Audiobook narration: the good, the bad, and the ugly?

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I’m a relative latecomer to audiobooks, and I’ve only recently started listening to books that I haven’t already read in print. To be honest, print is still my favourite medium – I find print is more immersive and things ‘stick’ better (plus, even with narration at 1.5x speed, print reading is faster). Still, I’m doing a lot more commuting now, so it’s nice to be able to ‘read’ while I drive without crashing into anything.

I’ve found that the narrator of an audiobook really makes a difference to the experience. There are, of course, the technical aspects of whether the narrator is clear enough that you understand what they’re saying, and whether – if the book calls for it – they can ‘do the voices’. I am in awe of people who can do voices; I simply can’t. I’ve tried, and failed – it’s probably a good thing I don’t have kids, as I’d be a hopeless bedtime story reader.

But beyond the technical aspects, The narrator doesn’t just relate the story – he or she puts their own personal spin on every word, whether they mean to or not.

There are narrators who just turn you off straight away; I’ve listened to clips of some audiobooks and decided that I couldn’t stand to listen to that voice for seconds, let alone hours. Some narrators work well for some types of story but not others. Grover Gardner, who narrates Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, fits the humorous, sardonic tone of the books brilliantly. But for me, he didn’t suit the style of her Penric and Desdemona books nearly as well; I listened to Penric’s Demon after reading it, and found that Gardner’s narration deprived the climax of most of its emotion.

And then there are the narrators whose choices regarding tone and emphasis when reading dialogue make a major difference to how the reader experiences the story. I’ve listened most of the In Death books written by J.D. Robb and narrated by Susan Ericksen. In general, I like Ericksen’s narration – but the way she reads the main character’s love interest makes a big difference to how I see him. I read him in text as having more of a sense of humour than Ericksen gives him – so when I read him, he’s a bit of an arrogant ass, but redeemed by not taking himself too seriously. When Ericksen reads him, he comes across to me as an arrogant, controlling, borderline emotionally abusive asshole. It makes quite a bit difference to how the dynamic between the characters feels.

On the other hand, I’ve just finished listening to Kings of the Wyld, written by Nicholas Eames and read by Jeff Harding. I think it’s the first audiobook I’ve listened to where I’ve deliberately not read any of it in text because I preferred the narrator’s interpretation of the characters to mine. In fact, at one point I decided to read in text (since I was at home) but after a few lines, gave up and went back to audio because Jeff Harding’s narration was just that good.

So narration can go either way – have you listened to any books where the narrator was spectacularly good, or spectacularly bad?

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