Thursday, January 22, 2009

Man meets (polar) bear

And because I can't seem to stop listening, I whiled away two hours last night listening to Philip Pullman's Once Upon a Time in the North, a wisp of a thing introducing us to Lee Scoresby in his younger days. (Alas, I kept seeing Sam Elliott, and [worse!] hearing George Bush [who I am not dignifying with a link].) Still, what it made me want to do is listen to His Dark Materials start to finish ... when my professional listening eases up (in a year) those are the first on my list (I think I've said that before, but this time I mean it!).

Young Lee -- along with his daemon, the jackrabbit Hester -- crash lands his balloon on the isolated island of Novy Odense. In the course of one day, he saves the cargo of a Dutch captain, throws a spanner into the hate campaign of the local bigwig, and kills an enemy in a wild-West style shootout. He also falls for -- but doesn't win -- a lovely librarian. He's aided in his brief quest by the great bear Iorek Byrnison, and escapes with the bear just ahead of the law (less) forces of the island. The novelette ends with some correspondence from Lyra -- which sounded like it alluded to graduate work at Oxford, where she is using Lee's documents? See, I have no idea what that means, which is why I have to revisit the trilogy.

This audiobook is narrated by the author along with a cast of voice actors portraying each character. Pullman reads with excitement and nicely sustained tension, and the other readers create characters with just a few lines of pleasantly accented, authentic sounding dialogue. (I wonder if the actors playing Lee, Hester and Iorek are those who read for the trilogy?) With the exception of the George Bush flashes, I enjoyed this a lot.

One month!

Well, I'm done with Amazing Audiobooks for 2009.

Look for our final list sometime next week.

Let your garden grow

I loved the connection (very brief ... if you weren't paying close listening attention you might have missed it) between the title of this book and the civil rights martyr Medgar Evers. A Thousand Never Evers is shouted during a service for the murdered Evers and the thought of that (which meant "never again" to me) gave me shivers. It felt particularly appropriate during this historic Inauguration weekend. This first novel by Shana Burg, a Jewish woman who tells us that her father represented unjustly accused African Americans during the civil rights era, tells the story of young Addie Ann Pickett. Addie lives on the black side of the railroad tracks with her widowed mother, uncle and older brother in 1963. She's spunky, smart and -- while fully aware of the impact of segregation on herself and her family -- is just understanding what it means in the world of her small town, Kuckachoo, Mississippi and beyond.

That hot summer of 1963 begins with the murder of Medgar Evers, as well as the death of Kuckachoo's wealthiest citizen. When he dies, he leaves his large garden property to all the citizens of Kuckachoo, in the hopes that black and white will work together to plant the land and reap the produce. The white Kuckachoo-ians don't bat a collective eyelash in dismissing the will and go ahead with plans to plant the garden. They don't even see the irony of hiring black workers to do the stoop labor. However, when the time comes to harvest, everyone -- black and white -- discover that the garden has been vandalized; someone has tossed butter bean (are these lima beans?) seeds all over the land, and as they have grown, the other plants have withered. Someone must pay, and the white community believes it has found the culprit in Addie Ann's uncle Bump. In a scene right out of To Kill a Mockingbird, Bump faces an all-white jury who will decide his fate. As the plot unfolds, it is Addie Ann who holds the key to proving Bump's innocence.

Burg crams a lot into this story, fact and fiction -- including the March on Washington, Emmitt Till, and the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church -- and it sways a bit under the weight. There's almost too much in here, and when Addie Ann and another character present their evidence during the trial I heard the faint machinery of the plot. But this largely doesn't detract from its qualities as an audiobook. The reading aloud is quite powerful.

The audio starts with Burg reading her author's note, and she sounds ... well, like an author reading (er ... like most authors reading), so when narrator Kenya Brome starts speaking it's a delightful cue that the story is beginning. Brome infuses Addie Ann with optimism and wonder, as well as an undercurrent of bitter understanding. All the events of the story are filtered through her 12-year-old interpretation (in this way, the story felt like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry), and she's working her way through fear, loss, horror, excitement, friendship, puppy love and curiosity about adult behavior. Her voice sounded so authentic; yes, as an African American, but also as a child.

Brome creates voices for many of the other characters in the story, and she did this skillfully and consistently. I enjoyed hearing the different Southern cadences of black and white, along with a slight New York Jew for the young woman who defends Uncle Bump on behalf of the NAACP. As she recorded dialogue, she moved effortlessly from one character to another. It was a fine performance, worthy of our notice.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Light my fire!

Here's what I wrote about The Burn Journals when I read it four years ago: "A riveting diary-format story of a young man who immolates himself in the bathroom and then lives through a year of recovery, therapy and growth. He has a completely accessible voice, even though there is no indication that he kept a journal during the time; the entries seem honest and uninvented." This memoir by Brent Runyon tells of the year when he set himself on fire and how he made his initial recovery.

As an adult reader, this book can make you tear your hair out! How successful kids can be at keeping things from adults. Why did he think that (attempted) suicide was the only way to avoid the trouble he thought he would be in because he lit a fire in the boys' locker room? Does he really think that the therapists are just asking him questions to annoy him? And other more prosaic thoughts: Who's paying for all that medical care? Why won't his brother come to see him? What does he look like ... then? Now? And none of those answers are forthcoming. Yet that's what makes it such a brilliant document for teens.

I also enjoyed Christopher Evan Welch's interpretation of this memoir. He is very successful at sounding like a teenager -- perhaps not in timbre, but in delivery. (I'm very fond of his narration of The Last Apprentice series.) And in The Burn Journals he uses that skill to great effect. I could hear in his voice all of Brent's clashing emotions: fear, desperation, pain, tentativeness, puppy love (for one of his nurses), sucking up fandom (for Dennis Miller and Magic Johnson -- both of whom make a personal connection during his recovery (another unanswered question ... why?); and above all the veneer of sarcasm that enables Brent to distance himself from anyone who might possible cause him emotional pain. Most of the adults he deals with in this memoir are portrayed with excoriating contempt -- sounding pompous, ignorant, ineffectual; and I have no doubt that that was how Brent viewed them.

There was never a dull moment in Brent's year of recovery -- his curiosity about his restricted world keeps this memoir interesting. Yet I think I also kept listening for some answers -- obviously the big one being "why" -- some recognition of the effect of his act on others. And, ultimately, there weren't any answers ... but oddly that was OK. This made it more vivid, somehow, that this was just a stage of his journey.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Neither black or white

Cultural authenticity is often the best reason to listen to a book instead of reading it. Hmmm: Sherman Alexie or my little, middle-aged female voice as Junior Spirit? Really, there's a question here? So, I was glad to hear Armando Durán reading Oscar Hijuelos' Dark Dude. A much better option to tell the story of young Rico Fuentes, the dude of the title.

The novel begins with a definition of dark dude (which I am paraphrasing): what persons of color call males with light-colored skin. It's not a nice thing to say. Rico is pale and freckled with light hair and eyes because -- as his mother tells him -- he has an Irish great grandfather. But that ancestor has made life pretty miserable for Rico, a Cuban-American growing up in East Harlem in the 1960s. His mother is overly protective, he doesn't have many friends, and he is considered an outsider by all groups: black, Latino and white. At the beginning of the novel, an older friend, Gilberto, has just won the lottery and is taking off for college in (of all places) rural Wisconsin. When Rico starts regularly skipping school, his parents threaten to send him to live with an uncle in Florida who runs a military school. Rico panics, grabs his only friend who is in danger of relapsing into a heroin habit, and runs away to Gilberto's farm house/hippie commune.

Rico is a fish out of water initially, but soon finds a semi-comfortable niche. This is another coming-of-age story, so you know that Rico's going to learn some truths about himself and others; but within that context his journey is an interesting one. There's some humor and some pathos. I enjoyed getting to know Rico and was glad that he found his way.

Durán read the story well. He portrayed Rico beautifully, I thought. I heard Rico's innocence and insecurities, his affection and admiration for Gilberto, and his humorous falling in first love. Rico's not a Spanish speaker (even though his parents speak it, he chose not to), but when he did include Spanish words they sounded authentic (Cuban? Puerto Rican? Mexican? I can't hear those distinctions.). Durán had to produce a number of other accents -- the Spanish-accented English of his parents, the urban Latino of Gilberto, some black drug dealers and some black funeral directors, a black girl raised like white people named Wendy, a sweet Midwestern girl named Shari, and many others. He expertly switched from one to the other sounding natural and authentic. At one point, Rico and Wendy are having a conversation, and each pronounces "Gilberto" from their own culture: Hard g for Wendy, a breathy h for Rico.

At the beginning of every disc, Durán stated the title and author and his pronunciation of "Hijuelos" just sounded so gooey and perfect that I occasionally would track back to hear it again. Sometimes, you've just got to hear things spoken by someone who knows.

The home front

I repeat myself here (probably more often than I realize), but I do enjoy historical fiction. It affords me a brief, (hopefully) reliable introduction to a time period or event that I could explore in greater detail if I wished. While Tallgrass was not my first introduction to the horrors of Japanese-American internment during World War II, I appreciated the perspective of the small Colorado town on this regrettable episode in U.S. history. Not only does Sandra Dallas give us that glimpse, but she also tells a thoughtful coming-of-age story.

Rennie Stroud is 13 years old when the Tallgrass Internment Camp opens up next door to her family's sugar-beet farm in rural Ellis, Colorado. (Tallgrass is the fictional name of the Amache Internment Camp.) Rennie's family is one of the few in Ellis who believe that the Japanese-Americans interned there are not enemies, but the Strouds are respected enough in the community that their opposition is listened to, if not believed. Rennie's father eventually hires several young men from the camp to help him on the farm; and her mother -- with a heart condition -- also hires help inside the house. The community remains tense about the presence of the Japanese, particularly once a young girl is raped and murdered, and the crime is not quickly solved.

Aside from that crime (and another rape that we find out about after the fact), nothing much really happens in this novel. The seasons pass, the war drags on, the quilting ladies gather and gossip, the men harvest, and Rennie -- the observer -- grows up. Tallgrass nicely evokes a small-town, slow-paced time where a community comes to terms with the violence and racism in its midst. I liked it.

I loved the narrator, Lorelei King; she was outstanding. Rennie is telling us this story as an adult, and King brilliantly delivers the narration as the adult, but the dialogue is read with more childlike tones. She transitioned from one to the other effortlessly. There was a cast of (at least) dozens in this story, and King created unique and consistent characters for each and every one of them. By the time the novel was over, I knew many of them by voice. The novel's male characters were natural-sounding, and on the few occasions when she was portraying a Japanese character with accented English (there weren't many ... as the point of the novel is that the internees were Americans), it sounded authentic to me. I thought it was a masterful performance (and so did AudioFile).

King interviews Sandra Dallas at the end of the audiobook, and I particularly enjoyed her perspective on the book and her perceptive questions about it. Aside from the author, an audiobook narrator is likely the only other person with as close an acquaintance with a novel. As part of the interview King recollects her own feelings at reading this book; at one point, she even mentions crying while she was recording.

If I have a concern about the audiobook it is the leisurely pace of the story. There's very little action, and when the resolution comes (the discovery of the murderer) it has been a long time since the crime. It would even have been possible to forget that it had happened. The final turns of the plot are a wee bit melodramatic, as well. Still, neither quality detracts from the fine performance by King.

Battle school

I didn't like Ender's Game when I read it a couple of years ago, but I understand that it is most popular with teen readers. I have trouble getting my head around the whole child soldier thing; how adults will use children -- and their vulnerable gullibility -- to achieve some adult ends. I wish I didn't know as much about Orson Scott Card as I do now, because this also gives me pause. However, I am a professional and can evaluate this audiobook on its own merits!

In a society that has battled with alien beings called "buggers," the military establishment is on the lookout for great strategists who can face the enemy with new, annihilating tactics ... and they look for these warriors among their children. Young Andrew "Ender" Wiggin appears to be a prime candidate. He is a third (not truly sanctioned) child, essentially bred for his military possibilities. At the age of six, he is recruited (although not really voluntarily) and sent off to battle school in outer space. There he learns how to fight in zero gravity, and his talent far exceeds his age. Isolated in leadership, Ender suffers profound loneliness and horror at what he is trained to do, but in a final confrontation with the buggers (a confrontation he thought was merely another military exercise), he defeats them. Finding who he has become too much to bear, he becomes a settler on a distant planetoid, trying to rid himself of his warrior impulses, but sadly he remains burdened with guilt.

The audiobook is kind of a "full cast" production. In between Ender's story -- read by a single narrator -- are two-narrator dialogues from other characters who advance the plot with additional information. We also hear a single (?) vignette from the point of view of Ender's beloved sister, Valentine. This is a very effective rendering of the story, giving you a vivid illustration of how manipulative the adults are with Ender and how successfully they've isolated him. They appear almost puppeteer-like in the way their conversations loom over the narrative from Ender's point of view. However, I so wished the production had named all the narrators and what role they had played. There were a few well-known names among the readers (if you look up the audiobook in our catalog) -- including the author and Harlan Ellison -- but you'd never know it in the listening. I was very curious what part each had played.

Alas, I couldn't like the main reader, Stefan Rudnicki (who, it appears, also directed this production). As I'd said in an earlier post about another book that he read, he is way too old to be portraying children (these boys aren't even teenagers). As a result, I had difficulty empathizing with Ender, I had difficulty in believing that he was even 11 years old (which is as old as he gets in a story that starts when he's six). I kept forgetting that he was a child, which ultimately ruins the impact of the story.

This audiobook is actually a reissued version of one originally published in 2004; our committee was able to consider it because new material was added. The original came with a lengthy afterword by Card; the new material was an additional afterword that Card made for the Young Reader's Edition (Young Listener's? ... I don't have it here to look at). Both afterwords were kind of painful to listen to as we are given a fairly intricate account of how the book came to be published and why he thinks it has such appeal for teen readers. Suffice it to say, Card doesn't do humble very well.

This is always a tricky part of evaluating audiobooks: Do teen listeners continue on? Does it matter if they don't? If it's so bad (either in content or execution [the afterword in Jenna Fox was a poor example of audio quality]), does it detract from what came before? Personally, I wasn't that enamored of the audiobook for this to be an issue for me, but it may come up in our discussions.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Ahoy, matey!

Following quickly on the heels of Curse of the Blue Tattoo comes L.A. Meyer's next installment, Under the Jolly Roger: Being an Account of the Further Nautical Adventures of Jacky Faber, narrated by Katherine Kellgren. Jacky has sailed to England on the Pequod (with a sly reference to the Captain's obsession with "that whale") and sets off in search of her fiance Jaimy. Turned away by Jaimy's mother (who has not given her son any of Jacky's letters from Boston), Jacky learns that she'll be able to see him at the horse races the next day. Wearing the riding silks that she earned when she won that Boston horse race, she spies Jaimy holding hands with a lovely young girl and throws her betrothal ring in his face and runs away ... right into the clutches of a British Navy press gang.

Jacky finds herself on board the HMS Wolverine, captained by an evil sadist who loses little time in attempting rape. However, he dies in the attempt (apoplexy, not murder), and Jacky finds herself as acting captain. Despite the loyalty of her crew, she soon makes plans to leave the Navy -- since they don't really want her despite her obvious sailing and tactical prowess -- obtaining a letter of marque that enables her to privately capture the merchant vessels of Britain's enemies (at the time, France and Spain) for her personal gain. She gathers a crew of Irishmen and enjoys some success -- even starting an orphanage for London's street waifs. Alas, the British Navy revokes her letter, captures her, and charges her with piracy. Before the Navy can return her to England for trial and likely hanging, Jacky finds herself in the midst of the Battle of Trafalgar and makes her escape once more.

And, like her previous outing, Kellgren does an outstanding job. (The superlatives have been exhausted, I'm afraid.) It's another splendid adventure, and Kellgren -- yes -- brings it vividly to life. Jacky's highs and lows, as well as her encounters with the toplofty naval commanders, Irish and Scotsmen, Cheapside orphans, and the men and boys of the Wolverine are all delightfully rendered. The songs continue in this episode and they are beautifully sung. The 15 hours flew by.

As an upcoming Odyssey listener, I'm looking forward to episode four: In the Belly of the Bloodhound: Being an Account of a Particularly Peculiar Adventure in the Life of Jacky Faber. Although I shall have to work on some additional things to say about it!

Where did the magic go?

I have a friend who says that if you don't want the world to know what you're thinking, you can keep your thoughts in Word. When I think about what happened to me (however small in the big, big world) over my blog about a year ago, I wondered if perhaps I should be keeping up that document instead of this blog. But part of the fun of this blog is doing a little online research about the books, the authors, and the odd little things that pop up whilst one is listening. (Of course, I could make all those links in Word, but it wouldn't look as cool ... this all might be moot anyway in a few weeks when I stop listening for Amazing Audiobooks and start listening for the Odyssey. Look! More links! I may have to switch to a private method of tracking my opinions.)

Anyway, that pontification is because while I was searching for some online links about The Magic Thief, I discovered that the author, Sarah Prineas, lives in my home town of Iowa City, Iowa. What fun! (Here's where one hopes the author does a little ego-surfing and finds my insignificant little blog ....) The Magic Thief introduces us to young pickpocket and street kid Conn, who -- one winter evening in the town of Wellmet -- steals the locus magicalicus of one Nevery Flinglas. If Conn was a normal boy, having the stone in his possession would likely kill him, but it seemingly does no damage. Intrigued, Nevery takes Conn in and eventually Conn becomes his apprentice. Nevery has returned to Wellmet after a long absence (he was banished from the town and its wizarding community for an experiment that went badly awry), because he senses that Wellmet is losing its essential magic. Between them, Conn and Nevery attempt to solve the mystery of that loss.

The adventure is fairly slight in this novel -- it's the first of a trilogy, so a considerable amount of time is spent in creating the world -- but the characters are delightful. Conn is a clever and appealing young hero and Nevery is cantankerous but affectionate. Nearly every chapter concludes with an entry from Nevery's journal -- which fills in the parts of the story that Conn can't tell us. Wellmet is populated with other individuals as well -- most notably Nevery's "muscle" Benet (pronounced Bennett in the audio version) who knits and cooks as well as offering protection, a smart girl named Rowan and her mother, the Duchess, and assorted villains of the mustache-twirling variety.

The reader, Greg Steinbruner, takes the various characters as his cue in interpreting this novel and gives us a series of enjoyable portrayals: Conn as a curious explorer of his world, Nevery is gruff and pompous, Benet quiet but formidable, the villains exaggerated in their vocal mannerisms. In conversation you always know who is speaking and the characters are consistent through the course of the novel.

There is a big problem, though, with Steinbruner's reading pace. As you begin listening to this story, there is a long (at least a couple seconds) pause between each and every sentence. [pause pause pause] It doesn't take very long for your ear to anticipate it. [pause pause pause] Which means that all too quickly you are listening for the pauses, [pause pause pause] and not for the story. However, I found after about one disc, an hour or so, I stopped hearing them (or they stopped bothering me), and let the novel take over. I enjoyed it. So I went back to Disc 1 just to see if the pauses were longer, or more frequent at the beginning; and I listened right through that disc without hearing them (unless I really concentrated on them). I guess your ears get used to anything.

At the beginning of 2007, I listened to another novel read by Steinbruner, Larklight, which I enjoyed tremendously. I nominated it for the 2008 list, but it didn't make it on because other listeners heard the same thing that I heard in The Magic Thief, those repetitive pauses. Let's let Steinbruner listen to one of his audiobooks so he can hear how just speeding up his reading pace even slightly would make a dramatic difference.

Also, when reviewing my thoughts about Larklight, I read that his unnatural sounding English accent also bothered me (although not enough in the end to eliminate it). (Notice that I enjoyed his characterizations in that novel as well.) While I'm offering suggestions, Greg, lose the English accent as well. It's not a very good one. I think that's why I was semi-surprised to learn that Prineas is a Yankee ... I just assumed that Steinbruner had opted for the English accent because the author was English. Since Conn's story takes place in a fantasy world, any accent (as long as it's consistent) would work just fine.

I'm up in the air on this title. Several committee listeners think it might be too young for our age range, but I think that 12- and 13-year-olds would enjoy this story.