Audiobook review – Alien: Out of the Shadows

The audio dramatisation of Tim Lebbon’s Alien: Out of the Shadows is great fun, both eerie and atmospheric while staying mostly true to the Alien legend we know and love. Laurel Lefkow voices Ripley but at times you’ll be forgiven for thinking it’s Sigourney Weaver herself as it is such a great impersonation, and one that I think works perfectly.

But before the review – here’s the synopsis of the story that unfolds over four and a half hours:

As a child, Chris Hooper dreamed of monsters. But in deep space, he found only darkness and isolation. Then, on planet LV178, he and his fellow miners discovered a storm-scoured, sand-blasted hell – and trimonite, the hardest material known to man.

When a shuttle crashes into the mining ship Marion, the miners learn that there was more than trimonite deep in the caverns. There was evil, hibernating and waiting for suitable prey. Hoop and his associates uncover a nest of Xenomorphs, and hell takes on a new meaning. Quickly they discover that their only hope lies with the unlikeliest of saviors….

Ellen Ripley, the last human survivor of the salvage ship Nostromo.

Alien: Out of the Shadow audiobook cover

This is an adrenaline-fuelled story and once it has picked up the pace it never slows down. The cast are excellent, with special mention to Lefkow again plus Rutger Hauer and Corey Johnson. The production values are very high (no doubt thanks to the classy Dirk Maggs) and the sound effects really make you jump and are superb are raising the tension to unbearable levels.

There are many, many positive elements. But there are also a few negatives – the story can feel a little unlikely in places and sometimes a little lessening of the pace and some character and location building would have been preferable, in my opinion. I guess the shortened nature of an audio dramatisation is that there is a lot to fit into a relatively small amount of time. I think a lot of listeners will wish it was longer, which is a complement.

But overall this is a triumph and fans of the great radio adaptations such as The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy and the BBC’s Lord of the Rings will love what they find here. I’d give it 8.5/10.

Alien: Out of the Shadows: An Audible Original Drama
Written by: Tim Lebbon, Dirk Maggs
Narrated by: Rutger Hauer, Corey Johnson, Matthew Lewis, Kathryn Drysdale, Laurel Lefkow, Andrea Deck, Mac McDonald
Length: 4 hrs and 31 mins
Performance
Release Date:26/04/2016
Publisher: Audible Studios

Alien: Out of Shadows is only available from Audible

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, read by Stephen Fry

Sometimes books and narrators are perfectly matched. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and the voices of George Guidall and Frank Muller is one example, Guy Gavriel Kay’s works and Simon Vance another. And we also have Stephen Fry and Harry Potter, which is a match made in heaven.

It’s surprising to find that the first book in J. K. Rowling’s series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, will celebrate its nineteenth anniversary this year so a review of the audiobook in 2016 may seem a little odd. But there is a good reason, and that is that all seven audiobooks are finally available on Audible.co.uk, with whom I have a yearly membership.

One thing I will say before the review itself is that a good narrator can make an average book better and a poor narrator can make a good book seem average. This is why reviewing audiobooks is often so difficult. But this audiobook review is easy as the first Harry Potter book is excellent and Stephen Fry nails it.

There’s not much you can really say about Harry Potter that has not already been said. I’ve always found it a delightful book, wish-fulfillment of the highest order and written with great energy and humour. The children (and the millions of adults like myself) that found themselves spellbound by this book didn’t just want to read about Hogwarts, they wanted to go there. It is the Hobbiton of its generation. Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone is a lovely story which draws on the elements I have always enjoyed – we have the young, unsuspecting hero in a horrible situation with horrible people (the unforgettable Dursleys) discovering that he is not quite as ordinary as he believed. And in short order he finds himself at the most wonderful school of magic with friends (for life), a brilliant assortment of teachers and more adventure, thrills and danger than you could shake a wand at.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone audiobook cover

But what makes this audiobook so wonderful is that it is a wonderful story read to you by a simply wonderful story-teller. I’m old enough to have followed Stephen Fry through the decades and have seen pretty much everything he has been involved in. I have seen him on screen with Robbie Coltraine (Hagrid), Emma Thompson (Miss Trelawney), Kenneth Branagh (Gilderoy Lockhart) and I find it charming to think that he is doing impersonations of close friends when he voices these characters. He also produces excellent voices for Harry, Ron and Hermione, who are the most important of all as they feature is what must be every chapter of the book. Harry’s Uncle Vernon, Dumbledore and Miss McGonagall are other great voices that stand out. There is simply no weak link in Fry’s narration and to create such unique and rich voices for what, over seven books, becomes a very large cast indeed, is a remarkable achievement.

Audiobooks simply don’t come much better than this. If Harry Potter is not your thing then fair enough, this won’t change that, but if Harry Potter is your thing and you want someone to read it to you while you drift off to sleep, wash the dishes, go on a run or drive to work (which is where I did my listening), then this reading is simply sublime.

Don’t believe me? Then head over to Audible.co.uk and listen to a 5 minute sample.

Stephen King’s Mr Mercedes read by Will Patton

Mr Mercedes audio-book cover imageThe following is a review of the audio-book edition of Stephen King’s Mr Mercedes, a cat and mouse thriller narrated by Will Patton and first released in June 2014.

Author King and narrator Patton recently joined forces for Dr Sleep, the author’s last publication (that review can be found here), and a sequel to his classic The Shining. So I felt in safe hands as I began the latest offering from an author whose output remains as varied and engaging as ever.

Stephen King opens books well. I guess you could say that he is an expert in manipulating the ‘hook’, that magical something that draws the reader in within the first chapter and holds their interest for the remainder of the book. And Mr Mercedes utilises this ‘hook’ as well as any King novel. Picture this – it is very early morning, mist reduces vision to only a few feet and outside a job fair (this novel is set during the recent recession) job-seekers have queued to be first in line when the doors open, seeking to secure one of the few hundred jobs on offer. And from out of this mist suddenly emerges a powerful Mercedes motor car, clown-masked driver behind the wheel, which ploughs indiscriminately into those crowded close together at the front of the line, killing eight and injuring and maiming many others. This masked perpetrator was never caught.

I don’t know about you, but this opening caught me hook, line and sinker.

Moving on from this stellar opening the story jumps ahead a few years and the detective who led the hunt for the Mercedes killer, one Hodges DET RET, is now retired, overweight and contemplating suicide. But a taunting letter from Mr Mercedes arrives through his letterbox and any thoughts of suicide are banished as the retired detective finds himself reinvigorated and determined to catch the maniac who had eluded him while active. And so begins a game of cat and mouse as Hodges and Mr Mercedes mess with each others minds and lives.

The first half of Mr Mercedes is excellent, just as good as all of King’s recent books, by which I refer to 11.22.63, The Wind Through The Keyhole, Joyland and Dr Sleep. And as I’ve mentioned is all my recent King reviews – he is writing as well as he ever has. But then things, in my opinion, begin to take a bit of a turn for the worse and a rather lame, but fortunately brief, romantic interlude is followed by rather weak secondary characters, which I can only call caricatures, being elevated to leading roles in a manner that seemed scarcely believable. This made the second half of the book a let down. And I think many other King fans might agree that the book loses its way after the midway mark, it just wasn’t up to his usual high standard.

But it would be unfair to concentrate on the negatives as there is much within that is classic King, the product of a craft mastered over decades. And Hodges is not an alcoholic which was refreshing. There is as ever a strong focus on characterisation and back-story development (initially) which allows for a strong emotional attachment between the reader and characters written on the page. King also has a gift for building tension with his narrative.

Will Patton’s narration was once again very good, doing full justice to the leads of Hodges and the Mercedes Killer. He is a first rate narrator.

So my summary would be that a cracking first half is followed by a weak second. But every review is subjective and others may experience the book differently.

Recommended, but with caveats.

7.5/10

Mr Mercedes (unabridged) by Stephen King
Narrated by Will Patton
Length: 14 hours, 21 minutes
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Mr Mercedes is available only from Audible.co.uk

Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars read by Simon Vance

River of Stars audio-book coverThe following is a review of the audio-book edition of Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars, a return to the world and setting of his critically acclaimed Under Heaven, narrated by Simon Vance and first released in July 2013.

This was not my first experience of a collaboration between author Guy Gavriel Kay and narrator Simon Vance having late last year listened to Vance reading my all-time favourite Kay novel, Tigana. I thought then that the narrator had the perfect voice for the author’s beautiful narrative and so I felt confident that River of Stars was a close to a "sure thing" as you’re likely to get.

Before the review, the story: Ren Daiyan was still just a boy when he took the lives of seven men while guarding an imperial magistrate of Kitai. That moment on a lonely road changed his life – in entirely unexpected ways, sending him into the forests of Kitai among the outlaws. From there he emerges years later – and his life changes again, dramatically, as he circles towards the court and emperor, while war approaches Kitai from the north.

Lin Shan is the daughter of a scholar, his beloved only child. Educated by him in ways young women never are, gifted as a songwriter and calligrapher, she finds herself living a life suspended between two worlds. Her intelligence captivates an emperor – and alienates women at the court. But when her father’s life is endangered by the savage politics of the day, Shan must act in ways no woman ever has.

In an empire divided by bitter factions circling an exquisitely cultured emperor who loves his gardens and his art far more than the burdens of governing, dramatic events on the northern steppe alter the balance of power in the world, leading to events no one could have foretold, under the river of stars.

Guy Gavriel Kay is a very fine author, capable of writing wonderfully well within any genre. Those of use who read and review within the fantasy genre are forever grateful that he continues to produce books that belong to it. Kay’s forte is difficult to nail down – some might say alternate history, others historical fantasy and while both descriptions go some way to helping to explain his work to others neither are quite accurate enough. Perhaps the term often applied to Tim Burton’s films, a re-imagining, might convey well how Kay takes moment and place in time and uses it as the loom upon which he weaves his story.

Kay’s writing is, as always, poetic, the phrasing almost hypnotic. River of Stars is a large book that should be read/listened to carefully and steadily, as it is to be savoured. The book displays all the signs of being well researched and this allows for the story to evolve seamlessly as the cleverly interwoven storylines converge. Oh, and did I mention it’s inspired by Ancient China, which is a time I find particularly fascinating? There is however a rather dark feel to the narrative as all human life at this time is precarious and cheap with the lower classes of society in particular being used mercilessly by those of higher birth. The characters, both the low- and high-born are, as is always the case with Kay, well rounded and completely believable.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Simon Vance’s reading of Kay’s words as his delivery was subtle and nuanced. He wisely did not attempt to adopt Chinese accents for the characters, as surely that path would have only lead to disaster! Instead his delivery is quietly powerful and he cleverly uses subtle alterations that make it easy to identify between the large cast of characters. Vance is a narrator I would never hesitate to recommend and when provided with good source material the outcome with always be a pleasure to listen to.

Under Heaven was an excellent book and this ‘sequel’ is also very, very good. It is a rich and vibrant tale inspired by the decadent Song Dynasty. I would highly recommend River of Stars to fans of Kay’s previous works and for those with a love of historical fantasy, particularly concerning China.

8.8/10

River of Stars (unabridged) by Guy Gavriel Kay
Narrated by Simon Vance
Length: 20 hours, 48 minutes
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Limited

River of Stars is available only from Audible.co.uk

Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep read by Will Patton

Doctor Sleep audio-book cover.The following is a review of the audio-book edition of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, a sequel to The Shining and narrated by Will Patton, first released in September 2013.

I came to listen to Doctor Sleep with the advantage of having just recently read The Shining. Although it is not essential that all read The Shining beforehand it is certainly recommended. The first two thirds of Doctor Sleep concern the life and times of Danny Torrance, the young boy from The Shining, and what happened to him following the terrible events at the Overlook hotel. The first thing that struck me was that although Doctor Sleep and The Shining obviously share much in common, there is still a decidedly different feel to each. The Shining, by its nature, is a claustrophobic, insular book with a main cast of just three but Doctor Sleep has a more epic feel to it, both in terms of involving a war against an ancient evil and in the larger size of the cast.

So what has happened to Danny Torrance after his experiences in the Overlook Hotel? He is still haunted by those events and has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence.
Meanwhile, on highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless – mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. The True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the ‘steam’ that children with the ‘shining’ produce when they are slowly tortured to death. Now working at a hospice in rural New Hampshire, where his remnant ‘shining’ power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying Dan is slowly getting his life back together. He then meets Abra Stone, a very special 12-year old girl he must save from these murderous paranormals.

Over the past decade I have listened to over a dozen Stephen King audio-books and they are all either good, very good or superb. For Doctor Sleep I would put the first two-thirds at very good but the final third as just good. The narrative reminded me strongly of Wolves of the Calla as a major part of that fifth Dark Tower novel involved the life story of Father Callahan, a recovering alcoholic who once wandered America to escape his past and his fears, finding solace at the bottom of a glass. And as the book begins we discover that Danny is now a alcoholic, something he thought he would never become after witnessing they effects alcohol has on his father, and as we follow Danny from place to place King recounts his life since the Overlook burned down to the present day. Initially it makes for compelling but of unavoidably depressing listening as the life of an alcoholic is nothing but tragic – this is something Stephen King understands from first-hand experience (write about what you know as the old adage goes). But thankfully we get to see redemption due to friendship and the AA, but just as Danny is once again beginning to enjoy his life, working and helping old people in a retirement home, the ancient threat of the True Knot rises to cross his path and that of a very special little girl.

I enjoyed the the first two-thirds of Doctor Sleep immensely, finding Danny’s life both fascinating and heart-breaking. It was a dark tunnel down which he was travelling and one which I hoped there was light at the end of. But the final third was a problem for me some major characters began behaving in classic horror-movie idiot style – doing the stupid things you know they simply shouldn’t and probably wouldn’t do. And so the book looked like it was going to finish on a bit of a dud note for me but luckily things picked up again as the end neared and King delivered a fine coup-de-grace, as he does more often than not. When trying to pin-point the other reasons I felt the spell broke for me slightly I would mention that as the book enters its final third becomes more action and less character-driven and the Stone family (Abra, her parents and her great-grandmother) began to irk me somewhat, with the parents in particular being rather stereotypical, something I feel King is hardly ever guilty of. But the overall impression of the book was definitely positive and I would happily recommend, but feel compelled to mention that I felt it lost a bit of its mojo towards the end.

The book is read by Will Patton, a winner two Obie Awards for best actor (Fool for Love and What Did He See?) and the narrator of almost 50 audio-books. As with all Stephen King audiobooks the quality of the writing helps the narrator, especially with credible dialogue, and Patton is comfortable with both male, female, young and old. At times you forget that it is just one person doing all the voices, which is always a very good sign. I liked Patton’s voice and reading style and would certainly listen to more books read by him.

8.5/10

Doctor Sleep (unabridged) by Stephen King
Narrated by Will Patton
Length: 18 hours, 32 minutes
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Doctor Sleep is available only from Audible.co.uk

I definitely recommend the Doctor Sleep audio-book as I think it is one of King’s “good” books. And if your are on the look-out for more then I can strongly recommend It (read by Steven Weber), ‘Salem’s Lot (read by Ron McLarty), 11/22/63 (read by Craig Wasson), Under the Dome (read by Raul Esparza) and all the Dark Tower audio-books (now totalling 8), read wonderfully well by George Guidall and the much-missed Frank Muller.

Vespasian: Rome’s Executioner read by Peter Kenny

Vespasian: Rome's Executioner audio-book cover.Vespasian proved to be quite a turn-up for the audio-books. Seldom have I not especially liked a book’s beginnings yet by the end been completely won over – it often happens the other way around but I am delighted to say that Vespasian managed this feat. And to try and explain why I think this happened I would first mention that the book starts fast and gets even faster before thankfully settling down. It initially put me more in mind of a screenplay than a novel, which is unsurprising considering its author, Robert Fabbri, has worked in film and TV for 25 years. So it was a bit like, “Yeah, it would make a good action movie, but this is a book, what about the characters, what about Rome and its politics?”. But, once the initial action was over, which involved the hunt for a priest required for “questioning” in Rome, the story became all about politics and intrigue, the characters really took shape and I found myself enjoying the rather grisly tale immensely.

Before I continue with the review, here is a little more about the story which begins in Thracia in the year AD30. Vespasian’s patrons in Rome have charged him with the clandestine extraction of an old enemy from a fortress on the banks of the Danube before it falls to the Roman legion besieging it. His mission is the key move in a deadly struggle for the right to rule the Empire. The man he has been ordered to seize could be the witness that will destroy Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard and ruler of the Empire in all but name. Before he completes his mission, Vespasian will face ambush in snowbound mountains, pirates on the high seas and Sejanus’s spies all around him. But by far the greatest danger lies at the rotten heart of the Empire: at the nightmarish court of Tiberius, Emperor of Rome and debauched, paranoid madman.

Vespasian’s author Robert Fabbri has – as already mentioned – worked in film and TV for 25 years. As an assistant director he has worked on productions such as Hornblower, Hellraiser, Patriot Games and Billy Elliot but his life-long passion for ancient Roman history inspired him to write the Vespasian series and this passion really shines from the pages. Fabbri uses contemporary speech and this will always divide opinions – I personally found it a little strange at first but very quickly it felt natural. The narrator, Peter Kenny (who was uniformly very good) chose to give the Romans English accents and again, while it took a little getting used to it soon flowed nicely and my favourite character voice was that of Magnus (please forgive misspellings of names as was an audio-book and I had no access to the written text), who was given a decidedly Ray Winstone-like voice that worked really well. Kenny’s other stand out voices were Vespasian’s Uncles Gaius and the mad-emperor Tiberius but he also coped admirably well with the female leads, with Antonia, sister to the emperor, being particularly noteworthy. Kenny also uses clever -and authentic sounding -accents for the Thracians, Greeks and other races.

Once the setting moves back to Rome the politics of the time take centre stage. And the politics are probably not that different than those of today except for one important element – the body count. Death, and more pertinently execution, is a daily occurrence and once back in Rome the cast of Antonia, Tiberius, Macros, Sejanus and company (we mustn’t forget a young Caligula) are using any trick possible to get what they want – which is of course, as always, power and money. All this political intrigue was really well handled and fascinating to listen to. I don’t know how close to history Fabbri kept, much falls in line with what I have previously read but the portrayal of Tiberius seemed to have made use of a liberal amount of artistic licence. What the author does brilliantly is make it clear that these were very dangerous times to be alive, the life of a slave was meaningless to the elite but even those high-born were not immune to threat and could find themselves assassinated simply for having the wrong relatives or for supporting the wrong people. Death seemed to hover over ever character in this book.

It is hard, if not impossible, to find Ancient Rome anything but fascinating and this book covers a period which I knew little about and was delighted to learn more of. I had previously read books about Caligula so it was good to read about the years just prior to his turbulent rein. The book’s ending is exceedingly brutal and unpleasant and although I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it, there is no doubt it will remain within the mind for a long time afterwards.

Would I read another Fabbri book? Yes, I would, and I would certainly listen to another book read by Peter Kenny.

8.3/10

Vespasian: Rome’s Executioner by Robert Fabbri
Narrated by Peter Kenny
Length: 12 hours, 20 minutes
Publisher: AudioGO Ltd

The audio-book review copy of Vespasian: Rome’s Executioner was kindly supplied by AudioGO, the home of BBC Audiobooks.

Robert Aickman’s The Unsettled Land read by Reece Shearsmith

The cover of The Unsettled Dust audio-book.The following is a review of the audio-book edition of Robert Aickman’s The Unsettled Dust (a collection of supernatural short stories first published in 1990), narrated by Reece Shearsmith and first released in July 2013.

I think Robert Aickman’s The Unsettled Dust will firmly divide opinions. I can’t see any reader, or listener, simply saying "it was alright" – I think they will either really like what they find, or really dislike it. The potential for the reading enjoyment of Robert Aickman’s work lies in whether the reader wants, and indeed expects, a certain structure to the narrative, whether they need a beginning, middle, and most importantly a end. You see, Aickman revels in an ambiguity, his stories do not have traditional endings and for a lot of people this will be a problem. It was for me. But if this type of story telling works for you then you are in for a treat as Aickman is very, very good with words and descriptive text.

Aickman was born in London in 1914 and published twelve volumes of horror stories, two fantasy novels and two volumes of autobiography before his death in 1981. Called by some "the supreme master of the supernatural" he was awarded both a World Fantasy Award and British Fantasy Award for his short fiction. As I have already said, his work my not have been my particular cup of tea but the praise for his short works is effusive, particularly amongst fellow writers:

"Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I’m not even sure what the trick was. All I know is that he did it beautifully." Neil Gaiman

"Robert Aickman has a gift for depicting the eerie areas of inner space, the churning storms and silent overcasts that engulf the minds of lonely and alienated people. He is a weatherman of the subconscious." Fritz Leiber

"From the first I understood that he was a deeply original artist. This in no way implies that I understood Aickman immediately because I didn’t. Sometimes I would look up at the end of a story, feeling that the whole thing had just twisted itself inside out and turned into smoke – I had blinked, and missed it all. It took me a little while to learn to accept this experience as valuable in itself and to begin to see how the real oddness of most of Aickman’s work is directly related to its psychological, even psychoanalytic, acuity." Peter Straub

And Peter Straub’s words are very telling – the first time reader/listener will probably be left more than a little bemused – I was – and as most reviews are based on the first read I acknowledge that this may be a problem and a likely reason for my slightly negative summation. The first three stories in the collection (The Unsettled Dust, The House of the Russians and No Stronger Than a Flower) meandered rather aimlessly through my mind and I could find no attachment to either the story or the characters, which is something vital to me when listening to a story. But from there on things improve: The Cicerones, The Next Glade, Ravissante, Bind Your Hair and The Stains proved to make for much more enjoyable listening. But I still had issues. I found the overall tone of the works to be highly misogynistic and while it is always difficult to tell whether these sentiments are the author’s own or his characters, by the end of the last story I believed that these characters simply echoed Aickman’s own thoughts on women and while the stories were written quite a long time ago they were still very difficult to read as a result. And the second problem I had was that while the characters spoke and behaved late nineteenth century, early twentieth, while the stories were set at least fifty years later, which proved a little jarring.

The narrator of The Unsettled Dust is Reece Shearsmith, a talented actor and writer who is arguably most famous for co-writing and starring in the award-winning television series, The League of Gentlemen, alongside Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss, and Jeremy Dyson. And the connection between The League of Gentlemen and Robert Aickman is strong: Jeremy Dyson has previously adapted Aickman’s work into drama in a number of forms and with Mark Gatiss adapted Aickman’s short story "Ringing the Changes" into a BBC Radio Four radio play. Dyson also directed a 2002 short film based on Aickman’s story "The Cicerones" with Gatiss as the principal actor. So it is fair to say that Aickman has been a massive influence on Shearsmith and the rest of the League. Because I didn’t overly enjoy the stories themselves it is a little difficult to comment on Reece Shearsmith’s narration other than to say he has a pleasant reading voice who relies of subtle delivery changes to distinguish between characters rather than opting for accents. It was the subject matter itself that led my concentration to waver, not the quality of the narration, which was fine.

Maybe the problem was that the stories simply didn’t lend themselves well to the audio format and would have been better read instead. This is something I have encountered several times before. Unfortunately I found myself constantly losing concentration and finding that minutes had passed without anything having sunk in. This could be because I rarely felt that anything was really happening, finding little to engage me. And I found the treatment of women and "foreigners" (a word used too often in the narrative for my liking) to be – using the kindest word available – dated.

I can only recommend Aickman to those who enjoy ambiguity, those who do not require traditional endings to stories and are happy to read said stories numerous times to understand the nuances and hidden meanings.

6.0/10

The Unsettled Dust (unabridged) by Robert Aickman
Narrated by Reece Shearsmith
Length: 8 hours, 36 minutes
Publisher: Audible Ltd

The Unsettled Dust is available only from Audible.co.uk

Brandon Sanderson’s The Rithmatist read by Michael Kramer

A cover image of The Rithmatist audio-book.The following is a review of the audio-book edition of Brandon Sanderson’s The Rithmatist, first released in May 2013 and narrated by Michael Kramer.

Brandon Sanderson was an author I had long wanted to read but for a variety of reasons had been unable to. So when the opportunity arose to listen to – and to review – the audio-book version of his latest work I did not hesitate for even a second. Sanderson is one of the most respected names in the fantasy genre, he is a winner of many awards and arguably best know for both his Mistborn novels and for having been chosen to complete the Wheel of Time series after the death of its author, Robert Jordan. The person chosen to read was Michael Kramer, an American narrator who has won both the AudioFile Earphones and Torgi awards for his work. Kramer has an already established connection with both Sanderson and Jordan, having narrated Sanderson’s The Way of Kings and The Alloy of Law as well as all of Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels.

So what is a Rithmatist and what is the book all about? A Rithmatist has the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. And the Rithmatists are humanity’s only defence against the Wild Chalklings – merciless creatures that leave mangled corpses in their wake. Having nearly overrun the territory of Nebrask, the Wild Chalklings now threaten all of the American Isles. Joel wants more than anything to be a Rithmatist but being the son of a lowly chalkmaker at Armedius Academy he can only watch as Rithmatist students study the magical art that he would do anything to practice. Then students start disappearing; kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving trails of blood. Assigned to help the professor who is investigating the crimes, Joel and his friend Melody find themselves on the trail of an unexpected discovery – one that will change Rithmatics, and their world, forever.

I enjoyed the reading of The Rithmatist. The story itself was classic fantasy with the seemingly inconsequential Joel becoming embroiled in matters that affect the high and mighty. Events also lead him closer to realising his dream – that of becoming a Rithmatist. The story showcases something I believe Sanderson is very well know for – a unique, clever and interesting system of magic, but be warned, you will have be concentrating fully to take it all in, and to understand it all, first time around. The setting of a book at a type of boarding school, or in this case and Academy, is always a winner for me and I’m surprised (and somewhat relieved) that more authors have not tapped into this rich vein – it is one of the many things that made Harry Potter such a success, as it adheres to a kind of wish-fulfilment in the reader, and there are definitely similarities to be found in Sanderson’s new book and Rowling’s work, most notably the friction evident between the populace and the Rithmatists (which reminded me of the pure-blood/mud-blood resentments felt at Hogwarts) and the character of Nalazar (a teacher who is so obviously evil he couldn’t possible be, could he?) has more than a touch of the Professor Snape about him. But these are elements that have been used successfully in young adult fiction for time immemorial and I really like them, but more importantly, so do thousands of young adults. The narration itself is skilled with Kramer making each and every character clearly distinguishable, his portrayal of the male Joel and female Melody being the stand-outs from what is a very accomplished reading.

The Rithmatist is a murder mystery and coming of age story rolled into one. It has a distinctly scholarly feel and will appeal to young adults who don’t mind having an educational feel to their fantasy reading. A good book, very well read.

8.3/10

The Rithmatist (unabridged) by Brandon Sanderson
Narrated by Michael Kramer
Length: 10 hours, 26 minutes
Publisher: Audible Ltd

The Rithmatist is available only from Audible.co.uk

Ryan and Joshua have both reviewed The Rithmatist and their thoughts can be read here:
A book review of The Rithmatist

Tales of Terror from the Black Ship read by Bill Wallis

Audio-book cover image of Chris Priestley's Tales of Terror from the Black Ship read by Bill Wallis.A few years back I read and thoroughly enjoyed Chris Priestley’s Tales of Terror from the Tunnel Mouth, so when the opportunity arose to listen to an audio-book version of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship I jumped at the chance.

Written for ages 9+ the Tales of Terror series is a perfect example of how an author can chill and thrill a young audience without giving them nightmares. And you can almost taste the salt in the air when listening to Bill Wallis’s superb reading, so well does he encapsulate both the gothic and nautical flavour with his impressive array of accents. Bill Wallis is a British character actor whose face and voice has been seen and heard on radio, television, and in the theatre for many years. In 1995 he presented and narrated a semi-dramatised documentary titled “A Pleasant Terror” on the life and works of M. R. James and this work left him perfectly placed to bring Priestley’s ghostly tales to life.

As the narration begins we readers/listeners find ourselves at the Old Inn, where we are introduced to a bereaved father and his two children. It is three days into a storm and the children have been struck-down with illness and their father, seemingly come back to his senses, goes to fetch a doctor. While they await their father’s – and the doctor’s – return they pass their time reading their favourite ghost stories to each other but when a stranger, an old mariner with a gold tooth, arrives at the inn he begins to regale and terrify the brother and sister with some stories of his own. And so begins some wonderful story-telling reminiscent of the Hammer House of Horror in its pomp. The stranger recounts tale after tale to thrill and disquiet the children, all set aboard ship. And while this is happening the story of the children, their father and the inn which they inhabit also unfolds.

I will not give away anything about the tales of terror themselves save to say that the story with the seemingly angelic little boy, and the story with the snails are those that I remember most vividly. But it is the overarching story of the brother, sister and father that held the most punch.

Chris Priestley is brilliant at writing ghoulish stories for younger readers and when his words are spoken with as much as skill and relish as Bill Wallis manages here then the result is a must-listen to audio-book for anybody 8+ with a penchant for the macabre!

9/10

Tales of Terror from the Black Ship (unabridged) by Chris Priestley
Narrated by Bill Wallis
Length: 5 hours, 39 minutes
Publisher: AudioGO Ltd

The audio-book review copy of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship was kindly supplied by AudioGO, the home of BBC Audiobooks.

The Dark Tower series read by George Guidall and Frank Muller

Cover image of The Gunslinger audio-bookI read the Dark Tower books as they were published, ordered each new instalment as it was released, and thought the first three books were excellent. However, I found the going tough from there until, after reading book six, The Song of Susannah, I simply gave up. But I found that the story never left me and found it increasingly difficult to remember exactly why I never finished a series on which I had dedicated so much time.

So, after stumbling across the audio-book of the first book in a series of seven, The Gunslinger, I decided to listen, back-to-back, to the entire series. And it provided me with the most enjoyable 132 hours and 45 minutes of commuting time that I have ever experienced, so well do the books lend themselves to the format and in George Guidall and Frank Muller they showcase the talents of 2 excellent voice actors.

Yes, I still had big problems with the sixth book but it did not detract from the overall magnificence of the production.

For those who know absolutely nothing about the Dark Tower books, here is a brief outline of  Stephen King‘s magnum opus.

Set in a world that is weirdly related to our own, The Gunslinger introduces Roland Deschain of Gilead, of In-World that was, as he pursues his enigmatic antagonist to the mountains that separate the desert from the Western Sea. Roland, the last gunslinger, is a solitary figure, perhaps accursed, who with a strange single-mindedness traverses an exhausted, almost timeless landscape of good and evil. The people he encounters are left behind, or worse, left dead. At a way station, however, he meets Jake, a boy from a particular time (1977) and a particular place (New York City), and soon the two are joined, khef, ka, and ka-tet. The mountains lie before them. So does the man in black and, somewhere far beyond… the Dark Tower.

The Gunslinger is the shortest book of the series, and accordingly the shortest listen at 7 hours and 24 minutes. The narration is very good with George Guidall (who has recorded over 900 unabridged novels) fitting perfectly with the book’s western feel. But good as The Gunslinger was the second book, The Drawing of the Three, saw a change of narrator as Frank Muller took over the reins.

One thing is obvious – Frank Muller was born to read these books. He is simply magnificent and the way in which he brings each character to life is stunning. When I first heard him speak in Roland’s voice it was like hearing the voice I personally had for the character repeated back to me.

I had never heard of Frank Muller before but a little research showed that it was he that Stephen King always wanted to narrate his work and I instantly realised why. It is difficult to find the words to describe how good he is and so I will repeat an earlier point – when I read a book the characters will form a look and sound within my mind and somehow Muller managed to capture these perfectly (and I know I will not be alone in finding this).

However, my research into Muller also uncovered the tragic news that, in early June 2008, he died at the age of 57 following a courageous six-year battle to recover from a devastating motorcycle accident (Stephen King reads a dedication to Muller at the end of Wizard and Glass). And from that point on the recording was always tinged with a touch of sadness.

The following 2 books, The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass, were great, with the latter book being much more enjoyable second time around. The 5th book, Wolves of the Calla, finds George Guidall once again behind the microphone and although he might not scale the same aural heights as Muller, he was the perfect choice to complete the series and, after a short period of transition, I found myself once again comfortable in his capable hands.

And then we come to Song for Susannah and I remembered the 2 reasons why I hadn’t enjoyed the book first time around. Firstly there is the fact that King had begun to write himself into the story. Not as a brief cameo (which would have been acceptable) but as an almost demi-god that was all-powerful. I found that this broke the spell under which the series has previously held me and King almost seemed intent on shouting “This isn’t real you know! These are just figments of my imagination!” from the highest peaks. To enjoy a series such as this you need to suspend your disbelief and as such the direction the author took seemed a peculiar one. Secondly there was the way the Japanese were portrayed in a section of the book. Now this might be by explained by stating that they could have been Susannah’s thoughts and words but it seemed completely out of place and reminiscent of George Lucas and his cringe-inducing Trade Federation in the newer Star Wars films. I have read a lot of Stephen King and have never found him the least bit racist (quite the opposite in fact) and this is why I was so surprised by the base ridiculing of the Japanese race.

And so, more than 10 years after I read the first page of The Gunslinger, I finally reached the 7th and final book, The Dark Tower. And once King himself finally (and belatedly) took a bow, the story moved towards a fitting climax. In fact, the ending still resonates with me now, many weeks after having listened to it, and I could not see a way in which it could have been done better. And so the decision to listen through the series in its entirety was rewarded amply as the series became a fine companion over the period of many months. As winter turned into spring and as spring turned into summer, I followed Roland Deschain across the desert all the way to the foot of The Dark Tower itself. It is a journey I will never forgot and one I will always remember fondly.

If, like me, you have a lengthy commute, I could not recommend more highly that you spend that time in the company of Stephen King’s epic, so wonderfully brought to life by Guidall and Muller.

Listen and enjoy.

9.3/10

The Dark Tower series (unabridged) by Stephen King
Narrated by George Guidall (The Gunslinger, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower) and Frank Muller (The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass)
Length: 132 hours, 45 minutes
Publisher: Penguin Audiobooks