Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Top Shelf: 10 Books for the Road

Summer is upon us, and with it the season of vacations.  And if you're cheap like me, this means avoiding costly plane rides by driving to whatever semi-exotic destinations you've selected as the setting for your time of rest and relaxation.  But conversation, pop music, and games of 20 Questions only go so far, and it's just a matter of time before you're stuck in traffic somewhere, bored out of your gourd, ready to dismantle the stereo system with your bare hands if the blasted DJ plays freaking "We Are Young" one more time.

So without further ado (and in honor of my upcoming cross-country road trip with a dear friend whom I have not seen in years--here's lookin' at you, kid), I present...

10 Books for the Road

(Or the gym.)  By which I mean: audiobooks.  A disproportionate number of them are narrated by Brits (or other natives of the UK) because, well, I'm a sucker for accents. Plus they sound so much smarter and more sophisticated than us Americans. (Yes, I'm a bit of an Anglophile.  What of it?)  You may also notice that the sci-fi/fantasy genre is rather heavily represented here, but what can I say?  Nothing holds my attentions like dragons.  Battling vampires.  In space.

Dead Until Dark, by Charlaine Harris (9.5 hours)

These novels--the source material for HBO's True Blood--are a bit trashy, but nowhere near as naked as the television show.  Narrator Johanna Parker does a first rate job with Sookie's character, making her naivete a bit more believable and elevating Harris's rather simplistic writing to from merely interesting to downright compelling.  There are plot holes, to be sure, but these books have kept me awake more than once on long, late-night treks across boring Midwestern highways, so I'm not complaining.  I've enjoyed pretty much the whole series to date, but you might as well start at the beginning--when Sookie (the telepathic barmaid) met Bill (the vampire from Civil War days) and shenanigans ensued.

Dragon Rider, by Cornelia Funke (11.5 hours)

A stand-alone novel from the German author of the Inkworld Trilogy.  This one features, well, a dragon, the boy who rides him, and an assortment of other fantastic and not-so-fantastic characters.  The plot is essentially "The White Seal", but with dragons, but the real selling point here is narrator Brendan Fraser.  Yes, that Brendan Fraser (who presumably got the gig after starring in the film adaptation of Funke's Inkheart).  Whatever you may think about the man as an actor, he is by far the most unselfconscious narrator I've ever heard--he throws himself into the reading with complete abandon, and commits absolutely to the various voices, accents, and even sound effects.  Funke's writing is fine, but Fraser is the real star here. (Plus, it's family friendly, so the kids can listen, too!)

Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer (~6 hours)

Another family-friendly entry, this one was described by the author as "Die Hard with fairies."  In an interesting twist, the title character, young Artemis Fowl, is actually the villain of the piece, set on kidnapping and ransoming a fairy for a boatload of leprechaun gold.  He is, at is turns out, remarkably likable for a villain, and seems to be possessed of something resembling a conscious.  And of course, by casting him as the villain, Colfer gives Artemis plenty of room to grow and develop over the course of the series.  Some of the later entries are less impressive, but this initial book is quite good. The narration here is excellent as well--Nathaniel Parker's accents are sheer ear candy. Yum.

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (~8 hours)

Ok, honestly, pretty much anything narrated by Neil Gaiman is well worth checking out.  The man has a voice like butter.  He talks like Alan Rickman.  It's delicious.  And he seems to be narrating his own works with increasing  frequency, much to my delight.  While Gaiman's writing is consistently tops (he's won both the Hugo and the Nebula several times), this story of an orphaned child raised by ghosts (with some help from a slightly less-dead--but even more awesome--guardian) while being hunted by the man who killed his parents just might be my favorite. Gaiman always has a whimsical, humorous touch to balance his darker side, but the humor seems to be more pronounced when he's writing for kids.

Stoneheart, by Charlie Fletcher (~10 hours)

The first entry in the Stoneheart Trilogy, this book introduces us to young George Chapman, who breaks the head off a stone dragon outside the Natural History Museum, thereby inadvertently waking up all the statues in London and immersing himself smack in the middle of brutal war between the 'spits' (human statues) and the 'taints' (evil, monster statues).  Once again, however, the biggest selling point is the narrator:  Jim Dale, of Harry Potter fame.  If you haven't listened to Dale's narration of the Harry Potter series, I order you to do so immediately.  There's a reason he won four Audie Awards and two Grammys for his narration of the series.  But if you've already experienced the crackerjack team of Dale and Potter, then I recommend giving this series a go.  Like the Harry Potter series, there's plenty of danger, friendship, fear, courage, and sacrifice.  Plus a minotaur.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl (~3.5 hours)

You know this one.  Or at any rate, you should.  Maybe you're familiar with the excellent Gene Wilder film from the seventies.  Maybe you know the (vastly inferior) Johnny Depp version from a few years back.  Hopefully you read the book.  Whatever your exposure to this delightful story, you need to check out this  audiobook version.  Eric Idle (of Monty Python fame) is the perfect choice to narrate Dahl's best-known novel.  Idle tells the story of Charlie's visit to the famous (and occasionally dangerous) Wonka Chocolate Factory with innocent delight and plenty of enthusiasm.  And the book lends itself particularly well to audiobook presentation--the whole thing reads like a story a crazy uncle would tell his wide-eyed nieces and nephews.  And Eric Idle is that crazy uncle.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams (~6 hours)

Another well-known classic, this book has been a favorite with sci-fi fans for  more than 30 years.  And with good reason.  It's hilarious and clever and actually fairly thought provoking.  And with Stephen Fry providing the narration, the whole thing just gets that much awesomer.  It's bloody brilliant, it is, and you should definitely give it a listen, especially if you know and love the book.  If you're new to Adams, well, shame on you!  Now make up for lost time, and bask in the glory of Fry's narration.

Redwall, by Brian Jacques (~10.5 hours)

This may count as cheating, since I put this on my last list of recommended reads.  But it's my blog, so who cares?  This one's not a straight narration, but a combination of narration and a full-cast reading.  Jacques himself provides the narration (with his Liverpool roots on full display), and the other characters are ably voiced by a host of other (apparently unknown) voice actors.  Kids will love listening to brave (though occasionally inept) young Matthias Mouse take on the villainous rat Cluny the Scourge, and will giggle at the antics of Basil Stag Hare, Warbeak Sparra, and Silent Sam Squirrel.  Well, ok, some kids may not, but I sure did.

Bag of Bones, by Stephen King (21+ hours)

This one is not family friendly.  It's a long one, and takes a while to get going, but story is good enough to be worth the wait.  King himself provides the narration, so if his voice bugs you, this may not be the book for you.  On the other hand, his 'backwoods New England Drawl' is tops, so all the local dialects are dead on (and creepy/friendly as all get out).  King's classic literary allusion of choice here is Rebecca, and references to Manderley and its creepy vibes (and mysterious widower) abound.  There are some disturbing sequences (this is King, after all), but they're not gratuitous; if you're got the stomach for it, this book will eat up a long road trip nicely.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett (18+ hours)

Ok, fine, here's a recommendation that's neither science fiction nor fantasy. Everyone and their mom read this book when it came out a few years ago, and the recent movie netted several Oscar nods.  The audiobook is read by an ensemble cast.  It's not quite an audio drama, though--different narrators read the sections penned by Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny.  The narration is consistently excellent, and fans of the movie will enjoy Octavia Spencer reprising her portrayal of Minny (the role for which she won an Oscar).  It's longish, I admit, but if you liked the book and/or the movie, or if you've got a long drive ahead of you and you just want to see what all fuss is about, then this audiobook makes for an interesting and surprisingly tense alternative to the many fantasy/sci-fi options listed above.

Bonus Recommendations: Shorter Works

For those of you who are looking for good audiobooks but don't necessarily want to commit to a full-length, day long experience, here are a few shorter options I've really enjoyed.

Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber (1.5 hours)

A Prince must rescue a Princess from the evil Duke who holds her captive in a castle where all thirteen clocks are stuck at 10 minutes to five.  Obviously, he will need the assistance of the Golux.

Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman (~2 hours)

Young Odd (the crippled son of a Viking) must save Asgard, the city of the Norse gods, from the Frost Giants.  Think "The Brave Little Tailor" or "The Boy Who Fooled the Giant", but with Norse mythology and Gaiman's flair.  Gaiman narrates.

The Spiderwick Chronicles, Volume 1: Books 1 & 2, by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black (~2 hours)

This audiobook actually contains both The Field Guide and The Seeing Stone, each of which is only about an hour long.  The adventures of the Grace children following their discovery of a catalog of fairy creatures are interesting enough and will undoubtedly delight children, but the real selling point for grown-ups is Mark Hamill's narration.  You heard me.

Full Story Readings from the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast (<1.5 hours)

If you like creepy-awesome weird fiction from the early 20th century, you are probably already familiar with the genius of H.P.Lovecraft.  If you aren't, the guys over at the H.P. Lovecraft Literary will be happy to fill you in.  They've been working their way through each and every one of Lovecraft's many stories (I think they're up to 112 episodes now, though some stories are covered over several episodes).  The podcasts are brilliant--they feature excerpts of the stories and hilarious and insightful commentary by Chad Fifer and Chris Lackey (and the occasional guest host).  In addition to the podcasts, they've also produced several excellent full story readings (complete with music provided by fans of the show), the longest of which is still under an hour and a half.

What about you?  Any audiobooks you'd recommend?  I've got plenty more driving ahead of me this summer, so feel free to speak up!

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