Sunday, December 28, 2014

So-called poet

Occasionally I say that a post will be short because I can't remember anything about a book listened to long ago, but it always seems that I find something to say (and say). I don't think this will be the case with Snow. My second encounter in 2014 with Orhan Pamuk. All I can say is thank goodness for John Lee; I would never have made it through this book without him. This man's writing is dense and ultimately I'm not sure what he is saying.

Unlike the previous Pamuk I listened to, Snow is fiction. Like it, it was published before Pamuk won the Nobel Prize, in 2002. It appeared in English in 2004.

A poet who goes by his initials, Ka, has returned to Turkey after 12 years in exile in Germany in order to bury his mother. He decides to stay for a while, finding work as a journalist in order to investigate a spate of suicides by young girls forced to stop wearing their head scarves in a small city in northeastern Turkey called Kars. Note that 'kar' [which f&^king Blogger keeps changing to car] is the Turkish word for snow (and was the title of the original book). Ka has an ulterior motive; to reconnect with an old lover, Ipek, living in Kars with her father and sister. He makes his way through a growing blizzard to get there. Soon after his arrival, the roads are closed and the city is isolated.

Everything is a little tense in Kars as a result of the suicides. The secular government is enforcing the law forbidding the wearing of head scarves in school but there is open protest against it. Shortly after his arrival, Ka witnesses the assassination of the school official who implemented the law. He is also immediately inspired to write a poem, "Snow," his first in a long time. Later that evening, during a live televised drama/variety show (?), the military (and the secular government) stage a coup [not clear here ... how can there be a coup if they were in charge?] shooting up the audience and arresting so-called Islamists.

The rest of this very lengthy book is lost to the sands of time. Ka is interrogated by the military police since he was seen in the company of the well-known leader of the Islamists, Blue. Ipek's sister plans a televised protest where she will remove her headscarf (in some unclear-to-me political gesture) as part of a performance. Ipek agrees to marry Ka and move with him back to Germany.

At some point, the omniscient third person narrator fast forwards a few years to the murder of Ka on the streets of Frankfurt. His name is Orhan and he's a novelist and Ka was his friend and he's telling us the story of Kars using Ka's journals. How very meta.

I find I have absolutely no notes on the narration, so go back to the earlier Pamuk/Lee collaboration to find out how great a reader of this dense prose John Lee is. His is a lovely reading voice so that part wasn't painful, and he reads Pamuk's descriptive sections as if they were poetry.

Snow was the second to last of the nine Muslim Journeys books that I read with my library discussion group. (Not many of us liked it.) There were three really memorable books on this list for me: In the Country of Men, Dreams of Trespass, and Minaret. But what was more memorable was this group of readers: Enthusiastic, thoughtful, receptive, and very bonded. I hope we can figure out some way to continuing reading together.

[There is an actual Kars, and this is a panoramic photograph of it. It was taken by Bjorn Christian Torrissen (apologies for leaving out the "slashed o's" as they screwed up my formatting) and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons (click on that link for a bigger picture and its detailed caption).]

Snow by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
Narrated by John Lee
Random House Audio, 2007. 18:32

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Duck and cover

The year that Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis brought out the first Wildwood book (2011), the Portland literature festival, Wordstock, went a little gaga. I was working at the festival and wandered into one of the not-Main-Stage venues and found myself listening to an author about to publish her first book for children and who seemed to share a last name with Mr. Meloy. Her book sounded good, but only after someone asked a question did I twig that Maile Meloy (she kindly provides a link to pronouncing her name) and Colin are siblings.

Meloy's book was The Apothecary. Janie Scott's parents have made an unexpected move from Los Angeles to London in the early 1950s. They claim to have gotten a great job offer writing for a British television series, but they eventually get around to explaining the blacklist to Janie. It doesn't make her feel much better about leaving all her friends in sunny Southern California for a dreary post-war London and a snooty school for which she doesn't have the right clothes.

Hoping to cheer her up, her father takes her to the neighborhood apothecary for a cure for homesickness where she meets the proprietor's moody son, Benjamin Burrows. Benjamin doesn't want to be an apothecary as his father insists; he wants to be a spy.

(Ooh, I'm getting fuzzier on the details!) Somehow, Janie (and Benjamin) learns that Benjamin's father is part of an international group of magician/scientists hoping to bring to halt the Russian testing of a special nuclear bomb. Of course, there are magician/scientists working for the Soviets as well, including Andrei Sakharov. When Mr. Burrows is taken away by a German with a nasty scar, Janie and Benjamin use his ancient Pharmacopoeia to disguise themselves (into birds) and stow away on board the ship heading to a remote island in the Baltic Sea carrying some magical equipment that will make time stand still and destroy the Russian bomb.

Many magical adventures featuring disobedient teenagers ensue, including living through a nuclear blast. I remember enjoying this, but -- aside from the well-drawn and unusual setting -- it's pretty much like every other kid-using-magical-powers-to-save-the-world novel: It's funny, occasionally gross, very slightly romantic, suspenseful and full to the top with dastardly villains (including a few of the "school" variety).

I listened to a book read by Cristin Milioti a few years ago and didn't like it very much, but I wanted to give her another chance. She does a good job here portraying 14-year-old Janie in her first person narrative. Milioti's got a slightly husky, but suitably youthful, delivery and invests Janie with appropriate independence (she doesn't buy the propaganda in the Duck and Cover film she's shown in school). She reads quickly but knows how to stretch out the suspenseful bits. Janie's a girl with strong emotions and these are evident in Milioti's reading.

She's got a fairly large cast of characters to portray, with accents all over the map. In addition to the English characters, there's a Cockney pickpocket, a Chinese scientist, a Hungarian who can stop time, some Germans, the Russians and a couple of others. Her accents sound natural to me and she switches easily between them in dialog. Except for Janie, Benjamin, and Pip the pickpocket, everyone else is an adult, and Milioti does a good job differentiating between the ages and genders.

The novel begins with Janie describing that she can't remember the events she's about to relate, but she's reconstructed the story from her diary, a diary that was recently returned to her from an undisclosed location by Benjamin. All through this note to the reader, there is this underbed of kind-of 1950s movie soundtrack music; lots of strings and yearning. The music returns at the end, with more piano.

Reading Meloy's sequel to this novel doesn't interest me much, but I might read one of her books for adults. Maybe some short stories.

[Janie and Benjamin are instructed to bring the Pharmacopoeia to someone in the Chelsea Physic Garden, but they arrive too late! This photo from the Garden was taken by La Citta Vita and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy
Narrated by Cristin Milioti
Penguin Audio, 2011.  7:35

Friday, December 26, 2014

Long live the proletariat

Completely unintentionally I find myself in Paris for the next book in the list as well. Cara Black's Aimée Leduc Investigations feature a French-American private eye who solves crimes oriented in a specific Paris neighborhood. She's up to 15, but I just finished number three: Murder in the Sentier. Published more than 10 years ago and set even further back in time (1994), Aimée is distracted (as she always is) from her actual employment analyzing business security issues using the high tech of the day by a phone call from Jutta Hald who said she knew Aimée's long-lost mother, when they shared a prison cell.

What follows is a wild ride (seemingly the only way that Aimée operates) that takes Aimée back to the 1970s when Europe was roiled by home-grown terrorists like the Baader-Meinhof Gang (here called Haader-Rofmein). As Aimée digs deeper into the past, the bodies pile up in the present. But Aimée can't forget the mother who left her when she was eight years old and believes that the remaining members of Action-Réaction can tell her what happened.

And I'm afraid that's all I can remember. I have a note that says Modigliani (pretty useless after three months!) which I think means that a long-lost artwork by Amedeo Modigliani might have been lifted by Action-Réaction when they kidnapped a wealthy German businessman. And that artwork might be the key to the contemporary mystery.

The jury's still out for me regarding Aimée Leduc. She annoys me rather than intrigues. Her approach to everything is to wade in without the facts and yet somehow she keeps her faltering business in the black. She's kind of a bad friend, to her business partner René and others. And she occasionally seems a little superhuman. For instance, what I do remember in this book is Aimée fleeing the police after she finds Jutta Hald's dead body by ducking into a tattoo parlor and getting a tattoo!! Really? Then there's the running around she does in a skintight catsuit and stilettos. I believe a wildly colored wig was also involved. This seems a bit much to me.

Carine Montbertrand narrates the novel (and the series). She has French bonafides (like Aimée she has an American mother and a French father) and she pronounces all the French places and names with authenticity. Aimée = A (long vowel sound)-may. Sentier = SOHN-tee-a (again with the long a). She handles the German accents of Jutta Hald (and another character) with confidence. I'm glad she chose to have all the French speakers not speak with French accents (I find this really distracting) except when they are saying names.

The pronunciation of Montbertrand's own last name (her first is just as it appears) is missing the first t and the last d, i.e., MON-bear-trawn, and -- most interestingly -- the author's first name is CARE-ah, not CAR-ah. (Enough about this.)

Montbertrand's an experienced narrator with lots of credits to her name. She has a pleasantly husky voice and keeps the novel moving. Black writes in somewhat short sentences, which can give an audiobook a choppy feel, but Montbertrand goes a long way in smoothing out the narrative.

I like the design for Black's series, published by Soho Press, up until the last three (you can see them here). The blue edging and the black and white (or all-but bleached of color) evocative photos have unfortunately been replaced by a much larger author name, "murder" in red, and a silhouette of Aimée in front of an overly bright "French" image. They've lost their atmosphere. The red M on the cover of the audiobook is that of the Métro de Paris, but it's possible to confuse this with M for murder.

[Wikipedia states that this is a "typical street in the neighborhood, Rue du Sentier." This photo was taken by Mbzt and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Murder in the Sentier (Aimée Leduc Investigations, Book 3) by Cara Black
Narrated by Carine Montbertrand
Recorded Books, 2010.  10:54

My! What big eyes you have!

Marissa Meyer was one of the debut authors I read the year I was on the William C. Morris YA Debut Award (2013). Book One of her series, The Lunar Chronicles, was eligible and I read and enjoyed Cinder, particularly the original ways she twisted the familiar fairy tale; like Cinder having a missing foot (instead of a shoe). The larger picture of Meyer's Chronicles -- a very nasty Queen intent on conquering Earth from the Moon (and the fact that Cinder might be related to this Queen) -- wasn't as interesting to me, but I liked it enough to want to find out more. A considerable time later I managed to get to Scarlet.

(I am currently filled to the brim with these three [I include Meyer's third inspiration] tales as they all show up in Into the Woods, which I braved the Christmas Day crowds to see. Even though I have a loyalty to original versions -- be they plays or books -- I quite enjoyed this movie.)

So, Scarlet. Scarlet riffs on Little Red Riding Hood, and the Scarlet in this novel favors a red hoodie. She runs a small farm in the French countryside with her ... grandmother and comes home one day to find her missing. Searching for her, she meets a "professional" streetfighter who goes by ... Wolf who (ooh ... details a bit fuzzy) helps her escape the interest of some other fighters, who are looking for something of her grandmother's in the farmhouse. She's kind of a pill, though, and against everyone's advice she travels to Paris where she believes her grandmother to be.

Meanwhile, we find Cinder in a maximum security prison, which she manages to break out of accompanied by the wisecracking, Han-Solo-like Captain Thorne. Somehow (remember those details have gone blurry), she knows she needs to get to Paris for some answers ... perhaps from Scarlet's grandmother? Well, you know what happens then. They all fly off to find Rapunzel, obviously.

I didn't think this had the same originality in skewing the original tale as Cinder, and the whole story felt like a bridge to the next installment. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, but not much came out leading to a big revelation or an aha moment (beyond the one we all but knew about Cinder). The characters weren't very interesting; Scarlet is a whiner, Wolf is a wounded hunk in need of the right woman, and the Captain's schtick just gets old fast. Cinder, though, I'm still invested in.

I opted to listen to this because of the narrator, Rebecca Soler. I'd heard her read a Sarah Dessen book years ago and was pleasantly surprised at how authentic and teen-friendly she sounded. When I learned she was the voice of The Lunar Chronicles it seemed a good idea to listen to one installment. She keeps up the teen voice successfully here and gives the novel a brisk pace that maintains the interest in the lengthy story. The transitions between Scarlet's and Cinder's adventures are clear and seamless.

Soler tries to give some of the characters (including Scarlet) French accents and these all sound a little "ooh-la-la" to me and are wildly inconsistent. Some people have them, but not all the time. She does show some skill in computer voice, though. Cinder has a robot servant/friend, Iko, who is currently just a thumb drive. She installs Iko into the operating system of Captain Thorne's ship and chats with Cinder in a nicely mechanical voice.

There's some vaguely suspenseful (driving beat, ominous chords) music that begins and ends the audiobook. It's barely there, but it works as an intro.

The conclusion of The Lunar Chronicles is scheduled for publication in November, with Winter.  I'm sure the author had "claimed" The Snow Queen long before Frozen-mania. The series has plenty of fans already and doesn't need a tie to that movie to be successful. There are some Frozen tweens who could segue right into this series -- plenty of clean romance and lots of strong women (although the author does have a slightly regrettable tendency to check the true-love box for each of her heroines). On to Cress for me (but shouldn't it be Tress?).

(Yikes! I've linked to not one but two Disney movies in this post!)

[This Big Bad Wolf (who isn't Red's nemesis, but The Three Little Pigs') was found at Gay Pride in Paris in 2011. The photo was taken by Marcus Povey and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Scarlet (The Lunar Chronicles, Book 2) by Marissa Meyer
Narrated by Rebecca Soler
Macmillan Audio, 2013.  11:19

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Preach it!

My book group selected I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings shortly after the death of its author, Maya Angelou (pronounced Ann-gel-low) this past spring. I think the reason I've never read this woman's work is because I'm generally not a fan of poetry or memoir and I probably won't read any more, but I am glad for this brief exposure. And to hear her familiar voice read this book was an added treat.

I Know Why ... begins with the arrival of three-year-old Marguerite Johnson at the home of her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas in the early 1930s. Maya, her beloved brother Bailey's nickname for her, had been sent there (along with Bailey) when her parents' "calamitous" marriage disintegrated. Taken under the formidable wing of her loving grandmother, whom she calls Momma, Maya observed the lives of African Americans in the deep South, formed by cruelty, poverty and active churchgoing.

This memoir ends with Maya graduating from high school, giving birth to her only child and reconnecting with her distant mother as she struggled to attach to the baby. She'd already lived a pretty full lifetime at this point, including sexual abuse, running away from home and living rough, and -- in a brief moment of levity -- working hard to get a job as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Yet this was only the beginning of her many adventures, recounted in six subsequent memoirs.

Angelou's writing is beautiful, naturally. My erratic notetaking consists of disc and track numbers where I mentally jotted a phrase or sentence that rang out. I'll share just one but, trust me, there are hundreds. Here, she's describing the condition of the food sitting out and awaiting the conclusion of a long sermon Maya is convinced has bored God to death: "the eggs had withdrawn from the edge of platter to bunch in the center like children left out in the cold, and the catheads had sat down on themselves with the conclusiveness of a fat woman sitting in an easy chair."

I think we're all familiar with Angelou's speaking voice. It's resonant and slightly hoarse tinged with a bit of the South. She reads her memoir with plenty of expression but it's not a performance (even though one of Angelou's careers was acting). You can tell that she's lived this story and knows what to emphasize and what to let pass by. Occasionally she runs out of breath in the middle of a sentence leaving an odd silence but I'm willing to let these pass. I give her this pass because she also sings hymns several times in the narrative. And you know I love me some audiobook singing!

(In the other childhood self-narrated memoir from an African American writer that I heard this year, I'm glad to say that National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson sings as well.)

The intro and outgo of this audiobook feature some church-ish music, sounding like the opening chords of a hymn before the choir comes in. Just perfect for this memoir. And I must mention the magisterial "I am Maya Angelou" that comes from the author/reader in these sections. No wimpy "read by the author" statement for this fine lady!

[Stamps Ice & Fuel Co. may still have been around when Maya lived nearby in the 1930s. This photo is from 1904 and is from a book about the Louisiana and Arkansas railways. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Narrated by the author
Books on Tape, 2011. 10:11

Equivocation

So, the teen book buzz all summer was for E. Lockhart's We Were Liars. Fittingly, I finally got my hold just as summer came to an end, perhaps a perfect time for this book about the last summer of one's childhood.

If you haven't read this book, maybe you know that it contains a revelation that alters everything you have read before, so just the briefest of synopses is possible. Cadence Sinclair Eastman is back on her family's private island off the coast of Massachusetts for what she calls Summer 17. Beechwood Island is occupied by Cady's grandparents (the Sinclairs), their three daughters, and their grandchildren. Cady and her two cousins are the oldest and -- along with the nephew of her step uncle, the Indian (subcontinent)-American, Gat -- are the Liars.

The Liars do what teenagers do during the summer. The Liars are smart and understand their privilege, but they still enjoy it. They see the tensions that have bubbled up between their recently bereaved grandfather and his daughters. They realize that Gat is not quite "one of us," but utterly accept him. He and Cady fall in love over Summer 15.

But something is different about Summer 17. Soon we learn that Cady had a mysterious, debilitating accident during Summer 15 and was unhappily traveling in Europe with her divorced father in Summer 16. She spends her time emailing the other Liars, but they don't reply. She is thrilled to be able to reconnect with the Liars and has very high expectations for this Summer.

I'll just say that while what was revealed was something of a surprise to me (others have said they saw it coming a mile off), however as it got closer it became obvious so that the actual twist was kind of dud. If I'd really enjoyed this book, I might have re-read just to catch the clues (it's not very long), but frankly I didn't care much about this young woman and her friends. It's not that her problems are those of the 1%, but that I couldn't get beyond her mooniness and self-absorption enough to want to care about her.

And, in the department-of-unanswered-questions, why are the teens the Liars? I don't need everything spelled out for me, but there must be something there ... Sinclair/Liar?

Since it's been so long since I listened to this (although the reveal is still quite clear) and the other audiobooks, I have it running in the background while I write this. Cady, in the first person, starts off letting you know something is wrong and so does Ariadne Meyers, the narrator. She reads in a pleasantly hoarse voice tinged with illness and hopelessness. You can hear the pain -- her accident has left her with unbearable headaches and blackouts-- in her narration. She reads precisely, almost as if she can't let the emotions go for fear of what might happen if she does. Then, when Cady tells us what actually happened, all those banked and denied feelings come free in Meyers' reading. It's a very moving narration, one that almost changed my mind about the book.

I've read (or listened to) a lot of E. Lockhart and so enjoy her smart, funny and empowered (I listened  to this one pre-blog) young women. And maybe what I really didn't like here is that Cady is so different from these teens. She's actually not much fun to be around (even before you know what's going on). I can appreciate Lockhart's work here, she carefully builds a world and just as carefully tears it down, but it's a cold appreciation.

[This photo is of Beechwoods at Giffordlands, Dalry, North Ayrshire, Scotland was taken by Rosser1954 and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Narrated by Ariadne Meyers
Listening Library, 2014. 6:27

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Wild card

In the department-of-weird, I finished Mary Doria Russell's Doc just about a year to the day after finishing her Dreamers of the Day. Of course, this was months ago. But this story is completely fresh in my mind, thanks to a wonderful narrator -- Mark Bramhall -- who immerses himself into the book and the indelible character of John Henry Holliday, DDS. How delighted I am to learn that Russell couldn't say goodbye to him either, as her next novel -- coming in March -- takes Doc and the other famous denizens of Dodge City, Kansas to their date with destiny in Tombstone, Arizona.

But this book brings Doc only to Dodge City. In its early chapters we learn of Doc's birth and childhood in antebellum Georgia, his education as a dentist, and of the bout of tuberculosis that began the long, slow weakening of his lungs and sent him West seeking a drier climate that would hopefully bring about a cure. Doc's travels first took him to Texas, from which -- when his love of drinking and gambling (and his realization that he could make more money playing cards than he could practicing dentistry) brought him trouble along with an attempt on his life -- he needed to make a quick exit. He was also a skilled gunfighter. After additional travels -- and meeting a lawman named Wyatt Earp -- he found himself in the truly wild west town of Dodge City, Kansas. It was 1878 and Doc was 26 years old.

Russell's chapter headings take us through a poker game, i.e., from "First Hand" through to "Cashing Out" and "The Rake." Their use is timely, particularly while listening, as a hint of what is to come. As in, when Bramhall reads, "Third Hand: Ladies High," trouble in the female department is likely ahead.

But once Doc arrives in Dodge, there's not much plot remaining in the novel. Doc sets up his practice, he establishes his bona fides in the town's gambling houses, he makes friends, he has debilitating bouts with the TB and equally horrific quarrels with his long-time companion (and practicing prostitute), Katie Horony. He is always a Southern gentlemen with elegant manners and, despite his extra-legal activities, Doc seems to act from integrity.

No, a listener doesn't need a plot here, because the characters are so glorious. Russell gives us these exquisite little character studies -- both fictional and real: Doc's overprotective mother, the plodding, methodical Wyatt Earp and his horse Dick Nailer, his more handsome and popular brother Morgan, Sheriff Bat Masterson (who also owns a saloon, although pretty much every businessman in Dodge owned a saloon and had married [or was living with] a prostitute), the knowing young daughter of the owner of the general store (and politician), Irish vaudevillian Eddie Foy, a compassionate Austrian Jesuit, a young biracial (black and Native American) orphan educated by the Jesuits who dies in a suspicious fire, and fiery Big Nose Kate, the love (and bane) of Doc's life, who followed him until the end, and who cultivated his mythology.

All are brought to vivid life by Bramhall, who is masterful in his command of this sprawling novel. He reads the narrative in a baritone, slightly scratchy Western twang that provides a picture of a slightly boozy cowboy, booted feet up on the table, drinking whiskey, spitting tobacco telling this drawn-out story in his own sweet time. All of the characters are voiced and the voices are compelling and consistent. There's a husky breathiness to Doc's speech indicative of his straining lungs, and his Georgia origins are clear in the slow drawl of his dialog. While Dodge's law- and businessmen have all ceased to be unique in the nearly four months since I heard this, in their dialog it was always clear who was speaking.

International accents are called for and provided -- Katie's Hungarian, the Jesuit's Austrian, the Chinese laundryman, the Irish Foy. There is a truly hilarious scene when the Jesuit arrives in Dodge and many in the town line up for confession. Each voice is unique, the hint of each story perfect in just a few lines of text. Bramhall switches effortlessly from one to another.

Mary Doria Russell just does not disappoint (me). I've read every single one of her books and enjoyed them all. Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral is something to look forward to. I wonder who will read it?

[Evidently, there are a number of we're-not-sure-that-these-are-actually-photos-of-Doc-Holliday out there, but this one has "provenance" (according to Wikipedia, although the website from which it originates declares itself to be on "hiatus"). If this is indeed Doc, it was taken shortly after he left Dodge City. Note the luxurious mustache, designed perhaps to hide the scar created from his early surgery for a cleft palate (also disputed).]

Doc by Mary Doria Russell
Narrated by Mark Bramhall
Books on Tape, 2011. 16:38

Monday, December 22, 2014

Stupid people should never read books

I must have picked up Andrew Smith's Grasshopper Jungle: A History as part of my plan (see, another plan!) this year to read all librarian-ish youth award winners. I didn't really want to read it because I have read an Andrew Smith novel and one was plenty, but the Boston Globe-Horn Book fiction award went to Grasshopper Jungle and -- well, I wanted to stick with the plan. (Plans make me feel like I'm in control ... hah!) I do find it telling that Horn Book had not reviewed this title (Horn Book only publishes positive reviews) which says to me that the librarian/reviewer the editors handed this to didn't like it either. Smith is most definitely an acquired taste.

In this very peculiar book, we find ourselves in Ealing, Iowa where nothing much happens. Except an evil scientist who developed a mutant strain of something or other 40 years ago that some bored delinquents steal and accidentally release. Coming into contact with this strain will morph a human being into a giant praying-mantis/grasshopper-thing that lives only to eat (human flesh) and breed. Some other bored delinquents -- Austin Szerba and Robbie Brees -- are the first to figure out what's going on, evade exposure, discover the underground bunker (created by the mad scientist) where humans can survive the apocalypse, and do their best to save the world.

Alas, it is too late -- the creatures can reproduce too easily -- and Austin relates the entire adventure from the bunker, which he expands to be a history (note the subtitle) of himself, his Polish ancestors and what may come. The boy is whip smart, profane, hilarious, and obsessed with sex (he can't seem to decide whom he loves more -- gay best friend Robbie or deliciously handy girlfriend Shann -- or perhaps a three-way would be really the solution). He does an entire riff on whether/what he should name his testicles. He gets to fight the creatures in a special suit and a huge paintball gun. Austin is always right, it's the world (and people) around him that have fucked everything up. It's kind of like a boy heaven -- much like that of Hokey Pokey -- only these guys have clearly left the bicycles behind.

So, really, just not my kind of book at all. But I've no doubt that it's a great book for teen readers, make that teen boys. There's not much for the girls to do in this story, but that might be the author's point. I have to give Smith credit for creating an adolescent boy and staying inside his head consistently, without apology.

Philip Church reads the book, which might be his first narrator gig. He reads Austin's story in a rapid, deadpan manner which is perfectly appropriate for the distancing historical approach that the boy tells us he's providing, but this -- combined with the brief chapters, very short sentences and the lack of contractions in the narrative -- gets very tiring to listen to. The novel's action moments (when the creatures face off with some unsuspecting deputies, when the boys get suited up and head out with their guns, etc.) sound no different than Austin's stories of his Polish ancestors.

Church does a nice job creating a different voice for Robbie, a voice that's ever so slightly feminized without being swishy. On the other hand, his voice for Shann, and for the novel's other females, are generically girly and too childish. On the whole, Church does well in what I think is his debut. Led by the text, he handles fairly tough material consistently. His voice is pleasant to listen to and -- with practice -- he'll get better.

There's some slightly raucous rock 'n' roll music at the start and finish of the book. It sets the tone of the novel right off, as good intro music should.

There's buzz about this one, which might be good in that I'll have one book already finished when I get to next year's plan (to read all the youth awardees). On the not-so-good end, 100 Sideways Miles (the author's most recent book) is also being mentioned in the same sentence as the Printz. Will I have to read another book by Andrew Smith?

I could, of course, just ditch the plan. Noooooo ...

[Wikimedia Commons gave me this photo when I asked for a praying mantis (mantidae). It's from the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad.

[I like how the cover of this book can be both cleavage and antennae. The book also has these hot-yellow page edges (like gold leafing on a fancy old tome) that gives the whole book this sort-of otherworldly glow.]

Grasshopper Jungle: A History by Andrew Smith
Narrated by Philip Church
Penguin Audio, 2014.  9:20

Sunday, December 21, 2014

We'll always have Cairo

Welcome back friend(s). Sorry for the long silence. I've got a plan. I know I've said that before. But here I am on the first day of my week off determined to execute the plan. Said plan is to blog one audiobook on each day off between now and January 20 (the day I get off for celebrating MLK Jr.'s birthday). At first I was going to get all 17 audiobooks done this week, but that's not really a vacation. And boy do I need a vacation. So, yes, it's been three months, nearly four since I listened to a few of these books and I'm a lousy notetaker. Here we go.

I have no notes whatsoever about Olen Steinhauer's The Cairo Affair. It was an enjoyable spy novel but I do recall thinking that it was just a bit too complicated for a listener. Steinhauer does wrap up everything quite satisfactorily with each proffered tidbit coming back around to make sense. I like that. I really enjoyed the first of his "Tourist" trilogy and actually had the idea of listening to book 2 in that series, but -- based on this listen -- I think I'll eye read it instead (eventually).

No point in a synopsis, the details are long gone. (I finished this book on August 7.) The bare bones involve long-time diplomatic spouse Sophie Kohl who had a memorable honeymoon in the Balkans in the 1990s (in the midst of the war there) and has since trailed her husband Emmett from one post to another. While the couple was in Cairo in 2010 (or so), she had an affair (with Emmett's boss?) and she has just confessed this infidelity to Emmett at a romantic dinner in Budapest when he is shot dead in front of her. Feeling that his death is her fault, related in some way to what happened in Cairo, Sophie begins her own investigation. (She is right, of course.)

It's a thriller, it has all the usual spy novel ingredients -- world hotspots, secrets upon secrets, sympathetic enemies and threatening friends. I did like the double meaning of the Affair. Sophie's not a very nice person, yet her fate matters. The spy who eventually helps her seemed to appear somewhat late and conveniently in the story but it could also be that I completely forgot meeting him earlier. Regardless, he's a person I could read another novel about, whereas Sophie, not so much.

The delightful Edoardo Ballerini is the reader. No doubt this was part of the allure of listening (instead of reading) the novel. His precise baritone reveals no secrets but takes command of the story from the beginning. A listener knows she is in good hands. As stated earlier, I've got no notes which means that nothing in his performance was egregiously wrong (or fabulously right) and that pacing, suspense, dialog, international accents were all perfectly fine, thank you! Since a significant portion of the novel is from Sophie's viewpoint, he portrays her with a natural femininity.

What I do remember of this novel is that we hear events from several perspectives -- Emmett's murder, their honeymoon in the Balkans, a surreptitious incursion into Libya during the Arab Spring, the denouement, and others -- and Ballerini makes clear which character's view we are witnessing. His characters are consistent and vocally fascinating. Having enjoyed him in both Jess Walter's romantic saga and now a thriller, I'm pretty sure he can read anything. I'm glad that audio publishers haven't slotted him into a genre. I'll listen to him again.

I'll try to stick to a promise never to mention how far behind I am or how little I remember of the books to come. Fair warning: There's not much very exciting in what's to come either. The listening got kind of dull after this one.

[The trek into Libya in this book is terrifying. This photo was taken by Phil Ittner for the Voice of America pretty much at the "present" time of The Cairo Affair. Original caption: "Rebel fighters at positions outside Brega, Libya show their support for the opposition and their enthusiastic belief that they will overthrow the government in Tripoli, March 10, 2011." It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer
Narrated by Edoardo Ballerini
Macmillan Audio, 2014. 12:22