Family Album, by Penelope Lively, read by Anna Bentinck (10hrs unabridged, Isis, £27.99)
Nothing (I can hear John Galsworthy agreeing) beats a good family saga. Penelope Lively’s 16th novel is precisely that, if two generations and a scant dozen or so characters (rather than a dynasty spanning 50 years and at least as many Forsytes) counts as a saga. That apart, Lively’s main character isn’t a person, it’s a house. Allersmead is the Harper family’s home, a big shabby Edwardian villa where Alison and Charles’s six children – four girls, two boys – spent their idyllic childhood. That, anyway, is earth mother Alison’s version of events. Her family is her life. “We grew children, not flowers,” she smilingly tells visitors (Alison always smiles). “The thing is, I only ever wanted children, and what’s wrong with that, say I?” When they were young she made endless birthday cakes and organised countless family picnics. Now, 40 years on, the children’s school art work and photographs still adorn the walls of every room. So why – apart from Paul, who drinks, takes drugs, drifts in and out of jobs and is still, aged 40, living at home – do the siblings rarely come back? And why do none have children of their own? As the story deftly switches backwards and forwards in time with different voices giving different accounts of certain seminal moments in their childhood, we begin to realise that growing up in Allersmead was less idyll than suppressed nightmare.
The Long Song, written and read by Andrea Levy, with Adrian Lester (11hrs unabridged, Hachette, £19.99)
If all novelists could read their books as brilliantly as Levy, there’d be slim pickings for professional actors. I can’t imagine anyone else making a story about slavery so funny. Not all the time, of course. The history of slaves working the sugar plantations of Jamaica in the turbulent years circa 1830 that preceded emancipation is hardly a laughing matter. But the narrator, Miss July – daughter of Kitty, a field slave on the Amity plantation, and its brutal Scottish overseer – is such a lovable, ebullient, indomitable, heroic and above all humorous person that, despite the injustices, horrors and heart-breaking sorrows she endures, and unlike the relentless misery of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there’s a welcome vein of light relief running through the whole book. Just as well – some of the descriptions of slaves being tortured, burned and lynched are unbearable.