If, like me, you listen to audiobooks in conjunction with all kinds of other activities—walking the dog, folding the laundry, driving, trying to fall asleep at 3 a.m.—your current listen merges with your daily life. The many hours I spent half in Baltimore, half in India while listening to Deepti Kapoor’s brilliant crime epic, Age of Vice (Penguin Audio, 19 hours and 28 minutes), were so addictive, I found myself desperate to do things like prep the veggies for dinner so I could put the headphones back on. So here I am in the kitchen, chopping carrots, but also in the fabulous Delhi apartment of Sunny Wadia, scion of India’s most powerful crime family, playboy, cultural influencer, and, most importantly, employer of the book’s other main character—devoted, hardworking Ajay, a boy from one of the lowest castes, sold as a servant by his mother to pay the funeral expenses of his murdered father. Ajay is right now stocking Sunny’s bar with the long, specific list of beverages he requires on hand. It seems he could almost hand me a Negroni Sbagliato, prepared according to Sunny’s meticulous specifications—the ingredients are right there on the silver tray. Narrator Vidish Athavale perfectly renders the accents of characters from every echelon of Indian society and makes the many scenes of violence almost unbearably vivid and chilling.
I left Delhi for a magically transformed 19th-century Oxford, England, to immerse myself in a book our reviewer called “dark academia as it should be”: Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence by R.F. Kuang (HarperAudio, 21 hours and 45 minutes). It’s a supersmart Harry Potter for grown-ups, with ingenious worldbuilding centered on translation, the Industrial Revolution, and the politics of colonialism. At the center of it all is endearing, gifted, naïve Robin Swift, plucked as a boy from Canton by evil Professor Lovell. Robin’s close-knit group at school includes Ramy from Calcutta, Victoire from Haiti, and Letty, a native Brit. They are all being trained for service at Oxford’s Royal Institute of Translation, known as Babel, where bars of silver are transmuted into engines that can do almost anything—make trains go faster, heal wounds, hold up decrepit bridges—by being inscribed with “match pairs,” words from two languages that mean almost the same thing but not quite. Narrator Chris Lew Kum Hoi reads the main text—I particularly enjoyed his Victoire, with her delicately Creole-accented English—and Billie Fulford-Brown reads the voluminous footnotes. Books with footnotes can really falter in audio. (Honestly, they can falter on the page.) The solution here works perfectly, with Fulford-Brown voicing the scholarly asides, satirical commentary, and other digressions in a saucy, smarty-pants way that likely makes them even better than they are in print.
Where have you been all my life? This was my thought after being entirely amused by an advance copy of The Dog of the North by Elizabeth McKenzie, then realizing I’d missed several earlier, well-received novels. Its immediate predecessor, The Portable Veblen (Recorded Books, 12 hours and 43 minutes), was longlisted for the National Book Award in 2016, for heaven’s sake—time to get with the program! Soon, I was peeling shallots in a neuroscience laboratory in contemporary Palo Alto, where a young woman named Veblen Amundsen-Hovda was meeting a researcher named Paul Vreeland, inventor of a medical instrument with important battlefield applications too unpalatable to describe here. Until Paul came along, all Veblen’s best friends were squirrels, inspiring the Kirkus reviewer’s clever summary:“McKenzie’s idiosyncratic love story scampers along on a wonderfully zig-zaggy path, dashing and darting in delightfully unexpected directions as it progresses toward its satisfying end and scattering tasty literary passages like nuts along the way.” Narrator Julia Gibson brings to life both the appealing characters and the awful ones, unfolding this wacky tale of health-industry corruption, mental illness, and family dysfunction—all on top of a marriage plot—with sweet aplomb.
Marion Winik is the host of the NPR podcast The Weekly Reader.