Getting there: The aspect of the summer holiday that is so often a time-chomping period of withering boredom and thwartedness has been redeemed by audiobooks. Here are four recently recorded novels that will transform traveling time from a dead zone to a bright arena of cultural life.
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, by Bob Shacochis (Audible studios, unabridged. 25 hours). A finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, this is a big novel in every way. Set mainly in Haiti in the second half of the 1990s, Croatia/Yugoslavia in the mid-1940s, Turkey in the mid-1980s, and on CIA-infested golf courses in the United States, the novel is part espionage thriller, part historical drama, part family saga and part sinister flowchart slouching toward Sept. 11. It alone could constitute your sole summer listening as, most likely, you will have to re-listen to parts -- just as readers of the text have had to page back at times. Only then can you sort out and fully appreciate this extraordinary feat of storytelling and evocation of the zeitgeist.
Robert Blumenfeld takes on the different accents without making a meal of them. He dispatches the general narration in an urgent, news-bearer's voice that is in perfect accord with the novel's feeling of unstoppable momentum. This is a brilliant novel, although not one for the faint of heart and decidedly not for listening to in a car with children.
Invisible City, by Julia Dahl (Macmillan, unabridged. 73/4 hours). The body of a naked woman has been plucked out of a heap of twisted metal by a scrap-yard grapple. The business' proprietor, it emerges, is the woman's husband, a leader in a tightly knit, ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. Andi Arndt reads this first-person account in the clear, young voice of neophyte reporter Rebekah Roberts as she pushes the investigation forward, learning her trade and its ethical dilemmas as she goes.
The case widens to include the relationship between this insular but politically powerful community and the New York police. From there it migrates into Rebekah's questions about her mother, who abandoned her as a baby to return to a Hasidic life. The story rises above the crime-novel genre in its unusual psychological, spiritual and sociological dimensions, entering a world unfamiliar to most people.
Wake, by Anna Hope (Random House Audio, unabridged. 101/2 hours). "Wake" is set during five days in November 1920. All three meanings of "wake" are at work in the lives of three London women who have lost men to death or mental illness in the Great War. Their stories are juxtaposed with quick glimpses of the machinations behind the ceremony honoring the Unknown Warrior: the chilly ruthlessness of exhuming candidate bodies from the battlefields of France and then selecting and transporting one of them for the parade and burial on Armistice Day.
The author, an Oxford-educated and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art-trained actor, gives the living, grieving characters accents appropriate to their age and class. Chief among them are a housewife in Hackney seeking unforthcoming details of her son's fate; a well-born woman nearing 30, unreconciled to her fiance's death in battle; and a 19-year-old helping to support her mother and shell-shocked, catatonic brother as a paid dancing partner at a dance palace.
The Hidden Child, by Camilla Lackberg (HighBridge, unabridged, 15 hours). The key ingredients of Swedish crime novels -- Nazis, neo-Nazis and compulsive coffee drinkers -- all show up in "The Hidden Child," which stars the members of a small police department in a Swedish summer resort town. Though the latest addition to a series, the novel can be listened to on its own. The intricate plot revolves around the discovery of the body of a historian, a Nazi medal wrapped in a child's bloodstained dress, a World War II diary, a mysterious stowaway from German-occupied Norway, and an unsavory present-day racist outfit called "Sweden's Friends."
Narrator Simon Vance's unguent British voice sails at an easily followed pace through the general narration, switching over to give the speaking characters distinguishing inflections and tones: gruff and bumbling for the police chief, light and amused for his female assistant. He summons an air of grievance for those characters issuing diktats over child care, parental duty and gender roles, elements that take up a rather large -- perhaps too large? -- part of the story. Still, the mesh of past and present crimes is skillfully woven.