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 ...

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