Holiday travelers, fear not! Whether you be road trippin’, air trippin’, or train track hoboin’, here are some excellent audiobook recs to help keep your eyes on the road, and your hands off that child in the seat behind you who won’t stop singing tunes from the latest animated hit. Plus, your ears are occupied so, sorry, dude who wants to talk the whole flight. You’d really love to talk, but wha—? huh?…*shakes head and gestures to noise-canceling headphones.*
The Bests, the Mehs, and the Oh, god, don’t stick that in your ears! The following are novels I read/heard in 2014, all of which are award-winning or award-nominated classic tales, or they are likely headed to some award shortlist next year.
Perdido Street Station (2000) by China Miéville
Narrated by John Lee
The Scar (2002) by China Miéville
Narrated by Gildart Jackson
Easily the best audiobooks I have ever listened to, tentacles down. The audio format heightens Miéville’s rich, dramatic tales, and both Lee and Jackson provide distinctive, vivid voicing in fun and punchy notes. Their uptight British narrator voices carry the listener from scene to scene in storybook fashion, which can be inadvertently hilarious when the effluvia flows. And, if you accidentally get distracted because that driver cut you off, no biggie, because the narrator is STILL on Interlude 157, describing the anal depths of the mucal ocean. You didn’t miss anything important because THAT will go on for a while. Inexorably.
Way Station (1963) by Clifford Simak
Narrated by Eric Michael Summerer)
A sweet, soft voice for a sweet, soft tale, Summerer is the ideal narrator for Simak’s pastoral tale about an alien travel stop in the middle of the unassuming Midwestern countryside. Simak does big ideas in small ways, and Summerer captures that essence with his characterization of the immortal-seeming ex-Civil War soldier Enoch, and his alien mentor and friend Ulysses. I listened to this entire audiobook during my late-spring walks/jogs at sunset but, for travelers, I recommend saving it for that turbulent ride in the sky. Very soothing.
Glory Season (1993) by David Brin
Narrated by Claire Christie
Christie’s steady, alto voice assumes an air of dignity appropriate for this incredibly thorough, swashbuckling tale of a young woman searching for her commercial niche on a planet ruled by oppressive matriarchal guilds. An inverse allegory for our own gender divide, and yes, Christie avoids the exaggerated feminine squeaks of many an annoying narrator.
You can’t go wrong with any of the above audiobooks. For the rest, some are better read, and some are better forgotten…
The Mehs (READ or SKIP or YOU DECIDE)
The Shadow of the Torturer (1980) by Gene Wolfe
Narrated by Jonathan Davis
While the tale is worthy of some serious forehead knuckling, I ditched the audio when Agia’s breast popped out. I’ll do my own idiot-woman voicing in my head, thank you. Allusions are best read. Plus, Davis sounds like Captain Kirk. READ.
Dark Universe (1961) by Daniel Galouye
Narrated by Eric Michael Summerer
Even the talented Summerer (see Way Station above) can add nothing to this pulpy yet poppy prose, full of its linguistic twists, which is best read. MUST. READ.
The Bone Clocks (2014) by David Mitchell
Narrated by various
Each narrator is great at voicing his/her own part, but the Super Fantasy Exposition Tea Party of Part 4 was hard enough to read, let alone listen to. READ (SKIP PART 4.)
I was once compared to the biologist of Annihilation because I am supposedly “curt and fungal.” McCormick nails curt and fungal with her steady, unaffected voicing. Perfect casting that starts great, but gets dull after a while. READ (or MIX IT UP).
Authority (Southern Reach #2) (2014) by Jeff VanderMeer
Narrated by Bronson Pinchot
Balki? The guy who played that stereotyped immigrant character on Perfect Strangers? Yep, that guy. My bias against Bronson Pinchot goes back to an unfortunate Heinleinesque sojourn (see below), but Pinchot’s female voicing irks me, and his Southern Reach Assistant Director voicing borders on offensive. Argh. READ.
City of Stairs (2014) by Robert Jackson Bennett
Narrated by Alma Cuervo
Cuervo is an excellent narrator and, for people eager to read this fantastical big hit, this might be the best format. I loved the action scenes and godly drama, but the superficial depth, sometimes silly dialogue, and token gay guy in a fur coat ultimately made me indifferent to the tale. YOU DECIDE.
Blind Lake (2003) by Robert Charles Wilson
Narrated by Jay Snyder
A steady generic voice for a steady generic, made for TV, sci-fi story. SKIP.
Ilium (2003) by Dan Simmons
Narrated by Kevin Pariseau
Pariseau provides annoying female voicing in this contrived, mish-mashed mash up about Greek gods on Mars. And dinosaurs. SKIP.
Moving Mars (1993) by Greg Bear
Narrated by Sharon Williams
Another excellent narrator who avoids the overt girly stylings of some narrators. Moving Mars is an interesting tale about Martian colonization that can be enjoyed in either format. YOU DECIDE.
Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern (1983) by Anne McCaffrey
Narrated by Sheila Hart
Hart is the audiobook equivalent of a Disney princess. Cutesy, feminine and saccharine-sweet, she brings twee to this tale about time-shifting space dragons. Not my bag, but this might be the perfect distraction in a minivan full of young-uns headed to grandma’s house. (But if they start asking questions about the plausibility of space spores “falling” from one planet to another, shove a popsicle in their mouths and tell them to shut up because time-shifting space dragons.) SKIP, UNLESS THE ABOVE SCENARIO APPLIES.
The Curse of the Chalion (2001) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Narrated by Lloyd James
James portrays the bemused bewilderment due to a bad case of belly demons very well. SKIP.
Startide Rising (1983) by David Brin
Narrated by George Wilson
Wilson is awesome at voicing uplifted dolphins and monkeys. It might also be good for a trip with kids, but it does get kind of kinky with a sort-of threesome with a dolphin. It’s not bestiality in an uplift universe, people! YOU DECIDE.
OH, GOD! DON’T STICK THAT IN YOUR EARS!
The Peripheral (2014) by William Gibson
Narrated by Lorelei King
I heard one sentence, then ditched the audio for the book. MUST READ.
Time Enough for Love (1973) by Robert A. Heinlein
Narrated by Lloyd James
Wanna know how to ruin a month-long beach vacation in the south of Spain? Stick this in your ears during your early morning jogs along the Mediterranean. Yes, I did this. Yes, it was horrible. Why did I do this? Because I could not subject my poor eyeballs to more of Heinlein’s chauvinistic hot air. Listening to it was no better.
The only book I did not finish this year, in either format. SKIP.
Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert
Narrated by various
How to confuse a listener: Do a few scenes with multiple actors, then have one of those actors narrate the rest, then bring the actors back for more dialogue, but have them play different characters. Wait, who said that? What? Now who’s talking? I thought that guy was dead.
Glory Road (1963) by Robert A. Heinlein
Narrated by Bronson Pinchot
Balki again. The women in Heinlein’s books are stupid, sexy airheads. Pinchot does the voicing for stupid, sexy airheads in a stupid, sexy way and I’m driving and now I want to hit somebody so I better just stop this and listen to some Arcade Fire. That’s better. SKIP.
Narrator Analysis: British male narrators are the bomb. American female narrators are excellent, but they often get stuck with lame books. Male American narrators suck, especially when they do female voices. Guys, you don’t have to raise your voice an entire octave. That’s annoying and patronizing.
Full disclosure: I only listened to about 30 – 50% of most of these novels, because reading is just better. It will always be better. But, the auditory experience reveals all kinds of neat little details about books, like different takes on rhythm, tone, and super contrived dialogue. I recommend the experience, even for those of us who are not auditory learners.