A voice gritty enough to exfoliate an iguana

From the classics to contemporary crime, Sue Gaisford rounds up the best of the summer's titles on tape
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The Independent Culture

Whatever the young Jonathan Safran Foer writes in the future, Everything is Illuminated (Penguin, CDs £14.99) stands alone, as unclassifiable as Catch 22 or Cold Comfort Farm. Vast in scope, scrupulous and sparkling in detail, its myriad threads spin, glittering, through centuries, laced with ancestral memories and legends, grief and steadfast loyalty, delicious humour and deadly sins. The reader/ performer is the great Kerry Shale whose formidable versatility brings to exuberant, competitive life a bunch of splendidly disparate characters - and even an over-sexed, deranged dog called Sammy Davis Junior, Junior (sic). Don't ask. Do listen.

At the sombre heart of the book lurk two episodes of anti-Semitic barbarism, whose fiery horror "illuminates" later generations and distant continents. At the time of these massacres, Geoffrey Wellum, barely 18, was scrambling into his Spitfire at Biggin Hill, brave, scared and braced for the Battle of Britain. First Light (Penguin, cassettes £9.99), read with lost innocence and panache by Jamie Glover, is often thrilling, never jingoistic and remarkable for its unsentimental frankness - except when it comes to his lively, beloved plane. To him, it is nearly human, always female: "The dear old Spit is responding!" he writes, "What a kind, forgiving aeroplane, even after I've let her down..."

Perhaps a better analogy is with a war-horse. As with aerial dogfights, power and manoeuvrability were paramount in 13th-century battles - and there were plenty of them, as we hear in Tim Piggott-Smith's lucid reading of 1215: The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham (Hodder, cassettes £9.99). This is history made accessible in several senses. In one of many memorable scenes, a boy plays on a beach with his brothers. In later life, he remarks that, while they built sandcastles, he always wanted to build churches: he was destined from the start to be a cleric. Somehow, to picture a little contemporary of King John's playing by the sea brings the early middle ages from foggy obscurity right up into sharp focus.

Now for a trio of excellent detective novels. For some reason, the macabre and the sinister are easier on the ear than the eye: perhaps the professional reader is steadier, more trustworthy than one's silently gibbering self. All three feature grisly deaths and satisfactory resolutions: all have attractive, mildly seedy heroes. In Michael Connolly's Lost Light, (Orion CDs £16.99, cassettes £12.99) Harry Bosch, retired from the LAPD, is lured back to solve an old crime - only to discover that in post-9/11 America all rules can be waived in the dubious interests of national security. David Soul's gorgeous, gritty voice could exfoliate an iguana and the plot is convoluted and highly satisfactory, the twist in the tail producing a totally unexpected backlash. The politics, alas, are all too convincing.

In Tooth and Nail (Orion, cassettes £9.99) John Rebus, Ian Rankin's world-weary hero leaves his Edinburgh stamping-ground to moonlight in London on a particularly gruesome series of murders: James Macpherson, as always, reads Rankin incomparably - though he struggles once or twice with foreign southern voices. Andrew Sachs has no such trouble with Commissario Brunetti, the Venetian hero of Uniform Justice (Random House, cassettes £8.99), brought in to solve the murder of a boy-soldier. As usual however, the beguiling old city itself is the real star of Donna Leon's story.

Sachs puts in a virtuoso performance as Don Quixote (Hodder and Stoughton, cassettes £7.99), giving him a marvellous, reedily posh old voice as he barges about the land testing "me valah" against windmills and ending every day bloody, bruised and beplastered. If Cervantes is a gap in your education, this might be the year to enjoy many of the best bits on tape - and the same is true of the rest of the series of abridged classics, all recently issued by Hodder at £7.99. Julie Christie, sweet and breathless, takes Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd rather too fast but Joanna Lumley is a revelation in Austen's Northanger Abbey while Kenneth Branagh is a properly young, eagerly ambitious reader of The Diary of Samuel Pepys.

Finally, let Pete McCarthy take you along The Road to McCarthy (Hodder, cassettes £9.99) and you'll not have a dull moment. The premise of his quest is a hunt for his clan: in practice, he meanders around the world, marvelling. Catching himself unawares in a hotel mirror he sees a cross between Bill Wyman and Beryl Bainbridge. A sobering moment - but optimism returns: "a little moisturiser and I'll be fine". I like a man like that.