I must admit, Audio Books are a bit of a novelty to me. Usually, I'm content to sit myself down and leaf through the pages of a book at the rate I'm comfortable with. In the car, I usually listen to the radio, or a CD of some sort. I wouldn't really have considered getting an Audio Book for myself. So, when Santa got me John Grisham's Ford County Stories on Audio CDs in my stocking (knowing how much of a Grisham fan I am) I had the decision made for me.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have listened to Ford County Stories on my way to work and then back again. I would hasten add I can comfortably listen and take everything in whilst still maintaining my concentration on the road. For some people it works - others it doesn't. The important thing is the road, naturally!
The Audio Book is presented in a chunky CD case, nice plastic that is not malleable but is not as hard and brittle as your regular CD case. Inside there are 7 CDs held on a spindle, nothing else. No paperwork, or advertising. I wonder if this is the same for all Audio Books.
The stories are spread across the 7 discs. At first I thought there would be a story per CD, but this is not the case. Ford County Stories is a collection of 7 short stories, which is an interesting change from Grisham. I cannot compare the written word to his other tales as I took this in on a different format to his other books I have experienced, but his ability to captivate with his characters and situations is still second to none, having listened to this. The stories vary in length, hence their not being one per CD. There is a little overlapping. I have a 10 CD changer in my car, and if you have a similar setup, then it will not make a difference to you, as you'll be able to listen to it all in one go as it switches through the CDs. However, if you have to change the CD on a single CD player, then it could be a little annoying that you have to do it right at the end or the beginning of a tale.
So, what are the stories like? Well, I wasn't sure what to expect at first. Grisham is a great storyteller, but a lot of his skill is in character and plot development, and the ability to wrap a legal script and give it twists and turns and tension galore. I wasn't sure if this would be possible in short story format. What he does manage to do is just that: despite the relatively short stories, the characters are vivid, the events riveting, often hilarious.
He kicks it off with 'Blood Drive', a hilarious tale of 3 men attempting to give blood to someone they vaguely know who has been in a terrible accident. They jump in a truck and head off, but circumstance and human nature mean that getting from A to B isn't as easy as it first seemed, as alcohol, relief stops, strip clubs and gang shootings all play their part in trying to prevent the 3 (stooges!) from the goal. I couldn't stop listening to this one, and while I didn't manage to finish it all in one journey, I couldn't wait to get back to the car and finish it off. The characters are very clear, the content hilarious.
The second tale is 'Fetching Raymond', which shows two brothers and their mother as they travel to the execution of their other brother, manipulative and money grabbing to the end. A lot of this story is told through the examination of correspondence between the death row brother, Raymond, and his family. It was an interesting story, but not one of the best on there. It did paint a picture of the sort of characters Grisham likes to entertain in his fictional Southern settings, though, and you get a feel for this throughout the other stories, too.
'Fish Files' is a story for anyone who has ever dreamed of making a small fortune and getting away from it all. It tells of a lawyer in Grisham's fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi, whose wife can't stand him and has turned his daughters and everyone else into thinking he's despicable, despite him being an average and decent man. When the opportunity to make a quick and substantial settlement on some old cases and pocket the money presents itself, he jumps at the chance. It's a light and entertaining story, with good situational descriptions.
In 'Casino', Grisham creates a dull and boring character being helping us to side with his wife as she finds herself ending up in a dead end marriage and an unambitious and boring husband. However, when she decides to leave him, he turns the tables, learning how to win at gambling. An unbelievable tale in that probability and gambling odds are completely ignored, this manages to paint the casino owner as well as the man's wife as those worthy of a bit of bad karma, and the tale is more about revenge than anything else, slow, unpredictable and smug revenge! While it was unbelievable, it was more about getting your own back than winning against the odds.
'Michael's Room' snaps back to reality, and to something I have always thought about in terms of nasty legal disputes. Lawyer Stanley wade is going about his business when he is kidnapped by a man whose son, Michael, is badly disabled and set to die any moment. wade was the lawyer who successfully defended the doctor responsible for Michael's terminal condition. I have to admit, this story brought out mixed emotions for me, and I really got involved in it. First of all, I was indignant for Stanley, as Michael's father's arguments had holes all over them. Then, as things progressed and Grisham revealed more and more of the circumstances, I felt anger towards the unprofessional and quite clearly guilty doctor, and indeed Stanley himself. Quite a powerful tale in this respect.
By the time 'Quiet Haven' came along, I was wondering when the twists were going to start, but then I realised that this was unlike Grisham's other publications. As the Quiet Haven retirement home is the next target of a con man with a heart, I settled in to expect a straight tale with no twists or surprises, and I got it. Here, the characters weren't quite so easy to follow, but I think this is because I had already settled on the conclusion, rightly so.
My suspicions were confirmed in the final tale, 'Funny Boy', which is quite a sad yet defiant one. It tells of the son of a prominent local family (again, Grisham's fictional Clanton being 'local'), with AIDS, who returns from California to live out his last days before dying. It quite starkly shows the fear and exclusion something like AIDS can often be accompanied by, as his family and other locals shun him and send him off to the other side of town, in a house they own but is rented by a black woman. Racism is also brought into things, but is more blatantly explored as a way of life that towns are separated in terms of colour than anything else. However, it also shows the power of friendship between two people who become friends despite and because of others' judgments. This time, it's sad when you realise that yet again there will be no twists or changes of fate.........
The thing I most noted about these 7 tales is the fact that he does the basics very very well. There is no time for twists and turns and all of the usual stunts that Grisham usually guarantees with his stories. Instead, he tells the stories without dithering, starts them off, and propels them quickly to their conclusion. It is almost like he has created these immensely complicated stories, removed the tricky elements, and condensed them into shorts.
What is even more appealing and I found really helped get me in the mood and make me imagine things even better, was the fact that Grisham himself read the stories on the CDs. His southern drawl fitted things nicely, and of course, he was able to put the right intonation where it was intended. There is no rushing with the reading, and he tells the stories at exactly the pace they were intended as well. This is particularly useful when it comes to the characterisation, and you get the impression that these are characters Grisham has had bubbling away beneath the surface for quite some time.
I must admit, this has spurred me on to want to get more Audio Books. Last week, we got the Just William stories on Audio Book from the local Library for my son to listen to while we're driving, but it's not quite the same for me. It's well read, but you can tell it's someone trying to tell a story as opposed to reading what they have written. Apparently, Stephen Fry's readings of the Harry Potter books are supposed to be excellent, so I may try them.
In the meantime, if you're looking for a good bunch of short stories, then you can't go wrong with these. The tales aren't quite as riveting as his twisting thrillers usually are, but it's nice to get a bit of something different from him for a change, and these stories are a well created bunch of tale full of interesting characters and making the most of Grisham fictional South.
Ford County Stories is currently available as an Audio Book (7 CDs) for anywhere between £10 and £16, depending on where you shop. I know that amazon.co.uk had it for £10 whereas shops tend to creep up higher. I was a little disappointed with the fact that there is merely a stack of discs and nothing else inside. Some form of Grisham detail or an accompanying slip on the inside would have been welcomed, but it by no means detracted from my enjoyment of the tales, and is probably more down to me being used to track listings for regular CDs than anything else. Either way, I highly recommend this as an Audio Book.