Thursday, February 26, 2009

Be careful what you wish for

I'm not a Luddite (fourth definition), yet not all technology makes me happy (my cell phone doesn't do anything but make phone calls and that it doesn't do very often, I'm not on Facebook, etc.); but I'm continually amazed at authors that do not have webpages! Jenny Valentine is one such author (take great care when Googling her, I'm just saying). I'm utterly charmed by her ... both by the book I just finished and the fact that she runs an organic grocery store in the book-loving Hay-on-Wye. I want to know more about her, but I guess if she were managing a website, she wouldn't have time to market "whole foods" and write books for teenagers.

Me, the Missing, and the Dead is the story of 16-year-old Lucas Swain. He's been at a bit of a loss since his father walked out five years ago, sometimes feeling that he's the only one who still misses him and wishes he were still part of their family. Late one night, Lucas finds £10 in his pocket (left there by his sister when she "borrowed" his jacket) and decides to take a cab home. While he's waiting for his ride, he sees a large urn on a shelf. Feeling an odd connection to it, he returns the next day and discovers that the urn contains the ashes of one Violet Park (1927-2002). He then gets his sassy grandmother to request the ashes and embarks on a mission to find out who she is. Because it's a novel, Lucas soon learns that his dad and Violet have a connection ... but that's all I'm going to say. Valentine has written a very funny book, with an extremely appealing hero, about some dark and serious subjects.

I didn't find the narrator tics of John Keating to be as annoying as I've found them in the past, but maybe that was because I was enjoying the story so much. Yes, he's still pausing and inhaling midsentence and reading in that superior way, but he was also infusing the frequent humor in the story with just the right blend of sarcasm and neediness. He creates and sustains a small universe of unique characters -- I particularly enjoyed his portrayal of Lucas' gran, whose losses of son and Alzheimers-riddled husband are leavened by her grit and sass.

Keating makes no attempt to sound like a teenager, and so the audiobook had a feel of an adult looking back and telling us a story from his youth. It's fruitless to speculate on who I would have preferred listening to read this story, so I won't. I think, though, I'll (eye) read Valentine's next book, the soon-to-be-published-in-the-U.S., Broken Soup.

The sincerest form of flattery

If it's true that there are only seven basic plots, pity the poor children's fantasy writer of the 21st century, doomed to follow the juggernaut that is JKR. Your most original thought may be considered a pale imitation of one Mr. Potter and his alma mater. Thus it is likely to be for one Henry H. Neff, author of the new series called The Tapestry. I just finished Book 1: The Hound of Rowan. In this story, an ordinary boy named Max McDaniels has a moment where his heretofore-unknown-to-him magical powers are revealed, he is recruited to attend a special school for those like him, where there are threats to the fabric of magic society, that Max -- whose powers, however nascent, are greater than those of his peers -- foils in scenes of high drama and peril. And this is only his first year.

To be fair, this book is set in the United States -- not usually a location for fantasy; Max does not live under the stairs, but with his acutely embarrassing father (there is a missing mother ... I'm assuming she's going to show up eventually, thus explaining Max's skills); the students at Rowan Academy develop a close relationship with an often-endangered magical creature; the faculty are colorful in less dramatic ways as that other place (actually I think a lot of that color comes from the narrator); and Dumbledore, erm, the headmaster is a powerful magician named Ms. Richter. Alas, there is a complete Hogsmeade ripoff called Rowan Township (I don't think I'd be quite so irritated if he'd left that out.) and an athletic competition known as Euclidean soccer (can you say Quidditch?).

Maybe The Tapestry's similarities wouldn't have been so obvious to me if this first installment hadn't spent so much of its nearly 12 hours in creating the Rowan universe. The details are legion, the characters many. It's only near the end of the book that Max's pretty terrifying adventure occurs. Otherwise, we're meeting students and faculty, acquainting ourselves with the campus and its history, and getting a few things arranged plotwise (in a surprising twist, Max's father -- ignorant of his son's skills -- is, for his own safety, let in on the secrets of Rowan Academy) so that things can go forward. And while I think those readers hungry for another Potter-like adventure will enjoy meeting Max and watching him absorb his new world, all that exposition is not served very well in an audio format.

The book is narrated by an old favorite, Jeff Woodman, who knows how to read a book! He keeps the story moving, while knowing how to use pacing for emotional impact. There was a point in the story where Max is deeply sad and I really felt that in Woodman's narration. He can create distinct characters using accents and delivery and many of these were enjoyable to listen to (I wrote all the character names that I liked in an email to a colleague which is mysteriously missing from my sent mail ... hmmm ... maybe I only thought I sent it!). In general, the adults were more interestingly portrayed than the young students, who seemed -- with a few exceptions -- to blend together. In particular, this made keeping track of who was who quite difficult, as there were a lot of them.

I wouldn't hesitate to give this to a young reader, but I might think twice about offering it as an audiobook.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Crime solver

I think I gobbled up the Encyclopedia Brown series when I was a young reader (they are that old ... and except for the frequent mention of guns and the casual fistfights they don't seem that old-fashioned), so it was a brief trip down memory lane listening to Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace by Donald Sobol. I like the format of the short story, followed by the chance to solve the mystery yourself. Once you've got how it works, it's fun to listen for the clues. I was sitting at home knitting yesterday saying, "It's got something to do with the tan."

So here are 10 mysteries set in that crime-ridden town of Idaville, solved by Leroy and his dad, the police chief. The one with the tan had to do with Encyclopedia's nemesis, the bad boy Bugs Meany, who tried to frame Encyclopedia for the theft of his watch. But he had that tan, all down his arm, thus proving that he didn't have the watch when he said he did. Aha!

Greg Steinbruner, reading without an English accent, keeps the stories moving and creates a cheerful portrait of the young crime solver. He does tend to read on the loud side, though, and seems to read a tad slowly -- as if for the remedial listener. At the beginning of the cd, the publisher, Recorded Books, politely encourages you to press pause after the end of the story so you can solve the crime yourself, before resuming play to see if you are right. I appreciated that, as it makes the audio version very listener-friendly. At the end of each story, there is a significant pause that affords the listener the chance to say "Yes! I will take a moment and show the other people in the car how smart I am!"

And speaking of childish things ...

In just two posts, this blog has gone where it hasn't gone before: adult literature and now stuff for the really young set, namely Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie by Norton Juster, illustrated by Chris Raschka. In this picture book, a young girl visits her loving grandparents, who ask (reasonably), who's visiting them -- Sourpuss or Sweetie Pie. The girl (reasonably) responds that she just doesn't know. It's kind of a nice story because I'm not sure that many kid can explain when or why they go from sour to sweet. At least this little girl knows she can, that those grandparents will love her anyway.

My first read-along audiobook! I bring no skills to reviewing picture book/audio combos! So, the first thing I learn is that it's really important to have the book in front of you while listening, or it was in this case. The text of this story makes absolutely no sense without the illustrations. So, I took 15 minutes out of my day and slipped in disc 2 -- the one with the page-turn tones -- and opened the accompanying book.

(The page-turn tones are annoying and the pauses after them are really long; but I am not a listening preschooler, who is likely to get a great kick out of turning the pages at the cue.) The narrator, Michele Medlin, sounded like an intelligent preschooler -- without resorting to infantile caricature -- and she nicely captured the subtle differences between Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie. The text of the book is almost exclusively first person from the little girl and her mood switches frequently, and I'm not sure that audio is the best way to capture those back and forth swings. Even with the illustrations, and the fine performance by Medlin, the complexities of the story were difficult to track. (I think there could be more that one occasion when your preschooler would ask is she Sourpuss or Sweetie Pie here.)

Bearing in mind that I need to listen to a really terrific read-aloud audiobook for comparative purposes, I'm giving this one a tepid positive.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Rated R

My ears have been used to the (mostly) clean listening of books for children and young adults for so long, that I truly was blushing while listening to Apollo and Aphrodite getting it on in the drafty bathroom of their London mansion in Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips. I picked up this audiobook at a publisher event last summer at ALA, and had the narrator, Rosalyn Landor, sign it for a friend. The friend enjoyed it, but I don't think she wants to keep it because she was quick to pass it on to me!

The Greek Gods are living in squalor in 21st century London, their power waning, forced to earn a living. Aphrodite does phone sex, Apollo is working on a TV pilot as a psychic, Artemis walks dogs, Athena is putting together a Powerpoint that shows just when their last bit of power will vanish, and Eros volunteers at a local church while struggling with a belief in Jesus. Aphrodite decides to play a trick on Apollo (for some vindictive reason I can't remember) and forces her son, Eros, to prick him with an arrow: Apollo will fall helplessly in love with the next person he sees. This person turns out to be Alice, a nebbishy cleaner. Alice is in love with Neil, an even more nebbishy engineer, but he can't seem to declare his affection for her.

Through a series of circumstances, the Gods end up hiring Alice to clean for them, and when Apollo tries to seduce her, she rejects him. Apollo rouses a frail Zeus from his bed and Zeus slays Alice with a lightning bolt (because Apollo has sworn on Styx that he will not harm any humans). Artemis convinces Neil that he must be a hero and travel to the Underworld for Alice, where he will also save the human race and return power to the Gods.

There's a lot of wit and humor (as well as sex) in this story, and I enjoyed the conceit of the Gods unable to cope with modern unbelief. But after the first couple of jokes, it gets old pretty fast. I did enjoy the story once Alice finds herself in the Underworld, and then when Artemis and Neil follow her. Apollo has eliminated the sun in an attempt to show Neil his power, and that was giving me chilly Susan Beth Pfeffer flashbacks, which I enjoyed.

Landor just didn't send me though, although I think I'm being unfair (she was quite pleasant to chat with). She is a great character actress -- everyone was distinctly and consistently voiced, and she created a variety of English class accents. She kept the story moving at an appropriately light and sprightly pace, and was able to switch gears for the few times that a scene called for real emotion. As with most experienced narrators, she carries off cringy (to listen to) sex scenes with aplomb. But she had a whispery delivery that I found both hard to listen to at length and frequently too low in volume to properly hear. I got lazy listening to this: Its little-more-than-nine hours took me over a week to get through!

The deliveries of youthful materials have begun, so it's back to discreet, if any, sex and other childish things!

Monday, February 9, 2009

You will never look at a full moon in quite the same way

I continue my pending mode ... awaiting Odyssey submissions ... the book that's in my ears right now is a [wait for it] book for adults! (I'm blushing.) Before I sent my crates of audiobooks off to storage so they can become library giveaways, I snatched a couple that were on my reading/listening list: Susan Beth Pfeffer's The Dead and the Gone was one of these. I do love that looming moon (except that it scares me to death at the same time).

This book is a companion to Life as We Knew It, which I enjoyed tremendously in both audio and print, and Selected Audiobooks put on its 2008 list. In the second novel, the same life-altering events occur, and we see the impact of them on a Puerto Rican family on Manhattan's Upper West Side (my old neighborhood). Alex Morales is an ambitious 17-year-old, finishing up his junior year at the Vincent dePaul school. He's thinking about whether he -- a scholarship boy whose father is the resident janitor at an apartment building -- could be elected senior class president. On the night that the asteroid slams into the moon, his Mami was headed to her hospital job in Queens and his Papi was in a small coastal town in Puerto Rico burying his grandmother. Neither of them is seen again, forcing Alex to see to the welfare and survival of his two younger sisters.

The climatic events affect New York City as much as they did in rural Pennsylvania and Alex and his sisters must fight starvation, illness and extreme temperatures. The Morales have a strong Catholic faith that colors their survival; this story is a lot more gruesome than the first one ... as living in the city is a more brutal experience than living in rural Pennsylvania.

Like Life as We Knew It (or LAWKI as the author shortens it), this story is riveting. Its plausibility (at least to me) is terrifying, and it brings up so many personal questions for me (what would Portland be like, would I try to relocate, what would happen to my elderly parents, do I have enough toilet paper, etc.). If I found Alex's isolation to be a bit of a stretch -- how could he live in a 12+-story apartment building and not have any contact with any of the residents in the weeks after the event? ... Wouldn't his father have had keys to all the apartments? -- that was OK. I was still deeply caught up in his survival story, even though I was pretty confident of its ending (the story follows much the same arc as LAWKI). His bickering relationship with his sisters was spot on, as the three of them are cooped up together on the edge of starvation with nothing to do.

I wish I could say that I enjoyed the narration as much as I did of the earlier volume, but it just didn't measure up. Robertson Dean reads in a low register that resonated escalating terror, but in voicing the three teenagers he would bring his voice up into a higher, fake-sounding register that grated. As with other adult readers of books for children and teens, he seemed more comfortable with his adult characters. I was also surprised not to hear any Puerto Rican inflections in the Morales's voices. They shouldn't be speaking in Spanish-accented English, but there is a vocal delivery that indicates their background. When Dean read the occasional Spanish phrases that occurred in the text (mostly in a religious context), he sounded, well, like a native English speaker reading Spanish.

I read on Pfeffer's blog that she's well into writing a third novel in this series, one where Miranda of LAWKI and Alex meet. On first thought, this seems contrived to me, but I'll wait to read it before pronouncing judgment.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The blood flows like ink

I received an ARC of Inkdeath sometime after Annual last year courtesy of a colleague, and eagerly opened it once I realized that I wouldn't be listening to the audiobook for committee purposes. And, I could not get through it! I gave up sometime in December at Chapter 22 and the book looked up at me accusingly all during our snowy weeks while I was indulging in some adult literature. "Read me," it demanded, "you always finish what you start!"

Since I finished with the Amazing Audiobooks listening a couple of weeks ago (and the Odyssey listening has yet to begin), I've been casting about for things to listen to. I was packing up the last two years of deliveries when my eyes lighted upon the audio version. omg! I could listen to the rest of it. Why not have Allan Corduner do the heavy lifting? I can just sit back and enjoy.

Cornelia Funke first captured me with The Thief Lord and then with Inkheart. Inkspell was a bit more problematic, but I was still there. Alas, the spell of the Inkworld broke for me on this installment. It would be difficult to summarize the nearly 20-hour behemoth, so suffice it to say that evil, death and torture are everywhere, Mo finds he likes being an action hero, the women suffer and suffer, and Meggie becomes a whining ditherer -- in her infrequent appearances in the story. I was certain that no happy endings were possible; here's a slight spoiler ... this is not the case. I don't think I could have taken it if it were.

The audio was missing two things that the book has: a cast of characters list at the end of the book, which I found helpful in my initial reading, and the lovely quotes about reading and books that begin every chapter. I didn't miss the former (although I can only think that a reader who was exclusively listening would be deeply confused at the beginning of the story -- sometimes I wish authors would recognize that most of us are not steeped in the minutiae of the previous novels ... there's a whole lot of ...heart and ...spell that I simply don't remember). I did wish for the latter, though. I know I've complained about listening to chapter-heading quotes, information, whatever (see Chains) in the past, but I wonder why they were edited from this story. (I listened to Lynn Redgrave's wonderful reading of Inkheart five years ago and vaguely remember them being there, but I could be wrong.)

I like Corduner's reading style (and his acting style), having listened to his outstanding interpretation of The Book Thief as well as one of the Garth Nix's Keys to the Kingdom titles. He's got a slight, very pleasing lisp that doesn't get in the way of his reading. He infuses the narrative with emotion (and this is a very emotional story), knows how to use pacing to create tension and feeling, and creates memorable characters with accents and delivery. He's not a showman like Jim Dale (and I mean that in the most respectful way), but there are some memorable voices from Inkdeath that I can still hear in my head.

Despite his skills -- and I do thank him for getting me through this book -- Inkdeath was a deep disappointment. I remember reading somewhere that Funke wrote each installment for a different age group, with Inkdeath for high schoolers and young adults. Surely she knows that her younger readers are ready to inhale the series in one long gulp; they aren't going to wait until they are "ready" for it. And Inkdeath is really about adults -- it's about the longing of Mo to be both the action hero and the loving husband and father, it's about the marriage of Dustfinger and Roxane who have spent more time apart than together, it's about Violante wanting and defying her father's approval. Gosh, even Fenoglio and Elinor have a quirky relationship. Meggie and Farid are sideshows to these stories and neither of them are especially appealing here. Like the Deathly Hallows, this book is catalogued j in my library's collection, when it really should be y. But even Rowling never forgot that her story was about three teenagers.

Still, there's no denying Funke's talents. Her website says something about being wrapped up in a Reckless world ... I wonder what that means. But I don't wonder that I'll be curious to read it when it appears.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Nationbuilding

I borrowed a colleague's Odyssey-committee copy of Terry Pratchett's Nation, loaded it up on my mp3 player and took it to Midwinter. (I've got to admit that the whole carrying eight discs on one little device is extemely handy, if only its battery life were a tad longer.) I'm a relative newcomer to Pratchett and Discworld, but I loved the audiobook of Wintersmith. Nation has nothing whatsoever to do with Discworld, although its heroine, Ermingarde/Daphne, shares Tiffany Aching's sense of right and wrong and her sticktoitiveness.

A young man, Mau, has spent a month on an island near his home island somewhere in the South Pelagic Ocean, building a canoe and preparing for the ceremony that will initiate him into adulthood. He is paddling back home. A young woman, Ermingarde, is 138th in line to an alternative Victorian-era British throne, and she is sailing on the Sweet Judy to join her father (who, unbeknownst to either of them, has ascended to the throne -- blame the Russian flu) at a major port in the South Pelagic Ocean. A tsunami strikes and both are washed up on the shores of Mau's island, home of the Nation.

Ermingarde -- who takes the opportunity to rename herself Daphne -- and a mouthy parrot are the sole survivors from the Sweet Judy (or so she thinks), while no one on the island survived the wave. Cultural clashes ensue, and both Daphne and Mau (and the growing number of tsunami survivors who make their way to the island) thoughfully examine their own histories and prejudices on the way to creating a new Nation. Because it's by Pratchett, much hilarity ensues (on the grossology side, think about how you might milk a pig to get some sustenance for a baby; on the sophisticated humor side, think of two people communicating who don't share a language); but there's an underlying message of what makes a community that is deftly delivered. The ending is delightful all by itself.

Narrator Stephen Briggs deftly delivers the whole package. He reads with a dry, droll Englishness of barely suppressed irony that warms up when he describes Mau's or Daphne's baby steps towards understanding. The tsunami's castaways are distinctly created through accents and vocal registers. When the English arrive en masse, there is ample opportunity for Monty Python-esque twits. There is a present-day afterword that he reads with a lovely, calm teacherly quality, setting just the right tone. Briggs is a very engaging narrator, who has certainly escorted me laughing into Pratchett's worlds. I'd listen to him again.

The votes are in!

So, it's been two weeks since I last posted; ALA Midwinter has come and gone. I've been cleaning up after the backlog that the conference work created and can finally get back here to post the link to our 2009 list of Amazing Audiobooks. We had an astonishing number of unanimous choices, but I was glad that the debating skills of me and a few other champions saw to it that a few others squeaked on, notably The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian and A Clockwork Orange.

We had two titles to add from the Odyssey Award, neither of which I had listened to. (I was mid-Nation when the announcements were made. More about this next.) I was most surprised that Fairest didn't get a nod, but I feel confident that listeners will comment about my Odyssey committee's choices when we announce them a year from now.

Aside from my hardworking committee, what I most appreciated about this year (now that I've submitted the last piece of paperwork!) was the number of publishers whose work made it on to our list: eight. This is more than have ever made it before. Considering that just a few years ago the universe was the big two (Recorded Books and Listening Library), I was glad to see others represented as well. Congratulations (and a big thank you) to the aforementioned and to Brilliance Audio, Full Cast Audio, HarperAudio, Listen & Live Audio, Macmillan Audio and Penguin Audionbooks. You keep broadening my listening world.