Last month was the first of our continuing monthly columns on audio books. Here audio book lovers can discuss their latest finds and receive recommendations for future listening.

Finding the best bet for your next audio book choice often resembles putting together the pieces of a puzzle. Beyond determining if the storyline is to your liking, does the narrator portray both male and female characters in a manner that is pleasing to your ear? Does he speak clearly without annoying sounds (such as swallowing loudly) or mispronouncing words? Is the quality of recording such that you can listen easily without being distracted by background noise? And, since the price of audio books varies greatly, where do you find the best price?

Audio book lovers know that quality varies greatly and if you’ve had a less than favorable audio experience, don’t give up. There are many great audio books out there – you just need to know how to find them. Which brings me to our subject of the day:  Male narrators – blessings or irritants? Diana’s mini rant on male narrators from last month’s discussion provides the best opening I can imagine when debating the merits of male narrators:  “Guys! Stop trying to “do” a female voice! Please! 9 times out of 10 you sound like a drag queen and I get images of Monty Python stuck in my head. They at least did it for laughs…”  

The narrator’s portrayal of the hero is critical for my listening enjoyment since I need heroes to sound like real heroes without a bit of wimpishness. But close on the heels of that requirement is the narrator’s rendering of the heroine and Diana is, oh so right – she can’t sound like a drag queen (although I am more tolerant of a slight drag queen sounding heroine than an emasculated hero). This presents quite the challenge for a male narrator since some differentiation of the lead characters’ voices is essential to avoid confusion. At least a female narrator can deepen her voice to depict her hero but are we saying that a male narrator is not allowed to pitch his voice higher to portray a woman?

Although I consistently favor female narrators, I have discovered a few male narrators who do get it, oh so right. My enjoyment of the audio version can be far greater than the printed with a male’s spin on the hero’s dialogue. Both Steven Crossley (Judith Ivory’s The Proposition) and Simon Prebble (Mary Jo Putney’s The Marriage Spell) excel at narrating without offending one’s ears with their female interpretations. Neither pitches their voice higher when portraying the heroine and chooses instead to differentiate with accent and rhythm while giving the hero a very deep, totally male voice. Phil Gigante ranks among my favorite male narrators but it is due more to his extremely pleasing delivery of heroes who hold my attention so completely that I tend to overlook the fact that Gigante is pitching his voice a little high when depicting his heroines. (There’s much more to about Gigante in the discussion of the Moning series below.)

Less of a success was the narration by Dennis Boutsikaris of Linda Howard’s MacKenzie’s Pleasure. A case of too little distinction between the leads’ voices made it a bit challenging, although Boutsikaris does give the heroine a slight accent and faster delivery. But once I became accustomed to such nuances, I kept pace with the narration, although that may be due to the fact that I had read this book a number of times.

When it comes to a flat-out failure for male narration of a romance, my vote goes to Richard Ferrone, narrator of Elizabeth Lowell’s Only series. His narration is actually pretty impressive until his heroine utters her first words and you can’t help but think of Diana’s Monty Python reference. Even worse is the occasional injustice done to these manliest of men heroes. In the printed version of Only Love, Whip is a strong, considerate hero but Ferrone’s verbalization of Whip’s repeated claims of being a yondering man always seeking the sunrise he’s never seen, while referring to Shannon as Honey Girl, cast him forever in my mind as a slightly effeminate silly man. What a waste!

Great Romance Audio Books

When I think of great romance audio books, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series easily wins first place. Close behind are those Susan Elizabeth Phillips books narrated by Anna Fields, and third on my list is, yes, dare I say – Karen Marie Moning’s Highlander Series. While the first and second hold their places firmly due to excellent story content as well as absolutely brilliant narrators, Moning’s high ranking is primarily due to narrator Phil Gigante’s performance. Of course, there’s good writing as well but it is Gigante’s very sexy Scottish brogue and characterization of these Highland warriors that makes the series irresistible. My personal grades for this series range from A to D (with three DIKs and two B+ grades) but it is the audio versions that influenced these high grades. This charming series has a certain bawdiness that speaks to me as well as many laugh-out-loud moments and (did I mention?) very sexy heroes who are always trying to take care of their sensible, highly intelligent heroines. One other note about this vastly entertaining audio series concerns reading order. If I had read (listened to) this series in order, I doubt I would be making this enthusiastic recommendation today. I actually started with book 4, Kiss of the Highlander, my favorite of the series, and followed with books 5-7. If you like time-traveling Scottish warriors in contemporary times, I don’t think you can do much better than this series in audio!

Latest Reads

This past month has been a real audio book roller coaster ride personally with everything from almost-complete success to utter failure.

Kiss Me While I Sleep – Linda Howard, narrated by Joyce Bean and Dick Hill.  This one worked very well as a moving romantic suspense tale with an above average female narrator and only average male narrator.

Touch of Fire – Linda Howard, narrated by Natalie Ross. This is a pleasant western romance but the narrator failed to deliver on the hardened hero. Instead Rafe’s voice is shaky with a real “golly – gee” spin. Good thing I had read this one because Rafe sounded like a bit of a wimp in audio.

Private Arrangements – Sherry Thomas, narrated by Virginia Leishman.  This one gets an A, however, the book’s constant shift from an earlier time to its present day can be confusing for the first time reader. Having read the book previously, I quickly learned to listen for the change in years and thoroughly enjoyed the presentation.

Lover Eternal – J R Ward, narrated by Jim Frangione.  The narrator reads, rather than acts, and in doing so, fails to deliver anything but a muddled mess. However I am sympathetic to his plight as there are too many characters to portray adequately. I don’t see this series as an audio success – period.  

Recent Additions

A few recent additions to my audio library:

Dream Man – Linda Howard, narrated by Phil Gigante. I have been waiting for this one and, OMG, it is narrated by my favorite!

Secrets of Surrender – Madeline Hunter, narrated by Simon Prebble. Proving that I truly have no prejudice against male narrators Simon Prebble narrates and I buy.

Ice Storm – Anne Stuart, narrated by Lauren Fortgang. I’m not a big fan of the Ice series but this is one of my favorites. I’m unfamiliar with the narrator so I’m taking a chance since the listening sample sounds average at best.

Time for Your Thoughts

Do you listen to male narrators? Who are your favorites or less-than favorites? Do you see male narrators as more of a blessing or an irritant? What did you think of the Phil Gigante’s performance of The Highlander Series? What audio books have you enjoyed more than their print version? What is your latest audio book experience? Any additions to your library?

-Lea Hensley