Audiobooks are a wonderful way to fill the hours and form a reading habit. They’re also a wonderful way to get your hands on new books while libraries remain closed or operating at limited capacity. Thanks to digital technology, audiobooks are easy to access through library apps like Libby and Hoopla and platforms like Audible and Chirp.
However, the perfect audiobook can be elusive. The voice and accent of the narrator, the pacing, and the content all need to work in concert in order to keep you hooked all the way to those final words, “the end.” If you are in the market for quality audiobooks, I would like to recommend a few of my favorite titles and preferred narrators.
If you have never read the original Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Although the story is arguably aimed at children, I have found that it only improves with age. Peter Pan is the story of a boy who refuses to grow up and his adventures in Neverland, a magical island inhabited by mermaids, pirates, and of course, the Lost Boys.
This book is a joy to read out loud, especially with younger children, but the audiobook is the next best thing. Narrator Jim Dale brings the story to life by using subtle voices for the various characters, which is especially helpful for younger readers who might have trouble keeping track of all of the characters. In fact, Dale’s voice might already be familiar to you: he also narrated all of the Harry Potter books! If you want to enjoy this novel for free, check it out on Soundcloud.
This novel might just be my favorite book. I have read it several times over in both the original and revised edition, for author Evelyn Waugh made some minor changes to the prose (but not the plot) when the book was reprinted. (Keep your eye out at your local used bookstore for those first edition copies!)
In the book, the main character, Charles Ryder, reminisces over his life and especially his friendship with the Flyte family when the war brings him back to their home, Brideshead Castle. The descriptions are exquisite—and this is coming from a reader who often lacks the patience to sit through descriptive passages in books. The narrator, Jeremy Irons, also plays Ryder in the beautiful and nearly verbatim eleven-hour television adaptation. After listening to the audiobook not once but twice, now I “hear” the book in Irons’ voice when I’m silently reading!
In my experience, it is hardest to find a quality audiobook for books that are in the public domain. Why? Since publishers do not have to pay copyright fees to adapt these titles, just about anyone can record an audiobook; the result is that some versions are subpar, either because the recording quality is poor or the narrator is less experienced. The silver lining is that these books often can be found for free.
I must have listened to a dozen samples of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre before I found a narrator I liked. Klett has a light British accent that really brings the book to life, and she reads the book so naturally. Jane Eyre is a great read but it can be hard to get through the first few painful chapters about Jane’s childhood. I don’t think I would have made it through if it weren’t for Klett’s lovely narration! And since the recording is done by LibriVox, it is in the public domain, and available to download for free.
I was able to listen to this audiobook for free using my local library’s preferred app, Libby. C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters is brilliant and insightful, a novel of sorts composed of fictitious letters from an experienced demon “Uncle Screwtape” to his nephew “Wormwood” as the latter is assigned to bring a single man to hell. While the premise might sound scary, it is important to recall Lewis’s preface, where he reminds the reader that demons are notorious liars and as such, Screwtape’s letters ought to be taken with multiple grains of salt. Far from generating fear, the book generates great hope and confidence in the face of evil.
I recommend this edition in part because it includes a short sequel Lewis later wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” and also because Cosham has the dry, bureaucratic tone of Screwtape down pat. His narration of the final letter is masterful.
I discovered Swedish author Fredrik Backman’s novels on the recommendation of a dear friend who also happens to be a librarian. In the weeks that followed, she and I alternated Blackman’s titles, staying up late in the night to listen to every audiobook version of his novels we could get our hands on and calling the next morning to discuss our thoughts. Although I have read and listened to a few of his titles, all of them excellent, Beartown might still be my favorite.
In the spirit of full disclosure, many of Backman’s novels require a warning, as they deal with serious themes like death, suicide, and sexual violence. In Beartown, a struggling town with little hope apart from its promising hockey team has to reckon with the aftermath of a rape accusation. I was nervous to read this book on account of the mature content and started out with my hand hovering over the “fast forward” button on my phone, but there was no need. In everyone one of his novels, Backman takes serious subjects seriously, without sensationalizing them or glorifying violence. He has a way of finding hope and humanity even in the darkest of places. Nevertheless, I would not recommend this title to someone who is sensitive to the topic of sexual assault.
Marin Ireland narrates Beartown as well as the sequel, Us Against You. I sure hope she narrates the third and final book of the series when it is released! Ireland takes her time with Backman’s carefully chosen words, so you could probably even listen to this book at 1.5 speed (a listening hack from an audiobook veteran), though I think the slightly slower pace matches Backman’s meditative tone.
Strictly speaking, this is not an audiobook. It is a collection of dramatizations of Jane Austen’s novels, performed by famous actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Felicity Jones, and David Tennant. I loved listening to old-fashioned radio shows as a child, and this has a similar feel. Each adaptation only lasts an hour or so; I once listened to all six adaptations while driving to and from college.
Each adaptation has a slightly different tone to it, which usually reflects the varying tones of Austen’s books. Since they are shorter in length, some liberties are taken to abridge and adapt the plot, but a Janeite can still appreciate how these adaptations aim to do justice to the source material. You can purchase the entire collection at Audible.