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.

Slave to Sensation by Nalini Singh

Audiobook narrated by Angela Dawe

Slave to Sensation

When I read Slave to Sensation in 2006 I closed the book and thought “Wow! This is the best paranormal romance ever.” Revisiting the origins of Singh’s Psy/Changeling series in audiobook format reminds me of all the reasons to admire the clever, deceptively simple world-building that imagines how things might be in 2079. The Psy are a race of cerebral beings who for the past hundred years have enforced Silence, a protocol implemented to breed all emotion out of the populace. The Changeling are the antithesis, shapeshifters who embrace life with passion.

Psy and Changeling view each other with suspicion and disdain while coexisting within an uneasy truce. Happy to report that humans are still around in Singh’s future, but we’re just a footnote and a fairly boring one at that.

When Lucas Hunter, Alpha of the Dark River leopard pack becomes certain that the serial killer preying on young changeling women is Psy, he proposes a joint business venture to the Psy ruling council hoping to ferret out the killer. Sascha Duncan, daughter of powerful council member Nikita Duncan, is assigned as liaison and Lucas wastes no time in employing his considerable charm getting close to this female who appears to embody the cold Psy ideal.

In truth Sascha is not the perfect Psy. She knows that she’s broken because she feels far too much. Sascha lives in constant fear of discovery and a rehabilitative mind wipe. When Lucas introduces Sascha to his warm and loving packmates, her icy barriers begin to crack. She yearns to love and be loved and Lucas knows he’s the man to make it happen. What follows is a heart-clutching romance between two polar opposites.

Angela Dawe’s narration has a smooth, steady cadence. Her reading of Sascha’s initial monotone is spot on and I heard her gradual thawing. Her voice for Lucas and the Changeling pack members is decidedly off kilter. I did not hear Lucas’ playful nature, his warmth, his growliness, and his sexy charm. Nor his strong alpha leadership. Key to these characters is how very different they are from one another. It’s clear in Singh’s text that this is a relationship of polar opposites, but I didn’t hear it in Dawe’s reading. I’m not sure that Dawe got it. Seems like a missed opportunity that I hope will be rectified as Dawe becomes more familiar with Singh’s premise.

I’m thrilled that the Psy/Changeling books have come to audio and I loved, loved, loved listening to Slave to Sensation.

Grade A for the book. Grade B for the narration.

Darker After Midnight by Lara Adrian

Audiobook narrated by HIllary Huber

20130704-093253.jpg

I’d listened to seven titles in Adrian’s Midnight Breed series before dropping out, so I thought I’d catch up with the gang in what was billed as the grand finale. Only oops! apparently minds were changed among TPTB and it was announced that this isn’t the last book after all. There will be at least three more which neatly explains the overwhelming presence of a younger generation of vampire in this book.

In fact, it seems that every character who ever set foot in a Midnight Breed novel has a featured role in what is ostensibly chase and Tavia’s book. Poor Tavia and Chase have to compete for air time in their own book with a boatload of HEA’d couples, all of them sappy with baby vampire fever.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that the Breed’s super evil archenemy Dragos is finally vanquished, albeit pretty easily after nine books of buildup. Normally I’d issue the standard warning not to start a series at book number ten, but I think you could with this one. Adrian painstakingly recaps the entire series mythology and you get to meet the whole Breed gang.

There is one significant difference between Adrian’s series and its obvious inspiration — JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood. Ward’s vampires get it that they’re high camp wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more. Adrian’s Breed take themselves very, very seriously lacking even a lick of humor. A surprise Very Important Event for the Breed Nation occurs in the epilogue. I won’t spoil it — it’s a doozy — but I laughed out loud in a room by myself, in the dark and I don’t think I was supposed to.

Narrator Hillary Huber has consistently done a fine job with the entire series. She’s handled a good number of accents with aplomb. So many characters from previous books appear here that I often lost track of who was on stage at any given moment, but that’s not Huber’s fault and she kept as firm a grip on the narrative as was possible. I was not comfortable with the child Mira sounding so babyish but she’ll probably be all grown up and ready for her very own fated mate in the next book.

I enjoyed the first four or five Midnight Breed books before repetition and seriesitis set it. Number ten was a bit of a slog for me and I won’t be around for more of the same with the younger generation.

Grade C- for the book and a B for Hillary Huber’s spirited narration.