At the Back Fence Issue #212

December 5, 2005

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

“cheating.” That’s been my view on audio books all along, and as a result, I’ve never listened to one, although my daughter, a bookie like me, has been happily entertained by audio books since she was a toddler, beginning with A Bargain for Frances.

My view on audio books now feels judgmental…how is listening to a book really any different than watching a filmed version of a book, particularly since filmed versions are adaptations and not as “real” as an audio book would be? I’m fairly certain that this snobby view grew out of the idea that only people who were incapable of settling down to read an actual book would listen to a book on tape and wonder how many of you have held audio books in disdain and how many of you enjoy listening to them.

This time around we begin with a discussion on audio books. According to a recent article on the history of audio books in Publisher’s Weekly, for many book readers listening to an audio book is like

AAR’s Ellen Micheletti, who regularly listens to audio books, starts us off with a discussion of her favorites, followed by Anne, who surveyed our readership. And finally, we’re going to take a look at reviews again, but this time around, in some different ways. This is not the same discussion we’ve had before, and it’ll require lots of active participation from you!

Audio Books (Ellen Micheletti)

I don’t listen to the radio anymore. My tastes and contemporary music went their separate ways years ago. I can only listen to talk radio in small doses, I think NPR is boring (and I tend to lean a bit more right than their target audience) and I don’t like shock jocks at all. While there is much to be said for blessed silence, I enjoy entertainment, especially on long drives. Also, I exercise every day and I always have my headphones on.

So what do I listen to? Sometimes I listen to my eclectic collection of CDs, but mostly it’s audio books. I got hooked on them rather late. Many of my friends and co-workers loved audio books and kept urging me to try them, but I was a print snob and said no. But when I began exercising and found that long walks got a tad boring, I took the plunge into audio books and have never looked back.

What do I like? Just about everything as long as it’s unabridged. I used to listen to the abridged version of books, but they just aren’t satisfactory. Too often I found myself asking, “Who is she, and where did she come from?”, when a character appeared right out of the blue. Later, I’d read the book and find the character’s initial appearance had been lost in the abridgement.

I listen to a lot of mysteries. Some of them are so suspenseful that I have turned them off at a point when the tension and suspense got so intense that I was paying more attention to the book than I was to my driving. Yes, I once missed a turnoff when the book hit a critical point, but it’s only been that once. I try to listen and be careful. I listen to thrillers, science fiction, literary works, children’s books and romances (of course). The only genre I haven’t tried is non-fiction and I have promised myself I will soon.

For me and most listeners, the reader makes the book. There are a few readers who are so good I hear their voices in my head when I read a book. One is Len Cariou who reads Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch series. Harry is a detective in the Los Angeles police force and a complex and interesting man. Cariou gives him a gruff but sometimes vulnerable voice and he also differentiates the supporting characters too. The Harry Bosch books are some of my favorites and I have listened to them numerous times.

Another masterful reader is Jim Dale who is so good as the reader of the Harry Potter series. Dale gives hundreds of characters a unique voice and there are times I watch a Harry Potter movie, but I hear Jim Dale’s voice.

Some of my other favorite readers are Tim Curry who reads the books in Lemony Snickett’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Tony Roberts who reads many of Stuart Woods’ books and Geraldine James who reads the abridged version of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books. Ms James switches accents from Irish to British to Scottish to American to French and back without dropping a vowel. Judy Kaye reads Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone books so well, that I can’t read the book without hearing Kaye’s voice as Kinsey.

Sometimes authors read their own books. This can sometimes be a liability. I bow to no one in my appreciation of Lawrence Block as a writer, but as a reader he isn’t very good.

He reads with little inflection and doesn’t even try to differentiate between characters. I was listening to him read The Burglar On The Prowl, and got lost in a thicket of “he said, she said, he said, she said”. I quit listening and read the book. Stephen King has a rather high pitched voice, and isn’t the best reader in the world, but I mostly enjoyed his version of Bag of Bones especially since he didn’t try to sing the musical parts, they bought in a singer for those. I mentioned Tim Curry who reads the Lemony Snickett books. Curry was unavailable for a few of them, so Mr. Snickett (really Daniel Handler) read them himself. He wasn’t bad at all, but he’s no Tim Curry.

When it comes to romances, I listen to J.D. Robb’s books as soon as the library gets them. Susan Erickson is the reader, and I like her well enough. I think she has a tendency to get too dramatic at times, and she gives Roarke an accent that’s sometimes comic Irish, but on the whole I enjoy her. I especially like the earnest, but somehow snarky tone she gives Peabody. Lorelie King reads Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books as well as her Full series. I enjoy her very much, her voices for Lula and Grandma Mazur are funny as can be, and she doesn’t try to make Stephanie into a comedian. King gives Stephanie a matter of fact “why are all these things happening to me?” voice that makes the silliness of the books that much more humorous.

Linda Howard’s Kiss Me While I Sleep has dual narrators. Joyce Hill does the women’s parts and Dick Bean the men’s. Both of them are excellent solo readers, and are even better when they are together. As any romance reader worth her bon-bons knows, Linda Howard writes seriously sensual romances. In this book, Joyce Hill and Dick Bean really throw themselves into the love scenes and I was glad I was alone in the car. I know the passing cars could see me turning bright red. This is one of the best audiobook romances I have listened to.

When it comes to Linda Howard, beware the audiobook of Cry No More. Joyce Bean reads it, and she is very good but the audiobook leaves out the last chapter! Since that was for me the emotional highlight, I was very angry and let the publisher know about it.

Recently, I listened to Suzanne Brockmann’s Breaking Point.  It was narrated by two readers, Patrick Lawlor and Melanie Ewbank and they did a wonderful job.  As I was listening, something struck me – something I didn’t pick up on when I read the book.  Almost all the characters sounded like a stereotypical girly-girl.

They were constantly interrupting their chains of thought for silly asides and for a book that was ostensibly an action suspense book, there was a lot of time devoted to the character’s examining their emotions in minute and excruciating detail. Jules came across as a screaming queen, and that’s not how he was in earlier books. Also, Brockmann’s habit of constantly throwing in silly asides sounds stupid when read aloud.   I had listened to her earlier book Hot Target, which was read by the same two readers and I don’t remember it being that way.  As I said, I didn’t pick up on this tone when I read the book.  In this case, listening to this was an entirely different experience.

I’ll save my favorite audio books for last.  When I first discovered audio books, I was poking around the library and picked up The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse narrated by Jonathan Cecil.  I had long loved Wodehouse, and figured he would be very funny read aloud.  Very funny is too mild a phrase.  I wept tears of laughter and had to stop the tape several times to recover myself.  Jonathan Cecil can do an infinite variety of silly ass accents and put infinite shades of meaning to the phrase “Very good sir.”  Usually, I don’t buy audio books (they tend to be expensive) but for Wodehouse, I make an exception.  These are superb and I have several of them.

With the popularity of the iPod and other portable devices, the future of audio books is limitless.  I recently went to a talk at my church and afterwards I got to meet the speaker and discovered that he was a fellow H.P. Lovecraft fan.  He said he has downloaded lots of books to his I-pod and listens to them while he’s traveling.  Several public libraries will download audio books to your PC or other device – you don’t even have to come into the library.   The times are changing so rapidly, I won’t even attempt to predict what will be the state of audio books in ten years time.  But they will still be around, and I will be listening to them.

What Say You? (Anne Marble)

While I’m not a huge fan of audio books, they have formed a part of my life for years. My father has been a huge fan of them for years. Because of his work, he trained himself to become a very meticulous reader. This meant it could take him months to read the average novel. But with audio books, he could “read” books much more quickly. And yes, he does consider it a form of reading. Thanks to audio books, he’s read everything from Robin Cook and Richard North Patterson to J. A. Jance. He’s also listened to most of the Harry Potter book. He does often fall asleep during the books, but he does that whenever he tries to read paper books, too. Heck, so do I.

On the other hand, I’ve only managed to “read” a few audio books. While many people love audio books because they let them read a book while doing something else, I have a hard time with audio books because I like to multi-task. I’m the kind of person who can read, or for that matter write an ATBF segment, while watching Law and Order. But when I’m listening to an audio book, I have to concentrate just on those words, and that makes it harder for me to do anything else. If my mind drifts, I have to rewind and listen to the parts I missed. That’s a lot more trouble than flipping back a couple of pages. Still, I haven’t totally given up on audio books yet – I have too many long drives ahead of me.

The Fans Sound Off

So why are audio books popular with so many people? One reason is because everyone is so busy today – busy commuting to work, busy working out, busy being busy – that they don’t have as much time to read. Also, like my father, some people prefer audio books because they find it easier to listen than to read. For example, Ellen B has been using audio books to introduce her dyslexic daughter to the joys of reading. Many others use audio books because of problems with their vision or other health problems. (My first unabridged audio book was a Barbara Michaels novel I listened to while recovering from an eye infection.)

Carol P likes listening to audio books while in the car or at the gym, to conquer the boredom of radio stations that play the same songs again and again and again and to keep the boredom out of the exercise room. LadyNaava likes audio books because she can listen to them while on her commute or while sewing. And Peg also listens to audio books while driving. In fact, she believes that audio books have saved her life because they keep her from falling asleep at the wheel. Nothing else has worked, including caffeine and singing. But listening to a thriller will keep her awake while she’s driving. Peg also loves audio books because they give her a chance to read literary stories such as book club books. She is one of those listeners who retains more of the book if she listens to it than if she reads it because the audio book forces her to slow down instead of “galloping” through the book.

Belinda listens to audio books while walking. Now that she has an MP3 player, she is more of an audio book addict than a print addict; a print book must be very good for her to want to read it instead of listening to it. After all, she finds that she can’t do other things while holding a paper book. Diana also likes the chance to do other things while reading. With audio books, she can read and do something else – laundry, commuting, even (ugh) cleaning. All those chores that cut into her reading time. Diana thinks it’s the Gemini in her that enables her to multi-task like that. Ironically, like Diana, I’m a Gemini, yet I have a hard time concentrating on audio books while doing most tasks. On the other hand, I can watch Judge Judy episodes while doing just about everything. Okay, except while driving.

Like me, many people are only occasional fans of audio books. While Maggie B generally doesn’t listen to them, she does enjoy them on long car trips because they keep her and her husband from going insane. Author Eileen Wilks usually prefers the immersion of reading the paper version of a book, but she loves “having the option of listening to a book when I’m gardening or painting a room or on the road – projects that take awhile and use only a portion of my attention.”

Nifty has a more limited experience, so far. She has only listened to two audio books, and her experience has been 50/50. She hated listening to Laurell K. Hamilton’s Stroke of Midnight but is loving the audio version of Gabaldon’s A Breath of Snow and Ashes. She had trouble with the female reader of the LKH because she had to voice so many male characters and “got tired of listening to one growly voice after another.” To make matters worse, when Nifty read the sex scenes, “the narrator used a very passionate, theatrical voice that just got on my nerves. (More eye rolling.)”

Voices – the Good, the Bad, and the Whiny

Like Nifty, I’ve had problems with the narrators of audio books. In the 1980s, one of my favorite books was The Silence of the Lambs. I checked the audio book out of the library because I thought it would be great to listen to – and I hated it. The narrator was a respected actress, but she almost put me to sleep. And the voice she used for FBI Section Chief Jack Crawford was kinda creepy. Euww. On the other hand, I enjoyed the heck out of F. Murray Abraham’s The Phantom of the Opera recording because of the way he brought out the emotions of the Phantom.

What about authors as narrators? I’ve listened to a few authors narrate their own stories. I don’t remember most of them, which could be saying something. This is going to sound weird, but many of my favorites are recordings of deceased authors reading their works because it’s like a window into the past. If that author is a terrific narrator, then that’s even better. Listening to late SF author Roger Zelazny narrate his first Amber book was a lot of fun, particularly because he had a terrific voice, pleasantly deep. However, he may have been a rarity among novelists. In fact, he was the only author I know of who was hired to record the work of other writers.

Because most novelists aren’t Roger Zelazny, I usually prefer audio books that are performed by actors. After all, voices are part of what they’re trained to do. I’m the sort of geek who will try to look at the credits on a cartoon as they flash past at the speed of light to figure out why that supervillain’s voice sound so familiar. (“Hey, that one was Matt Frewer!”) So it goes without saying that the choice of narrator is vital to me. In fact, I’ve listened to books I didn’t care about all that much just because a favorite actor (such as Ian Holm) was reading it.

Belinda has several favorite narrators, but she is just as vocal about the ones who make her want to run away screaming. “Seeing Jen Taylor pictured as narrator on a CD cover will make me consider misshelving the thing in the library so no one will be subjected to her whiny voice. Flo Gibson narrates a lot of classics and sounds like a 110-year-old school marm – another reader I stay away from.”

Melann agrees that the right narrator is crucial. “It doesn’t matter how good the book is if the person(s) doing the reading make you want to run screaming from the room (or vehicle, which is worse).” Diana also puts a lot of stock in the choice of narrator. While she finds some readers to be wonderful, others are “stunningly bad.” She particularly hates readers who try too hard to “do the voices, especially characters of the opposite gender. I’ve blocked out her name (shudder), but the reader for Karen Robards’s After Midnight had the hero sounding like Jack Nicholson in full pervert mode.” She couldn’t finish it, and found that “Sandra Brown’s Words of Silk had an oily-voiced reader who did the heroine in a voice that I can only describe as petulant drag queen and the hero as snake oil salesman. Didn’t do a thing for my romantic fantasies.”

Many fans agree that not every reader, no matter how skilled, can “do” lots of different voices. Ellen B has tried only a few audio books but has been disappointed because of the narration. “I’ve found it silly listening to a middle-aged woman reading as a young ingenue conversing with a gruff old man; and the woman-reading-as-rakish-hero is just awful.” Several audio books failed for AAR’s Lea because of the narrators. Lowell’s Only series didn’t work because “the narrator is a man and his imitation of a woman’s voice is so ridiculous that I could never envision the heroine as an attractive character.” And Nora Roberts’ Born In trilogy didn’t work for Lea because “the male narrator, once again, blew it. The Irish accents were strong and so alike that I often couldn’t tell who was talking – and the female voices were laughable.”

I often want to giggle when I hear narrators trying to “do” voices of the opposite sex. In the wrong hands (or lips), that can turn a chilling thriller into a slapstick comedy. No matter how skilled they are as actors, most men sound really stupid when they try to sound like a woman! And most women can’t do good male voices. So when it’s appropriate, I like the idea of having a male and female narrator share narration duties. Several years ago, a small company started putting out unabridged audio book editions of Lois McMaster Bujold’s SF novels. They had a man and woman narrate these books together and it worked really well – probably because LMB’s books rely so heavily on male/female interaction. AAR’s Cheryl has enjoyed audio books with multiple narrators as well. She listened to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy as an audio book, and for that one, there were more than a dozen actors voicing the characters while Pullman narrated the books. She found it effective.

However, not everyone likes this sort of set-up. Author Jo Beverley isn’t bothered when just one reader narrates because she’s “thinking of it as a book,” although “they have to get the voices right, which can be tricky. Currently Jo is listening to The Lady and the Unicorn (by the same author as Girl with a Pearl Earring) and has this to say about the audio version: “I’m not sure how the people come across in the printed book, but the artist sounds like a 60-year-old prig and the tapestry makers in Brussels have Irish accents with a bit of French. I find this very weird and quite offputting, because the artist is coming across as a nasty randy old geezer. That might be true to the book, but I don’t usually spend time with people I dislike as much as I’m coming to dislike him.”

Passion…or Cheese?

Romance audio books are a special challenge for both narrators and listeners because they must create believable passion without being corny. What looks great on the page can sound hideous on a tape or CD – particularly if it’s being narrated by a guy with a really bad falsetto. Maybe that’s part of the reason why while many romance readers like audio books, but quite a few of them don’t enjoy romance novels in audio format.

While AAR’s Cheryl is an audio book fan, she has so far managed to avoid listening to romance audio books. “Friends have offered to loan me some, but I haven’t taken them up on it. I think my reluctance stems from two reasons: I am used to reading a romance novel in two or three days. It would take much longer than that for me to listen to it on the road.” While Cheryl could listen at home, she views print books as more convenient, more portable, and, more importantly, she always keeps one in her purse when unexpectedly delayed – and can’t see herself doing that with a headset. Her other reason to avoid listening to romance novels stems from the love scene aspect: “The thought of having steamy love scenes read to me as I drive down the highway makes me a little squeamish. I’m quite happy to read explicit love scenes, but can’t get around the idea of a stranger saying those words to me. It becomes a less personal experience and more of a group one, if that makes sense, and I’m not into groups.”

Peg also doesn’t like listening to romances. “For some reason, sex scenes that are exciting to read about come out as gross when I’m hearing them. Personal peculiarity, perhaps.” Varina says, “What seems slightly silly when you read it to yourself sounds even sillier when you hear it aloud. It also makes me feel more voyeuristic. I’ve only stopped reading one explicit romance because of feeling strange listening to the love scenes…I’ve thought sometimes that what I was listening to sounded silly when read aloud by someone who was trying to read it with feeling:”

However, romances are not the only books that can sound silly when read out loud. Fantasy novels, for one, often have powerful passages that will sound silly or even pompous with the wrong narrator. Imagine someone who sounds like Niles Crane – or for that matter, a 110-year-old school marm – doing the narration in the prologue to the first Lord of the Rings movie. Euww. Also, I think I would love to have audio books of classic SF/fantasy pulp writers, such as H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Yet I’m afraid of what the wrong narrator could do with something like Robert E. Howard’s “And out of the cleft came swarming a loathsome mob, as foul reptiles writhe up out of the darkness, and they stood blinking in the sunlight like the night-things they were.” Or Lovecraft’s “That cult would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy.” You wouldn’t want a whiny narrator doing that in a falsetto, would you?

Not everybody shuns romance audio books. LadyNaava does listen to romance audio books and lists horror and romance as her favorite genres. Her favorite audio book was Kelly Armstrong’s Bitten, which managed to combine both genres. She has also enjoyed Nora Roberts’ Chesapeake Bay series in audio format. However, she is not entirely taken with romances in audio book format. She finds that romances are her least favorite type of audio book, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the narrators get on her nerves. Also, she has found that the plots of some romance novels aren’t enough for her to endure eight to ten hours of narration. I can see where she’s coming from. It’s one thing if you read slowly, like my father, and you listen to audio books more quickly than you read. But if you’re a voracious reader, you are used to reading the words must faster than you would if you were reading them aloud or having someone read the book to you. I’m no speed reader, but even without skimming, I can take in a lot of words at once on the page. So if a plot is rather slim, I won’t mind so much as long as I’ve enjoyed the book. On the other hand, if I listened to the book in audio format, I might be very frustrated at having spent eight to ten hours of my life to listen to the same story.

Abridgements (Usually) Suck

Dolly isn’t averse to romance audio books; in face, she prefers them, but only if they are unabridged audio books. One thing almost audio book fans agree on is that abridgments are bad. I’ve heard a couple of abridged Steve Martini audio books, and while they were enjoyable, there were weird jumps in the narrative. One moment they were worrying about the upcoming trial, and the next, the trial was halfway through.

Most audio book fans hate abridgements. Belinda proclaims, “A pox on abridgements, audio or otherwise.” Melann refuses to consider listening to abridgements. “If the author, editor and publisher felt the text needed to be in the printed version, it ought to be in the audio version as well. Either the printed version was a rip-off (too much unnecessary text added to inflate the price) or the audio version is a rip-off (too much money for half a book). I find the whole concept offensive for some reason.”

Gloria believes that abridgments have “no place even existing – at least for adults. I can understand the habit of taking classic literature and creating abridgements for children (to their reading level), but any other book that is abridged is either leaving something critical out of the story, or was the original book so fluffed up to fill space?” Maggi also agrees that abridgments are an abomination, and it breaks her heart that some of her favorites are only available in abridged edition. LadyNaava too cannot abide abridgements.

On the other hand, not everyone likes having every single word available on those tapes or CDs all the time. Wendy says, “I recently sent Heyer’s The Foundling back to the library having listened to only seven of the five billion tapes. The reader was good – Phyllida someone – but my weary soul was crying out *abridge, abridge*.”


Not everybody likes listening to audio books. Or listening to people narrate them, period. There may be reasons for this. When I was learning to write computer courses, one of the first things I learned is that people learn in different ways. Some people are auditory learners, meaning they do best when they hear or read information. But about half of the population is made up of visual learners – that is, people who learn best from seeing information (such as charts and slides) and from visualizing the information. In the same way, I think readers can be split into two groups – people who like hearing someone read a story to them and people who can’t stand it and may even have a hard time keeping their minds on the narration.

In school, I often loved it when teachers read stories to us. But I liked it even more when I found my own copy of the book the teacher had been reading from and got to read the whole story at my own place. My first Beverly Cleary story was a chapter the teacher read to us in school, but my next Cleary story was when I found the book at the library and read the whole thing. And then read the next book and the next after that.

Ellen B admits that she would love to be able to listen to audio books during car trips, walks, etc. But it just hasn’t worked out that way for her. With an audio book, she says, “I’m trapped in the reader’s pace. I can’t skim over room descriptions or whatever interests me less than something else. I can’t make the reader move a scene along, I can’t re-read passages that move me, and I can’t re-try a passage with different emphasis. I can’t flip back to snag a reference or clarify something I don’t understand. Ultimately, I can’t make the book my own, because the reader has already made it hers in interpretation, pacing, and tone. Don’t like it.” She also finds the experience of being read to more passive than reading the actual book. Conversely, JanetD doesn’t mind the pace and says, “I find it also gives me more time to think about what’s happening in the book. I listen for the thirty-minute trip to work then think about what happened and what I remember is going to happen..”

Laura V has several objections to the audio book experience. “1) You can’t sneak a peek at the end of the book. 2) It takes a lot longer to listen than to read, at least it does for me. 3) I don’t want others to be obliged to listen to my books/accidentally listen to my books.”

Mary admits that when she tries to listen to audio books, they end up becoming “background noise” to her, and she misses most of the story because she’s doing something else along with listening to them. Or doing four or five something else’s.” Mary’s experience reminds me of the time I tried to listen to one of those “Five-minute Mysteries” anthologies on tape. I thought it would be the perfect choice for me because, after all, the stories were so short. Surely I could listen to at least a couple before falling asleep. Actually, no, I couldn’t. Believe it or not, I never even finished the first mystery on that tape. Someday I will find the tape again, and I’ll try it again so that I can at least find out who the murderer is before I fall asleep. Guess I’d better not try listening to that one in the car.

Dick is another reader who “cannot abide” having someone read to him. “I think the eye has a closer connection to the brain than the ear or something of the sort. Besides, it’s so slow.” Like Dick, MMcA doesn’t like having no control over the speed of the recording – in fact, she finds it annoying to go through a story so slowly, even when she’s reading to her children. When she wants something in the background, she’d rather listen to the radio. However, she does see audio books as invaluable for long car trips with children and for people with vision problems.

Not everybody who prefers print books hates audio books, though. Author Jenna Black has enjoyed audio books – just not enough to “want to keep listening.” She’s an admitted paper book addict. “To me, there’s nothing like having that book in my hands and curling up in a corner to read. It absorbs my entire concentration and provides that much-needed escape from real life. With audio books, I find my attention tends to wander. If it wanders at a crucial moment, I come back to my senses and realize I don’t know what’s going on anymore. If my attention wanders in a paper book-which doesn’t happen often-it’s simple to go back and reread. Rewinding and to find the part I missed on an audio book isn’t as easy.”

None of those who responded on this topic admitted to being a snob like Laurie did in her intro to this piece, but no doubt there are others out there – if PW is to be believed – who turn up their noses at the mere idea of listening to a story rather than reading it. After reading Ellen’s enthusiastic segment, how many non-audio book readers among you may change your minds?

It’s a sad fact that if I write an ATBF segment on any kind of book, I ended up adding books to my TBR pile based on what I’ve learned. So wouldn’t you figure it? Last night I decided to go ahead and try an audio book again. Because I’ve been reading a lot of young adult novels, I looked for a YA novel but couldn’t find any I wanted. I settled on The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe as read by Michael York instead, as the Narnia movie was coming out soon and I hadn’t read the book in blankety-blank years. My first thought was that it was great to be able to listen to the books on CD because of the convenience – and because there’s no whir whir whir noise in the background. Especially now that I have a portable CD player with long-lasting batteries. It wasn’t as hard as I expected to hear Michael York do all the voices, whatever the gender or species. I listened to the book while I surfed the Internet. When I read posts, I did end up having to rewind sometimes – it’s not that I was really missing anything, but I kept rewinding anyway, just in case. However, when I played on-line games, such as those at NeoPets, I was able to listen and shoot or bounce or leap at the same time with little trouble. Since I spend a lot of time surfing, I will consider checking out audio books from my library so that I can keep more than one part of my brain active while I’m on-line. Usually, I just leave the TV on, but with audio books, I will no longer have to leave boring TV shows on as background noise. Instead, I will get to have someone reading a novel to me – just like those elderly dowagers who hire companions in Regency novels. It will feel almost luxurious.

Reviews – in a Different Way (Laurie Likes Books)

Every so often one of our reviews will spark tremendous discussion among our readers. It happened in a very big way last year after posting [only] a qualified recommendation for Laura Kinsale’s long-awaited Shadowheart, which later won an award in our annual reader poll. And more recently, after our pan of Shana Abe’s latest romance, The Smoke Thief, just about all – if not all – of the many who posted on the message board were outraged at our negative review (the book earned a D+). The discussion was so strong that several readers suggested another review and convinced an author who is also a long-time AAR visitor to write a Desert Isle Keeper review of the book. And late last month we posted a review of a book by an author who had only ever received good reviews from us…until her last three releases. After each of the first two of these three books, a fan sent lengthy letters to both the reviewer and me. Since posting the third review, I am bracing for another.

All of which got me thinking about the thoughts and emotions readers go through after reading particular reviews. My husband is used to me reading aloud snippets from Entertainment Weekly reviews. It matters not at all if I agree with these reviews, or even if I’ve seen the movie, TV show, read the book, or listened to the CD being discussed – I simply want to share what the reviewer had to say because the reviewer entertained me with his/her writing.

And yet, there have been instances when I’ve written a dual review of a book when I disagreed with the grade the reviewer assigned it. I relished the opportunity to give readers a different look at Geralyn Dawson’s The Kissing Stars, which had earlier received DIK status. I really disliked the book and actually worried about how enthusiastic I was to write my D review – not because it might be a problem for the author but because I didn’t want Liz Zink, the book’s other reviewer, to believe I’d dissed her. This is actually a fairly common internal response within our review staff, btw; that second reviewer nearly always is trepidacious about walking on the toes of another reviewer.

And there are occasional codas from me at the bottom of other reviews when I can’t help but give my two cents, so I understand the compulsion to provide a different viewpoint. In fact the very first book for which I didn’t write a DIK review (or ask that a reader write one) was for Linda Howard’s To Die For, earlier this year. But these compulsions among our readership can be incredibly intense, and I’d like to explore that further. Now that the reviews database is complete, it should be simple enough for you to use it and find each or all of these three review types to discuss on the message board:

  1. The review on which you most agreed with us and the thoughts and feelings reading the review engendered
  2. The review of a high-graded book on which you most disagreed with us and the thoughts and feelings reading the review engendered
  3. The review of a low-graded books on which you most disagreed with us and the thoughts and feelings reading the review engendered

Before sharing these readers’ comments, let me first highlight Sherry’s comments on reviewing in general and the delight she gets simply from reading a well done review:

“O.K., I will admit that I am a review junkie. I’m addicted to reading reviews – particularly when they are well-written, since a good review can be as graceful as a well-written essay – and I hardly ever buy a movie ticket or a book or a CD or rent a DVD without having read some assessments of it beforehand. I grew up in a family where few big-ticket purchases were made without earnest perusal of the relevant issue of Consumer Reports and a great deal of reflection. So I’m not big on impulse purchases. Here, the Internet has really been helpful to me, and that includes the AAR Web site.

“But that’s before making my selection. I wonder if I’m unusual in that after I’ve watched or read something good or interesting, I continue reading reviews to see what other people agree with my assessment or affirm my judgment. I think there’s actually a term for this behavior, and it’s what consumers do after buying a car…still reading about it, still getting excited over the commercials depicting the model they’ve chosen.

“This point is when I often get into argument with the reviewer in my head. (Not beforehand, for how would I know, then? How would I be able to differ?) Because I’ve already invested in the thing, financially or emotionally, so I’ve become a partisan.

“It’s a funny thing, when we feel very partial to a book or a movie, as if we’ve taken it inside ourselves, absorbed it into our bloodstreams and made it part of our identities. No wonder we feel protective. It’s really our selves that we’re talking about, and thus when someone disagrees, it’s as though our whole view of the world is being questioned.”

The review on which you most agreed with us and the thoughts and feelings reading the review engendered:

Laura V on Kylie Adams’ Fly Me to the Moon: “The only thing that saved my copy from flying was that it was library property. Ellen did a great job in saving readers from raised blood pressure, damaged walls and feelings of deep regret over wasted time and money. And reading the review did provide the laughs that the book didn’t.”

Maggie on MaryJanice Davidson’s Undead and Unwed: “The reviewer captured the essence of what made this book great – both the fact that it is Betsy who shines on every page and the fact that it is more than just a string of jokes beaded together. The sheer fun of the book was communicated throughout the review and made me anxious to snap it up. I have lent it out numerous times (in fact, I have triple copies just to make sure I don’t lose my copy in some lending mishap) and I have yet to have one person say they didn’t love it. If I were going to be stranded on a desert isle with a bunch of friends, this would top my wish list of books I’d want to have with me – not only would I enjoy reading it, everyone else would be wowed by my great taste in books!”

Susan K and Elle on Nonnie St George’s [DIK] review of Mary Balogh’s The Temporary Wife:

Susan K: “It was spot on. I’ve loved and reread the book numerous times, but I probably couldn’t articulate why that book warrants rereads and others don’t. So one of the reasons I enjoy positive reviews of my favorite books is that I’m given a vocabulary and descriptors and insights that I didn’t have before.”

Elle: “A ‘dead-on’ review *completely* agrees with my impression of the story; but a really good review also adds something to my own analysis of the book. One example of this is the review of Mary Balogh’s The Temporary Wife by Nonnie St. George. I loved that review – I agreed with the sentiments and found it a pleasure to read. When I read a review such as this I do feel on some level as if my taste is being validated, since someone thoughtful and clever enough to write a review that good admires the same book that I do.

Yulie on Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation: “To me this DIK review was fantastic. This was my first Crusie and it’s still at the top of my conversion kit. The review reminded me of everything I loved about it – descriptions, the supporting characters, the relationship; and it made me want to re-read the book.”

Sherry on Bliss by Judy Cuevas: “Reading a review of book you love is sort of like rooting in the stands for a sports team in which you are emotionally invested while the game is going on. [AAR’s] review of Bliss made me mutter to myself, “Yes! Yes!” each time [the reviewer] articulated some insight that mirrored that I’d been thinking myself about the book. Like, “Yes, she scored! And again!” I wanted to take her out to some nice coffee house with those noisy cappucino machines in the background and buy her a drink and a pastry and talk with her for an hour or two about this really great book we’d both discovered. I felt that the reviewer and I belonged to a small secret society of discerning people who knew there was this wonderful thing in the world. Like the Woody Allen movie in which he gives a list of things which make life worth living … and some of these are artworks and performances and books.”

The review of a high-graded book on which you most disagreed with us and the thoughts and feelings reading the review engendered:

Laura V on Suzanne Enoch’s London’s Perfect Scoundrel: “I would have given this book an F, but the reviewer gave it an A-. Where to start? I’d rephrase [the opening] to read: ‘This is a wallbanger of a book which will have you screaming with irritation if you dislike glaring historical inaccuracies and cardboard cut-out characters who behave in silly, inconsistent ways before being propelled by the plot into character change and a happy ending.'”

Maggie on Suzanne Brockmann’s Gone Too Far: “One book I would burn if I was stuck on a Desert Isle with it would be Gone Too Far. More than once the reviewer’s reviews had me ROFL. This DIK review had me wondering if we had read the same book. What she called ‘nail biting suspense’ (something very difficult to do when the end is already determined) was to me convoluted plotting. IMO, Brockmann made three major mistakes that an experienced writer simply shouldn’t be allowed to get away with:

  1. Her characterization was inconsistent. This wasn’t merely a case of mild multiple-personality disorder but a full blown attack. In Into the Night Sam is a self-righteous daughter neglecting, (emotional) wife abusing jerk with a bigotry against his mentally handicapped neighbor whom he calls “the nut job”. In Gone Too Far he was suddenly friends with Donny (no more calling him “nut job” I guess), really cared about his daughter and hey, loved his family in general. The “change” happened when his wife and daughter left and while we, the reader, were in intermission (between books.) I just couldn’t believe it – not that Ms. Brockmann had dared to make such a blunder and because I hadn’t seen the change, I couldn’t believe in it either.
  2. She bungled the plot. It was unbelievable. It was convoluted. It was filled with characters whose ending we already knew (Kelly would live. Tom was innocent. Sam and Alyssa? Hand over the HEA already.) While most romances have the HEA written in stone, the supporting cast normally doesn’t. They – and the road the relationship takes – are what provide the surprise. In this book, the road had already been mapped out; the relationship had already gone through so many rounds nothing that happened in it surprised me. Something somewhere should have happened that was new to the mix. Nothing did.
  3. She didn’t make me believe in the love story. Sam and Alyssa did not treat each other well enough for me to believe they were even remotely going to make it. Most Brockmann couples at least manage to throw some nice in with their kink. Not these two.”

Elle and Yulie on Julie Ann Long’s The Runaway Duke:

Elle: “There are not many books that I actively hate, but there are a lot that I think are over-rated. One recent DIK that I shook my head over is The Runaway Duke by Julie Ann Long which was a pleasant but not very memorable story (IMHO) but received an A grade (while Judy Cuevas’ Dance got an A– !!!!). [emphasis added] I just chalk it up to differences in taste, but it still amazes me sometimes that people can view the same book so differently.”

Yulie on a couple of books: “I did not hate The Runaway Duke [by Julie Ann Long], but I found it so completely average in plotting and characterization that I could not understand why anyone would consider it a DIK. It’s gotten consistently good user ratings on Amazon, too. I thought it was practically a textbook C: not badly written, just nothing special. There’s also the A+ for Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married by Marian Keyes, another book that I considered average (it’s really one of the weaker books Keyes has written, IMO) but obviously someone else didn’t.”

Ellen B on Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander: “[This book] was awarded DIK status at AAR and was awarded a quick trip to the UBS at my house. Your reviewer thought the short shrift paid to the time travel conundrum was okay, since it got the story quickly to Jamie and Claire. I thought it was a gaping hole in not only the logic of the book, but in Claire’s personality – one that I never got over in my attempt to read it. Your reviewer found Jamie wonderfully heroic; I found him whiny and childish.”

The review of a low-graded books on which you most disagreed with us and the thoughts and feelings reading the review engendered:

Sherry and Susan K on Gayle Feyrer’s The Thief’s Mistress:

Sherry: “While I don’t think [The Thief’s Mistress is] perfect – thus, I’d not be inclined to write a Desert Island Keeper review for the book – I thought there was much, much more to it than the reviewer had suggested. It was a dark, intensely emotional book, with a tendency toward purplish prose. I felt disappointed, that the reviewer hadn’t seen what I’d seen. I almost felt that the reviewer had read a different book than I had. Had she gone to it with different expectations, perhaps? I was sure that she was very different from me, that perhaps we’d had a completely different upbringing, different lives. I felt rather insecure about my own judgment, suddenly. Was I really perverse? And the reviewer was normal? The book was quite dark. Did loving it make me unbalanced or weird? In short, I’d not be exaggerating if I said it made me question my taste, and thus, indirectly, my identity. ”

Susan K: “[I adored] The Thief’s Mistress, even though the book got a terrible grade. Here was a book where the roles were reversed: it was the heroine, not the hero, who was tortured, who lived for revenge yet feared her soul had been irreversibly scarred when she finally took that revenge. The reviewer is entitled to her opinion (and to paraphrase a Bonnie Raitt song, ‘I can’t make you love me – and the books I love)’. However, I do feel that her opinion was so colored by her feelings that the Robin Hood/Maid Marian myth had been betrayed that she couldn’t see beyond that. If Feyrer had called the characters other names or her publisher had called the book something other than romance, perhaps people would have come to it with open minds and enjoyed the story for what it was.”

Ellen B on Edith Layton’s Alas My Love. “I graded [this book] A and [your reviewer] graded it D+. We obviously had completely different experiences reading that book. She perceived it as slow; I found it well-paced. She thought the characters were wooden and empty; I found them rich and well-drawn. I wrote my impressions of the book on this MB, wanting to encourage other readers to try the book, because they might read it differently as well.

Sherry on Gaelen Foley’s The Duke: “My thoughts on [this review] were again, a sudden doubt that the reviewer and I had read the same book. I wanted the reviewer explain, slowly, why she felt the characters in this book were believable. As I said to a friend, in a discussion of Foley’s work, “I got the feeling that no actual human beings were used in the making of this book.” I had a sense that the author was very familiar with how characters behaved in books, but hadn’t spent much time looking at people. Didn’t the reviewer see this? I wanted to send a list of questions to the reviewer, asking her whether she was bothered by certain gimcrack plot devices and situations. I wanted to argue her out of her position. Which I know, from various dinner table discussions with my family, is simply impossible. No one’s ever said, after one of our family, ah, discussions, ‘You’re right, I’m wrong, I’m voting for your candidate instead.'”

Laura V on Jennifer Crusie’s Fast Women:

“[This book] was given a B-. The reviewer gives an accurate outline of the plot structure and then goes on to explain which parts of the book she particularly liked: ‘all of the trademark Crusie is there: the humor, the snappy dialogue, the funky symbolism and the goofy dog. I laughed out loud several times, and the love scenes were pretty hot.’ Now, already this makes it clear to me that I probably have a different reaction to Crusie’s books. For a start, while I see the humour, it makes me smile in a very wry sort of way. I sense a lot of pain under the humour, and that’s the case for all her books…There has always been a dark side to Crusie’s books, and perhaps this reviewer just hadn’t noticed it before.

“The reviewer’s attempt to understand the causes of her unease were very interesting: I didn’t feel like I had to totally identify with Nell or the others, and I didn’t feel as though Crusie was encouraging promiscuous sex. What she did do, though, was show why some people might be promiscuous, or have casual sex, and why for them, at that point in their lives, it might be appropriate, or at least not damaging. .

“Finally I want to turn to the reviewer’s emotions. [In her review she writes] ‘It left me with little hope for the romances that bloomed during the course of the story. Despite the upbeat ending, I finished the book feeling very heavy. My final thoughts were: life is too hard, marriage is really impossible, what is the point of it all?’

“I, on the other hand, found this a very realistic look at marriage. The failed marriages failed because of underlying incompatibilities and the new marriages seemed set to succeed because the characters had grown and tackled the problems/expectations which led to the failures of their first marriages, I could see a happy but realistically happy future for them. For me, Fast Women said that marriage isn’t impossible, but you have to choose well and keep working at it. And that spoke to me far more than romances in which impossibly beautiful people feel irresistible attraction towards each other, fall everlastingly in love and as proof of this produce a brood of beautiful, adorable children. That, to me, is depressing, because it sets a standard for marriage which I and most people outside Romanceland could never meet. Crusie’s world is one populated by real people with real problems and real solutions.”

Although in many instances the reviews for these books were written some time ago, they clearly impacted these readers. Most surprising of all is that our “A” review of Dance stuck out in Elle’s mind as not being high enough. Laura V’s response to our “B-” review for Fast Women reminded me of the posts I saw after the Shadowheart review went online. I think that’s a good thing, although perhaps not as easily explained as the prolonged enjoyment readers continue to have over an eight-year-old “F+” review of a Connie Mason romance featuring a stallion who, three pages later inexplicably turned into a gelding. AAR is supposed to provide a back-fence atmosphere where readers can feel comfortable talking about romance novels intelligently. If we do that in a review, regardless of whether or not the reader agrees with our assessment, then we’ve done what we set out to do. And if it stays in the reader’s mind for months – if not years – than we’ve made an impact.

I get a kick out of Sherry’s admission to being a review junkie; it’s an apt term for me as well, although as I indicated earlier, I read them more for the writing than for anything else. Outside of AAR I am rarely swayed by reviews, and there have been many an instance where I am swayed in reverse by an AAR review. When we did our in-house style poll (not to be confused with the AAR style poll we conducted with readers), I had an epiphany after looking at the results. It was clear, for instance, that Robin’s likes and dislikes varied so vastly from my own that it explained my lack of interest in some of her favorite authors. I decided not to feel guilty about letting certain books languish in my tbr pile, books I’d bought solely on Robin’s recommendation, because had she not raved about them, there was nothing intrinsic to them that would have led me to buy them in the first place.

This is one reason we created a search option based on reviewer in our new database, and why we provide staff profiles. Matching yourself with a reviewer can be extremely helpful, as many an AAR reader has learned. Reviews are informed opinions, after all, and if you rarely agree with a reviewer, her rave about a book will matter less to you than a rave by a reviewer whose taste better matches your own.

I hope that you will post some specifics on the message board, of reviews you thought were dead-on, and of reviews you thought totally missed the mark – in both directions. Were you angry to read a pan of a book you loved, and did you make your displeasure known? Were you incredulous when a book you thought was tepid at best or a wallbanger at worse earned a high grade at AAR, even DIK status? What reviews provoked the biggest response, and why?

Finally, now that the reviews database is complete, I am extremely interested in beefing up DIK reviews as submitted by authors and readers. We love it when authors submit DIK reviews of all-time favorites or books that influenced their writing; we think it’s a different way to get into the creative mind. As for readers, all-time favorites are always welcome as DIK reviews. We’ve got a new online form for you to use if you’re interested.

Time to Post to the Message Board

Please consider these questions in addition to others that may have arisen out of your reading of the column:

Do you listen to audio books? If so, for how long? If not, why not?

If you listen to audio books, do you prefer a single or multiple narrator? What audio book was the best your heard, and why? Was it the reading of it or the book or the book itself? What about the worst?

Are there particular types of books that you don’t think lend themselves well to being heard as audio books? Conversely, are there book types that work best for you?

On which AAR review did you most agree with us? How long ago did you read it? What were the thoughts and feelings reading the review engendered?

On which high-graded AAR review did you most disagree with us? How long ago did you read it? What were the thoughts and feelings reading the review engendered?

On which low-graded AAR review did you most disagree with us? How long ago did you read it? What were the thoughts and feelings reading the review engendered?

What are some other AAR reviews that have stayed with you for a long time, and why?

If you are interested in writing a DIK review for us, please use our new online form to submit a draft.

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,

Laurie Likes Books, Ellen Micheletti, & Anne Marble

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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