Children's Audiobooks: A-monstering and a-Viking we will go

Sue Gaisford
Sunday 24 July 2011 00:00

You need, don't you, some CDs in the car going to Penzance or Porto or Palmyra; something to stop the little darlings asking are you nearly there yet; a story that you, too, will find bearable – even enjoyable. Here are some corkers.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Midnight Palace (Orion, £18.99) is set in a Calcutta so full of darkness and complicated topography that you long to go there and see for yourself. Read sensitively and generously by the fabulous Dan Stevens, it's about a gang of five strong and mutually supportive teenagers about to leave an orphanage and make their way in the world.

But there is a back-story of twins divided at birth and a monstrous, black-magical Voldemort figure determined to kill them. Though chock-full of the supernatural, it is emotionally realistic, and thrilling to the bitter end: J K Rowling meets Enid Blyton, and wins.

The best children's books often rely on orphan heroes. Ten-year-old Jamie, the narrator of Annabel Pitcher's My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece (Orion, £14.99) might as well be one. His sister is dead, killed years ago by a terrorist bomb. Their parents have split up. His father takes refuge in vodka, and moves to Cumbria (hoping never to see another Muslim) while his mother has swanned off with her therapist.

But, though it has terribly sad moments, it is far from bleak. Jamie and his surviving sister help one another find a way of handling the school bullies and reinvigorating their previously hopeless and bigoted dad. It's a funny, sad, remarkably uplifting story and David Tennant reads it superbly.

Bigotry features, too, in David Walliams's excellent Mr Stink (HarperCollins, £14.99). In this case, poor, glum 12-year-old Chloe befriends a foul-smelling (but surprisingly posh-sounding) old tramp, to the outrage of her ambitious and seriously snobbish mother. Matt Lucas joins the author in giving voice to all these characters, generally resisting the temptation to be ultra-camp. Mr Stink proves grander than even the mother could imagine, and – as in Pilcher's novel – the inadequate parent learns an important lesson at the hands of the wise child: highly satisfactory.

Daniel Philpott is the enthralling reader of Michael Morpurgo's latest masterpiece (also reviewed by Nicola Smyth on page 67). The eponymous Little Manfred (HarperCollins, £10) is a toy dachshund on wheels, made by a German prisoner-of-war for a little girl he had befriended. Now, in 1966, on a beach in Suffolk, her children encounter two friends who knew this man and they take them home to their astonished mother. Based on a true story (the dog is in the Imperial War Museum), it is compelling and touching, and carries an important message about tolerance and understanding.

For younger children, a series of lift-the-flap classic books, combined with CDs, may well hit the spot. Titles include Donkey Skin and The Boy Who Cried Wolf (Child's Play, £7.99 each): they are excellent value and would certainly help young readers on the cusp of independence. The fantastical Gormy Ruckles, written and read by Guy Bass (Oakhill, £18), demands no such skills. Gormy, a timid little monster, longs to go a-monstering, and enjoys eating offal waffles and kitten on toast for breakfast, washed down by horse juice. Boys, I suspect, may like him more than do their sisters, being, in my experience, more appreciative of gruesome slapstick. But he is certainly fun.

Finally, I loved Joe Marsh's reading of David Angus's The Vikings (Naxos, £10.99). With zip and panache, it tells of the formidable men who spent all summer "a-Viking" (like a-monstering, it's apparently a present participle) throughout the known world, and collecting hoards of wealth to bury back home. And all winter carousing, and occasionally slaughtering each other, in vast great halls in the frozen north. You couldn't make it up.

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