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MIND MELD: Must-Hear Audiobooks and Audio Fiction

[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

We asked our respondents about the audio side of fiction.

What audiobooks have you enjoyed that have taken advantage of the form that you like. Are there particular authors you like in audio format? Do you follow or listen to any particular narrators?

This is what they said…

Rob Bedford
Rob H. Bedford lives in NJ with his wife and dog. You can find his reviews at SFFWorld, here at SF Signal, Tor.com, and his blog. If you want to read random thoughts about genre or the beer he’s drinking, you can follow him on Twitter: @RobHBedford.

I am a recent audiobooks convert, so my pool of audiobooks to reference might be on the smaller scale compared against the other respondents. Strike that, I think I’m more of an addict now, if I’m going to be completely honest. I’ll give a little shout out to the SF Signal Podcast a while back that discussed audio books on which this week’s Mind Meld wrangler appeared.

I just finished listening to the Locke & Key audio adaptation of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s graphic novel series and it is incredible. It is more of a radio-play type of adaptation than an audio book, since there is a large cast including the wonderful Tatiana Maslany and Kate Mulgrew. Joe Hill and his pop Stephen King even lend their voices. But for me, the voices chosen for the Locke children (Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode) are as perfectly cast as any movie or film. I was a huge fan of the Graphic Novel series and this audio adaptation more than does the original justice and wonderfully takes full advantage of the form with great music and sound effects which made me feel as if I was listening to a movie. I think some dust mites may have got in my eye towards the end of the audio “book.”

The closest I’ve come (at this point) to following a specific narrator is R.C. Bray. Bray did a masterful job with narrating Andy Weir’s The Martian (you may have heard of it), adding a wonderful snarky, wise-ass tone to the story, which featured some fairly detailed technical/scientific elements. It made what could have been calculations and technical jargon so much easier – and more entertaining – to digest with Bray’s flair added. When I realized Bray was the narrator of Dominion by C.S. Friedman (a long time favorite writer about whom I’ve gushed in the past) I immediately bought the audio book even though I had (and hadn’t yet read) the ebook. Here, Bray brought a different, yet appropriate air of gravitas to the story, which added to the weight of the tale.

Then there are the narrators who can take you out of the story, even if only briefly. As I said, the male-reading-as-female or female-reading-as-male is a tricky thing and even one of the best audiobooks I consumed this year had this issue, albeit very minor in comparison to the whole of how much I thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel). But one narrator I’ve encountered since joining audible.com in April actually made me quit the audiobook less than a half hour into listening and request a refund: the narrator for Barbara Hambly’s Time of the Dark a book I’ve been wanting to read for a while. I had the kindle edition, so I figured I’d add the audio for a couple of bucks. The narration was like listening to a robotic, corporate voice-mail prompt; the narration changed tonally within a single character and because each character was so all over the place, it was impossible to differentiate one character from another. Few times in any reading experience have I been made to feel this angry. I then went back to the audible page for the book and saw that many people had the same experience trying to listen to this book. What amazes me is that this narrator has 50+ audio books listed on audible!

To end on a good note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise the wonderful narration skills of Ray Porter, even if I’ve only listened to one book he read (very recently) – Jonathan Maberry’s Patient Zero but damn was it incredible. Porter brings emotion, pathos, and incredible pacing to the narrative. His slight inflections and use of accents for each character greatly differentiates one character from another. After finishing Patient Zero, I can’t imagine consuming the Joe Ledger books without Ray Porter narrating the exploits, so I’ll be following this series in audio.

Janny Wurts
Janny Wurts is the author of Initiate’s Trial and To Ride Hell’s Chasm and thirteen other novels, a short story collection, as well as the internationally best selling Empire trilogy, co authored with Raymond E. Feist. Her most recent title in the Wars of Light and Shadow series, Initiate’s Trial. The cover images on the books, both in the US and abroad, are her own paintings, depicting her vision of characters and setting..

That thrill you get when you listen to an audio book and you hear a narrator who has a voice and style to die for – Simon Prebble could read the dictionary and with the bewitching gravitas to rivet a listener. And no wonder, he’s won both the Audie and the Golden Voice.

The sublime listening experience and it’s dreadful contrast, when a favorite book becomes mismatched, assigned to a voice that just grates. From the moment I signed the dotted line on my first audio book contract, there’s an electric moment of excitement and fear. You hope like crazy for the best and fear the dread worst. Don’t be afraid to go proactive.

My artist husband and I listen to audio books of every genre in the studio. We have our personal favorite narrators. From there, I hit the internet and listen to many more. Kat Hooper at Fantasyliterature.com reviews tons of fantasy and SF audio books. She’s a respected resource I wrote to asking for her preferred favorites, then I listened to those clips and samples. Some seemed brilliant at first pass, but became cringe-worthy with female voices. The squeaky, the childish, the condescending, I discarded. Don’t write that style of heroine.

I sifted out my favorites. Simon Prebble and George Guidall topped my list, and Emily Gray for different book that better suited a female voice.

My tentative inquiry to my audio editor became an immediate revelation. In fact, author input was welcomed and my wishful suggestions mattered. Whether I got the requested talent or not, they valued my input and sent me samples of talents along those same lines to audition. How amazing: I got to choose!

How to address the next bugaboo, as a writer of fantasy — we’ve all heard otherwise fabulous productions that made a mangle of strange words and nonstandard pronunciation.

I typed an alphabetical list of all of the strange names and places in each book. Next I created an audio file, recording that list, carefully and clearly, using Garage Band. I never realized how greatly the narrators appreciate being receiving such guidelines. It saves them time and a lot of awkward uncertainty.

An audio production is truly a collaboration, where the narrator’s talent takes the words off the page and colors them into something greater. They can make the characters live with a facet beyond words, never imagined. I still have two dents in my ceiling, jumping in star-struck moments of joy — when Simon Prebble said yes to my sword and sorcery, Master of Whitestorm, and Emily Gray agreed to do my court intrigue, Sorcerer’s Legacy. The listening, for me, became magic — to hear a favorite voice enrich my vision, and pack every word with dimensional emotion.
And for the coming of age trilogy where the studio followed my guideline list – I got to discover David Thorpe, who did a splendid job with Stormwarden, Keeper of the Keys and Shadowfane.

Alex Hofelich
Alex Hofelich is the co-editor of Pseudopod, the Horror Podcast Magazine. Listen in at http://pseudopod.org/

One of the most important things about an audiobook is matching the right narrator to the story. A great narrator can elevate a mediocre story. For example, The Colorado Kid by Stephen King would be nothing but frustration for folks who like closure, but the character study delivered with perfect Mainer accents makes this mesmerizing. And a great narrator with a great story makes an audiobook absolutely transcendent, such as what was done with the myriad of voices of World War Z did to reinforce the verisimilitude of the frame.

David Steffen
David Steffen is a writer, editor, publisher, and audio short fiction enthusiast. He edits the zine Diabolical Plots, and administers data for the Submission Grinder, a tool for writers to find markets for their work. Later this year he is publishing the Long List anthology (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/753351971/long-list-anthology-0) , a collection of works from the longer list of stories nominated by the Hugo voting audience. His fiction has been published at places like Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, and the Drabblecast.

There are so many audio fiction stories that I’ve enjoyed that it would be impossible to name them all here. My “Best Podcast Fiction of All Time” list here at SF Signal would be a good place to start. Or my Best Of lists from various podcasts.

Regarding particular authors in audio format, not for the most part. There are particular authors that I love, but I love those authors in any format. Ferrett Steinmetz has more stories on that last list, but I think that’s more to do with Ferrett writing stories that hit my sweet spot in fiction tastes in general, audio or otherwise. Maybe Frank Key would be a good example of an author whose work translates well to audio, which I have heard mostly at the Drabblecast. There’s something about Key’s knack for absurd humor that mixes particularly well with the spoken word.

Narrators, now there I definitely have favorites, though I have listened to so many that the list is not small. Wilson Fowlie, MK Hobson, Dave Robison, Tina Connolly, Cheyenne Wright, Mur Lafferty, Dave Thompson, Larry Santoro. A good narration can make a great story into something even better, and matching the tone of the narrator’s voice with the kind of story makes all the different. Larry Santoro’s reading of Eugie Foster’s “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” is the top of my favorite podcast list not just because it’s a great story, but because Larry’s reading of it is particularly memorable.

Multiple-narrator stories, when suitable to the story, can make a story have even more impact. “The Old Woman With No Teeth” is delightful, not only because it’s a fun story with talented voice actors Wilson Fowlie and MK Hobson, but the energy they feed back and forth to each other is obvious in the final recording. Or Tina Connolly’s “Super-Baby-Moms Group Saves the Day” with each member of an online forum of mothers of superpowered children is voiced by a different voice actor. Or Scott Lynch’s “In the Stacks,” another wonderful full cast recording. I’m sure that I could list many more, but those are just a few of my favorite examples.

On the subject of pet peeves in my audio listening, I have a few but they’re not strong peeves. I’m not a huge stickler for super high audio quality as long as I can hear the words, but there are a few things that stick out to me and make it harder to immerse in a story–background noises like dogs barking or sirens, mouth noises like licking lips or smacking, repeated sentences that were apparently missed as part of post-production, audio compression artifacts that can sound like blips or dissonant chimes, noise suppression algorithms that sound great as long as the person is talking but amplify the static during pauses, that sort of thing. But, again, as long as I can understand the words, I’m generally pretty happy.

Besides technical things, one thing that I sometimes have more trouble parsing in audio stories than text stories is gender mismatch between voice actor and story narrator in a first person story–especially if it’s only revealed a long way into the story, i.e. Kate Baker is reading a story that’s first person and the character doesn’t make clear references to their sex or gender until several thousand words in and then suddenly there’s reference to the character’s male anatomy. I also have more trouble with ungendered singular pronouns like “ey” or “er” in audio. I understand why those pronouns are used and I applaud the concept in principle–reading them in text I can absorb them without it interfering with my enjoyment of the story, but in audio I find them nearly impossible to parse and every time I hear one I have to take an additional mental step to translate which ones are possessives, which ones are subjects, which ones are objects. By the time I’ve sorted that out for one sentence, another two sentences have gone by, and soon I’m completely lost. I’m not saying that these words should not be used in audio–I admit that it is my own lack of experience with these words that makes it difficult, so I expect the more I hear them the more they will just feel natural.

Kat Hooper
Kat Hooper teaches neuroscience, research methods, and various other psychology courses at the University of North Florida. In her free time, she is the managing editor at Fantasy Literature, a group SFF review blog.

Since I read with my eyes all day for both my job and my most time-consuming hobby, when I have time to read for pleasure I usually prefer to give my eyes a rest and listen to audiobooks instead. I also love audio because I can multitask while reading a book. I listen during my commute (I’m in the car for about an hour every day), while shopping, cooking, cleaning, exercising, and waiting for kids at soccer practice. I manage to read and review approximately 175 audiobooks every year.

I have a couple of audio pet peeves. One is when the narrator reads too slowly, which is why I only use apps that allow me to increase the playback speed. Another is when the narrator tries to make every character distinctive by giving them a different accent. It sounds really bizarre when you’ve got one character with a British accent, one with a French accent, one who sounds German, and one with a Scottish brogue. Then, when they run out of accents, they may give a new character some weird cadence or other unnatural speech pattern to try to distinguish him from the previous characters. I find this very distracting, especially when I’m wondering what’s going to happen to the next new character!

As you’d expect, I do have some favorite audio books and series. Some of them are books or series that I probably wouldn’t love as much if I had read them in print form. In these cases, I think the narrator’s performance is better than whatever my imagination would have conjured up. Since most narrators are trained actors, this isn’t really surprising — they’re better at interpreting characters than I am.

Here are some of my very favorite speculative fiction audio experiences:

  • Luke Daniels narrating Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles
  • James Marsters in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files
  • Bronson Pinchot performing Larry Correia’s Grimnoir Chronicles
  • Jonathan Davis in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books
  • Stefan Rudnicki in Alex Bledsoe’s Eddie Lacrosse books
  • Moira Quirck reading Gail Carriger’s Finishing School
  • Stephen Briggs and Nigel Planer both do an excellent job with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
  • Lenny Henry reading Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys
  • Rob Inglis reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit
  • Arthur Morey in Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth
  • Jim Dale performing J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter
  • I don’t always love Phil Gigante, but he’s brilliant when reading Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat books
  • Harlan Ellison reading his own work
  • Neil Gaiman reading his own work

Other favorite narrators are Xe Sands, Wil Wheaton, Scott Brick, Davina Porter, Simon Vance, Simon Prebble, Katherine Kellgren, and George Guidall. You can’t go wrong with any of them and there are times when I’ve chosen to read a particular book in audio format just because one of them was the narrator.

If you’re not an audio reader, I challenge you to read one of the books above in audio format. I think you’ll be converted!

Django Wexler
Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not writing, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.

I’ve been a huge audiobook listener ever since I started working at Microsoft and ended with an hour or more of commute each way. Since then, I’ve found them useful for all kinds of things: I paint miniatures and exercise with audiobooks playing.

The narrator is all-important, of course. Sometimes having the author narrate is good – Jon Ronson does wonderful versions of his books The Psychopath Test and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, and Phillip Pullman narrates a full-cast version of His Dark Materials fantastically. Most times, though, I prefer professionals. John Lee does wonderful work on classics like The Count of Monte Cristo and genre books like Peter Hamilton’s Void Trilogy. Jonathon Cecil reads some of my favorite books of all time, P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves stories, so well that he’s become my mental voice of the characters.

Audio is great for huge, thick books that are a bit intimidating to get through. I consume a lot of non-fiction that way, especially my favorite military history. There are great recordings of Foote’s The Civil War and Tuchman’s The Guns of August, and the histories of Robert K. Massie like Castles of Steel and Peter the Great. (But still no Dreadnaught! If you’re listening, Random House Audio, get Richard Matthews to do Dreadnaught!)

Some recent genre stuff that I’ve liked: I can’t say enough good things about Austin Grossman’s Crooked, a secret history of Richard Nixon’s political career and his brushes with eldritch horror and magic. The narrator, Kiff VandenHeuvel, does wonders as the narrator (that is, Nixon) and very creditable impressions of figures like Kissinger, Kennedy, etc. It made the audio better than the print for me! I also enjoyed Jason Hough’s Zero World, where Gideon Emery does a great job with a whole bunch of tricky accents, and Peter Clines’ 14, where Ray Porter really brings the big cast to life.

Here’s a weird quirk of mine – I have a really hard time listening to my OWN stuff in audio! Something about it just weirds me out, no matter how great the reader is. But other people have told me that Richard Poe does a good job with The Shadow Campaigns, and I know Cassandra Morris did great things with The Forbidden Library. Audible itself produced the audio version of John Golden, Freelance Debugger, using two narrators to properly capture the narration-with-footnotes style of the text. Have a listen!

Jesse Willis
Jesse is the chief bottlewasher for a website called SFFaudio.com. There he posts public domain PDFs of classic SFF (that can then be turned into audiobooks), runs the SFFaudio Podcast, and recreates scenes from H.P. Lovecraft stories in LEGO.

I’ve been listening to audiobooks since either the 1970s or the 1980s (depending on what we count as an audiobook); but I really got into them in the early 1990s. Back then, audiobooks were expensive, very rare, and often highly abridged. Getting them then was as hard then as it is easy today – though to be fair I might have a slight advantage as I run one of the oldest websites on the internet about audiobooks, SFFaudio.com.

You’d be right in thinking I mostly listen to Science Fiction or Fantasy audiobooks, and I have, over the years, cultivated a massive collection of them. Indeed, I may possess the largest private collection of audiobooks in the history of the universe!

Despite this audiobook love, I’m now pretty picky when it comes to authors.

I didn’t used to be that way. I’d listen to just about anything. But now, with access to pretty much every audiobook ever published, I’ve become quite an audiobook snob. Here are just a few SFF authors, available in audio, that spring to mind:

Ted Chiang, Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Robert E. Howard, Jack London, Larry Niven, Robert Sheckley, John Buchan, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur C. Clarke, William Hope Hodgson, Algernon Blackwood, Guy de Maupassant, and H.G. Wells.

And, outside of SFF I’d also highly recommend both Lawrence Block and Westlake – their novels in the audio medium are wonderful.

In narrators?

Well, despite my snobbishness for authors, I’m much less snobby about most narrators. And yet I still do have many favourite narrators. Among them are:

George Guidall, Mark Turetsky, Simon Vance, Elizabeth Klett, Oliver Wyman, Grover Gardner, Gregg Margarite, Mr Jim Moon, Bob Neufeld, Luke Daniels, and Wayne June.

I could say a lot more about audiobooks, but I think It’d be wiser just point out that I have a podcast specifically about talking about audiobooks, it’s The SFFaudio Podcast.

Allan Kaster
Allan Kaster is the editor and producer of The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction and The Year’s Top Short SF Novels series for Infinivox. Born and raised in Texas, he now resides on the outskirts of Houston.

I’m in the car and have reached my destination but I don’t want to get out of the car. I want to hear more of the audiobook. So maybe I drive around the block a few times or make a run to the grocery store to pick up something. In my mind, that is the ultimate audiobook experience. The story is awesome, the narrator is wonderful, and I’m completely immersed in the tale.

Listening to Roger Zelazny read his The Chronicles of Amber series was such an experience for me. While I don’t always care for audiobooks read by the author, Zelazny was spot on with his narration. He drew me into the story and I didn’t want to leave this world. Roger could not only write a great story, he could narrate a great story.

Another one of my favorite audiobooks is The Dream of Perpetual Motion: A Novel by Dexter Palmer and read by William Dufris. This sassy steampunk story gripped me right from that start and would not let go. The narrator is superb. He reads with an apropos panache. And he narrates the story at a pace that’s just right—not too slow, not too fast. It’s the kind of audiobook that makes me want to take my time reaching my destination.

Fred Kiesche
Fred Kiesche is, along with Jeff Patterson and John Stevens, one of the founding members of The Three Hoarsemen. He reads, in various formats, way too much every year and gets increasingly cranky that he can’t keep up. He is a Husband, Father, Good Cook, Reader, Keeper of Abandoned Dogs. Roman Catholic Liberal Conservative Militarist. He has recently found, much to his surprise, that he has been in his latest job for ten years. Clearly something is up.

I first started listening to audiobooks when they were on cassette tapes (remember those?) and more likely than not, abridged. Since then, I started accumulating them on CD’s (twenty of the twenty-one volumes in Patrick O’Brian’s tales of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, for example) and now, a couple of hundred audiobooks in “digital only” format.

Audiobooks (and podcasts) saved my sanity. No, really. When my father was sick and my mother was caring for him, I would drive the three point five hours plus out on Friday, after work, and return the three point five hours back to home sometime Sunday for several years. That’s a lot of the same boring stretch of Route 80 in Pennsylvania, over and over and over again. If it were not for audiobooks (and podcasts) and my trusty iPod, I probably would have driven off the road out of sheer boredom of seeing the same trees again and again.

Even now, I listen to a lot of audiobooks (and podcasts, some of which are stories). For the year-to-date, for example, of the 131 books I’ve read, 15 were in paper, 86 were eBooks and 28 were audiobooks. As the level of traffic increases on the road to work, I can’t see the number of audiobooks dropping!

Preferences (peeves)?

Never abridge. I can understand that in the days of the cassette tape, the need to abridge. Or in the days of limited bandwidth. But why certain online purveyors of audbiobooks still sell an abridged edition…join the digital era, folks! Unabridged or I won’t buy.

Sound effects. “Full cast” books. Eh, I’d rather not. I love, for example, Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars books. I hate, on the other hand, all the sound effects that they have ladled onto the audiobook. It breaks up the pace of the narration if they have to pause to toss in a TIE fighter or a lightsaber. I can add my own sound effects, thanks. Same with full cast books. Sometimes it is nice to have a separate voice for each character, but usually I find that they end up slowing the action or confusing the story. It works better, I think, if you limit the “cast” to one or two. A talented voice actor can imitate either male or female characters if they don’t overdo the drama. A fine touch is better than a heavy touch.

Consistency across a series. It works better, I think, when you have a consistent narrator across a series. I’m sure many are familiar with the controversy (just ask Patrick Hester) over The Dresden Files switching narrators. One series that I listen to (and read!) is David Weber’s Honorverse. For the main series, those dealing with Honor Harrington, they have employed the same narrator. As that series spins off many secondary books (and series), they have employed other narrators. This works. What didn’t work, again, for me, was William Gibson’s Blue Ant — Hubertus Bigend series. The first book had a female lead character, and used, to it’s great strength, a female lead. They switched to a male narrator for the second book, possibly because the book had several male characters. However, somebody fell asleep at the switch for the third book where the lead character was female (a new character), had a secondary male character (one from the second book) and a third female character (the lead from the first book). That would have worked better, I think, with the series either switching back to the same female narrator of the first book in the third, or keeping all three with the same narrator.

Finally, a favorite narrator: Simon Vance. I first encountered Simon Vance in the Aubrey-Maturin series of Patrick O’Brian where he was one of the big two to narrate the series (the other being the late Patrick Tull). Many a controversy raged on the Patrick O’Brian Mailing List (The Gunroom) over who was better: it seemed to boil down that whomever you started the series with, that was the one you liked. I started with Vance, I stuck with Vance.

I had read the series several times (some of the earlier volumes at least a dozen times, as every time a new volume came out, I would start at the beginning of the series before reading the latest) before buying the audiobooks. Vance is such a exquisite performer that it was almost like I had never read the series before. The way he emphasized, enunciated, paced all opened up a new way of looking at the series.

And when we get to the point where Captain Jack Aubrey (spoilers) is chained (spoilers) to the pillory (spoilers) and his loyal crew show up (spoilers), folks, let me tell you: I was driving home from work and had to pull off to the side of the road, the emotions rans so high in the narration.

Fantastic stuff. I’ve yet to find better.

Jenny Colvin
Jenny Colvin (@readingenvy) is an academic librarian and host of the Reading Envy podcast.

An audiobook that impressed me recently is the audio-play of Chimpanzee by Darin Bradley. It is a case where the audio rights had been purchased, but pulled back when it was decided it would be too difficult to pull off in audio. The author decided to try anyway, and pulled in friends and local musicians to make it happen. The audio-play version (available in Audible) brings the listener into the story of enhanced reality and repossessed education, memory alterations and revolution. Bradley serves as the primary narrator, and his PhD-intellect with a noir tone adds a layer of authenticity to the audio production.

There are other books that are a bit startling in audio – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon (because it starts with “Chapter 2”) and of course Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, one of my favorite audiobooks of all time because it brings the novel’s separate stories to life. By using separate narrators for each section, even if the first one cuts off mid-sentence, the listener is able to immerse into each part, including finally being able to understand the post-apocalyptic Hawaiian dialect. I hope to see more daring by audiobook publishers in the future, because we want to have the impossible in our ears. Challenge us; we’re listening!

Jeff Patterson
Jeff Patterson is a public nuisance prone to caber-tossing his incoherent ravings on assorted websites. He is also, for reasons not yet clear, one of The Three Hoarsemen.

For me, the book that best exemplified the potential of the audiobook format was Existence by David Brin. It cleverly used three narrators, Kevin T. Collins, Robin Miles, and L. J. Ganser, to flesh out the multiple POVs, blog entries, and inner monologues of the story. This method made the characters pop, and added weight to the proceedings. Most importantly, it demonstrated the importance of narration in service to the story.

Robin Miles in particular has become one of my favorite narrators, having read both N. K. Jemisin and Jay Lake. For the most part, following narrators is a by-product of following authors, especially when it comes to series, such as Kevin Pariseau’s work on S. Andrew Swann’s Apotheosis trilogy, or Anna Fields deft delivery of Catherine Asaro’s Skolian Empire stories. My audio “reread” of Nancy Kress books turned me on to Gregory Linnington (who narrated the Probability book) and Cassandra Campbell (who read the Beggars series). A compulsion to consume anything by Robert Charles Wilson turned me on to the vocal talents of Scott Brick. Jenny Sterling’s excellent reading of Zen Cho’s Sorcerer of the Crown has ensured that I will seek out other works she narrates.

When quirks arise, they are usually artifacts of the story, and often triggered by the idiosyncrasies of Science Fiction. A good example is Jennifer Van Dyke’s narration of Kristine Katherine Rusch’s Diving series, where the awkwardness of the oft-used phrase “stealth tech” required her to put an affecting pause between the two words. It can be distracting at first, but seldom lasts long. The Diving series illustrates another neat trick: when the narrator captures a character so well that their voice becomes inseparable from the story. For the rest of my life I will not be able to read Boss’ POV without hearing Van Dyke’s voice, proving that good narration goes beyond being transparent, and actually tweaks the listener’s experience by adding sensory ballast to the story long after the audiobook is finished.

Events of this past year have necessitated several long road trips, during which I caught up with the Clarkesworld Podcast and garnered an appreciation for Kate Baker’s narration. She manages to convey the emotional weight of every story she reads, across a panoply of sub-genres and tones. Someone needs to hire her for a full novel.

Considering the sheer hours involved in recording and editing an audiobook, it is staggering to realize how many good ones are available.

Susan Voss
Susan lives on a little farm and is a weaver. While she loves cooking, she’s not big on grating cheese or peeling potatoes. Over the past few years, she has become an audiobook zombie and loves everything from a rousing space opera, to a magical quest, a devious mystery, or a detailed historical fiction. She reviews books at DabOfDarkness.com.

I use to be something of a book snob. I thought audiobooks were for those who were sight-impaired or were lazy. Yep, definitely was something of a snot, wasn’t I? But then the long commute to work drove me to the local library and the audiobook section. Drood by Dan Simmons was my first audiobook ever. My commute, from thenceforth, became a source of entertainment.

Now, I am an audiobook zombie. They are my primary source of entertainment and make chores, commutes, and working from home fun. In the last two years, I have listened to more than 150 audiobooks. My genre horizons have expanded, as I am willing to give new-to-me authors a chance, since it won’t be a complete waste of my time (if I have chosen unwisely) as I can weave or cook or play Sid Meier’s Civilization IV while listening. I started reviewing my audiobooks (borrowed or bought). Then I started reviewing for Audiobook Jukebox, which is an amazing organization for both those seeking reviews of their works and for reviewers seeking audiobooks.

As audiobooks have gained in popularity, I believe radio dramas have also risen in popularity. I never really cared for the old time radio dramas as they had such basic, even crude, audio effects and were rather gender slanted in their plots. But today’s radio dramas come with modern sound effects, music, and plots that feature women and men doing daring deeds. I’ve come to truly enjoy some of these series and publishers.

My current favorite radio drama-like series is the science fiction Anne Manx series by Radio Repertory Company of America. Anne is a galactic private eye that gets into several dangerous adventures. Her arch-nemesis, Jean Richmond, has her own audiobook (Richmond Smokes a Joint) and appears in some of the Anne Manx adventures, trying to foul up Anne’s efforts. Folks will recognize actress Claudia Christian from the TV series Babylon 5 as the voice of Anne Manx. These tales are full of action, humor, and danger. Anne is so very human, sometimes being unsure of herself or even having a little bit of a tear up, but then she steps back into the line of fire to save the day. There’s snappy, often comedic, dialogue among the characters and plots that have the right balance of action, seriousness, humor, and cool scifi tech.

Yeah, audiobooks are no longer just what your granpa would listen to on those old tapes as he sat and whittling in the evening. Now, there’s a pace, a genre, a niche for anyone looking for some auditory bookish goodness.

Marissa Van Uden
Marissa van Uden is an independent science-fiction & fantasy editor based in Hollywood, Los Angeles. She loves the craft of storytelling, survival-horror videogames, and licorice. She’s also an audiobook reviewer and regular guest on the SFF Audio podcast, and is currently reading her way through the entire works of Philip K Dick. You can find her at www.marissavu.com or follow her on Twitter @marissavu.

I used to feel envious of Number 5 in Short Circuit and wished I could just download books into my brain too. There just isn’t enough life to read all the books. So for me, finally adapting to reading via audiobooks was like getting new super powers.

It took a while to learn how to “read” audiobooks. Just like with anything else, there’s a learning curve and practice makes … better. You learn how to stay focused, or switch attention, and skip backwards when needed.

Now, magically, not only do I have way more books in my life, but all the things that used to be hard or boring are now reading time. I’m excited to put on my running shoes or start the housework because it means I can listen to the next few chapters of a great story. The thought “Yay, a long dentist’s appointment–I can catch up on some reading” has even streaked through my mind before being tackled by security.

Aside from all the practical benefits, there’s something so beautiful about having another person read you a story. It goes back to that old campfire mode of storytelling… there’s an energy and life to oral storytelling that’s missing from the page.

The narrator is everything though. Like actors, they can make or destroy a story. One thing I struggle with is male narrators who give female characters super high-pitched voices or breathy, sensual voices, like all the women are in heat. Blech. A slight softening of the voice works so much better.

Also, it depends on the book, but sometimes the author’s style needs space for the listener’s imagination to fill in the gaps, and in these cases over-acting can really ruin it for me (e.g. how awkward when a narrator performs an over-enthusiastic laugh and then reads the monotone dialogue tag, “he laughed.”) But other times, the narrative allows for a fuller dramatic performance, or maybe the narrator is just better at delivering a complete story. Michael Page’s amazing reading of The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch comes to mind. I can’t even imagine these characters without Page’s voices and characterization.

Other favorite audiobooks, where I think the narrator enhanced my experience of the book, include Will Patton’s reading of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (50th Anniversary Edition), which is hypnotizing and beautiful lyrical experience I could never recreate in my head (and which I highly recommend); Bruce Locke’s meditative and flowing narration of Haruki Marukami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage; and Kate Winslett’s gorgeous and funny reading of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. I adored the Area X: Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer: the multiple narrators all added something special, but Xe Sands performance in Authority is especially haunting. And last but not least, Wayne June’s readings of The Willows by Algernon Blackwood and The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson are both chilling and beautiful, and all-time favorites. Listen to these on a dark night by the campfire… You’ll never forget them.

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!

4 Comments on MIND MELD: Must-Hear Audiobooks and Audio Fiction

  1. Wow – so much to choose from. I’m not a huge fan of audio books. I just don’t like what it does to me: puts me to sleep. Maybe I just haven’t given audio books a good enough try.

  2. N.E. White, you might try increasing the playback speed. When narrators read too slowly, I fall asleep, too.

  3. I prefer audiobooks for a number of reasons. First, I’m a terrible reader, even though I’m a lifelong bookworm. I read too fast. Audiobooks allow for a leisurely stroll through fiction. Also, I’m terrible at pronunciation, so I love hearing the words spoke properly. With a good narrator, prose often becomes dazzling. In fact, audiobooks are like a magnifying lens to good and bad writing. Good writing becomes 3D drama, and bad writing honks and squawks.

    I often play my iPhone through my big stereo system using AirPlay. Hearing audiobooks through large speakers is almost like watching a movie. Sometimes I corner my friends to listen with me, and they are very impressed when they hear books through the big speakers. A great narrator turns black and white words into a Technicolor brain film.

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