Lend them your ears: The best of this spring's audiobook releases

Sue Gaisford discovers old classics given new life and some modern greats in the making
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The Independent Culture

Juliet Stevenson's superbly intelligent reading of A Room With a View (CSA Word Classic £15.99) is five hours of unalloyed pleasure. From the first querulous, pardon-me-for-living appearance of the maddening Charlotte, right through to the sweeter-than-bitter end, Stevenson's marvellous performance illuminates all the subtle nuances of Forster's characters, along with his elegantly sly commentary on their behaviour: a familiar novel appears new-minted, brilliant all over again.

Like grand opera, audiobooks need everything to be right, or the enterprise stumbles. This spring, fine readers work hard on rubbishy texts (three first-rate actors, for example, battling heroically with Jeffrey Archer's awful novels) while mediocre performers do less than justice to good books. Laurel Lefkow, for instance, takes a run at Tess Gerritsen's clever and densely plotted time-slip thriller The Bone Garden (Random House £13.99), but rapidly loses track of the large cast, as multiple Boston-Irish voices of the 1830s compete with contemporary residents of Massachusetts. It is a seriously gory story. I grimaced through protracted forceps deliveries and the dissection of grave-robbed bodies, but weakened and fast-forwarded past an amputation without anaesthetic ("Hold him down, boys, and pass the brandy").

Those who love such thrillers will enjoy another two American offerings, not quite so awash with blood. Both James Patterson's 7th Heaven (Random House £9.99) and Patricia Cornwell's Point of Origin (Hachette £15.99) deal with gruesome deaths by fire, solved by feisty female detectives after nerve-jangling adventures – and both are well read, by Carolyn McCormick and Joan Allen respectively. If, however, you prefer gentler, home-grown mysteries, try the indefatigable John Mortimer's Rumpole and the Reign of Terror (Penguin £12.99). Timothy West and Prunella Scales read competently – though the notion that She Who Must Be Obeyed could be seduced by an ancient judge tests Scales's credibility. However, Mortimer and Rumpole's magnificent assertion of the importance of civil liberties and human rights is inspiring – even, or especially, when fuelled by bottles of disgusting Château Thames Embankment.

It's the time of year when public exams loom over teenage lives. History teachers, trying to breathe new life into 20th-century wars might consider Nicola Tyrer's Sisters in Arms (Orion £14.99), a history of Queen Alexandra's army nurses. Barbara Flynn narrates with appropriate steeliness, while Siâ*Thomas gives distinctive voices to the many almost unimaginably brave women who did their damnedest, and more, to care for the wounded in appalling circumstances. It is a most impressive, humbling book.

And if Eng Lit is your problem and Shakespeare's King Lear your stumbling block, nothing could be more helpful than the excellent Smart Pass edition (£19.99). Here the play is cheerfully and carefully introduced, before it is performed by an excellent and experienced cast, its textual difficulties explained en route. In a final section, the issues it raises are discussed and illuminated so that essays and exam answers become gloriously possible. Smart Pass is the first-rate teacher that everyone deserves.

The Naxos series The Great Poets gives us Percy Bysshe Shelley (£8.99), a 75-minute treasure in which the best of the poems are read with youthful verve (and occasional, proper rage) by Bertie Carvel. The same series has William Wordsworth at the same price and running-time, though it is less successful: one of the readers is unnecessarily portentous, and the selection reveals many of the poet's unfortunate weaknesses: there could be sniggering at the back of the class.

Now to contemporary fiction, and new books by three respected novelists. Louis de Bernières' A Partisan's Daughter (Random House £16.99) is an odd one. A disillusioned 40-year-old salesman in Seventies north London takes to visiting an exotic young immigrant from Tito's Yugoslavia. He is entranced by her fanciful stories, which may or may not be true, but what really fails to convince is the farcical and exasperating denouement. Jeff Rawle's reading appropriately enough expresses a steady, grim, low-level lust: too seldom is his monologue interrupted by livelier and very welcome interjections from the gifted Siâ*Thomas.

Paul Torday's new book is also depressing. David Rintoul reads The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce (Orion £14.99) very well, managing to elicit sympathy for our doomed and sclerotic hero. Somehow you can't fail to love a man who, alone and already drunk in a smart London restaurant, orders the most expensive wine on the list, knocks it back and grandly orders another bottle before passing out. It is a fable, a lingering, haunting morality tale about addiction, snobbery and a kind of desperate, furious love.

Anne Enright's prize-winning novel centres on The Gathering (Naxos £19.99) of the Hegarty clan for a Dublin funeral. The deceased, brother of our narrator, probably suffered sexual abuse long ago, a history that she needs to unravel. But then, every man in this loveless, angry book is more easily recognised without his trousers than by his face or character. The otherwise unremitting sourness is leavened by a certain stygian humour, by a final – and tentatively optimistic – plot twist, and by a certain ironic and lilting loveliness of style, exquisitely interpreted by the great Fiona Shaw.

JG Farrell's 1970 novel Troubles (CSA Word £15.99) describes an earlier, more turbulent Ireland. County Wexford just after the First World War is territory fought over by the Protestant Ascendancy, the notorious Black-and-Tans and the fledgling IRA. A shell-shocked major has arrived at the crumbling Majestic Hotel to claim his insubstantial bride – who fades away and dies. But the gallant major stays on. He plays whist with the ancient residents, attempts to protect the virginity of his lost fiancée's racy identical twin sisters, tries vainly to reason with their increasingly deranged and violent father, and hopelessly contemplates a vast tribe of increasingly feral cats. Meanwhile, unseen enemies plot a grisly end for him and the story gathers alarming momentum. Sean Barrett is the excellent reader and this proves, against the odds, to be the most exhilarating, funny and life-enhancing audiobook of the year thus far.