Finding great audiobooks is harder than finding great books, because there are more variables involved. A great narrator can make a mediocre book enjoyable, while a bad reading will ruin even the best book. The quality of the narrators ranges from superb to terrible. Always listen to an audio sample of a book before you buy it.
The best voice performers are prolific. If you find someone you really like, try exploring other books that they have recorded. Audible.com makes this easy to do; just click the narrator’s name on the detail page for a book you’ve listened to and liked. You’ll probably end up surprised and delighted by following a great reader off your own beaten path.
I prefer unabridged audiobooks. I listen for pleasure, not to “get through” some checklist, so why cut it short? Audible.com often has both the abridged and unabridged versions of a work, so be careful you’re looking at the longer version. Audible.com also has links to take you to their unabridged section, where you will find only unabridged selections.
Here are a few audiobooks I’ve listened to and thoroughly enjoyed. My tastes run to mysteries and science fiction, but there’s other genres represented here as well.
The Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series are mystery / police procedural novels featuring Los Angeles homicide detective Harry Bosch. Many of the books are outstanding, some are great, and a few are “merely” very good. The unabridged versions are recorded by two different narrators, Dick Hill for the first eight, and Len Cariou for the later books. Dick Hill is exceptional, one of the “golden voices” in audiobooks, meaning he’s done a lot of books and always does a terrific job. Len Cariou takes Harry Bosch to even higher levels. He has the perfect voice for Harry. Lost Light is one of my favorite audiobooks.
- The Black Echo
- The Black Ice
- The Concrete Blonde
- The Last Coyote
- Trunk Music
- Angels Flight
- A Darkness More than Night
- City of Bones
- Lost Light
- The Narrows
- The Closers
- Echo Park
- The Overlook
- The Brass Verdict
- The Scarecrow
- Nine Dragons
- The Reversal
- The Fifth Witness
- The Drop
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
The first two books, while enjoyable, are definitely aimed at younger audiences. But starting in book three, and most definitely with the ending of book four, the series takes a darker turn, and I consider it at least as enjoyable by adults as by kids. Certainly, I have enjoyed the series tremendously, both in print and on audiobook.
A very large part of that enjoyment is the spectacular narration performance by Jim Dale. He provides an astonishing array of distinctly different voices, and just perfect nuance and delivery. It took about 10 minutes of listening for him to be added to my Personal Golden Voices list.
I also love the whimsy and creativity and humor that J.K. Rowling brings to Harry’s world. There are flaws in some of the writing (Order of the Phoenix could have been 100 pages shorter, surely), but through it all the books are fun to read, and even more fun to listen to.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
The Sheriff Walt Longmire series by Craig Johnson
Walt Longmire and George Guidall are possibly the most perfect combination of character and voice in audiobooks. I’d have enjoyed the Longmire mysteries with another narrator because the books are good, and the character is terrific. But I wouldn’t have loved them without That Voice.
- The Cold Dish
- Death Without Company
- Kindness Goes Unpunished
- Another Man’s Moccasins
- The Dark Horse
- Junkyard Dogs
- Hell is Empty
- As the Crow Flies
- A Serpent’s Tooth
The Michael Forsythe trilogy by Adrian McKinty
Michael Forsythe is a surviver. No matter what happens around him, or to him, in the end, he’ll be the one left standing. Gerard Doyle’s narration, with a distinct but not impenetrable Irish accent, is marvelous and brings the terrific writing to life. I don’t know what else to say, except that we’ve bought every one of Adrian McKinty’s books. He’s good.
The Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson
This is the series you heard all the hype about. Hell, I promoted it here in Aldo on Audiobooks. It mostly deserves all the accolades, especially the first novel. The writing and Simon Vance’s narration may at first seem a little sterile, but it was these novels where I came to appreciate Vance’s understated delivery, and put him in my Golden Voices list. Larsson works through almost every type of mystery/thriller over the course of only three books, and it’s quite a ride.
The Elvis Cole series by Robert Crais
I wrote about the Elvis Cole series in a blog post, but briefly, Elvis is a private detective in Los Angeles, and his cases rarely take him elsewhere. Sometimes he seems like a softie…until he reminds you that he isn’t. There’s a nice story arc of Elvis’s life across novels, too, that ties the series together more than most, and definitely rewards linear binge listening.
- The Monkey’s Raincoat
- Stalking the Angel
- Lullaby Town
- Free Fall
- Voodoo River
- Sunset Express
- Indigo Slam
- L.A. Requiem
- The Last Detective
- The Forgotten Man
- The Watchman (Pike)
- Chasing Darkness
- The First Rule (Pike)
- The Sentry (Pike)
The Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French
This “series” is different from so many others, in that the main character of each novel is different, appearing only as a minor character in the novel prior. This gives interesting continuity, but also delivers quite the range of characters and perspectives. I haven’t gotten to Broken Harbor yet, but The Likeness and especially Faithful Place were superb, and haunting.
The Kenzie and Gennaro series by Dennis Lehane
Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro are partners and private detectives in Boston. Patrick carries a Really Big Gun, because he’s a terrible shot. Angie’s better. And Bubba is…crazy. Lehane writes way better than average for series authors (like most on this page), and isn’t afraid to put social issues into the books. I’ve only started this series, but the first two books are so good, I know the rest will deliver, too.
- A Drink Before the War
- Darkness, Take My Hand
- Gone, Baby, Gone
- Prayers for Rain
- Moonlight Mile
The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold
Miles Vorkosigan is one of my favorite characters of all time, and he’s my favorite on this page. Miles doesn’t appear until book #3, because the first two books are his parents’ story. The novels range from semi-standard science fiction to comic capers to a comedy of manners, with considerable mystery in many.
- Shards of Honor
- The Warrior’s Apprentice
- The Vor Game
- Brothers In Arms
- Borders of Infinity
- Mirror Dance
- A Civil Campaign
- Winterfair Gifts (novella)
- Diplomatic Immunity
- Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance
The Agent Pendergast series by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
I unintentionally started this series at #3, and in abridged format, and still found Agent Pendergast compelling. Starting over at the beginning, when Relic finally appeared in audiobook format, was an intense thrill. Without spoiling it, there’s a moment in the book where you realize “Wait a minute, what about…” and then things kind of explode. I’m still waiting for Cabinet of Curiosities to appear in unabridged format, but Rochelle has listened to the whole series. They are up-late-at-night-listening, buy-the-next-book-immediately good. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
- Cabinet of Curiosities (abridged)
- Still Life with Crows
- Brimstone (Diogenes #1)
- Dance of Death (Diogenes #2)
- The Book of the Dead (Diogenes #3)
- The Wheel of Darkness
- Cemetery Dance
- Fever Dream (Helen #1)
- Cold Vengeance (Helen #2)
- Two Graves (Helen #3)
- White Fire
The Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay
I started with Dexter in audiobook format, before the TV series aired. Dexter is delightful, and though he’s a serial killer, these are not dark stories. Well, not completely, and with plenty of comedy to leaven it. (The TV show is much darker to me.)
A word about the narration. Nick Landrum’s Dexter is cheerfully murderous, or murderously cheerful, whether he’s going out for medianoche or mayhem. The first two books at Audible, however, are narrated by the author. Who is actually very good, and would be good for other, more serious material, but (at least to the extent I’ve heard) he completely loses the levity that makes these books such guilty fun. I would recommend getting the first two on CD instead of at Audible, and making sure you listen to Landrum’s version.
- Darkly Dreaming Dexter (or on CD with Nick Landrum’s narration)
- Dearly Devoted Dexter (or on CD with Nick Landrum’s narration)
- Dexter in the Dark
- Dexter by Design
- Dexter is Delicious
- Double Dexter
- Dexter’s Final Cut
Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons
This four book series began as just two books that told a complete story. Years later the author returned to the same universe, and took things in a totally different direction. Many people prefer the first two books to the second two. While I wouldn’t argue the point, I think the whole series satisfies more completely than the original duo.
The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
These novels are so subversive, I’m surprised they were best-sellers. I highly recommend them. Katniss Everdeen is not the most likable character, and the third novel is not as well executed as the first two, but there’s just something about the story.
The Myron Bolitar series by Harlen Coben
Myron was a college basketball superstar, who became a sports agent after he suffered a career-ending injury. Like a lot of agents, he’s an attorney, and so his clients sometimes come to him for help with more than endorsements negotiations. And he tries to help. In spite of the unlikely name, Myron is pretty cool.
The first seven books are narrated by Jonathan Marosz, whose delivery brings out all the humor in the novels. The eighth book is narrated by the author, and there’s no way to put it kindly, it’s terrible. I haven’t listened to the last two, yet, but I don’t see how anyone but Jonathan can be Myron.
- Deal Breaker
- Drop Shot
- Fade Away
- Back Spin
- One False Move
- The Final Detail
- Darkest Fear
- Promise Me
- Long Lost
- Live Wire
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
The first novel was a very early purchase from Audible, but I only came to it after seeing the first season of the TV show, which turned out to be a remarkable rendition of the first novel. I’m most of the way through the second novel, and look forward to the second season coming out on Blu-ray. These are rich, long books that will reward repeated listening or viewing. So many characters to keep track of, I don’t know how that would have gone without having seen the TV show first. If you buy these with Audible credits, it works out to about 40¢/hour for a lot of intense entertainment.
- A Game of Thrones
- A Clash of Kings
- A Storm of Swords
- A Feast for Crows
- A Dance with Dragons
- The Winds of Winter (forthcoming)
- A Dream of Spring (someday)
While great series are fantastic to find, in that you get a lot of really good books delivered in a package, they can be rare. I find many series to be formulaic, and after a few books, boring. And there are a lot of books that are one-offs, but still highly worth listening to. Here are a few I liked:
The Palace Job, by Patrick Weekes — My favorite audiobook of 2013, by far. I loved this book, and wrote a longer review if you’re interested, but the summary is Leverage meets Firefly meets The Wizard of Oz, or, Ocean’s Eleven with a unicorn and a witch. Fun, funny, and wonderfully performed.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson — This will seem like a criticism instead of a compliment, but this is a great book, if not the best book, to fall asleep to. What’s so fun about it is that while the narrative hangs together if you listen to it in long stretches, the individual stories are quite short, and you can start almost anywhere in the book and quickly be up to speed. And there is something about the narrator’s voice that is so soothing, it’s easy to drop off if you’re in a place to do so. I’ve listened to this while driving and been highly entertained and awake, but also use it as a power nap aide (when I’m not in motion). Crazy as it sounds, it really works both ways, making this book unique in my experience.
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, by David Sedaris — Read by the author with his inimitable voice and delivery, this book has many, many laugh-out-loud moments. We started listening to it on a road trip, and I was initially afraid I was going to wreck the car, I was laughing so hard. I’m sure I’ll recommend all of the author’s books eventually, as I get ahold of them in unabridged form.
The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, by Jacques Pépin — My love of all things Jacques extends to his autobiography, which is both well-written, and a record of a seriously interesting life. Rochelle and I both laughed out loud many times, though usually at different things. (Rochelle found his inept wooing of the woman who became his wife particularly funny, while I found that it reminded me too much of my wooing of Rochelle.) If you are a fan of his cooking shows, or love cooking and food stories, you’ll really enjoy this book.
Haunted Ground, by Erin Hart — This is a mystery told at a languid pace, taking place in the Irish countryside. The narrator’s wonderful voice and Irish accent took a pretty good book, and made it terrific. Not for people who want a lot of action and gunfire in their mysteries, but not at all boring or slow, either.
The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova — Three things make this a strong book. First, the story itself is very good. It’s kind of a historical detective thriller, not quite as self-consciously clever or fast-paced as something like The DaVinci Code, but it certainly has parallels. And the structure of the novel is quite interesting, weaving together multiple people’s tales across quite a span of time. Second, the performance is very good, two different readers for the two different main character perspectives used in the narration. (Amusingly, the male narrator is Paul Michael, who also read The DaVinci Code, where he was also excellent. He’s close to being added to my Personal Golden Voices list.) And third, it’s quite long, more than 26 hours. So if you’re enjoying it, there’s a lot to enjoy.
What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman — This is a sublime novel, intricately and intelligently structured. It cuts back and forth on the timeline, and does demand that you keep up with where the author is taking you. It pays you back for your efforts, this is another of my very favorite audiobooks.
Daemon and Freedom™ by Daniel Suarez — Two books, but they are more like two halves of one giant novel than the start of a series. Really interesting look at automated systems and the possibilities of augmented reality. And a hell of a read, too.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline — I can’t pretend this is a great novel, just a pretty good one. But it is a lot of fun, especially if you grew up playing video and computer games in the ’80s. The book is a love letter to that era, and if you love it too, you’ll love this book.
The following readers really worked for me; they are listed in the order in which I encountered them. I’ve either heard them on more than one book, or was particularly struck by how much I enjoyed their reading of a work. One suggestion: give every reader a chance. I’ve noticed that I often think little of a reader in the initial 15 minutes or so of a book, but come to really appreciate them as the book moves along, they handle more characters, have a chance to add nuances, etc. You can only truly judge the quality of a reader at the end of a book.
- Len Cariou
- Dick Hill
- Jim Dale
- Grover Gardner
- Gerard Doyle
- Simon Vance
- George Guidall
- Justine Eyre
I only recommend audiobooks that I’ve personally listened to and liked, and while it’s quite a few, it’s a very small percentage of the available audiobooks. So here are some links to other web sites which provide editorial content about the quality of the book, reader, and recording for audiobooks.
- AudioFile Magazine — Online reviews and lists of audiobooks, well-organized by genre.
- AudioFile Magazine’s Golden Voices — A list of the most prolific and well-regarded recording artists working in audiobooks.
- Amazon.com — Their reader reviews of audiobooks are useful, but they have no special catalogs or organization schemes for audiobooks.
- Audible.com — Again, the reader reviews and ratings of audiobooks is useful, though certainly not definitive. Take the reviews with a grain of salt, and judge them as a whole, not by any individual review…