Sunday, September 28, 2008

da Vinci lite

Rick Riordan is coming to speak at my library in a couple of weeks. I'm almost caught up with Percy Jackson, but when the audio version of the first book in The 39 Clues came my way, I spent the weekend in power listening mode. This title -- The Maze of Bones -- is really more for the elementary school set, and now I can say that on behalf of the committee. The new series (and since they got through just two clues in this story I guess it'll be going on for awhile) will be written by several authors and has an extensive online component and playing/trading (?) cards and, well ... it's much, much more than just a book.

Although the book worked fine by itself for me. At the death (or is she?) of their beloved grandmother, two orphaned siblings, Amy and Dan, join a number of less savoury members of their extended family -- the Cahills -- in embarking on a competitive quest for the eponymous clues. Solving the clues will change the world forever (or some such) and bring the winner unimagined wealth and power. It doesn't look like Amy and Dan (along with their helpful au pair Nelly) can succeed against their spying and double-crossing relatives, but their intelligence and spunk wins out. Amy's a reader and Dan's a whiz with numbers and other puzzles, and so they beat back all comers in a mad race from Boston to Philadelphia to Paris in the footsteps of their "ancestor" Benjamin Franklin. And, with Clue #2 clutched in their hands, they head off to Vienna and the world of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

As Amy and Dan were racing from cemetery to the catacombs to an obscure French church I did get a vague sense of da Vinci Code deja vu. But that's OK ... I enjoyed that book while I was reading it, and I enjoyed The Maze of Bones as well. It was read by David Pittu, and he had to pour on a bunch of accents (English, Russian, Spanish, Korean as well as patrician Massachusetts). He switched between them with aplomb, but they never sounded exactly right. He seemed most comfortable in a Scottish accent that came on at the very end of the book -- a part of the audiobook that may have been the "exclusive bonus materials" promised on the cover. I did find that he portrayed girls and women naturally; there was one male speaker with an English accent who sounded very female to me (and pretty swishy actually) and I couldn't distinguish between that character and his sister. What seemed glaringly missing though, was any sense of excitement in his reading. Amy and Dan have a number of (fairly) thrilling escapes in this story, but you'd never have known it listening to it. Nothing changed in the exciting parts: Not louder, not faster, not more tense. I thought he could have ramped it up a little bit.

According to Amazon.com (the official website tells me that I have to download a flash upgrade -- which I don't want to do -- but it probably says it there too) Book 2 is coming out in December and is authored by Gordon Korman. Scholastic is creating its own Stratemeyer Syndicate; at least it lets the authors use their own names.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Birds in shoes

I love Jim Dale. I think I've said that more than once in this blog. But I think it might be time to take a lengthy vacation from Jim. As I listened to him read the one-hour production of The Shoe Bird, I didn't hear Antonio the parrot, Gloria the goose, or Mickey the mockingbird. I heard Dumbledore, Mrs. Weasley and Dobby the house elf. Sigh.

Based on a short story by the wonderful Eudora Welty, The Shoe Bird tells of the day that Antonio the parrot -- resident of a shoe store -- heard some kid say "Shoes are for the birds." He invites all his feathered friends to come get some shoes and a bit of trouble ensues. This is a fancy production -- with orchestra and children's chorus along with the illustrious Mr. Dale. I'm not even sure that it qualifies as an audiobook, but as its intended audience is not teenagers, it's not something that I have to deal with. Evidently, the Seattle Symphony has already performed this, and another performance -- featuring Jim Dale -- is scheduled for November 1.

The performance on CD was quite delightful to listen to. Dale was expansive and creative (although all his characterizations sound like retreads to me), the young singers sounded lovely and beautifully rehearsed. It's a funny little story, and the whole thing reminded me of Leonard Bernstein and Peter and the Wolf, which was a staple of my audio childhood. And since I can still remember the sound of the oboe as the duck and Bernstein's husky and confiding narration, it certainly can't hurt any child today to have a similar experience. Perhaps the Children's Notable Recordings committee will vote it onto their list.

He's flying ...

I seem to be listening to more (published for) adult audiobooks than teen lately. I'm glad that publishers are looking critically at their lists to find stuff that they know will have teen appeal. It's often harder to dismiss these as out of age range than the younger stuff ... since, of course, there are teens who exclusively read adult material. This is perhaps the hardest thing that I have to do day-to-day in my job: Try to get into the head of a teenager to figure out if the "adult" subject matter will be of interest to them. Sherman Alexie's Flight seemed like one that got right into a teenager's frame of reference ... and then it seemed to go terribly wrong.

This magic realist (am I using that term correctly?) story tells of 15-year-old Zits -- a half-Indian boy who has unhappily traveled the foster-care road since the death of his mother when he was four (or six? I thought I heard both). He meets a young man named Justice in juvie one night, and eventually makes his way to live with him in an abandoned Seattle warehouse. Justice is very interested in the ghost dance, which -- as I understood it in this story -- promised that every white person killed by a Native American would bring back another Native American from the dead. In this context, Justice convinces Zits to shoot up a bank. After the massacre -- just as Zits is shot in the head -- he transports into another body. Eventually, Zits figures out that he is occupying the body of a white FBI officer in the 1960s (?) who is investigating possible Native American terrorism. Zits makes his way into several other bodies before he makes his way back to his own at the bank ... before he started shooting.

The metaphor of flight occurs frequently in this short novel (not even five hours). And when Alexie starts Zits on his journey, he is spot on as a bright, troubled 15-year-old (definitely a cousin to Junior Spirit) and equally brilliant in describing the confusion and interest that a 15-year-old would take in being in someone else's body. But eventually, those visits (always to adults) become wrapped up in the problems of the adults (marital, substance abuse, middle-age ennui, etc.), and Zits' viewpoint gets lost. And when we do get back to Zits in his own body, the story takes a definite Child Called It turn -- tragedy and abuse begin piling up and then salvation occurs. I realize that A Child Called It is very popular with teenagers -- that's just my personal prejudice emerging (don't you hate it when people condemn books and movies that they haven't read/watched themselves ... that would be me re: It) -- so it's not that I object to in this book; rather it's the lengthy sidetrip into the adult pysche.

The actor Adam Beach read this book. I think I said in my post about Alexie's other book that I might have liked to hear him read The Absolutely True Diary ... because his vocal skills would have been equally "authentic" but more "professional" than Alexie's, due to his acting training. But I didn't really like him reading this. I think this was a personal preference: His voice seemed unnaturally high -- as if he were choosing that register in order to portray and young man -- and I didn't like listening to it. I've seen Beach in several movies and TV shows and I don't recall being annoyed by his voice; I can't recall if his natural speaking voice is that high and thin. Alexie's voice is quite high as well ... perhaps that is an Indian quality, along with that pleasing sing-song rhythm. I'm at Beach's Wikipedia page ... maybe I'll borrow Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and listen closely.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

You have the right ...

Last Sunday's New York Times reviewed Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, but there's been a lot of buzz about this book for awhile, yes? I knew I wanted to add it to the listening pile when it arrived, and it traveled with me to Iowa and North Carolina this week. While it was a little heavy-handed upon occasion, it made for a good traveling companion. Marcus Yallow is a smart, geeky teen utterly at home in front of a keyboard and inside a disc drive. He's far from socially inept, as he leads a small group of close friends in pursuit of Harajuku fun madness. It is in pursuit of the latest clues in this game that Marcus and three friends find themselves in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security immediately after a terrorist attack on San Francisco.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the clutches of DHS, as it -- or the severe-haired operative who interrogates and humiliates Marcus -- is the outright, mustache-twirling villain of this fun, but thoughtful story. Because Marcus has a backpack full of items that are designed to repel the variety of tools that DHS uses to "protect" us from terrorism, he is a person of interest to them. After six days of fear and humiliation, Marcus is released ... and warned not to tell anyone where he was and what they wanted from him.

But Marcus believes in the Constitution and his right to privacy, and he vows revenge. Using his armory of geek skills he manages to rally thousands of teens to his cause, below the radar of DHS because he really knows his way around a computer and the Internet. The rest of the book is a nifty cat-and-mouse game, full of adventure and tension. The world is a dangerous place, Marcus knows, but it is more dangerous when the government spies on you and tells you it is keeping you safer as a result.

I think these are great ideas for teens to be thinking about, and this book is an appealing and funny introduction to them. Doctorow includes a couple of chatty essays at the conclusion of the book where we can learn more about those ideas.

I didn't find it to be all that great as an audiobook, though. Marcus lectures us ... frequently, and while the reader keeps the tone light, he does go on and on about stuff. At one point, the narrative is a series of IP addresses (not urls mind you, but the underlying numbers, slashes, dots, etc. Mind-numbing!). Since I don't really care how Marcus was able to set up that Xbox with paranoid Linux (?) so that everyone could connect online without DHS "listening," passages such as these were just a wee bit tiresome. At nearly twelve hours and with the tension building, I really didn't want another lesson getting in the way of a satisfactory resolution.

I also wasn't that crazy about the reader, Kirby Heybourne. To me, he just wasn't Marcus: He wasn't snarky, he wasn't smart-ass, he wasn't the geeky, too-smart-and-knows-it teenager I thought Marcus was. Don't get me wrong, Heybourne's a fine voice actor, but here he was just too actorly: His pronunciations were too precise, his voice too modulated, his emotions too calculated. (He also made a big boo boo: Pronouncing Al-Qaeda two different ways in a short 30 seconds!) He seemed to be concentrating on reading us the story in an interesting way, without creating an interesting character to tell that story. I wanted to like it ...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Nowhere to run

At the same time I was whiling away some hours in rural Nebraska, I was deep in the Australian bush/jungle in the early 1970s with Peter Carey's His Illegal Self, wanting desperately to get out. The premise of this book is quite promising: The young son -- named Che -- of two now-estranged Weathermen-esque radicals-in-hiding is taken from his Park Avenue grandmother by a college friend of the mother ostensibly for a short visit. But the mother is killed making a bomb, the friend panics (thinking she is about to be sent to prison on kidnapping charges) and -- through a series of events that were not explained to my satisfaction by the narrative (audio or otherwise) -- hies off to a commune (?) in Australia.

Once at the commune, Che and the woman he thinks is his mother -- who goes by the nickname Dial (given this name at Radcliffe because of her penchant for dialectics ... whatever those are) -- learn how to survive off the grid, surrounded by some particularly unpleasant fellow communards. Dial takes some steps to get Che back to his grandmother, but -- in case you want to read it for yourself -- I won't say anything further.

God, this was a drag and a half. The story of Dial and Che's journey to Australia is told in alternating flashbacks, which were very difficult to follow. Then Dial inexplicably uses a large cache of cash to buy what I first thought was the whole commune, but then (again I missed the explanation ... or there wasn't one) I realized that she had just bought her own leaky hut in the commune. Then we have many hours of Dial and Che adjusting to their extremely natural environment -- which occasionally felt like years were passing, but they weren't. Long passages are devoted first to Che's point of view and then to Dial's. Occasionally I wasn't sure whose head I was in. Finally, it appears that the pair have settled into commune life, when Dial gets the urge (where did it come from?) to return Che to his grandmother.

As a listener, I went from intrigued to confused to bored senseless to relief at being finished, but not truly satisfied since I had huge gaps in my understanding of the story. I don't think that a boffo narration could have saved this book, but the reader, Stefan Rudnicki, really didn't do it a service either. He reads slowly and softly, but with expressive dialogue. His interpretation of Che was somewhat high and childlike -- he didn't sound fake, but he didn't sound much like a seven-year-old either. The Australian hippies were not consistently Aussie; in Dial's early encounters with them she comments, within the narrative, on their pronunciation -- which Rudnicki has pronounced as she had stated. But, two lines of dialogue later, he's back speaking their dialogue with his vaguely neutral American accent. Even when Dial stopped commenting on their accents, they would come and go.

He seemed to do a good job with Dial: exhausted, frustrated, affectionate, angry, frightened all came through his vocal acting. But I don't think any kind of performance could make this book tolerable to any but the most fervent Carey fan. It was too internalized and too confusing to make the intriguing plot sing. While I think sophisticated teen readers might enjoy Che's story, the audio version does nothing to enhance the book.

Little town on the prairie

This weekend I needed a short book on cassette for the car and other places in the house and so popped in the non-teen, non-current Room One: A Mystery or Two by Andrew Clements. This title is on the nominations list for this year's Young Readers Choice Award and I like to have a passing familiarity with the books in case kids ask me (I think my vote would be for To Dance but then I love the ballet). It was just three hours, so I don't think I lost much valuable listening time.

Young Ted Hammond is the only sixth grader in his one-room schoolhouse on the plains of Nebraska. He's going to inherit the family farm, but -- in the meantime -- is an obedient, studious loner who loves a good mystery. One day while cycling his paper route, he sees a face in the window of an abandoned farmhouse and becomes determined to get to the bottom of the puzzle. He finds two kids and a mom -- dad has recently been killed in Iraq -- whose car broke down on their way to Colorado. They needed to make a quick exit from Texas, as they felt threatened by an insistent soldier, and they are still feeling the need to lay low in case he is following them. Ted befriends the daughter, April, bringing them food and other supplies. But Ted lives in a very small town, and he finds it very hard both to help them and keep their presence a secret.

Andrew Clements just knows how to write these simple, yet interesting, books for mid and upper elementary readers. He can bring in some big ideas and keep them on an appropriate level. Room One is no exception -- homelessness, the Iraq war, and dying rural communities all are included. I enjoyed the reader, Keith Nobbs, who read with a boyishness that sounded utterly authentic. He was smart, curious, and never sounded like an adult trying to sound like a child. He infused all the small-town characters with life and affection. Through his interpretation, you wanted to meet all the kind and sympathetic people living in Red Prairie, NE. Perhaps more importantly, Ted (and Nobbs) make you want them to keep living there -- even though you yourself have no interest whatsoever in living that rural life.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

So this is the tale of our castaways ...

I have enjoyed everything that I've read by Iain Lawrence: Lord of the Nutcracker Men, The Lightkeeper's Daughter, B for Buster, and the three novels that make up The Curse of the Jolly Stone. The Castaways is the concluding novel in the trilogy. I can't remember many details of the first two books, but I recall that young Tom Tin finds himself in possession of a huge diamond that he secretly buries somewhere in London. In a case of mistaken identity, he is convicted of theft and sent to a rusting hulk in the Thames to await transportation to Australia. On the voyage Down Under -- in a ship captained by his father -- Tom and several other young convicts escape. They roam around the South Seas eluding cannibals and other dangers, and, at the beginning of The Castaways, they are about to sacrifice one of their group because they are out of food and water.

Rescued at the last minute (as they have been so many times before), by the appearance of an abandoned slave ship, they take on some unsavory passengers. In the extremely small world department, it turns out these passengers are in the employ of the evil Mr. Goodfellow -- the same man who's responsible for shipping Tom Tin off to Australia in the first place. Tom is eager for another meeting with the misnamed Goodfellow: He wants to give him the giant Jolly Stone, hopeful of passing on the Stone's curse that has dogged him since he found it. The Castaways relates Tom's dangerous journey back to London and his final confrontation with Goodfellow.

Like its predecessors, it is a smashing adventure story -- Dickensian in its extremes of characters and its depiction of evil and good. I just can't feel the same way about its narrator, John Keating. I've listened to him read a good many books (among them The Ranger's Apprentice series and Avi's The Traitors' Gate), and I've enjoyed these outings, but I think my power listening means he's now sitting on my last nerve. I can't endure his reader tics any more!

Each sentence tends to blend together because Keating largely reads every one the same way -- pausing halfway through for effect and often taking an audible breath. It's lulling, it's hard to stay focused on the story. (I had a similar reaction while listening to this series' middle installment, The Cannibals. I felt literally lost at sea.) I concentrated very hard to make sure I was tracking the events of the plot, but still I would occasionally drift off. He also has a very nasal voice that contributes to the soporific effect. He can, and does, do the range of English voices well -- and Lawrence's over-the-top characters are well portrayed by him.

There was a moment very early in the book when Keating had to speak the onomatopoeia of the ship's engine: chuck-i-tee, chick-i-tee. Keating read these words with such disdain, such superiority, it was like they were a bad smell. I rewound to listen again and laughed right out loud. He did not sound like an engine.

Finally, publisher Recorded Books has included extremely lengthy pauses between chapters (1o seconds is a lot of silence). White space is good, but not this much.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Holy terror!

A quick two hours brought Haunted Kids to a merciful close last evening. This collection of short stories by Allan Zullo was originally published in 1994, but they are being re-issued for the "Scholastic school market" (which must have something to do with book fairs, yes?) and so Brilliance Audio elected to simultaneously offer up an audio version. For horror lovers hoping to build up to Dean Koontz and his ilk (that would not be me), the stories in this collection are not particularly scary, but then I'm older than 12. Are they true? I was hoping for some cited sources, but none were forthcoming on the audiobook.

John Ratzenberger read them. I think he was selected to narrate because in one of the stories a reference is made to watching a rerun of Cheers. There seems to be no other reason for him to be the narrator, because he is pretty awful. He shouted, read really fast -- often so fast that words became unintelligibly elided, and he gave every character one of his Pixar cartoon voices: loud and screechy, high and whiny, deep and dopey. The assault on your ears was compounded by the background soundtrack, which was a repetitive set of "suspenseful" music that built up in pace and volume so you would know when to be scared. I hate that kind of telegraphing, and if I were an author I'd be really irritated: It's my writing that supposed to tell you. But the writing wasn't so good either, so I guess it didn't matter. There were also random sound effects sprinkled throughout each story. They were used punctuate an event in the story (she fell off her bed with a thunk ... thud), but I didn't find their use consistent. I heard sound-effect opportunities that didn't have a sound effect. The whole package was simply auditory overload.

I can certainly see the appeal of these stories (and this audiobook) to young listeners, but not even a stretch of one's critical skills could identify this as amazing. Just amazingly bad.

Brilliance (home of the 99-track CD) tried a different approach here: Each story on the disc took up one track. Much better, but still not perfect: Some of the stories were close to 15 minutes long and that's too long for an audiobook track. I appreciate the fact that they tried, though!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Forbidden fruit

I wasn't going to listen to Madapple, by Christina Meldrum, but someone I know pronounced the audio version "enchanting," so I thought I shouldn't miss it. The plot is disarmingly simple: Young Aslaug is raised in isolation by her herbalist mother, Maren. Among the many wild plants her mother prepares and describes to Aslaug is jimsonweed, or madapple -- a poisonous narcotic (check out the wonderful page on the author's website where she pictures and describes all the flora of Madapple). When Maren dies of cancer, Aslaug makes her way to the place where she thinks she will learn about her father -- the charismatic church of her aunt Sara and her two cousins, Sanne (short for Susanne) and Rune. Sanne explains to Aslaug that Maren claimed to be a virgin while pregnant with her. Sanne has doubts that this is true, but wants to believe.

Aslaug -- whose isolation has made her mostly passive and defenseless in the face of those who claim to act on her behalf -- settles in uneasily at her aunt's household. She falls for her cousin Rune, and has a vivid dream of sex with him. Several months later she learns she is pregnant. She accuses Rune of rape, but is held prisoner in the basement of the church by her aunt -- who doesn't want her son accused of rape -- and by Sanne, whose insistence that Aslaug's is a virgin pregnancy grows with each month. Upon the birth of her daughter, Aslaug is separated from the baby. A short time later, Rune and his lover disappear with the child. Sara and Sanne overdose on jimsonweed and Aslaug burns the church to the ground.

The book alternates chapters from Aslaug's perspective -- each of which is titled with the name of a plant which directly relates to the events of the chapter -- with short excerpts of trial transcripts. A year after the fire, Aslaug is on trial for double homicide and for manslaughter -- her mother also had jimsonweed in her system when she died. Things we learn in the chapters have been foreshadowed in the trial transcripts and things we learn at the trial are described more fully in the chapters. It is an excellent demonstration of how to cleverly unfold a plot.

I didn't think it worked well as an audiobook for several reasons. There are lengthy (quite lyrical) passages in the book describing wild plants and subsequently, the instances of virgin pregnancies across the spiritual pantheon (Sanne goes on and on about this at one point). Listening takes so much longer than reading; I really lost interest in the story at these points. I was tense, the foreshadowing worked, I wanted to know the outcome of Aslaug's trial and life -- but before I could get there, I had to listen to (what seemed like) hours of botany and theology. It's so much easier to skip ahead while reading -- even the act of just flipping the pages to see how many you have to get through is helpful. Listening affords you no such cues.

And while I fully appreciated the device of the trial transcript -- and actually found them to be a relief from the more baroque language of Aslaug's story -- ultimately they seemed an intrusion. Their repetitive nature: "Objection! Leading!" "Sustained." "I'll rephrase." doesn't lend itself to reading aloud. The narrator, Kirsten Potter, often found herself interrupting herself. That gets old. She did do an excellent job in vocally distinguishing between Aslaug and the trial transcripts -- her voice grew deep, dry and unemotional.

One advantage of listening: Aslaug is pronounced Ahss-lawg.