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Audio Buzz, Past
Audio Book News
By Jonathan Lowe

December 2007

by Jonathan Lowe

What if a genetically engineered oil-eating virus infected all the major oil fields in the Middle East and Alaska? That's the scenario Kyle Mills postulates in his new novel DARKNESS FALLS, a book with scary relevance as a cautionary tale. Talk about high concept, you can't get much higher in terms of consequence for humanity--especially for the United States, which has a gluttonous relationship with fossil fuels. The environmental terrorists responsible for introducing this fictional virus have no idea, either, to what extent chaos will descend. As an example, while I write these words I'm sitting in a full service car wash lobby, and just outside are over a dozen SUVs and trucks being detailed. Yet even gas for my compact car would become unavailable, soon after rationing at $12 a gallon expired. Ground transportation would fail, next. Then grocery stores would be cleaned out. In the end, most aircraft would be grounded, except for hospital helicopters sent to shuttle rich people who were injured defending their cellars from home invasion. In short, darkness falling would mean a return to the Dark Ages, when life-spans were brief, and survival as difficult as making it to the final round of American Idol. Narrated by actor Erik Steele, who brings an open and objective sense of surprise to each unfortunate revelation, the novel plays with its nightmare scenario, making it more plausible as the plot unfolds. This is not a great book in the sense of literary style or use of metaphor. Character development is as limited as other books typical of the genre. What gives it life and meaning is its relentless narrative arc, and its uncanny proximity to the unfolding world energy crisis. Because, like it or not, we are going to run out of oil as effectively as this, eventually, and unless someone solves the nuclear waste dilemma (and brings other alternative energy sources online as well) our grandkids--in their retirement--will be forced to grow and defend their own potatoes and green beans. Nevermind cruising the great capitals of the world, either, because cities will die first, once transportation--and audiobooks--are gone! As a footnote, film rights to the novel sold long before publication, based on its simple premise, and so until seeing is believing, perhaps listening to the "audio movie" version starring Erik Steele will inspire more chills than Stephen King ever could, and give people second thoughts about NASCAR events or the purchase of vehicles the size of dinosaurs. (BBC Audiobooks America; 8 1/2 hours unabridged)
Next, in imagining what other-worldly civilizations might be like, we humans like to transpose onto aliens not only some of our own facial features, but also our ego-maniacal penchant for conquest, derived (one must assume) from the "glories" of war. But how likely is it that "advanced" alien life forms look and think like us? Do they also strap high explosives around their waists and imagine a heaven filled with virgins? Do they paint themselves orange or blue, and scream obscenities from the bleachers whenever someone runs an oddly shaped inflated cow hide over the wrong goal line? In Fred Saberhagen's BERSERKER FURY a race of savage androids is intent on the noble cause of obliterating all life in the galaxy. But to infiltrate human worlds they first get extreme makeovers to look like machines we created. Luckily, though, we humans have cracked their transmission codes, so we're ready for their final assault. Sound silly? Well, not so fast. Maybe these androids have the right idea. Maybe they are more worthy than us to rule the Milky Way. Just what is life, anyway? Can't a sentient machine win in a debate with an atheist, after all? God knows there's not enough room out there for two territorial-obsessed civilizations to coexist, right? Narrator Paul Michael Garcia has the honor of interpreting the well drawn characters in this entertaining 1997 novel just now released on audio. And as long as you don't ask any deep questions (like I'm doing here), it's solid escapism. Even if your typical alternative is not actually watching John Madden rant between truck and fast food commercials. (Blackstone Audio; 12 1/2 hours unabridged)
Speaking of commercials, Americans are getting sick and tired of being interrupted by them. So they're just ignoring advertising. Today it's all about interaction, blogs, comments, trends, word-of-mouth, coffee shops, video games, on-demand programming. Attention spans are ever shorter, and with so many options available now, the big old corporations with their bloated warehouses full of mass produced products can just go to hell, for all we care! Well, that's according to Seth Godin in his new book MEATBALL SUNDAE, anyway, which is about marketing to the new consumer with the new media. (Merry Christmas, retailers). Stressing being in sync with the right product married to the right marketing strategy, Godin says you can't just add the internet (YouTube, MySpace, Google AdWords, etc) onto things which have no buzz without them, anymore than you can add meatballs on top of ice cream and call it "nouveau cuisine." In the meantime, traditional industries like travel agencies and middle class grocers are disappearing, too, as everyone retreats from the middle toward either the high end or the bargain basement. A revolutionary little tome, this, and read by the author. (Highbridge Audio; 4 3/4 hours unabridged)

Getting back to sheer mayhem, for most of his career as a mystery writer James Lee Burke has been turning over rocks to expose certain creatures of the night whose cruelty is unbounded. These animals are not separate from us, however. They share our DNA, and even Burke's main character--the complex alcoholic detective Dave Robicheaux--almost crawls under a rock with them before emerging with new knowledge of himself and the world each time. In THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN, New Orleans is the setting for Dave's search under Katrina's sodden rocks for a serial rapist and a vigilante. Although stark and depressing, we listen to all this for several reasons. One, we're riveted by Burke's descriptions of place and character, his original use of metaphor, his regional expertise, his brilliant insights into the human dilemma. Two, like true rubber-neckers, we want to see what train wreck has happened now, and what corpses may litter the highway next. Finally, there is Will Patton, the perfect narrator to render Robicheaux, right down to his exhalations of breath, while nailing the Louisiana accents with masterful elan. Who could ask for more? Well, actually, I could. I want Burke to write the Great American Novel. One on par with The Great Gatsby or the best of Faulkner. I say this because he's one of the few who could do it. Another who did it follows. (Simon & Schuster Audio; 16 1/2 hours unabridged)

Several years ago, when I interviewed actor Richard Poe, he told me about the novel INDEPENDENCE DAY, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Richard Ford that he once narrated. Only recently have I gotten around to hearing it, and I have to say, I was bowled over like a final pin for a final spare. Not just by the story of Frank Bascombe, a self absorbed part time real estate agent trying to connect with his son, but by how well Poe's own acting talents and voice meld into creating that character. This is such a rich and deeply realized book that I hereby ascribe the words "Great American Novel" to it without more than a wink's hesitation. The bonus of hearing it read by Poe, a longtime Broadway and feature film actor, makes it a keeper. Poe becomes Bascombe as naturally as Will Patton becomes Dave Robicheaux. Published in 1995, the novel is a 1998 Recorded Books title, still available on CD. Also winner of the PEN/Faulkner award, it's a must-hear for anyone buying or selling a house, too, since it wryly delves into the real reasons behind various purchases. And no, it's not just about price and location. (Recorded Books; 20 hours unabridged)

2007 Past Columns


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