Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Barking spiders!

What the heck is steampunk, anyway? With the exception of Philip Reeve's lighthearted Larklight series, I don't think I've ever read in this genre before. Well, I think I'll read somemore, 'cause I just finished Scott Westerfeld's wonderful Leviathan. Evidently, steampunk favors the Victorians, but Westerfeld has advanced the setting to July 1914, when Europe is on the brink of The Great War, also known as World War I. In the world of Leviathan, the simmering conflict that blows up into full-fledged war is between Clankers -- whose war machinery is, well, machinery -- and Darwinists -- whose weapons are biologically based, made possible by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Clankers are Germany and its supporters, and the Darwinists are the English and its allies.

Leviathan first introduces us to Prince Aleksander, only child of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who is orphaned when his parents are assassinated in Sarajevo in late June 1914. It's likely that his father was killed because he had expressed support for Darwinist philosophies. Loyal retainers spirit Alek away in the middle of the night, using a walking tank-like machine called a Stormwalker to make their escape to an all-but-abandoned castle in neutral Switzerland.

While Alek is making his escape, we are introduced to Deryn Sharp, who is completing tests in order to become a midshipman in the British Air Service. With the help of her brother, Deryn has disguised herself as a boy, Dylan Sharp. When her training exercise aboard a flying squid goes awry, she makes an emergency landing on the Leviathan -- a flying whale-based creature. Taken on as a midshipman, she's off on a secret mission to Constantinople to deliver some mysterious eggs tended by one Mrs. Barlow. Unfortunately, the Leviathan is attacked by some Clanker airplanes and is forced to land on a glacier nearby to Alek's isolated castle. Our two heroes meet up and their adventure together begins.

The print version of Leviathan includes lots of illustrations by Keith Thompson; you can get a sneak peak at them here as well (the video book trailer is pretty fun, too). I didn't feel the lack of illustrations while listening, and had some slightly different conceptions of the various elements. (I was definitely thinking Imperial Walker for Alek's Stormwalker.) Still, I think when all the holds have been filled at my library, I'll take a look at the book for myself.

So, what about the audiobook? It's just terrific. It's narrated by Alan Cumming, of whom I am most fond (although this is the first audiobook I've ever heard him read). He's like an evil pixie. He understands that this novel is all about the action, so he reads briskly and with genuine excitement as the plot moves forward.

At the same time, he's also a great creator of vocal characters. He reads Deryn with a lively Scots burr and Alek with a quiet Germanic precision. When Alek begins to speak to Deryn in English, his accent changes very subtly. There are a raft of other characters that all come to life with Cumming's careful reading, including Alek's somewhat frightening mentor, Count Volger and the formidable Mrs. Barlow -- one of those English people completely confident that they should be in charge of everything. I was engaged every minute of listening to this.

Scott Westerfeld reads his afterward and this is informative; he's not a professional narrator, but his reading is clear and interesting. He explains what parts of his alternative world really happened (in our world ... did I need to say that?) and what parts he made up.

The book opens and concludes with stirring, adventurous music that is so appropriate that I wanted to hear more of it. (I don't think that very often.)

Leviathan will make an excellent family car trip audiobook. While Deryn and Alek are 15, there is absolutely no hanky-panky going on. I won't spoil it, but suffice it to say that romantic feelings are briefly considered. The language is fine as well ... "barking spiders" is Deryn's favorite swear word. There is a little bit of potty humor as the Darwinist vessels are basically fueled by gas.

Bad thing: These adventures of Deryn and Alek are just the beginning. It'll be a year before Behemoth comes out! [Barking spiders!]

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

It's never too early ... well, actually it is

It's been a while since I've listened to Jim Dale read an audiobook, so the small taste via The Spirit of Christmas was a minor treat. This is a picture-book-length poem by Nancy Tillman (from Portland!) that is given the full audiobook treatment: the aforementioned Mr. Dale, MBE; Clement C. Moore, a handful of Christmas carols from a children's choir, and ... a keepsake ornament. I'm a big fan of Christmas music, but this would not be among my favorite albums. (This is my favorite Christmas album.)
Jim Dale reads Tillman's poem, then he reads Tillman's poem with page-turn bells, and then he reads "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (otherwise known as "The Night Before Christmas"). The carols make up the rest of the CD. It's below-average Dale, but he doesn't have a lot to work with. Tillman's poem is a sentimental compilation of the goodies that are part of this holiday, but we are reminded that it really has no meaning without love. OK, OK ... call me Scrooge (and Dickens is Tillman's predecessor in connecting love and Christmas). Dale reads with the commitment that tells me he believes the message. The second poem is a little livelier, since he gets to throw out a few more character voices. But it's all over too soon.

The singing leaves a great deal to be desired. The recording is poor (like someone stuck a microphone in the back of the church and the choir started singing), so it's difficult to tell if the singing is any good. They mostly sound in tune and the high notes are reached without screeching (always good). The diction wasn't so great; there were verses where I couldn't understand the words at all.

The reading with the page-turn signals -- which are silvery, festive bell tones -- was extremely odd, since the audiobook does not come with a book. It seems kind of cheesy to make you buy the book separately. And, as for the keepsake ornament ... I guess if you are a fan of Tillman's artwork (I have no opinion either way, since I have never cracked one of her books), it might be nice to have. But the words cardboard and keepsake don't really go together in my mind ...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Left behind

Love, Aubrey is my second grief-stricken-mother-abandons-surviving-daughter novel I've listened to this year (Everything is Fine being the first one.) Even though they are quite different, two is more than enough, thank you. Unlike Mazzy, Aubrey's mother has physically (as well as emotionally) disappeared, but the hurt and the way the two girls do everything they can to sustain an appearance of normality are quite similar. In this novel by Suzanne LaFleur, however, the adults wise up a little sooner. Aubrey's grandmother shows up and removes Aubrey from her home in Virginia to come live with her in Vermont. It is there that almost-12-year-old Aubrey begins to recover from her losses.

An air of profound sadness and grief permeates this novel, understandably. Aubrey feels the losses in her life physically and is slow to confide her feelings to anyone. She finds she is able to write letters about her life first to her younger sister's imaginary friend, then to her dead father and sister, and finally to the mother who abandoned her. I found extremely touching the way an incident in her present would cause her to flash back to a happier moment of her past. (Although I had no trouble identifying the time shifts while listening, I wonder if there is a visual indication in the print version.) While sad, it is also hopeful, as once in Vermont, Aubrey is surrounded by caring adults -- and a new best friend -- so a reader can have confidence that things will get a little better for her.

A narrator named Becca Battoe reads Love, Aubrey. I've never heard her before, but she has a husky, slightly childish voice that works very well for Aubrey, who tells us her story. Aubrey's grief is palpable in Battoe's well-paced and sensitive interpretation. Unable to share her feelings with anyone else, Aubrey is slowly confiding in us. I wonder if we listeners feel Aubrey's grief that much more intensely because we are listening.

As a listener, though, it is hard to sustain this connection; I attribute this to the narrator, who creates a number of characters who were vocally offputting for one reason or another. We hear more than once that Aubrey has a slightly Southern accent, yet it rarely shows up in her voice. Even though it's mentioned in the novel, it would be completely fine if she doesn't have one in the audiobook. But to have one that comes and goes is one of those things that gets you thinking about the accent and not about the book.

Other instances where this narrator's choices pull you out of the audiobook: In flashbacks, Aubrey's sister Savannah has a very twangy Southern accent (why does she have one and Aubrey doesn't?). Aubrey's Gram is introduced to us with a mysterious accent (northern New England?) that vanishes pretty early on in the story (what was it in the first place and why did it go away?) There are several adult males who sound like Battoe was uncomfortable voicing their dialog, they speak in a low register with generic gruffness. The school's guidance counselor, Amy, is someone Aubrey is initially suspicious of, but becomes close to over time. Yet the counselor's voicing is so stiff and formal that I have no sense that she is a warm, caring person, one that Aubrey eventually trusts to share her losses.

These concerns don't make this a poor audiobook, just not an outstanding one. I liked Battoe's voice plenty; I hope there's another opportunity for me to listen to her read.

Seasonal affective order

I was a fairly new youth librarian (actually I don't think I was even a librarian) when I read and loved the first Grandma Dowdel stories (A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder) by Richard Peck. What a lovely surprise to find that she kept going for another 25 years, and hardly mellowed at all. In A Season of Gifts, Grandma no longer has any relatives bunking with her (although a great grandson makes a late appearance); instead she's living next door to 12-year-old Bob Barnhart, newly arrived PK (preacher's kid). Bob is expecting trouble, and he gets it (in typically wacky Peck fashion). Fortunately, Mrs. Dowdel effects a rescue and a tentative friendship begins. Her generous spirit and cranky exterior get Bob and his family -- along with many other residents of that small, southern Illinois town-- through the year 1958-59 with some lessons learned and a great deal of fun.

Like its predecessors, the events of the year are told in an episodic fashion that (to me) means that this book is crying to be read out loud. A chapter a day in the classroom would provide a delightful diversion in the weeks between Thanksgiving and the winter break. Not being a teacher, I wonder if playing the CD for the 15 minutes or so of each chapter has the same effect on students that the teacher reading aloud has. This way, teacher can doodle or stare out the window or sit with her eyes closed as well. Well, the audiobook is now available at your library!

The stories are a nostalgic look back from Bob, which means that an adult voice is completely appropriate. Ron McLarty, who reads the first Granda Dowdel book as well as a whole raft of other audiobooks including The Great Brain, is just terrific. He's pretty matter-of-fact, almost deadpan, in his reading, there's very little sentiment in these sentimental stories; but I definitely hear in his voice that of grandpa telling his grandkids some crazy stories from his childhood. His low-key interpretation gives you -- the listener -- the chance to react to the events of the story itself, rather than the way it's being told.

McLarty delivers some characters that are fun to listen to -- several old ladies in particular: crusty Mrs. Dowdel, loopy Mrs. Wilcox, decrepit Aunt Madge Burdick, and the formidable Miss Flora Shellabarger. There's a lot a manly man can do to humorously portray old women (see Monty Python) and McLarty lets his feminine side loose. But he also creates a pastoral, yet authoritative voice for Bob's father. And I really liked that when Bob is speaking in these episodes, he's got a not-quite-broken boy's voice. Then McLarty uses his adult voice to tell us the past tense stories themselves.

The opening and closing music sounds like the intro to an Elvis tune (without actually being an Elvis song ... pesky copyright!) which sets exactly the right mood. I wanted to hear more music in this audiobook: Bob mentions many hymns and Christmas carols (in public domain?) that it would have been nice to hear sung rather than read. There is -- of course -- the possibility that Mr. McLarty is not a singer.

Oh, and I learned that I've been mispronouncing Grandma's name. It's DOW-del (I read it as dow-DELL). What a relief to know at last!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The five children and it

The cover of this book looks like a teen-centric TV show, doesn't it? Five incredibly glamorous teenagers who are having more fun that you are. But, these teens have ... sold their souls to the devil! The devil in the form of their "governess" Nicola Vileroy. In Another Faust by brother and sister Daniel and Dina Nayeri, Vileroy has adopted five children -- all of whom (but one) want something so badly that they will sell their soul for it. (They did this when they were 10 years old, though, which is a major plot hole for me ... 10-year-olds say and do a lot of stuff they don't mean.) Now 15, Madame Vileroy declares them ready, and she has enrolled them all in the elite Manhattan prep school called Marlowe, where they intend to take all the prizes, accolades and popularity available to them, cementing their bond with the devil.

Recall that Faust sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge, and his tale has been told over the centuries in many forms by many authors. Christopher Marlowe, the English playwright who [supposedly] died young under mysterious circumstances, was among those inspired by the story to write a play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Marlowe may also be the true author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare.

Let's review Madame Vileroy's five charges: Victoria (with the glasses) wants academic honors, Valentin to be a poet, Christian an athlete (the seated one?), and Belle (the blonde) the most beautiful and loved by the handsomest boy. Belle's twin sister, Bice (pronounced BEE-chay ... which was always just a bit too close to bitch for me), is the cipher. We don't know what she wants. We do know that she has an uncanny ability to learn languages and that she likes to spend a lot of time by herself.

Kind of intriguing, yes? I wish I could say that the book remained that interesting. After a great set-up, unfortunately it just lies there. Victoria will do anything to win the class presidency, Valentin can rewind time and uses this skill for nefarious purposes, Belle obsesses about her looks, Christian spends time in a coffin (I must have missed the why of this) and competes in various sports. I got no sense that these activities were moving the plot forward in any way. I made a note to myself at Disc 6 (of 9): I'm at Disc 6 and I don't know where this is going.

Now, this uncertainty could be exciting, suspenseful. But it wasn't. The situations and conversations just happened. I got no sense of amassing clues, or that something that occurred would prove critical later on. It was like the Nayeris got a idea -- hey, let's do Faust in high school! -- but it never amounted to anything more than an idea. (According to their website, there are going to be more classic stories retold for the Marlowe School.)

The talented Katherine Kellgren narrates this story, and although her skills definitely elevate the novel I don't think she overcame the inherent weakness of the material. Ultimately, even disparate accents, distinct characters and her flair for storytelling couldn't make it interesting.

Each of the teenagers has a distinct voice, and -- in a clever choice -- when they are 10, their voices have the accent of their non-U.S. origins and when they are teenagers, they all sound American. The other students at Marlowe School all have distinct characters as well, as do the novel's adults. Madame Vileroy is French, and her dialog is always spoken with a quiet menace that could be frightening (if this book was remotely scary). (Kellgren is so very good that Vileroy's pronunciation of Valentin's name [Valen-tahn] is different from the way his siblings pronounce it [Valen-tin].) Her soft delivery was occasionally unintelligible, though, I often had to raise the volume when she was speaking.

Most of the book's chapters begin with a scene in the long life of Madame Vileroy, scenes that took place all over the world. This affords Kellgren the opportunity to produce additional accents and vocal characterizations, all of which she pulls off with skill and confidence.

There is suitably eerie music at the beginning and end of each disc. But this audiobook is kind of like a cheap present in a lot of fancy wrapping paper. The production is professional and the performance up to the narrator's very high standards, but opening it up just demonstrates how flawed and ordinary the important part is.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

One fair day

One fair day. That's all that Destiny Faraday (get it?) asks for in The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson. It's October 19, Des' birthday and 10 years to the day the first time her parents shipped her to boarding school at age seven ... and out of their lives. Des is an observer, doesn't make friends, and her bad behavior means that she's been inside a significant number of different schools in those 1o years, but now she's at her breaking point.

Skipping class, she stumbles upon a shiny pink convertible parked (with the keys in the ignition and the motor running) outside the school. She quickly locates a driver -- a boy named Seth who's on garbage duty because he was slightly disrespectful to a teacher -- and just as she convinces him to make a quick getaway, they've acquired two more student passengers -- Mira and Aidan. Soon, they're off the school grounds and headed for the open road. Des has got a destination in mind, but she's not sharing it yet. Mira gets everyone to share a secret and the bonding begins. Suffice it to say that Destiny gets her day.

Mary E. Pearson wrote The [awesome] Adoration of Jenna Fox, so I had high hopes for this novel. This is an entirely different story -- no scifi at all, although serendipity plays a significant part. (A Publishers' Weekly review mentioned something about "serious mental illness" that I did not get at all.) I wasn't as engaged by Destiny Faraday (the name itself seemed a little heavy-handed), but I think it's got a lot of teen appeal. What teen wouldn't like a pink convertible (with wads of cash in the glove compartment) and a day off? Wait, do you have to be a teenager to find that idea a good one?

The book is read by Jeannie Stith, heard before here and here. Stith immerses herself skillfully in Destiny's personality -- both her secretiveness and her longing for connection are audible in her narration. She reads quickly and with plenty of expression and brings the story along to its satisfying conclusion. Unfortunately, I think that Stith exaggerates the vocal differences between the four teenagers in that car, and as a result Mira and Aidan -- in particular -- don't sound like real people. Mira is described as perky, which to me doesn't mean that she speaks loudly and sounds kind of dopey. And poor Aidan suffers the fate of many young boys read by women -- he's sounds like he's got a bad case of congestion. I don't know what it is about that particular technique, but I've heard it way too often.

Bragging: We just had M.T. Anderson speak at our library (he is one funny guy), and I admire that he writes so brilliantly across genres (although he spoke about how he likes to explore other time periods than his own in his writing ... hopefully we will soon have his speech available as a podcast). Mary Pearson does this as well. You want to keep reading their stuff just to see what they're going to explore next.

Friday, October 9, 2009


Last week I made a whole lot of presentations on banned books that we call "Feasting on Forbidden Fruit." Most of the time my audience was sixth graders, and I asked them if they had ever brought home a book that their mom or dad made a face over and asked if they could read or look at it first. More than once that book was ttyl by Lauren Myracle. I haven't read any of her books, so I was glad to see Peace, Love, and Baby Ducks pop up on my listening radar so I could have a little more acquaintance with her work.

Carly Lauderdale is entering her sophomore year at Holy Redeemer in her upscale Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta. Her job, as she sees it, will be to shepherd her one-year younger sister, Anna, through the perils of her first year in high school. Carly's spent the summer doing trail maintenance on the Appalachian Trail (?) and she's pretty darn shocked to see that Anna has "blossomed" while she's been away. Her sister has developed some impressive breasts and turned drop-dead gorgeous. What Carly -- who prides herself on her free-spirited opposition to the acquisition-oriented lives of her wealthy parents and friends -- can't seem to admit to herself is that she is now kinda jealous of Anna. And that unspoken jealousy is leading her to say and do things that she may regret; Carly finds out she may not be the kind of sister that she thinks she is.

This is one of those books in the subgenre (named by me) of wealthy girl stories. I've not read Gossip Girls, but Carly and her schoolmates might qualify for membership. Even though Carly decries her family's lifestyle, she doesn't seem to have many qualms about taking advantage of it. The retail endorsements aside, Carly's story is an engaging one that teens will eat up (all checked out at my library); there aren't many of us who don't want to live the rich life -- at least vicariously.

Julia Whelan is the narrator. I've never heard her read, but she's got a pleasant voice and she knows how to keep a story moving along. She's not afraid to be emotional (there was a genuine sob on Disc 6), and I thought she got right to the core of Carly, whose self examination will only go so far. Whelan adopts a Southern accent for all the characters and sticks with it, and while I can't comment on this accent's authenticity, she was pretty consistent. She doesn't greatly differentiate between characters, but the book is written so that it isn't too tricky to follow conversations. Those alpha girls tend to sound similar, and since that is my expectation anyway, I wasn't bothered by this. More importantly, Whelan sounds like a teenaged girl -- she's got that speech pattern down really well, with or without the twangy bits.

In the ongoing what's-great-about-audiobooks list: Lauren's last name is pronounced My-rah-cul. However, she doesn't reveal on her website what I really want to know: Is Myracle the name she (or her husband) was born with?

It's K-nuffle, with a K

Mo Willems gave a storytime this summer at the Art Institute of Chicago that conveniently took place the Friday of Annual weekend. There was a small group of children attending, accompanied by a large, adoring gaggle of his adult fans (myself included). He read Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity and explained that you could go either way (hard or soft K), but that he preferred K-nuffle, because that is Dutch for "cuddle." K-nuffle it is.

Mo's daughter Trixie is now talking pretty much nonstop and she is taking Knuffle Bunny to school to show all her new PreK friends. At school she meets Sonja, who -- to her horror -- also has a Knuffle Bunny (soft K). Some bad behavior leads to the girls being separated from their bunnies; each is reunited at the end of the day. Alas, it is only at 2:30 a.m. that Trixie realizes that she has the wrong bunny (hint: it's the inside of the ears). It's a mad dash across Grand Army Plaza before things are set aright.

Again, we have a full cast production: Mo, Trixie, Sonja and Trixie's mom are all performed by ... well, themselves. Trixie (who has read Knuffle Bunny with her father as well) talks and reads utterly naturally. She and her dad begin the book in a charming fashion, explicating the illustrations that precede the title page (Mo getting married, having a baby, and Trixie finding Knuffle Bunny in the laundromat) in a relaxed and unscripted conversation. Then Mo and Trixie share the narrative duties. When Trixie sees Sonja's Knuffle Bunny, her horror is palpable in her voice.

There are some engaging sound effects -- including Trixie's afterschool and going-to-bed activities (vigorous toothbrushing) complete with robots (Mo and his wife) from the plant Snurp [I might be forgetting the exact name] urging her onward. Early in the morning, she announces to her parents that she's got the wrong bunny, and then the Willems get a phone call: "We have your bunny." This line reading (Mo?) was quite hilarious, sounding like a muffled ransom demand. Off they race to the accompaniment of some sprightly caper music to make the exchange.

In a nice finish, Mo and Trixie read the book through to the back cover as they describe the illustration there as well. (You can see this, but it can't be copied, if you "search inside this book" at More words from Mo about his creative process conclude the CD. Just a delightful audio package from start to finish.

Back in August, in her Audiobooker blog, Mary Burkey shared an interview with Mo and Trixie after they finished recording yet another Willems title, The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog. What a great kid!

DWP - Driving While Pigeon

Can the Pigeon really be six years old? That means that preschoolers who shouted out "No!" (although there always was a rebel shouting "Yes!") when I first read this in storytime are practically in middle school. Yikes! Well, it's nice to see Mo Willems' classic (and still the best) Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus in audio at last.

Do I need to synopsize (is that a word?) ... do I need provide a synopsis?

There are two characters in this story and Weston Woods pulls out all the stops for a full cast recording. Mo reads the bus driver and Ambassador Jon Scieszka is the pigeon. There's a third character -- the reader/listener/viewer -- who is cleverly embodied by a wah-wah brass instrument(s). Everytime the Pigeon asks whether he can drive, the brass answers him. It's pretty charming.

Scieszka does a lot with the very little text provided him. In this central spread (thoughtfully provided on Willems' [may I call you Mo?] website ... it's bigger and easier to read here), where the Pigeon has to ask eight different ways, Scieszka reads each inquiry with a slightly different style. I particularly liked "How 'bout I give you five bucks?" which I swear sounded like Scieszka really was speaking out of the corner of his mouth. (Interestingly, Scieszka reads this spread straight across, not down one page and then the other.) It was completely silly and funny.

The audiobook ends with a brief chat with Willems -- actually not a chat, he's just talking. He's always entertaining, and here is no exception. I was interested to learn that the Pigeon started as a hand-drawn chapbook (?) given to friends at the holidays. One very astute friend saw the picture book possibilities, and the rest -- as they say -- is history.

A repeat of the concern noted in the previous post: There is no aural announcement of who the readers are. (I promise I won't say it a third time.)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Abraham and Frederick

Another book celebrating the Abraham Lincoln bicentenary is the picture book Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship by Nikki Giovanni, with illustrations by Bryan Collier. Lincoln has invited his old friend Frederick Douglass -- the former slave and African American activist -- to join his second inaugural ball, but it takes Douglass a little bit longer to reach the ballroom, since the White House staff believe he and his wife have come to work the party, not celebrate.

As Lincoln spots Douglass and walks to greet him, poet Giovanni flashes back to the journey that each took to get to that ballroom -- a poor or enslaved childhood, revelations about slavery (Lincoln) and escape from it (Douglass), and a life of public service. (There were two spreads devoted to the abolitionist John Brown and a black woman who supported him, Mary Ellen Pleasant, that -- aside from the poetic language -- felt like they were from another book.) A full gatefold spread of a Civil War battle concludes the journey as the two men finally meet.

The actor Danny Glover (who lives in Portland, I think ... I wonder if he has a library card) reads this book. He narrates with suitable gravitas for the subject, and the reading is underscored by appropriate music that helps to alter the mood as the book transitions from gala party to depictions of slavery to a battlefield. The battlefield illustration is wordless, so soaring, inspirational music (along with a few battle sounds) takes over. On the whole, though, the book and this audio production both seem to emphasize the historical importance of its two protagonists. And not in a good way. The dialog seems forced, and the men are well, not human beings. (John Brown and Mary Ellen Pleasant don't come off really well, either.) Lincoln and Douglass are symbols. Do symbols make for very interesting history? I don't think so.

This audiobook has some queer quirks as well. The reader is never named. I listened to several picture books from Weston Woods this weekend, and it seems this publisher never credits its readers [clarification: the narrator's name is printed on the CD itself]. Is that because its audiobooks are really just the audio tracks of the DVD versions ... and presumably the DVD's visual credits show that Glover is the reader? A timeline is read at the end ... and like most timelines, it's pretty darn dull to listen to.

The book includes several pieces of front matter that aren't read aloud: Notes from the author and the illustrator, and a facsimile of the Emancipation Proclamation that is the book's first illustration. There is music, along with signals to get the listener through these pages if you choose to listen to the page-turn track. On the other track, there's just a whole lot of stirring music between the title page and the book's first scene at the inaugural ball. Now, I would be the first person to say that starting off a picture book audiobook with a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation is probably not a good thing, so I think I can agree with the decision not to. Again, I'm pretty sure that the DVD version pans lovingly over this illustration, but it just doesn't translate well to audio.

Which leads me neatly to my conclusions. This book is not a good candidate for audio. The flashback approach (along with the insertion of John Brown/Mary Ellen Pleasant) is confusing if you're listening without the book. The lengthy sections without narration are frankly a little dull (will a young listener stare at the Emancipation Proclamation all the time that the page-turn signal allows?). The gatefold illustration instructs you to 'Open Here' to view the full picture, and a voice other that Glover's provides this instruction. This is really strange to hear if you are not holding the book. The characters seem flat and speak unnaturally; the awkward speech is exacerbated when read aloud. In short, there seem to be too many exceptions to make this a smooth-listening audiobook. Does Weston Woods turn all their DVDs into audiobooks?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


The second of this year's crop of first-person-narrator-on-the-autism-spectrum titles is Anything but Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin. (See here for the first one.) Jason Blake is 12 years old and is in his first year of school without his one-on-one aide. He's mostly ignored at school, but the students do pick on him occasionally. His two loving parents are active advocates for him, however. Jason -- who has a new word pop into his head every morning -- finds the most pleasure in writing. He is an active member of an online community called Storyboard, where he posts his short fiction and then awaits comments from other members.

One day he gets a comment on one of his stories from PhoenixBird, and he begins an email correspondence. His suspicion that PhoenixBird is a she are confirmed when she tells him her name, Rebecca. Jason is thrilled that she is his friend -- a person who knows him, but doesn't know about him. He even announces to the one kid in school who is nice to him that he has a girlfriend (but immediately regrets it). Then, Jason's parents tell him that they are going to take him to the upcoming Storyboard conference in Dallas and he excitedly tells Rebecca that he will be going. To his horror, Rebecca announces that she lives in Dallas and will be attending as well. Jason truly wants her friendship, but is certain that if they were to meet, she will see only his ASD.

Jason does go to Dallas and he does meet Rebecca, but I'm not going to spoil anything by going further. What I enjoyed most about this book was Jason's loving, evolving relationship with his overprotective mother. Listening was my second visit to this book, and I also truly appreciated the sophisticated way that the author uses Jason's love of words (including those that he is using to tell us his story) to describe him and his atypical view of the world.

The narrator is Tom Parks (new to me). Unlike the other narrators I've listened to portray autistic boys -- who read quietly, neutrally and with little affect -- Parks reads with feeling and variations in pace and emotions. There are times when Jason is distressed and you hear it. He also reads the novel's dialog at a louder pitch than he does the remaining text -- reflecting Jason's sensory issues. In Jason's world, everyone is shouting. This was a nice touch. [Even if it meant that I would occasionally have to pry the melted earbuds from my poor shocked ears.]

Completely beside the point: The cover is really bad. If the publisher is going with the Peter Max feeling, at least use some bright, day-glo color. I can't see very many kids spotting this on the shelf and doing anything but browse right by it. And that would be too bad.

A short childhood

I read or listen to some books with a mounting sense of excitement, or anxiety, or anticipation -- isn't that what books are all about? But I listened to The Boy Who Dared with this sick feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach, as the outcome of this novel -- based on a true story -- was never in doubt. I was walking home from work as I neared the end, and I said out loud (sometimes audiobooks make you say things out loud ... in public!), "this is it." Helmuth Hübener is going to his death. At the age of 17, he was guillotined in a Berlin prison in 1942.

The Boy Who Dared is Susan Campbell Bartoletti's fictional retelling of Helmuth's story, which she had first (?) discovered during her research for her great nonfiction book: Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow. Adolf Hitler has pretty much shaped Helmuth's entire life, and when he was a younger boy he was a somewhat enthusiastic member (he didn't strike me as a joiner) of Hitler Youth; but he quickly sours on Hitler and National Socialism once its campaign to eradicate the Jews becomes clear. His older brother has secretly obtained a short-wave radio (illegal in Nazi Germany), and Helmuth begins listening to the BBC's German-language broadcasts. Inspired, he writes and -- with the help of two young friends -- secretly distributes them around Hamburg. At this point in the story, you are shockingly reminded that Helmuth is really just a child: Enthused by his success, he tries to recruit a fellow worker, about whom he knows very little. This worker turns him in and Helmuth is arrested by the Gestapo, beaten into betraying his friends, put on trial, and sentenced to death. He was the youngest person executed -- let me rephrase -- he was the youngest German opponent of the Nazis to be executed.

The novel begins on the morning he is to be executed (although he doesn't know this), and flashes back to how he ended up in the Plotzenzee prison. The flashbacks are interspersed with what happens on this last day. As I said, I was dogged by dread all the time I listened to this mercifully short novel. Yet, there was also considerable awe at the strength and conviction and courage of this remarkable young man.

David Ackroyd reads this audiobook. He makes an interesting choice to read the dialog with a slight German accent and the remainder of the book in (unaccented) American English. This is accomplished for the most part very smoothly -- he moves from one to the other without incident. I did occasionally hear what I interpreted to be American English in the midst of the German conversation, but Ackroyd's accent is so subtle that I may have been listening a little too closely for errors.

But more than consistency with the German accent, I am nonplussed by the switching from German to American English. It is an interesting narrator choice, and not one I'm sure I agree with. (I think I twisted myself into similar knots over the varying accents in Wild Girl, so I won't got any further here.) Ackroyd reads with minimal voicing, but I was always clear who was speaking. Some of his vocal characters were downright terrifying: Helmuth's despised stepfather, Hugo Hübener; as well as his Gestapo interrogators.

Accents aside, Ackroyd is fine narrator. That feeling of dread I attribute to him. His reading got me into Helmuth's tragic story more emotionally than any reading to myself might have done. Despite the obvious adult qualities of Ackroyd's voice, I never forgot that Helmuth was a smart, impulsive teenager flying all to quickly to his doom. Powerful stuff.

Friday, October 2, 2009


I watched this video of Walter Dean Myers describing Dope Sick in the hopes that I would understand it a little better. I think it helps. I still have a big question about what happens at the end of the book, but I think to specify my confusion might be giving too much away. Here's what I do understand: Jeremy Dance, known as Lil J, was with his friend Rico when Rico sold drugs to an undercover cop. Rico takes the cop's gun and the two boys walk away. Then Rico, hopped up on his own product, returns to the cop and Lil J hears gunfire. Or at least that's what Lil J tells us. (Some unknown time period) later, Rico is captured and confesses that Lil J was the one who shot the cop -- whose condition is reported as serious. Lil J is on the run, he's been shot and he takes refuge in an abandoned building in Harlem where he happens upon Kelly, seated in a chair watching TV.

Kelly shows Lil J what's on his TV ... and Lil J is shocked to see himself there. In fact, Kelly is using a remote that seems to be able to click from Lil J's present, to his past and even his future. Is Lil J hallucinating, out of his mind with his gunshot wound? Myers isn't telling. Kelly asks Lil J what one thing that he's done that he would like to take back. And Lil J and Kelly spend the rest of this brief novel reviewing his life to find out what that might be. The actions at the end of the story confused me (I listened to it twice), but still I may have missed the moment where Lil J decides what to take back (or whether he does at all). What Myers says in the video is that a life carefully examined can lead to hope, and possibly redemption. And Kelly forces Lil J into a ruthless self-examination.

Recorded Books' go-to narrator for African American characters, JD Jackson, reads this novel (18 months ago, I listened to him read Myers' excellent Sunrise over Fallujah). He's an outstanding narrator, switching from urban black teen speak to drug-addled street person to television newscaster, and -- in this novel -- the (presumably white) wife of an Italian American cop. He sounds authentic in each of those voices. In this novel, he inhabits the panicky, yet smart-ass Lil J perfectly -- keeping you on an edge of uncertainty. As a doper, Lil J has an uneasy relationship with the truth.

His characterization of Kelly is slightly more problematic, but I wonder if he was hampered by the novel itself. In Jackson's hands, Kelly sounds like a wise, all-knowing adult; so I was surprised to hear Myers say that he's just a little bit older than 17-year-old Lil J. Granted, he's a mythic teenager, but the interpretation gives me a little pause.

Still, a quibble. (I appear to have had a bit of a run on quibbles.) As I've said before, there is simply no substitute for a good audiobook when I am reading outside of my own middle-class, college-educated, American white girl oeuvre. A story just gets so many more layers when it's not my voice I'm hearing.

Winging it

I read out of order!! Ack! The world is coming to an end!! Castle in the Air is the second (not the third) of Diana Wynne Jones' Wizard Howl (which should really be called Sophie Hatter) series. I listened to House of Many Ways first. Drat! So, tantrum finished, it really wasn't that big a deal. Sophie and Howl are late comers to this story and all you really learn that's relevant to the third installment is how their bratty child Morgan was born (and why he's such a brat). Otherwise, Castle in the Air can -- if you want -- "stand alone."

Abdullah is the hero of this adventure. He lives in Zanzib, a city in a desert land considerably south of Ingary. A poor carpetseller, he dreams of love and adventure. Which plops in his lap when he purchases a magic carpet. Activated by snoring (which takes Abdullah a few tries before he figures it out), the carpet takes him to the garden of the beautiful, innocent Flower-in-the-Night with whom he falls in love instantly. The father of Flower-of-the-Night has never let her see another man, since it was prophesied at her birth that she would marry the first one she saw. And it's true ... she and Abdullah vow to marry. But! A huge djinn appears in the sky above the garden and whisks Flower-in-the-Night away! Abdullah will rescue her.

It's a lengthy, but highly entertaining journey. Along the way, Abdullah picks up a bottled genie -- who grumpily fulfills one wish per day, but always manages to twist that request into something not quite right, a discharged soldier, and a black cat and her newborn kitten. The carpet transports them to Howl's castle -- which has been appropriated by another djinn as a place to hold all the princesses (totaling 60) that his brother has kidnapped for him -- now floating high in the sky. An ingenious rescue is attempted and all is right in the end. It is a thoroughly satisfying adventure.

Like the other two Howl books, this is narrated by Jenny Sterlin. She brings her British sang-froid to the proceedings -- narrating the outlandish tale with seriousness and energy. I particularly enjoyed her characterization of young Abdullah, who never uses three words when thirteen will do. His naïve determination is palpable in Sterlin's voicing. She brings her expertise to a number of vocal characters -- the two djinn brothers (one whose voice "sounds like a trumpet," and the other gravelly and menacing), the pouty genie, some rascally relatives of Abdullah, and an astonishing number of princesses. Even the cat puts in an appearance, as well as the temperamental Morgan (Sophie and Howl's son). It's quite a performance.

Sterlin reads at a cracking pace -- the story just keeps moving along. So, my (minor) quibbles are that occasionally a syllable or word just vanishes, she's reading so quickly that -- here and there -- stuff is just swallowed and not pronounced. I also find that her slightly husky voice begins to wear on me a little -- it sounds just a wee bit strained, which -- oddly -- makes my throat begin to hurt. Jenny ... my throat is dry, take a drink of water!