Review: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Many thanks to Mumsnet Books for a free copy of this book.

I do like Rose Tremains’s writing and it’s been a while since I last read one of her books, so a delight to rediscover her again with this book. Her prose is wonderful and this was an engaging and educational tale (for me at least!) about family, love and friendship in Switzerland in the pre and post-war era. I’d never really considered some of the implications of the Swiss position – especially on the lives of ordinary people. However I have to admit that I found this to be a book of two halves – the story of Gustav’s childhood was very interesting but I found the later descriptions of his middle-aged life rather dull and disappointing. I had rather hoped for more for Gustav! The ending, when it came, was unsurprising really and had been suitably signposted along the way for the more alert reader.

That said, I still enjoyed it and would recommend.

Audiobooks – Are they ‘cheating’ ?

relaxation-1388228_1920I’ve heard a few discussions recently where people have said that listening to audiobooks ‘doesn’t count’ and is ‘cheating’ on the book-reading front. This makes me so cross.

Audiobooks are simply another way of accessing books which, I would argue, is always a good thing.

After all, how do we first experience books and stories as a child before we can read them ourselves – we hear them being read to us. For me, the sheer luxury of being ‘read to’ has stayed with me into adult life. Surely I can’t be alone or BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime would have ceased long ago?

However, it’s true that some books work better than others as audiobooks and a poor narrator can completely spoil a wonderful text.

The ones which seem to work best are those where there is a clear plot and storyline, not books which switch dates, narrators and scenes very frequently. For example, Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life and Ali Smith’s How to be Both didn’t work for me at all on audiobook (not least because I had a physical copy of How to be Both which started with the first story, and the audiobook started with the second one, and there I was thinking  ‘WTF is going on here ?’ In both cases I didn’t give up on the book though but switched to the hard copy. (Tip: Did you know that Audible will let subscribers ‘return’ a limited number of audiobooks if you’re not enjoying them?)

Rather than being the poor relation to physical books the audio versions sometimes have added value.

Narrators with authentic character accents can add an extra dimension – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Americanah’ and Kathryn Stockett’s ‘The Help’ are excellent on audiobook!

Well-respected actors are often great narrators too and it’s like having a personal performance in your head. Stephen Fry’s readings of his own books bring his words to life wonderfully. (But beware of the narcissistic author who has insisted on reading their own audiobook without much previous reading experience.)
It’s always worth reading the audiobook performance reviews on Amazon/ Audible and listening to a sample of the narrator’s voice – occasionally you get one who just doesn’t work for the book.

Although it’s a bit expensive I love the Amazon ‘whispersync’ option where you can switch seamlessly between the Kindle ebook and Audible audiobook, with each returning to the last point you read/heard.  I can then ‘read’ a book continuously  throughout the day while I’m driving, doing dull jobs around the house,  running, cooking as well as actually sitting down reading.
If I only have the audiobook (I have an Audible subscription) I sometimes try to borrow a physical book from friends or the library so I can at least experience some of it in written form and ‘mix and match’ as appropriate.

I’m still amazed how many UK friends don’t realise that UK libraries now have e-audiobooks available to download, and they’re not just the classics and lesser known titles. I’ve recently borrowed Emma Healey’s ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ and Kate Hamer’s ‘The Girl in the Red Coat’ from mine. Library audiobooks are usually available through Overdrive and OneClickDigital apps and can be borrowed for up to 21 days.

So, thanks to audiobooks I’ve possibly accessed twice as many books as I might otherwise have done. Author/narrators have helped me understand every nuance of their books by reading it to me. I’ve listened to stories read in the language and accent of the original author and have had multiple narrators dramatise a book for me in a way I might not have imagined while reading it.

I don’t think audiobooks will ever replace physical books in my life, but they ARE an important part of my book-reading week. I mark them up on my Goodreads shelf and I talk about them with friends the same way I would any other book. In fact, a few months ago when I was in three book groups with meetings in the same week, it was only thanks to audiobooks that I could finish the books in time!

So it puzzles me when I hear talk of ‘not counting’ and ‘cheating’ – I can only think these people have had some overly strict primary school teachers? Would you tell a blind person that they couldn’t discuss a book with you because they’d only heard it via audiobook?

No. I don’t think so.

What are your audiobook experiences and habits? Let me know in the comments below.

Maggie O’Farrell in person – This Must Be the Place


Last night I was at Waterstones in Brighton hearing Maggie O’Farrell being interviewed and talk about her new book, “This Must Be the Place.”
(I haven’t read it yet, so if you’re looking for a review this most definitely ISN’T the place…)

Maggie was charming, funny and very down-to-earth. I enjoyed listening to her although (as a bit of an O’Farrell groupie) I’d already heard some of her anecdotes from a snippet of her interview at Waterstones, Piccadilly earlier in the week: Maggie O’Farrell at Waterstones, Piccadilly

It must be a nightmare doing book tours.Obviously, you’ll have prepared stories to fit most questions, but in this age of instant communication  what you said half an hour ago will probably have reached your most enthusiastic followers before you’ve even made it back to the station!

That said, I enjoyed hearing again about the day Maggie literally ‘lost the plot’ with her latest novel. Unusually for her (she said) she’d mapped this one out  across a large whiteboard, using various coloured post-it notes for different characters and themes.

One morning her toddler daughter waddled into the bathroom to greet Maggie, who was cleaning her teeth, and announced “All Gone!” before handing her a soggy, chewed and scrunched-up mass of coloured paper.

Nightmare. Or perhaps it turned out to be a useful ‘first edit’?!

Alexandra Heminsley (Hemmo) (journalist and author of ‘Running Like a Girl’) was an enthusiastic interviewer last night, even if she did  self-confessedly appear a teensy bit star-struck (but then who wouldn’t be?)

The there were all the usual sort of questions to Maggie from the audience, including ‘How on earth do you find time to write with three young children?’ Having read in today’s Guardian about the battle she has had to manage her daughter’s eczema, I’m even more impressed.

What an amazing woman she is. Can’t wait to start reading the book.

If not now, then when?

if-not-now-when 2

As a child, I was an avid reader. English Literature was my ‘best’ subject. However, at 18, I was persuaded by no doubt well-meaning adults to study a more ‘useful’ subject and so headed off to complete a BSc in Economics and Politics.

My early career was in big brand marketing and communications. I hated the financials but enjoyed hanging out with the advertising and PR folk. Words were my thing. People from other departments used to bring me their stuff to proofread and edit.

More recently I’ve been working freelance and I write everything and anything – speeches, articles, advertising copy and press releases.

But I’ve always had a lurking ambition to be a fiction writer, so… if not now, then when?

I’m immersing myself in books and bookish things again – book reviews and blogs, podcasts, literary festivals, prizes and author talks.

Oh, and I’ve also just signed up for a kick-up-the-backside Creative Writing course.

So these are all the things I’ll be blogging about – come and join me!