Even as I write this I can imagine all the audiobooks in my TBL queue muttering about how they could have been one of my top three listens of 2013 if only I’d stopped continuously adding to the pile and actually listened to more of them. I feel a little guilty picking favorites when there were so many I never got to. That’s one of the things I like about “Best of…” blog hops, though: not only does it point me toward something I might not have tried otherwise, it reminds me of what I might already have but have been ignoring. I look forward to what you might have to share as your favorites but in the meantime and in no particular order, here are my top three listens of 2013.The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Published by Random House Audio on 4/30/13
Genres: Literary Fiction
How much success do you have when you venture outside your usual listening tastes? My reading habits this year altered somewhat and this book was partially to blame. I don’t read a lot of literary fiction and after I finished The Woman Upstairs, I had to ask myself why. Beautiful use of language, pages and pages of highlight-worthy lines, complex characters, and intricate emotional dynamics can be found in this story of a woman who – like most of us already have or will do at some point – questions what she’s done (or more importantly, hasn’t done) with her life. The listener knows that the steps she takes to push beyond her quiet and secure life are bound to end in disaster but I could only watch in fascination as it all came together and then fell apart. Cassandra Campbell turned in an excellent performance with her narration of this audio and her delivery let me experience the content of this book very differently than I would have if I’d read it, to my clear benefit.
Although I chose not to review this one on the site, it was one of my favorite 2013 listens. I’d read the book several years ago but was hesitant to try the audio for a re-read because I associate the narrator, Amanda Ronconi, so closely with Molly Harper’s books. I consider Harper/Ronconi to be one of the best pairings in audio and I wasn’t sure if her voice and delivery style could make the transition from goofy romantic snark to alternate-history frontier America YA. Foolish me – that’s a narrator’s job, after all.
This coming of age story uses the emotional impact of being unable to work magic and being thought of as an unlucky thirteenth child as stand-ins for the emotional uncertainties of adolescence. There’s vivid and creative alternate-world-building where magical creatures occupy the American West – held back from the civilized territories by a magical barrier that follows the Mammoth river – and it’s the ever expanding westward march of settlers that gives Francine “Eff” Rothmer a chance to shed her thirteenth child reputation and find out who she really is. Ronconi settles into the personalities, voices, and accents of a large cast of characters with ease and perfectly captures the sibling dynamics of the very large Rothmer family as well as all the emotional nuances of Eff’s transition from insecure adolescent to mature adult. This is the first in an immersive audiobook trilogy.
Angst, trauma, drama, romance, high school, family conflict, fitting in… it sounds like a stereotypical YA book, right? This one stands out from the crowd in oh so many ways for me. The tragedy that drives the protagonist happens prior to the opening of the story and the listener witnesses both the slow unfolding of Nastya’s past and how she deals with that damage in the present. Nothing happens quickly in this book: no insta-love, no magic boy or healing sex that makes everything better. It’s a story with some pretty solid psychology in character motivations and actions and it’s a slow process for both Nastya and Josh to work their way back to functional, let alone “normal.” Despite that (or perhaps because of it) each scene still manages to contain enough character reveal or emotional tension to drive the story forward and engross the listener.
Kirby Heyborne gives Josh a (character appropriate) almost detached mien for much of the book which left me unprepared for the emotional impact of that mien shattering. Candace Thaxton wowed me with a conversational and intimate delivery that alternated between Nastya’s brittle protective facade and glimpses of the fragile house of cards that was her coping mechanisms. The combined power of the story and the narration caught me by surprise and this one rounds out my top three listens of 2013.
If you’re not participating in the blog hop, I’d love to hear about your favorite listens of the past year in the comments.
The blog hop hosts are giving away a six month Audible.com membership (entry form just below). In addition, I’ll gift an audiobook of your choice to one random commenter on this post. The winner must be able to redeem a gift audiobook at either Audible.com or Audible.co.uk and will be drawn on 1/15/14 and notified via e-mail.
Don’t forget to check out the other blog hop participants: