Narrator Feature: Xe Sands
When you listen to as many audiobooks as I do, you get familiar with some of the voices. Some audiobook performers are incredibly prolific, and you might even recognize some of them from film or television work, too! My favorite narrators, though, are the performers whose voices and mannerisms seem perfectly suited to the works that they read. One such narrator is Xe Sands. With a soft, slightly raspy voice and unflappable delivery, the Audie Award-winning narrator often reads horror and thrillers, and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, romance, usually under her pseudonym Jo Raylan. Romance isn't my preferred genre, so I can't attest to those books personally, but I can speak to the excellence of a number of other performances! Here are a few of her more recent works that I enjoyed.
Wonderland by Zoje Stage
This is a weird book. Actually, a lot of the books on this list are weird, but that's what makes them worth listening to, right? A family moving from the city to depths of New York's Adirondack mountains are bound to be in for a bit of culture shock, but they don't expect to get that shock from nature itself. As the land they planned to call home begins to twist their perceptions with visions and apparations both fantastical and terrifying, Sands' dreamlike performance elevates this tale of horror to something almost inevitable. A good one to enjoy during the dark days of late autumn and winter for added atmosphere!
The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig
Less weird than Wonderland, but definitely scary! Sands reads opposite George Newburn, taking on the roles of Nate and Maddie Graves. The couple and their son are moving back to Nate and Maddie's hometown, into Nate's childhood home, in fact. The home which, unbeknownst to his family, holds memories of years of abuse.
Though it has its deeply scary moments, I found this book incredibly refreshing as a work of horror. There are plenty of supernatural elements at play, but the real horror is deeply human. The characters, portrayed superbly by Sands and Newburn, are conscious of the way their actions and choices impact one another—including, much to my delight, the conscious decision they make to believe (and believe in) one another when they separately confess that weird and scary things are happening. It's a thrill ride with a lot more heart (at least, figurative heart) than I'm used to in horror, and that makes it a standout for me.
Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
Unlike The Book of Accidents, which is tightly focused, twisty, and a rollercoaster right to the end, Wanderers...well, wanders. It's a lot of story—the audiobook is more than 32 hours long!—and there's a lot that happens. I don't just mean character development or side plots either. Your whole understanding of what's happening in this book will get turned on its head at least a few times before the end, even if you're pretty sure you know what's going on from the beginning. Even though there's so much happening and lots to keep track of, Wendig spools out the story at just the right pace, and the dual performances of Xe Sands and Dominic Hoffman help break up the story and keep the characters and plotlines distinct. While I personally preferred the pacing of The Book of Accidents, the masterful construction of Wanderers is well worth the time. I would definitely recommend giving it a listen.
The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey
Hoo, boy, this book was not what I was expecting, but in a very good way. It was billed as a sci-fi thriller, so I was a bit perplexed when I realized Xe Sands was narrating. She does a great job with whatever she reads, of course, but her performance felt calculating and dispassionate—not what I'd expect from the heroine of a thriller. But as the story began to unspool, I realized that this role could have been created just for Sands. Her portrayal of Evelyn Caldwell, genius geneticist and creator of an advanced cloning technology, is spot on. After all, the premise of the story is that Caldwell's husband, jealous of her spotlight and shut out by her dedication to her work, decides to create a "better" version of Evelyn, using her own work. But when the clone he creates—Martine—proves to be more than the perfect passive wife he'd planned on, Evelyn's cool intellect and unflinching approach to problem solving—no matter how gruesome the problem—is exactly what the situation calls for. It's such a good story, but Sands' performance takes it to another level. Don't miss this one!
Cutting Edge edited by Joyce Carol Oates
Raise your hand if you're tired of crime stories where women are relegated to murder victims, no-nonsense (and rather unfeeling) police officers or detecives, femme fatales, or helpless weeping blondes. If your hand went up, check out this book. It's so fascinating (and weirdly vindicating) to see women cast in all kinds of roles in mystery and crime, including the villains. Edgy, dark, funny, horrifying—there's something for everyone in this collection, and it introduced me to a number of writers whose work I hadn't explored yet. As with The Echo Wife, Xe Sands' gives a standout performance in this anthology. Her voice and delivery seem perfectly suited to the sort of feminist-edged noir that these stories touch on.
The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch
Another strange but engrossing tale to wrap up this list! Far in the future, humanity is reduced to a strange race of pale, sexless, hairless creatures: shadows of our former selves. These remaining humans have escaped the ravaged earth to live (if it can be called living) on a space station under the rule of the vicious Jean de Men. Using the story of Joan of Arc as a scaffold, Yuknavitch crafts a new story—that of Joan of Dirt—to explore the revolution of art, body, mind, sex, and even nature that is necessary for humanity to reclaim its...well, humanity. Die-hard sci-fi fans, this one may not be for you. It's more of a literary tale with speculative elements than true science fiction, but if you're willing to roll with the visceral-yet-poetic storytelling style, it's a beautiful book, and the audio performance Xe Sands delivers is spot on. 'Dreamy' is the best adjective I can think of for it—not in the sense that it's merely beautiful, or even that it's insubstantial and dream-like (quite the opposite), but the distance between the gritty story and the soft-spoken performance gives the whole thing an apt air of Greek tragedy. It's lovely and disconcerting and weird all in one.