Audiobooks: The sound of violence

A tale of wartime prejudice and killing is Sue Gaisford's pick of the year's audiobooks
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The Independent Culture

Sandra Dallas's Tallgrass (Macmillan £27.99) is set in a small rural town in Colorado. The narrator is 13-year-old Rennie, whose father calls her Squirt. He is the best kind of man: generous, kind and brave enough to face down a lynch mob when he suspects their rage to be racist. There are echoes of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird here, and – though the year is 1942 – the still more disturbing shadow of Guantanamo hovers over the story. It is based on the fact that, after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, innocent Japanese-Americans living peacefully in California were rounded up and transported to huge camps in remote parts of the country. When a young girl is murdered, the Japanese are blamed.

This recording won the top prizes in the American "Audies" – the Oscars of the audiobooks world – and rightly so. Read, or rather performed, by the incomparable Lorelei King, it immerses the listener in an atmosphere of hard winters and dusty summers, where life is tough and opinions entrenched, but where the ladies of the Jolly Quilters sewing circle can be relied upon to bring cakes and casseroles to people in trouble. Profoundly moving, often funny and very exciting, it wins hands down.

Revelation (Macmillan £16.99) is the latest in C J Sansom's entertaining series of Tudor thrillers. This time Shardlake, our hunchback hero, is on the trail of a singularly nasty serial killer who murders, inventively, following instructions from the Book of Revelation. Anton Lesser's intelligent, beautiful voice brings to Shardlake's encounter with the ageing and dangerous Henry VIII a chillingly unforgettable menace.

Three popular novelists departed from their familiar style this year, to interesting effect. Ian Rankin has retained James Macpherson, his excellent reader, for Doors Open (Orion £16.99) but his old hero, John Rebus, has retired. He is missed, and another Edinburgh policeman remarks that the place is quieter without him. But the story – of a bungled art heist – gathers speed and by the end is as good as a Rebus, ie very good indeed. Meanwhile Donna Leon's much-loved Commissario Brunetti is still tackling crime in Venice when he spots The Girl of His Dreams (Random House £14.99). Andrew Sachs brings his customary warm intelligence to this powerful story of a particularly cynical murder. By the end, we can identify the villain but murky political shenanigans will prevent justice from being done. It is sobering, and rings true.

Anita Shreve risks an entirely new approach with Testimony (Hachette £15.99), about a sex scandal in a smart Vermont boarding school. Tackling the various impulses causing – and the hideous consequences arising from – a drunken orgy, it is written in a dozen voices and as many styles, and read with great versatility by Adam Sims and Jennifer Woodward.

It is fun to slip back to a more elegant, black-and-white age and the suave and witty writing of Ngaio Marsh, whose 1930s novels, newly released, are read by the young and very cool Benedict Cumberbatch. Death in a White Tie (Hachette £13.99) sees the classy detective Roderick Alleyn on the hunt for a dangerous villain running a gambling hell in Leatherhead. It's a perilous business, but someone has to do it: after all, "longevity is one of the more dubious rewards of virtue", isn't it?

Longevity was not given, alas, to the playwright Simon Gray who died at 65, soon after recording Coda (Faber £16.99). This is the third, obviously final, volume of his Smoking Diaries, an autobiography of unique charm and undeniable pathos. A self-confessed chain-smoking, ex-alcoholic wreck, he scarcely mentions his successful career, preferring to ruminate upon his fearsome, beloved, athletic mother, his old and variously famous and decrepit friends, his wife Victoria and their cat Errol – who moved in "and now lounges around the house as if he's paid off the mortgage". What a cat. What a man.

Finally, a couple of seasonally cheerful offerings: John Julius Norwich reads from his A Christmas Cracker (Hodder £14.99), a vastly entertaining ragbag of odds and ends. My favourite was a selection of the wedding presents given to Princess Anne, which includes novelty handcuffs, a book called Understanding Cystitis, three felt mice and some picture postcards of San Diego.

John Lloyd and John Mitchison, the begetters of QI, give us The Sound of General Ignorance (Faber £16.99), which, they explain, is for people who know they don't know much. Here is just one of the hundreds of surprising facts they relate: when the Bastille was stormed on 14 July 1789, it contained only seven prisoners. There were four forgers, an aristocratic sex offender and two lunatics – one of whom was English, sported a waist-length beard and thought he was Julius Caesar. Vive la révolution!