in audiobooks, books

I recently listened to my 200th audiobook. I still read at every opportunity; I’ve read myself to sleep every night since I learned how to read. But when I am cleaning, tidying, ironing, gardening, walking etc, I listen to audiobooks. So these are 200 books I just never would have got to, had I not listened to them. I thought I’d mark this milestone with a top 30…

What makes a great audiobook?
All great audiobooks come from great books. It’s that obvious and simple. For some books the format just seems to work so well on audio. Others are improved by wonderful narrators. Sometimes the whole package just works so well as an audiobook. But first and foremost, they’re all great books to begin with.

Availability
I’ve switched between audible.co.uk and audible.com over the years. Unfortunately, some of these are only available on download from audible.com or as physical cds in the UK.


30. Freedom

  • Written by: Jonathan Franzen
  • Narrated by: David Ledoux

 

What do we love? Authenticity! Where do we love it? In books! Franzen is such a master at writing authentic characters & relationships. Similar to the theme in The Corrections, there’s a loose theme of freedom here. What’s it about? It doesn’t really matter with books like this. Like Roger Ebert so wonderfully put it, “It’s not what it’s about it’s how it’s about it”.  And how it’s about it is with great attention to detail and realism. Also great: Purity.

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29. Skagboys

If you try to set aside the cult status of Trainspotting, Skagboys is just as good as Trainspotting if not better. No one does dark and gritty as well as Irvine Welsh, and reading Skagboys was like being reunited with a bunch of old friends, even the scumbag friends, like Begbie… “The Problem is he’s mate an awe, wet ken ye dae”. Also great fun: A Decent Ride.

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28. Doctor Sleep

I grew up on King in my teenage years and then abandoned him after a spate of duds and a growing aversion to the paranormal. I’m glad I gave him another chance  (I’m sure he was bereft without my patronage) because he’s a more masterful storyteller than ever. Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining and is a classic King tale of good against evil. The dark and gritty narration on this really makes it shine. Also amazing on audio: 11.22.83.

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27. Under The Skin

I thought the movie adaption of this book was a masterpiece; a beautiful work of modern art hiding inside a sci-fi flick. I broke with tradition for this one and got the book after seeing the movie, which really worked out as it stands on its own from the movie. They are like separate episodes that come from the same universe, a world where aliens visit earth to source their meat, a vegetarian allegory. Some very creepy vocal sounds make this stand out as an audiobook.

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26. We Need To Talk About Kevin

 

I don’t think this book needs any introduction. A teenage boy with the darkest of streaks ultimately sheds blood of the worst kind; the slaughter of the innocent. This well-crafted tale is told from the unique angle of a mother who never quite bonded with her son, and how her relationship with her offspring may or may not have created this monster.

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25. Dark places

Gone Girl was passable fun. But frivolous and fluffy compared to Dark Places. This is a rare thriller: a great story plotted around a mysterious murder, and rumours of witchcraft and satanism, yet the characters are so well-drawn and interesting, and it doesn’t just rely on a big reveal. You could take away the whodunnit and still have a fantastic character based book. And yes, that’s a coincidental two-in-a-row from narrator Lorelei King. Also Great: Sharp Objects.

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24. The Marriage Plot

Although I’ve added many new pets to my list of favourite authors, I’ve long considered Tartt, Franzen and Eugenides to be my own holy trinity of contemporary literary novelists. When The Marriage Plot was published Franzen and Eugenides had become so familiar, you’d be hard pushed to find much in the difference between them in how they handle their subjects. The setting is the same where it matters; the minutiae of how people connect to each other in a variety of relationships.

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23. Himself: A Novel

There wasn’t a huge selection of good Irish books available on audio for a few years, and then recently, I seemed to be listening to one after another. And this is a fine example brimming with divilment. There’s a small town with its small town ways. There are dark secrets in its past. There’s a lovable old lady who suffers no fools. Befuddled ghosts wander around scratching their heads, occasionally making themselves heard. Then there’s himself, Mahony; a handsome rogue who’s blown into town in search of his long lost mother. And of course, there’s a parish priest preaching against the belief in superstition, a hypocratic trope that never gets’s old.

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22. Dept. of speculation

 

The Dept. Of Speculation is a department of one; a recently married woman dealing with the raw grief of a cheating fucker of a husband. This is one of those short wonderfully compact books that manages to pack so much into so little. The kind of book that if you were to start highlighting great lines of droll humour, you’d end up highlighting the whole book.

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21. Into the Darkest Corner

I have a very low tolerance for psychological thrillers that use mental illness or neurological disease as a cheap plot device, and then get it so wrong; gaping plot holes, cringey cliches, and the reliance on some stupid twist at the end to make or break it. This book is a very rare beast in my experience. It deals with OCD and PTSD realistically, and not only as a contrived plot device and still manages to be a great thriller, and a total page turner. A very rare thriller in my experience.

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20. Into That Forest

This is a great story about two girls who end up spending four years in the wild after being adopted by two Tasmanian Tigers. Yes you read that right. It’s an unusual but well-told story. What particularly gives it a place on this list is how it’s told: by an old woman sitting by a fire, or if not exactly that, it was that kind of vibe, which works great as audio.

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19. Gargoyle

I’m often amazed at the volume of amazing books that you might never hear about and are so easy to miss. The premise of The Gargoyle is based around an old trope; is a character insane or has she actually {insert-impossible-fantastical-truth}. But that doesn’t take away from how great this book is. I was hooked from the start: a porn-star indulges in too much drink and drugs and crashes his car while hallucinating, then gets horribly burned alive in the car, which is described in great detail, and that’s just the first page, awesome stuff!

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18. Beatlebone

The premise alone is amazing. John Lennon trying to seek refuge on a small island he’s bought off the West Coast of Ireland. If you’re familiar with Kevin Barry’s craft, you won’t be surprised to hear that the writing in this is stunning. It also includes some hilarious dialogue. Some people complain that this book is a bit too strange for them, but life is strange! and this book captures something very real about life and its peculiarities. It really got under my skin and connected with me. I loved it.

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17. Me Talk Pretty One Day

The question here is which Sedaris book do I put in my list? The thing with David Sedaris audiobooks is they’re all great! His writing, which is mostly observations about his own life experiences are hilariously written. And they work so well on Audio read by the man himself. Particularly the chapters that are read in front of a live audience.  This is the first one I read and I think it’s a good place to start. Also great: Anything else by David Sedaris.

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16 – This Is How It Always Is

Some writers are great storytellers (Hello to Stephen King). Others are fantastic wordsmiths (Hey Kevin Barry), and then are many different ways to write a great book. Laurie Frankel is the kind of writer who is a very wise and observant of life on earth and just writes down her wonderful thoughts. In this case, it’s about a hectic young family, particularly the youngest boy who decides one day he wants to wear a dress. Frankel has very wise observations about sex, sexuality and sexual orientation in modern life. I loved the narration also because, like many great narrators, Gabra Zackman doesn’t overdo the performance. She sits in the background and lets the words do the talking.

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15. The Hearts Invisible Furies


I mostly know John Boyne from The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas, next to that a title as grave as “The Heart’s Invisible Furies”, sounded like this was going to be a very serious read. But it turned out to be one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, or listened to. Cyril’s father, sorry adoptive father, was one of the funniest characters ever, out of many in this book.

But what made it such a great book was that it wasn’t just a straight up comedy. Boyne was able to go from comedy (bordering on too farcical at times) to more serious and heartbreaking topics with great ease. Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish.

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14. The Sisters Brothers

At the risk of sounding repetitive, there are many ways to write a great book; storytelling, plot, narrative, characters, realism, dialogue and prose. But there’s one factor authors sometimes forget: entertainment. Patrick deWitt never forgets that.  Every page (minute, whatever) in this tale of bickering assassin brothers set during the gold rush is high entertainment indeed and that is why I’ve yet to meet anyone who didn’t love this book. And there’s just something about that old Country & Western twang that totally rocks it on audio. Also great: Under Major Domo Minor.

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13.  Where’d You Go Bernadette

Comedy is a funny thing! I usually find that books written solely for the comedy section are anything but funny. I really didn’t like the comedy-book-of-the-moment at the time: “The 100 year old man who climbed out of the window”. But Where’d You Go, Bernadette was, for me, genuinely laugh out loud funny from the very start. No long drawn out back story, or plodding character development. Just bam! Straight into it. A few pages in and there’s a whole world of hilarious stuff going on. This is one big passive aggressive note against the type of people who might write passive aggressive notes. Great fun, if a little far-fetched in places, but it’s almost in sitcom territory, so we can give it some comedic licence. Highly recommended.

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12. My Struggle

I usually avoid books with numbers in the title like a plague. But for a while, everyone seemed to be talking about the six-part series My Struggle. As it tends to do, hype had set my expectations so high I expected magic to flow from the first page. It took me a while to warm to it. To get it. But then I was hooked. My Struggle is a semi-metafictional / autobiographical masterwork dissecting the minutiae of human interactions and everyday life, somehow written in a way that makes a task as mundane as washing tiles in a shower seem fascinating. There is one flaw in the audio. It’s all a bit too serious; I’m sure there’s more than an element of tongue-in-cheekiness to Knausgaard’s writing.

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11. Boxer Beetle

What I love about Ned Baumann books is that on top of the usual great story, wonderful characters, and fantastic writing there’s always an insight into strange and interesting topics with a good mix of fact and fiction. This time we’ve got boxing, eugenics, beetles, nazi memorabilia, and a disease that makes you smell like fish. What’s not to love? Also great: Glow.

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10. A Little Life

There’s nothing little about listening to 33 hours of a life filled with pain. But the writing is something to behold. A lot of people find the abuse in this book too much, which is fair enough, each to their own. But don’t let anyone tell you this is torture porn. Anyone can write about gore, abuse, and torture, whereas Yanagahari handles it with such deft, compassion and empathy, and delves so deeply into the core of the human psyche that it not only justifies the heartbreaking pain, but it makes it a vital part of the balancing act. Some of the more endearing relationships would be bordering on trite and sentimental if not on the flip side of such anguish. The beauty of the book would never be able to shine if it weren’t set against such a dark background. And she’s such an amazingly talented and clever writer. In even slightly lesser hands, it would have felt like angsty torture porn but in her hands, it never did, not even slightly.

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9. People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman

Of all the non-fiction books I’ve read in the last few years, the fantastically titled  People Who Eat Darkness and Henrietta Lacks really stood out at as unique. Then I discovered they were part of a sub-genre known as Literary Nonfiction or Creative Nonfiction. It’s basically non-fiction that employs all the techniques that fiction writers use to bring a story to life; plot arcs, character development, slow reveals, well considered structure etc. This is the story of an English Woman who vanished from the streets of Tokyo.  There are many fascinating strands to the story; the hostess culture in Japan, the exploration of how grieving parents are expected to act in the eye of the public, and of course the main crime itself.

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8. 1Q84

This was initially released as three books. But I went straight for the complete edition. At almost 47 hours long, it’s a whopper of a book. Murakami books are a bit of an acquired taste so I’d recommend trying a few of his shorter books first. Maybe Kafka on the Shore or Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. All Murakami books are quite metaphysical, dreamlike and surreal but there is a consistent logic to the crazy events that unfold. 1Q84 is a masterpiece. 

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7. The Goldfinch

I’m often a bit stumped when asked what a book I’m reading is about, it’s often irrelevant. I could say The Goldfinch is about a guy who steals a painting of a goldfinch after an explosion in an art gallery, and the consequences that follow. But of course the goldfinch painting is a bit of a MacGuffin. What is this book really about? … it’s about everything: love, loss, death, friendship, art, marriage, morals, parenting, growing up, mental health, addiction, hedonism… life!

Tartt, Eugenides, and Franzen really excel at taking a bunch of interesting and believable characters to tell a story that itself is just a backdrop to the broad canvas of life. Their novels are always an amazing experience to read. The books that come before and after always pale in comparison. And The Goldfinch is no different. A masterpiece.

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6. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This is a fascinating book, perfectly marrying scientific fact with the amazing story of one woman and her immortal cells which are still growing today in thousands of labs all over the world. The author, Rebecca Skloot becomes a vital part of the story as she takes the angrily uninformed Lacks family by the hand and drags them from a spate of superstition and misinformation that has plagued the family, through to a more appreciative understanding of the contribution their mother’s cells have made to the world.

The idea of reading a scientific history of cell culture doesn’t exactly sound thrilling, but it is – this is an amazing (true) story, wonderfully told with a bunch of lively characters. And the audiobook is beautifully narrated too which really brought it to life.

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5. I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan

This is the perfect audiobook. I just couldn’t imagine reading this on paper when I can listen to Alan Partridge himself. Seven hours of comedy gold. Also great: Alan Partridge: Nomad.

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4. The Lesser Bohemians

A lot of the books on this list have been tumbling around in my head as favourites for years now, but this is a very recent listen and it’s one of the best audiobooks I’ve heard. After reading her fantastic debut (on Kindle) I didn’t think her kind of writing would translate well as audio. Firstly: I was wrong her spiky abrasive writing works so well read out loud. Secondly; there’s a lot more dialogue in this making it a lot more accessible and easier on the brain than A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing, and Thirdly when I heard how perfectly the narrater nailed this I checked out who it was and of course it’s yer only woman, Eimear McBride!

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3. The Time Traveler’s Wife

This seems like a bit of a marmite book. Some people seem to hate it, some people love it. I adored it. Up to a point I was really enjoying it, and then about halfway through various events struck a chord with me and I was completely gripped emotionally. This is a book about the trials and tribulations that can test relationships. It just so happens that one of the tribulations in this relationship is that Henry accidentally time travels now and then. It’s amazing how made Niffenegger made such an impossibly convoluted story so astonishingly real.

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2. Blood Meridian

The last two books in this list are pretty close in terms of quality but so different in content and tone. This is a very dark book with extreme graphic violence. It’s the grimmest account of cowboys and Indians you’re likely to read. Cormac McCarthy is such an amazing writer and he’s in fine form in the masterpiece, while Richard Poe’s gravelly voice of despair is a perfect match. Have a listen to the sample.

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1. When God Was a Rabbit

In a nutshell this is a book about love in all its various forms (including falling in love with the book itself if that’s possible). Now that’s all well and good to write down. Maybe. But I was in a car with a friend from work recently and got talking about this list, and my potential number one, and found myself mumbling that it was about love and then realising how naff it sounded out loud. It’s a hard one to explain, especially out loud man-to-man for some strange reason. I think at its heart it’s a wonderfully nostalgic trip into the wonders of childhood friendship in a way that I haven’t seen captured elsewhere. It’s funny and heartwarming and full of lovable quirky characters. It’s mostly about Elly who has a pet rabbit called God, her wonderful friend Jenny Penny, and Elly’s brother Joe. What just about pips it to number one is that it’s so perfectly narrated by Sarah Winman, from the children’s voices, which is so hard for an adult to get right, right up to adulthood. It’s such a perfect little complete package, that it’s hard to separate the audio from the text. It’s simply the perfect audiobook.

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