Monday, October 27, 2008

The quest for Margo Roth Spiegelman

John Green must get fairly tired of adult readers (i.e., librarians) waxing on about what a hottie he is, so I shall get straight to the audio version of his third book, Paper Towns. Quentin Jacobson has grown up suburban in central Florida and is about to graduate from high school. He is of the geeky population -- Q hangs out with band members and best friends Ben and Radar. He used to be chums with his next door neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman, but she has left him behind in her seemingly effortless attainment of high school popularity. But late one night Margo appears in ninja costume and makeup at Q's bedroom window and enlists him as her driver on an all-night blitz of revenge -- ostensibly because her boyfriend slept with another girl, but it's way more than that.

The next few days at school, it becomes clear that Margo has disappeared. Some people fear suicide, but it appears that she's left Q some clues to her whereabouts: Woody Guthrie leads to Walt Whitman leads to pseudovisions leads to paper towns. A pseudovision is a proposed subdivision that never got completed; a paper town is an imaginary location on a printed map designed to protect copyright.

Paper Towns is quite beautifully constructed -- like a folktale, it's full of threes: Part one is Quentin and Margo's pranking all-nighter, part two is Q deciphering and following Margo's clues, and part three is a quite funny 20-hour road trip in a graduation-present minivan where Q, Ben, Radar, and Margo's best friend Lacey, skip out of graduation in order to find Margo before she leaves for her next destination (would that destination be death?). The book is full of smart teenagers making all kinds of conversations, situations that would make most teenagers laugh out loud (Margo's pranks, a drunken prom afterparty, that road trip), and an underlying message that can be quite thoughtful and provocative. All John Green trademarks, I think. I know I've enjoyed them in his other titles.

I raced through the audiobook in about four days; John Green does create such interesting people and puts them in nicely fascinating situations that getting to the end is imperative. The reader is Dan John Miller, someone I've never heard before, and I gotta say that I was missing Jeff Woodman. Now I know this isn't fair, or even appropriate, but Miller just never sounded like a teenager. He certainly imbued Quentin with intelligence and snarky humor, but I didn't hear a lot of insecurity or really get a sense of his deep, twisted relationship with Margo.

He created distinctive characters in Ben (too loud) and Radar (uncomfortably to me, this African American character was the only one with a Southern accent); and he was also pretty good at girls -- not too high or swishy sounding, but definitely different than the boys. The novel has some sections comprised of chat transcripts, which are just deadly to listen to,; however, I did get a charge out of everyone's user names (in particular, "itwasakidneyinfection," a joke you'll have to read the book to get), just not over and over again.

I really wanted to like this more. I spent much of the last hour or so trying very hard to hear amazing moments, but I really couldn't. I listened to the last disc again. I kept saying to myself, well ... this is pretty good. I think I've decided though that it's not good enough.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Home depot

Each time Dana Reinhardt publishes another book, I am impressed again at her skill at telling authentic sounding teen stories in such a compact package. Her How to Build a House is no exception. I listened to her second novel, Harmless, earlier this year -- enjoying the book but not the audiobook. Here, the audiobook is much better (although not as absolutely great! as A Brief Chapter ....).

Los Angeleno Harper Evans is spending her summer in Tennesee with a Habitat for Humanity-type organization, building a house for a family who lost everything in a tornado. She's had a rough year: Her father and beloved stepmother are divorcing and Harper's lost her closest friend and stepsister, Tess. She's sleeping with a boy who isn't interested in an exclusive relationship, and at a party she discovers him with Tess. Once she reaches Tennesee, she begins to make new friends and begins a tentative romance with the son of the family whose home is being built. The story is really teenagers on their own, and Reinhardt's smart dialogue and situations sounded utterly real to me.

Yes, the metaphor is fairly obvious: Harper's trying to emotionally rebuild her home while physically building a house. But it's not drummed into you as a reader, Reinhardt lets you figure it out yourself. I also appreciated the structure of the book. Harper is in Tennessee for the entire story, but she regularly flashes back to the events of the year before. The story is told in nicely tantalizing tidbits.

The narrator is Caitlin Greer, who read Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac for last year's list. I liked her better here. She's so skilled at teenage girl -- I thought she captured Harper's I'm so smart/I'm so insecure personality very well. She varied her narration beautifully, making sure that you got the humor and sass in these teens' conversations. The chapters of the book alternate with headings of "home" and "here," and every time I heard Greer say "home," I heard the word infused with longing and comfort.

Greer is not completely comfortable with male voices. She tends to speak them all in a lower register without much differentiation. She tries on a few accents with mixed success as well. The Tennessee boyfriend, Teddy, has a generic-sounding Southern intonation (and he didn't sound like the only Tennessean whose voice I'm familiar with, Al Gore [can I just say that I learned a new word today, demonym]), while her roommate there, Marisol, speaks in a Spanish-tinged voice. Unfortunately, Greer was not terribly consistent with these, they would fade in and out. She might have been better off not doing it at all.

I'm still hedging whether this performance is a deal-breaker because I liked the story so much. I really enjoyed listening to it; her inconsistencies did not bump me unpleasantly out of the mood Greer and Reinhardt so carefully created.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Jellicoe cats on the Jellicoe Road?

Someone on my committee just noticed that this audiobook was published in 2006, so there are nine good listening hours I'll never get back. Grrr ... This book (whose "American" version has lost the On the) by Melina Marchetta tells a very confusing story. Confusion generally does not make for good listening. Taylor Markham boards at the Jellicoe School, located somewhere 600 kilometers from Sydney. The school has a most peculiar tradition: Each year, it fights for "territory" against the townies and the cadets. The cadets are high school males who -- for some unexplained reason -- spend a good portion of their school year camped out in the bush. The townies also seem to be exclusively male. Taylor has been elected to lead the schoolies (?) in this year's Territory Wars.

The first question here is "Why?" The second one is "Where are the adults?" I never heard a satisfactory answer ... or even an unsatisfactory one.

Taylor's mind is not on the Wars, though. The closest thing she has to a caring adult in her life is a woman named Hannah who lives near the School, but Hannah has mysteriously disappeared. She leaves behind a manuscript describing the adventures of five young friends -- three of whom survived a horrific car crash on the Jellicoe Road that killed their (two sets of) parents. These three are joined by a townie and a cadet and live an idyllic adult-free life at the school and in the surrounding countryside. Hannah reads the manuscript and has disturbing dreams.

Something brings her around so that she begins to strategize tactics for the Territory Wars, but in the process she grows close to both Griggs the cadet and Santangelo the townie. Gradually, Taylor realizes that Hannah's manuscript is telling her something about her own origins and she sets off on a journey to find where Hannah has gone.

The book is told by Taylor, sporadically interspersed with Hannah's manuscript. A fine, classic narrative format. Unfortunately, a listener doesn't realize this right away as she is given no aural clues that the focus is shifting. The listener is confused, and so she is still puzzling out what she heard in a previous section while the part she is (half) listening to might be offering explanations for, say, the Territory Wars. Alas, unlike a reader, she can't pause and leaf back to the earlier section in order to clarify. And she's given no warning when the focus shifts again.

Oh wait, she was given a heads up: a short riff of music separated the sections. However, each musical interlude was exactly the same -- a soft-rocky something with a drumstick hitting the rim and a guitar. Listening to it over and over again was so bloody tiresome. At the beginning and the end of each disc it went on for a full minute or more.

This narrative format can be interpreted well in audio -- with two narrators, for example -- but there were more problems to this title as well. The story is told in short sentences and the Australian speaking style -- rapid and staccato sounding -- made for nervous, jarring listening. The narrator, Rebecca Macauley, had a habit of pausing up to a full second between a sentence of dialogue and the "she said." She voiced boys and men with a low, almost no-affect speech that didn't differentiate between characters. When more than one male was in a conversation, you often had to wait that full second (which is a long time while listening, believe me) before you knew who had spoken.

All that being said, Macauley created a lively portrayal of Taylor -- smart, sad, in love. It's always enjoyable listening to an Aussie. I wish we'd get more books from Bolinda Audio, but they've been few and far between this year.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Worship the goddess

One of the times I sat in on the Best Books for Young Adults deliberations last year, they were discussing Wildwood Dancing, which sounded so intriguing that I checked it out and read it. I like re-interpretations of fairy tales, and this had more than one (although I admit it took me far too long to figure out the whole frog character -- duh!) in a nicely romantic story. So when its "companion," Cybele's Secret came my way, I decided to give it a listen. The author, Juliet Marillier, offers plenty of hints about the plot of the first book in this companion, so I think it stands alone perfectly well.

Paula, the third of five daughters of a Transylvanian tradesman, has always been the scholarly one of the family -- most likely to follow her father's footsteps into the buying and selling of interesting books and artifacts. She accompanies her father to Istanbul, where he plans to acquire an ancient artifact called Cybele's Gift -- which turns out to be a broken statue of the earth goddess herself. Alas, Paula and her father are not the only people interested in the artifact -- some will even kill for it. Paula's father hires a bodyguard, the handsome Stoyan (note the male figure just to the left of Cybele [click here for a larger version] ... classic romance novel cover guy!), with whom Paula develops a close friendship. But before Paula's father can make an offer on the statue, he is gravely assaulted in the street, and Cybele ends up in the hands of the dashing, but piratical, Duarte da Costa Aguiar (note second male, slightly left and above Stoyan). Convinced that Duarte organized the assault on her father in order to obtain the artifact, Paula confronts him aboard his ship. However, someone else is on the trail of Cybele -- so before Paula can leave the ship, Duarte has set sail. Fortunately, Stoyan made it aboard the Esperanza as well.

Paula's journey with the two men takes her north to the Black Sea and up the rugged mountains, and into the Other Kingdom -- the parallel world that she and her sisters used to visit every full moon. It is there that Paula will be tested to her limits, and where she finds, and loses, her heart's desire. It's a very exciting adventure, with something for everyone: romance, fairy tales, ancient gods, a perilous journey.

Justine Eyre, who I thought did a professional job reading a very difficult book -- Evil Genius, is really quite splendid here. She perfectly captures Paula's (pronounced Paow-lah) naivete underlaid with intellect and steely resolve. Eyre has to do a lot with accents here: Paula and her father's native Transylvanian, Paula and her father speaking Greek with everyone in Istanbul, Stoyan (from Bulgaria) and Duarte (from Portugal) speaking Greek, plus assorted creatures -- human and otherwise -- in the Other Kingdom. She opted for a general soft th sound for everyone who spoke Greek, but there were subtle differences. The Transylvanians and the denizens of the Other Kingdom all had middle European accents (lots of v's and rolled r's). Our three heros -- Paula and the two men -- were each nicely characterized and easily distinguishable.

Eyre paces herself well. The story builds slowly -- Paula sails away with Duarte slightly less than halfway through the book -- but once the chase is on to bring Cybele home, she knows how to pour on the vocal tension and excitement. Danger and suspense are clear in Eyre's voice. And once Paula loses her heart, her sadness, and eventually -- I don't think I'm giving too much away -- her happiness are palpable.

As I reflect on our listening year with the last submissions coming our way this month, I think I've been quite stingy with my praise. I haven't liked much. So, I'm going to loosen my requirements to get a few more good (but not great) things under discussion in January. And I'm going to start by nominating this.

Monday, October 6, 2008


omg ... I'm on next year's (2010) Odyssey Committee! I hope I don't have to give up this blog.

Homework blues

The one library in my general vicinity that has continued to purchased teen books on cassette has bought their last one, I fear. I've got one of our nominations on hold there, but it's been on order for a long time. It's obvious I'm going to have to come up with another listening solution for the car. Can I get one of those adapters for a CD player? Maybe I should just buy this one! So, among the last gasps on tape was The Homework Machine -- a YRCA nominated book. (I know I've said this before -- forgive me, it's middle age -- I think my choice would be To Dance.)

Four disparate fifth graders stuck together at the same work table because their last names all begin with D cheat on their homework over the course of the school year by using one of their members' computer homework machine. Scan in the questions and presto! your homework emerges from the printer complete in your handwriting. Told in many alternating voices -- the four kids plus a classmate and a bunch of adults who were truly not paying attention -- the students learn some life lessons and become good friends.

I had so many problems with this book because I was reading it as an adult: endless unsupervised computer time, an unexplained online stalker, too early sexualization with a belly button piercing and boyfriend/girlfriend status, stereotypical racial portrayals (the geeky smart kid is Asian, the "lazy" girl is black), a teacher who can't seem to figure out why the four students sitting at the same table are all producing homework that's exactly the same, etc. However I can see that some kids might enjoy this (although won't most of them ask the same questions I did?), there's so much more good stuff out there for the upper elementary set. What about A Crooked Kind of Perfect? Or The True Meaning of Smekday?

As for the audio version, there were a variety of readers which kept it interesting. The readers portraying the kids sounded youthful and were consistent in their personalities. The format did get a little tiresome towards the end because each chapter would begin with the reader stating their character's name and grade and the chapters were often very, very short. Still, I don't know how else you could narrate such a book, and since I'm all for audiobooks, this will have to do.

Drawn from life

Pat Barker's Life Class tells the story of Paul Tarrant, a working class lad who is using his grandmother's legacy to go to art school. He is attending the Slade School of Fine Art, but isn't feeling very successful. In the first pages of the novel, he storms out of his life drawing class after his instructor, Henry Tonks, chides him for his work. Paul knows that his work lacks something, particularly after he connects with two other artists at the Slade: Elinor Brooke and Kit Neville. Kit is living the life of a successful artist, and Elinor's student painting has just won an award. Both Paul and Kit have fallen hard for Elinor, but she seems interested only in their friendship.

It is the summer of 1914, and once World War I breaks out, Paul attempts to enlist. He has just recovered from a bout of pneumonia, so the army rejects him, and he joins the Belgian Red Cross as a hospital orderly. Just before he leaves London, he and Elinor become all but lovers. Every day at the front, he faces the horrific injuries and his coping mechanism is to distance himself emotionally. He rents an attic room in Ypres to use for painting, and impetuously invites Elinor to join him. She arrives just before the bombing of the city, and -- after some delicately described lovemaking -- she leaves for safety and England. Paul is transferred to ambulance driving, while Elinor resolutely continues her painting. Paul's painting is transformed by what he has seen in the war, and when he returns to London to recover from an injury, we're not quite sure if their romance will continue. He paints the horrors of what he has seen, and she doesn't believe that is a fit subject for art. We are left without a resolution.

I very much enjoyed Pat Barker's first novels of World War I, the acclaimed Regeneration trilogy inspired by the psychological work of Dr. W.H.R. Rivers and his attempts to cure shell-shocked soldiers. She has such a feel for the period -- both the Western Front and the home front.

I enjoyed this book as well, mostly because the reader was such a pleasure to listen to. [Preface to all remarks: Lee enjoys an English accent!] Russell Boulter read warmly, soothingly in a husky, low register -- I think I've [mis]used the warm honey in the ear metaphor before. He carefully characterized the class distinctions -- Paul and his lover earlier in the story are both from working class families in ... northern England (?); Kit and Elinor are from the more privileged classes. Boulter read women with a higher voice, but it didn't sound unnatural. Much of the book is letters between Paul and Elinor and he sounded as comfortable in Elinor's skin as he did Paul's. Paul is the primary witness of the war's horrors, and Boulter chose to read those descriptions with dispassionate distance that Paul was using. (It didn't make them any less horrible to hear about.) He was even quite sexy reading sex, without being prurient. I'd listen to him read again.

I've struggled here before with adult novels with teen appeal. I think there will always be sophisticated teenagers who will read and enjoy complex novels like this one, but I tried to put myself in this book as a teenager, and I don't think I would've liked it ... even though I am (and was) a big fan of historical fiction. The story meandered, the characters were adults, the ending unresolved. I gave it an official no for our committee.