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Listen Up!
(May 2002)
By David Pitt

Time again for another roundup of books on tape. Aaaand here, in some semblance of order, we go: Harlan Coben has won pretty much every important award for mystery writers: the Edgar, the Shamus, the Anthony. The audio version of his last novel, Tell No One, won an Audie Award. His series of novels about sports agent/private eye Myron Bolitar are terrific, and terrifically popular. So it comes as no surprise that Gone For Good (Random House Audio, 5 hrs.) is a roarin' good listen. Performed by Dylan Baker, the personable television and film actor - he's got a nice role right now in the film Changing Lanes, go see it - it's the story of a man who discovers not only that his dead brother may not have committed the murder he was accused of more than a decade ago, but that his brother may not be dead at all. As usual, Coben packs in plenty of surprises and a host of engaging characters. The dialogue is natural, as always, and Baker's performance is splendid (as always).

Now here's something a little weird. Courting Trouble is the new legal thriller by Lisa Scottoline, another Edgar winner. You can find the audio adaptation of the novel in two forms from Harper Audio: abridged (6 hrs.), and unabridged (11 hrs.). Now here's the weird thing: there are two different narrators. (This isn't actually that unusual, it happens a lot, but I still find it a little strange, hiring two people to perform the same audiobook.) Film and stage actor Kate Burton performs the abridged version of this clever tale of a young lawyer who tries to solve her own murder - she opens up the paper one day to find her own death is front-page news - and the veteran audiobook narrator Barbara Rosenblat tackles the unabridged. Is one performer better than the other? No, but they're different. Burton treats the audio performance as though she were on stage, giving it a lot of gusto. Rosenblat, however, gives a less enthusiastic performance, guiding us gently through eleven hours of narrative. Either way, it's a very good story, well told.

Speaking of well-told tales, you must get Empire Falls (Harper Audio, 21 hrs.), the unabridged audio production of Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. This utterly spellbinding story of small-town ambition, love, loyalty, and secrets is so thoroughly delightful that you'll want to rewind the tapes and listen to the whole thing again. (Well, maybe grab some shut-eye first: the audiobook is, after all, nearly a day long.) It is about time that Russo won a Pulitzer for his precise, evocative prose, and narrator Ron McLarty does this magnificent material justice, capturing every nuance, every subtle shift in tone. A remarkable novel, and a remarkable performance. Another remarkable novel, remarkably performed is Carol Shields's Unless (Harper Audio, 7.5 hrs.), narrated by three-time Oscar nominee Joan Allen. Reta Winter is a writer still finding her voice, a novelist of light fiction discovering she has serious things to say. Like most of Shields's novels - including her Pulitzer-winner, The Stone Diaries - this one is gentle, thoughtful, elegant. So is Allen's narration.

If you love prose that sings to you, here's One More for the Road (Harper Audio - yes, again), a collection of 25 short stories by the wonderful Ray Bradbury. Seven of the stories were previously published - in magazines like Amazing Stories, Playboy, and New Rave - but eighteen are brand new. These are delicate blends of fantasy and reality, humor and drama, all told in a prose style that is very nearly poetry. Campbell Scott performs these stories (they're unabridged, too; I can't imagine cutting words out of a Bradbury story) with grace and panache.

To give you an idea of Scott's versatility as an audiobook narrator, give a listen to The English Assassin (Random House Audio, 5 hrs.), the latest thriller from Daniel Silva. I find Silva to be rather erratic: sometimes he's really good (The Unlikely Spy), sometimes at the low end of mediocre (The Mark of the Assassin). This time he's really good again, crafting a twisty-turny story of a veteran spy - an art restorer by trade - whose routine assignment plunges him into a maze of danger and double-dealing. The pace is fast, the dialogue solid but without style, the action exciting. Scott narrates the story as it should be, driving us through the story with his urgent performance.

You're probably already fairly familiar with Michael J. Fox's career - he starred in the television series Family Ties and Spin City, and in the smash-hit Back to the Future films - and I'm sure you know that he's afflicted with Parkinson's disease. You may have read Lucky Man, his memoir, in which he presents himself as a man with an optimistic, even cheerful outlook on a life besieged by a crippling illness. If you've been wondering whether he really is as upbeat as he appears to be, grab the 6-hour Simon & Schuster Audio version of his book, and see for yourself. Fox performs the audiobook, and he really does sound like a man who has it together. It's a moving story, told with enthusiasm of someone who - despite having a disease that takes away his ability to tell his own body what to do - is genuinely happy, someone who truly feels as though he is blessed.

Another guy who reads his own material is Peter Benchley, who performs Shark Trouble (Random House Audio, 5 1/4 hrs.). Benchley, who will always be best known as the author of Jaws, draws on his own experiences writing about, and swimming with, these scary undersea beasts. He packs lots of useful information into this first-person narrative, and he performs the audiobook in a pseudo-journalistic style, downplaying the horror-story aspects. Think of it as a how-to book: how to swim safely, steer clear of danger, and - if the unthinkable happens - survive in life-threatening situations. Not just for Jaws fans.

For fans of poetry and drama, here are a couple of treats. Dylan Thomas: The Caedmon Collection (Caedmon, 12.5 hrs.) is a lovely boxed set featuring the Welsh writer reading some of his own works, and some of his personal favorites from other authors. You'll hear Thomas's prose (Adventures in the Skin Trade) and poetry (Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night), hear him give life to words written by Shakespeare, Auden, Milton, Webster, Marlowe. The audio quality isn't so hot - the original recordings were made half a century ago - but the words are glorious, and the performance enchanting.

Also from Caedmon comes The Arthur Miller Collection (4 hrs.), full-cast productions of two of his classic plays, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. Here's the 1965 production of Salesman, with Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman - one of the truly great dramatic performances of the 20th century. (It also features some guy named Dustin Hoffman as Bernard.) The Crucible you'll hear here was recorded in 1972, and stars Jerome Dempsey as Rev. Parris and, in the role of Marshal Herrick, Richard Kline - who, just a handful of years later, would go on to superstardom in as Larry, in television's Three's Company. They're brilliant plays, brilliantly performed.

Finally, here are three for the young folk in the crowd. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (Random House Audio), written by R.A. Salvatore, is - of course - the novel based on the screen story for the latest Star Wars movie. It's better than a lot of novelizations: it has lifelike characters, exciting action sequences, and engaging dialogue. In other words, they didn't just rewrite the script in prose form, they made a fully-realized novel out of it. All of George Lucas's familiar themes are here: honor, loyalty, sacrifice, love. The performance by Jonathan Davis, who's worked on several previous Star Wars audiobooks, is workmanlike but unfortunately lacks any real flair.

From Listening Library comes The Tower Treasure (3.5 hrs.), the first in a series of unabridged adaptations of the Hardy Boys novels by Franklin W. Dixon. This one's read by Bill Irwin, and it finds our heroes solving a mystery involving a dying nogoodnick and some hidden treasure. The Hardy Boys adventures are as thrilling now as they were when they were first put to paper, nearly eight decades ago, and this promises to be a wonderful series of audiobooks.

Also wonderful, naturally, is The BFG (Harper Children's Audio), written by Roald Dahl and performed by Natasha Richardson. Dahl was one of the most popular, most quirky writers of children's stories, and this one about a girl who finds out giants aren't figments of the imagination, and teams up with the Big Friendly Giant to save the world from troggle-humping (I'll let Dahl explain that one), is very inventive, very funny. Kids'll love it. Come to think of it, so will adults. See you next time.
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