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Audio Book News
By Jonathan Lowe

JULY 2008

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)


Narrator extraordinaire Frank Muller died on June 4th in Durham, NC, in failing health since his tragic motorcycle accident in 2001. Library Journal called him "the first true superstar of spoken word audio."

Friend and supporter Stephen King said that "when Frank reads, the blind will see, the lame will walk, and the deaf will hear." An industry pioneer, Frank will be missed by listeners and colleagues alike for his generosity, enthusiasm and talent. The following interview was conducted prior to his accident, in 2001. Please visit for more about Frank.

JONATHAN LOWE: How did all this start for you? Were you on stage, and afterward people came up to you, using words like "mellifluous" to describe your voice?

FRANK MULLER: As a matter of fact, I was on stage, but the way it happened was that Henry Trentman, the founder of Recorded Books, posted a notice at the theater - Arena Stage in Washington, DC - hoping to find actors interested in his idea to start the company. For me it was a way to earn a few extra bucks, and for Henry it was the first audio book produced by his new company. This was in 1979, when very few people were involved in audio books.


LOWE: How did all this start for you? Were you on stage, and afterward people came up to you, using words like "mellifluous" to describe your voice?

MULLER: As a matter of fact, I was on stage, but the way it happened was that Henry Trentman, the founder of Recorded Books, posted a notice at the theater - Arena Stage in Washington, DC - hoping to find actors interested in his idea to start the company. For me it was a way to earn a few extra bucks, and for Henry it was the first audio book produced by his new company. This was in 1979, when very few people were involved in audio books.


LOWE: What was your first title there?

MULLER: The Sea Wolf by Jack London. We also did London's Call of the Wild, and some short stories, then some Dickens and others. Since then I've had great fun doing everything from John Le Carre to Anne Rice to Stephen King to John Grisham. I love moving back and forth between classics and modern fiction. There's a real benefit to that.


LOWE: How do you mean?

MULLER: There might seem to be little to be gained by one genre from the other, or by a classic from a contemporary, but I feel that the batteries get recharged. The energy and topicality of a modern book can inform the approach to a classic, and the depth and richness of a classic can help me bring a more textured approach to a new work.


LOWE: A couple of my personal favorites of yours are The Green Mile and Apt Pupil by Stephen King. What do you think of Steven's turning more mainstream and literary? Of course he can write anything. He has such a wit underneath it all, too.

MULLER: He has tremendous wit and humor. It's usually very sly, sometimes overtly mischievous, but always there. That's always part of his appeal, but he has written many quite beautiful and more "serious" stories, too.


LOWE: One of my favorites is "The Last Rung on the Ladder," not horror at all.

MULLER: Check out a story called "The Reach," and don't forget "The Shawshank Redemption." And yes, The Green Mile will always be one of my favorite recordings as well. A special experience.


LOWE: I imagine you have to study a book to get a feel on how to handle the characters, regardless of genre.

MULLER: One of the advantages inherent in working on a book rather than a play or a screenplay is that you have the entire book to draw from in preparation. Much of the work involved in developing a characterization in a shorter play or on film is detective work. Why does he say this, and why did he do that? That's part of the work in preparing to record an audiobook, of course, since you're responsible for all the characters. But the book will have much more detail included in exposition or internal monologues, or outright reading of a character's thoughts. Why he or she feels this way and is thinking those thoughts. By the time I'm finished with a careful work-through of a book, having taken vocabulary and character notes, and finished with whatever research is necessary, I'm usually pretty well ready to get to the mike.


LOWE: Do you prefer books with a lot of dialogue? Is the challenge of that more fun, while perhaps being more difficult? Or is anything difficult for you?

MULLER: Oh my yes, it's all difficult! Is it fun? It sure is. I get to play all the characters, and I get to frame them in the narrative text. As involved and demanding as the narrative text can get, and even though it may sometimes be operating on several levels, when characters actually speak, the complexity expands exponentially. Playing one character is daunting enough, and that is usually all that is asked of an actor, but in a single voice recording you play them all. All the motivations, desires, hopes, and conflicts one character may experience interact constantly with those of the other characters. The development and consistent realization of all those characterizations is quite a challenge. But that's also where the fun lies. Your main bad guy in your book "Postal," for example, was terrific fun to play because he seemed so completely normal, but had this tremendous maelstrom of diabolical malignity just under the surface. Absolutely terrifying, and a blast to find and play the subtlety, and then the evil as it emerges. Makes for powerful stuff.


LOWE: Are there ever days when you're tongue-tied, and just want to sit in the jacuzzi? Please lie and say yes.

MULLER: Yes. No, really. A recording is forever, and the narrator needs to be functioning at 100% in order to deliver the goods I was just talking about. And usually for many hours straight. It is exhausting work both mentally and physically, and if you don't pace yourself, you'll burn out.


LOWE: You have your own studio, called Wavedancer. How did that come about, and what does your schedule look like?

MULLER: It had more to do with practicality. I wanted to be accessible as a narrator to audio publishers on both coasts, and the economics of this business do not allow for flying people in or out and putting up in hotels for days at a time to do a book. Because of my background I was capable of producing myself here in L.A., but that meant booking studio time, which got very expensive. I booked 500 hours in 1994, and decided to build my own home studio in 1995. It has worked well.


LOWE: What do you do by way of hobbies and other interests?

MULLER: Kids. Hiking with my dogs. Horses, since my wife is a major horsewoman. Sailing, skiing.


LOWE: If you drive, do you listen to audio books, or is it Brandenberg Concertos vs. Van Halen?

MULLER: On road trips, we stock up on audios. But I have wide musical tastes, so yes to both things you mention might be in the CD changer at any time.


LOWE: What do you foresee as the future of audio books?

MULLER: Cassettes have a short future, and are already going away. CDs may survive longer. Sometime soon, possibly by 2010, a digital player format capable of not only downloading but receiving broadcast, will take hold with enough flexibility to make other mediums obsolete. But then, what the hell do I know? We thought we'd be sending HAL and Keir Dullea to Jupiter after that monolith by now.


LOWE: Any final thoughts for those waiting for us to leave so they can nab a table?

MULLER: Just that the great thing for audio book listeners is that the quality of work in the industry will continue to improve as the industry and its audience grows. To those who are new to audio books, I envy you. You are about to discover something which can add a great deal to the quality of your life. Be picky, get recommendations, and read the good books first. You may not have time for all of them.

2008 Past Columns

David Baldacci / Mar Reviews

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