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This post on audiobooks is probably going to be helpful to those of us who have found ourselves struggling with more time constraints as we've grown older. As we find ourselves devoting more time to raising children, or working on relationships, or performing more projects around the house, we lose a lot of excess leisure time that was formerly devoted to quiet reading. At the same time many of us fall out of love with our music collection, and stop rocking out on our long car trips. In my case these phenomena dovetailed into a situation where unrewarding music time became replaced by enjoyable "reading" time. Consequently, I found myself in the realm where I formerly assumed that only the blind and the elderly and the functionally illiterate dwelt. I soon became a huge audiobook nerd, and I'm hoping to pass on years of accumulated experience to the rest of you.
A good audio book should at least employ a competent narrator. You would think that this is obvious, but audiobooks do seem to be the bastard child of the publishing industry, and occasionally publishers hire narrators that are skin-crawlingly bad. It seems as if the entire field is gaining in popularity and support though, and that the current crop of readers are much better than the older ones, but I can still encounter one the occasional reader that I just can't stand (see: Scott Brick, below). Also, if a book is being read by its author, be wary. I was familiar enough with Sarah Vowell's voice to breeze through her Assassination Vacation, but I only managed to get a chapter or so into A Wrinkle in Timebefore the author's geriatric warbling forced me to reconsider my selection. (It may be one of the most beloved childrens' fantasy stories out there, but I'll never know, because the experience was like trying to listen to Diane Reihm tell an overlong story).
The other requirement that needs to be met is that the book has to be able to hold one's interest. No one enjoys wasting their time on a crappy read, but it's also important that an audiobook not lull you to sleep while you're engaged in a long commute. So every one of my following recommendations have been responsible for at least one "driveway moment," where the the story is so gripping that I've kept the car running in the garage, or I've found myself still sitting on the riding mower, long after the grass has been cut.
With those two (rather obvious) requirements in mind, I'm going to recommend the following audiobooks. The narrators of these selection perform their work so well that I can't imagine a circumstance where I would actually take the time to read them, rather than listen to them. They bring so much of their craft to the table, that one can't help but get more immersed into an already engaging story, and I believe that the stories themselves are also damned good, written by some of the finest authors of fiction of our time.
So without further ado, here are my top picks:
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Suzanne Clarke. This book is a fantastic period piece, devoted to an alternate-history, 18th century England, where magic use is real (if virtually unknown). It reads like a Jane Austen work, but Ms. Clarke also utilizes an imaginative (and purely fictional) biography to expand her universe, much like Frank Herbert did with Dune. One reviewer actually wondered if their was some real history of English magic that she had been completely oblivious to.
The narrator, Simon Prebble, does a phenomenal job giving each character a distinctive voice, and amusingly, some of the voices seem to be derived from pop culture sources. For instance, Mr. Norrell is Ian Holm, and John Childermass isHarry Bentley (that's a Jefferson's reference for you youngins). Like any gifted storyteller, Prebble uses his voice to expand each character's personality beyond what's written on the page, and I wasn't the least bit surprised to learn that Mr. Prebble had won two Golden Voice awards (for best audiobook narration) and had been nominated for several others. If I was only allowed to recommend one audiobook to someone, this one would be it.
"The Wheel of Time" series by Robert Jordan. Quality-wise, the series as a whole is a little uneven. It was clear that Robert Jordan was stretching this story out and milking it for all that it was worth (until his untimely death). However, it's still a good read, and Jordan was a very good writer, capable of creating a lot of suspense and allowing small plot point buds to bloom into huge payoffs. I think it helps if you imagine the series as an enormous fantasy campaign - there's going to be lots of side-quests that vary in quality and that don't seem to get to the essence of the big, overarching story, but they do allow for world-building and help the larger story move along.
The voicework in the series is a shared project. Michael Kramer does the narrating whenever the book is using a male point of view (which is most of the time), and Kate Reading does spot-duty whenever the story switches over to the females. I feel that Kramer is a stronger reader than Reading, but it may just amount to Mr. Kramer getting much more opportunity to show off. Regardless, they both do an amazing job. Seemingly, each major character has his or her own distinctive manner of speaking, and each nationality has it's own accent. If you're familiar with the enormous scope of the story, you'll realize that that adds up to a heck of a lot of different voices and accents. Furthermore, the two narrators must have been close collaborators, because they make it a point to stay consistent on the characters. Perrin has a slight, John Wayne drawl when either narrator is speaking, and Matt always sounds borderline exasperated. The Seanchen always have a wonderfully odd, slight slur to their speech, and the Illianers can match expletives with Montgomery Scott any day. I imagine that a lot of notecards were involved.
The "A Song of Ice and Fire" series by George R. R. Martin. Like "The Wheel of Time," the audio version grants each character it's own distinctive voice. The reader, Roy Dotrice, does a great job of giving each character his or her own flavor and depth. One can actually hear the extra weight that has settled on Robert Berathian over the years. Tyrian's excellent cackle has the pain of unappreciation and bitterness behind it. Just top-notch work all around by Mr. Dotrice.
Audibly, I would rank it just a hair below "The Wheel of Time" because of Michael Kramer's rich voice, but make no mistake, George Martin is a better writer than Robert Jordan and "A Song of Ice and Fire" is a better series.
The Terror by Dan Simmons. Read by Simon Vance. Great story and great narration. An account of the ill-fated Franklin expedition's attempt to find the northwest passage that is fictional, but still realistic. Dan Simmons does a remarkable job of including just the right kind of details, so that one feels that one is there, stuck in the ice-locked ship, along with the rest of the crew. I found it a lot of fun, imagining that the expedition was being stalked by Ithiqua, and in a case of art imitating art, these gentlemen already thought the same thing.
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. (Outside of North America the novel is titled, Northern Lights). This book was a nice surprise for me, since I wasn't expecting much from a CD that I picked up in the young adult section in my local library, but I'm damned glad that I gave it a shot. Despite being published in 1995, Philip Pullman is such an interesting writer that it feels as if the book was written during the Golden Age of science fiction. The story is read by a complete cast, each one doing one or more characters, and they all do a commendable job. I especially liked the voices of Lyra and Lord Asriel. I feel that the next two books in the series, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, aren't nearly as good as the original, so I can't give them a full recommendation, but once the character of Will is introduced, you do get to hear his actor give a spot-on Daniel Radcliff impersonation.
Speaking of Harry Potter, I'm guessing that with all of the money backing up the franchise, that the production values of its audio versions would be outstanding, but I never cared enough for the written versions (or the movies) to give them a shot. Perhaps someone else could enlighten us.
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Read by Davina Porter. Bradley's feminine take on the Arthurian legend is incredibly creative, and Davina Porter reads the books with a rich, emotional depth. I could fall in love with that voice. Not surprisingly, Ms. Porter has also been the recipient of a Golden Voice award.
The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon. Jewish noir at its finest. Though I'm not sure if anyone else has ever attempted to write a Jewish noir novel. The novel takes place in an alternate history America, where a real plan to settle Jewish refugees on the island of Sitka in Alaska actually game to fruition. Narrator Peter Riegert captures the grim detective feel really well, and I especially like his work on the character of Berko Shemets, who reminds me of the tough, gruff uncle that everyone seems to have.
Just about anything by Cormac McCarthy. So far I've worked my way through The Road, No Country for Old Men, and Blood Meridian. McCarthy might be the best author writing today, but his books seem to be narrated by readers like Tom Stechschulte, who only have a one-note voice. However, that best word to describe that one note is "weathered," and that happens to be the perfect kind of voice to narrate a Cormac McCarthy novel, so the end result works out really well.
World War Z by Max Brooks. This work is read by an large, all-star cast which includes such noteworthies as Alan Alda, Mark Hamill, Rob and Carl Reiner, John Turturro, and Henry Rollins. According to Wikipedia, it won the 2007 Audie Award for Multi-Voiced Performance and was nominated for Audiobook of the Year. Not surprising, considering the powerhouses that it had working on it. However, there is a warning attached to this one: for whatever reason, this book was abridged when converted to audiobook. You are getting an incomplete experience and may find that some of your favorite stories are missing.
Haunted by Chuck Palahnuik. Haunted is a collection of horrific short stories (important: these stories are horrific not horrorstories), seemingly designed to make you squirm uncomfortably while reading. Each story is read by a separate performer, and the stories vary quite a bit in written quality and narration. The stand-out work from the collection is "Guts." An ex-girlfriend of mine made it a point to sit me down in her house and play this for me, ensuring that I wouldn't accidentally listen to it in public or while driving, and I will always love her for it. Not only is "Guts" borderline self-flagellation to listen to, but it's narrator, Arthur Morey, reads it with a Christopher Walken-like cadence that propels the work to a level of mind-breaking absurdity. "Guts" occurs early on in the book, so feel free to ignore the rest of the collection if it's not to your liking (I admit that the entire thing is definitely an acquired taste, though I did enjoy it immensely). Even if you don't care for his work, you should try to sit through Chuck's first nightmare.
Some things that I've learned the hard way:
Keep an eye out for certain narrators when picking up an audiobook. There are some readers that use the same, distinctive voice no matter what kind of book they are narrating. For instance, George Guidell has the warm, soothing speaking manner of an older father-figure. While that usually translates into an enjoyable experience, that type of voice definitely has it's niche and doesn't work well with certain kinds of stories. On the other end of the annoyance spectrum is Scott Brick. Now I think that Mr. Brick's voice is fair enough, and I can only wish that I was capable of speaking with similar clarity. However, he apparently insists on overemphasizing every fourth word for no apparent reason. Listening to him is like listening to someone overact while LARPing Vampire: The Masquarade. I keep running into him because I don't always remember to check the narrator on the cover, or he happens to be reading a book that I'm really interested in (The Passage), but I'm passing on a fair warning to the rest of you.
Stephen King books suck. When it comes to Mr. King, I have acquired the bitterness that only dwells within the disillusioned disciple. I enjoyed him so much, back when he was young, hungry, and apparently willing to be edited, but every time I've given him another chance, the man has broken my heart and made me hate myself for going back to him. I've forced myself to listen to Black House,I've slogged my way through the mammoth-sized Bag of Bones, which King narrated himself (remember: stay away from authors reading their own books), and, despite my better judgement, I finished The Colorado Kid, which may be one of the worst audiobooks I have ever subjected myself to. Now I think I get was King was trying to do with The Colorado Kid - he wanted to put the felling that one gets, living among the oldtimers in Maine, into words. He's trying to convey their code of honor and their storytelling that he's grown to admire, but listening to it for hours was like listening to two old men fuck each other, slowly and incompetently.
This next one is probably obvious, but it gives me a chance to relate my worst audiobook experience ever: Stay away from any book that has a religious agenda. One day I was rushed for time at the library, and I grabbed a book titled, A Pagan's Nightmare,without closely examining it. I like pagans. I like nightmares. Putting the two together should have been as synergistic as combining peanut butter and chocolate, right? Anyway, it turned out to be a book about a book, wherein a writer is showing off his new manuscript to his editor. The writer's new book involves a post-rapture Earth where the last few "neutrals" are on the run from those left behind, who are trying to convert them to evil or eat them or something. (It a fit of creativity, the author has even named one of the protagonists "Ned Neutral"). It doesn't really help that the editor keeps going on about what a gripping, addictive story the writer has brought him. Not only is the book a complete piece of shit, but I suspect that the narrator realized it and decided to give the characters voices that simply parodies of themselves. For instance, one character has an over-the-top redneck accent that probably doesn't occur in nature and Ned Neutral keeps his radio DJ voice constantly "on." Despite its train-wreck appeal, I just couldn't finish it. I'm guessing someone got converted at the end or something. If you're one of those sadists that loves watching terrible movies, you might enjoy this, but keep in mind that life is short.
So are there any recommendations anyone else wants to make? Anything that you were curious about? I've been a dedicated listener for over ten years, so I might have already listened to something that you're considering.