Yesterday I shared my favorite books of 2020. Choosing favorites is hard, and so to make it easier on myself I divided my favorites list into favorite print books and favorite audiobooks.
For me, the mark of a truly great book—and a great listening experience—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.
2020 was another really good audiobook year. I read piles of stellar books, and today I’m sharing my tip-top favorites.
How do I choose my favorites? I track my titles in my reading journal, and put a simple little star by especially noteworthy titles. I also track the format of the books I read, so to compile this list I scanned for “audio” selections. Despite my best efforts at record-keeping, I’m probably forgetting a favorite here, because I always do—but don’t worry, I’ll make sure I tell you about a book I loved, one way or another, whether that’s in a future blog post, podcast episode, or newsletter.
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.
I thought this was a re-read (a common audiobook habit for me): I was certain I'd read all of Maryilynne Robinson's novels, and downloaded the audiobook version of this first, her 1980 debut, for some familiar comfort reading. As it turns out, I was entirely mistaken—and grateful for the mistake, because I wouldn't have wanted to miss this tale of two orphaned sisters in Fingerbone, Idaho, struggling to find their place in the community and with each other after their mother's death. They're first cared for by a string of relatives, one of whom is named Nona. (This was the dead giveaway I hadn't read this book before. Nona is my grandmother's name, I've never met another, in real life or the pages of a book. This detail would have stuck with me.) Finally, their eccentric Aunt Sylvie steps in, and comes to "keep house" for them. But Sylvie's odd ways disturb the staid members of their little town, and the misunderstanding threatens the little family's stability. I listened to the newly released 40th anniversary edition, narrated by Therese Plummer. More info →
One of our winter book selections for the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club! Last year, I loved listening to Stradal's second novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, so I thought I'd enjoy his debut in this audio format, too, as narrated by Amy Ryan and Michael Stuhlbarg. Please, I beg you, don’t read the jacket copy! I enjoyed it more by not knowing very much going into it. Stradal’s novel-in-stories spans more than thirty years and takes us to half as many kitchens, introducing us to fancy chefs and Lutheran church ladies, portraying the food of a region and the unlikely threads that bind us, with a satisfying, full-circle ending. More info →
In our Book Club author event, Elizabeth Acevedo told us that her books are best read in both audio AND paper format so that you can hear and see her poetry. This one is written in prose, but it's just as poetic and vibrant as her novels-in-verse. Liz narrates her own audiobooks with incredible talent and voices seventeen-year old single mother Emoni, who's always been told she has a magical touch in the kitchen. She dreams of a career as a chef but she doesn't have the time or money for her school's new culinary arts class, not if she's going to still be able to work part-time and provide for her child. She's torn in a lot of directions but her passion for food is clear. Told in stunning prose, this novel captured my heart—and made me want to bake! Acevedo creates fabulous characters to root for: I was cheering Emoni on as I listened. More info →
Charmingly narrated by Zachary Webber and Erin Mallon. After an adorable (and extended) meet-cute involving a stray pup, Sloan strikes up a flirty text thread with the dog’s owner, who’s out of the country for work. These texts turn into emails, and then hours-long phone calls; the two haven’t met in person but the connection is undeniable. It’s the first time Sloan has felt excited about anything since her fiancé died two year ago. But can a touring musician make a relationship work—and does Sloan even want it to? You’ll have more context if you read The Friend Zone first, but this novel absolutely stands on its own, and the witty banter made this an absolute delight. Heads up for a steamy open-door scene or two. More info →
I initially had a tough time focusing on this one when I started it in March (it was me, not the book), but once I switched to the audiobook version, narrated by Dominic Hoffman, I couldn't put it down. The story begins with a shooting: it's 1969, in the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn; a beloved drunk deacon named Sportcoat wanders into the courtyard and shoots the drug dealer he'd once treated like a son point-blank, in front of everyone. After this jolting beginning, McBride zooms out to show the reader how this violent act came to take place, exploring the lives of the shooter and the victim, the victim's bumbling friends, the residents who witnessed it, the neighbors who heard about it, the cops assigned to investigate, the members of the church where Sportcoat was a deacon, the neighborhood's mobsters (and their families). All these people's lives overlap in ways that few understand in the beginning, and McBride's gentle teasing out of these unlikely but deeply meaningful connections—and the humor and warmth with which he does it—is what captured me. More info →
The "Gothic horror" label made me a little afraid to dive into this one, as I stay away from the scary stuff. But I needn't have feared: this new novel is deliciously creepy, but not frightening. Moreno-Garcia situates her novel firmly in the tradition of Gothic country house classics like Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, and even references some of these titles in her novel. When Noemí's father appoints her to see to some business on his behalf, the beautiful, intelligent young socialite agrees to do her duty for the family. Her recently married cousin Catalina has sent an odd, urgent letter to the family, pleading for someone to save her—but from what? When Noemí visits her new marital home High Place, a remote and lavish estate built by ill-treated mine workers, she discovers her cousin's predicament is worse than she feared: her husband is a brute, her father-in-law a terror, the staff deeply hostile, and even the house itself seems set against her—and worse, determined to entrap her. No spoilers here, but if you like the sound of a deeply strange and spine-tingling read about a smart heroine who saves herself, this is the book for you. Excellent narration by Frankie Corzo. More info →
Johnson makes a triumphant debut with her happy and poignant YA novel. Orchestra geek Liz Lighty stays out of the spotlight in small town Campbell, Indiana, and she's totally okay with her wallflower status. She has a plan to escape the Midwest and become a doctor, and it all starts with attending her elite dream school, Pennington College. When her financial aid package falls short, Liz is devastated until she remembers that her school offers a large scholarship for the prom king and queen each year. Reluctant to subject herself to extra attention but eager to win the money, Liz enters the competition for prom queen. The smart and funny new girl in school makes events leading up to prom more bearable, but Mack is also vying for the prom queen title. As Liz develops feelings for her, the competition gets complicated. Narrated by Alaska Jackson. More info →
This 2020 mystery puts a modern spin on Agatha Christie's classic And Then There Were None, setting a destination wedding on a remote Irish island, accessible only by boat, with guests whose lives are connected in ways they never could have guessed. When a magazine publisher weds a handsome reality tv star, she wants her wedding to be magazine-worthy: the designer gown, the atmospheric location, everything perfect to the last detail. But when the guests arrive, including old colleagues, boarding school friends, unreliable family, and untrustworthy friends—things begin going wrong, as long-buried secrets threaten to burst forth at exactly the wrong time. And then they find the dead body. Told in rotating points of view, this was cleverer than I'd expected, and I especially enjoyed the full-cast narration. (I would have appreciated a content warning for self-harm; a murder mystery is certain to have triggers but that one took me by surprise.) More info →
This Hugo and Nebula winner sat on my To Be Read list for too long before I finally listened to the audiobook edition by much-loved narrator Robin Miles. This novella drops you right into another galaxy where Binti is the first of her people to receive an offer to attend Oomza University, basically an ivy league college. Accepting the offer requires a huge sacrifice and a treacherous journey. I sped through this quick audiobook thanks to excellent narration and a propulsive plot. More info →
After returning this book to the library, unread, a reading friend told me it was fabulous on audio, so I downloaded it in that format instead. This reflective and often pained retrospective examines a complex mother-daughter relationship. Daughter Norah's musings are prompted by a graduate student who comes calling, seeking insight into the life of her mother, the brilliant Irish actress Katherine O'Dell. The style is almost—but not quite—stream of consciousness, as Norah examines her mother's early years as an actress, her sudden and enduring fame, and then her encroaching mental illness. I loved this book for its voice: Norah is a remarkable narrator of her mother's story, and I loved the sly way she lets her own story slip into the frame. Anne Enright is equally remarkable: very few novelists narrate their own audiobooks, but Enright reads hers here in an incredible performance. More info →
Miller is a prolific writer, but this was my first time reading her work. It's a sad, wistful, reflective literary story about marriage, happiness, and family. Graham and Annie have a strong 30 year marriage. Graham owns a bookstore, and this is a fun thread throughout the novel because much of the couples' life revolves around bookstore events (they meet at an author event!). Early in the book—this is not a spoiler—Graham suddenly dies. This prompts Annie to reflect on their life together, and in the process she trips over new information about him and their marriage, causing her to question the very foundations of their relationship. Read by the author. More info →
This book moves back and forth in time and between perspectives as it follows a first responder in New York, a pregnant singer, and an author, all living through a global pandemic (yes, you read that right.) I avoided all pandemic-related books for a while, but this story of resilience and hope struck just the right notes for me. Narrated by a full cast including Alex Payton-Beesley, Amelia Sargisson, and more. I listened to an early copy, but the audiobook isn't available to U.S. listeners anymore. For mysterious reasons, the U.S. publication date on this book is now on hold. It is available in hardcover for Canadian readers (or readers willing to pay international shipping). More info →
This list is shorter because I don’t typically listen to non-fiction, partly because it doesn’t keep my attention the same way a story does and partly because I like taking notes and sticking book darts in my non-fiction reads. But I do love story-driven memoir on audio, and these two were delightful in that format.
This genre-blending book was a delightful—if quiet—surprise. May defines "wintering" as "a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, side-lined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider." She takes this single subject and turns it, chapter by chapter, considering different events, aspects, incarnations, and inciting events of a winter season, guiding the reader through scenes of her life and inviting them to join her on adventures to explore what it means to winter—heading to Stonehenge, to Iceland, to ice-bathe, to sauna. I appreciated the multidisciplinary approach; May builds the narrative around events of her life, but draws from health, psychology, spirituality, religion, science, nature and more to tell her story. This was lovely on audio, as narrated by Rebecca Lee. More info →
Rick Bragg has become pure comfort listening for me: I especially love to listen to his stories while I'm cooking. This new collection compiles magazine essays from his decades writing for Garden and Gun and Southern Living. Some are piercingly poignant, like his tales of Harper Lee, Pat Conroy, a talented photographer, and his Aunt Jo (everyone needs an Aunt Jo). Others are laugh-out-loud funny, like his one about Tupperware, or what precisely is wrong with country music these days. While his books would make beautiful editions to any coffee table, I think I will always listen to Rick Bragg. 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 favorites, 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. If you’re not a regular listener, you can truly jump in anywhere.
These are in chronological order:
1. Episode 225: What your neighborhood should read next with Elizabeth Barnhill & Alison Frenzel. Every week on What Should I Read Next we do a little literary matchmaking. In this episode, we discuss how I inadvertently became a bookstore matchmaker—and that’s how Elizabeth landed her dream job in Waco, Texas. Not-so-fun fact: this is one of a tiny handful of episodes that we had to record twice due to lost audio.
3. Episode 232: Really good fiction is about EVERYTHINGwith Jud Ashman. My guest is both co-founder of the Gaithersburg Book Festival and mayor of the town, so we give readers an insiders’ look at what goes into the planning and establishment of those community book events we’ve so enjoyed in the past and that WILL happen again. Plus we discuss everything from westerns to middle grade fiction to historical nonfiction to a book Jud describes as JAW DROPPINGLY GOOD.
4. Episode 236: What SHOULDN’T I read next? with Karla Osorno. When I thought back over my favorite episodes of the year, Karla’s sprang immediately to mind. She responded to our Patreon query about readers’ owned-but-unread books and said her 600+ precious unread books were weighing down her reading life. Could we help? This episode is the result. Countless readers found this bibliotherapy session incredibly helpful AND so much fun to listen to.
5. Episode 244: You love to read—don’t ruin it with Elizabeth Cooper. My guest came to us looking for brain candy—her delightful term for books that are FUN, with a killer premise, pages that practically turn themselves, and totally satisfying endings. This episode generated perhaps the most reader mail we’ve ever received from an episode, because you all could NOT believe how Elizabeth has been choosing her next read and just had to share your reaction with us!
7. Episode 251: I love books and books love me back with Grettel Castro. Grettel loves backlist books, or as she says, older novels that have “simmered” for a while—so I recommend three great books with literary staying power. We also dig into the hows and whys of literary awards. But the part that made me laugh out loud with pure bookish joy was when Grettel began describing the pleasures and perils of walking around campus with an open novel in her hands. Readers, she’s got tips if you want to try it!
8. Episode 254: A plethora of political-ish book recs with Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers. In this evergreen episode, my friends at Pantsuit Politics pay us a visit to discuss fiction and nonfiction recommendations that have shaped our understanding of politics, history, and what it means to be a human in this world. We’re each sharing books we personally love and often recommend, because they are fascinating, thought-provoking, and sometimes surprisingly page-turning.
9. Episode 255: Spine-tingling reads for a confirmed scaredy-cat with Valencia Taylor. We heard from so many of you that this is your favorite episode of the year! (Though honestly, someone says that about every single episode.) Valencia is looking for compelling stories that teach her something new about the world, as well as more spine-tingling reads, a category that is definitely new to her. As a fellow book-pusher, I have plenty of recommendations and practical tips to share—in fact, I couldn’t help but share a few extra titles that I think Valencia will love.
10. Episode 260: A little free library with a life of its own with Sara Jones. Sara wrote in with a new-to-us request: can we help her stock her Little Free Library? She has it has a personality all its own, and she wants to fill it with books that will get her neighbors reading! We do exactly that, discussing selections that range from charming picture books to unputdownable contemporary fiction. Plus, if you’ve ever strolled by a Little Free Library and wondered how it works or how to start your own, this episode is for you.
Stand-out podcast episodes
Readers are often surprised to hear I don’t listen to a ton of podcasts—but I did just love these episodes, listed roughly in the order I listened to them.
1. Chadwick Boseman on Off Camera with Sam Jones. I don’t know much about Hollywood, I don’t watch a ton of movies—but I love this show about creative artists and how they came to be that way. This was a standout episode.
4. The Business of The Popcast 2020. This is the most recent episode listed, as it just released this month. Knox and Jamie spend darn close to two hours going into how they make money, hire team members, pay their people, make business decisions, and how 2020 through them for a loop. Funny and informative.
What are your favorite audiobooks of 2020? What did you love to listen to this year?