Review: Drums of Autumn, Diana Gabaldon, narrated by Davina Porter

Drums of AutumnAs I make soap, I’ve been listening to audio books, and I just finished a really long one—Drums of Autumn, the fourth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Like the other books in this series, Drums of Autumn is narrated by Davina Porter.

This book picks up the story of Jamie and Claire as they settle in North Carolina on Fraser’s Ridge. Their daughter, Brianna, who lives about 200 years in the future in the late 1960’s, discovers disturbing news about her parents and decides to go through the stones at Craigh na Dun and help Jamie and Claire. Roger Wakefield, sometimes known by his birth name of Roger MacKenzie, discovers what Brianna has done and follows her through the stones.

I have read this book once before. I will just lay this on the table: I am not a fan of Brianna’s. I don’t like her personality much, and I can’t put my finger on why. Claire, to me, is interesting because she’s so knowledgeable about medicine, and I found her understanding of herbal healing particularly fascinating. I’m not into herbalism per se, but as a soap maker, I do find it interesting. Claire is no-nonsense, passionate, intelligent, and above everything else, interesting.

Because this book focuses so much on Brianna’s trials and tribulations, I find I don’t like it as much as the other books. I like the parts that dwell on Claire, Jamie, and even Young Ian, however. I didn’t realize until I read it again this time, but I also don’t care much for Roger. I don’t know if it’s because the pair of them seem indecisive and dispassionate compared to Claire and Jamie. I do feel that Gabaldon tries to impart some passion in their relationship, but I don’t buy it as a reader. It doesn’t feel the same. I wonder if it has something to do with this interesting comment Gabaldon made in her book The Outlandish Companion:

These [hard nuts] are the most difficult characters for me to animate; the characters whose function in the story is structural—they’re important not because of personality or action, but because of the role they play.

One example of a hard nut is Brianna, Jamie and Claire’s daughter. She existed in the first place only because I had to have a child. The fact of her conception provides the motive for one of the major dramatic scenes in Dragonfly, but it didn’t matter at all at that point who this kid was or what she would be like…

But who the heck was this character? And having created her purely for plot purposes, how was I to give her a personality? (130-131)

Perhaps it’s just my opinion, and others might disagree, but I would argue that Gabaldon doesn’t succeed fully in making either Brianna or Roger as real or as interesting as Jamie and Claire, or even as real and interesting as other minor characters who pop off the page.

Davina Porter is a heck of a good narrator, especially deft with handling all the voices of the characters. I would definitely seek out other books she has narrated just to hear her read.

In case you are wondering at this point, I have been enjoying the new Outlander series on Starz quite a bit. It is very true to the book, and the casting is excellent. I haven’t missed an episode yet. Even my husband is watching with me, insisting, “I don’t get how this is considered a woman’s story. I mean, I guess the books are romances…” Not exactly. Sort of difficult to classify. At any rate, the series is beautifully shot with great music and some fine acting. Check it out, if you haven’t.

Book Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Patrick Stewart

The Last Battle is the final book in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series. It begins with an evil ape named Shift, who bosses around a donkey named Puzzle under the pretense of being the donkey’s friend. The two find a lion skin, and Shift gets the bright idea of having Puzzle wear it so they can fool everyone into thinking Puzzle is Aslan. A bunch of people believe it. There is a bit with some dwarfs. There is a centaur and a unicorn. The Pevensies, minus Susan, and Eustace, Jill, Digory, and Polly, are all pulled back to Narnia after a mysterious bit with a train. A bunch of people worship the evil god Tash and want him to come but aren’t very happy when he shows up.

I don’t know what heck I read.

Listen, I have no problem with Christian allegory. Despite what J. R. R. Tolkien thinks, a good case can be made for The Lord of the Rings as Christian allegory, especially if you put it with The Silmarillion. I also happen to be a Christian. However, in this novel, Lewis sacrificed the plot in favor of ham-handed allegory. And it’s not even good.

I was already prepared for the “problem of Susan,” as I had run into commentary on the subject prior to reading the book, but it bears mentioning that leaving Susan completely bereft of family because she’s a normal teenager is truly heinous. What, girls should not grow up and become women? That’s not pure enough?

But what really bothers me is that it’s supposed to be Christian allegory, and everyone’s killing people right and left. What the heck? I mean, I gather it’s more Revelations than Book of John, but still…

My advice to anyone who, like me, didn’t read these as a child and decides to read them as an adult is to read The Magician’s Nephew, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and leave it at that. Maybe The Horse and His Boy if you want to learn more about those characters, who only get a few mentions in the last couple of books and otherwise don’t figure much into the grand narrative. Stay far, far away from the final two books.

Racist, sexist, sloppily written, muddled, pile of crap. I don’t understand why a writer would desecrate his own writing like that. Patrick Stewart couldn’t save it, though his narration was brilliant. WORST. ENDING. EVER.

I so hate C. S. Lewis.

Book Rating: ½☆☆☆☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Jeremy Northam

The Silver Chair (The Chronicles of Narnia)The penultimate book in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is The Silver Chair. This book features the Pevensie siblings’ cousin Eustace Scrubb, who first appeared in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Jill Pole, a classmate of Eustace’s at a boarding school called Experiment House. Eustace and Jill are being chased by bullies when they are magically whisked to Narnia and become embroiled in a quest to find the missing Prince Rilian, the son of King Caspian X, who is now an old man.

*Sigh*. Where to start with this hot mess. I didn’t like it from the start because it’s quite clear that Lewis is attempting to skewer progressive education in his characterization of Experiment House, but rather than create a good satire, he winds up sounding like an old fart who doesn’t know what he’s talking about (“Back in my day, we took switches to kids and prayed in school!”). Eustace and Jill are not nearly as likable as the Pevensies. Puddleglum is fun, but then I think I liked him mainly because of Jeremy Northam’s voice characterization—he had the best West Country accent. The male superiority is maddening. Jill actually says, “Where I come from, they don’t think much of men who are bossed about by their wives.” Um… What? I can’t imagine Lucy Pevensie saying such a thing. Yes, I know all about Susan being interested in lipstick and stockings in the next book. Which I will read to say I’ve read the whole series.

It’s clear Lewis was thinking of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by having the Lady of the Green Kirtle kidnap and enchant Prince Rilian, but the stories diverge quite a bit aside from a passing similarity, which is a bit of a pity, because the rest of the plot is unremarkable. For a children’s book, the pace bogs down rather unforgivably once the characters go underground, and the plot is predictable from the start to the finish. Jeremy Northam’s narration, however, is superb. I just wish he had better material to work with. One thing I figured out after reading this book—I would love to visit Hogwarts and Middle Earth, but I have zero desire to go to Narnia.

Book Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Prince Caspian, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Lynn Redgrave

Prince CaspianI finished listening to C. S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian over the weekend, and I haven’t had a chance to do my review yet.

Prince Caspian takes place one Earth year after the Pevensie siblings—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—have returned from Narnia through the wardrobe. They are at the train station preparing to go off to school, when they are suddenly whisked back to Narnia. It takes them some time to realize where they are because everything has changed. While they have been gone, hundreds of years have passed in Narnia, and they discover they have been summoned because Narnia once again has great need of their services. Prince Caspian, rightful king of Narnia, has had his power usurped by his evil Uncle Miraz, and he can’t defeat his uncle alone.

Each of the novels in this audio book series is narrated by a different great British actor. I found Kenneth Branagh’s reading of The Magician’s Nephew utterly charming, while Michael York’s reading of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a bit spottier. Alex Jennings’s read of The Horse and His Boy was also good. Lynn Redgrave’s reading of Prince Caspian is excellent. She did a masterful job capturing the characters’ voices and using different types of accents. She managed to inject the patronizing tone of older siblings into Peter and Susan, and her characterization of the dwarfs Trumpkin and Nikabrik made me glad whenever they took the “stage.” I also particularly enjoyed her characterization of Doctor Cornelius, Reepicheep, and Trufflehunter. It looks like she has narrated a few other audio books, so I have to recommend her highly. What a shame she is no longer with us.

Of the four Chronicles of Narnia books I’ve read or re-read this year, I would say Prince Caspian comes in a strong second after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Pevensies strike me as similar to King Arthur: they will come when Narnia has great need of them, and the device of Susan’s horn to call them was clever (and somewhat evocative of other myths). I really loved some of the minor characters in this one. Caspian is likeable, but Trumpkin, Reepicheep, Trufflehunter, and Doctor Cornelius are loveable. I like the idea that Narnian time passes at a different rate. I wonder if I can say this, though, without making someone angry: I just don’t like Aslan. He’s not bad, he’s just so heavy-handed a symbol. I realize it would wreck Lewis’s Jesus allegory if he removed Aslan from the stories, but I would find them more interesting if they had to figure out how to defeat the enemies without him as a deus ex machina. I also don’t find his personality particularly compelling. I understand his role in the stories, but he just doesn’t interest me as much as the children do. I suppose that if he is supposed to represent Jesus, then I’m not really sure I like this particular characterization of Jesus. Jesus struck me as less judgey and more gentle. I know he overturned the moneychangers’ tables at the Temple, but I mean on the whole. Aslan is forgiving, too; I’m doing a sloppy job putting my finger on their differences. Suffice it to say that I don’t find him as much fun as the other characters.

In all, this was a very enjoyable reading. I know I’m liking an audio book when I find excuses to wash the dishes so I can listen to a book while I do it. I mean, that’s just crazy, right?

Book Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Voyager, Diana Gabaldon, narrated by Davina Porter

Voyager audio book (Voyager)Voyager is the third book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Outlander is filming right now and will appear on Starz this summer. Can’t wait! The casting looks phenomenal. Spoilers follow for the first two books, so you might not want to read the rest of this review if you don’t want them wrecked for you. I figure you probably wouldn’t be reading a review of the third book in a series unless you had either already read the others or don’t mind their being spoiled.

If you’re not familiar with this series, it’s a most unusual and difficult to classify series of books: part historical fiction, part romance, part fantasy/sci fi—I can’t think of too many books like these that so defy labels. In the first book, a World War II nurse named Claire Randall steps through standing stones in a stone circle near Inverness and finds herself over 200 years in the past. As she tries desperately to get back home to her husband Frank, she winds up forced (after a fashion) to marry young Jamie Fraser and unexpectedly falls in love with him. In the second book, Dragonfly in Amber, the Jacobite Rebellion draws closer, and Claire and Jamie try to think of a way to avoid the devastation that will follow, even spending time in France, but Jamie is inevitably called to fight at Culloden, but before he faces a battle where he expects to die, he sends his wife Claire back through the stones to save her life and that of the baby she is carrying.

Voyager begins some twenty years later. Claire and Jamie’s daughter Brianna is grown, and Claire has become a doctor. She and Brianna travel to Scotland and discover that Jamie did not die at Culloden after all. Claire decides to go back through the stones one more time to reunite with the love of her life, leaving her daughter behind with Roger Wakefield, a young historian who helped Claire discover Jamie’s history and who is falling in love with Brianna.

The first time I read this book was probably around 1998 or 1999. I remember that I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first two at that time because I thought I like it better when Claire and Jamie were in Scotland, and I also had more difficulty enjoying them as an older couple, which sounds pretty horrible now (thought it’s an accurate representation of my feelings at the time). For crying out loud, Claire was something like 50! And Jamie was at least mid-40’s. Now that I am actually a lot closer to their ages in this book, I found that I no longer seem to have much trouble enjoying Jamie and Claire as an older couple. ;-)

I will admit that this book starts a little bit slowly. I suppose it is necessary for the reader to be filled in on exactly what Jamie did following Culloden and how Claire found out he was still alive and decided to go back in time to reunite with him, but the book drags a bit through this part. Once Claire goes back through the stones and finds Jamie in Edinburgh, the book picks up quite a bit, and frankly, the action doesn’t let up for pretty much the remainder of the book. I had forgotten what a swashbuckling story this one is. Jamie and Claire spend much of the book running away from or chasing Really.Bad.People. Pirates even. Witches! Possibly—just possibly even zombies. It’s crazy adventurous, and for that reason, it makes for quite a gripping read.

Gabaldon does get bogged down in details sometimes, but that’s actually one of the interesting things about her writing. Sometimes these scenes she writes, which don’t necessarily move the plot forward, are compelling in terms of character development. I am surprised she has been able to get them past an editor, who might be tempted to cut them. Then again, like I said before, these books tend to break all the rules.

I enjoyed this one much more this time around than I did the last. Davina Porter is an excellent reader who is able to do a wide variety of accents and brings life to the characters. She’s so good that I’ve just about decided listening to her read is the only way I want to read the rest of the series.

Book Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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The Odyssey, Homer, Narrated by Ian McKellen

The OdysseyIf you have an Audible membership, you should totally use one of your credits to purchase The Odyssey read by Ian McKellen. It is the Fagles translation, which I had not previously read. As you might imagine if you have ever seen McKellen act, he is a masterful reader, and given the material he has to work with in this instance, you can’t miss. I seem to remember that Jenny once said that Fagles was her favorite translation, but I can’t remember if she said why. I believe she was a Classics major as well. I have previously read the Fitzgerald translation, and while I appreciate its beauty, and I understand his reasons for preserving the Greek spellings for names, it was a little confusing. I used a translation by Stanley Lombardo when I taught sometimes as well.

One of the things that struck me again upon listening to The Odyssey is how modern it sounds. People certainly haven’t changed much, and The Odyssey lays bare human nature from the ridiculous to the sublime. I love it. My favorite parts of the book cover the period beginning in Book 9, when Odysseus encounters the Cyclops, to Book Twelve, when Odysseus’s crew is destroyed by Scylla and Charybdis, and he washes up on Ogygia and is held captive by Calypso.

After listening to this version, I was quite struck by how much the poem focuses on loyalty. Penelope is considered throughout all Greece to be the epitome of the loyal wife because she refuses to acknowledge her husband’s purported death and marry one of the many suitors courting her. In truth, they’re all so boorish one doesn’t wonder that she refuses to marry any of them. Eumaeus, Eurycleia, and Argus the dog are all held up as shining examples of loyalty as well. It is not as though I had not noticed this aspect of the poem before, but I think listening to it helped me to see the emphasis on loyalty as it runs throughout. But what bothers me, I guess (as it always has) is the double-standard. Odysseus is not expected to be loyal to his wife or his servants. Their loyalty to him is praised, but his disloyalty is not remarked upon. True that it was written at a different time with different values.

I had completely forgotten the suitors show up in Hades at the end and talk with Agamemnon. For a few minutes, I thought that there was something wrong with my recording, and it had somehow switched back to the part when Odysseus goes into Hades to speak with Tiresias. It felt completely new to me. I wondered at the fact that the suitors blamed Penelope for their downfall. Naturally!

This translation and narration is spot on and gorgeous. I highly recommend it.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Kenneth Branagh

Heart of DarknessKenneth Branagh should read all the audio books.

Well, maybe not all.

He is probably the best narrator I’ve ever listened to, however. Of course, I’m also about to listen to Ian McKellen do Fagles’s translation of The Odyssey, so I may stand corrected shortly.

If you haven’t read Heart of Darkness before, I can’t think of a better way to do it than listening to Audible’s version. After all, Marlow tells the entire story to a crew of sailors on the Thames River, and Branagh perfectly embodies not just Marlow, but all the characters, from the Russian protege to Kurtz to the native man who says, “Mistah Kurtz, he dead” to Kurtz’s “intended.” In fact, I dare you not to get a chill when he reads Kurtz. He almost makes you understand why Kurtz has so captivated everyone in the novel. Almost.

I think the reason this novel is still relevant is that it speaks to our infinite capacity for evil. All of us have it inside us, and “the horror” is realizing that fact. I think Chinua Achebe’s criticism of the novel is valid. It is racist. (It’s sexist, too, but that fact often goes uncommented upon.) The African characters are only so much scenery, and their culture is dehumanized. They are depicted like animals, slavish in their devotion to and fear of Kurtz. There is no getting around it. At the same time, you can look at Marlow as narrator. Who is he but a perfect product of his times? Of course he believes Africans to be subhuman. Conrad probably thought so, too, but it is Marlow who tells the story, so who can say? There probably is no such thing as a completely reliable narrator.

You might like this Book Drum profile of the novel. I found the section on the history of the Congo very interesting (and very tragic, as is the case in so many places colonized by Europe).

Many years ago, I went to an English teachers’ conference, and one session I attended discussed how you can engage students in the reading of literature and help them make thematic connections by asking them to choose modern songs that have a story, theme, or message similar to a work of literature they have studied. One of the presenter’s students connected Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Nine Inch Nails’ song “Head Like a Hole.”

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After listening to it with that connection in mind, I had to agree that the song and the novel shared such a close connection that I have wondered for years if Trent Reznor was thinking of Heart of Darkness when he wrote it. Connect Reznor’s last line “You know who you are” with Kurtz’s last words “The horror, the horror,” and it’s just plain spooky. And I know I make that connection every time I talk about the novel now. I did it in my previous review of Heart of Darkness. This is the third time I’ve read the novel—once in college, once a few years ago.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t share this mashup of “Head Like a Hole” and “Call Me, Maybe.”

You can’t unhear it. Sorry. Not really.

Rating: ★★★★★

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The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien, Rob Inglis

I have been listening to J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Two Towers (The Lord of the Rings, Book 2) as narrated by Rob Inglis while making soap and taking walks (trying to drop a few pounds). The first time I read this series, I whipped right through all three books, unable to put them down. The next time I tried a re-read, and the time after that, I wound up bogged down in The Two Towers. I told myself it must be that there was a lull in the pace, but now that I’ve listened to it (and finished it, this time), I think it was just me because there is a lot going on in that book.

For those of you who have only seen the movie, the book is different. In the movie, the action involving Merry, Pippin, Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn flips back and forth with the action involving Frodo and Sam. Not so in the novel. The first half of the novel finds Boromir falling at the hands of orcs who kidnap Merry and Pippin to take them to Isengard. Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn give Boromir a funeral and go in search of the hobbits. On the way, they meet Éomer, nephew of King Theoden of Rohan. They join the Rohirrim to defend Helm’s Deep against the onslaught of orcs, then head to Isengard, where they finally find Merry and Pippin, well and safe and rescued by Treebeard. The Ents have risen against Saruman. Meanwhile, Gandalf has seemingly come back from the grave and taken Saruman’s spot on the White Council. He drives Saruman out of the White Council and breaks his staff.

The second half of the novel concerns Frodo and Sam’s descent into Mordor, during which they meet up with Gollum, who becomes their unlikely guide, and Faramir, who allows Frodo go free and even spares Gollum at Frodo’s request. Gollum leads Frodo and Sam into the lair of the great spider, Shelob, and in that darkest hour, all hope seems lost.

At this point in the hero’s journey that is The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is in what Joseph Campbell called “the belly of the whale.” It is the bleakest hour, when his quest seems doomed to failure, and his life is in its greatest peril. He has come all the way to Mordor, only to be ensnared by an ancient, evil beast. Even good old Samwise thinks his master is gone until he overhears orcs saying Frodo is still alive.

I was struck again, as I always seem to be when I watch the movies and as I was the last time I read The Two Towers that Faramir is a much better man than Boromir. He is one of the few characters in the novel not to be tempted by the power of the Ring, even when it is within his power to take it and use it as he would. He is truly a brave and noble man and one of my favorite characters.

I was struck listening to Sam talk about how the story of the destruction of the Ring might be told one day.

The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on—and not all to a good end, mind you, at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and find things all right, thought not quite the same—like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in!

What a spectacular comment on why we tell stories and why the hero’s journey, in particular, continues to speak to us. And of course, Tolkien always understood that about stories, and that he put that wisdom in the mouth of Samwise Gamgee makes me love both Tolkien and Samwise even more. Sam even has a little bit of insight into the villain’s role in the story. Gollum is arguably more pitiful than villainous, but he does betray the hobbits, and Sam was always right to be wary of him. Sam said:

Even Gollum might be good in a tale, better than he is to have by you, anyway. And he used to like tales himself once, by his own account. I wonder if he thinks he’s the hero or the villain?

Same shows a great deal of insight into the nature of what Tolkien would call fairy stories. The villains are as important as the heroes to a good yarn, even if they are not much fun to be around in real life.

Rob Inglis is an excellent narrator, and he does a particularly brilliant characterization of Gollum. He manages to distinguish most of the characters from one another. In addition to Gollum, his Samwise, Merry, and Pippin are all excellent as well. Gandalf and Aragorn sound like they should. No voice is out of place. His dramatic reading of the plot brings the story to life, and I thoroughly enjoy listening to it so much that I found myself making excuses to plug the audio book in and listen.

If you haven’t re-read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings in a while, I encourage you to give Rob Inglis’s narration a try. He’s an excellent reader of a rather ripping good tale.

Rating: ★★★★★

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The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien, Rob Inglis

The HobbitThe Hobbit has long been one of my favorite books, but it only recently became available for digital download. I decided to listen to it before going to see the movie, which I still haven’t seen and suppose I will probably not get to see in the theater, despite my plans to do so.

Because I’ve read (and taught) the book several times now, it seems silly to write a synopsis and review; however, the new variable is the audio book, so this review will focus on the audio book read by Rob Inglis.

Of course, you are probably familiar with the story: Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who is rather hoodwinked into participating in an adventure with Gandalf and some dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield himself in which Thorin hopes to defeat the dragon living on top of Thorin’s rightful treasure in the Lonely Mountain. Along the way, Bilbo and the dwarves tangle with some goblins (aka orcs), and Bilbo manages to find the One Ring, lost by Gollum in a riddle game, an event which precipitates the later War of the Ring that is the focus of The Lord of the Rings.

I can highly recommend listening to the audio book version of this particular novel. The avuncular storytelling style that Tolkien himself later had to stop himself from revising is a perfect match for an audio book. Tolkien’s source material, the Icelandic and Germanic sagas and myths, would probably have been told orally, possibly near a fire in a large mead hall. As such, it seems somehow fitting that this book works so well when told aloud. Rob Inglis is a masterful reader, too. He manages to capture each character’s voice, and I enjoyed hearing his musical interpretations of the many songs in the book. His rendition of Gollum is particularly good. Most importantly, Inglis’s interpretation manages to capture Bilbo’s voice as storyteller so well that it seems perhaps the book was intended to be listened to, as read by Rob Inglis, instead of read. I know. You think I’m crazy. I’ve lost it. But you wouldn’t think that if you had listened to Rob Inglis read this book.

And….

It’s unabridged.

That’s right. No cheap, distorted chopped up abridged version. Up until very recently, you could only listen to an unabridged version of The Hobbit if you purchased a digital audio version of the novel. You had to fork over for the CDs if you wanted an unabridged version. Now you can download the unabridged book via Audible (or iTunes if you prefer) for the first time. If you are thinking of rereading it this year, why not give the audio book a go?

Here is an interview with Rob Inglis about the recording of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Outlander (audio), Diana Gabaldon

OutlanderI took advantage of the time I had during a recent car trip to finish Diana Gabaldon’s novel Outlander for the third time (but for the first time as an audio book). I have reviewed the book previously. I am a big fan of Gabaldon’s, and the first time I read the series, which at that time only included four books, I couldn’t wait for the fifth book. When it did finally come out, I didn’t get through much of it before I set it aside, so I’m hoping participating in the Outlander Challenge will help me finish the series.

For those not in the know, Outlander is the story of Claire, a nurse during World War II, who travels to the Scottish Highlands for a second honeymoon with her husband Frank and finds herself mysteriously transported about 200 years in the past, where she is almost immediately confronted by her husband’s ancestor, Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall, an English officer garrisoned in Scotland. She is rescued from the clutches of Black Jack by members of the Clan MacKenzie, who take her to their stronghold, Castle Leoch. Claire finds herself drawn to Jamie, a young man in the MacKenzie party. She establishes herself as a healer in the castle and though she never stops trying to figure out how to return to Frank, she begins to build a life for herself in the past. Later, she is forced to marry Jamie in order to protect herself from Black Jack and the English army, and it is after that event that her adventures truly begin.

One of the things I noticed for the first time on this reading is the long scenes that in another book might simply have been cut. Gabaldon tends to write scenes and stitch them together later rather than write in a linear fashion. I know this because I have heard her speak about her writing process. It has benefits and drawbacks. One of the benefits is that readers feel they have intimate connections to the characters through vignettes that develop the characters into fully fleshed people. Gabaldon is gifted with description. No reader should have any trouble picturing her scenes. However, one of the drawbacks, and it’s something I really only noticed on this read, is that some scenes feel superfluous and don’t really develop the plot so much as the characters. I am huge fan of characters and will enjoy a book with good character development over a book with weaker characters and a fast, tight plot, but on this read, I really noticed the fact that much of the writing was unnecessary. Given the length of the book, that is kind of a problem. And the books only progressively get longer. I may not mind as much with the rest of the series because I have only read the next three books once, and I have never read the final three. I might find I enjoy the ride a little more when the plot is not quite as familiar, and truthfully, I don’t think most readers would have a problem with the superfluous scenes given how engaging a writer Gabaldon is.

Davina Porter is a superb reader, and listening to the books will give readers a whole new appreciation for Gabaldon’s Scots.

Rating: ★★★★☆

I’m counting this book as my romance novel for the Mixing it Up Challenge.

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