Renee Black (Raudman)Fortunately I encounter few audiobooks that I out and out dislike.  Recommendations from trusted audio friends, taking the time to research the narrator, and reading reviews of the print version usually provide me with at least an average audiobook experience.  But when an audiobook does go wrong, it’s usually due to the narrator’s misinterpretation of a primary character, indistinguishable characters, or worse of all, an effeminate sounding hero.  Nothing gets my audio dander up more.  Sure, there is an element of my own listening interpretation buried somewhere deep but, don’t make me guess if it’s the hero speaking rather than the heroine and don’t ever, ever make him sound feminine.  Since I can’t see him, I need him to sound extra male.

Male narrators, as one would expect, usually get the hero thing right.  He may not interpret a character to my liking but at least he has the whole “sounds like a male” thing going and that is a huge head start.  Female narrators, however, must prove to my ear first, that he is actually male, before I even start considering if he is as male as his character requires.  Unfair?  Possibly, but after years of listening to audiobooks, I have finally accepted the fact that it’s just the way my brain wraps itself around a female’s performance of a male character.  So, do I penalize a male performer as much for misperforming a heroine’s voice?  Probably not, and thus the question begs to be asked.  Would I rather listen to a female narrator who can’t deliver a convincing male voice or a male who can’t deliver a convincing female voice?  Or even more to the point, would I prefer to listen to an effeminate sounding hero or a drag queen heroine?

Drag Queen Heroine or Effeminate Hero?

Having listened to a few effeminate sounding heroes over the past few months, my answer strongly falls in the drag queen court.  I can more easily forgive a male narrator for performing a female with an artificially high voice than a female narrator who can’t clearly distinguish a voice as male.  But, I fully realize I represent only one opinion among many.  The combination of a listening ear plus an author’s words plus a narrator’s performance can cause preferences to vary widely.  So, I asked audio reviewers Diana, Melinda, Brenda, and Kaetrin to join me today in giving their thoughts on the Drag Queen Heroine versus Effeminate Hero issue.  We all agree that much more goes into a narration than just this choice, but hey, I’m on a bit of a rant here.  Later we’ll share recommendations for those narrators who clearly distinguish gender and do it well.

Brenda’s take: “My first thought when I saw your specific question was I definitely prefer a male narrator who comes across too draggy as opposed to a female narrator who emasculates a hero. I’ll take a heroine in a falsetto over an effeminate hero any day! Portraying the correct attitude also plays a large part though. I’ve cringed at a light toned male voice upon first hearing it only to become totally convinced of his masculinity as I listen on because everything else, attitude, demeanor, personality, etc. clicks as “male.”

Kaetrin finds the choice almost impossible to make: “I don’t like an effeminate sounding hero or a drag queen heroine! Even the females, who don’t change their pitch much, usually use a more forceful, strident or staccato tone to convey the man’s voice and that is better than a drag queen voice for me. But, if a female narrator made a male character sound effeminate (and the character was not actually effeminate), I’d find that equally distasteful.

From Diana, who definitely has an opinion on the whole drag queen issue: “I’m convinced that men are not equipped to “do” a believable female voice without sounding like a drag queen and I really wish they wouldn’t try. Phil Gigante and Dick Hill are unquestionably talented voice actors who’ve delivered stellar performances when they have a female partner. Who doesn’t love Dick Hill with Joyce Bean in Linda Howard’s Kiss Me While I Sleep or Gigante’s impossibly sexy Jericho Barrons playing perfectly off Natalie Ross as Mac (Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series)? But both Hill and Gigante have caused me to pull the covers over my head and grind my teeth when reading female dialog in that icky swanny, queeny style. Sigh. It’s a travesty. Let these men shine at what they do best! They should always have an actress to work with.”

And leave it to Melinda to sum it up in just one sentence: “If that’s really the choice, I’ll just download it to my Kindle!”

Getting down to more serious business, we each chose a few narrators – both male and female – who we believe excel in performing both male and female roles with easily distinguishable voices.  This is sort of a gut feel type of discussion that relates to the Drag Queen Heroine versus the Effeminate Hero.  These narrators are strong examples of staying away from either of those characterizations.  For the most part, their heroes sound manly and their heroines sound feminine.

Male Narrators – Who Gets It Right?

We’ll start with the male narrators.  As the rarer bird in the romance genre, who gets it especially right?  Unfortunately, the list is short although the recommendations are enthusiastic.

Victor SlezakVictor Slezak – recommended by Diana and Lea

Since Diana introduced me to Victor Slezak by almost twisting my arm to just, please, give the Sandra Brown/Victor Slezak team a try, she gets to go first in singing his praises.  Then I’ll join in enthusiastically.

Diana’s thoughts: “I don’t think anyone does it better than Victor Slezak. I’ve been trying to isolate a factor or two that makes me love having Slezak read me stories. His deeply-pitched hero voice is to die for, especially when he’s voicing one of Sandra Brown’s (almost) antiheroes. He softens his tone a bit for female characters, but thankfully never does the breathy, drag queen falsetto. I’m even more in awe of his talent after he delivered a convincing 4-year-old girl in Sandra Brown’s Lethal. There is a reason we call them actors.”

Lea’s take: “Slezak is now the voice running through my head when I think of a Romantic Suspense or Contemporary hero.  After listening to my first Slezak narration, Sandra Brown’s Envy, I discovered that it is possible for a male to effectively differentiate the hero from the heroine without relying on an unnaturally high pitch. Admittedly, there are those times that I lose track of who is speaking but if I just hang on a bit, it clears up.  Slezak’s performance of the male characters makes me willing to put up with some differentiation problems.

Patrick Lawlor – recommended by Melinda and Kaetrin

Melinda : “I also like Patrick Lawlor who reads many of the Suzanne Brockmann Troubleshooter Series in tandem with a female narrator. His own voice is pitched vaguely tenor, so his narrative is in the medium range, giving lots of room for baritone heroes and higher pitched heroines and a cast of thousands in different ranges. He also does different local accents well, again giving plenty of room for the myriad of characters in the series.”

While Kaetrin adds: “Patrick Lawlor has narrated some Suzanne Brockmann books and I think he does the female voices pretty well. Again with the softened tone rather than the pitch change.”

Tom Stechschulte – recommended by Brenda and Lea

Brenda tells us: “I enjoy Tom Stechschulte in Nora Robert’s Carnal Innocence and in the entire Ghostwalker series by Christine Feehan – he works for me with both the voices and in conveying the correct attitude.”

Lea adds: “I listened to Carnal Innocence after hearing Brenda’s praise a number of times. She even hooked me up with this hard-to-find audio.  Stechschulte’s performance of Tucker is spot on – he’s Southern old money and sexy as hell.  I’ve only listened to him this one time but it is enough to know that he’s a solid performer who doesn’t need to take the high notes for his female characters.  His voice is lifted but only slightly.  I’m always watching for more from this guy.”

Antony Ferguson – recommended by Melinda and Lea

Short but sweet, both Melinda and I recommend Antony Ferguson after hearing him just once.

Melinda says: “I’ve only heard Antony Ferguson read one book, Julianne Maclean’s Captured by the Highlander and I thought he did an excellent job with women’s voices throughout.”

Lea: “I heard of Ferguson’s seductive Scottish burr when Melinda reviewed Captured by the Highlander and I had to check it out for myself.  He doesn’t need to reach high for his female roles.  His narration is very smooth while his male and female characters are clearly differentiated.  And, yes, that Scottish burr if very effective.  I hope we see a lot more of Ferguson in romance audio.”

Phil Gigante – recommended by Lea and Kaetrin

Lea starts by saying: “Although Phil Gigante is capable of some awkward sounding female voices, he remains one of my favorite narrators.  His striking voice is deep, almost booming, and expressive.  Fantastic male characterizations, an understanding of romance, making the most of each situation albeit it humorous or dramatic – all contribute to his title of Favorite Male Romance Narrator in our 2011 Favorite Romance Audiobook Poll.  Add to that clearly distinguished characters, and I’m more than willing to listen to a falsetto sounding heroine.  Phil is my first choice for a Paranormal Romance hero.”

Kaetrin adds: “Phil Gigante has a really pleasant voice to listen to (Jericho Barrons!) and his female voices have improved but they still sound a bit drag-y to me.”

 

Other male narrators who received a thumbs up are Grover Gardner, Will Patton, Robert Petkoff, Holter Graham, Steven Crossley, Dennis Boutsikkaris, Simon Prebble, and MacLeod Andrews.

Female Narrators with a Flair for the Heroes

And who are those female narrators we think get the male voices just right?  You don’t need a dialogue tag to know when he is speaking – you can just tell.

Renee Raudman – recommended by Diana, Brenda, Kaetrin, and Lea

Lea starts: “I discovered Renee Raudman with her 2008 performance of Lisa Kleypas’ Blue-Eyed Devil.  Hardy, the third in a love triangle from Sugar Daddy, carried with him some high expectations on just how his character should sound.  Raudman’s delivery was close to perfection – both with Hardy’s bold personality and Haven’s emotional despair.   Later when I listened to Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, I became a solid Raudman fan.  She is blessed with the ability to reach low and project convincing and true-to-the-written-word male characters.  And, it is obvious that Renee Raudman thoroughly understands romance audio.”

Diana adds: “…Conversely, there are a number of female narrators who can slam dunk a hero’s voice. Renee Raudman with Ilona Andrews’ material is amazing. Curran is a most convincingly sexy beast. Raudman sticks to one basic “sound” for all her heroes, but it’s a great one.”

Brenda chimes in: “Renee Raudman also delivers male voices that strike an excellent chord in me, along with catching the perfect attitude needed, real performances with anything she narrates. Examples: llona Andrews’ Magic series and Kate Daniels series, Lisa Kleypas’s Blue Eyed Devil, and Christine Feehan’s Wild Rain.”

Rounding up with Kaetrin’s comments: “Renee Raudman (Ilona Andrews’ Magic series, Kate Daniels series) – her voice for Curran is very, very good as is the rest of her work. In Blue-Eyed Devil she had a great Hardy Cates voice too.”

Anna Fields – recommended by Melinda, Brenda, Kaetrin, and Lea

Melinda starts the praise: “…(one of) two female narrators that stand out for me as being more than convincing with their heroes is Kate Fleming/Anna Fields…her heroes are truly sexy and I never imagine them being spoken by a woman.”

Kaetrin adds: “The late Anna Fields did a great job too – the SEP Chicago Stars books are good examples (Heaven, Texas etc)”

Brenda expands the field: “Anna Fields/Kate Fleming in anything…”

And Lea writes: “For romance audio female narration, Anna Fields tops my list.  Her narrations of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ books and other jewels such as Karen Robards’ One Summer represent some of the best audio entertainment around.  She simply excels in her performances of those longed-for heroes.  Johnny in One Summer is one of the best bad boy heroes around and Ms. Fields delivers his character with sheer perfection.  She won Favorite Romance Narrator in our 2011 Favorite Romance Audiobook Poll.

Natalie Ross – recommended by Melinda, Brenda, and Lea

Melinda explains her thoughts: “It’s not just the voice placement, though, that makes the sound convincing – it’s using the dialog to find a delivery for him that matches the author’s voice for the hero as well. Listen to the way Natalie Ross gives After The Night’s Gray Rouillard character, not just placement but accent, rhythm, pacing. It’s as if she channels Gray for us, direct from Linda Howard’s active imagination.”

Brenda tells us: “Natalie Ross has yet to disappoint me with her male voices, especially in Linda Howard’s Kill and Tell and After the Night.”

And Lea keeps up the praise: “When I think of Natalie Ross, a few of my favorite Linda Howard audios come to mind – After the Night, Son of the Morning, and Kill and Tell.  She doesn’t perform the same hero over and over again but each is distinctive and sounds like the man he is meant to be.  She seems to get better with each performance and that is really saying something.  Ms. Ross won Best Male/Female Dual Romance Narration with Phil Gigante in our 2011 Favorite Romance Audiobook Poll

Susan Ericksen – recommended by Diana, Kaetrin, and Brenda

Diana tells us: “Susan Ericksen is very good. I liked her in the Rohan series (except for unconvincing British accent and saying Groze-ven-or) and the In Death, also Linda Howard’s Dying to Please.”

Kaetrin points out: “I really like Susan Ericksen’s Roarke voice, but it is more distinguished by accent rather than pitch (In Death series).”

Brenda also has something to say about the In Death series: “Susan Erickson is well known for her slightly Irish and delicious Roarke from JD Robb’s In Death series.”

Barbara Rosenblat – recommended by Lea, Melinda, and Brenda

Lea opens it up: “I wish we saw a lot more of Barbara Rosenblat in romance audio.  Her narrations of Judith Ivory’s The Indiscretion and Beast fully demonstrate her skill in performing male characters with clearly defined manly voices and females who sound like…well, females.”

Melinda adds: “Then there’s Barbara Rosenblat giving voice to Judith Ivory’s The Indiscretion – her low sexy Texan drawl for Sam in counterpoint with Lydia’s upper crust British is pure genius.”

And Brenda adds more: “Barbara Rosenblat is excellent as the males in all of the Amanda Quick offerings narrated by her.”

Davina Porter – recommended by Melinda, Kaetrin, and Lea

Melinda starts: “(one of) two female narrators that stand out for me as being more than convincing with their heroes is…Davina Porter. I daresay there’s not a Diana Gabaldon Outlander audio fan among us who isn’t in love with Porter’s Jamie!”

And Kaetrin offers: “Great female narrators who do an excellent male character voice – Davina Porter – Outlander series – her Jamie is excellent as are the other male characters.”

Lea enthusiastically adds: “There is absolutely no other audio hero as memorable as Jamie.  I’ve listened to the first four in the Outlander series but have never read the print versions.  After hearing Davina Porter’s performance of these characters (mostly male and clearly distinguished), I can’t imagine being satisfied with a simple print book.  Jamie won Favorite Romance Hero in our 2011 Favorite Romance Audiobook Poll while the unabridged version of Outlander took the Favorite Romance Audiobook award.

Xe Sands – recommended Diana, Brenda, and Lea

Diana tells us: “Xe Sands has knocked my sox off more than once with her incredible versatility. Jacob with his uber continental, masterful voice was my first experience with Sands, followed by more immortals from Jacqueline Franks’ Nightwalkers series, each one with a different accent and even sexier than the last. I was so impressed with her and said in my Jacob review that I wished Sands had material more worthy of her talent to work with. The gods smiled and matched up Sands with Anne Stuart. Fire and Ice and On Thin Ice from Stuart’s series are an example of happy-making synchronicity between author and narrator.”

Brenda adds: “Xe Sands has also hit that distinction (the I’ll-listen-to-anything distinction) with me after listening to Anne Stuarts On Thin Ice and Fire and Ice along with the six books in Jacquelyn Frank’s Nightwalker series and a couple of others narrated by her.”

Lea chimes in: “Xe Sands’ ability to vary voices particularly through pitch and accent is nothing short of incredible for a female actress.  Not only does she perform a completely convincing hero but she distinguishes multiple male characters as well – all sounding totally male.  And the women sound like women.”

Seems like this is good day for Xe Sands – see the review of Anne Stuart’s On Thin Ice below.

Other female narrators who perform their heroes extra hunky in our eyes include Susan Duerden, Kate Reading, Lorelie King, Joyce Bean, Sophie Eastlake, Helen Stern, Kate Forbes, Johanna Parker, and Tavia Gilbert.

 

 

Romance Audio Reviews

 

On Thin IceOn Thin Ice – Anne Stuart

Review written by Brenda

Narrated by Xe Sands

From the moment Finn MacGowan was introduced in On Thin Ice I wanted to hear him in audio.  Who can resist the voice of an Irishman?  Thanks to Tantor I only had to wait five months for the experience, and thanks to this teaser posted by narrator Xe Sands as she developed Finn’s voice, I was 90% certain I was going to be in audiobook heaven with the combination of Anne Stuart’s writing and Xe Sands’ narration.

Having read the book, I was familiar with the story and therefore knew the narration would be challenging – seven different accents are required by the end of the audio.   Xe Sands’ accents are flawless, no matter how large or small the parts and that’s impressive!  In addition to Finn’s character, I loved hearing the voicing of Mahmoud and Peter (past hero and son from Cold as Ice) as they interacted but…I’m getting ahead of myself.

Finn MacGowan, an agent for the secretive Committee, has been held prisoner by political rebels for nearly three years in a faux South American country.  On the eve of his planned escape the rebels add wealthy heiress and do-gooder Beth Pennington to their stash of hostages.  Finn knows she’ll slow him down but Beth is determined to escape with him.  Their trek through the rainforest, across an ocean, and into France has its dreadful moments but it’s also filled with a wicked humor I enjoy.

There is a story-flow issue that jerked my head up towards the end but, when it comes to the quality of narration, were my expectations met?  All 90% of them and it was wonderful!  Finn’s deep Irish voice and “we will do anything to stay alive” attitude was perfectly delivered and better than I could have imagined.  Beth protects herself by keeping a calm control even in the worst of circumstances.  I enjoyed that quiet confidence and how it was portrayed vocally as she held her own with Finn.  It didn’t matter how obnoxious he tried to be, she had a quick comeback and never-give-up attitude to match him.

The general narration is audio at its best; you can hear the definition of words used by the intonation given them as they are spoken.  Again, so impressive.

That remaining 10% that represents disappointment may be due to a matter of interpretation.  I laughed all through On Thin Ice when I read in print.  There were so many great lines as I found the book very funny even when the humor seemed totally inappropriate.  Although I did smile and laugh during the audio version I didn’t hear Finn’s sly humor as he continually baited Beth.  Nor did I hear nearly enough of Beth’s dry sarcasm in her quick one liner comebacks whether she was speaking aloud or in her head.  And though I heard the characters’ voices lighten on occasion, I didn’t hear genuine laughter even with continued vocal cues such as “Finn laughed”, “Beth was laughing out loud”, or a soft rumble of laughter.

Am I being pickier than normal?  Especially with a narration that will ultimately be a favorite re-lsten for me?   Absolutely.  Ms. Sands is a fast rising narrator who is nipping closely at the heels of the best-of-the-best in audio.  If I can add to her other outrageously good skills by pointing out the fact that playing up the humor level both evens out the dark aspects and balances a narration, then I’m going to say it.

Editor’s Note – This is one audiobook cover that definitely deserves some sort of award.  It sets the mood and states the case.

Darker After Midnight – Lara Adrian

Review written by Diana

Narrated by Hillary Huber

I’ve listened to seven of the books in the Midnight Breed series so I was interested in catching up with Darker After Midnight, the tenth book that was billed as the wrapup.  I recommend the first four in the series which have intricate plots and real romance.  As to this latest book, it’s no spoiler to reveal that the Order’s super evil archenemy Dragos is finally vanquished, albeit fairly easily, after nine books of buildup.  Apparently the publisher had second thoughts and there now will be at least three more which explains the heavy presence of the younger generation in this book.  In fact it seems that every character who ever set foot in one of the Midnight Breed books has a featured role, leaving the main couple Tavia and Chase competing for air time with a boatload of previous couples sappy with baby fever.

Normally I would issue a warning not to start a series with book #10 but I think you could with this one.  Author Adrian painstakingly explains the series mythology and you get to meet the whole Breed gang.  The commercial tone is hard to miss.

There is one obvious and significant difference between Adrian’s Midnight Breed series and its inspiration, the Black Dagger Brotherhood series by J.R. Ward.  Ward’s vampires get it that they’re high camp with a wink wink, nudge nudge.  Adrian’s supernaturals take themselves very, very seriously making them too deadly and humorless for me.  A surprise Extremely Important Event for the Breed Nation occurs in the epilogue.  I laughed out loud, in a room by myself, in the dark, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to find it funny.

Narrator Hillary Huber has done a fine job with all of this series.  She’s handled a number of accents with aplomb.  So many characters from the previous books appeared here that I had some difficulty knowing who was speaking at times but Huber kept a handle on it.  My only complaint is with the child Mira sounding too babyish, but she’ll probably be grown and ready for her very own fated mate in the next entry to the series.

Ending Notes

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Enjoy your listening!

– Lea Hensley