So, you’re a romance fan who’s new to audiobooks. Where do you start? Or, say you are an audio fan and want to explore the romance genre. Yet, when you look at the overwhelming number of available romance audiobooks, you have no idea where to start.
In our April column, Friends Helping Friends, we discussed the importance of seeking recommendations from those who have similar tastes to your own. As a beginner, it is all the more important that you seek solid recommendations since outstanding audiobooks are a combination of an author’s talent and a narrator’s skill. If a narrator can’t effectively deliver an author’s work, the audio version suffers. On the other hand, a talented narrator can transform a ho-hum read into an above average listen. And, as a beginner, you should consider these facts before committing to an audiobook.
Since the choosing can be difficult for the romance audio beginner, I’ve joined together with our audio reviewers to develop A Beginner’s Guide to Romance Audio. It’s a list of audiobooks by sub-genre that we consider easy listens. Not only is the story of high quality, but the narration is of such high quality as well that it flows effortlessly to a new listener’s ears.
But first, let’s look at some beginner tips starting with a word of advice that I first included in our Friends Helping Friends column:
Convincing yourself that audio format is the thing for you is rarely a case of listening to just one audiobook. Don’t give up after one, two, or even five audiobooks. You’re exploring an entirely new way for your mind to absorb reading material. You are literally fine-tuning your ear. In the process, you are exploring a large selection of narrators. And it can’t be emphasized enough – seek a recommendation before choosing an audiobook.
Enriching Your Audio Experience
As you ready yourself to make your first romance audio choices, consider these factors that make the process easier and the experience richer.
1. An MP3 player makes buying and listening to audiobooks easier and faster. If you have the ability to listen with an MP3 player but are uncertain about the particulars of how it all works, just ask us here and we will be happy to guide you.
2. Newer audiobooks are the best place to start your listening. There are some wonderful older audiobooks (some listed here today) from the 1990s, but there is a greater likelihood of success with the newer audios. Not only is the production quality far greater, but the narration is likely to be far superior as well. It’s not said too often but I firmly believe that the art of audio narration is taken much more seriously these days and is now more sophisticated. Where as narrators were once readers, they are now performers.
3. Your ear will develop the ability to absorb audio content the more you listen. One trick is to start with an audiobook that you have read in print. You can then concentrate on the flow of the book and its performance rather than straining to hear every detail. The more you listen to audiobooks, the less you need to be concerned about the details – your mind learns to pick up those many facts without you realizing it.
4. It is a wonderful journey. And we are here to talk with you about it and share your audio successes as well as those that just didn’t work for you.
Our Official Beginner’s Guide to Romance Audio
First, determine your favorite romance sub-genre. Do you prefer contemporary settings and, if you do, do you want it heavy on suspense? Or do you prefer historical settings? If you start with your favorite romance sub-genre, your chances for success are all the greater. Our categories by sub-genre include Contemporary Romance, Romantic Suspense, Paranormal Romance, Historical Romance, Fantasy Romance, and Urban Fantasy with a thread of romance.
Joining me in recommending beginner audiobooks are reviewers Brenda, Carrie, Melinda, LinnieGayl, Diana, and Kaetrin. All these ladies are audio savvy and have listened to romance audio for years.
Keeping your favorite romance sub-genre in mind, check out our recommendations and challenge yourself to start listening to romance or, if you are already a romance audio fan, just discover some great audiobooks!
Contemporary Romance Beginnings
One thing that remains constant when you see a discussion of favorite Contemporary Romance audios is the pairing of Susan Elizabeth Phillips with Anna Fields. And that is quite evident in today’s beginner recommendations.
LinnieGayl and Lea
Match Me If You Can – Susan Elizabeth Phillips Narrated by Anna Fields
LinnieGayl – I love nearly all of SEP’s books in audio, but this is the best I could recommend for an audio beginner. There’s nothing controversial about this SEP. It’s fun from beginning to end. And this is the late Anna Fields at her best. She brings life to each of the characters, and clearly distinguishes their voices.
Lea – A lovable, laugh-out-loud story of a want-to-be-successful matchmaker and a sports attorney too busy to find the perfect wife is excellently narrated with perfect timing. Ms. Fields understands romance and it shows.
Also recommended by Carrie, Brenda, Melinda, and Kaetrin.
Natural Born Charmer – Susan Elizabeth Phillips Narrated by Anna Fields
Anna Fields’ flawless delivery – the humor –the four different storylines that all intertwine – the cranky neighbor – the younger sister and the two developing romances (one of which features the aging rock star, who I always picture as Bruce Springsteen so that’s an added bonus).
Also recommended by LinnieGayl, Carrie, Kaetrin, Melinda, and Lea.
Just the Sexiest Man Alive – Julie James Narrated by Karen White
JTSMA is another good intro book, because the content is fresh, truly contemporary (aka not the 90s), funny, sophisticated and very well narrated by Karen White.
Also recommended by LinnieGayl, Brenda, and Lea.
Blue Eyed Devil – Lisa Kleypas Narrated by Renee Raudman
Wonderful narration which brings out the romance between Hardy and Haven (warning – contains domestic violence but not by the hero)
Also recommended by Diana, Brenda, Melinda, and Lea.
Diana and Kaetrin
Welcome to Temptation – Jennifer Crusie Narrated by Aasne Vigesaa
Diana - Aasne Vigesaa nails Sophie Dempsey’s dry, wry wit. The town is full of oddball characters and Vigesaa gives each a voice. It’s a great book perfectly executed in audio.
Kaetrin – Laugh out loud funny, great narration.
Anyone But You – Jennifer Crusie Narrated by Susan Ericksen.
Trademark Crusie humor without the angst she throws in some of her books. Susan Ericksen does a great job with the narration.
Also recommended by Melinda, Brenda, and Lea.
Romantic Suspense Beginnings
Carnal Innocence – Nora Roberts Narrated by Tom Stechschulte
A good example of the RS genre with a nice balance between romance and suspense, with a strong male narrator.
Also recommended by Brenda, Melinda, and Lea.
After the Night – Linda Howard Narrated by Natalie Ross
I like my romantic suspense mild and After the Night is more romance than suspense. Natalie Ross’ narration is superb, differentiating all characters and keeping to Howard’s intent.
Also recommended by Melinda, Carrie, and Brenda.
The Search – Nora Roberts Narrated by Tanya Eby
Tanya Eby does a very good job if you listen for the abundance of humor in the one-liners. It’s not heavy or graphic. It has dogs to love, interesting details on Search and Rescue training, and women as friends with entertaining banter as well as the romance.
Also recommended by Melinda, LinnieGayl and Kaetrin.
Kaetrin and Diana
Naked in Death – J.D. Robb Narrated by Susan Ericksen
Kaetrin – Susan Ericksen’s sexy Irish accent for Roarke makes this series beginner a winner.
Diana – Susan Ericksen owns these characters.
Also recommended by Carrie, Melinda, and Brenda
Diana and Lea
Envy – Sandra Brown Narrated by Victor Slezak
Diana – Envy has the perfect synchronous mix of author and narrator. Serendipity. It’s cerebral romantic suspense where the listener gets to figure out the mystery along with the heroine. Sandra Brown’s trademark jerk hero and jaw-dropping plot twists.
Lea – Outstanding male narration – Slezak’s characterizations are distinct and he fully fleshes out the storyline. It’s a hard tale, but one that totally captivated this romantic suspense sissy.
These represent Books 13 – 17 of the Troubleshooter Series and all are good examples of romantic suspense with dual narrations by top-notch narrators. I recommend reading them in order.
Kill and Tell – Linda Howard Narrated by Natalie Ross
Natalie Ross understands this book. Gritty mystery and very hot romance. Dancing on a balcony on a misty night in New Orleans – one of the sexiest scenes ever.
Also recommended by Lea, Melinda, and Brenda.
Paranormal Romance Beginnings
It’s obvious that Molly Harper is a definite paranormal hit among our reviewers. She came to my attention during our 2011 Favorite Romance Audiobook Poll when she received many votes from our listeners. So, let’s start with her.
How to Flirt With a Naked Werewolf by Molly Harper Narrated by Amanda Ronconi.
I’ll go light with this selection. This book is fresh and funny, and the narration fit the writer’s style perfectly.
Also recommended by Brenda.
Brenda and Kaetrin
Nice Girls Don’t Have Fangs – Molly Harper Narrated by Amanda Ronconi
Brenda – If you want a series that flows with the same couple and a thread of romance, the Jane Jamison series features a superior narrator who catches all the humor along with any other vibe implied in each book. Ms. Ronconi is really fun and excellent to listen to, especially good for a newbie.
Kaetrin - Hilarious and fun.
Also recommended by Carrie.
Soulless – Gail Carriger Narrated by Emily Gray
While officially steampunk, I count this as paranormal for these purposes as it definitely includes werewolves, vampires, and other creatures. Emily Gray does a wonderful job as narrator in this first of the series. Each of the characters sounds exactly as I expected.
Also recommended by Brenda and Lea.
Dragon Bound – Thea Harrison Narrated by Sophie Eastlake
A single romance with a good narrator that delivers a very popular story. There are more books to follow, with different couples, if you like the first.
Also recommended by Kaetrin.
Halfway to the Grave – Jeaniene Frost Narrated by Tavia Gilbert
Kaetrin – Excellent narration and a fast paced sexy listen.
Lea – Vibrant love story with close to perfect narration. There’s little descriptive gore compared to other paranormals and Gilbert keeps you interested every minute with her energetic performance.
Also recommended by Brenda.
Kiss of the Highlander – Karen Marie Moning Narrated by Phil Gigante
A rollicking, hilarious, and bawdy audiobook, Moning writes a fantastic time travel tale while Phil Gigante literally brings in to life.
Also recommended by Brenda.
Historical Romance Beginnings
Carrie, Lea, and Kaetrin
The Spymaster’s Lady – Joanna Bourne Narrated by Kirsten Potter
Carrie - Almost perfect.
Kaetrin – Wonderfully crafted romance that is only enhanced by the narration.
Lea – I liked this highly popular book in print, but loved in audio. Ms. Potter adds another layer of entertainment taking this to the outstanding audio class.
Lea and Kaetrin
The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie – Jennifer Ashley Narrated by Angela Dawe
Lea – A vastly popular romance, Ms. Dawe delivers an extremely well performed audio that didn’t disappoint the legends of print fans that expected the unusual Ian to sound a certain way. She understands romance and her narration is spot on.
Kaetrin – Excellent narration made this story better for me on audio than in print.
Also recommended by Brenda.
The Indiscretion – Judith Ivory Narrated by Barbara Rosenblat
It’s funny, it’s masterful narrating. I think it’s a great intro to audio.
Also recommended by Lea.
Unclaimed – Courtney Milan Narrated by Rebecca De Leeuw
The narrator is identified as Polly Lee at Audible but in actuality (and on the recording itself) it’s Rebecca De Leeuw aka the extremely talented Bianca Amato. She delivers a different and very enjoyable storyline.
Also recommended by Lea.
Kaetrin and Lea
Outlander – Diana Gabaldon Narrated by Davina Porter
Kaetrin - Don’t be put off by the length of the listen – think of it as value. Davina Porter’s characterizations and accents are amazing.
Lea – I can’t emphasize enough to listen to Outlander despite its length. One of the best narrated books ever and hero Jamie is so much more alive (and delectable) in audio than print.
The Mischief of the Mistletoe – Lauren Willig Narrated by Kate Reading
While this occurs far along in the Pink Carnation series, it works as a standalone. As always, Kate Reading is a delightful narrator. There’s never any confusion as to which character is speaking, and each character has a unique voice.
A Fantasy Romance Beginning
Pure Fantasy Romance is hard to come by. It’s usually fantasy with only a thread of romance. Our reviewers didn’t have a lot to recommend for beginners but three heartily agreed on one book – or rather should I say a series of four books (The Sharing Knife series) since you will want to listen to the next each time you finish the previous.
Brenda, Kaetrin, and Lea
The Sharing Knife: Beguilement – Lois McMaster Bujold Narrated by Bernadette Dunne
Brenda – Masterfully narrated, it was my personal first foray into Fantasy and I loved every minute of it!
Kaetrin – The world building is easy to follow and Bernadette Dunne captures the emotions of the story wonderfully.
Lea – A feel good type of book that is reflected in its narration. It’s not over the top or as violent as you often see in fantasy. Very well delivered by Ms. Dunne, it’s a slower pace that I still recall fondly after two years.
Urban Fantasy with a Thread of Romance Beginnings
Ilona Andrews ranks high with Urban Fantasy romance fans here at Speaking of Audiobooks and her Kate Daniels series earned a number of awards in our 2011 Favorite Romance Audiobook Poll. She proves her popularity again here with a few recommendations from our reviewers.
Carrie, Kaetrin, and Diana
Magic Bites – Ilona Andrews Narrated by Renee Raudman.
Carrie - Great writing, amazing world-building, and an excellent narrator.
Kaetrin – The romance takes a few books to heat up, but the world building is excellent and Kate Daniels is kick-ass.
Diana – Renee Raudman has me addicted to and loving a series I probably wouldn’t have tried in print.
Also recommended by Brenda and Lea.
Brenda and Kaetrin
Bayou Moon – Ilona Andrews Narrated by Renee Raudman
Brenda – Narrated by the awesome Renee Raudman, be ready for an adventure, some truly imaginative descriptions of bad guys, and a hero who will steal your heart. The heroine and her large close family add variety and drama but it’s Renee Raudman who pulls it all together and makes it even better as an audiobook. And it includes an HEA.
Kaetrin – More romantic than the Kate Daniels series, the interesting world building, great characters, and Raudman’s narration add to the story. I enjoyed this more in audio than print.
Lea and Diana
Dead Until Dark – Charlaine Harris Narrated by Johanna Parker
Lea – My recommendation for Urban Fantasy must be for Sookie and her gang. I can’t recall another audio series that has so consistently and completely entertained me – even after twelve installments. In this first of the Sookie Stackhouse series, Harris introduces a new world of highly entertaining creatures that Johanna Parker performs to perfection. Expect not a boring minute with this lively narration.
Diana - Gotta go with Sookie. Johanna Parker brings it to life.
Romance Audio Reviews
We continually hear from listeners their preference for dual narrations featuring male and female narrators playing their respective roles. We long for more such narrations where men can sound like men and women can sound like women. But what about those dual male/female narrations where each narrator takes turns performing all the characters? Personally I find them challenging and usually choose to run the other way. Diana accepted the challenge of reviewing such a narration today with Born to Darkness.
Born to Darkness – Suzanne Brockmann
Review written by Diana
Narrated by Melanie Ewbank and Patrick Lawlor
Set in an exceedingly grim near future, Brockmann has created a world where the economy is broken and private parties have taken over law enforcement. The Obermeyer Institute is a privately funded entity actively engaged in wiping out a deadly drug epidemic. The drug wreaking havoc is Destiny, made from the blood of captive adolescent girls; instantly addictive and likely to cause the user to “Joker,” the street term for murderous violence. Joker is only one word in a long list of special vocabulary that drove me bonkers in its audio repetition.
This audiobook is on the long side, running over 18 hours. Because Born to Darkness launches a brand new paranormal series, it is heavy with world building and the introduction of ongoing primary characters. In addition to the (unintentionally funny) vocabulary, there is a full-blown thriller plot as well as three romances. OI personnel are known as Greater-Thans because they have greater mental powers (telepathy, telekinesis, etc.) than Less-Thans (regular people); this is termed Neural Integration. The fluctuation of Neural Integration levels is terribly important to the OI characters and they talk about it excitedly and incessantly, but my eyes glazed over and my ears cried at having to listen to hours of it.
Mac (don’t call me Michelle) Mackenzie and Shane Laughlin are the couple pictured on the cover and featured in the blurb. They meet in a bar where each is trolling for a one-night stand. Mac is a Greater-Than commando in OI’s drug enforcement unit and Shane is a new recruit slated to report to OI the next morning. When Mac realizes she’ll be working with Shane, she freezes him out, displaying her macho, nasty-to-everyone side, and that’s pretty much it for this couple until well past the halfway point when they indulge in another decidedly unromantic bang. Mac is initially read by Lawlor as one tough bitch – which she is – but I was cringing as he read her girly, orgasmic squeals. Mac is a little softer in Ewbank’s interpretation, but there isn’t much a narrator can do with a character who’s written as cast iron. Shane’s personality is vapid – Mac is definitely the dominant one – whether Lawlor or Ewbank is reading him. Lawlor gives him a golly-gee-I’m-in-a-comic-book tone.
The heart of the book and the primary couple are Dr. Elliott Zerkowski and Dr. Stephen Diaz who finally act on the mutual attraction they’ve been silently nurturing for seven years. They are at center stage for the bulk of the book and Brockmann has lavished loving care in developing their romance. It’s a perfectly perfect romance for such a perfectly perfect couple, if you get my drift. These two are conspicuously missing from the cover and the blurb and I call that deliberately deceptive. As sincere and as justified as the author is in her campaign to rid the world of homophobia, bait and switch is not the way to do it. Lawlor voices Elliott as a lovable goofball and Diaz as a very basso he-man. Ewbank has only one male voice, requiring close attention to dialogue tags.
The third romance between OI’s man in charge, Dr. Joseph Bach, and Anna Taylor, a woman seeking help from OI to locate her kidnapped younger sister Nika, consists of soulful looks and mental lusting. It never gets off the ground; not much of a loss in an already overstuffed book.
Ewbank and Lawlor take turns reading in 30-40 minute stretches before handing off to the other. They never interact and just when you get used to hearing seven primary characters voiced by Lawlor, Ewbank takes over with her own style and just as you get used to her, Lawlor’s back. I found this jarring in the extreme and I’ll never voluntarily listen to another audiobook that utilizes this technique. Lawlor tends to get loud and overwrought and I keep coming back to the comic book analogy. Ewbank has a staccato, no nonsense style and sometimes it’s a relief to hear her after Lawlor’s shouting, but she isn’t exactly soothing either. Sorry to say that neither is a very accomplished or convincing actor, but they are certainly enthusiastic readers, well suited to the author’s style.
Celebrity in Death – J.D. Robb
Review written by Brenda
Narrated by Susan Ericksen
Not being a fan of descriptive violence means I’ve played a lot of hopscotch over the years when listening to installments of J.D. Robb’s In Death books. Susan Ericksen’s superb narration skills along with Eve and Roarke’s relationship and the core group of characters that make this series, have kept me a devoted fan even when details of Eve’s past or the criminals’ crimes have me jumping to the next square. That said I was happy to know I wouldn’t need to pick up my markers before starting Celebrity in Death after reading LinnieGayl’s print review here at AAR.
Hearing Susan Ericksen’s narration always takes this series to a higher level of enjoyment and with Celebrity in Death I zeroed in on the facets of her narration that make it the excellent performance it is. Let’s start with the fact that she inhabits these characters, bringing them to life. As friends, their perfect bantering back and forth always makes me laugh. But it’s the atmosphere she brings to the narration that most impressed me as I listened closely – those emotions that emanate from a scene that goes beyond the written word. How do I put that in a way you can hear without a sound clip? Maybe with some examples?
First – The murder victim in Celebrity in Death is not a likeable person, even to her own family. Her brother comes from Iowa to take her back to be buried. He shares with Eve, “I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. My ma’s grieving, but I can’t. I can’t grieve for my sister.” A simple enough sentence to read but with Susan Ericksen’s delivery of the scene, those words make you want to lay your head down and cry. You hear Iowa, you hear farm boy manners, you hear bewilderment, and you hear such grief – grief over the fact that he can’t grieve for his sister when he thinks he should.
Second – Roarke gives Eve a present. She’s uncomfortable getting presents and you hear that in her voice but then she opens the box to see a leather coat, “Oh…” There was a flavor to the sound she made, as a woman might make eating soft, creamy chocolate. “Nice” and with that, Susan Ericksen has you tasting that chocolate on your own tongue.
Third – Eve’s leaving work after convincing PA Cher Reo to get her a warrant, “…Eve grabbed her coat. ‘Oh my God.’ Reo made a hum of almost sexual pleasure. ‘Really?’ Keeping some distance Eve shrugged into the coat. ‘Seriously, sex noises over a coat?’’’ Yes, Susan Ericksen adds that hum of pleasure vibrating through Reo’s voice along with her greedy awe for something beautiful. Eve’s sarcastic bafflement over the reaction to a coat is clearly heard too.
Listening with the knowledge that you will hear not only the spoken words but also the feeling implied by how a scene is written – right down to the smallest nuances – doesn’t get better than Susan Ericksen’s performance of Celebrity In Death.
Lyon’s Bride by Cathy Maxwell
Review written by Carrie
Narrated by Rosalyn Landor
A family cursed long ago, it’s believed a Chattan male will die if he finds his true love. The present Earl of Lyon, Neal Chattan is looking for a wife – not for love but for the children he desires. A widowed childhood friend who is now a matchmaker, Thea Martin, agrees to help Neal find an “unlikeable but acceptable” woman to marry. Thrown into close proximity, old hurts and new misunderstandings cause instant friction and the two have a difficult time focusing on the wife hunt.
The first third of Lyon’s Bride is full of wonderful details, character development, and conversations that Rosalyn Landor only enhances further with her talented narration. She’s at her best here – her voice is well modulated and clear while her narration is unhurried without being slow. While some listeners have remarked in the past that her male voices can sound too gruff or old, that is not a problem in this book. Her male characters sound strong and are easily differentiated. The sound quality is excellent with smooth editing and clear chapter and scene breaks.
While the writing is strong and the character development is excellent, Lyon’s Bride is not an action-driven book. Maxwell often interrupts scenes with the internal thoughts of a character. Thankfully, the listener has no problems following the interruption since Ms. Landor clearly distinguishes the dialogue portions from the internal musings.
Thea is a strong woman making the best of a situation caused in part by her own poor choices. Her stubbornness, which Ms. Landor captures well in her narration, is the source of much conflict in the book. While I admired her, it took me a while to warm up to Thea.
From the beginning, Neal is the more likeable of the two and Ms. Landor succeeds in capturing his strength of character. The secondary characters are well developed, especially Neal’s brother and sister, who I expect will each get a book since the issue of the curse is not resolved in Lyon’s Bride.
Other than the gothic-esque plot line involving the witch’s curse, Lyon’s Bride is a fairly predictable story of a nobleman falling in love with a woman who is “beneath” him. That gothic twist tilts this story off its axis, creating an uneasy marriage of paranormal and…well…normal, that didn’t work for me. Thea and Neal are just too English – too solid, practical, and sensible. Perhaps the curse story line will prove more effective in The Scottish Witch which stars Neal’s angst-ridden brother, Harry. Even with my reservations about Lyon’s Bride, my interest has been piqued enough for me to find out what happens next.
We now have a Facebook page – just look for Speaking of Audiobooks. We’ll be updating at least daily with the latest in romance audio news, links to reviews, column notices, and great discussions currently at our Goodreads group.
I’m also announcing news for the Speaking of Audiobooks column and other audio tidbits on Twitter – look for SpeakingofAudio.
To find a full listing of all of our audiobook reviews since the beginning of our Speaking of Audiobooks column, go to our Speaking of Audiobooks Goodreads Mini-Review bookshelf. We have around 250 romance audiobook reviews.
Be sure to check out our Speaking of Audiobooks archives here at AAR. We now have around 80 columns complete with discussions.
Enjoy your listening!
- Lea Hensley