Book World: the sordid history of the Borgias and other great audiobooks for your playlist


"The Borgias: power and depravity in Renaissance Italy"

At the center of Paul Strathern's agile biography of this clan of power-hungry criminals is Rodrigo Borgias, Pope Alexander VI from 1492 to his death in 1503; his son Cesare, a fratricidal cardinal, who became a syphilitic military commander; and daughter, Lucrezia, astute, capable player and pawn. Vice chancellor of five popes before becoming himself pontiff, Rodrigo sought a united Italy governed by a hereditary papacy of Borgia. To this end, he employed the diplomatic cunning, military aggression, assassination, betrayal and strategic marriages of his children. Lucrezia's first husband was sent as a helpless; the second was poisoned, then strangled; the third, although horned, survived. Meanwhile, Cesare, a "self-confident and duplicated blowhard", probably had a hand in the murder of his brother Juan and led military campaigns to bring the states of Italian cities under papal control. His favorite tactic: the betrayal of his allies. This complex, even if understandable, story – a story of deceit, cruelty, murder, laziness and geopolitical ambitions – is told at a clear and lively pace by Julian Elfer, who gives a special pleasure to the musical grace of his Italian pronunciation. (Tantor, Unabridged, 11 1/4 hours)

"The Singapore Grip"

More than 40 years after its publication, "The Singapore Grip", the masterfully comic final volume of J.G. The trilogy of Farrell's Empire is finally available. (The novel, which won the Booker Farrell award, is also transformed into a ITV drama series.) Set on the eve of the Japanese invasion of the British colony of Singapore in 1942, the book focuses on Walter Blackett, a proprietary rubber plantation who is willing to celebrate the jubilee of his company even if the hell is unleashing in Southeast Asia. A ruthless business man, Blackett takes the rigors of making a profit as a natural law and is stunned as his workforce abandons him. The narrator Mike Grady transmits the devastating irony of the novel and the disturbing surreal with dry perfection. He gives Blackett the happy Midlands accent of the hard-nosed capitalist and provides subtly appropriate entries for many other characters in the novel. Among them are the monotonous and dissolute son of Blackett, Monty, who is planning to avoid military service; his daughter, Giovanna, a human viper; and the human condition, an old mangy spaniel with his worries. In this production we have the union of a great storyteller and a superb novel. (Random House Audio, Unabridged, 25 1/3hours)

"Step of the elevator"

Linwood Barclay takes one of the most frustrating aspects of modern city life – waiting for the elevator in a skyscraper – and turns it into horror and suspense. Suddenly the Manhattan elevators seem to have their own minds, darting up and down regardless of potential exasperated riders, crashing between floors, crashing free through the well and killing people in a very gruesome way. It's a big headache for Mayor Richard ("don't call me Dick") Headley. Should you order the shutdown of the over 60,000 elevators in this vertical city? A corpse without fingers and a man's face becomes a piece of the puzzle. A taxi explodes. An alt-right group may be involved – or is it a matter of Cherchez le Russe? Journalist Barbara Matheson begins her investigations, as do police officers Jerry Bourque and Lois Delgado. The strained mother-daughter and father-son drama peeps out. Johnathan McClain narrates the novel – which is as witty as it is exciting – with a harsh voice, like a big city, cleverly adapted to capture men and women, New Yorkers and out of town. The slightly improbable denouement of the novel can reassure us that this could not actually happen. Probably. (HarperAudio, Unabridged, 13 hours)

Powers reviews the audiobooks every month for The Washington Post.

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