Jo Talks Books: What Makes A Good Audiobook Narrator?

Hi everyone! I hope you’ve all had a good month since I last did one of these, April has been super busy for me, with work picking back up again due to the Spring Booster vaccine programme and 5-11 year olds being offered the COVID vaccine now here in the UK, hence why this post is coming right at the end of the month.

Anyway, as I’ve been reading mainly audiobooks over the past year and a bit, I wanted to talk a little about what I think makes a good audiobook narrator, now that I’ve sampled a wide variety of different audiobooks with different narrators.

I started properly listening to audiobooks on a regular basis since 2019, and since then it’s become one of my go-to ways to consume books. But the narrator of an audiobook can make or break your listening experience: I’ve had some audiobooks where I really wish that I’d just read the physical copy because the narrator has detracted from my experience of the book and I’ve had many where listening to the book has really made the experience for me and I couldn’t have imagined consuming the book any other way.

A good example of narration that I’ve found has worked really well for me, is memoirs where the author reads their own work. I’ve not read all of the memoirs out there, and I’m sure not everyone who writes a memoir would necessarily be a fabulous narrator, but by and large, I’ve found authors reading their own work to be a really good experience. Sometimes it’s because the author themselves is a performer, like Trevor Noah, he does a great job of narrating the audiobook of his memoir Born A Crime and I would largely put that down to him being a comedian: he already knows how to tell a story in an engaging way which is vital for audiobook performances.

Sometimes it’s because the author themselves is the only one who can tell that story authentically. For instance, I read Chanel Miller’s memoir, Know My Name earlier this year and listening to her tell her story of sexual assault in her own words, not only made the experience more powerful for me, but I also couldn’t imagine anyone else doing the audiobook narration, it just wouldn’t come across the same way if it had been someone else reading her words, especially as the memoir is so much about her reclaiming her voice. I would guess that’s why the large majority of memoirs seem to be read by the author in the audiobook version, after all, who can do more justice to your life’s story than you?

Generally, though, most fiction audiobooks are read by voice actors. After almost three years of listening to audiobooks, almost fifty different audiobooks and various different narrators, I’ve had my fair share of narrators. Some have been really fantastic and I’ve gone on to seek out audiobooks narrated by them specifically because I enjoyed their performance so much, and some…..well I’ve not listened to anything by them again. By and large I would say my experience with audiobook narrators has been overwhelmingly positive, there are very few that I have flat out hated, but certain audiobook narrators definitely stick in my mind more than others.

For me the narrators that stick out the most generally have one or both of two traits: they are excellent at accents and make each characters’ voice memorable and distinct, or they really capture the atmosphere of the book and make the story come alive, so you don’t just feel like you’re listening to words on a page, you really do feel like you’ve been immersed in the world of the story.

My two favourite audiobook narrators I’ve discovered since I started listening to audiobooks, Saskia Maarleveld and January LaVoy, do both of these things brilliantly. Saskia Maarleveld is fabulous at different accents, and in all the books I’ve listened to her narrate, seems to do about twenty different accents over the course of the book (I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea), and even narrates entire audiobooks in an accent that isn’t her own. This really brings all of the different characters to life for me, and allows me to keep everyone straight in my head which I really appreciate.

January LaVoy narrates the Diviners series (and I’m sure a lot of other things that I’ve yet to listen to her in) and she MADE those books for me. Obviously they’re good books anyway, but January LaVoy captures the atmosphere and creepiness of the story so well, that it really brought the stories to life for me and honestly, if she’d not been the narrator for the first book, I’m not sure if I’d have carried on reading as I was kind of unsure about the first book but I loved her narration so much that I carried on, which I’m really glad for as I enjoyed the rest of the series much more. January LaVoy definitely made the stories feel like a performance, each character has such a distinct voice (no mean feat with such a large cast) and she even sings in places, the whole listening experience was almost like having a theatre show playing in your ears!

AJ Beckles and Jordan Cobb who narrate the A Song of Wraiths and Ruin duology also do a fantastic job in creating the atmosphere of the world, oral storytelling traditions are huge part of the ASOWAR world so it felt very fitting that the narration of the audiobooks lent into that a lot, Beckles and Cobb were so good at creating the atmosphere of the world of Sonande, and it really added that extra level to the stories for me.

Narrators really capturing the characters personalities is also really important for an enjoyable audiobook experience. Both of the narrators I just mentioned are great at doing that, but I also wanted to mention an audiobook where I didn’t like the story as much, but the narrator’s portrayal of the character really made it. That book is Caroline Kepnes’ You, narrated by Santino Fontana (yes, Hans from Frozen, or OG Greg from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). The actual book I could kind of take or leave, I’ve actually found the Netflix show much better, but Santino’s performance was really fantastic. He captures Joe’s creepiness so well, it’s almost hard to listen to at points, he’s that convincing!

Christian Coulson in The Nobleman’s Guide To Scandal and Shipwrecks is another one who captures the personality of the narrator really well. He brings Adrian to life so completely that you almost forget that it’s a narrator reading the story and feel like Adrian is actually telling his own story to you. Adrian’s book was the only one of the Montague Siblings books that I listened to and I was so glad I did in the end because Christian’s performance just made it so enjoyable.

So then we have the ones that fall into the not so standout category. My problems with audiobook narrators tend to stem from a couple of key issues. The main one is that I just don’t like the voice, which is obviously not really something that anyone can change, some voices you gel with, some you don’t. This happened to me with The Poppy War, and whilst the narration was not the only issue I had with the book, it did kind of put the book on the backfoot right from the off. I just didn’t find Emily Woo Zeller to be a particularly engaging reader, and as I mentioned above, I really need character voices to have a clear differentiation and hers just didn’t.

I also found this with The Song of Achilles, Frazer Douglas just had a very flat and monotone style of reading, and I’ve found that for me, I need quite animated voices to keep me engaged. His voices for the female characters were also not great, which is something I’ve found to be a bit of a reoccurring problem with male narrators (at least the ones I’ve listened to), their female voices tend to be a bit too high pitched and it just irks me!

This also happened with We Were Liars, Ariadne Meyers had kind of a grating voice, and she just wasn’t all that enjoyable to listen to for almost seven hours!

Other issues I’ve had is that the narrator is just too quiet and I can’t hear what they’re saying properly, so I have to turn the volume up too loud just to hear them speak. Granted, that could be an audio quality issue rather than a narrator issue, but it definitely does pull you out of the listening experience because your ears start to hurt after too long listening on full volume! This was a big issue I had with Sky Breaker when I listened to it last year, both Caitlin Davies and Natalie Naudus seemed to be incredibly quiet speakers!

Then there’s those narrators who just don’t differentiate enough between characters’ voices, this was one of my big problems (among many) with Dangerous Remedy. The narrator, Flora Montgomery, really didn’t differentiate between the characters’ voices much at all, so it was hard to tell who was speaking when and that made the story so much more difficult to follow than it really needed to be. Differentiation between character voices is so important in audiobooks, it really brings me out of the story when I can’t tell who is speaking in which part because I find it hard to follow.

I had the same issue with The Bear and The Nightingale, Kathleen Gati also really didn’t differentiate her character voices enough and there are 10,000 characters with seemingly 10,000 different names between full names and nicknames, so I really needed more distinct voices to follow what was going on.

There’s also some narrators who do different accents for the characters but do them so badly that it becomes super grating. I love listening to different accents, and when people do them well, it can be brilliant but when they do them badly, it can be super cringey. This was a big problem for me when listening to the audiobook of Lore, Fryda Wolff’s reading voice was fine, but her accents really took me out of the story. She did a really terrible French accent for Iro and then her British accent for Van was the kind of really hammed up posh British accent for an American audience that just grates on me.

So to summarise, the best audiobook narrators for me have a combination of: impeccable and distinct accents for all the characters, an ability to capture the atmosphere of a book and they capture the personalities of the characters well. But most of all, I think what I find with the best audiobook narrators, is that I’ll finish reading the book and feel like I couldn’t possibly have consumed the story in any other way. If I finish and think, eh, I might have liked that better as a physical book, then the narrator hasn’t done their job properly (for me anyway!). If when I’m done, I think, wow that was amazing, the narration really added something to the story that I don’t think I would have got in the physical copy, then that’s a fantastic narrator and those are usually the ones that I go on to read multiple books by.

What makes a good audiobook narrator for you? Is there anything that I didn’t touch on that you think is really important for your listening experience? Do you have any recommendations of really good narrators for me? Let me know in the comments!

I’ll have another discussion post up for you next month, and in a rare turn for me, I actually already know what I want to talk about! This may change, but at the moment, I’m thinking I want to write about the recent trend of Book To TV adaptations, and why I enjoy TV series adaptations of books more than films (generally!). In the meantime, I’m hoping to get up my review of my latest read The Diamond Eye up at some point during the week, so keep an eye out for that, and I will of course have my regular Top Ten Tuesday post up on Tuesday.

6 thoughts on “Jo Talks Books: What Makes A Good Audiobook Narrator?

  1. WendyW 30/04/2022 / 11:57 pm

    I love audiobooks, and I have to say I have not come across a narrator that I couldn’t stand, or didn’t like. But, I usually only listen to a couple of audiobooks a month.

    • iloveheartlandx 03/05/2022 / 12:01 pm

      The large majority of the audiobooks I’ve listened to, I’ve really enjoyed the narrator, there’s just been a few where I’ve not liked them.

  2. Sophia (Bookwyrming Thoughts) 02/05/2022 / 2:49 am

    I completely agree the narration can make or break the listening experience! I’ve been getting into audiobooks a little more frequently, especially with working in an office and having more opportunities to do so. Sometimes the negative reading experiences I try rereading again but in an entirely different format – especially if I feel the narrator did the book a great injustice.

    I absolutely hate flat and monotone styles of reading when it comes to audiobooks – one of the narrators in The Gilded Wolves trilogy honestly bored me to death when trying to reread the series and I honestly wandered myself right out within moments and stuck with the ebook copy instead.

    Emily Woo Zeller tends to be a hit or miss for me – it really depends on which book she’s narrating and whether there are other narrators involved. The distinction of each character and capturing the essence of the book – the atmosphere, the personality, etc – are probably why I love full cast audiobooks so much even though they’re not very common.

    • iloveheartlandx 03/05/2022 / 11:42 am

      I’m the same, with commuting into work, I’ve had a lot more time to listen to audiobooks than I did before (I had to get creative in the pandemic and basically listen whenever I had the chance to get out of the house, so mostly on walks and runs). Oh that’s interesting, I’ve never tried that, does it make a big difference?

      Me too, when the narrator sounds like they’re bored stiff reading it, it’s difficult to get into it yourself! That’s a shame about the narrators for The Gilded Wolves trilogy, I’m glad I got the physical books then because I really enjoyed them (well at least the two that I’ve read, I’ve not read the third book yet).
      Ah that’s interesting, I’m glad it’s not just me then. I’ve never read any full cast audiobooks, I think the most narrators I’ve ever had on one book has been three, but I would love to read some more full cast ones!

  3. Rosepoint Publishing 02/05/2022 / 5:02 pm

    Yes, excellent post and echoed many, if not most, of my same thoughts. The narrator is definitely responsible for making or breaking a book and even a mediocre book can be made entertaining with the right narrator. I so agree with you on The Song of Achilles. I have a number of favorite narrators, and have repeatedly looked for books narrated by them, usually regardless the genre, such as Grover Cleveland and George Gidall. Also, I enjoyed the memoirs by both Matthew McConughey and Carrie FIsher. Both of the latter are extremely animated.

    • iloveheartlandx 03/05/2022 / 11:14 am

      Thank you! I totally agree, I’ve definitely read audiobooks where I’ve not felt the story was that great but the narrator has made it more engaging than it would have been otherwise. I’m glad I’m not the only one there, he just didn’t sound like he was engaged with the story at all which made me feel less engaged. I’m definitely the same, there’s a couple of narrators that I’ve really enjoyed and sought out more books narrated by them: Saskia Maarleveld, Nicola Barber and Jordan Cobb being among them. I really want to find more done by January LaVoy because she was so good in the Diviners books. I can imagine those two would be incredibly good at narrating, both big characters!

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