Friday, January 29, 2010

Wren and bee

OK ... I'm on an adult mystery jag. I get this way periodically: after months of books for teens and kids, I get a jones that has to be itched (mixed metaphor?) for about 10 books. I'm reading and listening to them this month, and I have found myself occasionally getting confused about what clue goes with which novel. Maybe I should keep one genre in the ears and another for the eyes. At any rate, this is another historical setting: Jazz Age London. In The Bee's Kiss (a cocktail database, I love that), Barbara Cleverly's suave and sophisticated detective Joe Sandilands finds himself back in London, after several years (and four novels) in India.

Scotland Yard assigns him to the murder of Dame Beatrice Jaglow-Joliffe, found battered to death in her hotel room at the Ritz. Dame Beatrice was instrumental in the creation of the Wrens during World War I, and -- even though they were disbanded after the War -- it is rumored that she was attempting to revive them. A fairly dysfunctional family can be added to the mix, along with some possible sexual shenanigans. The body is found by a young Woman Police Constable (and upper class society girl), Tilly Westhorpe; and she joins Sandilands and his sergeant, Bill Atkinson to solve the case.

These mysteries are sophisticated and clever (the author's name is so perfect). Sandilands remains a bit of an intriguing cypher and politics often plays a role in his detecting, resulting in somewhat ambiguous endings. Right does not always prevail. In this installment, I enjoyed the revelation of the killer enough to think about (highly unlikely that I ever would) going back to pick up all the clues again.

The Bee's Kiss is read by Terry Wale, a skilled narrator who probably reads tons of audiobooks that never make it to our shores. He's a little more polished than the reader of the previous book -- I had no trouble understanding him, he is a bit less juicy, his women sound natural. He creates a nicely differentiated cast of characters -- each of whom is a "standard" British character -- dashing detective, lower class sergeant, debutant with nerves of steel, Eastender old guy, upper class twit, wise-beyond-her-years teenager, etc. Wale's skill is that each of these characters sound like real people. He never resorts to cariacture to differentiate dialog. And in a plot-driven novel, he keeps the story moving along at a pleasing, but not hurried, pace.

The publisher, Soundings, is utterly new to me (I wonder if they just don't publish children's books). My library only has about a dozen of their audiobooks. There is a pleasant taste of slightly 1920s-ish music at the end of each disc, and each opens with the briefest of cues (i.e., Disc 3). A completely suitable compromise between nothing (wait ... is the battery dead or am I at the end?) and the terribly intrusive "this is the end of disc 3." I particularly like the help at the beginning: My ancient computer and my bargain mp3 player don't seem to be able to pull much data from the audio CDs that I download and then copy (for personal use only!). I usually get Unknown Disc as a label. When I'm listening to a 14 (or so) -disc-er, it can be a bit tricky getting to the right disc. It would be nice to know I'm in the right place at the beginning (assuming, of course, that I remember what disc I just finished ...). Just a thought.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Colonel Mustard in the library with ... the crocodile?

Herewith my first post-Odyssey audiobook. Caveat: It took me over a week to finish this as I was out of town and didn't have all those steady listening opportunities (to and from work, in the car, morning walk, etc.) that I have at home. I start with the caveat because I think there were whole plot points of this book that I missed completely, and plot points are somewhat important in detective fiction.

I've long been a fan of this series, featuring a completely anachronistic wisecracking Roman (circa 77 C.E.) gumshoe named Marcus Didius Falco. And while Falco's dialog and job description are a little 20th century, I'm fairly certain that author Lindsey Davis' period research is up to snuff. This is the 19th installment (my god, I've been reading these for 20 years!). I wonder if my compulsion to read series from the beginning stems from my love of mystery novels.

Falco and his smart wife and unofficial business partner, Helena Justina, are visiting Alexandria, Egypt for a little vacation time before the birth of their third child. They like to travel (Helena has a bucket list and wants to tick off two of the Seven Wonders), and -- oddly -- always seem to encounter violent death when they do so. (Funny, that.) In this story, they find themselves embroiled in the suspicious death of the head librarian at the Library of Alexandria, and Falco soon discovers that someone is whittling away at the Library's grand collection. Many of its most valuable scrolls are disappearing. (Some things never change.)

Christian Rodska narrates this book; he has read others in the series as well. I enjoyed the snarky way he reads this -- Falco's sarcastic wisecracks and generally dim view of humanity are given free rein in this narration. However, my ears hadn't calmed down enough from Odyssey intensity; I was pretty bothered by all the gasps, gulps and generally saliva-filled enunciation that frequently occurs with British readers. I didn't hear much distinction in the large cast of characters and when I did, they seemed odd to me. One of the Egyptian characters seemed to be speaking with a Scots accent, and another a kind of rough Irish. I guess you can make the case for this -- since the main characters are all speaking with British accents. (I call it the I, Claudius effect.)

Mostly, though, I wasn't paying enough attention to this one. So, even though my Odyssey ears were still tuned, the listening brain knew I didn't have to produce anything intelligent to say about it. Given the choice, though, I think I'll go back to reading Falco.

By the numbers

An Odyssey Index:

  • Audiobooks submitted: 418
  • Hours of listening: 2,248 [93 days 16 hours]
  • Committee members: 9
  • Average assigned hours per committee member (not including suggested/nominated titles): 499
  • Books Lee listened to: 119
  • Hours Lee listened: 645 [almost 27 days]
  • And because I like to brag, my total listening hours for 2009: 694.5

I've had a week or so to reflect on the process of selecting "the best audiobook produced for children and/or young adults" and I have to say that I am very satisfied. I was skeptical about the supposed collegiality of the enterprise -- getting nine exhausted, very opinionated women to agree on something and for everyone to feel good about it. I think we all do feel good. We had some fantastic discussions about why Louise and her compatriots met (or rather exceeded) the award's criteria. Those discussions make me confident that we did, indeed, pick the best one. I hope you like it, too. (It goes without saying that the three honor books are well worth listening to as well.)

Here's a brief list of some other of my favorites that didn't make the Odyssey cut:

And so now I head bravely, but uncertainly, into the world of listening to whatever I damn well please. It's been four years of "directed" listening, but now the audio world is my oyster. Even though I can slow down, I think my head is so attuned to listening whenever my hands are busy that I'll probably keep up a pretty steady pace. I've always been a fast reader ... I think I can say that I'm a fast listener too. What goes next into my ears? What about books not published in the current year? Or those that I may have read awhile ago, but now want to listen to? Maybe I'll become a narrator groupie (Dion Graham). And what about ... gasp! adult books. Regardless, I intend to continue offering my opinions in this forum.

I might even download something ...

Monday, January 18, 2010

Odyssey 2010

Find them here! All wonderful!!

Odyssey Award: Louise: The Adventures of a Chicken
Odyssey Honors:
More later, but I need a little time to decompress.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Beware the McGill, my son!

Nick and Allie are dead (yes, it's another dead teenager novel), each of them a passenger in a head-on collision. Unfortunately, as their dead entities separate from their bodies to head towards the light, they collide and are spun off into another existence: Everlost, the world between, a world that only children inhabit. These children, or Afterlights, can see the world of the living, but can't themselves be seen. In addition, they can only occupy dead spaces in the living world. Awaking in a forest of dead trees, they meet another Afterlight. Lief's been around for a while (so long that he's forgotten his name, Lief is what Nick and Allie call him), but he has been too frightened to leave the security of his dead forest. In Neal Shusterman's world, there is something out there haunting the Afterlights ... it's the McGill.

Nick and Allie's fears of the McGill aren't as great as their desire to head to their homes, to see their families one more time; so they leave Lief and head for New York City. In New York, they find Mary Hightower -- a long-dead teenager who has assumed a sort of mother role for the Afterlights, and whose "family" has taken up residence in the Twin Towers. In Everlost, fondly remembered destroyed or dismantled buildings (and other objects) still exist and are used by the Afterlights. Mary offers protection from the McGill. Both Nick and Allie are quite moved to see the Towers again, but Allie is not quite so enamored of Mary's benevolent dictatorship. She encourages Nick to accompany her on a mission to expose Mary, and instead they both end up captives of the McGill, who sails up and down the East Coast on a ship called the Sulphur Queen. The novel has lots of action and ends satisfactorily ... but with enough unfinished threads that it comes as no surprise to learn that there is a sequel: Everwild.

Shusterman's vision of this alternative world has a lot of wit and humor. The children never change physically once they are dead, so Nick forever has a face covered in melted chocolate, a boy named Speedo will never get out of his swimming trunks, and another boy spends eternity in his shark pajamas. The author also includes some big ideas -- not so much about life after death, but about power and manipulation. Mary appears to be benevolent, but she doesn't like to be challenged. She knows the secret of Everlost, but she chooses not to share it ... for the good of the children, she says. She also writes an endless series of self-help books for the newly arrived in Everlost. Excerpts from her books begin or end the novel's chapters.

Nick Podehl narrates Everlost. This is the sixth time I've listened to him this year (the most of any narrator; Katherine Kellgren is next with four titles), and I'd rank this one in the middle. It's not as good as Carter Finally Gets It or The Killer's Cousin, but it's much much better than those Derek Stone books. His portrayals of the main characters sound like real people and he employs the voices consistently. He sets a good pace for this exciting story, yet knows how to take the book's emotional moments and linger over them.

There are a few character voices that stand out in weirdly exaggerated ways. Is Podehl focusing on a single quality in characters who are mostly known to us by that one quality? A boy known as Vari (because he plays a Stradivarius he has located in Everlost) sounds high and squeaky ... like a violin? The boy named Speedo just sounds nasal and intellectually dim. The McGill is a growler/shouter who gets really juicy if he speaks for awhile -- I could practically hear the saliva hitting the microphone (joking!).

The excerpts from Mary's books are read by an uncredited female. It makes perfect sense to have these sections in another voice. Unfortunately, this narrator reads like someone who does not regularly read audiobooks. Her readings are bland and uninflected. She sounds like the utterly neutral voice that announces the beginning and end of a disc. Did the producer decide at the last minute that they needed a female voice and then they asked the receptionist? It's an oddity in an otherwise completely professional production.

The world has changed (in part)

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s older sister, Christine King Farris, has written a picture book about the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She herself wasn't there, but her description of the events of the day in March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World is vivid and engaging. The audiobook is (I believe) the narration of the video that was selected for the 2009 Andrew Carnegie Medal.

I like the feeling of anticipation that this book arouses. The people arriving from all over, Reverend King working all night on his speech, he and the six other civil rights leaders gathered in their blindingly white shirt sleeves preparing for the day, and finally, finally, King's famous oration (which was evidently, not a bit like the one he had prepared). Through stirring music and a skilled reading from Lynn Whitfield, a listener easily enters the spirit of that day. Unlike some other picture book DVDs reproduced for audio, I did not feel like I was missing anything by not watching the video (I still had the book in my lap).

Whitfield reads the book at that slower pace called for when reading picture books, but her narration varies in pace and emotion. She knows how to build those feelings of anticipation and excitement with her voice. There is a beautiful moment where the narrative includes a phrase from a hymn spontaneously sung by the participants and Whitfield simply changes the rhythm of her speech and begins to sing it.

This audiobook includes music and crowd sounds that underlie the narrative. It burbles up upon occasion, perfectly. A moment in the text reveals that Martin urged Mahalia Jackson to sing to calm the crowd before his speech, and what must be her voice (or a very good imitation of her distinctive style of singing... no one is credited) emerges beautifully singing I Been 'Buked.

This effect is repeated once King begins speaking. The book's text includes just a little of King's words: "Free at last ...," and now it's King's voice that comes up under the reading of the text, almost like an echo. It is such an effective you-are-there technique, almost goosebump producing.

The audiobook concludes with comments from Christine Farris herself. She augments the content of the book in a pleasant, Southern-tinged voice. She's kind of subdued, though, so I think watching her (as well as listening) might be a little more interesting. The audiobook has three tracks -- the book without page-turn signals, the book with page-turn signals, and then the piece with Farris. Young listeners who don't need the page-turn signal in order to read along, might simply stop listening once the book is over, never reaching the opportunity to listen to Dr. King's sister (one of just a few close to the organizers who is still alive?) share her memories.