Some thoughts on audiobook narration and narrators (with recommendations)
It comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I have strong opinions about audiobook narration. I tend to have strong opinions about a lot of things (my own mother, in her inimitable way, says that I am “never far from an opinion”). I also have a master list of recommended books in other areas here.
Ever since Audible instituted a return policy I’ve been both more adventurous about trying new narrators and absolutely ruthless in returning books that aren’t doing it for me. As a former actor, I not only hear things that drive me nuts, but I can identify them with specificity. A non-comprehensive list of narrator tics and traits that will have me reaching for my phone and muttering, “Nope,” are:
- Strange accent choices that aren’t rooted in the text (one book I listened to had someone from Colorado speak in a weird, nasal, Annie Potts-in-the-original-Ghostbusters Brooklyn accent. It made my face contort in very…interesting ways. Not good ones.)
- Ditto for character voice choices (one book I DNF-ed had a main character who sounded unnervingly like the “Sexy Baby” girl on that episode of 30 Rock. You know the one.)
- Reading fight scenes in an INCREDIBLY! AMPED! UP! WAY! That indicates the narrator doesn’t believe it’s exciting enough as written.
- Immature voices in general. This isn’t 100% fair of me, necessarily, because voices are what they are. But an audiobook narrator needs to convey a lot of different characters at, usually, a lot of different ages, and very childlike voices don’t have a lot of range.
- Badly performed accents.
- Narrators who. Have what I call. Shatner’s Disease. They pause. In weird. Places.
Basically, what all these boil down to are: this is distracting. It calls attention to the narrator, and away from what is being narrated. A good audiobook reader lets the story flow through the voice. You might occasionally notice something about their voice or characterization, but it should be something you notice that you like.
At the same time, I feel for audiobook narrators. I’ve probably committed some of the same “sins” in the one (to date) audiobook short story I recorded for my friend Jacob Clifton. (Ignore the random cats – they have nothing to do with the narrative and were just the photo I slapped up on SoundCloud when I created an account).
ETA 7/6/2022: I have now also narrated my own novella, The Wedding Bait!
Basically, narrating a book is hard. It’s difficult to keep track of the characterization choices you’ve made, it’s vocally challenging (especially if you’re a woman trying to produce a creditable-sounding man’s voice), and meanwhile you have to read the text…perfectly. Which sounds like it should be the easiest part. It isn’t.
With that in mind, I’d like to offer up some of my favorite audiobook narrators and some of my favorite books that they have read (Affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases):
- I’ll start with the divine Kate Reading. I once described her thusly:
@mel_thegreat @CatSWrites She’s my audiobook narrator girl-crush for sure.
— Adele Buck (@_AdeleBuck) February 6, 2017
Then she blew my mind and responded:
@helgagrace @_AdeleBuck @mel_thegreat @CatSWrites crushing back!!!
— Kate Reading (@KateReadingVO) February 8, 2017
I don’t know when I first encountered her, but it may have been when I bought her rendition of one of my favorite books, Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold. Since then, I’ve listened to at least a hundred hours of her work and have only ever returned a book because I didn’t like the book. Never because of her reading. She also narrates either all or the vast majority of Loretta Chase’s excellent historical romances (Lord Perfect and Not Quite a Lady are personal favorites, but I have at least liked all of them).
- Nicholas Boulton. The man I once described as:
@CatSWrites @helgagrace @mel_thegreat @KateReadingVO oh, @EmCeeHammock‘s voice is sex on a stick.
— Adele Buck (@_AdeleBuck) February 6, 2017
He has a sense of humor. He responded:
Sticky sex on a sexy stick, yeah? 😉 https://t.co/wA5UWo7Ukb
— Nicholas Boulton (@EmCeeHammock) February 6, 2017
In ensuing tweets I proceeded, apparently, to make him blush. It was among my finest hours. He brings gorgeousness and grit to the medieval The King’s Man. He’s also up for an Audie for Glitterland: Spires, Book 1 which I haven’t had a chance to listen to yet, but well believe is worthy of the nomination.
- In the mystery genre, I really enjoy the marriage of Barbara Rosenblat’s voice and the Mrs. Pollifax series. These globe-spanning books have to be an incredible challenge both in terms of consistency of recurring character choices over a long period of time and a cast of, if not thousands, definitely hundreds from seemingly every country on the planet.
- In fantasy, Kyle McCarley’s reading of The Goblin Emperor was simply fantastic. And, frankly, having read this book multiple times with my eyes and at least once with my ears, the narrated version makes the incredibly complicated names and nicknames much easier to navigate.
- Some (a few) authors are also excellent narrators. Neil Gaiman reads his own work incredibly well. I’d recommend anything, but I especially enjoyed The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
- The actor Alan Cumming is also an excellent narrator (you’d think all good actors would be good audiobook narrators. Nope. Some of them suffer from Shatner’s Disease). His readings of Scott Westerfeld’s YA, steampunk Leviathan series are especially fun. David Suchet reading Agatha Christie’s Poirot series is a particular delight, especially if you’re a fan of his small-screen portrayal of the Belgian detective. And, of course, Juliet Stevenson reading anything Austen.
- I’m a huge Georgette Heyer fan and most of them are read by narrators that range from good to great, but my favorite of her books, A Civil Contract, is also read by my favorite of her narrators, Phyllida Nash. Ms. Nash also reads seven other Heyers.
- ETA (9/24/2019) Emily Woo Zeller is a new favorite. Amazing. Catch her reading half of Ruby Lang’s Clean Breaks or all of Helen Hoang’s The Bride Test.
- The combination of Seraphina Valentine and Teddy Hamilton is terrific. One of my favorites is Sarina Bowen’s Bountiful (which I wrote about on Frolic).
- ETA (3/17/2021) Joe Jameson adds an extra layer of nuance and humor to the already sweet and hilarious Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall.
Not all audiobooks that have ever been created are available (or they’re not all available in the U.S.). But if you can lay your hands on these via your local library’s audiobook CD collection, do:
- Carole Boyd reading Stella Gibbons’ delicious Nightingale Wood. A favorite I’ve returned to again and again. Funnier even, I think, than Gibbons’ more well-known Cold Comfort Farm. If you can’t find it, console yourself with anything else that’s still available, including the fantastic Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar.
- Ian Carmichael reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books. The late Mr. Carmichael was an absolute master of character, accent, and pacing. If you can’t find any of those, you can still get him reading several of P.G. Wodehouse’s comedic masterpieces.
I have to stop here or I might be here all day. At any rate, if you have any recommendations for great audiobooks and narrators, please leave them in the comments!