5 Small Press Audiobooks To Give As Gifts This Year
From Two Dollar Radio to the University of Texas Press
For book lovers, Small Business Saturday means a trip to the local independent bookstore, many of which invite local authors to hang out and make recommendations. If you’re an audiobook lover you can still support small businesses, and I don’t mean purchasing your audiobooks on compact disc. Ask your local indie if they’ve partnered with a digital audiobook seller that gives a portion of sales to the store.
And whether you’re an audiobook reader or a lover of print, you can also support small businesses by purchasing titles published by small presses. One of the recent developments in audiobooks, as I detailed in May, has been the growing number of small-press titles available in audio. This month I recommend five new audiobooks from small, independent, or university presses you can ask someone to give you as a gift.
The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter
Narrated by Chloe Cannon · Two Dollar Radio/Tantor Audio
4 hours and 59 minutes
Since 2005, Two Dollar Radio has been publishing literary fiction too edgy, experimental, or out-there for big presses. One of their latest, the charmingly weird, deeply moving The Book of X, follows a girl named Cassie who is born in a literal knot. From her childhood on the family’s meat quarry through adulthood in the company of toxic men, Cassie’s problems evolve without really changing.
If The Book of X sounds strange in summary, the story and characters are as accessible as most mainstream fiction. From the metallic scent of meat being harvested to the visceral pain of corrective surgeries, author Sarah Rose Etter grounds every peculiar experience in sensory detail. The alternating hope and disappointment of Cassie’s teenage years will resonate with anyone who survived high school. At its heart, Etter’s is a coming-of-age novel about difference, the female body, and the male gaze, but the author’s surreal imagination and laser-precise prose make for an indelible read.
Audiobook narrator Chloe Cannon does an impressive job of conveying Cassie’s emotional depth. Just as skillful—and important for a tonally inventive novel—is how thoroughly Cannon balances the book’s emotions alongside its oddities. Part of this is her voice work, which locates the essence of characters in dialogue. It’s also how well she reveals Cassie’s disorientation without disorienting the reader.
“I wait for the world to change around me,” Etter writes after Cassie’s final surgery. “I search for a hole where a new life could begin. I look for clues on the sidewalk, in the patterns of the clouds, in the trash cans of the neighbors, in a pile of my hair swept from the floor.”
The Book of X is the kind of novel one wouldn’t have found in audio just a few years ago. Thanks to publishers like Tantor, audiobook readers don’t have to search hard for innovative fiction. Recorded Books, owner of Tantor and HighBridge and the pioneer of unabridged books on tape, publishes the lion’s share of audiobooks not produced in-house by big publishers. By going where big houses can’t, Recorded Books is doing for audio what small presses have been doing for print. Booming audiobook sales haven’t caused print sales to drop, suggesting the audience for these unique titles will continue to grow.
If the Ice Had Held by Wendy J. Fox
Narrated by Sarah Mollo-Christensen · Santa Fe Writer’s Project/HighBridge Audio
7 hours and 30 minutes
The titular ice of Wendy J. Fox’s intricate, richly drawn novel lies beneath a teenage boy who would have become a father. When he falls through, his 14-year-old girlfriend is still pregnant, and because of her age, she lets the boy’s sister raise the child as if she were her own. A story of secrets and choices, Fox eschews conventional revelations to explore deeper connections.
Sarah Mollo-Christensen narrates the audiobook with warmth and patience. Her voice work is minimal, a welcome approach for a novel with so many characters. Fox’s generosity to her characters echoes in Mollo-Christensen’s even narration.
The daughter at the novel’s center is Melanie, an executive who laments the way she “spent so much of life with people picked by a hiring committee.” She fills the void, or tries to, with business-trip hook-ups, one of whom refuses to take one-night stand for an answer. If the Ice Had Held pans to a wide cast of point-of-view characters, but Melanie anchors the narrative, and her humor evokes Maria Semple at her satirical best.
“My children are four and six.”
“Oh, those are such fun ages,” Melanie said, which is what she usually said about people’s children, no matter how old they were.
The novel’s nuanced, panoramic structure also benefits from the audiobook’s less-is-more approach. Mollo-Christensen lets Fox’s prose and characterization do the heavy lifting, and when the novel’s pieces snap into place in the final chapters, the understatement, by author and narrator, carry the weight of what hasn’t been said.
Holding on to Nothing by Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne
Narrated by Amanda SanFilippo · Blair
9 hours and 40 minutes
Not many small presses have begun producing their own audiobooks, but if the first effort of North Carolina-based Blair is any indication, the future for this option is bright. Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne’s Holding on to Nothing, winner of the press’s Lee Smith Novel Prize, has been produced with care and read by as talented a narrator as one would find on a larger audiobook production.
At first glance, Holding on to Nothing seems like a familiar story of a young, incompatible couple bound together by an unplanned pregnancy. The mandolin player in a bluegrass band, Jeptha Taylor has pined for Lucy Kilgore for years, but their attempt at a life together causes more problems for him than it solves. Shelburne, a former staff editor for The Atlantic and native of the novel’s East Tennessee setting, gives emotional depth to working-class characters so often treated condescendingly in popular culture.
“[Jeptha] knew he wasn’t much, wasn’t ever going to cure cancer or be famous for something or, hell, even be known as a hard worker. He wasn’t much better than his father had been. But, prior to the night with Lucy, he had forgotten that he ever wanted to be.”
Lucy’s lifelong dream to move to the big city of Knoxville, thwarted by her pregnancy, is heartbreaking for its modesty, but her desires, like that of the other characters, never feel small or less than riveting.
Because my advance listening copy didn’t provide the name of the narrator and because the publisher said they were producing it themselves, I wrongly guessed the author was narrating the novel herself. The other reason for my assumption was how thoroughly and deftly the narrator, not the author but the exquisite Amanda SanFilippo, wraps her voice around the rhythms of Shelburne’s sentences.
A novel portraying rural characters with nuance and respect could be undermined by an audiobook with bad accents, but SanFilippo, also from Tennessee, handles these with flawless authenticity. Holding on to Nothing gives voice to a region with much to say, and Shelburne’s words combine with SanFilippo’s narration to create something close to music.
All My Goodbyes by Mariana Dimópulos, translated by Alice Whitmore
Narrated by Cheyenne Bizon · Transit Books/The Talking Book
3 hours and 48 minutes
With the exception of Nobel Prize winners and Scandinavian mysteries, contemporary fiction in translation often falls to small presses. Until very recently, few of these translated titles ever became audiobooks. Thanks to nonprofit audiobook publisher The Talking Book and others, many audiobook readers are discovering the joys of international fiction.
Published in print by Oakland-based Transit Books, also a nonprofit, All My Goodbyes is Argentinian author Mariana Dimópulos’s first book to be translated into English. Early in the novel, the peripatetic narrator is forced to remain in one place when authorities find her neighbor and lover murdered by an axe, but All My Goodbyes isn’t that kind of story.
“’One day you’ll grow tired of moving around so much,’ [the narrator’s friend tells her], but she was wrong. It wasn’t about growing tired. It was about arriving.”
Clues to the protagonist’s constant motion lie in her relationship with her father, a “well-intentioned butcher of innocence.” Her travels are also fueled by a search for meaning and direction, a search clarified by the novel’s fragmented, time-jumping narrative.
Cheyenne Bizon, with a voice both sunny and sagacious, couldn’t be more appealing. Sounding youthful as well as mature, Bizon makes the ideal guide for a first-person narrator constantly pulled backward into her past.
Some of the joy in translated fiction comes from encountering new styles of storytelling, but uncharted territory can also make readers reticent. With a run time so short, Dimópulos’s novel might be the perfect introduction.
Revenge of the She-Punks: A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot by Vivien Goldman
Narrated by Vivien Goldman · University of Texas Press/Audible Studios
9 hours and 29 minutes
If a university press sounds like an unusual home for a lively book about women in punk rock, University of Texas Press has been publishing biographies, memoirs, and critical studies in its American Music Series since 2012. One of these, Hanif Abdurraqib’s Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest, was a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in nonfiction.
More unexpected is the audio publisher of Goldman’s study, Audible Studios. The largest purveyor of audiobooks since Amazon bought the company in 2008, Audible has recently begun producing some titles published by small and university presses.
A music journalist for more than 40 years, Vivien Goldman’s punk and new-wave bona fides include membership in the bands Chantage and The Flying Lizards. She’s currently an adjunct professor of punk, Afrobeat, and reggae at New York University, and her latest book is essential for anyone interested in feminism or music history. An unconventional survey organized by themes into four long chapters, Goldman connects past to present with highlighter-worthy insights in every paragraph. For audiobook readers, this means keeping your thumb poised near the bookmark button.
“Punk’s DIY ethos coincided with women’s necessities,” writes Goldman, noting how many iconoclasts became such because they had no choice. One comes to understand punk, or Goldman’s definition of it, not as one thing, but a resistance to being defined.
Goldman narrates the audiobook with verve and panache. Her dynamic narration borders on performance, her British accent bending around smiles and occasional laughter. As intellectually rigorous as it is entertaining, Revenge of the She Punks benefits from her charismatic engagement with the material.
Goldman the narrator takes on a gleeful, conspiratorial tone when relating her own encounters with her subjects, like the time Patti Smith bought her a velvet jacket. Most of the time she reads with a forceful delivery, but her wit is always a line or two away.
“Some feminist circles,” Goldman writes in the book’s coda, “like to deride women’s traditional, nurturing role. But that is throwing the sports bra out with the corset… The trick is to throw your art and desires out into the pool of people around you, live or virtual, and work with the ripple effect to create community.”
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