A little while ago, I posted a blog on here about Reading Hacks. I know that there are so many people who love reading, who want to read more, but find that they simply do not have enough time. I made some suggestions about ways that you can squeeze reading into your life and one of those was to listen to audiobooks. A few years ago I had a job which required a 100-mile round trip commute by car to York, three days a week. On my way to work I would listen avidly to Radio 4, but on the way back I did not care for the programmes that were on at that time so I would listen to audiobooks (cassettes!). In recent years, my audiobooks have mostly been children’s literature. We have a number of Roald Dahl novels on CD which my kids have adored (especially The Twits read by Simon Callow, and Matilda). Even though they are older now, they get quite nostalgic and still want to listen to them when we travel to Ireland to visit family!
When I started this blog last year, I decided I’d like to get back into audiobooks as a way of increasing my own reading so I started subscribing to Audible. I find it a very good application, with a wide choice of titles, and pretty good value for money; for 7.99 a month (the average price of a paperback) you get one credit (equal to a book). I’ve even downloaded a couple for my children. My youngest in particular, seems to enjoy listening to books. The books are quick and easy to download and I can play them through my car’s audio system so the sound quality is good, though of course, with the new rules on holding your phone whilst driving you need to resist the temptation to pick up the handset.
With Audible you get your first book free, so I downloaded Spies by Michael Frayn for my son, who is studying it at GCSE. I decided to listen to it myself as I had read the book when it first came out in 2002 and enjoyed it very much. It is a fantastic story and my listening experience was further enhanced by Martin Jarvis’s brilliant reading. The story is narrated by Stephen Wheatley, who, as an elderly man, revisits the suburban London cul-de-sac he lived in as a child during the Second World War. His neighbour and best friend at the time was Keith Hayward and together they spy on the households in the street and the comings and goings of the various residents. They grow increasingly suspicious about Keith’s mother’s frequent outings from the house and concoct an elaborate fantasy that she is in fact a German spy.
At first this is amusing, and Martin Jarvis is brilliant at drawing out the absurdity of their imaginative ramblings. You really feel you are living in the mind of the 11 or 12 year old narrator. As a reader/listener, however, you know there is an edge, a darker undertone; why else would elderly Stephen be so deeply reflective and sombre by returning to his childhood street? This darker, more adult plot emerges as the wild inaccuracy of the boys’ fantasies becomes clear, and the more vivid and remarkable truth is slowly revealed.
I loved listening to this and I loved Martin Jarvis’s reading. I recommend it highly.
The first book I selected for myself was a long one (My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante) so it took me a long time to get through (as a result I built up a few monthly credits). This book is the first in a series about two young women, Lila and Elena (I’m not sure if the book is in any sense autobiographical – the author is something of an enigma), and their intense relationship in their formative teenage years. Set in Naples in the 1950s it has the most remarkable sense of time and place and how life is changing for the young people of the city in terms of the shifting social structures and norms.
Elena is the narrator of the story and she records her every thought on the events and details of their friendship from when they were very young. The friendship is not always friendly, even though the girls seem psychologically dependent on one another. As children there is conflict and rivalry between them, about their playthings and others in their social circle, and as they grow older this evolves into conflict and rivalry about their respective academic achievements and life paths, and about boys.
The novel is a brilliant achievement and I will certainly listen to it again; I am sure there are nuances in the early chapters that I missed (listening to a novel this complex, as opposed to reading the words on the page, certainly exercised a different part of my brain). I am also eager to read/listen to the second novel in the series, The Story of a New Name, which continues the story of these two young women into their twenties.
The narration by Hillary Huber, an American with a wonderful drawl, is also brilliant, but I do wonder if my understanding has been affected by her vocal interpretation. Her voice is sublime to listen to, however, so I can forgive her that!
I highly recommend this book, to read or to listen to. I would say it is best listened to in chunks rather than short bursts.
So, two very successful listening experiences. I think the ability of the narrator in both cases, definitely added to my enjoyment, although I did feel I may have missed certain things, particularly as I was mostly listening whilst driving. As a reader, you can go back and re-read paragraphs that are particularly rich, or where you need to understand a complex piece of plot more fully. Although the Audible app enables you to go back in 30 second chunks, clearly this is not possible to do whilst driving. I also like to write notes whilst reading or bookmark certain pages that I like. Again, there is a feature on the app whereby you can do this, but, of course, not whilst driving!
I will definitely continue to subscribe to Audible for the time being, and have enjoyed a couple more books, which I will review here soon, so would recommend giving it a try if you’d like to increase your reading.