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Audiobooks while exercising

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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?

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?

Snapshot of January 2015

Day 1 of a new month – and a new year. It’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.

Reading

I have about 90 pages left of Washington Square by Henry James. This is my spin book for the classics club and also counts as book number one from my list for the 2015 TBR challenge. Initially I wasn’t very engaged by this story of a sweet but plain and dull daughter and her brilliant but emotionally-distant doctor father. It’s now become significantly more interesting as the pair clash over a suitor that Catherine loves but her father considers a ‘selfish idler’ only interested in the girl because she is a wealthy heiress.

I’ll finish this today and can then turn more of my attention to the book chosen as my first read of 2015  In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahmen. I started reading this yesterday and if it continues in the same way I think this is going to be an enjoyable book.

Listening

YearofReadingI gave up on my last audio book Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir. I didn’t like the style – there were far too many times Weir used expressions like “Elizabeth must have known ….” or “Elizabeth would have felt….” I don’t expect to find this kind of conceit in a historical biography.  I’ve switched to The Year of Living Dangerously : How Fifty Great Books Saved my Life by Andy Miller. This is a non-fictional account of how a Londoner began thinking re-kindled his love of reading, starting with books that he’d always meant to read but never got around to, and those other people couldn’t believe he hadn’t already read. A few chapters in he reveals he studied literature at university and works at  publishing company evaluating submitted scripts from would be authors so it’s decidedly odd to find that he’s never read Middlemarch or Anna Karenina. Still I’m enjoying his irreverent tone, as he comments on some of the novels he read while on the 6.44am train to work in London and while in the queue at the post office. There’s a good interview with him at The Dabbler if you’re interested.

Watching

The  DVDs that we were given as Christmas presents have proved a mixed bag. The Quartet had oodles of famous faces but not even Dame Maggie Smith and Sir Tom Courtney could rescue a very thin plot. The Dallas Buyers Club was good as was Flight with Denzil Washington. But 12 Years a Slave which we watched on New Year’s Eve was tedious. Far too many shots where the lead actor looks into the distance and we were meant to understand what was going on in his head.   We now have a boxed set of The Wire to look forward to watching.

 

 

Snapshot of December 2014

Day 1 of a new month and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.

Reading

I’ve been promising myself that I  would get around to reading Elizabeth  Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters this year ( it’s been on my TBR shelf for a few years). I was hoping for something with a similar focus on a social question as the only other novel of hers that I’ve read – North and South – but so far this is more a study of English provincial life just before the 1832 Reform Act.

Listening

Almost finished the audio version of Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman in which multiple narrators turn detective to try to discover what happened to the character in Daphne du Maurier’s most famous work. Was the suicide verdict justified or was Rebecca murdered? And what happened to Mrs Danvers? To answer the questions our amateur detectives have to dig into Rebecca’s past. Its more enjoyable as an audio book for me then as a book to read.

Watching

I’m back in the USA which means I get another fix of Law and Order. I’ve no idea how many series of this were made but there seems to be an endless supply when you add the spin off Law and Order Special Victims Unit into the mixture.

 

 

Snapshot: November 2014

Day 1 of November 2014 and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.

Reading

The ObservationsI started reading The Observations by Jane Harris today, a copy of which has lingered on my TBR for more than a year. It’s a very readable historical mystery novel set in a remote manor house in Scotland. Such a contrast to the book I just finished reading, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie which opens on the day a bomb falls onto Nagasaki.  Hiroko Tanaka, a young factory worker survives the attack but will forever bear the scars on her back resembling birds in flight. We follow her subsequent history in India on the brink of partition to Pakistan and ultimately New York in the aftermath of the September 11 attack. It’s a well crafted novel about allegiance and estrangement, betrayal and atonement. I’d not heard of the author but liked the idea of the plot when I saw the book at a library sale.

Listening

Also purchased in the sale was an audio version of Rebecca’s Tale,  a 2001 novel by Sally Beauman which is a sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I have mixed feelings about the trend now to write prequels and sequels to successful novels by authors long since dead. Often it seems to me they are trying to cash in on a past success instead of coming up with their own ideas. But this novel was approved by the Daphne du Maurier estate so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s a bit slow so far.

Watching

Since I am writing this while returning to the UK from China, my viewing options are limited to the options provided on the in-flight entertainment system. These have become so much better in recent years – remember the days when you had to crane your neck to see the tiny screen suspended from the ceiling and everyone had to watch the same film? Now most of the main carriers provide seat back systems with many options. Sadly, by the time I eliminated all the science fiction choices and the films which involve people chasing each other in cars or with machine guns, the options were rather limited. I ended up watching The Fault in Our Stars based on the novel of the same name by John Green ( a book I have not read).

I was prepared for this to be a weepy, given its subject matter of two teenagers who are fighting cancer. I’m not sure whether it is the effect of being at altitude but I find I get much more emotional when I’m watching a film during a flight. Luckily the lights were dimmed so no-one saw the resultant blotchy face.

It had some stellar performances from the actors playing the teenagers, particularly Shailene Diann Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster. I also enjoyed the cameo performance by Willem Dafoe as the jaundiced author Peter van Houten. The weakest performance of all was by Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother. She played this role exactly as she played the botanist in Jurassic Park, which is to say, badly.

Snapshot of October 2014

Day 1 of a new month and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.

Reading

I have just a few pages left to read of Ali Smith’s latest novel How to Be Both. It’s a wonderful novel because of the  innovative narrative structure — one part is the story of an early Renaissance mural artist; the second is about an inquisitive teenage girl in the present day. Some editions start with the artist, some with the teenager so readers get to have a different way of interacting with the text. My version began with the artist. At first I couldn’t see how the two stories would come together but I had underestimated Ali Smith’s talent. This is such a superb novel that I’ll be astounded beyond belief if it doesn’t win the Man Booker Prize later this month.

lookaftermomNext on my list to read is a novel I was given as a gift by a work colleague in South Korean who was excited to learn I wanted to discover a local author. So now I am going to be reading Please Look after Mom by the South Korean novelist Kyung-sook Shin. This novel, which has reached sales of more than a million copies in the country, is about woman who gets lost in the crowd at a train station in Seoul. Her selfish family of husband, two sons and two daughters who haven’t really given her much love and attention until now are forced by her disappearance to re-evaluate their lives and their relationships.

Listening

I’m making slow progress with the audio version of Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir. It’s not as easy to listen to while driving as crime fiction so I find myself having to stop and rewind frequently because I’ve lost track of who is who.

Watching

The West Wing series is one of my favourite TV programs to come out of the USA. Some of the episodes get a bit bogged down in detail that is hard to understand if you are not familiar with the American government and political system but the characters are highly watchable and there is a tremendous energy in these programs. Those guys are so constantly on the move they must easily beat the recommended 10,000  steps a day. We’re revisiting the whole series at the moment and we’re in the midst of the election campaign for the next President.  Great fun.

 

 

September Snapshot

Day 1 of a new month and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.

Reading

I’m in the closing stages of History of the Rain by Niall Williams which was long listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I enjoyed most of it, particularly the humourous reflections of its narrator Ruth Swain on the history of her eccentric family. At 19 years old she’s confined to bed by an unnamed blood disorder. Her attic room is filled with thousands of books once owned by her poet father. Through them Ruth tells his story and her own.

Next on my list to read is The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck, an author of Chinese origin whose work I’ve not experienced until now. The Good Earth, the first in a trilogy about family life in a Chinese village was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and influenced Buck’s award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.

Listening .

On the iPod is Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir. The Wars of the Roses period and the Tudor dynasty were staple topics on my school and college curricula but Elizabeth ( wife of one king, mother to another and grandmother to three monarchs) only got a small walk on part. Weir’s biography published in 2013 helps redress the balance.

Watching

I’m not watching anything much at the moment since all the hotel can offer its visitors who want English language programmes is the tedious BBC World  and the equally tedious CNN. Neither of these I find satisfying because they spend no more than about two minutes on a story before moving to the next. You get about five stories in the segment and then the next before we get some trailers for upcoming programmes and the  weather everywhere in the world except where you are at that precise moment. Then the whole cycle starts again as if they don’t believe that viewers can retain info for longer than 10 minutes. It’s rather like having a meal made entirely of appetisers.

 

 

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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