Thursday, December 25, 2008

Clockwork Orang[e]

I managed to get a degree in English lit a generation ago without ever reading A Clockwork Orange. Not my cup of tea at all: Bleak, bleaker, bleakest. The ghastly story of ultraviolent, amoral Alex and his droogs, Alex's remedial treatment and its aftermath has simply no hope at all (or does it?). You might think that it would be exceedingly disturbing to listen to, as I think most books have increased power when they are read aloud. But, in fact, this audio version -- read by Tom Hollander -- creates a certain amount of distance, while increasing the book's accessibility.

The novel, by Anthony Burgess, introduces us to Alex as he heads out on an all-night rampage of battery, grand theft auto, gang rape and property damage. The next day, we learn of his intense love for classical music. Shortly afterwards, Alex lands in prison as he is caught burglarizing and terrorizing an old lady -- who dies following Alex's assault. After two years incarceration, he takes advantage of the opportunity for a cure (and a release from prison), which turns out to be chemical aversion therapy -- his favorite music accompanies movies of extreme violence, while the drugs in his system induce nausea. Within two weeks, Alex can't think of violence or hear his music without feeling debilitatingly ill. He is "cured" and released from prison. On the outside, he quickly becomes a poster boy for those protesting the fascistic regime that implemented the therapy, and the procedure is reversed. Alex goes back to his violent ways, but is he older and wiser ... putting his youth behind him?

According to the introduction that begins this audiobook, the final "uplifting" chapter of the book -- where Alex begins to rethink his path -- was eliminated for the initial U.S. publication of the book ... and the Stanley Kubrick movie. As a first-time reader/listener, I'm not sure I found that final chapter to be all that positive. Alex talks about changing, but since he's the ultimate in the unreliable narrator, can you believe him?

Anyone familiar with the novel will know that Alex narrates in "nadsat," a teen slang that is evidently based on both Cockney dialect and Russian. I simply can't imagine trying to read this book -- constantly parsing the language while trying to piece out the plot would likely have defeated me early on. But having Tom Hollander read it meant that I didn't have to do the parsing. I just had to think a moment about context and let the story happen. If there was a precise definition that I had missed, I could easily get the gist in the rest of the sentence or paragraph. Here's a case where I think an audiobook can make a classic of literature accessible for more readers.

But in addition to easing the transition into nadsat, Hollander just does a terrific reading. He inhabits Alex in all his teenage self-absorption and sense of entitlement, in his casual descriptions of the ultraviolence and mayhem, in his complete lack of conscience. He drawls Alex's general sense of boredom, finds humor in his irony, and ultimately his terror at his helplessness once he's "cured." There's even the occasional Bronx cheer (which is called something else in the novel).

Hollander also plays the other characters in the novel -- all from Alex's viewpoint. So the prison officials are nasally snobs, his mother an ineffectual whisperer, his victims all high-pitched and querulous, and his droogs dense and insensible. I found it quite a bravura performance, but it seemed to be delivered with Alex's nonchalance.

This audiobook includes an entire disc devoted to excerpts of Burgess reading the novel in the 1960s (?). Burgess reads with flair and enthusiasm, but without Hollander's skill at creating and sustaining characters. It seemed clear that Hollander listened to a little (or a lot) of Burgess when creating his version because the pronunciation of the nadsat was exactly alike. The audiobook didn't need this extra disc, of course, and I'm sure that most teen listeners will give it a complete pass; but it was nicely produced: All the other discs were black, while the Burgess disc matched the orange of the strip on the cover.

Like another classic of that part of the 20th century, On the Road, I'm truly glad that listening provided me with the opportunity to know it. Because I sure wouldn't be reading either of these.

Chains of freedom

There has been a tremendous (well, for Oregon) amount of snow here for the past ten days; the library was last open on Friday, December 19 and I am at that point where to do much of anything sounds so terribly exhausting that I sigh and turn over another page of the umpteenth book I'm reading. I'm truly not bored, but admit to being powerfully unmotivated; which is why I can't seem to muster up much interest in blogging about Chains, which I finished a week ago. Or about anything else for that matter. Chains is Laurie Halse Anderson's historical novel about a young slave in Revolutionary New York. (I'm sure she is deeply tired of hearing that it's Octavian Nothing for less sophisticated readers.)

Chains is the story (or the beginning of the story) of Isabel, a young African American girl who has just buried her mistress in Newport, Rhode Island. Isabel believes that her late mistress's will has freed her and her younger sister, Ruth; but instead the girls are sold to a couple on their way home to New York City. The couple, the Lockwoods, are Loyalists -- supporters of the English crown -- and in the few weeks before the Declaration of Independence is signed in Philadelphia they believe that it is safe for them to live openly in New York. It is, of course, not safe for Isabel -- who is now at the mercy of two cruel adults. Mrs. Lockwood soon brands Isabel on the face with an "I" for insolence and sells her younger sister to some slaveholders on the Caribbean island of Nevis.

Isabel has found one friend, a slave named Curzon. Curzon encourages Isabel to spy on the Lockwoods and promises her that his Patriot master will help her if she does. Although Isabel does provide some information to the Patriots about the Lockwoods' activities, she discovers that neither Patriot nor Loyalist believes in the freedom of black people. Realizing that only she can make herself free, Isabel prepares to flee the Lockwoods and begin her search for her sister Ruth.

In between Isabel's branding and the time when she plans to escape from the Lockwoods the story just appeared to be marking time. Yes, events happened: Notably the Patriots' defeat at Fort Washington and their imprisonment in a dreadful prison near the battery. Curzon is among the prisoners and Isabel's actions save his life. But there was no tension in this part of the book -- it just felt like a series of episodes where Isabel crept off to the prison and came back to do her work in the house. The whole spying plot disappeared completely. It was kind of a drag. The tension and excitement picked right up at the end, where Isabel makes her escape ... with Curzon. The ending wasn't one ... clearly we are in for more of Isabel's story.

The book in my library catalog has the subtitle Seeds of America (which to me makes a connection to those Dear America books ... and that is not a good thing), which is nowhere on the cover or anywhere on the audiobook, so I'm not sure what that means. Is Chains the series name? Or is Seeds of America? Does it matter? I like to know these things.

Chains is narrated by Madisun Leigh, who reads Isabel with compassion and authenticity. She doesn't shy away from the deeper emotions -- and her reading of Isabel's branding, the loss of Ruth, and Isabel's realization that she is alone is powerfully moving. I think the story's impact is much greater by hearing, rather than reading it. Leigh doesn't try very hard to create the other characters -- there aren't any class or racial distinctions and the British don't sound very British. I'm not sure this detracts from the overall story, but I would have liked to hear some other characters.

What I did find intrusive was the chapter headings -- each of which was a day of the week and a date, followed by an often lengthy quote from primary sources that may (or may not) relate to the events of the chapter. Repitition like this can be a tiresome format in audio. What I wanted though, was a few moments to think about the quote, but alas, there were no vocal cues to let us know that the quote was over (beyond the citation), and the story just plunged ahead. It became somewhat of a barrier to my enjoyment of the book.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Jack is back!

There are now six Bloody Jack adventures, but I think you should wait until each one comes out in audio. The first three will have to do for now, but I'm sure that Listen and Live Audio is working to catch up with author L.A. Meyer (according to its website, the fourth book is also available, but that one wasn't sent to us by our deadline). Jacky Faber's first adventure showed up on our list last year, as well as on the Odyssey's Honor list. Curse of the Blue Tattoo is an equally fun ride.

Discovered to be a girl, live-in-the-moment Jacky has been removed from the crew of the HMS Dolphin in Boston and sent to the Lawson-Peabody School for Young Ladies on Beacon Hill. Alas, her straightforward Cockney ways get her immediately in trouble, and -- on an outing to Boston Harbor -- she is caught exposing her knee as she plays her flute and dances. She is soon demoted from young lady to lady's maid, but this doesn't sink her irrepressible spirit. Jacky continues to make friends (and enemies), but her general state of contentment is always tempered by her sadness at not receiving any letters from her beloved fiance, Jaimy Fletcher. Her impetuousness continues to exasperate her friends and keep her in hot water, and in a series of misunderstandings and lost opportunities, at the end of Blue Tattoo Jacky is hopefully setting out for England and Jaimy aboard a Quaker whaling vessel.

That synopsis barely skims the surface of this fun- and action-filled 14-hour story. Listen as Jacky spends the night in jail, meets some ladies of the evening, faces down thugs, climbs up and down various buildings (remember her skill in a ship's rigging), earns a few pennies performing in a tavern, pretends to be a ghost, dives into Boston Harbor, carries on her disguise as a boy, flirts with a few boys, survives a fire, and wins a high-stakes horse race aboard an Arab stallion. Whew! The hours just flew by.

And they flew by for just one reason: Katherine Kellgren. In the tired phrase beloved by audiobook reviewers and fans, she brings Jacky Faber vividly to life. I don't think the books are really as good as Kellgren makes them. Jacky's impetuousness, her temper, her affection for her friends, her appreciation of a handsome man, her fearlessness, her excitability are all as clear as day in Kellgren's interpretation. She uses only her voice to express this character -- which means that volume, pacing, speaking voice are all used to the utmost. Kellgren yells, she sobs, she speaks more quickly or more slowly, she even inhales the snot in her nose back up!

Above all, she sings. Jacky loves music and a significant part of this novel takes place in a tavern where she sings and plays her flute for money. When the story calls for it, a song comes out. Some are folk songs where you might know the tune (I enjoyed The Parting Glass). All are beautifully sung. It makes for such diversity in the story itself -- you aren't just listening to hours and hours of someone read to you; she's singing to you too!

Finally, Kellgren can put on the accent. Cockney, naturally, for Jacky. But there are a raft of Americans, an Irish cook, a Scottish drunk, a Southern [rhymes with witch], and the whole gamut of English -- from other Cockneys to received pronouncers. Conversations between these characters is fluid and effortless. If the Americans all tend to sound alike (there are no cahhrs being pahhrked for example), it is a small quibble.

The next Jacky adventure, Under the Jolly Roger, is also on our nomination list. I need to take a brief break for something else, but stayed tuned.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ka-blam!

When I read Slam about a year ago, I could hear author Nick Hornby's voice reading it aloud because I'd been lucky enough to hear him during ALA Annual in Washington, DC. I heard a pleasant, working class Englishman reading in my head and I enjoyed listening. Now I've got Nicholas Hoult's voice there, and I'm not sure I'm as happy. Nicholas Hoult played the "boy" in About a Boy, the Hugh Grant movie based on Hornby's 1998 novel of the same name. I remember him being quite good, particularly in that cringeworthy scene where they are both singing Killing Me Softly.

Slam is about Sam Jones, a 16-year-old skater (skateboarder) and Tony Hawk fan, who meets Alicia, spends an intense couple of weeks dating (and sleeping with) her, and then finds himself soon to be a father. Slam! He's understandably freaked out by this, and turns to TH (or rather Hawk's autobiography, Hawk, Occupation Skateboarder, which Sam knows by heart) for advice. TH "whizzes" Sam into the future a couple of times to show him what life will be like as the hilariously dim father of an infant and toddler. Sam's not sure why TH does this, but the lessons prove salutory and the book ends with Sam's life a bit less chaotic. It's funny in that Nick Hornby, men-are-loveable-but-incompetent, way; and I think that he presents a fairly accurate picture of what it's like to be a boy raised by a teenager (Sam was born when his mum was 16) and a teenager raising a child. (Of course, I bring no personal experience to either.)

Nicholas Hoult is a compelling reader, but not a very good one for ears not genetically attuned to English speech patterns. He sounds authentically North London and working class -- there is a speedy, lulling rhythm to his sentences, with the sentences or phrases nearly always ending up on that high, almost questioning note. He sounds like a teenaged boy (he is one!), and gives an accurate interpretation of Sam: self-centered, sarcastic, funny.

Hoult makes no effort to distinguish between characters in the novel -- not even trying on an American accent for Tony Hawk. This was not an inappropriate choice: this is Sam's story and it's all about how the world revolves around him. But, in lengthy conversations, where the "he said/she saids" are often missing, it was occasionally difficult to figure out who was speaking. And this, coupled with the speed of his reading that often prevented me from actually understanding what he was saying (even after rewinding two or three times), made this audiobook hard work. There was no sitting back here and letting the reader wash over me while I knit or wash the dishes or sort the laundry. I had to actively pay attention every minute. And that gets exhausting; and not particularly enjoyable.

In the end, I wanted to hear Nick Hornby read this to me. And that -- knowing how I generally feel about authors reading their own work -- is saying something.

Monday, December 8, 2008

From beyond the grave

I understand that Neil Gaiman's promotional tour for The Graveyard Book was him reading a chapter (in chronological order) at each bookstore appearance. And, once he'd made an appearance (and read a chapter), that audio was posted on the (retail) publisher's website. I don't think that was how they produced the audiobook. Still, it was pretty cool. Well, pretty Gaiman (which means cool). And, well, The Graveyard Book was pretty cool, too.

A rather sinister man with a knife has dispatched the family living in an old house, all except for the toddler sleeping on the top floor. This child -- who has just learned how to walk -- slips out of his crib and bumps down the stairs and out the door, and makes his way to the nearby graveyard; it's no longer used to bury people, but its residents are still fairly active at night. When the baby arrives, they all seem to know that he needs protection. Mr. and Mrs. Owens take him in, calling him Nobody. The Owenses need someone who is not dead to help them care for Bod -- someone who can leave the graveyard for food and clothing and the like -- and the mysterious Silas steps forward as guardian. Silas isn't dead, but he's not alive either.

As Bod grows up, he has numerous adventures in and out of the graveyard. Some adventures are humorous, some poignant (the danse macabre), and some downright scary. Because the man Jack who murdered his family needs to finish the job, no matter how long it takes. Fortunately -- until Bod is old enough to deal with Jack himself -- Silas, the Owens, the wonderful Mrs. Lupescu (teacher and werewolf), Liza (buried in unconsecrated ground because she was a witch), and his other friends and neighbors are there to teach him about the world. Gaiman has created a world that feels very real, and is populated by an array of characters who clearly hold a place in the author's affections. With the exception of the evil man Jack(s), a cup of tea with anyone you meet in Bod's graveyard would be delightful.

I think they are so delightful because of Gaiman's reading. His familiarity with the story must lead to the ease with which he reads it. Gaiman can be droll, he can be scary, he can be moving all with equal skill. It must have been so fun to be at one of his readings. (I've never read his adult stuff ... I might have to keep an eye out for him at Powell's if he ever makes it to Portland). I can still hear his voices for Mrs. Lupescu (Transylvanian, of course), the saucy Liza, the Owenses, and an over-the-top bad poet buried in a corner of the graveyard. He's quiet and curious as Bod (whose name -- in what I appreciated as a nice twist for an audiobook -- is often mistaken as Bob), and calm and slightly menacing as Silas (Silas is the vampire of the moment, not that other guy!). I quibble about his interpretation of Bod's human friend, Scarlet, whose Scots accent sort of came and went.

Each chapter begins with a wonderful snippet of Camille Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre, played (I hear) by Bela Fleck. It sets an appropriately threatening tone to the proceedings. Gaiman talks a little bit about that, and about recording the book in this blog entry.

I think we're going to have some discussions about age appropriateness next month. Is it too young for 12- and 13-year olds? I don't think so ... they're just the right age to enjoy it, but not be scared. At the library, we might have to recommend it only for "nonsensitive" younger readers. I also think there's a whole community of Gaiman-ites (if I may call them that) that will read anything he writes.

There's Newbery buzz about this book ... I wonder if it's on the Odyssey shortlist? Hmmm...

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Final list of nominations

Finishing Tenderness means that all that's left to listen to are our nominated titles. I've got 110 hours, 94 CDs, and 12 books. That means a little more than an average of two hours a day, which sounds easy at the moment, but ask me again in a month! (If I don't get Disc 3 of The Graveyard Book finished today, I will be officially behind!)

The nominees from which the fine women of Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults will create our final list in 55 days are located here.

Try a little tenderness

Robert Cormier was dead by the time I arrived at teen literature as an adult ... and he wasn't writing when I was a teenager myself. [Yes, I'm old.] Back when I was listening exclusively to "backlist" teen fiction, I listened to The Chocolate War, which I recognized as a pretty good novel; but I didn't like it enough (too much nastiness) to seek out any other titles. But when Tenderness showed up in a recent delivery, I thought I'd like to give him another go. This cover is not the cover the audiobook. (And what is this cover anyway? Is he wearing his heart on his sleeve? Even Amazon.com won't give me a large-size image ...)

Eric Poole is about to be released from the juvenile detention facility he has resided in for the past three years for the (judged justifiable) murder of his mother and stepfather. Eric has also murdered three young women, but the police haven't been able to link him to these crimes. He is planning to continue his search for similar girls with long, dark hair upon his release.

Lori Cranston is a 15-year-old runaway who has been sexually abused by one of her mother's boyfriends, and now uses her well-endowed "top" to obtain money and other favors from men. Lori gets "fixations" to kiss certain men, and she has run away to meet up with and kiss a rock star. On her journey, she sees TV footage covering the release of Eric Poole, and her fixation turns to him. She remembers seeing him as a 12-year-old, just as he was heading into the woods for a tryst with a victim. When Eric and Lori meet up, the inevitable happens, but not the way you think it will.

This book has two narrative perspectives: Lori's first person and a third person telling Eric's story. Alas, Recorded Books chose to have Jennifer Ikeda read both perspectives. And I believe I've mentioned at least once my personal difficulties with Ikeda's narrative style.

Unfortunately, I couldn't believe for one minute that Ikeda's whispery voice with its precise diction was that of a sexually provocative teenager (she used the same voice she used for two innocents of the same age in Enthusiasm). And when there was no relief from that voice when the third-person narrative came in, the audiobook just flopped for me. Eric's tale was told with the same calm serenity as Lori's. There was no sense of mounting tension that is the focus of this book; and truly, I got no sense of the complexity of the two teenagers: Both are looking for "tenderness" -- a human connection that isn't exploitative, that doesn't hurt. It's just they weren't given the skills to find this in a socially acceptable manner. They both should be chilling; instead they sounded so ordinary, so unthreatening.

I swear Stephen Fry is reading the "this is the end of disc 1" etc. on Recorded Book titles lately. Now that's a pleasure to listen to. (I am a bit tempted to revisit Harry Potter on audio and try to get the English versions via Interlibrary Loan ... but do I want to devote 120 odd hours to that? Probably not.)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!

Vive la France! The Red Necklace takes you back to that exciting time where you could easily (but painlessly, thanks to M. Guillotin) lose your head. Sally Gardner's second novel for young people is similar to her first -- I, Coriander -- in that the story is placed in a historical reality, but flights of fantasy take it into another realm altogether. In I, Coriander -- which I enjoyed both in print and audio -- 17th century London and its conflicts between Puritanism and "witchcraft" are enhanced by a life or death journey into fairyland. In The Red Necklace, two French performers of Romany origins use magic to animate a wooden Pierrot and save the life of a young heiress during the Reign of Terror.

Yann Margoza has known no other parent than the clever dwarf Tetu, and known no other life than performing with the great magician Topolain. Yann can read minds and throw his voice, Tetu can move objects with his mind, and Topolain can stop a bullet with his hand. Their latest act is along the lines of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy -- except that Topolain doesn't manipulate the automaton, the unseen Tetu does. The three performers are ordered to the country chateau of the Marquis de Villeduval by the mysterious and powerful Count Kalliovski. Kalliovsky wants very much to learn how Topolain works the wooden Pierrot. Unfortunatley, Topolain makes the fatal error of recognizing the Count, and -- for the first (and last, of course) time -- the bullet trick fails. Yann and Tetu make a perilous escape, but not before taking refuge in the room of the Marquis' daughter, Sido. It is Sido's courage in delaying the Count that enables the two gypsies to escape.

Sido's father -- a weak man, who lives for his collection of elegant shoe buckles and ignores the buildup of resentment that is fomenting the Revolution -- seems to have no love for her, and quickly succumbs to the Count's desire to wed her. The Marquis is in deep debt to the Count, and this appears to be the only way he can repay what he owes. But, before the Count can take his young bride, Sido and her father are caught in the round-up of aristocrats and imprisoned in Paris. The Count -- who has changed sides and is considered to be a "citizen" -- may not be able to save them.

Tetu ensures that Yann makes a complete escape to London, where the boy is educated, and learns from England's gypsies how to manipulate the "threads of light" as Tetu has. He realizes that he must return to France to rescue Sido. And, so The Red Necklace hurries to its exciting conclusion. (A conclusion that seemed a bit abrupt, so I was glad to learn at the author's website that a sequel is in the works.)

At this late date in my audiobook reviewing you would think that I would have the language to describe what I don't like about Carrington MacDuffie as a narrator. In her work here, she is very skilled at creating consistent characters, she seems at ease with multiple accents, she knows how to pace the story well -- adding excitement and speed to her reading as the story grows more suspenseful. It is her narrator voice that seems so wrong. It's like she's speaking from the back of her throat in a sexy, growly way ... only she shouldn't be sexy and growly when she reads this book (it's all about innocent love). At the same time, she's seems to be really trying hard not to be growly, so instead she sounds like she's got marbles in her mouth (without it being difficult to understand her).

This is deeply unhelpful, I know. Perhaps (if I continue my blog during my Odyssey tenure), I'll figure out how to embed audio ... hmmmm.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sleeping beauties

Princess Benevolence is the sole heir to the throne of the small country of Montagne, but so far she hasn't been raised to be particularly royal. Her father (brother to the king) and mother have indulged her pretty thoroughly, although she's not unpleasantly spoiled. But one day, during a ceremonial outing, Ben's uncle the king and her mother are killed, and her father disappears. Montagne's menacing neighbor, Drachensbett -- which has long coveted the peaceful kingdom -- is believed to be responsible for the murders. The king's widow, Sophia -- appointing herself regent --starts a diplomatic game to keep Drachensbett at bay, and begins Ben's princess lessons (which do bear a bit of a resemblence to those of another princess ... except that Ben is a bit chubbier), grooming her for a probable match with the young prince of Drachensbett.

But Ben, in Princess Ben: Being a Wholly Truthful Account of her Various Discoveries and Misadventures, Recounted to the Best of her Recollection, in Four Parts is having none of it. In this extremely enjoyable slightly twisted fairy tale by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (author of our beloved D.J. Schwenk), Ben acts out in every possible way, until Queen Sophia banishes her to a lonely tower room. (Her hair does not begin to grow.) She's not truly imprisoned there, but she's got a lot of time on her hands, and one day she discovers that a bit of the walls of her tower room isn't -- in fact -- a wall; it's a door. A door to an even higher tower room, filled with dust, a broom, and a large book.

Ben soon realizes that this book is full of magic spells and she begins to practice creating the four elements: air, fire, earth and water. She goes on to discover that the castle of Montagne is riddled with secret passageways, which enable her to observe the castle's activities without being seen. Ben also learns to enchant and fly the broom. This comes in handy on the night of her betrothal ball, when she leaves in a rage and flies out her tower window. After a night of perilous flying (she's not really good), she lands on the upper reaches of Ancienne, Montagne's namesake mountain; and shortly after that she is taken up by Drachensbett's army -- camped out there in anticipation of the invasion. They think she is a boy. Soon, the prince shows up and, well ... you know how it's going to end, but it's a pretty engaging ride to get there.

Despite the familiar story, Ben's narration is witty and literate. She's telling us the story from her old age, and Murdock sets the right tone of bemused ruefulness at her adolescent high jinks and poor choices. I like re-interpreted fairy tales and this is a good one. I hope I'm not spoiling it to say that there are two sleepers awoken in this story, and neither one is Ben!

This book is read by the author and she reads with enthusiasm and affection for her story. Power audiobook listeners tend to view author narration with skepticism, but I enjoyed her reading. She never took that neutral tone that you can hear from many authors who read their own books. Instead, Murdock's narration reflected that tone of looking back with embarrassed fondness at her youthful foibles. Her speech patterns and vocal tone reminded me of Christina Moore, who has narrated a bunch of children's and teen audiobooks (A Girl of the Limberlost from YALSA's 2003 list, and -- in the spirit of this novel, Zel).

But then Murdock chose to get more elaborate and started creating voices for the novel's characters -- a variety of accents and differences in timbre emerged: French, Cockney, girlishly petulantly high (for young Ben), and deep and low for the king of Drachensbett. Alas, she couldn't keep it up. The vocal interpretations came and went, often in the space of a conversation. I was very disappointed. I lost focus on the magic of the story she had created through her first-person narration, and instead waited for the awkwardness to arrive. In Mary Burkey's visualization, Murdock's narrative choices kept a great story down.

I also heard a number of mispronunciations and a lot of dry mouth. But I think I could have overlooked them. Sigh.

On the good news front, Murdock's writing a third book about D.J. Schwenk! And before I let this go, it's always nice to see an author who can cross genres. Murdock simply knows how to tell a good story. What could be better?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What's it all about?

I wonder how hard it is for authors to let go of a character they created and loved. Is a situation like that as much a generator of sequels as publishers and authors hanging on to a good thing financially? I ask this because I think Janet Tashjian (hooray for audiobooks, it's pronounced taz-zhin) needs to separate from her delightful creation, Josh 'Larry' Swenson. Her most recent outing, Larry and the Meaning of Life just didn't cut it for me.

I loved Josh in his first two stories -- when I started The Gospel According to Larry by reading the preface where Josh hands Janet his manuscript, just for a few moments, I believed it was true. I just finished Vote for Larry (because you know that's what I need to do), and -- even though it was written during the 2004 election -- it seemed utterly connected to the election just concluded. But this installment, where Larry is searching for personal meaning by hanging out with a completely creepy guru at Walden Pond just gave me the icks. And, it's "surprise" ending just felt more icky to me.

A brief synopsis: After winning nearly a third of the presidential vote in Vote for Larry, Josh heads off on an eight-month search for his former girlfriend, Janine. Janine disappeared when Josh accused her of colluding with his worst enemy -- known as betagold -- to scuttle his campaign. He didn't find her, and is now camped out in his stepfather's TV room with little will to turn off the documentaries. But he knows he needs to do something, so he heads off to Walden Pond for a little enlightenment. There he meets Gus, and -- after an all-too brief evaluation -- decides that he will join Gus's small group of seekers, Janine among them. Along the way, Josh ends up in trouble with the police and FBI, donating a kidney to a stranger, and perhaps finding his biological father.

I didn't like this because Josh seemed to have lost all his Larry-ness. For all of Josh's navel-gazing, Larry was always about questioning the world around him, and in the Meaning of Life, he seems to have uncharacteristically fallen for Gus and his obviously dicey philosophy early on. "What have you done with Josh?" I would periodically ask the air while I was listening. The whole kidney-donation thing really bugged me, as did the demise of Janine's best friend. I hope this isn't a spoiler, but perhaps I was as dense as Josh?

On the other hand, I enjoyed the audiobook. The author's preface and epilogue are read in dialogue with the reader, Matt Green, and Tashjian (or who I assume is Tashjian, since she is never introduced). Tashjian reads a little leadenly, but it makes a nice contrast between her and Josh. When Green begins reading the story, he inhabits Josh nicely -- with all his smarts and insecurity. He semi-voices the other characters, most notably Gus -- who has an accent from ... somewhere (or Fakeland as a committee colleague recently put it). (And it's OK that it's not distinguishable, a running joke in the story is that everyone thinks that Gus is from someplace different.) I did hear one or two elisions -- where he just read so fast that he seemed to be skipping words, but that my brain knew what he meant to say.

And, having read the previous two books, I wanted more vocal distinction of Josh's footnotes. I knew Green was reading them, but I wanted to hear the difference between his regular narration and when he was footnoting. Josh's asides are part of his charm, I wanted to hear that side of his personality. The question is, would a new listener even care about the two narrative streams? I think I just got off the fence about nominating this title; I'm very interested in whether my fellow librarians -- those who don't know Josh -- even care about this!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Stranger in a strange land

It shouldn't come as a surprise to me to learn that there are many fan sites for the science fiction author (and legend) Robert A. Heinlein, so I shall just link to his official website -- which seems to focus more on him and not so much on his books -- and leave Wikipedia (Heinlein was a nudist!) and the other geeky pages to Google searchers. His Red Planet (which was evidently heavily edited for the sensibilities of the post-atomic-age teenage set) has now been published in audio (and Heinlein's original manuscript restored) by that family-listening-loving Full Cast Audio. I do like the cover.

Red Planet's heroes are Jim Marlowe and Frank Sutton, two boys who are being raised on Mars by their pioneering, colonizing families. Jim has a pet "bouncer" (the blue object with three eyes) named Willis who is friendly and childlike, but has the ability to remember and reproduce the conversations of the humans he encounters. Jim takes Willis with him when the boys head off to boarding school, but trouble quickly ensues. Willis is confiscated by the new, corrupt headmaster -- who intends to ship him to the London Zoo. When Jim and Frank spring Willis, they learn of an even-more nefarious plot: The colonists' annual migration from south to north pole (to avoid the subfreezing winter Martian weather) will not take place, as the "company" running the Mars operations from Earth wishes to save money. Willis' imitative skills alert the boys to this plot.

Jim (the impetuous adventurous one) and Frank (the sensible one who actually gets things done) set off in their pressurized suits and ice skates on a trip that essentially takes them from the equator to the pole along Mars' frozen canals. Fortunately, through Willis, Jim had already made a connection with the native population, and it is the Martians who eventually return them to the colony so they can tell them about the cancelled migration. The colonists rise up in revolt, and -- after a brief skirmish -- win the day. But there is more of a battle ahead of them: The nonviolent Martians have not really welcomed the colonists to their planet and now they want them gone. It is up to Jim and Willis to broker a peace.

I am not a science fiction fan, although I bet my brother read this when he was a kid. There is something vaguely amusing about it now: The language is old-fashioned, the women are non-existent (except when they are assigned kitchen duties), and it lacks the consciousness about people who are not like us that is so much a part of our lives and our literature today. However, I did hear a wee bit of perhaps-we-have-been-a-little-overbearing-in-our-takeover-of-your-planet in amongst the libertarian message of let-us-alone-to-be-who-we-want-to-be. On the other hand, if you can overlook these qualities (and I think some kids can), Red Planet is a fairly exciting adventure; and if the adults take a little bit more of center-stage once the colonists stage their rebellion, it's still a pretty kid-oriented story.

But in audio, all its flaws seem much more obvious. The weak, whiny women, the outdated language, the casual violence, the Earth-centric disinterest and disdain for the wonders of another place and its people. There are many wincing moments. But, often I'm wincing while listening to a full-cast audio because the readers are so overly emotive and dramatic, and that was not the case here. The readers did a fine job -- they effortlessly hit all the right notes of youthful enthusiasm, cranky old codger, adorable blue ball, dignified Martian elder. The music was wonderful as well: properly space agey.

But this was a case of the story taking me out of the audio: Every time one of those 1940s-era literary bloopers hit my ears, I wanted to not be hearing it. Ouch.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Johnny got his gun

This post title really isn't a fair description of We are Soldiers Still: A Journey Back to the Battlefields of Vietnam by Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway. This memoir is subtlely anti-war, as opposed to Dalton Trumbo's novel - which kind of trumpets its stance loud and clear.

Fifteen years ago, Moore and Galloway wrote a memoir of what's considered by historians to be the first battle of the US-Vietnam conflict, the Ia Drang Valley. Moore was a lieutenant colonel -- and highest ranking officer in the field [I'm never clear about such things as miliary rank?] -- during the battle, and the book, We were Soldiers Once ... and Young, is evidently considered a masterpiece of military memoir. In the audiobook that I completed on Veterans' Day, Moore and Galloway (a UPI war reporter) recount their several trips to Vietnam during the 1990s, where they sought out the commander of the Vietnamese that day, a General Nguyen Huu An, and revisited the battlefield of Ia Drang with him. Moore writes movingly about being back Ia Drang, marveling at a new friendship with an old enemy, and how the land shows little sign of the death and destruction that occurred there nearly 30 years previously

If only it had stopped there. But Moore goes on -- pressured by his publisher? -- to pontificate at length on the qualities of a good leader. Then, he opines about war in general, taking a number of digs at George W. Bush and his ill-advised, ill-executed war in Iraq (While I personally have no connection to the military or anyone in the military, I did enjoy hearing that a professional soldier believes what I believe: That the soldiers who have died in Iraq have died meaningless deaths. We have gained nothing by this war.). Moore concludes this book with two lengthy elegies to soldiers dearly missed: Rick Riscorla, who died on 9/11; and his wife of 55 years, who died in 2004.

Joseph Galloway reads the audiobook. He reads in an extremely deep, gravelly Southern-tinged voice that rarely varied in volume, emotion or pacing. The narration didn't change as the book moved from Vietnam to 9/11 to Moore's wife's funeral procession. His delivery was quite lulling. At the beginning of every chapter, the volume would increase significantly -- was it because he was starting fresh after a break? But, soon he would head down to his comfortable speaking voice, and the listener would be lulled back into her zen state.

This narrative choice alone I think makes the audiobook a poor choice for teenagers. But that, coupled with the second half of the book's emphasis on "adult" things: organizational leadership skills, his post-military activities, the death of his wife -- really boot it out of the teen-friendly category. I would think that the first memoir might have considerable interest for some teenagers, but -- of course -- it's not under consideration. This title made for somewhat interesting listening, but is an easy no for our committee.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Totally off topic

Our next president is Barack Obama! How cool is that!

100 days!

Our most recent nomination list is posted here. We received our final submissions last week (although something trickled in today ... hah! the 2010 committee has to listen to 23.5 hours of The Host!), and my fabulous Excel spreadsheet tells me that we received 296 eligible audiobooks, totaling 2,412 hours and 23 minutes. That's 100 days of audio. Each of those 296 audiobooks was (or hopefully will be) listened to by at least one of the nine members of the Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults committee before December 1. Whew!

Since this was the first year I kept track of this, I have no idea how this compares to previous years. All I know is that we didn't receive [again!] a copy of Skulduggery Pleasant, and I anticipate my disappointment that Book 2, Playing with Fire will end up with an Odyssey Award or Honor, and -- like last year -- we didn't have the chance to listen to it! (I will not be disappointed if Skulduggery ends up with another Odyssey, just that our committee didn't have a chance to listen to it.) Grrr ...

The fourth shall be first ... or only

OK, so if there are any regular readers of this blog, you know how much I don't want to pick up a series book in the middle. Most of the time, I can get around this by reading up before listening, but I literally didn't have anything else to listen to except for the fourth (fifth?) installment in The Land of Elyon [this is a very outdated website, so try this one instead!], so I reluctantly started Stargazer by Patrick Carman. Best to get it over with, I thought.

The girl on the cover is Alexa, heroine of these stories, and as this book starts out she is sailing across the Lonely Sea with some loyal companions. Soon, an evil mechanical sea creature (Abaddon) attacks their ship -- killing its captain. Alexa and her faithful gnome (or some other short and hairy creature) Yipes are rescued by the peaceful, happy citizens of The Five Pillars. These people seem to spend their days sliding down vines in an activity called "skimming." They have no idea of the evil that lurks at the bottom of their pillars -- Abaddon is slowly attacking the pillars' bases so they will fall into the sea. Alexa -- telepathically linked to the creature -- knows, and she acts the heroine to save the community, finding and piloting the balloon flyer that will transport those citizens who wish to go back to their original home in the Land of Elyon.

If that synopsis creates more questions that answers, blame the fact that I have little idea of what backstory was provided in the previous four books. I'm sure that there are young readers everywhere who are fully caught up in Alexa's adventures -- but to me, they reek of the mediocre fantasy series that have sprung up in the past 10 years hoping to catch the Harry Potter backsplash. There isn't much of anything in this book: no story, stock characters, leaden dialogue, and a whole lot of telling and not much showing. This appears to be the final volume, and it concludes with a balloon-load of cheap sentiment.

The audiobook doesn't rise above its material. Read by Ellen Archer -- a narrator who has clearly worked hard to create some wacky character voices, but who seems to me to just be trying too hard to amuse young listeners. There's no subtlety in her characters (well, there's no subtlety in Carman's characters, either). I didn't find her voice all that pleasing to listen to -- she seemed harsh and overly loud.

I did my duty and now I can move on.

No pain, no gain

Things have gotten somewhat crazy at work and I'm a little behind with blogging. (I don't think I'm behind listening ... I'm feeling like I can get my assignments done between now and the end of the month.) I may give the next two books short shrift here. Finished a week ago: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron. When I first heard about this book about a year ago, I thought, gee, I hope that comes out in audio. I used chair privileges to snag it for myself and popped it right into the mp3/CD player (I finally got a CD player/radio for the bathroom -- a whole lot less bulky than the cassette-playing boom box that was in there before -- the sound is a little tinny, though, and I can't run the fan and take a shower and hear.).

I wanted to listen to it because the young character's voice seemed to be one suited for audio: Smart, funny, thoughtful. A good narrator will bring it home. New Yorker James Sveck is about to head off to Brown, but he doesn't really want to go. He's thinking he'd rather spend the money his parents will spend on college on a big, old house somewhere in the Midwest. He's kind of a loner -- doesn't really like being with his peers, or with anyone at all -- and he seems to be deeply depressed. The only people he truly admires are his grandmother and the gay man who runs his mother's vanity-project art gallery. His divorced parents insist that he see a counselor after he goes AWOL from a special program for high school seniors in Washington, DC … the American Classroom. He spars with his shrink over the meaning of words, the impact of his actions, and the effect of being in school next door to the WTC the day the towers fell. James' love of language makes this book very engaging -- you want to listen to every word because you know that the author has chosen them so carefully. He's also -- despite the depression -- an interesting person.

But the audiobook was a disappointment. Lincoln Hoppe read it. Now, I loved his reading of King Dork two years ago, but now I'm beginning to wonder if I was just a less critical listener in 2006. I thought he would be just terrific as James. He read James' narrative in a very slow, deliberative fashion; a choice he made (I hope) to demonstrate James' depression and apathy. Unfortunately, this choice makes the book rather dull to listen to. Hoppe definitely perks up his narration as James opens up to his shrink and begins to understand or acknowledge the reasons he's making the choices he is (James would scorn that particular sentence as psychological mumbo-jumbo).

Hoppe is pretty good at creating vocal portraits, and he had fun with two women in the story: James' shrink, Dr. Adler and a desperately enthusiastic Indiana real estate agent (who probably didn't vote for Obama [yahoo!]).

He seemed to reading with an overly dry mouth as well, as I heard a significant amount of clicking and mouth moistening. All in all, it just didn't amount to an amazing audiobook for me.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The quest for Margo Roth Spiegelman

John Green must get fairly tired of adult readers (i.e., librarians) waxing on about what a hottie he is, so I shall get straight to the audio version of his third book, Paper Towns. Quentin Jacobson has grown up suburban in central Florida and is about to graduate from high school. He is of the geeky population -- Q hangs out with band members and best friends Ben and Radar. He used to be chums with his next door neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman, but she has left him behind in her seemingly effortless attainment of high school popularity. But late one night Margo appears in ninja costume and makeup at Q's bedroom window and enlists him as her driver on an all-night blitz of revenge -- ostensibly because her boyfriend slept with another girl, but it's way more than that.

The next few days at school, it becomes clear that Margo has disappeared. Some people fear suicide, but it appears that she's left Q some clues to her whereabouts: Woody Guthrie leads to Walt Whitman leads to pseudovisions leads to paper towns. A pseudovision is a proposed subdivision that never got completed; a paper town is an imaginary location on a printed map designed to protect copyright.

Paper Towns is quite beautifully constructed -- like a folktale, it's full of threes: Part one is Quentin and Margo's pranking all-nighter, part two is Q deciphering and following Margo's clues, and part three is a quite funny 20-hour road trip in a graduation-present minivan where Q, Ben, Radar, and Margo's best friend Lacey, skip out of graduation in order to find Margo before she leaves for her next destination (would that destination be death?). The book is full of smart teenagers making all kinds of conversations, situations that would make most teenagers laugh out loud (Margo's pranks, a drunken prom afterparty, that road trip), and an underlying message that can be quite thoughtful and provocative. All John Green trademarks, I think. I know I've enjoyed them in his other titles.

I raced through the audiobook in about four days; John Green does create such interesting people and puts them in nicely fascinating situations that getting to the end is imperative. The reader is Dan John Miller, someone I've never heard before, and I gotta say that I was missing Jeff Woodman. Now I know this isn't fair, or even appropriate, but Miller just never sounded like a teenager. He certainly imbued Quentin with intelligence and snarky humor, but I didn't hear a lot of insecurity or really get a sense of his deep, twisted relationship with Margo.

He created distinctive characters in Ben (too loud) and Radar (uncomfortably to me, this African American character was the only one with a Southern accent); and he was also pretty good at girls -- not too high or swishy sounding, but definitely different than the boys. The novel has some sections comprised of chat transcripts, which are just deadly to listen to,; however, I did get a charge out of everyone's user names (in particular, "itwasakidneyinfection," a joke you'll have to read the book to get), just not over and over again.

I really wanted to like this more. I spent much of the last hour or so trying very hard to hear amazing moments, but I really couldn't. I listened to the last disc again. I kept saying to myself, well ... this is pretty good. I think I've decided though that it's not good enough.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Home depot

Each time Dana Reinhardt publishes another book, I am impressed again at her skill at telling authentic sounding teen stories in such a compact package. Her How to Build a House is no exception. I listened to her second novel, Harmless, earlier this year -- enjoying the book but not the audiobook. Here, the audiobook is much better (although not as absolutely great! as A Brief Chapter ....).

Los Angeleno Harper Evans is spending her summer in Tennesee with a Habitat for Humanity-type organization, building a house for a family who lost everything in a tornado. She's had a rough year: Her father and beloved stepmother are divorcing and Harper's lost her closest friend and stepsister, Tess. She's sleeping with a boy who isn't interested in an exclusive relationship, and at a party she discovers him with Tess. Once she reaches Tennesee, she begins to make new friends and begins a tentative romance with the son of the family whose home is being built. The story is really teenagers on their own, and Reinhardt's smart dialogue and situations sounded utterly real to me.

Yes, the metaphor is fairly obvious: Harper's trying to emotionally rebuild her home while physically building a house. But it's not drummed into you as a reader, Reinhardt lets you figure it out yourself. I also appreciated the structure of the book. Harper is in Tennessee for the entire story, but she regularly flashes back to the events of the year before. The story is told in nicely tantalizing tidbits.

The narrator is Caitlin Greer, who read Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac for last year's list. I liked her better here. She's so skilled at teenage girl -- I thought she captured Harper's I'm so smart/I'm so insecure personality very well. She varied her narration beautifully, making sure that you got the humor and sass in these teens' conversations. The chapters of the book alternate with headings of "home" and "here," and every time I heard Greer say "home," I heard the word infused with longing and comfort.

Greer is not completely comfortable with male voices. She tends to speak them all in a lower register without much differentiation. She tries on a few accents with mixed success as well. The Tennessee boyfriend, Teddy, has a generic-sounding Southern intonation (and he didn't sound like the only Tennessean whose voice I'm familiar with, Al Gore [can I just say that I learned a new word today, demonym]), while her roommate there, Marisol, speaks in a Spanish-tinged voice. Unfortunately, Greer was not terribly consistent with these, they would fade in and out. She might have been better off not doing it at all.

I'm still hedging whether this performance is a deal-breaker because I liked the story so much. I really enjoyed listening to it; her inconsistencies did not bump me unpleasantly out of the mood Greer and Reinhardt so carefully created.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Jellicoe cats on the Jellicoe Road?

Someone on my committee just noticed that this audiobook was published in 2006, so there are nine good listening hours I'll never get back. Grrr ... This book (whose "American" version has lost the On the) by Melina Marchetta tells a very confusing story. Confusion generally does not make for good listening. Taylor Markham boards at the Jellicoe School, located somewhere 600 kilometers from Sydney. The school has a most peculiar tradition: Each year, it fights for "territory" against the townies and the cadets. The cadets are high school males who -- for some unexplained reason -- spend a good portion of their school year camped out in the bush. The townies also seem to be exclusively male. Taylor has been elected to lead the schoolies (?) in this year's Territory Wars.

The first question here is "Why?" The second one is "Where are the adults?" I never heard a satisfactory answer ... or even an unsatisfactory one.

Taylor's mind is not on the Wars, though. The closest thing she has to a caring adult in her life is a woman named Hannah who lives near the School, but Hannah has mysteriously disappeared. She leaves behind a manuscript describing the adventures of five young friends -- three of whom survived a horrific car crash on the Jellicoe Road that killed their (two sets of) parents. These three are joined by a townie and a cadet and live an idyllic adult-free life at the school and in the surrounding countryside. Hannah reads the manuscript and has disturbing dreams.

Something brings her around so that she begins to strategize tactics for the Territory Wars, but in the process she grows close to both Griggs the cadet and Santangelo the townie. Gradually, Taylor realizes that Hannah's manuscript is telling her something about her own origins and she sets off on a journey to find where Hannah has gone.

The book is told by Taylor, sporadically interspersed with Hannah's manuscript. A fine, classic narrative format. Unfortunately, a listener doesn't realize this right away as she is given no aural clues that the focus is shifting. The listener is confused, and so she is still puzzling out what she heard in a previous section while the part she is (half) listening to might be offering explanations for, say, the Territory Wars. Alas, unlike a reader, she can't pause and leaf back to the earlier section in order to clarify. And she's given no warning when the focus shifts again.

Oh wait, she was given a heads up: a short riff of music separated the sections. However, each musical interlude was exactly the same -- a soft-rocky something with a drumstick hitting the rim and a guitar. Listening to it over and over again was so bloody tiresome. At the beginning and the end of each disc it went on for a full minute or more.

This narrative format can be interpreted well in audio -- with two narrators, for example -- but there were more problems to this title as well. The story is told in short sentences and the Australian speaking style -- rapid and staccato sounding -- made for nervous, jarring listening. The narrator, Rebecca Macauley, had a habit of pausing up to a full second between a sentence of dialogue and the "she said." She voiced boys and men with a low, almost no-affect speech that didn't differentiate between characters. When more than one male was in a conversation, you often had to wait that full second (which is a long time while listening, believe me) before you knew who had spoken.

All that being said, Macauley created a lively portrayal of Taylor -- smart, sad, in love. It's always enjoyable listening to an Aussie. I wish we'd get more books from Bolinda Audio, but they've been few and far between this year.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Worship the goddess

One of the times I sat in on the Best Books for Young Adults deliberations last year, they were discussing Wildwood Dancing, which sounded so intriguing that I checked it out and read it. I like re-interpretations of fairy tales, and this had more than one (although I admit it took me far too long to figure out the whole frog character -- duh!) in a nicely romantic story. So when its "companion," Cybele's Secret came my way, I decided to give it a listen. The author, Juliet Marillier, offers plenty of hints about the plot of the first book in this companion, so I think it stands alone perfectly well.

Paula, the third of five daughters of a Transylvanian tradesman, has always been the scholarly one of the family -- most likely to follow her father's footsteps into the buying and selling of interesting books and artifacts. She accompanies her father to Istanbul, where he plans to acquire an ancient artifact called Cybele's Gift -- which turns out to be a broken statue of the earth goddess herself. Alas, Paula and her father are not the only people interested in the artifact -- some will even kill for it. Paula's father hires a bodyguard, the handsome Stoyan (note the male figure just to the left of Cybele [click here for a larger version] ... classic romance novel cover guy!), with whom Paula develops a close friendship. But before Paula's father can make an offer on the statue, he is gravely assaulted in the street, and Cybele ends up in the hands of the dashing, but piratical, Duarte da Costa Aguiar (note second male, slightly left and above Stoyan). Convinced that Duarte organized the assault on her father in order to obtain the artifact, Paula confronts him aboard his ship. However, someone else is on the trail of Cybele -- so before Paula can leave the ship, Duarte has set sail. Fortunately, Stoyan made it aboard the Esperanza as well.

Paula's journey with the two men takes her north to the Black Sea and up the rugged mountains, and into the Other Kingdom -- the parallel world that she and her sisters used to visit every full moon. It is there that Paula will be tested to her limits, and where she finds, and loses, her heart's desire. It's a very exciting adventure, with something for everyone: romance, fairy tales, ancient gods, a perilous journey.

Justine Eyre, who I thought did a professional job reading a very difficult book -- Evil Genius, is really quite splendid here. She perfectly captures Paula's (pronounced Paow-lah) naivete underlaid with intellect and steely resolve. Eyre has to do a lot with accents here: Paula and her father's native Transylvanian, Paula and her father speaking Greek with everyone in Istanbul, Stoyan (from Bulgaria) and Duarte (from Portugal) speaking Greek, plus assorted creatures -- human and otherwise -- in the Other Kingdom. She opted for a general soft th sound for everyone who spoke Greek, but there were subtle differences. The Transylvanians and the denizens of the Other Kingdom all had middle European accents (lots of v's and rolled r's). Our three heros -- Paula and the two men -- were each nicely characterized and easily distinguishable.

Eyre paces herself well. The story builds slowly -- Paula sails away with Duarte slightly less than halfway through the book -- but once the chase is on to bring Cybele home, she knows how to pour on the vocal tension and excitement. Danger and suspense are clear in Eyre's voice. And once Paula loses her heart, her sadness, and eventually -- I don't think I'm giving too much away -- her happiness are palpable.

As I reflect on our listening year with the last submissions coming our way this month, I think I've been quite stingy with my praise. I haven't liked much. So, I'm going to loosen my requirements to get a few more good (but not great) things under discussion in January. And I'm going to start by nominating this.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Odysseus

omg ... I'm on next year's (2010) Odyssey Committee! I hope I don't have to give up this blog.

Homework blues

The one library in my general vicinity that has continued to purchased teen books on cassette has bought their last one, I fear. I've got one of our nominations on hold there, but it's been on order for a long time. It's obvious I'm going to have to come up with another listening solution for the car. Can I get one of those adapters for a CD player? Maybe I should just buy this one! So, among the last gasps on tape was The Homework Machine -- a YRCA nominated book. (I know I've said this before -- forgive me, it's middle age -- I think my choice would be To Dance.)

Four disparate fifth graders stuck together at the same work table because their last names all begin with D cheat on their homework over the course of the school year by using one of their members' computer homework machine. Scan in the questions and presto! your homework emerges from the printer complete in your handwriting. Told in many alternating voices -- the four kids plus a classmate and a bunch of adults who were truly not paying attention -- the students learn some life lessons and become good friends.

I had so many problems with this book because I was reading it as an adult: endless unsupervised computer time, an unexplained online stalker, too early sexualization with a belly button piercing and boyfriend/girlfriend status, stereotypical racial portrayals (the geeky smart kid is Asian, the "lazy" girl is black), a teacher who can't seem to figure out why the four students sitting at the same table are all producing homework that's exactly the same, etc. However I can see that some kids might enjoy this (although won't most of them ask the same questions I did?), there's so much more good stuff out there for the upper elementary set. What about A Crooked Kind of Perfect? Or The True Meaning of Smekday?

As for the audio version, there were a variety of readers which kept it interesting. The readers portraying the kids sounded youthful and were consistent in their personalities. The format did get a little tiresome towards the end because each chapter would begin with the reader stating their character's name and grade and the chapters were often very, very short. Still, I don't know how else you could narrate such a book, and since I'm all for audiobooks, this will have to do.

Drawn from life

Pat Barker's Life Class tells the story of Paul Tarrant, a working class lad who is using his grandmother's legacy to go to art school. He is attending the Slade School of Fine Art, but isn't feeling very successful. In the first pages of the novel, he storms out of his life drawing class after his instructor, Henry Tonks, chides him for his work. Paul knows that his work lacks something, particularly after he connects with two other artists at the Slade: Elinor Brooke and Kit Neville. Kit is living the life of a successful artist, and Elinor's student painting has just won an award. Both Paul and Kit have fallen hard for Elinor, but she seems interested only in their friendship.

It is the summer of 1914, and once World War I breaks out, Paul attempts to enlist. He has just recovered from a bout of pneumonia, so the army rejects him, and he joins the Belgian Red Cross as a hospital orderly. Just before he leaves London, he and Elinor become all but lovers. Every day at the front, he faces the horrific injuries and his coping mechanism is to distance himself emotionally. He rents an attic room in Ypres to use for painting, and impetuously invites Elinor to join him. She arrives just before the bombing of the city, and -- after some delicately described lovemaking -- she leaves for safety and England. Paul is transferred to ambulance driving, while Elinor resolutely continues her painting. Paul's painting is transformed by what he has seen in the war, and when he returns to London to recover from an injury, we're not quite sure if their romance will continue. He paints the horrors of what he has seen, and she doesn't believe that is a fit subject for art. We are left without a resolution.

I very much enjoyed Pat Barker's first novels of World War I, the acclaimed Regeneration trilogy inspired by the psychological work of Dr. W.H.R. Rivers and his attempts to cure shell-shocked soldiers. She has such a feel for the period -- both the Western Front and the home front.

I enjoyed this book as well, mostly because the reader was such a pleasure to listen to. [Preface to all remarks: Lee enjoys an English accent!] Russell Boulter read warmly, soothingly in a husky, low register -- I think I've [mis]used the warm honey in the ear metaphor before. He carefully characterized the class distinctions -- Paul and his lover earlier in the story are both from working class families in ... northern England (?); Kit and Elinor are from the more privileged classes. Boulter read women with a higher voice, but it didn't sound unnatural. Much of the book is letters between Paul and Elinor and he sounded as comfortable in Elinor's skin as he did Paul's. Paul is the primary witness of the war's horrors, and Boulter chose to read those descriptions with dispassionate distance that Paul was using. (It didn't make them any less horrible to hear about.) He was even quite sexy reading sex, without being prurient. I'd listen to him read again.

I've struggled here before with adult novels with teen appeal. I think there will always be sophisticated teenagers who will read and enjoy complex novels like this one, but I tried to put myself in this book as a teenager, and I don't think I would've liked it ... even though I am (and was) a big fan of historical fiction. The story meandered, the characters were adults, the ending unresolved. I gave it an official no for our committee.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

da Vinci lite

Rick Riordan is coming to speak at my library in a couple of weeks. I'm almost caught up with Percy Jackson, but when the audio version of the first book in The 39 Clues came my way, I spent the weekend in power listening mode. This title -- The Maze of Bones -- is really more for the elementary school set, and now I can say that on behalf of the committee. The new series (and since they got through just two clues in this story I guess it'll be going on for awhile) will be written by several authors and has an extensive online component and playing/trading (?) cards and, well ... it's much, much more than just a book.

Although the book worked fine by itself for me. At the death (or is she?) of their beloved grandmother, two orphaned siblings, Amy and Dan, join a number of less savoury members of their extended family -- the Cahills -- in embarking on a competitive quest for the eponymous clues. Solving the clues will change the world forever (or some such) and bring the winner unimagined wealth and power. It doesn't look like Amy and Dan (along with their helpful au pair Nelly) can succeed against their spying and double-crossing relatives, but their intelligence and spunk wins out. Amy's a reader and Dan's a whiz with numbers and other puzzles, and so they beat back all comers in a mad race from Boston to Philadelphia to Paris in the footsteps of their "ancestor" Benjamin Franklin. And, with Clue #2 clutched in their hands, they head off to Vienna and the world of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

As Amy and Dan were racing from cemetery to the catacombs to an obscure French church I did get a vague sense of da Vinci Code deja vu. But that's OK ... I enjoyed that book while I was reading it, and I enjoyed The Maze of Bones as well. It was read by David Pittu, and he had to pour on a bunch of accents (English, Russian, Spanish, Korean as well as patrician Massachusetts). He switched between them with aplomb, but they never sounded exactly right. He seemed most comfortable in a Scottish accent that came on at the very end of the book -- a part of the audiobook that may have been the "exclusive bonus materials" promised on the cover. I did find that he portrayed girls and women naturally; there was one male speaker with an English accent who sounded very female to me (and pretty swishy actually) and I couldn't distinguish between that character and his sister. What seemed glaringly missing though, was any sense of excitement in his reading. Amy and Dan have a number of (fairly) thrilling escapes in this story, but you'd never have known it listening to it. Nothing changed in the exciting parts: Not louder, not faster, not more tense. I thought he could have ramped it up a little bit.

According to Amazon.com (the official website tells me that I have to download a flash upgrade -- which I don't want to do -- but it probably says it there too) Book 2 is coming out in December and is authored by Gordon Korman. Scholastic is creating its own Stratemeyer Syndicate; at least it lets the authors use their own names.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Birds in shoes

I love Jim Dale. I think I've said that more than once in this blog. But I think it might be time to take a lengthy vacation from Jim. As I listened to him read the one-hour production of The Shoe Bird, I didn't hear Antonio the parrot, Gloria the goose, or Mickey the mockingbird. I heard Dumbledore, Mrs. Weasley and Dobby the house elf. Sigh.

Based on a short story by the wonderful Eudora Welty, The Shoe Bird tells of the day that Antonio the parrot -- resident of a shoe store -- heard some kid say "Shoes are for the birds." He invites all his feathered friends to come get some shoes and a bit of trouble ensues. This is a fancy production -- with orchestra and children's chorus along with the illustrious Mr. Dale. I'm not even sure that it qualifies as an audiobook, but as its intended audience is not teenagers, it's not something that I have to deal with. Evidently, the Seattle Symphony has already performed this, and another performance -- featuring Jim Dale -- is scheduled for November 1.

The performance on CD was quite delightful to listen to. Dale was expansive and creative (although all his characterizations sound like retreads to me), the young singers sounded lovely and beautifully rehearsed. It's a funny little story, and the whole thing reminded me of Leonard Bernstein and Peter and the Wolf, which was a staple of my audio childhood. And since I can still remember the sound of the oboe as the duck and Bernstein's husky and confiding narration, it certainly can't hurt any child today to have a similar experience. Perhaps the Children's Notable Recordings committee will vote it onto their list.

He's flying ...

I seem to be listening to more (published for) adult audiobooks than teen lately. I'm glad that publishers are looking critically at their lists to find stuff that they know will have teen appeal. It's often harder to dismiss these as out of age range than the younger stuff ... since, of course, there are teens who exclusively read adult material. This is perhaps the hardest thing that I have to do day-to-day in my job: Try to get into the head of a teenager to figure out if the "adult" subject matter will be of interest to them. Sherman Alexie's Flight seemed like one that got right into a teenager's frame of reference ... and then it seemed to go terribly wrong.

This magic realist (am I using that term correctly?) story tells of 15-year-old Zits -- a half-Indian boy who has unhappily traveled the foster-care road since the death of his mother when he was four (or six? I thought I heard both). He meets a young man named Justice in juvie one night, and eventually makes his way to live with him in an abandoned Seattle warehouse. Justice is very interested in the ghost dance, which -- as I understood it in this story -- promised that every white person killed by a Native American would bring back another Native American from the dead. In this context, Justice convinces Zits to shoot up a bank. After the massacre -- just as Zits is shot in the head -- he transports into another body. Eventually, Zits figures out that he is occupying the body of a white FBI officer in the 1960s (?) who is investigating possible Native American terrorism. Zits makes his way into several other bodies before he makes his way back to his own at the bank ... before he started shooting.

The metaphor of flight occurs frequently in this short novel (not even five hours). And when Alexie starts Zits on his journey, he is spot on as a bright, troubled 15-year-old (definitely a cousin to Junior Spirit) and equally brilliant in describing the confusion and interest that a 15-year-old would take in being in someone else's body. But eventually, those visits (always to adults) become wrapped up in the problems of the adults (marital, substance abuse, middle-age ennui, etc.), and Zits' viewpoint gets lost. And when we do get back to Zits in his own body, the story takes a definite Child Called It turn -- tragedy and abuse begin piling up and then salvation occurs. I realize that A Child Called It is very popular with teenagers -- that's just my personal prejudice emerging (don't you hate it when people condemn books and movies that they haven't read/watched themselves ... that would be me re: It) -- so it's not that I object to in this book; rather it's the lengthy sidetrip into the adult pysche.

The actor Adam Beach read this book. I think I said in my post about Alexie's other book that I might have liked to hear him read The Absolutely True Diary ... because his vocal skills would have been equally "authentic" but more "professional" than Alexie's, due to his acting training. But I didn't really like him reading this. I think this was a personal preference: His voice seemed unnaturally high -- as if he were choosing that register in order to portray and young man -- and I didn't like listening to it. I've seen Beach in several movies and TV shows and I don't recall being annoyed by his voice; I can't recall if his natural speaking voice is that high and thin. Alexie's voice is quite high as well ... perhaps that is an Indian quality, along with that pleasing sing-song rhythm. I'm at Beach's Wikipedia page ... maybe I'll borrow Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and listen closely.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

You have the right ...

Last Sunday's New York Times reviewed Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, but there's been a lot of buzz about this book for awhile, yes? I knew I wanted to add it to the listening pile when it arrived, and it traveled with me to Iowa and North Carolina this week. While it was a little heavy-handed upon occasion, it made for a good traveling companion. Marcus Yallow is a smart, geeky teen utterly at home in front of a keyboard and inside a disc drive. He's far from socially inept, as he leads a small group of close friends in pursuit of Harajuku fun madness. It is in pursuit of the latest clues in this game that Marcus and three friends find themselves in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security immediately after a terrorist attack on San Francisco.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the clutches of DHS, as it -- or the severe-haired operative who interrogates and humiliates Marcus -- is the outright, mustache-twirling villain of this fun, but thoughtful story. Because Marcus has a backpack full of items that are designed to repel the variety of tools that DHS uses to "protect" us from terrorism, he is a person of interest to them. After six days of fear and humiliation, Marcus is released ... and warned not to tell anyone where he was and what they wanted from him.

But Marcus believes in the Constitution and his right to privacy, and he vows revenge. Using his armory of geek skills he manages to rally thousands of teens to his cause, below the radar of DHS because he really knows his way around a computer and the Internet. The rest of the book is a nifty cat-and-mouse game, full of adventure and tension. The world is a dangerous place, Marcus knows, but it is more dangerous when the government spies on you and tells you it is keeping you safer as a result.

I think these are great ideas for teens to be thinking about, and this book is an appealing and funny introduction to them. Doctorow includes a couple of chatty essays at the conclusion of the book where we can learn more about those ideas.

I didn't find it to be all that great as an audiobook, though. Marcus lectures us ... frequently, and while the reader keeps the tone light, he does go on and on about stuff. At one point, the narrative is a series of IP addresses (not urls mind you, but the underlying numbers, slashes, dots, etc. Mind-numbing!). Since I don't really care how Marcus was able to set up that Xbox with paranoid Linux (?) so that everyone could connect online without DHS "listening," passages such as these were just a wee bit tiresome. At nearly twelve hours and with the tension building, I really didn't want another lesson getting in the way of a satisfactory resolution.

I also wasn't that crazy about the reader, Kirby Heybourne. To me, he just wasn't Marcus: He wasn't snarky, he wasn't smart-ass, he wasn't the geeky, too-smart-and-knows-it teenager I thought Marcus was. Don't get me wrong, Heybourne's a fine voice actor, but here he was just too actorly: His pronunciations were too precise, his voice too modulated, his emotions too calculated. (He also made a big boo boo: Pronouncing Al-Qaeda two different ways in a short 30 seconds!) He seemed to be concentrating on reading us the story in an interesting way, without creating an interesting character to tell that story. I wanted to like it ...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Nowhere to run

At the same time I was whiling away some hours in rural Nebraska, I was deep in the Australian bush/jungle in the early 1970s with Peter Carey's His Illegal Self, wanting desperately to get out. The premise of this book is quite promising: The young son -- named Che -- of two now-estranged Weathermen-esque radicals-in-hiding is taken from his Park Avenue grandmother by a college friend of the mother ostensibly for a short visit. But the mother is killed making a bomb, the friend panics (thinking she is about to be sent to prison on kidnapping charges) and -- through a series of events that were not explained to my satisfaction by the narrative (audio or otherwise) -- hies off to a commune (?) in Australia.

Once at the commune, Che and the woman he thinks is his mother -- who goes by the nickname Dial (given this name at Radcliffe because of her penchant for dialectics ... whatever those are) -- learn how to survive off the grid, surrounded by some particularly unpleasant fellow communards. Dial takes some steps to get Che back to his grandmother, but -- in case you want to read it for yourself -- I won't say anything further.

God, this was a drag and a half. The story of Dial and Che's journey to Australia is told in alternating flashbacks, which were very difficult to follow. Then Dial inexplicably uses a large cache of cash to buy what I first thought was the whole commune, but then (again I missed the explanation ... or there wasn't one) I realized that she had just bought her own leaky hut in the commune. Then we have many hours of Dial and Che adjusting to their extremely natural environment -- which occasionally felt like years were passing, but they weren't. Long passages are devoted first to Che's point of view and then to Dial's. Occasionally I wasn't sure whose head I was in. Finally, it appears that the pair have settled into commune life, when Dial gets the urge (where did it come from?) to return Che to his grandmother.

As a listener, I went from intrigued to confused to bored senseless to relief at being finished, but not truly satisfied since I had huge gaps in my understanding of the story. I don't think that a boffo narration could have saved this book, but the reader, Stefan Rudnicki, really didn't do it a service either. He reads slowly and softly, but with expressive dialogue. His interpretation of Che was somewhat high and childlike -- he didn't sound fake, but he didn't sound much like a seven-year-old either. The Australian hippies were not consistently Aussie; in Dial's early encounters with them she comments, within the narrative, on their pronunciation -- which Rudnicki has pronounced as she had stated. But, two lines of dialogue later, he's back speaking their dialogue with his vaguely neutral American accent. Even when Dial stopped commenting on their accents, they would come and go.

He seemed to do a good job with Dial: exhausted, frustrated, affectionate, angry, frightened all came through his vocal acting. But I don't think any kind of performance could make this book tolerable to any but the most fervent Carey fan. It was too internalized and too confusing to make the intriguing plot sing. While I think sophisticated teen readers might enjoy Che's story, the audio version does nothing to enhance the book.