Friday, May 21, 2010

Not available to take your call

Hooray! Three weeks vacation! I'm off to explore Scotland -- Glasgow, Inverness and Edinburgh bracket a 73-mile walk up the Great Glen Way. Then a few days in Amsterdam with an old, but seldom-seen, friend before I stagger back to Portland and attempt to work again.

I've got His Dark Materials loaded on to the mp3 player. I've always pronounced this with the emphasis on "his," but author and narrator Philip Pullman goes with "dark." I'm at the scene where Lyra and Pantalaimon (now I've also got the definitive pronunciation of daemon -- think demon) are listening in as Asriel meets with the directors. Delicious anticipation!

In the meantime, join the Audiobook Community and mingle with other tapeworms. (I am so not a social networking kind of gal, so don't expect to hear from me very often over there.) Back sometime in June.

Late night

I'm off to Scotland on Sunday (and will be absent from blogging for awhile), and I wanted to get in a little contemporary fiction about where I'm going before I leave. I'd heard of Denise Mina, but never read anything by her, so when Still Midnight came around via downloadable (still not my favorite way to listen) I gave it my ears. How better to acclimatize to a Scottish accent?

Mina writes "tartan noir," and while noir (on the edgier side) is not my favorite kind of detective fiction (I'm more partial to procedurals and historicals), I have enjoyed Ian Rankin and Val McDermid. Still Midnight was great. It's not a conventional whodunnit -- the reader knows the perpetrators from the outset. It's the why that clearly intrigues Mina and Still Midnight is quite the onion -- layers upon layers get slowly peeled back.

Two thugs in balaclavas burst into the Glasgow house of shopkeeper Aamir Anwar waving guns and shouting for "Bob." Three generations of Anwars -- Muslims by way of Uganda -- are living there and none of them are named Bob. (Or so they say.) One of the kidnappers panics and shoots his gun, wounding Aamir's teenaged daughter. They grab Aamir, hustle him out of the house and demand £2-million ransom.

The police are called and two CID detective sergeants are put on the case: Alex Morrow and Grant Bannerman. It's clear to us who is the better detective, but Bannerman is given control because -- their superior believes -- it would be better to have a man in charge of a case that deals with Muslim immigrants. Morrow is furious, but she's never played politics well and has no allies on the force to complain to. In true noir fashion, she begins to work alone and on the edges of what's legal. It is Alex -- with her secret connections to some criminal elements -- who unearths the first break in the case and ultimately it is Alex who doggedly solves Mina's why. And it's a pretty neat (but not tidy) solution.

The narrator Jane MacFarlane reads the book. She has a pleasant voice to listen to, and rolls those Scottish "r's" nicely; yet it is never difficult to understand her characters. While the subtle differences between various Scots accents are pretty much lost on me, MacFarlane brings in accents from elsewhere in the United Kingdom -- Aamir's daughter-in-law comes from Lancaster (which I may not be remembering right?) and the boss of the kidnappers chimes in from Northern Ireland. The Muslim characters (those that aren't native to Scotland) sound authentic as well. I particularly enjoyed MacFarlane's portrayal of the prickly Alex -- angry at police incompetence, keeping secrets at home, and sympathetic to the victim's family (until she finds out that they've been playing her). Her voice is high-pitched and, frankly, bitchy at times and it rings totally true.

I've got another Mina book -- this time in print -- cued up for the long plane ride to Glasgow. By Monday morning, I should know all about the seamier side of Scotland's largest city.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dope slap

Is there anyone in the kidlit world who isn't a Jon Scieszka fan? When Mr. Ambassador made a visit to my library in 2009, I was so impressed with how calm and natural he is with kids, while still keeping the adults entertained. I had a similar reaction in listening to his memoir: Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Mostly True Stories of Growing Up Scieszka. It's an entirely kid-friendly series of vignettes, but they are presented with a kind of nostalgia that adults will enjoy.

I only grew up with one brother, but I think I knew several Jon Scieszkas growing up. Certainly, I encounter them occasionally in my work today, and -- well, I still don't understand them, but at least I can appreciate a little more where they are coming from. That kid/reptile brain is constantly egging them on!

Knucklehead includes the six Scieszka boys lighting a dry-cleaning bag on fire, peeing simultaneously into the toilet ("sword-fighting" was a topic of intense interest from the kids who attended the presentation I linked to above), crawling through some kind of gross and scary sewer pipe, engaging in a broad range of warmongering mayhem, and playing something called Slaughter Ball that involved physical injuries. Several of the anecdotes come with the Knucklehead warning: Do not try this at home. I very much enjoyed two teacher/nun-Scieszka stand-offs: Once when he must come up with a comprehensive list of swear words -- which he compiles by making compound swears, such as damn-butt. And the other is when his fearsome teacher asks him to share a joke with the rest of his class. His timing is impeccable.

It's Scieszka's comic timing that makes this audiobook so appealing. He reads in this almost deadpan manner -- quietly and with little drama. The jokes and general hilarity just sneak right up to give you the dope slap. More than once I am caught just shaking my head in disbelieving laughter. Those boys did what?

The person that I'd really like to meet from this book is his mom, Shirley. That woman must have had nerves of steel.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Courier du bois

There must be some writerly glee that occurs when other books are compared to one's own as if yours had set the standard, i.e., in booktalking M.H. Herlong's The Great Wide Sea, I've been calling it Hatchet in a sailboat. Or Ben Mikaelsen's Touching Spirit Bear is like Hatchet only with Native Americans. But what does it mean when another one of your own books is compared in this way? Inevitably, I think, Gary Paulsen's Woods Runner will get the moniker Hatchet during the Revolutionary War. Is this a good thing? It's probably good when you're trying to sell a book to a kid who liked Hatchet, but is it fair to the author who has worked hard to tell an original story?

Fairness aside, Samuel Smith does bear a bit of a resemblance to Brian Robeson in his appreciation for nature (well, it takes Brian a little while to gain that appreciation) and his self-sufficiency. It's 1775, and Samuel lives with his parents in the deep woods of western Pennsylvania. His parents were seeking a less urban life, but they've not really adjusted to the rigors of the wilderness. Samuel, on the other hand, thrives. He knows the woods, he belongs there, he is the courier du bois. His expertise ensures that the few families in their tiny community are well-fed. One horrifying day, Samuel's world is destroyed as the British redcoats and their Iroquois allies storm into the small settlement and kill everyone; everyone but Samuel's parents, who are taken prisoner.

Samuel, using all his woodsman's skills, follows the soldiers, determined to free his parents. With the help of many folk he meets along the way, he gets all the way to New York City before he sees his parents again. And now that he's found them, he has to get them out.

Paulsen alternates the chapters telling Samuel's story with short, informational blurbs on all aspects of the Revolutionary War, i.e., weapons, Indian allies, American forces, disease, etc. In his author's note, Paulsen says that he "wanted the Revolutionary War to be seen in its reality." This war might have been about the high ideals of freedom and independence, but these came at a terrible cost. Paulsen doesn't shield us from its death and destruction -- scalped heads are described, as is an overflowing latrine bucket; a warm, familial dinner is quickly followed by a massacre.

A narrator new to me reads this book: Danny Campbell. He's quite good. His voice is kind of gravelly and hoarse -- as if he's spent too much time near a campfire, but it has a quiet authority and deliberateness that is pleasant to listen to. He changes his voice very slightly for different characters -- nothing dramatic, it's not difficult to track dialog. Once the suspense begins to build, Campbell picks up his pace to match, creating some exciting moments of tension.

When the book switches to the informational sections, Campbell adopts a slightly more neutral tone, but again it's extremely subtle. Following the change from fiction to nonfiction isn't a problem at all: the informational chapter headings are clear and Paulsen told us from the beginning that the book has this format.

Still, while I learned some interesting things, I don't care for this approach. It breaks up the story and I think I want an indication of where the author obtained his knowledge on the subject. Wouldn't it be nice if a young reader who got intrigued by something Paulsen says in the nonfiction portions had a clue about someplace to find out more about what fascinated him?

(Of course, my experience in chat reference today where a student needed "eight timeline events" in the life of some basketball player and refused to read the actual biography that I forwarded to him in order to find those events turned me cranky and cynical for the rest of the day. Today's students aren't interested in research and discovery, they want bullet points and timeline events laid out in bold face with flashing arrows that say "the answer is here," so they can quickly copy them and get back to texting, YouTube and online games. [I need a vacation ... which fortunately is happening in nine short days!])

So never mind, Mr. Paulsen. Your book is fine for young readers just the way it is!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Injudicious in his choice of forks

Despite my love of most things British, I confess I've never read anything by P.G. Wodehouse. His novels and short stories are ones I can easily fake familiarity with because they are so distinctive. But I really enjoyed my visit with Wodehouse's practically trademarked upper-class twits in A Damsel in Distress, published in 1919. Through pretty much the entire seven hours, I was walking around with a grin on my face. There were so many juicy quotes, but my post title was a favorite: Advice courtesy of the family butler, Keggs, about the dangers of marrying beneath oneself .

In this ridiculous story of thwarted love and mistaken identity, a young American songwriter, George Bevan, falls instantly in love with Lady Maud after she seeks shelter from her nosy brother in George's taxicab. He finds out who she is, and follows her to her family's estate, Marshmoreton. George has had a brief dustup with Maud's brother, Percy, and so he must woo Maud incognito. He learns that Maud has declared herself in love with an American, but only later finds out that there are two Yankees in her life, and does the gentlemanly thing and bows out. All is not lost, of course. Complicating this are Maud's father, the rose-loving Earl of Marshmoreton, his officious widowed sister Lady Caroline Byng, her dim-witted stepson Reggie, Reggie's love interest (and Lord Marshmoreton's secretary) Alice, etc. That's just the upper classes: Kegg is joined below stairs by the "blighted" Albert, pageboy and lover's go-between. It's silly, fun and just delicious to listen to courtesy of the narrator, Jonathan Cecil.

Cecil (who pronounces his name Sissel on the CDs) is evidently to P.G. Wodehouse what Jim Dale is to J.K. Rowling. Although I have no evidence as to twitdom, Mr. Cecil's upper-class credentials are unimpeachable, so he is pretty much perfect for the whole cast of characters. Some highlights are the choleric Percy, the blustery Lord Marshmoreton (who falls for an American chorus girl who'd rather be puttering in a rose garden), and the clueless Reggie. Cecil has that British actor's skill of voicing all social classes and his portrayal of Kegg (who drops aitches, but then [h]aspirates them in front of words starting with a vowel) -- whose pretension is matched by that of Lady Caroline -- is masterful. Young, blighted Albert -- who aspires to be a butcher -- is pretty darn funny as well.

Now the Americans in the story, notably George Bevan, sound a little off. I can't figure out where they go wrong, but it seems that most speakers of British English can't quite produce a natural American accent -- they flatten the vowels and harden the 'r's but it must be that they try too hard (kind of like Madonna and her fake British accent). Cecil is no exception, but at the same time I enjoyed the portrayal. George has a deep, pleasant voice and his sincerity and romantic notions shine right through.

Wodehouse adapted this novel into a 1937 movie with the incomparable Fred Astaire (just so's you know, my cat is named after Fred's sister Adele) playing George Bevan -- who has become a dancer and has been inexplicably renamed Jerry Halliday. There's no Ginger, but some of the Gershwin songs are now classics: "A Foggy Day (in London Town)" and "Nice Work if You Can Get It." It's time to watch this again.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Little man

I took one art history class when I was in college: Italian Renaissance art. I'd just gotten back from a semester abroad and was feeling very sophisticated. I remember researching and writing a paper on a portrait of Pietro Aretino by Titian (see below) that hangs in the Frick Collection. (Bragging: I remember it all these years later because I was surprised by the A I received.) Signore Aretino plays an important role in Sarah Dunant's In the Company of the Courtesan and I was thrilled to get reacquainted.

The main character in this novel isn't Aretino and it isn't the (fictional) courtesan, Fiammetta Bianchini, either. It's her loyal and loving pimp and business manager, a wily and sarcastic dwarf named Bucino Teodoldi. The two escape the Sack of Rome in 1527 -- but not before Fiammetta's long golden locks are shaved to her scalp -- and make their way to her home town of Venice. They've each swallowed a fortune in gemstones -- jewels that will help them re-establish Fiammetta as a premier courtesan in their new city. They enlist the help of the blind healer La Draga who helps to restore Fiammetta's beauty and confidence. And they meet Aretino, whom they have known in Rome. It is Bucino's discovery of a secret, locked book full of Aretino's erotic writings that ultimately puts Fiammetta back on top (so to speak).

I love a good historical novel that you can sink your teeth into, and at 14 hours (which flew by) -- with terrific characters, a fascinating setting, and lots of down and dirty details -- Courtesan is nice and chewy. Dunant clearly envisions Fiammetta as the racy Titian nude hanging at the Galleria degli Uffizi: The Venus of Urbino (a key scene in the novel takes place as she is posing for Titian). Everything is viewed through the eyes of Bucino -- who professes cynicism and ennui and a cold eye for the business of love, but he is really quite frightened of life. He will always be the outsider, the one who is different, and this colors everything he thinks, feels and does. I am not doing this novel justice, but I want you to discover its many secrets on your own.

Stephen Hoye (whose interpretation of Frances O'Roark Dowell's Chicken Boy I enjoyed several years ago) reads Bucino. He is world-weary and superior -- Bucino has seen it all (which he probably has) and he's above it. Hoye does very little distinct voicing and there is a sameness to his phrasings that initially had me worried: Can I listen to these rhythms and this snooty tone for 14 hours? But as the story progressed, I began to hear the subtle emotions motivating Bucino -- that fear and longing for love and acceptance that informs all his actions. By the end, I am in tears (along with Bucino). The individual characterizations are there, too, they're just not obvious. (Hoye doesn't, for example, raise the scale of his voice to read women.) It's almost like Hoye is compelling you to listen more closely: Pay attention, he says, you're going to want to hear this! And he's right.

I confess to initial surprise at the lack of a British accent, but ultimately, what accent should Italian characters portrayed in English be using? The only accent Hoye employs is a kind of mittel-European one for a Jewish pawnbroker. I think I only assumed British because the author is. It doesn't matter: The power of Dunant's storytelling will emerge through any good reader.

Here's Pietro il grande! What a bruiser!

Black and white

Ahem! This month's Dion Graham fan club meeting will come to order! I had some high expectations for The Turnaround: I've been reading some of the work of The Wire's screenwriters lately, and while most of them are a little too hard-edged for me (I can take my TV raw-ish, but generally not my reading), I'd wanted to read something by George Pelecanos. When I realized that Dion Graham had narrated one of his novels, I decided to give it a listen.

The Turnaround is the story of Alex Pappas. He's a mostly bored 16-year-old white kid during the summer of 1972, and one hot night -- with two other friends -- he goes for a joyride into the largely African American neighborhood known as Heathrow Heights. After tossing a cherry pie out the car window and yelling a racial slur, the three boys attempt to burn rubber and get out of there, but they run into a dead end (the titular turnaround). Alex and his friend (the third boy has left the car and run away) face two brothers, James and Raymond Monroe, and a third black teen, Charles Baker. Something horrific happens, and Alex is greviously wounded and scarred.

Some 30 years later, Alex is now running his deceased father's beloved Greek diner; while Ray Monroe has become a physical therapist and works at Walter Reed Army Medical Center helping to rehabilitate wounded vets from the Iraq war. Both are fathers -- Alex's younger son has recently died in Iraq, while Ray's is serving in Afghanistan. One day, Ray spots Alex at Walter Reed and -- recognizing him by his scar -- approaches him. As the two men get to know one another, the novel slowly spools out what has happened in the intervening years, including what really happened that night in Heathrow Heights.

While there's lots of violence and plenty of bad and hateful language, I am surprised at how moral the story seems. There isn't much gray area in this story. The bad guys come off a bit cartoony in their evil, and the good are flawed but not too terribly. The upbeat ending is seriously cheerful. My Wire-d expectations made me think that Pelecanos' novelistic world would be a slightly more cynical one -- there's no good and bad, just less and more bad.

Dion Graham gets to create a broad range of characters here -- from all ages, races and classes. (The book falls a little short on women, but I do like the fine portrait Graham creates for Darlene, a black woman Alex's age who has spent her life working in the Pappas and Sons diner. She's sassy and soft-spoken and her affection for Alex is palpable in her voice.) I appreciate the subtleties of the various speech patterns of the African American characters: educated men, ex-cons, streetwise punks, young drug dealers as well as their bosses (here I swear Graham was channeling Stringer Bell but that's my Wire-d worldview), working class kids, even a young Wizards fan. He's equally skilled with the white characters: Alex with his tired raspy delivery, his friend who became a highly paid and smug lawyer, his son John who wants to take over and upgrade the diner, wounded soldiers from all over the U.S., and two brilliant riffs as Mick Jagger and a Top 40 D.J.

Particularly memorable are several scenes in the car as Alex and his friends head out on that fateful joyride that comprise vivid, rapid-fire teen-boy conversations (sex, drugs and rock and roll) that Graham pulls off with skill.

The Turnaround is one of those audiobooks where I wish that obtaining music copyright wasn't such an onerous task for the publishers. The novel is filled with music references and since I am mostly ignorant of the music of this era (and yes, it is my era ... but, hey! I was interested in other things), I would have so enjoyed little excerpts that might have served to remind me of a song or two. Graham does a little singing: The theme from Mannix [Did someone film that by pointing their camera at the TV? Don't these people have lives?]. The show is the Monroe brothers' father's favorite television show -- remember, it featured a black woman. Well, that gave me childhood flashbacks.

And also, just to be difficult, thoughts on copyright. Obviously copying something off the television and posting it on YouTube is a copyright violation. So is inserting musical excerpts to augment your audiobook. But if Graham hums the theme from Mannix or a sings a Rolling Stones song because it is in the text of a book, is that a violation of copyright? As we say in the library biz, I can't provide legal advice ...

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Pod girl

I've been listening pretty quickly lately, which is why I'm three books behind, so I'm not sure how good my retention is. The Whale Rider was another audiobook picked up while browsing and I probably wouldn't have listened but for the fact that my precedessors on Amazing Audiobooks had placed it on their 2006 list of bests. It was, of course, made into a most amazing movie before it became an audiobook. The short novel is by Witi Ihimaera and it is every bit as touching and powerful as it was on the screen.

Eight-year-old Kahu has been struggling all her life with her grandfather's disappointment that she was not born a boy. (If I'm remembering correctly, Kahu is a boy's name.) Her grandfather, leader of their Maori community, was hoping for someone to properly carry on their clan's traditions and that someone needs to be male. As Kahu grows up, is clear to everyone but her grandfather than she is perfectly suited to become chief. But it is only when a pod of whales -- descendents of the same whales who, legend tells, first brought the Maori to New Zealand on their backs -- beaches itself that Kahu's connection to her ancestors becomes clear.

Unlike what I remember of the movie, Kahu's story is told by her young uncle, Rawiri (who sounds like Arnold Spirit Jr. in the way he balances his ancient culture and his modern life, and with how casually he mentions racial violence), and so it is narrated by an adult-sounding man named Jay Laga'aia (a semi-famous actor, depending on how geeky you are). He has a very pleasant voice and trips from English to Maori, from cranky grandfather to innocent Kahu to his own young-adult-male rhythms very easily. He has a terrific time humorously voicing grandfather's wife, the bossy and irreverent Nanny Flowers, who is always threatening to leave her husband over his treatment of Kahu. Nanny is the comic relief of this story, but you never doubt her profound love for her granddaughter in Laga'aia's interpretation.

Laga'aia's narration never overpowers Ihimaera's lyrical descriptions of the coastal community, the sea, and the Maori legends. His resonant voice is a neutral conduit that lets the words speak for themselves. In the it-would-have-been-nice-but-it's-not-necessary department: The novel moves from Uncle Rawiri's first-person narration of the events surrounding the birth and childhood of Kahu to a more sweeping third-person telling of the clan's origins, as well as what happens to Kahu when she heads out to sea on that whale. Laga'aia's voice or pacing doesn't dramatically change when the narrative voice does, and I would have liked to hear something that tells me that a different story is beginning. But that's really a quibble.

I think it had been long enough since I'd seen the movie that the images in my head while listening were mostly pretty generic. And Rawiri's point of view is an entirely different one than the movie. So, it didn't feel like a repeat to me; instead it was a fresh take on a story that I had heard once before. It's worth listening to.

Top 20

Well, I'm three books behind on posting here, so I'll start with the easy stuff. The AudioSynced monthly roundup (blog reviews of audiobooks) is located this month at the Stacked blog. Thanks Kelly!

Stacked mentions the Recorded Books Top 20 children's audiobooks (which I'm going to interpret to mean young adult as well) poll currently taking nominations. Not enough listeners have contributed to this (myself included), but you have until the end of the month. Here's what I (am about to) submit. My list is profoundly skewed to the 21st century (since that's really when I began listening), and doesn't include very many for the under-8 set. I've linked to my blog thoughts where I had them.

20. The Wrong Hands by Nigel Richardson. A book you've likely never heard of, but it's so good. The audio, read by Euan Morton, is brilliant!

19. Mimus by Lilli Thal. Another personal favorite no one's heard of that will reward (nearly) all listeners. I want more Maxwell Caulfield!

18. King Dork by Frank Portman. This never got on the AAYA list, and I do go on about it. I want everyone to listen to King Dork!

17. Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman. The audiobook gives voice to the voiceless Shawn.

16. Feed by M.T. Anderson. The first audiobook in my listening to truly use the aural experience: The feed is indeed inside your head.

15. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Atmospheric and spooky, with just a touch of irony.

14. Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. What's not to love about Natalie Moore's D.J. Schwenk?

13. The Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. Simon Jones' smart, snarky Bartimaeus is one for the ages.

12. We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson. A listener doesn’t miss Nelson’s wonderful paintings because Dion Graham is painting word pictures.

11. Martina the Beautiful Cockroach by Carmen Agra Deedy. A wonderful opportunity to hear the difference between storytelling and story reading. They're both great!

10. The Last Apprentice (and sequels) by Joseph Delaney. Even though Christopher Evan Welch isn't British, he skillfully creates some scary times out in the English countryside.

9. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. The first is the best! The late, great Lynn Redgrave relishes every word of this magnificent ode to the power of reading.

8. Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken by Kate DiCamillo. In what I will always think of as "my" Odyssey book, Barbara Rosenblat takes that French hen to some exciting places.

7. Th1rteen R3asons Why by Jay Asher. A perfect use of the audio medium: Hannah is speaking to Clay over his earphones, and we are listening in.

6. Fairest by Gail Carson Levine. I love any audiobook where songs are actually sung, and they are here. This is not the same book as the one you read ... it's much, much better.

5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Sherman Alexie is the only reader who could have brought his alterego, Arnold Spirit Jr., so vividly to life.

4. The Curious Incident of the Dog of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. Technically not for young adults, I can still hear Jeff Woodman's tentative, yet confident voicing of the autistic Christopher.

3. Accidents of Nature by Harriet McBryde Johnson. A brilliant performance by Jenna Lamia, who skillfully demonstrates the difference between 17-year-old Jean’s internal and external voices.

2. Bloody Jack (and sequels) by L.A. Meyer. Bloody Jack – hotheaded, impetuous, affectionate, smart – all that and more of her starring personality are embodied in Katherine Kellgren’s vivid interpretation.

1. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Narrator Jim Dale sets the bar very high with his masterful performance of this series. No one does fantasy vocal characterizations like Mr. Dale.

(This post was supposed to take five minutes ... )