Audiobooks round-up December 2010

Posted: Mon Dec 20 2010

There are certain things you know you want from a particular autobiography. The stuff you neither hope for nor expect - that's the author's real gift of self. Derren Brown - who reads his 'Confessions of a Conjuror' (Random House, 6hr30 unabridged, £16.99, download from for £8.92) with the same elegance and warmth he brings to his mindboggling performances - is indulgent enough to share shoplifting techniques, some background on that enigmatic tic and a pleasing vision of himself relaxing in his 'monstrous London uber-pad' in library chair and slippers.

But for an illusionist, he's also written a book of real substance. The retelling of a single card trick is the frame for a thousand recollections. Some print readers have struggled to navigate Brown's long philosophical asides - imagine Proust, if Proust had ever tried to build himself a wanking machine out of Lego. But the audio is a rich and easy joy from beginning to end.

You don't often read of actors giving 'the performance of their lives' for an audiobook. But this can be said of John Simm's astonishing reading of 'Billy Liar' (CSA Word, 7hr unabridged, £17), Keith Waterhouse's tale of a budding comedy writer indulging his big-city fantasies while bound by the turgid rhythms and native nosiness of '50s Yorkshire.

A Lancashire-raised Londoner with a fish-out-of-water acidity of his own, Simm nails Billy's imaginative liveliness and studied insouciance, while the dialect flows like a draught down a ginnel. Conveying the compulsive mimic's 'vocal doodling' must be the voice actor's equivalent of rubbing your tummy, patting your head and eating an Eccles cake at the same time. Like the novel, Simm sparkles in surprising ways.

The unabridged reading of Jonathan Franzen's 'Freedom' (HarperCollins, £24.98, download from for £17.49) arrives un-dogged by incident and finds NY actor David Ledoux on top, chameleonic form as perspective shifts across states, times and neighbours' fences. It amounts to a 25-hour fugue of bitterness, softened with sorrow.

More companionable on frosty mornings is Robert Lacey's 'Great Tales FromEnglish History' (Hachette Digital, 6hr abridged, £18.99) from which we learn that Boudicca's body may lie under Platform 10 at King's Cross, and why we rear cows but eat beef: bright fragments of our past served up with the drowsy warmth of a classroom.