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Thursday, December 22, 2011

2011 Year in Review: Audiobooks

Once again it's time for our Year in Review series. Here, Reece Churilla, one of our audiobook selectors and marketers, tackles 2011's audiobook releases.

From the shifting paradigms of scientific discovery to the rise of digital devices that gave us new modes of expression and communication, 2011—now nearing its eventful end—has come to represent a lightning-paced span of great change and transition. At once, separate revolutions carried the year in retrospect: a shift in social awareness spawned the Occupy movement, and eBooks powerfully proved a dominating force in the publishing stratosphere.

We will remember it as a time of healing from tragedy, in the reflection of ten years after 9/11, and in the moving story of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who showed us that no degree of brutality could trump the strongest willpower; that regardless of our differences, love and hope are our greatest unified virtues.

Although much of the publishing world has focused on its own evolving industry, it’s necessary to acknowledge the spectacular writing produced this year. What’s more, we should emphasize the enduring importance of librarians and the precious role they play in our society, our communities, and even within the curious minds of children who find sanctuary in our libraries, while budgets continue to be slashed and operations halted.

Audiobooks are recognized as a staple of libraries nationwide, but they are much more than vocalized books: They are the accompaniment of an old friend on a long, solitary drive, or an entertaining voice to enjoy at the gym; the gentle teacher to youth and the disabled—or any audio lover, really—opening the doors to the heart of imagination. Indeed, one would find it difficult to select the top audiobooks from a year’s worth of tremendous releases, but I’ve put together a list of favorites that exhibits the absolute best qualities of today’s spoken word.

At 25, Tea Obreht became the youngest author ever to win The Orange Prize for her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, which was also a finalist for The National Book Award. Obreht stormed into the scene with this tremendous tale of Natalia, a young doctor, who seeks to uncover the truth behind the death of her grandfather in an unnamed Balkan country reeling from war. AudioFile praised the audiobook, calling it “superb listening.”

New York Times Best Selling author Ann Patchett—the dazzling writer behind the memorable Bel Canto—echoes the adventurous peril and mystique of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with State of Wonder, a gorgeous novel that has proven a mainstay of the Best Sellers lists since its release. The title garnered an AudioFile Earphones award, and Library Journal gave it a starred review.

One would be hard set to find a single yearly recap that didn’t include Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, but don’t quote me on that! Regardless, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s latest effort is an outright gem with starred reviews from PW, Kirkus, Library Journal, Booklist, and 4 out of 4 stars from USA Today. Simply put, this title is a wonderful addition to Eugenides’ immaculate oeuvre, and the audiobook (another Earphones winner) does justice to the text.

According to The Guardian, Haruki Murakami is considered “among the world’s greatest living novelists,” and 1Q84, the author’s magnum opus, does not disappoint. (While on vacation in Tokyo, I had the opportunity to read Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, a tender love song to coming-of-age in Japan in the 1960s and 70s.) The magic and enchantment of 1Q84 springs to life in the audio tome and leaves listeners transformed.

My final pick for fiction is a nod to the inner nerd in me. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One remains the year’s quintessential sci-fi yarn, because of its elaborate story rife with '80s pop culture references! USA Today called it, “Enchanting…Willy Wonka meets the Matrix.” Neither reference is actually from the '80s, however, who doesn’t enjoy a bit of cyberpunk nostalgia in their audiobooks?

In the non-fiction realm, I marketed an armada of memoirs this year, but it’s Tina Fey’s Bossypants that takes the cake. Surely, everyone agrees, right? Hilarious comedian and SNL Dominatrix Tina Fey humorously reveals her personal story, while offering advice to aspiring females looking to make it big in a male-dominated industry. In fact, she is so funny that the audiobook is up for a Grammy.

I’m a fan of raw and rugged writing—Donald Ray Pollock, anyone?—and the memoir Townie by Andre Dubus III aroused in me dual sensations of disgust and admiration. Dubus, author of House of Sand and Fog, chronicles his evolution from dysfunctional youth to acclaimed writer, following in the footsteps of his father who left his family when he was 10. The author’s candid reading captivates in audio.

The final biographical selection may be the most poignant, and that is Gabrielle Giffords’ and husband Mark Kelly’s Gabby, a painfully honest account of the congresswoman’s path to recovery after miraculously surviving a gruesome shooting. It is truly a moving and life-instilling portrait of love and perseverance. Giffords herself reads the final chapter of the audiobook.

David McCullough has created a legendary work of art all his own in illuminating the untold story of the countless artists that embarked for Paris between 1830 and 1900. The Greater Journey delves deep into this profound epoch of cultural diffusion, earning starred reviews from Booklist, Library Journal, and Kirkus, among a sea of praise across the board. Pulitzer Prize-winning McCullough has a knack for historical non-fiction, and the audiobook is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Rounding out the true-life genre is Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, another historical masterwork that lit up The New York Times Best Sellers list. Where McCullough channeled old-time Paris, Larson meticulously gives descriptive form to Berlin in 1933, during Hitler’s rise to power. Larson transports you to this precarious era, wonderfully articulated in audio by narrator Stephen Hoye.

Children’s & Young Adult
Yes, the success of The Hunger Games has inspired a new wave of dystopian literature for young adults; however, you won’t see any of that here. My favorite youth audiobooks of 2011 steer clear of prescriptive despair, angst-ridden supernatural pining, and even vampires—although there is a heavy dose of fantasy.

Franny Billingsley’s Chime, a National Book Award Finalist, puts a spin on the classic fairy tale with this darkly alluring story about a teenage witch, Briony, who desperately fights to save her ailing sister’s life. Billingsley deftly imagines Briony’s world, weaving an unforgettable fabric of redemption that rings true to teens today. In audio, Susan Duerden commands the narration with a winning performance. The audiobook received a starred review from School Library Journal.

Newbery Honor author Gary D. Schmidt penned Okay for Now as a companion to The Wednesday Wars, but it actually stands alone as a beautiful novel. The book follows fourteen-year-old Doug Swieteck, the new kid in town just trying to get by while the whole world seems to be against him. Despite Doug’s circumstances, Schmidt carries the plot with bright optimism and humor. Okay for Now was also nominated for The National Book Award, and Booklist called the audio adaptation a “grand-slam production.”

No super sleuth is more ubiquitous and clever than Sherlock Holmes, so clever, in fact, it begs the question: How has Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved detective persisted for over a hundred years? While it may first appear “elementary”—and sadly without Watson—Andrew Lane’s Death Cloud explores a teenaged Holmes on the heels of a thrilling murder mystery. With a bit of romance and much adventure, the revamp is an engaging introduction to the character. School Library Journal noted the similarity to Doyle’s original work, awarding Death Cloud a starred review.

I did a double-take when I read that John Stephens, author of The Emerald Atlas, was also the executive producer for Gossip Girl, but it makes sense when you consider the cinematic pacing of Stephens’ astonishing fantasy debut, the first in a projected series. Three orphans are charged with fulfilling an ancient prophecy in a magical world wrought with enchantment and whimsy. The audiobook received stellar reviews, a treat for audio lovers of all ages.

And in our modern age of physical superficiality and aggressive, black-eye-consumerism, Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens is like a cathartic breath of fresh air. After all, what could possibly be more appealing than a story about a group of beauty pageant contestants stranded on a deserted island? Well, to answer that question, the inclusion of a dreadlocked alien-monster with a shoulder gun, clawed fangs, and heat-vision picking them off…but that’s not in this book.

In fact, Bray’s satirical romp is much more tongue-in-cheek. What makes the audio a must-listen is the author’s over-the-top reading, a performance that is “absolutely brilliant,” according to Booklist. For a taste of Bray’s humor, check out this funny book trailer:

If you haven’t already, I urge you to check out the audiobooks that stood out for me this year as well as any I may have missed in this recap. There were too many splendid productions to rave about it all in a single post, so feel free to express your picks for your favorite audio releases of 2011 in the comments section below.

Happy listening, and happy holidays! 
-Reece Churilla

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