Category Archives: Audiobooks
Audio books – you either love them or think they’re a pale imitation of the real experience you get when you read a book in print. I’m in the former camp. I don’t view them as an alternative to reading but as a valued companion.
They’ve been a godsend on many a long flight when the eyes are too tired to read and there’s nothing of interest on the in flight entertainment system. They help time go faster on the treadmill. In the days when I had to commute to work, they were a calmer way to start the day than listening to the frequent political rants on radio news programmes. They even make ironing palatable.
The downside is that they’re expensive to buy (Margaret Attwood’s Hag Seed would set you back £18 for example). Perhaps for that reason they’re not easily available second hand. You can reduce the price by taking out a subscription with Audible but it’s not worth it if you’re only an occasional user. Thankfully, there are ways to get some audiobooks free or at very low cost.
1. Your public library
You may be fortunate to live in a country that hasn’t decimated its public library system. Most of those services in the UK let you borrow audiobooks in CD format for a nominal sum – in my area it’s £1.50 a time. Many of them now have a tie in with a service provider like BorrowBox or OneClickDigital so you can download the audiofile free of charge to your computer, phone or MP3 player. The range of titles is reasonable if not wonderful; don’t expect to find that many ‘literary’ options but there will certainly be a good selection of classics and crime novels.
Librivox, which has been running since August 2005, is a non-commercial, non-profit project. Its mission is to “make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet.” Their collection is extensive but there are a few downsides. One is that they source most of the texts from Project Gutenberg meaning all of them are books whose copyrights have expired. The selection is rather hit and miss as a result – plenty of Charles Dickens, Henry James and Arthur Conan Doyle but no Agatha Christie or Grahame Greene. The biggest issue I’ve encountered however is on the variable quality. While some recordings are read by actors or professionals, many are solo readings by amateurs in makeshift home studios. But since it’s all free, if the recording isn’t to your taste you haven’t wasted any money.
3. Loyal Books
Loyal Books claims that users will “always find the best collection of completely free public domain audiobooks…” on their site. This includes material in a variety of languages like German, French and Chinese. They’ve been digitised and recorded by volunteers or – in the majority of cases – by Gutenburg. In essence they are offering the same kind of texts as Librivox but say their superior search function makes the experience more user friendly. They also offer e-texts of best sellers but I found the selection very poor.
4. Mind Webs
This is much more than an audio recording site. It started in 1996, collecting published works of all formats and making them available digitally. This is a project on a massive scale – 4 million audio recordings (including 160,000 live concerts), 1 million images for example. The audio recordings cover the usual suspects in the realm of the classics with plenty of options for fringe interests – anyone fancy a recording of Thucydides’ Histories? (the history of the first 20 years of the war between Athens and Sparta). They My favourite section of this site however is their Old Time Radio collection featuring, among others, Sherlock Holmes and Orson Wells.
5. Open Culture
Open Culture has sifted through the free audiobooks offered elsewhere online, and compiled them into one list of 900 browsable titles. You’ll find they’re mostly classics of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, by authors like Geoffrey Chaucer, Mark Twain, Jane Austen and Fyodor Dostoevsky but you’ll also come across more modern authors like Arthur C Clarke, Junot Diaz , Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury and Maya Angelou and Charles Bukowski. As a bonus you can watch a video of Neil Gaiman reading Coraline.
This site takes a different approach to most of the other service providers. They offer newer releases rather than classics and are mainly self-published works. The cost for each download is varied since Scribl uses a crowd-pricing strategy where the price is based on each title’s download popularity within its genre. You’ll find some texts are free, many are less than a dollar but the price of some of the highest rated books can go up to $8. If you like to experiment with new authors, this could be a good option – catch the moment right and you’ll have a bargain.
Lit2Go is another site which takes a different path. It offers a free online collection of folk tales, stories, passages and poems in Mp3 (audiobook) format. However it is more geared to educators than general readers since many of the passages can be downloaded also as a PDF and used for supplemental reading in the classroom. Readability levels are given for the books using the Flesch-Kincaid grade levels
|Audiobooks – love them or indifferent. Where do you stand?
Are you a lover of audiobooks? If so how do you source them since I might have missed some sites.
If you’re not a fan, is this because you’ve tried them and didn’t enjoy the experience or believe there’s only one way to appreciate a book, and that’s to read it?
Some protagonists are designed to be annoying. Some simply are that way. No matter how annoying, frustrating or distasteful they can still be fascinating and memorable for readers.
If only that were the case in Graham Swift’s Tomorrow. Sadly his central character Paula Hook is decidedly irritating but – it has to be said – too self-centered and pre-occupied to also be interesting. She’s the mother of sixteen-year-old twins Nick and Kate (or as she likes to call them her “pair of shrimps” or “angels”. It’s 1995 and she lies awake one night thinking of what will occur the following day when she and her husband Mike plan reveal a BIG SECRET to the children that “will change all our lives.”. It’s Mike who will do the talking because that’s his role. But tonight, as the rain falls and her husband snores, Paula mentally addresses the twins herself. She wants to supply the missing pieces in the jigsaw of their lives.
“I picture a bomb going off and this house falling to bits. I picture everything remaining oddly, precariously, ominously the same. An unexploded bomb. It still might go off — next week, the week after, any time.”
And so she rewinds to the time when she and Mike met as students at Sussex; fell in love and got married. Success followed – for her as director of an art gallery and for him as editor of a popular science publishing business. All that marred their blissful existence were some family bereavements and the disappearance of their cat Otis. For more than 100 pages we’re drip fed information and just as we think Paula is at last going to reveal all, she stops, rewinds and starts off on another train of thought.
Now this would be ok if what she has to say is insightful or fresh. But it’s not. It’s repetitive, with each anecdote or revelation seeming to be an excuse for yet another of Paula’s indulgences in word play. One of her favourites is based on their family surname; another is about her husband’s doctoral interest in the breeding habits of snails. She’s a judge’s daughter and her mind is occupied by how her kids will ‘judge’ their father the following day. So of course when she describes the first meeting between future father-in-law and Mike, he feels he is being weighed up by ‘a judge of men, a judge of wine’ though Paula says, Mike’s “real moment of judgment was to come much later in life’ (in other words, tomorrow).
“Listen to your father, he’s got something important to say,” she says. “And then he’ll be nobody, he’ll be what you make of him. If you want, you can even tell him to leave.”
The trouble is that what Paula says to her children often stretches credulity. Paula is so keen to demonstrate how she has the perfect marriage that she delves into details few children care to know about in relation to their parents. Over and over again we get told what an active sex life she and Mike have, and how it was even more perfect when Otis the cat joined them in bed (eh??). What kind of mother tells a story including the phrase “as I straddled your father” or reveals in great detail the one night stand she had with the vet? What kind of mother tells her kids that if it comes to a choice, she will choose Mike not them? For whose benefit is this being disclosed I wonder? It feels like a contrivance to put a bit of spark into an otherwise lucklustre tale.
Tomorrow is constructed to keep the reader in the dark for as long as humanly possible. Which would be ok if a) the secret was a jaw-droppingly big one and b) i wasn’t foreshadowed so much that it became simple to guess. As a result the novel flopped into a stream-of-consciousness monologue by a woman utterly self-absorbed that she failed to get me to empathise with her in any measurable way.
The Book: Tomorrow by Graham Swift was published in 2007 by Picador. I listened to an audioversion from my local library.
The Author: Graham Swift is from London, UK. Tomorrow is his eighth published book. He won the Man Booker Prize in 2006 with Last Orders.
Why I listened to this book: I loved Last Orders (reviewed here) so was keen to explore more of Swift’s work but they had nothing in print in the library at the time. I thought the interior monologue nature of Tomorrow would work well in audio format. Maybe it just made Paula Hook even more irritating however since I couldn’t get away from her voice
This week’s Top Tuesday topic looks at the world of audio. We’ve moved a long way forward in delivering books and other materials in formats other than print or digital. Remember when if you wanted to listen to music or a book on audio you had just the one option of cassette tapes? They were light so easily portable but guaranteed to jam at the most inappropriate moment. To reduce this involved getting a pencil, sticking it into the one wheel while and trying to unravel the crinkled tape while simultaneously holding the other wheel stationery. jIt also includes podcasts. CDs have no such issues except they do skip and to listen to a whole book requires multiple changes of discs that are not that convenient to carry around in the gym or on a walk. Podcasts have been my saviour on many a long journey so here’s a very short list of ones I listen to regularly or find useful resources.
- The Readers – a book based banter podcast with Simon and Thomas. Most of you already know this and follow it. It’s a good blend of recommendations on what’s about to be published or just published, general reading topics like how to find more time to read or what to take on your holidays plus you get insight in the reading habits of the two hosts. Plenty of good humoured banter and misunderstandings between the British and American way of life to keep you amused. Be warned though you are likely to end up with an even longer wish list after listening to their recommendations.
- Guardian podcast: A Good Read. This is a regular program where two guests and the host select a book that they they rate highly and argue why other people should read it. Each guest describe they book, why they enjoy it and then they have a discussion about its merits. It was through one of these episodes that I was encouraged to read Cannery Row by Steinbeck which I had somehow thought would be rather dreary but proved hilarious at times.
- Backlisted podcast: This is a relatively new find for me but I’m enjoying what I’ve heard so far. It’s issued every two weeks and is based on the idea that the simple two hosts choose an old book they think everyone should read. One of the hosts is Andy Miller who wrote The Year of Reading Dangerously in which he talks about how he re-ignited his passion for reading. Expect to hear a fair amount of blokish chit chat – the podcast seems to be recorded around a kitchen table where the hosts do a general catch up with their invited guest for the episode. In one of the first episodes I heard which was about The Riddle of the Sands, a good 30 minutes was taken up with discussions about gin and what each person in the room was reading (and why). When it gets into the meat of the broadcast though, which is the book in question, expect to hear some good quality insight. The podcast is available via SoundCloud or ITunes.
- ITunes: A wealth of material here including recordings of entire books. Librivox is one of the main contributors here – these are recorded by volunteers so the quality is extremely variable. I’ve had to give up on a few because I really didn’t like the narrator’s voice but that’s just my taste. My favourites have been some old time radio programs with Adventures of Inspector Maigret by George Simenon and Agatha Christie. It takes a bit of searching to get to them but the reward is worth it.
- ITunes University: many leading universities around the world make some of their lecture programmes available via ITunes – to find them go to ITunes and then select ITunes U. The quality can vary enormously – bear in mind that sometimes the lecture itself is recorded as it’s delivered in the lecture room so you may find you can’t pick up the discussion or questions from students. But that’s a minor inconvenience for the value of often feeling you are in the room at some of these prestigious academic centres. A few interesting ones I’ve come across that are good quality are
- Oxford University: George Eliot – an introduction to her major works and her intellectual interests.
- Open University: good introduction short podcasts on some of their modules. Explore Wordsworth or European Romanticism or creative writing.
- Cambridge University: Literary criticism key terms. A great resource for people who want to know what the ‘sublime’ or the ‘pastoral’ means in literature for example.
- My current listening is from La Trobe university in Australia which has two courses on children’s literature – one on genres looks at the history of picture books and fairy tales and another takes a post colonial approach. You’ll get used to the accent after a while.
As a bonus here (just to make it up to a list of 10!) is a non book audio program which is a must listen for me: The Archers podcast. For those of you in the UK this will be a familiar program. But for non UK residents it will come as a bit of a surprise that this is a 5 day a week, 13 minute BBC radio soap opera set in a fictional farming community in the heart of England. Most of the characters are farmers or connected to the land in some way but we also have the village pub, the tea room, a stately home and a grand country hotel to give variety. It’s long evolved from its roots in the 1950s when it was created as a way to give farmers tips on how to increase production to help a country still dealing with food rationing. Today it’s billed as a “Contemporary drama in a rural setting’ which means yes you still get farming issues but there’s also adultery, teenage angst, crime, road building and currently, the hottest topic of all, marital abuse.
Harm Done by Ruth Rendell
Rendell can always be relied upon for a meticulously plotted crime within the context of a contemporary social issue. Harm Done is no exception. It finds Chief inspector Wexford confronted by three crimes – the abduction of two young girls by an odd couple who make the girls do their housework; mob violence targeted at a child molester recently released from prison and the disappearance of a three-year-old girl. Other novelists would have somehow connected these crimes, often in a highly implausible way but Rendell is too canny a writer to take that predictable approach. Instead she opts for thematic linkage by showing that beneath the idyllic façade that Kingsmarkham shows to the world is a darker world of abuse towards women.
Rendell’s tendency to contextualise her crime with current social issues is one of the most enjoyable aspects of her work. No Harm shows us the perspective of the victims of domestic violence, their children and the people who try to help by running refuges and helplines. It pushes the Inspector to confront his assumptions about abuse and to learn more from the one member of his family who has hands-on knowledge, his daughter who works at one of the women’s shelters.
The novel works well as an audio version.
Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indriðason
I’m indebted to Sarah at HardBooksHabit for introducing me to Indridasonand his Reykjavik Murder Mysteries series. Her review of Jar City got me scurrying in search of anything in our library service catalogue that featured Detective Inspector Erlendur and his team. Silence of the Grave , translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder is book number 4 in the series.
This finds Erlendur called in when a skeleton is discovered half-buried in a construction site outside of Reykjavík. As archaeologists unearth the body inch by inch Erlendur’s team painstakingly try to piece together the history of families who might have lived in the area decades earlier. They are not sure even if they’re dealing with the victim of a murder or a simple case of a missing person who got lost in one of Iceland’s winter storms.Few people are alive who can help him unravel this cold case and even those who are, seem reluctant to tell the truth.
Compounding the problem is that, like many other fictional detectives Erlendur has a troubled personal life which threatens to erupt at the most incovenient moment. When his estranged daughter makes a dramatic call for his help Erlendur desperately goes in search of her through the streets of Reykjavik, questioning drug addicts and previous known associates to understand how she has ended up in a coma from which she may never recover. As Erlendur struggles to hold together the crumbling fragments of his family, his case unearths many other tales of family pain in the hills around Reykjaik: of domestic violence; family shame and loyalty.
This was a highly satisfying read; well paced with plenty of red herrings and false trails to keep me guessing plus of course it had the benefit of a strong sense of the Icelandic mentality and landscape. I also liked the fact this was constructed as a dual narrative – in parallel with the detection story we also have a dreadful, yet engrossing back story of a woman trapped by domestic abuse.
Well worth reading/listening to. I shall be on the look out for more of this series soon.
Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Deveraux
This is Deveraux’s debut novel. Like Tracy Chevalier’s hugely successful Girl with a Pearl Earring Rembrandt’s Mirror features a servant girl who enters the home of a leading Dutch painter and becomes their muse. The girl in question here is Henrickje, a young and innocent lass brought up in a strict Calvinist home in the provinces. Entering Rembrandt’s house (which also operates as his studio), she is shocked by his unconventionality and his carnal goings on with another servant. But she can’t stop herself watching – or imagining – and gradually she is drawn closer and closer into his world.
This is a novel set during Rembrandt’s later years which were marked by personal tragedy and financial difficulties. His adored wife Saskia who was a model for many of his paintings has died and he is struggling to regain his artistic inspiration. His housekeeper Geertje becomes his lover but Rembrandt finds her rather too much of a handful and sends her packing. It proves rather a costly move since she sues him for breach of promise and wins. But Geertje’s departure paves the way for the relationship between Henrickje and Rembrandt to flourish. I should add here that this novel is based on fact – these three women did exist and were key figures in Rembrandt’s life.
Naturally the novel is steeped in Rembrandt’s art with each chapter named after one of his paintings and several passages which give us a window into Rembrandt’s way of working.
If I’d been reading a print version, I could have looked up the paintings as they were introduced but it was impossible to do that with an audio version that I listened to while on the treadmill. Another problem I experienced was that the narrative point of view switched between Rembrandt and Henrickje but because I heard only one voice coming through my headphones I was often tripped up by the changes. That wouldn’t have happened with a print or electronic version of course. Overall I enjoyed this and I learned something new about Rembrandt. If it interests you I recommend you skip the audio option.
Some readers love them. Others don’t think they count as ‘real reading’. But it seems the British public are falling in love with the idea of listening to words rather than reading them. According to the Publishers Association, sales of audio books in the UK have doubled in the last five years. It’s a remarkable turnaround from 2010 when publishers were fearing the days of the audio recording were numbered. From sales of £4M then, last year saw the figure jump to £10M.
The boom has been attributed to two factors: one is the ease with which users can now get hold of a recording. Gone are the days when you had to find a shop selling cassettes and later CDs, and then carry a dedicated player around with you whose battery life was sure to fail just at the exciting point in the book. .Now, just like music, they are easily downloaded onto phones and tablets, and carried everywhere from trains to planes, from the park to the beach. Well just about anywhere really.
The second factor the publishers claimed to be responsible for the upswing is that famous names from stage and screen are now regularly turning their skills to narration. In recent years we’ve had Nicole Kidman reading To the Lighthouse, Kate Winslet narrating Therese Raquin and Colin Firth relating Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Then, just last month Reese Witherspoon was named as the voice for the audio version of Harper Lee’s new novel Go Set a Watchman.
I’ve been an audio book fan for decades. It started when a change of job meant I had a 45 minute commute to work and desperately wanted something as relief from political and world news. Fortunately during the times when Parliament wasn’t in session, the BBC would offer a book of the week. Otherwise my options were limited because it was expensive buying the cassette recordings myself and if I tried borrowing them from other people, the tape had a tendency to get snarled up in the machine. The advent of the CD was a great relief especially when public libraries began offering them for loan at a very low price. Even more joy came when I bought my first iPod and learned how to record from the CD so I could listen when pounding the treadmill in the gym.
I’ve learned a few things over the years.
One is that the choice of narrator is critical. I don’t care if they are famous – what matters most is whether by their voice they can hook me into the story and make me believe in the character they are inhabiting. Martin Jarvis is one of the best I’ve come across but I also love Juliet Stevenson’s voice. Some recordings I have abandoned simply because the narrator’s voice has grated on me so much I simply couldn’t bear to continue.
Secondly, It’s hard to define the perfect recipe but some books work better than others in certain circumstances. If I’m driving and listening then I need a book with a good story but one that is not too complicated because I need to also pay attention to the road. If it has too many characters or involves a lot of introspective thinking by the main character, then it will demand more attention that I can safely give.
Crime fiction works well which is a surprise because that’s not a genre I read widely in printed format. I’ve exhausted the library collections of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Ian Rankin, Agatha Christie and the Crowner John series featuring a coroner in fourteenth century England written by a former Home Office pathologist Bernard Knight. I’m now working my way through Peter James.
Some classics also work well. I enjoyed Dombey and Son and The Old Curiosity Shop in audio version (i alternated reading the book with listening which seemed to work really well) but couldn’t get into Barnaby Rudge and failed, again with a Tale of Two Cities.
I’m going to run out of options soon so if you have some recommendations do let me know. The Daily Telegraph published a list of their top 20 audio books yesterday – I’ve not read any of these. Have you listened to any of them?
Can a book change the way you think? That’s the question for the month over at Classics Club. I haven’t yet fully worked out my answer in terms of the impact of reading classics but I can say for sure that my current audio book has affected my choice of music.
I don’t usually blog about audio books but I do listen to them regularly – they are what keeps me sane on the daily commute to work even if it’s not a particularly long trip. And on the days when I have a longer and solitary drive to an airport prior to a business trip somewhere, then they prove a godsend. I can take only so much of news interviewers badgering politicians to try and get behind the pat answers.
Over the years of listening I’ve discovered that some genres work better than others as audio versions.
In the non fiction category, I’ve tried a couple of business type books but with varying success. Malcolm Gladwell‘s Tipping Point worked but Jim Collins’ Good to Great didn’t – I kept losing concentration on that one. Some classics have been good listens (The Warden by Anthony Trollope was one) but many of the literary fiction novels I’ve given up on such as Oryx and Crake. It seems that I can’t cope with the level of concentration needed by the latter without risking an accident.
The one genre that’s worked consistently well is crime fiction and fortunately thanks to Ruth Rendell, Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin et al I’ve been well supplied for the last few years. But through the wonders of the blogosphere I heard of an author I’ve never read or listened to before, Canada’s Louise Penny. There was just one title in audio format available in my local library; The Beautiful Mystery. It’s a murder mystery which is set in a remote monastery whose inhabitants are world-reknowned for their singing prowess. The effect of their voices as they render ancient chants is so profound it is known as “the beautiful mystery.”
The Beautiful Mystery is a cut above the average murder mystery story. But the producers of this audio version should be sent to purgatory for ommiting to give us the same experience enjoyed by Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his assistant Jean-Guy Beauvoir. As they try to penetrate the veil of secrecy in the cloisters they get to hear what makes the monks’ singing so special. You’d have thought any smart producer would have had the wit to include some snatches of Gregorian chants ourselves to help conjure up the atmosphere. Instead we just get told how magical these cloistered brothers sound.
After three days of frustration waiting and hoping to hear a few bars, I gave up and went in search of my own sound track. So now I am the proud owner of my first ever CD of Gregorian chant. It now nestles on the iPod in amongst Elvis Costello, the Beatles and of course Adele. All I have to figure out now is how to listen to the music and the audio book at the same time.