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

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