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Bizarre And Mysterious Deaths of 10 Famous Authors

quote on death

Albert Camus is right up to a point; we are all destined to die. But if you’re an author then the “when and how” your characters meet their end do matter.  

Some opt for a quiet fading away to the last breath, others prefer the grand gesture along the lines of Madame Bovary. But the deaths of the authors themselves can be just as strange. 

Here are of the most unusual – and bizarre – ways in which famous authors said farewell to this world. 

Albert Camus 1913-1960

Where better to begin than with Albert Camus himself.

On January 4,1960, Camus was in a car on his way to Paris with his friend Michel Gallimard.   Gallimard who was driving, suddenly lost control of the car on an icy patch and slammed into a tree. Both Camus and Gallimard were killed.

About 50 years after this event, stories began circulating that Camus was killed by Soviet spies on the direction of the Soviet Foreign Minister Dmitri Shepilov. They supposedly used a special kind of equipment which could make a hole in the tyre of the car at speed (sounds very James Bond to me). Why would Camus have been targeted? He had written an article three years before his death in which he attacked and criticised Shepilov.

It’s a conspiracy theory that’s never been substantiated.

Emile Zola 1840-1902

Conspiracy theorists were also in evidence in 1902 when the body of the French realist author Emile Zola was discovered at his home in Paris.

He had woken, feeling sick, at 3am on 29 September but he told his wife not to rouse their servants. When day broke she was found unconscious and he was dead.

Carbon monoxide poisoning was suspected but many people raised the possibility he’d been murdered by anti-Dreyfusards (a reaction to Zola’s involvement in the infamous Dreyfus affair.)

An inquest was ordered. Tests conducted on the fireplaces of the Paris house did not discover any blockages. The coroner gave a verdict of death by natural causes but refused to make his report public.

The cause of Zola’s death is still the subject of considerable debate.

Nikolai Gogol (31 March 1809 – 4 March 1852) 

Debate rages too about the death of the Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol.

In 1852 he was in a state of deep depression. On the night of 24 February he burned some of his manuscripts (containing most of the second part of Dead Souls.) He claimed this was a mistake, the result of a practical joke played on him by the Devil.  

He went to bed, refused all food and died in great pain nine days later. Officially he died as a result of starvation.

His grave at Danilov Monastery was marked by a large stone and topped by a Russian Orthodox cross. In 1931 when Russian authorities decided to demolish the monastery and transfer Gogol’s remains, they supposedly discovered that his body was lying face down. This became the catalyst for a theory that he had been buried alive. Sounds a bit of an odd theory to me.

Edgar Allan Poe 1809 – 1849

For a man described as “father of detective fiction” it seems fitting that Poe’s own death should be shrouded in mystery.

On October 3, 1849 Poe was discovered in a delirious condition at a tavern in Baltimore. The doctor who was summoned described Poe as looking hagggard, unwashed and dishevelled.

Poe was taken to hospital, denied visitors and kept in a room with barred windows in a section of the building reserved for drunks. He died a few days later.

The precise cause of Poe’s death is disputed. His first doctor (a supporter of the Temperance movement) was convinced it was the result of alcoholism. This was the line followed by newspapers at the time who reported Poe’s death as “congestion of the brain” or “cerebral inflammation”, (both euphemisms for deaths from unhealthy causes such as alcoholism).

Poe’s second doctor disagreed and said there was “not the slightest odor of liquor upon his breath or person”.  

Theories have abounded ever since, ranging from hypoglycemia to murder and suicide.  The truth is however likely to remain a mystery since no medical records including Poe’s death certificate have been discovered.

Tennessee Williams 1911-1983

The American playwright Tennessee Williams left behind his own mystery when he died on 25 February 1983.

He  choked on a small bottle cap. The medical examiner identified it as the kind of cap that you’d find on eye droppers or nasal spray containers.

The real mystery is of course how the hell did Williams miss his eyes (or nose) and end up sticking the cap into his mouth? I’m wondering whether he found the cap stuck and stuck it between his teeth to unscrew it (done that loads of time myself). Then swallowed at the wrong moment. There’s a lesson there probably…

Mark Twain 1835-1910

Though Mark Twain, (the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens) died of natural causes, it’s the date of his death that is decidedly strange.

Twain was born on 30 November 1835; the day on which Halley’s Comet made one of its rare appearances. He apparently once joked that he would die the next time it was visible (a phenomenon that occurs only every 75-76 years).

The comet was next seen on 20 April 1910. Twain died the following day.

Charles Dickens 1812-1870

There’s no mystery about when Charles Dickens died. But there is a question mark about where the event happened.

Dickens was not in good health in the summer of 1870 though he continued with a full programme of appearances and readings. On 8 June, after working all day on Edwin Drood, he suffered a stroke. He never regained consciousness.

The following day he died, supposedly in his home at Gads Hill Place. However the biographer Claire Tomalin has suggested Dickens was actually in Peckham when he suffered the stroke. His mistress Ellen Ternan and her maids had him taken back to Gad’s Hill so the public wouldn’t discover the truth about their relationship.

Leo Tolstoy 1828-1910

The death of the man considered the greatest of all novelists, was anything but a private affair.

He’d walked out on his wife of 48 years, leaving their home secretly in the middle of the night. In his farewell letter he told her he was “leaving worldly life to spend the last days of my life in solitude and quiet”.

On a train south he was taken ill and forced to stop at the railway station of Astapovo, a remote Russian village. The stationmaster give him the use of his house.

Tolstoy’s health declined but he was not to be allowed to go in solitude. When news got out of his condition and his location, hundreds of his admirers flocked to Astapovo. Hot on their heels was a Pathé News camera team and reporters from all over the world. Their regular updates were sometimes wildly inaccurate:

“Tolstoy is Better … The Count Is Very Weak, but the Doctors Say There Is No Immediate Danger,” ran one headline in the New York Times yet the man was drifting in an out of consciousness at the time.

The only person not allowed at his bedside was his wife. Not until the very end did Tolstoy’s friends allow her to enter the room.

Oscar Wilde 1854-1900

The playwright and novelist died a broken man. Penniless and disgraced by his conviction for homosexuality and subsequent imprisonment, he had fled to Paris upon his release.

There he died from meningitis in a seedy apartment.

Opinions vary about the cause of his condition, His physicians reported that it was an ear infection sustained while in prison. A 1988 biography by Richard Ellmann however claimed it was connected to syphilis which Wilde himself said he had contracted from a prostitute while a student at Oxford.

Wilde’s family, through his grandson Merlin Holland, have naturally disputed this claim. Extensive research by a London neurologist and two ear surgeons appear to back up the family’s position – they found no definitive proof of syphilis.

Yukio Mishima 1925-1970

Yukio Mishima died not as a result of accident or misfortune but from a deliberate an act of political protest. It was a gruesome

Mishma, the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka, is considered one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century. In 1968 his attention moved away from literature to the political arena when he created the Tatenokai, a private right-wing militia. The movement wanted to see the restoration of the Emperor of Japan.

On 25th November 1970 Yukio and four members of the Tatenokai went to the Tokyo offices of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces. They barricaded the building, and tied the commandant to his chair.

Yukio Mishima went out onto the balcony with a manifesto and a list of demands and addressed the gathered soldiers below with the intention of inspiring a coup d’état to restore power to the emperor.

He was mocked and jeered. He went inside and performed seppuku (a ritual suicide) by cutting open his belly and disembowelling himself. A fewllow Tatenokai member tried to decapitate the author but failed despite several attempts.

Love is in the air

love-3061483_640

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com

Since today is Valentine’s Day what better opportunity can there be to talk about how fiction represents romance and love? St Valentine is traditionally associated with courtly and romantic love but authors through the ages have shown different facets of the emotion. So today I’ve picked ten fictional couples whose relationships represent different dimensions of love.

Since the course of true love doesn’t always run smoothly, let’s start with a few examples of troubled relationships.

Pip and Estella

We begin with an example of unrequited love via Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Pip, the humble blacksmith who gains wealth from a mysterious benefactor, falls in love with the glamorous Estella though she is aloof and hostile towards him. Dickens’s ending makes it ambiguous whether the two ever marry.

The Butler and the Housekeeper

Remains of the day

Still from the film of The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker prize winning novel The Remains of the Day, gives us an example of love that is never declared.  Stevens the butler at Darlington Hall has practiced restraint for so long that he cannot ever allow himself to relax enough to show his true feelings. His relationship with the young housekeeper Miss Kenton at times comes close to blossoming into romance but even when Miss Kenton tries to draw closer to him, his stunted emotional life holds him back.

Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder 

Love of a different nature is shown in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, where two young men meet as students at Oxford. Charles Ryder, who comes from a sterile, loveless home, is mesmerised by the glamorous and wealthy Flyte family and their stately home at Brideshead. He spends idyllic summers with Sebastian but is powerless when his friend descends into depression and alcoholism. Bruised by the experience, Charles falls into a loveless marriage and then finds temporary solace with Sebastian’s sister Julia. The question readers have to decide for themselves is whether Sebastian was simply the appetiser for the real deal of Charles’ love for Julia or is she second best to Sebastian?

Elizabeth Bennett and Lord Darcy

Sometimes love happens between the most unlikely of individuals. The romantic clash between the opinionated Elizabeth Bennett and the proud Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy is one that has delighted readers since Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813.  Jane Austen gets them off to a rocky start however.  In their first encounter Darcy thinks Jane”…tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”

“From the very beginning— from the first moment, I may almost say— of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”

Frank Doel and Helene Hanff

You could argue that isn’t strictly a romantic  relationship since the author Helene Hanff and the antiquarian bookseller Frank Doel never meet. But I’d challenge anyone to read the letters that fly from New York to London in Hanff’s memoir, 84 Charing Cross Road, and not come to the conclusion that there is something more going on than just a mutual affection for books.

Gabriel Oak and Bathseba Everdene

In Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy shows love can endure despite many challenges. Gabriel Oak (his name is a big clue as to his nature) doesn’t give up when the uppity Miss Everdene rejects his marriage proposal. He becomes a servant on her farm while she embarks on a disastrous relationship with a solider. But when she needs him most, he is ready to forgive…. Hardy is careful to show that the love that Gabriel and Bathsheba share is not the passion of a first love but a sadder and wiser connection born out of trials and tribulations. 

Sapper Kip and Hana the nurse

I can’t talk about love without mentioning my favourite Booker prize winner, The English Patient by Michael Ondatjee. It shows that sometimes love flourishes in the most unlikely of situations. In this case, in a bomb-damaged Italian villa during the Italian Campaign of World War II, where four people are thrown together unexpectedly.  Hana, a troubled young Canadian Army nurse, is caring for a man severely burned in a flying accident. The death of her lover causes her to believe that she is cursed and that all those around her are doomed to die. The arrival at the villa of a Sikh British Army sapper, reawakens her emotions. But their affair is shortlived. Kip is horrified when he learns about the Hiroshima bombing, leaving the villa to return to his native India. He never sees Hana again though he never stops recalling the effect she had on his life.

Dexter and Emma

How long can you be in love with someone and yet never realise it? For the couple in David Nicholls novel One Day, it takes almost 20 years for them to get together after they spend the night together on their graduation from Edinburgh university.  The novel visits their lives and their relationship on that date – 15 July – in successive years in each chapter, for 20 years. Does it all end happily?  Not quite. But you’ll have to read the book to discover why not.

Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson

The Graduate

Still from the ending of the film The Graduate

I can’t end without an example of what many people would consider to be the ultimate romantic gesture. In The Graduate, Benjamin, a new college graduate with no idea what to do with the rest of his life,  is seduced by an older woman, Mrs. Robinson. But then realises it’s her daughter Elaine that he loves. Slight problem: she is about to marry another boy. Queue a desperate race to get to the church before Elaine says I do. If you’ve watched the film starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, you’ll know there is a dramatic ending involving a bride and a bus. I’m not cheating here by the way – the film is in fact based on a novel of the same name written by Charles Webb and published in 1963.


So there you have 10 couples who each, in one way or another, reflect love in many forms. Are there any couples you think of instantly when the subject of love crops up?

Six Degrees from Christmas to Christmas

Christmas carolIt’s the last Six Degrees of the year hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) and we begin with a book that for many readers is required reading at this time of the year: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It was my first experience of Dickens, introduced to him via an abridged version that nevertheless included some lovely line drawings.

Now the obvious path from here would be a link to another Christmas related novel but I’m going to take a different direction. My thread picks up on the word carol. Or rather, the word Carol as in the girl’s name.

CarolCarol is the title of a 1952 novel about a lesbian relationship by Patricia Highsmith. Since you are all astute readers, you’ll see immediately that my sentence is wildly inaccurate.

Highsmith actually used a pseudonym of Claire Morgan because some of the characters and events in the story referred to her own life.  And the book was originally called The Price of Salt but underwent a change of title to Carol when it was re-printed in 1990. This is the title used for the recent film version issued in 2005 and starring Cate Blanchett.

Carol is not the first — and highly unlikely to be the last — novel with more than one title.  I’m almost spoiled for choice with my next book in this link. I’m settling for one that underwent an identity change as a result of a mix up between publishers.

northern lightsNorthern Lights  is an award-winning young adult fantasy novel by Philip Pullman about an Arctic quest by Lyra Belacqua in search of her missing friend and her uncle who has been conducting experiments with a mysterious substance known as “Dust”. Pullman conceived this as the first part of a trilogy. During pre-publication the UK publishers used a working series title of The Golden Compasses — an allusion to God’s poetic delineation of the world. Across the Atlantic however, the US publishers Knopf had been calling the first book The Golden Compass (singular)  mistakenly thinking this related to a device featured on the front cover that looked like a navigational compass.

By the time Pullman decided his preferred name for the trilogy would be His Dark Materials (rather than The Golden Compasses), Knopf had become very attached to their own title., They insisted on publishing the first book as The Golden Compass. This was adopted as the name for the 2007 film version with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

The Golden Compass/Northern Lights has been controversial ever since its publication in 1995, primarily because it was considered to promote atheism and attack Christianity, in particular the Catholic church. Consequently the book frequently appears on lists of books that are banned from a number of public libraries and schools in the United States.

Colour purpleAnother novel that has been fiercely denounced and also banned is Alice Walker’s epistolary novel about racism, sexism and poverty The Colour Purple.  Objectors cited its graphic sexual content and also “troubling ideas” about race relations and religion in arguing for its removal from schools.

While The Color Purple does contain a lot of controversial content, none of this is gratuitous. The attitudes and behaviours portrayed by Alice Walker are ugly but they are nevertheless real. Even more worrying is that in some parts of the world, prejudice continues to exist and is all too prevalent.


The Mars Room

Rachel Kushner’s 2018 novel The Mars Room is a reminder that prejudice takes several forms. In this novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, she shows how the legal and penal system in America works against people from the poorest groups in society. Unable to afford a decent lawyer, they have to rely on state appointed legal representatives who are often too over-worked and too underpaid to do more than a superficial review of their client’s case. Consequently people like the protagonist Romy Hall never get to tell their full story in court including any mitigating circumstances.

I seem to have stepped onto a soap box which may not be what you want to read. This is after all, meant to be the time of year when we display charity,  forgiveness and goodwill to each and everyone (and yes that does include the  person who just barged into the back of your heels with a pushchair, and the one who biffed you in the ribs with their overlarge backpack.)

So in that spirit I shall make my final book somewhat more uplifting. I don’t do feel-good books (I find them generally too cloying) but I’m sure I can find a book that is a tad bit more cheerful.

little-womenYep, I have it – a good partner to A Christmas Carol in fact since this is book is also considered a classic. It’s another I read and enjoyed as a child though reading it as an adult a few years ago, was a vastly different experience.

I’m referring of course to Little Women by Louisa M Alcott which was published in 1863 and proved so popular it sold more than 13,000 copies within six weeks of its release.  Against her own preference, Alcott was persuaded to write the sequel Good Wives. Though I still love the tomboy character of Jo March ( I suspect I was not alone in wanting to be just like her), the overall story was too didactic for my tastes now.

But it couldn’t be more appropriate for this last chain of the year since it begins with a very seasonal reference.

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

And so we come full circle. We’ve come a long way on our journey, from the Arctic to the American deep south. Where has your chain taken you?

#6degrees from the Congo to Uganda via a few bars

It’s time to play the Six Degrees of Separation game again. The starting book this month is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I know it was highly regarded when it was published but I didn’t care for it that much. However I read it so long ago I can’t remember exactly why it didn’t hit the spot, just that it didn’t. Maybe if I read it again I might have a different reaction (that often happens) but I have far too many unread titles to go down that path.

Kingsolver’s novel features a family who go to The Congo as missionaries intent on converting the local population. This was at a time before there were two countries both using the word Congo in their name. Today we have the the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the southeast and its smaller namesake, the Republic of the Congo. It’s to the latter that we go for my first link…

broken glass

Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass is set in a seedy bar in a run down part of the country’s capital. One of its regular customers, a disgraced teacher is asked by the proprietor of the Credit Gone West bar to capture the stories of his clients. They turn out to be a misfortunate bunch all thinking they have been hard done by and wanting to set the record straight.

 

old-devilsThey’re not unlike some of the characters in Kingsley Amis’ Booker Prize winning novel The Old Devils. This lot are university pals living in a rural part of Wales and, having been regular drinkers in the past, like to spend their time in the pub. Their hostelry of choice is called The Bible and its here that they meet, often not long after breakfast, to while away the hours with gossip, updates on their various medical ailments and generally complaining about almost everything.

thedevilinthemarshalseaantoniahodgsonThey might have more justification for their complaints if they  were inmates of the place which is the setting for my next book in the chain: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson. The Marshalsea is a fetid, stinking prison for debtors – once in, unless you have private means to pay for ‘luxuries’, you end up in the worst section, the “Common Side” where death is inevitable.

English authors

Fortunate then the man who can find a way out of this as does Charles Dickens’ Mr Dorrit. In Little Dorrit, her father William gets his escape ticket when it’s discovered he is the lost heir to a large fortune. Dickens uses this novel to satirise the  bureaucracy of government (brought to life in the form of his fictional “Circumlocution Office”). He also takes a pop at the class system and its notions of respectability.

NW

A desire for respectability also makes its appearance through two childhood friends in Zadie Smith’s novel NW.  To leave behind her black working class upbringing, one girl changes her name, becomes a successful barrister and moves to a plush home in a desirable part of London. Her friend has less success, though she has a degree in philosophy she is still living in a council flat not far from her family home. But their past refuses to remain hidden.

Allournames

Identity is the theme of my sixth and final book, one that I bought on my first trip to the Hay Festival and so caught up in the moment that I came away with an armload of books by authors completely unknown to me. Fortunately, one of the them, All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu proved to be a thought-provoking book.  An African boy arrives in a mid Western USA town on a student visa. Little is known about him, only his name, his date of birth and the fact he was born somewhere in Africa. But he’s a fake, a boy who escaped from a civil war in Uganda by swapping identities with a friend who becomes a paramilitary leader.

And so we end as we began in Africa. Along the way we’ve visited a few bars, a prison and a suburb of London. As always I have included only books I have read.

Where would your chain take you? You can join in by visiting  Books Are My Favourite and Best 

 

 

 

From terror to persecution in six links

We start this month’s Six Degrees of Separation with Stephen King’s It.  But first I have a confession. Not only have I not read this book, I have never read anything by Stephen King. I know he’s a master storyteller but I have a low tolerance level of anything horrific so never had much interest in his work.

If I were ever to overcome my fear and pick up a Stephen King novel, I doubt that it would be It, based on the fact that it’s about a town where children are terrorized by an entity that takes on the form of a clown. Apparently some of the key themes are the power of memory, childhood trauma and its recurrent echoes in adulthood.

RoomA traumatic childhood is the key element in my first link: Emma Donague’s multiple award-winning novel Room. Inspired by the true life case of Josef Fritzl in Austria, Room tells the story of a five-year-old called Jack, who is held captive in a single room with his Ma. He has never been outside. The room is his entire world.  Despite its subject matter Donaghue has said that Room is not a horror story or a tear-jerker, but a celebration of resilience and the love between parent and child.

L shaped roomFor my second link I’m heading to a different room for another story about resilience in the face of challenges.  In The L Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, Jane, an unmarried, out-of-work rep actress is turned out of the family home when she becomes pregnant following an affair with an actor. She moves into a dingy room at the top of a smelly boarding house in London, inhabited by bed bugs and a mix of exotic characters. Ultimately her time in the L-shaped room is just a phase in her life before she finds happiness and independence. The people she leaves behind are not so fortunate however; they are so steeped in poverty that they have little hope of escape.

English authorsThere doesn’t seem much hope of escape either for the characters in the novel that provides me with my third link: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. In the Victorian era if you couldn’t pay your bills you could end up an inmate of the Marshalsea prison. It was nigh on impossible to pay off the debts because inmates were not allowed to work. Such becomes the fate of William Dorrit who moves his entire family into the Marshalsea when he becomes a bankrupt. His youngest daughter Amy (the Little Dorrit of the title) is born within its walls but like her siblings is sent out to work while her father grows increasingly proud of his status as the prison’s longest-serving resident.

thedevilinthemarshalseaantoniahodgsonFather Dorrit was fortunate that his children’s efforts meant he never ended up in the prison’s most fetid section,  known as the “Common Side”, where inmates were highly likely to die from starvation or fever. Such is the fate that faces Tom Hawkins, the rakish protagonist of the fourth link in my chain: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson. He can save himself if he can solve the mystery of who killed another prisoner but he also has to keep out of the way of the brutal governer and his henchman.

dorian grayTom is a gambler, a drinker and a womaniser but like all rakes he has a charm that entices. The figure of the lovable rogue and the bad boy abounds in literature so I am spoiled for choice for my fifth link. I’m plumping for a book that featured a handsome, narcissistic young man who indulges in every pleasure and virtually every ‘sin’:  The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Wilde of course was one of the ‘bad boy’s himself, and his book so offended the moral sensibilities of British book reviewers, many of them said he should be prosecuted for violating public morality. He did end up going to prison, for gross indecency.

petalsWilde was not the first – and certainly not the last – writer to be imprisoned. Some like the Marquis de Sade were accused of sexual offences; others like William S. Burroughs and Paul Verlaine for violent assualt. Still more writers have been incarcerated for their political beliefs and their refusal to stay silent. Petals of Blood  by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o so incensed his country’s government because it criticised the newly-independent nation, that they imprisoned him without charges. His arrest provoked a worldwide protest and led to his adoption by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience. He left Kenya upon his release after a year in custody.

And so we end on a sombre note. Having started with a fictional horror I somehow ended up with a real-life situation that I find truely frightening: imprisonment without trial and due process of law.

Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate of Books Are My Favourite and Best  is where we start with one book and link in stages to six other books to form a chain. I’ve adopted my own rule to link only to books that I’ve read, even if that was many many decades ago.

 

 

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?

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