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?