Monday, April 28, 2008

Speak the speech I pray you ...

The author of one of my favorite audiobooks from last year, Samurai Shortstop, published a new title this year (it's nice how they do that, isn't it?). And since it was completely different from the earlier title, I figured I could approach with an open mind (it's harder to do this, I think, when you've become attached to a series), so I assigned it to myself! It's called Something Rotten and is the first of a proposed series of detective novels featuring the semi-boiled teen, Horatio Wilkes, by Alan Gratz. Horatio is the best friend of Hamilton Prince, whose father has recently died, and whose mother has quickly remarried -- her brother-in-law. Hamilton is distraught, and drinking heavily and asks Horatio to spend the summer with him in Denmark, Tennessee. The Prince family are the wealthy owners of the Elsinore Paper Company, which is clearly polluting the Copenhagen River. When Horatio arrives, they are given a videotape of Hamilton's father, pronouncing that he has been murdered. Hamilton convinces Horatio to help him solve the mystery of his father's death. And Horatio, a smart, smart-alecky teenager, begins investigating.

Does this plot sound familiar?

Part of the fun of this book is seeing how the author takes the events of the play and places them believably in a 21st century teenaged context. And he's pretty successful. He doesn't do a blow-by-blow re-enactment, but selects choice scenes and re-imagines them. The body count is way down here, as it must be, so all ends happily for several characters. The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern characters are the only ones that seemed off to me -- they are redneck buffoons named Roscoe and Gilbert, but Gratz retains the humorous interchangeability conceit of Shakespeare's. Otherwise, the main drivers of the story are all there: Claudius/Claude, Gertrude/Trudy, Ophelia/Olivia, Polonius/Paul, Laertes/Larry, Fortinbras/Ford N. Branf (this last one made me laugh).

Evidently, the author and his publisher liked how this one turned out, because he's got two more Horatio Wilkes mysteries on tap -- using Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream. I think these books are more for high school readers, so maybe they think that English teachers can enhance their Shakespeare units with them. I do believe that you need a more than passing familiarity with the plot in order to fully enjoy Something Rotten, otherwise it's just a detective novel -- and a fairly ordinary one at that.

Where the book failed for me was in its audio interpretation. So -- more precisely -- the reader, Erik Davies, failed to deliver the book as the lighthearted, clever pastiche that it was. He took the Philip Marlowe-ish hardboiled detective character and read it straight -- I did not hear Horatio's teenaged take on this genre's conventions at all. Mostly, I think the reader sounded too old, but Horatio's smart-alecky take on everything had no humor. He also wasn't particularly skilled at delineating characters (beyond the good ol' boys, R & G, and the soft-voiced Olivia), so following dialogue could be particularly tricky.

I'm trying to think of another narrator who could have made this more interesting: Jeff Woodman? Or the guy who reads The Last Apprentice, Christopher Evan Welch. I'd like to hear him read something else. (And if HarperAudio would send us InterWorld -- how many times do I have to ask? -- we could!)

Scrambled or poached?

According to this profile from AudioFile magazine, Gerard Doyle has only been narrating books for five years (well, I guess it's eight now), and compared to some of his other audiobooks (can I just say I'm dreading Brisingr?), The Pinhoe Egg must have been a relatively easy one. This book in the Chrestomanci Chronicles by Diana Wynne Jones (my, she has a lot of fan sites: here's one and here's another), is a charming story about a boy, a girl, an egg and some feuding magical families. Young Marianne Pinhoe's grandmother, Gammer Pinhoe, has gone round the bend, and her extended family believes that she has to be the next Gammer, since she is the closest Pinhoe female descendent. But the Pinhoes are an eccentric lot; Marianne really is the only sensible one of the family and she most definitely does not want to be Gammer. Ever since Gammer was moved out of her big house (in a hilarious scene in the book, by the way), things have been tense between the Pinhoes and the other magical family in the village, the Farleighs: Plagues of frogs and the like.

Plot developments bring Marianne and young Chrestomanci-in-training Cat Chant together in Gammer's old house where -- exploring the attic -- they discover an egg. Marianne, who doesn't believe that she has magic, gives the egg to Cat who shortly thereafter becomes stepfather to a griffin. Further plot developments reveal the origins of the egg, the feud between the Pinhoes and the Farleighs and some other stuff as well. I haven't read many of her books, but in the ones I have I find the same complaint: They start off great with wonderful magical conceits (how great is the idea of the moving castle?), but they seem to get bogged down in backstory, sidestory, that the delightful original story is buried. I felt the same about this one. It took an awful lot for Cat and Marianne to get to the titular egg, and then a whole lot more to understand why it was important. Such details are doubly hard to track when one is listening ... even when one is listening to the very talented Gerard Doyle.

Who in this book even voices a hatchling griffin with authority. Doyle is one of those readers whose narrator voice implies such confiding intimacy that you feel like you are cozy in your grandfather's lap listening to an elaborate bedtime story. (That's why his picture at the AudioFile website was somewhat shocking to me ... I was expecting a grandpa!) He reads with such warmth and affection (for both characters and listeners). His character voices are natural and consistent, everyone sounds like a real person (or griffin). He doesn't rush his narration, yet it isn't soporific either. His voice is a pleasure to listen to.

My complaint here is with the book, and the fact that a leisurely read audiobook exacerbates its problems. Also, while catalogued 'y' in my library's collection, this really isn't a book for teens. While Cat and Marianne are teenagers, their adventures are completely clean and there is practically nothing scary here either. Doyle's narration also contributes to its youthful feel as well. As we say in our listserv discussions, there's nothing particularly wrong with it, it's just not "amazing."

Monday, April 21, 2008

Bwaa ha ha!

Cadel Piggott is the very appealing hero of this book, who was inspired by Frodo Baggins (movie version) -- according to the author's website (which appears to be framed [I didn't think anyone did that anymore], so you need to be in For your school project and the question "What inspired you to write Evil Genius?"). Cadel is a child prodigy, fascinated by systems (he brings the Sydney rail system, and later its car traffic, to a grinding halt after some serious study), who -- after graduating from high school at age 12 or 13, enters the Axis Institute for World Domination at the recommendation of his therapist, Thaddeus Roth. At Axis he meets a variety of classmates and professors -- each with a particular criminal specialty that will help the founder, Phineas Darkkon, in his quest for, well, world domination.

Cadel already knows that Phineas is his father, having been told this by Thaddeus during the course of his seven years of therapy. But Phineas is in prison in the U.S., so Thaddeus is managing his empire and the academic career of his son/protege. However, once Cadel enters the Axis Institute, things begin to slowly go wrong. His classmates die -- one by one -- mostly by practicing their evil skills on each other. Cadel knows how to stay out of everyone's way -- and that he is protected by his connection to Thaddeus and Darkkon. He inadvertently makes a friend outside his evil influences, and this friendship convinces him that he must get away. He uses his systems genius to create a plan for escape, but he might just have started too late. The book hurtles towards a very exciting conclusion.

Unfortunately, while listening to about 14 hours before getting to the exciting conclusion, I pretty much got so mired in the minutiae of this very detailed plot and its cast of (at least) a hundred that I couldn't really enjoy the last three hours of cat and mouse because I couldn't really remember what had brought it on. Was it really the letter Cadel sent about Dr. Deal's affair with the former sexy newscaster that started the chain of events? And who was Dr. Deal (a shady lawyer?)? Was the sexy newscaster (name: Tracy Lane provided by the Axis Institute website) a student or a faculty member?

Tracking the characters was particularly difficult, since many made one or two appearances and then disappeared altogether until needed for plot advancement. The faculty all seemed to go by both real names and a nickname that (maybe?) identified their specialty, adding to the confusion. The reader, Justine Eyre, tried very hard to create individual voices for the characters, but -- with a few exceptions -- eventually everyone ended up sounding pretty much alike. She read professionally, and created a lot of excitement and tension there at the end -- particularly in portraying Cadel's horror and despair as he tries to escape, and his melancholy as he attempts reconnection with his only friend.

Ultimately, I just don't think it was well-suited to audio. My brain kept thinking "Access" Institute when the book read Axis Institute. The hours that Cadel devotes to his systems research and activities in front of the computer is meticulously described, again and again. Cadel spends a great deal of time decoding an important message from his friend, yet another message from her is laboriously spoken out, but not decoded. And when you listen to something over the course of at least 10 days (17 hours), tracking a detailed plot and a large number of characters is tricky.

On the other hand, there are some long books that are great to listen to: Harry Potter, Bartimaeus Trilogy, Mimus, Inkheart. Define long: more than 12 hours, I think.

Monday, April 14, 2008

It's not easy being green

I've never been a fan of teen "problem" novels, which might be why I didn't like Leap very much. It also felt like a problem novel of my generation (that would be a long time ago) -- with a semi-life-threatening event, some very tame teen acting out, lots of pronouncements (instead of dialogue) ["We love you to infinity" was said by a mother not once, but twice.], and an ending that was pretty much telegraphed in the first chapter. Written by Jane Breskin Zalben in alternating chapters by Krista (one of my committee colleague wondered why a Jewish girl would be named Krista) and Daniel, it's essentially a school story for middle schoolers.

Daniel is a competitive swimmer, but he has a bad reaction to anesthesia during dental surgery and is briefly paralyzed. Krista and he were friends as children, but now she's developed a crush on his best friend and their relationship has been awkward for the last few years. The school year progresses as Daniel slowly recovers from his paralysis and Krista explores her feelings about ... well, just about everything. Various school friends come and go, Daniel's mother disappears to go find herself as a rockabilly musician in New Orleans, and there is a heartwarming finale in a swimming pool (you can write the scene without even reading the book I bet) and a kiss. There's a tadpole and an awful lot of heavy metaphor around frogs here as well.

There are two narrators, Jennifer Ikeda and Jonathan Todd Ross. Ikeda -- whom I've gone on about before in this blog -- reads this character like she reads every other character I've heard her read: softly, sympathetically, sincerely. I am bored, bored, bored by her. Ross showed emotion through volume, and -- while he had a hint of Queens in his delivery -- really sounded too old. The sound quality also seemed very tinny here -- like the readers were in a big echo-y room. Two editing errors as well ... we don't like that!

The story does take place in Queens, and I was a bit affronted by its lack of diversity. I thought Queens was the most diverse place in the U.S. The kids in this story were out of a war movie -- you know, the way the small platoon had the Jew, the Italian, the Irishman and the WASP. This was Krista and Daniel's little isolated neighborhood -- nary a Latino, Somali, Chinese, Russian etc. in sight. Even when they left their little enclave they only encountered white people.

Not among my favorites, not even really memorable-- as I blogged today (three days after finishing), I had to go back to my catalog to get Daniel's name!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Third time's the charm

I devoted a quick three hours to the audio version of Firegirl by Tony Abbott, a book I have read twice before. It has been nominated by a member of my committee, and I was between books. When I first read the book, I remember being astonished that the author of The Secrets of Droon could break out of his genre so beautifully. On second acquaintance, I was able to appreciate its quiet way of making everything happen while nothing happened. Thus, at this third visit, I was really able to focus on the reader since the slight plot and characters were well-known to me.

The story can be summarized so briefly: Tom Bender and his classmates find their lives upset and altered when the badly burned Jessica Feeney joins their 7th grade classroom for a few weeks. Tom -- shy, physically awkward, and with a crush on the most popular girl that threatens to overwhelm him -- is the one classmate who attempts to befriend Jessica, and he finds that connection changes him forever.

And so, I found the audiobook to be competently and emotionally narrated, but Sean Kenin's performance was not particularly special. He did a good job portraying young Tom's loneliness and vivid interior life. It was easy to wince every time Tom made a 7th grade social blunder. I found him a weaker narrator when he portrayed the other characters -- Jessica's voice was not always consistent, and Tom's closest classmate -- less sensitive and prone to dealing with his own emotional problems through verbal and physical violence -- just sounded like some dim-witted dope. Kenin sounded most comfortable when he was voicing adults.

We are struggling, my committee, with distinguishing good audiobooks with outstanding, or "amazing" ones. Often the only way is to compare ... and this one just doesn't measure up.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

To the Max

So, there are some audiobooks that you get one disc in and you know that it's not worth finishing up, but Amazing Audiobooks policies require that I stick with it through thick and thick so that every book gets a full hearing by at least one member of the committee. Actually, with this particular audiobook I didn't even have to stick the disc in to know. However, I think I found the right attitude for Maximum Ride: Just go with it, it's trash, enjoy it for what it is. And I actually found myself caught up in the story, caught up in a way that made me laugh at how bad it was, but hey, laughter is good, yes? I understand that teens love these books, and of course, I can see why: Adults using teens for diabolical scientific experiments, and then hunting those teens down to kill them. What's not to love?

Maximum Ride: Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports was supposed to be the final book in the trilogy, but I guess James Patterson thought that Max had more to say and now there is another book (and presumably another audiobook). In the third book, Max and her flock of human-avian friends must break into the Itex Corporation (the evil corporate entity that created them) in order to stop a nefarious plot to eradicate half the population of the planet. Along the way, they start a blog that is visited by millions, kick some butt in several battles with the mutant Erasers, joust verbally with the nasty adults out to destroy them, and find out a little more about their parentage (well, Max does). It's ridiculous ... but in such an over-the-top way that it's funny. To me, the dialogue sounds just a little off -- like James Patterson doesn't really know how teenagers talk. Every time Fang urged the "kids" to fight against the adults, I just winced (but that could have been the narrator [see below]).

Nancy Wu has narrated all the Maximum Ride books and you can tell that she is having a good time with the character. She's mouthy and snide -- reading with lots of expression, a nice varied pace and with complete commitment to the ridiculous story she's telling. She's fairly weak when performing dialogue with the other characters, relying way too much on the dopey boy voice and the stuffed nose interpretation of younger characters. But because she's so lively as Max that you can mostly forgive her.

But when the narration switches to the third person and James Jenner takes over, the humor and originality disappear and all you are left with is an extremely creepy feeling like some slightly off adult has taken over the story. It's like he's trying way too hard to be a teenager … and all the teenagers know how badly he's doing. There is one section where the male bird-kids are on their own and they are watching the girls go by on Venice Beach … well, you just want to take a bath.

Recorded Books had another male narrator named Ed Sala read the third-person sections of the first book (which I also listened to), and -- while I can't recollect him too clearly -- he didn't seem to be trying so hard. I wish we could get Recorded Books to expand their "stable" of narrators -- being a regular listener means you hear the same readers over and over again -- but if not, they should have gone with a younger reader, like Andy Paris or Nick Lee. Oh well, they aren't asking me!

Monday, April 7, 2008

You might be better off reading ...

It took me two steady weeks of listening to finish the 17-hour Runemarks by Joanne Harris and I don't consider it time wasted. I enjoyed it a great deal, but ultimately, can't recommend it as an audiobook. It's just too long, too detailed, mostly long on description and short on action. But the characters are vivid, the settings delightfully imagined, and the story a compelling one. And even though I think it's probably a better eye-read than ear, the narrator's voice is still in my head. However, I found that visiting the website, rechecking the characters and plot points, added immensely to my enjoyment and understanding of the story.

Young Maddy Smith is the second daughter of the local blacksmith in the village of Malbury, whose mother died when she was born. Maddy's always been a little odd, and not just for the birthmark/"ruinmark" that adorns her hand. The villagers -- in a time "five hundred years after the End of the World" -- mostly scorn her, and she is friendless until, at the age of seven, she meets One-Eye, an old man who teaches her to read and tells her stories of the old Norse gods of the Aesir and Vanir -- who, at the End of the World, fought a battle at Ragnarok that forced them into Hell or a quiet retirement in an ice cave. Maddy finds out that her ruinmark is, in fact, a runemark, a mark that enables her to perform magic. At 14, Maddy's magic runs amok and -- in a breakneck few days -- she tunnels into the World Below in order to find The Whisperer and ... well, save the worlds (there are nine by the way) from a battle between chaos and the dead, chaos and order, Chaos and Order ... I'm not quite clear on that. Along the way, she learns that One-Eye is Odin, chief of the the Norse gods, and that he is her grandfather ... she is the daughter of Thor. Loki, trickster god and general all-around engaging troublemaker, accompanies her on most of her journey.

Her adventure does indeed take 17 hours, and there is a lot of exposition, explanation, re-explanation, and eventually, exciting action. There are also many, many comma-separated descriptions of scenery, action, characters' appearance, backstory, sidestory, etc. that just don't work very well in audio. (One of the frustrations of my new job is that I can't run to the shelf anymore for print confirmation of something I heard, so I can't provide an example of this here ... but trust me, these lengthy lists masquerading as sentences appeared frequently.) And, at the climax, five different groups of characters are all headed down to Hell to find Maddy's father: Maddy and Loki, followed by Odin and the goblin Sugar, followed by the huntress Skadi and her hapless human Nat Parson, followed by the rest of the Vanir, followed by Nat Parson's wife, Ethelberta who's been transformed into a seeress and is accompanied by a runemarked pot-bellied pig. Are you getting the picture? I can't deny that it all added up to a vast, entertaining saga (and there is a time and place for these), but I think it would defeat all but the most dedicated young listeners.

The reader is Sile Bermingham, pronounced Sheila, who reads with a slight whispery Irish lilt. She portrays Maddy in a properly girlish, impetuous way that truly brings her to life. Most of the other cast of (what seems like) thousands are distinguished well (although it was definitely tricky remembering which of those Vanir gods were which and what exactly their names were), and a few -- like Loki, the goblin Sugar, and the very frightening Skadi -- are memorable. Certain plot points (what is the difference between Hell and the Netherworld?) continue to elude me, but I pretty much think that was because occasionally during the 17 hours I would just lose focus.

Some books just shouldn't be audiobooks, and this might be one of those.