It’s not what they say, it’s the way they say it

Some people choose books by their covers; I often choose talking books by their narrators.

A bad narrator can ruin even a good book, and if you are unlucky enough to get a poor performer and a mediocre work, it’s excruciating.  Particularly if sex scenes are involved.

Good narrators bring the book to life with their faultless timing and great characterisations.  No easy task and I speak from bitter experience, having narrated a few Books for the Blind in my youth.  I remember one attempt at a German accent which still makes me wince when I think of it.  For a talking book, narration is a skill quite as important as writing, and arguably more difficult to find.

What makes a duff narrator?  Well, since I listen while driving, I especially dislike the sleep-inducing effect of monotonous voices.  Fake accents, nasty nasal or whiny voices, mispronunciation, overacting, underacting and bad timing also bring about road rage.

At the risk of sounding sexist, I prefer male narrators for most books, simply because they do a better job of female voices than female narrators do when impersonating males.  I suspect it’s something to do with the vocal cords, but for every male narrator who makes his females sound like drag queens, I find half a dozen females whose attempts to sound masculine are forced or ludicrous.  I gave up on one historical novel, not only because Henry VIII had an American accent, but because the narrator made him sound uncannily like Yogi Bear.

Cover of "A king's speech"But there are some great narrators too, including:

  • Alex Jennings, who can read a Dickens or Dostoyevsky with a cast of thousands and yet give every character their own voice.
  • Tim Curry reads the Lemony Snicket books with great verve.
  • Jonathan Cecil does a great upper-class twit Bertie and omniscient Jeeves in the P. G. Wodehouse books.
  • Simon Slater – some people found Wolf Hall  difficult because they couldn’t work out who was speaking – you won’t have that trouble with this audio version.
  • Juliet Stevenson – a fine and versatile narrator.

One thing I love about the OverDrive downloadable audio books is being able to listen to an excerpt and find out in advance if the narrator’s voice is as annoying as a child asking for ice-cream in a supermarket queue.

Who are your audio stars? And do you agree with my preference for male narrators?