Crucial Listens: The Best Audiobook Experiences

I’ve had an Audible membership for a few years now, and although I’d enjoyed audiobooks before I started my membership, it wasn’t until I started listening regularly and widely to audiobooks that I began to understand how much difference a great audio production can make when it comes to reading. I’d argue that some books only truly come alive when you hear them read aloud; humor comes across more clearly, characters become more vivid, and good books transform into great ones.

The Blade Itself audiobook, read by Steven PaceyThe First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, read by Steven Pacey

The Blade Itself was one of the first books I picked up with a credit, and Steven Pacey’s performance blew me away. Like many epic fantasy series, The First Law has a huge cast of characters, and Pacey accomplishes the rare feat of giving each character a unique voice and accent that makes them immediately stand out. After a certain point, Abercrombie could have forgone character identification and I would always have known which character was speaking. It also helps that the series is bloody, subversive and thoroughly entertaining.

Redshirts audiobook, read by Wil WheatonRedshirts by John Scalzi, read by Wil Wheaton

If you’re going to tell a metafictional story about a starship crew that realizes they’re actually characters on a terrible sci-fi TV show, you really can’t pick anyone else to read it but Wil Wheaton. Luckily Wheaton isn’t just a former sci-fi TV star, he’s also an excellent narrator with a flair for reading comic novels like this and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Wheaton doesn’t do too much with character voices, but he understands the emotional core of this and other books I’ve heard him read, and I’d easily pick up any new book read by him on that criteria alone.

Bandits audiobook, read by Frank MullerBandits by Elmore Leonard, read by Frank Muller

I picked Bandits because it’s one of my favorite books by Leonard, but really anything read by Muller is worth picking up. He’s the perfect narrator for Leonard’s casts of characters on both sides of the law (but usually the wrong one). Muller growls and drawls with the best of them, giving Leonard’s minimalist prose the exact right amounts of menace and wry humor. I recently went on a Leonard listening spree, and Muller immediately became one of my favorite narrators.

Middlemarch audiobook, read by Kate ReadingMiddlemarch by George Elliot, read by Kate Reading

Middlemarch is a massive tome about life in a small British town at the turn of the century. One of the main characters, Dorothea, is a pious woman who enters into a loveless marriage with a shriveled old academic named Casaubon. It might seem intimidating and potentially dry, but it’s actually gently satirical, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny and wonderfully emotional. I feel like Reading’s arch delivery went a long way in aiding my comprehension and enjoyment of the book. Some of my favorite parts are her readings of Casaubon’s meandering writings. Until I listened to this audiobook, I would never have imagined that Middlemarch would become one of my all-time favorite books, but as soon as I finished, I wanted to listen to more classics.

Skippy Dies audiobook, read by a full castSkippy Dies by Paul Murray, read by a full cast

Most audiobooks have one or maybe two narrators, but Skippy Dies boasts almost a dozen men and women who play students, teachers and administrators at an Irish private school. The book is sprawling, and the huge cast of characters is well-served by the tag-team narration style. I couldn’t imagine reading this hilarious, sad story any other way.

The Night Circus audiobook, read by Jim DaleAnything read by Jim Dale

Best known for narrating the Harry Potter books and Pushing Daisies, Dale brings an impeccably British whimsy to everything he narrates. When I started my Harry Potter re-read, I decided to pick up the audio versions just so I could enjoy his narration. Dale’s narration is a perfect fit for anything with a bit of magic and humor in the mix.

Bandits by Elmore Leonard

Bandits by Elmore LeonardPublished: April 10th, 2012 (Audio version)
Publisher: Harper Audio
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hours and 35 minutes

Reading Raylan got me in the mood for more Elmore Leonard, and in fact I’m now on my third Leonard book in a row. The second, Bandits, first published in 1987, tells the story of a convicted thief named Jack Delaney who works at a funeral home with his brother-in-law. Jack doesn’t much like driving a hearse, but he’s trying to make ends meet and stay on the straight and narrow after a stint in prison.

That all changes one day when he goes on a job to a leprosy hospital to pick up a body and discovers that the patient – a girl named Amalita – is still alive. It turns out that Amalita is on the run from a murderous Nicaraguan colonel named Dagoberto (Bertie for short). Aiding her on her journey is a young, beautiful nun named Lucy who immediately fascinates Jack and ends up having a huge impact on his life.

Lucy tells Jack that she isn’t actually a nun any more; among other things, she saw a massacre at the hospital where she worked, and decided it was time to get out of the country. More importantly, she brings Jack a proposal for a different kind of job, one with more serious implications than the thrill of sneaking into a hotel room to steal jewelry while the guests are sleeping. Dagoberto isn’t just in America to hunt down a girl, it seems; he’s also in the States to raise money for the fight against communist Sandinistas in his country. Lucy suggests they steal the money from Dagoberto, and the ball gets rolling. Jack recruits a few friends he knows from prison, and they start planning the heist.

Where Raylan had crisp dialogue but flat characterization, Bandits finds Leonard at the top of his game, firing on all cylinders. The book is full of wonderful, fully drawn characters who practically leap off the page. My favorite by far is one of the colonel’s henchmen, a man named Franklin De Dios who is simultaneously likable and dangerous. Spending time with him and other characters quickly reminded me why I loved Leonard so much in high school.

The other way that Bandits excels is the sexual tension between Jack and Lucy. Leonard draws out their scenes in a way that reminded me of the incredible flirtation scene in North by Northwest. Dialogues between Jack and Lucy are thick with tension and longing, skillfully intercut with descriptions and observations that are stunning in their simplicity. At his peak, Leonard has an economy with words that rivals Hemingway.

My only criticism of the book is that the heist feels a bit anticlimactic. It’s not a big problem, though, because at its heart this book focuses on the characters. I loved Bandits, and especially recommend the audiobook version narrated by the late Frank Muller, who is an ideal choice for Leonard’s style.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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