Audiobooks can be a great way to access books if you’re time-poor

I know so many people who love reading, but find it hard to find the time to do so – when you have a family, work and find yourself under pressure to provide taxi services, help with homework, cook interesting and nutritious meals, check emails….the list goes on. Reading often drops off the list. And how many of you do your reading at bedtime and find you fall asleep before you’ve even finished a chapter?

It’s a common problem. I am a great believer in two things, however. First, if you want your kids to read they have to see you doing it too – so you’re actually being a good parent by finding time to read. Second, reading can be a wonderful way of escaping all the chores and pressures of life, so you will benefit from even 10-15 minutes here and there.

glass-2557577_1920I’m a big fan of audiobooks as a way of passing otherwise dead time in a more constructive way  – for me it’s car journeys, or whilst exercising. It might also be while you’re waiting for swimming lessons to finish or at the supermarket. You have to choose your titles carefully though, because it’s not just about what you listen to, but the narrator is really key to the enjoyment. For example, audiobooks I have enjoyed have been Holding, narrated brilliantly by the author Graham Norton, Frankenstein, narrated by Derek Jacobi and 1984, narrated by Andrew Wincott (Adam from The Archers). Their reading styles enhanced my enjoyment. A title I enjoyed less because of the narration was The Girl on the Train, where I felt the male voices were not done well.

the story of a new nameI have recently finished listening to The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, Book Two in her Neapolitan Novels series. I have listened to and reviewed here, Book One, My Brilliant Friend, and the narration by American actor Hilary Huber is sublime. The Story of a New Name continues where Book One left off, with Lila marrying the grocery-store owner Stefano Caracci. Lila acquires a new social standing and some material wealth, but it is a loveless affair, and the marriage soon deteriorates into violence and enmity.

Lila’s childhood friend Elena, chooses a different path; she continues her education and though at first she barely scrapes through with adequate grades, she eventually graduates and is accepted at the university in Pisa. While Lila’s life is coming apart (despite her many talents, her beauty and her magnetic appeal), Elena’s eventually triumphant academic trajectory comes as a surprise to many as her abilities and potential were not thought to be as great (especially by herself).

This book has the same wonderful setting, 1960s Naples, the same cast of fascinating characters, mostly sinister and flawed, and develops the themes of friendship, and its many complex facets, jealousy, family feuds, conflict, love, hatred and the position of women in society.

The book is long (over eighteen hours worth of listening, or nearly 500 pages in paperback), but it is epic in scale and epic in achievement. On my audiobook app you can select a faster reading speed; I tried listening at 1.25 speed, but I went back to standard speed, because Hilary Huber’s American drawl is a treat for the ears and brilliantly suited to the story.

I would highly recommend this audiobook – the cast of characters is complicated and sometimes I forgot who was who, especially when shortened or ‘pet’ names are used in the dialogue. I found it helpful to look up a cast of characters online so I could keep track. There are two more books in the series – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child. I will certainly stick with the series and get both of these – even though it might take another year to get through listening to them!

Does the narration style affect your enjoyment of an audiobook?

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Book review: “Just Fly Away” by Andrew McCarthy

I posted earlier in the week about getting your teenagers reading in the school holidays. Well, here’s a book they might like, and the author brings back memories of my own teenage years! Andrew McCarthy is better known as an actor and director (Pretty in Pink, St Elmo’s Fire), but in recent years has turned his hand to writing. This is his second book and his first work of fiction and is aimed at teenage readers. As regular readers of this blog will know I have launched an online reading challenge through Facebook, with a different genre or theme for each month. January’s was a YA novel, for which we read The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy. My book club decided to follow suit and we selected Just Fly Away. Just to warn you, this review contains spoilers, as I’m writing this for parents who might be looking for reading material for their teenagers and want to know what the book is about.

Just Fly Away img2

The central character in the novel is Lucy Willows, a 15 year-old living in New Jersey with her parents and younger sister, Julie. The novel opens with the family enjoying a day out at an amusement park on the Jersey Shore. It is a normal happy existence and Lucy’s life appears to be like that of any other teenager, a mixture of the humdrum and the special where family relationships go through the usual ups and downs. Then Lucy overhears a conversation between her parents about someone her father “would be proud of” and her fear and curiosity are aroused. She confronts her parents about it and they decide it is time to reveal to their daughters that Lucy’s father had an affair some years earlier which resulted in the woman having a child. The boy, Thomas, is now eight years old and lives in the same town.

Lucy’s world is turned upside down. It is important to note at this point that whatever issues there may have been between Lucy’s parents, they have put the matter behind them, and Lucy’s mother appears to be completely reconciled to her husband’s past infidelity and to have forgiven him. It is in fact she who started the conversation with her husband about Thomas. As an adult reader, I was inclined therefore to think a) it’s the couple’s business not Lucy’s, and b) so what? If they are over it, Lucy should accept it and move on too. But that is to miss the point, and one of the aspects of the book I really liked, the fact that the story is told entirely from Lucy’s point of view. Any parents of teenagers will know that they tend to see the world entirely from their own perspective, their capacity for empathy at this stage in their development can often be quite low, particularly where their parents are concerned! Therefore it is entirely credible that Lucy should react so strongly to the news and to have the reactions she does to her parents. She hates her father at this time and seems also to despise her mother for not having left him!

An important sub-plot to the novel, and which will broaden the appeal to young people is that Lucy develops a relationship with Simon, the older brother of a school friend. Simon is ‘different’; he has some sort of learning difficulty that is not fully explained, and goes to a different school. Simon is handsome, charming, warm, sensitive, and caring. He proves to be a great support to Lucy.

Lucy is curious about Thomas and finds out where he lives. She persuades Simon to go with her and the two make contact with him, without revealing the connection. Lucy thinks this encounter might help but instead it throws her into a tailspin. One day, whilst heading out to the shops, she decides on a whim to take the train to New York City and from there to travel to her grandfather’s house in Maine, whom she has met only once previously as there has clearly been a difficult relationship between him and Lucy’s father. Her journey is more than just a series of scary late night encounters and bus rides, it is a metaphor for her growing up and away from her parents, making it on her own, with limited funds and a new-found resourcefulness. Through the contact she then has with her grandfather, she glimpses some of the challenges to be faced in parent-child relationships and it helps her to reframe the situation she finds herself in with her own parents.

Spoiler alert…

Whilst Lucy is staying with her grandfather he has a massive stroke. Lucy’s father travels to Maine both to collect Lucy and to visit his Dad. Upon his arrival, Lucy’s father starts to ‘tell her off’ but it is clear that Lucy has grown out of this sort of admonishment and his reprimand seems hollow and out of step. Grandfather dies and this is an emotional element to the book, but I think this will be tolerable to teen readers because he is elderly and his peers seem to accept it as natural and not untimely. The event also serves to bring the family back together and into a new phase. Simon also makes the trip to be at the funeral for Lucy, and so he gets to meet her parents, and they seem to approve of him and accept their daughter’s maturity.

Lucy is a great character and not too feminine so I think even young male readers could identify with her. It’s a good story, easy to read and whilst Lucy, to an adult reader, might seem to overreact at times, it is a reminder that, as a parent it is important to realise that what may seem ‘small stuff’ to us can be ‘big stuff’ to them.

There is some light sexual content and occasional swearing. Recommended for 14-17 year olds and a nice read for grown-ups too!

Do you have any suggestions for YA novels for older kids to read?

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How to get their noses in a book this half term

When my children were young, I found it relatively easy to entertain them during school holidays; they still liked going to parks (sighs wistfully!), did not roll their eyes when I suggested a museum or gallery (usually running a school holiday activity), even a bus or train ride was a novelty! And if I needed to work or just needed a break, there were always organised activities, sports clubs, etc. Now, two of my children are teenagers, and the third is there in spirit if not in chronological years. They can entertain themselves, often making their own arrangements with friends, requiring only transport assistance from me, and this is great; they are independent and there is a lower impact on my writing life.

girl-672267_1920However, with autonomy comes power – if they are having an ‘at home’ day they can simply slip under the radar and spend a great deal of quality time with their phones and tablets (oh for the days when I only worried about how much Balamory they watched!) They can secrete themselves in their bedrooms while I lose myself in all my usual activity. At their age, sure I watched a lot of telly while my parents were out at work in the school holidays, but I also spent plenty of time with my nose in a book. Digital distractions were fewer and less powerful.

I’m not looking back with rose-tinted specs thinking ‘if only their lives could be like mine…’ no way; I know I would have loved the internet! However, now I’m a 21st century parent I can see how easily it is for the reading, no, the whole cultural habit to slip away and get lost in the mire of competing forms of entertainment. So, what can be done? Well, if the scenario outlined above sounds familiar and, like me, you would like your young people to engage more with paper and page-turning rather than screens and swiping, here are some thoughts for you:

  1. Don’t panic and don’t give up – even the most avid readers have dry periods and the teenage years are unique and short-lived. They have many things to contend with and reading may not be top of their list. Hang on in there and see below.
  2. Let them see you reading – I work mostly from home and my kids are fascinated by what I do all day! When they are off school I make sure they see me switching off the phone and the computer and reading; don’t save your reading until bedtime. Ten minutes reading in front of your kids is far more powerful than all your verbal exhortations to read – they listen to nothing you say but they watch everything you do. Model the desired behaviours.
  3. Bring books into their life – yesterday I went out with one of mine and treated them to a hot chocolate…in the bookshop cafe! And afterwards we had a browse. Later in the week I may find I need to call into the library while we are out.
  4. Seek out literary-themed days out – you may have at least one planned day out while your kids are off. Did a favourite author live nearby, whose home you could visit? Is there some literary link to a local beauty spot? I live in Manchester in north-west England and we are very fortunate to have a rich local literary heritage – Elizabeth Gaskell’s house, four fascinating libraries (Central library, John Ryland’s, Chetham’s and the Portico), and the Lake District is nearby (Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome).
  5. In fact, any culture will do – museums, galleries? Many are still free so there is no pressure to spend all day there, just hang out for an hour or so. Engagement with any kind of cultural activity will demonstrate to your teens that life exists beyond the screen and even if they start bored, they will probably have to read something, even if its only the descriptions of the exhibits.
  6. Watch a movie adaptation together – the key word here is ‘together’. If it’s their choice, maybe an adaptation of a YA novel, so much the better. If they like the film, but haven’t read the book, suggest getting it for them.
  7. Revisit a once-loved childhood classic together – were there books they loved reading as children? Perhaps dig out an old favourite, they’ll enjoy the nostalgia. My eldest still goes back to Harry Potter from time to time.
  8. Buy newspapers and magazines – all reading is good.
  9. Finally, leave all kinds of reading material lying around, in every room, even the kitchen and bathroom. When they’re off school and they’ve more time on their hands they may be inclined to linger.

The key thing is to show an interest and not to judge. I consider myself an avid reader these days and I did read a lot of classics when I was young, but I read some ‘trash’ too, and I loved comics and teen magazines. Value their choices, even if you secretly wish they’d read something different, and talk to them about what they’re reading.

What do you do to try and get your kids reading, particularly the older ones? 

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