Books: Deadpan McGann and the bad aural sex prize

It's the way you tell it: new audio books

A good story-teller is a grand companion and a treasured friend. It's bred in the bone that we love to loll around a dying fire and listen - to laugh, to gasp, to weep and to marvel - as a story unfurls, spinning into the imagination and taking possession of the mind. Thanks to tape recording, we can enjoy this harmless pleasure whenever we like, often with the best readers in the business, and the best books. Try it.

Give yourself just five minutes of Richard E Grant reading Ian McEwan's Enduring Love (HarperCollins pounds 8.99), but make sure that you have no pressing engagements for the next couple of hours.

Grant's voice has a kind of sophisticated, fastidious and weary innocence. He describes with care the opening tableau of this complicated tale. The narrator and his partner Clarissa are having a picnic while, in the distance, a balloon is tugged by blustery winds up into the perilous sky, a child marooned in its basket. As the sinuous plot spools out, Grant employs, without caricature, other voices: lighter and sharper for Clarissa; thin, menacing and breathy for the obsessive boy who comes close to killing them; a plangent wretchedness for the widow whose husband died trying to hold the balloon down. Each becomes immediately credible, in this subtle reading of an already great novel.

Sometimes, the reader is better than the book. Robert Llewellyn's The Man on Platform Five (Hodder Headline pounds 8.99) is Ian Ringfold, a nerdy, adenoidal train-spotter who becomes the Eliza Doolittle of a silly story about a great project to transform him into a stud. Two Sloaney half-sisters called (are you ready?) Gresham and Eupheme are locked in mortal combat over this anorak, and the creaky plot spirals down towards scenes of grotesque absurdity which include a serious contender for a Bad Aural Sex prize. Yet, though he's not much good at the posh women, Chris Barrie provides a wonderfully flat East Midlands voice for hapless Ian and a series of excellent cameos of such media luminaries as Hugh Laurie and Ruby Wax. He makes it almost (but actually not quite) worth listening to.

Sharpe's Fortress (HarperCollins pounds 8.99) is another in this class. Here, the reader of Bernard Cornwell's latest swashbuckler is the lugubrious Paul McGann. Cornwell is famous for knowing every detail of the kit, costume and general carryings-on of Wellington's army. This episode features a lot of reddened bayonets, men with "sweat streaks striping their powder- blackened faces" and similar tongue-twisters. It's almost unbelievably gory, but if anyone can read convincingly about claymores slashing, men being castrated with (someone's else's) bare hands and all the paraphernalia of enfilades, embrasures, booming cannon and screaming balls (sorry, Lieutenant), it's Dead-Pan McGann. Some people, unfortunately, will relish it.

The Countess of Ranferly was The Ugly One of her family. Her memoirs (Penguin pounds 8.99) are read with plucky panache by Joanna David. This is surprisingly good. Her Grace has no pretensions to literary flair but instead sets it all down as it happened. Her style is addictive - straightforward and uncomplaining, though it describes some frightening episodes. You may find it hard to believe that the listener could be so wrung out by childhood illnesses, the loss of a family and the schizophrenia of a distant mother but that is how it happens. As the pampered child becomes the custodian of inadequate parents and sets about trying to earn a living, you find yourself rooting for her, all the way.

Finally, two American offerings with more in common than their titles. David Guterson's East of the Mountains (HarperCollins pounds 8.99) describes a hunting trip made by an elderly, widowed heart surgeon, dying of cancer. He intends to make his suicide look like a shooting accident but events deprive him of his car, his dog and his rifle. Thus diminished, in pain and racked by horrible memories of wartime atrocities, he finds, amongst itinerant apple-pickers in the mountains of Washington State, a reason for returning home and brazening it out. William Hootkins reads with commendable dignity. It is moving and uplifting.

Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain (HarperCollins pounds 8.99) is quite simply a tour de force. Nobody, this month, comes anywhere near the sheer imaginative virtuosity of Kerry Shale's reading. He tells the story of Inman, wounded and running away from the last skirmishes of the American Civil War. Inman longs to return to Ada, a girl with whom he had begun to fall in love before the war began. Episodes from her tough and isolated life and his picaresque journey are set against each other until the moment of their meeting in an abandoned Indian settlement amongst snowy mountains. Shale produces a dozen different voices to give a living, unforgettable texture to a magnificent book. To read it was a rare treat: to listen to this superb performance is even better.

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