Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Hmmmm hm hm hmmmm

"Kt -- kl, va, va, tk-tk, hr'wo-gep-gep-gep" is some of the scintillating dialogue of the title character in Daniel Kraus' Scowler, winner of this year's Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production of books for children and young adults. It's the second time this author/narrator/production team won: the first was in 2012 for Rotters. Knowing the author's predilection for horror, I was prepared for the worst ... but I just can't imagine the worse. This was chilling.

Nine years before the start of the novel -- in 1972 -- Ry Burke sent his father to prison. Marvin had spent Ry's lifetime physically and mentally abusing his wife and son, but when he sews his wife Jo Beth to the sheets (for daring to earn a little income from dressmaking) -- from which she is rescued by her 10-year-old son -- the family, including Ry's toddler sister Sarah, attempts escape. On a freezing night, Marvin -- who has already struck the boy in the head with a baseball bat -- stalks Ry into a dark glade where the only thing that saves the boy is the conversation and companionship of three toys: Mr. Furrington, a plush bear; a plastic Jesus Christ; and a humanoid folk-art figure crafted of metal parts, Scowler. At the urging of Scowler, Ry plunges his sharp metal legs into his father's neck, ensuring that he is rescued and Marvin is jailed.  There is no doubt that Ry is injured both physically and mentally, but when his mother throws away his toys, he is able to man up and try and help her run the family's isolated Iowa farm.

Now that he's graduated from high school, Ry is at that place where he knows he should leave, but can't figure out how or where to go. When a disheveled stranger appears at the end of their drive, the Burkes invite him in, only to discover that he's escaped from a nearby prison -- a prison, he informs them, that also houses Marvin Burke. The stranger escaped because a meteorite destroyed the prison, so the family has real reason to believe that Marvin will soon be back to claim his farm and -- in his perverted way -- his family.

And so he does, arriving at approximately the same time as another meteor crashes to earth on the Burke farm. For the next 24 hours, Marvin terrorizes his family in a variety of unspeakable ways and Ry tumbles into madness (caused by his proximity to the meteorite's magnetic field?) -- now believing that his three inanimate friends are back to help him once again. Yet Ry's madness is now as violent as his father's and we are never certain if he wishes to help or destroy his mother and sister.

This book went too far for me. There's no doubt that violent families exist and that violence begets violence but the descriptions here verged on the edge of violent porn for me. The passages are lengthy, the blood flow and the emotional degradation wallow in the details, and it just seemed unending. At one point, Marvin shaves Ry's head (so that he will mirror his father) to which the boy is a willing participant, and I felt like a grubby little observer to an overly personal interaction. Where Kraus describes Ry freeing his mother from the stitched prison of her bedsheets, it was just more intimate information than I needed to hear in a book published for teens.

At the same time, the depiction of a family that deals with a dominant abuser seems utterly authentic. An accommodating intimacy as wife attempts to appease husband, a curious young child who doesn't remember her parent's violence, and a son whose only recourse seems to be to become his father.

Kirby Heyborne channels Kraus' prose again, and he is pretty excellent. I'm not his biggest fan, but he really rises to the occasion here. His light, dare-I-say-callow voice is transformed into several surprising characters: the deep, gravelly menace of Marvin who is most threatening when he hums tunelessly (see post title), the serene delivery of Jesus Christ, the pip-pip English accent of Mr. Furrington, and a strong yet fearful (but not femmy) Jo Beth. Ry's transformation from terrified 10-year-old to terrifying 19-year-old is very clear in Heyborne's narration. And then there's Scowler, which Heyborne reads with the ease and confidence of someone reading straightforward dialogue. It's really masterful.

Heyborne's experience as a narrator is demonstrated in his command of the pacing of the novel. There is a high level of tension sustained in this story, but Heyborne never lets it control him. Tension ebbs and then builds through his voice, authentic and consistent dialogue, and a varied pace that holds us in suspense and then releases us (but not much).

I've enjoyed the last few Heyborne narrations I've listened to, maybe it's time to move on from my "dislike." He's demonstrated he has the chops.

Publisher Listening Library created a couple of peeks "inside" the audiobook that are pretty interesting: An interview with Kraus and Heyborne talking about he came to read Scowler. I was surprised to learn that Heyborne only met Kraus at the 2012 Odyssey reception honoring Rotters. Although, why am I surprised? Why would these two meet? When I was on Amazing Audiobooks, Listening Library always took us out to lunch and invited an author to join us. While we would talk audiobooks with these individuals, I don't think I ever even asked if they had met "their" narrators. How dumb was that?

[Perhaps the most famous meteorite in the United States, the Willamette Meteorite was found near where I live and now resides at the American Museum of Natural History. This photograph, taken by herval, was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Scowler by Daniel Kraus
Narrated by Kirby Heyborne
Listening Library, 2013.  11:12

That's what it's all about

Jerry Spinelli's Hokey Pokey provided a bit of relief from fairy tale and Nazi horrors in my recent round of listening. For all that, though, I found it hard to like. It tells of one day in the life of a boy named Jack who rides around the Neverland (i.e., boys' paradise) of Hokey Pokey -- atop the noble bicycle Scramjet, stomping in puddles, watching cartoons, enjoying the sno-cone-like hokey pokeys, the popular Big Kid for all the kiddie residents from toddler to adolescent. It's pretty heavenly ... until Jubilee steals the bike.

And paints it yellow. And renames it Hazel. But it's not the only thing to be off on this one day: Jack can hear the train whistle, yet the train never comes to Hokey Pokey, and the tattooed eye on his belly is fading fast. Could Jack be living The Story of Hokey Pokey's most famous resident, The Kid, who announced one day that he would be leaving and was never seen again? His amigos, LaJo and Dusty, try to cheer him up, but it turns out that Jubilee seems to understand him better now. Jack gets his one-way ticket at the station and hops the train.

And it was all a dream. Jack wakes up remembering that today's the day he and his dad are going to repaint his room -- covering over that kiddie fish wallpaper. Yes, it was time for Jack to leave Hokey Pokey, for our Jack is growing up. He's even put his dirty laundry in the hamper.

Maybe it's because I was never a boy, but this was a real yawner for me. Spinelli is clearly reliving his own childhood because Hokey Pokey is a nostalgic look at a childhood of Looney Tunes cartoons and playing cowboys (however, with nary an Indian in sight). Hokey Pokey is what boys like to do. (I vaguely remember some mention of where you go to play with dolls, but it was only mentioned in passing ... and with disdain.) Jubilee is a risk-taking tomboy, dare I say the kind of girl a pre-adolescent boy might find worth knowing? Then Spinelli goes and authors it all up with run-on sentences, stream-of-consciousness self-consciousness, and made-up words (Snotsippers, Gapergums, Sillynillys and Longspitters are all used to describe Hokey Pokey's younger residents).

Most of the novel is narrated by Maxwell Glick, who brings appro- priate youth- fulness to his reading. He also chooses to read with a reverence that no doubt contributed to my general feeling of ho-hum about the book. While there are some differing characterizations and the pace occasionally varies, most of Glick's narration feels stilted, every word receives the same emphasis as if he's worried that he might skip over something.

Tara Sands reads the few chapters from Jubilee's perspective. Her light, lively voice injects a much-needed jolt of energy to the proceedings, making Jubilee's brief appearances most welcome. (Or is that because I'm a girl?) I understand why she was brought in to read Jubilee's chapters, yet at the same time  I wonder why different male readers were not employed to read the chapters featuring LaJo or the boy named The Destroyer. Navigating Early had too many narrators, this book doesn't have enough.

Early last year, this book led the Newbery sweepstakes, but then it faded fast. Over at Heavy Medal, one of the moderators tried to play nice, while more recently, Origami Yoda's Tom Angleberger declared it the winner of its Battle of the Kids' Books bracket. Curiouser and curiouser. I think my oww dislike was the whole boy-stuff = childhood, but I think it's had its problems finding young readers. Is this a book for pre-adolescents (who may not get it?) or for adolescents (who might find it awfully pretentious and ... yes, childish?) or for adults (not this one)? A conundrum.

[I found the map of Hokey Pokey -- which is in the print book -- at NPR.]

Hokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli
Narrated by Maxwell Glick and Tara Sands
Listening Library, 2013.  5:59

Monday, March 17, 2014

Häftling einundfünfzigtausendvierhundertachtundneunzig (Prisoner 51,498)

Not quite a year ago, I listened to Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity.  I had already eye-read it, but enjoyed it so much (not only for the vivid depiction of a female friendship, but for its puzzle qualities) that I knew a listen would not be a hardship. It was wonderful in audio form as well.  So, when Wein's "companion" to Verity was published last year, I knew that I wanted to listen to it as well. Rose Under Fire is very different from Verity, and suffers in comparison. I felt oppressed by the violence and the emotional hardships that Rose Justice experiences; there wasn't much of a payoff for all the pain. Is it simply too real?

First things first: Rose Under Fire brings back our beloved pilot Maddie Brodart who survived the events of Verity and continues her work with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), flying military planes and important passengers to air bases around England and -- once the D-Day Invasion takes hold -- northern France. She (thankfully) marries Julie's brother, Jamie.

But this isn't Maddie's story -- it's Rose's. Rose Justice is a 19-year-old American pilot with the ATA, and in the fall of 1944, she's assigned a flight in northern France. On her way, she gets distracted by a "doodlebug," the V-1 flying bombs (or what we might call a drone today) which were terrorizing southern England. She "tips" the V-1 with her wing, disabling it, but afterwards finds herself lost over German territory. Two Luftwaffe pilots draw near and firmly compel her to land. Once she's surrendered the plane and her identity papers, Rose is put in a truck for transfer to the Ravensbrück "work" camp. Assigned a number, which she must embroider onto her too-small "uniform" (a cast-off [undoubtedly from a Jew] dress), she is put to work in the Siemens plant on the perimeter of the camp, but when she realizes that she is assembling doodlebugs she resists. After a severe beating, where she is so injured she cannot sit down, she is reassigned to barracks where she meets the "rabbits," who befriend and protect her.

The rabbits were 74 Polish women imprisoned at Ravensbrück for various crimes (but not for being Jewish) near the beginning of the war. Nazi doctors (and they weren't all doctors) used these women as lab rats, performing various medical experiments on them, ostensibly to determine what techniques would work on battlefield injuries. Many did not survive, but an astonishing number left the camp when the Russians liberated it in 1945. (At her website, Wein has done amazing work memorializing these women.)

Rose means to tell the story of the camp, but when she makes her daring escape (by plane, naturally) as the Germans are frantically gassing as many inmates as possible, she is so emotionally wounded by her imprisonment (what we would call post-traumatic stress) that she needs all her courage to attend the Doctors Trial at Nuremberg in 1946 or the special Ravensbrück trial that followed a few months later. It is her fellow internee, the youngest rabbit, Roza -- imprisoned at 14 and permanently scarred -- whose bravery finally helps Rose to return to Germany.

The story is as ghastly as my synopsis implies, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention the inspiring core of the novel: the prisoners. Wein introduces us to at least a dozen vividly portrayed women -- not just the Polish rabbits, but a French novelist, a Russian aviatrix, and an American-educated camp guard with a fondness for Boston cream pie. There's not much suspense to their story, however, because Rose is telling us her story after she has escaped Ravensbrück. This makes the chapters taking place at the camp feel relentless. Yes, these women cared for one another, saved one another, but their suffering is hard to bear. It's equally hard to listen to Rose, hiding herself away in a room at the Ritz in Paris in the aftermath.

Rose is journaling her story, both before she ends up at the concentration camp and after she escapes, because she promised to "tell the world." She's a poet who frequently treats us to her poetry in her journals, which I found pretty labored (but I don't consider myself a very good judge of poetry). In a moment of true art, though, Rose crafts a mnemonic poem listing all the names of the rabbits, a poem that ensures that each will be remembered, if only by name.

The audiobook is narrated by Sasha Pick. She reads Rose's first person story in (as it says on her webpage) a "bright, engaging and smiley" narration that is quite perfect for a 19-year-old girl on her own for the first time and doing what she loves. There's authentic emotion in her reading and she gives the story a skilled and varied pace. She rattles off German with confidence, and I liked the broad Northern English accent she gives Maddie.  There are a number of opportunities for Pick to sing and she sings beautifully.

However, once Rose lands in Ravensbrück, the narration starts to fray a bit. Pick's breezy style doesn't really portray Rose's fear and despair. The eastern European accents all sound forced. To add insult, the author has provided very specific instructions for the speaking voice of Roza -- high in register and screechy -- and Pick takes this direction to heart. And, oh god, it's truly dreadful to listen to. Roza is a very complex character -- as the youngest rabbit, she should evoke nurture and protectiveness in the older inmates, but she's spoiled and reckless and very hard to like. Clearly, she's damaged both in mind and body, but knowing her only through her voice makes hard to feel sympathetic.

Pick also gives some English words an English accent, not an American one. The one I remember is STRAW-bury not strawberry. There was also a very odd pronunciation of John Deere: John Dearie. I don't think a girl from near Hershey, Pennsylvania would have ever gotten that so very wrong.

The audiobook also includes an afterword read by Wein herself. She reads with passion -- the story of the rabbits is clearly important to her. "I have tried" [to tell the world], she writes.

Rose Under Fire received the Schneider Family Book Award this January, for the teen book that best "embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience." This was a bit of a head-scratcher for a while as Schneider books are usually a little more obvious in their disabilities. But Rose Justice's PTSD is pretty harrowing, so ultimately a good choice.

[The photograph of women at Ravensbrück is from the German Federal Archives and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

[Ravensbrück rabbit Jadwiga Dzido is showing her damaged leg to the tribunal at the Nuremberg Trial. She was scarred in sulfanilamide experiments where bacteria was introduced into wounds which were then "treated" with the drugs. It was retrieved from the Jewish Virtual Library.]

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
Narrated by Sasha Pick
Bolinda Audio, 2013.  11:43

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The keeper did a-hunting go

And now let the torture of the children begin. I've been listening madly to the books for the youth -- trying to make up for last year's relative drought by making my way through the Battle of the Kids' Books titles and then to move on to the award winners. And of the four in my ears since I started -- three have involved torture/physical and/or mental abuse of those who can't vote. Really, is it any wonder I stopped reading?

Tom McNeal's Far Far Away takes place in Never Better, a middle-America town that you can only find if you look out of the corner of your eye at the just the right time. Jeremy Johnson Johnson lives there with his father -- who retreated to his bedroom shortly after his wife left him. He does OK in school, but tries to keep a low profile because kids make fun of his dad, and he has this habit of talking to himself that the others make fun of. In truth, Jeremy is talking to the wandering ghost of Jacob (pronounced YAH-cub) Grimm, of the well-known Grimms. Jacob has been unable to move on to an afterlife, as he has some unfinished business -- uncover and stop the Finder of Occasions, "someone with tendencies ... tortured and malignant." When he discovered that Jeremy could hear him (Jeremy is clairaudient), Jacob believes that protecting the boy is the work he must do. He's hung out with Jeremy in Never Better for about five or six years, but there's been no sign of the Finder.

When Jeremy is finally in danger (which takes way too long, and the source of his peril is telegraphed way too early and given away on the cover of the book), Jacob is all but helpless. He watches as Jeremy and two of his friends are slowly, agonizingly starved to death. It is his determination to communicate with another in Never Better (through singing ... I liked that), that enables Jacob to rescue his friend, and to move on to that heaven -- or whereever -- finally reunited with his brother.

Jacob is telling us the story, which begins promisingly: "What follows is the strange and fateful tale of a boy, a girl, and a ghost." But did you notice that I provided this synopsis of the events of this novel as Jacob Grimm experienced them? I think this is what bugged me most about this book (which -- torture aside -- I didn't like very much): It's Jacob's book, not Jeremy's. And while the writing is occasionally lovely, related by a consummate storyteller (Jacob), its leisurely pace and adult perspective make it hard to enjoy as a book for young readers.  I'm not particularly familiar with Grimm's fairy tales (correctly, Children's and Household Tales), so any connection of Jeremy's story with that of the Grimm "originals" are mostly lost on me ... beyond the obvious "Hansel and Gretel." As for the "final" (i.e., hardest) question on the Uncommon Knowledge quiz show being about the Disney-fied version of "Snow White" ... well, that stretches belief.

Since this novel is narrated by an ancient ghost, the choice of narrator is excellent! W. Morgan Sheppard has a scratchy, old-man's hoarse voice with an underlying tenderness that perfectly demonstrates Jacob's fondness for his young friend. Sheppard, who is familiar to me from a long-ago failed television program called Max Headroom, invests his narration with plenty of authentic emotion -- Jacob's fears are clear in the reading.

He doesn't really voice this novel, there are slight variations in inflection for a few of the characters, but the story doesn't need it, it's perfectly fine to have all the characters and dialogue filtered through the old man. For the most part, Sheppard reads in a straightforward English accent; he slightly American-izes some of the dialogue, and he can bring a Teutonic tinge to certain words and phrases. Sheppard paces the slowly teased-out plot with enough variation to keep it interesting for the most part, but ultimately I was bored.

I mentioned earlier the singing as a form of ghostly communication, but alas Sheppard himself doesn't sing. (It's the plot point that counts.) Here is the song that Jacob employs; it's one of those that seems so innocuous, but once you look closely at the lyrics, oh boy ... disturbing! An excellent choice for this novel, though. And speaking of music, the audiobook's short intro has a nice sense of looming danger and mysterious happenings, setting the tone in less than a minute.

As I've been enjoying the Portland-filmed television series, Grimm, having a ridiculous amount of fun identifying where a scene has been filmed or a local actor, this book makes me ponder the continuing appeal of these brothers. Almost Holmesian in their breadth: retellings in adult fiction, novels for kids, movies, etc. Considering the modern setting of Far Far Away, now that I think about it, how odd it is that Jacob hasn't noticed how far and wide his fame has spread.

[Jacob's the one in profile in this "Doppelporträt der Brüder Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm," painted by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann. It hangs in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
Narrated by W. Morgan Sheppard
Listening Library, 2013. 10:58