"The Nature of Fragile Things," by Susan Meissner. (Penguin Audio, unabridged. 10⅔ hours.)
Susan Meissner's latest novel is an absorbing, cleverly plotted historical tale of perfidy and pluck. Set chiefly in the first decade of the 20th century, it encompasses the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the subsequent inferno, linked catastrophes that are horrifyingly conjured. At the center is Sophie Whalen, an immigrant from Northern Ireland who has answered an ad placed by a widower seeking a wife and mother for his 5-year-old daughter. The book begins ominously with a transcript of Sophie, 22, being questioned by a U.S. marshal about her husband's whereabouts and activities. Jason Culp narrates this and a later section, bringing an authoritative approach to a tale that is filled with formidable twists, duplicity and stunning revelations. Alana Kerr Collins, herself a native of Northern Ireland, narrates the bulk of the book in a gentle voice as befits Sophie, a caring stepmother and resourceful friend to women, who, it turns out, need her more than she expected.
"The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell," by Lonnie Wheeler. (Blackstone, unabridged, 10 hours.)
In writing this illuminating biography of James "Cool Papa" Bell, Lonnie Wheeler was faced with sketchy records, chaotic seasons and organizations that mutated constantly. In sorting it out, he gives us a richly detailed account of possibly the speediest baseball player in history and, along the way, a fascinating picture of Black baseball in the Jim Crow era. Born poor in Mississippi in 1903, Bell played for many teams, among them the St. Louis Stars, Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords as well as for integrated teams in Latin America and against white teams in exhibitions. A menace on the base paths, a strong batsman and commander of vast territory in the field, Bell and sometime teammates Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Mule Suttles and other talented Black players gave lie to biases that major league officials and owners had about Black players. Narrator David Sadzin parcels out the narrative in an unusual stop-and-go manner that is, nonetheless, easy to follow amid the plethora of detail and ever-shifting contexts.
"The Gates of Athens," by Conn Iggulden. (Recorded Books, unabridged, 14 hours.)
Conn Iggulden begins a new series with two Persian invasions of Greece in the 5th century B.C. In the first, the Athenians eventually demolished Persian King Darius the Great's mighty army at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. Subsequent political huggermugger led to the exile of Athenian generals Xanthippus and Aristides, but the two were called back as the Persians mounted a second, retributive invasion almost a decade later. Spartan King Leonidas, now Athens' ally, held the Persians off for two days at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., allowing for the evacuation of Athens — though the city was lost. Iggulden, a master at describing the tactics and weaponry of the time, depicts both engagements with his customary flair and gift for evoking the turmoil of battle. He also delivers vivid insights on the culture, social arrangements and material detail of Persia, Sparta and Athens. Narrator George Blagden has a fluid, melodic English-accented voice ideal for describing the undercurrents of political intrigue that flow through the tale, his voice rising in force and urgency in depicting armed conflict.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, reviews for the Star Tribune and the Wall Street Journal. She writes this column for the Washington Post.