Dickens at Christmas! A Christmas Carol: An Audible Original Drama

The Spirits of Christmas

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It’s been my habit for many years to revisit Dickens’ best known Christmas story over the festive season each year. Sometimes this will be for a re-read but in recent years I’ve been enjoying some of the many adaptations of it in film or on audio. This year I went for Audible’s full cast dramatisation, having enjoyed several of their other productions. I knew going in that it had some great competition to beat – Patrick Stewart’s abridged narration has been my go-to for years, and Tom Baker’s unabridged version is up there at the same standard. But this one has Derek Jacobi as Dickens/the narrator, and anyone who’s read my reviews will know I am a huge fan of his audio narrations.

This follows the pattern Audible have been using for their Original Drama series of being part narration, part dramatisation. I love this approach. The dramatised elements make it a livelier listen which holds my attention better than even excellent straight narrations sometimes do, while the narrated bits allow for the depth and background that sometimes gets lost when a book is reduced to only dialogue in a full-scale dramatisation. It allows the listener to hear the author’s voice come through in the writing which, especially when the author is as brilliant as Dickens, is an essential.

Derek Jacobi

Jacobi is undoubtedly the star of this production, having by far the biggest role as narrator of the linking pieces between the relatively sparse dialogue. He is excellent, of course, but not having the chance to create any of the wonderfully larger-than-life characters meant I felt his talents were a tiny bit wasted. Personally I’d have preferred him to be performing Scrooge, especially since I felt Kenneth Cranham’s performance in the role was a little too understated for my taste. However that’s purely a subjective opinion – I love the big, booming, overblown performances of Stewart and Baker, but Cranham’s quieter interpretation may work better for many people. The division between narrator and main character in this dramatisation leaves Cranham with a far smaller role than either Stewart or Baker, since they have the fun of creating their own dramatic interpretation of the non-dialogue parts too.

Kenneth Cranham

All the other performances are good, with no weak links in the chain. The standouts for me are Jamie Glover as Bob Cratchit and Miriam Margolyes as The Ghost of Christmas Present. Glover’s Cratchit is less down-trodden than he is sometimes portrayed, somehow – I can’t quite put my finger on why, exactly, since as far as my not always reliable memory could confirm there were no changes to the words Dickens gives him. But Glover’s performance conveyed him to me as a strong, good-humoured man, limited by his poverty, but not broken by his miserly, bullying boss or the circumstances of his life. I enjoyed him very much.

Jamie Glover

Margolyes is an old hand at Dickens, not just appearing in many of the BBC serialisations over the decades, but also having performed in her one-woman show, Dickens’ Women, for some years (a wonderful performance that’s also available on audio and which I highly recommend). So she ‘gets’ him, and is not afraid to exploit the huge emotional range he allows to those who perform his work. For me, a successful Dickens performance is when I can imagine it might be done as he himself would have delivered it at one of his famous readings, and Margolyes is one of those actors who always achieves this. She frightened me and moved me – when she talked of Ignorance and Want I believed utterly that she meant every terrible, warning word, sadly as relevant today as when Dickens wrote them.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!”

Miriam Margolyes

If the adaptation by RD Carstairs is abridged at all, it must be very lightly. I noticed nothing missing and the running time is similar to an unabridged narration. It may be that there are minor changes to the order of some parts – there’s quite a lot of quick cutting between Jacobi’s narration and Scrooge’s inner thoughts as delivered by Cranham that worked very effectively to bring the two parts together. But there are certainly no significant changes to either tone or meaning and all the words, I think, are Dickens’ own.

So, in conclusion, a hugely enjoyable dramatisation which, while it might not quite have replaced Stewart or Baker as my favourite audio version, is certainly up there in contention with them. Highly recommended.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Merry Christmas, Everybody! 🎅

Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

“If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!”

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In his youthful hubris, science student Victor Frankenstein decides to create a living being from stolen organic material, part human, part animal. When he succeeds, he is horrified at the hideousness of the creature he has brought into the world, and flees, leaving his monstrous creation to fend for himself. Hiding himself away, the monster learns by observation what it is to be human, to talk, to laugh, to love – and he wants these things for himself. But humans cannot accept someone so hideously different, so he is spurned and reviled everywhere he goes until eventually, in his bitterness and sorrow, his thoughts turn to revenge against the man who so cruelly created and then abandoned him…

Frankenstein’s monster has become such a standard part of our culture, both as a scary stalwart of the horror movie and as a warning reference against mad science, that it’s easy to forget just how powerful and moving the original is. Published when Shelley was only twenty, it’s remarkably mature in its themes, even if the writing occasionally shows her youthfulness in a kind of teenage hyperbole, especially when the subjects of romance or grief are approached.

It is, of course, the ultimate warning against science for science’s sake, untempered by ethical or safety considerations, and that theme seems to become ever more relevant with each passing year. In a world where designer babies are becoming the norm, with scientists gaily manipulating genes confident in their own power to control nature; where others talk blithely of geo-engineering as if they couldn’t accidentally destroy the world in their attempts to save it; where yet others are searching for new weapons, presumably on the grounds that nukes aren’t destructive enough, I’d like to make a law where every scientist should be locked in a room for one week every year and be forced to read and contemplate this book, and maybe write an essay on it for public consumption before being considered for funding.

Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1994

But there’s also the human theme of perception and rejection of difference – the inability of man to look past the outer crust and recognise the similarities of the soul beneath. Shelley’s monster is ultimately the most human character in the book, and in the book we can recognise this in a way we can’t in the movies – because although we are told of the monster’s hideousness, we can’t see it with our eyes. So when he tells Frankenstein the story of how cruelly and vilely he has been treated by humanity, we feel utter sympathy for his plight, though surely we must wonder in our secret hearts if we would be able to listen so patiently and empathetically if face to face with this grotesque mockery of the human form. And Shelley tests us – this monster doesn’t remain good: the years of rejection and loneliness distort his soul until it is as deformed and hideous as his body. Can we still sympathise then?

Boris Karloff and Edward Van Sloan in Frankenstein 1931

Shelley doesn’t labour the theme of man usurping God’s role as creator, though it’s there. At the time of writing, when Christianity would have been universal amongst her readership, there would have been no need – the idea of man aspiring to these heights would have been recognised as blasphemous without it having to be spelled out. But Frankenstein’s punishment is harsh indeed – how different the book would have been had the monster decided to seek a direct revenge against his creator. Instead, Frankenstein is to be slowly tortured by seeing those he loves perish horribly, one by one. In the end, creator and creation are each responsible for the pain and suffering of the other, each knowing with a growing certainty that their fates are inextricably linked.

“Hateful day when I received life!” I exclaimed in agony. “Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.”

The story is told by three narrators – Robert Walton, who meets Frankenstein towards the end of his journey, in the form of letters to his sister; Frankenstein himself, as he relates his tale to Walton; and the monster’s own story, as told by him to Frankenstein. The three voices are very different, and for me the most powerful part of the book by miles is the monster’s story. Walton never comes to life for me, but it doesn’t matter since he’s little more than a story-telling device. Frankenstein’s portion can become repetitive, especially when he eternally laments his woes (however justified his lamentations may be), but it is filled also with some wonderful descriptions of the natural world as he travels far and wide across Europe and then into the Arctic in his attempts first to flee his creation and then later to track him down. It’s in Frankenstein’s story (and Walton’s, to some degree) that the “romantic” writing most comes through – the monster’s story and other parts of Frankenstein’s give the book its Gothic elements. There are weaknesses – an unevenness in the quality of the writing at points, a tendency towards repetition, a bit too much wailing and gnashing of teeth – but this is balanced by the power and emotion of other parts of the story. The monster’s ability to master language and writing so thoroughly defies strict credulity, but works within the context of the fable nature of the tale, and undoubtedly allows him to tell his experiences with moving eloquence and great insight.

Mary Shelley

This is another of those classics which I had forgotten just how good it is. The writing may be patchy in parts but overall it’s wonderful, and the themes are timeless and beautifully presented. I listened to it this time round, with Derek Jacobi narrating. His performance is fantastic – I’ve always loved his acting, but actually I think he narrates even better than he acts. The power of his delivery of the monster’s story in particular moved me to tears and anger, and even literally raised the hairs on the back of my neck at points. And he got me through Frankenstein’s sometimes overblown self-pity more easily than I think reading it would have done. A marvellous performance of one of the most influential books ever written – really, what could be better than that?

Book 15 of 90

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

TBR Thursday 135…

Episode 135…

My TBR has dropped massively this week – down 2 to 212! I’ll be back under that 200 mark before you know it! Unless I acquire any of the zillions of books on my wishlist(s), of course. And we all know about my willpower issues…

Still, could be worse!

So, while I contemplate the great tragedy that I will never know the joy of chewing my own ear (hmm… unless I cut it off first, of course… hmm…), here are a few that should reach the top of the heap soon…

Factual

Courtesy of Princeton University Press. I have this theory that Princeton have a spreadsheet entitled ‘Reviewers who Can’t Resist all the Weird Books Nobody Ever Requests for Review’ and that the single entry on it reads ‘FictionFan’. Why else would they keep offering me books like this?

The Blurb says: In 1953, a man was found dead from cyanide poisoning near the Philadelphia airport with a picture of a Nazi aircraft in his wallet. Taped to his abdomen was an enciphered message. In 1912, a book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich came into possession of an illuminated cipher manuscript once belonging to Emperor Rudolf II, who was obsessed with alchemy and the occult. Wartime codebreakers tried–and failed–to unlock the book’s secrets, and it remains an enigma to this day. In this lively and entertaining book, Craig Bauer examines these and other vexing ciphers yet to be cracked. Some may reveal the identity of a spy or serial killer, provide the location of buried treasure, or expose a secret society–while others may be elaborate hoaxes.

Unsolved! begins by explaining the basics of cryptology, and then explores the history behind an array of unsolved ciphers. It looks at ancient ciphers, ciphers created by artists and composers, ciphers left by killers and victims, Cold War ciphers, and many others. Some are infamous, like the ciphers in the Zodiac letters, while others were created purely as intellectual challenges by figures such as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman. Bauer lays out the evidence surrounding each cipher, describes the efforts of geniuses and eccentrics–in some cases both–to decipher it, and invites readers to try their hand at puzzles that have stymied so many others.

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Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. I have loved Jane Robins’ true crime books (here and here), so am hugely excited to read her first venture into fiction…

The Blurb says: Felix and Tilda seem like the perfect couple: young and in love, a financier and a beautiful up-and-coming starlet. But behind their flawless facade, not everything is as it seems.

Callie, Tilda’s unassuming twin, has watched her sister visibly shrink under Felix’s domineering love. She has looked on silently as Tilda stopped working, nearly stopped eating, and turned into a neat freak, with mugs wrapped in Saran Wrap and suspicious syringes hidden in the bathroom trash. She knows about Felix’s uncontrollable rages, and has seen the bruises on the white skin of her sister’s arms.

Worried about the psychological hold that Felix seems to have over Tilda, Callie joins an Internet support group for victims of abuse and their friends. However, things spiral out of control and she starts to doubt her own judgment when one of her new acquaintances is killed by an abusive man. And then suddenly Felix dies–or was he murdered?

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Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. I’m possibly even more hugely excited about this one! The second novel from Jane Harper following her brilliant debut, The Dry. Will it be the tricky second novel? Or will I have to start doing meditation classes to get my excitement under control?

The Blurb says: Five women reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking along the muddy track. Only four come out the other side.

The hike through the rugged landscape is meant to take the office colleagues out of their air-conditioned comfort zone and teach resilience and team building. At least that is what the corporate retreat website advertises.

Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a particularly keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing bushwalker. Alice Russell is the whistleblower in his latest case – and Alice knew secrets. About the company she worked for and the people she worked with.

Far from the hike encouraging teamwork, the women tell Falk a tale of suspicion, violence and disintegrating trust. And as he delves into the disappearance, it seems some dangers may run far deeper than anyone knew.

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Horror/sci-fi/fiction on audio

A re-read for my Classics Club challenge. I decided to go with the audio version because it’s the wonderful Derek Jacobi doing the reading, possibly my favourite narrator of all time! I think his voice will suit this story perfectly…

The Blurb says: Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only eighteen. At once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature’s hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

Frankenstein, an instant bestseller and an important ancestor of both the horror and science fiction genres, not only tells a terrifying story, but also raises profound, disturbing questions about the very nature of life and the place of humankind within the cosmos: What does it mean to be human? What responsibilities do we have to each other? How far can we go in tampering with Nature? In our age, filled with news of organ donation, genetic engineering, and bio-terrorism, these questions are more relevant than ever.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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

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

the adventures of sherlock holmesThe definitive reading…

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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 Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle read by Derek Jacobi

SHBaskervilles.inddThe dog that DID bark in the night…

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AudioGo production – running time 6hrs 25 mins

While I love the Sherlock Holmes short stories, I have always felt the long stories were greatly superior. Conan Doyle took the opportunity afforded by greater space and time to devise plots that allowed him to show his masterly skill for telling thrilling adventure stories to their best advantage.

Derek Jacobi
Derek Jacobi
And for me, The Hound of the Baskervilles is the best of them all. It has everything: a dramatic setting, a family curse, an evil villain and best of all the terrifying and possibly supernatural hound itself. This is also the story that concentrates most on Watson, the human side of the partnership. We see his doggedness, his loyalty, his courage and, in this story more than the others, we also see his intelligence. It’s just possible that I prefer Watson to Holmes…

Derek Jacobi’s reading is superb on this AudioGo production. I can’t imagine anyone ever doing it better. His Watson is bluff and warm-hearted, his Holmes is incisive and each of the other characters is given a distinctive voice. Without spoiling the plot (because I so hope there are some lucky people out there who’re coming to this story for the first time), when the book reaches its terrifying climax, the sheer horror that Jacobi gets into his voice deserves any acting accolades available. Spine-shivering, hair-raising, marvellous stuff – very highly recommended.

Hound drawing

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link