As audiobook fans know, a good narrator makes all the difference. You could be listening to the best-written book on the planet, but if the reader is too breathy, too nasal, too dramatic, too choppy, too monotonous, too effortful, too precious, or too something else, or if the pitch of his or her voice hits your ear badly, you won’t get past the first 10 minutes.
I’m just coming off a trifecta of excellent narrators. The first was Elizabeth Acevedo, reading her YA title, With the Fire on High. Sometimes authors aren’t the best narrators of their own works, but Acevedo is one of those rare stellar performers (Philip Pullman is another) who create magic, providing what feels like a satisfying fullness of storytelling. Her voice is rich and brings the story and characters alive in exactly the right ways at the right times. I absolutely loved her reading style and the way she portrays Emoni Santiago, the teen main character who’s trying to plan her future after high school, a future that will include her toddler daughter. Emoni is strong, conflicted, smart, funny, fierce, loving, and courageous, and Acevedo writes her—and her abuela—as truly three-dimensional people. I was sad to say goodbye to them.
The next delightful narrator was Jayne Entwhistle, who read Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s The War I Finally Won. I had been avoiding this book, because I so loved its predecessor, The War That Saved My Life, that I didn’t want to be disappointed by a subpar sequel. It took the reassurance of several reviews, colleagues, and customers to allay my worries, and I’m so grateful I finally buckled to the temptation. Bradley has created such a vivid world and such a lovable cast of characters that the book deserved the perfect narrator, and happily, Entwhistle did a bang-up job. She embodied Ada as wonderfully as Cherry Jones did India Opal Buloni in Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie. It can’t be easy to be a grown woman and somehow manage to convincingly channel an 11-year-old girl, a six-year-old boy, not to mention several older men and women, in your reading of a book, but Entwhistle does it beautifully. Yay! And whew!
Next, I dipped into the adult realm, finally taking on Tara Westover’s Educated, a book that’s been on the bestseller lists forever and that has inspired much admiration and even some debate among customers and staff. Narrator Julia Whelan is terrific reading this memoir, the story of Westover’s journey from a conservative, survivalist, rural childhood without formal education—but one that also gave her enormous competence and self-reliance in many practical arenas—to an adulthood that has included advanced degrees and studies at Harvard and Cambridge Universities, and complicated relations with her family. A few customers along the way had commented slightly negatively on Westover’s writing style; “it’s not great writing,” they’d say, “but the story itself is so interesting.” I think Westover is a natural storyteller, which always translates best aurally. I wonder if those few readers would have taken issue with the writing if they’d listened to the audiobook instead of reading it.
The reason it took me so long to read this book is because it was a bestseller. Often, when a book is so famous it sells itself and doesn’t really need us to get it into customers’ hands, I’ll skip over those bestsellers in favor of less well-known worthy titles that might need a helping hand from a bookseller to find its readers. So audiobooks are a great way to catch up on titles everyone wants to talk about.
I mentioned a trifecta of narrators, so you may think I’m at the end of my last spate of great audiobooks. BUT! My friends, I had the most fabulous surprise when I settled in to listen to Ibi Zoboi’s Pride, which I’ve been trying to get to for months. It was narrated by the fabulous Elizabeth Acevedo of With the Fire on High fame! For some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me that an author might narrate other authors’ books, not just her own. But of course audio publishers are alert to great voices, and anyone would leap to have Acevedo read more books. I admit that when I heard her voice, I did a surprised, joyful hop up and down in my apartment during those introductory moments of the narration. Pride—a contemporary, New York-based spin on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice set in Bushwick—was a total delight. Zoboi and Acevedo together made me love the neighborhood, the people, the whole world of this book. Having spent some years in Brooklyn back in the late 80s-early 90s and seen the process of “gentrification” creep along avenues that were once lively, diverse family neighborhoods, I could also feel Zuri’s anger, mourning, and frustration for what is lost with those changes. Acevedo is my new favorite audiobook narrator. Since I discovered that she also narrated her book, The Poet X, I’ll need to listen to it, too, even though I’ve read the book. Especially because I’ve read the book, actually; I want to hear those poems read aloud.
So now I need to stock up on a new batch of audiobooks.* What have you listened to and LOVED lately? Which narrators would you go to the ends of the earth to hear? Bonus points for 2019 titles! I’m always trying to catch up. Both fiction and nonfiction are welcome!
* I now get my audiobooks through Libro.fm, a great indie-bookstore-supporting company that has many advantages over Audible; many of my customers have switched over and love it, too. Give it a try if you’re an audio fan!