AUDIO BOOKS

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Say what you like about T S Eliot - and goodness knows we all have, recently - he scarcely has an equal in the business of humorous verse. Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, with its inventiveness, not- so-simple poetic devices and skittishly brilliant locutions, could be used for formal lessons in metrics. In Faber and Penguin's new audiobook release (pounds 7.99), Richard Briers gives it the full works, rolling his vowels and belting it out like a Victorian pantomime villain. Among the other readers are Juliet Stevenson and Nigel Davenport, and the double cassette is a pleasure for all ages - although I think younger children are sometimes more baffled then delighted by the rich welter of strange vocabulary.

Two other new titles in this handsomely produced series are also from the core Faber stable: Ted Hughes's The Iron Woman, read by himself, and Sylvia Plath's recently rediscovered The It-Doesn't-Matter-Suit (both pounds 7.99). The latter - about a small boy called Max Nix, his six brothers and Mama and Papa in Winkleburg, and the unconventional mustard yellow suit - I find a rather drippy little story, more a literary curiosity than anything else. But on this recording Andrew Sachs, Susan Jameson and a range of young readers seem to be having an infectiously good time, and perhaps the gusto is what matters.

When Ted Hughes reads, you think he is perfect casting for the Voice of God. Even when he reins in his fantastic vocal power, young listeners realise that this is serious stuff (just relish the way he pronounces eeeeeeel). But children who are already captivated by the strange darkness of The Iron Man and The Iron Woman - that is, all the children I've ever come across - will be enraptured by this beautiful reading, which runs a full three hours. Highly recommended.

Penguin's new version of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, read by Nigel Davenport (pounds 6.99) also runs three hours, and is no doubt intended for the further enlightenment of those who have seen the Disney version. As a straightforward adapted classic, it is a competent job, most likely to appeal to parents who sat through the movie and were made curious about the original.

Terry Pratchett scores again, on the page and on tape, with Johnny and the Bomb (Doubleday pounds 12.99). Tony Robinson gives a no-frills reading of this third story of Johnny Maxwell, sequel to Only You Can Save Mankind and Johnny and the Dead. This time, he gets involved with the bag-lady Mrs Tachyon, a not-so-crazy old woman with a strange ability to make time shift, and to make May 1941, air raids and ration books seem more real than Tesco and Thunderbirds. Reliable fare for fans.

Another trustworthy staple for long car journeys is Roger MacBride Allen's Star Wars: Assault at Selonia (HarperCollins pounds 12.99), which serves up exactly the formula you'd expect. There is something oddly soporific about all that muttered, twangy suppressed violence, but personally I'd rather listen to Radio Albania.

If you are between five and 10, and already know by heart every single one of the Just William stories, try Richmal Crompton's Jimmy (TellTapes pounds 7.99). Martin Jarvis reads the gung-ho, gosh-what-a-wheeze adventures of Jimmy Manning (aged seven) without a trace of irony - quite rightly - and its very predictability provides a soothing voice in the ear.

Now for the warm moral glow. A curious mixture of adventure storytelling and proselytising zeal characterises Alan Davidson's Escape from Cold Ditch (Tempo Reed pounds 7.99), read by Joanna Lumley in her very plummiest mode and sold in support of Compassion in World Farming. The hens are incarcerated on the farm, living in misery and never seeing the light, till along comes resistance agent Fleur to organise the Great Escape. It's very well-meant, but the message is hammered home, and Lumley's comic brilliance does not translate easily to tear-jerking.

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