This month spymaster John le Carré keeps us on the edge of our seats and Michelle Obama releases her record-breaking memoir.
By David Adams
Escape the holiday rush by getting lost in a great story, like a former first lady’s inspirational memoir, a larger-than-life story of financial fraud, or a post-apocalyptic office satire.
Becoming by Michelle Obama, narrated by Michelle Obama
Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s long-anticipated memoir hit bookshelves and playlists last month and promptly broke the Barnes & Noble record for best first-week sales ever. (By some estimates, it sold as many as nine copies per second in the first week.) Becoming follows Mrs. Obama’s inspirational journey from the South Side of Chicago to the White House and breaks the deeply personal news about her struggles with fertility and that she attended marriage counseling with President Obama. She also reveals what she truly thinks of Donald Trump. The only thing that’s missing from the audio version is her hilarious impression of her husband.
The Little Drummer Girl by John Le Carré, narrated by Michael Jayston
Charlie, a twenty-something British actress with left-wing sympathies, is recruited by Israeli intelligence agents to play the role of a lifetime in their mission to draw a Palestinian bomber out of hiding. Paired with a mysterious spy named Joseph, Charlie pretends to be the radicalized girlfriend of the bomber’s brother, Salim. In reality, Salim has been kidnapped by the Israelis and Joseph has assumed his identity. When the bomber finally makes contact with Charlie, she finds herself hopelessly divided between her loyalty to Joseph and her growing sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Expertly narrated by veteran British actor Michael Jayston, who’s provided the voiceover for most of le Carré’s audiobooks, The Little Drummer Girl showcases the world’s greatest spy novelist at the very top of his game.
Billion Dollar Whale by Bradley Hope and Tom Wright, narrated by Will Colyer
Proof positive that truth is stranger than fiction, this real-life thriller recounts one of the most audacious financial scams of all time. Malaysian financier Jho Low used his social connections to convince the country’s prime minister to create a sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB, to make investments around the world. Goldman Sachs and other banks helped raise $10 billion for 1MDB—roughly half of which promptly disappeared. As Wall Street Journal reporters Bradley Hope and Tom Wright follow the missing money into a web of offshore bank accounts and labyrinthine financial structures, they find Low buying Kim Kardashian a $325,000 white Ferrari as a wedding present, gifting Picasso and Basquiat paintings to Leonardo DiCaprio, and generally behaving so outlandishly it’s hard to believe he hasn’t yet been brought to justice. A riveting, briskly told exposé of the shadowy ties between Wall Street, Hollywood, and the autocratic governments that control much of the world’s wealth, Billion Dollar Whale is the perfect listen for long holiday commutes—when you’re stuck in traffic, just imagine you’re aboard Low’s $250 million superyacht.
True Grit by Charles Portis, narrated by Donna Tartt
Mississippi native and author Donna Tartt (The Secret History and The Goldfinch) emerges from her famous reclusion to lend her accent and comedic timing to the voice of Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl bent on avenging her father’s murder in 1800s Arkansas. Mattie hires Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed, alcoholic US Marshal, and the two set off for Indian Territory in pursuit of the scoundrel who killed her dad. The novel has been made into two films—the 1969 version won John Wayne his only Academy Award; the Coen Brothers received 10 Oscar nominations for their 2010 adaptation—but Tartt’s performance as Mattie Ross is arguably the most faithful ever recorded. The genius of the novel lies in the idiosyncratic nature of Mattie’s voice as she tells the story of her girlhood adventure roughly a quarter century later from the perspective of a woman who survived the Wild West (almost) intact. Tartt captures that doubleness—her voice sounds both young and old at the same time—perfectly.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, narrated by Michael Crouch
Nominated for the National Book Award, this propulsive literary novel is set both in 1980s Chicago during the AIDs crisis and in present-day Paris. The first half of the story centers around art gallery director Yale Tishman and his friends and lovers as the first waves of the AIDs epidemic begin to crash from San Francisco and New York into the Midwest. When Nico, a popular member of Yale’s group, dies, his family prefers not to mention the disease. Only Nico’s younger sister, Fiona, rebels against the secrecy. Thirty years later, she reckons with the fallout from the tragedy as she searches Paris for her estranged daughter, who may have recently left a cult. In addition to the two main storylines, the novel also includes a memorable thread about the search for precious artworks lost during World War I. A gripping and powerful portrait of life in a time of crisis, The Great Believers is a major breakthrough for one of the sharpest young voices in American literature.
Severance by Ling Ma, narrated by Nancy Wu
A sly satire of modern-day consumer culture masquerading as a zombie novel, Severance is one of the year’s boldest and most imaginative debuts. Set in 2011, the story switches back and forth between Candace Chen’s stable, if unfulfilling, life as a production editor at a Bible publisher in New York City and her existence with a ragtag band of survivors after a plague wipes out most of the world’s population. The disease, known as Shen Fever, originates in China and turns its victims, known as the Fevered, into the living dead—except they’re not fueled by hunger for human flesh, but by the need to repeat meaningless routines until they die of starvation. In one memorable scene, a corpse-like family sits down to dinner, gnaws their silverware and plates, washes and re-shelves the dishes, and then begins the whole process over again. Blending deadpan wit, extensive genre knowledge, and understated yet pitch-perfect prose, Chen paints a picture of millennial life that’s as disturbing as it is authentic.