We all love to listen to something while driving. But isn't there something other than Top 40 tunes, repeating endlessly? Or blaring radio ads insisting we enlist in the cola wars? There is. Hence, this column, geared to your listening enjoyment on the road. Now you can leave the tension and road rage to other drivers, and tune into audio books in your detour from any highway to hell. Unabridged titles will be referred to here as "Cross Country" titles, and abridged titles as "Cross Town" titles. Ready for the rating system? In place of 1 to 5 stars, we have 1 to 5 "honks." If the audiobook is "flat," or is blowing smoke and needs a tune up, it's a "drive-by." If it's a big winner, it gets the "checkered flag." So now that the rules are laid out, ladies and gents, please start your engines...
Cross country (unabridged) titles
"Magic Terror" by Peter Straub What scares you may not scare me, and verse visa. Still, Peter Straub must have something, after 14 novels, "Ghost Story" and "The Talisman" among them. "Magic Terror" is an unabridged collection of stories now on audio, including the haunting "Hunger, An Introduction," written by the ghost of a dead murderer with an appreciation of life that the living may not comprehend. As narrated by Ron McLarty, these "literary" horror tales may not be good for a cheap scare on long hauls over lonely country roads at night, but if you have the patience, and want to steer clear of clichés, the signpost up ahead may take you to places you have never been. (14.5 hrs., Random House)
James Patterson uses nursery rhymes as titles, and this time it's "Roses are Red," about a series of bank robberies involving hostages, and some very precise demands made by an unknown antagonist calling himself The Mastermind. Detective Alex Cross is ultimately the target of this twisted mind, and the plot twists leave one guessing until the very end. Peter Jay Fernandez narrates with an understated eloquence, almost tongue in cheek. There must have been some tongue twisters too, because of some obvious edits along the way. (8 hrs., Time Warner Audio) U
I was curious as to how the controversial "The Black Box" might be narrated, and with what kind of setup to avoid macabre sensationalism. The six tapes run nine hours, reading actual transcripts of cockpit conversations prior to doomed passenger airline flights. Collected by Malcolm MacPherson, and read by Michael Prichard, this book manages to escape the label "sick" by a wide margin, though, because Prichard does not need to dramatize the text at all. And hopefully the conclusion drawn will be that life is to be lived in the present, not the future, as anything can happen tomorrow. That is the value I get from the book, not that I should never fly ValuJet again. (8 hrs., Books on Tape, 1-800-88-Books)
Richard Ferrone is an understated narrator with just the right voice for mystery, and his timing is right too in "The Burglar in the Library." In this novel by Lawrence Block, the improbable Bernie Rhodenbarr, bookseller and crook, is looking to nab a signed copy of "The Big Sleep" from the library of a country inn during a snowy weekend retreat. Naturally, dead bodies start turning up, they're stranded and one of them is the killer. Block intentionally uses all the clichés in the book, but makes them palatable through the use of droll and funny dialog in this send-up. (9.75 hrs., Recorded Books, 1-800-638-1304}
Larry McMurtry's latest, "Boone's Lick," is a pioneer family's story told by a 15-year-old boy named Shay. The family leaves Missouri to go to a fort in Wyoming in the late 19th century and encounters Indian raids along the way. This is a believable tale told simply and well, and best of all, it's narrated by Will Patton, who does such an incredible job on James Lee Burke's books, and here as well. (7 hrs., Simon & Schuster Audio)
Versatile narrator Dick Hill can chalk up yet another winner with his interpretation of a tightly written suspense tale, "The Carrier," by Holden Scott. The novel is about a young Ph.D. candidate whose former professor steals his potential cure for cancer. Interesting from beginning to end, the plot follows Jack Collier, who is on the run from the law because his mentor set him up in an attempt to take credit for Jack's development of a genetically altered flesh-eating bacteria that attacks tumors instead of healthy skin. Dick Hill conveys Jack's frustration and alarm both in and out of the college research lab with believable emotion, utilizing subtle nuances of inflection and tone. (8 hrs., Brilliance Audio)
Cross town (abridged) titles
Doctors may make mistakes, but editor James Gleick made only one or two when selecting these essays on medicine, the mind, biotechnology and space, read by the authors, in "The Best American Science Writing 2000." (6 hrs., Harper Audio) U
"Gap Creek" by Robert Morgan is the simple story of a young woman's difficult life and marriage in a mountain valley near the border of the Carolinas. (5 hrs., Highbridge Audio)
Dick Francis has a new novel, "Shattered," in which talented Martin Jarvis tries to jockey into the winner's circle, but comes up short due to the horses succumbing to fatigue. (3 hrs., Putnam Penguin) @
Tom Clancy's "Net Force - Breaking Point" is actually written by Steve Perry, an unknown whose bio does not appear in this high-tech action title read with skill by Stephen Lang. (6 hrs., Harper Audio) U
Want to know what it's like to have it all? "The Season" by Ronald Kessler probes the ultra-rich, but unhappy billionaires of Palm Beach. (6 hrs., Harper Audio) U
Want happiness instead? Ladies will love "Something more - excavating your authentic self," written and read by Sarah Ban Breathnach. (6 hrs., Time Warner Audio) U
Audio book sources
If you don't see an 800 number for the book you want, call 1-800-532-7385 or visit Earful.com for rent or sale. For author interviews, visit audiobookcafe.com.
Reviewer Jonathan Lowe is author of "Postal," an award-winning suspense novel read by Frank Muller (1-800-72-Audio), and "Mystery & Mirth For Anyone Stuck in Traffic," a tape of radio plays benefiting charity (1-800-88-Books).