Thursday, August 28, 2008

Up, up and away

I think I've said this before here, but I'm not fond of revisiting books I've already read in the audio format (or vice versa). I think I've also said that when I do, I'm rarely disappointed (unless I hated the book, of course), so perhaps I shall stop saying it now. Getting to Skybreaker more than two-and-a-half years after reading it wasn't really a chore. Kenneth Oppel's books about young Matt Cruse are terrific adventures -- he's fully created an original universe with enough familiarity to be charming and added a deliciously suspenseful adventure peopled with characters we like to be around. A pretty perfect package. I'm not alone: Skybreaker's prequel, Airborn, was a Printz Honor and the audio version was on both the Selected Audiobooks and Children's Notable Recordings lists. (Do you think ALA's new website is going to kill all my links? Arghh...) According to the author's website, the third Matt Cruse adventure is coming in January: Starclimber. Hmmm, read it or wait to listen?

In Skybreaker, Matt Cruse finds himself off on a dangerous adventure when he should be concentrating on his Airschool Academy studies. But, he loves the wealthy Kate de Vries and feels the need to get rich and prove himself to her -- two opportunities that present themselves on the journey of the airship Skybreaker to salvage the Hyperion. The Hyperion -- believed to be full of one man's private fortune -- disappeared 40 years ago. But Matt was on a training mission when it was located high up in the oxygen-deprived atmosphere ... and now he's the only person who knows precisely where it can be found. Alas, he and Kate are not the only ones who want to get to the Hyperion, and once they arrive what they find on the vessel is equally dangerous as those who are pursuing them.

I'm a pretty fast reader, and so listening often forces me to slow down (although it also makes it possible to "read" during times when one can't actually be holding a book so I've found this to be pretty much a wash). And when I must slow down and listen to an exciting, suspenseful story like Skybreaker, there's something tingly/scary in letting the plot play out at someone else's pace. (Listening to something equally as long but not as plot-driven, like Lock and Key, can be less enjoyable.) The forward momentum of the story never lagged and when Matt and Kate began their game of cat and mouse aboard the Hyperion, well, I was listening well into the wee hours last night!

This is a Full Cast Audio production, with a voice actor named David Kelly taking the lead as the narrator Matt. The large cast sounds natural (for the most part) and each infuses their characters with personality that makes keeping track of dialogue and plot developments a breeze. There are several Sherpa characters in this story, and I believe that the actors reading those parts were also from Nepal. At any rate, they sounded both authentic and understandable to me. The four main characters -- Matt and Kate, along with the brash Han-Solo-like Hal Slater and mysterious daughter-of-pirates Nadira -- are original voice portrayals that were created from the character cues provided in the text. No one produced a one-note character and there were few actorly deliveries.

I did find Kelly's Matt to be the weakest performance, however. And I think that's a bit of a drawback when he plays such an important role in the book. He seemed to be reading every single line in an effortful attempt to portray wide-eyed innocence. He was breathless and astonished with every utterance. I concur that this is Matt's character (he's a curious observer of the world around him and a serious self-doubter), and towards the end of the book -- when Matt needs to take command in order to rescue the others -- Kelly did lose some of his wonder and added a bit of backbone. But it came almost too late. This narrative approach, coupled with some exaggerated vowel pronuciations that were meant to ... be youthful, naive? but really sounded like I-am-acting-now, brought the entire production down for me.

In Mary Burkey's image of the perfect balance of production and story, Kelly's performance is checked by the terrific tale that is Skybreaker. It'll probably be on our list come January 2009.

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