Compared to many best-sellers, this book actually displays literary prowess by its author. Although he veers into over-writing at times (not unusual for a newer, over-enthusiastic novelist), author Michael Cunningham clearly has a way with the English language. Even better, he is very skilled at created fully realized characters (a *very* refreshing change from most best-selling fiction). All this said, The Hours is still somewhat difficult to recommend. Most audiobook listeners prefer a strong plot or at least some sort of clear linear thread to pull them through long hours of commuting. If you are such a listener, then this book is definitely not for you. The plot is the least important element of this book and as such, is very slight. Instead, what you get is mostly the inner thoughts of three very fascinating women in very different circumstances. Expect to hear extended interior contemplations of things as mundane as buying flowers and baking a cake. This doesn't exactly make for the most "exciting" listening. But if you enjoy skillfully constructed prose and don't mind a book where very little happens (at least in plot terms), then you'll be in for a treat. Incidentally, if you've seen the film adaptation of this novel, don't expect the huge emotional outbursts that the filmmakers felt so compelled to insert. Most of this book is about internal thought processes, not external displays of raw emotion. Additionally, familiarity with Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" is helpful (though not required) for enjoying some of the nuances of this novel. Finally, please note that the author serves as the reader of this audiobook. He's not the typical professional voice-over artist that we usually expect to hear from audiobooks. As such, his voice is a little unusual, but not necessarily unpleasant. I recommend clicking on the "Hear Sample" link to be sure you won't mind spending over six hours with his voice.
There's no doubt that listing to this book will get you craving candy--lots and lots of it. But this book is about more than one person's love for candy; it's about passion--passion for those things that make life worth living. As author Steve Almond indicates several times in the book, we all have our own personal "freaks." And it's this "freakdom" (no matter the object) that defines who we are. Thus, Almond's book is actually an attempt to discover what's most important and valuable to him. This explains the humorous asides, political commentaries, and personal details (sometimes quite sad) sprinkled throughout. And yet, despite this somewhat "heavy" subtext, the book is loads of fun and often incredibly funny. And speaking of funny, this audiobook represents to me the most perfect matching of audiobook narrator to a book that I've ever come across. Oliver Wyman is a delight to listen to. His cheerful/comic tone couldn't be a better match for Almond's subject matter.
Billy Bathgate is an very well-written and nuanced coming-of-age story that displays Doctorow's gift for combining history with fiction. My only minor criticism is that Billy, the novel's protagonist, can be a bit too nervy for such an otherwise naive young teen (the word "precocious" comes to mind). Neverthelss, he still remains a relatively sympathetic character. And though this novel does not have the same grand, sweeping narrative scope of Doctorow's masterful Ragtime, Billy's story still evokes a wonderful "you are there" feeling for the period in which it's set. It should be noted that readers expecting large plot movements and epic gang battles will be disappointed. But those who can appreciate a story that takes its time and moves in more subtle ways, should find plenty to enjoy here. Finally, a note about William Lavelle, this audiobook's reader: He may very well have the best diction of any audiobook narrator I've ever heard; however, as pleasant-voiced as he may be, he tends to read in a very neutral style that gives the impression that the characters speak mostly without emotion. So as long as you're able to listen "through" Lavelle's voice to Doctorow's words (and not the tone with which they are read), Billy Bathgate should come to life for you.
The Da Vinci Code is a fun read/listen. The art history and religious commentary are quite interesting and even enlightening at times. You might even find yourself doing web searches (as I did) looking up Da Vinci paintings and historical references to the Holy Grail and other related entities. On the other hand, as fiction, Dan Brown's novel is simply serviceable at best. He's certainly no great prose stylist by any stretch of the imagination, his characters are very one-dimensional, and his plotting is pretty your standard textbook murder mystery/thriller material. As for the presentation, depending on your point of view, the narrator of the book is either to be commended for his linguistic prowess or severely criticized for tackling so many stereotypically realized European accents during his reading (I admit to having thought of both Monty Python and Inspector Jacques Clouseau several times during the recording). So in short, if you're looking for something entertaining and occasionally enlightening for your daily commute, then you'll enjoy this book. On the other hand, if you're looking for great literature, this isn't it.
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