Print Review: New Boy

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New Boy
By Tracy Chevalier
Penguin Random House | Hogarth
Release Date (Hardback): May 16, 2017
ISBN 9781524779467
LITERARY-FICTION

Othello is William Shakespeare’s tragedy about the jealous rage of the eponymous Moor, the fate of his fair and artless wife, Desdemona, and the machinations of Othello’s Ancient, Iago. Set on the exotic eastern Mediterranean island of Venetian Cyprus, Othello’s role as defender is rendered moot when the Ottoman Empire’s fleet founders in a storm; but isolates the key players in a foreign milieu.

Tracy Chevalier has chosen to re-interpret Shakespeare’s play through the lens of her own experience as a white “minority… growing up in Washington, D.C.” (from tchevalier.com.) The author has set New Boy in a public elementary school in the DC Metro area (in 1974) wherein a Ghanian boy is the student introduced into a playground of all white children and teachers. Setting the action of the novel in a place where “kids get together at recess and break up at lunch time,” and where such trial relationships are often intense if ephemeral, rings true; and mirrors Shakespeare’s Cyprian island in its physically limited venue away from home. But it also poses the first issue of the novel in that in inverting the racial composition of the community, the author has completely subverted the WDC culture; and readers familiar with the area and time period will immediately sense the forced contrivance.

Where Ms Chevalier succeeds is in the POV of Dee (the Desdemona surrogate,) the white girl who becomes quickly fascinated with the black student, Osei (Othello); Dee seems to have the most depth of the characters, though the aggressive pursuit of a relationship with Osei seems a bit mature for a pre-pubescent; and ahead of her time in its progressive aspect. Nonetheless, she negotiates the school with an artlessness that seems genuine. Unfortunately, the other characters are rendered as flat stereotypes such as the racist teacher, the popular boy, the schoolyard bully, etc.

Moreover, while The Bard’s play includes the issue of racism (as epitomized in Desdemona’s father,) the issue of Othello’s blackness is muted by his military successes and the esteem of his colleagues. Ms Chevalier touches very briefly on non-racial themes in her novel; but it is, by and large a book reduced to the racial aspect. The jealousies of Osei (Othello,) Rod (Rodrigo) and Ian (Iago) are all predicated on the issue of Osei being black. By reducing Othello into a story solely about race, the other themes are underdeveloped and/or nonexistent in Tracy Chevalier’s re-telling.

Overall, this was an extremely disappointing read; and underscores a personal suspicion that the idea of the Hogarth Shakespeare series is more appealing than any of its actual executions.

OTHER:  I received an Advanced Reader’s Edition of New Boy (by Tracy Chevalier) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. I receive no monies, goods or services in exchange for reviewing the product and/or mentioning any of the persons or companies that are or may be implied in this post.

Print Review: Hag-Seed

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Hag-Seed
By Margaret Atwwod
Penguin Random House | Hogarth
Release Date: October 11, 2016
ISBN-13: 9780804141291
LITERARY FICTION

The Tempest is a play about a man producing a play – one that comes out of his own head…”; and ‘Hag-Seed’ is a novel about Felix Phillips, the former artistic director of the Makeshewig Theater Festival, who finally gets to mount a production ofThe Tempest, albeit with the Fletcher Correctional Players instead of a professional acting company. Felix is also using the play to enact his own real-life drama of revenge. Atwood constructs an interesting meta form: The novel is the re-telling of The Tempest; The director has the players re-write Shakespeare’s Comedy; and the director himself is living out an alternate version… Depending on how involved the reader is in the novel, it could be argued that Atwood has added another layer into the story by capturing the reader as the audience.

Atwood uses this re-telling as exposition of her own understanding of the play; and cleverly up-cycles the Bard’s material both in structure and content. Felix becomes the avatar for Atwood’s research, teaching a class about the play to the would-be actors and the readers of the novel too. The FCP’s re-constructed Tempest raps out lines from the play and re-interprets the figures into modern understanding. The book itself is set up into five parts, mirroring the five acts of Shakespeare’s play.

If there is to be any quibble, it is only this: There is no magic. The original play contains mostly unlikable characters. With the exception of Ariel and Gonzalo, they are best described as manipulative, incredibly naive, homicidal, rapacious, scheming, lying… The appeal of much of the play are the spells that Prospero casts, casting illusions on epic scale. With ‘Hag-Seed’, that magic is reduced to special effects, which shears off the glamour of the story.

The novel is well executed and deserving of study alongside the Classic play, especially in discussions about modern or contemporary relevance and revisionist Shakespeare.

OTHER: I received an Advanced Reader’s Edition of Hag-Seed  (by Margaret Atwood) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. I receive no monies, goods or services in exchange for reviewing the product and/or mentioning any of the persons or companies that are or may be implied in this post.

Armchair Audies: Lit-Fiction and Classics

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The Armchair Audies is an annual, unofficial event in which audiobook fans each pick a category from the APA Audies Finalists announcement, and listen to each of the 4-6 titles nominated. After listening, and reviewing each of the contenders, the listener(s) pick(s) the winner for his/her selected category. This year, I listened to the finalists in the Classics & Literary Fiction category along with The Sleepless Reader. You can click on the titles for each of the audiobooks listed below to check out my full reviews (with the exception of ‘Til the Well Runs Dry.) At the end of the list, is “My Pick” 🙂

The five finalists in the Classics and Literary Fiction category year are:

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The Fishermen (by Chigozie Obioma; narrated by Chukwudi Iwuji; published by Hachette Audio )
+ Excellent Story of pride, loyalty, extreme and graphic violence, superstition, vengeance, and ideas of redemption. Don’t let the premise of “four boys who decide to go fishing one day” lull you into thinking this is some sleepy, exotic tale; or a navel-gazing lit-fic piece.
+ Excellent Narration: The narrator is Nigerian and reads the text with native cadences, bringing the  various characters to life; and reads the textual cues (so when the author writes that a word is stressed a certain way, the narrator actually takes it as direction instead of blowing it off.)
+ Excellent Production Values, meaning no discernible issues that I could detect.

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Kidnapped (by Robert Louis Stevenson; narrated by Kieron Elliott; published by Recorded Books)
+ Classic Tale of swashbuckling heroism, clever ruses, and breath taking scenes of danger!
+ Decent Narration – Native Scotsman reads carefully, preserving the special (nautical), archaic, and idiomatic language of the novel
Perhaps the narration could have been a wee bit faster in delivery. The pace was rather slow, counter to the tempos in the story
+ Excellent Production Values, meaning no discernible issues that I could detect
+ Bonus: The narrator looks like a young Sean Connery. Not really a consideration when evaluating the audiobook; but it certainly doesn’t hurt!

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Little Big Man (by Thomas Berger, narrated by Scott Sowers, cameo by David Aaron Baker; with an essay by Larry McMurty narrated by Henry Strozier;  published by Recorded Books)
+ Well Researched American Classic serving as a satire of America’s Old West
+ Essay at the end of the story works as a nice summary of the books’s approach
+ Narrators nail their respective characters or roles
Production Values were terrible: On Sowers’ section, there were page turns, mouth noises, booth noises, at least one repeating sentence, a couple sections out of order, and overall it didn’t sound as clean as the parts narrated by David Aaron Baker or Henry Strozier.

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Sweetland (by Michael Crummey; narrated by John Lee; published by HighBridge Audio/Recorded Books
“OK”premise for a story: A man whose ancestors founded a Canadian Island, is one of the holdouts when the government seeks to resettle the inhabitants. But, there is an emotional disconnectedness between the text and the story, and the story and the listener. The author also manages to spoil his own plot, diffusing the tensions within. The overall story seems to borrow a bit from other books I have read too, which makes it feel not altogether original.
John Lee barreled though the text; and kept mispronouncing some place names, most notably, “Newfoundland” (which should have been native to the protagonist.)  Though John Lee is not a Newfie, this could have been avoided with just a little bit of research.
+ Excellent Production Values, meaning no discernible issues that I could detect.

 

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‘Til the Well Runs Dry (by Lauren Francis-Sharma, narrated by Ron Butler and Bahni Turpin; published by Tantor Media)
+ Some great dramatic scenes
No inherent narrative tension: Whatever momentum the dramatic scenes carry is dissipated in the next section.
After a while, the story feels like rummaging through other people’s dirty laundry.
+ Narrators are clear in their delivery
But neither narrators are native to Trinidad. Accents/rhythms sound forced. Despite their efforts in adding a bit of regional color, in a category where you have excellent native narrators (A Nigerian, a Scotsman, and an American each reading material set in their respective countries,) this is  a minus.
Ultimately, I could not finish listening to this audiobook. Just shy of the half-way mark, I started avoiding my iPhone. For two weeks I tried to force myself to finish, but I realized that the audio experience just wasn’t working for me.
* You can read Alex’s review of ‘Til the Well Runs Dry on her blog, The Sleepless Reader.com

☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆MY PICK☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

The Fishermen (by Chigozie Obioma; narrated by Chukwudi Iwuji; published by Hachette Audio)
☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

* You can read Alex’s prediction for the winner on her blog, The Sleepless Reader 🙂

OTHER:
I purchased The Fishermen: A Novel (by Chigozie Obioma; narrated by Chukwudi Iwuji) from audible.com;
I received a CD Library edition of  Kidnapped (by Robert Louis Stevenson; narrated by Kieron Elliott) from Recorded Books in exchange for review;
I dnloaded a CD digital copy of  Little Big Man (by Thomas Berger
narrated by David Aaron Baker and Scott Sowers; with an Essay by Larry McMurty narrated by Henry Strozier) from Downpour.com;
I listened to a digital copy of Sweetland (by Michael Crummey; narrated by John Lee) from Scribd.com;
I listened to a digital copy of ‘Til the Well Runs Dry (by Lauren Francis-Sharma; narrated by Ron Butler and Bahni Turpin) from Scribd.com.

I receive no monies, goods (beyond the audiobooks) or services in exchange for reviewing the products and/or mentioning any of the persons or companies that are or may be implied in this post.

EDIT:
11MAY2016 – Added line about Alex’s review of ‘Til the Well Runs Dry; Added link
11MAY2016 – Added line abour Alex’s prediction; Added link

 

Audiobook Review: Sweetland

Sweetland

Sweetland
By Michael Crummey
Narrated by John Lee
Ⓟ 2015, HighBridge Audio, A Division of Recorded Books
9 hours, 12 minutes
LIT-FIC

A seventy-year old man, Moses Sweetland, has lived most of his entire life on a Newfoundland island his forefathers founded (and named “Sweetland”) many generations ago. Faced with the prospect of resettlement by the government, he lives with his memories and ghosts. Sweetland is a bittersweet tale about a man trying to survive his past and outrace his present; but the future is coming for him whether he’s prepared for it or not…

Present-day scenes merge nicely with the flashbacks (and back again); but overall, the story is less than the sum of its parts. The novel is packed with scenes of tension, sadness, even comedy; but it fails to actually deliver tension, sadness or comedy – which leads to an emotional disconnect between the text and the story, the story and the listener. This may be in part due to the way the events are ordered within the novel  – which kills the suspense; the author providing obvious hints which tips the hand as to the events about to unfold  – which leeches any sort of emotional tension; and eccentricity being too self-aware to be actual humorous or even quirky.   We, the Drowned (by Carsten Jensen) and The Solitude of Thomas Cave (by Georgina Harding; coincidentally narrated by John Lee as well) immediately come to mind in terms of the tie-in between land, sea, and man; and there are some stylistic points that the three books share as well which makes the novel feel familiar, but not particularly special.

John Lee’s narration was rather surprisingly brisk. Over the years, the careful, sometimes overly-enunciated performances have given way to this faster approach. This can prevent the listener from getting bogged down in lit-fic prose; but it can also get in the way of the listener savoring the language, or even understanding what a scene entails. The only other note, though perhaps small beer for many listeners, is that Lee is  British-American narrator who was cast to read a POV1 story about a Canadian; but there was no attempt imitate the regional accent, or even pronounce “Newfoundland” as a Newfie would.

 

OTHER: I listened to a digital copy of Sweetland (by Michael Crummey; narrated by John Lee) from Scribd.com. I receive no monies, goods, or services in exchange for reviewing the product and/or mentioning any of the persons or companies that are or may be implied in this post.
Sweetland (by Michael Crummey; narrated by John Lee)  is a finalist in the 2016 APA Audie Awards in the Classics & Literary Fiction category.

The Armchair Audies is an annual, unofficial event in which audiobook fans each pick a category from the APA Audies Finalists announcement, and listen to each of the 4-6 titles nominated. After listening, and reviewing each of the contenders, the listener(s) picks the winner for his/her selected category. This year, I’m listening to the finalists in the Classics & Literary Fiction category along with The Sleepless Reader. You can read her review of Sweetland on her blog, TheSleeplessrEader.com

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EDIT: 11MAY2016 – Added line about The Sleepless Reader’s review; Added link

Audioboook Review: The Fishermen

 

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The Fishermen: A Novel
By Chigozie Obioma
Narrated by Chukwudi Iwuji
Ⓟ 2015, Hachette
9 hrs and 51 mins
LITERARY FICTION

The Fishermen is a lif-fic novel set in Nigeria in the mid- to late 1990s, and features four brothers who decide to take up fishing at a nearby river… As innocuous as the premise sounds, that one decision sets off a series of events that underscore pride, loyalty, extreme and graphic violence, superstition, vengeance, and ideas of redemption. You don’t need to know anything about Nigeria to get the setting; but it may be helpful to know that during the time period of the novel, Nigerian politics were extremely corrupt and led to civil unrest.

The narrator is Nigerian and reads the text with native cadences, bringing the  various characters to life. Of particular note, are the voices given to the father and priest, characters whose voices are delivered with immediacy and heat that reflect the mood and personalities of the characters vividly. Iwuji also reads the textual cues expertly; so when the author writes that a word is stressed a certain way, the narrator actually takes it as direction instead of blowing it off. Iwuji gives a really great performance. There’s a smattering of Igbo (one of four official languages of Nigeria), and the English spoken is based on the Queen’s English (so there are some seemingly odd stresses to words to American ears like “tarpaulin”); but the authenticity of the narration cannot be denied.

OTHER: I purchased The Fishermen: A Novel (by Chigozie Obioma; narrated by Chukwudi Iwuji) from audible.com. I receive no monies, goods (beyond the audiobook) or services in exchange for reviewing the product and/or mentioning any of the persons or companies that are or may be implied in this post.


The Fishermen: A Novel
 (by Chigozie Obioma; narrated by Chukwudi Iwuji)is a finalist in the 2016 APA Audie Awards in the Classics & Literary Fiction category.

The Armchair Audies is an annual, unofficial event in which audiobook fans each pick a category from the APA Audies Finalists announcement, and listen to each of the 4-6 titles nominated. After listening, and reviewing each of the contenders, the listener(s) picks the winner for his/her selected category. This year, I’m listening to the finalists in the Classics & Literary Fiction category along with The Sleepless Reader. You can read her review of The Fishermen on her blog, The Sleepless Reader.com.

 

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EDIT:
03/28/2016: Added 2016 APA Audie line;
03/28/2016: Added Armchair Audies logo;
03/29/2016: Added Armchair Audies paragraph including links to The Armchair Audies, the APA Audies finalists announcement, and to The Sleepless Reader’s review of The Fishermen