Audio 2014: Book & Film Recommendations
My audiobook consumption increased dramatically due to buying a house about 2 years ago. My lifestyle suddenly includes painting, decorating, and gardening, and I often listen to audiobooks while doing that. Then I also started fostering puppies for a service dog organization about a year ago. I live in a small townhouse in the city with a very small yard, and a growing puppy (my first two fosters were golden retrievers who were 60-65 pounds by the time they returned to their training center) needs exercise. So walking those dogs about an hour a day gave me additional time to get through more audiobooks this year, since I usually wear my iPod when I take them out.
So here’s what I “read” via audiobook in 2014, listed by title, author, and (narrator):
Murder On the Orient Express, Agatha Christie (David Suchet)
The Mystery of the Blue Train, Agatha Christie (John Moffat)
The Ocean At the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (also narrator)
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, Catherynne M. Valente (SJ Tucker)
A Pocket Full of Rye, Agatha Christie (Rosiland Ayers)
Fragile Things: Short Fictions & Wonders, Neil Gaiman (also narrator)
Dead Heat, Dick Francis & Felix Francis (Martin Jarvis)
Call For the Dead, John LeCarré (Michael Jayston)
Under Orders, Dick Francis (Martin Jarvis)
Silks, Dick & Felix Francis (Martin Jarvis)
Gamble, Felix Francis (John Keating)
Mysterious Affair At Styles, Agatha Christie (Penelope Dellaporta)
Grave Goods, Ariana Franklin (Kate Reading)
10 Lb. Penalty, Dick Francis (Simon Prebble)
Even Money, Dick Francis & Felix Francis (Martin Jarvis)
Thus Was Adonis Murdered, Sarah Caudwell (Eva Haddon); re-reading
The Sirens Sang of Murder, Sarah Caudwell (Eva Haddon); re-reading
The Tuesday Club Murders, Agatha Christie (Joan Hickson)
Cards On the Table, Agatha Christie (Hugh Fraser)
One Two Buckle My Shoe, Agatha Christie (Hugh Fraser)
Death On the Nile, Agatha Christie (Hugh Fraser)
Bolt, Dick Francis (Simon Prebble)
Death of A Bore, M.C. Beaton (Graeme Malcolm)
Murder At the Vicarage, Agatha Christie (James Saxon)
Murder Unprompted, Simon Brett (Simon Prebble)
I didn’t even realize until late in the year how overwhelmingly dominant British mystery fiction was in my audiobook reading in 2014. Instead of having a plan or a list, I just kept finishing books and then choosing whatever appealed next–which turned out, in particular, to be a lot of Agatha Christie! I’ve been on a Christie binge for a couple of years now, and having come this far, I’ve decided to set a goal of reading her complete works–which I figure will take another couple of years.
I had tried Christie a couple of times when I was in my early twenties and, for whatever reason, didn’t find her engaging. But I’m really enjoying her books now, obviously, both audio and print. (I am also addicted to the BBC’s radio-drama adaptations of her works.)
For one thing, I think her two separate series detectives, Monsieur Hercules Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, are much more interesting characters in the books than I had expected, since this rarely seems to get mentioned. (I can’t comment on another regular pair of detectives she wrote, Tommy & Tuppence, since I haven’t read any of their stories yet.)
A lot about Poirot and Marple is left to the imagination rather than related to us by the author. How did an early 20th century spinster who spent almost her entire life in a small English village become so shrewdly cynical about human nature and logically deductive about reality versus common misperception and deliberate falsehood? We are left to imagine the possible answers to that for ourselves while reading stories about a character who is very unusual while appearing to others to be the most conventional of stereotypes, a genteel elderly unmarried English lady who gardens and takes tea.
Poirot’s background is a little more colorful, though almost equally vague. We know he was born to a large, poor family in Belgium, served for years as a distinguished police officer, and arrived in England as a war refugee; and we never learn much more than that about his life prior to his first case in England as a private investigator, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, set during WWI. Poirot is an investigative genius, relying on minute observations, a shrewd understanding of human nature, and deductive brilliance to solve cases. He’s a deepy moral and often empathetic man, but his flaws are part of what make him a compelling character rather than a tiresome paragon. Poirot is extremely arrogant about his own abilities and so vain that it’s vital to him that others should know who he is and admire him professionally. He is also extremely vain about his personal grooming, as well as very fussy about food, tidiness, decor, other people’s toilette, etc. On numerous occasions, when Poirot has all the characters gathered at the end of the story to reveal whodunit, people with lives to lead keeping saying some version of, “Stop recounting to us every excruciating step of your investigation and how incredibly clever you were, and just tell us who the guilty party is!” And Poirot always refuses, because making sure others know how brilliant his investigation has been is as vital to him as exposing the killer to justice.
For all that the author was a person of her own era and not ours, and this is often evident in the text, Christie was obviously well aware of the insularity of her own society, since Poirot, throughout many books and stories, regularly encounters English people (of all classes) who are suspicious of foreigners, express xenophobic views, and judge him negatively because he speaks with an accent or dresses in an urban Continental style rather than like an English person.
Ironically, for all that I enjoy the settings, characters, and stories of Christie’s novels, I’m not always impressed by her mystery plots, which often strain credulity too far or just don’t work for me. For example, Murder On the Orient Express, one of her most famous novels, is like that for me. I find the characters and setting very appealing, and the way Poirot goes about figuring out what the murder is actually about and who all the characters really are completely holds my attention. But when we get to the denouement… (Semi-spoiler alert!) The plot solution involves far too much planning and organization among too many people, and just seems completely unbelievable if you’ve ever even tried to plan a weekend with friends or a family vacation. It also requires a bizarrely inexplicable level of obliviousness in the victim, who apparently doesn’t recognize any of the other characters, despite having good reason to recognize a number of them. And yet… apart from thinking the mystery solution was absurd, I really, really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone.
In particular, Christie’s novels work very well in audio format, probably because they’re plot-driven, so they keep moving along briskly. Of the narrators I’ve listened to, actor Hugh Fraser is the best–you forget you’re listening and just fall into the story, he evokes it so well. (He played Hastings, Poirot’s frequent sidekick, in the long-running British TV series starring David Suchet as Hercules Poirot.) However, Agatha Christie being not just a bestseller but a veritable legend, her books generally get top level actors as narrators, and all of them are good.