Slate’s Best Books of 2015 coverage:
Monday: Overlooked books of 2015.
Tuesday: The best lines of 2015.
Wednesday: The best comics of 2015.
Thursday: Laura Miller and Katy Waldman’s favorite books of the year.
Friday: The best audiobooks of 2015.
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This is a golden age for audiobooks. The booming trade in digital downloads means that titles that in the age of CDs would never have been recorded are now getting white-glove productions. Where once the weekly roster of audiobook releases was a dispiriting smattering of cookie-cutter best-sellers and self-help, now you can get a political poem like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen read by a real actor or a notoriously difficult text like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century rendered into slightly more digestible form.
Here are the best books I heard in 2015, by which I do not mean great books serviceably read, although there’s certainly a place for those in a listener’s iPhone. Rather, these readings enrich the texts they interpret while refraining from imposing their interpretations on the listener. It’s a tricky art, narrating a book, bringing written words to life without commandeering them. Here are 10 productions that nailed it.
Dracula by Bram Stoker, full-cast recording. Naxos.
There are already more than a dozen other audio recordings of Stoker’s novel—there’s even another full-cast version published by the same company in 2000. But 10 minutes into Jamie Parker’s riveting narration of the journal of Jonathan Harker, all my reservations fell away. Dracula, which poses as a collection of found documents, works wonderfully as a series of first-person testimonials, the most chilling being newspaper clippings by reporters oblivious to the Transylvanian menace closing in on London. Every performance in this recording is vividly persuasive, making the horror and suspense more powerful than ever. Resistance is futile, so block out a good chunk of free time before you start listening. You won’t want to stop.
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, written and narrated by Eimear McBride. Random House Audio.
Many people have the idea that demanding texts, like McBride’s prize-bedecked Joycean novel about a turbulent Irish girlhood, are best read on the page, where you can easily double back should you get lost. But a work like this one—a flood of words and sensations, from the diatribes of a pious grandfather to the narrator’s defiantly sexualized rantings—has an aural logic you’ll never get from print. No one understands this book better than McBride herself, and with her at the mic, you can surf the glorious surges and eddies of her language with surprising ease and great pleasure.
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, narrated by Alex Jennings. Hachette Audio.
A sequel of sorts to Atkinson’s celebrated 2013 novel Life After Life, this book tells, nonchronologically, the story of a British man who survives fighter-pilot duty in World War II. Alex Jennings’ delicate, allusive narration puts across many of the subtler points of this finely -turned account of the shifting nature of family life in the 20th century. His characterizations are not pronounced, but the novel itself is presided over by such a unified, ironic sensibility—Atkinson’s famously acerbic voice—that this choice feels just right.
H Is for Hawk, written and narrated by Helen MacDonald. Blackstone Audio.
Poleaxed by the sudden death of her beloved father, MacDonald coped by returning to a girlhood passion for falconry—resolving to train a goshawk, a notoriously fierce, implacable breed. Most authors can’t read their own works as well as professional actors can, but when there’s an exception to this rule, the result can be stunning—especially when, as in this case, the form is memoir. MacDonald’s narration is so immediate and intimate that it feels as if she has opened up her mind and soul to her listener.
Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray, narrated by January LaVoy. Listening Library.
Bray’s Diviners YA series, of which this is the second installment, is lavishly fun—a supernatural epic à la Stephen King, set in Jazz Age Manhattan. It features a diverse ensemble of characters headed up by Evie O’Neill, a psychic flapper with a flask full of hooch and a mouth full of jaunty period slang. LaVoy, who also narrated the first book in the series, The Diviners, continues to astonish with her chameleon-like versatility in portraying people of seemingly every age, gender, and race.
Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, narrated by Roy McMillan. Penguin Books.
Although little known stateside, Macfarlane is the U.K.’s most celebrated bard of the British countryside. This book is a paean to the many idiosyncratic words his countrymen have invented to describe their natural environment. (Included in the audio version is an irresistible bonus chapter listing the dozens of words the residents of the Isle of Lewis have devised to name different types of peat.) Listening to McMillan’s ebullient reading, fueled by Mcfarlane’s infectious and eloquent passion for both language and landscape, is like being taken on an invigorating hike by England’s jolliest and most fascinating guide.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, narrated by Oliver Wyman. Audible Studios.
If there’s an audio equivalent of the print term doorstop, I don’t know it, but this narration of Yanagihara’s dark-horse literary hit clocks in at nearly 33 hours. You barely feel it, though, as Wyman’s tender, earnest, and ever-so-slightly callow voice draws its central characters from a classic four-friends-in-New-York setup into an unflinching saga of physical and emotional agony. The slightest touch of melodrama would have made this audiobook unendurable, but Wyman is far more sophisticated than he sounds, and he never loses his footing.
My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum, narrated by Xe Sands. Dreamscape Media.
This collection of Daum’s personal essays, originally published in 2001, was re-released in print to coincide with the publication of her 2014 collection The Unspeakable. It also got its first audio recording. I’m picking the older collection of Daum’s shrewd, funny, self-aware pieces in part because Sands seems born to narrate Daum. The ever-present curl of amused skepticism in her voice matches the way these essays cast a cool eye over Daum’s past follies. Those range from a misguided online flirtation to a near-existential aversion to wall-to-wall carpeting, but perhaps the most hilarious and barbed is a little number titled “Music Is My Bag,” about the kitschy paraphernalia adopted by culture nerds.
My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, narrated by Edoardo Ballerini. Recorded Books.
Beautifully written and obsessively ruminative, Knausgaard’s autobiographical meganovel (four of six volumes have been published in English, translated by Don Bartlett) is not for everyone, but Ballerini hits upon the perfect tone: eloquent, a bit plaintive, with the occasional dash of whine. I found My Struggle impossible to sit still for when reading it in print form, but as an audiobook it became a much-savored companion during long, lonely evening walks.
Negroland by Margo Jefferson, narrated by Robin Miles. Blackstone Audio.
A keen fan of Jefferson’s Pulitzer-winning criticism, I at first felt disappointed by Miles’ muted narration of this long-awaited memoir. Soon, though, her approach grew on me. This is a many-textured account of growing up in the elite of black society during the 1950s and ’60s, where the ironclad rule was “Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment.” It’s a complicated identity, one that Jefferson wants to challenge but not entirely repudiate. Miles renders Jefferson’s reckoning with her upbringing with an appropriately ladylike decorum, while under that smooth surface moves an irrepressible intelligence and sympathy.