In previous years, I didn’t duplicate titles on these two lists, but as you’ll see below, I broke with convention this year, meaning a handful of titles appear on both lists. I assure you: I really did love them that much.
When choosing my favorite audiobooks, I’m not just focused on how much I valued the reading experience (though that certainly matters), but on how much I appreciated the listening experience. I love audiobooks that truly elevate the reading experience. Did a narrator bring a little something extra to the story, something I couldn’t have gotten from reading in print? In my mind, that is the mark of a truly great audiobook.
For me, an additional mark of a great listening experience—of any good book, for that matter—is that I’m still thinking about the story, even months later. Bonus points to any book that makes me want to run another mile, fold another load of laundry, or sit in my car in the driveway so I can keep listening.
2021 was an exceptional audiobook year. These are my very favorites. You’ll see my list skews heavily towards fiction, because that’s my typical audiobook preference, but there are a few notable exceptions.
Now let’s talk favorites—and please, share YOUR favorite audiobooks in the comments section!
All books featured here were chosen because I loooove them. If you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission. More info here.
A note about these descriptions: I focused on why I loved the listening experience, not what the book was about. To find out more about any book mentioned below—or any book included in Modern Mrs Darcy book lists—use this neat trick: click or tap on the book cover to open that book’s page, where you can see a listing of all the places we’ve referenced it on the blog.
I included this one on my favorite books of 2021 list and had to include it again here because it's a wonderful example of an audiobook that elevates the reading experience. Katherine Kellgren's pitch perfect narration amplifies the humor and zestiness of this fantastical tale with historical roots (think Monty Python or Jasper Fforde); I listened with a huge smile on my face. More info →
I read the print galley for this novel in verse prior to its spring 2020 release and re-read on audio with my daughter this year. Acevedo always reads her own work: she's a spoken word poet and an incredible performer; I can't say enough good things about her audiobooks. It's dedicated to the memory of the lives lost on American Airlines flight 587, the passenger flight that crashed en route to Santo Domingo from JFK on November 12, 2001. Taking this historical event as her leaping off point, Acevedo tells the story of two teenage girls—one in New York, one in Santo Domingo—who discover they are sisters in the aftermath of the crash, when the truth of their father’s double life is unceremoniously revealed. The girls tentatively bond as they explore the pain—and love—they share, leading up to a triumphant ending. More info →
After reading W. Ralph Eubanks's nonfiction work A Place Like Mississippi, I was inspired to learn more about Margaret Walker, who spent her early years in New Orleans and went on to become a prominent writer of the Chicago Black Renaissance. Jubilee is her only novel, and when I discovered favorite narrator Robin Miles reads the audiobook, I knew I had to listen. The sweeping story follows a slave named Vyry through the antebellum era, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, focusing on her struggles and suffering, the men she loved, the children she bore, and her constant yearning for freedom. Walker modeled her protagonist after her own great-grandmother. I read the 50th anniversary edition and loved poet Nikki Giovanni’s foreword. More info →
This campus mystery is set in the world of the theater and swimming in Shakespearean dialogue, so is it any wonder it's wonderful on audio? Robert Petkoff (who I'd previously listened to with Andrew Sean Greer's Less hits just the right tone; he nicely differentiates the wide cast of characters. This story, much compared to The Secret History, begins at the end: Oliver Marks has just been released from jail after serving a ten year sentence, and he's finally ready to tell the truth. But the truth about what? We slowly learn that ten years ago, Oliver was part of a close-knit group of Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, where the offstage rivalries and romances hold just as much drama as their performances. But their final year—the one that lands Oliver in prison—reads more like one of Shakespeare's tragedies. More info →
I had to be talked into this one, but I'm glad I went with it. In this workbook-like book, Saunders explores the craft of writing through the lens of Russian short stories. You don't need an English degree or any interest in Russian lit to give this a try—a healthy dose of nerdy curiosity will do. I found it surprisingly engaging, especially on audio, with narrators like Nick Offerman, Rainn Wilson, Glenn Close, and Renee Elise Goldberry each visiting "class" to read a short story. Listening felt like sitting in a fantastic lecture hall with a favorite literature professor (but honestly, now I want a print copy for note-taking purposes!). More info →
J.D. Jackson's superb narration takes Cash's first procedural to the next level. The story unfolds over just four days; the setting is Oak Island NC, 1984. I was hooked from the first scene: when the local sheriff is jolted awake by a loud noise in the middle of the night, he heads to the small airport to investigate, where he discovers a crashed plane, stripped bare, and a dead body. The sheriff's ensuing probe uncovers old grievances and rawer, fresher crises in the small community. All these month's later, I'm still thinking about the ending. (I highly recommend reading this in book club so you have readers to discuss it with!) More info →
I included this on my 2021 favorites list, but the audiobook, read by the author, is so exceptional it deserves inclusion here as well. In his first full-length nonfiction work, poet and journalist Smith explores the legacy of slavery in the United States, and to do so he takes his readers on a tour of sorts, visiting nine physical monuments crucial to that history, like Jefferson's Monticello, the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, Angola Prison, New York City, and finally Senegal's Gorée Island. Each visit is packed with stories from both past and present, as Smith examines the site's history and explores what that means for us today. More info →
I picked this up on a whim and the strength of the cover's Taylor Jenkins Reid blurb (not typical for me AT ALL), and I'm so glad I did! The audiobook, narrated by Tania Rodrigues, was wholly absorbing. The plot is pure romance novel with a fake relationship trope, though the audiobook "read" very literary, perhaps because the story sensitively explores weighty themes. (I'm curious how print readers feel.) I loved it. More info →
This is another title from my 2021 favorites list, but I had to include it here as well because Tucci's narration is a DELIGHT. (But heads up, that doesn't mean it's not pretty sweary at times.) He won me over with his three-minute introduction and didn't want to stop listening for a moment after that. (I folded laundry! I did dishes! I sat in the driveway to finish the chapter!) From his stories of growing up in a large Italian-American family in New York, to mixing up the perfect martini on set, to falling in love with his wife over a cheese cart, I just ate this up. More info →
When we hosted Tayari Jones for our WSIRN 300th episode celebration, she raved about this 2020 Pulitzer winner, saying she wanted to give it a standing ovation. That comment nudged me to pick it up again, on audio this time. (Why have I not been listening to Erdrich narrate her own work all along? She's wonderful in that format.) The story is based on the life of her own grandfather, who worked as a night watchman and who traveled from rural North Dakota to Washington, D.C. to fight against Native dispossession of their tribal lands. The story is beautifully, lovingly drawn: I was enraptured, and rooting so hard for these characters. More info →
What Should I Read Next favorites
It is SO HARD to pick favorite episodes of my own podcast—much harder than picking the above favorite books, and that was brutal! I’m choosing a combination of episodes that stand out in my mind and those that would be a good introduction to the show. Above all, I chose episodes with good energy below. Please know that if you’re not a regular listener, you can truly jump in anywhere. (And welcome to the podcast!)
These are in chronological order:
1. WSIRN Episode 268: Our team’s best books of the year. Our team is made up of a bunch of bookworms with very different reading tastes, but that doesn’t stop us from swapping book recommendations all the time. In this live event recording all eight of us share favorite recent reads.
3. Episode 275: How many book clubs is too many book clubs? In this episode with Brigid Misselhorn, a self-proclaimed book club addict, we discuss the origins of her book club addiction, the benefits of audiobooks, and balancing personal reading with obligatory reading. Brigid also calls herself a slow reader, and shares tips for finishing all her book club reads on time.
4. Episode 283: Don’t save the good stuff. This episode with MMD Book Club community manager Ginger Horton was literally years in the making. We chat about how her role at Modern Mrs Darcy changed her reading life, how she tracks her reading in a unique way, and how she cleverly uses the Summer Reading Guide to spread that summer reading feeling over the entire year.
6. Episode 293: Streamline your (digital) TBR. Caylee Dyck struggles with a classic bookworm dilemma: she has 150+ ebooks on her Kindle, and they ALL sound appealing. So how is she supposed to choose what to read next? This episode is packed with practical tips for tackling a huge To Be Read list, and also includes suggestions for making ebook reading more tactile, engaging, and useful.
7. Episode 296: Backlist and brunch. Amber Burns knows she’s missed some amazing books that have been published over the last ten years, but she’s not sure which ones are right for her. We discuss why she loves books as a means of discovery, and I aim to help her discover a handful of mind-blowing backlist reads that will keep her up turning the pages past her bedtime.
8. Episode 298: A reading life without regrets. Cristina Griffin loves atmospheric reads, brilliant endings, and characters she can connect with emotionally. Perhaps this is why our conversation led me to recommend two titles that later ended up on my personal best-of-the-year list? Cristina also teaches a college course at UVA that we’re pretty sure you’re going to wish you could enroll in yourself once you hear about it.
9. Episode 299: Playing genre hopscotch. Michael Clark and I recorded this episode while he was in the midst of a “reading drought,” so I’m especially hopeful my recommendations hit home. An interesting note about this episode: the perfect book rec came to me right after we hung up, but that didn’t stop us from sliding it into the episode. Take a listen and you’ll hear what I’m talking about!
10. Episode 311: Reading is LIFE!I had to include this very recent episode with library lover Danielle Callendar on my favorites list, not just because of how much I enjoyed our conversation, but also because of the staggering number of readers who listened and told us this episode was especially delightful (and insightful) because their reading life strongly resembles Danielle’s. We’re thrilled to hear it.
What are your favorite audiobooks of 2021? What did you love to listen to this year?