Reviews: fiction e-books and audiobooks: Front Runner, The Martian and Sword of the North

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 September, 2015, 9:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 September, 2015, 9:02pm

Front Runner by Felix Francis (read by Martin Jarvis)

Bolindar Publishing (audiobook)

Often you listen to an audiobook because of the author. Sometimes it's the subject, the cover or even the price. Occasionally, however, you see the narrator's name and are intrigued. British actor Martin Jarvis could lay claim to being the godfather of the audiobook with his one-man shows doing works by P.G. Wodehouse and Richmal Crompton. Although Felix Francis is the literary headline act, the cover adds that this is "a Dick Francis novel". For those not in the know, both authors specialise in equine crime, here investigated by recurring sleuth Jefferson Hinkley. Working undercover, Hinkley finds himself embroiled in a race-fixing scandal that climaxes with the apparent murder of champion jockey Dave Swinton. It almost goes without saying that poking his nose in where it isn't wanted lands Hinkley in a world of trouble. Jarvis reads with the same passion he reserved for recreating Oscar Wilde's trial. He finds voices to bring Francis' enjoyable, if not especially deep, characters to life.

The Martian by Andy Weir (read by R.C. Bray)

Podium Publishing (audiobook)

Andy Weir's The Martian has come a long way, in more ways than one. Starting life as series of chapters on Weir's blog, the story was eventually self-published on Amazon where, selling for US 99 cents, it became a global e-book hit and a New York Times bestseller. Now The Martian is a film starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott. Phew. Weir's success story is even more remarkable given the original book. On its face, the plot is simple and familiar enough: Robinson Crusoe in outer space. Having become the first man to land on Mars, Mark Watney finds himself alone and stranded after a sudden storm forces his crew to abandon the planet in the belief their captain has been killed. The prose is a mix of hard-bitten hardman (opening line: "I'm pretty much f***ed") and exhaustively explained science. R.C. Bray invests the crude but bouncy writing ("Yays", "Boos" and "blah blahs") with real character. His basso profundo voice sounds cynical and weather-beaten, which fits Watney to a tee. Great fun.

Sword of the North by Luke Scull (read by Joe Jameson)

Audible (audiobook)

Luke Scull is a pleasing name for the author of a series called The Grim Company. Of course, Scull would be even more pleasing if rowing were involved, but the main form of "rowing" is tribal disagreements and bloody battles in a land that George R.R. Martin might have built. Sword of the North is Scull's central protagonist, Brodar Kayne, who gathered a small army of misfits to stave off the chaos left after the Tolkeinesque White Lady succeeded the tyrant Salazar. With echoes of the wars afflicting the Middle East, Dorminia crumbles under civil strife. Something similar has happened to our band of uneasy brothers, who after some martial disagreements are pursuing solo careers. Besides Kayne and his right-hand man, Jerek the Wolf, we follow troubled soul Sasha, the humiliated hero Davarus Cole and nasty Sir Meredith. Joe Jameson is a winning narrator, slightly more boyish than Scull's terse prose but good on voices and pace. He is ideal for this rough stuff: "He heard bone crack, felt cartilage break beneath the force of the blow."