A shiver ran through audiobook fans and professional storytellers last fall when Publishers Weekly reported that audiobooks had become so popular, with sales topping $1.3 billion in 2020, that their creators might be considering a way to make even more money.
What if producing an audiobook “could be done in a fraction of the time, weeks instead of months?” asked the article. “What if it could be done for a fraction of the cost, hundreds of dollars instead of thousands?”
This magic would in theory involve audio books produced by artificial intelligence rather than human voices. Publishers could save big, the article suggested, by getting rid of “talent,” the trained voice actors who narrate the books, and using something like the technology that gave us Siri and Alexa.
Talk about killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Anyone who thinks that would be a good idea clearly hasn’t listened to a lot of audiobooks.
As a dedicated audiobook fan, I can say without a doubt that only part of the appeal is having you read a book while your hands are free to do other things, like driving. A bigger part is how a good reader brings a book to life. An avid reader can turn a book into an immersive experience, a movie without images.
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But while it should be obvious that no one wants an audiobook to sound like your GPS, readers’ voices can still be divisive.
Caroline Lee, who narrated most of Liane Moriarty’s novels, returns for bestseller “Apples Never Fall” (Macmillan Audio, 6 p.m., $31). Lee, who is Australian like the author, has received rave reviews from The New York Times (who called her voice “irresistible, visceral joy”) and many fans of Moriarty’s work.
“Apples” is the story of the tennis-playing Delaneys, four adult siblings, and parents Stan and Joy. Everyone is petulant with everyone else and talks about it constantly, even before a young woman named Savannah shows up at the parents’ doorstep, seeking refuge. Or something.
Inexplicably, Joy welcomes him. Later, Joy has disappeared and everyone is wondering what to do.
Full disclosure compels me to point out that Lee’s high-pitched, nasal accent hurt my ears so badly that I struggled for just two records before giving up and finishing the book in print. In either format, it will never be a favorite.
On the other hand, I can imagine that some potential listeners think they would need captioning to “An Irish Christmas Party” (Macmillan Audio, 5 hours 35 minutes, $26) by Patrick Taylor, a short story from Taylor’s long-running “Irish Country” series about Northern Ireland doctors in the mid-20th century.
This little charmer, however, turned out to be a perfect pre-Christmas listen, and as read by John Keating, completely understandable, no subtitles needed. The story shows doctors in Taylor caring for children affected by an outbreak of chickenpox while preparing for the holidays in Ballybucklebo, perhaps the cutest village name ever.
This is the 16th and final entry in the series by Taylor, a real doctor from Belfast. I wasn’t lost by not starting from the beginning, but I asked myself a question: why were these delicious books never made for television?
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson “My Monticello” (Macmillan Audio, 7 hours and 36 minutes, $30) employs multiple readers (including the author) for multiple stories, with generally effective results.
The illuminating and always surprising collection begins with the great LeVar Burton, recorded from the stage and unfortunately hard to hear at times. (When he projects into the back rows, we’re good.)
All the stories are solid, but the highlight is the work in the title, “My Monticello”, in which we are thrown into a crisis in the near future which finds a group composed mainly of black people – including a descendant of Sally Hemings – seeking refuge from a white militia at Monticello by Thomas Jefferson. Hearing this story and the accompanying pieces told to us makes them powerfully visceral.
Audiobooks can go wrong, or just right, when read by the author. Memoirs are the genre most often read by the author, and whether it’s a politician, pundit, or comic actor telling the story, the voice makes the words intimate and the jokes funnier.
A recent winner read by author is Stanley Tucci “Taste: My Life Through Food”, (Simon & Schuster Audio, 6 hours and 50 minutes, $39.99) and his voice is a joy, especially for fans of his recent CNN travel series. (A second season of “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” is coming.)
“Life” and “food” are the key words here. Tucci reminisces about the people and meals he loved, less with a haze of nostalgia but still with humor, insight and a desire to bring us into his world.
The only drawback ? The printed book contains recipes and you will not be able to recreate them by listening to them. It’s a compromise, however, it’s worth hearing Tucci’s voice.
Gail Pennington is a former longtime television critic for the Post-Dispatch.