Speaking of Audio Books: It’s All About the Narrator

For me, the traditional printed book will always be the best means of delving into a juicy romance, but audio books have come to play a significant role in my endless search for that next great book. I tend to think of audio books as my “otherwise occupied books” since they are usually reserved for those times when sitting down to read a printed book is not much of an option.

Why choose an audio book? First is the fact that an engaging audio book is the very best workout companion. I don’t think nearly as much about my straining muscles or the fact that I am out of breath while listening to a book such as Nobody’s Baby But Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. In fact, I often have to completely ignore my protesting body’s grumbles as I break out in bursts of laughter.

Audio books also make great driving companions and sitting in traffic is not nearly as tedious when I am savoring Phin and Sophie’s pool game in Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie. And then there is the fact that I am not overly fond of housework and listening to Brandon lambast Alyson for spying on his family’s farm in Katherine Sutcliffe’s Darkling I Listen makes dust mopping a lot more entertaining.

For some audio fans, eyestrain is the primary reason for listening to, rather than reading and I must admit that sometimes my eyes just need a break. Multi-tasking isn’t always preferable either while listening to a particularly intense passage. Scenes such as those found in Diana Gabaldon’s Voyager deserve my total attention and with a narrator as delightful as Davina Porter, there are times to just relax and relish every line (and back-up and enjoy all over again).

Speaking of narrators – what audio book enthusiast doesn’t wince occasionally upon hearing that word? Narrators can literally make or break an audio book and I find myself quite astonished at times by a publisher’s choice. Just as there are vastly differing preferences when choosing a book to read, there are levels of tolerance when it comes to the narrator’s voice intonation and delivery of the written word. Such was the case recently when an audio book failed utterly for me, due, not to the book’s contents, but rather the narration. I knew Smooth Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas was told from the heroine’s perspective and I attempted to overlook what my ears perceived to be a faint lisp in the narrator’s speech patterns and even reasoned that possibly the heroine was written to speak in such a manner. Having attended speech therapy as a young child, I understand the process of overcoming a lisp and hold no prejudice whatsoever against anyone speaking thusly. But when I heard the very manly Jack Travis speak with that slight lisp, I about came off my seat. No, my heroes do not speak with a lisp! From that point on, no matter how hard I tried to remain focused on the content, I found myself listening for another slip of Jack’s tongue (yes, it was inevitable) rather than the development of this vastly entertaining story. At the half way point, I stopped in great frustration and trotted off to the bookstore to purchase the print version. In the end, it was well worth the aggravation but I had to start at page one to replant Jack’s voice in my head.

Since the audio book site I frequent offers samples of the narration, most of my audio experiences are positive. And there are those instances when I enjoy the audio book more than the printed word such as with Judith Ivory’s The Proposition. I have difficulty with the whole Pygmalion storyline, especially when the character being tutored is a male, and this one garnered no higher than a C grade when I first read it years ago. Playing Mick’s speech in my mind was not only difficult but served to emasculate his character somewhat. Determined to try again, I purchased the audio version recently and gave narrator Steven Crossley the opportunity to remake my image of Mick. His deep booming voice left no doubt that Mick was anything but the manliest of men and his interpretation of the characters greatly increased my enjoyment of the book.

Similarly, Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips was one book I was hesitating to buy due to reviews that reported the heroine, Blue, was the disagreeable sort who snapped constantly at the hero. I can’t abide cranky heroines, but I had a long drive coming up and decided I could ignore Blue’s negative talk by looking at the countryside. The depiction of Blue by superb narrator Anna Fields made me see her as a self-deprecating woman whose voice often drifted into humor and cynicism rather than the difficult character I expected. It was without a doubt a solid audio success.

Another recent audio hit for me was Naked in Death by J. D. Robb.  I had not attempted to read this series because, quite simply, I am not a fan of romantic suspense.  Two years ago I tried reading this one only to quickly lose interest. Assuring myself I could multi-task if I became bored again with the suspense portions, I purchased the audio book as I was curious to know more about the Roarke and Eve so many love.  Well, the suspense was pretty darn good and it was much easier to hear Roarke’s Irish brogue than imagine it.  Narrator Susan Ericksen gave Eve more of an attitude than I envisioned, but overall this audio version inspired me to keep reading the series – all of which are available as audio books.

Judith Ivory’s Sleeping Beauty sits firmly on my DIK shelf , so I was very pleased to find it in audio. I did listen to the audio sample and knew the hero’s tone of voice was going to be a challenge but I convinced myself I could enjoy hearing this beloved book anyway. Unfortunately, there was no way I could wrap my mind around the nasal, snobby, almost effeminate voice the narrator gave James and the not-so-enjoyable listening session was soon over.

Fortunately there are many immensely talented narrators out there who not only entertain but, especially important in romance, also distinctly differentiate male and female voices. Two of the most talented narrators I have had the pleasure to hear are Davina Porter, narrator of the Outlander series, and the greatly missed Anna Fields, who, among her many accomplishments, narrated 13 of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ books before her unexpected death in 2006.

Each month I will return to the blog to offer my latest romance audio book recommendations (some newer – some older) and, hopefully, provide an avenue for audio book lovers to discuss their latest discoveries or reminisce about other books in their audio library – both good and bad. Among books in next month’s discussion will be Karen Marie Moning’s Highlander series – talk about an excellent narrator!

As with my regular book collection, my audio library has a number of books I have yet to read – I seem to love to save for a rainy day. Among my most recent additions:

  • Glory in Death by J.D. Robb. I’m hooked – I have to continue this series.
  • The Touch of Fire by Linda Howard. A tough western originally published in 1992. More and more of Howard’s older books are appearing in audio format.
  • Lover Eternal by J.R. Ward. I continue to follow the Black Dagger Brotherhood, although not as enthusiastically as I once did, so I am taking a trip down memory lane. I’m interested to see if a narrator can effectively portray so many voices.

One last note: Knowing where and how to purchase your audio book determines the price you pay. I rarely pay more than $11.50 regardless of the list price. In addition, there are multiple ways to listen to an audio book including your own PC if no other devices are available. So, if you haven’t tried an audio book, I encourage you to do so!

What are some of your audio book listening adventures of late – new or old – good or bad – based on narration? How do you find your audio books? What is your most recent addition to your audio library and what new releases look promising to you?

And I’ll see you next month.

-Lea Hensley

74 thoughts on “Speaking of Audio Books: It’s All About the Narrator

  1. In reading the comments for this post, I realize two things. First, that I shall probably be visiting this site a lot in the future. I, in my dorky way, love to read bad reviews of things. I don’t know why. Maybe it is to break the monotonous reading of, “oh my god this is so great the writing is so good I love love love it I read it five hundred billion times and loved it every time.” Sometimes, I just like to read bad reviews of things, especially books I like, to see how much I agree or disagree with them. So I looked on google for the worst audiobook narrator. I thought to myself, “If anyone says that George Guidall is a bad narrator, I shall fight to the death to defend his honourable and good name. I will go down fighting, just like the loyal fan that I am.” Anyway, this sight was one of the first hits I found. Another thing that I realize is that the point of view that I am about to present to you is probably one that is not often presented here. I am blind, and therefore the only alternative to listening to audiobooks would be either reading a book in braille and having my fingers go numb after, oh, four hours or so, or listening to a monotone computer voice read to me, which I do not particularly have a problem with, but sometimes it gets kind of boring to hear the screenreader I am using read my books to me. However since I am an avid reader, sometime I have no choice as not everything is produced in audio. But anyway, now that I have finished with my introductory comments, for my comments about narrators. Narrators I like. I have found more female narrators that I like, rather than male. I find that female narrators don’t get as dramatic as male narrators. By dramatic, I mean shouting into the microphone, and other such annoying things. I have no issue with narrators that wish to give their characters individual voices, but please, don’t yell and distort the sound coming through the speakers. My favourite narrators, or at least some of them as I have listened to so many audiobooks that it is impossible to give a comprehensive list of narrators I like without seriously damaging the muscles of my fingers and wrists more than I already have, would probably be Susan Erikson, Jeff Woodman, George Guidall, Susanne Torren, Barbara Rosenblat, Kate Redding, and a few others that elude my mind at the moment. Now, for the worst. I can’t say that I have a lot of narrators that I avoid like the plague, but there is one that I seriously don’t like. This man, if indeed he is a man, is named Conor O’brien. He sounds like he is bored out of his mind, and is reading the book purely for the paycheck it offers. He is the most monotone person I have ever heard. In fact, a friend of mine gave him the name robot-man for that exact reason. The horrible thing is that the one book I heard narrated by this monster was a great book. It was the book Praying for sleep by Jeffrey Deaver. If I could see, I would easily take the print version any day.

  2. Ali,
    Welcome! Your perspective in our discussions of audio books will be most appreciated! I wanted to make sure you have seen our two other columns with discussions we have had on this blog as well.

    June – Speaking of Audio Books: Male Narrators
    http://www.likesbooks.com/blog/?p=1835#more-1835

    June 18th – Speaking of Audio Books: July Releases
    http://www.likesbooks.com/blog/?p=1954#more-1954

    We have another audio column slated for July 7th and will continue to have audio book discussions twice a month. Hope we’ll see you there each time.

    I will check out some of your favorite narrators. I am familiar with Barbara Rosenblat (great, great) and Susan Erikson and enjoy their narration.

    See you again soon.

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