June Is Audiobook Month (JIAM) and we are celebrating! We’re expressing our support for the audiobook industry today with an Audible membership giveaway. If you are already a member, you know this means more books for you. If you have yet to try Audible, this three-month membership requires no credit card and no commitment. Audible even has a service to set you up with your gift membership.
Today’s Audible giveaway is sponsored by All About Romance. Enter to win by commenting on this column by 11:59 p.m. eastern time on Thursday, June 14th. Usually our giveaways are limited to the U.S. and Canada. However, this Audible gift membership is open to anyone who has access to Audible in his or her area. We encourage multiple comments in our discussion but you will only be entered in the contest once. If you review for another Web site or blog, please refrain from entering. The winner will be notified by email on Friday morning and will have 24 hours to respond. Another winner will be selected on Saturday morning if the winner has not responded. The winner will be asked to provide the email address used for their current or future Audible account.
A Very Special Group of Reviews Today
We’re also celebrating JIAM today with ten reviews of the very latest in romance audio. Up for review are Rachel Gibson’s Rescue Me, Jeannie Lin’s Butterfly Swords, Adele Ashworth’s Winter Garden, Patricia Briggs’ Fair Game, Amanda Quick’s Crystal Gardens, Carla Neggers’ Secrets of the Lost Summer, Nora Roberts’ The Witness, Nora Robert’s Carnal Innocence, Roxanne St. Claire’s Barefoot in the Sand, and Julia Quinn’s A Night Like This.
Our 2nd Annual Favorite Romance Audiobooks Poll June 18th
We’ll continue to celebrate JIAM next week with Speaking of Audiobooks’ second annual Favorite Romance Audiobooks Poll. This year it’s a new take on favorites with only a few of last year’s categories. After all, how often can you choose All Time Favorites? We’re taking a beyond the winners approach and admitting our runaway winners last year, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and J.D. Robb’s In Death series are just that – first place winners. Now we’re looking beyond those highly popular series to discover what other favorites are lurking out there. We’ve also added some new categories making our 2012 poll truly unique.
This is our opportunity to let the audio industry know the types of audiobooks that we, as romance listeners, consider our favorites. I invite you to take a look at last year’s poll results.
Today’s Romance Audio Reviews
Rescue Me – Rachel Gibson
Review by Melinda
Narrated by Kathleen Early
Rescue Me embodies everything I love about contemporary romance. There’s a small Texas town with its eccentricities and characters. There’s the small town girl who moved on years ago but comes back to take care of family business. And this time it isn’t the high school sweetheart-turned-lawman hero, but a near stranger – the nephew of a citizen, in town for a visit.
Gibson manages to pack in several of her trademark zingers, including “Bless her heart” twice, in the first eight minutes of this audio, delivered by a new-to-me narrator, Kathleen Early. Early is listed online as a narrator specializing in Texan, but I think she must be new to audiobooks since I found only the one reference. She does give a genuine Texas twang to the narration for most of the characters; heroine Sadie has lost most of her own Texan accent and hero Vince is from the state of Washington. I mostly liked her voice and narrating skills. She effectively portrayed Vince’s multi-pack-smoking aunt with a gravelly voice, as well as giving distinct voices to the other various characters.
Ms. Early doesn’t seem to have a low register in her voice for her male characters, although it worked for me most of the time. I’ll admit, there were two or three times I was confused, as I didn’t hear a clear differentiation between Sadie and Vince. I also found myself disappointed near the end when her narration became a little unimaginative, as though she’d gotten tired of narrating. Maybe that was due to the fact that there were fewer zingers in the text by then.
Rescue Me is pure contemporary romance – no suspenseful killers lurking in the shadows, no werewolves, just boy meets girl, sparks ensue, and they journey to the HEA. In addition to the humor, which continues well past that first eight minutes, there is genuine pathos, with an unexpected twist of the heart near the end.
For those of you keeping track, Vince is the brother of heroine Autumn in Gibson’s earlier Seattle Chinooks series book, Any Man of Mine. Overall, a great experience.
Butterfly Swords – Jeannie Lin
Review written by Brenda
Narrated by Sarah Lamb
Butterfly Swords by has been on my TBR list since its DIK review here at AAR so when it was released in audio I snapped it up. Now that I’ve finished listening, I’m calling it a real mixed bag.
That being said I’m going to reach my hand in and start grabbing things out. Let’s start with the story itself – it’s not a DIK for me but with a setting in 758 AD during the Tang dynasty, it gets serious props for a uniqueness that peaked my interest enough to do more than one internet search. Narrator Sarah Lamb gets those same props for her command of the Chinese phrases and her skill with the genuine sounding accents and definition for each of the many Chinese characters involved and our heroine princess, Ailey, was a genuine pleasure to hear.
Now I have to pull out pacing and tone from my bag. The tone was a whisper, which I thought deliberate at first as Ailey was trying to quietly sneak away from her wedding procession. So, why did it remain throughout? And the pacing was sloooow. Ms. Lamb did pick up speed by the end but still, a Harlequin Historical with 288 pages translating into an audio 10 hours and 43 minutes in length? By comparison – Linda Howard’s Open Season is 368 pages with an audio that is 8 hours and 52 minutes – nuff said.
How about our hero Ryam? We’re never told exactly where the barbarian who rescues our princess is from but my guess from researching his name (if that was to be a hint) and his blond hair and blue eyes is Saxon. The general narration of the book is performed with a pretty British accent, but Ryam is an odd mixture. Ms. Lamb’s performance of his character fluctuates from awful to good when it comes to his tone and from no accent to British and then a random Chinese accent that grew steadier by the end. Regardless, you can‘t help but love him.
There are many extended fight scenes that had me thinking I’d switched to Urban Fiction from time to time but those scenes do exhibit Ailey’s training, practice, and skill with her butterfly swords. It is a true art form I found interesting. The pacing of the narration lessens the tension of these scenes and passes straight over the humor in the quips back and forth. But I always caught the smile or laugh in a written voice queue – as I said, a real mixed bag.
Jeannie Lin’s writing skill will hold your attention if you can block the negatives in audio (I used the “fast” setting on my iPod for much of the first half) and concentrate on the positives. The narration does enhance on some levels with an intensity of individually spoken words and the beautifully performed Chinese accents. I see signs of real promise in Sarah Lamb and hope to see her progress – even with more Jeanine Lin books!
Winter Garden – Adele Ashworth
Review written by Melinda
Narrated by Heather Wilds
Winter Garden was, until recently, a highly sought after but out of print book that I finally located on eBay to finish my AAR Top 100 challenge. Even now there are copies online of the original with prices over $100.00. The plot is a Beauty and the Beast story involving two British spies in the 19th century – the heroine, Madeleine, is a beautiful young French woman whose father was British; the other, a severely wounded British earl, Thomas Blackwood.
Having it not only back in print, but also in audio, is wonderful news for the romance community. Harper Audio chose a relative unknown, Heather Wilds, for the project. Ms. Wilds is originally from London, and her training is in drama, music, and dance. Her voice-acting career includes some non-fiction, some children’s books, and two classics. Her voice is extremely easy to listen to – her accents, both the thick French accent of Maddie and all the various local English accents she gives the residents of Winter Garden are truly excellent and very consistent throughout.
Although Thomas considers himself beastly because of his leg wounds and his limp, Ashworth paints him as a gentle and loving man with a pretty hot body right from the very first when we and Maddie meet him in his back yard chopping the overgrowth with an axe. Maddie considers herself a worldly, experienced woman – a bastard, no longer a virgin – who wants to prove herself the equal of the man she will be working with to catch opium smugglers. It’s obvious from the beginning that Thomas is already very attracted to her, but the beauty of the story is the slow development of their attraction, through their work and their burgeoning friendship, over time into a love that Maddie tries very hard to resist. The plot and the residents of the community are just backdrops for the beautiful love story that ensues.
I recommend Winter Garden book with just one small caveat: There were moments when Ms. Wilds’ narrative voice became tedious, just reading without any inflection or purpose. It was like nudging me out of a good dream to suddenly become aware that someone was droning in my ears. It isn’t a deal-breaker, but it diminished the truly A-list experience that Ms. Wilds’ characters seemed to promise.
Fair Game – Patricia Briggs
Review written by Diana
Narrated by Holter Graham
If you like dark werewolf tales told in a darkly sexy voice, I urge you to start at the beginning with Briggs’ Alpha and Omega series. In this third book, alpha dominant Charles Cornick and Anna Latham, newly mated and settling in with Charles’ pack on a Montana mountain, find their uneasy relationship tested anew. Charles’ father Bran is the Marrok, ancient alpha of all North American werewolves. Charles has been the Marrok’s lone wolf enforcer for hundreds of years before rescuing Anna from an abusive pack and claiming her as his mate. Since Bran recently outed werewolves to the world, he’s adopted a zero tolerance policy for impolitic misbehavior. Charles is now the reluctant executioner of immature werewolves for malfeasance, which previously allowed them a second chance.
As a rare omega wolf, Anna is highly prized for her ability to empathize with and calm her kind. She is the only one who sees that Charles is severely distressed over the work he must do and that he’s trying to spare Anna his agony by shutting down his end of the mating bond. She appeals to the Marrok who agrees to give Charles a break in the form of helping the FBI catch a serial killer preying on werewolves and fae.
Charles and Anna fly off to Boston and in a stroke of genius, the Marrok assigns Anna the role of FBI liaison with Charles as her bodyguard. I loved hearing Anna’s confidence grow and her personality blossom as she plays a crucial role in the investigation. Narrator Holter Graham clearly conveys Charles’ imposing size and forbidding demeanor, and he adds a deliciously deliberate I’m-just-a-big-dumb-guy flavor while Charles has too much fun standing behind Anna pretending to be a clueless hunk of muscled man meat. Kudos to Briggs for forward movement in the story arc and for satisfying, organic growth in the series regulars – and applause to Graham for getting it.
Holter Graham is one of those seamless narrators who makes it sound easy. He employs an easily recognizable, distinct voice for each character and he sounds sublimely comfortable and familiar with the material. Graham’s mastery proves the importance of casting the right narrator for an entire series. A good number of parts are in play; a large contingent of law enforcement types as well as the local alpha and the fae, plus a bevy of villains. Graham never misses a step and I never lost track of who was speaking. Amazing!
An absolutely spectacular denouement caps off Fair Game and it’s so cool that I’m not even going to hint at what happens. Graham’s intuitive delivery adds to the jaw-dropping surprise. Don’t miss this one!
Crystal Gardens – Amanda Quick
Review written by LinnieGayl
Narrated by Justine Eyre
My first historical romances were written by Amanda Quick and I especially love the books she wrote in the 1990s; I’ve read some so many times that they’re falling apart. I’ve found her recent historicals featuring the Arcane Society to be much less compelling and the audio versions, for the most part, haven’t appealed either. So, I am pleased to say that I loved both Crystal Gardens’ story and narration. The first in the author’s new The Ladies of Lantern Street series, a secretive investigation agency that places female investigators in positions as governesses and paid companions, it’s an extremely promising start to the series.
Ms. Eyre does a fantastic job distinguishing the characters and I love the tone of voice she gives to both Evangeline and Lucas, our heroine and hero. Ms. Eyre frequently adds humor into a scene that could be interpreted otherwise in print. For example, Lucas issues some type of autocratic statement and Evangeline replies with something like, “Nonsense.” But instead of sounding outraged or irritated, Evangeline’s lines are tinged with humor. It added to their relationship, making us realize they really care for each other and aren’t trying to boss each other around.
I felt as if I always knew what the characters were feeling, not only by the author’s words, but also by Ms. Eyre’s performance. While Lucas often speaks with humor and affection with Evangeline, when his aunt insults Evangeline, his voice is complete upper crust anger.
I was happy that the psychical aspects took up less time than in a number of Quick’s recent books, and some of it – in particular the things that occur in the maze – was intriguing.
There is a slight oddity in one of the later chapters. The action switches abruptly to Evangeline’s two friends. The previous chapter seemed to wrap up the action with Evangeline and Lucas. I was afraid the book had ended and we were now into a snippet of the upcoming book. This may not have been problematic in print, as I could have seen how many pages were left, but it was disconcerting in audio.
It’s always difficult when there’s a change of narrators for an author or series. In this case, I’m completely on board with the introduction of Justine Eyre as a narrator for Amanda Quick. And I also intend to pick up the next in this series. I really liked Crystal Gardens!
Secrets of the Lost Summer – Carla Neggers
Review written by Carrie
Narrated by Susan Boyce
I haven’t read Carla Neggers before but it’s my understanding that she usually writes romantic suspense. I admit that’s what I thought I’d be getting with Secrets of a Lost Summer. Instead I got the feeling someone told Neggers that small-town contemporary romances are the thing right now, and she set about writing one. That would probably have been fine if the book didn’t have so much going on.
I counted at least nine plots and subplots with some that didn’t seem relevant to the main story. Besides the romance, we also have storylines that include the journal entries of the elderly Grace Webster chronicling the summer of 1938, Olivia’s mother’s phobias, Olivia’s sister’s romance, stolen jewels, and many details of Olivia’s plans for her new business.
Dylan has inherited a house in a small New England town he didn’t know existed. His treasure-hunting father bought the house two years ago just before he died. Dylan finds out about the house when Olivia writes telling him about its deplorable condition and requests that he take care of the problem. Dylan, curious as to why his father would buy the old house, travels from California to investigate. What happens next involves all the subplots mentioned above and more.
With the many character points-of-view and subplots, a smooth narration would have been a blessing. Unfortunately, Susan Boyce’s narration style made the book even harder to follow. Boyce carefully enunciates every word, which slows down the narration and adds brief pauses between some words. The slow, careful narration and those pauses bring about an odd cadence to her reading, which I found distracting. Her voice is pleasant and I could usually distinguish the characters one from another. There were times, however, that I had to back up and relisten to catch a change of speakers within a conversation.
In the end, the mystery of the stolen jewels and Grace’s journal prove to be the most compelling parts of the book. Those storylines, and a few others, do come together in an interesting and mostly satisfying way. Certain plots could have been done away with such as the inclusion of Dylan’s friend Noah (unless there’s a sequel in the works) and the book would have been stronger for it. Olivia’s fears, and those of her mother and sister, add nothing to the character development nor do they move the plot forward. With the disjointed story and the overly careful narration, Secrets of the Lost Summer wasn’t a complete success for me.
The Witness – Nora Roberts
Review written by Kaetrin
Narrated by Julia Whelan
Elizabeth Fitch witnessed a mob hit at the age of seventeen. Fleeing dirty U.S. Marshalls, she goes into hiding. Now twelve years later, she’s Abigail Lowery and is living in a small town in the Ozarks where she meets Police Chief Brooks Gleason. The Witness is their love story and search for a way to keep her safe from the mob.
If a voice print analysis such as we see in TV crime shows matching a specific person to an unknown voice were used to compare Julia Whelan’s narration to that of Sophie Eastlake (Thea Harrison’s Elder Racesseries), the little flashing dialogue box on the screen would read “100% match”. I thought Julia Whelan was a new-to-me narrator. Turns out I was wrong. I don’t know why Ms. Whelan/Eastlake uses two names and she’s certainly not the first – Anna Fields/Kate Fleming anyone? There must be a good reason for it even if I can’t figure it out.
Honestly, if I had had my pick of narrators for this book, it would be Tanya Eby, the narrator of Roberts’ The Search. The timbre of her voice is what I expected for Abigail’s character. Instead Ms. Whelan’s voice is a little on the young girlish side and I had to re-jig my preconceived notion. That’s not to say she wasn’t good – she absolutely was. But there were times when I felt Abigail’s voice and her character didn’t completely gel. Something about Whelan’s characterization of Abigail reminds me of candy and she is definitely not candy.
Ms. Whelan’s voicing of male characters is somewhat limited. Many of the male characters sound very similar, but I didn’t have any problem differentiating who was speaking. And, she totally nails the characterizations. While the voice wasn’t always what I had in my head, the delivery definitely was. She got Brooks’ killer affable charm and his unrelenting persistence. And she got Abigail’s baffled, surprised pleasure in Brooks.
I enjoyed The Witness in audio a little less than print for two reasons. First, I already knew what was going to happen so the suspense wasn’t as engrossing as when I’d read the book. And second, I wished for a slightly deeper voice for both of the main characters. But, really, that’s a niggle. It’s an excellent book and a great listen. I recommend.
Carnal Innocence – Nora Roberts
Review written by Brenda
Narrated by Tom Stechschulte
Anyone who has been around Speaking of Audiobooks for long is aware of my love for Tom Stechschulte’s narration of Carnal Innocence. With its recent rerelease in digital format I decided to articulate what makes this book a favorite relisten for me.
The number one reason is Tom Stechschulte’s performance and I mean performance in every sense of the word – few narrators can make a story jump off the page and into vivid life the way he does. I had fallen hard for hero Tucker Longstreet when I read Carnal Innocence in the early 90’s but Stechschulte adds full color and 3D to this Mississippi small town where concert violinist Caroline Waverly has retreated to the house she inherited from her grandmother. She then becomes embroiled with both the search for a serial killer and the local Lothario, or as she puts it “some Delta Don Juan,” who owns the historic plantation next door along with his siblings. Isn’t Caro surprised when Tucker turns out to be much more than his reputation implied?
Tom Stechschulte’s voice with its deep timbre and the pure South that flows through for this particular performance makes Tucker an even better character than I had read. It’s more than the sound of a sexy voice that charms my heart, it is Stechschulte’s ability to interpret each scene then add the perfect amount of sense stress, modulation, and emotion to the words spoken whether he is describing an old dog’s reaction to a fast car or voicing Tucker’s “Holy Bleedin’ Jesus.” His varied depictions of the female characters are excellent as well with shifts in tone or pitch along with attitude that differentiates them.
Carnal Innocence is long at just over eighteen hours as it winds its way through various story lines with beautiful descriptive scenes I’d skim if reading. But such scenes are brought to the forefront with the narration, enhancing my appreciation of Nora Roberts’ ability to put me right there in the muggy heat of Mississippi.
The story moves at a steady pace, personally made a little quicker by my jumping over the parts that come from the killer’s POV. That, as well as the hateful scripture quoting father of one of the slain girls, represents times where the narration is too good as I shiver in revulsion or disgust and hit fast forward to return to simply enjoying the slowly developing romance and other characters from the good ol’ boy country rubes to the hilarious Aunt Lulu.
Carnal Innocence is hard for me to shelve. There’s a satisfying romance (though little bedroom activity), a sometimes-creepy suspense angle complete with the police/FBI procedurals, and then there is a Peyton Place type of feel as this small town’s inhabitants play their part in the overall story. Whatever it is, the superb narration takes me under the spell of Carnal Innocence every time.
Barefoot in the Sand – Roxanne St. Clare
Review written by LinnieGayl
Narrated by Ann Marie Lee
Barefoot in the Sand was an uneven listening experience for me. I completely enjoyed parts of the story while other aspects of the writing had me rolling my eyes. My feelings about the narrator could at best be described as lukewarm.
The opening minutes are gripping, as Lacey, our heroine, and her daughter Ashley seek shelter in a tub under a mattress to escape certain death from a hurricane. However, while the hurricane is overhead Lacey turns into a bit of a Pollyanna. I almost expected her to burst out with, “The sun will come out, tomorrow.”
At times narrator Ann Marie Lee was just fine. But all too often she sounded as if she is speaking to a group of small children, over-emphasizing and over-dramatizing things that are really rather trivial. At one point Lacey comments that something seems overly melodramatic. Unfortunately, that’s how the narrator made much of the book sound for me.
For the most part, Ms. Lee performs the hero Clay with a throaty drawl, which clearly distinguishes him from the heroine. But at other times, she slips and Clay’s voice sounds exactly like Lacey’s. The voices the narrator uses for Lacey’s friends do vary at times only to all sound the same, making it hard to tell who is speaking without dialog tags.
Just as the narration is often overly dramatic, the book itself is filled with too many, unnecessary challenges for the hero and heroine. In addition to the hurricane that destroys everything Lacey owns, her daughter’s father returns, her three BFFs come to help out (each has a traumatic/secret history with a man), her daughter is endangered by a shark and later has a cave climbing accident, Clay’s father has a stroke, a mean old woman works to keep Lacey from building a resort, and…well, I think you get the idea. Even one or two of these events would have been enough. All together? Just too much.
My frustration is that Barefoot in the Sand isn’t a miserable audiobook. With some major editing of the excessive similes (the “betrayal stung like hot needles inside her chest” and her head was “buzzing like a thousand cicadas invading the beach” are just two of the many examples), melodramatic events, and excessive subplots, the story could have been much more enjoyable. And if the narrator cut back on her over dramatization of the trivial, the listening experience could have been vastly improved as well.
A Night Like This – Julia Quinn
Review written by Melinda
Narrated by Rosalyn Landor
I’m always excited to have a new Julia Quinn book. I just love her humor – sometimes alluding to obvious contemporary references and other times using almost Keystone Cop-like behavior. It seems a little silly at times and I love that too. A Night Like This features Annaliese, a girl from the gentry, who is ruined and cast out from her family when she mistakes the advances of a local boy for love. She spends the next eight years in service under the name Anne, hiding from the rage of the boy and his family. When she meets her hero, Daniel, she is governess to his young cousins.
Daniel has a checkered past as well – under the influence of a hangover, he accidentally shot a friend in a duel and was subsequently sent to hide on the continent from the friend’s outraged father for three years.
If you are a JQ fan, you will laugh at the setup because Daniel is a Smythe-Smith – yes, those Smythe-Smiths, of the dreadful Smythe-Smith musicales that the Bridgertons attended year after year. In spite of the seriousness of Daniel’s and Anne’s situations, Quinn makes light of almost everything else – the poor Smythe-Smith girls’ complete lack of any musical talent, the younger girls’ lessons in the park, even the two villains.
Knowing it was Rosalyn Landor as narrator did give me pause. She is truly a gifted and professional narrator, but I worried that her more formal upper class British accent would fail to convey the lightness and humor that is typical of JQ’s books. I worried for naught as she gives all the passages just the right amount of levity and I found myself laughing out loud several times. I’m still not completely satisfied with her hero voice – it was better this time than the her last narration I reviewed, but Daniel is still too old and stuffy for me, all things considered. Surely not every man has to sound so stiff-upper-lip-y and haughty, especially in a comedy!
There is a touch of suspense and some high drama, as Anne and Daniel fall in love and also try to outwit the villains. All in all an enjoyable Regency romp!
We have two more June columns planned in celebration of JIAM. On June 18th is our 2nd Annual Favorite Romance Audiobooks poll and the week of June 24th, we’re visiting with Tavia Gilbert. Stay tuned!
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Enjoy your listening!
– Lea Hensley