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Audio Books

The world of audio books has its own stars. There's Robert Hardy, continuing his romp through the sea-sagas of Patrick O'Brian (the latest titles are The Surgeon's Mate, The Fortune of War, and Desolation Island, HarperCollins pounds 8.99 each, or available as a box set). There's Alan Cumming, so charming as the 13-year-old narrator of Rose Tremain's The Way I Found Her (HarperCollins pounds 8.99), and one of the few male readers not to make female characters sound like drag acts. And there's Kerry Shale, whose expertise with accents is demonstrated in Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge (HarperCollins pounds 8.99). He's particularly good on sinister, outsider-hating hillbillies as A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson's bestselling funny about walking the Appalachian trail, shows: "There's wun o'them! Did y'all remember to bring the rope?" (Corgi Audio pounds 9.99). Shale is screamingly funny, and this would be a great stocking filler.

Naxos audio books feature appropriate music, and The Middle Way: The Story of Buddhism by Jinananda (3 CDs pounds 12.99) is punctuated by temple bells and bursts of chanting. It's thoughtful, subtle and wise, with readings by Anton Lesser and Heathcote Williams. In the same series is The History of Classical Music on 4 CDs, by Richard Fawkes and read by the mellifluous Robert Powell (Naxos pounds 14.99). The commentary is punctuated by musical examples - a brilliant idea.

In poetry, Seamus Heaney reads his wonderful Station Island sequence (Faber Penguin pounds 6.99) with a gently gobsmacked wonderment. Penguin Classics have brought out useful selections of the work of Christina Rossetti, Donne, Wordsworth and Shelley, read by a team of actors (eg Haydn Gwynne, Alex Jennings, Stella Gonet), each with a basic commentary (pounds 8.99). But the top poetry present has to be Paul Durcan reading his own sly, humorous, maudlin contemporary epic Christmas Day (Harvill pounds 7.99).