Chistmas Books Special - Part Two: Audiobooks

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Thirteenth Tale (Orion £14.99) is in fact Diane Setterfield's first. It is the story of a rich old romantic novelist who chooses a young biographer to write the truth about her famously secret life. With its remote Yorkshire setting, sinister housekeeper and destructive fire, it seems occasionally to be wuthering towards Manderley, but the writing is powerfully unafraid of the erotic or the sadistic and the intricate plot is satisfyingly - and unpredictably - unravelled. Juliet Stevenson reads it superbly. At the end she can be heard in conversation with the author, discussing the joys of such work, her sensitivity to rhythm and to character, her sense of loss when it's finished. If Setterfield's book is a rich Dundee cake, Stevenson's reading is the elaborate and beautiful icing on top.

The same is true of Sian Thomas's brilliant reading of another first novel. Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Penguin £12.99) is funny, instructive and touching on the page. But Thomas's chameleon voice breathes new exuberant life into the randy old widower, delighted to be seduced by the gold-digging Valentina (and her "superriorrr brreasts") and also to his two increasingly exasperated daughters. It's a tour de force.

Another newcomer is Eva Rice, whose novel is set in the 1950s and based on her grandmother's diaries. The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets (Headline £17.99) features a sensible girl called Penelope, her crumbling ancestral home, her vague and beautiful mother, the first distant sounds of the phenomenon becoming known as Elvis the Pelvis - and Penelope's discovery of romance. Rosamund Pike reads with delicious earnestness and if the book owes a little to the Mitfords and more to Dodie Smith, it is none the worse for that.

Some more established novelists now. In Monica Ali's new book Alentejo Blue (Random House £16.99/£13.99) the canvas is small - a remote and humble Portuguese village - and the many characters are introduced seemingly at random. The writing is rich and colourful and occasionally the lives of individuals merge for a while allowing relationships to begin. But, despite another fine effort from Juliet Stevenson, the general impression is of a wandering spotlight on a dark night. It lingers occasionally on one or two people and then it moves on. Loose ends dangle everywhere - as they do in life. Fiction is generally neater.

Paulo Coelho's canvas is, by contrast, vast. The Zahir (BBC Chivers, unabridged £21.99) begins in sophisticated Paris when the war-reporter wife of a successful novelist disappears without trace, and it ends in a hut on the steppes of Kazakhstan - two years, nine months, 11 days and 11 hours later. Bill Wallis reads this magical, mystical, hypnotic book slowly and thoughtfully, with a kind of wearily sophisticated intelligence. The momentum flags a little in the middle but builds up splendidly at the end.

There is no slackening of pace for a single second in Tess Gerritsen's Body Double (BBC Chivers, unabridged £22.99). If you fancy a real thriller, this is it, a gruesome shocker whose grisly subject is the abduction and casual murder of heavily pregnant women for the purpose of stealing their babies. It starts scarily and builds to an absolutely terrifying climax. Only the cool nerve of Lorelei King's steadily reassuring and distractingly beautiful voice keeps you listening (the logic, if there is any, is that she seems to have been able to read it, so surely you'll survive listening to it...).

King also reads the latest novel by the great Anne Tyler. Digging to America (Random House £16.99) marks a small departure from the home-grown domestic interiors of Tyler's Baltimore to include immigrants from Iran and Korea. It is a subtle, gentle and perceptive book, once again given new profundity by a skilled, versatile and sensitive reader.

Eleanor Bron also has a beautiful voice though, strangely, she takes it further south than Wallis's native Baltimore when she reads the musings of an old woman mouldering away in a bleak Paris apartment. All the stories are good, but The Darkness of Wallis Simpson (BBC Chivers £20.99) is the strongest in Rose Tremain's collection of that name. The ancient Wallis remembers her first, sadistic husband - and her second, a "real gentleman". However, of the right royal third she has no memory at all, save that he was a mildly irritating little man. It makes unforgettable listening.

You couldn't call Antonia Fraser's latest subject mildly anything. Love and Louis XIV (Orion £16.99) takes the Sun King from his golden-boy beginnings to his inglorious end, by way of the literally innumerable women who shared his bed (though his mother seems only to have shared his bath). As always, Fraser writes accessible history, well-researched (and most elegantly read by Patricia Hodge) but it is a pretty sorry tale of increasingly gloomy philandering, devastating and unjustifiable war-mongering and destructive extravagance. Pity nobody ever dared to say "Do you really need another 10,000 orange trees today, Sire?"

The last three authors all read their own books, not always a wise decision. In the case of Eric Sykes, though, it's perfect. His is easily the best of the current crop of celebrity autobiographies. The title explains why. If I Don't Write It Nobody Else Will (HarperCollins £13.99) is a delightfully modest, and extremely funny account of "paddling a leaky canoe up Niagara Falls". It is a joy, start to finish.

Sykes's mother died as he was born, but he believes that her spirit guided him through all his worst moments. Richard Dawkins would scoff at that. The God Delusion (Random House £16.99) is a rant against religion and spirituality - a strong and plausible argument ruined by superficiality, arrogance and inexcusable self-indulgence. For Dawkins to call Thomas Aquinas vacuous and fatuous does not help his case. You might prefer to escape from the seasonal whirligig towards the opposite corner and try Finding Sanctuary (Orion £14.99) with Abbot Christopher Jamison, a valiant attempt to suggest ways in which elements of the monastic life can bring serenity and calm to our frantic and turbulent world. Happy Christmas.