The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

A great narration of a true classic…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-abc-murdersWhen Captain Hastings comes back on a trip to London from his new home in the Argentine, he hastens round to visit his old friend, Hercule Poirot. After they’ve done a bit of catching up, Poirot shows Hastings a bizarre letter he has received, warning that a crime will be committed on a certain date in Andover. When the day comes, so does news of a murder – Alice Ascher, the owner of a small newsagents, has been found dead, with a copy of the ABC railway guide lying beside her body. Poirot and Hastings head to Andover, and soon find that Mrs Ascher’s drunken husband had every reason to want her dead, and would surely be arrested for the crime were it not for the strange coincidence of the letter. Some weeks pass before Poirot receives a second letter, this time warning of a murder to take place in Bexhill and, sure enough, a body turns up on the due date, along with another copy of the ABC. Poirot is already suspicious that this murderer is working to an alphabetical plan; a suspicion that is confirmed when the third letter speaks of Churston…

This is a rather typical Agatha Christie story – typically brilliant, that is. It has everything that makes her books such a joy: intriguing clues, plenty of suspects all with strong motives, lots of red herrings and misdirection, and, of course, the hugely entertaining interplay between Poirot and Hastings. It is narrated by Hastings, partly in the first person for the sections where he was present himself, and the rest in the third person, which he tells us he reconstructed from accounts from Poirot and other people.

There are possible suspects for each of the crimes – relatives, lovers and so on – but Poirot must find the link that connects them all. Chief Inspector Japp is always happy to have help from his little Belgian friend, and some of the suspects get together to offer their assistance too, so that they can have justice for the dead and also get out from under the cloud of suspicion that is hovering over them.

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie

People sometimes sneer at Christie for working to a “formula” but I say, if a formula works so well, then why not? There are some things in this one that I feel are standard Christie, and they add as much to the enjoyment here as they do in so many of her other books. Her victims are carefully chosen so that we hope for justice for them, while not having to go through too much of the angst of grief. Poirot and Hastings spend much of their time interviewing people until Poirot’s little grey cells give him the solution, which he then reveals at a get-together of all the suspects. The tone is lightened by the warmth of Hastings’ narration – his occasional humour at Poirot’s expense never hiding the warm regard he feels for his friend. And although Poirot is obviously more intelligent than Inspector Japp, the police are never shown as bumbling incompetents. There is a general respect in the books that makes Christie’s world a pleasure to visit, and despite the similarities in tone and structure, the plots are different and original enough to make each book feel unique.

The plot of this one is beautifully complex and elegantly simple at the same time – a true Christie trait – so that when the solution finally comes, it seems both fiendishly clever and satisfyingly obvious. This is a major part of Christie’s success, I think – her “twists” are an untangling of a complicated knot, rather than the sudden introduction of some new layer of hitherto unsuspected silliness, as with so much contemporary crime. Her denouements don’t so much make one gasp with stunned disbelief as nod with satisfaction at the logical working out, and grin with pleasure at her cleverness in first hiding and then revealing her clues.

I listened to the Audible version of this, narrated by Hugh Fraser, whom Christie fans will recognise as the actor who played Hastings to David Suchet’s Poirot in the long-running ITV series. Fraser does a marvellous job – he captures the tone of the books perfectly, bringing out the humour and the warmth of the friendship between Poirot and Hastings. He has a lovely speaking voice and, though he doesn’t “act” all the parts, he differentiates enough between the characters so that it’s easy to follow who’s speaking. Obviously, when he’s reading Hastings’ dialogue, he sounds just like Hastings. But remarkably, when Poirot is speaking, he sounds just like Suchet’s Poirot! I guess Fraser must have spent long enough listening to Suchet do it that he has mastered a faultless impersonation. It gives the narration a wonderful familiarity for fans of the TV adaptations.

hastings-and-poirot

So to conclude, one of Christie’s finest, enhanced by a fabulous narration – I promptly shot off back to Audible and used up all my spare credits on getting as many of Fraser’s Poirot readings as I could, and happily he has done loads of them. My highest recommendation for both book and reading – perfect entertainment!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

PS One thing that really bugs me is that the cover, which I otherwise love, has bullet holes on the letters. No-one gets shot in this story. FF’s Seventh Law: Cover artists should read the book before designing the cover.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

“…the slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(This review contains mild spoilerish bits, so if you haven’t yet read the book, do it now and then pop back… 😉 )

We first meet our unnamed narrator when she is in Monte Carlo, working as the paid companion to an elderly American lady, Mrs Van Hopper. Still more girl than woman, the narrator is shy and unsophisticated, not bothering much about the clothes she wears or the style of her hair. Mrs Van Hopper scrapes an acquaintance with Maxim de Winter, a rich and handsome Englishman staying in the hotel alone because, as Mrs Van Hopper informs the narrator, his wife recently died in a tragic sailing accident. Our girl is rather dazzled by this man of the world who so easily deals with all the little social problems she finds so difficult, and he in turn seems to like her quietness and unadorned simplicity. Within a few weeks, Maxim proposes and finally, thank goodness, our narrator has a name – the second Mrs de Winter.

(FF’s Sixth Law: Unnamed narrators should never be used by authors who would like people to review their books.)

The book begins, of course, with one of the most famous opening lines in literature – “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” The ensuing dream sequence acts as a prologue and warning of what is to follow, and straight away du Maurier builds up an atmosphere full of unease. As Mrs de W2 in imagination moves towards the house, she describes the lush vegetation taking back the once cultivated grounds and gardens, now growing out of control. There’s an earthiness and sensuality to the descriptions, and a sense of growth and decay – a kind of raw, malignant vitality that seems to represent the first Mrs de Winter, Rebecca, while being a stark contrast to the rather sexless childlike personality of Mrs de W2. It’s a magnificent start to the book, setting the mood superbly for what is to follow.

I saw that the garden had obeyed the jungle law, even as the woods had done. The rhododendrons stood fifty feet high, twisted and entwined with bracken, and they had entered into alien marriage with a host of nameless shrubs, poor, bastard things that clung about their roots as though conscious of their spurious origin. A lilac had mated with a copper beech, and to bind them yet more closely to one another the malevolent ivy, always an enemy to grace, had thrown her tendrils about the pair and made them prisoners.

The book is famously compared to Jane Eyre, but the dead Rebecca is much more vividly alive in Manderley than the madwoman in Mr Rochester’s attic ever is. She infuses every room with the strength of her personality, as our narrator flits through the house like a ghost, or like the lowliest little maid, afraid to touch anything. Beautiful and vibrant, no-one who knew Rebecca remained untouched – it seems to Mrs de W2 that everyone adored her, some to the point of obsession. Even Mrs de W2’s beloved dog Jasper was Rebecca’s dog first. Gradually Mrs de W2 begins to think that Maxim made a mistake in marrying her – that he’s still in love with Rebecca. And then one day, a storm leads to the discovery of Rebecca’s lost boat, and suddenly everything Mrs de W2 thinks she knows about Rebecca and her husband is turned on its head…

All three of the female characters in the book are brilliantly drawn; dead Rebecca, her glittering exterior hiding a more complex personality underneath, whom we only get to know through other people’s memories of her; the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, whose grief for her first mistress makes her cold and cruel to the point of madness to the woman who has replaced her; and Mrs de W2 herself, a woman who seems to exist only to serve as an adjunct to people who need a doormat, moving from being the paid companion of a peevish and demanding elderly lady to becoming the unpaid companion of a peevish and bullying middle-aged man. I couldn’t help but wonder if life with Mrs Van Hopper wouldn’t have been more fun in the end…

Oh, I do apologise to Maxim fans! The first time I read the book many years ago, I’m sure I fell a little in love with Maxim myself. This time round, I wanted to slap him with the proverbial wet fish. He treats Mrs de W2 as just slightly lower down the social pecking order than Jasper the dog for most of the book. Granted, she kinda asks for it but she’s only young. Too young, Maxim – too, too young for a man of your age! Patting a woman on the head, physically or metaphorically, is never a good idea – if you behaved like that to Rebecca no wonder she turned out as she did! Couldn’t you have reassured Mrs de W2 – told her you loved her, maybe even called her by her name occasionally? Why were your tender little feelings so much more important than hers? Your behaviour at the party was a piece of shameful bullying and a man of your age should have shown more understanding, and a bit of kindness. And, you know what? Last time I forgave you for what you did. But not this time! You behaved abominably and you should have paid a higher price! And don’t think you can wheedle your way back into my affections just by looking like Laurence Olivier…

Clearly my attitude to men who treat women like doormats has changed somewhat over the years! More seriously, though, the book gives a great picture of the relative positions of the genders at the time, especially how Rebecca’s unconventional behaviour, which would have barely merited a raised eyebrow had she been a man, put her beyond the social pale as a woman. Du Maurier is just as incisive in her portrayal of the British class system in operation, with the squirearchy ready to build a defensive shield round one of their own regardless of his merits or otherwise.

That corner in the drive, too, where the trees encroach upon the gravel, is not a place in which to pause, not after the sun has set. When the leaves rustle, they sound very much like the stealthy movement of a woman in evening dress, and when they shiver suddenly, and fall, and scatter away along the ground, they might be the patter, patter, of a woman’s hurrying footstep, and the mark in the gravel the imprint of a high-heeled satin shoe.

But as always with du Maurier it’s the atmosphere of growing tension that gives the book its true greatness. Even though we more or less know how it ends within the first two chapters, du Maurier holds enough secrets in reserve to ensure the reader is kept in suspense all the way through. The descriptive writing is fantastic, creating strong visual images and making both the house and grounds of Manderley become living things, playing their own role in the unfolding drama. If there’s anyone left out there who hasn’t already read this masterpiece of psychological suspense, then I highly recommend you grab it as soon as you can!

Audiobook

I part read/part listened to the book this time round. Anna Massey’s narration is very good – she has just the right kind of posh English accent for the subject matter, and every word is enunciated clearly. She does it as a straight reading; i.e., she doesn’t “act” the parts, though she does differentiate the voices to some extent. I wasn’t always totally thrilled by her “voices” – Maxim, for example, sounded a little gruffer than I would have gone for. But that’s simply a matter of personal interpretation. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed her reading, and would look out for her as a narrator again.

Book 6 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

The Dry (Aaron Falk 1) by Jane Harper

Revisiting the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-dryKiewarra has been suffering from drought for a couple of years now with no sign of rain coming soon. The farmers are worried, many having to kill their livestock for lack of water, and the knock-on effects are being felt through the town. As tensions rise, a tragedy occurs – Luke Hadler shoots his wife and young son, and then kills himself. Or so it seems, but Luke’s parents can’t accept that their son would have done this awful thing. So when Luke’s childhood friend Aaron Falk turns up for the funeral, they ask him to look into it. Falk is now a police detective working in the financial crimes section in Melbourne. It’s twenty years since he was last in Kiewarra, when he and his father left the town under a cloud of suspicion after another death. Many of the townsfolk are unhappy to see him back…

I’m in the highly unusual position of being unable to find a single thing to criticise about this book! So get ready for a dull review – or here’s a better idea, skip the review and read the book instead.

The writing is great – Harper conjures up this drought-ridden and anxious community brilliantly, showing the deep connection between man and nature in a town that relies on its farmers for survival. There’s are some dark descriptions right from the start, with blowflies being the first to find the bodies of Karen and her little son, Billy, but Harper stops well short of being gratuitously gruesome – the balance is just about perfect.

Jane Harper
Jane Harper

I liked Falk as a character very much, so am rather glad to see that the book is listed as the first in a series. Although he had to face a terrible incident in his past, he hasn’t allowed it to make him either embittered or angst-ridden. He’s professional and intelligent and is someone I’d happily spend more time with. The new local policeman Raco, too, is a refreshing character – a happily married man looking forward to the birth of his first child, he treats people with respect and uses his brains rather than his brawn to get to the truth. And the characterisation is just as good of the other townspeople – from Luke’s grieving parents, to Aaron’s childhood friend Gretchen, to the people who still hold Aaron responsible for what happened back in the past – a whole range from nice to nasty, and each equally convincing.

The plot is strong and well-executed; the familiar device of a crime from the past resurfacing in the present feeling fresh because of the skill in the telling. Raco also has doubts about Luke’s guilt, because of a couple of things that don’t make sense to him. His main issue is that little baby Charlotte survived, and he’s convinced that if Luke had decided to destroy his family out of desperation, he’d have killed the baby too. So Raco and Falk team up, and as they investigate the current crime, the shadows of the past loom ever larger. Harper plants false trails all the way through – I freely admit that I suspected everyone in turn, but was still surprised by the solution. And yet it feels totally fair – all the clues are there and, when the reveal comes, it’s completely credible. Add to all this one of the best and most original thriller endings I’ve read in a long time, and you can see why I’m at a loss to find anything to grumble about.

I part read this book and part listened to it on the Audible audiobook version narrated by Stephen Shanahan. Annoyingly, I can’t fault it either! Shanahan’s narration is the perfect complement to the book. He has a lovely Australian accent, but not at all broad enough to be difficult for non-Australians – it reminded me a little of Pat Cash’s voice (*brief pause while FF swoons*). He doesn’t exactly “act” all the parts, but he manages to differentiate between the different voices. There is one Scottish character, and I was impressed by the accuracy of his Scottish accent.

the-dry-audioOne thing I really liked was that Shanahan used a “younger” voice for Aaron in the sections set in the past – a little quicker and lighter than the voice of adult Falk in the present. And, whether intentional or not, Harper also made this an easier listen than some audiobooks, by calling the young version Aaron and the present version Falk throughout, which was a huge help in clarifying which period we were in. On the printed page, the past sections are in italics, but of course, this is no help when listening. It would be great, now that audiobooks are becoming such a big thing, if more authors thought about how to differentiate for a listening audience as well as a reading one.

All-in-all, a brilliant read and an excellent listen! I’m enjoying the read/listen experience in general – a good narration adds another level to the characterisation and for books set elsewhere it also means you get the correct pronunciation of place names and so on. Expect to see this one turning up in my annual awards at the end of the year, but don’t wait till then – grab it if you can!

Since I couldn't track down a pic of Stephen Shanahan, here's a gratuitous Pat Cash pic instead...
Since I couldn’t track down a pic of Stephen Shanahan, here’s a gratuitous Pat Cash pic instead…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group Ltd., and the audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham read by David Thorpe

Campion’s first appearance…

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the-crime-at-black-dudleyDr George Abbershaw has gone down to Black Dudley Manor to join a house party for the weekend. The house is owned by George’s friend, Wyatt Petrie, but is occupied by Wyatt’s uncle by marriage, Colonel Coombe. The elderly wheelchair-bound colonel likes the company of young people, so often asks Wyatt to bring a group of his friends down for the weekend. George, though, is there mainly because he’s fallen in love with a girl who is also a guest, Meggie Oliphaunt, and he hopes to find an opportunity to propose to her. Colonel Coombe has also invited a few friends of his own.

In the evening, talk turns to old legends and Wyatt reluctantly tells of the ritual of a dagger that hangs prominently on the wall. The ritual involves turning off the lights and running around the house in the dark, passing the knife from person to person. What jolly fun! However when the lights come up Colonel Coombe is found dead. His friends tell the assembled company that his death was expected as he was very ill, and hasten to get a cremation certificate signed and hustle the body off the premises, so as not to spoil the weekend (!). But it soon becomes obvious to George that there’s something fishy going on (!) – and when something goes missing, suddenly the young people find themselves the prisoners of the Colonel’s friends…

This is apparently the book in which Allingham’s regular ‘tec, Albert Campion, makes his first appearance, although in this one, George is the main focus and Campion is a secondary character. George is a sensible young man, but Campion appears to be a foolish fop, like Bertie Wooster, only with fewer brains and a falsetto voice. He does develop a bit more depth as the book progresses, but it’s a strange first outing.

Peter Davidson as Campion and Brian Glover as his manservant Lugg in the TV adaptation
Peter Davidson as Campion and Brian Glover as his manservant Lugg in the TV adaptation

There is much running to and fro through secret tunnels, which are nearly as complex as the convoluted plot involving criminal gangs, mysterious papers and suchlike. Despite the darkness of the plot, and some episodes of viciousness on the part of the baddies, the general tone is light and fun. George and Meggie are both likeable characters, and their romance is handled nicely, not overwhelming the story but giving the reader something to care about amidst all the mayhem. Campion adds a lot of humour to the story, partly laughing with him and partly laughing at him. He’s shrewder than he first appears, but in the end it’s down to George to solve the puzzle of what it is the colonel’s friends are looking for, and who killed the colonel. And of course to engineer the escape from the baddies. In fact, Campion more or less disappears towards the end and plays no part in the final denouement – presumably at that point Allingham didn’t see him as her central character.

I listened to the audiobook version, and I have to say I felt David Thorpe’s narration was great! I’ve seen some critical reviews of it, mainly from Campion fans objecting to the falsetto voice he uses for Campion and for the foolishness Thorpe puts into his character. But this is how he is written in the book and I felt Thorpe was paying attention to the words of this one, rather than basing his characterisation on how Campion develops in later novels. Thorpe brings out all the humour in the story, but also does an excellent job with the darker sections. He held my attention throughout, which doesn’t always happen with audiobooks. A 5 star narration, in my opinion.

Margery Allingham
Margery Allingham

However, I’ve never rated Allingham as highly as the other Golden Age Queens of Crime: Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers; and truthfully I’m not sure that this book has changed my mind. I found it enjoyable, but too convoluted and not at all credible, and apart from George and Meggie, too many of the characters are caricatures. I didn’t feel it was fairplay at all – the eventual solution seemed to come from nowhere, though of course it’s possible I missed hidden clues along the way (even good audiobooks have a tendency to induce occasional napping). I’m glad I listened though – I think the narration actually made me enjoy the book more than I might have, had I been reading a paper copy. So overall, a fun listen of a reasonably entertaining book, but probably not the best one to start with to get a feel for the character Campion eventually becomes.

I was inspired to seek out this book by Margot Kinberg’s excellent Spotlight of it.

Albert Campion is one of Martin Edwards’ picks for Ten Top Golden Age Detectives.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis narrated by Michael York

the lion the witch and the wardrobeAlways winter, but never Christmas…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

I loved the Narnia books as a child and read them many times, especially this first one. As a child, I was completely oblivious to any religious symbolism in the book, so for me it was simply a great adventure story with a fantastic hero in Aslan. I think I was around eighteen when I last read them and, as with many childhood books, have always been a bit worried to revisit them in case my older, more cynical self has turned me into a Susan – unable to remember the magic and find my way back to Narnia. But when I came across this series on Audible, with some great narrators, I decided to take the risk.

And it was worth it. The book didn’t have quite the same effect on me as when I was seven, but it’s still a great story very well told. This time around I was obviously more aware of the parallels to the Christ story but I was intrigued to note that there are a lot of other references too – Bacchus puts in an appearance, as does Silenus, and of course all the stuff about fauns and centaurs and other creatures from folk legends and mythology. It’s all a bit of a mish-mash really but it works, and stops it from becoming overly preachy. Occasionally the messages are a little heavy-handed – about the evils of lying and so on – but this was fairly standard for children’s literature of the time from what I recall, and isn’t nearly as blatant as in some of them.

The White Witch from the 2005 movie
The White Witch from the 2005 movie

I was also much more aware of how terribly middle-class the children are, and how indoctrinated we were through the books we were reading to accept the subordinate, nurturing role of women and the heroic warrior status of boys. It’s amazing that the generation of women who grew up reading books like these, and Blyton and most of the other books I remember, managed to both love the books and rebel against the message. I did wonder if young mothers of young girls today would be quite so happy to have them reading books where girls help lay the table while boys go off in a manly way to catch fish for dinner, not to mention the girls ending up on the diplomatic marriage market when they were older. Daughters of Eve, Sons of Adam…hmm! Correct me if my knowledge of biology is a bit shaky, but my understanding is that the procreation process requires both genders to participate (or a test-tube or turkey baster at the very least). But I’d encourage young mothers not to let it put them off – my generation seemed to survive the onslaught of not-so-subliminal messages. (I also found myself thinking how little had changed in the role of women in the thousands of years between the Old Testament and this book and yet how much has changed, for those of us in the West at least, in the sixty or so years since. It rather made me proud…)

lucy and mr tumnus

But apart from all this adult over-analysis, I enjoyed the story a lot. The descriptions of the frozen world are great and the Queen is just as scary and horrible as I remember. Edmund is still a revolting little oick, Susan and Peter still badly need brought down a peg or two from their superior teenage smugness and I still identify with Lucy – youngest of four siblings, you see – even if she is a bit too sweet to be true. I loved the thaw – the way he matches the returning of life to the landscape with the returning of joy to the characters. Mr and Mrs Beaver are lovely, and poor Mr Tumnus! The bit with Aslan and the Stone Table is as moving and beautiful as ever it was and I still want to run and play with him, and put my hands in his golden mane! But why, oh why, must it end with them all having turned into stuffy, pompous adults complete with mock medieval language? I hated that bit when I was young and I hate it now – in fact, it was surprising how in tune young FF and old FF turned out to be. Perhaps my inner child isn’t so deeply buried after all…

Aslan, also from the 2005 movie
Aslan, also from the 2005 movie

Michael York’s reading is excellent. He gives all the characters distinct voices, and uses different British regional accents for the creatures. Mr Tumnus is Irish, the Beavers are some kind of rural English – Somerset-ish perhaps? – and I laughed a lot at Maugrim the wolf’s vurry, vurry Scottish accent. The children’s voices grated a bit on me – awfully posh standard English – but I did think they were right for the characters. And crucially he does Aslan’s voice (and roar) brilliantly – just the right deep tones filled with power and menace, but with a warmth beneath.

Michael York
Michael York

So overall a happy visit to my childhood and I can now look forward to enjoying the rest. Since I’m sticking with the original publication order, next up will be Prince Caspian, narrated by Lynn Redgrave. Doesn’t that sound good?

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill read by Steven Pacey

printer's devil courtVictoria sponge…

🙂 🙂 😐

A young medical student has taken rooms in Printer’s Devil Court in London, sharing them with three other medical men. One evening, the four men have a discussion as to whether the story of Lazarus could possibly have been true – is it scientifically possible to bring someone back from the dead? Two of the men hint that they have been carrying out experiments on the subject and ask Meredith and the fourth man if they would like to join in. The fourth man considers the whole idea to be blasphemous and refuses, but Meredith’s curiosity wins out, and he agrees to be a witness to the experiments – a decision he will regret for the rest of his life.

Susan Hill has written this very much in the style of a Victorian ghost story although it’s set in the 20th century. It feels very much like working to a recipe…

1 notebook revealing a terrible secret
1 creepy street name
4 medical students
2 or 3 graveyards to taste
2 corpses
1 late night adventure in a mortuary
1 man racked by conscience and haunted for the rest of his life

Mix all together with a wooden spoon until smooth, and bake for 1 hour and 40 minutes.

Unfortunately, the resulting cake is somewhat bland – a Victoria sponge without the jam perhaps. One feels that a vital ingredient has been forgotten…

1 generous splash of essence of horror

graveyard

The quality of the writing and storytelling is quite high – it’s just that it’s a story we’ve all heard so often in various forms and Hill brings nothing new to the recipe. I felt she was so busily ensuring that she got it to sound authentically Victorian, which she succeeds in doing very well, that she lost sight somewhat of the fact that a ghost story ought to be scary, and in order to be scary it must have some element of unpredictability. I kept hoping there was going to be a twist that would turn expectations on their head, but I’m afraid it ran along too smoothly from beginning to end without deviating from the obvious route. And there’s no added ingredient to make up for the lack of the scare factor – no great moral questions are raised, there’s no element of humour.

Susan Hill © Ben Graville
Susan Hill © Ben Graville

The most effective bits are the mortuary scene and the first graveyard scene, in both of which the quality of the writing does manage to create a chilling atmosphere, but from there on the story meanders on, not really going anywhere at all, until it reaches a completely anticlimactic end.

I listened to the audiobook version which has a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes. The narrator Steven Pacey does a good job with the material available, but I’m afraid that my spine remained untingled and my hair unraised.

NB This book was provided for review by Audible UK via Midas PR.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Amok by Sebastian Fitzek (Audible Studios Dramatisation)

amokDead or alive…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

A year before the story proper begins, Jan May is waiting for his girlfriend Leonie to arrive for dinner. He has decided this will be the evening he will propose and is confident of her answer. But his plans are destroyed when she phones him to say they will not be able to see each other again for an indefinite period, perhaps forever. “They will tell you that I’m dead – but I’m not, OK?” And at that moment the doorbell rings – and the police inform Jan that Leonie died in a car accident earlier that day. Despite all his protests, Jan has never seen or heard from Leonie since and is unable to convince anyone that she’s alive.

Adrian Lester
Adrian Lester

Criminal psychologist and police negotiator Ira Samin has never forgiven herself for failing to prevent her daughter Sarah’s suicide, and now Ira is planning to end her own life. But she has to put it on hold when her old police colleague and ex-lover Gertz persuades her to attend a developing situation at the local radio station. Jan May has taken several people hostage and is threatening to kill them unless Leonie is found. He’s on-air and has told the audience that he will phone a member of the public at random each hour – if they answer with the correct slogan, a hostage will be released, but if they don’t, then one will be killed. Ira will have to negotiate with him on-air and he’s only prepared to talk to her if she’s willing to tell him about her daughter’s death… and the situation becomes even more tense when Ira discovers that one of the hostages is her other daughter, Kitty…

Natascha McElhone
Natascha McElhone

I loved the half-narrated, half-dramatised format of Fitzek’s previous audiobook, The Child, though I was less enamoured with the actual story, so I was keen to listen to this one. And my reaction is pretty similar. The idea, of having a cast of top actors to perform the dialogue while still retaining the unabridged nature of the book by having a narrator for the in-between bits, is great – a real advance in thriller-type audiobooks, I think. As in the last one, Robert Glenister is the narrator and he does an excellent job. Jan May is played by the wonderful Adrian Lester, possibly best known for his role in Hustle, but a very fine stage actor too, and he gives a good performance here. I wasn’t so enamoured by Natascha McElhone as Ira, partly because her rather clipped and “actor-y” accent grated on me, but also her role didn’t give her the opportunity to show us any emotions other than misery and despair, which can become a little tedious after the first six hours or so. Rafe Spall, Peter Firth and Brendan Coyle each perform well as the three main supporting characters. The use of sound effects during the dramatised parts and the snips of weirdly discordant music to divide the chapters add a lot to the overall effect, making it feel more like a drama serial than a novel.

Robert Glenister
Robert Glenister

But – you knew there was a but coming, didn’t you? – the story is far-fetched and relies too much on coincidence. I found it impossible after a while to keep my incredulity in check. I wondered if, in this particular case, the audio format maybe didn’t work as well as reading would have – I felt it might have been a fast-paced page-turner on paper, possibly leaving the reader no time to think about the unlikeliness of some of the events or to work out the various twists.

Sebastian Fitzek
Sebastian Fitzek

But when listening to audiobooks, the speed is pre-determined at a rate much slower (for me anyway) than reading, plus I don’t tend to listen in chunks as long as I would read for. I found that extra time stopped me from getting swept up in the action, and also allowed me to work out what the big twist was going to be by the time I was about halfway through the book, removing a lot of the tension from the second half. While The Child grabbed me and made me listen for longer chunks, doing that ‘just one more chapter’ thing, this one didn’t have the same effect. However, much of that is a subjective criticism – someone who normally listens in longer blocks or can get as involved in the spoken word as the written might well find the action carries them along.

So overall, loved the format, enjoyed most of the performances, and really hope that Audible do more books in this way in the future. But in the end the story is the most important thing, and unfortunately it didn’t grab me quite as much as I’d hoped.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK via Midas PR.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman (Audiobook)

trigger warningMixed bag…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

This collection of short stories turned out to be something of a mixed bag. Ranging in length from a couple of minutes to an hour and a half (I was listening rather than reading), some of the shorter ones are so fragmentary as to be rather pointless, while a couple of the longer ones feel too long for their content. However there are some excellent stories in here too and, as I’d been told by so many people, Gaiman is a wonderful narrator.

As a fairly new convert to Gaiman’s work I was surprised to find that there are several stories in here that I had already come across elsewhere in other formats. This made me wonder how much new stuff there would be in the book for established fans, so it would probably be wise to check the contents list before purchasing.

There is a long introduction in which Gaiman explains the rationale for the collection. This may have been better if I’d been reading rather than listening, but on the audiobook it takes over an hour, most of which is made up of short introductions to each story explaining the inspiration for it. Some of these short introductions are as long as the stories themselves. I fear I clicked out of the introduction after 20 minutes – snippets of how a story came about because of something some bloke called Jimmy said down the pub one night failed to hold my attention. One of the drawbacks of audio is that it’s not possible to scan read sections like this, as I would with a paper or e-book.

Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman

I found the first few stories quite disappointing to be honest. The title, cover and introduction had all led me to think that the stories would be dark and chilling, but a lot of them aren’t. And while I think Gaiman does dark and chilling exceptionally well, I was less enamoured of his musing on the writing process by using a metaphor of making a chair, for example. I also found, and this is down to personal preference, that, of the stories I knew, I had on the whole preferred them in written format. Both Down to the Sunless Sea and The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains had worked brilliantly for me when I read them – the first as straight text and the second as a graphic novel – but didn’t have quite the same effect when listening, mainly because, although Gaiman’s narration was excellent, the voices didn’t gel with the ones I’d heard in my head. However, where I hadn’t read a story before, Click-Clack The Rattle Bag, for instance, then the narration often worked superbly.

These three stories were still amongst my favourites in the collection though, and here are another few that I particularly enjoyed:

Adventure story – a son sits with his elderly mother having tea and discussing his father, now deceased. In the course of the conversation his mother reveals the story of an adventure his father once had long ago as a young man. The adventure becomes progressively more fantastical, and the appeal comes from the matter-of-fact way the mother tells it and the son’s astonishment. Quite a short story this one, but cleverly done and enjoyable. I suspect the narration made this one work better than it would have on paper.

The Case of Death and Honey is a rather good spin on the Holmes stories, which provides an explanation for why the great man went off to keep bees at the end of his career. It’s set in China with Holmes on the trail of the answer to the ultimate mystery, and while it is somewhat far-fetched it’s well-written and interesting, and Gaiman’s Holmes feels quite authentic. This is another one I had already come across elsewhere – in the Oxcrimes collection published last year.

Nothing O’Clock is a Doctor Who story and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. It fits perfectly into the Doctor Who style and Gaiman’s narration of the many characters gives a unique voice to each. The story is imaginative and nicely chilling, but of course with the traditional happy ending we expect the Doctor to provide.

So quite a lot of good things in here overall, but also some that I found rather dull or a bit lightweight. A mixed bag – I’d say most readers will find some things to like in the collection but, like me, may also find there’s quite a lot that leaves them a little underwhelmed.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by the publisher, Audible UK.

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible US Link

The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson read by Simon Shepherd

the churchill factorBlood, toil, tears and sweat…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Winston Churchill needs no introduction and, in the UK, nor does Boris Johnson, but perhaps he does elsewhere. Boris is one of those few people who are known to all by their first names – if you mention Boris over here, everyone will assume that it’s this Boris you mean unless you specify otherwise. A leading light in the Conservative Party, he has been the Mayor of London for the last six years and is strongly tipped in many quarters to be a future leader of the Party and possibly a future Prime Minister. This is pretty spectacular for a man who is best known for being exceptionally funny on panel games, having a silly hairstyle and being an upper-class buffoon who would fit in well in the Drones Club. But that public persona doesn’t quite hide the other facts about Boris, that he is a highly intelligent, extremely knowledgeable and articulate man, whose political ambitions reach to the very top. Prior to going into active politics he was a political journalist and editor so he knows how to write entertainingly and engagingly. You may already have guessed that I have a huge soft spot for Boris – it’s just unfortunate he’s as right-wing as Mrs Thatcher. But it’s that ability to camouflage his views under his larger-than-life personality that enables him to attract voters who wouldn’t normally vote for his party.

As for his amazing achievement in winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, it is conventional to treat this as a joke, an embarrassing attempt by the Swedes to make up for their neutrality in the war. Even relatively sympathetic historians such as Peter Clarke have dismissed the possibility that there was any merit involved. “Rarely can an author’s writings have received less attention than the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953,” he says. This is not just a little bit snooty, but surely untrue. Look at the list of Nobel winners in the last century – avant-garde Japanese playwrights, Marxist-Feminist Latin Americans, Polish exponents of the Concrete Poem. All of them are no doubt meritorious in their way but many of them are much less read than Churchill.

In this book, Boris sets out to try to discover what made Churchill into the man who is considered to have been crucial in the British war effort. He does this with his usual panache, making the book hugely enjoyable and filled with humour, which doesn’t disguise the massive amount of research and knowledge that has clearly gone into it. He makes it crystal clear that he admires Churchill intensely and, because he’s so open about it, his bias in the great man’s favour comes over as wholly endearing. In fact, this reader couldn’t help feeling that Boris sees Churchill as something of a role model, and that his desire to understand how Churchill achieved all that he did is partly so that Boris can emulate him – hopefully not by becoming a great leader in another World War though! (Though I suspect Boris might be a little sorry he missed the last one…)

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill

In each chapter, Boris looks at one aspect of Churchill’s life – his childhood, his writing, his early army career in the Boer War etc – and analyses it to see what we can draw from it in terms of what made Churchill tick. Over the years, Churchill has had as many detractors as admirers, and Boris takes their criticisms of him head on, dismissing them with his usual mix of bluster and brilliance. That’s not to say he brushes over the big mistakes in Churchill’s career, but he puts them into context and finds that he consistently acted in accordance with his own convictions. (If only we could say that about many of today’s politicians.) This didn’t always make him popular but, had popularity been his main aim, he probably wouldn’t have stood out so strongly against coming to some accommodation with Nazi Germany at the point where Britain stood isolated and close to defeat. Boris makes it clear that he believes that it was Churchill, and Churchill alone, who carried the argument in the Government for Britain to fight on, and who was crucial in persuading the US to finally become involved.

…if he was exhausting to work for, his colleagues nonetheless gave him loyalty and unstinting devotion. When he came back from New York in 1932 after nearly dying under the wheels of an on-coming car, he was presented with a Daimler. The Daimler had been organised by Brendan Bracken and financed by a whip-round of 140 friends and admirers. Can you think of any modern British politician with enough friends and admirers to get them a new Nissan Micra, let alone a Daimler?

Although there is a considerable amount in the book about WW2, as you would expect, there is just as much about Churchill’s achievements and failures both before and after. In a political career that stretched for over 60 years, he was involved to one degree or another in all of the major events in the UK, and indeed the world, from the 1900s to the 1960s – the Boer War, WW1, the establishment of Israel, the abdication of Edward VIII, the decline of the British Empire, the rise of the Soviet Union, the formation of the Common Market (now European Union). Boris shows how he was often at first a lone voice, perceptive through his deep understanding of history and politics, with other people dismissing him until he was proved right (or occasionally wrong). He also shows how Churchill was capable of changing his mind over time and admitting to it – for example, over women, where their contribution to the war effort persuaded him they should be entitled to rights he had previously argued against. A conviction politician certainly, but not hog-tied by it.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson

There’s so much in the book that I’ve missed out far more than I’ve included – Churchill’s writing, art, speech-making, personal bravery, etc., etc. It is however a surprisingly compact read considering the ground it covers. It’s not a full biography – it doesn’t set out to be. Boris has selected those events and episodes that he feels cast most light on the character of the man and what formed it – the Churchill Factor, as he calls it. It’s brilliantly written, as entertaining as it is informative and insightful, and I feel it casts nearly as much light on the character of the author as the subject. For anyone who still thinks Boris is the buffoon he plays so well, this might come as a real eye-opener. And for those of us who already know that, like the iceberg, the important bit of Boris is the bit you rarely see, this reminds us that we better decide soon if we really want to buy tickets for the Titanic.

There are Churchill nightclubs and bars and pubs – about twenty pubs in Britain bear his name and puglike visage, far more than bear the name of any other contemporary figure. Sometimes it is easy to understand the semiotic function of the name – you can see why a pub-owner might want to go for Churchill. He is the world’s greatest advertisement for the benefits of alcohol. But why is there a Churchill Escort Agency? And what do they offer, apart from blood, toil, tears and sweat?

Simon Shepherd
Simon Shepherd

As if two huge personalities aren’t enough for one book, I listened to the Audible audiobook version, which is beautifully narrated by another of the great loves of my life (yes, I know there’s a lot of them…), Simon Shepherd, who has one of the loveliest voices known to man (or woman) and the perfect rather plummy accent for this kind of book. It’s a great narration that does full justice to the book – held my attention throughout, which doesn’t always happen with audiobooks. In fact, I found myself frequently doing that ‘just one more chapter’ thing which normally only happens with the written word. Going to bed each night with Winston, Boris and Simon has been a lot more fun than you might imagine…

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK.

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible US Link

The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories by Ian Rankin

The Grand Old Man in shorts…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the beat goes onLast year, after one of his friends died unexpectedly at a young age, Ian Rankin announced that he’d be taking a year or two off from novel writing to have a bit of a rest. I assume this collection of short stories has been issued to fill the void that many of us Rebus fans would have felt without a new book for the winter. And, since I haven’t read any of these before, it filled that void very satisfactorily.

There are 29 stories, ranging in length from a few pages to near-novella, but with most falling into the 20-40 minutes-to-read zone, so perfect bedside table material for late-night reading. There is also an interesting essay at the end where Rankin tells the story of how Rebus came into existence, which gives us some biographical snippets into how Rankin himself became a crime writer.

Normally, when reviewing a short story collection, I find myself commenting on the variable quality of the stories, but I really can’t say that with this one. I found each of the stories, short or long, to be pretty much equally good, and while they obviously don’t have the complexity or depth of the novels, they show all Rankin’s normal talents for plotting and characterisation, and are as well written as the books. In fact, because we know the main characters so well, Rankin doesn’t have to spend much time on developing them, allowing him to pack a lot of story into a compact space. A few of them have a Christmas or New Year theme, I guess because they were originally written for newspaper or magazine Christmas specials. And a couple make reference to stories from great Edinburgh writers of the past – Muriel Spark and Arthur Conan Doyle – giving a glimpse into Rankin’s own influences.

Ian Rankin
Ian Rankin

Each story is entirely consistent with the Rebus we know, but sometimes angled so that we see a new facet of his character, or get a closer look at an old one. They are spread throughout his career, with the first story being the most recently written – a prequel more or less to his latest novel Saints of the Shadow Bible, when Rebus was a new detective learning the ropes – right through to his retirement (which we now know didn’t last long). The bulk, however, are set in the earlier period, so there’s more of Brian Holmes as his sidekick than of Siobhan Clarke, who only came into the series mid-way through. I found this particularly pleasurable since it’s a long time since I’ve read any of the older books and I enjoyed the trip down memory lane with a younger Rebus. I was intrigued to realise that, although I tend to think back on the early Rebus as one of the drunken mavericks of his day who has since mellowed with age, in fact in comparison to a lot of today’s detectives he was actually both functional and professional throughout – clearly it’s the genre that’s shifted, rather than Rebus…or Rankin. I also felt there was more than a touch of William McIlvanney in the earlier stories, but that his influence seemed to fade as they went on, presumably as Rankin developed into his own equally strong style.

The stories include all kinds of mysteries, from shop-lifting to murder, and the occasional one is really more an observation of a particular aspect of Edinburgh life than a crime story. In total, they left me in no doubt that Rankin is just as much a master of the short story as the novel. I found this a completely satisfying collection, and one that I’m sure to dip in and out of many times again.

* * * * * * * *

Just for fun I tried the newish Whispersync feature for Kindle with this one – that is, that if you buy the Kindle book, you can add the Audible version at a reduced cost (or for ‘free’ if, like me, you have a bunch of Audible credits you haven’t yet used). Technically, it didn’t really sync on the Kindle Fire which was a disappointment – it meant that when switching from reading to listening I was always having to find my place. Not too much of a problem with short stories, but could be tedious in a full-length novel.

James Macpherson
James Macpherson

However, this particular Audible book is superbly narrated by James Macpherson who, you may remember, took over as the lead in Taggart after Mark McManus died. Not only is he an excellent narrator, but his voice and accent are ideally suited for the character of Rebus and as a skilled actor he also creates different personas for all the other many characters who appear in the stories. I thought it was a first rate recording, and thoroughly enjoyed splitting the book between reading and listening. It’s something I would do again – especially for short stories. A good narration can definitely add something to the original. On the audiobook version, too, the essay Rankin on Rebus is narrated by Ian Rankin himself, which made it a little bit extra-special (especially since he has a lovely voice too). I’d happily recommend the book, the audiobook or both to all Rebus fans out there, or even perhaps as an introduction for new readers to the grand old man of Tartan Noir.

Amazon UK Link
Audible on Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible on Amazon US Link

The Child by Sebastian Fitzek (Audible Studios Dramatisation)

the childGreat listening experience…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

It’s been a while since I did much listening to audiobooks, since I don’t spend as much time driving as I used to. But when Audible offered me this one for review, the genuine enthusiasm that came across from the publicist’s e-mail made me pause – and then I spotted the stellar cast-list and was hooked.

Ten-year-old Simon feels he needs a lawyer, because he believes that fifteen years ago, he murdered someone – in fact, more than one person – in a previous life, and now he wants to tell the police. The boy is suffering from a terminal brain tumour, so when his nurse Carina contacts her old boyfriend, lawyer Robert Stern, he believes at first that Simon must be hallucinating. But when Simon leads him to discover the body of a man, killed by an axe just as Simon said, Stern suddenly finds himself sucked in to a strange and dangerous investigation…

Very unusually the book is being issued in audio form first, in the UK – quite often audiobooks still come a long time after the printed word. Also the audio presentation of the book takes a new approach – half narration, half-dramatisation. Normally audiobooks are entirely narrated, with just one or occasionally two voices throughout, or they are abridged and adapted for dramatisation. This one is completely unabridged, with a running time of just under 7 hours. All sections where there is dialogue have been dramatised, and the bits in between are superbly narrated by Robert Glenister. The cast list for the dramatised pieces is amazing, with some of the top UK actors in the big roles – Rupert Penry-Jones (Spooks, Whitechapel) as Stern, Emilia Fox (Silent Witness) as Carina, Stephen Marcus (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) as Stern’s sidekick and Andy Serkis (aka Gollum) as the police officer. Jack Boulter gives a great performance as young Simon, and there are loads of good minor performances from the cast of 20.

Not only is the acting of an extremely high quality throughout, the whole sound throughout the production is great and, in my experience, innovative for audiobooks. They have recorded actual Berlin street sounds for the background which give a real feeling of being out and about with the characters as the plot gathers speed. The incidental music, used to separate the chapters, is incredibly spooky and really adds to the atmosphere. And the distorted voice of the baddie is so well done that when he first appeared in Chapter 3 my hair quite literally began to stand on end! I started out listening on my beloved Kindle Fire but soon moved on to better speakers to get the full benefit of the sound quality.

As you can tell, I found this a great listening experience and for three-quarters of the book it was well on its way to 5 stars. The book started with a bang and by the third chapter I was completely hooked, listening in huge chunks (which isn’t usual for me with audio) and desperate to know what happened. It’s ambiguous for much of the story as to whether there’s a supernatural aspect to it, and I found some bits really creepy and atmospheric, enhanced by the music and sound. The plot is complicated but not too much so, and the three main characters, Stern, Carina and Simon, are all well-drawn and likeable. Stern’s personal demons, caused by the sudden death of his own baby son ten years earlier, are handled well – important to the story without overwhelming it. Unfortunately, and I’m really sad to say this, the story collapses completely in the last quarter. It’s as if Fitzek had written himself into a corner and couldn’t quite see how to get out. So suddenly we get well over an hour of explanation where characters just tell each other what’s been going on. All tension is lost along with a good deal of the credibility that had been so effectively built up in the rest of the book.

Sebastian Fitzek
Sebastian Fitzek

It’s so disappointing, because the whole thing had been just great up till that point and the acting and sound went on being great to the end. If I were just rating the book, it would get a maximum 3 stars, but the performances and production still make it well worth a listen in my opinion, so it gets 4. I really hope that Audible will continue to make audiobooks in this style though – it’s a real step forward in my opinion, and I can think of so many books that would be perfect for this treatment, especially crime and thrillers.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by the publisher, Audible Studios. It is due for release on 7th August and, as far as I know, will only be available initially as a download from Audible or via Amazon – neither a paper book (in English) nor an audio disc set is yet listed. I also can’t find any US links yet, so it looks like it’s only going to be available in the UK at present.

Audible UK Link
Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 33…

Episode 33

 

Now, before I tell you this week’s total I just want to make it clear that I will not tolerate any giggling, is that understood?

111. Yes, that’s right, one hundred and eleven. Or as Bilbo would say, eleventy-one! I’m beginning to understand why he vanished…

You three! What did I say about giggling? Yes, you three at the back – you know who you are! See me after class!

For the better behaved amongst you, here’s just a few of the soon-to-be-reads…

* * * * *

Crime

 

the childCourtesy of Audible. Half narration, half dramatisation and a stellar castlist for this spooky new crime thriller by Sebastian Fitzek on audio. I’m already about halfway through this and it’s got me totally hooked…

The Blurb saysMy name is Simon. I’m 10 years old. I’m a serial killer. Robert Stern (Rupert Penry-Jones), a successful defense attorney, doesn’t know what lies in store for him when he agrees to meet a new client in a derelict estate on the outskirts of Berlin. Stern is more than surprised, when his old love interest and professional nurse Carina (Emilia Fox) presents him with a ten year old boy as his new client: Simon (Jack Boulter), a terminally ill child, who is convinced he has murdered many men in a previous life.

* * * * *

Science fiction

 

the early sci-fi of philip k dickCourtesy of NetGalley, some early short stories of one of the great names of sci-fi, Philip K Dick – author of the classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep amongst many other things…

The Blurb saysThese gripping stories include “Second Variety”, which stars nasty little death-robots;  “The Crystal Crypt”, an account of a terrifying flight to Mars; “The Defenders”, featuring a self-aware weapon frightful enough to put an end to war; and “The Variable Man”, a tale of a handyman’s misadventures in the future. Additional selections include “Beyond the Door”, the story of the lonely bird inside a cuckoo clock; “Mr. Spaceship”, a fable concerning spacecraft controlled by the human brain; and “Beyond Lies the Wub”, in which intelligence lurks in an unlikely form.

* * * * *

Factual

augustusAgain courtesy of NetGalley, the story of the ‘first and greatest’ Emperor of Rome…still never managed to conquer Scotland though…

The Blurb saysCaesar Augustus’ story, one of the most riveting in western history, is filled with drama and contradiction, risky gambles and unexpected success. He began as a teenage warlord, whose only claim to power was as the heir of the murdered Julius Caesar. Mark Antony dubbed him “a boy who owes everything to a name,” but in the years to come the youth outmaneuvered all the older and more experienced politicians and was the last man standing in 30 BC. Over the next half century he reinvented himself as a servant of the state who gave Rome peace and stability, and created a new system of government—the Principate or rule of an emperor.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

 

Bah! Humbug! A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens narrated by Tom Baker

Christmas starts here…

santasantasantasantasanta

 

 

This little pre-Christmas Dickens mini-series started with one version of A Christmas Carol and is now ending with another. (Think yourselves lucky – I could be recommending the Complete Works. 😉 ) If none of the previous choices have tempted you, let me try one last time to persuade you to…

HAVE A DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS!

 

51CWXmZKCgL._SL300_Like King Lear, every actor reaches a point in his career where he wants to stamp his mark on this classic, so you have to be really quite special to compete with the crowd. Fortunately, this reading by Tom Baker IS really quite special!

Forget your Peter Capaldis, your Matt Smiths, even your David Tennants – Tom Baker was THE Dr Who and there will never be a better! Who else could carry off a hand knitted stripy scarf and make it a cool fashion trend? But when he wasn’t saving the planet, Baker had time to play many other roles, including a stint at the National Theatre – not to mention being a very fine Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, beloved of Narnia fans everywhere. He is also an accomplished voice-actor both on radio and as narrator of several animated series.

Puddleglum the Marshwiggle
Puddleglum the Marshwiggle

I approached this recording of A Christmas Carol with some trepidation because, much though I like Baker, for me the definitive version is Patrick Stewart’s and I doubted Baker could match him. I was wrong – Baker brings drama, fear, sorrow and ultimately joy to the story just as much as Stewart does. As with all of the best of the Dickens’ narrators/performers, Baker has a huge personality and a powerful voice – necessary to fill the shoes of Dickens’ larger-than-life creations. Although this is a straight reading, Baker uses his fine acting skills to give each character an individual identity. Unlike the Stewart version where we hear only his voice, this one has occasional background music and other sound effects at the more dramatic points, and these work well with Baker’s performance.

tom1

I intended to listen in instalments but by the time the first disc ended, I was so hooked I ended up listening to the whole thing in one session. Not better than Stewart (not possible!) but as good, and of course this is the unabridged version. Three hours of pure listening pleasure – this set has now joined my select collection of Christmas Carols, to be brought out and savoured time and again over many Christmases to come. Just the thing to ensure that you Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

NB This disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link
Currently not available as discs on Amazon UK.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín read by Meryl Streep

Flesh and blood and bone…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

testament streepWhen it comes to dramatic interpretations of books, every reader is his/her own director. We know how the book sounded in our head, how the characters looked, behaved, spoke. How often do we feel a little disappointed in the ‘film of the book’ – not because it is in any way unfaithful to the story, but simply because it’s not quite as we envisaged it? The same problem of reader-as-director applies to audiobooks. Sometimes the narrator’s voice fits perfectly with the voice in our head – Derek Jacobi as Watson narrating Holmes, for instance, Joan Hickson reading Agatha Christie, or Jonathan Cecil as the perfect narrator of Jeeves and Wooster…for this reader/director anyway.

The Testament of Mary is the ideal book for audio, since it is the first-person narration of Mary’s story, and was originally written as a performance piece before being turned into a book. I have reviewed the book already (click to see the review) and found it a harrowing novel, full of guilt and fear. I was thrilled to hear that Meryl Streep had recorded it, given my admiration of her talent as an actor and my love of her voice. And I’d like to say straight off that hers is a wonderful performance, emotional, well-paced and with Mary’s character fully realised. But…but…the emotions that Streep has given us are primarily those of sorrow, loss and regret and while that is a perfectly valid reading of the book, it doesn’t quite chime with my own directorial interpretation. The anger and bitterness, the fear and guilt were all a little muted – subsumed by the sorrow. This is a book that made me cry for Mary, indeed, but it also made my blood boil, horrified me and made me feel Mary’s fear.

meryl streep

Up to the point of the Lazarus story, Streep had me totally with her. This was perhaps the part of the book that affected me most. The vision that Tóibín gives us of the strangeness and pain of Lazarus following his return to life churned my emotions, and Streep caught this aspect perfectly. But at the description of the crucifixion itself, I felt that the horror didn’t come through – this is a mother watching her son having nails driven through his hands and suffering a cruel and lingering death. Mary explains why she did nothing, but that doesn’t mean that she remained dispassionate, and I’m afraid Streep’s reading seemed strangely passionless for the most part, almost resigned.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

Since the story is being told by an old Mary long after the event, I could see the validity of Streep’s reading – this is a story Mary has gone over in her head many times and the horror will no longer be fresh for her. But it is for us – and I felt there should have been more of an emotional peak. The narration didn’t move me to anything like the extent of my own internal reading of the book – I didn’t find I was sharing Mary’s emotions, I didn’t feel the pain and the guilt to the same degree, and the fear just didn’t seem to be there.

Overall, I may have felt quite differently about this reading had I never read the book, and I would certainly recommend it highly to anyone who prefers audio to print. It is one interpretation, certainly at least as valid as my own, and Streep’s performance is strong and beautifully controlled. But it didn’t match the expectations of my interior director and therefore didn’t have quite the impact I was anticipating. With luck, this may become the kind of book that many actors will want to tackle and we may get a range of audio interpretations in time. If so, though I personally will be hoping for a more overtly emotional performance, Streep has set a very high standard and I’m sure this version will remain one of the best.

Amazon UK Link                                     Audible UK Link
Amazon US link                                      Audible US Link

Bah! Humbug! Dickens’ Women co-written and performed by Miriam Margolyes

HAVE A DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS!

 

Love her, love her, love her!

santasantasantasantasanta

 

 

Dickens womenMiriam Margolyes is one of our best and best-known character actresses. From a variety of roles in Blackadder to Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films, she has shown her talents for comedy time and again. But she’s also a very fine dramatic actress who has had major supporting roles in many films and TV series including, of course, some of the BBC adaptations of Dickens over the years. Some years ago she co-wrote (with Sonia Fraser) a one-woman show where she talks about Dickens’ life and performs some of his characters. This audiobook is a recording of some of that show made in front of a live audience.

‘Mrs. Corney, ma’am,’ said Mr. Bumble, slowly, and marking the time with his teaspoon, ‘I mean to say this, ma’am; that any cat, or kitten, that could live with you, ma’am, and not be fond of its home, must be a ass, ma’am.’
‘Oh, Mr Bumble!’ remonstrated Mrs. Corney.
‘It’s of no use disguising facts, ma’am,’ said Mr. Bumble, slowly flourishing the teaspoon with a kind of amorous dignity which made him doubly impressive; ‘I would drown it myself, with pleasure.’

As Margolyes talks about The Great Man, it’s clear that she’s a huge admirer of his writing, particularly of the way he creates somewhat caricatured but unforgettable characters. She draws parallels between his life and his work, and often tells us about the real person who inspired a particular character. But she does it all with a great sense of fun – mocking both Dickens and herself as we go. Her little section on all Dickens’ nauseatingly sweet seventeen-year-old heroines is hilarious, as we hear her getting more and more fed up with his idealisation of youth, beauty and most of all, petiteness as the perfect woman. And she doesn’t hold back when she tells us about Dickens’ appalling treatment of his wife. She takes us through from his early days in the blacking factory to his death, packing a lot of information in along the way, but all most entertainingly.

sairey gampmiss havishamicruiks001p4

But the real joy of the disc is in the readings – performances, really. From the humour of Sairey Gamp to the sorrow and madness of Miss Flite, she takes us on a trip through some of the best known of Dickens’ women, but also includes some of the characters from his lesser read works. We have Mrs Lirriper’s story of Willing Sophy, the girl with the eternal smudge of blacking on her nose, from Household Words, and the description of the Clemms from The Uncommercial Traveller. Little Nell, Rosa Dartle and Mrs Micawber all put in an appearance. Her performance of Mr Bumble’s courtship of Mrs Corney is superb and had me laughing out loud again and again, while Miss Havisham comes across as truly bitter and twisted, and frightening in her intensity.

“Love her, love her, love her! If she favours you, love her. If she wounds you, love her. If she tears your heart to pieces, – and as it gets older and stronger it will tear deeper, – love her, love her, love her!…I’ll tell you what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter – as I did!”

MARGOLYES

All-in-all this is a tour-de-force performance that, with a running time of an hour and a half, will keep you smiling while you make a start on wrapping those pesky presents. Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible US Link

Bah! Humbug! A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens narrated by Patrick Stewart

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…ah, yes, Dickens truly understood the meaning of Christmas! So in the lead up to that wonderful season of conspicuous spending, gross commercialism, gluttony, over-indulgence and family feuds, I say along with The Great Man himself – Bah! Humbug! (I’ve always loved humbugs, don’t you?)

humbugs

Scientific tests (carried out by yours truly) have shown that the only way to survive the approaching Season of Goodwill with anything approaching the requisite amount of jolliness is to cut off all contact with the outside world for a while and curl up with a good Dickens (and a box of chocolates, of course). Then, when Santa suddenly arrives down the chimney, you should be able to offer him a glass of sherry and a mince pie with not just equanimity but actual joie de vivre!

So here goes for the first instalment of…

Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

 

mr fezziwig's ball

* * * * * * * * *

A Christmas Carol narrated by Patrick Stewart

 

santasantasantasantasanta

 

 

a christmas carol

I had the great privilege some years ago of seeing Patrick Stewart’s one-man show of A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic theatre in London – one of the theatrical highlights of my life. At the time I was aware of him as Jean-Luc Picard of the Star Ship Enterprise and knew that he’d been a ‘proper’ Shakespearian actor before that. But seeing him perform Dickens’ wonderful story live was a revelation. This audio version is based on that performance.

“They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing.”

A Christmas Carol must surely rate as the best ghost story of all time, and be on the shortlist at least for best short story. Dickens’ exuberant and larger-than-life style is perfectly suited to a tale of this nature, and it in turn is perfectly suited to the message of Christmas. We see Scrooge first as a mean and miserly old man, measuring out his clerk’s coal and objecting to losing a day’s work for Christmas. Our introduction to the ghost of Marley is truly scary – the clanking chains, the face on the door-knocker, the chimes of the clock; and who can forget the gaping jaw as Marley removes the kerchief tied around his head? The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come lead us through a turmoil of emotions as we see the lonely little boy, the young man who lost his one love, the gradual sinking into loneliness and miserliness, and the horror of what might be to come. But Dickens does redemption like no-one else, and he leads us away from the despair of Ignorance and Want towards a joyous and uplifting ending, where Scrooge gains his salvation through learning that to give to those less fortunate than himself brings him the pleasure and happiness he had forgotten could exist.

patrick stewart as scrooge

Stewart’s performance is superb. There’s no music, no sound-effects – he performs the whole thing completely with his voice, creating different personas for each character, each fully realised and totally individual. It is his voice that gives us the bells, the chimes of the clock – it’s through his voice that we hear the fear, the horror, the hope and finally the wondrous joy. When Scrooge learns to laugh at the end, I defy anyone not to laugh with him. When he sings a Christmas carol for the first time in years we hear his voice go through the stages from creaky and rusty to a full-scale boisterous bellow. And when he gives us Dickens’ last sugary-sweet line, he makes it so tender that even the cliché becomes truly moving.

This is an abridged version, running at just under two hours, but it’s so skilfully done I’m never really aware of what’s missing. It’s a once a year must-listen for me and I love it just as much each time. A masterly performance of a masterpiece, and guaranteed to boost your festive stock of goodwill to all men. Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

“…and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible US Link

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen read by Lindsay Duncan

Published by AudioGo – running time 12 hrs 5 mins

The crucial character of Lizzie…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 for the book           🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 for the reading

pride and prejudice audioWhen I try to pin down why I love Pride and Prejudice as much as I do, it really comes down to the character of Lizzie – her warmth, her strength and her humour. Lizzie, had she gone as governess to Thornton Hall, would not have moped around after the rather unpleasant Mr Rochester – no, indeed! She would have been annoyed at his behaviour, disgusted by his morals (or lack thereof), and would have set him straight on points of etiquette towards governesses and wards. Fortunately, Darcy is not as unpleasant as Rochester and, as well as the major benefit of not having a mad wife locked in the attic, is considerably better-looking.

I’m jesting a little, but there is a point – an independent-minded, strong heroine without her own fortune who is willing to turn down a man with as much material wealth as Darcy is a rarity in nineteenth century fiction. The position of ‘gentlewomen’ was such that, unless they controlled a fortune of their own, their welfare was entirely dependent on their male relatives – fathers, brothers, husbands. It’s hard for us to imagine what that must have been like. We get upset today when we hear of forced marriages, and even arranged marriages are anathema to many of us. But Lizzie and women of her era were expected to accept any offer that came with enough gold attached – you only have to look at Mrs Bennet’s reaction to Lizzie’s refusal of Mr Collins to get a feel for the pressure that girls were put under.

the definitive Lizzie
The definitive Lizzie

OK, this is fiction, and it all works out in the end…but there are other characters in Austen’s work that show the misery of the genteel poverty that many women were forced to live in through lack of a good marriage – Miss Bates in Emma, for instance. This is the future that may well have loomed for Lizzie if she failed to ‘secure’ a husband. How brave, then, to refuse Darcy! And for good reasons – not because she had fallen in love with some disreputable rascal but because she felt his proud manners and lack of concern for the feelings of others made him truly unlikeable.

But does she then boast of her conquest? Or mope over a missed opportunity? No! She keeps her feelings to herself and turns her strength and humour towards cheering up her beloved but blighted-in-love sister Jane, helping her mother and father get through the unfortunate Lydia incident and generally being the rock of the family. And, instead of resenting Darcy for having been proved right about her family, she is open and honest enough to reflect on his words and actions and to discern the goodness of character that hides behind his forbidding exterior. And a word of praise for Darcy here too – many a young man would have bitterly resented Lizzie’s refusal, but Darcy too reflects and comes to see the justice in her harsh words to him.

“She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both: by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgement, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.”

Lindsay Duncan
Lindsay Duncan

All of this is a long preamble to explain why, although I love Lindsay Duncan nearly as much as I love Lizzie, her interpretation of Lizzie didn’t work for me in this audio-disc set. She has a lovely speaking voice and is one of my favourite actresses, but somehow she makes Lizzie sound hard and rather unladylike in this – I could imagine this Lizzie turning into a middle-aged scold. When she spoke the line about Lizzie dating her love for Darcy from ‘my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley’ it didn’t sound like the self-mocking joke that it is in the book. When she gently mocks Darcy at the end, it doesn’t sound gentle and I could imagine them in a few years as one of those harridan-wife/hen-pecked-husband couples that Dickens would have enjoyed so much. Somehow the humour of Austen’s writing and the fundamental and crucial happiness of Lizzie’s nature didn’t shine through. In fact, I felt that, when speaking the dialogue, most of the girls sounded far too old and a bit fishwifely (especially poor Charlotte), whereas in the non-dialogue passages, when using her natural speaking voice, Duncan’s tone is perfect for the book.

So overall I thought this was a very good reading that would probably work well for someone coming fresh to the book with no preconceived ideas, but it just didn’t quite hit the mark for me. 5 stars for the book, of course, but only 4 for the reading.

"You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."
The perfect ending…

NB This audio-disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Sherlock Holmes: Further Collection by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – BBC Audio

Masters at work…

pipepipe pipe pipe pipe

 

sherlock holmes further collection

Master actor, Carleton Hobbs, plays master detective, Sherlock Homes, created by master storyteller, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Bliss!

This collection of twelve short stories, adapted into half-hour radio plays and recorded in the 1950s and 60s, captures the true spirit of the Sherlock Holmes tales. Unlike many dramatisations over the years, these stick rigidly to the original tales and are the better for it. Carleton Hobbs is a superbly sardonic Holmes and is ably assisted by the excellent Norman Shelley, playing a bluff and genial Watson. The two work seamlessly together and are supported by a cast of fine actors and actresses, often reappearing as different characters.

Seven of these stories are from the final section of the Holmes’ collection, The Casebook. Written at a time when Conan Doyle had lost his enthusiasm for Holmes, but couldn’t resist the enormous fees he was being offered for more episodes, these are often considered weaker than the earlier works – but in the hands of Hobbs, Shelley et al they reveal themselves to be little masterpieces. The other five episodes are randomly selected from across the whole collected works. Watch out for A Case of Identity – the performance of the actress playing our put-upon heroine, Mary Sutherland, is a little gem. Unfortunately, no cast lists are provided in this collection so I had no idea who she was while listening, but a fellow reviewer later informed me she is none other than Ysanne Churchman, perhaps better known as Grace Archer!

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his moustache
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his pet moustache

A brief introduction to each story is provided by Nick Utechin, a former editor of The Sherlock Holmes Journal. His enthusiasm for the stories shines through as he sets the scene for the episode to come.

There is a warning on the box that the sound quality is variable, particularly on the last two discs. The Cardboard Box and The Naval Treaty do suffer quite a bit from quality issues but not badly enough to spoil the enjoyment they provide. Otherwise the quality is remarkably good considering the age of the recordings. The box also tells us that 4 of the stories were missing from the BBC archives and were provided by a Holmes enthusiast – the box doesn’t specify but I’m guessing these are the four with the poorer sound quality on the last two discs. A measure of quality loss is a small price to pay for the recovery of these lost little treasures.

The test of an audio-CD for me is will I listen to it more than once. For this collection, the answer is a resounding yes. Highly recommended.

Carleton Hobbs and Norman Shelley
Carleton Hobbs and Norman Shelley

The stories are: The Copper Beeches, Thor Bridge, The Three Garridebs,
The Sussex Vampire, The Three Gables, The Retired Colourman,
The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Crooked Man, The Cardboard Box,
A Case of Identity, The Naval Treaty
and The Noble Bachelor.

NB This disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK. These are also available as an Audible download.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle read by Derek Jacobi

the adventures of sherlock holmesThe definitive reading…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As a huge fan of Holmes and Watson, it’s always a great pleasure to me to try out a new version of the stories. In this set, Derek Jacobi gives such wonderful readings that I think this will become the definitive audio version. These twelve unabridged stories give over 11 hours of enormous listening pleasure. The Adventures were the earliest Holmes short stories, of course, written when Conan Doyle was still enthusiastic for the character he later tried to kill off. Some of the best are here: The Red-Headed League, The Five Orange Pips, The Speckled Band.

If you are already a Holmesian, Jacobi’s readings will refresh the stories for you. Without in any way acting them out, he manages to subtly alter his voice and accent for each character thus bringing them individually to life. His Watson is as bluff and genial as we imagine, Holmes is quick and incisive and the rest of the huge cast of these stories are given individual characters as much by the reading as by Conan Doyle’s words.

Derek Jacobi
Derek Jacobi

If you have never read the stories and this is your first experience, I envy you! This combination of the master storyteller and the wonderful narration is a joy. Excitement, humour, horror and fear all await you…Highly recommended.

NB This disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK. It is available as either a disc set or an Audible download in the UK, but appears to be available only as an Audible download in the US.

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie read by Joan Hickson

Excellent reading of a classic mystery novel…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the moving fingerThis is my top favourite of all of Agatha Christie’s stories, and this reading by the marvellous Joan Hickson is pretty much perfect.

Although this is a Miss Marple tale, she doesn’t in fact appear until the last quarter of the book. The story is told in the first person by injured airman Jerry Burton who, accompanied by his sister Joanna, has moved to Lymstock to recuperate in the peace and quiet of village life. But there’s no such thing as peace in a Christie village. Spiteful gossip, anonymous letters, jealousy, resentment and murder – not quite what the doctor ordered. However, as always with Christie, there’s plenty of humour, likeable lead characters and a little bit of romance. And when the vicar’s wife finally calls in Miss Marple to act as an ‘expert in wickedness’, we know she’ll dig the truth out from under the pile of red herrings that Christie has carefully strewn in our path.

joan hickson

Listening to Joan Hickson is like being read to by a favourite grandmother. This is a straight reading – she doesn’t ‘act’ the various parts, but her tone is full of expression and her rather old-fashioned accent is perfect for the period of the novel. Sometimes when listening to an audio book I find my attention wandering a bit – but not with this one. Ms Hickson sucked me in (despite the fact that I know the book so well) and held my attention throughout. She brings out the lightness and humour that make Christie’s mysteries such a pleasure and her obvious affection for the book is contagious.

An excellent reading of one of the very best of classic mystery novels. I downloaded it from Audible but it’s also available on disc, with a running time of 5hrs 39mins. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link – the disc set doesn’t appear to be available in the US.