E-book and audiobook fiction reviews: The Revenant, Room and more

Michael Punke's reworking of a classic survival tale that inspired epic Leonardo DiCaprio film is read just right by Jeff Harding, while Emma Donoghue's very different survival tale sounds theatrical in a four-handed narration

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 January, 2016, 2:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 January, 2016, 5:06pm

The Revenant

by Michael Punke (read by Jeff Harding)

Harper Collins (audiobook)

There are a lot of “revenants” around. Originating in France as “people returned from the dead”, they star in a nicely chilling TV series and as chic zombies in an enjoyable series of Young Adult novels by Amy Plum. This “revenant” is also a return – of Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest bout of overflowing facial hair in pursuit of an Oscar: a film of the book has just been released. Actually Michael Punke tells the real-life blockbuster story of American frontiersman Hugh Glass. A sort of Jack London character made flesh, he has been left for dead in the middle of a wild nowhere (actually near the Missouri River), surrounded by terrifying people (vicious fur traders, nervous Native Americans) and attacked by an even more terrifying bear. The action hits hard and fast, but the narrative takes its time in explaining why and how he got there, and tracing his revenge on those that did the dirty deed.

Top audiobook narrator Jeff Harding sounds just right. His voice is hard with just enough rough edges to suggest he might have hunkered by a camp fire and battled himself. He knows when to slow the pace – to describe landscape or state of mind – and inject urgency in the action sequences. I can’t imagine how Leo could be better.

Room

by Emma Donoghue (narrated by various)

Pan MacMillan (audiobook)

Emma Donoghue’s unsettling, but oddly captivating Room was a critical and commercial hit back in 2010 – it sold by the bucketload and earned a Man Booker shortlisting. I remember saying at the time that it felt too entertaining to win, which is odd given the subject matter. Inspired by the horror shows perpetrated by the Joseph Fritzls of this world, Donoghue turns the nightmares of the titular locked room into a strange and moving meditation on love and survival. Room is refreshing in part for its narration by five-year old Jack, whose entire world is concentrated on his Ma, the small room they inhabit and Old Nick, who we slowly learn kidnapped Ma seven years earlier. Ma knowing differently lets him believe that everything else is an invention of television. The slow-broiling tension builds from Ma’s realisation that Old Nick may be about to kill them and her resolution to escape. The denouement, which follows their differing responses to the “real world”, takes four different narrators. The dialogue-heavy prose feels almost theatrical. Jack is read with sensitivity and conviction by actress Michal Friedman. Ma is gloriously portrayed by Ellen Archer’s melancholic tones and Robert Petkoff is a chilling Old Nick (I won’t spoil Suzanne Toren’s fantastic contribution). A fine collaboration.

And Then There Were None

by Agatha Christie (read by Dan Stevens)

Harper Collins (audiobook)

When the BBC decided to dramatise Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, it didn’t come as a surprise. It is arguably the most popular novel by one of history’s most popular novelists: as recently as last autumn, it won a poll launched the author’s estate to find her favourite work. The premise is a Christie to end all Christies: the author herself admitted that resolving its apparent impossibility was its attraction. Ten seemingly unconnected people are summoned to a mansion on an island off England’s Devon coast. Over dinner they are played a record accusing each one of keeping a dark secret. Before you can say “murder mystery” they are being killed, one by one, in a diabolical homage to the nursery rhyme Ten Little Soldier Boys. So, while Mrs Ethel Rogers seems to die in her sleep and Emily Brent is stung with poison, poor Thomas Rogers is cut in half with an axe and William Blore floored by a bear-shaped clock. Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame is suited both to mansions and mysteries. His reading is so louche that I imagined him recording while draped across a chaise longue. He seems unsurprised by the horrors he recounts, unafraid to journey into the unknown.