By Kate Atkinson
Hachette Audio, unabridged,
15 ½ hours
Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” is the best novel I listened to all year. Fenella Woolgar narrates this brilliant tour de force about the fortuities that mold, undo and end an individual’s earthly span. One after the other — “life after life” — we see the many possible lives of Ursula Dodd, born in the England of 1910. She subsequently falls victim to, survives or escapes sequential calamities, among them strangulation, drowning, rape, fatal beating, lethal disease and bomb blast. The result is strangely un-depressing, and Woolgar’s brisk, cultivated English delivery contributes a bracing, chins-up quality. She gives the many reoccurring characters subtle shadings of accent, pitch and timbre, so there is never a question of who is speaking. This is a splendid performance of a superb novel.
By Alice McDermott
Macmillan Audio, unabridged,
Kate Reading’s serene, undulant voice draws us into the vanished Brooklyn past of Marie, the central character of “Someone,” Alice McDermott’s celebration of an ordinary life. This is a quiet masterpiece of interleaved memories, and Reading’s composure accords with the novel’s detached portrayal of a woman recalling her developing consciousness as she grew up in a tight, Irish American neighborhood. As narrator, Reading is laudably reserved, maintaining Marie’s modest, unassuming manner, granting only a minimalist Irish accent where called for and furnishing drinkers with no more than the suggestion of a slur.
By Charles Portis
Southern Voices (Recorded Books), unabridged, 4 ½ hours
Charles Portis’s first novel, “Norwood” (originally published in 1966), is, like his others, a great festival of American speech. David Aaron Baker delivers this wonderfully droll, picaresque tale in a variety of Southern voices with impeccable, deadpan pacing. There is our hapless, good-hearted hero, Norwood Pratt, who aspires to a country-and-western singing career; slick operator Grady Fring, the Kredit King, whose every utterance is a sales pitch; Bill Bird, a freeloader from Michigan, his “brisk Yankee vowels offensive” to Norwood; and a large cast of old timers, fidgety beauties and lost souls. Baker’s narration is in harmony throughout with Portis’s vision of the incidental nature of existence, bringing to the great author’s inspired non sequiturs exactly the right note of obstinate reason.
By Georgette Heyer
Naxos, unabridged, 11 ½ hours
Georgette Heyer is considered the founder of regency romance novels, but unlike so many other practitioners, she brings a genuine sense of history, an ear for period language and considerable wit to her wildly exciting, early 19th-century romps. “The Grand Sophy” is a delightful specimen. Narrator Sarah Woodward utilizes a voice of British magnificence, introducing the listeners to the great house of Lord and Lady Ombersley, where soon Sophia Stanton-Lacy will arrive to reroute its inhabitants’ destinies. Woodward lends appropriate tones and cadences to the many characters, among them a conniving and prudish fiancee, a vaporous poet, a mollycoddled stuffed shirt, a sultry Spanish princess, one suitor hewn of English oak and another of broadcloth, and the redoubtable, joyous Sophy herself.
By Roger Hobbs
Random House Audio, unabridged,
11 ¾ hours
Roger Hobbs’s “Ghostman,” the best thriller I listened to this year, is fast-paced, dark-hued and complex. It sets out from Atlantic City and prowls its way across the globe (usually by private jet) in two deftly intertwined stories. Narrator Jake Weber brings great patience to the voice of Jack Morton, as this malefactor of many faces explains the arcana of casino security, the etiquette of pulling a heist, the conventions of the drug trade and the business of morphing identity. Treachery, cold-blooded murder and exquisite suspense mark this terrific novel, to which Weber contributes convincing vocal renditions of, among others, a tenacious female FBI agent and a pitiless cartel kingpin who once “wrote heists the way Mozart wrote music.”
By Bill Bryson
Random House Audio, unabridged,
In addition to being an idiosyncratic popular historian, the American writer Bill Bryson is an unusually fine reader of his own work. His voice, which is vaguely tinctured with an accent developed over a long tenure in England, is pleasant and often subtly amused. In “One Summer,” he brings us a medley of signal events and notable characters, which he describes with ironic flair and an infectious fascination with human folly. This includes Herbert Hoover’s ceaseless self-aggrandizement and his exploitation for PR purposes of the Great Mississippi Flood, Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight and his subsequent apotheosis, Babe Ruth’s 60th home run, the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, and Calvin Coolidge’s idea of a good time: counting cars on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Powers, the editor of “Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963,” regularly reviews audio books for The Washington Post.