The Top Audio Books of '09

Sunday, December 13, 2009



By Hilary Mantel

Read by Simon Slater

(23 hours, Macmillan Audio, 18 CDs, $49.99; download, $36.74)

The 2009 Man Booker Prize-winning novel about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's fixer and counselor, has been brilliantly served by English actor (and composer) Simon Slater. He gives an ironic, Machiavellian edge to his voice as general narrator and renders the myriad characters with exceptional virtuosity. This performance is the best of the year: an absolute triumph, further enhancing an already magnificent novel.


By Charles Dickens

Read by David Timson

(39 hours, Naxos,, 31 CDs, $133.98; Naxos download, $92)

Dickens's minor characters are often the stars of his novels, and British actor David Timson gives each his or her idiosyncratic due in this wonderful, richly peopled production. Among them is a model Captain Cuttle, salty, bluff, ever constant to young "Wal'r"; a kindly, befuddled Mr. Toots; and Toots's belligerent associate, the Game Chicken. The work is expensive, but Timson's storytelling charisma assures that it will be returned to again and again.


By Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Read by David Horovitch

(9 hours, Naxos (,7 CDs, $24.98; Naxos download, $20)

David Horovitch's voice, rich in timbre and sepia in tone, is wonderfully paired with this masterpiece, a tale of degeneration and ruin. Like the declining House of Salina itself, Horovitch's presentation possesses a certain "shabby grandeur" that acquires a suitably obnoxious edge in conveying the vulgarity and ruthlessness of those who are tearing down the old order with the help of upstart money, main chance and relentless ambition.


By Jonathan Rabb

Read by Simon Prebble

(16 hours, Tantor,, 13 CDs, $39.99; 2 Mp3 CDs, $23.99; download, $20.99)

Published in 2005 and set in the war-and-revolution-scarred Berlin of 1919, this novel was recorded only this year. At its center is the missing -- or hidden -- body of Rosa Luxemburg, while all around fascism is budding. Simon Prebble ably distinguishes among characters and brings to bear a low tone of menace and insinuation -- at which he is ever the master.


By Stieg Larsson

Read by Simon Vance

(18.5 hours, Random House Audio, 15 CDs, 39.95; download, $28)

Onetime BBC newsreader Simon Vance's courteous, deliberate delivery is a nice foil for the violence and retribution in this second volume of a trilogy starring avenging hacker Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Vance's measured pace allows the reader to keep the complex plot straight, and his moderately altered voices serve to keep the characters distinct.


By Stephen King

Read by Raúl Esparza

(35 hours, Simon and Schuster Audio, 30 CDs, $75; 3 Mp3 CDs, 39.99; download, $27.99)

Raúl Esparza moves through this long tale of disaster and horror at a pleasingly brisk clip. His youthful, vaguely nerdish voice suits the novel's scatological language and all-around creepiness; and he lets loose an arsenal of varying accents and registers to differentiate the countless characters from one another. If his Maine drawl is a little bizarre, so is everything else under the Dome.


By Alice Munro

Read by Kimberly Farr and Arthur Morey

(11.5 hours, Random House Audio, 10 CDs, $40; download, $28)

Munro won the Man Booker International Prize this year for her entire body of work, to which the present collection is a superb and characteristically dark addition. Eight stories are read by Kimberly Farr, two by Arthur Morey. Each reader has an unobtrusive, matter-of-fact voice, leaving Munro's precise prose to unfold its secrets for itself. The exception is the title story, to which Farr has added some unfortunate Russian accents through which a great tale has to battle. That aside, the recording and book are in flawless harmony.


By Madeleine Wickham

Read by Katherine Kellgren

(9 hours, Macmillan, 7 CDs, $29.99; download, $20.99)

Madeleine Wickham, aka Sophie Kinsella, first published this chick-lit black comedy in 1998, but only now has it found a voice in Katherine Kellgren. Her toffee-nosed accent and headmistress manner are well-suited to detailing the disgraceful maneuvers of Fleur Daxeny, a predator in designer black who stalks wealthy prey at posh memorial services. Frightful types and good eggs alike are given their own voices, and the whole thing is generously wicked fun.

Katherine A. Powers, who reviews audio books for Book World, writes a literary column for the Boston Globe.


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