We are still avid for distraction — from the horrors and sadnesses of the outside world, the exigencies of home-schooling and the sheer grind of lockdown. It can come in the form of fantasy, frivolity, sober reality and those stories of personal experience that make us feel, in spite of it all, connected to one another.
This month’s picks start with a gothic tale of huge invention and not a little jeopardy. Jenni Fagan’s Luckenbooth (WF Howes, £16.99) is the tale of the devil’s daughter who, concealing “the sharp tip of my horns”, fetches up in an Edinburgh tenement in 1910. The subsequent mayhem ranges over the rest of the 20th century and the house’s numerous inhabitants, who include a medium, a mermaid and, oddly enough, William Burroughs. The audio version, narrated by Cathleen McCarron (who’s previously read books by Val McDermid and Denise Mina), David McCallion, Fiona McNeill and Jeff Harding, works excellently with the book’s episodic structure and its multiple characters and time-schemes to build a sense of menace and claustrophobia — a creepy feeling that something wicked this way comes. Add to that the evocations of a changing city and a blend of the visceral and supernatural for a terrific way to spend 10 or so hours.
Nobody did menace quite like Patricia Highsmith, whose centenary has recently been celebrated. Several of her 22 novels are available in audio versions; alongside the Ripley novels, I’d recommend standalone stories such as Deep Water (Hachette Audio, £19.99, read by John Chancer) and This Sweet Sickness (Hachette Audio, £19.99, read by William Hope). Both are twisted tales of love and matrimony, with Highsmith’s direct but suggestive style proving to be particularly intriguing for the ear.
For a thumpingly immersive historical listen, Kate Mosse’s The City of Tears (Mantle Audio) — the second of her Burning Chambers trilogy, though you don’t have to have read or listened to the first to enjoy this — more than fits the bill. If, like me, your knowledge of 16th-century royal and political life and religious wars is somewhat limited, narration really helps; there’s something clear and precise about having the details of the conflict between the Huguenots and Catholics go straight into my listening brain. But aside from this, Mosse is practised at creating vivid scenes — in this case, a court wedding that is overtaken by the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, with profound consequences for her protagonists. Actor Hattie Morahan, who has read novels by Tracy Chevalier and Stacey Halls, does a superb job, ably capturing the shifts between large-scale action and its impact on individual lives. If you do want to start at the beginning, she has also narrated the first book in the series, The Burning Chambers.
In the world of non-fiction, I had been looking forward to reading Alexandra Heminsley’s Some Body to Love (Vintage Digital, £13) in print, and then realised I’d like to listen to her own reading of this very personal book. Hers is a complex story: she and her husband had been through several rounds of unsuccessful IVF and miscarriage before the birth of their son. Then, when he was still a baby, came a bombshell: Heminsley learnt that her husband — whom she had felt becoming increasingly separate from her — was transgender, and wished to begin the process of transition.
What struck me about this audio version is that Heminsley — not in any sense a professional reader — gives a truly moving rendition of her own work; her tone is jaunty, at first, delighted by the early happiness of her marriage, and then becomes less certain, more disorientated, as her life begins to unravel. But it’s such a hopeful story: the family that she and her partner have created might be a new and unexpected shape, but it is a loving and entirely bonded one.
And finally, something very different in a book whose précis sounds so much drier than it actually is. Booker Prize-winning novelist George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (Bloomsbury) is a guide to the great Russian short stories that draws not only on his decades of experience as a teacher of literature, but also, as he describes, on the moment when he realised he could stop being an engineer and start being a writer. Literature, he argues, allows us to ask the big questions, not least “How are we supposed to be living down here?” This audio version takes us through some of the shorter works of Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol, courtesy of a stellar cast of American actors, who include Glenn Close, Rainn Wilson, Phylicia Rashad and Nick Offerman. The additional advantage is, that you are taken back to the source material as well as commentary, and therein find a wellspring of great wisdom and consoling riches.
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