As the old Chinese curse has it, may you live in Interesting Times. Terry Pratchett's novel of that name, now available in the on-running tapes of his Discworld fictions (Corgi Audio Pounds 6.99 each), features Rincewind the Wizard, who can't even spell the word "wizard", Cohen the toothless old warrior and the rest of the Silver Horde (as opposed to the Golden Horde of Genghis Khan) who are engaged in battle to save one of the Discworld realms for free expression.
This particular empire is loosely based on the terrestrial Chinese Mandarin empire, with civil servants obliged to write poems for their entrance exams and ritual tortures praised for their refinement.
As ever in Pratchett's work, the mixture of "real" history and literary allusion mingles piquantly with good old-fashioned morality, a great love of words and puns, slapstick humour and a plot as full of twists as any wizard could make it.
Two more in the series, Lords and Ladies and Men at Arms are even better. Lords and Ladies takes the plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream and forces it through the looking glass of the witch realm of Discworld, creating a parallel dream saga all bursting with fertility rites, the cruelty of elves and the cunning of imaginative old women. A welcome reappearance for Granny Weatherwax, feisty heroine of Witches Abroad, and Nanny Ogg, her lewd and trusty sidekick, and a stunning debut for the belle dame sans merci, the Elf Queen. Where Lords and Ladies casts a sidelong glance at animal passion, Men at Arms is a more sombre look at discrimination, affection and affinity, told through the prism of the love story of a man brought up as a dwarf and a werewolf woman, both of whom work on the night watch of the totalitarian city of Ankh Morpork. OK, it all sounds totally barmy to you as an adult, but to any child, probably male, between the ages of, say, 10 and 17 it sounds like the best thing since Fantasy Football. And such is the versatility of Tony Robinson's reading that you will be able to sit happily through any three hour double-tape set, though you may balk at the repeat sessions which younger members of the party will find de rigueur to squeeze every little last drop of humour out of the stories.
Some children should be strangled at birth. Others should be strangled later. Thus think the forces of darkness in many a child's thriller. Dimanche Diller, eponymous heroine of Dimanche Diller in Danger and Dimanche Diller at Sea (Collins Audio Pounds 5.99) are 90-minute book and tape combos about just such a child, the dauntless orphan Dimanche Diller who outwits such characters as the evil Professor Verdigris or the mean Valburga Vilemile who try to kidnap, defraud or do away with her. Can anyone really be as good, kind, fearless and pretty? Still, I suppose we all need heroines and you can get fed up with Nancy Drew.
Dimanche's adventures as documented in the accompanying books are perfectly acceptable, however, if a mite cartoon-like in their exaggerated plot lines and characterisations. Their reading by Charlotte Coleman is somewhat trying, being of the "get a lot of expression into every word" style of narration. This seems not to worry children of both genders aged six to 10. But as far as driving adults are concerned, these tapes are for the personal stereo and keep the volume down, please.