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Audio Book News
By Jonathan Lowe

Sept 2008

by Jonathan Lowe

After hearing Christopher Ciccone read his autobiography, one cannot help wondering why now? Could it be that Christopher has once again hit hard times, due to lack of work and drug use? Or could it simply be that his sister, arguably the most famous woman on Earth (at least to the 80s and 90s generation), has just turned 50, and there has been a secret pact that he couldn't write a book like LIFE WITH MY SISTER MADONNA until now? We are not told the reason for the timing, except in a brief opening statement the author assures us that it was written to sort out his thoughts about his sister, and served as a catharsis in finally breaking free into his own identity, because, as he puts it, "I was born my mother's son, but will die my sister's brother." Christopher shared most of his life with Madonna, from a Michigan childhood to a turbulent and emotional struggle in New York, then finally as Madonna's art director and backup dancer on the Blond Ambition and Girly Show tours. In between it all, he worked for Madonna as dresser, decorator, and personal assistant, and became friends with many of her famous friends, including Kate Moss, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Demi Moore. Never able to break free from Madonna's controlling influence into an independent dancer or designer in his own right, Christopher fell victim again and again to mistreatment and verbal abuse, as his sister underpaid him, doling out just enough to keep him tied to her, while she lavished extravagant sums on houses and art. Christopher's battle with drugs was soon to follow, as this behind-the-curtain narrative unfolds with flagrant detail, tarnishing his sister's carefully constructed mythology. A gay man with a deep masculine voice, Christopher adopts an unemotional, matter-of-fact tone in reading the book, which was coauthored by Wendy Leigh. Photos of their life together appear in PDF on an enhanced CD, just as they appear in the print book, but one doesn't get as vital or real a picture reading the print version as in hearing Madonna's own brother dish back as well as he's taken since the narcissistic, homophobic, and macho Guy Ritchie effectively ended his relationship with the pop icon. Now Madonna is ironically falling out with Ritchie, yet striking deals to do concerts in Dubai for $25 million. Not without serious flaws himself, the poorer Christopher Ciccone tells a story about the cost of fame from an angle seldom seen, or rather heard. (Simon & Schuster Audio; 5 hours abridged)

As a genre, romance has tended to fluctuate between the sappy and steamy, taking stock characters on a predictable roller coaster ride that ends with either a wedding or some twist on revenge. In recent years, romance has strayed into mystery and suspense in a crossover attempt to win a wider audience. Working mothers or career women whose hopes for advancement included snagging the resident Adonis are no longer typical of this new wave of novels populated by serial killer investigators, ghost busters, and even vampires. The boring has turned into the ridiculous. So it was with pleasant surprise that, having ejected the first disk of a new (and vapid) Danielle Steel novel, I next inserted TRAIN TO TRIESTE by first time novelist Domnica Radulescu, a literate romance that breathes spontaneous life from its opening paragraphs. In the memoir-clarity of first person, the story of Mona Manoliu is told, circa 1977 in Ceausescu's Romania, as she falls in love with a young man who is later seen in the uniform of the secret police. Fleeing the country for Chicago, Mona goes on to live a quite different life with another man, but can never forget her one great love. Indeed, twenty years later, when she finally returns to Romania to learn the truth, the moment is rendered with exquisite detail, something that is simply absent in most of today's less believable manipulations. The reason I haven't reviewed much romance in the past is, (I now realize), not because I am not romantic, but rather because I could never get past the first CDs. This audiobook kept me through all nine disks, however, thanks to the well drawn character of Mona, whose hauntingly original voice is honest, brave, witty, and most of all passionate and alive. Thanks also to narrator Yelena Shmulenson, whose ability to empathically inhabit the character is matched by her masterful delivery and authentic accent. A must-hear. (Highbridge Audio; 11 hours unabridged)

Next, have you ever wondered why the most seemingly sedate and innocuous people can suddenly act recklessly demonic behind the wheel? According to Tom Vanderbilt in TRAFFIC—WHY WE DRIVE THE WAY WE DO it's because there's an anonymity inherent to the closed passenger compartment similar to a chat room on the internet. So while John Q. Public might never cut you off in conversation, he hesitates not at all to cut you off in traffic. Safe and anonymous behind tinted glass, many drivers feel a sense of invincibility—especially those whose physical smallness or emotional insecurity is suddenly enhanced by a huge or powerful vehicle. Vanderbilt explores the many ramifications of human nature in driving, as well as our misperceptions in judging how to avoid accidents. How traffic actually works can be both surprising and scary, too. Hundreds of decisions are made every minute on the road, and the chances for one mistake to snowball only increases with speed, distraction, fatigue, and a variety of X factors. Where and when do most accidents happen? On dry, sunny days on rural, two-lane roads. Where a false sense of security pervades. It was where Stephen King was struck by a pickup truck, just over a rise, walking by the side of the road. As read by David Slavin, this audiobook is best listened to while stuck in traffic. It might just save your life. (Random House Audio; 6 hours unabridged)

Finally, an update interview with Brad Meltzer, author of six previous New York Times bestsellers, his seventh and latest now being THE BOOK OF LIES, narrated by Scott Brick. A graduate of the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School, Meltzer was once an intern on Capitol Hill, and currently lives in Maryland with his wife and son.

JONATHAN LOWE: Just finished listening to your new novel "The Book of Lies." Until I heard it, I was wondering how on earth you'd link up the premise about finding the first murder weapon used by Abel to kill Cain with the real life murder of the father of the creator of Superman. Congrats on an enjoyable journey of following clues bolstered by the father-son theme.

BRAD MELTZER: Thanks. My editor asked the same question when I started.

LOWE: Am curious about your research. Did the premise arise organically from your boyhood love of comic books, and your curiosity about their authors? And how did your investigations proceed within your usual two-year time frame to write a novel?

MELTZER: Every writer has a story they've been waiting their whole life to tell. This is mine. I know this because I first pitched "The Book of Lies" over a decade ago. When my first novel, "The Tenth Justice", was published, my original pitch for the follow up was a story involving Cain. Exactly. My editor at the time smartly told me: "You've just established yourself as a bestselling author of legal thrillers. Do you really want to risk it all by suddenly switching to kooky things like Cain?" It was a moment I'll never forget. I caved right there. I was twenty-seven years old and barely had paid off my student loans. I caved in no time at all. In fact, I set the record for caving. But it took me until now to come back to it.

LOWE: It really is still partly a mystery—the murder, and the genesis of Superman—isn't it?

MELTZER: Absolutely.

LOWE: There's a website to explore about this?

MELTZER: It's all at, including a video ad for the book.

LOWE: I see that Dennis Kao was producer and director of the audio version. I've met and interviewed Dennis in the past, regarding how audiobooks are made, and about one of my favorite thrillers with sound effects, "The Breathtaker" by Alice Blanchard. He's worked his magic here on your book as well, with the unobtrusive Mahler and Elgar clips, and the PDF of illustrations included on the final disk. Have you heard the companion soundtrack to your audiobook?

MELTZER: Those are directly from the soundtrack we did for Victor Records. It's on iTunes and Amazon — and we actually scored the key chapters of the book so you can play certain chapters and hear exactly the song that conveys the emotion of that chapter.

LOWE: Scott's dramatic performance alone is reason to listen, of course. Are any of those character accents a result of your throwing him a curve ball, like he claims you sometimes do?

MELTZER: Scott is my hero. It's why I actually asked him to come back and rerecord my first two books. If my name is on it, so is Scott's. He makes me sound handsome. Plus, I'll get him with an accent he can't do sooner or later.

LOWE: You grew up reading comics, too, and graphic novels, like from Alan Moore and Warren Ellis and Frank Miller. Any more graphic novels of your own in the works, like "Identity Crisis"?

MELTZER: "Last Will & Testament" should be out as people read this. How's that for service?

LOWE: What can we expect from you next time, in two years, or haven't you considered that yet? And where you going on book tour?

MELTZER: Working on the new one now. And the book tour for "The Book of Lies" kicks off September 2nd to 20 cities. See them all at my website.

2008 Past Columns

David Baldacci / Mar Reviews

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