Thursday, December 25, 2008

Clockwork Orang[e]

I managed to get a degree in English lit a generation ago without ever reading A Clockwork Orange. Not my cup of tea at all: Bleak, bleaker, bleakest. The ghastly story of ultraviolent, amoral Alex and his droogs, Alex's remedial treatment and its aftermath has simply no hope at all (or does it?). You might think that it would be exceedingly disturbing to listen to, as I think most books have increased power when they are read aloud. But, in fact, this audio version -- read by Tom Hollander -- creates a certain amount of distance, while increasing the book's accessibility.

The novel, by Anthony Burgess, introduces us to Alex as he heads out on an all-night rampage of battery, grand theft auto, gang rape and property damage. The next day, we learn of his intense love for classical music. Shortly afterwards, Alex lands in prison as he is caught burglarizing and terrorizing an old lady -- who dies following Alex's assault. After two years incarceration, he takes advantage of the opportunity for a cure (and a release from prison), which turns out to be chemical aversion therapy -- his favorite music accompanies movies of extreme violence, while the drugs in his system induce nausea. Within two weeks, Alex can't think of violence or hear his music without feeling debilitatingly ill. He is "cured" and released from prison. On the outside, he quickly becomes a poster boy for those protesting the fascistic regime that implemented the therapy, and the procedure is reversed. Alex goes back to his violent ways, but is he older and wiser ... putting his youth behind him?

According to the introduction that begins this audiobook, the final "uplifting" chapter of the book -- where Alex begins to rethink his path -- was eliminated for the initial U.S. publication of the book ... and the Stanley Kubrick movie. As a first-time reader/listener, I'm not sure I found that final chapter to be all that positive. Alex talks about changing, but since he's the ultimate in the unreliable narrator, can you believe him?

Anyone familiar with the novel will know that Alex narrates in "nadsat," a teen slang that is evidently based on both Cockney dialect and Russian. I simply can't imagine trying to read this book -- constantly parsing the language while trying to piece out the plot would likely have defeated me early on. But having Tom Hollander read it meant that I didn't have to do the parsing. I just had to think a moment about context and let the story happen. If there was a precise definition that I had missed, I could easily get the gist in the rest of the sentence or paragraph. Here's a case where I think an audiobook can make a classic of literature accessible for more readers.

But in addition to easing the transition into nadsat, Hollander just does a terrific reading. He inhabits Alex in all his teenage self-absorption and sense of entitlement, in his casual descriptions of the ultraviolence and mayhem, in his complete lack of conscience. He drawls Alex's general sense of boredom, finds humor in his irony, and ultimately his terror at his helplessness once he's "cured." There's even the occasional Bronx cheer (which is called something else in the novel).

Hollander also plays the other characters in the novel -- all from Alex's viewpoint. So the prison officials are nasally snobs, his mother an ineffectual whisperer, his victims all high-pitched and querulous, and his droogs dense and insensible. I found it quite a bravura performance, but it seemed to be delivered with Alex's nonchalance.

This audiobook includes an entire disc devoted to excerpts of Burgess reading the novel in the 1960s (?). Burgess reads with flair and enthusiasm, but without Hollander's skill at creating and sustaining characters. It seemed clear that Hollander listened to a little (or a lot) of Burgess when creating his version because the pronunciation of the nadsat was exactly alike. The audiobook didn't need this extra disc, of course, and I'm sure that most teen listeners will give it a complete pass; but it was nicely produced: All the other discs were black, while the Burgess disc matched the orange of the strip on the cover.

Like another classic of that part of the 20th century, On the Road, I'm truly glad that listening provided me with the opportunity to know it. Because I sure wouldn't be reading either of these.

Chains of freedom

There has been a tremendous (well, for Oregon) amount of snow here for the past ten days; the library was last open on Friday, December 19 and I am at that point where to do much of anything sounds so terribly exhausting that I sigh and turn over another page of the umpteenth book I'm reading. I'm truly not bored, but admit to being powerfully unmotivated; which is why I can't seem to muster up much interest in blogging about Chains, which I finished a week ago. Or about anything else for that matter. Chains is Laurie Halse Anderson's historical novel about a young slave in Revolutionary New York. (I'm sure she is deeply tired of hearing that it's Octavian Nothing for less sophisticated readers.)

Chains is the story (or the beginning of the story) of Isabel, a young African American girl who has just buried her mistress in Newport, Rhode Island. Isabel believes that her late mistress's will has freed her and her younger sister, Ruth; but instead the girls are sold to a couple on their way home to New York City. The couple, the Lockwoods, are Loyalists -- supporters of the English crown -- and in the few weeks before the Declaration of Independence is signed in Philadelphia they believe that it is safe for them to live openly in New York. It is, of course, not safe for Isabel -- who is now at the mercy of two cruel adults. Mrs. Lockwood soon brands Isabel on the face with an "I" for insolence and sells her younger sister to some slaveholders on the Caribbean island of Nevis.

Isabel has found one friend, a slave named Curzon. Curzon encourages Isabel to spy on the Lockwoods and promises her that his Patriot master will help her if she does. Although Isabel does provide some information to the Patriots about the Lockwoods' activities, she discovers that neither Patriot nor Loyalist believes in the freedom of black people. Realizing that only she can make herself free, Isabel prepares to flee the Lockwoods and begin her search for her sister Ruth.

In between Isabel's branding and the time when she plans to escape from the Lockwoods the story just appeared to be marking time. Yes, events happened: Notably the Patriots' defeat at Fort Washington and their imprisonment in a dreadful prison near the battery. Curzon is among the prisoners and Isabel's actions save his life. But there was no tension in this part of the book -- it just felt like a series of episodes where Isabel crept off to the prison and came back to do her work in the house. The whole spying plot disappeared completely. It was kind of a drag. The tension and excitement picked right up at the end, where Isabel makes her escape ... with Curzon. The ending wasn't one ... clearly we are in for more of Isabel's story.

The book in my library catalog has the subtitle Seeds of America (which to me makes a connection to those Dear America books ... and that is not a good thing), which is nowhere on the cover or anywhere on the audiobook, so I'm not sure what that means. Is Chains the series name? Or is Seeds of America? Does it matter? I like to know these things.

Chains is narrated by Madisun Leigh, who reads Isabel with compassion and authenticity. She doesn't shy away from the deeper emotions -- and her reading of Isabel's branding, the loss of Ruth, and Isabel's realization that she is alone is powerfully moving. I think the story's impact is much greater by hearing, rather than reading it. Leigh doesn't try very hard to create the other characters -- there aren't any class or racial distinctions and the British don't sound very British. I'm not sure this detracts from the overall story, but I would have liked to hear some other characters.

What I did find intrusive was the chapter headings -- each of which was a day of the week and a date, followed by an often lengthy quote from primary sources that may (or may not) relate to the events of the chapter. Repitition like this can be a tiresome format in audio. What I wanted though, was a few moments to think about the quote, but alas, there were no vocal cues to let us know that the quote was over (beyond the citation), and the story just plunged ahead. It became somewhat of a barrier to my enjoyment of the book.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Jack is back!

There are now six Bloody Jack adventures, but I think you should wait until each one comes out in audio. The first three will have to do for now, but I'm sure that Listen and Live Audio is working to catch up with author L.A. Meyer (according to its website, the fourth book is also available, but that one wasn't sent to us by our deadline). Jacky Faber's first adventure showed up on our list last year, as well as on the Odyssey's Honor list. Curse of the Blue Tattoo is an equally fun ride.

Discovered to be a girl, live-in-the-moment Jacky has been removed from the crew of the HMS Dolphin in Boston and sent to the Lawson-Peabody School for Young Ladies on Beacon Hill. Alas, her straightforward Cockney ways get her immediately in trouble, and -- on an outing to Boston Harbor -- she is caught exposing her knee as she plays her flute and dances. She is soon demoted from young lady to lady's maid, but this doesn't sink her irrepressible spirit. Jacky continues to make friends (and enemies), but her general state of contentment is always tempered by her sadness at not receiving any letters from her beloved fiance, Jaimy Fletcher. Her impetuousness continues to exasperate her friends and keep her in hot water, and in a series of misunderstandings and lost opportunities, at the end of Blue Tattoo Jacky is hopefully setting out for England and Jaimy aboard a Quaker whaling vessel.

That synopsis barely skims the surface of this fun- and action-filled 14-hour story. Listen as Jacky spends the night in jail, meets some ladies of the evening, faces down thugs, climbs up and down various buildings (remember her skill in a ship's rigging), earns a few pennies performing in a tavern, pretends to be a ghost, dives into Boston Harbor, carries on her disguise as a boy, flirts with a few boys, survives a fire, and wins a high-stakes horse race aboard an Arab stallion. Whew! The hours just flew by.

And they flew by for just one reason: Katherine Kellgren. In the tired phrase beloved by audiobook reviewers and fans, she brings Jacky Faber vividly to life. I don't think the books are really as good as Kellgren makes them. Jacky's impetuousness, her temper, her affection for her friends, her appreciation of a handsome man, her fearlessness, her excitability are all as clear as day in Kellgren's interpretation. She uses only her voice to express this character -- which means that volume, pacing, speaking voice are all used to the utmost. Kellgren yells, she sobs, she speaks more quickly or more slowly, she even inhales the snot in her nose back up!

Above all, she sings. Jacky loves music and a significant part of this novel takes place in a tavern where she sings and plays her flute for money. When the story calls for it, a song comes out. Some are folk songs where you might know the tune (I enjoyed The Parting Glass). All are beautifully sung. It makes for such diversity in the story itself -- you aren't just listening to hours and hours of someone read to you; she's singing to you too!

Finally, Kellgren can put on the accent. Cockney, naturally, for Jacky. But there are a raft of Americans, an Irish cook, a Scottish drunk, a Southern [rhymes with witch], and the whole gamut of English -- from other Cockneys to received pronouncers. Conversations between these characters is fluid and effortless. If the Americans all tend to sound alike (there are no cahhrs being pahhrked for example), it is a small quibble.

The next Jacky adventure, Under the Jolly Roger, is also on our nomination list. I need to take a brief break for something else, but stayed tuned.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ka-blam!

When I read Slam about a year ago, I could hear author Nick Hornby's voice reading it aloud because I'd been lucky enough to hear him during ALA Annual in Washington, DC. I heard a pleasant, working class Englishman reading in my head and I enjoyed listening. Now I've got Nicholas Hoult's voice there, and I'm not sure I'm as happy. Nicholas Hoult played the "boy" in About a Boy, the Hugh Grant movie based on Hornby's 1998 novel of the same name. I remember him being quite good, particularly in that cringeworthy scene where they are both singing Killing Me Softly.

Slam is about Sam Jones, a 16-year-old skater (skateboarder) and Tony Hawk fan, who meets Alicia, spends an intense couple of weeks dating (and sleeping with) her, and then finds himself soon to be a father. Slam! He's understandably freaked out by this, and turns to TH (or rather Hawk's autobiography, Hawk, Occupation Skateboarder, which Sam knows by heart) for advice. TH "whizzes" Sam into the future a couple of times to show him what life will be like as the hilariously dim father of an infant and toddler. Sam's not sure why TH does this, but the lessons prove salutory and the book ends with Sam's life a bit less chaotic. It's funny in that Nick Hornby, men-are-loveable-but-incompetent, way; and I think that he presents a fairly accurate picture of what it's like to be a boy raised by a teenager (Sam was born when his mum was 16) and a teenager raising a child. (Of course, I bring no personal experience to either.)

Nicholas Hoult is a compelling reader, but not a very good one for ears not genetically attuned to English speech patterns. He sounds authentically North London and working class -- there is a speedy, lulling rhythm to his sentences, with the sentences or phrases nearly always ending up on that high, almost questioning note. He sounds like a teenaged boy (he is one!), and gives an accurate interpretation of Sam: self-centered, sarcastic, funny.

Hoult makes no effort to distinguish between characters in the novel -- not even trying on an American accent for Tony Hawk. This was not an inappropriate choice: this is Sam's story and it's all about how the world revolves around him. But, in lengthy conversations, where the "he said/she saids" are often missing, it was occasionally difficult to figure out who was speaking. And this, coupled with the speed of his reading that often prevented me from actually understanding what he was saying (even after rewinding two or three times), made this audiobook hard work. There was no sitting back here and letting the reader wash over me while I knit or wash the dishes or sort the laundry. I had to actively pay attention every minute. And that gets exhausting; and not particularly enjoyable.

In the end, I wanted to hear Nick Hornby read this to me. And that -- knowing how I generally feel about authors reading their own work -- is saying something.

Monday, December 8, 2008

From beyond the grave

I understand that Neil Gaiman's promotional tour for The Graveyard Book was him reading a chapter (in chronological order) at each bookstore appearance. And, once he'd made an appearance (and read a chapter), that audio was posted on the (retail) publisher's website. I don't think that was how they produced the audiobook. Still, it was pretty cool. Well, pretty Gaiman (which means cool). And, well, The Graveyard Book was pretty cool, too.

A rather sinister man with a knife has dispatched the family living in an old house, all except for the toddler sleeping on the top floor. This child -- who has just learned how to walk -- slips out of his crib and bumps down the stairs and out the door, and makes his way to the nearby graveyard; it's no longer used to bury people, but its residents are still fairly active at night. When the baby arrives, they all seem to know that he needs protection. Mr. and Mrs. Owens take him in, calling him Nobody. The Owenses need someone who is not dead to help them care for Bod -- someone who can leave the graveyard for food and clothing and the like -- and the mysterious Silas steps forward as guardian. Silas isn't dead, but he's not alive either.

As Bod grows up, he has numerous adventures in and out of the graveyard. Some adventures are humorous, some poignant (the danse macabre), and some downright scary. Because the man Jack who murdered his family needs to finish the job, no matter how long it takes. Fortunately -- until Bod is old enough to deal with Jack himself -- Silas, the Owens, the wonderful Mrs. Lupescu (teacher and werewolf), Liza (buried in unconsecrated ground because she was a witch), and his other friends and neighbors are there to teach him about the world. Gaiman has created a world that feels very real, and is populated by an array of characters who clearly hold a place in the author's affections. With the exception of the evil man Jack(s), a cup of tea with anyone you meet in Bod's graveyard would be delightful.

I think they are so delightful because of Gaiman's reading. His familiarity with the story must lead to the ease with which he reads it. Gaiman can be droll, he can be scary, he can be moving all with equal skill. It must have been so fun to be at one of his readings. (I've never read his adult stuff ... I might have to keep an eye out for him at Powell's if he ever makes it to Portland). I can still hear his voices for Mrs. Lupescu (Transylvanian, of course), the saucy Liza, the Owenses, and an over-the-top bad poet buried in a corner of the graveyard. He's quiet and curious as Bod (whose name -- in what I appreciated as a nice twist for an audiobook -- is often mistaken as Bob), and calm and slightly menacing as Silas (Silas is the vampire of the moment, not that other guy!). I quibble about his interpretation of Bod's human friend, Scarlet, whose Scots accent sort of came and went.

Each chapter begins with a wonderful snippet of Camille Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre, played (I hear) by Bela Fleck. It sets an appropriately threatening tone to the proceedings. Gaiman talks a little bit about that, and about recording the book in this blog entry.

I think we're going to have some discussions about age appropriateness next month. Is it too young for 12- and 13-year olds? I don't think so ... they're just the right age to enjoy it, but not be scared. At the library, we might have to recommend it only for "nonsensitive" younger readers. I also think there's a whole community of Gaiman-ites (if I may call them that) that will read anything he writes.

There's Newbery buzz about this book ... I wonder if it's on the Odyssey shortlist? Hmmm...

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Final list of nominations

Finishing Tenderness means that all that's left to listen to are our nominated titles. I've got 110 hours, 94 CDs, and 12 books. That means a little more than an average of two hours a day, which sounds easy at the moment, but ask me again in a month! (If I don't get Disc 3 of The Graveyard Book finished today, I will be officially behind!)

The nominees from which the fine women of Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults will create our final list in 55 days are located here.

Try a little tenderness

Robert Cormier was dead by the time I arrived at teen literature as an adult ... and he wasn't writing when I was a teenager myself. [Yes, I'm old.] Back when I was listening exclusively to "backlist" teen fiction, I listened to The Chocolate War, which I recognized as a pretty good novel; but I didn't like it enough (too much nastiness) to seek out any other titles. But when Tenderness showed up in a recent delivery, I thought I'd like to give him another go. This cover is not the cover the audiobook. (And what is this cover anyway? Is he wearing his heart on his sleeve? Even Amazon.com won't give me a large-size image ...)

Eric Poole is about to be released from the juvenile detention facility he has resided in for the past three years for the (judged justifiable) murder of his mother and stepfather. Eric has also murdered three young women, but the police haven't been able to link him to these crimes. He is planning to continue his search for similar girls with long, dark hair upon his release.

Lori Cranston is a 15-year-old runaway who has been sexually abused by one of her mother's boyfriends, and now uses her well-endowed "top" to obtain money and other favors from men. Lori gets "fixations" to kiss certain men, and she has run away to meet up with and kiss a rock star. On her journey, she sees TV footage covering the release of Eric Poole, and her fixation turns to him. She remembers seeing him as a 12-year-old, just as he was heading into the woods for a tryst with a victim. When Eric and Lori meet up, the inevitable happens, but not the way you think it will.

This book has two narrative perspectives: Lori's first person and a third person telling Eric's story. Alas, Recorded Books chose to have Jennifer Ikeda read both perspectives. And I believe I've mentioned at least once my personal difficulties with Ikeda's narrative style.

Unfortunately, I couldn't believe for one minute that Ikeda's whispery voice with its precise diction was that of a sexually provocative teenager (she used the same voice she used for two innocents of the same age in Enthusiasm). And when there was no relief from that voice when the third-person narrative came in, the audiobook just flopped for me. Eric's tale was told with the same calm serenity as Lori's. There was no sense of mounting tension that is the focus of this book; and truly, I got no sense of the complexity of the two teenagers: Both are looking for "tenderness" -- a human connection that isn't exploitative, that doesn't hurt. It's just they weren't given the skills to find this in a socially acceptable manner. They both should be chilling; instead they sounded so ordinary, so unthreatening.

I swear Stephen Fry is reading the "this is the end of disc 1" etc. on Recorded Book titles lately. Now that's a pleasure to listen to. (I am a bit tempted to revisit Harry Potter on audio and try to get the English versions via Interlibrary Loan ... but do I want to devote 120 odd hours to that? Probably not.)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!

Vive la France! The Red Necklace takes you back to that exciting time where you could easily (but painlessly, thanks to M. Guillotin) lose your head. Sally Gardner's second novel for young people is similar to her first -- I, Coriander -- in that the story is placed in a historical reality, but flights of fantasy take it into another realm altogether. In I, Coriander -- which I enjoyed both in print and audio -- 17th century London and its conflicts between Puritanism and "witchcraft" are enhanced by a life or death journey into fairyland. In The Red Necklace, two French performers of Romany origins use magic to animate a wooden Pierrot and save the life of a young heiress during the Reign of Terror.

Yann Margoza has known no other parent than the clever dwarf Tetu, and known no other life than performing with the great magician Topolain. Yann can read minds and throw his voice, Tetu can move objects with his mind, and Topolain can stop a bullet with his hand. Their latest act is along the lines of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy -- except that Topolain doesn't manipulate the automaton, the unseen Tetu does. The three performers are ordered to the country chateau of the Marquis de Villeduval by the mysterious and powerful Count Kalliovski. Kalliovsky wants very much to learn how Topolain works the wooden Pierrot. Unfortunatley, Topolain makes the fatal error of recognizing the Count, and -- for the first (and last, of course) time -- the bullet trick fails. Yann and Tetu make a perilous escape, but not before taking refuge in the room of the Marquis' daughter, Sido. It is Sido's courage in delaying the Count that enables the two gypsies to escape.

Sido's father -- a weak man, who lives for his collection of elegant shoe buckles and ignores the buildup of resentment that is fomenting the Revolution -- seems to have no love for her, and quickly succumbs to the Count's desire to wed her. The Marquis is in deep debt to the Count, and this appears to be the only way he can repay what he owes. But, before the Count can take his young bride, Sido and her father are caught in the round-up of aristocrats and imprisoned in Paris. The Count -- who has changed sides and is considered to be a "citizen" -- may not be able to save them.

Tetu ensures that Yann makes a complete escape to London, where the boy is educated, and learns from England's gypsies how to manipulate the "threads of light" as Tetu has. He realizes that he must return to France to rescue Sido. And, so The Red Necklace hurries to its exciting conclusion. (A conclusion that seemed a bit abrupt, so I was glad to learn at the author's website that a sequel is in the works.)

At this late date in my audiobook reviewing you would think that I would have the language to describe what I don't like about Carrington MacDuffie as a narrator. In her work here, she is very skilled at creating consistent characters, she seems at ease with multiple accents, she knows how to pace the story well -- adding excitement and speed to her reading as the story grows more suspenseful. It is her narrator voice that seems so wrong. It's like she's speaking from the back of her throat in a sexy, growly way ... only she shouldn't be sexy and growly when she reads this book (it's all about innocent love). At the same time, she's seems to be really trying hard not to be growly, so instead she sounds like she's got marbles in her mouth (without it being difficult to understand her).

This is deeply unhelpful, I know. Perhaps (if I continue my blog during my Odyssey tenure), I'll figure out how to embed audio ... hmmmm.