Audiobooks: We need to talk about the Grail

It's not easy bringing a book alive on audiotape, but for the best actors, complex plots, voices from beyond the grave and chilling accounts of murder are all in a day's work. Sue Gaisford enjoys some virtuoso performances
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The Independent Culture

As the air-raid siren begins, two women stumble through the rubble of the pitch-dark City to take shelter in the lee of an unsteady Wren steeple. It is jumpy, mundane reality for them, nothing unusual, and their quiet talk is not of bombs but of their own deepest feelings. It rings true: listening, we too care more for their conversation than for the random destructiveness of the Luftwaffe. Juanita McMahon reads Sarah Waters' masterly novel The Night Watch (Time Warner, unabridged, £25) slowly, taking her time and mesmerising the listener with the low strength of her voice. The intricate, powerful plot moves backwards, from post-war Bakelite bleakness into the shuddering horrors of the Blitz, yet her subject is not so much war as the surprising possibilities of tenderness, and the grief of betrayal. It is marvellous.

The American Civil War is the backdrop to March (BBC £17.99) Geraldine Brooks's exciting and ambitious novel, vigorously read by Peter Marinker. John March is the absent father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, the idealistic young chaplain to the Yankee forces who discovers that the realities of war challenge his every ideal. Alcott's girls crop up here and there, with Marmee showing a pleasing tendency to displays of very bad temper, but the main issue is whether a chaplain preaching non-violence should ever kill to save innocents.

It's similar to the agonising problem faced by war correspondents. The painful truth, says Fergal Keane, is that the weak need protecting and the powerful must be challenged. He witnessed and reported hideous atrocities in Rwanda but he did manage to help one terrified girl. He tells the story in the course of All of These People (HarperCollins CDs: £15.99, tapes: £13.99), his frank, amiable and touchingly intimate autobiography, and it lifts the spirits... which is more than you can say for Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin (Orion: £14.99, £13.99). This icily forensic, deeply disturbing story takes the form of letters from the mother of a brilliant, evil, teenage murderer to her husband, recounting her prison visits and remembering the circumstances of his upbringing. Lorelei King is the queen of readers: she brings to this performance sharp intelligence and a perfect, weary restraint, building up to the fearsome denouement that freezes the blood.

Terror assumes entirely new dimensions in Hilary Mantel's darkly hilarious tour-de-force Beyond Black (Isis, unabridged, £20.99). Set along the sour and seedy reaches of the M25, it tells the story of Alison, a gently overweight medium, and Colette, her cynical, bony sidekick. Alison is no fraud: she is plagued by the spirits of vicious thugs from her childhood and her only hope is a final confrontation. Anna Bentinck gives grotesque voice to innumerable psychics, villains and ne'er-do-wells from this world and the next, and builds to an exuberantly cosy conclusion.

Arthur Conan Doyle was fascinated by the occult. There's a comic moment in Julian Barnes's Arthur and George (BBC £17.99) when he becomes convinced of a medium's abilities because she delivers a powerful message. It is, "Do not read Leigh Hunt's book." Happily, Barnes abandons that faintly ludicrous aspect of the great man's life in favour of his cham- pioning the cause of a young lawyer, George Edalji, the victim of a racist miscarriage of justice. The story is interesting - and essentially true - but the style is detached and curiously unengaging. Nigel Anthony reads it with appropriate decorum.

Anchee Min's Empress Orchid (BBC £17.99) is another fantasy spun around a core of truth. The cheerful Pik-Sen Lim narrates this first-person account of the little low-born Orchid, chosen to be an inferior concubine and delivered to the Palace of Concentrated Beauty on a palanquin. Rapidly mastering esoteric erotic practices, she beats off all rivals to become the last empress of China. It can only be a matter of time before our more advanced heath-food shops supply some of the 99 dishes served at her wedding-banquet: bear-claws, shredded tiger or a heady cocktail of deer-blood and ginseng.

Even more fantastic is Labyrinth (Orion £16.99), Kate Mosse's contribution to the loony legends of the Holy Grail. This one features sliding stones, runic symbols, demonic murderesses and a reincarnated heroine. Read breathlessly by Emilia Fox, it rackets about between Cathar Carcassonne and 21st-century archaeology and makes for amusing, even exciting listening, as long as you don't take it seriously.

Finally, Hoffnung at Large (BBC £10.99) is a joy. Gerard Hoffnung was a musician according to his artist friends, an artist according to musicians and beloved by all. Narrated by Humphrey Lyttleton, this affectionate audio-biography includes many of his best-known comic turns. He died in his thirties, sounding a good 85. If ever you hear a foreign visitor trying the famous echo in the Reading room of the British Museum, you'll know who to blame.

To order any of these titles with a 10 per cent discount (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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