When I heard – here at AudioGals of course! – that Laura Kinsale planned to release her books in audio format, I was, well, to say excited is probably the understatement of the year. I’ve followed her progress via her interviews here and feel very privileged, as one of the newest reviewers at AudioGals, to have been given an advance copy of one of the first batch of titles for review.
I have to confess that I haven’t read Midsummer Moon, but knowing I was going to be listening to it, I read a few synopses and a mixture of reviews and quickly realized that it’s a book that seems to divide opinion. I can certainly understand now why that is the case – the idea of Merlin inventing prototypes of both the telegraph and aeroplane does rather stretch credulity and Ransom can come across as dictatorial and somewhat unsympathetic at times. But as sometimes happens with audiobooks, that which may come across as implausible or unpleasant on the page, can be transformed by an intelligent, engaging performance and a new light shed on a character or characters’ motivations and actions.
And that is most certainly the case in Midsummer Moon, thanks to the superb vocal talents of Nicholas Boulton. He is quite simply one of the best narrators it has been my good fortune to hear.
Merlin Lambourne is an inventress. She lives alone in an old Tudor house somewhere in Devon with just a handful of servants, and spends most of her time happily ensconced in her own world of spare parts, blueprints, and experiments. She comes from a very well connected family, but her father died when she was young and her family cast off both Merlin and her deaf-mute mother. After the death of her remaining parent, Merlin was brought up by her eccentric great-uncle and has never been out in society. But she doesn’t miss what she’s never had and is quite happy shut up in her cluttered home working on her inventions.
When Ransom Falconer, Duke of Damerell arrives at her home insisting on seeing one of her inventions, Merlin immediately assumes it is the flying machine she has been working on and tells him it’s not yet ready. The opening chapter details their first encounter and is reminiscent of a screwball comedy with both of them at crossed purposes – Ransom’s barely suppressed irritation mixed with Merlin’s obliviousness (and her confusion as to how to address “Mr. Duke”) amid the clutter of abandoned machines and spare parts.
By turns exasperated and charmed by her, Ransom tries to persuade her to leave the place as he believes she is in danger from foreign agents who want to get their hands on her work. He is also appalled at the fact that Merlin has been left to her own devices and ignored by her family for so long and resolves to do something to rectify her situation. Devious as he can be, Ransom immediately sees that in doing the latter, there is a way for him to serve his own purposes as well – but Merlin obstinately refuses to leave.
Inadvertently, Ransom ingests an aphrodisiac during their meal. The author’s descriptions of how he progresses from disliking the rather tough meat he’s been served to finding it palatable and then to wanting more is quite funny. The following love scene is, while not overly explicit… well, let’s just say I needed a lie down by an open window afterwards! Ransom is ardent and seductive, and Boulton’s gravelly tone as he projects the impression of a man who normally keeps his desires firmly in check while discarding his inhibitions, is note-perfect and incredibly sexy. Merlin is swept off her feet (literally!) and, after her initial confusion, participates unreservedly. I can see that for some, a love scene in which the hero is acting under the influence of a drug and the innocent heroine is befuddled by what’s happening may be off-putting. But I didn’t find it so. In fact, I liked that Merlin was as refreshingly honest and enthusiastic about how Ransom was making her feel as she was about everything else in her life. She didn’t see why something that felt so wonderful could possibly be something to be avoided and became an eager participant in their lovemaking.
Some have criticized Merlin for being too ditzy and a bit of an airhead, but I thought she was neither. She’s incredibly single-minded when it comes to her work (even to the extent of having a severe case of tunnel-vision regarding her obsession with her flying machine), which rings very true for her character. I admit that it did seem a bit odd that a woman who knew enough about anatomy to save Ransom’s life was rather confused as to how babies were made, but I think that may have been another instance of the way she could focus on one thing at a time and everything else was just so much “blah, blah, blah.” Her ditziness was a little reminiscent of Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby; not quite as forceful a character, but endearing and scatty.
When I’m listening to a new-to-me male narrator, I’m always concerned as to how he will interpret the female characters. I imagine it can be a difficult balance to find, making the character sound sufficiently feminine without resorting to falsetto. But once again, Boulton strikes absolutely the right note. He adopts a slightly higher pitch and softens his tone for Merlin. Jacqueline’s voice is soft and throaty and his Dowager Duchess is faintly reminiscent of Edith Evans or Alec Guiness in Kind Hearts and Coronets!
Ransom is authoritarian and used to getting his own way. His work for the British government frequently requires him to be devious and manipulative, and he’s not above employing the same tactics with his family. While I can certainly understand that those aren’t especially attractive traits, I found it difficult to dislike him as he does what he does out of a desire to protect his dependents and keep them safe. He has one hell of a temper (which he frequently exercises) but when push comes to shove, he’s ruthlessly efficient and definitely the kind of chap you’d want on your side in a crisis.
Quickly realizing that his desire for Merlin wasn’t just fuelled by aphrodisiac-laced salt, Ransom acknowledges (to himself) that he actually wants her rather desperately. Her stubborn refusals to marry him because he adamantly opposes her work on the flying machine, do get rather tiring after a while, and her insistence that he is trying to suffocate her by taking her work away did feel a bit irrational.
Ransom is, of course, terrified that Merlin will be badly injured or killed, but he goes about things in completely the wrong way. He quickly realizes that Merlin finds it hard to resist him and that he can soften her resolve with a touch or a kiss. It’s not long before she begins to see his strategy and suspect his motives, wondering whether he’s doing it because he wants her, or because he wants his own way. It’s ironic that Merlin’s obsession is with flight while Ransom has a phobia about heights and it seems as though they will never be able to find any middle ground.
A difficult character to like at times, Boulton’s performance of Ransom is so wonderfully nuanced that it brings out the fears and insecurities that lie behind his actions, even when he’s losing his temper or being horribly overbearing. But with Merlin, he can be tender, playful and affectionate.
There is a fairly large cast of supporting characters including Ransom’s handsome younger brother and his ex-wife, their sister, the local parson, and the mysterious and wonderfully-named Major O’Sullivan O’Toole O’Shaughnessy. Each character is vocally distinct and consistently portrayed; and Boulton’s interpretation of Ransom’s twelve-year-old nephew, Woodrow, deserves special mention. Woodrow has a very pronounced stammer – something that can be very hard to imitate without sounding unrealistic or too exaggerated. Accurate yet sympathetic, he perfectly conveys Woodrow’s intelligence and underlying frustration.
I admit, accents are a bit of a “thing” for me. I’m a musician by training and thus (I hope!) have a good ear. Sometimes though, that can be a curse rather than a blessing, as others might perceive me as being over critical. So for me, it’s wonderful to hear someone successfully pull off a wide variety of regional and foreign accents. Not many of the performers I’ve heard to date have the ability to sound convincing when using a number of (and switching between) different accents during a single performance. One might manage a good Scottish accent, but be unable to sustain an Irish one. Another might convince me they could be from Yorkshire, but fail at sounding vaguely French. I know it’s one of those things that comes more naturally to some people than others (actors included) but here, Nicholas Boulton pulls it off easily as an Irishman, a Frenchwoman, or a gruff, West-Country servant, without slipping up once. I’ve heard some narrators pull it off 95% of the time, but even my picky ears couldn’t detect a single flaw in this particular performance.
To sum up, Midsummer Moon is an audiobook I have absolutely no hesitation recommending unreservedly. The story is full of humor and tenderness and the characterizations throughout are superb. We have an eccentric but winning heroine, an honorable and upstanding hero (who is often endearingly bewildered by her), grumpy old retainers, a very discerning no-nonsense dowager, and a peripatetic hedgehog. The whole thing moves along at a rattling pace.
Nicholas Boulton’s performance is, quite simply, flawless – and I suspect he may have ruined me for all other narrators! He brings a real depth of feeling to the scenes in which Ransom and Merlin are arguing or loving, and I think that anyone who finds Ransom to be too coldly manipulative on the page might find their opinions revised after listening to Midsummer Moon.
Book Content: A-
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in (but not overly raunchy!)
Genre: Historical Romance
Publisher: Hedgehog Inc.
Midsummer Moon was provided to AudioGals for review by Hedgehog Inc.