When a listener revels, “That narrator was outstanding,” can you guess the one fundamental reason why? If you answer, “Outstanding narrators consistently bring the author’s story and characters to life,” you’ve got it. Conversely, when a frustrated listener laments, “Well, at least my insomnia was cured,” what went fundamentally wrong? If you answer, “The story and its characters felt dead on arrival,” you’re right again. In my definition, an audiobook narrator must be a storyteller who, like an electrical wire with dual connectors, plugs into a book’s story, brings that story, whether fiction or nonfiction, and including its characters, events, and ideas, to life, and connects that life to the listener.
To be sure, storytelling is a complex process that requires highly skilled and intuitive performers. That said, an advanced degree is not required to identify and explain, at its core, what makes great narrators compelling, and terrible narrators not. Here’s how the best get it done–and why the worst leave listeners frustrated or bored.
Since 1992, AudioFile Magazine audiobook reviewers have applied critical listening skills to evaluate so many hours of audiobooks that it would take 65 years of endless audiobook listening (yup, 24/7) for one person to hear them all! Needless to say, that means our database of reviews has more than just one something for everyone. And we add reviews of about 200 new audiobooks every month.
For the past year, AudioFile‘s publisher and staff have been working to increase the ease with which you, our website users, audiobook fans, and anyone else wanting stellar critical review coverage of audiobook publishing can browse and dig deep into our stores of resources. Along the way, we’ve changed a name or two of our featured access points, and also boosted our online and social media publishing presence. To help you discover parts of this treasure trove you may not have realized are at your fingertips, here’s a quick overview from our home page.
Our Newest Reviews can be reached right from this icon. They can be searched according to any of 17 thematic areas, from Audio Theater to Young Adult titles. New reviews are added so frequently that you may find something new here on each visit.
Looking for audiobook reviews for children’s and teen titles? Searching Audiobooks for Kids & Teens can help you to find reviews written with the listening needs and interests of kids and families in mind. Seven age groups can be searched separately.
One reason our Earphones Award for “exceptional titles that excel in narrative voice and style, characterizations, suitability to audio, and enhancement of the text” sets the standard for narrators and audiobook publishers is because we’ve been evaluating audiobooks critically for so long–38,000 and counting, to date. Dip into this search for guaranteed excellent listening.
In addition to audiobook reviews, we also give you quick access to information about dozens of award-winning Narrators. Check out our Golden Voices for those who have achieved narrator hall of fame status.
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Certain books have the spellbinding quality of placing such trust in you as a reader that you feel they were written for you alone. They are intimate and confessional, creating an entire world which pulls you in, and weave an enchantment which continues to fascinate you long after you reach the end.
Russell H. Greenan’s debut novel from 1968, the brilliant, audacious cult classic IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON?, is one of those books for me. When I first discovered this swirling tale encompassing art, genius, love, madness, betrayal, God, and murder, I was still in my teens. It took up residence somewhere in the recesses of my mind and has dwelt there, quietly palpitating, ever since.
“Lately I have come to feel that the pigeons are spying on me.”
From that opening line Greenan’s book hooked me with its dense interiority and clever wordplay, its strangeness, and what emerges as the perfection of its construction. I identified with the nameless narrator, and that I did so despite some of the shocking acts he ultimately commits is a testament to Greenan’s ability as an author. And I loved that the vocabulary was so far above my head that it permanently expanded my awareness.
The novel received glowing reviews when it came out, yet it seemed to have quickly disappeared, consigned to the shelves of libraries and used bookstores, waiting to be discovered anew. Over the decades I have returned to it several times and have been a quiet advocate for it. I was thrilled when celebrated writers such as Anne Tyler and Jonathan Lethem publicly sang its praises. I had a role in its being republished as a Modern Library edition in 2003. I wanted to share it with as many people as possible.
When my acting career led me to begin narrating audiobooks, I wondered whether I might someday be fortunate enough to be chosen to give voice to Greenan’s novel, which had never been recorded in audio. As time went on and I gained experience, one day it struck me: Why not do it myself, rather than wait for it to happen? I had never published an audiobook before, but with all the changes in the marketplace, publishing a one-off wasn’t unheard of. Why not take the risk?
I found a way to reach the author and acquaint him with my desire to narrate his work. An enthusiastic note soon arrived from Mr. Greenan, who was grateful for my efforts on his behalf, saying that the audio rights would revert to him the following fall on his 88th birthday. He hoped we could work something out then.
Calling on narrator and producer colleagues who had undertaken similar labors of love brought valuable insight on the wide variety of expertise and considerations to bring such a project to a successful completion. Big thanks to Stefan Rudnicki, Scott Brick, Jeffrey Kafer, Grover Gardner, and Tavia Gilbert.
When Mr. Greenan’s 88th finally arrived in 2013, his daughter and I negotiated an agreement for the exclusive rights to create an audiobook of his work, to be released simultaneously with the new ebook and Blurb editions she was publishing independently. Blackstone Audio enthusiastically signed on to be my partner in manufacturing, marketing, and distribution, and were a joy to work with while I wore my producer’s hat. Once the ink had dried on all the contracts, and the extensive pronunciation research was complete, I entered my recording booth with the manuscript and–at last!–began narrating.
The audiobook of IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON? officially released in 2015. My first, and perhaps only (although I’ll appropriate Greenan’s question mark here), foray into audiobook publishing had wonderful support from the online book community and the press in spreading the word. I am tremendously grateful to the good Mr. Greenan for entrusting his creation to me, and to Blackstone for helping me realize my dream of performing IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON? in audio. This audiobook and the new ebook and print editions, arriving nearly fifty years after it was first published, makes this amazing novel readily available to a new (and I hope, wide) audience of listeners and readers.
Robert Fass is an actor who has recorded over 100 audiobooks across a wide variety of genres including History, Sci-Fi, Journalism, Young Adult, Mystery, and Literary Fiction. Along the way he has received two Audie awards and multiple Earphones awards and was listed among AudioFile’s Best Audiobooks of the Year in 2011, 2012, and 2013. He is also a writer and photographer. He lives in the Bronx.
This AudiOpinion has been edited from its original longer form in the print issue of AudioFile Magazine, April/May 2015.
© AudioFile 2015, Portland, Maine
April is National Poetry Month, and poetry is a form of language and literature that begs to be
heard. In short, it’s a great time to call attention to poetry and poets we can meet in the medium they deserve, thanks to audiobooks. Poetry paints with rhythm and imagery what visual artists may use paint or other material to convey.
As with any fine work of art—as well as with our first exposures to spoken language—form and the moment may be more engaging than the effort to understand the how and why of meaning. Lord Byron’s CHILDE HAROLD’S PILGRIMAGE, as brought to our ears in Jamie Parker’s performance, doesn’t demand that we act as students investigating meaning or the workings underlying its form in order to enjoy its flow.
Caroline Kennedy, an experienced and sensitive editor, has compiled SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY: A Woman’s Journey Through Poems as a way of offering the guidance of the art of poetry to the winding path many women’s lives can take. Sandra Cisneros, Gertrude Stein, and Sharon Olds are among the poets whose words come to us through performances by Jane Alexander, John Bedford Lloyd, Hope Davis, Campbell Scott, and Kennedy herself. The range of selections here is broad as well as well chosen: e.e. cummings, Anne Bradstreet, Gregory Corso, and Vikram Seth, as well as Mary Oliver and William Blake. In short, if anything is stinting here, its the direction the title might suggest that this be for women only; look beyond that title, just as, for centuries, women had to assume that “man” was inclusive of all humans.
Our tradition of poetry in America is diverse and makes imaginative use of the past as well as the poets’ own present. Walter Dean Myers’s HERE IN HARLEM, recorded by a full cast including Patricia R. Floyd, Kevin R. Free, Dion Graham, Robin Miles, and Lizan Mitchell, is itself an homage to Edgar Lee Masters’s now century-old SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY. Marilyn Singer’s FOLLOW FOLLOW, which she performs with Joe Morton, looks to folktales for initial spark and then turns what we think we know as the narrative upside down, the play of words when reversed or performed in tones that alter their habitually expected meaning.
Audiobooks and poetry offer a natural combination for enjoyment of both. You can find more of them to explore in our newest reviews.
April 12 marks iconic American children’s author Beverly Cleary’s 100th birthday. It’s been nearly 70 years since her writing career began, and her books, made instantly popular for the very ordinariness of her fictional people, have become touchstones for readers and writers interested in the compelling nature of ordinary concerns of many children.
Mrs. Cleary’s storytelling found a voice precisely because she saw a disconnection between the kids who were coming to her library and the then-stocked books available to them. Her dedication to connecting the dots between potential reader and stories in which familiar childhood experiences and feelings evoke a sense of identification and comfort. This approach delighted young readers for a few generations and continues to serve as instructive to more contemporary authors who write today. This sense of making satisfaction discoverable through story in a book also has inspired a birthday celebration of decades’ standing in Mrs. Cleary’s honor. Drop Everything And Read—or DEAR Day—becomes an occasion for community members to visit school classes simply to read aloud to students for 20 minutes or so, with no pressure beyond listening to a good book.
Mrs. Cleary’s books seem to have arrived primed for listening enjoyment. Even when read with the eyes, cadences and character tones are clear. A variety of excellent narrators have performed many of them. In particular, B.D. Wong’s aural celebration of Ralph S. Mouse, who appears in THE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE, as well as a couple of sequels, and Stockard Channing’s Ramona performances, including her Earphones Award-winning RAMONA FOREVER, can leave listeners peering into their audiobook players to see how Mrs. Cleary’s characters could have set up housekeeping there.
Mrs. Cleary’s influence on other writers, both for children and as children, has furthered the riches available to us as reading and listening choices. Judy Blume, Kate DiCamillo, Sara Pennypacker, Amy Poehler, and Eric A. Kimmel are among many authors she inspired when they read her earlier in their lives, and they, too, are well represented in audiobook choices. It seems a Drop Everything And Listen occasion might be an event with which we listeners would happily DEAL. So grab an audiobook by Beverly Cleary, or by someone who names her as inspiration, and expand your own experience with how extraordinarily engaging and satisfying the ordinary world can sound.
Happy birthday, Beverly Cleary, 100 times!