Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Think lovely thoughts

I've never read (actually I've listened to all of them) a Dana Reinhardt novel I didn't like. I had issues with the audio version of Harmless, but liked the book itself and I really enjoyed both How to Build a House and A Brief Chapter of My Impossible Life (listened to pre-blog). Reinhardt tells brief, precise stories of older teenagers in insightful and compelling ways. Their brevity and smart, strong narrators make them great candidates for listening. The Summer I Learned to Fly is her first book for (slightly) younger readers, but it has all the hallmarks of a great Reinhardt read.

Drew Robin Solo was actually given the first name of Robin at her birth -- and called Birdie by her loving parents; but her mother changed her name when Drew's father died suddenly when she was three. Drew was her father's name. She's a loner and lonely girl growing up in a small town on the central California coast in the mid-1980s, but her 13th summer turns out to be one full of big changes. Her mother opens a specialty cheese shop in a dying downtown and Drew loves to hang out there, even if she has to smuggle in her beloved pet rat, Hum, past the health inspector. She plans on spending her summer helping out in the shop, crushing on the dishy college student/surfer dude who works for her mom.

She meets a boy, slightly older than she is, one night at the back of the shop. He introduces himself as Emmett Crane and tells her how much he appreciates the still-good, but not sellable, cheese she leaves out by the dumpster. He also seems to know a lot about rats (the pet kind). He and Drew begin a tentative friendship, one that encourages her to push her boundaries, ride without her bike helmet, disobey her mother. Things happen that shock, sadden, and even thrill her and her safe, manageable world tilts a little bit. Drew is telling us her recollections of that important summer from a distance of five years.

Reinhardt's mastery is how few words she needs to tell us so much. Drew's relationships are so carefully portrayed (we learn about her slightly-mean-girl friends in a spare paragraph or two), her small town is vivid -- Drew's understanding of the state of her mother's business is perfectly described as she beholds Safeway. She's a bit of an unreliable narrator, in that she's got a 13-year-old's tunnel vision, but her voice sounds so authentic. The bird/flying metaphor is there, but it's not intrusive.

A narrator new to me, Shannon McManus, reads the book. She has a pleasant voice and speaks with the rhythms of a teenager. Drew's quietness and sensitivity are nicely reflected in McManus' undramatic -- but still lively -- reading. While Drew sounds like a 13-year-old, I also got a slight impression of the older person (all of 18) telling us the story. McManus slightly voices the novel; her characterizations are subtle but the important features of each personality are clearly captured. I really liked the fact that her portrayal of Nick the surfer was not a caricature in any way. There was real emotion in her reading, I heard the lump in her throat when Drew reads a section of her father's notebooks. I'd listen to her read again.

This was my second novel in less than a month blurbed by Markus Zusak: "When you start reading a Dana Reinhardt book, it's like discovering a new friend." The other one was Jason Wallace's Out of Shadows: "Honest, brave and devastating -- more than just memorable. It's impossible to look away." I'm seeing more and more books for young readers with blurbs on the cover, most recently Michael Grant (The Marbury Lens) to Audrey Niffenegger (Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes). Does this matter to teen readers? Or are they strictly aimed at adult buyers? Do you ask your friends to do this for you? Or does your publisher?

[Hum the rat is named for Drew's favorite cheese, Humboldt Fog. The beautiful photo (that's "vegetable ash" running through the cheese) was taken by Jon Sullivan and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Summer I Learned to Fly by Dana Reinhardt
Narrated by Shannon McManus
Listening Library, 2011. 4:24

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sister act

The lovely thing about Jeanne Birdsall's Penderwick books is how they seem to effortlessly evoke an old-fashioned time of summer days with no structure but always with plenty to do, while having their feet somewhat firmly in the present. (No one in the family seems to have a cell phone, for which I am grateful, but it does seem a little odd.) I read the first two Penderwicks, but decided (for no particular reason) to listen to Book 3: The Penderwicks at Point Mouette.

If you don't know the Penderwicks, they are four motherless sisters -- Rosalind (the oldest, the responsible one), Skye (the scientist), Jane (the writer), and Batty (the baby, as yet unformed) -- living somewhere in western Massachusetts. In the first book, they met a fatherless boy named Jeffrey, who has since become a dear friend and honorary brother, and whose wealthy and distant mother has since sent him off to boarding school. Penderwick pere, after spending many years as a widower, has recently remarried a widow with a baby boy. (That was the second book.)

This summer, the doctors Penderwick are off to present scientific papers and have a brief honeymoon. Rosalind (kind of a busybody who is the OAP - Oldest Available Penderwick) is spending a vacation with her best friend in New Jersey. The three remaining sisters are going to Point Mouette in Maine with their father's sister, Aunt Claire. Skye must now assume the role of OAP and she knows that she is not terribly suited to the part. She drowns the long list of instructions provided by Rosalind and can now only read the part that says "blow up Batty."

The sisters are thrilled to discover that Jeffrey will be joining them in Maine. But when a neighbor's dog trips Aunt Claire and she ends up with a severely twisted ankle, Skye knows that things will only go down from here. It's only two weeks, but much happens and their world is briefly and poignantly set on its ear. All rights itself by the end, as it should be.

I'm pretty sure that I would have wanted to be a Penderwick sister if I were reading about them as a tween. All that fierce love and acceptance, and "real-life" adventures that just seem so interesting. Sure, lessons are provided, but they are so heartfelt and often so amusing that you don't even mind. The book is so easy to listen to, its language is so natural. The descriptions are vivid -- I could see that small house at the end of the road, butting up against the pine forest. When the sisters go out on the ocean, the sun was beating down on my head and I could smell the salt air.

Susan Denaker reads the book. She's an experienced narrator, but I've not heard her before. I really enjoy how she created an individual voice for each sister -- not particularly easy since Skye and Jane are just a year apart in age. Skye's sensibility and Jane's volatile emotions are nicely delineated by Skye's more grounded voice and Jane's flighty, higher register. If six-year-old Batty is a little babyish for me, well, so be it. A narrator's got to sound babyish sometimes.

Denaker portrays a large cast of characters with interest and appropriateness. This is a novel about people you or I might know, so no one sounds bizarre or ridiculous simply to provide differention. There are some moments of high emotion in this novel and she plumbs those emotions honestly. Tears are shed and I heard them in her voice. It's a lovely performance.

The March sisters, the Melendys, the girls at Miss Minchin's, the Ingalls girls, Nancy, Bess and George; and for older readers, the Bennets and the Dashwoods, even Dorothea and Celia Brooke (yes! I've read Middlemarch!). I'm sure there are so many more I'm forgetting ... but I do enjoy classic novels about sisters, or a reasonable facsimile thereof (and the occasional brother). Count the Penderwicks as a modern classic.

[Birdsall says that Point Mouette was inspired by Boothbay Harbor in Maine. This stereoscopic photograph of the Harbor was taken by O.M. Jones in the late 19th century. It lives in the New York Public Library's Photography Collection and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall
Narrated by Susan Denaker
Listening Library, 2011. 7:32

Monday, September 12, 2011

Dis not!

I'm late to The Misfits, but I'm glad I got around to it -- my timing was unusually good since I'd just heard a "Talk of the Nation" feature on bullying last week. The only other James Howe book I've read was the clever and funny Bunnicula, that perfect first "scary" story. The Misfits is very different, but contains the same liking for and respect for its young readers.

The Misfits are four seventh graders who just don't "fit in" at Paintbrush Falls Middle School in upstate New York. They actually refer to themselves as the Gang of Five (I can't remember why), making it through the meat grinder that is middle school through mutual support and friendship. Bobby Goodspeed, overweight and motherless, is the story's narrator. He's an introspective kid who tries to fly below the radar but can't seem to go a day without being called Fluff, Lardass or Pork Chop. Addie Carle (Nerdette), Joe Bunch (Faggot), and Skeezie Tookis (Greaser) round out the Gang.

Addie -- smart and not afraid to express her opinions -- decides that she is going to run for president of the student council as a third party candidate, and gets the Gang to join her. She initially creates the Freedom Party, representing minority students, but she's foiled when a teacher points out that only one of her candidates (an African American boy named DuShawn -- who really only gets involved because he has a crush on Addie) actually meets her criteria. After a particularly nasty name-calling incident, Bobby has a brainwave and the Gang forms the No-Name Party -- dedicated to the elimination of derogatory names at school altogether. A few more obstacles from school administrators stand in their way, but Bobby and the Gang eventually do get on the ticket and get to present their platform to the whole school. Some things change, and some don't, but all four kids feel good about themselves.

This description makes The Misfits sound like an afterschool special, and on one level it is. But there's a lot of humor here, the Gang themselves are quite appealing, and the outcome isn't happy-ever-after. I think it helped to listen to this and to listen in a full cast format because each member of the Gang really emerged as a real person -- not as a cardboard representative of the fat, nerdy, gay or "hood" (which is what we called the black-leather-clad smokers who made that first-floor bathroom impossible to use at my high school in the 1970s) constituencies.

Full Cast Audio's website provides a cast of characters, so I know that Spencer Murphy, Maggie Lane, Ryan Carlesco and Andrew Pollack play the Gang. Murphy does the major narrator duties, and he creates a completely believable character of a sad, shy boy. The other young readers also sound comfortable and natural in their performances. Carlesco, who plays the not-quite-out gay teen, sounded overly young to me and he relied a little too much on volume to express Joe's flamboyance. Full Cast Audio's handy links tell me that I heard Murphy in The Will of the Empress and Pollack in Fairest, but alas, saw no reason to mention them by name in those postings. I also enjoyed performances by David Baker (an FCA regular) as Bobby's sympathetic dad and Bill Molesky as a lonely haberdasher who inspires Bobby's creation of the No-Name Party.

I didn't begin listening to Full Cast stuff until after this audiobook was published in 2002, and I admit that I found some of the ones I first listened to were pretty amateurish. I think they've improved by leaps and bounds -- more nuanced and polished readings from the young narrators, confident and natural-sounding characterizations, and sophisticated sound effects and musical interludes. I was surprised that The Misfits had these qualities, I didn't hear a clunky interpretation, a shouter, or an emoter in the cast. Plus, my personal bane of these productions -- that upstate New York "tense short a" [scroll down to Buffalo] -- was perfectly in order for this story which takes place in a small town where people indeed do speak that way.

I read The Misfits because my book group is discussing Addie on the Inside and -- as you know -- I hate to come in in the middle. So, when I read the jacket flap for Totally Joe (Book 2 of The Misfits series), I learned that The Misfits inspired No-Name-Calling Week, which is January 23-27 (or 24-28 ... I hope they straighten that out), 2012. Here's the logo promoting next year's activities [retrieved from the website].

No Dissing ... yeah!

[I am relieved that a search of Wikimedia Commons for "faggot" did not turn up any hate materials ... at least as far as I searched. As a knitter, it was nice to see some faggoting, instead. The photograph was taken by Linda Spashott and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Misfits by James Howe
Narrated by Spencer Murphy and the Full Cast Family
Full Cast Audio, 2002. 5:00


Friday, September 9, 2011

F***ing anecdote

I firmly believe that reading should not be a chore, but as I am a compulsive finisher, some books can be more effortful than others. I've had some books I've been angry at, but the times I've felt like I was wasting my time are few and far between. And despite its preciousness, pretentiousness, and (failing to come up with another pre- word) extraordinary self-indulgence, I didn't find that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius made me either angry or irritable. Sighingly impatient perhaps, or fairly bored upon occasion. Thank goodness for Dion Graham, whose really stellar performance makes this go down pretty easily.

This work -- originally published in 2000 -- is catalogued as Biography in my library, but memoirist Dave Eggers tells us that much of it is fictionalized. Perhaps revisited would be a more accurate description: I believe these things happened to Dave, but because he's kind of a jokester, his re-creations of events and conversations aren't exactly trustworthy. Several times, his characters jump out of character and begin talking to Dave as if they know they are speaking for Dave's posterity (if not their own). Isn't this meta-something? My post title is taken from one of these instances: "I don't want to be a fucking anecdote in your stupid book!"

When Dave was 21, his parents died (of two different cancers) within a month of one another. Dave and his two older siblings decided that they would parent their much younger brother Toph (Christopher) together, with Dave taking the primary role. Dave and eight-year-old Toph moved away from their suburban Chicago home to the Bay Area. For the next five or six years, the boys raised each other, while Dave established himself as a GenX literary gadabout, founding the satirical Might magazine, and trying out for MTV's Real World.

There are moments of real honesty here, particularly in the beginning. Eggers' descriptions of his mother's final days are indeed heartbreaking. When he and Toph set up housekeeping, it's a hilarious frat party of a never-changing menu (potatoes in the French style), spoiling food, dirty dishes, and Toph frantically waking up Dave in time to get him to school.

As the book winds on (and on), it gets less engaging. The lengthy section devoted to Dave's audition for the Real World ups the pretentiousness (although we finally get a little more info about his family's life in Lake Forest), as does the shenanigans involved with the production of Might's bimonthly issues (nude photographs, the faked death of a celebrity). Dave fantasizes about death and disaster frequently. Toph disappears for long periods. At the end, as Dave and Toph are preparing to move to New York, it appears they gave up on San Francisco because they were bored and needed something new to do. The audiobook concludes with the preface Eggers wrote to the paperback edition. More self-indulgence and meta-explanations. Here's where he says what he wrote is fiction.

The cover joins the circus as it was created by those 90s art rock-stars, Komar and Melamid. I guess the title might get you to open the book, but that painting sure wouldn't. Interestingly, audiobook publisher Recorded Books, which almost never uses a book's original cover, uses this. I wonder if they were contractually obliged to.

I listened to this because of Dion Graham, and I'm glad I did. It's an outstanding narration. He doesn't hold back on Dave's grief, his love of Toph, his childishness (and the fact that he knows he's infantile), even the intense sincerity with which he tells the Real World producer his life story. He reads quickly when necessary (speeding across the Bay Bridge for a few hours without Toph has the rhythm of a true getaway), but never lets go of the narrative's underlying emotion. It is through Graham that I understand that this story is one of a person working through loss. It's not a self-indulgent exercise in hipness. Had I read this with my eyes, Genius would have just been words ... annoying, pretentious, wa-a-ay overdone. Ironically, it is Graham who gives this story a heart.

When I was lucky enough to meet Dion in 2010, he told me that Eggers had been so impressed with his work on What is the What that he knew that Graham was the only one who should narrate Genius. If I'm remembering correctly, Eggers told the publisher that no one else was to be considered. This is pretty radical in audiobooks: Graham is a black man narrating a white man's story. Thank goodness we live in an audiobook world where culturally appropriate narrators are available to narrate books by and/or about people who aren't white; but an even better world is the Eggers/Graham universe: Where the match between narrator and book is the only thing that matters.

[The broken heart image was created by Nevit Dilmen and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Narrated by Dion Graham
Recorded Books, 2010. 13:30

Sweet dreams

The last time I listened to a book centered around walking or running, I fell and broke my ankle. Since then, I've definitely experienced fear about doing it again (not from the pain of the break, but from the sheer inconvenience of not being able to walk) and I'm still not sure I'll ever go walking in the dark again. [sigh] These were the hamster-wheel thoughts that kept going through my head as I listened to Wendelin Van Draanen's The Running Dream. I kept my eyes firmly on the ground during the morning walks and finished accident-free. You know how "they" say that most car accidents take place less than two miles from home; I'll probably fall while listening to a book about a kid who stays home reading all the time. See what I mean about fear?

Jessica Carlisle had just set a personal best in the 440 at her high school track meet and was on her way home on the team bus. An uninsured junk hauler with faulty brakes slammed into the school bus, killing one student and crushing Jessica's right foot. Everyone else gets out with cuts and bruises, but Jessica's leg is amputated below the knee. "My life is over," she says. Shocked and depressed, convinced that her classmates will see her as a freak, she hides out at home until her best friend Fiona drags her back to school and life. Working with a crafter of prostheses she nicknames "Hankenstein," Jessica gets a prosthetic leg, but struggles with the loss of her running identity.

Then, her coach shows her a video of a runner named Oscar Pistorius [photo below], running on prostheses that don't resemble Jessica's in any way. Coach Kyro announces that her track team, her school, her community will raise the $20,000 needed to get Jessica her running leg. The remainder of the novel follows Jessica through the stages of loss to acceptance. Along the way, she meets a more severely disabled schoolmate, Rosa, a 9th-grade math whiz with cerebral palsy. Until she had to share a desk with Rosa (because they are both in wheelchairs), Jessica realized that she never truly saw her.
  • I won't share the ending, but cue the inspirational music.
  • I finished this while ironing (never mind why I was ironing when it was 90+°), and I do admit to clearing a bit of a lump from my throat.
The Running Dream is narrated by Laura Flanagan. I've only heard her read one other time, and I really didn't like it much; but I think in that case it was the material, not the narrator (inspirational rehab stories aren't any more a fave than vampire novels [see previous post]). Here, Flanagan gets the teenage voices really well, and is particularly effective with the inflections and characterization of first-person narrator Jessica. She portrays Rosa's speech impediment (which Jessica describes as "under water") honestly, while ensuring that we can understand her.

Where Flanagan is less successful is in portraying adults. There are a number of adults in this story (unusual for a teen novel, now that I think about it), and they all seem a little formal, a little stiff and unnatural sounding in Flanagan's reading. Is she trying to make them sound so different from the teenagers that she teeters into caricature? Her choices don't ruin the book by any means, but they do give you that little ear-hiccup that makes you pay more attention to the voice than what the character is saying.

There are two other things in this book (having nothing to do with the audiobook) that struck me:
  • Jessica's younger sister (13) is frequently portrayed texting (and this activity is always presented in a slightly negative way) ... but 16-year-old Jessica and her friends never do. Yeah, right!
  • A small subplot of the novel involves health insurance (or the lack thereof, Jessica's working class family decides to only insure their laborer father). While lawyers are haggling over who's responsible, Laura needs care!! This was resolved a bit too neatly (and quickly), but I thought the issue was raised in a thoughtful way.
[The photograph of Oscar Pistorius running just a few days ago in the 2011 World Championships -- where he was the first amputee ever to compete at this level -- was taken by Erik van Leeuwen and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen
Narrated by Laura Flanagan
Listening Library, 2011. 7:00

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Really sucky

I'm having difficulty rustling up an example of a vampire book that I have truly enjoyed (years ago, I read Anne Rice's first few Lestat books, but those got weird [and so did she]). Adam Rex's Fat Vampire: A Never Coming of Age Story seemed promising; I mean this was the guy who dreamed up the hilarious mayhem of Smekday. Mostly I want a book that doesn't involve true-love-forever in any way whatsoever, thank you Adam Rex: "The vampire pressed down on you. There was no beguilement, no charm or enchantment. You were held fast by the hair as the vampire tore you open and siphoned off your life. Your blood mingled. It wasn't romantic." [p. 89]

Doug Lee -- short, pudgy, comic book fan, Jewish, general nerd -- was made a vampire by accident over the summer. His maker (corrupter or granter of immortality depending on who you are talking to) had just been made a vampire itself and was scared and wounded when it attacked Doug. Doug is pretty depressed at the thought that he'll never change from the fat, loser dork he is. He tells his best friend, the even nerdier Jay (formerly homeschooled), because he'll need some help when the two boys go on their long-planned trip to Comic-Con in San Diego. But while they're there, Doug -- who hasn't quite mastered the whole feeding thing -- calls enough attention to himself that he catches the eye of Alan Friendly, host of a reality television show called Vampire Hunters (the videos linked here are pretty funny).

Doug and Jay scuttle back home to suburban Philadelphia where Doug attempts to act like a normal high school sophomore. He falls kind of hard for exchange student Sejal, but she tries to let him down easy. Doug confronts his maker, acquires a vampire mentor, and begins dating another girl and just like that, things begin to look just a little better. And interestingly, so does Doug.

Fat Vampire is also Sejal's story. In a nicely loony twist, she is spending her exchange year with a dial-up-only family because she caught "the Google" at home in Kolkata, unable to tear herself away from her technology. She decides to start fresh by losing her suitcase full of saris on purpose and adopting the Goth fashions and tranquilizers of her host sister, Cat.

This is pretty darn funny, with lots of satire about sexy vampires, just about every clique in high school (although I did have a bit of a laugh at the idea that the drama kids were the popular ones), reality TV. Every once in awhile, the quirky mood vanishes and some serious stuff comes your way: Doug's description of how he was made -- which he does in the second person -- is fairly disturbing, as is Sejal's obsession with her digital life. The ending isn't tidy.

It's been almost a year since I've heard Kirby Heyborne read anything (that, and the next book I finished led to disability flashbacks). Despite his six appearances in my blog (thank you Audiobook Jukebox), he's just not a favorite narrator. His relatively high voice, the sing-song quality of his reading, and the precise diction simply aren't very interesting to listen to. Occasionally, he breaks out of these patterns, and is really, really funny! Doug uses his vampire skills for good and thwarts a robbery at a MoPo store (a 7-Eleven-type store that also shows up in Smekday). As Doug goes a little crazy, so does Heyborne. "POP-TARTS! POP-TARTS! POP-TARTS!" He gets louder, lively, funnier, more engaging to hear. When he did this, it took me by surprise, but I liked it.

In this novel, he mostly portrays teenagers; they are relatively interchangeable but they sound like real kids. There are enough written clues (Doug said, etc.), that following dialogue isn't difficult. With adults, Heyborne deepens his high voice, and this sounds a little strained. Sejal speaks with an Indian accent and Vampire Hunter Alan Friendly is English. Both accents are a little wobbly here.

Definitely better than any other vampire novel read or listened to recently (which means about five in the past five years), but this is just not my genre.

[In times of stress, Doug transforms into a bat. The photograph of the vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) was retrieved from the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (Costa Rica) via the Encyclopedia of Life and is used under a Creative Commons license.]

Fat Vampire: A Never Coming of Age Story by Adam Rex
Narrated by Kirby Heyborne
HarperAudio, 2010. 8:25

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Good news!

The days surrounding Labor Day are always my favorite time of the year (although I might have to push back my pleasure a week as today is the first day of an anticipated five-day stretch of 99° days), and several good things happened to me over the weekend:
Must keep listening ...

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Roll, tap, tap, tap

Oh boy. The Marbury Lens. You may have read about it here; I'm not sure where heard about it, but I'm building a list of 15 "New & Notable" books to booktalk and one of my colleagues recommended it. I think it'll go on the list, it's definitely compelling but whew! It's one of those books (like Liar) where the reader decides what happened. The author, Andrew Smith, doesn't spell it out. Here's the story, told by a deeply unreliable narrator; take what you read/heard and figure it out ... for yourself.

I won't tell you what I decided (or rather what's still rolling around in my head), but here's (more than) a little to get you started. Jack Whitmore is a 16-year-old boy with few emotional connections. He's been raised on the central California coast by doting maternal grandparents (his mother was a teenager herself and is long gone, dad was never in the picture), whom he regards with tolerant dispassion. His best (only?) friend is Conner. In that cruel boy way (lacking that Y chromosome, I just don't get this), Conner continually ribs Jack about never having had sex, frequently baiting him about being gay. The boys plan a trip to England later in the summer, where they'll take a look at the exclusive school that Jack's grandfather attended to decide whether they want to spend part of their senior year there.

At a party at the end of the school year, a drunk Jack stumbles upon Conner having sex with his girlfriend. Conner casually invites Jack to join them. Getting drunker, he flees the party and accepts a ride home from a doctor in an expensive car. Only this doctor takes Jack to his home, where he drugs and tortures Jack and attempts rape. Jack manages to escape and tells Connor what happened to him. Connor concocts a plan to kidnap the doctor, which instead results in his death. There is no evidence linking them with the doctor's death, so the boys fly to London as planned.

Jack arrives a few days before Conner, and meets an older man in a pub who leaves him with a pair of purple-lensed glasses, saying they are Jack's. Jack glances through them and sees another landscape -- seemingly post-nuclear. He tries them on and is transported to this place, where he sees the decapitated head of the man who handed him the glasses and is known by name by two younger boys, Ben and Griff. Jack somehow knows he is in Marbury. And once he's experienced Marbury -- full of horrors like mutant flesh eaters and a lot of mutilated body parts -- Jack feels compelled to return. Neither the insistence of his best friend or the love of a good woman can keep him away.

I think that's what I had the most trouble with in listening to this story is what draws Jack to Marbury. Aside from the gradual breakdown in his sanity resulting from the kidnapping, that is. Or maybe Jack isn't going crazy? In Marbury, Jack is in charge, he's the actor not the acted-upon, those boys look to him. But, does Marbury exist? What happened there? Why is Conner in Marbury, but has mutated to the bad side? And what about the ghost of Seth, who appears to Jack both in Marbury and in his "real life." (Seth announces his presence in Jack's real life by making the "roll, tap, tap, tap" sound.) And another thing ... why does Jack sometimes refer to himself in the second person? So many questions ...

I didn't really like this -- it is extremely disturbing -- but I couldn't stop listening. Was it because I wanted my question answered (why does Jack keep going back?)? Or like Jack, was I drawn to something very awful and couldn't look away? It's clear my appreciation of this book suffers from middle-aged-woman syndrome (alas, it's unavoidable): it is so written for teenaged boys. It doesn't matter if I like it or not. And I'm happy to sell it (hence it's appearance on my list).

Mark Boyett reads the novel, and he is very good. I think he's new to narrating, but he reads this book with confidence. His voice is a bit gravelly for a teenager, but Boyett overcomes this by speaking in those boy rhythms as Jack and Conner exchange insults as conversation. I think he really does a fine job depicting Jack's spiral downward -- picking up the pace as Jack disconnects from the reality of his life in London. I could also hear a distinct change of delivery -- more certainty, harsher -- when Boyett reads the parts of the text that are in second person. Several sections of the novel are devoted to first-person narration from Seth, telling us the story of his life (another textual question -- just how does Jack know this story?). Here Boyett goes a little overboard with the twanginess, a fairly cheap way of indicating a rural and less educated character. At the same time, he reads Seth with a quietness that makes his narrative quite compelling to listen to.

I did find him a little too high and swishy for the novel's few females -- essentially Jack's new English-Swedish girlfriend Nickie and her friend Rachel. The English accents sound a bit wobbly to me as well. [The middle-aged woman has to interject here: Could these girls be more of a teen boy's fantasy -- utterly supportive and eager for sex? And Swedish ... really? Come on!]

I poked around the author's blog to see if he had commented at all about Meghan Cox Gurdon's take on his novel (she does call out The Marbury Lens for its "unimaginable gore and cruelty"), and what I found was thoughtful and worth reading. In our world of instant media reaction, Smith took a few days to think about what had been said. He kept his eye on his book, not any hurt feelings at being singled out and certainly not that YA saves. OK, I could have used fewer expletives, but it's the middle age talking again (she's talking a lot today). I am intrigued that Smith thinks he wrote a happy ending. It kinda makes me rethink the book all over again!

[To erase from my head the horrors of Marbury, here is Marbury Big Mere, photographed by Espresso Addict as part of the Geograph Britain and Ireland project and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. As instructed, I note that the photograph is copyrighted, but licensed for further reuse.]

The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith
Narrated by Mark Boyett
Brilliance Audio, 2010. 10:49