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Tales for discerning ears

Betty Tadman curls up with some stimulating holiday audio-books. By the end of this year, British sales of audio-books are expected to reach 10 million, and the market is expanding commensurately, with six publishers new in the field.

Penguin, which has moved in with characteristic determination, has chosen to concentrate on the sheer pleasure of listening, and offers a comprehensive and varied collection. Its abridgments are careful, and its prices from Pounds 7.99 to Pounds 9.99 are reasonable. For its version of Martin Chuzzlewit it has netted John Wells, who has great fun acting Mrs Gamp, Mrs Todgers, and Pecksniff's daughters, while also bringing the males convincingly to life.

Alec McCowen, meanwhile, gives a sympathetic account of The Old Curiosity Shop, from which much of the maudlin sentimentality has been pruned, leaving Little Nell a more appealing character. And Tim Pigott-Smith reads an excellent abridgment of Silas Marner with compassionate authority. For this melancholy miser's tale, with its happy resolution, Pigott-Smith modulates from gentle country tones to angry bellows: a quiet tour de force.

Pleasantly read by Gary Sinise, John Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie relates the author's trip across America in the Fifties, in a truck and along minor roads, from Maine to Monterey. This delightful tale has an affinity with The Old Patagonian Express (effectively read by William Hootkins) in which Paul Theroux takes a variety of trains, starting in Boston and ending up at the very tip of Argentina.

Reed now also has a varied selection. In The Lost Heart of Asia, read in intrepid voice by Kenneth Haigh, Colin Thubron explores the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union, visiting Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent, where scowls the biggest bronze Lenin in the world, while traders with soft-jewelled wives pass by. Some of the old architecture survives, but much has been replaced by Soviet prefabricated brutalism, where the multi-ethnic groups struggle to cope with change. Fascinating.

Also from Reed comes I, Claudius, Robert Graves's version of the inadequate emperor's vicissitudes and triumphs, in a reading by Derek Jacobi, star of the celebrated television dramatisation. He stutters: who wouldn't, with a family composed of Caligula, Tiberius, and Nero? Meanwhile Michael Hordern, that most subtle of actors who can amuse with an eyebrow where others fail with a full-scale grimace, gives an amusing and amiable account of his childhood and subsequent acting career in his autobiographical A World Elsewhere. This is marred only by occasional bursts of raucous music.

Targeting the salacious world of (mostly sado-masochistic) erotic classics, Prelude makes a woeful choice of reader for Frank Harris's My Life and Loves. Leslie Grantham aka Dirty Den impersonates the exuberant Irishman in tones reminiscent of a Cockney used-car salesman reading a laundry list. This is preposterously unconvincing for the man who was a friend of Oscar Wilde, as well as just about everyone else from the artistic intelligentsia.

Launching mainly with bestsellers and celebrity readers plus a few children's classics, Hodder also offers Martin Jarvis's sparkling reading of Martin Chuzzlewit, with his buoyant range of Dickensian voices. The versatile Juliet Stevenson, meanwhile, brings Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice convincingly to life, sounding male and female by turns, but even she can't save Emma Tennant's An Unequal Marriage. This attempt to grasp the tail of Austen's comet will have poor Jane turning in her grave.

Redback is concentrating on popular modern fiction, and Disney "read along" cassettes plus a book. It is about to publish six Raymond Chandler novels read by Elliot Gould. But its version of H G Wells's The Time Machine is excellent: this early masterpiece of science fiction is convincingly delivered in manly 19th-century tones by Ben Kingsley.

Some publishers choose readers for their image, which can have disastrous results. This is a trap into which Naxos Audio Books never falls: this new publisher takes immense care to find the perfect voice for the part. Presenting literary classics at budget prices, it had 25 titles by last December and expects to publish 50 new ones each year, and it is now also publishing works still in copyright.

Its classical musical accompaniments are chosen with scrupulous care, so adding an extra dimension to the experience. Taking Alexandre Dumas's The Lady of the Camelias the heartrending story which inspired Verdi to compose La Traviata Naxos has created a dramatised account whose exquisite sadness is intensified by the music of Franck, Faure and Verdi.

As Naxos presents them, Jan Fielden's Composers' Letters are doubly fascinating when enhanced by their music, and the Shakespearean Soliloquies never delivered in gabblespeak are a revelation. Michael Sheen, in thrilling lyrical voice, responds exquisitely to each writer in Great Poets of the Romantic Age, while Benjamin Soames dramatises Tales from the Greek Legends to vivid theatrical effect. These moderately priced tapeCD collections are superb.

For catalogues and information: Penguin 0171-416 3000; Reed 0181-910 1799; Prelude 0171-437 3647; Hodder 0171-873 6000; Redback 0181-236 0532. Double cassettes from all the above-mentioned publishers cost Pounds 7.99. Naxos (0181-346 6816) offer double cassettes at Pounds 5.99 and triples at Pounds 7.49; CDs Pounds 6.99 and Pounds 8.99.

Heavenly Scent UK Tour: London (Royal College of Art) until April 17; Glasgow (Hunterian Museum) May 12 - June 23; Brighton (Museum and Art Gallery, University of Brighton) July 21 - August 27; Cardiff (National Museum of Wales) September 16 - November 12; Manchester (Museum of Science and Industry) December 1 -February 2, 1996; Edinburgh (Royal Museum of Scotland) March 2 - April 21, 1996.

Details: Parker Harris and Co, 30 Trigon Road, London SW8 1NH.

Tel: 0171-793 0373.

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