Thursday, January 7, 2010

Beware the McGill, my son!

Nick and Allie are dead (yes, it's another dead teenager novel), each of them a passenger in a head-on collision. Unfortunately, as their dead entities separate from their bodies to head towards the light, they collide and are spun off into another existence: Everlost, the world between, a world that only children inhabit. These children, or Afterlights, can see the world of the living, but can't themselves be seen. In addition, they can only occupy dead spaces in the living world. Awaking in a forest of dead trees, they meet another Afterlight. Lief's been around for a while (so long that he's forgotten his name, Lief is what Nick and Allie call him), but he has been too frightened to leave the security of his dead forest. In Neal Shusterman's world, there is something out there haunting the Afterlights ... it's the McGill.

Nick and Allie's fears of the McGill aren't as great as their desire to head to their homes, to see their families one more time; so they leave Lief and head for New York City. In New York, they find Mary Hightower -- a long-dead teenager who has assumed a sort of mother role for the Afterlights, and whose "family" has taken up residence in the Twin Towers. In Everlost, fondly remembered destroyed or dismantled buildings (and other objects) still exist and are used by the Afterlights. Mary offers protection from the McGill. Both Nick and Allie are quite moved to see the Towers again, but Allie is not quite so enamored of Mary's benevolent dictatorship. She encourages Nick to accompany her on a mission to expose Mary, and instead they both end up captives of the McGill, who sails up and down the East Coast on a ship called the Sulphur Queen. The novel has lots of action and ends satisfactorily ... but with enough unfinished threads that it comes as no surprise to learn that there is a sequel: Everwild.

Shusterman's vision of this alternative world has a lot of wit and humor. The children never change physically once they are dead, so Nick forever has a face covered in melted chocolate, a boy named Speedo will never get out of his swimming trunks, and another boy spends eternity in his shark pajamas. The author also includes some big ideas -- not so much about life after death, but about power and manipulation. Mary appears to be benevolent, but she doesn't like to be challenged. She knows the secret of Everlost, but she chooses not to share it ... for the good of the children, she says. She also writes an endless series of self-help books for the newly arrived in Everlost. Excerpts from her books begin or end the novel's chapters.

Nick Podehl narrates Everlost. This is the sixth time I've listened to him this year (the most of any narrator; Katherine Kellgren is next with four titles), and I'd rank this one in the middle. It's not as good as Carter Finally Gets It or The Killer's Cousin, but it's much much better than those Derek Stone books. His portrayals of the main characters sound like real people and he employs the voices consistently. He sets a good pace for this exciting story, yet knows how to take the book's emotional moments and linger over them.

There are a few character voices that stand out in weirdly exaggerated ways. Is Podehl focusing on a single quality in characters who are mostly known to us by that one quality? A boy known as Vari (because he plays a Stradivarius he has located in Everlost) sounds high and squeaky ... like a violin? The boy named Speedo just sounds nasal and intellectually dim. The McGill is a growler/shouter who gets really juicy if he speaks for awhile -- I could practically hear the saliva hitting the microphone (joking!).

The excerpts from Mary's books are read by an uncredited female. It makes perfect sense to have these sections in another voice. Unfortunately, this narrator reads like someone who does not regularly read audiobooks. Her readings are bland and uninflected. She sounds like the utterly neutral voice that announces the beginning and end of a disc. Did the producer decide at the last minute that they needed a female voice and then they asked the receptionist? It's an oddity in an otherwise completely professional production.

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