Ever since I moved farther away from work, I’ve been listening to more audiobooks. So far, because I have the patience of a fruit fly, I’ve only listened to short audiobooks. For that reason, I always check the audiobooks in the young adult section first, but I’m always excited when I find a short book in regular fiction. This week, I listened to the abridged audiobook edition of The Killer’s Wife by Bill Floyd. The Killer’s Wife is about a serial killer’s ex-wife who has lived under an assumed name in a new town — until the father of a former victim tracks her down and reveals her to the media. There are lots of emotional and dramatic moments, and whenthe narrator reads them, she gets, well, emotional and dramatic. Even weepy. At times, it worked — it was in character. Yet at other times, it went on for too long, so I wanted to shake the heroine and shout “Shut up!” I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next, but I was struck by how overly dramatic and weepy the heroine was. Yet would someone who read the book in print or e-book have the same feelings about her? Or did the narrator’s style overemphasize the heroine’s emotions?
Most importantly, the narrator shouldn’t make me laugh during dramatic moments. The audiobook of James Patterson’s 1st to Die did just that. During an action scene, the narrator sped up his voice, speaking very excitedly. I laughed so hard I nearly drove off the road. The narrator just didn’t come off as natural to me. And don’t get me started on the audiobook of John Saul’s Punish the Sinners, where the hero confronts the evil priest and starts shouting a vile insult to him. The outburst was so loud that it startled me into laughter, something awkward and potentially dangerous while driving. Confrontation shouldn’t make me snort in amusement.
However, voices can also be too flat. I was so excited to find Ellen Hopkins’ Crank, a YA verse novel. I love YA novels in verse, especially Sonya Sones’ clever One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies. Unfortunately, in Crank, the narrator performed in a disaffected teen voice. Sure, the narrator was a disaffected teen, but I didn’t want to spend rush hour with that voice. It went back to the library unfinished. I’ve listened to other YA novels on CD and never had the same problem.
While listening to Nancy Werlin’s The Rules of Survival,I taught myself how to change the CD in traffic. Crazy, I know, but I had to find out if the narrator Matt’s volatile mother would cross the line. Never once did the work of those narrators strike a false note. In both cases, I felt as if Heidi and Matt sat in the car, telling me about their lives. When Matt’s mother went on her rampages, the narrator dramatized it, but it felt believable, tragic rather than ludicrous.
A great narrator can make me believe in a book while I’m listening, even if I later sit back and think “Whoa, wait a minute…” After all, the narrator of Anthony Horowitz’s YA thriller Eagle Strike made me believe a teen-aged spy could survive ridiculous stunts — because he brought the characters to life, from teenagers to a pop star who just might be a crazed killer to infamous assassin Yassen Gregorovich. The narrator of Sharon G. Flake’s Bang! lost friends to violence, found himself abandoned during a horrible storm, endured a racist attack, dropped out of school,became a criminal, then a panhandler, all in a short period of time. Yet while listening to the voice of actor Dominic Hoffman, I was there, in the story, because I believed in him as the narrator Mann. He wasn’t just reading a book onto a CD. He lived the story for me.
So what do you think about the style of narration in audiobooks? We know that the narrator is one of the most crucial parts of the experience. A dull narrator can ruin even the most exciting book, but is it possible for the narrator to go too far when dramatizing narration? The best audiobook narrators make the characters come alive. They have to breathe life into dozens of different people. Some can pull it off without a hitch, while others struggle — especially when they do the voices of characters in another gender. Which narrators can pull this off and still make you believe that they are all these people?