The Next AlwaysToday it’s all reviews here at Speaking of Audiobooks.  Nine audiobooks are up for review including The Next Always by Nora Roberts, Lord of Ice by Gaelen Foley, Future Perfect by Suzanne Brockmann, When Beauty Tamed the Beast by Eloisa James, Lie with Me by Stephanie Tyler, Animal Magnetism by Jill Shalvis, Captured by the Highlander by Julianne MacLean, Scandal of the Year by Laura Lee Guhrke, and Cross My Heart by Carly Phillips.

The Next Always – Nora Roberts

Review written by Kaetrin

Narrated by McLeod Andrews

I usually enjoy Nora Roberts’ books, but I must confess I started The Next Always with just a little trepidation since I had read reviews stating that there was too much detail about the Inn renovations and not enough about the romance between the main characters, Beckett Montgomery and Claire Brewster.  Other commenters didn’t care for the Inn Boonsboro’s resident ghost and the part she played in the story.

As it happened, I didn’t have much of a problem with any of those things.  I don’t know if it was me or if listening to the story made a difference but, while there was a fair amount of Inn renovation stuff in the book, I didn’t think it was any greater than the information about fire jumpers in Chasing Fire or dog training in The Search.

The Next Always is the first in the Inn Boonsboro trilogy, which features the Montgomery brothers as the heroes.    Beckett has had a thing for Claire since he was a teenager but she was with someone else and eventually got married and moved away.  When her husband died, Claire returned to Boonsboro with her two sons and another on the way.  The youngest child is now 5 or 6 and Beckett still has a thing for Claire.

Claire runs the local bookshop, Turn The Page (“TTP”), which is across the street from the Inn which Beckett, his brothers, and his mother own and are busy renovating.

It’s a bit strange knowing that Nora Roberts actually owns the Inn and, I assume, therefore, that the details about the fixtures are accurate.  Nora’s husband runs the actual TTP and there is a pizza shop called Vesta.  When I heard characters in The Next Always gushing over how beautiful the Inn was going to be and how lovely the fixtures were, it did seem a little… incestuous?  Narcissistic?   But, that was a small thing and didn’t detract greatly from my enjoyment of the story.

In terms of conflict, Beckett and Claire fall into love quite easily, notwithstanding the fact that they have to navigate a relationship around three young boys.  The boys don’t give Beckett much of a hard time nor does he have difficulty in relating to them or becoming involved in their lives.  That seems a little unrealistic – I would like to have seen how Beckett handled things when everyone’s having a bad day.  Ultimately though, I believed Beckett loved those boys and I believed in his and Claire’s HEA.

McLeod Andrews is a new-to-me narrator and I’ll happily listen to more of his work.  He managed to differentiate between the voices of the three Montgomery brothers (albeit subtly) and also friends/future heroines Hope, Avery, and Claire.  Instead of utilizing a drag-y voice for the female characters, Mr. Andrews softens his tones.  I did raise my eyebrows and block my ears a little at a couple of the scenes where the girls were “squeeing” together (Ack! Do we really sound like that?).  Those passages made for some uncomfortable listening on a number of levels.

Claire’s three boys were also voiced well (Murphy, the youngest, was so cute!) and between their clearly distinguished voices and the plentiful (but not overwhelming) dialogue tags, I never had any difficulty identifying who was speaking.

MacLeod Andrews’ delivery was quite convincing – it was clear that he connected with the story.  He didn’t sound bored even as he relayed all the details about tiles and towel racks.  And I did like his deep Beckett voice.

I really enjoyed The Next Always and I’m looking forward to the next books in the series.

Lord of Ice – Gaelen Foley

Review written by Lea Hensley

Narrated by Emma Greene

Eagerly purchasing the audio version of Lord of Ice the day of its release, I paid no attention to the narrator although it did appear to be a first for Emma Greene.  Surely I’d find something to enjoy in this, my favorite of Gaelen Foley’s Knight Family series.  Oh…how wrong I was.

A worshipped war hero, Damien Knight, the Earl of Winterley, has just returned from the Napoleonic wars.  He suffers from what we would refer to these days as post-traumatic stress disorder and prefers to live by himself at his run down estate.  When a close friend is murdered and he is named guardian of his illegitimate young daughter, Damien travels to her school only to find she is actually 19-years-old and sneaking out of the strict school nightly to act and sing in local performances.  He has personal knowledge of her acting since only the night before he had been fascinated with her performance and attempted to seduce her.  Now he sees that as his ward, she is off limits and realizes he must provide another home for her.  She wants to continue acting.  He wants to find her a husband.  It’s a wonderful romance in print– with sort of a 1990s romance feel to it.

During my first years of reading romance, I felt obligated to finish every book and therefore, I understood clearly the desire to throw a book against a wall in disgust.  Now if I dislike a book after giving it a good hard try, I don’t put myself through the anguish of finishing it (unless it is for review).  Fortunately I’ve had few instances of disliking an audiobook so much that I had the urge to throw it at something but listening to Lord of Ice vividly brought back that frustration.  After two hours, I quit listening and ranted about my disappointment over at our Goodreads group.  After cooling off for several days, I decided to finish listening and write a review since some things just need to be said.

Why such great frustration?  Lord of Ice is a book I have read in print several times and I know these characters well, especially the hero Damien.  He is a strong leader of men, a man who stands up to what he believes, and says what he thinks.  He’s sexy, he’s confident, he’s physical, and he doesn’t take any crap.  But in the audio version, he’s a big wimp.  Narrator Emma Greene performs Damien in a high, whiny voice speaking at times in little more than a whisper.  Even when the author states that he bellows, all you hear from Damien is a begging sort of feminine voice.  Kind of a “Ahhh, come onnnnn, you don’t want to talk like that to me???  Please???”  With her characterization, Ms. Greene emasculates Damien – a big no-no for a romance hero.  And the heroine, Miranda, is given a lower and stronger voice to boot.

It doesn’t matter if the written page states that Damien is deep voiced, taunting, arrogant, speaking with authority or condescension, haughty, intimidating, growling, harsh, warning, thundering, talking briskly or with a hard tone, he is performed as soft spoken, with an air of timidity, and more likely to whimper than remain strong.  There is also a snobby whiff of conceit that is contrary to the nature of this hard yet kindhearted leader of men.

If a narrator chooses to perform rather than just read a book, I want to see it performed as written.  Either Ms. Greene didn’t research her characters before recording Lord of Ice or she doesn’t understand the romance genre.  Harsh words – I know.  But why choose to produce such a treasured book with no knowledge of what is required for a successful audio end product?

Future Perfect – Suzanne Brockmann

Review written by Melinda

Narrated by Patrick Lawlor

Published in 1993, Future Perfect was Suzanne Brockmann’s first romance novel.  Although it is now almost twenty years old, it doesn’t seem all that dated but is markedly different from her later books and thus, doesn’t hold quite the same appeal for me. It is a standard boy-meets-girl type romance. No suspense.  No SEALs.  Just a big city mostly beta author hero and a small town heroine with a secret or two.

Juliana Anderson is the proprietor of a Bed & Breakfast in the northeast where she entertains her guests by dressing in Victorian clothing and serving formal dinners. Webster is an author who has booked a room for six weeks to overcome writer’s block and pen his second novel in the quiet of the country. He’s a big, surly guy and strikes sparks with Juliana right off the bat. Her secret really isn’t a spoiler, since it’s revealed pretty early on that she’s too dyslexic to read words. Too proud to reveal her secret to Webster, it ignites the Big Misunderstanding towards the end of the book.

For the past five years, narrator Patrick Lawlor has performed male POV sections of Brockmann’s Troubleshooter series. I like his narrative voice in general, though I think it’s an acquired taste. His natural voice is pitched in the medium range for men and he portrays all of Brockmann’s alpha SEALs well from basso profundo to tenor. In many cases, he also manages to perform women’s voices with very little falsetto/drag queen. Lawlor does an adequate job narrating Future Perfect despite his occasional slippage into drag queen territory when the women’s voices are written as emotion-filled. His typical rushed delivery lends itself well to the Troubleshooters’ suspense but isn’t as effective with a straight romance. That being said, Lawlor managed to improve what I ultimately found to be an okay story with an annoying end.

When Beauty Tamed the BeastWhen Beauty Tamed the Beast – Eloisa James

Review written by Lea Hensley

Narrated by Susan Duerden

When Beauty Tamed the Beast was my first Eloisa James book and I now find it difficult to believe I waited this long.  But I’m also delighted that my first experience was in audio with a narrator the likes of Susan Duerden.  And what an unusual hero!

Linnet is known for her devastating beauty but kissing the Prince left her reputation in ruins and just about everyone around mistakenly thinks she’s carrying his child.  Her father, desperate to marry her off, arranges a marriage for Linnet through the Duke of Windebank who is also desperately trying to find a wife for his reclusive son, Piers.  A brilliant physician who runs a hospital out of his castle in Wales, Piers has no desire to marry.  His determination to remain unmarried is more understandable than most heroes we see proclaiming the same.

Piers is cranky, rude, cynical, irascible, sexy, and completely captivating.  Linnet is not only gorgeous but smart and capable of standing toe to toe with Piers.  It’s an irresistible love story that only gets better with Susan Duerden’s narration.

It’s hard to find a female narrator with the ability to perform such a wide range of male characters by simply lowering the pitch of their voice.  Ms. Duerden enriches her male performances with variations in rhythm, stress, tone, and loudness as well as accents.  Her male characterizations also carry the bonus of easily recognized attitudes, conditions, and emotions.  I heard Piers’ cynicism, his contempt, and his humor.  I heard the Duke’s pain.  I heard the illnesses of patients – swollen tongue and all.

The female roles are well portrayed but that usually comes as a pre-packaged expectation for me when listening to a female narrator.  Once again, Duerden gets what these characters are experiencing and thereby enhances our ability to understand their motives.

Quite simply, Susan Duerden understands romance.  She knows that the listener needs to feel the development of the leads’ relationship by hearing what the printed page can only tell us.

Although When Beauty Tamed the Beast had a slightly slow start for me (I’m not all that fond of perfectly beautiful heroines), I was soon carried away by this charming tale that at times had me laughing and at other times had me fighting back tears.  I’m convinced that Ms. Duerden’s narration made it a richer experience than the mere printed page.

Lie with Me – Stephanie Tyler

Review written by Diana

Narrated by Johanna Parker

In this first book of her Shadow Force series, Stephanie Tyler sets up a complex world with a large cast of cleverly interconnected government and military covert operatives. I went back and forth between loving the book and being annoyed with it, often for the same reasons. Ultimately I was won over by Tyler’s characters with their stripped down defenses, vulnerability, and willingness to open up to each other despite their pain.  There is a main couple, but remember I mentioned annoying bits? There are other couples – ongoing and potential couples – and I really wish they’d waited for their own books.

Cameron Moore and Skylar Slavin are each the adult children of hardcore agents. Both had horrific childhoods due to their parent’s work and necessarily secretive lifestyles. I love the premise – it’s a compelling story that more than fulfills its promise. Cam’s father was a DEA agent who lived his undercover role as a violent gang member making him inaccessible as a parent to Cam. Sky’s mother was a CIA agent who was assassinated when Sky was a child. Her father, Gabriel Creighton, is an active CIA agent and Cam’s iron-fisted handler.  Cam decides he’s had enough of Creighton’s manipulations after a sudden attempt on his life; he plans to kidnap Sky and use her as his ticket to freedom.

Cam bursts in on Sky – in full Big Tough Alpha Guy intimidation mode – claiming that he’s been sent by Sky’s father to protect her from recent threats. For a Big Tough Alpha Guy, Cam’s heart melts with amazing speed when he senses Sky’s innocence and vulnerability and before you know it, he’s Alpha Protector Guy. Neither of them has heard from Creighton for months and they take off together on a road trip to find him and some answers as someone is trying to kidnap Skylar and she really does need a bodyguard.

Johanna Parker’s narration is exactly right. I heard Cam’s gruffness, anger, and frustration for a good part of the book. I also heard (and very much appreciated) Cam’s lusty, sexually adventurous nature that makes him a marvelously generous lover. Parker doesn’t significantly differentiate Cam’s voice from all those other guys with the “Future Hero” forehead stamp, but that would have been a big challenge indeed. Happily, there’s no doubt that Cam is the star here.  Parker’s female characters are easier to differentiate and Skylar sounds just as she should.  I’ve been happy with Parker throughout the Shadow Force series – she gets the grittiness as well as the tenderness.

I haven’t mentioned my biggest gripes because I give an unqualified thumbs up to the audio version of Lie with Me based on everything I’ve said above. Here’s what I didn’t like. The unresolved-by-the-end-of-book secondary romance between Dylan and Riley gets so much on stage time that it’s intrusive. We meet all of Cam’s super cool pals. (Duh. What do you think that means?)  Consequently, I’d say there’s about eight pounds of story in a five-pound book. And why do their names sound alike? Cam, Kell, Mace, Gray, Zane, Cael. Arrgghh. I had to listen carefully but I’m sure this would be troublesome in print as well.

Tyler’s characters are complex, layered, and well drawn.  Her lovers are intense and nuanced. Her plot is believable, and the way she’s crafted clever connections between her cast members is a fun bonus. I am currently listening to the fourth book in the series and remain very invested in Cam and his super cool pals.

Animal Magnetism – Jill Shalvis

Review written by Kaetrin

Narrated by Karen White

Lilah Young runs the local boarding kennel and Animal Rescue.  She loves animals and hates letting them go when it comes time to pass the rescued animals on to their new owners.  Brady Miller comes to town to visit his foster brothers, Dell and Adam, who run the vet clinic and are good friends of Lilah’s.   Brady is a wanderer and he’s only in town for a month.  Despite his strong attraction to Lilah, he’s reluctant to take her up on her offer of a fling, because she tends to “collect” people (and animals) in her life and he’s not staying.

Karen White does a great job of narrating and I suspect there were some extra challenges since there are quite a few animal characters to voice as well as the humans.  For instance – Abigail the duck, Boss the cat, and Twinkles the dog.  Actually, the animal noises are pretty darn good!

I’ve listened to Karen White narrate a few books now – some have worked better for me than others but for the most part, the previous female leads have been snarky and cynical.  Lilah’s not cynical nor is she naïve or stupid.  She does have a sense of humor and Karen delivers her character in a softened voice that fits her well.

Brady’s voice is differentiated more by tone and affect rather than a super deep pitch (although it is somewhat deeper).  And although the three foster brothers sound fairly similar, the dialogue tags worked – I had no trouble following the story.

While it will be no surprise to anyone that Brady rethinks his “not staying” policy by the end of the book, a good romance is all about the journey and Animal Magnetism is fun and sexy with plenty of humor and cute animals.  And Karen White delivers it all – very nicely.

Editor’s Note: Animal Magnetism is the first in Jill Shalvis’ Animal Magnetism trilogy.  The audio version was released in late November, 2011 and followed closely by the second in the series, Animal Attraction.  Here’s hoping Tantor picks up the third, Rescue My Heart (Adam’s story), when it is released in print in November 2012.

Captured by the HighlanderCaptured by the Highlander – Julianne MacLean

Review written by Melinda

Narrated by Antony Ferguson

Captured by the Highlander contained a few firsts for me – my first Julianne MacLean book, my first audiobook narrated by Antony Ferguson, and the first in MacLean’s Highlander series. I was especially interested in hearing Mr. Ferguson’s performance since male narrators are under such great scrutiny with Speaking of Audiobooks listeners.  Could he pull off women’s voices without accessing his inner cross-dressing diva voice?

I give Mr. Ferguson a thumbs up for his narration.  His Scottish burr is seductive, his British men appropriately warm or evil, and most of his women’s voices are very well performed (although one older character did have a falsetto screech that could have been avoided). Ferguson also touched once on a habit I don’t care for – making the appropriate sound indicated by the narration, in this case “he cleared his throat.” For me, it’s enough for the writer to pen the words.  Those are the worst of his transgressions and otherwise, his pacing is excellent as well as (let me once again mention) his seductive Scots burr!

The story is nothing out of the ordinary.  Lady Amelia Templeton, the British daughter of a duke and betrothed to an English officer, is abducted by The Butcher, a nefarious Scots warrior who wants to murder her fiancé. She’s slightly feisty (really, it’s more a class thing than a hoydenesque thing) and The Butcher is quickly smitten. Not all is as it seems but saying more would risk a spoiler. While I have seen Captured by the Highlander referred to as enthralling, passionate, and suspenseful, I can’t say I was moved enough to use those descriptive words.  But MacLean’s writing is good and Ferguson’s narration is very good and it is accurate to say I enjoyed it.  I think I’ll even listen to the next two in the series, both narrated by Ferguson as well.

Scandal of the Year – Laura Lee Guhrke

Review written by Brenda

Narrated by Anne Flosnik

The Left at the Altar series picks up in two ways with the second book of the trilogy, Scandal of the Year.  The time line continues to flow and the story itself is much meatier than the first, Wedding of the Season, with characters that come to life vividly in the narration. Laura Lee Guhrke has set this series in the early 1900’s, a time period that saw many changes, including the ability to divorce if very strict grounds were attested to – attested to in writing by both parties involved.

I was interested to see how Ms. Guhrke would take the priggish jilted fiancé from Wedding of the Season and transform him into hero material as well as how she would make a married woman with a wild reputation into a heroine?  I have to say she did it well.

Narrator Anne Flosnik drew me in with the opening court scene.  As the listener, I could feel the tension in the air and from then on, she had my attention. Both Aidan and Julia are engrossing characters as we learn their secrets and how they have been hurt by life.

Ms. Flosnik performs each character excellently.  Aidan Carr sounds like the more straight-laced uptight man he is while being age appropriate. The extras in his personality were clearly exhibited – you could hear his compassion for others, you knew when he was feeling humor, and when he decided seduction was in order. I really liked Aidan, which I didn’t think possible after the first book.  I’d say it’s a combo of both author and narrator skill.

That same skill was utilized when voicing Julia Yardly, the “should be” disgraced divorcee with her devil may care attitude – an attitude used to hide her fear along with flashes of anger, with the purpose of masking her true vulnerability.

Listening to Julia’s man hating dog Spike and Aidan coming to terms was hilarious.  I loved it and the scenes that followed as Julia was pushed to react and finally open up.

Although the ending seemed abrupt and would have worked better spread out over more time, I was quite happy listening to Scandal of the Year throughout. Hearing Aidan and Julia get their much-deserved HEA, even with the rushed ending, was a pleasure.

Cross My Heart – Carly Phillips

Review written by Melinda

Narrated by Marie Caliendo

When I chose Cross My Heart, I was expecting romantic comedy for my first Carly Phillips listen but this is her first romantic suspense novel from 2006 and there’s nothing funny about it.  It’s dramatic, all right, but a little light on the suspense, and not improved at all by merely passable and slightly annoying narration.

The story starts on rather implausible grounds when three 17-year-olds are introduced in the prologue – two of them are in foster care with the family of the third teen. It’s a classic triangle – one girl and two boys who are both in love with her. The girl is faking her death to escape the abuse of her evil uncle/guardian. The first chapter starts a decade later when the uncle tries to have her officially declared dead so he can have her multi-million dollar trust fund. The boys kept the secret for a decade, but now feel compelled to let her know what her evil uncle is up to. Stop rolling your eyes – that’s the story. Meanwhile I’m thinking, “What has kept her from just coming back as an adult and claiming her inheritance?” Ooo, it’s suspense, so you’ll have to listen and find out!

Marie Caliendo is a run-of-the-mill narrator – not awful, not great. She does give distinct voices to her characters including local accents and she has a fair handle on the male voices a well. But her narrative voice is affected and doesn’t flow naturally as with better narrators. Part of that might be the fault of the eye-roll inducing dialogue, but part is her own tendency to be overly dramatic and occasionally too breathy. Also, I probably shouldn’t be offended by some of Ms. Caliendo’s characterizations, but hey, women like me who are old enough to have 27-year-old kids do not sound like elderly women with shaky voices, okay? And heroines deserve the best female voice in a narrator’s repertoire, not the highest, breathiest, and most dramatic.

However, I’m not sure even talent such as Anna Fields could make this story any better. AAR reviewer, Jane G, had this to say of Carly Phillips’ writing when she recently reviewed Destiny, “She lacks any subtlety as a writer; everything is told explicitly and in poorly constructed sentences.

[…] I also don’t want to cringe when I read a particularly mangled or overly expositive sentence.” These comments match my experience exactly.

Ending Notes

Our Speaking of Audiobooks Goodreads group keeps growing and we now have 190 members.  It’s easy to join and it’s a great place for discussion in between our columns.

I’m announcing news for the Speaking of Audiobooks column and other audio tidbits on Twitter – look for SpeakingofAudio (formerly LeaAAR).

For those new to our Speaking of Audiobooks column, be sure to check out our audio archives for further recommendations and discussions.

We now have a list of all our Mini Reviews from our Speaking of Audiobooks columns over at our Goodreads group.  You don’t have to be a Goodreads member to view this list so check it out.  We now have 245 romance audio reviews.

Enjoy your listening!

– Lea Hensley

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