In a great book, building complexity into characters and evoking places both near and far is the job of the author. But in an audiobook, an impeccable performance can make these elements shine, so choosing the right narrator—or narrators—is of the highest importance. The narrators of these four audiobooks imbue their stories with real magic, allowing us to appreciate the commonality of our emotions even across a diversity of experiences.
Hijab Butch Blues
In her memoir in essays, Hijab Butch Blues (7.5 hours), author Lamya H shares her incredible story of growing up a queer person with a devout Muslim faith. Each chapter of the book is titled after a surah of the Quran and explores a key figure in Islamic scripture alongside moments in the author’s own life. Her story begins at 14 years old, when she found kinship in the Quranic story of Maryam, a virgin mother who very well may have been a lesbian.
Narrator Ashraf Shirazi brings palpable sincerity and youthful energy to sections set in college and after the author’s immigration to the United States. Both author and narrator have used pseudonyms; for Lamya H, the reasons are obviously privacy and safety. The reasons may be similar for Shirazi, or perhaps her anonymity is a nod of respect to the author’s choice—bittersweet as it is, for a memoir about the perseverance to discover your identity.
Lamya H reflects on what was gained and what was lost by writing her debut memoir under a pseudonym.
The Faraway World
Patricia Engel, author of Infinite Country, sets the 10 short stories in her collection, The Faraway World (7 hours), in the not-so-faraway worlds of New York City, Cuba and Colombia. The stories and their multifarious characters are voiced by a cast composed primarily of bilingual Latinx narrators, including the author. Their performances project glimmers of light, irony and warmth into haunting stories that tread into such dark topics as kidnapping, sexual assault and bizarre familial relationships. Due to the nature of some stories, there are scenes that listeners may find disturbing. The grit of these realities will get in your eyes—and ears.
The World and All That It Holds
Bosnian American novelist Aleksandar Hemon’s The World and All That It Holds (11.5 hours) conjures up the personal odyssey of a Jewish man, Rafael Pinto, beginning with the shot that started World War I and led to his relationship with Osman, a Muslim soldier in his unit. The audiobook is performed in epic fashion by Bosnian actor Aleksandar Mikic, whose accents and syntax embody the many people Rafael meets as he journeys from Sarajevo to Shanghai in his quest to escape war and persecution. Quiet, poetic descriptions of his relationship with Osman are particularly striking. When the two men steal kisses from each other, Mikic’s timing and tone bring out the paradoxical balance of bleakness and brightness in life’s little moments.
Read our starred review of the print edition of The World and All That It Holds.
★ Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers
Chinese Indonesian author Jesse Q. Sutanto (Dial A for Aunties) serves up a sleuthing Chinese mother and her suspects in Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers (10.5 hours), a thoroughly charming murder mystery set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Vera Wong Zhuzhu is struggling to maintain a relationship with her uninvolved son and keep her teahouse afloat. She may be lonely, but she likes to watch the TV show “CSI” and—internet savvy as she is—frequently looks things up on “the Google.” All this comes in handy when she discovers a dead body in her teahouse, along with four murder suspects.
Eunice Wong, a Juilliard-trained Chinese Canadian voice actor, delivers a repertoire of delicious voices to celebrate the patchwork of cultures and personalities in this thoroughly moving, heartwarming story about finding friendship and creating family.