BOOKS; LISTENING IN: AUDIOBOOKS FOR XMAS

Robert Hardy was a worthy winner of Best Abridged Modern Fiction in the first Talkies, the new awards for talking books. The only drawback in his bluff, hearty rendering of Master and Commander, Patrick O'Brian's Napoleonic seafaring yarn (Bespoke Audio pounds 8.49), is his tendency to bellow suddenly as though from ship to shore.

Ranked against Hardy was Nigel Planer's rendering of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, where a dour reading was matched to a banal text. Much more satisfying is Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon USA (Hodder Headline pounds 9.99), taken from the author's live radio broadcasts in the States, so there's muffled snuffling, laughter and rustles from an invisible audience to contend with. Keillor, however, is a skilled performer and this is a magical, witty five and a half hours which will transport you to smalltown America.

Bunter of Greyfriars School (CSA Telltapes pounds 7.99) is the latest offering from the audiobook king, Martin Jarvis. Greyfriars is a PC-free zone: Bunter is universally known as the "fat slacker" or the "Owl of the Remove" (presumably a reference to his specs). Of course, one of his cohorts is Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, but I doubt whether ideologues would appreciate Jarvis's sing- song rendition of the young Nabob's speech. However, the wheezing, greedy, fatuous Bunter is a delight, and Jarvis even manages to render the constant "Ha, ha, ha!"s which litter Frank Richards' text.

Perhaps comedic moment of the year was Simon Callow's pedantically precise repetition of the name "Lund-kvist" in the tennis-match from hell described in volume one of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time (Hodder Headline pounds 7.99 per volume). The first three volumes (A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer's Market and The Acceptance World) are out, with the remaining nine unscheduled but due to appear in the New Year. So far Callow's tongue- in-cheek rendition of Powell's labyrinthine classic has been a dazzling success, cleverly differentiating the three central characters, Jenkins, Temple and Stringham, and the various shady and eccentric coves they move among in the dance of life - in particular Widmerpool, with his grating, officious voice. It'll be interesting to see what Callow makes of the later, much darker volumes.

With all the interest in William Blake engendered by Peter Ackroyd's biography (discounted in a good bookshop near you), it comes as no surprise to see the poet featuring on two different tapes. Reed Audio's The Poems of William Blake is good value at pounds 5.99, but Alan Bates' reading is a bit "Woe, woe and thrice woe!". It's as though someone in the studio had said, "Look, Batesy old love, this chap was a prophet, d'you see?" For a less florid, more down-to-earth reading, try the intense Nicol Williamson, who has more than a touch of the mad visionary himself (Hodder Headline pounds 7.99). Unfortunately there's no inlay card, so no list of poems, and the 20 minutes per side double-cassette features a lot of white noise, but in 80 mins it covers good ground. For pounds 19.99 you can get it in a boxed set, Poets For Pleasure, with Douglas Hodge's passionate reading of Keats and T P McKenna's rich, mystical Yeats. Highly recommended.

Penguin returns the epic to the spoken word with its excellent six-cassette marathons, The Aeneid, read by Richard Pasco, and The Odyssey, read by Alex Jennings (pounds 21 and nine hours each). They feature thrilling unabridged extracts linked by commentary, a devicewhich works well. Penguin's vast panorama of English poetry, English Verse, read by Alan Cumming, Judi Dench, Michael Pennington, Andrew Sachs and others, runs to six volumes (three hours and pounds 7.99 apiece), ranging from the 16th century to the early 20th; each comes with a complete text (boxed set pounds 50).

Absolute pick of the year has to be Edward Ferrie's Tales from the Norse Legends from Naxos (pounds 6.99), the only company which features complementary classical music on its audiobooks. It's nominally for kids, but anyone would enjoy Benjamin Soames's larky account of the adventures of cunning Loki, Fenrir the Wolf, war-god Tyr, Baldur the beautiful and Thor.

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