It’s always a pleasure, as a book lover, to come across books about books. But what I’ve come to love even more are books that creatively incorporate other books into their plot and structure. These three audiobooks are each structured around a different book. None of them are about books, exactly, but books are central to the themes they explore and play important roles in the lives of the characters. They are not incidental extras, but absolutely integral. In different and surprising ways, these books-within-books form the backbones of each of these three remarkable audiobooks.
Tom Crewe’s debut historical novel THE NEW LIFE is centered around a real book, Sexual Inversion, published in England in 1896. The main characters, Henry Ellis and John Addington, are loosely based on the two men who wrote it. British actor Freddie Fox voices them both with incredible range. Henry and John, though they don’t know each other, begin corresponding and decide to write a scientific book about homosexuality, intending to prove that Britain's sodomy laws are unjust. John is gay, married, miserable, and desperate for something to change. Henry is also married, but he and his wife are social progressives who view their marriage as an experiment in radical living. John and Henry come to the project of Sexual Inversion for different reasons. Through their lives and relationships, Crewe brilliantly explores themes of activism, sacrifice, and idealism.
This is Freddie Fox’s audiobook debut, and he sets himself a high bar. He gives Henry and John distinct voices, highlighting their different personalities, but he treats every other character with the same level of detail and attention. He voices John’s wife with a crisp coolness that captures her heartbreak and exhaustion and gives John’s lover Frank a thick accent that’s both rough and warm. Even the minor characters—John’s old school friend, queer men who share their life histories with John and Henry for the book, the book’s publisher—have such unique voices that it's sometimes hard to remember that Fox is the sole narrator.
Jennifer Savran Kelly’s ENDPAPERS is also centered around a book, although this time it’s a fictional one. Dani Martineck easily brings listeners into the world of Dawn Levit, a queer bookbinder muddling through life in 2033 New York City. She works restoring books at the Met, but she feels uneasy in almost every aspect of her life: Her art is stagnant, her relationship is on rocky ground, and her gender doesn't seem to fit her. When she finds a love letter tucked into the corner of an old lesbian pulp novel, she decides to track down the note’s author. What follows is a beautiful journey of self-discovery as Dawn slowly begins to see herself—and what she wants—more clearly. Nonbinary actor Dani Martineck narrates this introspective novel with a light touch. They are especially good at dramatizing Dawn’s long internal monologues and at subtly modulating their voice to reflect how Dawn feels about her gender on any given day. Their measured reading perfectly matches the novel’s meandering pace, but they also punctuate their performance with moments of emotional intensity, deepening their voice to a growl or letting it shake and quaver.
Nonfiction can certainly center other books, too! Lamya H’s debut memoir, HIJAB BUTCH BLUES, is also structured around a book—the Quran. In this creative and inventive collection of essays, Lamya uses verses from the Quran to reflect on her experiences as a queer, nonbinary Muslim immigrant. Narrator Ashraf Shirazi gracefully rises to the challenge of reading such an intimate and vulnerable memoir in a voice that is warm and conversational. Lamya finds solace, strength, and inspiration in the Quran stories she shares. She writes about queer community, faith, online dating, falling in love, gender expression, her choice not to come out to her family, and more, all while thoughtfully exploring what it means to study and live by a sacred text. Shirazi captures the sharp beauty of Lamya’s prose while also making it feel like you’re right there with her, listening to Lamya tell stories about her life. All of Lamya H’s love, dedication, and curiosity come through in Shirazi’s voice. This is an exceptional audiobook—moving, powerful, challenging, and full of questions that open doors to new possibilities.