Oh, the Places You Won’t Go!
For anyone with travel plans or dreams, 2020 has been a bust. Never mind Europe or Asia — even Vancouver, B.C., shimmers tauntingly, just out of reach. All the more reason to visit far-flung locales via audiobook, as you stroll around your own neighborhood. For truly gripping fictional sightseeing that takes us off the beaten track, nothing beats a good thriller, so buckle up for a magical mystery tour of global proportions.
Perhaps sensing our mounting desperation to escape, the PBS NewsHour has selected Daniel Nieh’s globe-trotting debut “Beijing Payback” as their August book club pick. When Los Angeles restaurateur Vincent Li is slain in a break-in, his son Victor is stunned to learn he has a murder to avenge. His plunge into the dark byways of China’s polyglot criminal underworld demands a narrator adept at multiple accents and languages, and Ewan Chung carries it off brilliantly. Chung’s erudite, restrained reading morphs into a babel of international voices, including fluent Mandarin. The vividly accented result is a winning blend of coming-of-age story and action-packed travelogue that will leave listeners eager for the sequel.
With heart-rending emotional intensity, narrator Nancy Wu plunges the listener into a nightmare in the opening minutes of Chan Ho-Kei’s “Second Sister,” as Nga-Yee Au returns home from her work one night to discover the body of her little sister Siu-Man sprawled on the sidewalk below their Hong Kong high-rise. The distraught heroine’s initial refusal to accept her sister’s suicide soon gives way to a hunt for the misogynist cyberbullies responsible for driving her over the edge, and those who profit from their evil. Fans of Stieg Larsson’s hacker Lisbeth Salander will find this glimpse of Hong Kong’s dark side especially timely.
Even the most intrepid traveler is unlikely to visit the Delhi slums of Deepa Anappara’s brilliant “Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line,” to which the beautifully expressive, gently accented narrations of Indira Varma, Himesh Patel and Antonio Aakeel provide an all-access pass. When children begin to disappear from his shantytown, 9-year-old would-be detective Jai enlists his friends Pari and Faiz to discover where they’ve gone. Author and narrators alike temper the tale’s increasingly bleak realities with childlike wit and wonder. This cross between “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “Slumdog Millionaire” makes for an unforgettable journey.
Mario Giordano’s “Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions” recounts the impromptu amateur sleuthing of free-spirited Bavarian émigré Isolde “Poldi” Oberreiter, voiced with wry bemusement by British narrator Matt Addis. When the corpse of her young handyman washes up on the beach, Poldi’s Sicilian retirement gets an infusion of thrills and a dash of romance with police Commissario Vito Montana. The larger-than-life adventures of Poldi offer a breezy counterpoint to the late great Andrea Camilleri’s sardonic Sicilian series featuring the grouchy gourmand Inspector Montalbano, voiced with crotchety perfection by veteran narrator Grover Gardner.
Thrillers don’t get any more French than Laurent Binet’s absurdist metamystery “The Seventh Function of Language,” masterfully narrated by Bronson Pinchot. On Feb. 25, 1985, the great French thinker and semiotician Roland Barthes is struck by a laundry van, signifying — what? To get to the bottom of it, pragmatic policeman Louis Bayard enlists a graduate student in semiotics who leads him down the rabbit hole of poststructural Paris in the most delightful deconstruction of detection since Umberto Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum.” Pinchot ably balances erudition and emotion in a delivery that enlivens Binet’s abstruse philosophizing with witty enthusiasm, sauced with sex, drugs and murder.
Adi Tantimedh combines wit and whimsy in his fantasy-tinged detective debut “Her Nightly Embrace.” Washed-up religious studies teacher and newly minted private eye Ravi Chandra Singh brings extra skills to his London firm, for in times of need he gets unsolicited help from the Hindu pantheon. Actor Sendhil Ramamurthy deftly carries off a stunningly diverse panoply of characters real and supernatural, leaving the listener sorry that there are as yet no audiobooks of the rest of the trilogy.
In Cynthia Farrell’s lush narration, Teresa Dovalpage’s “Death Comes In Through the Kitchen” perfectly conveys a good mystery’s ability to immerse the reader in history, geography and culture. San Diego reporter Matt Sullivan heads to Havana to finally meet — and hopefully marry — food blogger Yarmila, only to find she’s been murdered and he’s the prime suspect. Before the crime is solved, Matt is fully submerged in the sensual, spiritual and culinary life of Cuba, eloquently expressed through Farrell’s skill with a range of dialects and vocal registers. It is such a savory and satisfying experience you’ll want to revisit Cuba in the sequel, “Queen of Bones.”