“The Borgias: Power and Depravity in Renaissance Italy.” By Paul Strathern. (Tantor, unabridged, 11¼ hours.)
At the center of Paul Strathern’s nimble biography of this clan of power-hungry miscreants is Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI from 1492 to his death in 1503; his son Cesare, fratricidal cardinal turned syphilitic military commander; and daughter, Lucrezia, canny, capable power player and pawn. Vice chancellor to five popes before becoming pontiff himself, Rodrigo strove for a united Italy governed by a hereditary Borgia papacy. To this end, he employed diplomatic cunning, military aggression, assassination, treachery and the strategic marriages of his children. Lucrezia’s first husband was dispatched as impotent; the second was poisoned, then strangled; the third, though cuckolded, survived. Meanwhile, Cesare, a “duplicitous, self-confident braggart,” probably had a hand in his brother Juan’s murder and led the military campaigns to bring Italy’s city states under papal control. His preferred tactic: betrayal of his allies. This complex, though comprehensible, history — a tale of deceit, cruelty, murder, lechery and geopolitical ambition — is narrated at a clear, brisk pace by Julian Elfer, who gives special pleasure in the musical grace of his Italian pronunciation.
“The Singapore Grip.” By J.G. Farrell. (Random House Audio, unabridged, 25⅓ hours)
More than 40 years after its print publication, the mordantly comic final volume of J.G. Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, is finally available. Set on the eve of the Japanese invasion of the British colony of Singapore in 1942, “The Singapore Grip” centers on Walter Blackett, a rubber plantation owner who is intent on celebrating his firm’s jubilee even as all hell is breaking loose in Southeast Asia. A ruthless businessman, Blackett takes the stringencies of making a profit as natural law and is astounded as his workforce abandons him. Narrator Mike Grady conveys the novel’s devastating irony and ghoulish surreality with dry perfection. He gives Blackett the blunt Midlands accent of the hard-nosed capitalist and provides subtly appropriate voices for the novel’s many other characters. Among them are Blackett’s feckless, dissolute son, Monty, who is scheming to avoid military service; his daughter, Joan, a human viper; and the Human Condition, an elderly, mangy spaniel with his own preoccupations. In this production we have the union of a great narrator and a superb novel.
“Elevator Pitch.” By Linwood Barclay. (HarperAudio, unabridged, 13 hours)
Linwood Barclay takes one of the more frustrating aspects of modern city life — waiting for the elevator in a high-rise building — and turns it into horror and white-knuckle suspense. Suddenly the elevators in Manhattan seem to have minds of their own, whizzing up and down, stalling between floors, plummeting in free fall through the shaft, and killing people in a most gruesome way. It’s a big headache for Mayor Richard Headley. Should he order the shutdown of this vertical city’s 60,000-plus elevators? A fingerless, mangled-face corpse becomes a piece in the puzzle. A taxi explodes. An alt-right group may be implicated. Journalist Barbara Matheson begins her own investigations, as do police officers Jerry Bourque and Lois Delgado. Tense mother-daughter and father-son drama bubbles up. Johnathan McClain narrates the novel in a hard-edge, big-city voice deftly adjusted to capture men and women, New Yorkers and out-of-towners. The novel’s slightly improbable denouement may reassure us that this couldn’t actually happen. Probably.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, reviews books for the Wall Street Journal, the Star Tribune and elsewhere. She writes this column for the Washington Post.