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E-books and audiobooks

Book reviews: fiction from Henry James, Veronica Roth and Philip Roth

Emma Thompson’s narration of The Turn of the Screw, a dystopia for young adults and Dessner’s complaints are this week’s selections

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 March, 2016, 2:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 March, 2016, 2:00pm

The Turn of the Screw

by Henry James (read by Emma Thompson)

Audible Studios (audiobook)

4 stars

Henry James’ classic ghost story has had its fair share of adaptations: Benjamin Britten recast it for an opera, Harold Pinter directed a play, and there have been versions on screens big and small, often under other titles (The Innocents, Presence of Mind, In a Dark Place). One wonders who is the draw in this new audiobook: Henry James, the great writer who swerved between 19th and 20th century literature, or Oscar-winner Emma Thompson. Thompson reminds us that we are hearing the memories of a governess, who we are told is already dead. She was hired, in classic Victorian fashion, as a governess to two young orphans, Flora and Miles, at a country estate called Bly. When the smooth hirer absents himself, all hell slowly, creepily breaks loose. Like his uncle, Miles is charming but unsettling, expelled from school though the reasons remain murky. Even murkier are the ghostly figures glimpsed around Bly. These, we are told by Mrs Grose the housekeeper, are Peter Quint and the former governess, Miss Jessel, both deceased. Thompson can do the initial perky optimism with ease, but proves more than adept at losing the hope and building the tension until the story’s justly famous conclusion.

Allegiant

by Veronica Roth (read by Emma Galvin and Aaron Stanford)

Harper Collins (audiobook)

4 stars

The cinema release of Allegiant concludes an enjoyable adaptation of Veronica Roth’s dystopian trilogy for readers of all ages, but mainly those in their teens. What better time, then, to check out an audiobook of part three, which observant listeners will notice is read by two narrators. This is important in a number of ways, and hints at the dark ending. For the first three quarters, however, it means we get access to Four, a sort of gladiatorial trainer for our crack team of fighters, for the first time. He is the deadly but hunky foil to our heroine Tris Prior, who is starting to see the conspiracy that lurks beneath the apocalyptic version of Chicago that she calls home. Conveniently, this is intimately connected to Tris’ own fraught family background – mother and father issues a-go-go. What dignifies the occasionally derivative story (hints of Twilight and The Hunger Games) is the climax which is both satisfying and devastating. Aaron Stanford does an impressive job as Four, utterly convincing as an intense young man facing impossible choices. The added perspective enhances Tris rather than diminishing her, which Emma Galvin exploits with an emotive, no-holds-barred narration.

Indignation

by Philip Roth (read by Ray Chase)

Blackstone Audio (audiobook)

4.5 stars

This is Philip Roth’s 29th novel, and one of a quartet of short, late works (see also Everyman, The Humbling and Nemesis) that suggest his powers of creativity are as strong as at any time in his career. Like the other three novels from this period, Indignation is set in the not too distant past: here, 1951. At the centre is Marcus Dessner, a 19-year-old Rothesque hero (a Jewish Newarker with sex, parental and identity issues) who swaps New Jersey for Winesberg, Ohio. The date is significant. The Korean war has just started, and we quickly learn it will claim Marcus’ short life. As in Nemesis, the oft-stated brightness of a young man’s future is continually ironised by the proximity of illness, failure and death. Narrating from beyond the grave is nothing new, but it takes skill to speak as Marcus in his “endless nothing”, recalling his ambitious but petrified father and the brief stabs of sexual pleasure he experiences with the unstable Olivia. Ray Chase does a fine job of reading the insistent, percussive rhythms of the prose, maintaining the sense but avoiding monotony. Somehow Roth and Chase convince you of a story at once realistic and otherworldly.