Sunday, February 28, 2010

The House with the Twisting Passage: a Free Audiobook Review

That's right: so far as I can tell, there isn't a free e-text available this time; The House with the Twisting Passage is the only free version. The reader, Xenutia, has a good voice and style for this sort of thing.

The book itself is hard to categorize. It's technically a children's story, though I'm not sure I'd try it on a modern child, for reasons I'll explain. And it has a curious structure. Essentially, there is a framing story about Jenny, a nine-year-old whose parents have gone to India for a few years. Jenny is being traded between two aunts, the interesting one being a caretaker for a mansion. This mansion of course has a twisting passage with a lot of disused rooms, and Jenny makes up residents for them all. She even makes up a personality to go with a portrait of a little girl, Miss Clare, whose doll she finds and adopts. She briefly encounters the real Miss Clare, to her great dismay, but continues her game.

Then she goes to stay with the other aunt for a couple months, and when she returns, the mansion is being used as a rest home for people almost exactly like the ones she had imagined. They tell her stories, which is the interior of the frame and a completely mixed bag. Many of the stories are anecdotes or vignettes, and they aren't of great interest. Others aren't bad, but even they, in my opinion, could be told more effectively. Let's go by chapter:

08 - Miss Primrose's Story: An old lady tells about her putatively magical adventures with her nephew Jerry. The problem for me is that the woman affirms magic in telling the tales, but it's fairly clear that there's no magic involved. I admit that sort of thing bothers me.

09 - Black Jack's Story: This is rather longer than most, about a sailor's accidental cloak-and-dagger adventure. Could be told more effectively, but quite good enough as is.

10 - Uncle Nodding: reminiscences about running a store.

11 - Miss Ruby's Story: A dressmaker is hired to make one good dress and one bad one.

12 - Tarramina's Tale: an anecdote that is supposed to be spooky but (IMO) doesn't make it.

13 - Peter Bollin's Tale: A doctor tries to help a boy back to the straight and narrow. Not bad, but a little too anecdotal: it could be better told.

14 - The Rhymes of Mr Dennis: some good, some not so good. Generally worth it.

15 - The February Lady's Story: about her two fat cats. Generally good, but sounds like a chat over tea--which is essentially what it's supposed to be.

16 - Jenny Meets the Littlest One: Bollins redux and rhymes about a little boy's adventures as a floor mat and with a mischievous postman. Rather good.

17 - Old Mrs Bunch's Tale: The adventures of a hall mirror. A good story, though I think the perspective may be too adult for children.

18 - Nanny Remembers: This is actually part of the frame story, about Miss Clare as a wilful child with an abusive father. In the context of the surrounding stories, it seemed especially heart-rending, but without it, the frame doesn't work.

19 - Phil the Fiddler's Story: A fairy tale about a witch, some dwarves, and a little girl with a terrible choice to make.

Most of the stories are okay, but they would probably seem too slow for a modern kid's jaded tastes. You could technically ignore any of them but Chapter 18, and I'd suggest running through all of them before trying them on a child. The target age levels just seem to vary too much for me.

Anyway, after all this, we resume the frame story, with Jenny being sent to the other aunt again and fearing the changes she might find on her return. But even changes may change, and some are for the better.

Overall, I liked the story, the frame more than the interior anecdotes. I would strongly advise listening to it before trying it on children, however. It might work to run the "younger" sections, such as the poems, past younger children and eventually get to the other sections as the children grow.

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