Category Archives: Audiobooks

How Technology Transformed My Relationship With Books

Audiobooks
That was then: Consuming books 1950s style

Remember the days when the only way to listen to a book was via the radio? 

The options were limited.  BBC Radio 4 had Book at Bedtime and about 15 minutes of a serialisation within Woman’s Hour. When Parliament wasn’t in session we had the treat of another 15 minutes slot in the morning where Today in Parliament normally sat in the schedules.

All fine if you happened to be somewhere near a radio at the allotted time. But if not, it was just hard luck.

How life has changed

Today I no longer have to tie myself to the radio schedules or sit in one place to listen. I can use BBC Sounds as a catch up service, listening in via my computer while I move about the house or garden.

But I don’t even have to restrict myself to radio broadcasts.

I can listen to audio recordings of books whenever I want to and wherever I want to be.

Thousands of books

Available any time of day or night

On every day of the year.

This is now: personalised audio streaming

Advances in technology have affected virtually every aspect of our lives. But I’ve only now realised just how much they’ve changed the way I engage with books, and in particular with audio versions of books.

1970s and 80s: All Hail The Cassette Tape

While searching for a screwdriver in our garage yesterday, I came across some of my husband’s very old and sad-looking cassette tapes.  I’ve yet to work out what they were doing in the boxes of tools mixed up with the pliers and hammers… but that’s maybe another story.

Cassette tapes? Never heard of them? They’re no longer around (except as a very niche trend.  But they were essential pieces of equipment for those of us whose teenage and young adult years spanned the seventies and eighties.

Audio cassettes (also known as compact cassettes) were little plastic cartridges containing two spools of magnetic tape. All you had to do was buy the cassette version of an album recorded by your favourite band; slot the  cassette into a player; grab your headphones and away you’d go into musical heaven.

The launch of Sony’s Walkman in 1979 gave even more flexibility – now we could listen while we walked, worked or just lounged around.

You could even create a playlist by recording selected tracks from another cassette or from a radio station.

But the joys of cassettes weren’t confined to music. In the mid 80s I discovered you could also get audio recordings of books on cassette. The local library had a great selection available at minimal cost. By then cassette players came as standard fixtures in cars. Instead of arriving at work agitated after listening to politicians argue on the prime time radio news programmes, I could be chilled having listened to a good book.

It wasn’t quite a case of  unbounded pleasure however because, though cassette tapes were light and portable, they did have one major flaw: the tape tended to get mangled inside the plastic casing after multiple plays.

I’d be in my car,  listening to a recording, when suddenly it would stop. Inevitably it happened at the most exciting/interesting part of the story.

If I was lucky, I could eject the cassette. But yards of tape would have come off the spools and would be lying crinkled and twisted in a spaghetti mess on my lap .

The remedy was primitive. And not one you could embark upon while stuck at the traffic lights.

You grabbed a pencil, wedged it into one spool and tried to hold it rigid while slowly attempting to wind the tape back onto the other spool. A painfully slow process with only a faint hope of success.

1990s: Shiny New Objects

Which was why, when the next gizmo came along, I embraced it with unparalleled joy. In 1982 the technology whizz kids at Philips and Sony launched a new audio storage device they called the compact disc (CD).

It marked the beginning of the end for the cassette tape. And the introduction to a new way of consuming more books

It took a few years before I latched onto CDs but I rapidly became a fan, ditching all my cassette tapes in favour of these ultra-light shiny objects. I wasn’t the only one – most of us had purpose build CD storage towers in our homes and wallet-style carrying cases in our cars.

In 1993, the tide had turned completely and sales of CDs outstripped those of cassettes for the first time. By then the technology giants had figured out how to make CD players in cars shock proof (no more skipping a track when you drove over a pothole). A few years later the first portable CD player, the CD Walkman, came on the market making it easy to take your music wherever you went.

I still have one of these portable CD players though I seldom use it.

If you just wanted music you’d be in a good spot because the albums were cheap to buy. Just as well because the discs had a terrible tendency to get scratched. It was partly my own fault. I kept forgetting to put them into their protective cases. So they’d be ruined and unplayable.

But I wanted audiobooks. And that had its own challenges.

The storage capacity of each disc meant a whole book required at least six discs – sometimes double that for one of the chunkier classics. It made them way too expensive to buy, especially at the rate I would get through them. The library fortunately began investing in the new format but a whole audio book was quite a large package. Fine if you just wanted to listen in the car but not much use for taking on flights or long train rides. They took up far too much space.

Technology for a New Century

In 2001 Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple, invited us to say “hello” to the brave new world of full portability and solid state technology.

The days of flimsy tape and scratchy discs were over, he said. It was time for the era of the IPod. A small device with astonishing capacity and potential.

It wasn’t his promise of 1,000 songs in my pocket that appealed to me most. What really sold me on the iPod was that I could use it to listen to audio books. It didn’t just store these recordings, the associated ITunes application  gave me access to an enormous library via a few clicks. Not just a library of books, but with the birth of podcasts in 2004, a library of thousands of programmes and discussions about books.

I bought my first iPod in 2002 during a work trip to Michigan. I couldn’t drive back to my hotel fast enough so I could open the box and begin playing with my new toy.

Except that I couldn’t.

This much heralded white gizzmo only slightly bigger than a cigarette packet refused to function. Not even when I discovered that I first had to charge the battery. The old cassette and CD players never had that problem – all they needed was a power supply or a few AA batteries.

Eight hours or so later and still not so much as a peep. So back to the store for a replacement. Same thing happened again. By now I was seriously questioning whether the iPod was all it was cracked up to be.

It was. It still is.

Every once in a while a new product comes along that changes everything.

Steve Jobs, 2001

Steve Jobs wasn’t exaggerating when he made that claim about the Ipod. It certainly transformed part of my life.

Listening to an audio book made the long flights I had to take for work much easier to bear. They helped when international time zone differences  would see me awake in the early hours of the morning in a strange hotel room, unable to get back to sleep. In more recent years when I was undergoing chemotherapy treatment I used my little machine to access some relaxation and breathing exercises I could get via the ITunes application.

Are We Ever Satisfied? 

Technology never stays still does it?  Each generation of the iPod since 2001 has been smaller. And lighter. And more powerful.  I’m on my fourth device now and can’t imagine being without one. Although my phone has some of the same functions I still prefer to listen to audio via the iPod.

As enamoured as I am with this brand of MP3 player, it does have its frustrations.

  • The battery charge doesn’t last anywhere as long as it did on the early versions.
  • ITunes library is now over-complicated. It seems impossible to completely delete Podcast episodes.
  • Too many apps I don’t want but can’t delete (like my non existent stock portfolio).
  • In-ear headphones that keep falling out. Are my ears different sizes to everyone else’s? I’ve bought many, many pairs over the years both low price and high end. And none of them have worked. I’ve resorted to using the hook over versions but the wiring is fragile so they break easily.

I’ve learned to live with most of these frustrations. But there’s one that drives me crazy.

I absolutely hate ear phone cables. There I’ve said it.

They always always always end up in a knot. I wind them carefully as soon as I finish using them. Tuck them into my bag in a neat roll. But you can bet the next time I go to use them they’ll be in a mess. Again.

Added to this is that they get in my way in the gym, dangling right where my arm wants to move – invariably I catch my thumb on the cable and the machine goes careering onto the floor. It’s favourite landing place is underneath the treadmill; a retrieval process which involves much swearing and grunting. By the time the two of us are re-united, the play function has helpfully skipped a chapter or two.

My Wishlist For the Future

Technology never stands still. Earlier today came news that Apple will launch a new video streaming service and a new version of the Apple iPhone. Samsung will launch its new folding phone within a few days (a snip at $1800). None of these advancements interest me.

What I really want, what I really really want is a more streamlined way to listen to my audio books. One that

  • doesn’t involve dangling cables
  • connects to the player via Bluetooth but doesn’t require me to wear heavy headphones ( the rap artist look doesn’t appeal)
  • fits snugly in my ears
  • allows voice control to select tracks, change volume etc – that way I can keep both hands on the steering wheel or go walking in cold weather without having to remove gloves.

See, my needs are quite simple.  These advancements are not as sexy as those the techno folks are undoubtedly working on right now. I just hope they don’t come up with something that robs me of my ability to listen to books easily, cheaply and with great sound quality.

Get Audiobooks for Free

Audiobooks while exercising

Via Wikipedia creative commons licence

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.

2. Librivox

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

6. Scribl

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.

7. Lit2go

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?

Tomorrow by Graham Swift [review]

tomorrowSome 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.

Footnotes

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

 

 

Audiobooks: Ruth Rendell; Kim Deveraux, Arnaldur Indriðason #Britishcrime #Nordiccrime

Harm Done by Ruth Rendell

harmdoneRendell 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.  Nigel Anthony has the right kind of edginess to his voice to make Wexford’s sometimes irascible temper believable.  

Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indriðason

silenceofthegrave-1I’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

rembrandtThis 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.

 

 

Is audio the future?

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.

Remember the days of these?

Remember the days of these?

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?

Musical charm of books

An example of Gregorian chant from the 14th-15th century. Photo used under Wikipedia commons licence

An example of Gregorian chant from the 14th-15th century. Photo used under Wikipedia commons licence

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.

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