IN DECEMBER 2016 AUDIBLE ASKED ME TO RECOMMEND MY FAVOURITE AUDIOBOOKS - HERE'S WHAT AND WHY.
I love being read to almost as much as I love reading, and thus I’m a big user of audiobooks. The only down-side is I can’t listen while I’m working: I’m jealous of my wife, who is an artist and so has the great fortune to be able to do her work while listening to great stories, a thing those of us trying to write them can’t do. So I tend to listen when hiking or swimming laps in the morning. I consume a pretty eclectic mix of long fiction (the longer the better – I’m a great believer in getting my money’s worth at the Audible almost-all-you-can-eat-buffet afforded by our annual subscription). It’s also a good way to fill in the gaps on the classic literature I always meant to read but somehow never found time to. That said, there are a couple of non-fiction choices below, one of which was recent research, the other a timely exercise in trying to remember the lessons of history so we don’t repeat the past, which we seem to be busy doing.
[if you want to know - as my editor Jenni Hill at Orbit did - how I listen underwater, the answer's a custom waterproofed iPod shuffle from Waterfi which looks exactly like a normal iPod because it is, except the Waterfi sorcerers have filled it with magic gunk that means you just clip it to your goggles, plug in the earbuds and off you go. Best way to kill the boredom of swimming laps I know. And a good book means I often swim further each session so as not to break before chapter's end...]
The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life by Francis Parkman Jr.
I read/listened to this as research for the third novel in The Oversight sequence, in which – Spoiler Alert - the previously European story clearly widens its scope. Parkman, having just graduated from Harvard at the age of 23 made a hunting trip into the West in 1846 as the Oregon Trail was finally opening it up, with all the convulsive and destructive change that would bring. He hunted buffalo with the Oglala Sioux, and fell in with a thoroughly and amusingly crap pair of Brits on a similar jaunt, a pair he then spent a great deal of energy trying to disentangle himself from. Even though his views on the First Nation tribes are uncomfortably of his time – i.e. at best blinkered and demeaning– he captures just enough of what was on the point of disappearing under the incoming tide of ‘pioneers’ for this to be a pungent and atmospheric evocation of a now lost world.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
This is the perfect blend of one of the greatest books in English fiction being read superbly by one of the greatest readers of books. This combo created an unexpectedly virtuous circle for me, since I swam a lot of miles through Middlemarch with Juliet Stevenson in my ear, often staying in the pool longer just to get another chapter. It’s a famously compendious and grippingly emotional story, but what Juliet Stevenson does is reveal how funny and wise George Eliot’s writing is.
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
I’ve admired Annie Proulx’s writing since I discovered The Shipping News. Barkskins is her most timely and passionate book (though also a great and engaging read/listen because she just can’t write in any other way). Its theme is the ecological disaster of deforestation and the rape of the environment for profit, and its story has a Neal Stephenson-ish sweep as it spans centuries mapping the cause and effect of ‘progress’, following the fortunes of the descendants of two indentured servants sent to New France/Canada in the 17th Century. One family become rapaciously successful timber barons and the other mix with the Mi’kmaq tribe and follow their heart-breaking downward trajectory through history to the present day. It’s a less gloomy book than it sounds, though it is righteously clear eyed about the harm done to the planet and its people in the headlong plundering of natural resources.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.
I’ve always loved McMurtry. ‘Leaving Cheyenne’ and ‘The Last Picture Show’ affected me hugely as a teenager. Lonesome Dove is his great panoramic Western epic about a cattle drive and the awkward and unbreakable friendship of the two men at the heart of it. It’s a big hearted, elegiac and gruffly tender story about a mismatched group attempting the near impossible in the face of great hardship and a landscape that consists almost entirely of obstacles, human and otherwise. The cast of characters is huge and fantastically well realised. This is a story to wrap yourself in.
Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson’s an immensely appealing writer to me, with a clearly planet-sized brain and a similarly wide reach when it comes to story-telling: he has the great mix of high ambition and low get-your-hands-dirty story-delivery. I ate up The Baroque cycle, of which this is the first book, and was not only totally immersed in his evocation of 17th and 18th Century life on both sides of the Atlantic, but convinced of its relevance to a lot of the things that affect our lives now. (I was really proud to have Simon Prebble, another of the great readers who brings the story to life here, do the same for my first adult novel, The Oversight.)
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Dickens is always the go-to-guy for total story immersion in a pungent and many-layered world, and no-one reads him better than Martin Jarvis, whose voice is versatile enough to bring the raft of varied characters to life, and has a quality that also seems to embody the authors energetic generosity of spirit as well.
Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 by Willam L. Shirer
Shirer was an American foreign correspondent in Vienna and Berlin the years leading up to the Second World War. After the war he wrote the massive and definitive history, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Both are worth listening to now as the forces of reaction seem to be unstoppably on the rise again across the world, but of the two The Berlin Diaries is the most immediate (and shorter), chilling and authentic on-the-spot records of what happened and how fascists manipulated and operated their way into power as the rest of the world sleep-walked past on the other side of the road. Some of the parallels with contemporary elections and referenda are way too close for comfort – especially the bare-faced use of lies and disinformation as conscious tools, and the reliance on complacency. I think the first section of the history, which covers the rise of fascism, and the entire Berlin Diaries should be required reading for everyone before we have any more important elections (Lesson One: they’re ALL important). If we want to learn from the past so as not to repeat the painfully unlearned lessons of history, these are good texts to begin studying. Sure, they’re about the last century, but you’re going to recognise some very familiar faces behind the masks.
Fellside by M. R. Carey.
I should issue a log-rolling alert here, because I only read Mike Carey’s previous book – ‘The Girl with all the Gifts’ - because he had written some very kind words about The Oversight and I thought I should see what kind of writer he was: the answer is very damn good indeed. That book had a clarity and directness that reminded me of John Wyndham in all the best ways, and it passed the all-important Writer’s Test, in that I was instantly horribly jealous of his chops. Fellside is a tremendously atmospheric and engaging book, in a completely different and non-Zombie register, and the writing is equally envy-inducing. The two main characters are a convicted child-murderer, hideously scarred by a fire, and the terrified ghost of a child who she discovers in the prison she is sent to, a ghost she must find a way help. The world of the prison is VERY dark (forget about Orange, this could be subtitled Black is the New Black) but Carey takes this outcast of outcasts and tells a grim but ultimately life-affirming story that makes you care very deeply about the imperilled fates of both of them. Finty Williams does a bang-up job of reading this. I hadn’t heard anything she’d done before, but I’ll be looking out for her name from now on.
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
This is early Mantel, and chillingly good it is too. She conjures the horrific inevitabilities of The Terror and all the interpersonal politics of the French Revolution with great clarity, as sharp and incisive as the Guillotine blade itself. It’s definitely the reason I nicked a villain for my purposes in Robespierre, the man forever dubbed by Carlyle as the ‘sea green incorruptible’. It’s a wonderfully convincing recreation of a time and place, and again a dark book, but spending time with the mind that wrote it is a hugely exhilarating experience.