Audio Reviews: A Mystery, a Fairy Tale, and a Fantasy

Time for another trio of audio books!  This time, there’s no unifying theme…just a random group of good choices to listen to on long trips or just for fun.

* * *

The Calder Game
by Blue Baillett
Read by Deirdre Lovejoy
5 Compact Discs, 6 Hours, 17 Minutes
(we also have it on Playaway)

Calder Pillay and his friends Petra and Tommy (from Chasing Vermeer and The Wright 3) are now in seventh grade, with the worst teacher imaginable! Not only does she suck all joy out of her student’s lives IN school, but she won’t let them enjoy themselves even when they’re on a field trip!

Visiting the Alexander Calder exhibit at Chicago’s Art Museum, Calder splits off from his class and learns the rules of The Calder Game…a balancing of varying elements into a cohesive whole. He soon gets a chance to play The Calder Game when he journeys to England with his father. Mr. Pillay is in meetings most of the day, but that leaves Calder free to explore the small English village where they’re staying–and to study the new sculpture that’s been plopped into the middle of town. It’s an Alexander Calder sculpture entitled The Minotaur, and no one in the small community seems to like it. Calder, because of his name and his affinity for the sculpture, gets into some trouble with residents and shopkeepers.

When Calder disappears the same night that The Minotaur also vanishes, no one knows if the two events are connected. Petra and Tommy come to England to help in the search for their best friend. Can they find Calder before it’s too late?

Deirdre Lovejoy’s narration is quite captivating…she tells most of the story with an American accent (which fits, given that the kids are all from Chicago) but when the action moves over to England, she does some great English accents for the various characters. The mystery unfolds a bit at a time, and the clues are there to  help Petra and Tommy figure out what’s happening, if the listener is attentive.

I did have a problem with visualizing some of the story, but only because Calder is a math whiz. He has a set of Pentominoes, and he uses them to help him figure out mazes and patterns.  It was a bit difficult to follow what Calder was doing with the Pentominoes as he changed the shapes around, and some of that was important to the story. (In the book, illustrations provide guides.) Also, although I like Alexander Calder’s sculptures, describing what they are and how they move is difficult to translate to the written word.

So, if you do decide to listen to The Calder Game, have a set of Pentominoes and an understanding of Alexander Calder’s mobiles before you start reading, or grab the book too, and check out the illustrations. It will make solving the mystery much easier!

The book is aimed at fifth through eighth grade, and the  book on CD is as well. You don’t need to read the first two books in the series to enjoy The Calder Game, but it might help to understand the characters, their motivations and their history.

* * *

The Last Dragon
by Silvana De Mari
Translated by Shaun Whiteside
Performed by Patricia Conolly
9 CDs, 9.75 hours

The little elf is wandering in the cold, in the rain, in a country where neither ever stops. All alone, he doesn’t know that he’s the last of the elves. When he happens upon a human woman, his luck starts to change. She grudgingly lets him stay with her and her dog, until they manage to help each other escape from danger. They’re soon joined by a hunter, who stays with them because any company is better than no company.

Together, the little band are arrested and thrown in jail to be hanged. Elves, you see, are hated by  humans, and even a very young elf–a puppy–is said to be dangerous. The woman and the hunter have, by this time, become rather fond of the elf (and they really don’t care to be hanged) so they all escape. In the midst of the escape, the little elf sees a prophecy about the last elf and the last dragon bringing light and life back to the dark rainy world, and realizes that the prophecy is about him.

Escaping together makes the woman, the hunter and the little elf come together for a common goal, and soon Sajra the woman, Monser the hunter, and Yorshkrunsquarkljolnerstrink the little elf (Yorsh for short) and the dog, Fido, are following an old map, trying to find the last dragon.  Will they find the last dragon and make the world beautiful again? They’ll certainly try!

The case for The Last Dragon says “performed by”, and that is certainly a very good description of how the story is presented by Patricia Conolly. She has a beautiful voice, and listening to her is mesmerizing. The story itself is part fairy tale, part allegory and part fantasy. The characters are wonderfully portrayed, and the language is rich.

Silvana De Mari  is an Italian author of children’s books, and The Last Dragon was originally written in Italian and translated into English, giving it a very different feel from most American books for children.  It might take a little more persistence to stick with the story, but if you do, you are definitely in for a treat.

It’s hard to put an age range on the audience for this book; children as young as seven or eight might enjoy it, but I can see adults getting a whole different experience from listening (or reading). There are some scary bits (some evil characters, the attempted hanging, and not all the main characters make it through to the end of the story) and it is long, but it’s well worth it. If you liked Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, you might enjoy The Last Dragon as well. It has a similar other-worldly, fairy tale, folktale kind of feeling.

* * *

The Pinhoe Egg
by Diana Wynne Jones
Performed by Gerard Doyle
9 CDs, 10.25 hours

Marianne Pinhoe was all prepared for a lazy summer, when her grandmother suddenly starts issuing bizarre orders. Her brother Joe is sent to Chrestomanci Castle to work, and Marianne is supposed to spend every day with Gammer, attending to her every need, cleaning her house and working with her on spells.  This might seem bad enough for a normal person, but when your grandmother is the witch in charge of the family, and oversees the entire village’s use of witchcraft, it’s a very bad thing.

Marianne soon realizes that something is seriously wrong with Gammar, but she can’t get anyone to believe her.  The problem is that Pinhoes never tell anyone about their magic, and although she knows that Joe could help, he’s at Chrestomanci Castle. And Chrestomanci, the magician who lives at the castle and controls the use of magic, is the last person that she wants to find out.  Pinhoe magic is secret.

Cat is a nine-lived enchanter who lives at Chrestomanci Castle. He’s supposed to be studying to be the next Chrestomanci, but he’d rather do more ordinary things with his cousins Roger and Julia, and his replacement sister, Janet…even if “ordinary” means something different to each of them. When Cat ends up at Gammar’s old house with a member of the castle staff, he meets Marianne.  Escaping from the grown-ups, the two  explore the attic. Cat finds an egg, and Marianne tells him he can keep it.

Suddenly, Cat and Marianne both have their hands full.  The egg is special, but they have no idea what, exactly, is in it. Cat is trying to hatch it, which is a chore in itself.  Marianne is trying to keep her family safe when strange spells start hitting the village. It’s almost like moving the egg has started a wave of magic that has no end in sight.

Cat and Marianne (and Joe and Roger and Janet and Julia and even Chrestomanci) are all tangled together as they find out what is in the egg. Can they figure out how it relates to the Pinhoes?  Can Pinhoe magic and enchanter’s magic ever work together? Cat and Marianne are determined to find out what is going on.

I love Diana Wynne Jones books; this one is a blend of mystery and fantasy. Gerard Doyle has a  grave yet quirky voice that is suited to the story. I do wish he had a little more variety in the voices he gives some of the younger characters as they speak, but the adults are distinctive, and the story is quite enjoyable. There are a lot of twists and turns in the events of the story; there’s quite a cast of characters, each with a role to play. If you can figure out the mysteries, you’re faster than I was!

The Pinhoe Egg is part of the Chrestomanci cycle, but it is not necessary to read the others to enjoy this one. (Although it might be good to read Charmed Life first.) It’s written for fifth to eighth grade, but may be enjoyed by both younger and older listeners. Diana Wynne Jones has quite a cult following, so if you like The Pinhoe Egg, you should try her others.

* * *

And there you have it. Three new recommendations for your next car trip, or long journey. If you would like help finding Books on CD for your family, please ask one of our librarians. We’re happy to help!

::Kelly::

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