then as he stands over Miranda and declares his intentions switched to straight storytelling, beginning, middle, and end…  As it is, the storytelling grew somewhat aggravating as Caliban described his childhood, then the second-or-third-hand details of the time before his birth, then the time after Prospero and Miranda arrived, then before, then after, then pre-birth again, and so on.

Caliban’s intent is revenge upon Miranda, of course – but it’s not a quick revenge.  First he is going to tell her things she needs to know.  Starting with the moment she and her father set foot upon the island.  No, starting with his earliest memories.  No, starting with his birth.  No … starting with before his birth.  When he finally comes to the point of killing her at the end, I was replying to Mr. Perlman along the lines of “Oh, thank God, yes, please”.

The repetitiveness of this is just a little exasperating.  It kept reminding me of a complaint I once heard about Shakespeare (and which I’ve never found true in the plays) – it goes on and on for three pages (or the audio equivalent) and the upshot of those three pages is: it’s raining. This goes in a spiral that circles tighter and tighter till there’s nowhere to go – then breaks open the spiral, only to start a new one.  I wonder if this would be as aggravating in print; probably.

I find it so very surprising that the novella directly contradicts the play in many places.  Is Shakespeare supposed to have been an unreliable storyteller?  A spin artist bent on white-washing Prospero?  Caliban bitterly attributes the deaths of all the sailors on the ship to Prospero – when, in the play, no one died.  No one.

PROSPERO
But are they, Ariel, safe?
ARIEL
Not a hair perish’d;
On their sustaining garments not a blemish,
But fresher than before: and, as thou badest me,
In troops I have dispersed them ’bout the isle.

Here Caliban, of course, limns himself as the long-suffering hard-put-upon tragic hero of the piece.  He never did nothin’.  Rape Miranda?  Why, he never.  It was all her fault.  Plot with Trinculo and Stephano to kill Prospero and give Miranda to Stephano as a gift?  Not hardly.

Either Shakespeare or Williams’s Caliban is a big lying liar, and my money is on Caliban.

 
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Posted by on June 30, 2011 in books, fantasy, Shakespeare

 

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