Audio century

Francis Gilbert

Children have rejuvenated an industry that is traditionally perceived to be for the elderly and blind. The Harry Potter phenomenon has given a real boost to the already healthy audiobook market: the trade saw a £65 million turnover this year, an increase of 14 per cent on previous years. J K Rowling's first novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, is read with brilliant comic panache by Stephen Fry (Cover to Cover, ISBN 1855493942, £19.99) and, as a result, has topped both the Amazon and Talking Bookshop charts for a number of months. Lesser-known children's titles have also done exceptionally well. Philip Pullman's Northern Lights Volume One (Chivers Press, ISBN 0754070743, £9.99) has brought delight to both adults and children with its subtle combination of horror and fantasy. However, David Almond's Skellig (Hodder Children's Books, ISBN 1840322241, £7.99) is my favourite: an enchanting fable about a young boy discovering a decrepit angel who lives in a derelict shack at the bottom of his garden. Almond's Geordie accent and soft, warm delivery make this unforgettable.

Let's hope that Cover to Cover's success with Harry Potter will enable them to continue with less profitable but more worthwhile ventures, such as their unabridged versions of Charles Dickens. Their latest is Martin Jarvis's reading of David Copperfield (CTC, ISBN 1855494337; it can only be ordered by mail, on 01672 562255 or 01264 731227 at £84.99 plus £2.50 p&p), which lasts a whopping 34 hours and 30 minutes. It is a monumental achievement: Jarvis's ability to conjure different voices is surpassed only by Anton Lesser and Miriam Margolyes. His Micawber and Uriah Heep are worth the price of admission alone.

Copperfield is entrancing when spoken aloud because it's Dickens's most intimate novel. Confessional narratives work especially well on audio: it's like having someone whisper all his darkest secrets in your ear. For this reason, The Beach by Alex Garland (Penguin Audiobooks, ISBN 0140869107, £8.99) is particularly well suited to the format, with its first-person narration and dramatic storyline. Garland's novel definitely benefits from the severe pruning it gets here. Although his marvellous descriptions of Thailand are largely junked, the story itself becomes much more gripping. Steven Mackintosh reads it brilliantly: he has just the right estuary tones for the surly hero but also can read the sinister Mr Duck's role with Scottish aplomb. Unfortunately, the taped version of Garland's The Tesseract (Penguin Audiobooks, ISBN 0141800364, £8.99) is a real disappointment, partly because it's an inferior novel but also because its cleverness - the shifts in time and perspective - doesn't translate at all well to audio. It takes real imagination to get an experimental novel to work in this format.

Also in the revelatory vein is The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (HarperCollins Audio Books, ISBN 0001055402, £8.99). Charles Dance reads this masterly novel in a very understated fashion and although he doesn't have the vocal versatility of Mackintosh, the novel would sound absurd if he attempted a real female voice for Hanna, the sexy tram conductor who seduces an adolescent schoolboy in postwar Germany. Dance reads the sex scenes with riveting tenderness, which makes what is revealed about Hanna's war experiences in the second half of the novel even more shocking.

Frank McCourt's slurping, drawled readings of his memoirs Angela's Ashes (HarperCollins Audio Books, ISBN 0001053094) and 'Tis (HCAB, ISBN 0001055763, both £8.99) bring a distinct whiff of authenticity to these grim catalogues of poverty, alcoholism, Catholicism and misadventure in Ireland and America. However, they don't benefit from abridgement and seem unintentionally comic as a result: his descriptions of impoverished Ireland sound Pythonesque in their ghastliness. The funniest tape I listened to all year was Peter Capaldi's reading of Magnus Mills's The Restraint of Beasts (HCAB, ISBN 000105567674, £8.99). Capaldi's deadpan Scottish accent really brings out the humour in the two dour labourers, Tam and Richie, who wreak havoc when they put up fences in England.

Naxos has had another strong year, and for me the highlight was Imogen Stubbs's reading of Madame Bovary (Naxos, ISBN 9626346787, £11.99). Her chiming voice suggests both the naivety and selfishness of Emma while the abridgement by Heather Godwin is unusually good because it manages to contain just enough of Flaubert's sensuous descriptions to be suggestive of the complete novel. I also enjoyed Naxos's bestseller of the year, Richard Fawkes's The History of Opera (ISBN 9626346760, £11.99). Naxos still has a great advantage over its competitors because it uses music in a way that immeasurably enriches the text.

But my favourite audiobook of the year must be Seamus Heaney's reading of his translation of the great Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf (Penguin AudioBooks, £8.99). Heaney is a real rarity, a great poet who is also a wonderful reader. He has a warm hearth-side manner but also pays punctilious attention to the subtle rhythms and alliterations of the verse. The result here is absolutely spellbinding: Heaney's lilting cadences conjure a time when great warriors ventured out of their mead halls and pursued terrifying monsters through savage oak forests. Go on, listen to Seamus and transport yourself back to those barbaric times; this is the year's essential listening.

All of these books can be ordered by mail from The Talking Bookshop, freephone: 0800 0745068, fax: 020 7629 1966, email: TalkingBooks@msn.com, Internet: www.talkingbooks.co.uk