Amazing Audiobooks Announced by ALA's Listen List Council | The Reader's Shelf, June 2020

Each year, the American Library Association’s Listen List Council publishes a list of outstanding audiobooks. The eight librarian experts from this year’s council had many favorites, some of which didn’t make the final list. Below, council members share their top runners-up from the past year. 

Each year, the American Library Association’s Listen List Council publishes a list of outstanding audiobooks. The eight librarian experts from this year’s council had many favorites, some of which didn’t make the final list. Below, council members share their top runners-up from the past year. 

Diamond Doris: The True Story of the World’s Most Notorious Jewel Thief (HarperAudio. 2019. ISBN 9780062957603) by Doris Payne. After a few successful heists, Doris decided she “was done wiping old people’s butts for a living” and abandoned her nursing home job to become a jewel thief. Although her work isn’t to be admired, Payne herself is testament to surviving hard times and thriving. Narrator Robin Miles convincingly embodies the attitude that made Doris a success in her chosen profession. Listen-alike: For those who enjoy listening to strong, unapologetic women’s voices, try The Last Black Unicorn, written and narrated by Tiffany Haddish.

In Early Riser (Books on Tape. 2019. ISBN 9781984842558) Jasper Fforde imagines a comic dystopia where a skeleton crew of Winter Consuls stands guard as the rest of the Welsh population hibernates. Absurd perils—cannibalistic nightwalkers, English villains, and the mythical Gronk—stalk the countryside. Wales native Thomas Hunt narrates as rookie Consul Charlie, who blunders between these horrors and a chilling conspiracy during his first wakeful winter. With expert timing, a darkly amused deadpan narration, and quirky character voices, Hunt creates an engrossing listen. Listen-alike: If listeners want British comic-fantasy cops going after the powerful and corrupt, suggest Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, read by Stephen Briggs.

The talking animals in Kira Jane Buxton’s Hollow Kingdom (Hachette Audio. 2019. ISBN 9781549113482) are led by the whip-smart crow S.T., who knows that something is amiss when people start devouring one another. Narrator Robert Petkoff serves up perfect comedic timing in the various voices of the menagerie. Listen-alike: Listeners may be reminded of another oddly named pet, Stench Machine—the Persian cat in David Wong’s Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits, narrated by Christy Romano. Both narrators delight in voicing a similar coarseness, and their characters facetiously charge headfirst into the end of their world.  

Jacob Tobia was assigned male at birth, but “male” didn’t fit, and neither did “female.” Tobia’s memoir, Sissy (Books on Tape. 2019. ISBN 9781984840400), describes their gender journey from confused and uncertain to proudly gender nonconforming. Their story is both profoundly touching and occasionally hilarious, and their self-awareness will encourage others to embrace their whole selves, including the pieces that are difficult or complex. Tobia narrates the book, allowing listeners to hear the highs and lows of this wholly unique journey. Listen-alike: Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s Something That May Shock and Discredit You is another author-narrated coming-of-age memoir focused on gender (Ortberg is a trans man) that features a similar blend of funny and poignant moments.

Playwright Philip Kan Gotanda’s Sisters Matsumoto (L.A. Theatre Works. 2019. ISBN 9781682660850), recorded before a live audience, tells the story of three sisters returning to their California farm after long years spent in a Japanese internment camp. A full cast, including Keiko Agena, June Angela, Ron Bottitta, Kurt Kanazawa, Suzy Nakamura, Greg Watanabe, and Ryun Yu, reveals the strain that the years have wrought but shines a light on the family’s strength, humor, and courage as they face the difficulties that lie ahead. A panel discussion including actor George Takei rounds out the performance and reminds listeners of the lessons to be learned from this important chapter in American history. Listen-alike: Listeners looking to delve further into the uncomfortable history of race and culture in the United States should check out Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes, narrated by Vowell and an all-star cast. 

Part ghost story, part psychological thriller, Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key (S. & S. Audio. 2019. ISBN 9781508284123) is a reworking of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Nanny Rowan Caine has landed a dream job with an unbelievable salary, a fancy Scottish Highlands house, and a picture-perfect family. Narrator Imogen Church brilliantly conveys Rowan’s descent into hysteria as her dream turns into nightmare, complete with ghostly footsteps in the attic and a house that watches her every move. Church’s character voicing is a treat, including a range of evocative Scottish accents and remarkably authentic children’s voices; even her voice for “Happy,” the home’s digital assistant, is deliciously sinister in its cheerfulness. Listen-alike: For another twisty thriller featuring a woman unraveling as she is stalked by an unknown killer, check out Liv Constantine’s The Last Time I Saw You, narrated by Julia Whelan.


This column was contributed by Lauren Kage, NC; Chtista Van Herreweghe, Kirkwood P.L., MO; Sarah Hill, Lake Land Coll., IL; Nanette Donohue, Champaign P.L., IL; and Sarah Hashimoto, Jackson Dist. Lib., MI. Selections and annotations are in the order given; the last two are both by Hashimoto.

Neal Wyatt is LJ's readers' advisory columnist, contributing The Reader's Shelf, Book Pulse, and Wyatt's World columns. She is the coauthor of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, 3d ed. (ALA Editions, 2019). Contact her at

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