What Makes a Good Audiobook Narrator?

That’s the question for discussion today on Audiobook Week 2012 hosted by Devourer of Books.

I’ve just started listening to audiobooks regularly this year and already found a few excellent narrators:

Jeremy Irons reading Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh — I’ve already mentioned how captivating his voice is on my review. Basically, it’s the aptness of the tone in fitting the mood and atmosphere of the book. Clarity is crucial as well. Often when just listening, I would easily get confused as to who’s talking. But Irons is most efficient in keeping his characters distinct. Finally, the dramatization of them is spot on. I can see them in my mind’s eyes. They are convincingly interpreted and portrayed, consistent with the characterization of the book.

Peter Francis James reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith — This is a challenging book to narrate because of its myriad of accents and racial mix. James has done an amazing job in voicing the characters in their cultural, gender, and age-related quirks and expressions. Here we have a fusion of British, British/American, African American, rapper American, and British/Trinidadian. All these just to depict two mixed-race families. Here, the criterion for excellent narration is efficiently met: Amidst the cacophony of voices, James has distinguished the characters with apt individualism, helping me to appreciate each character on its own.

Tim Jerome reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson — This 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning novel has only one character speaking throughout and that’s the ageing Reverend in Gilead, Iowa, John Ames. Suffering from illness but still lucid and wise, he leaves his memories to his very young son as a family legacy while he still has time. Tim Jerome’s voice exudes gentleness, compassion, forgiveness and wisdom, just like the character John Ames. Listening to the audio makes me feel like he’s casually and warmly chatting with me over coffee after a good meal. I don’t think I’ve heard another more gentle and loving voice, which is so appropriate with the characterization.


You can see I’ve mentioned the audiobook that I listened to with these narrators, as I haven’t heard their other works. So this leaves another question: Are they just as excellent in those other readings? That I’ll gladly explore.


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

18 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Audiobook Narrator?”

  1. These all sound like excellent narrations and I’ve already added Brideshead Revisited to my audio list for a reread. A print copy of Gilead is waiting on my shelf, but On Beauty will be promptly added to my audible.com wish list.


    1. Gilead is well worth reading. Listening to it afterwards enhances my appreciation of it. On Beauty is entertaining just listening to it. But I don’t think I’ll read it. I guess it may be a book that’s more effective listening to than just reading the text.


    1. Oh you really should. I haven’t read the book, but from the audio version, I think the narrator has succeeded brilliantly in conveying the gist of the story… the cacophony of sounds, conflicting views, miscommunication and rivalry… vividly conveyed. After listening to it, I ‘got it’… and felt no need to read the book, albeit the author would like her book read, not just listened to. 😉


  2. I’ve listened to a lot of audiobooks and it’s like hitting the jackpot when the story is great along with an engaging narrator. I think the key is in the performance (versus a reading), as though it were a radio theatre. I’ve often wished P.D. James’ Dalgliesh series would get re-recorded with one really great narrator rather than the hodge podge that now exists. I’ve also found some narrators are more suited to a particular genre (Dick Hill is the perfect Harry Bosch or Jack Reacher, Hugh Fraser the quintessential Poirot, Robert Whitfield for just about any Dickens, Steven Crossley’s jaunty tones are well suited to Jackson Brodie’s adventures, and Edward Petherbridge is the only Peter Wimsey for me).


    1. I’ve always thought they are performance and if they are professional narrators, they wouldn’t just ‘read’, but ‘perform’. Coincidentally, I’m listening to Michael Connelly’s The Fifth Witness, read by Peter Giles. I think he’s pretty good, brings out Mike Haller’s character really well, much better than Matthew McConaughey.

      I’m a Harry Bosch fan, have read every single one of his books but not heard any audio. Since you mentioned Dick Hill, I’ll search for his Bosch readings in the public library. I hope Bosch will never retire. 😉


  3. This is an interesting set of thoughts in the past couple of posts, Arti. I must say, I don’t listen to audio as often as I should, although I did enjoy Simon Jones’ interpretation of Peter Mayle’s “French Lessons” (essays on food). Quite delightful!


    1. Jeanie,

      I’m just a new regular, haven’t explored too many narrators really. But these three particularly impressed me in their own way.


  4. P.S. I’d be curious what you think of Dick Hill! He’s a friend of mine — he lives here in Lansing and has worked with us at the station and in area theatre. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never listened to one of his books (because, as I mentioned, I don’t listen to many audio books!) but knowing his talents as an actor, I have no doubt his reading would be quite good indeed!


    1. How cool is that! As I replied to nikkipolani, Harry Bosch is my favorite detective. And if she thinks Dick Hill is ‘the perfect Harry Bosch’, I trust her. 😉 Will definitely check that out at the library.


  5. I’m glad you’re reviewing audio book narrators. They truly can bring a book to life! Or they can ruin a book. Alas, they can only do so much to save a boring book. My husband and I just returned from a driving trip through Wisconsin and Michigan. We brought along several audio books. One book, “Foreign Body” by Robin Cook (we weren’t looking for great literature since we were sightseeing and just wanted a little background entertainment) was narrated by one of our favorite narrators, George Guidall. On our trips, we’ve listened to many of the Lillian Jackson Braun “Cat Who” mysteries, narrated by Guidall.

    Guidall was the best thing about the Robin Cook book we listened to. Sadly, even Guidall couldn’t improve the plot.


    1. Cathy,

      Yes, I’ve seen the Lillian Jackson Braun cat series around a lot but haven’t read them. I admit, my ailurophobia could be the main hindrance. 😉 I read and listen to ‘light-weights’ too, esp. when I need relaxation. Thanks for letting me know about Guidall. Will keep him in mind. And you’re absolutely right… even a superb narrator can’t save a deficient plot. As they say in the movies, even the best actors can’t help a bad script.


  6. Very interesting recommendations, Arti! I always look out for the well-known British actors, like Jeremy Irons, but also Martin Jarvis, Simon Callow and Anton Lesser. I am so in awe of people who can manage to produce ten or twelve different voices. Such a skill!


    1. Thanks for all those suggestions. I’ll definitely look for them. I appreciate British actors because many of them are ‘classically’ trained, have done Shakespeare and the stage both require so much more of their articulation and voice production.


  7. OK! Gilead it is, then. But I have to finish my library book first, which I’ve checked out, renewed twice and haven’t started. There are no more renewals. I have to do it. We’ll see how it goes – maybe our July 4 holiday will be a good time to begin.

    And Happy Canada Day! And Happy Stampede, which I think either has started or is about to. I need to check that, or at least have a little Ian Tyson listening party. 😉


    1. Thanks Linda. As I’m typing this reply, I can hear the sounds of fireworks. This is the Canada Day long weekend. Starting next Friday is the annual Calgary Stampede which lasts 10 days. And yes, Ian Tyson is the parade marshall. Huge crowds everywhere and I’m kind of a recluse all these years. I’m afraid to say, I haven’t gone to the Stampede for a long while. But good that he’ll be here to kick off the show… will likely watch the parade on TV.


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