2016 was the year I rediscovered the magic of audiobooks. In fact, about 13% of my total reading this year was by audiobook, and I discovered a number of favorite new authors and narrators. Here are my top 8 picks for 2016.
Note: All of the book descriptions are from Amazon and/or Goodreads and are shortened and/or paraphrased to keep the word count down.
8. The Couple Next Door by Sheri Lapena, Narrated by Kirsten Potter
Synopsis: Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all–a loving relationship, a wonderful home, and their beautiful baby, Cora. But one night when they are at a dinner party next door, a terrible crime is committed. Suspicion immediately focuses on the parents. But the truth is a much more complicated story. Inside the curtained house, an unsettling account of what actually happened unfolds. Detective Rasbach knows that the panicked couple is hiding something. Both Anne and Marco soon discover that the other is keeping secrets, secrets they’ve kept for years.
My Thoughts: The Couple Next Door is a taut psychological thriller with more twists and turns than the Triwizard maze. Kirsten Potter is quickly becoming one of my favorite narrators (more on her below). Read my full review here.
7. Hillbilly Elegy, Written & Narrated by J.D. Vance
Synopsis: Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis–that of white working-class Americans. Delving into his own personal story and drawing on a wide array of sociological studies, Vance takes us deep into working class life in the Appalachian region. This demographic of our country has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, and Vance provides a searching and clear-eyed attempt to understand when and how “hillbillies” lost faith in any hope of upward mobility, and in opportunities to come.
My Thoughts: I’m from Massachusetts and I admit that I am one of those Northerners that held certain less-than-flattering ideas about people from the South. Moving to the South did not help dispel those ideas. This book, however, made some serious inroads. Vance recounts the trials and triumphs of his hillbilly childhood with humor and candor. He successfully humanizes white Appalachian culture and explains it in a way even an ignorant New Englander like myself can understand. While he’s not as polished as a professional narrator, Vance has a fine voice and an engaging manner of speech.
6. Lab Girl, Written & Narrated by Hope Jahren
Synopsis: Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s remarkable stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.
My Thoughts: I listened to this audiobook because I found the premise compelling. But Lab Girl is much more than a memoir by a female scientist. It’s heart and soul is the story of the author’s devoted lifelong friendship with Bill, her lab partner. Like most authors who double as narrators, Jahren’s performance is not polished, but it is remarkably heartfelt. It’s a beautiful testament to love, friendship, and the wonders of science.
5. Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler, Narrated by Kirsten Potter
Synopsis: Kate Battista feels stuck. How did she end up running house and home for her eccentric scientist father and uppity, pretty younger sister Bunny? Dr. Battista has other problems. After years out in the academic wilderness, he is on the verge of a research breakthrough. There’s only one problem: his brilliant young lab assistant, Pyotr, is about to be deported. And without Pyotr, all would be lost. When Dr. Battista cooks up an outrageous plan that will enable Pyotr to stay in the country, Kate is furious. This time he’s really asking too much. But will she be able to resist the two men’s touchingly ludicrous campaign to bring her around?
My Thoughts: While we’re on the subject of Shakespeare…Vinegar Girl is a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, one of the Bard’s earliest and most controversial plays. Here’s the thing: if I had read this book in print, I don’t think I would have liked it half as much. This is a clear cut case of the narrator saving the book. Kirsten Potter takes two-dimensional characters and, with her voice, transforms them into three-dimensional people. Her vocalization of Pyotr, in particular, is clever and hilarious. Vinegar Girl is a great audiobook to listen to on a long summer drive to the beach.The Best #Audiobooks of 2016 Click To Tweet
4. Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult, Narrated by Audra McDonald, Cassandra Campbell, & Ari Fliakos
Synopsis: Labor and delivery nurse Ruth Jefferson’s life if turned upside down when she is removed from a patient’s case because the parents are are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other’s trust, and come to see that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about others–and themselves–might be wrong.
My Thoughts: Small Great Things is written from three different perspectives–Ruth, Kennedy, and the white supremacist father who prohibits Ruth from touching his child. The three narrators chosen to play these characters did a wonderful job and brought the story to life in a way that one narrator playing all three characters could not. Picoult’s voice frequently drowns out her characters, but I think the pointed social commentary may be necessary for Picoult’s target audience–white women. The ending it a little too neat, but that didn’t bother me too much.
3. The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson, Narrated by Nathan Osgood
Synopsis: In 1995, Iowa native Bill Bryson took a motoring trip around Britain to explore that green and pleasant land and documented his expedition in Notes from a Small Island. Two decades later, Bryson–now a British citizen–sets out again to rediscover his adopted country. Dodging cow attacks, getting lost, and contemplating the future of the nation’s natural wonders, Bryson follows a straight line through the island–from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath–and shows us every pub, stone village, and human foible along the way.
My Thoughts: With his trademark humor fully intact, Bill Bryson returns for another romp across the landscape of Great Britain. I absolutely love this fact-filled audio tour, complete with brief musical interludes and plenty of snark. Nathan Osgood perfectly captures Bryson’s sardonic sense of humor. This is a great road trip audiobook.
2. Romeo and Juliet: A Novel by David Hewson, Narrated by Richard Armitage
Synopsis: It’s a story you think you know: the age-old tale of “star-cross’d lovers”; two families at war; a romance, so pure and absolute, fated for a tragic end. In Romeo and Juliet: A Novel, author David Hewson reworks and expands on the classic story so that it becomes something new and entirely its own. Much more than a simple love story, it is an examination of young versus old, hope against despair, and, for Juliet, the search for individual identity at a time when women were regarded as little more than chattel.
My Thoughts: This is the first audiobook I have ever listened to that was written specifically for audio (there is no printed copy) and I have to admit, I was just a teensy bit skeptical. My skepticism quickly vanished when I started listening. Hewson breathes new life into this classic tale of tragic love with a beautifully written narrative that is perfectly suited to Armitage’s particular vocal talents. I especially like how Hewson reimagines Juliet as a forward-thinking woman pushing back against the patriarchal mores of her day.
1. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, Narrated by Prentice Onayemi
Synopsis: Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ façades. When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jongas are desperate to keep Jende’s job–even as their marriage threatens to fall apart.
My Thoughts: Behold the Dreamers is a wonderful story about the immigrant experience. It celebrates the opportunities America has to offer and exposes the many pitfalls of the American dream. It extols a tenacious work ethic, while acknowledging that hard work alone is seldom rewarded as it deserves. Most of all it is the story of a family–their struggles, strifes, and successes, and indefatigable pursuit of a better life. Onayemi shows off the full range of his narration skill with multiple Cameroonian and American accents, Pidgin English, and even a bit of singing. This is, hands down, the best audiobook of the year.
What was your favorite audiobook of 2016?