Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day by David LevithanEvery Day by David Levithan
Narrator: Alex McKenna
Series: Every Day #1
Published by Listening Library on 8/28/12
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult

Every day a different body. Every day a different life. Every day in love with the same girl.

There’s never any warning about where it will be or who it will be. A has made peace with that, even established guidelines by which to live: Never get too attached. Avoid being noticed. Do not interfere.

It’s all fine until the morning that A wakes up in the body of Justin and meets Justin’s girlfriend, Rhiannon. From that moment, the rules by which A has been living no longer apply. Because finally A has found someone he wants to be with—day in, day out, day after day.

Story: C-
Narration: B-

Quick Review:

Although the premise was intriguing and provided a clever framework for a discussion of gender identity, sexual orientation, and the politics of gender expression, there was a such a lack of depth to the primary relationship (that was, ostensibly, the primary motivation for all of the protagonist’s actions) that the story seemed far less of a stimulating philosophical exercise or a plot driven book and more of an excuse for thinly veiled moralizing. The narration was likely what sustained me enough to finish the book.

*Note: this review contains a mild (possible) spoiler*

My Thoughts:

I enjoyed several things about this book but the longer it went on the more irked I became by what I perceived as a weakness in how the story was constructed and in the dilution of some very interesting social issues caused by the sheer variety of them. When “A” – the only true name we know the protagonist by — hops into the body of a high school boy, she (he? A seems to be gender neutral but I’ll use “she” since the audiobook narrator was female) makes an immediate connection to her host’s girlfriend, Rhiannon. This instant attraction/love is what drives the rest of the book as A migrates from body to body on a 24 hour schedule, each day trying to find her way back to Rhiannon.

We know the transition happens at midnight and that the sex of the host doesn’t matter. A seems to body jump to someone who is the same age (she grew up — literally and figuratively — jumping) she is chronologically and the hosts seem to be in the same general geographic location (within the same state) she is. By the end, though, I was left with a lot of unanswered questions about the how and why of A’s ability to switch bodies. While that would have worked for me if the book held steady to a philosophical/social issues bent, it became a niggling issue for me when the end of the story seemed to try to straighten itself into a more conventional plot-driven spec-fic book by introducing another body jumper and starting A on the path to discovering who else like her was out there and how she could better control her jumps. I do have to take part of the blame for the frustration those unanswered questions caused because I formed an expectation that this was a stand-alone book rather than part of a series and it seems pretty clear it’s intended to be the first in a series.

The impression we get is that Rhiannon is beaten down by her relationship with Justin and that she’s desperately unhappy but there’s little to no in-depth interactions that establish that. A also doesn’t seem to identify any character traits in Rhiannon that drives the intense attraction; she just decides Rhiannon is “the one” and then keeps showing up wherever Rhiannon is, wanting to forge a connection. This lack of solid background and character development makes Rhiannon seem like little more than a placeholder and a very tenuous anchor with which to tether the story of A’s body jumps. It also made A seem like a bit of a stalker since there was a large disparity in the level of feeling Rhiannon and A had for each other for much of the book.

Those body jumps then end up seeming issue driven: the lesbian host, the host who is a bully, the undocumented worker, the goth girl suffering from depression who plans to kill herself, the obese host, the transgender host, etc. When this method of illuminating a social or psychological issue works, it can be very moving for the listener (the suicidal host was particularly well-written and I found myself wishing the story would completely branch off there and permanently hop to that side-story) but the quick jump to the next issue (especially if it was less than successfully portrayed as was the case with the obese host) made it feel like a cheap “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks” parlor trick rather than in in-depth consideration of gender or sexual identity or mental health or… you get the point.

Also problematic for me was the disregard A ended up showing for the host bodies after initially seeming to respect that she was just visiting. Once Rhiannon entered the picture, A was fine with making the host bodies do whatever was necessary to get close to her. Mid-way through there was a moment of “this body has never had sex so I don’t feel right having sex with you while I’m in it” but that seemed a pretty spurious moral decision considering her out-of-character (for the host) actions before and after that scene — including being responsible for one host body getting beaten up. This felt more like inconsistency in characterization rather than an attempt to delve into how Rhiannon influenced A’s existing moral compass or a cautionary tale about how crazy love can make someone act. On the other hand, a discussion I had with someone about this book also pointed out to me that kind of inconsistent behavior and indecision is a pretty typical teen characteristic.

Where this book did succeed for me (yes, it did on some levels) was the manner in which A was made convincingly gender-neutral. Although I would have been just as happy with a specifically female or male A swapping bodies and engaging in romantic interactions with both sexes, that would be preaching to the choir and the gender neutral A worked well to emphasize the universal nature of love — regardless of the sex of the object of affection. I also found the premise exceedingly clever and it was an excellent framework that could have been used to either dig deeply into one or two social issues (rather than callowly skimming over many) via the vehicle of very accessible fiction or to cleverly twist listener expectations until the brittle ones break.

Overall it was a book that started well for me but kind of fell apart as it went along. I didn’t hate it and the aspects that failed for me might very well be exactly what appeals to a teen reader struggling with their sexual or gender identity

The Narration:

Alex McKenna has rough/craggy voice (more so in this audiobook than in the other audio samples of her work I listened to) that my ear needed to adjust to. Although the character voices were easily distinguishable, the persistence of a very noticeable vocal characteristic like that across all the characters, many of who are high school kids, wasn’t ideal in terms of allowing each character to seem real and unique. It was ideal for creating a relatively gender neutral voice for A that helped maintain my connection with her character without being jarred by the changes in the sex of her host bodies. I’m also going to hypothesize that it might also subconsciously mitigate some of the immediate outrage some listeners might feel based on the diversity of sexual/gender identity covered. Ms. McKenna delivered the text with thoughtfulness and she inhabited the characters fully. The dialogue was natural sounding and overall, the narration ended up working pretty well for me.

Madapple by Christina Meldrum

Madapple by Christina MeldrumMadapple by Christina Meldrum
Narrator: Kirsten Potter
Published by Listening Library on 5/13/08
Genres: Fiction

Story: B
Narration: A-

Aslaug was raised in near isolation by her mother, Maren, who was harsh and demanding: withholding physical contact and not allowing mirrors in the house (or even on the car). Her mother  home-schooled her in ancient languages and herb-lore but was careful to black out references to the outside world in her books. When she was fifteen, her mother died and the police were called after Aslaug was seen burying the body in the yard. Fleeing the suspicious police and the memories of her mother, she ends up finding her aunt Sara – a Charismatic Pentecostal preacher – and her two cousins, Susanne and Rune. Drawn to her aunt in search of a maternal affection she was denied, ensnared by Susanne’s obsession with the circumstances surrounding Aslaug’s birth, and pulled towards Rune by emotions she’s just now beginning to feel but lacks the ability to understand or deal with, Aslaug is wholly unprepared for the turns her life is about to take.

This audiobook was gripping, disquieting, and complex. I’m not sure I actually liked any of the characters and I felt a bit disappointed by the ending but I was so involved in the unraveling of the story, the quality and structure of the writing, and the elements of herbalism, religion, and dysfunctional dynamics that I put in a couple of marathon listening sessions because I couldn’t bring myself to put it down and although I’ve finished it, I’m still having a difficult time letting go of it.

From a technical standpoint, I found the story to be intriguing and well-crafted.  The narrative switches between first person accounts of Aslaug’s life beginning at age fifteen (in 2003) and third person courtroom scenes that take place in 2007 at her trial. These alternating views between past and present move the story ahead in a seamless fashion and keep the tension pulled taut as the listener wonders not just “what happened then?” but also “what’s going to happen now?” The use of herbalism as a core story component was interesting and the introduction of individual plants at the start of the ‘past events’ chapters was fascinating as both literally relevant to the story and as symbolism. At one point in the story the dynamics between Aslaug and Rune reach a point that might make the reader uncomfortable but I found the author’s method of mitigating that possibility through her use of subtle language, dream-like aspects, and the believable characterization of Aslaug’s utter lack of socialization to be uncommonly skillful. There are a few potentially controversial (or at least mature) themes that could present a barrier to enjoying this book for some readers. I found them to be delicately handled and didn’t even quirk an eyebrow but if you are vetting the book for a young reader, I suggest you seek out additional reviews because most of them seem to outline these themes quite clearly. I actually wish I had gone into the story without reading reviews of it.

While I enjoyed the writing tremendously, in terms of overall storyline I would say I just liked this book which usually isn’t a strong enough endorsement to tempt me to re-listen to it at some point. In this case, when I went back to listen to a section to refresh my memory on a name, I found myself letting it play for a bit because there were mentions of things (metaphors, characterizations, foreshadowing, etc.) that I had let slip past me until I had the complete story behind me and could focus on the fine details rather than just keeping track of story-lines and predicting outcomes. I can see there is more for me to discover in the writing. My main complaint is that the ending seemed too quick and easy in comparison with the complex and slow build-up of the rest of the book and the combination epiphany/moral-of-the-story in the epilogue lacked any punch for me.

This audiobook engaged me from the start but there was a distinct point where the character of Aslaug became less of an incompletely formed personality and, through a subtle change in narration that I didn’t immediately notice, became a “real” person or at least was easier to relate to. This corresponded with the tipping point in her story arc where she had enough interaction with people other than her mother to begin to develop her own personality. Kirsten Potter seems to effortlessly capture Aslaug’s innocence, youth, and inexperience as well as the need for comfort, contact, and validation that seems to drive all her actions and Ms. Potter then uses subtle vocal changes to show Aslaug moving forward from that point as her life experiences alter her. There are aspects of Aslaug’s interactions with her cousin Rune and with her aunt that I might have reacted to differently had I read this rather than listened to it because of that skill at capturing the emotional essence of the characters. Maren and Sara are Danish immigrants and when the accent came into play, it sounded very natural. I occasionally confused Rune’s voice with another character but overall found the narration to be excellent.

This book is an odd mix of mystery, bildungsroman (coming of age story), religious discourse, herbal treatise, and courtroom drama and it’s all woven together skillfully and narrated extremely well. It’s one of those books that the more I think about it now that I’ve finished it, the more I like it.

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

How to Save a Life by Sara ZarrHow to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
Narrator: Ariadne Meyers, Cassandra Morris
Published by Listening Library on 1/10/12
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult

 

Story: B+
Narration: A-

When Jill MacSweeny’s father dies, it sets her adrift from the person she used to be and while she doesn’t like who she’s become, she doesn’t know how to go back to her old self. As she and her mother deal with their grief, they find themselves at odds. It isn’t just the conflict that often arises between mothers and teenage daughters or because of Robin MacSweeny’s decision to adopt a child, it’s also because Jill’s father was the bridge that enabled her and her mother to connect and with that gone, neither is able to close the gap. Mandy Kalinowski is a pregnant eighteen year-old who leaves her home in the Midwest and moves in with the MacSweenys in preparation for giving up her baby to Robin. Mandy’s mother provided an all too painful example of what life can be like when a child is unwanted and Mandy wants something better for her baby but really needs something better for herself, as well.

The story is told in alternating points of view between Jill and Mandy. As Jill tries to connect with her mother, deal with her grief without pushing everyone near her away, and work towards acceptance of Mandy’s place in her family, Mandy is escaping a dysfunctional family and trying to do the right thing for her baby while looking for something or someone to give her a sense of worth and a feeling of control over her life. Each character takes steps or acts in ways that might frustrate the reader if either Jill or Mandy had been one-dimensional but these are engaging characters who are deftly drawn by the author and the reader can see the whole person and understand the motivation. They have very distinct personalities and if I were to pull a page out of the book with names redacted, I could tell who was speaking. That distinct “voice” for each character allowed them to provide such a different perspective on the other that when the POV shifted, I was eager to see each as viewed through the eyes of the other.

The characterization is extremely well-done and despite the fact that I’m going to apply some category labels to this book based on events that take place, it’s inaccurate to call this a book about pregnant teens, or grief, or parenting because the way the characters are developed is so multi-dimensional that this simply becomes a book about Jill, Mandy, and Robin and what happens in their lives at a specific point. It was that sense of authenticity, though, that drove my one complaint about the book: the ending. Everything gets tied up so neatly that it seemed a piece of fantasy at odds with the realism that permeated the rest of the story.

I found this audiobook to be a bit of a meditation on grief and family. I choose the word meditation intentionally because this is one of those books that doesn’t just draw the listener along as the layers of the story and characters are revealed and we wait with anticipation to find out what happens next, it also turns the listener’s mental eye inward to reflect on how they would or have handled similar situations. The writing provides several descriptions of everyday life and emotions that made a profound impact on me. Not in the way that sometimes happens when you think “That’s how I felt but your words describe it better than I could” but in a “I’ve felt like that and didn’t even realize that was why” way. Watching Jill and her mother navigate the loss of father/husband is painful and it’s emotional and it’s heart-breaking but it isn’t dramatic for anyone except the reader because it’s in observing these quiet motions of grief that the drama reveals itself. The set-up provides opportunities for some moments of angst but it never materializes. Just as in real life, these events “are what they are” and where I was expecting a scene of drama/trauma, the character gave an almost throw-away line confirming what I had been fearing and then moved on, which had more impact than a highly dramatic scene would have.

Let me get the narration negative out of the way first because most of it is going to be unashamedly complimentary. I often was unable to distinguish between lines that were internal character narrative and external dialogue when one followed the other. In spite of that, I found the narration in this audiobook to be near perfection and the casting of Ariadne Meyers and Cassandra Morris was inspired. Both narrators infused their delivery with youthfulness and seemed to fully inhabit each character they portrayed, providing excellent vocal differentiation and subtle emotional cues. The two have such different voices that I found myself curious about the level of communication between the two narrators during production. I often find dual narrations distracting because of the differences in how each narrator portrays the same character but with this audio, there were a lot of similarities in tone given to the same character by each narrator, especially given that Ms. Morris’ voice is very light and almost childish and Ms. Meyer’s voice is somewhat rough and lower in pitch. The voice given Mandy ideally conveyed her physical and emotional youth and the vulnerability caused by her mother’s neglect but still portrayed her determination to make a better life and the occasional bitterness she experienced when comparing her life to Jill’s. The chapters from Jill’s POV simply met my ideal narration criteria. I only ever heard the character(s) and never the narrator. I was reminded of an article by audiobook producer/director Paul Alan Ruben where he, in my interpretation anyway, says it’s one thing to vocally manage the syntax but the art in the performance is to leverage the subtext that exists in the spaces between the words and sentences. That’s what I experienced with Ms. Meyer’s narration. This was an excellent story and an above average performance by both narrators and I whole-heartedly recommend this audiobook.

Mastiff: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3 by Tamora Pierce

Mastiff: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3 by Tamora PierceMastiff by Tamora Pierce
Narrator: Susan Denaker
Series: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3
Published by Listening Library on 10/25/11
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult

Book: B+
Narration: A

In the final installment of Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper trilogy, Beka (a member of the Provost’s Guard who are colloquially and collectively known as Dogs) is summoned from her bed in the middle of the night by Lord Gershom and sent on a secret mission. She finds herself crossing the kingdom with her partner Tunstall, the scent hound Achoo, the lady knight Sabine, the Provost’s mage Master Farmer, and of course the cat (who is really a constellation) Pounce. The four year-old Tortallan prince has been kidnapped and as Beka and her group follow the trail of a slaver’s caravan, they discover enemies who will stop at nothing in their attempt to take control of the throne. There are physical travails along the path in addition to the concerted attempts by the mages involved in the kidnapping to bring magical weapons to bear on the team.

I’m not sure there is such a thing as a young adult sensibility but this series of books has a lot of the aspects I like to see in novels intended for that demographic. A strong (and in this case female) protagonist who has a discernible arc of character growth, friendships that run the gamut from supportive to combative, a splash of romance with no fated insta-love, an exciting storyline that doesn’t stint on recognizing bad things happen but doesn’t spend too much time describing every gory detail, a core world where gender equality is shown as a given (and so has even more contrast when we encounter a splinter group with the opposite opinion) and lots of adventure to keep a reader interested. Tamora Pierce has created an engaging world with a protagonist whose daily job has the feel of a medieval police station but with magic involved. There are well-developed characters who even speak with their own cant, although it’s easily understandable in context (the downside of which might be, say, your thirteen year-old wandering around the house calling the dog a “craven canker-licking sarden arseworm.”)

As an adult reader of books that fall in the Young Adult category, I found this to be a fun story. All three audiobooks in this series have been great listens and it’s been surprisingly enjoyable to watch Beka’s character mature from a painfully shy and earnest “puppy” in the Provost’s Guard who learned the ropes with the help of two great partners, to a “bloodhound” who was given a chance to work an investigation into counterfeit money, and now to a mature young woman who lives by a code of honor that sometimes requires she make difficult choices. I was initially thrown off at the start of the story because there is a two or three year gap in story-time since the end of book two but I quickly settled in and was swept into the fast-paced investigation. In addition to the great characters, there is tremendous texture to the world Pierce has created (the downside of which might be, say, when I find myself forgetting that calling someone a “cracknob looby” only has meaning if you’ve read the book.)

To add the icing on top of this literary cake, Susan Denaker’s narration is perfect. She utterly embodies the various people in the story, becoming transparent to the listener and allowing them to simply engage with the characters. Her use of varied regional dialects and accents (many with a Nordic sound) combined with the vocal characteristics she uses to differentiate class helps create that immersive experience for the listener. Excellent pacing, the appropriate emotional delivery choice for every scene, and just lovely character voices make this a book I consider enhanced significantly by listening rather than reading.