Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hungry for a resolution

So after my walk I came to work and then had to head out for a class visit and I took the last tape of Skin Hunger with me. This book has been on the slow track for me; I've been listening to it for 10 days. It is the first of a trilogy called A Resurrection of Magic by Kathleen Duey, and it ended more abruptly than any book I can recently recall. A bad word came out of my mouth when the voice on the tape said "The End." Not that I wasn't eager for the book to be over, but I definitely felt as if the last 10 hours I'd just dedicated to it had been a complete waste of time. Yes, perhaps I knew the characters in the story a little better than I had in the beginning, but I sure didn't understand what they heck they'd been up to. I'm intrigued enough to go on, but I think I'll opt for reading -- takes less time.

Skin Hunger tells two stories in alternating chapters. First is the story of Sadima, a young woman who has the ability to "mind-speak" with animals. By chance she meets Franklin, who convinces her to come to the big city where he and his companion Somiss will be able to teach her how to control and use her gift. Somiss, it turns out, is an utterly self-centered, single-minded individual determined to bring back magic to their society, which has shunned and punished magicians as charlatans. Sadima falls in love with Franklin, and urges him to leave Somiss. At the end, she has discovered a terrible secret but finds herself unwilling to leave Franklin to Somiss' not-so-tender mercies.

Sadima's story is matched with that of Hahp. According to reviews of this book, it is now some years later than the events of Sadima's life, but I don't recall ever hearing this in the book (could be a clue!). Hahp has been enrolled by his father in a school for magicians, but soon learns that he will never see his family again. The small group of students are told that only one of them will graduate to magicianhood, the others will die. Early on, it appears that they will die of hunger -- as the first thing they must learn is to create food -- but as their skills blossom, it seems that they may die from something else. Hogwarts it ain't! After Sadima reaches Franklin and Somiss in the big city, we learn that Somiss is the founder/lead magician at Hahp's school and that Franklin is the primary instructor. They appear to be older ...

This book just went on way too long for me. We are trapped with starving Hahp in the dungeons of the school -- he is taking baby steps in discovering his world and we are traveling along at the same pace. Sadima cooks many meals for Franklin and Somiss, and continuously urges Franklin to leave with her. The chapters became indistinguishable, the few events that occurred just mashed into one another.

The narrator, Andy Paris, brought no skills to alleviating this sameness. To my ears, every single sentence sounded like every other sentence he read. I can hear the rhythm in my head right now: When narrating (as opposed to dialogue), Paris reads the first phrase, takes a pregnant pause, and then finishes the sentence. Vocal register starts up trailing to down ... pause, pause ... up trailing down. He made no distinction between the story of Hahp and the story of Sadima. Paris also has the very annoying habit (mentioned here before) of loudly inhaling to foretell emotion. It is simply not effective when used over and over again.

While I don't think that a second narrator would have overcome all the faults of this book, at least it would have provided welcome relief from one person's delivery.

I listened to a significant amount of this in the County car -- which has a very quirky cassette player. I'd put the tape in and then try to figure out if it was playing the side I wanted to hear or not. Since the voice was always the same, the plot developments few and far between, this was not always easy to do. I got to the point of trying to remember the chapter number I was listening to ... at least I'd know fairly quickly whether I was in roughly the right place.

This is the second National Book Award finalist that I've not found terribly appropriate to the audio format. Is it because it's "literary?"

Jim the young man

Yikes! I finished two audiobooks today. I did a lot of listening over the weekend to try and get caught up (or, more accurately, finished) before leaving for ALA. My free, yet pathetic, mp3 player doesn't hold very much ... so much for my plan to load a bunch of books for listening while I'm away next week. I think it will hold about 12-15 discs ... I'll let you know for sure as I'm trying to get about that many on there tonight or tomorrow. So, this morning, on my walk I finished The Blue Star, Tony Earley's sequel to a wonderful little book called Jim the Boy. Jim Glass, a boy of 10 in the earlier novel, is now in his senior year of high school. It is 1941. The Blue Star -- like its predecessor, a book published for adults -- is fairly episodic in nature as it gently takes us through a school year in the small town of Aliceville, N.C. Yet, running through the novel is a thread of a thwarted, yet intense young romance, along with the impact of the impending war.

Jim -- a very pleasant and personable young man -- has fallen head over heels in love with Chrissie Steppe, but she is not available. She is thought to be the girlfriend of home-town hero Bucky Bucklaw who is now serving in the Navy in Hawaii. We learn that Chrissie doesn't want to be Bucky's girlfriend, but her distressed family is counting on the goodwill of the elder Bucklaws and she feels she must continue the charade. On the other hand, she's not so sure she would want to be Jim's girlfriend even if she were able. Jim's gentle confusion and frustration are wonderful to behold, we ache for him in that adult way. Of course, the attack on Pearl Harbor brings changes to this situation, but -- for Jim -- they don't seem to change enough.

The narrator is Kirby Heybourne, who has also read a fair number of children's books. He has chosen to narrate in a steady lulling rhythm that he might have thought reflected the small-town Southern setting, but for me just became tiresome. I really wanted him to liven things up a little. His characters all sounded a little stereotypically Southern, overlaid by the one aspect that he used to define each of them: Jim was sweetly naive, his uncle Zeno wise and sonorous, Chrissie high-voiced and whispery. We use the term "come alive" (as in "the narrator made the printed text come alive") frequently in our audiobook discussions, and -- alas -- Heybourne did not achieve this.

I enjoyed this quiet little book, but wonder if I'd have been happier reading it.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Hope is the thing

I really didn't get Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson when I read it last year. Sometimes, I think I read too fast. So, listening to it gave me the opportunity to slow down and savor this small, domestic story of faith, family, and hope. Woodson is such a contained writer I think -- small, beautifully written books with some big ideas. In Feathers, young Frannie's life gets thrown for a tiny loop when a new boy arrives in her sixth-grade classroom shortly after Christmas in the early 1970s. The unnamed boy, who appears to be white to the all-African-American class, asks to be called Jesus. The sixth graders all react a little differently to Jesus, and his appearance causes Frannie to explore and question a little more the world around her. Big issues: why do all the black kids live on one side of the highway? Is Jesus the Jesus (and what would that mean)? Where does our hope come from? Small issues: Why is classmate Trevor so angry? Why is my mother having another baby when she's already lost two? Why do I feel so protective of my deaf older brother?

The narrator is Sisi Aisha Johnson and she creates just the right tone of childish curiosity in the greater world. She makes fine distinctions between the characters -- some speak with a more "street" African American inflection than others -- which was an accurate reflection on their backgrounds and home life. She read with a varied pace, while taking her time to tell this small story.

I enjoyed it while listening, but it hasn't stayed with me (kind of like the book). For me, it's not a standout.

When in the course of human events

Yes. An audiobook publisher sent me a copy of our nation's founding documents: A recording of Boyd Gaines reading the Declaration of Independence and Frank Langella [fan site ... sorry] reading the Constitution. Fine, fine actors both ... but I'm afraid listening to it was not all that interesting. Both actors chose the sonorous, important approach to narration: A steady pace, no emotion, slightly rounded aristocratic tones. As history, these documents are very interesting: the convolutions of holding a census when counting 3/5 of a person was enlightening. I was mildly entertained, of course, listening to the Constitution being read aloud, at the number of sections where the current occupant of the White House has seen fit to thumb his nose at this document, but our pain will soon end.

But historical interest does not make for a very interesting audiobook, I'm afraid. I don't think they are meant to be read straight through anyhow; you'd want to stop and think about a section before moving on to another. It is important to have these documents in an audio format, so I'm glad Random House sprung for the narrators, but it's place is not on our list.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Making the deadline

Chris Crutcher [this link doesn't appear to be working, but I'm including it in case it's a temporary problem] came to speak at our library when I was a brand new librarian, so I quickly read all his novels (from Running Loose to Whale Talk). I guess it should come as no surprise to learn that the only one I listened to, Ironman, remains my favorite -- although there's nothing particularly memorable about it, now that I've got six more years of listening in my ears. While his young characters are very appealing, the settings nicely realized, and the resolutions of the stories most satisfying, after seven books (read in order -- natch -- with the exception of Ironman, which I encountered first), the whole Chris Crutcher recipe -- teen athlete with an "attitude" problem, cruel, stupid and racist adults, understanding father figure (not necessarily an actual father), and then a roundup of incest, child abuse, rape, etc. to spice up the already spicy plot -- got to be a bit much. I subsequently read his autobiography, King of the Mild Frontier, but passed on The Sledding Hill even though he was signing and giving away free copies at an Oregon Young Adult Network (OYAN) training I went to.

So I approached Deadline with trepidation. See the recipe above -- all is included, with a bonus plot ingredient: premature death, most especially, the premature death of our hero! Yet, I was swept up! Chapter after chapter, I wanted to hear more. I liked the father-figure, yet with his own sadness, coach (from Running Loose); I liked the child-abusing, alcoholic former priest; I liked the manic-depressive mother (well, not really, she's pretty much a mysterious figure behind a closed door, here); I liked the sassy mixed-race girlfriend, rape and incest victim; and I liked Ben, dying 18-year-old athlete, who has vowed to live his last year to the fullest -- without telling anyone he is dying. I [almost] shed a tear at the end; I confess to a small lump in my throat. Dammit, I enjoyed this!

I blame the narrator. Steven Boyer -- relatively new to the Recorded Books stable, as I've not heard him read before -- read with conviction. He probably thought the story was as ridiculous and overblown as I've described (I'd be hard-pressed to find an adult who didn't, I hope!), but you'd never know it with his reading. He believed in what he was reading, and so I believed. He read Ben with the right amount of snarky, teenage superiority, while leaving plenty of room for quiet introspection and dreamy conversations with a figment of his imagination, the creatively named Hey-soos. If Boyer as Ben didn't sound like an actual dying person (angry, frightened, sad), it's because the character was kind of relentlessly upbeat about it. Ben tells us that early on he knew he would only have a short time on this planet, and when he gets the news he's bizarrely chipper. (This is, of course, entirely the fault of the book. If you want to read a book about a teenager dying, read the stellar Before I Die.)

This leads me to pontificate briefly (as I've done before) about how an average book can be a good audiobook. I've been discussing our listening with a librarian who is on another audiobook selection committee and I'm pleased (well, sort of) to hear that members of her committee are struggling with this distinction as well. It's easy in our discussions (in-person or online) to talk about the quality of a book -- beautiful writing, fun story, great characters, exciting curriculum enhancement -- but it really has almost nothing to do with our charge as audiobook listeners. We are all about the audio performance. And, Steven Boyer's audio performance of Deadline takes an ordinary, perhaps even a less-than ordinary, novel and makes it the best audiobook it can be. I was amazed.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Absolutely!

Usually I try to avoid second visits to a book (too many books I haven't read to re-read some), but I've (mostly) gotten over that when it comes to listening: An audiobook can often be a completely different literary experience than its print cousin. Mostly, I find that I'm listening after reading, but occasionally it does go the other way. Like "everyone" else, I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian last fall when it came out (I must have gotten the ARC a year ago at ALA), and just this weekend I listened to it. I very much enjoyed it both ways! With the book, you get the delightful cartoon art by Ellen Forney, with the audio, you get author Sherman Alexie reading his own words.

Does "everyone" know that Diary is the journal kept by 14-year-old Arnold Spirit, Jr. as he navigates his first year of high school off the Spokane Indian reservation? Following the advice of the teacher who was on the receiving end of a 30-year-old textbook Junior flung at him, Junior understands that to sustain his hope and optimism he must get off the rez. Braving ignorance and racism from his new schoolmates and the violent resentment at his perceived betrayal from his old ones, Junior triumphs -- on the basketball court, in his studies, and in his sense of self-worth and meaning. At once painfully sad and hilarious, Junior is an amazing young man, and his worldview is an eye-opener.

Alexie reads his own work, and if he were auditioning for another narrator job he would never get hired. He has a loud, grating voice with an odd not-quite lisp; he doesn't "voice" (create different voices for his characters) any parts; he mispronounces words (seck-e-tary), and he speeds up and slows down at places that are not really indicated by the text. But, he's just terrific as Junior. Because Junior is that bundle of imperfections listed above. Junior's all about speech defects and mispronunciations; he's so excited about telling us his story that it all just rushes out of him like the stopper has popped; this is the picture of his world, it doesn't matter how anyone else sounds. Junior's voice as delivered by Alexie was just so immediate, his feelings so apparent. All the overwhelming tragedy and his humorous take on his world came vividly through Alexie's reading.

I shan't pontificate at great length about culturally appropriate readers (because I shall just get into trouble), but I do think that Alexie's Indianness overcame his poor narrative skills. Would we find them acceptable in another reader? I don't think so (although I do fantasize briefly about Evan Adams -- the actor who played the "Sherman Alexie" part in Smoke Signals, the movie version of one of the short stories in his collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven -- reading this). So, why are they appropriate -- perhaps even amazing -- here? Can we make exceptions for culturally appropriate interpretations? Or, are the exceptions part of what makes a recording culturally appropriate? Hmmm ... I think I'm engaging in a tautology, something Junior's geeky white friend Gordy explains to him. And I shall stop before I get more wound up in platitudes. We should have some good discussions about this audiobook.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Start at the beginning

Well, Book 2 of Monster Blood Tattoo isn't the way to introduce yourself to the world of young Rossamünd Bookchild, so go back and read (or listen to) Book 1 before embarking on the 16-hour journey of Lamplighter by D.M. Cornish. Because I do believe you will enjoy it once you get there. I read the first book (Foundling) when it first came out, so steeping myself in the second wasn't so difficult. But I don't think you'd enjoy it as much as I did if you didn't have the background afforded in Book 1.

In Foundling, we meet Rossamünd, abandoned as an infant with his girlish name pinned to his blanket. At 14, he plans to go out into the world -- hoping to be a sailor, or vinegaroon. But his hopes are dashed when someone appears at orphanage informing him that he will be apprenticed to the Lamplighters -- the imperial service charged with keeping the roads of the Half Continent safe for travelers. For in the world of the Half Continent, the humans are barely keeping the indigenous bloodthirsty and terrifying monsters at bay. Foundling tells of his journey -- he gets steered almost disastrously wrong as he sets off -- to the Lamplighter training school.

Lamplighter picks up just a few short weeks after his arrival at Winstermill, the training school. Rossamünd isn't very happy with his lot, but he is a studious, responsible boy, so he tries his hardest. But, being Rossamünd, something again goes terribly wrong and he is sent by people we know to be very bad guys to the most dangerous post in the land: Würmstuhl [sp?]. And it is at Würmstuhl that Rossamünd begins to learn the secrets of his origins -- a secret that could possibly mean his death.

And now we have to wait another two years for the third novel in the trilogy (gnashing of teeth here).

My extremely brief synopses leaves out so much of what makes these great stories. There are fully realized settings (one might say overly realized as he does go on and on), a wide range of characters who are original and interesting (I'd like to know some of their backstories), and the adventures are exciting, occasionally tense and fully satisfying. Foundling never felt like a Book 1, if you know what I mean: It had some introductions to make, yes, but it was also a bang-up adventure.

Each book (I'm guessing about Lamplighter) concludes with a massive glossary (Cornish calls it an Explicarium and what is on his website is just a brief taste of what is in the books) that is chock-full of what I found to be mostly useless information. In fact, plowing through it after reading Foundling became a bit of a bore. Yes, I understand that the author has spent his life constructing this world, but the author shouldn't be sharing everything! In the audio version of Lamplighter, this piece was left off (can you imagine how deadly it would have been to listen to?), and I didn't feel its lack at all.

And so we segue to the audiobook. While I can't say the 16 hours flew by (it did, in fact, take me almost two weeks to get through), I was never bored along the way. I never found myself wishing that the action would speed up; I was willing to work through the set-up because I had confidence in the payoff. The narrator, Humphrey Bower, was very good: He read quickly without sounding rushed and knew how to ratchet up the tension and excitement where appropriate, and when to read calmly and searchingly as Rossamünd tries to find his way in the world. Bower handled the large cast of characters easily, creating memorable voice portraits for both sexes, all classes, and the occasional non-human. I enjoyed his free interpretation of the text, he chuckled when a character chuckled and went "tsk tsk tsk" when the text said "she tsked."

However, I think this is an audiobook for a small cadre of dedicated listeners (librarians perhaps?), as listening to the made-up language can be a formidable task. There are whole sentences in this book where only the articles (oh boy, is that what "the" and "and" are? I am not a grammarian!) are familiar to us. One that springs to mind is where a character's dress is described. When you don't have the Explicarium to flip to, you can truly be wondering what the hell is he talking about? Each chapter begins with a definition from the Explicarium, and -- even then -- when the word finally pops up in the chapter, a listener (me!) may have already forgotten what the meaning is. Yes, I could go back and listen again to the beginning of the chapter ... but in the act of thinking about doing that the story has progressed and I've lost the train of thought. Grrr ... back to the beginning of the track.

I think you see my problem.

So, perhaps eye reading is better for these books. But if you've got a long car trip ahead, I can recommend my approach: start by reading Foundling and then pop Lamplighter in the CD player. (You could try listening to both ... Foundling is half the length of Lamplighter.) The miles will breeze by.

One more thing: Cornish is an illustrator and the books contain his portraits of the cast of characters. I'm mystified by the clown-ish figure next to Rossamünd on the cover. Who is that? In exploring the characters on the website, it looks to be Sallow. But I have no recollection of who Sallow is.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A book in the hand ...

A brief, but pleasurable foray into medieval times is available with the audio version of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by this year's Newbery Medalist, Laura Amy Schlitz. You all (whoever you are) are probably familiar with the delightful creation story for this book: The author is a private school librarian who wanted something to liven up the medieval studies curriculum, and the rest is history! I think it does its job very well as the book is extremely user-friendly and fascinating at the same time. This is the kind of audiobook, though, that I think needs the print book as part of its package (the bane of youth librarians in my system, as these are heck to shelve).

The individual characters are read by a variety of narrators -- mostly familiar to regular listeners of Recorded Books. They read professionally, bringing the young residents to life with humor and compassion and a nice feel for Schlitz's writing. I enjoyed the switch from reader to reader, and particularly liked the two sections that are for two readers (Jacob Ben Salomon and Petronella and the glassblower's opinionated daughters). The narrator who read the non-character sections -- the foreword and the those called "a little background" read with the appropriate amount of instructional tone without being dull or pedantic. In fact, dare I say, she sound like a librarian, with a "you know, you might be interested in this" approach.

There were musical interludes between each portrait, but I soon began to view these as an unwelcome interruption. The publisher chose what sounded like the same snippet from Carmina Burana by Carl Orff over and over. The words were indistinguishable (which is not unsurprising for this piece of music, but pretty darn annoying to listen to repeatedly ... 'what are they singing?'), with some shaking sleigh bells (I think) as percussive accompaniment. And even though the text of Carmina Burana is a medieval one, the music is 19th century. It didn't sound right at all. For great musical accompaniment to a medieval story, find The Door in the Wall.

Alas though, the audio version of this book seemed to just be a collection of unconnected portraits. I never got the feel of the village when I was listening, as I wasn't able to leaf back through the book to remind myself how the (I'm making this up ... I don't remember) miller's son relates to the falconer's son. Some of the portraits worked in pairs and that was obvious, but the bigger connections were missing for me. I do love a map when I read a book (except for the maps I can't actually read like the ones provided in the Monster Blood Tattoo series, but more on that once I finish those last 100 minutes of the 16 hours of Book 2!), and I enjoyed referring to the map that was in the print version (I'm back talking about the medieval village again) a whole bunch. I kept wanting to refer to it while listening. So, I think I would most enjoy listening to this, while holding the book in my hand.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Lazy hazy days ...

Sometimes at Amazing Audiobooks we've got to listen to those books that are on the cusp -- titles that seem to skew young, but might be of interest to those on the younger end of our charge: ages 12 and 13. This is how Bird Lake Moon came to be in my ears this weekend. A gentle, lyrical novel by Kevin Henkes, this book transports you to a serene Wisconsin lake in summer: rickety old cottage, canoeing, card games and the occasional trip to the library. Henkes has such a rich writing style that everything seems familiar, you know exactly where you are. The clouds are high and the lake is shimmering ... well, he can word-paint a whole lot better than I can.

Mitch Sinclair is spending the summer with his mother and his crotchety grandparents at latter's cottage on Bird Lake. Mitch's father has left his family to be with another woman. Mitch is disturbed, but can't seem to articulate his feelings and -- since the story is from his perspective -- the adults around him don't seem to care. He fantasizes about moving to the next-door cottage with his mom, when the cottage's owners show up: A seemingly intact family of four, plus friendly dog. What he doesn't know is that this family is bereft as well: They are visiting their cottage for the first time in eight years, for the first time since their eldest child drowned in Bird Lake.

Mitch engages in a bit of trespass and minor property damage that leads the family's surviving son, Spencer, to think that his brother is haunting the cottage, but Spencer doesn't share his beliefs with his family. In another act where Mitch can't quite explain to himself why he's done it, he frees the family dog, but immediately afterward he goes on a bike ride to find and return him. "Finding" the dog introduces him to Spencer's family, and soon Mitch's summer is looking a little brighter. The boys, along with younger sister Lolly, become friends, and Mitch is welcomed into the family circle. But, he feels haunted by his act and struggles with how to explain it to his new friend.

And that's pretty much all there is to this book. It's beautifully written and is probably perfect for a very small subset of "sensitive" readers who enjoy family stories where nothing much happens. I was talking with a colleague about it this morning, as we are including it on a list of recommended titles for "literature circles" [i.e., book discussion groups] because I think there's a lot in there to talk about. At the same time, of course, you run the risk of everyone in the bookgroup hating the book ... Can you say Newbery Medal?

The audiobook is no great shakes, I'm afraid. The narrator is Oliver Wyman who appears to have a significant number of adult titles under his belt. He reads in a steady, moderate way that seems to never vary -- every sentence, every paragraph has the same rhythm. His characterizations were weak: The boys are high and thin-voiced with the occasional whine, the mothers high and whispery, and the grandparents sound like young people sound like when they are trying to sound old. Little sister Lolly alternates between a baby-ish delivery and these weird personae (English accent, old lady, etc.) that she puts on. Only the dads sound like real people, and they bear an astonishing resemblance to the reader's narrator voice. Wyman is also one of those readers who emotes using audible intakes of breath, but he does it too frequently so the listener soon can't tell what is important and what is just a gasp for air.

As for the age-appropriateness level, I certainly can see 7th and 8th graders reading this, but I don't think they would enjoy it as much as elementary school readers. The cover might scare them away as well ... although it is a lovely, evocative cover.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Dark is rising ...

As chair of Amazing Audiobooks, I can't keep all the "good" ones for myself, so I dutifully parceled out the fourth installment of The Last Apprentice to a committee member new to the series, knowing that she could bring fresh eyes that I no longer have for these books. But I listened to it anyway (even though I have other things I should be listening to ...), and loved it!

When we last met Tom, Alice and the Spook, they were recovering from their encounter with the apprentice gone bad and the Golgoth. There's no rest for the Spook, though, because they learn that three clans of witches are gathering -- creating a coven -- with the purpose of raising the Fiend (or the devil himself) to wreak havoc throughout the county. In addition, there are some other evil doings underway including a mysterious witch (whose name was never quite clear to me -- Remaulda?) who uses scissors to kill and the strange little creature she spirits about under her skirts. There are also some friendly vampire Lamias, who turn out to be Tom's aunts. Along the way, the contents of the trunks that Tom's Mam left him (in Book 2) are revealed, and we -- and Tom -- glean a few more clues about Mam.

Very exciting stuff! Very well-narrated by Christopher Evan Welch. I really enjoy the distinct characterizations he's created for that odd trio: Tom, Alice and the Spook. He's equally skilled at voicing the creatures of the dark -- they are never cariacatures, and they are very, very scary. I think these books get better.

My colleagues who haven't read them all, though, are deeply confused, and I concur that you can't dip into this series in the middle. Each book references the ones previous, and assumes the reader's familiarity with them. So, can we add them to our list of Amazing Audiobooks if they can't "stand alone?" Books 1 and 2 are already on one year's list -- can they be included because of that? Hmmm ... food for discussion.

Oh, and did you see that a movie of the first book is being made? It's probably not any good ...

Monday, June 2, 2008

Will-ing and wanting

It's my year for Shakespeare, I guess (Enter Three Witches, Something Rotten), but this novel is Shakespearean only by name. Spanking Shakespeare (which can refer to masturbation, yes?), by Jake Wizner, is a school story for the high school set. Others on my committee found it hilarious, but I found it just mildly entertaining and eventually, fairly predictable and repetitious. It's audio version wasn't particularly outstanding either.

Shakespeare Shapiro enters his last year in high school hoping to win the prestigious award for the best memoir written by the senior class. All seniors work on this document over the course of the academic year. Shakespeare is a hard-luck case with a stupid name, an embarrassing family, no luck with the opposite sex, and an obsession with getting laid -- nothing atypical here. Well, except perhaps for the name. His parents named their other son Ghandi and the family dog is saddled with Onomatopoeia. But he considers himself an excellent writer and is very motivated to write his memoir, which he calls 17 Down (and if there was an explanation for this title, I missed it in the listening).

The novel consists of Shakespeare's memoir chapters, alternating with those describing his adventures as a high school senior. His memoir is pretty much one story of abject humiliation (usually, but not exclusively, involving his sexual desires) after another that he relates to us in a self-deprecating, humorous way that doesn't disguise his often breaking heart. As he makes his way through his senior year, he finds himself in equally funny situations involving using a bong for a quick marijuana high (neatly narrated in a woozy way), having a boner and trying to find a prom date during a Passover seder and -- most movingly -- sharing his memoir with a quiet girl who makes his life look like a picnic. Shakespeare is a very appealing character and his adventures would amuse fans of David Lubar or Gordon Korman, those that are ready to move on to more scatalogical subjects, that is.

But narrator Mike Chamberlain didn't send me as Shakespeare. He just seemed to be reading for yuks, I got no sense of his probing any of Shakespeare's underlying fears or his compassion for Charlotte, his new girl friend. His parents were inconsistently voiced New Yawk-ers, but everyone else spoke in pretty much the same way. He had some opportunities to produce some over-the-top interpretations (sex therapist, crazy grandmother, stereotypically alpha girls and vacant men), but he just read the characters without fuss. I did enjoy the way he conducted Shakespeare's conversations: the one that he's actually having and the one that he'd like to be having. The distinction was cleverly and naturally done.

A nominated title, but not amazing to me.