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  • Vanessa King

A Year Between the Ears: 2021 in Audiobooks

As mentioned across multiple formats, I'm an unrepentant audiobook nerd. It's been a lifelong love, from my days of waiting for Tinkerbell's "chime" to turn the page of Disney read-along books, family vacations punctuated by the "ca-chunk" of a cassette switching to the B side, painstakingly uploading disk after disk to my hard drive, then my iPod shuffle, to the instant gratification of an Audible--and now a Libro.fm--subscription.


When a friend made the mistake of asking for book suggestions last winter, my three page handwritten guide had an entire section devoted to "listens," as well as an area to add future books. It was...a lot.

Now, just shy of a year later, and with a request from Bookish that I contribute to a piece on author's best-of 2021 reads, I present my favorite listens of 2021, with active links and potentially useful "Gift Guide" tips, should you be making this holiday season a bookish one ;)


FULL DISCLOSURE: of the books I listened to this year, there are several I won't be commenting on. Two I returned at the 20 minute mark, two I simply DNF'd (Did Not Finish, for the uninitiated) and two I were tempted to give up on but held off out of loyalty to the authors/morbid curiosity and guilt at the prospect of returning yet another book, as I am now realizing there was a third title I returned early on this year. Oops.

Then, there's a Court of Silver Flames. This one I won't go into because it requires a series' worth of investment for context AND the fortitude needed to strap in for the book's 26 hour, 5 minute runtime. But because it was responsible for the text exchange/mostly monologue I've included here, I thought I'd mention it. Despite my all-caps fury, will I be reading the next installment? You bet you buns I will. Also kudos J-Dawg, for putting up with my rant.


Onward, to my recommendations!


The Ninth House (Leigh Bardugo) As I wrote at the time I read it: Magic. Ghosts. Tattoo-absorbing moths. RITUAL SACRIFICE. Target cashmere. A literal “shit-eating grin.” A Big Bad speech that is a little too over-the-top but you don’t really mind it because the information is so compelling.

Bardugo often writes teens/young adults a bit older/more world-weary than works for me. Or maybe it’s that they’re only ever among other equally worn down youths? In any case, the hard-earned survivor skills of House’s protagonist stand in sharp contrast to the cushy upbringing of her silver spoon-fed Yale peers, and it WORKS.


Fair warning, the book's prologue could have been scrapped. When the story catches up to the action depicted in the scene, all the drama is quickly resolved, and continues on like nothing happened. That said, GIMMIE THE SEQUEL!


Gift Guide: A must for anyone who enjoyed Bardugo's Grishaverse novels or the Netflix adaptation, Shadow and Bone, fans of urban fantasy, ghost hunters/enthusiasts, anyone living in/around New Haven, fans of "elites vs. townies" dynamics.


Neon Gods (Kaytee Roberts) This book took BookTok by storm this summer, and it's not hard to see

why. A dark, erotic reimagining of Hades and Persephone? Please and thank-you. Granted, I never did understand the particulars of the "world" of Olympus, nor the decision to cast British readers for the audiobook, but it is epically hot. A friend compared it to mafia romance, which, not having read that subgenera, I wouldn't have come up with on my own, but it does make sense in retrospect.

Gift Guide: ACOTAR fans, you know the "throne scene" in book 2? Yeah, you do. This takes that where you wanted it to go...& then some. Buy this for yourself. You've earned it.


The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (Taylor Jenkins Reid) When a no-name reporter is hand-picked to tell the story of Hollywood icon Evelyn Hugo, she figures her "angle" will be uncovering which of Hugo's aforementioned spouses was the actress's one true love. As a reader, I anticipated the same, then

...nope! That answer is presented early on, and the meat of the novel follows the impact this relationship had on the rest of Hugo's life-- and that of the reporter.


Gift Guide: folks who love tales of Old Hollywood/Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous; anyone intrigued by the prospect of an icon truly spilling ALL the tea; readers who don't mind if a hyped-up reveal isn't super shocking; deeply empathetic readers who are willing to forgive the sins of fictional characters (not all of us are up to the task).


Malibu Rising (Taylor Jenkins Reid) covers the day leading up to the Riva family's annual end-of-summer party at the beach house of eldest sibling, Nina. The narrative deftly weaves between the past and present, telling the story of the Riva kids' parents' marriage, the affairs of their musician father and his eventual abandonment, and examining the inner lives of the four adult children as the night unfolds and their party goes increasingly off the rails. Secrets come to light, bonds are tested, roles are evaluated and reconsidered, with the action culminating in a devastating act of carelessness that was nothing short of poetic (don't worry, it ends well). Particularly fun for those who have read Evelyn Hugo and Reid's incredible Daisy Jones and the Six (a true must-listen, but this is about 2021 reads) who can pick up on references to characters and references from those earlier works.


Gift Guide: Geriatric Gen-Xers (aka, anyone who was in high school in 1982--look, if I have to be a a Geriatric Millennial, then you have to live with something similar); folks who can keep up with regular, well-structured timeline hops in their reading material; readers who enjoyed Ann Patchett's Commonwealth but wished the tone had been lighter; people who want to revisit the scenes at Jake Ryan's house in Sixteen Candles, but can't enjoy them now in light of how deeply not okay so much of that was; your cool aunt. Oooh, for a GOOD fit, make it a set with Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones; you'll win at Christmas.


My Oxford Year (Julia Whelan) I selected this book in the gleeful afterglow of the news that author Whelan, my all-time favorite audiobook reader, would be performing the audiobook version of A Certain Appeal. I went into it blind, anticipating a romance with a hint of mystery, as the back cover blurb only mentioned a Rhodes Scholar getting in a relationship with a professor with a secret. I assumed we'd find out he killed a guy. Spoiler alert: he in no way killed a guy, and I ended up regularly crying while listening to the book as I panted the guest bathroom. It was a rare treat to be so surprised by a book, but it is HEAVY, and I can respect that 2021 might not be the year for that. With that in mind...


Gift Guide: oh, goodness, I don't really know. Because I don't want to spoil it-- it was SO GOOD! Shoot me an email or a DM or something; we can hash it out together. Anglophiles, for sure, though. And...anyone interested in Oxford?


Iron Widow (Xiran Jay Zhao) THIS BOOK.

I discovered Zhao on Twitter, via their exhausted, hilarious takedown of Disney's live-action adaptation of Mulan. Only months later did I realize they had a book coming out. The book in one stentence? How about Pacific Rim and The Handmaid's Tale meeting to reimagine the story of China's one female emperor. You're sold, aren't you?

Set in the land of Huaxia, boys and girls are linked in giant mecha to fight robot aliens from beyond the Great Wall. The male pilots are glorified and treated like celebrities, while female pilots are disposable, often dying from the strain of the mental link required to operate the mecha with their partners. Enter Wu Zetian, who offers herself as a concubine-pilot for the chance to avenge her sister's death in the system. And, oh, does she EVER get her revenge. This YA novel is RELENTLESS, and there's a sequel in the works--or will it be a series?! I cannot wait for my daughter to be old enough to read this.

Gift Guide: every angry teenaged girl who wants to burn it all down; every teenaged boy who needs to understand why girls want to burn it all down, and, perhaps, learn a thing or two about a "different" way to be a man; anyone seeking queer/poly rep ("the triangle is the strongest shape"); everyone in general.


The Storyteller (Dave Grohl) Dave Grohl is a deeply decent dude, a solid father, committed

performer, and LOVES his mama. I picked his memoir, The Storyteller, after listening to an inspiring interview with Grohl on the now-defunct but forever in my heart Off Camera with Sam Jones. The back half is a touch overloaded with name-drops, but when a guy's spent his entire adult life a LITERAL rockstar, that's going to happen. Also, who doesn't want to read about Joan Jett reading someone's kid a bedtime story?

Gift Guide: any self-respecting Gen-Xer; your brother-in-law, probably; aspiring musicians; people just now remembering that time in 2015 when Grohl obliterated his leg in an accidental stage-dive at a show in Sweden and want the nitty gritty on how he managed to play the rest of the set (Crown Royal and adrenaline, but it's a great story).


A Certain Appeal (yours truly) Look, I couldn't get through this without a little self-promotion. And as

noted above, it's read by Julia-freaking-Whelan; you have to check it out. Have I listened to it yet? Admittedly, no. I just can't. It's to amazing/weird. But I did listen to the five minute sample online on release day and cried. Then took a nap. 10/10, would recommend.

Gift Guide: for fans of Pride and Prejudice retellings; those interested in/intrigued by burlseque; peoople looking for found families and supportive communities; RomCom aficionados who like enemies-to-lovers in which the couple is mostly annoyed at how hot they are for one another because the attraction is a major inconvenience to maintaining a petty grievance.


Happy listening, folks!



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