Reviews - e-books and audiobooks: Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer; Gill Hornby; Susanna Clarke
Jodi Picoult has sold millions of novels thanks to her brand of "dilemma fiction". Driven by blatant but gripping "what if" questions, her stories zero in on everyday fears: ill children, high school shootings, abusive pasts. Off the Page tautens the new string to Picoult's bow first twanged by Between the Lines. The book is a collaboration with her daughter, Samantha van Leer, and is aimed at Tweens, YAs or what in old currency were called adolescents. Delilah, 16, has materialised Oliver, a fairy-tale prince (think The Princess Bride - Redux). The couple quickly discover that existence is no fairy tale, not least thanks to Delilah's sparky rivalry with class nasties, or "the most ruthless, malicious, soul-sucking creatures on earth: high school". The story, narrated by Oliver and Delilah, maintains your interest with good humour and some sharp dialogue. The e-book version is nicely illustrated by Yvonne Gilbert, whose vivid and witty sketches bring the story to life, even when it collided with my own version of the "fabulous couple".
Extra: Gilbert's illustrations.
Off the Page by Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer (Hodder & Stoughton) (e-book)
The boring bit first: Gill Hornby is the sister of bestselling novelist and screenwriter Nick. She is married to bestselling novelist Robert Harris. But thanks to school-gates comedy The Hive and, now, All Together Now, she is a bestselling novelist in her own right. The title hints at her brother's pop culture obsessions (The Beatles), but it also describes the small-town atmosphere of Bridgeford, where everyone can hear you scream - or sneeze or snore for that matter. The premise echoes J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, when the void left by sudden disaster (in this case a car crash sidelining choir supremo Constance) causes microcosmic chaos in the village. The cast is nicely drawn, if uniformly un-uniform. Bridgeford is the sort of small English town filled with mild eccentrics from the timid Bennett St John to slacker Billy. Passivity is the order of the day until the choir kicks off. It feels eerily like a reality show - and indeed, British TV has a choir saved my life series - but Hornby's way with feel-good plots and gentle social comment mean All Together Now is a cut above.
All Together Now by Gill Hornby (Little, Brown)
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of those rare delights: a meaty, offbeat and addictive entertainment you'll want to pass on to everyone you know. Now a major TV series thanks to the BBC, it seems high time to try it out on audiobook. The story creates a vivid world of magic set in an exaggerated 1806, when Gilbert Norrell arrives in London determined to put wizardry back on the map - one nice irony of the novel's original publication in 2004 was that it landed when wizardry was red hot, thanks to Harry Potter. Having raised the dead to life, Gilbert attains national celebrity and attracts his own sorcerer's apprentice, Jonathan Strange, who exceeds him in talent and also recklessness. Soon he is mucking about with history and forces of nature. The audio quality of John Prebble's narration sounds about a decade old - as if he's using a juice carton as a loud hailer. But the haunting quality, matched by Prebble's antiquated tones that swim easily among an array of voices, only adds to the eccentric atmosphere. Spellbinding.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (read by John Prebble) Bloomsbury (audiobook)