Reviews - e-books and audiobooks: Mockingbird and Grapes sequels
Reese Witherspoon reads Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, while Richard Poe's narration of John Steinbeck's The Wayward Bus is assured and knowing
Well, here it is at long last. Fifty-five years after her modern classic To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee has published a sequel, of sorts, set 20 years after the celebrated trial of Tom Robinson. Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, who narrated Lee's debut, is an adult who travels from New York to Alabama to visit her father, the lawyer Atticus. One of To Kill a Mockingbird's few survivors, he is changed nevertheless. Gone is the liberal hero replaced by an ageing bigot out of step with his racially charged times. To Kill a Mockingbird is as hard to follow as an audiobook as it is as a conventional book. The wonderful Sissy Spacek was a perfect Scout, despite being roughly 10 times her age. Perhaps this is why Lee's publisher reached for the A-list Reese Witherspoon, who reads the adult Scout with a nice southern twang. She isn't the most fluent reader, but then Scout isn't the most fluent narrator, and by the end, both convince even if the novel itself is quieter and less pulsating than the original.
Go Tell a Watchman by Harper Lee (read by Reese Witherspoon) Random House (audiobook)
First published in 1957, The Wayward Bus was the successor to The Grapes of Wrath. Yet while it was a vast commercial hit, critics were sniffy, initially at least. This excellent new audiobook fares considerably better than the film adaptation, which starred Joan Collins and Jayne Mansfield. It catches the loose, baggy nature of the story, which is set at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere - deserted save for a small bus depot and nine major characters. There is George, the African-American who sweeps the terminal; melancholy Alice Chicoy, whose husband, Juan, owns the bus and runs a small lunch counter; Norma is the waitress for them - when she isn't dreaming of Clark Gable. It is a plotless but arresting mosaic of small-town America. The challenge for Richard Poe is to distinguish between characters. His narrative voice is assured, weathered and knowing. And while he favours the impish Ernest Horton, he brings to life the dreamy Norma and an unnamed blonde with equal skill. Fantastic.
The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck (read by Richard Poe) Penguin Audio (audiobook)
Way Down Dark hitches an intergalactic ride on the juggernaut genre known as the young adult apocalypse. It's the end of the world as we know it, again, but we feel fine. James P. Smythe, the author of four previous works of dark science fiction, is good enough to pull off his own vision. The earth is on its last legs - again - and humankind piles onto a spaceship, nicely called Australia, hoping for a new home. "Being here is better than nothing," says Chan, our 17-year-old narrator. "It has to be." Yet, as tends to happen wherever earthlings congregate, civilisation quickly goes to the dogs. Several gangs, each nastier and more ruthless than the last, compete for power. As the baddest of all, the Lows, come to the fore, weakness becomes a luxury. Chan is an engaging heroine, ordinary and extraordinary all at once. Her attempt to be a role model veers between fear and sacrifice, which bubbles up to a smart twist in the tail. As there are two episodes to come, this sets things up very nicely indeed. Smythe is a real talent.
Way Down Dark by James P. Smythe (Hodder & Stoughton) (e-book)