Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The sun'll come out ...

Back in April, when I listened to a perfectly dreadful version of A Little Princess, I said that I really didn't need to acquaint myself with the modern sequel, just published and written by Hilary McKay. I think I was starved for some recent audiobooks when Wishing for Tomorrow was ordered at my library and so in a moment of sentimental weakness I placed a hold. McKay shifts the emphasis of the story away from Sara Crewe and onto the friends and schoolmates she left behind. I'm going to guess that that's Lavinia, Lottie and Ermengarde (from left to right) -- along with Bosco the cat -- gazing wistfully out of the window of Miss Minchin's Select Seminary for Young Ladies.

Wishing for Tomorrow (in the running for most insipid title of 2010) begins with the last few weeks of Sara Crewe's stay at Miss Minchin's from her friend Ermengarde's viewpoint. Ermengarde feels bereft at Sara's departure, and oppressed by Sara's instruction to look after young, impetuous Lottie and the rat Sara tamed while living in the attic, Melchisedec. She writes long letters to Sara -- off enjoying the fresh air of the seaside with her new family -- but is too shy to send them. All the other girls are off-kilter as well, and Miss Minchin is in the throes of a nervous breakdown. Things at the Select Seminary are not going well.

The skilled and experienced narrator Justine Eyre has everything under control here. Her warm, low voice is so gentle and pleasant to listen to -- it's girlish for the pupils, severe for Miss Minchin, and saucy and opinionated for the new maid. There are even a few lines of dialog for the neighborhood cat. The three girls each had a unique voice that Eyre sustains throughout the story. In particular, she invests Ermegarde with a touching wistfulness that actually makes you a little angry with Sara for deserting her! Eyre's experience shows in how she moves the story along efficiently, while never losing sight of the emotional arc of the novel.

I've enjoyed Eyre's work before: here, here and, particularly, here. I like having confidence in picking up a book she is reading, knowing that -- whatever the shortcomings of the story -- it will be a good listen.

Wishing for Tomorrow by Hilary McKay
Narrated by Justine Eyre
Brilliance Audio, 2010. 5:47 (unabridged)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Unreliable

With all the kerfuffle that occurred over the cover of the U.S. edition of Justine Larbalestier's Liar, something got lost -- at least off of my radar (which could just be because I wasn't planning an immediate read of the novel): This is one amazing piece of storytelling! And, it's almost impossible to tell you why because practically anything I say will truly spoil (and not spoil in the Team Peeta/Team Gale kind of way) every other reader's experience of the novel.

I think I am safe in saying that the liar of the title is Micah Wilkins. She attends an intentionally multicultural alternative high school -- although she mostly flies under the radar there as the other students think she's weird. She fooled them into thinking she was a boy for the first few days of freshman year and they've never forgiven her. Micah loves to run -- really fast -- and she has a running partner named Zach. Zach may, or may not, be Micah's boyfriend, but if he is, no one at the school knows it. Then, Zach's dead body is found in Central Park, and Micah's low profile is suddenly elevated as the students and the police attempt to figure out what happened to Zach.

Of course, this could all be a lie. Because Micah is a liar. She tells us this from the get-go and promises to come clean. But, despite her promise, she's succeeded in getting inside our heads and we truly don't know what is true and what isn't. And Larbalestier's (isn't that a great last name?) brilliance is that even when I finished, what I understand to have happened is probably completely different than what the eight other people who currently have this checked out of my library understand. Larbalestier has created some spoiler space on her blog where readers are discussing their interpretations and I found it eye-opening. But DON'T go there unless you've read the book first!

Because the novel has so many twists and turns -- and little bits of information that may or may not be useful, I'm not sure that listening is the best way to appreciate it. It's so hard to go back while listening, to doublecheck something that you think might be important, that having the book in your hand for flipping back and forth may be better. I'm wondering if my experience of the novel is really different from someone who's read it. I listened to the end twice and -- after perusing Larbalestier's spoiler space -- there were whole plot points and interpretations that I missed!

The reader is Channie Waites (pronounced Chain-ee). She does a fine job of lying teenaged girl with attitude -- impatient, superior, intolerant, and oh-so innocent when she needs to be. It was a nicely complex performance; when Micah announces that, yup! she's lied about this or that, Waites' chuckle was -- if I can say this -- silently audible. Waites has a pleasant voice to listen to and switches easily from both slight and more pronounced African American inflections to Latino to rich white girl. She's less successful at portraying her mother's French-accented English and resorts to generic quaveriness for her older relatives.

Waites' shortcomings as a narrator don't overshadow the power of this novel, but I'm not convinced that listening is the way to go here. Regardless, check out the author's experience listening to her book being recorded.

Liar by Justine Larbalestier
Narrated by Channie Waites
Brilliance Audio, 2009. 9:01 (unabridged)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Prickly

In the recent New York Times Book Review article, "The Kids' Books are All Right," the (adult) author, Lev Grossman, says: “A lot of contemporary adult literature is characterized by a real distrust of plot. I think young adult fiction is one of the few areas of literature right now where storytelling really thrives.” Ah yes, storytelling. I like storytelling. I'm not particularly interested in long, snobbish treatises on -- among other things -- urinary tract infections, grammar, Japanese film, Tolstoy, sex among teenagers, French lingerie, etc. masquerading as stories.

There are 113 holds at my library for Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog (43 on the audiobook). [Apropos of nothing in this post: There are 516/23 holds on Mockingjay! Just two more days!] I can imagine that 100 of these people will put this book down after 100 pages (if they get that far), wondering what all the fuss is about. I really disliked this book. I am a compulsive finisher, so I just powered through -- amazingly completing it in just five days.

Let me start by noting that on Tuesday I am out on my morning walk and I've finished up with Disc 1. I click on my mp3 player to the next disc in the queue. (The window of my player is too small to see the entire name of each disc.) I am a full 10 minutes further down the road, when I realize that I'm not listening to Disc 2. And this was only because I happened to think that Paloma -- whose chapter headings are labeled Profound Thought Number ... -- hadn't quite gotten up to the number that she indicated. It turns out that the lowly staff person who does things like digitally label each disc had a brain cramp and spelled Elegance "elegence" while identifying Disc 2, so that it fell at the end of the list of discs. Contemplating that person and his/her entry level job was much more interesting than this book.

Briefly, Hedgehog is the story of Renée Michel, middle-aged concierge of a fancy Parisian apartment building. In spite of her peasant-like appearance, she is an autodidact (a word she uses to describe herself) of philosophy. She explains -- for those of us who don't live in Paris in a concierged apartment building -- that concierges generally aren't like her, and that the people who employ her shouldn't know this about her since it would set their worldview so drastically atilt that they might not recover. She lives in her groundfloor apartment (her "loge") and feels utterly superior to those around her ... while never letting these feelings on. And, does she go on and on about this ...

Paloma Josse is 12 years old and lives in one of the apartments in Mme. Michel's building. She is fed up with consumer culture and the intellectual emptiness of the world and vows to commit suicide and set the apartment building on fire on her 13th birthday. She also prattles on about her superiority ...

One of the tenants dies, and his apartment is purchased by Kakuro Ozu, a Franco-Japanese businessman. (Yes, something does happen in this book!) Kakuro sees through Renée's disguise fairly quickly, and befriends Paloma. Both are changed by the experience. There is a story-ish plot development at the end that left me feeling ripped off, but by this time I was extremely cranky. All I can say is that I never would have made it through if I'd been reading it to myself. Thank goodness for Barbara Rosenblat and Cassandra Morris!

They both read the pretentious prose very, very well. On the page, the characters just lie there, standing in for the author and her opinions about the shortcomings of pretty much everything but Leo Tolstoy and the films of Ozu Yasuhiro. But in Rosenblat's and Morris' experienced, capable hands, both Renée and Paloma become flesh and blood. The Odyssey Award-winning Rosenblat reads with a world-weary bitterness that is tempered by her enthusiasms and by the sheer joy Renée takes from being superior to all around her. When Kakuro comes into her life, Rosenblat sends Renée almost into a tizzy of unfamiliar feelings and optimism. She reads with a low, almost growling voice that adds to a listener's sensation of not quite liking her.

Morris is equally masterful. When I first started on Amazing Audiobooks, I loved her reading of Gabrielle Zevin's Elsewhere, but -- except for a beginning reader -- I haven't heard her read anything else. Morris has a very youthful voice and she interprets Paloma with a spot-on combination of innocence and cynicism. There's a young person wanting to see good things in the world hiding behind Paloma's shaky veneer of jaded intellect. Morris' reading has those tween inflections and pacing that make Paloma real. Her loss at the end of the novel is almost heartbreaking (except that I really didn't care).

And now that I've made a late-summer foray into "lit-ra-chure," let's get back to some good stories!

The Elegance of the Hedgehog [L'élégance du hérisson] by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson
Narrated by Cassandra Morris and Barbara Rosenblat
Highbridge Audio, 2009. 9:30 (unabridged)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

PDK-equipped

Every once in awhile, you set down the book you are reading and say "I would really like to meet that kid." (Hopefully, younger readers say that more often than adults.) After listening to Lenore Look's Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things, I think I'd enjoy meeting Alvin. Really, though, I'd like to meet Alvin's calm, patient and loving parents.

Alvin loves all kinds of explosions, he's very interested in the history (and the ghosts) of his home town of Concord, Massachusetts (very hard to spell, he tells us); he's friendly and outgoing. Until he goes to school. There, Alvin needs his PDK (personal disaster kit), because he just can't say a word once he steps inside his second-grade classroom. His parents send him to a psychotherapist (emphasis on the psycho), but he finds he can't talk to her either. In the short episodes that make up the novel, there's no resolution to Alvin's problem, but I felt so secure in knowing how loved Alvin is by his mom and dad.

There is so much to love here:

  • The neighborhood alpha boy, Pinky (not really a bully), tries to make a little money from a friend's case of chicken pox -- charging each kid for a little face time so that they can catch it too.
  • When Alvin brings his dad's beloved Johnny Astro toy to school for show-and-tell, and the disaster than ensues. Watch a grown man cry!
  • Alvin's dad loves to curse in Shakespeare and Alvin can do a pretty good imitation! "Grow unsightly warts, thou half-faced horn-beast!" he tells the psycho. Then Alvin and his dad have a heartwarming man-to-man chat about what it means to be a gentleman over ice cream.

An underage narrator, Everette Plen, reads Alvin Ho, and he does a fine job. He's youthful (obviously), but clearly knows a lot about reading aloud with expression without going overboard. He creates a few characters and performs them consistently. He recognizes Alvin's obvious intelligence as well as his sensitivity. Plen mines the humor, but doesn't insist on pointing it out (that's a skill that many adult readers don't have!). He even has the very challenging job of reading a glossary, and pulls it off.

The glossary includes pronunciation, so the poor kid says the glossary entry, says "pronounced" and then says it again. (Carl Yastrzemski. Pronounced "Ya-STREM-ski.") It wouldn't have hurt this audiobook to leave it off.

However, that's not a reason not to listen to this entirely engaging little book.

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look
Narrated by Everette Plen
Listening Library, 2009. 2:03 (unabridged)
[Note: This is the first book in the two-book Alvin Ho Collection. The second title is Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters.]

It's gonna blow!

I am schizophrenic about Tamora Pierce (whose name I always want to pronounce Ta-MORE-a): I admire her long career and the beloved place her fictional heroines hold in many young readers' hearts, but I really don't like her books very much. I've listened to three; Melting Stones makes the fourth. Despite my previous encounter with the character named Evvy, I was kind of looking forward to this novel, as it was written by Pierce to be read out loud -- the Full Cast Audio production was published a year before the print version (although I like the print cover better).

Evvy, a street urchin whose magic derives from rocks, has been undergoing training with her mentor, Rosethorn, at the school for mages known as The Winding Circle. Her past history of abandonment, war and abuse make it difficult for her to get along with the other students, so Rosethorn brings her along on a mission to the Battle Island of Starns to investigate the mysterious die-off of plants (Rosethorn being a plant mage). Evvy discovers that the island is a long-dormant volcano getting ready to explode and she works her own magic deep within the mountain to head off the disaster.

Full Cast Audio always uses music and sound effects to augment the novel's text, and here there is vaguely Asian-sounding music (loud gongs and that plink, plink, plink that instantly evokes an old-timey China) between chapters. The composer, Todd Hobin, has also created a soundscape that illustrates the rumblings and shakings of the baby volcano that is very effective (once I figured out that it wasn't ambient street noise seeping through my earphones!).

The large cast is led by the young (aged 14?) Grace Kelly who narrates the story in Evvy's first person. I really hated Kelly when I heard her read Street Magic three years ago -- I found her emotive screeching to be extremely annoying. So I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed her in this audiobook. Here, she handles the chief narrator duties with confidence; she expresses emotion naturally and moves the story along quickly. She does have that awful upstate New York short "a" which sounds more like "ehh," but so do a number of the other performers. (If you'll scroll down to Buffalo at this website, you can find out that -- I think -- this sound is a "tense short a." Who knew?) It's a quibble, and it ceased to bother me sooner than I had anticipated.

The other performers are fairly natural-sounding in their dialog, and the younger readers avoid the "adorable" label. I enjoyed the voices of Moe Harrington (playing the occasionally short-tempered Rosethorn), Tim Liebe (the hardworking Oswin), and Liam Fitzpatick (the lovelorn Jayatin). But, truth be told, most of them are unable to bring this story to life.

But I think this lifelessness lies in the story ... the story. So dull (way too much info about geology). So repetitive (Evvy's many trips to visit the nascent volcano spirits run all together in my head). So ridiculous -- a pet rock? Really? The voice actor playing this rock called Luvo, David Baker, adopts a booming, stolid delivery that must have been intended to sound rock-like, but really just brings the story to a dead halt. (Luvo is the Gumby-looking creature that Evvy is carrying on her hip on the cover of the audiobook.)

Can any of these faults be attributed to the novel's audio origins? I'm thinking not. I'm thinking that it's just Tamora Pierce and the fact that I really don't like her books. I think I'm consistent: I said the same thing here and here.

Melting Stones by Tamora Pierce
Narrated by Grace Kelly and a full cast
Full Cast Audio, 2007. 8:30 (unabridged)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Bang bang!

When I began listening for Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults in 2006 (but before I really knew how to "power listen"), I listened to a book by Marcus Sedgwick (The Dark Flight Down) that I remember liking so much that Sedgwick went on my I-want-to-read-another-book-by-him list. It's taken me 4-1/2 years to do so, with Revolver. I'm not sure it was worth the wait.

Sig Andersson lives with his father, Einar, and his sister and stepmother in remote Giron (68 latitude north) in Finland (?) above the Arctic Circle in 1910. Einar works for a nearby iron mine. Glancing through the cabin window one afternoon, Sig spots a smudge on the frozen lake and knows that his father is in trouble. After falling through a hole in the ice, Einar has frozen to death. Sig brings his body back to the house and his sister and stepmother head to the town for help. There's a loud knock on the cabin door, and a huge man forces his way in, demanding to see Einar. Upon seeing his body, this man -- Gunther Wolff -- demands that Sig turn over his father's gold; gold Wolff claims that Einar has stolen from him.

Sig knows nothing about the gold, but Wolff doesn't believe him, and sits down to wait for the return of Sig's sister and stepmother. The story builds tension from this point to Sig's showdown with Wolff, a showdown where Sig has to decide whether or not to use Einar's old Colt 44-40 (the Peacemaker) a gun he has regarded for the last 10 years of his life with a mix of fascination and horror.

Sig's ordeal is interspersed with flashbacks to the Alaskan Gold Rush -- Nome, 1899 -- when his mother was still alive and Einar was working in the assay office, analyzing the prospectors' gold. This is when Einar obtains the Colt; he waxes on about its beauty, encouraging four-year-old Sig to handle it much to the dismay of his mother.

Time shifts in audiobooks are always a bit tricky, since your ear doesn't often catch that clue (if there is a clue) to prepare you for the swap. In Revolver, it is pretty clear, although the 1910 sections also include flashbacks. What is more confusing is the author's inexplicable (to me) decision to label the three days during which the 1910 action of the novel takes place as Wash Day, Sun Day and Moon Day. Wash Day is explained in the first few pages (every Saturday the family ritual is to take baths), but what is with the Sun and the Moon? I was dissing the reader for his extremely awkward pronunciation of Sunday until I took a look at the book and realized that he was reading it correctly. This was before the time ticked over to Mo[o]nday, so I wonder if I would have eventually understood it solely by listening.

Additionally muddling to a listener is that the Nome chapters all have names (i.e., "The Frozen Sea"), while the Giron chapters are those Days, followed by a time of day (i.e., dusk). To sum up, the text presents some issues for a listener.

These barriers aside, I really didn't like the novel all that much. I'll admit to tuning in and out during the several sections where Einar touts the features of his revolver [yawn]. The suspense builds very effectively, but the ending seems sudden; [Spoiler?] I guess I don't buy that Sig remembers what his father shared with him about the gun, when I've been told throughout the novel that Sig never held it except for that single time. [Trying not to spoil it ... ] There's a postscript with a certain amount of moral ambiguity that needs resolution in my opinion.

To add insult, I'm not very impressed with the reader, Peter Berkrot. His reading is actor-y, all declamation and emoting. Sig notes that Wolff speaks with an unidentified accent, which comes and (mostly) goes in Berkrot's interpretation. Otherwise, the loud and terrorizing Wolff seems to be the character he is most comfortable with, as he lacks subtlety in his portrayal of Sig's grief and his fear of both Wolff and the revolver. His females are of the upper-register variety, and when Sig's mother cries that "Guns are evil. Evil, Einar." ... well, he reads this in a high-pitched scream with a lot of emphasis on the final 'l' that sounds like the woman is possessed.

Berkrot fares better with his pacing. He builds tension very well -- he speeds up his reading, but lingers in appropriate places in order to keep you listening. The novel is fairly short (3-1/2 hours), and -- while I had trouble getting started (what with time shifts and Sun Days) -- I sped through the last 75 minutes. The author had me enough off-balance at this point that I needed to know the outcome. Berkrot's reading helps to sustain that feeling.

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick
Narrated by Peter Berkrot
Brilliance Audio, 2010. 3:33 (unabridged)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Not that there's anything wrong with that

I'm coming out to you today. I have read trashy romance fiction. Mostly in the privacy of my own home (a metaphorical brown paper wrapper). Back in the 20th century, Diana Gabaldon's Outlander (which I wouldn't actually categorize as trashy romance) was recommended to me by a reader whose recommendations I take seriously. Then I read a few more of them , and stopped when I was about a quarter of the way into the 1,000-page one and realized that I didn't care about the love across time shared by Jamie and Claire.

But a few years later, I picked up an audiobook featuring a minor character in the Outlander series (a minor character that I only vaguely remembered), Lord John Grey. It was narrated by Jeff Woodman, and I recall enjoying it rather a lot. So when I found the second installment in Grey's career, Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade, I decided to give it my ears (and make my confession).

Lord John came on the scene as the jailer (gaoler) of Outlander hero Jamie Fraser when Jamie was captured after the Jacobites defeat at the Battle of Culloden (I visited the battlefield site when I was recently in Scotland.) He's the second son of a duke, and serves in the same military regiment as his elder brother. And he's gay. Not swishy, self-hating, or even one of those British schoolboy bisexuals. He is, however, not out. This might be a tad hazardous. He has declared his love for Jamie Fraser, but he has been rebuffed.

In this novel, Lord John is reminded that he knows that his father did not kill himself when he (Lord John) was 12 years old, but was murdered. Ostensibly, the novel is about his search for that murderer. But since this is a trashy romance, it really isn't about that (I swear I don't remember any mention of the murderer until he's revealed to be such, nor do I remember a description of the eponymous Brotherhood) -- it's about his love affair with his stepbrother and fellow officer, which all goes horribly wrong. There are a few good fictional rolls in the hay, discreetly yet lovingly described by the author. There's also a hilariously sexual description of Grey building a fire from the smoldering embers in a fireplace following one encounter. Now, we know these descriptions are really why we read trashy romances, but when you hear them read aloud ... well, it's not for the easily embarrassed.

And so I won't discuss it any further.

Jeff Woodman narrates this trash really well (which I think is what I liked so much about the first one); so well that you kind of want to keep listening. He reads Lord John as a languid, confident aristocrat -- cool even in the heat of passion or the heat of battle. That voice is almost like the mask that Lord John wears every day -- the mask that enables him to function in society. When he is crushed by rebuff or betrayal, the mask slips a little with a slight note of panic or loss. One of Woodman's great skills as a narrator is his ability to convey feeling and I really admire the way he uses his voice to tone down this over-the-top story. He gives the emotions a subtlety, indeed a reality, they really don't have in print.

Woodman does create different voices for many of the novel's characters, and they all sound like real people. He seems a little wavery when he tries a non-English accent -- notably Jamie's Scottish brogue and a one-armed Prussian -- but I give him marks for trying. The lengthy story moves along briskly under Woodman's confident command. Yes, there was probably something better I could have been listening to, but it didn't feel like time wasted.

Getting back to our theme about trashy romance, I think he and I need to read "up." When I look back in this blog to what else I've heard him read (Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side, The Hound of Rowan, An Abundance of Katherines, and The House of the Red Fish), I realize that none of it is really great literature (or even very interesting). We deserve better. There was, of course, his masterful performance in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but that was before my blog's time. My library has him reading Life of Pi ... I've been curious about that. I'm going to place a hold!

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade by Diana Gabaldon
Narrated by Jeff Woodman
Recorded Books, 2007. 15:45 (unabridged)

Friday, August 6, 2010

West End baby

As a fan of historical fiction and an old theatre baby, I wonder why it took me so long to find Julia Golding's Cat Royal series. Yes, it's another pre-teen detective, but Cat (short for Catherine) is solving age-appropriate crimes in 1790 London. A foundling left on the steps of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, she was offered shelter and sustenance by the owner/manager, Richard Sheridan. Sheridan, who is remembered today as a playwright, christened Cat in honor of his theatre. She has grown up amongst the actors, bon vivants and general scalawags of the 18th century theatrical profession (considered a racy one) and she writes her first adventure, The Diamond of Drury Lane, in the structure of a five-act play.

Cat overhears Mr. Sheridan discussing a precious diamond to be kept safe somewhere in the theatre, which -- because she is an inquisitive child -- she is determined to find. She blurts out her secret the very next day to her new friend, the African child prodigy (on the violin) Pedro. Cat can't really keep the story to herself, because next in on the search are a young titled brother and sister, the Earl of Arden and Lady Elizabeth. And then there's the mysterious man, Jonathan, who appears suddenly one day and becomes the theatre's prompter. It turns out that Jonathan is on the run from the law, as his anonymous political cartoons lambasting the government aren't so anonymous any more. There's also two rival gangs, lots of local color and "cant" (slang), a near hanging and a last-minute reprieve, and a general sense of fun.

Finty Williams (daughter of the great Dame Judi Dench) reads the novel. It's a pretty enjoyable performance. She's got a nice, youthful voice and reads the lengthy, fairly complex novel with good pacing. Cat's a bit of a spitfire (had she not been left on the theatre's doorstep, she would likely have ended up adventuring with Jacky Faber) and Williams brings that to her narrative. The book concludes with a Georgia Nicolson-like glossary of terms, which Williams reads with sass and freshness. (There's also a pretty fun take on this at the author's website.)

Williams doesn't do much voicing here, so occasionally it's difficult to track the story's dialog. And some of the characters she does voice seem odd: Pedro sounds so high and childlike that he sounds like he's about six years old. But these are minor distractions in what otherwise was a fun listen.

Both this and the Flavia de Luce book came to my ears via downloadables. I appreciate that they are available (and for that reason, I'll continue to listen to them), but I really prefer the sound of CDs.

The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding
Narrated by Finty Williams
BBC Audiobooks, 2008. 7:16 (unabridged)

The triumph of Flavia

I could have signed up for the Flavia de Luce fan club after reading her debut mystery: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Flavia is an old-for-her-11-years budding chemist, with a particular fondness for poison. Her two older sisters detest her (Flavia's preferred type of revenge is poison), her ineffectual father is more comfortable with his stamp collection than human interaction, and her closest friend is the family's gardener/handyman, Dogger, who has occasional spells of shell shock. It's 1950 in a small English town called Bishop's Lacey, and in the tradition of the mystery novel there are an extraordinary number of bodies lying about.

After I listened to The Hunchback Assignments last year, I realized that the book's narrator, Jayne Entwhistle, also narrates the Flavia novels. I enjoyed Entwhistle's reading voice and style and resolved to listen to Alan Bradley's next Flavia de Luce mystery: The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag.

Flavia, who gets around town on her trusty bicycle Gladys, meets smarmy children's puppeteer Rupert Porson and his assistant/lover Nialla (pronounced knee-ah) when their van breaks down in Bishop's Lacey. A local farmer -- whose five-year-old son hanged himself (this stretched belief for me) 10 years ago -- offers to help repair the van, and the vicar convinces Porson to put on a puppet show for the children while he waits. In a suitably macabre way, Porson is electrocuted as he performs the finale of "Jack and the Beanstalk" and Flavia is steps ahead of the local coppers in believing it murder rather than tragic accident. She's right, of course.

I like Flavia (who narrates her own adventures) but I've got to say that in listening to her, she grew tiresome. I don't think I can fault the narrator, I'm wondering if it's that Flavia's outsized personality and adventures are so utterly preposterous that hearing them read aloud gives them a sense of reality that they really can't stand up to. She's too precocious (she informed Nialla that she was pregnant!), too attuned to the emotions and motives of adults, too often in the right place at the right time. When I read the first novel to myself, I was charmed. Having it read to me, there were plenty of times when I just rolled my eyes and snorted. What could it be? I read very quickly; do I not give myself time to ponder, instead just let the story roll by unexamined?

Nevertheless, narrator Entwhistle is a pleasure to listen to. She has a slightly hoarse, but childlike speaking voice, and it even appears to contain a bit of a lisp. Her Flavia is smart, observant, funny, and every once in a while she betrays some childish longing for her dead mother (who left her infant daughter to scale a mountain) and for affection and support from her living family. But we can't, she tellingly explains, we're de Luces.

Entwhistle employs that English actor's skill of easily depicting class through accents, and here she has plenty of opportunity to show off: the vague Colonel de Luce, his pretentious and bossy sister, the clueless vicar, simple and straightforward Dogger, oily Rupert Porson, the devastated mother of the hanged boy, a breezy land girl, a German prisoner-of-war, a crazy bag lady, and Flavia's two self-centered sisters are all ably and interestingly portrayed.

I guess I'm a bit schizo about this series: I appreciate its humor and originality, but I can't keep myself from criticizing the fantasy of that originality. I've got a little while to decide whether to go on, goodness knows there are plenty of other books to read!

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag (A Flavia de Luce Mystery) by Alan Bradley.
Narrated by Jayne Entwhistle
Books on Tape, 2010. 9:50 (unabridged)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

So then what happened?

Lyra's Oxford was on the shelf at my neighborhood library, so I snapped it up for a quick listen as desired after completing Philip Pullman's epic. I read the book six years ago and remembered it mostly for its ephemera (a map, a postcard, what else?) so I wondered how it would be as an audiobook. I needn't have worried. It's in the capable hands of the author and many of the voice actors who performed His Dark Materials.

In listening, the story seemed pretty slight, which is interesting because when I went back to find my notes on reading it, I had found it suspenseful. Lyra and Pan rescue a witch's daemon from a flock of angry starlings and help it to find a reclusive alchemist. This turns out to be a bit of an error on Lyra's part, but I think the story -- along with the other novella -- is meant to be a moment in Lyra's post-dust adventures. Which I wish Mr. Pullman would work a teensy bit faster on instead of twitting Christian fundamentalists with his latest novel. (OK, I say that knowing nothing about that book.)

Lyra's Oxford doesn't have the cast of thousands of its predecessors, but the small group of readers live up to the standard they created while performing the trilogy, and I was struck again at how good a narrator Pullman is. His calm command of the story is really amazing. He maintains a appropriate neutrality, but doesn't hesitate to read emotionally when the story calls for it. I'd like to hear him read something else, but the truth of the matter is that I have no interest in the aforementioned novel.

I'm torn: I frequently opine that audiobooks help me (and others) to reach beyond our literary comfort levels, so maybe I'm going to have to practice what I preach. On the other hand: There's too much in the To-Be-Listened-To pile already. Fortunately, the debate's moot at this point: It's not available to me in either CD or downloadable form.

Lyra's Oxford by Philip Pullman
Read by the author and a full cast
Listening Library, 2003. 0:48 (unabridged)

Hitchhiking

Sometimes you just want to read everything an author has produced. How sad, then, that Siobhan Dowd's four novels are all we will get from her. (Although the website devoted to the Trust she set up before her untimely death tells us that the great Patrick Ness will be writing a novel inspired by some notes. And speaking of Ness, his Chaos Walking trilogy is just crying out for an audio version. [Update 8/17/10: Brilliance Audio is publishing all three next month!]) Solace of the Road makes me a Dowd completist. And that makes me sad. Her work is so honest and the teen voice is so real and compelling that it just seems wrong that there will be no more.

Solace is Holly Hogan. Holly is 17 and has spent a decade in England's foster care system, mostly in a group home for the more incorrigible teenagers. She is placed with a childless couple for whom she feels mostly contempt -- in part because they seem to trust her so much. Snooping one day, she finds the blond wig that her foster mother wore during chemo, and putting it on, Holly transforms into Solace -- beautiful, confident, needing no one. When she's Solace, she can make that long-anticipated trip to Ireland, where her bar-dancing mother waits for her. So, she steals the wig, some money and hits the road.

The novel is structured quite cleverly. At the beginning, Solace has succeeded in sneaking aboard a car ferry from Wales to Ireland, and she tells us the story of how she got there -- periodically bringing us back to the present. There are a few heartstopping moments (unsurprising when you realize that this a story of a hitchhiking teenage girl), but a number of heartwarming ones as well, as Solace takes comfort from a number of strangers along her journey. As readers, we know there's a lot that Solace/Holly isn't acknowledging about her life, so the unwinding of her story requires patience as it almost feels like we are traveling with her in real time.

An Irish reader named Sile (pronounced Sheila) Bermingham narrates the story. She's got a lovely voice and knows how to pace this somewhat leisurely novel. I particularly enjoyed how she moves from Holly to Solace and back again. Holly reappears when Solace removes (or loses) the wig, and Bermingham's voice changes from hard and alluring to a tentative, more childlike demeanor when this happens. My post-Odyssey ears took a moment to relax when I heard Holly refer to her South London accent, because I heard more of an Irish lilt, but then I remembered that this really doesn't matter to a casual listener.

Solace meets a number of interesting people on her journey and Bermingham creates some nice characters. Most memorable (since it's been about three weeks since I finished this) was the creepy guy she picks up at the bar and the vegan truck driver. It's a very good interpretion. More than two years ago, I heard Bermingham read Runemarks and I enjoyed that performance as well.

This audiobook was the last of my "personal" collection, amassed over four years of committee-based, publisher-supported listening. Everything is now in the library's donation crate: for educators and summer readers. We had a teacher training yesterday, where a whole lot of the audiobooks were given away. As I unpacked them, it was fun to revisit some old friends: Life As We Knew It, Lamplighter, The Night Tourist, Thirteen Reasons Why. I must stop.

Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd
Narrated by Sile Bermingham
Listening Library, 2009. 7:05 (unabridged)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Straight and gay

When I listened to Will Grayson, Will Grayson -- John Green and David Levithan's two-hander (as they say in the theatre -- which is OK to quote in this context) -- I was completely sure of which narrator played which Will Grayson. And, well ... 25 days later, I can't remember. How humiliating! How middle-aged!

Green's Will Grayson is a currently ostracized suburban Chicago high-school junior. He's straight, but has lost his popularity because he signed a letter supporting his very gay, very large, best friend Tiny Cooper. Tiny's seemingly so confident in his gayness that he's out and plays football. This Will aims to get through life with few emotional entanglements, but Tiny's enthusiasms keep him out there despite himself.

Levithan's Will Grayson (who shall now be identified as lower-case will grayson because evidently in the book his sections don't have capital letters ... or punctuation?) lives a few suburbs away. He's gay, but isn't out at school. He's got an online crush named Isaac, though, and when will makes arrangements to meet Isaac at a porn shop in downtown Chicago the two W(w)ills meet. When -- subsequently -- will meets Tiny, he falls hard.

The bulk of the novel revolves around the two W(w)ills' and their reluctant involvement with Tiny's production of his autobiographical musicial, "Tiny Dancer," where he plays himself. One of the true pleasures of the audiobook is that the voice actors take this instruction seriously, and whole musical numbers are sung.

The readers are MacLeod Andrews and Nick Podehl (heard frequently, but most memorably here and here). I think that Podehl is straight Will and Andrews gay will, but they are very coy during the credits on the recording. Ultimately though, it doesn't matter because both are just terrific. They sound like teenage boys, there's a lot of humor and sadness (even depression) that comes through their reading, and they do a very good job of picking up the character of the other W(w)ill when he speaks in their own narration. Each voices Tiny in a ... shall we say, BIG way, but not swishy. I love the fact that they sing, and I'm even vaguely remembering that the credits included a shout-out to Andrews (forgive me if I'm wrong) for the music. I really enjoyed this.

Up until the end (and that's the book's fault, not the audiobook). The finale (which was indeed the finale of Tiny's musical) just turned the corner into what felt like many minutes of self-esteem-building. Despite this, I think this is my favorite of the three John Green novels I've listened to (find them here and here). I've not listened to a David Levithan book (although I've got one on that every-growing TBLt [to be listened to] list).

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
Narrated by MacLeod Andrews and Nick Podehl
Brilliance Audio, 2010. 7:57 (unabridged)

Procrastination

Well, my only excuse is that I took another vacation! I wanted to put on next year's IPP (Individual Performance Plan -- that horror that one's human resources department insists one complete every year) that I planned to take all of my earned vacation days. I mean, I've taken over five weeks in 2010, and I still have 12 days left!

But I digress ... because I'm so ashamed that it's been almost four weeks since I've posted. I'm backed up five audiobooks! But before I start my penance -- in other words, posting -- here are two links of interest.

Abby the Librarian has posted AudioSynced for this month.

And School Library Journal has an article -- to which I contributed [cough, cough] -- featuring lists of great audiobooks for middle- and high-schoolers.

And now on to John Green.