Click on the book titles to listen to a sample of the audiobook discussed.
By Philipp Meyer, narrated by Will Patton, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Shepherd, Clifton Collins Jr., Harper Audio, 17 hours and 48 minutes, $49.99
Audiobooks were made for stories like "The Son." So was the word "sweeping," as in, "a sweeping narrative of Texas history" or "a sweeping multigenerational drama of the frontier." This tale by Philipp Meyer, the author of the acclaimed novel "American Rust," features a trio of vivid characters, and performers Will Patton as patriarch Eli McCollough, Scott Shepherd as his embittered son, Peter, and Kate Mulgrew as Jeanne, Peter's daughter, tattoo vivid into indelible.
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Eli's worldview was shaped by his violent capture — and eventual adoption — by the Comanches, which doesn't prevent him from later becoming a Texas Ranger and slaughtering any Indian band except that of his old friends. His son, Peter, performed by Shepherd with a whisper of a whine, is a man out of place. Lacking his father's opportunistic moral flexibility, he struggles to maintain any sense of himself under his father's scorching influence. "Looking back on my 45 years, I see nothing worthwhile," Peter writes in his diary. "What I'd mistaken for a soul appear more like a black abyss. I've allowed others to shape me as they please." Kate Mulgrew is perfect as the independent Jeanne, a role she provides with admirable sand and a taste of a twang. Jeanne is her grandfather's true heir, forcing her way forward in a Texas that makes little room for ladies who leave their assigned seats. As fascinating — and often hair-raising — company as these characters make, it is not until the book's final scenes that all clicks neatly into place, and motivations come clear. The finish is done so well, it acts as a nearly irresistible inducement to listen to the whole book again.
By Ron Irwin, narrated by Holter Graham, Macmillan Audiobook, 10 hours, 53 minutes, $39.99
In Ron Irwin's "Flat Water Tuesday," Rob Carrey is an angry young man when he arrives at the prestigious Fenton School. Recruited because of the rowing prowess he showed at his upstate New York public high school, Carrey is surprised to learn that the opportunity comes with conditions. He has to stop competing as a single skuller and earn a place on "The God Four," the only boat that matters to the school. If he can help the four-man shell end its five-year losing streak against the school's arch-rival, he's almost a shoo-in for Harvard, where the rowing coach takes keen interest in Fenton's accomplishments. But Carrey doesn't want to be on a team. Forced onto the team, he doesn't want to take advice. He resents the wealth of his new teammates. He punches the team leader on the day they meet, and must be repeatedly reassured that everyone does not hate him. Why they don't is another question. He is not a lovable bloke.
Now Carrey is 35, preparing to head back to Fenton for a reunion and a memorial service for former teammate John "Jumbo" Perry who recently committed suicide. Perry's letter to Carrey opens the book. It is weighted with thoughts of a death that occurred the year Perry and Carrey rowed together. While that seems to signal the plot's direction, and someone does eventually die, the death remains incidental — and unnecessary — to the real story, which centers on competition, training, and a young man rethinking his place in life. In well-paced descriptions that can make stomach muscles ache with the effort of the racers, author Irwin shows how Carrey comes to terms with himself, learns to take advice and instruction, and becomes part of a team. In short, this is a coming-of-age story, albeit one ornamented with extraneous plot developments — including a messy love affair coming to a slow-motion end just before the reunion.
Actor Holter Graham, who narrates this book, has a knack for these young-men-on-the-brink stories, and he was spot-on for Richard Ford's "Canada," and Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding." His performance is just as satisfying in "Flat Water Tuesday," and he is particularly good in the competition sequences, giving Irwin's best prose the voice it deserves.
By Joanna Hershon, narrated by the author, Random House Audio, 18 hours, $50
Ed Cantowitz, the ambitious, rough-hewn son of a Jewish pipefitter, lands at Harvard in the late 1950s by dint of his brilliance and drive. Hugh Shipley, the WASP son of Boston wealth, all but inherited his place, "rarely giving his best effort," often skipping classes and usually smelling of whiskey. The combination of Cantowitz' determination — a ferment of bright self-confidence and nagging self-doubt — and Hugh's inertia forges a friendship that will mark the men for life. The exploration of this bond, with Hugh's future wife, Helen, at the fulcrum, warms Joanna Hershon's "A Dual Inheritance" even long after the men grow apart, and as — far worse — Hershon allows their characters to deflate and lose substance. Giving way to some cynical belief that all grown-ups must come to a bad end, the author sends Ed off to commit a felony that is never fleshed out and mostly tedious. Hugh becomes an international aid worker, alcoholic and philanderer, and Helen, who was never fully drawn to begin with, dissolves into vapor somewhere around the book's midpoint. With the dissipation of these characters, the plot segues its focus to the next generation, and the story slips from masterful to merely interesting.
Hershon provides a generally even narration, but like far too many audio readers, she has difficulty navigating the difference between brisk or serious and very angry, ignoring the power of understatement in favor of too much ardor. Creating consistent voices for characters can be tricky, and for part of a chapter, when Hugh and Helen are vacationing in the Caribbean island of Anguilla, Hershon gives Hugh an odd, almost British, accent.
By Neil Gaiman, narrated by the author, HarperAudio, 5 hours, 48 minutes, $29.99
Although Neil Gaiman's "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" isn't supposed to be a children's book, there's only a single scene — in which Daddy is making whoopee with an evil nanny — that might make some hesitate to play this book for middle school children. Gaiman is the British author of award-winning novels such as "American Gods" and "Stardust" (which was turned into a movie starring Robert De Niro), as well as The Sandman comic book series. In his latest novel, he writes the story of a man reminiscing about the evil that nearly upended his childhood.
As a bookish and shy 7-year-old, the unnamed protagonist met the magical family living at the end of the lane, including 11-year-old Lettie Hempstock, whom he realized had been 11 for a very long time. Through their friendship, the boy becomes an accidental portal for a selfish spirit trying to escape its own world. Lettie comes to his rescue after his daring nighttime dash to the Hempstock farm. As charming as these characters are, there's not much more here than charm, and the already brief story feels twice as long as it needs to be. Fantasy lovers will no doubt be unmoved by such complaints, and children will find the story engaging.
But for anyone else, what makes the book a worthy diversion is Gaiman's narration. The author often performs his own books, and he gives perfect voice to the fears gripping his main character. Unlike too many others, Gaiman trusts that the listener's imagination is up to the job of feeling what each moment contains.
Jenni Laidman is a freelance writer who lives in Louisville, Ky.