This summer has produced a bumper crop of fine, long novels to be relished, unabridged, wherever you happen to be. Oddly, every one features an absent or otherwise unsatisfactory mother. What's going on?
The shattering, superhuman effort involved in Olympic competitive cycling is, partly, the subject of Chris Cleave's gripping, Manchester-based Gold (Sceptre, 10CDs, £16.99). His two heroines, friends and rivals since childhood, are told that only one can be selected for London 2012. But the book – read with scrupulous care as to accents and characters by Emilia Fox – is really about the strain of the competitive life, complicated by the fact that eight-year-old daughter Sophie has leukaemia and nobody has noticed how desperately ill she is becoming.
Lovely, kind Sophie escapes whenever possible into the world of Star Wars. Another eight-year-old, Max, who lives in Connecticut and is also addicted to Star Wars, has for five years been comforted in his autistic isolation by Budo, whom he has conjured up and who now tells his ludicrously incredible, strangely compelling story in Matthew Green's Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend (Whole Story, 9CDs, £24.82). The polar opposite of Sophie, Max can empathise with nobody. But Budo can. Other imaginary friends – sometimes just scribbles, often with no ears – also help when Max is kidnapped (by a deranged mother, natch). Read convincingly by Matthew Brown, this is one for the car stereo: exciting for children, wryly amusing for adults.
Further south, into Alabama, and back half a century, Kathryn Stockett's The Help (Whole Story, 15CDs, £30.62) is utterly magnificent. The casually cruel racism which allows black maids – and "white trash" women – to be patronised and nearly destroyed by the Country Club set, is exposed and ultimately confounded by a young journalist. (Hooray, a journalist heroine!) A cast of four fine readers includes Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar for her role in the film. But the book is far better than the film. The same is true, in spades, of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Whole Story, 9CDs, £20.41). Elegantly read by Nina Wadia, and originally published as These Foolish Things, Deborah Moggach's acerbic, witty novel tells of a handful of crotchety Brits who live out their declining years in a decaying Indian hotel. Listen to this one: don't watch it.
Mark Haddon's latest, and arguably his best book, The Red House (BBC, 8CDs, £15.35), also puts an odd mix of people into an isolated building full of history. In this case, it's a deeply dysfunctional family and a damp, sinister holiday cottage in Wales. The reader, Nathaniel Parker, slips effortlessly between eight voices, moving between interior monologue and banal everyday mishap, illuminating the chasms between people grimly trying to love each other. Rachel Hore's thoroughly enjoyable novel A Gathering Storm (Whole Story, 12CDs, £24.85) is about another uncomfortable family, whose secrets lurk in a derelict Cornish mansion. The sinuous plot stretches back to wartime France, where love and espionage combine to cheat a mother of her child, and a grand-daughter of her own history. Gerri Halligan reads this fabulous book with a properly sympathetic intensity.
Two more fine novelists are writing at their best just now. William Brodrick is often labelled as a crime writer, but he is more than that. His hero, Father Anselm, is a Gilbertine monk who was once a criminal barrister. In The Day of the Lie (Whole Story, 13CDs, £25.52) an old friend begs him to investigate crimes committed in communist Warsaw, which leads to a serious and profound discussion of the very nature of justice and of punishment. Revelations come in waves, one after another, during the last hours of this story, read with sensitive, world-weary intelligence by Gordon Griffin. Anselm returns to his monastery even wiser than he was at the start. And we listeners feel much the same.
William Boyd's Waiting for Sunrise (Whole Story, 11CDs, £25.52) goes back even further, to 1912 Vienna, where young Lysander Rief is seeking psychiatric help for, of course, a sexual problem. After the colourful decadence comes an obligatory visit to the trenches of the Western Front, before Lysander assumes the mantle of a spy and the novel becomes surprisingly picaresque. But the story engages us: it is consistently well written, and very well read by Roger May.
Finally, after these 95 hours of fiction, enjoy a nostalgic hour with Clare Balding at The Ration Book Olympics (BBC, CD, £9.25). At the last London Olympic Games, in 1948, there was no Olympic Village; male and female athletes were housed miles apart; Roger Bannister had to break into a car to find a Union Jack for the opening ceremony; sprinters wore woolly vests during a heat wave and George VI lost his stutter – but mysteriously had trouble pronouncing the letter R. And the whole affair made a handsome profit. Those were the days.