I’ve mentioned on here previously that as a result of my longer commute, in the last year I’ve taken up audiobooks as a way to continue enjoying as many books as I can. I also make a point to listen to audiobooks when I take trips back to Michigan to visit family or when I have to drive across the state for meetings. So I feel like I am becoming pretty well-versed in what makes a good audiobook (to date I’ve completed 30).
In my opinion commuter or travel audiobooks must follow this criteria:
A. The story must be interesting enough to distract you from the mundane roads you see on a regular basis (although not so interesting that you are distracted during high-traffic periods or that you make the mistake of driving down your hilly driveway after an ice storm and slide off into a ditch – totally not talking about me, I swear…)
B. The narrator is key. In most books that means the narrator must be good at both the third person narration and doing voices. The number of characters in a book can be critical — a narrator who is excellent in a novel with a small cast may not provide such as stellar performance for a book that has hundreds of characters.
What books meet this criteria? See my list below:
1) The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, narrated by Jim Dale. Remember what I said about the challenge of narrating a book with many characters? Dale nails it. According to this article Dale created and recorded 134 characters in The Order of the Phoenix — and he does so recognizably. I was never confused about which character was talking — not across the span of 7 books! A good audiobook for a solo drive or family trip. I had read all of the Harry Potter books growing up and enjoyed revisiting them in this format.
2) The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez, read by Yareli Arizmendi, Christine Avila, Jesse Corti, Gustavo Res, Ozzie Rodriguez, and Gabriel Romero. If you have a book with many characters and you can’t find a suitable narrator to play them all a growing option is for publishers to cast multiple narrators. I think this is a tricky line to walk but in the case of The Book of Unknown Americans it really works out – probably because of the diverse view points written into the book with chapters from different character’s perspectives. The use of different narrators also lends authenticity to the wide span of Latino characters in the book ranging in all ages, sexes and countries of origin. The story itself is masterfully written and incredibly moving. My only concern in recommending this is that I almost had to pull over to cry.
3) Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly-True Memoir written and narrated by Jenny Lawson (perhaps better known as @TheBloggess). I’m sure this is a funny read as well but in audio I was laughing out loud in the car to and from work. Creative Non-Fiction ate its most rib-tickling.
4) The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, written and read by Catherynne M. Valente. Other than memoirs I’m wary of authors who narrate their own books (Ray Bradbury’s narration was my first go at this performance and his reading of the characters was very flat). However, Valente is a talented writer and performer. It did take me most of the first CD to lose myself in the story but then I was hooked! This might be a good one for a family trip with a print copy so kids can also enjoy the illustrations which I’ve heard are wonderful.
5) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and narrated by Jim Dale. What can I say, the man has talent! This is actually the first Jim Dale book I listened to and it was enchanting. The book earned a lot of buzz when it came out and rightfully so – the world created by Morgenstern is wondrous and I’m so glad she found a talented narrator to give it justice.
6) The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty and narrated by Elizabeth McGovern. Does that second name sound familiar? She’s the actress that plays Lady Cora Grantham in Downton Abbey and she’s sublime in this narration! Set in one of my favorite historical time periods for books (the 1920s) this book touches on many of the issues of the day including family ties, heritage, and women’s rights.
7) Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell and narrated by the awesome duo: Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra. Like many this was my first novel by Rowell and I have since gone on to devour every one that is in print – the story lines just pull you in and like an addict you can’t put the book (or audiobook rather) down. I listened to this book right before a work trip and had to get on the plane with about 30 minutes to go. It was pure torture — this book may be best for a long drive rather than chopped up into smaller doses or you’ll be wondering what’s going to happen all during the workday. The dual narrators works well with the books structure which volleys back and forth between the title characters. A must-listen!
8) Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, read by Edoardo Ballerini. This was one of my first audiobooks I really starting listening to and it breaks Guideline A a bit — at the start of the book the storyline jumps around between characters’ viewpoints and chronologically. BUT when you finally get a handle on what is going on the audiobook is wonderful – and everything comes together in the end, I swear.
9) Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and narrated by Ruby Dee. Another challenging audiobook to begin with. It might be easier to wade through the unfamiliar cultural slang and fast-paced dialogue in a print version but I really and truly believe that audio is the way to experience this story that challenges every societal assumption and norm through the backdrop of a loves story.
10) The Cuckoo’s Calling by Richard Galbraith and narrated by Robert Glenister. We all know by now that Galbraith is really J.K. Rowling right? Her pseudonym by which she publishes this mystery series. I wanted to try her adult books but have a hard time investing myself in the mystery genre even when a book receives multiple good reviews by friends, so I decided to fit this one in via audiobook. Devoted sleuths may have figured out the ending, but I enjoyed listening to the story unfold as I drove my commute and contemplating in the back of my mind who the killer could be. The narration was very well executed and I will be looking for other audiobooks narrated by Robert Glenister. I will definitely be checking out the audiobook of the sequel (The Silkworm) soon.