20 must-hear audiobooks to light up your summer

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Summer is normally a time for reading. To sit in the warm sun with a book and cold drink is what holidays were made for. But many of us will get no further than the garden this year, and many more are still suffering from a peculiar Covid brain fog, unable to concentrate for a page, let alone a whole book. This is the audiobook’s time to shine. Pop the headphones on and choose one of these 20 titles for summer, from magical fantasies to intimate family dramas.

The Glass Hotel

By Emily St John Mandel
Narrated by Dylan Moore; 10hr 28min
Mandel’s follow-up to the wildly successful Station Eleven is a very different proposition to that book’s post-apocalyptic musings on art and survival. Here it is not a virus that destroys lives but the collapse of a massive international Ponzi scheme.

Hamnet

By Maggie O’Farrell
Narrated by Daisy Donovan; 10hr 31min
In Maggie O’Farrell’s tender reimagining of the death of Shakespeare’s son, it only takes about 11 minutes before feeling utterly floored by the first perfect paragraph; a beautiful and haunting distillation of a mother’s infinite love for her child.

Weather

By Jenny Offill
Narrated by Cassandra Campbell; 3hr 46min
Initially a disorientating listen, filled with short, sharp, and seemingly unconnected observations, Weather quickly becomes a testament to how much can be said with so few words. A contemporary story of anxiety, marriage and being a mother, it’s short enough to consume over the course of an afternoon, and by the end you will be utterly rapt.

Piranesi

By Susanna Clarke
Narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor; 6hr 58min
Human imagination is infinite. There is nothing our minds can’t conceive, and even if that’s not true, how would we know? Language is the barrier. At least, it usually is. Then along comes someone like Susanna Clarke, with the exceptional ability to show us exactly what her unbridled, astonishing imagination has conjured. Only her second novel (after Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell), Piranesi is a mysterious, magical story perfectly narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor.

The Jane Austen Collection

Narrated by Claire Foy, Emma Thompson, Florence Pugh, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Billie Piper; 45hr
Imagine receiving a boxset of all of Jane Austen’s books as a gift. It would surely sit unread on your shelf for years, slowly gathering dust and associated guilt. This is the beauty of audiobooks – it makes it far less daunting to finally get through all those classics you never thought you had time for.

Deacon King Kong

By James McBride
Narrated by Dominic Hoffman; 14hr 5min
In a Brooklyn housing project at the tail-end of the 1960s, an old deacon called Sportscoat inexplicably shoots a young drug dealer in the face. What follows is a sprawling, multilayered, deeply moving and often very funny account of the fallout. You won’t listen to anything else quite like it this year. (Mild warning alert: the narrator affects an astonishingly poor Irish accent for a minor character here, and while it doesn’t detract from what is a genuinely brilliant book, it is distracting, and highlights just how difficult it is to successfully narrate a book. It’s a fine line.)

Actress

By Anne Enright
Narrated by the author; 8hr 4min
Nora O’Dell recounts the life and times of her mother, Catherine, a famed Irish theatre actress, from treading the boards in Dublin and the West End to finding fame in Hollywood. Giving the impression of watching from the wings as a bright star fades, Enright’s latest novel is moving and thoroughly captivating. Her own narration is excellent, too; personable, immersive and with an apt touch of dramatic flair.

How Much of These Hills Is Gold

By C Pam Zhang
Narrated by Catherine Ho and Joel de la Fuente; 9hr 8min
So many westerns are about a perilous journey to honour a dying wish. It’s usually a neat metaphor wrapped up in a mythically heroic tale of life on the frontier. In her debut novel, C Pam Zhang brilliantly flips countless tropes as two recently orphaned children of Chinese immigrants struggle to find a burial place for their dead father.

The Vanishing Half

By Brit Bennett
Narrated by Shayna Small; 11hr 34min
Teenage twin sisters run away from their small, southern black community in the 1950s. Years later one returns with child in tow, while the other secretly passes for white in LA. Not just a powerful story of racism and identity, but a scathing condemnation of that most transparent of lies – the American dream.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

By Deepa Anappara
Narrated by Indira Varma, Himesh Patel and Antonio Aakeel; 9hr 40min
A nine-year-old boy, living in the slums of an unnamed Indian city, turns detective to find a missing classmate. Refracting the grim reality of the situation through the lens of an innocent child could so easily have been a cheap trick, but here it’s a stroke of genius.

Homeland Elegies

By Ayad Akhtar
Narrated by the author; 10hr 19min
If at first the prose seems a little academic, stick with it. This extraordinary book is one of fury and fierce intelligence, examining the state of post-9/11 America through the eyes of an immigrant family. Although technically a novel, blending fact and fiction so seamlessly it’s hard to tell the difference, every word rings true.

The Shadow King

By Maaza Mengiste
Narrated by Robin Miles; 16hr 11min
By detailing a relatively unknown moment in modern history (Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and the female soldiers who resisted), Maaza Mengiste delivers not just a fascinating and moving story, but a reminder of how powerful historical fiction can be.

Redhead by the Side of the Road

By Anne Tyler
Narrated by MacLeod Andrews; 4hr 50min
Anne Tyler’s latest novel has all the warmth and wisdom we’ve come to expect, with the added bonus of arriving when we needed it the most. An unassuming story filled with unassuming characters, she proves once again to be the master at gently revealing all those little lies we tell ourselves to make life easier.

Blood Meridian

By Cormac McCarthy
Narrated by Richard Poe; 13hr 6min
Raise your hand if you started reading Blood Meridian but never finished. As half-thumbed tomes go, it must be up there with Infinite Jest. Help is at hand – in audiobook form. Pour yourself something stiff and let the dense, epic, exhausting, biblically violent words wash over you. After which you’ll probably need a shower.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain

By George Saunders
Narrated by the author, Nick Offerman, Glenn Close, Rainn Wilson, Phylicia Rashad, Keith David, BD Wong and Renee Elise Goldsberry; 14hr 44min
This is as close as any of us are ever likely to get to sitting in one of George Saunders’s writing classes, and what a treat it is. By dissecting seven classic Russian short stories, he teaches us not just how fiction works but how to become better readers and writers. A joyous, generous book which you’ll likely be dipping in and out of for years.

Treasure Island

By Robert Louis Stevenson
Narrated by full cast; 6hr 23min
Here’s what you do. On the stormiest night of the year, set up a tent in the back garden. Bung everyone in with torches, plenty of hot chocolate and this dramatisation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure. Bingo bango, you have just instilled in your children a life-long love of literature. Or terrified them for no reason. One or the other.

Ramble Book

By Adam Buxton
Narrated by the author; 10hr 50min
Fans of his podcast will know exactly what to expect with Adam Buxton’s witty and thoroughly enjoyable journey through his youth and 80s pop culture. Making the most of the format, he throws in a bunch of jingles and audio-only content, including a chat with childhood friend Joe Cornish.

Champagne Football: John Delaney and the Betrayal of Irish Football

By Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan
Narrated by Johnny Candon; 10hr 10min
This thoroughly researched account of John Delaney’s ludicrous career and the FAI’s scarcely believable financial mismanagement makes for compelling listening. Entertaining and depressing in equal measure.

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties

By Tom O’Neill
Narrated by Kevin Stillwell; 16hr 14min
If you were to suggest the last thing the world needs right now is another grimly detailed true-crime book, particularly about a case so well-trodden as the Manson murders, you’d be correct. But this one is different. The result of a 20-year investigation, it contains some astonishing revelations. (Another warning: even if you are not of a particularly sensitive disposition, the descriptions of the murders make for difficult and upsetting listening. Thankfully they don’t last long.)

Helgoland

By Carlo Rovelli
Narrated by David Rintoul; 4hr 31min
It’s a strange comfort to know that even people who study quantum physics their whole lives still haven’t a bean on the true nature of reality. What Carlo Rovelli has, however, is an uncanny knack for instilling wonder and explaining obscenely complex theories in plain, entertaining ways.

How to listen to audiobooks

If you’ve never listened to an audiobook before, here’s the good news: it’s easier and cheaper than you might think. If you have a library card you can download the BorrowBox app to your phone, then use it to rent audiobooks (and ebooks) free of charge.

If you don’t mind paying, Audible is by far the best option. An annual membership costs £69.99 (charged in sterling), and with it you get credits to download 12 books of your choice. You can then listen through the Audible app on your phone, computer or smartspeaker. Your membership also gives you access to plenty of original podcasts, including West Cork, the superb investigation into the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier.

For a free alternative, Open Culture has more than 1,000 audiobooks (mostly classics) to download, no strings attached.