The best audiobook narrators keep you entertained and engaged, without becoming monotonous or boring. But how do you know which books will be entertaining to listen to? Keep reading.
Audiobooks make so many tasks more palatable for me. Listening to the best audiobook narrators is like the proverbial carrot on the end of a stick. It’s the treat that keeps me going when I’d simply rather not.
I listen to audiobooks when I clean the house, when I exercise, when I go for a walk, and when I have a long drive ahead of me. I used to listen to audiobooks while grocery shopping, something I hate to do, but it became to hard to focus on my list and what was on the shelf in front of me. When no one else is around (my little pitchers aren’t ready for grown-up subjects), I listen to audiobooks while I cook, another loathsome chore. (Sorry, honey.)
One of the key ingredients in an entertaining book, however, is having the best audiobook narrators. If the narrator(s) is boring or annoying to listen to, it can ruin an otherwise perfectly good book. On the other hand, there have been times that a talented reader has raised the quality of a mediocre book.
Recently, a friend asked me to recommend some good audiobooks for a long car trip, family-friendly ones, as well as ones just for adults. Here’s my list of recommended audiobooks, because of the book itself, and because they’re read by some of the best audiobook narrators.
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Listing the Harry Potter series may seem like a no-brainer, but what you may not know, is that there are two excellent versions. Most American Harry Potter fans are familiar with Jim Dale, the British actor who reads all seven books. In 2001, he won a Grammy award for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and again in 2008 for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. He uses a variety of voices and accents, and his comic timing works well with J.K. Rowling’s lyrical prose.
American fans, however, might not be familiar with Stephen Fry’s version. Stephen Fry, who Americans may recognize as the therapist on Bones, reads the UK version of the books (the original versions, which I own, and are full of wonderful British slang terms and colloquialisms I had to look up) with possibly more flair than even Jim Dale.
- Audience: Family-friendly
Before it was “leaked” by Hachette Publishing that author Robert Galbraith is actually J.K. Rowling, the Cormoran Strike series wasn’t tearing up the bestsellers list anywhere. Once that news reached the masses, however, Cuckoo’s Calling shot to the number one spot.
I read Cuckoo’s Calling, and savored every page. But when I chose to listen to its sequel, Silkworm, rather than read it, I unwittingly made the decision never to read a page of the Cormoran Strike series ever again. Robert Glenister is so very entertaining to listen to that, when I was listening to the most recent installment, Career of Evil, I even took ear buds to bed with me so I could wind down my day with Corm, Robin and Shanker. (And, I suppose, Matthew. Hate that guy.)
Glenister does lots of voices, lots of accents, and brings the whole thing to life, vividly. He is definitely one of the best audiobook narrators I’ve ever heard.
- Audience: Adults only
The Artemis Fowl audiobooks are entertaining not only for their narrator, Nathaniel Parker, but also because the story pace is very quick, very fun. The book is nearly all dialog and action; there’s very little exposition, so it doesn’t drag.
Parker shifts from educated Irish to Cockney to American accents with ease. You can practically feel his energy.
- Audience: Family-friendly
The Tiffany Aching series of books is part of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. There are four books in all, beginning with The Wee Free Men. They are narrated expertly by Stephen Briggs. His characterizations of the Nac Mac Feegle (tiny blue men, or Pictsies), the various witches, including Granny Weatherwax, are varied and spot on. His own narration voice is terribly enjoyable, and he finds humor in nearly every line.
Briggs also narrates other Discworld books, but not all of them, and not even all the books within a series, like City Watch.
- Audience: Family-friendly, though some of the story and humor might go over young heads
The Girl on the Train
The Girl on the Train is a runaway bestseller and the most popular book of 2015 on most lists. I generally don’t read books that are hyped everywhere and spotted in the hands of nearly every mom I know, but I caved when I was looking for an entertaining audiobook and a friend (and mom) recommended it to me.
The Girl on the Train is read by three different women, because there are three different first-person views in the book. The three narrators — Clare Corbett, Louise Brealey, and India Fisher — sound as if they are the three women in this thriller, not narrators reading a book. Their slightly different accents and vocal rhythms draw you even further into an already engrossing plot. So you get three of the best audiobook narrators for the price of one!
- Audience: Adult
Night Circus is the debut fantasy novel by Erin Morgenstern. I’ve spoken to people who didn’t like it, but I always tell them, “You should listen to it, not read it.” It is a terribly good book, filled with dark characters and shadowy themes, but it is more enjoyable to listen to because it is read by Jim Dale. Jim Dale’s melodious reading gives the story just enough whimsy, while still hinting at the murky purposes that are hiding underneath the magic. (No wonder Dale is one of the best audiobook narrators. He’s everywhere!)
- Audience: Adult, only because young readers will be bored
The Bess Crawford mysteries follow the adventures of a nosy, British WWI nurse. I love this series because they have just enough mystery to make them fun, but not enough depth to depress me or drag me down. I liken them to Nancy Drew books, light reading, although somewhat formal.
Roslayn Landor, the narrator, has a very pleasant voice. She doesn’t put on a lot of accents, but her line readings go well with the style of the prose. She is listed as the only narrator, but there is another voice who reads for male characters. I’ll be darned if it’s the same person, but I can’t find another actor credited anywhere. So, perhaps she’s more versatile than she seems.
- Audience: Family-friendly, but very young readers may be lulled to sleep
Author Neil Gaiman reads his own books, that tend toward Twilight Zone territory. Not many authors read their own books, because writing is a very different talent than narrating. For the most part, Gaiman is wonderful as a narrator. There are times, however, that his uvula-heavy voice gets me to. So, I don’t recommend his audiobooks full stop. You have to sample one to see for yourself, like The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
Audiobooks to Avoid
These are audiobooks I tried to listen to, but eventually abandoned.
The Book of Life
I barely finished A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness, for a variety of reasons, including a plot that’s like Swiss cheese and a stable of cliché characters. I finished, almost solely out of stubbornness. The sequel, Shadow of Night, I finished out of anger, sheer anger; that book was incredibly dreadful, but I had paid for it, so by God, I finished it. Then, I decided to listen to the last book in the trilogy, The Book of Life, instead of reading it. Mis-take.
Not only is The Book of Life nearly as boring as attending a board meeting (which, by the way, the first third of the book is filled with, almost entirely), the narrator, Jennifer Ikeda, speaks every line on an exhale that seems to have no punctuation at the end of the sentence at all. Her characterizations sound like Saturday Night Live versions of someone pretending to be someone else. And, did I mention the breath? So much breath.
All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See is a very popular book, and it was recommended to me by a very dear friend. However, I wonder if I would like it better if I read it, rather than listened to it. The narrator, Zach Appelman, is nearly monotone. The lengthy, lengthy descriptions (nearly no dialog) become excruciatingly dull when rendered in his one-note delivery.
The Mark of Athena
I love Rick Riordan’s books, especially the two Percy Jackson series. But when my son and I tried to listen to The Mark of Athena on a long drive, Joshua Swanson’s voice was so annoying it elicited complaints from my tween son, who is generally oblivious to his surroundings. Joshua Swanson’s delivery was part Jimmy Cagney, part Jay Baruchel (How to Train Your Dragon). I wanted to take a Dremel to my eardrums.
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk
I include Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk on the “avoid” list because, unlike David Sedaris’s other hilarious audiobooks, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk just doesn’t come off well. David Sedaris, like Neil Gaiman, reads his own books. His soft, tenor voice just doesn’t make this satirical book snap like it should. There are other narrators as well, but, for some intangible reason, Sedaris’s parody of stereotypes grates quickly.
Thanks for reading! Which audiobook is your favorite? Tell me in the comments!