In trying to catch up on many wonderful books I haven’t had time to read yet, I’ve been listening to audiobooks more frequently — although I’m not new to them, I’ve been making an effort to really listen to them in order to better hone my sense of what makes an audiobook great and what, well, doesn’t. As you may recall, I’ve covered the basics of audiobooks.
Last week, I finished two very different audiobooks, and they were certainly a study in contrasts. Sarah Dessen’s Along for the Ride was named an Amazing Audiobook for Teens this year from the American Library Association, and it was an enjoyable, though lengthy, audio to sink into for a while. Rachel Botchan narrates the entire book, but she does shift her voice for a few of the main characters — a semi-voiced performance. As the ALA committee mentions, the entire book feels like Auden, the main character, is sitting you down in a coffee shop and sharing with you the details of the summer before she went to college. It is very easy to sit back and listen, and since it’s a classic Dessen-esque book, there’s not too much that happens that requires paying too much attention to details, as they are easily drawn, developed, and enveloping. I found myself drifting into and out of paying attention to the story, but I had no problems falling back into the narrative. Botchan is very even in her performance, and I didn’t have any issues with her narration changing, her tone shifting, nor did I find myself hearing any vocal slips (breathing, swallowing, or other unfortunate sounds).
Unfortunately for this audio, I was quite disappointed in the editing. Many times throughout the story, I found it quite obvious where recording sessions were cut, spliced together, or otherwise pieced together to develop a cohesive audiobook. Although I’m not very seasoned in editing techniques, for me it was obvious when sound qualities would change, moving from an even sound to suddenly becoming quieter or louder. I felt the production could have been strengthened a bit, especially with such a good narrator and compelling story.
My other qualm with the audio of this title was that I never quite felt Botchan’s voice really matched Auden. Botchan sounded older and wiser than Auden, and while Auden always acted and felt older than 17, if the story were meant to sound like a reflection of a summer, given the growth and changes Auden has over that summer, I wouldn’t have wanted such a wise, intellectual, and almost snooty voice for the narration. I wish she could have sounded a bit younger or a bit less bookish — perhaps a bit more like Esther did (where Botchan did a fantastic job with a very memorable voice and character). On the plus side, her depiction of a Carolina accent was spot on without being over done or under done; rather, it was recognizable enough to better set the scene.
Contrasting Along for the Ride with the second title I listened to this week, and it’s clear that audiobooks really fall on a spectrum of listening experiences. My coworker suggested I listen to Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie. She hadn’t listened to it, but read it, so she couldn’t speak to the quality of listening to it, but with a strong story line, I felt this would be a good bet.
I didn’t check the reader prior to popping in the first disc, but when I heard a very familiar voice, I was suddenly VERY excited to listen. Joel Johnston is the reader on Sonnenblick’s well-known middle grade novel; if the name’s not familiar to you immediately, he is also the reader on Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars and Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why. His voice is the quintessential young teen boy — perfectly wavering on the border of childhood and full-blown adolescence, with just enough innocence and experience to be utterly believable and charming.
Like Along for the Ride, Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie is semi-voiced, so just a few of the main characters have distinct voices throughout. Fortunately, this title features relatively few characters, and instead, the focus is on Steven and Jeffrey, a pair of brothers who will be experiencing a very challenging disease – one on the experiencing as victim side and one on the experiencing as brother side. It is a short audiobook at four discs at about an hour each, but the span of the story fits perfectly within those four hours.
With any book on audio, something that is essential is pacing. As I mentioned before, Botchan is very even in her performance of Dessen’s title, and it works there. Johnstone, however, has a way of pacing in his audio titles that allows him silent space. At critical moments, and even at moments where it is clear that a character would be pausing or thinking or needing a little breathing space, Johnstone gives those silences in his performance. In doing so, I never once felt myself drift away from the story; instead, he builds in space for the listener to step back for a moment or two and, well, “space out.”
Likewise, there are absolutely no quality or production issues in this book. If you’re a little unsure about these issues in audiobooks, think about it this way: if it feels like the reader never once stepped away from recording, then it was well produced. If during listening it becomes clear it was recorded over more than one session, then the editing could have been tightened. In Sonnenblick’s title, I felt like Johnstone was so in love with the story he was sharing that he never once stepped away.
One pet peeve of both of these titles is something that I have not experienced once during my current listening of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline: CD breaks. In both Dessen’s title and Sonnenblick’s title, there is never an indication when the disc ends; instead, the reader must pay close enough attention to know they’re listening to the same material again or have a good disc player that tells them their track has gone back to the start. Because I only listen to audiobooks in the car, this is frustrating, as then I am often not prepared with the next disc immediately. Productions like Coraline, on the other hand, incorporate music at the beginning and termination of a disc, making is very easy to know when it’s time to switch.
Next week, I plan on venturing into the world of non-fiction on audio. I haven’t tried that land yet, and I suspect that the narrator is going to be the absolute key on making the book work on audio. There are some fictional titles that have really terrible readers (I’m looking at Susan Beth Pfeffer’s The Dead and the Gone, where the narrator is way too old and way too flat voiced and emotionless) but the story is compelling enough to make you keep listening.
Have you listened to any of these titles? Any thoughts?
Have you listened to any others on audio that you either absolutely loved or hated? I’m building a nice sized “to listen” list, so I’d love your suggestions.