Audiobook Double Feature: The Broker & The Bone Bed

the broker john grisham audiobookMy wife and I primarily listen to audiobooks while driving to and from our parents’ houses. Hers live about four hours away while mine are 10. In the past few months we’ve driven out to both and also took a trip down to Philadelphia so we’ve been listening to a variety of different books at different times (partially because I lost my iPod temporarily while on the way home from Thanksgiving).

Anyway, while the iPod — which had the next book on it — was missing, we listened to The Broker a book by John Grisham as read by Dennis Boutsikaris which my inlaws passed to us. Clocking in at just about five hours, this book was a wonderful listen that stayed on point and kept us involved the entire time we listened.

The plot revolves around Joel Backman, a D.C. lobbyist who went to jail after getting mixed up with some international spy satellite tech. He’s given a surprise pardon by an outgoing president at the behest of the CIA who place him in Italy. While there, they secretly control his entire life in an effort to learn his secrets before letting the international spy community know where he is so they can kill him. Of course, Backman doesn’t know about these plans, so he does his best to learn Italian and blend in to his new surroundings, eventually catching wind that something is up before going on the run and grabbing a little insurance.

Like I said above, this book is a nice, taut thriller with a surprisingly likable character. You really start to feel for him as he tries to figure out his new life. At the same time, the spy and political worlds are dealing with the situation in various ways. Even though the scope of this book is fairly broad, it still stays focused without driving off course too much. I also enjoyed the ending which showed Backman mixing his old skills with some of the new ones he learned while on the run. All in all, I give this one a big thumbs up. For what it’s worth, this is the first Grisham book I’ve ever read or listened to which seems pretty crazy, especially considering how insanely popular he was back when I was at the peak of my voracious reading appetite.

the bone bed patricia cornwell audiobook Patricia Cornwell’s The Bone Bed, another Kay Scarpetta novel read by Kate Reading, was a lot more of a time commitment and not quite as focused as The Broker. We listened to this one on the way to and from Philly, to New Hampshire, part of the way to Michigan (after finishing The Broker) and then finished it early on our way back home after Christmas.

This time around, super duper medical examiner Kay Scarpetta is investigating or involved in a series of murders or disappearances. As the story continues, they seem to be connected and Kay eventually stumbles into the truth about what’s really going on and who is behind it all. Meanwhile, she’s also dealing with some potential problems with Marino, the advances of a young doctor she works with and her husband’s FBI partner who has eyes for him.

Bone Bed came after Port Mortuary and Red Mist. One of the big problems we had with Mortuary was that Kay wound up not doing too much in the story and was basically playing catch-up in her office while everyone else was doing things out in the field. Red Mist went a different direction as did Bone Bed, but BB did have a bit of a problem. A few actually.

First and foremost, Cornwell seems to really enjoy telling her readers about traffic patterns in and around Boston. As a reader, I could care less about these descriptions. When you’re in a story and have just read/heard something really interesting and want to get to the next stage of figuring it out, the last thing you want to learn about is a traffic jam. We listened to the unabridged version, which might have been a mistake, but I think these scenes would have been pretty boring had I read it the traditional way.

The other problem involves the end of the book. After so much detail was put into the scientific side of the investigation, SPOILER Kay winds up getting kidnapped by the killer while she’s talking to a different person altogether. Why an ME is out interviewing people is beyond me, but I can live with that. It just felt kind of quick and unearned for me. At the end of the story, she really doesn’t have any agency and doesn’t even free herself, but relies on her team to do that (though she was ready to defend herself). I get that the killer was worried because things were starting to heat up thanks to Scarpetta’s investigation, but I would have rather Scarpetta’s investigation more directly lead to the killer’s capture.

And speaking of the killer, while his motivations were really interesting, I didn’t feel like his immense skill at what he was doing was well explained. This person set a really elaborate trap with the first body discovered in the book. We understand why a person would do that, but not why this person did it, especially if their  main motivation seems to revolve around killing stand-ins for a hated person. How did he even think of that crazy plan?!

At this point, we’re still pretty solid Scarpetta fans, but I’m not sure if the last few listens have been all that great. If these were books by other people would I like them as much? Probably not, but since I’m already a fan of these characters, I’m more forgiving.

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 Front By Patricia Cornwell, Read By Kate Reading

I get the feeling that listening to Patricia Cornwell’s mystery The Front on audiobook is less like picking up a random issue of Spider-Man and more like doing such with Archer & Armstrong. Obviously the metaphor is specific to me, but it’s like this: sometimes books in a series like this (this is only one of two, but you get the idea) either have a built in knowledge that come with them or fill in some of the natural blanks that come with a character who has a long fictional history. I don’t really know Spidey continuity, but I’m pretty sure I could jump right in, read some issues and get the gist. On the other hand, I don’t know anything about Archer & Armstrong, so I have no idea if I’d understand what the heck was going on.

Man, that’s a longwinded and potentially alienating way to explain that I was left a little flat by this book. Our hero Win Garano is a cop who works for a jerky DA whose life he saved previously (not sure if that’s in the previous book At Risk or just talked about). Anyway, she puts him on a 40 year old murder case in a stupid attempt to make herself look good. He kind of works on that, but also puts equal effort into hitting on a detective who also owns a cheese and wine shop. Oh, there’s also a woman who looks like Raggedy Anne poking around, an annoying Harvard journalist, a bunch of copper being stolen from job sites, a bank robber and Garano’s grandmother who is just about every Wiccan stereotype and oddity wrapped into one.

Here’s my problem with the book and this is definitely SPOILER territory. So, as you might expect, the old case turns out to be sad, but not really important politically or otherwise. As it turns out, the DA was under investigation for giving money to terrorists, but more accurately a terrorist group funneling money through a charity aimed at helping children in another country. More on that in a second. So, the main case doesn’t really matter. Then, as it turns out the reporter is not only a criminal but also the bank robber, running the copper thing AND banging the DA. There’s an explanation, but not really the kind you want because it’s explained by someone else and we don’t actually see the reporter again. He’s just talked about. But, the most infuriating aspect of the ending is that Garano winds covering for the DA for no discernible reason. He has an end-of-book convo with the DA where they talk about her losing control after all the bad stuff that happened to her previously, but it still seems weak. Does he feel sorry for her? If so, why does he spend the entire novel complaining about her both thanks to the omniscient narrator and his own comments.

So, my overall complaint is that the book winds up feeling both confusing and too easily wrapped up. Plus, the title doesn’t make much sense. I know it refers to an organization mentioned in the book and also probably something like the front that the DA or maybe Win puts up towards the other, but I think that’s a pretty weak title. After finishing another audiobook that I will probably get around to interviewing tomorrow, we actually got through this one pretty quickly as it’s only four or so discs. The funny thing is that, going in, both the missus and I were talking and had NO idea how all the different stories would get wrapped up. That should have probably been the sign of a quick, somewhat sloppy wrap up, but I didn’t see it coming.

When it comes to absorbing audiobooks, I think my expectations are much higher, not necessarily from a quality standpoint but at least an entertainment one. If I’m watching a movie on Netflix, I want it to be good, but it’s not really a big deal. It’s just a time investment. But with an audiobook I’m more depending on the story to be good, absorbing and interesting because I need to be sucked in and hopefully forget about some of the hours I have to drive through. Luckily, even though I had problems with this story, it was still entertaining enough to keep me interested and curious. For that, I’m thankful for this book, but I can’t say it was good and I probably wouldn’t recommend it. I think I’ll still to Cornwell’s Scarpetta series, like The Scarpetta Factor which we both enjoyed quite  a bit.

Audiobook Review: The Scarpetta Factor by Patricia Cornwell, Read by Kate Burton

Even after having somewhat mixed feelings about our previous audiobook listening experience with Robert Parker’s Widow’s Walk, the missus and I decided to give another book a listen on our way back from Ohio after New Year’s. While perusing a rack at a rest stop, we stumbled across Patricia Cornwell’s The Scarpetta Factor. Unlike most of the other sets on the stand, we had at least heard of Cornwell and after the missus read the back and declared it was kind of like Bones, I was sold. The trip wound up being shorter than the audiobook, so it wasn’t until this weekend while driving all over creation registering for baby stuff at Baby’s R Us or checking out potential sleeper sofas at Bob’s that we finally finished the endeavor. We both agreed that this one was a lot more absorbing and quick than Walk wound up being.

Our main, or at least titular, character is Kay Scarpetta a medical examiner who’s a big enough deal to regularly appear on CNN to help explain modern medical practices and how they can be used in forensic investigations. This is one of the more recent entries in a series that goes back to 1986, so there’s a lot going on with relationships and whatnot that were revealed to the new reader (which we were). She’s married to a forensic psychologist who used to work for the FBI and her niece is a tech whiz with a mad on for seemingly everyone and also happens to be dating the DA that Scarpetta works with along with NYPD detective Pete Marino. This book picks up with the unusual death of a young woman who was dumped in the park which may or may not be related to the disappearance of a celebrity financial whiz. There is a LOT going on in this book with investigations into the recently dead girl, the missing financial lady and attacks on Scarpetta from a crazy woman who her husband used to treat. There’s also references back to her husband Benton’s past in the FBI which I assume were mentioned in previous books, but who knows?

The story here is very tight and intricate, sometimes taking veers off into other areas that don’t seem like they matter quite so much which really absorbed us as we were driving along. I really thought about ripping the last disc onto my computer to play out loud the very  next day, but wanted to finish it with the missus. I’ll be honest, there were still some aspects of the book that I’m not completely sure I understand, but that’s kind of good. Widow’s Walk ended with a complete recap of what happened which felt very much like a TV movie. There’s still a bit of that in this book, but it didn’t seem quite as “here’s every single thing that happened in case you missed it.” Another thing I liked about the book is that it felt like we were getting a view at a chunk of someone’s life instead of just a case they were working on. Sure, the action is kicked off by a murder, but the solving of that murder is not the only thing going on. We get into Benton’s past, Lucy’s love life and plenty of other strange occurrences going on. As it turns out, many of them are related, but not everything. I like that slice of life aspect over the alternative.

Unlike Widow’s Walk, there’s no mistaking Scarpetta Factor as a modern work of fiction because the characters–who work as a kind of crime fighting team–are constantly sending each other information pertinent to the various cases using their phones or macbooks. I really enjoyed the use of technology in this book, which is something that I haven’t even really seen on TV shows with similar themes. These people can share information with one another in seconds, which is how it seems like these things should work considering how powerful smart phones have become. In fact, it’s an interesting twist how quickly some of the characters get upset when they can no longer contact their loved ones and co-workers immediately. The end of this book would have been completely different had it been set even five years back.

Something interesting I noticed after we finished listening today was that this happened to be the abridged version of the book. The picture above is of the unabridged version, it’s not a huge image, but I think it says that version has something like 10 discs. It makes me wonder what we missed. Did they cut out chapters or subplots? Or is it something as simple as removing some of the “he saids”? If it was just to make things more theatrical that’s great, but if huge things were taken out that’s kind of a bummer. Does anyone know what the difference might be?

All in all we both really enjoyed this book. While Widow’s Walk piqued our interest in audiobooks, Scarpetta Factor solidified it. I’ll definitely keep my eyes peeled for more Patricia Cornwell novels in the future.