12 Immersive Audiobooks with a Strong Sense of Place

12 Immersive Audiobooks with a Strong Sense of Place

Tuesday, 30 March, 2021

When an audiobook combines the right narrator with your imagination, it’s like having an entire cast of a stage play perform inside your brain.

We are completely enamored of these twelve novels in print for their ability to transport us to destinations around the world — in the company of relatable (and compelling) characters in service of plots that move, surprise, challenge, and entertain us.

The narrators of these audiobooks — storytellers of the highest order — give a fresh voice to the people who populate the pages, bringing the whole production to life with sound effects, music, accents, and dynamic acting.

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The Shadow Land — Bulgaria

Written by Elizabeth Kostova, narrated by Barrie Kreinik.

The Shadow Land
> Elizabeth Kostova

When our heroine, twenty-something American Alexandra Boyd, travels to Sophia, she’s running away from her life rather than seeking new adventures. But adventure finds her.

A chance encounter with a family on the steps of a hotel embroils her in a decades-old mystery, placing her at the center of a story that involves music, art, world wars, corruption, and the many forms of love.

When we meet Alex, she’s jet-lagged, disoriented, and has just been dropped off by a cab at the wrong hotel. Then she literally bumps into a Bulgarian family and, after an awkward interaction, helps them into the taxi. As she watches them drive away, she realizes she’s accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside is a wooden box engraved with the name Stoyan Lazarov, and it holds an urn that contains human ashes.

On the trail of clues about the identity of the Lazarov family, Alex travels through the countryside, visiting ancient monasteries and exploring small villages trapped in time. But it’s not all travelogue descriptions and soft sunshine. This is a tightly-plotted suspense thriller with tense chase scenes, legitimate danger, well-motivated villains, and a collection of regular people who prove themselves to be remarkable heroes.

With accented English, distinctive character voices, and pitch-perfect pacing, the narration by actor and singer Barrie Kreinik makes this one of our favorite audiobooks of all time. {more}

I have often thought that the terrible thing in communism was not just that we turned against each other. It was that we turned away from each other. — Elizabeth Kostova

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore — California, New York

Written by Robin Sloan, narrated by Ari Fliakos.

This is an exuberant story of a secret society, code-breaking, friendship, young love, new technology, and, perhaps, the secret to eternal life — all told through the people that circulate through an unconventional bookshop in San Francisco.

First, let’s address the obvious: Can someone please create a 24-hour bookstore? An enchanted bookshop that never closes would be the best thing ever.

Less enamored of this 24/7 idea but in dire financial straits is our hero Clay, a victim of San Francisco’s tech implosion. He somewhat reluctantly takes a job in the bookstore of the title to lick his career wounds and begin to rebuild his life.

But it’s not long before he realizes there’s something unusual going on in the stacks of the shop. Kindly Mr. Penumbra has been keeping troubling and potentially lethal secrets. When he disappears, it’s up to Clay to figure out just what the devil is going on.

Author Robin Sloan’s prose captures the energy of both San Francisco and New York City, as well as the sinister allure of the offbeat bookshop. And narrator Ari Fliakos — Audible’s narrator of the year for 2017 — imbues Clay with just the right tone of optimism and anxiety. His flexible, energetic voice acting gives life to all of the characters; Mr. Penumbra, in particular, is equal parts charm and mystery. {more}

Let me be candid. If I had to rank book-acquisition experiences in order of comfort, ease, and satisfaction, the list would go like this: 1. The perfect independent bookstore, like Pygmalion in Berkeley. 2. A big, bright Barnes & Noble. I know they’re corporate, but let’s face it — those stores are nice. Especially the ones with big couches. 3. The book aisle at Walmart. (It’s next to the potting soil.) 4. The lending library aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia, a nuclear submarine deep beneath the surface of the Pacific. 5. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. — Robin Sloan

A Room with a View — Italy, England

Written by E.M. Forster, narrated by Rebecca Hall.

A Room with a View
> E. M. Forster

By turns moving, funny, and biting, this coming-of-age story travels from sun-dappled Florence and the Italian countryside to rolling green lawns of Surrey in Edwardian England.

The story opens in the Pension Bertolini in Florence, an inn for traveling English gentlefolk. We meet Miss Charlotte Bartlett — chaperone, stifled, judgmental, lonely — and Miss Lucy Honeychurch, her niece, on a trip abroad for finishing. The inn and their rooms — significantly, without a view — are a disappointment to both Charlotte and Lucy.

Despite Lucy’s intentions to be good — that is, to be quiet and humble and respectable — our heroine is almost always in a muddle. She lives a tidy, ordered existence, but she’s naturally curious and, deep down, wants to fight against a society that labels overt kindness as indelicate. But nothing — not a scrape with death, nor a stolen kiss in a field of wildflowers on an outing to an Italian village — gives Lucy the courage she needs to defy convention. But books are powerful things, and the chance reading of a passage in a scandalous novel jolts Lucy out of her muddle. What she does next beautifully unbalances her and everyone around her in the best way possible.

This audiobook is narrated by British actress Rebecca Hall — Frost/Nixon, The Town, Iron Man 3, The Prestige — with impeccable timing, great feeling, and a perfect touch of wry humor. {more}

It was pleasant to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room, with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not; with a painted ceiling whereon pink griffins and blue amorini sport in a forest of yellow violins and bassoons. It was pleasant, too, to fling wide the windows, pinching the fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and, close below, Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road. — E. M. Forster

The Pull of the Stars — 1918 Ireland

Written by Emma Donoghue, narrated by Emma Lowe.

The Pull of the Stars
> Emma Donoghue

Almost all of the action in this historical novel takes place in one room over three days: a hospital ward for pregnant women afflicted with the Spanish flu in 1918 Dublin.

Through our heroine Julia, a capable and kind nurse, we’re dropped into the day-to-day grind of the frontline workers in an overwhelmed city hospital. She becomes almost the sole contact for women who are scared and suffering. They’re mostly poor and young and all ill with the flu. One is beaten by her husband. Another is unwed.

Julia is joined on the ward by two other remarkable women. Bridie, an orphan who grew up in a convent, surviving beatings and deprivation to become a curious young woman with indomitable optimism. And Dr. Kathleen Lynn, who was a real-life rabble-rouser in turn-of-the-century Ireland. A suffragette, a member of Sinn Fein, and an activist devoted to social justice. In the novel, she works tirelessly to save the women in her care; in real life, she opened the first children’s hospital in Ireland.

This is historical fiction that reads like a thriller with a page-turning plot that hinges on both quiet moments and heroic feats pulled off by medics willing to put themselves in harm’s way for their patients.

With a no-nonsense but kind inflection — and a lovely Irish accent — narrator Emma Lowe imbues Julia with just the right tone of determination and self-doubt; her Julia is warm and steely at the same time. Lowe’s dynamic voice acting also brings Bridie, Dr. Lynn, and the women of the ward to vibrant life. {more}

I gazed up at the sky and let my eyes flicker from one constellation to another, to another, jumping between stepping stones. I thought of the heavenly bodies throwing down their narrow ropes to hook us. I’ve never believed the future was inscribed for each of us the day we were born. If anything were written in the stars, it was we who joined those dots, and our lives were the writing. — Emma Donoghue

Convenience Store Woman — Japan

Written by Sayaka Murata, narrated by Nancy Wu.

Convenience Store Woman
> Sayaka Murata

This weird and wonderful novel focuses on the microcosm of a Japanese convenience store and expands it into the entire world of our heroine, Keiko. She’s 36 years old, she’s never had a boyfriend, and the convenience store is her safe place.

Keiko’s entire life revolves around the store where she’s worked for 18 years. She finds solace in the repeating rows of products and the routine of her work shift. She takes pride in re-stocking the shelves just so. She cheerfully greets each customer with a perfect cadence, just as she was instructed in her training video.

Her friends and family — a devastatingly normal sister, snarky friends, ambitious co-workers — don’t understand her: Why she doesn’t crave a more respectable job? A husband? Babies? In her own way, Keiko makes sense; her world is compact but complete. Then a new employee invades her life and upsets her equilibrium in ways that she — and we — could never have anticipated.

Read by Nancy Wu, award-winning voice actor and narrator, this audiobook is a delightful way to be pulled into the story. Wu’s voicing of Keiko’s first-person narrative is very expressive, and the way she plays Keiko’s judgy friends is hilariously biting. {more}

I love this moment. It feels like morning itself is being loaded into me. The tinkle of the door chime as a customer comes in sounds like church bells to my ears. When I open the door, the brightly lit box awaits me — a dependable, normal world that keeps turning. I have faith in the world inside the light-filled box. — Sayaka Murata

Celine — Montana, Wyoming

Written by Peter Heller, narrated by Kimberly Farr.

Celine
> Peter Heller

Our heroine Celine defies every expectation of the private eye, and we dare you to not be entirely infatuated by her. Elegant, aristocratic, and a woman of a certain age, she’s also an outsider artist, wildly empathetic, skilled in surprising ways, and ridiculously good at her job of reuniting damaged families.

But she’s not the only remarkable woman in this story.

There’s also Gabriela, a young woman with a Past and Baggage, who needs Celine’s help. Decades ago — after a gut-wrenching family tragedy — her father went missing under suspicious circumstances on the Wyoming-Montana border. To move on with her life, Gabriela needs answers, and she pleads with Celine to take on the cold case. Soon the PI is on an epic (and dangerous) road trip west to unravel the mystery and bring her client peace.

This story was inspired by the author’s own mother, and his descriptions of the breathtaking and brutal scenery, as well as the characters’ internal landscapes, will transport you into their reality. But it’s not all atmosphere. This is a page-turner with taut suspense and action-packed set pieces that demonstrate Celine is a force as powerful as the mountain wind.

The audiobook is narrated by Kimberly Farr. Her voice — warm, wry, wise, with a bell-like timbre — will transport you straight into the story. You’ll see Celine and Gabriela, the mountainous scenery, the car chases, and the gunfights played out through your ears and into your mind’s eye. {more}

The leaves stuck to the windshield, and they drove with the windows open and the smell of sage and grass pouring in with the cold. They saw a grizzly bear running flat out across a meadow. He was huge and humped and he more flowed than ran, and the long sun rippled over his sleek fur like water and changed his colors. He stopped at the edge of the spruce and began digging…. They drove over a wooded rise and when they came out of the spruce they could see a hundred bison grazing in grass in a bow of the river and white trumpeter swans on the slate-blue water. — Peter Heller

Spitfire — 1946 Paris

Written by M.L. Huie, narrated by Justine Eyre.

Spitfire
> M.L. Huie

Olivia’ Livy’ Nash has been unsettled for a year, alive but not really living. Her days are spent proofreading an inane lady’s column for a newspaper, and she wiles away her nights with just a bottle of off-brand vodka for company. Then Ian Fleming walks into her life.

Livy spent the war fighting in the resistance. It gave her purpose and the love of her life — until betrayal left her with nothing except a hardened heart. Now she’s alone and jaded, left behind by the more respectable war heroes and doomed to return to a life of… what? A single woman in a world that wants her to return to her pre-war, lady-like position of looking pretty and doing as she’s told.

Ian Fleming, would-be publisher, buys her a drink and throws her a lifeline: He offers her a job as a foreign correspondent. But Livy soon realizes that typing stories is not what he has in mind for her. Fleming is recruiting an espionage unit to fight ‘the next war’ which ‘began before the last even ended.’ He sends Livy to Paris on a mission to track down a traitor and, perhaps, find the fierce version of herself that she lost.

The plot is rife with double-crosses, intrigue, action-packed set pieces, and the wry humor of agents, veterans, diplomats, and government officials. Through it all, there’s Livy, mouthy, distrustful, slightly broken, but determined.

The audiobook is narrated by Justine Eyre with voice acting and accents that give Livy an ideal combination of self-doubt and grit. Her voicing of the men in the story is an equally affecting combination of bluster, warmth, and gravel. {more}

Tonight at the French Embassy, there’s a soiree, and you are cordially invited… I trust you’ll keep that Lancashire sass under wraps. You enter the party as Mademoiselle Bélanger and you leave the party as the same. It’s a simple assignment. Maintain your cover at all costs. Like falling off a log for you, darling. Oh, and you’ll be receiving microfilm from an operative at the party. Only trouble is, we’ve no idea who it is. — M.L. Huie

Growing Up in Coal Country — Northeastern Pennsylvania

Written by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, narrated by Suzanne Toren.

Growing Up in Coal Country
> Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Inspired by the stories her inlaws told her around the dinner table, Susan Campbell Bartoletti mined the riches of newspapers, magazines, mining records, crumbling photographs, and interviews to tell the story of 19th-century coal miners in northeastern Pennsylvania.

As you probably expect, working in the coal mines was brutal, back-breaking, and frequently lethal work. Most of the people doing it were newly-arrived immigrant men and their children. Their days began in the early dark of the morning, continued through the darkness of the mine shafts, and ended with the dark of exhaustion and dinner, only to fall into bed and do it again the next day.

There are stories of children marrying at 13 and having their first child just a year later. Boys were encouraged to chew tobacco at work to prevent coal dust from going down their throats.

But this book is not meant to be a horror story nor a cautionary tale. It’s an invitation to empathy and bravery. And it’s not all grim. There are also tales of children sabotaging equipment so they can go to the circus, and communicating with their own sign language, hands fluttering like birds to share adventures from life above ground.

Hearing this account in the audio version is very moving; Suzanne Toren’s narration is spellbinding. It’s a particularly rewarding experience to listen to the audio while looking at the photos in the print version. {more}

In coal country, the workdays began before dawn. A thin icy blast from the breaker whistle roused sleeping children from the beds that they shared with their brothers and sisters. They ran downstairs to warm up by the kitchen coal stove. Their mother was busy stocking the coal, making breakfast, and packing tin lunch pails. Father and sons ate quickly, then got ready for work. The men dressed in coveralls and rubber boots. The boys pulled on caps and overcoats and laced up hobnailed boots. They grabbed their lunch pails and headed down the dark streets leading to the mines. — Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Long Bright River — Philadelphia

Written by Liz Moore, narrated by Allyson Ryan.

Long Bright River
> Liz Moore

You could describe this remarkable novel as a crime story, but that would discount how it weaves a rich story of sibling love and rivalry into the structure of the police procedural.

Most of the action takes place in Kensington, Philadelphia. Once a working-class neighborhood centered around family, it’s been mostly abandoned to squatters in empty rowhouses, chasing their addiction to heroin.

And that’s where we meet two women, bonded by blood and separated by circumstance. Mickey Fitzpatrick is a 30-something patrol officer in the Philadelphia Police Department; her younger sister Kacey is a sex worker who supports her heroin habit by turning tricks. They haven’t spoken in far too long, but then a string of murders occur in Mickey’s beat, and Kacey is nowhere to be found. Mickey worries that the next body she discovers will be her sister. So she vows to find Mickey and figure out who’s killing these women.

It’s a standard find-the-bad-guy quest, except it’s not. Because Mickey and Kacey have a long history of blurred lines of responsibility, guilt, loyalty, and envy. The story is slowly revealed through Mickey’s narration, and her flashbacks show us the paths both women took to arrive where they are now.

This is a deep dive into issues of trust and loyalty, and it highlights how the determination to change your life might mean leaving others behind. It’s also a timely look at how painful it is to work hard and still be poor and how harshly the world judges people without resources.

Narrator Allyson Ryan is an East Coast native and winner of an AudioFile magazine Earphones Award for her narration work. She delivers Mickey’s first-person narration with raw emotion — anguish, hope, fear, love — while also getting the Philly attitude just right. It’s moving and exhilarating and will make you miss Mickey when the story is over. {more}

Some people do have trouble with Kensington, but to me, the neighborhood itself has become like a relative, slightly problematic but dear in the old-fashioned way that that word is sometimes used, treasured, valuable to me. — Liz Moore

Dracula — Romania, Hungary, England

Written by Bram Stoker, narrated by Alan Cumming, Tim Curry, Simon Vance, Katherine Kellgren, Susan Duerden, John Lee, Graeme Malcolm, and Steven Crossley.

Dracula
> Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the OG vampire. He’s intelligent, cunning, polished, and entirely terrifying — the perfect foil for the pure-hearted team hell-bent on his demise.

The names Jonathan and Mina Harker, Lucy Westenra, Dr. Seward, and Van Helsing are firmly ensconced in pop culture. Their letters and diary entries, as well as newspaper articles and even a ship’s log, disclose the haunting story of the original bloodsucker.

The story is a classic hero’s quest: Jonathan, a young solicitor eager to prove himself and marry his true love, journeys to an isolated castle in Romania to meet his client, the mysterious Count Dracula. Despite the Count’s cordial welcome, Jonathan is beleaguered by a sense of creeping dread, and his instincts are correct. He’s soon fleeing for his life and fighting to protect his friends.

If you’ve never read (or listened to) the 1897 novel that started it all, we emphatically urge you to rectify that situation immediately. The Gothic plot moves at an action-movie pace, but it’s not all frantic carriage rides and stakes through the heart. There are moments of palpable emotion, and by the end, you realize this story about a monster was a tale of devoted friendship all along.

Narrated by 13 actors, this production is powerful, haunting, and heartbreaking. No cheesy creaking doors or shrill screams here; it’s all sneaking horror, subtle sound effects, and affecting characterization that transports you directly to a Transylvanian castle and the dramatic shores of Whitby. {more}

We are in Transylvania, and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things. Nay, from what you have told me of your experiences already, you know something of what strange things there may be. — Bram Stoker

Deathless — Russia

Written by Catherynne M. Valente, narrated by Kim De Blecourt.

Deathless
> Catherynne M. Valente

European fairytales are populated by wicked witches and evil giants. But Russian folklore has Koschei the Deathless, an immortal man — as elegant as he is evil — who woos and destroys young women.

This imaginative retelling of the legend sets the tale against the dramatic events of the 20th-century: the Russian Revolution, Stalinism, the siege of Leningrad, and the rise of modern communism. But that authentic history is sprinkled liberally with magic dust.

As we grow to care about our heroine Marya, we also meet bewitched birds that turn into men, house gnomes known as domovoy, a guardian of the forest named Leshi, the beautiful fairy Vila, and Baba Yaga herself. Desperate for a life filled with romance, Marya trades the reality she knows for the promise of Koschei’s kiss, and she pays a very high price.

This audiobook, narrated by voice actor Kim de Blecourt, sweeps you directly into the story. The characters live and breathe in your ears with accents and voices that differentiate themselves, and the Russian names roll off her tongue like tart-sweet lemon drops. {more}

Just you wait. Papa Koschei is coming, coming, coming, over the hills on his red horse and he’s got bells on his boots and a ring in his pocket and he knows your name, Marya Morevna. — Catherynne M. Valente

Less: A Novel — San Francisco, Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, India, Japan

Writtey by Andrew Sean Greer, narrated by Robert Petkoff.

Less
> Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less is a working writer who’s yet to pen a best-seller. He’s gay, almost 50, and his ex-lover is about to get married. There’s only one reasonable thing to do: take off on a trip around the world.

What Arthur doesn’t expect, however, is that his far-flung adventures will be the key to finding his way home.

Our hero’s escapist trip takes him to a series of increasingly dubious writing events around the globe: from San Francisco to Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, India, Japan, and back to the city by the bay. He’s no smooth operator, and his escapades include falling in love and out of windows, weathering a desert sandstorm, and being judged by a group of precocious high school students.

Everywhere he goes, Arthur inadvertently charms the people he meets, and, eventually, he learns how to love himself. While the prose of this sweet, wistful, funny, life-affirming novel is light and sparkly, it’s equally intelligent and is emotionally, unerringly true.

Narrator Robert Petkoff is an American stage actor known for his work in productions of Shakespeare, and he gives voice to the humor of Arthur Less’s experiences. Alternately poignant, wry, charming, and clueless, his Arthus is sometimes frustrating and always irresistible. {more}

He kisses — how do I explain it? Like someone in love. Like he has nothing to lose. Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can use only the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you. There are some men who have never been kissed like that. There are some men who discover, after Arthur Less, that they never will be again. — Andrew Sean Greer

Do you have a favorite audiobook with a strong sense of place?

Top image courtesy of Ross Sneddon/Unsplash.

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