Thursday, February 16, 2012

Closure

And speaking of genres, it's always nice to see an author step away from what we know them for to (successfully) try something else. Lauren Oliver spends a little time away from her sci-fi-ish teenaged girls to bring us the middle-grade fantasy, Liesl and Po (with their reversed e's and i's from the same Germanic [?] roots, Solveig and Liesl are challenging my spelling fingers!). Read by that master of the non-human character, Jim Dale, it's a satisfying and friendly ghost story clearly inspired by A Little Princess, with a dash of Cinderella.

Liesl has been banished to the attic of her greedy stepmother's home ever since her father took ill and was taken to the hospital. He died there a few weeks later, and Liesl never had a chance to say goodbye. An alchemist's apprentice, Will, who makes sure he passes by Liesl's house every day on his errands (even though he doesn't know who she is), has noticed that she hasn't been looking out the attic window for the last week or so. He's so distracted during a late-night delivery that he mixes up two boxes and a very important box of magic is not delivered to the Lady Premier, but comes instead to Liesl's house.

One night, Liesl is visited by an entity who might be a boy, or a girl; it doesn't remember. It introduces itself as Po and explains that it is a ghost from the Other Side. Accompanying Po is a soft, formless creature that might be a dog, or a cat; this is Bundle. Liesl pleads with Po to find her father on the Other Side, and -- even though Po tells her it will be a one-in-a-million chance -- they do meet, and Liesl's father tells Po that he'd like to be buried next to his first wife under the willow tree by their house in the country. When Liesl discovers the box (of magic) that she believes to be her father's ashes, she's determined to leave the attic and fulfill her father's wish.

Po and Bundle help her escape, and on their nerve-wracking journey out of the city -- chased by the Lady Premier, the alchemist and her evil stepmother -- Liesl meets up with Will. If I have one complaint about the book, it is that it takes an awfully long time to get to this point. But once it does, it's a nail-biting rush to the story's conclusion. And the conclusion is a sad one, but also plenty cathartic and when the omniscient narrator relates this part of the story in those soothing, grandfatherly, Jim-Dale tones ... well, you know everything will be alright.

It's been less than a year since I last listened to Dale, and I'm pleased to say that I liked this material much better. He creates ridiculous, yet entertaining, voices for all the adults (mostly rather unpleasant people, worthy of caricature) in the story and his voices for the novel's children -- Liesl, Po and Will -- refreshingly are not reprises of Hermione, Ron and Harry (or at least how I remember them through the mists of time). He even gets to emit a dog-like meow (or a cat-like bark) when Bundle goes "mwark."

Dale's narrator voice here is what truly shines. He confidently moves the story along -- building up excitement as the chase is on -- but there's an underlying calm and protectiveness in his reading. Listeners know that Liesl and Will are in good hands because our narrator tells us so with his reassuring demeanor. If you're in the right mood, Dale effortlessly sends you back to a childhood moment on dad's lap, face resting on his chest, listening to him read aloud and feeling the vibrations of his voice. Bring on the macaroni and cheese!

Thinking about how Katherine Kellgren makes a shift when she reads adult materials reminds me that I want to listen to Dale do this too. There are still far too many holds on The Night Circus (although it's on my list), what about The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart (French, the basis of an album, I don't know if this is good or bad)?

[The print version of Liesl and Po was illustrated by Kei Acedera. Here are two of her (his?) character studies for Po and Bundle, copied from the book's website.]

Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver
Narrated by Jim Dale
HarperAudio, 2011. 5:55

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