Audio books for Christmas: I've heard so much about you

Old (and new) favourites excel in their aural exam

Sue Gaisford
Sunday 05 December 2010 01:00

To begin, a warning: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (Fourth Estate, unabridged, £24.98) has, at the time of writing, been shortlisted for the Literary Review's Bad Sex prize. And if it seemed bad on the page, the offending passage is excruciating when read aloud, even by the competent David Ledoux. But fast-forward past the phone calls between young Joey Berglund and his girlfriend and there is much to be enjoyed in this excoriating satire of contemporary American mores. Indeed, after 24 hours' listening, the Berglunds could become, if not exactly old friends, part of your life.

Like them, the Litvinoffs have Jewish roots and have risen high in left-leaning American society. If every Berglund demands individual liberty, all of the Litvinoffs, known in Zoë Heller's novel as The Believers (Whole Story, unabridged, £24.99), have passionately held principles which, inevitably, clash ferociously. It is funny, polemical and fairly well read by Tara Ward – though the appalling English matriarch's accent owes more to Dick Van Dyke than Deptford.

John Simm's reading of Billy Liar (CSA Word, unabridged, £19.99), the masterpiece from Keith Waterhouse, is, by contrast, flawless. The endearing fantasist Billy, his unspeakable family and everyone he knows are all given distinctive, often hilariously intertwining Yorkshire voices: this reading of Waterhouse's witty and compassionate writing has the edge even on the iconic 1963 film. When Billy's harassed mother speaks tentatively of "love", it's as if the word were newly coined, "like Terylene".

Old favourites ride high, too. Compton Mackenzie's Whisky Galore (Hachette, £14.99) is enormous fun to listen to. The great David (Doctor Finlay) Rintoul takes us straight to the heart of a Hebridean community whose lives are immeasurably improved when a cargo of 50,000 cases of whisky are washed ashore from a grounded ship. It is glorious, escapist fun.

As is Philip Franks' superb reading of Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham (Hachette, £14.99), the latest in this elegant series based on the detective endeavours +of the urbane, bespectacled – yet curiously sexy – Albert Campion.

As addictive as cocaine, Allingham's stories often, as in this case, feature spooky happenings and violent death, yet we know that, with Campion in charge, everything will be all right in the end.

Allingham was writing at the same time as Dorothy L Sayers, whose mantle – and characters – have been magnificently taken on by Jill Paton Walsh. Edward Petherbridge's reading of The Attenbury Emeralds (BBC Audiobooks, unabridged, £16.99) is leisurely, almost elegiac. It is 1951 and times have changed – Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet have sons at Eton, with Bunter's boy – but the complicated story harks back to 1921 when Peter is a shell-shocked young officer. I loved every sophisticated minute.

Finally, for a really delicious treat, laugh and cry along with Maeve Binchy's latest Dublin novel, Minding Frankie (Orion, £18.99). Warmly read by her cousin Kate Binchy, this is a moving story of good triumphing over all kinds of problems – at which, in spite of everything (not least their current financial troubles), the Irish excel. And which, as the Binchys' compatriot Oscar Wilde almost declared, is the meaning of fiction.

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