Genre round-up: the best new audio books

This year’s recently announced Booker longlist elicited widespread praise for its variety and daring, and provides much for the keen audio listener. Here are two of the best, with more reviews to come before the prize is announced in October.

Audrey Magee’s The Colony (Faber, 8 hr 28 min) presents any narrator with a formidable challenge; the terse dialogue and staccato interior monologue of the text is frequently mirrored in the book’s print layout, so that there may be only a few words to a line.

Here, for example, is a snatch of the novel’s opening section, in which the English painter, Mr Lloyd, is being transported by currach to the tiny island off Ireland’s west coast on which the story is set, rowing into the:

Atlantic Ocean, into the strangeness, the unfamiliar
the not
willowed rivers
coxswains’ callings
muscled shoulders, tanned skin
sunglasses, caps and counting not that
the familiar
no

How to voice a passage such as that, particularly when elsewhere multi-voiced conversations spring up, or dense descriptive paragraphs, and when English, French and Irish Gaelic speakers all appear?

Narrator Stephen Hogan, an experienced actor who has also won awards for his work in audio books, takes a strikingly muscular approach to the task; his voice, especially when he inhabits the irascible, tricky Lloyd, sounds almost clenched, relaxing as he portrays the islanders’ congregating over bread and jam or, as we come to know the community’s other summer visitor, transforming himself into a laconic French academic.

Set in 1979, the novel’s focus periodically switches to brief news reports of Irish National Liberation Army and Irish Republican Army atrocities taking place ashore, and Hogan conveys these in a way that makes them seem, as they are, almost unimaginably far away.

Also on the Booker longlist is Percival Everett’s The Trees (Tantor Audio, 7 hr 43 min), and once again we’re immersed in different lives that must find a way to coexist in a small community.

Here, we are in Money, Mississippi, and witnesses to a series of macabre and brutal murders: white men from long-established working-class families are discovered with their necks encircled by barbed wire, their testicles removed, and the corpse of a black man nearby. The plot thickens when, shortly after the bodies are removed to the mortuary, the black man’s corpse goes missing.

What initially appears to be a relatively straightforward crime novel soon reveals other layers, most significantly the connections between present events and the real-life murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American who was abducted, shot and lynched in 1955, and whose white killers were acquitted.

Bill Andrew Quinn — again, an experienced and acclaimed narrator — is called on not only to animate a large cast of characters, from sprawling families to sheriffs and the out-of-town detectives they immediately resent, but to work with Everett’s captivating shifts in tone.

Unlikely as it may sound, much of The Trees is very funny, homing in on the humour present in the misunderstandings and mistrust between its characters, and demonstrating how that humour is often used to defuse racial tension — and Quinn brings warmth and laughter to these sections, ably undercutting them when the horrors of racial violence and bigotry emerge. (Note: text and audio versions contain repeated use of racial slurs.)

If you’re in the mood for suspense, I greatly enjoyed Lisa Jewell’s The Family Remains (Penguin Audio, 11 hr 14 min), which revisits the characters from her previous thriller The Family Upstairs, an enjoyably convoluted tale revolving around a house on Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk and a family that is infiltrated by a manipulative conman-cum-cult leader.

It’s well worth listening to the older book first, though not essential; if not, you can simply join Detective Inspector Samuel Owusu, voiced by Hugh Quarshie, as he investigates a mudlark’s find: a small human skull discovered on the Thames foreshore. With a cast that also includes Eleanor Tomlinson — who played Demelza in the TV series Poldark — this is a piece of twisty escapism that makes good use of the interplay of voices and settings. It is one of those mysteries that works well on a long holiday journey, even if, heaven forfend, you’re stuck in an airport or harbour queue.

Similarly diverting is Ruth Ware’s The It Girl (Simon & Schuster Audio, 17 hr 7 min), which is narrated by Imogen Church.

And finally, this month also sees the publication of Without Warning and Only Sometimes (Tinder Press, 8 hr 6 min), a childhood memoir by the novelist Kit de Waal.

She reads the audio version, and it’s a terrific evocation of her family life in 1960s Birmingham, in which her Irish mother’s devotion to religion frequently saw her forecasting the end of the world, while her father, originally from St Kitts, took an altogether more joyful and celebratory view of life — even if there weren’t always the funds to back it up. If it leaves you wanting more of de Waal’s fiction, her debut novel My Name is Leon is fantastically read by none other than Sir Lenny Henry.

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café

Leave a Comment