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The Matisse Stories

By A.S. Byatt

Read by Virginia Leishman

Recorded Books, $26 (Rental $9.50)

Three cassettes, 3 hrs., unabridged

A.S. Byatt offers three stories that tantalize the senses. Sounds, colors, tastes, and aromas are vividly recreated. In narrator Virginia Leishman's oral interpretation, each of the sensory references becomes even more striking. Leishman is able to project the careful flow of conversation between characters with unusual subtlety. She uses inflections and pauses to reveal much about human nature. Through this sensitive narration, Byatt's stories are both soothing and provocative.

The balancing of internal thoughts and external dialogue is masterly in "Medusa's Ankles," where a fashionable woman in a beauty salon watches her life pass before her in the mirrors.

In "Art Work," Leishman uses her crisp, clear, British voice to describe clothes and settings. In particular, she depicts the elaborate and surprisingly soft-fiber sculptures.

Leishman's description of colors in Matisse's paintings in "The Chinese Lobster" allows Byatt's poetic use of language to shimmer like orange slices "glistening with juices, packed with the little teardrop sacks of sweetness." Listening takes place at a slower pace than one might read. The images seem suspended for an instant before the next sentence continues.

The Harlequin Tea Set and Other Stories

By Agatha Christie

Read by Alexandra Thomas

Soundelux, $21.95

Four cassettes, 6 hrs., unabridged

Could a new collection of Agatha Christie stories be discovered more than 20 years after the death of the doyenne of mystery writers? It appears to be true. Six in this collection of nine stories have never before been published in the United States. Even more interesting, several of the stories, including "The Edge" and "The House of Dreams," have a disposition to darker, more psychological suspense than is usual for Christie's work. Although the single Hercule Poirot story, "The Mystery of the Spanish Chest," seems the usual fare of a drawing-room mystery, others may remind listeners of Ruth Rendell.

Alexandra Thomas has a light voice with clear English diction and a slight informality that gives listeners a sense of intimacy with the narrator. Most recordings of Christie's work have male narrators, including David Suchet, noted for his success as Poirot on PBS's "Mystery!" Her relaxed and confident voice is a welcome change. If the stories were queued individually on a single side or one story per cassette, as "The Matisse Stories" are, they could be more easily selected at random.

The Track of the Scorpion, by Val Davis

Read by S. Patricia Bailey

Blackstone Audiobooks, $44.95 (Rental $11.95)

Six cassettes, 9 hrs., unabridged

Val Davis's intriguing thriller involves archaeologists Nicollet Scott and her father, Elliot, and their discovery of a B-17 bomber in the desert of New Mexico. The find, unusual in itself, attracts further attention when it's discovered that the bodies of the crew are still on board.

Narrator Bailey carefully leads listeners through the discovery of the World War II plane and then the search for the purpose of its mission and the identity of the crew. When the plane (and bodies) disappear and witnesses to the the site succumb to strange accidents, the Scotts are caught up in a puzzle that rivals the hunting of clues to early civilizations.

The varied cast of archaeology scholars, prospectors, and small-town folk makes for a lively story. Bailey does well with the story's pacing and energy.

She carefully hints at a military coverup without overplaying this aspect of the intrigue. Her light touch with the character voices is easy listening but doesn't project quite enough menace in the bad guys. This is a good adventure and a nice addition for listeners who like mild-mannered mysteries.

Stanley Easter

By Donald Davis

Told by Donald Davis

August House Audio, $12

One cassette, 1 hr., storytelling

Jack and Granny Ugly

By Donald Davis

Told by Donald Davis

August House Audio, $12

One cassette, 1 hr., storytelling

Donald Davis adds new stories to his storytelling repertoire of small-town North Carolina tales. Embellishing the colorful characters he recalls or creates from his childhood, Davis draws on episodes and events involving family, school buddies, and hometown characters.

With immense charm and a wry wit, he captures the humor of rural boyhood scenes with a few well-chosen descriptions and then lets events evolve. Davis gives listeners a joyous sense of anticipation.

Each story delights, but also tilts the conventional view of childhood and its injustices.

"Stanley Easter" is a poignant story of a young man being true to his roots when segregation in his Southern town delivers an unexpected twist. Davis is also a deft narrator of the more traditional tale of "Appalachian Jack."

Two tales are part of Davis's latest collection, "Jack and Granny Ugly" and "Something Old, Something New." Davis, of course, lends his own brand of rural color to each of the stories. He embellishes the characters with outrageous descriptions - imagine Granny Ugly's feet being so smelly that grass dies when she walks on it! Different parts of the story will resonate with each generation. Great fun for all ages.

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

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