The Florida reform school in Tananarive Due’s chilling horror novel The Reformatory (Simon & Schuster Audio, 20 hours and 51 minutes) is riddled with ghosts. But the uneasy spirits aren’t the most dangerous forces stalking the grounds of the Gracetown School for Boys. “There’s worse things to worry about than haints,” a young inmate warns 12-year-old Robert Stephens Jr. when he arrives. Sent to the reformatory after he kicked an older white boy for tormenting his sister Gloria, Robert quickly learns that a more insidious evil haunts the school, one that often leaves boys—mostly Black boys—dead.
Set during the Jim Crow era and inspired by the real-life Florida School for Boys in Marianna, The Reformatory is a terrifying, nerve-wracking novel, steeped in ugly truths about racism and American history. Narrator Joniece Abbott-Pratt manages to heighten the considerable tension with her heartfelt interpretations of the shifting, powerful emotions of Robert and Gloria: their anguish, fear, longing, sorrow, and, eventually, furious determination. She never lets you forget that they’re children facing the unthinkable, like so many children before them.
Abbott-Pratt’s precise vocal inflections also bring to life the secondary characters, among them Redbone, a boy who befriends Robert at the school; Boone, a corrupt prison guard obsessed with haints; Miss Lottie, the elderly church lady who doesn’t leave home after dark without her pistol; and the warden himself, whose soul is a murderous black hole. It’s a tour de force performance, a worthy enhancement to Due’s vision.
Colin Walsh’s beautifully crafted debut novel, Kala (Random House Audio, 12 hours and 25 minutes), is a slow-burn psychological thriller that draws in readers with strong character development and a compelling sense of place.
The story follows the mystery of what happened to a missing teenage girl from an Irish town. Fifteen years after her disappearance, Kala’s friends Helen, Mush, and Joe, now adults battling varying stages of disarray and disillusionment, learn that remains have been found nearby. The discovery of a body—Kala’s?— brings back memories they’d rather forget.
The deeply personal narratives cry out for three different readers, and happily, that’s what listeners get. Read by Seána Kerslake, Frank Blake, and Moe Dunford, the story of Kala and her friends stretches across the twin timelines of adolescence and adulthood. The readers inhabit the characters through and through, highlighting Mush’s increasing desperation, Joe’s fear of his hazy recollections, Helen’s determination to find answers, and their collective anxiety as the town’s poisonous secrets are revealed.
The multiple-reader approach works equally well in Jessica Knoll’s surprising, subversive novel Bright Young Women (Simon & Schuster Audio, 12 hours and 58 minutes). Led by Tony Award–winning actor Sutton Foster, a group of narrators (Imani Jade Powers, Corey Brill, and Chris Henry Coffey) share duties narrating the fictionalized story of two women whose lives intersect via their brush with serial killer Ted Bundy. Pamela, a Florida State sorority president, escapes his attack on her house, while Ruth, a troubled young woman in Washington state, may have been one of his victims.
Knoll wrests power away from the sensationalized accounts of Bundy and turns her lens on these women (the characters refer to Bundy only as “the Defendant”). Foster is the star here, but the whole production underscores Knoll’s insistence that victims, not perpetrators, should be remembered.
Connie Ogle is a writer in Florida.