Harry's more complicated this time. Darker too. But youthful romance, political commentary, and some well-placed humor have resulted in the best of the audiobooks to date. Certainly ''Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is the most sophisticated and best written of J. K. Rowling's six volumes (the as-yet-unpublished seventh will complete the series).
The story begins on a grim note. Evil Lord Voldemort and his equally evil minions have engaged in a campaign of death and destruction that has bled into the lives of unsuspecting Muggles. The Ministry of Magic has increased security, and there is much fear in the enchanted community as newspapers run daily accounts of death, disappearances, and arrests.
Professor Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, rescues Harry from a miserable summer with his relatives and deposits him at the much friendlier Weasleys', but not before informing him of the private lessons Dumbledore will be giving him when school resumes. During those lessons the two peer into the Pensieve, a collecting dish for memories. Harry is allowed to enter these memories by touching the contents of the bowl. In this way he is given valuable history lessons regarding He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and a chance to understand, and occasionally sympathize with, the young man in the past who eventually becomes his arch-enemy.
Unlike the other audiobooks in this series, ''The Half-Blood Prince" is probably too dark (and somewhat depressing) for really young children. But the rest of you had better block off a good chunk of time, because once you hear Rowling's creative language rolling off the inimitable Jim Dale's tongue, there is no turning back (or turning off your CD player).
This production, as has been the case with all of the Potter books, is a showcase for Dale's nimble vocal abilities. Every character in this audiobook has his or own personality, and Dale makes sure we can hear it. Dumbledore has a deep voice and speaks slowly and thoughtfully. Harry naturally sounds much younger, speaks more quickly, is clearly passionate and sometimes rash.
It is frighteningly easy to lose yourself in the giant Hagrid's accent or in Luna Lovegood's laughably slow, exaggerated, and somewhat nutty manner of speech. Words invented by Rowling that fit so well into her world, such as ''Imperius Curse" or ''Horcrux," sound commonplace and natural as Dale speaks.
By the startling ending of this lengthy audiobook you will realize that it is a setup for Volume 7. Clever Rowling -- she began this novel with expository detail, setting the scene and laying on lots of atmosphere, and then left us with questions and panting for more, more, more.
If Harry's most recent adventure is mere child's play, audiophiles in the mood for something truly dark and excessively weird should turn an ear toward the latest from Chuck Palahniuk, because he will certainly fulfill your need for the odd and offbeat with ''Haunted."
You can't say that this collection of 23 stories is uninteresting, but neither can you say it is always a good listen. It is more likely to elicit groans, eye-rolling, and churning stomachs than literary appreciation.
Twenty-three people answer an ad that reads ''Artists' Retreat: Abandon Your Life for Three Months," thinking they are heading off to a bucolic green landscape for boxed lunches and quiet afternoons. Instead, they are dumped at a closed inner-city theater and sealed inside without any hope of escape. As food dwindles, bodies reek, and minds come unglued, Palahniuk pulls out a grotesque bag of tricks that becomes increasingly distasteful yet never ordinary.
Short poems and stories by the writers are interspersed among the humiliations they bring on themselves once it has been decided that the more horrible their situation, the higher will be the paycheck for stories of survival.
So they raise the stakes. Everyone in this diverse group has a dark past and a seemingly endless taste for the gruesome. And I do mean that literally, as cannibalism is just one of the many fun adventures the author includes in an audiobook chock-full of murder, mass suicide, and corruption at its most base. Since you're listening and not reading, you cannot glide over the truly disgusting, which sounds extremely vivid when heard aloud. Take a page from this listener and don't play ''Haunted" while preparing dinner unless you have a cast-iron tummy.
Most maddening is that there really is an abundance of talent revealed in these tales; some are little treasures. In ''Obsolete," a teenage girl is about to commit state-mandated suicide. In ''Footwork," a hippie named Mother Nature reveals the secrets of assassination through reflexology, and in ''Slumming" absurdly rich couples take a breather from luxury to hit the streets disguised as the homeless. One can only wish these had been developed into novels or included in a collection that does not rely on cheap shockers or arch dialogue to needlessly jolt the listener.
The production is solid -- well recorded and nicely diversified though a cast of actors. The female readers are especially well matched to their material, sounding properly mature, disgusted, or Machiavellian. However, we are never told what actor is reading which story. Veteran Scott Brick is easy to identify and enjoy, but others are impossible to distinguish. And there are stories, such as ''Guts," in which the actor's performance, being too reserved and polished, does not suit the grotesqueness of the material.
Rochelle O'Gorman is publisher and editor in chief of audiobookcafe.com.