Audiobook Reviews

January 2006 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

For this first month of the New Year, I’m joined by Audiofile magazine founder and editor Robin Whitten, who contributed the first two reviews below. You may pick up Audiofile at newstands like Barnes & Noble. While there, be sure to ask for my new medical thriller GEEZER, just out in hardcover.

Away from the hot Southwest desert, here’s an audiobook that will have you turning up the heat. THE TRUDEAU VECTOR has the unlikely setting of Trudeau Arctic Research Station. Full Arctic night — the kind that lasts for months — is chillingly described as the thriller opens with the discovery of four research scientists dead in the frozen wastes. A biological nightmare unfolds, as details of the deaths and their research are uncovered. Narrator Robertson Dean allows the chill, both physical and psychological, to fully permeate his narration. He easily conveys the drive and irreverent humor of Dr. Jesse Hanley, the unorthodox epidemiologist sent to Trudeau Station to be either the savior or the bait for a deadly microbe. Dean uses his deep baritone well for the accents of the international conclave of scientists. Subtly following small emotional cues, Dean makes the characters real and compelling. He delivers Jurjevics’s novel with controlled intensity, making a tour-de-force thriller. Don’t miss it for the suspense and enjoy the science lesson on the Arctic’s fragile ecosystem. (Penguin Audio/14 hours unabridged)

In a dark, moody story, PRINCE OF THIEVES, Chuck Hogan looks at honor and dishonor among thieves as he follows a quartet of young men from tough blue-collar Charlestown, Massachusetts. The story has tremendous momentum as the police turn the heat on the bank robbers and their “prince,” Doug MacRay, finds his commitment to crime and violence wavering. Casting SAW II star Donnie Wahlberg was a brilliant stroke and gives listeners the best Boston accent they’re likely to hear off the streets. The dialogue is sharp, classic Boston, and perfectly delivered. Recent news says Wahlberg is producing a TV project about life growing up on Boston’s mean streets. Beyond the macho violence and language, the performance has a lot of appeal, and the story will intrigue anyone who believes a crook can have a heart of gold. (Simon & Schuster Audio/6 hours abridged)

The science fiction classic FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury has just been released on audio in a 50th Anniversary Special Edition, and includes an afterword by the author that is eerily fitting for our Paris Hilton/50 Cent/Starbucks mocha latte music video age. As you might know, this National Book Award winner is about a future when firemen do not put out fires, but start them, burning books in particular, since books are outlawed. Christopher Hurt reads this provocative story with the natural and compelling grace that it deserves, and you will appreciate the ironies that arise, not only from Guy Montag’s realization that a world without books isn’t worth living in, but from Bradbury’s own tussle with the imagination-impaired editors and pop film hacks who populate entertainment today. (His comments continue on another re-release from Blackstone, KING KONG.) So if you’re tired of forensic police procedurals featuring serial killers, or escapist chick lit—genres that dismally dominate shelf space and screen space—you might vow to load better books on your iPod as a New Year’s resolution. I know I have! (Blackstone Audio/5 hours unabridged)

Speaking of our trans-fatty, sports-obsessed, vain and egotistical out-of-my-way 21st Century world, here comes British author Lynne Truss, author of “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” with a book about rudeness titled TALK TO THE HAND. While her comments are most apropos to the formerly merely snobbish English, much of her discussion about lost manners aptly fits Americans. Why do we act in public as if we were in private? Do we really own the road? Whatever happened to dignity and decency and patience and deference? This is a great gift for all the rude people on your list, but don’t wait until next Christmas to give it, unless you want more “one-finger salutations” from them in the interim. Oh, and it’s abridged on 2 CDs, and read by the author herself, so those illiterate bastards you have in mind can listen while they’re tailgating your grandmother. (Penguin Audio/2 hours abridged)

David A. Vise has teamed with Mark Malseed to bring us THE GOOGLE STORY, subtitled “Inside the Hottest Business, Media and Technology Success of Our Time.” And what a story it is. A better subtitle here might be “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Because that’s just what Sergey Brin and Larry Page did, adopting the motto “Do No Evil.” The search engine has taken over the internet by preserving a bare-bones look while employing a unique ranking technology. Their motto is no doubt aimed at Microsoft, but both companies now appear to be champions of charity. That’s what makes the story palatable, even as read by actor Adam Grupper, otherwise all the talk of billions and billions (shades of Carl Sagan) might better make it “The Ogle Story.” (Random House Audio/6 hours abridged)

Douglas Preston is usually referred to as a “co-author,” since his partnership with Lincoln Child has produced some intriguing novels in the past, but here he is standing alone in TYRANNOSAUR CANYON, surveying the sands for what lies beneath. And what’s down there? As you’ve probably guessed by the title, it’s a T-Rex, fully preserved in fossilized sediment, organs and all. The greatest find yet, and so naturally there are people willing to die in order to get their greedy paws on it. But that’s not all. A missing moon rock figures into this mystery, with a link to the ancient past, when the southwest was shattered by a. . .ah, but that would be telling. You’ll have to listen to actor Scott Sowers, as he turns the suspenseful pages for you. An interview with Preston follows the reading. (Audio Renaissance/12 hours unabridged or 6 hours abridged)

Finally, western fiction fans are in for a treat, with the full cast collection LOUIS L’AMOUR–THE COLLECTED BOWDRIE DRAMATIZATIONS, Vol. 1. The six classic western adventures include “Mcnelly Knows a Ranger” and “Outlaws of Poplar Creek,” as Texas Ranger Chick Bowdrie persues the most wanted men in the Southwest. L’Amour has sold 300 million books, as one of the most prolific writers of all time. Directed by Charles Potter, these radio dramas were first produced in the late 80s and early 90s, rendered here for the first time on CD. (Random House Audio/6 hours unabridged)

February 2006 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

Question: When will Stephen King finally retire, as he promised he would? Answer: when someone retires him. Or perhaps when he buys a cell phone. King claims not to own one, although his new thriller, titled simply CELL, is about a pulsed message that infects the air waves, causing everyone who listens to it on their cell phones to go nuts. And I don’t mean merely nuts, like the guy who takes a left turn in heavy traffic while talking on his cell. I mean truly nuts, as in foaming at the mouth and trying to murder your neighbors just seconds after clicking off. The plot is reminiscent of a Twilight Zone segment, which King fleshes out while adapting our fears of all becoming zombies by talking on our cell phones instead of more sociable activities like saying “hi” or smiling, or at least noticing the little old lady trying to cross the street. CELL is read by actor Campbell Scott, whose skill at documentary books like “Seabiscuit” adds an eerie reality to what might otherwise seem melodramatic. And gory. If cell rhymes with hell, leave it to King to offer a reason why. (Simon & Schuster Audio/13 hours unabridged)

Speaking of the devil, Richard Hawke has a first novel that’s getting high praise, titled SPEAK OF THE DEVIL. It’s a police suspense thriller about a man who witnesses a shooting during a Thanksgiving Day parade, chases the gunman, and ends up embroiled in the search for someone named “Nightmare,” a man who has been secretly taunting NY City leaders for weeks. What sets this novel apart is the quality of the writing, something one must possess who expects to be published without already possessing a legion of fans. (Publishers are averse to taking risks, in this new video/cell phone age). The novel is read by Paul Michael, a British actor also heard reading the excellent “The Janson Directive” by Robert Ludlum. (Random House Audio/6 hours abridged)

Of course, the devil has many disguises. One is Osama Bin Laden, star of JAWBREAKER, a non-fictional account of the CIA’s war against Al-Qaeda. Read by Ralph Pezzullo, this book by Gary Berntsen relates Special Operations forces attempts to ferret out Bin Laden from Afghanistan, and reveals the behind-the-scenes events that transpired, amid the various diplomatic and political blunders. Berntsen is the decorated recipient of the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, and the Intelligence Star, and has served in an array of Field Command assignments. Pezzullo is a former journalist, and author of “The Leap Into Haiti.” (Random House Audio/6 hours abridged)

Next, Gail Godwin offers up the QUEEN OF THE UNDERWORLD, a fascinating historical novel set in Miami as Castro’s first wave of exiles arrive at the downtown hotel where Emma Gant lives the life of a reporter. The story is notable for its dedication to detail, and the well drawn characters who come to life and inhabit the narrative. It’s the summer of 1959, and that time and place is both captured with skill and narrated with grace by actress Stephanie Zimbalist. Yes, that’s Laura Holt of Remington Steele fame. What has Stephanie been doing since? Well, try about 30 television movies. (Random House Audio/6 hours abridged)

Another spellbinding historical audiobook is IN COLD BLOOD, given a new reading by actor Scott Brick. As you may know, this classic Truman Capote book follows the murder, trial, and execution of those responsible for the deaths of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Texas, also in 1959. The book transcends its narrow focus by yielding insights into the nature of American violence, and it doesn’t pull any punches, either. As Brick told me recently, it’s not for the faint of heart. Scary, to realize that even in small town USA, there are sociopathic killers with nothing better to do than stalking the innocent. . .at least when they’re not lying, cheating, and stealing. (Random House Audio/14.5 hours unabridged)

Finally, OUR INNER APE is an intriguing book by primatologist Frans De Wall that compares our behavior with our nearest cousins, the apes. Would you be surprised to learn that most of our petty rivalry, jealousy, murderous aggression, and even compassion and empathy are also present to an extraordinary degree within the communities of both territorial chimps and the more loving bonobos? A kid threw a rock at an ape in the zoo, and the ape threw the same rock back, hitting him in the head. An ape cuddled an injured bird delicately, nursing it until it could fly again. Male apes offer fresh fruit to females in exchange for sex. Female apes hold grudges. Apes even recognize themselves in a mirror, groom themselves accordingly, something other animals never do. Although they don’t use words, apes also have a highly developed sense of body language and expression, utilized within complex social hierarchies, not unlike humans. Narrated by Alan Sklar, this startling comparison of character reveals that our altruistic traits are reflected in the apes just as much as our baser competitive instincts. We simply take both to unfortunate extremes. (Tantor Media/10.5 hours unabridged)

March 2006 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

Believe it or not, there are other star wars than those created by George Lucas. Although Lucas has made more money than God delivering pulp science fiction, and his legacy continues with a series of books based on Star Wars, (like the recent “Outbound Flight” written by Timothy Zahn, and read by Jonathan Davis), another lesser known series of SF adventures continues in “GALACTIC CONVOY” by Bill Baldwin, the sequel to “The Helmsman,” about starship pilots who encounter heavily armed aliens and power-drunk warlords in their quest for glory. Forget about why we should project our own insecurities and petty rivalries–our greeds and lusts–onto other advanced civilizations, imagining them to be as immature or insane as we are. What “Galactic Convoy” has going for it are some funny names, decent writing, and high production values. Meaning it is full cast, with a dozen actors participating in what, over 13 hours, will keep you entertained and away from watching “American Idol” or “Survivor,” those shallow television time wasters which don’t even allow a moment’s indulgence of the imagination. Neither SF series may have you missing your clock out time, but if you’re stuck in traffic, it beats listening to frozen oldies, political talk radio, or even beating your forehead against the steering wheel. Although that last option is certainly more satisfying than watching R2D2 and C3PO trade banalities…unless you’re six years old. (Timberwolf Press/13.6 hours unabridged)

It’s rare that a female mystery author jumps genres to pen an international military thriller involving pirates and mercenaries, but Dana Stabenow has jumped genres before, with three SF novels to her credit, besides 17 mysteries. In BLINDFOLD GAME, Stabenow sets part of the action in her native Alaska by postulating that a pair of terrorists can ship black market radioactive material to America via freighter across the Bering Sea. Narrator Beth McDonald is a good choice for narrator as she brings this potentially realistic prospect to life within some dramatic and likeable characters, such as Hugh Rincon. McDonald is an accomplished stage actor with an ability to keep one listening, a most desired trait to possess if you’re reading stories. (Random House Audio/5 hours abridged)

“Cosy” is a comfortable word, and an indication of that subclass of mystery which eschews overtly bloody violence. There may be murder involved, but the criminals appear more civilized, and are therefore more likely to move among us unnoticed. Martha Grimes is one practitioner of this class of mystery, with 21 novels featuring Richard Jury so far. In THE OLD WINE SHADES, Jury sits down in a English bar with a fellow named Johnson to hear the tale of a dog that has returned without its master. Johnson has some explaining to do, which he does in interesting fashion, divulging his views on the nature of reality itself. All this leads to Jury’s investigation, and turns up a dead body. Actor John Lee narrates, and while he’s no Martin Jarvis, he’s certainly an appropriate choice, given his mild English accent, acting skill, and pleasant voice. (Penguin Audio/11 hours unabridged)

Here’s a scary thought: the people in ultimate control of our military, our laws, and our purse strings are politicians, who in turn are mostly lawyers. Now, to a lawyer or actor or wannabe, the truth is a relative thing. Ambition gets in the way of reason. So in order to sleep nights, you must demonize the opposition, and avoid mirrors at all costs. Certainly the current administration has enough blind stupidity to go around, but you’d be shocked to learn how its detractors brazenly assume you’re blind to their own ambitions as well. So says Peter Schweizer in “DO AS I SAY–NOT AS I DO,” an audiobook that details the hypocrisy of those who pretend moral superiority. Would it surprise you to learn that Michael Moore owned stock in the very companies he assused of treasonous greed? Or that he lives in an exclusive all-white neighborhood, with only a couple token blacks on his staff? What truths do Al Franken, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Streisand, Edward Kennedy and Ralph Nader not want you to hear about their own records? Narrated by the very listenable and prolific Grover Gardner, this is one book that will have you shaking your head, mouth agape, as the facts, mostly devoid of opinion, are uncovered. Because you have to ask yourself: if what is here isn’t true—as backed by the world’s largest publisher—why aren’t these people suing? We all know they play golf with lawyers, if they’re not lawyers themselves! (Random House Audio/6 hours unabridged)

Finally, a newcomer has arrived to the genre of medical thriller in the form of Joshua Spanogle, a student at Harvard Medical School. How Josh finds time to write books while studying is a mystery in itself, but with ISOLATION WARD he has certainly jumped headlong into another potential career. Whether it will derail his parallel career in medicine remains to be seen. The novel, set in a large Baltimore hospital, involves the mentally impaired victims of an odd virus, a young CDC investigator who uncovers a scheme involving organ transplants, and some old flames doing some very uncharacteristic things. What I enjoyed most about this novel was the pacing, which, despite some obvious cliches, propelled the story forward under the capable hands of Christian Rummel, an actor new to narration who has a gift for very realistic nuances of dialogue. Both of these newcomers have talent, but will they be the next “Story Stars,” like American Idol? That’s entirely up to you, and the advertising dollars their publishers are willing to risk. (Random House Audio/6 hours abridged)

April 2006 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

Did the flu cause WWII? That’s one intriguing question raised by a new book about the pandemic of 1918 which postulates President Woodrow Wilson’s own illness led to harsh treatment of Germany at the Paris peace treaty following WWI, in turn giving rise to Hitler’s success soon after. Indeed, it has since been proven that Wilson’s illness was caused by the same virus which killed more people than any disease in history, including AIDS. So forget Stephen King, the truth is even scarier in THE GREAT INFLUENZA by John M. Barry, a book that tracks the path of the epidemic from an army camp in Kansas to claim the lives of as many as 100 million worldwide, or over 5% of the human population at the time. As narrated by the talented Scott Brick, this sobering true story lays out the subject from many different viewpoints while closing in on the astonishing projections for our own time should the bird flu now spreading infect us all in a similar fashion. Because 5% today equals 300 million dead. (Penguin Audio/19.5 hours unabridged)

I’m not sure if you can really call DARK LIGHT a suspense thriller, but I liked Randy Wayne White’s new novel all the same. It’s about some odd artifacts that are uncovered by storms off the coast of Florida, and the efforts of a marine biologist to salvage a boat that sank in a hurricane in 1944. The ghosts of the past haunt the present in this tale that is more literary than thriller, but not without moments of high drama, as Doc Ford wades through the wreckage of lives and estates to get to the truth. Henry Strozier has the voice of a salty sea dog, and is therefore a good choice as narrator here, reading this south Florida regional author’s work, which is almost on a par with that of James Lee Burke. (Penguin Audio/12.5 hours unabridged)

A more traditional thriller can be heard in THE WALL by Jeff Long, about two veteran climbers who attempt El Capitan one last time, for old times sake. Disaster dogs them, and then stalks them when they come upon the dead bodies of some women who fell victim to mistakes easily made on the sheer rock wall. Hugh and Lewis once met the women they married here, long ago, and now it seems that the spirit of someone is luring them higher, to their possible doom. It’s an interesting and straightforward tale, told mostly chronologically until the climax, when an eerie and unforgettable ending is elicited in the final moments, with an element of the supernatural. The best thing about the audiobook version is the narrator, Grover Gardner—one of the most versatile, mellifluous and prolific readers in the business. (Tantor Media/8.5 hours unabridged)

What would Hank Aaron say about Barry Bonds muscling in on his home run record, thanks to the ministrations of steroid drugs? The “shocking” story of illicit drug use among athletes (ever since a “nutritional supplement company” was discovered to be supplying them) is chronicled in GAME OF SHADOWS by reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. I put the word “shocking” in parenthesis since nothing is really shocking anymore, given the endless rounds of scandals plaguing professional sports. Read by writer/producer Arnie Mazer, the book is abridged to six hours in tallying mainly this current scandal involving steroids and human growth hormone—substances which allow sports gods to run faster, hit harder, and also sign more endorsement checks and autographs. Well written and comprehensive, the book is presumed to be another nail hammered into the coffin of baseball. But dreams die hard, and so, like vampires, the dark forces have already risen again to the words “Play ball!” (Random House Audio/6 hours abridged)

Finally, a tongue-in-cheek how-to book that’s different and cute. HOW TO SURVIVE A ROBOT UPRISING was written by a doctoral candidate at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University named Daniel H. Wilson. It borrows an irrational fear of robots from such movies as “I, Robot” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” to imagine the coming possibilities when our culture embraces mechanical substitutions completely. Using dry wit, Wilson has put together a survival manual on each type of robot and device we might encounter. Naturally, for entertainment value, there is some deviant and sinister tendency for robots to malfunction and threaten us. Even that robot fly on your wall could really be spying on you. How do you avoid detection by robot radar? What will you do when a robot the size of a demolition crane suddenly attacks you across the parking lot? You learn quite a bit about robotics here, and the many different types of metal mimics on the horizon, although why they may target humans is unclear until you realize that if they didn’t harbor innate hatred for us thin skinned creators, they’d be pretty boring. Not that Stefan Rudnicki’s deep yet cautious voice could ever be boring as narrator! (Blackstone Audio/3 hours unabridged)

May 2006 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

Let’s start off this month with “the book that ate the world,” as many call THE DA VINCI CODE. Author Dan Brown can be heard giving a rare speech at the end of the new abridged audiobook production of this bestselling novel of all time. As you probably know, the plot concerns a dead curator covered in symbols, a long guarded secret linked to a famous painting and a secret order, and a race against an unknown entity to reveal a mystery before the truth is lost forever. If you haven’t heard an audiobook in quite a while, this is a good start. It may not quite be a masterpiece, but it’s certainly intriguing and fast paced. Narrator Paul Michael will never have a larger audience, either, as he nails the accents while giving each character distinction. Why has The DaVinci Code sold so many copies worldwide, and is now a Ron Howard movie? Probably the controversy over its subject matter—the Catholic church. But as Dan Brown says, it’s fiction based on fact. Meaning it can be interpreted however you like. All things to all people. Now there’s one sharp marketing tool! Balanced, dual edged, ready to hit every target it’s thrown at, including Target Stores, Wal Mart, K-Mart, you name it. (Random House Audio/6 hours abridged)

Many writers have written non-fiction books about the DaVinci code, while others try to mimic the story with similar suspense thrillers of their own, either involving secret societies and/or famous paintings. Even master storyteller Jeffrey Archer now has his own twist in the same vein. In FALSE IMPRESSION the painting in question is Van Gogh’s famous self portrait, stolen for possessing a secret beyond its multi-million dollar pricetag. The art world, both legitimate and criminal, comes under scrutiny as an inside job reels those with connections around the world, until the truth is revealed in a small English village. Known for his plot twists, Archer layers the story with his usual aplomb, while narrator Byron Jennings acquits his job with dutiful skill. What you’re left with is an entertaining tale that, although not original in idea, is certainly original in content and scene-by-scene surprises. (Audio Renaissance/12 hours unabridged)

Award winning narrator Scott Brick lends his talents to THIS BOOK WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE, an unusual tale by A.M. Homes that I’m hard pressed to describe, except to say that it’s like a reality show about a day trader in L.A. who is emotionally challenged when he encounters weird happenings and strange people. Case in point, a sinkhole appears in his yard, trapping someone’s horse, and he responds by befriending a weeping housewife from the grocery store, a donut shop owner, and a counterculture icon. Make any sense? Probably not, but it may confirm to you that life isn’t supposed to make sense, and that may be a life saving realization. (Penguin Audio/12.5 hours unabridged)

Next, in TO HELL WITH ALL THAT, Caitlin Flanagan describes the loving and loathing of the inner housewife. Why do kids sometimes bond with their nannies rather than their mothers? Are weddings as lucrative as funerals to those who prey on emotionally vulnerable clients? Why is marriage the ultimate testing ground for every hidden vice and unresolved frustration known or unknown to both sides? This candid collection of essays on family life, read by Julia Fletcher, shines a spotlight on things that usually don’t get analyzed, including any creepy crawlers in the pantry, lint in the bedroom, ring in the bathtub, and bats in the attic. As a woman, you must pay the ultimate price for a chance at the ultimate reward. If you’re that lucky. Good luck. (Highbridge Audio/5.5 hours unabridged)

Finally, for an out of this world escape, you’ll discover tiny Earth has few problems in comparison with the rest of the galaxy. And ours is only one galaxy amid billions, to boot! In XENOCIDE, science fiction author Orson Scott Card postulates a world called Lusitania, in which three different alien species live together in peace. Alas, there’s also a virus among them that, if released, would kill off all humans. So the Starways Congress decides it must wipe out the planet with a fleet of battle cruisers. Now for the twist. On the way there, the fleet disappears, and everyone turns to a superintelligent female mind called Glorious Bright to solve the riddle and decide the planet’s fate. Wow, there’s who we need in Iraq/Iran policy! Read by Scott Brick, Gabrielle De Cuir and a full cast, this Ender Wiggin saga continues in the tradition of “Ender’s Game.” (Audio Renaissance/20 hours unabridged)

June 2006 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

If wacky characters and funny wordplay matter more to you than plot, you will enjoy CALLAHAN’S LEGACY, read with quirky yet straightforward gusto by its author, Spider Robinson, a man who is a favorite at science fiction conventions, and also a possible successor to Douglas Adams (of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame). Mike Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon is again open for business, and a motley crew of intergalactic guests are soon to witness several monstrosities that pose a risk for all of humanity. Sound familiar? Since the book abounds in puns, one might call it as much a “pun fest” as an Adams send-up. Written in 1996, it has been recently narrated by the Canadian Hugo and Nebula award-winning author of the “Callahan’s Place” series. Not much makes sense here, though, so don’t expect any deep truths or rational behavior while ordering or renting. (Blackstone Audio/6.5 hours unabridged)

Next, British reader Simon Vance gives a chillingly realistic reading of V FOR VENDETTA, a novelization of the screenplay by the Wachowski Brothers written by Steve Moore. As you may or may not know, a totalitarian regime has taken over a Britain stripped of democracy, (hey, it could happen), and a girl named Evey will soon be saved by a masked revolutionary out to change the world. As novelizations go, V is better than most, since it’s not a hastily penned product in the style of a graphic novel, but possesses lush descriptions and careful evocations of insight into the characters. As to whether such a regime could actually come to be? Well, if Hitler had won WWII, absolutely. It also makes sense that the authors of the Matrix trilogy would continue their successful theme–nefarious world domination, with salvation supplied by an enlightened self-empowered twist. (Blackstone Audio/9.5 hours unabridged)

Speaking of revolutions, the best thing about REVOLUTIONARY WEALTH by Alvin and Heidi Toffler is on the last disk, where the authors of “Future Shock” finally get down to brass tacks after rambling for hours on economic theory and history. Not that there are no new insights along the way, but they do have to fill a book somehow. If you rent this audiobook, and listen to just the last disk, it’s worth the price, though, because you’ll learn the basics of world economics (which, as we all know, is what really runs things), and yes, there are quite a few eye opening revelations about China and oil, and about American “imperialism ” as well. As read by Kevin Gray and Laura Dean, here is one point: we may be overreaching in our global influence, but at least we don’t have as our GOAL the continued occupation of conquered countries, which was the case with all previous such expansions of influence–a truth the world hasn’t considered, and doesn’t understand. Another point: why has Europe lagged behind us, as they will with China, the next great superpower? Because they cling to dead industrial age thinking, fearing change, while information and technology is what rules today– a truth China is quickly seizing. (Random House Audio/9.5 hours unabridged)

Looking back in time instead of forward, Elizabeth Peters has her own Tomb Raider-style franchise going, with a collection of historical mysteries featuring the eccentric Emersons. In the latest, TOMB OF THE GOLDEN BIRD, Radcliffe and Amelia are in search of a treasure in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, while their rivals–Lord Carnarvon and Carter–discover King Tut’s tomb. But of course all such discoveries are said to have curses, and so when an odd group of villains begin to demand the location of a mysterious “someone” who has been lost, Amelia must think beyond her own predicament to avoid a regional war. Best thing about this audiobook, though, is narrator Barbara Rosenblat, the most talented female reader in the business, hands down. She could breathe life into a rusty nail, if she had too. Not that there’s anything too rusty here, just the usual adventure, wit, and wisdom from an author boasting a Ph.D. in Egyptology, and a Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America. (Harper Audio/14 hours unabridged)

Speaking of historical franchises, Louis L’Amour has a lock on the western genre, even from the grave (or tomb). In THE DAYBREAKERS, Orrin Sackett and his brother Tyrel head west to Santa Fe, a frontier town in need of a marshal. They both get jobs, one of them crossing the line of the law to protect the other. Shifting loyalties and the allure of romance tempt them both, until a climax puts things right again. It’s an often repeated theme with L’Amour, one of the most prolific writers of all time. (That’s 90 novels and 27 short story collections, do the math!) Reader here is David Strathairn, most recently seen in the movie “Good Night and Good Luck,” and while he is given nothing new or cliche-free, Strathairn does lend L’Amour with simple grace and dignity, as well as the ring of truth–which is the true test for all fiction. (Random House Audio/6 Hours unabridged)

Finally, an author known for walking the hard edge of suspense is Lee Child, whose latest, THE HARD WAY, does take a new and slightly different tack. Here is a more laid back mystery for Child, about Jack Reacher’s witnessing of the payoff for a kidnapping, and then being hired by those paying the ransom, only to discover that they themselves have much to hide. For the entire middle section of the novel we listen to the plausible explanations for the kidnapping, along with who the kidnappers might be, until we’re lead back to a recollection of what exactly Reacher saw that first day of the payoff. Then come the unexpected reasons to believe that what Reacher initially assumed was, indeed, totally wrong. This deepens the plot more than Reacher previously reached. At last, at the climax, the old Child returns, with hard action and plot twists. . . although it’s a long wait. Dick Hill is once again amazing in his ability to evoke the loner and ex-military cop’s suspicions and cynicism (or, as he would call it, “realism.”) Hill is especially noteworthy in creating a character whose front teeth are missing. You will believe every word, or rather whistle. (Brilliance Audio/12 hours unabridged)

July 2006 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

In his recent Audie award winning audiobook FINDING GOD IN UNEXPECTED PLACES, author Philip Yancey finds hope in some pretty diverse situations. As narrated by Mel Foster, what’s inspiring about his commentary is that he’s able to look outside the box, meaning any church walls. That’s a huge leap of faith, considering how enamored of those big, beautiful boxes many Americans are. If we believe in God at all, we seem to imagine that God only visits us when we’re singing hymns in a million dollar sanctuary, where a collection plate is passed, and where we can pretend to be good for an hour. The cover of the audiobook, however, shows flowers growing in a hole in the middle of a road. Whatever one’s faith, Yancey isn’t afraid to be open minded, and unlike those who say “my way or the highway,” he shows that God is waiting on the highway, too. (Brilliance Audio/7 hours unabridged)

Willie Nelson has his own short inspirational book out titled THE TAO OF WILLIE, subtitled “A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart.” Texas Monthly writer and friend Turk Pipkin helped him write it, and both authors read it with the help of veteran narrator Tom Stechschulte. Willie’s 250 albums have sold 50 million copies, and this is his third semi-biographical book, just sharing lessons learned, plus jokes and wisdom. So if you don’t know Willie’s story, or need some friendly advice on life from a man who’s been around the block a few times, this is a refreshing bit of common sense. Stuff that often gets left behind in an age of gangster rap and insane competition. (Penguin Audio/4 hours unabridged)

Next, Julia Glass is a National Book award winner whose new novel THE WHOLE WORLD OVER is once again about some familiar, eccentric, or disfunctional people just trying to cope with the complexities of family relationships. Greenie Duquette runs a bakery in New York, has a depressed husband, and stumbles on the opportunity to become cook for the governor of New Mexico. She decides to leave hubby behind, and therein lies the story. Actor Denis O’Hare narrates this richly textured novel, which, like real life, doesn’t follow any direct path, but always seems to digress into the kind of unaccountable family dramas that are both unique and recognizable. (Random House Audio/9 hours unabridged)

In his latest golf novel, SHANKS FOR NOTHING, author Rick Reilly introduces us to Raymond “Stick” Hart, a man who writes greeting cards for a living, and has a bunch of eccentric buddies who hang out at the worst golf course in America. The owner is planning to sell the place and move to a nudist camp in Florida, but if Stick can qualify for the British Open he might get $250,000 from a Will, and manage to save the course from being paving over to build a parking lot. It’s a sometimes funny tale narrated by Nick Stevens, who hosts a weekly comedic variety show. However, Reilly, a writer for Sports Illustrated, really only achieves par here, if compared with his previous “Missing Links” and “Who’s Your Caddy.” (Random House Audio/6 hours abridged)

Finally, in his memoir HEAT, New Yorker staff writer Bill Buford details his experience working in the kitchen of Babbo, a famous New York restaurant run by the infamous Mario Batali. Batali is not quite as evil or bullying as the chef on the TV show “Hell’s Kitchen,” but one wonders what he thinks of the subtitle here: “An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany.” The memoir is different than “Hell’s Kitchen” in other ways, as well. Buford is not without humor, is a sharp observer–not just of slicing and dicing–plus he actually tells a story, instead of just being offered a job as prize while we watch other fumbling wanna-be chefs get insulted and yelled at for being amateurs. My advice? Skip the TV show, and get this audiobook, which Buford narrates himself with an enthusiastic mastery of timing. (Random House Audio/6 hours unabridged)

August 2006 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

As a guest recently on XM Satellite radio, I was asked by channel host Mark Reddig what audiobook I’d recommend to someone who had never heard an audiobook before. My answer, quite unequivocally, was a 1980 book recently re-released in CD format titled THE RESTAURANT AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE, by the late Douglas Adams. Why? Well, because with the possible exception of suicidal terrorists, everyone likes to laugh, and who is more outrageous, silly, sardonic, and mind- numbingly original than the author of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”? A movie version of Adams’ opus came out a couple years ago, and one of the stars of that movie was Martin Freeman, who narrates here with the deft exaggeration of Zaphod Beeblebrox, (if not Marvin, the moody android.) Lively, entertaining, wry, satirical (adjectives that fail to do him justice), Freeman freely and fully animates the text with the same abandon as, say, a five hour extended skit by Monty Python. And what do you do besides munch and burp at this restaurant to end all restaurants? Well, relatively speaking, you watch the Big Collapse, opposite of the Big Bang. Then you go home with the firm knowledge that life, the universe, and everything will indeed come to an abrupt halt, rendering all that went before utterly meaningless. Kinda liberating, don’t you think? (Random House Audio/ 5.45 hours unabridged)

Back on Earth, of course, there are more believable suspense novels like KILLER INSTINCT by Joseph Finder, in which a young executive named Jason Steadman is trying to cope with his wife’s urging that he climb the corporate ladder at an electronics firm so that they can enjoy a better life. But Jason doesn’t really possess the killer instinct that his rival, a consistent top salesman, does. A nice guy, Jason then meets an ex Special Forces officer who was dishonorably discharged in Iraq. Kurt Semko was once drafted by a major baseball team, and so Jason gives him a second chance by hiring him as a security officer–primarily because the company team needs a pitcher. Soon, Jason is moving up the ladder quickly, thanks to some “accidents” his rivals seem to be having. Can you see where this is going? The suspense is narrated by Scott Brick, who slowly builds the tension into a predicament that anyone might find themselves in once they become friends with a sociopath. As a bonus, what follows is an interview between author Joseph Finder and Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote “Blink” and “The Tipping Point,” on the nature of interoffice politics. (Audio Renaissance/11.5 hours unabridged)

If westerns are your cup of hot black coffee, try FOUR BY L’AMOUR, a full cast radio drama production of four stories by that most prolific of western authors, Louis L’Amour. The stories here are “No Man’s Land,” “Get Out of Town,” “McQueen of the Tumbling K” and “Booty for a Badman.” Each runs about an hour. Evoking a simpler time, when a man’s word actually meant something, the production benefits from non-obtrusive sound effects and the believability of multiple cast members, who have the luxury of playing only themselves. The only disadvantage here is that sometimes a character might be talking from the background, so if you’re listening in a vehicle, with distracting noise around, you may find yourself adjusting the volume to hear them properly. Otherwise, think “audio movies.” In “Get Out of Town,” a young man hires an ex-con to help herd the steers on his mother’s ranch, and when some locals warn him about the man, he nonetheless trusts his instincts, and soon discovers a shocking truth he might otherwise never have learned. (Random House Audio/4 hours unabridged)

Now, if you know a sports nut who hasn’t read a book in eons, a good choice for recommendation to him is DEAL BREAKER by Harlan Coben, a mystery featuring a sports agent named Myron Bolitar, a man who is about to sign a gifted quarterback when his believed-dead ex girlfriend suddenly calls and distracts the star, drawing Myron into a vortex of mystery in order to save the deal. Narrated with aplomb by Jon Marosz, this first Bolitar novel by Coben is being re-released on CD, since it was originally on cassette, a now practically obsolete format. Marosz is a no frills reader with a pleasant, manly voice and predictable inflections, yet the lilt of his speech doesn’t call attention away from the story, making his rendering believable, appropriate, and enjoyable. The novel is quirky, and like the movie in which “show me the money” was a memorable line, it should attract die-hard sports fanatics away from the tube. How’s that for a deal breaker? (Random House Audio/9 hours unabridged)

Finally, I was going to review a new horror novel by Scott Smith titled “The Ruins,” since he’s the author of an intriguing suspense of the 1990s titled “A Simple Plan.” But his new novel is not nearly as scary as a look inside our foreign policy; namely, a new non- fiction book titled THE ONE PERCENT DOCTRINE, by Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind. With Iraq and Lebanon in ruins, and the administration’s simple plan to fight terrorism showing gaps wide enough to drive a fleet of gas-guzzling Hummers through, what is more frightening to contemplate than sentient vines at some Mayan ruins in Mexico is the insidious insanity of religious fanatics willing to die in order to kill us here at home—and not just our buildings and way of life, but also our children. Radical and perverse, these shadowy cells are now maneuvering to acquire suitcase nukes with which to end our abominable existence. How did it come to this? How have we misjudged so badly the dynamics of martyrdom and revenge? And can we ever “win” with a policy of brushing aside intelligence advice in order to chase cockroaches with sledgehammers? Narrated by actor Edward Herrmann, whose authoritative resonance in reading biographies has won him industry acclaim, the book is based on Cheney’s early dictum that “threats with even a 1% likelihood must be treated as certainties.” Sounds like Douglas Adams or Monty Python speaking, given that this translates into using bazookas to kill termites. (Simon & Schuster Audio/6 hours abridged)

September 2006 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

James Lee Burke’s new mystery PEGASUS DESCENDING again features a New Iberia, Louisiana detective named Dave Robicheaux, a former alcoholic prone to dark, violent spells influenced by nagging memories and the need for justice. In this latest outing, Dave is investigating the death of a former friend whom he once witnessed being gunned down in a robbery. The man’s daughter has recently surfaced, spending marked money, something that will lead Dave into a confrontation with the thug who ended Dallas Klein’s life twenty-five years before. Library Journal and other reviewers mention Burke’s intricate plotting, but I say the plot here doesn’t matter so much as the insight into what lurks behind our thin veneer of society. How can we be so generous and polite and respectable one moment, and so callous and violent and greedy the next? Dave’s inner struggles mirror our own, and bring out much larger questions than simply who may have done what to whom, and when. As such, this is not mere mystery, it is literature. Indeed, the prose of Burke is arguably the most astonishingly original in the metaphor department of anyone writing. One day, when finally Burke gives up Robicheaux and writes a truly timeless American classic, it will be on a par with Hemingway’s best, or with Faulkner. Until then, we have a flawed detective who, like Travis McGee in the John D. MacDonald series, shares the burden of human frailty along with a transcendent awareness of the beauty of nature and the heartbreaking brevity of all life. As to the narrator of this story, you could not ask a better performer than actor Will Patton, whose Louisiana accents are as authentic as his gifts for character embellishment and understated profundity. Even the pauses and breaths Patton takes here resonate with an air of familiarity. (Simon & Schuster Audio or Recorded Books/12 hours unabridged)

Another original, albeit strange, writer is Haruki Murakami, a Japanese practitioner of magical realism, alternating popular fiction with fantasy in such a way that the borderland inhabited by his characters becomes a shadowy world at once familiar and disquieting. In KAFKA ON THE SHORE, two parallel stories merge into one. The first is told by a truck driver who encounters a multi-dimensional being not averse with playing with his mind. The second story, intertwined with the first, is that of a precocious 15 year old named Kafka, embarked on a journey to discover home and family, yet beset by surrealistic tests and choices. Not for the squeamish, this novel holds rewards for those seeking something different. Murakami himself is something of an iconoclast in his home country, and like all great writers, feels ill at ease with the status quo. Read with subtle evocation by Sean Barrett and Oliver Le Sueur, among others, this genre-crossing journey into the imagination has been produced by a publisher known for rendering classic masterworks into audio format. (Naxos Audiobooks/19 hours unabridged)

Next, Seth Godin suggests that success in business is directly tied to one’s ability to change, and to “think small and innovative.” In his new book SMALL IS THE NEW BIG, Godin says the old days of seeking out MBAs to fill executive offices is morphing into a search for folks with the ability to creatively seize the moment. Truth is, anyone can change, and these days, the consumer is definitely “anyone.” So to remain fearful of change is now more dangerous than ever, because even giant corporations are being outperformed by smaller companies with remarkable ideas. Bottom line? If you’re starting small, don’t be afraid of the big boys. Come up with something new and better, and you will shine. That’s the lesson I get from this collection of blog posts and business articles, read by the author. (Highbridge Audio/7.5 hours unabridged)

If you’re still a Bush fan, you’re now in a minority, according to the latest poll numbers. Was he naive, dumb, incompetent, or evil, at the height of his popularity after a speech on 9/11? Former drama critic for the NY Times, columnist Frank Rich, contends that the answer is all-of-the-above in his new book THE GREATEST STORY EVER SOLD. Subtitle here is “The Decline and Fall of the Truth,” with a second half titled “Buyer’s Remorse.” To his credit, Rich doesn’t descend into angry invective, and suggests that the Democrats, headed by Gore, may have done little better in the competency department– something we’ll never know. He does call the Bush administration a “propaganda presidency,” detailing George W’s narrow world view, and all-out focus on a predetermined agenda to consolidate his own power. Too bad that plans never seem to survive the first real battle. Narrated by the eloquent and listenable Grover Gardner, this fascinating look behind the curtains is nonetheless depressing, when you consider that the ones manipulating the ropes have made knots for us that resemble nooses. (Penguin Audio/10 hours unabridged)

Finally, as an alternative to serial killer books or endless media re- countings of Bagdad body bags, try Ernest Hemingway’s ISLANDS IN THE STREAM. It’s a late story by the master novelist that has recently been recorded on audio, and narrated by actor Bruce Greenwood. The story follows Thomas Hudson, a painter on Bimini, who later gets involved in antisubmarine warfare off the coast of Cuba during WW II. A very human and familial story, it is read with grace by the believable Greenwood. It’s also one of the last stories penned by this great and most famous of American writers. (Simon & Schuster Audio/15 hours unabridged)

October 2006 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

For an exhaustive examination of faith and science, try listening to THE LANGUAGE OF GOD, a bombshell new book written and read by Francis S. Collins, a leading geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project. Here, a scientist attempts to answer the question of belief in a Creator by delving into biology, chemistry and physics. Following his own bio path from atheism to faith, Collins first employs the writings of C.S. Lewis in understanding the puzzle of morality. Later, he dismisses agnosticism as simplistic, and Intelligent Design as illogical. He also refutes “young earth” creationism, pointing instead to irrefutable evidence that the universe began at the Big Bang some 14.5 billion years ago. So what’s left? Evolution, of course. Charles Darwin, and natural selection. But not “atheistic evolution.” And that’s the bombshell. Collins says that atheists adopted evolution, but God was there first. Evolution is God’s language–the language He invented. It is just as much God’s, in fact, as the Big Bang itself, which science cannot explain. So not only can you believe in evolution and still be a Christian, there is really no other choice, since science has proven that the earth is not young, and that evolution is no more a theory than gravity is a theory. Points in fact: the long held view that there are no transitional species is now dying, since new fossils have been found which ARE transitional. To believe that the universe was created in seven LITERAL days–improperly interpreted from Genesis–necessitates dismissing all of biology, physics and chemistry. And so to believe creation happened a mere 10,000 years ago (as 45% of Christians do) is to believe that there are no galaxies, and that cosmology is all a trick. But God did not employ subterfuge in creation, says Collins, and so there IS a harmony between science and faith. In short, Christians do not need to defend themselves from evolution, because it was God’s way from the beginning, from beyond time. Exactly how much faith does it take for a leading geneticist (or for Einstein or for Darwin) to believe in a Creator now, in this new light? Listen, and decide for yourself. (Simon & Schuster Audio/6 hours unabridged)

A magician of original wordplay, appropriately interpreted, is John Banville, an Englishman who won the Booker Prize for THE SEA, an astonishingly insightful look at a middle aged Irishman who has gone back to the seaside town where he grew up in order to make peace with his tortured soul following the death of his wife. It is the same place where he learned his first lessons about life and love, and even death. What he learned then will now help him cope with his recent loss. Narrator is John Lee, who has the Irish accent down pat for this introspective, wise, and remarkably real telling of a man’s story in a way that most men often find themselves incapable of relating. You will definitely want to keep this one, and replay it to marvel at the depth and quirky precision that can be evoked by a reader with the right voice and delicacy of nuance. (Random House Audio/6 hours unabridged)

For more from the British Isles, Karleen Koen’s historical novel “Through A Glass Darkly” now has a sequel in DARK ANGELS, set in the time of King Charles II in England. The story follows Alice Verney, maid of honor to the Queen, who intends to marry the most celebrated duke of the Restoration in order to obtain–what else–power over the minions below her station. It’s naturally a time of betrayal, as the King is rumored to be about to divorce his wife, and war is looming too, either with the Dutch or the French. One thing’s for certain: human nature hasn’t changed much since the 17th Century. They had greed, vanity, lust, and murderous intent in spades, just as we do now. Actress Rosalyn Landor narrates the text as though telling secrets to a confidant, since many of the characters here are doing the same. (Random House Audio/9 hours abridged)

Next, Lou Dobbs has a beef with government and industry in WAR ON THE MIDDLE CLASS. Dobbs outlines the causes of our problems, mainly the subversion of the legal system by corporate special interest groups, the outsourcing of manufacturing and service jobs overseas, the crippling cost of medical insurance due to multi-million dollar lawsuits, and the propaganda attack by those supporting illegal immigration’s assault on social services. What can be done to recapture the threatened American Dream? Well, that’s outlined too, although it’s mostly relegated to the back end of the final CD, which Dobbs also narrates. By the time he gets to the fighting back part, though, you’ve more or less given up hope that our schools, hospitals, courts, borders, and big companies can ever be fixed. Because it’s pretty obvious that the war being waged by both the rich and the poor against those who are paying most of the bills is definitely not being won by those who are also doing most of the work. As the gap widens, the middle class is ever more inevitably to be left holding the empty, bullet-ridden bag. After all, in any battle, aren’t the people standing in the middle more likely to be hit by flying lead, since they’re being fired upon by both sides? (Penguin Audio/4 hours abridged)

Finally, enter THE DISCOMFORT ZONE with Jonathan Franzen, winner of the National Book Award for the Oprah title “The Corrections.” This is an autobiographical book, read by the author, as he remembers growing up with repressive parents, a fear of girls and spiders, and a loathing for sports (unless you call bird watching a sport). All the basic subjects are covered here, including school dances, church socials and taboos, global warming, writers like Kafka, and marriage. Why you should care about Franzen’s thoughts on these subjects is a good question, but the answer to that is for the entertainment value, and for sheer insight into what makes people tick. That includes himself, of course, since any good writer develops a sense of the larger picture beyond what is seen in a mirror, and so invariably attempts to gauge his position within that frame of reference. As a narrator, Franzen succeeds in conveying much of the angst of his youth, while at the same time not embarrassing himself with tales of overindulgence. Always aware of his audience, he nonetheless doesn’t read as though he is turning pages, and thereby adds resonance to credibility. (Highbridge Audio/ 6 hours unabridged)

November 2006 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

Comically original, WOBEGON BOY by Garrison Keillor is a novel more appropriate for movie adaptation than the one which actually did get made, namely “A Prairie Home Companion.” The story follows John Tollefson, one of those small town kids from Lake Wobegon, MN, as he sets off on a career in New York in search of, as he soon discovers, “grandeur.” The American Dream of sitting home by the pool and doing nothing is no kind of life, after all. Although the novel is more of a collection of vignettes, stories, and commentary on radio and Lutherans than a cohesive drama-driven tale of exploits, it nonetheless has enough charm and lyrical wistfulness to carry it along, especially under the unassuming observational skill of its narrator, who is also the author. Written in 1997, the book has been recently released on CD. and is a wry addition to any collection of Americana, certainly recommended to anyone who has never heard Garrison before. (Highbridge Audio/5.75 hours unabridged)

Ever since Janet Evanovich conceived the character of Stephanie Plum, a ditzy bounty hunter with a wise cracking sidekick, she has been raking in more gold coin than any treasure hunter. Combine the offbeat antics of oddball people with a traditional mystery narrative to arrive at a funny and satisfying conclusion: that’s the formula, once again, in TWELVE SHARP, the 12th outing in the Plum series, engineered to keep you reading. The plot hardly matters, as the series is definitely character-driven, but this time a wacko is stalking Stephanie, requiring defense to turn to offense with the help of her sometimes boyfriend, vice cop Joe Morelli. The situations that follow are always lively with banter and comic promise. You don’t pick up a Plum novel to find new insights into the human dilemma or to explore original ideas, you make the purchase to discover what mischief Stephanie has gotten herself into this time. Narrator here is Lorelei King, Janet’s personal favorite reader, who has managed to inhabit the persona of Plum so well and so often that she has probably developed a split personality in real life! (Audio Renaissance/7.5 hours unabridged)

Andrew Klavan’s DAMNATION STREET is a noir mystery twist on the love triangle. Not only don’t the principals really love the girl, one is a professional killer with a twisted sense of entitlement, and the other is an obsessed detective hoping to lure the killer to justice. Both are looking for Julie, although Detective Scott Weiss sees her a means to an end. Julie herself is a hooker with the face of an angel. Can you see where this is going, following several usual and unusual twists? Yup. A showdown on Damnation Street. The author narrates, which is usually a bad decision, but Klavan is good enough to be a narrator of other author’s stories as well. It’s particularly appropriate here, too, since the author intervenes in the plot to claim he once worked for Weiss in real life, and he needs to deliver a final twist on that subject himself, at the climax. One of the better mysteries to come out this year, with both quirky, believable characters and an original wrap-up. (Blackstone Audio/10 hours unabridged)

For new ideas and an insightful look at society that may surprise you with its range, turn to THROUGH THE CHILDREN’S GATE by Adam Gopnik, an essayist with enough curiosity and openness to explore not only the minds of wary adults on the subway, but also children at play. The gate here refers to one of the named entrances to Central Park, where Adam’s son and daughter often went to escape in their imaginations around the time of 9/11. Gopnik is a writer for the New Yorker, and narrates the audiobook version himself with an attentive fascination for why people act or think so much alike, despite the differences that they try to project. Why do we believe our schedules and obligations are more important than actually communicating with friends? We send short emails, leave brief messages on answering machines, wave in passing, on our frantic way to this and that. Gopnik sees in microcosm our modern dilemma in his daughter’s imaginary friend Charlie Ravioli, whom she can’t even play with because he’s always busy. In fact, Charlie also has an ominous imaginary “assistant,” so now he doesn’t even have time to tell her that he’s too busy to play! (Highbridge Audio/8 hours unabridged)

Ah, Dennis Miller. He’s got a mouth on him, for sure. Not the loud and obnoxious kind, though. Dennis is into slicing and dicing his targets with metaphors instead of mere insults. His fourth satirical audiobook, which he reads like a standup act, is THE RANT ZONE, a three hour tirade against bureaucracy, child stars, reality TV, baseball, and all the bullies who beat him up for being more intelligent than they are. Cynical and gifted, Miller is unafraid to say whatever comes to mind, and that’s quite a bit, considering his self-conscious obsession with comparative judgment. This particular audiobook is like a roundup of the Rant series, but you may have heard some of these segments before on HBO, so be warned. Laughs are never as good the second time around, although if you weren’t listening closely, you may not have gotten it the first time. Or maybe just not all of it. (Harper Audio/3 hours unabridged)

An interesting history that will appeal to chess buffs is THE IMMORTAL GAME–A HISTORY OF CHESS by David Shenk, narrated by Rick Adamson. It links the board game with science, the military, literature and the arts. From its origin in India around 500 A.D., chess has been a teaching tool, and has had a calming effect upon civilizations, while also altering the very structure of the brains of its players. Besides tracing history through the development of chess, this audiobook also describes the greatest single game ever played. That happened in 1851, and was dubbed “the immortal game” because of its breathtaking and unusual moves. Not even a match game, it was to be a practice game leading up to competition, yet it drew more attention after the fact than any match game ever played. All the moves of that astonishing game are given, plus commentary on the outcomes of supercomputers vs. chess masters. As narrated by Adamson, this audiobook reminded me of a PBS series that aired once about connections between seemingly unrelated subjects. Now if only we could get world leaders to play the game instead of firing missiles at each other! (Random House Audio/6 hours unabridged)

Next, with the trans-fat scare now making headlines, french fries and processed snacks are discouraged, so what’s safe to eat anymore? An overview of the answers are available in a “new and expanded” edition of Dr. Andrew Weil’s bestseller EIGHT WEEKS TO OPTIMUM HEALTH, now out on audio, narrated by the author. I put the words “new” and “expanded” in quotes, because not much is new here, and instead of “expanded” I’d recommend the words “simplified” and “abridged.” Still, it’s a good book for those who’ve never heard Weil, an expert on alternative medicine, which means natural remedies instead of pharmaceutical drugs. (For instance, did you know that raw garlic is as good as some cholesterol lowering drugs?) Best thing about Weil is that he doesn’t talk down to you, or load up his delivery with dubious promises or sugary hype. For more scientific information, try his book “Healthy Aging.” This one, in its abridged format, might better be titled “Eating and Walking For Dummies.” (Random House Audio/3 hours abridged)

Finally, when an Indian shaman arrives in south Florida with a bag of totems, various Cuban-American businessmen begin dying gruesome and inexplicable deaths. Could this have something to do with the Jaguar god that Jimmy Paz, Miami’s resident “sleuth of the weird,” has nightmares about? To preserve the rain forest of Colombia, sacrifices are sometimes required. And so is Jimmy’s daughter being targeted by a jungle cat, as he suspects? If the plot of NIGHT OF THE JAGUAR sounds preposterous, know that most of Clive Cussler’s plots do too. Or Michael Crighton’s. What makes them plausible is the quality of the writing, or the ability to suspend disbelief, even for the supernatural. Match this with the superb narration of Jonathan Davis, and you have an intriguing production, with added dimension beyond the usual cops and terrorists escapist puzzle. Or, as Dennis Miller might put it, “if you don’t like the idea of Osama and Jack Nicholson in their underwear in a freezing garden maze at night, equipped with hatchets and Bic lighters, well, then, my friend, you’re either dead or you’re a Price Is Right fan.” (Sound Library/15 hours unabridged)

December 2006 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

Douglas Adams is MOSTLY HARMLESS. Especially now that he’s gone. Or is he? The author of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” never made it to age 50, but he’s certainly going to be around 50 years from now. Particularly if his character Arthur Dent suddenly materializes under the power of an Infinite Probability Drive in 50 years, it’s a given that Adams will be with him. Let’s wait and see. But in the meantime, be sure to listen to actor Martin Freeman narrate another classic–and zany–tome about Arthur’s misadventures as he discovers he’s the father of a wayward teenage daughter named “Random,” and that he must save the Earth from obliteration. What’s more difficult to deal with? Flip a coin. Freeman is clearly the best reader for this, being a free man himself, in more ways than one. Imagine Robin Williams reading a cross between Woody Allen and Carl Sagan, and you’ll get the sonic picture. Oh, and in “Mostly Harmless” bad news travels faster than the speed of light, but it’s difficult to use bad news as a rocket fuel, although many have tried. (Random House Audio/6.5 hours abridged)

A master of the offbeat and eccentric, Mark Baer is a former screenwriter who now pens the kind of novels that the major publishers find hard to categorize or sell. Baer’s new book is KOOKS, about a would-be actor who’s working as a telemarketer when angst forces him to flee his dead end life for parts unknown. Trent Noble then stumbles upon the odd and isolated town of Dadaville, which he must soon save from the clutches of an encroaching corporate octopus named World Corp, perhaps fashioned after Wal Mart. Well written, with quirkily drawn characters, the book is narrated by Jamie Cohen, whose versatile delivery and nicotine timbre accentuate a tale that’s about as non-formula as real life. If you’re looking for “different,” as with Douglas Adams, you’ve come to the right place. Although the majors might not care about anything other then vampires, serial killers, ancient secret orders, and airhead fashionistas, it doesn’t mean you must. (Blackstone Audio/6 hours unabridged)

Next? Well, here we go again. In what must be the 100th DaVinci Code clone so far, Raymond Khoury takes us back to 1291 in THE LAST TEMPLAR, when a young Templar Knight escapes the Holy Land with a mysterious chest that will turn up centuries later when a raid on the Vatican exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is pulled off by four masked horsemen dressed as–you guessed it– knights. Ready for the chase? Throw in an archaeologist and an FBI agent, and we’re off and running. As a novelist, Khoury is a great screenwriter. He certainly knows how to set up scenes, but his melodramatic ending is a bit much for me. This would make exciting cinema, and is surely an interesting escape from formula romance or television, but some of the originality is missing, along with that Codex. Certainly an “A” for effort, though, while narrator Richard Ferrone can’t be faulted for keeping the story moving and believable. See what you think. (Penguin Audio/14 hours unabridged)

Do you own your possessions, or do your possessions own you? It’s a fair question for Matthew Kelly in his new audiobook PERFECTLY YOURSELF–NINE LESSONS FOR ENDURING HAPPINESS. Getting into this self help book with some reservations, I was nonetheless surprised to find a cogent examination of personal transformation. Who are you? What are you capable of becoming? Can you forgive yourself for not being perfect? Should it matter what other people’s expectations for you are? These are some of the questions tackled here, because you can’t be yourself if you don’t know who you are. Narrated by the author, who is a young man enjoying great success on the lecture circuit, this audiobook does resonate truth. And bravo for pointing out a few of those truths, which we seem to ignore in our rush for fame and fashion. A companion to this book would be the Kahlil Gibran masterpiece “The Prophet,” also just re-released by the same publisher on CD. Recorded in 1985 by narrator Paul Sparer, that short book is a must-listen for anyone seeking truth in the age of Botox. (Random House Audio/5 hours abridged)

Finally, Elizabeth Lowell has a new mystery novel out titled THE WRONG HOSTAGE, about a Federal judge whose son is kidnapped, and the kidnap specialist who is hired by her out of early retirement. Joe Faroe is cynical about politicians, as is just about everyone these days, but now he must walk on the edge of the laws set up by those who bend the rules themselves whenever it’s convenient or necessary to stay in office at any cost. Maria Tucci narrates this romantic suspense, which is a cut above the usual escapist woman-in-trouble fare. The cut isn’t high enough to take off the head, which is sometimes the case with more graphic thrillers. (Harper Audio/11 hours unabridged)