King's 'Dreamcatcher' Is the Stuff of Shivery Seaside Escapism

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The smells of suntan lotion and grilling burgers are best combined with light listening that promises not to bore you with dry erudition. Well-intentioned self-help books or complicated Russian novels just don't jibe with long, lazy days at the beach.

If your idea of pure escapism is an edgy jolt, pop "Dreamcatcher," Stephen King's latest fright-fest, into your cassette player. It may not be his best effort to date, but it is everything a listener expects from King--a solid, scary story that will keep you glued to your headset. (Simon & Schuster Audio; unabridged fiction; 16 cassettes; 23 hours; $49.95; read by Jeffrey DeMunn.)

A tale of alien invasion, it is very much a throwback to "The Stand," "The Tommyknockers" and "It." King engrosses us with a story of four childhood friends whose yearly hunting trip turns into a nightmare right out of "The Twilight Zone." Telepathy figures heavily into the story, and the invasion is replete with little gray men and a clever alien fungus that grows into toothy monsters if ingested by humans or animals.

Though this nod to such classic sci-fi flicks as "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" often moves along at an entertaining clip, King sometimes bogs the story down in overly long dream sequences. And while the interior monologues between an alien and his human host incorporates thoughts on the meaning of life, even alien life, the writing lacks the finesse and evocative description of "Hearts in Atlantis" or "Bag of Bones."

Narrator DeMunn displays much talent by never allowing this lengthy story to lag. He is extremely adept at conveying fear, insanity or a powerful adrenaline rush. Though DeMunn's Down East accent is just a whisker over the top, it sounds authentic and he creates clearly different voices for each character. Kurtz, a military leader right out of a B movie, speaks softly and scarily. DeMunn does a great job with him, as the actor makes the insane Kurtz sound more interesting than King did.

Just beware of listening to this while having a nosh by the pool. Sections of it are nauseatingly descriptive. In fact, they are gross in ways teenage boys may revel in, but the rest of us will find overcooked. King likely had half an eye to the camera when he wrote this.

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Another author who writes entertaining novels that feel very much as if they were penned with a movie in mind is Terry McMillan, whose latest effort is "A Day Late and a Dollar Short." (Penguin Audiobooks; unabridged fiction; 10 cassettes; 15 hours and 30 minutes; $44.95; read by Desiree Coleman and M.E. Willis. Also available in abridged audio and CD versions, read by the author, Alfre Woodard and Richard Allen.)

McMillan generally writes likable stories, and this is no exception. Set in 1994, mostly in Las Vegas, it concerns the Prices, a sprawling African American family whose big, messy problems include divorce, addiction, unwanted pregnancy, abuse and incest. The story is not so much about the Price's problems as their personalities. McMillan tells the tale from the point of view of the two parents and their four adult children. Their ordeals are as commonplace as those found on daytime television, but these flawed people are feisty, vivacious and full of hope.

The publisher wisely employed two readers, with Coleman handling the female roles and Willis tackling the male players. Both altered their attitudes and perspectives for different characters. Coleman deepens her voice for Viola, the mother, and changes it somewhat for her daughters. Willis roughens his voice and slows the pace for Viola's husband, Cecil. Both actors express the emotional upheavals of the characters with great enthusiasm and expertise.

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If you are looking for something more serious, try "The Last Time They Met," by Anita Shreve. (Time Warner Audiobooks; unabridged fiction; eight cassettes; 10 hours; $39.98; read by Lainee Cooke. Also available as an abridged audio, read by Blair Brown.)

Though the story does not grip at the onset, just give it time--it will. It begins when two former lovers meet at a literary festival. Both are poets, though Thomas Janes is famous and Linda Fallon is not. As they reacquaint themselves, the couple reminisces over shared rendezvous and a resurrected history.

This conceit is a bit maddening at first, but as the story travels backward, details from the beginning of the story, which seem odd and unexplained, begin to make sense. Then Shreve hits us with an ending that is so unexpected you may actually gasp. I did.

Reader Lainee Cooke has a soft, pretty voice, but it is nothing memorable. Though her overall delivery is fine, she mispronounces the odd word, such as Jerzy Kosinski's first name, which disrupts the narrative flow. However, she does manage middling British and African accents and is generally competent.

The problem with the audio version is that you cannot flip back a few pages to check out a detail that may have seemed unimportant when first heard. This is a novel that requires thought and rereading. Continuous rewinding just won't do.

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The only redeeming feature of Barbara Taylor Bradford's latest audio book, aside from narrator Kate Burton, is now that I have heard a Taylor Bradford novel, I will never have to do that again. "The Triumph of Katie Byrne," a tale of a promising Broadway actress of Irish descent and a haunted past, is pure twaddle. (Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio; abridged fiction; four cassettes; six hours; $25.95.)

If you are in the mood for fluff while snoozing by the lake, this will do the trick. The writing is bland and hackneyed. It is never a good sign when you can mouth the cliches in your audio book at the same time you hear them.

Burton, however, has a lovely voice. She sounds appropriately energetic and young for the teenage girls who figure into the story early on. Her Irish brogue is perfect, as is her broad Yorkshire accent. All of her British accents are quite different and quite good. She has a tendency to emote, but who can blame her, considering the material?

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Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mystery books.

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