Am I an audio-book-person?

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:

  1. Is it acceptable that The Unfinished Clue is still available for loan?
    1. Don’t novels like this belong in the archives, as part of our historical record, rather than offered for circulation?
  2. 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?
    1. Isn’t it even more important that the decisions about what is included are vetted for content, and levels of potential offense?

Elegance and humour – the romance of Regency.

georgette heyerOnce again I’m reaping the benefits of being a bookworm, as another relative, downsizing, discards a box of books my way.  This week sees me wallowing in nostalgia with some of Georgette Heyer’s regency novels.

Sometimes we need some self-indulgence.  Besides, truth is, they’re nicely written.  Okay, so they may seem a little dated, and no, I haven’t forgotten that they’re historical romances.  I mean that the (admittedly few) recently published historical romances I’ve read have a less ‘mannered’ approach to their telling.  Georgette Heyer’s opening sentence to her novel, Frederica is:

 Not more than five days after she had dispatched an urgent missive to her brother, the Most Honourable the Marquis of Alverstoke, requesting him to visit her at his earliest convenience, the widowed Lady Buxted was relieved to learn from her youngest daughter that Uncle Vernon had just driven up to the house, wearing a coat with dozens of capes, and looking as fine as fivepence.

Okay, it’s probably not authentic regency syntax.  But it’s not meant to be.  This is romance.  It’s escapism.

It’s not the easy, colloquial approach that’s commonly in use now, though.  Heyer leant towards being archaic: not so much that she’s a struggle to read, but there is formal feel to her writing.  The thing is, she didn’t allow that to slow her up.  Her stories are not bogged down by explanations.  These are ‘show don’t tell’ novels.  The story always moves forward smoothly.  What the language of her narration does is help me to keep me in the historical mode.

Heyer’s novels hold a special place in my heart.  They were my introduction to literature.  As a result of reading them, I was ready to move on to Jane Austen, Henry Fielding, Thackeray and the other great early novelists.  I don’t say I wouldn’t have got round to them without her, but I think I might have missed an important lesson in story-making.

I say that, because these stories seem to reflect Heyer’s love of literature.  I discovered moments of recognition, not only amongst the great novelists she had been influenced by, but also at the theatre.  I’m not suggesting plagiarism, or direct borrowing.  It seemed to me that what Heyer had done was to take characters or situations and set them into a new story.

There were a lot of other historical romance writers available when I was reading Heyer, and I read as many as came my way, but I never felt the need to collect those, as I did hers.  I don’t think I can have read even half of her fifty novels, but the ones that I did have access to, I reread regularly.  Why?  Well they are easy reads.  The characters are attractive, fun and busy.  There’s always something happening, and the narrator has a lovely wry sense of humour.

Interestingly, at the time I collected them I was earning pocket-money as a babysitter, and all the households who employed me had at least five or six Heyer’s on their shelves too.  With only three tv channels, it was the bookshelves that kept me entertained and awake on late-nights.

So I’m glad to find that even though there are still some of these softly aging old copies on the second-hand market, several of the titles are now available electronically too.  I hope, if you’ve got a wet afternoon, or a quiet evening, you too might be tempted to give one a try.