Earlier this week, the Audio Publishers Association announced the winners of the 25th annual Audie Awards, the Academy Awards of the audiobook world. This year’s winners included “Emergency Skin” by N.K. Jemison (science fiction), “The Water Dancer” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (literary fiction), “Grace Will Lead Us Home“ by Jennifer Berry Hawes (nonfiction) and “Becoming” by Michelle Obama (autobiography/memoir), among others.
The top prize — Audiobook of the Year — was awarded to Garrett Graff’s “The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11,” which also won an Audie for multivoiced performance. This powerful production orchestrated a cast of 45 narrators who deliver the testimonies of survivors and witnesses with gravity and restraint. Some audiobooks are too emotional to recommend for listening while driving — this is definitely one of those.
Avid audiobook fans should explore the full list of Audies finalists — pay special attention to the best narrator categories (split between males and females), which celebrate the skilled performances at the heart of any successful audiobook. Here are some my favorites from among the best narrator nominees.
Perhaps best known as the 12th incarnation of Doctor Who, veteran character actor Peter Capaldi is the perfect choice to narrate Blackstone Audio’s new version of “Watership Down,” Richard Adams’ classic adventure about a group of rabbits fleeing the impending destruction of their warren in quest of a new home. His crisp, woolly rasp confides with a homey, avuncular quality, capturing the wonder in Adams’ rich descriptions of the English countryside in a way that recaptures the intimacy of being read to as a child. He ably handles the exotic, wuffy-fluffy Lapine vocabulary of the rabbits, and lays out a feast of distinct, entertaining voices for Bigwig, Kahar, Woundwort and the whole cast with skill reminiscent of Jim Dale’s legendary “Harry Potter” recordings. This is pure audiobook magic for any age.
Winner in the fantasy category, Alix E. Harrow’s debut “The Ten Thousand Doors of January” is performed with consummate skill by veteran narrator January LaVoy. It is 1901, and precocious January Scaller dwells among the odd artifacts crowding the mansion of her father’s employer, Mr. Locke. As a child of mixed race, she often feels like a curiosity herself. Then a doorway opens in a strange, old leatherbound tome, inviting her into an enchanting succession of parallel and alternate worlds, each an echo of our own. LaVoy’s assured, mellifluous narration pairs well with the vivid lyricism of Harrow’s spellbinding fantasy, and her dexterity with characters fleshes out the wondrous and strange beings on each page.
Craving a quirky story that pulls at the heartstrings in disarming, hilarious ways? You’ll love Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing to See Here,” which garnered Marin Ireland this year’s Audie for best female narrator. As hapless 20-something Lillian Breaker, Ireland draws the listener in with her down-to-earth, sardonic delivery, recounting how her misplaced affection for self-involved college bestie Madison leads her to become governess to Madison’s stepchildren. These twins, Bessie and Roland, have a strange tendency: When they become agitated, they burst into flames. Literally. Even when she ventures into the book’s most eccentric corners and outlandish characters, Ireland narrates from a core of emotional truth that perfectly captures Wilson’s gift for revealing family dynamics in a peculiar light — in this case, the warm glow of blazing children.
Nominated three times in the best mystery category for his narrations of Louise Penny’s popular Three Pines novels, Robert Bathurst finally won a much-deserved Audie for best male narrator for his narration of “Kingdom of the Blind,” the 14th in the series. In the opening to this clever puzzler, Armand Gamache, former head of the Quebec police force, is one of three seemingly random individuals named as executors in the will of a woman that none of them seem to know. Can murder be far behind? There’s much more to narrating a mystery than keeping the suspects’ voices straight, although that is essential. Mystery fans also appreciate Bathurst’s ability to fully realize the sleuth’s moment-by-moment observations, so crucial to the success of Penny’s “fair play” plotting, with clues cleverly hidden in plain sight. He also excels at revealing the vulnerable side underlying Gamache’s gruff moral indignation, a formula that keeps readers coming back book after book. Even listeners who don’t normally enjoy mysteries should give this excellent series a try.