I was slow to embrace audiobooks. I take things in much better by reading than by listening so I had decided that audiobooks just weren’t for me. I’m much too apt to drift away while listening and lose the thread of the thing. But then I moved and my commute to work got substantially longer, plus I started spending a fair bit of time on the stationary bike or on the treadmill at the gym. And I recognized that both my commute and my sojourns at the gym would be enhanced if I could find audiobooks that would hold my attention. Through a bit of trial and error, I figured out that either a suspenseful plot or an engaging narrative voice does the trick (or, better yet, a combination of both), and I have since spent many a pleasurable hour listening to books. The very best of my discoveries, listed below, are the ones that have been sufficiently riveting to prompt me to applaud subway delays, or to extend my workouts by a few extra miles:
1. Anything by Terry Pratchett read by Stephen Briggs (the list includes Going Postal, Making Money, Thud!, Monstrous Regiment, The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, and Wintersmith): I didn't think it would be possible for me to love Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels any more than I already did, but listening to them read by Stephen Briggs adds a whole new layer of enjoyment to the experience. The tone of his narration conveys Pratchett's wry humour perfectly and the voices that he creates for the various characters are marvellous. I hadn't given much thought to how a golem might sound until I heard Briggs' rendition of one—booming, echoey and, well, clayey, just as it ought to sound. And there's the precise, chilling tone of Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician, Lord Vetinari. And the inimitable diction of City Watchmen Sergeant Fred Colon and Corporal Nobby Nobbs. I could go on and on, but instead I’ll just urge you to listen for yourself.
2. Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl, read by Cynthia Bishop and others: This one is a product of Full Cast Audio, a company that produces unabridged recordings of children’s books using a narrator and a full cast to bring to life the voices of the various characters. The formula works brilliantly here. I still experienced The Goose Girl as a book rather than as a play (there’s no abridgment or adaptation apart from the removal of the “he saids” and “she saids” rendered unnecessary by the format), but I think that the range of voices more effectively conveyed the depth and nuance of Hale’s novel than a single reader would have done. Listening to it not only prompted me to seek out more novels by Hale, but also more audiobooks produced by Full Cast Audio. I have no doubt that I will discover more excellent authors this way.
3. Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, read by Kim Mai Guest: This stunning novel by Meg Rosoff is set in the near future, or perhaps an alternative present, in which the bombs of an unknown enemy begin to rain down on England shortly after 15-year-old Daisy arrives there from Manhattan to stay with cousins she’s never met before. Reader Guest nails Daisy’s first person voice, beautifully conveying her teenage blend of cynicism, bravado, and vulnerability. The plot would have kept me glued to this one regardless, but even if it hadn’t, Daisy’s voice as rendered by Guest would have held my attention.
4. Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers (first in his mystery series featuring Inspector Kurt Wallander), read by Dick Hill: It could be a dicey proposition, performing a work in translation, trying to make the characters sound Swedish in English (when, of course, in actuality they would just be speaking Swedish) without descending into a caricature of a Swedish accent. But Hill manages to strike the right balance here, ably conveying the atmosphere of Mankell’s novel as well as the voices of his characters. The only quarrel that I have with Hill’s reading is he makes all of the female characters' voices sound the same and rather shrill and sing-song at that. But Inspector Wallander’s universe is a mostly male one, so that discordant note didn’t often interrupt the flow of the book.
5. James Joyce’s The Dubliners, each story read by a different Irish actor: I wasn’t sure at first how I would respond to a single book read by multiple readers. It’s a short story collection, of course, but a linked short story collection, and I thought I’d prefer to hear it read by a single voice to add a thread of continuity, just as the author's voice does on the page. But, then again, the stories are told from the perspective of a variety of different characters, so why not represent that variety by employing different readers? Ultimately, I concluded that it worked. There’s a bit of unevenness. For example, Colm Meaney’s reading of “Araby” is oddly flat (oddly, given that Meaney is a talented actor and “Araby” a brilliant story). But for the most part, the stories are beautifully read. I particularly relished hearing each one read in an Irish accent that brought the rhythms of the language to the fore.
6. Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, read by the author: I’m going to read this one for myself as well, as I couldn’t take it all in in one listen. But Bryson, who has an engaging conversational tone even on the page, has a very companionable voice and I very much enjoyed the feeling as I listened of being guided through that welter of information by the author first hand.