Audio Books

Toads, Cats, Owls and Beetles Find Their Voices

By Katherine A. Powers
Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Wind in the Willows By Kenneth Grahame. Abridged, 3 ¼ hours, BBC: download, $19.95

By Kenneth Grahame. Unabridged, 6 ½ hours, Tantor, 6 CDs, $27.99; 1 Mp3 CD, $19.99; download: $14)

The 100th anniversary of the publication of The Wind in the Willows has been a quiet affair, perhaps reflecting the modesty (with the key exception of Toad) of its characters' way of life. Be that as it may, this greatest of children's books is available in at least a dozen audio productions, many available only as downloads. The very best of these was recorded in 2005 and is read by English writer, playwright and actor Alan Bennett, himself the author of an adaptation of the book for the stage, and a man whose sensibilities are entirely at one with the book's. In the present recording he reads a skillfully abridged version with superb pacing and characterization. His Yorkshire accent becomes more pronounced with Mole, the homiest of all these home-loving animals, and more bluff with honest, self-reliant Badger. Rat, infinite in his patience with Mole, has a donnish voice, while Toad is the consummate upper-class twit.

Tantor's unabridged recording of 2002 is read by Shelly Frasier, who has a slow, kindly voice, nicely suited to this story of friendship, loyalty and home with "all its little comforts and conveniences." She delivers the narrator's part in warm American tones but gives the animals' speech varieties of Englishness, humble chiefly, though Toad displays a gratifying degree of callow superciliousness. And if that reprobate amphibian's dreamy "Poop, poop" upon seeing a motor car for the first time causes hilarity among young listeners, why, all the better.

The Underneath By Kathi Appelt. Unabridged, 6 ¼ hours, Simon & Schuster Audio: 5 CDs, $29.95; download, $20.95

Though the Wild Wood and its stoats, weasels and ferrets contribute a little scariness to The Wind in the Willows, it is more exhilarating than awful. But the scariness in Kathi Appelt's National Book Award-finalist The Underneath is not for children under 10 -- and not for anyone who can't take a measure of darkness and death. Still, this book, set in the swampy backwoods of east Texas, is a beauty, completely enthralling in its evocation of an enchanted, animist world. It is about an abandoned cat, her kittens and their surrogate father, an old bloodhound. Their lives, observed by the sentient trees, are bound to a malevolent trapper and an ancient, still unfolding story of shapeshifters and balked revenge. The production begins and ends with exquisitely haunting violin music and is read by Gabra Zackman. Her low, mesmerizing voice captures the loneliness, loyalty and love that bind the improbable little family together. Yes, there is menace, cruelty and death; but this is an intoxicating story, an epic of sorts, made for the spoken word. And, lest you fear otherwise, its ending is happy and moving.

Masterpiece By Elise Broach. Unabridged, 6 hours, Macmillan Young Listeners: 5 CDs, $29.95; download, $20.97

Jeremy Davidson brings an eager, animated voice to Elise Broach's Masterpiece (a review of the book appears on page 10). He confers brash New York accents on its gregarious beetle family and various degrees of pretentiousness, condescension and obliviousness on the humans. The many voices and range of moods, from ruefulness to elation, ably convey the perplexities and ingenuities that arise when a boy and a bug team up to take on the world.

The Owl Service By Alan Garner. Unabridged, 5 hours, Naxos: 4 CDs, $34.98; download, $24.49

Published over 40 years ago, The Owl Service is set in Wales in a grand house used only in the summer by an English family. Its residents are unaware of the ancient forces that dwell in the valley and are stirring again. Three young people, two English and one Welsh, are pulled into a drama of class and national animosity that becomes linked to a primeval sin of hubris. This completely enthralling story is read by Wayne Forester, a virtuoso of men and women's voices as well as of regional accents: from Welsh of different classes to English ones, snooty to mild. Forester proceeds at an unhurried pace that increases the plot's tension while intermittent passages of spooky music further tighten it.

Katherine A. Powers, who regularly reviews audio books for Book World, writes a literary column for the Boston Globe.

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