Friday, December 28, 2007

C average

Recorded Books has a tendency to use the same narrators again and again (sometimes this is not a good idea), so some of the voices I heard while listening to Gordon Korman's Schooled were quite recognizable: Andy Paris (Jeremy Fink), Nick Lee (Invisible), Nick Landrum (Alabama Moon [How embarrassing is this? I just noticed that the author (!!!) had posted a comment to this post ... do you think it's too late to reply?) played roles in this story of middle school gone particularly rancid. Capricorn Anderson has been living on a commune in Northern California all his life, when his grandmother (and only other commune resident) falls and breaks her hip (leg?). Cap is visited by a social worker who plans on putting him in foster care during his grandmother's convalescence, but it turns out that she was once a resident of Garland as well, so she takes pity on him and invites him to stay with her. He is enrolled at Claverage (the school's sign is soon vandalized to C average) Middle School as an 8th grader, and because he is soooo very different from these suburban California teens, many forms of harassment are perpetrated.

It's all very amusing in a Gordon Korman way, but the slight story is weighed down by an extremely obvious and ponderous message of acceptance. (Do all middle school horror stories have to have this message?) Fortunately the book has a multiple narrator format: each chapter is narrated by a different character: Cap, the school's alpha male, a wannabe alpha female, the social worker, the social worker's daughter, the dweeb who is relieved at Cap's appearance because he is no longer low man, etc. So, the varying perspectives -- and, in listening, the differing voices -- help to maintain interest. Some books lend themselves to audio and this is a good match.

It was nice to hear Nick Landrum not play an isolated country boy, and I didn't hear any gasps from Andy Paris, so it's good to know that these two good narrators can branch out and improve. However, I didn't find the novel all that compelling, so I'm not sure how I'm going to vote on this one.

Barely surviving

I read Nancy Werlin's The Rules of Survival about 18 months ago, and found it overly dramatic and agonizing in the way that teen "problem" fiction can be. Three kids with a crazy, abusive mother are forced to find their own way (without other adults) to safety. In this novel, the older children, Matt and Callie, meet a man named Murdoch who -- although they have to do some convincing -- agrees to help them. Mom eventually goes completely off her rocker, though, and son (and narrator) Matt must ride to the rescue solo. For me, it was just too, too tragic.

However, it turns out to be a pretty good audiobook. And I think this is for two reasons: It's first person and in the form of a long letter from Matt to his baby sister, Emmy; and the voice in my head is not my voice, but someone else's (Daniel Passer) who portrays Matt with quiet conviction and a little bit of despair at the way he and his sisters have been abandoned by adults who should help them. He reads with an edge of panic when he sees his mother spiral out of control, and with great affection for the sister who is hearing the story. The melodrama and obvious artificiality of the story is sublimated by this committed reader.

Of all the books I had to "re-read" for Selected Audiobooks, this was the one I least wished to get re-acquainted with. And, like practically all the others (or has it indeed been all of them?), this visit was completely OK, and even eye-opening. How can you not love audiobooks?

Not!

OK, so there were only 89 tracks per disk. In a few years, perhaps, they'll get down to the "normal" number: 20-something. So my main complaint about Cross Your Heart ... was that there simply wasn't much of a story. The four sophomore roommates learn that the east wing of the Gallagher Academy has been declared off limits, and they overhear something about Blackthorn. They agitate for a few chapters about this (without ever using their highly vaunted spy skills to do some research -- can you say Google?), and then learn that they are being joined by a half dozen males from the Blackthorn spy school for boys. Much hilarity -- not! -- occurs when the girls start reacting to the presence of the boys. In the way of heroines of novels everywhere, Cammy finds herself thrown the way of a particular student named Zach. Much disgust and internal confusion -- not! -- over this situation. Cammy has to get dressed to the nines for a party at the school (which does, of course, make her awkward and uncomfortable -- not!), and finally the spy story kicks in. This is during the last disk. I won't spoil the "surprise." A very slight effort all around -- and quite frankly, the girls here aren't all that interesting. I still say the covers are the best part of these books. (My New Year's resolution for this blog -- book covers!)

The reading was OK. As I said in the earlier post, I'm not enamored of her delivery style, but she is skilled at creating different characters, so keeping track in the story wasn't difficult at all. She can portray men with naturalness and confidence and I appreciate that. But when I heard her read Zach, he seemed quite adult and overly seductive -- which made for a bit of an ick when listening to Cammy and Zach's interaction. It changed the feel of the story from a light teen romance to something a little creepier.

I'm going to go back and see what I said last year about the first novel. It was nominated, but we didn't add it to our list. I'm curious to see if I had similar thoughts to these.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Spy girls

I'm about to take a week plus off work so I can wrap up the Selected Audiobooks listening, and I wish I had waited until then to start Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy. Brilliance Audio publishes its books on CDs with 99 tracks -- grrr -- which is just heck to deal with if you aren't listening to the CD straight through. So, I'm stopped somewhere in the middle of the first disk around Track 60-something ... I hope my CD player (which appears to be circling the drain) can remember where I stopped.

This is number two in a series about girls at the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women. Looking like your normal exclusive prep school, it's really a training ground for spies. Cammy Morgan is a sophomore: Her mother is a retired spy and current headmistress at Gallagher, her father died while on a mission. The first book, I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You, came out last year, and I think the cover sells it. It was original, slyly funny and had just the right touch of inept teen romance. I'm sure we're in for more of the same here.

My problem here is the narrator, Renee Raudman. She's got both an odd speech pattern -- sing-songy in a most unusual way -- and a somewhat annoying shh sound to her s's -- almost like a drunk's lisp. I didn't like it last year, when I listened to book 1, and I'm not so happy after about 40 minutes this go round. On the other hand, I swear she wasn't reading this way when I listened to Valiant, which I really liked. So, why has she interpreted Cammy this way?

Extra-curricular listening

When you listen to children's books, they go so much faster -- as many are considerably shorter than the teen titles. I finished The Thieves of Ostia in my car on Tuesday night, and had to endure a few minutes of silence (horrors!) before arriving home. The mystery ended satisfactorily (although I confess I couldn't recall the book's initial encounter with the dog murderer ... must be all those Latin names, tripping me up), and I can see how this could be a very popular series with young mystery fans. The reader did resort to high-pitched screaming when the heroine of the story got bossy or excited, but on the whole she did an entertaining job.

I then sought out (I can't for the life of me remember why) an old (1950) Newbery book: The Door in the Wall. Boy, you sure can see how Newbery books got their reputation: historical fiction with a message (yawn). It's a good thing it's short, clocking in at under three hours. In medieval England -- during a plague time -- young, aristocratic Robin is mysteriously crippled. His parents are absent, and he is abandoned by the family's servants. Fortunately, a monk learns of his fate and takes him to his monastery to recover his strength. Here, Robin learns to read, swim, whittle, and get around on crutches. With the help of the friar and a merry minstrel, Robin journeys to a castle on the Welsh border where he hopes to rejoin his father. But the castle is under threat, and Robin -- despite his disability -- manages to escape under the noses of the sieging soldiers and bring help. All ends well.

Message: even a crippled boy can make his way in the world. I suppose this was a radical idea in 1949, but one suspects that librarians felt they needed to support that important message by awarding the book the Newbery medal. (Those librarians are probably turning in their graves over Short Sammy's dog Roy's scrotum.)

This audiobook is from Bantam audiobooks, which I suspect isn't around anymore. Roger Rees (an old favorite of mine from the stage version of Nicholas Nickleby) reads swiftly, clearly and with great empathy. He tosses off a few accents and generally gives a good account of himself. As you know, I love an English accent and many English actors (I've got Derek Jacobi reading Boy in the book-on-cassette queue), so I didn't really mind the deadeningly obvious storyline -- which I will admit might have some appeal to younger listeners.

The publisher went above and beyond in audiobook extras -- including lovely medieval-ish music throughout the story. The music indicated "chapter" breaks (there are no actual chapters), as well as accompanied events related in the story. It was delightful to listen to.

I think I'll be getting The Golden Compass on tape pretty soon! But first I've got to listen to Schooled, an actual Selected Audiobooks nomination.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The medium is the message

Before I came to work this afternoon, I took a walk and finished I am the Messenger. In this book (a Printz Honor from 2006), Ed receives a series of playing card aces, following some accidental heroics during a botched bank robbery. The aces come with clues -- addresses, authors' names, movie titles -- that send Ed off to deliver messages of hope, messages of community to people he doesn't know. According to Ed himself, as well as those who know him, he is an aimless loser -- just like his recently deceased father. But when Ed is given his instructions, and he sees the impact that his actions have, he realizes that he is capable of bigger things. This is a terrific "message" book for teens -- you matter, it says. And it does it without being didactic or boring. Ed's an extremely sympathetic character. The book is engaging, and then you get to the end and find out who was sending the playing cards ... and it's so utterly preposterous that it made me kinda mad ... reading it.

Listening to it, though, I didn't get mad. I just enjoyed Ed telling his story, meeting people, identifying what he had to do for them, and then doing it. He's funny, self-deprecating, romantic, curious, affectionate, and a good storyteller. His journey was deeply entertaining, and occasionally quite moving. There is no doubt that my enjoyment of this was enhanced by narrator Gray's chewy Australian accent. That, and the fact that the story took place around Christmas and Ed was talking about how hot it was, gave the novel a great sense of place.

Having both read and listened, I think this made a better audiobook than book. On the other hand, Zusak's masterpiece, The Book Thief (which I have only listened to), I think might be a better print book. When I listened to the latter a year ago, I thought the audiobook was amazing, but I didn't nominate it because I thought it was just too long and leisurely to sustain teen listeners' interest. However, the Children's Notables committee disagreed, putting it on their list. (They also put I, Coriander on their list -- yikes! I'm still mad that didn't get on our 2007 list -- maybe they are better at this than we are?)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Car talk

So, for the past week or so, I've been plumb out of cassettes to listen to in the bathroom and in the car. Only one of the titles I've got left to listen to for YALSA is available to me on cassette, and I'm in the hold queue at a neighboring library. So, I'm listening to some older kids' stuff. (Hey, this blog is for all my audiobooks, right?)

I dragged out the four and a half hours of The Great Brain for more than a week (I don't think I spent enough time in the car!). This didn't matter as each of the stories in this book can really stand alone, so I guess I didn't feel any compulsion to speed up the book. I found them interesting as a literary artifact -- slightly amusing, good stuff for boys who are moving up from readers, and an accurate depiction of small town life 100 years ago. They don't have the sensibility of more modern children's fiction -- the boys engage in a certain amount of casual violence, the portrayals of any nonwhite protagonists are a little wince-worthy, the language is pretty formal. But my library's eight tired and bedraggled copies on tape are all checked out, so T.D.'s appeal remains. Part of that for me was the worldly wise, yet still enthusiastic, narration of Ron McLarty, who reads as T.D.'s (The Great Brain) admiring younger brother, J.D. (Hey, McLarty reads the Mercy Watson books, I bet that's a stitch!)

Last night I started Caroline Lawrence's first Roman Mystery: The Thieves of Ostia. If I can squeeze in an adult book every now and then, it's likely to be a mystery, so I'm predisposed to like this already. (I'm already a big fan of both Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor.) The reader is giving us a nice portrayal of young Flavia Gemina (hard g); there are more characters to come. Perfect for the car ... or the shower!

Incoming message

I popped in the first disk to I am the Messenger, which I first read two years ago or so. The first chapter -- where the bank robbery takes place -- was freaking hilarious to listen to. I'm sure it was pretty funny when I read it, but listening to the Aussie read it made me laugh right out loud. So far, this guy -- Marc Aden Gray -- sounds perfect as going-nowhere-fast Ed Kennedy.

I've put off as long as I could listening to the nominated titles that were books I've already read, but I think I should be a little more relaxed about this. It's been some time since I've read most of them (I've just got Abundance of Katherines and Rules of Survival left -- I think), and my memory's not that good anyway. I mean, I remember the gist (Ed gets those playing cards and heads off to save a few people ... including himself), but the other bits (like the very, very funny first chapter) are mostly a blur. Besides, am I overconfident? I've got YALSA listening totally under control (I am a girl of a 100 lists) -- I'm going to finish our list before I get on a plane to Philly! I wonder what I'll listen to in the great in-between? Hmmm...

Sweet dreams

I finished up The Glitch in Sleep while walking to one of the childcare centers where I do storytimes (my least favorite place to do this, actually). Becker manages to locate the glitch (which is an actual creature, nicely voiced in a hoarse, watery voice by Wyman) and sets the world to rights. The stage is then ponderously set for upcoming adventures -- it all seemed a little obvious to me. But, I'm pretty much thinking that this reads aloud a whole lot better than it reads. There remains the question of whether teens (who include 12 year olds as I think I've said before) will enjoy this. Already, comments among the committee are flying fast and furious (politely, of course).

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Sleep deprivation

Scholastic Audiobooks is driving me nuts! They don't seem to want any business, because when they send us audiobooks to review, the letterhead has absolutely no information on how to contact them. The website is completely impossible as well. I select audiobooks for my library and I want to order some Scholastic titles, but they make it awfully difficult. (Not as difficult as HarperAudio, which didn't send us any titles for review this year: I'm hoping someone will send us Stoneheart for next year.)

Well, that's really apropos of nothing, but since Scholastic is the publisher of the title I'm listening to now, I just thought I'd rant (because I can!). The Glitch in Sleep in the first in a series called The Seems (which is perhaps only the first in a series if the first one does well, or does that only apply to movies -- after this weekend, it certainly doesn't look like there will be a movie of The Subtle Knife). So, The Seems is where our world is created (truly intelligent design). Certain humans (those with a seventh sense) are recruited by Seemsians to train as Fixers at the Institute for Fixing and Repair. Because -- unfortunately -- everything that is created in The Seems will inevitably need fixing. Young F. Becker Drane was recruited at nine, and now, three years later, he's finally been promoted to Fixer, the youngest ever. Eagerly awaiting his first case, he's called to fix the glitch in the Department of Sleep. And it's a doozy ... everyone in the world will have insomnia until Becker can make the repair. And if everyone has insomnia, the "ripple effect" could be devastating.

I'm enjoying this a lot. It's original, witty, and good for all ages. The narrator, Oliver Wyman, has an impressive resumé (although I've never heard him) of books, and he hasn't been locked into a particular genre, age range, or type of book. He's got a lot of opportunity to be showy here (accents from around the world along with otherworldly creatures like bedbugs), and he more than meets the challenge. I'm finding his narration a little gee whiz, but even that fits with the title. Becker is a little gee whiz too. Which, of course, gets me to the "too young?" discussion ... and, at this point, I can't decide.

The reviews say there are lots of pictures in the book. My library's copy is checked out, but it might be fun to look at these. Also, in trolling the 'net to find the website (which was more than a few pages in at Google), I noticed that it's been optioned for moviedom. In listening, it's obvious that it has movie ambitions all over it. Sometimes, I just think authors are seeing the movie as they write. Which doesn't necessarily make it bad book, but can make it a good audiobook. In this case, it's working!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Monkey business

Frances Robinson fantasizes about romance and marriage with Johnny Scopes in 1920s Tennessee. Frances is 15 and Johnny is 24, and I suppose in the 1920s it was not unheard of for 15-year-olds to think about marriage. However, in the story I'm listening to now, it just gave me a big ick.

Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial is historical fiction. Both Scopes and Frances are real people, although I think the one-sided romance is an invention. (I haven't reached the end where an author's note relates some information about Frances.) Told from Frances' perspective, I learned a couple things: A group of Dayton, TN businessmen created the case in order to bring attention and commerce to their small town. This strategy backfired in a big way when the journalist H.L. Mencken came to Dayton to cover the story. Mencken was well-known for his biting commentary on people and institutions he considered ridiculous, and -- in Dayton, he had a field day. Soon, everyone believed Dayton and Daytonians to be ignorant, Bible-thumping yohoos.

In the novel, Frances' love for Johnny Scopes and encounters with Mencken cause her to reconsider her family's literal interpretation of the Bible, and her father's manipulation of Scopes for his own ends. It's an interesting approach to the standard "I'm growing up and away from my family" plot line of teen fiction, but the seriousness that she brings to her "future" with John Scopes seemed so tacked on to the story, that I had difficulty with the entire novel. Plus, I read this book about a year and a half ago, and it's just as dull this time as I found it then.

The reader is Ashley Albert, and she does a perky Southern accent for Frances and the other denizens of Dayton. Evidently, she was part of the cast of the MTV show Daria -- something that is just not part of my reality, although the younger members of my committee say that they recognize her voice. She's not terribly successful at voicing some of the characters, and I finally decided (having finished the book between the beginning of this post and its end) that it's simply inexperience.

Some readers think that they have to lay on the characters -- each one different -- in order for we (I guess it should be us) listeners to keep everybody clear. But, in this audiobook, Albert doesn't do a thing with the pivotal character of Mencken. She doesn't have him talk Bal'more; he isn't in a lower register; he isn't growling, or nasal, or shouting (all techniques for male characters I have heard) -- yet I was never in doubt about when he was speaking and when the speaker changed to someone else. I believe she could have just read nearly everyone this way and I would have accepted it more than what she did choose -- interchangeable Southern accents for many of the characters, and a very shaky British accent for Scopes' father.

What we will call a fine freshman effort, but to me, not among the Select. I think I said this back when I was blogging about The Loud Silence of Francine Green ... the narrator shows promise and I want to hear her again.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

When I think iPod, I think books ...

... which is why I pretty much thought that Love is a Mix Tape would bore me to tears. This memoir, by Rob Sheffield -- a contributing editor at Rolling Stone -- is subtitled Life and Loss One Song at a Time. Describing the mix tapes he and his wife Renee created for one another during their courtship and brief life together, Rob explains why the mix tape seems inextricably entwined with romance (good and gone bad) and -- in particular -- how music shaped his and Renee's lives ... and then his alone when she died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism.

To my surprise, I was completely rapt, listening to this. I think it's safe to say that Rob and I have nothing in common. I'm generally not a music listener -- although I recognized some (very few) of the 80s bands and songs that went on his mix tapes -- but since he was really writing about more universal themes, this simply didn't matter. I was decorating my Christmas tree while listening to this, and when Renee dies and Rob figures out how to go on (or truly, how he pretty much can't go on for a while) ... well, I had to take a few moments ... just to listen.

Rob is reading his own book, which is -- in my experience -- generally not a good idea. At first, he just came across as too casual and unprofessional, but then he starts telling this funny story about preparing the mix tape for his 8th grade dance (if the girls don't want to dance to the music, it's not good music for the dance), and I realize that his geeky persona is just the ticket. I really enjoyed this -- another book that I picked up protestingly in the course of this year's listening, and surprised myself with. (What is the What and On the Road are two others.)

But, will teens like this? That is the question. I think they'll really enjoy the beginning -- when Rob relates his early attempts at creating mix tapes. But when he and Renee are settling into married life, and then when he faces his life without her, I'm not sure they'll stick with him. In the end, this memoir isn't really about music, it's about well ... life and loss. Two kind of adult themes. I'm glad it was nominated, it'll be a good discussion.

Why though, did Random House (the grown-up's Listening Library -- a sophisticated and professional publisher of audiobooks) not include any music on this? Copyrights and permissions, probably (sigh). Each chapter begins with the name of the mix tape and a recitation of the artists and songs on each side. It would have been just great to have some of the music from the first song playing under Rob's reading. Instead, generic (to my ears, perhaps a more sophisticated listener would know the music) rock and roll plays at the very beginning and end of the book.

Speaking of iPods ... I've asked Santa for one this Christmas, but I need to make sure that I get one that will take downloadable books from Library2Go. My geeky friend Peter says that of course the iPod will do this, but he is WRONG!

Nominations are closed

As of December 1, nominations for the 2008 list of Selected Audiobooks have closed (and the list may not be updated at this writing). We have 45 titles that we are considering. I have 10 left to listen to. In 40 days. I'm actually a whole lot better off than I was at this time last year, when I probably had closer to 20 titles to listen to (and did not succeed). Since we were working on assigned titles, rather than listening to whatever we felt like, it was easier to tackle the nominated books in between assignments.

I was sick most of this weekend, so I'm actually down to nine books ... but coming to work today, I learned that there was one more nomination. Oh well, I have a plan ... and Schooled is just four disks (ooh, it's available on cassette ... even better!).

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Audiobookmaking

Hey, I just wanted to give a shoutout to the blog of the author of Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher. On November 23 and 24, Jay interviewed the two (fantastic) readers of his book about their preparation and process for narrating an audiobook. In some earlier posts, he talks about sitting in on the recording session at Listening Library. Asher's blog was referenced in the interview he did with AudioFile Magazine. Great insider stuff! I'm so glad he was interested enough in the process to contact the two readers.

[Look ... a really short, punchy post ... I can do it!]

Peak Experience

Peak Experience is the name of one Joshua Woods' mountain climbing outfit. Almost 15 years ago, Josh and his former girlfriend (another rock/mountain climber) also -- regrettably -- named their newborn son Peak. When Peak was a schoolboy, Josh and Peak's mom broke up and Peak went to live with his mom, her new husband Rolf and -- eventually -- his twin younger sisters (born on his birthday) in New York City. Peak is a bit of a rebel, and at the beginning of Roland Smith's (Oregon author!) Peak, we encounter him scaling the Woolworth Building. Peak is caught just after he leaves his mark (blue mountain peaks), and ends up in juvenile detention. To keep him out of jail, Josh Woods agrees to take Peak to live with him in Thailand for a short while.

Josh has some ulterior motives, however. He wants Peak to be the youngest person to summit Mount Everest. He thinks it will add some glamour and credibility to Peak Experience, which is teetering on the edge financially. Peak is intrigued and agrees to try to summit, but there are a number of obstacles (not just physical strength and a lack of oxygen) facing him, not to mention a few truths that his father is keeping from him. Peak is the story of Peak's preparation and ascent and it makes for one exciting story (even for someone who really doesn't understand the whole "because it's there" concept).

The narrator, Ramon de Ocampo, does a fine job here of portraying smart, mouthy, yet vulnerable Peak. Peak narrates this story, and the harsh world of Everest and those (fools) who climb it comes to life with every frozen, gasping-for-air moment. Peak affects a matter-of-fact tone, but I heard the fear underneath it. de Ocampo also did a great job with Josh -- confident, athletic and using his charm and grin to manipulate those around him. He was a little less successful with the two major non-American characters -- the Tibetan monk (and former Sherpa) [blanking on his name] and his grandson, just a few days older than Peak, Son-ju. de Ocampo doesn't seem as comfortable here, but you can tell he's worked hard on making each of them distinct and memorable characters.

For me, the adventure and suspense more than outweighed these drawbacks. I listened to this because two committee colleagues couldn't commit; and I nominated it!