Kazuo Ishiguro's brilliant new novel, When We Were Orphans, is read by John Lee with such unerring pace, accent and emotion or lack thereof that it's difficult to imagine a better performance. The story moves back and forth between Shanghai and England, between the present here, the brink of WWII and the past and is told by Christopher Banks, a well-known detective whose parents disappeared in Shanghai when he was nine years old. Banks, an odd chap, is as deceived about himself as he is about the events unfolding around him, and able to deny reality with alarming, end-of-empire sangfroid. Admirers of Ishiguro's Remains of the Day are in for a treat.

For more melding of fact and fiction, consider The Golden Age, the last in Gore Vidal's series of seven novels chronicling the history of the United States from the Revolution to the mid-'50s. Vidal is in take-no-prisoners mode here and makes it quite clear that he has yet to come across an American president he doesn't love to hate. Whether or not you buy his behind-the-scenes version of the years from Pearl Harbor to the end of the Korean War, you'll find his take on politics and political animals provocative and his prose as smooth and elegant as his well-heeled, well-connected characters. In fact, his mix of real and fictional characters is so convincing that it's easy to forget which is which. Kathryn Walker's performance is smooth and elegant, too, and her honeyed voice always a pleasure.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's debut (and only!) novel, won the Pulitzer Prize when it was first published over 40 years ago and went on to win a firm place in the hearts of millions of readers and a firm place as a contemporary classic. Newly released on CD, this unabridged recording, narrated in fine Southern style by Roses Prichard, is a welcome reminder that the sweetness, humor and compassion that gave this regional story of growing up in a small Alabama town in the 1930s such universal appeal are still fresh, and that the attitudes toward race explored here still resonate.

"Charming" isn't a word I'd usually ascribe to Larry McMurtry's tales of the West in its wilder days, but Boone's Lick, his most recent, is just that and the charm is enhanced in this unabridged audio by Will Patton's wonderfully cadenced narration. Along with the unique McMurtry melding of historical fact and fiction, there's adventure by the wagon load grizzly bears, angry Sioux, rising rivers, incompetent cavalry colonels as a Missouri family, led by a remarkable woman, makes its way across the plains to Wyoming. There's also the endless appeal of relentless determination, loyalty and love.

Its ancestors were from old Africa and old Europe, but its improvisation and individual expression, achieved with selfless collaboration, makes it entirely new world. No riddle here, we're talking about jazz, America's music. And who better to make its story engrossing, encompassing, enlightening and entertaining than Ken Burns whose superbly detailed, wonderfully produced documentaries about America, including The Civil War and Baseball, have captivated huge audiences. Burns and his talented co-writer, Geoffrey Ward, now give us Jazz: A History of America's Music, read in this audio presentation by Grammy-winning actor LaVarr Burton. A swingingly sound offering for the music man or woman on your holiday hit parade.

Great stocking stuffers for kids
In days of old—more precisely, BHP (Before Harry Potter)—peaceful, paunchy Bilbo Baggins and the wily wizard, Gandolf, captured the imaginations of young readers who shared in their adventures with trolls, orcs, spiders, wolves and the dreaded dragon, Smaug. Now they can all be found in a new BBC full-cast recording of 
The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien's treasured tale, complete with sound effects and original score, takes listeners back to Middle Earth and back to a world of timeless fantasy. Another BHP classic delight, C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, has been reissued in an audio collection. All seven books are included (in approved abridgements), performed by Ian Richardson, Claire Bloom, Anthony Quayle and Michael York.Sukey Howard reports on spoken word audio each month.




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