10 best audiobooks of 2021

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We appear to be living in a golden age of crime stories, with podcasts and series galore, but this popular fascination is truly timeless, everlasting and ever evolving. L.R. Dorn’s debut novel, The Anatomy of Desire (8 hours), updates Theodore Dreiser’s classic 1925 crime drama, An American Tragedy, by using the documentary format to explore whether Instagram influencer Cleo Ray murdered her ex-girlfriend in the middle of a lake.

Dorn uses interview transcripts, director commentary and courtroom clips to strip away Cleo’s “all-American girl” social media personality and expose the traumas fueling her relentless ambition. This narrative structure is perfect for the audiobook format, and it’s compellingly and convincingly performed by a fine ensemble cast. Tony Award winner Santino Fontana stands out as the documentary director Duncan McMillan, and Marin Ireland portrays a formidable defense attorney, but Shelby Young absolutely shines as Cleo. From Cleo’s chirpy pretrial Instagram posts to her gut-wrenching testimony, Young delivers a performance that is as vulnerable as it is ruthless, as loving as it is spiteful.

Make some popcorn, settle in, and get ready to devour an extremely enjoyable story.

The unique documentary format of L.R. Dorn’s crime novel makes for a winning audiobook, compellingly performed by a fine ensemble cast.

In this often hilarious and consistently stirring performance, comedian, actor and all-around celebrity Jamie Foxx dishes on his toughest role: being a father. Throughout Act Like You Got Some Sense: And Other Things My Daughters Taught Me (6 hours), Foxx brings honesty and heart to touching stories about his childhood—growing up with an absent mother and being raised by a loving and unyielding grandmother—and shows how these experiences guided him when he became a parent. Foxx’s impersonations of family members are dynamic and animated, as are his exasperated (and sometimes expletive-filled) responses to the trials and tribulations of parenthood. 

In an equally candid and heartwarming foreword, Foxx’s eldest daughter, Corinne, affirms that, despite some unconventional parenting, her father always showed up for her and her sister, and always conveyed his love for his family. Throughout his rise to fame, Foxx’s continual efforts to stay grounded and live by the values instilled in him by his grandmother shine through in the raising of his daughters. 

This inspiring, raucous and entertaining listening experience brims with attitude and positivity about embracing parenthood and the ups and downs of life. 

In this often hilarious and consistently stirring performance, comedian, actor and all-around celebrity Jamie Foxx dishes on his toughest role: being a father.
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Charlie Barnes, the hero of Joshua Ferris’ novel A Calling for Charlie Barnes (11.5 hours), has pancreatic cancer. Or maybe he doesn’t. He is a shyster, a con man and a liar. Or perhaps he’s a dreamer, a nobody who could be a somebody, if only the planets would align in his favor and grant him some grace. The task of discovering the true Charlie falls to his novelist son, Jake, the narrator of this hilarious and tragic story of love, failure and redemption.

Nick Offerman, best known as the laconic misanthrope Ron Swanson on “Parks and Recreation,” delivers a powerful performance as Jake. His whiskey-soaked baritone swings effortlessly from world-weary cynicism to wickedly dry observations about siblings and stepmothers. Like his namesake in The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes is a flawed and vulnerable character, but Offerman’s deft reading convinces the listener that Jake also has the strength necessary to understand and forgive the inexplicable and unforgivable.

Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘A Calling for Charlie Barnes.’

Nick Offerman delivers a powerful performance as Jake Barnes, the narrator of Joshua Ferris’ hilarious and tragic story of love, failure and redemption.
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For Tarana Burke, the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017 was a unique emotional journey. As the founder of the movement, she reacted to the use of the hashtag on social media—initially without her awareness or involvement—with alarm, dismay and fear. But she soon moved beyond her protective instinct to a place of gratitude and openness, as she recognized how people were benefiting from the phrase’s transformative power. 

Burke narrates these moments in her memoir, Unbound (7 hours), then goes back in time to her childhood experience of sexual assault and her journey to liberation and activism. Her steady, grounded voice commands the listener’s attention and moves us through time, through emotions, through visceral experiences and psychological breakthroughs. The pain, confusion, vulnerability and, ultimately, power in her story are rendered all the more potent and compelling by her confident voice, distinguishing Burke as a woman who has found her strength and her path to help others heal. This is a listening experience not to be missed.

Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘Unbound.’

In the audio edition of Unbound, the pain, confusion, vulnerability and power in Tarana Burke’s story are rendered all the more potent by her confident voice.
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Cloud Cuckoo Land (15 hours) by Anthony Doerr chronicles the intersecting lives of an orphaned teenage girl and a village boy living in 15th-century Constantinople, an elderly librarian and a troubled teenager in present-day Idaho, and a young passenger aboard an interstellar ship generations into the future. It’s a dreamy, dynamic interweaving of stories about conflict, grief and hope.

Narrators Marin Ireland and Simon Jones make each character’s story feel personal, valid and alive—a challenging task with a cast this extensive and settings that span hundreds of years and miles. Ireland’s performances anchor every chapter in a myriad of voices and accents, surrounding the listener with an immersive experience. Between chapters, Jones playfully narrates excerpts from a fictional ancient Greek text whose relevance to each storyline is revealed gradually.

Listening to Cloud Cuckoo Land will transport you. It is magical and comforting, and likely to leave you with a new perspective on the power of resilience and the meaning of human connection.

Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land.’

As an audiobook, Cloud Cuckoo Land is a transportive experience, likely to leave listeners with a new perspective on the power of human connections.
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A Carnival of Snackery (17 hours) collects highlights from David Sedaris’ diaries from 2003–2020, read by the author and British-born actor Tracey Ullman. Sedaris’ diary entries reflect much of what we love most about his short stories and essays—observations about the unusual people he meets on his travels, anecdotes about awkward situations and tales about his family—all filtered through the lens of the last two decades, with backdrops that range from Brexit to protests against the Iraq War and George Floyd’s murder.

In the introduction, Sedaris explains that Ullman will narrate the portions of the audiobook set in England, to capture the local charm in a way he cannot. She does a wonderful job portraying Sedaris and the broad range of accents he encounters while across the pond, from a haughty horseback rider to a teenage troublemaker. Sedaris hardly needs help: He doesn’t perform as many voices in his sections, but his emphasis and timing get right to the humor at the heart of his diaries.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘A Carnival of Snackery.’

David Sedaris and actor Tracey Ullman get right to the humor at the heart of his diaries in the audio edition of A Carnival of Snackery.

Actor William DeMeritt’s deep, measured narration enhances the elegant, evocative prose of Nathan Harris’ debut novel, The Sweetness of Water (12 hours). 

In the waning blood-filled days of the Civil War, Georgia farmer George Walker hires formerly enslaved brothers Landry and Prentiss to work his peanut farm—and perhaps to ease his restless soul. When George’s Confederate soldier son, Caleb, unexpectedly returns home, and Caleb’s romantic relationship with another soldier comes to light, tensions between George’s family and the town’s disapproving residents boil over. Only the cool, determined leadership of George’s wife, Isabelle, offers a path to healing.

DeMeritt’s performance of this Southern cast of characters reveals an actor in full control of his range. Particularly for the male roles, DeMeritt narrates with such skill that the listener can envision some of the characters’ faces just by the way their voices sound. Amid this world of unbridled change, DeMeritt illuminates subtle yearnings, quiet dangers and a persistent sense of hope.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of the print edition of The Sweetness of Water.

William DeMeritt performs with such skill that the listener will be able to envision Nathan Harris’ character’s faces just by the way their voices sound.

New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe’s exhaustive research for Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (18 hours) makes him the natural choice to narrate his own audiobook. Keefe knows exactly which points to stress for listeners of this story, which he calls “the taproot of the opioid epidemic” in America—not that added emphasis is really needed, as the book’s content is shocking enough.

In jaw-dropping detail, Keefe recounts the greed, deception and corruption at the heart of the Sackler family’s multigenerational quest for wealth and social status. Renowned for their philanthropy, the Sacklers built their fortune through the pharmaceutical industry in the 1940s and ’50s, making calculated moves in medical advertising and with the Food and Drug Administration. Keefe brilliantly traces the Sacklers’ path toward developing controversial pharmaceutical products such as the anti-anxiety medicine Valium and the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin via their company, Purdue Pharma.

The 18-plus hours that it takes to listen to this mind-blowing history may seem intimidating at first, but Keefe’s masterful storytelling makes it worth every minute.

New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe’s exhaustive research for Empire of Pain makes him the natural choice to narrate his own audiobook.
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A heartfelt chorus of voices composes a well-researched community mosaic of Black American history in Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain’s Four Hundred Souls (14 hours).

The book is divided into five-year periods that span 400 years of the Black American experience, and the audiobook transitions between each section via layered, echoing voices for a haunting, emotional effect. Eighty-seven narrators comprise the full cast, including the authors of some of the essays and poems as well as other notable voices such as journalist Soledad O’Brien and actors Danai Gurira and Leslie Odom Jr. The performances are straightforward or theatrical as appropriate, but they’re always engaging, and the variety of voices and styles sustains the listener’s attention.

Offering the best of education and entertainment, this epic audiobook enhances Kendi and Blain’s transformative history project through the sense of humanity that only a person’s voice can convey. Listeners will learn and be moved, and will no doubt listen more than once. Bravo.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Go behind the scenes with the editors and producers of Four Hundred Souls, the year’s most astounding full-cast audiobook production.

This epic audiobook enhances Kendi and Blain’s transformative history project through the sense of humanity that only a person’s voice can convey.
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Critically acclaimed writer and longtime creative writing professor George Saunders offers a master class in writing based on a study of seven short stories by classic Russian writers. Saunders narrates A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (14.5 hours) in an easy, conversational tone that makes the listener feel as if they are in a relaxed classroom—or perhaps sitting in a lounge for a one-on-one lesson from this thoughtful teacher. 

Well-chosen, exceptionally talented actors, including Phylicia Rashad, Glenn Close and Nick Offerman, narrate stories from Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy and others, and their dramatized performances provide a refreshing contrast to Saunders’ more familiar style. Saunders’ love of literature and his enthusiasm for its interaction with the mind combine with his humor and dry wit to make for an engaging listening experience. More than a writing course, this audiobook is a unique exercise in paying attention and thinking critically.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.

Talented actors narrate stories from Chekhov, Tolstoy and others, and their performances provide a refreshing contrast to George Saunders’ more familiar style.

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