Audiobooks

The Best Audiobooks: the 2021 Audie Awards

recommended by Michele Cobb

There are so many fantastic audiobooks being produced at the moment, across so many genres, that it's hard to know where to start listening. Fortunately, every year, the judges of the Audie Awards pick out some of the very best. Here, Michele Cobb, Executive Director of the Audio Publishers Association, talks us through some of the 2021 winners, including the 'audiobook of the year.'

Interview by Sophie Roell

We’re talking about the 2021 Audie awards, which select the best audiobooks of the past year across a range of categories and genres. Before we get to the individual winners, can you give me a general sense of how many books you’re choosing from?

The Audio Publishers Association is the group that puts on the Audie Awards. They typically get a lot of submissions and this year we actually blew past the previous top number and we’re now in the neighbourhood of over 1500 submissions per year. Those are all listened to by multiple judges in multiple rounds so by the time there’s a winner in a particular category, it will have had a minimum of nine people listening to the whole audiobook.

So we can rely on these audiobook recommendations being pretty solid.

Yes! I mean, as with anything, judging is subjective. But I find that the Audies are a very good place to get top recommendations for some of the best listening each year. AudioFile works very closely with the Audio Publishers Association and puts together a website that includes sound clips so you can actually see their review and hear a little bit of the book. That can help you make your decision of what to listen to.

So in terms of the audiobooks we’re talking about today, presumably these are your favourites from among the winners of the 2021 Audie Awards, ones that you personally loved?

Absolutely, yes. In the case of two of them they won multiple awards, so it was hard to not talk about them. But there were a number of titles that got multiple awards and some of those we’re not talking about today. There were some favorites that I haven’t been able to talk about in a while so I’ve pulled them onto this list.

Let’s turn to the first book, which won best audiobook of the year in the 2021 Audies. This is Piranesi by Susanna Clarke and narrated by a British actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor. It’s filed under fantasy but it’s also got a touch of historical fiction to it, maybe?

It does, but I really think of Piranesi as a fantasy book because it’s about this man who’s living in a maze. He is talking to statues and interacting with them and he has someone that comes and visits him once or twice a week. He’s also on a journey of self-discovery. He’s peeling back the layers of his life.

It’s not an easy book to explain in a single paragraph and I think one of the reasons that the audio is so successful is that the book itself is very dense. You’re trying to figure out what’s going on and the narrator actually puts together some of the thinking for you. He’s helping to lead you on that path which may be a little bit more difficult to follow when you’re reading with your eyes. He’s giving it some context and some framing and helping you understand what’s happening.

It’s really a transformative performance of a very interesting book with some great writing in it. It’s that thing that comes together when you’ve got great writing and great narration. It just really makes you sit and listen. It’s a seven-hour book, and it was hard for me to walk away from it, because I was trying to figure out what was going on, to peel back the layers of the onion, and work out the maze. It really sucked me in.

In terms of coming top in the ‘audiobook of the year’ category: what kind of qualities will the winning book normally have?

First of all, fantastic performance. It’s really got to have a great narration style and it’s got to be a fantastic listening experience so if someone has never listened to an audiobook before, and they want to have one experience, this is what audiobook of the year is about: listening to something and really getting involved in the format because of that performance. Generally, of course, the writing of the book has to be very strong in order for the performance to be very strong. Also, for audiobook of the year in particular—and this is not true of the other categories—they do take a look at sales and marketing and try to see whether the book had some kind of impact on the industry at large.

Is the book actually about Piranesi, the 18th century Italian engraver?

It’s all so complicated. It’s all about figuring it out. I have trouble talking about this book because you don’t want to say too much and you also can’t really say a little. Just go listen, have the experience, and get your understanding of it–which I think is a bit different for each person.

I did hear a lot of people loving the writing of this book but struggling when reading it with their eyes. It’s similar to a book last year which was tough for people to read with their eyes. But when you hear it with your ears, you get a little bit more context. I think this is a good example of that.

I also think people who haven’t caught the audiobook bug yet don’t always realize how much it can add. I was listening to the entire Robert Galbraith series as audiobooks, but I read the fifth one when it came out last year. I realized I was so hooked on the narration that I regretted—and still regret—reading it with my eyes.

That’s what’s fun about audio, that there are so many times where it is a slightly different experience. The performer really adds to the experience. I can think of many books that I was not successful reading with my eyes and then went to the audiobook and thought, ‘How did I not love this in print?’ It’s the little extras in there that help you.

Let’s go to the next book you’ve chosen, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It won not only best memoir/autobiography in the 2021 Audies but also best male narrator. This is not a new book but it’s a new performance, I guess?

Yes, Laurence Fishburne reads this and I really feel like he should read more audiobooks. He probably is not going to find a ton of time in his schedule to do this, but I think we saw with the pandemic some performers who normally do television, film and stage had some extra time and in his case he read a couple of audiobooks. This is one of them.

For me, this text was so important when I was growing up. I read it and got a sense of a political stance which, growing up in New Hampshire, was not something that I was exposed to. So the text was really powerful on its own and then to have his powerful voice, not imitating Malcolm X but giving you a sense of him, it really made an impactful listen. It did win two Audies because, again, it’s taking something that’s really strong in the written word and adding a really strong layer of performance. That’s almost impossible to beat.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is 17 hours of listening, so a bit more of a commitment. It doesn’t drag?

Not at all. He really gets it. He really gives you the emotional sense of anger in there without it being over the top. He gives you the background of what it was like for Malcolm X growing up and where all of these things were coming from. I really felt like it filled out the history. I remembered reading it with my eyes, I remembered seeing the movie, but this was somehow a more complete experience than either of those things. I got into the text a bit more. I find generally, with nonfiction, when I read with my eyes, I might speed it up and skip over some things, but here you hear the words pronounced and really focus in. There were some moments I rewound and listened to a few paragraphs again because I was like, ‘I’m not sure I got that. Let me really dig into this.’ So it’s hats off to Laurence Fishburne and whoever directed him because they did a nice job of finding the beats.

I’ve watched the movie, but can you remind me about Malcolm X’s life?

Malcolm X didn’t have a smooth upbringing. He was involved in things that were less than legal and it was only slightly later in his life that he became involved in Islam and became a political figure. He wasn’t starting from a privileged position with a background in politics. He really came from a tough upbringing and used that fire and that experience to lead people and inspire them to make changes in their own life.

And the book takes you through all that?

It really does.

Now we’ve got The City We Became, a fantasy novel set in New York. This won both best female narrator and best fantasy audiobook at the 2021 Audies. Tell me more about it.

This is by N.K. Jemisin. It’s from an original story that she had written which was then made into a book. It’s about the city breaking down its boroughs into avatars so someone gets to be the Bronx and someone gets to be Manhattan and someone gets to be Queens.

So you have this opportunity to do a lot of vocal things that are very interesting. Robin Miles, the narrator, is the kind of person who goes around and gathers human experience and conversation. So she’ll meet someone and she might hear them talk and she’ll put that into her consciousness and use it later in a character. I think she really got to do a lot of that here, where she’s playing women and men from a variety of economic and racial backgrounds and she’s playing an avatar, so it’s like being online and having this persona. I wouldn’t say she’s over the top at all but she’s having a good time with these various characters.

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The book itself is dealing with New York and these struggles and fights New York is going through. It was written prior to COVID-19 but has a lot of parallel themes, of the city struggling with something. It was great listening. Again, it won in two categories because the text is awesome, the narration is awesome and you bring it together and suddenly you just can’t stop listening.

The next book was the best novel, winning the fiction category at the 2021 Audies. This is Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid and read by Nicole Lewis. Tell me about that one and why I should listen to it.

This book brings together a newer narrator and a newer author which sometimes allows you to go in different directions in a way that you would not expect. The book itself is about a young woman who is babysitting. She’s African American and she’s babysitting a child who’s white. She takes the child, late in the evening, to a grocery store and is basically accused of potentially kidnapping the child. It’s a racial incident that we certainly have been seeing in the US. This young lady goes through this experience and then has to return and deal with many different elements. How does she deal with the parents of the child after this? How does she deal with the child? How does it impact her choices in her life, because she wasn’t necessarily deciding to be a babysitter for the rest of her life? There are a lot of elements of what it means to be a young person and to be struggling with your identity, with your economic situation. So it’s very layered, which requires a layered and subtle performance. If you go over the top with these emotional issues it can actually stop the reader from really hearing what is happening, because you just get sucked into a performance as opposed to getting emotionally pulled through the story. And that’s what Nicole Lewis is really good at. She’s finding those emotional moments and getting you super-involved in the character.

But she has to play all the characters. She’s also got to play this privileged woman whose child has been sucked into the situation, who isn’t necessarily thinking about what it’s like to be the babysitter and get pulled up by the police and have people in the store attacking her. You’ve got to play these two totally different characters, and they have to be believable. And I think she found an excellent balance of not making the privileged mother of the child a caricature, but really filling out who that person is, finding the humour, making her understandable enough to not dislike her. It’s an important balance.

Yes, definitely, because if you hate one of the characters, it’s hard work to have to hear from them.

Exactly. And, you know, it is hard for those of us who are not necessarily in a position of privilege, especially economically, to understand someone else’s pain, or someone else’s struggle. Those are different struggles and they can be non-sympathetic, but I think Nicole Lewis did a great job of making both characters understandable, sympathetic and also not shying away from their foibles. It makes this book a very good listen. Again, it wasn’t a particularly short book, but it was one that was inspirational to me to go out and walk. I was constantly like, ‘Oh, I want to keep listening to that.’ So I did a lot of walking when I was listening to this title.

That’s a great endorsement! We’re now on the last book on your list which is, again, a memoir. This is More Myself by Alicia Keys and narrated by the author, though lots of other people make an appearance too. Tell me about this book and how it works.

This is a celebrity biography. It’s Alicia Keys talking about her life and she gets all sorts of celebrities, like Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama, to do these little interstitial moments. I have to say, I’m always a little bit nervous with celebrity biography. You want to know about their lives but, half the time, it’s not really that exciting. They haven’t really had that many struggles.

But with Alicia Keys, first of all, I thought it was super-interesting. She was talking about her upbringing. Again, she wasn’t coming from a position of privilege, but she had been taught really well to stand up for herself. Here she is, becoming a celebrity, and ending up in these positions where it’s hard to speak up for yourself. I appreciated that on that journey she was taking us through what she had learned, and encouraging the listener to speak out, to take ownership of who you are and your needs at any moment.

Plus, she has an amazing voice, speaking as well as singing. There is some singing in the book. I remember last year, with this book, she was one of the people that I wanted to listen to, whatever the text was, because her voice is really good. With author performers, oftentimes, they don’t really get all the subtleties. They don’t get all the emotional beats of a title. They might be more on one level than a professional narrator who puts a lot of up and down in the text and in the tone. Alicia Keys was really good at manipulating her voice so it didn’t sound as one note. Even in the quiet moments, it didn’t all sound the same. That’s really important for me as a listener, so that I don’t tune out. I really stay with listening to everything that she’s saying because she’s finding those vocal peaks and valleys. That’s a struggle for someone who does not narrate an audiobook on a regular basis. It’s not an easy skill. People want to read their own stories, but it doesn’t necessarily make for fantastic listening. In this case she did it. She had a great director, I’m sure, and it made a compelling listen for a number of reasons.

You like the underlying story as well, there was enough drama in her memoir?

Yes, I’m sucked into a story of a woman finding her own voice, absolutely. It helps when you are finding your own way in life—as opposed to dropping into it. If you’re the child of a Hollywood star, you don’t have a lot to get through and learn, necessarily. Alicia Keys had a lot of different things to learn. She obviously has a ton of talent and a ton of skill but it’s learning a whole new language almost, and about a whole new society. She’s done that very successfully.

Two of the books on this list are memoirs. Are they particularly suited to audiobooks?

For me, not always. It’s great to hear Tina Fey or Rob Lowe reading their own story, because there’s enough humor in them, enough things of interest. A lot of times I find the memoir of someone I’m not that familiar with not very successful for me, as a listener. Maybe if I was more involved in liking that celebrity or in a particular topic. I do want some drama, I want some lessons learned. Oftentimes in Hollywood at least, I don’t know that there are that many lessons learned, but maybe I’m just jaded.

But whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, I do generally prefer a professional narrator doing a title so I can get the full performance.

Do you have a favorite audiobook genre?

I’m a big fan—both in print and with my ears—of thrillers. I like blood and guts and gore. It’s good for taking me out of my own life, on some level.

I’m not a big reader of nonfiction at all with my eyes, so if I’m going down the nonfiction path I’m definitely going to turn to audio because the narrator helps me focus, I don’t skip over pieces as much. I’m an auditory learner so if you’re trying to teach me something, you’ve got to tell me.

Interview by Sophie Roell

April 7, 2021

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Michele Cobb

Michele Cobb

Michele Cobb is Publisher of AudioFile Magazine, Executive Director of the Audio Publishers Association, and a partner at Forte Business Consulting, which provides Business Development services for the publishing industry.

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Michele Cobb

Michele Cobb

Michele Cobb is Publisher of AudioFile Magazine, Executive Director of the Audio Publishers Association, and a partner at Forte Business Consulting, which provides Business Development services for the publishing industry.