The best children's audio books reviewed

The crook, the thief, the wife and the mother
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The Independent Culture

For readers who are not quite old enough for the brilliant Artemis Fowl books, Eoin Colfer's The Legend of Spud Murphy (Puffin Audio, 45mins, £4.99) is a good introduction to his writings. Spud Murphy is a fearsome librarian renowned for hating children in her library and pursuing them with such weapons of torture as her gas-fired potato gun. When tearaway book-despisers Will and Marty get packed off to her library every afternoon by their mother, trouble is inevitable, especially when Will trespasses among the adult volumes. But Spud's reaction to finding him there is unexpected. Colfer's writing evokes Roald Dahl in its rapid-fire, outrageous humour, exaggeratedly grotesque characters and ability to make the unlikely convincing. Ardal O'Hanlon spirited delivery does the madcap story full justice.

The title of Cressida Cowell's How to Train Your Dragon (Hodder Audio, c 3hrs 30mins, £12.99) is misleading - it sounds like one of those jokey manuals that liken dogs to human babies, but is in fact one of the most enjoyable and original children's stories I have heard in a long time. Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III is the unlikely heir to the leadership of a tribe of very blokeish Viking warriors called the Hairy Hooligans. He and his classmates are trembling on the brink of the most important tribal rite of passage: the near-impossible task of stealing a baby dragon from a cave full of 20,000 or more potentially murderous other dragons, and training it to obey you by yelling at it. HHH III attracts disasters like magnets pull pins, and things are not made any easier by his inherently kindly nature. But dogged perseverance, his ability to talk to dragons rather than just yell at them, and pure cleverness sees him through. David Tennant reads with outstanding gusto, giving full and varied wellie to the story's rich assortment of Viking and dragon characters.

Sam Llewellyn's Little Darlings (Puffin Audio c 3hrs, 3 CDs, £12.99) is assured, well-plotted and audaciously imaginative. It begins as if it is Peter Pan, with a glamorous mother dressing to go out for dinner with her adoring husband and a nanny padding upstairs to a suspiciously silent nursery. But all is not what it seems. Mr Darling is a nouveau-riche workaholic who drove his first wife away by his obliviousness to her and insistence that the children have a nanny. Mrs Darling II is an ex-secretary on the make, who is still vague about the childrens' names and ages, six years into her marriage. And the children are so fiendishly competent at ill-treating their nannies that the family is blacklisted by every agency in town. Except AAAaardvark Childcare and Security, which sends along jolly Nanny Petronella (or should that be Pete the Burglar?). Soon the children have joined the burglarious crew and the glamorous and mysterious lady captain of the cruiseship in which the gang of burglars are planning to sail away in for ever. But first Teddy Edward's body parts have to be tracked down: the villainous white-van driving Builders are also on his trail. The reader Morwenna Banks rises to the challenge of the wickedly caricatured adults as well as the three eerily competent but most endearing Darling children.

Philip Pullman's The Tin Princess (BBC Cover to Cover, c 9hrs, £24.99) is the fourth of his hugely enjoyable Garland & Lockhart series (Ruby in the Smoke, Tiger in the Well, Shadow in the North). This time it is Jim and Adelaide, the waif who disappeared in Ruby in the Smoke, who take centre stage in a murderous tale of skulduggery in a Ruritanian mini-state. Once again, Anton Lesser reads with unequalled panache.

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