For a lifelong voracious reader, I came to audiobooks very late. I always assumed that audiobooks, no matter the story, would be incredibly dull, with some lackluster voice droning in my ear. Reading a story was my job! My activity! Boy, was I ever wrong about that. I got stuck in a rather long commute a few years back and grew sick of sitting in traffic. One can only take so much NPR and even my music collection grew tiresome after a while. Since I was working in a library, I spent a lot of time shelving audiobooks. I decided to pick up Little House in the Big Woods, just to see what it was like to revisit those old, beloved stories. Friends: It was a revelation. Audiobook narrators are actors more than anything — a very important detail I failed to realize. Stories are conveyed with emotion and range, the narrators do voices and there are even occasional musical accompaniments and sound effects. Audiobooks, I realized, are a way for me to inhale even more stories than I already do! And they fill the many hours in my week in which I am doing the mundane chores of everyday life: washing dishes, commuting, folding laundry, even going for a run. The best audiobooks, like the best books, lift you out of your ordinary life and transport you somewhere else for a little while.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t dud audiobooks out there. Like anything, you may have to try a few before you find one that catches your attention and keeps it. Keep in mind that having a library card will help you check out a wide variety of audiobooks without spending a penny. Check out the actual cds or download digital audiobooks to your iphone or smartphone. Digital audiobooks are my preferred method, since they are so delightfully portable and can be accessed anywhere at anytime. If you don’t have a library card, or are very impatient about waiting for things on a hold list, try audible.com. They have great deals and membership plans for audiobook lovers, and you access everything from an app on your smartphone. Here are a few of my favorite audiobooks for your consideration.
City of Thieves by David Benioff
David Benioff, in case you need reminding, is the showrunner for a modest little show you may have heard of called Game of Thrones. He and his partner are responsible for adapting the story and bringing it to HBO. Well, before all that, he wrote a damn good novel. City of Thieves follows two young men, Lev, a Russian-Jewish emigre living in Leningrad, and Kolya, a Cossack soldier. Lev gets arrested for looting the body of an ejected Luftwaffe pilot and Kolya is arrested for deserting his unit. After meeting in jail, the two men are thrown into a surreal journey through Leningrad after a Russian Colonel orders them to find fresh eggs (a luxury in the starving, desperate city of Leningrad) to use for the cake at his daughter’s upcoming wedding. Super-compelling and perfectly paced, this story is great in any format, but the audiobook is enhanced exponentially by the performance of actor Ron Perlman. Perlman, best known for his role on the television series Sons of Anarchy, brings a delicacy and a gravity to the story and turns an otherwise really good book into an addicting good book. You will want to suspend everything else you are doing just to keep listening.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Oh, Shirley Jackson, no one does creepy like you. This much loved story follows the shunned Blackwood family, who live in a large, isolated house set outside a village. The story is narrated by 18-year old Mary Katherine, “Merricat”, who lives with her older sister Constance and her ailing Uncle Julian. The reader/listener will quickly surmise that all is not right with Merricat, who looks upon the world with suspicion, hatred and a quick and vicious violence that cuts into her narrative when you least expect it. Through Uncle Julian’s ramblings and Merricat’s scattered comments, we learn that six years earlier, the rest of the Blackwood family was poisoned at dinner, by arsenic hidden in the sugar bowl. Constance, who didn’t sprinkle “sugar” on her dessert blackberries, was tried and acquitted for the murder, but the whole town remains suspicious of her. Things unravel slowly, and the unreliable Merricat keeps you guessing in this exciting, twisted story. The audiobook narrator, Bernadette Dunn, has the perfect voice for every character and you will completely forget that you’re listening to one person. This tale, with its creeping suspense and growing paranoia, works well in the audiobook format, as your mind will race around trying to solve the mystery and won’t have time to wander.
Longbourne by Jo Baker
Longbourne is the story of Pride and Prejudice told from the point of view of the household servants. The idea is brilliant, but I was skeptical of Baker’s ability to pull it off. She does, though, and the result is mesmerizing and also possibly more romantic than Pride and Prejudice. The audiobook narrator, Emma Fielding, takes you through the rhythms of the servants’ days, the endless chores and exhaustion they face, with a kind of resigned, wistful voice that feels true. You will find yourself completely drawn in, lulled into the quiet intensity of the characters’ fervent but necessarily muted emotions. This particular story would be perfect listening material for a day on your own. Try it as you stroll down a city street or a country lane, or even while sitting peacefully at the beach, starting out at the sea.
Far Far Away by Tom MacNeal
A fairy tale for big kids and grown ups, MacNeal’s audiobook has all of the creepy appeal and suspense of the original Grimm’s tales. Set in a small town called Never Better, teenager Jeremy can hear voices of the dead. With a tough home life and a reputation as an outsider in the town, Jeremy’s only solace is in the company he keeps with the ghostly voice of Jacob Grimm–one half of the famous brothers who collected fairy tales. Jacob tries to protect Jeremy from a vague evil he is aware of between the world of the living and the dead, but his influence can only go so far. Jeremy befriends a local girl named Ginger, which in turn sets off a strange and twisted turn of events involving a mysterious local baker. This book works well as an audiobook narrated by the remarkably talented W. Morgan Shepard. Shepard expertly performs a wide variety of voices, from the wistful Jacob Grimm, to the teenage wonder of Jeremy and Ginger, and finally, the strange and alluring accent of the swedish baker whose constant greeting of “Halloa! Is it not a great day to be alive?” will stay with you for months after you finish reading this haunting and utterly engrossing story.
Beauty Queens and The Diviners by Libba Bray
Libba Bray’s two novels work so perfectly as audiobooks that you might wonder if they were written for that purpose. Beauty Queens tells the story of a group of teenage contestants in a beauty pageant whose plane crashes on an island. All of the various personas they have carefully constructed come tumbling down as they struggle to survive. If it’s not obvious already from the plot, let me make myself very clear: This story is hilarious. Over the top, out of control, laugh-out-loud hysterical. Libba Bray herself narrates this one and she does a different distinct accent for each and every character. Enjoy, but fair warning: prepare to laugh out loud, no matter where you are — a crowded train, a sidewalk, etc.
The Diviners, another lengthy novel by Libba Bray, is a very different story, set in 1920s New York City. Featuring a wide cast of diverse characters, The Diviners mines the mystery of an evil presence wreaking havoc in the city and committing occult-inspired murders. January LaVoy, a stage and film actress, narrates this thrilling tale with such awe-inspiring range, that you will find it hard to believe that only one person is doing the many voices. The combination of a great story and an outstanding narrator make this audiobook can’t miss. The Diviners is just as scary as Beauty Queens in hilarious. I dare you to listen to this by yourself while driving or walking alone at night and NOT find yourself completely spooked.