Books: Spoken Word for Xmas

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The Independent Culture
Browsing in a bookshop is one of the best ways of solving tricky present problems, and now that most good bookshops have substantial offerings on audio Santa's life is even easier. Starting with the smalls, Babe in the City (HarperCollins, pounds 6.99), Dick King-Smith's sequel to the hugely enjoyable Babe will be a treat - and prepare them for the film. For slightly older children (and their parents), Martin Clunes reading Jeremy Strong's The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog (Penguin, pounds 7.99) will go down well. A Christmas must is Alan Bennett's placidly commonsensical reading of J M Barrie's Peter Pan (BBC, pounds 8.99) his calm makes the matter-of-fact magic of the tale the more absurdly real. And look out for Ivory Shell's series of highly collectable classic children's stories from countries all round the world, available either in ordinary pictorial plastic cases or very attractive gold-lettered gift boxes, both at pounds 6.99. I especially enjoyed the Egyptian and Aboriginal Tales.

Today's smart modern intimate prose works very well read aloud. Twenty- and thirty- something blokes and blokish wenches should enjoy Nick Hornby's About A Boy (HarperCollins, pounds 8.99), read by Alan Cumming or his unabridged High Fidelity (Isis, pounds 16.99) read by Nigel Carrington. The more romantically inclined could do no better than Louis de Bernieres's unabridged Captain Corelli's Mandolin (Chivers, pounds 18.95, read by Michael Maloney) or Ian McEwan's Enduring Love (Chivers, pounds 15.95), read by David Threlfall. Or, for those perfect friendships, Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon (Mr Punch, pounds 8.99), a re-release of the original 1943 wireless recording by Bogart and Bergman.

Timothy West has just completed his superb unabridged readings of Anthony Trollope's six political novels with The Prime Minister (Cover to Cover, pounds 64.99) and The Duke's Children (Cover to Cover, pounds 53.99); either of them would make welcome listening for conservative relations with a long haul home. Or else ensure easy gift decisions for the next five years by buying them Can You Forgive Her (pounds 64.99), the first in the series.

Another literary marathon that is nearing completion is Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, abridged and read with astonishing versatility by Neville Jason for Naxos, and available on CD as well as tape. The eighth in a series of 12, the second part of Sodom and Gomorrah, is due out in the new year; start now with the first, Swann's Way (pounds 9.99).

Poetry pleases everybody with soul: this year's first choice has to be Poems to Remember (Faber/Penguin, pounds 8.99), Ted Hughes's anthology, prefaced by his own tips on how to memorise poetry, read by the man himself, and with an accompanying book of the poems. Also outstanding is Brendan Kennelly's long poem, read by himself, The Man Made of Rain (Bloodaxe Books, pounds 8.99).

The end of the year always seems to call for retrospectives. An innovative new approach is The Chronicles (Mr Punch Audio, boxed set of eight cassettes, c12 hrs, pounds 29.99, also available in four parts, each of three months of the year). This is an ambitious assembling of diaries, journals and letters written over the last 500 years. It ranges from Pepys and Evelyn to Captain Scott and Barbara Castle, with a galaxy of stars reading the extracts. They are arranged by time of the year rather than date, and the juxtapositions are often startling and thought-provoking.

Finally, simple but special: The Gospel According to St Luke (Penguin, pounds 8.99) in the King James version, read by David Suchet. And my own audiobook of the year, Cover to Cover's elegantly boxed, unabridged version of Rudyard Kipling's Kim (pounds 26.99), read by Sam Dastor, who gives a masterly presentation of the book's various and exotic cast.

If you have difficulty finding these titles near you, a sure way of getting them (and many more) sent to you is to contact London's Wigmore Street Talking Bookshop's mail order service on 0171 491 4117. They also do special offers on unabridged books, for example John Buchan's Mr Standfast, read by Edmund Dehn, reduced from pounds 48.99 to pounds 18.99.

Christina Hardyment