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Retail sales and rentals of audiobooks are booming. Many public libraries dedicate half of their new acquisitions money to purchase spoken books. Today begins a regular periodic feature of reviewing recent audiobook releases. Reviews will focus on the quality of the taped production rather than a full review of the content.

Rewrites - Neil Simon

Read by the Author

Simon & Schuster Audio

Abridged, four cassettes

4-1/2 hours, $25

Moving from season to season, play to play, Neil Simon chronicles his life in terms of the plays he's written. Listeners, too, relate to Simon's benchmarks - "The Odd Couple," "Barefoot in the Park" - as moments in their own lives. In a biography that could hardly be described as "tell all," Simon gives famous personalities little more than casual comment while dwelling, still briefly, on the stars and directors with whom he worked.

Simon reading his own work makes perfect sense, and his New York accent and mature voice sound exactly as you'd expect. He conveys an earnestness in his narration that reflects what he tells us - a willingness to please, to work cooperatively with his production teams to get things right. Listeners will delight in this personal memoir. He's not writing comedy here and while some may be disappointed, there are enough comic situations to keep listeners chuckling with a host of smiles.

Will You Always Love Me? - Joyce Carol Oates

Read by George Guidall and Barbara Caruso

Recorded Books

10 cassettes, 13-1/2 hours, $79

In this collection of 22 stories Oates explores interludes with dozens of characters. Offering glimpses of individuals, couples or family members, she uses interior monologue, drops in on conversations or passes fleetingly through lives. The characters belong to the vast range of Oates's view - rich, poor, very contemporary, very conventional - but all quite real. For some, the introspective stories may call for solitary listening.

In revealing the characters, who remain all too humanly blind to themselves and their situations, narrators George Guidall and Barbara Caruso teach listeners something about the intimate nature of audiobooks. The narration is very subtle, with few characterizations or playing of parts. Guidall and Caruso alternate the narrating of stories, in each one reflecting the gender view that most predominates.

There seems to be a natural balance, and throughout the many changes of narrator, never a miscue. Caruso's voice is light, seemingly careful and soft, offset by the occasional hint of steel. Guidall uses an empathetic tone, responding flexibly to anger or sadness. The narrators form conduits from author to listener, making the literature alive and fully realized.

Favorite Dog Stories - James Herriot

Read by Christopher Timothy

Audio Renaissance Tapes

(Chivers Audio Books)

Two cassettes, three hours, $16.95

Fresh as a walk on the Yorkshire dales and with little sign of the 25 years that have passed since its original publication, "All Creatures Great and Small" and a host of James Herriot stories can re-enter your life through a selection of audiobooks.

Christopher Timothy, who played the British veterinarian on television for its entire multiyear run, delights in bringing the stories to listeners.

His relish of the countryside and country folk, not to mention the animals, is evident. Presenting James Herriot's "Favorite Dog Stories" (cat favorites are also available) with cozy reminiscence and a soft burr, Timothy reads stories compiled from Herriot's various volumes.

The two-cassette program is ready to charm old fans and make new ones. Timothy plays all the roles in all the productions and does it with distinction.

To The Hilt - Dick Francis

Simon & Schuster Audio

Abridged, two cassettes

1-1/2 hours, $18

Alexander Kinloch, painter, black sheep, and inventive "hider of things," comes off a windswept Scottish mountainside in response to his mother's urgent request. Francis's latest adventure has only peripheral involvement with horses (one of the things Alexander is asked to hide), but doesn't lack for other intrigue, including embezzled funds, a jeweled trophy cup and "the hilt," Bonnie Prince Charlie's ceremonial sword.

Francis, a master of his craft, is joined by another, Tony Britton, a master narrator of 18 unabridged audiobooks by Dick Francis (available for rent from Chivers Audiobooks). Francis makes characters lively and intriguing, whether bad or good, and Britton is his match as they bring "To the Hilt" to eager listeners. His reading can be delightfully snappish, brash, mild-mannered, and steely in a wink.

Dinotopia: Audio Adventure - James Gurney

Dinotopia: The World Beneath - James Gurney

Performed by a full cast,

ZBS Foundation

Two cassettes each

2 hours/2-1/2 hours, $14.95/$17

For families who have pored over the exquisite watercolor illustrations of either Dinotopia or its sequel, these two audio programs may seem anomalies. How could this land of anthropomorphic dinosaurs and advanced civilization ever be conveyed without the pictures?

Not to worry. Author Jim Gurney worked in collaboration with audio producer Tom Lopez to create a dazzling soundscape that does full justice to Gurney's wondrous, lost world. Much as the Dinotopia books have details that delight adults, as well as children; the audio adventures are perfect family listening.

Young children will follow the action with great attention, while a classic adventure and astonishing array of sound and special effects will keep adults keenly tuned as well.

*Robin Whitten is the founder and editor of AudioFile, the monthly magazine of reviews and information on audiobooks. For additional information call 800-506-1212, RAudioFile@aol.com.

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