Audio Book Review
It was a dark and stormy night...

by Jonathan Lowe

Shocking. Intriguing. Compelling. These and other adjectives that could be used to describe the impressive rise in popularity of audiobooks, especially among truckers and other drivers.

Now a multi-billion dollar industry growing at a rate faster than print books, audiobooks combine the appeal of skillful storytelling with the freedom to do other things while listening to bestsellers. Things like walking, gardening, cooking and driving. In any car or truck, there is the radio, of course, with Top 40 tunes and golden oldies playing endlessly amid all those annoying high-pressure commercials. But at some point boredom sets in, the mind goes numb, and as the saying goes, that's a terrible thing to waste.

Enter audio entertainment. Books on cassette now come in all flavors, for every taste. Adventure, mystery, romance, fantasy, sci-fi, western, biography, self help - take your pick. With almost a hundred publishers now doing audio productions, the availability of both new and old titles is vast and growing, in both abridged and unabridged formats, and on both cassette and CD. While the industry is dominated by Random House, Warner, and Simon & Schuster, there are dozens of smaller publishers doing high quality work as well. Weeding through all the possibilities to find the best of these is the job of a reviewer, and as such, I've been privileged to interview some of the narrators whose voices and acting talents add value to the experience of reading without eye strain. Names like Frank Muller, George Guidall, Barbara Rosenblat, and Dick Hill may not be familiar to those who have not yet tried audiobooks, but they are stars in their own right, along with the more famous film actors who also read into a microphone, like Burt Reynolds, Ed Asner, Tony Roberts, Lynn Redgrave, and John Rubenstein.

Keep in mind that, unlike hardcovers, audiobooks can be rented. While libraries tend to carry mainly older titles, all the latest bestsellers and new titles are available for sale or rent at many truckstops. Audio Adventures has 550 locations, with seven-day rental from $3.90 to $13.50. Books in Motion carries unabridged originals at 300-plus locations, with a range of prices and times. And Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores have 423 locations inside their restaurants in 40 states. In CBs case, you purchase a title at one location, and may return it at another for a refund minus $3 per week the book is kept. The other rental companies allow you to return the audiobook to another location too. If you prefer to rent unabridged titles instead of abridged, you can also rent online at BooksinMotion.com, BooksonTape.com or RecordedBooks.com. Abridged titles and original-publisher-produced titles can be purchased online as well, at Audiobooksales.com or Audioadventures.com.

In whatever format, most audiobooks are released at the same time as hardcover first releases, and at roughly the same purchase price, unless the publisher of the original hardcover does not have an audio department, in which case an audio-only publisher is licensed to release the title on audio. Often a publisher like Putnam Berkley will issue only an abridged version of their new book, utilizing their own audio division, and license another company like Books on Tape to do an unabridged version. In rare instances, both the original publisher and an audio-only publisher release the same title in the same format, although usually with a different reader. Just as books vary in their quality, though, so do readers. A great reader can make a mediocre book sound good, and a bad reader can make a good book sound bad. The trick is in finding the best readers for the best books, and when the marriage is great, the awards come. These include Audie Awards from the Audio Publishers Association, (of which I'm one of many judges) and the Earphones Awards from Audiofile magazine.

Everyone has his or her own favorite authors and narrators. Trucker John Martinson, a mattress hauler from S.C., says he prefers action titles, with sound effects. Titles like Star Wars -X Wing: Iron Fist from BDD Audio, Shock Rock, a collection of horror stories read by rock stars, with music, from Publishing Mills, and Stephen King's audio-only self-read title, which looks like a pack of cigarettes, and is titled Blood and Smoke, from Simon & Schuster. But whether it's Danielle Steel or Clive Cussler, Bill Bryson or Janet Dailey, there's something for everyone. All you need is a cassette deck or portable player to accompany you on those long miles down the road.

Now for the wish list. These titles are worth purchasing, not just renting. Titles which, if you were to start a collection today, I don't believe you'd be disappointed to see under your Christmas tree. Check off those which interest you, and at least rent them, and I know you'll be hooked. Remember, they make great gifts too!

Angels Flight by Michael Connelly, read by Burt Reynolds. Follow detective Harry Bosch through the seedy side of L.A. as he investigates a racially motivated murder. (6 hrs. abridged, Warner Audio)

Vertical Run by Joseph Garber, read by Stephen Lang. Similar to the plot of the movie Diehard, the suspense never stops. (6 hrs., BDD Audio)

World's Shortest Stories, edited by Steve Moss. Each of these stories is only 55 words long, with a twist, so don't snooze or you'll lose . in more ways than one! (2 hrs., Listen & Live Audio)

Winner of an Audie for best unabridged fiction, The Breaker by Kit Denton will remind you of the movie Breaker Morant, and tells the story of Harry Morant, a tragic but charismatic adventurer who was executed in 1902 for the purported murder of civilians in the Boer War. Flawlessly performed by Terence Donovan, every nuance and dialect is captured in this sweeping, compelling audiobook which takes the listener to Australia, South Africa, and beyond. (11 hrs., rent from Bolinda/Isis Audio, 1-800-523-4773)

Another Audie winner, and also titled The Breaker, is a mystery by Minette Walters, read by Robert Powell, about the investigation of a woman's rape and murder. You should know that this title beat out more popular titles by the likes of Grisham and company for the honor. Why? Because popular rarely means best anymore. (8 hrs., rent from Chivers Audio, 1-800-621-0182) Another title to look for at Chivers is A Stab in the Darkby Lawrence Block, superbly read by William Roberts.

Michael Somers has returned to the Pacific Northwest to uncover secrets from his past. No one trusts him because of a night of violence perpetrated by him years ago. Then he rescues a wounded falcon, and while nursing it to health, befriends a lonely boy who hasn't spoken a word since witnessing his father's death in a hunting accident. Now they face a hunter again, as they prepare to release the falcon  back into the wild. The first novel by Stuart Harrison, The Snow Falcon is about redemption and healing, and takes its lesson from nature itself. Another excellent read by talented Dick Hill. (13 hrs., unabridged, Brilliance Audio)

A romance with adventure in the mix by the author of Rebecca, here is the story of a pirate who wins the heart of Lady St. Columb in 17th Century England. Read by a masterful English actor, John Castle, Frenchmans Creek by Daphne du Maurier will be of particular interest to women tired of the empty soap operas seen on television. (8 3/4 hrs., Audio Partners)

Jason Robards and Judith Ivey star in a play on tape,, about an impossibly strict ex-high school teacher who is now dying, and whose new housekeeper has a motive of her own for taking the job. Originally on Broadway starring these same two actors, this powerful and emotional drama by Israel Horovitz is witty and compassionate . a tour-de-force which, at its climax, cannot fail to move you. (100 minutes, $18.95, L.A. Theatre Works. 1-800-708-8863)

On the Road by Jack Kerouac, read by Alexander Adams. This beatnik novel is a classic travelogue about self-discovery. (12 hrs., unabridged, Books on Tape, also read by Frank Muller from Recorded Books)

The Endurance by Caroline Alexander is read by Michael Tezler and Martin Ruben, and in it, Shackletons legendary Antarctic expedition is chroniclized. An Audie Award winner, this true story has the feel of an epic. (6 hrs., Highbridge Audio) Also from Highbridge is The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, read by George Hearn. The definitive Civil War novel, true to history, and grand in scale.

God is my Broker by Christopher Buckley, read by Mark Linn Baker. A funny comic novel about a Wall Street broker who becomes a monk. (6 hrs., BDD Audio)

Carpool by Mary Cahill is a witty suburban housewife mystery. In it, Jenny Meade comes across a corpse swinging from a tree during her hectic driving schedule . and gets a chance to fly again after being chased by criminals to the airport. Read by Barbara Rosenblat and John R. Jones. (9 hrs., rent from Recorded Books, 1-800-638-1304.) Another RB title you might rent is Driving Force by Dick Francis, read by Simon Prebble. It's a trucking company tale with plenty of action and intrigue.

24 Hours by Greg Iles is read by Dick Hill. When a young girl is kidnapped, her parents can't go to the police. Hill deserves every accolade for his performance of a terrified child alone in the woods with a cell phone. If you have kids of your own, this is a story you'll be thanking me and cursing me at the same time for steering you to . because all your fingernails will be gone by the end. (10 hrs., Brilliance Audio)

Purple Cane Road by James Lee Burke, read by Will Patton. All of Burke's books are masterpieces, includingHeartwood, Sunset Limited, Cimarron Rose, Dixie City Jam, Heavens Prisoners and Cadillac Jukebox. Best of all, narrator Patton is the perfect choice to read the series, capturing both the southern Louisiana accent and the very persona of detective-turned-bait-store-operator Dave Robicheaux to perfection. (6 hrs., abridged, Simon & Schuster)

Surely the easiest way to break into audiobooks is by listening to a fully dramatized book, with a full cast and sound effects. Sleeping Beauty by Ross MacDonald has 35 actors in it, including Harris Yulin, Ed Asner, and Veronica Cartwright. This Audie Award winner is a rare treat - a fully dramatized unabridged mystery running 7 hours, like an audio film noir. Costly to produce, it is worth every penny. ($29.95, Audio Partners)

In The Indwelling, book seven of the best-selling Tribulation series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, the Antichrist comes back from the dead at his own funeral, and declares himself God. As read by Jack Sondericker on unabridged audio, this Christian crossover series is a must-listen. Producer Gary Challender told me recently, "Twenty years ago I fell asleep at the wheel on cruise control at 60 mph. My car hit a 30' guard rail so perfectly that it dented only the chrome at the top of the fender well, and yet it knocked the guard rail clear off the posts. That pushed my car back onto the highway and woke me up. I saw the guardrail in my rear view mirror and realized what had happened. It was the only guard rail in a five-mile stretch of highway that had death on every side, and if you consider the odds that I would hit a 30' guard rail so perfectly that it woke me up and didn't even damage my car, you know it was divine intervention. Since then, I have awaited the reason I was spared to surface. It's the Left Behind series. I believe it is God's warning to America, and by the calls and letters I have received, it's working. Let me say I am not now nor have I ever been a religious person. An honest person, yes. Religious, no. But I can clearly see what is happening on the religious front and it is something that everyone must consider." (apx. 10 hrs. each, rent from Books in Motion, 1-800-752-3199)

Here's a shorter full cast/full sound effects title, which benefits charity as well. I had the privilege of being involved in this production, which was almost a year in the making. Produced by award-winning sound engineer Jeff Davis, this 90-minute tape is distributed by Books on Tape, with part of the proceeds benefiting Sun Sounds Radio for the Blind. Mystery & Mirth for Anyone Stuck in Traffic consists of nine short radio plays, both humor and horror, with the theme of traffic and fighting "Road Age" while waiting for those lights to change. ($9.95 at toll free 1-877-322-TAPE, Books on Tape)

Jonathan Lowe reviews for Audiobookcafe.com, and is author of POSTAL, an Earphones Award-winning suspense novel on audio, read by Frank Muller.