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Giovanni's Gift - Bradford Morrow

Read by Frank Muller

The Publishing Mills, $24.95

Four cassettes, 6 hrs., abridged

A young man returns home to his aunt and uncle's ranch, Ash Creek, where nighttime intruders have shattered the tranquility of life in the rugged Western Rockies In print, this mystery/love story has received mixed reviews, but in audio it's quite successful, illustrating how audiobooks deliver a unique experience.

Frank Muller, a master narrator of scores of audiobooks, works his vocal magic and develops the emotional component of each character through their voices. Muller uses his superb pacing and inflection to draw listeners into this small world and the unresolved death of Giovanni Trentaz, Ash Creek's caretaker.

Giovanni's box of keepsakes and clues, and his beautiful daughter, compel the unraveling of old secrets. An excellent abridgment keeps the central narrative moving while Muller keeps the listeners' attention on the characters and spins out the intrigue. The story lends itself to this oral storytelling as the script and narrator work beautifully together.

The Unlikely Spy - Daniel Silva

Read by Roger Rees

Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio, $24 Four cassettes, 6 hrs., abridged

The D-Day invasion in 1944 sets a wonderful stage for spy novels. With its range of characters from Winston Churchill to Third Reich generals, brave civilians and driven intelligence officers, it has already inspired both high brow and high-action thrillers. Here, Silva has crafted an intriguing story that falls somewhere in between. The abridgment plays up the action of the story but hints at more intriguing characterizations that an unabridged recording would provide.

Roger Rees has a challenging job to present numerous parallel plots as a network of German spies is activated in wartime Britain. Rees is very good at keeping the characters distinct enough to be recognized when they pop up again later in the story. He occasionally strays near impersonations, but dialogue with Churchill, Hitler, and other well-known figures is tricky in this regard.

Wisely, Rees doesn't fall into the trap of stereotypical German or British accents and makes an extensive repertoire of voices for the characters. Rees also picks up on the compelling pace of the story and uses it well. The web of deceptions is staggering as truth is "attended by a bodyguard of lies." This is an audiobook that may keep you circling the block.

Eleanor

Hattie and The Wild Waves - Barbara Cooney

Read by the author

Audio Bookshelf, $13.95

One cassette, 40 mins., unabrid.

Barbara Cooney, award-winning children's author and illustrator, presents the contrasting childhoods of two little girls. Both girls live very different, yet privileged, lives: The lonely life of young Eleanor Roosevelt is contrasted with Hattie's loving, happy family, inspired by Cooney's own.

Both stories reflect Cooney's interest in independent women and are marked by her descriptive storytelling style.

Including details about houses, artifacts, and events makes both stories rich and reflective of their turn-of-the-century settings. Cooney's luminous, evocative illustrations are missed, however, and their absence limits the success of these narrations. The audiobook will be much richer if accompanied by the picture books.

Cooney gives a grandmotherly reading of the texts. She's expressive but doesn't add a dramatic component. Her personal introduction and afterword do add nice enhancement to her narration. If you can't be there with your grandchildren, send Barbara Cooney.

The Best of Car Talk

The Second Best of Car Talk - Tom & Ray Magliozzi

Soundelux, $10.95(each)

One cassette, 55 mins. (each)

For National Public Radio fans who haven't yet tried audiobooks, the Magliozzi brothers two collections of their wise-cracking "Car Talk" programs are an easy way to start. Click and Clack's hilarity is omnipresent - they laugh at their own tapes as they replay a selection of "not-as-lousy-as-usual" calls received on their call-in radio show. Amid discussions of the plaid Caravan, bad-hair days, Mother's Day, and shipping vowels to Bosnia, Tom and Ray manage questions about cars, garage etiquette, and traffic mishaps with outrageous candor. The comic relief of the "Tappet brothers" is available anytime if these tapes are kept handy. There's no better way to liven up a dreadful Monday, sulky teenagers, or the prospect of a stressful meeting.

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath

Read by Frances McDormand Caedmon/Harper Audio, $18

Two cassettes, 3 hrs., abridged

Twenty-five years after its publication, Sylvia Plath's sad and moving story has lost none of its intense power. First published in the year of the author's death, "The Bell Jar," a novel, endures as a carefully crafted memoir by the talented poet. Frances McDormand presents it with masterly skill.

As Esther Greenwood - the young college student chronicling her own breakdown and treatment - she's totally believable. Esther's month as a junior editor at a women's magazine is a period piece of New York City in the early 1950s, while her electric shock therapy is a journal of its own kind.

McDormand projects Esther's depression and disorientation with gentle realism. With careful, subtle emphasis and inflection, McDormand delivers Plath's intimate knowledge of the madness she writes about. The author's voice is keenly felt in this audio version because McDormand's voice projects a more mature persona than that of the young woman in the story. Through the narration, listeners savor Plath's descriptive language and appreciate Esther's heightened sensations of the world around her. A recording of Plath reading her poems, "Sylvia Plath Reads," is also available from Harper/Caedmon.

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

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