2020 was a good year for audiobooks, since mostly what I did was take long walks every day to get out of the house. Audiobooks were also a great distraction inside the house, perfect for things like baking and laundry (things I also did a lot of in 2020). Of the 120 books I’ve read so far this year, 54 were on audio, or just about half (in 2019 I read 23 audiobooks, but I only started halfway into the year).
I listened to most of my books through Libby, the library app. I also switched to a monthly subscription with Kobo, which is a little cheaper than Audible and seems to be just as good (for my limited use of it). I used Kobo mainly for times I wanted a new release (like Hamnet) or needed something right away for book club. I used to use Scribd but had a lot of problems with it; I’ve been happy with Kobo and I’ve started using it for e-books as well.
I’ve become a faster listener. This isn’t just impatience, though there’s some of that. I read faster than I listen – listening forces you into the narrator’s pace rather than your own. At first I listened to everything at 1.0 speed, and couldn’t imagine how people could listen at higher speeds, but it’s really just something you get used to. Now I listen to most things at about 1.25 and depending on the narrator, can go as high as 1.4.
In 2020 I invested in good wireless headphones, and I also bought some very inexpensive Bluetooth speakers I keep around the house. That allows me to take my audiobooks around the house fairly easily and to listen hands-free.
Some of my favorite audiobooks this year were:
- Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (read by Daisy Donovan)
- The House in the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Klune (read by Daniel Henning)
- Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (read by Bahni Turpin)
- The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (read by Shayna Small)
- The Lost Man by Jane Harper (read by Stephen Shanahan)
- Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon (read by Barrie Kreinik)
- The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek (read by Katie Schorr)
- So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (read by Bahni Turpin)
- With the Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo (read by author)
- My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (read by Grace Gummer)
- Sadie by Courtney Summers (multiple narrators)
- Faithful Place by Tana French (read by Tim Gerard Reynolds)
- Atlas Alone by Emma Newman (read by author)
- The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff (multiple narrators)
- The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (read by Ruthie Ann Miles, Kimiko Glenn)
- Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout (read by Stephanie Roberts)
- Shrill by Lindy West (read by author)
Right now I’m reading The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab (read by Julia Whelan) and I’m absolutely loving it – so while I haven’t finished, I’m adding it to the list.
What makes an audiobook great for me? As I’ve written before, I tend to like books by audio that are dramatic or emotional. On my list are books that had powerful, emotion-driven stories, like Hamnet, Sadie, My Dark Vanessa, Amy and Isabelle, and especially The Only Plane in the Sky. The narrators of these stories stood out for me in how they dramatized some extremely uncomfortable topics. I also love books that involve accents, dialects, or speaking in different languages, like Code Name Helene, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, The Lost Man, and Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. That’s where audio makes a real difference since good accents really bring a story to life and I can’t do them in my head.
For books that are really complicated (e.g. have a lot of different settings, times, and characters) I find visual reading works better. I also have mixed feelings about listening to romances. I’ve decided that for the most part, romances work better for me when I’m imagining the characters’ voices myself rather than hearing them — though I did enjoy books by Jasmine Guillory, Beth O’Leary and Evie Dunmore by audio.
In contrast, mysteries work particularly well by audio, as long as it’s not the kind of mystery where every tiny detail is important to the story. The works of Tana French and Ruth Ware are perfect audiobooks for me, and I’m also really enjoying the Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell mysteries by Laurie R. King.
All the narrators I mentioned on my list were excellent, but two standouts were Daniel Henning for his fantastic children’s voices in The House in the Cerulean Sea, and Barrie Kreinik in Code Name Helene for bringing to life the thrilling story of Nancy Wake in World War II. Two of my favorite audio readers are Bahni Turpin and Elizabeth Acevedo.
Audiobooks have really enhanced my reading life, and I’m grateful to my husband for suggesting a way of reading that I’d been resisting for years. I do worry a bit about safety when I’m out walking with my headphones — I try to pay close attention to my surroundings and not walk in dark or deserted areas. I also keep noise cancellation to a minimum. Still, I’ve had a few close calls with cyclists and kids nearly riding into me when I didn’t know they were behind me, so it’s something I pay attention to.
If you listen to audiobooks, did you have a favorite read this year, or a favorite narrator across multiple books? What do you like to listen to?
Tuning up the speed is essential, because audiobooks are ridiculously slow compared to reading.
I only listen to them during longer walks or while driving. I.e. while I can’t read. Listening won’t ever replace my reading where I’m not bound to a certain speed.
Thanks Andreas. It definitely helps to up the speed. I still love reading but I like that I can listen to one book while I’m reading another. I also find I can carve out a lot more time for reading with audiobooks.
Wait, what? You… read two books in parallel? Crazy girl, now I’m envious 🤣
Good choices! I loved both Bookwoman and Fire on High. If I do not finally get a Bluetooth speaker for Christmas I’m buying one. I’ve asked each year–lol.
I’m glad to hear you liked Bookwoman and Fire on High. Elizabeth Acevedo is incredibly talented. Katie Schorr did a great job narrating Bookwoman, and she also did The Hating Game. The two speakers I have are very inexpensive, and very small so they can go anywhere in the house. Have a very happy holiday season!
I love audiobooks and I have switched several of my books to audiobook requests based on your list. Sounds like you and I have a lot of the same requirements for it to be a “good audiobook.”
My favorite one this year has been Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig. Fantastic book and narrated beautifully by the author.
Thanks for the comment – if you listen to any of these, please let me know how you liked them! I hear so many good things about Matt Haig, I will look that one up.
Wow that’s great goings! I have to turn up the speed too or it takes too damn long!!!
Thanks for the comment CJR! I hope you have a happy holiday season.
Thank you, and you too!
I started audiobooks this year too! I’ve only really listened to ‘The Raven Cycle’ audiobooks so far but I absolutely love the narrator (Will Patton). He does different voices and tones so well. I really want to read ‘The House on the Cerulean Sea’ and I might check out the audiobook version now! Great post 😀
Thanks for the comment Sabrina! If you listen to Cerulean Sea, I hope you love it! I’ve never read the Raven Cycle but will check those out. There are so many fantasy series I still need to read.
I don’t listen to audiobooks but you know, I think it would be hard to compare books you read and books you listen to…
It’s harder to compare, but then it’s really hard to compare different types of books either way. I do find I tend to react more emotionally to audio but my concentration is less.
I think I listened to a lot more audiobooks this year than usual because I was using them to reread Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings books. I think the guy who narrates Fitz’s story (Farseer and Tawney Man books) did a great job. I think his name is Paul Boehmer.
I’d like to read more by Robin Hobb. I’m glad to hear you liked the audiobooks, I’ll look those up.
Currently reading Code Name Helene and currently listening to Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. I also recently listened to The Vanishing Half–loved that narrator and thought she really added another dimension to the story.
I agree – reading accents well brings a lot to the party. I love audio books and will often try out a new author in audio because most of them are checked out of my library and downloaded to my iphone, so the commitment in terms of time, money, and shelf space is minimal and I can afford to experiment.
I thought the narrator for Vanishing Half was great too. I agree about getting audiobooks from the library, they are so expensive otherwise. The only problem is sometimes I have to rush through to finish them on time.