Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Story of yet another girl

Welcome to the dog days of summer, where one can no longer think of witty titles for one's blog posts. Actually, I found Frankie Landau-Banks to be a whole lot more interesting that the previously mentioned girl. In E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, the title character is a returning sophomore at an elite boarding school, Alabaster Prep. Only the cool crowd thinks she is a new arrival, because over the summer Frankie blossomed into a beauty and now the alpha boys actually see her. Only, they don't see her, not really. She's just a pretty decoration to distract them in the moments between their important manly activities. It takes Frankie a little while to figure this out. But when she tries to become one of the boys -- clearly outdoing them in their manly activities -- they ... well, I don't want to give it away.

Frankie learns that her dreamy, senior boyfriend Matthew Livingston is a member of the secret society, The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds (note the dog on the sealing wax), which has been pranking Alabaster Prep for over 50 years. Another senior, Alessandro (Alpha) Tesorieri, is the head dawg of the Loyal Order, but when he spends a weekend incommunicado at a yoga retreat with his needy mother, Frankie moves in. She creates a gmail account: the.alpha.dog [dawg?] and sets the Hounds loose. Her pranks are ingenious, but they always have a purpose: a salad bar in the cafeteria, all-school meetings moved to the theatre building, not the chapel. Upon Alpha's return, he attempts to find out whose usurping him, but Frankie eludes him; and Alpha can't let the other Hounds know that he's not in charge.

Frankie is so clever, so clearly superior to any of the Basset Hounds, that as a reader you are frustrated by her continued starry eyes over Matthew. Dump him, Frankie! You deserve so much more. I listened to this so quickly because -- like Alpha -- I was so off-balance. I was never quite sure where the story was going. What was she going to do next? It continued to surprise me up until the end. An extremely satisfying story.

The audiobook never made it to the high standard set by the book, alas. While the reader -- Tanya Eby Sirois -- was adequate, she never quite made the story sing. There is an extremely omnisicient narrator in this story, which Sirois read in a completely acceptable way -- it was in no way difficult to listen to. On the other hand, she gave Frankie an almost babyish delivery that was slightly offputting. Her family persists in calling Frankie Bunny Rabbit, but this interpretation seemed extreme.

Sirois also didn't seem to be the most careful of readers (although I can't say for certain that these errors I heard were not taken straight from the text) -- for example, she read Silicon Valley as if she was referring to enhanced female anatomy, something that would have sent Frankie into gales of laughter (as it did me). Of course, this was ultimately the fault of the editing group. Maybe they didn't catch it until the reader was long gone from the studio. However, when the audio expert, Mary Burkey, was talking to my committee at ALA, she cautioned us to think critically about those errors that take us right out of the story. Alas, the valley of silicone did that for me.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Story of another girl

Let me say straight out: I hate George Bush (I've worn my anti-W button on my backpack for eight long years until it fell off somewhere between Boston and Portland last week). I am ill-disposed to appreciate anything springing from his loins ('cause that's where his brain is, right?), but then I remember Laura ... the librarian. A seemingly smart woman married to an idiot (it's not like that hasn't happened before). After listening to Ana's Story: A Journey of Hope, I can say that perhaps Laura was a thankfully greater influence on her daughters than George. At least her heart is in the right place.

Jenna Bush met Ana -- a 17-year-old Panamanian woman with an infant daughter and a case of HIV -- while she was working for UNICEF. Ana was infected at birth by her mother -- who also infected her father; orphaned, she moved in with a grandmother, whose boyfriend sexually abused her and her younger sister Isabel. Exposing this abuse, Ana finds herself in a "reform center," but soon is sent to live in a hogar (I'm interpreting this as a hostel) for people with HIV/AIDS. There, she falls in love with a boy who fathers her daughter. Despite this story of unrelenting tragedy, Jenna connected wtih Ana's spirit and resiliency, and came home and wrote her biography.

This is not great literature -- the metaphors appear frequently, and always with a clunk. (And, I'm sorry I didn't write any of them down, but I was walking during most of my listening on this one.) But Jenna tells Ana's story with conviction, and you can't deny the power of her life's events.

Jenna narrates her book. And, unlike her father, she doesn't sound like an uneducated rube. Jenna has a pleasantly husky voice, with hints of her Texas origins (I guess because she is authentically Texan, she doesn't have that totally faky drawl that her father does ... OK that's the last dig, I promise). She reads with sincerity and a passion for her subject, but overdoes the emphasis -- every word is not that important. When she got to the moments of true drama and tragedy -- when she faces the birth of her possibly infected daughter as her boyfriend grows sicker -- she just sounded melodramatic. I also found her occasional Spanish to be dodgy, sometimes she sounded authentic, other times it really dinged the ear.

The audio includes a letter from the author encouraging teen activism, and the packaging said that the CD was enhanced with some printable materials. An interview with her was fairly incoherent, both on her behalf as well as her interviewer --neither of whom sounded particularly prepared (there were lots of "um"s and pauses). Still, it's an important story and I appreciate that it's available in several media for consumption.

Dear diary

I admit to some curiosity about Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a book I saw in a lot of elementary boys' hands this past school year. Having listened to it, I'm pretty darn sure that I missed the true point of this book -- since it's got pictures, right? This is the journal of young Greg Heffley's first year of middle school -- the place rightfully feared by all 11- and 12-year-olds. Greg is wimpy, but he doesn't let that stop him. The diary -- oops, journal -- entries are humorous, and heavy on the grossology side. It all seemed perfect for its age group and identified gender -- hence its frequent library sightings. Since I'm no longer a middle schooler and not a boy, I can live without seeking out the print version to look at the pictures. But at least I can talk knowledgeably about it if asked.

Not particularly surprisingly, it doesn't do so well as an audiobook. And not just because it's missing its drawings -- after all, I don't know what I'm missing. But the book is episodic, the journal entries are brief, and it felt very choppy. I wanted a little more narrative flow. Narrator Ramon deOcampo tried hard -- he read with a nice combo of naivete and know-it-all-ness -- but he really couldn't overcome the material.

Party like it's 1989

The Year Nick McGowan Came to Stay by Rebecca Sparrow inexplicably takes place in 1989. Do you think the author liked the soundtrack of the late 80s? There are a lot of references to music in this short novel from Australia. Rachel is headed into her senior year with the usual set of issues for a 17-year-old: Clueless parents, glamorous older (?) sister, no boyfriend, and that certain anxiousness that comes from knowing that you're coming to the end of something. On the other hand, she's a good student, she has a good job -- with the intention of getting better at it, and some wacky, but supportive friends. But then, the notorious -- and good-looking -- Nick McGowan gets kicked out of his prep school and Rachel's parents offer him a room so he can finish up his high school career.

Rachel was already obsessed with Nick (although, in my listening, I missed the plot point of how she originally knew him and why he was going to school in a town where his parents don't live ...), so living so close to him may cause her carefully constructed life to come crashing down about her ears. Nick's got a secret ... and Rachel is going to find out what it is, even if it means eavesdropping on phone calls and rifling through his drawers.

This was a briefly enjoyable, and extemely minor piece of fictional fluff that was narrated by the Australian-sounding Tamara Lovatt-Smith. She read with the right amount of humor for the self-doubting and -deprecating Rachel. But everyone else in the story also sounded like Rachel, as did the narrative portions of the book. I can hear her voice as a narrator, but now that I think back on it, there was simply no variation in her reading style. It all sounded the same to me. With the exception of the Australian accent, this might be more fun in print. It's a nice beach-type book, definitely a cut above the trashy teen stuff of the Gossip Girls and their ilk.

But there was that whole 1989 setting. Pop references abounded: Magnum, P.I., Simon and Simon, Phil Collins, the Ramones (which I can never hear about now without thinking of King Dork and "I wanna ramone you"), the Beach Boys. All of which I think would be familiar to today's teens, but still ... why? There were a couple times in the story when dialogue or terminology brought me right out of the 80s -- I think the author used "hooked up," but I could be confusing this with the book I started this morning; the story would have worked equally well in a fully contemporary setting. Well, you're supposed to write what you know ...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Fool for love

Well, it wasn't until Maxwell Caulfield starting narrating them, that I realized how much I enjoy a good jester story. Sebastian Darke: Prince of Fools is the second novel featuring a jester that he has narrated; the first being one of last-year's favorites, Mimus. Alas, this year's entry comes a far second to Mimus, but I can't deny the good time I had listening to Caulfield's sexy, husky voice in my ears for eight hours.

In this book -- the first in a trilogy by Philip Caveney -- Sebastian has inherited the jester business from his late father, and he has left his home and his elf mother (Sebastian is a "breed:" half human/half elf) to seek his fortune in the neighboring kingdom of Keladon. He is accompanied by the family's smartass speaking buffalope, Max, who tells him that he is not a very good jester. Along their journey, they encounter Cornelius Drummel, an extremely small adult soldier whose size belies his courage and his skills. In short order, they rescue a damsel in distress, who turns out to be Princess Kerin of Keladon. How handy! Things are looking up for Sebastian.

Kerin's uncle is King of Keladon, but he is just holding the position until Kerin turns 18, in one year's time. But Uncle Septimus doesn't want to give up the throne, and has committed a number of dastardly crimes in order to stay there. The latest is the foiled attack on Princess Kerin. Her traveling companions soon learn of the plot and -- after some danger -- well, I don't want to give it away! Suffice to say that those who practice evil are punished.

I'm sure that Listening Library hired Maxwell Caulfield to narrate this book because they liked his work on Mimus as much as I did. With the exception of the jester theme, Sebastian Darke is very different from Mimus: The former is kind of jokey and predictable, with a lot of gratuitous violence. There's none of the character development that got you so invested in Mimus and Prince Florin -- their fates were genuinely tragic. Frankly, I just didn't like this book much.

But Caulfield more than fulfills the promise that he demonstrated in reading Mimus. He is really a terrific narrator -- the kind you'll pretty much listen to whatever he reads. In Sebastian Darke, Caulfield creates a humorous, distinctive cast of characters: naive Sebastian, the martial and deep-voiced Cornelius, evil King Septimus (every once in awhile I heard a hint of the evil king in Mimus), sweet yet strong Kerin, the witchy Magda (Septimus' partner-in-crime), and various soldiers and townspeople. In this audiobook, Caulfield's skills don't end with humans: He reads Max the buffalope with a dopey charm, and even voices non-speaking buffalopes and the creatures called equines.

He keeps the pace going -- providing plenty of exciting (well, sort of exciting) battle sequences as well as a few tender love scenes. Overall, though, it's his "regular" voice -- the one he uses to read the narrative as well as Sebastian -- that is so very pleasant to listen to. It's slightly husky and warm ... well, it's kind of like syrup in your ears (in a good way). I hope that his next narrative outing will be something completely different.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The mystique of Mistik

The novel Mistik Lake by Martha Brooks was blessedly short -- clocking in at a little over four hours. A great deal has been crammed into those four hours: teenage sex, teenage pregnancy, lesbianism, mental illness, infidelity, illegitimacy, motherlessness, and a spectacular car crash into the eponymous frozen lake. I did get the feeling that there was entirely too much Scandinavian (mainly Icelandic ... is Iceland part of Scandinavia?) inbreeding in this tiny Manitoban town.

Odella is the oldest of three sisters raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her mother, Sally -- sole survivor of that car crash when she was a teenager -- was raised in the small town of Mistik Lake, but her family moved to Winnipeg shortly after the accident. Odella's mother continued to spend summers at Mistik Lake at her great aunt Gloria's (the aforementioned lesbian -- closeted to her family) cottage. Sally was considered to be a wild girl by all who lived there, but she married when she was just 20 and moved permanently to Winnipeg with her architect husband, and had those three daughters. When Odella is 15, Sally leaves her family for an Icelandic documentary filmmaker, and, eventually returns with him to Iceland. The summer that Odella finishes high school, she finds herself a job and a cute boyfriend in Mistik Lake --decisions that force many, many family secrets to the surface.

This book is barely 200 pages long. I found most of the secrets to be telegraphed long before they were revealed, and as they began to pile up, it began to feel utterly ridiculous. Kind of shockingly so, as Brooks is a terrific writer who wrote the most enjoyable True Confessions of a Heartless Girl a few years ago. I thought the narrator, Katie MacNichol, attempted to hold all the melodrama at bay -- as she chose to read with minimal drama and variety. There were just slight voicing differences for some characters, but she rarely made significant changes in pace and emotion.

Maybe she thought it needed to be toned down, but ultimately it made for a pretty dull listen. Of course, if she had made the choice to pull out all the stops, it would have been eye-rollingly bad. I find it interesting that I'm often complaining (well, not complaining) that long, involved narratives don't make for the best audiobooks. Here I am complaining about the exact opposite of that kind of book. Sometimes, there's just no pleasing me!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

W-a-t-e-r!

Helen Keller was kind of a monumental figure during my younger school years. I wonder if it was because she was the only historical figure I remember learning about who was female? Regardless, that moment when Annie Sullivan makes that connection over the water pump with her deaf/blind pupil, Helen Keller, is powerful enough that I have no difficulty recalling it. In Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller author Sarah Miller re-enacts the days leading up to that moment.

Told from Annie's point-of-view, the book starts with 21-year-old Annie's arrival at the Keller household in Alabama in 1887. Appalled at first by Helen's rule over an indulgent household and finding her charge difficult to like, Annie is slowly won over by the obviously bright girl, and -- in just about a month -- they have that breakthrough at the pump. I enjoyed the way Miller made you see Helen through Annie's eyes; and that Annie was lonely, exhausted, and often not very pleasant. There are no heroic, unflawed people in this story.

It's read by Terry Donnelly, who narrates with a pleasant Irish lilt as Annie. She's chosen to read the story quite slowly, with a deliberate, measured pace. Donnelly's also required to read as a number of Southerners, black and white; and very occasionally as Helen. Her wealthy Southerners have the right sound of affected Englishness; she's a little weaker portraying the African-American servants of the household. I admired her narrative choices for Helen -- not afraid to grunt and use impaired speech. She even had cause to sing an Irish tune or two in the course of the novel.

However, I didn't really enjoy this. Is it that I knew the "end?" And that everything that took place before the end (the bulk of the novel) seemed to blend into one long episode of Annie battling Helen, of Annie finger-signing words into Helen's palm, of Annie experiencing loneliness and self-doubt. Donnelly's choice to read the story so slowly exacerbated this sensation. It seemed almost as if she were taking a full second between each sentence. Come on, already ... get to the water pump! I was bored. And then, when you get to the pump, it's over.

The book includes an afterword that is inexplicably left out of the audiobook. I know this because I had the book in my hands on Friday, looking at the pictures that accompany it. If I'd known I wasn't going to get it in the audio version, I would have read it! I listened to this on cassette tape and there was plenty of room at the end of the last tape to include it.

Sometimes I just don't get publishers ...

Unaccustomed to literary fiction

I'm unaccustomed to literary fiction because I don't read it very often. But I do appreciate it when I do, as I finished Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth with a satisfied sigh this morning. This book was in a batch of adult audiobooks (which always sounds like they are rated X ... audiobooks for adult listeners) that was delivered and divvied up among the committee. I took this one, knowing full well that it probably wasn't going to be one with much teen interest. Most of the characters are adults with the angst associated with marriage and families, and Lahiri's adults have the added angst of cultural hyphenation, as all her characters are Indian-Americans. Still, it was pure pleasure to indulge in. The short stories in this collection are tiny gems of literature -- I love the way the elements slipped so effortlessly and enjoyably into place.

The stories were read by two Indian-American (or perhaps not American?) readers: Sarita Choudhury and Ajay Naidu. Each read stories -- or the parts of stories -- where the narrator or perspective was female or male. I was glad of this production decision. They each read with what sounded to me as the speech patterns of people who grew up with parents who spoke Indian-accented English; and could slip easily into that accent, or one of white American or British speakers as well. Each had an extremely pleasant speaking voice to listen to. Swedish and Italian proved a little more elusive, but not disturbingly so. On the other hand, Naidu seemed to be reading his stories with an overwhelming emphasis -- every word was pounded in, although the emphasis did vary. While I enjoyed the stories he was reading, his approach did become a little tiresome to listen to.

It's kind of hard not to recommend listening, though (although I don't recommend this for our list): Letting Lahiri's beautiful prose wash over you as it is read by people that you assume sound like her. The cultural appropriateness outweighs the faults of the narrator, I think. Much like Sherman Alexie.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Adoring review

OK ... I raced through the audio version of this amazing book! I just needed to reach the end. However I don't want to spoil the unfolding story for anyone, so ... briefly, The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson introduces us to 17-year-old Jenna just after she's woken from an 18-month coma following a terrible car accident. Her family has moved her from Boston to a quiet California coastal town, and that's just the beginning of what seems not quite right to her. She's got memory loss, but only about certain things. Her adored and adoring grandmother seems distant and her control-freak mother even more managing. What Jenna finds out is truly chilling, but also thought-provoking, moving and filled with tension. It is a terrific book.

The audiobook meets this great story and takes it to another level. The reader is an actress named Jenna Lamia, who I've actually seen as a performer (as well as listened to). I always perk up when I recognize a narrator's name in TV or movie credits ... oh, that's what she looks like! I remember her from Oz. Digression aside, she really does a fine job of narrating Jenna Fox. She has a girlish, whispery voice that she uses to great effect, but she's not afraid to pull out some volume, harshness, and maturity when the book calls for it. Lamia is particularly skilled at distinguishing between Jenna, her mother, Clare (Claire?) -- all uptight and controlling, and her grandmother, Lily -- aged (but not fakey sounding) but sharp-tongued and acid. In addition, the story's men and boys sounded like real people.

But where she (and the story) really clicked for me was how she patiently ratcheted up the tension -- we are learning about her missing months as she does. (There was one point in the story that I thought I was ahead of her, but it turned out that I was wrong.) And, as we are never quite sure how Jenna is going to react to what she finds out, Lamia keeps that uncertainty palpable as she varies her reading pace, demonstrates Jenna's wide range of emotions through her voice, and consistently maintains the other characters she's created.

I've heard her read two other audiobooks, one of which was the fine Accidents of Nature by Harriet McBryde Johnson (omg, who died last month!), which went on our 2007 list of audiobooks (I didn't start blogging until last year). Lamia created another standout performance, this time of a disabled teenager -- whose internal conversations sounded just like any girl born without birth defects, but whose actual dialogue seemed to me to accurately reflect her cerebral palsy. Her interpretation took that book to a completely different literary experience.

Oops, got a little sidetracked. Jenna Fox was published by Macmillan Audio, a new (?) audiobook publisher ... well, new to us. One area for improvement: At the end of the novel was a brief interview with the author. Alas, no one introduced this segment, the interviewer didn't identify herself or the author, and the interview clearly took place over a telephone and sounded terrible. While I still loved the novel and the audio interpretation, it did bring me down quite a bit after the high of finishing the story. It just seemed so unpolished compared to what had come before.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Somewhat a-peeling

Cranky library catalog Syndetics (the people who bring you book covers and journal reviews) didn't cooperate with the cover of Peeled, so let's see what a neighboring library's cover looks like: A bit small, but it will do.

This is another of Joan Bauer's charming, accessible novels about smart, (mostly) confident teen girls. Hildy Biddle (who must be named after Hildy Johnson, yes?) is trying to become an ace reporter on her school newspaper, The Core, following in her late father's footsteps. The high schoolers come across some mysterious doings in their apple-growing community, made even more bizarre by the coverage by the local newspaper -- which doesn't seem all that interested in pursuing the story of the eerie events. Hildy and her team do, though, and begin to uncover unscrupulous activities by real estate developers along with some dubious journalistic ethics. As The Core gets closer, they are shut down by the school administration, but our intrepid reporters won't be stopped: They start an underground paper, Peeled, and end up saving the day ... renewing a sense of small-town community in the bargain.

The narrator is Kathe Mazur (pronounced Kay-ta) and two years ago I listened to her read another Joan Bauer book, Best Foot Forward. I'm not at work today, so I can't check out what I said about her then ... suffice to say, I'm curious. Because I'm not that enamoured of her reading style, yet I can hear that she knows how to portray the smart, spunky Bauer heroine believably and, yes, appealingly. She just didn't seem that strong in her interpretations of the other characters: There were the boys, and the girls and the adults -- interchangeable, indistinguishable, and not nearly as interesting as Hildy. As a result, I had trouble remembering when I'd been introduced to the supporting cast and what they were doing in the story at that particular moment.

Mazur also sounds like there's something else in her mouth besides her teeth, tongue and palate -- she sounds "gluey." Despite this, I can definitely see the appeal of the story -- it is simple, yet satisfying. However, not much about this audiobook stood out for me, despite its nomination, I can't call it amazing.

For more audiobook terminology, check out this article by Mary Burkey. At ALA, Mary gave our committee an informative and inspiring presentation about critical listening. All of us are now seeking "the balance" between story and production, and identifying what it is that puts an audiobook out of balance. We'll probably be saying that more now, for me, it's replaced the tired "amazing." Mary is so knowledgeable about audiobooks: Here's her blog: Audiobooker.

Deanna's story

A friend recommended Story of a Girl when it was published last year (before the National Book Award nominations ... yikes, my third audio NBA in nearly as many books!) and in reading I really enjoyed the original voice of Deanna Lambert as created by Sara Zarr. I'm waiting for the audio version of Sweethearts, which is coming later this year? On the other hand, maybe I'm not waiting because I wasn't wild about the author's reading of her own book (and she's reading Sweethearts too). Just to be clear, Zarr read professionally, she has a lovely sounding voice (no odd tics like Sherman Alexie), she paced herself well, it was obvious that she was very confident and familiar with Deanna and her story.

Deanna has been known as the town skank ever since her father found her having sex with an older boy when she was 13 years old. At 17, though, Deanna has decided that it's time to take back her story and tell it properly. Her journey is a powerful one: She makes mistakes, she misjudges those around her, but she learns to move on. It's uplifting in a very honest way (not in a manipulative, cheesy, dare-I-say inspirational way).

I think I wanted more from the reader: I heard Zarr reading in that way that authors do when they are reading their work at libraries and bookstores, almost as if they are afraid of emoting -- because they are writers, not actors. They choose a deliberate near-monotone, perhaps they think their words are enough. Audiobook listeners want more -- we want to hear rage and elation and everything in between (is there much between rage and elation?). We're OK without narrator pyrotechnics, we don't need a unique voice for every character, but I think we do want character! I found Zarr's reading just a bit too subdued. While thinking this, I believe I did hear a narrator's decision: At the beginning of the novel, Deanna is nothing, she has closed herself down. Zarr's monotone could be Deanna. Yet, as Deanna reclaims her story, I did hear more from Zarr -- her reading was tinged with more emotion. I got the faintest hint of that deservedly angry young woman, ready to move on with her story.

I sit firmly on the fence here, waiting for my colleagues to convince me!