The Best Audiobooks of 2021

recommended by Robin Whitten

In 2021, as in previous years, AudioFile magazine picks out the very best audiobooks of the year, books that make great listening and where outstanding narration brings additional pleasure over and above reading the book in print with your eyes. Here, AudioFile editor and founder Robin Whitten picks out the best audiobooks of 2021 for us—out of the 2,300 books that she and her team listened to and reviewed.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Thank you for choosing the best audiobooks of the year for us again in 2021: you always make such good selections. For those who haven’t read last year’s interview, do you want to explain how you came up with your choices?

Every year is a little different. We pick the best of the year from the audiobooks that we’ve reviewed at AudioFile within that specific year. This year we’ve reviewed 2,300 audiobooks—and it’s pretty hard to get that down to a manageable ‘best’ list. But we have nine subjects and try to find five or six audiobooks in each of those groups where we can all say, ‘This is great listening. The whole experience of this book is great for listeners.’ We hope that helps distinguish our lists from everybody else’s best of the year lists. The books we choose give the listener something that they might not otherwise get, if they were to read that same book with their eyes.

Let’s move to the first book on your list, which is Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019. Can you tell me what the book is about and why the audiobook is so good?

This is a book of essays and poems, collected and edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. They asked writers to take a five-year period of history and write something about that period, so it could be anything, but it is chronological: it starts in 1619 and goes through to 2019 and contemporary history. There’s a lot of really interesting focus on specific events, on the laws that were passed, on tragic incidents. It’s about the focus a contemporary author brings to that period of history, in a way that we might not think about. There are 90 entries, so most of them are fairly short, less than 10 minutes each.

In audio, we have this huge cast. Sometimes there are authors who are reading their own work, like Nikole Hannah-Jones, who also wrote 1619, another history project that has been getting a lot of attention in the US.

“The books we choose give the listener something that they might not otherwise get”

There is also a cast of some of the very best audiobook narrators. These professional narrators shine with their performance of these often very difficult works and tough subjects. That’s what they’re trained to do, to bring forth the emotional detail and connection that the author has. Authors can write, but sometimes they can’t always narrate a book as well as some of the professional narrators. So you have Robin Miles, Dion Graham, January LaVoy, J.D. Jackson. I think all of them are AudioFile Golden Voice Narrators. When you think of this being a community of history, you have the community that has written the history, but you also have this community of brilliant narrators who are bringing it to listeners in a way that I don’t think you could experience in the same way if you were reading it with your eyes.

Did you find out a lot and was it very moving listening to Four Hundred Souls?

It’s hard listening, it’s often inspiring listening. It’s very sad, but it’s important listening. It’s powerful. I’m very glad that I listened to it.

It is also not something that you have to listen to in one sitting, because it’s chronological. They did a very good job on this audiobook, because collections aren’t always as successful in audio, when they run together, without a pause, or something that breaks it into what you might see with your eyes. In this case, there are oral clues of the date, of the period of time. The five years are always announced before the poem or the essay.

Let’s go on to the next audiobook you’ve chosen as one of the best of 2021. This is also a history book and it’s called Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II.

This is by Daniel James Brown, who is the author of The Boys in the Boat, which was what initially attracted me. It’s read by Louis Ozawa, who is a Japanese American actor and has a cultural connection to this story. It follows four young Japanese American men, starting at Pearl Harbor in 1941. It traces not just the lives of these four young men but goes back into the history of their families and what happens to them through this whole period.

First, the men were interned, and they were not allowed to be part of the American army. Then they were allowed to enlist. Three went to Europe where they had brilliant careers as part of an infantry regiment that was very instrumental in the European theater in the war. They were highly decorated. One of them was a conscientious objector.

The origin of this book is something called the Densho project, which is an oral history of Japanese Americans. Dan Brown got interested in that and then started doing research on these specific young men. It is a fascinating biography but also a history of the time. Dan Brown writes very approachably and Louis Ozawa is just spectacular.

It’s a history book, so is it quite long?

It’s 17 hours so it is long, but because it’s also a biography, you want to know the whole arc of these men’s lives.

Next up, we’ve got the four novels that make up Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. This is not a new set of books, but it is a new audiobook recording. Tell me what’s so special about it and why it’s made your list.

This is something that audio can do so well. At the time that Durrell was writing these four novels between 1957 and 1960, they were all the rage. They came out to great acclaim, and everyone knew them and read them. His work is a little bit obscure now. When you mention Lawrence Durrell to a younger person, it’s not an author they would necessarily read. But here Naxos AudioBooks decided to do a new, unabridged recording of the four novels. They got Nicholas Boulton, a British narrator, who is just brilliant with these novels.

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When we reviewed the first one, Justine, we recognized that Durrell’s descriptive language and the sensual nature of the prose is so vivid and so moving in a way that particularly comes across in audio and in Nicholas Boulton’s performance. So it got an Earphones Award. Then we had the second one reviewed, and a different reviewer gave that book an Earphones Award. All four of them—from four different reviewers all with slightly different takes—were just totally taken by the language and this audio experience of Durrell’s work.

What are the novels about?

They’re set in the 1940s in Alexandria, Egypt, just before and during World War Two. It’s a set of events and characters that are seen from different points of view. It’s the whole idea of being able to see the same thing differently. What’s interesting about the casting here is that Nicholas Boulton became all of those different characters and points of view, instead of having a cast which, maybe, another publisher might have done. He pulls it off brilliantly.

The kids and I also loved listening to the audiobooks of the memoirs by his brother, Gerald Durrell, in which Lawrence features quite a bit.

Gerald Durrell is one of my absolute favourites. He’s just funnier than anything. In his stories about Corfu, his brother Larry does not come off well at all. I have to say I had a little prejudice about Lawrence Durrell before I saw all the brilliant reviews of the Alexandria Quartet.

Let’s go on to Eartha & Kitt: A Daughter’s Love Story in Black and White.

This is a memoir by Kitt Shapiro, the daughter of Eartha Kitt, the great jazz musician and singer. She’s writing about her life with her mother, with whom she spent a lot of time. In her career, Earth Kitt was not allowed in many places in America. She was more welcome abroad, so she performed a lot in Europe—but she didn’t want to leave her daughter behind. So Kitt travelled with Eartha as a child, then as a young person, and eventually became her manager.

The memoir doesn’t gloss over the hard times, and hard things that happened in Eartha’s career and in her relationship with Kitt—but it is also extremely loving and warm. It’s a powerful story that really makes you appreciate Eartha and her career and the challenges she faced. It was a very hard time to be a black musician in the world, and yet she achieved such fame.

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Kitt Shapiro is not reading the memoir herself. Sometimes authors do a really brilliant job with their memoirs, sometimes not. This one is read by Karen Chilton, who has just a beautiful, beautiful voice. It’s very rich, it reminds me a little bit of Eartha Kitt’s very distinctive voice. We have an interview with Karen Chilton, and she has a very interesting connection with this memoir. She met Eartha Kitt once, so she is reading the biography of someone that she had met. She is also the author of two biographies of jazz musicians and narrated Billie Holiday’s biography. So the world of jazz is something that she knows. Her connection with Eartha & Kitt is emotionally very strong and it’s a great listen.

So we’ve had biography, history, fiction and memoir. The last audiobook you’ve chosen for your best of 2021 list is in the mystery genre. This is The Night Gate by Peter May, which I’ve read as a book, though not as an audiobook. For those who aren’t familiar with the series, maybe say a bit what the book is about.

Peter May writes about a forensic investigator, Enzo Macleod, who sometimes in the series is in Scotland, but in this one has retired to southern France. He’s a workaholic, so he doesn’t enjoy being retired, and gets involved with an old mystery. It goes back to World War II, when this part of France was occupied by the Nazis, so you get elements of the French Resistance as well as stolen art treasures and all kinds of things going on within this mystery.

I have to give Peter Forbes, the narrator, just a tremendous amount of credit here. First of all, you’ve got Scottish accents mixed with French and German and all the characters in this. I was really in awe of his ability to not only convincingly put these accents together but keep them all straight. Peter Forbes has recorded many of Peter May’s mysteries, and I would imagine that they’re probably easier when they’re set in Scotland because French with a Scottish accent is quite a feat. So I don’t know what UK listeners will think of it but, to an American, it comes off pretty well.

And he keeps up the pace, he keeps you on edge through the book?

He does. As I said, he’s done a number of Peter May’s titles, which are often a little dark and a little tense. Keeping the listener on edge is part of the plan. Peter Forbes does that extremely well, even though you’re in southern France, so there’s food and all kinds of other diversions, which lighten this episode in the series.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

December 4, 2021

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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.