Monday, August 31, 2009

It's good for you

I worked this weekend. I spent about three hours reading the Beverly Cleary Children's Choice Award nominees for the upcoming year (I'll booktalk these books at least 50 times this school year) and three hours listening to these two nonfiction titles in the Library of American Lives and Times: Betsy Ross: The American Flag and Life in a Young America by Ryan Randolph and Patrick Henry: Voice of the Revolution by Amy and John Kukla. Please don't make me listen to another one.

Nonfiction series for children can be so sincere and so very dull to get through. (Nonfiction series can also be outstanding [Scientists in the Field anyone?]). Do they have to be dull? I don't think so, but the constraints of a series title -- all the facts, no controversy, no deviations to an interesting nugget -- seem to conspire against them.

I learned a few things in listening to these books. I appreciated the chapter devoted to whether or not Betsy Ross did indeed design the first American flag at the behest of George Washington. (Based on what I heard, I think her relatives were hoping for their 15 minutes of fame and made up the story.) She kept her business open during the duration of the American Revolution, and buried two husbands. I learned a little bit about early Quakers, and the Free Quakers (those who chose to fight in the Revolution). But, despite my inclination to champion women and -- in particular -- champion crafty women in history, Ross just really wasn't a trailblazer. So why does she merit a volume in this Library? Simple, gotta have some women in the collection (see previous paragraph.)

Now Patrick Henry (Give me liberty or give me death!) did play an important role in our nation's founding. Since I really knew nothing about him, beyond that speech, I was interested to learn that he had been influential in the development of the Bill of Rights -- and his opposition to the Federalists, led by his fellow Virginian, James Madison. He also voiced an abhorrence of slavery -- while being a slaveholder, but worried about "the general inconvenience of living without them." Now this is interesting -- wouldn't it have been great if the biography had delved a little further into this.

The books' readers did a good job, considering how little they had to work with. Suzy Myers and Benjamin Becker (whoever they are) do the honors. They keep the stories moving along, and -- where possible -- infuse a little bit of drama in the proceedings. In Henry's biography, Becker does that aural quote indicator: He pauses -- often in the middle of a sentence -- and then reads in a different (often deeper) voice. I find this distracting and artificial. Both readers had to struggle with a timeline of events at the end of their biography, which they rattle off quickly and with little inflection. It is extremely difficult for this listener to retain her attention. However, at least she knew it would soon be over.

The production credits for these books say that Audible is the publisher. I don't know much about Audible (beyond that it is an online retailer of downloadable audio), since I really haven't had much trouble getting hold of audiobooks for the last four years, but I am really curious about how marketable these titles are. Do school or public libraries purchase them (they aren't available through my library's OverDrive service)? Obviously, Brilliance Audio (owned by Audible) thinks there's a market for the CDs. Hmmm ...

My homework is finished.

Monday, August 24, 2009

This means war!

In his series, The Sisters Grimm, Michael Buckley has invented two descendents of Wilhelm and Jacob who maintain a close connection with the characters created by their storytelling ancestors. Daphne and Sabrina Grimm live in the New York suburbs, a special place called Ferryport Landing (which my listening ears interpreted as Fairyport Landing); a place of refuge for people and creatures of folk and fairy tales, as well as other fantasy stories, to live out their lives fairly normally. The denizens of Ferryport Landing call themselves "everafters."

I think I have this backstory right, but -- alas -- I started with the seventh book in the series (and may I tell you that the series' website led me to believe it was the final one, but it is most definitely not), The Everafter War. Two factions are fighting for control of Ferryport Landing. The good guys (who don't have an official moniker), include the Grimms (three generations), Prince Charming, Mr. Canis (a reformed Big Bad Wolf), Puck, Geppetto, some fairy godmothers, and assorted Merry Men and Knights of the Round Table. The bad guys -- working for a mysterious organization known as The Scarlet Hand -- are led by the Queen of Hearts and the Sheriff of Nottingham. The Scarlet Hand wishes to break down the barrier surrounding Ferryport Landing -- a barrier that keeps the fairy folk in and humans out.

It's never good to come to the baseball game in the seventh inning, likewise a series. I spent a lot of my listening brain trying to keep the many, many characters straight and to figure out the world of Ferryport Landing. Since they were mostly characters with which I have at least a passing familiarity, this wasn't as hard as it could have been. Still, they didn't behave to type in this fractured fairy tale. I did listen to the first disc twice: Very early on, Daphne and Sabrina are "kidnapped" by a social worker to be returned to an orphanage, and it took me two listens to figure out that this particular plot development serves absolutely no purpose (except to put our heroines in jeopardy). After that, the rest of the novel has kind of blended together into preparation for war, periods of danger and excitement for the sisters Grimm and their supporters, and then a resolution (containing a big secret) whose meaning completely eludes me since I have no history with the character. Sigh.

The narrator L.J. Ganser reads the book (he has read all the books). He's got a substantial narrator resume, but this was the first time I've heard him. It is clear he feels comfortable with these books; he's created a number of unique voices for the many characters and he slips in and out of them with confidence and ease. There's a fine distinction between Daphne and Sabrina -- creating two different young girls' voices is no easy feat.

Ganser keeps the pace of this fast-paced book tripping along -- easing up for the quieter moments. Both Daphne and Sabrina have a bit of interior life that Ganser brings out in his narration.

He does tend to shout to express excitement (particularly for the adolescent Puck, who is convinced that Sabrina has given him the "puberty virus"). And I found him a bit sloppy with some of the character names: I would hear Serena as often as Sabrina, Puck was occasionally swallowed whole, and I never did understand Granny's name. The website tells me that it's Relda. The text of the book almost always identifies her as Granny Relda and that combination of consonants seemed to get completely garbled inside the narrator's mouth.

I'm not interested enough to go back to the beginning, but at least now I'll be able to give more than a fake nod of interest when a young reader asks me about this series.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Don't let them pass!

I think I can track my reading history straight from Nancy to Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Or those are the only ones I can remember.) I still read and enjoy both mysteries and historical fiction. I came to fantasy as an adult (and still mostly read only those written for children and teens). But the lines aren't so distinct these days: Prophecy of the Sisters has elements of all three genres. (I do love that creepy cover.) Author Michelle Zink treats us to an atmospheric, romantic tale of twin sisters and their destiny. Lia and Alice Milthorpe have just buried their father, leaving them and their younger brother Henry orphans. Since her father's death, a strange mark is emerging on Lia's wrist, it's a tattoo with texture. Unlike most twins, the sisters aren't particularly close, so she keeps this disturbing development to herself.

Then, handsome antiquarian book seller and her father's librarian, James (well, he's actually the son of the book seller) shows Lia something he's found in her father's library. It's a prophecy that ordains that two sisters must fulfill the roles of generations of sisters before them: One is the Guardian and one is the Gate. The Guardian must prevent the fallen angel Samael from crossing with his evil souls into the living world and the Gate must do everything possible to make it happen. If you are the Gate, Lia learns, and you don't fulfill your role, life becomes impossible for you -- her mother and her aunt Virginia were to fulfill these roles, and she discovers that her mother's death was suicide. As the eldest, Lia is the Gate. However, Lia also learns something else about herself (it's getting a little fuzzy for me here) -- she is the Angel who can act to cease the whole Guardian/Gate thing altogether, if she can only find the four keys. Unfortunately, her father died before identifying all four. And, if she needed one more thing: Alice doesn't really want her job as Guardian. She'd rather bring Samael in herself. Lia's got a lot to do.

Prophecy of the Sisters takes place in a chilly mansion and nearby town and countryside in northern New York. It's 1899, and the language of this story is appropriately ornate. Listening to it read aloud contributes nciely to the Victorian atmosphere. The young actress Eliza Dushku (a fan site) is the narrator. (I haven't seen her television program, Dollhouse, either.) And -- while she suffers from the same inexperience that the previous TV actor I blogged about today does -- I liked her performance more. Dushku's got a very pleasant, husky voice, and sounds comfortable reading the stylized prose of the novel. She seems very invested in the narrator's (Lia) character, as she reads with emotion and paces the story very well.

Ultimately, though, I think the novel would have been better served by a reader with a few more skills than Dushku has. There's a fairly large cast of characters, and she doesn't create any of them with her voice. With the Victorian atmospherics, there is a lot of opportunity to do so, and I think the audiobook suffers from the lack. In particular, the origins of three of the characters is specifically described: Italian, English and French, and Dushku attempts nothing in her narration to indicate any difference. I can only assume that she simply didn't feel capable of it. (Although I suppose that not trying is better than cringe-inducing failure.)

Music is very effectively used in this audiobook, as well. It starts off the novel with an appropriately gothic feel. Then, it pops up unexpectedly in the midst of the narration -- usually when Lia has made an important discovery. I enjoyed its unpredictable appearances.

Finally, I like the frisson of French in the pronunciation of Hachette (a slight leaving off of the "h" if that's clear) that accompanies the introduction (and conclusion) of the audiobook. It sounds like Louise, the chicken is introducing the book.

Horse hockey!

Like many a Supreme Court Justice, I read Nancy Drew mysteries as a child. How I wish that "Carolyn Keene" had not decided that she needed to dumb Nancy down for young readers. Nancy does not need to be a 3rd grader. To a 3rd grade reader, Nancy was the height of sophistication and moxie. If nothing else the Stratemeyer Syndicate taught us that the wheels of commerce must grind forward, and so we have Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew. Nancy and her crew (cousins George and Bess) are cute and perky 3rd graders and they solve neighborhood mysteries. Gag me! I mean, look at that horse! No girl who reads this drivel will ever aspire to the Supreme Court!

In this episode, Buttons -- the Shetland pony from the new petting zoo -- has been escaping from his barn each night. Every morning in River Heights, Buttons can be found in someone's yard, contentedly munching the flowers. (Stereotypically, the librarian is the only one to freak out when this happens: dressed in her nightgown, she shoos Buttons away to the amusement of the neighborhood. Ha! Ha!) Nancy pulls out her purple notebook and matching pen and sets out with George and Bess to solve the mystery of how Buttons is getting out of the locked barn.

Well, if you aren't paying close attention, you'll miss the clue that tells you how (I did), so I guess it wasn't completely predictable.

The very youthful-sounding Cassandra Morris reads this. She narrates with an optimism and sunnyness that was perfectly appropriate to the material. Although she went at a fairly slow pace -- befitting a read-along book -- she varied it enough to keep it interesting. Books for this age group are pretty dialog-heavy, with accompanying "Nancy said"s. Morris manages to keep the dialog going without getting bogged down in all the "said"s. No small accomplishment.

Still, I say, read the "real" Nancy (the ones with the yellow spines). Which, of course, aren't the real ones either. My parents tried to fob off those older versions on me (which come to think of it, probably had yellow spines on the dust covers). No way, I wanted the yellow spined ones!

Gnarly dude

Let's not get into where I've been the last ten days ... suffice it to say, it's not pretty. I listened to Surf Mules, by G. Neri, which is the second surfing novel I've ever encountered (the first was In the Break by Jack Lopez). Being that I bring a whole raft of prejudices to stories about boys who patently won't grow up, I'm surprised to say that I enjoyed it (I liked the first one, too). The eponymous mules are Logan and his friend Z-boy, high-school graduate and drop-out respectively, trying to figure out what to do next. A third musketeer, a more successful surfer named Fin -- who had recently distanced himself from Logan and Z-boy, dies in a freak surfing accident as the novel begins.

Logan is approached by Broza, a slightly older drug dealer, with a proposition. With Fin's death, Broza has lost a vital link in his transport network. He wants Logan and Z-boy to reinvent themselves as young Republicans, drive a car loaded with marijuana from California to Florida in three days, and fly the cash payment for the pot back to L.A. They each get to keep some of the cash. Broza wants Logan along to manage Z-boy, a stoner with impulse issues. Logan's reluctant, but he's feeling the pull of his best friend, along with some financial pressures. Surfer dreads shorn, wearing short-sleeve shirts with ties, the boys head off. Their journey doesn't go smoothly -- typically, Z-boy tries to hail some surf Nazis in Texas -- but their friendship seems cemented as they reach Florida. Alas, their journey doesn't end there, as things go terribly wrong and Logan has learned a few more truths before he and Z-boy finally make it back to California.

This is a very engaging road novel (Z-boy even has a little Dean Moriarty in him). The boys greet the dawn high atop a New Mexico dune, smoke dope, eat plenty of fast food and plan for the future (in a stoner, surfer way). I liked steady, loving Logan more, of course; as Z-boy's antics drove me nuts. But since I would be identifying more with his mother than with him, I would just take a breath and just try to see the allure of the open road and a whole lot of pot.

It's simply too bad that the narrator is not up to snuff. His name is John Allen Nelson and it appears that he was a denizen of Baywatch (a show I never saw). This might be his first audiobook, and he needs a little more experience. He reads the story with appropriate emotion, and he varies the pacing of his narrative to build excitement. Unfortunately, though, Nelson has a tendency to read every sentence the same way: he'll start off in a medium-high register, with lots of vigor and authority; then --as the sentence goes on -- he just dwindles away, always ending with this quieter, low-toned voice. It's fairly lulling to listen to. He attempts to create characters by voice, but he was never able to sustain them, to overcome the natural tendency of his speech to ebb away.

This was particularly unfortunate with Logan and Z-boy, whose voices began to blend together as the story went on, and they are the only two people in the narrative. The only ongoing difference I heard was that Z-boy sounded louder than Logan. I had to concentrate to track the dialog, which was helped by each boy's fairly defined personality; but near the end of the story, Z-boy actually takes on some of Logan's soberer characteristics, and then I really didn't know who was speaking.

On Nelson's imdb page, it says he's married to Justine Eyre. She's a very experienced audiobook narrator. I enjoyed listening to her read Evil Genius. So, she can give him some tips and the next book he reads will be better.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Les aventures d'une poule*

Chickens seem to have become the urban domestic animal of choice here in sustainable Portland, Oregon. Backyard coops are springing up (there was even a recent home tour) everywhere. I myself have enjoyed some beautifully orange scrambled eggs from a friend's hens. I kept those contented critters in my head while listening to Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken. This picture book, by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Harry Bliss, tells the very appealing story of the French hen, Louise, who longs for adventure and sets out to find it. She has many close calls -- she's captured by pirates, learns to walk the circus high wire and meets a tall, dark stranger. At long last, she returns to her friends on the farm and tells them her tales. All the hens then dream "the deep and dreamless sleep of the true adventurer."

This is a great picture book: Louise's adventures are told in a chapter format, and there are lots of wonderful phrases and sophisticated words for a young reader following along with the audiobook. The illustrations are funny and hold lots of surprises for the careful observer. Barbara Rosenblat reads the story, and she takes Louise's adventures to heart. While reading slowly enough for a child to follow along, she varies the pace enough to keep things interesting. She has lots of fun with dialog: There are nasty pirates (including one whose final words are hilariously gurgly as he sinks blub, blub, blub into the deep), an enthusiastic aerialist, a Middle Eastern fortune teller, and always the calm presence of fellow coop denizen, Monique. An astute listener can hear when Louise is getting bored, and then hear her perk up as she leaves the henhouse.

There are also a raft of fun sound effects: that drowning pirate, a busy barnyard, a howling storm at sea, a middle-eastern bazaar, a circus audience witnessing Louise's fall from the wire ... there are really too many to mention. The publisher, Live Oak Media, is very careful to include all the words in the book -- even those that are part of the illustrations, and these are done with remarkable subtlety. They've also created a great page-turn signal, the sound of ... a page turning.

Music also contributes to this fine audiobook. It -- along with the sound effects -- underlie pretty much the entire narrative, but it's never intrusive and always evocative. I wanted to keep turning the pages of Louise's adventures. As I think I've said before, I haven't done much listening to picture-book readalongs, but this was a standout among the few I've encountered.

*If my Babelfish-translated French is incorrect, please let me know ...

Camp Run-A-Muck

When I was a storytime librarian, Jonathan London's Froggy books were among the "go to" titles for a successful time with preschoolers. They love the predictability of each story -- each has the "Froggy!" "Whaaat?" dialog and Froggy always does something a little embarrassing and gets "a little more red in the face than green." Froggy Goes to Camp is no exception. After a few false starts, Froggy's family takes him to camp. He has a series of unfortunate encounters with the camp director (who also happens to be his school principal), but all ends well and Froggy sings "Beans, beans the musical fruit/the more you eat the more you toot!" all the way home. Guaranteed to tickle the funny bone of most four- and five-year-olds.

Narrator John McDonough has a high voice for a man, and a part of my ear thinks he's straining to get the words out. Despite this, I enjoyed his delivery of the onomatopaeia that runs throughout this story (boing, flop, zup, splat) as well as the appropriately froggy-throated sound of Froggy's father bleating "FROGGY!" I'm always glad to hear a narrator sing and McDonough sings the bean song with aplomb. His commitment to young listeners who are reading along is evident in the deliberate pace he sets. Alas, it's pretty deadly for adult listeners, who wish this method of reading could be a little livelier.

We've got 13 of these titles at my library, and -- despite the fact that most of them are available in cassette only -- they seem to be circulating pretty well. I guess that Froggy is popular in any form.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A bushel and a peck

I keep trying to find something to listen to so that I can avoid the 18-hour fantasy that's glaring at me accusingly from my bookshelf, so Carter Finally Gets It by Brent Crawford was a pleasant diversion (the book's website takes you [intentionally, I've got to assume] to a website obsessed with breasts ... I'm just telling you). Carter is starting high school and is he psyched: girls, sports, booty, sports, par-tays, sports, sex. He's also scared -- as he fears he's just not up to all that high school entails.

The novel takes us through his freshman year -- a year where he meets the right girl at the very beginning and then screws it up. Sports is the way to be popular at Carter's high school, so he keeps trying that too ... and screwing it up. But he persists in telling us every cringeworthy mistake -- with a lot of humor and a little bit of self-awareness. Finally, though, he finds his niche (and gets the girl back), and that niche is my all-time favorite musical comedy, Guys and Dolls (don't rent the movie, go see the play). So I'm predisposed to like Carter, especially when I envision him as Sky Masterson.

Despite Carter's objectifying of any high school girl that comes across his radar, he's kind of a loveable guy. After all, you can only feel pity for these clueless white suburban boys as they attempt to sound like cool, black hip-hoppers. (And yes, I fully accept that my cringing at the sexist and homophobic comments throughout the text is middle-aged female cringing, and that there's some male bonding thing going on that is completely beyond my ken.) I do get that Carter is frantically holding onto a protective shell of coolness, because if anyone could get underneath it and reveal the shivering pile of ineptness, he would be doomed. How can you not love that?

I think I love Carter, though, because I can listen to narrator Nick Podehl inhabit Carter. He reads this book with the ADD that Carter's been diagnosed with. He's up, he's down, he's self-aware, he's clueless; he's laughing, he's sobbing. Podehl keeps us listening by varying his pace, his volume, his pitch. All of Carter's vulnerability and bravado is there in Podehl's voice. There were many, many times when I laughed right out loud at Carter's exploits. I'm wondering if my easily offended feminist instincts would have been more aroused had I been reading it to myself. With Podehl leavening Carter's less salubrious thoughts with his insecurities, I find that my instinct is to take him aside and bolster his self-esteem, rather than give him the dope slap.

He creates some pretty vivid characters aside from Carter, although I find them all to be fairly stereotypical. I think this is the writing, more than the narration. This book is hilarious, has lots of teen appeal (I think to girls more than boys, but then ... I'm a girl), but it's also fairly predictable and there's more than a bit of a lecture at the end: What others think isn't important, you must be true to yourself. And Carter's explanation of this revelation sounds pretty clunky. It was too sincere, not at all like the Carter that Podehl has created. Fortunately, this is not the last we hear of Carter: Crawford ends the book with an entirely typical Carter escapade.

I've heard a lot from Podehl this year, and his narrative talents are pretty amazing. This peformance is very different from that in The Killer's Cousin, so I think I could listen to him a few more times (which it looks like I will be). I generally don't like it when publishers rely heavily on only a few narrators. C'mon ... there's a lot of talented people out there!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Scab, mad boy scientist

I appear to be on some juvenile testosterone jag, as I ponder Secrets of a Lab Rat: No Girls Allowed (Dogs Okay). The incidents of grossology are beginning to add up and meld together. Is there a trend? Inspired by the Wimpy Kid, maybe? This series, by Trudi Trueit, introduces us to one Scab McNally, a 4th grader with impulse control issues. He's got a twin sister, Isabelle, of whom he is not terribly fond, and a best friend named Doyle. He's happy fiddling with ingredients to solve problems particular to 4th graders, like a broccoli-eating robot or an appetizingly flavored (licorice) toothpaste. He's been searching for the critical ingredient of his sister-repellent when he's picking up Doyle's dog's poo and has his Eureka! moment.

Friend Doyle is the brains of the operation and immediately begins marketing Isabelle's Smell to other boys needing repellent of one kind or another. Scab is thrilled, since he's making enough money to maybe buy a dog -- which he really, really wants. But then Doyle demands part of the proceeds, Isabelle finds out what's going on, and Scab's backpack -- full of the repellent -- gets crushed. Uh-oh.

Scab narrates his story and he's a pretty appealing kid. His heart's in the right place, but he mostly leaps before looking. He's got a good sense of humor, even if it's a little potty oriented. I think these stories have a significant amount of boy appeal, and they are for less skilled readers than the Wimpy Boy books.

The audiobook is nicely done as well. I believe that the book uses what I'll call the Eyewitness approach to fiction: plenty of illustrations and boxed text in addition to the actual story. The format doesn't always work well in audio, but -- although we're missing the pictures -- the publisher has provided an aural cue whenever we're about to hear something that's not directly related to the story. These can be "Scab's tips" or lists (of ways to irritate his sister, or failed experiments, etc.). The bell cue fulfills its function very well. The story is brief enough that this never gets annoying, and I certainly never felt like the asides were keeping me from the story.

Oliver Wyman is the reader. I've heard him read a couple times: Bird Lake Moon and The Glitch in Sleep. He's very skilled at impersonating this nine-year-old boy, reading with lots of expression and humor. I never felt like I was getting remedial reading here -- Wyman keeps the pace of the story moving and gives some vivid characterizations to a bunch of elementary school boys (not an easy thing to do). He maintains Scab's mostly cheery outlook, and I heard genuine longing and desperation in his voice when he thinks about the dog.

Good family listening ... when your family is on the young side. Despite the poop focus, I'm glad I listened to this.

Dead but not forgotten

One of my most feared children's librarian questions is the one about which beginning readers are the good ones, because mostly I can't face 'em. Even though they take about 10 minutes to read -- and once you've read one, you've read them all -- somehow I can rarely bring myself to crack the spine. Audiobooks (even though beginning readers are generally less interesting to listen to than to read) have helped me out here. So, now I can add Horrible Harry to the read list, and well ... these aren't too bad.

In author Suzy Kline's series, Horrible Harry is a detective (he puts two baseball caps on his head -- one backwards and one forwards -- to make his deerstalker hat ... maybe most of you know this already) in the 3rd grade. He's got his own Dr. Watson in the form of best friend Doug, who narrates their stories. In Horrible Harry and the Dead Letters, the 3rd graders have been rewarded by teacher Mrs. Mackle for their color-inspired poetry writing with rainbow bookmarks. Mrs. Mackle has also introduced a post-office theme to the classroom: The class will write letters to one another and drop them in a mailbox. A group of students have been charged with the various tasks associated with delivering the mail. Any improperly addressed envelopes are sent to the Dead Letter Office. Everyone is enjoying themselves. Until the first rainbow bookmark disappears. Horrible Harry -- employing a slight fib and some recess-time derring-do -- solves the mystery.

The audiobook is narrated by Johnny Heller. I heard quite a bit from Mr. Heller when I first began listening to audiobooks -- as he has a somewhat youthful voice -- but I've not listened to him in some time. He reads with an expressive young-sounding hoarseness that's very pleasant to listen to. He's got the rhythms of kid speech down and gives each of the students a slightly different characterization. I particularly appreciated his skill at this when he read each student's "color" poetry at the end of the short book.

I'm fairly certain that he was instructed to slow down and read the book deliberately -- this is an audiobook that should help the beginning reader who can listen while holding the book in her hands. Unfortunately, at that pace, it's hard to get any sense of narrative flow, and it's just pretty darn dull to listen to. I'm repeating what I said one post earlier. So let's move on.