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On Audio

When favorite writers disappoint

One problem with Julie Powell’s “Cleaving,’’ is Powell’s narration, which turns self-conscious and brittle when she describes her failings. One problem with Julie Powell’s “Cleaving,’’ is Powell’s narration, which turns self-conscious and brittle when she describes her failings. (Kelly Campbell)
By Rochelle O’Gorman
Globe Correspondent / January 10, 2010

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One’s high hopes are not always met when sampling new efforts by favorite authors. Three audiobooks published toward the end of 2009 provide sadly uneven results.

Julie Powell, she of “Julie and Julia’’ fame, proved to be the most disconcerting. The woman can write, or at least blog, in an entertaining and engaging manner. However, one wonders whether we really need to know about her messy, miserable, adulterous life.

“Cleaving,” which is all over the place, begins with her work in a New York butcher shop, continues on to an extremely sordid affair, and ends up with a collection of travel essays from a trip that sounds as disjointed as her life. And just to make sure there aren’t any smooth transitions in the book, every once in a while she throws in a recipe. (These are included in a PDF on one of the discs.)

Though they feel tacked on, the essays about her excursions abroad are, in fact, the best part of the audiobook. With the exception of a near assault when visiting the Masai in Africa, Powell is at her most amusing describing her adventures in the abattoirs and with the meats of other lands.

Part of the problem with listening to this is that Powell reads it. It is not her performance, which is generally quite good, especially given that she is a not a professional narrator. She can, however, sound brittle and uncomfortable when reading about her affairs, one-night stands, and many other personal problems, and her discomfort becomes ours. If an actress had read this book our level of unease may have been somewhat reduced, but as it stands, parts of her story can actually make a listener cringe.

A lighter and far less stressful audiobook is “Good Omens,” the collaboration between the wildly imaginative minds of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. In this comic novel, the apocalypse is imminent, though it may be held off by the unlikely friendship of an angel, Aziraphale, and a demon, Crowley. Both have been living on earth for quite some time and rather like it. Hate to see it end, in fact.

The halting of total annihilation is no easy task, especially since the anti-Christ, who must usher in the apocalypse, doesn’t quite realize who he really is because of a switch-up at birth. The four “Horsepersons of the Apocalypse,’’ who learn of the exchange, are zipping around on Harleys trying to find the Satan child, only to encounter the “other Four Horsemen,’’ a chapter of Hell’s Angels. Also trying to find the anti-Christ is Anathema Device, who owns the only copy of an astonishing accurate, prophetic book written by one of her ancestors, Agnes Nutter, a 17th-century witch.

“Good Omens” was originally published as a young-adult fantasy title in 1990, but has been released by the adult arm of Harper Collins. Smart move, because most adults might have bypassed this delicious farce, and it is just too clever to miss, especially with Martin Jarvis narrating. The story is set in England and Jarvis is one of those classically trained Brits who can conjure up a million different voices and deliver arch humor and dry asides with much aplomb. A couple of his voices are a little silly, but since the material is a fast-paced, over-the-top parody of apocalyptic novels and movies, we can forgive him a few minor glitches. Overall his deep voice and lovely diction, along with a seemingly full cast of his characters, make this much more fun to hear than read to oneself.

Barbara Kingsolver’s newest turns out to be an enormous disappointment, perhaps the biggest audiobook letdown of the year. This is the woman who wrote “The Poisonwood Bible” and “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.” Both were well written and well received, which is probably why “The Lacuna” seems such a dud. We expect more from her than a bloated, didactic, historical novel that commits the unforgivable sin of being boring.

Even worse, she narrates this herself. So this tale of an American whose life becomes entangled with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Tolstoy is told by someone with a thin voice, a singsong delivery, and a less then a stellar knack for adopting different voices. The best that can be said about Kingsolver’s narration is that her foreign pronunciations sound correct. Sadly, this is a deadly combination of a narrator who annoys rather than disappears into the story, and a novel that lectures rather then engrosses. Hopefully, this will prove to be a glitch in Kingsolver’s career and not a sign of things to come.

Rochelle O’Gorman is a syndicated audiobook critic.

CLEAVING: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession
By Julie Powell
Hachette Audio, unabridged nonfiction, nine CDs, 10 hours and 30 minutes, $29.98, read by the author. Also available as a download from www.audible.com; $20.99.

GOOD OMENS: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch
By Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Harper Audio, unabridged fiction, 10 CDs, 12 hours and 30 minutes, $39.99, read by Martin Jarvis. Also available as a download from www.audible.com; $27.99.

THE LACUNA
By Barbara Kingsolver
Harper Audio, unabridged fiction, 16 CDs, 19 hours and 30 minutes, $44.99; read by the author. Also available as a download from www.audible.com; $31.49.