Thursday, December 30, 2010

Girlish

My last two book posts both relate to my desire to read the original material before seeing the movie. In the case of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I saw before I read/listened. (The hold list was so long ... ) And I think that really, really impacted my enjoyment/appreciation for this first novel in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy (at least I now know why it's called the Millennium trilogy ... I thought it had something to do with, you know, the millennium).

For any readers who have been living in a cave for this millennium, a brief plot summary: Journalist Mikael Blomkvist is hired -- after a young researcher/hacker named Lisbeth Salander has provided a thorough dossier -- by a wealthy Swedish industrialist named Henrik Vanger. The elderly Vanger wants Blomkvist to discover what happened to his beloved great-niece Harriet, who disappeared from the family's compound 40 years earlier. Salander, an odd girl/woman with the tattoo and a multitude of socialization issues, joins him in his research. In keeping with Larsson's original title for the novel, Men Who Hate Women (Män som hatar kvinnor), the answer to Harriet's disappearance is related to sexual violence and perversion.

An intrinsic part of the novel is Blomkvist's journalistic vendetta against another Swedish businessman, Hans-Erik Wennerström. At the beginning, Blomkvist has just lost a libel suit and is sent to prison. At the end, well, I won't spoil it for the three people who haven't read this and -- like me -- plan to.

Because I knew already what was going to happen, I found most of the book to be a bit of a slog. Hardly suspenseful in any way. The sexual perversions are extremely brief (much longer and more terrifying in the movie ... but maybe that's because I didn't know they were coming). There are lengthy passages of family relationships, mind-numbing discussions of business dealings, and meandering conversations over dinner and coffee that give you a peek at character development but nothing you haven't learned three times over. The dialogue is fairly clunky. After the mystery of Harriet's disappearance is resolved, you still have three discs to go and these are deadly: email conversations, editorial meetings, and a lengthy con by Salander that might be amusing if it were 20 minutes shorter.

All in all, I am wondering what the fuss is about.

I chose to listen to this primarily because of Simon Vance. His recordings of the three novels have been praised, awarded, and loudly feted since he began producing them two years ago. Considering how much listening I do, I am surprised at how infrequently I've listened to Vance.

All the praise is well-justified, Vance is pretty darn good here. He has a wonderfully mellifluous voice that soothes and inspires confidence. He reads rapidly to keep the plot moving and yet pauses appropriately for emotional or suspenseful moments. His great skill is character development and he does a brilliant job with the many, many people in this novel. What I particularly enjoyed was that no one speaks with a Swedish accent (see here); all the accents are variations on English. And, of course, he's completely consistent and easily switches between characters in dialogue.

In the Vance-narrated novel I listened to a year ago, I noted a general dissatisfaction with his voices for women. Not a problem in Girl: I liked his interpretation of Salander a lot. Her spikiness and intelligence are crystal clear in Vance's characterization and despite my general lack of enthusiasm for the novel, I was completely caught off guard at the very end at Salander's loneliness and heartbreak.

Inappropriate moments of hilarity: One of the secondary characters is named Dirch Frode, which is pronounced FRO-deh, but every time I heard it, I had a wee picture of a certain hobbit in my head.

Depending on ear-space, I think I'll probably give the next in the series a listen. I'd like to go into at least one of these without preconceptions ... except, of course, that I'm visualizing those two actors. And while the Swedish actor Mikael Nyqvist is probably a more accurate portrayal of a middle-aged man, it's hard to deny the visual appeal of Daniel Craig. Darn it! Now I'll have James Bond in my head while listening! Now that is deeply wrong.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland
Narrated by Simon Vance
Books on Tape, 2008. 16:21 (unabridged)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best of 2010

I started this blog in 2007 in order to keep track of the books I was listening to on behalf of the Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults and, later, the Odyssey Committees. All I listened to in those years were the current year's audiobooks and to produce a "top ten" list seemed inappropriate. So, to commemorate my first year of "free" listening, I bring you my favorites.

Audiobooks for children and teens:

Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce, narrated by Jason Hughes.
Numbers by Rachel Ward, narrated by Sarah Coomes.
Outcast (Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, Book 4) by Michele Paver, narrated by Ian McKellen.
Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd, narrated by Sile Bermingham.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, narrated by MacLeod Andrews and Nick Podehl.

Audiobooks for adults:

Chasing the Devil's Tail by David Fulmer, narrated by Dion Graham.
A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse, narrated by Jonathan Cecil.
In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant, narrated by Stephen Hoye.
The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard, narrated by Charles Leggett.
Still Midnight by Denise Mina, narrated by Jane MacFarlane.

In the category of "so great they'll be on best-of lists forever:"

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, narrated by a full cast.
My Bonny Light Horseman by L.A. Meyer, narrated by Katherine Kellgren.

In other year-end news, I can only say that I've become a piker. Listening hours are way, way down! Numbers of interest only to me:

2008: 96 audiobooks, 726:25
2009: 125 audiobooks, 694:32.
2010: 65 audiobooks, 543:02

[Picture credit: Yuval Y (from Wikimedia Commons)]

Here's to another year of great listening! (After one more post ...)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Welsh Job

So you know that I like to read the book before I see the movie, and this holds true for television as well. I've been watching Masterpiece Theatre (it must have been here that I developed my devotion to the English accent) for decades, and -- although it might be easy to quibble with the "masterpiece" status of some of their more recent offerings -- I still try to read the book first. So, when I saw that this Sunday's feature is Framed, based on the book by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Imagine my delight to see that we owned the audiobook. It went right on hold and into the ears.

I read Cosmic earlier this year and really enjoyed its whimsy and true suspense, but what is most lovable about both it and Framed is its portrayal of a fractious but loving family. Team Hughes (Dad, Mum, Marie, Dylan, Minnie and baby Max) run the Snowdonia Oasis Auto Marvel (garage) in the tiny village of Manod in Northwest Wales. Manod used to be a fairly bustling place, as everyone was employed in extracting the shale from the nearby mountain. But the shale is gone, men and their families are leaving for economically greener pastures and Dylan -- at age nine -- finds himself the only boy left in Manod; there's no one to play football (soccer) with. More ominously, Dad announces that the Snowdonia Oasis is falling on hard times as well, and that Team Hughes needs to strategize how to increase profits.

Dylan keeps the garage logs -- noting down which cars stop at the Oasis and what they purchase there. So, he's the first to observe when the quiet of Manod is disrupted by a series of white vans passing by the Oasis and heading up the mountain. The family soon realize that they can cater to the individuals driving the vans and expand the Oasis' offerings to snacks and fancy coffee. One driver stops and, admiring Dylan's new chickens -- Donatello and Michelangelo (named after two of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) -- invites him up the mountain to see what's going on.

This man, Lester, is heading a major crisis project: Unending rains in London have flooded the National Gallery and Lester has brought all its masterpieces to be stored in the mountain at Manod. Sixty years earlier, another curator did the same thing -- protecting the artwork from the London Blitz (Cottrell Boyce reports that learning this was the inspiration for the novel). When Lester learns the names of Dylan's chickens, he assumes he is a fellow art lover and shows him some of the stored works. Dylan knows nothing about art, but in the interest of "customer service" he pretends to -- aided by his smart younger sister Minnie.

Eventually Lester -- who would really rather not have to share the country's masterpieces with his fellow, read unappreciative, countrymen -- is convinced to show some of the paintings to the citizens of Manod. The drab, depressed village is transformed by viewing the art, although Lester can't see that. But when Minnie and Dylan decide that one of the works, Van Gogh's Sunflowers -- easily substituted with a paint-by-numbers version -- will be just the thing to get the Snowdonia Oasis Auto Marvel out of debt, Lester quickly starts paying attention.

[And here is the point where Blogger lost the rest of my post, which was -- of course -- the most erudite, scintillating prose ever committed to the internet, never to be resurrected.]

Framed is a romp. The Welsh setting is so vivid, and the plot feels fresh. The novel has the potential to be some didactic bore about the redeeming power of art, but Cottrell Boyce doesn't go there. Instead he stuffs the story full of interesting, funny people who may or may not be changed by what they see, but who cares, because they are already fun to know.

The novel is read by Jason Hughes. He has a lovely lilting Welsh accent that is so charming to listen to. He does a great job creating individual voices for all the different Manod-ites, most notably Tom -- the slightly dim adult hired hand at the garage who's the chief Turtles fan. And while Hughes sounds a bit too old for Dylan's voice, he has completely grasped Dylan's innocence. He's very good with the novel's girls: Minnie, the criminal mastermind; Marie, an adolescent with body issues; and a bully who goes by the name of Terrible. They all sound girlish without being femmy and Hughes is outstanding at Marie's frequent adolescent outbursts. You can almost hear the door slam.

Throughout the story, amidst the musical Welsh inflections, Hughes easily slips into the character of Lester -- smooth as silk. The voice grows deeper and more resonant, the vowels go clipped. The transitions in and out of character are seamless; I would go all jello-y when the voice appeared..

Jason Hughes plays a detective on the television program Midsomer Murders, which I recall watching fairly faithfully when I had cable. I stopped watching before Hughes joined the cast, but I'm tempted to take a gander (if only to hear the voice). Except, for goodness sake: There are 16 seasons of this! This seems excessive, particularly when you realize that each episode is pretty much like the one that came before it. I guess we like to cuddle up with something familiar in these uncertain times.

Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Narrated by Jason Hughes
Harper Children's Audio, 2006. 7:00 (unabridged)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The pain of it will ease a bit

The 1969 film, True Grit, is -- along with Romeo and Juliet -- one of the memorable movies of my childhood. I saw it several times and I checked out a copy of Charles Portis's novel from my local library. I recall not liking it very much, probably because it wasn't like the movie (sound familiar?), so when I realized that another movie version of the book was opening soon (and that a. I would want to see it and b. I would want to revisit the book beforehand), I took a copy of the audiobook out of the hands of some deserving old person as the book was headed into the delivery van (the only lending library I have regular access to is that of Library Outreach Services). I'd just like to add that the book was not on hold for anyone, it was just going into a general mobile circulating collection.

[Why do song lyrics stick in your head forever? The title of this post is part of the execrable "theme song" of the 1969 movie by Glen Campbell. Alas, I had no difficulty whatsoever in dredging that from my brain. But can I remember the name of the book I read last week?]

True Grit is the story of Mattie Ross, a bossy, self-possessed 14-year-old girl growing up in Yell County, Arkansas in the decade following the Civil War. Her father travels to Fort Smith with their hired hand, Tom Chaney, in order to purchase some horses. After an argument, Chaney shoots her father dead in the street and escapes west to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Her mother is too devastated to see to the details, so Mattie goes to Fort Smith to claim her father's body and to hire someone who will track down Tom Chaney and see that justice is done. On the recommendation of local law enforcement, Mattie hires Deputy U.S. Marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn because he's the meanest. He's also a drunk, probably a racist and he doesn't like little girls very much, but he likes the idea of Mattie's money and so he takes the job.

Mattie meets up with another lawman, a Texas Ranger called LaBoeuf, who is also hunting Chaney down for another murder. The two men agree to conduct the manhunt together, but neither is very happy when Mattie succeeds in coming along. Mattie's got a lot of "sand" in her, but she's also a prudish, condescending pain in the ass. The tough journey the three of them make in search of Chaney only takes up about a third of the book, but it's a fascinating exercise in character development to watch how each is changed profoundly by their experience. I liked the book a lot more than I did as a teenager -- it's really funny, and the sense of time and place feels very authentic. I enjoyed the voice of Mattie -- so confident, yet so clueless about her effect on others.

The part of the cover image that you can't read says "with an afterword by Donna Tartt." Tartt, the author of two novels I've been meaning to read, also reads this audiobook. She has a pleasant, Southern-tinged voice that is pretty perfect for young Mattie. Even though Mattie is an elderly woman telling us her story, Tartt thankfully doesn't attempt to sound old. I disagree, though, with her interpretation of Mattie's coolness and unflappability. She reads the novel way too flat emotionally, with barely an acknowledgement of Mattie's moments of panic and fear, not to mention grief.

Tartt reads her own afterword, which is an essay on her lasting affection for the novel. I appreciated the way she revisited sections of the story to support her points, and that the quoted sections came from the audiobook.

Nearly every other character in the novel is male and Tartt attempts to create distinct voices for Rooster, LaBoeuf, Tom Chaney and another nasty bandit, Lucky Ned Pepper. She's not terribly consistent with her voices, and -- in many places -- I could not easily determine who was speaking. Her attempt at a Spanish accent for another character fails completely.

I don't mean to pile on, but the recording itself wasn't very good either. There were gulps and swallows, lip smacks, breath intakes and all manner of bodily noises pretty much constantly throughout the recording. Now, I believe these sounds show up all the time when books are being recorded and the publishers simply do their voodoo and excise them. Did Recorded Books deliberately choose not to edit out the sounds because Tartt is not a professional narrator (although she has recorded her own novels)?

The 1969 movie ended differently than the novel (which I didn't remember). Now that I've done my homework (and, despite my criticisms, I enjoyed it), I'm very curious to see what the talented Coen brothers will do with the material.

True Grit by Charles Portis
Narrated by Donna Tartt
Recorded Books, 2006. 6:30 (unabridged)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pianoforte Needlework Necromancy

Does this ever happen to you? I read about a book (or an author) and then place a hold and weeks later when it appears, I go huh? There's more of a "huh?" in the case of Interlibrary Loan, because I don't see the book title every time I scan my holds list. At some point in the last couple months, I read someone's blog saying that T.H. White's version of the Arthur legends are the best. I found an audiobook of The Sword in the Stone using World Cat, did the voodoo and forgot about it. Then, it appears ... like magic! Of course, when an ILL (I always like seeing where the books come from, don't you? Thank you Douglas County Library System!) arrives, everything on the listening list gets moved down one because these aren't renewable.

(And even though I enjoyed this, I'm really not a big enough Arthur fan to commit to another 24 hours to wrap up the five-novel saga.)

Young Arthur, parentage unknown (to him), is being raised in the castle of the noble knight Sir Ector and is friend and companion to his son, Kay. Arthur, who is called the Wart by all in the castle, will likely become Kay's squire when Kay becomes a knight himself. Wart is a sweet-natured boy (unlike Kay), and when Kay proposes that they take the young falcon, Cully and put him through his paces, Wart obligingly agrees. Of course, neither boy can control the bird, who flies away. Kay -- unwilling to take responsibility -- stomps back to the castle, while Wart soldiers on into the Forest Sauvage trying to re-capture him. Lost and frightened, he stumbles across the cottage of an old man, who introduces himself as Merlyn.

Merlyn announces that he will become Wart's tutor. He and Wart travel back to the castle and embark on his education. Merlyn is a magician (pointy hat and all) and can transform Wart into various living creatures -- transformations designed to instill leadership qualities into the boy and to broaden his experiences. Because Merlyn is living life in reverse and he knows what's going to happen: That Wart will come upon the sword in the stone, pull it out, and by doing so he will prove that he is the man to rule England.

This novel is full of hilarious anachronisms -- mostly courtesy of Merlyn's knowledge of the future -- but occasionally they are just, ridiculously, there. (The heading of this post is the sign outside the cottage of a local she-witch, Madame Mim, which goes on to say: "No hawkers, circulars or income tax. Beware of the dragon.") There's also a fair amount of rollicking fun with Merlyn's battle to the death with the aforementioned Madame Mim, a tilt between two hapless knights, a dash of Robin Wood (whose name has evidently been misunderstood as Hood for centuries), and an exciting rescue from a giant's lair. White includes a fair amount of what we would call environmental activism and the occasional jab at modern (1930s) politics.

I thought this was going to be "litrachure;" it's really just a romp.

A new-to-me narrator, Neville Jason, reads the novel. (Scroll down and listen to this podcast of him chatting about his work. I always enjoy these peeks into the audiobook production process.) As you can hear, he has a lovely speaking voice -- those rounded British vowels, of course; but he understands and perfectly delivers the dry humor in the story.

There are lots of characters for Jason to portray and he skillfully brings out the qualities in each one -- the professorial Merlyn (modeled, as he says in the podcast, on the British politician Tony Benn), the slightly dim Sir Ector, the really dim King Pellinore, petulant Kay, and the curious and impressionable Wart. There's a fair amount of animal life given voice in the novel, but I find that Jason's slightly less successful here -- although I did enjoy the subtle baa's as he voices a sad little goat, many of the creatures that Wart encounters in his transformations all had the same soft, whispery quality that made these episodes blend together a bit in my head.

I'm trying to figure out what it is about Arthur that I can't get into his mythology. While I very much enjoyed Philip Reeve's recent riff on the subject, Here Lies Arthur, I think it must be Franco Nero lip-synching "C'est Moi" as Lancelot in the movie version of Camelot. Oh, the horror! Clearly I should stick with Arthur's youth -- I've always been curious about Kevin Crossley-Holland's trilogy ... which is available through World Cat ... stop me! Stop me!

The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White
Narrated by Neville Jason
Naxos Audiobooks, 2008. 9:41 (unabridged)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Crow brothers

There are some things you just shouldn't ask the Internet, unless you wish to waste vast amounts of time. What, for example, is the difference between fairies and faeries? There's just an awful lot of people with an opinion, but no one cites a source (except, occasionally, Wikipedia). I hate those Q&A websites where you're allowed to vote on which answer you like the best (whether it's right or wrong ... did I have to say that?), but here is the answer to my question that I liked the best (it was as I suspected -- fairies are just namby-pamby cuties with wings).

Laini Taylor's faeries are definitely of the edgy variety. In the first book in her Faeries of Dreamdark series (now repackaged as just Dreamdark), Blackbringer, we are introduced to the intrepid young faerie, Magpie Windwitch. 'Pie is around 100 years old, which makes her fairly youthful in the faerie world, and she is spending her adolescence roaming out in the wide world -- a world full of humans ("mannies"), demons, imps, djinns and other life forms -- restoring order. With her posse of crazy crows (who have a hilarious list of bad habits including smoking, gambling and ham acting), 'Pie hunts down and recaptures demons that those pesky humans have released from the enchanted bottles (think Aladdin) meant to keep them incarcerated for eternity.

One day, 'Pie comes across the opened bottle of a dreadful demon, one she eventually finds out is called Blackbringer. Blackbringer simply absorbs its enemies into a terrifying nothingness. She rushes back to Dreamdark (faerie land) to convince an old djinn named Magruwen to help her capture Blackbringer. She discovers that all is not well in Dreamdark; Blackbringer has preceded her there and the faeries are fighting a losing battle. 'Pie also learns she is destined for great things -- as predicted by her christening -- and that she is the only one who can battle and defeat Blackbringer and bring about harmony in Dreamdark once more.

I got a slow start on this novel, as it took me a week to get through the first three discs. I bogged down in the world-building and kept forgetting where I was in the story, so I'd listen to it again. I don't think this is Taylor's fault; with the broken ankle I just haven't had the opportunity/desire to do some serious, time-consuming listening. [Sometimes, TV is better (eek! I said it!).] But there's a lot to love about this book: an accomplished, mouthy heroine, a nicely realized setting (the caves, castles and nether reaches of Dreamdark are particularly evocative), some high-octane action, a little romance, some delightfully inventive swearing (including skive and blither) and those crows.

Even though this novel was written right here in Portland, Oregon, the audiobook comes straight from a faerie-filled England as read by the talented Davina Porter. Porter is a skilled and experienced narrator who does a fine job of managing a large cast of characters with cleverness and distinction. 'Pie speaks with a Scots accent that is entirely endearing (I love her pet name for her crows, Feather.) The crows don't caw exactly, but their working class voices are raspy and doting. Magruwen is suitably grumpy and slightly menacing, while an imposter queen (whose hair is turned into worms by 'Pie) is imperious and screechy and her paramour is sycophantic. The romantic hero, Talon -- disabled because of his stubby wings -- is a bit dim, but proves worthy of 'Pie. Even the characters we meet once are pretty memorable: Porter does a lovely little cameo of a smart, but naked chicken -- formerly owned by a magician -- who has sought sanctuary with a brood of "human" chickens.

Porter reads the action scenes with verve and enthusiasm and gives the exposition and world-building a delivery that's just quick enough. She's a very good narrator, and I was surprised to learn that I (think) I've only listened to her once.

(Wait! Let me check Audiobook Jukebox! Nope, just the one. Thank goodness for this website, since I lack the tech savvy/interest in making my blog more searchable.)

I love that so many authors of teen literature live here in Portland! We had a mini roaming-authors (a la YALSA's Coffee Klatch) session at a recent meeting where I met Dale Basye, Susan Fletcher, Heather Frederick, April Henry, Nancy Osa, Rosanne Parry, Emily Whitman, and someone whose books I'd never heard of and so I've forgotten her [I am so sorry!]. Author (and librarian) Sara Ryan organized the meeting. Notable (for me, but I'm sure there are others) in their absence: Laini Taylor and L.K. Madigan.

Blackbringer ([Faeries of] Dreamdark, Book 1) by Laini Taylor
Narrated by Davina Porter
Recorded Books, 2008. 11:30

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Justice deferred

It's been a couple of months since I reviewed an adult mystery novel mid-series, so I'm not feeling so guilty about listening to Uniform Justice, the 12th book by Donna Leon featuring the suave Venetian commissario Guido Brunetti. Brunetti is kind of a standard-issue Italian literary cop -- well- versed in the byzantine corruption endemic in Italian business, politics, military, etc. but scrupulously honest. Brunetti always gets his man, but his man is often able to circumvent the justice system and remain free.

(Other Italian cops I read and enjoy: Andrea Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano and Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen. Do Romans count? Lindsay Davis' Marcus Didius Falco and Steven Saylor's Gordianus the Finder.)

In Uniform Justice, Brunetti is called to an elite military academy to investigate the hanging death of a young cadet, Ernesto Moro. The school's administrators seem oddly uninterested in the boy's death, as are his parents, who ask to be left alone to grieve. Brunetti keeps pushing for answers -- aided by the genius of his idiot superior's administrative assistant Signorina Elettra Zorzi, who -- it seems -- can find out anything using her computer and her vast network of friends and relations. He uncovers attempted murder and government corruption, and figures out what happened to young Moro. As always, Brunetti's cynicism and despair are assuaged by his envy-inducing home life: a fabulous top floor apartment with a terrace overlooking Venice, two intelligent children, and the wonderful Paola -- who manages to put an incredible meal on the table at a moment's notice and teach English literature at the university level.

Venice and the Veneto, described lovingly and with wonderful detail, is a very important character in these novels.

I listened to a Brunetti novel several years ago, and -- when I checked my reading log -- I had the same complaint about that one as I do about this one, even though they didn't share a narrator. All characters speak in English (the novels are written in English) with Italian accents. The narration itself is in unaccented American English. Why? In this case, everyone in the novel is Italian -- there's no need to differentiate between characters' origins. Why would Italian speakers in a novel taking place in Italy speak with an accent (unless it was a Venetian, as opposed to a Sicilian accent)? Instead of sounding like regular people going about their work, everyone sounds like they were immigrant extras in The Godfather. I didn't like it one bit.

Which means that I really didn't like David Colacci's reading of the book, although I think this is a director's decision and it's not fair to blame him. He's clearly an experienced narrator -- although I've never heard him read before -- as he knows how to vary a novel's pace, and he is skilled at voicing characters. When I try to listen beyond Brunetti's mobster accent, I can hear an emotionally true reading -- Brunetti's public cynicism and private despair are quite clear in Colacci's performance.

Some things are better left unread aloud. At one point Brunetti and one of his young subordinates, Puccetti, are having a conversation. With the "Brunetti saids" and the "Puccetti saids" flying around along with the Italian-English inflections; well, it began to sound like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. And not in a good way. I think I'll go back to eye-reading this otherwise outstanding series.

Uniform Justice by Donna Leon
Narrated by David Colacci
BBC Audiobooks America, 2004. 8:11 (unabridged)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Silly old dramatization

A year ago, upon finishing a listen to the authorized Winnie-the-Pooh sequel, Return to the Hundred-Acre Wood, I mused about listening to the original books at some later date. Alas, when I sought these out in our catalog a few weeks ago, I selected the wrong one. (I blame Stephen Fry ... and poor cataloguing, or -- now that I examine the cover more carefully, publisher information designed perhaps to mislead.) Because this 1997 recording of The Collected Stories of Winnie-the-Pooh is only unabridged in the sense that the adaptation by none other than the author of the aforementioned Pooh sequel, David Benedictus, is -- in fact -- not abridged. It is, however, not a full-cast reading of the books by A.A. Milne. It is [shudder] a dramatization.

It is not a bad dramatization of the charming children's stories about Christopher Robin and his loyal animal friends, whose characters remain so memorable more than 80 years later. I have forgotten much of the Pooh stories, but those I remember are still vivid in my mind, so revisiting them was a treat. Still, my adult audiobook listening mind is convinced that I missed something in listening to this. (At the same time, I wasn't willing to listen to this dramatization while holding the book in my hand to make myself feel better.) Since unabridged full-cast audiobooks are not unusual, one wonders why these stories were adapted in this way. In 1997, though, maybe dramatization was the way to go. (This version that I listened to was reissued last year, by a different publisher.)

The cast of readers is mostly wonderful. I'll list them here:

Winnie-the-Pooh: Stephen Fry
Piglet: Jane Horrocks
Eeyore: Geoffrey Palmer
Kanga: Judi Dench (who also narrates)
Owl: Michael Williams [the late Mr. Dench] (who also narrates)
Rabbit: Robert Daws
Tigger: Sandi Toksvig
Roo: Finty Williams [offspring of Dench and Williams, and the only one of this cast that I've actually heard read a book]
Christopher Robin: Steven Webb

[A short pause for a TMZ moment: Stephen Fry and Steven Webb are now an item.]

While Dench and Williams lend the right tone of nurturing, calm narration that's also reflected in their character voices, the standout for me in this cast is Jane Horrocks. Wikipedia tells me she was born in Lancashire in England, so I'm going to assume that her distinctive pronunciation (which I lack language to describe for you, so I'm directing you to "North-West" here) is due to this regional accent. On top of these refreshing sounds, she adds a husky squeakiness that brings Piglet endearingly to life. When Piglet is hanging on for dear life in Owl's upside-down house and then bravely overcomes his fear to climb up that string, well I felt as proud and triumphant as Piglet does.

I also enjoyed Geoffrey Palmer (while I had the picture of Geoffrey Rush in my head the whole time) who captures both Eeyore's depression and his sense of superiority. Robert Daws as Rabbit is appropriately bossy and stressed by all his Friends and Relations. I also like Steven Webb's youthful line readings and confident air as the friend of that silly old bear.

However, this dramatization falls apart in the hands of Stephen Fry, whose bored and supercilious Jeeves-like speech just does not fit with the shy, relatively clueless Winnie-the-Pooh. I like Stephen Fry, he's immensely funny and full of sly wit, but I'm not entirely convinced there's a heart in his chest. Whereas poor Pooh is all heart. On top of this, Fry reads Pooh's many hums/poems (channeling Rex Harrison?) with a slight bit of rhythm that matches the sprightly music that accompanies each one. He doesn't attempt to sing them at all, a real disappointment. A natural question: Why was this man hired if he cannot sing?

Each story begins with a cheerful musical introduction, music that is occasionally reprised in Pooh's hums. The music is original and composed by John Gould. It seems that David Benedictus has a history with Pooh, one that began before last year's unfortunate sequel, so I guess I can cut him a little more slack.

The Collected Stories of Winnie-the-Pooh (Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner) by A.A. Milne, adapted by David Benedictus
Narrated by a full cast
Hodder Children's Audio, 1997 (reissued by Listening Library, 2009). 4:28 (dramatization)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A frozen furnace

Two years ago, I listened to Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains, and when I went back recently to review my thoughts about it, I was surprised at how cranky I was. Some of the things that seemed to bother me immensely are present in the sequel to Chains, Forge, where they didn't bother me a bit. I can only excuse myself by saying that at that point in 2008, I was wrapping up my job as chair of Amazing Audiobooks and my enthusiasm for anything related to audiobooks was on a temporary wane.

I enjoyed Forge, which continues the story of Isabel and Curzon, two black Americans struggling for another kind of freedom at the beginning of the American Revolution. Curzon, whose master said that if he enlisted in Continental army he -- his master -- would set him free, has escaped a dreadful prison with the help of Isabel, who has also run from her mistress. Curzon tells us early in Forge that he and Isabel quarrelled and separated shortly after their flight because Isabel insisted on heading south to search for her younger sister. Curzon finds himself accidently mustered back into the army and participates in the great, unexpected Colonial victory at Saratoga in 1777. For safety's sake, he decides to stay with the army as it marches to its winter headquarters in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Along with Curzon, we endure the horrific conditions of starvation, cold and disease that frigid winter.

As the winter ends, a delegation from the Continental Congress comes to Valley Forge to examine what happened to the army and learn how to prevent it from happening again. To Curzon's horror, a member of that delegation turns out to be the master from whom he ran away. And, that master has brought another slave with him, Curzon's friend Isabel. His and Isabel's roles are reversed now: It will be up to Curzon to free himself and Isabel.

Laurie Halse Anderson is a terrific writer -- her research is painstaking and she knows how to marry the fascinating information she unearths with a great story. In an effort to revitalize this dying (dead?) genre, Historical Fiction, she urges rebranding to Historical Thriller. Even though this sounds awkward to me (trying too hard?), as a lover of novels that take place during a historical time period -- who wishes to share that love with young readers -- I'll try to use the new term. And be sure: Forge is a thriller. From the battle of Saratoga through to Curzon's audacious exit from Valley Forge, the suspense is palpable. Of course, Anderson's got a terrific character in Curzon -- a proud, intelligent black man with one overriding goal -- freedom. He's more sympathetic than Isabel, whose singleminded aim of reuniting with her sister can make her more than a little annoying. And the things he does for her ...

Forge is narrated by Tim Cain (generally, I wouldn't link to Facebook, but it's nice to have a picture), who evidently has a lot of audiobooks to his name, but I've never heard him before. He has a rich, resonant speaking voice and a good range of character voices. Curzon is a character of many depths -- compliant black slave, proud brother-in-arms, tentative lover of Isabel, and a man terrified by the loss of his freedom -- and I hear all the shadings in Cain's interpretation. He stretches a little bit to portray the Marquis de Lafayette, but sounds comfortable voicing a Dutch slaveholder and his slaves (the parents of Sojourner Truth!).

[This latter fact I only found out upon obtaining a print copy of Forge as the author's Q&A-formatted appendix is disappointingly not included in the audiobook. I looked at the print version as I was in search of a map of Valley Forge and it did not disappoint. I love a map in a book!]

There is a "huh?" audiobook moment at the pronunciation of the name Curzon. Cain says "CORE-zun." This is eventually explained, but it does lead me to wonder why Anderson just didn't spell the name that way in the first place. I'm mildly curious (in other words, not curious enough) to hear how Curzon is pronounced in Chains.

The end of the print book also promises a third volume featuring Curzon and Isabel, Ashes. I'll be there, and one of the things that I'm wondering about -- aside from what Revolutionary War history they will wander into next -- is how Anderson will sustain the wonderful double and triple meanings of her book titles in this series.

Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson
Narrated by Tim Cain
Brilliance Audio, 2010. 7:45 (unabridged)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Artist at work

Scumble is a technique used by painters to soften colors or blur outlines of images (presumably to perfect them). Scumble is also the name of Ingrid Law's second book about an extended family each of whom possess one unique supernatural power that arrives shortly after their 13th birthday. That power is called a "savvy," and the most important thing a teenager can learn about their savvy is how to "scumble" -- or control -- it. And in Scumble, Ledger Kale is having trouble with this task.

Ledger is related to Mibs Beaumont, heroine of the first novel, Savvy. It's nine years later when Ledge turns 13; his non-gifted father hopes that he will become a super fast runner. Instead, Ledge's savvy arrives smack in the middle of a family wedding in Wyoming, causing human-made things like motorcycles, barns and even picnic tables to spectacularly break into pieces. Needless to say, Ledge is deeply disappointed; but he's really upset when his parents decide to leave him at his uncle's insect ranch (his Uncle Autry having turned his savvy -- attracting insects and butterflies -- into a career), the Flying Cattleheart, until he learns to scumble his savvy. His adult cousin, Rocket, is living at the ranch for the same reason and Ledge is pretty depressed at the prospect of never being able to scumble enough to leave.

On top of this, Ledge has to keep the inquisitive cub reporter Sarah Jane Cabot from sniffing around and exposing the family secret in her weekly self-published newspaper, the "Sundance Scuttlebutt." And then there's Sarah Jane's father -- a collector of oddities -- who seems intent on foreclosing on all the small businesses in their small town, including Uncle Autry's. It's going to be a long summer.

What I liked about Savvy when I read it two years ago was that the story seemed so original -- for a coming-of-age tale. Law's rich and imaginative language is both humorous and complex enough (in a good way) to make a great read-aloud. Her characters are engaging people that you want to get to know. Ledger and Sarah Jane -- and their story -- are just as much fun. I didn't need to get caught up on Mibs' story again, but I really appreciated the concept that this large, loving family extends well beyond the Beaumonts. I also enjoyed this novel's tall-tale feel, the sensation -- through language and events -- that we are out in the wild West, where anything can happen.

David Kremenitzer reads the novel. He has a pleasant speaking voice and reads Ledger's first-person narration with a nice mix of youthful confidence and terror at the situation in which he finds himself. He reads Law's intricate, metaphoric language naturally. (There is the occasional tongue-tying moment where he just doesn't get all the words out completely ... but I understand what he means.) He can be snarky at the sight of his cousin Rocket falling for a girl, and awkwardly sappy when his own heart beats a little faster. Kremenitzer keeps the story moving along quickly without feeling rushed. I liked his knowing portrayal of Ledger's little sister Fedora, who wears a protective helmet and is deeply (and humorously) obsessed with safety: "Safety starts with an S, Ledge, but it begins with you."

However, it is clear that Kremenitzer isn't entirely confident as a multi-character voice actor. He attempts different voices for the novel's many characters, but they mostly sound stiff and forced. The male adults all speak with a deep-voiced formality, the women are preternaturally calm and collected, Grandpa Bomba is quavery and doddering, and the teen girls are kind of swishy and whiny. Many of the characters are so awkward sounding that it's hard to remember that you are listening to such an engaging story. I had trouble liking the audiobook for this reason.

In addition to this, there were abrupt and unfinished ends to each track of this audiobook. This was a downloaded book, so each disc becomes a track; of the six tracks, four of them ended in the middle of a sentence. I don't think I missed anything important -- maybe just 10 seconds or so -- but this is deeply annoying. Is this a downloaded problem on my end, or something that got screwed up in the digitizing process?

(I'm not a happy listener at the prospect of all downloadable all the time -- the quality is still not consistently good enough. I don't have the technology that enables me to listen in all the places I can listen to CDs. At the same time, I do like the broader listening options that downloadables currently offer me [I have an ever-growing "wish list".]. I'm conflicted. Sigh.)

Scumble by Ingrid Law
Narrated by David Kremenitzer
Penguin Audio, 2010. 7:11 (unabridged)

Off-topic

This is not a newsy blog -- I can barely keep up with reviews -- but I had to share this interview between Scott Westerfeld and Alan Cumming about recording the audiobook of Behemoth. I loved Leviathan so much, I simply could not wait for my library to purchase the audio of Behemoth, and so I read it (and loved it!). I think I also wished to experience the book with its illustrations, since I had heard so much about them. Occasionally, I could hear Alan Cumming's voice in my head as I read, which is almost as good as listening. When part 3 comes out, though ... I think it'll be Cumming again (I'll wait for as long as it takes, Alan!).

I found this video at Fuse No. 8.

And while no one should have to follow Alan Cumming or Deryn and Alek, I am belatedly thanking the women who promote AudioSynced each month, who link to my reviews. This month's roundup also features a link to a current member of a committee near and dear to my heart, Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults. Julia Riley talks about what makes an audiobook "amazing."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Jack's back! And this time it's personal

I listened to the first Bloody Jack adventure in September 2007 and I haven't been disappointed yet. After a 10-month hiatus from this blog, it's a delight to revel in My Bonny Light Horseman: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, in Love and War, her sixth literary adventure. (One of the many things that I love about these books is the conceit that they are being written as fast as Jacky is having the adventures by her best friend and confidante, Amy Trevelyan.) Author L.A. Meyer shows no indication that he might be wrapping this series up anytime soon. At the same time, one wonders what could possibly happen next with the poor girl. (It's probably best not to ask ...)

At the end of Mississippi Jack, Jacky reconciled with her beloved Jaimy Fletcher, who will spend the next year escorting merchant ships to and from the Far East. Jacky decides to use their (final?) separation to beef up the coffers of Faber Shipping Worldwide and has been sailing from Massachusetts to the Caribbean carrying freight. The nefarious British Navy captures her, planning to take her to London for an accounting of her crimes. Through circumstances that would only happen to Jacky, the British vessel is captured by the French while Jacky -- a prisoner -- is in command! Attempting to keep her pirate alter-ego (La Belle Jeune Fille Sans Merci) a secret, Jacky and the rest of the sailors are thrown in a French prison awaiting exchange. Then, Jacky is yanked from her cell and walked to the guillotine! Her friends watch horrified as she is decapitated ...

Wait! Jacky finds herself facing British Naval Intelligence, where they "encourage" her to become a spy for the royalist French, eager to bring down that upstart, Napoleon Bonaparte. Jacky will join a small, somewhat risqué, dance company, where the dancers double as high-class prostitutes. She is to finagle some pillow-talk secrets from the French military men who patronize the dancers. And, for those who wish to experience the rest of the story on their own, I will stop. Suffice it to say that this adventure takes Jacky from the boudoir to the battlefield in a way that seems entirely logical (for fans of the series).

"Outstanding." "Fluid and effortless." "Highly entertaining." "Fine performance." "She cries, yells, sings, flirts, commands, consoles." These are all things I've said here about Katherine Kellgren in her previous performances of the novels. They all apply to this installment as well (ho hum!). As a narrator of a lot of audiobooks, Kellgren is pretty darn good; in Bloody Jack she has found her boon companion. Kellgren is Jacky. With all Jacky's fine qualities and her warts, it's a completely honest peformance. Yes, there are accents (French and German as well as the many variations of English), there is singing (all the loops and flourishes of Rule, Britannia [Anglophiles: I think you'll enjoy that link!] among other songs), there are tears, fears, love and -- above all -- Jacky's sheer lust for living. But aside from all the fireworks, there's Jacky's heart: As deep and wide as the ocean she loves. And Kellgren never forgets that it's Jacky's heart we've connected to -- and that's what makes her interpretation of this character so affecting and memorable.

You know, I could leave Meyer's Jacky at this point -- her adventures get more and more preposterous and her anticipated reunion with Jaimy (if it arrives) is probably going to be a bit of a snore. But I can't tear myself away from Kellgren's Jacky. I want to see how it all works out for her. I don't think I'm alone in this: In some slightly specious fact-finding (in the spirit of today's elections), 9% of the print copies of My Bonny Light Horseman are checked out, while 57% of the audiobooks are checked out. [PolitiFact analysis: 1 of 11 print copies, 4 of 7 audiobooks.]

My Bonny Light Horseman: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, in Love and War by L.A. Meyer
Narrated by Katherine Kellgren
Listen & Live Audio, 2009. 12:01 (unabridged)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

If you believe ... clap your hands

In between the 9- to 12-hour audiobooks (around 350 pages), it's always nice to sit back and listen from start to finish in about two hours (100 pages). So, Laura Amy Schlitz's The Night Fairy was a pleasant weekend diversion (since I pretty much am stuck at home on the weekends until I hopefully get my walking cast [woot!] on Monday!). I've enjoyed two other books by this Newbery-winning author, so I was prepared for this to be a treat as well.

This is the story of Flory, a fairy born at night, whose wings are unexpectedly chomped off by a bat. Tumbling from the sky into a cherry tree in a "giantess's" backyard, Flory is determined to make a go of it as a pedestrian day fairy. She finds shelter and hires a squirrel named Skuggle to be her chauffeur (this I can fully relate to these days) to get around. Upon spying a hummingbird, Flory decides that flying on the bird's back is really the way she'd rather navigate her world, but she discovers that hummingbirds aren't particularly interested in this job. On one adventurous night, though, Flory calls upon all her courage and abilities to rescue a hummingbird and her eggs and in the process learns how to be a good friend.

I really did not find this book to be quite as message-y as that sounds. Flory isn't a particularly appealing character once you get to know her: She's bossy, entitled, and has some unresolved fear and anger issues around the bat who de-winged her (just kidding!). She's also clever and resourceful and I suppose what she really learns by the end of this book is compassion -- that her cleverness can be put to good use to help others. I like that Schlitz creates a world of fairies that aren't particularly empathetic. (In this way, her fairies remind me of J.M. Barrie's Tinkerbell [omg ... impossible to find a non-Disney-themed link!] -- not a very nice fairy at all.) It's their world and all other creatures just live in it. The wingless Flory needs to learn another way in order to survive, which -- of course -- makes her a better fairy. Not a bad message and subtly delivered.

As I began listening, my ears were prepared for the narrator, Michael Friedman. A woman began speaking ... and continued to speak. As I picked up the case to double-check -- was I mistaking the illustrator's name, Angela Barrett (featured on the audiobook cover), for the narrator's? Oh ... Friedman is one of those she-Michaels! Because of these mental processes, I had to go back and re-start the audiobook from the beginning. Fortunately, it was only a minute or two. ;-)

Friedman sounds appropriately youthful, as well as plucky and bossy both in telling Flory's story and as Flory herself. She is very good at creating the other characters that appear in the novel (there aren't very many): squirrel, hummingbird and bat all have different voices that sound natural (well, as natural as a anthropomorphized hummingbird can sound) and consistently in character. My only complaint is that while she has a pleasant reading voice and a confiding narrative style, Friedman reads the whole book too slowly. It is almost at a beginning reader pace, as if she wants a young reader to follow along. This book seems almost perfect as a read-aloud to children, so I want to hear it read at a "normal" reader's pace.

This aside, it's nice to see Recorded Books branching out with some new narrators. The company tends to rely on its established stable (not all of whom I am fond), so this is a great step.

The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz
Narrated by Michael Friedman
Recorded Books, 2010. 2 hours (unabridged)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Windmills of your mind

I'm not a big nonfiction reader (although I have enjoyed a number of nonfiction titles on audio), and I'm really not a fan of inspirational true stories -- where people overcome obstacles, tragedy, whatever ... and provide insight on their journey for the rest of us. Truthfully, I'm fairly cynical about their need to share these insights (Hey! Would you turn down that book contract that lets you travel to Italy?).

So for me to listen to The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by young William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer is a real stretch. I read it because a colleague recommended it for a booklist, and -- after a few bad experiences -- I try to not put books I haven't read on a booklist. When I learned that this was on audio, at least I knew that someone else could read it for me. So I downloaded it for a listen.

William Kamkwamba was born in 1987 in a small village in Malawi. He attended a small village school up until the 8th grade when famine struck the country and his father could barely afford to feed his family of seven children, much less pay his school fees. William enjoyed and appreciated school and was deeply disappointed not to be able to continue. He began visiting the small town library and found an old textbook, Using Energy (published in 1993 by my old employer, McGraw-Hill), that had windmills on the cover. All William really wanted was a light in his room at night and the ability to play his radio. He built the windmill from spare parts scavenged from around his village, although -- if I'm remembering correctly -- it was his best friend who gave him the cash to buy a critical component.

Once the windmill was built, William became a minor celebrity (although there were some who felt he was practicing witchcraft) and he used the electricity to charge the cell phones of his friends and neighbors. He kept tinkering -- hopeful of using the windmill's power to irrigate his father's farmland so the family would not face famine again. Slowly, word of William's accomplishments came out. He was invited to participate in an international conference sponsored by TED (a nonprofit "devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading") -- where (in a charming description in his book) he was introduced to the Internet. And since that TED conference in 2007, William took a trip to several cities in the U.S. (including Las Vegas where he was served a drink by "a lady in her underwear") completed his secondary education, wrote this book, and this fall he began studying for an engineering degree at Dartmouth College. I'm not "inspired" by William's story, but I am touched by his sense of humor, his optimism and his belief in himself.

The narrator is Chiké Johnson (this must be him, yes?). He reads William's first-person narration in "African"-accented English (whether this is how people from Malawi speak English I have no idea), that brims with William's youthful enthusiasm and hopefulness. His voice has a slightly high pitch that grows higher (not uncomfortably) with William's excitement at what he accomplishes. And when William is telling us the story of the 2001 famine and how his family and community suffered, Johnson grows quiet and subdued. It is a performance with multiple levels of honest emotion, one that is just right for this young man's story.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
Narrated by Chiké Johnson
Harper Audio, 2009. 10:04 (unabridged)

Monday, October 25, 2010

10252010

I've failed miserably to come up with a pithy opening for this post about the book Numbers by Rachel Ward. So, I shall just get on with it, shall I? The US cover of this book exchanges the letter 'b' with the numeral '8' which doesn't really work for me -- in the 21st century world of texting, wouldn't it be "num-aters?" I like the image on the cover, though. It's more sci fi than the original British cover (see below) I think.

Numbers is the story of Jem, a 15-year-old orphan/foster kid who maintains a spiky distance from people. Jem has a disturbing gift/condition which she keeps from everyone: When she makes eye contact, an eight-digit number (like the one in my post title) enters Jem's head. (Here's a video that demonstrates this.) This number -- Jem realizes upon discovering her drug-addicted mother's dead body -- is the date of that person's death. Jem is understandably reluctant to grow close to people, as she might be persuaded to share what she knows about them.

Enter Spider. Spider is a classmate (and fellow orphan) and he teasingly pokes and prods at Jem to become friends, and she finds herself drawn to him despite herself. One day, the two head to the London Eye [this image courtesy of Kevinwildish at en.wikipedia] for some fun, although Spider makes a bit of a scene when he realizes how much it costs to ride. Jem gets even more upset when she realizes that all the people there have the same death date -- that very day. Panicked, she and Spider flee the Eye moments before one of the pods blows up. Their fugitive-like behavior is noted by observers, and soon the two of them are escaping in a stolen car, headed out to the countryside (where neither has ever been) in a futile attempt to elude the police.

Despite herself, Jem falls for Spider and tells him what she sees in people's eyes. What she doesn't tell him, though, is his death date -- just a few days from now.

The narrator is Sarah Coomes, and she is quite wonderful. She voices Jem with a working-class London accent (most notably substituting the 'th' sound with an 'f'). Jem is a lonely and vulnerable person who hides her sadness behind a tough exterior, and Coomes portrays this skillfully. Jem's first-person narration and interior moments are nicely contrasted with her edgy, prickly dialogue with Spider and the other people she encounters. Coomes does a brilliantly hilarious fury when Jem reluctantly finds herself camping in the actual outdoors (although I probably enjoyed thist more than it merited, since I'm not a camping fan either).

Coomes memorably voices a number of other characters, including two tight-arsed upper-class countrywomen, and two contrasting priests who offer Jem sanctuary in Bath Abbey. Spider's grandmother and Jem's foster mum are two other instances of this actress's ability to delineate characters with a few, authentic vocal mannerisms.

I think I appreciate this novel mostly for the character of Jem. It's hard to like her at first, but her growth in the story -- through an epilogue five years later -- seems so truthful that it's a pleasure to journey with her (sad though her journey is). Evidently it's a trilogy, but I don't want to spoil this story with what the second one is about.

Numbers by Rachel Ward
Narrated by Sarah Coomes
Brilliance Audio, 2009. 9:02 (unabridged)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Keep on keeping on

The irony of listening to this book while on a morning walk and then falling and breaking my ankle is not lost on me. I picked up Stephen King's (writing as Richard Bachman) The Long Walk sometime after taking my own long walk through Scotland this summer. I have never read anything by Stephen King (not a fan of horror), and this book seemed to be as far from horror as can be.

Boy, was I wrong! This book haunted me while I was listening, and continues to haunt me more than 10 days after finishing. I think it's both its plausibility and the story's implacability -- no explanation is offered for the American society that created the Walk and only the barest hints are provided about how people feel about it. I would turn on my mp3 player with dread, but then I couldn't turn it off. This reality is so much more horrifying than that involving things that go bump in the night.

The Long Walk is an annual competition open to 100 qualifying young men -- older teenagers. They start out at a northern point in the state of Maine and walk south. They must maintain a speed of four miles per hour. If they slow down or stop, they are given a warning by the military men who are tracking the walkers in vehicles. The walkers get three warnings per hour; the fourth is an assassination. The winner is the only young man left alive ... at whatever point the second-to-the-last competitor is killed. The winner gets whatever he wants for the rest of his life. It seems likely that that life won't be a long one as the winner probably descends into some kind of mental psychosis as he witnesses the killing of 99 peers.

The Long Walk is solely about this walk. The protagonist is Ray Garraty, "Maine's own" competitor. We learn that his father was taken away by the military a few years earlier for objecting to the Walk. We meet many of the other walkers, including Peter McVries, with whom Ray forms a kind of bond. Over the course of the novel's four (?) days, we learn a little bit about these young men, but it's all in terms of their physical and emotional suffering. The horror of their situation is unrelenting. The ending of the novel is not cathartic in any way. Is this some existential metaphor for life? I'm getting quivery insides just writing about it.

The book was published in 1979, under King's pseudonym, Richard Bachman. The audiobook begins with a somewhat lengthy explanation of why King created Bachman, which -- since I have no King experience -- was extraneous for me. I wonder if it might prove a barrier to a listener since it takes a good 10-15 minutes to get to the actual story. Kirby Heyborne narrates both the introduction and the novel itself. His soft voice and somewhat stoic reading affect are just about perfect for Ray's story. Ray doesn't get angry, he keeps his pain to himself, he connects with the other boys on the journey despite his need to remember that they will all be dead.

At one point in the novel, Ray's girlfriend and mother are supposed to be waiting for him by the side of the road. He struggles with whether they'll be there, whether they'll be able to speak to him, what their brief encounter will be like. For the listener (and for Ray), it is -- of course -- heart-wrenching. Heyborne ups his emotional ante with this section. Since Ray has maintained his calm up to this point, when his anxiety and distress emerge here, it's wrecking. I think at this point, I had to turn it off and take some deep breaths.

Heyborne is not my favorite narrator, although I have heard him fairly often (here, here, here, and here [hey, I used Audiobook Jukebox to find those links!]). This book seems to suit him the best, his reading style captures this book's emotional intensity in a contradictory way: By maintaining Ray's stoicism through Heyborne's soft and fairly lulling voice, the book becomes bearable.

For a much needed break for humor, here is the cover of the original (?) version of this novel, courtesy of King's website. Gotta love that cheesy 1970s graphic design. Here's a link to the book's many different covers.

I'm never reading another Stephen King novel. Never. Because of course, if I'd broken my ankle on the Long Walk, I'd be dead.

The Long Walk by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)
Narrated by Kirby Heyborne
Penguin Audio, 2010. 10:46 (unabridged)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

More audiobooks than you can (probably) listen to in a lifetime

My listening has been a bit of a slog lately ... hopefully I will get to posting today or tomorrow. I broke my ankle last week while out of town and am at a bit of sixes and sevens.

But I wanted to point out the heroic efforts of Audiobook DJ and Beth Fish, who have created Audiobook Jukebox. A site for all of us who listen and are freaks for alphabetical order! At this site you can look up a favorite narrator and then link to the blog reviews of all their audiobooks. (You can also search by title and author ... so ho hum!) Yes! Dion Graham has his own entry! Slowly, I've been entering all 364 reviews that have appeared on this blog (even the ones from 2007 when I really didn't know what I was doing ... just warning you). Go check it out!

I found out about Audiobook Jukebox from the women who sponsor Audiosynced each month. They always kindly link to my stuff, as well as other audiobook blog reviews. Be sure to check out their September round up, hosted by Abby (the) Librarian.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Boys will be boys

There is something to be said about the continuing appeal of Robin Hood. What's not to like? There's the whole "rob from the rich, give to the poor" thing, the young men hanging out together in the forest thing, the romance with a spunky girl thing. Robin keeps popping up in movies, on television, and in many, many variations in print. What's the original source? Is Howard Pyle's 19th century version the one upon which most modern interpretations are based?

Despite Robin's ongoing popularity, I'm not sure I'd offer The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood to a young reader who wanted to read more about Robin and his band, inspired by the recent movie (or that utterly ridiculous television program). There's something distinctly old-fashioned about the Robin in these stories. He and his band of merry men are really just man-boy thrill seekers without much purpose. They seem constitutionally unable to remain quietly in their bosky refuge. The rob-from-the-rich motivation isn't particularly emphasized and Maid Marian isn't in the picture. The episodic novel spends a number of chapters bringing the band together -- Little John, Will Scarlet, Alan a-Dale, and Friar Tuck each arrive in turn -- and then a few more chapters with various bits of derring-do (much archery abounds). The Sheriff of Nottingham is thwarted. Then, Richard the Lionheart shows up, demands that they all take up some adult responsibilities and the book is over. There's an odd epilogue describing the death of Robin Hood.

So, the pleasure of this book for me is its reader, Christopher Cazenove, who -- sadly -- died earlier this year (this obit says that he is most well-known for his work on Dynasty, but I remember him from The Duchess of Duke Street). Cazenove is wonderfully good. The language is really dense (lots of "quoths" "thithers" "dosts" and the like), and he reads smoothly and confidently. His narrative (non-dialog) voice is pleasing to listen to. The novel contains a fair number of "action sequences" of fighting or archery contests and Cazenove reads these with enthusiasm and definite changes in pacing.

The many characters in the stories are consistent and occasionally clever -- Friar Tuck is a bit of a boozer, the Sheriff shouting and gravelly, Queen Eleanor's young page boyish, Richard the Lionheart suitably regal. A lot of songs (poetry) are in the text, and Cazenove delivers them all in his slightly reedy tenor voice -- once or twice he sings in the character of a non-singer (i.e., not all of them are sung by the troubadour, Alan a-Dale). And someone must have composed the music for them, as each one is different. The whole package is completely professional.

I'll admit I didn't listen to this under optimum circumstances. I absorbed the stories in fits and starts -- including a week-long hiatus. So, maybe it didn't hang together for me as a novel because I didn't give it the chance to. I'm not sure that I'd ever want to read this (to my knowledge I've never read anything by Howard Pyle), this is one of those where it's best to leave the heavy lifting to more capable readers ... like Christopher Cazenove. (I see that he has read Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, a book I have long wanted to read. Add it to the metaphorical pile.)

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle
Narrated by Christopher Cazenove
Blackstone Audio, 2006. 10:36 (unabridged)

FTW

I believe Cory Doctorow when he tells me that some online games have a larger economy than most of the world's nations. That there are thousands of young men (mostly) toiling away in internet cafes in China, India, Southeast Asia and Mexico "mining" game gold that some petty tyrant one step up the economic ladder from the miners will sell for real money to bored and unskilled first-world gamers who can't be bothered to earn the gold themselves. And that the real winners in this economy are the (mostly Western) corporate owners of these games who don't really care that young men are being exploited in an almost sweatshop environment.

This is mildly interesting to me. In For the Win (The unreadable cover tagline is "In the virtual future, you've got to organize to survive."), the author of Little Brother once again imagines a very-near future where technology and human rights collide. And while it has moments of vivid action and real tension, like Little Brother, Doctorow bogs us down with the details. It's like he's done all this research and by god, he's going to tell us absolutely everything he's learned. This generally does not make for good fiction. It makes it difficult for me to invest in the characters and care about their fates.

I'll try to summarize. Young online game gold miners -- located in south China and in the slummy exurbs of Mumbai (?) -- playing in the delicious-sounding worlds of Svartalfheim Warriors and Zombie Mecha, organize into the Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web (IWWWW) [or the Webblies] -- led by the union-savvy, Singapore-based Big Sister Nor and her two assistants Justbob and the Mighty Krang. Like their predecessor, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Webblies plan to strike for better pay and working conditions. A young Californian gamer, Leonard Goldberg -- who goes by Wei-Dong in solidarity with his game-playing brothers in China -- finds himself the heir to a worldwide shipping fortune when his father suddenly dies. He sneaks aboard one of his container ships headed for China. After an unnerving voyage, Wei-Dong arrives and meets up with a pirate radio star and champion of Chinese factory girls named Jie. Through Big Sister Nor, Wei-Dong and Jie -- along with two female gamers living in India -- collaborate to bring the games to an economic halt, with reverberations felt in the corporate headquarters of Coca-Cola.

George Newbern (new to me) reads this lengthy (16+ hours) novel. While he has a pleasant speaking voice, frankly I had trouble staying engaged. Newbern tends to read every sentence the same way, which can get quite lulling. This reading style proves particularly challenging during what I'll call the "seminar" sections of the book. I just couldn't be bothered paying attention to all those details, read in a voice that really isn't very different than the voice that's telling me the occasionally exciting story.

The narrator chooses not to voice the story's many characters, although following dialog is not very difficult. Every once in a while he adds a tinge of accent to a character -- most successfully with the Indian characters, but he isn't terribly consistent. I think that Newbern has a difficult job to do though, character-wise. All the cleverly named people in this novel -- add General Robotwalla and Connor Prikkel to the mix -- aren't really people, of course. They are political positions, not much different than those depicted in the notable stage play The Cradle Will Rock (Larry Foreman, Mr. Mister, etc.).

At the same time, I do admire Doctorow's passion for fairness and commitment to ideas. And I like the fact that he speaks honestly to teenagers -- addressing their lives in their language. There's a consistent demand for his books at my library; somebody's reading them!

In the quibble department: Many, far too many, of Doctorow's characters engage in (what I am assuming is) the physical activity of waggling their chin. What is this? How do you do it? Why? In a (way) earlier post, I complained about a novel with too many waggling eyebrows. But at least I understand how one does waggle one's eyebrows. The chin on the other hand ...

Thanks to Urban Dictionary for the explanation of the title (for we non-gamers): "An enthusiastic emphasis to the end of a comment, message, or post." The Wiktionary also contributes: "'FTW' is mostly used to indicate a contribution or action taken that one is proud of, even facetiously."

For the Win by Cory Doctorow
Narrated by George Newbern
Listening Library, 2010. 16:31 (unabridged)

ftw

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mindful living

I really like the unifying cover design that Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic) has created for Francisco X. Stork's last two books: Marcelo in the Real World and his latest, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors. The silhouetted characters against those huge skies makes you want to pick them up and at least read the jacket copy. But it was, really, Marcelo that made me want to read Stork's most recent book.

The Death Warriors are D.Q. (Daniel Quentin) and Pancho Sanchez (think Don Quixote and Sancho Panza) -- two residents of a group home for teen boys, St. Anthony's, located in Las Cruces, New Mexico. D.Q. has lived there for some time, and he is now trying to be formally emancipated from his mother -- who placed him here when he was nine or ten, as she believed that she could no longer care for him. D.Q. has brain cancer, and he and his mother disagree about the treatment he should be pursuing. Pancho has just arrived at St. Anthony's, as he has no adult able to care for him. His father died a few months ago, and his older sister Rosa -- mentally disabled -- was found dead in a motel room. While the coroner could find no cause of death, Pancho believes she was murdered. He is determined to find her killer and take revenge.

Upon Pancho's arrival, D.Q. petitions that he be given the job of tending to D.Q.'s physical needs. D.Q.'s going to need a lot of help over the next few weeks as he is returning to the hospital and then to an outpatient residence for chemo. D.Q. recognizes a kindred spirit in Pancho, and introduces him to the work of his life, the Death Warrior Manifesto. Death Warriors vow “to love life at all times and in all circumstances.” Pancho is skeptical, but since he needs the money, he becomes D.Q.'s companion.

I really enjoyed this novel. While on some level, it is the kid-with-cancer-who-must-teach-others-all-about-living teen novel, it manages to transcend that tired genre. Like its literary inspiration, it's really a book about an evolving friendship. Neither D.Q. nor Pancho has an aha! moment of understanding, their revelations sneak up on them and they struggle with accepting what they learn. Like Marcelo Sandoval, I appreciated the opportunity to know these boys.

Ryan Gesell (who clearly has other things going on since he hasn't updated his website in two years!) reads the book. I'm trying not to be shallow by commenting on his boyish good looks; he has a lovely voice as well. It's quiet and resonant, and I like what he does with the characters of both boys -- Pancho's simmering anger as well as the way he grudgingly comes to like and appreciate D.Q. are both evident in Gesell's reading. D.Q. speaks with a weary gruffness that tends to get a little one-note, but is consistent and (possibly) true to a character suffering the late stages of a terminal illness.

Gesell also takes an interesting approach to the book's omniscient narrator, reading with a relaxed edge of humor that keeps the story from becoming maudlin. I have one concern about his reading style that I hope he'll improve upon once he narrates a few more books: He regularly drops the final letters of some words and elides entirely over others. It's not so much that I can't understand the author's intent, but it is a wee bit sloppy. Also, he doesn't give the author's full name (leaving off the oh-so-interesting X) when reading the credits. What's up with that?

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork.
Narrated by Ryan Gesell
Listening Library, 2010. 8:18 (unabridged)