Thursday, December 23, 2021

My Favorite Audio Book Narrators This Year

 2021 was the year when I got into audiobooks hard core. Previously I had treated them mostly as fodder for road trips. As if I could only indulge when I could be guaranteed a long, uninterrupted stint for listening. I'm privileged to have a short work commute, so it never made sense to bother with turning on a story I could only listen to for 15 minutes at a time (I've since changed that opinion). Then podcasts became a thing, and then COVID became a thing, and both seemed to have re-wired my brain.  This year, I've had a harder and harder time getting into written-word media, especially at novel length. All that sitting still and focusing took effort. But audiobooks allowed me to multi-task, and that was the perfect solution. I could gobble a book while walking, cooking, doing dishes, laundry, yard work, crochet etc., etc., etc.

Truth be told, I am mainly consuming novel length stories almost 100% by audio these days, and I have become quite particular about narrators. The following is a list of the best audiobooks I listened to in 2021, mostly because of an outstanding performance by the narrator. I feel like that's some kind of niche geekdom right there: Fangirling audiobook narrators.  I definitely choose books I'm curious about because of the author or subject matter, but in 2022 I suspect I'll be choosing more audiobooks out of love for particular narrators.

If you're a current audiobook fan, or are thinking of giving them a try, I hope you'll enjoy these books as much as I have.

The Sandman: Act II by Neil Gaiman; Narrated by: Various

The Audible production of the Sandman comics have been outstanding. I have to say I enjoyed Volume 1 a smidge more than Volume 2, but both are expertly casted and produced. If you love Neil Gaiman (who serves as the main narrator in this production and does an admirable job), you just have to give these volumes a listen. The stories are mostly voiced by a cast of big named celebrities and voice actors with years of talent under their belts. Volume two brings back James McAvoy as Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, the Sandman himself. I'm going to have a hard time watching the Netflix version of Sandman when it comes out because I'll be wishing for McAvoy's voice the whole time. He IS Dream for me. With Kat Denning as Death, Michael Sheen as Lucifer, and other favorites such as Bill Nighy, David Tennant, and John Lithgow playing key roles, this production takes on cinematic quality. I sincerely hope there is enough material still out there to compose a third volume. If so, I'll snap it up in an instant.

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin; Narrated by Robin Miles

If you liked "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman, I think you'd really enjoy "The City We Became" by N.K. Jemisin. It's an absolute love letter to the city of New York, and as someone who is fond of New York, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the city literally come to life.

If you read the written-word version, that's wonderful! But I'm telling you... the audio book version is an absolute *performance* that harkens back to radio dramas of old. It's a complete production with sound effects and music that gives the story huge presence and impact.

Robin Miles's narration is masterful. I never felt like she was simply reading to me. Instead it felt like theater. I'd say it was theater for the ears, but she made the story so vivid it was easy to "see" every scene and character. She does black, white, Indian, Asian, man, woman, and everything in between with such skill that it almost seems like there's a separate actor doing each character.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune; Narrated by Daniel Henning

I've said before, elsewhere,  that this book reminded me a bit of a Pixar style movie, and that's a good thing. Sometimes it's nice to read something comfortable and comforting. The most compelling parts of the story, though, are the inhabitants of The House in the Cerulean Sea. The house is an orphanage giving home to a collection of unusual children. At first, I wasn't sure about Henning's narration. It wasn't bad, but I would have said it had no great sparkle to it. But once we started meeting the characters, especially the children (and especially Chauncy), Henning's narration talents truly began to shine. Each kid got a distinctive, recognizable voice, and I connected with each of them so much that I wanted to adopt them all.

The Vampire Empire series by Clay and Susan Griffith; Narrated by James Marsters

I picked up these books mainly because Clay and Susan are local authors. I've met them once or twice and follow them some on social media. They are a husband and wife writing team who have produced a few urban fantasy/historical fantasy series, including the novelizations of The Flash for DC and the CW network.  Another reason I picked up these books is because Clay and Susan often favor the steampunk aesthetic, and so do I.  These Vampire Empire books read like a mix of super hero comic, old fashion pulp adventure, and romance. I gobbled them up as fast as I could get through them.

But one of the best parts of this series is that the books were narrated by James Marsters. If you've ever been a Whedon fan (it's okay if you don't want to admit it these days), then you know Marsters's name. He played Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and spin-offs. I actually know him better from some of the other things he's stared in such as a brief appearance as Brainiac on Smallville, and as Victor Stein on Runaways, a Marvel title on Hulu. 

I knew he had taken up narrating audiobooks because a good friend who listened to the Dresden Files series had mentioned that Marsters was the narrator for the whole series and that he had done an excellent job. While I've never listened to a Dresden Files book (though I've read all but the most recent one), I have to agree with my friend. Marsters is a narrating genius. The Vampire Empire series required so much variety in gender, nationality, race, accents, etc., and he switched between them all with ease and deftness. I will definitely look for more stuff that he's narrated, and I'm even considering re-doing the Dresden files just to hear Marsters's performance.

Killing Floor (Jack Reacher, Book 1) by Lee Child; Narrated by Dick Hill

I won't lie. I really enjoyed the first Jack Reacher movie starring Tom Cruise, despite having mixed feelings about Tom Cruise. I don't care for him so much on a personal level, but as an action hero, I have more tolerance. I've mostly enjoyed all of his Mission Impossible movies, for example.  When I saw that Prime is doing a new Jack Reacher series, and that they had cast someone who was Cruise's complete physical opposite (Big, blond, and beefy as opposed to short, compact, and brunette), I decided it might be time to read one of the books and find out what was going on.

I don't know why I never made the connection before, but there are a lot of similarities between Jack Reacher and The Punisher. If I had realized that earlier, I probably would have jumped on these books sooner. Jack is a little less motivated by personal grief than Frank Castle, which I appreciate. The fridging of Castle's wife and kids was one of my less favorite plot points of the original Punisher storyline. Reacher does suffer some personal loss in Killing Floor, but for once, it wasn't a female love interest.

It was clear to me early on, however, that what really made this book work for me was Dick Hill's performance. At first, I thought Hill sounded a little old for the 36 year old Reacher, but he quickly grew on me, especially with his talent for voicing the individual and diverse characters in Child's books. In fact, I couldn't even get into the second Reacher book (Die Trying) because it was narrated by someone different and I was so disappointed he wasn't Dick Hill. Also maybe because the story just wasn't as good as the first book. I'm now listening to the 5th Jack Reacher book (Echo Burning), specifically because Dick Hill narrates it (and because it was immediately available at my library), and I'm pretty sure if I do more Reacher books after this one, I'll only do the Hill ones because he elevates a simple thriller into something more than.

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