As editor and founder of AudioFile magazine, Robin Whitten comes across a LOT of audiobooks. She started AudioFile 25 years ago and was an avid listener even before that—so she knows the world of audiobooks! Every week in “Robin’s Roundup,” she recommends fresh titles that have caught her ear—the quirky, the trendy, and the most interesting new audiobooks of the week. Look for her posts each Friday on the blog to get your weekend listening picks!
George Smiley, Malachy McCourt, and my favorite Aussie narrator
A week for old friends—that’s audiobook friends we’ve heard before, but we’re oh so glad to hear from them again. The newest John le Carré novel, A LEGACY OF SPIES, is a perfect example. Not only do I celebrate any new title from British master spy novelist le Carré, but LEGACY also brings back George Smiley. Ok, I admit it, I see actor Alec Guiness, but narrator Tom Hollander brings alive the Cold War spy masters and their craft. Le Carré, now in his 80s, read his memoir THE PIGEON TUNNELmagnificently just last year, but it seems right to hand the mic to Tom Hollander here.
Malachy McCourt brings back different sorts of memories, but his new memoir, DEATH NEED NOT BE FATAL, sounds like a lot of fun. He sings, he jokes, he talks about his life in Brooklyn and Ireland and his saintly mother, Angela, and his equally famous brother, Frank, who wrote ANGELA’S ASHES. I hope listeners are still discovering the great audiobook of Frank McCourt’s 1996 memoir. It is certainly an audiobook that “sold” many readers on the format 20+ years ago. Read more…
Dark or bright? Are you looking for real-world challenges or a fantasy escape?
My choices from this week’s new audiobook reviews seem to have a yin and yang approach. The dark and the light. We have history and biography that stare hard challenges straight in the face, like HUE 1968, Mark Bowden’s extensively researched account of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. I like reviewer Bob Grundfest’s comment on narrator Joe Barrett: “He sounds like an old boot and offers no quarter when detailing the battle’s ravages, both in terms of men and American strategy.” If you are planning on watching Ken Burns’s PBS documentary or listening to the audiobook edition, THE VIETNAM WAR, Bowden’s work is an excellent companion. The biography of Israel’s former prime minister, Shimon Peres, NO ROOM FOR SMALL DREAMS, covers important decades of Israeli history. Narrator Mark Bramhall clearly gets into the author’s voice and brings listeners a direct and inspiring reflection. For another type of challenge, the biography of English cardiologist and surgeon Dr. Stephen Westaby looks at his career and many high-risk surgeries in OPEN HEART.
To counterbalance the nonfiction choices, what about a little fantasy? M.T. Anderson is a master of the invented world, and LANDSCAPE WITH INVISIBLE HAND is his newest young adult novel. Hearing about the aliens called “vuvv” may actually be easier than encountering the words repeatedly in the text—an unexpected bonus of audiobook listening. Anderson narrates the audiobook himself as he did with his celebrated SYMPHONY FOR THE CITY OF THE DEAD. While I’m on words that might be easier to hear rather than read, how about NYXIA, a sci-fi thriller by Scott Reintgen. The North Carolina teacher offers his novel for the “front-row sleepers and back-row dreamers of his classrooms.” That should be enough to pique your interest, but narrator Sullivan Jones delivers with action and emotion for the teens in a competition aboard a spaceship.
Is your approach to listening this week dark, or bright?
Chef memoirs and “foodie” books seem to come in waves . . . we’re in the kitchen with Marcus Samuelsson or Ruth Reichl and then the cupboard is bare for months. Happily this week we have three terrific cuisine-related audiobooks. Alice Waters, visionary chef and owner of Berkeley, California’s Chez Panisse invites listeners right to her table to hear her memoir COMING TO MY SENSES. She shares her passion for food, the story of finding her own voice as a chef, and a scattering of recipes. If you’ve checked out the beautifully illustrated cookbook SALT, FAT, ACID HEAT, it might be hard to imagine the audiobook edition. Yet author Samin Nosrat pulls it off, bringing this innovative cooking guide to listeners with engaging, conversational style . . . but you may still want to have the hardcover text on your shelf for the recipe details and techniques. Read more…
This week 5 end-of-summer options that think about transitions
As we wrap up summer with a long weekend, the audiobook reviews this week put me in two minds. I want to extend my random “summer listening” choices just a little longer, but also know many of us have already turned to the more serious efforts of fall.
ARROWOOD, set in the London of Sherlock Holmes, looks like a great choice if you’re on a mystery bent. We’ve been doing a lot of listening around the upcoming Sherlock Holmes anniversary in October. Arrowood is a scornful, anti-Holmes detective portrayed by Malk Williams. It gets an Earphones Award, so well worth attention.
An ensemble of popular young adult writers including Libba Bray and Tim Federle offer a collection to wrap up summer with some teen listening: SUMMER DAYS AND SUMMER NIGHTS. Six narrators share the varied stories. The notion of “coming-of-age” comes to mind as I thought about the stories and how the end of summer often marks this transition.
The cultural commentary of Ben Sasse’s THE VANISHING AMERICAN ADULT has a lot to say about coming of age in 21st-century America. His friendly warning, as well as encouragement for parents, teachers, and officials, is worth checking out. Fiction is often the norm for listeners to explore coming-of-age stories, and I often think it’s a welcome way to learn about the customs, culture, and expectations of others ages and times—think Jane Austen. In a dynamic new production, Emma Thompson leads a full cast to present NORTHANGER ABBEY. The Gothic satire of Austen’s first novel makes good listening.
This week’s current darling of the publishing world, MY ABSOLUTE DARLING, is getting reviews and comments from critics as a major debut. As an audiobook, Gabriel Tallent’s debut is harrowing in a way that is different from the distress caused when we read text of graphic violence. Narrator Alex McKenna should be commended for her fortitude to perform the work and bring it vividly to listeners.
Can you think of other audiobooks that pack a punch that’s different from the experience of reading the same text in print?
No escapes this week—activism in my listening queue
So many great listening choices this week, I could make a long list! Astronomy, history, education, political activism . . . it looks like nonfiction is catching my eye. For teachers and students getting ready to go back to school, here’s a welcome message. MAKE IT STICKis ready to toss out “learning the hard way.” Two cognitive scientists have teamed up with storyteller Peter Brown for a highly listenable audiobook offering some powerful strategies. Another work that addresses totally different educational challenges, THE BATTLE FOR ROOM 314is an important, though harrowing, memoir from Ed Boland’s year of teaching at a New York City high school. Alongside this audiobook is Gwendolyn Brooks’s biography, A SURPRISED QUEENHOOD IN THE NEW BLACK SUN. Brooks, brilliant American poet, Poet Laureate, and first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize, is often known for her poem “We Real Cool.” As I was looking at details about Brooks, I found her reading of the poem.
A sad endpoint to Boland’s story, but learning about Brooks’s legacy offers listeners inspiration and admiration. Another dynamic listening experience is L.A. Theatre Works’ live-audience production of SEVEN, based on interviews with women activists from around the world.
For anyone who was wrapped up in this month’s solar eclipse, AMERICAN ECLIPSE, which is about the 1878 eclipse, has some fascinating history and scientific detail, as well as an astroid hunter. Narrator Jonathan Yen adds a lot to the listening experience. I can’t wrap up this week’s roundup without mentioning my nostalgia on seeing Louise Penny’s GLASS HOUSES. I love the Inspector Gamache books and admire the success of the change of narrators in the middle of the series. Robert Bathurst gets his second Earphones Award for his narration with the newest title. He took over for my lovely friend Ralph Cosham, who recorded the earlier titles and brought the series to listeners’ attention.
If you’re in the mood for a little escapism, this week’s audiobook reviews have some great options. The first to catch my eye, and ear, is THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER. The premise is that daughters of Victorian literary villains—Dr. Jekyll, Mr Hyde, and Rappaccini—collaborate to solve Jack-the-Ripper-like murders with some help from Sherlock Holmes. Narrator Kate Reading has a grand time with this romp.
A different sort of collaboration was the brainchild of the authors of INDIGO. Nine high-profile fantasy authors including Charlaine Harris, Kelley Armstrong, and Jonathan Maberry create a crime-fighter urban myth with super powers drawn from shadows. Just one narrator, Christina Delaine, takes this on. She gets high praise for handling the many male characters as well as the female ones, and for keeping us emotionally engaged. For X-Files fans, this one’s for you—THE X-FILES: COLD CASES. This elaborate original production with a creative soundscape and a huge cast of voices also brings back the original Mulder and Scully actors, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Just the chance to travel through X-Files land again should delight listeners.
My last choice this week is slightly different but a true AudioFile staff pick, WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI. This sweet, immersive teen romance is dynamically read by two narrators, Vikas Adam and Sneha Mathan. The banter between the teens is perfected by the two actors who get the characters, and their world, just right. Dimple and Rishi both struggle with pressures and expectations from their families and society at large, and these nuances add depth to the story of ambition, romance, and tradition, while still keeping things fun.
What audiobook is taking you “out of your world” this week?
Annual “treats” for mystery listeners who follow series
Listeners of mystery series often look forward to the annual event of a new title from their favorite authors. This week’s new reviews will please a lot of listeners.
Daniel Silva is a writer I follow in both audio and print, but it’s hard to beat George Guidall’s performances of the escapades of master spy Gabriel Allon. HOUSE OF SPIES is the 17th in the series, and even with the recurring characters, I think a newcomer could drop in anywhere. If globe-trotting spies are not your cup of tea, consider Ann B. Ross’s Miss Julia series. MISS JULIA WEATHERS THE STORM is #19 in a series “owned” by narrator Cynthia Darlow. I’ve not tried one myself, but I do love Cynthia Darlow.
Another tempting series is the Lady Hardcastle mysteries from T.E. Kinsey. DEATH AROUND THE BEND (#3) sounds like it might quell my sadness in saying goodbye to all the DOWNTON ABBEY folks, although these mysteries are set a decade or so earlier. A lady’s maid and her mistress as sleuths sounds pretty grand.
My last suggestion this week isn’t exactly a new installment in a series—but if you think “new” can also extend to a new narrator having a crack at a well-loved series, check out Stephen Fry’s SHERLOCK HOLMES—and it’s not just another performance of the many Holmes stories. Fry not only narrates each one, but interjects a short essay before each novella and the major collections of stories. Fascinating for fans, but also a perfect way to get a little context before leaping into ‘the game.”
Which series are you keeping an eye on for the next installment?
On a more serious historical note, WHEN THE WORLD STOPPED TO LISTEN caught my eye—first from the title, since I always like a title about listening, and then the subtitle, “Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath,” which got me watching the newsreel from the 1958 concert given by pianist Van Cliburn at the height of the Cold War. “History is made at the keyboard,” the newscaster intones. Now I want to get the whole story.
The 100-year anniversary of the start of Russian Revolution was the catalyst for LENIN ON THE TRAIN. The sealed train that took Lenin from Zurich through Germany to Russia has always fascinated me. With this work, I can get all the details. And John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., have been the subject of plenty of titles, but Steven Levingston’s KENNEDY AND KING: The President, The Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights takes a look at their relationship in the early ’60s and how the two men influenced each other.
New Swedish noir from Anders de la Motte and a curious gem performed by Derek Jacobi
A couple of the audiobooks in this week’s new reviews have European provenance. THE SECRET DIARY OF HENDRIK GROEN: 83 1/4 Years Old by Hendrik Groen is a Dutch bestseller published in 2014. The brilliant Derek Jacobi performs pseudonymous author Groen’s diary as a listener’s delight, delivering the emotional beats and subtle layers of humor.
For listeners who relish Swedish noir mystery, Anders de La Motte may be an author to check out. MEMORANDOM follows his successful GAME trilogy. Narrator Peter Noble does a great job leading listeners into an intriguing thriller that reflects the clear authenticity of de la Motte’s law enforcement background.
Being in the midst of summer, I would think we’d be seeing more baseball audiobooks. THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES sounds like a real nostalgia piece, and will take many listeners back to 1942 with the story of Lou Gehrig and the making of the Gary Cooper movie. The season is long, so more choices for baseball may come along.
We do seem to be in love with book covers with dogs . . .and COLLARED is no exception. Of course, it’s not just the cover—David Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter series is owned by narrator Grover Gardner. An Earphones Award here, but definitely not the duo’s first. I love this comment from AudioFile reviewer Brian Price: “Gardner’s wonderful combination of the rhythms of Sam Spade and the irreverent tones of Mark Twain make this diverting whodunit a listening treasure.” That’s my listening for this week.
A little laughter, a little love, new thriller pairings & another set for McEnroe
This week two new audiobooks that caught my eye, and ear, are filled with humor, warmth, and family dynamics. Mother and daughter author duo, Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella, are pretty irresistible in their latest essay collection I NEED A LIFEGUARD EVERYWHERE BUT THE POOL. Smile from the title on in. Another writer who keeps me in stitches is Adrianna Trigiani. Her new audiobook KISS CARLO looks like a winner. With Edoardo Ballerini as the narrator, how could this sojourn with a postwar Italian-American family not be a delicious listen? (The story does include culinary specialties!)
When I talk about author-read memoirs, I always reserve the right to dispute whether the author IS actually the best narrator. In the case of John McEnroe’s BUT SERIOUSLY it seems like this just had to be the author. McEnroe gives the full-on assault of voice and personality. It’ll be love it or leave it, for sure.
The mash-up of MATCHUP sounds really intriguing to me. Lee Child edited a collection of short stories in which A-List thriller writers pair up their series’ protagonists: Lee Child and Kathy Reichs match Jack Reacher and Temperance Brennan; Lisa Scottoline and Nelson DeMille pair their Benny Rosato and John Corey. Add in talented narrators and, what a gang!