Thursday, March 24, 2011

Spudvetch!

Upon finishing Mark Haddon's recent novel for children, Boom! (or 70,000 Light Years), I took a trip down memory lane to see when I had listened to Jeff Woodman's terrific reading of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. December 2003! Boom! is an earlier writing effort (1992) from the author. Haddon explains why he updated his novel Gridzbi Spudvetch in an introduction that is not included in the audiobook.

Gullible Jimbo learns from his crabby older sister, Becky, that he is on the verge of being sent to a remedial school. She's just yanking his chain, but Jimbo believes her and enlists the help of his best friend, Charlie, to find out exactly what his teachers are saying about him. Charlie manages to plant a walkie-talkie in the teachers' lounge, but when the boys listen in they don't hear anything about Jimbo. What they do hear they don't understand, two of the teachers talking in gibberish. Jimbo's content to let it go, but Charlie's the adventurous one -- breaking into one of the teacher's houses, he finds a journal filled with more gibberish. The boys also witness the teachers in conversation -- a conversation where their eyes begin to glow a weird television blue.

Then Charlie disappears, the two teachers disappear, and two men break into Jimbo's flat to try and snatch him. Jimbo and Becky barely escape on her boyfriend's motorcycle and the two head off to Scotland to find Charlie. What Jimbo finds in Scotland is rapid transit to the planet Plonk, 70,000 light years distant, populated by aliens who closely resemble humans (except for no belly button and a long tail) as well as huge spiders with monkey heads who take the names of human pop stars. (Jimbo meets one named Britney, who is no way compares to the delightful J.Lo.)

Boom! is slight (just under four hours) and mildly amusing, but it's not really breaking new ground in the my-schoolteacher-is-an-alien subgenre. I did enjoy Jimbo and Becky's wild ride through Scotland to the Isle of Skye but probably because I had recently been there myself. The audiobook is pretty entertaining, though, so I wonder if this is one of those books that listens better than it reads.

The actor with a quintessentially English name, Julian Rhind-Tutt (Rhind rhymes with, well, rhymed), reads Boom! It's Jimbo's first-person narration and Rhind-Tutt gives him a working class accent and a snarky attitude that seems a good match for the character. He reads pretty straight -- no attempts to sound younger and with a couple of exceptions, there are no really dramatic distinctions between character voices -- but he brings a liveliness and energy to the narration that makes listening a pleasure. He is pretty masterful when reading the aliens' gobbledegook dialogue; his ease with the language makes it sound like they are, indeed, having a conversation. He has memorable fun with the spiders, who speak like they've watched a lot of Entertainment Tonight. I'd listen to him again. To this, maybe?

I've been experiencing some literary synergy lately: several recently read books have had London's Great Stink as an important part of the plot. Alien invasion via children's book has also been a most entertaining theme -- both Rhind-Tutt and Bahni Turpin bring innovative readings to what must be the most extreme of audiobook accents -- non-human language!

Boom! (or 70,000 Light Years) by Mark Haddon
Narrated by Julian Rhind-Tutt
Listening Library, 2010. 3:46

Monday, March 21, 2011

All I want is a fast ship ...

I really like what author Janet Taylor Lisle did in her 2006 novel about Prohibition in Rhode Island, Black Duck. Since she based the novel on true events [scroll down to the end of the article] -- the probably illegal shooting of the Duck's four crewmen by the Coast Guard as the Duck attempted to bring in a load of imported liquor on December 29, 1929 -- she couldn't build up to this finale. We know from the beginning what happened to the boat and its crew. Instead, Lisle creates a framing device of a modern teen hearing what "actually" happened from one of the [fictional] participants, 14-year-old Ruben Hart.

Ruben and his best friend Jeddy are beachcombing along Narragansett Bay when they stumble across a dead body. It's dressed up in evening clothes and wearing a gold watch. Ruben removes a pipe and tobacco pouch from the dead man's pocket, and then the two boys report their finding to the police. Jeddy's father is the small town's police chief. The police take forever to respond to the boys' telephone call, and when they all return to the beach, the body has disappeared, and the police don't seem particularly interested in finding it. Unbeknownst to Ruben, that tobacco pouch contained a "ticket" that rum runners used to identify themselves as the legitimate owners of a particular batch of booze to be smuggled into the states. It turns out that there are a lot of nasty people looking for that ticket.

Both Ruben and Jeddy know of the Black Duck, a legendary speedboat with souped-up engines that motors out beyond the U.S. ocean boundary, picks up a batch of booze, and speeds into an isolated cove along Narrangansett Bay where it is unloaded by groups of men paid the phenomenal sum of $20 for a night's work. With its airplane engines, the Duck's captain and crew have easily avoided the Coast Guard in the 10 years of the Noble Experiment, but the Coast Guard is on alert.

David Peterson, a 21st-century teenager, has discovered that Ruben Hart is living in his town and that Ruben possibly knows what really happened to the Black Duck. David's an aspiring reporter and hopes that by interviewing Ruben he'll get a scoop and his first big break. He has to earn Ruben's trust, but soon his story starts coming. And a very exciting story it is. [This photograph of the last day before Prohibition is from the Smithsonian Magazine.]

Black Duck truly qualifies as one of Laurie Halse Anderson's historical thrillers. Ruben is kidnapped by mobsters (looking for the ticket), knows that booze is being stored at the general store his father manages, helps to unload a shipment by the light of the moon, and knows what happened on the Black Duck on the night of December 29. The exciting story is enhanced by some big ideas: How crime (organized or otherwise) can just seep its way into a community and how easily the community can become complicit. Also, Lisle explores the nature of friendship, family and loyalty -- which is most important? I found it very compelling. The framing device is kind of creaky: David is more of a plot device than a character, as his motivation seems pretty weak. Still, he gets Ruben to tell his story. There are a couple of twists at the end that might surprise a younger reader.

David Ackroyd (heard here by me) reads the novel. His deep, ragged voice is pretty darn perfect for Ruben's narration -- the old man is a great storyteller. There's an underlying sadness to this tale as well, as Ruben's friendship with Jeddy is forever altered by the events in the novel. Ackroyd exposes those tender parts movingly. He also lightens up his voice when he's reading the dialogue of the two boys, as well as when reading the voice of Jeddy's older sister Marina.

There is a large cast of adult characters portrayed by Ackroyd, including mobsters, corrupt officials, cocky rum runners, parents, and a broken old man named Tom Morrison. He doesn't do a lot of voice characterization, but I had no problem following conversations. Ackroyd's skill lies, I think, in finding the emotion of the story he is telling. And ultimately, I hear the tragedy of Ruben's story loud and clear in Ackroyd's narration.

I was inspired to place this on hold by Anita Silvey's Children's Book-a-Day Almanac. It had been hovering there in the I-should-read-this recesses of my mind, but Silvey's posting brought it to the forefront.

Black Duck by Janet Taylor Lisle
Narrated by David Ackroyd
Listening Library, 2007. 5:30

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Summer people

I participate in a book group that reads and discusses a slew (8-10) of new children's books each month. We rely on the group's members who might belong to an ALA Youth Media Award committee, but we struck out a bit for our March reading, so I suggested that we read a classic children's book instead: Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright. This book is as old as I am! It mostly wears it well.

Portia Blake has spent every summer with her cousin Julian's family deep in the country (in upstate New York?), but this is the first year she and her younger brother Foster have made the trip themselves. Portia has a bit of a crush on her slightly older cousin, despite the fact that he calls her Porsh. She's looking forward to long summer days exploring the area's natural beauty (even though Julian has a tendency to kill the insects and butterflies he finds). During one of their outings, they make their way through some overgrowth and find themselves on the edge of a swampy, mosquito-infested lake. But the lake has abandoned summer cottages all around it, and when Julian and Portia go exploring they discover that two of the cottages are occupied.

The two elderly residents are Minnehaha Cheever and her brother Pindar Payton, whose family had a cottage on the lake when it was called Lake Tarrigo. But in 1903, a dam was built nearby and the lake soon began to silt up and all the summer families left. Min and Pin decided to come back, christening the lake Gone-Away, since they prefer to live away from society. Nothing much has changed for them since 1903. But they are delighted to meet the children, and Portia and Julian are equally enchanted.

The two kids visit nearly every day, and -- after Foster gets into trouble following them -- share their secret with a few friends. The children decide to make over one of the cottages into a clubhouse, and when Portia's father and mother are invited to Gone-Away, they decide to buy the least-rundown house (that of Mrs. Brace-Gideon, so you know it's fancy), so that they can live in the country year-round.

[This image from the book's frontispiece came from 1904: The Year Everything Important Happened. The illustrations are by Beth and Joe Krush.]

Gone-Away Lake is nostalgic without being sentimental, so I think it reads fairly well in 2011. Portia and Julian's independence is something we think of nostalgically (kids today just aren't able to roam far and wide), but this level of independence occurs in a lot of children's books so I don't think it's impossible for kids to relate to. The idea of a long, lazy summer with "nothing" to do is vividly created here -- more nostalgia. And if the gender roles are a little unyielding (once Portia and Julian invite friends to Gone-Away, Portia gets shunted aside in the exploring arena and goes off to play dress-up with Min's 19th-century wardrobe), well, it was published in 1957. While it doesn't have the action of modern children's books, there is plenty of discovery that may keep a young reader turning the pages.

The narrator, Colleen Delany, reads this in a fairly old-fashioned way. The narration feels very breathless and "wide-eyed," as if she wants to make sure that we understand that every single thing that happens in this novel is equally important. I find this somewhat exhausting to listen to. This is particularly evident when Delany is voicing Portia. And, for a younger boy character -- Davey, a friend of Foster's -- she does the thing I think I hate the most: Speaking through a stuffed nose. Why is that ever a choice for young boys?

Delany's formality works best with the characters of Min and Pin, who come across with a stateliness that is in line with their refusal to change with the times. And I appreciate that she doesn't go all quavery (and "old") with them.

I listened to another of Enright's novels about a year ago, and I think I liked it better. But there's no denying that her books have a real feel for childhood -- a childhood that doesn't date: One of happy families, kid-friendly adventures and self-discovery without a lesson.

Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright
Narrated by Colleen Delany
Listen and Live Audio, 2008 6:00

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mid-morning daiquiris

I think I became an English major so that I could read 19th century British fiction (Austen [not exclusively 19th century], the Bront√ęs, Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell, and oh yes ... the white guy: Dickens). But my experience with the rest of English literature (much less American) is spotty at best. So, when Our Man in Havana popped up in an mp3-only search of our downloadable audiobooks (remember the new Mac), I thought I'd give it a go. After all, Jeremy Northam is reading it.

Author Graham Greene referred to this 1958 novel as an "entertainment" (distinct from his "novels"): "In one's entertainments one is primarily interested in having an exciting story as in a physical action, with just enough character to give interest in the action, because you can't be interested in the action of a mere dummy." I'm not sure I agree with the author -- I found the characters to be well beyond "just enough."

We are in pre-revolutionary Cuba when we meet British vacuum cleaner salesman, James Wormold, having his morning daiquiri with his friend Dr. Hasselbacher. Wormold epitomizes the word ineffectual -- although we never learn how successful he is at selling vacuum cleaners for Phastkleaners, Ltd. (once I learned the spelling of that I had to put it in), I can't imagine he made a very successful living. He is troubled by the expensive tastes of his beloved 17-year-old daughter, Milly -- he just can't say no to whatever she wants. So, when he's cornered in a bar by another Englishman, Mr. Hawthorne, who suggests that he might want to join the British Secret Service, Wormold realizes that this could solve his financial problems.

Wormold begins to show some ingenuity -- producing elaborate reports for London from his fictitious agents (names taken from the telephone book), including drawings of an enemy missile site in Cuba's Oriente Mountains. The analysts in London have never seen anything like them: probably because they are drawings of vacuum cleaner attachments. The novel is definitely comic, as London seems unable to figure out the many ways that Wormold is scamming them -- but then things take a darker turn, as the other "men in Havana" begin to see Wormold as a threat. Yet, it's only slightly darker -- the poisoning attempt on Wormold's life at a luncheon of foreign business representatives is pretty darn farcical.

I liked this. It's always a pleasant surprise when that classic you've been secretly dreading turns out to be pretty darn good. It made me laugh out loud in many places. The foolishness of the secret services is a fairly regular concept in fiction today, but I wonder if Greene's book was seen as just an "entertainment," or as some satiric indictment.

Jeremy Northam reads this so well. He's got just the right touch of humor in his reading, just a hint so you know he's in on the joke. Wormold isn't really clueless, but what's almost an innocent quality comes though when Northam reads his dialogue. There's a lot of opportunity for wonderful vocal characterizations and accents here: kindly Dr. Hasselbacher, menacing Captain Segura, the idiotic, pompous Brits, and various ex-pat denizens of Cuba. Northam reads women fine as well: Milly Wormold has a girlishness that isn't cringeworthy. I've only heard him read once before, but I guess he does a fair amount of narrating for English publishers.

The publisher of this audiobook is new to me: CSA Word. They are "specialist producers of timeless literature on audio," but I don't know ... I'm seeing an awful lot of abridged! (I had to use the amazon.co.uk cover because the publisher's website wouldn't let me grab the cover.) The audiobook begins with some lively, salsa-ish music that takes a bad turn into Welk-ishness when wordless vocalizing begins (dooooo-wah!). The music reappears frequently to mark pauses within chapters. I really don't like it, but I got used to it. When the novel moves to its "Interlude(s) in London" the framing music is a recognizably British instrumental piece (that I can't put a name to, alas). I do like this, and -- more importantly -- I like the fact that the publisher went to the trouble of considering and including the music at all. It just gives a little fillip of added listening interest.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
Narrated by Jeremy Northam
CSA Word, 2009. 7:07

Monday, March 14, 2011

Opening move

I shouldn't start a new mystery series. I just shouldn't. I've got a list of between 75 and 100 where I keep very careful track of which book I should read next in each one. Now that I've counted them up, though (yikes!) ... what's one more? So, here is the first in the SPQR [Senatus Populusque Romanus, i.e., The Senate and People of Rome] series: The King's Gambit by John Maddox Roberts. This title is pretty old (1990) and my library has just one copy of the print version. I downloaded the audiobook because I was trying to quickly find an mp3 to demo. Simon Vance narrates, cousin Mary had recommended it, I thought I was pretty safe.

The scion of an aristocratic Roman family, Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger is trying to make a name for himself by commanding a cohort of the civilian police force, the Vigiles. The novel takes place as the Roman republic is beginning its decline into empire, sometime in the first century BCE (maybe a few years before the BBC series, Rome). When there's a murder on his patch -- even though his father and other Roman power brokers all tell him to let it lie -- Decius must investigate. The victim is a freedman and former gladiator, hardly worth mentioning; but when another body shows up shortly after the first one, Decius soon finds out that he's snooping about where some people don't want him to be.

This novel is extremely slight (less than 300 pages). I pegged the murderer soon after the character was introduced. Roberts spends a fair amount of time walking Decius about Rome (lots of info about Rome), encountering famous Romans (Caesar, Cicero, and Pompey all make appearances) who then explain the political situation through dialogue. Because of this, I had a hard time sustaining interest in the story, for when the plot kicked in between informative sections I had difficulty recalling what I already knew. (In fairness, I took way too long to listen to the audio's short seven hours.) And while the murderer came as no surprise, I'm still not clear on why (it's one of those mysteries where the wealthy and privileged are responsible, yet able to avoid punishment).

But Simon Vance is reading. The novel's (series'?) conceit is that Decius is relating his memoirs. He's an old man and he's seen a lot of history. Vance voices Decius with a dry, slightly quavery voice. Unlike some narrators, Vance can do this and make it sound like an actual old person is speaking. When Decius is conversing with other characters, the narrator uses a younger man's voice. It's a pretty neat trick. Vance brings his many fine accents and vocal mannerisms to the novel's other characters: There are a significant number of foreigners, people of lower classes, and power-hungry politicians, each of whom has a distinct voice. It's the narration we've come to expect (ho hum!) from this talented reader.

My cousin Mary reads widely, and I almost always enjoy her recommendations. (Many years ago I asked her for some recommendations for my book group and they hated everything she suggested, which included High Fidelity and Less Than Zero. Needless to say, that's not my book group anymore!) If I go on with this series, though, I think I'll try print next.

The King's Gambit (SPQR I) by John Maddox Roberts
Narrated by Simon Vance
Blackstone Audio, 2008. 7:19

I-I-I- a-a-am to thi-i-i-nking!

I know I've said this before: I don't like re-reading. But even though I'd read The True Meaning of Smekday three years ago (which means I'd pretty much forgotten everything but the big picture), I wanted to support the hard-listening folks on this year's Odyssey committee; plus my library actually owns copies of this audiobook. (I have discovered how spoiled I was getting audiobooks when they are first published, instead of months later!) It was synergy all around. The cherry on top? It's a terrific listen!

Adam Rex's 2007 book is pretty terrific on its own, of course. It initially takes the form of Tip's essay on "The True Meaning of Smekday" which will be placed in a time capsule to be opened 100 years later. But it goes on to be much more than a middle-schooler's writing exercise.

Gratuity "Tip" Tucci's mother was abducted by the alien Boov even before they invaded Earth on Christmas (now called Smekday). But now that all U.S. humans are being relocated to Florida, Tip has decided she's going to make her own way there in the family car. Unfortunately, being 11 years old, Tip doesn't realize that the roads aren't going to be in very good condition and her car soon encounters a rather large pothole. Fortunately, there's a lone Boov surreptitiously hanging out at the same gas station/mini-mart where Tip has broken down. This Boov fixes up Tip's car with some added functions (it floats for example), and joins her for the ride down to the Happy Mouse Kingdom. But once they arrive in Florida, Tip learns that the relocation area will now be Arizona. She also learns that her Boov companion, who goes by the name J.Lo, made a fatal communication error bringing yet another alien race -- the Gorg -- to Earth. The Boov and the Gorg are mortal enemies. (While listening, my brain kept turning Boov and Gorg into Bush and Gore! What our subconscious will get up to ...)

So now J.Lo, Tip and Tip's cat Pig are on the lam -- racing to get to Arizona before the aliens track them down. Their road trip is just hilarious, full of sly, topical humor, a healthy dose of satire, and wonderful characterizations. J.Lo ranks among the great characters of children's literature, and when his fractured syntax is brought vividly to life by narrator Bahni Turpin, he rightfully takes his place among Charlotte and Wilbur, Willy Wonka, Bilbo Baggins, the Cowardly Lion and many others.

Turpin reads Tip pretty straight -- she's the kind of teenager who is smarter than her mother, so she's got a sassy mouth and a hip delivery. When she is reading Tip's essay, Turpin goes all adult on us. She does a good job distinguishing the novel's other characters, including some Lord-of-the-Flies boys hiding out in the Happy Mouse Kingdom, a group of blissed-out Area 51 denizens who are feeling pretty smug about the arrival of the Boov, a particularly oily politician, and Tip's loving but slightly dim mother. Occasionally, Turpin's called upon for cat dialogue and she pulls this off as well.

But nothing in this audiobook is as wonderful as J.Lo. Turpin gives him a high, raspy, slightly robotic voice that she occasionally augments with tongue clicks and that "tsk tsk" sound you make by flicking your tongue off the the back of your teeth. And when you add in J.Lo's stutter and his mangled grammar, you have an entirely endearing package. Late in the novel, Tip asks J.Lo if he can speak in a slightly less alien voice, and out comes this newscaster delivery that had me helplessly giggling. Turpin is rightly honored by the Odyssey committee for her outstanding work.

(I've only heard her read once, in a book that gave her no opportunity to display her prodigious narrative talents: The Freedom Writers' Diary. Alas, I was less conscientious in 2007, and neglected to mention her name! At least I mentioned her reading: "the female students came alive with some character and personality." Faint praise indeed.)

Since its inception in 2008, the production talent behind the best audiobook for children and young adults have been featured in a Booklist interview with Mary Burkey. This year, she interviews Smekday's executive producer, Dan Musselman. I liked his insight on Turpin's performance. I also appreciate Burkey's comment that both of the Odyssey chapter-book winners -- this and 2009's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian -- were books that include a significant number of visual images. I wonder if pictures help bump up a narration to excellent heights? I know that a lot of my listening was accompanied by my memory of the drawing that appears at the end of the novel of Tip, her mom, and J.Lo at the Happy Mouse Kingdom (which I tried to find online, but couldn't -- darn copyright!).

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex.
Narrated by Bahni Turpin.
Listening Library, 2010. 10:38