Been meaning to read Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” or perhaps Alice Hoffman’s “Faithful” but just haven’t had the time? Some of last year’s best books were also wonderful audio books, whose readers captured the emotion, tension and thoughtfulness of each book. Here are eight to download and listen to as you exercise, clean or drive around town.
“Faithful: A Novel.” Alice Hoffman (Simon and Schuster)
18-year-old Shelby Richmond’s life spirals into depression after an automobile accident leaves her best friend in a coma. Twists and turns, suffering and guilt mark her decades-long path to health. Amber Tambylyn voices Shelby’s gradual changes – from tough, black humor through vulnerability and finally to loving.
“In the Darkroom,” Susan Faludi (Blackstone Audio)
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The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer had little contact with her father until his sex change operation restarts their communication. Laurel Lefkow switches comfortably between American and Hungarian accents, echoes the cold sarcasm between Susan Faludi and her father and accents the thoughtful reflections on self-image throughout the narrative.
“La Rose,” Louise Erdrich (HaperAudio)
Louise Erdrich’s gentle voice belies the violence of a tale that begins with a man killing the son of his neighbors. Following “the old way,” he gives his son to the grieving family. Erdrich’s beautiful prose contrasts with twined traumatic tales of five generations of Ojibwe peoples. Her reading varies from wry to wrought, all having just the right emotional emphasis to make characters real.
“Michling,” Affinity Konar (Hatchett)
Vanessa Johansson depicts the strength of twins 12-year-old Stasha and Pearl who are in the most vulnerable situation possible, part of the zoo of “Uncle Doctor” Joseph Mengele in Auschwitz. Johansson’s poignant reading witnesses the creativity of the twins amid torture and when separated after the war. Johansson accents the lyrical elements which balance the atrocities of this compelling book.
“My Name is Lucy Barton,” Elizabeth Strout (Random House)
Lucy Barton, made lonely during a nine-week hospital stay, recalls the exclusion and vulnerability that have haunted her for a lifetime. A large part of the narrative remembers in-hospital dialogue with her estranged mother who can’t fully acknowledge the emotional and material poverty of Lucy’s growing up. Kimberly Farr eloquently matches the author’s gift for expressing small moments and allowing readers to intuit larger absolutes and psychological complexities.
“News of the World,” Paulette Jiles (Brilliance Audio)
Grover Gardner has just the right amount of drawl to evoke the 1870 northern Texas setting. Gardner juggles diverse accents with the more erudite speech of the hero, Captain Jefferson Kidd, an aging widower who makes his living by traveling from town to town reading the news until he agrees to unite a 10-year-old German girl kidnapped by the Kiowa with her family.
“Swing Time,” Zadie Smith (Penguin Audio)
Pippa Bennett-Warner’s precise reading maximizes Smith’s gift for detailing and skillful weaving of time periods. Bennett-Warner’s accents and emotional tones shift rapidly and convincingly to describe the protagonist’s childhood best friend, her strong feminist Jamaican mother, and her narcissistic celebrity employer. Nuances allow listeners to draw parallels about power, culture, racism, sexism and the past’s influence on the present.
“The Underground Railroad,” Colson Whitehead (Penguin-Random House Audio)
Bahni Turpin voice is neutral as she leads listeners into a reality where the Underground Railroad is a series of physically-real traumatic stops. Soon Turpin’s objective tone strains as if repressing the revulsion and horror at harsh realities neither the heroine, Cora, or listeners can avoid. Turpin fully expresses the large cast of characters, recounts jarring evocative scenes and celebrates Cora’s resilience.