Friday, February 26, 2010

Just fine, thanks!

Odyssey redux: Check out this Booklist interview with Live Oak Media, the producers of our beloved Louise: The Adventures of a Chicken. Now, I have to go find a copy of A Fine, Fine School in order to hear Harry Bliss' definitive "fine."

Listening to the magic

I'm waiting for a Dion Graham book to come in via Interlibrary Loan, so I've been casting about for some short-ish audiobooks and discovered that I had set aside Lost (second book of The Magic Thief); it didn't go into the great garage storage space where audiobook giveaways live. I liked the first one -- despite some reservations about the narrator -- so I went back to the intelligent and witty Connwaer and the deepening mystery of the disappearing magic.

In the first book by Sarah Prineas, we met the young pickpocket Conn as he attempted to steal the locus magicalicus of Nevery Flinglas. Nevery recognizes some magical capabilities in young Conn and takes him on as an apprentice. Together they uncover the mystery of why the magic in the the town of Wellmet is slowly ebbing away. Unfortunately, in the process, Conn's own magicalicus is destroyed, and he finds himself -- at the beginning of Lost -- seeking other ways of allowing the magic to communicate with him.

Since this involves pyrotechnics, Conn quickly finds himself in very hot water. Nevery banishes him, and he runs to join his friend Lady Rowan who is on a diplomatic mission to a nearby town, called Desh. Lady Rowan and her mother -- the ruler of Wellmet -- wish to learn if the sinister shadows that have been attacking and killing Wellmettians by turning them to stone are afflicting Desh as well. What Conn and Rowan discover is far more horrific: The shadows are being controlled by someone in Desh, someone very powerful indeed -- intent, naturally, on destroying all good magic. Just Conn -- shunned by nearly everyone, except for the blackbirds that share his name -- stands in the way. It's a good thing he's a resourceful thief, even if he can't speak with the magic.

It's the characters that I enjoy most in these books, and I think I enjoy the narrator's interpretations of those characters especially. Greg Steinbruner is snarkily innocent as Conn, pompous but affectionate as Nevery, and suitably dark and menacing when called for in the story. He does a fairly good job with female characters who sound like they are speaking naturally for the most part: I particularly liked the exasperated bodyguard, Kerrn.

But where he continues to be weak -- and I've mentioned this several times in these pages when I've listened to him -- is that English accent. It just sounds too fake -- the vowels are too rounded and he comes across as affected rather than British. In this book, he gives Kerrn a vaguely Scots accent that doesn't sound comfortable either. Considering that he is so very good at creating and sustaining characters, I'm disappointed at his persistence with the bad accent. (Except, of course, that he started out with the accent and he'll want to keep it through all the books. Oh well.) He's made tremendous strides with his other narrator tic: that of the long pause between sentences. In Lost, the sentences flow naturally and the pace is varied. I was speeding through the last of this book as Steinbruner carefully built the tension and excitement.

I came across this entry (from Ashland, Oregon!) where blogger interviewed Steinbruner about his narrator career (she likes his accent more than I do). I love these inside stories: I didn't realize that the audiobook engineering booth was so full of frustrated actors!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Marking time

OK, one month into the grand experiment (choosing an audiobook to listen to rather than listening to one assigned to me), and I'm flailing a bit. True, one limitation is the dratted 15-item limit on my personal card's holds list (grrr ... I think you should get credit for good behavior, i.e., picking up your holds) -- my holds list is largely DVDs where I wanted to jump in the queue and work myself to the top. I can still get lots of children's books, though, but where to begin? Why not with YRCA titles, I ask? That's a good beginning. Herewith, Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days.

Hale's website is so informative, as she shares -- among many other tidbits -- the Grimm's fairy tale upon which this story is based. It's not Rapunzel, which is what I was thinking, rather it's one I'd never heard of: Maid Maleen. In Hale's iteration, Lady Saren is imprisoned in a bricked-up tower with her loyal, yet relatively new, maid Dashti, having angered her father by refusing to marry the man of his choice. Lady Saren retreats into a semi-catatonic shell, while the capable Dashti revels in the available food and the relative freedom of imprisonment. She begins to keep a diary. Lady Saren's preferred lover, Khan Tegus, appears at the tower and flirts briefly with Dashti, thinking she is Saren. The evil Lord Khasar -- preferred by dad -- puts in an appearance as well. Then, suddenly, there are no more visits, and eventually the men guarding the tower disappear as well. After nearly three years, the food begins to run out and Dashti realizes that the girls must make their escape.

They discover a devastated landscape and city, scarred by war, and they make their way to Khan Tegus' kingdom, where Dashti hopes that Saren will marry. But, once they arrive in Song for Evela (one of the imaginatively named Eight Realms, inspired by Mongolia -- see, I said Hale's website was full of cool stuff), Saren refuses to reveal herself to the Khan and it again falls to Dashti to make things right. Like most of Shannon Hale's heroines, Dashti is independent and strong without having to kick ass. She's one of the smart girls.

This is my first Full Cast Audio in awhile. Most recently, I listened to this, but there was only one narrator! I like this little company and I want them to be outrageously successful. And one of the reasons why is that they keep trying to make their product better. I have listened to some clunkers from Full Cast, but they learn from their mistakes: In my experience, the readers aren't sounding so stiff and unnatural, the main narrators are reading with the ease and skill of their counterparts at the "big boys," and the stories -- always selected with such care -- are enhanced by the full cast experience.

Book of a Thousand Days is dominated by Dashti, whose narrative comprises probably 75% of the story. Dashti is portrayed by Chelsea Mixon and she is very good here. (Here is a video of her [and others] recording another FCA title: Graceling.) She's got a youthful naturalness to her voice and a varied emotional reading that is entirely pleasant to listen to. She clearly portrays Dashti's growth from insecure lady's maid (and former mucker) to confident saver of the realm. She also sings the story's "healing songs," which loyal followers of this blog know is very important to me. Mixon's got good support from the rest of the cast, most notably in the properly romantic hero, Khan Tegus, read by Conor Nolan. (I don't know who Conor Nolan is, but I love the way the FCA website provides the cast of each of its audiobooks. Look! You can link to other parts he's played! I've heard him read a character that I don't remember in Skybreaker!)

Chatting about full cast recordings reminds me of my plan to revisit His Dark Materials in audio very soon. Hey! I do have plenty to listen to (if only I could remember my many, many plans!).

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

It's Pleasant, Skulduggery Pleasant

I've been wanting to listen to a Skulduggery Pleasant audiobook since the first Odyssey Awards were announced. With my scads of free ear space, I grabbed a library copy of book 2: Playing with Fire and started listening. The eponymous Pleasant is a living skeleton whose job is to keep evil creatures with the usual designs on world domination from getting their wish. He's a witty bon vivant with a great tailor in the bargain.

In the first book (now called Scepter of the Ancients, or maybe that's its original British title), 12-year-old Stephanie Edgley thought Skulduggery was a character in her favorite -- now dead -- uncle's detective novels, but when Stephanie learns that she has inherited her uncle's wealthy estate, she gets the skeleton detective in the bargain. He tells her that she is from an ancient race of evil-fighting heroes (blah blah blah), and that he's going to teach her all she needs to know to fulfill her destiny. They go on to save the world (natch!), and Stephanie adopts a new name (because if the evil ones know her real name, they can use that to defeat her): Valkyrie Cain.

In Playing with Fire, Skulduggery and Valkyrie discover that more evil is out there, in the form of the deliciously named Baron Vengeous. The Baron is intent on reviving the Grotesquery -- a human-like creature made up of handed-down body parts of other evil beings, and he's hired the services of a vampire named Dusk and one Billy-Ray Sanguine (a good old boy) to do his dirty work. It's all in aid of bringing back the Faceless Ones. Or some such. The details really doesn't matter. What does matter is the nail-biting danger in which Skulduggery, Valkyrie and their allies find themselves in nearly every chapter and how they shoot, blow up, stomp on, and employ other forms of mayhem to extricate themselves. And they do it while casually exchanging quips and heroic dry humor in the tradition of Indiana Jones or James Bond.

The series reader, Rupert Degas, takes this suave heroism and makes it his narrative concept, reading with an irony and humor that is utterly enjoyable. He reads quickly, without sounding rushed, and has a very lovely Irish lilt that makes for great listening. He is skilled at creating and sustaining multiple characters -- from evil geniuses to mean high-school girls; I found all of his voices to be authentic sounding, if a bit over-the-top. But that excess is definitely in keeping with the general tone of the proceedings.

The audiobook uses a jazzy drum-rim-based musical interlude between chapters that works nicely, often ending with a whispered "yeah" for emphasis. At the beginning and end of the novel, this music goes on for quite some time. There are a few sound effects sprinkled throughout -- most enjoyably, the sound of an egg cracking and the yolk splatting on the ground in accompaniment of the description of what has been done to some character's head.

And while, yes, I did enjoy the egg sound effect, mostly I find the violence of this series to be just a bit much. There's a lot of dead people at the end of this book, but they've died in that cartoonish action-adventure movie way, so it really doesn't matter. The set-piece battles got a bit tiresome -- since they didn't seem to ever get us anywhere: Skulduggery and Valkyrie were fighting the same villains over and over. This, coupled with the copious numbers of evil characters and why each was evil (in their own special way) just makes the whole book a bit of a mishmash in my head. Degas' performance is the most interesting part of it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Scrubb and Pole in Narnia

Jeremy Northam can read to me anytime. He's the narrator of The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis' 6th (or 4th or 5th depending on how you come down in the reading order debate) Chronicle of Narnia. We start this installment at the appropriately named Experiment House (what we would probably call an "alternative" school), where social outcasts Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole are miserably fending off bullies. Eustace (called Useless by those bullies) mentions his previous journey to Narnia (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), and asks Aslan for help. The two children attempt escape through a usually locked door and find themselves in Narnia.

Aslan assigns them a quest (even though Jill is not really paying attention when he lays out the job): Find the long-lost son of King Caspian and bring him back to Cair Paravel, palace of the rulers of Narnia. Eustace and Jill set out on their journey -- accompanied by Puddleglum, a pessimistic Marsh-wiggle (well, they are all pessimistic) -- which takes them into the land of the giants, and underground where the evil Lady of the Green Kirtle is holding Prince Rilian under a spell. Relative danger and exciting heroics occur and the Prince returns, just in time to bury his father. (Then, there's some Christian allegory that went way over my head as Eustace sticks a thorn into Aslan's paw, which bleeds onto the corpse of the Caspian, which then makes him young again ... born again?)

Sometimes actors hired to read audiobooks aren't very good. They are talented people who can inhabit a character in a play or a movie. But they can't portray multiple characters, or -- most importantly -- read the narrative portions of a book with appropriate feeling and pacing. Northam is not one of these actors. He reads the narrative portion (the C.S. Lewis "role" if you like) with enough enthusiasm to keep the plot moving, while recognizing the humor (mostly skewering Experiment House and its educational philosophy -- including, I might add, a headmistress who has a nervous breakdown at the end of the novel) that Lewis includes in his story.

Northam also has a Jim-Dale-esque field day with the many characters -- human and not -- that Eustace and Jill encounter along their journey. Whiny, morose Puddleglum, regal Aslan, a cranky cook for the giants, the wicked Lady, a political owl, and assorted gnomes and forest creatures. Each voice is unique, humorous and/or terrifying. Dare I say that under Northam's secure guidance this episode almost rollicks.

I've got one more Narnia, read by the estimable Patrick Stewart (make it so!). We'll see if he measures up to Jeremy Northam (of whom I am most fond movie-wise as well) -- he's been the best so far!

Anthropophagi

Eww! First turds, now oozing pus, dripping entrails and copious amounts of blood and gore. It's the Printz Honor winner The Monstrumologist, which lets no gross imagery pass unnoticed. Author Rick Yancey introduces us to Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, who has made it his life's work to study creatures believed to be fantasy but that he knows are all too real. He also has some daddy issues. He brings young William James Henry into his home following the death of his parents in a fire, as Will's father spent many years as Dr. Warthrop's loyal assistant. Will feels that he must do everything he can to fill his father's shoes, while Dr. Warthrop seems to take advantage of this and uses Will in ways that are both dangerous and somewhat short of empathy.

Will is awakened by a late-night knock at the doctor's door: A grave-robber has brought something for Dr. Warthrop to examine. It is the recently dead, but also recently gnawed upon, body of a young woman -- but wrapped around the body is the most dreadful thing Will has ever seen. A human-like body, but with no head. Instead the eyes and mouth are located in the torso of the creature. In the huge mouth are rows of sharp, serrated teeth
and in these teeth are strips of bloody flesh torn from the young woman's neck and body (I warned you!). Dr. Warthrop calls it an anthropophagus (meaning man-eater in Greek?). References to anthropophagi have appeared in classical literature, but the good doctor believes they are native to Africa. It's curious how it showed up in the small New England town of New Jerusalem, Massachusetts. (Remember those daddy issues ... )

[Since I have no clue about how to caption this image, I shall tell you that it comes from an online exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library.]

What the doctor doesn't realize until six more people have died in a rampage of blood lust and severed limbs is that there is an infestation of anthropophagi living underneath a graveyard. He hires the services of one Jack Kearns to slaughter the beasts. But, ultimately, it will come down to Will Henry -- the only one small enough to get into the anthropophagi's deepest, most secure chamber -- to save the day.

Yancey frames his story by telling us how he obtained Will Henry's manuscript (the title page informs us that he is but the editor) from the meagre belongings of a very old man who recently died at a local nursing home. If the old man is telling the truth, he was more than 130 years old. Will writes in a prolix, Victorian style -- never using one word when three will do. And his descriptions of the mayhem surrounding the doctor and his monster hunt are lengthy and loving. This is truly not for the easily grossed out. But for those of us who aren't, The Monstrumologist has a weird fascination, sweeping you up in the horror and the adventure. Like Will, you may want to turn away, but you can't.

Steven Boyer narrates this book. I heard him read Deadline two years ago and was quite impressed at how he elevated that trite, predictable novel. He's pretty good here as well. He reads with a boyishness that sounds very authentic, and yet he can change his voice in order to sound like an adult as well. Will and Dr. Warthrop frequently have conversations where they seem to be unable to actually communicate -- Will often answers the doctor literally, and the doctor believes that Will should automatically know of what he speaks -- and Boyer brings these off fairly well (they can be somewhat deadly to listen to). Jack Kearns -- the monster slayer -- is a devil-may-care Englishman, and while Boyer seems a little uncertain with the accent, he does a fine job with Jack's cutting humor and casual violence.

Three of the five Printz books (and three [?] of the five Newberys) are available in audio; I've now listened to three of these six (Charles and Emma and Homer P. Figg), and I think I may have enjoyed this one the most. (Well, enjoyed might be too strong ... this one had the most strengths as an audiobook.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Great heap of turds

OK, now that you have that lovely image (courtesy of Samuel Pepys' diary, October 20, 1660) in your mind, I'll move on to cholera (because they are related and the quote's from the book). Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map is my library's Everybody Reads 2010 selection, and -- as I'm not a speedy nonfiction reader -- I decided to listen instead. This book, subtitled The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, introduced me to a 19th century British doctor named John Snow.

Ahead of his time, Snow believed that cholera -- a disease that originated in Asia but made its way to Europe and the Americas as international trade developed -- was transmitted not by foul, odiferous air but by something that made its way into your digestive system. This seems logical to us, since the disease manifests itself by vomiting and diarrhea, but most scientists and doctors believed that London's polluted air and the general filth in which its poor lived were responsible. (Johnson calls these people miasmatists.) But when a particularly virulent outbreak occurred in late August/early September 1854 practically on Snow's doorstep, the doctor took the opportunity to prove his theory. As part of his proof, he created the eponymous map, demonstrating how the water from the contaminated Broad Street pump was drunk by everyone who died from cholera in the first few weeks of September.

Among the many interesting things I learned from this book was that the city of London had actually begun to deal with the problem of an ever-increasing human population and its waste products. But that the solution -- dumping it into the Thames River -- was more dangerous than the excrement itself. Humans know not to eat our own filth, but we will if we don't know when that filth ends up in our water supply. It took another 10 years (and The Great Stink) before a sewer system (considered a marvel of 19th century engineering) sent the waste far enough away so that the Thames recovered its (relatively) pristine state. Alas, Dr. Snow did not live to see his views generally adopted, but at least they named a pub after him!

The Ghost Map is read by Alan Sklar, a narrator I've not encountered before (he appears to only read adult titles). I found him to be a bit too low-key to consistently sustain my interest in this story. There were lengthy passages (not to mention a disc-long epilogue singing the praises of urban living) on miasmatism and other topics where I occasionally tuned out. Sklar's neutral, dispassionate reading just got to be a little dull. My expectations were a bit skewed, though. Based on the title and the setting, I thought I was in for a more riveting story narrated with more dramatic interpretation by someone with an English accent. Oh well. They'll be plenty of opportunities for those.