'The Man Who Died Twice,' by Richard Osman. (Penguin Audio, unabridged, 11¾ hours)
This is the second installment in Richard Osman's justifiably popular series chronicling the adventures of the Thursday Murder Club, a group of elderly sleuths living in an English retirement village. Like its predecessor, this has its poignant moments, but above all it is witty in a low-key, mild-mannered fashion that is particularly diverting in juxtaposition with the murder and mayhem unloosed by the intricate plot. Our four friends — ex-spy Elizabeth, retired nurse Joyce, psychiatrist Ibrahim and firebrand labor agitator Ron — find themselves sorting out (and, to be frank, involved in) a tangle of crimes encompassing corrupt secret-service operatives, a couple of hit men, the mafia, jewel theft, drug-dealing, thuggery and an act of enterprising vengeance. This thoroughly engaging book is further enhanced by narrator Lesley Manville, whose many acting roles include W.S. Gilbert's wife, Kitty, in "Topsy-Turvy" and Princess Margaret in the forthcoming season of "The Crown." Here, her voice absorbs the manner and accents of the various characters while still retaining the discreetly wry air that pervades the book's overall sensibility. This is an outstanding performance.
The Secret of Life: Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and the Discovery of DNA's Double Helix, by Howard Markel. (Recorded Books, unabridged, 15 hours)
Much has been written about James Watson's and Francis Crick's "borrowing" of Rosalind Franklin's research into the structure of DNA. Howard Markel — physician, professor and gifted writer — tells the story again, setting scenes and shrewdly capturing the main actors' characters and motivations. Though not every listener will grasp the scientific detail completely, Markel makes the gist and implication of these matters very clear, and narrator Donald Corren's unhurried delivery serves this well. Markel's depiction of the clash of personalities is superb. Franklin was uncompromising and often dismissive, but it is Watson who emerges as the snake in the grass. Corren delivers the general narrative in a calm, engaging voice and gets across in his manner and pacing the personalities of those quoted from letters and other writings, nicely conveying the all-too human dimension of science.
'A Place of Exodus: Home, Memory, and Texas,' by David Biespiel. (Kelson Books, unabridged, 7½ hours)
Poet David Biespiel grew up in Meyerland, a Jewish section of Houston. In this moving, lyrical memoir, he describes an Orthodox Jewish upbringing that took a sharp turn when he was expelled from synagogue by a rabbi affronted by the teenage boy's questioning of Jewish religious doctrine and faith. After a nearly 40-year absence, Biespiel returned to his old neighborhood to walk the streets of his youth. Excavating, examining and questioning his memory, he feels "like the last survivor of my own life." He narrates the book himself, his Texas accent and cadence flickering in and out, his voice faintly husky with reminiscence. An excellent storyteller, Biespiel easily moves back and forth in time, relating incidents and vivid impressions of life in Meyerland and Houston of the 1970s and early '80s. These include a sad but strangely beguiling conversation with his father, who suffered from aphasia after a stroke, and the thrill of witnessing Earl Campbell's 81-yard run for a monumental touchdown as the Houston Oilers vanquished the Miami Dolphins. This is a haunting, heartfelt book beautifully read.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, also reviews for the Wall Street Journal. She writes this monthly column for the Washington Post.