Monday, September 9, 2013

Tell Me A Story

I'm currently listening to "Mr. Penunmbra's 24-hour Bookstore" by Robin Sloan on audio and it's a perfect example of how important the reader is to the success of such a project.

When the book started I was tempted not to continue with it. The text is written in the present tense which is a writing style I generally loathe (and one, unfortunately, becoming more popular).

I don't know why exactly I hate it so much. A friend of mine once described it as "lazy" though I don't know if I'd go that far. I suppose one could argue that it doesn't make sense. If the person is in the middle of a gunfight, for example, he isn't keeping a log of his thoughts and movements so any descriptive record of the fight would have to be chronicled after the fact. So logically the style would have to be in the past tense.

Okay, I suppose one could also argue that that reasoning is a bit too anal. Suffice to say that in general, present tense just doesn't read right to me. Typically, once I realize that the writing is in present tense, I close the book and walk away. Every so often, a book surprises me and I continue to read. "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger for instance. It was an exceptional book enabling me to look past the present tense style (in fact, I'm not sure if it would have worked as well in the past tense). Of course in that case, the performers, William Hope and Laurel Lefkow, helped keep me listening. They did a wonderful job with material made difficult by the logistics of the plot.

As for "Mr. Penumbra's," I might have put that book down but the talent of the performer, Ari Fliakos, encouraged me to ignore the present tense style and stick with it. Now I'm enjoying the reader and the story.

Audio books are wonderful for people who don't have a lot of time to read. Popping them into the car's CD player on the way to work you can "read" a book and make the commute more enjoyable. An audio book performance you don't connect with, though, can turn you off a book completely. I get the feeling, based on the skimming I've done, that I wouldn't actually like any of Janet Evanovich's work but when I tried one of her mysteries on audio, I couldn't get past the first few tracks. The reader's style was irritating. Too cutesy. I don't know if it's as her voice or just the way she was reading it or both.

I can't help but wonder if I would have liked Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight Saga" books were it not for the reader of the audio books. Oh, okay, who am I kidding? I probably would have disliked the book just as much if I read rather than listened. I did read the first one and while I wasn't blown away by it, I did find it a quick, mindless and fun sort of read. The only reason I moved on to the second and third books was because I was asked to take part in book discussions for them. So for the sake of expediency, I chose to listen to them on audio. The performer, rather like the text, was cloying and whiney and did nothing to save the series for me.

A similar thing happened with "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins I had chosen this book for an on line book discussion I moderated when I worked at Pioneer Press. It was popular due to the movie's imminent release so I chose it in the hopes of coaxing people to take part in the discussion. With me working long hours, the audio would been more convenient for me, but the performer for the audio book read it so melodramatically that it soured me on it. Because I had to moderate the discussion though, I had to finish the book by reading it. And I actually ended up liking the book (despite, once again, it's present tense writing). In that case, it was a fortunate thing I was forced to read the book because I discovered a quality in the writing that wasn't being presented by the reader on audio.

Ron Perlman's performance of the audio book for "The Strain" is fantastic. The novel is the first in a particularly eerie vampire trilogy written by Guillermo Del Torro and Chuck Hogan. I was able to listen to the next one in the series (still need to get to the third) and while the performer for that novel did a good job, Perleman's performance with the first novel contained the perfect blend of suspense and menace helping to make a well crafted horror story even more frightening.

Speaking of vampires, when I wrote "Vampires' Most Wanted," I read "Dracula" straight through (since it's featured in the chapter on books) for the first time. I'd tried years before but put it aside (I was always more of a "Frankenstein" fan) because it just wasn't catching me. Even though I finished it when I tried it the second time, the book nevertheless left me cold. It was only when I listened to it, as a refresher since I chose it for the online book discussion (for Halloween), that I really enjoyed it. (Unfortunately, I can't track down the information on the edition so I'm unable to name the man and woman who performed the reading). Perhaps listening to it enabled me to lose myself in the story better than reading it.

The books of Bill Bryson are especially fun to listen to since he performs the audio himself. He has a slightly deadpanned, slightly adenoidal delivery that is just right for the material. He's written books on all manner of topics: Science, travel, language, history. I enjoyed his book on Shakespeare, as well as "A Short History of Nearly Everything," "The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America," and "I'm a Stranger Here Myself." There's no guarantee that an author can read their own work better than anyone else, but Bryson does a good job with his work.

Jim Dale reading the audio for J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series was always a treat. I had a friend who made the reading of the book and later the listening of the audio a ritual with every new book released. Dale seemed able to inhabit each character, old or young, male or female, good or evil and it was a quality that, as with Rowling's writing, spanned across the series.

Joanne Harris has been one of my favorite authors since I fell in love with her novel "Chocolate". She put aside the "food theme" that she often weaves within her writing ("Blackberry Wine," "Five Quarters of the Orange,") with a book called "Gentlemen and Players," a psychological thriller set in a boys school in England. It was a wonderfully tense story made richer by Steven Pacey who performed the audio book.

I think my favorite audio performances are those by John Lee reading Ken Follet's novels in the "Pillars of the Earth" series and "The Century" trilogy. The audio books, again, were chosen by me over reading for convenience sake. The books are very long and my free time idiotically tight. An hour commute to work four days a week, however, helped me enjoy the work of a true master by listening to it on audio. Lee's talent for not only acting but accents is especially apparent in the "The Century" trilogy which concern the world wars and those characters from various countries caught up in them. Russia, British, American, German, French, etc. Accents that are called for are performed expertly turning Follet's intricately woven storylines into something akin to a radio play.

So next time you want to read a good book, why not try listening to a good book. You might get even more than you expect.