Best audiobooks of 2012

November 16, 2012
A FOREIGN COUNTRY

By Charles CummingMacmillan, unabridged, 9½ hours, eight CDs, $39.99. Audible.com, $27.99; iTunes, $23.95; BN.com, $19.91

The just-appointed head of MI6, Amelia Levene, has disappeared shortly before assuming her post. Abducted? Romantic fling? Whether criminal or simply embarrassing, it’s a big problem, and disgraced agent Thomas Kell is given a chance to redeem himself by tracking her down. Narrator Jot Davies’s British voice has an air of disciplined urgency as Cumming wheels this fast-paced, ingeniously plotted story into Tunisia, into the past and into the mercurial identities of born spies. Davies moves adroitly from character to character, some deftly accented, leaving no confusion as to who’s speaking even as the story itself becomes a tangle of treachery and intrigue. This suspenseful, bracingly intelligent novel is the best thriller I listened to all year.

THE RED CHAMBER

By Pauline A. ChenRandom House Audio, unabridged, 16½ hours, 14 CDs, $45. Audible.com, $35; iTunes, $29.95, BN.com: $20.75

Inspired by the Chinese classic “Dream of the Red Chamber,” this thoroughly engrossing novel of doomed love is set chiefly in Beijing during the 1720s in the inner confines of the house of the aristocratic Jia family. This is predominantly a women’s world, both privileged and oppressive, its way of life marvelously detailed. Narrator Grayce Wey delivers the narration in a neutral American voice but brings Chinese-inflected formality to the characters’ speech, shading their voices to distinguish them. The members of the Jia family are ruled by a greedy, willful old woman, to whose dictates Wey gives a cruel, brittle pungency. The many Chinese names are a little difficult to nail down at first hearing, and some backtracking may be necessary, but following this tightly spun web of intrigue, revenge and resilience rewards the effort.

CAPITAL

By John LanchesterRecorded Books, unabridged, 17½ hours, download only. Audible.com, $34.99; iTunes, $29.95; BN.com, $29.04


"The Flight of Gemma Hardy" by Margot Livesey, audiobook edition. (AudioGo/AUDIOGO)

Both satire and morality play, “Capital” belongs to the burgeoning genre of novels of financial collapse, the only true gift of economic calamity. Setting his novel in London in the fatal years of 2007 and 2008, Lanchester brings wit and a wicked eye to bear on a number of people whose lives have become bound up with grotesquely accelerating property values, the financial market and anti-terrorist vigilance. Colin Mace assumes a pleasant explanatory voice in carrying the narrative along, subtly altering emotional tone when characters’ points of view emerge and breaking smoothly into different accents in dialogue. The characters, treated with a mixture of dark humor and compassion, include an elderly woman, a Polish builder, a Hungarian nanny and a Pakistani family, the last of which features a formidable matriarch given to pronouncements that Mace delivers with such sovereign aplomb that I laughed every time.

THE FLIGHT OF GEMMA HARDY

By Margot LiveseyAudioGo, unabridged, 15 hours, 12 CDs, $29.95. Audible.com, $15.36; iTunes, $14.95

Margot Livesey’s refashioning of “Jane Eyre” to fit another age is an engaging odd duck and extremely well served by Davina Porter’s cultivated, elegantly paced British voice. At times as precise as a school mistress’s, at others as dreamy as an ingenue’s, her narration helps convey the fact that the world of the late 1950s and ’60s in Scotland had more in common with the 19th century than with the 21st. Gemma Hardy is an orphan, and after suffering humiliation and cruelty from relatives and a workhouse of a school, she ends up as a governess in the Orkneys where Scottish accents — surely the most attractive in the English-speaking world — reign. The story’s trajectory is familiar, Gemma’s perseverance exhilarating and the details of nature brilliantly vivid. That this production is enhanced throughout with the burr of Caledonia makes it irresistible.

THE FAMILY CORLEONE

By Ed FalcoHachette Audio, unabridged, 15 hours, 12 CDs, $ 29.98. Audible.com, $20.99; iTunes, $19.95

Of course, one does not approve of the Corleone family in the least, but still it’s impossible not to feel enormously happy that Ed Falco has made such a terrific job of this prequel to “The Godfather,” which fills in what that iniquitous family was up to from 1933 to 1935. Narrator Bobby Cannavale brings a tough, wised-up New York voice to the general narration and branches out into different deliveries for the various characters. Vito sounds a good deal like Marlon Brando’s version, minus some of the wadding. Johnny has the voice of the unreliable hothead he is, and other gangsters range from a whiny nasal to a crude thud, with Luca Brasi taking the prize for pure, brute menace.

READ MORE:

PHOTOS | Best books of 2012

Top fiction, nonfiction of 2012

Best graphic novels of 2012

The year in literary news

50 notable works of fiction

Powers reviews audiobooks for The Washington Post.

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