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The Divine Sarah: The Art of Theatre

The Art of the TheatreThe Art of the Theatre by Sarah Bernhardt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This audiobook was provided by the author, narrator, or publisher at no cost in exchange for an unbiased review courtesy of AudiobookBlast dot com: thank you.

I was quite interested to see Sarah Bernhardt’s Art of the Theatre in an email from AudiobookBlast. I’ve known bits and pieces about The Divine Sarah, it seems by osmosis, from the art of Alphonse Mucha to legends of her Hamlet and so forth. I was looking forward to learning about her. I hoped it would be some cross between memoir and art instruction; I was looking forward to learning more about the actress and her experience of theatre in the nineteenth century.

There was some of that. I had a glimpse into the life of Miss Bernhardt, but just a glimpse; I had a taste of what it was like to become a thespian, to work as a thespian, in Europe over a hundred years ago – but just a taste. I would have loved more about her education at the Conservatoire; it was delightful to hear about the deportment classes, like a ridiculous version of Kabuki. I would have loved more about her performances – more along the lines of the fact that she had horrific stage fright unless in front of a hostile audience (like in Germany, where she made some bad choices for her performance). I loved her discussion of the almost schizophrenic-sounding ability to split off the character she was set to portray from her own personality: “I would dismiss Sarah Bernhardt to a corner and leave her to be a spectator of my new me.” She felt that she literally left her self behind in the dressing room.

I perked up when the “three Hamlets” came up, but either Mlle Bernhardt assumed whoever was reading her book knew what she meant or… no, that’s probably what it was. (They are, for the record, to perhaps save someone the Google: the black Hamlet of Shakespeare, L’Aiglon, the white Hamlet of Rostand, and Lorenzaccio, the Florentine Hamlet of Alfred de Musset.) She mused a brief while on the role, but I had hoped for more. I do love the comment that Hamlets are generally too well-fed and comfortable … although, really, it’s not like a wealthy, privileged young man whose troubles are pretty recent would have had the chance to wither away too much…

The tales of her career are made a bit less than enthralling by heavy reference to people – actors, authors, playwrights, artists – who were huge in her day and in France, but are at best obscure here and now. Name-dropping is less impressive when nobody knows what you’re talking about.

It was a bit difficult to get past prejudices the lady built up within her time period and her experience. Stout women waddle. You can’t be an actor if your proportions aren’t right. God help you if you’re ugly. “If the sacred fire burns in you, you will succeed” – unless your arms aren’t long enough.

Going wider: “Although all new ideas are born in France, they are not readily adopted there.” Because France, of course, is the center and focus of the world. (America (which here includes Toronto)? *delicate shudder* Though I have to say,“despotic enthusiasm” isn’t the worst description I’ve ever heard for this country …) So is theatre the epicenter of everything: “Our art is the finest, the noblest, the most suggestive, for it is the synthesis of all the arts. Sculpture, painting, literature, elocution, architecture, and music are its natural tools.” Pardon me while I go find an actor to kowtow to, in my natural station as subservient former art student.

If she liked you, you were golden, and could do no wrong. If she disliked you, God help you. If she liked you and then was disillusioned … oh dear. The lady held very strong opinions, and was free with them; “There are actors devoid of talent who are very successful.”

I wonder if it’s actually true that “all sports are injurious to the voice, especially sailing”.

It seems possible that autograph-seeking was invented expressly for the Divine Sarah: “One lady had the idea of producing her pocketbook and asking me to write my name. The idea spread like lightning.” Without Sarah Bernhardt, Comic-Con would be but a shadow of what it is.

So, this isn’t quite a memoir, or a book of acting instruction, exactly, though elements of both exist. What it resembled most was pulling up a seat next to an elderly prima donna and trying to follow along as she vented her opinions on her schooling, and kids’ education these days, and people she knew thirty years ago, and that time in Germany… An outpouring of words which outline the shape of Sarah Bernhardt and the space she filled in theatre, without adding color or dimensionality to the outline. The gap I was looking to fill will probably be better served by a biography. I’ll have to look into it one day. This only served as an appetizer.

The narration was quite good, though there were some awkward pronunciations: “Marseillais” became “Marsellay”; “infinite”, “dross”, “physiognomy” were all a bit off, and so on; “A” was always long. I believe one review complained about the narrator not being French, and I admit a genuine French accent might have enhanced the experience (given Miss Bernhardt’s ethnocentrism, especially).

While I couldn’t help raising eyebrows at some bits of the book, and was alternately fascinated and quite frankly bored in places, this quote was wonderful:

[The actor’s] walls are of cardboard and his mountains painted on canvas, his skies have their nights illuminated by a thousand little paper stars, suspended at the end of a thread and stirring with every puff of breath. His impregnable turrets are fashioned of millboard, and the axe which is laid to them and the bullet which pierces them are children’s toys. But the hand which holds these toys is the hand of a man electrified by splendid verse. The heart that rushes to the assault beats a charge as vigorous, as precipitate, as if a real enemy were in question. And for the public that is present, anxious, nervous, and transported, the turret might be of freestone; the sky the black firmament lit by its thousands of golden studs, and it is the faith of the actor holding the torch handed him by the poet that illumines every mind, every soul, and every sensibility.

 

 
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Posted by on July 23, 2015 in biography, books, Theatre

 

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All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr, Zach Appelman

I’m a huge voice fan. And last fall I had the tremendous good luck to see Zach Appelman as Hamlet at The Hartford Stage. If it hadn’t been the last day, I would have gone back as often as possible, sacrificing groceries and any bills necessary – and books – to see it again and again. Books. This was serious. But it was the last day, and so I have to just be thankful I got to see the best Hamlet of my experience that one time. Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Olivier, even Derek Jacobi and David Tennant – all pale. Appelman was incredible. If he’s in anything anywhere near you, go see him.

So I admit it – the solitary reason I downloaded this book was for him. I also admit I hadn’t heard of either author or title. (Yes, I know (now): it won a Pulitzer. I don’t get out much.) Now, it has to be said that Zach Appelman’s French is very … American, and there’s a fair amount of French in the book. I don’t care. I’m a fangirl. His is a quiet, level voice; character voices are subtle and affecting. He gives a little chuckle as he reads a line about Marie-Laure and her father accidentally burning a tart, and it makes all the difference in the world. I’d be happy with the phone book. (ETA: But not, as it turns out, The Odyssey.)

Here: my last Appelman plug, and then I’ll talk about the book.

I would be happy with the phone book – but this isn’t the phone book. It won a Pulitzer, and I’m really very happy about that. It is the story of a clever young blind girl in France and a young clever mechanically-minded boy in Germany (Marie-Laure and Werner) whose paths slowly converge and finally collide, and all the while coil around a mysterious gemstone which is both more and less than a Maguffin. And it is the story of, in its way, light, and how it soaks through the lives of two children in wartime; where light comes from, and where it goes, and how it affects everything it touches, or doesn’t. It’s simple. It’s intricate. It runs deep and sparkles on the surface, like the ocean Marie-Laure comes to love so much.

“The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children,” says the voice. “It floats in clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light, and yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”

Marie-Laure’s half of the book – which alternates with Werner’s – is a fascinating exploration of blindness from the inside. “Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver. Pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden…” The story is not sentimentalized, even given the fact that her mother is dead. She loses her sight, and adapts, and her rather wonderful father (named Daniel LeBlanc, which was (in a way) my grandfather’s name, which is kind of wonderful) adapts, and then the War comes.

The tale of young Werner Pfennig is a clear illustration of how it all happened. He is a very gifted boy, but utterly penniless, and is informed quite definitely that he will be going into the coal mines when he is fifteen. His father died in the mines. And he knows he is capable of much more than that life. And once he recognizes what he needs to do to change the direction of his life, he makes the determination to do it, do anything. It is “a way out”. “You have been called,” he is told. He hates what the Reich encourages men to do, but in that time and in that place, how else can he ever find the outlet for his abilities? He is given no choice … but even had there been a choice the path the Reich offers him is enough to balance the horrors that line it. Until it isn’t.

Werner wants everything to change; Marie-Laure wants everything to stay the same. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Werner gets his wish, in that at least.

Stones are just stones, and rain is just rain, and misfortune is just bad luck.

Point of view is scattered and unfocused. Chapters are broken into sections, and while they mostly alternate between Werner and Marie-Laure, sometimes they carom off to Van Rumpel, Marie’s father, others. Even within one discrete section the POV sometimes flickers – one moment Marie-Laure, one moment omniscient talking about how things look. Sometimes it is how Marie-Laure imagines they look, sometimes not.

But … it doesn’t really matter. They say you have to know the rules in your bones before you can break them without making a fool of yourself, and I think I can safely excuse the flickering POV by saying Doerr knows the rules, very well. There’s a measurable difference between no idea what he’s doing and unquestionably doing that on purpose and to effect. I never tend to seek out award winners or suchlike. But it gives me a surprisingly warm glow that this book, this lovely thing, this superlative experience, won a Pulitzer.

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2015 in books, Favorites, historical fiction

 

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Watership Down – Richard Adams, read by Ralph Cosham

It’s been a funny year for reading and audio books. There have been a lot of surprising, completely unintentional parallels in the books I’ve picked up (and a boatload of time travel). A bit ago I started listening to an audio version of The Odyssey, read by Sir Ian McKellen (who was the primary reason for getting it, a far distant secondary being that I thought I ought to). Despite that voice, I found myself becoming restless with the story (especially with Odysseus back on Ithaca and still about five hours left in the book, and for the love of Zeus man stop lying to your loved ones AT GREAT LENGTH), so I picked another to, as I planned, alternate: Watership Down. This is one of that shelf of books I read several times long ago, and not for many years. I don’t remember when I first read it; I ventured upstairs to the grown-up half of the library (waiting all the time for someone to stop me – was I really allowed?) and wandered the shelves like … like a rabbit in a field of lettuce. I know for a period in my older childhood I made a point of reading mostly chunksters, the idea being that if I loved it I wouldn’t want it to end, and a longer book has a longer time in which to weave its spell. I can only imagine that’s how I landed on Watership Down, because I seem to remember a very large hardcover with a buff jacket, and perhaps a compass rose… I remember reading it before bed, and it giving me trouble because the classic “one more chapter” excuse was more tantalizing than fulfilling with WD, the chapters being rather short, so that reading at bedtime and “one more chapter”ing over and over (much like I am with the snooze alarm these days) could lead to another hundred pages before the light finally went out.

As I’m sure most voracious readers have experienced, I worried that a childhood favorite – more, a childhood beloved – which for whatever reason I had left alone for … perhaps a quarter of a century? Is that even possible? … would not bear up to a new reading. It was with a sort of apologetic reluctance that I clicked on the cover on my laptop. I’ll listen a bit, I thought, and then maybe take up The Odyssey again.

One more chapter.

One more chapter.

One more …

I didn’t quite listen to the whole thing in one sitting – it’s just shy of sixteen hours – but, being down with a cold and completely unmotivated to do anything that would take me far from my laptop anyway, it was darn near one sitting. If there was a small voice in my head in the beginning that complained about not liking the narrator, Ralph Cosham, all the other voices in my head rounded on it and beat it to a pulp within about fifteen minutes, because it was soon obvious that this is one of those perfect marriages between book and reader which justify every penny Audible seduces out of me. I have loved several audiobooks this year, but this may just be my favorite (at least till I listen to the new Peter Grant). I’ve been in the habit of deleting the downloads from my laptop, which has gotten rather cluttered, just to free up space. I can’t delete this one. I want to listen to it again. Maybe tomorrow.

And here’s the beauty of picking up (so to speak) an old favorite after such a long interval: I didn’t remember a blessed thing, plotwise. It was a brand new adventure, with a soft and comfortable padding of old, old affection. I remembered Fiver and Hazel and Bigwig immediately; as the story unfolded I was able to make small sounds of recognition at other names as they came along, and then suddenly remembered appending “-roo” to at least one dog’s name. The plot? Was utterly new to me. I had a vague foreboding that someone, possibly Fiver, possibly Bigwig, was going to be killed. That was all. Nothing diluted the suspense that built, peaked, broke, then built and peaked again with the adventures of Hazel and his merry band. It was marvelous.

What a story! To step back and look at it with cool objectivity – it’s the story of a bunch of rabbits, an epic adventure that covers a couple of square miles. It is, and apparently for Mr. Adams in the quest to publish was, a hard sell. It should be ridiculous. I mean, bunnies. Oh, but it’s so very not ridiculous. It is epic – it’s life-and-death, and distance as we measure it is irrelevant. What a human, arrogant lord of the earth, traverses without a thought in just a few strides is a vast and terror-filled expanse to a ten-inch-tall prey animal at the bottom of the food chain. This tension was beautifully captured, and thrummed throughout the book. Besides, anyone who can retain cool objectivity in the face of Pipkin’s terror or Fiver’s otherworldliness, or Bigwig’s courage, or Bluebell’s jesting, or Hazel’s diplomacy and leadership… that person I have no wish to know.

And the language. The English – warm and humourous (the Sherlock Holmes reference made me laugh out loud and rewind), and sure-footed, and the lapine – which Adams states he didn’t attempt to make more than a smattering of “fluffy” words and phrases, things rabbits might actually say if they spoke, and what he did he did marvelously. I love that the bucks had plant names while the does had lapine names – except for the hutch-bred does. I loved the rabbit constructions to try to label human concepts – if I thought I could reliably pronounce it I would start using the lapine for “car”. I want to hug whoever decided that the gull Kehaar’s dialogue be read with a Swedish accent. I suppose it followed naturally from the speech patterns – but by Frith it was a joy.

Oh, and the reason I started this talking about how odd it was that I listened to it in the middle of The Odyssey was that, in the introduction (copyrighted 2005), Richard Adams slyly comments that Homer might have borrowed from the adventures of the trickster El-ahrairah when he wrote the tales of Odysseus. I suppose whoever wrote Gilgamesh might have borrowed too.

It was only halfway through the book, maybe further, that it struck me that these tales, which were supposed to be timeless and ancient, all featured men who smoked cigarettes and drove cars and trucks. And then, by the end of the book, it all made sense. For one thing, thirty – or twenty – or ten – years ago is ancient history to a rabbit who packs all of his own adventures into perhaps three quick years. And, for another, more important thing, the tales of El-ahrairah are not a concrete, set in stone, ossified body of tales, but an oral history which grows with the generations. That moment toward the end of the book that proves this also brought home to me with a greater clarity how utterly beautiful Richard Adams’s portrait of lapine culture is. How extraordinarily wonderful the whole picture of rabbit-kind is. The depictions of individual bravery do not contradict what looks like utter timidity as a species; the latter only makes the former greater.

This book is a marvel. Treat yourself: go read it. No! Go listen to it.

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Posted by on July 13, 2015 in books, fantasy, Favorites

 

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Unlaced: Kristina Cook

973236“Unlaced” was another in a string of failures to find something I once took for granted: a fun, satisfying, well-crafted book. I truly thought at several points that it would be a DNF, but I had made predictions about what would happen, and I was determined to see if I was right. There was skimming involved.

It is the tale of Lucy, 21, who wants only to continue to explore her natural gifts with animals. She has an affinity for all creatures great and small, and a knack for healing them, and in 1817 she does not have the option of going to train to be a legitimate veterinarian. However, she is sent to London, to have her debut, and she realizes that while she is there she can prevail upon another family friend to get her some kind of in with the veterinary college. She certainly doesn’t want to get married – she insists on that, frequently; she will go through with her Season to please her father, and then go right back to what she wants to do.

Enter Henry, Lord Mandeville, a marquess with Issues. His mother was cruel to him, and unfaithful to his father, and he has vowed that he will not follow his father’s example of blind adoring faith in an unworthy woman. He has no interest in marrying for love; he will marry a woman who will bring something useful to the match. (Character in the book: “He’s mysterious and moody, especially after that scandal three years past.” My comment: Well, then, he’s obviously The One.) (And, of course, that mysterious scandal is all very enticing.)

So far, so … good, I suppose, despite the fact that anachronistic feminism is hard to pull off. Would a girl of the period really develop the mindset Lucy has, however unconventional her upbringing or however great her gifts with animals? I didn’t quite believe in an early 19th century girl who planned to be a veterinarian, wore breeches, rode astride, and so on: desiring only “the freedom to learn, and maybe, just maybe, the opportunity to build her own informal veterinary practice.” And I found it harder to believe in a local populace who would trust their animals, from lapdogs to carthorses, to a minimally educated “informal” dilettante. A farmer could never afford to let an untrained vet tend the animals that were his livelihood; God knows I wouldn’t let an untrained vet touch any pet of mine. There are a great many professions at which one can do quite well for oneself without formal training; any form of medicine, be it human or animal, is not something that can be tried out with enthusiasm and a smattering of learning. One does not know instinctively how to, oh, for example, deliver a foal in a breech position.

And this made me question a lot of other things which might otherwise have skated by. Lucy coming out at the late age of 21, and her attitude toward same. The main characters, Lucy and Henry, begin calling each other Lucy and Henry within about an hour of meeting – in 1817. Lucy scampers about the countryside completely unchaperoned, which for a lady I thought was completely unacceptable, and for a young lady in the midst of her Season beyond completely unacceptable. There’s plenty more, but this will be quite long enough.

4468273_origAnother failure, in my opinion, was in the author’s knowledge of horses. There was not a tremendous amount of horse-related stuff, but everything there was seemed a little off. Henry and Lucy, both stated to be excellent riders, were constantly digging their heels into their horses’ sides. Who knows, maybe riding was utterly different a hundred years ago, and it’s been a while since I’ve been on a horse, but when I was taking lessons, if I’d kicked a horse like that I think my lessons would have come to an end. At one point Lucy is asked about the foal she helped bring into the world. “The filly? Oh yes, the foal.” Yes. The foal. Which is female. And therefore a filly. This is not something I can imagine anyone who knows horses saying. Ever. The author also flips between “it” and “he” when referring to a horse, at least once in consecutive sentences. Lucy’s other main equestrian patient came when she was summoned urgently to a horse with colic, because no one else knew what to do for it. Not the grooms; not the horsemen; not the horse owners; not another single soul had a clue in the world what to do for colic. Colic is not a rare and exotic ailment. This is absurd. “Digging a heel into Thunder’s side, she led her horse…” A) Again with the digging. And B) she has 2 horses? Because riding and leading are different things.” Finally (for the purposes of this review), Lucy’s brother let her mare get fat while she was away. Why? “You can’t expect me to go around on a mount called Princess now, can you?” Why not? Does she commonly wear a fluffy nametag with “Princess” picked out in hearts and flowers? Are people going to point and laugh and say “Hee hee, there goes whatsit on a girly horse”? So you let a horse go without decent exercise for months? Who was there to even see besides servants?? These people irk me.

I saw something recently, and I wish I had made a note of exactly what it was and where, about how, really, the advice to writers of “show, don’t tell” is bogus because when you write you’re always telling. I wish I had noted the name of the person writing that, so that I can avoid their work. Or so I could shoot them a message recommending this book as an example of “tell, don’t show”. Because:

Lucy is held up as an example of a sensible, logical girl. However, when someone wakes her up and calls her out to deliver that foal (filly), she puts on a dress of butter yellow. Anyone who’s read the James Herriot books knows that large animal delivery is a messy business – pale yellow is an idiotic thing to wear. Also, she keeps putting herself into situations where untoward things happen, and then wonders how and why. The whole idea of cause and effect seems beyond her. (At hearing the news that a horse is sick and she is needed, she hurries off to prepare, “beaming delightedly”. It’s a bit off-putting that because a horse is ill and she can have a chance to show off, she is delighted.) Again, there are plenty of other examples.

And because:

Henry is held up as an example of a terrifically good man. However, the second time he meets Lucy, within an hour or two he is groping her and kissing her “senseless”. And then blaming her: “And do those odd activities of yours generally include allowing men you barely know to kiss you senseless?” And he proceeds to behave much the same way any time he is even close to being alone with her. (His hands “moved down her sides, brushing softly against the curve of her breasts”… my simultaneous reactions were that she needed to slap him, a lot, and that her anatomy must be rather odd if he moved his hands down her sides to her breasts.) It is utterly hilarious when he is described as “normally a man of acute restraint”. He seems to feel she is less than a lady (small “L”) because she is the daughter of a physician and there are no titles in her immediate family – and because she pursues these “odd activities” – therefore he can treat her however he wants. This is wrong on so many levels that if I go into all of them this review will approach NaNoWriMo proportions. Why do romance writers do this? At less than a 1/4 of the way in, the Hero had pawed Lucy, insulted her, apologized to her, defended her, insulted her again, and by that point could be found drunkenly pawing her again – in a locked room. A room he locked them into. I was ready to call 911, and she? Melted into him. Which goes back to how sensible she is. But, we are told, Henry made some liberal speeches, and saved a wounded puppy. Oh, well, if there’s a puppy – well, then.

“I mustn’t forget your reputation”, he says, after having forgotten her reputation at least half a dozen times.

Of course, he’s a remarkable artist. Proof being that he draws Lucy. Half-naked. Then wanders about London with the drawing. She sees it. She doesn’t mind. In fact, she says: “These should be displayed somewhere.” “‘…That one I’ve begun in oil on canvas.’ He’d sketched her from the back, her chin tipped over one shoulder. She wore nothing but a corset, partially unlaced.” I find it remarkable that he is unconcerned about who might see it in progress or when completed (i.e., anyone who knows or might meet Lucy, ever). And what does he plan to do with the completed piece? Does he have a sleazy man-cave?

22083946As anyone who has read my reviews of historical fiction before might know, my number one pet peeve is the improper, anachronistic use of the work “okay”. I have closed books permanently upon coming across a medieval or Victorian “okay”. I have flung books. This book was on my Kindle, so I couldn’t fling it when I came to “Everything okay, miss?” It’s a stupid, careless, easily avoided mistake, and I have no patience for it. But I kept reading. Even when there was a second “okay” about a third of the way through. It began to almost literally hurt after a while. Because there were so many other language errors. I never understand why anyone with a tin ear for language chooses to set a book in a time for which she has no feeling. To refer to “blocks” as a unit of measurement in 1817 in reference to country estates? To talk about something being therapeutic? (It took me less than two minutes to find that that word wasn’t used before 1846.) “It’s grown infected”… I have to give her this one; I was sure that “infected” was anachronistic, but the word was in some sort of use in the 14th century. However, that possibly correct usage was more than outweighed by “You, my lord, are pressing your luck.” Here’s another quote: “to push (one’s) luck is from 1911”

Besides the anachronisms, there were the other oddities of language, the (say it with me) “I don’t think it means what you think it means” syndrome. Lucy’s legs “shaking madly”? Lemonade referred to as a “pungent liquid”? (“Affecting the organs of taste or smell with a sharp acrid sensation.”) The foal mentioned above “ceased it strident suckling”. There’s a missing “s” there; use of “it” is obnoxious after the emphasis on the foal’s gender a minute before; and … strident? … How? … “characterized by harsh, insistent, and discordant sound” – suckling?

Similarly: Colin, re Lucy: “‘You’ve taken a spirited mare and broken her beyond recognition.’ Right. I love horses. You compare me to a mare, in any way or shape or form, and there will be hell to pay.

“He felt a sharp pain shoot through his gut. Regret? No, it must be hunger. He hadn’t eaten all day.” How unintentionally hilarious. It was a free book: this is good. It was a bad book: this isn’t good.

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2015 in books, Chick lit

 

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Dangerous and Unseemly – K.B. Owen – Becket Royce

I am required to say: This audiobook was provided by the narrator at no cost in exchange for an unbiased review courtesy of AudiobookBlast dot com. So I’m really, really happy to be able to also say that the narration was far and away the best part of this book. The plot and story had a fair number of issues fighting with nice characterization and fun dialogue (and a setting of Hartford, Connecticut – my backyard), but the reading – by Becket Royce (and now I want to be named Rebecca so I can go by Becket) – was one of the best I’ve listened to in a while. Character accents were present without being overwhelming; humor was nicely accentuated; best of all were moments such as when the text mentions someone giving an unladylike snort… and Becket Royce complies. I have a new go-to narrator.

So, now, the book itself. I should be slamming it with three or even two stars. I saw just about everything coming light years away – what was wrong with Mary, and which of the two men courting our heroine Concordia Wells was a bad’un, and the secret behind the enameled dagger. This is not because I was being clever – I’m never clever at guessing who dunnit and whatnot – but because all of this was telegraphed with great clarity.

The plot also relied heavily on clichés. If you haven’t ever read a book or watched a television show before, this might be a spoiler: when someone told Concordia that there was something very important they had to tell her – but they didn’t want to tell her now, they would meet her tomorrow … well, really, how many books or tv shows have there ever been where that setup actually resulted in the person showing up at said meeting and imparting the very important message? (I should start a list.) (I’m very surprised not to be able to find this on tvtropes.com; it’s almost “Lost In Transmission”, but not quite…)

Spoiler in three… two … one …

Something that was odd about that situation was: “The doctor was of the opinion that [Sophia] had not been outside [in the rain] for long.” But … she was an hour late for her meeting with Concordia, which is why the latter went looking for her (in the rain). If she wasn’t attacked on her way to meet C, then when? Was she dragged outside after being conked?

The writing – in terms of well-chosen words strung together to form pleasing sentences free of grammatical errors – wasn’t perfect. There was at least one example of “lay” for “lie”. And the scary, scary note left pinned with a dagger – “Beware – next time a real stabbing could happen!” – really isn’t very scary. But aside from these quibbles and the larger problems mentioned above, I was happy listening to Dangerous and Unseemly – which is a great title, by the way. As mentioned, the dialogue was very nice in places, lively and life-like, and particularly fun to listen to. Blessings on author and reader for the fact that it was “mischievous”, not “mischievious”! I can forgive a lot for that.

I enjoy a good historical mystery. (Does this class as a cozy? I guess this is a cozy.) I enjoy books set in boarding schools and colleges – such enclosed, self-contained environments. And I enjoy books set around theatre productions, particularly Shakespeare of course, and D&U features a student production of Macbeth. (I know someone who would be quite irked at the pronunciation “McBeth”; I forgave it.) (One line regarding that play started a little plot bunny for me: “Lady Macbeth still had a tendency to giggle during her sleepwalking scene…” That could totally be worked in.) I can’t really say this was a great mystery – the disparate parts of the plot (what happened to Concordia’s sister, the death(s) at the college) didn’t necessarily play well together.

I couldn’t help wondering if the author is a fan of L.M. Montgomery. Our heroine Concordia is a ginger, and puts up the familiar lament that a red-haired lady can NOT wear pink. And at one point she admires dresses with “gigantic puffed sleeves” and elbow cuffs.

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2015 in books

 

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All Our Yesterdays – Cristin Terrill, narrated by Meredith Mitchell

17451105I loved this book. Despite the fact that I was a little unhappy going into yet another time travel novel (yet another time travel audiobook, yet – there have been a surprising number this year), I still really came to care about the characters, was captured by the plot, galloped through it at full pace.

Buuutttt….

It’s in the present tense, which I cordially dislike – but it works for this. I mean, time travel. That didn’t affect the rating. I need to stop complaining about the tense.

One thing that did affect the rating: The security depicted in the book makes the Keystone Kops look like SEAL Team 6. The protection detail is so porous it makes cheesecloth look like six-inch titanium. The protect-ee could have (should have) been killed a hundred times over. It was ludicrous – necessary to the plot, I suppose, but silly.

The primary (joint) reason I can’t give this five stars is simply because a) the title echoes a sort-of-time-travelly episode of Star Trek (and yes, I know it originally comes from Macbeth), and b & c & d & on through z) the bad guy is a man whose name Em refuses to use, so she just calls him … the doctor. This is bad. Given the sheer evil of the man, it’s a little shattering. It would be hard even if there wasn’t time travel involved, but with? *shiver* At least Cristin Terrill doesn’t capitalize it. Lord knows I wasn’t going to in my review, whether or not. I find it hard to believe that someone who references Back to the Future isn’t aware of Doctor Who (and Star Trek), whether she’s a fan or not, whether she’s even ever seen it or not – you just can’t do that.

And actually, looking back on it, what I said a minute ago about the sheer evil of the man… Spoilers are inevitable in this bit….

It was too drastic a change. I mean, I understand and understood how it all came about; I understand and understood the impetus behind the evolution of the character’s alignment. But it was so abrupt, and so total… there was, as far as I noticed, no seed of the full-blown evil in the boy.

19301022I have to say the first transition between older Em and younger Marina was jarring, and the first scenes in that section were less than enthralling. But they were necessary for the story, and paid off in the end. I think it was supposed to be jarring. The author balanced Em’s literally world-shattering problems with the comparatively petty but still pretty damn earth-shaking on a personal level concerns about whether her friends were really her friends or if they were just using her as a stepping stone closer to her hot and rich friend James. Whether James thought about her as a buddy or might see her as something more, and whether – and how – she might take action to move things along. Whether her parents were going to completely ruin her life or not.

But, quibbles aside, it was good. The menace was absolutely chilling, without ever going too far; I kept expecting there to be rape or graphic detail of torture, but there was none of the former (unless it was between the lines) and little of the latter. It wasn’t gratuitous; it was terribly, terribly painful and unsettling without going for a gross-out factor. And it all made the end so very satisfying. Apparently the author planned a sequel, and it fell apart; I think it’s just as well. This is a story complete unto itself, and – in my opinion – shouldn’t be expanded on.

 
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Posted by on June 21, 2015 in books

 

Writing clichés redux

So, my last post was driven by realizing that I keep seeing the same thing over and over in what I’ve been reading. I really did intend to open up the laptop tonight and at least consider thinking about finishing a book review; I’m so far behind you’d think I was running behind American Pharoah. (Gleeful as I am about a Triple Crown winner (I’ve been waiting most of my life for this), it still hurts to intentionally misspell “pharaoh”.) Or maybe a review of Kiss Me, Kate at The Hartford Stage while it’s still playing there would be nice. (It was wonderful, go see it! There. That’ll have to do for now.)

However, I’ve been catching up on a few tv series here and there, and when an episode of Ripper Street I watched last night and an episode of Game of Thrones I watched just now (GoT HBO this time, not GoT GRRM) used just about exactly the same tired gimmick, I have to complain about it.

I actually kind of already complained about this one back in January 2013 when I put together my first short list of nearly unforgivable clichés that almost have to be forgiven since even favorite and respected writers are guilty: someone is always going to be nearly dead of seasickness on an ocean voyage; if a woman is nauseated odds are she’s pregnant (unless she wants to be pregnant, in which case she’s just ill); boar hunts nearly always end in a named character being maimed or killed – – and a poignant moment between a parent and child just before they are parted means one or the other is going to die or be otherwise seriously interfered with.

This post is to refine that last entry. I’ll avoid specific spoilers for the two episodes I’m talking about (I won’t even name the episodes), but you’ll probably know the scenes when you see them. It’s okay, though, really, because the spoilers are basically written in. Anyone who’s read a few books or watched a few hours of tv can see what’s coming without using binoculars.

Ripper Street: a father is reunited with his daughter, who has been through a great deal of trauma, and he promises her that he is going to take her off somewhere peaceful. “When?” “Now.” Of course something comes up, and he feels he is needed elsewhere (which the more I think about it the more idiotic it is – he just broke or at least bent a barrelful of laws to get his child back, and now he feels a greater need for him lies elsewhere? Regardless, he leaves the (large-eyed and incredibly fragile) girl someplace safe “for an hour”.

I said “Uh oh.”

A few minutes later he’s lying bleeding and mostly dead on someone’s carpet.

Game of Thrones: A mother puts her two (large-eyed and clinging) children on a boat; they want to stay with her; she tells them she has duties still to perform and she will be “right behind you, I promise.”

I said “Oh, for God’s sake, she’s so dead. And I liked her, too.”

A few minutes later she’s lying bleeding in the snow.

It actually irks me more and more the more I think about it. If a writer has their heroine losing her breakfast repeatedly after one or more nights with their hero (or whomever), do they really think their readers are going to be surprised at the Big Revelation that it’s morning sickness? No – a lot of readers are going to roll their eyes and call the heroine an idiot for not twigging to it when they did. And, honestly, I don’t believe I can think of too many examples outside of commercials or sitcoms where a character told his child “go on ahead, I’ll join you in a minute” when the parent actually DID join the offspring in a minute. I mean, a writer of television or film  has a set amount of time in which to tell a story; a “print” writer has to keep her plot moving and on point. If a moment like “I’ll be right behind you,  I promise” is focused upon, it’s probably gonna be significant. And the significance is probably gonna be that Mom isn’t going to be right behind her kids. (Or – spoiler alert – if she is, it’s a Very Bad Thing.) I know there’s supposed to be nothing new under the sun (seem new? Ish?

Someday when I am the next J.K. Rowling I will use my vast fortune and influence to work to stamp out lazy cliché in books and television and movies. Till then, all I can do is keep writing – and in doing so do my damnedest to avoid such easy, easy traps as being surprised that someone large is also graceful, or forcing characters to break promises made to moppets (“right behind you!”), or … et cetera.

And I’ll keep collecting the cliché moments that are so very cheap and easy to rely upon.This is only the tip of the (appropriately clichéd) iceberg, I’m sure! Anybody?

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2015 in writing

 

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Writing with surprising grace, despite my bulk…

Lately I have been noticing an annoying trend among otherwise wonderful writers. I’m going to start collecting them, but I am currently reading two books (one audio, one Kindle), and both have gone there, and that’s when it struck me that … EVERYone goes there.

Barbara Hambly, Good Man Friday: “Henri…danced also, with surprising grace for a man of his bulk.”

George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones: “He moved with surprising delicacy for such a massive man.” That’s about Magister Illyrio. And about the man Arya follows: “Grossly fat, yet he seemed to walk lightly”. But wait – I did a search, and there’s more: Ser Jorah: “Deftly, with a delicacy surprising in such a big man” – AND: Sandor Clegane: “With a delicacy surprising in such a big man”…

See, here’s the thing. In my life right now, the person with the heaviest stride (“You walk like an elephant!”) is a little athletic wisp of a thing. Me? I could almost make two of her, and you’re never gonna hear me coming. And, thinking about it, I don’t think any of the large or obese people I’ve ever known have been particularly heavy-footed, or graceless, or whatever. Nobody shook the ground when they walked. Nobody routinely knocked over furniture. Nobody ever squashed a child or dented the floor.

Here’s a thought … maybe because someone is large, or fat, or both, it doesn’t mean they’re clumsy. Maybe all these fictional narrators should stop being so damned surprised at large people’s grace or deftness.

Or at least they could find a new way to express their surprise.

No, they just need to stop it.

For fun, I just went to Google Books and typed “surprisingly graceful for bulk” into the search window. There are “about 5,170 results”. Now, glancing through, some are duplicates, and some of the quotes are about animals, and one is about a cathedral – but… “He is always elegantly dressed, surprisingly graceful for his bulk.” “Pug’s graceful dancing, despite his bulk”. “Then she unfolded, surprisingly graceful given her prodigious bulk”. “For all of his bulk, he was surprisingly graceful.” “And did so in a surprisingly graceful motion for all of his bulk.” “Surprisingly graceful and light on his feet despite his bulk.” “With a surprising fleetness of foot, considering his bulk.” “For such a big man he was surprisingly graceful.”

That’s the first couple of pages of the search.

So, basically, not only is it a bit of a regularly occurring smack in the face to anyone who is, as they say, bulky, but … Come on, people. Over five thousand results for almost the same wording – and that’s only one variation on the phrasing. This goes beyond cliché.

Stop it. Seriously, everyone, stop it.

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2015 in books

 

Happy Liza Doolittle Day, everyone!

 
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Posted by on May 20, 2015 in books

 

How about some Authors Behaving Goodly?

A few days ago there was a post on Goodreads collecting examples of Authors Behaving VERY Badly. So I feel a sudden need to illustrate the flip side of that coin, the authors we love, even if we didn’t like their books; the gracious, the generous, the positively cuddly. The exemplars. The ones who Do It Right. Come and plug your favorites – let’s give the good guys some attention. For a change.

Here are mine, garnered from nearly seven years of reviewing, in mostly alphabetical order, except for a few obvious shows of favoritism.

First on my list has to – always – be Adam Schell . He was the first author who ever responded to a review of mine, and thus began a friendship I value highly. I even met him once. Go read Tomato Rhapsody (hey, it’s available on Kindle now! Yay). It’s a wonderful book by a warm, funny, pretty wonderful fella. Hail Don Adamo.

Next on my list has to be Mary Lawrence, whom I have been delighted to get to know, and whose Bianca Goddard series (starting with The Alchemist’s Daughter in April is going to be terrific. I can’t say “hail”, here … Yay Mary!

Patricia Burroughs , aka Pooks, responded to my reviews of other books, and although I usually dislike unsolicited review requests and am always suspicious of them, she Did It Right: I received This Crumbling Pageant, and read it, and oh lord never did write up my review where did that paper go God I hope it shows up in the move otherwise I will reread the book I swear… *ahem* Gracious and fun to mutually follow: Hail Pooks.

Another author – with whom I have recently, and happily, become friends on Goodreads – whose books I fell head over heels in love with is David Blixt . A friend request and acceptance turned into a really enjoyable discussion, and I hope for more. Hail David.

Apart from the comment from Don Adamo, above (and maybe the one from the bassist for the Red Hot Chilli Pipers), the comments that have made me fangurl the hardest have been a handful from one of my very favorite writers in the known universe, Susan Dexter . I’ve known her books since, probably, shortly after the first one came out in 1981, so I almost fell out of my chair when she responded to my reviews. Go read Susan Dexter. All of her.

And of course Nenia Campbell, and more of course N.E. White, and most of course Jane Steen, with whom I’m proud to be friends!

Bill Allen – another author whose YA book (How To Slay a Dragon) was a Netgalley find – also left a short and sweet comment.

Laura VanArendonk Baugh , whose Kitsune-tsuki I received from LibraryThing, left a gracious and welcome comment on my review.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of the ending of Annie Bellet’s A Heart in Sun and Shadow – I loved the writing, but didn’t realize it was the middle of a trilogy. I respected the book itself, a great deal – and respected the author even more when she responded to my probably rather petulant review with a very moderate comment.

James R. Benn , whose A Mortal Terror was something completely different I loved from Netgalley, also left a fun little note on my blog.

Paul Collis also Did It Right, skirting any objections I could possibly have against an unsolicited review request. He thought I might like his book, The Scottish Movie, and he was right.

Then there’s Ann Littlewood , whose Threatened and Endangered was a Netgalley offering which I really enjoyed (and which I have to follow up very soon – I quickly picked up a few others in the series); she left a brief and sweet thank-you here on my blog.

Cindy Lynn Speer loved that I loved her The Chocolatier’s Wife, also received from LibraryThing, and I loved hearing from her. I need to read more by her as well.

I need to read more by everyone on this list.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2015 in books

 
 
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