Like most audiobook buffs, I multitask; listening to a great actor read a great book is one of the rare things that makes regular workouts endurable. Still, there are always a few releases each year that are so transfixing they make any additional activity impossible. They might leave me standing like a zombie in a grocery store aisle or, more often, prone on an exercise mat, staring at the tiny perforations in the dropped ceiling of the YMCA’s stretching room. A couple of the standouts listed below also made me laugh out loud or gasp in dismay at inopportune moments. I can’t remember whether anyone noticed these embarrassing lapses, though. I was lost in a book.
La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman, narrated by Michael Sheen
The long-awaited follow-up to Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, this deceptively straightforward adventure yarn is inspired by Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, just as the earlier three books were based on Milton’s Paradise Lost. Pullman’s storytelling gifts remain in top form, and distinguished film actor Sheen (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) is a full cast in a single man, delivering complete performances of everyone from the humble yet brave innkeeper’s son at the center of the novel to a female Oxford scholar, sinister Church operatives, a drunken waterman, even an actual fairy queen. Without a doubt, this is the finest audiobook narration I listened to in 2017.
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, narrated by Christina Moore
Narrating history books can be a thankless task, offering performers little opportunity to vary their delivery or invoke a mood. Moore offers a master class in the art required to make such a text vivid. Her matter-of-fact delivery is perfectly suited to Fraser’s stoic Midwestern subject, but she softens her voice ever so slightly when telling of the idyll of Wilder’s childhood on the prairie, then steels it up when the time comes to deal with the uglier historical realities behind the Little House books. Quotations from the letters of either Wilder or her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a prominent figure in the story, are the high points of her performance; Moore gives these women’s voice the distinct tang of early-20th-century America.
The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs, narrated by Cassandra Campbell
Campbell is the Meryl Streep of audiobook narrators, and her performance of this memoir by a gifted poet about her final months on Earth (Riggs died of breast cancer in early 2017) is understated and sensitive. A descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Riggs confronts profound questions even as she embraces the quotidian. She reads Montaigne and takes her two sons to a Harry Potter theme park, ponders the strange burden of making a name for yourself when you come from an illustrious family and orders a new sofa on the internet. One of the best parts of the book is the tribute it pays to the pleasures of ordinary life. Campbell handles the memoir’s many shifts from the mundane to the transcendent to the stone-cold terrifying with the dulcet aplomb that has made her a star.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie, narrated by the author
An ambivalent, raucous, fearless account of his relationship to his difficult and often withholding mother, this memoir is classic Alexie: full of deadpan humor and sharp jabs, vertigo-inducing honesty, heartbreak, and clowning around. He is that rare writer who will never, ever bullshit his readers. So who else could narrate this book but Alexie himself? Fans of his YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, will recognize many of the events on which that semiautobiographical book was based.
Five-Carat Soul by James McBride, narrated by Arthur Morey, Nile Bullock, Prentice Onayemi, and Dominic Hoffman
McBride, author of the National Book Award–winning novel The Good Lord Bird, writes old-fashioned short stories with real endings, populated by strongly drawn characters: a middle-aged Jewish dealer in antique toys, a grieving Abraham Lincoln, a boxer fighting the devil for his own soul, and all the animals in a small urban zoo. The stellar assortment of narrators chosen to read these tales (many of which are told in the first person) clearly seized on their roles with a brio equal to that of the man who wrote them. Each story builds an entire world, but my favorite might be a Pennsylvania neighborhood called the Bottom, described to us by Butter (voiced by Bullock), who plays in a “street band” there and recounts the exploits and intrigues and eccentricities of his neighbors.
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, narrated by the author
Some of the most enduring legends of all time, retold by one of the most popular storytellers of our time, who also happens to be one of the best self-narrators around: This one is a no-brainer for any year-end list. Gaiman supplies the real dirt on Odin, Thor, and Loki (not the gussied-up superhero versions). The Norse myths are stark and often brutal, none of which Gaiman downplays; his fidelity to his sources is impeccable. Still, there’s plenty of Gaiman-esque enchantment here, never more potent than when it comes straight from the magician’s mouth.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, narrated by Juanita McMahon
McMahon’s plush contralto is the ideal vehicle for this historical novel set in late Victorian England. Liberated by the death of her abusive husband, a scientifically inclined widow arrives in the county of Essex to hunt for fossils just as the region is gripped by a strange hysteria. People keep glimpsing an enormous reptile in the marshes and rivers. The novel is as rich in plot as a plumcake is in plums, and McMahon (a pseudonym of the actress Tanya Myers and narrator of several of Sarah Waters’ novels) clearly relishes every twist, turn, and atmospheric flourish.
An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn, narrated by Bronson Pinchot
Pinchot, whose voice is as comfy and unflashy as your dad’s slippers, at first seems an odd choice for this complex interweaving of family memoir, travel writing, history, and literary criticism. Mendelsohn, a classicist, describes the year his 82-year-old father asked to sit in on his college course on Homer’s Odyssey and the cruise the two men later took to the sites mentioned in the poem. But Pinchot’s unaffected, even humble warmth makes a lovely counterpart to the elegant looping of Mendelsohn’s clauses and ideas. Pinchot teases forth the intimacy of the story, accentuating how Mendelsohn seeks to link what can seem like a remotely ancient literary artifact to eternal human experiences.