The Best Audiobooks of 2022

recommended by Robin Whitten

AudioFile Audiobook Reviews

AudioFile Audiobook Reviews


Every year AudioFile magazine reviews thousands of new audiobooks and in its annual best-of-the-year lists its editors include only books that make exceptional listening. Here Robin Whitten, AudioFile's founder and editor, picks out five outstanding audiobooks in a range of genres and explains what it is that makes them special.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

AudioFile Audiobook Reviews

AudioFile Audiobook Reviews

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Can you start by explaining how you set about choosing the best audiobooks of 2022?

The books on our ‘best audiobooks of 2022’ list come from the many reviews that AudioFile has done during the year. So far we’ve done 2,500 audiobook reviews. Out of that number, maybe 200 or so are given our Earphones Awards, which means that the reviewer has designated them as exceptional. We start with that group of exceptional audiobooks, and then try to bring that down into nine categories of: fiction, nonfiction & culture, memoir, biography & history, mystery, romance, sci fi, teens, and then children & family listening. We pick six books in each category.

One of the things that we try to do with AudioFile’s list is to make sure it is audiocentric. It has to be exceptional listening; it has to be an audio experience that people will remember. That changes the criteria for what gets on the list, which is nice, because there are many, many lists of the best of everything at this time of year. Our AudioFile list is focused on the objective of an exceptional audio experience.

Presumably, the underlying book has to be good to be able to pull off an exceptional audiobook?

Absolutely. There are certainly examples of books that are not so great that you can enjoy a lot listening to as an audiobook, but they’re not in this group. These are excellent underlying books and then the extra is the experience that you get from the audio listening.

How many reviewers do you have listening to audiobooks through the year?

We have a lot. At any given time, we have between 80 and 100 different reviewers who are listening for AudioFile in different subject areas. They’re based all over and they come with different interests, which makes the reviews different. Because if I were writing all the reviews, they would probably all sound about the same. For the volume of audiobooks we cover, we like to have different points of view from different people with very different interests.

Let’s go through the five you’ve picked out for us today. First up is The Marriage Portrait, which is a historical novel set in Renaissance Italy. Tell me a bit about the book and why it’s an exceptional audiobook.

This is by Maggie O’Farrell, who wrote Hamnet, which was a great success last year. In The Marriage Portrait, she takes us to 16th-century Italy and the Medicis. It’s about a child bride, Lucrezia de’Medici, who is the daughter of Cosimo de’Medici. She marries the Duke of Ferrara at the age of 15. This is a true historical event.

The actress Genevieve Gaunt, who narrates the audiobook, has the perfect voice for this story. She’s got a huge range of characters she has to do. She has to be a 15-year-old bride, who has a lot of spirit, but she’s up against a huge force in the Duke of Ferrara, who has a deep baritone. Then you’ve got the courtiers, the princes and her maid. The book is beautifully written, so there are lots of descriptions of the court and the palaces and her garments. Genevieve Gaunt captures not only these portraits, which are very powerful and very diverse, but all the details. She makes you feel like you’re there—you’re seeing a table laid with all these foods, or Lucrezia’s gown. You just see it so beautifully.

“It has to be an audio experience that people will remember”

There’s a lot going on, and it’s embellished a bit in the romance. There’s plenty of melodrama. It’s also scary because not good things happen. That’s true in the history as well. There is a lot of foreshadowing. It’s just great listening.

Interestingly, the book reviews in print have been mixed. Lots of people love it but there have been some fairly negative reviews. When I read those I thought, ‘You just didn’t have Genevieve Gaunt telling you this story!’ She just places you there as a listener in 16th-century Italy.

In the AudioFile review of The Marriage Portrait, it mentions that Maggie O’Farrell herself does a bit of narration. Is that just at the end of the book, when she explains the historical context?

Yes, she does the historical note, which is extensive because of the research that she did. After you’ve finished with the story you can listen to that, although some people prefer to listen to the afterword first.

Why is it called The Marriage Portrait? Is it because of the Robert Browning poem?

There is a portrait of Lucrezia de’Medici attributed to Bronzino. Browning also wrote a poem, “My Last Duchess” about the Duke of Ferrara with a fictional portrait. The book has wonderful references back and forth. A portrait of Lucrezia is also being created in the story.

Let’s go on to The Maid which is in one of my favorite genres, mystery. What happens in this book?

The Maid is set in a boutique hotel in Manhattan. The protagonist is Molly the maid, who tells the story. There is a crime, Molly is blamed and we have to figure out what the truth is.

Lauren Ambrose is the narrator. She is an American actress who I don’t think has done a lot of audiobooks, but she really gets the character of Molly. Molly is an excellent maid; she gets everything right every time and is very precise. That’s very important to her because although it’s not specified, Molly is somewhere on the autism spectrum. Everything has to be in its place and that’s how she gets through her work and her life. There is a slight speech pattern that Lauren gives Molly that is so subtle and so beautifully articulated. I have no idea how she invented this voice but it is perfect for reflecting the psychology of the character. You really feel you are listening to someone whose whole life has to be in the details done the same every time and that if anything goes awry then you’re off kilter. It’s just brilliantly done.

The Maid is also a very good mystery, with lots of red herrings, lots of misdirection. You’re really rooting for Molly to be exonerated.

Next up is a collection of essays by Zora Neale Hurston, You Don’t Know Us Negroes. Some of the essays are quite well-known, while others are newly published. Tell me more.

I know Zora Neale Hurston best for her fiction, and particularly Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is probably her best-known work. I have read a couple other of her novels and some short stories. This is the first collection of nonfiction I’ve come across, and it was put together from writings that she did, mostly from Manhattan, in Harlem, during the 1930s, 40s and up into the 50s and they reflect that period of history. She has a very strong, opinionated voice and she’s using it in these various essays. Some essays are longer than others, some are quite short. The latest is from the 1950s, when she attended a famous trial of a Black woman who was accused of murdering a white doctor after years of his abuse of her. Her voice and her opinions really resonate today.

What’s interesting in listening to these essays is that Robin Miles—who we may have talked about before as an audiobook narrator, she’s one of our ‘Golden Voices’—is brilliant at capturing the subtleties of accents, tonal changes, certain regionalisms and the speech patterns. These essays weren’t written in the last decade, so the style of the writing is a little different. Robin picks up on all the cadences. The whole stylistic presentation of the essays is fabulous, and also the spirit of the writer, of Zora, comes through so well.

So do you step away from the book very indignant?

Very much so. We believe in what she is saying now, but no one was listening then. That makes you even madder—or at least it makes me madder. With the injustices that we see now, at least there are some people listening, but I can imagine back then they were not being heard in any way. But she was still writing. It makes you wonder where these essays have been all this time, but I’m glad that they’ve been collected now.

Let’s turn to Inside Voice by Lake Bell, who’s an actress, director and writer. This came out straight as an audiobook, I believe, because it’s all about the audio?

Inside Voice is strictly audio, as far as I know. It’s more like a program that you might hear as an extended podcast or a documentary series. Lake Bell’s interest is in the voice: how we hear our own voice and also how we hear others’ voices. She’s fun to listen to and you can take Inside Voice on a couple of different levels.

As a voice actress, she goes over the things that she did to her voice to clean it up, to get rid of regionalisms and speech patterns. Then she comes around to saying this was not a good thing, because we should all have those things that tell people little bits about our culture and our background and where we’re from. If we grew up in Tennessee, then there should be a hint of that in our speaking voice. It’s part of who we are.

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She also talks about how every time we hear a voice, we judge it in a certain way. That’s pretty much innate, so how do you resist that or get beyond it? How do you hear a voice and not make a judgement about something that you think because you hear it?

Another angle on Inside Voice is that if you think about it as an audiobook listener, every time you listen to an audiobook, you’re hearing and judging a voice. That voice has to connect with the right characters or it does not engage you. I think I loved this program because of that, because you can take it on several levels.

Although it’s addressing a pretty serious topic, from the clips that I listened to she’s trying to be humorous about it. Is the book quite funny?

Yes. She makes it sort of a game she’s playing. She’s very funny. She’s snarky. She’s smart.

The publisher is Pushkin Industries, which is Malcolm Gladwell’s company. Their whole objective is to push the boundaries of audiobook programming with new ideas. It’s very forward-thinking. She makes a comment about breaking away or ‘blooming’ from the origins of a traditional audiobook. She uses clips from voicemail messages and old answering machine messages, she has clips of other actors with very distinctive voices. She uses all of this material and puts it into this complex program that is her Inside Voice audio.

Let’s move on to the last audiobook on your 2022 list which is In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Amy Bloom, who is a novelist. This one just sounds devastating.

It is a devastating story. It’s a memoir of her marriage and the death of her husband by assisted suicide. Listening to the audio version embodies why author memoirs are so popular and so powerful as audiobooks. You hear her telling this story. It’s an intensely personal story. She’s a professional in the way that she holds herself together as she tells this story, but as the listener, you hear—she can’t help but have in her voice—the emotion and the many feelings that she had as she went through this incredible experience with her husband.

Memoirs can sometimes be fun and funny, but always with an author memoir, that deep emotional piece is in their voice, whether they know it or not, or whether they try to hide it or not. It’s there, and we hear it. The effectiveness of that connection with us is one of the brilliant things about listening to an audiobook memoir.

In terms of what happens, her husband gets dementia and wants to die, and it’s about her coming to terms with that?

Yes, and how she supports him, despite all the conflicting emotions that she goes through. It was a great marriage. She has a great devotion to him. This was something she wanted to support him in but it’s about how incredibly difficult it was. It’s amazing that she could write this book. And then that she could record it as well. It’s a brilliant piece.

Before listening to it, I thought, ‘Do I really want to listen to this?’ but it had excellent reviews. I was entranced by the way she tells the story. She pulls no punches, that honesty in the memoir, and in her voice, was very compelling, as hard as it was—and it was a whole lot harder on her, of course, than it was on us listening to it. It’s amazing.

So that’s a sad one, but there are lots of different kinds of choices on our best-of-the-year list.

Yes, that book is confronting an important issue that we could all face, but it’s not one to pick if you’re looking to listen to an audiobook for escapism.

Right. And sometimes it’s hard to discover which audiobooks you might want to listen to. Curating five is a nice start. Also, for each of the 50+ audiobooks on our best-of-the-year list, we have sound clips you can try out. There are also several podcast episodes with the narrators. Coming up, we have Lake Bell talking to us about Inside Voice and Robin Miles talking about You Don’t Know Us Negroes. So you can listen to the audiobook clip or you could listen to a little bit of a conversation with the narrators talking about the books, which is fun. That’s two ways that you can discover what’s interesting in an audiobook before you make your choice.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

December 6, 2022

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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.