Girls (and boys) aloud: the best audiobooks

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The Independent Culture

Neither book nor DVD, audiobooks tend to be despised as gifts. Yet they are much more than an effortless way out of reading aloud to the young or instructing the adolescent. They are ways of turning the kind of long winter journeys we all undertake over Christmas into a pleasure, superimposing the landscape of imagination over the dreary or ugly reality.

This year, I've discovered a superb new company specialising in unabridged classic titles, called Assembled Stories. If you have been trying to get your child into classics, then this is your chance. Titles range from The Princess and the Goblin to The Prisoner of Zenda, and one of the best is John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (13.49) On the page, it tends to put modern young readers off, because its opening sounds so dully Edwardian. The bored Richard Hannay, retired from South Africa, is as angry and fed up as any child with his daily routine, until he finds his upstairs neighbour, an anxious little man, begging a refuge from him. When the man turns out to be a spy and is murdered in Hannay's flat, your bored boy thinks of The Bourne Identity and stifles a yawn. But the voice of Peter Joyce, a superb reader, draws you into Buchan's wonderful story, and by the time our hero is running for his life, listeners will be begging for more.

Anthony Horowitz's Snakehead (Walker Books 24.99) features another Protean reader in Dan Stevens. Alex Rider's latest adventure is a more serious tale of desperation and greed, involving people-trafficking and the forced sale of human organs. Horowitz's filmic style powerfully evokes the slums of Bangkok and the claustrophobia of being locked up in a container ship.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Bloomsbury 75), must surely count as not only the climax of Rowling's career but also Stephen Fry's. He has stuck with it through thick and thin, and his relish at reading scenes ranging from the friends' long winter in remote parts of Britain, to the battle at Hogwarts where statues come alive and school desks charge to the rescue, must count among one of the stellar performances in this medium. Thankfully, irritating sound effects are kept to a minimum.

Naxos, which uses classical music from its own library, are masters of creating atmosphere. Their recording of Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was one of the highlights of their catalogue a year ago, and now we have the sequel, The Moon of Gomrath (CD 16.99; MP3 from naxosaudiobooks.com 10.12), also unabridged and read by Philip Madoc. This is one of the great fantasy novels of our time. It tells of how Susan's silver bracelet gives her powers drawn from the moon, with which she must fight the evil Morrigan and save her brother from being devoured. Its use of Celtic myth and unforgettable descriptions of wintry fires makes it perfect creepy fare for Christmas. For listeners of 10 and over.

Another gem, for slightly younger readers, is Naxos's recording of E Nesbit's The Story of the Amulet (CD 10.99; MP3 6.54). Anna Bentinck, who read Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet starts off sounding so posh and pure that some children may react against it. Stick with her, though. Nesbit's story about children who travel back in time, visiting ancient Egypt, Babylon and even Atlantis, is enthralling, and Bentinck captures that quicksilver wit and sympathy that will transport children to the past, and get them up the steps of the British Museum afterwards.

Eva Ibbotson is, alongside JK Rowling, the heir to Nesbit's genius, and her The Secret of Platform 13 (Macmillan Digital Audio 10.99) predates many themes and details of the first Harry Potter story. This is one of the very best novels for children of seven and above that you can find. Si* Philips's gentle, dulcet reading of how the baby Prince of a magical kingdom is swapped with the appalling Raymond during a visit to our world is touching, hilarious and totally captivating. Macmillan is issuing more of Ibbotson's stories next year, so look out for them.

A new star in historical children's fiction is Sally Gardner, who follows I, Coriander with a tale of the French Revolution, The Red Necklace (Orion 14.99). Brilliantly rich and complex, it tells how a gypsy boy, Yann, and a crippled young aristocrat, Sido, save each other from a magnificently evil villain, Count Kalliowski. Not since The Scarlet Pimpernel has so much fun been had with the period, and there is the added bonus of the supernatural in a scene worthy of Angela Carter. Read by Tom Hiddleston, who catches the ardour of youth, it is an enchanting story for anyone of 10 and upwards.

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