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June is audiobook appreciation month. Here's what our panel of book enthusiasts recommend

Giant spines of books appear to be sitting on a lawn. They form the exterior of a building. Leafy trees frame the top of the image.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
June is audiobook appreciation month.

As a KCUR caller points out, our first experience with books is often when they're read to us by an adult. So yes, audiobooks count as reading. Our collection of book enthusiasts discuss the makings of a good audiobook and what they recommend listening to.

You don't have to lift a finger to get in some quality time with a quality book these days. Audiobooks have become increasingly popular, allowing people to multi-task while enjoying a good story. Some people question whether an audiobook counts as reading, but our book enthusiasts all gave a resounding "yes!"

"Listening ties you to the text in a way that reading does not," said Kaite Stover, director of readers' services at the Kansas City Public Library.

The key to a good audiobook is — of course — the narration. Some authors choose to narrate their own books, which can make sense with a memoir, but when you get into other genres, "we have to leave this to the professional actors and narrators who do an amazing job with that storytelling," said Robin Whitten, founder and editor of Audiofile Magazine.

KCUR's Up To Date asked Kansas City Public Library director of readers' services Kaite Stover; BLK + BRWN bookstore owner Cori Smith and the founder and editor of Audiofile Magazine Robin Whitten what audiobooks they suggest.

Kaite Stover's recommendations
"The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder" by David Grann. True Crime.

Multiple award-winning narrator Dion Graham uses distinct voices for each character and deliberate pacing to draw out the suspense in this maritime adventure. Grann is the author of "Killers of the Flower Moon," and readers looking for more historical true crime will not be disappointed. In a six month span, two parties of shipwrecked sailors are rescued and each has a very different story to tell about the circumstances that led to their tragedy. An investigation into what happened on The Wager resulted in charges of mutiny or desertion and the death penalty for one of them. Think Patrick O’Brian combining Survivor with Robinson Crusoe.

"Lincoln in the Bardo" by George Saunders. Novel.

Using 166 voices (from comedians to Academy Award winners to the author, his family members and school teachers) this audiobook is a tour de force of narration and editing. The time and setting are grim: a cemetery the day after President Lincoln buries his young son. The myriad ghostly characters who gather around the new arrival exhibit all the personality traits and quirks of their lives aboveground. This book is their collective story. 

"The Last Cuentista" by Donna Barba Higuera. Science fiction.

A Pura Belpre Honor book that will appeal to all ages. Great for road trips. A blend of science fiction, coming-of-age, dystopia and thriller. Narrator Frankie Corzo distinctly voices all the characters and maintains a lively pace. Petra Pena left the nearly destroyed Earth with hundreds of other scientists and their families to start a new colony. One hundred years later, Petra awakens on the new planet in a newly formed society to discover she is the only one who remembers Earth and the life before. A sinister Collective has taken over the new planet and they are determined to remove any memory of humans. 

Cori Smith's recommendations
"Chain-Gang All-Stars" by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Novel.

Think Hunger Games, prison edition. The two coldest "fighters" are two Black queer women who share links on the same chain-gang and a romance (hubba hubba) who must continue to fight to protect themselves, their status and their journey to freedom. This book gut-punches you with emotion and shares so much perspective around prison culture providing national entertainment. Adjei-Brenyah included so many gems about the prison industrial complex, including referencing real cases and statistics that impact people who are incarcerated and those around them. The author uses the fighters, the corrections officers, the game makers, the crazed fans who tune into each death match and those who protest the games outside the gates to challenge and demonstrate the overall cost of these types of solutions.

"Juliet Takes a Breath" by Gabby Rivera. Novel.

A Puerto Rican from the Bronx who self-identifies as a dyke gets an internship with a feminist author and begins to come into her own and realize what it means to be a feminist, but also recognizes the difference of being a brown person and a queer person as it relates to feminism. "The book just feels like a conversation," Smith said.

"The Thing About Home" by Rhonda Knight. Romance Novel.

Casey Black gets left at the altar and a viral video brings the social media influencer a new round of unwanted fame. As her seven-year marriage comes to an end, she ditches her life in New York searching for answers to her past and finds herself on a farm in South Carolina full of history and her great-grandmother's journals. It's there that Casey discovers a home and a great new love story — if she's willing to accept it.

Robin Whitten's recommendations
"Finding Me" by Viola Davis. Memoir.

Actor Viola Davis doesn't mince words. Her audiobook captures the voice of a woman with a fascinating, heartbreaking lived experience. Davis's performance here is essentially a one-woman show, bringing listeners in close from the first moments. While she was growing up in a condemned property, her family struggled with poverty. But her hard work and talent brought her to the Juilliard School. Davis describes how her true artistic connection came when she traveled to Africa. She's clear about how her focus on acting — not stardom — has guided her throughout her career, and how success in the arts has a lot to do with luck. Davis is the consummate actor and storyteller, perfect for the audiobook medium. Her voice is vulnerable yet strong. The result is electric.

"Gentleman of Jazz: A Life in Music" by Ramsey Lewis and Aaron Cohen. Biography.

Dion Graham’s brisk pacing works well to invite listeners into the energetic life and career of jazz icon Ramsey Lewis. Delivering Aaron Cohen’s foreword, Graham’s tone is reverential, and he also brings Lewis’s own first-person chapters to life. Graham’s deftly modulated performance celebrates the musician’s remarkable story and long career without fawning or overselling. After taking classical piano lessons as a youngster in 1930s Chicago, Lewis became well-known in jazz but also worked in other genres, including classical. In 1965, he won a Grammy for Best Jazz Performance. The beloved music legend and family man died in 2022. This audiobook defines an important American musician who made major contributions to twentieth-century jazz.

"All the Sinners Bleed" by S.A. Cosby. Suspense.

Narrator Adam Lazarre-White draws listeners into the thought-provoking story of Titus Crowne, the first Black sheriff in the small Virginia county of Charon. As listeners enter Titus’s world, he is faced with a shooter at the high school, a neo-Confederate group on the march and a serial killer terrifying the town. Lazarre-White masterfully portrays people of multiple races, old and young. He also delivers Cosby’s reflections on family, grief, and faith with genuine introspection and without distracting from the tense plotlines. When the final battle between good and evil leaves Titus‘s larynx damaged, Lazarre-White seamlessly conveys the changed man’s new voice. This is a gripping, timely tale, beautifully told. Lazarre-White’s thoughtful performance helps listeners appreciate Cosby’s beautiful writing.

"Winnie-the-Pooh" by A.A. Milne. Children.

Children of all ages love the classic and iconic character Winnie-the-Pooh in many forms, and here is a fully engaging audiobook. Framed as a father telling Christopher Robin and his friend Winnie-the-Pooh stories about their adventures, the stories introduce listeners to Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Rabbit, Kanga and Roo. Young children will giggle at Winnie-the-Pooh’s love of honey, the search for Eeyore’s tail, the hunt for a Woozle and other fun times in the Hundred Acre Wood. Beautifully narrated by Barbara Rosenblat, this collection of short stories will linger in the hearts and minds of all listeners. She masterfully delights in and embodies wonder, innocence and imagination. Rosenblat’s tender performance is paced perfectly for young children as they sit cross-legged on the floor or curl up next to their loved ones at bedtime. Older children can read along with a print edition.

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When I host Up To Date each morning at 9, my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. Reach me at steve@kcur.org or on Twitter @stevekraske.
As a producer for Up To Date, my goal is to inform our audience by curating interesting and important conversations with reliable sources and individuals directly affected by a topic or issue. I strive for our program to be a place that hosts impactful conversations, providing our audience with greater knowledge, intrigue, compassion and entertainment. Contact me at elizabeth@kcur.org or on Twitter at @er_bentley_ruiz.
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