In print, a book is a two-way communication between the author who wrote the words and the patron who turns the pages. An audiobook adds a third link — the narrator, who reads the author's words and brings the story and characters to life.
Prolific listeners develop their favorite readers. Jim Dale for the "Harry Potter" books, of course. Will Patton for Stephen King. Davina Porter for the "Outlander" series. Julia Whelan on anything she wants to narrate, most recently Linda Holmes' "Evvie Drake Starts Over."
Pair a really good book with an outstanding narrator, and the whole experience is heightened. Even an ordinary book can be elevated by a reader who propels the plot and captures the nuances of character.
None of the books reviewed here will enter the audiobooks hall of fame. But excellent narrators add greatly to the experience in three of the four.
'The Turn of the Key'
By Ruth Ware • Read by Imogen Church
The author of "The Woman in Cabin 10" and "The Death of Mrs. Westaway" proves in her fifth book that she's excellent at creating atmosphere, not so strong at crafting a plot. In the nouveau-Gothic "Key," an inexplicably ominous atmosphere surrounds Heatherbrae House, the mansion in the beautiful Scottish Highlands where Rowan Caine worked as a nanny for a family with four girls — until she wound up in prison, accused (not a spoiler) of killing a child. The book is framed as desperate letters from Rowan to the attorney she hopes will represent her, explaining why she took the job (money) and why she should have known better. Thank goodness for reader Church, who gives appropriate weight to every breathless monologue and voices a multitude of accents with perfect clarity. Focusing on that and ignoring the long buildup and flawed resolution will make "The Turn of the Key" more engaging and a lot less frustrating. (Simon & Schuster; 12:13)
'Mistress of the Ritz'
By Melanie Benjamin • Read by Barbara Rosenblat
Chicago author Benjamin specializes in historical fiction, including "The Aviator's Wife," a frequently biting look at the marriage of Anne Morrow and Charles Lindbergh, from Anne's perspective. Here, Benjamin introduces Blanche Auzello, an American who, in the years before World War II, married the manager of Paris' Ritz Hotel. Spunky and self-absorbed Blanche and starchy Claude weather the ups and many downs of wartime France, while famous faces (Coco Chanel, Ernest Hemingway, Hermann Goring) pass through the famous doors of the Ritz. The worse things get for the Auzellos, the stronger "Mistress of the Ritz" becomes, heading for an emotional conclusion that is likely to send you to Wikipedia for more details. Reader Rosenblat copes ably with accents French, German and American, and if the difficult voices of the first chapter threaten to send you running, hold on. The rest of the book is worth it. (Penguin Random House; 12:00)
By Jennifer Weiner • Read by Ari Graynor and Beth Malone
Hoping for a lighter listen, I picked up the latest from the author of "Good in Bed" and "In Her Shoes." I couldn't have been more mistaken. In this weighty saga of the Kaufman sisters, Jo and Bethie, anything bad that could possibly happen to anyone does, in fact, happen. As the sisters' lives progress from the 1950s to the near-present, a listener could make a list of troubles besetting women of the day and check off every one. Eventually, you'll see them coming a mile away. "Mrs. Everything" is longer than it should be, in part because of Weiner's exhaustive descriptions of, well, everything. Through all this, she somehow never makes us care about her characters as deeply as we should, even though readers Graynor (Showtime's "I'm Dying Up Here") and Malone (Broadway's "Fun Home" and the Muny's "Matilda") master the many voices and do their best to make the emotions resonate. (Simon & Schuster; 17:00)
'The Family Next Door'
By Sally Hepworth • Read by Barrie Kreinik
A neighborhood of nosy suburbanites is shaken up by the mysterious arrival of a beautiful single woman with secrets. What is she up to? Whose husband might she want? Why is neighbor Essie — a mother of two, again battling postpartum depression — so oddly fascinated? "The Family Next Door" might be, as it's billed, just the ticket for fans of "Big Little Lies." The women here are every bit as annoying and the plot as manipulative as those of that Liane Moriarty-HBO hit. But the deal breaker for "Family" as an audiobook could be the harsh, nasal Australian accents with which reader Kreinik endows the characters. (Yes, the characters are Australian. But no audiobook should threaten to make eardrums rupture.) The rushed, improbable conclusion provides no redemption. (Macmillan; 8:53)
Gail Pennington retired in 2017 as Post-Dispatch TV critic.