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. 


© copyright 2016 AudioBooksReview. All rights reserved.

Aire By Lena Goldfinch

read by Tara Millette

Birthdays for the Dead by Stuart MacBride

read by Ian Hanmore

If you like your crime dramas Scottish, grim and dark, and full of unspeakable horrors, Birthdays for the Dead is as Scottish and shocking as you can get.

Detective Constable Ash Henderson is brutal, hard-nosed and very, very compromised. He owes money to sadistic gangsters, lives in condemned social housing and does not flinch in meting out his own kind of justice to get what he wants. Five years ago, his daughter, Rebecca, went missing, just before her thirteenth birthday. On the anniversary of her abduction, a home-made card arrives with a Polaroid picture of the girl, strapped to a chair, gagged and terrified. Every year there comes another card, each one worse than the last.

This serial killer has the tabloid moniker ‘The Birthday Boy’, and he has been taking young girls for twelve years, always just before their thirteenth birthday, and sending the families cards showing their daughters being slowly tortured to death. Ash has concealed Rebeccas cards from his ex-wife and colleagues, because if they find out he will be taken off the case. And he has vowed to let his daughter’s killer get everything that is coming to them. Criminal psychologist Dr Alice MacDonald, with her curly brown hair, jeans and red Converse Hi-tops, may want save his soul, but it’s one hell of a bumpy ride.

Stuart MacBride’s writing is unceasingly violent and will not be to everyone’s taste, despite the apparent satire at its evil heart. But there is no denying that Ian Hanmore manages to make Birthdays for the Dead a hugely diverting schlockfest of Grand Guignol.

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Gray Mountain by John Grisham

read by Catherine Taber

Grisham must have been writing on autopilot this year. Or perhaps he has put the franchise out to the highest bidder (as apparently some blockbuster names now do), and just not bothered to read the results, because Gray Mountain simply will not do.

Once again we have the plucky rookie lawyer opposing Corporate Big Law, which this time is propping up good old American market forces capitalism in the form of the heartless coal industry – wilfully ruining the environment, callously destroying communities and families, and ruthlessly cheating, murdering, exploiting and enslaving. Grisham’s knight in shining armour (or should that be ‘armor’) coming to the rescue here is Samantha Kofer – progeny, you won’t be surprised, of successful and wealthy, but divorced, DC lawyers – who is living the sweet life of a third-year associate at one of New York’s largest law firms, and hating it.

Needless to say, having been ‘cardboard-boxed’ in the aftermath of the Leman Brothers bankruptcy and forced to take an unpaid position in the Appalachian Mountains, she decides, after an unavoidable fling with the brave, handsome and tenacious local lawyer, to eschew the offer of status and riches in a start-up City law firm (phoenixed, somehow, from the ashes of US banking fraud), and stay on in Hillbilly country to save Gray Mountain, fight the good fight and right every wrong.

Catherine Taber gives it her best, but the pace is slow, the characters two-dimensional, the dialogue flat and the suspense criminally lacking.

Not one of Grisham’s best, although that probably won’t stop it filling many a Christmas stocking at the end of the year.

© copyright 2014 AudioBooksReview. All rights reserved.

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The Spire by William Golding

read by Benedict Cumberbatch

The Spire is a disturbing, provocative and profound novel. Not a long read, but a book with a long emotional and spiritual reach. And, like the spire itself, grounded perhaps less than firmly on earth but aspiring heavenwards.

The story is simple, the message needing to be carefully teased out. It charts the decent into theological disorder and human madness of Jocelin, a cleric with the vision of a massive spire for his cathedral. Consumed and motivated by hubris and pride, and tormented by demons of envy, lust and despair, Jocelin brings social and psychological chaos to the claustrophobic community of masons, workers and fellow clergy in his parish as he chides, bullies and blackmails those around him to construct his monumental ‘bible in stone’. His blind foolishness, said to parody that of the cleric responsible for the spire at Salisbury, with its virtually non-existent foundations, is a metaphor for faith, and faiths doppelgänger, doubt, and provides a rewarding if unsettling listen.

Jocelin is a vain and poorly educated man, full of ambition and conceit, driven it would seem more by his sense of his own self-importance than by care and concern for the Church and its flock. He can barely read, let alone know anything as technical as the mason’s art. He demands that his own image is displayed in stone on the spire, while he mocks the lives of those below to whom he considers himself superior, as if he is experiencing his own life on a higher spiritual plane.

In so many ways, this satire on the established church mirrors Golding’s targets in his other novels: taking a simple truth and stretching credulity to the far reaches of mankind’s conceits. And Benedict Cumberbatch’s commanding reading more than justifies the public acclaim he currently enjoys. May he read many more such masterpieces.

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A Dark Inheritance by Chris d’Lacey

read by Raphael Corkhill

UFiles #1: A Dark Inheritance (Unicorne Files, Book 1)

A Dark Inheritance is the first in a projected series of young adult ‘fantastic fiction’ books from Chris d’Lacey, the author of seven novels under the title The Last Dragon Chronicles.

There is a lot to enjoy in the twists and complexities of the circumstances in which young Michael Malone finds himself following a chance cliff-top encounter with a suicidal husky. From an ordinary schoolboy, Michael is audaciously transformed into someone with supernatural abilities and joins UNICORNE, which appears to be a covert organisation involved in investigating strange and paranormal phenomena.

With a great dramatis personae  – Mom Darcy (placing the story in the USA, although much else feels decidedly English); younger sister, Josie, (aged ten, who both doesn’t play the violin and (in a parallel universe) is a virtuoso); prominent-cheekboned, au pair/ teacher/ martial artist Chantelle; goth schoolgirl Freya (who is dead and then undead); Amadeus Klimt, creepy head of the covert organisation UNICORNE; and, of course, Michael.

Much in the book demands a re-read because the shifts in the narrative make it difficult to know just what is true and then what is going on in an alternative reality. Central to the story is the disappearance of Michael’s father three years ago, and the first line of the story indicates that that is unquestionably what the plot is going to reveal: ‘One day before I began to wonder if my father was still alive.’ (Whether such syntax should be encouraged in a book for adolescents is another matter entirely.)

Nonetheless, I feel sure A Dark Inheritance and its successors will fill many a Christmas stocking, whether in paperback, on kindle, or in the fabulous audiobook narrated by Raphael Corkhill, who manages to bring all the characters to life (even the dead ones) and makes one want to listen through to the very end   – and then to wish for further adventures still. I hope we will hear a great deal more from this actor.

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

read by Jessie Burton

Beyond the hype, there is so much in The Miniaturist to admire and enjoy that it would be wrong to dwell too much on the few faults. The setting and Gothic edge alone in the opening pages of the novel are enough to urge the reader on: it is 1686 and a teenage bride arrives at the grand house of her new merchant husband in the wealthiest quarter of Amsterdam only to be met by his oddly behaved sister and black manservant. Her husband is absent from the house most days: abroad on business or spending perhaps too time with fellow merchants. His reluctance for any intimacy with his young wife, too, raises questions. Rivalry, envy and suspicion are rife, and life is firmly ruled by tradition, superstition and prejudice.

The historical details – in particular, the miniature house (a ‘cabinet house’) at the centre of the novel – are, it would seem, well researched and totally verifiable, and, thus, enchantingly intriguing. Some readers have complained at how the contemporary and the antique rub along badly within the novel and that the denouement has a decidedly postmodern feel. The author’s reference, early on, for example, to ‘layabouts’, does jump out of the page as particularly odd, as Burton struggles with language ancient and modern to find her voice. But such sour grapes cannot detract from what is a remarkable read and from someone who is clearly destined for even greater things. As an actor, the author brings much to the reading of her novel, and The Miniaturist cannot be recommended highly enough.

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Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

read by Kerry Fox

Kazuo Ishiguro’s reflection on morality and mortality makes for an unsettling listen. Set in a post-war 1990s, this is a world that might have been, might still be or might even be now, where human clones live out limited, regulated lives with the understanding that their body parts will be called on some time in the future to repair the ‘normal’ humans they replicate.

At Hailsham, the boarding school where the protagonists meet, there is a painful emotional barrier between the staff and students, temporarily lifted by Miss Lucy, who reveals the destinies of all the students in the school. She is dismissed for her outspokenness. And this coldness suffuses the book, only sometimes temporarily lifted by doomed romance but typified by Kathy’s soulless exploration of her sexuality.

What makes the novel so disquieting is that the principal characters, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy seem to accept their destinies, to conform to their fates instead of trying to escape, instead of making a loud, discomforting protest, raging against the machine. The donors are fixed in their fates, somehow programmed to live out their predestined lives. Their small contact with the outside world is limited and regulated, and we learn little of the lives of the ‘normals’, except that it is trivial and worthless.

Kerry Fox’s deftness of touch is profound, and gives this disturbing reflection on the modern human condition both pathos and weight.


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