Books

The Best Audiobooks of 2021

Not just the best books but the best narrations.

A grid of covers for the audiobooks The Maidens, The Lincoln Highway, Matrix, and more.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon.

Audiobooks are my getaway after days spent reading from the page to prepare to write my reviews. As a result—and especially in a dreary year like 2021—I almost exclusively listen to fiction or memoir, strong narratives that carry me off during long walks or monotonous chores. Apologies to fans of chewy nonfiction or ruminative stream-of-consciousness novels, but they just don’t do the trick for me! Here are eight titles that provided me with hours of blissful escape this year.

The Sandman: Act II by Neil Gaiman, voiced by James McAvoy, Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, David Tennant, and more

A follow-up to last year’s dramatic adaptation of Gaiman’s influential graphic novel (a live-action adaptation from Netflix is also forthcoming), this is another all-star affair, resplendent with music and sound effects (including the angelic singing voice of Bridgerton’s Regé-Jean Page as Orpheus). The main story involves the exasperated resignation of Lucifer (Sheen) from the thankless job of ruling hell. In a puckish act of revenge, he hands over the keys to the place to the title character, Morpheus (a deliciously hammy McAvoy), who then has to fend off a passel of miscellaneous immortals who want to take over the underworld. Bill Nighy as Odin! David Tennant as Loki! Bebe Neuwirth as Bast! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. On top of it all, Gaiman himself provides additional narration in this perfect blend of visionary fantasy and character study.

The Sandman: Act II

By Neil Gaiman. Voiced by James McAvoy, Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, David Tennant, and more.

Marigold by Sara Gran, performed by Jason Culp and Zoe Kazan

This audiobook comes in the form of a fictional podcast in which an unnamed paranormal researcher (Culp) interviews Anne, a narrator who’s not so much unreliable as askew: You trust her to accurately relate the facts, but her interpretation of their meaning is another matter. Anne lives in a haunted house and loves it. Gran, who writes the clever metaphysical Claire DeWitt detective series, turns the obsessiveness of a certain form of homeownership—Anne has an Arts and Crafts bungalow in Pasadena and prides herself in restoring it to pristine, historically accurate condition—into a symptom. Anne thinks she owns the place, but really it owns her. Kazan has the tricky task of performing a character who thinks she’s in complete control even as she’s falling apart, and the actress acquits herself splendidly, while Culp provides her with an at first steady then increasingly more fascinated and disturbed foil.

Marigold

By Sara Gran. Performed by Jason Culp and Zoe Kazan.

Matrix by Lauren Groff, performed by Adjoa Andoh

For some of us, Andoh was the real star of Bridgerton, an actor whose intelligent hauteur makes her seem born to play duchesses and queens. She might seem, at first glance, an unlikely narrator for the story of Marie de France, who in Groff’s telling is an awkward bumpkin of royal blood sent off to run an impoverished abbey. (Not much is known about the historical Marie, a 12th century English poet, so Groff is speculating about almost all of this.) But eventually Marie becomes, in her tiny kingdom, a queen of infinite space, flourishing in a community of sisters who desperately need her managerial skills, and at the same time stumbling into unexpected transcendence. Andoh, for all her regal panache, renders each of the nuns—from working-class supervisor of the novitiates to dreamy visionary to dewy novice—vividly and sensitively.

Matrix

By Lauren Groff. Narrated by Adjoa Andoh.

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides, performed by Louise Brealey and Kobna Holdbrick-Smith

Michaelides writes high-end thrillers set among the cultured elite and replete with women smothered by convention and domineering men. This frankly preposterous tale of a widowed psychotherapist investigating a series of suspicious deaths among women students at Cambridge University is great, silly fun. The students—the eponymous maidens—cluster around a Byronic male classics professor, and our heroine, Mariana, worries that her beloved niece might also have come under his spell. There are assignations in graveyards and notorious parties and scads of classical references. As tremulous as any Gothic heroine, Mariana goes toe-to-toe with assorted scornful and seductive male authority figures while trying to get to the truth. Chapters told from her perspective, narrated with claustrophobic vulnerability by Louise Brealey, alternate with the letters of an unknown psychopath, read with creepy, plummy portent by Kobna Holdbrick-Smith.

The Maidens

By Alex Michaelides. Narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Louise Brealey.

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue, performed by Prentice Onayemi, Janina Edwards, Dion Graham, JD Jackson, Allyson Johnson, and Lisa Renee Pitts

The residents of Kosawa, a village in a fictional African nation, collectively tell this story. They’re fed up with the lying oil company whose wells have been poisoning their land and water for a generation, and also with the village leaders and government men who facilitate this depredation. So they decide to fight back, engaging in a host of wily schemes and outright confrontations. The host of voices makes this novel an ideal candidate for a multiple-narrator production, with the standouts being the ever-soulful Graham and Onayemi, as the closest thing the novel has to a main character: Thula, a stalwart girl whose father disappears while visiting the capital city with a delegation to plead the village’s case. This is a complex story of multiple, sometimes conflicting perspectives and desires, made all the stronger by a chorus of top-notch narrators.

How Beautiful We Were

By Imbolo Mbu. Performed by Prentice Onayemi, Janina Edwards, Dion Graham, JD Jackson, Allyson Johnson, and Lisa Renee Pitts.

Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, performed by Gisela Chípe

Set in 1970s Mexico City during a period of political unrest, this homage to the hard-boiled midcentury American fiction of writers like James M. Cain alternates between the perspectives of Elvis—a pragmatic former street kid who loves 1950s pop music and works as muscle for a mysterious official—and Maite, a lonely secretary who lives for the next issue of Secret Romance comics. Maite gets caught up in intrigue between the police and student radicals when she agrees to catsit for a neighbor who promptly disappears. Both characters will end up disillusioned by men they once deemed worthy of trust, and Moreno-Garcia skillfully weaves classic noir tropes into the political particulars of this setting. It’s a challenge for a single performer to convincingly narrate two such different perspectives—tough Elvis and naïve Maite—but Chípe carries it off with aplomb.

Velvet Was the Night

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Narrated by Gisela Chípe.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, performed by Cassandra Campbell and Alex McKenna

This radiant novel of 20th century aviation alternates between the perspectives of two women, at times set 100 years apart. The ever-sublime Campbell narrates the chapters devoted to Marian, a fictional pilot who needs every bit of her determined devotion to flight in order to muscle her way into the airstrip’s boy’s club. She will vanish on a flight to New Zealand in 1950. In 2014, Hadley, orphaned like Marian and raised by a boozy showbiz uncle to become a child star, tries to resuscitate her acting career and find her way back to authenticity by playing Marian in an art film. Hadley’s chapters are narrated by McKenna, whose quipping, ironic tone emphasizes just how much distance there is between a creature of the modern media and the freedom Marian felt among the clouds.

Great Circle

By Maggie Shipstead. Narrated by Cassandra Campbell and Alex McKenna.

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles, performed by Edoardo Ballerini

A big, shaggy, energetic road trip, this novel is a golden retriever of a yarn, with its head hanging out the window and its tongue tasting the open highway—surely the best place to be listening to it, especially if you’re traveling with kids. The story begins in Nebraska in 1954, with 18-year-old Emmett Watson and his 8-year-old brother, Billy, departing the foreclosed family farm and setting off for California in the Studebaker that is one of the few things the Watson boys can still call their own. They get sidetracked by a pair of ne’er-do-wells right out of Mark Twain and end up going east instead, caught up in a plan to steal a fortune from the summer home of the prosperous family of one of the rascals. Ballerini, the consummate audiobook narrator, glides effortlessly from earnest rube to fast-talking chancer, enveloping his listeners in as heavenly a spell as any fan of the form could ever desire.

The Lincoln Highway

By Amor Towles. Narrated by Edoardo Ballerini.