Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What's not to like?

So, I'm not crazy about Meg Cabot; can she actually be writing all the books she publishes each year (according to my library's catalog, she authored eight books last year, three so far this year!)? It's probably just envy and snobbishness: Clearly, the woman has discipline, but her books do have a sameness to them. This can be good though; her books are such that as a conscientious librarian, you can read one ... because then you've read them all. And I'm glad I read Best Friends and Drama Queens, the third installment of Cabot's elementary school series Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls.

Allie Finkle is settling into fourth grade; she was the new girl at the beginning of the year, but now she's got a strong group of friends and is confident that her teacher likes her. It's the first days of school after winter break, and Allie learns there's another new girl, Cheyenne, recently arrived from Canada. As the former newbie, Allie wants to be nice, but Cheyenne is your classic alpha girl (pre-adolescent version), and all too soon, she's taken over the fourth grade with her kissing games, spa sleepovers, and boy-girl matchups. Allie and her chums don't like this, and tears and misunderstandings occur. Adults intervene and Cheyenne satisfactorily ends up in a puddle of melting snow -- brought low by her high-heeled zip-up winter boots -- and all is right with the world at Pine Heights Elementary once again.

I liked this. It's just perfect for what it tries to be: a story for young readers eager to read about themselves and the worries of their own lives. Yes, it's about comfortably middle class white girls with loving, intact families (at a very late point in the story I learned that one of her friends was Chinese-American; this information may have been provided in an earlier story), but the inherent drama of the tensions in that classroom could have broader appeal, I think. The good girls win in the end, but Allie brings up a lot of pertinent questions about popularity and acting one's age that are worth reading about. It's not didactic in any way, in places it's almost entertaining for a middle-aged reader! The places that made me laugh out loud were Cabot's descriptions of the inexplicable (to Allie, and -- yes -- to me!) behavior of fourth grade boys (barking and drawing violent alien death, among other activities).

The reader, Tara Sands, is very good. She effortlessly sounds like a fourth grade girl (which makes you wonder what she really sounds like -- and how that affects her adult life, but that's not for discussion here). I believed her as Allie -- curious, funny, affectionate, tolerant of the goofy boys she's compelled to sit next to, and smart. Sands has a difficult narrative job to do: create distinctive characters for about a dozen fourth graders -- no easy feat. She is mostly successful, but upon occasion she loses a character. For the most part, since Cabot writes a lot of dialogue with many "she said" clues, I wasn't distracted by this and had no trouble following conversations or the simple plot.

These audiobooks (I'm assuming that Sands narrates the earlier volumes as well) would be fine for that family car trip ... enjoyable for elementary school students and their younger siblings.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Below decks

When last we met with Jacky Faber, she was hightailing it away from the Battle of Trafalgar to avoid being re-captured by the British Navy, who have now put a rather hefty price on her head (it's worth more if it's still attached ... still, Jacky's a bit nervous). Yes, it's another installment in the adventures of Bloody Jack: In the Belly of the Bloodhound: Being the Account of a Particularly Peculiar Adventure in the Life of Jacky Faber.

Jacky has made her way back to Boston, where she intends to take refuge from those seeking the bounty on her head at her old school, the Lawson-Peabody School for Young Girls. She fits in again quite nicely, but she's a bit bored. And a bored Jacky is the kind of girl who gets into trouble. But this time, the trouble is not of her making. On a field trip (did they have those for schoolgirls in the early 1800s?) exploring an island in Boston Harbor, Jacky and 31 of her schoolmates are kidnapped onto the Bloodhound. The Bloodhound is a slave ship hoping to turn a profit on both trips across the Atlantic: It plans to sell the girls of the Lawson-Peabody to North African Arabs eager for white girls in their harems. But Jacky has never been one for inaction and -- over the course of the long voyage east -- she organizes the girls into a clever revolt and daring escape.

Yes, it's ridiculous, and no doubt completely anachronous. But it's also quite exciting, and there's a certain amount of satisfaction in seeing how the complex pieces of Jacky's plan -- which include a striptease by Jacky's nemesis, the southern belle Clarissa Worthington Howe -- fall into place.

But the most enjoyment -- as I've said before -- comes from listening to Katherine Kellgren's performance of this lengthy novel. She embodies Jacky, who -- in addition to all her other duties -- becomes a storyteller as she relates her recent history to the girls of the Lawson-Peabody. Well, we always knew she was a storyteller, now her schoolmates do. She cries, yells, sings,flirts, commands, consoles. It's such a complex performance.

Kellgren also does a fine job with a large cast of characters: 31 girls, at least a dozen sailors, plus her beloved Jaimy, some old cronies from her childhood as a Cockney street kid in London, and several worried friends back in Boston. And while I can't say that each and every girl has a distinct voice, Kellgren creates enough difference for the more prominent characters that following dialogue and character development is easy. She creates two terrifying men aboard the Bloodhound: A loud, sadistic captain and the disturbingly quiet and controlled Cinque -- a black man who traffics in people of all races.

And something else that's great: Several of the 13 discs end on just the right note of suspense and excitement. The chapter is over, but it's a cliffhanger. Switch discs ... now! I do like it when a publisher takes enough care to pick a good place to pause.

How long do we have to wait for the next one? There's nothing on the Listen and Live website yet! Well, I suppose I could read it ...

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Impulse by Ellen Hopkins is the first audiobook I've listened to from Highbridge. They've made an excellent first impression by hiring not one, not even two, but three narrators to read this first-person(s) novel in verse. Tony, Vanessa and Connor meet each other at the Aspen Springs residential treatment center after each has unsuccessfully attempted suicide. Like teens in novels like this always appear to be, they are smarter and more empathetic than the adults around them -- it will be their growing intimacy and friendship that heals their wounds, both physical and psychic.

Each teen tells their story in brief blank verse in alternating chapters. The book itself rings in at more than 650 pages, but the audio is a mere six-and-a-half hours (thank goodness ... more about that later). The teens have all been horribly victimized by adults (pretty much anything awful you can think of has happened to them -- it's soup-to-nuts abuse), but, by the end -- when they are on their treatment-ending wilderness survival trip -- the therapy seems to have worked and they are taking baby steps into a world that appreciates them more.

My main complaint about the book is its degree of excess: I believe (but am not backing up my belief with any data) most teens do not attempt suicide because: a) they've got a bipolar parent and might be bipolar themselves, b) they were raped by their mother's boyfriend (who they later killed), c) the au pair sexually initiated them at 12, d) their boyfriend's a jerk who doesn't go to the abortion clinic with them, e) they had a torrid affair with a teacher, f) they turned gay in lockup (but the love of a good woman sets them on the straight and narrow), g) they cut themselves, and [I think I've remembered all of it now] h) they have controlling parents. Aren't most teens who try to kill themselves just ordinarily depressed? It was just all too much -- and six-and-a-half hours of it was ... well, I felt like joining them in opening a vein once or twice myself.

I am very grateful for the three readers: Steve Coombs, Laura Flanagan and Jeremy Guskin. The changing narrative viewpoint helped sustain my interest in this tired story. They sound like teenagers. However, the actorly, cultured tones of these readers just seemed off to me while they were reading Hopkins' gritty poetry. Almost like they were sweet children saying rude things. They all interpreted their characters' depression literally and read with cool (hip) dispassion. This technique -- while possibly appropriate to the characters -- ultimately isn't very interesting to listen to.

It was difficult for me to distinguish between the two males in the story, the readers' voices sounded very similar. Each time they would start to read, I'd have to take a mental pause awaiting the cue that would tell me who was speaking.

Another concern is one I'm not sure how (whether) to solve: Several times in the story, two or all three of the narrators are describing the same event. Yet, when they repeat dialogue from that event, it would sound different with each narrator. So Connor repeating Tony's dialogue didn't sound like Tony saying his dialogue. This also occured with other characters in the novel: Most notably, the three narrators couldn't decide whether or not the teacher Mr. Hidalgo spoke Spanish-inflected English.

Not my cup of tea -- because I find this kind of novel so very ridiculous -- but a professional audiobook effort that should appeal to a lot of teen listeners.


I read Howl's Moving Castle a couple of years ago, because I wanted to see the movie, but wanted to have the original in my head first. As I've experienced with Diana Wynne Jones' other books, I recall being confused at the resolution of the plot, so -- amazingly, since I usually hate "re-reading" -- I was looking forward to listening to this, in the hopes of clarifying what actually happens in this funny, original story. (The movie didn't help much as it left out -- and bizarrely added that whole war thing -- much of the story. I enjoyed it, though.)

Young Sophie Hatter -- the eldest of three sisters, and thus destined for failure, she believes -- sasses the Witch of the Waste and is cursed by her into old womanhood. She runs away from her father's millinery shop and hitches a ride on Wizard Howl's mysterious moving castle. Once inside she meets the trapped demon Calcifer -- currently occupying the fireplace -- and the self-centered, yet attractive Howl. Howl himself has also been cursed by the Witch. And, I think I'll stop there because the plot is so dense and convoluted (but not contrived) that I'll tie myself into knots.

The audiobook -- just published, even though the book is over 20 years old -- is read by Jenny Sterlin, another one of those super-experienced British narrators. She is clearly enjoying herself, and skillfully creates and sustains the vast numbers of characters (including a fire demon, whose voice has an appropriately crackling quality) that populate the story. We learn that Wizard Howl is actually the very ordinary Welshman, Howell Jenkins, and I enjoyed the Welsh lilt that Sterlin gave to him. When Sophie is transformed into an old woman, Sterlin altered her voice within a line of dialogue; suddenly Sophie is speaking with an elderly quaver. It was excellent.

I appreciated this book more in its audio format. When I'm forced to slow down to the pace of a narrator, I think I pick up more (one of the many reasons to be a book listener as well as reader). With Sterlin in charge, I concentrated on the story's complicated denoument -- following the many strands as they were securely explained and tied down. Sterlin's reading really caught me up at this point -- her excitement as the story peaked was beautifully transmitted to me, the listener.

Alas, it could have been so good, but the book is riddled with editing errors, including one you rarely (and don't ever want to) hear: the reader clearing her throat and then stuttering as she picks up the narration again. Talk about taking you right out of the story. There were lengthy pauses in odd places (not just at the end of chapters) as well.

And Sterlin has what I'll call that English actor's disease: She reads clearly and rapidly so you understand every word, but she won't take a pause to swallow. So the saliva builds up and she begins sounding "juicy." It can get very distracting, and I believe it can be easily remedied in the production process.

Wikipedia tells me that Jones recently published a sequel to this novel, House of Many Ways. That's in my pile of audiobooks somewhere, so maybe I'll get a chance to listen to that.

Castles on the Delaware River

It's been some time since I last visited here, and I don't know why. I guess there's always that point where the ears put up some resistance and the listening doesn't go so fast. It seems a bit early for that to happen though. I'm three books behind, so I hope I can catch up today. First up, the somewhat strange No Castles Here by A.C.E. Bauer (do you suppose she's goes by Ace?)

This is the story of Augie, a sixth grader living with his single mom in a blighted section of Camden, New Jersey. Augie is terrorized by a gang of more sophisticated boys who steal his lunch (or his lunch money), and he's developed a set of coping mechanisms to help him. One of these is reading a collection of fairy tales that he found in a mysterious bookstore in Philadelphia. Starting out with the Perrault tale of Donkeyskin, the tales follow the witchlike descendants of Donkeyskin up until the present day. There are also two adults making a different in Augie's life, his Big Brother, Walter Jones, and his music teacher, Mr. Franklin. Mr. Franklin encourages Augie to join his choir, and when Augie's school is threatened with closure, Augie organizes a concert and rally to keep the school open.

I think that this book wants me to understand that Augie realizes that fairy tale endings come in all ways, but I felt confused by its mixture of realism and fantasy. The bookseller seems to be the last descendant of Donkeyskin, and has (good) witchlike qualities herself, yet Augie's world is a harsh one, with no easy resolutions. He's an extremely likeable character -- any reader would be longing for him to succeed -- his conflicts (and their resolution) seemed very real to me. I thought the author did a great job of surrounding him with caring adults while never letting you forget that it was Augie who solved his own problems. It's a powerful story for young readers.

The audiobook is narrated by John H. Mayer, who gave an enthusiastic and compelling reading, providing a vivid picture of Augie's emotions. He did a particularly fine job in portraying the two adult males in Augie's life -- these men felt like real people. But he's an old guy, with a gravelly voice, and I don't think he gave a very youthful feel to this story. When schoolchildren are conversing in the novel; well, they don't sound very childlike.

Augie is a white boy living in predominantly African American Camden. This presented two problems for me: One, why does it have to be the white boy who saves the school, and thus gives the community a rallying point? Two, when Mayer portrayed the many African American characters in the novel, he sounded like an old white guy trying to sound black. It was a bit cringeworthy to be honest.

This book doesn't circulate very much at my library -- our 14 copies have gone out just 73 times in the 18 months we've owned it. I think it needs some handselling, since it's bound to disappoint a fantasy fan who opens it and soon might think (with reason) that's she's reading a story about a boy who will soon learn he has special powers. The print version has a somewhat bizarre cover, which doesn't help (the book cover is the trippy, kind of Salvador Dali castle). Give this to a reader who likes gentle stories, where bad things are appropriately described, but good triumphs.