IF YOU'D LIKE to delight everyone on your holiday list this year, particularly children, look no further than recorded books. This year, more than any since non-music cassettes graduated from limited edition "talking books" for the visually impaired to a major publishing effort, listeners have an outstanding choice of titles in all categories. And creative packaging -- cassettes now come in attractive slip cases, wooden boxes, durable book-shaped holders, and even colorful tin cans -- means you can give tapes as gift sets or stocking stuffers.
Children from 8 up will surely be pleased to receive Audio Book Contractor's production of Five Children and It, by Edith Nesbit (who also wrote The Railway Children). Flo Gibson, who has a remarkable voice and performing ability, narrates this delightful tale about five English children who find a sand fairy. But this ancient psammead (a furry, fat creature with snail-like eyes, bat's ears, and hands and feet like a monkey's) is no Tinkerbelle. It's wise and appropriately sarcastic, particularly when it starts granting the children's naive wishes. What happens when those wishes come true makes for fun and unusual adventures.
Gibson also narrates the sequel -- The Phoenix and the Carpet -- which involves the same children in another adventure, this time with a magical carpet, the mythical Phoenix, a reappearance of the psammead, and more wishes that come true with unexpected results. All Audio Book Contractor tapes are unabridged and packaged in durable vinyl-jacketed book-holders.
Caedmon has an outstanding collection of children's literature with an international (and subtly instructional) flavor. Sold as individual cassettes, these make inexpensive stocking stuffers. The three-cassette edition of Edna Mason Kaula's African Village Folktales, for example, precedes all selections with a description of the story's people and location. The animal tales (read by Brock Peters and Diana Sands) come from 19 tribes, including Bushman, Pygmy, Chagga, and Amhara. Each cassette includes a small map of Africa showing the tribal locales.
Chinese Fairy Tales, read by Siobhan McKenna, has 10 stories, including "The Chinese Red Riding Hood," "The Tiger's Teacher," and "The Sparrow and the Phoenix." This is especially suited to the younger children.
The Twelve Labors of Heracles, (drawn from Padraic Colum's The Golden Fleece) offers children an exciting introduction to Greco-Roman mythology. Anthony Quayle relates "The Nemean Lion," "The Hydra," "The Bull of Minos," and nine other tales in a sonorous voice that's ideally suited to these classics.
The Children of Odin: Northern Myths will give older children a contrast in western mythology. Read by Keir Dullea, these dark myths lack the tenderness and charity often found in Greek tales. Odin, the one-eyed Viking All-Father, told tales ("Far Away and Long Ago," "The Building of the Wall," "How Loki Put the Gods in Danger") that reflected the harshness of Viking life.
Listen for Pleasure offers lighter fare, including Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, read by Lionel Jefferies (who appeared in the movie version); A.A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner, also read by Jefferies; and Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water, the wondrous story of Mij and the Camusfearna otters. It's read by Christopher Timothy, who starred in the TV version of All Creatures Great and Small.
FOR SHEER FUN, give the kids a big dose of Canned Laughter from The Mind's Eye. This collection of classic radio shows includes Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, Will Rogers, and Mae West. The gimmick that makes this an unusual gift is the packaging: each set -- two one-hour cassettes -- is packed into a colorfully illustrated re-sealable can.
The Mind's Eye also distributes an extraordinary production -- an eight-cassette boxed set called The Home Front, a five-and- a-half hour radio chronicle of America from 1938-45. History leaps out of the speakers with the voices of Roosevelt, Hitler and Churchill; the music of Woody Guthrie, Glenn Miller, Kate Smith, and Al Jolson; Edward R. Murrow's broadcasts from embattled London, and much more. Not merely excerpts, The Home Front is a fast-paced documentary (narrated in part by the hip, mellifluous voice of William B. Williams). The audio quality is excellent, enhanced by Dolby B noise reduction.
Studs Terkel reading from his 1985 Pulitzer Prize Winner The Good War is also a remembrance of years past, but this powerful oral history transcends nostalgia. Though sharply abridged on two cassettes (the book is almost 600 pages) from Random House AudioBooks, it makes an outstanding recorded book because Terkel assumes the personae of his subjects, breathing life into the startling memories. Hearing these stories from black soldiers, Japanese Americans, a British woman who lived through the Blitz, a veteran dying from the effects of atomic weapon tests and others will compel most listeners to read the book.
Mystery fans looking for thrills have plenty to listen to: Recorded Books has a handsomely packaged production of Frank Muller reading Robert van Gulik's The Night of the Tiger, featuring Judge Dee, a Chinese detective at large during the seventh century A.D. Using his mind as skillfully as his sword, Dee must find a killer and 40 gold bars before a horde of homicidal bandits breach the walls. Artfully written, it's a T'ang dynasty police procedural.
G.K. Hall Audio Books has Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Views The Body, read by Ian Carmichael, who plays the unflappable sleuth on TV and radio. Packaged in an attractive full-color plastic case, this six cassette set runs over seven hours and is recorded in Dolby stereo.
Bookcassettes from Brilliance offers a seven-hour multi-voiced performance of Sara Peretsky's Deadlock, the further adventures of V.I. Warshawski, the feminist investigator who unravels corporate crime. Brilliance also sells an unabridged multi-voice production of Ken Follet's true-life thriller, On Wings of Eagles. (Both are suitable for teens.)
IF MERE MYSTERY won't do and you'd prefer having the eggnog scared out of you, turn to Stephen King, well represented this year on tape. Recorded Book's Frank Muller gives an excellent three-hour reading of King's The Breathing Method, ("a dirty night, a roaring fire, and a ghost story"). Muller also reads Skeleton Crew, a collection of 20 King stories sold as individual 90-minute cassettes.
Warner Audio has King's Night Shift, a bright red cardboard box with six cassettes housed in a plastic rack. The stories include "Strawberry Spring," "The Boogeyman," "Graveyard Shift" and "I Am the Doorway." The box top proclaims, "six full hours of terror." (And you thought the post-holiday bills would be enough horror for one season.)
Norwood Industries (Silver Sound Productions) sells unabridged recordings, but they must be played on Norwood's XLP, a player/recorder that runs at normal or one- quarter speed. By using the slower speed and recording on four tracks, Norwood puts entire books on a few cassettes for hardback prices. Their catalog lists classics and contemporary works, including Huckleberry Finn; William Manchester's Remembering Kennedy/One Brief Shining Moment; Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang, and many more. The XLP is an excellent gift for the visually impaired or those who needn't do their book listening on the move.
And lest we forget that the holidays are also a time for beginning anew, Nightingale- Conant -- the largest publisher of self-help tapes -- has two handsomely packaged gift sets for those intent on changing their lives. The Achilles Syndrome: Turning Your Weaknesses into Strengths, narrated by the author, Harold H. Bloomfield, M.D. is a six- tape program with titles like "From Resentment to Forgiveness," "I'm Always Feeling Tense and Rushed," and "Making Peace with Your Parents."
The Psychology of Winning, narrated by author Denis E. Waitley, Ph.D., is similar, a six-cassette program of "positive self-direction" and "positive self-image." Both courses come in durable 10-by-12 inch vinyl cases and are sold with a 30-day money back guarantee.
Lastly, two stocking stuffers for the grown up from Simon and Schuster's Sound Ideas. Hugh Johnson's How to Enjoy Wine is a whimsical attempt to de-snobbify matters oenological. The tape succeds by using music, corny sound effects (corks popping and bubbling noises), and lots of atrociously contrived dialogue. It's a lighthearted gift for anyone who can't tell Riesling from Ripple.
Alexandra Penney's How to Make Love to a Man presents the intrepid author interviewing three men (representative of the 300 men she interviewed for her book) who discuss in explicit language what they think makes a woman sexy and desirable. Okay, lounging around listening to sexy conversation Christmas morning may seem inappropriate, but then, what did you have in mind when you hung up all that mistletoe?