“Lincoln: A Novel,” by Gore Vidal. (Brilliance Audio, unabridged, 33 hours)
Six of the seven books making up Gore Vidal’s brilliant cycle of novels, “Narratives of Empire,” have not been available in audio form for years, and, indeed, had never been released as audio downloads, until this year. Now you can listen to “Burr,” “Lincoln” and “1876,” which are read magnificently by Grover Gardner. They are all first-rate, but “Lincoln” is my favorite, not only because it is the longest, but because of the complexity of Vidal’s portrait of this determined, flawed and tragic man.
Beginning with Lincoln’s inauguration and ending shortly after his death, the book goes through the Civil War not only as it was directed — and misdirected — by Lincoln, his cabinet and his passel of generals, but also how the war affected the town of Washington itself, a hive of secessionists, spies and assassins. Vidal gives wicked, witty renditions of the infighting, backstabbing and vainglory of such troublesome men as Gen. George B. McClellan, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and John Wilkes Booth. But he draws Lincoln — his voice like “a tenor trumpet” as Vidal puts it and Gardner fulfills — with compassion and genius, making this one of the truly great historical novels.
“Reasons to Be Cheerful,” by Nina Stibbe. (Penguin Books, Ltd., unabridged, 9 hours)
Nina Stibbe’s third, semi-autobiographical novel follows “Man at the Helm” and “Paradise Lodge,” and is just as exuberantly witty as its predecessors. It’s 1980, and the central character, Lizzie Vogel of Leicester, England, is now 18 with no special skills except the ability to blow perfect smoke rings and do spot-on impressions of Prince Charles. She is working as a dental assistant and, on occasion, as a dental practitioner — for which she has no qualifications aside from bravado. The dentist himself is an unlovely specimen — racist, ungenerous and vain, a man whose two ruling goals are to become a Freemason and to continue his blood line.
Lizzie lives in a small apartment whose great feature is its washing machine, an irresistible lure to the young man upon whom she has designs. Gemma Whelan (who played Yara Greyjoy in “Game of Thrones”) narrates the story in a clear, young English voice. She delivers its many droll observations with flawless timing, while still conveying some of the poignancy of a young woman becoming an adult.
“The Substitution Order,” by Martin Clark. (Recorded Books, unabridged, 13½ hours)
Martin Clark’s fifth ingenious legal thriller presents us with the unhappy spectacle of Kevin Moore, disbarred trial lawyer, once of Roanoke, now on parole working in a sub shop in Stuart, Va., thanks to his conviction on drug charges. He has lost his wife and his reputation but intends to keep his nose clean and regain his license.
Alas, he is seized upon as a useful tool by some major-league scam artists. When he refuses to take part in their multimillion-dollar insurance fraud scheme, he is set up with planted cocaine and a phony drug test. Shortly after, he suffers a stroke, a misfortune that is compounded by his health insurance company attempting to stiff him. But Kevin is nobody’s patsy, and he puts together a truly diabolical plan of revenge that will bring gladness to every listener’s ears. The book is narrated by David Aaron Baker, a Southerner himself and an accomplished actor whose calm, rueful delivery accords with the sly humor of this terrifically entertaining book.
Minnesota native Katherine A. Powers reviews for the Wall Street Journal, the Star Tribune and elsewhere. She writes this column for the Washington Post.