Although the pandemic and uncertainty about the future put a damper on the holiday festivities, we can still dress up our pets and pretend they can talk. In the more indulgent universe of audiobooks, animals actually do talk — as fully fleshed characters with their own perception of reality.
Nana, a tomcat of acerbic disposition, narrates much of "The Travelling Cat Chronicles," by Hiro Arikawa (translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel; Penguin Audio, unabridged, 6 hours). A former stray, Nana was adopted by Satoru, a kindly man who, after five happy years, is forced to find the cat a new home. The two set off to visit Satoru's friends, a journey that becomes an immersion in Japanese culture. Along the way, we learn of the man's tragic past and his relationship with his friends. But Nana is the main attraction — as he, himself, would note. Narrator George Blagden captures the tenor of Nana's mordant wit, his lofty view of himself, and his frequent spates of umbrage at human presumption and sheer stupidity. This is a highly entertaining and ultimately moving book.
"Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story," by Leonie Swann (translated from the German by Anthea Bell; Tantor, unabridged, 9 hours), is an inspired comedy of incongruous worldviews. One morning, a flock of Irish sheep discover their shepherd, George, dead, impaled by a spade. "A single crow had settled on his Norwegian sweater and was studying his internal arrangements with professional interest." What to do? As the sheep investigate the murder, they bestow ovine motives on human activity, resulting in a wonderfully peculiar whodunit, rich with humor and whimsy. Josephine Bailey narrates the book in a low, friendly voice, marvelously in tune with the sheep's philosophy of life, their frequent bafflement, occasional bickering and dedication to justice.
"Tarka the Otter," by Henry Williamson (Audible Studios, Unabridged, 6¼ hours), first published in 1927, is one of the great classics of nature writing, a glorious paean to the English countryside, its waterways and busy creatures. Though filled with scenes of joy, adventure and companionship, this isn't a book for the faint of heart: As in nature herself, there is death and, as in England of yore, blood sport. Michael Maloney reads this extraordinary book in gentle undulant tones for the most part, picking up speed and urgency as danger threatens. The final chase is so stirring that, if you are driving, you will want to pull over.
The plot of "Miss Benson's Beetle," by Rachel Joyce (Random House Audio, unabridged, 12 hours), revolves around a rare bug. It is 1950 and middle-aged Miss Margery Benson has lived a lonely, stultifying life. She teaches horrid girls at a London school, until one day she simply walks out and advertises for an assistant to accompany her to the French territory of New Caledonia to find a certain golden beetle. The assistant, a last resort, is Enid, a bouncy blonde with a much checkered past. No one could be less suitable or more troublesome, but eventually the two develop an odd, valiant friendship and a sense of their own power. Juliet Stevenson brings her lovely low voice and grace to the narration, ranging easily in accent through Britain's social classes, from plummy British consul, clipped headmistress, refined Miss Benson down to Enid, a feisty cockney. This is a wonderful novel, brilliantly read.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, also reviews for the Star Tribune and the Wall Street Journal. She writes this column for the Washington Post.