The Perfect Reader: Does He or She Exist?

Patrick Tull: He even
looks like Cadfael!
I adore audio books. I am also extremely fussy about my readers. My criteria have little to do with the reader's acting ability--I consider David Suchet the quintessential Poirot, but I don't much care for him as a reader.  Patrick Tull is a marvelous reader of Ellis Peters' Cadfael books (he sounds the way I think Cadfael would sound), but I rarely listen to him: he reads too slow.

Stephen Thorne does a pleasing job with Ellis Peters' Cadfael books and short stories. Hugh Fraser (who plays Hastings opposite Suchet's Poirot) does a more than respectable job with Christie's texts.

Speaking of mysteries, Ian Carmichael may not look like Peter Wimsey but nobody sounds more like him! He reads well and fast and doesn't try to "act" too many different characters (it impresses me when a reader can do this, but it usually slows them down, and few of them are as good as Jim Dale).

Joss Ackland as the diplomat
in hunt for Red October: that
gravelly voice!
James Saxon reads most of Ngaio Marsh books. I don't much like his voice (it isn't soothing or melodious--I listen to audiobooks when I'm going to sleep), but I think he is a good reader and captures Marsh's characters quite well. While I don't have any particular opinion about readers "acting out" different voices, I do like them to convey meaning and tone in their delivery. Saxon does this.

As does Joss Ackland! I am currently listening to him read The Screwtape Letters. I own the John Cleese-read version of the same text, and it is quite good. However, I must admit, Ackland's is better! (Joss Ackland played C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands, the BBC version--which is far superior to the Hollywood version.)

Stephanie Cole: Hilarious comedienne.
Good reader!
Before I discuss good women readers, I have to consider Criminal Minds: each episode begins and ends with a quote. For reasons that I won't try to delve into, many of the actresses on the show in the earlier seasons would rush their quotes; the men never did (perhaps women are more uncomfortable than men about "taking up space"?). The readings improved in later seasons; the actresses who play Penelope and Emily Prentiss are quite good at delivering quotes.

So there are strong female narrators! Rosemary Leach and Stephanie Cole come to mind. Nadia May, a reader from the days before audiobooks were made for more people than the visually-impaired (and kudos to those readers!)--does a respectable job. Joan Hickson is a great reader of Christie's short stories (I prefer Leach and Cole for the novels).

Judi Dench is a strong reader. In one episode of As Time Goes By, Jean (Judi Dench) is reading in bed with Lionel; he has gotten a pile of books out of the library, including Winnie-the Pooh by A.A. Milne. After she teases him for his choice, she reads a passage. Cadence and tone are exactly right! Afterwards, Jean chuckles and admits that Winne-the-Pooh is worth rereading, whether one is an adult or a child.

Baldrick about to deliver his poem: Boom, boom, boom!
Audio books in general are problematic, having a shorter shelf-life than paperbacks. Publishing companies are constantly selling new audio versions of books (with the latest celebrity reader!). This is unfortunate. The best reading of Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones I have every heard was read by Blackadder actor Tony Robinson (who plays Baldrick). It is no longer available even though Amazon. Tony Robinson has read a number of Terry Pratchett's novels.

The all-time best reader in my estimation is Simon Prebble. He has good cadence; he captures tone and meaning very well. On top of all that, his voice is unbelievably sexy: think James Earl Jones, only English and not quite so deep. Prebble has read Ellis Peters' "contemporary" series (based in the 1950s and 1960s) as well as Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark and some Sherlock Holmes' stories.

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