Letters of Note compiled by Shaun Usher audiobook review – a missive success

<span>Photograph: James Gourley/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: James Gourley/REX/Shutterstock

The popular compendium of correspondence from history is brilliant in book form, but it takes on a whole new dimension in audio. An eclectic treasure trove of letters written by musicians, actors, poets, writers, explorers, dictators and more, this year’s updated edition is read by a host of actors including Noma Dumezweni, Toby Jones, Juliet Stevenson, Gillian Anderson, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Colin Salmon and Stephen Fry.

The letters are variously life-affirming, devastating, wilfully mundane, subtly acidic and sometimes downright creepy. Listeners can hear Olivia Colman reviving her cut-glass accent from The Crown as she reads the Queen’s recipe for drop scones that she sent to the US president Dwight D Eisenhower, as promised during his visit to Balmoral, and Alan Cumming hamming up Jack the Ripper’s famous “From Hell” dispatch to George Lusk, chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. The letter was sent in 1888 with a preserved human kidney.

Among the new additions is a letter, read by Benedict Cumberbatch, from one Thomas J Hanks to George Roy Hill, director of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in which the young actor, still in high school, puts forward his case to be “discovered”. “I know what you are thinking: ‘Who’s this kid?’ and I can understand your apprehensions,” Hanks wrote. “But I figure if people will pay to see certain films, they will pay to see me.” And Ferdinand Kingsley reads Tennessee miner Jacob Vowell’s heartbreaking missive to his wife, Sarah Ellen, written as he sat trapped underground with their 14-year-old son, Elbert, in May 1902. “O God for one more breath,” he wrote. Sadly, rescue came too late.

Letters of Note is available from Canongate, 11hr, 31min.

Further listening

Henry “Chips” Channon: The Diaries 1938-43
Edited by Simon Heffer, Penguin Audio, 48hr, 28min
Tom Ward reads the second volume of the American socialite’s uproarious diaries chronicling his years mingling with the British aristocracy.

My Body
Emily Ratajkowski, Quercus, 5hr, 16min
The actor and model narrates her book of autobiographical essays reflecting on beauty, the male gaze and the commodification of her body.