Outlander choiceThe audiobook standard of excellence in my opinion is undoubtedly the unabridged version of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series as told by narrator Davina Porter.  Specifically, I am talking about the first four in the series:  Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, and Drums of Autumn.  Rarely have I been entertained to this degree for such a sustained period of time and that’s quite a statement given that these four books represent 159 hours of listening enjoyment with barely a boring moment.

Although I own all of these books in print, I have never actually read any one of the four.  My immense satisfaction with this series comes solely from listening to the unabridged audiobooks.  Now, I can’t imagine just settling for the printed word when I choose to revisit Frasers and company.  It’s as though there is another whole dimension beyond the mere reading that totally captures my mind’s eye.

It goes without saying that Diana Gabaldon’s writing is the basis of the love herein.  Without her exceptional storytelling, where would we be?  However, when it comes to audiobooks, there is a second star in the wings who vividly brings these books to life and that is narrator Davina Porter.  Much of today’s column is high praise of one sort or another for Ms. Porter’s ability to so completely engage my emotions while providing easily distinguished characterizations.  Seldom did I need a “he said” or a “she said” once a character was introduced.  Told in first person, the warmth or occasional smile in Porter’s voice further defined Claire’s character and her objective view of the world.

Awareness of a character’s accent doesn’t usually enhance my enjoyment of a book and, in fact, serves as more of a distraction since I can’t effectively play those enunciations in my head.   However, in the hands of Ms. Porter, accents were a purely positive experience and hearing her distinctive Scottish brogue played against a more common English accent worked to create a greater sense of drama.

Similarly, words such as didna, canna, wasna, or ye’d are not likely to inspire a favorable view of any character in my mind but those words coming from Jamie’s mouth, as interpreted by Ms. Porter, were the utterances of a thoroughly virile man and forever changed my view of a Scot’s brogue.  My heart melted a little each time I heard Jamie call Claire “Sassenach” since I could clearly hear his love for her (and sometimes patient tolerance of her actions) in that endearment.

As I have more time to listen to an audiobook than actually sit down and read a book, I spent hours each day listening to the Outlander series and found myself so steeped in the action that I felt a real kinship with this large cast of characters.  I’m convinced the listening, rather than the reading, made my heart swell even more with emotion and my smiles grow all the larger because I had the luxury of staying with the story even as I cleaned the kitchen or walked my dog.

But this type of immersion in the action also had its downside for me with the series’ numerous incidents of torture and violence.  There is no skimming ahead when Jack Randall is abusing Jamie yet again and I wasn’t too fond of hearing the intricacies of hanging a traitor or burning a witch either.  My smiles may have been bigger at times because of the non-stop listening experience but occasionally my stomach definitely felt all the weaker for it.  Sometimes it became a test of endurance which led to many an “otherwise occupied” moment as I attempted to remove myself a little from what I was hearing.  Fortunately I discovered a faster speed on my iPod (thanks to LinnieGayl) and although it sounded a little funny, I found it quite helpful.  Those very effective pauses Davina Porter utilizes so frequently became a mere catch of breath.

Dragonfly in Amber choiceOver the past few months, I re-listened to these first four Outlander books and found myself enjoying this round of listening even more than the first.  Having a general sense of the books’ happenings as well as an understanding that there is a purpose to all of those seemingly insignificant storylines, increased my listening pleasure substantially.  For example, with my first listen of  Outlander, I failed to grasp the importance of a very simple passage with its subtle shift of direction.  But as I listened again and heard Jamie tell Claire before their wedding ceremony that his name was “James…Fraser”, I felt chill bumps of anticipation.  At Davina Porter’s very effective delivery of those two words, I rubbed my hands together and said “Here we go!”

Now that I am familiar with this series’ audiobooks, I see it as a comfort listen (despite those torture scenes) as its rather episodic nature lends itself easily to starting or stopping at almost any point.  Peggy P’s comments inspired me to view this series as such in an earlier Speaking of Audiobooks discussion:

“I have an MP3 player dedicated to just Outlander, I’ve got all the available books on it and when my commute gets really ugly and I need to chill out – that’s my comfort listen. Since I’ve read/listened to the books so often, I can start anywhere and pick up the story…”

Now I have a specific purpose for my little second generation iPod nano when I replace it with a larger capacity device at Christmas.  I’ll use it exclusively for comfort listens of the Outlander series.

Availability and Cost

Although I’ll eagerly listen to the Outlander series in any format, I recently did so on my iPod nano and found it much less cumbersome.  Listening to Books 1-4 on my cassette tape player five years ago required that I change or turn over a cassette tape 226 times (and I don’t think the CDs are much different).

If you chose to buy rather than borrow or rent this series, the MP3 format is the least expensive.  CDs and cassette tapes are relatively affordable for Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber but Voyager and Drums of Autumn can cost considerably more.  You will find significant price variations at a number of online sites so I recommend you check around before purchasing any of these books in either CD or cassette tape format.

Voyager choiceFor those of you familiar with the Outlander series, you may ask why I restricted my discussion of this series to the first four books.  Primarily this is due to the fact that affordable copies of the unabridged versions of Book 5, The Fiery Cross and Book 6, A Breath of Snow and Ashes have been difficult to find in the past for purchase and often are unavailable through public library systems as well.  In our September 29th Speaking of Audiobooks column, MarissaB shed some light on this confusing issue:

I found the following under Diana Gabaldon on wikipedia.com and thought you might find it interesting. The Outlander series has been released in unabridged audiobooks (read by Davina Porter) and abridged audiobooks (read by Geraldine James). The licenses for the abridged books have not been renewed and the unabridged versions, which Diana Gabaldon prefers, will be the only ones available when the licenses expire. Several of the Lord John books have been released in audiobook form, read by Jeff Woodman.

Because of a non-compete clause in the abridged-audio contract, the unabridged versions cannot be sold in retail outlets (including bookstores and audible.com) until the license of the corresponding abridged book has expired. For this reason, The Fiery Cross and A Breath of Snow and Ashes are not yet available on audible.com, but will be as soon as those licenses expire. In the meantime, unabridged recordings of these books are available from Recorded Books.

As I was finalizing this column, I discovered that A Breath of Snow and Ashes has recently become available in unabridged CD format.  Possibly those licenses have expired!

It should be noted that the latest in the Outlander series, Echo in the Bone, is easily available in CD, cassette tape, or MP3 formats.

My second reason for sticking with Books 1-4 for purposes of this discussion is much easier to explain.  I am perfectly satisfied with the ending of Book 4, Drums of Autumn.  I’m ready for Jamie and Claire to lead a somewhat normal life and don’t especially want to read more of their trials and tribulations.  In saying that, I feel a bit disloyal to the series but I’m all for happy endings and on that, Drums of Autumn delivers completely.

Time for Your Thoughts

Although today’s column is written to encourage a general discussion of the audio aspects of this beloved series, please feel free to make comments about content as well, especially in regards to Outlander.  Discussion of plot elements in Books 2-7 is encouraged as well – I only ask that you include a spoiler warning with those particular comments.

What are your thoughts on the Outlander series of audiobooks?

Did a particular scene stand out for you in the audio version?

Was listening to the torture or graphic details hard for you?

What format did you use for listening?

What source do you recommend for buying or borrowing?

Do you have any general questions about the series in audio?

What is your favorite line or passage of the Outlander series?  Mine is from Outlander when Jamie says to Claire after they are married, “Don’t be afraid.  There’s the two of us now.”

And, as always, do you have any general tidbits to share with us about your latest audio successes or failures?

I’ll see you again later this month when we discuss December audiobook new releases.

-Lea Hensley