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Christmas Listening
(December 2005) by David Pitt

Colorado KidConsidering how long he's been at it - thirty-five years - Stephen King seems nowhere near exhausting his storytelling gifts. The Colorado Kid (Simon & Schuster Audio, 4 hrs.) begins with the discovery of a man's body, and, as investigators try to figure out who the man was, and how he died, the story grows more complicated, and more eerie. Jeffrey DeMunn, a veteran actor who's appeared in a couple of films based on King's novels, reads the book with all of the subtlety and lurking menace it requires.

E.L. Doctorow, too, has been around for a while. His novels, like Ragtime or The Book of Daniel, are propelled by their characters, who tend to seem as real as actual, living human beings. The March (Random House Audio, approx. 11 hrs.), set during the U.S. Civil War, chronicles General Sherman's march from Atlanta, Georgia, to the Carolinas. It was a massive undertaking: 60,000 troops marched with Sherman, as did an ever-growing contingent of freed slaves and their families. As usual, Doctorow tells a big story by concentrating on its people, and the generally superb performance by Joe Morton (there are a few teensy glitches) brings those people vividly to life.

Falls the Shadow (Harper Audio, 6 hrs.), by William Lashner, is the latest Victor Carl thriller. If you haven't met Carl, the lawyer whose ruthlessness is mitigated only by his skill as a defender, you're in for a real treat. A man who was convicted of murdering his wife is lobbying for a new trial; believing he may be innocent, Victor takes his case. But can he prevail over a crooked cop and a tough-as-nails prosecutor? If you're expecting a run-of-the-mill legal thriller, think again, because I haven't told you about Dr. Bob, Victor's charismatic dentist, who seems to have some strange connection to his client's dead wife. It's a lot of fun to watch Lashner play with two morally ambiguous characters, and Don Leslie is obviously having a lot of reading the audiobook.

School DaysAnother popular character returns in Robert B. Parker's School Days (Random House Audio), a Spencer novel beautifully read by Joe Mantegna. This time out, Spenser, the likeably tough private eye, is hired to look into a school shooting, and the possible involvement of the grandson of an influential woman. She's convinced her grandson is innocent, but the shooter says otherwise, as do a lot of people, from school officials to the boy's own parents. Naturally, Spenser doesn't put up with this sort of nonsense for long. Mantegna, an excellent actor, performs the audiobook like he really is Spenser.

In Consent to Kill (Simon & Schuster Audio, 6 hrs.), Vince Flynn once again takes us into the back rooms and shadowy corridors of American politics. Mitch Rapp, counter-terrorist extraordinaire, is facing his toughest case yet - he must unmask an international conspiracy with a murderous goal: the death of Mitch Rapp. Flynn's one of those writers whose novels succeed despite his sometimes clunky prose; but Stephen Lang, one of my favorite narrators, skips lightly over the rough spots, and makes the smooth parts seem far better written than they actually are. He turns a so-so read into a first-class listen.

Blood of Angels (Harper Audio, 6 hrs.), by Reed Arvin, tells the story of a Tennessee prosecutor, Thomas Dennehy, whose death-penalty case is seriously weakened when a university professor alleges that, in a previous death-penalty case prosecuted by Dennehy, an innocent man was put to death. Further weakening follows, as an anti-death penalty activist surfaces and claims that she was with the defendant in Dennehy's current case, and that he could not possibly be guilty. Has Dennehy got the wrong end of the stick, or is he the victim of a clever conspiracy? Michael Tucker, a versatile actor who starred on LA Law, keeps us guessing with his shrewd performance, which never gives anything away until Arvin is good and ready to let us in on a secret.

Ordinary HeroesHere's something different from Scott Turow, the author of bestselling legal thrillers like Presumed Innocent (his first, and still his best) and Reversible Errors. While it features an attorney, and a certain amount of courtroom drama, Ordinary Heroes (Random House Audio, 6.5 hrs.) is, at its heart, a story about family. When Stewart Dubinsky's father dies, Stewart discovers that his father, who was a JAG lawyer during World War Two, had been court-martialed and sent to prison. As Stewart uncovers the hidden secrets of his father's life, he grows closer to him than he ever was when the man was alive. Turow, whose first novel revealed him to be a writer with substantial literary gifts, reminds us here just how good he can be. The reader, Edward Hermann, is my second favorite narrator.

Speaking of hidden secrets, here's The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat (Simon & Schuster Audio), by - who else? - Bob Woodward, one of the reporters who broke the Watergate story three decades ago and one of the very few people who knew the identity of the mysterious Deep Throat, otherwise known as W. Mark Felt, who had been the acting associate director of the FBI. More than just a recap of the Watergate story (you can read that in Woodward and Carl Bernstein's All the President's Men), the book is the story of the delicate relationship between a reporter and his anonymous - and simultaneously world famous - source. Stage actor Boyd Gaines, who's read a lot of audiobooks, does an excellent job with this one, but it's the material that will keep you glued to your earphones.

It's been almost ten years since former school teacher Frank McCourt won a Pulitzer Prize for his memoir, Angela's Ashes. That book chronicled his boyhood in Ireland. 'Tis, his next autobiographical offering, described his journey into adulthood in New York. Now, finally, in Teacher Man (Simon & Schuster Audio, 9 hrs.), he talks about his life as a teacher, and his transition from educator to writer. It's a compelling and charming story, delightfully told and agreeably read by McCourt himself (because who else could?).

PlanetsDava Sobel, author of the popular Longitude and Galileo's Daughter, writes about science like she's writing poetry. If you don't think that's possible, you're in for a wonderful surprise. The Planets (Random House Audio), elegantly read by Lorna Raver, is an exciting, thoughtful, stylish exploration of our solar system: what it is, what it means to us, how it has shaped the history of our own world. Rarely is science writing this graceful, this warm, this endlessly lyrical.
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