Monday, March 31, 2008

Lychcombe

Lychcombe is the old English for the way of the dead, or The Road of the Dead as interpreted by the unclassifiable Kevin Brooks. In this graphically (and I don't mean pictures) violent novel, half-gypsy brothers Ruben and Cole travel to the wilds of Dartmoor to try and solve the mystery of their older sister's brutal rape and murder. Ruben, the narrator and at 14 the younger brother, has the ability to see events where he is not present, and he witnessed his sister's murder. The two boys' investigation takes them to one of those literary small towns where everyone has a secret and everyone's invested in keeping that secret. They quickly solve the murder, uncover the seething corruption (involving real estate of all things), and take their violent revenge. A dog is killed, along with some bad guys. Only the dog is mourned.

I had so many problems with this novel, but mostly it stems from the vivid and realistic violence that is ritualistically doled out (hear it comes, I said to myself: the torture scene) by an all-but-mustache-twirling bad guy and the superhuman (he can keep fighting with a broken wrist!) Cole. Brother Ruben witnesses all this telepathically, and then meditates briefly on the "dance of violence." The murder is "solved" quickly -- not much investigation occurred, just a lot of atmosphere absorbed -- and the remainder of the novel is devoted to the Ford brothers' revenge (assisted by the dog owner, a beautiful gypsy girl). Really, the whole thing just seemed like such a cliche.

Recorded Books repackaged a English audiobook from W.F. Howes Ltd. without changing anything but the cover. The book starts out with "W.F. Howes present ..." and everything. The narrator, Paul Thornley, is excellent. He can rattle off those various class and regional British accents with ease, he reads with a varied pace and knows how to ratchet up the tension in those torture scenes. He just couldn't save the book for me, which ultimately, just seemed too adult: Ruben was just a bystander in a story of brutish adults slugging it out over a piece of land.

And so's you know: I like Kevin Brooks' books (well, I didn't like Candy), so I'm not dissing this lightly.

Careful readers know that I think Recorded Books pretty much screws up their audiobook covers, but in this case, the US publisher also did this book a disservice. The first cover is the US book. Then, there's the British book, and then the British audiobook. (Can't figure out how to make Blogger let me wrap a paragraph around each of these images.) Of course, Recorded Books doesn't put their cover on their website, so I'll attempt to describe it: It features a young man with his fingers spread and covering his face. (Dull, dull, dull.)

No doubt the US publisher thought the British cover was too extreme, but I think it's great! Doesn't the boy look too young in the US version?


Monday, March 24, 2008

Sugar-filled

Before I began regularly checking my blog entries for comments (because there never were any until a few months ago), I was astonished to come across a comment from an author (!) about eight months after he posted it. (I think I posted about this earlier, but since my memory is mainly mush I can't say for certain.) I say this because I'm about to say something nasty about Jerry Spinelli (so now he's prepared): He doesn't need the money. And I can't come up with another reason why he would have dashed off this derivative sequel to what was a terrific book, Stargirl. Love, Stargirl doesn't seem to exist for any reason but to put a few bucks in his pocket. In his defense, though, I know authors hear all the time from readers begging them for further adventures of beloved characters (do I remember that Catherine Gilbert Murdock considered Dairy Queen a one-off, but was urged by her publisher to continue D.J.'s adventures?), but you've still got to write a good book ... and Love, Stargirl isn't a very good book.

Stargirl's family has fled the high-tech rat race and the cruelties of high school for small-town Pennsylvania, where Mr. Carroway is now a milkman and Stargirl is back at homeschool. She connects with the town's various misfits and characters with her usual quirkiness and spunky optimism. She writes of her adventures in a year-long letter to former (and future?) boyfriend, Leo Borlock. The main problem with this novel is that Stargirl's potentially annoying Pollyanna-ism is no longer leavened by her rigorously conformist (but utterly realistic) classmates at Mica Area High School. And that makes this book all sentimental goo ... and we all know how badly a diet solely of sugar can be for you. Not only does it make you fat and give you pimples, but it gets to be a bit of a bore after awhile. We crave protein, perhaps even a little roughage!

Narrator Mandy Siegfried does yeowoman's work [yikes, where's your citation? I can't link to the OED, but it says: "c. yeoman's service (also yeoman service): good, efficient, or useful service, such as is rendered by a faithful servant of good standing."] here, but she just can't save it. She does such a fine job voicing teenaged girls and here is no exception. There's another character in this book (one even more sugary than Stargirl), six-year-old Dootsie, that Siegfried voices like a middle-aged smoker -- all raspy and growly -- but, I gotta say, it works! She's reliably good with her other characters, and reads Stargirl's letter in a swift, but never hurried way. I'm looking forward to Siegfried's work in another audiobook later on this year, but I can't say more about that!

War is not healthy ...

I do like historical fiction, probably from the day I picked up my first "Little House" book. I like the way it gives the reader the chance to scratch the surface of a time period, or to delve further into it if she so desires. So, I was primed to enjoy Rosemary Wells' Red Moon at Sharpsburg. At its center is the smart and, yes, plucky India Moody who finds herself being tutored by the eldest son of the local gentry in the rural Shenandoah Valley at the beginning of the Civil War. India's not interested in the female arts of scripture and deportment, and soon she and Emory are exploring the natural world and conducting scientific experiments. The war soon intrudes however, and Emory leaves to become a field doctor (desperately trying to introduce the idea of antiseptics to battlefield surgery), and India's beloved father signs up as a Confederate quartermaster.

Wells does not stint on war's horrors -- the novel's big set piece is India's witnessing of the battle of Sharpsburg -- or on its effect on a rural civilian population (starvation, rape, homelessness). India is such a sympathetic character that as her losses mount up, you grieve with her. There is comfort in knowing that she will make it through the war and its aftermath, and readers can feel confident that she will achieve her dream of attending Oberlin College (which accepted women from its founding in 1833 -- four years before my own college opened for business). I do have a quibble with the comparative invisibility of black slaves in India's world (just two appear in the novel), and with the relatively enlightened population of Berryville, Virginia regarding slavery.

I think I would have been happier reading this book, however. I have no ear for the distinctions between Southern accents, but I feel confident that speakers from below the Mason-Dixon line do not read every single sentence with the same plaintive lulling rhythm that this narrator chose, always ending on that slightly drawling high note. In contrast, Julia Gibson's character portraits were quite vivid -- part of the reason you are so invested in India's story, I think.

If I had the ear-time, it might be interesting to compare Gibson's not-originally-Southern narration with Sissy Spacek's version of To Kill a Mockingbird, which I found utterly compelling -- not soporific in any way.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

German fantasists

I read Book 1 in the Dark Reflections trilogy by Kai Meyer a couple of years ago, so -- while I await the new audiobooks from Listening Library -- I pawed through last year's crop looking for a good listen and came up with Book 2: The Stone Light. Meyer is another one of those German fantasy authors (think Funke [omg: Inkdeath in less than six months! sigh: Inkheart the movie is almost a year away] and Lilli Thal) whose fantasy world view is definitely a little different from our English language friends.

Alas, in my opinion, Dark Reflections just isn't Ink... or Mimus quality. And I think it's because there's more philosophy in them than plot. I didn't remember much about Book 1, The Water Mirror, and so checked my notes: Where I said that it seemed like all exposition to get our heroine Merle on the path of rescuing Venice from the dead Egyptian invaders. She escapes on the back of the obsidian lion, Vermithrax, to find and enlist the help of Lord Light, ruler of Hell. It takes her a good chunk of Book 2 to get to Hell, without much exciting adventuring along the way. And when she gets there, we are treated to a long explanation of the Stone Light -- which seems to be the morning star fallen to earth inhabited by a world-dominating people (?) who want to use Merle and her friend Junipa to ... well, dominate the world.

There's a bit of a subplot with another character, Serafin, attempting to assassinate the evil Pharoah with the help of a mysterious Sphinx named Lalapeya (a good thing about audiobooks is that you learn how names are pronounced -- not spelled, though), who may be Merle's mother? And then the book is over and you've been set up to want to immediately open Book 3: The Glass Word.

Except that I wasn't. At the end of two books, I pretty much don't care -- because the author hasn't spent enough time engaging me, just teaching.

The audiobook couldn't save the story. The narrator, Simon Vance, read his females with high, whispery voices which gets dull. He reads Vermithrax with proper king-of-the-jungle sonorousness and bombast, which gets ramped up a level once the lion has been dipped in the Stone Light (something good happened to him there, I think). Everyone sounded just a little fake and cariacatured. Just an ordinary audio effort, not amazing!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Early nominations

I have been remiss in my chair duties lately, but wanted to post the link to our first batch of 2009 nominees. I am fascinated that -- to our committee -- seven of the 20 books we received from Recorded Books (pretty much the only titles we've gotten our hands on so far) were considered worthy of nomination (well, there's only five there now, but we're actually up to eight). Such a comparison to last year, when it took us a couple of months to get to seven!

Digit-talon

Every once in awhile, one has to cut loose with some big, romantic saga -- it's kind of like comfort food. And for the tail end of winter, Dragon's Keep by Janet Lee Carey fills the bill. In this magical tale, we learn of the curse on young Rosalind's family, the Pendragons. Ever since her ancestress, the sister of King Arthur, was banished to Wilde Island, the family's hopes have been pinned on the 21st queen: According to a prophecy by Merlin only she can restore the family to greatness. Rosalind is the 21st queen, but she has a shocking defect: As you can see from the book cover, the third finger of her left hand is a dragon's claw. She and her mother wear golden gloves all the time, declaring that her husband will be the first to see her hands. Her mother has consulted with healers far and wide for a cure, but nothing has succeeded.

The residents of Wilde Island have long been terrorized by a dragon, who periodically sweeps in for a meal. But one day --thanks to the skills of a heroic young man named Kye -- the dragon is slain. As the villagers celebrate, the dragon's mate appears. Before cremating her remains, he slits open her belly to collect the eggs inside her. Then vowing his revenge, he takes off for Dragon's Keep with the eggs. Little does anyone in the village suspect what his revenge will be ... and how it will affect Rosalind. No spoilers here!

Alas, the audiobook does not really come up to the level of this great story. There isn't anything particularly wrong with the narration, by Bianca Amato. It just takes her awhile (too long, in my opinion) to hit her stride and truly begin telling the story. For the first half of the book -- up until the appearance of Lord Faull, the dragon -- she reads in a very predictable fashion: each sentence has the same rhythm, volume, and pacing. I knew every time (OK, I might be exaggerating here) when her voice would end on an up note, or a down. And since the story contains a lot of exposition here, keeping attention while hearing the same vocal pattern over and over required concentration. Once Lord Faull appears, Amato got more lively and interesting, and I really raced to the end of the story.

Recorded Books again disappoints with its choice of cover. It doesn't keep the fabulous hand seen here, but opts for a bluish misty dragon. They also did something very odd, which was have Charlotte Parry (uncredited) read the book's prologue (along with the "this is the end of disc ..." notations). When I first began listening, I thought -- Wow! Bianca Amato (whom I've heard before) sounds a lot like Charlotte Parry. Or just perhaps that I'd been hearing too much Charlotte Parry lately. Anyway, then it shifted to Amato full time, and I recognized her voice as well. I'll admit to a bit of disappointment.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Librarians rule the world!

Well, you gotta admit that there aren't very many books that feature an entrance by female librarians wearing robes and carrying swords, but they do just that -- and so much more -- in Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians. Alcatraz Smedry has bounced from one foster home to another, knowing nothing about his parents, until his 13th birthday when a mysterious parcel of sand arrives in the mail. Soon Alcatraz learns that he is from a long line of Smedrys who have special ocular skills that prevent them from being taken in by the eponymous librarians -- who are controlling information in an attempt at world domination -- their conquered worlds go by the name of Hushlands. Smedrys are all named after prisons (Leavenworth, Attica [pronounced Atticus? or is it just a mistake?], Bastille), but -- in fact -- it's another of the librarians' evil plots: once these were great names, but now the prisons have all been named for Smedrys.

So, Alcatraz meets his relatives and goes off to retrieve his bag of sand (stolen by the evil librarians). He learns some stuff, temporarily defeats evil and goes home to await his next adventure. His story is mildly entertaining, original in its premise, and certainly is a good title for younger Harry Potter fans not quite ready for the darker volumes.

It was read in a snarky, teen style by Charlie McWade, which ultimately backfires, I think. While Alcatraz tells us frequently that he's not a nice person, you know that he is, of course. But McWade doesn't make him very likeable. Since our narrator is hard to like, it's hard to get invested in his adventures. McWade was telling the story with too it you anyway. Perhaps it reads better than it listens. McWade also didn't seem particularly secure in his portrayals of the other characters, he had trouble voicing them consistently.

And finally, I think you could make a case for this being on the young side of our identified audience.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Animal testing

Today I had my last -- :-( -- book discussion group with a bunch of very smart 4th and 5th grade readers; I'm going to miss them! We read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH -- which is more than 35 years old! I hadn't read it before and I was struck at how relevant it remains, while still being an exciting, well-told story. I decided to listen to it (the old cassette problem), and didn't quite finish it in audio -- I had to read the last two chapters with my eyes. This wasn't a problem, I still heard the narrator's voice as I read.

Our cassette copy (we have one left) is an old (1990) Chivers version, read with a warm, comforting English accent by Gwen Watford. I believe the story takes place in the U.S., but I guess it's an indication of its universality that it really could take place on a farm near a mountain pretty much anywhere. So, why quibble ... particularly when I don't have to.

Now I've got to get back to the official listening -- the deliveries have begun!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Liar, liar

I'm trying to wipe a clean cloth around my brain, having just completed Pants on Fire by Meg Cabot. There's just so much (for an adult) not to like here. Katie Ellison is getting ready for her senior year -- hottie football playing boyfriend, check; best friend, check; good grades, check; a job that gives her spending money, check; hottie second boyfriend, check. Oops! Katie's just like Ado Annie, she can't say no. (She does say no to sex, but not to Frenching, or macking [sp?] as it is called in this title.) Then, right before the Princess Quahog (pronouced co-hog) contest -- where Katie is hoping to get the money she needs to finally buy the Leica camera she's been making payment son -- who should reappear in her life but Tommy Sullivan. Tommy was her best friend and confident in the 8th grade, until he did something so awful that he was run out of town on a rail. But Tommy's not the skinny geeky kid he was four years ago, he's become a ... hottie! It looks like Katie is destined for her third boyfriend.

I started listening to this and thought, wow, Krista Sutton has just nailed this character in all her self-absorbed, sixteen-year-old glory. She's got the right pitch, delivery, vocal tricks -- she's great. Unfortunately, it is sheer agony to listen to this for six hours. And, the plot is so simple and so utterly predictable that it's very hard to sustain interest in Katie and her lying foibles for that long. A great deal of this book consists of conversations -- and since they are accurate depictions of teen conversations, it gets very boring very fast: "Can you believe that he did that?" "He did what?" "He did that, that thing."

And being the corporate novel that Meg Cabot's books seem to have become, the product placement irked me (particularly since this book takes place among the 'townies' of a summer beach community … not usually a crowd that can all afford cars at age 16, or to shop at Saks in Manhattan for designer duds), and was particularly egregious during the big reconciliation scene between Krista and the boy she wronged, Tom. In the midst of her teary confession: "As I looked down, I noticed he was wearing black corduroy Pumas." Now that keeps you in the moment!

[I'm sorry I couldn't come up with a better post title ...]

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Just a little lie

In my first year on the committee, the book I finished right before we began discussions on our nominations was A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt. It was read beautifully by Mandy Siegfried, and I loved it ... we all loved it! So -- as we await the latest audiobooks for this year's deliberations -- I decided to listen to Reinhardt's latest book, Harmless. I picked it up despite two no votes from last year's committee. Alas, those no votes were correct.

This book is a terrific story: Three private high school freshmen, out partying with older public school boys, are caught in their lie about where they were by one girl's parents. Before they go home, they concoct a tale of assault and near rape by a vagrant stranger. Here's where you remember that they are only 14 years old -- as the consequences of their lie spin beyond their control, each girl reacts completely true to character (without being predictable); with a truly poignant ending of lessons learned (without didacticism). A very pertinent story for teen readers.

Which makes it doubly a shame that it is so ill-served by its audio version. The utterly reliable Listening Library does the right thing, hiring three voice actresses to portray the girls -- Anna, Emma and Mariah -- who unfold the story in separate, first-person chapters. But the voices sound so wrong. The narrators portraying Anna and Emma sound almost interchangeable, both in vocal range and in the pace of their reading; this -- coupled with the characters' similar sounding names -- really made tracking the speaker difficult. These two women also sounded, well, like women ... not young teens. The narrator reading Mariah (who I think was Staci Snell, but since none of the readers was identified by their role I can't be sure) sounded more like a teenager, but she still read with the same serious, lulling pace of the other narrators. A real disappointment.

The audio version included an interview with Reinhardt, where she talked about how she liked to tell stories that teen readers can believe could be their story. I do think she's succeeding at that.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

ZPG

The Declaration is our first nominated title for 2009. It's an exciting, original dystopic novel that should have such teen appeal: The world's adults now prolong their lives indefinitely with longevity drugs, and they sign the Declaration to not have children. However, children are born -- to those who don't sign the Declaration, to those who have but don't care what happens to their children, to those with the political power to legally procreate -- but children are feared and children are banned. They are incarcerated in order to be trained to serve as slaves and servants of the legals. Anna Surplus is a prefect at Grange Hall -- she knows her role, she will be an asset once she leaves. But one day, Peter arrives at Grange Hall, and he tells Anna who she really is -- she's Anna Covey and she has two parents who love her.

The book runs a fairly predictable dystopian course, but I did like the world that author Gemma Malley created. And reader Charlotte Parry is among my favorite readers. She wowed me (and the committee last year) with Before I Die. She does a good job here as well -- voicing Anna's illicit diary entries of longing and uncertainty as well as her growing understanding of the horrors of her universe. She brings the terrifying Mrs. Pinsent of Grange Hall to brilliant, icy life -- you do not want to be in this woman's way! Once Anna and Peter escape, Parry builds the tension through volume and pacing that keep you on edge. Even with its mostly predictable plot, the final acts of Mrs. Pinsent sure surprised me!

The cover is different on the audiobook -- an old-fashioned clockface is superimposed over the face of a girl who is not looking directly at you. I'd try to find this on the web, but I am liking the way the "saved to computer" images look here (although I don't like how the paragraphs not wrapping the image are so tightly spaced)

Ode to Jim Dale

It is pure pleasure listening to Jim Dale read a book. That breathless energy, the heartfelt sincerity of his characters, those wacky oddballs he voices, even that soft slightly-off 'r' that he doesn't pronounce (I'm sure speech therapists have a name for that) all make for a full-fledged listening experience. At this point, I figure, why bother reading a book if Jim Dale's going to do it for you?

Which brings me to the Peter Pan prequels by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. I've now listened to all three, having finished Peter and the Secret of Rundoon last weekend. They are pretty hefty titles, but I'm pretty sure I could have read them in half the time it takes to listen. But I don't care. I mean the man voiced pigeons!

I liked the nonstop action of this final volume: The story had three strands that Dale kept effortlessly in the air -- switching from Neverland to London to shipboard to Rundoon and from Indians (called Natives in these stories) both good and bad, to Lost Boys, to Molly and George, to Wendy's austere father and his Arabian sidekick, to pirates, to the King Zarboff of Rundoon and his friend Kundalini (featured on the cover), to Captain Hook, to Peter himself, and to the beyond evil Lord Ombra, who wants to take the world back to the pre-Big Bang era. I listened to this right after listening to Enter Three Witches and was amazed at how easy it was to switch from setting to setting and from character to character, when it was so hard with the Macbeth story.

Yet, in listening to a lot of audiobooks over the past three years, I can't say that this series really rises to the top. Sure, Dale's great skills make for an entertaining package; I can hear the voices of some of his characters in my head still. Actually, a drawback to being so familiar with his work means that as I'm listening to him read Lord Aster (Molly's father), I'm thinking I'm hearing a character from Potter -- in this case, perhaps Lucius Malfoy? But, as audiobooks have boomed and more and more voice actors become skilled at performing them, the quality of the material becomes an increasingly important component. And, enjoyable as he makes it, the Secret of Rundoon isn't all that high quality. My analogy is the Cheetos -- good going down, but no lasting value (except on your hips, of course).

Someday her prince will come

In this overwrought fairy tale, a young boy named Christian runs away from home and is taken in by a troll, who raises him. Marigold is a princess cursed with the ability to read the thoughts of anyone who touches her. After her triplet sisters marry, she's pretty much abandoned by everyone in the palace and she spends long, lonely days on her balcony reading. With his telescope from across a river, Christian spies on her and one day he sends her p-mail -- a short message tied to the leg of a pigeon. Soon they are corresponding regularly, but Christian won't tell her who he is. Once he realizes that Marigold's ambitious mother is going to marry her off, he travels to the palace to find work and soon reveals himself to Marigold. Some hijinks occur, a secret is revealed and all ends happily.

The reader is one Carrington MacDuffie (splendid name), but -- although she works very hard -- the effort shows. Everything is just so big, loud, exaggerated. I think MacDuffie takes her cue from the book, however, which is also pretty much over the top. While fairy tale conventions are thrown over for a more modern sensibility, the modernities all seem so forced. While p-mail is funny once, it really isn't again and again. And so much of the novel just takes its cuteness and beats it into your head until it just isn't cute anymore. It's just a bit dull.

Tom and the Spook

I really like the series The Last Apprentice (which has a much more evocative title in its British incarnation, The Spook's Apprentice), so I was thrilled to see Book 3 in a recent package from Recorded Books: Night of the Soul Stealer. As I'm now the chair of our YALSA committee [now with the much sexier name of Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults] -- and passing out the listening assignments, I snagged this one for myself! Acknowledging, of course, that I'm definitely a fan.

And for me, this doesn't disappoint. Apprentice Tom Ward and the Spook take to the frozen hills of Angelzarke for the winter, because the County needs them when the dark is coming in. Unfortunately, the Spook falls ill, a former disgruntled apprentice is bent on raising some particularly evil spirits, and the two Lamia (find Vampires in this Wikipedia entry) witches in the basement are getting restless. It falls to Tom, and his witchy friend Alice, to keep the County safe.

The narrator, Christopher Evan Welch, owns this series. He reads first person Tom with a perfect blend of innocence, fear and awe, and the Spook with a gravelly impatience and importance that is occasionally tempered with real affection for Tom. Various evil entities are portrayed with consistency and honesty. Even Alice almost sounds like a girl! And he does it all without an English accent. Usually, in those circumstances, this would have no appeal for me, but Welch has created such a complete world that he sound like he was from New Jersey (well, not really). The print versions of these books include lots of extra stuff like drawings and excerpts from Tom's notebook, but Welch does such a great job that I don't feel their lack.

Like The Ranger's Apprentice series, these can't come out fast enough for me in the US!