Good Audiobooks?

I recently became a convert to audiobooks, since I wanted something that would last the Aust->Uk->Aust round trip and keep me entertained on the plane.

Anyway, I just finished the first audiobook I have tried, “Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett (on a recommendation from someone here). I liked it a lot, and I get the feeling that it may well have been improved by being in audiobook form.

So I am looking for other good audiobooks. The reason I say “good audiobooks” and not just “good books” is because I don’t think all books would translate well to the audiobook form, and perhaps more importantly, I don’t think a lot of audiobooks are narrated very well. It took me a long time when I was going through the website the first time, as the narration in a lot of the samples was enough to turn me off from going any further.

So I wonder, for those of you who have been listening to audiobooks for some time, if you can recommend some good audiobooks where the narration either doesn’t get in the way or actually improves the original storyline.

If it matters, I will be doing most of my listening driving to and from work in 20-30 minute bursts.


** Deleted – accidental post. **

I’ve been an subscriber for about a year now, and I always keep an audio book on my iPod – it makes doing chores a lot easier. I have developed a few prejudices along the way:

• Narrator is hugely important – always listen to a clip of the book before you purchase. You’ll be living with this voice in your head for 4-20 hours of your life; make sure you want it there. The author is always the best narrator, in my experience.

• Unabridged!

• Lolita, narrated by Jeremy Irons, is the ne plus ultra of audiobooks, especially if you’ve read the book once or twice before you listen to it. Audio is a great way to “re-read” stuff. Nabokov’s prose sings like poetry when Irons reads it.

• When it comes to fiction, horror and science fiction work really well on audio (I’m guessing this is why Gaiman’s book worked so well for you). There’s a “bedtime story” element to a lot of that stuff. Listening to Stephen King on audio is like hearing a (long) story around a campfire.

• I have particular affection for Michael Chabon’s “Wonderboys” on audio. I mention this only because I always like to recommend Chabon whenever I can.

• Speaking of Stephen King, his “On Writing” – narrated by King – is something I’ve listened to twice. It’s like taking a seminar class from a masterful (and really creepy) professor. The essay in the back that deals with his accident is one of the best things he’s ever written.

• Comedy works well, especially read by the author. Anything, really, that depends on an element of timing (see above, re: horror). David Sedaris is great on Audio. Steve Martin’s memoir of his early stand up days (Born Standing Up, I think?) is very engaging.

• Lots of people like nonfiction on Audio, and I agree to a point. Really long work gets exhausting, and I tend not to listen as well to very, very long work. A.J. Liebling’s “The Sweet Science” (boxing writing from The New Yorker, circa 1950) was surprisingly great, and I really enjoyed Thurston Clarke’s “The Last Campaign” about Bobby Kennedy. To me, good audio nonfiction plays like one of those long interviews on NPR or BBC that you never want to end. The good news – a lot of nonfiction never seems to end.

• I have not listened to them myself, but I am told that Audio is a great way to catch up on Harry Potter. I plan to do so when I have a spare trillion hours.

So here is a “prejudiced” thing (look for the other thread) that I have when I do an audio book (which isn’t often.

I like the “classics”. When listening to say Monte Cristo I like French accent, Dickens gets an englishman, Twain gets Wock or any other hick. Seems to me that it is easier to see the scene when the voice matches the expected voice of the narration.

The more modern works don’t seem to work this way. Sci-Fi gets American or German, drama a classic “British”, modern comedy a Brooklyn or cockney.

Basically what Mr Maxwell-house said: your stuck with this voice for quite a while, you better like it for the story.

I have no real suggestions beyond that.

I don’t agree that the author is always the best reader. The author may know her/his material better than anyone else, but delivering it – reading it aloud – is difficult and chancy unless you’re well-trained or remarkably gifted.

If it’s John le Carre, for instance, yes, get the author’s own reading. At the other extreme, in my experience, is Tony Hillerman, whose novels about Native Americans are beautiful, haunting, and rich, but whose own reading of his books is terrible. In between – staying for now with Native Americans – is Louise Erdrich. Her novels are among the best now being written in this country. (She’s remarkably under-rated.) She reads her material fairly well, and you might settle for that, until you heard Anna Fields read one of the Erdrich novels. The work really comes alive in Fields’ reading. And yes, Jaysen, you might believe she actually was Ojibway.

Reading aloud is a performance skill, and not even all good actors can bring it off. It’s not fair to expect a novelist to do it, though many do. Still, there are many otherwise-obscure but highly talented readers at work in the audio book industry.

Best advice, and here I do agree with Sean, listen to a clip before loading. I also agree with him on unabridged and Michael Chabon.


And, too… (I stole that from Sarah Palin)

PJS may be right about authors reading, now that I think about it. Using one of my own picks as an example, I’ve been to Chabon readings in the past and… well, let’s just say I liked the actor who read Wonder Boys better. I think I was thinking of King when I mentioned that, and he has a family tradition of reading aloud. Agreed on Le Carre.

There is one audiobook convention that I’ve come to tolerate, but only just barely: Men reading women’s dialogue with a whispery falsetto. It was jarring at first, and a little goes a long way, and I’m pretty sure I think that it’s wholly unnecessary. But, like I said, I’ve gotten used to it. Kind of. Not really.

Not fiction, but if you can find Shelby Foote’s audiobooks on Vicksburg (The Beleagured City) and Gettysburg (Stars in Their Courses), buy them.

Both are excerpts from his three-volume history of the Civil War. He reads both, in a gravelly Mississippi baritone that is absolutely perfect for the material. Highly recommended.

(The full history is also available on audiobook. I haven’t listened to that edition, and can’t comment.)


I have to admit.

When I have listened to samples, a couple of times I have decided not to by a book entirely due to the man doing the whispery falsetto for a woman’s voice. It is the most jarring, throw me out of the story and make me think of a really bad radio commercial that I think I have seen.

And I apologise to everyone who may be offended for this in advance: I have also tended to not buy a lot of audiobooks if the accent is American. I’m not sure why, but for most of them, they just don’t sound right to me. Which is a little odd, because I am used to it with all the TV and movies.

And yes, you are right about the Gaiman/Pratchett book. I think the ‘Sci-Fi/Fantasy’ genre may adapt particularly well, I think partially because you can easily serialise it into 30 minute blocks without losing the flow each time you return.


Might it have something to do with the fact that most Americans can’t “read”? Yes we see the words, but we don’t pronounce them (or even think of them pronounced) correctly. An example of this is a BBC news item I listened to on a Italian woman in a coma. She is in a persistent vegetative state.

We say/read vegetative with a long a. veg-eh-tate-ive
Apparently everyone else on the planet (include the Indians, Chinese, Brazilian, German, French and HM finest (from stockport and of the same mentality of Mr K)) pronounce it short a: veg-et-a-tive

It suddenly dawned on my why TALKING to my offshore group is so hard. They pronounce the words in English, not American.

Heck now I don’t want to listen to Americans either†

†[size=75]so what is the correct pronunciation: ee-ther or eye-ther?[/size]

veg-a-ta(or tay)- tive, either or iether<-----two pronunciations, one spelling: either

There could be regional preferences, favouring one pronunciation over tother. iether doesnt even look right. Say it, but don`t write it

Professor K

I second the recommendation of Jeremy Irons reading Lolita. It was my first time “reading” the book, and I loved it. Jeremy Irons was perfect.

Frank McCourt’s books, read by him, were wonderful. I heard that he doesn’t approve of the audiobook format and produced these only under duress, but if you hear him read then that’s the only way you’ll want to get these books.

If you happen to like “On the Road,” the audiobook of “On the Road: The Original Scroll” read by John Ventimiglia (the actor who played Artie Bucco on the Sopranos) is great. I kept forgetting that it wasn’t Kerouac reading; it’s one of the best matches of material and reader that I’ve heard. (If you’ve never read/heard On the Road, don’t start with this edition, and if you don’t like On the Road, this version won’t change you mind.)

“Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track,” a collection of letters by Richard Feynman, was stellar. Perfect bite-sized pieces for driving.

My least successful experience was “Swann’s Way,” which for me was totally impossible to listen to while driving. I couldn’t go five minutes without my mind wandering. :slight_smile: I had to go buy the book.

When I had a longer commute I got through Crime and Punishment, although the sheer number of hours wore me down a bit. Equally long, though, was “Undaunted Courage,” about the Lewis & Clark expedition, which despite the length I never got tired of. Audible no longer sells the edition I got. You do have to be careful of the reader, and be careful to only get the unabridged editions.

Just finished Aravind Adiga’s “The White Tiger,” downloaded from Audible. It’s been awhile since I encountered as remarkable a protagonist in contemporary literature. His story, related in the first person, offers a view of modern India that strikes me as a valuable counterpoint both to Western excitement about Bangalorian entrepreneurship and to the (necessarily) superficial accounts of the country I’ve explored as my youngster’s homeschool teacher. I thought the narration first-rate. Ended up ordering a hard copy from Amazon so I’d have readier access to favorite lines and passages.

Not an audiobook, but along the same line: there is a company called ‘The Teaching Company’ ( which rounds up famous American university professors and has them create courses on their specialty subjects. The courses are sold in various formats including MP3 audio.

The courses are composed of between 12 - 48 individual lectures of 30-45 minutes each. Over the past year, I have listened to a few courses on my iPod, and I find the lectures are the perfect length for commuting or taking a walk. I like that I can get an introductory overview of an unfamiliar subject without the struggle of trying to find a reliable and readable introductory text in a field I know nothing about. The professors are chosen partially for their ability to hold an audience, which generally means that they are pleasant to listen to.

The courses are rather spendy at full price, but the trick is to only buy courses when they’re on sale. Every course they offer goes on sale at least once per year, and the sales can be quite dramatic, up to 70% or 80% off sometimes. For example, the Chinese history course (which I quite enjoyed) is normally $200 for the MP3 audio, but is currently $50. The company also hands out a lot of coupons, so whenever I have ordered a course I have always been able to get a further discount by finding coupons through sites like

I’m a happy Teaching Company customer too… their courses are excellent, especially the “great courses” series. I’m listening to the music theory one right now; the instructor is hilarious and keeps me engaged and interested even through the stuff I already know. And being interested is definitely the most effective way to learn…

They have a watchlist sort of feature so you can put a course you’re interested in on the list and they’ll let you know when it goes on sale.

I got into audio books at Audible about a year ago, though I’ve been given a few on tape over the years. The Audible to MP3 player/iPhone/whatever model is very simple to get on with, and their new ‘enhanced’ format (64kbps AAC with DRM) is excellent,though their ‘Format 4’ (32kbps MP3 / DRM) is also acceptable.

For recommendations, I’ve loved ‘Dune’ and ‘Messiah of Dune’ - books I would never have sat down and read, but whilst cleaning or commuting have been a pleasure. ‘Hyperion’ and ‘Fall of Hyperion’ equally excellent, though my favourite audio book so far is likely ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, which was just trance inducing on the bus.

For narrators, based on the above, Scott Brick, Simon Vance and Victor Bevine have been good to listen to on long 20hr plus works.

If you want an experiment, try ‘Metatropolis’ as a collection of themed short stories with a different reader each. One or two I cringed through, others were excellent, but it’s an example of the effect the narrator can have. Also can the topic. I tried the audiobook of ‘Universe in a Nutshell’ (copied from tape to my iPod) and didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as the paper version I read afterwards, not due to a bad narrator, just the content didn’t seem to sit right for me as an audiobook.

p.s. Anyone else here use

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson is a thoroughly enjoyable listen. As is the BBC version of his Notes from a small Island. :smiley: is a good place to visit for free Audiobooks. Beware though, being read by members of the public, there are some truly awful readings. Beasts and Super-Beasts by Saki is particularly excellent. The reader has a wonderful voice for these stories.

Earlier in the posts someone mentioned avoiding American readers. This had never really bothered me until I heard P.G. Wodehouse read by an American. At first the reader’s mistake of pronouncing Bertie Wooster’s use of the word ‘what’ as a question was quite funny, though it wasn’t long before it had me tearing the wallpaper off the walls.

Just finished A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barabara Tuchman, a bit long at an unabridged 28 hours, but fascinating and beautifully read by Nadia May. If you like European history it’s not to be missed.
I can’t quite get used to listening to most serious literary fiction that was written for the page not the ipod - it’s too easy to miss the subtleties when the reading pace is out of my control. But for lighter work that has a strong storytelling element audiobooks are perfect. It’s especially fun to hear a smart storybook, like Gaiman’s excellent Coraline, evocatively read by the author; like being a kid again.
On the whole, I much prefer English readers to American ones as well: on average, they’ve had better voice training and pickier audiences. Though obviously there are exceptions. And who could abide Twain, Faulkner or even Vonnegut being read by a Brit? Like watching dubbed movies. blech.

Ditto for The Teaching Company and for any long haul, I thoroughly recommend George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series.

I’ve been hooked on audiobooks for a while. I still remember the delicious reading of Dickens’ Little Dorrit by Andrew Sachs (remember Basil the Rat?)–absolutely entrancing. A good reader has special skills and even accomplished actors don’t always make good readers: I keep trying to listen to the Odyssey but get stumped by the snippets read by Susan Sarandon, whose acting I’ve enjoyed. American actors don’t tend to have the broad range of experience and training of British actors. I’ll probably have to try another version. (ooh, I see that Derek Jacobi reads Fagles’ new translation–just listened to a snippet: yum.)

Most narrators I enjoy are British, though Anna Fields does a wonderful narration of Wharton’s The House of Mirth (on in a kind of gentle, comfortable drawl rich with upper-crust New York tones of an earlier generation. I’ve gotten hooked on the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series, and enjoy the narrations of both Simon Vance and Patrick Tull (though there are hardcore fans of each who absolutely disdain the other).

War and Peace (unabridged) read by Neville Jason is also wonderful.

If you’re in the US, your public library most likely has a good selection of audiobooks available for download. (Some are in a format readable on ipods, though the quality on some can be tinny. I’ve had the best luck downloading the WMA format on a Windows machine, then burning onto CDs and transferring onto Mac. Tedious, I know…)

Anna Fields (real name: Kate Fleming) may have been the finest reader ever – surely the best American. Her output was phenomenal: something like 175 books recorded. She died, ironically, when she was trapped in her own recording studio by a flash flood. I first discovered her reading the books of Louise Erdrich, where she incorporated a variety of dialects and a range of ages but never seemed to be acting; she was always reading you a story.