Rosamund Pike reads Paula Hawkins; and other audiobooks to make your head spin
Lately I’ve found that audiobooks keep me awake at night. It is not because I devour them in nocturnal crises, unable to tear myself away from them. No I am losing sleep because I am thought too much on some audiobooks. Like a movie watched right before bed or a video game played too many times, a good audiobook sprinkled throughout the day can ring out long after you’ve hit pause. Who is the murderer ? What would I do if I came face to face with a leopard? What must it have been like floating in the middle of the Pacific in the 16th century, plagued by scurvy and months away from home? These three new audiobooks may provide some answers, but expect a fair amount of mental somersaults along the way.
Something remarkable happened about two hours after Paula Hawkins debuted A SLOW BURNING FIRE (Penguin Audio, 9 hours, 19 minutes). I realized that I no longer needed to hear the attribution after the quotes: I could tell who was speaking without being told. Yes, that is a testament to Hawkins’ writing, to the fame of “The Girl on the Train”. But it’s also a testament to the supernatural skills of the audiobook’s narrator, award-winning actress Rosamund Pike. His evocative and precise delivery brings an intelligent thriller to life in a way my imagination alone could never do. Virtually every character is a suspect and every suspect is fully trained, far beyond the clichés to which this genre is subject. Mystery surrounds the murder of a young man living on a barge on a London canal. From there, Hawkins unravels a dense web of troubled family relationships, a meta-narrative in the form of another hit thriller within the plot, and a relentless series of growing tragedies. Along the way, flashes of beautiful writing (“yellow walls of nicotine”) and, in short, a stimulating meditation on envy, love, hate, revenge and other feelings that burn slowly.
Science writer Mary Roach has a similar interest in the human condition; although in her books – on death, sex, the digestive system and more – she takes a significantly less emotional perspective on who we are and why we do what we do. In FUZZ: When nature breaks the law (Brilliance Audio, 9 hours, 17 minutes), Roach turns his obsessive eye and cheeky humor to an age-old question: “What is the right course of action when nature breaks the laws intended for people?” Roach travels the world, from ski towns in Colorado to tea plantations in India to a landfill using robotic hawks, in an effort to understand how we deal with the ever-increasing incidents of human-animal interaction. There are thief monkeys, elusive cougars (“How do you count what you can’t see?”) And murderous trees, all of which point to the real culprit behind the so-called crimes: us.
As the narrator, Roach is not Rosamund Pike. I cringe at her misguided attempts to impersonate the intonations of Indian bureaucrats and environmentalists she meets on her travels. (Her penchant for drawling the Yogi when she gives a theoretical voice to a bear is much more charming.) Is brilliant ”). And the travel story moments that interrupt deep zoological dives offer personal authenticity to a tale that otherwise could have been easily detached and dry.
If you’ve never gazed at the ceiling and gazed at the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, well, brace yourselves. CONQUEST THE PACIFIC: An Unknown Sailor and the Last Great Voyage of the Age of Discovery (HarperAudio, 6 hours, 6 minutes), by Andrés Reséndez, tells of the coronation of a relatively unknown navigator named Lope Martín, who in the mid-sixteenth century piloted the first ship on what was known as “la vuelta”, a return to the Americas to across the Pacific from the Philippines. If the setting in motion of centuries of trade, exploitation and trans-Pacific migration wasn’t remarkable enough, Reséndez asks us to consider the odds against Martín as an Afro-Portuguese pilot working for the Spaniards. He writes that while black sailors were not unknown at the time, Martín was “rare enough to stand out”, especially since he rubbed shoulders with ship captains, viceroys and clergy.
Although the audiobook – narrated in the warm, fuzzy tones of a PBS documentary by actor Phil Morris – covers all the deliciously whimsical details of Martín’s journey (mutinies, murders, and stabbing abound), listeners hopefully only adventure stories can be disappointed. In fact, Reséndez is so determined to provide historical, geological and cultural context that the story of the “vuelta” doesn’t really begin until an hour and 20 minutes after the story begins. Before, during and after, long explanations on the tides and the whirlpools, the maritime explorers and the first colonizers, the territorial disputes and the fortuitous agreements. It is fitting that the book begins with a description of the Pacific from space. As Reséndez makes clear, there is much more to think about here than just one person’s ocean voyage.