Last year, our team of audio reviewers listened to more than 200 titles. Below we highlight our favorites from the year across several categories.
Audiobook of the Year
Lincoln in the Bardo
George Saunders, read by Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, George Saunders, and a full cast (Random House Audio)
The audio edition of Saunders’s Booker Prize–winning novel employs an unprecedented, star-studded 166-person cast featuring the voices of Don Cheadle, Mary Karr, and Julianne Moore, to name only a few. The story, which takes places in a graveyard over the course of a single night (Feb. 22, 1862), incorporates many challenging elements of postmodern fiction—punctuationless sentences, a constantly shifting perspective, and a mélange of narrative devices. The effect is wonderfully brought to life in these performances; most noteworthy of all is Saunder’s own vocal rendering of the timid Reverend Thomas. This superb production is emblematic of the exciting and innovative world of audiobook publishing as a whole, with its mix of celebrities, veteran narrators, writers, and others.
Don’t Let Go
Harlan Coben, read by Steven Weber (Brilliance Audio)
Actor Weber perfects the sarcastic wise-guy delivery for Coben’s new protagonist, suburban New Jersey cop Nap Dumas, and effortlessly enters into full-out performance zone as the story picks up pace. It’s a convincing, coolly effective, and awardworthy performance.
James McBride, read by Arthur Morey, Nile Bullock, Prentice Onayomi, and Dominic Hoffman (Penguin Audio)
With charm and depth, four narrators portray the wide array of characters—among them fictionalized presidents, surviving members of the African-American Ninety-Second Infantry Division, telepathic zoo animals, and a vintage toy dealer—in this stunning story collection from McBride.
Anthony Horowitz, read by Samantha Bond and Allan Corduner (Harper Audio)
The audio edition of Horowitz’s latest—a golden age classic whodunit framed by a contemporary mystery involving the suspicious death of bestselling author Alan Conway—employs the vocal stylings of two talented actors to magnificent effect. Actor Bond, who played Lady Rosamund on the BBC drama Downton Abbey, narrates the contemporary plot, while actor Corduner pitches in for the manuscript portions of the story.
Jennifer Egan, read by Heather Lind, Norbert Leo Butz, and Vincent Piazza (S&S Audio)
A trio of actors rev up the drama in Egan’s finely wrought historical novel set in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II.
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth
Lindsey Lee Johnson, read by Cassandra Campbell (Random House Audio)
Actor Campbell captures the emotional roller-coaster of the modern-day high school experience in this sharp novel about a group of teenagers in an affluent California town. The drama is amplified by an incident three years prior in which cyberbullying led to the suicide of a classmate, the details of which Campbell renders in a chillingly detached voice.
Age of Anger: A History of the Present
Pankaj Mishra, read by Derek Perkins (Tantor Audio)
A dense, philosophical treatise on the rise of nationalism and global unrest, Mishra’s latest is not easily translated into the audio format. Luckily, actor Perkins puts his erudite but approachable speaking style to good use transforming this intellectually challenging and timely book into a rewarding listen.
The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story
Douglas Preston, read by Bill Mumy (Hachette Audio)
Actor Mumy’s vocal agility and swift pacing allows him to intensify the many ups and downs in this hair-raising adventure tale about Preston’s recent expedition to locate an ancient city in the Honduran mountains.
Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century
Jessica Bruder, read by Karen White (HighBridge Audio)
White’s friendly voice and easygoing conversational rhythm draws listeners into the misery and the camaraderie of the people at the center of journalist Bruder’s sociology study: a community of aging, primarily white Americans adjusting to an economic climate in which they can’t afford to retire.
Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-in Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s
Charles Taylor, read by A.T. Chandler (HighBridge Audio)
Actor Chandler reads Taylor’s essays on American B movies from the 1970s in a low, sonorous tone that’s reminiscent of Don LaFontaine, the voice-over actor heard in thousands of movie trailers. It is a perfect fit for a book about the pleasures of films either long forgotten or surviving on cult followings.
Paula Cizmar et al., performed by Shannon Holt et al. (L.A. Theatre Works)
Seven actors portray seven contemporary women’s rights activists from seven countries—Afghanistan, Argentina, Cambodia, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Pakistan, and Russia—in this superb production of a documentary play recorded in front of an audience.
Stephanie Garber, read by Rebecca Soler (Macmillan Audio)
Actor Soler’s lively narration swiftly draws listeners into the magical spectacle at the center of Garber’s YA novel: Caraval—a once-a-year, multiday event involving a fantastical treasure hunt. Ages 13–up.
Garth Nix, read by Marisa Calin (Listening Library)
Filled with an assortment of talking animals, this quirky tale of a princess on a mission to save her family from her stepmother’s evil new husband is perfectly suited for the audio format. Actor Calin enlivens the listening experience with distinct voices for the suitor frogs, weasel assassins, and overzealous dogs who fill this colorful fairy tale. Ages 12–up.
The Hate U Give
Angie Thomas, read by Bahni Turpin (Harper Audio and Blackstone)
Thomas’s novel about a teen finding the Black Lives Matter movement is powerful, and actor Turpin makes it all the more riveting with her nuanced portrayal of the story’s 16-year-old protagonist. Starr Carter, who sounds both youthful and mature for her age, must navigate the different worlds of her black neighborhood and her mostly white school, often relying on code switching to do so. Ages 14–up.
Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case
Patricia Hruby Powell, read by Adenrele Ojo and MacLeod Andrews (Dreamscape Media)
Ojo and Andrews are such wonderful actors that listeners quickly come to care personally about the protagonists in Powell’s historical YA novel about Mildred and Richard Loving, the interracial couple whose marriage led to the United States Supreme Court decision to overturn Virginia’s antimiscegenation statute. Ages 12–up.
Alan Gratz, read by Michael Goldstrom, Kyla Garcia, and Assaf Cohen (Scholastic Audiobooks)
This trenchant audiobook employs the voices of three actors to tell the interwoven stories of three young refugees, each set in a different period and political landscape. All three performances emphasize the overarching themes of loss and resilience and the humanity of each character. Each actor has a friend or family member who was a refugee from the country in which his or her narrative is set. Ages 9–12.
Read by the Author
Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death and Jazz Chickens
Eddie Izzard (Penguin Audio)
British comedian Izzard brings his unique stream-of-consciousness style of performance to the audio edition of his memoir tracing his evolution from street performer to stand-up headliner known for performing in high heels. Izzard has a knack for defying convention, and he delivers a distinct listening experience.
The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora
Pablo Cartaya (Listening Library)
Cartaya shines as both author and reader of the audio edition of his middle grade tale about the romantic pursuits and family life of 13-year-old Arturo Zamora. Much of the book takes place in the Zamora family restaurant, which Cartaya effortlessly brings to life, comfortably slipping back and forth between English and Spanish when voicing conversations among Arturo’s large extended family.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
Roxane Gay (Harper Audio)
Gay studied theater in college, and it shows in her strong reading of her memoir about life as an overweight woman. Her voice is gentle and controlled, and her sentences sound like lines of poetry.
The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness
Paula Poundstone (HighBridge Audio)
The accomplished funnywoman, who is best known for her reoccurring gig on NPR’s Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me!, draws on her natural ease in front of a microphone, bringing the droll quality of her stand-up comedy to the audio version of this tale of questing for bliss in offbeat ways.
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries
Kory Stamper (Random House Audio)
Stamper breezily narrates the audio edition of her witty look behind the scenes at Merriam-Webster, where she works as a lexicographer. When she is discussing her favorite words, like cacafuego or sprachgefühl, listeners can rest assured that she’s got the pronunciation down pat.