Although we’re seeing the audio romance section over at Audible brimming with unknown authors and narrators these days, it’s an indication that romance audiobooks are more popular than ever and the number of quality titles is on the rise as well. 2013 offered the best selection yet of highly entertaining, exceptionally written and performed audiobooks. My Top Ten List could easily number twenty-five.
When choosing the year’s Top Ten romance titles, it goes without saying that the author’s writing and the narrator’s performance are the most influential factors. With the proliferation of home studios, production plays a bigger role each year as those who take the time to give us a seamless listen without awkward corrections, noisy intakes of breath, or poor sound quality deserve recognition as well. And although all of these elements were taken into consideration when making my selections, there’s another dynamic that sometimes comes into play and overrides all the others – it’s that sense of being swept away – a gut feel that tells me “This was a perfect listen for me.” Here’s hoping that my Top Ten Listens will provide you with the same.
1. Flowers from the Storm – Laura Kinsale
Narrated by Nicholas Boulton
European Historical Romance
Taking the reins on the production of her backlist, Laura Kinsale chose with great care narrator Nicholas Boulton. Her writing, combined with his outstanding narration and a fully staffed recording studio, worked together to provide us with some of the best romance audiobooks available today.
Flowers from the Storm, a perennial favorite here at AAR, placed sixth in 2013’s Top 100 Poll. Featuring the horrors and challenges facing the young and rakish Duke of Jervaulx after suffering a stroke during the 19th century, Nick Boulton delivered it all with perfection, fleshing out each character and making us feel every joy and loss while keeping us on the edge of our seats waiting for the next development in the storyline.
Although Flowers from the Storm was clearly my top 2013 listen, it also serves as a marker for four other 2013 Kinsale audio releases – all personal DIKs – For My Lady’s Heart, The Shadow and the Star, The Prince of Midnight, and My Sweet Folly.
The soundclip features a conversation between Jervaulx, heroine Maddy, and her father before the Duke’s stroke.
2. Practice Makes Perfect – Julie James
Narrated by Karen White
I discovered Julie James with Practice Makes Perfect upon its release in 2009 and it wasn’t long before I considered her one of my top contemporary romance authors. With six books now on her backlist, Practice Makes Perfect was the last to be released in audio format. It not only remains my favorite James title but also ranks high when considering all my contemporary romance reads.
Karen White, the narrator of all of James’ works, takes an already excellent tale with a good deal of laugh-out-loud moments, and ups the experience to a higher level. Listening to her perform J. D. and Payton, two attorneys vying for a single partnership at a highly competitive law firm, was magic. The listener hears their attitudes, their professionalism, their competitiveness, and the sizzling attraction between the two. When I first listened to Karen in 2010, she adequately performed the male characters with style. Now she excels at it. Not only does each hero sound male, but it’s like she’s inside the masculine mind, exuding the realistic guys we see in our everyday lives.
Listen to J.D. and Payton after hearing only one will become partner.
3. Surrender – Pamela Clare
Narrated by Kaleo Griffith
American Historical Romance
Blown away by Surrender when I read the print version years ago, I started hoping to experience it one day in audio format. The hero, Iain, so completely impressed me that if you check my AAR Staff Profile, you’ll see him at the top of my Favorite Hero list. Imagine my delight when I discovered Tantor had slated if for release with Kaleo Griffith, the hugely successful narrator of Clare’s I-Team series, performing the tale. It was all I knew it could be – a moving dramatic story set in the time of the French and Indian War. Imagine The Last of the Mohicans and Daniel Day Lewis and you have the picture.
Surrender is the first in the Mackinnon’s Rangers series. Untamed and Defiant were also released in 2013 and all audio winners to my way of thinking. Clare plans to continue writing the series and one of these days, we’ll even see Lord William with his own book.
The sample demonstrates Griffith’s skill at distinctly bringing multiple male characters to life.
4. The Leopard Prince – Elizabeth Hoyt
Narrated by Moira Quirk
European Historical Romance
Although The Raven Prince usually receives the greatest accolades as the first in the Princes Trilogy, (all three made AAR’s Top 100 list in 2010), The Leopard Prince has always been my favorite of the trilogy, treating us to that seldom seen scenario of a non-aristocratic hero tied to an aristocrat heroine. Long on romance audio listeners’ wish lists, I was thrilled to not only discover the trilogy’s audio release but delighted by Hachette’s choice of narrator Moira Quirk.
While Quirk is a relative newcomer to solo narrations, she stunned me with her marvelous delivery. Performing an entire cast of characters with seeming ease, she understood the nature of the romance and the importance of conveying to the listener that, although Harry works for Georgina, he refuses to be her plaything.
The Raven Prince and The Serpent Prince are deliciously performed as well bringing in three new personal audio DIKs. What a year it has been!
Featured on the soundclip – Harry’s explanation to George that he’s not a lapdog.
5. Midnight Rainbow – Linda Howard
Narrated by Brenda Sweeney
One of only a few Linda Howard books yet to be released in audio format, Dreamscape Media removed Midnight Rainbow from that short list just last month. I approached listening to Midnight Rainbow with great trepidation. Could an unknown narrator successfully pull off performing such a well know old romance favorite? It’s a road romance featuring the lead couple running from a ruthless, crooked Costa Rican official and his army.
After listening for an hour, I was convinced it was an A listen. That meant I could settle in and relish the remaining seven plus hours completely trusting narrator Brenda Sweeney to bring it in as written. Very few times have I heard a sexier, true-to-life sounding male character than that delivered by Sweeney. With Grant’s portrayal, she so completely gets what romance listeners need to hear from their heroes that I found myself more than a little astonished. And Howard’s humor – the narrator didn’t miss a single witticism and improved each with her delivery. Although I would have preferred a lower range for Jane’s voice, it’s all about that overall sense of being swept away I mentioned in my intro. And I was, just that.
6. Deadline – Sandra Brown
Narrated by Stephen Lang
Each year, I mark the day of Sandra Brown’s next release on my calendar. Although I’m not one to rush out and listen to my latest eagerly anticipated audiobook (I enjoy relishing the fact that it’s there for just the right time), I can’t help myself when it comes to Sandra Brown. Her titles require an immediate listen. I know I can expect a top notch romantic suspense and a stellar performance.
This time around that performer is Stephen Lang and he adeptly delivers both the suspense and the romance between Dawson, a well-known journalist suffering from his experiences in Afghanistan, and Amelia, the wife of a soldier presumed to have been murdered. Deadline is more romantic that Brown’s other recent releases. Lang’s performance, combined with Brown’s superb suspense writing, made this one a hit and a solid DIK despite some production issues.
Now to listen to one of Dawson and Amelia’s first encounters.
7. Breaking Point – Pamela Clare
Narrated by Kaleo Griffith
Yes, Pamela Clare made my Top Ten Listens twice this year – once for her Mackinnon’s Rangers series and once for her I-Team series. She excels at writing both historical romance and romantic suspense. Breaking Point is the fifth entry in the I-Team series and I have enjoyed four of these books in audio format to the tune of an A – definite DIK territory here.
Featuring Natalie, an American journalist captured in Mexico by a drug cartel, and Zach, an undercover Deputy Chief US Marshal also being held by said cartel, it‘s the second road romance on my Top Ten list as the two are on the run over rugged country to escape death. Kaleo Griffith continues to wow with his narration of this series, bringing in heroes who are just what romance listeners want to hear.
8. Ravishing the Heiress – Sherry Thomas
Narrated by Jenny Sterlin
European Historical Romance
Sherry Thomas – she’s an author who works for me each and every time in print format. Although I miss Virginia Leishman, the narrator of her first two audiobooks, Jenny Sterlin narrated Beguiling the Beauty in 2012 as well as 2013’s Ravishing the Heiress. I recall some rough narrations from Sterlin years ago but any hint of that roughness is gone.
Forced into an arranged marriage at a very young age, Millie and Fitz agree to put off consummating their marriage for eight years, fully acknowledging that they can separate after that time. Although it sounds a bit farfetched (it wasn’t), combined with Sterlin’s narration, I found myself in for an absorbing listen. European historical romance audio has had a strong year but when it comes to easy entertaining listening, there’s only one Sherry Thomas and, paired with a talented narrator, she continues to shine.
9. Twice Tempted – Jeaniene Frost
Narrated by Tavia Gilbert
Call me a fan girl when it comes to the combination of Jeaniene Frost and Tavia Gilbert – they’re such a winning combination. Following Once Burned (which made my 2012 Romance Audio Bests list), Twice Tempted is the second in the Night Prince series and features Vlad, a recurring character from the Night Huntress series whose mere presence demanded his own series. He’s the original Dracula but forget all the old Dracula movies and open yourself up to a totally new interpretation.
My jaw dropped at the dinner scene in the first hour of Twice Tempted peaking my interest as Frost pumped in a good dose of romantic conflict to get things really rolling. Talk about being unable to put my iPod away! Tavia continues to vividly bring the written word to life and now I’m anxiously awaiting the final entry in the series (scheduled for 2014) making the Night Prince series a trilogy.
When listening to the sample, keep in mind that Vlad is from Transylvania and he sounds like it.
10. Pure and Simple – Patricia Ryan
Narrated by Eric G. Dove
Pure and Simple falls into what I would consider the sleeper category – audio style. Hidden in the mass of self-published audiobooks over at Audible, I failed to notice it although I read a vastly entertaining Patricia Ryan medieval tale years ago and respected Eric G. Dove’s narration of J.R. Ward’s Fallen Angel series. An audio friend’s review caught my attention and after hearing the sound sample, I immediately started listening.
Although there is a mystery to be solved running throughout the audio, it’s a character driven contemporary – pure and simple – my favorite sort of romance. Tom, a respected true crime writer, meets Ally at the funeral of her former best friend and movie star who hired Tom to pen her biography before her death. Eric G. Dove shines in voicing Tom, a Texan with just the right touch of a drawl, and his take on Ally is flawless. I also found myself basking in his general narrative. A very satisfying listen.
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Enjoy your listening!
– Lea Hensley