Last week [October 2012] in our first Three Gals Talking event, we shared why we listen to romance audio and those romance sub-genres we turn to first. This week we’re taking a closer look at those audiobooks that all three Gals give a solid A rating. We relisten to all of these jewels. Yeah, we are ardent proponents of relistening to favorites.
Melinda: Where our tastes match, we are in 100% agreement – take Linda Howard’s After the Night with Natalie Ross’ incomparable narration of one of Howard’s steamiest stories. From my review of the print version: “The sexual chemistry between them is so strong the pages in the book are practically hot to the touch. It’s a wonder the paper doesn’t just burst into flame – but Howard, devil that she is, keeps the tension high and doesn’t allow them any release til near the end of the book – leaving you panting and sweating along with them.” I love it when the author makes it sizzling without (or long before) Doing The Deed, and Ross keeps the story moving forward with just the right tone. Gray is one of Howard’s iconic uber-alphas – every time I listen, there are moments I think he’s just about gone too far – don’t you find yourself wanting to reach through your iPod and snatch him by the ear? I think it speaks highly of the author’s skills when you feel strongly about a character like that. But hey – that rainy-day alcove kiss in New Orleans… Oh yeah…
Lea: After the Night is one of my print favorites made even better by Natalie Ross. Gray is so…difficult yet, so delicious – a Howard specialty. But meeting that uber-alpha head on is Faith – a strong yet totally confident lady. At times in the past, I have wondered how I could cheer for such a pushy hero but I can only answer that he is Gray – the rich small town boy turned powerful man. Yeah, I wanted to stomp on him more than once but the romance works.
Brenda: Yes, Natalie Ross did the near impossible by taking After The Night, already on the top of my keeper shelf, and boosting it up another level. She gives Faith an added level of determination making her the Steel Magnolia she needs to be to stand up to both Gray and the treatment dished out when she returns to her hometown. As the listener, we are privy to Gray’s frustrated yearning when it comes to Faith even when he is acting like a complete ass. The depth of his internal battle to do right by his family and still end up happy himself comes through loud and clear with Ross’ interpretation. In the end what makes Gray my kind of alpha hero, the kind you want to kick but ultimately love, is that when he finally gives in he does it all the way. He doesn’t open a small corner of himself but expresses his feelings in both words and deed which allows you to see why Faith falls for him despite his being such a jerk on several occasions.
Melinda: Truthfully, I forget that After the Night is romantic suspense. After all, it’s really a cold case until Faith starts nosing around. I see the relationship as truly front and center for this book, and the suspense as just a plot device.
Lea: Melinda, I agree. If you were to ask me my contemporary romance audio favorites, I wouldn’t think twice about including After the Night on that list. And neither would I consider adding it to my romantic suspense favorite list. Originally published in 1995, I consider this one of Howard’s light romantic suspenses. In fact, FictionDB lists it as contemporary romance with two sub-genres – contemporary and suspense. When I think of romantic suspense these days, I think Howard’s Death Angel, Cry No More, and even Kill and Tell. I think Sandra Brown, Pamela Clare’s I-Team series, and Anne Stuart’s Ice series.
Moving on to one of our all time favorite audio authors, we all agree that Anna Fields is largely responsible for the vast success of Susan Elizabeth Philips’ audios. Most reside in our individual “best of the best” category of our audio library.
Match Me If You Can – Susan Elizabeth Phillips Narrated by Anna Fields
Lea: Susan Elizabeth Phillips (SEP) is well known in romance audioland with Anna Fields narrating 18 of her titles. In my mind that combination comes close to perfection with SEP’s laughs and Fields delivery of the ever so special yet difficult heroes combined with some of the most engaging heroines in romance. In Match Me If You Can (MMIYC), Fields’ self-deprecating portrayal of Annabelle (one of the best romance heroines ever) combined with Heath’s “I’m too busy to look for the perfect woman – don’t waste my time” is romance at its best.
Melinda: I agree – there are some great funny moments in MMIYC – Annabelle’s sex toys catalog being snatched as reading material, the women’s video Krystal shows to the book club, and the cell-phone snatching kid.
Lea: The cell-snatching provided me with some big laughs and helped round out Heath’s character. Confident, ornery, conceited, sexy, sincere when it comes down to it, and such a sense of humor when combined with Annabelle! What about you Brenda?
Brenda: SEP gives us the perfect example of a romantic escape – just let yourself roll with her quirky “opposites attract” story and tune in to Anna Fields mastery at delivering each personality – from uptight to easy going, the witty banter, and the heavier emotions as MMIYC unfolds. Best of all, you not only get the humor written into the story as Melinda mentioned but you also hear it expressed in all the right places such as Heath being called Pwince (Prince) by 3-year-old Pippi. Then there’s Phoebe jerking his chain in payback every chance she gets, the top of their profession athletes throwing their diamond studs into the teasing game of who gets Annabelle, and in Annabelle being – well – Annabelle.
Lea: I could wax on and on about MMIYC but let’s move on to another SEP/Fields title, Natural Born Charmer (NBC).
Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips Narrated by Anna Fields
Lea: Winning the Favorite Contemporary Romance spot in the 2011 Speaking of Audiobooks Favorite Romance Audiobooks Poll, NBC is loved far and wide. Once again the winning SEP/Fields combo takes an unlikely scenario – this time a football god picking up a woman dressed in a beaver suit from the side of a road and somehow making it work with laughs, tears, and sheer enjoyment. Neither lead could be considered an SEP favorite by my book but the entire story works so well that I have now listened to NBC several times. Continue the sweet music Brenda…
Brenda: NBC was a hit for me when I read it and, as always, Anna Fields captured the perfect blend of humor, sarcasm, and angst I’d found within Dean and Blue’s journey to their HEA. Dean was already a favorite character for me because of his friendship and protectiveness of Annabelle in MMIYC so I was more than ready for his story. There are also several secondary characters involved in their own bids for happiness here – one of my favorites centers around the unlikely friendship that develops between Blue and a cantankerous old neighbor. Another I found special is that of Dean’s parents – an aging rock star (think Bruce Springsteen here) and his first love reconnecting after many years. There is a lot going on in MMIYC and Ms. Fields doesn’t miss a minute of it. And you, Melinda?
Melinda: NBC is a fun story about forgiveness and family and love. Although Blue doesn’t fit Dean’s idea of the type of woman he’s attracted to, he soon realizes she knows him – she GETS him – and she’s just THAT into him, which is what he needs. They both struggle with trust issues, and in the end come up with a plan to test them both. But it isn’t just their love story – it’s April and Jack’s, and Jack and Riley’s and even Blue and Mrs. Garrison’s – young love, mature love, parent/child love.
And the ending is so wonderful that even if I was feeling a 4 star, I’d have changed my mind during the epilogue and given it 5 stars. Oh, and Notable Pet status goes to Killer/Fluffy, the dog!
Lea: Shifting from contemporary to historical, we all were completely impressed by the 2012 audio release of Jennifer Ashley’s The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie (TMOLIM) as performed by Angela Dawe.
Melinda: I read The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie (TMOLIM) in print about the time it came out – there was so much buzz in Romancelandia, and I just had to know what everyone was talking about. Of course, that never stops me from getting it in audio – in fact, the opposite is often true that I’m even more excited about an audio of a favorite book! The way Jennifer Ashley describes Ian’s POV and writes dialog is so poetic, so perfect, that I wasn’t sure how narrator Angela Dawe could capture it. But did she ever! The pauses, the almost monotone, emotionless speaking, his obvious confusion over Beth’s reactions…
Lea: And to think that even with the emotionless speaking and the required monotone for a hero with Asperger’s Syndrome (a high-functioning form of autism), there wasn’t a boring moment. Dawe’s understated and completely “right on” characterization of Ian MacKenzie still amazes me a little to this day.
Brenda: I was acquainted with Angela Dawe through Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling series and I have mumbled about some long pausing issues in that series so I was a little worried when she was announced as the narrator of a favorite Historical print read. But the minute I heard Ian’s voice, she had me and then she drew me in further. Not only did she perform Ian with a delicious raspy Scots burr but she captured his unique personality exactly the way Jennifer Ashley had written him. Then there was Ian’s valet, Curry – a character I hadn’t noticed much when reading in print – jumping off the page with the perfectly suited accent and personality. Curry understood and respected Ian and defended him in a way that was evident in audio, enhancing the experience. And that was all in the first chapter. The listen only improved from there as the true Beth came to life and then Ian’s brothers and…. well you’ll have to listen yourself to really understand.
Lea: I guess you could say I was guardedly enthusiastic when I discovered Tantor was releasing TMOLIM in audio. I too couldn’t keep that bit of doubt from creeping in – how could a narrator ever capture the complexity of Ian – a sexy yet autistic hero? He’s one of the most unusual heroes I’ve read and his tale in print was extremely popular. Talk about high expectations. But not only was Dawe’s interpretation of Ian all I hoped it would be but she scored with her depiction of Beth as well – letting us hear her strength and sensitivity without words.
And moving on, next up is LaVyrle Spencer’s Morning Glory performed by Kate Forbe’s. I think it fair to say that this historical audio swept us all off our feet.
Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer Narrated by Kate Forbes
Brenda: Kate Forbes’ defines the word stunning – causing a strong emotional reaction because of unexpectedness – with her presentation of this story set on the brink of WWII. Will Parker is a sweetheart of a hero. He’s strong, has a good heart, and is determined to move forward with his life but as an ex-con, his options are limited – a fact that strongly influences his decision to answer an ad for a husband. Widowed Elly has that same strength and determination, maybe more so as she is a mother with two young children and another on the way. Times are hard and one does what one must, why else would she post such an ad?
This may not sound like the setup for a grand romance but I assure you this story of mutual need that turns to love is beautifully written and artfully delivered. The bonding that occurs not only between Will and Elly but also between her two young sons and Will, not to speak of Miss Beasley, the local librarian, adds so much more. There is the WWII aspect,which eventually becomes front and center with scenes that brought tears to my eyes more than once with their poignancy. The brilliant narration brings all of these aspects to life in a way that still has the word stunning in my mind.
Melinda: Wow, what an experience. Kate Forbes was phenomenal. Mesmerizing. Perfection. And yes Brenda – stunning! I can’t believe this incredible audio is out of print.
Lea: I found Morning Glory on a hard-to-find hunt before I knew much about Spencer’s writing. It’s an incredible experience and I encourage those who have yet to listen to look – to make an effort to find. It will be featured next on our Hunting for Hard-to-Finds and we’ll provide you with more info at that time.
Morning Glory is such an unusual yet completely moving romance. The tale of two hard working leads who are down on their luck but not their spirit was both uplifting and heart breaking at times. And I have to agree Brenda about the librarian, Miss Beasley – what a remarkable character. Now when I think back on the audio, I think first of Will and second Miss Beasley. Once you listen to Morning Glory, you won’t forget it.
Now it’s time to move back to a contemporary setting – Nora Robert’s Carnal Innocence.
Carnal Innocence by Nora Roberts Narrated by Tom Stechschulte
Brenda: I think it’s safe to say that it was Tom Stechschulte’s impressive skill as a narrator that brought the three of us to a meeting of the minds on Nora Roberts’ Carnal Innocence. Tucker Longstreet is a hero to swoon over as Tom Stechschulte breathes life into him, a man completely comfortable in his own skin and you hear that each time Tucker’s Southern drawl delivers a line. But the quality doesn’t stop there, every character from the hilarious Aunt Lulu to the down trodden Cy is portrayed with a unique and full personality that shines through as you listen to this gem.
Lea: I can’t say that I’m a Nora Roberts’ fan but Carnal Innocence captured me – for the most part. Melinda made the comment earlier in a discussion preparing for today’s feature that it’s a four star story with a five star narration. I agree with one caveat. It’s a four star story with an A++ narration bringing it to a five star average for me. Tom Stechschulte’s portrayal of Tucker is simply amazing. I know I would have liked Tucker in print but Stechschulte adds so much to his character with his Southern drawl and totally laid-back attitude that Tucker’s character ends up being far beyond mere liking. How about superstar audio hero?
What didn’t work for me? The presence of a number of grotesque scenes. Remove those and the grade of the story moves up considerably. And I need to add my thanks to Brenda for encouraging me a number of times to just give it a chance. Boy, did she know what she was talking about!
Now to finish up with a number of other Three Gal Favorites.
One Summer by Karen Robards Narrated by Anna Fields
Lea: We featured One Summer in our Hunting for Hard-to-Find Audios a few weeks ago. No doubt you’ll feel the love if you take a look.
All four Julie James titles All narrated by Karen White
Lea: I first fell in love with Julie James’ writing in print and when I discovered Just the Sexiest Man Alive in audio format narrated by the delightful Karen White, all I could think about was more, more, more! Now four of James’ five titles are in audio format and all four are Three Gal Favorites. Well – almost all four. I’m saving About That Night for a vacation listen because I know I’ll love it. Loved it in print – check. Adore the narrator – check. Guaranteed perfect vacation read.
Just the Sexiest Man Alive
Something About You – Melinda’s review
A Lot Like Love – Review coming soon
About That Night – Melinda’s review
And Karen White’s AudioGals interview
Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Chicago Stars series All narrated by Anna Fields
Lea: When I think fun never-get-bored romance audiobooks, I think Susan Elizabeth Phillips paired with Anna Fields. We’ve already talked about this dynamic duo above in the Match Me If You Can and Natural Born Charmer. All Chicago Stars titles are Three Gal Favorites and all earn frequent relistens from the gals. And all work well as stand-alone listens. Here’s the series order:
It Had to Be You
Nobody’s Baby But Mine
Dream a Little Dream
This Heart of Mine
Match Me If You Can
Natural Born Charmer
Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris Narrated by Joanna Parker
Lea: The first in the Sookie Stackhouse series, it’s not technically romance but Sookie definitely has an interesting love life – one relationship at a time. In case you are wondering, this is the original print version of HBO’s True Blood. I have a feeling most romance audio fans prefer Joanna Parker’s version to HBO’s but that’s only speculation. Joanna Parker excels in her narration and brings to life a story I’d likely leave behind in print. However, I’ve eagerly listened to all twelve in the series.
Kill and Tell by Linda Howard Narrated by Natalie Ross
Lea: Another from the winning team of After the Night, Kill and Tell is definitely romantic suspense – I wouldn’t confuse it for straight contemporary as with After the Night. And none of the gals can forget that dance… steamy!
Next week we’ll take a look at Two Gal Favorites as well as individual favorites.