Quick Audiobook Reviews: Bryan Cranston, John le Carré, Mitchell & Webb and Tony Robinson

cranstonb-alifeinpartsBryan Cranston, A LIFE IN PARTS (Simon & Schuster)

Bryan Cranston landed his first role at seven, when his father, a struggling actor and director, cast him in a commercial. Soon Bryan was haunting the local movie theater, reenacting scenes with his older brother. Acting was clearly his destiny – until one day his father disappeared. 

As a young man on a classic cross-country motorcycle trip, he found himself stranded at a rest area in the Blue Ridge Mountains. To pass the time, he read a tattered copy of Hedda Gabler, and in a flash he found himself face-to-face with his original calling. Suddenly he thought this was what he would do with the rest of his life. Act. 

In his riveting memoir, A Life in Parts, Cranston traces his journey from chaotic childhood to his dramatic epiphany to megastardom and a cultlike following by revisiting the many parts he’s played on camera (astronaut, dentist, candy bar spokesperson, president of the United States, etc.) and off (paperboy, farmhand, dating consultant, murder suspect, son, brother, lover, husband, father). 

With great humour and humility, Cranston chronicles his unlikely rise from a soap opera regular to a recurring spot on Seinfeld. He recalls his run as the well-meaning goofball, Hal, on Malcolm in the Middle, and he gives a bracing account of his challenging run on Broadway as President Lyndon Johnson, pushing himself to the limit as he prepared for a tour de force that would win him a Tony to accompany his four Emmys. And, of course, Cranston dives deep into the grittiest, most fascinating details of his greatest role, explaining how he searched inward for the personal darkness that would help him create one of the most riveting performances ever captured on screen: Walter White, chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin in Breaking Bad. 

Discussing his failures as few men do, describing his work as few actors can, Cranston has much to say about innate talent and its benefits, challenges and proper maintenance, but ultimately A Life in Parts is about the necessity and transformative power of hard work.

This was a fantastic memoir. Brilliantly narrated by the author, of course. He’s had a pretty interesting life, coming to acting relatively late, and working his way up from small parts, to recurring parts, to the epic smash that was Breaking Bad. Not as much of the book was dedicated to the latter show, and was better for it — Cranston is a great storyteller, and his life has been pretty interesting. Readers will learn of his process, his dedication to his work (though also lack of pretension), his confidence in his colleagues, and also plenty of the vagaries of the entertainment industry. A Life in Parts is a really good, engaging biography. Highly recommended (even if you’re not that familiar with his work).

Published in print by Scribner (US)/Orion (UK)

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LeCarreJ-PigeonTunnelUSHCJohn le Carré, THE PIGEON TUNNEL (Penguin)

‘Out of the secret world I once knew, I have tried to make a theatre for the larger worlds we inhabit. First comes the imagining, then the search for reality. Then back to the imagining, and to the desk where I’m sitting now.’ 

The Pigeon Tunnel, John le Carré’s memoir and his first work of nonfiction, is a thrilling journey into the worlds of his ‘secret sharers’ — the men and women who inspired some of his most enthralling novels — and a testament to the author’s extraordinary engagement with the last half century. The listener is swept along not just by the chilling winds of the Cold War or by the author’s frightening journeys into places of terrible violence but, most importantly, by the author’s inimitable voice. 

In this astonishing work, we see our world, both public and private, through the eyes of one of this country’s greatest writers.

This was (perhaps predictably) really interesting. It took me a little while to get into the book, though: to get used to his accent, which is a rather interesting mixture of RP and peculiar versions of words, and also because he didn’t seem to keen on the exercise of narrating in the introduction. However, as he warmed to the task, The Pigeon Tunnel fast became a very engaging, entertaining memoir. The book is filled with interesting insights into the times that inspired his novels, and also his experiences that resulted from his success — not least the strained relationship he ended up having with the secret services (who he never claimed to speak for). He writes/speaks of his abiding love for writing and travel. It is a welcoming audiobook, and feels like you’re having a chat with the great author, perhaps sat in a living room, in front of a fire and drinking brandy or red wine. Definitely recommended for all fans of le Carré’s work.

Published in print by Penguin (UK)/Viking (US)

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mitchellwebbsound-05That Mitchell & Webb Sounds, Series 5 (BBC)

Comedy from the lopsided world of David Mitchell and Robert Webb, with Olivia Colman and James Bachman. 

The radio sketch series which spawned BBC TV’s That Mitchell and Webb Look returns with five brand-new episodes. Among the topics given the unique Mitchell and Webb treatment are the future of farming (battery penguins); Thomas Hardy’s exciting idea to make his books even sadder; the very confusing goings on in a cash-register shop; a horror story for slugs; the Escalator brothers inventing the world’s first horseless staircase; and the very last programme the BBC ever does….

I’m a big fan of That Mitchell & Webb Sound, and before I listened to this, I binge-listened to the first four series again. While Series 5 did make me laugh and chuckle on occasion, I’m afraid it wasn’t as good as the first four. It’s perhaps unfair to compare it to their classic sketches (“Are we the baddies?”, the original recording of Tennyson, etc.), but some of Series 5 dragged. I couldn’t help but think that maybe the writing was a little rushed, or unenthusiastic. I did enjoy the Old Lady Interview with Mitchell & Webb, and there were a few other chuckles, but previous series have had me in stitches. If you’re a fan of the series, I would still certainly recommend it, but newcomers should start at the beginning for bigger and more laughs.

On Audible

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robinsont-nocunningplanukTony Robinson, NO CUNNING PLAN (Macmillan)

Sir Tony Robinson is a much-loved actor, presenter and author with a stellar career lasting over 50 years. Now, in his long-awaited autobiography, he reveals how the boy from South Woodford went from child stardom in the first stage production of Oliver!, a pint-size pickpocket desperately bleaching his incipient moustache, to comedy icon Baldrick, the loyal servant and turnip aficionado in Blackadder. 

It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. Along the way he was bullied by Steve Marriott, failed to impress Liza Minnelli and was pushed into a stinking London dock by John Wayne. He also entertained us with Maid Marion and Her Merry Men (which he wrote and starred in) and coped manfully when locked naked outside a theatre in Lincoln during the live tour of comedy series Who Dares Wins. He presented Time Team for 20 years, watching countless gardens ruthlessly dug up in the name of archaeology, and risked life and limb filming The Worst Jobs in History. 

Packed full of incident and insight, No Cunning Plan is a funny, self-deprecating and always entertaining listen.

I’d had high hopes for this memoir, but it sadly didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Naturally, I was very interested in hearing about the Blackadder years, but they made up a surprisingly small portion of the book. It felt, at times, like Robinson was trying very hard to not write about the Blackadder years. True, that is far from the only thing he has done — and we hear/read about pretty much everything — but it nevertheless felt like it got short shrift. He’s an interesting man, who has done some interesting and often entertaining work. He writes about his upbringing, his early career in entertainment, the struggles in his personal life, and his progressive politics. He is perhaps most enthusiastic about his Time Team work, and his passion for archaeology comes through very clearly. But, ultimately, I was left with a feeling that I still didn’t really know much about Robinson. It was a little strange, perhaps distantly told. Sure, his narration was excellent (he has also done the audiobooks for Terry Pratchett’s series). I can’t quite put my finger on it. I’d thought I would have liked this more.

Published in print by Macmillan

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Covers: The Gorgeous UK Jackets of David Mitchell

MitchellD-NewUK2016

Sceptre has published David Mitchell’s novels in the UK with some truly gorgeous covers (above) — it’s a little hard to tell which of these are recent re-jackets, but I’m pretty sure a number of them are new.

I have still not read anything by Mitchell. I really don’t know why, to be honest. Alyssa’s mother waxes lyrical about his novels on a weekly basis, and I have to say she has excellent taste (I also bought Slade House for her for Xmas). I’ve heard such great things from so very many people about The Bone Clocks, but apparently reading Slade House will point out that they are all (at least in some small way) connected.

Despite writing the other week that I wasn’t going to set any reading goals in 2016, maybe I should propose one: read David Mitchell.

Here are links to the books: Ghostwritten, number9dream, Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green, The Thousand Lives of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks.

New Books (September-October)

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Featuring: Gillian Anderson, Johanna Basford, Jim Butcher, Susan Dennard, David Ellis, Allen Eskens, Richard Ford, Emily Foster, Nick Frost, Neil Gaiman, Louise Hall, Amie Kaufman, Emma Kavanagh, Jay Kristoff, Ann Leckie, Alison Littlewood, Will McIntosh, David Mitchell, Sam Munson, Paul Murray, Linda Nagata, James Patterson, Jeff Rovin, Salman Rushdie, John Seabrook, David Tallerman, Adrian J. Walker, Scott Westerfeld, David Wong

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[Yes, those GIFs have nothing to do with books. So?] Continue reading

Upcoming: SLADE HOUSE by David Mitchell (Hodder)

I’ve still not read anything by David Mitchell, which is probably wrong. Hotter unveiled the UK cover for his next book, SLADE HOUSE, yesterday, and it’s gorgeous:

MitchellD-SladeHouseUK

Here’s the synopsis:

Born out of the short story David Mitchell published on Twitter in 2014 and inhabiting the same universe as his latest bestselling novel The Bone Clocks, this is the perfect book to curl up with on a dark and stormy night.

Turn down Slade Alley — narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn’t quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies.

A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t.

This unnerving, taut and intricately woven tale by one of our most original and bewitching writers begins in 1979 and reaches its turbulent conclusion around Hallowe’en, 2015. Because every nine years, on the last Saturday of October, a ‘guest’ is summoned to Slade House. But why has that person been chosen, by whom and for what purpose? The answers lie waiting in the long attic, at the top of the stairs…

Slade House is published in the UK by Hodder on October 27th, 2015.

New Books (May)

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Featuring: Michael Arnold, Rob Boffard, Mike Brooks, James L. Cambias, Wesley Chu, John Henry Clay, James S.A. Corey, Cindy Dees, Bill Flippin, David Hair, Laurell K. Hamilton, Nalo Hopkinson, Andrew Michael Hurley, N.K. Jemisin, Chuck Klosterman, Gayle Lynds, K.M. McKinley, David Mitchell, Keith Richards, Slash, Bradley Somer, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Mick Wall, Django Wexler, Bill Willingham Continue reading

Quick Review: THINKING ABOUT IT ONLY MAKES IT WORSE by David Mitchell (Faber)

MitchellD-ThinkingAboutItOnlyMakesItWorseA superb collection of Mitchell’s Observer columns

Why is my jumper depreciating? What’s wrong with calling a burglar brave? Why are people so f***ing hung up about swearing? Why do the asterisks in that sentence make it okay? Why do so many people want to stop other people doing things, and how can they be stopped from stopping them? Why is every film and TV programme a sequel or a remake? Why are we so reliant on perpetual diversion that someone has created chocolate toothpaste? Is there anything to be done about the Internet?

These and many other questions trouble David Mitchell as he delights us with a tour of the absurdities of modern life – from Ryanair to Downton Abbey, sports day to smoking, nuclear weapons to phone etiquette, UKIP to hotdogs made of cats. Funny, provocative and shot through with refreshing amounts of common sense, Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse celebrates and commiserates on the state of things in our not entirely glorious nation.

David Mitchell is a comedian, actor, writer and the polysyllabic member of Mitchell and Webb. He won BAFTAs for Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, and has also starred in Jam and Jerusalem, The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff and Ambassadors. He writes for the Observer, chairs TheUnbelievable Truth, is a team captain on Would I Lie To You? and has been in two films, neither of which made a profit.

I have long been a fan of David Mitchell’s television work – That Mitchell & Webb Look, Peep Show (which I was actually didn’t love at first), the all-too-short Ambassadors mini-series, and his frequent guest spots on QI and Have I Got News For You being my favourites. After I listened to the audio edition of his superb memoir, Back Story, my respect for him grew even more (it’s among my top ten ‘reads’ of the year, easily). I didn’t know how frequently he had been writing for the Observer, however, so I was pleasantly surprised when I received a review copy of Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse. This is a great read. Continue reading