Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois

Read by Emily Rankin


Jennifer duBois showed her prodigious talent in her first novel A Partial History of Lost Causes (not published as an audiobook in the United Kingdom), making one think of Donna Tartt, with her mesmerising prose. And Cartwheel does have a tenuous connection with Tartt’s monumental masterpiece The Secret History, centring as it does on the murder of a university student.

Unashamedly inspired by the story of Amanda Knox (‘loosely’ inspired, duBois claims in a brief epilogue), the murder in question moves from Italy to Argentina, but the raw materials are all derived from Meredith Kercher, Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito, including the cartwheel of the title, which Amanda Knox was widely reported to have performed at the police station after Meredith’s death (although Knox denied this, saying ‘I never did a cartwheel. I did do the splits ... once’). The novel is not exploitative of the Knoxes and the Kerchers very real traumas and grief. The events in Perugia are simply the spur that pricked duBois’s unequalled talent for place, time, character, motivation, voice, consequences. Lily Hayes is not Amanda Knox and Katy Kellers is not Meredith Kercher. But all the unanswered questions of Perugia resurface in Cartwheel. And, in this exceptional book, many of the same doubts still linger.

Emily Rankin’s reading is seamless: not too tense or melodramatic: thoroughly engaged. And well worth a second or third listen. 

Haunting.

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© copyright 2017 AudioBooksReview. All rights reserved.


A Touch of Frost by R. D. Wingfield

BBC Radio 4 Full Cast Recording


Although best known now for the ITV series which ran from the early 1990s to the 2010s starring the late great David Jason, Detective Inspector Jack Frost was the  main protagonist in a gritty novel, rejected by publishers Macmillan in 1972, that R. D. Wingfield turned into a radio drama for BBC Radio 4.  Currently unavailable, Three Days of Frost saw the Inspector investigating child abuse and murder in a city named Denton – a provincial locale in the grimy nowhere of the north of England. In 1982, Frost reappeared in A Touch of Frost, and a legend was created.

Starring Derek Martin as Frost, with Haydn Wood, Stephen Thorne and Alan Dudley, A Touch of Frost is very much of its time in terms of attitudes to, for example, Women Police Constables (as they were referred to then), women in general, and teenagers and their parents. But the writing is first class, full of psychological tension, gritty reality and palpable despair. Despite working on cases involving a multiple rapist, a sleazy and corrupt club owner and the distraught parents of a runaway schoolgirl, Frost gets his man in the end. He even gets his paperwork in on time – just. But not, of course, without alienating his colleagues and superiors.

Running to only just under 90 minutes,  A Touch of Frost is a perfect way to while away a tedious car journey and it leaves you wishing that more of Wingfield’s work could be made available from the BBC Radio Archive.

Masterly.

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John Wyndham: BBC Radio Drama Collection

Six Full Cast Classic BBC Radio Dramatisations


Lightly dismissed as ‘middle-class catastrophes’ and ‘cosy disasters’, John Wyndham’s novels, written chiefly in the 1950s and 1960s, are still chillingly shocking and disturbing dramas that make the reader question what we, as humans, are doing to our planet and, crucially, whether we are alone in the vastness of those universes beyond our own.

The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos are probably read less now than at any time in their publishing history (although it is interesting to see that H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds is currently on one GCSE English Literature syllabus). Wyndham’s novels are, perhaps, ‘an easy read’, but much of their appeal is the way he turns upside down a tranquil world where the last thing on people’s minds is the thought that anything could prevent life from continuing as it had done since the turmoil and upheaval of the protracted end to the Second World War.

These BBC radio dramatisations are enjoyable first of all for the retelling of the novels, but then for the insight we are given into the radio writers, actors, producers and audiences at the time of the original broadcasts. The accents of the lead actors in The Day of the Triffids, for example – Gary Watson, who made his name in countless television dramas, and Barbara Shelley, famous for her Hammer Film roles (playing Bill Masen and Josella Playton)  –  sound to modern ears frightfully cut glass. Few actors today would even attempt such accents, but they are perfect for this post-war apocalypse (dramatised by BBC radio drama pioneer Giles Cooper and first broadcast in 1968). But that is part of the appeal of this collection.

A fascinating feature of The Day of the Triffids is that the transcriptions are episodes shortened for sale to foreign broadcasters, most of whom needed time for commercials. Anything deemed ‘inappropriate’ for a overseas audience was routinely cut. Twelve minutes of the deleted material is included here on the final CD of Triffids.

Of the other broadcasts, The Kraken Wakes, from 1998, is rather prescient in the light of the rise in sea levels through global warming. As the Thames breaks its banks and then submerges the Houses of Parliament, the listener is left realising that this modern-day Noah’s Flood is perhaps not so far-fetched.

Chocky (from 1998) is fascinating, as a schoolboy communicates with an entity from the future, a ‘girl’ (although there is only one gender on her planet) who is trying to impart the secrets of an energy source that will save the Earth from eventual destruction. Fables of Nikola Tesla’s inventions and conspiracy theories that the petro-chemical industry in the USA tried to interfere with work on the electric car all spring to mind as twelve-year-old Matthew is kidnapped, hypnotised and threatened when it is revealed that he may be the conduit for a new science emanating from a different world. The dramatisation is gripping and absorbing and John Constable’s script is excellent, building as it does to its inevitable denouement. John Tydeman produced a version for BBC Radio in 1967; it would be great to be able to hear that version too.

Perhaps the best of the six here is Dan Rebellato’s 2003 production of The Midwich Cuckoos (again, there was an earlier version by William Ingram). Bill Nighy and Sarah Parish are perfect as Richard and Janet, who are fortunate enough to stay away from the village of Midwich on the night when all the women, young and old, married and single, find themselves ‘with child’. Controversial for its time, and disturbing still today, issues of abortion, eugenics and egg-sharing are not far from the surface of this intriguing and disturbing mystery, displaying just how current Wyndham still is in the second decade of the twenty-first century.


Essential.  
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© copyright 2017 AudioBooksReview. All rights reserved.

The Cinderella Killer by Simon Brett

Dramatised by Jeremy Front:  BBC Radio 4 Full Cast Recording

If you have never treated yourself to one of Simon Brett’s Charles Paris creations you have missed out on a good many hours of sheer pleasure. Bill Nighy is perfect as actor Charles Paris, perhaps just beyond his best days, struggling with ex-wife Frances (Suzanne Burden) and the always-busy-with-more-famous-clients agent Maurice (Jon Glover).  ‘Hi-ho, the glamorous life!’ as Stephen Sondheim famously puts it in ‘A Little Night Music’.

Whether it is in the television or radio studio, but much more probably in provincial rep., Paris always seems to find himself in the middle of intrigue and murder, often mirroring the plot of the plays in which he manages to land a part.

In The Cinderella Killer, Paris tries his hand at provincial panto, having suffered as a department store Santa the nastiness of children grabbing his beard, poking his stomach and micturating as they sit on his lap. Surely, Maurice can find something more befitting his prodigious thespian talents and lengthy résumé.

But panto is better than nothing and Charles is soon glad-handing old mates and finding drinking buddies with new best friends. Meanwhile, things are going better with his ex and he is even making the late-night train back to town rather than staying in off-season lodgings with a dodgy seaside landlady. However,  murder and intrigue are never far away. Actors are an unforgiving lot, and what with stage-door groupies and an American TV actor with a questionable history, Kensington Gore (out of place at panto time, surely) soon turns into the real thing.

This is BBC radio at its best: two hours of drama, suspense and good old dry wit worth visiting and revisiting many a time and oft. Why Bill Nighy hasn’t been knighted is a mystery. Likewise, Simon Brett, a comic genius up there with Waugh and Wodehouse.

Unsurpassed. (Until the next one.)

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© copyright 2017 AudioBooksReview. All rights reserved.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Adapted and dramatised by Liz Lochhead, with Ellie Beaven, Rebecca Callard, Tom Hiddleston and David Suchet

There is no denying the lasting power of Bram Stoker’s tale of the evil that is Count Dracula. The Count’s plan to move from his homeland in Transylvania to England and to become a member of Victorian English aristocracy is familiar through film and television and displays, perhaps, the cultural gulf between Eastern Europe and Western Europe still evident today.

Like many literary classics, few people in the twenty-first century have the time and patience to read the original, preferring to digest others’ versions and adaptations. Appearing in print in 1897, Stoker’s prose is not the greatest writing of the time from the pen of an Irishman, but it is better than that of some more contemporary authors who write tales of the Un-dead (Stoker’s original title for the novel).

Noteworthy is the epistolary method of story-telling, using letters and diaries, which works exceptionally well given the story-line: Jonathan Harker is confined in the Count’s castle and, unable to send or receive letters, keeps a written account of his journey and of his time with the Count. The exchange of letters between the other characters, ships’ logs and newspaper clippings drive the story on and perhaps reveal more about the protagonists’ inner thoughts than might more conventional writing.

It also make Dracula perfect for radio, and this BBC World Service dramatisation, judiciously abridged and adapted for the medium, is a rare triumph and well worth two hours of anyone’s time. Stereo makes the whole thing come very much alive (if that isn’t too great an irony) and the performances are exemplary. David Suchet’s Dracula is spine-chilling, mixing aristocratic disdain with psychopathic superciliousness. Ellie Beaven (Mina) and Rebecca Callard (Lucy) provide just the right amount of flirtatiousness and suppressed eroticism, and Tom Hiddleston (Jonathan Harker) is perfect as the straight-laced and hugely naive country solicitor.

Whilst the lengthy original certainly repays perseverance, the BBC’s Dracula provides an intense and very palpable sense of menace in the figure of one of the first stalkers in literature and his merciless pursuit of victims to feed his insatiable appetites.

Superb.

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© copyright 2016 AudioBooksReview. All rights reserved.

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Agatha Christie, Close-Up

Four BBC Radio documentaries about the Queen of Crime

Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, was a curiously private person and, despite living until 1976, very few recordings of her discussing her work have survived: she was from a very different time indeed.

In this remarkable audiobook, the BBC has brought together four radio programmes about Christie the woman, the writer and the phenomenon. For she captivated and fascinated a loyal readership from the very first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which she published in 1920, right up to the present day, almost one hundred years later.

The characters she created, including Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, to name just two, and her stories and plays, are just as much in demand today as they ever were: still in print, but also on the small and silver screens, and still regularly in amateur and professional theatre companies in the provinces and in the West End. She really is a truly singular literary phenomenon.

Because so little exists of recordings of Christie, some of the material in these programmes is heard more than once. But that matters not a jot. Each programme tells a different part of her extraordinary story, with contributions from, amongst many others, Richard Attenborough, Allen Lane, Marghanita Laski, Cliff Michelmore, A. L. Rowse and Nigel Stock. The programmes range in date from 1955 (for the Light Programme) to 1975 and 1982, with a new contribution for Radio 4 Extra produced by Peter Reed in 2015/16, and will delight any Christie devotee, of which there are many all over the world.

A perfect Christmas gift for aficionados of Agatha Christie, one interesting feature to note is the changing voice of the BBC – or rather the changing accent of the BBC. Vanished now is received pronunciation, or RP –  the educated voice of the privileged Home counties. How differently people speak today compared with the 1950s, 60s and 70s: even actors, broadcasters and other professionals. Does no one speak that way any more? And what, one wonders, will things be like in another fifty years?

Indispensable.

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© copyright 2016 AudioBooksReview. All rights reserved.

The Girls by Emma Cline

read by Cady McClain

The Girls has achieved a startling and almost unprecedented amount of attention in all media for its author Emma Cline – as well as an enviable advance, which, judging from the print and radio reviews that have so far appeared, should pay royally for the publishers’ three-book deal. It also was pirated online on publication day, which might be a further measure of its notoriety and success.

With the Manson murders now almost fifty years ago (1969) and the recent release on parole of Leslie Van Houten, one of the many convicted of complicity in the senseless and brutal Tate–La Bianca murders, much can only be expected in the next few years to recount the goings-on of the Family and Charlie Manson at Spahn Ranch, in the Hollywood Hills. Fire consumed the ranch fairly soon after the Manson trials, which might otherwise have been turned into a tourist destination. Many of those convicted are dead. Manson enjoys a cultish following, complete with website selling t shirts, music and ‘memorabilia’. The late Vincent Bugliosi’s account of his part in bringing Manson to justice remains a fascinating record of the LAPD at the time and of the sixties judicial system in the USA. It is a masterpiece in its own right and repays a close listen in the outstanding audiobook version read by Scott Brick.

So the only question remains might be why it took so long to turn the stories, especially the stories of Manson’s loyal ‘girls’ into fiction. There have been a number of mainly ghost-written accounts of life at Spahn by a few of the people who hung out there, including some of those convicted and imprisoned. But The Girls is arguably the first fully to exploit the possibilities. 

And although the book makes for a compelling listen, I can’t quite see what all the fuss is about. As YA fiction it ticks all those stereotypical boxes. But haven’t others done this before? And better? Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire, for example, is more convincing, scarier, more visceral. Alison Umminger’s My Favourite Manson Girl is, I think, pithier and better written.

I hesitate over the creation of ‘Russell’ – the Charles Manson character. ‘Russell’ lacks the common quasi-friendly feeling of a Charles or a Charlie (think Chaplin and his girls). And so much is significant in the hint that Charlie was Christ, the son of God, of Man – Man’s Son – that ‘Russell’ just doesn’t even slightly hint at. I know this is fiction. But the cult idea and Russell’s musical ambitions, his way of making the most of anyone with the slightest influence or connection with fame, stardom and its inherent wealth are well exploited in The Girls. But, despite his depiction as a guitarist and his deep yearning for a recording contract, where is the music in the book? Where are the racial elements, the Bible, the obsession with others musicians’ lyrics? What is missing is some kind of helter skelter.

Cline’s prose has been praised. And there are fine passages. The fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd, with all her adolescent angst and desperation is good. But the middle-aged Evie is no monster: her links with the murders are third hand, her love for Susanna unconvincing.

What we were led to believe was an American masterpiece is oddly unsatisfying and ultimately a disappointment. There is a fine book waiting to burst out from the raw bones of this novel, but I believe a good editor should have told the author to go back and make more of some great material. It could have been a work that would have stayed the test of time. As it is, I fear it will be easily eclipsed by all those other authors looking to build on the allure of a cult and the ghastly reverberations of a society that produced Charles Manson’s Family.

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© copyright 2016 AudioBooksReview. All rights reserved.
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A Sealed Fate by Lisa Gordon

read by Lisa Gordon
Lisa Gordon’s novel is a fine example of the storyteller’s art. She creates characters, situations and atmosphere that draw you in and make you hungry to discover exactly where the story is going. Ranging from South Africa to London, most of the action takes place in Dubai, and the combination of wealth, glitzy nightspots, drugs and unusual deaths keep you guessing from start to finish.
Valda is a singer, escaping from a long-term relationship that has just ended - by taking a well-paid gig at a nightclub and restaurant in Dubai. Her feisty self-confidence and instinctive independence make her highly suspicious of the nightclub’s owner, the fabulously wealthy Sheikh Abdullah. He asks her  first to do some ‘shopping’ for him: something for ‘sciatica relief’ from an out of the way health store in Cape Town. After a nerve-wracking initial journey to locate the shop, and a preliminary look around, she finally screws up the courage to buy the ‘medicine’, which turns out to be white powder that she guesses must be cocaine.
Ever resourceful, she disguises the stuff as a gift, complete with ribbon, and finds some dog repellent to throw the drug- sniffing canines off the scent on her return flight to Dubai. The Sheikh shows his gratitude by installing Valda in one of his swish apartments and giving her an extravagant sports car. Meanwhile, someone keeps sending her clippings from old newspapers describing suspicious deaths and disappearances of ex-pats in Dubai.
Helped by a new friend Lara, Valda still has a few more crises to weather before she can escape the increasingly dangerous world she now inhabits. And there are many twists and unexpected turns before the startling, unanticipated denouement.
Lisa Gordon’s South African accent is perfect for this tale - a refreshing change from British or American English - and she reads like a real pro (though her British regional accents might do with some coaching). Notwithstanding, A Sealed Fate is a fast and furious and intriguing ride. 
Highly recommended.
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© copyright 2016 AudioBooksReview. All rights reserved.

Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo

read by Patrick Dickson

Apart from the plays of Ibsen and Chekov, which for some reason have always been part of the so-called canon of English literature, readers whose first language is English are not too keen on translations from other tongues. And this is rarely because we can easily read them in the original. Much Greek and Latin writing is unfamiliar to modern readers, let alone the Decameron or the Divine Comedy. Crime and Punishment, Dr Zhivago, Don Quixote and a few others (the Bible, for example) might be exceptions, but English versions of writers in other languages are, comparatively speaking, few and often centuries between.

Victor Hugo’s novels and short stories are little known except in different media, such as the phenomenally successful ‘Les Mis’ or the stage, feature film and cartoon versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. So it is a treat to hear Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea, a tale that has been filmed many times but deserves to be read or listened to in this exceptional audiobook by Patrick Dickson.

Dickson has used the nineteenth-century translation by William Moy Thomas, which shows its age on the printed page but is cleverly brought up to date in Dickson’s abridgement. He has cut the digressions and kept the grist, telling this sad tale of greed, courage, longing and disappointment splendidly.

Set in the small French-speaking community of the Isle of Guernsey, the story concentrates on the shipping business in the years after the Napoleonic Wars. A sailor by the name of Gilliatt convinces himself that one of the village girls, Deruchette, the niece of Mess Lethierry, a local ship owner, is interested in him romantically. Gilliatt says nothing, but keeps his eye on the girl and woos her with his plaintive bagpipes. When Lethierry’s ship is wrecked on a reef, Deruchette unexpectedly promises to marry whoever can salvage the ship’s steam engine, a piece of state of the art technology signifying the encroaching industrial age. Gilliatt volunteers to undertake the Herculean task of salvage, and the tale describes in detail the trials and tribulations of the mission. He is driven by love, so overcomes all odds, including a famous encounter with a giant octopus, one of the most famous parts of the story:

‘Gilliatt recoiled; but he had scarcely power to move! He was, as it were, nailed to the place. With his left hand, which was disengaged, he seized his knife, which he still held between his teeth, and with that hand, holding the knife, he supported himself against the rocks, while he made a desperate effort to withdraw his arm. He succeeded only in disturbing his persecutor, which wound itself still tighter. It was supple as leather, strong as steel, cold as night.

A second form, sharp, elongated, and narrow, issued out of the crevice, like a tongue out of monstrous jaws. It seemed to lick his naked body. Then suddenly stretching out, it became longer and thinner, as it crept over his skin, and wound itself round him. At the same time a terrible sense of pain, comparable to nothing he had ever known, compelled all his muscles to contract. He felt upon his skin a number of flat rounded points. It seemed as if innumerable suckers had fastened to his flesh and were about to drink his blood.’

An absorbing tale, full of atmosphere and suspense, beautifully read, with a great range of characters and voices, this would make a long car journey for a family audience enjoyable and rewarding.

The sound effects (seagulls) are effective and the music (accordion, bagpipes and cello) is excellent, but by the end of the story you feel they might, perhaps, have been used slightly less often. 

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© copyright 2016 AudioBooksReview. All rights reserved.

Aire By Lena Goldfinch

read by Tara Millette