My Three Favorite Audiobooks of 2013

Selecting my favorite audio of 2013 was easy peasy. Mystery, suspense, action, and characters I loved spending time with. What’s not to love? Deadline written by Sandra Brown and narrated by Stephen Lang. My gushy review.



Second favorite was an easy call as well. After Hours written by Cara McKenna and narrated by Lucy Rivers. I loved the real-ness here. McKenna’s spare prose packs an emotional punch and Rivers’ reading is just right.



Third favorite has to be Mystery Man written by Kristen Ashley and narrated by Kate Russell. Kristen Ashley has finally come to audio! Yay for Kate Russell — she gets it. 



It was really a very good year for audiobooks. I listened to over 90 new productions and relistened to who knows how many old favorites. I’ll talk about more of my 2013 favorites in my next post. There are quite a few more I want to share!


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Forever His by Shelly Thacker

Audiobook narrated by Julia Motyka

The very idea of Forever His — a time travel romance set in medieval France — is so applealing to me that I jumped at the chance for a review copy. While I can say at the end of the day it was an okay listen, an unfortunate combination of plot devices I dislike, a hard-to-forgive hero, and a narrator who doesn’t sound very intuitive or invested in the story combined to ease my grade over into C- territory. For differing views, note that Forever His, originally published in paper in 1993, has an impressive number of glowing reviews at Amazon and Audible, so this may very well be a case of it’s not you, it’s me.

Having read through a ton of Old School romance novels since I fell in love with the genre way back in 1997, I’m very familiar with the hero who views all women as marriage trappers, the natural enemy of the honorable man. Sir Gaston de Varennes believes that accidental time traveler Celine Fontaine, dropped into his bed from 700 years in the future, is really his intended bride, selected from the enemy camp by the king in order to end a bitter, bloody feud. No matter what Celine says or does and despite evidence to the contrary, Gaston refuses to believe that she isn’t an infiltrator from the house of his archenemy, sent to spy, seduce, and steal his lands. 

You know when you hear “This audiobook has been divided into multiple parts to make the download faster…” and there has been no forward movement in the story or progress in the romance since the beginning? Yeah, that. The book is halfway over and he STILL believes she’s a lying, conniving spy but he’s all in favor of bed sport? This is where I wanted to quit because I just don’t seek out romance novels with distrust and hostility in lieu of romance anymore. I guess I can’t fault a book written in the popular style of its time, except this has been reissued and produced for today’s readers. (I certainly raced through Elizabeth Lowell’s backlist of “all women are lying, betraying bitches” category romances, gobbling them up like candy!) But, sadly, what’s missing here is passion — smoldering sexual tension. I didn’t feel Gaston falling in love with Celine. He treats her rather cavalierly, ignoring her as much as possible, and that does not tickle my romantic fantasies. 

Narrator Julia Motyka’s reading is servicable but not scintillating. She reads slowly and rythmically, often reminding me of library story time. She uses appropriate changes in pitch to signal which character is speaking. I increased playback speed to get through it faster, but I don’t much like the unnatural speed-reading cadence you get from that function. I lost interest when Gaston’s dickishness went on waaaay too long and nothing happened to pull me back in. 

Grade C-. I won’t seek out more books from this author or narrator. It wasn’t terrible and clearly a whole lot of reviewers liked it more than I did.

Review copy provided by the author through Audiobook Jukebox.

Deadline by Sandra Brown

Audiobook narrated by Stephen Lang

 At some point around the turn of the 21st century Sandra Brown became brilliant. Well, she was probably always brilliant, but the day came when she threw off the rules of genre fiction and let her inner storyteller fly without constraints. Brown is a supremely clever and compelling storyteller as well as a seasoned wordsmith and that is what keeps me coming back to her books for more. In any case, I have mad love for just about every word she’s written since I read Envy originally published in 2001. Sandra Brown  is my go-to, can-do writer of romantic thrillers and her annual new book has become my most anticipated of the year. She’s pioneered her own unique genre while honoring her romance writer roots and her romance reader fans; setting a meticulously crafted mystery/thriller at the heart of–and dependent on–a love story at its core. Or is it the other way around–romance at the heart of the mystery? Either way you choose to look at it, one needs the other, and it’s a happy confluence that pleases me greatly.

 I’ve been struggling with false starts and wholesale deletes in writing this review for fear of spoilers. I had an early print ARC  that I raced through with alarming speed while waiting not-so-patiently for the audiobook. Now that I’ve read Deadline and listened to it twice (okay, thrice), I realize that just about everything I was going to talk about is slightly spoilery. Since I’m a spoiler hater, I’m going to err on the side of caution and rely on the blurb to summarize the plot. I’m glad that I experienced Deadline knowing only what is revealed in the blurb and I reveled in Brown’s diabolical plot twists without having a clue as to where she was going. 

Central to my ravishment of Sandra Brown’s books is the audio performance. Stephen Lang is my second favorite Brown narrator because, well, he’s not Victor Slezak who is the voice of my dreams. This is not Lang’s fault and once I got over my snit that Stephen is not Victor, I allowed myself to appreciate Lang’s narration. In addition to the main protagonists Dawson and Amelia, there are numerous characters who are important to the story, each requiring a unique voice. Stephen Lang aces it in that respect, seamlessly delivering dialogue between/among the entire cast while consistently staying in character. I especially love his voicing of a certain villain. An unexpected choice, but oh so devious and insightful. And extra kudos to Lang for his heartbreaking reading of Flora’s journal. I don’t love Lang’s Amelia voice, finding her sound too soft and hesitant, bordering on apologetic, for an accomplished professional woman of aristocratic upbringing. A bit of a misinterpretation there, but I did get used to it. Hero Dawson’s voice is exactly right to my ear. Dawson Scott is a different sort of Sandra Brown hero and that’s all I’m going to say. Stephen Lang clearly understands him and I love him for that. 

So now I’m off for repeat listens of my favorite Sandra Brown books, a phenomena that occurs every year at this time. Hmm, I wonder what causes it. On deck: My Victor Slezak favorites Envy, Lethal, Play Dirty, Smash Cut, Rainwater, and Smoke Screen. Read by Dennis Boutsikaris, Ricochet.

Deadline rates an A+ for Sandra Brown who serves up another winner and for Stephen Lang who pretty much nails it.

Here is the blurb:

Dawson Scott is a well-respected journalist recently returned from Afghanistan. Haunted by everything he experienced, he’s pivately suffering from battle fatigue, which is a threat to every aspect of his life. But then he gets a call from a source within the FBI. A new development has come to light in a story that began 40 years ago. It could be the BIG story of Dawson’s career.

Soon, Dawson is covering the disappearance and presumed murder of former Marine Jeremy Wesson, the biological son of the pair of terrorists who remain on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. As Dawson delves into the story he finds himself developing feelings for Wesson’s ex-wife Amelia and her two young sons. But when Amelia’s nanny turns up dead the case takes a stunning new turn, with Dawson himself becoming a suspect. Haunted by his own demons, Dawson takes up the chase for the notorious outlaws…and discovers the startling secret behind their story.


Broken Silence by Karen Rose


Audiobook narrated by Marguerite Gavin

One of the few good things about February is the release of a new romantic thriller from favorite author Karen Rose. This year a bonus novella following up with prosecutor Daphne Montgomery and FBI agent Joseph Carter from last year’s Did You Miss Me? is just the thing to prime the pump for Rose’s next novel in her gritty Baltimore detectives series. That said, I’m of two minds about recommending a novella with a large cast of previously established characters as a vehicle to entice new readers who might want to try out a new author. I lean towards no, new reader, go with one of Rose’s series from the beginning and enjoy the full ride. For those of us who are already happily drinking this author’s kool-aid I urge you not to miss this charming (the characters are charming, not the crime) epilogue that nicely rounds out the jagged edges left with Daphne and Joseph after their work on the case in DYMM.

Marguerite Gavin is an excellent narrator for Rose’s frenetically paced thrillers and I’m glad that she’s the voice of choice as the series continues. Rose’s trademark plots are compressed into a very short few days. Gavin convincingly conveys nail-biting suspense and the crimesolver’s sense of urgency as they race against the clock. Well done and a good author/narrator match.

Here’s the blurb:

After a traumatic kidnapping, Daphne’s boss insists that she take time off. But she refuses to sit on the sidelines when she meets a six-year-old girl who the police call Angel…Joseph knows that helping Angel is exactly what Daphne needs right now. But when Daphne gets Angel to talk, a mysterious and chilling crime begins to unravel–one that drives Daphne into the darkest corners of her past as she and Joseph track a ruthless killer.

Review copy provided by Blackstone Audio and Audiobook Jukebox.

Grade B+

Hush by Anne Frasier

Audiobook narrated by Emily Beresford 

I’ve been a regular reader of Anne Frasier’s thrillers for almost as long as she’s been writing them. What a happy surprise to see that Hush has made its way to audio!

This is a tautly constructed police procedural, an intelligent and meaty story with a deliciously creepy serial killer. Chicago police detective Max Irving and criminal profiler Ivy Dunlap are refreshingly human and a welcome change from the stick figure kickass heroine and waxed-torso-of-steel hero so tiresomely prevalent in romantic suspense. They’re professionals who work together to stop the Madonna Murderer’s latest killing spree after a hiatus of sixteen years. A supporting cast of police personnel, reporters, victims and their families, and Max’s troubled teen son all play necessary roles as Max and Ivy close in on the crazy (yes, crazy) killer. 

Narrator Emily Beresford succeeds in bringing distinct voice to each of the book’s key characters. Maybe a little too crazy-sounding for the villain, but certainly entertaining. Very nice job from a new-to-me narrator.

Grade B+ for author and narrator. I liked it a lot!

Note: As I post this review the audible whispersync price is $1.99. Great deal.

Review copy provided by the author.


Ellora’s Cave is Queen for a Day at Audible…or how I went shopping and failed at buying

Yesterday over 35 Ellora’s Cave erotic romance titles produced by Audible landed with a big splash in the store. I dived in armed with one credit, prepared to spend more on Whispersync promotional pricing deals. Sadly, I left with my one measly credit still unspent, and without even one new audiobook in my library. The longer I spent browsing and sampling, the more confused and disappointed I felt. Since no vendor (neither online nor brick) should ever make a customer who is willing to give you money feel bad about the shopping experience, it’s not my fault! Failure to buy–when I want to–is so not me.

I’m admitting out loud right here and now that I loved Lora Leigh’s Men of August series when I read it a few years ago. Sharing and caring brothers with Big Issues, Heavy Emotional Baggage, and Childhood Sexual Trauma who find their HEAs in a close-knit familial way. Trope-y and imitated themes now, but original and shocking back in the day. So why didn’t I grab these? In this case it was narrator “Summer Roberts” (quotes because, please). She sounds 12, stretching maybe 15. I’m sorry, Audible, but that is creepy. Also, no whispersync. Moving on.

More Lora Leigh. Bound Hearts series 1,2, and 3 narrated by “Clarissa Knightly.” Haven’t read these, there’s no whispersync deal, and “Clarissa” does not speak to me. But wait! Bound Hearts 4 narrator is Nick Sullivan who is experienced with 130 listings at Audible. Maybe I’ll come back to this one. Maybe.

Feline Breeds books 1,2 and 3 narrated by “Stella Bloom.” Rejected because I tried reading the series opener way back when and…one word–barbed. Also “Stella” has no history. Please. A boatload more Leigh titles are coming up in October. I’m interested in Elizabeth’s Wolf since I remember that one fondly but who the hell is narrator “Maxine Mitchell?” Her voice sounds very familiar and it annoys the crap out of me that I have to try to figure out her other narrator name(s).

 From Laurann Dohner we’re offered four series and a novella. Ral’s Woman (isn’t he pretty?) is one I have on my Kindle but whispersync is not offered. So, no, because narrator “Simone Lewis” doesn’t sound all that appealing and she has no history.There are more books in the Zorn Warriors club that do come with whispersync. Go figure. Next, New Species series has 4 titles. Narrator for the first is Ali Ahn (I know her! She’s good.) and I can get whispersync pricing. This is a maybe. The others are read by “Vanessa Chambers” who has no other listings. Dohner’s Cyborg Seduction series has 4 books read by “Mindy Kennedy,” another one who dropped out of the sky. Are we seeing a pattern here? Mine to Chase novella read by newbie “Aisling Conaway” is offered at $10.46 for 2 hours and 51 minutes. Nope.

And finally Mating Heat 1 is narrated by “G.C. VonCloudts” and Mating Heat 2 by “G.C. Van Clouts.” LOL! Are you playing with us or what! This voice is extremely familiar to my ear and I will get your identity  sorted out. 

Rejected in short order:

  • Men with Tools books 1,2, and 3 read by “Kasha Kensington” No, no, no.
  • Phoenix Agency books 1,2,3, and 4 read by “Bethany Legare” No times 4.
  • No Mercy by Jaid Black read by “Tillie Hooper” Also Trek Mi Q’an (hated the book) and Enslaved by Jaid Black. 
  • Reaper’s Property read by “Stella Bloom” It was a bad book. Watching Sons of Anarchy is not “research.” I watch it, too.
  • Strangers read by “Tilly Hooper” Hey, I wonder if she knows “Tillie Hooper!”

Okay, so clearly I’m very irritated with narrators taking pseudonyms to narrate the erotic books we so love in Romancelandia. It works against narrators who already have a fan base. If I don’t know you have a new book, I can’t buy it, right? I’m even more annoyed with audiobook makers who think they can stick anyone in a booth and produce a winner. Using female narrators whose timbre and speech patterns sound too young to, ya know, have sex is a huge creep factor. You disrespect us! I spent a couple of hours earnestly shopping and couldn’t buy anything. Now I have a stomach ache. 



Lie With Me by Stephanie Tyler


Audiobook narrated by Johanna Parker

In this first book in her Shadow Force series Stephanie Tyler has set up a large multigenerational cast of cleverly interconnected current and former government covert operatives. I went back and forth between loving this story and being annoyed with it — often for the same reasons. Ultimately I was won over by Tyler’s stripped down characters — their vulnerability and willingness to open up despite their painful pasts. There is a main couple but there are other couples as well clamoring for attention — future series couples whom I really wish had waited for their own books.

Cameron Moore and Skylar Slavin are adult children — survivors, really — of hardcore black ops agents. I found this premise a fascinating one and Tyler fulfilled its promise, exploring a little known lifestyle with compelling results. Both Cam and Sky had horrific childhoods as a direct result of their parents’ secretive undercover work. Cam’s father was a murdered DEA agent who so convincingly immersed himself in his undercover role as a violent gang member that he was an absent and inaccessible parent. Sky’s mother was a CIA agent assassinated when Sky was a child and her father, Gabriel Creighton, is Cam’s current iron-fisted CIA handler. After years of Creighton’s manipulations and a nearly successful attempt on his life, Cam decides he’s had enough. He comes up with a desperate plan to kidnap Skylar and use her to blackmail Creighton into allowing him to quit the spy business.

Cam bursts in on Sky in full Big Tough Alpha Guy intimidation mode, claiming that her father has sent him to protect Sky from terrorist threats. For a Big Tough Alpha Guy Cam’s cold heart melts with amazing speed when he senses Sky’s innocence and vulnerability. Before you can say “he’s toast” Cam has turned into Alpha Protector Guy Falling in Love. Neither Cam nor Sky has heard from Creighton in months so they take off on a road trip together to find him. Soon it’s clear that someone really is trying to kidnap Skylar and that she really does need a bodyguard.

Johanna Parker’s narration is exactly right. I heard (and liked a lot, thank you very much) Cam’s lusty, sexually adventurous nature that makes him a caring and generous lover. Parker doesn’t significantly differ Cam’s voice from all those other guys with “Future Hero” stamped on their foreheads, but that would have been a big challenge indeed, and not truly necessary. Happily, there’s no doubt that Cam is the Alpha of his own book. Parker’s female characterizations have more variety and Skylar sounds just as she should. I’ve been enjoying Parker’s narration throughout the Shadow Force series. She gets the grittiness as well as the tenderness and I think she’s an ideal narrator in the romantic suspense genre.

I haven’t dwelt on my biggest gripes because I give Lie with Me in audiobook format an unqualified thumbs up. My quibbles have to do with a number of secondary romances that were set up in this book to be resolved in later books. We meet all of Cam’s super cool black ops pals and they began to feel like intruders. And I have to wonder why their names all sound just alike? Cam, Kell, Mace, Gray, Zane, Cael. It’s tough to keep them straight in print and even more vexing in audio.

Tyler’s characters are complex, layered, and well drawn and her lovers intense and nuanced. Her plot is a good one; believable and well told. She’s crafted clever connections amongst her cast members and that’s a fun bonus. I’m currently listening to the fourth book in the series and happily immersed in the black ops world of Cam and his super cool pals.

Really enjoyed it! Grade B+ for Stephanie Tyler and Johanna Parker.

Lover at Last by JR Ward

 Audiobook narrated by Jim Frangione 

With 16 hours invested in this audiobook that runs 22 hours and 22 minutes — I’m outtie. A few reasons why.

Ward has really lowered the bar on what qualifies as “tortured hero” for this new woobie generation. When you consider that Z was chained down, raped, and beaten for hundreds of years and that V’s daddy was the Bloodletter and his mommy the cruelly insane you-know-who, Quinn’s anguish over his unpleasant (yet imminently survivable) childhood in the lap of luxury is almost laughable. Quit your whining, boy!

Each of the original brotherhood vampires has a BIG backstory. They are full-blown ancient badasses worthy of their own books. Quinn and Blay are drama llamas — self-obsessed new adults. Yawn. No wonder there’s so much filler.
I lost track of the huge cast of new characters and story arcs stuffed in this book. I could not have been less interested. In fact, listening to it was a very effective sleeping pill.
My inner nitpicker went into overdrive but I won’t bore us all with the details. So much wrongness. The good news is that I’m finally done with future releases in this series. I’ll happily reread the good ones. The excellent entries are books 1-5 and 8. It’s hard to understand how a writer working within the world she created and with her own characters can be so uneven. 
Narrator Jim Frangione reads rather than performs and he did his usual Yeoman job as he has with the entire series. Although I thought I heard him occasionally sounding distracted or bored here; or maybe that’s just me projecting my feelings.
I have to grade Lover at Last a D. Jim Frangione’s narration rates a B-.

Own the Wind by Kristen Ashley

Audiobook narrated by Angela Starling

I’ve eaten up quite a few books by a Kristen Ashley (including this one) so I knew what to expect — over the top sexy biker dudes and their old ladies, the drama, the lingo, the overall crazy, the sex. Ashley is an enormously popular author for good reason. She knows how to deliver the the whole package.

So I’m wondering why this plum package was entrusted to a new and inexperienced narrator. Angela Starling is no better than adequate. Specifically, she does not differentiate between characters at all. Her male voices all sound just alike as do her women. No. No. No. Smooth-talking Shy is read in a staccato monotone in obvious contradiction to book Shy.

Ashley’s books are hero-centric and a narrator who fails to get that isn’t up to the job. Audiobook narration requires its own skill set and I hope the day arrives soon when producers realize they can’t stick just anyone in a booth and hope for the best. 

Ashley’s book is a hoot and I call it an A. Narrator Starling came thisclose to ruining it. She gets a D and a lump of coal. I doubt I’ll listen to Own the Wind again or buy the next one. Too bad.

Cry No More by Linda Howard

Audiobook narrated by Joyce Bean 

While I don’t hesitate to call Cry No More Linda Howard’s most powerful and heart-wrenching book, its painful subject matter means it’s not one I’ve read/listened to as frequently as I’m wont to do with other Howard favorites. During my latest relisten I gained a new appreciation for narrator Joyce Bean’s skill and talent, her subtlety, and her sensitivity. It would have been easy for a less experienced reader to overplay Milla’s plight. So right up front, kudos to Joyce Bean for a pitch perfect performance of Linda Howard’s standout book.

I’ll do my best to write this review free of spoilers. The way Howard unwraps her story is pretty damn brilliant and I was on tenterhooks right up to the epilogue.

Milla Boone’s wunderkind surgeon husband David (she calls him Dougie, awww) is doing a year of pro bono work with a group of doctors in a small Mexican village. Their peaceful life consists of David’s work in the village clinic and Milla’s idyllic joy in new motherhood. Tragedy strikes in an instant and without warning when Milla’s newborn is snatched from her in the sleepy village marketplace. She fights fiercely for her baby, gouging out an eye of one attacker before she is felled by a nearly fatal knife wound.

The story resumes ten years later. Milla, long divorced from David, devotes every waking moment to running Finders, the organization founded as a result of her phenomenal success in finding other people’s lost and stolen children. James Diaz, a shadowy character with a fearsome reputation, agrees to help Milla find her son Justin, or at least learn what happened to him. Diaz is convinced that Milla has been “handled,” misdirected by powerful underworld baby brokers who put no limits on what they’ll do to protect their secrets. Diaz with his own contacts among the unsavory criminal element is just the man to uncover what Milla so desperately needs to know.

While they chase the truth a soul deep love born of Milla’s pain and Diaz’s need to soothe that pain blossoms between them. Diaz’s tender and selfless care of Milla when she needs it the most makes him one of the most profoundly romantic heroes I’ve ever met. Their story moved me.

I think everyone should read, or better yet, listen to Cry No More even though it’s a given that you’ll cry buckets. Dark and tragic themes, baby selling, betrayal, and more abound. Milla faces terrifying moral questions and must make impossible choices. I can’t think of any other book where the epilogue was as welcome and cathartic as it is here.

A+ for Linda Howard’s beautiful book and for Joyce Bean’s knowing how to deliver a story that needs no enhancement.

The Darkest Hour by Maya Banks

Audiobook narrated by Harry Berkeley

I was in the mood for a rip-roaring jungle rescue romance and I thought that’s what I was buying. Sadly, that’s not what I got. The first hour or so was promising with a band of extreme commandos rushing in to save the day and I wondered if I’d been wrong in avoiding Banks’ popular romantic suspense series. (The sharing and caring Colter brothers erotica — yurk.) But all too soon the story congealed into mawkish goo once the Kelly clan completed the actual adventure part of their big adventure.

I know that authors write formulaic books because those books sell well. But the cliches in this book are so worn out that I have a mental image of Banks selecting interchangeable tropes from a drop down menu in constructing her book. Here’s what she picked:

* Idealized small town
* Adorable mom and dad to litter of hunky military black ops brothers
* Helpless, fluttery heroine in need of rescue
* Amnesia (yes! amnesia!)
* Protective warrior brothers suffocating and stifling the little woman

But wait! There’s more! Banks proves that just because an author uses well-worn banalities, that doesn’t mean she’ll get it right. For example, after the boys rescue Rachel and swear they’ll protect her with their very lives, they’re careless enough to let the bad guys get to her and do her harm on three (3!!!) occasions. What kind of superhero is that inept? Hero Ethan is a patronizing jerk right up to the very end, although he’s right about his brothers wanting to do his wife. It’s creepy how all the brothers drool over Rachel while infantalizing her. Run, Rachel, run.

So why did I finish it? Narrator Harry Berkeley makes these guys sound so much better than they are. While listening to his sexy, gravelly voice I kept forgetting that I didn’t like the book — at all. How’s that for a narrator win?

Banks’ erotica leaves me cold and now her romantic suspense. Nice cover, though.

Grade D for a disappointing book and an A for Harry Berkeley’s heroic narration.