Thursday, October 28, 2010

If you believe ... clap your hands

In between the 9- to 12-hour audiobooks (around 350 pages), it's always nice to sit back and listen from start to finish in about two hours (100 pages). So, Laura Amy Schlitz's The Night Fairy was a pleasant weekend diversion (since I pretty much am stuck at home on the weekends until I hopefully get my walking cast [woot!] on Monday!). I've enjoyed two other books by this Newbery-winning author, so I was prepared for this to be a treat as well.

This is the story of Flory, a fairy born at night, whose wings are unexpectedly chomped off by a bat. Tumbling from the sky into a cherry tree in a "giantess's" backyard, Flory is determined to make a go of it as a pedestrian day fairy. She finds shelter and hires a squirrel named Skuggle to be her chauffeur (this I can fully relate to these days) to get around. Upon spying a hummingbird, Flory decides that flying on the bird's back is really the way she'd rather navigate her world, but she discovers that hummingbirds aren't particularly interested in this job. On one adventurous night, though, Flory calls upon all her courage and abilities to rescue a hummingbird and her eggs and in the process learns how to be a good friend.

I really did not find this book to be quite as message-y as that sounds. Flory isn't a particularly appealing character once you get to know her: She's bossy, entitled, and has some unresolved fear and anger issues around the bat who de-winged her (just kidding!). She's also clever and resourceful and I suppose what she really learns by the end of this book is compassion -- that her cleverness can be put to good use to help others. I like that Schlitz creates a world of fairies that aren't particularly empathetic. (In this way, her fairies remind me of J.M. Barrie's Tinkerbell [omg ... impossible to find a non-Disney-themed link!] -- not a very nice fairy at all.) It's their world and all other creatures just live in it. The wingless Flory needs to learn another way in order to survive, which -- of course -- makes her a better fairy. Not a bad message and subtly delivered.

As I began listening, my ears were prepared for the narrator, Michael Friedman. A woman began speaking ... and continued to speak. As I picked up the case to double-check -- was I mistaking the illustrator's name, Angela Barrett (featured on the audiobook cover), for the narrator's? Oh ... Friedman is one of those she-Michaels! Because of these mental processes, I had to go back and re-start the audiobook from the beginning. Fortunately, it was only a minute or two. ;-)

Friedman sounds appropriately youthful, as well as plucky and bossy both in telling Flory's story and as Flory herself. She is very good at creating the other characters that appear in the novel (there aren't very many): squirrel, hummingbird and bat all have different voices that sound natural (well, as natural as a anthropomorphized hummingbird can sound) and consistently in character. My only complaint is that while she has a pleasant reading voice and a confiding narrative style, Friedman reads the whole book too slowly. It is almost at a beginning reader pace, as if she wants a young reader to follow along. This book seems almost perfect as a read-aloud to children, so I want to hear it read at a "normal" reader's pace.

This aside, it's nice to see Recorded Books branching out with some new narrators. The company tends to rely on its established stable (not all of whom I am fond), so this is a great step.

The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz
Narrated by Michael Friedman
Recorded Books, 2010. 2 hours (unabridged)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Windmills of your mind

I'm not a big nonfiction reader (although I have enjoyed a number of nonfiction titles on audio), and I'm really not a fan of inspirational true stories -- where people overcome obstacles, tragedy, whatever ... and provide insight on their journey for the rest of us. Truthfully, I'm fairly cynical about their need to share these insights (Hey! Would you turn down that book contract that lets you travel to Italy?).

So for me to listen to The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by young William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer is a real stretch. I read it because a colleague recommended it for a booklist, and -- after a few bad experiences -- I try to not put books I haven't read on a booklist. When I learned that this was on audio, at least I knew that someone else could read it for me. So I downloaded it for a listen.

William Kamkwamba was born in 1987 in a small village in Malawi. He attended a small village school up until the 8th grade when famine struck the country and his father could barely afford to feed his family of seven children, much less pay his school fees. William enjoyed and appreciated school and was deeply disappointed not to be able to continue. He began visiting the small town library and found an old textbook, Using Energy (published in 1993 by my old employer, McGraw-Hill), that had windmills on the cover. All William really wanted was a light in his room at night and the ability to play his radio. He built the windmill from spare parts scavenged from around his village, although -- if I'm remembering correctly -- it was his best friend who gave him the cash to buy a critical component.

Once the windmill was built, William became a minor celebrity (although there were some who felt he was practicing witchcraft) and he used the electricity to charge the cell phones of his friends and neighbors. He kept tinkering -- hopeful of using the windmill's power to irrigate his father's farmland so the family would not face famine again. Slowly, word of William's accomplishments came out. He was invited to participate in an international conference sponsored by TED (a nonprofit "devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading") -- where (in a charming description in his book) he was introduced to the Internet. And since that TED conference in 2007, William took a trip to several cities in the U.S. (including Las Vegas where he was served a drink by "a lady in her underwear") completed his secondary education, wrote this book, and this fall he began studying for an engineering degree at Dartmouth College. I'm not "inspired" by William's story, but I am touched by his sense of humor, his optimism and his belief in himself.

The narrator is Chiké Johnson (this must be him, yes?). He reads William's first-person narration in "African"-accented English (whether this is how people from Malawi speak English I have no idea), that brims with William's youthful enthusiasm and hopefulness. His voice has a slightly high pitch that grows higher (not uncomfortably) with William's excitement at what he accomplishes. And when William is telling us the story of the 2001 famine and how his family and community suffered, Johnson grows quiet and subdued. It is a performance with multiple levels of honest emotion, one that is just right for this young man's story.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
Narrated by Chiké Johnson
Harper Audio, 2009. 10:04 (unabridged)

Monday, October 25, 2010

10252010

I've failed miserably to come up with a pithy opening for this post about the book Numbers by Rachel Ward. So, I shall just get on with it, shall I? The US cover of this book exchanges the letter 'b' with the numeral '8' which doesn't really work for me -- in the 21st century world of texting, wouldn't it be "num-aters?" I like the image on the cover, though. It's more sci fi than the original British cover (see below) I think.

Numbers is the story of Jem, a 15-year-old orphan/foster kid who maintains a spiky distance from people. Jem has a disturbing gift/condition which she keeps from everyone: When she makes eye contact, an eight-digit number (like the one in my post title) enters Jem's head. (Here's a video that demonstrates this.) This number -- Jem realizes upon discovering her drug-addicted mother's dead body -- is the date of that person's death. Jem is understandably reluctant to grow close to people, as she might be persuaded to share what she knows about them.

Enter Spider. Spider is a classmate (and fellow orphan) and he teasingly pokes and prods at Jem to become friends, and she finds herself drawn to him despite herself. One day, the two head to the London Eye [this image courtesy of Kevinwildish at en.wikipedia] for some fun, although Spider makes a bit of a scene when he realizes how much it costs to ride. Jem gets even more upset when she realizes that all the people there have the same death date -- that very day. Panicked, she and Spider flee the Eye moments before one of the pods blows up. Their fugitive-like behavior is noted by observers, and soon the two of them are escaping in a stolen car, headed out to the countryside (where neither has ever been) in a futile attempt to elude the police.

Despite herself, Jem falls for Spider and tells him what she sees in people's eyes. What she doesn't tell him, though, is his death date -- just a few days from now.

The narrator is Sarah Coomes, and she is quite wonderful. She voices Jem with a working-class London accent (most notably substituting the 'th' sound with an 'f'). Jem is a lonely and vulnerable person who hides her sadness behind a tough exterior, and Coomes portrays this skillfully. Jem's first-person narration and interior moments are nicely contrasted with her edgy, prickly dialogue with Spider and the other people she encounters. Coomes does a brilliantly hilarious fury when Jem reluctantly finds herself camping in the actual outdoors (although I probably enjoyed thist more than it merited, since I'm not a camping fan either).

Coomes memorably voices a number of other characters, including two tight-arsed upper-class countrywomen, and two contrasting priests who offer Jem sanctuary in Bath Abbey. Spider's grandmother and Jem's foster mum are two other instances of this actress's ability to delineate characters with a few, authentic vocal mannerisms.

I think I appreciate this novel mostly for the character of Jem. It's hard to like her at first, but her growth in the story -- through an epilogue five years later -- seems so truthful that it's a pleasure to journey with her (sad though her journey is). Evidently it's a trilogy, but I don't want to spoil this story with what the second one is about.

Numbers by Rachel Ward
Narrated by Sarah Coomes
Brilliance Audio, 2009. 9:02 (unabridged)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Keep on keeping on

The irony of listening to this book while on a morning walk and then falling and breaking my ankle is not lost on me. I picked up Stephen King's (writing as Richard Bachman) The Long Walk sometime after taking my own long walk through Scotland this summer. I have never read anything by Stephen King (not a fan of horror), and this book seemed to be as far from horror as can be.

Boy, was I wrong! This book haunted me while I was listening, and continues to haunt me more than 10 days after finishing. I think it's both its plausibility and the story's implacability -- no explanation is offered for the American society that created the Walk and only the barest hints are provided about how people feel about it. I would turn on my mp3 player with dread, but then I couldn't turn it off. This reality is so much more horrifying than that involving things that go bump in the night.

The Long Walk is an annual competition open to 100 qualifying young men -- older teenagers. They start out at a northern point in the state of Maine and walk south. They must maintain a speed of four miles per hour. If they slow down or stop, they are given a warning by the military men who are tracking the walkers in vehicles. The walkers get three warnings per hour; the fourth is an assassination. The winner is the only young man left alive ... at whatever point the second-to-the-last competitor is killed. The winner gets whatever he wants for the rest of his life. It seems likely that that life won't be a long one as the winner probably descends into some kind of mental psychosis as he witnesses the killing of 99 peers.

The Long Walk is solely about this walk. The protagonist is Ray Garraty, "Maine's own" competitor. We learn that his father was taken away by the military a few years earlier for objecting to the Walk. We meet many of the other walkers, including Peter McVries, with whom Ray forms a kind of bond. Over the course of the novel's four (?) days, we learn a little bit about these young men, but it's all in terms of their physical and emotional suffering. The horror of their situation is unrelenting. The ending of the novel is not cathartic in any way. Is this some existential metaphor for life? I'm getting quivery insides just writing about it.

The book was published in 1979, under King's pseudonym, Richard Bachman. The audiobook begins with a somewhat lengthy explanation of why King created Bachman, which -- since I have no King experience -- was extraneous for me. I wonder if it might prove a barrier to a listener since it takes a good 10-15 minutes to get to the actual story. Kirby Heyborne narrates both the introduction and the novel itself. His soft voice and somewhat stoic reading affect are just about perfect for Ray's story. Ray doesn't get angry, he keeps his pain to himself, he connects with the other boys on the journey despite his need to remember that they will all be dead.

At one point in the novel, Ray's girlfriend and mother are supposed to be waiting for him by the side of the road. He struggles with whether they'll be there, whether they'll be able to speak to him, what their brief encounter will be like. For the listener (and for Ray), it is -- of course -- heart-wrenching. Heyborne ups his emotional ante with this section. Since Ray has maintained his calm up to this point, when his anxiety and distress emerge here, it's wrecking. I think at this point, I had to turn it off and take some deep breaths.

Heyborne is not my favorite narrator, although I have heard him fairly often (here, here, here, and here [hey, I used Audiobook Jukebox to find those links!]). This book seems to suit him the best, his reading style captures this book's emotional intensity in a contradictory way: By maintaining Ray's stoicism through Heyborne's soft and fairly lulling voice, the book becomes bearable.

For a much needed break for humor, here is the cover of the original (?) version of this novel, courtesy of King's website. Gotta love that cheesy 1970s graphic design. Here's a link to the book's many different covers.

I'm never reading another Stephen King novel. Never. Because of course, if I'd broken my ankle on the Long Walk, I'd be dead.

The Long Walk by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)
Narrated by Kirby Heyborne
Penguin Audio, 2010. 10:46 (unabridged)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

More audiobooks than you can (probably) listen to in a lifetime

My listening has been a bit of a slog lately ... hopefully I will get to posting today or tomorrow. I broke my ankle last week while out of town and am at a bit of sixes and sevens.

But I wanted to point out the heroic efforts of Audiobook DJ and Beth Fish, who have created Audiobook Jukebox. A site for all of us who listen and are freaks for alphabetical order! At this site you can look up a favorite narrator and then link to the blog reviews of all their audiobooks. (You can also search by title and author ... so ho hum!) Yes! Dion Graham has his own entry! Slowly, I've been entering all 364 reviews that have appeared on this blog (even the ones from 2007 when I really didn't know what I was doing ... just warning you). Go check it out!

I found out about Audiobook Jukebox from the women who sponsor Audiosynced each month. They always kindly link to my stuff, as well as other audiobook blog reviews. Be sure to check out their September round up, hosted by Abby (the) Librarian.