This was my first exposure to Wilkie Collins, after someone recommended "The Woman in White" as a good followup to going through most of Dickens on audiobook. I can now thoroughly second the recommendation. Marion Halcombe and Count Fosco are two of the most memorable characters I've encountered in English fiction, and Collins's mastery of plotting and suspense leaves most contemporary authors in the dust (I've just given up on Brad Meltzer's chaotic "The Inner Circle", but that's another story).
The use of dual male and female narrators takes some getting used to but in the end works well. The rationale is that the entire novel is constructed as a sequence of "narratives" by various characters of both sexes. Simon Prebble is uniformly excellent; Josephine Bailey starts out a bit woodenly but soon picks up in intensity, and does a fine job voicing range of characters from different classes and regions. Count Fosco's accent wavers more than a little between (and even within) narrators, but he's such an outlandish piece of work that this is hardly a distraction.
Yes, if only to re-read the opening chapters with full knowledge of where the characters they introduce were going to end up. Resendez starts off with plenty of history, of the Spanish colonization project, the backgrounds of the principal figures in the narrative and their relations with the Spanish court and colonial administrators, and it's a lot to assimilate. But it's absolutely critical background for understanding what Cabeza de Vaca's shipmates thought their mission was in the New World, and why they made the mistakes they did.
Davis is one of the best narrators of nonfiction I've heard on audiobook. His pacing and intonation are consistently spot on. His pronunciation of Spanish is also of near-native quality. (This does mean that an English speaker may not always catch a name on first hearing; but that's a small price to pay for a narrator capable of being so faithful to his material.)
Cabeza de Vaca's narrative is many things: an epic story of survival, a harrowing tragedy, a lesson in the folly and hubris of the Spanish conquistadores, a rare source of evidence about the lives of numerous Native peoples just before their lives were changed forever by European expansion. If you've read his own telling of it, you know that there are, for the modern reader, lots of puzzling gaps and unanswered questions. Resendez's project is to fill in those gaps and answer as many of the questions as he can while retelling chronologically the story of the Narváez expedition. He's good on the Native American background and especially good on the Spanish background—at moments you feel like you're actually present at the court of Charles I or dockside in Seville watching the colonists' ships being loaded. The result is a story that's gripping enough for someone encountering it for the first time, but informative enough to satisfy someone who knows it well.
(For what it's worth, the publisher's summary is a bit inaccurate. Only four men survived until the end of the tale, but many of the original 300 made it as far as Texas. The four survivors weren't originally trying to get to the Pacific—as we learn, that was a shift in destination made very late in their story.)
Somehow, "The Girls of Slender Means" manages to be simultaneously: an often hilariously funny social satire (particularly of the publishing business); an amazingly realistic account of the deprivations of post-war England; and a deeply moving character study of the conflict between innocence and soulless evil. In some ways it's a "Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" with twenty-somethings instead of younger girls, and it's a good bet that if you have read and enjoyed that book you'll like this one. Nadia May is as always a fine interpreter of Muriel Spark, with fine pacing and a deft hand at conveying Spark's dry irony.
The best thing about "Tooth and Nail" is the chance to see London through John Rebus's bemused eyes. Rankin has fun skewering some of the sillier and more self-inflated aspects of the English capital circa 1990—and London attitudes toward their Scottish neighbors—but gives due props to the city's vitality and variety as well. The next best thing is Rebus's London colleague, Inspector George Flight, and his interaction with Rebus; but then in the early Rankin mysteries I've read so far Rebus's collegial relations are a lot more engaging than his love interests. As for the plot... well, I can't say I found the psychology of the serial killer here very convincing, and the killer's internal monologues are pretty excruciating to have to listen to, but Rankin does a nice job of throwing red herrings in the reader's path to figuring out who it is.
Narrator Samuel Gillies is English and does a fine job with the London characters, but his voicing is too plummy for my taste and he has to work too hard at Rebus's Edinburgh accent to make him entirely convincing.
If you've read Coe's previous fiction, you know that the novel preceding this one, "The Rain Before It Falls", was a departure from all his earlier work in having very little humor; instead it was an elegaic story about memory, family secrets, and how we piece together other people's stories. "The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim" shares all of those themes but restores the comedy: plenty of moments in this novel are demonically funny, though usually more in the ironic mode than laugh-out-loud. (Although Sim's romance with his satnav, aka GPS, is pretty hilarious.) Fans of Coe's earlier fiction should enjoy this one, and for new readers this is a good one to start with.
The narrator and main character, Maxwell Sim, starts off as such a sad sack—or schlemiel, or sorry sod, depending on your idiom—that he's a bit painful to travel along with at first. But Colin Buchanan's narrative voice is energetic enough that Sim never becomes boring. (Buchanan, who is Scottish, does a good job with the variety of northern, Midland, Southern English and Australian accents of the novel's main characters.)
The novel has a somewhat unexpected happy ending--well, mostly happy--and a puzzlingly self-indulgent little epilogue that Coe should probably have left off and that knocks the fifth star off my rating.
Like probably a lot of people, I know Wallace Shawn best from his roles in "My Dinner with André" and "Princess Bride". I've never seen one of his plays, and although I suppose I must have read one or more of the essays that originally appeared in "The Nation" I don't remember them. That should have tipped me off that the essays are, in fact, pretty unmemorable. I was hoping for more wit and play of intellect, but Wallace Shawn is basically a semi-intellectual: he knows his way around the neighborhood of ideas but hasn't built many original ones. This is abundantly clear in the interview with a genuine intellectual, Noam Chomsky, that is included here, the best thing in the book I'd say: even if you loathe Chomsky's politics you have to concede his brilliance in marshalling evidence and putting together an argument. Shawn, in contrast, stays at the level of generalities in most of these pieces.
—Second, even if you're a huge fan of Shawn you might be better off with the printed version of the book. Unless you have excellent hearing, this is not an audiobook for the car or anyplace with much background noise: Shawn's dynamic range goes way up and down, and if you set a volume that won't hurt your ears during his forceful passages you're likely to miss half of a sentence when he drops back to near a whisper.
A confession: for many years, based on watching half of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" on TV once, I had the notion that Muriel Spark the sort of popular novelist who wouldn't interest me. Fifteen minutes into "Memento Mori" I knew I had been wrong, and by the time I had finished I had a new favorite novelist--or one on my short list at least.
The "publisher's summary" of the novel is misleading, making it sound like an Agatha Christie plot. In fact the "crime mystery" aspect of the book is a sort of red herring, as the real interest is the interplay among characters that is at once wickedly funny and, by the end of the novel, genuinely moving. You'll probably get a bit more out of the book if you're reasonably aware of the evolution of social class and manners in England from the turn of the 20th century to the late 1950s, as it helps to know which of Spark's characters are still living in the past and which have adapted to modernity, but it's really a universal novel and could just as well have been set in New York or Boston.
Nadia May's voice characterizations are pitch-perfect. My only quibble with the audio presentation is inconsistency in section/chapter breaks -- some of the pauses within chapters are unaccountably long and had me wondering a couple of times if my MP3 player had quit. Apart from that, an excellent performance.
Two groups of readers should avoid this book. If you're a devout Christian who is just plain offended by any treatment of Jesus that departs from worshipful orthodoxy, the title alone has warned you not to spend your money. Equally, if you're a nonbeliever who has never read the New Testament and isn't familiar with the past century's worth of research into the historic Jesus, chances are this novel will bore you, and you'll have no clue why Pullman sometimes sticks close to the Gospels and sometimes departs radically from them.
But Christians aware of the historical complexity of Christianity, and non-Christians who are nevertheless moved and fascinated by the words and story of Jesus, should enjoy grappling with Pullman's "what if" experiments in this novel. On one level, twin brothers "Jesus" and "Christ" simply stand for the familiar opposition between the "historic Jesus" and the Christ that emerged as disciples coalesced into the early church and then a great Church that ruled an empire. The title is intentionally misleading, however: the "good" Jesus is shown to have all-too-human failings (unconcern for his family, the anti-Gentile prejudice of his day), while "scoundrel" Christ develops a complexity of character that recalls Dostoevsky's tragic figures.
Pullman's well-known atheism doesn't prevent him from having a deep respect for much of the career and teachings of Jesus, and his modern-English rendering of the Sermon on the Mount is especially powerful. Even the "bad guys" in the novel (roughly, speaking, organized religion and the theology of the Gospel of John) are admitted to have been essential parts of Western culture. But he stumbles, to my mind, by making Jesus sound too much like Phillip Pullman toward the novel's end.
Pullman is a fine reader of his own writing, pacing well and giving convincing voice to both major and minor characters.
I enjoyed Frederick Davidson's reading of "Martin Chuzzlewit", so I was looking forward to his version of "David Copperfield". But the digital audio quality on my download was subpar. Even in the enhanced format it sounds a bit tinny, like a radio broadcast. The narration is perfectly comprehensible and one gets somewhat used to it after a while, but I still found it detracted from the listening experience.
"Barnaby Rudge" is possibly Dickens's least well-known novel among modern readers. Hollywood has ignored it: there's a 1915 silent film version, a 1960 BBC version, and that's it. There are reasons for this: the novel makes an awkward 5-year jump in the middle, sends major characters off-stage for hundreds of pages, and is in general more padded with extraneous material and long conversations than it needs to be. Even if you're a Dickens fan, you might prefer an abridged version as an audiobook.
But the full version has its rewards. Over time, characters who initially seemed flat and stereotyped take on true psychological depth. The best of them are among the best in Dickens--no one has created a better picture of genteel hypocrisy than Sir John Chester, for example. There are magnificent descriptions of 18th-century inns and an imaginative recreation of London after dark, pre-gaslight. And the historical portions, the depiction of Lord Gordon, the rioters, and the anarchy they unleash on London, are as compelling as the better-known counterparts in "Tale of Two Cities".
Whitfield's narration and voice characterization is excellent throughout, despite a couple of annoying idiosyncrasies (notably, the way he handles "Why" as an exclamation). Audio quality of the file is excellent (enhanced format).
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