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The One and Only Ivan is a children’s books written by Katherine Applegate.  I got to narrate this little gem not too long ago.

When we meet the titular character Ivan, a gorilla, he is in captivity at an enclosure in what is described as a mall.  A mall?  Well, yes!  Evidently, this story is based on a true case in which a gorilla was kept in a kind of mall circus in Washington State for some 27 years.  No, I’m not kidding.  27 years!!  I’m pleased to say that both Katherine Applegate’s fictional account and the real story of Ivan have happy endings.  Ivan is saved from his lonely, solitary existence at the mall and gets to go to a zoo (Zoo Atlanta in real life) where he is able to be with other gorillas.  After all, gorillas are social animals.  That’s one of the things I learned about gorillas by reading The One And Only Ivan.

In Applegate’s book, Ivan doesn’t have any gorilla companionship at the mall, but he isn’t completely alone.  There’s his best friend, Bob the stray dog, who manages to elude mall security and the circus manager to sneak in and sleep in Ivan’s enclosure at night.  There is Stella the older elephant who is part of the odd little circus,too.  There are the circus caretaker, George, and his daughter Julie who visit regularly.  And in comes the new, young elephant Ruby.  The story that Ms. Applegate shares is entertaining, educational, and touching.  If you have young children, it seems like this would be a good one to share with them.  You could read it to them or have them read it to you.  It’s formatted – intentionally, no doubt – in such a way that it should be easier for new readers to get through the material successfully.

If you want to learn more about the book, the real Ivan, or the author, you can click through on the picture above.

A brief synopsis from the book’s website

Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all.

Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and a well-placed line.

Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.


A few months ago I had the occasion to travel through Nashville on the way to visit family.  As I was passing through, I decided to take the opportunity to try to get in on the open mic at The Bluebird Cafe.  I’ve heard so much about it ever since I began songwriting.

I’m happy to report that I got there early enough to get in the door and to play.  It was a great experience!  It’s a cozy place, certainly, so you get to look your audience right in the eye.  Obviously, many of the people in attendance are performers and songwriters as well.  That fact, along with the marvelous MC job done by open mic host Barbara Cloyd, creates a welcoming atmosphere.  Better yet!  Because a few folks had left early (before their turn at the mic came), there was extra time.  So Barbara drew two names out of a hat for a second song.  Guess what?  I got to play twice, sharing two of my original tunes!  How cool is that?!

Here’s the craziest part of it all – for me.  You see, my parents were both from the Nashville area.  As a result, I spent almost every Xmas and a week or two every summer visiting thereabouts when I was a kid.  Our home base was always my grandmother’s house.  That house, as it turns out, is a stone’s throw from The Bluebird Cafe!  I kid you not!!  I used to go door-to-door caroling with my uncle’s boyscout troop through that neighborhood!  I used to help my grandmother shop at the grocery store down the street where now a Whole Foods is located.  My grandma is no longer there, and the house doesn’t even look the same.  Still, just being in that neighborhood brought so many memories flooding back.

Of course, all that doesn’t make me a better performer or songwriter.  Ha!  Even so, it sure as heck made my evening singing at The Bluebird Cafe one for reminiscing as well as one to remember.

I think Devil’s Peak is a very good book.  I recently did some narration work on it, and I enjoyed the story a lot.  The story is by South African author Deon Meyer and the English translation by K.L. Seegers.

It is a fairly dark story, to be sure.  So it isn’t for readers who are looking for fairy tales and happy endings.  Not that there aren’t happy endings – sort of.  And I didn’t find the three main characters the easiest folks to empathize with because they weren’t always doing the nicest things or making the wisest choices.  But they did come across as interesting, complicated, and somewhat messed-up human beings – emphasis on their being human added by Deon Meyer on page after page.

Along the way I got some education in South African culture.  I also had to learn how to recite lyrics from popular songs in Afrikaans (Loslappie and Waterblommetjies).  I did my best with the Afrikaans!  I also tried to get down the palatal tick required to properly pronounce Nxele, the name of a Xhosa warrior, chief, and prophet.  Heck, there were a lot of proper names – places, roads, people – that took considerable research to track down as far as pronunciation.  From a narrator’s point of view, it was hard work.  But it was work that I enjoyed.

Here is a brief synopsis from

From rising South African thriller writer Deon Meyer, a gripping suspense novel about revenge, forgiveness, and the race to catch a trained killer. A young woman makes a terrible confession to a priest. An honorable man takes his own revenge for an unspeakable tragedy. An aging inspector tries to get himself sober while taking on the most difficult case of his career. From this beginning, Deon Meyer weaves a story of astonishing complexity and suspense, as Inspector Benny Griessel faces off against a dangerous vigilante who has everything on his side, including public sympathy.
A gruesome abuse case has hit the newsstands, and one man has taken it upon himself to stand up for the children of Cape Town . When the accused is found stabbed through the heart by spear, it’s only the beginning of a string of bloody murders – and of a dangerous dilemma for detective Griessel. The detective is always just one step behind as someone slays the city’s killers. But the paths of Griessel and the avenger collide when a young prostitute lures them both into a dangerous plan – and the two find themselves with a heart-stopping problem that no system of justice could ever make right.

I have to admit that I watch Science Fiction shows.  After all, I grew up on Lost In Space and Star Trek.  How could I not enjoy the genre?

Thus, I’ve been sampling the Sci Fi Channel’s latest offering titled Defiance (which also has a game tie-in).  The story synopsis from the series’ own website is below.  I won’t spend time here on that.  Instead, I want to talk about something I heard/saw in a recent episode that prompted this post.

I love clever writers.  Folks who can pull from many areas of knowledge and influence to bring to their stories more than just the superficial.  And that is precisely what the people working on Defiance have done/are doing.  In one of the scenes from a recent episode, a bus is pulling into Defiance.  This is a bus that doubles as a supply truck as well as transportation between settlements.  As the bus is pulling in, there is a radio/broadcast jockey announcing it’s arrival (reminding me of Radar in MASH).  Just before he leaves his mic to greet the bus in person, he says “I hope I get my raisins from Fresno.”  I heard that line and started LMAO.

See, I was in a production of The Music Man at Arena Stage in DC last year.  (It was a great show, a great cast, an awesome director, and a super place to work.)  But here’s the dealeo.  In the play, there is a big musical number that precedes the arrival of “The Wells Fargo Wagon” on which the new musical instruments for all the kids are due to arrive.  But as the townspeople sing about their excitement over the wagon’s arrival, they mention lots of other things they have gotten and hope to get via the Wells Fargo Wagon.  And, yes, one of the lines sung is “I hope I get my raisins from Fresno.”  LOL

How awesome is that!  Thank you, Sci Fi Channel, for melding together two facets of my own life seamlessly.

Defiance: A Synopsis

In the year 2046, it’s a new Earth – with new rules. Over thirty years after various alien races arrived on Earth, the landscape is completely altered, terraformed nearly beyond recognition. To the town of Defiance, on what used to be St. Louis, comes the mysterious Nolan (Grant Bowler) and his charge, Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas). As they settle into town – overseen by the mayor, Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz) and filled with residents like the powerful Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene), enterprising lounge owner Kenya (Mia Kirshner) and the ambitious, alien Tarrs (Tony Curran and Jaime Murray) – events begin to unfold that threaten the fragile peace this border town has fought for.


As the events of Defiance unfold weekly on your TV screen, you can see how the residents’ struggles impact the game of Defiance, a high-octane, multi-platform experience from Trion Worlds! For the first time in history, a TV show and a game will exist concurrently in a shared universe, influencing and impacting the other!

I’m a bit behind in my posts here.  I had the opportunity to narrate this book some time ago but just hadn’t gotten this together until now.   By “this book” I mean, of course, Custer’s Brother’s Horse by Edwin Shrake.

As you may know, Edwin “Bud” Shrake was a journalist and screenwriter as well as a novelist.  During his career Mr. Shrake spent some 15 years writing for Sports Illustrated.  He authored a number of non-fiction works, including a biography of his friend Willie Nelson and a series of books about golf with Harvey Penick.   Custer’s Brother’s Horse was Edwin Shrake’s last novel, having been preceded by Blood Reckoning,  But Not For Love, Blessed McGill, Strange Peaches, Peter Arbiter, Limo (with Dan Jenkins), Night Never Falls, The Borderland: A Novel of Texas, and Billy Boy.

I have to admit that when I saw the title of the book, I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  I hadn’t read any of Shrake’s previous novels.  I found it quite interesting.  The characters he populated the story with were very diverse – from a stoic Texas scion to a colorful British adventurer to a beautiful young New Orleans soothsayer.  And those were just the three that were traveling together!  Of course, the time in which this story is set was a very interesting one for Texans, and Shrake does a good job of providing and then using the historical context into which he places his characters.

Here is a brief synopsis –

A young Confederate captain with a grisly past as a cavalry raider in Tennessee is on his way home to his family plantation north of Houston in the last days of the Civil War. In Austin, Capt. Jerod Robin is accused of murder and is thrown into the stockade by U.S. Army Capt. Santana Leatherwood, a Texan whose family has feuded bitterly for decades with the Robin family. In the stockade Robin meets British novelist and adventurer Edmund Varney, in Austin to write the life story of Lt. Tom Custer, heroic younger brother of famous General George Armstrong Custer. Varney is charged with attempting to steal Tom Custer’s legendary warhorse, Athena, upon whose back Custer recently won two Congressional Medals of Honor. The two prisoners stand trial beside a 16-year-old mulatto girl, Flora Bowprie, who has come from New Orleans searching for her father but has been arrested as a runaway slave. Homicidal events cause the rebel captain, the British author and the young fortuneteller to flee from a Cavalry squad led by Santana Leatherwood and Tom Custer, mounted on his great Arabian horse. The story races to the inevitable showdown between the Robins and Leatherwoods, two families on opposite sides in the Civil War. But, before the final confrontation Jerod Robin hears a dark accusation about his birth and his mother that lends a special ferocity to the showdown. Then the story of “Custer’s Brother’s Horse” takes a surprising twist. This is a horse for the ages.

I have so many things I want to post, but I’ll start with this because it’s fairly quick.

Has anybody seen the commercial from eDiets that’s been running recently?  There may be more than one, of course.  This one is running on Comcast cable.  I couldn’t find it on YouTube or I would have embedded it to clarify.  Anyway, I think that it’s largely a decent commercial as these testimonial ads go.  It is upbeat and positive in tone, and the people come across as regular folks even if they’re actors.  Don’t know if they’re actors, but actors ARE real people and have weight struggles, too.

Like I said, it really is pretty OK as a commercial.  But – you knew there was one of those coming, right?  One of the women who has slimmed down and is excited about her svelter self  identifies herself as being “from the South.”   So far, so good.  Then she confesses that as a Southerner she “loves her comfort food.”  Yep, I understand that.   My family is from the South.  Later in the ad, however, as the people testifying list their big temptations, Ms. Southerner says “lasagne” is her downfall.

Say what?!?  I grew up eating Southern comfort food, and lasagne was not in the mix.  My family considered  lasagne to be Italian food.  We had it sometimes, sure.  But, again, we considered it Italian, and I’m pretty sure it is still considered an Italian dish by most people around the world!   So how did it become Southern comfort food?

My opinion?  The editor or director or whoever should have caught that and made a change.  Am I being overly critical?  I don’t think so.  My point is that the messages within the ad should be consistent.  I know this isn’t high art, but it is a professional piece of advertisement.  There were people paid good money to create the commercial.  Thus, I think it should be internally consistent.

A few days ago I had to take a very long drive by myself.  After a few hours on the road, I invariable turn to the radio.  The fact that I don’t know what to expect in the song lineup keeps me more aware and focused while the miles pass by.  And it gives me the added benefit of hearing music I might not otherwise hear.  Ya know?

Anyway, one of the stations I landed on announced a new give-away promotion they’d be doing for tickets to see Maroon 5 & Kelly Clarkson in concert.  Holy crap!  I just about jumped out of my seat.  But I was driving at about 70 mph, so I didn’t.  Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson?!  Who thought that one up?  Cause whoever did came up with a GREAT idea.

In my opinion Kelly Clarkson is probably one of the best voices in the music industry today.  And she’s building a public repertoire that is broader than just light radio pop.  We all know she can do more because of all the crazy things they made her sing on American Idol.  Right?  And for their part, Maroon 5 is currently flexing it’s muscles in the pop arena with two solid hits from their last album, “Overexposed,” following closely on the big success of the “Moves Like Jagger” re-release with Christina Aguilera.  When you listen to their CDs, you note that they also have a wider reach musically than just enjoyable radio rock and pop.  Much of their stuff is clearly jazz influenced – which I like.

The dates for the Honda Civic Tour begin on August 1 in St. Louis and end in early October.  Openers at various locales include Rozzi Crane, Tony Lucca, & PJ Morton.   I think this is going to be one awesome pairing for audiences.  And, no, I’m not going to apologize for being excited about this.  My own music may be more Americana, but I have no qualms about applauding good music and good live performance in any genre.

BTW, general tickets for the tour go on sale tomorrow – April 6!

Ripper Street, BBC’s winter 8-episode series is a surprisingly good show.  Even so, I think the title is awful.

I saw the title pop up on my on-screen cable guide back in January when the show first aired in the U.S. on BBC America.  I passed it by very quickly.  “How many times can they trot out that old horse about Jack the Ripper – seriously!! ” That was my gut reaction to the show’s title.  It didn’t make me want to see or hear anything else about it.

But then I had a couple of days off work and some time to kill.  Of course, when I went to spend some of that time chilling in front of the TV, I found there was very little I was truly interested in seeing.  So I started surfing the on-demand listings and ran across Ripper Street once again.  Since the on-demand episodes were included (i.e. free) in my cable package, I decided to give one a try.  After all, I could very easily stop it and choose something else.  No skin off my nose.  And I’m glad I did give it a try!

I’ll admit, the show’s premise does put it in the same basic time period as the Ripper murders in London’s Whitechapel area (but a few months after).  So the title serves to give you an immediate sense of time and place.  And the plot does pull in references to Jack the Ripper as various murders occur on the streets of London.  [Good grief, I’m making their case for them!]  But, in my opinion, what is best about the show is the REST of the story.  There are other crimes occurring – like abductions and human trafficking, for instance.  And the characters – police detectives, an American medical examiner, a brothel madame and the mistress of an orphanage, etc. – have a real sense of humanity to them.  They are gritty but not so horribly mired in the muck of debauchery and vice and dark side of the human soul that one can’t feel empathy for them.  Of course, that is partly a result of good acting, but I have to compliment the writers, too.

According to the available material, the series stars Matthew Macfadyen as Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, Jerome Flynn as Detective Sergeant Bennett Drake and Adam Rothenberg as American Captain Homer Jackson.  You have probably seen Matthew Macfayden in one of his many accomplished appearances – on MI5, in Pride & Prejudice, in Little Dorritt, etc.  I like him in this series, too.  Adam Rothenberg – whose character is a former Pinkerton agent and erstwhile U.S. Army surgeon who serves as the medical examiner for DI Reid – does a fine job as well.  But I am very impressed with Jerome Flynn’s work here.  I mentioned that the characters are gritty.  I think Flynn’s look, his physicality and his character choices make Drake the most interesting piece on the chess board.  I enjoy Drake even when his job is just to react to what the rest of the characters are doing.

And let’s not forget the supporting cast – in particular the ladies.  There is MyAnna Buring who is good as Long Susan, the madame of the local brothel and love interest for Adam Rothenberg’s character.  And there is Lucy Cohu who turns in a very compelling performance as Deborah Goren, mistress of the local orphanage.  Goren is a strong, admirable woman ready to take in new charges even when it creates difficulties for her.  Yet she is not just some long-suffering martyr.  She is a real person with an active set of personal needs and desires.  For example, we are made privy to some of Goren’s inner life when she heartily kisses Reid (a married  man) back in one episode.  While I’m in no way, shape or form endorsing adultery, I appreciate a) Lucy Cohu’s ability to beautifully portray a character that is at times selfless yet has needs and desires of her own and b) the writers’ abilities to put together stories that allow us to learn about their characters beyond the superficial – beyond just their functional role in the machine.

Lucy Cohu as Deborah Goren

Of course, at it’s heart this is a crime drama, so each episode presents the team with a new one to solve.  Some pull us back to the Ripper theme and others are completely separate mysteries that the H Division (homicide) must get to the bottom of.

I’m happy to say that I understand the show has been renewed for a second season of 8 episodes set to begin filming this year and airing in 2014.  I feel like the whole cast, crew and creative team have come together in a great way here.  I look forward to seeing what more they have in store for us from the streets of London (Whitechapel) in the late 1800’s.  I suppose they were Ripper streets, but I STILL don’t like the name!

This is going to be one awesome night of music!

Join Justin Trawick, Joe Peck, Jim Shirey, David Farah, Wes Tucker, Jason Masi, Nita Chawla, Jason Ager, and Joe Rathbone for a rousing evening of outstanding tunes.   Just $10 at the door.  Be there!

Founded in 2008 by singer/songwriter Justin Trawick, “The 9 Songwriter Series”is a touring live music event based in Washington, DC.  Each installment features nine solo singer/songwriters performing in rotation and often sitting in with each other -providing audiences with a rich, intimate, varied listening experience.

In recent narration projects I’ve gone from Jepp to Lemony Snicket and now Miss Peregrine and her charges.  Not a bad run of books aimed at younger readers.  The LOC annotation says this book written by first-time author Ransom Riggs is intended for senior high and older.  So, that includes me, right?

I think so!  Because I enjoyed this book very much.  I’ve always liked stories that step outside the bounds of what we collectively believe to be reality into the realm of “what might be.”  You want to call that fantasy?  OK!  But the trick to writing a story like this is stepping over the line without stretching the story’s credulity so far that the thread binding the reader to his or her own willing suspension of disbelief is pulled to the breaking point.  I know that may be different for different readers.

For me, I have to say that Mr. Riggs did a nice job in putting together characters that I wanted to care about so that I stayed invested in this very entertaining tale. For example, his young protagonist Jacob Portman is a fully modern teenager with the attendant social angst, complex family relationships, and even a therapist to help him through tough times.

Does Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children break new ground?  No.  As many before him, Ransom Riggs borrows from old world folklore to support his plot devices and “unusual” characters.  But he does it successfully.

I understand that there will be a sequel.  That’s good news!  In addition, it appears a movie based on this book is in the works.  Those involved reportedly include 20th Century Fox, producers Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, and Jenno Topping, screenwriter Jane Goldman (adapting the book into a screenplay), and director Tim Burton.  Whoever does it, I look forward to the movie.

Here’s a quick snippet from the book jacket –

A mysterious island.  An abandoned orphanage.  And a strange collection of very curious photographs.

It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience.  As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children who once lived here—one of whom was his own grandfather—were more than just peculiar.  They may have been dangerous.  They may have been quarantined on a desolate island for good reason.  And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.

A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.

Check out this trailer for the book (directed by Ransom Riggs) which may give us some ideas about the movie project under development.