I love looking back at the end of each year, feeling that sense of achievement at the list of books read and loved, cried over and laughed at. When I’m asked for my favourites in my online book groups, I struggle. I usually end up compiling several lists – adult novels, YA, children’s, non-fiction. I would argue that ‘audiobooks’ could count as a separate category. What one enjoys through the ear may be experienced differently on the page. It may be that the choices I put here from 2019 might not have made my top 10 ‘written’, it could have been the audio format, the narrator, the production that helped them stand out.
Not one to stick to a few genres, the titles below represent an eclectic mix of the most memorable audiobooks I’ve experienced this year, all reviewed on Audible. For each, the audio format worked in the book’s favour, and each was a book that has stayed with me, for various reasons.
1. Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton
Set in our own near future but spanning decades and beyond, the stories explore related issues and, in fact, related stories, regarding the genetic engineering of the human body. Some are very brief: a brother and sister organ donation plot, a girl whose body has been wrecked but rebuilt after an accident and how this affects how other students see her. Others are longer and more detailed – what happens when you select for certain traits and the effects are not what you expect, the planetary implications of creating human-like beings, or of altering large amounts of the body. Some of the narrators speak directly to the reader/listener, making this an absorbing Audible listen. A range of voices portray the characters effortlessly, there are clear breaks from tale to tale.
Summary: A powerful, relevant and riveting series of interconnected genetic engineering narratives.
2. Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics Series 1-4
Haynes covers sixteen figures from the ancient world in these recorded episodes, with each discussed in terms of their lives, works, quotes and achievements, in the context of their times. And she does it by effortlessly interweaving modern references, comparing the work sometimes to Poirot, to Sherlock Holmes, to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and to science fiction. And it’s all there – it seems almost obvious as she shows us the forerunners of modern cultural literature.
Personally, I’ll be honest and say that Haynes’ sense of humour and the audience (or laugh track?) didn’t hit the spot for me, I found her jokes almost universally a little weak (sorry!!! Just not very funny in my opinion, though I do hate canned laughter), but I was highly impressed with the content otherwise.
It’s one I would want to listen to a second time to keep the details in my head, listening to this kind of talk means there is too much to take in. Quotes and extracts are helpful to see on a page. Haynes herself is a skilled speaker, clear and easy to follow.
Summary: History with modern references and comedy – a great approach to biography of the ancient world.
3. Identity Crisis by Ben Elton
It’s just so ridiculous – Remember Them: historical sexual assaults prosecuted. Trial by Twitter. Outrage. Offence. And gradually… a number of murders.
I listened to this as an audiobook read by the author, and laughed aloud more than once walking along. Ben Elton is a talented narrator (as well as author), bringing his characters to life with ease.
It was not at all a trial to keep up with each story and voice. A perfect audio read, really.
4. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Brooker
It’s all about archetypes. A new way to look at stories. Long but worth the time.
A fascinating account spanning the whole of recorded storytelling, splitting the narratives we are familiar with (or not so) into seven categories. These are each broken down into constituent parts, elements focused on important to each, examples given that exemplify their structure and characteristics.
It did take some concentration, on audiobook, to continue listening for in excess of 38 hours, but the narrator’s voice was absorbing and rousing.
5. More Orgasms Please by The Hotbed Collective
Possibly my top recommendation of 2019.
From the science of orgasms, biology, the useful information on pelvic floors and how hormones affect us, all the way to some frankly riotous roleplays of customers asking for lube for various sexual scenarios, it was both educational and highly entertaining. I may have snorted while running and listening along.
The authors/narrators are excellent in their format and chatty tone. Never dictatorial, dry or condescending, it is basically an elongated podcast episode (Note: I have now listened to them all!) broken down into chapters, with jokes, euphemisms, roleplays and a huge amount of frank and uplifting talk that means embarrassment goes quickly out of the window and a sense of unity and sisterhood come to the fore.
Not just for women, men will gain a lot from listening to this and pondering perspectives and ways forward in their relationships as well. For women, I’d take this as a study guide to making sure you are getting what you can out of whichever world of pleasure you wish to inhabit.
6. The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey
Unexpectedly fascinating ‘connect the dots’ history of the creation of a masterpiece.
In two parts, we see how Orwell’s life, his meetings with others, seeing wars and Communist revolutions, his work in propaganda, rivalry with writers, illnesses, all fed into the mind of the man who would create Nineteen Eighty Four.
7. Things My Son Needs to Know About the World by Fredrik Backman
Some snort-out-your-drink moments, a lot of the parenting advice/stories rings true.
Backman (author of A Man Called Ove among others) really lays his own life bare here, a few secrets and anecdotes from his own family’s vaults, as he speaks to his baby son in chapters that give him all the advice he’ll need for when he’s older.
The audiobook highlights the hilarity of the author’s compositions, the narrator bringing his work to life with gusto. I laughed aloud while walking and driving at times.
8. Meat Market by Juno Dawson
Warts-and-all look at the modelling industry in the light of #MeToo. My most memorable ‘teen/YA’ audio-read of the year.
Jana Novak has never thought herself attractive – tall and unfeminine, she has a loving boyfriend but can’t believe it when a scout approaches her at a funfair and tells her she has the perfect physical qualities to be a model, the Next Big Thing. Agreeing with her parents to give it a go, needing the money to improve her family’s lives, she puts her sixth form studies on a back seat to enter the world of not-quite-diets, make-up and hair calls before sunrise and exhausting worldwide assignments.
Jana tells us the story herself, making the Audible version a very upfront and immediate account, with her London accent and young voice, the audio version was hard to put down.
9. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
World-enhancing, question-answering, depth-creating account of ‘what happened next’.
With three women continuing the story of Gilead 15 years after Offred/June’s tale ended, I was hooked on hearing their accounts. The glimpses they give us of their worlds as well as their own stories were seamlessly intertwined, with each giving us a different perspective.
Fantastic voice cast, well-respected and known voices as well as some new talent, a focused and intense reading of the book.
Very easy to follow as an Audible read. If you’ve read the first, this will satisfy and answer questions.
10. Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language by Amanda Montell
Audacious, mind-expanding linguistic exploration of feminist vocabulary, past and present.
Montell narrates her own work, doing it with humour and charm, including anecdotes from her own past as she also delves into our country’s history.
Highly fascinating, at times riotously funny, honest and profound, anybody with an interest in the history of language, particularly that relating to gender, would be advised to give it a try.
A superb year’s listening, it was hard to narrow down the field to 10 – and I purposely missed out some wonderful children’s titles that my eldest son and I have loved in 2019. Audiobooks enhance my life greatly, keep me company and fill that void of time with entertainment, education and worlds outside my own.