Despite the furore over its "popularity", this year's Man Booker shortlist makes for rollicking good listening.
Unusually, all six fine novels are written in the first person. The narrators are two English-men – one a 40-ish banker, the other a retired divorcee; there is an old black jazzman from Baltimore and a young Ghanaian immigrant; there are two 19th-century adventurers – one an east-London lad, the other a gunslinger with a conscience. The range of readers in the audio versions is properly, enjoyably, broad.
Kevin Howarth reads Snowdrops (Whole Story Audio, £20.41), AD Miller's strong and gripping debut, in the sad, low, confidential tones of a confessional account, written by Nick Platt to his fiancée, of the disastrous time he spent in Moscow before he met her. Three skeins of plot intertwine: one is concerned with a dangerous Cossack with dollar-shaped cufflinks, whose eyes flicker with "rape, pillage and money-laundering" as he flogs a fictitious oil pipeline; another with the old friend of Nick's neighbour, mysteriously missing; the third with Nick's romantic yearning for the beautiful Masha. Miller's style is witty, zeugmatic and often urbane – Ikea, we learn, is as common in Moscow as "death, tax-evasion and cirrhosis" – and the atmosphere of deep-frozen winter and of almost universal corruption is shudderingly tangible.
Richard Morant reads Julian Barnes's slender novella The Sense of an Ending (AudioGo, £17.55) with a reedy despair. This is the story of the unambitious Tony Webster who, in late middle age, receives news of an unexpected bequest: the diary of a brilliant schoolfellow who has committed suicide. There is enough suspense to keep it going and the ending is genuinely surprising, even moving, but the pleasure of this one is in the meditation on memory and loss; on how our lives shape themselves despite our intentions; on the bleak loneliness of missed opportunity.
Kyle Riley's voice has clearly been steeped in whisky and molasses for 50 years, or so it sounds. There is a slight problem here, as the story concerns the long careers of a Baltimore jazz band – and it takes time to tune in to their individual deep and sometimes narcotic voices. But it's worth persevering, for Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues (Whole Story, £20.41) is a great and original novel. The band members are all of mixed race, an uncomfortable situation in Nazi Germany: when they escape to occupied Paris, the gifted young Hieronymus Falk is arrested and disappears. Our narrator, Sid Griffiths, who worries that he had betrayed Falk, is invited back to Berlin after the fall of the Wall with another player, his untrustworthy childhood friend Chip. The plot, with many time-shifts and flashbacks, turns on the fate of Falk, but this tense, richly humorous and enjoyable book is really about loyalty, and the inescapable affection binding very old friends.
The only woman to feature in this list is the reader of Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English (Audio download, £21.42). Bahni Turpin gives a lively young voice to the bright 11-year-old Harrison Opoku, rich both with his native Ghanaian vocabulary, and his learned Peckham slang: "In England there's a hell of different words for everything," he opines, sagely: "Gay and dumb and lame mean all the same." Inspired by the killing of Damilola Taylor, Kelman's novel centres on a similar murder, which little Harri determines to solve with the help of his friend, Dean, and a slightly surprising Guardian Pigeon. Extraordinarily well observed, the novel charts the perilous path of innocence through the first stirrings of adolescence, in an environment bristling with dangers of which he is, often, blithely unaware.
The two bickering Sisters Brothers (Whole Story, £20.41) are hired killers, riding through the very Wild West towards the Californian Gold Rush, murdering anyone who annoys them. The great William Hope, as Eli Sisters, narrates Patrick deWitt's complex, picaresque – now magical, now comically mundane, now hilarious – adventure with a lazy, seductive pan-ache. Eli, unlike his savage brother, dreams of the solitary life of a shopkeeper, but longs also for "perfumed rooms", where fleshy women would pour his drinks "shivering with laughter and brandy and deviousness". His fate is ultimately different, and rather cosier.
Finally, and possibly best of all, comes Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie (Whole Story, £24.85). Little Jaffy Brown is snatched up by Mr Jamrach's escaped Bengal tiger on a London street, and survives. Jamrach sends him off on a whaling ship to search for a fabled dragon on an Indonesian island. Early scenes of the teeming Wapping filth echo Mayhew or Dickens; later Melville and even Jack London come to mind, but this proves to be Birch's own superb story. Excellently read by Dave John, it is jam-packed with rounded, vocally distinct and believable characters; with desperate and dangerous decisions, and with wild adventure. If there's any justice, and even in this first-rate company, it should win.
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