Best audiobooks of 2021

In the year’s best audiobooks, exceptional narration dovetails with content and style

(María Medem for The Washington Post)

This year has been another fine one for audiobooks. Seeking those I could recommend without reservation, I must have listened to 100 books of every sort, narrated by a multitude of diverse voices. The 10 best of those (alphabetically arranged) are stellar examples of narrators’ voices and manner dovetailing with content and style. Though this selection inevitably reflects my own taste in both literature and voice, I believe there is something here for everyone.

“American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850”

Alan Taylor’s superb history is a highly listenable if devastating audiobook. It shows, in fascinating detail, how, before the Civil War, the United States traveled along a path of carnage: duplicitous treaties, removals and dispossessions, the forging of racist laws and the relentless spread of White settlers. Narrator Graham Winton delivers the sweeping narrative handsomely in a comfortably paced, sandy-textured voice. Further, he is a master of the difficult art of differentiating quoted passages from the general narrative without sounding cloggy. (Recorded Books, unabridged, 14¾ hours)

The young United States’ manifest uncertainty

“China Room”

Sunjeev Sahota’s intense, heart-rending novel is based on a tale passed down through his family. The novel centers on the “china room,” an outbuilding on a farm in rural Punjab where, in 1929, the three wives of three brothers sleep and cook for their husbands and dictatorial mother-in-law. The wives are kept from knowing which brother is whose husband, an ignorance that leads to the terrible blunder for the youngest wife, 15-year-old Mehar. Her story alternates with that of her great-grandson, an 18-year-old with a heroin addiction. Antonio Aakeel takes on Mehar’s struggling great-grandson’s first-person narration, while Indira Varma delivers Mehar’s story in a low, melodic voice. (Penguin Audio, unabridged, six hours)

Need more recommendations? Ask the Book World team.

“The Death of the Heart”

Published in 1938, Elizabeth Bowen’s brilliant, unsettling novel tells the story of a 16-year-old orphan named Portia who has been thrust upon her much older half brother, Thomas, and his brittle, devious wife, Anna, a woman well provided with gentleman admirers. Among them is the sardonic confidant, St. Quentin; the down-at-the-heels military man, Major Brutt; and the impecunious, high-living chancer, Eddie. Portia develops a passion for Eddie — with destructive consequences all around. Pearl Hewitt brings a light, dainty-ish voice to the narration, giving a watchful naivete to Portia, well-bred peevishness to Anna, boundless energy to Eddie, and, coming down in pitch, a note of old-dufferdom to Major Brutt and below-stairs bluntness to Matchett, the housekeeper. (Tantor Audio, unabridged, 13 hours)

Best feel-good books of 2021

“Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty”

Patrick Radden Keefe’s investigation of the Sackler family is a model of meticulous reporting — and reads like a fast-paced thriller. Grown wealthy through Purdue Pharma and celebrated for its generous support of the arts, the family has become notorious for its part in creating the opioid epidemic that has already killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. Keefe narrates the book in a strong, clear baritone, a prosecutorial voice remarkably suited to detailing this docket of greed, mendacity, arrogance and callousness. (Random House Audio, unabridged, 18 hours)

For the Sackler family, a dynasty built on medicine, marketing and pain


Belinda Bauer’s darkly comic ninth novel is her best and, improbably, her sweetest, given its subject matter. Elderly widower Felix Pink is an “Exiteer,” a member of an anonymous group who pays house calls to help the terminally ill die by suicide. He and his young colleague, Amanda, arrive at the home of one such man, but alas, the two mistakenly assist not him, but another man into the hereafter. Oh, dear! But wait: Is this an accident or setup? Bauer proceeds to spin out a terrific whodunit. Veteran voice actor Rupert Degas narrates this wonderful tale in a well-paced, matte-finished voice, nicely capturing the prevailing moods of ruefulness, melancholy and gentle comedy. (Dreamscape Media, unabridged, 9½ hours)

Best graphic novels of the year

“Lieutenant Dangerous: A Vietnam War Memoir”

Jeff Danziger, an award-winning political cartoonist, was plucked from Vermont at age 24 and sent off to the Army as a draftee in 1967. Hoping the war would soon be over, he dedicated himself to avoiding deployment to Vietnam. After basic training, he spent a year in language school, then in officer training. Still the war ground on, and he was sent to Vietnam as an ordnance officer. In this searing memoir, he recounts his year “in-country” — sharing details that are almost incredible, at times mordantly funny, at others sparking with anger. Danziger reads this important book himself, his voice and manner those of a gifted teacher. (Steerforth, unabridged, 5¾ hours)

Best children's books of 2021

“The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois”

Three gifted narrators deliver Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s powerful debut novel, a work that carves out a great slice of American history and furnishes it with the stories of the Native Americans, enslaved and free Blacks, and European Americans who make up a complex bloodline. (A much-appreciated PDF of this family tree is included with the download.) Prentice Onayemi reads passages from W.E.B. Du Bois in deep, resonant tones, reflecting the epic nature of a novel that runs from the 18th century into the present. Karen Chilton takes on the chapters devoted to the deep past, called “songs” after Du Bois’s invocation of the sorrow songs of Black people. Adenrele Ojo moves her voice from that of a child through to womanhood, narrating the sections devoted to Ailey Garfield, whose point of view dominates the book. (HarperAudio, unabridged, 29¾ hours)

‘The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois’ is the kind of brilliant epic that comes around only once in a decade

“The Man Who Died Twice: A Thursday Murder Club Mystery”

This is the second installment in Richard Osman’s popular series chronicling the adventures of the Thursday Murder Club, a group of elderly sleuths living in an English retirement village. Like its predecessor, this too has its poignant moments, but above all it is witty in a low-key, mild-mannered fashion that is particularly diverting in juxtaposition with the murder and mayhem unloosed by the intricate plot. This thoroughly engaging book is further enhanced by narrator Lesley Manville, whose many acting roles include W.S. Gilbert’s wife, Kitty, in “Topsy-Turvy” and Princess Margaret in the forthcoming season of “The Crown.” Here, her voice absorbs the manner and accents of the various characters while still retaining the discreetly wry air that pervades the book’s overall sensibility. (Penguin Audio, unabridged, 11¾ hours)

Richard Osman, inspired by ‘The A-Team,’ has created a delightful band of elderly sleuths

“The Passenger: How a Travel Writer Learned to Love Cruises & Other Lies from a Sinking Ship”

Chaney Kwak’s memoir of his harrowing voyage on the cruise ship, Viking Sky, is beautifully written and astutely observed. On March 23, 2019, the vessel with 1,373 crew, staff and passengers aboard, lost its engines off Norway’s treacherous Hustadvika coast and nearly capsized. The possibility of death leads Kwak to reflect on his family’s history, on his deteriorating relationship with his longtime partner, and on his life. Keong Sim narrates the book in a serene, resonant voice, capturing the author’s humor and feelings of awe and fatalism. (Blackstone, unabridged, 3½ hours)

Best book covers of 2021

“The Secret of Life: Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and the Discovery of DNA’s Double Helix”

Much has been written about James Watson’s and Francis Crick’s “borrowing” of Rosalind Franklin’s research into the structure of DNA. Howard Markel — physician, professor and gifted writer — tells the story again, setting scenes and shrewdly capturing the character and motivations of the central players. Though not every listener will grasp the scientific detail completely, Markel makes the gist and implication of these matters very clear, and his depiction of the clash of personalities is superb. Donald Corren delivers the general narrative in a calm, engaging voice and gets across in his manner and pacing the personalities of those quoted from letters and other writings, nicely conveying the all-too-human dimension of science. (Recorded Books, unabridged, 15 hours)

Katherine A. Powers reviews audiobooks every month for The Washington Post.