Friday, July 31, 2009

Time out!

Did I mention that it's hot?

OK, it's actually much cooler today, although my (un-air-conditioned) apartment hasn't had all the hot, stale air blown out. That's partially because of the massive construction project that's going on outside my front door ... oh, now I've strayed seriously off topic.

Last night's listen was number 2 of Roscoe Riley Rules: Never Swipe a Bully's Bear by Katherine Applegate. Roscoe Riley is a first grader who spends a lot of time in the time-out chair. Over the course of each beginning reader novel he tells us how he got there. In this installment, Roscoe has tucked his beloved stuffed pig, Hamilton, into his backpack to take to school, even though older brother Max has told him that only babies do that. Settling his backpack into his cubby, Roscoe whispers to Hamilton, but is overheard by the class bully, Wyatt. When Roscoe gets home that afternoon, he discovers that Hamilton is missing. Certain that Wyatt has pilfered his pig, Roscoe retaliates by stealing Wyatt's stuffed friend, Bobo the bear, when he spots Bobo in Wyatt's backpack. Life lessons ensue (the principal brings his stuffed animal friend to school). Roscoe is an engaging young hero and his adventures are definitely a cut above the usual beginning reader stories.

But, oh goodness, this level of storytelling is a trial to listen to. Short sentences, a lot of "s/he saids," and full-second pauses between each sentence don't make for much narrative flow. I believe they serve a terrific function for readers puzzling out a story, but for those of us a little more skilled they can be pretty darn dull.

Roscoe Riley, though, has scored with his narrator, Jared Goldsmith. Who may possibly be an actual child. And if he isn't, he's doing an outstanding job of impersonating one. (If he is, of course, he's a pretty amazing voice actor for his age.) Goldsmith not only reads in an authentically sounding elementary school kid's voice (there's even a pleasant-sounding, Winthrop-Paroo-type lisp), he's got the rhythms of that age group down as well: the feeling of the run-on sentence, seemingly erratic volume changes, and a generally loud-ish declaiming style of speaking. His diction is clearly understandable, and he even attempts some character creation using slightly different voices. His technique and delivery are so appropriate for this story, I found it quite engaging to listen to.

I've got a few more beginning reader titles to work through over the next few weeks, here's hoping they are all as good as Roscoe Riley Rules.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Global warming

Yikes! It's been so hot here in Portland. The newspaper today said it would be our fourth day of 100+° temperatures, but it looks like we're in for a reprieve -- it's a mere 93° right now. I've been commuting from my desk (air-conditioned) to a school 15 miles away (un-air-conditioned) all week; when I get home (un-air-conditioned), I take a cool shower, start up the three fans in my bedroom, and lie on my bed in the dark. Which means I finished Patrick Carman's The Dark Planet in record time: three days. This is the third book in the Atherton trilogy (and may I just say that I'm working overtime in reading Carman's series books without having read the first installments [and you know how I hate that!], since I've done it here and here), and the author helpfully provides a preface that brings the listener up to date. It did keep me from feeling slightly less lost in the first few chapters.

Atherton is a world created by a mad scientist where the environment has dramatically changed over the course of the trilogy. The scientist also created a boy named Edgar, who sets off on a journey -- at the request of a slightly more sane scientist (the mad one now being dead) -- to the home world of the mad scientist to ... (hmmm ...I'm not remembering why he needs to go there). The home world is the Dark Planet and it is in its final stages of life: It is so terribly polluted that only 11-year-old (or 4,200-days-old in the lingo of the novel) children can stand to be outside gathering the energy that is required to keep the few surviving humans alive inside Station No. 7. And nobody lasts long if they go outside. The surviving adults don't have any moral qualms about subjecting the few remaining children to danger, starvation and forced labor to support the dying planet. Edgar is, of course, 11 years old.

Fortunately, he isn't required to suffer much before he rescues the children and -- with the aid of some magical technology left behind by the mad scientist -- saves Atherton and the Dark Planet. Which is really our planet. Which brings me to global warming. Where, I'm asking, is the mad scientist? I need him right now!

This book didn't interest me very much (although it did make the commuting time more tolerable). It seemed to have a lot of narrative padding -- clearly there is a lot of extraneous detail that I'm not remembering because ultimately it wasn't important. There are also a fair number of standard fantasy tropes (dragon, spaceships, the convenient message or two) that made it pretty predictable. Something in particular bugged me: Our plucky enslaved children have a happy moment playing amongst the vines that grow the Dark Planet's food source. They swing along these vines in carefree play. The author has ripped off himself: The plucky citizens featured in an installment of his other series, The Land of Elyon, do the same thing! How cheesy is that?

The audiobook is narrated by Jonathan Davis and he brings enthusiasm and energy to this story. The narration is nicely varied -- he delivers fear, excitement, anticipation to the listener. He doesn't seem as skilled to me in character creation, though. He uses a limited palette of accents to portray different characters and his choices seem like the ones that are easiest to produce and afford the most distinction: OK, I'll do some standard American, toss in a few British varieties and top it off with some Southern. Beyond creating different characters, I didn't always understand why they spoke that way. I'd spend listening time trying to puzzle it out (instead of remembering plot points).

On top of this, some of his accents just don't sound right. He never seems quite comfortable in them, particularly the British-sounding characters. And the Southern-voiced characters sound very hick-like -- in particular, the young boy Landon, sounds like Ross Perot. Davis also has trouble sustaining consistent characters -- occasionally, it seems like he forgot who was speaking.

So, an "E" for enthusiasm, I'd listen to him read again (and I guess he's got lots of books on his resume); but what would make me happiest (aside from a cooling trend) would be no more Patrick Carman.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I see dead people

In a little more than a week, I've had two reminders that necro- is the Greek for dead. This time, it's not a speaker with the dead, but a city of the dead: Necropolis. In Book 4 in Anthony Horowitz's series The Gatekeepers, the necropolis is the city of Hong Kong. The Gatekeepers are five 15-year-olds with the power to defeat the Old Ones (the gates being the things that have kept the Old Ones from wreaking their particular kind of havoc on the world), but they can only do it by working together.

In the series so far, four of them (an English boy, a Peruvian descended from the Incas, and twin American boys) have found each other. In Necropolis, the fifth is revealed: Scarlett Adams, an English girl adopted from China. But the Old Ones know about Scarlett as well, and they have whisked her off to Hong Kong -- where they are slowly killing off the populace with some noxious pollutants and replacing them with shape-shifting entities. Two of the Gatekeepers hie off to Hong Kong to rescue her. Without giving anything away, at the end of the novel, the Gatekeepers are scattered, the Old Ones nearly triumphant -- and the final book from Horowitz won't be appearing anytime soon, evidently. Here's what he says in his blog: "Even I have no idea when the book will be finished but as it will probably be about 200,000 words long and will include a series of fairly epic battles, it could be a few years." A few years!?!?!?!

The master narrator Simon Prebble owns the Horowitz oeuvre, as he reads both this series and Alex Rider. I've listened to him read both. He's so very good. He can create a vast cast of characters -- each with a unique voice that he sustains throughout the story. I can still hear some of the characters from Necropolis. Heck, I can still hear characters from the Alex Rider novel I listened to a year ago. I've got some quibbles: he doesn't sound comfortable speaking as an American or a Peruvian; and he also sounds a little off as Chinese. On the other hand, his British creations are excellent.

But where I find him particularly skilled is how he tells the whole story -- including the dialog. Prebble is a master of pacing, a critical part of any good reading; where he varies the speed, timing, volume and the sense of drama that he gives to the text. He can infuse some serious schlock with true emotion: I suffer listening to Prebble read Horowitz. Horowitz puts his young people in violent and terrifying situations -- ridiculous ones -- but I feel for those kids when Prebble reads those sections to me. I am anxious at the book's moments of high tension: Will Scarlett's escape succeed? What do the other Gatekeepers do when their safe compound is invaded by shape-shifters? I keep listening, because I've got to know now! I credit Prebble with this feeling -- simply reading it wouldn't be the same.

When my listening time becomes my own again, I might try one of Prebble's adult narrations. Not the romances (the ick factor is so high when listening), but perhaps a mystery ...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Stay out of the water

Joseph Delaney continues to develop hair-raising adventures for young Tom Ward, The Last Apprentice to the County Spook, John Gregory. Tom -- who's been with the Spook for two years now -- has become the target of the Fiend (who was freed by a witchy coven in the previous installment), and the Spook thinks he needs a bit more martial arts training. So, in Wrath of the Bloodeye, Tom is sent to a temporary apprenticeship with Bill Arkwright, a Spook with a drinking problem still living with his parents (sort of). Alas, the Fiend has enlisted some water witches to seek Tom out, and -- once again -- the lad must save himself.

The image on the cover is the hand of the Bloodeye -- the daughter of the Fiend -- who unhooks the small bone closing her bloodshot eye in order to paralyze her victims, then she spears them through the jaw with her talons and drags them underwater to drown. It's another one of Delaney's thrillingly scary creatures of the dark, given a truly terrifying voice by the series narrator, Christopher Evan Welch. She has a few lines of dialog, but she'll make your blood run cold.

I'm extremely partial to Welch and these books. The core of this series isn't the fantastic creatures or the horror they inflict on the poor defenseless (except for the Spook) County; it's the three characters -- living as a small family -- Tom, the Spook, and Tom's friend, Alice Deane. (We learn something shocking about Alice in this book.) And I think that Welch gets this. (Of course, it could be that I enjoy Welch's characterizations of the three of them so much that this colors my impression.) These three people are vivid to me when voiced by Welch. I pretty much want to keep up with the stories because I know them.

In this installment (the fifth), I swear I hear more maturity in Tom's voice as well as a softening in the Spook's. Tom will be taking some dramatic steps towards independence, and I'm feeling he's more than ready. I can't wait for the next one. I was also glad to learn of at least one young fan who feel the same way: Our local newspaper ran an article on kids and (lower-case) summer reading and Gustavo Herrera gave a shout-out to The Last Apprentice.

I've got one tiny worry: There are several places in this story where Tom experiences extreme fear or sustains serious injury, most vividly when a skelt impales him on its sucking snout and begins to drain his blood. Welch keeps reading calmly. It was a trifle odd. I think the passage called for a wee bit more vocal acting. Welch's portrayal of Tom has always sounded spot-on to me: A largely innocent observer of a terrifying world. So, when Tom steps out of the observer role, I wonder if that calls for a bit more emoting.

I've gotten out of the listening habit for the other apprentice series that I enjoy: The Ranger's Apprentice. Maybe I'll give the next installment of Tom and the Spook my eyes as well. I'll still hear Welch in my mind's ear ...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Pandora, step away from the box

The authors of three out of the last four books I've featured here don't have websites! And here comes number four. What is wrong with these women? Too busy writing? Don't they know that bloggers need links? Don't they care? I don't think Cynthia Rylant does. Or perhaps she is too busy writing (there are almost 300 entries when you do an author search for her in my library's catalog). The Beautiful Stories of Life: Six Greek Myths, Retold is only her fourth book for 2009. I guess perhaps she is too busy to pony up a website, but here's one with some information about her.

(It looks like I've commented on two other books by Ms. Rylant, one where I linked to another website about her and one where I didn't even mention her name!)

In The Beautiful Stories, Rylant retells the stories of Pandora, Persephone, Orpheus, Pygmalion, Narcissus and Psyche. Each version is a brief one, and -- since they are for youngish children -- some of the peskier adult details are not included. What makes these stories beautiful, the stories' omniscient narrator tells us, is that each is about the power of love. I particularly enjoyed Psyche's story (as did the author, I think, since it is by far the longest of them), which took me back to Julius Lester's Cupid, which I listened to and while it doesn't appear to be a favorite ... I can still hear the narrator.

Alyssa Bresnahan reads these stories. She's such an experienced narrator, and she reads them utterly right. Bresnahan is an authoritative instructor here, her husky voice imparting the stories in measured, unemotional tones. She's never dull, however, since she knows how to create interest in listeners and the stories are all fairly brief.

Ultimately, though, this volume felt very curricular to me. How nice for teachers working on the mythology unit to have an alternative way of sharing these stories. Some learners might benefit from reading along. I can also see this holding some interest on an all-ages car trip. Faint praise indeed!

Uncertain welcome

In 1939, a number of German ships carrying Jewish passengers arrived in Havana, Cuba; the passengers were seeking asylum. Kristallnacht had occurred the previous November, which many German Jews recognized as their signal to leave their homes if they could. In Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, poet Margarita Engle imagines a young man named Daniel, whose parents only have the money for one exit visa and ticket. He arrives in Havana, knowing no one, determined to hang on to his woolen coat, hat and scarf in the Cuban heat -- it's the only thing he's got left connecting him to his family. He might be wise to keep his warm clothing, even though he has arrived in Cuba, he may not be welcome there. The Cubans are insisting that additional fees (huge bribes) must be paid in order for the Jews to get to safety.

Daniel is eventually allowed into the country and trades his woolens for a guayabera shirt provided by a new friend Paloma. Although she doesn't tell Daniel, it is Paloma's father (El Gordo) who is demanding the bribes from the Jewish refugees. Daniel also makes another friend, David -- a Jew who fled Russian pogroms thirty years earlier. David guides Daniel in assimilating without sacrificing his Jewishness. These three people tell the slender story of Tropical Secrets in the form of first-person poems. (Very occasionally, there is a poem from El Gordo.) Engle tells us in an afterword that her paternal grandfather was a Russian Jewish refugee whose American son wooed her Cuban Catholic mother after World War II.

There are four readers for this audiobook and they disappoint. The narrator reading Paloma, Vane Millon, just did The Forest of Hands and Teeth. She still reads with that neutral dispassion, that unvarying delivery, but here her Spanish-inflected English is allowed full flower. She pronounces her name, Paloma, at the beginning of each poem with a force or emphasis that was kind of offputting for an Anglo listener. I'm hoping to ask a Spanish speaker to give it a listen, as her accent sounded utterly appropriate to me, but I want to doublecheck that it's my Anglo ears recoiling from that pronunciation.

The two men reading the adult parts, David and El Gordo, were unfamiliar to me: Ozzie Rodriguez and Roberto Santana. El Gordo is terrifying loud and demanding in the few poems in which he appears. But David had an accent that I couldn't place: Was it Spanish (Cuban), was it Russian/Mittel-European? Was it a blend? I spent too much time pondering this and not quite enough listening to what he was saying.

But it was Matt Green, reading Daniel, who really doesn't belong in this story. Daniel sounds like he lives a nice suburban life in the Midwest (or someplace equally as neutral vocalwise); never for one minute did I hear a German Jewish boy telling me his story. Green doesn't even try (which probably would have been worse), he just concentrates on delivering Daniel's sadness and loneliness -- which gets dull after awhile. I enjoyed listening to him in an earlier audiobook, but here he sticks out so obviously. We hear poems from Paloma and from David and we know we are someplace foreign, slightly exotic. Then we switch to Daniel and we're in the comfort of our own home. It's like visiting Pizza Hut in Shanghai.

As I've said before, poetry is not the thing I will pull off the shelf to read. All four readers chose to read it in those somber, "this-is-literature" tones that sound so, well, fake. They don't attempt to make it interesting, only important. And, as young readers/listeners will tell you, important isn't what makes you keeping reading/listening.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

At least it's not the usual superpower ...

A late bloomer, Chloe Saunders has been quietly attending A.R. Gurney High School for the Arts in Buffalo, New York, when her first period finally arrives. After making the usual emergency adjustments, she heads back to class when she's confronted by a janitor with a horribly burned face. He seems very insistent to talk with her, and she tries unsuccessfully to get away. As she reacts semi-hysterically to his entreaties, it's just too bad that no one else seems to see the janitor. Chloe is bundled off to the hospital, diagnosed with schizophrenia, and then transferred to a group home for teens with mental health issues, Lyle House. Even if she doesn't, we know that something fishy is going on.

The Summoning is the first book in the Darkest Powers trilogy by Kelley Armstrong, and in it Chloe discovers that she has the dark (est) power of necromancy -- the ability to raise and speak with the dead. She learns this -- reluctantly -- from one of the other residents of Lyle House, an oversized teen with an acne problem named Derek. Chloe is more likely to listen to Derek's brother, Simon, who is cuter and not quite as threatening, but she really doesn't want to believe either of them. Chloe isn't able to deny her powers for long, because the ghosts are telling her some things about Lyle House that make her think that the medical and counseling staff don't have her best interests at heart. Along with Derek, Simon and another resident Rae, the teens plan their escape. Their success may depend on knowing who to trust ...

Not my cup of tea, or perhaps just not very interesting audio-wise. I found way too much time devoted to Chloe's discovery and acceptance of her power. She and Derek seemed to talk about it endlessly -- we were privy to every single conversation where he tried to convince her. And every conversation was simply a variation on the same thing. It grew tiresome. It was only about the last disc where the teens decide to make their move that it became somewhat suspenseful and engaging. At the end, I admit to a feeling of being left hanging, rather than glad it was over. (That came later.)

The audiobook is narrated by Cassandra Morris. Years ago (well, three-and-a-half) I was a casual listener to her reading of Elsewhere, which I utterly loved. Here, I was not so enamored. Are my ears more finely tuned? Like Jenna Lamia, Morris has a very youthful sounding voice which is extremely effective for children's and teen audio. In The Summoning, though, I heard childishness and petulance; she seems as uninterested in Chloe as I am. She sketches out a few different characters, but I had tremendous difficulty following dialog. It is easy to lose track of who was speaking.

Morris also reads with a fairly flat affect, which I remember her using to tremendous effect in Elsewhere. But, again, I didn't like it here. The near monotone and unvaried pacing simply added to my feeling of boredom.

It seems that Armstrong has a loyal following of readers -- a quick review of our copies in her adult series Otherworld shows healthy checkouts and a good-sized waiting list for the second in the Darkest Powers trilogy. Not a favorite of mine, but isn't it nice that there's something for everyone?

Few are chosen

The Chosen One could have been really sensational and cheesy, Big Love for the teenaged set. Fortunately it isn't. Carol Lynch Williams has written a book for any teenager, not just those with an unhealthy curiosity about polygamy. Like any young heroine, Kyra is searching for her identity and thinking about becoming independent. She's already pretty strong-minded, which is ultimately the quality that helps her succeed in her search.

Kyra lives with her father, her three mothers, and 20 brothers and sisters in the not-too-successful end (a group of trailers) of a controlling polygamist community led by the Prophet Childs. She manages to sneak out to meet the local bookmobile, where the librarian gives her books she knows she's not supposed to be reading; she makes chaste midnight assignations with a boy named Joshua; and she frequently dreams about killing the Prophet. Still, she loves her large family, and seems to have faith that the order of her community is the right one.

Until she is told by the Prophet that she will marry her much-older uncle, the Apostle Hyrum. At first she tries reason and then rebellion. At this point, she is physically beaten; but her spirit stays strong and she makes an exciting, daring escape in the bookmobile. (Alas, the librarian is gunned down, but hey, there's not much we won't do for our patrons!) Once free, Kyra is quick to realize that she has only taken the first step; still, her ending is a hopeful one.

Jenna Lamia, whose performance in The Adoration of Jenna Fox was a big favorite among the Amazing Audiobooks listeners last year, narrates this first-person novel. Everytime I've listened to her, I am impressed again at how effectively she uses her sweet, whispery voice (which you wouldn't initially think of as an asset for a narrator). She sounds authentically youthful and innocent as Kyra; the confusion she feels at the Prophet's instruction is palpable. I never doubted her love for her family, but there's a steeliness there as well. Lamia knows how to tell a good story, too, as she reads this novel's breathless, exciting conclusion with tension and expert pacing.

The audiobook concludes with a well-produced and interesting interview between the author and another writer and professor of children's literature, Michael Tunning (omg ... on last year's Newbery Committee). And I would like to comment more about the interview and the book, but it's week and four audiobooks later, so here's another interview with Williams.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Who is Sylvia?

I've got some blog backup (five books!), so some of my recollections are bound to be hazy. I really enjoyed the Printz Honor book Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath when I read it a year or so ago. The author and poet, Stephanie Hemphill, creates accessible (for those of us who aren't fond of poetry), readable insights into the life of the poet. In my teenage and college years, Plath was a feminist icon, but because she was a poet, I didn't go near her stuff. Yet, upon reading Your Own, Sylvia, my first thought was how much more I wanted to learn about her. Alas, I've been lazy/busy; so instead of picking up The Bell Jar, I watched the Gwyneth Paltrow movie. [Hey, I guess I could listen to The Bell Jar!]

As a young woman, to me Plath's tragedy appeared to be that she was the woman who was better at her job than the men around her, but ultimately she was destroyed by them. Hemphill's biography establishes that Sylvia was suffering from depression well before she met Ted Hughes, so I guess we can no longer blame him directly. (Plus, her son, Nicholas, suffered from depression and recently committed suicide.) Certainly, though, his extramarital behavior didn't help matters. Regardless, I appreciated Hemphill's emotional, yet evenhanded treatment of Sylvia's last years as wife, mother and poet, and -- even upon a second (listening) visit to her book -- found the poems leading up to her suicide extremely moving.

However, listening to this book was mostly not as interesting or as moving to me as I recollect reading it was. Since each poem is "spoken" by a person in Sylvia's life (never Sylvia herself), there is a large cast of narrators, most of whom I have heard in one capacity or another over the course of my listening years. The lengthy list of readers is credited at the end of the book, but I would have appreciated a dramatis personae approach, i.e., Ted Hughes was read by ... (David Thorn?), but that is likely just for my own edification. Beyond appreciating that many readers contributed to this multicharacter work, I'm not sure that most listeners will care about the details.

Most of the readers were good at establishing character through a few lines of verse. Poetry can be difficult in an audio format, as the fact that it is poetry is often not immediately obvious. I was glad that the readers -- for the most part -- chose to read the poetry in normal, conversational voices. I really dislike listening to poetry declaimed in that ponderous, "important" way by anyone -- whether you're the poet or not.

I lost my notes on this title, but there was a narrator who was noticeably bad: He came to end of each line of blank verse and paused ... before going on, even if the thought continued. It was deeply distracting.

But, what really made this audiobook hard to listen to was the author. Hemphill reads her forward and afterword (now I'm having trouble remembering if there was indeed an afterword), plus the informational footnotes that she appended to each poem, and the half dozen (more?) poems that she wrote chronologically in "Sylvia's voice:" poems that reflected the style of a poem Sylvia had penned during the time of her life just covered in the book. The footnotes are merely annoying in the audio format -- they are disruptive and give the narrative an extremely choppy feel. I say this having loved this format in the book, short and succinctly informative.

Hemphill's voice just didn't seem right for the longer portions: She sounds very youthful, almost childlike. And while Hemphill may be close in age to Plath when she died, and the audiobook may be trying to give you a aural feel for this young woman, it just didn't set the right tone for me. Her vocal quality seemed thin and slight, almost inconsequential. Perhaps it is the side-by-side listening: Hemphill, preceded and/or followed by a skilled vocal actor. She couldn't measure up. But I think it was more than that.

Alma mater moment: Plath won an undergraduate poetry prize twice (?) while at Smith College (not my alma mater!): The Kathryn Irene Glascock '22 Intercollegiate Poetry Prize. Of course, it was poetry, so I never had anything to do with it while I was there. In (seven) sisterhood, however, here's the link to some information about Smith's Plath collection.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

So not okay

Everything is Fine is the kind of book that enrages me as an adult reader. What kind of father would leave his pre-teen daughter home alone with her grief-stricken and almost catatonic mother? Huh? What kind of father? (I had a similar reaction reading The Hunger Games and Ender's Game, among others -- who would do that to kids? Yes, yes, I know the answer ... doesn't mean it doesn't make me mad.) Just because it enrages me, of course, doesn't mean that it's not a good book. I have an underlying sensation of anxiety and impotency (as did perhaps the other adults in this Ann Dee Ellis novel) that upsets me as I read or listen. Which I suppose is a sign of a powerful piece of fiction -- it seems so real to me.

Young Mazzy is left in charge of her household when her father gets his chance to appear on a national stage as a sportscaster for ESPN 360. Mazzy's family has been in crisis since the loss of their toddler daughter, Olivia, in a terrible accident. Dad calls frequently, he's arranged for a home health aide/friend to check up on Mom every couple of days, and someone else shops and delivers groceries. But Mazzy is clearly not up to the job. She watches a lot of television (and gets her advice on human behavior from Oprah), occasionally tries to rouse her mother, and keeps an eye out on the neighbors. The adults have called Children's Services, but otherwise they seem to do little but check up on Mazzy occasionally. Everything is most definitely not fine (although it is a very clever way to meet the needs of fiction for young people -- first get the parents out of the picture).

Mazzy's story is told in a series of short (occasionally just a sentence or two in length) first-person chapters. She's understandably pissed off at her father, frightened -- which comes off sometimes as bravado and sometimes as simple nastiness, and fiercely loyal to her mother. She also might be expressing herself artistically (more on this in a moment).

The narrator is Carrington MacDuffie, who I heard read (that is such an awkward phrase ... I struggled with it on a previous post) Once Upon a Marigold a year or so ago. She has a slightly hoarse, adult-sounding voice, but she moves it up a register to speak Mazzy's dialogue. She sounds authentically youthful, and I found it a very effective technique, as it seems to be another manifestation of a child forced to be an adult. MacDuffie is also quietly splendid in the few opportunities she has to voice Mazzy's mother: This woman is indeed sick and tired and you could hear it in every word she struggles to say.

There are other adults in this story (now that I think of it, there is just one other young character), and MacDuffie has the narrative skills to create unique and consistent voices for each of them. Along with Ellis' vivid descriptions of them, I can see many of them clearly: Fat, diabetic, sympathetic neighbor Norma; snippy, busybody-ish neighbor Mrs. Dean, and the kindly yet determined social worker with a lot of cleavage.

The novel has a feature that makes little sense to me as a listener, though. Periodically, MacDuffie reads what sounds like a title for a piece of art, as it is followed by a description of the medium. The artwork is usually connected to what Mazzy has told us in the preceding chapter. But, since I don't have a copy of the book (my library hasn't purchased this ... and we buy everything!), I don't know if the art is represented in the book, or if the titles and descriptions stand on their own. I think I understand why they might just be titles and descriptions -- which is why I confess to confusion as a listener. I'd like to see the book.

I liked this book enough that I might just pick up Ann Dee (which is pronounced Andy) Ellis' first novel: This is What I Did.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Incredibly true adventure of two girls in love

Since I wasn't reading teen literature 25 years ago, I'm not sure I can fully appreciate the groundbreaking quality of Nancy Garden's Annie on My Mind. But I certainly read my share of trashy fiction, so I'm sure some gay or lesbian characters met a bloody end in my youthful reading (if they did, though, their sexual orientation probably sailed a goodly distance over my extremely naive head). I was expecting this to be a bit of a clunker -- perhaps even a hilariously dated message novel, but I was pleasantly surprised. Liza and her girlfriend Annie were a little swoony, a little whiney ... but hey! so is Bella Swan (in spades!).

In Annie on My Mind, Liza -- quietly overachieving at her private Brooklyn high school -- meets Annie -- public school girl from the low-rent part of the Upper West Side -- at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She falls for her because she likes the Temple of Dendur. The two girls embark on what everyone perceives as an intense friendship, but soon they realize that they wish to be more than friends. Over spring break, they find themselves trysting at the home of two of Liza's teachers -- ostensibly Liza was feeding the cats -- when they (and their teachers) are outed as "practicing" homosexuals. The homophobic, control-freak headmistress compels Liza to defend herself at a hearing of her school's board of governors and the girls' romance can't seem to survive the exposure.

Liza is telling us this story in a flashback format: She's now midway through her freshman year at MIT, and she's writing another long letter to Annie (enrolled at Berkeley) that she ultimately won't mail to her. Her reminiscences, though, enable her to pick up the phone. There is no car crash (that was the previous post!).

The audiobook is part of the book's 25th anniversary repackaging (the anniversary was in 2007), and is narrated by Rebecca Lowman. (It's interesting to look at some of the covers of the previous editions. According to Wikipedia, the cover with the girls' profiles is the author's favorite.) I think it was Lowman's reading that kept the 1980s melodrama at bay. She focused on the romance between the two girls, not the message behind it, and created and sustained unique characters for both Annie and Liza. Both sounded like believable young women: Liza confusedly in love and Annie a freer spirit. If the lesbian teachers, Miss Stevenson and Miss Widmer, and the homophobes, Mrs. Poindexter and Ms. Baxter, were a tad on the dramatic side ... well, they were drawn that way. Lowman convinced me of the humanness of this story, it was never caricatured or belittled.

The audio version includes a conversation between Nancy Garden and Kathleen T. Horning (actually, it's more like each is reading the questions and answers they produced for the 2007 edition of the book). Garden shares a lot of her personal story in the conversation, and her perspective on GLBTQ fiction for teens was very interesting. In discussing Annie's status as a frequently challenged book, Garden mentions that the first library challenge she heard about for Annie was right here in Portland in 1988. I wonder if this was at my library. I'm not in Portland right now, but I'm going to try and remember to ask our selector if she's got info on this.

Should I stay or should I go?

I wonder if it was this article in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago that resulted in all the holds that are currently on Gayle Forman's If I Stay at my library. Or perhaps it was Entertainment Weekly? Whatever is taking readers there, it's a good thing. Listeners won't find it too shabby either. Our heroine, Mia, who seems to"have it all" (hip, loving parents who don't mind that she has sex with her punk rocker boyfriend, a budding music career of her own playing the cello at the Juilliard School), loses everything one snowy morning in Oregon. A truck plows into her family's car killing her parents and younger brother (that's actually a spoiler ... sorry!) and grievously wounding her. Over the next day, Mia's essence (soul?) separates from her body and watches her hospital care and the stricken love of her relatives and friends. As she reflects on her brief life, Mia ultimately realizes that the decision to stay is hers alone.

Definitely a tear-jerker, but also an entertaining teen romance (there's kind of a racy bit in here), If I Stay is rescued from those tired genres by Mia's voice. She's honest, funny and knows how to tell us a good story: her romance with Adam, the birth of her much younger brother, how she connected with her best friend, how she became a cellist. By the end of the brief novel, we know Mia very well, and are -- of course -- deeply invested in her decision.

It is Mia's voice that makes this such a good audiobook. With her voice in your ears, the sentiment, sadness and -- yes -- humor all become so immediate. She's confiding in us -- we are, after all, the only people who can hear her. Her confidences become so much more touching when you hear someone else's voice (besides your own) relate it. Some books just thrive on audio and this is one of them.

The narrator is Kirsten Potter, who I heard read Madapple last year. She's extremely skilled and isn't afraid to read with emotion. If she sounds a little adult to me, I think that's a small quibble. She seems utterly invested in Mia's story and wants to tell it to us.

Another highlight of this audiobook is the music. According to the book's website, the cello music is original to the audiobook, composed by John Bauers. (What's odd is that I didn't hear him credited on the audiobook ... hmmm?) A brief squib of solo cello music starts and ends every disc and I also heard it quietly underneath one portion of the book's text -- in the part where Mia is describing how she became a cellist. It's delightful to hear.

This book takes place in an unnamed small college town in Oregon, which always makes my ears perk up. It seems to be fairly close to Portland, so I set the novel in Monmouth in my head. I was surprised to learn that Gayle Forman lives in Brooklyn, because she sure knew Portland. No generic city locations for her! She had Mia visit the Roseland Theatre, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and the Hawthorne Boulevard hipster shopping area. Plus, she gave a shout-out to the Portland Cello Project. On the book's website, Forman says she was partially inspired to write this by Oregon. You are welcome back anytime, Gayle! Be sure to drop by the library!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Or you could go both ways

Diana Wynne Jones brings back Sophie Hatter Pendragon, her husband the vain Wizard Howl, and Calcifer the fire demon in House of Many Ways, which is -- in many ways -- a more satisfying novel than Howl's Moving Castle. At least, it made more sense to me. Charmain Baker, who is mistakenly called Charming by several characters in the novel, is a teenager raised by a protective mother who allows her to do nothing but read. This is fine with Charmain, but proves to be a bit of a burden when she is bundled off to her uncle's -- Wizard Norland -- house to look after it while he is away being treated for a mysterious illness by the elves. Charmain is looking forward to the independence, but since she can't cook, wash dishes, or do laundry, life at the house gets a bit stinky and messy.

Fortunately, a young wizard apprentice named Peter (whose name sounds like Peeta when read by narrator Jenny Sterlin, but that could be because I just finished reading Catching Fire) shows up, and he's got a bit more of a handle on the household chores. And, Charmain also finds herself a job more to her liking, working in the King's library cataloging his papers. Charmain had been hoping that her library job would involve reading, but -- well, she finds out what we all do in this business: There's not much time for reading. At the castle, she meets the Pendragons, who now have a slightly spoiled toddler named Morgan. The Pendragons have been called in to solve a mystery and -- with Charmain's assistance (because, of course, she's got untapped magic skills) -- end up solving a few others along the way. Like many a Wynne Jones, the plot gets extremely convoluted and I would only get bogged down in the way elementary school students do when they try to sum up a story. I think you'll have to read or listen yourself.

I'd recommend listening. Jenny Sterlin narrates this one, as it appears that she's been hired for the whole "series" of Wizard Howl novels. She's an excellent reader, investing the characters with vivid characterizations and moving the story along at an entertaining pace. She's got a slightly husky quality to her voice that I find quite engaging to listen to. In addition to the usual suspects of royalty, wizards, teenaged protagonists and some very bad purple people called Lubbockins, Sterlin portrays some gnomish creatures called Kobolds as well as not one, but two, loudly demanding toddlers.

Oh, and don't forget Calcifer. He sounded different to me in this novel (than she voice him in Howl's Moving Castle), but I liked it. It was like he had come into his own and was more crackly and even a bit malevolent.

Next year, when I've finished up with the intensive power listening, I think I might go back and listen to some other of her books. For me, they might listen better than they read. Here's an interview with her that I found interesting.