AudioFile magazine is one of the best places on the web for audiobook reviews. At the end of every year, its editors compile lists that highlight the best audiobooks across a range of genres, including fiction, nonfiction, biography and mystery. Laura Sackton, a contributor at AudioFile, talks us through some of her favourites from their best of 2023 lists—and explains how she got the bug for listening to books as well as reading them.
Yes. So there were nine categories this year and the editors spend a long time deciding which books are going to make the list. They’re all books that are outstanding audio—that really shine in audio form. It’s when the audio really brings something unique or exciting or different to the book.
Is your feeling that it needs to be a pretty good underlying book for it to make the cut?
Obviously, an incredible performance for a book that’s just not good is not necessarily going to redeem it. So yes, I think the books on the list are really excellent books that are made even better by their audio format.
For those who haven’t caught the bug, do you want to do a pitch for why audiobooks are so good? How did you get into them and get excited about them?
I’ve been a reader all my life. For years, I didn’t listen to audiobooks, I didn’t even consider them. I was like, ‘Why?’ Then, about seven years ago, I started and I was just completely amazed by what an incredible experience it is to listen to a book. It’s really changed my reading.
I listen to a lot of nonfiction. I think different people can use audio to read books that, for various reasons, are harder for them to access in other formats. I can’t focus on a 400-page, intense nonfiction book in print, but I can absolutely listen to it.
These days at least half of my reading, if not more, is in audio.
Was there a specific book that converted you?
One of the first books I can remember where I was like, ‘Oh, wow, audio is something else, it’s its own art form, was Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s a book that’s quite experimental. There are a ton of different narrators. It’s like a play. Listening to it with a full-cast audio completely changed the book. I realized that there are so many performances that can deeply affect how you experience a book that I just had no idea about before I started listening to audiobooks.
I’ve never tried nonfiction as audio. Can you give an example of a book where it works well?
One that I loved is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, which is about the Great Migration in America. It’s very engaging. It looks at the life stories of three different Black people who migrated from the South to the North. It’s a book that felt a little intimidating to me—it’s long, there are a lot of intense facts—but it was very easy to listen to. I felt audio was a good way to enter the book.
Sometimes it is harder to retain every detail of a book if you just listen to it. But I find that despite that, I still get more out of it, because I’m reading the book. It’s a tradeoff that’s worth it for me, because I get the bulk of it, even if I’m not taking notes.
Let’s look at the best audiobooks of 2023, these excellent lists—organized by genre—put together every year by AudioFile magazine. Out of the overall lists, you’ve picked five of your personal favourites, is that right?
Yes, I just went through going, ‘Oh, I loved that one!’ There are a ton of great books on the list, but these were the ones that I loved.
Let’s turn to the first one, which is a novel called The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor and narrated by Kevin R. Free. Tell me what the book is about and why you liked it.
It’s a campus novel, set in Iowa City. It’s about a group of (mostly) grad students—artists, dancers, poets, a lot of artsy people—going about their lives and their relationship entanglements, what they’re thinking about. There’s not much plot in the book. It’s Brandon Taylor’s third book, and it has some similar themes to his first two books.
I thought the book was especially good in audio format because it’s a very meditative book. There are a lot of musings about life and relationships, about making art, about race and class and all these different things in America. It’s sort of meandering. Kevin R. Free is one of my favorite narrators. He’s incredibly good and he really made the book his own. He created voices for the 12 or so characters in the book. I just found it very easy and pleasurable to sink into that world and hang out with these people for a little while.
It is the kind of book you normally like, or did it capture you even though it isn’t?
I have pretty eclectic tastes—I think some of the books I’ve picked for today show that: there’s a pretty wide range. It is the kind of book I often listen to, but one of the reasons I picked it is that it wasn’t my favorite novel of the year, but it was absolutely a favorite audiobook. It’s a beautiful novel, I recommend it. But the experience of listening to the audio really enhanced it for me. When that happens, I just find it very exciting.
Let’s go on to the next book which is Dykes to Watch Out For. This was one of the best books of 2023 in the ‘audio original’ category, which means it’s not based on a book, it was based on…?
It’s based on Alison Bechdel’s comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, which ran for a long time. The audiobook is adapted from that comic strip—so it has the same characters in some of the same situations, but it was written specifically for audio. It’s so much fun! Graphic novel adaptations are some of my favorite books to listen to. They’re just so creative and interesting—the way that a lot of these productions use a big cast and sound effects. In this one, there are clips of protest speeches from the 1980s. It’s very immersive. It’s a really cool way to listen to a graphic novel.
Tell me a bit about the underlying story.
The story is about a group of gay women in a small, Midwestern town in the 1980s. It’s about their lives. They have a lot of drama. They get together and break up. Their friendships go in and out. They’re trying to find jobs, they’re involved in different kinds of activism. It’s a slice-of-life kind of story.
And did you follow the underlying comic strip?
It ran before I was old enough to be aware of it. But it’s been collected in various books and I read them all as a teenager and in my early 20s. It’s a very beloved comic among many queer women, I think, especially in the US. It’s just very, very funny, very heartfelt. She really captures the ridiculousness of certain aspects of gay culture in a really lovely way. It’s a cult classic.
Given how much you loved the comic strip, it’s amazing they managed to make an audiobook that you loved as well.
Yes, I thought it was perfect. It really captured the heart of the original—the way it was cast, the stories they chose to tell. It just felt like a little encapsulation of the comic. For me, as someone who loved the comic, it was really fun to have that experience. But I also think for someone who’s never read the comic, it’s still really fun. It’s only two hours or so, so it’s a quick listen. It’s worth it, even if you don’t have a connection to what it was adapted from.
Let’s go on to the next book—which was one of the best audiobooks in the biography category. This is Patrick Stewart’s memoir Making It So. Presumably, he’s the narrator?
I just couldn’t resist picking this book because I’m a big Patrick Stewart fan. Who isn’t? If you aren’t, I don’t know what your deal is. It’s pretty long, 17 hours or so. But just the thought of him reading—honestly when I saw that, I was like, ‘Yes! I want to listen to him tell me about his life for that long.’
And I wasn’t disappointed. He goes through his whole life and career in a relatively linear order. He talks about growing up in the north of England and his entry into stage work. He goes into Star Trek and all the things that he’s done in his career. There’s a lot of, ‘Here are the things that happened.’ But he’s very warm. He just has this really lovely way of talking about and reflecting on his life. It feels very inviting and inspiring.
Also, as someone who loves Star Trek, it was really fun to hear some of the tidbits about that. But beyond that, he’s an interesting person, who is really generous with sharing where he came from and what has mattered to him throughout his life as an actor and an artist.
Also, he’s such a good actor, he’s—obviously!—great at narrating. He’s just so charming.
He came from quite a tough background, didn’t he?
Yes, he talks about that—growing up pretty poor, working class, and some of the things that he experienced as a kid. He does talk about domestic abuse. There is some pretty tough stuff that he talks about—again, in a really thoughtful way. It’s not all jolly: there is a lot of meat to the memoir. It is very fun and interesting to listen to as someone who has enjoyed his career, but I think it has a bit more to it than some celebrity memoirs.
Let’s go on to one of the best nonfiction audiobooks of the year. This is Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond. What’s this book about?
Matthew Desmond is an academic and journalist. In this book, he’s trying to understand ‘Why is there so much poverty and why is it so persistent in the US?’ It’s based on his years of research, over his career, and also reporting and just stories of folks. He gets into the meat of it, which is the ways that in the US there are systems in place that keep wealthy people wealthy and poor people poor. He then gets into the details of this really unjust system. It’s a grim book, in a lot of ways.
But one of his strengths and one reason why this book is so good is that in addition to being knowledgeable, he’s really passionate and approaches things from a really human angle. There are a lot of stories in the book—he doesn’t treat his subject as something that’s dry or not connected to you, whoever you are, who’s reading the book. It’s really grounded in life experience. And I think that makes it really immediate and urgent and really powerful.
And is he the narrator?
No. The narrator is Dion Graham who also narrated Matthew Desmond’s first book, Evicted. It’s a perfect match. Dion Graham is an incredible narrator and really good at nonfiction because he’s very engaging. His voice is really vibrant and energetic. He can make anything interesting. He really captures Matthew Desmond’s passion and compassion. Also, the stories of the people that Desmond shares in the book: he just captures those beautifully.
Going back to what you were saying earlier about audiobooks enabling you to take on a tougher book, would Poverty, by America be an example of that?
Definitely. As I was saying, this book felt very immediate to me and made me really think a lot. I couldn’t look away from it while I was listening. Some of that is just due to the fact Desmond is a thoughtful researcher and writer and argues his point very well. But the narration was definitely a piece of it. It brings it closer.
Does Desmond propose any solutions? Is there hope?
Yes, he absolutely does. It’s definitely not all grim. He does imagine various futures and possibilities for solutions. He is also really good at inviting the listener in to think about these issues in their own life and inviting anyone—whoever you are—to become ‘poverty abolitionists.’ He has some ideas around that. So yes, the book is bleak at parts, but not at all hopeless.
We’re at the last book now and you’ve chosen one of the year’s best romance audiobooks. Tell me about 10 Things That Never Happened, which is set in the UK.
This is a rom-com by Alexis Hall. A lot of his books are sort of whimsical and silly, which is one thing that I like about him. This one has a sort of ridiculous premise. A man who is the manager of a bed and bath store suffers an accident and ends up recovering at his boss’s house. And he decides to fake amnesia, because he’s worried about his boss firing all of his employees. His boss is this very crabby, not very nice, man.
So the story, of course, is that he recovers at his boss’s house and they end up falling in love. It’s very tropey. If you’re familiar with romance—I love romance—for romance readers the book hits a lot of really fun tropes. They start out hating each other and then they spend these weeks in this house together and the employee, Sam, realizes that his boss is not really who he thought he was.
It’s a very charming, fun, pretty light-hearted romance. The narrator, Will Watt, does a great job. I’m not from the UK, so I can’t say how accurate they are, but he does a lot of different regional accents. There’s a pretty big cast of characters—the love interest, Jonathan, has a really big family and they get some time in the book. Then there are all the coworkers who have their own personalities. The narrator does a great job of bringing all those characters to life.
It’s just a very lively and joyful and funny interpretation of the book.
Was it your favourite romance listen of the year?
It was definitely up there. Alexis Hall is very funny and that makes the audiobooks of his books really good. With this one, I laughed out loud several times. The narrator has great timing, he hits all the jokes. I did not want to stop listening!
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