Review of The Composer Is Dead, by Lemony Snicket

composer_is_dead.jpg

The Composer Is Dead

written by Lemony Snicket

music by Nathaniel Stookey

illustrations by Carson Ellis

HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.  36 pages.  1 CD

I love these new Peter and the Wolf wannabes!  Like The Shoebird, The Composer Is Dead is a picture book story with orchestration.  The accompanying CD is narrated by Lemony Snicket himself.

The story is fun, though not particularly captivating.  However, it does serve to introduce the instruments of the orchestra, and I did find the accompanying music beautiful.

The composer is dead.  All the instrumental sections of the orchestra are suspects, but they have a wide variety of alibis.  A lot of generalities are given about the instruments, which are sometimes fun and sometimes simply stereotypical.

The Violins answered first, of course.  The violin section is divided into First Violins, who have the trickier parts to play, and the Second Violins, who are more fun at parties.

The tuba said, “I’m a confirmed bachelor.  I was home all night playing cards with my landlady, the Harp, taking sips of warm milk from a little blue cup.”  The accompanying tuba and harp duet was particularly beautiful.

I thought the closing was a bit lame — that orchestras have murdered composers for years, so this is no different.  So the mystery in the book falls rather flat.

As with The Shoebird, this adds some nice variety to ways you can teach kids about the orchestra.  This one had nicer music and a story that helps listeners notice the differences between the types of instruments.  I don’t think it’s time to throw away Peter and the Wolf yet, but this is a nice addition to the Introduction-to-the-Orchestra repertoire.

Buy from Amazon.com

Review of The Shoe Bird, a Musical Fable by Samuel Jones

shoe_bird.jpg

The Shoe Bird

A Musical Fable by Samuel Jones

Based on the story by Eudora Welty

Performed by Jim Dale

Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz, conductor

Northwest Boychoir and Girls of Vocalpoint! Seattle, Joseph Crnko, conductor

Brilliance Audio, 2008.  1 compact disc.  1 hour.

Starred review.

A children’s story set to narration and orchestration?  What a charming idea!  This CD makes for lovely listening.  Jim Dale’s incredible performance, with such astonishingly different voices for different birds, makes for a delightful listening experience.

I’m afraid this is no Peter and the Wolf.  The story, about a parrot who repeats the line, “Shoes are for the birds!” and gets all the birds of the world to believe it, seems much more lightweight than Peter’s story.  The music, while nice, didn’t seem as memorable to me.  But then, I only listened to it once, rather than the thousand times I must have heard Peter and the Wolf.

However, it does provide plenty of opportunity for the orchestra to give different themes to different birds (as well as Jim Dale’s different voices).  There’s even a cat who threatens the birds, all weighted down with their new shoes.

And isn’t it nice to think that here’s a symphony orchestra experience to which you could send children, and they would hear something new!  As for me, it made a delightful and diverting change from listening to more serious books on CD as I drove to work.  Instead, I got lovely music, a silly story, and Jim Dale’s vocal gymnastics.  I hope that composers and orchestras and vocal actors and writers will do more of this sort of thing!  (Hmmm.  It takes a large cast to pull it off.  No wonder Peter and the Wolf doesn’t have more wannabes.)

Buy from Amazon.com

Review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Audiobook, by J. K. Rowling

hp_deathly_hallows_audio.jpg

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,

by J. K. Rowling
Performed by Jim Dale

Listening Library, 2007.  21 hours, 40 minutes.  12 cassettes.

Review written February 22, 2008.

Starred Review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009:  #3, Audiobooks

I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows last summer, and finally got to the top of the request list to listen to the cassettes.  After finishing the book a second time, I’m again hit by sadness that the story is over, that there isn’t any more.

I’m reviewing the audiobook separately because I simply have to gush about Jim Dale.  He is incredible!  His vocal range is amazing.  He uses different voices for the enormous cast of characters and makes the books come alive.

We’ve read all seven books aloud as a family, but I still get something new out of hearing Jim Dale read them.  Of course, his British accent adds to the enjoyment!  But more than that, his amazing expressiveness adds a whole new dimension to the books.  If you love Harry Potter, here’s a way to enjoy the series afresh.  If you haven’t read the books and have been meaning to, treat yourself to listening to them.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on the main site at:

www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/hp_deathly_hallows.html

Review of Fairest Audiobook, by Gail Carson Levine

fairest_audio.jpg

Fairest, by Gail Carson Levine

Read and Sung by Sarah Naughton and the Full Cast Family

Music by Todd Hobin

Full Cast Audio, 2007. Unabridged.

Review written January 28, 2008.

Starred Review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009:  #2, Audiobooks.

Here’s a delightful audiobook well worth listening to.

Gail Carson Levine, author of Ella Enchanted, has written a wonderful retelling of Snow White.  Aza lives in Ayortha, where everyone loves to sing.  She’s quite an eyesore, with her pale skin and blood-red lips, but she is blessed with a magnificent voice.

The Full Cast Audio production of this book advertised that it has more songs than a Broadway musical. This is the perfect tale to listen to, since music is such an important part of the story.

My expectations were extremely high.  Full Cast Audio always does an excellent job, using so many actors for their productions.  The book itself was wonderful, and I was looking forward to hearing it done with music.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, as I was a little bit disappointed.  Unfortunately, the Playaway version that I listened to did not have good sound quality (maybe the fault of my headphones?) and tended to static any time anyone hit a high note—definitely detracted from the enjoyment, though that wasn’t the fault of the production.  I think I will want to try it again as a Book on CD, because it was good enough to want to listen to again.

After reading about how wonderful Aza’s voice was, perhaps it was inevitable that I’d be a bit disappointed in any real person trying to play Aza. (Maybe I would have been happy with Charlotte Church?) Sarah Naughton’s voice is definitely nice—it just didn’t quite fit the build-up from the story as being the best voice in the kingdom. In fact, I thought the singing voice of the actress playing Aza’s sister Areta was sweeter.

There were indeed many, many songs, and they were nice—but I wish there had been a few catchier tunes. Maybe it had more songs than a Broadway musical, but the songs weren’t as memorable as you’d find in a Broadway musical.

Still—those are just quibbles. The fact is, for a recorded book, this production is tremendous. They didn’t just read the book; they used many different actors to read the book, and they performed all the songs in a book about music. This recorded book is something special.

I should add that although I was slightly disappointed at first in Aza’s singing voice (though I liked her speaking voice), the Prince’s voice melted my heart. And Queen Ivy’s voice was perfect—her character showed through with every word and every note.

This production would be a wonderful choice for a family trip in the car. You’ve got a compelling story with music to keep everyone entertained. If the kids have heard the story of Snow White, you’ll have fun discussing how the story is the same, yet different. You can discuss other issues that come up. (How important is beauty? Why did the King love Ivy?) In this case, the recorded book offers even more than the original, because it has music.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on the main site at:

www.sonderbooks.com/Childrens_Fiction/fairest_audio.html

Review of Audiobook Right Ho, Jeeves, by P. G. Wodehouse

right_ho_jeeves.jpg

Right Ho, Jeeves

by P. G. Wodehouse

performed by Alexander Spencer

Recorded Books, 1997.  Originally written in 1935.  7 compact discs.  7.5 hours.

I still believe that the very best books for a tremendously long drive are the Jeeves and Wooster books by P. G. Wodehouse.  They are always tremendously funny and tell about how the young gentleman Bertie Wooster gets himself and his friends into trouble by trying to help out.  Then his gentleman’s personal gentleman, Jeeves, puts his brilliant brain to the task, and all is resolved.

I love reading the books, but it’s even more fun to hear them read in a proper British voice.  And what could be better for keeping you awake on a long drive than laughing?

Buy from Amazon.com

Review of Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale, Audiobook

book_of_a_thousand_days_audio.jpg

Book of a Thousand Days

by Shannon Hale

read by Chelsea Mixon and the Full Cast Family

Full Cast Audio, 2008.  6 compact discs, 7 hours, 30 minutes.

Starred review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009:  #1, Audiobooks

http://www.fullcastaudio.com/

http://www.squeetus.com/

When I first read Book of a Thousand Days ( http://www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/book_of_a_thousand_days.html ), I wasn’t quite ready to declare it the best book I’ve ever read.  Could I really put it ahead of my long time declared favorites, The Blue Castle, by L. M. Montgomery ( http://www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/bluecastle.html ), and The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley ( http://www.sonderbooks.com/YAFiction/BlueSword.html ), or ahead of Shannon Hale’s own The Goose Girl (http://www.sonderbooks.com/YAFiction/goosegirl.html)?

Well, after listening to Full Cast Audio’s fabulous production, I can say without a moment’s hesitation that this is by far the best audiobook I have ever listened to, and the story itself is definitely one of my all-time favorite books.  Okay, I’m still equivocating with the print books (simply because of having so many so much loved old favorites), but in the middle of listening to this book, I found myself gushing like a teenager to my son that this is the “best book in the world”!

Full Cast Audio surpassed itself with this production.  The voices suited the characters perfectly.  I especially liked Lady Saren’s voice, seeming timid and tentative at the beginning, but growing in strength.  Chelsea Nixon, who read Dashti’s voice, was wonderfully expressive.  They even included the snatches of the Healing Songs that Dashti sings throughout the book.

Lady Saren has been condemned to be sealed into a tower for seven years because she refuses to marry Lord Khasar.  Her father decrees this on the very day that Dashti the mucker maid showed up to be Saren’s new lady’s maid.  So Dashti enters the tower with Lady Saren, and their adventures begin.

Saren is terribly afraid of something.  So afraid that when Khan Tegus, the man Saren secretly promised to marry, shows up outside the tower, Saren makes Dashti speak with him, pretending to be Saren.

This book is a magnificent piece of writing.  All of the growth and development is done gradually and masterfully drawn out.  Dashti grows as a servant and as a person.  She grows in her mastery of the magic of the Healing Songs.  She grows as she figures out what is really going on with the evil Lord Khasar.  Meanwhile, Saren grows as Dashti calms her fears.  And the love story blossoms, slowly, gradually, beautifully.

When my CD player finished the book and cycled back to the beginning of the last CD, I found I couldn’t bring myself to eject it, and I’m listening to that last wonderful section all over again.  I don’t want it to be over!

A magical and beautiful book.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on the main site at:

www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/book_of_a_thousand_days_audio.html

Review of Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale (Audiobook)

princess_academy_audio.jpg 

Princess Academy

by Shannon Hale

Read by Laura Credidio and The Full Cast Family

Full Cast Audio, 2007.  8 compact discs.  7 hours, 21 minutes.

Starred Review.

Winner of a 2006 Newbery Honor Award.

http://www.fullcastaudio.com/

http://www.squeetus.com/

I read and reviewed this book in the print version when it first came out.  ( http://www.sonderbooks.com/YAFiction/princessacademy.html )

At the time, I wasn’t quite as enchanted with the book as with Shannon Hale’s other books.  I think it suffered just a little because my expectations were so tremendously high.  This time, listening to Full Cast Audio’s fabulous production (complete with songs sung in between the chapters), the book was even better than I remembered it.

I think the problem before may have been that I read the book too quickly.  There are some issues at the beginning where I wasn’t quite tracking with Miri.  She felt like her obviously loving Pa was ashamed of her.  She was prejudiced against lowlanders.  And she was trying to get out of going to the Academy even when it would get her family in trouble.

However, all of those issues are resolved, and as the story goes, it gets better and better.  I like the way Miri discovers the magic of the mountain and all the village girls learn to use it together.  I like the way friendships are formed, and Miri becomes proud of her heritage.  There’s danger and cleverness, and even a sprinkle of romance.

Full Cast Audio’s production, as always, enhances the book beautifully.  They truly use a full cast of different voices for different characters.  This production made an already wonderful book even better.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on the main site at:

www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/princess_academy_audio.html

Review of The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama

audacity_of_hope.jpg 

The Audacity of Hope

Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream,

by Barack Obama

read by the author

Books on Tape (Random House Audio Publishing Group), 2006.  Abridged.  6 hours, 8 minutes, 5 compact discs.

I’ve been meaning to getting around to reading Obama’s second book ever since I read Dreams from my Father.  Finally, I decided to listen to it, even though our library only has the abridged version in audiobook form.  Read by the author, it occurred to me that he is the first presidential candidate in a long time whose voice I can actually enjoy listening to for several hours!

This book is still autobiographical, about Obama’s life when entering politics.  Along the way, he talks about all kinds of issues that face politicians in America today.

My reaction?  Wow!  I am abundantly impressed with this man.  I am impressed with his thinking about what politics should be and how politicians should serve the people of America.

When Obama was running for state legislature, he talked to people from all over the state, in all walks of life.  I feel like he gets it, he understands what people want, what people are concerned about, what they want government to do for them.

I like the way he talks about the values that Americans share.  Here’s someone who can actually see the good in people who disagree with him.

I liked the discussion of the Constitution.  He has actually taught constitutional law.  As President, he would not usurp the powers of the executive branch.  He has respect for the Constitution that is refreshing to hear.

But don’t take my word for it.  I highly recommend this book.  If you want to know who is the real Barack Obama, I think you can learn much about him from hearing his thoughts on beginning a life in politics.  Here is someone who truly seems to have entered politics in order to serve.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on the main site at:

www.sonderbooks.com/Nonfiction/audacity_of_hope.html

Review of Coraline, by Neil Gaiman

coraline.jpg

Coraline

written and performed by Neil Gaiman

with original music by The Gothic Archies

HarperCollins, 2000.  3 hours, 3 compact discs.

Coraline is an exceedingly creepy story, in a delicious, shivery sort of way.  (I recently read an author interview where he said that parents find the book more disturbing than kids do.  I’m not surprised.)

There is a door in Coraline’s apartment that leads to a brick wall.  Once it led to another flat, but when the house was split into apartments, the door was bricked up.  However, one day Coraline follows a shadow through that door.  She finds there a woman who says she is Coraline’s other mother.  She wants Coraline to stay with her forever, and has some wonderful inducements.  But they turn out to be less and less wonderful.

Everyone on the other side has black buttons where their eyes should be.  Things look normal, but turn out to be seriously disturbing.

And leaving the other flat is not as easy as entering.

Neil Gaiman’s performance of this story is wonderful, enhanced by the incredibly creepy songs of The Gothic Archies.  I chose this book to listen to on our trip to Florida because I thought my 14-year-old son would enjoy it, too.  I do think I found the story creepier than he did.  But tremendously well-written and well performed.

Not for the faint of heart.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on the main site at:

www.sonderbooks.com/Childrens_Fiction/coraline.html

Review of Lionboy: The Truth, by Zizou Corder

lionboy_the_truth.jpg

Lionboy:  The Truth

Book Three of the Lionboy Trilogy

by Zizou Corder

read by Simon Jones

Highbridge Audio, 2005.  6 hours on 5 compact discs.

The Truth brings the Lionboy trilogy to a most satisfying conclusion.  In the earlier books, Charlie’s parents were kidnapped, and Charlie went after them.  In the third book, Charlie is the one kidnapped.  His parents and the friends he has made along the way come to his rescue, but in the end Charlie’s own ingenuity, courage, and loyalty save the day for far more people and animals than just himself.

There are a few outrageous coincidences in this book, as there were in the earlier books.  However, it’s all in good fun.  This is a rather wild adventure tale set in the near future.  The action takes Charlie across the globe to the very seat of the sinister Corporacy.

Charlie can still talk to cats, and in this book he becomes better acquainted with Ninu, a chameleon who can not only take on the colors around him, but also the languages.  With Ninu’s help, Charlie can talk to any person and any thing.

Like the rest, this makes good listening material, and would be great for a family car trip.  There is plenty of action to keep you diverted, and once again the narrator has a delightful voice (and accent) to listen to.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on the main site at:

www.sonderbooks.com/Childrens_Fiction/lionboy_the_truth.html