Monday, June 29, 2009

Word nerd*

I'm still not particularly confident about what to look for in a picture-book read-aloud, so I've not got much to say about Kate Banks' Max's Words. Max is the youngest of three brothers; the older two each has a collection: Benjamin is a philatelist and Karl a numismatist (Hey, I've not got much to say about the audiobook, I must blind you with vocabulary!). Neither boy will share even one item from their collections with baby brother Max.

So Max decides that he will start his own collection and he chooses words (philophilist?). He cuts them out and collects them, and soon he discovers that he can organize them into sentences and then into stories. Soon, Benjamin and Karl want to play too.

The picture book incorporates Max's words in the art. As Max starts to put his words together, they emerge from text to art. Each word is writ large on a piece of paper (?) and the papers are arranged into sentences. (It is similar to how the names of the author and illustrator are pictured on the book cover.) The sentences (as art) move dramatically across the pages of the book, no longer confined to the standard straight, horizontal dictates of text. Occasionally, the word includes a clue about its definition (a la concrete poetry). It's a clever demonstration of the power of story.

The short reading is narrated by Andrew Watts. I appreciated that he doesn't read with an exaggeratedly youthful, yet deliberate pace. He performs the dialog between the three brothers very well, giving each one a little bit of vocal character. The bragging and bickering between the three boys sounds brotherly.

I didn't realize that the words take two different forms (text and art) until I listened for the second time (the version with the page turn chimes). And, I wish that Watts had made more of a distinction between the two forms. There is one page -- I think it's Max's first complete sentence with his words -- where the sentence appears in both text and art. Watts reads this. one. word. at. a. time. When I was just listening (before I opened the book), I knew that there was going to be something different about those words in the book. And there was. But, despite the fact that the technique showed up several more times, he never does it again.

Watts also doesn't finish the book! He stopped reading two pages before the end. These two pages are exclusively words as art, but nonetheless, they are words. They should have been part of the audiobook.

*Just a shout out to a fun book I recently read (with my eyes): Word Nerd by Susin Nielsen.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Change the locks!

Nancy Werlin gives such a sense of place to her novel, The Killer's Cousin, that -- despite its now-dated references, I truly felt like I was there, in Cambridge, with the creepy cousin living downstairs. Since I listened to it, though, I should probably give some credit to Nick Podehl, the narrator. The book was published in 1998, and here's the original cover (the one from our catalog's Syndetics). Much better is the current cover, with the bathtub image.

David Yaffe has just been acquitted of the murder of his girlfriend in a sensational trial in Baltimore. His parents have sent him to live with his mother's brother and his wife and daughter in Cambridge in order to complete his senior year. He moves into the family's upstairs "mother-in-law" apartment, which he has to access by walking through the Shaughnessy's own living quarters. The previous occupant of the apartment was their elder daughter, Kathy, who committed suicide in the bathtub four years earlier.

David senses right away that things aren't right in the Shaughnessy household. His aunt and uncle converse through their 11-year-old daughter, Lily. Lily doesn't seem to like David at all, and even tells him that she should be living in the upstairs apartment not him. At Thanksgiving, David effects a kind of reconciliation between his aunt and uncle, and Lily turns evil. She regularly enters his apartment and systematically destroys his belongings. David discovers her listening to her parents' lovemaking, and she spies on him kissing the college student who lives downstairs. As a "fellow" killer, David senses that Lily had something to do with her sister's suicide, and he urges her parents to get her some help. But they can't hear that.

David is the perfect victim for Lily's psychological terrorism. Even though he hadn't meant to kill his girlfriend, he lives with the knowledge that his anger led to her death. And as Lily is breaking David, this novel is creepy and suspenseful. I know I was into the story because I kept mentally shouting at David: "Change the locks!" But, satisfyingly, David never loses his humanity. His ultimate concern is for Lily and her mental health, and he quite heroically sacrifices himself for her.

Nick Podehl, heard a few weeks ago in Discordia, is so very good here. There are only a few male readers who really sound like teenagers, and Podehl is one of them. I can hear David's guilt and lack of confidence in his voice, as well as that teenage know-it-allness. He reads quietly, but he can burst out when the dialog calls for it. He doesn't dramatically distinguish between characters in his reading, but he paces the dialog extremely well, so following it is no problem. A reader could have gone over the top with disturbed young Lily, and Podehl vocally creates her character without histrionics. He even has to impersonate a ghost occasionally, and that comes off sounding legitimate as well. It was a compelling listen.

I did find that listening to the many dated references occasionally took me out of the story (more so than the Werlin title I listened to last month). No cell phone, no iPod = no current teenager. But, of course, teens are smart enough to overlook this stuff and I can too. I will confess I had never heard of the Star (now Shaw's) Market "loyalty" card swapping that David and his friends engage in. Now it looks like it's done online and not in person. Ah, that's the difference between 1998 and 2009.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Precious possessions

I read the deeply moving story of Hana's Suitcase way back in 2003 when it was first published, so I didn't expect to be gobsmacked by it again. The author, Karen Levine, first told the story in a radio program (or programme as the Canadians say), and then wrote the book. I had a librarian's memorable moment putting this into the hands of a young girl Hana's age a couple of years ago. Her mother came up to me a half hour later and pronounced it the perfect choice! (Those are so much better to remember than the screw-ups, aren't they? I had one of those today.)

Hana's Suitcase is the story of Fumiko Ishioka, a young woman who runs a small Holocaust research center in Japan. In 2000, the center acquired the suitcase -- a memento (which is not the right word) of Auschwitz. Fumiko, urged on by students who participated in the center's programming, was determined to find out its history. All she knew was the owner's name, written on the cover. The book teases out Hana Brady's story, alternating with the steps of Fumiko's research. Levine's writing is so tender and gentle that I wouldn't hesitate to give this to any elementary school student as an explanation of the Holocaust. It spares the horror, without sparing the loss of that one little girl.

It's also a great book about research, about how to go about answering a question that you might have. Fumiko's dogged detective work (she didn't let a national holiday stop her!) eventually led her to Hana's older brother George, who had survived Auschwitz and emigrated to Canada. His stories of their growing up in Czechoslovakia and their internment in the workcamp at Theresienstadt form the bulk of the book. And the photographs he had of his family -- preserved during the Holocaust by Gentile members of his family -- provided the answer to the most persistent question the Japanese students had: What did Hana look like? She was lovely, wasn't she?

The audiobook was read by Stephanie Wolfe. She read this straight and simply for younger listeners, providing accents for all the story's participants. I personally didn't care for this, but she did it well. When the excerpt from the radio program came on, I could tell that Wolfe had done her research as her interpretation of Fumiko was startingly close to the woman's speaking voice.

Yes, the best thing about this audiobook is the part that isn't from the book. Excerpts of Fumiko and George relating the story of the suitcase and how its puzzle was revealed conclude the audiobook. It is powerful listening. Even though they are essentially repeating what you learned in the book, hearing their voices is riveting.

It looks like you can hear the program in its entirety at the CBC website. Go. Listen. Now.

Play ball!

I've been harsh on nonfiction audio lately, I suppose because its production mostly seems so academic. So ... good for you. Generally (yes, I'm generalizing here), nonfiction lacks a compelling forward momentum that a plotted story has, and which can work so well on audio. I also think that the readers I've heard lately take an overly serious approach -- using their "this-is-important" voices. But Dion Graham rejects this technique in his narration of Kadir Nelson's Coretta Scott King Award-winning We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (gosh, I just love that image of Josh Gibson). Graham -- to use that overly trite phrase -- brings Nelson's "literary nonfiction," and, as importantly, the era it describes, alive (ooh, too many commas, sorry).

In We Are the Ship, Nelson's unnamed narrator tells us about Negro League baseball in a natural, emotive account that delivers the facts in a readable, accessible way. Told thematically, not chronologically, in chapters called "innings," we learn about its origins, understand its context in racially segregated America, meet the players, and hear the stories of courage, tragedy and triumph. The stunning illustrations evoke a beautiful summer's day of baseball, played by strong, handsome, and strikingly black men. And by that statement, I mean that Nelson's portraits are colored in a brown/black so rich, so deep, so dense that you just want to keep looking. I think they'd be equally fabulous outside of a book ... hey, there's a traveling exhibit of the paintings.

So, if you don't have the paintings, is the book as meaningful? While I wouldn't say that narrator Dion Graham replaces the illustrations, he serves a similar function: Enhancing the text in a way that your understanding and appreciation of the story are increased. Graham is terrific. I first heard him read What is the What (before I figured out book covers!), and have only now figured out that I watched him on The Wire. He's an immensely talented voice actor.

His African American phrasings here are perfect. His deep voice seems confiding, like he and I are sitting in the dugout watching the game unfold and he's quietly telling you the story over the course of the afternoon. He's almost like a great play-by-play announcer (or maybe he's the color commentator). Graham creates tension as well as sadness with his voice, and he finds the humor there as well. This audiobook was over quickly (it's under two hours), and I savored every moment.

Kadir Nelson reads his own afterword, and he participates in a short interview at the end of the audiobook. He seemed a little stiff, but I was glad to hear from him. I wish the publisher would identify the interviewer, but that's a small quibble.

The audiobook includes a disc that's a slideshow of the book's illustrations. (Unlike the Lincoln photobiography, I got this one to work in my computer.) While We Are the Ship's narrative doesn't refer to the illustrations; Hank Aaron's forward, Nelson's afterword and the interview all mention the paintings, so I think there's a place for this disc in the audiobook. I didn't miss the paintings while listening, but -- unlike the Lincoln biography -- I had already seen them. So, is it fair of me not to gripe about this illustrative work converted to aural medium only, while complaining about it in the Lincoln book?

It's probably not fair. But this book is also elevated by Graham's superior performance.

Hear ye! Hear ye!

Newes from the Dead is the kind of book I would have excitedly grabbed off the library shelves when I was a teen reader (in that brief time before I turned to the dark side -- the adult shelves). I loved historical fiction that immersed you in a specific time and place, and -- of course -- you can't go wrong with a wronged heroine.

The full title: Newes from the Dead: Being a True Story of Anne Green, Hanged for Infanticide at Oxford Assizes in 1650, Restored to the World and Died Again 1665. It's by Mary Hooper, who based it on a true event she heard about on the radio. Anne Green was seduced by the grandson of her employer, who promised that he would "raise her" to live as a lady. When she became pregnant, she first tried an herbal abortifacient, and subsequently delivered a stillborn baby in the manor's privy ("house of office" ... I love that expression). She thought to hide the body until she had time to give it a proper burial, but when the other servants saw the bloody condition of her clothing, she was found out. She told her employer, Sir Thomas Reade, who the father of her child was, sealing her doom. Sir Thomas ensured that she was jailed, tried, and sentenced to hanging. At the conclusion of her trial (by a jury of her peers ... not!), physicians at Oxford requested -- as was their due -- her body for dissection.

Anne was hanged, and her family -- following the instruction of the hangman -- hung on her legs and beat on her chest in order to speed the breaking of her neck. She was pronounced dead and delivered to the Oxford physicians. As they prepared for dissection, one student, Robert Matthews, thinks he has spotted a twitch of her eyelid. But he can't be sure, and besides, Robert is a stammerer and tries not to speak in public very often.

We know that Anne is alive, because -- trapped in darkness, unable to open her eyes or move her limbs -- she has begun to tell us her sad story. The book alternates between Anne's first-person narrative, and a third-person description of the events above the apothecary's shop as the Oxonians prepare to dissect and study her remains. This is a very effective literary tool, as each chapter with the doctors draws out the suspense of whether they were going to start cutting before Robert manages to speak. Anne's story was a terrific one as well, full of the juicy details of historical fiction. And who wouldn't enjoy the horror of the world of educated men who all purport to know better than Anne. I mean the poor girl had her baby in a 17th century toilet!

The story drags a bit towards the end. The doctors know that Anne is living, and the lengthy descriptions of the various learned methods of reviving her (bleeding and enemas, called clysters) go on for a bit too long. Needless to say, Anne's future looks bright at the end, as does that of the (I think) fictional Robert Matthews.

A brief riff on the cover. Does she look dead ... or merely uncomfortable? I guess you might pick up the book to check. Far better is the British paperback.

The audiobook is pretty darn good. Anne is voiced by Rosalyn Landor and the autopsy sections are by Michael Page. Landor reads Anne with a slightly high-pitched, innocent voice that has just a trace of an English country servant (she's not reading it with an "educated" English accent). She creates voices for a number of the other characters -- both upper and lower classes -- that are interesting to listen to and consistent throughout the story. I've heard her read a couple other things this year, and this is by far my favorite of her work.

I've heard Michael Page read some adult novels (back when I listened to adult novels). He's got that resonant, confident, slightly superior delivery that was perfect for the pompous physicians. I also liked how both he and Landor voiced the villain, Sir Thomas, with similar tones of menace. Page is also an excellent stammerer.

The audiobook ends with a reading, by Page, of the original Newes from the Dead, by a "Scholler in Oxford for the Satisfaction of a friend, who defired to be informed concerning the truth of the bufineffe" in 1651. Page's reading style is perfect for the ornate 17th century language of this document, although it does go on and on. Hooper's fictionalization of this document is quite similar, though.

There's a helpful author's note as well, which speculates on how Anne actually survived her hanging. Clearly the rope didn't break her neck, so it must not have been placed correctly. Hooper also suggests that the extemely cold temperature on December 14, 1650 may have "frozen" her brain and thus it was prevented from being starved of oxygen. Can the cold penetrate your skull? Hmmm ...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Through a glass

I think that someone recommended Laura Resau's Red Glass to me when it came out a couple of years ago, but it went on the maybe-I'll-get-around-to-this-but-it's-not-likely pile, so I was glad to see an audio version come my way recently. Its journey of self-discovery and understanding was worth the wait. The narrator, Sophie, is a bit of a delicate flower: She has constant, unrealistic fears about death and disease, and is a loner because she doesn't feel relaxed enough around people to make friends. She lives with her mother and her husband, a Mexican immigrant, in Tucson. Her British mother's distant relative-by-marriage, Aunt Dika, a flamboyant Bosnian refugee, lives with them.

One day, stepfather Juan is contacted by U.S. Immigration: a young boy -- the only survivor of a group of Mexicans attempting to enter the U.S. illegally -- has Juan's business card in his possession. Does Juan know him? Juan doesn't, but the family agrees to take the boy in until his family can be located. It takes a while for six-year-old Pablo to trust them enough to speak, but eventually he tells them that he comes from a small village in Oaxaca. Sophie's family wishes to adopt Pablo, but they also want to give him the chance to make the decision, so Sophie and Aunt Dika -- along with Aunt Dika's Guatemalan boyfriend and his son Ángel -- make the journey by Volkswagon bus to Pablo's village. Ángel and his father intend to travel on to Guatemala to visit their old village, returning for the drive back to Arizona.

This is a giant step for Sophie, who has a lengthy catalog of all the catastrophes that could occur on their drive into the unknown. But her love for Pablo helps her, and when she must make an unexpected trip to Guatemala to help out Ángel and his father, Sophie calls upon reserves she didn't know she had to accomplish this. It is a most satisfying journey.

The audiobook is narrated by Emma Bering. She needs to create a number of characters with unique accents in this story: Sophie's mother's English, Aunt Dika's Bosnian, a variety of Spanish speakers, as well as two who speak in indigenous Mixtec and Mayan. There's a significant amount of Spanish sprinkled through the story, and she sounded completely comfortable with the language. Each character was interesting to listen to and Bering was consistent in her portrayals.

She voiced Sophie -- at first full of fears and gradually full of confidence -- a bit overly youthful in the beginning; she sounded more like 10, rather than 16. But I grew to appreciate Bering's choice, as Sophie's newfound fuerte (strength) and chispa (spark) were evident in her voice as the story progressed.

If I have a concern about this performance, I'm not sure it's a fair one: All of the Spanish speaking characters are performed in Spanish-inflected English, even when they are speaking Spanish (Sophie tells us the languages of a conversation). Yet, when Sophie speaks Spanish, she continues to speak in her standard American accent (as does Ángel). This bothered me during the entire length of the book, but -- at the same time -- I think I understand the narrator's decision (no doubt guided by the audiobook's director). You can't, after all, have characters speak in multiple ways (beyond emotional shadings, I mean). It would be too confusing for the listener. So, I think I can let it go. Whoosh! There it went.

Into the woods

Are zombies the new vampires? Can Mary, non-zombie heroine of The Forest of Hands and Teeth, be as whiny and annoying as Bella, non-vampire heroine of the Twilight series? I don't know the answer to the first question, and as for the second: Mary is considerably less dependent on males for her identity than Bella, but she sure whines as much.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth is by Carrie Ryan, and its heroine, Mary, lives in the ultimate gated community: A small settlement completely surrounded by a wire fence that keeps the Unconsecrated out. If you are attacked and bitten by the Unconsecrated you will become one, so her community deals harshly with anyone who is bitten: decapitation. Mary's father is believed to be one of the Unconsecrated slavering beyond the fence, and -- as the novel begins -- Mary's mother strays too close to the fence and is bitten herself. Except for her brother, Mary is now alone, and she is taken in by the Sisterhood, a group of religious women who seem to make all the decisions for the community.

As Mary prepares for her arranged marriage (it is important for the community to keep reproducing), the fence is breached and the settlement is overrun. Mary, her brother and his wife, Harry (her betrothed) and Travis (Harry's brother and the man she really loves), and Travis' betrothed all escape and find themselves traveling a fenced-in path through the Forest of Hands and Teeth to an unknown destination. Are there other communities who have survived the Return (of the Unconsecrated)? Is there a place where the buildings are taller than trees and the ocean stretches out forever, as Mary's mother told her? Will the small band survive to find out?

Portions of this book are extremely exciting ... I mean extremely! I mean that I would put on the CD as I'm turning out the light (a little "bedtime" reading) and I did not gently nod off to sleep. I had to stay awake until the danger had passed. Because in a zombie book (and let me not forget to mention that the author never uses that term), no one is off limits. Except Mary, since she's telling the story. And, quite frankly, although I grew tired of Mary's whining, I was kind of invested in the people who joined her on her journey. You never knew who was going to be next.

In between these scenes of great tension, unfortunately, we get to listen to a lot of Mary. Do I love Travis, is there an ocean, why did my brother desert me after our mother's death, what happened to the people who used to live in this house ... she goes on and on.

But I don't know if my impatience with Mary's inner thoughts was a result of a longing to get out of her brain and back on the path eluding the Unconsecrated, or if the narrator was so vastly uninteresting. Her name is Vane Millon and I think she needs some more practice at narrating. She reads in what I think was a deliberately unemotional way, which might have been a choice because Mary is a little dead inside (Aha! She's all but Unconsecrated!) But it seems so at odds with the real tension evoked by the story, and such lines in the text as "I'm in a frenzy." Huh?

Millon also phrases many of the book's sentences in a very peculiar way. She comes to what sounds like a full stop [a few moments silence] and then continues the second clause of the sentence. It was quite disconcerting, forcing your brain to remember that what you heard earlier is, in fact, part of the whole sentence. She does this throughout the book, which means that it ceased to bother my brain after a while, but it still makes for very odd listening. While reading, she would also emphasize odd words in a sentence.

Aside from Millon's performance -- which I do think detracts from the story -- this is one of those books that I wonder are a better eye-read. You want to blast through this, you want to get to the end and find out what the heck is going on (and ... fair warning: you won't find much out as the author has envisioned a trilogy). Going at the narrator's pace is frustrating. Going at this narrator's pace is even more so.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

You sockdologizing* old mantrap!

I didn't know that John Wilkes Booth was waiting for that particular line in the play Our American Cousin -- a line that would draw uproarious laughter and thus drown out the sound of the gunshot -- before he pulled the trigger near Abraham Lincoln's left ear on the evening of April 14, 1865 at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. As an actor, Booth probably knew the value of a good laugh line, but this is just one instance of the melodrama that became his final two weeks of life. In James Swanson's Chasing Lincoln's Killer we get inside the head of Booth in a very disturbing way. The assassination was just one more performance, one that he hoped would propel him into the stratosphere of 19th century stardom. Of course, Booth got the stardom he craved, but he didn't get to enjoy it for very long.

Here are some other things I learned in this book:
  • Booth was hoping the the military men guarding the Navy Yard Bridge would recognize him and gallantly permit him to cross it after curfew. They let him pass without recognition.
  • Once he reached Maryland, he asked for newspapers so he could see how welcome the news of the assassination had been. He was disappointed to read that Lincoln's death was universally mourned.
  • A sympathizer named Thomas Jones hid Booth and a co-conspirator named David Herold on his farm for five days before helping to spirit them into Virginia. His role was not known until late in his life when he confessed his participation.
  • Booth was paralyzed when one of the soldiers in pursuit shot him in the neck while they were waiting for the fire they set to force him out of the barn in which he was hiding. [Ew! Booth's vertebrae have been preserved (this was not in the book)!]
  • The young engaged couple who accompanied the Lincolns to Ford's Theatre married, and years later he went mad and killed her.
  • The man who held Booth's horse outside the theatre, Edmund Spangler, was sentenced to six years' imprisonment, even though he knew nothing of the plot to kill Lincoln.

Swanson's book -- which is a young reader's version of his 2006 book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer -- is full of this kind of detail. It's told in a kind of breathless and melodramatic style that accurately reflects its subject and makes for very exciting reading. The tension throughout is palpable, but it's particularly effective as we await -- with Booth -- that fatal line, hidden with him in the back of the Presidential box at Ford's Theatre. As the 12 days pass -- in what must have been long days of terrified boredom for Booth and Herold -- the author does a skilled job at building a sense of impending doom. It could almost pass for fiction.

And, alas, in examining the book, it could be fiction. There are quotations aplenty in the narrative, but nary a reference is cited. There is no bibliography. What was the publisher thinking? Children, just believe me when I tell you that my research came from good primary sources? We don't let young researchers get away with this, why does the author get to? Tsk tsk.

The actor Will Patton reads the audiobook. He's got a gravelly, Southern-tinged voice that he uses to full effect to tell us this story. At times, he reads like a 19th century actor declaiming to the back rows, with deep-voiced drama. It's not cheesy, it's an extremely effective way to tell this theatrical story. I really enjoyed listening to him. (I also enjoyed his performance a couple years ago of On the Road.) And, for me, he seemed to solve the nonfiction audio "problem" I've been encountering recently: While he definitely distinguished between the narrative and the quotations inserted into the narrative, it was subtle enough that I didn't hear the aural "quote marks." When I think back on this, I'm remembering that most of the quotations also came with a "he said," which helps in the dramatizing department, but still he used the technique skillfully.

This might be my favorite amongst the several nonfiction I've listened to this year. Then again, maybe it's not nonfiction.

*Sockdologizing. I can't seem to find a single definition of this word. According to this article (supported -- sort of -- at, it means stunning, forceful, decisive. But, according to this article (citing the Park Service [citing Sarah Vowell?] although I couldn't find this on its website, but it is on Wiktionary), it means manipulative. Hmmm ... context would seem to favor the latter.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Someday my prince will come

The Secret Life of Prince Charming was a very interesting book. I liked it. I kept asking myself, though, is it a book for teenagers (the cover certainly is!)? I've never read anything by Deb Caletti before, so I can't compare this to her other titles, but it did seem to have a certain "adult" feel in spite of the heroine's status as an almost high school senior. It's the story of Quinn Hunt, eldest daughter of divorced parents. In her mother's house, it's all women: Mother, grandmother, aunt (mom's stepsister), Quinn and little sister Sprout (aka Charlotte). In the past few years, Sprout and Quinn have taken regular train trips from Seattle to Portland to visit their dad, the charismatic Barry, who is a professional juggler (I wondered if Caletti modeled Barry's troupe on the marvelous Flying Karamazov Brothers) and full-time womanizer.

[Parenthetic digression: When books (or movies) take place in your home town, do you spend (too much?) time searching for clues about locations? I do. Much of the earlier chapters were devoted to vaguely trying to figure out where Barry actually lives in Portland. He lives in a cute cottage on the river, and there aren't very many places in Portland where you can live in a cute cottage on the river. Perhaps he lives on Sauvie Island?]

Quinn's female relatives are a bit jaded in the romance department, and openly share their cautionary tales. And posted on the family's refrigerator is a long list of things that the women of the family should watch out for in potential boyfriends. One day, Quinn and Sprout show up at the train station in Portland and are picked up by their Dad, instead of their Dad's girlfriend Brie. (Mom, up in suburban Seattle, does make a cheese comment, naturally.) Brie has moved out, and it shortly becomes obvious to his daughters that Dad has moved on. Then, Quinn spots something in her father's living room that she thinks belongs to Brie. When she presses her father about why it's in his possession, he lies to her. Further investigation reveals that Barry's house is filled with stolen mementos from his former girlfriends/wives. So Quinn contacts her father's oldest daughter, Frances Lee, for advice. And soon, Frances Lee has organized a Pacific Northwest road trip where Barry's three daughters will secretly collect his trophies and get them back to their original owners.

So, it's a road trip novel (one complete with an oversized Big Boy). And, like any literary road trip, Quinn finds out a lot of stuff she didn't know about her father ... but she finds out even more about herself. There's a cute boy, of course. Baby Sprout grows up into Charlotte. Frances Lee quits smoking. Quinn learns that the woman who broke up her parents' marriage isn't a monster. And even though Dad is really a soul-sucking narcissist, Quinn continues to love him. But in a healthy way. It's an entertaining story full of real people and interesting personal stories.

Sprinkled throughout the narrative are the personal stories of love found, hearts broken, and lessons learned by the women in Barry Hunt's life. The narrative stops to listen to these, and sometimes the events that follow relate to the story and sometimes they don't. I believe that Quinn -- who is telling us the narrative -- has no knowledge of these stories. They are just there. After a while, they feel lecture-ish. And they mostly resonate of middle-age reflection on foolish youth. Are teen readers just going to flip the pages here, so they can get on with the story, or will they read them? Will they feel like their mother is talking to them?

The narrator is Jeannie Stith, whose voice I recently heard on Wintergirls. I didn't think her performance was as good here. Quinn is a person on a much more even keel than Lia, of course, so there wasn't the opportunity for the vocal extremes of the latter role. And, to be fair, Stith does do a fine job of portraying Quinn. She sounds like a teenager. It was creating the other characters that seemed more difficult for her.

Everyone seemed like a stock character, and so no one sounded like a real person. Sprout, age 11, sounded much younger and Gram, age indeterminate, sounded too quavery and feeble. Frances Lee, who I think was supposed to be a hippie free-spirit type, just sounded loud and overly emphatic. The adult women in the story seemed interchangeable to me, and the two young men in Quinn's life had a too-hearty way of declaring their dialogue. Most disappointing though, was Barry. He's supposed to be sexy and charismatic; I wanted to understand why all those women were so attracted to him. He just did not come across that way in Stith's performance. He pretty much sounded like any other divorced dad (whatever they sound like).

So, I've got mixed feelings about this one, both as novel and as audiobook. My library's 16 copies are all checked out, so clearly people are giving it a try. I think it's that great cover.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Martina Josefina Catalina Cucaracha ...

...Beautiful muchacha, won't you be my wife?"

That's the cry of Martina's many suitors in this delightful retelling by Carmen Agra Deedy of an old Cuban folktale, Martina the Beautiful Cockroach/Martina, una cucarachita muy linda. Martina's wise abuela tells her to use the "coffee test" on her suitors, so she can find out what they are really like. The tables are turned on Martina when the sweet, blind mouse Perez woos her, using a similar approach. "Who cares if you are beautiful?" Perez asks.

The book's narrative received a Pura Belpré Honor in 2008, and the audiobook an Odyssey Honor in 2009. We've taken to using the book in one of our afterschool programs: We read the story and then make as many cockroaches as we possibly can. I wish that I could read it the way Carmen Deedy does, but I could never pull off the Spanish-accented English.

This wonderful audiobook includes Deedy reading her story in both English and Spanish, and then (well, actually it's first on the disc) she tells you the story, as if she were giving a performance (rather than a reading). This is fascinating, as you can quickly see the difference between the two audio experiences. While the reading never sounds flat or rehearsed, there is a sponteneity in the "live" version that renders it superior. What a treat!

The publisher of the audiobook is the book's original publisher, Peachtree Publishers, and -- considering they don't do audiobooks -- it's an outstanding production. There's a brief bit of introduction telling you what's on the disc, quiet guitar music introduces each version, and then -- in an inspired decision -- the page-turn signals are "Cuban:" claves in the English version and maracas for the Spanish. What an improvement over the beep/tone!

Looking at all the Odyssey honorees this year (I haven't gotten to Elijah of Buxton yet), I think this might be my favorite!


Is it possible that I've listened to two books with an MMOG theme in the past two weeks? Is it possible that that's two books too many? I mostly enjoyed Locked Inside. I'm a little more lukewarm about Discordia: The Eleventh Dimension by Dena K. Salmon. (This is the author's My Space page; check out the visuals of Lance among her Friends. And hey, she's an audiobook listener!) Could this be because her characters actually play the game? And that games -- active and visual -- don't translate well to a listening mode?

Lance has recently moved to a new school in Manhattan and is having difficulty making friends and staying awake. Both these problems could possibly be attributed to his addiction to the gameworld of Discordia, which he plays as often as possible. As a n00b [newbie] zombie sorceror, Lance has progressed to Level 17, with the aid and flirty friendship of one MrsKeller, who is a Level 23 hobgoblin brigand. Whatever! Both players are approached by TheGreatOne (Level 60), who invites them into a special guild of Discordia. Flattered, they agree and are soon physically whisked through a portal to the actual Discordia, the world upon which the game is based. There, Lance learns that MrsKeller is an African American boy living in New Jersey (transplanted from New Orleans ... Alabama? I can't remember) named Adam, and that TheGreatOne has recruited them for a mission: Obtain the wand of the evil sorceress Alchemia, who is intent on ruling -- and not peacefully -- Discordia. (Discordia is the Roman goddess of strife and, well, discord; her Greek counterpart created the Apple of Discord that started the Trojan War.)

Their quest begins and the boys make their way through a world that is somewhat familiar to them. Dangers and horrors await. Lance seems to be sharing his human body with that of his zombie persona, who -- at the sight of blood or fresh meat -- can completely take over and make him do things he doesn't really want to do. But Lance also might be a druid, since he becomes bonded with a rabbit (called a bunya in the book) who seems to be able to pull him from the brink. Along the way, their paths cross with an escaped slave named Rayva. The ending is not for those who want satisfaction: Lance gets back to his Manhattan apartment, but it's not really over.

The reader is Nick Podehl, and he sets the right tone for awkward, unhappy Lance: A bit of a whine, some petulant boredom and exhaustion. Once Lance enters Discordia, you can hear him mature bit by bit. When Lance is overtaken by his zombie character, and Podehl narrates with dispassion and distance. He does a pretty good job with the novel's other characters: MrsKeller is consistently voiced with a Southern accent, TheGreatOne sounds ... well, great. Rayva is voiced in a higher register, but doesn't sound like a fake girl. Podehl sustains his characters throughout the course of the novel. He knows how to build excitement with pacing and vocal inflections -- speeding up, changing volume, registering fear. This story is in capable hands.

But the material here is so limited. The first disc and a half of the story is dominated by those e-conversations that are fine when you are reading to yourself but can make you batty if you have to listen to every instance of a speaker's email address or persona name. There was a great deal of "Lance whispers to MrsKeller" while exposition was being delivered, and it's so very easy to tune out. Then, you find yourself going, "Huh? What happened?"

I've also found that the nature of this fantasy/quest subgenre -- protagonists are playing media-type games for their lives -- is that everything is in there. Our heroes meet an untold number of Discordian creatures -- none of whom seem particularly friendly, defeat them (demonstrating a skill that's no doubt eventually going to come in handy) and move on. Although I was relieved that there was a minimum of expository dialogue ("Look Lance, it's a flesh-eating flying beelzebub that only lives in fetid, poisonous swamps!"), these encounters were yet another place where I lost track of what was going on. It was simply hard to stay interested.

The audiobook begins and ends with excerpts from the Player's Guide (also available online ... is it in the book at all?). I thought Podehl did yeoman's work here keeping this part interesting. I paid particular attention to the portion at the end of the novel ... hoping, no doubt, for enlightenment; and it did help. That makes me wonder where things like this are most effective in the story? Not at the beginning, because it won't mean anything and you're likely not to remember. Yet, at the end, it's almost too late. Hmmm ... interrupt yourself while listening and check it out? Actually, the answer seems to be read it: You can flip to it whenever you want!

Finally, the musical interludes (beginning and end of each disc) didn't seem right for this book. It was a new-agey Irish flute that was way too mellow. Something a bit more electronic and exciting might have been more effective.

Keep it clean!

This weekend, I finally got a chance to listen to the two Odyssey Award Honor picture books, I'm Dirty and Martina the Beautiful Cockroach. I'm Dirty, by Kate and Jim McMullan, is the story of backhoe who loves his work, and is narrated with great panache by Steve Buscemi. You gotta tip your hat to an actor who can take the simple script of a picture book and invest it with humor, character and utter commitment. No talking down, no souped-up voices; this audiobook is a treasure to listen to.

S[n]ide comment: Wouldn't it be great if instead of listening to Scott Simon and Daniel Pinkwater ruin children's picture books on NPR with their gushing overreading, they'd just play a decent audiobook by Weston Woods (the producer of I'm Dirty) or Recorded Books? [Or is that just the children's librarian in me talking?]

In addition to Buscemi's sly, self-knowing backhoe, this audiobook is accompanied by clanking machinery and other assorted loud noises designed to amuse the young listener. They don't ever overwhelm the narration and add atmosphere to the reading. When you've finished, you feel the same satisfaction that the backhoe does at a job well-done.

The audiobook includes a short conversation with the McMullans, who briefly relate how they chose their subject (a move from Manhattan to the Hamptons led to their introduction to its backhoe culture ... huh?), and the process they use to animate the machine. Evidently, the backhoe operators of the Hamptons weren't too willing to take time off to talk to them about their machines, but Kate tells an amusing story of ruining some groceries that had to sit in the car while she took her chance to talk to an operator before he took his machine to work.

Of the three "truck" books that the McMullans have created, I'm Stinky remains my favorite, but this audio version makes I'm Dirty pretty fun too. I'm Stinky is narrated by Andy Richter, which means I might have check it out and give it a listen as well.