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Audio books: 'Juliet,' by Anne Fortier, and 2 more

I'm not sure who should sue Anne Fortier for her crypto-historical romance "Juliet" (Random House Audio, 15 CDs, $40), but William Shakespeare, Dan Brown and the Italian city of Siena all have good claims.

As for Shakespeare, his star-crossed lovers provide the inspiration for Fortier's contemporary descendants. Our Juliet and her twin, Janice, were born in Italy, but their Italian father and American mother were both killed in a car crash when they were 3, and the girls came to live in Virginia with a great-aunt and her Italian manservant.

When the great-aunt dies, the twins' past is thrust upon them. In the manner of books hoping to cash in on the Dan Brown craze, a series of coded clues has been left in a locked box in a vault at a bank in Siena. Solving the clues will not only reveal the girls' true parentage, but also ancient curses, family feuds, treasure, statues, jewels, etc.

Siena? Wasn't "Romeo and Juliet" set in Verona? Yes, but for some reason Fortier has exhumed the bard's source material, the 15th century story of Mariotto and Gianozza by Masuccio Salernitano, which took place in Siena. It turns out that Juliet and Janice are descended from the original Juliet's family - not the Capulets, but the Tolomei. And would you believe that a handsome descendant, apparently of Romeo's line, the Salimbene, is on the scene and that he and Juliet take an instant dislike to one another?

As it jumps back and forth between the 21st and 15th centuries, "Juliet" is equal parts preposterous and predictable. The basic structure is fuzzy: Are the modern personages simply namesakes of their historical counterparts, or reincarnations? In fact the historical characters are a little more believable than the modern ones. Juliet is a political activist with the political sophistication of a 6-year-old. A self-professed "Romeo and Juliet" aficionado, she is shocked to learn that Shakespeare didn't invent the plot.

Actually, Siena shouldn't sue. The one thing the novel has going for it is its glowing portrait of the city, an oft-missed jewel in Italy's tourism crown. Fortier name-checks all the city's most brilliant attributes: the distinctive, self-governed neighborhoods called contrade; the spectacular annual Palio horse race; the venerable Monte dei Paschi bank, St. Catherine of Siena. All that was missing was the durable Sienese confection panforte.

And, it must be said, narrator Cassandra Campbell does the best she can with what she's given. Both her Italian and her Italian-accented English are a pleasure.

* * *

And now some notes on narration.

A few months ago, narrator Arthur Morey almost ruined Robert Wright's magisterial "The Evolution of God" for me. Now he's at it again with Julie Orringer's brilliant Holocaust novel, "The Invisible Bridge" (Random House Audio, 22 CDs, $50). I can't comment on the havoc he is no doubt wreaking on the Hungarian language, but could the producers not have found a narrator who spoke French? The first section of the novel is set in Paris and I could feel Morey steeling himself before every French phrase he uttered. Aside from his obvious discomfort and frequent mispronunciations, he makes no effort to differentiate between characters nor, really, invest the narrative with any passion. The truth is, however, that even Morey's monotones can't ruin this genuinely heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

Sarah Rose, author of "For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History" (Tantor Media, 7 CDs, $29.99), has only herself to blame for her book's narration: she performs it herself. Her tale is fascinating, encompassing geopolitics, botany and commerce. The story starts with the Opium Wars, that sorry bit of 19th century British history where the Crown declared war on China after the Middle Kingdom had made opium illegal. The Brits succeeded not only in forcing opium down Chinese throats, but also in gaining access to four Chinese ports and taking possession of Hong Kong. Meanwhile, taking no chances, the British began to cultivate tea in India. The British East India Company hired Scottish "plant hunter" Robert Fortune to discover - and to steal - Chinese tea bushes, as well as the secrets of their cultivation and processing.

What could render such a splendid tale unlistenable? Only the author's fulsome, self-congratulatory performance. Sarah Rose's own parents could not take as much pleasure in her wit and flair as she seems to in this grating audio book. Buy the print edition (Viking, $29.95). I did.

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