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3 audiobook insiders share which books they love the most right now

Emily Pike Stewart converted a van into a mobile recording studio for her podcast The Nomad Narrator, which
Emily Pike Stewart
The Nomad Narrator
Emily Pike Stewart converted a van into a mobile recording studio for her podcast The Nomad Narrator, where she travels around the U.S. to interview fellow audiobook narrators.

More than half of U.S. adults said that they’ve listened to an audiobook at some point. The industry is continuing to expand, and Up To Date’s panelists have a diverse range of recommendations for every listener’s needs.

Jennifer Dowell is the managing editor at AudioFile Magazine, where she’s worked for almost 25 years. She said that audiobook popularity has continued to grow because of how well recorded books fit into people’s lives.

Grammy and Audie Award winning audiobook creator Emily Pike Stewart is host of The Nomad Narrator podcast. She travels around the country to interview audiobook professionals. One of her interviewees for an upcoming episode is Kansas City audiobook narrator Andy Garcia.

Garcia was a mental health therapist for over a decade before she was forced to retire due to sustaining a traumatic brain injury in a car accident.

“When I was doing speech therapy and learning how to talk again, I would sit in my closet and read books to try to form those connections —like with my eyes, my brain, my mouth — to talk. It was instrumental in me learning how to talk again,” Garcia said. “After, I was like, ‘Well, what am I going to do with my life now?’ I was like, ‘Oh, audiobooks. I’ve always loved them.”

Jennifer Dowell’s Recommendations:

Birding With Benefits” by Sarah T. Dubb

Narrators Mia Hutchinson-Shaw and Evan Sibley are a winning team in this charming romance. Mom and teacher Celeste is trying to find herself again after a divorce; John is a woodworker hoping to get his idea for a bird-guiding business off the ground. She’s a complete newbie to birding, but Celeste agrees to be John’s partner in the 42-day Bird Binge competition—and to pose as his girlfriend, though neither is looking for a real relationship. Hutchinson-Shaw ably conveys Celeste’s bubbly, positive personality, undimmed even though her ex-husband complained that she was “too much.” Sibley captures John’s shy outward demeanor and thoughtful inner world. Attraction sparks as John and Celeste add birds to their list in the beautifully described Arizona wilderness. For listeners, it’s all a delight.

The Backyard Bird Chronicles” by Amy Tan

For a nonfiction take on birding, try novelist Amy Tan's new book, read by Tan, about her adventures birdwatching in her own backyard.

The Mars House” by Natasha Pulley

Listeners will find it hard to pause this sci-fi political thriller—and unlikely love story. January is a climate refugee who has relocated to a colony on Mars. In London, he was a professional ballet dancer; on Mars, because he’s dangerously “Earthstrong” in the lower gravity, he must wear a metal exoskeleton that inhibits his strength. With his British accent and confident delivery, Daniel de Bourg convincingly inhabits January’s point of view as he struggles with all he has lost and tries to make a new life. Then January crosses paths with Aubrey Gale, a wealthy and influential politician born on Mars. De Bourg’s naturalistic narration effortlessly propels the twisty plot and fascinating world-building and illuminates the wonders and dangers that January encounters. It’s all absolutely riveting.

"The Murderbot Diaries" by Martha Wells

This series is narrated by AudioFile Golden Voice Kevin R. Free. (First novella in the series: “All Systems Red.”) A rogue security unit saves humans when they get into bad situations but really just wants to watch its favorite dramas. Kevin R. Free brings so much sardonic wonderfulness to the audio versions.

"The Breakup Lists" by Adib Khorram

Amin El Gamal’s winning performance endears Deaf, queer protagonist Jackson Ghasnavi to listeners. Jackson loves being the stage manager for his high school’s theater department. When sweet, handsome Liam from the swim team gets the lead role in the musical, he and Jackson grow closer. The only problem? Jackson’s older sister, Jasmine, likes Liam, too. Jasmine has had a string of breakups; to help her get over her heartbreaks, Jackson makes “breakup lists,” cataloging her exes’ faults. In the print book, these lists and even Jackson’s inner dialogue are peppered with crossed-out words and phrases. In the audiobook, El Gamal speaks the struck-through words, says “scratch that” in a sheepish tone as Jackson self-edits, then continues. It’s a clever and effective adaptation for an audiobook that’s full of charm.

Emily Pike Stewart’s Recommendations:

Surrender” by Bono

This is my current favorite audiobook and also won this year’s Audie Award for Audiobook of the Year. Scott Sherratt and Bono did a masterful job of putting this piece together with the support of Dan Zitt and Penguin Random House Audio. I also understand Bono did not use a ghostwriter when writing this book and if that’s the case, wow – he is a remarkable storyteller and poet. The book and audio were also incorporated into a one-man stage show that Bono subsequently toured around the world and that I was lucky enough to see in the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the mother church of (country – but for a night, rock) music. In light of The Nomad Narrator, I particularly identified with the parts detailing Bono’s obsession over finding the right van for U2’s first tour!

Return to the Hundred Acre Wood” by David Benedictus

Recorded in 2009 by Jim Dale, narrator of the “Harry Potter” series who at one time held two Guinness World Records for his voiceover work, this book was the first Winnie the Pooh sequel in 80 years to be approved by the estate of AA Milne. I worked in the recording studio where it was made, and watching that session come together and listening to Jim was magical. This book will always hold a special place in my heart because it’s the first professional audiobook I ever worked on. I was the proofer.

The Nature of Disappearing” by Kimi Cunningham Grant

This book is unique in that – it’s not out yet! Pre-order is available on Audible now for its June 18th release. I’m sharing a sneak peek clip with Macmillan Audio’s permission. A suspense thriller set in the vast Idaho wilderness, loner guide and tracker Emlyn is forced to reunite with the man who broke her heart and left her half-dead in the woods, after the #vanlife social media starlet friend who’d introduced them years ago goes missing on one of her backcountry trips. I just finished narrating this book and still haven’t been able to shake it off – I really fell in love with Grant's ability to create such vast landscapes, both externally and within her characters. This story and the people in it really pulled me along from the first opening words all the way to the end.

The New Saints” by Lama Rod Owens

This is maybe the most beautiful book I’ve ever worked on. It made me feel like my soul was tumbling into a whirlpool and spinning, spinning, spinning until it came out the other side. A lush and lyrical memoir about social justice and spiritual liberation by Lama Rod Owens, a self-described “Black Buddhist Southern Queen.” After working together I was able to spend a day with Lama Rod touring his childhood hometown, meeting his mother who pastors her church, and visiting his ancestral family cemetery outside of Atlanta, Georgia, for an interview on The Nomad Narrator that will air later this year.

Uncultured” by Daniella Mestyanek Young

It’s been about two years since I met Daniella to direct her narration of this audiobook, and she’s not only become the most badass friend I’ve ever had but probably the fiercest person I’ve ever met on this planet. Raised in the Children of God religious cult, she escaped as a teenager, only to realize after climbing the ranks of intelligence in the U.S. Army that she was ultimately surrounded by many of the same problems in the military that she’d experienced growing up — and she wrote this memoir exploring that dichotomy that takes no prisoners on any front. Since publishing her book she’s gone on to graduate from Harvard with a masters in organizational psychology and now works as an author, speaker, and online content creator called the Group Behavior Gal.

Andy Garcia’s recommendations:

Disability Intimacy” by Alice Wong

I was honored to be cast as a part of this anthology. In the story "Unspooling" by Nicole Lee Schroeder, I was particularly moved. In this piece, the author uses imagery of weaving threads to illustrate life as a person with a disability. The specific disability, Ehlers-Danlos, is a rare medical condition that I too have. Thus, I was very connected to the text and I was able to bring these words a depth of emotion that can only come from a lived experience. This book holds a special place in my heart.

Peel my Love Like an Onion” by Ana Castillo

When I first prepped this book, I thought it was a non-fiction memoir—that's how well it's written! This book is one of my all-time favorite books, but it was also one of my hardest I've narrated. The beautiful literary writing style of the author required a deep literary analysis, which resulted in longer prep time, but yielded a more authentic result that conveys the author's intentions. Additionally, as the main character is also someone from the disability community, like myself, it was easy to immerse myself in her character and feel what she was feeling.

Mystery of the Six Crosses: The Explosion that Killed Six Kansas City Firefighters and the Case that Brought Their Killers to Justice” by David True

I'm so excited to start recording this book today (which I'll be narrating live on TikTok). This book presents a unique challenge as I feel a deep responsibility to do a good job on it, as it covers a huge case in Kansas City history that is still to this day surrounded by controversy and mystery, in addition to it being the last case of the author's career. I really want to do the author justice and create an engaging delivery of the story.

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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.
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