Wednesday, November 25, 2009

If you let me play

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Color me bluish purple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secrets of a small town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mob scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brrr ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

The servant strikes back

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Alphonsus Spewt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 9, 2009

Would you adopt this dog?

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 6, 2009

Lab rat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Part-y!

Literature does enjoy its loveable nerds, probably more than we do in life. Oggie Cooder is a particularly clueless capital-L loser 4th grader, but he's definitely an appealing hero. Oggie Cooder, Party Animal is the second story Sarah Weeks has penned about him. Oggie is the only child of organic, hippie parents who own a resale store (To Good to be Threw), and they support his idiosyncrasies. Oggie's closet is supplied by the store and he doesn't really care whether things "go together," he makes a "prrrrip" sound with his tongue when he's excited, he crochets his own shoelaces, and he "charves." That's chewing processed cheese into shapes -- usually the shapes of states.

Mostly, his classmates ignore him, which probably saddens Oggie, except that he seems largely oblivious. He does have one friend, Amy, the quiet girl with braces. The person who seems most bothered by Oggie is his neighbor, Donnica Perfecto, the 4th grade's queen bee (she has two acolytes who finish her words, a la LO - ser). Unbeknownst to him, Oggie defeated Donnica's plans for stardom in the first book. In Party Animal, she has been forced to invite Oggie to her birthday pool party and she is not happy. So, she creates a list of 100 things that Oggie cannot do at her party and insists that he memorize it before she'll let him in the door. With the help of Amy, Oggie does memorize the list (think mnemonics), but Donnica still comes up with a way to keep him away. Oggie's gentle nature prevails, and the book ends with Donnica in his debt (although she doesn't see it that way).

William Dufris narrates this book. As he did when he read Homer P. Figg, Dufris adopts a high, squeaky narrator voice that sounds like it's painful to produce, but is completely fine on the ears. (Well, I wouldn't want to listen to hours and hours of it.) As is appropriate for the voice of Bob the Builder, Dufris captures Oggie's awkwardness and naïveté with that high-pitched voice. He conveys Oggie's exciteability with a fast-paced delivery. And, he does a pretty good job of "prrrrip-ing." He's able to move from character to character, so I particularly enjoyed his alpha side coming out via Donnica. That girl means business.

This is a good middle elementary school story. There's enough humor and grossology to satisfy most readers and listeners, and the world is always aligned correctly by the end, but without a message informing you of the fact. I always wonder though, will an alpha girl recognize herself and be kinder to the geeky kids once she reads this book? Likely not, that 4th grade mean girl is probably reading Twilight.

Hot dog!

I learned a new piece of teen vocabulary yesterday during a school visit. The subject of gay parents arose (this was a censorship presentation, so you probably know what book we were talking about), that segued into gay people in general; when one of the teen girls said that gay men were "fire." I adopted my I-am-so-clueless demeanor and asked her to explain what she meant ... basically, gay men are hot.

This is my intro into the fact that I really don't understand the meaning of the word "weenie" either, as used by David Lubar in The Curse of the Campfire Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales. Does it mean an easily frightened person, or someone who's fearful of camping (that would make me a campfire weenie)? That makes sense -- the book is a collection of scary stories, or ones with a macabre twist at the end that are good fodder for dark nights with only the fire for comfort. But then Lubar goes on to confuse me, because he's written several other "weenie" books: red-hot pepper, road and lawn. I know I'm overthinking this ...

There are over 30 stories in this collection and some are quite witty and clever. I particularly enjoyed "Predators" (online vampires), "Throwaways" (a kid whose father tosses him in the trash), "Inquire Within" (a witch hunt with a twist), "The Chipper" (think Fargo for kids), and "The Unforgiving Tree" (Shel Silverstein is a-rolling). They don't take very long to read/listen to, which -- after the first couple stories -- requires listening concentration so you don't miss the twist.

There is a lengthy author's afterword, where Lubar provides the inspiration behind each of his stories. He says he wrote "The Unforgiving Tree" partly because people either love or hate that book. I can admit this now; back in the late 1970s when the first of my high school friends got married, I gave it as a wedding gift. I knew so much about marriage when I was 19 ...

The audiobook is narrated by Paul Michael Garcia; like many of the Blackstone Audio narrators, he's an actor with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, so I may have seen him on stage. He reads the stories with plenty of atmosphere and his character voices are good. I particularly enjoyed his technique when a story featured a female protagonist. Instead of simply reading in a higher register, Garcia changed the inflection of his voice making it sound not necessarily "feminine," but different. He also had the chance to create some evil-spirit-type voices in a few of the stories, and he's very good at this.

But like the just-previous post on another collection of short stories, listening to them all in a bunch isn't the best way to appreciate them. I listened to Lubar's afterword twice to help me recollect which of the stories I most enjoyed; frankly, with 35 of them, they had really become fairly indistinguishable in my head. It would have been helpful to have each story's track number printed on the compact disc itself for easy retrieval if I had wanted to listen to one or two of them again. I was much less inclined to try to figure out which disc a story had appeared on, and then figure out which track of that disc was the story's beginning.

I think the eventual monotony of the tales may have also been helped by another narrator, perhaps a woman for the "girl" stories. And, finally, while I'm complaining; I'm begging for a bit more of a pause between stories. Most of these tales had a clever twist at the very end, a twist I was often still pondering as the next story began. Just give me one more moment to process; this way I don't have to hit pause or go back to the beginning once the next story is announced.

I really appreciated the exposure to these stories, as they are another arrow in the quiver when you are faced with a scary stories fan who's read through your Alvin Schwartz section. I suspect that they work better in print, though.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Tiddly pom!

I don't know about you, but I always take a gander at the "professional" reviews of a book I've just finished reading to see if my opinion jibes with that of the reviewers. Well, the only review I could find of Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is from Publishers' Weekly (more of a bookseller's resource than a librarian's ... I think?). Is this a conspiracy of librarians? If we don't review it, it will go away? Trust me, this book is nothing to get your knickers in a twist over. It is extremely minor Pooh. In the Pooh oeuvre, I'd much rather put a stake in the heart of Disney's Pooh than a poor imitation (the sincerest form of flattery) of Messrs. Milne and Shepard.

Return to the Hundred Acre Wood: In Which Winnie-the-Pooh Enjoys Further Adventures with Christopher Robin and his Friends is by David Benedictus (who appears to be hiding his affiliation with this book on his website). A brief introduction -- which is mysteriously called an Exposition -- provides a poetic explanation for the lengthy pause (80 years) it took to bring Christopher Robin back from school. Ten short stories follow that are somewhat amusing and sentimental and true to Milne's characters. The adventures are no longer about childish things, but about schoolboy things -- like spelling bees, a thesaurus and cricket. (I liked the cricket one especially [I listened to it twice] because the explanation of how to play was extra simple, and I think I finally understand how to play that utterly foreign sport.) There's a new character, Lottie the Otter. Some wit and hilarity is present, but Pooh's poetry (or hums) weren't particularly inspired and the whole thing just falls a little flat.

So, can anyone save this? Calling the great Jim Dale! Dale is such a sensitive reader, he transmits a book's range of emotions so sincerely that he can pretty much read anything. Scroll down a bit on this Amazon page to see the video of Dale reading the Exposition.

Thankfully, Dale brings his vast array of character voices to these slight stories and breathes some much needed life into shy Pooh and squeaky Piglet and dignified Owl and rambunctious Tigger (who has a fairly low profile here) and officious Lottie, as well as all the Friends and Relations (who I don't remember at all, so I guess I need to go back to the originals). He sings Pooh's hums (singing where appropriate is always a plus to me). I think Dale really does a good job here -- the characters are so familiar to most of us (in Disney form or original); and he gives each one the exact right voice (I quibble with his Pooh, who sounds like he's medicated), practically the voice you had in your head when these were first read aloud to you (except that was your mom or dad ... but you get my point).

There's a nice little bit of music that segues in at the end of each story. And although the stories come to a natural conclusion, I appreciate the signal to take a moment and digest the last bits before getting ready for the next episode. I wonder if this should be listened to in a more episodic way, the way you might experience one story every night at bedtime. I listened almost straight through the whole three hours and, well, they began to blend together. Is this the spelling bee story or the school story? They probably become fairly indistinguishable in print as well.

I was trolling through our catalog for audio versions of the original -- for pleasure listening after January (hooray!). We have a massive eight-hour collection of both Poohs and Milne's poetry books which I think only the most dedicated would listen all the way through. More fun, though ... one lone cassette copy of Winnie-the Pooh read by Charles Kuralt. I can hear it.

Recently, the publisher of the book and audiobook, Penguin, donated some money to the New York Public Library for a spiffy display case backdrop (more of Dale reading) for Christopher Milne's original animals. Hmmm ... how did they get to New York? Practice, practice, practice.

There is a house in New Orleans

I've never read a Secrets of Droon title, but by virtue of the sheer quantity of them I was prepared to treat the author with scorn. Then I read and listened to the beautiful and thoughtful Firegirl and I had to rethink that scorn. But now that I've listened to two installments of Tony Abbott's latest series, The Haunting of Derek Stone, I think perhaps I should limit myself to Abbott's hardcover books. This is not my cup of tea. Well, at least I got to start at the beginning.

In City of the Dead, 14-year-old Derek Stone is traveling by train with his father and older brother, when the bridge that their train is rumbling over collapses into the Bordelon Gap. Derek survives, but the bodies of his father and brother -- along with those of several other victims -- are not found. Derek returns, griefstricken, to his family's house in New Orleans. Then ... great news! Ronny, Derek's older brother has been found alive! It doesn't take Derek long to figure out, though, that something is very, very wrong with Ronny.

Derek figures out that Ronny is really Virgil. And Virgil was a passenger on a train that experienced the exact same accident in the exact same place 70 years earlier. Only Virgil's wasn't a passenger train, it was a convict train. And when someone dies in the same place in the same way (and there's a rift in time of some kind that I didn't quite understand), then the older dead entity can take over the body of the more recently dead. This is called "translating," and I think they are different than zombies. Virgil was a guard on that convict train, but the rest of the undead hanging out at the bottom of the ravine are murderers and now that they've got bodies again, they are on the rampage. Virgil is escaping from them, and he's come to Derek for help.

What those convicts want from Virgil (revenge?) and Derek isn't completely clear -- I don't think it's clear to Derek either, actually. I might go so far as to say that it isn't clear to the author, but that would be sheer speculation. Regardless, they're chasing him, and in the second book, Bayou Dogs, they are chasing him some more. They are chasing him to the place of his nightmares, the place Derek almost drowned -- the Bayou Malpierre.

This series is probably pretty good material for reluctant reader who appreciate a good chase and plenty of gore. They're relatively short (that was a blessing for me) too. But listening to them was six hours I'll never get back.

The usually reliable Nick Podehl (heard most recently here) is the reader and here we simply have the case of a bad match between narrator and material. Podehl adopts a heavy N'Awlins accent and it's clear he's not comfortable using it. It seems to restrict him from the natural phrasing and delightful character development that he's shown in previous audiobooks. He's concentrating so hard on sustaining the accent that he can't do anything else. It's a bit of a dud.

Interestingly, Podehl's accent immediately brought an African American character to my mind. Once I got into the story I realized that Derek -- who is the narrator -- is white, although other characters in the book are black. But why does Derek have to be described that closely that I know he's white? In a book like this, it would be so easy to just leave it up to the reader/listener to inhabit the story however s/he saw it. Worth thinking about ...

Another gripe: How can you set a book in New Orleans and not mention Hurricane Katrina? Not even in passing? It just doesn't seem right.