Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mirror mirror on the wall ...

When I read Gail Carson Levine's Fairest 18 months ago, I really didn't care for it. I was actually pretty snippy about it in my reading log ("An original idea that is buried under too much detail, inexplicable plot turns, trite writing, an uplifting 'message' [it's what's inside that counts] that is utterly belied by the cover.") However, I was so intrigued by Full Cast Audio's (FCA) approach to recording it that I had to listen to it when it arrived. The kingdom of Ayortha is a kingdom of singing and Full Cast knew that the appropriate audio interpretation had to include the singing. How lucky we are that audiobooks exist -- this interpretation truly (and tritely, sorry) makes this story sing!

I like novels that derive from fairy tales (I shall briefly digress to encourage listening to Donna Jo Napoli's Beast, read by Robert Ramirez ... very sexy!), and I enjoyed this story's take on the Grimm tale, Snow White. Foundling Aza is raised by the loving proprietors of the Featherbed Inn in the country of Ayortha. Aza doesn't resemble Ayorthans -- she towers over most of them and her features aren't delicate and refined. Still, she does possess what Ayorthans value the most: A beautiful singing voice and a talent for composing. Aza has an additional musical talent: She can "illuse," or throw, her voice, imitating those of others. Aza visits the court of Ayortha at the time of the king's wedding, and -- when the new queen Ivi discovers her "illusing" -- is soon forced to sing for the queen. All too soon, this secret -- coupled with a mysterious mirror that offers Aza a vision of a more beautiful self -- threatens to destroy her happiness and very possibly her life.

I have complained here about FCA's occasionally amateurish sounding readers, so I was so pleased to hear the across-the-board professional reading voices of the cast of Fairest. Not one reader sounded stiff or actorish, they each created a character who spoke naturally and within the context of the story. Sarah McNaughton, who carried the burden of the story as Aza, read her role with affection, impetuousness and a touch of longing. There were a number of other standouts, notably (I'm reading from the materials that FCA included with the audiobooks) Lauren Synger as a spoiled, screeching Ivi; Kate Huddleston as the bawdy cook Frying Pan; Daniel Bostick (Full Cast Audio co-founder) voicing Skulni, the scary creature in the mirror; and David Baker as the sympathetic, sensitive gnome zhamM (roughly pronounced soft-g Gi-awm). But not one reader sounded fake or as if they were uncomfortably reading aloud in a classroom.

And then there was the singing. Full Cast always does a splendid job with music -- inserting it between chapters and at moments of high drama or plot turns. The music always evokes the time and place of the novel -- I remember deeply disliking Street Magic, but I can still hear the music which resonated a bustling Asian street market. Todd Hobin is the composer (and director) of Fairest, and while the songs are mostly forgettable and I suspect that they might be pretty corny for many teen listeners, they are perfect for this sentimental, uplifting story. All of the readers had delightful singing voices, or one that was in keeping with their character. McNaughton had a beautiful, non-ear-shattering soprano that sounded effortless. Everyone was a pleasure to listen to.

But -- finally getting to the nub! -- what the singing adds to the story is what makes this a terrific audiobook. And it's the singing that makes this a better audiobook than book (and that would be the Holy Grail of audiobook afficionados). I am not an appreciator of poetry, so when I read Fairest I'm sure I just skimmed over the song lyrics with a ho-hum yawn -- let's get on with the plot, please. Listening to them sung, however, demonstrated to me how integral the songs were to the story. They helped move the story along (sort of), and they played an important part in defining all the characters in the story. Suddenly, the whole conceit of a kingdom devoted to singing made sense. If you're reading about it, it remains a conceit.

Finally, FCA engineered some fun vocal effects with Aza's "illusing," adding texture and interest to the audiobook. And the whole plot point where Aza ends up inside the mirror -- which made absolutely no sense to me when I read it -- became crystal clear upon listening.

I've nominated this title, and -- of those I've listened to thus far -- this is the first one that seems truly "amazing" to me.

What are we fighting for?

Post Oregon primary, I've been getting an astonishing number of phone calls from polling organizations, and the most recent one asked me to rank the importance of various national issues in affecting my vote in the November election. I noted that ending this misbegotten war in Iraq was the most important issue to me (followed by global warming -- I guess you can tell who I'm voting for). I'm going to try not to color this posting about Sunrise over Fallujah with my personal political feelings. In this book by Walter Dean Myers, young Robin Perry is serving with a Civil Affairs unit during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. Robin -- nicknamed Birdy to his chagrin -- and his comrades are the ones who visit the hospitals and communities and village chiefs in order to smooth over the anger that the violence and destructiveness of the invasion has generated. And although they are a non-combat unit, Robin faces sudden attack and death as much as any other soldier.

Much has been made in reviews of this title that Robin is the nephew of Richie Perry, protagonist of Myers' 1988 novel about Vietnam, Fallen Angels. In Sunrise, Robin occasionally emails Richie with his more honest thoughts about the war, saving the cheerful non-essential news for his worried mother and angry father. And in his skillful creation of this book, Myers has come down neither for or against the war -- his soldiers are fighting in it, and their questioning of its motives and outcomes seem thoughtful and balanced. He dedicates the book to those serving in the armed forces, and their families.

JD Jackson provides the terrific narration for this title. I've liked his work before. At the beginning of the novel, Robin describes each member of his unit and Jackson provides a distinct and realistic portrayal of each. He moves effortlessly from career army Captain Coles to mouthy blonde Marla to the bluesy street talk of Jonesy to polite young Harlemite Robin. He carries these characterizations throughout the rest of the novel. I always knew when these characters were speaking. He reads Robin's narration of events with quiet emotion, and when Robin faces terror and tragedy, his loss is palpable.

I could never get my ears around everyone else in the story though. Other characters were introduced and then the next time they appeared I often couldn't remember the initial encounter. I don't think this was helped by their names, all of which seemed to be of the unremarkable Anglo-Saxon variety (Miller and Pendleton are the only ones I can bring to mind).

In addition, I found the novel's story arc difficult to follow. There were three or four "set pieces," where Richie and his unit venture out on a mission. Something always went wrong on these missions, but I couldn't seem to track them -- Why are they going? What are they doing when they get there? Who's going on the mission? War, they say, is long periods of boredom and inactivity, punctuated by terror. Myers seems to have portrayed this accurately, as I wonder if I -- like Richie -- was lulled into not paying close enough attention until the guns starting firing. Then I end up trying desperately to figure out what was going on.

I don't know if this was the fault of me, the book, or the narrator. I may have to listen to this again.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Wild thangs!

(Lest you think that I am in any way a Jeopardy-quality master of popular music [based on my last two posting titles], let me start by assuring you that this is not the case.) The Wild Girls are no relation at all to The Troggs, whoever they may be (see what the internet can do?). They are two young teens, Sarah and Joan, living in the San Francisco suburbs in 1973 (?). Joan has just moved with her family from Connecticut and she meets Sarah -- who calls herself Fox -- in the woods while exploring her new neighborhood. In honor of Fox, Joan christens herself Newt. Fox lives in a dilapidated old house on the edge of the woods with her tattooed father, who happens to write science fiction. Fox and Newt are the Wild Girls, confident and happy, exploring their small universe, making up stories about its origins.

When they need to face the rest of the world, though, the two girls wilt. Newt's parents are fighting, Fox's mother disappeared without notice, and -- when school starts, they are quickly relegated to the bottom of the pecking order. It is only when -- at the urging of an English teacher -- they write a story together and submit it to a contest for young writers that the Wild Girls emerge again. When they win the contest and must read their story aloud to an audience, they find the confidence to do so by painting their faces in totemic stripes and whorls. A poet and writing teacher, who has given herself the name Verla Volante, invites them to participate in a summer writing workshop for teens at Berkeley. And, in the course of that summer -- when the crises of their personal lives come to a boil -- Fox and Newt use what Verla has taught them about writing (and life) to manage those crises and emerge even stronger Wild Girls. It is a quiet, and immensely satisfying novel, written by Pat Murphy.

There was the little voice in the back of my head whispering 'bibliotherapy,' though: This is for the quiet, nerdy "omega" girls -- the ones who sit apart in the cafeteria writing in their journals, or those who spend their free time in the library, but not on the computer. "You are not kicking butt like Tamora Pierce's heroines, but you, too, are worthy of a novel," the book whispers unobtrusively. And, of course, they are. As I said, it was just whispering this, not shouting at me.

The audiobook, read by Coleen Marlo, sustains the quiet power of this simple story. Joan narrates, and her sense of growing confidence is palpable in Marlo's interpretation. The strength of the girls when they are wild contrasts nicely with their tentativeness around their families and in the school settings. She voiced a number of characters with individuality and their characteristics were established and sustained throughout the novel. My most prominent complaint is her voicing of Fox, who seemed to have sinus problems for no reason except to be different from Newt.

It was a professional narration of a simple, yet powerful story. I listened to it because two other committee colleagues had suggested that it might be worthy of nomination. However, nothing about it stood out for me, so I'm going to chime in with a definite no.

Friday, May 16, 2008

You're a heartbreaker, dreammaker, love-taker

This very trying (for adults) book is about four high school girls -- three of whom break up with their boyfriends (it's the boyfriends who do the breaking up) on the same evening. They congregate at the house of the fourth friend (16 and never been kissed), and together they come up with a list of rules designed to get them over the breakup. (At this point, if I still worked in a library building, I would jump up, go find the book and jot down for your edification a few of the rules ... some of which are quite witty. And if may I go on parenthetically for a bit longer ... when I Googled this book to see if I could find the author's website, there was a question on Yahoo Answers from someone looking for the list. The author needs a website where we could find that list.)

The book then follows the day-to-day sufferings of these girls as they attempt to follow the rules and get over the boys. It is all extremely tiresome for adults to read, although I fully acknowledge its appeal to its designated readership. I was struck by the absence of parents -- which, in the context that each of the (not-employed) girls had their own car, seemed a bit of an oversight -- and the presence of much product placement (not the sign of a book designed to last over the years). And this author is not the first to describe the process of IM'ing, reading and writing email, and texting in such a way that you wonder if they have ever done the task themselves.

Alright, now I'm getting cranky. Sorry, The Heartbreakers was just so dull. And yet complex; because the eight characters (each girl and her boyfriend), plus assorted parents, teachers and other friends (rivals!) kept the plot very busy. And it is that complexity that made it a poor choice for audio. If I was listening in my car and stopped in the middle of a chapter, it would always take me a few moments to remember who was in the story at that moment. Since the travails of each girl tended to be the same, occasionally it took awhile to figure this out. The interchangeability was not helped by the reader who opted for a no-voicing (no character voices) narration. I think she probably realized there was no way to clearly delineate between a bunch of upper-middle-class suburban teenagers and so she just didn't even try. And, quite frankly, I don't think her trying would have improved it tremendously.

The narrator is Stina Nielsen, who -- long, long ago before I had to listen to audiobooks every free minute of every single day!!! -- I thoroughly enjoyed as the delightful (and delightfully trying) Georgia Nicolson. In Birch Falls (the New England-ish locale for The Heartbreakers), she reads with expression and a nice varied pace. The conversations sound natural and the teens sound like teens. But the same voice telling us the the same (or at least similar) stories up to four times just got very, very dull.

Also, the beauty of a book with a list in it is that you can flip back the pages to re-read the list when you need a refresher. Here, it's just so much harder to do that, most of the time, we don't. On a related note, I got a a chance to look at Evil Genius (the book), and what do I find on the inside covers: The cast of characters -- or at least the faculty of the Institute. This would have been so handy when you were trying to remember who was who in that story!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Clash of the titans

My header refers to a memorably bad Laurence Olivier movie that -- coincidentially -- is about Perseus (played by Harry Hamlin). [OK, too many links.] Perseus is the full name of the teen demi-god hero Percy Jackson, whose third outing is The Titan's Curse. Author Rick Riordan has definitely captured teen reading interests with this series. The fourth installment -- just published -- has 140 holds at our library. The first book just won the middle school Young Readers Choice Award. And the best part is that Rick Riordan is coming to speak to vast numbers of Multnomah County teens this October. So, I thought I should be current with my Percy Jackson reading, figuring I have about six months to read/listen to The Battle of the Labyrinth.

For those needing a full update, Percy Jackson learns that he is the son of a mortal woman and the sea god Poseidon. As a demi-god, he's had trouble in school -- identified as ADHD -- but once he's taken to Camp Half-Blood on Long Island, he learns that he is not alone. The Greek gods have effortlessly transported themselves into a 21st century world, wreaking their usual havoc on humanity from Mount Olympus, high above the Empire State Building. At camp, Percy learns all kinds of godlike skills -- mostly around fighting, alas. But he also bones up (and bones readers up) on all kinds of Greek mythology, while being an all-around nice kid and good friend.

Percy also learns that a prophecy foretells that when one of the offspring of the "big three" -- Poseidon, Zeus and Hades -- turns 16, they are going to bring disaster to Mount Olympus and destroy the gods. And Percy is determined to prove this prophecy wrong. Each book brings him closer to age 16 (he's 14 in The Titan's Curse), and the plot particulars shine more light on the prophecy itself.

In The Titan's Curse we find that the titans (the generation prior to the gods of Olympus ... oh, go read your Edith Hamilton!) are preparing to battle the Olympians to take over supremacy in the god arena, and that Percy -- along with his friends Grover the satyr and Annabeth, daughter of Athena -- goes on a quest to stop them. The quest takes them to the desert southwest, Hoover Dam, San Francisco and finally to Mount Tamalpais. It's a very enjoyable journey.

Our journey is narrated by Jesse Bernstein, one of those youthful-voiced readers who can believably portray teenaged boys. He does a good job portraying Percy's wonder at the situation he finds himself in as well as his confident teenage snarkiness at the world around him. Percy's loyalty and affection for his friends is clear in Bernstein's animated and varied delivery. Bernstein has a variety of other characters to create as well -- his normally high-ish speaking voice means that his girls sound natural and not forced, and he gives Grover a consistent and distinct personality too. In this book, Bernstein also portrays a Pegasus using a charming whinny, and a seacow-with-a-serpent-tail (I'm blanking on the official name of this creature) who speaks in "mooo...." Both are highly entertaining to listen to.

He's not so successful with his adult gods -- opting either for cariacature (a slurring, sloshy Dionysus -- who is, in the story, in recovery ... or not!) or a stiff and pompous delivery that just sounds like it makes Bernstein uncomfortable. He also has a strange narrator tic of a long pause (a couple of seconds) between a piece of dialogue and the "I said." I wonder if he did this to keep from racing through the narration, but I grew to anticipate, and not to like, the pauses.

I enjoyed this, but didn't find anything outstanding. Must keep listening ... I know there's something great out there!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Princess on the couch

You know, despite how much I hate this series -- which was pretty darn delightful in its first iteration, but has gone on much too long -- there is something to admire in Meg Cabot. At least in the last two Princess Diaries installments (the only two I've read besides the original), she has managed to write mildly entertaining books that find their humor in the (almost) everyday activities of a teenager who just happens to be a princess. (I wish I hadn't seen the movie, since now I see Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews as I listen.) I can't deny that I really didn't like Volume 8 (which I mistakenly referred to as VII in this blog), but the topic was so supremely icky. Here, in Princess Mia, among the high-fashion shopping trips and the endless references to her broken heart, our heroine has some genuinely funny sessions with her new psychologist, and even offers a bit of a lesson in capital-F feminism.

Mia Thermopolis is trying to get over her lost love, Michael Moscowitz, now working in Japan on something technological and important. She's spends too much time in her Hello Kitty pajamas and her parents send her to therapy. Formidable (pronounce that the French way please) Grandmere has got her a speaking gig in front of the female equivalent of Opus Dei, and -- in preparing her speech, she discovers the diary of an earlier teenage princess, a princess who ruled for twelve days and then died of the plague. In her short reign that princess did something that could "bring BIG changes to the little principality of Genovia" as it says on Meg Cabot's website. But only if Grandmere and Mia's father agree. (This is where the Feminism comes in.)

I have essentially the same issues with this audio installment as the earlier book. Clea Lewis is just great as Mia -- wallowing in self-pity, utterly self-absorbed, yet clear-eyed and clever when she needs to be. Her narration speeds along, well-paced and never dull. It's just too bad that all the other characters in the story need to be voiced, because they are simply so uncomfortable to listen to. There's squeaky Tina, strangely growly J.P., occasionally Russian Boris (who inevitably reminds me of Boris Badenov), and the very bad French accents of Grandmere and Mia's father. Listening to them just gives me chills, the bad kind.

Like last year, I listened to this because a committee member nominated it. And, like last year, I will be giving it a most emphatic no. It doesn't belong on our list, as it is neither select or amazing.

Welcome to the darkside ...

Three morning walks and pledge week on public radio helped me race through Darkside by Tom Becker. Of course, it didn't hurt that I found the book to be an exciting and original story. I wanted to know the ending! And, since this book is the first of a series [sigh], a lot of questions raised by the plot remain unanswered. But it's a good read/listen on its own, I think.

The story opens with the terrifying and mysterious kidnapping of Ricky, snatched on a school trip to Trafalgar Square. We leave Ricky being bundled into a hearse by a very tall man and a hyperactive shorter one, accompanied by a woman with fluorescent hair. Then we encounter cheeky, truant Jonathan Starling (Could I rant briefly on the constant mispelling of this name ... Jonathon just looks so wrong and yet I see it over and over again, including in reviews for this title!). Jonathan's father is being taken away -- yet again -- to the psych ward of a local hospital, as he has had another of his "spells," spells he calls the "darkening." Home alone, Jonathan discovers that the door to his father's library -- always locked -- is now open and he begins investigating the darkening. His search takes him to the British Library, and then to a sewer pipe under the Blackfriars Bridge ... which takes him to Darkside.

Darkside is a hidden pocket of London where police and politicians sent Jack the Ripper, along with many other Victorian-era criminal types, to live out their days. These people reproduced and now -- more than a century later -- Darkside is a place out of time filled with sociopaths. Strangers are immediately identifiable, so Jonathan is in trouble until he locates his dad's old friend (?) Carnegie, who just happens to be a werewolf (he prefers wereman) and a private detective. Carnegie and Jonathan learn that he and Ricky (remember him?) were to be kidnapped to Darkside in order to serve as bait in an animal entertainment: the two boys -- now identified as half dark/half light -- will fight two jackals in the ring. From this point it's a wild ride to the finish.

The audiobook is just six hours and the plot is tantalizingly unfolded. While you are getting a lot of background information, it seems so original and engaging that I was never bored and often curious: Why are we learning this piece of information? Hmmm ... what does that have to do with anything? While there are no scenes of horrific violence (but the scenes in the bestiary aren't for animal lovers), there is plenty of delicious suspense and definitely a sense of peril that will engage younger-ish (5th graders, even) readers eager to be scared.

The narrator, Colin Moody, creates the Victorian and modern London characters and settings beautifully with his voice. Everyone sounds authentic, he's consistent with his voicings, some of his characters are quite delightful: Gravelly, wolfish Carnegie is appropriately scary, Vendetta (heretofore unmentioned, but suffice to say, he's evil) is an upper class, superior type, and the fluorescent-haired Marianne is quietly terrifying. I like the fact that he reads "Vendetta laughed," and then he actually laughs (in an appropriately demonic way, of course).

Unfortunately, Moody's humanness gets in the way of making this a great audiobook. All six discs are filled with his gulping, swallowing, mouth moistening, and intakes of breath. I mean, I consider myself a fairly careful listener, but often I don't catch these kinds of production errors. Which means that this symphony of sounds (the sounds we all make, of course) were obvious. So, Bolinda should have caught them as well, and edited them out. This keeps Darkside from being an amazing audiobook, as our policies call for "professional production quality."

Sigh. So far this year, the audio offerings have been largely uninspiring. (The exception being -- my opinion only here! -- the latest installment of The Last Apprentice, but I admit my bias.) Unfortunately, I can't add Darkside to the good list, but I think I'll ask someone else to listen.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Go ahead, seize that day!

In Carpe Diem by Autumn Cornwell, Vassar Spore is a 16-year-old with a plan. Raised by her efficiency-expert dad and life-coach mom, Vassar uses the family's daily "Hour of Reflection" to prepare for her shining academic, professional and personal future. There's something about attending a certain Seven Sisters college, earning several advanced degrees, winning a Pulitzer Prize and finding love and having children with a surgeon or a judge. All by the time she's 37 (which is thinking ahead for a teenager). She's got a cadre of three good friends -- with similar plans -- but, really, she's a bit of a bore.

Vassar's grandmother (on her dad's side) is the relative they never talk about, so when she makes an appearance -- by phone from Southeast Asia -- insisting that Vassar spend the summer with her touring Malacca, Cambodia and Laos, Vassar is pretty darn surprised when her parents insist that she make the trip. With her 10 suitcases, travel planner and prepaid international calling card, she meets her grandmother for the first time and understands why her father considers her an embarrassment. Grandma Gerd's philosophy is not carpe diem, but LIM (Live in the Moment), and all too soon Vassar's travel accompaniments are tossed by the wayside and she learns to live out of a daypack. In addition to LIMming (which sounds vaguely dirty to me), Vassar learns to use a squat toilet, gets arrested for stealing artifacts from Angkor Wat (she was really returning one taken by Gerd), is held captive in a Laotian opium den, and falls in love with a Malaysian Chinese cowboy-wannabe with an Elvis pompadour and removeable "chops."

And Vassar also learns the reason why her parents were so willing to send her off to Grandma Gerd in the first place. I won't spoil it here, but this was something that I figured out pretty early in the story. Which sums up my issues with the book --it was just so predictable, starting with the premise. You knew that Vassar would go from a compulsive planner to someone who LIMs, you knew that her tidy approach to life was going to get her into trouble everywhere she went, and by the third or fourth wacky episode of Vassar as fish-out-of-water, you could pretty much predict the rest of them. Except for its travel writing descriptions of the places Vassar visited, it was a bit of a yawn.

Unlike Something Rotten, though, I don't even think a great narrator could have saved this as an audiobook. While Lynde Houck (one of the readers of Harmless ... which one?) did an adequate job with transforming Vassar from a control freak to a day seizer it wasn't anything spectacular. In email exchanges with Vassar's three friends, she did do a good job of distinguishing between each character without diving into cariacture. Hanks, the Chinese cowboy, had a preposterous Western drawl, but Houck was going with what was written (except that her pronunciation led me to think his name was Henks). All the other non-white characters were interchangeably "ah so" Asian (although I certainly couldn't tell you the difference between the accents of Laotians, Cambodians, Japanese, etc.).

It was with Grandma Gerd, however, that this audiobook went terribly wrong. Gerd is Graham Green's Aunt Augusta or Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame, larger than life, who encourages her granddaughter to just live, live, live. Every sentence that came out of Grandma Gerd's mouth was just big and breathy and completely fake. This vocal approach doesn't show emotion, it can't get louder or softer, it's just there -- being big. It became utterly tiresome to listen to. And when Granda Gerd needs to come down and get serious (when Vassar is being held captive by the druggy Laotians, or when the family secret is discussed), Houck sticks with that dreadful delivery. She's got nowhere to go with it. It was bad.

As a graduate of a sister Seven Sister institution, I've got one more complaint: When Vassar talks about attending Vassar College, she says that it accepts only women as students. Unfortunately, this hasn't been the case for nearly 40 years. If the author goes to the trouble of setting up this situation -- Vassar will attend Vassar -- the least she should do is get her research right! But I acknowledge that this could be a quibble for other readers.