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Blog: Your Own Harshest Critic

Having spent this past year reviewing, promoting, critiquing, and consulting here in my somewhat-tea-stained corner of the internet, I've spent many hours sharing my opinion of the audiobooks I've encountered in 2019.

There have been some I've loved, and others that I've struggled with, but I have always appreciated the effort required to bring those books to listeners.

Earlier this year I discovered that one of my audiobook group's favourite authors, Ben Aaronovitch, had included exclusive short stories in the Waterstones editions of some of his Peter Grant/Rivers of London novels. I managed to get hold of the one from Lies Sleeping, which contained a short Christmas story about Peter's cousin, Abigail. As it is only available in print, and many of my group have an illness or disability that means they cannot sight-read much text, I set about reading it aloud for them. (As Christmas gifts go, it's definitely the kind that you hope the giver has left the tag on.)

I had completely underestimated how long it would take me to slowly cobble together something passable, juggling the limitations of both my rapidly dwindling energy and devastating lack of any discernable talent. I know it takes a professional narrator-producer six hours of work for each finished hour we listen to, but I had not accounted for my own technological ineptitude when deciding that this would be a good idea. At one point, around half way through, I somehow forgot how to breathe and ended up with pins and needles in my nose. I'm fairly certain that doesn't happen to Stephen Fry, though it may be what gives my favourite author-narrator, Neil Gaiman, his distinctive nasal edge...

Eventually, after much cursing, and youtubing how to edit various sound files together, I had something that would do. It's not like they had any other options, so how badly could it be received? (They were actually very kind, and far more so than I deserved.)

And on that note... Presented here for your amusement, I offer a critical review of the aforementioned short story and its hapless narrator. This is dedicated to all the storytellers who have been throwing darts at me since I corrected their pronunciation or berated them for leaving their phone on in the studio.



A stylised drawing of a fox from Pixabay, curled on a pile of leaves. Text below reads 'Merry Christmas'. The border is blue.
Favourite Uncle by Ben Aaronovitch.
A Waterstones Exclusive short story.
Overall: 3 stars ⭐⭐⭐
Story: 4 stars⭐⭐⭐⭐
Narration:  One star⭐
Duration: 27 minutes.

Favourite Uncle accompanies the Folly's youngest apprentice on a Christmas Day investigation in 2013, and gives us greater insight into Abigail's family and life at home. As determined and capable as ever, she investigates a festive interloper and tackles him head-on, devising a solution that only Abigail (and perhaps Peter) could.

As heartwrenching as it is heartwarming, Abigail's Christmas day is full of spirit, and helps explain her uncompromising and courageous nature. She is a little girl with a big future, but she has very good reason not to look too far ahead.

It does feel hastily written in places, but for a freebie with limited distribution - and despite its brevity - it certainly wrings plenty of emotion from the listener.

The narrator, Kate, was a disappointment. Abigail is such a sassy character and in the novels narrated by the marvellous Kobna Holdbrook Smith she has a very distinctive South London accent. Kate admits in the blurb that she could not even attempt to mimick it, but as she shares a home town with Lorraine Stanley who plays Karen Taylor in Eastenders, I'm sure she could have gotten a little closer to it than just a lazy Pompey dialect if she'd tried. Though she had obviously taken care to tone-down the box-fresh gleam to her usual voice, she still sounded like a suburban white girl who grew up collecting stamps and wanting to be a Blue Peter Presenter, which teeters perilously on the brink of erasing Abigail's half-Sierra Leonean heritage. Aiming to imitate that, however, may have been even more offensive, so perhaps it was for the best that she did not try to copy Kobna's performance.

Kate did manage to give the most important characters distinctive enough voices to not be confusing, and there was more depth to her male voices than those of the girls and Babs' mother, as you'd expect. It was a shame, however, that Babs' mum - whom we are told hails from Harrogate - had a very generic 'mum voice' which did not contain any hint of her Yorkshire roots. It felt almost as though the narrator had failed to read the story properly to decide upon the characters' accents ahead of time. This potential lack of research also showed in the mispronunciation of place names from various regions, including - but not limited to - Cornwall, Tufnell Park, and France.

As well as sounding as if it were recorded on the narrator's mobile phone, possibly with a blanket over her head to muffle some of the ambient noise and cat-purring, it is especially unfortunate that whoever proofed this audio did not notice the sound of the narrator's stomach gurgling at about 11 minutes in. This is particularly unpleasant to listen to through headphones.

What Kate's slightly thin reading did do was let Abigail's story speak for itself to some extent. As such, it wasn't too difficult to sit back and imagine the Abigail we know and love as she superimposed her redoubtable personality upon this pale imitation, like paint on a plain canvas.

Whilst I appreciated the effort made by the narrator, I felt that her inexperience (and apparent failure to properly load up on biscuits beforehand) betrayed her in the end. I hope that a professional audio collection of the Waterstones exclusive short stories is released soon, recorded by someone who can really do Abigail justice. Until then, this version isn't too bad if you can look past its flaws, and it is at least better than nothing.

Though I feel that the narrator's most promising future endeavour will be in mime, I'm very much looking forward to the author's next Rivers of London book, False Value, which will be released in February.

Click here to pre-order False Value by Ben Aaronovitch.

*All copyright for this short story belongs to Ben Aaronovitch, and if he, his people, or the Parliament of Foxes request that the audio be taken down then it will disappear faster than Toby with a string of sausages. It is not my wish to infringe upon anyone else's rights or work, only to make a story that is very hard to get hold of accessible to the many disabled fans who cannot enjoy it any other way.


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