Just as there is a book out there for every possible reader, so is there an audiobook for every possible length of time. Thus, this inaugural Paste list of the best audiobooks of 2017 is sorted not by rank, but by length. So whether your holiday drive is minutes or nearly 19 hours, there is a stellar audiobook here for you.
This list had but a single ballot (mine), and so it’s limited by both taste and the number of hours a person has in a year. So understand that even though some of this year’s general award winners and bestsellers—among them Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and Andy Weir’s Artemis—didn’t make this list, they’re still fantastic in both book and audio formats. And you should take as a given that everything from our mid-year list of audiobooks still remains highly recommended.
That said, from briefest to most sprawling, here are this year’s best audiobooks that blossom in audio form:
FIVE BOOKS UNDER SIX HOURS
Narrator: Jason Reynolds
Run time: 1 hour and 43 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
Jason Reynolds is, as he explains in the author’s interview at the end of this short punch of an audiobook, the writer he needed to see in the world. And this novella-in-verse, while not intended to be a lesson, successfully engages the reader’s empathy for a group of people—”all the young brothers and sisters in detention centers around the country.” Long Way Down accomplishes this by immediately addressing the reader as “you,” which, combined with the expert pacing only Reynolds can give to his own verse, functions as an invitation to join an intimate conversation. This conversation is fictional, unlike Adichie’s book, but its effect is the same: an experience significantly more edifying than it could have been in print alone. It also paves the way for a follow-up listen: David Barclay Moore’s The Stars Beneath Our Feet, narrated by Nile Bullock, which, while coming in at a slightly longer 6 hours and 19 minutes, lets the reader follow a boy left behind by gun violence.
Narrator: Kimberly Farr
Run time: 2 hours and 51 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
Joan Didion traveled through the Gulf South in 1970 and to San Francisco to cover the Patty Hearst trial in 1976, taking luminous notes on both trips. This short collection draws from these notes, describing, almost unbelievably, much about how today’s America was formed. (“Didion saw her era more clearly than anyone else,” Nathaniel Rich writes in his foreword, “which is another way of saying that she was able to see the future.”) There is less of a cohesive narrative arc here than in the other entries on this list, but occasionally a listening session calls for something that requires less extended focus. In their looser format, these notes satisfy this need, and in Kimberly Farr’s even and warm narration makes it easy to settle back in no matter where you are.
Flying Lessons & Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh
Narrators: Dion Graham, Samantha Quan, Meg Medina, Julia Whelan, Tim Tingle, Abigail Revasch, Sunil Malhotra, Kwame Alexander, Dominic Hoffman and Ellen Oh
Run time: 4 hours and 34 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
A pulsing need for greater diversity in publishing has existed for so long that the career experience needed to editorialize it has become a multigenerational family affair. As every controversy that crests these days makes clear, it’s not just fictional characters who need a diversity boost, but the living creatives and critics behind the scenes. This short story collection, written by a diverse group of authors and edited by Ellen Oh, is fantastic on its own merits. That said, it’s also performed by an equally diverse set of narrators, which serves to crystallize the collection’s thesis: diverse storytelling matters.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Narrator: Mohsin Hamid
Run time: 4 hours and 42 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
Exit West is a novel that is sweeping in its narrative scope while simultaneously focusing on the mundanity of life, an effect achieved through the straightforward way in which author and narrator Mohsin Hamid describes a couple’s personal experience of a bloody, displacing war—and the world’s experience of unexplained intradimensional doorways providing an escape from those bloody, displacing wars—listing the details of courtship, violence and roiling global migration alongside each other like so much flour, eggs and strawberry jam. “That is the way of things, with cities as with life,” the book begins, “for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.” In the author’s sure and measured performance, the unhurried movement from one quiet moment to the next proves compelling and reassuring.
Narrator: Scaachi Koul
Run time: 5 hours and 29 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
It is never a given that an author narrating their own work is going to succeed—especially when the author has no particular background in performance, or when the work in question is memoir-adjacent, carrying with it all the attendant baggage of anyone’s deepest personal hangups. But Buzzfeed’s Scaachi Koul walks right up to this lowest of expectations and laughs directly in its face. She has things to SAY and she is SAYING them, so you can take your own memoir-hangups and launch them, like the planes that should never leave the ground, right into the sky. She has also invited her father, whose angsty Brown Dad dramatics Koul famously catalogs on her Twitter feed, to read his half of the text message conversations that bridge the essays together, as well as the author bio he wrote for her at the end. Koul is a delight, her book is a delight and while it is absolutely true that one day we WILL all be dead and none of this WILL matter, now, at least, there is time to fill with this book. And if you want an extra-credit memoir-adjacent chaser, head straight for We’re Going to Need More Wine, written and performed by Gabrielle Union (7 hours 48 minutes).
FIVE BOOKS BETWEEN SIX AND NINE HOURS
Narrator: David Tennant
Run time: 5 hours and 58 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
Before any of us graduated to audiobooks, we began with bedtime stories. And even after we’ve aged into audiobooks, sometimes all we really want is a good bedtime story full of magic, told with gusto and performed with no few number of over-the-top character voices. Cressida Cowell’s The Wizards of Once, narrated by the dear and legendary David Tennant (the reigning Scrooge McDuck!), is exactly that. It’s prologue is scored, and Tennant’s mysterious narrator is an unspeaking character in the action itself (or, so he claims). If a gleefully transporting escape from reality is what you want, this is the first place you should start.
Narrator: Lauren Ezzo
Run time: 6 hours and 2 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
A very different kind of nostalgia trip than a bedtime story about wizards, Rachel Cohn’s Kill All Happies is a party of a book about how impossibly draining and exhilirating it is to be 18. In Lauren Ezzo’s narrative hands, it comes out just as “out of breath, exhausted, emotionally destroyed and starving” as heroine General Vic Navarro does by the middle of her own party that is the center of the narrative. This book is like the low-key, modern classic The Edge of Seventeen aged up a year and moved to the desert, with a posse of middle-aged fast food theme park megafans and severe drought conditions thrown in. Kill All Happies proves perfect with the listener swimming in Vic’s actual voice from messy start to messier finish. If you’re about to see your old high school crew this holiday season, gear up with this one.
The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein
Narrator: Maggie Service
Run time: 7 hours 58 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
The Pearl Thief, Elizabeth Wein’s “Nancy Drew in 1930s Scotland” prequel to the immeasurably tragic Code Name Verity, is one of the few cases where an audio performance renders the dialogue less comprehensible but more clear. That is, the thick Scottish brogues and even thicker Tinker slang make specific words spoken by characters occasionally incomprehensible, but, in Maggie Service’s natural delivery, more understandable in terms of shaping the characters’ intent and the book’s setting. Plus, there’s singing—and singing done well.
American Street Ibi Zoboi
Narrator: Robin Miles
Run time: 8 hours 35 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
Robin Miles was given no easy task with Ibi Zoboi’s ambitious novel about a recent Haitian immigrant moving in with her Haitian immigrant aunt and her Detroit-born Haitian-American cousins while navigating white and black, middle and lower class worlds. But Miles successfully tackles a diverse group of characters—with the addition of varying thicknesses of Haitian accent as well as Haitian Kreyol, which is likely as unfamiliar to the average American listener. And Miles’ performance is nothing less than virtuosic.
Narrator: Anne Marie Lee, Will Patton and Danny Campbell
Run time: 8 hours and 53 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
After character and accent work, the use of multiple narrators is one of the greatest advantages an audiobook can have over its printed original. In the case of David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, three different narrators are used to take on the three distinct sections of the book, which are distinguished not just by time period, but also by focal character and their emotional connection to the Osage Murders and the epic proto-FBI investigation that followed. The first section, which introduces the murders by following the last surviving member of one Osage family, is narrated by a careful, affecting Anne Marie Lee. The next, which shifts focus to the former cowboy marshall and now federal agent who takes on the case, is narrated by the laconic, wry and world-weary Will Patton. The final section, which brings the story into the present with Grann’s contemporary investigation of the murder trial’s many loose threads, is narrated in a much more neutral way by Danny Campbell. The sections are distinct enough that a reader would have been able to distinguish between them with just one narrator, but with three, the murders, the investigation and far-reaching effects they had on the Osage tribe are viscerally felt.
FIVE BOOKS BETWEEN NINE AND 14 HOURS
Narrator: Elizabeth Sastre, Marisa Calin and Saskia Maarleveld
Run time: 9 hours and 28 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
If accent work is one advantage audio has over print, and the ability to use multiple narrators another, then perhaps the clearest sign of an audiobook’s likely excellence will be the presence of both. In the case of Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s Spellbook of the Lost and Found, the three narrators take on three of the eight major characters in the book’s twisted story. And since the book is set in Ireland, all three Irish narrators employ their authentic accents for an immersive experience. This is a book that would likely stay with you regardless of medium, but with the characters’ true voices swimming in your head, that “likely” turns into a certainty.
Narrator: John T. Edge
Run time: 10 hours and 7 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
The Potlikker Papers audiobook begins with Southern rockers Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires counting in to the book’s opening music, introducing the singular focus of John T. Edge’s social tracing of the American South’s culinary history: authenticity. Edge, who uses his wry Southern accent to narrate, aims to get Americans—especially Southerners—to recognize how historical and systemic injustice has informed every modern tradition, even as those traditions have transformed from policy change and changes in immigration. The only way this book could be more effective in the audio format is if someone managed to invent the Smell-o-vision of books—but then we’d all just abandon our reading for the nearest potlikker joint. Better to stick with the audio.
Narrator: Kim Mai Guest, MacLeod Andrews, Shannon McManus, and Robbie Daymond
Run time: 10 hours and 43 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
After bedtime stories and social justice manifestos, the best genres to listen to rather than read are ones boasting the element of suspense. Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders (later in this list) does that twice over; Karen M. Macmanus’ One of Us is Lying does it times four, with four possible murder suspects as its four very likable characters. With each suspect’s version of events narrated from a first person perspective, and each narrator drawing you into their confidence, the experience of trying to solve a whodunnit while also rooting for the characters to triumph is enjoyably maddening.
Narrator: Cherise Booth
Run time: 11 hours and 53 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
Set on a ship deep in space, Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts executes something like an alternate history of American slavery set in the future. One of the world’s defining features is its use of language as social marker, which is introduced immediately as the main character, Aster, catches herself misgendering the child she is treating in her infirmary, and she reminds herself to work harder to remember which gender designations are used by which decks and when. What the audiobook does that the printed word can’t is layer in accents on top of these grammatical distinctions in identity, which Cherise Booth does using mainly Caribbean variants. This gives an already emotionally challenging book even more depth, but trust that it is worth it.
Narrator: Fiona Hardingham
Run time: 11 hours and 58 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
Sophie Kinsella’s unapologetically frothy standalone, My Not So Perfect Life, is narrated by another pro whose involvement in a project makes it a must-listen: Fiona Hardingham. For non-Brits, this book has the added appeal of being charmingly British; for those over basic Britishness (native Brits, world weary travelers, old cranks, etc.), it has the added appeal of heroine Katie returning home to Somerset and reverting, by way of disguise, to her most country of Somerset accents. It’s questionable to insist that a 12-hour long book is a jaunt, but in this case, it is a delightful one at that.
FIVE BOOKS OVER 14 HOURS
Narrator: January LaVoy and Phylicia Rashad
Run time: 14 hours and 20 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
January LaVoy is another narrator on the list of pros whose attachment to a book makes it a necessary read. If the performance of Coretta Scott King’s long-awaited memoir was going to be entrusted anybody, her estate couldn’t have chosen better. LaVoy treats King’s story with a warmth that is engaging but not overly performative, allowing the listener to settle in and absorb a part of history that everyone needs to remember. And while 14 hours seems like a lot of time, with King’s life this long and this full, it passes by too quickly.
Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View edited by Elizabeth Schaefer
Narrators: Jonathan Davis, Ashley Eckstein, Janina Gavankar, Jon Hamm, Neil Patrick Harris, January LaVoy, Saskia Maarleveld, Carol Monda, Daniel José Older and Marc Thompson
Run time: 15 hours and 2 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
The Star Wars extended universe is fantastic and meticulously produced, as evidenced by this short story collection with 40 tales from various authors. In addition to immersive soundtracks with effects like droids chirping and corridors humming, the audiobook boasts many supremely talented voice actors who narrate stories from the points of view of background characters in A New Hope. Mallory Ortberg’s passive aggressive bureaucrat in “An Incident Report” will make you laugh out loud; Rae Carson’s failing little droid in “The Red One” will make you weep. All of them will make you glad you discovered another arm of the extended Star Wars universe, because while Episode VIII is almost upon us, it will another long, cold wait until the next installment.
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Narrators: Samantha Bond and Allan Corduner
Run time: 15 hours and 47 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
Mysteries are almost made for audiobooks, and they benefit from the fact that you can’t flip ahead to read the ending. This benefits the reader twice over in Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, as the gimmick is that a famous mystery writer’s editor is reading the writer’s latest manuscript—only to find that the writer has died and the manuscript is unfinished. This leaves the editor to chase down the book’s and the writer’s endings on her own. Horowitz effectively differentiates between his book and the book within the book by changing tense and POV (one is first person past, the other third person present). But this audio production employs two different narrators, making for a very effective differentiation between the two stories—and a very jarring jolt back to “reality” with each narrator switch. The mysteries are good, but it’s the narrative experience that makes them great.
Narrator: Steve West
Run time: 18 hours and 20 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
No one writes fantasy like Laini Taylor, who has discovered the formula for creating fantastic mythologies and then adding poetry to the world’s mechanics. The result is at once entirely alien and completely familiar. Steve West, tasked with giving life to Strange the Dreamer’s protagonists—human librarian Lazlo Strange and (possible, half-)goddess Sarai—acquits himself with the gravitas and grace Taylor’s poetry demands. This is a performance and a book you’ll never want to end…which is lucky, since it will take you at least one round-trip drive to your most distant relative to finish it.
Narrator: January LaVoy
Run time: 21 hours and 26 minutes (Listen to a clip here.)
If I could persuade anyone to give any audiobook a shot, it would be on this rollicking, terrifying, heart-pattering, supernatural, achingly patriotic series. You’ll want to live in this spooky period piece, as much for January LaVoy’s performance as for Libba Bray’s storytelling. LaVoy voices an incredible cast, including a bright-eyed radio star, a smoky-voiced flapper, a smart-talking pickpocket, a pair of brothers from Harlem, a pair of witchy elderly sisters from Virginia, a girl with the bluntest of social skills from Chinatown, a terminally cheerful gay piano player from New Orleans, a cabal of international anarcho-socialists and no end of unhinged ghosts and demons. It is, in short, the Stefon of audiobooks: it has everything. It is the story of America, and in 2017, it could not be more relevant—ghosts and all.
Alexis Gunderson is (mostly) a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.