Summer listening: Audio books guide

From romance to the Reform Bill, plus an unlikely tale of the road: audio books by Sue Gaisford

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The Independent Culture

Jane Austen's much-maligned Mrs Bennett knew the problem all too well. How she'd have envied the mothers who could pack their daughters off to India with The Fishing Fleet (Orion, 11CDs, £18.99) to snap up socially desirable, respectably employed, sexually frustrated bachelors, outnumbering women four to one and desperate to marry. Anne de Courcy's sparkling narrative is spiced with countless personal anecdotes and reminiscences. Greta Scacchi's lovely voice adapts smoothly to each diarist: "I knew that he meant more to me than a casual kiss," writes one girl, when the man she was to marry attempted this advance, "and I wanted no part in what could become a frivolous affaire". Well. Quite.

Affairs of state dominate another fine history book: Antonia Fraser's Perilous Question: the drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832 (Orion, 5CDs, £18.99). Sean Barrett's familiar, authoritative voice leads the listener steadily through the intricacies of this most fiercely fought political wrangle. Reform was certainly overdue, when Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Bradford returned not one MP between them, while Old Sarum, an uninhabited field, returned two.

In the previous century, Georgette Heyer's Faro's Daughter (Naxos, 4CDs, £16.99) flirts, gambles and entertains her lovers through many a saucy adventure involving massive debts, bribery, kidnappings and pugilism. Tidily read by Laura Paton with delicious music by Hummel, this is classic historical fiction of a high standard: a most satisfactory listen. As is another reissued classic, Muriel Spark's The Girls of Slender Means (Whole Story, 3CDs, £15.31). Juliet Stevenson is one of the two best readers in the world. Her witty intelligence lends piquancy to Spark's sharply evocative style in this wry and touching novel, opening in 1945, when "all the nice people in England were poor" and none were nicer than the Kensington girls of the title.

The other unbeatable reader is the great Lorelei King. As the feisty Laura Benton, she is the heroine of Emerald City (Chris Nickson, Creative Content, audio download £16.99), the first of a promising series of mystery thrillers. A music journalist in 1988 Seattle, Laura decides to investigate the apparent suicide of a successful rock star. As she digs ever deeper, Laura's own life becomes increasingly under threat.

Jim Broadbent reads Rachel Joyce's first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Random House, audio download, £20.09) in a splendidly deadpan manner. This is the picaresque tale of a man who learns that an old colleague is dying: he decides to go to visit her, on foot. On his journey from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed, he encounters people who are kind to him, television crews, bandwagon "pilgrims" with an entirely different agenda – and his own self.

Finally, two not-so-shaggy dog stories. One is a novel, but only just. It opens in the style of mildly enjoyable chick-lit, but it rapidly becomes much more than that. When she was 18, Alice Peterson developed crippling rheumatoid arthritis. Her book By My Side (Quercus, audio download, £16.99) centres on a similar disaster which befalls a young medical student who is paralysed in a road accident. Her recovery from despair is largely thanks to Ticket, a yellow Labrador trained to help paraplegics. Jane Collingwood reads this strong and positive book with conviction and sensitivity.

It's All About Treo (Whole Story, 8 CDs, £20.41) by Dave Heyhoe and Damien Lewis features a real black Labrador/spaniel cross, the world's most decorated dog, whose job is to sniff out explosives in Afghanistan. Malcolm Hamilton reads with commendable directness.