It’s summer, and the cost of living is making things far from easy. If you’re not feeling the pinch in your pocket, you’ll probably be feeling it in inflated concern about soaring temperatures and sobering political headlines. If we’re to relax with a book, we need something that will both absorb us but, perhaps, doesn’t feel like a retreat from the world.

This selection focuses on books that succeed in entertaining us while setting the challenges we currently face against a larger historical backdrop — propulsive, engaging narratives, reflective of the complexity of the human condition and of our tangled interrelations. They conjure the textures and contours of recent decades and highlight abiding personal and social concerns.

Ann Patchett’s Tom Lake (Bloomsbury, 11 hrs 22 mins) might seem an unlikely choice: a woman in her fifties retells the gripping events of a summer from her youth to her three daughters, to pass the time as their family harvests the cherries on their Michigan farm. But this back-story — starring in a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, she conducted a blazing romance with a young actor destined for stardom — is shot through with intimations of mortality. Lara, her husband and children are locked down during the pandemic, and the actor she once loved has recently met a tragic end.

Inspired by Wilder’s own work, and his preoccupation with how the local and particular blend with the universal and the timeless, it’s a deeply poignant and humane work. Meryl Streep narrates with an exceptional understanding of Tom Lake’s many subtleties, juxtaposing Lara’s memories of the energy and desire of youth with her later-life impulse to protect her daughters from the disappointments and accommodations that age brings. She expertly modulates her tone throughout — at one moment exasperated with her familial audience’s urgings to get to the point, at another lost in thoughts of where a different trajectory might have brought her.

Colson Whitehead’s Crook Manifesto (Hachette Audio, 10 hrs 47 mins) continues the story of Ray Carney, the furniture salesman treading a blurred line between legality and misdemeanour whom we first met in 2021’s Harlem Shuffle. Although Crook Manifesto functions perfectly well as a standalone work, both novels are read by acclaimed audio narrator Dion Graham. We are in 1970s Harlem, the action proceeding through the decade in three sections — signposted by Jackson 5 concerts and the burgeoning blaxploitation film scene, pitched battles between the NYPD and the Black Liberation Army and, when we arrive in 1976, America’s bicentennial celebrations.

Graham, who has won countless awards for voicing work by writers such as Dave Eggers, James Baldwin and Walter Mosley, is a brilliantly charismatic and flexible reader. He captures the freewheeling comedy inherent in Whitehead’s tapestry of corrupt cops and small-time criminals, alternating a rich, drawling storyteller’s voice with the taut, economical tempo needed to deliver the most suspenseful moments.

A different kind of mystery lies at the heart of Colin Walsh’s Kala (WF Howes, 12 hrs 25 mins), set in the small Irish town of Kinlough in 2018. It centres on the disappearance of a young woman, the eponymous Kala, 15 years previously. The audio version is an ensemble piece, read by Frank Blake, Moe Dunford and Seana Kerslake, who take the parts of Kala’s friends, reunited in their home town over a summer. Kala’s body has been found, and the trio — the one who never escaped, plus a rock star and a journalist, both of whom have since struck out for pastures new — are forced to confront their shared past.

What elevates Kala beyond simple procedural whodunnit is its interest in the dynamics of departure and return. Corruption plays a key part, and the cast pay close attention to a narrative inflected with envy, resentment and the claustrophobia of an apparently closed society. The result is an intriguing and satisfying medley of voices and silences.

Smaller-scale but nonetheless illuminating delights are on offer in two accomplished short story collections, ideal for brief immersion in sharply created tableaux. Joyce Carol Oates’ Zero-Sum (Fourth Estate, 9 hrs 45 mins), presented by an array of highly proficient readers, offers tense narratives, variously filled with tales of seduction, revenge and — in the collection’s longest and most ambitious story — the suicide of a much-lauded writer who bears a resemblance to the late David Foster Wallace. These are macabre pieces, often thrillingly so.

They’re very different in tone to the more measured, yet also disturbing, stories to be found in Tessa Hadley’s After the Funeral (Penguin Audio, 6 hrs 31 mins). Read by actor Abigail Thaw, these vignettes thrive on the minute detonations between their characters, creating in the listener a sense of a series of indrawn breaths when social gatherings go wrong or family members collide. They’re not exactly comfortable, and all the better for it.

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