Audiobook Reviews

January 2008 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

Every year, it seems, we feel the need to make New Year’s resolutions. Whether we succeed in sticking to them is a matter of motivation and tenacity. To aid such attempts at self improvement I’ve chosen several new releases for their unique perspectives and/or scientific rigor. They are especially practical when heard on audio, while stuck in traffic and passing all those fast food restaurant signs, or while being tailgated by frustrated shoppers returning presents that didn’t quite make them as happy as they expected.

First up is a book that turns the head on our modern western diet. IN DEFENSE OF FOOD by Michael Pollan poses the argument that the reason why we’re getting fatter and more unhealthy every year is because big food processors make more profit selling grains than leaves. That is, whole foods spoil easily, while denatured and milled grains have a long shelf life, and can be transported long distances easier. The most profitable grains are corn and soybeans, which has led to the near extinction of many more nutrient-dense crops. Since the most healthy parts of grains spoil fastest, these are milled out, leaving a bleached “fake” food behind, which is then “enriched” with a chemical spray, and introduced with other potentially hazardous chemicals to preserve freshness. Empty calories and added sugars then lead to a host of diseases over time, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Particularly disturbing is the rise in consumption of high fructose corn syrup, present in most non-diet sodas and juices, and many cookies, cakes, and other snacks. It is an unnatural (manmade) but cheap sweetener that is difficult to digest, just as trans-fats are, and is being guzzled by Americans like there’s no tomorrow. Those doing the guzzling had better hope there’s no tomorrow, too, because their savings on food costs over buying whole foods will translate into their spending far more on drugs and health care in the future! Narrated by Scott Brick, who takes a dramatic approach to the eye-opening text, the audiobook also dispenses sound advice, including limiting your purchases to those items near the walls of supermarkets, since highly processed “fake” foods tend to line the center aisles. If you take just this advice, you’ll lose weigh, outlive your classmates, and may decide to petition your Congressman to declare war on the food industry lobby as well. (Penguin Audio; 6 1/2 hours unabridged)

A year of so ago I published a novel about longevity science, so naturally I was interested in hearing what Michael F. Roizen and Mehmet C. Oz had to say about the subject in YOU STAYING YOUNG–The Owner’s Manual for Extending Your Warranty. Dr. Oz is Oprah’s doctor, but both men narrate this interesting and comprehensive examination of what causes aging, and how to slow down the process. Some of it relates to things mentioned in the previous book, but here, as told by medical doctors, we see deeper into the science of aging, not just those risk factors most people already know about–smoking, processed foods, saturated fat, sedentary lifestyles, etc. For instance, did you know there’s a relationship between flossing and heart disease? Or that sunburn triggers the stem cells grown in your bones to migrate to the burn to repair it, and so if you burn often the odds for a genetic mistake increases, resulting in cancer? Every eight years the body’s aging rate gets on a faster treadmill, and the trick is to fool your internal pedometer by minimizing the biological processes that propel it graveward. Avoiding stress–both internal and external–is most important here, since tension and toxins have a direct effect on the cells, turning off and on various genes that regulate their life cycle. Think of tension as anger, frustration, worry and regret, and toxins as tail pipe exhaust, loud noises, and even those greasy, salty french fries you just ate. You can’t make up for thirty years of eating holiday cheese balls by popping a vitamin pill, but you can start reversing the aging process, say the authors, by thinking about what you’re doing instead of doing it automatically. Popping an aspirin a day and drinking one glass of red wine in the evening may help too, surprisingly. As long as that’s all the alcohol you’re drinking, and you avoid soda altogether. (Simon & Schuster Audio; 5 hours abridged)
Next, in THE HOW OF HAPPINESS–A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, author Sonja Lyubomirsky reveals evidence that happiness is 60% a matter of genetic predisposition, and 40% a conditioned response. No doubt you’ve met people who are happy by nature, and who therefore possess a cushion against the effects of bad things happening in their lives. For the rest of us, without this high set point for happiness, there is the remaining 40% to be manipulated. One of the ways, surprisingly, is simply smiling, even when things may be going wrong. Studies have shown that moods become elevated just by mimicking happy people, or pretending to be happy. Read by the author, the audiobook walks through case studies which demonstrate that money, love, fame, and outward success have little to do with happiness, which is more about an outlook and state of mind than a quantifiable list of causes. Feeling alive and having a relationship to that life which makes it an adventure is far more important than driving a new Mercedes or having a big bank account. (Penguin Audio; 6 hours abridged)

The idea of breaking free from myths regarding happiness is continued in THE ULTIMATE CHEAPSKATE’S ROAD MAP TO TRUE RICHES by Jeff Yeager. Here is a man who cares not a wit about designer labels, $4 cups of coffee, or showing off some new gas-guzzling luxury car to friends and neighbors. His primary mode of transport is a bicycle, which keeps him healthier while sparing the air. Yeager advocates living within your means at age thirty, and staying there for life, rather than trading up continuously until hospital bills take what’s left. In addition to his many tips for conserving rather than spending on everyday items, he recommends pinching dollars more of pennies, since big ticket items are what most weigh people down. Keep everything else in perspective, and you can really enjoy life more while spending less. According to Yeager, who also reads the audiobook, once you step off the treadmill of “more is better” you’ll discover that less means less stress, too. (Brilliance Audio; 8 hours unabidged)

Finally, we come to a true revolutionary. Timothy Ferriss is author of THE FOUR HOUR WORK WEEK–Escape 9 to 5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. Ferris turned his early dislike of authority into a career by rejecting the established model of deferring life until retirement while “wasting” your prime years in a dead end job. Having designed his own escape from drudgery, Ferriss now sells sports medicines online, and travels the world on the income, while still in his 30s. His purchases, sales, and inventory are all outsourced, so there’s no management attention needed, either. And he suggests that listeners can copy what he did by planing month-long “mini-vacations” to do what they really love, and then see if there’s a way to continue it. If not, he suggests going back to the office cubical to come up with a new plan. It worked for him, after all. Formerly stuck in a job he despised, making $40G a year, Ferriss now makes $40G a month while living outside the U.S. for 11 months of the year in major world capitals. (Far less expensive than people suppose, he claims.) Utilizing his opportunistic talent for seeing ways to bend the rules, he also won a dance competition in Brazil, and a kickboxing championship in Japan as well. But can anyone follow in his footsteps? Perhaps, but only if they share the same mindset. Self driven and innovative, Ferriss is a rare breed. He doesn’t need or desire either the admiration of others, nor their symbols of wealth. He certainly cares not at all for the treadmill lifestyle which characterizes most everyone’s experience, watching TV and mimicking their neighbors. “Why retire at all?” Ferriss asks, “if you’re doing what you love? Besides, in the traditional retirement you’ll be so bored you’ll want to stick bicycle spokes in your eyes.” ( download to iPod; 8 hours unabridged)

February 2008 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

Are science and religion compatible? No, says Douglas Preston in an interview following the audio production of his novel BLASPHEMY. This high concept thriller tackles the question of God by positing a particle accelerator powerful enough to probe the hidden dimensions where God is thought to live. At such extreme temperatures anything is possible–even a mini black hole or singularity where the laws of physics break down in a recreation of that rarified environment milliseconds after the Big Bang. Sides are quickly drawn between the scientist whose vision initiated the development of “Isabella,” and a televangelist who plans to use the machine to propel his own career. With the fate of science as mankind’s new religion, the main characters in Preston’s novel each have their roles in the climactic turn of events. Rev. Don T. Spates succeeds in goading his evangelical Christian followers into murdering, rampaging zealots, bent on stopping lead scientist William North Hazelius (called the AntiChrist) at any cost. Bellowing Scripture like a rabid wolf, Spates attacks with melodramatic glee, in narrator Scott Sowers’ interpretation. Meanwhile, Hazelius may or may not be lying about what he’s discovered in that other-dimensional “world.” Ultimately, although nothing is really answered at the conclusion (Preston isn’t stupid), the novel is an entertaining examination of the science/religion schism, by the author of Tyrannosaur Canyon, Jennie, and The Codex. A bonus here, as revealed in Preston’s interview with the editor of Scientific American, is that we also learn what a fraud L. Ron Hubbard (founder of Scientology) may have been, to boot. (Sound Library on CD, or as download; 14 hours unabridged)

Amanda Goldberg and Ruthanna K. Hopper take aim at Hollywood in CELEBUTANTES, a novel which follows the misadventures of Lola Santisi, an ex model and the daughter of a famed director. Lola has been downgraded to the role of a hanger-on, with the new job of trying to convince true celebrities to wear a relatively unknown fashion designer’s gowns to the Oscar show. She and her friends, (a talent agent and a struggling actress), move through the maze of parties and preparations leading up to the Oscars, noting the choices everyone (“who’s anyone”) makes, from “exquisite” to “fashion road kill.” It’s a vain and vicious world, where privileged multi-millionaires look down their noses on those beneath them on the party list, and demand payoffs and bribes to appear at events. (Or to wear certain designer labels). The authors drop every name in the Variety register, making metaphoric comparisons, and revealing how silly it all is, while Lola is told by her Hollywood therapist to wear a yellow rubber band and to “snap it” whenever she begins to fall for “another actor.” (Like the one who broke her heart.) Still, with all the comedic excess on display, amid disparaging their unreal tabloid life, Lola and friends still seem enamored by the glitz, and Lola herself, as narrator, remains trapped by her past. Secretly wanting to find a decent man and to live a normal, happy life, she can’t, in the meantime, help but to notice and to name every high-end brand and label in sight—an entire lexicon of Robb Report products from Gucci and Fendi to designer facials made with the placentas of sheep. Before the week is over, and the Vanity Fair after-party arrives, Lola must come to terms with her insecurities, however. As guide, reader Gigi Bermingham plays to these insecurities with aplomb, revealing the desperate side of Lola’s character with just the right angst. leaving the listener guessing about whether Lola will surrender her fears about becoming just another one of us “little (but normal) people.” (Highbridge Audio; 9.5 hours unabridged)

Turning to health, heart physician Dr. Dean Ornish is a middle aged man with a near zero index of vein obstruction, meaning he’s got one of the most healthy hearts around. So if you’re overweight from years of holiday cheese balls, and worried about your chances for a heart attack, a life saving tip might be to listen to his latest book, THE SPECTRUM. The title refers to Ornish’s system of measuring the health qualities of various foods, from one to five–with one being the most healthy and five being the least. He then lets the listener decide which of the five groupings best fit their own needs and desires. That is, instead of just saying “never eat this,” Ornish simply relates the facts behind various foods, and leaves motivation alone. (ie. “You can lead a horse to water…”) Some surprising things I learned in listening is that olive oil is inferior to canola oil, although both are superior to animal fats. Coffee leaches calcium from bones, while green tea strengthens bones. And spices are very important too, particularly turmeric, which can help prevent Alsheimers while lowering chronic inflammation, (one of the silent causes of disease). Also, fiber’s TRUE benefit is that it makes you feel full, and since it’s taken out of most grains (to give snacks longer shelf life) the result is overeating and $$$diabetes$$$ (Sorry, can’t resist the dollar signs here, considering latest cost reports in the news). Finally, Ornish says that doctors are trained and paid to do heart surgery like stints and by-pass operations, but these have very poor results compared to radical diet and lifestyle changes. Medicare has finally agreed with him, and is now funding his own program, after wasting billions on typically ineffective surgeries while nearly bankrupting itself. A fascinating short but comprehensive book on diet, The Spectrum is read by the author, with the aid of Anne Ornish, who connects the body with the mind by offering guided meditations. A memorable quote from the audiobook: “If something has a long shelf life, your own shelf life won’t be so long, if you eat it.” (Random House Audio; 3 1/2 hours abridged)

Finally, what makes a good narrator? Well, obviously, it’s in the voice. A sonorous and pleasing voice is preferable to one that sounds like it’s coming over the speaker at a fast food drive-through. “Want fries with that?” No, thank you. Given a rich or interesting voice, the really good reader enunciates clearly. Words must be crisp and precise in the telling. Finally, a reader must not sound like they are reading, and should be able to present a realistic interpretation. This requires acting skills to jump between dialog, narration, and action while using appropriate dialects and different character voices. It’s rare to find a reader who possesses all of these qualities–golden voice, precise diction, acting skills, versatile dialects. One of the pioneers of the industry was Frank Muller, who began recording in the ’70s, and along with Barbara Rosenblat, propelled audiobooks out of the vinyl phonograph world into the realm of Recorded Books (tapes and CDs found in libraries everywhere). I had the privilege of having Frank record my own first novel, POSTAL, for The Publishing Mills in 1999, for which he won another of his many Earphones awards. Later, I interviewed him for Cracker Barrel Old Country stores, and was there when one of his last recordings, TISHOMINGO BLUES, by Elmore Leonard, won the prestigious Audie award. (The industry’s “Oscar.”) The motorcycle accident that ended Frank’s career did not, thankfully, end his life or his spirit, and so now, especially if you are new to audiobooks, you owe it to yourself to sample his work.

As an example, TISHOMINGO BLUES features one of Elmore Leonard’s typically eccentric characters, the high diver Dennis Lenahan. Lenahan works at a lodge and casino in Tunica, Mississippi, and while up on the diving board one day witnesses a mob hit. A second witness is Robert Taylor, a shady Civil War reenactment participant who lures Dennis into his varied schemes. Both men seem to take naturally to their respective death wishes, and also seem to have weaknesses for women who could also get them killed. With a background of Delta blues, wacky Civil War buffs, and reputed deals with the devil, the novel hums along under the steady and engaged voice of Muller, who lends to Leonard’s quirky dialogue his own brand of ambient energy. (Recorded Books & Harper Audio; 7.5 hours unabridged)

March 2008 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

Has the world gone mad? It would seem so, says Eckhart Tolle in his book A NEW EARTH, which describes this collective madness as enslavement by the ego’s obsessive thought patterns. What’s the ego? According to Tolle, it’s who you THINK you are–a substitute identity for who you really are. The ego is at the core of what’s wrong with the world because it’s such a pervasive delusion. So people who brag and scheme, who obsess over status, who tailgate you and worry about keeping up with the Joneses. . . these people are enslaved by their “egoic mind,” says Tolle in this Oprah pick, and are not happy campers. Not only are they not happy, they don’t want anyone else to be happy either. (Misery loves company, after all.) What’s the alternative to being judgmental, vain, impatient, competitive and/or ruthless? Well, apparently for some it’s to acquire a collective group identity—a political party, a sports team, a cult. An “us versus them” mentality which then replaces the lonely and terrified “I” that fears inevitable loss. . .or rather the ego that demands to be perceived as right. To find one’s true identity, however, explains Tolle, a person needs to slow down and realize that the future is only a concept, and never a reality. So being conscious of the present moment as one’s only true possession is key. Such an awareness also dissolves the past, substituting a sense of joy and “being” for the more typical regret, angst, and anxiety. Read by the author, the audiobook version resonates with many of these seemingly simple yet profound truths, evident to the listener in Eckhart’s own narrative tone–never preachy, never soapbox maudlin, and most of all never accepting of “The Secret” mindset espoused by other self help gurus who’ve gotten rich by holding up material wealth (rather than mental & spiritual health) as the ultimate goal. As such, it’s a worthy followup to Tolle’s masterpiece “The Power of Now.” (Penguin Audio or download; 9 hours unabridged)

Next, a classic murder mystery with an appeal to anyone, but particularly to students assigned a book report, is CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Fyodor Dostoevsky, given a new reading by actor Anthony Heald for Blackstone. Originally published in 1866, this masterpiece explores the tortures that conscience imposes on a Russian citizen who murders a despicable pawnbroker. Trapped by his own mind, Raskolnikov narrates his disordered psychological descent into darkness with a fevered intensity, and who better to act out his story than Heald, a Tony and Obie award winner who also had a role in Silence of the Lambs. Heald is relatively new to the audiobook scene, but is a commanding presence, able to acquire a character’s unique voice with subtle ease, especially those whose complex emotions make for a compelling and nuanced interpretation. As book report material, the novel is often required reading, but as an audiobook performance, let us now assign it as required listening. (Blackstone Audio; 20 hours on Mp3 disk format)

Finally, David Baldacci has sold 50 million copies of his novels in 35 languages and in 85 countries. These include Absolute Power, Total Control, The Winner, The Simple Truth, Saving Faith, Wish You Well, The Christmas Train, Split Second, The Camel Club, Simple Genius, and STONE COLD, his new “Camel Club” novel featuring a character named Oliver Stone–a former CIA assassin who tries to protect a con artist being hunted by the casino don she conned out of millions, and who killed her mother. Narrated by Ron McLarty for Hachette Audio, the audiobook has garnered praise as a twisting plot romp among various shadow agencies and governments. David’s next novel, due out next month, is “The Whole Truth,” and I spoke to him via phone about his writing, audiobooks in general, and McLarty in particular.

JONATHAN LOWE: Mystery writer Dennis LeHane said that he starts with characters, sets them in conflict, and lets them work out the plot. Do you start with an outline, yourself, and if so, which comes first–the characters or the action?

DAVID BALDACCI: I’ve done it both ways. Had some novels where I’ve started with characters, and built the plot around them. Other times I’ve come up with an interesting plot, and constructed characters to inhabit that story. That said, you can have a great plot, but if the characters are cardboard, and the reader doesn’t care what happens to them, even the greatest plot in the world won’t hold their attention.

LOWE: How much of the writing is discovery for you, then, and do you know the ending when you begin?

BALDACCI: I hardly ever know the ending when I begin. I’m not smart enough to know everything that’s going to happen. Some writers have very elaborate outlines, and they don’t deviate from that. It’s an evolutionary process for me. As I research a subject, new subplots and ideas occur to me. I may not know what characters are capable of in the first hundred pages, and so this dictates future action.

LOWE: I know what you mean, although I also know some writers who start with the ending and work backward, not knowing how they’re going to get there. It’s more fun not knowing, in any case, isn’t it?

BALDACCI: Oh, it is. I mean, I don’t want to sit down and say, ‘okay, today I’m going to be writing section two, subparagraph nine…’ (Laughs)

LOWE: I’ve read once that you like trains, and you wrote “The Christmas Train.” What trips have you taken on trains, and what inspired that book, specifically?

BALDACCI: Well, I took a trip across the country which was documented in that book in a fictional sense. The Capitol Limited, Washington to Chicago, then to L.A. on the Southwest Chief. You know, I grew up reading the Sherlock Holmes, the Hercule Poirots, the Jane Marples of the world, and they used trains and seemed mysterious and also enlightening. It’s a great place to people watch. I’ve also taken trains in Europe, across Italy, France, Germany. . . Most of the time I have to fly just because of the demands of time, but love taking trains, and I’ve written so much on trains, just sitting in your compartment, the lights flashing by, the darkness outside. It’s the perfect atmosphere to write.

LOWE: I wonder if you’ve read “Strangers on a Train” by Patricia Highsmith, and what other writers have influenced you.

BALDACCI: I actually enjoy Patricia Highsmith’s work. She is quite dark and compelling, and also unpredictable. That type of genre appeals to me. I like mysteries that break outside the normal rules. Other writers, John Irving, Anne Tyler, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike. Updike deals with many generations of people, as does Irving. Any writer can be influential, depending on what you’re reading them for.

LOWE: How are the movie and TV projects coming along?

BALDACCI: “Absolute Power” as a movie did very well. A couple other books have been in development too. But it’s tough, you’ve got seventy different factors out there competing.

LOWE: Screenwriting is very different from novel writing, isn’t it?

BALDACCI: It is. Different questions are asked, and there’s a different discipline involved. I’ve sold a number of screenplays, none produced yet, but I worked with producers at studios, where everybody has input, you know, depending on what day it is, and what angle they want you to take. And so you have to know your marks. I’ve sat in offices with six people on the other side, just firing questions. And it helped me, in a way, because it made me think out things a little better. In a script, if you don’t think things out, at some point they start asking questions, and it becomes a long afternoon.

LOWE: Do you listen to your audiobooks, and what do you think of the medium?

BALDACCI: I do, and it’s an exploding medium. It’s amazing, the number of audiobooks that are sold now. For example, I’ve gone to Cracker Barrel, and seen the displays there, and I think it’s a great value-added thing for customers, because more and more people these days are popping them in their cars while commuting. People don’t want to carry books around, and would rather listen to them while they’re doing something else.

LOWE: Plus they don’t have time.

BALDACCI: Right, they really don’t have time to sit down with a book, but if they can do something else too, that’s a great thing. Just looking at the numbers of my books, it’s extraordinary the increases over the years. I enjoy them. I remember first listening to Ron McLarty reading “Last Man Standing,” actually while on a train, and he’s like this diminutive Irish character actor you see all the time, but when he did the voice of this big villain, I couldn’t believe it. It was like the guy was right in the train with me! I wrote him a letter, and said, “my God, you just nailed that character!” He did that voice so effectively.

LOWE: Some of his female characters are just uncanny, too. You start to wonder. . . there’s gotta be somebody else in the studio. . . some woman there doing this!

BALDACCI: (Laughs) I know, it’s talent. I certainly can’t do it.

LOWE: Literacy is one of your charities. I’m wondering how much TV you let your kids watch, and how parents can get their kids to read more.

BALDACCI: Our kids don’t watch much TV. We’re very strict about that. No video games in our house, just a computer where we let them go to specific sites while we’re there. We read to each other instead, and make it a family affair, even making up stories sometimes. Often we’ll read a story, come to the end, and I’ll close the book and say, ‘what did you think of that ending?’ Then we’ll discuss alternative endings, and why an author did it the way he or she did. Kids want to be creative, use their imaginations.

LOWE: And if you’re just watching TV, everything is given to you, so you can’t picture things in your own mind.

BALDACCI: Right, it’s totally passive. I gave my daughter a journal, and told her she could write anything she wanted in there, drawings included. And if she wants to show me anything, we’ll discuss it. Our kids are outside playing, too, coming up with things on their own, as opposed to just clicking on a Game Boy. And what we’re doing is paying off. Our kids are bright, imaginative, they play well, and come up with interesting stuff. I’m convinced it’s because they don’t sit in front of the television.

April 2008 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

There are few, if any, current actors as famous as Thomas C. Mapother IV, the short and seemingly unremarkable youth whose hidden talent lay dormant in his cocky bravado until his first agent shortened his name to Tom Cruise. The fascinating story of the rise of this middle class boy with an iconic smile to one of the most powerful players in Hollywood is detailed in TOM CRUISE: AN UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY by Andrew Morton. It’s all here, from Tom’s family roots in Ireland to his being picked-on by romantic rivals in high school, and from his “bizarre” jumping-the-couch scene on Oprah to his being lured by then-desperate cult leaders eager to capitalize on his celebrity. Estranged from his stern father, while doting on his mother, Tom was something of an enigma to his many girlfriends and wives, and remains so to this day. Known for his obsessive focus on career and image, Cruise sought both creative and personal control whenever possible, which was why it seemed so shocking to see him display emotion on Oprah. (The actual event itself seems mild when viewed now on YouTube, since any fan in the audience at the time clearly seems more excited simply by his being there.) As narrated by John Hinch, the audio version maintains interest with just the right mix of anecdotes to embellish the timeline, and a not overly colorful or austere reading. You may not learn much new about Cruise the man, if you’re a die-hard fan, but the objectivity of the author, who also did books on Princess Diana and Monica Lewinsky, is evident throughout. (MacMillan Audio download from; 6 hours unabridged)

Next, actor John Rubinstein’s long association with clinical psychologist turned mystery novelist Jonathan Kellerman continues in COMPULSION, a thriller featuring (appropriately enough) psychologist Alex Delaware, along with his own LAPD associate and sidekick, Milo Sturgis. On this outing the pair hunt a serial killer whose M.O. includes stealing luxury sedans in upscale L.A. for murders in the city’s seedier suburbs. Ultimately, their manhunt moves from the brokers and hookers of the City of Angels to the even more colorful denizens of the Big Apple, propelled by Rubinstein’s intricately honed talent for creating realistic dialogue. Of course Kellerman supplies the obsessively detailed text for this, but it is their paring that gives the listener an almost real-time experience as the investigation proceeds. (Better than the TV series 24 because one must exercise the imagination, too.) On a cultural level, it may be revealing to note that you also learn as much or more about L.A. society as you do about things like crime scene procedures, psycho-pathology, or the habits of compulsive killers. And speaking of associations, it may also be who you know that counts in another sense, too, even if we dismiss the question of whether Dr. Kellerman actually assists the other novelists in his household–wife Faye and son Jesse. (Random House Audio; 10 hours unabridged)

Next, British author Sophie Kinsella is best known for her Shopaholic series, and this time delivers a modern fairy tale with rather stock characters and a predictable twist. Still, REMEMBER ME? is fun at times, as listeners can’t help but empathize with “Lexi Smart” through her ordeal and attempts to cope. No, she’s not dying. Her dilemma is that, upon being struck on the head during a car crash, she’s lost her short term memory. So when she wakes up in the hospital, all Lexi remembers is being a twenty-five year old working girl, and not a wealthy woman with perfect teeth, a millionaire husband, and a glamourous job. Three years from her life are missing. Desperate to remember something about the schemes that seem to be developing around her, Lexi is determined to become “who she seems to be.” In an ironic way, this may also be the dilemma of the listener, in identifying what they want from escapist entertainment. “To escape, of course, you ninny,” Lexi might say. Narrator Charlotte Parry nails the character, in a contrived and formulaic story that does benefit from a spot-on performance. (Random House Audio; 6 hours abridged)

Of course George Lucas is one savvy storyteller, not only because he licenses his blockbuster concept to certain other selected authors, (who breathe new life into what would otherwise be a dying franchise), but because he maintains effective quality control over all productions, even through distributors. So the performance copyright for STAR WARS REVELATION: Legacy of the Force, while it may be distributed by the largest publisher on Lucas’s home world (Earth), is held instead by LucasFilm Ltd.. Which also explains the sound effects present throughout, since few audiobook producers have the time to add such effects and music. This latest production seems designed for radio, and is written by British author Karen Traviss (who penned five previous Star Wars related novels), and features the son of Hans Solo as a Sith Lord named Jacen, while Luke Skywalker’s nephew Ben heads an alliance against the dark side. Ben must risk everything to find out if Jacen killed his mother Mara, while Jacen’s sister Jaina seeks to learn the dangerous skills of Boba Fett in order to bring her brother back to the fold. Sound familiar? Naturally there’s swordplay and hanger deck assaults to keep the storyline moving. Most notable, though, is narrator Marc Thompson, whose versatile voiceovers can also be heard in many commercials and cartoons. (Random House Audio; 6 hours abridged)

Finally, do you remember the movie Dead Poets Society? The new audiobook ENGLISH MAJORS might attract a similar audience, as well as those who love slapstick and a quirky stage show. Included on the two disks taken from A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION are “the Six Minute Hamlet,” tributes to Hawthorne, Kerouac & Emily Dickinson, and a “Guy Noir” investigation of an MFA scam. Contributing to the skits are Dave Barry, Calvin Trillin, Meryl Streep, Allen Ginsberg, Billy Collins, Donald Hall, Roy Blount Jr., and the master himself in the final piece, which was recorded at the University Concert Hall in Limerick, Ireland. Garrison Keillor is, of course, best when he’s just talking to the audience, describing his life and the residents of that most quirky of all towns, Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. What follows is my email interview with him. (Highbridge Audio; 2 1/2 hours unabridged)

Jonathan Lowe Interviews Garrison Keillor

Jonathan Lowe: You have an association with Minnesota Public Radio and with Highbridge Audio, and you often tour the country with your radio show, besides teaching at the University of Minnesota. What gives you most satisfaction–writing, performing, or teaching?

Garrison Keillor: I don’t associate work with feelings of satisfaction. Rather, guilt, frustration, and resentment of people who write better than I do. Writing is the main gig around here, and teaching and performing are sidelines, an excuse for not writing more. Working on a novel and on an opera make me seriously want to retire and find a volunteer job as a docent at the zoo explaining to schoolchildren where frogs go in the winter.

Lowe: What inspired you to begin this journey? Who influenced you?

Keillor: I was inspired by the need, as an English major, to earn a living in the world and to pay the rent and purchase coffee and cheese danish. I spent most of the 60s in college, imagining I was brilliant, and then, in 1969, my son was born and I had to find work that someone would be willing to pay me to do, and the choices were limited in the extreme. Fortunately, I caught on as a DeeJay in public radio and I’ve clung to this raft ever since. My last job interview was in 1969. I will never write another resume. This is my earnest prayer.

Lowe: In your novel Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 you mention a lady who hypnotizes chickens before chopping their heads off. Then there’s the Doo Dads singing “My Girl” while while repressed 14 year old Gary tries to both indulge and conquer his adolescent urges. With all the description and depiction going on, your town of Lake Wobegon really comes to life, and has people asking you if the place really exists. Do you see that question as a compliment or a nuisance?

Keillor: Nothing that readers say or do strikes me as a nuisance. Anyone who cracks open a book of mine is, to me, a gem. And I am impressed that you know about the chicken hypnotizer and the Doo Dads and the boy’s adolescent urges. Most interviewers don’t have time to read my books. They ask questions like “What’s your favorite TV show?” or “What’s it like to be your age and know that the twilight years are near?” As for Lake Wobegon, it’s a real place, so the question is easily answered.

Lowe: You live in St. Paul, in the land of 10,000 oft-frozen lakes. I was born there, but haven’t been back since age six. How has the area changed, and is the longing for simplicity and family values more alive there than elsewhere?

Keillor: In the time since you left, son, Minnesota hasn’t changed all that much, except the Twins won the World Series twice, and we elected an irate oaf for a governor, and a lot of farms have been lost to housing developments with names like Woodlawn and Riverwood and Floodcrest. I don’t detect a longing for simplicity so much as a longing for a 28 hour day. People are ferociously busy, and it’s taken a toll on all the leisurely arts, such as friendship and humor and good samaritanship. There isn’t time for it. As for family values, they are whatever they are–some families are tight, others are blown away like dandelion puffs. A main value in Minnesota is still: don’t waste my time, don’t B.S. me, I wasn’t born yesterday.

Lowe: What is audience reaction to your shows and signings? Any anecdotes to share?

Keillor: I did a reading in Seattle at which a little girl in the front row fell sound asleep. She slept for more than an hour. It was sweet. I seem to have a God given ability there. Some people in the room were hooting and slapping their knees, and she simply leaned her head against the fat lady next to her and dozed off. It’s good to be useful. A boy wrote me once to say that he loved it when the news from Lake Wobegon came on the radio because it meant that his parents stopped arguing. That was an eye-opener for me. You work hard to polish your act and then you find out that it does people good in ways you couldn’t predict. The audience is invisible and that’s good. Somewhere my voice is drifting through a swine barn and the sound of it seems to perk up the sows’ appetite. Or a lady is listening on headphones as she jogs along a beach, running to my cadence. Or a dog sits in front of the radio, head cocked, and the sibilants excite him in some mysterious way. A dog’s humorist, that’s me.

Lowe: Your guests are an eclectic mix of musicians and storytellers. Who are you most proud of having had on the show, and who do you wish would appear or come back?

Keillor: Chet Atkins was a classy act. Nobody like him. The man never had a bad night. And Willie Nelson. A great musician, very underrated. Bogan, Martin, and Armstrong were great, an old black string band from Knoxville. And Emmylou Harris and Gilliian Welch and the Fairfield Four. And the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. When they left, at the intermission, the hall was suddenly half empty. I wish Willie would come back, but then I also wish I were 36, so what can you do?

Lowe: On the show you also have comedy radio drama skits and fake commercials. Are those items advertised ever real?

Keillor: They’re all real, actually. Bertha’s Kitty Boutique, and the American Duct Tape Council, and Bebopareebop Rhubarb pie, and Powdermilk Biscuits. And if you’d like to buy a few shares of stock, see me.

Lowe: What does Garrison Keillor do during off hours, if there is such a thing as off hours for you?

Keillor: Sleeps, cooks, reads, plays with the kid, goes to movies, shovels snow, sits and yaks with friends. I’m a lucky guy. I get to sit around every day and indulge in make believe and get paid for it.

Lowe: What’s next for you?

Keillor: A show on Saturday. Look forward to it.

May 2008 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

Economic commentator Kevin Phillips spills the Navy beans on the true cost of our reliance on oil in BAD MONEY–Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism. If you’re looking for an explanation as to why the dollar is falling today, and how the housing crisis escaped notice until the bubble burst in August of 2007, this is the audiobook to hear. Essentially, you can thank our deeply flawed financial services industry, underpinned by a deluded public addicted to debt and unlimited oil reserves, for what may be the end of America as a Superpower. Phillips outlines how we’ve stumbled into this nightmare scenario, in which foreign oil producers have strategically substituted the Euro for the Dollar in an era of falling supply and increasing demand. Add a war of occupation, and our resulting loss of respect has us paying full price even to fuel the military vehicles used to “liberate” the Iraqis. Meanwhile, says Phillips, “moving money around” became our biggest industry at home, with real estate speculators encouraging a casino mentality–(the delusion of getting something for nothing.) When the house of cards finally fell, the loan sharks, wielding their exotic financial instruments, then moved in to break some knees. As though to add insult to injury, the Fed is now stepping in to bail out those banks whose feeding frenzy was most horrific, while letting manufacturers continue to go belly up. The result? China is set to take our place on the world stage, and to pollute the air more than we did in the American Century, (which was the 20th.) Scary? As narrated with provocative urgency by Scott Brick, it’s clear that Stephen King and James Patterson have nothing on this. (Penguin Audio; 9 1/2 hours unabridged)

Charles Osgood, host of CBS News “Sunday Morning,” has a new audiobook highlight collection titled SEE YOU ON THE RADIO, in which he profiles the eccentric habits of Americans as a means to showcase societal trends. As an example, he cites a study showing that Americans try to maintain inside temperatures at extreme opposites from outside temps. So when it’s 100 degrees outside, we tend to air condition down to 65 degrees, and when it’s 20 degrees outside, we heat to more than 75. Those ten to fifteen degrees above or below the “ideal” temperature amounts to millions and millions of barrels of oil wasted per year. (To say nothing of the waste in heating or cooling spaces which are unoccupied or poorly insulated.) Osgood clearly enjoys disclosing such idiosyncrasies, evident by his occasional rhymes. It gets particularly unnerving when he compares psychopaths to politicians, and the listener begins to understand why the more things change, the more they stay the same. (Highbridge Audio; 3 3/4 hours unabridged)

Next, REBEL ISLAND is the new Tres Navarre mystery by Rick Riordan, about a private detective who gives up his old life to get married, but on his honeymoon stumbles onto a murder victim, and gets swept back up into the old game of catch-a-killer. A hurricane is bearing down on the island, cutting everyone off from the mainland, so Tres must solve the crime while facing the tensions of both weather and romance. Riordan has a strong narrative voice, lent appeal by the kind of narrator who makes such characters his own, namely Tom Stechschulte. Riordan is one of my own favorites, along with James Lee Burke, and has won the Edgar, Shamus, and Anthony awards while being compared to Dashiell Hammett. An especially good previous outing for Tres, also narrated by Stechschulte, was “The Devil Went Down to Austin.” Don’t miss that one. (Recorded Books; 7 3/4 hours unabridged)

In the horror novel INFECTED by Scott Sigler a bioengineered parasite from space infects Earth’s population, causing most everyone to rampage and kill each other. (Kinda like your typical Congressional Assembly.) There’s just enough science here to lend the story borderline plausibility, but the actual writing is more pulp than fruit. At one point a character bleeds “like a stuck pig,” while the decision to let Sigler narrate, ostensibly because he’s a rabidly successful podcaster, is unfortunate. There are dozens of professional readers who could have improved the text by actually adding subtle nuances of characterization. The cover is genius, however. No doubt about that. An eyeball with a triangular iris, that in online ads is seen to move around. You can’t help but click, and to consider buying. But for my money, “Bad Money” is still scarier, because no one can seem to hit the Stop button there. (Random House Audio; 12 hours unabridged)

Now, the universe is a big place, and if that’s isn’t an understatement, I don’t know what is. In the new award-winning science fiction novel SPIN author Robert Wilson postulates a civilization so advanced that, not only don’t they need to invade us or infect us somehow, their purposes seem totally alien and unknown. These beings may not even inhabit bodies as we know them, and are here called merely “the Hypotheticals.” How to explain, after all, their reasoning in encapsulating the Earth in a singularity membrane–a barrier similar to the event horizon of a black hole, in which time slows to a near stop, while the outside ages as usual? We don’t notice the slowing of time, since, according to Einstein, time itself is relative to the observer. So for every 24 hour day on Earth, the rest of the universe, including the Sun, is aging millions of years. Meaning the sun is soon going to explode. What happens next, of course, I can’t tell. Suffice it to say that the novel is made believable by two factors. One, by some deeply realized characters (Tyler, Jason, Diane) who are not given second billing to the action. Two, by a narrator (Scott Brick) whose interpretation breaths life into them, and keeps the story spinning like a top until the end. There’s nothing pulp about this story, either, so while it may not sell as many copies as a media sensation with moving eyeballs, the higher road, less taken, makes all the difference. (McMillan Audio download from; 17 hours unabridged)

Mary Higgins Clark has been writing mysteries for decades, and like Jonathan Kellerman, (whose son Jesse is a mystery writer), her own daughter Carol is too. The new book from America’s “Queen of Suspense” is WHERE ARE YOU NOW? It’s about a university student who, about to graduate, simply walks away from his life and family without a word. Each year thereafter, Mack calls his mother on Mother’s Day, says he’s fine, then hangs up. Now, ten years later, Mack’s sister Carolyn can’t take the suspense any longer, and devotes her life to finding him. Ignoring the mysterious warning he’d given not to be found, she begins to wonder if Mack had something to do with his drama teacher’s brutal murder. Narrated by Jan Maxwell, a veteran stage actress, the novel is empathetically performed with all the emotions necessary to give the story a level of believability most suitable for such a personal first person tale. (Simon & Schuster Audio; 7 1/2 hours unabridged)

If finding a college student isn’t enough of a challenge, Morgan Spurlock is back from his documentary “Super Size Me” with the audiobook version of WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN? It’s an interesting and insightful examination of just who Osama is, and why his message is so compelling to Arabs everywhere. As narrated by Erik Singer, a former soap opera actor, the book is nonetheless more docudrama than melodrama. As in the film, Spurlock asks the right questions, and ultimately shows that Osama was hugely influential and smart, but is now insignificant except as an iconic symbol. He knew, for instance, that if he could get us to invade Afghanistan or Iraq, we would be bogged down there, and he could thereby recruit thousands for a Holy war against the West. His insane justifications are propelled by radical fundamentalist beliefs, yet he is intimately acquainted with American customs, and is just as angry with Saudi royals as with us for defending the Jewish people. For the full story of Osama, listen to “The Bin Ladens” by the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Steve Coll, (also narrated by Erik Singer.) But for a broad overview in an abridged version, you can’t beat Spurlock’s more entertaining summation. (Random House Audio; 6 hours abridged)

June 2008 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

Prepare to be moved by FINAL SALUTE, easily one of the most emotionally gripping tributes to American soldiers dying in Iraq ever written. With the subtitle “A Story of Unfinished Lives,” this account, by Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Sheeler, chronicles the job of Major Steve Beck, a casualty notification officer for the Marines. Beck’s mission is one without weapons, in which he and an assistant must inform the parents of dead soldiers in person, before anyone else does. Narrated by actor Mark Deakins, the book is stunning in its power, especially on audio. Accordingly, I predict it will be nominated for an Audie award next time around. One mother is in the act of reading an encouraging letter from her son when Beck’s car arrives. Another has just seen President Bush on TV declaring the war is over. When Beck mispronounces her last name, the mother argues that he must be mistaken about her son being dead, too. Haunted by their eyes when they first catch sight of him, “like a snapshot that will stay with me forever,” Beck serves his country–and his President–by taking on the “worst job in the military,” a job he never asked for, and for which he was never trained. And when he goes home to his own family, Beck cries alone in the dark, haunted as well by the eyes of little girls and boys whose fathers will never play with them again. Be warned: you will cry too. (Penguin Audio; 5 1/2 hours unabridged; a photo booklet accompanies the audiobook)

How do we get on with our lives? By remembering our values–family, faith, hope. Garrison Keillor has been hosting live radio theater for decades, and his show A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION was made into a movie two years ago that starred Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan. One of the most endearing segments of the show has always been his “News from Lake Wobegon,” in which Garrison reports on a small Minnesota town’s eccentric citizens. Wry, inventive, spontaneous, Garrison has been called “the funniest American writer still open for business” by Time magazine, and you will hear the truth of it in HOPE–MORE NEWS FROM LAKE WOBEGON, a CD that includes four stories, the first being “Truckstop,” about a man who inadvertently leaves his wife behind while on an RV trip, then gets lost, unable to find his way back to her. There is nothing sensational about Keillor’s quirky stories, except that their ring of truth is so authentic that Keillor himself doesn’t even admit to their ad lib creation. This is the America we dearly hope has not already vanished forever. (Highbridge Audio; 73 minutes unabridged)

For humor, no problem is too ridiculous and no solution too absurd for the Car Talk guys, “Click and Clack.” Their latest audiobook, FIELD GUIDE TO THE NORTH AMERICAN WACKO, is billed as a “radio road trip across America,” and features call-ins taken during four of their NPR shows, including a man from Minnesota who attempted to get his Chevy Cavalier home from Alaska with the help of a rusty barbecue grill. Also, a guy named Dinesh, who is more concerned about how his car will hold up in Death Valley than he is about whether he’ll survive, himself. Then there’s the single guy who wonders if he should tidy up his vehicle for a first date, or reveal his trashy side. Land of the Free, Home of the Wacko? Hosts Tom & Ray are pretty wacky themselves, but with a gift for gab, and the chops wild laughter, at least they’re having infectious fun. (Highbridge Audio; 3 1/2 Hours unabridged)

Any six hour rumination about hitting small dimpled balls across acres of manicured grass must, by necessity, get around to talking philosophy. Carl Hiaasen gets right to it in the title: THE DOWNHILL LIE–A HACKER’S RETURN TO A RUINOUS SPORT. Narrated by the author (who has also authored fourteen novels), the audiobook is an often funny memoir exploring the game as played by the average Joe (or, in this case, Carl). Just like so many players first get hooked, Hiaasen was drawn to golf by his father, then left it as a failure, and here returns to it in order to compete in a tournament for which he is unprepared. Calling himself “one sick bastard” for doing so, Hiaasen describes the allure of the “infernal game” as being because “it surrenders just enough good shots to let you talk yourself out of quitting.” In continuing the tradition of instilling in his own son the seeds of future frustration, the author (who is also a columnist for the Miami Herald) waxes poetic about condo development in south Florida, too, where high end tract houses line a hundred golf courses (as real estate developers attempt to squeeze every dime they can out of dwindling acreage.) He speaks of Tiger Woods, of high tech golf technology, and of an entire subculture of devotees whose very lives may end being stuck by lightning on a golf course somewhere, or via heart attack in their golden years when hit by a stray ball while sipping margaritas on their patio. Tone here is natural and appropriate to someone who feels a duty to try again at a past obsession, while realizing the futility of it all. For narrative skills, and for keeping it in perspective, Hiaasen finishes under par, with the help of a microphone and a sand wedge. (Random House Audio; 6 hours unabridged)

Finally, although it would be difficult to render EAT THIS, NOT THAT on audio, it’s a real eye-opener (as opposed to an ear-opener), recommended mainly for people who are hooked on fast food. Authors David Zinczenko and Matt Golding rely heavily on photos for this book, and suggest alternative choices for bad menu items at all major fast food chains, plus tips on supermarket shopping. The left side pages show what to eat instead of the items displayed on the right side. Each class of food is covered, too, from breads and soups to snacks and desserts. A list of calories and fat content, along with sodium, accompany instructions on how to “decode” the confusing ingredient lists displayed on the labels and menus of brand name products. Chapter 7 is the best, as it clearly shows what you should be eating for real health, and during various moods or stresses. While more than half the book is about eating out at places you should probably not go to eat in the first place, this “no-diet weight loss solution” is frightening in its implications, (and may lead to actual thought about food, rather than submission to mind-numbing TV advertising.) On the cover, for instance, a Big Mac is “good,” even with 29 grams of fat, when compared to a Whopper with cheese, which clocks in at 780 calories and 47 grams of fat. Some “weapons of mass destruction” (foods to avoid at all cost) include Arby’s large Mozzarella Sticks, Boston Market’s Meatloaf Carver, Carl’s Jr. Double Six Dollar Burger (111 grams of fat!), Chili’s Awesome Blossom (“easily one of the worst things you can put in your body”), Denny’s Mini Burgers w/Onion rings, Domino’s Cheesy Bread w/Garlic Dipping Sauce, In-N-Out Burger’s Chocolate Shake (“as much saturated fat as six burgers”), PF Chang’s Lo Mein Pork (“a wok full of oil sinks this dish”), Starbucks Venti White Hot Chocolate, and finally the winner of the “Worst Food in America,” Outback’s Aussie Cheese Fries, (“even if you split it with three friends, you’ll have downed a dinner’s worth of calories before your entree arrives”). It’s a “starter” that may end you, too, with 182 grams of fat and 240 grams of carbs. Contemplating a horror novel? Read this, not that. (Rodale Books; 304 pages)

July 2008 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

Forget the Ark. Indy is looking for something even more mysterious and dangerous in INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. The novelization of the screenplay by David Koepp (based on the story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson) is by bestselling author James Rollins. Rollins is a good pick here, as is L.J. Ganser as narrator for the story, since both writer and actor have a knack for wisecracking humor. In real life, Rollins is an avid spelunker and scuba diver, too, besides being author of Excavation, Deep Fathom, Amazonia, Map of Bones, and Black Order. For his Lucas Films adaptation, the time is 1957, and Indy is fired from teaching by his McCarthy-era superiors, suspected of being a spy. Russian soldiers have plundered a top secret government warehouse, looking for a powerful relic, and after foiling the attempt with a narrow escape, Indy is on the run to rescue a colleague in the Amazon jungle, and to solve the mystery of the Crystal Skull. Faithful to the film version, the audiobook has the same science fiction turn at the end, which is unlike previous Indy adventures. I recommend the audiobook only if you haven’t seen the film. It has a similar feel that–by necessity–is quite different than other (scarier) Rollins titles. It may also be the final Indiana Jones adventure committed to film and audio, and so if you haven’t yet heard a book on CD, that may also be reason enough to give it a try. (Random House Audio; 8 1/2 hours unabridged)

The rising middle class of India and China want their turn at the good life. With economics veering in their favor, they will have it, too. What this means for Americans is sharply rising prices for fuel and food, as demand increases for commodities. What it means for the environment isn’t pretty. In writing about the success of “the rest of the world,” Fareed Zakaria in THE POST AMERICAN WORLD, points to American culture and past affluence for setting an example for the world. Decades of American influence has made many nations eager to obtain the same pride and power. (“We will be the next Superpower,” a young man on the streets of Delhi recently boasted.) What Zakaria argues is that Washington needs to radically shift its foreign policy focus, before it’s too late. Because change is already happening, and we can either fight it and lose, or create coalitions and join the world community as an equal partner instead of a superior force (ie. policeman of the world.) “Globalization is unstoppable at this point,” reiterates Zakaria, as editor of Newsweek International. What threatens everyone now, he says, is Nationalism, which is unfortunately another path toward which America has also pointed (ie. US VS. THEM, “we’re #1.”) Indeed, where Nationalism is strongest, more weapons systems are required, and as Einstein once put it at the advent of the atomic bomb, “Nationalism is the measles of humanity.” In the end, though, Zakaria, as narrator here, presents a thoughtful and comprehensive assessment of the future that is not without hope. He cites America’s educational system and diversity as its greatest assets, and rejects the idea that we will ever become a so-called “third world” nation. “The Post American World” is therefore not an anti-American book, as the title may suggest, but a wake-up call in the form of an examination of what is actually happening in the rest of the world. (Simon & Schuster Audio; 8 1/2 hours unabridged)

Next, have you ever wondered how strippers become jaded and disillusioned? Wonder no more in listening to NO MAN’S LAND, a memoir with a cynical bent, narrated by its author, Ruth Fowler. Fowler was subject of a New York Times piece on stripping, and decided to pen a book on her experiences. Unusually well positioned to do so, (she’s a Cambridge grad and UK freelancer), Fowler first arrived in the Big Apple with high hopes for becoming a writer. . . ambitions that were subsequently dashed. Then, after a stint working on cruise ships, and using the pseudonym “Mimi,” she began stripping to make ends meet. Chronicling her life from that point, along with those she meets, Fowler seems to lose her own identity in the underworld nightlife of anonymous sex. The memoir is oddly disconcerting and defiant, both raw and literary, like a wilting flower in a waste dump. It’s also poignant and revelatory, if self indulgent. (Penguin Audio; 9 hours unabridged)

Is no one immune to invisible influences? Not according to SWAY–THE IRRESISTIBLE PULL OF IRRATIONAL BEHAVIOR by Ori & Rom Brafman. Whether you’re the veteran pilot who made the disastrous decision to take off down a foggy runway without clearance, or the President (Johnson or Bush) who made the decision to continue fighting without an exit strategy, there are hidden forces at work. SWAY, as read by John Apicella, outlines these forces with examples of why we are influenced against our better judgment. Fear of loss is one strong motivation, which can lead to exponentially greater losses if we don’t recognize it early. Another is our inability to reevaluate our initial impression of someone or something, even given glaring new evidence. Or to assume the value of something based on its popularity or celebrity endorsements. (Oprah said what?) Why are we more likely to “fall in love” when there is danger involved? Why is a virtuoso violinist completely ignored when playing in a subway, although given a standing ovation in Carnegie Hall? Hidden psychological forces are swaying us all the time, and this audiobook, in the tradition of “Blink” and “Freakonomics,” provides many intriguing examples. (Highbridge Audio; 4 3/4 hours unabridged)

Finally, Brad Thor is not averse to taking risks. He does so with his latest thriller THE LAST PATRIOT, about a Homeland Security operative named Scot Harvath, who goes on the hunt for a secret final revelation made by the Prophet Mohammed just before his assassination. This revelation, if disclosed, will end radical Islam’s violence against non-believers without another bullet or bomb required. Naturally, there are those intent on never leaking this secret, and who are prepared to kill in order to prevent that. In this fictional thriller, and in the tradition of Robert Ludlum, the target includes Harvath, who is also a former Navy SEAL. But in real life, one might ask if the target might include author Brad Thor himself, as a former Homeland Security operative. Narrated by actor Armand Schultz, the novel is part spy thriller and part DaVinci Code puzzler. For more about Thor’s previous novels, see his website, which is hands-down the most slick, high-tech author website out there. The audiobook also includes an enhanced CD with bonus chapters and a video trailer. (Simon & Schuster Audio; 6 hours abridged)

August 2008 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

The building of skyscrapers is a perilous but heady endeavor. For the site of the World Trade Center, a Freedom Tower is now being designed by the same architect who drafted the Burj Dubai, the current world’s tallest building. And a futuristic mile high tower, (once envisioned as theoretically possible by Frank Lloyd Wright), is also being proposed by a rich oil sheik in Saudi Arabia. So the skyscraper race is “on” once again, just as it was almost a century ago. To hear how that first race was conducted, I recommend the audiobook HIGHER by former agent and editor Neal Bascomb, as read with documentary aplomb by veteran stage actor Richard Davidson. It details the rivalry between two architects, William Van Alen and Craig Severance, as they plotted to outdo each other in the construction of the Chrysler Building and the Manhattan Company Building in the late 1920s in New York. Ultimately, both men were defeated by William A. Starrett, an architect on the Empire State Building in 1931. (That building remained highest in the world until 1972.) As Starrett put it, “Building skyscrapers is the nearest peace-time equivalent of war,” since many trades are involved in what consists of building a vertical city on a timeline requiring utmost coordination, while safety is granted the narrowest of margins. One misstep, one unexpected strong breeze, and hoisted steel could launch an unwary worker off a girder, if not crush him. Bascomb’s account is embellished with the color of the times, including the Great Depression, which didn’t stop construction, but rather goaded it on to quicker completion. Both corporate financiers and their competing designers and engineers are profiled, while the experience of the trades people actually doing the grim work for low pay is conveyed as though their toil possessed grander purpose than simply to erect monuments to the egos of their employers. A few facts: A secret 185′ spire was hoisted and placed atop the Chrysler Building near the end of its race with Severance, to claim the title for the 77 floor building whose facade is reminiscent of a car’s radiator grill. (Exactly 391,831 rivets were placed in the building’s framework.) The 70 floor Manhattan Company Building was struck by a Coast Guard plane at the 58th floor in 1946, when four were killed. The building was sold to Donald Trump in 1995. Another plane, this time a B-25 bomber, also struck the 102 floor Empire State Building in 1945 at the 79th floor level, but the building was only closed briefly. Originally, the building was designed to have a landing dock for airships, but after a trial docking maneuver in strong cold winds at the 1250′ level, those plans were scrapped. Although Faye Ray doesn’t look cold with King Kong at the summit! (Recorded Books; 11 hours unabridged)

Next, if your only aspiration is to be a beach bum, it helps to have either a tidy investment portfolio featuring energy futures, or maybe a rich uncle whose real estate isn’t owned by Fannie Mae. In THE DAWN PATROL by Don Winslow, the beach bum hero Boone Daniels is a sometimes P.I. like Magnum, with a benefactor to support his surfing lifestyle in San Diego (rather than Honolulu), and an occasional job to keep him in fish tacos. His sidekicks include five friends affectionately known as the “Dawn Patrol” because they like to get up early to scout for waves. Although the waves in southern California aren’t as big as those on the north shore of Oahu, neither are Boone’s ambitions, although he does have a hidden need for redemption involving an abducted and abused girl named Rain, whom he wasn’t able to save while a San Diego cop. In the climax at the end of the novel Boone is given a chance to “make up” for that obsessed moment in his life, but in the meantime there’s a lot of character studies and observations to be made about everyone he knows and everywhere he frequents. This is as much a people and place novel as it is a mystery or thriller, centered around Boone being hired by a sexy attorney named Petra to find a stripper whose testimony she needs to defend her law firm from a sleazeball nightclub owner. Wry observations are made at every turn, in a not unsuccessful attempt at endearing you to the characters, although why we need to be tour-guided in the history and evolution of Boone’s environs at times seems questionable. Winslow is obviously not writing according to formula in the way James Patterson does, which oddly works to his favor, since the book slowly begins to work on you. Just don’t expect the unexpected twists, false turns and relentless plotting of your typical mystery. These are just some laid back beach bums with an attitude, a bent toward territorial defense, and a creed known as loyalty. What happens is similar to real life, not pulp fiction, and in the voice of actor Ray Porter, whose skeptical tone and in-the-know style also presented “The Four Hour Work Week,” it’s a marriage made in heaven. Boone and his buddies don’t want to work a forty hour week, they’d rather catch waves. Gather Magnum, Boone, Winslow, Tim Ferriss, Porter, and the editor who bought this book, and you’ll probably discover they all hold that philosophy, either outwardly or secretly. Workaholics–or serial killer fans–need not apply to the Dawn Patrol. (Blaclkstone Audio; 9 hours unabridged)

Finally, Peter Senge is an MIT lecturer whose book “The Fifth Discipline” was called one of best business books of all time. His new book is THE NECESSARY REVOLUTION, which embraces change as the model for the 21st Century by proposing that what America needs now is quite different than what we expected it would back in the 20th. Our past strategy of compete-to-dominate is over. With the new world more and more a closed system, we share the air with many new consumers and markets, who are also new polluters. According to Senge, we cannot afford to continue to perceive the world in the same way that we did, because change is being forced upon us, and it is much better to anticipate and plan for that change than to dig in and wait for some giant dinosaur to collapse on top of us. In an increasingly interdependent world, what is most necessary is to cooperate. Ways to achieve cooperation for a sustainable business environment are outlined here, with examples of what is already happening around the world. Inspiring and insightful, the audiobook is co-authored by Bryan Smith, president of Broad Reach Innovations; Nina Kruschwitz, manager of the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook project; plus Joe Laur & Sara Schley, cofounders of the SoL Sustainability Consortium. The book is narrated by actor Patrick Frederic, while author Peter Senge is also featured. (Random House Audio; 6 hours abridged)

September 2008 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

After hearing Christopher Ciccone read his autobiography, one cannot help wondering why now? Could it be that Christopher has once again hit hard times, due to lack of work and drug use? Or could it simply be that his sister, arguably the most famous woman on Earth (at least to the 80s and 90s generation), has just turned 50, and there has been a secret pact that he couldn’t write a book like LIFE WITH MY SISTER MADONNA until now? We are not told the reason for the timing, except in a brief opening statement the author assures us that it was written to sort out his thoughts about his sister, and served as a catharsis in finally breaking free into his own identity, because, as he puts it, “I was born my mother’s son, but will die my sister’s brother.” Christopher shared most of his life with Madonna, from a Michigan childhood to a turbulent and emotional struggle in New York, then finally as Madonna’s art director and backup dancer on the Blond Ambition and Girly Show tours. In between it all, he worked for Madonna as dresser, decorator, and personal assistant, and became friends with many of her famous friends, including Kate Moss, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Demi Moore. Never able to break free from Madonna’s controlling influence into an independent dancer or designer in his own right, Christopher fell victim again and again to mistreatment and verbal abuse, as his sister underpaid him, doling out just enough to keep him tied to her, while she lavished extravagant sums on houses and art. Christopher’s battle with drugs was soon to follow, as this behind-the-curtain narrative unfolds with flagrant detail, tarnishing his sister’s carefully constructed mythology. A gay man with a deep masculine voice, Christopher adopts an unemotional, matter-of-fact tone in reading the book, which was coauthored by Wendy Leigh. Photos of their life together appear in PDF on an enhanced CD, just as they appear in the print book, but one doesn’t get as vital or real a picture reading the print version as in hearing Madonna’s own brother dish back as well as he’s taken since the narcissistic, homophobic, and macho Guy Ritchie effectively ended his relationship with the pop icon. Now Madonna is ironically falling out with Ritchie, yet striking deals to do concerts in Dubai for $25 million. Not without serious flaws himself, the poorer Christopher Ciccone tells a story about the cost of fame from an angle seldom seen, or rather heard. (Simon & Schuster Audio; 5 hours abridged)

As a genre, romance has tended to fluctuate between the sappy and steamy, taking stock characters on a predictable roller coaster ride that ends with either a wedding or some twist on revenge. In recent years, romance has strayed into mystery and suspense in a crossover attempt to win a wider audience. Working mothers or career women whose hopes for advancement included snagging the resident Adonis are no longer typical of this new wave of novels populated by serial killer investigators, ghost busters, and even vampires. The boring has turned into the ridiculous. So it was with pleasant surprise that, having ejected the first disk of a new (and vapid) Danielle Steel novel, I next inserted TRAIN TO TRIESTE by first time novelist Domnica Radulescu, a literate romance that breathes spontaneous life from its opening paragraphs. In the memoir-clarity of first person, the story of Mona Manoliu is told, circa 1977 in Ceausescu’s Romania, as she falls in love with a young man who is later seen in the uniform of the secret police. Fleeing the country for Chicago, Mona goes on to live a quite different life with another man, but can never forget her one great love. Indeed, twenty years later, when she finally returns to Romania to learn the truth, the moment is rendered with exquisite detail, something that is simply absent in most of today’s less believable manipulations. The reason I haven’t reviewed much romance in the past is, (I now realize), not because I am not romantic, but rather because I could never get past the first CDs. This audiobook kept me through all nine disks, however, thanks to the well drawn character of Mona, whose hauntingly original voice is honest, brave, witty, and most of all passionate and alive. Thanks also to narrator Yelena Shmulenson, whose ability to empathically inhabit the character is matched by her masterful delivery and authentic accent. A must-hear. (Highbridge Audio; 11 hours unabridged)

Next, have you ever wondered why the most seemingly sedate and innocuous people can suddenly act recklessly demonic behind the wheel? According to Tom Vanderbilt in TRAFFIC–WHY WE DRIVE THE WAY WE DO it’s because there’s an anonymity inherent to the closed passenger compartment similar to a chat room on the internet. So while John Q. Public might never cut you off in conversation, he hesitates not at all to cut you off in traffic. Safe and anonymous behind tinted glass, many drivers feel a sense of invincibility–especially those whose physical smallness or emotional insecurity is suddenly enhanced by a huge or powerful vehicle. Vanderbilt explores the many ramifications of human nature in driving, as well as our misperceptions in judging how to avoid accidents. How traffic actually works can be both surprising and scary, too. Hundreds of decisions are made every minute on the road, and the chances for one mistake to snowball only increases with speed, distraction, fatigue, and a variety of X factors. Where and when do most accidents happen? On dry, sunny days on rural, two-lane roads. Where a false sense of security pervades. It was where Stephen King was struck by a pickup truck, just over a rise, walking by the side of the road. As read by David Slavin, this audiobook is best listened to while stuck in traffic. It might just save your life. (Random House Audio; 6 hours unabridged)

Finally, an update interview with Brad Meltzer, author of six previous New York Times bestsellers, his seventh and latest now being THE BOOK OF LIES, narrated by Scott Brick. A graduate of the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School, Meltzer was once an intern on Capitol Hill, and currently lives in Maryland with his wife and son.

JONATHAN LOWE: Just finished listening to your new novel “The Book of Lies.” Until I heard it, I was wondering how on earth you’d link up the premise about finding the first murder weapon used by Abel to kill Cain with the real life murder of the father of the creator of Superman. Congrats on an enjoyable journey of following clues bolstered by the father-son theme.

BRAD MELTZER: Thanks. My editor asked the same question when I started.

LOWE: Am curious about your research. Did the premise arise organically from your boyhood love of comic books, and your curiosity about their authors? And how did your investigations proceed within your usual two-year time frame to write a novel?

MELTZER: Every writer has a story they’ve been waiting their whole life to tell. This is mine. I know this because I first pitched The Book of Lies over a decade ago. When my first novel, The Tenth Justice, was published, my original pitch for the follow up was a story involving Cain. Exactly. My editor at the time smartly told me: “You’ve just established yourself as a bestselling author of legal thrillers. Do you really want to risk it all by suddenly switching to kooky things like Cain?” It was a moment I’ll never forget. I caved right there. I was twenty-seven years old and barely had paid off my student loans. I caved in no time at all. In fact, I set the record for caving. But it took me until now to come back to it.

LOWE: It really is still partly a mystery–the murder, and the genesis of Superman–isn’t it?

MELTZER: Absolutely.

LOWE: There’s a website to explore about this?

MELTZER: It’s all at , including a video ad for the book.

LOWE: I see that Dennis Kao was producer and director of the audio version. I’ve met and interviewed Dennis in the past, regarding how audiobooks are made, and about one of my favorite thrillers with sound effects, “The Breathtaker” by Alice Blanchard. He’s worked his magic here on your book as well, with the unobtrusive Mahler and Elgar clips, and the PDF of illustrations included on the final disk. Have you heard the companion soundtrack to your audiobook?

MELTZER: Those are directly from the soundtrack we did for Victor Records. It’s on iTunes and Amazon — and we actually scored the key chapters of the book so you can play certain chapters and hear exactly the song that conveys the emotion of that chapter.

LOWE: Scott’s dramatic performance alone is reason to listen, of course. Are any of those character accents a result of your throwing him a curve ball, like he claims you sometimes do?

MELTZER: Scott is my hero. It’s why I actually asked him to come back and rerecord my first two books. If my name is on it, so is Scott’s. He makes me sound handsome. Plus, I’ll get him with an accent he can’t do sooner or later.

LOWE: You grew up reading comics, too, and graphic novels, like from Alan Moore and Warren Ellis and Frank Miller. Any more graphic novels of your own in the works, like “Identity Crisis”?

MELTZER: “Last Will & Testament” should be out as people read this. How’s that for service?

LOWE: What can we expect from you next time, in two years, or haven’t you considered that yet? And where you going on book tour?

MELTZER: Working on the new one now. And the book tour for The Book of Lies kicks off September 2nd to 20 cities. See them all at my website.

October 2008 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

London. Nov. 1, 2006. New York Times bureau chief Alan S. Cowell, although he doesn’t know it yet, is about to cover the events leading up to the poisoning death of a former KGB intelligence officer known for his criticisms of President Vladimir Putin. Sound like a spy thriller? It is, but it’s not fiction, and now Cowell has gone on to chronicle the entire back story in his new book THE TERMINAL SPY, which follows Alexander Litvinenko throughout his insider career in the 1990s with other spies and sanctioned Russian thugs. Cowell explains why a rare radioactive isotope known as polonium was the preferred weapon of assassinations by the Kremlin–primarily for its resistance to detection and short half-life. One speck in food will kill within days, then be flushed from the body, while inflicting excruciating pain. It was only by accident that Litvinenko’s dose was discovered, while his approved killer escaped prosecution so that diplomats could save face. Narrated by the always engaging actor John Lee, whose accented performance is especially appropriate here, the audiobook confirms suspicions that sometimes, at least, real life can be just as intriguing as those spy thrillers on the big screen. (Random House Audio; 6 1/2 hours abridged)

Next, John Keller is a hit man who collects stamps. Odd, you might say, for a man you might associate with being a sociopath. But is Keller really without scruples? In HIT AND RUN by award winning mystery writer Lawrence Block, the case is made for a hit man possessing endearing qualities. For the purposes of reader identification, this is a useful presumption, too, since it would be more difficult to root for someone who might slit your throat for no good reason. Keller usually has a good reason, and not just because he’s being paid. The victims usually “deserve” what they get. That is, they are usually killers themselves. In this latest installment, Keller has been set up by his employer to take the fall for a political murder he didn’t do, and must disappear before the police find him. He eventually travels to New Orleans, where he attempts to live a normal life with a construction job and even a girlfriend. With his stamp collection presumably stolen and his intriguing secretary “Dot” out of the loop, Keller bides his time until the expected moment of revenge presents itself, when his old life may (or may not) resume. Has Keller finally retired, as he intended? Judge for yourself. Your guess is as good as mine. The plot is not the important thing here. In fact, there’s not much plot at all. The attraction is in hearing about the day to day mundane activities of a man with a job we wouldn’t consider doing. Unless we were sociopathic. Block walks that tightrope even more believably with the talents of narrator and actor Richard Poe, who gives the understated performance required by the text, and who crosses into dramatic accented speech only at those moments involving confrontation, whether droll or action oriented. Poe is good, and he has Keller’s mindset down pat, and that conveys to the audience. Is there a John Keller out there somewhere in real life? Perhaps, but he’s certainly not the norm. You wouldn’t be as curious about him if he was typical, either. (Recorded Books; 8.5 hours unabridged)

CROWDSOURCING was coined by journalist Jeff Howe in the June 2006 issue of Wired magazine to describe the phenomenon of non-professional contributions to formerly professionally dominated industries. Although no one expects those who frequent social websites, (endlessly swapping photos and songs and videos), to put doctors and lawyers out of business anytime soon, Howe makes the case, in his book subtitled WHY THE POWER OF THE CROWD IS DRIVING THE FUTURE OF BUSINESS, that the contributions of ordinary citizens to the creative side of free enterprise is already putting many professionals out of work. His primary case study is, a company which licenses stock photography via the internet at a much cheaper rate than professional stock photographers, or Getty Images. Anyone can submit their photos, and if accepted, can begin to earn royalties on them. The same is true for tee shirts, whose designs are crowdsourced, voted on by peers, and then sold to the very people who frequent the site. Of course the biggest model for crowdsourcing is Google, which ranks pages by how often people quote or link to them. And while collects news stories from amateurs, YouTube attempts to bypass mainstream media altogether by making anyone a “reporter.” Certainly these trends are commendable in many ways, opening doors to innovation and increased productivity, since not even scientists have time to sift through all the data collected by giant telescopes, looking for asteroids or signals from intelligent civilizations. But if this new meritocracy were to expand, would it not give false hope to those considering whether or not to attend grad school? If I’ve got an advanced degree in thermodynamic engineering, and I’m driving a cab, I’ll have a better chance of contributing to an alternative energy startup company (that crowdsources) than someone who has been washing dishes in a diner all his life. Rather than seeing this trend as empowering the masses, it is therefore better to view it as an opportunity for unrecognized talent to come forward. Still, an interesting discussion all around, as narrated by actor Kirby Heyborne, who is moonlighting here from feature films and television series. (Random House Audio; 10 hours unabridged)

Michael Moore, having witnessed the defeat of Al Gore and other Democratic Presidential contenders in the past, is understandably more than a bit paranoid about the prospect of losing an election that should be “a slam dunk.” In his new, short audiobook (that he narrates himself with both self-deprecating humor and real emotional urgency) Moore wonders aloud how Democrats will manage to blow it this time. He even offers the party advice on how to blow it again, just before advising Obama what to do during his first weeks in office. Is he serious? You bet. About as serious as a fat man on a high wire over a river filled with piranha can be. The humor here may be gallows in MIKE’S ELECTION GUIDE 2008, as he provides prefabricated statements “to be taken out of context by the press,” but while the audiobook is mostly an audio blog, Moore is also unafraid to ask the un-askable. For example, he asks McCain about whether he thinks bombing targets in Vietnam “where civilians were present” was the courageous thing to do. “Mr. McCain,” he says, “your answer, please.” (Hachette Audio; 3 hours unabridged)

Finally, the epic SF classic DUNE ended with Paul Muad’Dib in control of spice mining on the desert planet, having defeated the forces of House Harkonen. Frank Herbert’s sequel, DUNE MESSIAH, takes up years later, after Paul’s armies have conquered the galaxy. The period between these two books has been left unexplored, until now, with PAUL OF DUNE, by Herbert’s son Brian, and Kevin J. Anderson. The duo have previously explored other timelines surrounding Dune, but here they focus on the reign of conquest in which Paul leads his legions from victory to victory while both self doubts and internal conflicts threaten to undermine him. Attempts are here made on Paul’s life, and loyalties are questioned, leading to harsh consequences that bring up the old question, “Does absolute power corrupt absolutely?” Read by Dune universe insider Scott Brick, who is quite familiar with all the requisite pronunciations, the novel is a must for Dune fans, and anyone else into space opera. For those whose suspension of disbelief doesn’t extend to Star Wars, and the clash of epic egos in space so vast that even Darth Vader is a grain of sand on some distant beach, might I suggest the clash to be resolved on Nov. 2? Perhaps not, but at least things will be in better perspective after hearing this audiobook. (MacMillan Audio; 18 1/2 hours unabridged)

November 2008 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

John le Carre is known for his spy thrillers, often intricate character studies more focused on motives and inner conflicts than on bombs and chase scenes. In his new novel A MOST WANTED MAN, the paranoia of the post 9/11 world comes into play in a story about a boxer named Melik Oktay who takes in a Russian man claiming to be a Muslim medical student. Melik and his mother, who are Turkish Muslims living in Germany, are unaware that Issa is a wanted terrorist whose mysterious father hides a secret portfolio at a Hamburg bank. When a representative of Issa attempts to claim this portfolio, Tommy Brue enters the picture as an investigator on behalf of a failing British bank. He and an idealistic civil rights lawyer named Annabelle, together with Issa himself, get involved in a love triangle, while the spies of various agencies look to score another bravery medal in the war on terror. This largely cosy mystery is narrated by the author, who can’t be faulted for his accent, or anything else, in a believable and understated performance. While readers of many American thrillers may be bored to tears by the lack of intense action sequences (a la Ludlum), this is a more realistic and human approach to the genre. Incidentally, British humor isn’t as focused on bathroom and bedroom activities as American humor, either. (Simon & Schuster Audio; 6 hours abridged)

Recall the rash of burglaries perpetrated on Las Vegas casinos circa 2000? Former Miami Herald columnist John Huddy spills open the money bags taken from the armored car heists in detailing how much was taken (and how spent) in STORMING LAS VEGAS. What is most surprising about this true story is the audacity of the robbers, who once planned an assault by stealing a fleet of rental cars in broad daylight, pretending to be a company carrier exchanging models between lots. The heists themselves were often carried out in daylight too, on busy streets with carefully timed and choreographed maneuvers. Las Vegas was just advertising itself as a family-friendly vacation destination when Jose Vigoa arrived in town. As a Cuban-born veteran of the Soviet Army, Vigoa and his crew then hit the MGM, The Desert Inn, Mandalay Bay, and even the Bellagio, although it was not as glamorous as Oceans 11 (or 12). Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki, who could probably be a gun wielding criminal mastermind himself, the audiobook delves deeply into Vigoa’s background as a village raiding commando in the Soviet’s Afghan war. (Blackstone Audio; 13 hours unabridged)

Author Philip K. Dick was an imaginative seer who enjoyed playing with alternate realities and perceptions. In his SF novel THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH he explores the subjective nature of reality. In this future age the Earth is hot, but escape to the colonies is not a pleasant alternative, although you could be drafted to go there against your will, in which case you may want to hire someone to help you fool the required psych exam (including, for one enterprising resister, the acquisition of epilepsy). As in another of Dick’s stories, made into the Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report,” pre-cogs exist who can see the future, or at least the possible derivations. However, here most are not cops, but “pre-fash” cogs, meaning they can anticipate what will become fashionable. Enter Palmer Eldritch, who has returned from deep space with a new designer drug that he claims can open one’s eyes to the ultimate mysteries, if not immortality itself. Except then we learn that Eldritch is dead. Or is he? Everything is not spelled out here, even in Dick’s typically muscular prose, all of which gives the reader a disconcerting yet oddly satisfying sense of the miraculous. Remember the director’s cut ending of “Blade Runner,” (based on another Dick story), where Harrison Ford’s eyes seem to glow in the dark for a second, causing speculation among viewers as to whether he too was an artificial human? Sometimes it’s good to leave a few question marks lying around. This new recording of “The Three Stigmata” is by actor and voiceover talent Tom Weiner, whose delivery embraces the ethereal nature of the text while evincing yet another sign (or rather stigmata) that Dick still lives in the imaginations of readers.(Blackstone Audio; 7 1/2 hours unabridged)

Dog lovers, your attention please. Here’s a new first novel that Oprah calls a masterpiece. Whether it is or not, one thing is certain: it’s definitely worth reading, or listening to. Especially since, on audio, it is narrated by actor Richard Poe, whose appropriateness for the telling is as evident as it was in Poe’s rendition of the masterpiece “Independence Day” by Richard Ford, or in Will Patton’s reading of “Swan Peak” by James Lee Burke. THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE is set In the backwoods of Wisconsin, where Edgar’s family breeds and trains dogs. Edgar, mute from birth, can communicate with the unique breed of intuitive dogs, and in particular one named Almondine. When the menacing Uncle Claude shows up, and Edgar’s father dies, Edgar suspects murder, and goes on the run. What happens next is fateful, original, yet not unlike the story this is being compared to: Hamlet. Dogs are actual characters in this novel, on par with the people who inhabit the story, and in moral aspects they are clearly superior. Obviously the same cannot be said of cats, who would probably lick their paws and look around for the dinner bowl right after you’ve been burned alive in the kind of fire that culminates this epic, by newcomer David Wroblewski. (Recorded Books; 21 hours unabridged)

Highbridge Audio has a deal with Penguin to remaster and repackage some of Stephen King’s novels on CD for the first time, including Four Past Midnight (narrated by James Woods, Willem Dafoe, Tim Sample, and Ken Howard), Gerald’s Game (narrated by Lindsay Crouse), Delores Claiborne (narrated by Frances Sternhagen), Insomnia (narrated by Eli Wallach), and Needful Things (narrated by King himself). Of these performances, I like Ken Howard’s best. As you may recall, THE LIBRARY POLICEMAN was one of the four tales included on Four Past Midnight, one of those stories whose plot at first seems ridiculous, but of course King loves to take a nonsensical idea and turn it into terror, as he did in the story about the “Chattering Teeth.” Here the plot involves a middle aged businessman named Sam Peebles, who finds himself holder of some overdue books, and must face a malevolent monster of a librarian. Ken Howard evokes a kind of breathy and subdued creepiness for the policeman, which contrasts nicely with the familiar businessman character represented by Sam. Sam has a memory that will save him, and the story, from an otherwise inevitable designation as camp. As in campfire. (Highbridge Audio; 9 hours unabridged)

December 2008 – Audiobooks reviewed by Jonathan Lowe

TSAR, the new suspense novel by Ted Bell, rekindles the Cold War, bringing our international relations pot to a boil while a shadow man called The Dark Rider attempts to reestablish control over breakaway Russian republics in a new paradigm that may catapult him to the book’s namesake role of supreme leader. First step is to crush the European economy via oil pipeline interference. Then a bizarre plot unfolds involving an ironic twist on the Computers-in-the-Schools theme. Bell’s hero, Alex Hawke, is worthy of Ian Fleming as a character whose proclivities include wide ranging intrigue and beautiful women. As narrated by actor John Shea, the plot doesn’t break down or snap, even as it stretches and occasionally waffles. Shea is such a master of understated tone and believable accents that the listener is more than willing to suspend disbelief. (Imagine listening to a story whispered over the backyard fence by a trusted friend who looks over his shoulder now and then while confiding secrets.) Does the technology exist for such a trigger as Bell postulates? By the climax it doesn’t matter to the listener, who is having fun with interesting characters (like Anastasia Korsakov) involved in a plot where bombs, sex, Zeppelins, and a prison built over the site of a nuclear waste dump figures prominently. (Brilliance Audio; 17 hours unabridged)

Next, Nelson DeMille’s new novel THE GATE HOUSE is a sequel to The Gold Coast (1990), and concerns a tax lawyer (turned amateur sleuth) who returns to Long Island after a long absence, where his ex wife was involved romantically with a human shark in the form of Mafia boss Frank Bellarosa (before she killed him). (Note: you’re supposed to use a capital M in Mafia, perhaps because you might be whacked for lack of respect otherwise.) Somehow Susan Sutter has escaped Mafia wrath, while John Sutter, tired of all this thuggishness. takes up residence in her gate house, and must now fend off Frank’s son Anthony, who also has designs on his ex wife. Should John whack Tony before Tony whacks him and Susan in revenge? This is DeMille’s most predictable book, only tangentially a mystery or suspense. Its strength lies in social commentary, character development, and the sardonic wit of the protagonist. Classical music punctuates an elegant production that showcases both the decadent lifestyles of the super rich, and the talents of actor Christian Rummel, whose on-target interpretation of characters and tone inspires the respect certain other characters in the book merely demand. An interview with the author is included on the CD version. (Hachette Audio; 22 hours unabridged)

Turning to non-fiction, the new biography of Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635) is CHAMPLAIN’S DREAM by David H. Fischer. Champlain was an explorer, soldier, sailor, and a mapmaker before he became founder of Quebec (called New France at the time). By no means a morally superior role model, Champlain nonetheless prepared for war while dreaming of a peaceful retreat in the New World. The book incorporates Fischer’s in-depth research into what it was like living among the Indian Nations, who struggled to survive amid famines and rivalries near the beginning of the 17th Century. As much an escape from our current crises as is a suspense novel like TSAR, the book resonates with insights into the mindset of men and women far removed from us in time, culture, and philosophy. Theater and film actor Edward Herrmann is a great choice for it, too, since he is also well known as a non-fiction narrator for his evocative yet controlled pacing. The go-to guy for many previous biographies, Herrmann would make a great museum tour guide, as he has done in documentary films in the past. The occasion for the book? The 400th anniversary of New France. (Simon & Schuster Audio; 10 hours abridged)

In the decades before the 1959 Cuban revolution, the country was ruled by a Mafia linked despot named Fulgencio Batista. For the Mafia, it was a golden age of power, exploitation, drugs and whores. Free to operate their casinos with impunity, mob bosses flocked to the island to enjoy the Afro-Cuban jazz, mambo nightclubs, and backstage sex shows. Once Frank Sinatra was interrupted from an orgy by an autograph hound. Other American gangsters like Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante hoped to make Havana their worldwide capital of operations. But then Castro arrived on his caravan of triumph, and began a systematic dismantling of the gaming industry, despite its impact on the economy. Tables were thrown into the street and burned, while the mob could do little but look on and count its losses. Their attempts to assassinate Castro failed, and so consequently the glory days faded before any grand vision for a worldwide crime retreat could become reality. As read by narrator Mel Foster, who unflaggingly maintains one’s attention throughout, HAVANA NOCTURNE is a fascinating tale by the author of Paddy Whacked and The Westies, T.J. English. (Tantor Media; 13 hours unabridged)

Next, what is it about the brain that gets itself into a rut? According to neurological research, the patterns we establish in daily routines create problems for future recall of names, memories, and information processing. In their book HOW TO KEEP THE BRAIN ALIVE, Dr. Lawrence Katz and Manning Rubin describe neurobic exercises which can do for the mind what aerobic exercises do for the body. On audio for the first time, their book analyzes and describes how the brain works, then summarizes what makes neurons decline or grow, according to inputs received through the senses. Growth factors called neurotrophins play a role in stimulating new connections, even in aging brains, and so the key to producing these growth factors is to present the brain with new experiences, and to do common activities in new ways. This might include changing hands while eating or brushing your teeth, closing your eyes and feeling your way around the house, waking to different music, different smells. The trick is to force change in all aspects of routine tasks in order to establish new associations and connections, which in turn allows the mind to grow in other ways. Turning off the TV and going outside for a walk in a new neighborhood is also a suggestion here, which is excellent advice for couch potatoes being brainwashed to eat more (so food industry executives can no doubt retire to Tahiti.) As narrated by Manning Rubin, this book, together with diet and physical exercise, might just help prevent dementia in old age as well. (Highbridge Audio; 2 hours abridged)

Finally, Warren Buffett has been hailed as one of the greatest investors of all time. His stock picks are legendary. His behind-the-scenes manipulation of corporate financial leaders, together with his savvy for anticipating changes in commodities and services, have made him a billionaire many times over. But who is Buffett, really? Alice Schroeder attempts to reveal the truth in THE SNOWBALL, whose title is taken from Buffett’s idea of letting investments accumulate growth over time until they begin to earn money automatically and exponentially. What follows is a year by year account of how Buffett grew from a neglected child, selling bubble gum, to his cornering of world commodity sectors. Lessons learned along the way are unveiled, although it is doubtful anyone could repeat Buffett’s experiences in today’s world. His involvement with companies from Goldman Sachs to Geico is covered, revealing a man whose fear of speaking in public abated even as his notorious Scroogesque stinginess continued into adulthood. Odd though, isn’t it, how tightwads transform themselves over time into the world’s greatest philanthropists? Perhaps it wasn’t about the money all along, but rather the game of acquiring the most marbles or bottle caps. The book is narrated with aplomb by actor Richard McGonagle, with a forward read by the author about how she gained access to her subject. (Random House Audio; 10 hours abridged)