Friday, May 27, 2011

Teenage mutants

I've seen the television program Bones once or twice, but never had any yen to read any of Kathy Reichs' books about her forensic pathologist heroine, Temperance Brennan. Dr. Brennan evidently has a niece named Tory (I'm still not clear on their relationship since I thought I heard that Tory's grandmother and Temperance were sisters, which would -- of course -- make her a great aunt). I guess Temperance was too busy to take her in, since 14-year-old Tory is now living with her 31-year-old father, a marine biologist working at a the Loggerhead Island Research Institute off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. Tory's mother died recently in a car accident, but hadn't bothered to tell her erstwhile lover that he was a father. Both father and daughter are taking tentative steps in forming a relationship at the beginning of Virals.

Tory lives on the island and commutes by ferry to her elite prep school with three male classmates whose parents also work for the Institute. The four -- Tory, Ben, Hi[ram], and Shelton -- are science-y like their parents and provide mutual support at a school that seems more interested in wealth and social status than academic excellence. They explore the barrier islands using Ben's Boston Whaler and hang out in an abandoned bunker. Poking around one day, they uncover a very old dogtag and Tory -- who has inherited her aunt's nose for a mystery -- wants to find out more. Late one night they break in (they do this frequently and always successfully) to the lab at the Institute and uncover two mysteries:
  • The dogtags belonged to the daughter of the soldier named on the tags and she disappeared as a teenager 40 years earlier.
  • A wolfdog puppy infected with parvovirus is caged up in a secret room in the lab building.
The teens rescue the dog and pursue the mystery of the missing girl. Cooper, the puppy, has been infected with a special strain of parvo, a strain that -- unlike conventional canine parvo -- can transmit to humans. The teens all get what seems at first to be a severe case of the flu, but once they've recovered they realize it's left them with something else: When they experience extreme emotion, they experience super-heightened senses and physical reflexes as well. They call this reaction "flaring." The four begin to refer to themselves as Virals.

I didn't really care for this. I found the writing particularly overwrought and melodramatic, and the author has no feel for teenagers. Their dialog was largely expository and sprinkled with awkward slang, plus a liberal amount of swears. Nothing seemed a barrier -- not homework, transportation, or even locked doors and armed guards. Now that I think about it, the author has no feel for adults, either. Everyone is cartoonishly evil or ridiculously clueless. This sentence that I rewound and listened to again seems to sum it up: "My practicality tempered my roiling emotions." Oh, really?

The narrator didn't improve things. Her name is Cristin Milioti and --while sounding young enough to read Tory's first person narrative -- she raced along with an emphatic-ness that popped and pounded every word she said. She had the teen speech patterns down pretty well, considering that the teens weren't actually talking like teenagers. Milioti was able to differentiate the novel's many characters, but she often did this with a caricature-ish Southern accent. It seemed like all the bad and/or stupid people were South Carolina natives and all the others spoke generic mid-Atlantic. Everyone eventually blended together.

There's some appropriately atmospheric music interspersed in the story, and when the teens experience flaring, there is this crescendo-ing whoosh! sound that brackets the event. Considering my aversion to most sound effects, this works rather well. Of course, the first time I heard it, I was out walking in the early morning and had to turn around to see what was making that noise behind me.

The public library shows up a couple times in Virals. Or rather the liberry, which is how Milioti pronounces it. OK, call me oversensitive. I suppose I should be grateful that the teens actually visited the library and used its online and print resources (microfilm!)! And then there was this odd little plot development where the villain paid a librarian $1,000 per year (for 30-40 years) just to let him know when someone visited the library asking questions about the disappeared girl. Imagine that villain thinking that the library would be the first place someone would go looking for information!! It makes me quite lightheaded. But wait ... what about patron confidentiality?

Unless your a Reichs fan, I'd give this one a pass. For a more interesting look at teens with superhuman powers, try this (reviewed here by me). Dare I say I even liked this more? I think it must be the mists of time obscuring my reason.

[The animal pictured is a wolfdog named Ralph, who lives at a sanctuary called Full Moon Farmin North Carolina.]

Virals by Kathy Reichs
Narrated by Cristin Milioti
Penguin Audio, 2010. 9:40


Thursday, May 26, 2011

The power of prayer

Author Rebecca Rupp is a homeschooling advocate, but she's the hippie kind ... not those religious dare-I-say nutjobs who seem to be the most public face of educating your children yourself. She makes no secret of how she feels about the latter in her book for upper elementary school readers: Octavia Boone's Big Questions About Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Seventh-grader Octavia is being raised (and public schooled) in small-town Vermont by her mother, Ray, and her father, Boone. Ray is a lawyer and the family's breadwinner, while Boone spends many hours in a shed in the backyard completing what he claims will be a great work of art. Octavia calls her parents by their first names. She is a smart, happy kid with Big Questions -- including Does God exist? Then Ray -- who Octavia tells us has been a lifelong seeker -- joins the Fellowship of the Redeemer, a small fundamentalist Christian church in a nearby town.

Both Octavia and her father are a bit nonplussed by this, but they believe it will pass. Ray compels Octavia to participate in youth activities with the Redeemers, and Octavia chafes under the restrictions against Halloween or exposing her naked knees, and seeing her future as some man's helpmeet. When Ray leaves her family, a small custody battle ensues; but since Boone has hardly been the model of a family provider, Octavia ends up living with her mother and two other Redeemers in a small apartment and attending the Redeemer's school. She has a mini-breakdown and is allowed to return to public school where she chooses a science-fair project: She sprouts a number of bean plants under controlled conditions. She will pray over half the plants to see if asking for intervention from a higher power makes a difference in their growth. With her youthful logic, Octavia believes that if her mother sees that prayer makes no difference, she will leave the Redeemers and return to her family.

I enjoyed this short little book, mostly for Octavia's spunky personality. Despite her parents self-absorption, they clearly raised a smart, thoughtful kid. Parts of her character seemed a little young for a 7th grader, yet at the same time she exhibited that combo of knowledge and innocence that is so shocking in middle schoolers. I thought the anti-fundamentalist message was a bit heavy-handed (and I don't mind an anti-fundamentalist message), but I liked that not all of her Redeemer classmates were mindless offspring of nutjobs and that Octavia learned something from them.

Ellen Grafton reads the novel. She brings an authentically youthful voice -- including a slight lispiness -- to her narration and sets the right tone for Octavia's spunkiness. She doesn't voice the novel, but it's short and simple enough that tracking the dialog isn't an issue. Inevitably, I must compare this reading with the only other time I've listened to her (link if you dare!), but I've got to say that not only was this an improvement literature-wise, but Grafton does a much better job of keeping the life in the story. We audiobook listeners often say that a great reader can make lemonade out of literary lemons, but I wonder how often a narrator just cannot do anything for a poor piece of writing.

I was listening to this at the same time I was listening to Tom Perrotta's The Abstinence Teacher. The theme of religious fundamentalism is common to both books, but what a difference the "j" makes! I'm not quite done with this one ... I was listening on a road trip, but we didn't finish while on the road, so the driver took the copy!!

[The image was the only one I found when I searched Wikimedia Commons for "big questions." It is a photograph from "The series of big questions : God and Devil (Dieu et Diable) - Maurice Benayoun Virtual Reality installations."]

Octavia Boone's Big Questions About Life, the Universe, and Everything by Rebecca Rupp
Narrated by Ellen Grafton
Brilliance Audio, 2010. 3:22

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What happened to Evas One through Eight?

Speaking of books from one's childhood, I can't mention the one that figures prominently in The Search for WondLa without giving away a major spoiler. But I loved that book as a kid. And I love how it acts as a touchstone for the young heroine of Tony DiTerlizzi's new series. However, I didn't love WondLa much until the connection is revealed at the very end of the book ... but then I had the most marvelous time thinking back about Eva Nine's story and how cleverly and affectionately it evoked its inspiration. (Convoluted enough for you?)

Eva [pronounced EH-vuh] Nine has been raised in the underground Sanctuary by her Muthr (Multi-Utility Task Help Robot). Muthr's job is to prepare Eva Nine for life above -- on planet Earth, and the 12-year-old has been training all her life to survive up there. Eva doesn't understand (and doesn't question much) why she's being raised this way, but she is heartily tired of the lessons and Muthr's strict upbringing. She is ready to explore the world beyond the comfortable, high-tech walls of the Sanctuary. Her chance to leave, though, comes a little too soon.

The Sanctuary is breached by a horrific monster with a sonic weapon that destroys everything in its path. Muthr hustles Eva Nine to the surface, telling her to use her Omnipod to find the humans in the nearest Sanctuary. Muthr will be in contact as soon as things are safe again. But what Eva Nine finds on the surface is not as Muthr described it to her. The Omnipod has never seen the lifeforms she encounters and there are no humans anywhere. Soon Eva is captured by the monster hunter, Besteele [pronounced like the prison, Bastille]. Her fate appears to be sealed (except that there's a whole bunch of the book to go), when -- with the help of another captive, the blue-skinned Rovender, and a gentle water bear who communicates telepathically -- she escapes. Returning for Muthr, the adventurers set off on a journey to find other Sanctuaries, other humans. But Rovender explains that they aren't on planet Earth, they're on Orbona.

This is your standard quest adventure: Our heroine steps out on a journey that will change her, meets odd characters along the way who don't seem worthy of accompanying her at first, trials are endured, losses and disappointments come, and at the end we understand how and why we got there. DiTerlizzi is keeping plenty back -- this is the first of a [sigh] trilogy, but he does create a somewhat satisfying end to Eva Nine's journey.

What I liked most about this story is the relationship between Eva Nine and Muthr. (Of course, as a listener, I didn't realize it was "muthr" until some way into the story when the acronym is explained.) Muthr is doting and over-protective -- insisting that Eva eat the processed food and water purification tablets she brings along rather than the native foods Rovender forages for them. We aren't surprised that Eva wants to cut the apron strings. But as the story continues, the bond between the two becomes more complicated. Is Muthr simply a machine carrying out a mission? Does Eva have a right to chafe under her restrictions?

You may know that there are images in the book (and also on the audiobook's discs) that can be held up (clumsily) to a computer camera in order to access 3D images via WondLa-Vision. This was kind of an awkward add-on that seemed just another misbegotten entry in the 3D craze. And, of course it has nothing to do with the audiobook. You'll do just fine without it. This image is the one you "show" to your computer's camera. The center hand-mirror-shaped object is Eva's Omnipod -- what we would currently call a smartphone.

A narrator best known for her acting, Teri Hatcher, reads the book. And she surprised me, she's quite good. She has a slightly husky speaking voice which is very pleasant to listen to. There's not a vast cast of characters to portray, but Hatcher does a fine job in creating different voices for each one. She gives Muthr a slightly robotic delivery that remains warm and loving. Eva is girlish and impetuous, and Rovender calm and confident. The voicing for the telepathic water bear, Otto, sounds as if it were coming from a huge, placid creature. The voice of the Omnipod is suitably automated-sounding.

DiTerlizzi has illustrated his novel, and -- even though a listener is just fine without seeing them, they are fun enough that you might want to find a copy and take a look. It certainly helps in visualizing all the bizarre creatures with which he has populated the novel. It's not as ambitious as Hugo Cabret, but it's clear that he was inspired -- in part -- by Brian Selznick's work.

The Search for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi
Narrated by Teri Hatcher
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2010. 10:30

A boy's own adventure

I hope somebody read Three Tales of My Father's Dragon to me when I was a kid. It's such a wonderful kid-centric story that I can even imagine that that somebody read it to me over and over again. Well, even if it wasn't part of my childhood (or the part that I can remember), I'm certainly glad I encountered it now.

In three simple stories by Ruth Stiles Gannett, Elmer Elevator begins by stowing away on a boat (fully loaded with suitable supplies ... all of which come in handy) to Wild Island to rescue a friendly, colorful young dragon who fell from a cloud. Elmer outwits the suspicious animal residents of Wild Island to spring the dragon (whose name we find out later is Boris) from a rather unpleasant servitude. In Elmer and the Dragon, the two now-fast friends journey back across the ocean -- discovering buried treasure along the way -- to Elmer's home. Then, in The Dragons of Blueland, when Boris eventually makes his way to his own home in the mountains, he returns to Elmer for help to rescue his family from dragon hunters. Then, Elmer finally gets home to his family -- after having been gone for about 10 days. Yes, his family was worried ... sort of.

I just enjoyed how much this book mirrors a child's imaginative play. The things that Elmer uses to solve his problems are all things that kids are going to have firmly in their radar -- things like lollipops and rubber bands. The logic of the adventure is the logic of a child -- yeah! I went down to the dock and stowed away on a boat. Elmer fixes everything, no adults step in to help him. There's a little wordplay (canaries are suffering from curiosity [in a phrase I can no longer remember ... sorry!]) to keep the reading grownups happy. And I also love the way the narrator keeps reminding us that Elmer is his/her father. As someone who recently lost her father, this book seemed suffused with that child's love.

I enjoyed Fuse No. 8's post about meeting the author when she stopped into the New York Public Library to see if her book was in the system. (Imagine having some doubts about that!) I also like the fact that someone photographed what I am assuming are the book's endpapers and posted them on their website. (Well, maybe I really don't like that since it is possible copyright infringement ... although Project Gutenberg notes that "extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright [on My Father's Dragon] on this publication was renewed," so maybe it isn't -- as we say to the young folks -- stealing.) Of course, I have copied it here, which means that I might be stealing as well. Oh snap! I hate copyright. Well, I don't really ...

Robert Sevra narrates the brief audiobook. His narration reflects that child love and admiration for a parent that underpins the tales and then blossoms into the right tone of humor and ridiculousness that the stories deserve. In addition to the quietly competent Elmer, there are many crazy animal portrayals on offer, all of whom get a silly, occasionally naturalistic character from the narrator. I liked them all.

It's funny to think of an author's output of being just under 250 pages and no more. Gannett moved on to other things, I guess (seven daughters!). But it does give me pause that she wouldn't think that her books would still be on the shelves of the library. When you look at it another way though, maybe her books aren't really around any more? The publisher repackaged three individual books into one at the 50-year mark (1998). We have both that collection and the 60th anniversary edition of My Father's Dragon here at my library. Guess which one checks out more? (Three Tales ...)

Three Tales of My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
Narrated by Robert Sevra
Listening Library, 2005. 2:24

Friday, May 13, 2011

Not healthy for children and other living things

I've been afraid to read Michael Morpurgo's War Horse. It couldn't end well and I just didn't want to read about the animal sacrifice of World War I (one million dead!), along with the human loss. But there's one thing I love as much as reading, and that is a splendid theatrical experience and the stage play of Morpurgo's novel certainly sounds like one. Even though it's unlikely I'll see it, I was still intrigued enough to seek out the audiobook. With trepidation, I put it in my ears. I made it through the audiobook without tears, but I don't think I could watch the movie dry-eyed.

The title character -- and first-person narrator -- is Joey, a half-thoroughbred stallion raised by a farmboy named Albert in Dorset. Albert's father bought Joey as a colt, but took against him for some reason, so as soon as World War I begins he sells him to the British Army without Albert's knowledge. Albert vows to join up as soon as he can and find Joey in France.

The rest of the novel follows Joey into France, where he meets a boon companion named Topthorn who helps him endure trench warfare. Joey and Topthorn spend some time with the German Army before a tragic event brings Joey nearly to death's door. (Note nearly -- I took comfort from the fact that since Joey was telling the story he was going to make it!) Many men and horses die, but Morpurgo's light touch describes these events for young readers so they can access the tragedy without being overwhelmed by it. I might go so far and recommend it for gentle readers -- well maybe not that far -- but it's definitely not for those who crave bloodthirsty adventure.

John Keating narrates the novel. I've listened to him read several times (check out the links via the Audiobook Jukebox), and don't count him among my favorite narrators. I found his interpretation of Joey to be almost subdued -- he reads in an overly soothing, almost lulling manner that kept me, I think, from fully connecting with him emotionally. Thus my lack of tears? I wonder. Occasionally I felt he was reading so deliberately as if he thought I were slightly dim and couldn't really understand. Part of me thinks he's reading this way because he's reading for children; if so that bugs me and he shouldn't.

His delivery would get livelier when voicing the human characters -- young Albert is alert and gregarious, an enthusiastic Scots cavalryman delights in his horses, and a German soldier who braves No Man's Land is portrayed as hearty and humorous. Keating can create characters with accents and there's plenty to go around here -- English officers and enlisted men, Welsh, German, French. He's a capable reader, but his narration doesn't transport.

Which is too bad for this novel, I think. Morpurgo packs some big ideas into his short story: the love of humans and animals, the savagery of war, the lack of differences between combatants, the responsibility that humans have to domesticated animals. It's epic in a way -- full of triumph and loss. But Keating's narration stays small -- he's just telling you a story about a boy and his horse.

This is particularly disappointing when I read about the emotional impact of the stage play. (Audiobook convergence note: Narrator Alyssa Bresnahan is in the cast of the play.) Also, this novel is nearly 30 years old -- how cool is it that a stage play caused someone to dig deep into the backlist and think about an audiobook!

[This image from Wikimedia Commons is of a 1915 postcard by Fred C. Palmer.]

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
Narrated by John Keating
Scholastic Audiobooks, 2010. 4:04

Geektropolis

Nerds are our hope for the future, Michael Buckley wants us to know. "The world is not saved by touchdowns," one of his characters opines, "it's saved by ideas." Michael Buckley wants all the nerds -- particularly those bookish ones -- to feel good about themselves. They can kick butt too. And in NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society there's quite a bit of ass being whupped (in a kid-friendly way, of course).

Jackson Jones is the most popular kid at Nathan Hale Elementary School. He's the star of the football team, is loved by all his teachers, and is the terror of the school's less physically gifted students. There seems to be nothing Jackson loves more than wedgies and stuffing his classmates into their lockers. At a more enlightened school, we'd call Jackson a bully. At Nathan Hale, he's a hero.

But then, Jackson gets braces. Oddly magnetic ones. And Jackson is out of the popular crowd faster than Kate Middleton's wedding dress hit the bridal stores. Relegated to the sidelines, Jackson becomes a watcher. And what he sees surprises him: Five of the nerdiest nerds leave the classroom without a murmur from the teacher and disappear into their lockers. When Jackson follows one of them, he plummets into a high-tech laboratory. After a brief blackout where his braces are augmented by nanotechnology, he learns that the five nerds are members of an exclusive spy network: NERDS. Whatever is the geekiest thing about each of these kids has been transformed into a superpower. Then, with the guidance of some nerdy adults (the janitor, the librarian, and the lunch lady), they use those powers to save the world. And since evil Dr. Jigsaw is intent on rejoining Earth's continents into Pangaea, the NERDS are the only ones who can save us.

The other NERDS aren't very happy at the prospect of Jackson -- whose braces can now expand into all sorts of useful metal tools -- joining them. They call him Braceface and treat him ... well, as he treated them. Jackson works hard to earn their trust, however, and soon the team of five is six. There's lots of humor and kid-empowering action, and the book itself has plenty of cartoons that make it very reluctant-reader friendly. I found the nerds-are-the-ones-who-will-save-us message to be a little heavy-handed, but I don't think young readers will mind.

I read this because it's been nominated for the Oregon Reader's Choice Award and I signed up to prepare a discussion guide (watch this space). It's not my choice (I like 11 Birthdays or Heart of a Shepherd [which won't win]), but I'm not voting. I didn't like the other book of Buckley's that I read, but at least I got to start at the beginning here.

The perennially youthful-sounding Johnny Heller reads this. His high-pitched, breaking voice goes well with books for kids and here is no exception. He has an opportunity to break out a few funny character voices -- I liked his voice for Miranda, a girl who can't go anywhere without her inhaler, she's all wheezy (her spy name is Wheezer), as well as the hyperactive Flinch. I didn't like his choice of upper-class snob for Heathcliff. With that name, such an accent is logical, but Heller just seemed uncomfortable using it. For the most part, it's a reliably professional job.

I ended up eye-reading parts of this novel because the crack check-in people at my library circulated the audiobook with two missing discs. (I mean, it's one thing to miss one disc ... but two?) I would like to say that I don't think you miss the graphics by reading, but I can't with utter authority. There are sections in the book -- those that "authorize" you to access the "top-secret" story that follows -- that really don't read aloud very well. They rely on visual clues in order for you to really get it. But most listeners will be smart enough to figure out what's going on after the second or third time it occurs. The novel's other pictures are just gravy.

This will make a pretty good car-trip book, because there's actually plenty of stuff to keep the adults laughing as well. Maybe you could have both the audio and the book in the car. Now there's an idea!

NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society by Michael Buckley
Narrated by Johnny Heller
Recorded Books, 2009. 6:15

Getting off the island

I first encountered Dennis Lehane via the movies -- specifically, Mystic River. I liked it very much, which elevated Lehane into the book-before-movie category (not every book gets this nod). So, I raced through all the Kenzie-Gennaro books ('cause I got to read in order) before watching Gone Baby Gone, and now -- after finishing Shutter Island, I can now watch that movie. (... which should be an interesting experience, coming to it knowing the story's many twists and turns.) I am glad I listened first, there would be almost no point in seeing the movie and then reading this book.

It's September 1954, and two U.S. Marshals, Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule, find themselves on a ferryboat making its choppy way across Boston Harbor to a remote island that houses the Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane. A mother who murdered her three children, Rachel Solando, has mysteriously disappeared from her locked room and there appears to be no trace of her on the island. Daniels and Aule have never worked together, but Daniels soon confesses that he has an ulterior motive for taking this case. Another patient, Andrew Laeddis, is a serial arsonist who caused the death of Teddy's beloved wife two years earlier. Teddy has been deeply grieving ever since and has vowed to revenge himself by killing Laeddis.

Once they begin their investigation, Daniels and Aule soon realize that there is something a lot more sinister than a vanished murderess going on on Shutter Island. Secret codes and rumors of government experiments in mind control arise and the Marshals are warned away from the island's lighthouse. Plus, a hurricane [this image of Hurricane Edna's journey up the East Coast is from Wikimedia Commons] is coming -- wiping out all communication with the mainland. Soon, the men are separated ...

... and you suspect that your mind is also being messed with, big time. The claustrophobic atmosphere -- in the form of hospital cells, underground caves, facilities dark without electricity, whispered conversations, sidelong glances, and the confines of an island in the middle of a storm -- is another character in the novel. Teddy's sense of dread is palpable -- both waking and in the vivid dreams he has. Like Teddy, the reader has to keep pursuing the mystery but the paranoia and anxiety make it a fairly terrifying journey. Fairly early on, you know -- you know! -- that something is not quite right, but I really loved the fact that even when it is all explained to you (in a slightly too expository section) ... you can't even be quite certain of that explanation. Delicious!

Tom Stechschulte (STECK-shull-tee) reads the novel. I've heard of him, but had never listened to him read until now. (No particular reason beyond his books and my taste not meshing.) He's very, very good here. There are a boatload of characters here, and Stechschulte creates and keeps them all completely human (even the crazies). He reads Teddy in this gravelly baritone that is just barely holding it together, while Chuck is the wisecracking sidekick with a slightly higher voice. The primary doctor, Dr. Cawley, alternates between menace and professionalism. The women sound authentic, with Stechschulte reading in not so much higher tones, but lighter ones. He has the opportunity to turn on the vocal dramatics portraying several patients -- mostly notably one named George Noyce, who shouldn't even be on Shutter Island, and a deeply scary inmate who escaped his cell when the power went out.

The novel also affords Stechschulte the opportunity to throw out a few accents: There's Teddy's slight Boston broad vowels, a Nazi-sounding German doctor, along with several black orderlies with a fondness for poker. He's confident and consistent with all of them.

I listened to this one quite fast -- just three days. It's just like a book where pretty much everything else in your life comes to a halt because you just have to keep turning the pages. Well worth the lost weekend. I wish they were three days long [sigh].

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
Narrated by Tom Stechschulte
Recorded Books, 2003. 9:45

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

It's not a book, jackass*

I fell into the dramatization trap again with a recent download from Library2Go. The catalog made it all seem very normal until the last sentence: "Una Stubbs stars as Aunt Gwen in this BBC Radio 4 full-cast dramatisation." Up until I began listening, I believed it was a dramatization a la Full Cast Audio, but I've learned my lesson now. I'm only blogging about this so that others can be warned and stay away. What I listened to wasn't an audiobook. And who the heck is Una Stubbs anyway? (Ooh ... she played Mrs. Hudson in that updated Sherlock Holmes series with Benedict Cumberbatch [whose name I could say over and over again].)

Okay, now I am seriously distracted.**

In Philippa Pearce's Carnegie-Medal-winning novel, Tom's Midnight Garden, young Tom Long is sent away for the summer while his brother Peter recovers from the measles. He and Peter had dreamed of whiling away the long summer days in the family garden, but his uncle and aunt live in a dreary flat with only a paved-over "back yard." Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen (Una Stubbs) warn him repeatedly not to disturb their cranky old landlady who lives upstairs, Mrs. Bartholomew. Tom wakes one night to hear the grandfather clock ring 13 times and when he looks out his window, he sees that the backyard has been transformed into a beautiful garden. He steps outside to join the children playing there, but only one of them -- a young girl -- seems to notice him. She's dressed in old-fashioned clothes and introduces herself as Hatty.

Eventually Tom realizes that he can only play in the garden with Hatty when the clock strikes 13. But every time he does, he finds that Hatty has grown slightly older. Despite the fact that each thinks that the other is a ghost, their friendship blossoms. Tom shares his adventures with Peter by writing him every day.

After listening to this, I am able to better articulate what I don't like about dramatizations: There is no context to the story you are hearing. Everything you learn is related to you through artificial dialog -- these are not human beings (or ghosts) having a conversation, they are stolidly propelling you toward the next plot point. If there were descriptions of the enchanted garden (possibly through Tom's letters to Peter) I missed them in the listening. Near the end of the story, Tom and Hatty skate on a frozen canal and climb the tower of the cathedral at Ely. I've got no visuals of what those might have looked like. There was a lot of heavy breathing as the two children climbed the tower, though.

Does Tom's garden look like this? Some garden designers won a prize at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in 2007 with their "small garden" inspired by the novel. [This photo is from The Reckless Gardener.]

The radio drama is augmented by sound effects -- walking steps, creaky doors, the tick-tock and the chiming of the clock, plus many more. In places, these are really intrusive and occasionally they overpower the speakers. There are many musical interludes (evidently, the original radio broadcast was in four 30-minute slots) that break up an already choppy narrative.

It is quite possible that the young actor playing Tom, Peter England, portrayed Will Parry in The Amber Spyglass, while Steven Webb -- who played the younger Will in The Subtle Knife -- read Christopher Robin in the last (much more audiobookish) dramatization I listened to: The Collected Stories of Winnie-the-Pooh. The only other actor whose name was familiar to me was Rachel Kempson (mother of the Redgraves) who played Mrs. Bartholomew. The actors all read professionally, but having to instill emotion in what is essentially a narrative description sounds so terribly fake.

I should have read it.

Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, dramatized by Judy Allen
Narrated by a full cast
BBC Audiobooks, 2006. 2:05

*Homage to Lane Smith. (And I am the jackass.)

The cheese stands alone

Some days (most days, actually), it's pretty easy to know why I am not an author. I'd never think to conflate scientifically aided multiple births, the uncertainty of family farming, a teacher who can't seem to separate his admiration for his pupils from his inappropriate attraction to them, and the creation of a huge wheel of cheese into one novel. Sheri Holman is an author, she takes the above ideas, mixes them together in a way that makes complete sense, and writes The Mammoth Cheese. It's bizarre, it's complicated, but it works.

In rural Three Chimneys, Virginia, Episcopalian pastor Leland Vaughn meddles with the best intentions. He convinces Manda Frank to not selectively terminate some of the 11 fetuses she is currently gestating after taking fertility drugs. As Manda's litter is born, the town is briefly inspired to community service -- aided, no doubt, by the descent of the media and a visit from presidential candidate Adams Brooke. When the babies begin dying, both the media and the community-mindedness die with them. Undeterred, Leland turns to small farmer, Margaret Prickett.

Margaret runs an organic dairy from a farm and ramshackle house that has been in her family for generations. She is deep in debt from inheritance taxes. Her cheeses are in great demand from high-end restaurants along the Eastern Seaboard, even though she must make and deliver them in secret since they come from raw, unpasteurized milk. Leland's son, August, helps Margaret on the farm and stoically keeps his love for her a secret. In his spare time, August dresses up as Thomas Jefferson (to whom he bears a slight resemblence) and "performs" as him in Chautauqua settings. Margaret has pinned her hopes on Adams Brooke, who she believes will propose tax amnesty legislation for small family farms. Even when Brooke claims the Prickett family motto -- Omnis pecuniae pecus fundamentum (The herd is the foundation of all wealth) -- as his own in the final presidential debate, Margaret sticks with him.

[Got all that?] One more thing: Margaret's 13-year-old daughter, Polly, reeling from her parents' recent divorce (where she learns that her father values her at precisely $490 a month in the child support that he doesn't pay), has developed a serious and seemingly reciprocated crush on her history teacher, Stanley March.

So, back to Pastor Vaughn. In another attempt to bring recognition and economic benefit to Three Chimneys, he convinces Margaret to reproduce the "mammoth cheese" that his ancestor, Massachusetts Baptist Thomas Leland, presented to President Jefferson to recognize his support of religious liberty. The 1,230-lb. cheese was emblazoned with the Jeffersonian statement: "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God." The cheese will be presented to President Brooke shortly after his inauguration.

(Evidently, presentation of large cheese to presidents was a regular event in the 19th century. This image may be from President Jackson's time [modcult.org does not tell us from where this picture came].)

This novel is amazing not just on the level of how these complex stories cleverly come together (even though it looks like Manda and her brood get left behind, they don't). Each character is vividly portrayed, and none of them have easy-to-pinpoint motivations. Pastor Vaughn is a prime example: Despite the relentless wrongness of all his actions, he is never driven by greed or self-aggrandizement. I kept going back and forth with the extremely annoying adolescent Polly; yes, she's a self-centered pain in the ass, but every adult is failing her. The satire has a light touch, the history is fascinating, and the several tragedies come by honestly.

Occasionally, I did wonder where the African Americans were.

A new-to-me narrator -- with a lot of experience -- Laural Merlington, reads the lengthy novel. Her voice has warmth and range, and she balances the huge cast of characters with skill. I personally find the southern accent she employs to be over-exaggerated -- at times I felt like I was in the middle of Gone with the Wind or a Eudora Welty story, rather than a place that I sensed to be fairly near Washington, D.C. ... hardly the Deep South. But I am neither an expert nor a connoisseur of southern accents, so I could be talking totally through my hat. For the most part, I enjoyed Merlington's reading; she translated the compelling story with humor and pathos.

The publisher makes an error in employing a technique of altering any dialog that takes place over the telephone or through a microphone. The tinny, electronic sound was extremely distracting and utterly unnecessary. A wrong turn in an otherwise good production.

The Mammoth Cheese by Sheri Holman
Narrated by Laural Merlington
Brilliance Audio, 2003. 16:00

Monday, May 2, 2011

Cursed

Holly Black has yet to disappoint me. I really enjoyed her modern faerie tales as well as the short stories of hers that I've read. But I wasn't prepared for how much I liked White Cat, Book 1 in her series The Curse Workers. (I wish the series title wasn't over Cassel's face on the cover, I really want to see his eyes!) Like her modern faerie world, Black cleverly alters our own time to give it a little bit of just-possible magic. You'll never look at someone who wears gloves inside the same way ever again! (Many of the staff who handle books at my library wear gloves ... hmmm ...)

Cassel Sharpe is the youngest of three brothers and the only member of his family who isn't a worker. Workers can bring about individual magic (as minor as bad luck, as catastrophic as transformation) by touching their bare hands to the skin of another. Curse work was made illegal in 1929, so everyone wears gloves to indicate that they aren't a worker. Curse work and workers who continue to practice have been co-opted by the mob, who demand unswerving loyalty. Even though Cassel isn't a worker, his emotion-worker mother initiated him into a life of petty crime and grifting. She's now in prison, and Cassel boards at an exclusive prep school because three years earlier he killed Lila, the girl he loved. He's not really sure what happened, except that his brothers took care of it. Lila was the daughter of a big crime boss, Zacharov. Now, Cassel runs a lucrative betting pool at Wallingford and tries to forget about Lila.

Until he wakes up teetering on the roof of his dormitory, without any idea how he got there. He was dreaming about a white cat ...

Whew! I loved this book. I loved Cassel and I really loved the long con that builds up over the course of about a week in the story. Like a good caper movie, I just sat back and waited for the information to dribble in, knowing that the payoff will be good (unlike the movie I saw yesterday, whose ending was not as good as its buildup). I was in the car as the novel came to its fun, exciting conclusion and yes ... I had a driveway moment, or rather a parking lot moment. I'm torn between immediately reading Book 2, Red Glove, or waiting until the third installment appears and then inhaling them in quick succession.

To top off the great story, it is perfectly matched to its narrator, Jesse Eisenberg. The actor -- who occasionally seems nerdy and uncomfortable in his skin in "real life," not just in character -- reads Cassel's narrative as a confused, self-hating, kid brother hopped up on caffeine. Eisenberg's high voice and halting delivery embody Cassel's uncertainty and the world of hurt in which he lives. And yet, he's so sly ... forget at your peril that he's a con man. I liked listening to Eisenberg read with increasing confidence as Cassel gets smarter, figures out what happened to him, and takes action.

Eisenberg doesn't get fancy. There's very little voicing in the novel, although following conversations isn't difficult. He's pretty good at girls -- giving them slightly higher voices without getting all femmy. He's not entirely confident in speaking with a Russian accent, this comes and goes. But his overall performance of the novel is completely engaging, I was with him from start to finish.

In this video, Black and Eisenberg talk briefly about the book. He is most definitely not a slumming movie star, and he talks a little bit about what he likes about narrating a book. Still, I can't think of many exclusively screen actors who have ever made such a smooth transition to audiobooks. Now I want to go out and see all his movies.

White Cat (The Curse Workers, Book 1) by Holly Black
Narrated by Jesse Eisenberg
Listening Library, 2010. 6:40

[This image found by searching Google Images and is from memegenerator.]

You may already be a winner

I won April's drawing for a free audio download given away by the Bewitched Bookworms as part of their Whisper Stories in My Ear challenge. Hooray for me! The odds were with me, I had six chances (out of 25) of winning.

I'm happy to keep participating in the challenge -- listening to at least 400 hours of audiobooks. With the two I finished this weekend, I'm more than halfway there.

I've been remiss lately in sending a shoutout to the women of Stacked and Abby the Librarian, who post links to my reviews (and others) each month in their AudioSynced feature. This month they offer a heads up that Devourer of Books will be hosting another Audiobook Week June 6-10. (I missed the festivities last year.)