Friday, March 25, 2011

The Brave by Nicholas Evans (unabridged audio book read by Michael Emerson)

Nicholas Evans, a British author with a fascination for the American West (he also wrote The Horse Whisperer), returns to his forte with The Brave. It centers on Tommy Bedford, a divorced documentary filmmaker with an estranged son, and Evans leaps back and forth in time as he covers different parts of Tommy's life.

The primary focus is on his childhood, including his time at boarding school, the dotage of his sister Diane — an aspiring, then famous, actress (then convicted murderess) — and her turbulent relationship with TV cowboy Ray Montane.

Montane is the star of Sliprock, and he's watching the coming end of the heyday of the Western — and watching his grip on Diane crumble under the weight of lies.

We also learn about Tommy's courtship of his wife Gina, which leads to marriage and the birth of their son Danny. In the present, Tommy is trying to reconnect with Danny after a long period of estrangement. Danny is an Iraq war veteran, a lance corporal currently under investigation by the Marines. Evans juggles a number of storylines without giving a single one short shrift.

All in all, The Brave is a satisfying, moving listen filled with genuine human drama. It will likely appeal to a wide variety of listeners, from fans of TV Westerns and classic Hollywood, to those who appreciate coming-of-age tales, picaresques, and mainstream literary fiction — old or young, male or female — because its main subject is families, both the ones we're born with and the ones we choose.

This isn't usually the kind of novel I seek out to read, but the Western connection intrigued me enough to begin it, and then I had to see it out to the end. Actor Michael Emerson (Ben Linus on Lost) does a fine job reading The Brave. His voices are sometimes indistinguishable, and his characters' accents seem to come and go, but his gentle narration allows the material to bloom.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The New Adventures of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, Volume 3: Encore for Murder by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane

This third volume of The New Adventures of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer is the second to contain a "novel for radio" by Max Allan Collins (after 2010's Audie Award–nominated The Little Death). Collins continues to pore through the files of the late Mickey Spillane for gold nuggets, and this one, Encore for Murder, is expanded from a one-page outline.

Mike Hammer is hired to play bodyguard to ex-flame and former diva Rita Vance. Rita is taking a ride down nostalgia lane in the revival of her biggest success, playing George M. Cohan's wife in Mrs. Doodle Dandy.

But now she's receiving death threats, and she wants Mike and Velda to find out who is sending them. Mike's bodyguarding duties require Velda to do most of the footwork in this case, while he focuses on a more close-up investigation, so to speak. However, as always, things get a lot more complicated than they first appear.

Actor Stacy Keach once again takes the mantle and shows why he is Mike Hammer to many people. His line readings are effortless — all the right notes of righteous anger and sly humor seeming to slide out unbidden. Keach also executive produced this time around and, as he did with the previous outing, composed and performed the very noirish jazz score (with, of course, the exception of the Hammer "theme," Earle Hagen's "Harlem Nocturne") .

The terrific support from the The Little Death is back as well, with Michael Cornelison reprising his powerful turn as Pat Chambers and Franette Leibow serving up another three-dimensional Velda. Sometimes, in the novels, Velda seems a little hard to grasp, but Leibow makes you feel like you know her.

Collins himself also puts in a cameo appearance that just oozes creepiness, but it's in the writing that he really makes it count. Collins offers up some of his best work yet in Encore for Murder. On his blog, Collins noted that Stacy Keach "said I'd provided him with the best Hammer voiceover he'd ever got," and long-time fans along with new initiates will understand why: Collins really understands Hammer.

Max was a fan of Mickey's long before he was a writer, and it is this penetrating insight that gave Spillane the confidence to pass on his legacy. As Spillane reportedly told his wife Jane, "When I'm gone, there's going to be a treasure hunt around here. Take everything you find and give it to Max — he'll know what to do."

And here Collins again uses the audio format to its full potential, creating a fully realized "movie for the mind" that offers more than just simple escapism for two hours. Encore for Murder is yet one more fine addition to the Mike Hammer canon that shows not only was Max Allan Collins a good choice to carry on the legacy of Mickey Spillane, but also that no one could have done it better.
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