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Audiobook narrators have a lot of responsibility. It’s their job to make an author’s words come to life. They often lend their voices to a whole cast of characters across ages, genders and backgrounds. They translate emotions and moods into intonations and pauses. The choices they make shape how we as readers imagine scenes, interactions, and landscapes. It’s as if they carry entire worlds–sometimes universes–on their shoulders.
For me, the skill and the style of audiobook narrator determines whether or not I’ll even make it to the end of the story. I listen while running and, if a narration isn’t emotional, if the characters’ voices aren’t varied and believable, if the pace isn’t just right, my mind starts to wander. My focus will shift to the people and places around me, to what I’ll eat when I’m done, to what I need to do at work that day. And, before I know it, a chapter will have passed and I won’t have heard a thing. On the other hand, a good narration holds my interest and time flies by.
For this reason, when I’m looking for a new book to listen to, I often prioritize its narrator over anything else. My TBR is never-ending but I’ll download a book I’ve never heard of and would probably leave on the shelf at a store if it’s by a narrator I like and it sounds half-way decent.
I think that Julie Whelan could narrate the back of a cereal box and I’d listen. It is fitting because Whelan’s book Thank You for Listening–about a fictitious book narrator who comes to the profession after a terrible accident cuts her acting career short–is the book that made me really focus on the ins-and outs-of narration, all of the preparation and nuance involved in giving a good book its due and what made me even really pay attention to the name of the narrator for the first time.
I’d already unwittingly listened to Whelan narrate My Year of Rest and Relaxation and as part of the cast of How High We Go In the Dark. Since then, I’ve gravitated towards her work. I even listened to The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, a historical fiction set in the great depression by an author known for making people cry. It is like The Grapes of Wrath for women and, honestly, while this is so decidedly outside of my normal reading habits, I listened to the whole thing and I think I did cry at least twice. Whelan is that good. I’m currently listening to The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue and it is making me thankful that she has narrated hundreds of books for me to listen to in the future.
Looking to expand my audio world, I asked other FBC contributors to share their favorite narrators. Here’s who they had to recommend and the books I’ve added to my to-listen list as a result:
Tayler has made the case for Bahni Turpin and influenced Natalia in the process. Tayler mentioned her readings of The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. I am adding Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi to my list based on this recommendation. Her Homegoing (narrated by Dominic Hoffman) was the first audiobook I loved.
Caroline also loves Turpin and will listen to anything narrated by Marin Ireland, who I’d only known as a television actress. I’ve been meaning to re-read This Time Tomorrow and to read Pineapple Street so I might turn to the audio versions instead.
Sally gravitates towards Xe Sands, who narrates a memoir I really enjoyed, I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg, which is all about making a life as a writer. She also generally enjoys Karen Chilton and Imani Park
Renee seconds Turpin and Whelan and adds Robin Miles, whose versions of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, The City We Became and The World We Make are amazing and fully immersive. She also narrates Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, which is one of my favorites, in addition to beloved nonfiction works like Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks and Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. Renee also added Mara Wilson, who is fittingly well known for her role as one of my bookish heroines, Matilda, to the list.
Audiobook month is about to come to an end but, using narrators as my guide, I have a list of books to last until next June and beyond.