The 10 best audiobooks of 2013

Salon's audiobook critics pick their favorite fiction and nonfiction recordings from 2013

Published December 12, 2013 7:44PM (EST)

FICTION, chosen by Laura Miller

"Claire de Witt and the Bohemian Highway" by Sara Gran, narrated by Carol Monda
Claire de Witt is an unusual private eye. She recognizes a clue by the weird chills she gets when she first encounters it and she makes some of her most important deductions in dreams and under the influence of mind-altering substances. As written by Gran, Claire is as much mystical seeker as investigator, a disciple of a mysterious master detective whose book, "Détection," has a tendency to appear in strange places at key moments. But Claire is also as hardboiled as they come, and no one could deliver her unconventional first person narration better than Monda, who can be tough, melancholy and tender all at the same time.

"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" by Karen Joy Fowler, narrated by Orlagh Cassidy
Rosemary, the narrator of Karen Joy Fowler’s marvelous and justly celebrated new novel, was raised, until the age of five, with a chimpanzee “sister” named Fern. The novel takes place during Rosemary's undergraduate years at the University of California at Davis, and only gradually reveals how Fern came to be separated from her human family and the emotional consequences of that break. It's a story that requires a true performance from Cassidy, as Rosemary approaches and then shies away from the truth about her past. Cassidy makes the withholding of this information seem integral to the character rather than just a storytelling technique. A classic example of how a gifted narrator can enrich the audio version of a novel.

"River of Stars" by Guy Gavriel Kay, narrated by Simon Vance
One of the greatest audiobook narrators ever, Vance brings his perfect timing and feather-touch sensitivity to Kay's epic story set in a invented empire based on Tang Dynasty China. Vance's many fans may be best situated to appreciate the subtle ways he modulates his voice for each book he reads. In this case, Kay invokes a world of stylized manners and deadly gambits, infused with an aesthetic founded on the most exquisite appreciation of the beauty and melancholy of the natural world. One of Vance’s fortes is conveying understated irony, and it serves him very well here. He acquits himself especially well with Kay’s landscape descriptions, so evocative you feel you’re breathing the autumn mist as it rises from the bamboo groves.

"Norwood" by Charles Portis, narrated by David Aaron Baker
Portis is a legendary cult writer whose books typically feature down-on-their-luck Southerners. (His best-known novel, the source for two excellent films, is "True Grit.") In “Norwood,” a none-too-bright 23-year-old ex-Marine travels meanderingly from minuscule Ralph, Texas, to New York and back in search of $70 owed him by a buddy from the service. Baker seems to have marinated in Portis’ sensibility, a voice and view of the world that could be likened to a lighter version of Flannery O’Connor. If what you like best about the FX series “Justified” is the repartee and the humor, then come on down. For me, this recording triggered a Portis binge, so I can also recommend the recording of "True Grit" narrated by none other than Donna Tartt, also a fan.

"The Signature of All Things" by Elizabeth Gilbert, narrated by Juliet Stevenson
Juliet Stevenson’s face would be instantly familiar to Anglophiles everywhere, especially those with a penchant for British TV (her films include “Truly Madly Deeply” and “Drowning by Numbers”), but she’s also a first-class narrator. With this marvelous novel, Elizabeth Gilbert's first in 13 years (and a long wait it's been for those of us who prefer her fiction to her memoirs), she reads the story of Alma Whittaker, raised on her father’s sumptuous estate just outside Philadelphia in the early 1800s, and a scientist at heart. Stevenson is the supreme female narrator of the sort of 19th-century novels Gilbert emulates with this book, but Alma is no typical Victorian heroine; love, though an element of her life, does not become its defining principle. As Gilbert takes Alma through an extraordinary series of adventures, Stevenson conveys the sense that the hand on the wheel is firm and certain and that the reader may lean back in perfect confidence that neither journey nor destination will disappoint.

NONFICTION, chosen by Kyle Minor

"Twelve Years a Slave" by Solomon Northup, narrated by Hugh Quarshie
The best nonfiction audiobook of 2013 was written in 1854 by a free man abducted into slavery and held under the grim conditions that prevailed everywhere in the American South, until his rescue from a cotton plantation near the Red River, in Louisiana, in 1853. The resurgent interest in “12 Years a Slave” has everything to do with Steve McQueen’s masterful film adaptation, but the book has more to offer than the movie, and the Ghanian-British stage actor Hugh Quarshie’s conversational delivery stands out among a slew of newly released competing audiobook adaptations by narrators including Louis Gossett, Jr., Tommie Earl Jenkins, William Butler and Peter Jay Fernandez.

"I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place" by Howard Norman, narrated by Jim Meskimen
“I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place” is a quiet, strong, introspective, patient, expansive memoir, and it benefits from an unusually sensitive delivery by Jim Meskiman, a reader wise enough to avoid the trap of overperformance now endemic to audiobook narrators. Although the material is high-octane—an absent father, a mother whose basement drawer is crammed with newsletters from the Jewish Orphan House where she was raised, a girlfriend who dies in a fiery plane crash, a houseguest who murders herself and her child in Norman’s house—the true lede belongs to the twelfth-century Japanese poet Saigyo, who wrote: “A soul that is confused is not a soul.”

"Notes from No Man’s Land" by Eula Biss, narrated by Jennifer Van Dyck
A collection of wildly inventive essays about race from the point of view of a white female writer whose research into the history of telephone poles yielded a record of 2,354 New York Times articles published between 1880 and 1920 about lynchings. Many of these were one telephone poles, the same technology that “annihilated time and space, and brought the human family in closer touch.” Biss ends with an essay that takes explicit aim at the question of what kinds of conversations all people — perhaps especially white people — might owe history, and whether those conversations ought to land in apology. “Notes from No Man’s Land” has earned Biss comparisons to Joan Didion, a writer with whom she is explicitly in conversation, but Biss is more clear-eyed than Didion about class and privilege, her view less clouded by star-studded parties and watercress sandwiches.

"Jim Henson: A Biography" by Brian Jay Jones, narrated by Kirby Heyborne
It’s hard to imagine a more interesting subject for a biography than Jim Henson, creator of Kermit the Frog, Ernie, Gonzo, Miss Piggy, Rowlf the Dog, half of “Sesame Street,” the entire Muppet franchise, the films “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth,” and two creature-fabrication workshops that revolutionized the art of puppetry. The biography’s delightful surprises include a disastrous run on the first season of Saturday Night Live (“the mucking Fuppets,” John Belushi grumbled), an early milky-blue iteration of Kermit sewn from Henson’s mother’s felt coat and the story of how Frank Oz became Yoda.

"Attempting Normal," written and narrated by Marc Maron
Few audiobook producers have taken advantage of the possibilities of the form the way Marc Maron has in his adaptation of “Attempting Normal.” An already enjoyable memoir, the audio version benefits from the improvisatory ease Maron developed as a stand-up comic, Air America radioman and host of the popular “WTF with Marc Maron” podcast, from which much of the book’s content was developed. The audiobook, which includes excerpts from the podcast, veers wildly from personal history to confession to documentary to punch line to psychoanalysis to intellectual rant to anti-intellectual armoring to inside joke to dead serious to deflatingly unhyperbolic to high to crude to political to nostalgic to philosophical to historical to proud to self-abasing, and it keeps the listener happily off-balance.

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By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

MORE FROM Laura Miller

By Kyle Minor

Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014.

MORE FROM Kyle Minor

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