I re-discovered the pleasure of being read to in college, when I worked in the White Mountains for the Appalachian Mountain Club. One winter, I hiked up to visit a friend who was the winter caretaker at Carter Notch Hut, and I discovered that he was a regular listener of "The Radio Reader," a program out of Michigan State University. (Amazingly, the Web site says that it's been around in some form or another since 1936. That's longevity.) For the few days I was there, I listened with him to a bio of Katharine Hepburn. And the next year, when I was a hut caretaker myself, I made sure to find the station that carried "The Radio Reader" so I could listen again.
Some years later, in 1994, I was living in New Delhi. That was the year that the Internet really became a part of people's lives in the US, but it wasn't yet part of life in India. During the summer, monsoon season, most of my friends were away, and I spent a lot of time in my very hot apartment. (Why I was too stubborn to get an air conditioner--or even a swamp cooler--I can no longer recall.) I had a little shortwave radio, and I listened to it a lot that summer. You can imagine my excitement when I discovered "Off the Shelf," from the BBC World Service, a program like "The Radio Reader," where someone read a book in 15 or 30 minute installments. I have such a vivid image of myself lying on the floor of my bedroom, directly beneath the fan, wearing the (hussy) shorts and tank top I couldn't wear outside my apartment, listening to Rebecca over the course of many muggy evenings. (That it was an abridged version was the only thing I didn't like. When I started listening to books on tape a few years later, I listened to the unabridged version because it didn't feel like the shorter one counted.)
There's my segue to my list. I only listen to unabridged books, even for things that are really, really long, even if the author approved the cuts. So far, 12 years and counting, there have been no exceptions.
Another thing to pay attention to is the reader. These fall into categories. There are readers who make their livings reading audio books. There are actors (many, but not all, British) who also read audio books. And every once in awhile, a writer reads his or her own book. Generally, the professional readers and the actors do a better job, just because it's more of a performance (which turns out to kind of matter), but one true exception is Charles Frazier reading Cold Mountain. He's not a fancy reader, but listening to it really reminded me of how fundamental it is to have people tell us stories. (It's also a book I'm not sure I would have enjoyed reading, but I liked listening to it a lot.)
I've probably listened to hundreds of audio books over the past 12 years, so it would be hard to name them all. I do have some recommendations, though, and I can sort them, generally, by category. I'm going to start with mysteries, just because I listen to a lot of them. I like reading mysteries anyway, but one thing I learned early on is that I really need something with a plot, or at least a strong narrative. (While I might like to read ethereal, beautifully written meditations on love and loss, I do not like to listen to them. Give me a plot line any day.) I also like mysteries because usually they are written in series form, and that means that if you find a series you like, there will be lots of books to listen to.
So, if you're an audio book novice and like mysteries, here are a few to start with:
- Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti mysteries--set in Venice and featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, these are thoughtful, literate, well-written books. Brunetti is a wonderful character, as is his English professor/Henry James loving wife Paola. They will also make you hungry, as Brunetti is a serious eater who tries to make it home for lunch every day to eat whatever delights Paola has produced. I'm a fan, usually, of starting at the beginning, so even though the series gets better as it goes along, start with the first one, Death at La Fenice. The earlier books are read by Anna Fields (the stage name of Kate Fleming, who, very sadly, drowned in a freak storm a few years ago), and the later ones by David Colacci.
- Martha Grimes' Richard Jury series. I didn't follow my own rule with these and ended up listening to one of the later ones first. It's a long series, more than 20 books now, and the earliest ones aren't available on CD (or even tape, in some cases.) Still, listening to book number 17 made me want to go back and find the rest. It's possible to read these not in order (as I discovered), though it makes more sense if you do. Although Grimes is American, Jury is a Scotland Yard inspector, and he is often assisted in his investigations by his aristocratic friend Melrose Plant (officially an Earl til he gave up his title, though he still lives in serious comfort). The books are all named after pubs that play a role in each case. As in any long series, they're not all equally good, but Jury is always compelling, and Grimes is especially good at writing wise-beyond-their-years children (which is probably why they turn up in so many of her books). The earlier books are narrated by Davina Porter and the later ones by John Lee. (Both good readers, with a slight edge to Lee, I think.)
- I also recently listened to Martha Grimes' standalone mystery Foul Matter, set in the world of NY publishing, and it is very, very funny. Laugh out loud funny, especially if you know anything at all about how publishing works. Highly recommended.
- Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott series. Set in fictional Colleton County, North Carolina and with a feisty judge as the main character. Very occasionally a bit sappy, but the main characters are solid, and the series is topical. CJ Critt narrates the whole series (now up to book 14). Start with the first, Bootlegger's Daughter.
- Years ago, when I first discovered Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series, I was delighted. The author (whose real name is Barbara Mertz) has a degree in Egyptology, so it made sense that her main characters--the know-it-all Amelia Peabody and her dashing archeologist husband Emerson--were Egyptologists as well. The first few books in the series were quite charming, but as the series moved along, and the extended Emerson family grew larger, the series got more and more convoluted, and I had a hard time keeping track of what was going on.
- Audio books to the rescue. On a whim, I decided to listen to one of the later books, and all of a sudden it made sense. The narrator of all of the books is Barbara Rosenblat, who's a star in the world of audio books. Listen to the early books (the first is Crocodile on the Sandbank, in which the outspoken spinster Amelia annoys Radcliffe Emerson so much that he has no choice but to marry her) because they're fun, and if you listen to them in order, you may even be able to keep track of all of the Peabody-Emerson's many friends and relations.
- Barbara Rosenblat also narrates Peters' much shorter Vicky Bliss series. (Vicky is an art historian with a notorious art thief for a lover--only in fiction.) After a 14 year hiatus, Peters has just come out with the 6th Vicky Bliss novel called Laughter of the Dead Kings. (I'm waiting for it from the library, so I can't report how the series has weathered after such a long gap.) I listened to the first five in my early days of audio book listening, and I enjoyed all of them, but the fifth in the series, Night Train to Memphis, is particularly a hoot. (Don't expect a lot of realism, but they're fun to listen to.)
Meanwhile, after listening to the first 60 installments of Corduroy Mansions all in a row, I'm now all caught up and have to listen to one episode at a time, like everyone else. A very different listening experience, but still interesting. But now I have all kinds of unanswered questions. What will Berthea say when she learns that Terence has bought a Porsche? What is Barbara going to do to get her revenge on the odious Oedipus Snark? Why did Freddie de la Hay (former sniffer dog at Heathrow Airport) get so excited about the painting in Eddie's wardrobe? We will all just have to wait to find out.