Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The horsey set

I've been on a horse once in my life. During those "horse-y" years (10 to 13?), I tried to be horse-y -- one of the books I remember possessing (and re-reading) was The American Girl Book of Horse Stories. (Yikes! nostalgia flashback.) [Note: the above American Girl is not the current American Girl -- which is, evidently, "a premiere lifestyle brand."] But I was never really horsey -- probably because they were too big and dirty (I don't think we even had a dog in my family at that point). Patricia Reilly Giff's Wild Girl is for the truly horsey girls (if you couldn't tell from the cover).

Wild Girl is about Lidie, who is 12 years old and is just about to get on an airplane and fly to New York to live with her father and older brother. They moved from the family's farm in Brazil five years earlier after the death of Lidie's mother. Lidie takes one last exhilirating ride on the neighbor's horse before she's off to worlds unknown. When she arrives in frigid New York, her father and brother seem not to know her -- they give her a pink scarf with kitties on it, and have decorated her room with Disney princesses; they are remembering the seven year old they left behind. Neither knows what a great horsewoman she has become. To add insult to injury, Lidie's English isn't so good, and her first days at school are humiliating. She wishes she were back in Brazil.

Wild Girl was born on a farm in the south, but all too soon she is separated from her mother, forced into a trailer and shipped to Lidie's father's employer's stables in New York. She's understandably irritable, and presents a danger to the humans who want to ride her. Yet Lidie -- whose mother called her Wild Girl -- feels a kinship with the horse; slowly the two girls come together in their shared feeling of displacement. It's a slim novel, but everything that needs to be in there is there and it deeply satisfies.

The reader is Justine Eyre. She's a very experienced narrator and she reads this with emotion and compassion for Lidie and Wild Girl. She knows how to read dialog and varies her reading to keep it interesting. Part of this novel is Wild Girl's story -- in the third person (unlike the dog story of a few weeks ago) -- and Eyre reads this with appropriate neutrality. She has a most unusual speaking voice -- it's kind of low and soft, very warm and pleasant to listen to. But she speaks very precisely; all the final consonants are carefully pronounced, plus she has overly rounded vowel sounds that I might call affected. It's not ugly to listen to, just slightly distracting. Along the lines of ... why is she speaking that way?

In Wild Girl, she's chosen to give nearly all the characters (who are Brazilians) a slightly inflected accent. But, I heard them speak with that accent only when they are actually speaking English. When their conversations are in Portuguese, the story's English is straightforward. It's little tricky to listen to, in part because occasionally Eyre would get confused and not make the transition. But it could be that I was confused -- her precise "normal" accent sounds foreign enough that I might be mistaking it for the Portuguese-inflected speech.

Ultimately it's a quibble; I enjoyed listening to Eyre read this satisfying story -- one for the horsey girl in all of us.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Lucky is as lucky does ...

Lucky Trimble is growing up and quite frankly, it's not very pretty. She is about to turn 11 -- a number to which she attributes great significance -- and her bossiness and tendency to show off have become more than a little trying to all who know her. At the end of her first novel, The Higher Power of Lucky, Lucky learns that her adopted mother Brigitte wants and loves her and that she's got a secure place in the small world of Hard Pan, California. So in Lucky Breaks, author Susan Patron has Lucky repeatedly testing that love -- by destroying the knotted creation of her best friend Lincoln, by belittling her new best friend's appropriate caution about an abandoned well, and by lying to all and sundry in that quirky little community.

Still, she's Lucky Trimble and we love her. Her insatiable curiosity and stubbornness are a very appealing combination. Lucky meets Paloma, the niece of one of the -ologists that are out exploring the Mojave Desert near Hard Pan, and instantly feels a connection to her -- particularly because she shares her name with that of a heroine of a story of a love gone wrong that Lucky has recently heard from Short Sammy (owner of the dog with the scrotum problem).

But Lucky is also on the lookout for a best friend because she's not so sure about her current best friend, Lincoln. Lincoln is getting more and more obsessed with knot-tying -- so much so that he might leave Hard Pan altogether to go to school in England. And, of course, he's not paying sufficient attention to Lucky. So, Lucky encourages Paloma to come visit her the next weekend (some hilarity ensues courtesy of Paloma's overprotective Hollywood-esque parents) -- Lucky's birthday weekend -- when they will search for the jewel missing from the other Paloma's broach. When this adventure lands both Paloma and Lucky in some serious trouble, Lucky's not grateful for her rescue. In fact, she seems like a garden-variety adolescent -- she knows that she's behaving badly, but she can't help herself. It's quite endearing.

The narrator is Cassandra Campbell, who I don't believe I've ever heard read before. She does a very good job here -- there are a lot of characters here that she subtly, but distinctly creates. The four children -- Lucky, Lincoln, Paloma, and the only other child in Hard Pan, six-year-old savant Miles -- are endearingly rendered, the personality of each is embodied in Campbell's voice and delivery. I really enjoyed Lucky's petulant fury and Lincoln's reasoning calm as he brings her up from the bottom of that abandoned well.

Campbell has a youthful sounding voice, and there is no doubt that this story is from Lucky's point of view. But, she also brings a bit of adult sensibility to her reading. Perhaps I'm overanalyzing, but I hear in her voice a calm sense of security that adults provide in this kind of children's literature (the kind where adults aren't absent, idiots, fools, or evil incarnate). It lets me know (and, more importantly, listening children) that Lucky is going to get out of her (many)predicaments. I think that Patron's frequent use of sophisticated language and imagery may contribute to this comforting adult feel as well, and Campbell reads the novel with such surety and confidence. Hand-in-hand with these feelings are skilled portrayals of the adults in the story -- particularly Paloma's mother and the Americanizing Frenchwoman, Brigitte.

Campbell interviews Susan Patron at the conclusion of the audiobook and the interview had an almost spontaneous quality (not quite). Patron has got some good stories and seems confident talking about herself. Shortly after Lucky Breaks was published, Susan Patron visited my library, so most of her stories were familiar to me. Still, it's nice for those who won't have a chance to meet her in person to hear from her in this format.

At the beginning of the audiobook, Patron also reads her acknowledgment, "To RĂ©ne," [apologies if the accent is in the wrong place] with appropriate French inflection. It's kind of odd -- a sudden shift after you hear the narrator's voice read the credits and it's finished before you have the chance to reflect on the fact that it's a different voice sounding French! But it was touching that she wanted to read it.

Immortality isn't all it's cracked up to be

I have been busy listening for the past two weeks, but everything has been a little underwhelming; I've not been particularly inspired to comment on anything. But, now I'm quite behind, so I'd better man up and start typing. I started off liking Fragile Eternity -- mostly because it's "I want to be immortal" shtick was the boy's complaint not the girl's. But the whining just went on for bloody ever and it became a slog to the end.

In Melissa Marr's initial installment in this series, Wicked Lovely, Aislinn -- who can see faeries -- and her boyfriend Seth come up with an original plan for faery power-sharing: Keenan, the Summer King, wants Aislinn as his Queen (transformation into faery status involves a dangerous kiss), but Aislinn is in love with Seth. They propose that Aislinn and Keenan be the Summer King and Queen, but without the romantic entanglement ... it's just a job (I found myself occasionally intrigued about what exactly a faery's job is ... but that's another story, I guess). Keenan, desperate to get out from under the not-so-friendly rule of his mother -- the Winter Queen -- agrees.

Now, in Fragile Eternity (there is an intermediate book called Ink Exchange where Aislinn, Seth and Keenan play supporting roles), Summer is ascendent, the solstice approaches and Aislinn is experiencing some unwanted, yet romantic, feelings about Keenan. Seth is jealous and depressed that he'll eventually die and Aislinn will be free to consort with Keenan. So, he concocts a plan to approach the fourth faery court (the third being the Dark ... who knew there were so many?) -- the High (I might be forgetting this name considering it's been over a week) so that this Queen (completely blanking on her name!) can convert him -- with conditions -- to immortality.

So, this is intriguing, yes? I liked Wicked Lovely and its premise (although not as much as its cousin, Holly Black's "modern faerie" books). Marr's faery world is a complex one -- people fall in and out of love, alliances are formed and dissolve, and there's a significant amount of violence and unpleasantness. But, the ongoing internal agonizing -- do I love Seth or Keenan ... Aislinn will forget me when I get old and ugly ... why has Seth left me ... the Summer Court needs Aislinn and Keenan to be lovers ... etc. -- just got repetitive and ultimately dull. Even when Seth heads to the High Court for conversion, he enters into this fugue state where he loves the Queen who transforms him ... and he (and she) go on about that.

The audiobook is narrated by Nick Landrum; someone I never would have picked for this title. I listened to him a couple of years ago read two stories about slightly feral young boys who are searching for loving adults. He's got a deep, twangy, slightly rumbling speaking voice that seemed perfect for those titles. So, I was surprised to see him attached to an exotic, urban tale. (See, just like publishers, I can typecast a narrator!) And I was pleasantly surprised to find his reading of Fragile Eternity was not the genre-bender I thought it would be. While not an outstanding performance, Landrum certainly is up to the change.

He's got a couple quirks that make listening a little tricky. He keeps voicing to a minimum, and tracking conversations between people of the same gender can be confusing. I had to rewind and listen again occasionally because of this. He also has this odd habit of starting a sentence, pausing at a place where there isn't a comma, and then completing it. At the beginning of the novel, I heard this frequently ... often following a name or an unusual word: (freely improvising here) "Aislinn [pause pause] thought about what Seth had said." Is he giving us a moment to orient ourselves? If so, that's helpful. But as it occurs frequently, the mannerism itself becomes the thing I focus on -- instead of what he was saying. As with any listening, I think I got used to this, because I only remember it bothering me in the beginning.

Ultimately, though, I think he's got a reading pattern that doesn't help this angsty novel. His calm voice is soothing and lulling and its mostly unvarying rhythm adds up to a soporific effect. Oddly, this quietness seems matched to the interior monologue approach of the novel, but its sheer length (11+ hours) makes a listener crave for a little more excitement in order to keep going.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pet friendly

I am a sucker for the sentimental pet story (is anyone not?); unlike other sentiment, I don't feel manipulated by the story of a sad, unwanted creature finding (as the Oregon Humane Society says) his or her "forever home." Or rather, I do feel manipulated, but I don't mind it. Bring it on! And don't forget the hankies! After the minidramas of the past couple books, Ann M. Martin's Everything for a Dog was the perfect antidote for my crankiness and cynicism.

A couple of years ago, Ann M. Martin published the story of Squirrel in A Dog's Life: An Autobiography of a Stray. In that book, we met Squirrel's brother Bone, but the two puppies were separated early on, and we never learned Bone's story. In Everything for a Dog, we get that ... and more. After a bit of a rough start, Bone spends a short time as a house pet, but -- when his irresponsible owners (who have never heard of an animal shelter? Hello?) can't figure out what to do with him once their elderly father needs to move into the retirement home -- he ends up on the doggy road. Eventually, he wanders into young Henry's small town. Henry's best friend has recently moved away, and he thinks that having a dog will assuage some of his loneliness. He puts "dog" at the top of his Christmas list. But his parents are adamantly opposed to owning a dog, so Henry's overtures to the somewhat feral Bone have to take place secretly.

In addition to Bone and Henry's narratives, we also meet a boy named Charlie and his dog, Sunny. Charlie and Sunny are mourning the death of Charlie's older brother, R.J., and each is relying on the other for solace and company. Well, both boys don't get the dog, do they? The listener is pleasantly uncertain about where Bone is going to end up (because, of course, there's no doubt that Bone will find a home), and I -- for one -- was delighted at the way the three stories came together.

Everything for a Dog is narrated by David Pittu. About a year ago, I heard him read The Maze of Bones, and I like him better here. His voice has such warmth and compassion for the suffering of both Henry and Charlie -- a listener experiences real sadness. He reads with expression and lots of variety in his pacing. At some really sad parts, he gives us a moment to reflect. He doesn't do much voicing in this novel, just enough to help us keep the characters straight. It's easy to imagine yourself cuddled up with your dog, listening to Pittu's pleasant voice telling this story.

In a nice touch, though, he does voice Bone. When it's Bone's turn to tell his story, Pittu's voice lowers a register or two and becomes more gravelly. He never goes completely doglike -- no grrrs for words beginning with gr- because Bone isn't really doglike. He's fully anthropomorphized in this story, and Pittu's character interpretation shows that. This is a fine listen, for dog people, or not.

Portland prides itself on being really doggy friendly, to the dismay of some. (A friend of mine emailed that article to me under the category of the Department of Too Crunchy -- Portland division.) I'm a cat person myself. Still, cats don't have the same pride of place in the literary world. We read with them, but don't often read about them. Unless you're a Warriors fan (I hated that book!) ... but there's no human/cat happily ever after in those!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Snowbirds

The Nest takes place in the Australian snow -- two words I truly don't expect to see together in a sentence. A couple of reviews linked from the author Paul Jennings' website refer to the location as the Victorian alps, which is also a weirdness for my North American-centric eyes: Victorian isn't a place, it's an era. At the end of the this audiobook, the author and the narrator are chatting about the real-life equivalent of the fictional location, and we learn that the setting is (I think ... it's kind of hard to understand them when they are pronouncing unfamiliar words) Mount Buller.

The Nest is the story of Robin Gordon. Robin lives with his father, an extremely angry and unhappy man who repairs engines for the ski patrol and others in the mountain community. Robin has two possessions of his mother's: Her engagement ring and her hairbrush. She disappeared when Robin was a baby -- his father tells him she ran off with another man. At 16, Robin fears his own strong emotions, as he is having recurring daytime visions where he violently attacks his father. He's also a skilled writer of short stories, but his teachers are disturbed by the violence that appears in these as well. It is the titular nest that brings these matters to a head, becoming the instrument by which Robin learns what truly happened to his mother.

The chapters telling us Robin's story are interspersed with his short stories, and they are -- indeed -- violent and disturbing: a monk enjoys sexual release while self-flagellating and drinking champagne (I'm not sure I'm remembering this correctly); but they are also quite witty and sophisticated: A girl dating two boys attempts to change each of them into the other. They often foreshadow the events of the novel. Initially, I was confused by these -- I don't think I clued in to the fact that they were Robin's stories until the third one. I'm wondering if I missed a something early on in the narrative that would have clarified this, but the first story -- the one about the monk -- is just so bizarre that I'm not sure I still would have made the connection.

The audiobook is narrated by Stig Weymss (which he pronounces whey-ms), and he is the kind of narrator who really gets into his reading assignments. I might venture to say that he is too into his work. It's a melodramatic performance full of gasps, sighs, shrieks, screams, gulps, some extremely over-the-top tears, and a general all-around breathlessness that could easily veer into parody. In the end, I think it detracts from the book.

Weymss' narrator quirks are in addition to the focus I have to bring to listening to his Australian accent. Australians speak rapidly and punchily. It's an unfamiliar cadence to my American ear, and takes some getting used to. This book was hard work.

The Aussie-isms aside, I also have issues with the book and its suitability for audio. Its structure is pretty confusing, a confusion exacerbated because a listener is without the visual clues that a text would provide. There's a brief dramatic scene in the beginning before the book "properly" begins (that is revisited at the book's denouement ... but I didn't remember this until I went back to listen to the beginning again). OK, this is not an unusual literary device, so let's set that confusion aside; let's listen openly as the story comes together, as we gather the strands we're being given into something that makes sense. It's coming along, when -- wham! -- we're in the monastery with the perverted monk. I had a definite huh? moment. Even when I figured out that these were Robin's stories, I felt off-balance much of the book. Sometimes, it's good to feel off-balance (When You Reach Me, anyone?), but here it didn't feel good. Maybe it was the combination of puzzling out the book and decoding the Australian accent that made for the ultimately unsatisfactory experience.

The publisher does include atmospheric music at the beginning and end of each disc. I like that. There are even tweeting birds in this music, which seemed odd at first -- until I remembered the title. I had one of those dope-slap moments: birds, The Nest ... hmm, what nest? Is it a metaphorical nest? I guess I have to keep listening.

I also enjoyed the author-narrator interview at the end. Weymss stays in wacky character -- making jokes and offering Jennings a cup of coffee (sound effect). Their conversation goes on for some time, and it is natural and informative. I've listened to a handful of post-book interviews recently, and they almost all sound stilted and rehearsed. This one sounds like two guys in a coffee bar. Nice.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Gold digger

Here's another novel about a girl who obsesses about boys, but I didn't mind listening to it nearly as much as I did the one with the vampire angle. The Treasure Map of Boys - Noel, Jackson, Finn, Hutch, Gideon -- and Me, Ruby Oliver is the third book from the talented E. Lockhart about the romantic travails of Tate Prep student -- funny, articulate, neurotic --Roo.

In her first book, The Boyfriend List, Ruby ends up in therapy for panic attacks when her first boyfriend breaks up with her in order to be with her (one-time) best friend, and her reputation ends up besmirched on the bathroom wall. The books -- and Ruby's adventures -- that follow are all about how she tries to figure out how to find friends (of all sorts) and cope with life as a scholarship girl/outcast at exclusive Tate Prep. Ruby mostly has her eyes open about herself, but that doesn't stop her from continuing to make mistakes. More importantly, she can find the humor in those mistakes. She's an entirely engaging storyteller.

In The Treasure Map of Boys, Ruby struggles with her feelings for a "nice" boy named Noel, but one of her two remaining friends at Tate has told her that she likes Noel too, and Ruby -- abiding by the code of The Boy Book -- resolves to keep her hands off. Alack, or Ag! as Ruby says, she cannot, and heartbreak and misunderstanding ensue. At the same time, she loses her job at the Woodland Park Zoo and convinces her parents that her therapist recommended she get a Great Dane. I think you may have to read it in order for it all to become clear.

I have two confessions:
  • (Because I'm compulsive) I read the first two books in this series last month. I think it was too much Ruby Oliver at one time. I was a bit bored by her by number three.
  • Despite her considerable skills as an audiobook reader, narrator Kirsten Potter is not well-suite to Ruby's narrative style.

I listened to Potter read If I Stay earlier this year, and I said I liked her performance. But, after listening to Treasure Map and thinking about both books, I just can't get my ears around the fact that she sounds too old to be reading teen literature. There's a formality and maturity in her voice that belies her teenage narrators. Potter reads passionately and with lively variation; she finds and exposes the humor in a story. She invests personality into almost all the characters she reads, but she doesn't sound like a teenager. She seems poorly matched to her material in the case of young adult fiction.

Still, that's not a reason to avoid this book. Exposure to Ruby is no hardship (perhaps in smaller doses). Like her predecessor (I guess she's more of a descendent, actually), the inimitable Frankie Landau-Banks, she's the kind of teenager you want to share a cappuccino with.

Put a stake in it!

What is with the vampires? Of course, I know the answer ... but this week's listening made me harken back to a really great vampire novel, The Vampire Lestat; and wonder why that book didn't cause vampires to show up everywhere in literature.

Some parentheses before moving on:
  • (Cease wondering: There's no true love forever in Anne Rice's books.)
  • (I gave up on this series after the fourth entry ... too weird.)
  • (Anne Rice's best book: Cry to Heaven. Out of print?)

Where was I? Oh, yes, teen vampire romance. I can't stand these. However, when I saw that Katherine Kellgren and Jeff Woodman were narrating Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side by Beth Fantaskey, I thought I could cut the genre some slack. Jessica Packwood is headed for her senior year in rural Pennsylvania when a tall, dark stranger enters her life. He is Lucius Vladescu and he has come a-wooing. Jessica, it turns out, is really Antanasia (a name that never ceased to bug me), a Romanian vampire princess destined to marry Lucius in order to peacefully unite their rival clans. Jessica is a little freaked out by Lucius and his plans for her, but after a lot of high-school angst and navel-gazing, she [gag] realizes that they are meant for each other eternally, so why not go the undead route. Lesson learned here: Some teen novels are best left to teenagers.

Kellgren does most of the first-person work here. Woodman narrates a series of interspersed letters from Lucius home to his powerful uncle in Romania. These letters are actually pretty funny -- as Lucius snidely comments on the excesses of American culture. Woodman reads with a sly humor, as well as a pretty nifty Romanian accent. For me he lightens up the novel considerably.

Alas, I wasn't as enamored of Kellgren's performance here (and I love her work!), although I'm likely to put most of the blame on the novel. Jessica is sarcastic and vulnerable -- but she does go on and on with the do-I-love-him/does-he-love-me vampire-novel thing-y. I hear that mix of confidence and fear in Kellgren's voice, but it just isn't enough to transcend the book. Kellgren is excellent in her character portrayals, although she doesn't seem as confident in her Romanian accent (which she uses to read Lucius' dialog) as Woodman is. At the same time, I didn't hear her reading with the same verve and commitment that she brings to Bloody Jack, does she need a more lively story to really blossom as a narrator?

I stopped listening to this after Disc 5 (of 9). I never do this, I stick it out no matter what I think; but I couldn't devote another minute. But I am compulsive, so I did read the remaining 150 pages with my eyes (a lot quicker). It didn't improve, but I do know how things turned out (did I need to finish it to know this?). I think I'll just drape myself with crosses and garlic if another VR crosses my path.

Shrewish

It's been awhile since I've listened to a Full Cast Audio production, so I was glad to get my ears on Nurk: The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew by Ursula Vernon (whose website I was unable to open in Explorer, but worked OK in Firefox). Nurk is a timid guy who receives a letter requesting help intended for his adventurous grandmother. He determines that he will ride to the rescue, despite his fearfulness, and he sets off in his snailshell boat. The letter came from a dragonfly princess, whose brother has been kidnapped by the terrifying, tentacled Grizzlemole. Nurk journeys to the heart of the mole's lair, using his shrew qualities to rescue a somewhat snotty, unappreciative prince, and heads home with his head high ... and likely ready for new adventures.

The audiobook has all the goodies we like from a Full Cast recording: Delightful, evocative music, some nifty sound effects, and a lively reading. The narrator, Bill Knowlton, reads with an avuncular style that kept the story moving along. The young reader portraying Nurk (no more names, alas ... the cast isn't on the FCA website and my copy isn't available) has a sweet innocence that sounds authentic and doesn't cloy. There are some memorable audio portraits in the Carp, and the King and Prince of the dragonflies. A frog chorus is particularly fun -- even more so when I learned from the credits that it was just one guy. Ah, the magic of audio production.

I'm not so fond of the girls/women in this production. The reader portraying Nurk's grandmother Surka sounds fake old and quavery and the studio effect that alters her voice isn't very pleasant to listen to and makes her difficult to understand. The younger reader voicing the dragonfly princess sounds sort-of middle-aged and husky. And, as is almost always the case with these audiobooks, there are just a few expressionless clunkers of line readings that made me wince while listening.

Still, I enjoy these productions. They put a different spin on book listening that's always interesting, and I thought this particular production enhanced a familiar animal tale. I like that I can always recommend FCA for the all-ages car trip ... except I was surprised to see that they recently produced Graceling ... isn't that a little racy?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Synchronicity

It's possible that I've mentioned in too many posts here the fact that King Dork (a movie?) never made it on to my first list of Amazing Audiobooks. I really enjoyed that audiobook. So, when Frank Portman's Andromeda Klein crossed my path, I moved it to the top of the listening pile. Whew! If you can't cut it, as Booklist says, you might "turn to less demanding fare, like, say, advanced calculus."

Andromeda is a 16-year-old social outcast who is seriously into magic (and not that Harry Potter wand-type of magic). She had a close friend, Daisy, who shared her interest/obsession, but Daisy unexpectedly died while Andromeda was on an enforced vacation with her family. And before she died, Daisy and Andromeda were on the outs, since Andromeda wouldn't tell Daisy about her sort-of (now possibly former) boyfriend, Saint Steve. But, lately, Andromeda thinks that Daisy is trying to communicate with her. She's been having meaningful dreams, her Tarot readings are synching, and there are other signs. Andromeda's just got to figure out what Daisy is trying to tell her.

There's also an amusing (to librarians) subplot where Andromeda -- in her work at a library page at the International House of Bookcakes -- is being forced to weed her beloved, but low-circulating, 133s in order to make room for alternative media. She concocts an elaborate checkout plan to keep these books out of the hands of the so-called Friends of the Library.

There's a lot to like in this novel: Andromeda is an extremely single-minded individual and that gets her into a number of cringeworthy, yet quite funny, situations when she tries to deal with a world that isn't quite so obsessed. There are her clueless parents, the mean girls at her school (who pull a very nasty trick), Daisy's younger brother (who exchanges Daisy's magical belongings for Andromeda's father's ancient porno magazines), and a "nice young man" whose tolerance for Andromeda's oddities is especially charming. Andromeda is hard of hearing -- she calls it her "disorganized collagen" -- which leads to some misheard speech that she wittily turns into regular usage. (The easiest to recall: She mistakes bathroom for vacuum and then uses vacuum to refer to the toilet.) Fortunately, the book ends with a Lexicon, where many of these spoonerisms (and a lot else besides) are explained.

Alas, there are also pages and pages of excrutiating detail devoted to esoterica about Tarot, historical magical practioners, those books in the 133s, the actual meaning of her dreams, visions, etc. And I'm afraid that this is just all too much for the audiobook. It staggers under the weight. Only the most dedicated listener will ever sit still for it. I have this note from my listening: "Problem with this book: Disc 5/Track 4, around 4:00 --What is this list?"

And this is a shame, because I really enjoyed the narrator's performance. Deirdre Lovejoy reads all 14+ hours and she never gives up. She reads with lots of expression and liveliness. She varies the pace, the volume, and infuses sarcasm, humor, grief and ennui into the narration. I really enjoyed listening to her. (And, look, Lovejoy is from one of my favorite TV programs, The Wire.) She only partially voices the characters, and she's got a pretty wobbly Australian accent, but I appreciated her commitment to this book.

As he did in King Dork, Dr. Frank (Portman) provides a musical interlude on the audiobook. The name of the song and its lyrics were pretty much untelligible to me, but it had a good beat! I think you can listen to it here.

So, I didn't like it as much as King Dork (it was nearly as funny, and there's a lot of stuff that is just not particularly interesting to anyone who doesn't seek to practice magic), but I was glad that I read it. Portman never ceases to surprise and doesn't talk down to his readers.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Suffer the children

This book hurts. It is awful to listen to. There is nothing to feel good about once you get to the end, except that your pain is over. Unfortunately, it will continue to haunt you. In a few weeks, I'll be booktalking to a group of teen girls in a residential treatment school and I've been informed that they eat up "sob story-type memoirs," but I just don't know if I can take them this. Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott is pure horror from beginning to end. And to some of the girls there, it might not be fiction.

Alice tells us her story -- in a weird stream of consciousness trail that moves from first, to third to second person. Five years ago, she was abducted by Ray when she was 10 years old. Raped and continually forced into sex with Ray, she lives with him in "homeschooled" squalor about four hours from her former home. She is permitted out on errands for Ray, but he keeps her in thrall by threatening to kill her parents should she leave. On her forays into the outside world, however, no one cares to see that she needs help. We look the other way.

Ray likes little girls, and Alice -- the name given to her by Ray -- knows that her survival depends on preserving the fiction that she is not a maturing teen. She endures starvation and the waxing of her pubic hair to put off the inevitable. Then, Alice sees a glimmer of hope in something terrible: If she finds a replacement for herself -- another young girl -- she can be free of Ray. I think this was the most horrific part of the novel (which includes no graphic descriptions of sex, although the violence is vivid): that Ray has subsumed Alice so completely that she has become the monster that he is. Not surprising, of course, but since you keep glimpsing the girl that Alice was, it is exceedingly distressing. That girl's name is Kyla.

So, imagine reading this book. Now imagine listening. It is so much more immediate to hear the voice of this child. So much more visceral, so much more difficult to set aside. Alice is imprinted in my brain. Narrator Kate Reinders reads with little affect -- utterly appropriate for a girl whose life depends on suppressing her feelings. She maintains the stream of consciousness feeling by reading rapidly (but not too fast). When Alice can't keep the fear at bay, Reinders shockingly erupts with emotion. It's a masterful narration. But how do I recommend it?

I listened to this novel this weekend as it is relatively short and I was between long ones. It was an even more disturbing choice considering the news about Jaycee Dugard. I can't get any of these victims -- real or imagined -- out of my mind.

Peachy

I think the people who write beginning readers are the most underappreciated talent in the authorial world. Having been a victim of Dick and Jane myself, I am in utter admiration of authors who can make these books original and entertaining. Jennifer Richard Jacobson's Andy Shane books meet this standard. Andy Shane is a quiet boy who lives with his grandmother and tries really hard to be a good friend (a summary which sounds much more stickily sweet than Andy actually is) and in Andy Shane and the Pumpkin Trick he comes through with affection and intelligence.

Even though bossy Dolores Starbuckle occasionally frustrates Andy to no end, it is Andy who comes up with the plan to foil the neighborhood hooligans who keep smashing Dolores' Halloween pumpkins.

In addition to being hard to write these books, it's no mean trick to read them aloud either. Rachael Lillis does a fine job. She reads slowly, as is appropriate for a read-along, but her pace isn't deliberate. She varies the narrative nicely. She does interesting and appropriate character voices for Andy, Dolores and Andy's Granny Webb.

The audiobook is full of sound effects that relate to the story's text. There is the sound of batter being whipped or a hole being dug, among others. These add texture to the story, but in this case it almost seems like overkill. Several of the effects are not immediately obvious, and this pulled my focus away from the story. What is the sound, for example, that accompanies the part of the book that describes hanging strings that will hold donuts in the air during Dolores' party? I listened twice through and still can't tell you.

I'm not a big fruit person -- I will consume only an extremely limited palette of fruit (most particularly, no berries in any form) -- so I think of read-along audiobooks as fruit. You have to have them -- they are a very useful tool in the process of learning to read -- but they are never going to be great. Still, some are a whole lot better than others, so on my fruit scale, Andy Shane is a peach (yum!).