Sue Arnold listens to Bond, not bonking
Michael Palin in a suitcase, Harry Potter in a tin, the complete Rebus canon packed into a black blood-stained box – recommending good, fun audiobooks for Christmas presents when I started doing this roundup 10 years ago used to be easy, there was so much choice. That was before the D-word revolutionised the talking book market. Downloads are the way forward. Audible, the world’s biggest online talking bookshop, hasn’t quite got round to e-book tokens but don’t worry, they will, though it won’t be the same as opening a tin of philosopher’s stones. Happily for those who still like their surprises in wrapping paper, there is a terrific one-size-fits-all audio this year, and it even comes in a box. 007 Reloaded: The Ian Fleming Classic Bond Collection, Part 1 (Audio Go, 52 hrs, £40), brought out to commemorate James Bond’s 50th anniversary on screen, contains Fleming’s first seven Bond novels (some would say the best): Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever, From Russia With Love, Dr No and Goldfinger. What makes the collection special is the calibre of the readers – a different A-list actor for every book – which gives you as many varieties of James Bond as the films. It’s interesting to hear what a difference the reader makes. After Dan Stevens’s tough alpha-male in Casino Royale I thought Bill Nighy’s Moonraker hero a bit of a softie. Everyone knows that Bond’s take on women is love ’em and leave ’em, but Nighy describing Bond’s devastation when gorgeous Gala Brand tells him she’s getting married in the morning, adds a new dimension to the character. If you can’t wait for Reloaded, Part 2 and the remaining seven titles, they’re available individually, ending with Kenneth Branagh’s The Man with the Golden Gun. And for those who like celebrity interviews, there’s one with the actor at the end of every book.
The award for most entertaining history audio this year is shared between the late Robert Hughes’s Rome (Orion, 11½hrs, £19.99) and Boris Johnson’s Life of London (HarperCollins, 11hrs, £19.99) for the sheer enthusiasm that these two born showmen bring to their subjects. Hughes calls his a cultural, visual and personal history of the Eternal City from Romulus to Berlusconi. As guide books go, it’s probably less factually accurate than Lonely Planet, but Hughes’s descriptions of the works of the great renaissance artists are dazzling. Boris’s racy anecdotal overview of his mayoral fiefdom is full of his favourite historical role models – John Wilkes, Samuel Johnson, Churchill, Thatcher. Only very occasionally does he slip into political manifesto mode but, like him or loathe him, Boris is never boring.
I’m not sure which literary genre Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk (Hachette Audio, 10hrs, £18.99) fits into, but for me it was the year’s best-written and most original thriller. It’s the Sherlock Holmes case no one dared mention while he was alive, which is why his sidekick, dear old Dr Watson, is telling it to us now. The combination of spine-chilling suspense, the author’s pitch-perfect Victorian prose and Derek Jacobi’s sonorous, Forsytian delivery is irresistible.
Quirkiest audio has to be Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation (British Library, 75mins, £9.99), in which an enthusiastic bunch of actors demonstrate how the Bard’s sonnets, songs and various famous scenes from his plays would have sounded to Elizabethan audiences. Pronounce “hour” as a 16th-century actor would have, that is, to rhyme with “whore”, and listen to the double entendres multiply. Eng lit aficionados will love it.
I am reliably informed that serious book clubs – all women, of course – are reading EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, not for the titillation but to discuss where exactly it does or doesn’t fit in with the advancement of women’s liberation. You’d better have the details: Random House, 19hrs, £19.99.