Title: Half Brother
Author: Kenneth Oppel
Publisher: Brilliance Audio, 2010 (print version available from Scholastic)
Narrator: Daniel di Tomasso
After being dragged across the country from Toronto to Victoria, Canada, Ben's thirteenth birthday isn't what one might call normal. You see, the reason he was dragged across the country arrives on that day—a tiny bundle of chimp they name Zan. Ben's parents are planning to experiment and study Zan by teaching him sign language to see if species other than humans can communicate with actual language. At first Ben wants nothing to do with the experiment and Zan, but gradually, as he signs with Zan, he begins to love him as he would an actual brother,—even if Ben's behavioral psychologist father sees Zan as only an experiment. But what will happen to Zan once the experiment ends?
I enjoyed this story. Ben really grows attached to Zan, loves him like a real brother, and it's truly touching to see what lengths Ben goes to in order to protect his little brother. Oppel also brings the serious issues of animal rights and ethical practices in working with animals to the table. This takes place in the 1970s, so there aren't as many concerns in Ben's or his parents' minds, or in the university's that funds the project, as there might be in today's world.
The secondary characters made the book for me. I loved Peter—a hippie-like dude who takes care of Zan in the best ways possible, and who can talk to Ben like an equal. Peter becomes a big ally for Ben, and a champion for getting what's best for Zan. It was also interesting to follow the relationship dynamics between Ben and both his parents. His dad tends to be jerkish and cold, but his mother is kind and gentle with both Ben and Zan, to the best of her ability.
I thought the whole Project Jennifer sideplot was hilarious. Ben has this huge crush on Jennifer, the daughter of his dad's boss, and so (in true scientist fashion) keeps a notebook he labels "Project Jennifer" and takes notes on her likes, dislikes, things he might say to her, etc.
I couldn't figure out it was taking place in the 1970s right away. It took me until after the first CD (or somewhere around there) to figure it out, from some sort of reference to the time. The beginning would have made a lot more sense to me had I known this from the start, since I was bothered by the fact that Ben's parents were just given a chimp like they were. I felt like no one thought about the potential dangers Zan would pose to his caretakers once he wasn't a baby anymore.
As for the audio, it wasn't that great. I felt like it was sloppily produced. It was clear at points that the actor had stopped recording one part and continued later, with a distinct vocal difference. At times it sounded like a different person talking, the difference was so pronounced. I didn't think di Tomasso put much emotion into the performance, and it fell flat as a result.
If the premise intrigues you, I would pick up a copy of Half Brother and read it; skip the audio version.
Disclosure: I got the audio version of this from my local library.