I must thank Ola, at Re-enchantment Of The World, for the hint that even though libraries are closed to foot traffic, we can still borrow audio downloads, onto our phones. The carrot she tempted me with was her review of The Hazel Wood, a fantasy novel by Melissa Albert. It was on our library site, too. So, that was where I started.
It’s a young-adult novel, and I’ve enjoyed a few of those, even though it’s a while since I fitted that age-group. This one had good characterisations, and some interesting twists and turns.
As I like BBC Radios 4 and 4-Extra, I assumed that I would find audio books an easy listen. I hadn’t factored in that most books featured on the radio are abridged, or that I’m a fast silent reader. How stupid am I, not to have expected that having a book read to me, by someone who takes care with the words, is a much slower process?
So my main feeling, as I reached the end of The Hazel Wood, was that it was very long. Was it? I checked Amazon. At 365 pages it isn’t out of the way huge. My summer read-along commitment, The Mysteries of Udolpho, is 632 pages of small font.
I decided that one book did not constitute a trial, so, when insomnia had me trawling my bookshelves for something soporific, I went back to Borrow Box and browsed the catalogue. I don’t remember what search terms I used, but I found Georgette Heyer, in the Crime section.
Her regency romances had whiled away many babysitting evenings, during my teenage years, and recent revisits to a few of the familiar titles hadn’t disappointed. They’re not great literature, but they had engaging characters and some neatly turned plots with safe outcomes. In my experience, this is a good formula for a written lullaby.
Another attraction was that Heyer books are short. Popular novels written in the middle part of the twentieth century are often around 230 pages.
Ulli Birve, the reader, had a pleasant voice. But oh, dear, what was she saying?
It was apparent to Miss Fawcett within one minute of her arrival at the Grange that her host was not in the best of tempers. He met her in the hall, not, she believed, of design, and favoured her with a nod. “It’s you, is it?” he said ungraciously. “Somewhat unexpected, this visit, I must say. Hope you had a good journey.”
The Unfinished Clue did not have the lively, economical, and witty, voice of the regency romances. It was more like a masterclass in clunky writing.
Miss Fawcett was a young lady not easily discouraged. Moreover, she had been General Sir Arthur Billington-Smith’s sister-in-law for five years, and cherished no illusions about him. She shook him briskly by the hand, and replied with perfect equanimity: “You know quite well it’s impossible to have a good journey on this rotten line, Arthur…”
Was it because I was listening that this clumsy piece of exposition hit me so hard? Worse, was I going to let it keep me awake?
It was 3 a.m., and I wanted to sleep. Who was I to be critical?
I made some mental adjustments. Ulli Birve’s voice was so comfortable that I could allow the content to drift past me. I dozed off with the headphones on, around about the end of Chapter Two.
I don’t want to write negative reviews of writing. The next day, I listened to the rest of the novel. I missed the sense of joy I’d found in the regency romances. This one included cliche characters and situations, a thin plot, some obvious pairings, and casual racism.
I’ve not given up on the audio books. I’m enjoying Bridget Jones’s Baby: The Diaries, by Helen Fielding, read by Samantha Bond, though it is, perhaps, too humorous to be an antidote for insomnia.
Meanwhile, my Cosy Crime novel experience has left me with some questions:
- Is it acceptable that The Unfinished Clue is still available for loan?
- Don’t novels like this belong in the archives, as part of our historical record, rather than offered for circulation?
- The Borrow Box catalogue is quite small, and several of the alternative Cosy Fictions were already out on loan. Doesn’t this mean that borrowers are being put in situations where they will borrow books they might not otherwise choose?
- Isn’t it even more important that the decisions about what is included are vetted for content, and levels of potential offense?