Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Your mission, should you choose to accept it

Whew! No steampunk ever, and now two in two months. Arthur Slade's The Hunchback Assignments starts out icky (involving animal experimentation), but once we meet our hero, the hunchback, the story picks up and takes over. Just warning you, it gets icky again (this time children are the experimented upon), but most kids are made of stronger stuff than I. (I think listening to stuff like that is so much uglier than reading about it since while this was on the mp3 player, I was reading a Dennis Lehane novel [just want to clarify that I was not listening and reading simultaneously] chock full of violence and mayhem. Ho hum.)

Mr. Socrates, a proper Victorian gentlemen, is a member of the secret Permanent Association. He has a vast network of spies throughout England charged with keeping the nation secure. His spies have unearthed word about a deformed infant who can change shape at will. Mr. Socrates locates the child and adopts it, naming him Modo (see Quasimodo?). He educates and trains Modo for espionage, but doesn't allow him to see himself and keeps all but a select few from seeing him as well. When Modo is 14, he takes him to London and abandons him. Modo quickly learns to fend for himself and even hangs out a discreet shingle offering his services while waiting for further instructions from Mr. Socrates.

Meanwhile, that evil scientist doing those animal experiments, Dr. Cornelius Hyde (see Mr. Hyde?) has found support from the Clockwork Guild and is building ... well, I don't want to give it away. Something that involves a grandson of Queen Victoria, the nefarious use of child labor, and that will, no doubt, lead to world domination. Mr. Socrates sends another of his agents, the orphaned Octavia Milkweed, to Modo with a mission. Soon, Modo and Tavia are embarked on the assignment of their lives. Along with everything else, though, Modo can't let the lovely Tavia see him in his true form. Mr. Socrates has told him he's ugly, and he fears her horror at his appearance.

A new-to-me narrator, Jayne Entwistle, reads this book. She's got a pleasing voice, along with an emotional feel for the story that makes listening entertaining and suspenseful. She never gets so wrapped up in the action of the story that she forgets to sustain the characters. Entwistle creates a broad variety of characters from all walks of English life -- including an extremely scary woman with a metal hand named Haakensdottir, an East Indian martial arts instructor, an orphan boy named Oppie, the members of the Young Londoners Exploratory Club, and the urbane Mr. Socrates. Her voices for Modo and Tavia are especially charming -- Tavia is all spunk and fire, while Modo's shyness and innocence is pleasingly embodied in Entwistle's husky voice.

It looks like there's a sequel coming shortly, The Dark Deeps (the Canadian cover is posted on Arthur Slade's blog), but my favorite Slade book remains Dust. It just felt so original to me when I first read it, and it resonated again upon rereading several years later.

After midnight

In the City of Agora, everything is bought and sold, and the records of all transactions are stored in the Directory of Receipts. Once you reach your title day (age 12), you can buy and sell your own skills and resources. Up til then, you are bought and sold by others. Mark -- not quite 12 -- has been sold by his father to a young physician, Dr. Theophilus, in the hopes that he will be cured of the gray death. Mark survives (in an excellent opening sentence: "Being dead was colder than Mark had expected."), and is put to work assisting the doctor. Dr. Theophilus lives with his grandfather, Count Stelli, and the Count's servant, Lily, in an towering astronomical observatory in the heart of Agora. The Count is the premier astrologer in a society dedicated to the zodiac and predictions from the stars. This sets the scene for The Midnight Charter, by David Whitley, the first of a trilogy featuring Mark and Lily.

Shortly after Mark reaches his title day, the Doctor quarrels with his grandfather and is forced to leave the tower. Mark is obliged to go with him, but Lily offers to buy his job in exchange for hers. Lily and Dr. Theophilus settle in the poor section of town (the best they can afford), while Mark begins an apprenticeship with the Count. Mark is being groomed for a debut -- where he will make three predictions. If these come true, his place in Agoran society will be secured. He discovers that the Count is preparing him to fail in the hopes of defeating the Count's greatest enemy, the powerful Lord Ruthven (pronounced RI-ven). With the help of a Mr. Snutworth, Mark foils the plan. The Count disappears and Mark -- under the laws of Agora -- inherits the tower. He goes on to achieve greatness.

Lily, in contrast, does the unthinkable. She opens a shelter for debtors -- without any expectation of payment. Lily is one of those do-gooders who make the rest of us look like pikers: Her compassion is infinite and her strength to do what's right is formidable. It is only Mark's friendship with Lily that keeps him from completely buying into Agora's marketplace. And when Lily discovers the secret of the Midnight Charter, that her and Mark's fates are inextricably entwined with that of the city, this lengthy and dense novel comes to an abrupt end.

While I appreciated the development of Lily's and Mark's characters and the dystopic Agora (a character by itself), this book ultimately felt like one long set-up. It appears that the next book (coming next summer) will be where the adventure begins.

The narrator is the talented Simon Vance. I think he mostly narrates adult titles, but it turns out I've heard him once, reading The Stone Light. He's very good, creating memorable voices for the story's many characters, and reading at a rapid yet completely intelligible (oh those British enunciators) pace. He seems most comfortable voicing cranky old men, as his voices for Count Stelli, Lord Ruthven and the all-powerful Director of Receipts are resonant, threatening and commanding. The younger males are pretty good too -- I did enjoy the combination of bravado and insecurity that emerged from Mark's slightly breaking voice.

Alas, though, Vance's females bring to mind the drag queen mentioned by David Sedaris in this NPR feature from Neil Gaiman (don't you love the expression "tapeworm" ... I might have to rename my blog). Lily, and several other female characters, are voiced with high, whispery, and well, pretty femmy voices. They're not particularly pleasant to listen to, and I don't know any girls and young women who speak like this. Despite Vance's undeniable skills, this narrative style keeps this audiobook from the realms of the truly great.

I'm intrigued, though. Both by where this trilogy might go and by Simon Vance. I'll look for The Children of the Lost (Book 2) next summer and maybe give one of Vance's adult books a whirl in the not-too-distant future.

Life on the Mississippi

It doesn't take too long before Jacky Faber reappears in this blog (thank goodness)! I bring you episode 5: Mississippi Jack: Being an Account of the Further Waterborne Adventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman, Fine Lady and Lily of the West. You may have noticed that I've altered the "Labels" on the right hand side because the list of titles was just getting way too long (thanks to Paul from Google Help!), so you'll find all of Jacky's adventures under "B" (for Bloody) as well as under the first letter of each title. Jacky has just triumphantly stepped onto the dock in Boston Harbor with all the girls of the Lawson-Peabody rescued off the slave ship Bloodhound, when she is snatched up by the British Navy and stowed in the brig. There is still that nasty price on her head for piracy.

Not to worry, though. With the help of her crafty manservant Mr. Higgins, she is spirited off the ship and immediately heads west into the wilderness. They are determined to reach the Ohio River and then the Mississippi. They'll sail south to New Orleans and catch a ship back to ... Boston, England? Jacky doesn't know that her beloved Jaimy Fletcher is hot on her heels, but alas, he is fated to catch up with her much later ... finding the flirtatious Jacky in a somewhat compromising position.

Before this, however, Jacky manages to steal the keelboat of the legendary Mike Fink. She christens the boat The Belle of the Golden West, and converts it into a passenger boat, but she soon finds it more lucrative as a casino and showboat. She and Higgins pick up a number of passengers who help with the various performances (revival meeting, medicine show, theatricals) and they make their way down the Mississippi. Along the way, Jacky defeats some gangster-like Native Americans, is adopted into the Shawnee tribe, finds herself briefly in the hands of the British Navy again, gets kidnapped, tarred and feathered by some creepy anti-abolitionists, and ends up in a brothel in New Orleans. (And that's just the quick summary.)

Jacky's huge heart, impetuosity, and fearless love of adventure keep things moving along in this 17-hour picaresque (a good two hours longer than the previous installments, and more than twice as long as the first book). This does not rank as a favorite episode; maybe I'm entering series doldrums, that point where the basic plot -- Jacky and Jaimy will never get together -- has grown tiresome and I'm longing for closure. (I'm also feeling this way about an adult mystery series that I enjoy: Charles Todd's Ian Rutledge. Get thee to a shrink, please!) But, of course, what truly keeps me going with Jacky is narrator Katherine Kellgren (here's an interview with her from Mary Burkey).

Kellgren just keeps getting better. In addition to her fine performance as Jacky, Kellgren gives us the roaring braggart Mike Fink, the always correct gentlemen's gentlemen Higgins, a no-nonsense Indian cook named Crow Jane, the suspicious-sounding gambler Yancy Cantrell, two dimwitted ladies of uncertain virtue called the Honeys, a New Orleans prostitute with designs on Jacky, and three upperclass Englishmen: Jacky's old antagonist Flashby, the sexy black sheep Richard Allen, and the upright (bit of a bore) Jaimy. There are a raft of other characters, all individually voiced by Kellgren. She performs practically the entire show put on by the crew of the Belle -- including an egregiously bad melodrama, penned by Jacky herself (she knows what the public want). And, as always, songs are interspersed throughout the novel, all beautifully sung. Some of the songs are sung by other characters, and Kellgren alters her singing voice appropriately. (There's a page on the book's website with links to versions of the songs in Mississippi Jack. None of these are Kellgren's versions, it must be a copyright thing.)

It looks like Listen and Live Audio is almost caught up with Jacky's adventures. The latest (Book 7) appears to be out in both print and audio. Despite the aforementioned fatigue, I shall -- of course -- keep going!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sophisticosity

It's been five years since I last encountered Louise Rennison's Georgia Nicolson, the diary-writing British teenager with the boy obsession. Her confessions entertained me through four episodes (two in audio), but then I'd figured out ... (I know, I'm slow) each book is pretty much the same. Amusing at first, but wearing in large doses. After a five-year hiatus, I enjoyed my brief visit with Georgia in her 8th adventure: Love is a Many Trousered Thing (aka Luuurve is a Many Trousered Thing in England ... I think I enjoy the U.S. publisher's renaming of some of the books as much as the books themselves; for example, it replaced ... And That's When It Fell Off in my Hand with Away Laughing on a Fast Camel).

Is there any point to a brief plot description? Evidently in the books I missed, a Luuurve God from Pizza-a-gogo land (Italy) named Masimo shows up fast on the heels of the departing Sex God, Robbie (off to Kiwi-a-gogo land [figure it out]), and Georgia falls. Now, Robbie's back and Georgia must decide between the two. While on a camping trip with her German class (Georgia goes hilariously on and on about this), she seeks advice from her friend (and, as we know even if she doesn't, soul mate) Dave the Laugh, who tells her that love is a many trousered thing ... that perhaps she can love more than one person. In between, Georgia's diary entries are smart, witty and actually not very nice. No one escapes Georgia's poison pen.

As always, Georgia's glossary for all her American chums is worth waiting for. Sample: Fringe: "Goofy short bit of hair that comes down to your eyebrows. Someone told me that American-type people call them “bangs” but this is so ridiculously strange that it’s not worth thinking about. Some people can look very stylish with a fringe (i.e., me) while others look goofy (Jas). The Beatles started it apparently. One of them had a German girlfriend, and she cut their hair with a pudding bowl and the rest is history." I've complained long and loud about listening to backmatter in audiobooks, but Georgia's is a treat.

The narrator Stina Nielsen reads these books and she is delightful. She hits the right notes of sarcasm and egotism and reads with loads of teenaged expression and humor. Since everything is filtered through Georgia's voice, the story's other characters are all her over-the-top interpretations of them. So, yes ... for adult ears, it can get tiresome. It's one of those that you should just sit back and let it wash over you ... and five minutes after you've finished, poof! it's gone. But it was fun while it lasted.

It's hard to believe now that Georgia's confessions were considered so original back in 2001 when Rennison was awarded a Printz Honor. Yikes! Ten years! Georgia is 25. This is so ridiculously strange that it’s not worth thinking about.

High society

There are three novels featuring the Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. Back in 2007, I listened to the first one, and I just finished up number three: The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma. In between I [eye] read the second. I certainly see the appeal of four intrepid puzzle solvers who face down physical danger and true evil practically all on their own [70 holds on the two-year-old book and 17 holds on the audio at my library!] -- the first book is in contention for next year's Young Readers' Choice Award -- but none of them really sent me.

The eponymous Society is Reynie, Sticky, Kate and Constance, gifted children all. Each has something that they excel at and each has the opportunity to bring their individual skill to the aid of the group when they find themselves in peril from the evil Ledroptha Curtain. Mr. Curtain, brother to the kindhearted Nicholas Benedict (who originally recruited the children), has ambitions about ruling the world, or some such. He is bad, bad, bad and employs a crew of henchmen, called Ten Men because they have 10 ways of hurting you, to implement his malevolent plot. Curtain and his Ten Men are fairly scary in the pantheon of children's book villains -- while they do tend to talk too much, the mayhem they create can and does cause pain, fear, and injury. These books aren't for the sensitive reader.

In the third installment, Mr. Curtain attempts to regain possession of his Whisperer -- a mind-control device that he almost successfully employed in the first novel. The Society are kidnapped -- as Mr. Curtain finds their skills as useful as Mr. Benedict does -- and their combination of wits and derring do win the day. It appears that the Society's work is done, but never say never in the world of successful sequels.

I gushed on and on about Dion Graham two posts ago, but I'm having trouble rustling up any enthusiasm at all about Del Roy, the narrator of this series. I didn't like him two years ago and I don't like him now. His voice is extremely difficult to listen to, as it is raspy, saliva-filled and has very little variation. He doesn't voice any characters, and only rarely alters his delivery to reflect the story's emotions. The voice sounds compromised in some way (smoking?) that severely limits Roy's range of expression, and occasionally causes swallowed or mispronounced words. I also hear a lot of breathlessness in his delivery -- he pauses in odd places and occasionally gets strained when he runs out of air. As a listener, unfortunately, focus on the story disappears as I hear (and internally comment on) a gulp, a gasp, some juice, an elision, etc.

On the scale of audio performances, this one is just not worthy of your ears. Particularly when there are so many great ones out there waiting. Dion Graham anyone?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friends ... together ... all year

When I became a librarian, it had been many, many years since I'd needed any beginning reader resources, so I had no experience with Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad. Wow! Pretty much better for adult readers/listeners along with their young friends than anything else out there (at the time). Despite my affinity for Frog and Toad, I'd never read the four books that are included in The Arnold Lobel Collection: Owl at Home, Grasshopper on the Road, Uncle Elephant and Small Pig. And, like Frog and Toad, these simple (but not simple-minded) animal stories are a cut above the usual fare.

I think Owl might be my favorite, as he's just plain loopy: he lets the winter in to destroy his house, can't figure out what
the two bumps are at the bottom of his bed (his feet ... I can just hear the kids giggling over this one), and cries into his teakettle for tea water. But then there are the protesting beetles who only support mornings and the mosquito who insists that Grasshopper use his ferry boat to make his way across a small puddle. There's the touching relationship at the heart of Uncle Elephant, as the elderly uncle (with "more wrinkles than a tree has leaves") cares for his possibly-orphaned nephew, who couldn't accompany his parents on their boat trip because his trunk was running (what an image!). And the wackiness of Small Pig forced out of his muddy sty by an overly fastidious owner. Each one is just a gem -- good things do indeed come in small packages.

An actor named Mark Linn-Baker narrates these four stories. It appears that he is married to Lobel's daughter Adrianne,
and he starred in a musical, A Year with Frog and Toad (he also graduated from the Yale School of Drama with my brother ... sorry, there are so few brushes with fame, however small, I must indulge). He reads these simple stories very well, reading at a tempered pace, but not a ponderous, deliberative one. There is variation in his expression, as Linn-Baker highlights the irony (for the adults) and humor in each story and situation.

He doesn't do a lot with voices, but I did enjoy those that he employs in the Grasshopper stories -- the indignant "morning-ist" beetles and the sweet little mosquito who has the ferry franchise on his little puddle. It is with Uncle Elephant, though, that I am most charmed by Linn-Baker. His grandfatherly gravitas is nicely counterpointed by the young elephant's seriousness and growing warmth for his unusual relative.

The audiobook includes some cheerful music at the beginning and end. It might have been nice to include it between the stories. A woman's voice introduces each story, which is entirely unnecessary as Linn-Baker could have done it, of course. All-in-all though, a very good audiobook. Considering that beginning readers can be absolutely deadly to listen to, this is no small praise. I give a lot of the credit to Lobel, whose way with controlled vocabulary is pretty much unmatched. Or, as the article that is the first link in this post explains, he simply tossed out the controlled vocabulary (Dolch list ... still in use after 60 years?) and just wrote a couple of good stories.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Do the loco-motion

I think I'm moving Dion Graham into the category of if-he-narrates-it-I-will-listen. In that interview that I linked to, he says: "I try to approach every book I read with integrity, humor when appropriate, and faithfulness to the words. Most books attempt to tell us something about being human, about being alive—I hope my work reflects that." I think that just about sums up his performance in Jacqueline Woodson's Peace, Locomotion -- humor, faithfulness to the text, and being alive. Graham's taken an already wonderful book and added layers that make it even better. Stop reading my blatherings! Go listen!

Peace, Locomotion continues the story of Lonnie Collins Motion (aka Locomotion) an orphaned 6th grader whose greatest tragedy is being separated from his beloved little sister, Lili. In Woodson's first book about Lonnie, Locomotion, Lili's foster mother refused to take boys so Lonnie is placed with Miss Edna -- a loving, older woman with two grown sons. Through one of those great teachers, Ms. Marcus, Lonnie begins writing poetry and Locomotion is told entirely by Lonnie through verse. As Peace, Locomotion begins, Lonnie feels secure as a member of Miss Edna's family, but he still misses Lili. He decides to write her a series of letters about his life, letters that he will share with her once he is old enough to live independently and look after her. The book is those letters -- funny, sad, brave, observant, affectionate, thoughtful and loving. When I read it in March, I wrote: "I feel so hopeful." And nine months later, I just feel more hopeful.

Dion Graham is amazing here (evidently, I used "terrific" about him earlier this year). He is an adult, speaking in an adult's voice, yet he captures Lonnie's youthful optimism perfectly. How does he do this? It's his inflections, his pacing, and -- most importantly, I think -- a sense of enthusiasm and yes, middle school humor that infuses his reading. You can hear the undercurrent of laughter or sadness every time Lonnie signs off his letters. In a format that can easily become stultifying to a listener ["Dear Lili"], Graham reads each and every one of the letters differently -- he finds the nugget of the letter and expertly portrays that in his reading. He is, as he stated, "[faithful] to the words." Quite simply, this book is over too soon.

I think it is so important in audiobooks to have culturally appropriate readers (someone has said this better than I ... see the term "racial drag" used here), but does that mean that books predominantly about white people should only be read by white people? A narrator like Graham shouldn't just be reading books with African American characters. He can -- and should -- read anything. (Like many a black actor, I suspect that he can read white, just the way an American like Katherine Kellgren can read British.) His skills transcend race -- he has mastered the art of suffusing his reading with the emotional intent of the text; in the so-overused phrase, he brings books alive. (Sherman Alexie successfully does this in reading his own work.) Ultimately, to a listener, that is more important than any accent.

While I enjoyed the (presumably) white narrator of the book I listened to just before this one (Days of Little Texas), that narrator was called upon to portray a black character. That character was the weakest link in Luke Daniels' fine narration (although it wasn't egregiously bad, 'cause I've heard egregiously bad). So, if a white guy can read a black guy, why not a black guy (or Asian, Native American, etc.) with the chops to pull it off (and not all of them can, I'm sure) reading a white guy?

While I'm waiting for that semi-perfect world, what Dion Graham should I listen to?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The devil will drag you under

Days of Little Texas took me by surprise. I've never read anything by the author, R.A. Nelson, and didn't know anything about the book, but wow! It's one of those where the audiobook is likely better than the book read to myself, where the voice in my head would be mine -- utterly inauthentic and a little ordinary. This book needs a reader who can provide some serious local flavor, and with narrator Luke Daniels, the ghost story involving Little Texas just takes off.

Ronald Earl Pettway performed his first healing when he was 10 years old. He travelled a Southern small town revival circuit with the elderly (and former child) evangelist Sugar Tom since his mother died in a meth-house fire along with her latest boyfriend and he was taken in by his great aunt Miss Wanda Joy. Rounding out this entourage is an old black man -- who wears his thrice-great grandfather's slave tag around his neck -- named Certain Certain (and I'm sure there was an explanation for this in the book, but it is lost in the mists of hours of listening). When Certain Certain was struck by lightning, Ronald Earl laid on his hands and brought him back to life. Little Texas and the Church of the Hand -- managed with the iron hand of Miss Wanda Joy -- were born.

Six years later, Ronald Earl is having doubts. Not doubts of faith, but doubts of his abilities. He dreams about naked girls and has had a few wet dreams, yet is understandably reluctant to mention these to Miss Wanda Joy. Certain Certain seems to understand and offers general words of support. But Ronald Earl is restless -- "The devil is standing over me." At a healing service in Alabama he lays hands on a very sick girl named Lucy. Her parents carry her away, declaring her cured, but Ronald Earl isn't as certain. Lucy's face first appears on the girl in his dreams, and later he sees and talks with her ... ghost? At the next stop on their circuit, he finds himself unable to preach. To get Little Texas back on track, Miss Wanda Joy proposes a huge revival meeting at the flooded ruins of the Alabama plantation called Vanderloo. At the last revival held at Vanderloo, the devil appeared, and the preacher was never seen again.

In the days (and nights) leading up to the revival, Lucy continues to haunt Ronald Earl -- who is simultaneously terrified and comforted by her presence. Something is very wrong at Vanderloo plantation, and Little Texas is going to every ounce of faith he has to survive this particular meeting.

So, what is this book? A ghost story, Christian fiction, bildungsroman? It's all three. What it thankfully isn't is a book that mocks evangelicals. Little Texas believes that the Holy Spirit is using him to heal others and no one in the Church of the Hand is serving Mammon (well, maybe Miss Wanda Joy a little, but only for the means to serve God and Little Texas). Ronald Earl knows that his deep faith is required in order to defeat the devil.

For a non-believer, I was sucked right into this book. I think the narrator got me at Little Texas' first sermon: "The Lord is a-coming, ah! He's a house afire, ah! He's a freight train, ah! He's a wrecking ball, ah!" Daniels' voice gets deeper and more musical and he starts reading with rhythm. Each "ah!" pops out and sweeps Daniels into the next phrase. I was practically standing up and shouting myself (well, not really ... but I was definitely smiling in acknowledgement of the excitement the narration generates). Then, when the revival is over and we're back hearing from Ronald Earl, it's a younger voice -- (much) less confident, almost innocent.

All the characters here are unique and vivid. Everyone speaks with Southern-tinged inflections, but no one sounds stupid. Certain Certain speaks with a deep, craggy-edged growl (the author says his voice is "full of creek gravel") that is unlike any other character. He doesn't sound "black" to me, but I appreciate the narrator's attempt to make him different. Daniels was completely consistent with all his character voices. There is a scene early on in the novel when the four evangelists are in an IHOP, being waited on by an Afghani named Azeem. The conversation is flying quickly around and Daniels keeps track of everyone. It was terrific listening.

Nelson's two other novels sound equally fascinating/edgy. Yikes! He's a rocket scientist in his day job!

Monday, December 7, 2009

In search of adventure

Few could resist opening a book with the title The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis (although the cover is kind of blah) and once you have opened it, you will be unable to resist Popeye and Elvis themselves. Author Barbara O'Connor seems to have such a sympathetic eye and a talent for appropriateness in telling the stories of poor families.

Popeye lives with his grandmother, Velma, in a ratty old house in Fayette, South Carolina, depressed at the thought of a summer watching the heart-shaped water stain on his bedroom ceiling grow ever larger. Velma is keeping her brain sharp by regularly reciting the kings and queens of England in chronological order and giving Popeye a weekly vocabulary word. Words just meant to be read aloud, like vicissitude, taciturn, serendipity. Velma's afraid of "cracking up" and so is Popeye. He realizes that Velma is the most stable adult in his life. Popeye's Uncle Dooley -- a layabout with a fondness for beer who still lives with his mother-- accidently shot Popeye in the eye with his BB gun, giving him his nickname.

Then, a Holiday Rambler gets stuck in the mud practically on his doorstep and out pop the six wild Jewell kids. Led by oldest brother Elvis, who recognizes a kindred spirit and immediately names him vice president of the Spit and Swear Club, the Jewells are loud, rambunctious and thrillingly slapdash. Popeye is enchanted. Elvis, however, wants to get away from his younger brothers and sisters -- he calls one of them a "toe-jam tattletale" -- and proposes that the two boys quietly seek their own adventure. Even though he knows that Velma will not approve, Popeye signs up (he couldn't not!). As they explore the woods of Fayette, they spy a Yoo-hoo box transformed into a boat. There's a cryptic note inside. Popeye and Elvis have found their small adventure.

Scott Sowers reads the book with all the energy and rowdy enthusiasm of the Jewell kids. The verbal jousting and physicality of that family are humorously portrayed in his reading. There are many "characters" to work with here: doofus-y Duane, Mrs. Jewell (who writes country music lyrics), the butterfly-winged Princess Starletta (who creates the Yoo-hoo boats), and those Jewell rugrats (Calvin, Prissy, Walter, Willis and Shorty).

I particularly enjoyed Sowers' gruff, yet loving Velma. Every once in awhile, we fade into one of Velma's recitations -- Richard III, Henry VI, Henry VIII, Edward VI -- in her tired, determined voice. Popeye, though, really stands out: He's the quiet observer most of the time and his wry, inner voice as he incorporates Velma's vocabulary words into his story, and his curiosity at discovering a new world outside his ken are sympathetically created by Sowers. Everyone speaks in a Southern twang, that sounds authentic to my ears. These are poor people, yet I never felt that either O'Connor or Sowers was caricaturing them.

At my work, we give a presentation every summer on good recent books for literature circles and we never have enough recommendations for the younger end. I'm looking forward to recommending Popeye and Elvis next year. The complex language vividly describes the rural setting, and then there are the vocabulary words. Perfect for 4th graders!

Happily ever ...

I started out this blog post to say that generally I'm not fond of the dead teenager genre ... but in thinking about this a little more, I realize that that is completely not true! I loved Elsewhere, I loved Thirteen Reasons Why, I loved Before I Die, I liked If I Stay and A Certain Slant of Light, and even Deadline. (Technically, Before I Die and Deadline don't qualify as dead teenager books, but I liked them anyway.) And I really liked The Everafter ... much more than I thought I would. The Everafter is by Amy Huntley (and has just been shortlisted for the 2010 William C. Morris YA Debut Award).

When I look back on that list, every book but A Certain Slant of Light is a book I listened to ... maybe audio makes the dead teenager book [sorry!] really come alive?

Maddy Stanton is in what she calls Is. She knows she's dead, but she doesn't know how it happened. And, as she floats in Is, she comes across objects -- all things that she lost at one time in her life. Maddy finds that by grasping these things, she is transported to the point in her life where she lost them. She quickly discovers that she can get back into her body and experience the loss (along with the love of friends and family) again. Once the object is found, or she physically gets too far away from it (in its still-lost state), Maddy finds herself back in Is. There are no lost objects past Maddy's 17th year.

Like Maddy, we experience her life out of order: She loses and finds her car keys, then she loses a baby rattle, then she loses a favorite hair clip. Most of the novel is spent in the year or so before she has died -- the year she fell in love with Gabriel -- and she probes the events she relives in an attempt to solve the mystery of what happened to her.

As I said, I was intrigued despite my tendency to disdain young-love-forever-type books. Maddy is an appealing character and we are quickly drawn into the peeks into her life. Soon we are as invested as she is in finding out what happened. This is due, in no small part, to the excellent narrator, Tavia Gilbert. (See above comment about audiobooks and dead teenagers.)

I hear all of Maddy's confusion and grief in Gilbert's performance, along with the intelligent humor with which the teenager Maddy views the world. The novel is fairly short (it reads it just over five hours), and Gilbert really builds the tension as Maddy gets closer to figuring out her death. The narration allows Gilbert to portray Maddy as a little girl at a Father/Daughter dance, as an irrepressible middle-school giggler, and even as a four-month-old infant who has lost her rattle, and she brings her vocal skills appropriately to each of these versions of Maddy. The other characters that people this novel -- young and old, dead and alive -- all have distinctive voices that sound natural in the moments of dialog. Gilbert's mastery of ages and genders (and even species -- we hear from a cat in this novel) is impressive.

This is a teen-friendly book that should appeal to Twilight fans along with readers looking for something a little more complex. It's pretty clean as well, and so might be appropriate for those fourth and fifth graders who proudly lug about the tomes of the "Saga" (I finally watched the [first] movie this weekend), wanting all their friends to know they are reading it. It nicely fulfills that yearning to read about true love forever.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Oh grow up already!

I'll give you a warning up front: The facade of pleasantness that I maintain is just that -- a facade. I will not be able to contain myself on this particular audiobook. This is dreck, pure and simple. An author of Christian fiction for adults named Wanda E. Brunstetter also writes a series of books about (for?) Amish children ("Accurately portraying the Amish way of life.") featuring a girl named Rachel Yoder. Evidently, Rachel is Always [making] Trouble Somewhere. In Book 8, Growing Up, we experience a series of episodes in Rachel's life -- in each chapter she forgets her chores, gets distracted, messes something up, etc. and has to be told by her grandfather, father, mother, teacher, or two older brothers that she can't seem to grow up.

So, kind of like Ramona Quimby, right? But for poor Rachel, it is always about what she's doing wrong. There is none of Ramona's joie de vivre. It's just Rachel making mistakes and wait for it ... learning her lesson. Over and over again. Now granted, I am an adult listener (and an adult listener with little interest in Christian fiction), but I think any 8-year-old will have no problem figuring out what is going to happen about a page into each chapter. As for the accurate portrayal of Amish life, I can't say; but I have difficulty believing that Amish people are as lifeless and one-dimensional as the Yoders.

I'm waiting for the story of Rachel's time in the "English" world, her Rumspringa. Now that might be interesting!

The narrator, Ellen Grafton, has little to work with, but she doesn't do much with what she has. She seems determined to read with the same sense of artificial cheerfulness that the author has used. So, not only does each chapter have the same, predictable story arc, but each chapter is read in exactly the same way. Where she does have the opportunity to liven things up -- some animal sounds, a baby, a semi-thrilling buggy ride -- she just plugs along. Maybe she is just determined to see things through.

I checked the World Cat holdings for this title, and 102 libraries own it. But the summary I found says it all: "Rachel is not enjoying the school year and shirks many of her responsibilities. She wants to be all grown up but will she ever learn the value of growing up into a dependable adult?" I'm not sure I would want any children I know reading a book that's all about becoming a dependable adult.

I did learn that the Amish have answering machines ... in the phone shed. Well, I never.

Hoot

I regularly complain about having to come into a series in the middle, but when I look back on my listening this year, I really haven't had to do it very often. Maybe I'm mellowing, but when Book 5 of the Guardians of Ga'Hoole reached me, I just opened it and began listening without a murmur (or a search of the web to bring me up to speed). The Shattering by Kathryn Lasky tells the story of the young barn owl Eglantine, resident of the Great Ga'Hoole Tree -- which means (I think) that she is in training to be part of a special order of owls who will do good in a world of evil. Eglantine's big brother is Soren, who is (again, I think) the overall hero of this series -- now up to its 15th installment.

Eglantine's mind is being messed with by the evil owls, called The Pure Ones. Through their agent, Ginger, Eglantine has waking dreams of finding her long-lost mother. This owl is -- of course -- not her mother, but she wants some documentation from the library in Ga'Hoole that will help The Pure Ones defeat the owls of the Tree using biological weapons. Fortunately, Eglantine has a good friend, Primrose, who realizes what's going on and -- while the owls led by Soren conduct some sort of warlike action, Primrose and Eglantine escape from The Pure Ones. (I'm pretty sure I don't have that quite right ... but it really doesn't matter, does it?)

After listening to this and recalling my antipathy to the Warriors and Redwall series (having read the first books of each), I wonder at the appeal of these animal stories for older readers. Does they always have to be about war?

The reader of the Ga'Hoole books is Pamela Garelick. She reads the book's narrative passages with a pleasant English accent, and her familiarity with the series means that she reads the character and place names with confidence. However, almost every single one of her character voices are earshatteringly strident and screechy. Perhaps she is attempting to imitate owls, but it was just unbearably painful for adult ears to listen to.

I also find her character voices fairly inconsistent. In one section, Primrose is voiced with about three different registers (medium-high, high, stratospheric). Soren seems to speak in several vocal ranges as well.

The information that is on the cover the audiobook says that Garelick records her books in a lovely little studio in Greece. That sounds much better than some windowless box doesn't it?

The circus is coming!

The author and illustrator Chris Van Dusen was inspired by a real-life tragedy to create his delightful (and not tragic) picture book, The Circus Ship. In his book, a steamship runs aground near the coast of Maine in a dense fog and the 15 animals aboard all swim to safety on a nearby island. The human residents are a bit nonplussed: "There's a tiger in the tulips." But when the aforementioned tiger rescues a little girl from a burning building (since he remembers what he supposed to do when he sees fire), humans and animals settle in to a pleasant co-existence. But then the evil Mr. Paine, "owner" of the circus animals shows up on the island to get them back. The animals all hide in plain sight (a deliciously puzzling two-page spread) and Mr. Paine stomps away forever.

The real-life story, which Van Dusen explains in his author's note, was that of the Royal Tar, which sank off the coast of Maine in 1836. All the animals aboard were drowned.

Except for that page spread where you need to pause in order to look closely to find all the animals (a snake serves as an exotic shawl for example), this is a fun book to listen to. The story is all told in rhyming couplets (mostly), so a read-aloud works very well. The narrator, Andrew Watts, keeps to the rhyme but takes the opportunity to vary his delivery as called for in the book's dramatic action. He voices a few characters -- most notably the pompous bluster of Mr. Paine.

Easily the most recognizable voice at Recorded Books (and possibly the industry), George Guidall, reads the author's note. His calm, authoritative delivery tells the sad story with dispassion. Those who know small children who love animals may wish to stop the audiobook before this point.

Number 8 of 13

I remember few school assignments from primary grades (except those lovingly retained by my mother), but I do recall a 5th grade state report that I had to complete -- which included a five-day itinerary around Iowa seeing sites of historical and cultural interest. I might have been interested in the Iowa equivalent of A Primary Source History of the Colony of South Carolina when I was doing my research (although I don't think I would have wanted the audio version). But if you aren't a grade school child needing to do a report on South Carolina, the above title -- by Heather Hasan -- is only mildly interesting.

The most fun fact in here is about some 16th century French Huguenots who attempted to build a colony on present-day Parris Island. The men weren't particularly skilled at meeting their basic needs and soon began to starve -- even with help from the Native Americans living nearby. They jerry-built a ship to sail back across the Atlantic. Halfway across they ran out of food (again!). After eating their leather shoes and other supplies they decided to kill one member of their party and eat him. By the time they were rescued off the coast of England, "they had lost their minds." Now that's American history!

After a sop to the original residents, the book becomes a simple recitation of what Europeans arrived and what happened next. It focuses mostly on Colonial and Revolutionary times, but fast forwards to the Civil War.

I'm sure this audiobook was published as an alternative learning tool -- listening while having the book in your hand is no doubt helpful for some young researchers. But listening to it straight through -- without illustrations -- is really just a bore. The names and events just blend together (since the only thing I can remember is the cannibalism). The reader is Eileen Stevens and she gives this a straightforward no-frills narration. She has a habit of pausing before she says the name of a non-English person or place that is kind of odd to listen to, but otherwise she just produces the words.

I've complained here about listening to the recitation of timelines, glossaries and other backmatter (and I wouldn't want to listen to it here), but as a nonfiction book -- a book that states it's from primary sources -- the absence of these sources is noteworthy. The Table of Contents here indicates that there is quite a bit of material not included in the audiobook. If that's the case, this really needs to be a print/audio combination. Although, like the Huguenots aboard that ship in 1563, I would have gone mad sitting with the book in my lap following along.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Listen my children ...

I listened to another one of those blah biographies from the Library of American Lives and Times over the Thanksgiving weekend, this one was called Paul Revere and the Minutemen of the American Revolution. The author is Ryan P. Randolph. I didn't learn much here, since I recently read James Cross Giblin's much more interesting The Many Rides of Paul Revere.

Revere was a bit of a radical among radicals, and seemed to be everywhere during the probably illegal activities that went on in Boston in the years just prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence: organizing the protests against the Stamp Act, engraving the scene of the Boston Massacre, participating in the Boston Tea Party, and riding that horse from the North Shore to Concord. According to Randolph's book, he had pretty much been forgotten by American history until Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that poem in 1861. Randolph also contends that Revere was just an ordinary silversmith -- with which I think the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (and others) might disagree.

This audiobook is read by Benjamin Becker. He keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, but no amount of speedreading is going to make this anything but a chore to get through. He's too enthusiastic, almost viewing his role as that of cheerleader: Listen up kids! This guy was really important and here's why! Becker is occasionally interrupted by another voice -- who reads footnotes with appropriate gravitas. Then, we're back to the main story and its race through history.

May this Library never cross my path again ...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

If you let me play

I've never read an American Girl novel; at the reference desk we get requests for them by name and it just seemed unlikely that I would recommend them to someone looking for a good book. Well, I've read one now, and it's still pretty unlikely. Meet Julie introduces us to Julie Albright, 4th grader. It's 1974, and her parents -- hippie-ish mom (who owns an artsy Haight-Ashbury store called Gladrags) and airline pilot dad -- are divorcing. Julie must move across San Francisco and go to a new school. She's missing her BFF (not a 70s term) Ivy Ling.

Author Megan McDonald includes a reasonable amount of historical and cultural references -- Vietnam War vets trying to keep a social service center open, Olga Korbut at the 1972 Olympics, mood rings, those shag carpets in the shape of a foot (look, you can even buy one for your own room), and even a friendly, no-fault divorce (the reasons for the divorce are never alluded to). The main plot line revolves around Julie's introduction to Title IX -- the 1972 law that said that money spent on boys' sports had to be the same as money spent on girls' (among other things). Julie wants to play basketball, and since Jack London Elementary School doesn't have a girls' team, she thinks it's only fair that she be allowed to play on the boys'. Inspired by a neighborly Vietnam vet, she conducts a petition drive and presents it to her principal.

I received a full 8+ hours of audiobook devoted to Julie (six stories), but only listened to the first of her adventures. Ali Ahn is the narrator and she does a fine job with the limited material. She reads with a youthful perkiness as well as 4th grade despair. She differentiates between a limited cast of characters with her voice and performs them consistently. I was mildly amused by the whole book, but I think that's because I was growing up in the '70s along with Julie. Still, like many books for readers who are stepping into "real" chapter books, they don't make the best audiobooks. The sentences are short and declarative, any reading of them is bound to be choppy. Ahn does the best she can.

My post title is a shout out to that great Nike ad from about ten years ago. Play ball, Julie!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Color me bluish purple

Now that I'm tending towards old, I'm full of advice for my young friends: grab those travel opportunities and see the world. Once you acquire the family, the mortgage, and the need for money to afford them, you'll regret that you didn't. Do they listen? Well, Zeeta's Rumi-quoting, crystal-loving mother Layla definitely heeded this advice, but -- to Zeeta's frustration -- she never stopped traveling in order to get that mortgage and that steady job. She did, however, have Zeeta when she was 20 years old and the two of them have led a nomad's existence ever since.

Zeeta's fed up. She's lived 15 places in her 15 years and she wants nothing more than to move to Maryland and start living that middle-class American dream. Instead, she finds herself in Otavalo, Ecuador. Zeeta keeps a journal where she writes all her thoughts about her life: who she meets, what she does, who her father might be, what she thinks about her situation, etc. Each place she's lived has a different colored notebook. The Indigo Notebook is the first in a series from Laura Resau about Zeeta and her travels.

During her first few days in Otavalo, Zeeta meets Wendell -- an OtavaleƱo who was adopted at birth by white parents. Wendell doesn't speak Spanish and he asks Zeeta to help him with his search for his birth family. Their quest takes them to a nearby small town, Agua Santos (?), and eventually to the story of his birth and adoption. Zeeta finds herself falling for Wendell, but she's not sure if he returns her affection.

At the same time, Zeeta's mother seeks enlightenment by immersing herself in a river near a mystical waterfall. She nearly drowns in the attempt. Following this scare, something changes in Layla -- she starts acting like the mother Zeeta thinks she wants: She begins dating a man with a job, she plans her ESL classes ahead of time, she visits fancy resorts and [gasp!] goes golfing, she begins watching television. Zeeta is appalled. And when Wendell gets in some serious trouble, Zeeta just doesn't feel like her mother is available to help her. The two teenagers face some pretty nasty characters, characters with machine guns and a penchant for poisonous snakes and plants.

A listener gets such a sense of place in this novel. Otavalo and its surroundings are another character. The market scenes are vivid. Every time Zeeta and Wendell get on that bus to Agua Santos, I'm crammed in there with them. But, while I liked Zeeta and Wendell, their story is pretty predictable. I could see what was coming pretty early on (well, maybe not the poisonous snakes) and wondered how on earth Resau was going to fill up the other half of her book. And while the second half isn't boring, it does feel like there's a bit of padding in there.

Narrator Justine Eyre reads this story. Like all the audiobooks I've heard her read, she reads this one with emotion and a commitment to the story. All her characters speak differently and appropriately; dialog sounds natural. Her Spanish-inflected English is consistent, and in the few cases where actual Spanish is spoke, Eyre's accent sounds right to me. Her precise way of speaking -- which I've mentioned before -- seems appropriate here: Zeeta tells us that she has an unusual American accent.

I'm not fond of her portrayal of Layla, who sounds overly affected and a bit too, well ... new age/woo-woo. You can argue that that is exactly who Layla is, but it bothered me while listening. It reminded me of another novel (different narrator) with a flaky adult and a "sensible" teenager.

In the nothing-t0-do-with-the-audiobook category: I really enjoyed Red Glass, but found this to be a distinct let-down. I'm (in an offhand way) curious how Resau thinks this concept can stretch to a series of novels; Zeeta's at peace with her mother, she's got a boyfriend, she's planning for her future. What's left? More beautiful scenery? Well, I guess that's why I'm not the novelist!

Secrets of a small town

A sleepy, hot summer in the small town of Olena, Illinois (the Google map pretty much sums it up) is palpable in Andrea Beaty's Cicada Summer. The 17-year cicadas with their distinctive song have returned, only the post office is air conditioned, and 12-year-old Lily Mathis is still fooling all 117 residents. Since a terrible accident two years earlier, Lily has not spoken -- and she's done nothing to alter the opinion of the townspeople that she suffered some kind of brain damage as a result of the accident.

As happens in small-town fiction, a stranger comes to town: Tinny is the grandneice of kindly Fern, the owner of the Olena general store. Tinny spies Lily secretly reading her beloved Nancy Drew and tells Lily that she knows her secret. Tinny has a secret as well, and hers is a little more dangerous. Another stranger has followed her to Olena and -- as Lily silently observes -- he seems to think that Tinny knows something about a lot of missing money. When Tinny disappears, Lily realizes that she's the only person who knows how to find her. But can she release herself from her self-imposed silence, and tell the secret she's been holding on to since the accident?

(Well, if you're a grown-up, I hope you know the answer.) Beaty's prose is all about that sleepy summer atmosphere, with its underlying sense of something's about to happen. We get glimpses of life before the accident -- meeting Lily's older brother Pete -- so our sense of uncertainty mounts over this as well. The suspense builds and its resolution is appropriately frightening, but ultimately satisfying. There is a bit of scary violence, but I think readers of gentle stories will enjoy this.

I don't think I can recommend it as a good listen, though. In the beginning, the flashbacks are initially very confusing (intentionally?) -- I was well into the novel before I realized that we were working with two different time periods. Since Lily is such an astute observer, her dialog and interactions with the other characters in the flashbacks didn't initially strike me as dramatically different from her present mute behavior. This, coupled with the fact that the flashbacks are in the same present tense as the current time, confused me in the early chapters of this audiobook. (I understand that the book uses an italic typeface to indicate the flashbacks.) A less sophisticated listener might be equally confused.

The narrator is Maria Cabezas, who has a nice youthful sounding voice. Lily's quiet watchfulness is mirrored in Cabezas' subdued narration. I really hear the humid, soporific summer days in her voice. In the flashbacks, once I clued into the time shift, Lily's narrative grows slightly more expressive and animated. Ultimately, though, Cabezas' quiet reading -- combined with the somewhat confusing flashbacks -- make this a difficult book to concentrate on. I found my attention wandering even during the most exciting scenes.

There are also enough things in the story that bothered me while listening that I'd lose focus on the narrative, and start thinking about these:
  • I just can't believe that a 10-year-old can have realized that her silence means people think she's brain damaged, and that she kept up the fiction for two years.
  • Isn't 12 on the far outer edge of loving Nancy Drew? (Of course, there is the innocence implied for a small town.)
  • A stranger from Chicago shows up in a gossipy small town and no one but Lily's interested?

I wonder if a little cicada music would have livened things up?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mob scene

Walter Dean Myers has another book out this year: Riot (it's so recent, his website hasn't been updated). With this book, Myers returns to the format he used so successfully in the Printz-Award-winning Monster (which I read ... quite some time ago): a video screenplay.

In Riot, Myers places his fictional characters into an historical event: the 1863 draft riots in New York City. Working class whites, largely Irish, were outraged at the National Conscription Act for two reasons: 1) wealthier individuals could easily elude the draft by paying $300 and 2) fighting on behalf of enslaved African Americans was an unpopular cause. Many of the working class feared a mass movement of freed slaves to New York, African Americans who would take away precious jobs because they would be willing to work for less money. A mob formed to protest the draft, but quickly morphed (as mobs do) into vicious and murderous mayhem against both the obviously wealthy and African Americans. The Orphan Asylum for Colored Children at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street was set on fire as its residents fled out the back door. After three days of rioting -- during which at least eight African Americans were lynched -- federal troops (some straight from the battlefield at Gettysburg) arrived and quelled the riot in a flurry of gunfire near Gramercy Park.

In Riot, the story revolves around Claire Johnson, biracial daughter of a black man and an Irish woman. Claire could pass if she chose to. But with two loving parents, and a relatively tolerant community, Claire has not had to choose a racial identity. But when people she knows begin to choose it for her, she begins to question who she is and her place in the world (oh, it's a teen novel!). She gets caught up in the riot because she and her father help to rescue the orphans.

In Myers' video format, we follow Claire through those three terrifying days, meeting other fictional participants along the way. (The book's only "real" person is Walt Whitman, who spends a few moments at the Johnson's public house, the Peacock Inn.) The "action" is both wide-screen (including a climatic battle scene) and focused on personal moments. A particularly touching one of these has Claire writing to dictation a letter to the parents of a young soldier.

The audiobook is quite brief (just about two hours) and has the most bling of any audiobook I think I've ever listened to. There is a large cast, various sound effects (door pounding, gunfire, screams and shouts, etc.), a lot of music cues (including a series at the beginning that cleverly take us from present day to July 1863) that underlie the narration as well as provide breaks between scenes, and an all-to-brief moment of choir singing; all overseen by the deep, neutral voice of the narrator, Dan Areskis (I'm spelling this phonetically). (The introduction of the audiobook says "read [it might be narrated] by Dan Areskis and performed by a full cast." I am kind of interested in the use of the two different terms.) The cast does a good job, their dialog sound authentic. The voice actors are all credited at the end, and many of the Irish characters appeared to be read by actual Irish people.

Frankly, though, it didn't send me. I find the format choppy, making the story difficult to focus on. New characters are constantly entering the story and I can't remember if I know who they are or not. The dialog is fairly expository and that grows tiresome. The video directions get in the way of the story -- there are just too many instances of "Cut to:" There are odd gaps of silence between scenes that seem to be closely connected. But, above all, the dialog all sounds like it had been recorded in a huge empty room -- extremely tinny and echo-ey.

What I did enjoy on this audiobook is its back matter. A brief timeline of events is read by the actor who plays Mr. Johnson (Arco Mitchell?) with a bit of spark and expression. There's a little more explanation of each event, instead of just the bare facts.

Then, quite of bit of time is devoted to Myers himself. First, he reads his author's note. He's not an outstanding reader, but his passion for the subject is obvious. The author's note is followed by a fascinating natural conversation between Myers and Barnet Schecter. Although the recording doesn't tell us, Schecter has written an adult nonfiction book about the riots: The Devil's Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America. (Click here and scroll down to a lecture on this subject by Schecter.) Myers' inspiration was, in part, the discovery and excavation of the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, which led him to research the history of African Americans in New York. From there, he made his way to the 1863 riots and this book.

Brrr ...

I wonder if author Maggie Stiefvater is tired of hearing her werewolf book Shiver compared to the Twilight vampire saga. There is no comparison, Shiver is much better. The romance is still a bit too brooding for my jaded taste (I find Cathy and Heathcliff to be a bit much as well), but it is completely teen friendly. Dare I say that it is even slightly feminist: the heroine does fall drippingly in love, but she fully retains her sense of self. I also enjoyed Stiefvater's twist on the legend: It's not a full moon that brings out the lycanthrope, it's the temperature. If it gets too cold ... . And the cold plays a constant, and very effective, role in this story.

In the small town of Mercy Falls, Minnesota, Grace Brisbane was dragged off her backyard tire swing by a starving wolfpack when she was six years old. They were preparing to devour her when one of the wolves challenged the pack and took her -- dazed and bleeding -- back to her home. Grace has watched that wolf -- the one with the yellow eyes, feeling a kinship with it, for the past ten years.

Sam Roth is that wolf. He was bitten by a senior member of the Mercy Falls pack as a young boy, and endures the cycle of man and wolf each year. He knows, though, that the time always comes when you don't become human again, and he's feeling that this time is close. This winter, another young man has been attacked by the pack, and the community begins hunting the wolves. Sam is shot, and transforming back to human, he manages to get to Grace's backdoor. She gets him to a hospital, and learns that she must keep him warm to keep him human. The kinship they have always felt turns into love, and Grace becomes a fighter to save Sam's humanity.

Aside from the paranormal aspect, this is a romance novel, pure and simple. There are lots of long looks, sighs, intimacy, and even some sincere song lyrics. Grace and Sam are truly soul mates, so it's just a question of getting that pesky wolf thing out of the way. I will refrain from sharing the ending, but suffice to say that Stiefvater already has another book on the way.

If the romance is a bit too ... well, too, the setting is very evocative. Stiefvater's writing brings a Minnesota winter to frigid life. I particularly enjoyed the temperature readings that were provided at the beginning of every chapter. The weather is the lovers' enemy. You feel the chill just by listening.

Shiver has two perspectives, and fortunately, there are two readers taking the roles of Grace and Sam: Jenna Lamia and David Ledoux. Lamia is so good here. I have long been impressed with her talent (heard here most recently), particularly her ability to sound authentically youthful. In interpreting Grace, she has added another layer onto her performance: her ability to translate Grace's emotions to her voice is exceptional. Grace's feelings throughout this story are vividly clear. The increasing tension of the plummeting temperatures is mirrored in Lamia's voice.

She's also pretty skilled at portraying the story's other characters. She can read male characters creditably, and does so with both teen boys and adults. Grace's girlfriends are also nicely limned. I particularly enjoyed her portrayals of ditzy Rachel and alpha girl Isabel.

I've never heard David Ledoux before, but he makes a fine soulful and sensitive Sam. Sam is a poet, and I sense some discomfort when Ledoux reads his song lyrics (and chooses not to sing one of them). But both he and Lamia really hit the right notes as the star-crossed lovers of this particular romance.

The audiobook includes a visit with the author who -- while not interviewed -- seems to be answering the usual questions about the origins of the story, how she became a writer, etc. Stiefvater is lively and informative in a slightly stiff format. I appreciate the opportunity to get to know her. If you check out her website, you can see that she's a musician and artist as well.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The servant strikes back

One of the reasons I enjoy historical fiction, I think, is the painless history. With The Book of the Maidservant, I reaped the rewards of painless English literature as well. The author, Rebecca Barnhouse, was inspired by The Book of Margery Kempe which is -- evidently -- the first memoir written in English. Margery Kempe, born around 1373, was a devoutly religious woman who -- after having 14 children -- determined that she should live separately from her husband so she could properly worship the Virgin Mary. A few years later, she got the call to make a pilgrimage to Rome and to the Holy Land. Following that first trip, it seems that the travel bug in general bit her and she made several other lengthy journeys. Then, she dictated her memoirs in English, and I guess they've never gone out of print.

As she described that first pilgrimage, Dame Margery railed against the unnamed young woman who accompanied her on the journey. In Barnhouse's book, the maidservant, called Johanna, gets her own back. Through Johanna's eyes, we discover that Dame Margery is a pious pain in the ass -- loudly and constantly proclaiming her faith and driving the other pilgrims so crazy that they eventually boot her from their group. Poor Johanna came along believing that she was to serve Dame Margery only, but instead she ends up the general slavey for the group of eight travelers -- cooking and cleaning for them after a day of tramping on foot across Europe. Johanna, too, gets separated from the group -- escaping from a violent attempt at rape (I think), and through her own grit and determination, finds safety and security (along with an old friend)in the English pilgrims' hospice in Rome.

Why is the plucky Medieval heroine such a trope in children's/teen literature (am I using trope correctly here)? I like these girls, I like the historical details, I like Johanna. Her actions and reactions seem true to the period, but she's got an independent streak that makes her appealing to 21st century readers.

The narrator is new to me, Susan Duerden. Let me say that in her portrayal of young Johanna, she does not sound like her pictures in this audiobook. No blonde temptress here. She gives a soft-voiced, feisty, yet innocent performance in the voice of a 15th century illiterate servant. Duerden also creates an individual voice for each of the pilgrims in Dame Margery's party: Pious, pompous Dame Margery, a lascivious thug sent on pilgrimage to save his soul, a timid priest, a merchant, an old man and his young wife, their manservant who has a speech defect, and two young university men who sing drinking songs and make jokes in Latin. (Johanna gets a bit of a crush on one of the students, named John Mouse, as does the young wife.) Each is created with just a few subtle alterations in her voice, and Duerden sustains these characters throughout the bulk of the novel.

It sounds a bit like The Canterbury Tales, doesn't it, only without the other pilgrims' stories? And, I guess that was why I was ultimately a bit bored by Johanna. Even though she draws spot-on portraits of her fellow travelers (that Duerden uses in her narration), it's really just her story. And, her story isn't interesting enough to last me nearly seven hours. When the company sets out to cross Europe, the days begin to run together: They are walking, it is raining, they are squabbling. I didn't feel like we were getting anywhere. By the time the novel makes its turn -- Dame Margery is left behind and Johanna runs away -- I was truly not paying much attention.

I like the concept of this book, but came away a bit bored by its execution.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Alphonsus Spewt

The visual artist Mike Wilks (unknown to me) has a tremendous time naming characters in his novel Mirrorscape. Melkin Womper, Ambrosius Blenk, Dirk Tot all trip off the tongue in a silly way (and they are delightfully delicious when heard), but my favorite is Alphonsus Spewt [guessing on the spelling] (a bad guy). The cover has a somewhat Hieronymus Bosch feel to it, and Wilks says on his website that his character Blenk is inspired by Bosch. While listening to this novel, I sometimes felt like I was looking at a Bosch painting, having that overwhelmed sense of not knowing where to look.

Melkin Womper -- who goes by Mel (except by the nasty Spewt, who calls him Smell) -- lives in the backwater village of Feg in the kingdom of Nem. He loves to draw. His friend and priest sends some of Mel's drawings to the workshop of the famous artist, Ambrosius Blenk, in the hopes that a scholarship apprenticeship will be offered to Mel. Although Mel's parents don't want him to go to the capital, events carry him away. Mel has inadvertently gone afoul of the enforcers of the Fifth Mystery (led by Alphonsus Spewt): He needs to pay a tithe if he's going to engage in an activity that appeals to the sense of sight. As Blenk's assistant, Dirk Tot, explains, there are five Mysteries (one for each of our five senses), who control all activities and commerce related to that sense. But the Mysteries are corrupt, and there is a revolutionary movement afoot hoping to destroy their power.

Mel takes up his apprenticeship at Blenk's mansion, but -- as the lowest of the low -- he does very little artwork and a lot of cleaning up. Soon, of course, he tumbles into political intrigue and discovers the Mirrorscape. By painting a special sign onto a canvas, those who know the sign can gain entry into the world of the painting. At first, the Mirrorscape serves as a refuge for the revolutionaries, but once Mel -- along with his new friends Ludo and Wren -- finds his way into the alternative world, the bad guys soon follow. The battle between the Mysteries and the revolutionaries may well be won by the person with the fastest hand on his or her paintbrush.

There's a lot to like here (the characters' names, first off). Mel is your classic charmed innocent thrust into situations about which he knows nothing, but with the skills to defeat even the most evil enemy. The concept of an alternative world on the other side of a painting has been done before (Hasn't it? A title is on the tip of my tongue ... or am I thinking Inkheart?), but here it's brought to life with an artist's eye for detail and a great deal of humor (Two characters from Mirrorscape are a moveable house that goes by the name Billet, and an all-knowing butler called Swivel -- whose head does precisely that.). There's plenty of adventure and magic, along with a dabbling of art history.

The narrator is Paul English. I listened to his reading of Mao's Last Dancer a few years ago, and liked him tremendously. He's a very skilled audiobook reader and he brings a lot of those skills to this novel. He can create numerous characters with his voice -- I was particularly fond of his Spewt, as well as Billet and Swivel. He keeps a story moving nicely along, while varying his pace to convey excitement or deep emotion. His voice is very pleasant to listen to (admitting my fondness for stories read with an English accent).

Alas, though, I found this story to be almost too complex for audio. I got lost in the Mirrorscape! Wilks' artistic sensibility means that the settings of the Mirrorscape are described in great detail. I would get bogged down listening to these, then -- once the action began again -- try desperately to remember where I was in the story. There is a lengthy sequence when the three friends (Wilks uses this expression frequently, and I like it) search the Mirrorscape for Ambrosius Blenk and I lost track of which painting they had moved into several times.

Another scene comprises description after description of the fantastical beasts that are being drawn by the story's various artists to battle each other in mortal combat. These beasts are one big blur in my reader's eye. At this point, the story's real action has shifted, and I can't even remember how that battle actually ended. I'm sure the book must have plenty of illustrations, which would undoubtedly help in tracking the strange creatures and settings of the Mirrorscape.

The book ends with not one, but two, glossaries -- the first defines words used in Mirrorscape, the second is the terminology of art and artists. Lists like these never work particularly well on audio, and two of them are just a bit much. The Mirrorscape glossary names all those fantastical creatures, and then defines each of them as "an imaginary beast."

This book was published in the U.K. two years ago, and its sequel is already in print there, with a third book expected momentarily. The audiobook has been published elsewhere as well. I just want to say to U.S. publishers with rights to overseas literature -- you don't have to space a series' installments out, you can give them to us all at once!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Would you adopt this dog?

This one made me laugh out loud. William Dufris' dog characters in A Dog on his Own are pretty darn hilarious. Trust me ... he sounds like that face. Mary Jane Auch's deeply satisfying animal story (and I know I've said that I'm a pile of sentimental goo when reading these) works extremely well as an audiobook. The cover dog is K-10, six-time veteran of the animal shelter. He still thinks he's pretty charming and cute, but his days as a go-home-on-the-first-day dog are behind him. That's OK; K-10 -- so named by his mother who said he was a cut above the other dogs -- doesn't really want a forever home: humans have given him up time and time again and he is having none of them anymore. But he's got to get out before he gets the permanent thumbs down.

K-10 plots his escape from the shelter with the dog in the neighboring cage, Pearl, a sarcastic lab mix; but when the time comes for their big break, they end up dragging along Pepe (Peppy?), a typically excitable Chihuahua. Pearl soon goes her own way, and then K-10 sees that Pepe makes it back to his owner (none too bright, Pepe ran away by mistake). On his own, as the title says, K-10 gets caught up with the town's truly bad dogs -- Doberman Adolf and Rottweiler Rotter. Pearl rescues him and loosens up enough to tell her own story. She believes in happy endings, and it's her friendship that helps K-10 believe in them too.

Dufris has an enjoyable time here. His high, squeaky voice hits just the right notes of doggy enthusiasm and cockiness as K-10 tells his story. He skillfully creates a number of the other character dogs as well: Pearl has a seen-it-all ennui to her voice, Pepe is eager and hyperactive without the icky stereotypically Mexican accent, Adolf is a deep-voiced German who sounds like he came from a World War II movie, and Rotter is a mobster straight from The Sopranos. When the animal shelter brings out its box of puppies, Dufris produces five or six yippy bits of dialog that are truly doggy. (That's when I first laughed.) All his voices are consistent throughout this brief novel. He practically could have done the whole thing without the "s/he saids."

As is always the case with Full Cast Audio productions, the music here is an intrinsic part of the audiobook. It's fresh and appropriate. This is new imprint from Full Cast, called One Voice. I think this must be its first publication, and it makes a fine addition to the catalog.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Lab rat

I don't know how long it takes to publish a book (and I once worked in publishing). I'm wondering 'cause did the concept of The Maze Runner arise before The Hunger Games was published, or is the former sending the latter some flattery? It does bear a bit of a resemblance plot-wise, but alas -- for me -- it wasn't the same reading experience at all.

In James Dashner's novel, Thomas wakes up in a place he's never seen before, with no recollection of anything from his previous life. He soon learns that he is in the Glade -- the center of a huge enclosed Maze. He is the latest arrival in a group of about 50 teenaged boys. Every month for two years, one boy has arrived the same way Thomas has -- asleep and with no memories. The Gladers have systematically designed their society -- there's a respected, hierarchal power structure; and they grow their own food, build the structures they need, and try to completely map the Maze. Unfortunately, the Maze changes every night; so far, they've been unsuccessful in solving it. A Glader doesn't want to be caught out in the Maze at night: it is patrolled by deadly technologically enhanced creatures the boys have dubbed Grievers.

Thomas has a nagging feeling that he knows more about the Glade and the Maze than he should, but he can't put his finger on it and doesn't share these feelings with the other boys. The Gladers, however, are quick to realize that he is somehow different. The day after Thomas's appearance, the alarm sounds indicating that the box in which each new boy has appeared is bringing a new arrival. This arrival is way too soon. And when the Gladers open the box, not only is it 29 days early, but the arrival is a girl. She briefly emerges from her coma to announce: "Everything is going to change." She's carrying a note as well: "She's the last one. Ever." It seems the Gladers are finally going to learn why they've been held captive, but they are likely to die trying to find out.

Sounds relatively exciting, yes? Well, it just didn't do it for me. I thought the story moved very slowly; there are many lengthy descriptions of the setting/situation with Thomas frequently noting how familiar/unfamiliar it all seemed. This approach just deadens the suspense for me. Yeah, yeah ... of course it feels familiar, now could we just get to the part where it's explained for us? There is also a great deal of telling on Thomas's behalf: I heard a lot of what he was feeling, but the story itself rarely showed me.

The narration seems infected with a sense of slog as well (although it could, of course, just be me having a bad day). While Mark Deakins emotes when the dialog calls for it, he mostly reads with a calm steadiness that does not create a sense of mounting anxiety or excitement. He has a difficult job -- providing voices for a bunch of boys who are all the same age and seem to have very few ethnic or cultural differences. A few main characters speak with unique voices, but these (southern, Irish, and something different -- but not identifiable -- for a character described as Asian) all seem exaggerations -- used not as a way to understand a character, but simply to differentiate one from the other.

Deakins' mature reading voice, though, changes this story pretty radically. While listening, I kept needing to remind myself that this was a book about boys. They act (which is the novel itself, of course) and sound like adults in this audiobook. If I'm thinking they are adults, then the whole concept of an adult power structure forcing its children into a life-or-death situation loses its impact. It's no longer about youth in a horrific situation, it's just another novel about the horrors adults inflict on one another [yawn]. Not the same at all.

Maybe this is a better eye read (I have only read, not listened to, the Suzanne Collins' novels). I'm intrigued (just enough) by Dashner's resolution to maybe (maybe!) read its sequel.