Reading by Ear: The Princess Diaries

The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
read by Anne Hathaway

The Princess Diaries movie came out when I was ten, and I remember watching it. It was one of those live-action Disney movies that peppered my childhood, since grasping the concept of network television would take another five years. I liked it, as it involved Julie Andrews, San Francisco (I spent a lot of my single-digit years a few towns down), and Anne Hathaway, who, although I did not know it, was probably a factor in my thing for tall dark femmes. (In researching this post, I just learned that Liv Tyler was up for the role of Mia. My allegiances! They are being tested!) In any case, I did have and read the first one or two books in the series, but they didn’t make much of an impact, which made it a perfect candidate for an audiobook for me.

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Reading by Ear: Anansi Boys

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
read by Lenny Henry

Anansi Boys was one of the first novels I specifically went out and bought that wasn’t a Harry Potter book or a FoxTrot anthology. (Yes, that’s all I read as a child.) I’d already read and loved American Gods—that first chapter stunned wee Clare into a kind of reverent silence, which was not easy to do—and when I discovered Anansi Boys existed via an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I hied myself down to the Books-a-Million and bought myself a copy. I was so careful with books as a kid; I remember reading this only at night, right before bed, so I wouldn’t damage the gorgeous cover.

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Reading by Ear: Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
read by Jeremy Irons

I think my first exposure to Brideshead Revisited was my mother trying to introduce me to the BBC miniseries and failing—as we watched Charles and Sebastian stroll arm in arm around Oxford, she anxiously assured me that they weren’t gay. Well, then, there’s nothing for me here, young Clare concluded to herself, and cut her losses. But I did eventually read the novel, before the most recent film adaptation came out. I enjoyed both novel and film adaptation immensely, but it had been some years since and, anyways, I finally got my hands on a copy of the audiobook as narrated by one Jeremy Irons. It was time to revisit… okay, that’s so bad I’ll stop myself.

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Reading by Ear: The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
read by the author and a full cast

I remember the first chapter of The Subtle Knife pretty well. I have a sneaking suspicion it was attached to the copy of The Golden Compass I was handed as a child, although it’s not in the editions I actually own. In any case, while I distinctly remember getting around to The Amber Spyglass in early high school, I think I did read The Subtle Knife in middle school, as the cover is familiar to me in an odd way. But the most likely thing is that I started, abandoned it, and actually read it in early high school when I revisited the entire series. My memory, man—sometimes it’s like solving a puzzle.

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Reading by Ear: The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
performed by a full cast

I was first introduced His Dark Materials in middle school. A teacher lent me a copy of The Golden Compass, which I read, but I think I only adventured into The Subtle Knife a little. Later, I bought myself a nice box set of the series, which is when I read The Amber Spyglass. I remember sitting up in bed and finishing it, because I didn’t want to take the copies to school with me. After finishing up my Harry Potter relisten, I was starting to feel nostalgic for the series I read as a child. Be thankful there aren’t Babysitter’s Club audiobooks. (…or are there?)

The Golden Compass (or The Northern Lights in the UK) takes place in a world different from ours, the chief difference being that people’s souls live outside them as animal spirits known as dæmons. Lyra, a young orphan who has been essentially half-raised and half-neglected by Jordan College in Oxford, saves her uncle Lord Asriel’s life when the Master of Jordan College tries to poison him. With this act and her impending coming of age, Lyra is pulled into a world of intrigue, child kidnappers, vile experiments, armored bears, witches, and, last but not least, the “golden compass” itself, a rare instrument that only Lyra can use to discover the truth.

I first read The Golden Compass a very long time ago, but the ending has always stuck with me. It may, in fact, be the reason I love desperate chases across icy tundras to this day. Besides the ambiguous ending of The Giver, which I read in middle school, this was the first book I read as a kid that actually had a downer ending. But it was the bitterness that made it all the more real, and that’s something Pullman seems to very conscious about doing. Lyra might be a child, but this isn’t a world that revolves at her level. There’s a brilliant moment where Lyra is concocting an escape plan, and Pullman points out that a child with imagination would realize that their chances were utterly hopeless. While Lyra is an engaging character, it’s often sheer luck and clever talk that propels her on her journey to save Roger, her best friend, from the child snatching Gobblers. The world Lyra inhabits is a real world, with cursing, religion, children’s skewed priorities, the awkwardness of growing up, and death.

The fact that the worldbuilding holds up very well definitely helps. The only truly fantastical elements are dæmons, witches, and talking armored bears; the rest is alternate history with a dash of steampunk to account for the zeppelins. (While a date corresponding with our world is never given, it feels very 1920s to me.) I’ve always been charmed by New France, I’m not going to lie. Pullman maintains the laws and limitations of his world and plays with them—the connection between people and their dæmons is an integral part of this novel, and you buy into it so much so that when we meet a witch’s dæmon, who can travel without his human, it does feel unnatural and violent to the reader. Worldbuilding, especially in children’s literature, can sometimes feel wobbly, so it’s delightful to find Pullman writing with a sure hand.

I’ve never found His Dark Materials as a whole to be particularly anti-religious, but I think that’s a discussion best left for when I get to The Amber Spyglass. But I was more interested this time in the class inequality in Lyra’s world. While it’s part of the setting that I don’t recall is particularly dealt with, I was very interested by the fact that servants always have dog dæmons. Lyra, whose parents are part of the aristocracy, has a remarkably elastic notion of class, as she’s still a child; she adjusts to every situation she’s thrust into. I’ll keep an eye on this as the series progresses and we meet people from our twentieth century.

This was my first full cast audio recording; I’d actually heard some of it before in this fantastic cut of the film adaptation’s deleted ending, although I didn’t know where it was from. Pullman reads the narration and, occasionally, the aliethometer. It was quite a fascinating experience, to have the characterizations provided by a whole cast. Joanna Wyatt is a sly, clever Lyra who also carries the emotional moments well. While some of the children are voiced by adult women (I was surprised to discover the woman who played Serafina Pekkala also played Roger!), the production does a fine job of utilizing actual children to make the proceedings sound more authentic. I did think Mrs. Coulter sounded a little too young, especially against Stan Barrett’s particularly gruff Lord Asriel. I look forward to finishing off the series with this cast and seeking out full cast productions for other audiobooks.

Bottom line: The Golden Compass (or The Northern Lights based on your location!) is a sure-handed and deftly executed children’s book set in a very real world. Recommended.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

Reading by Ear: Feed

Feed by M. T. Anderson
read by David Aaron Baker

Feed was one of the first young adult books I read. I remember the distinctive cover and I can even tell you what shelf in my middle school library it was on—the first on the left, the same shelf that boasted Firebirds. I even remembered the story vaguely before I picked up this audiobook. But after reading “The King of Pelinesse” by M. T. Anderson (collected, oddly enough, in Firebirds), I knew it was time to revisit Feed, preferably via audiobook, to assuage the enormous gap listening to Harry Potter has left in my aural life, and, luckily, the public library next to my school had a copy.

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The Sunday Salon: Five Things I Learned Rereading Harry Potter

Well! After the four months it actually took back in the late summer and fall of last year and the seven months it took to post the whole thing, I’ve finally publicly finished the Harry Potter series via audiobook. Naturally, there were some elements of the books that I couldn’t discuss thoroughly in reviewing (kind of) the audiobooks. (I only listen to books I’ve read because I’m not an aural learner at all; I need the text, so my audiobook reviews can’t be as thorough as my regular book reviews.) So I thought I’d take today to take a look at some of the things I discovered on this particular journey through Harry Potter.

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Reading by Ear: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling
read by Jim Dale

On one hand, I can’t believe it’s been five years since the last Harry Potter book came out—on the other, I can’t believe it’s only been five years. The films make that gap seem smaller, especially since they went into greater detail than the other films in the series. I remember, after getting the book at midnight, being driven home (I was fifteen). In the light of the headlights of the car behind me, I perused the table of contents and immediately suspected that the chapter entitled “The Seven Potters” was about Harry’s family. That, of course, was untrue, but it was the last time I was able to theorize about the books with the possibility of having my theory validated in the book. Ah, memories.

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Reading by Ear: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling
read by Jim Dale

I got a very odd feeling two-thirds of the way into Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It wasn’t just the fact that this is the second time I’ve read (listened? This terminology always trips me up) this book; it was the fact that I can never read these books in the same way I did as a child and a teenager. I was a very different person when I was a child than I am now, and I was also a very different reader, so it’s hard to try and gather back up my initial impressions—but I still try to, and it’s that attempt that’s disorienting. I really hope that made sense. In any case, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

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Reading by Ear: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
read by Jim Dale

As I mentioned in my review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is, in fact, my favorite novel out of the entire series. It’s the novel where the rest of the series is set up, it’s the novel where these adorable British children become teenagers, and it’s the novel that opens the worldbuilding up… even while bringing up questions about that worldbuilding. It was also the Harry Potter book that introduced midnight book releases into the world, for which I am eternally grateful. I myself was nine when I attended this very book release. I still have that copy… the spine is broken, but I still have it.

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