The 15 Best Audiobooks of 2020 (and Two New Favourites from 2021)

Tom Nicholson
·12-min read
Photo credit: Columbia
Photo credit: Columbia

From Esquire

Books are great. They're really, really good. You can flip through them, they smell great when they're fresh off the shelf, and if a mate who borrowed one off you folds the corners of the pages over, then you're legally allowed to break one of their fingers.

But audiobooks are great too. For one thing, there aren't any pages to fold the corners of. For another, they're going through a revolution right now, with A-list names signing up to read both new releases and classics from the literary canon. Plus, you get all kinds of extra bits and pieces thrown in for good measure.

In fact – and please don't tell Martin Amis we said this – some audiobooks are even better than the actual books. Listen to these and tell us we're wrong. We've collected the best of 2021 at the top here, and underneath are some of last year's picks.

January

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Soul Tourists by Bernardine Evaristo

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Bored banker Stanley Williams is wondering if trudging to and from his desk each day is all that life has to offer him. Then, he bumps into Jessie at a club. She's a livewire and a loose cannon, and before long Jessie and Stanley are on a road trip across Europe together. But this, it turns out, is no gap year schlepp from hostel to hostel. On their way, they meet the ghosts of some of the great Black Europeans: Mary Seacole, Hannibal of Carthage, Alessandro de Medici of Florence, and more besides all make their presences felt while Stanley and Jessie go on an odyssey into life, death and the states in between. Girl, Woman, Other author Bernardine Evaristo's 2005 novel takes a magpie-like approach to storytelling, mixing scripts with poems with prose with anything else that comes to hand. Evaristo narrates along with Vivienne Acheampong (who you'll have seen in Famalam) and Kayi Ushe.

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Shakespeare: The Complete Works

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Look, you've suddenly got a lot more time on your hands. You've almost certainly got more than enough to spend 99 hours with this compilation of newly digitised versions of all 37 of Shakespeare's plays, recorded across the 20th century. The actors from Marlowe Dramatic Society and Professional Players featured here include: Ian McKellen (obviously), Derek Jacobi (obviously), Diana Rigg (obviously( and many more knights and dames of the realm giving it their thespiest. And you'll not have to put up with anyone sitting near you really guffawing at the gags in A Midsummer Night's Dream just so you know that they get them.

And the 2020 picks you might have missed

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A Promised Land by Barack Obama

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Now that we can all breathe more easily again after the madness of the last couple of months in American politics, it feels safe to dive back in via the first volume of Obama's presidential memoirs. It spans from his earliest activism to the night he was elected the 44th president of the United States, and on into his first term in the White House, and is laced with a sense of incredulity and even imposter syndrome that certain other recent occupants of the Oval Office could probably do with. Once in office there's pressure to deliver on the near-impossible demands and dreams of an expectant (and reflexively condemnatory) populace, and solace in his family. If you're looking for clear-eyed criticism of the Obama administration, this isn't the place to look, but as well as privileged access to the corridors of power there's a reassuring gravity and poetry to A Promised Land.

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Why He Turns Away: Do's and Don'ts from Dating to Death by Joan and Jericha

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The country's foremost relationship experts, Joan Damry and Jericha Domain, have finally taken the leap from their award-winning podcast to put down some hard and fast rules for making your dating life work at last. Or at least to find out exactly why and how you're to blame for the terrible misfortunes life has visited upon you.

"What we offer here is a lifeline, a service, much like the NHS, or perhaps more accurately, the AA," they write. "Joan and Jericha: AA for the heart. Affording you the opportunity to have a breakdown, call for a pick-up truck, stop off for a full English whilst a hairy guy in a grubby onesie fumbles under your bonnet and tweaks at your wiring, before sending you on your way, lubricated, primed, pumped and pretty."

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I Wanna Be Yours by John Cooper Clarke

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The Bard of Salford reads his own memoir, and his is a life which definitely merits one. From taking inspiration from the Ramones and applying their thundering delivery to his poetry, to a late period renaissance and ascension to national treasure status, via an extremely dark heroin addiction and taking second billing to the Honey Monster in some Sugar Puffs ads in the late Eighties, Clarke's scabrous, wry, funny and self-pity-free voice tells it all straight.

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My Life in Red and White by Arsène Wenger

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For a man who was at the forefront of English football for more than 20 years, it turns out there's a lot we didn't know about Arsène Wenger. We didn't know, for instance, that talks from a pro skateboarder and one of Madonna's backing dancers were among the ways he tried to fire up his troops. We didn't know that a game of charades at David Dein's house led to the Arsenal job, or that the loan for the Emirates hinged on him signing a new contract, or that when he started out he took pains to run every aspect of the club, right down to negotiating how much to pay for footballs. Plus! He reads all this himself in his uniquely lugubrious way. You can still watch Le Prof talk about My Life in Red and White at Esquire Townhouse right here, too.


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Zikora by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Adichie's short story follows Zikora, a Nigerian lawyer working in DC, as she discovers that she's pregnant. Her lover takes it terribly, and leaves her, so it's just she and her mum facing up to a seismic change together. Unfortunately her mum's extremely overbearing and demanding, and Zikora begins to reckon with how quickly her ideal life evaporated and her mum's hardscrabble past. Adichie's other work includes Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists, as well as an exploration of life in Lagos for Esquire, which you can read here.

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The Louder I Will Sing by Lee Lawrence

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It's now 35 years since Cherry Groce was shot by police when they raided her home in Brixton. Her son, the then 11-year-old Lee, could only watch on as she was falsely pronounced dead on the news, and as anger in the community at yet more police brutality towards Black Londoners turned into two days of violence and destruction, with petrol bombs launched and cars torched in the streets. After the riots were over, though, the aftershocks continued for Lee. Since the bullet had shattered his mum's spine, he became her full-time carer while fighting to get the police to admit they had done anything wrong. It was a fight that would take nearly 30 years. This is urgent, uplifting stuff.


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Coming Undone: A Memoir by Terri White

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In 2012, Terri White pitched up in New York to take over as editor at Time Out magazine. Everything seemed set for her to take on the world, but things didn't turn out that way. Lost in the city, she starts losing her grip on herself and tumbling out of too many bars she can't go back to. Mornings start to take on a familiar rhythm: "Wake up, panic, feel guilty and/or ashamed, vomit, shower, vomit (sometimes in the shower), dress, paint my face, pour eye drops in my eyes to dissolve away the lightning streaks and shoots of red."

Things grow more and more fractured and strained until White ends up in an emergency room after an overdose. The roots of her unhappiness go all the way back to her childhood, and the vividness and dark clarity with which she plots both her unravelling and the gradual rebuilding that led her back to contentment makes this a uniquely compelling and raw listening experience. There's a streak of black humour throughout too, though. White, now the editor of Empire magazine, reads her own story. It's difficult to hear sometimes, but the quality of the writing always shines.

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Dear NHS: A Collection of Stories to Say Thank You

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Saying thanks to the NHS never really stops being a good thing to do, but now more than ever – as every single advert has had it for the last four months – it's a particularly good thing to do. This is an anthology edited by Adam Kay, former doctor and author of This is Going to Hurt, and it features contributors reading their own letters of thanks to the NHS.

The list of people chipping in is extremely handy too: 75 notables including Queenie author Candice Carty-Williams, Michael Palin, Emilia Clarke, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Kathy Burke and Paul McCartney, whose mum was a NHS midwife in post-war Liverpool, tell their stories of what the NHS means to them. Money from each download will go to NHS Charities Together too.

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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

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The Vignes twins look identical, but over the course of 40 years the sisters' lives couldn't be more different. Desiree and Stella run away at 16, desperate to escape the small black community they've grown up in, but one sister returns home and marries a black man, while the other starts passing for white. The Vanishing Half tracks them over the decades as their lives start to mirror each other, and Stella's covert life comes undone.

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Optimism Over Despair by Noam Chomsky

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Everything feels a bit overwhelming at the moment, but as this new reading of Chomsky's 2017 book points out, there are reasons to be cheerful. The nub of it is that you've got a choice over how you react to the state of the world: you can despair, and help make the consequences you fear become inevitable; or you can buck up and help sort things out. Which is very easy to say when you're Noam Chomsky, but still.

Two Stories by Sally Rooney

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If you mainlined the BBC's Normal People adaptation and already whipped through Rooney's back catalogue, try these two short stories which pull at the same threads of uncertain attraction, miscommunication and tentative flirting which run through Normal People and Conversations With Friends. In Mr Salary, Sukie visits former flatmate Nathan – who's 15 years older than her, and whose sister was married to an uncle of hers – in Dublin for Christmas to escape her parents, while in Colour and Light a fireworks display sparks a connection between two strangers.

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A Little History of Poetry by John Carey

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Reaching back all the way to the earliest surviving fragment of poetry from 4,000 years ago, this is the pared-down version of how poems and poetry were shaped by and came to shape how humanity saw itself all around the world. It tends to stick to the canon for the most part – this is only a little history after all – but Maya Angelou, Marianne Moore and Derek Walcott get a look in alongside yer Shakespeares, yer Chaucers and yer Yeatses. Above anything else, Carey's history emphasises the vital, constantly shifting quality that makes poetry so mysterious and compelling.

Under Solomon Skies by Berni Sorga-Millwood

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The idea of getting lost at sea is one of the scariest things there is. No water, no food, no prospect of rescue: it's terrifying. Childhood friends Toni and Jack find themselves in exactly that predicament in this novel based on a true story. Set on – and between – the Solomon Islands, it's not just a survival adventure in the vein of Adrift or All Is Lost, but a poignant reflection on climate change and humanity's role in the great global ecosystem.

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Letters of Note: Love by Shaun Usher

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If you're a follower of Letters of Note on Twitter, you'll know that Shaun Usher's careful curation of letters to, from and between notable historic figures is endlessly fascinating: from the carefully crafted to the tersely dashed-off, they're a window into an unguarded moment in someone's life. This audiobook collects letters touching on the joy and pain of love, featuring wisdom from Frida Kahlo, Simone de Beauvoir, Nelson Mandela and more, read by actors including Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Toby Jones.

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You're Not Listening by Kate Murphy

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It often feels like modern life is just a long trudge down a corridor full of people screaming at each other, but there's a way out of the constant churn of anger and wilful misunderstanding. This sounds like a self-help book, but it's a lot more interesting than all that: New York Times contributor Kate Murphy takes pointers from super-listeners from all walks of life, from priests and CIA interrogators to bartenders and improv comedians, to get to the bottom of how we can listen to each other properly and stop being so terrified of silence and human contact that we immediately grab our phones the moment there's even a remote chance we might be left alone with our brains.

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