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?
Within her native Germany Charlotte Link has built a strong reputation as a writer of psychological crime fiction. A concerted effort to break into the English-speaking market got underway in 2012 with the translation of The Other Child, a novel in which the errors of one generation have repercussions that reverberate through later generations.
The setting is the remote, dilapidated Beckett’s farm outside the seaside town of Scarborough in Yorkshire. It’s inhabited by the lonely, spinsterish Gwen and her taciturn father Chad. Gwen it seems is about to find happiness, though quite why a dishy language teacher wants to marry this ungainly woman with a penchant for shapeless garments, is beyond the understanding of everyone who knows her. Fiona Swales, an old family friend with a particularly sharp tongue, thinks she knows the answer: the bridegroom is really just after the farm. Shortly after she disrupts the engagement party with her accusation, Fiona is found battered to death at the foot of a cliff.
Enter Valerie Almond, an ambitious detective keen to prove she deserves promotion. Her hopes of finding a quick resolution are thwarted because there’s more to this crime than at first appears. To solve the crime, Almond has to delve into the past and uncover a secret that’s been hidden for more than half a century.
The back story, and the nature of the secret, is revealed in a series of emails written by Fiona to Chad. As an eleven year old during World War 1, Fiona was evacuated from London to the Beckett’s farm. Tagging along with her is ‘the other child’, a traumatised orphan whose existence is overlooked by the authorities. But Chad’s mother takes him under her wing. loving him and protecting him as if he were her own. Years later something happens to the boy for which Fiona now wants to atone. The two strands of the story are told in alternating episodes although the supposed connections between them don’t become apparent until close to the end.
The ending is only one of the issues I had with this book.
While the setting was very credible and the atmosphere of 1940s London was evocative, the characters were so wooden it was hard to summon up enthusiasm or interest for any of them. Far from deserving promotion, Ms Link’s woman detective was so inept only immediate demotion to the ranks would seem appropriate. The identity of the murderer was so ridiculously easy to spot that Morse and Rebus would have had the culprit in the clink and be on their third round at the bar before Ms Almond had even formed her first question.
If The Other Child didn’t well as a crime novel, it was equally as problematic as a story about emotional scars and feelings of guilt and remorse, of loss and regret. We never enjoyed any access to the inner thoughts of the murderer so the motivation they gave for their crime lacked impact. And while Fiona’s feelings of guilt about the past were evident, the fact that these were revealed in emails to a person who already knew her story, was yet another example of how many aspects of this book were so implausible it was hard to take the novel seriously.
The Other Child is published by Pegasus Books. My copy was provided by the publishers via NetGalley.
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.