Best Audiobooks of 2020

This year’s top audiobooks, selected by LJ’s audio editor and reviewers, represent the best recorded literature published between November 2019 and December 2020. In a year that’s been like no other, these picks moved us, provided escape, and made us think critically and reflect upon the society in which we live. We hope these lists provide a means for readers’ advisory and (socially distanced) conversation.

This year’s top audiobooks, selected by LJ’s audio editor and reviewers, represent the best recorded literature published between November 2019 and December 2020. In a year that’s been like no other, these picks moved us, provided escape, and made us think critically and reflect upon the society in which we live. We hope these lists provide a means for readers’ advisory and (socially distanced) conversation.
 
See also LJ's picks of best Best Feature Videos and Best Documentaries of 2020.
 

FICTION

Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half. Books on Tape. ISBN 9780525637165. Read by Shayna Small.
With exacting nuance, narrator Small immediately distinguishes the Vignes twin sisters—inseparable as children, utterly disconnected as adults. As decades pass, Bennett’s cast multiplies, with Small effortlessly adapting to the chimerical characters. Transformations abound, yet Small never falters, carrying the generations toward revelation and reunion with resonance and depth.
 
Brown, Jennifer. The Game Changer. Dreamscape Audio. ISBN 9781690558002. Read by Shannon McManus.
This well-written, entertaining mystery about a journalist solving crimes in her small town will appeal to cozy fans and general fiction listeners. When the rival football coach is killed in a hit-and-run in the high school parking lot after a big game, Hollis Bisbee is itching to solve the crime. Along the way, she runs afoul of her editor, the local police chief, and the new officer assigned to keep tabs on her. McManus performs a clear, nicely paced dramatic reading. (LJ 8/20)
 
Emezi, Akwaeke. The Death of Vivek Oji. Books on Tape. ISBN 9780593211489. Read by Yetide Badaki and Chukwudi Iwuji.
After Kavita finds the body of her sensitive son, Vivek, stripped of clothing, wrapped in smoke-tinged fabric, and left on her veranda, she relentlessly probes the mystery of his death. Artfully structured with multiple viewpoints and flashbacks, Emezi’s heartrending, redemptive story features outstanding narration by Badaki and Iwuji, who convey a vivid sense of place and add dimension to even minor characters. Both narrators express emotions compellingly—depths of grief and remorse, quieter moments of devastating epiphany, and the nuanced sparring and sharing among Vivek and his contemporaries. (LJ 10/20)
 
Hibbert, Talia. Take a Hint, Dani Brown. HarperAudio. ISBN 9780062941268. Read by Ione Butler.
After a sweet video of friends Danika and Zafir goes viral, they decide to capitalize on their sudden social media popularity. As they grow closer, they navigate Zaf’s anxiety disorder and other mental health challenges and Dani’s wariness of romance and discomfort with emotions in general. Narrator Butler does an excellent job giving distinct voices to the diverse cast of characters. This delightful novel, worthy of all the superlatives, features one of the funniest, sexiest, sweetest romances of the year. (LJ 9/20)
 
Leilani, Raven. Luster. Macmillan Audio. ISBN 9781250752864. Read by Ariel Blake.
Crafting what will prove to be some of this year’s most sparkling, spectacular prose, Leilani debuts an extraordinary portrait-of-an-artist-as-a-struggling-young-Black-woman. First-time narrator Blake brilliantly embodies 23-year-old Edie and her 23-years-older lover, Eric, and their online affair that evolves into a most unusual relationship that includes Eric’s wife and daughter.
 
McBride, James. Deacon King Kong. Books on Tape. ISBN 9780593166994. Read by Dominic Hoffman.
Why would a fumbling, aging deacon shuffle into the courtyard of a housing project in south Brooklyn and shoot a ruthless teen drug dealer in front of everyone? Though he cannot even remember the incident, this man, known as Sportcoat, sets off a spiral of events that impacts the lives of characters caught up in the turmoil of 1969. Sounding young then old, wizened then clueless, Hoffman brings to life each of the eccentric, realistic characters. In between the twisting plotline, the witty dialogue, and the comic scenes is an insightful look into the lives of people living in the midst of adjustments, redirections, and cultural upheaval. (LJ 7/20)
 
Montimore, Margarita. Oona Out of Order. Macmillan Audio. ISBN 9781250260949. Read by Brittany Pressley.
In 1982, on the eve of her 19th birthday—which is also New Year’s Eve—Oona is having the celebration of her life, madly in love, about to embark on a dream-come-true band tour. But when she awakes, she’s jumped forward in time to 2015. Shock and denial must settle into acceptance that every New Year will begin with her life out of order. Skilled, sensitive narrator Pressley nimbly ages every which way with Montimore’s chronologically challenged protagonist. Pressley is marvelous as discombobulated Oona, but she’s just as affecting when voicing the rest of Montimore’s vast cast. (LJ 6/20)
 
Paralkar, Vikram. Night Theater. HighBridge Audio. ISBN 9781684578900. Read by Raj Ghatak.
Banished from a large private city hospital, a doctor has run a remote village clinic for three years. His “pharmacist” is an untrained young woman, her husband on call for urgent labor. Into this “night theater” come three strangers—a teacher, his pregnant wife, and their eight-year-old son. They’re dead, having been brutally murdered. An “angel” has bartered salvation—if the doctor can repair the corporeal damage overnight, the trio will live again come morning. Paralkar’s already engrossing debut novel—parable, fantasy, and exposé all stitched together—is memorably enhanced by Ghatak’s enthralling performance. (LJ 8/20)
 
Perry, Thomas. A Small Town. HighBridge Audio. ISBN 9781684577705. Read by Christina Delaine.
When more than a thousand violent offenders escape from a maximum-security prison, they wreak havoc on a small Colorado town. After two years, the prison break’s 12 masterminds still have not been caught. A local cop who lost a loved one that night decides to hunt down the offenders herself and dole out justice. She pursues the convicts with single-minded focus across the country. But when they realize what’s happening, the chase becomes even more dangerous. Delaine’s narration is as taut and gripping as the story. (LJ 8/20)
 
Ware, Ruth. One by One. S. & S. Audio. ISBN 9781797111360. Read by Imogen Church.
Ware pays homage to Agatha Christie with her latest, a tense, twisty, elaborate puzzle of a locked-room (or locked-chalet, rather) mystery set at an Alpine resort where a corporate retreat goes terribly wrong. After an avalanche strands the group and people start disappearing or dying, the chalet’s housekeeper, Erin, tries to suss out what’s going on, but she has relevant secrets of her own. Church has the narrative range of a full cast, ably voicing not just the alternating points of view, but the many, varied characters. (LJ 12/20)
 

NONFICTION

Birbiglia, Mike & J. Hope Stein. The New One: Painfully True Stories from a Reluctant Dad. Hachette Audio. ISBN 9781549183072. Read by the authors.
Comedian Birbiglia and his wife, Jennifer, consider their journey from denial that they’ll ever want kids of their own, grim acceptance when they do, to creating an entirely new lifestyle built around their child’s needs. Peppered throughout are Stein’s poems about their daughter, their marriage, their fears, and their love. The poems complement her husband’s insights and help balance the story of their forays into parenthood. Fantastically narrated by both authors, this is a book that all parents will easily relate to and laugh along with. (LJ 9/20)
 
Bunch, Lonnie. A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump. HighBridge Audio. ISBN 9781684578351. Read by JD Jackson.
Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture was an endeavor that mixed political wrangling, organizational leadership, a gathering of historical artifacts, designing and constructing a major building, and helping the public navigate the topic of race in America. Founding director Bunch has a great storytelling style and an adept political mind, giving credit and taking blame while promoting both himself and his continuing vision for the museum. Reader Jackson lends a wonderful warmth. (LJ 8/20)
 
Chatelain, Marcia. Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America. HighBridge Audio. ISBN 9781684577019. Read by Machelle Williams.
In her first book, Chatelain uses the fast food industry as a prism through which to glean a richer, more nuanced understanding of the history of Black America. This mix of business, politics, and race relations serves up moments of hope and disillusionment in the many characters that have a story to tell along with their burgers and fries. The audiobook is read excellently by Williams. This is a genuinely novel study that combines ideas of food justice with the subject of Black history. (LJ 5/20)
 
Diamandis, Peter H. & Steven Kotler. The Future Is Faster Than You Think: How Converging Technologies Are Transforming Business, Industries, and Our Lives. S. & S. Audio. ISBN 9781508299523. Read by Peter H. Diamandis.
Futurist Diamandis and science writer Kotler explore how to use cutting-edge technology to solve seemingly impossible challenges. The exponentially accelerating technologies considered include artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, digital biology, and sensors. The discussion emphasizes how these technologies will converge to transform industry, impact family life, influence governmental structures, and, of ultimate concern, save the global climate. The result is a sobering, mind-altering analysis of how this evolving future may lead our species into unknown realms. Diamandis provides steadily paced narration. (LJ 4/20)
 
Kolker, Robert. Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family. Books on Tape. ISBN 9780593208335. Read by Sean Pratt.
Six of the Galvin family’s 12 children would eventually be diagnosed with schizophrenia. As difficult as the family’s story is, their experiences provide scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health (and beyond) with invaluable insights into a long-misunderstood illness. What could easily have devolved into lurid voyeurism becomes a journalistic masterpiece. Pratt avoids all sensationalizing, narrating with the same deliberate control when he reveals a murder-suicide as when he interprets neuroscientific data. (LJ 10/20)
 
Korda, Michael. Passing: A Memoir of Love and Death. Recorded Bks. ISBN 9781980054061. Read by Henry Strozier.
When a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, every caregiver needs to understand what they’re going through, navigating the illness and, eventually, surrendering to circumstances beyond their control. Korda courageously shares the story of his beloved wife, Margaret, and her battle with cancer, and narrator Strozier reads in a sober, respectful voice. Modern medicine has prolonged life for those with serious illnesses, thus expanding the role and duration of caregiving. This work provides support for the growing population of caregivers. (LJ 4/20)
 
Teitel, Amy Shira. Fighting for Space: Two Pilots and Their Historic Battle for Female Spaceflight. Hachette Audio. ISBN 9781549121005. Read by the author.
Spaceflight historian Teitel tells the empowering true story of two pilots who fought to be the first women in space. This dual biography captures the brilliant lives of Jackie Cochran and Jerrie Cobb as they trailblazed their way into the cockpit and the hearts of millions of Americans. The book is passionately narrated by the author, causing both women to leap from the page right into the listener’s imagination. (LJ 7/20)
 
Tran, Phuc. Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight To Fit In. Macmillan Audio. ISBN 9781250261236. Read by the author.
Tran makes both authorial and aural debut—prefaced by an actual drumroll!—with energy, empathy, and plenty of curse words, as he shares his no-holds-barred coming-of-age journey in small-town Pennsylvania. To survive, he “tried to erase [his] otherness, [his] Asianness, with an... Americanization” that flaunted academic excellence and “Operation Look Punk.”
 
Trethewey, Natasha. Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir. HarperAudio. ISBN 9780063005860. Read by the author.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Trethewey makes both her prose and narrating debut with a startling memoir that alchemizes relentless trauma into exquisite testimony. In 1985, Trethewey’s mother was murdered by her ex-husband on Atlanta’s Memorial Drive. Thirty-five years later, Trethewey gifts readers with something impossibly gorgeous, miraculously created from horrific tragedy.
 
Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Books on Tape. ISBN 9780593339817. Read by Robin Miles.
Wilkerson reframes the complex history of racial disparities and racism in the United States as a classic caste system, comparing America’s system with those operating in India and Nazi-era Germany. She identifies the eight “pillars of caste” that can be clearly observed in all three systems. Miles amplifies and grounds the content with a steady, calm, and clear voice, even when the material is especially heartbreaking and haunting. (LJ 11/20)
 
See also LJ's picks of best Best Feature Videos and Best Documentaries of 2020.

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