Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Audio Book Review: Enter Three Witches

Another astounding audiobook that completely took me by surprise, Enter Three Witches is the story of Macbeth as seen from the point of view of Lady Mary, 14-year-old ward of Lord and Lady Macbeth, and the daughter of Lord Cawdor, whose fate those familiar with Shakespeare's play will know only too well ("Hail Glams! Hail Cawdor!").

The story is told in beautifully written prose depicting with equal ease the eerie fog-enshrouded, witch-haunted Scottish moorlands and the violent, blood-drenched machinations wrought by insatiable lust for prestige and power. The language is poetic, vivid, and quickly paced, so that the plot moves forward with a seemingly unstoppable momentum, punctuated at intervals by quotes from Shakespeare's play.

The reading by Charlotte Parry is impeccable, with multiple Scottish dialects and intonations clearly delineating her character voicings, while the narrative sections are given in a clear London English. Parry's ability to convey complex emotional states, switch quickly from one dialect to the next, and create a readily identifiable cast of characters is a unique skill in itself, over and above the inherent value of Cooney's excellent writing.

Published by Scholastic for ages eight and up, this is another book I would not have thought any eight-year-old could read, much less understand. Another not essential, a basic understanding of Shakespeare's version of the story is assumed, with much of the main plot being only vaguely explained. But of far more import is how well examined is the psychology of characters both low and of noble birth, of the demands of rank and honor, and the depths of depravity to which some are willing to descend. Enter Three Witches is a fascinating study in human nature as much as a thrilling and suspenseful tale. My only caveat is that the story ends somewhat abruptly, well before I was ready to be done.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Audio Book Review: The Last Kingdom

I don't generally review audio books, although I listen to a lot of them. My day job keeps me on the road for hours on end, and because of that I get a lot of "reading" in. For the most part I find the performances range from acceptable to barely passable (if not altogether intolerable), with inevitable moments of embarrassing awkwardness, as it's all but impossible for a single reader to voice a cast of several dozen characters - both male and female - with anything approaching the breadth of tone and mannerism the actual characters would possess.

But astonishingly, in Tom Sellwood's narration of Bernard Cornwell's historical epic The Last Kingdom, those limitations have seemingly been suspended. Sellwood gives his cast of characters not only accurate dialects, but each has unique vocal traits that transcend Cornwell's written dialogue, bringing out subtle inflections that are nearly impossible to replicate upon the page This is audio as it was meant to be, lending the novel a new dimension that functions almost as an addendum to the written work.

In much the way that filmed adaptations of literary works are often lambasted for their inability to replicate the reading experience, such as been my general opinion of audio book productions, and listening to them has been a matter of neccesity rather than a preference. However, when a film draws out the best of what can be translated to the screen and then builds on it to create real and tangible fantasy worlds in which the characters we love can truly come to life - as for example Peter Jackson has done with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, or Disney did with many of its animated classics, such as Pinocchio or The Jungle Book - those characters and worlds come to life in ways a book can never do. The look of fear on Frodo's face, the sorrow of Sam Gamgee, the childish laughter of Pinocchio and terror of Bagheera, all are things a film can do far better than the best words of any author. Yet rarely has an audio reading achieved these heights. But such was Sellwood's voicing of Cornwell's late 9th century Danes and Britains that it came to life for me in a way that was a nearly transcendent experience. I found myself driving ever slower to delay my journey's end (and to avoid driving off the road) as I sat transfixed, my mind awash in the golden hues of torchlit halls and burning ships.

The Last Kingdom is the first book in Bernard Cornwell's (currently) five book series The Saxon Stories, retelling the events of King Alfred's defense of Britain against the invading Viking Danes, told specifically through the eyes of (yes, 1st person again!) a fictional British youth (yes, young adult in a violent adult world trope yet again!) who is taken captive and raised by the same invading Danes that slaughter his family at the opening of the book. Spanning a period of ten years from 866-876, beginning with our protagonist an innocent and sprightly 10 year old, The Last Kingdom brings him firmly into adulthood at the age of 20, with all the requisite passages into manhood such a violent tale demands.

I need not dwell for long upon the story, as the book has long since become an international bestseller - rare among medieval historical stories - but suffice it say that Cornwell has given Tom Sellwood plenty of meat on which to gnaw his skillful teeth. Working in Sellwood's favor is the fact that there are virtually no female characters to impede his progress, although the few there are do not inhibit his vocal prowess in the slightest. I eagerly await my library notification that the reservation I placed for part two of the audiobook series has been filled.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Book Review: Song of the Sparrow

I had really mixed feelings about this book right from the beginning. A librarian I know suggested it to me, not because of my interest in Arthurian lore, but because of its writing style, which he said was unique. And he was right, to a degree.

The Song of the Sparrow is a young adult "novel" published by Scholastic, although you'd never really know it from looking at it, or really even from reading it. It's not particularly written down to a young audience, either in subject or style, and the only thing that makes it a young adult work is its relatively simplistic vocabulary and youthful protagonist, both essential for the 7-12 year old reader. Literature for that age group is ripe with tales of young adolescents trying to fit into an increasingly violent and destructive adult world.

Few stories are better suited to the "Coming of Age" trope than the legendary tale of Arthur, the reluctant boy warrior who united a kingdom. It was my love of all things Arthurian that ultimately compelled me to read this book. After all, I've given lectures on the subject of the historical King Arthur, and pride myself on having read nearly every Arthurian-related work I've managed to run across. So why stop now?

To her credit, Sandell approaches her story from an essentially historical standpoint, setting the story firmly in the gritty dirt of primitive Dark Age Britian. The Round Table, for example, is just a gathering of Arthur's men around a central outdoor bonfire. No lustruous shining armor here. In the rugged world of Sandell's modestly pagan 5th century, Arthur's warriors are lucky to keep the bare minimum of iron rings sewn to their ragged leather jerkins, being apparently entirely reliant upon the single female accompanying their war band to keep their britches whole. After all, what honorable knight would stoop to sewing patches on their own clothes, or mending their own armor?

The lady in question is none other than Elaine, the "Lady of Shalott," best known from the lengthy poetry of Tennyson (and his modern day troubadour, Loreena McKennitt). Here she fulfills her role as the fourth wheel in the tragic love triangle between Lancelot, Guinevere and Arthur. And, lest she miss out on a prime opportunity, she adds in a fifth wheel in the form of Tristan, from that other sad, related tragedy of Arthur's luckless knights, Tristan and Isolde. The Arthurian canon is, after all, a grand co-mingling of manifestly diverse traditions. And why break with tradition? The tale itself is certainly worth reading, giving us a close-in view of a familiar story from a relatively new perspective. Not a grand departure, but it's not the same old story either.

But here I must bring out my caveats. First up is the fact that the story is written in first person, from Elaine's point of view. Given this is solely her take on the tale, it's probably more justified here than in many instances. But still, I feel the loss of all those other sides to what becomes in essence - as it must - a one-sided story. You feel a great deal for Elaine as she plods through her tribulations, but you also feel the world inhabited by inanimate cartoons and empty shells of hollow men. Being unable to hear the thoughts of any character but hers, we are invariably left with a half dozen charicatures of emotion to express the thoughts and feelings of the remaining cast. More dialogue would have helped, but here we find our second issue for complaint: the writing style.

From the first moment you pick up this book, what becomes immediately apparent is that it is written entirely in poetry, in lines that look at first like some type of verse, but with no recognizable style or structure. This is why the book was suggested to me. It's in something best described as "prose verse" for lack of a better term. That is, the lines are verse, but the content is actually prose. It's just made to look like poetry. And herein lies the rub. For while this is charming, even interesting at the outset, it quickly becomes a nuissance, then an annoyance, and finally a hopeless muddle. Take this example:
We have stood up and
are walking now, away
from the firelight, toward
the copse of birch trees.
The moon plays
on the ground in pools of
ghostly light.
As we walk between the trees,
their bark peels away
from the trunks
like scrolls of silver parchment.
What would such a life
look like? I ask.
It would look as life should,
husbands and wives living
in quiet homes, with
children playing in gardens,
without fear of Saxon invaders
carrying them off.
You could marry your knight --
he breaks off and looks at me
devilishly for a moment.
First of all, what's with all the random breaks in phrases? There's no logic to it at all. It's as if she just decided on no more than six words per line, regardless of content. For example, why would you possibly want to split a phrase like "away from," particularly when it follows a comma where a break already exists? Then there's the "dialogue" - I use quotes here loosely, since Sandell doesn't use any herself. Instead, she uses italics!? Traditionally these are used to indicate internal thoughts. So not only does it seem as if every passage of "dialogue" is beingthought rather than spoken, there is no way to distinguish when there is a break between speakers. Such is the case here, although you don't actually know that it's a different speaker until eight lines after the fact, when the pronoun "he" indicates that Elaine ("I") is no longer speaking.

This passage is 22 lines of "poetry" that if set in prose would take roughly six. What is the point? Is she trying to pretend she's a poet, but doesn't want to take the time and trouble? Or does she simply not have the necessary skill? Is she trying to dupe us into thinking we're reading poetry, but aren't smart enough to figure it out? Maybe at the age of seven this would be the case, by by the age of twelve any literate child knows what a poem is. God help their high school teachers!

But then, maybe I shouldn't be reading a young adult "novel" after all.

And here I have another caveat. Novel? This thing is two inches thick, weighs in at just under 400 pages, and I read it in about two hours. Set in standard type it would come in at maybe eighty pages rather than 400 (and waste a lot less paper). Consequently, the story is just as shallow. There are no thoughts in anyone's head but Elaine's because, apparently, there aren't enough lines of "poetry" to give them any. Yet what kept coming back to me time and again as I read along was what Tennyson and Shakespeare had accomplished in just about the same amount of space. Granted, few of us achieve the heights of Hamlet or Idylls of the King, but at this point I'd settle for Spamalot.

In the end this book is neither poetry nor prose, nor is it much of a story either. It's a short novella at best, a pleasant, if somewhat breezy afternoon's diversion, quickly read and soon forgotten.