Thursday, May 5, 2016

X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon

X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon
(Brilliance Audio, 2015)
Read by Dion Graham
This title is a nominee in the 2016 Audie Awards: Young Adult Category

From Goodreads: Co-written by Malcolm X's daughter, this riveting and revealing novel follows the formative years of the man whose words and actions shook the world.

Malcolm Little's parents have always told him that he can achieve anything, but from what he can tell, that's nothing but a pack of lies-after all, his father's been murdered, his mother's been taken away, and his dreams of becoming a lawyer have gotten him laughed out of school. There's no point in trying, he figures, and lured by the nightlife of Boston and New York, he escapes into a world of fancy suits, jazz, girls, and reefer.

But Malcolm's efforts to leave the past behind lead him into increasingly dangerous territory when what starts as some small-time hustling quickly spins out of control. Deep down, he knows that the freedom he's found is only an illusion-and that he can't run forever.

"X" follows Malcolm from his childhood to his imprisonment for theft at age twenty, when he found the faith that would lead him to forge a new path and command a voice that still resonates today.”

Just before I started this, my son (who’s taking US History in high school) started telling me about Malcolm X, and I realized I’d never thought about his life before he ‘became’ Malcolm X. Growing up the son of activists in the 30s and 40s, living as a newbie hustler in Boston at 17 when Pearl
Harbor was bombed, knowing that everything he did would be falling into expected roles or hard-fought due to the absolute dearth of opportunities in a world where lynching was normal. Shabazz and Magoon aren’t forgiving of his taking the easy path with his drug dealing, racketeering, or the hedonistic pleasures of music and sex and sharp suits, but they do contextualize his life by allowing Malcolm to see and reflect on the micro and macro societies around him.

Dion Graham has a voice full of jazz, so it’s a pleasure to listen to his narration of X. He takes the time to fully immerse himself in the emotion of the moment, whether Malcolm is saying goodbye to his siblings before boarding the bus to Boston, or playing friendly vendor to get bigger tips from the white passengers on the Yankee Clipper to New York. His narration made me feel close to the action throughout. 

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman
(HarperCollins, 2015)
Read by Julian Rhind-Tutt, Lara Pulver, Niamh Walsh, Adjoa Andoh, Peter Forbes, John Sessions, Michael Maloney, Sean Baker, Jane Collingwood, Clare Corbett, Allan Corduner, Katherine Kingsley, and Daniel Weyman
This title is a nominee in the 2016 Audie Awards: Young Adult Category

From Goodreads: A thrillingly reimagined fairy tale from the truly magical combination of author Neil Gaiman and illustrator Chris Riddell – weaving together a sort-of Snow White and an almost Sleeping Beauty with a thread of dark magic, which will hold readers spellbound from start to finish.

On the eve of her wedding, a young queen sets out to rescue a princess from an enchantment. She casts aside her fine wedding clothes, takes her chain mail and her sword and follows her brave dwarf retainers into the tunnels under the mountain towards the sleeping kingdom. This queen will decide her own future – and the princess who needs rescuing is not quite what she seems. Twisting together the familiar and the new, this perfectly delicious, captivating and darkly funny tale shows its creators at the peak of their talents.”

As a mad-for-audio person, it’s anathema to read a book by Neil Gaiman if an audio read by the author exists. He’s a masterful storyteller, and hearing his actual voice as well as the voice of his novel simultaneously is a true pleasure.
So it’s a mark against a Gaiman audio when he’s not the narrator. Unfair? Sure. But he’s the one who spins delightful cosmoses as he narrates, so he can’t blame me.
Now I’ve set forth my prejudices, you’ll understand why this perfectly good full cast audio of The Sleeper and the Spindle didn’t make my heart sing. The cast is fine, there’s nothing wrong with them. They take joy in being ominous and drawing you into the darkness, which is as it should be. But they’re not Gaiman.

The story itself is exactly as dark and gleeful as a Gaiman reinterpretation of the Sleeping Beauty story should be. Trolls, witch/queen hybrids, spiders that weave even while everyone else sleeps – it has it all.

Unbroken (The Young Adult Adaptation) by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken (The Young Adult Adaptation) by Laura Hillenbrand
(Listening Library, 2014)
Read by Edward Herrmann
This title is a nominee in the 2016 Audie Awards: Young Adult Category

From Goodreads: On a May afternoon in 1943, an American military plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary sagas of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. As a boy, he had been a clever delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and stealing. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a supreme talent that carried him to the Berlin Olympics. But when war came, the athlete became an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and adrift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a sinking raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would respond to desperation with ingenuity, suffering with hope and humor, brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would hang on the fraying wire of his will.

In this captivating young adult edition of her award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller, Laura Hillenbrand tells the story of a man’s breathtaking odyssey and the courage, cunning, and fortitude he found to endure and overcome.”

I’m such a fan of Hillenbrand’s books, and have yet to recover from when I listened to the unedited version of Unbroken five years ago. This Young Adult edition is less harrowing, abridging several of the scenes while the crew drifted at sea, and glossing over some of the bare horrors of Zamperini’s days as a POW. It’s still traumatic, of course, and inspiring and amazing, though I strongly prefer the original.

Edward Herrmann surprised me by droning a bit through this narration, reminding me unpleasantly of my high school history teacher just trying to get through the assigned chapters. I love his voice, it’s soothing and familiar, but this reading didn’t enchant me as I’d expected.

The Winter Horses by Philip Kerr

The Winter Horses by Philip Kerr
(Tantor Audio, 2015)
Read by James Langton
This title is a nominee in the 2016 Audie Awards: Young Adult Category

From Goodreads: It will soon be another cold winter in the Ukraine. But it's 1941, and things are different this year. Max, the devoted caretaker of an animal preserve, must learn to live with the Nazis who have overtaken this precious land. He must also learn to keep secrets-for there is a girl, Kalinka, who is hiding in the park. Kalinka has lost her home, her family, her belongings-everything but her life. Still, she has gained one small, precious gift: a relationship with the rare, wild, and wily Przewalski's horses that wander the preserve. Aside from Max, these endangered animals are her only friends-until a Nazi campaign of extermination nearly wipes them out for good. Now Kalinka must set out on a treacherous journey across the frozen forest to save the only two surviving horses-and herself.”

The Winter Horses is dreamy yet chilling reflection on a lesser-explored impact of invasions and war, on the destruction of non-human life. Kalinka and Max are charming and sympathetic and their love of the Przewalski's horses makes them extra heroic. (The real story of these horses, which were on the brink of extinction in 1945 and are still endangered today, is a heroic tale in itself.) There isn’t much
grey area here, though the head Nazi is at least a little sorry about his mandate to kill all of the rare horses. But as the mystically-presented horses (they commune with Kalinka and conspire with Max’s dog to work together for everyone’s safety) move across the sweeping steppes, a more cynical person than me would still be rooting for their success.
James Langton growls and glowers and is otherwise guttural and good at this narration. He reads clearly and with verve, and leaves the accents behind as often as he can. His expository sections trip along with a storyteller’s cadence. I’d wish every kid a grandfather who can read bedtime books like Langton. 

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
(Listening Library, 2015)
Read by Kirby Heyborne and Ariadne Meyers
This title is a nominee in the 2016 Audie Awards: Young Adult Category

From Goodreads: Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.
Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.
When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.”

Niven is a new-to-me author, and I got a lot of pleasure from her storytelling style. It’s frank and smart and a little off-beat and quite affecting without being sentimental. Given that this is a novel about two sometimes-suicidal teens, that’s not an easy task, I’m sure.

I will always be a sucker for Kirby Heyborne’s narration. He’s one whose name will convince me to pick audio instead of print for a book I’m considering. He has a knack for befriending his characters, and ensuring the listener will feel as sympathetic towards them as he does. Ariadne Meyers is new-to-me, and her command on Violet’s raw and often shaky world grounded her and helped her reach my heart. I suspect when I hear her narrate in future, I will always remember Violet’s story because of how well she defined the character for me.