Our summer intern Olivia rounds up some of the best historical fiction to transport listeners back in time, to locales near and far.
Whether you’re jamming out to the irresistible hip hop beats of “Hamilton” on your morning commute, or busy planning watching parties for Poldark and Roots (or re-watching parties for Downton Abbey) with your friends, it’s safe to say that what is old is undisputably new again. History is having a major moment in pop culture, and from the bright lights of Broadway to the written word, suddenly the handful of stray battle dates and peace treaties you remember from high school seem like the coolest mode of cocktail conversation. Dive into our roundup of the best historical fiction audiobooks, and pick up a fun fact (or ten) as you listen on your way to work, class, or on the way to your latest wartime safehouse… or speakeasy hideaway… or zombie fighting-fueled love affair… History’s gotten interesting, hasn’t it?
The One Man by Andrew Gross, narrated by Edoardo Ballerini
It’s 1944, and physics professor Alfred Mendel and his family are trying to flee Paris at the height of Nazi occupation in France. Tragically caught while trying to escape, the Mendels are brought to Auschwitz and Alfred is ripped away from his family to work separately with the men. His belongings are tossed on a roaring fire, and along with them his books, his papers, his life’s work: information, unbenounced to the Nazis, that could start a war… or end one. Meanwhile, Nathan Blum works behind a desk at an intelligence office in Washington, D. C. Scrappy and intelligent, Nathan is fluent in German and Polish, escaping from the Krakow ghetto as a young boy. Seemingly out of nowhere, however, the mundane day-to-day of Nathan’s line of work becomes life or death. The US government wants him to take on the most dangerous assignment of his life: Nathan must sneak into Auschwitz, on a mission to find and escape with one man.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, narrated by the author
Poignant, powerful, and forever an essential addition to your audio-literary repertoire, Khaled Hosseini’s #1 New York Times bestseller, The Kite Runner, is a stunning exploration of friendship and family, articulating the human capacity for love through the complex lenses of class, religion, race, familial loyalty, and political upheaval. The story follows Amir, the son of a wealthy man, and Hassan, Amir’s best friend and the son of Amir’s father’s personal servant. Set in Kabul, Afghanistan, the story tracks the boys from the end of Afghanistan’s monarchy through the rise of the Taliban regime, highlighting the beautiful, painful irony of the boys’ intertwined, but vastly different, lives. When Amir and his father flee Afghanistan for California, Amir is unable to shake the memory of his dearest friend, and the frightening reality of the world Hassan continues to live in.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, narrated by Katherine Kellgren
This is not your mother’s tenth grade summer reading book. In a wacky, wild, brain-filled adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic, Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet sisters are just as smart and captivating as ever—only this time, the village of Meryton seems to be plagued with an unusually pesky problem. The dead are somehow coming back to life, and Elizabeth Bennet is not about it. How is she supposed to rebel against the social constructs of femininity when reanimated corpses are trying to eat her alive?! Mr. Darcy is just as dashing, the banter just as swoon-worthy, and the whirlwind love story of one of the most famous couples in Western literature is just as good as you remember it from high school. This time, though, someone will pay. In brains. (We dare you not to laugh while listening.)
Karolina’s Twins by Ronald H. Balson, narrated by Gabra Zackman
This new audiobook from the bestselling author of Once We Were Brothers and Saving Sophie was inspired by true events of a Holocaust survivor’s quest to return to Poland and fulfill the most important promise of her life. Lena Woodward has lived a comfortable life among Chicago high-society since she immigrated to the United States and began a new life at the end of World War II. But suddenly something comes to light that Lena cannot ignore—an unfulfilled promise she made long ago. Restless, Lena enlists the help of lawyer Catherine Lockhart and private investigator Liam Taggart to solve a mystery that harkens back to her harrowing past in Nazi-occupied Poland. Karolina, Lena’s childhood friend is a cherished memory from Lena’s past. But there is something about the story that is unfinished, questions that must be answered about what is true and what is not, and it all rests on what Lena is willing to risk to uncover the past.
Belgravia by Julian Fellowes, narrated by Juliet Stevenson
From award-winning, bestselling writer, actor, director, and Right Honourable Lord of West Stafford (seriously!) Julian Fellowes, Belgravia begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The Grand Duchess of Richmond is throwing a magnificent ball, and in attendance, amongst the glittering members of the British elite are James and Anne Trenchard. At the ball, their prized, stunning daughter Sophia catches the attention of Edmund Bellasis, the son and heir of one of Britainâs most impressive fortunes. The events that follow that evening set into motion earth-shattering consequences that affect each of them twenty-five years later. Told in serial installments, Belgravia is the latest audio masterpiece from the mastermind behind Downton Abbey, Snobs, Gosford Park, and The Young Victoria.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, narrated by Dominic Hoffman
Hailed as “an inspiration” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Homegoing is a stunning debut from writer Yaa Gyasi, profiling the descendants of two sisters torn apart in 18th-century Africa. Half-sisters Effia and Esi are born into different villages in Ghana. Effia is married off to English nobility, and lives in comfort and safety in the beautiful rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, Esi is held captive beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren are born and sold into slavery. Homegoing follows two threads: one of Effia’s successors and the Fante and Asante nations through hundreds of years of violence and war in Ghana, the other of Esi and her strikingly different legacy in America. Capturing everything from the cotton plantations of the South, to the Great Migration, Harlem’s Jazz Renaissance, and right up to today, Homegoing is a powerful, essential listen.
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, narrated by Jenna Lamia
When beautiful, reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance in 1918, she is seventeen-years-old and he is a young army lieutenant stationed in Alabama. Before long, the “ungettable” Zelda has fallen for him despite his unsuitability—Scott isn’t wealthy or prominent, and insists that his writing will bring him fortune and fame. But after Scott sells his first novel, This Side of Paradise, to Scribner’s, Zelda optimistically marries him. Here, at the dawn of the Jazz Age, what comes is unimagined attention, success, and celebrity that will make Scott and Zelda legends in their own right. Everyone wants to meet the dashing young author of the scandalous novel—and his witty (perhaps even more scandalous) wife. Therese Anne Fowler and Jenna Lamia bring us Zelda’s irresistible story on audio as she herself might have told it, highlighting the blistering reality that not even Jay Gatsby’s parties can go on forever.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, narrated by Robin Miles
From the bestselling and National Book Award-winning author of Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson is back with her first adult novel (and audiobook!) in twenty years. In Another Brooklyn, a chance meeting with a friend from the past sends August’s mind back to 1970’s Brooklyn, where August spent her childhood and seemingly anything was possible. It was then and there that August met Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, three girls that would become her dearest friends during the tumultuous years of adolescence and burgeoning womanhood. Together, the four girls face poverty, sexual abuse, violence, drug use, and the absence of a parent—the entire time holding each other up and growing stronger together. Another Brooklyn celebrates the power and beauty of strength, diversity, and the impactful evolution of female friendship as we grow and change throughout our lives.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, narrated by Christopher Cazenove
This Booker Prize-winning classic from Michael Ondaatje seems to become more poignant and more relevant as time goes on. Whether it’s a story you’ve returned to when the moment seems right (like me) or you’re a first timer, the depth and narrative prowess of The English Patient will blow you away. Set during the African/Italian campaigns of World War II, The English Patient flashes through time, jumping between the past memories and present fate of a soldier burned beyond recognition and without any recollection of his own identity. In the present, he is bedridden in an abandoned Italian monastery and cared for by Hana, a troubled Canadian nurse. Also in the “present” are Caravaggio, an Italian-Canadian British intelligence officer and a longtime friend of Hana’s family, and Kip, a British-Sikh sapper soldier specializing in bomb detonation. The soldier’s past, though, as it is eventually revealed, is teeming with memories of a forgotten life, and the devastating impact of war on one’s sense of self. A discussion of identity in all of its capacities, The English Patient audiobook mandates an impactful discussion about nationality, race, and the human experience.