The Best Audiobooks of 2020

recommended by Robin Whitten

With most people carrying smartphones these days, entering the world of audiobooks has never been easier. Some are straightforward narrations of a book, but when an audiobook is done well, it can be an extraordinary, all-encompassing experience. Here Robin Whitten, editor of AudioFile magazine—the best resource for finding good quality audiobooks on the web, in our view—talks us through her picks for the best audiobooks of 2020, chosen from the hundreds they've reviewed over the course of the year.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

We’re talking about your recommendations of the best audiobooks of 2020. Just in terms of the selection process, I know that at AudioFile you review around 50 audiobooks every week. Were you basically picking the best audiobooks among the 2000+ reviews that you’ve done this year?

Yes. We review about 2,400 books in one year. When we sit down at this time of year, we  try to select five or six books in every subject category. It’s quite a process to go through, prioritizing titles that we want to select as the best. We pay attention to our Earphones Awards, which are ongoing and given by reviewers as books are reviewed. If a book is given an Earphones Award it means it’s exceptional. So, we look at those. Sometimes there are titles that we look at that for one reason or another might not have won an Earphones Award, but we think have a particular special quality that warrants them being considered for our best of the year lists.

We want to make sure that each book is a brilliant listening experience. That’s what it’s about. There are lots of books and lots of lists at this time of year and we try to find the ones that are guaranteed to be great listening. That’s the top priority.

For people looking for audiobooks to listen to, can you say which categories you’ve chosen best of 2020 lists for?

We have nine categories. We have fiction and several nonfiction categories: biography, history, culture and memoir. Then we have some of the genres: romance, mystery, sci-fi and fantasy. We also have two young people’s categories: young adult audiobooks for teens and children’s and family.

So, in terms of the five audiobooks you’ve chosen today, you’ve selected them from across all the subject categories that you cover. How did you get it down to just five?

It was truly random. I decided I would just pick five that I had personally listened to and really loved that were important to me. I then also had to check that they were available in the UK and that the version we had listened to and reviewed was also what your audience could find to listen to. That was interesting: it’s all about rights and various things that the publisher has handled. But these five books are all available to British listeners.

Let’s go through the audiobooks that you’ve selected as the best of 2020 individually, so we get a bit of a sense what each of them is about.  Which one shall we start with?

The first one I wanted to talk about is Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, who is British. She’s a naturalist and a scientist and observer and has written several books that she has narrated as audiobooks: she reads her own. Vesper Flights is a collection of more than 30 essays and there’s something really compelling about her narration of these stories. Some of them are very personal. Some of them are just wonderful observations about nature, natural things, and particularly birds—she’s also the author of H is for Hawk.

“We want to make sure that each book is a brilliant listening experience. That’s what it’s about”

They’re short listening. I would say that probably each one of the stories is less than an hour, which makes for an interesting type of audiobook.

I found them very contemplative. They were an escape, in the sense that they take you away. They make you think about something that is not in this world or at least not in your own world around you right this minute. That’s one of the things that I loved about them.

When we spoke earlier this year, you mentioned that it’s actually quite difficult for authors to narrate their own audiobooks because it’s a professional skill. But she manages to pull it off, does she?

She does. She has a style that’s a little bit conversational, in a way, but she’s also quite precise about her observations. So, as a naturalist, she tells you about what she sees in the natural world, whether it’s about birds’ nests or a garden or something else. She’s precise, but she has a very engaging way of telling you about it, as if she were sitting with you saying, ‘I saw the most amazing thing! This is what I observed and this is what it made me think of.’ She takes you with her.

It sounds wonderful. Okay, shall we move on to the next book in your selection of best audiobooks of 2020?

So now for something totally different, let’s talk about The Sandman by Neil Gaiman.

He actually just chose his favourite comfort reads for us.

I wouldn’t say The Sandman is a comfort read! The Sandman is an audio adaption of Neil Gaiman’s comic book series. The graphic novels are not new—they’ve been ongoing for many years—but the series has been adapted by Dirk Maggs and performed with this incredible cast that’s led by James McAvoy. Neil is in it—who is of course a wonderful storyteller himself—Michael Sheen, Taron Egerton, Bebe Neuwirth, Andy Serkis. It’s a great cast and the adaption that Dirk Maggs did is brilliant. If you’re not familiar with him, he was a collaborator with Douglas Adams on all The Hitchhiker’s Guides. So he has done many different adaptions and productions of audio drama and this is quite something. It’s dark, it’s very mysterious, but it’s very engrossing as a listening experience. It was too scary for me, but I loved the audio experience of it.

These multivoiced audiobooks, where you have a huge cast with various famous actors: it’s very much an experience like going to the cinema isn’t it, listening to a book like this?

It is and it’s also in the long British tradition of radio plays. This is the top of the art form in terms of that kind of adaption, with every detail—the sound, the sound effects, the music—everything is beautifully orchestrated and brilliantly done.

Let’s talk about The Pull of the Stars next, which is a historical novel.

This is by Emma Donoghue and read by Emma Lowe. I like Emma Donoghue’s novels a lot. This one is a bit different. She had done some research about the 1918 flu epidemic and then, earlier this year, with everything that was going on, she felt that this was the time to publish the story. It’s set around a Dublin maternity ward over just a few days in 1918. Three women from very different classes have to come together to help patients who are having babies at a time when the flu is going on around them.

To me, it seemed so much like what is going on in the world now. To have this view of a medical facility, the challenges that the women had—the doctor, the nurse and the aide, the young woman who helps them—and there’s the politics all woven into it. It just resonated with me. It was 100 years ago, but there’s a lot that was very similar. It’s unfortunately staying very relevant.

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And Emma Lowe is brilliant in her narration. She had to have three women from different backgrounds with different types of voices. There’s lots of conversation among them, and among the women patients. It’s very hard to pull off as an audiobook.

Audiobook narrators have to get all the different accents right.

They do and they have to make sure that they’re getting the right accent in a conversation where it may not say, ‘Bridie said’ or ‘Kathleen said.’ They’ve got to parse it out and these brilliant narrators do that in real time, as they’re reading it. They’ve gone over it before, but they are changing their voices and the performance from character to character as they go.

Let’s talk about The Searcher next, which is by Tana French and narrated by Roger Clark. This is a mystery: why is it so good to listen to as an audiobook?

Now, this is interesting because Roger Clark, who is an American-Irish-British actor, has to use all of that in this story, which is about an American cop who has left Chicago and gone to a rural Irish village, presumably to get away from everything. That’s not how it works out, as you know. Roger Clark has to be an American and then we have all of the Irish villagers. It’s a great story with wonderful suspense. It lends itself extremely well to audio and Roger Clark does a beautiful job.

Why do you say it lends itself to audio?

Oftentimes any kind of suspense or mystery works extremely well on audio. In this case, Roger Clark doesn’t give anything away—although Tana French does a little bit. There’s a lot of suspense and then there’s a big twist that has to be handled fairly carefully by a narrator, because it’s not just in the writing: you have characters, you’ve got voices. So it’s fascinating what Roger does. He does it very well.

There have been comparisons, that The Searcher is like an American Western. Either I don’t know much about American Westerns or it just didn’t connect on that level for me.

To you it was just an Irish story?

It seemed to me like an Irish story, about everybody knowing so much back history about everybody else in the village and in the area.

Roger Clark has a great voice for this, he’s a great American cop.

You said earlier there were some books you didn’t include in this selection of best audiobooks of 2020 because the US and UK narrators were different. Do you want to quickly tell us about some of those?

In the mystery category, there were a couple of others that I wanted to mention. One is All the Devils are Here, which is by Louise Penny. For the American audience, it’s read by Robert Bathurst. He’s been reading that series for American audiences for several years and does a great job. We have a wonderful podcast interview with him about doing the series, which is why I was excited about it. However, in the UK, Adam Sims is the narrator of the Louise Penny series. It’s still a great story and I’m sure it’s good because the story is so good but I can’t listen to it.

Were there any other audiobooks where you really liked the narrator of the US audiobook?

Yes, The Splendid and the Vile, which is the Erik Larson book about Winston Churchill and his family. In the US, it’s narrated by John Lee, who is British. Another mystery that I could have talked about is One by One by Ruth Ware. We love Imogen Church who is a British narrator and has done all of Ruth’s other titles. We’ve done interviews with her. She’s fabulous and it’s a great story.

Let’s look at the last of your selections of best audiobooks of 2020. This is A Most Beautiful Thing and it’s a memoir.

This was a very important audiobook to me this year. It’s written by Arshay Cooper and read by Adam Lazarre-White, who does a beautiful job. So it’s a memoir but it’s not read by the author.

The story is about the first American all-Black high school rowing team. I was thinking about why I loved the title and listening to it, but then I suddenly thought that of course Britain has an amazing tradition of rowing! So this is a title which is a lot about rowing and the team, the building of the team and what the team meant to all these young athletes. It’s a great story for your audience to be interested in. My husband was an oarsman so I’ve gotten it for him.

The story is mostly set in Chicago, at a high school on the West Side which is very poor, with lots of violence outside of school and disrupted homes. They have sports, but they’ve never had rowing. Then, in 1998, a man decided that the high school needed a rowing team and brought a shell into the high school cafeteria. Now, these students had never seen a rowing shell. They had never seen a rowing race. Some of them had probably never even been near the water, except maybe the Chicago River. The whole concept of this as a sport they didn’t know about. The wonderful thing that Arshay says is that many of the students just turned up to find out about the team because they offered pizza. The draw was a free pizza lunch. Then they recruited these athletes and trained them. They came from very different backgrounds, with tremendous challenges for being on the team, for showing up. But it worked. They were champions and many overcame their disadvantages—because they were so satisfied with this accomplishment that it served as a stepping-stone for many of them to change the way their lives had been going.

What’s interesting is that this is not a new book. The reason it came out as an audiobook is that there was just a documentary made about the team, of their coming together again and rowing for the Chicago Sprints and about where their lives took them. It’s about how much the training and the motivation that came from the coach and the sponsor of the team helped change their lives, including Arshay Cooper who has gone on helping young people get motivated and get out of the lives they want to change. I think this is a beautiful representation and inspiration for believing that that can happen.

And as well as being a moving story, the narration is good as well?

Adam is very good. Adam is not a young narrator, but Arshay Cooper is not writing this as a young person:  he’s looking back as an adult. But, of course, there’s a lot of street talk because it’s about the kids in high school. Adam Lazarre-White does a brilliant job of balancing that and making it believable, because you have to believe that that dialogue, as it was written, is real. It’s a beautiful audiobook.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

December 1, 2020

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Robin Whitten

Robin Whitten

Robin Whitten is the founder and editor of AudioFile magazine. Started in 1992, AudioFile reviews and recommends audiobooks as a multi-platform resource, publishing in print, e-newsletters, the website, and seasonal programs like AudiobookSYNC for teen audiences. AudioFile also maintains the Talent & Industry Guide, the sourcebook for audiobook professionals. Robin has served on the board of Directors of the Audio Publishers Association, and as an Audie Awards judge.

Robin Whitten

Robin Whitten

Robin Whitten is the founder and editor of AudioFile magazine. Started in 1992, AudioFile reviews and recommends audiobooks as a multi-platform resource, publishing in print, e-newsletters, the website, and seasonal programs like AudiobookSYNC for teen audiences. AudioFile also maintains the Talent & Industry Guide, the sourcebook for audiobook professionals. Robin has served on the board of Directors of the Audio Publishers Association, and as an Audie Awards judge.