Best audio books of 2009: Ghost stories and thrillers make for good listening
Sunday 06 December 2009
This season delivers a bumper crop of excellent thrillers. In William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms (Whole Story Audio, £24.46), Adam Kindred, wanted for a gruesome murder of which he is innocent, goes to ground in London. He lives rough, creating a new identity for himself and gradually unravels a huge pharmaceutical fraud. Boyd visits and forensically examines virtually every level of contemporary society, from prostitutes and hellfire evangelists to scientists, corrupt City types and an ex-soldier turned hired gun. Compellingly read by Martyn Ellis, it is a serious, thoughtful and provocative novel. And it speeds along faster than a cheetah.
Another pacey tale comes from the splendid Ian Rankin. He has retired his old bear Rebus and swivelled the spotlight onto Malcolm Fox, whose job is to investigate police corruption in a department known as The Complaints (Orion, £16.63). Fox may be tee-total and childless but he's Rebus' spiritual heir, bending the rules, getting suspended but still busily hunting down villains and flirting, rather hopelessly. Rankin's fine regular reader, James Macpherson, adds to the sense of continuity.
Michael Maloney brings a large cast of regional voices to his reading of Val McDermid's new spin on the police novel. Fever of the Bone (Hachette Audio, £15.65) requires a strong stomach: a sinister killer wreaks his nasty worst on several teenagers, and is eventually hunted down by a discredited psychological profiler, despite frustrating interference from rival, competitive forces. Gripping stuff.
As the great PD James maintains, we love detective fiction because it "confirms our belief, despite some evidence to the contrary, that we live in a rational, comprehensible and moral universe". Although these islands traditionally produce the best in the genre, Scandinavia is galloping up on the rails, with Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson leading the pack. And it's worth keeping an eye on Camilla Läckberg, whose second novel, The Preacher (Harper Collins, £14.98), is a cracker. Set during a heatwave in a small, touristy, seaside town in Sweden, it concerns three murders committed over a period of 30 years. Read entertainingly by Cameron Stewart, it has an unusual, rather charmingly domestic atmosphere, as our policeman hero's girlfriend is imminently expecting the birth of their first child, but the plotting is immaculate and the villain proves to be thoroughly and inventively unpleasant.
On to ghosts now, and Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger (Hachette Audio, £24.47). It is post-war England, and the grand Hundreds Hall, once bright and bustling, is starved of money and servants and rapidly returning to dust. The local doctor narrates his endeavours to find rational explanations for ever spookier occurrences: a previously placid dog savaging a child; mysterious marks and writing appearing on walls; an apparent suicide. Waters ratchets up the tension, notch by notch and, beautifully read by Simon Vance, the appalling denouement lingers on in the memory. As will – we may suppose – its evidence on the liver-coloured marble of the hall floor, until nature eventually reclaims it.
Earlier in the 20th century, Idina Sackville shook the dust of England from her feet to make a new, richly scandalous life in Kenya's ill-named Happy Valley. At 13, Frances Osborne discovered that this colourful – and pretty unpleasant – woman was her great-grandmother. The Bolter (Hachette Audio, £13.70) is her story. Rosamund Pike does her best with it, but it's a sorry fable.
Five times Idina married, once fewer than our most grotesquely fascinating monarch. Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, £15) is Hilary Mantel's brilliant account of the years when Henry VIII was busily getting shot of his first wife to marry Anne Boleyn. This tense, dangerous novel thrusts the wily Thomas Cromwell on to centre stage as an unlikely hero. Dan Stevens reads with low urgency, his chameleon voice adding a subtle touch of Geordie to the Percys; of Somerset to the Seymours; of pettish flounciness to the doomed Anne. It is a tour de force.
And for sheer, unexpected joy, do listen to Lynne Truss reading Get Her Off the Pitch (Fourth Estate, £14.98), her account of the years she spent as an unlikely sports reporter for The Times. You don't have to like sport to start with: it's probably better not to. She certainly didn't. At first, she is both appalled and bewildered. Staying in the Dairylea-shaped room of the Edgbaston Thistle, she contemplates sawing her head off; later, she finds herself fingering golfing knitwear and trying not to scream. But gradually she discovers things to admire about almost everything (she's that kind of woman) and she takes you, Valkyrie-like, with her. It's a perfect antidote to doomy winter blues.
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