While I don't think I enjoyed the story or writing quite as much as many other reviewers did, I enjoyed Anna Fields' narration much more than I thought I would at first. It must be terribly sexist of me to say this, but I often find female narrators reading male dialogue to be awfully jarring and disruptive to my enjoyment of the story, although I don't find the reverse to be true. And one might expect that in a story where so many of the characters are male, a male narrator would make more sense.
When I first began listening, I did not think I was going to care for Fields much at all. Her reading seems to have a peculiarly flat, abrupt, matter-of-fact quality to it that I at first found odd. This is not to say it's monotonous or droning-- not at all. But it's somehow the sort of reading style in which one might describe a waking dream, expressing no surprise whatsoever at an elephant falling from the sky or blood dripping down the walls.
But it did not take long before I stopped hearing "a female narrator" at all and I simply heard the characters speaking and the story unfolding. Fields does such a wonderful job with the various voices and accents that she simply "becomes" the characters. Her reading style, which felt off to me at first, actually heightens the dreamlike timelessness of the story, when it feels as though the hostages will simply be here together with their captors forever.
I was not as impressed with the writing as many others, but then I am a very visual person and I get the sense I might have found it more beautiful and poetic in print.
Download this book for the sheer beauty of listening to it-- it's such an aesthetic pleasure the story hardly matters. I suspect Jonathan Davis could narrate a dishwasher assembly manual and make it enthralling. Davis's exposition is like a gently flowing sylvan stream beckoning the listener to explore its charming bends. On the other hand, listening to his dialog is more like listening to a dramatic reading of a play than a book, the voices of the characters are so distinct and read with such drama. After listening to this book, I checked out samples of some of his other narrations and found them good, but not nearly as entrancing as the voice he takes on for this book. More, please! The only downside is that his dialog is SO dramatic it often goes from a shout to a murmur, sometimes quite quickly. While the performance is wonderful, the extreme volume changes can create a logistical headache. Some of the quieter conversations, particularly involving female characters, required me to dial the volume way up.
I also think I have literally never read a book translated from another language that flows so beautifully and has such a lovely and natural style of prose. Translator Elinor Huntington did a wonderful job, and I expect she took some significant translational liberties with the text to ensure that flow. The language and phrasing is an interesting blend of modern and archaic, but always apt and never stilted. I don't speak or read a word of Russian, but I'd give an eyetooth to know how much of the credit for this lyrical beauty should go the Dyachenkos and how much Huntington imposed.
Oh yes, you want to know if the story is any good. It's... fine. It's a simple, almost fable-like archaic tale of courage, cowardice, and redemption that is a perfect vehicle for Huntington's wonderful translation and Davis's marvelous narration. I felt the biggest weakness was that the main character, Egert Soll, is not particularly likeable at any point during the story, He goes from being an arrogant jackass to a sniveling self-loathing worm, and it is never easy to feel much sympathy for him or understand how the female lead could fall for him, particularly given their history. Despite this, I was reasonably engaged by the story until the very end, when I felt the final denouement was fundamentally unsatisfying.
The Bottom Line: Proof that an "okay" story, perfectly told, becomes something much more than just okay.
I enjoyed the story, but my main reason for writing is to mention the narration. I loved and hated it in roughly equal measures. Takeo's chapters are read by Kevin Gray and I loved his narration. His reading is a gentle, smooth murmur which could almost lull a person to sleep if the story weren't so gripping. Occasionally his voice gets TOO low and ne has to turn up the volume.
However, Kaede's chapters are read by Aiko Nakasone, and I hated her narration as much as I loved Gray's. You won't hear her if you listen to the sample, as it only contains Gray. She COULD be wonderful- her voice is very pleasant and her diction much crisper than Gray's. But she reads in a cadence so unnaturally slow and stilted it's agonizing. It's like listening to an elementary school child sound out Dick and Jane. These are the only books on Audible that she has narrated, so I don't know if the problem is her or the director. Perhaps it is a result of English not being her native language-- I'm just guessing. I hoped I would get more accustomed to it as she went, but every time Kaede's story resumed, so did my annoyance. Fortunately she has less than half the chapters-- it is primarily Takeo's story and not hers. If only she would read at a more natural pace!
Don't get me wrong, the narrator isn't everything. But Bower carries an engaging story into superb territory. I could listen to his wonderful South African narration all day, and he brings a wide variety of voices and accents to life with great aplomb.
Courtenay's story-telling is very well-crafted, and we are instantly drawn into the childhood adventures of the very lonely hero Peekay. The story flows quite naturally and draws the reader/listener on, although I will say it bogs down a little in the last third during Peekay's school days, his friendship with Hymie, and their schemes to make their fortune.
Overall, a must-read. You'll at least like the story, and you'll love the narration. I'll definitely be seeking out more by both Courtenay and Bower.
A few chapters in, I've had to regretfully give up on this audiobook and set it aside for another time-- and I have no idea when that time will be. I listen to audiobooks in exactly two situations-- daily commuting on the bus and long highway trips in the car. Both involve a fair amount of ambient noise. While I find John Lee's narration pleasant enough, he doesn't maintain a consistent volume and it makes it almost impossible for me to hear in any but a very quiet environment. He starts each sentence at a normal volume, but quickly drops off to almost a whisper. Some dialog sequences are read entirely in a near whisper. Even with my Kindle volume turned WAAAAY up, I continue to miss stretches, and I haven't had this problem with any other audiobooks so far. At times I found the effort of straining to tune out the outside noise and focus on what I could barely hear coming through my earphones started to make me feel carsick! Something about the timber of his voice or perhaps the quality of the recording seemed to make the problem worse-- it seems vaguely thick and flat and almost muffled at times.
So from a technical perspective, I do not recommend it unless you plan to listen in quiet environments, or you have very good quality noise-cancelling headphones. My inexpensive earplug-style phones are usually enough to shut out normal ambient bus noise, and I can easily listen to most audiobooks unless someone is talking within a couple of seats, but they are all but useless with this recording.
So I gave up just a few chapters in. (Obviously, my 2-star rating for "Story" is artificial and is only there because I had to fill in something.) Thus, I can't say much about the quality of the story, but it seemed to be unfolding with awful slowness and dogged attention to detail. By about Chapter 4 or so (the point where I gave up) no truly engaging characters had been introduced. If the story had been truly gripping from the outset, I might have been more set on making it work. I'm especially sad about this after re-reading the many glowing reviews and remembering why I downloaded this book in the first place. I hope to one day enjoy the story as much as the five-star reviewers did, but first I guess I'll have to invest in much more expensive earphones.
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