Books

The Best Audiobooks of 2019

The stories I lost myself in during a year when I needed escape.

Audiobook covers for the books mentioned in this piece with a pair of AirPods sitting in front of them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon and Getty Images Plus.

Full disclosure: Audiobooks were my great escape over the past 12 months, and while no doubt there were plenty of stellar, important nonfiction works released in 2019, I mostly listened to fiction. During long walks and chore days, I wanted to be whisked off to other worlds and times by the performance of an expert narrator—with an emphasis on the “expert.” Audiobooks, the most robust sector of the publishing marketplace right now, attract more marquee talent than ever before—which isn’t always a good thing. Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House was read by none other than Tom Hanks. I know, I know—Tom Hanks reading Ann Patchett? That’s nuclear-grade likability, right? But Tom Hanks is always Tom Hanks: That’s what makes him a movie star. A great, immersive novel calls for a narrator who can lose himself in the characters. Ann Patchett deserved a more skilled interpreter.

A couple of recommendations: Many audiobook lovers would prefer an alternative vendor to Audible, which is owned by Amazon. One option is Scribd.com, a site with a subscription model providing access to e-books and streaming audiobooks for a monthly fee. (There are limits to the number of audiobooks you can listen to, however.) Many libraries also offer audiobooks for free via OverDrive’s Libby app. If you prefer to own your audiobooks, and want to buy DRM-free files while supporting your neighborhood independent bookseller, check out Libro.fm, which works on a credit system like Audible. The selection is not as comprehensive as what you can find on Audible (which has been commissioning a lot of exclusive content recently), and the app is still a bit buggy, but you can get most major releases guilt-free.

Angels in America by Tony Kushner, full cast recording

If you missed the Tony Award–winning revival of Kushner’s thrilling epic of late-20th-century American life, here’s your chance to hear Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, James McArdle, and Denise Gough reprise their performances in a made-for-audio version of both plays, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. (This production is so star-studded that the stage directions are read by Bobby Cannavale and Edie Falco.) Angels in America is arguably the  greatest American theatrical work of the past 50 years, and while nothing can replicate the exhilaration of seeing it onstage, this is the next best thing.

Angels in America

By Tony Kushner. Performed by the Broadway cast.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson, narrated by Jason Isaacs

Atkinson was a literary novelist of modest renown when she turned her hand to the mystery form with 2004’s genre-busting Case Histories and Jackson Brodie, the private detective whose investigations she chronicled through three sequels. After a break of nearly a decade (during which Atkinson has published several magnificent, formally inventive novels), Brodie is back. The narrator of Big Sky is Jason Isaacs, who played Brodie in the BBC adaptation of the series, and his rumbly baritone is the aural equivalent of a big warm sweater. Despite a subplot involving sex trafficking and a passel of truly heartless golf-buddy villains, this is the Rolls Royce of cozy listens, full of fresh, vivid characters and plenty of Atkinson’s signature wit.

Big Sky

By Kate Atkinson. Narrated by Jason Isaacs.

Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand, narrated by Carol Monda

A supremely creepy serial killer stalks the amusement parks of 1915 America, and the only people onto him are a newspaper reporter, a 14-year-old Chicago urchin, and a hospital custodian named Henry Darger. Darger is a real historical figure, a janitor who created an unsettling fictional universe of brave little girls battling dastardly villains, only discovered after his death. He makes a most unlikely detective, tormented as he is by the aftereffects of a brutal childhood as a ward of the state and subsumed in his own imaginary life as a defender of abused children. Eventually, though, Henry gains the trust of Pin, a girl who dresses as a boy in order to move safely through the tawdry carnival milieu where her mother, a fortuneteller, works. Monda, my preferred narrator for any story with a noirish flavor (including Hand’s fabulous Cass Neary series), at first seemed an incongruous fit with the historical setting, but the world Henry and Pin inhabit is a hard-knock one, and within a few chapters it was impossible to imagine this story read by anyone else.

Curious Toys

By Elizabeth Hand. Narrated by Carol Monda.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham, narrated by Jacques Roy

While the acting skills deployed when performing a work of fiction are showy, narrating complex nonfiction may be the greater challenge. It requires a measured pace and distinct articulation, particularly when the book uses many unfamiliar names, as does Higginbotham’s suspenseful account of the 1986 nuclear reactor meltdown in Ukraine. I’ve been told that Roy’s pronunciation of the scores of Russian names in the text is not perfect, but Roy does something that matters more to me: making them readily distinguishable to the untrained ear. He also describes scientific processes with aplomb. Of course, Midnight in Chernobyl is not a treatise on either subject, but a thrillerlike report on a nearly unimaginable catastrophe.
Roy’s narration makes that brilliantly clear.

Midnight in Chernobyl

By Adam Higginbotham. Narrated by Jacques Roy.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie, narrated by Adjoa Andoh

Andoh’s bravura performance of Leckie’s stand-alone epic fantasy novel plunges its readers into a strange world, but its narrator is stranger yet. The story is told by a giant rock—or, rather by a god who inhabits that rock. This being recounts both its distant past and a current episode of palace intrigue—all of it addressed to the aide of a hotheaded prince who has just learned that his father has died and his uncle has usurped his title. The aide, a former farmer of loyal heart who also happens to be transgender, hides a shrewd mind behind the bumpkin cadences Andoh has given him. The characters range from imperious to gossipy, and belong to a half-dozen nationalities for whom Andoh has crafted distinct accents based on the peoples of our own world. But it is the Strength and Patience of the Hill (the god’s best known name) who steals the show, with its serene perspective on the transitory doings of humanity and the conniving of the gods, all conveyed by Andoh with a delicious plumminess.

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman, narrated by Michael Sheen

Sheen’s heartfelt devotion to Pullman’s fiction and its characters (he named his daughter Lyra, after the series’ heroine) infuses every word of this enthralling performance. Lest I repeat myself, you can find a full review of the audiobook here.

The Secret Commonwealth

By Philip Pullman. Narrated by Michael Sheen.

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia, narrated by Lauren Fortgang

To be honest, this adult version of Ellen Raskin’s children’s classic The Westing Game is no exalted work of literature. The characters—the misfit Goth who is the title character, her gay best friend, the lonely preteen girl next door, the rascally rich-boy love interest—are unoriginal types, but likable all the same, and Racculia’s bouncy humor goes down easy. This is the perfect book to listen to, perhaps on a long drive, with a young reader making the transition from YA to adult fiction. The fun but rather silly plot—about a late billionaire whose will sets in motion a scavenger hunt across the city of Boston—has just enough bite to keep older readers engaged, but you can tell from the start that nothing truly upsetting is going to happen. Fortgang strikes a congenial tone: wry, skeptical, and strongly reminiscent of Janeane Garofalo in her Gen X prime.

The Walking Tour by Kathryn Davis, narrated by Elisabeth Rodgers

Bless whoever it was at Blackstone Audio who decided it was time to record audiobooks of so many of Davis’ nearly indescribable novels. The Walking Tour, from 2000, is one of her best, and in hindsight weirdly prophetic about the potential for computerized communications to cause society to fall apart. Sometime in the near future, Susan sifts through a cache of documents having to do with her mother’s death while her parents were on a walking tour of Wales. The novel is a swirl of Welsh mythology; courtroom drama; the midcentury adultery fiction of, say, John Updike; clever aphorisms; and postapocalyptic dystopia. Davis’ novels never have conventional plots, but if you can let that go and get comfortable with not knowing what, exactly, is going on, they will toss you up in a cloud of sparkling mist like playful waves. Rodgers keeps things grounded by playing Susan as a truth-seeking melancholic, who, like the reader herself, just longs to make sense of it all. I love Davis’ work on the page but adore it in audiobook form; that way, it’s easier to let the tide of this extraordinary author’s vision wash over you and carry you deliriously out to sea.

The Walking Tour

By Kathryn Davis. Narrated by Elizabeth Rogers.

Audm

While my nonfiction audiobook listening was sorely lacking in 2019, my thirst for thorough reporting and well-formed analysis did not go unslaked. Audm is a subscription service that selects longform journalism from a stable of top-notch publications that includes the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the Atlantic, and ProPublica, then records it using some of the industry’s best narrators (Edoardo Ballerini, Simon Vance, January LaVoy, among others). These are the kind of stories I used to bookmark when everyone I knew was raving about them, telling myself that I’d sit down with them later, when I was “less busy”—a moment that, mysteriously, never seems to arrive. Now, I cue up Audm whenever I have to wash dishes or fold laundry, and get lost for an hour or two in some of the best writing being published today.