Despite the continued complications of covid, one pleasure will not be quashed: summer reading. This annual ritual — all but a few killjoys agree — means taking up a book not to improve one’s mind or morals, but rather to have a good time. Here are seven truly entertaining books, chosen with an eye to diverse tastes.
We’ll start with the funny stuff. David Sedaris’s latest chronicle of his doings of him, “Happy Go Lucky” (7½ hours), is marked by his familiar skewering humor, off-the-wall observations and moments of pathos. He covers the death of his father from him, the pandemic, a squirm-inducing medical procedure, a trip to a firing range and any number of very funny interactions with oddballs. Though half of the segments are recordings of live performances — annoying to this listener, who doesn’t like crowds — Sedaris admits that he’s lost without an audience, “that unwitting congregation of fail-safe editors.” And here they are, stamping his work with the imprimatur of laughter.
Mick Herron’s “slow horses,” a British intelligence unit of misfits and screw-ups, have achieved deserved renown from their Apple TV series, but if you want the genuine article enriched by a narrator born to the job, consider the audio version. No one conveys the spirit of the novels better than narrator Gerard Doyle, a gentle-voiced master of deadpan irony and ruefulness. He is superb again in Herron’s latest, “Bad Actors” (10¾ hours), the eighth novel in the Slough House series. (If you are new to this intoxicating series you might want to begin with an earlier volume; all, bar the second, are narrated by Doyle.)
If the British ever decide to abolish the monarchy, we Americans will lose a source of harmless, gossipy entertainment. Tina Brown serves up the famously dysfunctional family with tartness and dash in “The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the Truth and the Turmoil” (18 hours), narrating the book herself in the authoritative voice of an old Oxonian. Kind and respectful where due (to the Queen and William and Kate), she softens on Charles and Camilla, but takes off the gloves with that “coronated sleaze machine,” Andrew — and quite a few others.
Set in 1950 in a century-old, fuddy-duddy London bookstore, Natalie Jenner’s “Bloomsbury Girls” (12½ hours) is both a triple romance and a tale of determination as three women band together to establish themselves as players in the world of book-selling and literature. Jenner’s depiction of a straitened postwar London and baffled male hostility to women’s aspirations is amusing rather than rancorous. Juliet Stevenson narrates the novel in her lovely, versatile voice, nicely capturing different personalities including those of the big guns who show up to play key roles: Daphne du Maurier, Peggy Guggenheim, Sonia Orwell and Samuel Beckett.
Thought written for children ages 9 to 12, RJ Palacio’s “pony” (7¼ hours) is an ideal book for a family car journey as it can be enjoyed just as well by people far gone in years. It is 1860 and 12-year-old Silas and his ghostly familiar from him, Mittenwool, are left behind when armed horsemen kidnap the boy’s father. Silas, Mittenwool and a pony, who mysteriously shows up, track down the villains through hazardous terrain — beyond which my lips are sealed. The novel is beautifully served by Ian M. Hawkins who narrates it in a sober, young-sounding voice with an austere, old-fashioned manner.
Ben McGrath spent years intermittently following the peregrinations and disappearance of Dick Conant, who had abandoned the humdrum existence of life on land and took to America’s waterways in a cheap red canoe. “Riverman: An American Odyssey” (8⅔ hours) is the result. Beginning with the discovery of that canoe, washed ashore with no sign of Conant, McGrath backtracks to investigate the nature of this strange but genial man, his heroic voyages of him and the riparian America he encountered. Adam Verner narrates the book in an engaging, relaxed voice at an easy pace that perfectly accords with the book’s temper.
Nikki May’s debut “Wahala” (10⅓ hours) has a familiar setup: Three friends are thrown into enmity by the inclusion in their group of a fourth. The story, however, is far from routine. Ronke, Boo and Simi are Anglo Nigerians, professional women in their 30s living in London. Their strained senses of identity, aspirations and personal lives are all richly explored by May—and in time become targets of the machinations of Isobel, a woman of ingenious malice. Still, the book is more comedy of manners than tragedy. It is greatly enhanced by a tremendous performance by Natalie Simpson, who has an astonishingly wide palette of voices and an extraordinary ability to convey undercurrents of tension.
Katherine A. Powers reviews audiobooks every month for The Washington Post.