Stuff and Nonsense: audiobooks

Showing posts with label audiobooks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label audiobooks. Show all posts


Kit Kat and Lucy: The Country Cats Who Changed a City Girl's World

Read by the author, Kit Kat and Lucy: The Country Cats Who Changed a City Girl's World is a thoughtful account of how two cats helped a readjusting country "girl" (she’s in her 40s when the book starts) come to grips with her anxieties and sense of isolation brought on by returning to rural Michigan after years in San Francisco. The book is as much about her life and experiences as it is about the cats and might appeal to anyone looking for a cat-centric, feel good, vaguely spiritual memoir.

Pros: I found Kit Kat and Lucy to be a pleasant listen, but not necessarily a compelling one. As a certified cat lady I found many similarities between Kit Kat and Lucy and cats I have known. I especially liked that DuPont’s stories span the cat's entire lives, not shunning the bittersweet moments at the end.

Cons: The audio book could not hold my attention. I found the story slow going at points and DuPont's reading was not as emotive as I'd have liked.

Kit Kat and Lucy: The Country Cats Who Changed a City Girl's World by Lonnie Hull DuPont (ChristianAudio, 2016)


The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

After a traumatic childhood, Helena moved away from her family, changed her surname, and created a new life that (she thought) kept her safely under the radar. Helena was content.

Then Helena’s father escapes from prison and she has no doubt he will come looking for her. A murderous psychopath, kidnapper, and rapist -- the man is definitely not someone Helena wants anywhere near her husband and daughters. So, using all the tracking skills he taught her, Helena hunts her father.

The Marsh King’s Daughter is an atmospheric and mesmerizing psychological thriller about a woman whose secret past catches up with her and threatens to destroy the life she has built for herself. The book alternates between the past and the present, steadily ratcheting up the nail-biting dramatic tension as the parallel story-lines progress. Child Helena, ignorant of many truths, adores her father intensely. Adult Helena, knowing the truth about her parents’ relationship and recognizing that her childhood was completely fucked-up, still longs for her father’s approbation ... even as she understands she’s going to have to kill him.

With The Marsh King’s Daughter Dionne has crafted an absolutely riveting story -- the characters and the plot are very well developed and the marsh feels like a very real, very familiar place. Rankin’s narration is also spot-on and I cannot tell you how many times I willingly considered being late for work so I could listen to “just a little bit more.”

Be warned, though, that there’s a lot of violence in The Marsh King’s Daughter -- both the constant, oppressive shadow of it and the fully-realized bloody kind. However, this is no torture porn. Violence is there, because it is the way of things in the marsh, but there’s no glorification or sensualization of it. I’m just saying that, if you’re sitting in a parking lot listening to this with your car windows down on your lunch break, you might get some curious looks!

The Marsh King’s Daughter written by Karen Dionne & read by Emily Rankin. Penguin Audio: 2017.


Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Seeing Kenneth Branagh's production of Murder on the Orient Express last fall made me itch to read Christie's novel again, but copies were thin on the ground as every library patron seemed to have the same idea. I reckoned I'd pick it up again once the interest died down, but then simply forgot about it entirely (as one does when constantly surrounded by other equally tempting books).

Happily, The Husband was paying attention and gave me a copy of Audio Partners unabridged production read by David Suchet. Suchet was my formative Poirot -- Masterpiece Mystery! introduced me to the Belgian detective years before I read any of Christie's novels -- and will forever live in my heart as the only Poirot that matters. Whether I read the books or listen to Hugh Fraser narrate the audio books, David Suchet's Poirot is the detective I see in my head.

Unsurprisingly, this unabridged recording of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express is just superb. As always, David Suchet demonstrates an impressive range of vocal talent -- his voice for each character is distinct and appropriate to the character. Yes, some of the characters might be a little over the top, but I feel Christie might have meant them to be? To me, at least, Christie's characters tend to seem full of stereotypes and it seems like she's deliberately having fun with this in Murder on the Orient Express.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Suchet's reading and found myself always eager to know what the next scene would bring ... even though I've read Murder on the Orient Express twice and watched two adaptations now.

Murder on the Orient Express written by Agatha Christie & read by David Suchet. Audio Partners: 2001.


The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The best kind of dystopian fiction is, for me, the kind that can convince me that world is possible and The Handmaid's Tale ... well, it hews too close to the truth for comfort these days. It is a bleak portrait of a future that seems far too real, given contemporary events. It helps that Atwood has told her story sparingly and quietly, with so much tension and drama simmering away at the edges, so that it's easy to interpret or suppose or assume things about the narrative and its relationship to the "real world." (Whatever that may mean in these days of alt-facts. Even on a good day, what is real and what is just what we're increasingly becoming used to?)

Format-wise, I really liked that the publisher had added a little music to the last 30 seconds or so of each disc, so that you knew the end was coming up, and that the last minute or so of each disc repeated at the beginning of the next. Maybe I listen to the wrong audio book publishers, but I don't encounter those features very often and that's a pity as they make the listening experience that much easier.

The Handmaid's Tale written by Margaret Atwood & read by Claire Danes (Brilliance Audio, 2014)


Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Jende and Neni Jonga want desperately to stay in America, to make something of themselves, and give their son a future he could not even dream of in Cameroon. But making those dreams come true is dependent on money and money depends on employment and employment depends on immigration status. And immigration status? That depends on who is asking the question. Jende wants to be aboveboard but he is trapped in a legal limbo while he waits for a decision from the USCIS regarding his petition for asylum status. Working as a driver for Clark Edwards, the seeming epitome of the American Dream, entangles Jendi and Neni in the Clark family's secrets and exposes the cracks behind the Dream's facade. This entanglement inevitably spurs several desperate acts, leading to a surprising, but realistically unavoidable, ending.

Behold the Dreamers is of those audio books you can’t stop listening to and find yourself idling extra long in parking lots, waiting for a "good place" to pause. Alas, there are no good places -- this is an audio book that deserves all of your attention, all of the time. Much of that is due to Mbue’s exemplary writing style and intricate story-telling skills, of course, but Onayemi's masterful reading deserves awards.

Behold the Dreamers written by Imbolo Mbue & read by Prentice Onayemi (Random House Audio, 2016)


American War by Omar El Akkad

I finished American War well over a week ago now, but I still struggle to know what to say about it. It’s bleak and grim and dark. Full of rogue weaponized drones, catastrophic weather, (villainous) governments, and freedom fighters (terrorists). And yet there are small moments of beauty and humor amidst all the horror.

Ultimately, American War is a disquieting, uncomfortable novel. One of those novels the word “unputdownable” can honestly be applied to. Which doesn’t make this novel flawless -- there are, for example, points where the narrative is frustratingly meandering -- but it is too compelling a story for me to care too much about structural flaws.

El Akkad incorporates excerpts from news articles, memoirs, and official documents to fill out the story and provide context for Sarat's experiences -- I tend to enjoy fiction which employs that kind of epistolary conceit, so I ate those pages up and wanted more, because there is still so much of Sarat’s world I want to know (yet am afraid to know, because These Times Are Too Much Like Fiction).

American War takes place during the uneasy detente occurring after the catastrophic second American civil war. Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia have formed their own government (The Free Southern State), with North Carolina and Tennessee rather friendly to it, and South Carolina a quarantined zone controlled by the North. The Free Southern State is not well regarded by it's populace and there are a myriad of rebel factions clamoring for power within it. The South is gutted. Scarred. Angry. Prone to (self)destruction.

Growing up in this mess, first in mostly-drowned Louisiana and later in a displaced persons camp in Mississippi, is Sarat Chestnut. Curious, defiant, ignorant, and unfeminine (nice to see contemporary gender norms still hold sway), Sarat is eventually befriended by a mysterious, smooth-talking, and educated man who spoon feeds her the Story of the South -- a tasty, untanglable blend of fact and fiction that sets her on a dark path.

And I can’t say more because Spoilers. Just go yourself a copy of American War.

American War written by Omar El Akkad & read by Dion Graham (Random House Audio, 2017)


Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian

The problem with always having to be right is that sometimes you’re not. And so, if you’re like me, those times when you’re not, you try and save face—especially after you’ve seriously fucked up. You make one bad decision and then another, trying to fix that very first fuck-up.

I started reading Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands two years ago, but it was a bad case of "right book, wrong time" and I never got further along than the first chapter. Still, it remained on my ever-growing "to read list" and, when I saw the audiobook, I thought "Why not? It can't be more depressing than sitting through Simon Prebble reading Isherwood's A Single Man." (And I even liked A Single Man ... it was just veryvery depressing, in a beautiful, fucked up way).

And, you know, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is an utterly harrowing story. After a nuclear disaster, Emily Shephard, through a cascading downward spiral of catastrophic choices, finally reaches bottom. She "survives" drug abuse, alcoholism, homelessness, cutting, rape, and prostitution, but can she survive herself? She really seems hellbent on failing.

But then she's a child. Yes, a teenager, but who could rationally expect a teenager to behave well and make "smart" choices in such a time? And she's so utterly alone for most of the story. I kept waiting for things to get better for her and ... I still don't know that they did, but the ending was the appropriate real-world one. It's a compelling, beautifully crafted story and I found myself continuously scanning back, to re-listen to previous passages, finding something new in them each time. And it wasn't all there in context ... there's a lot of subtext going on. Sometimes, it's what Emily didn't say that creeped me out the most.

Clearly, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is a layered, emotionally complex story ... but it's just the right amount of "real life" complexity. It's easy to say that, in a hypothetical disaster like the meltdown of a nuclear power station "I would do X," but you can't truly know until you get there. Could teenage me, growing up twelve miles from a nuclear power station, have handled Emily's experiences any better than she did? Mentally? Emotionally? Physically? I think not. I think I'd be desperate to go home and find my dog, too. And I'd also make a whole bunch of terrible decision along the way.

Narrator Grace Blewer was an excellent fit for Close Your Eyes Hold Hands. Her interpretation of Emily Shepard was tone-perfect, I think. I truly loved this novel and actually listened to the last disc two and a half times just because I couldn’t let Emily Shephard go. She was as real to me as any of the troubled young people who haunt the library and a lot of that is down to Blewer's reading (yes, Bohjalian writes incredibly well, but Blewer is Emily). Anwyay, there’s an excellent interview of Blewer and Bohjalian by Random House Audio’s Kelly Gildea at the end of the audiobook which is well worth listening to.

I haven't talked about the science-y bits at all, but they're definitely worth mention. Close Your Eyes Hold Hands isn't a novel that uses a nuclear power plant melt-through as mere window dressing. It's very much the constant, unavoidable elephant in the room and Bohjalian doesn't dance around it.

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands written by Chris Bohjalian & read by Grace Blewer (Random House Audio, 2014)


Mystery Stories of Violet Strange by Anna Katharine Green

Fell down the rabbit hole that is the Internet again one afternoon and, in a long and roundabout way, eventually came to an old article, “Invisible Ink: No 216 - Anna Katharine Green,” from The Independent. Anna Katharine Green, American poet and novelist who may be called the mother of the detective novel. Her most famous novel, The Leavenworth Case, was published in 1876 which snuggles in quite nicely between Wilkie Collins’ 1860 detection novel, The Woman in White, and the first print appearance of Sherlock Holmes in 1887. The Leavenworth Case is a classic locked room (Manhattan mansion, in this case) murder mystery focusing on the death of a wealthy, prominent New York merchant. Suspicion falls on his two nieces, one of who stands to inherit a pretty packet.

Alas, I could not immediately find a copy of The Leavenworth Case in my library system. I do have a copy on hold, but delivery being as it is right now, I do not expect it before May. I could read the Project Gutenberg copy, but I want to hold a proper book. Ridiculous as it sounds, I prefer to read books written before 1920 in a physical format. It just feels more “right.” It as an affectation, I know, and a weird one at that.

Anyway, I did find a collection of Green’s Violent Strange stories on CD. Produced by Tantor Media and read by Shelly Frasier (my most favorite audiobook reader of all time), Mystery Stories of Violet Strange includes all nine Violent Strange stories -- "The Golden Slipper," "The Second Bullet," "The Intangible Clue," "The Grotto Spectre," "The Dreaming Lady," "The House of Clocks," "The Doctor, His Wife, and the Clock," "Missing: Page Thirteen," and "Violet's Own."

So who is this Violet Strange? Violet, in addition to have the best name ever for a detective, is a pretty, young New York debutante who has to keep her detective work on the down low, because much of her skill at detection is based upon her intimate knowledge of behind-the-scenes upper-class New York and her ability to innocently be welcomed into places and situations a male (detective or otherwise) could not so innocuously enter. Yes, so Violet plays her gender and class cards pretty hard ... but in a way I found deliciously subversive. To the greater world she seems inconsequential -- a “silly little chit” and “that airy little being.” But in truth, Violet is cunning, poised, and entirely sure of herself. Violet isn’t detecting merely for detecting’s sake -- although it’s clear she enjoys her work -- she has a clear goal in mind and that goal is to support her sister, whom their father has disowned, through her own agency and enterprise. Unsurprisingly, I was complete smitten with Violet.

The stories themselves are very much products of their time, but I think if you enjoy Edith Wharton’s short stories or Wilkie Collins’ more thrilling pieces, you’ll find some pleasure in Mystery Stories of Violet Strange. My favorite was probably the second story “The Second Bullet,” in which Violet is hired by a widow whose husband and child were killed in what the insurance company calls a suicide, but what the widow is sure was a murder ... and she really needs it to have been a murder, because she’ll be left absolutely destitute otherwise. It’s a classic locked room mystery with a very realistic look at marriage and the strain an infant can add, as well as the precarious financial/class position a single woman (widowed or otherwise) occupies.

Mystery Stories of Violet Strange written by Anna Katharine Green & read by Shelly Frasier (Tantor Media, 2009)


Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

The Wee Free Men is the first of the Tiffany Aching books which, while marketed and shelved as young adult books, are perfectly appropriate for adults. In making that declaration, I am not without bias, as the Tiffany Aching books are one of my favorite Discworld sub series and I cannot wait until the fifth book, The Shepherd's Crown, is released in 20whenever ... and I am an old woman of nearly forty.

I’ve read The Wee Free Men multiple times now and so was quite surprised by how fresh and entirely new Briggs’ reading made the audio. His Nac Mac Feegle (irrepressible tiny blue men whose swords glow blue in the presence of lawyers) are a hoot and, miracle of miracles, sound exactly like the Nac Mac Feegles in my head. And the female characters are similarly well-rendered and I frequently forgot that the actual human “being” Tiffany was male. Tiffany remains one of my favorite Discworld characters due to her for love of learning, her mad cheese-making skills, and her strong sense of self. She’s an excellent role model for everyone and I'd love there to be many more Tiffany Aching books.

5 out of 5 frying pans

Wee Free Men written by Terry Pratchett & read by Stephen Briggs (HarperChildren's Audio, 2005)


James Herriot’s Cat Stories by James Herriot

I grew up watching All Creatures Great and Small on PBS and, when I was old enough to find my way around the adult nonfiction stacks, I devoured all of the books -- including The Best of James Herriot with its lovely illustrations and descriptions. Even now, I occasionally feel a need to revisit Darrowby by watching a few favorite episodes or skimming one of Herriot's children's books. So it should be now surprise then that, when selecting audiobooks to listen to on our trip to New Hampshire, I chose James Herriot's Cat Stories.

The stories are all read by Christopher Timothy, the actor who played James Herriot in the long-running television series, and listening to him is like falling into a warm, cozy bed of familiarity. Alas, the stories themselves are not so cozy, dealing as they do with the realities of feline life in the Dales. There’s love and great joy, but also sadness and death. The last disc, in particular, seemed heavy on pathos and I actually found myself crying in the car. Yes, I am a big softie.

James Herriot's Cat Stories written by James Herriot [James Alfred Wight] & read by Christopher Timothy (Audio Renaissance, 1994)


A Late Victorian Road Boat Trip

Everything has its drawbacks, as the man said when his mother-in-law died, and they came down upon him for the funeral expenses.

Ridiculous! Utterly ridiculous! And so delightful! Three men (and a dog) escape their taxing London gentlemen’s life for a fortnight’s boating expedition on the Thames between Kingston and Oxford. Their adventure, like the Thames, meanders pleasantly along from one misadventure to another, with many funny twists and turns between, and a few unexpected sparkling tributaries of poetry.

Personally, I found it a wonder the men managed to get up (and down) the river, so absurd and maddeningly (but also amusingly) incompetent were they. (I never had any doubt the dog, Montmorency, would make a success of it, but then he’s the only one with the sense to vote against the trip). However, the narrator is clearly aware of his own failings and continuously pokes gentle fun at himself and his companions thereby redeeming the trio in mine eyes. I like wit and self-effacing humor and Three Men in a Boat has it in spades.

Mind you, I did not read Three Men in a Boat. I listened to an audio book edition read by Hugh Laurie and, frankly, he could make the phonebook seem droll. Oh, the man has a scrumptious voice. *fans self*

Sadly, this audio book edition was an abridgement and the Internets tell me I missed some good bits – the dead girl in the river, George and the swans, etc – so I may have to seek out an unabridged edition. But not right now, because Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is waiting for me. (Google Reader’s been full of people wittering away about The Reading Rambo's Harry Potter Readalong: All the Gifs and I find myself overwhelmed with nostalgia ... at least for the first few books).

And here I leave you with one of my favorite passages from Three Men in a Boat:

How many people, on that voyage, load up the boat till it is ever in danger of swamping with a store of foolish things which they think essential to the pleasure and comfort of the trip, but which are really only useless lumber.

How they pile the poor little craft mast-high with fine clothes and big houses; with useless servants, and a host of swell friends that do not care twopence for them, and that they do not care three ha’pence for; with expensive entertainments that nobody enjoys, with formalities and fashions, with pretence and ostentation, and with—oh, heaviest, maddest lumber of all!—the dread of what will my neighbour think, with luxuries that only cloy, with pleasures that bore, with empty show that, like the criminal’s iron crown of yore, makes to bleed and swoon the aching head that wears it!

It is lumber, man—all lumber! Throw it overboard. It makes the boat so heavy to pull, you nearly faint at the oars. It makes it so cumbersome and dangerous to manage, you never know a moment’s freedom from anxiety and care, never gain a moment’s rest for dreamy laziness—no time to watch the windy shadows skimming lightly o’er the shallows, or the glittering sunbeams flitting in and out among the ripples, or the great trees by the margin looking down at their own image, or the woods all green and golden, or the lilies white and yellow, or the sombre-waving rushes, or the sedges, or the orchids, or the blue forget-me-nots.

Tl;dr? Then:

Throw the lumber over, man! Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need—a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.

Three Men in a Boat written by Jerome K. Jerome & read by Hugh Laurie (CSA Word, 2008) [abridged]


Flying Under Bridges by Sandi Toksvig

I’m fairly desperate to read Toksvig’s brand-new novel, Valentine Grey (The Boer War! Victorian Homosexuals! Cross-dressing!), but I have no idea when it will be available in the US. I interlibrary-loaned Toksvig’s Flying Under Bridges a few weeks ago to see what her writing’s like as it is her only adult novel available through the state-wide library interlibrary-loan system.

(Dear Birthday Fairies, send me an package? Kthxbai)

Anyway, I found Flying Under Bridges an extremely enjoyable read. It’s chockfull of black comedy, social satire, and just sheer absurdity. Oh, there’s also bleakness and tragedy -- if you stray from the norm, clichéd twee 1990s(?) English villages aren’t as nice as they look -- and the characters can too often sound like lecturers on gay and women’s rights. But then, why shouldn’t they be? They’re women. They’re gay. They’re really the only ones who have the right to talk about it.

Which doesn’t stop all the nice, understanding heterosexual men from giving helpful advice to these women or trying to manage them (for their own good, of course, the poor misguided dears). So it’s no surprise our protagonist, Eve Marshall of Edenford, eventually ups and kills one of them. I’m not giving anything away by telling you this, as it has already happened by the time the novel begins.

Eve, now in prison and awaiting trial, writes letters to her old school friend, Inge Holbrook, recently returned to the village after a glamorous life as a sports star and BBC presenter. The letters explain how this nice middle-aged, middle-class, middlebrow housewife came to kill her daughter's fiancé, that nice John Antrobus. We also learn a fair bit about Inge and the secret she has so carefully kept from the world.

Racism, feminism, homophobia, misogyny, hypocrisy, charity, friendship, motherhood, revolution -- Flying Under Bridges has it all in spades. It can be a bit of an exhausting gallop at points, but well worth the effort. I only wish the novel went on a bit longer. What does happen to Eve, Inge, Tom, and Shirley? Do they get the futures they deserve? And what of the nice, helpful, understanding men? Do they ever realize what condescending asshats they are?

[I’m not actually sure when Flying Under Bridges is set. Telling myself it is set in the 1990s allows me to believe some of the wickedness that happened in the novel happened just far back enough that I can distance myself from my anger a little bit. But I don’t know what The Gay Situation is in England today -- you all might just be as screwed up as here and the things that happened to Inge might well still be happening.

Oh. Good. Now I want to set something on fire. Again.

My car is in fine kip, though. And I don’t know anyone quite as wicked as that nice John Antrobus].

Flying Under Bridges written & read by Sandi Toksvig (Recorded Books, 2001)


Wherein I Witter On About Narnia

A few years ago, The Husband gave me a beautifully boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia on CD. A HarperCollins publication, it consists of a laminated box with slipcase and seven CD books nestled in their own individual slipcases. Everything, including the CDs themselves, are decorated with colored illustrations from the novels and are just a real pleasure to both look at and to handle. I must admit, though, that until recently I'd only listened to my favorite books in the series and ignored the rest.

However, our long drive to Niagara Falls last month required a significant amount of audio material to comfort and entertain us while we crossed the wilds of New York into fell Canada. The Chronicles seemed perfect for the trip -- familiar, but not too, and long enough that we go get through one book each way. Also, one of us had forgot to stock up on audiobooks at the library so it's not as if we were spoilt for choice.

Since we came back from Niagara Falls, we've been keeping up with the Narnian adventures of those Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve. Currently, we're on the first disc of The Silver Chair (excellently read by Jeremy Northam) -- Eustace has muffed the first sign, everyone's had a lovely supper, and now we're off to the Parliament of Owls. I can't wait to reacquaint myself with Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle! With his gloomy optimism and dogged courage in the face of certain doom, he remains one of my favorite characters.

The Silver Chair is, as far as I'm concerned, Book 4 of The Chronicles. I know most Narnia lovers have strong opinions regarding The Chronicles reading order. Read them in the order they were published or read them in the order of events? I go with publication order, because I think the stories make better sense that way. Also, if read in the order of publication with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe first, Narnia is slowly built up in my mind with great mystery and marvel. Yes, even though I've read The Chronicles many many times since childhood.

(I say that, as there is no wrong way to read a book, there is also no wrong order to read them in. Stick yourself in wherever the tale seems most interesting and go on from there. If that means starting with The Last Battle ... well, why not?)

I was a little worried, when we starting listening to The Chronicles, that The Husband wouldn't really enjoy them. He'd read The Magician's Nephew on his own (believing it the first one, poor lamb) and thought it was all right, but expresses a little crankiness toward The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe because, way back in junior school, it was one of those books the teachers read to the students. Unfortunately, no teacher ever progressed further than the first third of the book and I can certainly see how that would be annoying -- the Pevensies and Turkish Delight over and over again without ever getting to Christmas, or the Stone Table, or the destruction of the White Witch's army. Seems like a torture worthy of the White Witch, really, with her "always winter, but never Christmas."

(This is a bit sad, but whenever The Husband talks about his early education I imagine him at Pole and Scrubb's 'orrible Experiment House).


April is for Poetry: A Shropshire Lad by A.E. Housman

To my knowledge, I’d never intentionally read any A.E. Housman so I was surprised that some of his poems were already familiar to me -- "1887 (I)" and "When I was one-and-twenty (XIII)" were both poems I had encountered before, though I couldn’t tell you where. In one of those chunkster Norton anthologies we used in college, perhaps? I want to blame it on Anne Shirley, but she can't be responsible for all the old-school poetry cluttering up my head!

A Shropshire Lad is a collection of sixty-three poems, many of which deal with death and/or the loss of love. A Shropshire Lad has a distinctly pastoral setting and features some rather beautiful language, but there's little sweetness or lightness to it:

I hoed and trenched and weeded,
And took the flowers to fair:
I brought them home unheeded;
The hue was not the wear.

So up and down I sow them
For lads like me to find,
When I shall lie below them,
A dead man out of mind.

Some seed the birds devour,
And some the season mars,
But here and there will flower
The solitary stars,

And fields will yearly bear them
As light-leaved spring comes on,
And luckless lads will wear them
When I am dead and gone.

Wadsworth’s “Daffodils” these aren't.

Unfortunately, there’s a certain numbing repetition to the collection, beautiful language or no, and I found my attention wandering at points: "Yes, youth is transitory. Yes, death is a sad business. I wonder if I should do some laundry? 'But here and there will flower / The solitary stars.' Oh, that’s a pretty image! What poem is this again?"

Now, of course, I didn’t actually read any of these poems, but listened to them on audio. I find it harder, now that I am years out of school, to seamlessly slide into a poem “just” by reading it, but audio books work really well for me. I have no idea if Samuel West's accent is properly Shropshire, but his voice and reading style suit the poems well. He reads easily, cleanly, and with conviction -- he doesn’t sound like he’s reading someone else’s poems so much as speaking from his own heart. Is it any wonder he was an Earphones Award Winners in 2011 for A Shropshire Lad?

I couldn't find any samples of West reading Housman to post here, but do want to share this reading by Diana Dors of "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now" (II).

A Shropshire Lad - Housman - read by Diana Dors by TheChrisGregory

A Shropshire Lad written by A.E. Housman & read by Samuel West (Naxos AudioBooks, 2011)


A Tale of Two Cities: "Then tell wind and fire where to stop ... but don't tell me.”

A Tale of Two Cities begins before the French Revolution, when Mr Lorry, a respectable man of business, travels with Lucie Manette to Paris to reclaim her father, recently released from the Bastille after a long and unjust imprisonment. While traveling back from Paris, the three make the acquaintance of Charles Darnay/Evrèmondes, a French émigré, who travels between the two countries on “business.” Darnay’s trips arouse suspicion in England and he is put on trial as a spy. With testimony from the Manette’s and assistance from that ne'er-do-well Sydney Carlton, Darney is exonerated. No, Darney is no spy, but his connection to France will eventually place everyone he loves in danger.

Because A Tale of Two Cities focuses on the dramas of a very small group of characters, we don’t get a lot of the “true” history of the Revolution, which was fine as I wasn’t looking so much for a history lesson as rollicking good story. To me, the novel’s narrow focus make the Revolution that much more personal and, therefore, that much more harrowing. The plight of the poor little seamstress who went to La Guillotine moved me so much more than a cold recitation of the tens of thousands of murdered could have. Although, I admit, the general, gruesome air of delight surrounding the executions made me shudder.
'I said so! A brave number! My fellow-citizen here, would have it forty-two; ten more heads are worth having. The Guillotine goes handsomely. I love it. Hi forward. Whoop then!'
Speaking of gruesome, I feel I must admit an unwholesome liking for Mme Defarge. Yes, I know Thérèse is the novel's big villain -- and I think Dicken’s wants me to be utterly repelled by her -- but she’s such a strong, passionate, and ruthless woman that it’s hard not to root for her. Unlike Lucie, there is nothing soft, feminine, or kind about her and there doesn’t need to be. She is the Justice of Mob Rule, only as terrible and skewed as oppression has made her.
   Of a strong and fearless character, of shrewd sense and readiness, of great determination, of that kind of beauty which not only seems to impart to its possessor firmness and animosity, but to strike into others an instinctive recognition of those qualities; the troubled time would have heaved her up, under any circumstances. But, imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and inveterate hatred of class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress. She was absolutely without pity. If she ever had the virtue in her, it had quite gone out of her.
   It was nothing to her, that an innocent man was to die the sins of his forefathers; she saw, not him, but them. It was nothing to her that his wife was to be made a and his daughter an orphan; that was insufficient because they were her natural enemies and prey, and as such had no right to live. To appeal to her, was made hopeless by her having no sense of pity, even for herself.
I know she’s probably mad. Mad from suffering or mad from power, I’m not sure it makes a difference. Her sister and brother were monstrously treated by the Evrèmondes and their deaths are on the Evrèmondes’ heads. Yes, Darnay gave up everything when he went to England and had no actual hand in the family wickedness; he is still guilty by association.

Thérèse strikes me as the embodiment of the mob -- squashed down, abused, and full of hatred -- finally given a shot at retribution against her oppressors it’s no surprise she goes all out. And, yes, I know this makes her as evil as her oppressors, but it still doesn’t stop me from sympathizing with her with her. Or wanting to cheer her on. Just a little.

So, yes, a Tale of Two Cities was well worth the time! (I admit it took me a while to get into this novel, but listening along with the audiobook helped immeasurably. Instead of getting bogged down in the sheer wordiness of some passages, I was swept along by the sheer drama of the story).

A Tale of Two Cities written by Charles Dickens & read by Simon Vance (Tantor Media, 2008)


SoundCloud, I Think I Love You

As an audiobook lover I must have been living under a rock for the last few years, because I only just recently discovered the awesomeness that is SoundCloud, and I’m in love with it. I probably would have remained ignorant of it, except that I happened to read Simon Vance's blog where he wrote about #GoingPublic on Twitter. One thing led to another and I somehow ended up on SoundCloud, paging through all the tracts in the Going Public group. There are some real gems here and I strongly suggest you spend some time browsing the group -- Xe Sands reading of Frost's "Home Burial" is an excellent place to start.

Home Burial, by Robert Frost (read by Xe Sands) by Xe Sands

The Audiobook Lovers group, an interesting mix of adult and juvenile books, is also worth browsing. I was pleased to find The Velveteen Rabbit listed as it was one of my favorite children's books, but I'd never heard it read aloud. I spent a delightful 24 minutes listening to Xe Sand (yes, I have a crush) read it and it was really quite wonderful.

The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams (read by Xe Sands) by Xe Sands

And, if you like Penguin Books, Penguin Books UK is on SoundCloud with lots of delicious samples!


Gothic Challenge: Closed on Account of Rabies

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

I enjoyed Stories of the Macabre so much that I went looking through my library consortium’s catalog to see what other recordings might be available to me. As soon as I saw the title, Closed on Account of Rabies, I knew I had to give it a listen. I mean, doesn’t it look deliciously disturbing?

The audiobook collects fourteen of Poe’s stories and poems. Some have been set to song and all have accompanying atmospheric background music/sounds. I found the background music distracting as it frequently overwhelmed the performer -- too loud and/or too pronounced. Iggy Pop, Christopher Walken, and Gabriel Byrne performed excellent renditions of Poe's most famous horror stories, but I enjoyed them less than Ralph Cosham's on Stories of the Macabre, because the background music was so darn distracting.

That said, oh, you haven’t heard "The Raven" until you’ve heard it performed by Christopher Walken! (Just ignore the guitar).

Closed on Account of Rabies: Poems & Tales of Edgar Allan Poe written by Edgar Allan Poe & read by various (Mercury Records, 1997)


Gothic Reading Challenge: Stories of the Macabre

"For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not — and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburthen my soul."

I’ve been listening to Ralph Cosham read Richard Adams’s Watership Down and he’s doing such a bang-up job that I started looking for other works read by him. Poe’s Stories of the Macabre seemed a good place to start -- being short and appropriately seasonal.

Stories of the Macabre comprises six of Poe's classic horror stories and two of his poems:
  • “The Bells” -- Oh, those bells! They’ll drive you mad, they will.
  • “The Cask of Amontillado” -- Man takes revenge upon a friend who has insulted him by bricking said friend up in a wall.
  • “The Tell-Tale Heart” -- Man kills his landlord who has a blind eye, because the eye is driving him crazy. Police investigate, madness ensues.
  • “The Fall of the House of Usher” -- Out of friendship, Man visits a crumbling house beset by madness and disease. Someone gets buried alive.
  • “The Raven” -- Man is visited by a raven while mourning the loss of his beloved Lenore. Man descends into madness.
  • “The Black Cat” -- Alcoholic Man sinks into depravity, commits murder, and is haunted by Basement Cat.
  • “Berenice” -- Man, affianced to his cousin, becomes inappropriately fixated on her teeth and removes them from her corpse (which, it turns out, is not actually corpse).
  • “The Man That Was Used Up” -- Man meets the famous Brevet Brigadier General, who is more than the sum of his parts. Or is he? (Not a horror story, actually, but a satire)
Cosham’s superb reading is full of enthusiasm and emotion -- there is absolutely no doubting the wild madness or cold, calculating, wickedness that possesses our protagonists. Indeed, the mad little laugh he gives during “The Tell-Tale Heart” sent chills down my spine and the calm, rational tone he uses while reading “The Black Cat” made my flesh crawl.

And, on a mostly related note, I give you a scene from Edgar Allan Pooh's "The Tell-Tale Heart:"

Stories of the Macabre written by Edgar Allan Poe & read by Ralph Cosham (Commuters Library, 2002)


Charming, But Not Twee: Miss Read For Christmas

I read No Holly for Miss Quinn in early February and was so taken with it I immediately sought it out as an audiobook. While it's not available on its own, I did find it bundled with The Christmas Mouse.

No Holly For Miss Quinn, if you recall, tells the story of an extremely able career woman who finds herself taking care of her brother's children one Christmas. It was a very gentle story which managed to be tender without also being soppy.

The Christmas Mouse is the story of the adventures that befall a small, impoverished female household one blustery Christmas Eve when it is visited by a mouse and a runaway.

I enjoyed both books as they're both light, feel-good tales that took me out of myself and brought me to a "simpler"(illusionary, I know) time when, while life might not easy, people possessed great moral strength and demonstrated genuine care toward others that the might be nice to see more of now. And of course, everything always turns out right in the end. Not Happy Ever After, mind you, but Right.

Gwen Watford does a beautiful job reading these books and I look forward to listening to her read others!

The Christmas Mouse & No Holly For Miss Quinn written by Miss Read & read by Gwen Watford (BBC Audiobooks America, 1991)


More Favorite Stories of Christmas Past

The stories found in More Favorite Stories of Christmas Past are:

  • "Keeping Christmas" by Henry Van Dyke
  • "A Christmas Dream, and How It Came True" by Louisa May Alcott
  • "The Last Dream of the Old Oak" by Hans Christian Andersen
  • "Christmas at Red Butte" by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  • "The Little Match Girl" by Hans Christian Andersen
  • "Rosa's Tale" by Louisa May Alcott
  • "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens.

I admit I did not listen to all the stories in this collection -- only made it all the way through "Christmas at Red Butte" and "Rosa's Tale" -- but I was very pleased with these two. Prebble and Bean read very well with great animation and strong characterization. Indeed, I think I could listen to Bean all day. Perhaps she would come sit in my kitchen and read my cookbooks aloud to me if I paid her in cake?

Suuure, crazy lady, sure.

Montgomery's "Christmas at Red Butte" is a sweet story about sacrifice, love, and family. A poor young woman sacrifices a dear memento to provide a "real" Christmas for her family, only to have something even more precious returned to her on Christmas Day. This story seemed familiar and I'm pretty sure I must have read it in Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories.

In Alcott's "Rosa's Tale" a young woman brings her sister's horse a Christmas treat and discovers that the old wives' tale about dumb animals being able to speak on Christmas Eve is true. Rosa's life story shares much in common with Black Beauty and would be a great read for any horse or animal lover.

I tried listening to Alcott's "A Christmas Dream, and How It Came True" and Andersen's "The Last Dream of the Old Oak," but couldn't make it all the way through either of them. Alcott's story was just a little too precious for me to stomach and Andersen's story seemed so heavily drenched in symbolism that listening to it made me I feel as if I was being hit over the head with The Symbolism Stick.

More Favorite Stories of Christmas Past read by Simon Prebble & Joyce Bean (Tantor Media, 2008)