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The season's best audio books are a joy to hear

By Katherine A. Powers
Sunday, June 20, 2010; BW11

THE LAST HERO

A Life of Henry Aaron

By Howard Bryant

Abridged, Random House Audio, 8 CDs, 9 ½ hours, $35, audible.com download, $28

Unabridged, Books on Tape, 17 CDs, 21 ¾ hours, $50; audible.com download, $42

Dominic Hoffman delivers hours of absorbing baseball and American history in his narration of Howard Bryant's outstanding biography of the reserved, misjudged, prickly man who, among other formidable accomplishments, broke Babe Ruth's lifetime home run record. This is a big book, long and wide, and it is well worth springing for the unabridged version, which retains all the detail of the countless tributary stories. They move through the business of baseball, the role of the press and race relations in the United States, especially in the crucial decades of the 1950s and '60s. The book is deeply insightful about Aaron the man and the obstacles, including death threats, that he grimly surmounted. Hoffman has a grave, matte-finished voice and reads in a measured, deliberate manner, distinguishing between the work's extensive quotations and its narrative text through skillful pacing and inflection. While this is a book for listeners who are interested in baseball, it encompasses far, far more than simply the game.

OPERATION MINCEMEAT

How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory

By Ben Macintyre

Unabridged, 11 ½ hours

Random House Audio, 9 CDs, $35, audible.com download, $28

John Lee's cultivated, Celtic-tinged voice, in turns quizzical, wry and matter-of-fact, is well-matched with this mordantly funny account of an extraordinary episode in World War II: the launching of a corpse kitted out as an officer carrying fake top-secret papers to mislead the Nazis about Allied war plans. Made famous by the movie (and book) "The Man Who Never Was," the scheme was likely put forward by Ian Fleming and involved plotting, character and setting that might have been elements in a novel. Lee's past performances reading Patrick O'Brian, Alexandre Dumas and Macintyre's own brilliant "Agent Zigzag" extend this gifted reader's tradition of exhilarating derring-do.

FIRE IN THE EAST

Warrior of Rome

By Harry Sidebottom

Unabridged, 14 ½ hours

Blackstone Audio, 12 CDs, $59; 1 Mp3 CD, $29.95, audible.com download, $25.17

It's 255 A.D., and the Roman Empire is stretched beyond its ability to maintain authority. Riddled with corruption, treachery and eschatological religion, this empire was made for summer reading. Here the pleasure is amplified by the imperial baritone of narrator Stefan Rudnicki. At the center of things is a Roman officer sent to Persia to defend an isolated Roman citadel against the Sassanid army. The story abounds with treachery, action and details of material life and ancient military technology, while Rudnicki's doomy voice seems to come out of that distant, ill-fated past.

STILL MIDNIGHT

By Denise Mina

Unabridged, 11 hours

BBC Audio, 9 CDs, $29.95, audible.com download, $20.97

Denise Mina's witty and unexpectedly moving crime novel set in Glasgow is enthralling enough on its own, but I can see listening to it just for the pleasure of hearing Jane MacFarlane's wonderful Scottish voice. The story involves a kidnapping perpetrated by a couple of ex-bouncers and a junkie who have blundered out of their depth. Detective Sgt. Alex Morrow, an ambitious woman with a chip on her shoulder, is on the trail, all the while doing battle with members of her own police force. Any number of other characters pop up to cause mischief and mayhem, presenting MacFarlane opportunities for well-executed regional accents, including those of Ulster and Lancashire. This is an audio book for a long drive, say 11 hours -- shorter than that will find you parked, stuck in your car, unable to turn off your player.

DEATH OF A DOXY

By Rex Stout

Unabridged, 5 hours

BBC Audio, 5 CDs, $29.95, Audible.com download, $28

Though it appeared over three decades after orchid-doting, woman-chary, homebody Nero Wolfe solved his first case, "Death of a Doxy" is just as snappy and riddlesome as any episode in that ageless epicurean's career. Orrie Cather, one of Wolfe's occasional assistants, is going to marry an airline stewardess, but a vengeful paramour -- make that "doxy" -- wants Orrie for her own. When the doxy shows up dead, Orrie looks like the culprit. Archie Goodwin, Wolfe's legman and Boswell, is right in the middle of it, relating events with his customary thoroughness and wit. Veteran narrator Michael Prichard is a perfect fit for Goodwin, brandishing an ample, old-fashioned voice with a suitably wised-up delivery. His rendering of the fastidious, condescending Wolfe, too, is flawless in tone and interpretation, right down to a vintage, dismissive "phooey!"

Katherine A. Powers, who regularly reviews audio books for Book World, writes a literary column for the Boston Globe.

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