Children's Book Special: How to turn a bad child into a very good listener with Audiobooks

Dreading your long journey to the coast? Amanda Craig has ways to keep the peace
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The Independent Culture

The most thrilling teenager of all has to be Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider, and the latest audiobook in the series, Ark Angel (Walker CD/cassette £19.99), has music worthy of the best spaghetti Western. Left for dead at the end of Scorpia, Alex is now recovering in hospital, where he tackles a quartet of eco-terrorists by using every piece of equipment (including an MRI scanner) ingenuity can imagine. Before long he is tightrope-walking away from a burning building, on his way to being rocket-propelled out of this world. It is impossible to think of anyone over eight who would not revel in these books. Alex remains the most sympathetic of teenage heroes and, as always, Oliver Chris manages to capture the voice of a boy on the cusp of maturity, plus an unforgettable villain who bears no resemblance to Abramovitch. Our only complaint was that all the American characters sounded like Bugs Bunny. Eight hours and 46 minutes of peace are guaranteed.

Liz Kessler's The Tail of Emily Windsnap (Orion CD £13/cassette £9.99) takes every young girl's dream of turning into a mermaid and makes it feel real. Emily is the daughter of a sad single mother, living on a houseboat, yet terrified of water. Emily herself has never learnt to swim but now school has thrust lessons upon her, and she is about to discover just what happens to her body when it gets immersed. Emily is a spirited girl, more than equal to the delightful cast of eccentrics given voice here by Tessa Gallagher, and the descriptions of how she finds justice, friendship, and a father kept prisoner by King Neptune, are intertwined with mesmerising descriptions of underwater scenery. As rich and strange as anything in The Little Mermaid, it is perfect for keeping boys and girls of eight and over in suspended animation all the way to the coast.

Francesca Simon's magical time-travel story, Helping Hercules (Orion CD £5.99/cassette £4.99), features Susan, a snotty little girl who is deeply resentful of the chores and violin practice she is expected to do. Then she discovers the magical powers of an old Greek coin which transports her back to a time of legends, and has her interfering with them. If you've ever wondered how stupid Hercules managed to think of cleaning out the Augean Stables by diverting a river, or trick Atlas into holding up the world, look no further. Simon's learning is lightly worn, and Mark Perry's rendition of all the voices (especially Hercules's) is horribly funny for children of six to 10.

Even more hysterical, however, is the latest instalment of Simon's Horrid Henry series, The Mega-Mean Time Machine (Orion CD/cassette £5.99), as read by Miranda Richardson. These four stories are the best yet, with the Time Machine being a cardboard box Henry tricks his little brother into believing is real, and Perfect Peter striking back through the ploy of sending pseudonymous love letters to Henry's mortal enemy. The sound effects (including Beethoven's Fifth dragged into an electronic jive) are gloriously unpleasant, and the manic mixture of joy and cruelty in the reading has children hugging themselves in wicked glee. It may seem paradoxical that very good stories about a very bad child will keep your own bad children quiet, but mine listen in awestruck silence.

I, Coriander (Orion CD £14.99/cassette £12.99) is this summer's big new fantasy book, and although it is probably going to appeal more to girls of nine and over, its story of a merchant's daughter with a fairy mother is so captivating that boys should give it a try, too. Sally Gardner has previously written and illustrated books for much younger children, and the richness of her prose comes as a wonderful surprise. Coriander tells her story by the light of seven successive candles on the night of King Charles II's restoration, and you fall in love with her sensitive yet resolute character within five minutes of the start. Her blissful childhood, her sorrow at the death of her beautiful mother, and her waking dreams of another world in which she must rescue a fairy prince while her body is kept locked in a chest, are interwoven with details of life in Puritan London which throw its fairytale into sharp contrast. Juliet Stevenson's dulcet, sensitive voice will lull the most fractious traveller into a world of pain and pleasure.

If this sounds too serious, then David Tennant's reading of The Beasts of Clawstone Castle (Macmillan CD/cassette £13) is the one to get. Like most of Britain, I am in love with the new Doctor Who, but he is even better as a reader than as an actor, and shares Miranda Richardson's insane glee in realising eccentric characters. Eva Ibbotson's thespian ghosts, determined to rescue the snow-white cattle of a crumbling Northern castle by staging dramatic hauntings for tourists, get the full treatment, with dreamy, spooky music to calm things down in between. Especially good at mad, posh voices, Tennant renders Rolf, the rat-gnawed aristocratic spook, so well that my children were begging to go back into the hot car to hear what happened next. (Book reviewed p23.)

Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now (Puffin CD £12.99) is one of the great new novels for today's teenagers. Funny, tragic and completely compelling, it has won a clutch of prizes for its story of how Daisy, a spoilt New York anorexic, falls in love with her cousin Edmund one idyllic English summer, then sees the world fall apart during an unspecified war which separates them. From the moment you hear the melancholy piano music with which this recording opens, a tone of unique sadness and wit is struck. Amber Sealey's soft American accent is the kind English listeners can enjoy rather than feel irritated by, but a weakness is that everybody else talks in the same accent, too. One needs more variety to off-set the strength of the narrative voice; this one is better at sending children to sleep than engaging them with a small masterpiece.

There's no risk of sleepiness with the masterful Anton Lesser, whose reading of Lionboy: The Chase (Puffin CD £13), is backed by swooping, jazzy music to keep kids on the edge of their seats. Charlie Ashanti's parents have been kidnapped and, in this second instalment, the boy who can talk to cats is still being pursued by villains and protected by the six proud lions he freed from the circus and promised to take home to Morocco. Every accent is perfectly rendered, and the King of Bulgaria is especially enjoyable. Lesser could make the contents of a box of cereal sound riveting, and combined with Zizou Corder's witty, vivid prose makes this adventure ideal for restless travellers of nine and over.

The treat of last year was Ian McKellen's rendition of Wolf Brother, Michelle Paver's outstanding story about a Bronze Age boy, Torak, left alone in the forest when his father is killed by an enchanted bear. The sequel, Spirit Walker (Orion CD £14.99/cassette £12.99), isn't out until September but if your older children can hang on that long, it is just as stunning. Torak has now been adopted by the Raven Clan, but his peace is temporary for no sooner does he notice clan members falling prey to a deadly sickness than a new quest is demanded of him. McKellen is an enchanter, and this recording is one of his great professional achievements. I can pay it no higher compliment than to say it made the five-hour drive to Cornwall pass without a single quarrel.

To order copies of these audiobooks, many at a discounted rate, contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897