Thursday, October 20, 2011

Just down the road

I like books in a series, I like following a beloved character through a series of adventures even if one (or more) of those adventures might involve a bit of a wrong turn ... a bit of a reading slog. Sometimes, though, I can't deny the satisfaction (and yes, relief) in knowing that I don't have to read any more about them. That's what I thought about Peter Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. It was Gone, Baby, Gone and they were ... gone. Until now ... when I think they are really gone. Yes, Dennis Lehane had one more book to write, Moonlight Mile. [grrr...] (Now I didn't read Gone, Baby, Gone until 12 years after it was published --in 2010 -- so my relief-turning-to-horror at having to pick up the Kenzie/Gennaro story again was relatively mild compared, I'm sure, to some readers.)

Twelve years ago, Peter and Angie -- private investigators and partners in life -- split up over the conclusion of a case of a kidnapped toddler. Peter insisted on returning the child, Amanda McCready, to her negligent, possibly criminal, mother; while Angie thought Amanda should remain with the loving couple who thought they knew better and had removed her from said mother. Peter and Angie reconciled, married and had a daughter of their own, Gabriella. Gabby is four, the same age Amanda was when she was taken. Peter is the family breadwinner and he has taken more than one investigation that rubs up against his moral compass. Angie is chafing at her role as stay-at-home mom. The family needs health insurance.

But when Amanda's aunt Bea calls them again, telling them that Amanda is missing again, Peter knows he's got to find her. In proper P.I. fashion, the case multiplies in complexity, involving drugs, gambling, identity theft, black-market babies, the Russian mob, and more than one set of misbegotten parents. Through it all, Peter retains his unflappable wit and sarcastic repartee -- even when his own family is threatened. Order is returned, and I'm pretty sure that Peter and Angie will not be returning again. But only pretty sure ...

The novel has an elegiac feel -- the economy sucks, fall is melting into winter, old wrongs must be righted, parenthood bring new priorities. But it also felt a little rushed, the characters seem flat, the villains are cartoons. And speaking of cartoons, Bubba -- the lovable psychopath -- is mostly offstage and when he's on, it's as if Lehane tried to crowbar him into the story. I mean, they put him in charge of hustling Gabby out of the story so Peter and Angie can kick butt. I think Lehane remained haunted by what he did to Amanda, so he had to work it out. And now that he's a wildly successful author, his publisher said, "Whatever you want!"

Which isn't to say that the audiobook isn't terrific. It is. It might be as good as the Lehane novel I listened to earlier this year. The narrator, Jonathan Davis, was a revelation. I listened to him read something else earlier this year and it was utterly unmemorable (or rather, memorable for the wrong reasons); I can't remember a thing about his narration. But here, he's amazing. First of all, he sounds completely, authentically white working class Boston as he reads Patrick's first-person narrative. It's unforced and consistent. Angie speaks similarly, but her delivery sounds female. Even Gabby's origins are clear, and Davis keeps her from becoming cute or cloying.

The Russian mobsters afford Davis the opportunity to flash some other accents. While they are pretty scary as mobsters go, the accents tend to make them somewhat comical. Still, Davis is consistent.

In addition to his command of a variety of accents and characters (there's a Boston Brahmin in there, some Latinos, a lesbian from Vermont and an annoying fitness guru among others), Davis sets the right tone for the novel. Patrick's quiet relating of the story is told in a reserved voice that leaves a listener in no doubt of how aware he is that he's turning the corner and moving on.

Discovering that Jonathan Davis was not the average audiobook reader I thought he was proves cautionary. I look back at a post about yet another book that I heard him read and I was somewhat complimentary. A successful narration really does mean that the reader is matched with the right material. Moonlight Mile is a good match.

[A cross from Belarus plays an important role in the novel. This Belarussian postage stamp depicts the Cross of Saint Euphrosyne. The image was provided by G. Komlew and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane
Narrated by Jonathan Davis
Recorded Books, 2010. 8:45

Finally all caught up! Ten books (86.5 hours) listened to in 30 days ... blogged in 10 days!!

Went

Cynthia Voigt's Young Fredle surprised me on so many levels. It's much more than your basic animal story and more than your leaving-the-nest story. There's also a terrific narration by someone I'd never heard read before (who may not have narrated before?). An all-around excellent package.

Fredle (rhymes with medal) the house mouse lives in the pantry of the farmhouse owned by Mister and Missus. His extended family forages in the kitchen at night, but are understandably fearful of the traps, the cat and the other dangers that surround them. If a mouse is caught, or gets sick enough that it can't forage for itself, it is declared "went." One night Fredle and his more adventurous cousin Axle discover and feast upon a deliciously sweet round, brown object. It makes Fredle terribly ill, and his family -- as it must -- pushes him out of its nest to went. As Fredle slowly recovers, he is gathered up by Missus and placed outside. He finds himself under the porch, not knowing what to do in order to survive.

Soon a bossy field mouse, Bardo, approaches and introduces Fredle to the culinary delights of the compost heap. Bardo acquaints Fredle with the dangers and excitements of the outside world, but instead of fearfulness, Fredle is filled with wonder ... at the light of day, the stars at night, flowers. He ventures beyond the porch and makes friends with one of the family dogs, Sadie. At the same time, he feels a longing for home and as he tries to figure out a way back inside the house, he is kidnapped by some rowdy raccoons and must rely on his wits to escape consumption. Fredle has more discoveries to make before he returns back home, and once he gets there he finds that home isn't how he remembers it.

Despite the concept of "went," this is a gentle story that even the most sensitive or mouse-phobic reader will enjoy. Voigt's loving descriptions of Young Fredle's discoveries are evocative and deeply child-friendly. Her anthropomorphized animal characters are universally appealing -- avoiding cuteness -- and demonstrate an understanding of each animal's behaviors. While I found the story arc predictable, I can see that a young reader would be on tenterhooks about Fredle's fate.

A pretty amazing narrator, Wendy Carter, reads the story. She's got a soft, gentle voice that perfectly mirrors the long summer days when Fredle's adventures occur. Fredle's curiosity and independence are evident in the voice she uses for his dialogue. Carter creates a number of vocal characterizations that are downright hilarious. Sadie, the somewhat dim yet eager dog, has a breathlessly excited delivery. Bardo's pushiness comes out in his emphatic speech. Fredle's cousin Axle speaks quickly and eagerly, but when Fredle meets her again after his journey, she has been traumatized by her own experiences. The exhaustion and depression are clear in her voice.

It's the Rowdy Boys (favorite exclamation "Woo-Hah!") who are the most fun, though. Sounding like bunch of Joisey gangsters, led by the charismatic Rilf, the raccoons burst into the story full of bluster and, well, rowdiness. They are dangerous and loveable in the same way the mobsters on The Sopranos were.

The Rowdy Boys nicely illustrate the fine line that Voigt walks in this novel: Fredle knows that these raccoons plan on eating him, but he's also having a boatload of fun with them. The danger and the humor mix it up in a delightfully scary way. This book can appeal to so many readers: like sentimental animal stories -- check! like adventure -- check! like to be scared -- check! like humor -- check! like a little sadness -- check! like great characterizations -- check! What I liked most was how unexpected this book was. What I like in a book is to be surprised! Check!

[It was a York Peppermint Pattie that proved to be Fredle's downfall ... or his ticket to adventure. This photograph was taken by Scott Ehardt and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Young Fredle by Cynthia Voigt
Narrated by Wendy Carter
Listening Library, 2011. 6:20

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Arch frenemies

It's not every book for teenagers that starts with an erection, but I thought Jack D. Ferraiolo takes this situation and runs with it in a pretty hilarious, totally teen-friendly way in the fun romp, Sidekicks. (In the interest of avoiding a National Book Award-type fiasco, note that the erection does not occur in either Dan Danko's nor Dan Santat's books confusingly also entitled Sidekicks.)

When mischief occurs in the Big Apple, Bright Boy is there -- in yellow spandex, red cape and a face mask. He's the sidekick of the great superhero Phantom Justice, who understands the need to appeal to the youth market. When Bright Boy isn't fighting crime, he's Scott Hutchinson, high school senior and ward of Trent Clancy, keeping a low profile at his elite Manhattan prep school.

As he's rescuing a damsel in distress from a thug who wants to drop her off the side of an 80-story high-rise, Bright Boy gets aroused. Those yellow tights leave nothing to the imagination. And with all the news cameras that diligently follow the exploits of Phantom Justice and Bright Boy, soon everybody knows what a perv he is. Sure, no one knows that the perv is Scott Hutchinson, but Scott really can't stand the stain on Bright Boy's reputation. He begs Phantom for a reboot ... a new costume ... one that recognizes that Scott is no longer the prepubescent nine-year-old Bright Boy. Phantom says he knows the market, the yellow tights stay.

On a mission against another villain, Dr. Chaotic, Bright Boy finds himself in a duel with the doctor's sidekick, Monkeywrench. In the clinch, Monkeywrench's mask falls off, to reveal Scott's classmate Allison Mendez. Scott's had a crush on Allison for some time, but she hasn't given him the time of day. After she cleverly exposes Scott, the two sidekicks first spar (verbally and physically), but then they fall hard. And when Phantom Justice and Dr. Chaotic figure out what's going on, well, the superhero world turns upside down.

Ferraiolo, who has another job as a writer for animated television, leaves nothing un-spoofed in his satire. The superheroes and the villains take the time to engage in witty repartee while fighting, the news cameras are omnipresent, the villains always intent on world domination through some doo-hickey. The fights are lovingly detailed. There's a twist that is revealed pretty early on, but the author keeps us nicely in the dark regarding motivation. The dialogue is indeed snappy and the teen romance fresh. I was a tad confused by the ending (so is Scott), but it's not really important. Ferraiolo has a knack for what teenagers will like and I think they'll like this one.

Ramón de Ocampo reads the first-person narrative. (I don't think I knew how hunky he is! Apologies for that shallowness.) I've listened to him read several times (here and here) and I've enjoyed it every time. He's great at reading teenagers, while his voice doesn't sound particularly youthful, he can deliver their speech rhythms authentically. de Ocampo brings nothing flashy to his narrations -- just solid characterizations, an appropriate feel for the book, and a pacing that reflects the mood and emotions of the plot. In Sidekicks, he reads the silliness straight, and keeps the dialogue peppy and the speakers consistent. He does a great riff on someone's (Michael Keaton, George Clooney, Christian Bale?) Batman as Phantom Justice -- clipped speech, gravelly register and take-no-prisoner's authority.

There are a few third-person sections of the novel read by Jack Garrett. He's evidently read a number of audiobooks but I've never listened to him before. He reads chapters where the book's adult characters act separately from Scott and he brings a stolidness and, yes ... slight evil to his narration. He's mostly neutral (although not the cypher that Alexander Marshall is in Life of Pi), but creates consistent characters and recognizes the humor that runs through the novel.

This is a really fun audiobook, and no one is listening to it at my library!! The book's got plenty of circulation, though. Is the cover too juvenile? Bright Boy looks younger than he is in the book to me. I think younger readers will enjoy this, but will Scott's embarrassment over his misbehaving genitalia soar right over their innocent little heads? Well, it won't be the first time ... or the last.

[The monkey wrench was photographed by Dori and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Sidekicks by Jack D. Ferraiolo
Narrated by Ramón de Ocampo and Jack Garrett
Recorded Books, 2011. 7:00

Monday, October 17, 2011

Spiders

I am so close to being caught up! So, just a pause to point out a few places on the vast web of the internet to find out about other great audiobooks.

There's this month's (so what if the month is half over?) AudioSynced from Abby the Librarian.

Another book blogger invites listeners to link their audiobook reviews to her weekly review of an audiobook, Sound Bytes. Devourer of Books does indeed that, I don't think she needs to sleep! This is the place where last June's Audiobook Week came from.

Finally, as you can see, I received my Solid Gold Review audiobook from Audiobook Jukebox and reviewed it. From September's offerings, I get two more!! Excellent!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Spread your wings

Herewith my first Solid Gold Review. Thank you Audiobook Jukebox and Full Cast Audio.

Cecilia Galante's The Patron Saint of Butterflies is based, in part, on her own childhood. She was born and raised in a religious commune in upstate New York. I think she is very careful to say that where she lived was not as extreme (or spiritually questionable; i.e., the color red is considered evil) as her fictitious Mount Blessing, but she does raise some important questions about the wisdom of turning over control of one's life (and one's children's lives) to another person. As Galante says in the FAQs on her webpage, "not much good will come out of it."

Agnes Little and Honey Harper are best friends, 14 years old, and have lived their entire lives in the isolated Christian community of Mount Blessing. The charismatic Emmanuel is the spiritual leader, and members of the community are contentedly obedient. Except for the fiery-haired Honey. Honey's latest infraction has been French kissing a boy, and both she and Agnes have been called into Emmanuel's Room of Requirement for punishment. Agnes is deeply distressed at her transgression (which was to defend Honey), as she has been aspiring to be more like the saints she's been reading about in a book given to her by Emmanuel. She's going so far as to secretly mortify herself by tightly tying a rope around her waist and sleeping on rocks. The punishment angers Honey, whose questions about the world outside and why everyone follows Emmanuel so blindly are becoming more pointed.

The girls are surprised by the arrival of Agnes' grandmother, Nana Pete, who usually comes during the summer but has poorly timed her visit to coincide with a significant Mount Blessing holiday, Ascension. Even though Honey is all but orphaned (her mother ran away from the community shortly after Honey was born), Nana Pete has always treated her like another grandchild. Nana finds out about the Room of Requirement, and then Agnes' younger brother Benny is in a terrible accident -- sustaining an injury that Emmanuel claims to have healed through a miracle. Nana Pete spirits him, Agnes and Honey away. As Agnes and Honey begin to experience the world outside Mount Blessing the rift in their friendship grows deeper.

This book rings utterly true. The girls are each seeking their place in the world, and their fears and questions seem so authentic. The escape from Mount Blessing is exactly that, as Nana Pete drives literally like a bat out of hell to get her grandchildren to safety. The novel never lets up this suspense, practically to the final pages. It asks some big questions, ones that are important to adolescents: When am I old enough to make decisions on my own? What do I do with what I know? The two girls are opposites in practically every way, but they come by their characters honestly. I can see how Mount Blessing made each of them.

It's my second audiobook in the last month where a child confronts a parent who deserted him/her. I got shivers again at the deep pain and honest anger coming from the child. (I hope it's not a spoiler to realize that Honey connects with a parent [I was wrong about which one, though!]).

Hearing that anger and pain comes in no small part from the young actress portraying Honey in this full cast production, Julie Swenson. All of Honey's frustrations at the limitations imposed upon her are clear in Swenson's dynamic and emotional reading. She has Honey's impetuousness and intelligence in her voice as well. Swenson's counterpart in this book with two narrators is Lydia Rose Shahan as Agnes. Shahan has the less showy part as Agnes' struggle is a more interior one but she is as confident a reader as Swenson. Her loneliness and confusion at being completely outside her comfort zone are vivid. And when the two girls start arguing, well ... they sound like teenage girls having a real slingfest.

Shahan and Swenson are ably backed up by the other members of the cast, but I need to single out humorous, avuncular Bruce Coville who is absolutely terrifying as Emmanuel. He bellows from deep in his chest when angry and has a preacher's authority when ministering more kindly to his flock. I also think Dianna Dorman as the crusty Texan Nana Pete and Trevor Hill as a mentally disabled character named Winky (who introduces Honey to butterflies) are particularly good.

For a Full Cast Audio production, the music was kind of ordinary -- just a little bit of a plink-y piano theme between chapters. Gloriously though, Nana Pete and her charges find themselves at an African American church because Agnes insists that they attend on Sunday, and a soaring hymn is sung on the recording by a singer named Agatha Devore [sp.?] and the All Saints Choir.

I'm having a little trouble parsing the title. Is Honey, the unsaintly one, the saint? Or is it Winky, who pretty much saves the day (setting the girls [the butterflies] free), but who is really a secondary character. I don't think it's Agnes. I'm not sure it really matters, except that I have to believe the author had someone in mind when she titled her book.

[The butterfly separating the heads of the two girls is a zebra longwing, one that Honey has been hoping to see one day. The photograph was taken by Tammy Powers and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante
Narrated by Lydia Rose Shahan, Julie Swenson and the Full Cast Family
Full Cast Audio, 2011. 8:45

And in this corner ...

Bird in a Box is the last of the six books that needed catching up when I started on Monday, but now -- thanks to public radio pledge week and a lot of time in the car -- I'm two more in the hole! This well-researched little story from Andrea Davis Pinkney about three African American tweens growing up more or less parentless in the 1930s provides a glimpse into a culture with which I only have the most basic acquaintance. It also gave me little remembrances of Bud, Not Buddy (even down to the sky blue cover) and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that! (It looks like Christopher Paul Curtis will be publishing a "companion" novel in January: The Mighty Miss Malone [alas, I cannot remember Deza from the earlier novel].)

Hibernia's mother left her and her father -- reverend of the True Vine Baptist Church in Elmira, New York -- to follow her dream to be a jazz singer in New York City. Stuck singing in the church choir (for the moment) Hibernia is making plans for a similar career. Willie's drunken father burned his hands beyond repair, destroying Willie's dreams of becoming a boxer. Otis' parents died in a fiery collision with a hay truck. Willie and Otis have been living at the Mercy Home for Negro Orphans, under the affectionate care of an older white woman, Lila Weiss. It's 1937.

The radio plays an important role in the lives of all three children. Bernie listens to jazz on the sly, but realizes that her father is also secretly listening -- following the fights of the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis. Otis and Willie (and Mrs. Weiss) are big boxing fans,and Otis' most prized possession is his father's old Philco radio. The story is told from the perspective of each of the three children, who eventually meet when Bernie's choir performs for the orphans in the Mercy Home. They avidly follow Louis' comeback -- from his surprise June 1936 defeat at the hands of Max Schmeling to his title fight a year later against Gentleman Jim Braddock. We grow to understand what an important figure Louis was to African Americans during this time. Like Joe -- Bernie, Willie and Otis have had to fight back from disappointment and loss.

Although I enjoyed getting to know the three children in this story, the novel's episodic nature made it difficult for me to really attach to them in any way. I just flitted in and out of their lives without truly connecting. Sadness and difficulties were suddenly resolved, most particularly when Bernie's father has a change of mind about her ambitions to sing beyond the church choir. At times, the children all seemed to stand for something -- Bernie is sassy and opinionated, Willie is angry and withdrawn, Otis cheerful and optimistic. The title metaphor is explained several (i.e., too many) times: "Even a bird in a box can get free."

The best part of the novel, I think, is the recreations of the voices, stories, and even snippets of the music that come out over the radio. They so authentic and interesting, and Pinkney's research is so thorough, that the era does come to life. I just don't feel that the characters in the story were quite as lively.

Three narrators share the reading: Bahni Turpin (heard memorably here), S'von Ringo, and J.B. Adkins. (I think that Ringo portrays Willie and Adkins Otis.) I've never heard either of the two men read (although Mr. Google leads me to the [unsupported] conclusion that they are both part of the Los Angeles music scene), but their inexperience shows. Turpin's natural reading, the expressive way she uses her slightly hoarse voice, and her ability to portray characters using other voices simply outshine the two men. Their sections sound awkward, like they are fundamentally uncomfortable reading out loud.

I particularly love when Turpin voices an African American adult laying down the law to young kids. There's a power and uniquely black inflections that make even this middle-aged white woman sit up and take notice. I liked it when she portrayed Grandmother Johnson and here when she voices Bernie's father. Turpin's also very good as the announcers calling Joe Louis' fights, and the other radio voices. She understands the rhythms of this kind of speech, understands that the sound and the delivery are different.

On top of my general sense of meh about this book and audiobook, I'm wondering how many kids are going to want to read it. The history is kind of obscure, the narrative jumps around, not a whole lot happens plot-wise, and the characters are kind of stock-ish. I like the cover (except that Hibernia looks like she has two noses), but I'm not sure many children will stick with it.

[The only image of Joe Louis in Wikimedia Commons is this one taken from the Library of Congress' Van Vechten collection.]

Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney
Narrated by Bahni Turpin, S'von Ringo and J.B. Adkins
Listening Library, 2011. 4:55

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Into the breach

Never underestimate the power of a good booktalk. Several years ago, a colleague booktalked China Miéville's Un Lun Dun (which I have never gotten around to reading), but I was intrigued enough to know that I wanted to try something from this author someday. The City and The City (or The City and Ytic Eht as the book's cover indicates) is another title I found while browsing the LOS shelves. As it wasn't a monster (another Miéville audiobook clocks in at over 24 hours), plus it appeared to have a detective element, I snagged it. Either I'm getting soft (or the catch-up blogging is affecting my cranky side), but this was another good one.

It's also really complicated. Inspector Tyador Borlü of the Extreme Crime Squad is called to a case of a dead woman found in a waste ground on the outskirts of Besźel (oy! the diacriticals are killing me!). Borlü is your classic loner cop, experienced but a bit of a maverick. Besźel is on the eastern edge of Europe, a rundown and slightly backward place that has the feel of an old Soviet city. Besźel also shares its space -- literally -- with the more sophisticated and vibrant Ul Qoma. The cities exist utterly separately except in areas known as crosshatched. There, they overlap, but if a citizen of Besźel happens to glance and see something going on in Ul Qoma (or vice versa), they must quickly "unsee" it. Unseeing is a skill taught early and practiced without thinking. If they don't unsee, they have "breached" and officers of a deeply feared and shadowy institution, Breach, swoop in and take them away ... forever. No one knows what happens to someone who has been swept up by Breach.

It doesn't take Borlü long to figure out that the murdered woman is somehow involved with an archeological dig in Ul Qoma -- a dig that might provide the existence of a third city, Orciny -- but he is not allowed to make inquiries about anything that happened there. Evidence appears proving that her body was moved from Ul Qoma to Besźel (through a legitimate border crossing), and Borlü applies for permission to continue his investigations in Ul Qoma. There, in classic crime fiction format, he meets his Ul Qoman counterpart (and complete opposite) Qassim Dhatt. They've got to set aside their differences in order to solve the crime.

And that's enough synopsis.

I think what I enjoyed most about this novel, aside from the plunking of a conventional detective story into the off-kilter-making co-existing cities -- was Miéville's complete respect for us as readers. He doesn't waste time elaborately building his worlds -- he spins out the details that we need to know naturally as the plot progresses. He has created a truly frightening entity, Breach, that we know almost as little about at the end of the novel as we do at the beginning. He's also making a sophisticated statement about how 21st century city dwellers live: We "unsee" all the time, ignoring the panhandler as well as a couple having an angry argument in public. We teach our kids to unsee. Yet, I never felt that his message was blatant or heavy-handed ... or even judgmental.

All of my posts lately seem to have ended with variations on "I'll read another" by this author, and this one is no exception. Un Lun Dun (which I think also explores the idea of intimately connected cities?) here I come.

John Lee reads this audiobook. Even though he's quite prolific (105 entries in my library's catalog!), it turns out I've only heard him read once (back in the earliest days of my blog ... forgive me its sloppiness). His experience and talent show in his masterful reading of this very complicated book. He retains a calm control over the novel's bizarre setting, knowing when to step up the pace of the narrative and when to let the emotional parts linger. (Without spoiling [I hope], I was actively disturbed when Borlü finds himself in a place where he doesn't know the rules.)

He gives most of the characters variations on an English accent, but contrasts Borlü's slightly formal manner of speaking with the more relaxed street stylings of Dhatt. When called for, Lee produces authentic American and Canadian inflections. He also sounds natural when voicing women. And, as always with a novel like this -- with its unusual place and character names -- he selects a way to say them and sticks with his pronunciation consistently.
  • BOR-loo
  • BEZH-el
  • Al KOh-ma
  • And last but not least, China (like the country) Mee-A-ville
[A Wikimedia Commons search of "breach" resulted in an image of this sculpture by the Suriname artist Oscar Adogo, Der Doorbraak, or The Breach. The photographer is Clock.]

The City and The City by China Miéville
Narrated by John Lee
Books on Tape, 2009. 10:16

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

It never forgets

Jack Martel and I share an interest in elephants. Jack, 11-year-old hero of Jennifer Richard Jacobson's Small as an Elephant, is hoping to see one named Lydia on his Labor Day weekend vacation with his mother to Maine. I plan on seeing them in the wild sometime before I kick the bucket. Jacobson has written a gentle novel about a boy fiercely protective of his mentally ill parent, who will test himself again and again as he attempts to save her and himself.

Jack wakes up in his tent on the first morning of his vacation in Acadia National Park. He crawls out and finds that his mother, her tent, and their rental car are missing. His mother has gone missing before; when she's in one of her manic phrases -- Jack calls it "spinning." He just needs to sit tight for a few hours ... she'll be back. Even though he only has $14, he knows he can't let any adult authorities know, because they'll make him move in with his grandmother who Jack thinks doesn't really like his mother or him.

But when his mother doesn't come back, Jack first decides to look for her and then to make his way from Maine to their apartment in Jamaica Plain near Boston. Hungry, thirsty, with no place to sleep, Jack hoists his backpack and makes his way south (Jacobson's website has a fun map showing Jack's journey). As an adult, I accompanied Jack on his painful trip (so much bad luck!) just frustrated that he wouldn't ask for help. But I think kids will really identify with Jack's stubborn independence and understand his feelings that he has no options. Such a kid-friendly book. Jacobson has also written a series for beginning readers about a boy named Andy Shane. Also really terrific.

The squeaky-voiced William Dufris reads the book. I've heard him read several children's books, plus one adult, and I like listening to him. He reads in a tense, excited manner that captures Jack's sense of panic as things quickly spiral out of his control. Every time something goes wrong for Jack (and they go wrong frequently), the frustration in Dufris' voice is palpable. When Jack reaches the end of his resources, there is a subdued calm and real sadness. He also creates a cast of natural sounding characters (he does "Maine" very well, aye yup). Like the story, it's a gentle narration, nothing flashy.

My love of elephants stems from a stuffed animal with many large polka dots that lived on my bed for years. It then morphed into a "figurine" collection until that got out of control (or people thought that I was a Republican!). Now, I content myself with informational books and try to quell a (mostly) unobtrusive anxiety that they aren't long for this world, species-wise. Speaking of informational books, check out Ann Downer's Elephant Talk: The Surprising Science of Elephant Communication. It's fascinating.

[The photograph of rocks in Acadia National Park was taken by Michael180 and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
Narrated by William Dufris
Brilliance Audio, 2011. 5:05

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Take your congeniality and shove it!

Checking our library's catalog, I see with astonishment that we own but one copy of Libba Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty on audio. I remember really enjoying this audiobook (although not enough to go ahead in the series), and I've not been disappointed in the Printz winner's other two books either. I think she needs a editor who engages in a bit more pruning, but I love the preposterously big ideas that she bites off, masticates with humor and cleverness, and spits out in the form of entertaining, yet thoughtful fiction. Beauty Queens is hilariously funny, with sharp, social commentary (if, yes, a little heavy-handed) under the delicious candy coating.

Any description will not do Bray's imagination justice. A planeload of teenage girls all participating in the Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant, crash-lands on a deserted island somewhere in the Caribbean (I think). Just a handful of contestants survive. Miss Texas, Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins, vies with Miss New Hampshire, Adina Greenberg, for leadership. Sensible Adina thinks they should be concentrating on acquiring food and shelter and pursuing rescue, while pageant-crazy Taylor wants to stay focused on the competition. The girls initially vote to follow Taylor. As time passes, we get to know each contestant and watch as their secrets are exposed, hidden strengths are revealed, and their consciousness raised. They can look after themselves quite well, thank you, despite the corporate entity, The Corporation, which plans on using the island (and the contestants) to legitimize trade with a tinpot dictator with a stuffed (live?) lemur and an Elvis complex. The Corporation also has a slightly fishy relationship with the founder of Miss Teen Dream, Ladybird Hope.

Much else is spoofed as well. The narrative is interrupted by commercials for various products peddled by The Corporation, including Lady 'Stache Off, DiscomfortWear, and MaxiPad Pets; and previews of reality television shows and other entertainment created by The Corporation, such as Captains Bodacious IV: Badder and More Bodaciouser. Each Teen Dream contestant's Fact Sheet is presented. For the many references that those of us whose lives are not deeply influenced by The Corporation, a series of footnotes help to keep us informed.

I'll admit that I lost track of what was going on on more than one occasion. It's too long. Characters blurred. Some of the jokiness and satire run well past their sell-by date. It needs tightening. Hence my call for a less-nurturing editor. I was interested in learn in the author's note that Bray's editor, David Levithan, essentially gave her the idea to run with. Which means -- to me -- that neither of them have the distance required to approach the book with a tough, gimlet eye.

Bray reads her book. This can be a minefield, but I think she pulls it off. Her theatrical background is strongly in evidence in her ability to keep the lenghthy narrative moving and create a number of distinct characters. Now, her voicings are all pretty cartoonish (Miss Texas is seriously twangin', Ladybird Hope is right out of Wasilla, Alaska, Miss California is a Valley Girl [once she's exposed], Miss Mississippi (Alabama?) is a empty-headed baby-talker, etc.), but so are her characters. Bray's consistent, though, and the exaggerated characterizations help a listener keep the large cast straight.

She's most brilliantly funny reading the footnotes (which are indicated by a "bellboy" ding), and the commercials. Bray's in full snark mode and for those of us who appreciate what she is satirizing, listening to her is deeply enjoyable. Throughout the narrative, it's clear how much she is enjoying herself reading, and I don't mean to imply that she's on an ego trip.

The audio production is excellent. Music cues are used to great effect. Miss Mississippi (Alabama? I did have trouble telling them apart.) introduces each disc with a whispery clueless commentary -- I can't exactly remember, but along the lines of "Disc 2. I like the number 2, don't you?" There's an "interview" with the author/narrator at the end that continues in the satiric vein of the novel. The only thing I didn't like was the very lengthy acknowledgments, where she does come across as a bit glad-hand-y.

The comparisons to William Golding's Lord of the Flies are everywhere, and inevitable, I guess. I read this book a lifetime ago, and was probably too young to appreciate it. (Is it a book to "appreciate?") We own the audiobook. It's short. I'm curious now.

[Frida Kahlo might have been a Lady 'Stache Off client, but I doubt it. Her Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird is owned by The University of Texas and this image of it was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
Narrated by the author
Scholastic Audio, 2011. 14:30

Cowgirl

Many years ago, a library volunteer expressed amazement and possibly even disappointment that I had never read a Molly Gloss novel. I certainly loved pioneer fiction as a young reader, but I had never even heard of her. Despite the fact that I never remedied my error of never reading her work, it would be impossible for me as an Oregonian interested in books not to know of her. So when I was browsing the Outreach shelves for something to take on a nine-hour road trip, it seemed serendipitous to find The Hearts of Horses there. Oh my, this was absolutely lovely.

Martha Lessen has left home with her three horses, horses she "didn't feel she could leave ... behind" with her violent and abusive father. She's 19 years old, the year is 1917, and Martha rides into Elwha County in Eastern Oregon offering to break saddle horses. Martha breaks horses gently, understanding their fears and behaviors, and she finds herself at the ranch of George and Louise Bliss. The Blisses offer her a place to park her bedroll and hire her to break two horses for $10 each. Despite her shyness, she is slowly drawn into the lives of the ranchers and farmers of the county, who soon arrange a riding circuit for her. She'll work to break a string of horses -- riding them from homestead to homestead until all of them are ready to ride.

Despite her determination to remain distant, Martha soon becomes entwined in their lives and witnesses the small and large dramas going on: the drunkard who neglects his family, the spinster sisters running their father's ranch, a husband and father dying from cancer, the German Americans ostracized by their neighbors. The sisters' ranch hand, Henry Frazer, begins wooing Martha with the same gentle handling that she gives to her horses. Each of the character portraits is exquisite and the listener -- like Martha -- gets caught up in their lives in spite of ourselves.

The landscape is also a character and Gloss writes about it economically but vividly. The mountains looming over the valley, the cold and isolation, the fug of a barn, the cold cheeks of a skating party are all described. The horses have their own personalities as well, and there is such comfort and security in Martha's kind methods. It's the kind of book where you aren't aware of any forward momentum, yet suddenly you are at the end and you've absorbed so much.

The narrator is Renée Raudman. I admit to avoiding books that she's narrated because I didn't really enjoy listening to her the few times I did. She has two oddities that may make her unique for some listeners, but that I find annoying - a really broad 'a' and a slurred 's' that sounds like a 'zh.' These are in full evidence in her reading here, but when I asked my traveling companion if she heard them, she didn't even know what I was talking about. So, I moved on.

Raudman reads with a soft almost-whisper that nicely embodies Martha's shyness and reserve, as well as the quiet of the lonely country and the privacy that its residents profess to crave (even though there is a lot of minding each others' business here). She maintains a very even narration; even when the man dying from cancer is in his final hours (and these scenes are very distressing) or when Martha is attempting to rescue herself and a horse down a ravine, Raudman keeps her tempo consistent. I respect her choice; the novel is written in an omniscient third person that is reflected in her dispassionate narration.

It looks like The Hearts of Horses is the only Gloss book available in audio (I'm not counting the few cassette tapes still hanging out there in WorldCat). I guess I'll have to eye-read another one. It'll be worth it I think. Add it to the list!

[Fictional Elwha County stands in for the northeastern corner of Oregon anchored by the Wallowa Mountains. The photograph of this landscape was taken by Fbolanos and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss
Narrated by Renée Raudman
Tantor Audio, 2009. 9:23

Monday, October 10, 2011

The next goat

Oy! I'm behind! Six books! (Seven, probably this evening ... although finishing this post will keep me at six.) Alas, remembering details may be problematic. So, let's get right to it! Life of Pi. A little over a year ago, I decided to listen to this book (frozen holds are a wondrous thing). My intrigue stemmed from the fact that I read somewhere that this was a nighttime read-aloud of Barack and Malia Obama (although maybe it was Michelle and Malia?). Either way, as a person interested in what children read, I was curious about Canadian Yann Martel's Man Booker Prize-winning book.

Piscine Molitor Patel (named in homage to a French swimming pool, but -- after much teasing -- shortened to Pi) grows up in Pondicherry, India at his family's zoo, where his father teaches him to respect the wildness in the wild animals. (Dad uses a goat to show the bloodthirsty qualities of the big cats and Pi's older brother tells him he'll be the "next goat.") A bright boy, he explores the three major religious faiths and practices pieces of each of them. In 1977, when Pi is 16, his family decides to emigrate to Canada, they take the zoo with them. One stormy night, the vessel that the family and its collection are on explodes and Pi is the only person to escape. He ends up in a lifeboat with a zebra (with a broken leg), an orangutan, a hyena and Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. Nature being how it is, soon it is just Pi and Richard Parker in that boat. For 227 days.

Pi cleverly figures out how to keep the tiger sweet by sharing his food and water. Both Pi and I slowly grow to understand that Pi needs Richard Parker, without his companionship in those lonely days he would go mad. Unless, of course, he does go mad. (You decide.) I wouldn't have thought that 11.5 hours of hopelessly drifting in the Pacific would be riveting listening, but it was. Martel's delicious descriptive passages, coupled with the puzzle of what would be Pi's fate kept the headphones plugged in. The payoff is terrific! And I would love spoiler ideas about Pi's (ultimate) relationship with Richard Parker.

I decided to listen to this book (rather than eye read it) because of Jeff Woodman. He reads this novel with his usual attention to detail, gift for emotion, and character creations. The latter is limited to just a few, obviously, but each is distinct and natural- sounding. At the end of the novel, when Pi is being interviewed by the Japanese owners of the ship, Woodman had an extremely difficult job distinguishing between two male characters both speaking Japanese-accented English in a transcript format (no "Mr. Okamoto said" to help you). Couple these characters with Pi's East Indian accent and I occasionally experienced confusion following the conversation.

Woodman's talent as a reader is grasping the emotion of a character or a story, and he breathes life into Pi's saga. Every moment of agonizing loneliness, fear, and deprivation come out in Woodman's reading. You can hear Pi shrinking away into a starved, dehydrated, hallucinating (?) husk. Pi's suffering is very real to a listener, perhaps more so than to a reader. However, Woodman's accent never sounded right to me. Yes, he speaks in that high, clipped, rhythmic delivery that we associate with Indian-accented English, but it always sounded like an accent and not a real person speaking. Is this because I know that Woodman isn't Indian? Food for thought.

Another narrator, Alexander Marshall, reads some short sections portraying a writer researching Pi's journey many years later. He is nondescript as a reader, carefully neutral, so thoroughly different from Woodman's lively and authentic reading that a listener can only wonder what the publisher was thinking.

Martel recently completed a small act of artistic integrity: He sent Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper 101 books -- one approximately every two weeks over four years -- in an attempt to convey the idea of stillness (thoughtfulness, contemplation) to a man who barely gave him a nod during a ceremony honoring him (Martel) and other Canadian artists and writers. Harper needs the time he'd take reading Martel's gift books, the author hoped, to see himself, Canada, and the world on a larger canvas. Contrast Harper's reaction (a few canned thank yous from his staff) with a letter Martel received from Obama, as reported here. (So it was her father Malia read it with.) Say what you like about the President ...

[The photograph of the Piscine Molitor is from a "memoria" website. For a more up-to-date picture, check out Wikimedia Commons (sigh).]

Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Narrated by Jeff Woodman and Alexander Marshall
HighBridge Audio, 2002. 11:30