The Translator by Nina Schuyler

The Translator by Nina SchuylerThe Translator by Nina Schuyler
Narrator: Kirsten Potter
Published by AudioGO Ltd. on 7/1/13
Genres: Literary Fiction
Source: Audiobook Jukebox

 

 

Story: B
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

I liked this book quite a bit. The overall concept, the design of the protagonist’s character/story arc, the parallels between Hanne’s translation ability and how she related to people… all of that held a strong intellectual appeal for me. From the perspective of my internal emotional reader, it took me a long time to fall in sync with what was taking place in the story and although the emotional distress experienced by the characters felt realistic, I neither connected to it personally nor did I have much sympathy for Hanne or her daughter or Moto. That doesn’t make it a bad book (far from it) it just means I had two distinct experiences while listening but I consider it time well spent.

Publisher’s Blurb:

When renowned translator Hanne Schubert falls down a flight of stairs, she suffers from an unusual but real condition — the loss of her native language. Speaking only Japanese, a language learned later in life, she leaves for Japan. There, to Hanne’s shock, the Japanese novelist whose work she recently translated confronts her publicly for sabotaging his work.

Reeling, Hanne seeks out the inspiration for the author’s novel — a tortured, chimerical actor, once a master in the art of Noh theater. Through their passionate, volatile relationship, Hanne is forced to reexamine how she has lived her life, including her estranged relationship with her daughter. In elegant and understated prose, Nina Schuyler offers a deeply moving and mesmerizing story about language, love, and the transcendence of family.

My Thoughts:

Although there are no sudden revelations in this book that will take a listener by surprise, I’m throwing out the spoiler flag at the start of this review because there is a slow build in learning about the protagonist and the story took a path that I wasn’t initially anticipating. That was part of what made this book enjoyable for me and I’m going to talk about some of those aspects of character revelation in the review.

As the motivation for a protagonist’s flight from her existing life into one that forces her to re-evaluate her relationships and how she perceives the world, losing the ability to communicate via your primary language is an intriguing and clever catalyst for a novel’s arc. When Hanne Schubert is suddenly unable to speak any language other than Japanese, she begins a journey that brings her to a point where she is forced to confront the fact that, for her entire life, her ability to seamlessly move from language to language – deriving full meaning from each one – is the polar opposite of how she relates to people and personalities that differ from hers. Hanne’s daughter, Brigitte, whom she has always viewed as too sensitive and as someone who needs to develop resiliency in order to be successful or survive in life, is set adrift by her mother’s inability to understand her.

The book opens with Hanne translating a book from Japanese to English. She develops an obsession with the main character, Jiro, and constructs what she thinks is a deep and full knowledge of who the character is – to the extent that he features in her fantasy life. When Hanne is accused by the book’s author of completely misunderstanding who Jiro is and botching the translation, she seeks out the person rumored to be the inspiration for the character – a Noh actor named Moto – and starts down the painful path of realizing that not only has she mistranslated the book, she’s been “mistranslating” her daughter all her life with disastrous consequences. Moto is similar in personality to Hanne’s daughter: mercurial, emotional, and sensitive. Once the smallest crack in her perceived ability to translate develops, finding herself in the orbit of someone so similar in personality to her daughter but with an adult-to-adult power dynamic leads to a painful series of personal revelations.

It took me a long time to be anything more than intellectually engaged by the writing. Part of that is a resistance to third person present tense as a method of connecting to characters (despite its putative sense of immediacy) and the story seemed weighted more towards “tell” expository rather than “show” descriptive. We spend a lot of time with Hanne and her thoughts and for that reason alone I was surprised it wasn’t in first person. It wasn’t written as an objective narrative and was limited in terms of the narrator’s knowledge and I sometimes had a sense of objectivity or scientific observation in the authorial voice.

Where it did work particularly well for my readerly sensibilities was in the tightly constructed way in which the depth of Hanne’s character was slowly uncovered. Although by the end I disliked the perspectives of both mother and daughter, how they reached that point was completely understandable and even if I thought Hanne was a horrible mother (FYI, I didn’t…exactly) I understood her and what motivated her parenting style. None of that understanding was conveyed to me via a wordy bat upside the head but was explained by simply allowing me to observe Hanne going about her life day-by-day with visibility to the reminiscences that would flit through anyone’s mind.

There’s a lot of food for thought in this book and for that alone it’s worth the listen.

The Narration:

My first thought in describing the narration is that if you’ve heard one Kirsten Potter narration you’ve heard them all but that might leave you with a negative impression. What I mean is that Ms. Potter is the most consistent narrator I’ve listened to in terms of delivering narrative in a measured and clearly articulated manner, character differentiation, point of view, emphasis, and back-and-forth dialogue from book-to-book. If you like her voice and narration style, which I do, then you know all you need to know if you’re deciding whether to go with the audiobook version or a text version because there won’t be any surprises for you in the narration.

Much of the novel takes place in Japan (well, most of it takes place in Hanne’s thoughts but…) and rather than utilize a Japanese accent per se, she simply adds a bit of formality to the delivery of native Japanese characters and that worked well for me. The passion Hanne feels as she goes about translating a novel is evident in the delivery and each character is uniquely presented. The third person present tense narrative has a first person presentation style which works well given the amount of time we spend with Hanne’s thoughts and musings. Overall, a good narration that gives full weight to the author’s words and intent.

 

 

Disclaimer: I received this audiobook without cost from AudioGo via the Solid Gold Reviewer program at Audiobookjukebox.com

Never Seduce a Scot by Maya Banks

Never Seduce a Scot by Maya BanksNever Seduce a Scot by Maya Banks
Narrator: Kirsten Potter
Series: The Montgomerys and Armstrongs #1
Published by Tantor Media on 9/25/12
Genres: Historical, Romance
Format: Audiobook
four-stars

 

Story: B+
Narration: A-

Once Upon a Time…:

There was a little girl who liked to be told stories that transported her to another world… and every now and again I find an audiobook that reminds of that joy I felt as a child at being read to. The fact that this audiobook was nominated for an Audie award in the romance category as well as its place as the first in a new series whose second book (soon to be released) piqued my interest prompted me to pick it up. I’m glad I did because I enjoyed this audiobook tremendously. Through much of the book, I felt a lot like a kid who was sitting down for story-time at the library (erm, not during the sexy bits though) – including moments when I talked back to the “reader” of the book as I got caught up in the story and couldn’t help myself.

In a Land Far Over the Mountains and Across the Ocean:

“Eveline Armstrong is fiercely loved and protected by her powerful clan, but outsiders consider her “touched.” Beautiful, fey, with a level, intent gaze, she doesn’t speak. No one, not even her family, knows that she cannot hear. Content with her life of seclusion, Eveline has taught herself to read lips and allows the outside world to view her as daft. But when an arranged marriage into a rival clan makes Graeme Montgomery her husband, Eveline accepts her duty -unprepared for the delights to come. Graeme is a rugged warrior with a voice so deep and powerful that his new bride can hear it, and hands and kisses so tender and skilled that he stirs her deepest passions. Graeme is intrigued by the mysterious Eveline, whose silent lips are ripe with temptation and whose bright, intelligent eyes can see into his soul. As intimacy deepens, he learns her secret. But when clan rivalries and dark deeds threaten the wife he has only begun to cherish, the Scottish warrior will move heaven and earth to save the woman who has awakened his heart to the beautiful song of a rare and magical love.” – blurb via Goodreads

There Lived a Princess:

There’s a lot in this story that’s reminiscent of Disney-version fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White. The persecuted heroine (take your pick from: Eveline fears marriage to a brute of a suitor who terrorized her; within her own clan she’s scorned by some for her seeming lack of faculties; after marriage to the chief of her clan’s mortal enemies she’s reviled for being an Armstrong as well as simple, etc.) eventually finds her prince in a castle (OK, a Scottish keep if you want to be picky), faces the hatred and mistrust of the keep’s women (evil step-sisters, anyone?), is set to work at menial tasks (including floor scrubbing), is kidnapped and rescued by her “prince”, and lives happily ever after.

Who Found Her Prince:

Although Graeme Montgomery is laird of his clan and a fierce warrior, he’s nothing but gentle and understanding when it comes to Eveline: traits I find uncommon in a romance hero outside of a beta hero construct, which Graeme definitely isn’t. The conflict in the story is primarily external to the relationship between the two. Graeme and Eveline both want to find a way to make their pairing work – initially because neither blames the other for their forced marriage or the history of war between their clans and eventually because they fall in love. It’s clan vs. clan conflict, Eveline struggling for acceptance by the Montgomery women, and the late-in-the-game appearance of an evil-doer that drives the story.

Until a Curse Came Between Them:

Eveline made a pretty stupid decision several years previously (for mostly understandable reasons) and is trying to find a way out of the consequences of that choice. That’s part of why she seems so young to me. Add to that the resistance and mocking she receives from the women of the keep and there’s a certain feel of grade school bullying that adds to my impression of her as very young and naive. It also sets her up as a very sympathetic protagonist. Since the story starts with her being pushed out of the protective arms of her family by marriage to Graeme, we meet her at the point at which she’s starting to grow up and trying to make the best of what she’s been handed. She has the requisite “plucky” moments but overall, her arc of character development was very enjoyable.

And Evil Swept Her Out of the Arms of the Prince, who Strove Mightily to Rescue her:

The tension ratchets up at the end of the story as Eveline finally has to contend with her long-ago suitor who is intent on preventing the Armstrongs and Montgomerys from uniting through the marriage and although the ending is never in doubt, several plot threads are tied up nicely and there’s a very smooth setup for the next book in the series.

And They All Lived Happily Ever After:

Really, I just found this to be a sweet story with very likable protagonists who are pitted against outside conflict but who triumph over adversity and find their HEA. Close family interaction – one of my favorite ingredients in romances – combined with a youthful heroine who teased a ghost of protectiveness from me and a caring hero who doesn’t act like an asshat left me with a happy smile on my face when I finished this one… within 12 hours after starting it.

The Narration (aka “I’m Sure I Could Stretch the Fairytale Structure of the Review Sections to Include a Bard but…”):

Also in aid of leaving me with the impression of sitting down to be enthralled with a tale is Kirsten Potter’s delivery. Within a very clear and measured narrative is also an impeccable sense of timing that paces the story perfectly to maximize listener engagement during action-heavy sections and allow more quiet and contemplative reflection with scenes of softer emotion. The one delivery point with which I take issue is during sex scenes. That niggle about the narration kicked off a broader set of thoughts for me so although my discussion of what bothered me takes up a lot of page space, please be aware that it was a very minor thing. The narration was excellent overall and I absolutely recommend the audiobook version.

Romance is most often written in such a way as to make sex scenes (pardon the expression) the climax of the book or at least make it the linchpin of a character arc that’s been building for a while. Because structurally the story is peaking at that point in terms of pacing and emotional build-up, the addition of strong vocal dramatics such as overt breathiness or really ramping up the intensity of the delivery usually pushes it too far over the top for me. In general, subtle will always work better at those moments and Ms. Potter is close the least subtle narrator during sex scenes that I’ve heard. (You can and should take that with a grain of salt, however, since I skip the more theatrical narrators entirely.) Of course, attempts at straight analysis aside, it may also be that I’m a typically prudish American who feels uncomfortable if you’re talking too loudly about sex. ;-)

In a generic reflection on narrators/narration and romance audiobooks, I sometimes wonder how much narrators with formal training as stage actors have to work to pull back their performance in recognition of the fact that the audience is no longer twenty plus feet away from their voice but rather, in the case of earphones, mere millimeters. It also occurs to me that a narrator of a romance title who prefers to work with a different genre may (incorrectly, I would argue) perceive sex scenes as the point of the story and so maximize their emphasis there unnecessarily.

But enough of that. Back to the actual narration! I wouldn’t know an authentic Scottish accent if it walked up behind me and whispered sweet nothings in my ear (although I wouldn’t mind an opportunity to test that theory) but the accent Ms. Potter employed worked well with the caveat that I think the physical construction of how she achieved the accent made every character occasionally sound as if they should be carrying a handkerchief to mop up some spit spray when they spoke with emphasis.

In any story with multiple brothers (in this case, two different sets), voice differentiation can be problematic but that wasn’t the case here. Each brother (three in the Montgomerys and two in the Armstrongs) was distinct in voice and I had no problem determining who was speaking. Also of note since brothers in romance novels seem to invariably get their own story, all the voices were appealing. I could finish up here with additional comments on the technical aspects of the narration that made it a very successful listen for me but they all boil down to the same result: these characters felt real to me, the events were given immediacy, and I was immersed in the story to the point that I forgot it was being narrated.

four-stars

Madapple by Christina Meldrum

Madapple by Christina MeldrumMadapple by Christina Meldrum
Narrator: Kirsten Potter
Published by Listening Library on 5/13/08
Genres: Fiction

Story: B
Narration: A-

Aslaug was raised in near isolation by her mother, Maren, who was harsh and demanding: withholding physical contact and not allowing mirrors in the house (or even on the car). Her mother  home-schooled her in ancient languages and herb-lore but was careful to black out references to the outside world in her books. When she was fifteen, her mother died and the police were called after Aslaug was seen burying the body in the yard. Fleeing the suspicious police and the memories of her mother, she ends up finding her aunt Sara – a Charismatic Pentecostal preacher – and her two cousins, Susanne and Rune. Drawn to her aunt in search of a maternal affection she was denied, ensnared by Susanne’s obsession with the circumstances surrounding Aslaug’s birth, and pulled towards Rune by emotions she’s just now beginning to feel but lacks the ability to understand or deal with, Aslaug is wholly unprepared for the turns her life is about to take.

This audiobook was gripping, disquieting, and complex. I’m not sure I actually liked any of the characters and I felt a bit disappointed by the ending but I was so involved in the unraveling of the story, the quality and structure of the writing, and the elements of herbalism, religion, and dysfunctional dynamics that I put in a couple of marathon listening sessions because I couldn’t bring myself to put it down and although I’ve finished it, I’m still having a difficult time letting go of it.

From a technical standpoint, I found the story to be intriguing and well-crafted.  The narrative switches between first person accounts of Aslaug’s life beginning at age fifteen (in 2003) and third person courtroom scenes that take place in 2007 at her trial. These alternating views between past and present move the story ahead in a seamless fashion and keep the tension pulled taut as the listener wonders not just “what happened then?” but also “what’s going to happen now?” The use of herbalism as a core story component was interesting and the introduction of individual plants at the start of the ‘past events’ chapters was fascinating as both literally relevant to the story and as symbolism. At one point in the story the dynamics between Aslaug and Rune reach a point that might make the reader uncomfortable but I found the author’s method of mitigating that possibility through her use of subtle language, dream-like aspects, and the believable characterization of Aslaug’s utter lack of socialization to be uncommonly skillful. There are a few potentially controversial (or at least mature) themes that could present a barrier to enjoying this book for some readers. I found them to be delicately handled and didn’t even quirk an eyebrow but if you are vetting the book for a young reader, I suggest you seek out additional reviews because most of them seem to outline these themes quite clearly. I actually wish I had gone into the story without reading reviews of it.

While I enjoyed the writing tremendously, in terms of overall storyline I would say I just liked this book which usually isn’t a strong enough endorsement to tempt me to re-listen to it at some point. In this case, when I went back to listen to a section to refresh my memory on a name, I found myself letting it play for a bit because there were mentions of things (metaphors, characterizations, foreshadowing, etc.) that I had let slip past me until I had the complete story behind me and could focus on the fine details rather than just keeping track of story-lines and predicting outcomes. I can see there is more for me to discover in the writing. My main complaint is that the ending seemed too quick and easy in comparison with the complex and slow build-up of the rest of the book and the combination epiphany/moral-of-the-story in the epilogue lacked any punch for me.

This audiobook engaged me from the start but there was a distinct point where the character of Aslaug became less of an incompletely formed personality and, through a subtle change in narration that I didn’t immediately notice, became a “real” person or at least was easier to relate to. This corresponded with the tipping point in her story arc where she had enough interaction with people other than her mother to begin to develop her own personality. Kirsten Potter seems to effortlessly capture Aslaug’s innocence, youth, and inexperience as well as the need for comfort, contact, and validation that seems to drive all her actions and Ms. Potter then uses subtle vocal changes to show Aslaug moving forward from that point as her life experiences alter her. There are aspects of Aslaug’s interactions with her cousin Rune and with her aunt that I might have reacted to differently had I read this rather than listened to it because of that skill at capturing the emotional essence of the characters. Maren and Sara are Danish immigrants and when the accent came into play, it sounded very natural. I occasionally confused Rune’s voice with another character but overall found the narration to be excellent.

This book is an odd mix of mystery, bildungsroman (coming of age story), religious discourse, herbal treatise, and courtroom drama and it’s all woven together skillfully and narrated extremely well. It’s one of those books that the more I think about it now that I’ve finished it, the more I like it.