I have had a ridiculous amount of fun this year listening to classic novels as audiobooks. When Audible offered a freebie (I think it was a freebie) of Journey to the Center of the Earth read by Tim Curry, I was excited – Tim Curry! Come on. It almost didn't matter what it was; I kind of place Curry in the same class as Tom Baker – love the actor, adore the voice, will listen to literally anything read by him.
And I was right. Curry was fabulous. His performance – and it was in every way performance – was incredibly enjoyable, and accounted for a good part of my rating. The voices he gave to the characters were dead on; the emotion with which he invested some scenes elevated them; it's purely because of his voice that I don't completely loathe the two main characters of this book, Axel and his Uncle/Professor Otto Liedenbrock. Not completely …
I do dislike them intensely, though. Even Tim Curry couldn't prevent that.
I will absolutely grant that part of my dislike for the book was some inability to separate myself as a 21st-century woman with a (very) basic (high school) education in geology from myself as reader of a book published and I assume set in 1864. From the former point of view it's an absurd figment of science fantasy. I know, I know – I have no problem accepting vampires (as long as they don't sparkle), werewolves, thousand-year-old druids and 932-year-old Time Lords. I never said I was consistent.
Still, despite the initial head-meets-desk reaction I had to a forest many leagues below the surface of the earth, not to mention a life-filled ocean and the mastodon-herding giants – still, it was fun. It felt like a Disney version of science, crossed with Lewis Carroll – fall down the universe's biggest rabbit hole, and land in an impossible, improbable wonderland. I was able to enjoy some of the fantasy.
The parts I couldn't enjoy were simply outweighed by the stupidity of the characters. The two so-brilliant scientists, Axel and his uncle, were textbook examples of book-smart vs. street-smart. I mean, what moron goes on any expedition into the unknown with only a little water? Good God, people, don't you watch Les Stroud and Bear Grylls? Well, no, obviously not, but – common sense, men! "Oh, don't worry, we'll find fresh-water springs": probably the last words of many a dim adventurer.
And the subject of stupid adventurers brings me straight to Axel. Good grief. In my Goodreads updates I referred to him as a damsel in distress, and also TSTL: Too Stupid To Live. Bringing that boy on an expedition (I keep wanting to write a Winnie-the-Pooh-esque "expotition") is like taking a penguin to the Bahamas. I lost count of the number of times he fell or got lost or otherwise needed rescuing – and every single time there was poor old Hans, probably thinking "ach du lieber (or the Icelandic equivalent thereof), we should just put the fool on a leash." I can't imagine why his uncle brought him in the first place, unless he didn't realize what a Moaning Myrtle the boy would become, in addition to being a hazard to himself and all those around him. Every step of the way he complained and protested and fretted and despaired. The fact that he happened to be right in some of his complaints – as, for example, when he protested the minimal amount of water they were toting – doesn't make his constant whingeing easier to tolerate.
And the Professor … a more overbearing, pompous, irritating, foresightless windbag I don't remember in my reading. Did I mention it was his decision to bring only a little water with them? And also to chuck most of their gear down an apparently bottomless hole, confident that they would catch up to it in the climb. And also to set off across an apparently limitless ocean in a boat I wouldn't sail in a bathtub rather than try to trek the shoreline. And then to pause at random intervals and pontificate as if in front of an audience.
Oh, and to take few or no specimens of their discoveries. "Center of the earth, eh, Liedenbrock? Riiiight."
My list, made early on in the read/listen, for tips on a hypothetical Journey to the Center of the Earth:
1. Bring water
3. Be sure to pay guide/servant/lifesaver weekly, even if he can't spend the money
4. Give guide/etc raise after he saves your butt after you disregarded 1 & 2
5. Do not bring nephew; he is prone to both hysterics and despair
6. Do not bring uncle/professor, as he confuses humans with camels (also: twit)
7. Do bring Tim Curry, because he just makes everything sound good.
I don't think the uncle and nephew actually did give Hans any kind of monetary reward for saving their rear ends, on several more occasions than just the water situation. The uncle paid him promptly every week – not that he was able to spend or bank or otherwise appreciate said payment, miles below the surface of the earth – and probably lost it all in their adventures.
The translation used by Audible was an odd one. The only example I noted was this: "His absolute silence increased every day." If it's absolute, it can't increase, though, can it? The Goodreads edition has it: "But his habit of silence gained upon him day by day" - which works. I would be interested in either reading or listening to another version, to see if anything improves … but no. The language wasn't the problem. The problem was that I spent over eight hours alternately smiling happily at Tim Curry's performance and wanting to reach through my iPod and shake Axel and Otto until their ears flapped. It's another of those "could-have-been" books. It could have been so much fun. It just wasn't.
Eighteen hours and eighteen minutes of this felt like so much longer, somehow. And has led to a review-or-whatever-you-want-to-call-this that seems almost as long … And ranty. That might make up for some of the length. And that's one of the reasons for my rating to be three stars instead of two – along with the fact that Juliet Stevenson's performance elevated it all, say whatever else I will say, the book did stir up emotions. Though perhaps not the emotions Miss Gaskell might have intended.
One of the quirks of my memory is that, while I know I saw the miniseries based on this book years ago, and I seem to remember liking it, I remember almost nothing about it. I know both book and film garnered effusive praise in the online community I belonged to at the time, which is why I ended up watching it, and why I spent that Audible credit on Juliet Stevenson's reading of the book. A current friend praises Ms. Stevenson to the skies – and she couldn't be more right, the performance is superb. Past and present friends praised the book to the skies… and … I … don't know.
I did some thinking about virgin goddesses, listening to this book. Depending on how you read her, Diana always was a bit of a bitchy prig; look at what happened to Medusa. Diana was a warrior, and there's no questioning her scornful courage, but while her insistence on retaining her virginity was a perfectly laudable intent, her actions in defense of it were sometimes a bit over the top, by modern eyes at least. Look at what happened to Actaeon.
Which brings me to Margaret. Her pride and her prejudices make any given Jane Austen character look absolutely logical and open-minded. She lowers herself to visit the poor and mortally ill Bessy Higgins – when she remembers – purely because she is guilted and shamed into it, and then after a while her interest is caught despite herself. Her self-centeredness and reluctance to lower herself by entering the poor Higgins home is countered only by a bold – slightly marvelous – reminder from Bessy that, eh, she never thought Margaret would show up anyhow; resignedly, Margaret determines that she will not allow this lower class girl to be able to crow over her. Afterward, she forgets to go as often as possible, or finds excuses not to. In another arena: when her first marriage proposal comes – poor mistaken fool that the man was – he was just lucky she didn't have Diana's powers or he would have suddenly been standing bewildered on four cloven hooves wondering why all those dogs were starting to drool. Her reactions to both men who dare - dare - to tell her their feelings are the same: outrage, scorn, offense. How could they ever dream of considering thinking of telling her they loved her? The cheek! The nerve! The effrontery!
For most of the book I was hoping and praying that Margaret would find herself a withered spinster at fifty, petting her cats and trying to convince herself that's the way she wanted it.
After only a few chapters, I was beginning to worry. I don't like these people – not just Margaret, almost all of them. My impression of Henry Lennox was very good – him I liked, and it seemed obvious to me that he loved Margaret. Her reaction? See above: contempt complete with a curled lip. I was revolted. She's a Victorian innocent, and unsettled by her first candidate for the role of lover – I get that. But rather than behave graciously, as I thought she was meant to do as a Victorian innocent, she squashes him like a bug. A really nasty bug. But she hopes they can still be friends. I wanted to slap her.
Then comes the upheaval at home. After a few semi-blissful days back in her country home, her father – who has been acting oddly – drops a bomb on her (and only on her): he is at odds with his church, and although he loves his work, loves his parish, loves his people, he cannot continue to serve them. The reasons for this are not explained – I suppose it is assumed that the reader will understand. I don't, and I never did have the chance to research the apparent schism. Without more information about what could cause such soul-searching, Hale comes off as a selfish, weak, pig-headed fool who injures the parish he supposedly loves by abruptly leaving it to someone else, and who injures his family by the manner in which he does so. His wife is a discontented self-centered annoyance, and he – apparently terrified at setting off a hellstorm – shirks the duty of telling her of his decision for weeks. I waited. I had a feeling I knew what was coming.
Hale has dragged his wife to a country parsonage where she is miserable, but he is happy and does good work. I'm not going to denigrate his reasons for not being able to continue – I don't know enough about the situation, so while it looks like a very poor decision to me – he won't be doing himself, his family, his cause, or his parishioners any good by up and leaving – it might be morally sound. Whatever the situation, he does everything in the most frustratingly, infuriatingly sheepishly underhanded manner. If he had said "I'm the man of the house, this is my decision, I have no choice within the scope of my conscience, I'm sorry if it inconveniences you but if you love me I hope you will support my decision" – that would have been manly. This … this is like a five year old who tells a fib about how that vase got broken, and then develops a fever from the guilt and scares the household half to death before finally tearfully confessing. He goes about writing letters and arranging his resignation and securing a replacement, all the while moping about the house taking up dramatic poses of despair without telling anyone why. By the time he finally pulls Margaret aside and spills it, it feels like one of those scenes of a drama queen drooping about with the back of her hand pressed to her forehead, sighing tremulous sighs, trying to force someone to ask her whatever's wrong – and no one does, so she's finally driven to just come out with it.
During the conversation with Margaret, he evades the subject of her mother until she finally corners him into revealing that … well… no, he hasn't told her. He's been making all these plans for weeks now and hasn't told her. Was he waiting for her to rise to his bait and ask him? She's at least as self-centered as he is, so there was never a chance of that; my impression of her is that if someone were to come to her bleeding from a head wound she would get upset about the stains on the carpet, and then faint and expect to be tended to first. Regardless, he hasn't told her – and I waited. And finally, there it was: "If I tell you all, perhaps you could break it to her tomorrow?" And Margaret's response? Should have been "Oh, no. Not a chance, mister. You should have told her – never mind me – ages ago, and you're gonna suck it up and go tell her right this second. This is your mess – you deal with it." But no.
The weakness of the man, and the passive strength of the girl – because she has no choice. She *can't* say no, or he'll – sadly – think less of her as a daughter – and, worse, she'll suffer pangs of guilt for ages thinking of herself as a bad daughter. It's ludicrous.
"They were at the lowest now; they could not be worse." – Margaret, pondering on their situation after their move.
What a disgusting line. How dare she think so? I suppose there's irony in the sentence, because things certainly will get worse for them, but to be surrounded by the poor, who are as likely to starve to death as not, and – far from realizing how well off they themselves are in comparison – to count the presence of those poor as part of why their own situation has degraded… Thoroughly ugly and distasteful.
I just did not like any of these people. JohnThornton is the closest – he seems open, honest, straightforward – but he has his prejudices and harshnesses. He is one of the only ones I can find any respect for - and even he goes completely unreasonable and hard-headed about his employees, insisting that an employer must be a dictator, and ignorance is the best state for a worker - i.e., a stupid worker is a docile worker. I simply do not find him likeable overall.
Mr. Hale is impossible. He has no backbone whatsoever – he makes Kleenex look strong and upstanding.
As the tale wore on, I began to feel some sympathy for Mrs. Hale, but she was still too vain and ridiculous to really warm up to, and every time I started to she waxed selfish and stupid again and I wanted to smother her with her own lace-lined pillows. 'Why, I should not be ill—be dying—if he had not taken me away from Helstone, to this unhealthy, smoky, sunless place.' What a hideous, lingeringly painful thing to say. Then there's the whole state of affairs regarding Frederick, Margaret's brother. He was part of a (perfectly righteous, of course) mutiny, and is now living far away under another name because of a very real danger that the authorities will catch up to him and hang him. But his mother wants to see him. Now. 'I charge you, Margaret, as you yourself hope for comfort in your last illness, bring him to me that I may bless him. Only for five minutes, Margaret. There could be no danger in five minutes. Oh, Margaret, let me see him before I die!' An hour later: 'Oh, Margaret, I'm so afraid of his coming! If he should be recognised! If he should be taken! If he should be executed, after all these years that he has kept away and lived in safety! I keep falling asleep and dreaming that he is caught and being tried.' Stupid cow. Half killing your husband with guilt isn't bad enough, but now trying to get your son killed, then heaping guilt upon your daughter's head for doing exactly what you told her to do. Stupid, selfish, disgusting cow.
Other characters: Bessy Higgins I liked somewhat, but she is a bit of a scary fanatic who threatens at one point to kill Margaret and has an unhealthy fixation on the Book of Revelation; her sister Mary is a cardboard cutout only serving to be clumsy and timid and make Bessy look better; their father might be a good man – he tries, with the strike – and I liked him in some scenes as well, but he can't stay away from the bottle, and he's hard. Martha is an auld harridan, Fanny is one to love to hate, Mrs. Thornton was possibly the most likeable and sympathetic, in an odd love-to-read-about-you-wouldn't-want-to-know-you sort of way, and … I liked Henry Lennox, dammit.
How do I feel about Margaret? Let me put it this way. My maternal grandmother's name was Margaret. It disgusts me that this creature shares her name. I kept wanting to like Margaret, and then her lip would curl again for some reason or other, or she'd forget about Bessie again, and I was back to wanting to slap her. She is a prig and a ludicrous snob, and not terribly bright, and can be outright vicious.
"She, who had hitherto felt that even the most refined remark on her personal appearance was an impertinence, had to endure undisguised admiration from these outspoken men." "These outspoken men" weren't wolf-whistling, or propositioning her, or commenting on her breasts, or anything I would expect to be called "impertinent". No. They were, rather gallantly I thought, giving her genuine compliments. Someone, quickly, call the police.
"Margaret thought she had seen the face of one of them before, and returned him a proud look of offended dignity for his somewhat impertinent stare of undisguised admiration." But see, if no one ever looked at her or found her attractive I expect she would be offended about that, too.
It's odd, because I'd swear that at some point at least one character (undoubtedly female) dismisses Margaret's looks as not beautiful but distinctive – yet she is constantly, and I do mean constantly, praised as just stunning. It did not take long for me to weary of all the compliments lavished on Margaret – not by her father or mother or her unlucky swains, but by the narrative voice. "Sweet" and "sunny" and "stately" and "elegant" … There was one lengthy description of her more than midway through – which I can't find now – which raised both my eyebrows. It's another place where I questioned whether Gaskell was injecting irony, but doesn't seem to be… "She was so gentle and ladylike in her mode of reception that her visitor was somewhat daunted". Wha - ? Since when is haughtiness and disdain and a quick temper part of the definition of "gentle" OR "ladylike"? It baffled me that this sort of thing: "her lips, moving so slightly as she spoke, not breaking the cold serene look of her face with any variation from the one lovely haughty curve" – was presented as if to say "isn't she wonderful??? Because – no. Cold may go hand in hand with serene, but it's not a great pairing; if "haughty" is "lovely" then it's not the kind of lovely that's admirable. It's just absurd. Her "sweet patience" and "sweet forbearance" and yet still "her regal composure"… She's cold. She's sweet. She's sunny. She's haughty. She's patient and contemptuous and regal and – wait. She's wonderful no matter what and everyone comes to love her – even Mrs. Thornton comes to respect her … the narrator adores her …
Margaret is a Mary Sue.
That goes a long ways toward explaining my loathing of her.
I feel a little stupid that I can't tell if Elizabeth Gaskell means it or is being ironic or sarcastic when she speaks of Mr. Hale being a kindly and big-hearted gentleman, and when she describes Margaret as "sweet" despite all evidence to the contrary; one of the very last adjectives I would ever assign to Margaret is "sweet". I can't tell if the depiction of Margaret as largely inconsequential among her aunt's circle yet so astoundingly snobbish in Milton is meant to be social commentary. I hope so. I do hope so.
But there doesn't seem to be any of that. I don't know if it's having a 2012 perspective on a book published in 1855, but … bleh.
Elizabeth Gaskell's skill as a writer is, for me, in this, wildly erratic. On one (virtual) page she will present me with a bit of business I can't help but enjoy – and then a few minutes later I'll be rolling my eyes again.
Speaking of eyes, this is a partial list of how Margaret's eyes are described (thank you, Project Gutenberg):
- her large soft eyes
- the pure serenity of those eyes
- her large grave eyes
- her beautiful eyes
- yo'r clear steadfast eyes
- yo'r deep comforting eyes
- the large soft eyes that looked forth steadily at one object
- those beautiful eyes
- her deep, serious eyes
- Her grave sweet eyes
I'm sure there's more. It was just hilarious after a while. I know: Victorian. Still.
Other problems I had with the writing, in terms of pacing and plot: There is immense buildup to Frederick's coming, and then to his first meeting with his mother – and then it's skipped over, and he's gone in a minute. There is buildup to Bessy's death – and we hear about it after the fact. Then it's pretty much over, and Margaret certainly doesn't go to the funeral.
In reading people's reviews of books from other eras, I tend to become annoyed with complaints about what are now seen as completely wrong-headed mindsets. Prejudices, discrimination, particularly chauvinism, use of words which are now verboten – it's baffled me in the past, because if a book is about another time period – much less written in another time period – the characters in it cannot be expected to embrace Equal Rights and Women's Lib and so on.
Suddenly, though, with this book I'm feeling exactly what I've criticized others for expressing.
The casual racism – I put a quote in the updates somewhere – and rampant elitism were ugly and pervasive. Basically, anyone who was not exactly like or higher in rank than Margaret was worth only contempt until proven otherwise. The Irish, the poor, the country folk of Helstone and the city folk of Helstone, people in other walks of life who don't try to better themselves and those who do – everyone. It was just awful that Margaret had to be subjected to living among these inferior beings.
However I feel about the book, I have absolutely nothing bad to say about the narration. It was wonderful. Juliet Stevenson uses breath and silence and pause like no other narrator I've come across yet. It's exquisite. And her characterizations were perfect. I can still hear the lines I've quoted above – especially Mrs. Hale moaning Margaret's name – in Juliet Stevenson's voice; I can't imagine how much more I would have disliked these characters if I hadn't been enjoying the reading so much. Oh – one thing I particularly enjoyed was that Mrs. Thornton's voice was made deeper than John's. I thought it was perfect. Accents were wonderful, tones were perfectly suited to the characters, I loved everything about the read. Ms. Stevenson officially became one of the narrators I will follow anywhere: I'll listen to anything as long as it's in her voice.
Even Elizabeth Gaskell.
I pounced on this because I enjoyed/admired/appreciated Charles Nicholl's [book:The Reckoning], about the murder of Christopher Marlowe, and because I was mad about Simon Vance's reading of [book:Dust and Shadow]. Those two, plus Shakespeare, indicated an instant win.
First of all, I'm going to try to remember not to approach histories through Audible. If an author feels maps and illustrations and charts and the like are useful, then audio is not the way to go. The Civil War series I've already bought should be all right (except maybe for want of maps) – but something like this, which according to Google Books has 36 illustrations, loses in translation.
What this is, is an examination of what can be learned or inferred about Shakespeare from his deposition in a case that involved his landlord. "On Monday 11 May 1612, William Shakespeare gave evidence in a lawsuit at the Court of Requests in Westminster. His statement, or deposition, was taken down by a clerk of the court, writing in an averagely illegible hand on a sheet of paper measuring about 12 x 16 inches (see Plate 1) [see?]. At the end of the session Shakespeare signed his name at the bottom. It is one of six surviving signatures, and the earliest of them (though it can hardly be called early: he was forty-eight years old and already in semi-retirement)." "The dispute concerned a dowry: a sum of £60 which, Belott alleged, had been promised when he married Mountjoy's daughter in 1604, and which had never been paid. … Belott also claimed that Mountjoy had promised to leave the couple a legacy of £200 when he died. Mountjoy denied both claims, and now, eight years after the event, the case was before the court." Shakespeare was to be a valuable witness, as (by then) a gentleman and, very likely, a pretty well-known fellow. He turned out not to be so very valuable, and that's part of the story.
I appreciate what I have learned from this examination of the period. Shakespeare took up lodgings over a tire-makers' workshop on Silver Street in Cripplegate. "Tire" in the seventeenth century meant not Dunlops or Michelins, but the "tire" from which "tirewoman" and (I believe) "attire" come from: headgear worn by ladies (and those pretending to be ladies on the stage, and those wanting to attract gentlemen). The house was a decent distance away from the playhouse where Shakespeare still labored – getting there involved crossing the Thames, along with a rather lengthy land-bound slog. The whys and wherefores of this decision are explored; we can't know once-and-for-all why, any more than we can know the details of anything else we are not given specifically in the court documents or other reliable sources, but this is one of the places where Nicholl exercises his well-honed art of learned supposition.
The tire-makers were Christopher and Marie Mountjoy; they had a daughter, Mary, and an apprentice named Stephen Belott, and, we learn in the course of the lawsuit, Marie had approached Mr. Shakespeare and asked him to persuade Belott to marry Mary. He did so, and the two were betrothed (hand-fasted, apparently) and married – and Mary's father was not forthcoming with what he had promised. (He was apparently a real piece of work.) From the paperwork surviving from this four hundred year old family dispute (turned up by eccentric Shakespeare fanatics Hulda and Charles William Wallace) can be gleaned a surprising amount of information.
"It is true that biographical readings of the plays are dangerous, unregulated, prone to sentimentalization. It is absurd to cherry-pick passages of poetry written over more than two decades and infer from them a consistent personal attitude. Lines belong in a dramatic context and in the psychological context of the character who utters them and cannot be taken to reflect Shakespeare's views."
There are references to Shakespeare noted throughout this book that I've never heard of before, from contemporary letters and publications. I'm not an expert – but I would have thought I had read enough to have come across some of the contemporary and slightly post-mortem mentions. Dedications, and mentions of "Prince Hamlet", notes about meeting with Shakespeare and so on – surprising.
However, this is really a great deal more "The Lodgings of Shakespeare" than "The Lodger Shakespeare". As illumination of the setting in which Shakespeare lived, it's wonderful; it explores the terrain in a fascinating, scholarly manner, and suddenly there are sights and sounds and scents, neighbors and lawsuits and voices and arguments enriching my mental image of Shakespeare. Nicholl, I already knew from [book:The Reckoning], has the ability to milk the smallest historical mention for everything it can possibly give. His caution is exemplary; while he does draw conclusions from the historic record, he never jumps to conclusions. The assumptions he makes are logical and sensible, and hedged about with "maybe"s and "possibly"s.
In fact, from what I was able to access on Google Books, I found the following:
Likely – 29 uses of the word
Possibly – 31
Possible – 24
May be – 91
May have – 29
Could be – 53
Perhaps – 87
There are entire chapters which barely mention Shakespeare at all. But close study of the documents surrounding the Mountjoy case and the drawing in of other documented facts allows for intelligent commentary on everything from Shakespeare's sexuality, the state of his marriage, and the identity of the Dark Lady to what his surroundings were when he wrote. This is painting a portrait of Shakespeare by painting his surroundings. I remember one art school assignment being to pick your favorite shoes and to draw them in fine detail; this was, basically, a self-portrait. (Mine, if anyone's interested, were a pair of tall floppy boots, which I often wore to faire.) This works both ways, and through existing information. There is an engraving of a writer's chamber here, and a description of one there, and an average sort of a chamber elsewhere; take into account what Shakespeare's income was and what he was working on at the time and a variety of other factors, and here is what his room looked like. Here is what the house he lived in looked like. Here is what his neighborhood looked like. Here is what he was like.
I enjoyed it, for the most part; it strayed into dry areas at times, particularly when it wandered away from the topic of Shakespeare himself. I feel I know more in some ways now about the Mountjoy family than I do about Shakespeare himself. But the portrait of William Shakespeare – the Lodger – drawn through this book is one I enjoyed the evolution of. Barring time travel or miraculous discoveries of documents, we'll never know everything about Shakespeare; this pushed the boundaries of what is guessed into what might be called "known" a little further.
This 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.
The 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.
Ben Aaronovitch has an excellent pedigree: he wrote two 7th-Doctor-era serials for Doctor Who, and has written DW novels which I will now have to seek out. And he seems to have been the first to send a Dalek up a staircase. Evil, evil man.
I'm becoming an audiobook voice groupie. Which is going to be a problem here, because the sequel to Rivers of London is not (legally) available in the US. Mia Michaels, judging on So You Think You Can Dance, coined a word I've been using ever since. The spelling is debatable, but it is, roughly, "gorgeois" – pronounced "gor-zhwah". That word, for me, is a very good descriptor of Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's narration of Rivers of London. (Hey, he pronounced "chaise longue" correctly. If for nothing else I love him for that – and there's plenty more to adore.) He has a deep, dark, dusty voice, and reads aloud like a dream. His character voices are stupendous. London being the (insert something less clichéd than "melting pot" here) that it is, KHS has a variety of not only British regional but international dialects to deal with: male, female, other, Scots, Cockney, British Received, Nigerian, more – all are wonderful. It's lovely to hear him switch from what may be his own voice, here the voice of Peter Grant, to the dry light patrician tones of Nightingale – equally natural, equally fluent, and so different from the sound of Peter that it could truly be a different speaker. There is nothing between Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and the experiences he tells of, no evidence whatsoever that the words he speaks were ever such dead things as print on a page.
The writing doesn't hurt in that endeavor. Ben Aaronovitch's style is utterly natural and conversational, perfectly in keeping with the first-person voice of young Peter Grant, his main character. It's no young adult book – the "f-bomb" is dropped liberally, for one thing, and then there's the violence – but it is the story of the beginning of an apprenticeship, of the opening up of a strange, unsuspected world within the common mundane. Peter's world is, if not turned upside-down, tilted at a startling angle, and everything changes. And then changes again. Then gets a little stranger. I loved that he took every part of it, from the very beginning, back to his classmate and sort-of-partner Lesley to talk over, not worrying (much) about whether or not she would believe him. I think I'm in love with Peter Grant (and Chief Inspector Nightingale), but that could just be the influence of The Voice.
I laughed at this from Wikipedia (be careful of spoilers on the page):
- Police Constable Lesley May; an officer in the Metropolitan Police who, having completed her mandatory probationary period, is expected to go far.
- Police Constable Peter Grant; an officer in the Metropolitan Police who, having completed his mandatory probationary period, is expected to do paperwork.
The story does a fascinating job of limning the difference between the sort of person who becomes a "copper" and the rest of us. I think it was a commercial for some possibly short-lived network series that explained that most people run away from trouble, while first responders run toward it. Here this is underscored, especially in the first chapters: Grant and May, the brand shiny new PC's, are caught up in the tail end of a hideous incident, and wind up standing shaking, covered in blood not their own, faced with a dead family and a scene of horrendous violence – and they field the situation. And come back for more. Most people (I) tend to want to avoid this sort of thing, and having been unable to avoid it once would do absolutely anything to avoid experiencing anything like it again….
I love how this world, this alternate London, was built. There isn't so much a conspiracy of silence as in, say, Harry Potter, where the wizarding world goes out of its way to keep muggles safe ignorance. (I love that Harry Potter exists in Peter Grant's world. It will be great fun to keep that in mind going on with the series, to try to spin it to determine what if anything the Alternate Jo Rowling knew about real wizardry.) In this London, in this world, it's more a matter of the muggles not wanting to see what they can't cope with (or not having the ability to see it), and the wizarding world simply staying rather quiet and out of the way. I love the skepticism, giving way grudgingly to acceptance, of just about everyone; I love Peter's attitude toward the situation in general and his situation in very much particular.
I love how the British title – so much better than the American – is brought to life. The voice of Mother Thames is wise and remarkably feminine and beautifully accented, and the tale of how she became Mother Thames is a small gem of storytelling. And then we go to meet Papa Thames. It's the sort of storytelling I just want to hug to myself and not let go of. And – bonus – I learned a bit. Going on to listen to A Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, I could be a bit smug as the author talked about executions at Tyburn.
I loved just about everything about this book. I loved the revelations about what was going on – something which could have been truly awful in different hands, but which was suspenseful and horrifying here. I loved not knowing whether I could trust Aaronovitch with characters' lives. I even loved Peter's ambivalence toward Toby – and that's not like me. I can't honestly think of anything I didn't like. I can't wait to get my hands on the second book (and the third, and so on) – but I wish, I deeply wish, that the audio book was available here. It just won't be quite as much fun without KH-S.
But I have faith that it will be fun.
It is inevitable that writers feel a deep-seated urge to pit Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper. The murders happened in the midst of Holmes's career; his contemporary readership must have wished he could step out of the pages and hunt down their nightmare for them. So it's no surprise that this is not the first time the idea has been pursued; there have been a couple of films (Murder by Decree with Christopher Plummer and James Mason as Holmes and Watson, and A Study in Terror), a handful of other books (including Michael Dibdin's The Last Sherlock Holmes Story), and a video game. This was my first foray into the mashup.
Half an hour into the audiobook, I had small doubts. Holmes and Watson both faithfully give their solemn word that they will never reveal the details of the case the story starts with … but the concept is that the book is one of Watson's memoirs (albeit one he leaves sealed). It seems a bit odd that he'd even write the story down. I wasn't fond of this beginning, this prologue, wondering why it was starting there, with such an extended look at another case … until nearly the very end, when the reason for starting there becomes clear and it all just adds to the brilliance of the book.
First of all, as I commented somewhere, if Simon Vance narrated all audiobooks I would never read another page for myself again. I love this performance – every character is dead on: Watson, warm and a little dusty; Holmes, the famous clear strong tenor; Miss Monk, believably feminine and East End without going falsetto Eloiza Doolittle. And the Welsh accents just made me happy. All the accents made me happy. The reading was a joy.
I loved the Doyle-esque "Several highly publicized investigations that year displayed Holmes's remarkable skills to the public, including the appalling affair of the faulty oil lamp, and the matter of Mrs. Victoria Mendoza's mysteriously vanishing thimble and its consequences." Shades of the Giant Rat of Sumatra … Although perhaps Ms. Faye can be prevailed upon to do what Doyle never did, and give us those stories. (Along with "the affair of the second cellist".) I live in hopes that this is only the first of a new Holmes series.
There was, it seems, an innocence that was lost when Jack the Ripper began his work. It's hard to fathom that before 1888 ordinary folk could not conceive of such atrocities – or at least this is the sentiment Lyndsay Faye puts into the mouths of the gentlemen set to pursue the monster, from Holmes to the lowliest constable. Now, with 24-hour news and CSI and Criminal Minds and true crime novels, it's sadly hard to conceive of such a sweet time. There had been serial killers before the Ripper, but through some confluence of the media and the infancy of modern investigative techniques he became the first one to cause such a tremendous flurry, the first one to make the history books.
It's been some time since I read the actual original stories, but not so much time since I watched the wonderful current BBC series, and something that strikes me throughout Dust and Shadow is that this Holmes is much nicer than Benedict Cumberbatch's. He is much freer in his friendship with Watson than I was expecting – this Holmes is less "sociopathic genius with absolutely no social skills" than "so much smarter than everyone else there's no point in talking to them, with the exception of Watson". He placates Mrs. Hudson and pours tea for his friend and everything.
And this pastiche makes me want to go back and read all of the original work soon (had I world enough, and time). The characterizations of Holmes and Watson, and also LeStrade, are so engaging that part of me wants to hold them up against the originals. The tone of the writing feels very genuinely Watsonian. (Quotes are a right pain to make note of in the audio format – I usually hear lines I wish I could make note of while driving – but there have been several descriptive flourishes which made me smile at their Victorian purple tinge. Ah, there's one: "shafts of lunar illumination": beautiful) This is a Watson I want on my side, a Watson I want more of, staunch and solid and not remotely stupid. I love this Watson.
And I love this Holmes. A great deal of it is, of course, the really gorgeous tone of the narrator – his Holmes just rings out, clarion. But this is a Holmes that fits the template in my head: he feels right. This is one of the reasons I keep reading fan-fiction and pastiche and media tie-ins despite all the garbage that brings: when it's bad it's unconscionable, but when it's good – when the writer captures the voice of a well-known and well-loved character - it's so very much fun.
I also enjoyed the new part-time member of the team, Miss Mary Ann Monk. She's thisclose to being a cliché – but Lyndsay Faye pulls off a young woman toward whom it seems Watson and Holmes both harbor fondness, and indeed admiration – and I don't mind. Non-canon romance, liaisons outside of the bounds of the Official Story, is usually something that raises my hackles, but I found myself mentally nudging one or the other of the duo her way.
I think the only fault I can possibly find is that there's not enough Mrs. Hudson. I can live with it. And honestly, the use of Mrs. Hudson – particularly at the end – was wonderful. So … not a fault, after all.
There is a comeuppance that is received a good ways into the book which was one of the most satisfying examples of just deserts ever. And the final confrontation hit all the right notes. And that's all I'll say about that.
Being me, I looked up Ripper history. Lyndsay Faye was completely faithful to it up to the point of Holmes's growing involvement, and in fact wove him into the reality with enviable skill. And part of the brilliance of this book is the life breathed into a one hundred and twenty-four year old story: new suspense is added with the question of how it would play out. Would Holmes manage to save any of the victims? How would his involvement affect the sequence of events? Would the inconclusive end – the Ripper kills just ending with no real explanation – be worked into the tale? I can't really answer the questions without massive spoilers, so instead I will say simply this:
I was never able to make a dent in the first "Cast" (Chronicles of Elantra) novel; the wild variety of races defeated me, I recall, and I wasn't grabbed thoroughly enough to care enough to try to figure out who was what and what that meant. (Also, the fact that there is an avian race and also a law enforcement group called the Hawks, but the avians (Aerians) aren't necessarily Hawks and the Hawks aren't necessarily Aerians. That took adjustment.
A sort of similar hurdle in this audiobook (audio novella) is a very odd decision to show the main character, Kaylin, taken under the wing (though not literally) of an administrative assistant of the Hawks: Caitlin. (At least I don't think it's literal; I don't remember it being specified that Caitlin is human. Which is interesting considering that the others' races are talked about frequently.) On paper, that might be all right given different first initials. Orally, they're – obviously – almost identical, and if it wasn't for the very different character voices used it would be a mess. And this was, as far as I can find, exclusively released as audio. I think the characters were established already, but it's still very odd.
Because this was an audio, and I admit to not researching too deeply, my character name and race spellings may be wildly erratic.
The voices … Caitlin sounds prissy, which is not how the character is described. Kaylin sounds petulant at times when it's extremely inappropriate. I have a problem with the Leontine, Marcus, being Jamaican. Or maybe it's Bahamian…. I can almost understand the extraordinary accent, so completely different from the others': the voice being shaped by the muzzle… I think it would actually be kind of fun to listen to, under other circumstances – in a Terran setting, say, when the character would actually be from some tropical isle. But it dredges up a mental image from somewhere of a cartoon lion wearing flip-flops, a Hawaiian shirt, and sunglasses. I don't mind the character; I mind having that picture in my head. Almost as bad is when the Wolf Captain Neal shows up; he's a Cockney (and I keep picturing him as lyncanthropic with perhaps a soft plaid cap. I think Marcus's accent is supposed to relate to his race; I don't know what the deal is with a sudden Londoner in the midst of all Midwest US accents, but it was bizarre enough that I have no idea what the character said for quite a while, as I've been too distracted by the pronunciation.
I honestly don't know whether I like this story or not. There are some interesting ideas; the world seems interesting, if under-explained in some aspects. There are three basic ways to introduce a reader to a new world. There's the Malazan Method, in which the hapless reader is given a shove off the ship of reality into deep water, no lifeboat, no flotation device, to try to kick off her shoes and tread water and not drown or succumb to hypothermia. Nothing is explained, no allowances are made for the fact that the reader is not in fact living in the writer's head and can't know more than she's told. Then there's the opposite, for which I'm sure I'll think of an example later: not only is there a lifeboat and a Mae West, the reader is gently assisted into the lifeboat while it's still on deck (where it remains), and provided with further inflatables from water wings to a rubber ducky, and handed a lovely box lunch. The reader is assured that the sky is blue and the grass is green, and if there are new races or concepts no detail is too small to be included to make sure that the reader's image is precisely what the author sees in his head. The happy medium is a rare and wonderful thing, allowing the reader to find her own lifeboat and put together her own survival pack, and learn her way around the oars and whatnot naturally.
Kaylin smacks a bit of Mary Sue in that she is adopted immediately by the Hawks, despite frequent protests that they have no use for a young girl, and she more than holds her own and evinces some unexpected and very useful talents along the way. People listen to her who shouldn't listen to her. In fact, it seemed like the text would just finish describing a character who would never in a millennium listen to a barely-teenaged girl, and then suddenly a few minutes later all is going just as Kaylin suggested. On the one hand, it is drummed into the reader's brain that she is only a 13-year-old stranger, known for mere hours: a completely unknown quantity – but on the other she is treated consistently as if she has been a member of the team, the "family", for a long time. (This is even glancingly addressed, as a couple of other characters express astonishment that she has only been with them a day. She is not an endearing child, and this instantaneous glomming-on is not quite believable.) In the end, the way in which the story is – somewhat – resolved is jarring, and I thought not properly dealt with; without spoilering, Kaylin goes through something she should not bounce back from immediately, but seems to do just that. And, in the end, I'm really not sure I like her, or the world she moves through, enough to hurry into the books.
Based on the preview, I was looking forward to this - the narrator, Peter Dennis, has a very pleasant voice. Unfortunately, when he comes to the characters, this goes massively agley. Pooh sounds like a stoner. I could cope with that - except every line of Piglet's is concluded by a peculiar little snort. It's extraordinarily annoying.
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