Friday, January 11, 2013

A bad read




I've been a fan of audiobooks since childhood, when it seems I pestered my parents into buying an assortment of books on tape covering everything from the nativity story to Batman. Maybe it was the parental comfort of being read to, back when I could read the same 30-page book endlessly without it getting boring (as if the Caped Crusader escaping a crushing room of spikes only to find himself tangled in the tentacles of a giant squid could ever get boring), or maybe I just enjoyed being ordered to turn the page when the bell sounded like Pavlov's bookworm.

I even went through a very strange phase (even strange by my standards) of recording books from my collection and my own stories for seemingly no purpose. I never listened back to these, and I don't think there were any commercial prospects for Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park being read slightly too fast by a nine-year-old boy who doesn't understand genetic engineering or chaos theory. Maybe there are, but it's too late now - I taped over them all with Offspring mixes when I was 15, partly because I was too embarrassed to let them survive.

Since I've been travelling, I've relied heavily on audiobooks to entertain me on days out, whether I'm exploring temples and national parks or just getting lost down residential streets trying to remember where that bus stop was. I mostly try to listen to something new, mixing in the odd old favourite alongside podcasts, radio dramas and the occasional Offspring mix for old times' sake.

One common problem I come across is how a lousy narrator can really ruin an otherwise good book. This is the guy or occasional girl who'll be speaking in my ear for anywhere between four and forty hours, and if I don't click with their line delivery, or find their attempts at voicing characters of the opposite sex distracting or plain offensive, it can really hinder my enjoyment.

So here's a list of some of the least successful audiobooks I've come across so far. It's far from thorough, so I hope I'll have more to add in the future. Though I mostly hope I won't.


Bad audiobooks


The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
Read by Ken Campbell and Chris Fairbank


I was excited to read this psychedelic paranoia classic (for 'read,' read 'listen') when I learned about it at the height of my slight obsession with crackpot conspiracy theories, which was also the time I was working in a mindless data entry job that required me to press the Enter key 8,000 times per day and gave my mind plenty of space to occupy with a good audiobook. I obtained (for 'obtained' read 'illegally downloaded') an unabridged reading by the inimitable Ken Campbell and was instantly turned off.

Chris Fairbank handles the less controversial dialogue while Campbell delivers the narration in a very distinctive, nasal style that sounded at first like he had contempt for the material and was only doing it for the money. I later found out that he was a big fan of the work and even staged an audacious stage adaptation in the 70s, which only made it stranger.

I tried the audiobook a couple more times over the next few years, as it really seemed like it was up my street, but as soon as Ken stretched those syllables as he 'emanentized the eschaton,' I gave up. Late last year I gave it another try and it somehow wasn't as painful this time around. Now I've got further into it, you could even say that Campbell's distinctive delivery adds to the peculiarity of the story, but I'm probably just making excuses and learning to live with it. I'm still on book one of three after all.


Weaveworld by Clive Barker
Read by Bruce Hunty


I only got into Clive Barker in the last couple of years, which was remiss of me considering the influence he had on those horror comics of the late 80s that I so enjoy. When I took a break from travelling in Singapore in 2011 and spent a lot of time in the library I worked through a few of his appealingly smaller books in printed form, but Weaveworld was my first foray into his longer, more fantastical fiction.

It was a bad place to start. The story might be captivating, I didn't get a chance to find out - I couldn't make it past the first hour, which literally sent me to sleep on four separate occasions before I decided to call it quits. The fourth time, I deliberately used it as a sedative to quieten my restless mind when I was having trouble sleeping, and it worked within minutes. Doctors should recommend it.

The problem is, the narrator is just so boring. I've listened to plenty of older audiobooks from the cassette era, when they felt the need to list the contents and go through the publishing details and everything, but this guy reads out everything apart from the page numbers. This is particularly annoying as Barker separates it into parts, chapters and sub-chapters, all of which are tediously noted by the narrator. 'Book one... chapter one... one...'

Even I wasn't that pedantic when I read through Jurassic Park on 20 sides of Maxell C90 cassettes, and that was back when I used to obsessively date every picture I drew for posterity, with a second date and arrow pointing to the middle if I'd coloured it in on a different day. We don't need to know this information, just tell us a story!


God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert
Read by Connor O'Brien


I've never been able to tackle any monolithic science fiction or fantasy work, as much as I find the concept of ones like Dune intriguing, but a few months into travelling I fancied trying it on for size and decided to skip past the first three books in the series that I'd already seen disappointing films or bland SyFy Channel adaptations of and tried out new territory in the fourth book, which happily seemed to be rated as the best one by fans. You can see where this is going.

O'Brien's narration is extremely unengaging, but it's when it comes to the voice he chooses for Leto, the main character who delivers most of the dialogue and has extensive internal monologues, that I had serious issues. I don't know why or how he kept this excruciating fake old man voice up for 10 cassettes, he must have genuinely sounded like that by the end. They've apparently re-recorded these since then, I might give the later books a chance, but until then the best and most succinct Dune adaptation will belong to Iron Maiden.


Any public domain story
Read by LibriVox volunteers


If you haven't come across LibriVox before, it's a nice idea with very variable execution. A whole lot of public domain works are available for free download, narrated by volunteers who've caught the same bug that I once had, except I got it out of my system at an early age.

It may seem a little unfair to criticise these kindly souls who give up their free time to read a book for blind people or backpackers with their hands full, just for the love of contributing. But I will, especially as some of them are clearly doing it more for their egos.

There are several clear types of LibriVox readers that can usually be identified within a single book, as they're allocated random chapters. First is the wannabe pro narrator (this was probably me when I was nine), who's listened to plenty of audiobooks in their time and thinks they have what it takes, though they always over-compensate with the pauses. Second is the self-publicist, who wastes no time plugging their unrelated blog or business site as soon as they've worked through the required LibriVox.org spiel. Then there's the non-native English speakers, who I don't have anything against personally but I don't really think should be allowed to narrate Dickens. Is that racist?

Certain types of books attract certain types of narrators. Last summer I listened to folk tales from the likes of Grimm, Perrault and Andersen, and I'd often be greeted by an encouraging mom who alternates with her slightly less enthusiastic daughter. And trust me, you should avoid the classic sci-fi recordings altogether, those cartoon nerd voices have some basis in reality.


Good audiobooks


I've spent enough time slagging off the bad things in the world, I feel I should give a brief rundown of some audiobooks I've really enjoyed, where the readers have enhanced a good story and been a joy to listen to.

Going right back to childhood, I always found the narrator of the otherwise forgettable Away in a Manger nativity story very comforting, it was even worth enduring the annoying Christmas songs performed by kids. I now learn he's called Stephen Thorne and is a master of the craft. If I ever fancy taking another trip to C. S. Lewis' magical, racist and misogynistic kingdom of Narnia, I'll track down the version with Thorne as Aslan, that'd be delightful.

When I was a little older I discovered the Red Dwarf novels, which are a great companion to the TV series, and the audiobooks read by Chris 'Rimmer' Barrie, whose entertaining impressions of his co-stars would often be dug out of the drawer and slapped in the hi-fi during sleepless nights in my teens. I was always a bit disappointed that I only had the abridged versions though.

It's nice when authors narrate their own books, as they can imbue them with a passion and familiarity you can't get elsewhere, and some of the best that have stood out over the years are Neil Gaiman (especially his short story collections) and Philip Pullman, who's accompanied by a full cast in the Chivers adaptation of His Dark Materials (I haven't heard the BBC one, but he reads that too).

In the world of non-fiction, Carl Sagan deserves special mention for making his audiobooks just as engaging as his TV series, it's just a shame that some other guy had to fill in on the unrecorded chapters of Pale Blue Dot due to Sagan's illness. If only all audiobook readers could be this passionate in their readings (then again, he does have the unfair advantage of stupendous subject matter to work with):




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