Sunday, February 17, 2013

Attempted murder in the cathedral

I've been in such a funk of overcommitment coupled with all the to-dos still lying in wait that I've neglected to mention the 2013 Odyssey Award. An interesting mix of novels; but I want to listen to just two of the honor books: Monstrous Beauty (just cued up this morning) and Cornelia Funke's Ghost Knight (translated by Oliver Latsch). As I have stated previously here, I have long been a fan of this writer, so it was no pain at all to give this a listen.  (It actually provided some short-term relief from the endless The Legend of Broken [36 hours!]; this strategy has worked so well that I'm employing it again with Monstrous Beauty!)

Jon Whitcroft has been sent away to boarding school at Salisbury Cathedral. He is in serious need of an attitude adjustment, as he's intent on destroying his widowed (?) mother's romance with a dentist he refers to as The Beard. But since the couple is currently enjoying a holiday in Spain, at this point all he can do is whine about his situation to us, his listeners. But just when he was starting to get a wee bit boring, 11-year-old Jon finds he has bigger problems: An angry ghost, accompanied by some wicked dogs and a few evil henchmen, aims to avenge his own hanging for the murders of two of Jon's mother's ancestors. The only other person sympathetic to Jon's troubles -- since no one else can see the ghost -- is Ella Littlejohn, whose eccentric grandmother Zelda provides ghost tours to Cathedral visitors.

Ella convinces Jon to consult another Cathedral ghost, William LongespĂ©e, the Earl of Salisbury, who was instrumental in getting the magnificent edifice -- with the tallest church spire in England -- erected. (My aversion to Wikipedia means that this article [where the source isn't cited] contains the most history I can find about the Earl). According to Ella, LongespĂ©e swore an oath -- shortly before his death -- to always help those in need. All you have to do is ask. Together, Jon and Ella raise the Earl's ghost and vow -- in return -- to find his stolen heart and lay it on the grave of his beloved wife, Ela, who is buried in nearby Lacock Abbey (and has some pretty interesting history on her own). The ghost knight easily dispatches Jon's enemy, but finding his heart proves a task requiring much courage from our young heroes.

Like in the first book of Funke's I read, The Thief Lord (which takes place in Venice), I loved the mixing of the real place with the fantastical.  Funke rightly sees the Cathedral -- especially at night -- as a place of danger and excitement. With her setting the scene, you just believe that magic might happen there.  Funke gives you plenty of historical information, using a clever combo of bored kids listening to a teacher drone on about dates and names, with deeds of great derring do and honor mixed in to keep things interesting. Jon and Ella have the right mix of kid and adventurer, so that it doesn't matter very much that their scrapes nearly all take place in the small hours at places they have no business being (they get locked into the Cathedral and other locations with no difficulty at all).

One thing gave me a wait-a-moment feeling, which was why Jon didn't recognize Ella's last name as that of someone else he knows, but that's a pesky adult detail.

A narrator entirely new to me, Elliot Hill, reads the novel. He has a very pleasant voice and delivers the usual mix of English accents that a book like this calls for.  Even though Jon is telling us his story from the distance of eight years, I enjoyed how his voice changes from a petulant entitled brat to a boy who can recognize the feelings and motivations of others. His Ella sounds natural, and I like the slight cluelessness Hill provided for The Beard. I personally didn't care for his interpretation of Zelda, Ella's grandmother, who has a high-pitched, exaggerated loopiness that came just to the edge of Monty-Python-like.

I think I might just disagree with the Odyssey committee about this one (except that I didn't listen to every audiobook published for youth in 2012), as I thought Hill's narrative delivery -- the way he reads the non-dialogue sentences -- was kind of ordinary. He gives each sentence the same rhythm, providing very little variety in the listening. This is endurable in a short novel, but can get pretty tiresome over many hours.  (It's so easy to be a critic.)

The library award season also includes the Listen List, audiobooks for adults selected by members of the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA).  Some of the books here are most intriguing to me, and I'm pleased (well, sort of, I really didn't enjoy it that much) to see that I've actually listened to one already. I find the listen-alikes to be intriguing as well, particular since they aren't limited to 2012 productions. The mind boggles at the amount of listening done by that committee.

[So many wonderful image possibilities from Funke's setting, I had to insert two: The photograph of Salisbury Cathedral, "in early morning light," was taken by Andrew Dunn and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. The tomb of William Longspee, inside the Cathedral, was taken by Bernard Gagnon and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke
Narrated by Elliott Hill
Listening Library, 2012. 4:53

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Pain relief

In 2006, Oregon became the first (and remains the only?) state to require prescriptions for what was over-the-counter pseudoephedrine (found in Sudafed), in an attempt to stop easy access to the main ingredient of methamphetamine, or meth. This was right about the same time that Laurel Daneau discovered meth -- provided by her goodtime boyfriend T-Boom -- in Jacqueline Woodson's short novel, Beneath a Meth Moon: An Elegy. Laurel is from the small Gulf of Mexico town of Pass Christian, Mississippi, which was devastated by the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina.  Laurel evacuated with her father and infant brother, but her mother and grandmother -- who refused to leave -- were drowned.  In crisis, the family relocates several years later to a small town named Galilee in the Midwest.

It is there that 15-year-old Laurel meets the basketball star T-Boom (one of those idiot white boys who think they want to be black), and where T-Boom introduces her to meth. Laurel calls meth "moon," and craves it for the way that fills the void from her loved ones' deaths and lightens the load of all the things that she's lost. She spirals down, losing family and friends, but is ultimately saved by a street artist named Moses (are you getting all the Biblical references?) -- who paints outdoor memorial portraits of young people who have died from meth. Laurel is telling us her story from rehab; it is an elegy for her past and it is written in a very dreamlike, mournful style. While Woodson doesn't dwell on the least savory aspects of meth addiction (whether Laurel prostitutes herself for money is left unsaid), her physical decay is described with honesty and her recovery is not quite certain.

With Jacqueline Woodson, less is always more. She writes these economical gems (here are two that I've listened to) that skillfully explore big ideas. She doesn't judge Laurel, but she's not afraid to equate her small story with those from a larger canvas. (I write this several weeks after I finished listening to it; since then, I've been drowning for what seems like forever in a bloated behemoth of a novel, making me long for Woodson's spare, intelligent prose.)

Cassandra Campbell reads the novel in an appropriately somber style, tinged with a Southern accent. She sounds much more girlish than I've sensed in previous listens, and captures Laurel's meth highs and love of the "moon" with excitement and an edge of hysteria. As she comes off the drug, the despair and loneliness are clear in her voice as well. Campbell is skilled, of course, in character portrayals and she does a good job -- from a Mississippi grandmother to Laurel's toddler brother to the strung-out T-Boom to her all-American, Midwestern best friend.  Her pronunciation of Pass Christian (pass-kris-SHYAN) seemed awkward to me, but the internet tells me that she is nearly correct.

There's been a mini moon theme to my listening for the past month, with this and this. I'm sure it means something. My unreliable blogstream of consciousness sends me from The Last Werewolf to the shocking news that its narrator, Robin Sachs, died suddenly this month. I was looking forward to listening to him again, which is fortunately possible, as he narrated a large library of audiobooks. I hope that is some comfort to his friends and loved ones. And, as the blogstream moves on, I am reminded of the eeriness of listening to the voice of a dead person, or rather a dead person you knew. The wife of a dear deceased friend has never taken his voice off of their answering machine. It startles me nearly every time I hear it.

And on that elegiac note ...

[The photograph of crystal meth was taken by Psychonaught and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Beneath a Meth Moon: An Elegy by Jacqueline Woodson
Narrated by Cassandra Campbell
Brilliance Audio, 2012. 3:42

Monday, February 11, 2013


"We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck." Count this among this reader's best opening lines, except that it's not the first thing you hear in M.T. Anderson's Feed.  There's an epigraph from a poem by W.H. Auden first ("Anthem for St. Cecilia's Day").  Still, it works. Really well. You are immediately grabbed by that quote as Anderson takes you on a wild, oddly prescient (since it was published in 2002) look at our bleak future.

Titus is an average teen, his brain linked directly to the feed of hot trends, advertising, and communication with his friends and family. He doesn't actually have to speak or act -- since the feed does it for him -- which makes him oddly inarticulate for a first-person narrator (one of the many brilliant techniques from Anderson in this book). It's spring break and Titus and his friends head to the moon for some clubbing at the lo-grav Ricochet Lounge and maybe do some shopping. While they are at the club, someone hacks into their feeds (and those of everyone else there), destroying them. No noise, no input, no conversation. Titus is unnerved. He spends a few days in the hospital on the moon before he's connected back up and goes home to Earth. An Earth (or a United States) of flying cars, irreversibly polluted land, and unending consumption.

Titus meets a girl at the Ricochet Lounge, Violet. She has a harder time recovering from the hack, because her feed wasn't connected at birth; her parents (sort-of off-the-grid types) waited until she was seven so she could choose it for herself. While Titus is uncomfortable with her reluctance to succumb to the temptations of the feed, he's still drawn to her. But when the hack proves to be something that slowly disintegrates Violet's feed, the loss overwhelms Titus. He turns away from her when she most needs him, seemingly without guilt. The final image of Violet -- eyes open, brain dead -- is chilling.

I read this 10 years ago, and when I was first on YALSA's Amazing Audiobooks I received a copy of the audiobook from Listening Library that was signed by Tobin (may I call you Tobin?) himself (in my presence ... did I need to say that?). (For a little laugh down memory lane, check out the year Feed was recognized by this committee and note that only cassettes are mentioned -- I'm pretty confident even I was listening to CDs in 2003.)  He visited our library a few years later (here's the podcast of his talk); he's such a smart guy.  Despite these prompts, I never got around to listening to Feed until now. I really liked the book when I read it, but I really liked the book now, in 2013.  No doubt I'm getting my technological milestones in a twist, but I found it uncanny how Anderson knew that Google would be slinging advertising at me based on the email I send through my gmail.  How he knew that teens would become so connected to their "feed" that withdrawal occurs if they can't read texts in the middle of the night. How we may be losing our ability to effectively communicate face-to-face.

On top of that, this is a really terrific audiobook! It's narrated by David Aaron Baker, who (even though he was around 40 when he read this) beautifully channels a bored and overstimulated adolescent.  It's his reading of that first line that truly sets the tone for the book. The slang that Titus and his friends speak ("like ... I'm so null ... unit.") sounds like every teenager doing that acting out thing that they do in public. You know, when they really want to announce their presence through volume and too much laughter. The performance isn't perfect as Titus' friends sound just a bit too doofus-y in comparison to him, but Baker performance as Titus is so good that I can forgive that. When Titus is struggling with his fear and his love for the dying Violet, Baker sounds truly lost and alone.

And then there's the feed.  "... based on the true story of a clone fighting to save her own liver from the cruel and ruthless original who's farming her for organs ..." / "... the cola with the refreshing taste of citrus and butter ..." / "The Rumble Spot: An ocean of chaos in the Sea of Tranquility." The feed comes with annoying advertising jingles, that kind-of interference sound that means changing channels, and the overbright delivery of people trying to sell you something. There are four readers of the feed: John Beach, Josh Lebowitz, Tara Sands, and Anne Twomey.  Rightly so, they are interchangeable (although only the women were familiar to me.) This is the way to experience the feed, score for audiobooks!

The producer adds an echo-ish quality to the chats Titus and his friends have via the feed. Even though this kind of effect mostly annoys me (I hate it when it is used in a phone conversation), it is really necessary here as the teens will chat over the feed and then also speak (or think) "live" (as it were). The effect enables you to keep track of which is which.

So, the reason I finally put this is the ears is my 2013 resolution:  Read/listen to the books I own, rather than those I borrow. I made a good start with The Freedom Maze, but I seem to have bogged down in the print division. I'm trying to get all through the award books that I didn't read in 2012 and then I'll semi-retire my library card. And that gets me to my second reading resolution: No print books published for teens. I'll listen to them since I find that an easier way to consume, but the Morris really killed my appetite for teen lit.

[The image of the Co-op Feeds plant in the Sutherland Industrial subdivision in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada was taken by Drm310 and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Feed by M.T. Anderson
Narrated by David Aaron Baker, with John Beach, Josh Lebowitz, Tara Sands and Anne Twomey
Listening Library, 2003.  5:01