“Cherry,” by Nico Walker. (Random House, unabridged, eight hours.)
Drawn very much from life, “Cherry,” Nico Walker’s outstanding debut, is a hard-hitting, ghoulishly funny novel about drug addiction, war and bank robbery. Beginning on a note of bathos, our unnamed 25-year-old antihero starts off his day with a blunt needle, “but I hit a vein, no problem. … It’s going to be a lucky day.” Fateful is more like it — and we travel back to a doomed college career, a deep, agonizing love affair, enlistment into the Army and a brutal, scarring spell in Iraq in the early years of that war. Failure is this man’s métier, and serving as an Army medic becomes just another form of it, as the best he can do is apply tourniquets and dispense morphine and gather up pieces of the dead. Eventually, back at home and living with his cherished girlfriend, another addict, his life is reduced to the daily scrabble of getting the next fix. Jeremy Bobb delivers the story in a voice seemingly roughened by the same tobacco smoke that permeates the protagonist, his matter-of-fact tone capturing the steely irony, bleak comedy and resignation that are the book’s dominant moods.
“City of Ink” by Elsa Hart. (Macmillan, unabridged, 12¾ hours.)
“City of Ink” is the third installment in Elsa Hart’s first-rate series starring Li Du, erstwhile Imperial Librarian and now, in 1711, assistant to a chief inspector in Beijing’s Outer City. Brimming with period detail, the plot increases in complexity with every chapter: a double murder; the coming visit of the emperor’s once-disgraced heir apparent; the repercussions of a foiled plot against the Qing emperor by Ming-dynasty loyalists; the suspect doings of a Jesuit. Also playing a part is Li Du’s old friend, Hamza, a storyteller for whom magic spells, charms and the powers of invisibility and flight are matters of course. This droll customer adds an effervescent splash of comedy which narrator David Shih serves by granting him a genial, quizzical manner. Beyond that, Shih delivers the general narration in a pleasant sandy-textured voice, lightening his tone for women and giving a nice degree of arrogance to the many overweening officials who plague the city and the country as a whole.
“The Last Englishman,” by Deborah Baker. (HighBridge, unabridged, 14 hours.)
Brilliantly combining biography and history, Deborah Baker’s “The Last Englishman” dwells on a loose literary and scientific circle during the final throes of the British Empire in India. At its heart are two poets’ brothers — John Auden, a geologist, and Michael Spender, a geographical surveyor. Both men are smitten with the Himalayas and with painter Nancy Sharp, who was married to painter William Coldstream and later, to Spender. Also afoot are Louis MacNeice, Christopher Isherwood, Sonia Brownell (later Orwell), and poet/critic Sudhin Datta. The book, huge in scope, moves through the 1920s through World War II and covers the European conflation of conquering mountain peaks with imperial dominance, grueling expeditions, the struggle for Indian independence, the development of stereographic surveying, the horror of the Blitz and Britain’s cruel treatment of India during the war. James Cameron Stewart narrates this tremendous book in a cultivated British accent at a deliberate pace, allowing the listener to absorb its vast detail. His sober manner is especially effective in conveying Baker’s ironical description of British condescension to the colonized and deadpan accounts of the romantic entanglements of these unconventional, impossible characters.
Minnesota native Katherine A. Powers reviews books for the Wall Street Journal, Barnes & Noble, the Star Tribune and elsewhere. She writes this column for the Washington Post.