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I don’t think I’m alone in using audiobooks to entice myself into some daunting chore, whether it’s cleaning out the attic or beating back the relentless army of knotweed marching through my yard. According to my self-imposed rules, I may not listen to a particular, anticipated book until I get started on such a task. Could there be a purer way to judge literary pleasure than that a book makes you happy to get down on your knees and scrub, as long as you can go on listening to it? These are the audiobooks that made hours of drudgery fly by for me this year, the kind of stories and voices that swallowed me up and spit me out hours later as if no time at all had passed.
The eighth novel in Herron’s Slough House series, the basis for the Apple TV series Slow Horses, is just as good as its predecessors—this recommendation is for the whole series, really, which I wrote about here. Doyle perfectly captures the rueful humor of Herron’s reject spies, warehoused in a shabby London office building far from the heart of “the service” at MI6 headquarters. They’ve been stashed there by higher-ups who can’t fire them but want to encourage them to quit, and the result is one part spy novel, one part office comedy. Their leader, the magnificently gross but also frighteningly shrewd Jackson Lamb, is one of the espionage fiction’s great characters, and for spooks relegated to the margins, these slow horses see a surprising amount of action.
This strange, enthralling novel concerns a true-crime writer attempting to plumb the mystery of two murders committed in an abandoned porn shop in the 1980s. The shop had been turned into a funhouse/art project by local teenagers. Attempting to re-create the scene, the writer goes so far as to buy the long-empty building where the murders occurred. This is a deeply spooky story that supplies no ready answers. What haunts it is the 1980s themselves, the decade of Darnielle’s own youth, a time when panics over Satanism and teen crime were at a peak and when kids stuck in podunk towns struggled to find inspiration in the pre-Internet era. Darnielle’s placid, slightly raspy, and hushed narration makes the novel’s eerie nostalgia, its infatuation with the inaccessibility and inescapability of the past, even more heady.
By James Hannaham, narrated by Hannaham and Flame Monroe. Hachette Audio.
Hannaham’s novel is a celebration of a lost neighborhood and a found woman, Carlotta Mercedes, who returns to her native Brooklyn after serving 20 years in prison for her accidental involvement in a liquor store robbery. Sentenced under her dead name, Dustin, Carlotta is unrecognizable to many of her old friends and family, but her former haunts are equally strange to her. Even the funeral home has been transformed: “You know it’s over when they doin yoga on top a Black folks’ dead bodies in Fort Greene.” Hannaham reads the novel’s third-person narration, which is interrupted by Carlotta’s own voice, performed here by the transgender comedian Flame Monroe. Usually this format—neither audio drama nor traditional, single-voice narration—feels awkward, but here the result is essential, funny, and sublime.
This quiet novel hasn’t got the sharp edges typically found in Millet’s work. Instead, it’s gentle, observant, and soothing, but in fashion that doesn’t come across as escapist. After a bad break-up with a gold-digging girlfriend, Gil moves from New York to Arizona, opting to walk the whole distance because he wants to “earn something” for a change. The novel takes place afterwards, as Gil befriends his neighbors, volunteers at a shelter for victims of domestic violence, and becomes enamored with the desert’s birds. Heitsch’s narration matches the novel’s tone, easing Gil, and the listener along with him, into an authentic relationship to the world around him.
By Beverly Gage, narrated by Gabra Zackman. PRH Audio.
Most of my audiobook listening is reserved for fiction. I often find that I can’t properly follow nonfiction—especially history—by ear, when it’s so much harder to flip a few pages back to remind myself of a person or concept mentioned earlier. But this justly celebrated reassessment of the man who shaped the FBI is written with a firm sense of storytelling drive. Better yet, the audiobook is narrated by the great Gabra Zackman, who brings added clarity and warmth to every sentence. This is an important work of American history, brought to life by the quintessential pro.
Each story in this collection of classic Saunders—full of narrators who are either haplessly stuck in bizarre, dehumanizing jobs or forever concocting justifications for putting other people that position—is performed by a different actor, many of them familiar from television comedy and all of them much better at narrating prose than the typical celebrity. Michael McKean’s performance of “Love Letter” takes a relatively simple piece (a grandfather asking his grandson not to take the risk of helping a friend in trouble with the authoritarian regime) and adds lovely shadings of sorrow and regret. But the high point is Fey’s reading of “The Mom of Bold Action,” a story of how easily a woman trying to be good can end up behaving very badly indeed.
Molly, the neurodivergent narrator of Prose’s sprightly mystery, works at a grand hotel in an unnamed city, and she loves it. She loves the consistency, the rigor, the daily miracle of restoring rooms messed up by guests into “a state of perfection.” This proves most challenging when Molly discovers the corpse of a regular guest, a tycoon whose trophy wife Molly has befriended. Prose’s novel delivers much of the quirky pleasure of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, showing the reader the world of the hotel and the puzzle of the murder through the eyes of someone who doesn’t leap to the usual conclusions. Ambrose’s narration is a small masterpiece, conveying not only the precision of Molly’s personality, but the genuine joy she takes in it, making the character even more lovable than she is on the page.
The second volume in James’ Dark Star trilogy, an epic fantasy based on African cultures and mythologies, Moon Witch, Spider King is the story of Sogolon, a supporting character in the first book. Accused of being a witch, Sogolon seeks vengeance against the dark sorcerer who has stripped her of her happiness and caused her to live alone in the forest with only monkeys for company. One of the best narrators in the business, Turpin summons Sogolon to life, her narration an exhilarating whirlwind equal to the terrifying gales the character conjures at moments of crisis.
By Kathryn Miles, narrated by Gabra Zackman. Hachette Audio.
A self-confessed true-crime buff, I also often agree with critics who point out the flippantly lurid quality of far too many podcasts in the genre. Miles’ exploration of the still unsolved 1996 murders of two women hiking in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park is an antidote to that sort of skeeze. Trailed recreates the complicated lives of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans, a couple from disparate backgrounds sorting out their relationship while enjoying the wilderness. Miles also raises questions about the spotty law enforcement in national parks and the perils faced by women hikers unaccompanied by men, as well as the flimsy case against the police’s favored suspect in the crime. This is the second book on this list narrated by the peerless Gabra Zackman, whose sensitive but never sentimental handling of the material adds to the book’s power.
The unnamed narrator of this novel, an academic satire of sorts, is a woman professor in her late 50s whose husband, the head of their department, has recently been accused of having sexual relationships with onetime students. Long aware of these affairs, she takes a jaundiced view of her students’ judgements on such matters, especially after she becomes erotically obsessed with a new faculty member 20 years her junior. This is a voice novel, whose narrator conceals behind her facade of careful compliance with gender and academic norms an imperiously idiosyncratic outlook and a susceptibility to wild, self-destructive desires. She’s not exactly sympathetic, but her unusual combination of jadedness and ferocity—expertly rendered by Lowman—carries the novel.