We are in the midst of a Golden Age of Audiobooks. And thanks to the tiny-but-infinite digital libraries we carry in our pockets, audiobook sales have been consistently rising for years.
In 2015, audiobook sales rose 20.7%; in 2016, they rose another 18.2%. In the first quarter of 2017, downloaded audiobook sales alone rose 28.8% over the same period in 2016. (Raise your hand if this year has found you listening to or passive-aggressively gifting more books like Hillbilly Elegy or Between the World and Me in the desperate hope that we might burst some personal and political bubbles).
For people seeking to take advantage of this Golden Age, there are multiple ways to listen. Audible is the most well-known service, and it offers monthly subscriptions to 375,000+ titles. For independent bookstore fans, there is Libro.fm, which provides a book-a-month membership plan with profits funneling to indies. For library lovers (or for those of us who don’t have the budget to support our voracious habit), there is Overdrive, or Hoopla, or RBDigital. The library also has audiobooks on CD for those among us (me) with cars too new to have a tape deck, but too old to have an audio jack. And with most libraries participating in some sort of Interlibrary Loan program, this means that nearly any title is just a short chat with a friendly librarian away.
Access is important, but once you have it, where do you start? As an obsessive reader who has spent the last six years driving a dozen hours a week while listening to audiobooks, I feel pretty trustworthy on the matter. So whether you’re an audiobook newbie or an audiophile, if you’re looking for some sure bets, these are the best audiobooks of 2017 so far.
9. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Narrators: All of contemporary Hollywood, the author’s family, and seasoned audiobook narrators (including Kirby Heyborne, Bahni Turpin, and Julia Whelan).
Run time: 7 hours and 25 minutes
Nick Offerman. David Sedaris. Lena Dunham. Miranda July. Bradley Whitford. Keegan-Michael Key. Carrie Brownstein. Ben Stiller. Julianne Moore. Susan Sarandon. Bill Hader. Megan Mullally. Rainn Wilson. Kat Dennings. Don Cheadle. The narrator list goes on (it’s literally 166 names long) for George Saunders’ newest novel, which follows the meandering, oftentimes bawdy thoughts of the ghosts sharing the mausoleum with President Lincoln’s recently deceased son.
Full disclosure: I’m including this title in this list despite my own unpopular opinion that full cast recordings are usually the work of the Devil. But while much of what an audiobook lends to the experience of a book is subjective, a good deal is not: a great performance is a great performance, and this is a great performance. Or, rather, 166 of them.
8. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Narrator: Neil Gaiman
Run time: 6 hours and 29 minutes
An author performing their own work is always a risky proposition, especially when the work in question is fiction. But some authors deliver consistent and respected narrations, and Neil Gaiman is top among them. Norse Mythology is particularly suited to Gaiman’s style, as the joy he takes in telling these Norse myths is palpable in his performance. He never falls into the trap of making his characters sound over-feminized or over-masculinized, rather differentiating them by word choice (as writer), audible punctuation (as narrator), and by tone/mood (as writer and narrator). Listening to Gaiman recount the misadventures of Loki and Thor feels like listening to a dad tell a bunch of great bedtime stories—with way more blood-letting and bone-crushing than might be expected.
7. Reality Is Not What It Seems by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre
Narrator: Roy McMillan
Run time: 6 hours and 7 minutes
This is the kind of book that seems bananas to listen to rather than to read. Even though it has been simplified for popular consumption, it’s still theoretical physics we’re talking about. This topic begs for a cozy armchair in a quiet, sunlit study, in which one can curl up and read each theoretical page with care. Cozy armchairs and physics, however, can easily lead a brain to doze. Rendered through Roy McMillan’s cheerful and careful narration, though, Reality Is Not What It Seems keeps a brisk enough pace to keep a listener engaged. And in its audio form, the book lets one both engage in the kind of busy work that has been proven to facilitate a deep but unconscious grasp of abstract ideas and to pause whenever a Big Thought resulting from that inattentive attentiveness needs time to unfold.
6. Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han
Narrator: Laura Knight Keating
Run time: 9 hours and 5 minutes
Since Always and Forever, Lara Jean is the final book in a trilogy, it requires you to reach further back than 2017 to fully enjoy it. However, Jenny Han’s fun, contemporary YA series is about to be a movie, giving you the opportunity to compare both the book and the audio performance to the film adaptation. From protagonist Lara Jean to her sisters to the many distinct (but not comically so!) male loves in her life, Laura Knight Keating’s narration proves a warm and breezy performance throughout all three books.
5. Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh
Narrators: Dion Graham, Samantha Quan, Meg Medina, Julia Whelan, Tim Tingle, Abigail Revasch, Sunil Malhotra, Kwame Alexander, Dominic Hoffman, Ellen Oh
Run time: 4 hours and 34 minutes
A pulsing need for greater diversity in publishing has existed for so long that the career experience needed to editorialize it has become a multigenerational family affair. As every controversy that crests these days makes clear, it’s not just fictional characters who need a diversity boost, but the living creatives and critics behind the scenes. This short story collection, written by a diverse group of authors, is fantastic on its own merits. That said, it’s also performed by an equally diverse set of readers, which serves to crystallize the collection’s thesis: diverse storytelling, accessible to all, matters.
4. The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein
Narrator: Maggie Service
Run time: 7 hours and 58 minutes
This “Nancy Drew in 1930s Scotland” prequel to the immeasurably tragic Code Name Verity is one of the few cases where an audio performance renders the dialogue less comprehensible but more clear. That is, the thick Scottish brogues and even thicker Tinker slang make specific words spoken by characters occasionally incomprehensible, but, in Maggie Service’s natural delivery, more understandable in terms of shaping the characters’ intent and the book’s setting. Plus, there’s singing—and singing done well.
3. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Run time: 11 hours and 40 minutes
Bahni Turpin is legitimate audiobook royalty. Every performance is rock solid, every accent and voice spot-on, and her narration for The Hate U Give is no exception. For a book about giving a voice to experiences and characters whose voices are rarely seen in publishing (the protagonist is a black teen who witnesses her friend’s murder at the hand’s of a police officer), Turpin is the perfect performer for the voices in the book’s world.
2. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Narrators: Samantha Bond and Allan Corduner
Run time: 15 hours and 47 minutes
Mysteries are almost made for audiobooks, and they benefit from the fact that you can’t flip ahead to read the ending. This benefits the reader twice over in Magpie Murders, as the gimmick is that a famous mystery writer’s editor is reading the writer’s latest manuscript—only to find that the writer has died and the manuscript is unfinished, leaving the editor to chase down the book’s and the writer’s endings on her own. Anthony Horowitz effectively differentiates between his book and the book within the book by changing tense and POV (one is first person past, the other third person present). But this audio production employs two different narrators, making for a very effective differentiation between the two stories—and a very jarring jolt back to “reality” with each narrator switch. The mysteries are good, but it’s the narrative experience that makes them great.
1. American Street Ibi Zoboi
Narrator: Robin Miles
Run time: 8 hours and 35 minutes
Robin Miles was given no easy task with Ibi Zoboi’s ambitious novel about a recent Haitian immigrant moving in with her Haitian immigrant aunt and her Detroit-born Haitian-American cousins while navigating white and black, middle and lower class worlds. Similar to Turpin’s narration in The Hate U Give, Miles has to tackle a diverse group of characters—with the addition of varying thicknesses of Haitian accent as well as Haitian Kreyol, which is likely as unfamiliar to the average American listener. And Miles’ performance is nothing less than virtuosic.
If you’re looking for even more audiobook recommendations, the following narrators are always fantastic: Bahni Turpin, Simon Vance, Katherine Kellgren, Kirby Heyborne, and Jayne Entwistle.
Alexis Gunderson is (mostly) a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.