Tuesday 24 October 2017

Opening your ears to the joy of reading

Relive the joy of being read to as a child and plunge into the fantastical worlds offered by audio books

Actress Meryl Streep was the voice behind the audio book version of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn
Actress Meryl Streep was the voice behind the audio book version of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn
Audio books

Justine Carbery

Last summer I discovered the joy of audio books while travelling through the Balkans on long, hot bus journeys, banishing tedium and discomfort with hours of entertainment at the touch of a button. And it seems I'm not alone. Audio books have gone mass-market, with sales jumping by double-digits in recent years. Prices are also much lower now, as production costs have plunged and demand has risen.

Audio books can be bundled with an e-book for just a few euro, downloaded as part of a monthly subscription plan, or bought individually. With advances in technology you could now read a few chapters of your favourite book on Kindle in the morning, then listen to it in snippets throughout the day on your iPhone as you go about your chores. Before you fall asleep, you can switch back to an e-book on your Kindle, and start reading right where the narrator left off. How's that for choice?

Such is the demand that when a print book is ranked number one, so too is the audio version. And even the most renowned drama schools, such as Rada, offer courses on how to perform for audio book recordings.

No longer the preserve of the elderly or infirm, audio books can boast fans across all sectors of society. Famous actors and film stars are getting in on the act too, with Kate Winslet recording Roald Dahl's Matilda for Penguin, joining Colin Firth, Anne Hathaway and Nicole Kidman behind the microphone, further enhancing the audio book's popular appeal.

Print purists may be sceptical of this appeal, but should not see it as an 'either/or' situation - rather one that compliments the other. Who doesn't remember the joy of being read to as a child, a joy that spurred us on to independent reading? Well, why not relive that comfort and joy, that sense of wonder and escape, and plunge into fantastical worlds on your humble smartphone?

There are a great many audio books to choose from and plenty of sites to browse on, such as Amazon's Audible, iTunes and Audiobooks.com.

Whatever your taste, be it science fiction or fantasy, autobiography or sport, literary or popular fiction, thriller or self-help, it's all there. So if you fancy Jake Gyllenhaal reading The Great Gatsby (Trout Lake Media) or Meryl Streep reading Nora Ephron's Heartburn (Random House), get yourself a set of earphones and start listening.

Sometimes an author's reading of their own work can be a delight, as is the case with Kevin Barry's somewhat surreal Beatlebone (Brilliance Audio). Barry, a consummate performer, with a soft, hypnotic lilt, reads his profane yet lyrical tale of John Lennon's quest to find himself and his island in Clew Bay. My favourite character, Cornelius, John's driver and fixer, comes alive through the telling in this madcap but profound audio book.

A Delicate Truth (Penguin), written and read by John le Carre, is a behind-the-scenes story of a small anti-terrorist black op and le Carre's reading of it will thrill and delight.

Other fiction treats narrated by talented readers are Me Before You (Whole Story Audiobooks) by Jojo Moyes, Kristen Hannah's impressive The Nightingale (Pan Macmillan), and Isabel Allende's The Japanese Lover (Simon & Schuster Audio). I also enjoyed Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes (Whole Story Audiobooks): a darkly satirical, thought-provoking novel about the murder of Pakistan's General Zia.

One of my favourite books ever is The Poisonwood Bible (Brilliance Audio) by Barbara Kingsolver, which I read years ago but listened to on audio again recently. This story about a missionary family who moves to the Congo is devastating but enthralling, and in the audio version you get such a complete understanding of each of the four Price sisters, mostly due to narrator Dean Robertson, who creates a completely different, totally believable voice for each one.

One I have yet to listen to, but which comes highly recommended, is Fredrik Backman's A Man Called Ove (Hodder & Stoughton), about the curmudgeonly widower Ove whose suicidal plans get delayed as he helps solve neighbourly crises large and small. And one for a very long journey is A Game of Thrones: Book One of A Song of Ice and Fire (Hodder & Stoughton) by George RR Martin, narrated by Roy Dotrice, which runs to 33 hours and 45 minutes of listening time. A must for hard-core GOT fans!

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Edna O'Brien's heady account of her rich and dazzling life in her lively memoir Country Girl (Hachette). When Breath Becomes Air (Random House), the moving memoir of neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer, is hard to forget. Life (Orion)by Keith Richards, read by Johnny Depp, is a match made in audio book heaven for music enthusiasts.

Some more outstanding audio books for you to enjoy include:

Lolita by Nabokov (read by Jeremy Irons)

The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner (Tom Hiddleston)

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (Patrick Stewart)

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (John Telfer)

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Richard Morant)

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Jenna Lamia, Cassandra Campbell, Bahni Turpin and Octavia Spencer)

Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius (Simon Bubb)

The Martian by Andy Weir (RC Bray)

11-22-63 by Stephen King (Craig Wasson)

And for those who love audio books read by the author themselves:

Tina Fey reading Bossypants

Patti Smith's Just Kids

Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon

Molly Ringwald's The Middlesteins

Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere

Alan Johnson's This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood

Alan Cumming's Not My Father's Son

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