Audio Books

My wife and I recently returned from a two-week vacation from our home in Minnesota to Washington, Oregon, and other points west. For us, half the fun is getting there, so we love to drive on these long journeys. Leaving in mid-September, vacation traffic drops considerably from the “family-summer-vacation-with-school-age-kids” level, so traffic stress is drastically reduced. Couple that with long, deserted stretches of interstate highways in North Dakota, Montana, Nevada, Wyoming, and the main worry is fighting boredom and staying awake while driving 500-plus miles per day, for three or four days in a row.

Which is why we love to listen to audio books while we drive. Our tastes center around the mystery/suspense/thriller genre, although my wife likes the occasional romance, while I sometimes drag along an American classic like Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, or London’s “Call of the Wild”.

We’ve loved reading books while we travel for so long that on our earliest trips–before we were aware of “books on tape” (as they were called a few generations ago), or couldn’t find any titles that intrigued us enough to bring on the trip– we would bring hard copies and read aloud to each other. (Yes, I know, how weird is that?)

 My wife endured my semi-stuttering through the text, and I endured my wife’s sometimes comical mispronunciation of words, for several trips before we switched to recorded books. Since then, the pleasure of discovering a good book, masterfully read by a ‘pro’, has become an eagerly anticipated adventure on our trips.

This trip, as usual, had its literary ups and downs. One book lasted only a few minutes before the scratches and skips on the CD became too annoying for us to continue. Another was so dull and laborious that we gave up on it after what we thought was a fair trial period- one complete disc (A little more than one hour of reading- several chapters).

We listened to four books in their entirety, and the first and last parts of a fifth, all by nationally known authors. I’d like to share my capsule reviews and impressions of these five, and invite your comments on these works, or suggestions for books to look for on our next long driving trip.

In no particular order, here goes:

“Cross’ by James Patterson.

My first foray into Patterson’s work. I was underwhelmed. The story was good,with a solid plot and a great villain (the Butcher), but the Alex Cross character didn’t impress me. Perhaps if I had read more of the Cross series, I’d know him better and have more empathy toward him. He seemed too matter-of-fact about the various crises in this story, and the talent and resolve he displayed in solving the mystery and bringing The Butcher to ‘justice’ weren’t awe-inspiring.

Still, it was a quality read, and the two voices used-one for The Butcher, the other for Alex Cross and the other characters- were good; The Butcher’s voice being exceptional. Overall, it was not a page-turner; and we were confused at times by Cross’s family situation, subplots that didn’t seem intrinsic to the main story, and what I perceived as some forced or overplayed tension; but I’ll give Mr. Patterson the benefit of the doubt and read another of his novels someday.

“One day at a Time” by Danielle Steel

I’m sorry, but I don’t get it. I don’t recall reading any of Ms. Steel’s work before, unless it was years ago and I’ve forgotten, but I know my wife has read a few of her books. Ms. Steel must have shown some talent and written some great works in order to become a world-wide bestseller and earn the right to crank out dozens more books, but I thought I was listening to a slightly polished first draft of a novel by a writing student.

Despite the glamorous setting (L.A., San Francisco bay area, Venice); and characters featuring a high-powered family of writers, producers, and agents, plus an international movie star; we couldn’t bear to listen to the whole thing. There was no plot! For two discs all we heard about was the black sheep main character, who rejected her family’s wealth and prestige, and just wanted to live her own simple existence as a dog walker living in a small house on the beach north of S.F.

We listened to the first two discs and the last two discs, but skipped the middle four, because almost nothing had happened to keep us interested. Every minor detail was described, meaningless chit-chat abounded, characters’ feelings were analyzed and re-analyzed, and the only point of tension and conflict, the MC’s rejection of her family’s lifestyle, was beaten to death.

Skipping ahead to the end, we finally discovered that there was a ‘horrific, terrifying incident’ with paparazzi in Venice that almost spelled the end of the rather pedestrian love interest (the MC and the international movie star; seemed like a ripoff of the movie ‘Notting Hill’). After endlessly dwelling on the sheer terror of being photographed by dozens of pushy cameramen, we discovered that the horror amounted to a broken wrist and a few bruises. Sheesh!

Then the MC agonized for days, weeks, months about how painful the memory was and how sad she was that she had to break up with her ‘soulmate’ because she just knew she could never learn to deal with such horrors of being married to a superstar. Puh-leeeze! You call that a plot? With conflict? Tension? Hardly.

The good news is, I came away feeling like my feeble efforts at writing a novel are at least worthy of consideration for publication. If something this insipid can get published, albeit by a renowned author, then the rest of us struggling wannabes have a chance.

“Up in Honey’s Room” by Elmore Leonard

All I will say about this quirky story and it’s semi-mundane, almost silly plot, is that Leonard writes some of the most unusual, unforgettable characters I’ve ever read. Wow. And the dialogue is masterful–witty, sly, intelligent and subtle throughout.

Props also to Arliss Howard, the reader, who nailed the voicing of a fistful of diverse characters, all with different accents, voice qualities, and speech patterns. It was easy to imagine the book being read by several people, each doing one voice.

“The Husband” by Dean Koontz

What a great plot! Hooked us from the first page and never let us go. A sympathetic MC who was a ‘regular guy’ helped me put myself into the story. Koontz made good use of the time deadline to increase the tension and suspense. I also loved his florid, intelligent vocabulary. His use of metaphors and similes was impressive, although I think those were overdone in a few spots and sometimes I thought less would have been more. Overall, beautiful writing.

I also liked the way he colored the settings from the MC’s POV- he’s a gardener by trade- and focused on the particular flora in each scene-setting. That’s a technique I will try to incorporate into my novel’s MC. He’s a musician, so I will add some musical references to his thinking, acting, and reacting. Bravo, Mr. Koontz!

“Divine Justice” by David Baldacci

Okay, maybe I did save my favorite for last. I thought this was thriller storytelling at it’s finest. On par with Ludlum, Le Carre, Follett, et al. His characters were all solid, too, especially the MC, who was a textbook ‘flawed hero’. Very human, but seeming to possess some ‘superhuman’ qualities that gave him just enough of an edge to survive and prevail.

There was no fluff in this story (unlike the aforementioned female international bestselling author). Every sentence, paragraph and chapter had a purpose, even if it wasn’t evident at the moment. The villains were appropriately evil, without being caricatures or stereotyped. Subplots were expertly woven into the main story. This is the kind of writing I aspire to. Thanks, Mr. Baldacci, for one hell-of-a great read.

Who listens to audio books out there? Do you have any recommendations for my next cross-country trip? Care to disagree or agree with my mini-reviews?

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