When Penguin Classics went a bit sinister

by limebirdsally

Audio books; fantastic concept, particularly if like me, you view anything less than four miles as walking distance and like to have an unassuming walking companion. I’ve spent many happy hours wandering through historic London with podcasts (Adam & Joe, please come back) or non-fiction audio books for company – what could be better than listening to a spot of Simon Schama or Alison Weir’s Princes in the Tower while walking past the Tower of London?

So when I saw a little orange tin of Penguin Classic audio books priced at something ridiculous like £5 for 12 books I seized on the chance to ‘audio read’ some of the titles that passed me by during my classics phase when I was young. I popped them on my iPod and took them for a stroll…but to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t long before it felt like I was listening to a Monty Python sketch. It’s very difficult to take an sixteen year-old heroine seriously when her dialogue is being narrated by a mature male putting on a daft voice. Instead of hearing a dainty, pretty teenager I just heard a bit of a weirdy in drag, which made her love story both comical and more than a little sinister. It was equally disconcerting to hear the mature female narrator of a different classic voicing the dialogue of a mature stuffy patriarch in what sounded like a very bad Boris Johnson impression.*

I don’t know if it’s a case of me getting what I’ve paid for and there are other much better audio books out there, or if the genre’s just not for me, but I found the whole listening experience put me off the format.

I was wondering what your experiences of audio fiction books have been – should I give them another go? Are there any good ones out there?

* Editor’s Note – Boris Johnson is the Mayor of London, with a very posh English accent.

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23 Comments to “When Penguin Classics went a bit sinister”

  1. I did data entry for years, and without listening to pod casts and audio books I think we would have all gone a bit mad. There are definitely good narrators out there and really really bad narrators out there. I love when Stephen King narrates his books. The narrators for the Harry Potter series (both of them that I have heard) were really fantastic. But once I was listening to a book and you could tell where the reader was pausing to turn pages. I don’t know why someone couldn’t have taken a few extra moments of their day to edit out all the page turns because it is really lousy that they left that in.

    • Ah now I think a narrator would have to be really bad to make a Harry Potter sound bad! Page turns doesn’t sound good – you would have thought if you were going to sell a recording the reader would have practised sufficiently to get that sorted and like you say, there should be enough modern technology to pick up the slack!

  2. I love audio fiction! I drive a lot and so listen for hours a week. It even inspired me to nag my darling to buy me a Blue Snowball mic for Christmas 2010!

    There are two styles, there are the narrators who do not put on voices, just read everything straight.

    A great author who does ‘straight’ narration of his books is Nathan Lowell. He writes science fiction and fantasy (and a combination) and I would recommend all of his work. His “Golden Age of the Solar Clipper” tales are a sort of merchant marine Hornblower in space. The first book can be found here http://www.podiobooks.com/title/quarter-share

    I can’t recommend the Podiobooks site highly enough, and it’s free! (Although you can donate to the authors.) if I don’t get a publishing deal for Talatu I’m going to bring it out it serial form on Podiobooks to drum up an audience.

    There are others who put on voices (myself included) if you want to hear a tale that includes cloned superheroes, sex-starved clowns and (for some strange reason, Australian) ladies of easy virtue. Try my narration of “A Clown Escapes From Circus Town” by Will McIntosh which is on StarShipSofa at http://www.starshipsofa.com/blog/2011/03/29/starshipsofa-no-182-will-mcintosh Warning, there are a couple of ‘F words’.

    StarShipSofa was the first ever podcast to receive a Hugo Award and is a weekly show that includes great fiction plus a monthly poetry slot and various weekly fact articles.

    I don’t know about other narrators, but I do try and put some life into the characters and so that means putting on voices (it also helps, I find, in distinguishing who is talking). On how the voices come about; some are worked out (a medieval knight got a Suffolk accent from my childhood) some just happen (which is why the lady of easy virtue became Australian…)

    Finally, at the other end of the scale, are the full cast productions. I would recommend Prometheus Radio Theatre and all of their productions can be found at http://prometheusradiotheatre.com/?page_id=3 I am particularly into “The Arbiter Chronicles”.

    Or Brokensea Audio that produce, among other things, some brilliant original Dr. Who plays at http://brokensea.com/drwho

    Well, that’s a few to be starting off with. Enjoy your walks!

    • Wow, I haven’t even heard of Podiobooks, sounds great! Okay, so it sounds as if I should give the audio book format another go. Thank you so much for all the recommendations. Have you got any of your work available at the moment in audio book format?

  3. Oh, and my narration starts at 35 minutes!

  4. I used to drive for hours back and forth to work, and I can tell you of one fantastic audiobook — “The Road to Gandolfo” by Robert Ludlum, narrated by Michael Prichard. I have no idea if you can get this on mp3, but I know you can get it in audiocassette — maybe you could transfer it somehow? Well worth the time, and funny as hell!

    • Hmm, I just had a look and can only find the audiocassette format, not even a CD, which I could transfer. Looks good though, thanks for the recommendation!

    • I used to read all of Ludlum’s books when I was in my teens. I remember “The Road To Gandolfo” caused astir because the title had FOUR words! He always had three word titles.

      A great book!

  5. It isn’t fiction, but I loved the audio of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods”. Loved it!!!!

  6. Whoops, sorry just realised I was responding to comments as Sally Panayiotou rather than limebirdsally – come on woman, you only have two log-ins to deal with!

  7. The best audiobooks are narrated by acrtors, I find. Even if they’re not well-known, acting training helps with the voices. And do try Stephen Fry’s version of Harry Potter – he does every single voice differently…and with so many voices, that’s no mean feat. I bet your local library had audiobooks you can check out.And there are companies that rent them

    • Do you know what, I hadn’t even thought of my library, that’s such a good idea! Perhaps I should make that my entry point to go for an actor I’m familiar with and like – you clearly can’t go wrong with a bit of Stephen Fry. Thank you for the advice.

  8. I went almost exclusively audio about five years back. I will say the narration is everything. I have narrators that I love and I tend to go with them.

    • That sounds like a really good idea. It does sound as if the narrator is just as important as the book in audio books. I suspect I’ve just been put off by narrators that don’t appeal to me. Following Gabi’s comment above I’m going to check out my local library and see what actors or actresses I like have narrated interesting-sounding audio books. Thanks Gillian!

  9. Also Amazon have their audiobook service audible.com With that you can download a book for free as a trial.

    My free one was Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (an especially good deal as it is almost 43 hours long!). It also features a stunning narration by William Dufris.

    As for my own narration, apart from StarShipSofa (above) the only stuff of mine is poetry (as I say, Talatu may come out on podiobooks). My poetry can be found at http://dennislanebooks.com/#/poetry/4544651060

    Oh and I forgot to mention librivox.org this is a free online library (like Project Gutenberg) with all of the narrations done by volunteers (so the quality can vary).

    I did start narrating The Fixed Period by Anthony Trollope but have fallen drastically behind (it will probably be taken over by other narrators). The first two chapters can be found at http://upload.librivox.org/share/uploads/jo/fixedperiod_01_trollope.mp3 and http://upload.librivox.org/share/uploads/jo/fixedperiod_02_trollope.mp3

  10. I’ll second http://librivox.org/ as a great place to get free audio books. I download and listen to librivox books all the time on my iPhone with the audiobooks app.

    You can search by narrator. So when you find The Wind in the Willows read awesomely by Adrian Praetzellis or The King in Yellow read creepily by Peter Yearsley, you can look up other books read by them.

    When you find Huckleberry Finn read by a non-native English speaker struggling with quaint, old-timey Mississippi slang, you can avoid him in the future. No offense meant to him. His English is 100 times better than my Afrikaans, for sure.

    Sometimes, the audio books are split up with different narrators for each chapter. So, even though the first few Chapters of Trilby start off in beautiful, dulcet tones, you eventually run into chapters read by enthusiastic, but non-French speakers struggling with pronunciation.

    I recommend Nigel Planer reading any of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.

  11. I love this post Sally, such good food for thought. Honestly, I haven’t ever really tried audio books, not for any particular reason, they just have never really come up on my radar. At work, I listen to a lot of music, and I think if I listened to an audio book, I would probably start writing it in my press releases and blogs etc.

    I might have to maybe get some out of the library now and give them a go. That Amazon thing sounds pretty good too!

  12. I also listen to alot of audio books mainly because i’m a big multi-tasker, i will regularly listen to a book while drawing or doing bits on the Mac/PC. I have to say i have had some very mixed experiences, as people have mentioned the harry potter books are done amazingly well by Stephen Fry but on the other side of the spectrum the Twilight audio books are terrible, they have music at random moments and two actors a male and female that seem like they have been pulled off the street and paid a couple quid to “act”. I’ve had audio books that have just a deep male voice that was so monotone it would put me in a kind of trace and i would realise after half an hour that i hadn’t taken in a word of it. I think with audio books my best advice would be to check it out on itunes or audible first, listen to a little preview to see if the narrator is right for you.

    • And the Twilight actors were ‘professionals’ – I am slightly concerned about what I’ll discover if I try the free sites. Indie books can be very hit and miss and narration is a lot more difficult than it looks! Good advice to listen to a tester first – I forget that such things are possible these days!

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