Thursday, May 31, 2012

Kidnapped! Literary Adventures

And now for a break from audiobooks! (It... won't be long.) Here are a couple of old-fashioned paper books set in the U.K. of 100 or so years ago, and central to each is a kidnapping.

Jane Harris's second novel, Gillespie and I, is an artfully crafted birdcage. Everything about the structure is beguiling, and there's a charming creature fluttering within, but watch out for the mess on the ground. It's the story of Harriet Baxter, a lonely woman who befriends the artist Ned Gillespie and his family in Glasgow in 1888. Decades later, as a reclusive spinster in London, she begins writing a biography of sorts about Ned, and her recollections of a tragedy that shortened his career. Harriet is often described as charming, but her largess and concern are facades over her intrusive, clingy nature. As Harriet worms her way further and further into the Gillespie household, you can either think it's wonderful how she helps to facilitate everyone's dreams, or wonder at how effectively those pursuits separate Ned from his friends and family, leaving only Harriet in his corner. It's a fascinating unreliable narrator perspective, which combined with Harris's gorgeous sentences and fully developed place-sense, make this a pretty darn compelling read. I can't ever fully like Harriet, but I've seen reviews from readers who adore her. If you've read this, which camp are you in?

A less recent book is the first of Laurie King's Mary Russell detective books, The Beekeeper's Apprentice. Mary is a young half-American girl who stumbles across the retired Sherlock Holmes one day while walking near her home in Sussex Downs. Because Mary's mind is as remarkable as Sherlock's, he quickly takes her under his wing, and he and Mrs. Hudson become her family of choice. (Mary's parents were killed in a car accident, and the aunt who has reluctantly taken her in isn't exactly nurturing or appreciative of Mary's quirks and independence.) Once Mary heads off to Oxford to study theology, WWI is underway and games begin to be afoot for the pair. A kidnapping case takes them to Wales and solidifies their working partnership, but deeper mysteries to come will thoroughly test their minds and their hearts. King has made both detectives, and Holmes's familiar cohorts, engaging and accessible, and I'm so pleased to have discovered this series. (Also, I said no audio, but although I started this book on paper, I did finish it with Jenny Sterlin's excellent narration, and I have to mention how perfectly her Holmes voice shifted whenever he took on a different disguise.)

Monday, May 28, 2012

I Get Judge-y About Audiobooks, Junior

Okay, you've all devoured my thoughts about the Narration By Author or Authors category in the upcoming Audies Awards, but never fear! My Armchair Audies work continues. I also listened to all of the books in the Teens category, and what a strong category is was. Check out the nominees:

To Category List

PICK-UP GAME: A Full Day of Full CourtMarc Aronson, Charles R. Smith Jr.
Read by Dion Graham Bernstine, Quincy Tyler
(Brilliance Audio/ Candlewick)
Read the review 

CHIMEFranny Billingsley
Read by Susan Duerden
(Listening Library)
Read the review 

OKAY FOR NOWGary D. Schmidt
Read by Lincoln Hoppe
(Listening Library)
Read the review 

THE WAKE OF THE LORELEI LEE: Being an Account of the Adventures of Jacky Faber, on Her Way to Botany BayL.A. Meyer
Read by Katherine Kellgren
(Listen & Live Audio)
Read the review 

Read by Libba Bray
(Scholastic Audiobooks)
Read the review 

I already talked in more detail about Libba Bray, L.A. Meyer, Gary D. Schmidt, and Franny Billingsley, so let me start with the stories edited by Marc Aronson and Charles R. Smith, Jr. Pick-Up Game is a tightly constructed series of interwoven stories by different writers, linked by poems and photos of the basketball court, and it has a kaleidoscopic joy and tension holding it together. The narration by Dion Graham Bernstine and Quincy Tyler is rhythmic, at times melodic, and the production sound effects work seamlessly with the narration and the text to bring the day of street ball to vivid life. This is one of those cases when having the book would be great, because the photos and layout tell the story, too. But if opting between the two versions (paper and audio), I'd still go with audio because the voices are so rich.

In general, this category is incredibly strong. I have been listening to more and more teen/YA audio in recent years - in part because it's great for listening while at work (except for when it compels me to tears, as so often happens. I'm a crier.) But I also think that more and more great YA audiobooks are being produced. There is a serious wealth of titles out there, so it makes sense that five such strong contenders are on the table now.

So I'm ranking Pick-Up Game, Chime, and Okay for Now in a tie for 3rd place. I think Pick-Up Game had the most effective production values, Chime had the most compelling voice, and Okay for Now had the strongest ability to transport me into the story and not let me go until 'The End.'

In 2nd place, Beauty Queens, which as I explained for the Narration by Author or Authors category (in which I pick this title to win), is an entirely captivating and delightful story, told with charming skill. Mad props to Bray, of course, for such a strong showing when up against narrators who really excel at interpreting books for a living. Sometimes when I'm writing I read parts of the novel to myself, and sure, I'm untrained and Bray isn't, but let's just say that when I publish my book, I'm not going to be the one narrating the audio version. (You can picture me knocking on wood here, fyi.)

And the top prize in my opinion goes to The Wake of the Lorelei Lee. I'm a fan of Meyer's series, and an even bigger fan of Kellgren's narrations of them. This title, with the myriad voices and accents, the constant singing and fighting and longing and loving, was a true wonder to listen to. It was one of my favorite audiobook listening experiences ever, and I hope this duo continue to work together for another dozen Jacky Faber adventures.

Good luck to all the nominees. It's, as I said, a great slate of titles, and it was a joy to listen to them for this project.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I Get Judge-y About Audiobooks, Vol. I

The Audies Awards for awesome audiobooks will be announced anon (I have very little impulse control, sorry.) My Armchair Audies work has proceeded apace. By that I mean that I listened to the Teen & Narration by Author or Authors categories, and had a chance to hear a few titles from several other categories as well. I have thoughts. And opinions. And recommendations. So, here is the list of nominees for Narration by Author or Authors:

Narration by the Author or Authors
To Category List

Read by Rob Lowe
(Macmillan Audio)
Read the review 

Read by Libba Bray
(Scholastic Audiobooks)
Read the review 

DRAMA: An Actor's EducationJohn Lithgow
Read by John Lithgow
(Harper Audio)
Read the review 

SERIOUSLY . . . I'M KIDDINGEllen DeGeneres
Read by Ellen DeGeneres
(Hachette Audio)
Read the review 

Read by Tina Fey
(Hachette Audio)
Read the review 
Okay, let's talk criteria. The Audies site says only that the awards recognize "distinction in audiobooks and spoken word entertainment," which is a pretty broad basis for judging. Production values, narrative technique, ability to engage the listener, preferably in a way that makes listening to a title even better than reading it would be - it's all part of the package, in my opinion.

Balancing that, particularly in this category, is just that ephemeral thing: what I like. So, given all of that, it was easy to pick the two books that wouldn't be my top choice. 

Rob Lowe's Stories I Only Tell My Friends is a good book. He has a distinctive and often engaging voice, and I'm glad this project pushed me into listening, because not a chance would I have otherwise. But his tendency to give odd or effete voices based, it seemed, on his personal feelings was unappealing. In addition, his text is great for anyone who loves Rob Lowe, but it has a certain tabloid-y lack of depth that did nothing to leave this book stuck in my gut afterwards.

Ellen DeGeneres's Seriously... I'm Kidding is funny. Her narration is great - she can deliver a punch line like nobody's business (well, like it's her business, which it is), and she's so conversational, friendly, and wry. But this book is sketches, not a narrative. I didn't feel it gave me anything, as a product, I couldn't get from hearing her do stand-up, and I'm not a big fan of listening to stand-up comedy. I'm a big fan of books, with story arcs and themes and forward momentum. If you like anecdotes, and Ellen DeGeneres, you'll love this, I'm sure. But it just didn't do much for me. 

Now, about the other three. I wouldn't be shocked or disappointed if John Lithgow's Drama: An Actor's Education won. It's not my favorite, which comes down to a lack of much interest in the subject (I mean, he's a nice guy, and I got a ton of flavor from his tales, but the acting profession is so far away from my realm that seeing his journey across the boards just wasn't my thing.) I'll tell you what all of those years on stage and screen and in acting classes did, though, and that is to create a brilliant storyteller. John Lithgow can really draw in the listener, and the book itself is well-written.

Rounding out the celebrity portion of this category is Tina Fey's Bossypants. Now this is a witty, interesting book and Tina Fey reads the heck out of it. She has excellent comic timing and a far better use of narrative elements than the other three Hollywood types in this bunch. I pretty much think everyone should listen to this book, because Fey has something to say, and an excellent way of saying it. This title was nominated in an amazing four categories (Humor, Biography/Memoir, and Audiobook of the Year in addition to this one) and I totally get that. It's bound to win something. It's an ambassador of audiobooks - if you are foolish enough not to love listening to books as much as I do, I dare you to listen to this and still feel the same. 

But my pick to win this category is to Libba Bray's Beauty Queens. The production is a great deal of fun, and the story is hilarious and goofy and brilliant. Plus, Libba Bray does amazing work with voices, even what should be grating teeny-girl-airhead voices. She strands a handful of teenage beauty queens from various American regions on an island to face horrors and enemies and each other, with interjections from The Corporation's advertorials, and it ought to be enough to confuse the listener. Too many talkative characters for one narrator is one of the bigger pitfalls for audiobooks not narrated well. Libba Bray's command of everyone in her book makes that a non-issue. 

So perhaps my bias towards fiction is informing this choice overmuch, but I really feel that the clear winner in this category is Libba Bray's Beauty Queens. Can't wait to see if I'm right!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

My Kids are the Best Kids

It's Mother's Day, and I'm sure everyone is sitting around feeling loved and appreciated and like they have the best kids in the universe. Got news for you all, though. I have the best kids in the universe.

You don't believe me? Well, that's your prerogative. But I know what I know, and besides, I have proof.

Like every other weekend morning, I was the first one awake in the house today. I got up and put the dogs out and fed the cat and make my tea and carried it into my dark study to do some writing. And when I tried to put the hot teapot down on the blotter, it clinked and shifted. I was startled, and a little irritated, thinking Robert had spread something out all over the desk and not cleaned it up. Sigh. But then I turned the light on, moved the teapot to a coaster, and found this:
I mean, come on. D knew I would be up and in my study before the rest of the house awoke, and had this waiting for me. Plus, a visual pun! You're charmed, aren't you? Of course you are.

So after a couple of hours of writing, I was told I should really go back to bed. (K is clearly going to be an excellent covert operative some day. He is superbly sneaky.) In came the gang with songs and a tray of breakfast and a card K illustrated:

Inside the card, each had written a long heartfelt message to me, and I could share them with you and you'd cry and be amazed by what loving, articulate, funny, delightful sons I have. But they're personal and I'm going to hoard them instead. Trust me, though, they're perfection. Much like my sons themselves.

So I could write three hundred thousand nine hundred and seven separate lengthy blog posts about the fine qualities of my children, but you might get eye strain or accuse me of bragging. And that would be a shame, because admiring my fantastic sons ought to be a national pastime. Or international - they do carry EU and USA passports, so that's two continents largely covered in the global quest to find the most admirable people in the world.

You'll just have to take my word for it. My kids? The best in the universe. But happy Mother's Day to all the mothers of imperfect children out there, too. I suspect that loving imperfect people is more of a challenge, parenting-wise, than I ever have to face, so I salute you all. And if you ever see me accuse either boy of being less than perfect, well, just remind me of what I said here today. My kids are the best in the universe.

Armchair Audies: Lincoln Hoppe Narrates Gary D. Schmidt

Another Armchair Audies post for one of the nominees in the Teen category. I'd not have heard of this book otherwise, so I'm quite glad I participated in this project. As a matter of fact, both author and narrator were new to me, and I'm sure I'd enjoy more work by both of them.

Gary Schmidt's Okay for Now is a coming-of-age novel about Doug Swieteck, whose life is not all that promising when, at 14, his abusive father's search for employment causes his family to relocate to the small town of Marysville, NY. (Doug and his hoodlum of an older brother feature in Schmidt's Newberry-winning The Wednesday Wars, which I'm going to have to read now that I've realized that.) Doug's troublemaking oldest brother is serving in Vietnam (this would be the late 60s), his hoodlum middle brother quickly finds a dodgy element to hang with, and his father now works with a friend who defines "partner in crime." It doesn't take long for the town to label long-haired, illiterate Doug. 

Doug, however, is extraordinary. Not that he knows that. All he knows about himself, it seems, is that nothing good will come to him, and if it does, it will be taken away. It's better to remain aloof and untouched. He does, however reluctantly, come to know a few people in town just well enough that they begin to see him for who he is, instead of who they assume him to be. A classmate named Lil who holds him to a standard he would never aspire to on his own. One of the town librarians breaks through to his artistic soul. Some of the customers on the delivery route he works for Lil's father, the deli owner, come to depend on him. Gradually, and with many setbacks thanks to his brother, his father, and circumstances beyond his control, Doug opens himself up a little. His ingrained habit of expecting nothing for himself propels him to seek something for everyone. In this case, it's the breathtaking plates of Audubon's Birds of America, which Doug discovers and is captivated by on his first trip to the library. The town has been selling off the plates, though, to raise money, and Doug needs, on a deep level, to see the volume restored to completeness. His quest brings him - and Lil - to Broadway, and horseshoe pitches, and more than once to the principal's office. 

Listening to this book, you'll be moved by Doug's descriptions of Audubon's birds, and want to look them up. Not having them right there in the text in hand is the only drawback I can imagine to Lincoln Hoppe's narration. Hoppe is so expressive, and captures everything about Doug's young voice - the anger, the loneliness, the wonder, the tenderness, the trepidation, the love. His voice mirrors Doug's growth throughout - the bitter and defeated tone making way for one that contains true flashes of happiness. I doubt Hoppe smiled more than once while reading the early chapters, and it was an extremely effective choice. I really sank deep into this narration, and am wondering if my family should take a road trip soon, so we can listen to it together.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Empty Nesting, a Practice Run

Yesterday our kids were gone. One left at 6 a.m. for an amusement park field trip, and the other at 6:30 for a Scout campout. So there we were, Robert and I, alone for the next 15+ hours.


I lay around in bed reading, then sat on the sofa reading. I'm versatile like that.

Robert got coffee after dropping off the boys, and did some writing. Once he got home, I realized I, too, should do some writing, so off I went to my study while he took a nap. Before that, though, we made a Grand Plan.

Robert's glasses,
 Melanie's glasses,
awaiting our showtime.
We had the whole city at our disposal, and a considerable amount of the countryside as well. Museums, parks, shopping, theatre, dining. Roller skating. The sky was the limit. The house was clean, the grocery shopping could wait, and the kid-free world beckoned. After some debate, here's what we came up with: we walked (walked! In May! In this afternoon heat!) to the second-closest shopping center (more than a mile! Each way!) and got smoothies. Mind you, we could have just gone to the nearly-identical fro yo place two blocks from our house for smoothies, but they wouldn't have been so well-earned. Then we went to the theatre where they serve food while you watch movies, and had an early dinner as we watched The Five Year Engagement. Afterwards we browsed at the bookstore, and by the time we walked home the temps were far more bearable.

The High Life, I believe it's called.

But you know what? Coming up on 19 years of marriage, and 6 years before our youngest (theoretically) leaves for college, and I still really like talking to the guy I married. Not just about the kids, either. Our jobs, our families, our writing, our inability to walk a mile without becoming completely dehydrated and pathetically unable to continue without an infusion of blended pineapple and yogurt - it was all on the table.

So never mind that I stopped in the middle of writing this blog to enjoy the musical stylings of D on violin and K on piano as they played what I can only loosely call "Variations on Chop Sticks and Heart and Soul." Yes, the boys are amazing and perfect and the source of endless amusement to their parents, but Robert and I? When they desert us for the "lives of their own" they seem to think are so much more important than staying here to make us laugh, I think we'll be okay.

We might have to start going to the closer mall, though. My feet hurt.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Analysis of 2012

I've updated my spreadsheet page of the 128 books I've read / listened to in 2012. (I noted several favorites - what have your favorites been this year?) (I accidentally deleted the original spreadsheet, so now you have to look at the first 6 months - 187 books - if you are curious.)

41 of them were on my Kindle (thanks, Mom!) and 54 were audiobooks (thanks, SansaClip!) That leaves 33 actual bound tomes that passed through my hands. See how much I like saving paper? Or alternately, how much I like my electronic toys?

So there you have it. Happy reading, everyone!