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The Reluctant Listener: Rose Under Fire

reluctantlistenerrufusWhen I listened to the audiobook of Code Name Verity, one of the things I noticed was the sense of performance. This makes a lot of sense given the themes of the book, and who the narrator is, and the games she’s playing.

I listened to the audiobook of Rose Under Fire recently, and it’s a little different, which also makes sense. There’s one narrator, apart from a few letters in the middle of the text. Whereas with CNV, I noticed how well the narrators did the accents, in this case, I forgot I was listening to a performance. It was like Rose was speaking to me. Although she does accents, of course, Roza and Irina and Lisette, what I primarily felt was a sense of naturalism.

Perhaps a bit more eerily, occasionally Rose sounds like very, very much like my Nana, who is also from Pennsylvania and who was born about five years before Rose’s (fictional) birth. I noted in my original review of RUF that “Rose is a bookish American who loves England, with German heritage, from the Midwest”–that I felt a kind of distant kinship with her. The audiobook reinforced this; these moments when her voice sounded so distinctly like someone I know.

One of the marvelous things about Sasha Pick’s narration is how well she voices the delineation between pre-Ravensbrück and post-Ravensbrück Rose. In the beginning, she is effervescent, earnest, and naive. She is touched by things, but she hasn’t really lived through them, as she herself knows. After Ravensbrück, she is still Rose, but she has a gravity, a weight to her narration that signals how much has changed.

(She is also excellent at reading poetry, just at the perfect balance of emotion without dramatics, which matters so much for this character. Hearing this Rose recite Millay, recite her own poems, is intensely beautiful.)

As I’ve said before, for me the narrator can really make or break an audiobook. In this case, the result is a wonderful, heartfelt rendition, giving life not only to Rose, but to all of her family from Block 32. It feels personal rather than performative, filled with Rose’s experiences and words, her attempts to tell the world.

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The Reluctant Listener: Code Name Verity

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Warning! Contains spoilers for Code Name Verity.

cnv usA few years ago, when I would have categorized myself as very much NOT an audiobook listener, I was tempted into listening to the audiobook for Code Name Verity. Because, well, Code Name Verity, plus several people I trust said it was very well done. And it was and is. I’ve just finished listening to it again, and cried buckets of tears as usual.

Part of the reason I’m often wary of audiobooks is that I tend to hear a narrator’s voice while reading, and if the audiobook narrator doesn’t match up with that imagined voice, the whole thing doesn’t work. (I stopped listening to a Dorothy Sayers audiobook after about two minutes because the voice for Lord Peter was just so very, VERY wrong.) In this case, the voice casting for both Julie and Maddie is wonderful; both narrators actually reflect where the characters come from, and both are excellent at narration. Morven Christie as Julie is especially–well, memorable doesn’t quite cut it. She makes Julie come alive. Clear and funny and then sometimes fraying into sorrow, anger, tiredness. Plus, she does all the accents and languages so well!

Which brings me to another point: the first time I listened to this audiobook, I had read CNV at least twice. I cried buckets of tears, of course. But the audiobook made me cry in several new places. I did not think at the time that this was possible. First, there’s the whole sequence with Georgia Penn, which somehow came so much more to life: that careful dance of words that both are enacting. “I am the soul of verity.” And then, that astonishing moment when Von Linden sings a snippet of Wagner; Christie somehow manages to sing as Julie quoting Von Linden and it’s one of the most eerie things I have ever heard. Audiobooks at their best give new depth to the familiar words, and that’s exactly what this one does.

Lucy Gaskell’s Maddie is also wonderful. Completely different than Julie, more emotional, less considered, her narration fits Maddie so well. She uses pauses, a little hitch of breath and it’s like she’s talking to you. But she’s also fierce, as Maddie is. When she talks about being Von Linden’s mortal enemy, I believe her utterly. And in the bridge scene and its aftermath, I completely believed her pain and sorrow and guilt and–is satisfaction the right word? Not exactly, but her knowledge that she hadn’t let Julie down.

This is still one of my favorite audiobooks ever, an astonishing and beautiful performance. They do make a sensational team.

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The Reluctant Listener: An Agatha Christie spree

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So, remember how last year I wrote one post about audiobooks and then…didn’t write anything else? I’m going to try to be more conscious about reviewing the audiobooks I listen to this year.

And at the moment, I’m listening to a lot of them because I am really tired of all the CDs I have in the car. It’s dark and cold out, and so the obvious answer is ALL the Agatha Christie.

Towards Zero, read by Hugh Fraser. Audio Partners, 2007.

Not a Poirot or a Miss Marple, though it takes place in the Poirot universe. Superintendent Battle manages to solve the mystery ALL ON HIS OWN! The story is also notable for the fact that Christie manages to be both sympathetic and weirdly snobby about divorce, and for the memorable solution. Also, a romance that comes out of nowhere and left me with…questions.

However, Hugh Fraser is a marvelous reader (this is going to be a theme) and he manages to do all kinds of accents and voices really well; I’ve noticed that men reading female characters tend to make them sound silly. Fraser doesn’t, and he handles the shifts in character adeptly.

Cat Among the Pigeons (Hercule Poirot), read by Hugh Fraser. BBC Audiobooks America, 2002.

As an audiobook, this one is quite enjoyable. Hugh Fraser is an excellent reader, plus I associate his voice with Poirot, which is definitely helpful. He’s also really good at accents, and imitates David Suchet as Poirot so well that I have a weird moment whenever I remember that it’s actually not Suchet at all.

As a book, this one is frustrating, for several reasons. First, to just say it, it’s suuuuper racist. There’s kind of an undertone to most of Christie, but yeah, no this is just blatant. Second, the story as story is odd: everything happens and several characters investigate very ably, and then at the very end, Poirot comes in and solves everything. It reads like it was written as a independent book and then Poirot was shoved in at the last moment. Also, something really sad and tragic happens and everyone just seems to sort of collectively shrug and go on with life.

The Body in the Library (Miss Marple), read by Stephanie Cole. Audio Partners, 2002.

This is one I had read and re-read several times, so the pleasure of it was definitely in the narration and in Miss Marple herself (I do love Miss Marple). The solution comes a bit out of nowhere, if I remember correctly, also I wasn’t super comfortable with the way the disabled character is portrayed. (It doesn’t help that the c-word is used several times.) But by and large–Miss Marple!

Cole does a good job overall. She has a pleasant voice for narration and does Miss Marple and most of the other characters superbly. I did find myself wishing that a few of them had been differentiated a bit more. The main problem, however, is that both of the children who have speaking parts in the story sounded incredibly precocious and snotty. I don’t think this was intentional, but oh dear. Despite finding this annoying, neither child feature prominently enough for it to become a real problem for me.

I have a Tommy & Tuppence audiobook too, but I haven’t tried it yet.

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The Reluctant Listener: Introduction and All Creatures Great and Small review

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Introduction

If you asked me, I would probably say that I’m not really much of an audiobook person: too often the narrator doesn’t get the voices right, or something else is off, and besides I’m a visual learner rather than an auditory one anyway. Given my choice between print and any other format and I’ll choose print 90% of the time. (And I know that just by virtue of being able to make that choice I’m pretty privileged.)

And yet, in the past few years I’ve ended up listening to several audiobooks, most of which I’ve enjoyed and one or two of which I’ve really loved. So I’m starting a new feature here to occasionally highlight an audiobook I’ve listened to. If you have any suggestions for excellently narrated audiobooks, feel free to let me know!

Review of All Creatures Great and Small
Book by James Herriot
Audiobook produced by Audio Renaissance, 2002; read by Christopher Timothy

This is the audiobook that really started me on my current trend. You see, I grew up reading James Herriot’s memoirs of his Yorkshire vet years and also watching the marvelous BBC adaptation (Peter Davison as Tristan! Robert Hardy as Siegfried!). And in the adaptation, James is played by Christopher Timothy, a wonderful and under-rated Welsh actor, who also did all the narration for the Herriot audiobooks. This combination turned out to be perfect for me! Timothy’s voice is already established in my head as “How James Herriot should sound,” besides which he’s a talented voice actor who can do the other characters quite well. It’s also a book I’ve read a number of times–since I listen to audiobooks almost exclusively while driving, this means I can not give the story my full attention without becoming completely lost. I absolutely recommend this one, especially if you’re a fellow Herriot fan!