Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sleeping beauties

Princess Benevolence is the sole heir to the throne of the small country of Montagne, but so far she hasn't been raised to be particularly royal. Her father (brother to the king) and mother have indulged her pretty thoroughly, although she's not unpleasantly spoiled. But one day, during a ceremonial outing, Ben's uncle the king and her mother are killed, and her father disappears. Montagne's menacing neighbor, Drachensbett -- which has long coveted the peaceful kingdom -- is believed to be responsible for the murders. The king's widow, Sophia -- appointing herself regent --starts a diplomatic game to keep Drachensbett at bay, and begins Ben's princess lessons (which do bear a bit of a resemblence to those of another princess ... except that Ben is a bit chubbier), grooming her for a probable match with the young prince of Drachensbett.

But Ben, in Princess Ben: Being a Wholly Truthful Account of her Various Discoveries and Misadventures, Recounted to the Best of her Recollection, in Four Parts is having none of it. In this extremely enjoyable slightly twisted fairy tale by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (author of our beloved D.J. Schwenk), Ben acts out in every possible way, until Queen Sophia banishes her to a lonely tower room. (Her hair does not begin to grow.) She's not truly imprisoned there, but she's got a lot of time on her hands, and one day she discovers that a bit of the walls of her tower room isn't -- in fact -- a wall; it's a door. A door to an even higher tower room, filled with dust, a broom, and a large book.

Ben soon realizes that this book is full of magic spells and she begins to practice creating the four elements: air, fire, earth and water. She goes on to discover that the castle of Montagne is riddled with secret passageways, which enable her to observe the castle's activities without being seen. Ben also learns to enchant and fly the broom. This comes in handy on the night of her betrothal ball, when she leaves in a rage and flies out her tower window. After a night of perilous flying (she's not really good), she lands on the upper reaches of Ancienne, Montagne's namesake mountain; and shortly after that she is taken up by Drachensbett's army -- camped out there in anticipation of the invasion. They think she is a boy. Soon, the prince shows up and, well ... you know how it's going to end, but it's a pretty engaging ride to get there.

Despite the familiar story, Ben's narration is witty and literate. She's telling us the story from her old age, and Murdock sets the right tone of bemused ruefulness at her adolescent high jinks and poor choices. I like re-interpreted fairy tales and this is a good one. I hope I'm not spoiling it to say that there are two sleepers awoken in this story, and neither one is Ben!

This book is read by the author and she reads with enthusiasm and affection for her story. Power audiobook listeners tend to view author narration with skepticism, but I enjoyed her reading. She never took that neutral tone that you can hear from many authors who read their own books. Instead, Murdock's narration reflected that tone of looking back with embarrassed fondness at her youthful foibles. Her speech patterns and vocal tone reminded me of Christina Moore, who has narrated a bunch of children's and teen audiobooks (A Girl of the Limberlost from YALSA's 2003 list, and -- in the spirit of this novel, Zel).

But then Murdock chose to get more elaborate and started creating voices for the novel's characters -- a variety of accents and differences in timbre emerged: French, Cockney, girlishly petulantly high (for young Ben), and deep and low for the king of Drachensbett. Alas, she couldn't keep it up. The vocal interpretations came and went, often in the space of a conversation. I was very disappointed. I lost focus on the magic of the story she had created through her first-person narration, and instead waited for the awkwardness to arrive. In Mary Burkey's visualization, Murdock's narrative choices kept a great story down.

I also heard a number of mispronunciations and a lot of dry mouth. But I think I could have overlooked them. Sigh.

On the good news front, Murdock's writing a third book about D.J. Schwenk! And before I let this go, it's always nice to see an author who can cross genres. Murdock simply knows how to tell a good story. What could be better?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What's it all about?

I wonder how hard it is for authors to let go of a character they created and loved. Is a situation like that as much a generator of sequels as publishers and authors hanging on to a good thing financially? I ask this because I think Janet Tashjian (hooray for audiobooks, it's pronounced taz-zhin) needs to separate from her delightful creation, Josh 'Larry' Swenson. Her most recent outing, Larry and the Meaning of Life just didn't cut it for me.

I loved Josh in his first two stories -- when I started The Gospel According to Larry by reading the preface where Josh hands Janet his manuscript, just for a few moments, I believed it was true. I just finished Vote for Larry (because you know that's what I need to do), and -- even though it was written during the 2004 election -- it seemed utterly connected to the election just concluded. But this installment, where Larry is searching for personal meaning by hanging out with a completely creepy guru at Walden Pond just gave me the icks. And, it's "surprise" ending just felt more icky to me.

A brief synopsis: After winning nearly a third of the presidential vote in Vote for Larry, Josh heads off on an eight-month search for his former girlfriend, Janine. Janine disappeared when Josh accused her of colluding with his worst enemy -- known as betagold -- to scuttle his campaign. He didn't find her, and is now camped out in his stepfather's TV room with little will to turn off the documentaries. But he knows he needs to do something, so he heads off to Walden Pond for a little enlightenment. There he meets Gus, and -- after an all-too brief evaluation -- decides that he will join Gus's small group of seekers, Janine among them. Along the way, Josh ends up in trouble with the police and FBI, donating a kidney to a stranger, and perhaps finding his biological father.

I didn't like this because Josh seemed to have lost all his Larry-ness. For all of Josh's navel-gazing, Larry was always about questioning the world around him, and in the Meaning of Life, he seems to have uncharacteristically fallen for Gus and his obviously dicey philosophy early on. "What have you done with Josh?" I would periodically ask the air while I was listening. The whole kidney-donation thing really bugged me, as did the demise of Janine's best friend. I hope this isn't a spoiler, but perhaps I was as dense as Josh?

On the other hand, I enjoyed the audiobook. The author's preface and epilogue are read in dialogue with the reader, Matt Green, and Tashjian (or who I assume is Tashjian, since she is never introduced). Tashjian reads a little leadenly, but it makes a nice contrast between her and Josh. When Green begins reading the story, he inhabits Josh nicely -- with all his smarts and insecurity. He semi-voices the other characters, most notably Gus -- who has an accent from ... somewhere (or Fakeland as a committee colleague recently put it). (And it's OK that it's not distinguishable, a running joke in the story is that everyone thinks that Gus is from someplace different.) I did hear one or two elisions -- where he just read so fast that he seemed to be skipping words, but that my brain knew what he meant to say.

And, having read the previous two books, I wanted more vocal distinction of Josh's footnotes. I knew Green was reading them, but I wanted to hear the difference between his regular narration and when he was footnoting. Josh's asides are part of his charm, I wanted to hear that side of his personality. The question is, would a new listener even care about the two narrative streams? I think I just got off the fence about nominating this title; I'm very interested in whether my fellow librarians -- those who don't know Josh -- even care about this!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Stranger in a strange land

It shouldn't come as a surprise to me to learn that there are many fan sites for the science fiction author (and legend) Robert A. Heinlein, so I shall just link to his official website -- which seems to focus more on him and not so much on his books -- and leave Wikipedia (Heinlein was a nudist!) and the other geeky pages to Google searchers. His Red Planet (which was evidently heavily edited for the sensibilities of the post-atomic-age teenage set) has now been published in audio (and Heinlein's original manuscript restored) by that family-listening-loving Full Cast Audio. I do like the cover.

Red Planet's heroes are Jim Marlowe and Frank Sutton, two boys who are being raised on Mars by their pioneering, colonizing families. Jim has a pet "bouncer" (the blue object with three eyes) named Willis who is friendly and childlike, but has the ability to remember and reproduce the conversations of the humans he encounters. Jim takes Willis with him when the boys head off to boarding school, but trouble quickly ensues. Willis is confiscated by the new, corrupt headmaster -- who intends to ship him to the London Zoo. When Jim and Frank spring Willis, they learn of an even-more nefarious plot: The colonists' annual migration from south to north pole (to avoid the subfreezing winter Martian weather) will not take place, as the "company" running the Mars operations from Earth wishes to save money. Willis' imitative skills alert the boys to this plot.

Jim (the impetuous adventurous one) and Frank (the sensible one who actually gets things done) set off in their pressurized suits and ice skates on a trip that essentially takes them from the equator to the pole along Mars' frozen canals. Fortunately, through Willis, Jim had already made a connection with the native population, and it is the Martians who eventually return them to the colony so they can tell them about the cancelled migration. The colonists rise up in revolt, and -- after a brief skirmish -- win the day. But there is more of a battle ahead of them: The nonviolent Martians have not really welcomed the colonists to their planet and now they want them gone. It is up to Jim and Willis to broker a peace.

I am not a science fiction fan, although I bet my brother read this when he was a kid. There is something vaguely amusing about it now: The language is old-fashioned, the women are non-existent (except when they are assigned kitchen duties), and it lacks the consciousness about people who are not like us that is so much a part of our lives and our literature today. However, I did hear a wee bit of perhaps-we-have-been-a-little-overbearing-in-our-takeover-of-your-planet in amongst the libertarian message of let-us-alone-to-be-who-we-want-to-be. On the other hand, if you can overlook these qualities (and I think some kids can), Red Planet is a fairly exciting adventure; and if the adults take a little bit more of center-stage once the colonists stage their rebellion, it's still a pretty kid-oriented story.

But in audio, all its flaws seem much more obvious. The weak, whiny women, the outdated language, the casual violence, the Earth-centric disinterest and disdain for the wonders of another place and its people. There are many wincing moments. But, often I'm wincing while listening to a full-cast audio because the readers are so overly emotive and dramatic, and that was not the case here. The readers did a fine job -- they effortlessly hit all the right notes of youthful enthusiasm, cranky old codger, adorable blue ball, dignified Martian elder. The music was wonderful as well: properly space agey.

But this was a case of the story taking me out of the audio: Every time one of those 1940s-era literary bloopers hit my ears, I wanted to not be hearing it. Ouch.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Johnny got his gun

This post title really isn't a fair description of We are Soldiers Still: A Journey Back to the Battlefields of Vietnam by Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway. This memoir is subtlely anti-war, as opposed to Dalton Trumbo's novel - which kind of trumpets its stance loud and clear.

Fifteen years ago, Moore and Galloway wrote a memoir of what's considered by historians to be the first battle of the US-Vietnam conflict, the Ia Drang Valley. Moore was a lieutenant colonel -- and highest ranking officer in the field [I'm never clear about such things as miliary rank?] -- during the battle, and the book, We were Soldiers Once ... and Young, is evidently considered a masterpiece of military memoir. In the audiobook that I completed on Veterans' Day, Moore and Galloway (a UPI war reporter) recount their several trips to Vietnam during the 1990s, where they sought out the commander of the Vietnamese that day, a General Nguyen Huu An, and revisited the battlefield of Ia Drang with him. Moore writes movingly about being back Ia Drang, marveling at a new friendship with an old enemy, and how the land shows little sign of the death and destruction that occurred there nearly 30 years previously

If only it had stopped there. But Moore goes on -- pressured by his publisher? -- to pontificate at length on the qualities of a good leader. Then, he opines about war in general, taking a number of digs at George W. Bush and his ill-advised, ill-executed war in Iraq (While I personally have no connection to the military or anyone in the military, I did enjoy hearing that a professional soldier believes what I believe: That the soldiers who have died in Iraq have died meaningless deaths. We have gained nothing by this war.). Moore concludes this book with two lengthy elegies to soldiers dearly missed: Rick Riscorla, who died on 9/11; and his wife of 55 years, who died in 2004.

Joseph Galloway reads the audiobook. He reads in an extremely deep, gravelly Southern-tinged voice that rarely varied in volume, emotion or pacing. The narration didn't change as the book moved from Vietnam to 9/11 to Moore's wife's funeral procession. His delivery was quite lulling. At the beginning of every chapter, the volume would increase significantly -- was it because he was starting fresh after a break? But, soon he would head down to his comfortable speaking voice, and the listener would be lulled back into her zen state.

This narrative choice alone I think makes the audiobook a poor choice for teenagers. But that, coupled with the second half of the book's emphasis on "adult" things: organizational leadership skills, his post-military activities, the death of his wife -- really boot it out of the teen-friendly category. I would think that the first memoir might have considerable interest for some teenagers, but -- of course -- it's not under consideration. This title made for somewhat interesting listening, but is an easy no for our committee.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Totally off topic

Our next president is Barack Obama! How cool is that!

100 days!

Our most recent nomination list is posted here. We received our final submissions last week (although something trickled in today ... hah! the 2010 committee has to listen to 23.5 hours of The Host!), and my fabulous Excel spreadsheet tells me that we received 296 eligible audiobooks, totaling 2,412 hours and 23 minutes. That's 100 days of audio. Each of those 296 audiobooks was (or hopefully will be) listened to by at least one of the nine members of the Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults committee before December 1. Whew!

Since this was the first year I kept track of this, I have no idea how this compares to previous years. All I know is that we didn't receive [again!] a copy of Skulduggery Pleasant, and I anticipate my disappointment that Book 2, Playing with Fire will end up with an Odyssey Award or Honor, and -- like last year -- we didn't have the chance to listen to it! (I will not be disappointed if Skulduggery ends up with another Odyssey, just that our committee didn't have a chance to listen to it.) Grrr ...

The fourth shall be first ... or only

OK, so if there are any regular readers of this blog, you know how much I don't want to pick up a series book in the middle. Most of the time, I can get around this by reading up before listening, but I literally didn't have anything else to listen to except for the fourth (fifth?) installment in The Land of Elyon [this is a very outdated website, so try this one instead!], so I reluctantly started Stargazer by Patrick Carman. Best to get it over with, I thought.

The girl on the cover is Alexa, heroine of these stories, and as this book starts out she is sailing across the Lonely Sea with some loyal companions. Soon, an evil mechanical sea creature (Abaddon) attacks their ship -- killing its captain. Alexa and her faithful gnome (or some other short and hairy creature) Yipes are rescued by the peaceful, happy citizens of The Five Pillars. These people seem to spend their days sliding down vines in an activity called "skimming." They have no idea of the evil that lurks at the bottom of their pillars -- Abaddon is slowly attacking the pillars' bases so they will fall into the sea. Alexa -- telepathically linked to the creature -- knows, and she acts the heroine to save the community, finding and piloting the balloon flyer that will transport those citizens who wish to go back to their original home in the Land of Elyon.

If that synopsis creates more questions that answers, blame the fact that I have little idea of what backstory was provided in the previous four books. I'm sure that there are young readers everywhere who are fully caught up in Alexa's adventures -- but to me, they reek of the mediocre fantasy series that have sprung up in the past 10 years hoping to catch the Harry Potter backsplash. There isn't much of anything in this book: no story, stock characters, leaden dialogue, and a whole lot of telling and not much showing. This appears to be the final volume, and it concludes with a balloon-load of cheap sentiment.

The audiobook doesn't rise above its material. Read by Ellen Archer -- a narrator who has clearly worked hard to create some wacky character voices, but who seems to me to just be trying too hard to amuse young listeners. There's no subtlety in her characters (well, there's no subtlety in Carman's characters, either). I didn't find her voice all that pleasing to listen to -- she seemed harsh and overly loud.

I did my duty and now I can move on.

No pain, no gain

Things have gotten somewhat crazy at work and I'm a little behind with blogging. (I don't think I'm behind listening ... I'm feeling like I can get my assignments done between now and the end of the month.) I may give the next two books short shrift here. Finished a week ago: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron. When I first heard about this book about a year ago, I thought, gee, I hope that comes out in audio. I used chair privileges to snag it for myself and popped it right into the mp3/CD player (I finally got a CD player/radio for the bathroom -- a whole lot less bulky than the cassette-playing boom box that was in there before -- the sound is a little tinny, though, and I can't run the fan and take a shower and hear.).

I wanted to listen to it because the young character's voice seemed to be one suited for audio: Smart, funny, thoughtful. A good narrator will bring it home. New Yorker James Sveck is about to head off to Brown, but he doesn't really want to go. He's thinking he'd rather spend the money his parents will spend on college on a big, old house somewhere in the Midwest. He's kind of a loner -- doesn't really like being with his peers, or with anyone at all -- and he seems to be deeply depressed. The only people he truly admires are his grandmother and the gay man who runs his mother's vanity-project art gallery. His divorced parents insist that he see a counselor after he goes AWOL from a special program for high school seniors in Washington, DC … the American Classroom. He spars with his shrink over the meaning of words, the impact of his actions, and the effect of being in school next door to the WTC the day the towers fell. James' love of language makes this book very engaging -- you want to listen to every word because you know that the author has chosen them so carefully. He's also -- despite the depression -- an interesting person.

But the audiobook was a disappointment. Lincoln Hoppe read it. Now, I loved his reading of King Dork two years ago, but now I'm beginning to wonder if I was just a less critical listener in 2006. I thought he would be just terrific as James. He read James' narrative in a very slow, deliberative fashion; a choice he made (I hope) to demonstrate James' depression and apathy. Unfortunately, this choice makes the book rather dull to listen to. Hoppe definitely perks up his narration as James opens up to his shrink and begins to understand or acknowledge the reasons he's making the choices he is (James would scorn that particular sentence as psychological mumbo-jumbo).

Hoppe is pretty good at creating vocal portraits, and he had fun with two women in the story: James' shrink, Dr. Adler and a desperately enthusiastic Indiana real estate agent (who probably didn't vote for Obama [yahoo!]).

He seemed to reading with an overly dry mouth as well, as I heard a significant amount of clicking and mouth moistening. All in all, it just didn't amount to an amazing audiobook for me.