Audio books make great travel companions

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A tricky thing about audio books as car-trip companions can be timing -- you don't want to find yourself with hours of unplanned alone time or arrive home with the ending a long way down the road.

I learned my lesson first with "Bossy Pants" (Hachette Audio, $29.98, 81/2 hours), a memoir read by author Tina Fey. With driving around and listening once in my destination, Washington, D.C., the book did not last all the way back to Pittsburgh and I felt lost that last hour without it.

After "Bossypants" won two Audio Awards -- best audio book of 2012 and best biography/memoir -- from the Audio Publishers Association, I decided to stay with the trend of honorees and time them to my next trip to D.C. and back, which, give or take I-270 and Beltway traffic, is up to four hours, car time.

Along for the ride were two CD sets purchased online: "Fuzzy Nation" by John Scalzi, narrated by Wil Wheaton ($19.95, Audible, Inc.; 41/2 hours), Audie winner in the science fiction category, and fantasy nominee "The Witches of Lublin" by Ellen Kushner, Elizabeth Schwartz and Yale Strom ($17, SueMedia Productions; 1 hour), narrated by a cast including Tova Feldshuh, Simon Jones and a man who is a favorite author with one of my favorite voices, Neil Gaiman.

The haunting, mystical "The Witches of Lublin" was commissioned by the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music in 2007 and includes music by Mr. Strom. It tells of a Jewish widow (Ms. Feldshuh) in 18th-century Poland who, with her daughters and granddaughter, defies tradition by performing music for non-Jews to earn money for Passover provisions. There are shades of "Fiddler on the Roof" when the granddaughter and the son of the non-Jewish overseer fall in love. Characters' faith and humanity are tested, ending in life-and-death decisions that define generations to come.

It's very emotional stuff, and I sniffed a bit when it finished at just over an hour.

I chose "Fuzzy Nation" because I had heard of the book it was based on, a 1962 young adult novel, "Little Fuzzy," that was a Hugo Award nominee for best novel. For "Fuzzy Nation," author Mr. Scalzi got permission to update the story and make it more for an adult, 21st-century audience, as he explains in the CD set's prologue. His friend, "Star Trek: The Next Generation's" Mr. Wheaton, narrates by mostly embodying the protagonist, a sarcastic Han Solo-esque scoundrel named Holloway. A disbarred lawyer, Holloway has become an off-world prospector for a giant mining corporation. He makes two discoveries that change the stakes: a valuable deposit of rare minerals and cat-like creatures he dubs "Fuzzies." The creatures may be sapient, which by law could mean an end to the Earth corporation's digging up their planet.

Throw in a loyal dog who knows how to detonate bombs, Holloway's former love interest and her boyfriend, evil corporate types and their henchmen, shake them up on a sometimes hostile planet, and you have some idea of "Fuzzy Nation." It took me a while to get engrossed not only in the story but in Mr. Wheaton's narration. I wanted to yell stop the umpteenth time he said, "Holloway said" or "Isabel said" or "Sullivan said," even when it was obvious who was speaking. It killed the dialogue flow until it started to abate or I got used to it.

For me, Mr. Wheaton's voice is comfortingly familiar, because I've followed his career from "Stand By Me" to the Web series "The Guild" to his recurring roles on "The Big Bang Theory" and "Eureka." Everything wrapped up just in time to tune in a Pirates game via Sirius XM the rest of the way home.

Next up are uploads of literary fiction winner Hope Davis, reader of "State of Wonder" by Ann Patchett, and multi-award-winning audio reader Simon Vance, bringing new life to "The King's Speech." These were purchased for the Nook Tablet; they cost less than CDs and are less hands-on when you're alone in the car. Now I have to see if the timing is right.

books - travel

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.


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