iStock_000014991230SmallThere’s a definite methodology to finding an audiobook that fits your tastes.  If you don’t subscribe to that theory, you may liken the entire hunt for a successful audio experience to finding a needle in a haystack.  Others may highly recommend an audiobook and after you run to buy it, you might realize it’s not to your taste.

What’s first on the list for your consideration?  The basic story or that presented to you in print.  Second is the sound of a narrator’s voice.  It either sounds good to your ear or it doesn’t.  Third is the narrator’s performance of the characters and differentiating voices adequately for your listening ears.  And finally, there is that all-too-important interpretation of the story – does the narrator’s match yours?

Because of these many personal preferences, it’s difficult for me to recommend an audiobook to a listener cold turkey.  Often I am asked one-on-one for recommendations and I try to gather some basic favorites information first.  What authors do they favor?  What is a favorite book in print?  What narrators have they enjoyed in the past?  What is a favorite audiobook?  What is their favorite romance sub-genre?  And, very important, can they share with me audiobooks that didn’t work for them?

If one is entirely new to audiobooks, the task becomes more difficult.  I once again start by asking for their favorite authors.  I then attempt to match a book to a narrator considered good to excellent by the majority of listeners such as Anna Fields, Davina Porter, or Barbara Rosenblatt.  And, I cross my fingers.  Oh, and advise them to find a recommendation before choosing any audiobook.

Finding Those Great Audiobooks

So, how do I go about finding good audiobooks?  Years ago when I first started listening there weren’t all that many to choose from.  Fortunately I lucked upon Anna Fields’ narrations of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ books followed shortly by Barbara Rosenblatt’s narration of Judith Ivory’s The Indiscretion followed by Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.  I stumbled upon a good many duds along the way as well and it was a solitary journey since I knew of no romance audiobook forums.  In fact, I didn’t find a community of romance listeners until I started writing this column three years ago for All About Romance.  Suddenly the floodgates opened and recommendations came rushing in.  As the column grew in size, I added five knowledgeable romance audio fanatics like myself to write reviews.  Many thanks to Brenda, Melinda, Kaetrin, LinnieGayl, and Diana for their regular contributions!

Clearly, Speaking of Audiobooks is my number one source for finding solid romance audio recommendations.  One should also consider checking out our archives.  We now have around 80 columns with hundreds of recommendations just waiting for you.  Brenda keeps an updated list of all columns and their subject matter complete with links at our Speaking of Audiobooks Goodreads group.

But another very large source for audiobook recommendations comes from my audio buddies.  My list of seriously-consider-for-purchase audios has expanded dramatically by paying attention to these audio friends.  And you know a particularly fun fact about these buddies?  Most don’t even know they are my buddies or that I follow their advice so closely!

As I read listeners’ thoughts in the discussion area of each Speaking of Audiobooks column or at our Speaking of Audiobooks Goodreads group, I may start to realize that this listener or that one appears to enjoy the same audios as me.  Maybe we like the same author.  Or possibly the same narrator.  But give me a romance listener who consistently likes the same author and narrator combination as me and, taa-dah!  I have a new audio buddy.  I watch their comments closely, keep an eye on their Goodreads shelf (if they have one), and regularly direct questions their way.

I’ve been hanging out with most of my audio buddies for a couple of years now.  I continually add new ones and I’m always on the lookout for more.  Here’s a quick look at a few of my audio buddies.  Hopefully, it will encourage you to start following a few audio buddies as well.

First of all, my audio buddies are varied in their preferences.  After all, I regularly listen to a variety of romance sub-genres.  Brenda is my go-to person for Paranormal and Fantasy romance.  She also knows my tastes and can direct me to one paranormal/fantasy romance over another.  Diana is my Romantic Suspense expert.  She loves the genre and doesn’t grant good ratings to substandard RS audiobooks – both in narration or storyline.  Melinda and I enjoy many of the same books (and we seem to know where we will differ) but usually we like each other’s recommendations and share the same sense of humor.  Paula from our Goodreads groups is my Historical romance buddy.  She listens to historicals that hold great interest for me and usually listens before I do.  Her opinion matches mine more times than not.  Jo-Ann W has a fantastic audio-only shelf at Goodreads and I know from both her numerous posts here at the column and watching her shelf at Goodreads that she nearly always echoes my tastes.  Through last year’s Listening Challenge, I discovered Nina was one listener I wanted to pay close attention to.  KarLynP has an amazing audio shelf over at Goodreads and I can always find something new to try.  Carrie, a frequent SoA commenter, is another listener with a strong Goodreads audio shelf and she simply writes great reviews for just about every one of them.  Goodreads buddy Lisa has similar tastes to my own and occasionally her thoughts on romance audio influence my decisions to buy.

Another method of choosing a successful audiobook is by narrator.  I have been a voracious romance reader for years and I remain so – in print or audio.  Therefore, when I see an author I enjoy in print hit the audio market, the first thing I consider is the choice of narrator.  After years of listening I have a list of auto-buy narrators.  That doesn’t mean I will buy every book they narrate but it does mean that an audio by one of my preferred authors will find a way into my audio library if it is narrated by one of my auto-buy narrators.  Fortunately my list is long but includes Davina Porter, Renee Raudman, Tavia Gilbert, Victor Slezak, Kate Reading, Johanna Parker, Anna Fields, Angela Dawe, Karen White, Barbara Rosenblatt, Natalie Ross, Susan Duerden, Phil Gigante, Xe Sands, and Tom Stechschulte.  I encourage you to develop your list of auto-buy narrators as well.

And last, but not least, is the Speaking of Audiobooks Goodreads group.  Originally started in 2010 to give our listeners someplace to comment 24/7 (between columns) and track their Listening Challenges, our group has grown to 225.  It’s quite active and there are many recommendations to be found.

A Word for New Listeners

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.

When I see comments from readers stating that they tried audiobooks once and didn’t care for the experience, I want to ask questions such as, “How and where did you listen?  What were your expectations?  How many audios did you listen to?  Where did you get your recommendations?”  After discussing audiobooks with a large number of listeners over the past few years, I’m convinced that the more you listen to good quality audiobooks, the more likely you will discover that there is a pot of gold to be found.  If a reader tells me that he/she is a visual learner and therefore unable to effectively process audible reading, I want to share that I fall heavily into the visual learner category and thoroughly enjoy listening to books.  Yes, initially I had to exercise my mind a bit to process the highly detailed books but I discovered that the more I listened to such books, the better I grasped the audio experience.

So, come on, and join in!

Romance Audio Reviews

The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie – Jennifer Ashley

Review written by Lea Hensley

Narrated by Angela Dawe

I wanted to shout “Score” and “Yesss!” and “You got it right!” as I started listening to The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, a favorite of mine and many other romance fans in print.  I was guardedly enthusiastic when I discovered Tantor was releasing it in audio.  What a hit it could be if only…if only…the narrator understood the complexities of the hero Ian, one of the most unusual heroes I’ve read in years.  And, I’m excited to announce that Angela Dawe scores big time.  Her interpretation of Ian was all my mind conjured up when I read this tale in print (twice).

Ian Mackenzie is the youngest brother of the Duke of Kilmorgan and leads a privileged yet challenging life.  Ian has Asperger’s Syndrome – a high functioning autism.  After suffering years in an asylum, he now lives independently and is a well-loved member of his family with a brilliant mind, a photographic memory, and a bluntness characteristic of his autism.

Ian, in his unique way of knowing what he wants and addressing it clearly, meets Beth and decides then and there that he wants to marry her.  And the asking doesn’t take long.  Beth is a widow engaged to a most undesirable man and Ian not only wants her for his wife but he also wants to protect her from the likes of her fiancé.

Beth is a gracious and immensely likable heroine.  Hero Ian is totally sigh-worthy.  Maybe we romance readers adore his directness?  His inability to lie?  His love for Beth even though he matter-of-factly believes he’s not capable of such a feeling?  Or maybe we are just a bit influenced by all the very sexy scenes contained within The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie.

Angela Dawe, in her own words (when we talked with her in our March 19th column), chose to perform Ian with “a softness about him, despite his description as being hard in every way physically.”  That softness is barely noticeable and it certainly doesn’t come across as a weakness.  Her characterization of Ian is spot on and doesn’t vary from Ashley’s writing.

Ms. Dawe also scores in her depiction of Beth as she convinces us without words that Beth is a strong yet sensitive woman.  Ian and Beth’s voices are clearly distinguished one from another as well as the four Mackenzie brothers.  I knew who was speaking just by hearing once each was introduced.

Since releasing The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, the first in the Highland Pleasure series, Tantor has also released the fourth in the series, The Duke’s Perfect Wife.  We are hoping we will see books two and three in audio as well.  Once again I feel like shouting and this time, “Good job Tantor!”

The Rose GardenThe Rose Garden – Susanna Kearsley

Review written by Kaetrin

Narrated by Nicola Barber

I’m not exactly sure how to categorize The Rose Garden.  It isn’t a romance exactly but it does contain strong romantic elements.  Parts of it are set in contemporary times and the others are set in 1715.  It features time travel but I’m not sure it could be classified as paranormal.  It’s part women’s fiction and part historical with romance curling through it.

The book commences with Eva Ward losing her sister, Katrina, presumably to cancer.  From the start, I was captured by the words and emotion expressed at Eva’s great loss.  Fulfilling her sister’s wishes to scatter Katrina’s ashes somewhere she loved, Eva travels to Trelowarth House in Cornwall, a place the sisters spent many happy summers as children.  There, Eva reunites with the Hallett family – siblings Mark and Susan, formerly childhood playmates, and their stepmother, Claire.  Mark runs Trelowarth Roses, famous for having rare rose specimens, some of which only grow in Cornwall.  In reconnecting with the Halletts, Eva begins to find peace and resolves to spend time in Cornwall before making any decisions about what to do with the rest of her life.  Since Katrina was her only family, she has no one and strongly feels the lack of both a home and family.

However, a strange thing happens at Trelowarth.  Eva finds herself suddenly transported by some unexplained magic back to the Trelowarth of 1715, where she meets the residents of the time as well as sea captain Daniel Butler and family.  They are relatives of the Duke of Ormond, a Jacobite supporter and involved in the (destined to fail) uprising against King George.  Eva comes to know and care for the family and falls in love with Daniel.

Eva has no control over when she travels in time.  In modern Trelowarth, no time has passed at all since she’s been away – she literally returns the second after she left, but not so back in 1715.  The parts of The Rose Garden set in 1715 were the most fascinating to me.  The period seemed authentic and, of course, contained most of the romance.  It was jarring to come back to modern day Trelowarth where there were no life and death issues and where Eva and Daniel were apart.

I kept wondering how Susanna Kearsley would manage getting Eva back to Daniel permanently and give me the HEA I knew would occur (I had read reviews – I never would have considered the book otherwise).  It made a neat kind of sense in the end.

I enjoyed listening to The Rose Garden very much and appreciated Nicola Barber’s facility with accents – Cornish, Irish, English, and of various classes.  There was not a significant difference in pitch between male and female characters as Ms. Barber relies more on tone and accent to differentiate her characters but it was always easy to know who was speaking.  What seemed odd to me was Ms. Barber’s choice to use a British accent for the narrative and a hybrid American/British accent for Eva (think Brianna from Outlander) although the book is told from Eva’s first person POV.  Shouldn’t therefore, the narrative voice be Eva’s voice?  I admit it took me a while to get past this and it actually helped that some of Eva’s voice was bleeding through to the narrative voice by the end of the book.

I had some quibbles with the book also.  In terms of the romance, I felt that the how of Eva falling in love with Daniel was inadequately explained.  Their time together from a listener’s point of view was limited.  We were told significant events involving the two occurred rather than experiencing it ourselves.  I had to accept that Eva had fallen in love with Daniel and, while I had no trouble believing that, it felt a bit underdone in terms of the story.  However, Ms. Barber’s narration made it easier to bear – Eva’s feelings for Daniel (and even his for her) are evident in her performance.

I also had questions that were left unanswered and wondered why Eva and Daniel made the choices concerning the time travel aspect.  However, I can’t detail it further without giving away massive spoilers.

The Rose Garden has a gentle tone to it and not just due to the closed bedroom door love scenes.  Except for the action at the end of the book, the pacing was… well, not slow and definitely not boring, but…relaxed, easy.  It’s the kind of book one sinks into and finds oneself immersed in a delicious hot bath rather than white water rafting.  The language is beautiful and evocative and the historical sections are especially well done.  I definitely recommend this one.

In Bed with the Highlander – Maya Banks

Review written by Brenda

Narrated by Kirsten Potter

I cut my romance reading teeth on Julie Garwood so the first time I saw Maya Banks’ In Bed with a Highlander compared to her works, my interest was perked.  When I saw it featured in Tantor’s coming soon list narrated by the much-praised Kirsten Potter, it became a must-listen upon its release.

Hidden away in a convent as she grew to adulthood, Mairin is the illegitimate daughter of the former King of Scotland.  Despite her illegitimacy, the king provided her with an extremely generous dowry – one that will likely bring about a forced marriage.  A cruel, politically scheming man does just that when he discovers her existence, but Mairin escapes before he can implement his plan.

Ewan McCabe’s clan was decimated by this same evil man.  He has spent years building his men into the best warriors possible to prevent it happening again although the clan still suffers monetarily.  Ewan seizes the chance to spite his enemy and rebuild his coffers when his young son brings an injured Mairin into their lives.

The narration was definitely the highlight of In Bed with the Highlander.  Kirsten Potter’s well-earned buzz had her on my radar.  Her Scottish accents are a pleasure to hear, as are both her male and female characterizations.  While Marin’s accent tilts a couple of times, I really enjoyed the husky tone Ms. Potter gives to her voice and the life that she breathes into Ewan and his clan.  She performs each and every character with a distinct voice.

The resemblance to an early Garwood with a heroine not easily daunted by continued perilous situations and a hero with his loyal brothers and commanders at his side was apparent but the story flow was not.  Careening from one situation to another (without fleshing out any fully), the romance is compromised and never allowed to reach its potential.

While the story itself may have jumped from one incident to another, Ms. Potter delivers it with exactly the right pitch and flow making it a very enjoyable listen but not one I’d return to.  As to the production, there were a couple of jarring moments where a correction didn’t blend in well but you settle back in quickly.

My personal tastes in reading have changed and this Banks’ tale didn’t hit the spot for me as it would have a few years ago.  But if you’re in the mood for an excellent narration of a light historical with a Garwood-esque feel, I definitely recommend getting In Bed with a Highlander.

Second Grave on the LeftSecond Grave on the Left – Darynda Jones

Review written by LinnieGayl

Narrated by Lorelei King

I became curious when, as an AAR pollster, I noticed the Charley Davidson series receiving votes in a number of categories in AAR’s 2011 Annual Reader Poll.  When this second series entry became available for audio review, I jumped at the chance to check it out.  I’m not sorry I did.  Maggie described this as a funny, quirky read in her full review of the print version at AAR and, thanks to the narration of Lorelei King, the audio version is also highly entertaining.

Undoubtedly I missed a few things by skipping the first in the series and was initially a bit lost trying to sort out the characters.  However, I liked the fact that the author didn’t do a big info dump.  I quickly caught up and found myself sucked into the story.  There’s a lot going on here as Charley (PI and Grim Reaper) and her various associates try to solve a number of mysteries.

This is my first experience with Lorelei King as narrator and she seems perfect for the Charley Davidson books.  Charley has a smart mouth, is constantly sarcastic, and makes jokes when she’s nervous.  Ms. King gets the tone of Charley’s voice exactly right.  She also gives each of the many secondary characters a unique voice making it easy to follow the dialogue.  While many scenes are played for laughs, there are some moving scenes involving Charley’s family and Ms. King fully conveys the anger and sadness the various family members feel.

Maggie noted in her review that Reyes is one of the weaker parts of Second Grave on the Left and I’m in agreement.  Charley encounters a lot of interesting men and Reyes just has way too many issues for me.  However, Ms. King gives him a very sexy, low voice that makes him a bit more attractive.

My main problem with the audio version is the ending.  Things seemed to be moving at a very fast pace with a lot of hanging threads and according to the timer about 20 minutes left.  I was hanging on to each word, waiting for more, when the narrator slipped into an interview with the author.  In print it would have been apparent the book was ending; with 20 minutes left it was a complete shock in audio.  I’m still a bit disconcerted – albeit intrigued.  I have downloaded the third entry and hope to begin listening soon.  It’s a fun series and narrator Lorelei King is excellent.

A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes – Suzanne Enoch

Review written by Melinda

Narrated by Anne Flosnik

A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes is one of those books with a story that has nothing to do with the title – or perhaps I just don’t understand the reference.  It’s regency but the heroine is not a missish virgin in her first season.  Diane is the widow of a titled fellow who had a gambling problem.  When he died penniless in Vienna, Diane met Oliver, a gambler, and notorious rake.  After a brief affair, he left her.  Now Diane has reappeared in London and has set the tongues wagging over the new gentlemen’s gambling club she plans to open.  She blackmails Oliver into not only loaning her the blunt to open her business but remaining in residence as her mentor as well.

I got the idea from the prose that perhaps A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes was meant to be comedic.  For instance, Diane uses a pistol to keep poor Oliver in line and at one point actually shoots him.  It brought to mind Loretta Chase’s very humorous relationship in Lord Of Scoundrels, except that Jessica and Dain were actually laugh-out-loud clever and funny.

Anne Flosnik’s narration is much more pleasant to my ears than other of her Regency romances narrations (I loved her narration of a non-romance fiction, but found her to be slow and ponderous with previous historical romances) – the pacing was good, gender and character differences easy to distinguish, not tooooo much whispery drama over Those Scenes (s-e-x).  What I missed was the humor.  Was the lack of humor due to Flosnik’s delivery?  Or was it not meant to be humorous with such scenes as Diane and Oliver’s constant bickering, the shooting, his hacking his way into her room with an ax?  Or did it just go ZZINGGG over my head?

The lead characters continue to bicker over who hates whom the most – well, not exactly in those words.  Meanwhile there is some chemistry between the two and a little bit of pride to overcome from their shared past.

A Beginners Guide to Rakes wasn’t a fail at all – maybe I just misunderstood.  Maybe Diane really did want to kill Oliver for breaking her heart.  Maybe I was just waiting for my lesson in rakes (see title) and overlooked the solemnity of the actual storyline (note: did I mention he hacked his way into her room with an ax?).  I did learn that some rakes are lovable, some are evil, and some just act as deus ex machina to wrap up the story, which is done quite neatly with “I love yous”and a marriage proposal.  I assume they lived happily ever after.

Oracle’s Moon – Thea Harrison

Review written by Kaetrin

Narrated by Sophie Eastlake

Book four in Thea Harrison’s excellent Elder Races series, Oracle’s Moon has a much gentler pace and storyline than previous entries in the series.  Grace Andreas, the Oracle, met Khalil, prince of the djinn toward the end of Serpent’s KissOracle’s Moon immediately follows.

I have enjoyed Sophie Eastlake’s narration of the entire Elder Races series to date and this book is no exception.  I appreciated her distinctive characterization of Khalil – he’s written as more formal and precise than other Wyr characters.  Khalil, for example, doesn’t say, “Dude”.  Grace and her niece Chloe are performed with pleasant Southern accents (Baby Max doesn’t talk yet) and the differentiation between the other secondary characters was very good as well.

Khalil has little experience with human idiom and some of his expressions are quite funny and enhanced, I’m sure, by Ms. Eastlake’s delivery.  “I will achieve pancakes”.

The best of Oracle’s Moon was the interaction between Grace and Khalil.  I enjoyed their conversations as they got to know each other.  And can I just say that djinn sex  is um…freaky deaky?  Since Khalil is a power of air that takes on a human form, he can be and do any number of things at once (nudge nudge wink wink).

Unfortunately, the story itself suffered a bit from some uneven pacing and a general lack of conflict except for a bit near the end.  As much as I liked Khalil and Grace, Oracle’s Moon wasn’t my favorite book in the series.

Ending Notes

I’m 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 over 260 romance audiobook reviews.

Enjoy your listening!

– Lea Hensley