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Listen Up!
(June 2006) by David Pitt

I hope you're planning on a looooooong vacation, because I have a ton of audio books for you.

Killer InstinctIf you're in the mood for thrills, check out Killer Instinct (Audio Renaissance, 6 hrs.), written by Joseph Finder and read by the masterful Scott Brick. It's the story of Jason Steadman, a corporate sales exec who isn't, perhaps, quite as upwardly mobile as he should be. When he meets Kurt Semko, a former Special Forces officer, things seem to start going Jason's way: he starts closing tough sales, and his rivals within the company start becoming, shall we say, less of a problem.

By the time he figures out what's going on, Jason's in way too deep to dig himself out without a fight. Finder, who also the corporate thrillers Company Man and Paranoia, is an excellent storyteller, and Brick, in case you've never heard him, is one of those narrators who turns a novel into a one-man dramatic performance.

Iris Johansen's Killer Dreams (Random House Audio, 6 hrs.) features a woman being stalked by a cunning lunatic. Only one man can protect her, a man who is, in his own way, as menacing and clever as her pursuer.

The book has all of the Johansen trademarks: strong female lead, equally strong (but enigmatic) male support, suspenseful if not too challenging plot, reasonably sharp dialogue. For her fans, it's a surefire winner, and the performance by Jennifer van Dyck is enthusiastic without getting in the way.

In 18 Seconds (Simon & Schuster Audio, 6 hrs.), written by George D. Shuman and read by Lindsay Crouse, a blind woman with an extraordinary gift goes up against a serial killer with his own special talents. Sherry Moore is a little bit psychic; if she touches a corpse, she can see the dead person's last eighteen seconds.

Murderer Earl Sykes spent three decades in prison, although he was never charged or even apprehended for his murders. (It was a traffic accident that put him behind bars.) Now he's on the loose, and picking up his old habits. Can Sherry help the police find him before it's too late? Passionately read by Crouse, whose darkly seductive voice complements Shuman's sometimes-awkward prose, the book is a lot more successful than it initially feels like it's going to be.

Cold Moon (Simon & Schuster Audio, 6 hrs.), by Jeffrey Deaver, finds Lincoln Rhyme, the cranky quadriplegic criminalist, trying to figure out who's committing a series of weirdly staged murders, and why.

As always, the villain (he calls himself the Watchmaker) is hypnotically evil, likable in a disreputable sort of way. Rhyme is his usual self, demanding and impatient and brilliant, likable in an annoying sort of way. Deaver loads up the story with plot twists and characters you can't take your eyes off (ears off? that sounds silly), and Joe Mantegna's performance is among the best I've heard on a Deaver audio book. He really gets what Deaver's trying to do.

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's The Book of the Dead (TimeWarner AudioBooks, 6.5 hrs.) is the concluding volume of a trilogy that focuses on Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, currently behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Meanwhile the real villain, Pendergast's psychotic brother, is poised to commit even more horrific crimes.

Preston and Child get better with every book. The Pendergast series - the latest three books are a trilogy within that series, if you follow - combines traditional mystery elements with a taste of the supernatural; it's a rich series, populated by engaging recurring characters, full of ancient mysteries and contemporary evils. This one is beautifully performed by Rene Auberjonois, who seems to enjoy reading the book at least as much as we enjoy listening to him read it.

November, 1989. The Berlin Wall is falling. An MI6 agent, undercover in East Berlin, has a tough choice: get to the West as fast as he can before his cover is blown leaving his family behind, or stay in the East and try to complete a mission that could spell disaster for himself and his loved ones.

Henry Porter's Brandenburg (Orion Audiobooks, 6.5 hrs.) is a tightly written spy thriller that will keep the headphones glued to your ears. If the story weren't exciting enough, there's also the remarkable performance by Andrew Sachs. If you know Sachs only from his work on the British comedy Fawlty Towers (he played Manuel, who was from Barcelona), you'll be shocked by his flair as a dramatic actor.

Looking for something a little lighter? Here are a couple of comedies. A Dirty Job (HarperAudio, 12 hrs.), by Christopher Moore, tells the story of a regular guy who, through no fault of his own, becomes Death. Moore, who's written such offbeat comedies as Fluke and Island of the Sequined Love Nun, takes offbeat to a whole new level here.

And I know you're not going to believe this, but when I read the novel I kept hearing Fisher Stevens in my head, and it's Stevens who reads the audio book. His voice is absolutely perfect for this wildly funny story of death, dying, and desperation.

Tony Hendra, who made his bones as an editor of National Lampoon and Spy magazines (also as an actor), shows that he's a nimble comic writer in The Messiah of Morris Avenue (Audio Renaissance, 7.5 hrs.), the story of a humble man who may be the son of God.

Set in the near future, in an America where organized religion runs the country (imagine if every one of today's religious right's dreams came true), it's the kind of story for which the phrase biting satire is wholly inadequate. My only quibble is that the book is read by John Bedford Lloyd, who's fine, and not by Hendra himself.

From the future to the past. Telegraph Days (Simon & Schuster Audio, 10 hrs.), by Larry McMurtry, is set in his favorite stamping grounds, the Old West. It's a story of gunfighters, and love, the big dreams; of Buffalo Bill, and Doc Holliday, and Billy the Kid.

Nobody writes Westerns like McMurtry (heck, he did win a Pulitzer for one), and, surprisingly enough, the performance by Annie Potts is excellent. I say it's surprising because Potts usually plays roles that require her to be goofy, or perhaps engagingly quirky. Here she plays it straight, and she really is quite wonderful.

In The Templar Legacy (Random House Audio, 7 hrs.), Steve Perry asks us to believe - at least for the sake of argument - that the Knights Templar, an ancient and extremely wealthy order that was wiped out by the Inquisition in the 14th century, was not what historians have always believed it to be.

What the heck: I believe it. So do a former U.S. Justice Department operative and his former supervisor, not to mention Raymond de Roquefort, a murderous villain who, like his surname, is a little cheesy (but a lot of fun). All three of them are after the Templars' hidden treasure, and let's hope it's the good guys who get to it first. Brian Corrigan's performance is (I'm sorry) merely workmanlike.

The Secret Supper (Simon & Schuster Audio, 6 hrs.), by Javier Sierra, tells us a whole lot of things about Leonarda da Vinci's famous painting, The Last Supper, than we could possibly have imagined. In this elegantly written novel, set more than half a century ago, the Pope discovers that da Vinci hid a sacrilegious message in the painting. And thatís all I'm going to tell you, because the surprises are too good to spoil.

I want to take a moment, too, to heap praise upon Simon Jones, whose fluid British voice is almost hypnotic. I've been a fan for many years - he played Arthur Dent in the original BBC production of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - and he just pulls you into this novel.

Speaking of da Vinci, I guess you all know that Dan Brown - how do I put this in a non-libelous way? - relied heavily on the 1982 book Holy Blood, Holy Grail in his bestselling The Da Vinci Code. The book, written by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, has been released on audio (Random House Audio, 9 hrs.), read by Simon Prebble.

The book puts forward the fascinating, if perhaps ludicrous, notion that Jesus Christ didn't die on the cross; that he may have married; that his blood runs through the veins of people living today. Could be brilliant, could be foolish: it's a toss-up, really. But if Brown's novel got you interested in the whole subject, why not get the scoop from the guys who first pitched the idea, more than twenty years ago?

James T. Tabor's The Jesus Dynasty (Simon & Schuster Audio, 6 hrs.) also tackles the life of Christ. Based on ancient documents and recent discoveries, the book doesn't make any revolutionary claims; it's more of a story of a good man and his friends, whose faith changed the face of the world.

Tabor reads the book himself. Although he's the Department of Religious Studies chairman at the University of North Carolina, and has a Ph.D. in biblical studies, he doesn't read it like a scholar would; he reads it like an adventurer would, like a man caught up in the excitement of his own work.

If you're a baseball fan - I can't think of any segue that gets us from religion to sports without offending someone - you'll enjoy The Big Bam (Random House Audio, 6 hrs.), Leigh Montville's respectful but revealing biography of Babe Ruth, the guy who set the home run record back in the day when hitters didn't pump their bodies full of steroids.

Montville tells you all the things you already knew about Ruth, plus a whopping big pile of things you never knew (or suspected). The book's full of surprises, and the best part is this: it isn't one of those nasty, back-stabbing, sickening celebrity bios that litter the bookstore shelves. You can read this one in public, with your head held high.

Same goes for Clemente (Simon & Schuster Audio, 6 hrs.), David Maraniss's biography of Roberto Clemente, whose celebrity as a baseball player was matched, at least, by his fame as an honest-to-goodness hero. A man who dedicated his life to promoting racial tolerance and equality, he died in a plane crash while ferrying food and medical supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims.

What can you do with a man so honorable, so genuinely good, except put him on a pedestal? Well, guess what: Maraniss, who reads the book himself, finds something else to do. Despite his heroism and abundant charm and integrity, Clemente was still just a man, with all of the usual baser qualities. The author tells us about the man, not the myth, not the legend. It's an engaging and uplifting story, and it reminds us that heroes are people, too.
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