Friday, January 21, 2011

The road not taken

It's Everybody Reads time at my library. I don't think I've really enjoyed any of the books selected in nine years, and I've got my ideas about why, but I'll keep those to myself (see my note under About Me). This year's selection is The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore.

Wes Moore, the author, is a young black man whose adolescent identity-seeking behavior might have sent him down a path to drug use and possible criminality, but his mother and her extended family kept a close eye on him and shipped him off to military school for some much-needed discipline and adult male attention. Moore went on to an illustrious educational career, served in Afghanistan, and is a successful businessman. The other Wes Moore is a young black man serving a life sentence in a Maryland jail for participating in an armed robbery where an off-duty cop was murdered.

Wes Moore, the author, heard about the other Wes Moore and was curious enough about their similarities to reach out to him to learn his story. He shares that Wes's story of absent fathers, poor schools, easy drug money, and adult responsibilities without adult coping skills in chapters that alternate with the story of his own youth. Inmate Wes Moore's story is like the excellent television series, The Wire, come to all-too-vivid reality.

I think I didn't like this much because I listened to the author read it. And, well ... he comes across a little too falsely modest about his accomplishments. In much of the audiobook, he sounds like a motivational speaker, and my tolerance of that stuff is zero. Perhaps it is the somewhat leaden prose -- which is so much easier to spot when you hear it than when you read it, I think -- that gives me trouble too: The story is fairly cliché-ridden, and Moore clearly had a thesaurus nearby while he was writing. He also examined their connected lives in the most superficial way. I would have preferred more jailhouse conversations and less detail about life at Valley Forge Military Academy (mostly memorable to me from the ubiquitous ads in the New York Times print magazine promising to make a man out of your problem child).

Moore, the author, reads quickly and mostly neutrally. Occasionally, he'll burst out with Jamaican rhythm or a clicking Xhosa word, and he sounds good. He seems most comfortable when delivering the military bellow. There was just the faintest hint of Bawl'more in his speech where appropriate (that's how the white folks talk, mostly), and when he is reading the other Wes Moore's dialog, he definitely sounds like one of those crooks on The Wire. "Feel me?"

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
Narrated by the author
Books on Tape, 2010. 6:12

Vanished in the mist

The Prince of Mist is a little bit of supernatural horror. A piece of juvenalia (I'm using this term incorrectly, as this book was not written during the author's youth, but is written for youth) from an author who has become known for his work for adults, Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Evidently, this was his first published work. I'm can't seem to find much to say about it -- I listened to it quickly and its details have vanished from my brain.

It is 1943 and war is raging in Europe. A watchmaker seeks to protect his family and buys an abandoned seaside home in which they will wait out the conflict. His three children are each deeply affected by the move: his youngest daughter hears voices, falls down the stairs and goes into a deep coma, his son finds an overgrown garden behind the house populated by statues of circus performers that seem to be able to relocate themselves and change poses, and his older daughter is haunted by strange dreams. Max and Alicia (the older daughter) befriend a local boy, who takes them snorkeling around a shipwreck. Yes, something evil is hanging about the house and the ship ... a Dr. Cain, otherwise known as the Prince of Mist. Dr. Cain is in the position of fulfilling dreams, but he does so at a terrible cost. Long ago, someone tried to renege on what he owed; the doctor is patiently waiting to collect.

I didn't like this much. The war (never explicitly identified, but the date can lead you to only one conclusion: World War II) seems superfluous to the story. The trains run on time, there's plenty of gasoline and other essentials, not one character in the novel seems affected by the war. (I take that back: Max and Alicia's new friend Roland mentions that he will soon be drafted.) Perhaps the author is comparing the evil of Dr. Cain to the evil of war, of Nazism? He's not describing that evil, though ... is this a leap he expects the reader to make? There's nothing wrong with that, I guess -- but that seems like a big topic for a short horror novel. If the setting is important, then the characters sound off. The teens don't sound like teenagers from the 1940s, their dialog seems very modern. The Faustian bargain that is originally struck with Dr. Cain seems one of interest to adults, not teenagers. The whole thing seemed very belabored to me, almost like it didn't come easily to the author.

Were I susceptible to horror, I might have had a soupçon of anxiety about when and where the Prince would show up, once his story was completely told, but the audiobook production just made me giggle. It is full of sound effects and "eerie" music that telegraphs every creaky plot turn in the novel. Even once I knew the sound effects were coming, they'd be so oddly interjected into the story that I'd often try to figure out what was making such a noise around me (outside my earphones). The music would occasionally overwhelm the reader's voice, plus it was so obviously "atmospheric" that I wondered if the producers were being ironic in some way. After all, shouldn't the writing stand on its own here? Don't Ruiz Zafón's descriptions and word-painting provide all the atmosphere we need?

We learn at the beginning of the audiobook that the author himself wrote the brief piece of piano music that is played at the very beginning and end of the story. (This music is not the music that underlies [or overwhelms] the reading.) It's ... nice, I guess. It's interesting that he's a composer as well as a writer. Ruiz Zafón is also "interviewed" (someone reads a question, which he answers -- it's clear they are not in the same room together) at the end of the audiobook. He explains that this was the book he wrote when he decided to become a full-time author, and that the story been percolating for a long time.

The narrator is Jonathan Davis, heard before by me here. Just a few days after finishing, I really can't remember much about his performance, good or bad -- it must have been professional and well-done, but the music and sound effects clearly took up most of my ear space!

Or quite possibly, it is simply not my cup of tea and I've forgotten it.

The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves
Narrated by Jonathan Davis
Hachette Audio, 2010. 5:06

Thursday, January 20, 2011

April, come she will

I'm not sure why I started reading Benjamin Black's mystery series (and I would call them more atmospheric than mysterious) featuring the alcoholic medical examiner Quirke. Must have been a review. I like them, mostly for the rainy days and smoky nights and what seems like a dead-on description of the stultified Catholic backwater that was Dublin in the 1950s. Elegy for April is the third Quirke mystery, and while I must read in order, I'm not sure it's utterly necessary. I selected this for listening solely because of the narrator, Timothy Dalton. He does not disappoint.

Quirke (first name so ridiculous that he never shares it ... shades of Morse) has been in a clinic drying out and so he doesn't know about the group of friends his daughter Phoebe has taken up with recently, until she asks him to look into the disappearance of one of them, a young doctor in training April Latimer. Quirke enlists the help of his copper friend, Inspector Hackett, and they begin poking around. After finding a bit of blood in April's otherwise pristine bedroom, they approach her estranged family. The Latimers, a family with political and religious power, appear to not care what has happened to April and strongly discourage Quirke from pursuing his inquiries.

Most readers will probably figure out April's fate (or have a pretty good idea) once that blood is analyzed. The pleasure here is in the setting. Black gives us frigid, rainy nights where you don't bother to put a shilling in for the fire since you'll never get warm, fog so thick you can't see where you're driving, the fug of cigarette smoke and stale beer in the local pub, squeaky linoleum floors and chilly steel dissection tables at the morgue. You get the picture, literally. The writing is so evocative that you grow as familiar with Dublin as the novel's characters.

Quirke is an interesting character whose attractions keep me reading. He's deeply troubled (it doesn't take him very long to fall off the wagon), but in this novel he barely uses his scalpel. There's a lot of humor here (mostly about Quirke buying an expensive car that he doesn't know how to drive), and Black leaves you in no doubt how he feels about the Catholic power system and its stranglehold on all aspects of life in Ireland. In that vein, good rarely triumphs. These mysteries are not for those who like their solutions neatly tied up at the end.

I confess that Timothy Dalton was my first James Bond (I know, I know), so I don't know if I became enamored of him or Bond. Either way, I was looking forward to listening to him read. He's got a deep, resonant voice that he uses to give the story an epic feel. He gives what I'll call a bard-like reading, rather than an actor's one. It's not a flashy narration -- characters aren't voiced, the volume and pace remain steady. There's hardly an Irish brogue to be heard. Certainly, we hear emotion in his delivery, but it's not of the scenery-chewing variety. Dalton is content to let the words speak for themselves. It's definitely a different kind of listening, but I liked it. (It was a particularly welcome change from the screeching mayhem that preceded it.)

The audiobook begins and ends with a musical interlude that can in no way be described as elegiac. I'm recalling it as perky, and perhaps even somewhat martial. I know nothing about audiobook production, but it seems that using an elegy might be appropriate for a book called Elegy for April.

Elegy for April by Benjamin Black
Narrated by Timothy Dalton
BBC Audiobooks America (the audiobook's intro says Macmillan Audio), 2010. 8:29

Pyramid scheme

I began my school visits last week, after a three-month hiatus (not able to drive with broken ankle). It's clear I lost my immunity in those three months, because it didn't take me three days to catch a cold from one of those little rascals. So, I'm cranky.

I'm also not one of Rick Riordan's most ardent fans on my good days. The Red Pyramid has promise as an audiobook: We are told at the beginning that the brother and sister, Carter and Sadie Kane, are telling their story via a tape recording. In this first installment of The Kane Chronicles, Carter and Sadie -- who have been raised apart since the death of their mother -- are reunited by their Egyptologist father. He takes them to the British Museum after hours and performs some mumbo-jumbo at the Rosetta Stone. The Stone explodes, imprisoned gods are freed, Dr. Kane is entombed in a coffin and disappears. Carter and Sadie are swept up by their uncle to safety.

Except, of course, they really aren't safe. They soon discover that they are the most powerful magicians in the House of Life (these are the humans who facilitated communication between the Egyptians and their gods, I think) and only they can defeat the evil god Set (what an old-fashioned framed site that is [even though I like it] ... you have to find "Seth" in the list of articles in the left frame) who is bent on ... wait for it, yes! world domination. Thus begins a wild ride of Egyptian mythology, weird creatures, sibling banter and battles to the death. For 14-1/2 hours.

I recognize Rick Riordan's appeal to young readers, but this felt very bloated and formulaic to me. The scenes of escape and battle were interspersed with those explaining what mythology and/or god we needed to know about in order to understand what happened next. All too soon, I didn't care very much about any of it, and it just became an endurance test to the finish. (Alas, I can't even remember if Carter and Sadie rescue their father, or if he remains entombed.)

In a 21st century touch, Carter and Sadie are mixed-race; Carter closely resembles his African American father, while Sadie favors her white English mother. Carter is reserved and lacks confidence in himself, while Sadie is bossy and barrels into situations without thinking. They bicker a lot. The book's audio conceit is that they are constantly arguing about who has control of the recording, but this is not evident as each takes his or her turn; we are just told they are arguing. The siblings alternate chapters, but more often they are simply offering their version of events, not debating who is telling it correctly. Eventually, they separate and the individual narratives bring us up to date on the novel's events.

Two narrators tell the story: Kevin R. Free is Carter and Katherine Kellgren is Sadie. Kellgren frequently shows up here, but this is the first time I've heard Free. He does a fine job with Carter's voice -- a little naive and insecure, then enthusiastic and even aggressive once Carter hits his stride. He's less successful with other characters -- most notably with Sadie (because she's constantly present in the narrative). He just sounds so uncomfortable speaking with her English accent. There are other characters with accents that he's also inconsistent with (and I can't remember any of them). While listening, I got the feeling that Katherine Kellgren just kept voicing characters with accents left and right, and poor Kevin just couldn't keep up. It's not that he's not as talented as she is, it's more that his talents don't lie in reading books with multiple characters.

Kellgren's performance is up to her usual standard, but ultimately Sadie began to weary me. I'm not sure that this is the character or the performance, but the shouting, smugness and her general superiority was not pleasing to listen to. In the end, I felt less invested in her character than in Carter's.

I'm sure they were doing a straight reading of the novel -- in other words, when Sadie says "No, it's my turn to tell" [paraphrasing], there isn't an interruption from Carter along the lines of "you're telling it wrong" that isn't included in the audiobook. I think that's the feeling that the book is trying to convey, but this doesn't come across in the audiobook. Their conflict feels pretty fake in truth. It seems like a good idea, but the execution failed.

The Red Pyramid (Book 1 of The Kane Chronicles) by Rick Riordan
Narrated by Kevin R. Free and Katherine Kellgren
Brilliance Audio, 2010. 14:32

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What a card!

Considering all the non-reading chatter I've indulged in here since the beginning of the New Year, I've actually listened to four books so far. So, some of the details are going to be a little murky, I fear. Louis Sachar's The Cardturner: A Novel About a King, a Queen, and a Joker made me want to seek out a bridge game. (I learned how to play bridge in college, but only in the most rudimentary way ... I now know, from reading this book.) Sachar says that he wrote the book in order to encourage more young people to take up the game. I'd be most curious to hear if that worked.

Alton Richards is having one of those ennui-filled summers where he can barely get himself out of bed. The fact that his girlfriend started dating his best friend may have something to do with this as well. His mother forces him to become his blind great-uncle Lester's driver and cardturner for his bridge tournaments. A cardturner reveals a player's hand (to the player), and subsequently bids and plays the hand as instructed. Mom is hoping that this relationship with Alton's "favorite uncle" will pay off once the wealthy old man dies. Uncle Lester is a crabby old man -- blind from diabetes -- with little tolerance for Alton's ignorance, but -- in spite of himself -- Alton grows interested in the game and how it is played. He also meets Lester's former cardturner, his grand niece from the other side of his family, who was fired for asking Lester "are you sure?" (you want to play that card) during one game.

Sachar writes about hands and games and tournaments in excruciating detail, but he also provides a handy abridged version that follows the lengthy explanation. In the book, these technical discussions are preceded by an image of a whale, so the reader can know she can skip this part. This is an homage to Moby Dick, a book Alton was assigned to read but failed because he got bogged down in its too many details about whaling. (Could that be the book under which Alton is sleeping on the cover?) In the audiobook, the whale image is replaced with a two-note foghorn, which made me smile every time I heard it. (Of course, there was really no way for me to skip these ... since I couldn't know how many minutes to fast forward. So, I admit, I occasionally tuned out the details.)

Alton is sarcastic and funny, and kind of bewildered by his growing interest in the game. He observes his grasping family with a suitably jaundiced eye, and the (mostly) elderly players with a polite incredulity at their obsession. He falls for Toni, the former cardturner, and he's suitably goofy and insecure about this. As for the bridge, I enjoyed the peek inside the game -- both the method of play and each rubber's outcome. The plot takes a bit of a mystical turn near the end, which strained my appreciation a bit, but mostly I liked it.

The author reads his book. He's all wrong. He's way too old and weary in voice for Alton (the narrator), but perfect for Lester and his bridge-playing companions. Yet, his narration works for me. Yes, his voice sounds too mature (and tired), but Alton's a little world-weary and battered (for 17) himself, and both he and his creator share a sense of humor and cynicism that comes right out in Sachar's narration. I was engaged and entertained by the story, and loved its characters and its humor.

The novel concludes with an afterword by Syd Fox (whoever he may be ... oh wait, joke! Syd Fox is a fictional bridge expert [which I learned here] ... ha, very ha!) that thoroughly analyzes some of the hands described and played in the novel. This was a real yawner (although now I'm mildly amused to learn he's a fake), even though the audiobook promised a PDF of the hands ... should you care to place the disc into a computer to look at them. I downloaded this book, which possibly means that my computer (at one point) held a copy of that PDF, but I don't think so. I think the publisher could have skipped the whole thing.

As for the appeal of bridge for young readers, who knows? More than half of our copies are currently checked out. I hope they are enjoying it as much as I do. Frank Cottrell Boyce reviewed it here last summer for the Brits, and I just love what he says about Sachar: "The book feels like one long, deadpan dare, as though Sachar has made a bet with himself that he can make the most boring setting thrilling." Go ahead, call the author's bluff!

The Cardturner: A Novel about a King, a Queen, and a Joker by Louis Sachar
Narrated by the author
Listening Library, 2010. 7:27

Monday, January 10, 2011

Odyssey

The 2011 Odyssey Awards were announced this morning. Five novels (a sweep ... for the first time there are no picture books ... and no Bloody Jack!). I've eye-read all but Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and they are all good books (well, Alchemy and Meggy Swann ... okay). Truth to tell, I probably won't re-visit any of the others, except The True Meaning of Smekday. So many books, so little time ...

Congratulations to Listening Library and Brilliance Audio, the great narrators (I've heard them all read before ... so I know they're great!) Bahni Turpin, Katherine Kellgren, Nick Podehl, Emily Janice Card, Emma Bering and MacLeod Andrews, and the committee for a job well done!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I didn't know there were actual prizes ...

Although neither of these will really stretch me, I'm taking some baby steps into the wide world web and have signed up for some challenges in 2011:

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The neverending stories

I'm slogging through Rick Riordan's The Red Pyramid, so take a look at some of the year's best linked from Stacked's AudioSynced post. Eek! More for the TBLT list!!

My New Year's resolution: I've got seven adult titles taking up valuable real estate on my personal library card's holds list. These have got to go into the ears!

And then there's all the ALA listening that I've probably not heard yet. Next Monday (January 10), look to ALSC, YALSA and the Odyssey Award for more great stuff.

Oi! I'm behind ...