Audiobook Review: Port Mortuary By Patricia Cornwell, Read By Kate Burton

port mortuary audiobook One of the reasons I like UnitedMonkee.com is that it gives me a good reference point for the things I’ve read, watched and to a lesser extent listened to over the past few years. It’s far from complete — sometimes I like to keep things to myself while other times too much time has lapsed between experiencing the thing and writing about it for it to be authentic — but for the most part it’s a pretty good pop culture external hard drive for my brain.

It’s also fun to look and see how long I’ve been absorbing certain entertainment. Take audiobooks for example, I first wrote about them back in January of 2011 after we got back from a road trip and had listened to Robert B. Parker’s The Widow’s Walk. On that same trip we listened to our first Kay Scarpetta book The Scarpetta Factor and have continued to use this unique format to make our long car trips more entertaining, making our way through a chunk of the Scarpetta books in the process. For what it’s worth — and for completionists sake — we’ve listened to All That Remains, Cruel And Unusual, Predator, The Book Of The Dead, Scarpetta, Scarpetta Factor, Port Mortuary and the first third or so of Red Mist.

We get our audiobooks from three main sources: my wife’s parents who introduced us to the idea, sales at places like Amazon and Barnes & Noble and the library. Last time we took a trip, we grabbed Red Mist, but didn’t finish it. Before heading to Michigan last week, we tried using our library’s digital borrowing system which worked great, but Red Mist wasn’t available so we went with the only one that was that we hadn’t already heard, Port Mortuary, which happens to preceed Mist. This wound up being something of a blunder because I remembered enough details of Mist to know where Mortuary was ultimately going.

So, there was a certain amount of tension and mystery removed for me while listening to this book, but I’m a strong believer that you can know where something is going to end and still enjoy the journey getting there. I still enjoyed the journey this time around as some huge story elements were still unknown to me, but there was something off about this book. My wife was super bored by the whole thing and she didn’t remember nearly as much about Mist as I did.

The plot finds medical examiner extraordinaire Kay Scarpetta leaving a the titular Port Mortuary — a military medical examining station for troops, basically — and returning to the organization she’s supposed to be running only to find a mysterious dead man in her cooler and the place a mess thanks to leaving it in charge of one-time protege Jack Fielding. The whole thing unravels in the span of something like two days and finds Kay mostly playing catch-up as her FBI agent husband Benton, tech wiz niece Lucy and  detective Marino are out in the real world figuring things out and she’s in the lab, basically under house arrest thanks to a strong FBI presence.

If you look at the reviews on Amazon for this book, they’re pretty unfavorable. Most of the complaints revolve around this book being fairly slow, boring and jam-packed with information that doesn’t seem all that necessary  Many of those reviews are written by longtime Scarpetta fans, so I can’t really comment on the validity of the idea that the books have gone downhill as we’ve only listened to a pair of very abridged books from the early days. But, I think I can address the other complaints.

The book feels slow and boring because it’s first person and Kay is basically in one place, discovering pieces of information that are new to her and us, but not to anyone else. It’s not much fun watching someone basically play catch-up, even if you’re not in the know yet either. One of the keys to reading a mystery is feeling in on the action, but not smarter than the main character. It made me think less of her because, while some elements would be impossible for her to know, others are definitely her fault, specifically hiring Fielding and all the problems that come from that. Kay also brings a lot of her own paranoia and history into the story, making us believe things are going a certain way when, really, they’re not. When you’re steered in a dead end direction like this, it can be frustrating. There’s an entire part of Kay’s early days in the field that seems super important to the story, but really isn’t, it’s just something that a more recent event reminded her of and yet, it’s kept a secret like it’s a key element. These elements were kind of annoying when listening to the book, but would have probably made actually sitting down and reading this thing a slog for me personally.

I get all that and can see where those complaints are coming from, but I think Cornwell was trying to do something a little different with this story. You’re completely in Kay’s POV throughout this whole story. It’s told in the first person, so you’re never not in the room with her. We’re basically supposed to feel as confused, paranoid and angry as she is. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure if this was the best way to go. The way this book is set up the isolation understandably breeds negative feelings, but the other downside is that we don’t get to spend as much time with the supporting characters we’ve come to know and love. I’ve got no problem with Ann, but I’d rather hang out with Lucy.

At the end of the day, I understand why this book disappointed so many readers. I also think I might understand what Cornwell was trying to do and even got sucked into it at times — I was particularly nervous during the period where she was accidentally drugged — and enjoyed it overall. For me, knowing what going to happen in the parts of Red Mist that we listened to was worse than the presentation of this book, but that’s what happens when you listen to these things in a haphazard way. Now we’ve got to get Mist back from the library or download it and finally figure out what the heck is going on there!

Audiobook Review: The Inner Circle By Brad Meltzer, Read By Scott Brick

brad meltzer the inner circle audiobook Every time we go on a road trip of any real length, my wife and I run over to the library and get an audiobook or two. Before leaving to visit her folks for Christmas, I picked up Brad Metlzer’s The Inner Circle which wound up serving us for two separate trips. I actually had no idea what the book was about, I just saw Meltzer’s name and grabbed it. It turns out, however, that it’s actually a kind of sequel or follow-up to the last of his books we listened to in audiobook form: The Book of Fate.

This time around, the story revolves around normal guy Beecher who uncovers a potential secret spy ring built around the president while trying to impress a woman from his past. As things tend to go in Meltzer novels, the ensuing 12 discs revolve around healthy doses of mistrust, misinformation and misunderstandings all while conveying action and drama the never fails to keep me interested. I should note that I actually forgot very little of the plot in the nearly three months between starting the audiobook and finishing it, which is a testament to the story.

The character who carries over from Book of Fate, though, is the one who really steals the show: Nica Hadrian, the man who tried to kill the president in that book. I had no idea he would appear in this book and would love to talk to Meltzer about why he decided to bring him back, but I think I have a pretty good idea. This guy’s just a super compelling character. He’s belfry-level crazy thinking his last victim still talks to him and also believing in ages old historical conspiracies that continue through reincarnation. But he’s also incredibly smart and has his own set of physical skills that made him such an effective killing machine. He’s basically Batman, but crazier and convinced that the world has an order to it, something I’m not so sure can be said about the Caped Crusader.

Something else I didn’t realize when I picked this book up from the library is that Beecher’s story actually continues on in Metlzer’s most recent book The Fifth Assassin. But don’t worry about this being an Empire Strikes Back kind of situation where you get to the end of this book and feel like you’ve been given part of a whole rather than a whole story. Inner Circle definitely has a solid ending, but also goes on to set up some real potential I’m excited to see explored when we get around to listening to Assassin.

Once again, I was super pleased with my experience listening to or reading a Brad Meltzer book. That guy really writes the kinds of stories I enjoy, constantly keeping the wheels on his “regular guy put into extraordinary situations” thrillers. That’s actually one of the reasons I’m interested in checking out the sequel. Beecher fit a similar model that I’ve seen in other Meltzer lead characters, but he’s presumably more trained and confident in Assassin, so I’m definitely curious to see how that plays out.

Audiobook Review: The Bourne Legacy By Eric Van Lustbader, Read By Scott Brick

The Bourne Legacy is an interesting creature as far as stories go. First off, it’s one of the Bourne books published after Robert Ludlum’s death and written by an author named Eric Van Lustbader. This is the first Bourne book I’ve ever encountered, so I won’t be able to compare styles until I get to The Bourne Identity in my most recent Ambitious Reading List. It’s also interesting because, even though there was a film out earlier this year with this title, I’m fairly certain the two have nothing in common aside from names.

With all that out of the way, I actually really enjoyed this audiobook, which was read by one of my favorite readers Scott Brick (he does an awesome job on Nelson DeMille’s books and Brad Meltzer’s). From what I gathered and remember (it’s been a while since we finished this one actually, so some of the details might be a little fuzzy, Bourne has been doing his whole history professor thing for a while until someone tries to kill him and then takes out some of his friends. Bourne confronts the assailant, but neither kill the other. Bourne thinks he’s being framed and heads to France and Hungary to try and find out what’s going on. Meanwhile, the story also focuses on the assailant, a group of Chechen terrorists and a Lex Luthor-esque bad guy who, when not screwing with people in his secret, soundproof torture room, runs a global aid organization. In other words, there are a lot of pieces.

I liked the spy/adventure/Bond-ish nature of this story. The bad guy is a true, all evil bad guy, though some of the people he’s working with are more in the “I guess I can see where they’re coming from” vein. Bourne himself is a steadfast hero who wants to both clear his name and do the right thing. And, while I might have had a hard time following the details of the action in the fight scenes at times while driving, it was nice to listen to a book that wasn’t the usual crime, cop or PI drama. I dig those books and they work great for road trips, but it’s nice to read something different (I felt the same way when we listened to Kyle Mills’ The Second Horseman, which I now realize I never reviewed).

I want to get into some SPOILER territory here. I’m curious if other readers/listeners were tipped off to the relationship between the assassin Khan and Bourne? I felt like I knew he was Bourne’s son as early as the scene in the woods towards the beginning of the story. I don’t remember exactly what put the idea in my head, but it just clicked. I’m glad that we didn’t have to wait a super long time for them to bring it up in the story itself, but it still felt like a while.

All in all, I had a good time listening to this book. I didn’t feel like I was lost, even though this is the fourth book in the series. I just realized form looking at the series’ Wiki page that it’s actually the first one Van Lustbader wrote and the first one that came out post-Ludlum. It was a fun, taught ride that made me want to drive around even longer, which is the criteria by which I judge these things.

Audiobook Review: Book Of Fate By Brad Meltzer, Read By Scott Brick

I’ve talked about how much I dig Brad Meltzer’s books before (The Zero Game, Book of Lies and The Millionaires). He has a great ability to write tight thrillers that never fail to keep my interest. Most of his books that I’ve read involve a regular guy stumbling onto something big that he has to run away from. Said hero tends to go on the run in order to clear their name, usually aided by a friend, family member or confidant. It might seem a little formulaic, but Meltzer also does a boatload of research and puts that into his books that give all kinds of extra information, something fans of his TV series Decoded will not be surprised by.

The Book of Fate is about a presidential aid named Wes who was wounded in an assassination attempt on the president’s life. Because of a misunderstood picture taken during the incident, the prez lost favor with the people and did not get re-elected. The meat of the story finds Wes working for the former president eight years later when it just so happens that a guy who seemed to die during the assassination attempt is actually alive. This gets Wes and his friends digging into what really happened. They stumble onto a powerful organization called The Three and have to deal with the crazy man who shot him, Nico.

As with his other books, this one kept me interested and guessing as to what was really going on the whole time which made it a great audiobook to listen to on our almost 12 hour drive home from Michigan to New York on Monday. I do have one minor complaint though. At the beginning of the book, there’s a note written by Meltzer that reader Scott Brick reads that talks about the Masons. He offers historical information about the group, saying that he doesn’t necessarily believe the conspiracy theories about the group, but does note it’s interesting all the important and powerful people who joined. This is the kind of thing I tend to skip when reading a book, but you don’t really have as much choice when listening to an audiobook. The problem I had with this is that it primed my brain to constantly think of the story in terms of the Masons. But, as it turns out, they’re not even a part of the book, but instead stories The Three tell Nico to get him on their side. Basically, “These evil men built the country as a way to open the gates of hell, so I must kill them.” Maybe it was put in there to do exactly that, but I didn’t like it. I usually just jump in and read a book, I don’t like too much advanced information.

But, that’s a small complaint. Like I said, this one moves along at a pretty breakneck pace making for a great listen. Brick once again did a killer job on the reading just as he did on The Millionaires and the Nelson DeMille books we’ve listened to. On a bit of a funny side note, I let my dad borrow The Millionaires. He really liked it so when I saw The Book of Fate discs on sale for cheap on Amazon, I recommended he check it out. I was actually thinking of The Book of Lies, though, so I told him it had all this stuff about Superman and was partially set in Cleveland. When I saw him on vacation he was like, “I really liked that book, but it didn’t have anything about Cleveland in it.” Whoops! It worked out, though, because I hadn’t read Fate and it wound up being the perfect driving audio for our trip home.

Audiobook Review: Devil Bones By Kathy Reichs

My wife and I were pretty excited when we saw a cheap copy of the audiobook version of Kathy Reichs’ Devil Bones. We’re big fans of the Fox series Bones which is based on the books and have not read any of the source material, so this seemed like a good thing to both of us. It wasn’t.

There are actually two very different reasons why neither of us enjoyed the experience of listening to this book. First off, the character of Temperance Brennan found in the book series is completely different from the one in the TV series. Brennan from Bones is a cold, calculating woman whose relationship with Agent Booth had grown over the years while the book version is, well, like pretty much every other person in a procedural book. I mentally compared her to Kay Scarpetta from the Patricia Cornwell books like The Scarpetta Factor, but less interesting. What I like about the TV version is just how strong and confident Brennan is as a character, but that’s not the case in the book. But, I can put the whole show versus book thing past me and did fairly quickly, though I kept looking for characters from the show in the book that never showed up. This was something that just threw me a bit, it was something else that made my wife and I dislike the story overall.

It’s just plain boring and felt loooooong, which is crazy because we actually listened to the abridged version instead of the longer one shown in the picture above. The first and foremost problem is that Reichs throws in all kinds of unnecessary details. I appreciated how she explained who the character was, especially because we were new readers who were used to the different status quo of the television show, but the overly complicated history lesson of the surrounding area the book is set in? Completely unnecessary and about as interesting as a seventh grade history lesson. Worse yet, it didn’t matter as the story left that area fairly quickly.

As my wife said, you probably could have skipped the first three discs, started with the second and had a much better listening experience. There’s enough recaps to keep you filled in and that’s where the first actual bit of action takes place. I know procedurals aren’t always action packed, but it this one felt even less so with all the boring moments. However, things did finally get interesting at the very end making it a somewhat worthwhile listening experience. At the end of the day, though, we will most likely not be returning to this author or this series because it’s being done much better on television and there are plenty of other, more interesting books out there that will actually make our long car trips feel shorter, not longer.

Audiobook Review: The Millionaires By Brad Meltzer & Plum Spooky By Janet Evanovich

My wife and I have been listening to the unabridged audiobook version of Brad Meltzer’s 2002 novel The Millionaires. I read the book back around 2002 after hearing about or actually reading his comic book work. As it turned out, I remembered almost nothing about the story except for a few random bits, so when I started loading up my gigantic iPod with my iTunes back-up files and remembered that I had downloaded a free copy of the audiobook version at some point, I was excited to listen to it. I’ve never listened to a book that I’ve read before, so that was an interesting experience, especially as I kept challenging my brain to remember exactly what happening (and actually questioning whether I read this book or not in the first place).

The key, much like an important part of the book, rests in Disney World. There are some thrilling scenes that take place at the happiest place on earth that did stick in my mind and also helped me convince my wife to give the book a listen. I remember reading or hearing Metlzer say at one point that doing behind the scenes research at Disney was actually more difficult than doing research at the White House. I believe it.

Anyway, the story itself revolves around a pair of brothers who wind up stealing a lot more money than they intended to. What was supposed to be a quick, small grab of money no one would notice turned into an uncovering of a much larger, more nefarious plans that put the brothers on the run. Like the other two Meltzer books I’ve read–Zero Game and Book Of Lies–he keeps the chapters short and the reader on the run along with the characters, making sure not to reveal too much or too little. The reading by Scott Brick–who also does the Nelson DeMille books, which I’ve only reviewed one of, but have actually listened to many more–keeps the story moving along perfectly and matches the tension to a tee. Sure, some of the accents are off, but what are you gonna do?

While The Millionaires was a taught thriller filled with interesting characters I actually cared about and wanted to see do well, Janet Evanovich’s Plum Spooky (2009) was filled with head-scratching events, confusing characters and monkeys. To be fair, neither my wife nor I have read or listened to any of the Stephanie Plum books, but she’s a real world bounty hunter, right? So, why does the end of this book feel/sound like a cut rate James Bond film mixed with superheroes? The bad guys want to control weather! The good guy literally disappears at the end! Another man farts fire! Huh? I swear, I didn’t make any of that up.

The plot revolves around Plum going after a a science guy who skipped out on a bond after smashing his boss in the face and stealing a piece of equipment. Actually, before any of that actually, someone drops off a monkey for her to watch, so he becomes her de facto partner in addition to all her other partners. While going about her job, she happens to smell a dude she knows named Diesel who later shows up at her apartment. He’s what he calls an Unmentionable which means he’s got some kind of supernatural powers or some such. He’s helping Stephanie because his cousin Wolf is also an Unmentionable who is working with the guy she’s after. Confused? If it sounds like a comic, it sure does. Not only with the super-type folk, but also because most people in the book go by colorful nicknames: Wolf, Diesel, Ranger, Flash, Sasquatch, the Easter Bunny, etc. Wolf and the scientist–who also wants to be a rapist, by the way–are working on something that will SPOILER control the weather. To do so, they’ve kidnapped a woman who has her own monkey collection. There’s more, but I won’t get into it.

What threw me with this book is that I felt like I could never get a grip on what kind of reality we’re dealing with. I assumed that it was just the real world, especially after my wife explained that this is the character that Katherine Heigl just played in One For The Money. But then you get the Unmentionables (terrible name, by the way) and her partner Lula constantly talking about the Jersey Devil and even a man who literally farts fire and I just don’t know what I’m supposed to know about this world. Plus, the stakes just felt too high for what I was being shown. As a bad guy, Wolf might have been dangerous, but he came off as super goofy and the science guy was just trying to touch a boob (or worse).

Part of the problem stems from Lorelei King’s reading of the book. Her voice for the science guy is as stereotypical for a nerd as you can get (think the annoying kid from Polar Express and you’re there). I also thought her voice for Lula was grating at the very best, though I’m not sure if that’s a character I could ever get behind as written. In fact, most of the voices were so stereotypical and obvious that they were groan-worthy. At the same time, though, she can only work with what she’s given by the author. There were some genuinely funny moments in there, but I got the overall feeling that Evanovich was trying way too hard to make every single character seem cool and failed. As my wife put it, she missed more than she hit. This was definitely the case at the end when we actually lost track of what was happening and then, bang, it was over. The ending felt anticlimactic, especially given the potential scale for trouble the bad guys were working towards. On the other hand, the abridged version was short and gave us exactly the amount of story we needed to get home from Massachusetts today, so I can’t complain too much.

I know Evanovich spun Diesel and Wolf out into their own Wicked series of books. Did they get even more into the superhero/supernatural stuff? I’d honestly be curious to check them out, especially if she really dove into that realm and had fun with it.

Audiobook Review: The Ten-Cent Plague By David Hajdu, Read By Stefan Rudnicki

This is another one of those posts that have been kicking around in my head for a while. I actually finished the 10-disc audiobook version of David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare And How It Changed America a few weeks back, but haven’t gotten around to talking about it until now. My inlaws actually brought me this set the day our daughter was born, I’m sure I thanked them and set it aside next to my bed for weeks without really realizing what it was. A month or two back I finally dug it out, noted the awesome Charles Burns cover, and decided to start listening to it while driving around in my car. My dad does this instead of listening to the radio and it seemed like a good idea, plus I knew that my wife wouldn’t have much interest in listening to the book while on our trips to either Ohio or New Hampshire, though I do think it would have been highly informative for her.

This is not my first foray into the history of comics. That honor goes to a tape about collecting comic books I bought as a kid hosted by Frank Gorshin that briefly went through the history of the medium, even talking to EC’s William Gaines in his cluttered office, an image forever burned in my brain. I haven’t read too many books on the subject, but have absorbed quite a bit over the years. Even so, I’ve never experienced anything as in depth and complete as Hajdu’s account. He starts off where most other accounts of comics does with the Yellow Kid and ends with the failure of EC after a series of government inquiries into the effects of comics on children.

What sets The Ten-Cent Plague apart from the other sources I’ve seen or read is the fact that he seemingly interviewed every living person possible. And I’m not just talking about the EC folks who do wind up taking center stage for the last third or quarter of the book (as they should considering what was going on), but also people who just worked in the biz. It gives the sense of a complete account or as complete as can be, though obviously no such thing could actually exist, especially so far away from the events themselves. I do think that, had I been reading this book instead of listening to it, I might have quit because it could be dry, but Rudnicki’s deep, commanding and lyrical voice kept me interested the whole time.

There were three things that really caught my attention while reading the book. First off, I didn’t realize how bad the comic book backlash was, especially in small towns. Places all over the country were rounding up comic books and just burning them. Book burning! In America! The small mindedness really got on my nerves. Second, how crazy is it that 60 years ago comics were such a big deal that the government was looking into them and the millions of copies they were selling while today it takes a complete overhaul of a major company to sell a tenth of that. Can you imagine that much attention being paid to comics today?

Finally, I tried to really think about where I would fall on the issues of the day back then. I’ve read some of the horror and sci-fi comics that EC was putting out as well as some Creepy and Eerie issues and a few other things. They were pretty gruesome, especially in a more sheltered time. Were I a kid back then and a fan of these comics, I would have been incensed that adults were starting to get in my business and take away my secret window into a more adult world. At the same time, if I were a parent at the time, I would probably do my best to keep them out of my younger child’s hands. Note, I’m not making a suggestion for governmental censorship, but censoring kids is kind of a parent’s whole job after keeping them alive is taken care of. Hopefully parents are in tune with their kids and understand what they can handle, but that’s up to them. It’s also up to the merchants to decide what they want to sell, but not the government’s to tell us what we can and can not create when it comes to art and entertainment, assuming no one is getting hurt in the creative process. I have lived my entire life in a world filled with ratings and warnings of content, though. Movies and comics had ratings and stamps of approval, records eventually got notices of questionable content and video games their own system of ratings. I’m used to these things and trust them to an extent. Ratings systems can be great if they are well maintained and keep to a set of public rules that everyone can read and understand. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case back in the 50s and it lead to the end of a lot of great comics. Had things kept going the way companies like EC were going, we’d probably have a much different comic market now.

If you have any interest in comic book history, do yourself a favor and check Hajdu’s book out. I’d recommend hitting up the audiobook, but it’s worth consuming however you prefer.