By Katherine A. Powers
Sunday, March 21, 2010; BW09
By Kathryn Lasky
Unabridged, 5 ½ hours
Blackstone Audio. 5 CDs, $24.95
audible.com download, $13.97
This is the first book in Kathryn Lasky's enthralling 15-volume "Guardians of Ga'Hoole" series, eight of which are available from Blackstone as recordings, with more on the way. At the center is Soren, a young Barn Owl, and his band of friends: a loquacious Elf Owl, a companionable Burrowing Owl and a big-hearted Great Grey Owl. Recommended for readers starting at age 9 -- and enchanting to even the oldest listener -- the books tell of a war between the forces of good and evil, of daring deeds, dangerous mysteries and the joys of friendship. They also abound in natural science, especially facts about owl physiology and habits. Pamela Garelick's many-textured, wide-ranging voice, now husky, now sharp, now very owlish indeed, marvelously conveys the personalities of the different characters and their predicaments. Narrator and narrative are immensely compelling -- and so evocative of a fantastical world that we are led by our ears from book to book. The series will be given a further dimension this fall with the release of "Legend of the Guardians," a 3-D movie based on the first three books, directed by "Watchmen" director Zack Snyder.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF MONTMARAY
By Michelle Cooper
Unabridged, 8 ¼hours
Listening Library. 7 CDs, $37
audible.com download, $26
This terrific novel, reminiscent of Dodie Smith's "I Capture the Castle" and suited for ages 12 and up, purports to be the journal of Princess Sophie FitzOsborne, an orphan just turned 16 in 1936. She lives in a tumble-down castle in the tiny (fictional) Kingdom of Montmaray in the Bay of Biscay with members of her eccentric family, including her mad uncle, King John; Carlos, a Portuguese Water Dog; and a handful of subjects. Isolated and a haven for puffins, the island is thrust into the growing world crisis when a couple of Nazis arrive to search for the Holy Grail (that search was one of Heinrich Himmler's actual obsessions). What follows is a coming-of-age story filled with elements of history, demanding relationships, curious domestic details and tremendously suspenseful adventure. In a fine performance, narrator Emma Bering deftly distinguishes between the many characters with variations of tone and accent (though sparing us cartoonish Germans). Naturally enough, most of the book is in Sophie's voice, to which Garelick gives a changing register of sadness, fear, exasperation, determination and joy.
By Vivian French
Illustrated by Charlotte Voake
Unabridged, 19 minutes
Candlewick. 1 CD, $8.99
SEA HORSE: The Shyest Fish in the Sea
By Chris Butterworth
Illustrated by John Lawrence
Unabridged, 19 minutes
Candlewick. 1 CD, $8.99
As most of us know, young children aren't much given to sitting still and listening to thin air but are, instead, hands-on kind of people -- which is where these fine book-CD combinations enter the picture. Alan Marriott reads both stories in warm tones at a nice, slow pace, conveying the wonder we must all feel at the strange lives and life cycles of both the caterpillar and sea horse, two of nature's oddest creations. The books themselves, suitable for ages 5 to 8, are beautifully illustrated: "Caterpillar, Caterpillar" with friendly, colored line drawings and "Sea Horse" with arresting, atmospheric linocut prints. The text of both is composed of simple prose inscribed in large print suitable for beginning readers. In each case, Marriott gives a simple reading of the book, following that with a segment of further information, not contained in the text. He then finishes with another reading of the text, complete with signals for turning the page.
HENRY'S FREEDOM BOX: A True Story from the Underground
By Ellen Devine, Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Music by David Mansfield
Vocals by Sherry McGhee, Andrea McClurkin-Mellini and Arthur Ferrar
Unabridged, ½ hour
Scholastic/Weston Woods. 1 CD, $29.95
This CD-book combination is a many-layered production with a tough subject at its heart: the story of Henry "Box" Brown, a slave who "mailed himself to freedom" from Richmond to Philadelphia in 1849 by having a sympathizer ship him in a box. Suitable for ages 8 to 10, the story gets across the cruelty of slavery while concentrating on the courage and ingenuity of its hero. The printed book has haunting illustrations in which perspective is used to formidable effect. Jerry Dixon reads the text twice -- first with page signals, then without -- in a voice that is stirring and rich in timbre. The recording adds a music background and closes with a rendition of the spiritual "Jubilee in the Morning." Book and CD also include an excellent note on the historical background of the escape while the CD adds an interview with the author -- which younger readers will probably skip.
Katharine A. Powers regularly reviews audiobooks for Book World.