Children's Fiction Special: Audiobooks reviewed

Audiobooks can be so exciting you forget to breathe, says Amanda Craig. They're as efficacious as Valium for adults and PlayStation for the kids...
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The Independent Culture

Thank God for audiobooks. Long car-journeys, convalescence, cooking, dyslexia and the kind of homework that doesn't need total concentration are all made bearable because of them.

Thank God for audiobooks. Long car-journeys, convalescence, cooking, dyslexia and the kind of homework that doesn't need total concentration are all made bearable because of them.

The outstanding audiobook of the season is Five Children & It by E Nesbit, read by Anna Bentick (Naxos, CD £10.99). Four children and their baby brother go on their first holiday in two years. While digging in a gravel-pit they unearth a Psammead, or sand-fairy, who grumpily grants them a wish a day. Inevitably, each wish goes wrong, but a wicked time is had by all. Nesbit perfectly understood how children could be very naughty and yet totally innocent. This recording, by Naxos, is by far and away the best I've ever listened to. Wit and magic reverberate throughout and the Edwardian music is perfectly chosen.

An altogether harsher, if no less hilarious, vision of sea-side life comes in Cressida Cowell's How to Train Your Dragon (Hodder £13.99 ) for seven-year-olds and older. I can't praise this wonderful adventure too highly - for my money, she's the next big thing in children's literature, with How To Be a Pirate, the sequel, also just out (Hodder £13.99). Hiccup the Useless is a nice, polite boy in the Hairy Hooligan Viking tribe, who becomes a famous Dragon Whisperer and warrior. Dispatched to get a dragon from the terrifying sea-caves, he gets one who is tiny and toothless. He attempts to train Toothless with the aid of a manual, whose sole piece of advice ("YELL AT IT") proves ineffectual. Happily, jokes and kindness work instead. In the second book, Hiccup wins a lost treasure by outwitting another fearsome monster. Read with gigantic gusto by David Tennant, and featuring some shatteringly good sound-effects, this kept us all laughing on the edge of our seats for three hours apiece.

The latest Terry Pratchett Discworld fantasy should really be heard after The Wee Free Men (Random House £12.99), as it's also about his witch-in-training, Tiffany Aching. The sheer cleverness with which Pratchett writes is conveyed with lugubrious delight. Pratchett's love of landscape, animals and unsnobbish kindliness shine through. The dialect and strong accent might prove a bit hard for younger listeners to understand, so don't try this on under 10s.

Jan Mark's Stratford Boys (Hodder £13.99) is one of the most delightful books about Shakespeare ever written, imagining how young Will got his first break as a writer, updating an old Biblical play. It's one of those fiendishly clever books that slips a lot of history and literature past children of 10 and older, while being a thoroughly entertaining romp about the highs and horrors of amateur dramatics. Martin Jarvis audibly enjoys himself as only an actor can when conveying the pitfalls of theatre, and any aspiring thesps among your kids will love it.

Aspiring musicians, on the other hand, will adore Naxos's The Story of Classical Music (£13.99). This is an absolutely outstanding and inspired history of music, from the Gregorian chant to the present day, full of engaging details about instruments, composers and musicians. It includes a CD-ROM for the computer with quizzes, sheet music and more. No musical family should miss it.

A very good book about very bad children, Little Darlings (Puffin £9.99) is a savagely funny satire about the way "privileged" children are brought up by Nannies. Three children possessing not only stiff upper lips but ferocious cunning, get sent a burglar by the AA Nanny Agency. Practical jokes and jolly nautical music abound. Both the story and Morwenna Banks's superb reading of it will have children aged nine and older laughing like lunatics.

For older children, Eoin Colfer's The Supernaturalist (Puffin £15.99) is going to be hard to beat. The creator of Artemis Fowl has moved on to a dystopian adventure set in the future. Cosmo sees his best friend die, and as a result becomes a "Spotter", someone who can see the mysterious blue creatures which settle on the wounded, apparently draining them of life. The kind of fast-paced thriller that could only be written by someone steeped in Irish Catholicism and action movies such as The Matrix, it is read with panache by Jack Davenport.

Best of all for fractious, fratricidal journeys is Anthony Horowitz's Scorpia (Walker £19.99), so exciting that at times you forget to breathe. Hot on the trail of the criminal organisation to which his dead father may have belonged, Alex goes on a spy mission which is his darkest and most daring yet: jump-diving off cliffs, playing MI6 and criminals off against each other and learning to kill. The music is dire, but Oliver Chris's reading is outstanding. His rendition of Tony Blair's emergency Cabinet meeting will have adults in stitches. Better than Valium for parents or PlayStation for kids, it's eight hours of total peace in one slim package.

To order any of these titles, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897. Amanda Craig's 'Love in Idleness', is now out in Abacus paperback (£6.99), and is available as an audiobook.

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