Thursday, March 25, 2010

Get out there and dance, kid!

I'll say up front that I'm not a fan of Holden Caulfield and his ilk. Get over yourselves! After listening to six-plus hours of Charlie's letters to his Dear Friend, I'm inclined to say that to him as well. Charlie describes his freshman year in high school in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (generally I don't link to "unofficial" websites, but this one was somewhat interesting -- if unfinished?) by Stephen Chbosky, and it is a mostly agonizing year to get through.

Charlie is depressed -- and deservedly so, although the final revelation about this seems gratuitous to me -- and is feeling some trepidation about entering high school. He's what in my childhood was called "a sensitive boy;" a watcher, not a participant. His family is intact, but reserved and he feels little connection with his older brother and sister. Soon after school starts he meets two exotic seniors (stepbrother and sister), who sweep him up and expose him to ... shall we say LIFE (and much of what they expose him to is why this book keeps popping up on the ALA Most Frequently Challenged List -- it's a veritable smorsgasbord of drugs, sex and rock and roll)! Charlie mostly remains the wallflower, but Patrick and Sam do pull him on to the virtual and metaphorical dance floor in the course of the school year, and by the end of the novel it seems that he might be able to dance on his own. He shares the events of that year (1991-1992) in a series of letters to someone we never meet, and who I think doesn't know him. This conceit was just something else for me not to like about this book.

For me -- an adult who even as a kid didn't like to read about disaffected boys -- this book was just drenched in fake drama. Charlie was too damaged, his family too passive, Patrick and Sam and their crowd too free-spirited. And then there was that creepy English teacher, Bill, who keeps foisting literature on poor Charlie (who passively accepts it without every offering an opinion) and insisting that he write essays about them. (And what did he do for his regular classwork, one asks [see more questions like this below]?) It's clear that Charlie speaks to a lot of young readers, though, and by god! I will defend to the death (well not really) their right to read what Publishers' Weekly calls this "bath of bathos."

I will add here that I have never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show (I should though, I like Tim Curry), which may explain everything!

I found this book by actually browsing the library shelves, something I do so rarely I have to mention it. I was picking up holds (DVDs, natch), and -- with the freedom of no committee assignments -- wandered over to the audiobook shelves. (Of course, I already had a load of audiobooks at home!) Perks was there, I had heard of it as a challenged book (not as a nephew of Holden Caulfield), so I checked it out ... on my personal card (not my work card)! When I went to renew it, though, it had a lot of holds, so it moved up the queue and here we are.

The experienced Johnny Heller reads Charlie's letters, and his high-register, slightly breaking, boyish voice is actually pretty perfect for Charlie. He captures Charlie's sadness particularly well by slowing down his reading and adding a very effective quaver that does indeed sound like he's on the brink of tears (Charlie cries a lot). The intimacy of hearing Charlie's letters read aloud is quite effective, it's as if the listener is that unknown recipient. Despite my not enjoying this as literature, it's one of those books where I'm glad I chose listening, insteading of reading.

But because I'm compulsive, I have a raft of continuity and detail issues about this book: 1) how can an obviously intelligent boy like Charlie turn 16 during his freshman year? 2) At one point in the book, we flash back to 1983 when we are told that Charlie is 7, when -- according to the book's chronology -- he is really 8. 3) High school students just head out for a lunchtime smoke on the school's front steps? I don't think so. 4) Aren't Charlie's parents the least bit concerned by the fact that his two friends are seniors? Or that he occasionally doesn't return home at night? 5) Would a Teach for America teacher be working in a middle class community like Charlie's? Etc. This conversation alludes to "subsequent publicity and attention" over MTV publishing this book in 1999. But what I want to know is ... where are the editors at MTV/Pocket Books?

When J.D. Salinger ("literary recluse") died recently, I said ... hmmm, maybe I should reread A Catcher in the Rye (alas, there does not appear to be an audio version ... yet!). But now, I don't think so.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Jack's amazing adventures

Nancy Farmer is one of those amazing writers whose work is so consistently creative and superbly written that you can open up one of her novels knowing that you're going to get a great story. I mean, The Ear, The Eye and the Arm (so original); I mean House of the Scorpion (so scary!); I mean the three adventures of Jack the apprentice Bard (which she calls the Trolls Trilogy), culminating in The Islands of the Blessed. (Except maybe it's not a trilogy, she says on her blog that there might be another story. She also says there that she's currently writing a sequel to House of the Scorpion ... so in amongst my praise I shall quietly say that somethings just don't need a sequel, despite the three shiny medals.)

At the start of The Islands of Blessed, Jack has settled into a pretty mundane existence in his home in the Saxon village on the edge of the North Sea (in the Orkney Islands?). He's continuing his apprenticeship with the Bard (who says, in my favorite quote: "Odin's eyebrows! You didn't think that being a bard was all singing and picking wildflowers?"), and reining in the enthusiasms of his dear friend Thorgil, the Viking shield maiden. Truth be told, he's just a bit bored. But (this being fiction), Odin's Wild Hunt rampages through his village -- destroying the community's grain stores and blowing in an albatross (with whom Thorgil can speak) named Seafarer. Following the storm, Jack hears an eerie scream in the night: a draugr seeking revenge. The draugr was a mermaid who fell in love with a human (a Christian priest) who shunned her, and now that she's been awakened she won't rest until she's received "a life for a life." Jack, Thorgil and the Bard must head for Notland, home of the finfolk and where the draugr's grave is located, to entice her away from the living.

This being a quest of Jack's, much stands in their way -- corrupt Christians, berserker Northmen, an evil king and the hogboon that terrifies his court, kidnapping hobgoblins, deceiving finfolk, and a side trip to Valhalla. Despite his insecurities, Jack comes into his own as a bard, and it turns out that Thorgil (whose given name -- before the Norsemen adopted her -- is Jill) has unsuspected depths as well. While the ending as explained by Farmer on her blog was not how I interpreted it [spoiler!], this novel is a satisfying conclusion to some terrific adventures. I love the characters in these books and I appreciate the delightful mashup (sorry for that word) of Saxon, Druid (my shorthand for the Bard's lore and nature focus), Norse, and Christian beliefs.

The great narrator Gerard Doyle reads all three of Jack's adventures, although this is the only one I've listened to. I was surprised to figure out that I've only heard him read once, because he is both talented and prolific. Do you think the publishers give him the weighty tomes because they know he can keep things lively over the long haul? (While not Brisingr [763 p.], Islands clocks in at a hefty 479 pages.) They must, because Doyle is so very good at sustaining interest in a story -- through varied pacing and appropriate emotions, coupled with vocally interesting and consistent characters.

In this novel, he's almost like the Bard himself -- regaling the villagers around the fire with his adventures over the course of what must be a very long, very cold winter. Doyle's Bard, with rounded vowels and ringing intonation, is irascible and impatient, yet affectionate. Thorgil, just slightly high and girly, is excitable and impulsive. Some other character highlights: a noble young Northman, a friendly -- but slightly dim -- giant, a scheming king called Adder Tooth, two priests -- one kind, the other not so much, a bunch of dead -- yet still fighting -- Vikings, assorted non-human hobgoblins, finfolk and that albatross.

But --as it should be -- Jack is where my true affection lies. Jack speaks with a slight accent -- it's not a brogue exactly, but has a somewhere-in-rural-England burr (I'm sure a true expert could tell exactly where) that is entirely pleasant on the ears. But what I really enjoy about Doyle's Jack is the character that he skillfully brings forth just by reading the dialog. I hear this smart, polite, "nice young man" -- full of loyalty and courage, yet doubting himself every step of the way. I love his near-constant exasperation at the foolishness of those around him -- from his hobgoblinned sister Hazel to Thorgil's dreams of dying in battle. And two days after listening, I remain chilled by the horror and loss I could hear in Jack's expression as the Bard does something ... well, as the Bard does something.

This is the second book this month where the ancient inhabitants (or their ruins) of the Orkneys play an important role (see here). I'm going to Scotland in a few months for a walking vacation (may as well put all those audiobook miles to good use), and wasn't planning on including the Islands in my touring, but maybe my reading is a sign ...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Exiled

I downloaded something from Library2Go! Seemingly without angst or error! Something others may have had a problem with? (I confess, I had a techie friend download the "console" for me ... but until I worked it, I wasn't entirely convinced it was possible.) It was Michelle Paver's fourth installment in her terrific Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, Outcast, read by the great Ian McKellen. I had listened to the third book a shockingly long time ago, so it was a pleasure to delve back into these tales of young Torak of the Wolf Clan, his beloved Wolf, and his foster family, the Ravens.

Torak has been marked as a Soul Eater by the evil, semi-supernatural beings of this universe, but he tries to hide it from the Raven Clan. Unfortunately, his deception is revealed and he is cast out of the clan. He performs the ritual that will excise the mark, but he is still haunted by one of the Soul Eaters, a Viper-Mage who wants something that he has (but doesn't know he has). This haunting, or soul sickness, causes him to shun the friends who try to help him. It may well be up to Wolf, along with two impudent ravens, to bring Torak back to himself.

I just love that Sir Ian McKellen narrates these. I mean, he's probably the greatest British actor of these few moments in time and he's reading a frigging kids' book! How cool is that? How cool does that make kids' books? Well, probably only cool for those of us who think that Sir Ian is cool (which probably eliminates most kids). So, never mind.

What I think is truly awesome is that an actor of Sir Ian's caliber brings to this role (narrator of the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness) the same commitment he brings to Gandalf, Shakespeare, or Homer's Odyssey. He brings an emotional life to the story of Torak, and his dedication, his belief in the honesty and reality of those emotions is evident in his narrative. McKellen doesn't go for the flash (and I believe there is a time and place for narrative flashiness); he simply reads with a profound feeling for both the characters and the adventure. Both Torak and Wolf experience despair and hopelessness -- as well as elation -- in this story, and I hear and feel those emotions in McKellen's narration. I hear the tension in his voice as Torak's reason vanishes, and feel its relaxation when order and rightness resume (hope that wasn't a spoiler). All that, plus just listening to his magnificent resonant voice!

It looks like the remaining two books in this series are available (in audio too!) in England, so bring 'em on over!! Now! (I think I like the English covers better, too.)

As for downloading, this was a successful experiment. I like to have CDs at home since I listen to them both in the shower and after turning the light out and I don't have a docking station for my lowly mp3 player. But for when I'm out of town (without the option of playing CDs), I will amass a short list of audiobooks only available through Library2Go. In other words, those where I can't check out the CDs. Here's the beginnings of that list (heavily influenced at this point by Fuse No. 8's 100 best chapter books countdown): The Wind in the Willows (read by Alan Bennett!), A Little Princess, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Hmmm ... needs some adult influences.

The downloading itself was successful, as I said. The recording quality occasionally sounded a bit tinny (which, since I can't compare it to the CDs, may have nothing to do with it being digits rather than whatever is on a CD), and there was one place where the recording ended abruptly (it sounded like the end, but I wasn't quite sure). My main complaint (and this may only be a problem to someone who listens in the dark before falling asleep) is that each "disc" of the download was a single track. So if I fall asleep at the 20-minute mark of the track, it just plays through to the end and I have no way to easily re-find my place except fastforwarding to where I think I stopped. Still, I feel like I've taken a step into the 21st century. Yay me!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Windin' Man

Still a fan! Because David Fulmer, author of the Valentin St. Cyr mysteries (set in turn-of-the-20th-century New Orleans), gave a shout-out to the Odyssey Award on his "Dion page," I discovered a Graham-narrated novel that I thought I might enjoy more than Eric Dickey or James Patterson. I braved Interlibrary Loan to obtain a copy of Chasing the Devil's Tail (the first Valentin St. Cyr novel ... you know how I like to be first), and I was not disappointed.

Valentin St. Cyr is a multiracial (Italian, African, Native American) private eye working for the "Mayor of Storyville," Tom Anderson. Storyville was New Orlean's red-light district, and the Creole St. Cyr is Anderson's enforcer, or so Anderson thinks. St. Cyr's childhood friend, Buddy Bolden, is playing his controversial "jass" in Storyville's bars and brothels. Anderson believes that the heavy-drinking Bolden is responsible for a series of murders of prostitutes in Storyville and he wants St. Cyr to prove it. Despite the (circumstantial) evidence, Valentin can't believe his friend has killed these women, leaving a memorial black rose at each crime scene, and he leaves Anderson's employ to uncover the truth.

Fulmer's novel is a thoroughly researched, genuinely suspenseful blend of fact and fiction (many of the novel's characters are real people), that brings the dankness, sweat, and late-night shenanigans of the time and place evocatively to life. Dion Graham does this as well, of course. Upon listening, I realized that I've never heard him read a non-first-person audiobook, so his neutral narration of the third-person passages here was initially disturbing. Where was the warmth, the sincerity that I've loved so much about his work? But as the narrative unfolded, I understood what was going on. Graham saves his energy for the characters, and the characters here are up to his usual standard.

There are no generic N'Awlins drawls amongst these characters -- education, social standing and race are all heard in the voices of the drunken, edgy Bolden, the commanding Anderson, the corrupt sergeant Picot, a sympathetic Irish cop, and an elderly white priest. The story's women -- almost all of whom are prostitutes or madams -- sound distinct and speak with real voices. I particularly enjoy Graham's many-shaded interpretation of St. Cyr, a man with some secrets in his past, a man who internalizes pretty much all his emotions, but who shockingly, yet believeably breaks out in grief, rage and fear in several places in Fulmer's novel.

There's a wonderful interlude in the novel when St. Cyr visits a bar in search of Ferdinand La Menthe's voodoo-practicing mother (auntie? grandmother?) for some advice. La Menthe has recently adopted the nom de jazz Jelly Roll Morton and he entertains St. Cyr (and us) with a performance of "Windin' Man" (winding like twirling). At least I think the song was called "Windin' Man" (I can't locate it online), a raunchy little ditty about a man with ... shall we say, endurance. Dion Graham sings this song's many verses with a sophisticated exhaustion and risque wink, and I can still hear it nearly two weeks later. Dion Graham. He acts, he reads, he sings! But can he dance?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Books are the bees

I am a devoted reader of mystery novels (like many of you, I started young with Agatha Christie), but haven't experienced too many of them via audio. I was patiently waiting for the Dion Graham audiobook to show up via Interlibrary Loan, when 16 hours of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes landed in my lap. Many holds on this one, plus it wasn't checked out to me ... so I had to squeeze it in. The Language of Bees is Laurie R. King's ninth novel featuring the famous detective (in his twilight years) and his very young wife -- but ideal match in all ways -- Mary Russell. If you haven't read these (or listened), start at the beginning. (We mystery readers are pretty compulsive about this ... so take or leave that last bit of advice.)

In this novel, Russell and Holmes are visited by Holmes' illegitimate son (oh, the purists are rolling!), the surrealist artist Damian Adler (son of Irene Adler, the only villain -- and she wasn't really a villain -- ever to outwit Holmes). Adler's Chinese wife and young daughter have disappeared and Damian needs his father's help to find them. Working independently, Holmes and Russell uncover a disturbing trend of murders (of both humans and animals) at Britain's most famous ancient sites (including the Standing Stones [pictured on the cover], the Cerne Abbas Giant, and the Long Man of Wilmington), likely at the instigation of the leader of a bizarre religious cult. It's a breathless race up the length of England and Scotland to the Orkney Islands to prevent the next death.

I am very fond of these books (why I listened while the time was ticking away on my ILL). Unlike many mystery writers, King does not churn these out at the rate of one per year, they are thoughtful stories with meticulously researched settings and beautifully developed characters well worth knowing. Russell's history (she's only 25) is painstakingly parceled out in each book, leaving you wanting more. There isn't much whodunnit in the books, instead of solving the puzzle the psychological underpinnings of the murderer's actions are given center stage.

It appears that the talented Jenny Sterlin has read the series (with the mysterious exception of one title read by George Guidall). As noted before, Sterlin is an outstanding narrator. She reads quickly without feeling hurried; the suspense of the final chapters as Russell makes her mad dash for Scotland (including a hair-raising plane ride) compels you to keep listening. (I listened to the last four discs in a single day.) Sterlin's talents also lie in characterization -- each is carefully created, distinct and consistent. Her Holmes is dead right: Slightly nasal, languid, condescending. At times, it seems like she is channelling Jeremy Brett (and that's a good thing!). In contrast, she reads Russell with warmth and an occasional uncertainty that is charming -- and lets a listener know where our sympathies should lie. There are two other Holmesian males in this story: Brother Mycroft and son Damian. Each is rendered as formal and distant, consistent with their characters.

The book is very long -- and for me, it spends too much time at the beginning on the mysterious extinction of one of Holmes' bee colonies. (He'd been away for seven months ... Russell thinks perhaps they felt abandoned.) I believe that the title metaphor makes a connection to the communal behavior of other living things -- families, religious organizations, government, etc. And while I think I've got the metaphor, I'm not sure I completely understand it ... do religious cults behave the way of a dying bee colony? (In addition, it's my second bee metaphor audiobook in two months ... stretching my English major brain to the limit!) Nevertheless, this proves to be only a mild irritation in an overall splendid listen.

Although murder is foiled at the very end of this book, King leaves many, many things unresolved, so perhaps the metaphor will make sense after reading the soon-to-be-published 10th Russell/Holmes novel: The God of the Hive. I'm on the hold list (to read ... too many other novels to listen to).

In search of a pithy title for this blog post, I found this quote from the Romantic James Russell Lowell: "Books are the bees which carry the quickening pollen from one to another mind." A fine metaphor for a librarian!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Listen up!

Happy birthday, Dr. Seuss! A little blog synchronicity happened today, and I'm sure it's because all across America people are reading! I got a comment on a recent post, and checked out that person's blog (she lives in England, so my theory about reading in America just got busted). And what do I find there but a link to something called AudioSynced -- hosted by two other bloggers, Abby (the) Librarian and Stacked -- which is a monthly roundup of blog posts on audiobooks! And from there, I discovered another exclusively audiobook blogger, Books for Ears. (AudioSynced also sent me a little linked love, which must be how Playing by the Book found me.)

Many more things to add to my blogroll! I will link to each month's AudioSynced post for more audiobook mayhem! Thanks everyone!