Some of our finest actresses woo the listening ear this summer. Eleanor Bron's voice is warm and subtle as a viola. She could bring plangent loveliness to any banality, from the boredom of a station announcer to the weariness of a put-upon mother (how wistful would sound her reproach: "Not angry, darling, just disappointed"). Give her a first-class novel to read, in its entirety and the effect is akin to a sublime chamber concert. Rose Tremain's The Colour (Chivers £54.95, 12 cassettes) is such a book. Ostensibly about the struggle for survival in 19th-century New Zealand, its real subjects are ambition, courage, the pull of the past and the unpredictability of love. The writing is rhythmic and poetic and the characters so real that you long to know what became of them in later life. The story fairly zips along and Bron's total engagement seduces the listener, irresistibly, into her charmed ambit.
From another old colony comes Janet Suzman, doing more than justice to Barbara Trapido's Frankie and Stankie (Bloomsbury £14.99). South Africa is the beautiful, abused setting of this richly evocative book. Written in a relentless present tense, the perspective is that of a clever girl growing up surrounded by the savagery of apartheid whilst herself being outside its rigid conventions. Given Suzman's strong, unblinkered reading, Trapido's book commands attention as arrestingly as did its literary progenitor, Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country.
The third diva is Juliet Stevenson. Though her book is more down to earth - or more literally to the terroir of Bordeaux - she raises the game, reading Patricia Atkinson's The Ripening Sun (Random House £9.99) as if it were Proust. And it's a great story - of an Englishwoman with no knowledge of wine nor a word of French who finds herself alone with little choice but to master the art of viticulture, which she achieves triumphantly. As it ends, the furious temptation to emigrate is only vitiated by reaching for a corkscrew.
The inimitable Anna Massey is the perfect, pursed and pedantic narrator of Zoë Heller's sinister and horribly gripping London school story, Notes on a Scandal (Penguin £12.99). Here the discovery of a sexual relationship between the beguiling pottery teacher and a loutish lad becomes the fulcrum of staff-room power: it seems all too alarmingly possible. Sex is also the cause of scandal in Julian Fellowes's Snobs (Orion £12.99), read by the author in a variety of posh voices (some more convincing than others). This dynastic drama features, amongst many name-swapping toffs, characters called Tigger and Goofy, Edith and Addler (or is that how such people pronounce Adela?) who prowl around each other in grand country houses, every so often belittling bewildered parvenus. Both books exert a powerful fascination, but if they truly represent contemporary society then Armageddon can't come soon enough.
If Julian Fellowes is the natural son of Trollope, with Wodehouse lurking in the descendancy, then Boris Akunin is the long-lost Russian cousin of Conan Doyle and brother of Houdini. His hero is the daring Fandorin, whose pursuit of The Winter Queen (Orion CD £16.99/cassette £13.00) takes him from Moscow to London and back again, via every conceivable peril, including being tossed, in a sack, into the Thames estuary. Set in 1879, it is marvellously plotted, gloriously extravagant and splendidly read by the perfectly named William Hootkins. Another unseasonably wintry thriller is Val McDermid's The Distant Echo (HarperCollins £15.99/£13.99), a tremendous story with an unguessable conclusion. It begins when four St Andrew's students stumble over a barmaid dying in the snow - and it takes desperate ingenuity, sophisticated technology and 25 years to solve.
But, heavens, it's summer. Here are three more frivolous holiday suggestions. The benign Gervase Phinn canters Up and Down in the Dales (Penguin £13/£9.99) with cheery tales of enchanting Yorkshire schoolchildren, while his Irish counterpart, Maeve Binchy, weaves more poignant Celtic tales of tenuous and tenacious affections amongst a Circle of Friends (Random House £9.99) read, gorgeously as ever, by her actress cousin Kate Binchy. Neither writer resorts to saccharine: both reflect accurately and sympathetically the dilemmas and delusions of adolescence.
And, when all else fails, you just might fancy The Wit of Cricket (Hodder £14.99/8.50). Of course it's nonsense but - I'm mildly embarrassed to admit - the simple howlers of Johnners, Aggers, Blowers and Wooders emanate a kind of exasperating idiocy that is curiously appealing. Their "wit" is debatable but their enjoyment is palpable. Can you bear, one last time, the announcement that today, at the Oval "the batsman's Holding, the bowler's Willey"?
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