A Civil ContractWhen choosing your next audiobook, what are the factors that most influence your decision?  The author is certainly first on the list followed by genre, narrator, affordability, and available formats.  But when we talk about our experiences with audiobooks, what is usually the first point of discussion?  The narrator’s performance.  Ahh, yes – it always seems to come back to the narrator.

During my first years of listening to audiobooks, I deemed numerous narrators as unacceptable for a second listen.  Possibly I didn’t care for their performance of a male or female voice, or maybe their accents irritated me, or even worse, their interpretation of a character did not fit the voice in my head.  With such a vast selection of romance audiobooks at my fingertips, I could be picky about the narrators I chose to grant my time.

Now, with many audiobooks sitting in my “already listened to” category, I’m taking a closer look at those audiobooks I passed up because I judged the narrators less than perfect.  Yes, these narrators didn’t fit my ear exactly in the past but if I worked at it a little and spent time accustoming myself to bothersome performance oddities, could I enjoy those audiobooks as well?

My first attempt to re-listen to a former audiobook failure was Judith Ivory’s Sleeping Beauty – one of my all time favorite historical romances.  In fact I related my thoughts in our first Speaking of Audiobooks column:

Unfortunately, there was no way I could wrap my mind around the nasal, snobby, almost effeminate voice the narrator gave James and the not-so-enjoyable listening session was soon over.

After hearing favorable comments about the narration of Sleeping Beauty from some of our listeners, I determined to give it another try.  My change of attitude coupled with a determination to enjoy the book despite the narrator’s performance of James, made all the difference.  Here are a few of my comments about the experience from a later column:

Oh, I never entirely accepted James’s voice but the overall narration is so entirely pleasing in all other aspects that I found myself a bit swept away.  As audio fans know, effective differentiation between the leads’ voices greatly influences one’s enjoyment of any audiobook and Ms. Primm’s performance of Coco, with a slight French accent, thoroughly distinguished Coco’s voice from that of James.  Yet I was even more impressed with Ms. Primm’s beautiful delivery of the love scenes and in that aspect – she gets an A+!

Georgette Heyer’s books received similar judgments from me.  Those totally correct English accents were just a tad too much for this Midwesterner’s ears.  There are numerous narrators for Heyer’s books but they all seem to have one thing in common – true-to-the-period English accents.  My first determined attempt was Black Sheep and, although it was difficult going in the beginning, I soon discovered the rhythm and enjoyed the actual story line quite a bit.

It’s still a task each time I begin listening to such authentic narrations but my appreciation is growing and I find myself quite thrilled at the increased number of audiobooks now in my future.  For me, it is certainly an acquired taste but one well worth the effort.

Another discovery I’ve made in my audio listening is the possible variation in a particular narrator’s performance from one audiobook to the next.  If I dislike a narrator’s performance in one book, it doesn’t necessarily translate into disliking her performance in another.  Natalie Ross is a perfect example.  My first exposure to Ms. Ross was her narration of Linda Howard’s The Touch of Fire.  Throughout the book I struggled to accept the western twang in the hero’s voice and, in the end, I wondered if I would ever be willing to listen to one of her narrations again.  However, two other Howard audiobooks, Son of the Morning and Kill and Tell, featured Ross as narrator and there was no avoiding giving her another chance.  And boy, am I glad I did.  Both were pure audio hits for me and music to my listening ears.

There is one aspect of audiobook narration however, that rarely finds a fix upon a re-listen.  If the narrator’s understanding of a character’s actions or the overall pacing or direction of the book’s energy differs greatly from my own, a re-listen to better appreciate the narrator is usually a failure.  Julia Gibson’s delivery of What I Did for Love by Susan Elizabeth Phillips easily falls into this category.  I rarely agreed with her timing, the modulation she chose for the leads’ voices, or her interpretation of the hero or heroine.  Irritated and unable to finish the audiobook, I turned to the print version at the halfway point.  Such a letdown cannot be fixed by a new attitude or sheer determination.  But my mind remains open and another of Ms. Gibson’s narrations may prove a success in the future.

By concentrating on the beginning details of a book rather than the narrator’s performance, I do enjoy a greater range of audiobooks.  This also carries with it a sense of maturing in my audio listening skills.  These audiobooks that take more effort to get off the ground usually don’t end up on my absolute favorites list but I do find the ability to push beyond a less than perfect narrator and become lost in an otherwise moving romance quite wonderful at times.

EnvyMy Unofficial Personal Listening Challenge for 2010

It’s late in the year to start a 2010 listening challenge but I’m playing with the idea for our Speaking of Audiobooks listeners in 2011.  My goal is to listen to six audiobooks outside of my usual comfort zone.  As author of this column, I can’t drift too far from the romance genre since I must continually listen to romance (and that’s no chore – believe me) in order to have fresh content twice a month.  So where’s the challenge?

When I took a close look at my audiobook choices, I realized I tend to avoid these categories: romantic suspense, paranormal, mysteries, fantasy, or series (one continuous story line).  In addition, I’ve never listened to a Janet Evanovich and only a little Nora Roberts.  Despite my determination to listen to a number of Georgette Heyer books and become accustomed to those very English accents, I’ve actually only listened to one.  And finally, I don’t listen to abridged romances (although there are a few from years back).  I guess you could say all these categories are personal listening challenges.

So here are a few details of my 2010 listening challenge.  I’ll allow myself some flexibility in case another audiobook in a given category grabs my attention before the year is out.  Most of these choices are based on recommendations from our Speaking of Audiobooks listeners:

1. Romantic Suspense

Envy by Sandra Brown

Narrated by Victor Slezak

I do occasionally listen to romantic suspense (mostly Linda Howard style) but generally I avoid this category as much as possible.  I want the romance front and center rather than the suspense.  I’m really trying to change my outlook and enjoy romantic suspense for what it is supposed to be.

The Secret History2. Mystery with Romantic Elements

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

Narrated by Kate Reading

To tell you the truth, I’m not certain this audiobook fits within the description of this category.  AAR categorizes it as romance – so romance it is, but in reading the synopsis it looks as though the mystery is the primary focus.  If you are one who has strongly recommended this series and I’m incorrect on this point, please let me know!

3. Abridged

Sylvester by Georgette Heyer

Narrated by Richard Armitage

Okay, I’m cheating here.  My first abridged book in five years has such a narrator.  That alone makes me want to listen.

4. Series

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

Narrated by Johanna Parker

Countless listeners have raved about the Sookie Stackhouse series so it easily came in first when I started exploring the possibilities.  I’m expecting some great entertainment.

5. Fantasy

Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning

Narrated by Joyce Bean

Fitting the requirement for series as well, I chose this one primarily based upon my past enjoyment of Moning’s other writings.  Am I shallow in saying that I hope to make it to Book 4 and Phil Gigante’s joint narration with Joyce Bean?

6. In the Name of Mature Audio Listening

A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer

Narrated by Phyllida Nash

Although I know I will enjoy Heyer’s books, those old-style English accents keep me from easily choosing one of her books as my next listen.  Just do it!

Time for Your Thoughts

What are your biggest challenges when listening to an audiobook?

Are you able to enjoy a book with a less than perfect narrator?

What aspect of narration makes for a complete loss – one you can’t overlook in an attempt to enjoy the book?

Will you join in this very informal 2010 Listening Challenge?  Is there a particular audiobook (outside your normal fare) that you will pledge to listen to before year end?

And as always, do you have any recent audiobook success of failure to share with us?

Ending Notes

For those new to our Speaking of Audiobooks column, please check out our audio archives as well as AAR’s main site for monthly lists of upcoming audiobook releases.

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

– Lea Hensley