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

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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+

Lie With Me by Stephanie Tyler

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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.