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Learning to Love Author-Read Audiobooks

One of the great debates among audiobook fans has do with author-narrated audiobooks. Do you seek them out or avoid them like the plague? I used to be solidly in the “just say no to author-read books” camp, thinking audiobooks should be left to the professionals. While I still don’t fully reject that premise, I have to admit that some of my all-time most memorable audiobooks are, in fact, performed by the author.

Born With Teeth
H is for Hawk

Memoirs are a natural for author-read audiobooks. Who could understand the emotional impact and intimate revelations of books in this genre more than the authors themselves? It’s probably a little unfair of me to name Kate Mulgrew’s BORN WITH TEETH as one of my favorite author-read memoirs; after all, she’s an actor, and her ability to read her own life story should be a given. In reality, however, not all actors make good narrators, so I was pleasantly surprised at how genuine Mulgrew sounded as she recounted her journey from childhood to stardom.

Helen Macdonald’s H IS FOR HAWK was an unexpected winner for me because what I really loved about this memoir was the author’s performance. Don’t get me wrong, I was interested in the story of how training a goshawk helped Macdonald work through her grief over her father’s death, but if I’m honest, it was her voice, not her words, that kept me listening. Her soft, expressive delivery made me wish she would find a new career as full-time narrator. She’s a natural.

Beauty QueensAuthor-read fiction is especially tricky. Most authors have spent no time behind a mic, and their experience with readings is generally limited to a few pages presented to a restless audience at a book signing. Can you blame me for being a bit shy to listen their narration?

Of course there are always exceptions, proven by three of my favorite author-read novels.

Author Libba Bray put her theatrical training to good use in her performance of BEAUTY QUEENS. The premise of the story—what happens when a group of teen beauty queen contestants are marooned (unchaperoned) on an almost deserted island—is great, but it’s Bray’s campy performance, solid characterizations, and great sense of timing that makes the audiobook wonderful. Her accents and voices are so distinct and her transitions are so smooth, I kept forgetting that the entire audiobook had only a single performer.

The Ocean At The End Of The LaneI know you’ll agree with me: no list of authors as narrator would be complete without a hat tip to Neil Gaiman. I could pick any of his books to highlight today, because he is so consistently engaging and expressive. He is a storyteller as much as a story writer, and his voice will wrap around you like a soft comforter. One of my favorites, though, is his OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, a story of childhood, love, memory, friendship, and sacrifice; it’s a must-listen audiobook for everyone.

In recent years I’ve become a fan of novels in verse, especially those written for a young adult audience. One of the most affecting novels I’ve listened to is Jason Reynolds’s LONG WAY DOWN about the difficulty some families have in breaking the cycles of gun violence and gang affiliation.

Long Way DownAs Reynolds himself says, poetry is meant to be heard and is best read by the poet himself. In this case, he’s right. Reynolds’s performance brought out emotions and layers of context that would have been lost on the printed page. Don’t be fooled by the YA label, this short audiobook is for you, too. Read AudioFile’s interview with Reynolds for more on narrating his poetry.

Even though I’ll probably always start an author-narrated audiobook with lowered expectations, I’m thankful for remaining flexible. If I had limited myself to only professional narrators, I would have missed out on some truly great audiobook performances.

What are your thoughts on author-narrated audiobooks? If you’re a fan, which are your favorites?

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