Reading tastes often change over the years – I realize that. But I find the degree of change I’ve seen in my life over the past five years to be on the rather surprising side. At one time, I knew my favorite romance sub-genres and stuck to them faithfully. If I tired of one, I moved to another, knowing a break would allow me to regain interest in the first. The genres that totally captured my attention five years ago were historical (any setting) and contemporary romance – period. If a contemporary romance developed a whodunit, the grade went down. If a historical heroine started helping the super spy hero find the bad guy or investigate a mystery (usually with no such experience on her part), I could barely finish the book. I needed my contemporary and historical romance titles to be purely just that with no whodunits thrown in.
Needless to say, I wasn’t a big fan of romantic suspense, although I still spent a good amount of time with Linda Howard’s earlier books and Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooter series. Paranormal? Forget it. Why would I want to spend endless pages in worldbuilding that had no touch with reality? And why, oh why, would I spend time with a fantasy that had no definite ending or that ever-yearned-for HEA with each and every book?
Oh, there were exceptions, for sure, such as the hilarious time traveling books of Karen Marie Moning’s Highlander series and Sandra Hill’s Viking series. And then there was J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood, a series I started with much trepidation but once I did, I found I couldn’t get enough.
Then, with the gift of an iPod in 2007, I ramped up my audiobook listening from an occasional tale to some serious listening time. I listened even more to those favorite sub-genres of mine, learning what made an audiobook either a success or a failure. Good story or not, I discovered the narrator had the power to transform a book.
After I started writing Speaking of Audiobooks in 2009, I noticed that a number of my new audio friends weren’t so picky about their sub-genre choices. They enjoyed many of my favorites while listing favorites in sub-genres not normally of my choosing. Approaching it as a challenge, I finally talked myself into listening to one of those out-of-my-comfort-zone audios and then another…and another…realizing that with a talented narrator, I could sink myself into their performance and not care if the book contained portions that I would be skimming in print. Caught up in a well-delivered book, I found myself more involved in the action, the mystery, the secondary characters, and, well, the whodunit.
My first foray into testing new subgenre waters was Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series featuring a world of vampires, werewolves, fairies, and other creatures. I knew the series didn’t contain an HEA with each and every book but I was told by many that I had to try it. And it wasn’t even categorized romance! Five minutes into Johanna Parker’s dynamite performance of Dead Until Dark, I was completely sold. Regardless of the romance angle, this was one series I was sticking with. And I have – all twelve books.
My next surprise came in the form of a romantic suspense audio that was so steeped in suspense that the romance, while definitely present, took a back seat – a scenario I tried hard to avoid. Sandra Brown’s Envy, superbly narrated by Victor Slezak, gave me on a whole new appreciation of the sub-genre. Why did I care if suspense took first place when I was so completely entertained? Envy convinced me to try other romantic suspense audios written by well known, highly rated authors paired with above average narrators and, in doing so, an entire sub-genre was unlocked with a flood of titles I’d previously chosen to ignore. Since then, I’ve listened to at least a dozen of Brown’s more recent titles with many narrated by Slezak. Add in Anne Stuart’s Ice series –especially the last two narrated by Xe Sands. I now gave my full attention to Linda Howard’s grittier books such as Cry No More and Death Angel – both impressively narrated by Joyce Bean. Now I’m listening to Pamela Clare’s I-Team series as each is released in audio (below you will find my review of the first in the series, Extreme Exposure). I came to adore Clare’s writing through her historical titles and now her romantic suspense titles sit on my highly-anticipated list especially now that I have heard Kaleo Griffith’s impressive narration.
I can’t forget Karen Marie Moning’s eye opening Fever series, a paranormal romance series with no guarantee of a traditional romance happy-ever-after ending. Although most Fever listeners have a good idea about the identity of the hero, there’s no confirmation until Shadowfever, the final entry. I did have some help with this journey however, as an audio friend agreed to listen to the series with me while we waited for Shadowfever’s release. Listening with someone who was already tuned into the series made the experience all the better as she was available for discussion and my “What in the heck is going on?!” questions. Not worrying about every little plot intricacy, I was free to appreciate Joyce Bean’s narration of the first three books and Natalie Ross/Phil Gigante’s narration of the final two. The combination of Moning’s highly entertaining writing with these gifted narrators made the experience close to supreme for this reluctant paranormal listener while opening up the paranormal and fantasy sub-genres to me.
I have now listened successfully to a total of five paranormal/fantasy romance series (excluding Ward’s BDB series which I discovered in print) – Moning’s Fever series, Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series narrated by Justine Eyre, Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series (and it’s spin-offs) narrated by Tavia Gilbert, Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels series narrated by Renee Raudman, and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series. Currently I am listening to Ilona Andrews’ The Edge series, and enjoying it tremendously with my listening friend from the Fever series.
Now when I choose my romance audiobooks, I don’t think twice about sub-genre but rather the combination of author and narrator with the narrator carrying more weight. I’m equally open to paranormal, fantasy, romantic suspense, contemporary, and historical. However, I’m more likely to first choose a Jeaniene Frost urban fantasy tale narrated by tried-and-true Tavia Gilbert over a Susan Elizabeth Phillips or Rachel Gibson contemporary with an unknown narrator.
My first Speaking of Audiobooks column was titled It’s All About the Narrator and holds true even more today as we see a flood of inexperienced narrators arriving on the scene. Do I take a chance on those unproven narrators with proven authors? Possibly, but rarely. I’ve been burned too many times lately. Give me a narrator I know and trust and I’ll rest in their ability to take me on a vastly entertaining ride while delivering the book as written. That’s why listening has changed my reading tastes.
ROMANCE AUDIO REVIEWS
Narrated by Kaleo Griffith
Hearing that Tantor Audio had picked up Pamela Clare’s I-Team series caused a good deal of excitement in the romance audio community. After all, she was chosen in both the 2011 and 2012 Favorite Romance Audiobooks Poll as one of the top three Romance Author’s Backlist You Most Want to See in Audio. Add to that the fact that Tantor is releasing all five books in the series by the end of 2012 (the first release was 10/29/12) and the anticipation keeps building. Top that with the choice of male narrator Kaleo Griffith, an unknown in romance audio, but an experienced actor nonetheless, and enthusiasm is running high.
The first in the I-Team series, Extreme Exposure, features Kara McMillan, an investigative reporter who juggles her career with single motherhood. She’s aggressive with the first and dedicated to the second, possibly even more since there is no father in the picture. Kara specializes in reporting on environmental issues and when she receives information from a whistleblower concerning a cement plant that is ravaging the environment, she’s determined to pursue the story despite warnings. Her life is turned upside down as others attempt to shut down her investigation and put an end to her if necessary.
As a Colorado state senator, Reece Sheridan isn’t your typical politician. A high school teacher who pursued the seat after his students challenged him to do so, Reece is passionate about the environment and has done his fair share to protect it while in office. He has “ideal hero” stamped all over him both in character and looks. Seeing Kara at a bar one night, Reece knows her identity and decides he wants to see more of Kara while she is determined to keep him at arm’s length fearing a conflict of interest.
Enter Kaleo Griffith. With a scrumptious voice and a respect for Pamela Clare’s writing, it’s obvious he understands the nature of the suspense, but more importantly, the romance. He decides to not take the road of a higher range for his female characters so no one can complain about any falsetto voices. He clearly depicts Kara’s initial embarrassment at the bar (aka meat market) followed by her drunkenness and resultant come-on to Reece. Her vulnerable caution, her respectful yet determined interaction with her boss, her love of her son Connor, and her extreme determination to get the job done were convincingly delivered with seeming ease and true to the written word.
I prefer male narrators and there’s no better argument for my partiality than Griffith’s performance of Reece. It is perfect – deep as you would expect, sensible as his character is written, and balanced yet aggressive as needed in his office. It’s as though Griffith becomes Reece. As a former high school teacher, Reece’s understanding of Connor (who sounds like the child he is) rings true.
It took me around half an hour to catch on to Griffith’s narration as the general narrative is read in more of an informative manner reminding me of the voice I heard as he hosted HGTV’s Look What I Did. Once I accustomed my ear to this aspect of his narration, I realized it worked well in differentiating actions from speech and shifting from a character’s speech to thoughts.
Extreme Exposure delivers a thoroughly satisfying tale that is entirely romantic but not prematurely – the progression of Reece and Kara’s relationship is believable. Griffith keeps pace in its suspenseful, sometimes edge-of-your-seat, scenes. And yeah, it’s hot. For a first time romance narration, Kaleo Griffith gets an A. You better believe I’ll be listening to each of the I-Team audios as they are released.
Silent Night – Deanna Raybourn
Review written by LinnieGayl
Narrated by Ellen Archer
I normally avoid novellas; they’re just too short for me. I like to learn more about the characters than is revealed in a novella. But in the case of a well-loved series I’ll make an exception. I’m a major fan of the Lady Julia series and have enjoyed Ellen Archer’s narration of previous entries, so listening to this was an easy decision.
Lady Julia hoped to spend Christmas alone with her husband Brisbane in Italy. Instead they end up spending the holidays with Lady Julia’s large family – and their assorted animals – at her father’s estate. Ms. Archer does a masterful job distinguishing between all of the characters – and there are a lot of them.
Lady Julia has a proper upper-class English accent. Brisbane is half-gypsy, half Scottish, and his Scottish roots come out in the voice Ms. Archer gives him. Each of Lady Julia’s relatives is given a distinctive voice, appropriate for their age and gender. Lady Julia’s sister Portia has a particularly distinctive, almost annoying, voice – higher pitched and louder than Julia’s, and a bit haughty. But it completely fits with Portia’s character.
If you’re looking for a deep dark mystery, Silent Night isn’t for you. In keeping with the Christmas season, this is definitely mystery-light. As valuable jewels go missing, most of the servants become ill, and a ghost seems to be wandering the halls. There’s a fair amount of humor and Ms. Archer lets Brisbane and Lady Julia’s amusement shine through in their voices.
If you haven’t read the rest of the series, this is no place to start. The book is filled with characters with long histories that have been developed throughout the series. For me, the joy is in visiting with Lady Julia and Brisbane again. It proved to be a great, quick listen for this time of year as each chapter is introduced with a line from a different Christmas carol. I thoroughly enjoyed this and will probably listen to it again as Christmas nears.
Bedding Lord Ned – Sally MacKenzie
Review written by Kaetrin
Narrated by Abby Craden
The first in the Duchess of Love series, Bedding Lord Ned takes place some thirty-two years from the events in the novella, The Duchess of Love. Venus and Andrew have three sons, all (somewhat improbably) born on February 14th. Ash, the eldest, is married but estranged from his wife. Jack, the youngest, is single and pretty happy about it and Ned, the middle brother, is a widower. Ned’s wife, Cecily, died in childbirth and their son was stillborn. It has been four or five years since they died and he’s finally decided it’s time to remarry – he wants not just an heir and a spare, but daughters, too.
Our heroine, Ellie Bowman, has been in love with Ned since she was nine-years-old and was crushed when he fell for her best friend, Cecily. After Cecily’s death, Ellie was a tower of strength for Ned, but he doesn’t see her. Now twenty-six and in danger of being an old maid, she has decided that this year, at the annual Valentine house party (which Venus holds every year, much to the dismay of all four men in her life), she will allow the Duchess to match her to someone suitable. She will not love him but at least she will have a chance at motherhood.
Most of the book revolves around Ellie trying to force herself to accept marriage to one of the other “suitable” beaus at the house party but still pining over Ned and Ned resisting his sudden attraction to Ellie because she is “like a sister” to him. It’s pretty much like that for more than 8 hours. It wore.
It was nice to see that Venus and Drew were still happily (and lustily) married. Lord Reggie, their cat, spends a lot of time stealing Ellie’s red silk drawers (long story) and it was amusing for the most part.
Abby Craden’s narration was pretty good although I don’t think her accent is native. Some of her words seemed mispronounced to me. Her voice for the unfortunate Mr. Humphries (a Pride and Prejudice Mr. Collins-like character) was excruciating – just like the character – and very well done. She has a wide range of character voices and it was not difficult to tell who was talking from her voice alone. Ned had some very real fears of losing a beloved spouse again and Ms. Craden voiced those very believably. I wished that part of the story had been expounded more fully but that’s not the narrator’s fault.
Dangerous in Diamonds – Madeline Hunter
Review written by Carrie
Narrated by Kate Reading
The Duke of Castleford is a notorious rake who only abstains from drinking and whoring one day a week: Tuesday. On Tuesdays, Castleford and his secretary go over all his business affairs. On that one day, Castleford is serious and responsible; the rest of the week he is focused only on pleasure. Daphne Joyes is a widow running The Rarest Bloom – a flower-growing business and a haven for women in need of anonymity and peace. Daphne and Castleford meet when the duke inherits several properties from an estranged relative. Curious as to why this relative would leave any holdings to him, the duke decides to visit the properties, starting with The Rarest Bloom.
Since I’d never read anything by Madeline Hunter, I gave Dangerous in Diamonds a try because it is narrated by the talented Kate Reading. Besides a lovely voice, she has wonderful sense of timing and conveys genuine emotions in her narrations. Ms. Reading’s narration brings this interesting, if somewhat problematic, book up a notch. Her character voices are all clear and distinct. The male voices feel masculine and the female characters, which are many, are easy to distinguish. One reason I enjoy listening to books set in England is hearing the different accents and Ms. Reading does that quite well.
The problematic parts of this book begin with Tristan, the Duke of Castleford, who simply isn’t a believable character. He has too much honor and intelligence for a man who spends six out of every seven days in idle dissipation. His head is too clear, and his senses too keen, on his one sober day a week for his supposed debauchery to be convincing. Since Tristan’s character strains credulity, he never gains the believability he needs to be a sympathetic hero. This doesn’t make him an unlikeable or uninteresting character, but it does make him feel underdeveloped.
Tristan decides he will bed Daphne soon after meeting the respectable widow. Daphne, though drawn to the Duke, has too much to lose by becoming embroiled in an affair. The game of seduction is entertaining until Daphne gives in with only moderate resistance. Given Daphne’s strong independent nature and her plans for the future, it seems unlikely she’d risk everything for a few sensual nights with Tristan. Conversely, though Daphne’s inability to trust Tristan is understandable, the use of that mistrust as a plot device goes on too long.
Several times Hunter introduces a storyline that seems full of potential, such as the Peterloo massacre in northern England, but fails to follow through on the promise. Though the plotting in Dangerous in Diamonds was uneven, Hunter’s writing overall seems solid, with a good balance of descriptive passages and dialogue. There was enough in the story to keep me interested to the end, and the narration added to the pleasure. I would be willing to give this author another try.
Taking a Shot- Jaci Burton
Review written by Kaetrin
Narrated by Lucy Malone
Taking a Shot is the third in Jaci Burton’s Play by Play series following the loves of the three Riley siblings. This is Jenna’s book. After her father’s heart attack the year before, Jenna took over the running of Riley’s Sports Bar in her hometown of St. Louis. Her brothers play professional sports, Mick – football and Gavin – baseball, while she is surrounded by sports and sports fans in the bar all the time.
Jenna does not want to date a sports player. Enter Ty Anderson, a friend of Gavin’s, who plays hockey for the St. Louis Ice. He is gorgeous, smart, funny, and sexy, and Jenna gets the shivers when he’s nearby; their chemistry is so hot. But, he’s a sports player and she won’t date him. Ty however, doesn’t take no for an answer. He can tell that Jenna likes him and he knows nothing worth having is gained without persistence. Eventually, Jenna thinks she’ll have a hot night with Ty to “get him out of her system” (like that ever works in romance!). Before she knows it, Jenna and Ty are in a relationship and Ty has found out her secret career dream. Like the go-getter he is, he starts to push encourage Jenna into realizing her dream.
Jenna is a quitter. She has a history of trying something one time and then giving up if there’s any opposition. For that reason, I found it hard to be sympathetic to her. She asked for lessons when she was a child once and her mother said, “maybe later when we have more money” and she never asked again. Boo hoo. I’m much more in the Ty Anderson camp of ask-and-keep-asking-until-you-get-it myself! Taking a Shot presents Jenna’s reticence as the result of fear, but I never really understood why she was so frightened. She was successful in whatever else she did and she had a loving supportive family. Maybe I was supposed to think that she was overlooked as being the only girl or the only one who didn’t play professional sports, but that’s not how her other family members were portrayed.
This is my first experience with narrator Lucy Malone. I found it a somewhat challenging listen. Ms. Malone read more of the book than she performed. Many of the breaks between sentences were too short and that delivery meant that the words didn’t get the weight (and therefore the meaning) they deserved and the pacing felt rushed. The male character voices were different enough from the female voices that they were easy to differentiate, even though there was not a significant difference in pitch. However, the voices of Gavin, Ty, and Mick were very similar and when they conversed, it was difficult to keep track of who was speaking. Sometimes, the reading was an advantage as there were a few pretty cheesy lines in there, particularly during the wedding of Tara and Mick.
Taking a Shot is mostly from Jenna’s POV and unfortunately, Ty remained somewhat of a cipher. I’m still not sure exactly what attracted him to Jenna or why he fell in love with her. I actually liked Ty quite a bit and I didn’t find him too pushy at all. He pushed because he genuinely cared and if Jenna had really not wanted to go out with him, he would not have forced his company on her. Rather, my take was that they were both aware of their chemistry and he was unwilling to ignore it without giving things a go.
By the end of the book, Jenna admits that she loves sports. This was kind of disappointing as the whole setup was based on her dislike of sports and that she would not date a sports player. It was another thing that made her not my favorite heroine.
This story is at the fireworks end of the sensuality scale. There are a lot of fairly explicit sex scenes. Sadly, both Jenna and Ty like to announce their impending orgasms and, while this may go over well in print, on audio it was off-putting and sometimes cringe-worthy. I like a hot read and usually enjoy the sexy talk but this was, well, more like a public service announcement than anything else. “Yes, that’s going to make me come,” could have been “Yes, I’ve put out the trash.” Or, “I’m going to the shop now,” instead of “Jenna, I’m going to come now.” It only got worse on the occasions the narrator put some feeling into it because then it sounded like she’d hurt herself. I’ve come to the conclusion that some sex scenes just aren’t meant to be read aloud.
Attention – Ilona Andrews Listeners
Recorded Books has picked up Ilona Andrews’ upcoming audio titles, Steel’s Edge and Magic Rises without assurances that Renee Raudman will continue to narrate. Ms. Andrews requested Raudman and fans are crying out to Recorded Books. I, for one, can’t imagine another performing this well-established series. Renee Raudman is the reason I listen and I can say with no hesitation that I won’t purchase either unless Raudman is retained. Please take the time to read this entire message from Andrews’ site. Here’s her final line,
“On a side note, Recorded Books is in for a surprise clash with the most loyal fandom ever.”
If you feel the same way, I encourage you to join me and other Andrews/Raudman fans over at Andrews’ site in making our feelings known to Recorded Books.
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Enjoy your listening!
– Lea Hensley