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What qualities make an audiobook good?


Sometimes what you need isn't to read a good book; it's to listen to one.


SHAUN TAYLOR-CORBETT: What had it been like, sitting there while the buffalo flowed down through the air within arm's reach, bellowing, their legs probably stiff because they didn't know for sure when the ground was coming? What had it felt like bringing meat to the whole tribe?

RASCOE: That's Shaun Taylor-Corbett, the narrator of Stephen Graham Jones' thriller "Only The Good Indians" (ph). According to my next guest, it's a really good audio book. She's listened to a lot of them. Kendra Winchester is a contributing editor for Book Riot, where she writes about audiobooks, and she joins us now from Hilton Head, S.C.

Kendra, good morning.

KENDRA WINCHESTER: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So first of all, tell us a little bit more about what we just heard. What makes "Only The Good Indians," in your view, a good listen in addition to being, presumably, a good book?

WINCHESTER: "The Only Good Indians" is an excellent audiobook because Shaun Taylor-Corbett captures the tense atmosphere of a thriller. You have these young men who have killed this elk, and according their customs, they are supposed to treat it in a certain way, and they don't. And a little while later, these men start being killed, and it's this whole mystery. There's drama and horror. And I normally am not a horror novel person, but Stephen Graham Jones has definitely made me one now.

RASCOE: OK, see, what - now, you know, I'm a horror person, so (laughter) I really need to check this out. I mean, I had always heard from - my uncle is a really big fan of audiobooks, right? But he is always very clear that you have to have a good narrator, and if you don't, the book will be horrible. So what makes for a good narrator of these books? Like, what makes someone stand out?

WINCHESTER: Well, like I mentioned with Shaun Taylor-Corbett, the narrator has to capture the atmosphere of the book. So whether it's a romance, a horror novel, a children's book, they have to set the right tone. And then they perform it, so it's like a one-person show performing this text. And it all depends on their voice and their ability to communicate what the characters are feeling.

RASCOE: What about when authors read their own work? What has been your experience with that?

WINCHESTER: Oh, it is the most amazing magic that I have ever heard. And Ashley C. Ford, for example, reads her memoir, "Somebody's Daughter," and there's this little moment where she talks about her mom, and she does, like, her mom voice for her mom. It's really special the way that she does it.

RASCOE: And we have a clip of it. It's her talking about her mother but not actually doing the mom voice.


ASHLEY C FORD: When she said that thing to me, that I could always come home, part of me wanted to reply, mama, I love you, but I'll work myself past the white meat down to the bone and fist fight every stranger I run across on the street before we live under the same roof again.

RASCOE: I mean, you can hear the personality in that, right?

WINCHESTER: Yes. And you also hear the deep layer of emotion. Just with the way that she performed the words, you know a lot about that relationship really quickly.

FORD: Yeah. What are some other memoirs that are really well-done when they're read by the author that you think the audience might be interested in?

WINCHESTER: Well, I really like "Sissy" by Jacob Tobia. They talk about being assigned male at birth and then eventually discovering that they are nonbinary. And there's a lot of really deep stuff in this book. There's a lot of emotion. But the way that Jacob Tobia performs their audiobook is so funny.


JACOB TOBIA: Some days when I look in the mirror, I feel like I'm the spitting image of my grandmother, except that she was 5'3", and I'm 5'13", and I'm significantly hairier than she was. Also, my grandmother probably wouldn't have worn a leather dog collar as an accessory. But other than those things, we're basically the same person.

RASCOE: So Jacob Tobia - what's another author who really spoke to you through their memoir audiobook?

WINCHESTER: I have to tell you about "Nanette." I am a huge Hannah Gadsby fan. And I had this book preordered. I had the audiobook ready to go. And as soon as it got into my hot little hands on my phone app, I was listening to that. And I listened to the whole memoir in probably 24 hours. The way that Hannah Gadsby - as we know, she is a comedian, and she had the comedy special called "Nanette," and now she's here with her memoir, "Ten Steps To Nanette: A Memoir Situation."


HANNAH GADSBY: "Nanette" was dropped into the stream smack bang in the middle of the #MeToo movement, which is the only time to release a comedy show which includes a story about a violent assault followed by 10-minute screed calling [expletive] on the patriarchy. But that's why I'm such a great comedian - because comedy is, after all, all about timing.

RASCOE: (Laughter) And audiobooks too. So she hit that timing right on the head. And I know there is another book that you wanted to mention that has a bit of a surprise to it, right?

WINCHESTER: Yes. So I picked up Brandi Carlile's memoir, "Broken Horses." And this memoir is very special because Brandi Carlile performs music for the audiobook. So she'll read the chapter, and at the end of each chapter, she has a song. And maybe it's a song she wrote when she was a kid, or maybe she's talking about how some of her most famous songs came to be, and she will perform that song in studio when she's recording the audiobook. And it creates this very special atmosphere. And this book has now become the memoir by which I judge all musician memoirs at this point. It's so good.


BRANDI CARLILE: (Singing) I'll sing my sad song beneath the purple sky.

RASCOE: So those are some very good suggestions. Kendra, for people who are listening to this but have not listened to an audiobook in a while or have not considered reading in this way, what do you think they need to keep in mind before they hit play on that audiobook?

WINCHESTER: Well, how it often works for people is, if you love books, you usually can read pretty fast as you build up your reading comprehension over the course of time. You have to do something similar with audiobooks. So I encourage people to start with maybe a book that they read in print before or maybe a children's book. And so the key is that, if your attention wanders, then if you've already read it, you won't get lost. But "The Only Good Indians" or something very character-driven, something that's very funny, like some of these memoirs, is often a great place to start.

RASCOE: That's Kendra Winchester, contributing editor for Book Riot. Kendra, thank you so much.

WINCHESTER: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.