The six audiobooks selected for our list of Best Fiction of 2023 are distinctive and uniquely satisfying. Listening to them is akin to joining a book group whose reading choices surprise and thrill you. Some are tough. Some are transporting. All earned Earphones Awards.
Shayna Small, Aaron Goodson, Michael Crouch, and Lee Osorio give a transfixing performance of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s fierce and lyrical debut, CHAIN-GANG ALL-STARS. The book imagines an America in which convicted murderers duel to the death in a wildly popular televised sport. Uncomfortably close to home, no? Our protagonists are two Black women who love each other and are almost free after years in the arena. Painfully and often surprisingly funny, the story captivates. Shayna Small, who performs the majority of the audiobook, deserves a particular shout-out for her immersive narration.
Golden Voice narrator Julia Whelan delivers an enthralling performance of Rebecca Makkai’s suspenseful novel, I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS FOR YOU. When Bodie, a teacher and true-crime podcaster, reexamines an old murder at her school, her investigation proves unnerving. Whelan excels at ratcheting up the tension and giving believable personalities to a raft of characters, including Bodie. Fellow Golden Voice narrator JD Jackson illuminates a cameo appearance that’s essential to the plot. You may find yourself abandoning everything to listen.
Dominic Hoffman combines an openhearted narrative voice with vivid character portrayals in THE HEAVEN & EARTH GROCERY STORE by Pulitzer Prize-winner James McBride. Offering hope in our riven society, this loving, compassionate tale takes place in the Chicken Hill neighborhood of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where immigrant Jews and Black Americans live together, apart from white, Christian America. Set mostly in the 1930s, the heart-healing story explores prejudice, accommodation, and community in a multiethnic world.
Kevin R. Free dazzles in THE LATE AMERICANS, an exuberant story by Booker Prize finalist Brandon Taylor. The novel transports us to Iowa City where young creative people are living messy, colorful lives as they search for love, purpose, and belonging. Golden Voice narrator Free relishes Taylor’s wit and brings empathetic voice to a host of male and female characters from different backgrounds as they navigate life’s confusions and joys.
Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep performs few audiobooks. When she does, she excels, as she does in her transporting narration of PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Ann Patchett’s new novel, TOM LAKE. Reveling in every character and with exquisite line reading, she carries us to a Michigan cherry farm where the Nelson family—Lara, Joe, and three adult daughters—are isolating in the first year of Covid. While they work, quarrel, and love, Lara shares memories of summer stock theater at nearby Tom Lake. It’s a story and a performance to be savored.
Helen Laser delivers a gripping performance of R.F. Kuang’s propulsive YELLOWFACE. Best known as an award-winning fantasy writer, Kuang delivers a suspenseful tale about a young white writer who steals the manuscript of a dead Asian friend, reedits it, and publishes it as her own. The story, which examines race, censorship, and social media, is also a lacerating look at the capricious world of publishing. Laser deftly inhabits the first-person narrative as the writer defends her actions, thrills to the result, and then spirals out of control as her authorship is questioned. Prepare to be riveted.
And there you have it, six wildly different award-winning audiobooks for the people on your gift list, including yourself! Happy listening, everyone.
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Photo of Dominic Hoffman courtesy of the narrator, photo of Helen Laser by John DeAmara.