The audiobooks that will inspire you to travel the world
Audiobooks are made for multitaskers. Armed with only a smartphone and a set of earphones, your thoughts could be wandering, say, the piazzas of Naples (captured in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels) while you tackle the daily commute. This accessible escapism has helped audiobooks to become a publishing success story – estimated UK downloads rose from 9.3 million in 2017 to 12.5 million in 2018, according to data analytics company Nielsen.
Joanne Harris, best known for Chocolat, is well versed in the genre. Having narrated several of her own works, she explains the interplay of the two roles and how she evokes the spirit of place.
Her enthusiasm may inspire you to enhance your next trip by taking along one of the audiobooks chosen by our experts.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Ferrante’s first Neapolitan novel opens in Fifties Naples to the backdrop of a tough, working-class neighbourhood, probably the eastern rione of Luzzatti. In this turbulent context, Lila and Elena (Lenù) strike up what is to become a lifelong friendship. The vibrant narrative takes the listener through this idiosyncratic city, describing in great detail its streets and piazzas. From the O’ Buvero street market to the Piazza dei Martiri where Lila’s shoe shop will be, many places seem little changed today and have become pilgrimage sites for fans.
The Gathering by Anne Enright
Anne Enright’s great Irish novel The Gathering won the 2007 Booker Prize. Actress Fiona Shaw (Harry Potter; Killing Eve) narrates. As Enright delves into the past, we glimpse Dublin in the Twenties, the names of streets and places a powerful incantation over a past that has caught and bound the present. Shaw’s voice adds layers of colour and emotion to this tale of secrets and family silences, of grief and loss and new beginnings.
Malaga, Andalucia, Spain
The Muse by Jessie Burton
Actress Cathy Tyson brings to life Burton’s intricate, dual plot set in late-Sixties London (adopted home of Trinidadian aspiring writer Odelle Bastien) and a fictional Thirties south-Andalucian village, Arazuelo (centred on reluctant artist Olive Schloss during the build-up to the Spanish Civil War). A mysterious painting links the women, posing questions of female identity, secrecy, artistic creation and more. With its “rugged foothills”, clanking goat bells and “salt on the air”, Arazuelo conjures up many a malagueño village. Follow Olive and housemaid Teresa with a visit to Malaga. They wander the “by turns stately and timeless” city, with plans to stop for lemonade on shop-lined Calle Larios.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The Quiet American by Graham Greene
Against a backdrop of Saigon bars and battlefields, The Quiet American tells the story of Vietnam transitioning from colonial Indo-China to communist state, seen through the eyes of jaded, booze-soaked British war reporter Thomas Fowler and eager, naive CIA operative Alden Pyle. Modern Ho Chi Minh City bristles with cranes and glass, but Greene’s Saigon is still there at street level. Narrator and character actor Simon Cadell could be Fowler – his voice cynical, public school, with a dash of seediness.
STILTSVILLE by Susanna Daniel
Miami native Susanna Daniel immediately draws you into her description of the watery world of Biscayne Bay and the historic community of pastel-painted wooden homes. Remnants of these can still be visited today by boat. The novel spans the marriage of Francis Ellerby and Dennis DuValand against the backdrop of Miami’s coming-of-age. Starting in 1969, the couple build a life together, first in an apartment on South Beach and later in a home in Coral Gables. Suzanne Toren’s narration captures the limpid, southern accent of our protagonist Francis, an Atlanta transplant.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
While the HBO series features the cliff-scapes of Monterey, the novel is set in the fictional suburb of Pirriwee on Sydney’s far northern beaches – it’s thought Avalon Beach was the inspiration. Australian actress Caroline Lee narrates, her warm accent preparing you for Sydneysider colloquialisms. The tone shifts as we follows the lives of four women navigating inter-family relationships, careers and modern motherhood. Sip a latte at the Beach House Avalon, reminiscent of Blue Blues where the women drink champagne before picking up their children from their fateful first day of school.
Goldeneye – Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica by Matthew Parker
Ian Fleming wrote all 14 Bond novels at Goldeneye, the clifftop villa that he built in Oracabessa, on the north coast of Jamaica. As Parker’s perceptive investigation reveals, this charismatic Caribbean island was central to the creation of the world’s best-known secret agent. Narrated with a suitably well-bred timbre by Roy McMillan, it’s an absorbing, over nine-hour tale of high society, dying empire, exotic nature and martinis at 11am. Today Fleming’s villa is part of GoldenEye (goldeneye.com), a hip luxury resort where guests can still enjoy the hummingbirds and sunrise swims that enchanted him.
San Francisco, US
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
First serialised in the San Francisco Chronicle, this ballooned into nine novels. The first instalment follows naive Midwesterner Mary Ann Singleton as she moves into 28 Barbary Lane, becoming entangled with the lives and illicit loves of a colourful cast of neighbours (brought to life in audio-form by Oscar winner Frances McDormand). Maupin’s soapy romp shaped the San Francisco of popular imagination: a marijuana-addled bohemia of sexual liberation with California backdrops. It paints a picture of a now vanishing city. Head to ramshackle Macondray Lane, the real-life inspiration for Barbary, to observe that dwindling charm.
‘One Good Turn’ by Kate Atkinson
Jackson Brodie, ex-army, ex-police and retired detective is killing time in Edinburgh while his girlfriend performs in a dire Fringe production. He witnesses a violent crime and becomes inextricably involved in a plot as multi-layered as an Aberdeen buttery. Atkinson deftly combines black humour with affection in her descriptions of Edinburgh in August (narrated by British actor Robin Atkin Downes) from fire-breathing unicyclists on the Royal Mile to a painfully funny literary event in elegant Charlotte Square. By the end you won’t be at all surprised when Jackson decides to stay, because you’ll want to, too.