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Audio Book News
By Jonathan Lowe

October 2008

by Jonathan Lowe

London. Nov. 1, 2006. New York Times bureau chief Alan S. Cowell, although he doesn't know it yet, is about to cover the events leading up to the poisoning death of a former KGB intelligence officer known for his criticisms of President Vladimir Putin. Sound like a spy thriller? It is, but it's not fiction, and now Cowell has gone on to chronicle the entire back story in his new book THE TERMINAL SPY, which follows Alexander Litvinenko throughout his insider career in the 1990s with other spies and sanctioned Russian thugs. Cowell explains why a rare radioactive isotope known as polonium was the preferred weapon of assassinations by the Kremlin—primarily for its resistance to detection and short half-life. One speck in food will kill within days, then be flushed from the body, while inflicting excruciating pain. It was only by accident that Litvinenko's dose was discovered, while his approved killer escaped prosecution so that diplomats could save face. Narrated by the always engaging actor John Lee, whose accented performance is especially appropriate here, the audiobook confirms suspicions that sometimes, at least, real life can be just as intriguing as those spy thrillers on the big screen. (Random House Audio; 6 1/2 hours abridged)
Next, John Keller is a hit man who collects stamps. Odd, you might say, for a man you might associate with being a sociopath. But is Keller really without scruples? In HIT AND RUN by award winning mystery writer Lawrence Block, the case is made for a hit man possessing endearing qualities. For the purposes of reader identification, this is a useful presumption, too, since it would be more difficult to root for someone who might slit your throat for no good reason. Keller usually has a good reason, and not just because he's being paid. The victims usually "deserve" what they get. That is, they are usually killers themselves. In this latest installment, Keller has been set up by his employer to take the fall for a political murder he didn't do, and must disappear before the police find him. He eventually travels to New Orleans, where he attempts to live a normal life with a construction job and even a girlfriend. With his stamp collection presumably stolen and his intriguing secretary "Dot" out of the loop, Keller bides his time until the expected moment of revenge presents itself, when his old life may (or may not) resume. Has Keller finally retired, as he intended? Judge for yourself. Your guess is as good as mine. The plot is not the important thing here. In fact, there's not much plot at all. The attraction is in hearing about the day to day mundane activities of a man with a job we wouldn't consider doing. Unless we were sociopathic. Block walks that tightrope even more believably with the talents of narrator and actor Richard Poe, who gives the understated performance required by the text, and who crosses into dramatic, accented speech only at those moments involving confrontation, whether droll or action oriented. Poe is good, and he has Keller's mindset down pat, and conveys that to the audience. Is there a John Keller out there somewhere in real life? Perhaps, but he's certainly not the norm. You wouldn't be as curious about him if he was typical, either. (Recorded Books; 8.5 hours unabridged)
CROWDSOURCING was coined by journalist Jeff Howe in the June 2006 issue of Wired magazine to describe the phenomenon of non-professional contributions to formerly professionally dominated industries. Although no one expects those who frequent social websites, (endlessly swapping photos and songs and videos), to put doctors and lawyers out of business anytime soon, Howe makes the case, in his book subtitled WHY THE POWER OF THE CROWD IS DRIVING THE FUTURE OF BUSINESS, that the contributions of ordinary citizens to the creative side of free enterprise is already putting many professionals out of work. His primary case study is, a company which licenses stock photography via the internet at a much cheaper rate than professional stock photographers, or Getty Images. Anyone can submit their photos, and if accepted, can begin to earn royalties on them. The same is true for tee shirts, whose designs are crowdsourced, voted on by peers, and then sold to the very people who frequent the site. Of course the biggest model for crowdsourcing is Google, which ranks pages by how often people quote or link to them. And while collects news stories from amateurs, YouTube attempts to bypass mainstream media altogether by making anyone a "reporter." Certainly these trends are commendable in many ways, opening doors to innovation and increased productivity, since not even scientists have time to sift through all the data collected by giant telescopes, looking for asteroids or signals from intelligent civilizations. But if this new meritocracy were to expand, would it not give false hope to those considering whether or not to attend grad school? If I've got an advanced degree in thermodynamic engineering, and I'm driving a cab, I'll have a better chance of contributing to an alternative energy startup company (that crowdsources) than someone who has been washing dishes in a diner all his life. Rather than seeing this trend as empowering the masses, it is therefore better to view it as an opportunity for unrecognized talent to come forward. Still, an interesting discussion all around, as narrated by actor Kirby Heyborne, who is moonlighting here from feature films and television series. (Random House Audio; 10 hours unabridged)
Michael Moore, having witnessed the defeat of Al Gore and other Democratic Presidential contenders in the past, is understandably more than a bit paranoid about the prospect of losing an election that should be "a slam dunk." In his new, short audiobook (that he narrates himself with both self-deprecating humor and real emotional urgency) Moore wonders aloud how Democrats will manage to blow it this time. He even offers the party advice on how to blow it again, just before advising Obama what to do during his first weeks in office. Is he serious? You bet. About as serious as a fat man on a high wire over a river filled with piranha can be. The humor here may be gallows in MIKE'S ELECTION GUIDE 2008, as he provides prefabricated statements "to be taken out of context by the press," but while the audiobook is mostly an audio blog, Moore is also unafraid to ask the un-askable. For example, he asks McCain about whether he thinks bombing targets in Vietnam "where civilians were present" was the courageous thing to do. "Mr. McCain," he says, "your answer, please." (Hachette Audio; 3 hours unabridged)
Finally, the epic SF classic DUNE ended with Paul Muad'Dib in control of spice mining on the desert planet, having defeated the forces of House Harkonen. Frank Herbert's sequel, DUNE MESSIAH, takes up years later, after Paul's armies have conquered the galaxy. The period between these two books has been left unexplored, until now, with PAUL OF DUNE, by Herbert's son Brian, and Kevin J. Anderson. The duo have previously explored other timelines surrounding Dune, but here they focus on the reign of conquest in which Paul leads his legions from victory to victory while both self doubts and internal conflicts threaten to undermine him. Attempts are here made on Paul's life, and loyalties are questioned, leading to harsh consequences that bring up the old question, "Does absolute power corrupt absolutely?" Read by Dune universe insider Scott Brick, who is quite familiar with all the requisite pronunciations, the novel is a must for Dune fans, and anyone else into space opera. For those whose suspension of disbelief doesn't extend to Star Wars, and the clash of epic egos in space so vast that even Darth Vader is a grain of sand on some distant beach, might I suggest the clash to be resolved on Nov. 2? Perhaps not, but at least things will be in better perspective after hearing this audiobook. (MacMillan Audio; 18 1/2 hours unabridged)

2008 Past Columns

David Baldacci / Mar Reviews

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