Favorite Listening Experiences of 2020 - Fiction
Deacon King Kong

Deacon King Kong

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 →
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Mexican Gothic

Mexican Gothic

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 places 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 →
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You Should See Me in a Crown

You Should See Me in a Crown

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 →
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The Guest List

The Guest List

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 →
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Binti

Binti

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 →
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Actress

Actress

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 →
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Monogamy

Monogamy

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 life together, causing her to question the very foundations of their relationship. Read by the author. More info →
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Housekeeping

Housekeeping

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 →
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Songs for the End of the World

Songs for the End of the World

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 →
Kitchens of the Great Midwest: A Novel

Kitchens of the Great Midwest: A Novel

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 →
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With the Fire on High

With the Fire on High

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 →
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The Happy Ever After Playlist

The Happy Ever After Playlist

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 →
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